Berkshire councils overpay millions in housing benefit

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Reading, Wokingham and Bracknell councils all overpaid, Slough was the highest in Berkshire with a £8 million overspend 

Reading Borough Council had overpaid more than £4 million in housing benefit by June last year, but only clawed back about £700,000.

The recently published figures from the Department for Work and Pensions for housing benefit fraud and overpayment date back to the first two quarters of last year from January to June.

In Reading the total figure for overpayment of housing benefit rose from £3,792,000 in April last year to £4,005,000 in June.

During that period housing benefit debts of £210,000 had to be written off.

Also during that period, the council increased the number of housing benefit investigators from the equivalent of 3.5 members of staff to four.

There were also 10 successful prosecutions.

By comparison, Wokingham Borough Council had overpaid £1.4 million in housing benefit by June last year, West Berkshire Council had overpaid £2.9 million and Bracknell Forest had overpaid £1.5 million.

Slough Borough Council surpassed Reading with an overpayment of housing benefit topping £8 million.

Reading Borough Council spokeswoman Anna Fowler said: “The figures quoted for Reading represent overpayments created relating to fraud and error in the system.

“These figures are the cumulative debt in the system on a quarterly basis.

“Most of this debt is in the process of being recovered.

“The second set of figures show overpayments identified in each quarter.

“In total this figure represents about three per cent of total payments made for the same period.

“Recovery in the two quarters has been slower.

“This may be due to welfare reforms that were introduced at the beginning of 2013 which would have seen a reduction in disposable income and benefit payments in many of the client group, leading to a slower recovery rate.

“Debt is written off in a number of circumstances which include where the authority has made an error in calculation of the benefit and the recipient could not have reasonably known they were being overpaid, when it has proved impossible to chase or find a debtor and on the death of a debtor where there is no money in the estate and where a debtor is made bankrupt as legislation precludes the recovery of overpaid benefit in this circumstance.

“The Department for Work and Pensions has yet to provide the audited figures for the whole of 13/14 year, but indications are that we have continued to identify similar amounts of fraud and error but the level of recovery has increased – around £1.5m on an annual basis, which can vary from year to year – as we continue to take robust steps to recover the overpaid amounts.”