I’ve not had the time to blog much lately, apologies. You can catch up with my weekly column on The Latest or Brighton & Hove Independent websites.
Below are two letters to Mr Duncan Smith highlighting serious concerns about how his department is treating local government.
To Iain Duncan Smith in the Department for Work and Pensions:
Dear Secretary of State,
We appreciate that the introduction of Universal Credit is no longer on the government’s original timetable. While delays that help ensure effective implementation are to be welcomed, I need to alert you that this creates additional financial pressures for councils.
You may be aware that the administration of housing benefit is funded by a specific grant from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). I am sure the original intention of this grant was to fully support local government in providing a service on its behalf. However unfortunately its costs have long outstripped its funding – in the latest national comparative figures available, 2012/13 national Housing Benefit Administration expenditure was expected to be 74% higher than the grant ( 102% in London and 69% in Unitary authorities) and for Brighton & Hove this was 98% – representing a subsidy from the council’s General fund of £2.938m. The administration grant continues to be subject to reductions, 10% for 2014/15 and yet the delays to the implementation of Universal Credit alongside reforms mean that efficiency savings of this magnitude are increasingly challenging. For example as individuals find they need to take more than one job or find themselves moving in and out of work more frequently so their circumstances require more frequent reassessing from a benefits perspective. This adds additional cost and complexity that will only be resolved at the point at which Universal Credit is introduced. In 2014/15 the gap between expenditure and income for Housing Benefits for Brighton & Hove is expected to be £3.397m – a direct subsidy from the council’s General Fund to deliver a DWP programme. While the council continues to review and benchmark its service against comparable local authorities, there is no evidence at the moment that this is out of line with others.
We appreciate that there is a desire to constantly improve efficiency and reduce costs to the taxpayer. We, like many authorities, have successfully driven down our costs while maintaining high standards of service. However there does come a point, when service effectiveness is a matter of having enough resource to meet demand and while we continue to strive to make our service more efficient the gap between funding and actual cost is an increasing burden that Local Government cannot afford to accept on the DWP’s behalf.
I therefore call on you to reconsider the funding position for HB admin subsidy to let our costs be covered. The money that has been taken out of the admin grant over the years makes it increasingly difficult of us to deliver this statutory social security benefit on your behalf. Other local services have had to be cut to fund our ongoing delivery of this national benefit. I do not believe taxpayers would consider this fair or justifiable.
I await your response.
Cllr Jason Kitcat
Leader of Brighton & Hove City Council
Dear Secretary of State,
Proposals to implement a Single Fraud Investigation Service (SFIS)
We are aware that the Autumn Statement 2013 has confirmed that government plans to implement a Single Fraud Investigation Service (SFIS) during 2014.
Brighton & Hove City Council is very concerned at the current plans to operate SFIS as an organisation wholly managed and operated by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). We believe current plans have been adopted without due consideration to local authorities’ views and without full consideration of the impact such changes would have on counter fraud activity outside of SFIS, especially those areas under the remit of local government. We would strongly urge you to reconsider how SFIS is implemented.
We recognise that SFIS could be a great opportunity to make a real difference to investigating welfare and related frauds and to work in a truly collaborative way. As it stands, we believe that local authorities will be left more vulnerable to fraud attacks if current proposals go ahead. We also believe that reported savings of operating SFIS could therefore be offset by wider fraud losses across local government.
In this council, not only do we operate a Housing Benefit investigation team but we also host one of two National Anti-Fraud Network (NAFN) offices that provides first class data and intelligence services to over 350 councils. Through these services, currently it is common for local authorities to link investigations together e.g. ‘blue badge’ fraud and benefit frauds; housing tenancy fraud and benefit fraud. Under SFIS proposals, much of the benefit of this type of combined investigation will disappear, as will any links between local authority corporate fraud work and SFIS. This simply does not make sense.
Allied to this, there will be no or limited links between SFIS investigations and Council Tax Reduction Scheme investigations. Again, a collaborative approach would be our preferred solution rather than two separate investigations undertaken by different organisations with potentially two separate prosecutions being undertaken at the same time. There is potential for significant process duplication and preventable costs.
At Brighton & Hove, in common with a number of authorities, we have recently set up a Corporate Fraud Team to undertake fraud investigations across a wider spectrum of our activities. We are concerned that the current proposals do not provide sufficient time to develop this unit and also that any work it carries out in future will be in isolation from SFIS. Again, this would not appear to be well thought through, especially with the introduction of powers to make housing tenancy fraud a criminal offence.
NAFN is recognised as a centre of excellence in local government and its services extend well beyond local authorities. For instance, NAFN processes all of the DWP’s fraud related vehicle checks. The introduction of SFIS as currently proposed would be likely to reduce NAFN resources considerably and therefore the impact on the wider fraud community in terms of protecting public funds could be considerable.
We are also concerned about the impact on localism. Centralisation of welfare benefit fraud investigations would appear to go against the grain of the localism agenda supported by the rest of government.
We would strongly urge further constructive and meaningful consultation on current proposals so that we can identify a solution that would be beneficial to all areas of central and local government.
Should you have any queries or wish to discuss the matter any further, I would be most willing to provide further information or meet you to talk through these issues.
Councillor Jason Kitcat Councillor Leslie Hamilton
Leader of the Council Chair of the Audit & Standards Committee