§ Malcolm Wicks
The Benefit Fraud Inspectorate's (BFI) report on Sefton council was published today and copies of the report have been placed in the Library.
The BFI reports that the council has actively demonstrated a strong commitment towards raising standards within its benefits service and has many areas of good practice. The report also shows that Sefton has some scope for making improvements.835W
The report notes that a single housing benefit and council tax benefit claim form had been introduced and that this was broadly in line with BFI's national model.
Inspectors found that 94 per cent. of the claims examined had been assessed accurately and that the supporting evidence had been considered. A weakness was identified in the evidence gathered about earnings and capital.
There were some delays in processing renewal claims and inadequate checks on claims that were not renewed. BFI also found that the council did not have a benefit overpayment policy and lacked the necessary management controls to be assured that overpayments were dealt with correctly.
The council has taken positive steps to counter benefit fraud. The performance of the counter fraud team was found to be effective, systematically achieving successful prosecutions although the council had not offered administrative penalties or issued a caution since introducing its prosecution policy. Investigation work might also be targeted more effectively to increase the number of benefit frauds detected.
Following a best value review by the council of its benefits services, elected Members had approved new investment to increase the number of staff allocated to benefits and improvement to IT.
Sefton administered some £73 million in housing benefits in 2000–01.
The report makes recommendations to help the council address weaknesses and to 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.
A BFI best value inspection report on the benefits service is also published today and has been placed in the Library. It examines the service from a customer service and value for money point of view. For best value, inspectors found that Sefton council provided a fair or one star benefits service, which would probably improve to be equal to that of high-performing authorities.