SOME of the country’s most vulnerable families are being put at risk of homelessness because councils are making too many mistakes with housing benefit claims, according to the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO); a problem compounded by a poorly handled appeals process.
Housing Benefit is being gradually replaced by Universal Credit, but even so it is still paid to some 3.6 million of England’s poorest and most vulnerable households who rely on it to help with living costs. But when councils get things wrong, this only adds to the hardship.
In a new report, the LGO looks at the lessons local authorities can learn from the cases it has investigated. In some situations, poor practices have led to “confusion and uncertainty” while in more extreme cases families have become homeless.
“The cases we highlight in this report show the very real impact of what can happen when councils do not deliver housing benefit properly. Some of our most vulnerable families are refused a fair hearing by having their rights to appeal their council’s decision taken away,” said Nigel Ellis, chief executive at the LGO.
“Although Universal Credit is being rolled out across the country, this is not happening as quickly as first anticipated; councils still need to ensure they administer housing benefits properly until the new system is in place in their area.
“Last year we upheld 78% of the complaints we investigated about housing benefit, compared with 58% for all our casework. This suggests there are problems with some councils’ understanding of their duties towards claimants and the correct processes they must follow.
“We are issuing this report to provide guidance and good practice advice to help those who administer housing benefits avoid the pitfalls and common problems we are highlighting.”
Problems discussed in the Ombudsman’s report include councils preventing families from challenging decisions about their housing benefit entitlement, or not telling them about their right to appeal, and councils trying to recover overpaid money before appeals have even been considered.
In one case, poor internal communication and poor record keeping at the council coupled with a delay in the appeal process led to more than two years of confusion for one man about the amount of benefit he should be receiving and whether the council was right to pursue him for overpayment.
Responding to the report, the chair of the Local Government Association’s Resources Board, Councillor Richard Watts, said: “The ombudsman’s report has rightly identified the importance of ensuring the best possible accuracy within the housing benefit system, and ensuring that councils respond fairly and effectively when mistakes occur, including claimant error.
“The report highlights some important learning for councils and government to take forward to improve fairness and accuracy within the benefits system.
“Councils and the Department for Work & Pensions have worked closely over recent years to reduce fraud and error. Councils also work hard to provide a range of support and advice to vulnerable households, in particular those affected by welfare reform.
“The funding that councils receive from government to administer Housing Benefit falls short of the true costs of administration. Councils have also faced considerable and ongoing pressures and uncertainty due to welfare reforms and changes to the timescales for implementing Universal Credit, which have stretched councils’ revenues and benefits services.
“It is vital that the Government recognises the ongoing role of councils in administering Housing Benefit, and in supporting claimants provides appropriate, timely funding to councils to deliver this role. Doing so ensures that councils are able to provide the fairest, most accurate service that they can.”