Sunday, 20 June 2010

Nottingham City Council Guilty of Benefit Fraud?

Perhaps not, technically, as they (probably) didn't do it deliberately* and to be prosecuted for fraud there needs to be some intent as far as I know. But anyway, what actually happened?

Again, I missed the opportunity of scooping the 'Post'. On Saturday they reported on the Audit Commission's findings that NCC had messed up its claims to central government for Housing Benefit subsidy in 2008/9 and as a result had been paid £2m more than it was entitled to.

You see, councils are only responsible for administering Housing Benefits on behalf of the Dept for Work and Pensions, the actual money is paid back to them by central government, rather than it actually coming from local taxes.

Anyway, I did some digging around and found that the Audit Commission's report had been put before the council's Audit Committee meeting on 28 May, so had been available online for a few weeks but, as usual, I missed it. It will be interesting to see the minutes of that meeting when they come out. But what is clear is that Lisa Black has fucked it up again.

The specific issues that the Commission reported on were -

  • incorrect application of start dates for benefit claims. I have to say this happened to me when I first claimed Council Tax Benefit.
  • incorrect assessment of Tax Credits' effect on claims
  • level of errors much higher than 20078
  • high level of errors means more audidt activity required with resultant costs implications (and this DOES come out of our Council Tax, boys and girls)
  • no quality control activity in 2008/9 being the likely cause of errors
  • no quality control activity in 2009/10 means likely to be similar level of error in that year
These last two points deserve some further analysis. Firstly, and quite alarmingly, NCC's excuse for the lack of any quality control was that the people who would normally do this were engaged in training staff in 'New Systems Thinking'. This is very much the baby of my old muckers Helen Spencer (Shipway as was) and Lisa Black and means that the blame for this mess can be placed squarely with them. Secondly, I think the Commission's view that a similar level of errors will be found for 2009/10 is optimistic. In my experience, if there is no system of monitoring, as time goes on those operating the system tend to relax and not worry so much about errors because they're not going to be picked up, resulting in more errors. Such an approach is exacerbated if management are concentrating on speed rather than accuracy (more on this in a bit). This is simply human nature. I therefore predict a higher level of errors when the Commission comes to look at this next year.

It is also worth having a look into the context that these issues arise in. Last March I wrote about NCC's internal audit service finding that accuracy of claims was very poor, although part of the problem was that NCC was using external service providers for some of its claims processing. I also wrote about the publicly available performance data and its relationship to the now defunct Comprehensive Performance Assessment. I found that, while NCC was getting consistently high ratings for speed of processing it was actually the worst council in the East Midlands for its record of accuracy. What was that I said about management prioritising speed over accuracy? I should also point out that those figures are from 2007/8 i.e. before they stopped quality control in favour of training in 'New Systems Thinking'.

So, in a nutshell, Lisa Black decided to halt quality control in order to carry out training in managementspeak, despite the fact that there were warnings aplenty of the service's already appalling record on accuracy. As a result, the council is likely to have to repay £2m in subsidy that it shouldn't have received (likely? ConDem government, Labour council. I reckon it's a dead cert). Why is this woman still in her job?

Going back to the benefit fraud analogy, I remember that NCC was very proud to have found £33k of benefit fraud by claimants in a year and keen to point out that there was 'no hiding place'. And yet the Audit Commission finds NCC wrongly claiming over £2m! Lock 'em all up I say.

*It's worth pointing out that a benefit claimant can be prosecuted for a criminal offence even if they had no intention to defraud but had simply failed to provide information in relation to their claim without reasonable excuse. You can bet any figures that this relates to will get lumped in with all the tabloid 'benefit fraudsters' figures you hear. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander I say.

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