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Memorandum submitted by

West Lothian Council's Revenues and Benefits Unit

(DM 12)

 

Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit

Decision Making and Appeals

 

 

As professionals in the field of Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit Decision-Making and Appeals, we wish to respond to the Committee's recent Press Release inviting submissions to the inquiry.

 

We feel that evidence from front-line benefit practitioners may be of some interest.

In our submission we focus on the first four questions in the Committee's press notice of 2 July 2009:

 

How effective is the decision making process?  Could it be improved, if so how?

Are there sufficient numbers of decision makers and is the training they receive adequate?

Is the decision making process clear to claimants?

 

In summary, our submission is as follows:

 

It is recognised that Local Authority performance in administering HB/CTB has improved greatly over the last few years.

 

In addition, reductions have been achieved in HB/CTB overpayments due to fraud and error. Official error is now at an all time low.

 

It is generally recognised amongst practitioners that a catalyst for this was the DWP's Performance Standards Fund. Many Local Authorities benefited from this funding.

 

A key part of this fund was devoted to the recruitment and training of new benefit decision makers.

 

Housing Benefit is complex and difficult to administer. Part of the reason for this is the constant legislative changes.

 

For a variety of reasons staff turnover in benefit administration remains an issue.

 

The DWP recognise that staff new to benefits require comprehensive training delivered over a 13-week period. The DWP also recognised that such staff would not be fully productive for at least 6 months and funded the salary element for this period.

 

We recognise that similar funding which included salary cost is unlikely to be available. However we feel that the training issue is of such importance that resources should be made available to support this.

 

Pressures on Local Authority funds are extreme and are exacerbated by the reductions in HB/CTB Administration subsidy that impact upon funds that are available for training.

 

Cutbacks on training amount to a short term solution to funding issues that cause medium and long term problems in benefit administration and service to the public. In addition the savings achieved nationally from a reduction in fraud and error overpayments may be at risk.

 

We may have reached a watershed. The choice at its starkest is between funding the current system which is complex to administer and difficult for claimants to understand or simplify.


Improved Performance

 

1. It is generally recognised that Local Authority performance in administrating Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit has improved markedly over the last decade. Performance measures such as the average time taken to process new claims show a dramatic improvement over the period from 2001/2 to 2007/08. At the start of the period the figure stood at 62 days. By 2008 this had reduced to 26 days on average. The latest figure for our own authority is less than 22 days. Clearly this is an important advance in helping our customers at a difficult time in their lives.

 

2. Similar improvements have been recorded in the time taken to process changes in a customer's circumstances. At the start of the period the figure stood at 17 days. By 2008 this had reduced to 11 days on average. The latest figure for our own authority is less than 9 days. This is an important improvement, not just for the customer but also for the accuracy of the benefit award. "Keeping it Right" timeously, throughout the life of a claim, as a customer's income or household circumstances change, also reduces the likelihood of overpayments, fraud and error.

 

3. The most recent DWP National Statistics report shows that overpayments due to fraud and error have reduced by 10% since 2003. In addition official error is at "an all time low"

 

 

Performance Standards Fund

 

4. There may be a number of factors that contributed to this improved performance, but undoubtedly one significant factor was the existence of the DWP Performance Standards Fund. This fund provided for local authorities to put forward a series of local, joint, or national initiatives and bid for support from the DWP.

 

5. A whole host of initiatives were begun in such categories as Improving IT, including the widespread adoption of DIP and Workflow electronic advances; Engaging with Customers, through local travelling benefit buses or video links; and major redesigns of correspondence and customer guidance and claim forms.

 

 

Training needs

 

6. One of the most widespread and significant initiatives, however, was proposed by the DWP itself. Recognising that any staff turnover in Local Authority Benefit Sections would have a detrimental effect on processing times and could lead to serious backlogs of claims, and consequent delay and even hardship for customers, the DWP proposed, through the fund, to pay for the minimum required 13 week training programme for HB/CTB benefit decision makers.

 

7. Further recognising that these newly recruited and newly trained staff would not be fully productive for at least six months, the DWP proposed to fund their salaries for six months.

 

8. These measures were aimed, successfully, at increasing the pool of well-trained benefit decision makers - and avoiding the previous position where neighbouring local authorities would attempt to "poach" experienced staff from another authority to fill a hole in their own establishment. A strategy that, perhaps, temporarily assisted an individual authority but did nothing to counter the general problem

 

Complexity and Simplification

9. The main reason that these initiatives were proposed and eagerly taken up, to good effect, by many, many authorities, was because it was widely recognised that such is the complexity of the Housing Benefit scheme that, however literate, numerate, and intelligent the pool of available labour to fill vacancies was, a lengthy period of training and familiarisation was absolutely necessary.

 

10. This remains the case. Indeed in a recent case before the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Wall, in his concurring opinion, commented on the difficulties and complexities of the Housing Benefit scheme as follows:

 

"...it seems to me, the appellant cannot be criticised for either ignorance or incomprehension of the statutory regime In my view it remains an apparently non-eradicable blemish on our operation of the rule of law that the poorest and most disadvantaged in our society remain subject to regulations which are complex, obscure and, to many, simply incomprehensible".

 
Gargett v LB Lambeth EWCA Civ 1450

 

 

11. It remains vital to our customers, and to the public purse, that despite the complexities of the scheme, local authorities must continue to process Housing Benefit claims promptly and accurately.

 

12. It is recognised that, in the current economic climate, funding is not likely to be found to assist in the recruitment of staff new to benefits and to pay their salary costs until they are able to accurately perform a productive role as benefit decision makers.

 

13. Supporting the undoubted training needs that exist, however, is a different matter. Indeed not to resource this pressing need, a need recognised by the DWP for three years, may turn out to be a false economy.

 

14. In the absence of support for much-needed training, a radical approach to simplifying the scheme will be required.

 

September 2009