Overpayments in housing and council tax benefit subsidy

At Audit Committee last week a number of reports were presented. Among their number was BDO: Grant Claims and Returns Certification Report for the Year ended 31 March 2013.

On page 5, under a section on Housing and council tax benefit subsidy is this:

Findings and impact on claim

The extrapolated errors all relate to over-claims of subsidy. If DWP decide to adjust for all of these extrapolated errors, then the total adjustment to the overpayments reported would be £236,921, resulting in a potential loss of subsidy of £716,043 because the Council would then breach the overpayments threshold within the scheme and therefore receive less subsidy. In total this represents a potential 0.6% reduction in subsidy.

This prompted me to ask some questions, and I summarise the responses here.

This loss in subsidy would be made up from reserves set aside for this purpose. These reserves could have been spent, as a one-off, on any other project of the council’s choosing. Since making no mistakes was considered impossible, the usual amount of error was quoted as around £200,000.

My interpretation then, is that the over-payments made in error are about half a million more than what is considered par for the course. That this will result in a draw down from reserves, reserves that could have been used in any special project, shows the real losers are Southend-on-Sea’s residents.

Under-occupied

I met with a resident this weekend.

Husband and Wife have lived at their address for nineteen years. Husband was diagnosed with hairy cell lymphocytic leukaemia in December 2013. Husband and Wife are both 59 years old.

Wife has degenerative osteoarthritis. Both are now registered disabled. Both have enhanced rates of disability.

As a result of Husband’s illness he has lost his job; he was a baker for thirty years. He is now in receipt of housing benefit. His home is owned by a housing association and is a three-bedroom mid-terrace. It is now described as under-occupied, and this means the bedroom tax kicks in, costing them £30 per week.

They are not opposed to the idea of moving to somewhere smaller, but do not want to live in a tower block or in a care home. Unsurprisingly, with such a bleak outlook quality of life figures high in their priorities. Wife struggles with stairs and needs an adapted bath.

I had a long chat with Husband, a long and difficult chat. His diagnosis in December is a death sentence, and the added stress of the bedroom tax is hitting him hard. Seeing a grown man reduced to tears is not something anyone would enjoy.

They are quite prepared to live anywhere in Essex, although it seems that this is not a possibility as they have no family outside of the borough. It does strike me as peculiar that potential properties are denied them because of where they live, yet legislation is attempting to make them move anyway.

Benefits justice day of action

BenefitsJustice

Where housing benefit really goes

A press release from GMB union last week stated: HUGE PAYMENTS FOR HOUSING BENEFIT IN EAST OF ENGLAND SHOWS LANDLORDS ARE THE REAL WINNERS FROM BRITAIN’S WELFARE SYSTEM. Amongst the statistics that accompanied this release were the following, directly relevant to everyone in south Essex:

• Regis Direct Plc – £725,000 from Southend, £24,000 from Rochford. Donated £7,900 to Conservatives in 2008.
• Thorney Bay Park Ltd – £1.45m from Castle Point. Donated £3,000 to conservatives in 2001.
• Horwood, PACE plc – £596,000 from Southend, £12,500 from Rochford
• Martin & Co – Letting Agents, £3.1m from 20 districts nationally. £484,000 from Southend and £19,000 from Rochford
• Hopson Property Management Ltd – £761,000 from Southend
• The Letting Shop – £136,000 from Colchester and £29,000 from Chelmsford
• Northwood – National lettings Agency getting over £2.3m nationally. £251,000 from Milton Keynes, £162,000 from Chelmsford

I oppose the housing benefit cap because, whatever the intentions, its actual consequence is to drive the poor out of expensive areas. The effects of this are being felt in Southend as Londoners seek to escape over-priced and unaffordable accommodation costs.

Tenants do not get housing benefit – it goes straight to landlords. Despite what some of the headlines may imply, no-one on welfare is being made rich by housing benefit. There are those who are coining it in – the landlords. I think there is a problem here, and the solution is not the cap. The solution lies ultimately in the need for affordable housing, which can only be met with a vigorous house-building program.

There are 16,439 private rented households in Southend-on-Sea. 10,282 (62.5%) are in receipt of housing benefits.

Minute 668 Counter Fraud Update Report

Councillor Paul Collins (Liberal Democrat, Westborough) has written this: At last night’s Council meeting a labour Councillor attacked the report to the last Audit Committee which was presented to us on the current work being done by the Councils’ counter fraud team to challenge and uncover Fraud within and outside the Council.

Attacked? I think he means expressed unease – which is the words I actually used. I am less keen than he is to give extra powers to Council officers. I note that Cllr Collins also says that it “is my duty … that we challenge these reports as presented to us”. It is my duty too, although evidently when I do it I am attacking.

Here is what I actually said in the chamber:

This rather innocuous minute includes a proposal for Council Cops.

Under the Council’s plans, counter-fraud teams will be given new powers to carry out investigations independently of the police and other law enforcement agencies, including the ability to execute search warrants and seize assets that could be the proceeds of crime or benefit fraud.

In the last year benefit fraud and error accounted for 2.1 per cent of total benefit expenditure, ensuring the recovery of this public money is of top priority. However, giving council employees these powers seem draconian, unnecessary and a duplication of the proper authority and procedures of the police.

During the meeting it was announced that the powers will include access to various data sources, including the electoral roll and Tesco clubcard records.

We can all agree that benefit cheats must be caught and punished, and public monies recovered, but that these proposals leaves me distinctly uneasy.

Entering people’s homes, executing warrants and seizing property should be carried out in the proper manner, by the proper authorities. The police are accountable to the judiciary and a number of other public bodies, these new ‘council cops’ are expected to have all the powers, but where is the accountability?

In addition, the Council is proposing to use powers that have been available since 1985, and I wondered why nearly twenty-nine years have elapsed without need to seek recourse through these powers.

The bedroom tax in Southend-on-Sea – an update

I have unearthed some more numbers, so I thought it worthwhile to have a recap.

There have been no evictions to date owing to the bedroom tax .

The number of tenants who have moved on a voluntary basis due to the bedroom tax is currently 59.

There have been fourteen cases of people moving owing to the bedroom tax who did so because of rent arrears.

Currently there are 350 SBC tenants impacted on by the bedroom tax.

In terms of the current number of smaller properties available, as at this week these are :

24 bedsits/one bed properties
7 two bed properties

The bedroom tax effect in Southend, so far

Following on from last week’s informative ‘axe the bedroom tax’ public meeting, organised by Southend Against the Cuts, I made some inquiries as to what the situation was locally.

There have been no evictions to date owing to the bedroom tax .
The number of tenants who have moved on a voluntary basis due to the bedroom tax is currently 59.

The zero evictions number is good news indeed. Quite how voluntary the moves by the fifty-nine were is anybody’s guess.

Local demonstration against Atos

stopATOS

Ware-Lane uneasy over ‘Council Cop’ proposals

My latest press release:

Julian Ware-Lane has expressed his unease over proposals that would allow Southend Council to create its own police force that would crackdown on benefit cheats.

Under the Council’s plans, counter-fraud teams will be given new powers to carry out investigations independently of the police and other law enforcement agencies, including the ability to execute search warrants and seize assets that could be the proceeds of crime or benefit fraud.

In the last year benefit fraud and error accounted for 2.1 per cent of total benefit expenditure, ensuring the recovery of this public money is of top priority. However, giving council employees these powers seem draconian, unnecessary and a duplication of the proper authority and procedures of the police.

Councillor Julian Ware-Lane, was the sole dissenting voice Southend Council’s Audit Committee hearing of a report entitled Counter Fraud Service Update last night, where he expressed his unease at the implications behind the proposals. During the meeting it was announced that the powers will include access to various data sources, including the electoral roll and Tesco clubcard records.

Julian Ware-Lane, Labour portfolio holder for Public Protection, Transport and Waste, commented:

“We can all agree that benefit cheats must be caught and punished, and public monies recovered, but that these proposals leaves me distinctly uneasy.

Entering people’s homes, executing warrants and seizing property should be carried out in the proper manner, by the proper authorities. The police are accountable to the judiciary and a number of other public bodies, these new ‘council cops’ are expected to have all the powers, but where is the accountability?

In addition, the Council is proposing to use powers that have been available since 1985, and I wondered why nearly twenty-nine years have elapsed without need to seek recourse through these powers.

Empowering our officers to search and seize the assets of its residents, in advance of prosecution, is a step too far. Whilst we must be tough on crime this should not mean the diminution of our rights and freedoms.”

Words on a bronze plaque

I was reminded, recently, of the words of Emma Lazarus:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

These are the words of an American, inscribed on the monument to Liberty, in the economically most powerful nation on Earth. These words are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in New York.

I find these are an appropriate reminder, at this time of year, to those who fear and shun strangers, who blame the poor for being poor, and who scoff and scorn those who seek charitable help.

We should not sneer at those who use foodbanks, nor blame the addicted for their addictions. We should not scoff at the idea that some will have to choose between heating or eating, nor seek to victimise those already dealt a rough hand in the game of life. We should welcome those who come here to better themselves, and whose presence enriches us too.

We should remind ourselves that great nations are not closed shops. Great nations embrace the world, as we have done for centuries, and welcome all who seek sanctuary or a chance to show us their industry. Great nations are civilised places where the strong look after the weak.

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