Headlines: May 16th, 2003

Local councils have been criticised for taking too long to pay out housing benefits while other authorities in the same region are providing a much quicker service. Housing Benefits Minister Malcolm Wicks called for an end to the situation in which claimants in the same county can wait 28 or 101 days for their cash depending on where exactly they live.Quarterly performance figures show that while the poorest performing local authorities have improved overall, many are still taking too long to administer Housing Benefit and some have got worse.

Statistics for the average time taken to process new claims show that 120 authorities met or exceeded the target of 36 days set by the Department of Work and Pensions. Meanwhile 42 councils in Britain took more than 80 days. The wide differences within regions can be seen in the North West of England where there are four councils taking more than 80 days, but 13 authorities achieving or beating the 36-day target. Similarly in Scotland, three councils have taken an average of more that 80 days but a dozen took up to 36 days.

Mr. Wicks said he wanted councils to sit up and take notice of the figures. It was unacceptable, he said, that there was a postcode lottery, which left a family living in one local authority area having to wait months longer than their neighbours.

“Good Housing Benefit performance can have a significant impact in tackling poverty and providing opportunity. Making tenants wait many weeks for their benefit causes anxiety, restricts opportunity and leaves them facing financial problems,” Mr. Wicks said.

The latest figures show that claims arising from changes in circumstances were processed in around two weeks on average and that two thirds of renewal claims were processed on time. More than three-quarters of the councils in the bottom quarter have improved their processing times.

The DWP is monitoring closely the poorest-performing councils. Financial and practical help is available to authorities to improve their efficiency and the department says many have applied for and are receiving that support.