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Crawley Borough Council

Volume 407: debated on Tuesday 24 June 2003

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On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate (BFI) inspection report on Crawley Borough Council was published today and copies of the report have been placed in the Library.In its response to the Housing Green Paper of November 2000, the Department for Work and Pensions developed a performance framework for housing benefits. The Performance Standards for housing benefits allow local authorities to make a comprehensive self-assessment of whether they deliver benefit effectively and securely. They are the Standards that the Department for Work and Pensions expects local authorities to aspire to and achieve in time.The BFI inspected Crawley Borough Council against the Performance Standards. The report finds that the council is not at Standard for any of the seven functional areas of the Performance Standards—strategic management, customer services, processing of claims, working with landlords, internal security, counter-fraud, and overpayments.However, the council had strengths in all the seven functional areas and its overall level of performance for administering benefits and counter-fraud activities was fair. Claimants received a good service in terms of caller facilities and provisions for those with special needs. Evidence gathering to support a claim was generally thorough but the council was failing to adequately protect the benefits system due to processing delays. While improvement had been made, performance was still significantly below the clearance times required by the Standards. Overpayments were occurring because notified changes of circumstances were not being dealt with promptly.The report finds that the council's Counter-fraud team was operating effectively. The number of administrative penalties and prosecutions was increasing year on year. Recovery of overpayments was effective but management information on the amount of benefits debt was generally lacking.BFI noted a clear commitment to improve overall performance. A council wide change programme was having a positive effect on the benefit service. A longstanding backlog of work had been significantly reduced, additional staff resources had been recruited and a major upgrade to the benefits IT system had been successfully implemented. All were improving the benefit service's capacity to deal with work intake and more effectively manage its benefits workload.In 2002–03, Crawley Borough Council administered some £20.5 million in housing benefits, about 35 per cent. of its total gross revenue expenditure. The report makes recommendations to help the council address weaknesses and to further improve the administration of Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit, as well as counter-fraud activities.My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is now considering the report and will be asking the council for its proposals in response to the findings and recommendations of the BFI.