Midlothian ‘worst in UK’ for benefit bungles

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MIDLOTHIAN Council has been left reeling after being dubbed “the worst in Great Britain” in a damning report into housing and benefits by Audit Scotland.

The local authority’s benefit service is the worst of 433 councils nationwide for dealing with changes to claimants’ situation, and in the bottom 20 for dealing with new claims, government auditors said.

The council was also slated for a catalogue of faults, including failing to monitor the recovery of overpayments, or deter benefit fraud.

The report coincided with the publication of a separate report by the Scottish Housing Regulator, which said it uses poor quality bed and breakfasts to house homeless families and “regularly breaches the Unsuitable Accommodation Order”.

Although both reports found limited improvements, dozens of faults were levelled at the council.

Midlothian North and Musselburgh SNP MSP Colin Beattie described the report as a “humiliation and embarrassment” and said Labour was letting down vulnerable residents.

In 2008, Audit Scotland identified 18 faults or “risks to development”. The council said it had dealt with 17 of these, a claim that the auditors found to be untrue, with just 11 dealt with.

The report stated: “Delays in processing, in particular changes of circumstances, have contributed to a significant increase in the numbers and amount of HB [housing benefit] overpayments raised.

“Of particular concern is the resultant financial loss for the council. Over the last two financial years the service failed to secure £238,000 of available subsidy. The service needs to do more in minimising overpayments occurring.”

In the most recent quarter of 2011, Audit Scotland found a substantial discrepancy in Midlothian Council’s figures.

The council claimed benefits adjustments took 18 days to process, whereas the auditor found they actually took 45 days. The UK average is 11 days.

Mr Beattie said: “I’m absolutely shocked so little progress has been made in bringing this under control [since 2008].

“It is a humiliation and an embarrassment. We’ve 4500 people either homeless or on the council house waiting list. It’s the most vulnerable in our society who are on the receiving end of this incompetence.”

The council’s chief executive Kenneth Lawrie wrote to Audit Scotland explaining that a new IT system had presented challenges, but accepted that “exceptionally poor performance” had been highlighted.

Councillor Derek Milligan, leader of Midlothian Council, said: “We are progressing an action plan to improve the performance. We acknowledge that poor performance in monitoring and reporting processing times was extremely disappointing and failure to attract subsidy was not good enough.

“However, improvements have already been achieved and this plan will help us to further enhance our performance.”

rory.reynolds@edinburghnews.com