Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Minutes that Don't Exist

Regular readers will know that I have a bee in my bonnet about NCC's mismanagement of Discretionary Housing Payments. At least partly due to me making a bit of a noise about it Housing Benefits (mis)manager and tribunal bullshitter Lisa Black was badgered into doing something about it. According to a reply I received from Cllr Trimble the following action had been agreed -

"The DHP administration follows the best practice as defined by the Department for Works and Pensions and decisions are reached based on the individual circumstances of each case. However, a complete refresh of publicity and guidance material is currently in progress. In addition, an operational review is planned to revisit the decision-making, standards of evidence and ongoing/additional support issues raised by the DHP claim. This review will be undertaken with direct input from the advice sector and housing professionals with the intent to deliver against the purpose of the Discretionary Housing Payments scheme, which is to alleviate poverty, sustain tenancies, prevent homelessness, safeguard families and help customers through difficult times.

Detailed below are steps already undertaken by the service to increase take up and award of DHP;

A working group has been established with key partners from Benefits Service, Housing Aid, Welfare Rights, and the Advice Sector, to look at issues such as demographics, publicity material and marketing, best practice from other LA's. All staff within the Customer Services Directorate answering general face to face enquiries and telephone calls have been trained to understand DHP scheme and advise customers of their potential eligibility where appropriate. A standard DHP application pro-forma has been created to assist the customer in providing the information required by standardising the approach. Each claim is assessed using income and expenditure details supplied by the customer and taking into account the customers individual circumstances at the time.

In conjunction with local advice agencies and the voluntary sector, agreed on standards of evidence required for household expenditure and agreed an accepted level of expenditure for typical household compositions where evidence was not available or unsubstantiated. A small pool of staff has been created with responsibility for DHP assessments in order to standardise the approach and provide consistency in decision-making."

I wanted to find out how this was going and a further FoI request, followed by some to and fro-ing produced this which revealed the following after retrieval of "...all relevant information from [NCC's] offsite storage facility..." -

"Having checked all relevant archived materials, the Authority can confirm that informal meetings were held on 31st March 2009 and 29th April 2009 but despite your assertions above, no minutes were taken. The 31st March 2009 meeting was attended by Ian Roper (Business Support Manager), Lisa Black (Service Head Revenues & Benefits) Alex Knowles (Operational Manager NCC Welfare Rights) Gary Harvey (Housing Solutions Manager) and Anthony Dixon (Hostels Liaison Group).  
  • Items discussed at this meeting were:-
  • Ideas for increasing DHP spend and budget. 
  • A look through and review of existing DHP literature.Ideas for an operational review of working practices. 
  • Contacting other local authorities to identify best practice. 
  • Ideas on how to increase the DHP budget.
The follow-up meeting on 29th April 2009 was attended by all those that attended the meeting on 31st March 2009 plus the following:- Paul Greevy (Homelessness Prevention and Assessment Manager), Joanne Williams (Team Manager NCC welfare Rights Service), Neil Matthews and Simon Taylor (Revenues & Benefits Business Managers) and Cheryl Weston (Nottingham Law Centre and Advice Nottingham Representative).

Items discussed at this meeting were:-
  • Looking at Derby City Council's approach.
  • Operational review of working practices. 
  • The Advice Sector perception of “no point in applying” 
  • Policy areas 
  • Debt advice training. 
  • Refresher training/training for decision-making staff."
But, and this is slightly puzzling, they are claiming that these meetings were not minuted. The above does seem to be quite a specific breakdown of what happened considering there were no minutes to refer to and what exactly was it that was retrieved from remote storage if not minutes?

But taking them at their word why not minute the meetings? If you meet to discuss working in partnership you'd surely want a record of what everybody agreed to do (unless, of course, the last thing you want is a record of what you agreed to do...) And a couple of informal chinwags hardly constitutes a 'working group' or covers all the tasks committed to in the earlier communication. Not exactly a huge amount of input from the advice sector and the later list doesn't seem to mention anything about drawing up 'agreed standards of evidence for household expenditure' which was claimed to have already happened.

It smacks of a bit of a token effort to me although credit where credit's due, there was a big increase in the number of applications to the scheme (almost 2/3 extra in 2009/10 but still not as many as in 2005/6 when the welfare rights service produced some leaflets about DHPs) so awareness has improved. It's just a pity that the success rate of those applications dropped to its lowest rate since 2006/7, resulting in only a corresponding c25% increase in awards. This despite the deteriorating working conditions which you'd expect to increase need. Yep, they're really 'on your side' aren't they?

Talking of which, it is a fail of epic proportions not to have tied DHPs into the 'We're On Your Side' campaign which was ongoing at the time. There's no mention of it at the meetings referred to above and WOYS had no information included about DHPs. Missed opportunity big style.

The thing is, NCC must get its act together over DHPs as the Tory government has announced what is effectively a band aid for the Housing Benefit cuts in the form of big increases in DHP budgets. In effect more and more tenants will be relying on NCC's 'discretion' to pay DHPs to keep a roof over their heads. And yet NCC only managed to spend its government allocation of funds for the first time since the scheme was introduced in 2009/10 (and that was more down to year on year reductions in the sums allocated caused by constant underspending each year) and still appears to have no local guidance for allocating payments. It doesn't bode well.

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