HC Deb 19 May 2004 vol 421 cc54-6WS
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 Kerrier district 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, Kerrier district council administered some £23.1 million in housing benefits, about 60 percent. of its gross revenue expenditure.

BFI inspected Kerrier district 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.

In the first BFI inspection report, published in October 2001, BFI reported that claims processing was poor with a backlog of work, overpayment recovery was improving, and counter-fraud activity was working well.

The follow-up report finds that the council's benefits service had made progress in improving its performance, implementing 68 per cent. of the recommendations from the earlier report.

Kerrier district council had a clear vision, which was underpinned by policies, strategies and effective planning. Good progress had also been made in the area of overpayments, where sound practices were evident and recovery from benefit was strong.

Verification of evidence supporting benefit claims was good in the majority of areas and management checking was clearly evidenced and used to good effect. However, speed of claims processing remained poor, compounded by the continuing backlog of work, with the council taking an average 88 days to process new benefit claims compared to the Performance Standard of 36 days.

The council's three-year best value plan set local targets for new claims, reported changes of circumstances and renewal claims processing. Although these were realistic targets for the council to achieve, they did not meet the performance standards.

The council's counter-fraud policy and positive drive towards quality fraud investigations had prompted a number of successful and publicised sanctions and prosecutions. This demonstrated that the council is serious about tackling benefit fraud. However, the report finds weaknesses, which included inadequate management control and poor communications between benefits and investigation staff.

A comprehensive benefits overpayments policy and procedures manual was in place, high levels of management checks and controls were utilised, and most overpayment recovery methods were used.

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.