Friday, 15 June 2012

That Answer In Full; Why Housing Benefits Are 'Not Brilliant'

I've just had the minutes through for the full council meeting on 11th June. I asked a question about problems with the Housing Benefits service and here is the answer I got from Graham Chapman. I've added the odd comment as you'd expect.

"Thank you, Lord Mayor, and I promise that the answer will be marginally shorter than the question.

[Guffaw! He's known for his jokes is Cllr Chapman]

Between May 2009 and May 2012 there has been a 14.8% increase in the benefit caseload increasing the annual benefit paid from £133 million to £175 million, that is an increase of 31%. Although not a national comparator, Nottingham puts 82% of cases received into payment, compared with a Core City average of 70%. In simple terms this means that more people that need support are getting that support in Nottingham than in the average Core City, and that is very important point.

[That's interesting. Is Chappers claiming that other core cities get round the issue by simply not paying benefit to people who are eligible? I wonder what these other core cities would have to say about that.

And how relevant is this to speed of processing? You still have to process the claim and make a decision even when benefit isn't payable.]

There has also been a marked increase in the caseload for the private rented sector, an increase of 63% over the same period. Now I am aware that on basic statistics, Nottingham’s performance on speed of processing new claims and changes in circumstances relative to other English local authorities is not brilliant. For 2011/12 Nottingham City Council performance for all new claims was 53 days and 27 days for changes of circumstance. The All England average was 24 days and 12 days respectively.

['On basic statistics'. 'Not brilliant'. It's like pulling teeth.]

On average we allow 36 days for provision of information, with reminder letters and follow-up action taken to secure evidence in support of claims, whereas the vast majority of high performers allow around 14 days, with limited follow-up activity. 

[Can I just stop you there? ALL local authorities are required to allow claimants at least a month to provide any information required to support their claim if the authority notifies them it is required (see sub-para 8). So if these 'high performers' really are cutting claims off after only 14days they are acting unlawfully. Not beyond the realms of possibility I know but without evidence I'm sorry Cllr Chapman but on this one, I name thee 'Bullshitter'.]

If our focus was only on processing times and only on the stats, rather than getting money into people’s pockets then 12%, or some 5,000 people, would not have received support they have. That is quite the opposite of what is implied in the question. In other words, we do not have a cut off date which allows us to say the case has been dealt with, we keep the case on file and work with it, and that way we get far more money into people’s pockets, but our performance statistics don’t look as good, and if anybody asks me which one I prefer, I prefer getting money into people’s pockets than having nice neat performance statistics which show us in a false light.

[Again, this is clearly bollocks as it's based on the same false premise as above. Is Chapman seriously claiming that if you submit a half-completed form and don't respond to chase-ups for 5 years, they'll still process the claim back to day one? That's not how I remember things going. Councils are allowed to allow longer than a month to provide missing info and there are many cases when they should. On this basis the claim that NCC allows an average of 36 days doesn't look over-generous.]

Since July 2011 the benefits service has been working with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to improve performance however. There has been significant investment in the service, both in terms of 13 new posts and additional temporary staff to assist with the speed and accuracy of processing. As a result, new average claims processing time has reduced by 9 days to 44 days in May 2012, and we anticipate further improvements. Performance on changes in circumstances will take longer to improve, the focus of activity during June, July and August is to bring the change of circumstances to a 14 day turnaround. On this matter the questioner does have a point, we are concerned, but we are doing something about it.

[13 extra staff is good. However, I'm a bit cynical about the sticking plaster/PR friendly use of temporary staff not least because of the cost.]

Now, on subsidy, it is acknowledged that in 2010/11 housing benefit subsidy was qualified to the value of £729,000. This was out of a total claim of over £157 million, so that means it is a 99.53% accuracy rate. This is consistent with other authorities of our size and complexity. Some £300,000 of the £729,000 was subsidy claimed in error when the equivalent expenditure had not been incurred, so there was no loss to the public purse nor citizens in the benefits system. Again, this is not what the question implied.

[I wonder what Cllr Chapman's response would be to a benefit claimant who claimed benefit 'in error' when the 'equivalent expenditure' in rent 'had not been incurred'? I suspect he'd have been very happy to have seen him down the Magistrates Court. And it's good to see Chapman being so blase about the remaining £400k.]

On to discretionary housing payments (DHP). Unsuccessful applications for discretionary housing payments are in simple terms the result of the claim not meeting the qualifying criteria.

[Really? That's a bit odd seeing as the potential eligibility is so wide. The assumption is that eligibility exceeds demand and that authorities use their discretion to decide who should receive a payment.]

The local policy and criteria itself was developed in line with the national parameters and in consultation with benefit practitioners, the welfare rights sector, housing professionals in the City, and we have a very good relationship with them.

[What is this 'local policy and criteria' of which you speak? Has Cllr Chapman seen it? In 2009 there was no such thing and the (small) bit of info I've been given about these meetings with the welfare rights sector etc didn't mention anything about drawing up local criteria. Not that they were minuted mind so their usefulness is limited. Maybe it's time for another FoI request to see if this has changed?]

In 2011/12, in recognition of the impact of changes to local housing allowance rates, the Government increased DHP fund allocation, more than doubling it for Nottingham, and I’ll give the Government credit for that. However, due to a transitional protection scheme introduced by the same Government, the full impact of the local housing allowance reforms was not felt during 2011/12, therefore, to expend the money would not have been appropriate. 

[Why the hell not? The best way to demonstrate need is to spend what you've been given. That also serves to increase the next year's allocation.And this claim isn't really consistent with the near 30% increase in applications in 2011/12.]

The DWP therefore agreed that the authority’s underspend could be carried forward to the next financial year. Nottingham City requested that £62,741 be carried forward to 2012/13 making our total provision £274,621.

[I like the way that he makes it sound like it was all planned, rather than an arse-covering exercise. Sorry but I'm not convinced by that at all.]

The take-up and availability of DHPs are widely promoted by frontline benefit colleagues as well as colleagues in housing, welfare rights and within the charitable sector. Thank you."

[Yeah right. That's why the council's leaflet on DHPs hasn't been changed for 7 years and refers you to an office that no longer exists. Oh and while we're here, notice how he makes no mention of the past record of DHP performance over the last 11 years.]

So, that was Cllr Chapman's response. I would rate it as inadequate and misleading to be honest. It's full of unsupported assertions along with blatant inaccuracies. It's a list of excuses that simply don't hold water, like a child caught by a shopkeeper with sweets he hadn't paid for. However, to someone who knows little about Housing Benefit and none of the background to DHPs and their administration in Nottingham, which probably includes the vast majority of councillors, it probably comes across as a robust response.

In Cllr Chapman's defence he probably had no idea what Discretionary Housing Payments are until he was given the above rubbish to read out but, at the end of the day, he's put his name to the response and he is the Portfolio Holder for the service. He is responsible for his answer and it simply isn't satisfactory.

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