Wednesday, 14 January 2009

They're on your side Part 2

You've presumably heard of Housing Benefit? Council Tax Benefit? Of course you have. How many have heard of Discretionary Housing Payments?

I wouldn't be surprised if not many people put their hands up in response to that last question as Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) are not exactly over promoted and as a result not exactly over claimed. At least not in Nottingham.

So what are they? They are related to the Housing Benefit (HB) and Council Tax Benefit (CTB) schemes although they are not actually HB or CTB. They are essentially extra discretionary payments that councils can pay to people who need further help with housing costs. You have to be getting some HB or CTB already but other than that councils have pretty much total discretion as to whether they pay them to you or not, as long as they are rational in their decisions.

Now councils receive a government grant towards paying DHPs and they are are allowed to pay out more from their own funds up to a set limit. These amounts of grant and upper limits of total spending are set by the government each year.

Now it seems obvious to me that a sensible council will at least make sure that all of the government grant is paid out and will manage decision making to make sure this is so. I would argue that a council should not be too averse to paying out a sizable chunk of the upper limit from its own funds too. Such payments will help prevent homelessness and poverty and bring central government money into the Nottingham economy. So lets have a look at how Nottingham City Council is doing with this table I have drawn up from Freedom Of Information Requests and google searching.

As you can see NCC has consistently underspent their government grant and not even touched its own funding for every year that the scheme has been in operation and looks likely to repeat this this financial year. They wouldn't tell me the total number of applications on cost grounds (I'll deal with the FoIA shenanigins in another post), the two figures I've got in the table came from an NCC committee report I found on the net.

So lets recap. NCC is not even spending the money its given by the government for DHPs. For the two years I can establish success rates of applications they are turning down nearly 60% and I would be surprised if its any different for the other years. Yet they are not constrained by law as to who they can make payments to. So how can they justify being so strict and refuse so many?

As if to make matters worse, if you underspend one year your government grant and upper spending limit is reduced. This year on year reduction is caused by NCC's consistent underspend and is the only reason why the percentage of expenditure figures appear to be getting better (I hope this isn't used as a performance indicator). I really want to see the figures for the total number of applications so I can see how success rates have changed.

The Evening Post recently reported that evictions from rental properties had increased by 42% last year with rent arrears being the largest reason why. The national average was 7%. How many of these might have been prevented by a DHP?

One of the last things I was looking at before going off sick from my NCC employment (never to return) was a policy for the allocation of DHPs because they certainly didn't have one at the back end of 2006 and I'm willing to bet they still haven't. I also suggested sending a leaflet to targeted groups with HB decision notices but was told by Marjorie Dawes lookalike Lisa Black, the Head of Service, that it would be too expensive. The leaflets had already been designed and printed, they were just sitting in cupboards as far as I could see. This lack of a policy means that, if you do apply for a DHP, whether you get one or not depends purely on whether the officer making the decision happens to personally agree that, on that particular day, you are deserving of one. As you can see most of the time they don't.

If you ask me its fucking criminal.

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