Council Claws Back 1m in Benefit Payments
Council officers and debt collectors are trying to claw back £838,000 overpaid to benefit claimants in Bracknell last year.
The overpayments in housing and council tax benefit were made as a result of wrong information being given to Bracknell Forest Council.
The figure amounts to two per cent of the borough’s annual benefit budget.
Housing officers are working with claimants to get back most of the money but a debt collection agency has been hired to track down £250,000 of the total.
It also emerged that in previous years as much as four per cent of the council’s benefits budget had been overpaid.
Simon Hendey, the borough’s chief officer for housing, stressed that the council had repayment agreements with most claimants.
He said debt collectors were only being used when his officers had been unable to come to an agreement with claimants on repaying money or when claimants had disappeared.
Mr Hendey said: “We aim to make arrangements that are reasonable.”
He said that most of the errors in information related to claimants’ change of circumstances, with only a small number relating to false claims.
He added that only debts that were deemed unrecoverable would be written off.
Mr Hendey said: “There will be some overpayments that, as in any business, we try our best to recover but at some point it is not economic to continue as we will be spending more on trying to get back the debt.”
A recent audit commission report into the council’s benefit service awarded it a “fair service with promising prospects for improvement”.
However in its report in September 2010 the commission did criticise the management of the housing benefit overpayment debt, stating that “prompt action to recover overpayments helps to reduce the cost of running services to local taxpayers”.
In the report, the work on detecting and preventing fraud was described as good and the council’s customer care was fair with staff seen as polite, knowledgeable and helpful.
The borough’s housing department is sending out 1,100 letters to tenants in private rented accommodation advising them of the changes to local housing allowance brought in by the coalition Government.
The borough council has held meetings with the town’s Citizens Advice Bureau about the reduction in the allowance from April 1 which will affect tenants in larger, more costly rented properties.