Suffolk: Benefit payments mistakes soar

THE number of mistakes made by councils processing benefits claims in Suffolk has risen steeply during the past year, a new report has revealed.

About one in four benefits claims in the Babergh, Mid Suffolk and Ipswich Borough council areas are processed inaccurately, according to figures contained in the report.

The errors, which range from people getting paid the wrong sums of money to mistakes with names and addresses, have risen since the three local authorities formed a Shared Revenues Partnership (SRP) as a cost-saving measure.

SRP committee members say the report shows that claims are being dealt with more quickly, but at the expense of accuracy. But committee chairman Derrick Haley believes all three councils’ error figures are well below those set by the government. He said the report showed how diligent the partnership had been in “picking up” and correcting data errors.

When the partnership started in August last year, Ipswich Borough Council was processing 97.6% of benefit claims correctly, with Babergh achieving a 95.2% accuracy rate and Mid Suffolk slightly lower on 93.5%. Figures for this August show drops to 76.5%, 71.6% and 75% respectively.

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Committee member for Babergh, Brian Riley, said: “The purpose of the partnership is to provide a fast, reliable and cheap service, but accuracy should come first.

“When all this started in August 2011, the accuracy rate for Babergh was 95.2% which was considered a reasonable level. If you look at the trend since going into the partnership, nothing is getting any better.”

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He added: “What horrifies me about all this is that our service levels are penalising the people who need us most. By paying out incorrect benefits and then causing a delay while they have to be sorted and reprocessed, we could be driving first time claimants into the clutches of the money lenders.”

Mr Haley, who defended the partnership, said about nine out of ten claimants assessed in the three council areas received the benefits they were entitled to, first time around. The partnership was using a new computer system that enabled better identification and correction of errors, he said, adding: “It is important for SRP that we balance quality with quantity and we always quickly sort out any errors identified with individuals, and provide targeted additional training to staff where necessary.”

He described the partnership as an “emerging Suffolk success story”, delivering a “quality benefits and revenues service” at a lower cost than the three partners could have achieved individually.

He added: “Whilst any mistakes are annoying, don’t forget what we have achieved. Over the last year or so, our three partner councils have brought together more than 125 staff from the three councils under one roof, invested in and implemented a new computer system that allows us to better record and identify data errors, and are now planning a range of ways to make the process of claiming benefits easier for all.

“As a result we have notched up some impressive turnarounds, including council tax and business rates collections.”

The committee is due to discuss the report at a meeting tonight.

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