Agenda item

Welfare Reform (Agenda Item 11)


The Strategic Manager (Benefits) gave Members a brief update on Welfare Reform.


The Fraud and Error Reduction Incentive Scheme (FERIS) was being introduced to encourage Local Authorities to do more to identify error and fraud.  The scheme would run from December 2014 to March 2016.  Funding would be awarded to authorities that hit a threshold for identifying more fraud and error.  The baseline figure had been set by the DWP and there was the potential to receive additional funding if a higher figure was reached.   As the Partnership was serious about identifying fraud it was important for it to take part in the scheme and thereby become eligible for a percentage of the grant.


It was proposed to target high risk customer groups, aimed at those whose circumstances had not changed including workers, single parents and pensioners.


The lower threshold for the seven Partners was £55,000 and the higher threshold was £111,000.  There was a start-up fund of around £57,000 to provide resources and to pay for a marketing campaign.  S151 approval was required and bids for funding had to be submitted by 30 January 2015.


The Executive Director Place (BDC) understood that the thresholds would apply whether or not the authorities participated.  The letter that would be sent with the Council Tax bills was a demonstration that the Partnership was committed to tackling fraud.


The Corporate Director (Fenland) asked Members to be mindful that if they did not opt in it would seem as though they were not committed to addressing fraud.  He also suggested that the word ‘error’ should be used in the letter to encourage people to notify changes in their status.


With regard to Universal Credit (UC), some information had been received about the accelerated implementation from February 2015.  There would be three tranches and Forest Heath, Waveney & Suffolk Coastal and Breckland were included in Tranche One, for fresh claims from single, job centre customers.  It was expected that would equate to about three to four customers a week.  It seemed that it would only relate to working age customers, not pensioners.  However, in a communication recently received that information had been described as provisional and so until the details were confirmed it could not be publicised. There were still lots of questions to be answered. 


It was also likely that a high number of customers would be vulnerable people who would need help with their UC claim, yet it was not clear yet whether there would be any funding available to provide that help.  It would be an opportunity to offer a one stop service.


The Head of ARP pointed out that there were only about 400 housing benefit only cases so it was unlikely that the authorities would see a drop in caseload.  Some cost modelling had been carried out and it seemed likely that money would not be saved, it would just be moved.


The Strategic Manager (Benefits) explained that Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) and Supported Accommodation cases would stay with Local Authorities.  However, the DWP were still considering LA access to UC systems to determine award outcomes.  Delays processing UC might lead to rent arrears problems as DHP could not be paid if the claimant was not in receipt of UC.  There was still a lot of uncertainty.


Councillor Wassell asked if the Government was aware of the ramifications and whether there might be further delays.  He was advised that that was possible, but that the ‘slowly, slowly’ approach was working quite well.  Some pilots had been carried out using current software but UC used new software so that might cause problems too. 


The Chairman thought that it was a reputational risk to Councils and the Head of ARP agreed and said that that was why UC was on the Risk Register.