Councils’ benefit services are a lifeline service to people often in urgent financial need, seeking support at what can be the most difficult and complex time in their life. In 2021/22 Scotland’s councils paid out more than £1.2 billion in Housing Benefit to over 260,000 households.
The Accounts Commission has a responsibility to report on the performance of this vital service, providing assurance that councils are delivering an effective and efficient benefit service for those who most depend on it. Alongside this, auditors regularly scrutinise the performance of housing benefit claims processing.
In our strategy, we prioritised reporting on how well local government is working to reduce the multiple impacts of inequalities, across poverty, housing, education and access to care.
Our reporting on the performance of Housing Benefit services is an important part of delivering on this. In 2019 we changed our approach by introducing reviews on specific themes. We want to provide independent insight into aspects of this service, emphasising where performance is declining, but also to understand areas of strong performance which should be shared to support improvement across all councils.
In 2021 we published a report looking at the impacts of Covid-19 on councils’ benefit services and in 2021/22 we carried out two Housing Benefit performance audits:
Clackmannanshire Council had significantly improved its claims processing performance since our previous engagement and we were looking to identify good practice that could be shared across Scotland.
East Lothian Council had experienced a significant decline in Housing Benefit claims processing performance during 2021/22. We established that a service restructure in 2020/21 resulted in the loss of key posts and, to manage the demand for Covid-19 support payments, experienced Housing Benefit staff had been re-deployed.
Both councils accepted the recommendations from our reports and are working to address them. We identified consistent risks to continuous improvement which all councils need to be aware of. These included:
In February 2023 we published a thematic study report on Resourcing the benefit service. Our study considered the changes to councils’ benefit services following the introduction of Universal Credit in 2013, and the impact of resources on claims processing times, in particular the effects of flexible location working arrangements, staff absences and increased workloads. It also reported on good practice in service delivery used by councils that could be shared.
The study found that Scottish councils had responded to a reduction in Housing Benefit caseloads by expanding the remit of benefit services to process other financial assessments. This included applications for assistance from the Scottish Welfare Fund and the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 support schemes. This approach has helped protect jobs and retain expertise.
We also found that some councils were disproportionately affected by increased workloads arising from processing Covid-19 support payments and, when comparing overall workloads per average full-time equivalent staff member, the differences between councils is significant.
In some councils, where the benefit service was responsible for call handling and personal callers, insufficient information was recorded to understand the impact on service provision. We also found an increase in flexible location working arrangements, which is now prevalent for benefit services, correlated with a reduction in short-term sick leave, but also a decline in the speed at which claims were processed. Customers are often in urgent need of financial support and avoidable delays in claims processing can seriously impact their ability to support their household and sustain their tenancy. Councils need to better understand the impacts of staff working from different locations and have processes in place to mitigate any negative impact on claims processing times, and overall productivity.
Councils continue to seek new ways to improve service delivery and customer experience and are using innovative and new technologies such as robotics and automation. They also need to have a good understanding of the views and experiences of people using benefit services.
Looking ahead, we will consider the findings and implications arising from this study to determine the focus of our future engagement.
Dr William Moyes, Chair of the Accounts Commission