HC Deb 16 September 2004 vol 424 cc182-3WS
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) inspection report on Teesdale 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, Teesdale district council administered nearly £4.56 million in housing benefits, about 43.3 per cent. of its gross revenue expenditure.

BFI's report identifies a number of significant concerns. Some strategic management policies were lacking and this meant that managers and staff did not have a clear understanding of what was essential to deliver a high quality service.

Below this, a lack of procedural guidance hindered benefits administration and counter-fraud work. Processes were based on custom and practice, which meant that staff had no reference materials and there was no assurance safeguards for new staff. Despite the lack of documented policies and procedures, the standard of work in many areas was generally good and the report notes the improvement in claims processing times which were just outside the upper quartile performance for all local authorities in the United Kingdom.

Particular weaknesses were found, however, in customer services. A best value benefits satisfaction survey that was due in 2003 had not been undertaken. There had been no measurement of customer waiting times or assessment of the telephone service provided. No formal take-up strategy was in place and BFI concluded that the council was not providing adequate information to current or potential customers.

The report found that informal working relationships between departments in the council had resulted in poor communications that were detrimental to benefits service customers. The housing unit had sent repossession notices to council tenants with rent arrears even when the arrears were due to benefit claims not having been processed.

The report raises concern that there had been little work undertaken to recover overpayments. This had resulted in an accruing debt and consequential loss of available funds to the council. Although it was still to achieve its first successful prosecution, the application of other sanctions was an encouraging sign that the council was establishing an effective counter-fraud operation.

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.