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Ealing and Northfield

Booby Bell

The leader of the Labour opposition group on the council, Cllr Julian Bell, is a prize booby. He likes to make a show of himself at least three times a week. One of his finer moments this week were his quotes in the Ealing Times:

I would say to the council no more excuses, we need to get this sorted out.

They have said they are using a new computer system and new reporting measures as excuses to why they have been slow in the past, but it’s time to stop.

As you can see from the example of St Albans, the best performing authority, if there is a real will to turn things round you can do it.

He was responding to a typically statistically challenged article written by the Ealing Times’s Alex Hayes. Hayes had noticed figures released on Monday in response to a question by Tory MP Andrew Selous. These showed showed it took Ealing on average 45 days for a new housing benefit claim to be processed, the fifth slowest in the UK. League tables are always attractive to journalists as the can easily be spun if you only have half the facts, or not even half in Hayes’ case.

This performance was indeed not as we would like. But, we might consider a few of those facts (most of which are publicly available):

Bell is comparing us with St Albans who are twice as good as the 2nd best authority in the country. They are what a statistician would call an outlier.

In a previous written answer Kitty Usher, the relevant minister, stated that the average council’s processing time was 27 days in 2007/8. So although Ealing performed badly it was only 18 days short of the average across the country last year.

This was last year’s data. Bell doesn’t know, because he didn’t ask, that the council is achieving something like 34 days this year.

In 2006/7 the council only achieved something like 70 days. That was our inheritance from the previous Labour administration.

Since then the new administration has invested in this service, recruiting new people to tackle Labour’s backlog.

Not only were the old Labour administration bad at doing the things that all people value like cleaning the streets but they couldn’t even look after the weakest is society effectively. Bell really should try harder.

5 replies on “Booby Bell”

So let me get this right Phil.

You wrote this piece to highlight that the previous Council administration performed very badly in the time it took it to process new housing benefit claims, and that after 2.5 years in power ‘your’ Council administation is performing just badly in this respect.

Also many of us are very willing to accept that this administration’s major contribution to improving our quality of life has been to successfully tackle graffiti, rubbish collection, fly tipping and re-cycling. But please, please will you stop clapping yourselves on the back about this achievement; and please stop spending money advertising these successes.

Its ridiculous to compare a large outer London suburb with a semi-rural district council. Demographics for St.Albans show 821/km2 as against Ealings 5435/km2 with a population of under half that of our borough. One wonders what Labour left the Conservative/ICG council in Hounslow after 35 years!

Eric,

Sorry if you don’t like me defending the record of a service that I am responsible for but it was the press that raised the issue and Bell who jumped on the bandwagon (or vice versa – who knows?).

Maybe I didn’t write very clearly but to clarify:

2006/7 70 days
2007/8 45 days
2008/9 34 days (current performance)

So we have halved the delay down to something near an average performance in two years. We came into power in May 2006 when the budget and business plan for this function was already set. It is clear from the numbers that it has been moving in the right direction since.

Phil, this thread should be seen in perspective.

In early November 08 a Tory MP in Parliament was told that Ealing was one of the worst processors of Housing Benefit. The worst in London and it seems in the bottom 10 in England and Wales. 45 days to process an application. Despite the claim that this figure has now dropped, it is a long way to reach the national average of 26 days – not 27. According to Work and Pensions in August 07, Ealing had about 24,600 Housing Benefit claimants. 13 of the 33 London Boroughs had more claimants (of which 4 were in Outer London). So while there have been improvements Ealing actually has a very long way to go – and progress has not been fast enough.

With the right details, Housing Benefit can be calculated in about 2 minutes on software – faster if my fingers could type quickly. If an applicant produces the right details it could take about half an hour to complete an application form. It cannot take too long for a processor to read a form and look at the supporting evidence.

Ealing is already having a bad time with Complaints. They rose last year and the previous year. According to the latest Annual report of the Local Government Ombudsman Ealing received the fourth highest number of complaints last year out of all the London Boroughs and seventh highest in the whole country. The National Audit Commission in its report for last year identified that Housing Benefit processing needed to be improved after finding that the pace of improvement in Housing Benefits has slowed in the year in its report February 2008. So while Ealing has had a problem for a long time, also it appears that it is continuing to fail in getting its act together. And after even taking the process in house (think I am correct on this). However the previous administration – very rightly – has much to answer for.

The worst thing about Housing Benefit delays is that unsympathetic landlords, private and Social, threaten or do issue possession proceedings. Occasionally people are made homeless. That is why delays are so shameful and unjust. Not good with say 20,000 people on the Ealing Housing list. If Housing Benefit applications were a process we all had to go through, we would have Maggie Thatcher style riots.

One cause of delay is that some applicants do not provide proper information. That problem will never go away entirely. However it could be alleviated by there being more people/surgeries in the borough who are authorised to receive applications, with authority to check that the accompanying documents are correct in the first place – starting say in the Wards where the problem is greatest. Guidance could also be advertised in free local papers and on Council tax bills and in the Around Ealing magazine – in several languages. I would expect that Customer Services are trained to do thorough checks on appropriate documentation as well, rather than just give receipts. It would help if the software records what documentation has been provided and when verified.

Another problem is that benefits departments lose documents and then ask for copies. When trying to telephone to try and sort out problems, the processor is at lunch, sick, on holiday, is in a meeting or occasionally has had insufficient training to deal with a query. It is quite easy for a month to go by and then the claim is suspended or even closed. These really are standards of work issues, and could be caused by inadequate procedures or the devolution of work leading to inefficiencies.

There are many other issues e.g. resources, and fraud and immigration issues which are very time consuming.

I see from the Council website that you Phil, have the portfolio for Customer Services, Benefits and Parking. Did somebody play a joke on you when you got this portfolio? I could not wish such a ridiculous combination on my worst enemy. Sadly, your style permits you to say that Mr Bell was a prize Booby. If one got a prize, then who got the wooden spoon?

The question remains. When will Ealing be at the top of the pile, scoring a 4 for Housing Benefit processing rather than a lowly 2? More resources could then be used to tackle fraud. Until the Housing benefit problem is resolved, and more Old Peoples’ Homes are provided, it is playing with fire to say Labour could not look effectively after the weakest in society.

More answers please.

Phil, you did not answer again. The question please, is what is the planned target timescale to get the processing time down below the london average and to get a 4 for HB processing?

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