HC Deb 18 May 2004 vol 421 cc45-6WS
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond)

On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the benefit fraud inspectorate (BFI) follow-up inspection report on the London Borough of Bromley council was published today and copies of the report have been placed in the Library.

Following the housing Green Paper "Quality and Choice: A Decent Home for All", published in April 2000, the Department for Work and Pensions developed a performance framework for housing benefits. The 'performance standards for housing benefits' allow local authorities to make a comprehensive self-assessment of whether they deliver benefit effectively and securely. They are the standards that the Department for Work and Pensions expects local authorities to aspire to and achieve in time.

In 2002–03, London Borough of Bromley Council administered some £69.5 million in housing benefits, about 13.9 per cent. of its gross revenue expenditure. BFI inspected London Borough of Bromley Council against the performance standards for housing benefits, and concludes that the council's benefits service had not reached standard in any of the seven functional areas—strategic management, customer services, processing of claims, working with landlords, internal security, counter-fraud and overpayments.

The report finds that the council's benefits service had improved its performance since the earlier inspection report, published in September 2001, implementing 72 per cent. of the recommendations from the earlier report. There was commitment and professionalism in the council's efforts to improve benefits administration and examples of innovation and good practice.

The backlog of work identified in the first inspection had been cleared and processing times for new benefit claims had reduced from 120 to 81 days. Challenging targets had been set for 2004–05 but there was still much to do to reach the 36-day performance standard. Although the verification framework, the national standard for verifying evidence supporting benefit claims, had not been implemented, the council planned to be fully compliant by May 2004. The introduction of an electronic benefit claim form was helping claims to be processed more effectively and BFI commends the council for the quality and level of management checking, providing assurance on accuracy.

The council's internal security controls were found to be inadequate but it quickly responded to BFI's recommendations to rectify these problems.

The council had made major improvements in its counter-fraud work by entering into a partnership with London Borough of Greenwich Council, and there had been substantial improvements in the number of administrative penalties and prosecutions undertaken.

The council had comprehensive plans to improve its benefits overpayment work and had good management information for this area of work. However, it accepted that more work was needed to improve its recovery of overpaid benefits. The report makes recommendations to help the council address weaknesses and to further improve the administration of housing benefit and council tax benefit, as well as counter-fraud activities.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is now considering the report and will be asking the council for its proposals in response to the BFI's findings and recommendations.