Yep, it's bee-in-the-bonnet time again. I've just got back a response to a Freedom of Info request about the most recent two years of Discretionary Housing Payments. I don't like to ask every year, that would overwork our hard-pressed Information Governance Team.
What this means is that I can update my occasionally published table illustrating past performance on the issue. I've also added a running total at the bottom.
Now, I previously speculated whether NCC would pull their socks up and sort DHPs out seeing as the government had impose swingeing Housing Benefit cuts and had increased DHP allocations as a kind of sticking plaster solution. After all, those in poverty were more likely to need them and consequences for not sorting it would be much worse right?
Have a look at the last two years on the table. See how the government contribution more than doubles in 2011/12? See how the number of applications increases from 2010/11's 556 to 701, possibly due to the cuts starting to bite? And see how the number of successful applications drops from 201 to 176 and the total amount paid out drops from £71,183 to £56,575.
So. The council gets given more money to hand out as DHPs. Economic conditions are not improving and benefit cuts are starting to bite resulting in more applications. And their solution is to make FEWER awards. Not more awards. FEWER.
WT absolute F?
Because of this and the other aspects of worsening Housing Benefits performance I have decided to post a question to be asked at Full Council. I know it's a bit long and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it gets knocked back on that basis (even though there's no limit given on questions to full council), failing that it'll probably be shunted off for a written response. Anyway, I reproduce it here and I'll let you know if it goes anywhere.
"Question to Full Council Concerning the Operation of the Housing Benefits Service
I would like to ask the following of the relevant Portfolio Holder and the Full Council;
Should the Portfolio Holder and the Council not be concerned at the extremely poor performance of the Housing Benefits Service in this time of continued recession and Tory benefit cuts?
According to the latest statistics available (Q2 and Q3 of the last financial year) Nottingham was the second worst in the country for speed of processing new claims. It was the fifth worst for processing changes in circumstances. Does this not exacerbate the problems of benefit cuts and poverty already experienced by claimants? Don't delays in processing changes in circumstances lead inevitably to more overpayments, which is in neither the council's or claimants' interests?
Furthermore, NCC has had to repay considerable sums of overpaid housing benefit subsidy. Over £400,000 in 2008/9, £78,000 in 2009/10 and potentially £729,000 for 2010/11. If a claimant received overpayments of benefits so consistently they'd be prosecuted for fraud. When will this issue be tackled?
Are the Portfolio Holder and the Council also not deeply concerned about the alarming maladministration of the Discretionary Housing Payments scheme?
In the 11 years of the existence of the Discretionary Housing Payments Scheme, the Housing Benefits Service has paid out the equivalent of the full government grant in only two years (2009/10 and 2010/11) and has never paid out more than 51% of the full amount it is allowed to by law in any financial year. And yet the majority of applications are refused. The highest success rate for applications was 55.4% in the first year of operation. After that it varied between 21.2% and 53.3%. Over the life of the scheme 33% of applications have resulted in an award. Is this high rate of refusal not a strange anomaly?
In terms of the amounts paid out, over the life of the scheme so far NCC could have received £889,132 in central government grant for DHPs yet it only paid out £527614. That is £361,518 that could have been paid out to Nottingham's poorest citizens AT NO EXTRA COST TO THE COUNCIL.
Except that it's worse than that. Between the years 2003/4 and 2010/11, if the previous year's allocation from central government was not fully utilised, the following year's allocation was reduced. This happened in Nottingham year on year from 2003/4 to 2008/9. Imagine if the central government grant had remained at 2003/4 levels throughout the rest of the life of the scheme (up to 2011/12 when the system changed) Nottingham would have received £1,131,390. That is a very conservative estimate, all it would have required would have been for the Housing Benefits Service to have paid out what it was given by the government and it makes no allowance for any inflationary increases. And of course, if more had been paid out then the next year's allocation would have increased. On this very conservative basis then Nottingham's citizens have lost out on £603,776. Think how many evictions that could have prevented, all at no extra cost to the City Council. Does the Portfolio Holder and the Council see this as a success?
In 2011/12 the system was changed to take into account vicious Tory cuts to mainstream Housing Benefits. DHPs were increased in an attempt to offset the worst of the effects. Nottingham's central government allocation increased to £119,386 from the previous year's £55,863 i.e. it more than doubled. Applications increased to 701 from the previous year's 556, perhaps reflecting the initial bite of the cuts to mainstream benefits. So what happened to the number of successful applications? It dropped from 201 in 2010/11 to 176 in 2011/12. So, the grant allocation was doubled, mainstream benefits were cut and we continued in recession, yet the Housing Benefits Service decided that FEWER people should be paid a bit extra to help with their rent. Can the Portfolio Holder explain why this was the case?
During this time Nottingham faced a recession, like the rest of the country. The council launched a campaign called 'We're On Your Side'. Why were DHPs not promoted as part of this? One Nottingham has held two sessions to discuss the effects of benefit cuts on the citizens of Nottingham yet DHPs were never even mentioned, when the scheme is one of the few measures at the council's disposal to mitigate these cuts. Why are they not shouting about DHPs from the rooftops?
What is the Council going to do about this double whammy of bottom-of-the-table performance of the mainstream Housing Benefit scheme along with the year on year failure to properly administer the Discretionary Housing Payments scheme that is faced by Nottingham's poorest? Does this not reflect an abject failure by the Housing Benefit Service Management?"