Saturday, 11 December 2010

Audit Committee Fooled Again

I was largely right in my last post about the latest shit tsunami that the Housing Benefits service is embroiled in. Essentially, the Audit Committee fell for it again.

Dear old Lisa Black who, lets remember, has no special difficulty with misleading an employment tribunal on oath and so could probably lie to the Audit Committee in her sleep, seems to have got the excuses in early.

She claimed that a review of the single persons' discounts for Council Tax had been a 'focus for the service' which supposedly 'highlighted 3000 cases' for the Housing Benefits visiting service and raised £900k. Let's have a look at that in more detail.

First of all, while both Council Tax and Benefits are on her patch they are two separate things and will have different teams, although I suspect that the visiting staff will be shared because, for the most part Council Tax doesn't really need visits carried out apart from one-off projects like this. But, once the visiting officer has done the visit and collected the required information, it will be passed to Council Tax staff and not bother the Housing Benefits workstream any more. And I'm sure that a significant number of those visits could be combined with benefits visits that would be happening anyway. So, although it might have been a big chunk of work for Council Tax staff I can't see how it would have affected the benefits side of her empire very much, beyond the visiting staff.

Except it didn't cause a big chunk of extra work for Council Tax staff because the job was outsourced. And the decision to do so contained a justification to use outside consultants along the lines that doing it in-house would be too onerous and costly. But Lisa doesn't bother mentioning all that, she preferred to leave members with the impression that the lack of quality control in Housing Benefits was a mere aberration which was caused by this huge onerous one off project, even though the 'experienced staff' mentioned by Internal Audit who 'despite training' still messed up the overpayments process wouldn't have been involved.

And if you fancy a full house in 'Management Bollockspeak Bingo' get a load of this sentence -

"...the amount of training had increased significantly and targeted training was being identified through continued training needs analysis, quality assurance checks and support requests..."

I mean it's just rhubarb isn't it?

And when one councillor (it's not recorded who) did ask a slightly tricky question about how much subsidy could be reclaimed for overpayments either the minute taker fell asleep or Black sold him a bully, saying that the subsidy was 40%. In fact the situation is a bit more complicated as I described in my last piece on the subject -

Essentially, it seems that if errors in benefit assessments caused by the council itself (as opposed to claimants) are below a certain level (approx £616k) NCC still gets full subsidy on it. If it's between a certain range (£616k - £693k) only 40% of subsidy is paid and above that latter figure they get none. In other words there's a pretty strong incentive to keep council caused errors down, which makes sense.

Other types of error are
treated differently (see para 400 onwards), for example, error caused by claimants always attracts a 40% subsidy. Errors which are the fault of the DWP or HMRC are fully reimbursed.

So it depends on the cause of the error and, in the case of overpayments caused by the council itself, on the amount of overpayment identified. This in turn means that there is a subsidy advantage in identifying council caused overpayments as something else once the amount gets too high. Like I say, it was never explicitly stated by Internal Audit that this was deliberately being done, just that the process was 'shortcut'.

Now, a member of the Audit Committee who was doing her/his job properly, and once armed with the facts about varying subsidy levels, might want to be reassured that such a thing definitely was not going on and might ask a question about it. But having been told that the subsidy rate is the same, no matter what, they'd have no cause to probe any further.

Same old...

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