‘Railtrack by giro’

Neil Bateman examines why housing benefit
services are below standard at many local authorities.

Some housing benefit services are a mess.
Others find it difficult to offer a consistently good service, while some
provide a first class service. This variation is well-illustrated in London
where neighbouring councils offer hugely different levels of service.

The costs of a failing housing benefit service
are huge and fall directly on other parts of the local authority. For example,
one immediate impact is that private landlords are unwilling to take tenants on
housing benefit, thus there is increasing pressure on housing waiting lists. It
is also a direct cause of homelessness if rent recovery action is taken by
landlords, who may even be the very same local authority which has held up
tenants’ housing benefit applications. The courts are increasingly weary of
such crass corporate incompetence and can summons the responsible chief officer
to explain matters.

Failing housing benefit also directly impacts
on peoples’ ability to move into work. If housing benefit makes up a big part
of their in-work income, they may be worse off if they take a job and have the
misfortune to live in an area with a bad housing benefit service.

So if a council wants to address poverty and
social exclusion, making sure their housing benefit service works well is
perhaps the single most important thing it can do.

The latest annual report from the local
government ombudsman illustrates the scale of the problem and shows yet another
large increase in complaints about housing benefit delays. However, the vast
bulk were about a handful of local authorities – almost all of whom had
contracted out their benefit administration. These include Sheffield, Lambeth,
Islington and Hackney. The latter topped the league with a thumping 731

So why are some services in such a mess?
Undoubtedly the imposition of the verification framework onto an already
complex set of legislation did not help. Similarly, many local authorities
experience recruitment and retention difficulties and all welfare rights staff
have noticed how, across the board, standards have dropped.

But this does not explain why Islington
generated 301 complaints to the ombudsman compared to just six for neighbouring
Camden. A key part of the explanation is the privatisation of benefit
administration – Railtrack by girocheque.

The nature of benefits administration means
that one needs very flexible working practices, highly skilled staff and
economies of scale. The sort of thing outsourcing undermines. Also resources
get tied up amid bickering about what is or is not in the contract rather than
an integrated organisational effort to get it right. Privatisation has also not
worked well because the legal responsibility for benefits still lies with the
council and not the contractor. This turns the contact into a buck-passer’s
charter with an endless cycle of blame.

It is also clear that one cannot run housing
benefit on the cheap. It was partly cost which drove local authorities to
outsource the work in the first place. Yes it may be expensive and it may cost
more than government subsidy, but the cost of not resourcing and managing it
well in the first place is soon outweighed by costs elsewhere.

Finally, as practitioners, don’t tolerate delay.
Use the ombudsman and other legal remedies to highlight this injustice.

Bateman manages Suffolk Council and Suffolk Health Authority’s welfare rights
service. If you have a question to be answered in Welfare Rights please write
to him c/o Community Care.

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