Ashfield council taking too long to process new Housing Benefit claims, says charity

Ashfield District Council
Ashfield District Council

New housing benefit applicants in Ashfield are waiting more than three weeks for their claims to be processed, new figures have revealed.

Between July and September 2018, new claimants waited 23 days on average before their application was completed, Department for Work and Pensions data shows.

That's above the British average of 22 days, which includes weekends.

This waiting time can be worrying for applicants, and the charity Turn2Us, which helps people with financial hardship gain access to welfare benefits, said they can be threatened with eviction and face homelessness.

Legal guidance states councils should respond to the claim within two weeks.

According to the figures, the local authority processed 534 new cases during the three month period.

In total, there were 12,263 housing benefit claimants in Ashfield in that time.

During the same three months in 2017, applicants had less time to wait, with an average delay of 22 days.

Matthew Geer, campaigns manager at Turn2Us, said: "The longer people are waiting for their Housing Benefit, the more likely they are to get into rent arrears, face eviction and in some cases end up homeless.

"Housing Benefit is a necessity in this time of high rents and minimal social housing. We are seeing a concerning rise in rent arrears as more and more people are being pushed into poverty.

"It needs to be processed and paid efficiently to avoid renters ending up in vulnerable situations."

Residents are eligible for housing benefit if they rent, their savings are below £16,000, and they are on low income or other benefits.

The amount applicants receive differs depending on whether they rent from the council, or privately, their salary and whether they have any spare rooms.

Ashfield was quicker at dealing with current claimants who had changed their living circumstances, than those applying for the first time.

Those applications took on average eight days to complete.

A DWP spokesman said: "We spend around £23 billion a year on housing benefit - more than any other OECD country as a proportion of GDP.

"We work directly with each local authority to monitor housing benefit performance and will continue to work closely with local authorities as Universal Credit rolls out."

The Government is currently rolling out Universal Credit across the country, however Ashfield did not have full service when this data was recorded. Claimants applying for housing benefit under Universal Credit have to wait five weeks, which includes a four week assessment period.

For the first time in several years Ashfield District Councils housing benefit new claims average performance exceeded the national average by 1 day during the 3 month period July 2018 to September 2018.

However, In the two previous periods, January 2018 to March 2018 and April 2018 to June 2018, Ashfield District Council achieved an average performance of 21 days which was 2 days below the national average of 23 days for those periods.

These figures should be considered within the wider context of Housing Benefit administration. Processing new housing benefit claims is part of the work the Housing Benefit office must undertake. During the same period the Housing Benefit office also processed 5,174 change of circumstance notifications for existing claims in an average time of 8 days, which was equal to the national average for that period.

Councillor Robert Sears-Piccavey, Ashfield District Council Cabinet Member for Revenues and Benefits said: “We constantly monitor our housing benefit processing performance to deliver a good standard of service to the public. Where the level of performance falls below target then action is taken immediately to try to improve performance.

“Overall, our housing benefit processing performance remains better than the average for the East Midlands with new claims at 24 days and changes to existing claims at 10 days. We will continue to take action where possible to maintain and improve our high level of performance.”