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by Ilyanna Vladislas 

Posted: 28 March 2003
Word Count: 3772
Summary: An investigation into the Housing Benefits system creating increase in homelessness.

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Procedure By Lanna Thornton. ©

As more and more people nowadays need to depend upon benefits, the waiting lists get longer, claims take longer to come through... we ask, can you cope with the struggle of this procedure, especially when you are depending upon the benefits system to pay for the roof over your head? And just what does the government do to help prevent homelessness that has been caused by today's Housing Benefits system? And of course the biggest question of all: If we are entitled to these benefits, why are people having extreme difficulty in accessing this money that they are entitled to?

Let me now take this opportunity to just tell you what is really going on behind the scenes, when the backlogs in the Housing & Council Tax Benefits system and the delays in payment are taking place - shocking but true but homelessness is far closer than we think... and here's why.

On the need to apply for Housing and Council Tax benefit, you first of all need to visit your local council office that deals with such claims. You are given a form to complete and required to provide proof of numerous things to back up your claim and prove your identity. If you claim Jobseekers Allowance, or any other benefit you will be provided with income proof by your local jobcentre or benefits office depending upon which benefit you receive.

Once you have handed in your claim, photocopies of your proofs will be taken which usually include your proof of any benefit, bank statements, proof of identity (either a passport, driving license, national insurance card or birth certificate), previous payslips from what work you did do recently, a rent book or tenancy agreement and anything else that proves what you are bringing in, this is to prevent Benefit fraud.

Once the copies have been taken, they are then, a couple of days later; scanned into their system which holds copies of the original proofs on the computer to ensure that the Council does not lose the relevant information.

Once that is done, an assessment is made by the Benefits Agency, and for Private Tenants that is when the Rent Officer (who is external to the Council). The Rent Officer will value the property and compare other properties of the same type in price to establish Fair Rent, this is the amount that the Rent Officer considers to be the appropriate rent amount depending upon the type of property and the rents in that area.

Once The Rent Officer makes the decision, then the Council or the Benefits Agency make a further decision, depending upon your circumstances and a payment will be released.

All sounds simple enough...? Maybe. But the question now is, how come if you make an application for Jobseekers Allowance or any other benefit, the process takes at least two weeks, when Housing and Council Tax benefits can take from four weeks to even in some circumstances three months for a payment to be made - which in effect, sends so many people into arrears with their rent bringing on the threat of eviction.

I took the opportunity to speak to a number of people who have been, for a better word; Victims of this system.

Housing and Council Tax benefit usually come as one package when a person makes a fresh claim, both appear in the Housing Benefits claim form and are assessed together.

The Council themselves, are not only the ones causing outside debts, but there are the internal debts also.

On speaking to Ms. Antoinette Alexander, a former nurse and council tenant from York, she told us not just about her problems with Housing Benefit.

She told us that the Housing and Council Tax benefits system was very "complicated, especially if you are on a low income." She also said that as well as re-assessing people's circumstances on Jobseekers Allowance or Income Support they also re-assess people with long-term disabilities. It seems almost as though you are being painted with the same brush as people that refuse to work for the sake of refusing to work. “They are looking for every opportunity to take your benefit away, looking for the slightest little change before they stop a claim and make you re-claim again.”

"In 1994 it only took two weeks for my Housing and Council Tax benefit to be paid, but recently it took three months to come through sending me into arrears which led to a repossession order." Ms. Alexander then told us. She managed to remedy the problem having seen a solicitor. The funny thing was the council owed the money and the landlord was the council.

Ms Alexander is not the only one having been in this position. Mr. N. Moon, a part time Youth Worker and also a Council Tenant fell into arrears from a 24 week backlog by Housing Benefits where the council owed the council the money yet he was still given an eviction order for the arrears. He then had to seek legal assistance from a solicitor and the problem was resolved.

Both Mr. Moon and Ms. Alexander are Council Tenants, but as we have been told during a conversations with private tenants, Housing Benefit can be paid in full to Council Tenants but they pay nowhere near the amounts that private landlords are asking for monthly rents.

Miss Michelle Jones, from York claims Jobseekers Allowance and works as a part-time cleaner, she told me her story about how the housing benefits procedure took her into £1000 arrears in total over the times that she has claimed. This has resulted in three eviction orders from one of York's leading Housing Associations; The Joseph Rowntree Trust. Her claims have varied in time, starting at up to eight weeks from claiming to receiving money during a backlog to as little as two weeks.

She had continuous pressure from her landlord for the rent that the council owed on so many occasions. At one time she told me "The Joseph Rowntree Trust had to finally phone York City Council to tell them just how serious these arrears were and that I was under order of eviction."

The tenant who claims the benefit is responsible for his or her rent as their name is on the tenancy agreement, yet when Housing Benefit is claimed and the money is then owed by the council to the landlord, it is the tenant that is held responsible for the rent still, and is therefore liable and under threat of eviction should there be such arrears!

Another claimant of Jobseekers Allowance told us the same thing about the wait and how badly the arrears affect the tenant. The claimant, who wishes to remain anonymous, told us "The process is slow. You will be waiting from six to eight weeks for your rent money to come through, but in the meantime you still have to come up with the rent out of what you have to live on so as to avoid the arrears. You then have to go without for so many days or weeks, cutting down on meals, getting into the red with your bills because your rent is your highest priority. The councils and the benefits agency do not seem to realize that a person cannot live on £30 - £40 per week."

Here is just an example of such a situation:

You receive £42.00 per week Jobseekers Allowance. Your rent is £45.00 per week. If you do not get your Housing Benefit paid in time then you either go without food or risk eviction.

Mr and Mrs P. Johnson, both in their twenties fell into the 'procedure' trap when they applied for Housing Benefit. At the beginning, they were both in receipt of Jobseekers Allowance, the process of their Housing and Council Tax benefit claim took in total 4 weeks, which is normally the Council's average time span for a full claim to go through and get processed. Things only became more complicated when they had a change in circumstances:

Mr. Johnson took a part-time job of twenty hours per week, and because he did this, they informed the local council (thinking that they were doing the right thing) which then told the Johnsons that the claim would have to go on hold while they filled in and handed in a Change of Circumstances form. This delayed their payment for two weeks as a new decision had to be made, but because Mrs. Johnson was still on Jobseekers Allowance, they were still entitled to the original amount of £80.00 per week The couple had full Council Tax benefit so they needed to put down a further £20.00 per week to cover the rent top up. This they could manage.

Things became even more complicated when Mrs. Johnson (again thinking it was the right thing to do) took on a part-time job of her own of only 12 hours per week at minimum wage, this brought in £50.40 per week, just £7.80 more than her weekly £40.60 Jobseekers Allowance as she is under 25. Had she been over 25 she would receive about £53.00 Jobseekers Allowance, but still, because she signed off, the Housing and Council Tax benefit was stopped.

The Johnsons had to make a fresh claim and this time more proof was required which took almost a month in total to gather the necessary information from their employers to back up their income proof as their wage slips were not totally consecutive being one pound or two more or less on each slip. This has now taken from January 5th (when the claim was stopped) to late February where they are still having problems because the council has to work out the benefit amount instead of the Benefits Agency and all of this is means tested now that they are working. They have received now, instead of £80.00 per week Housing Benefit, they received £42.15.

This couple are now struggling to make ends meet.

The council is supposed to work out an average of the claimant's wages, on this occasion they took each of the couple's highest wage amounts on making their decision. After a two week long 'battle' with the Council, the amount of Housing Benefit has been changed to just over £50.00 per week. Still far less than their original amount. Neither of them can work full time due to health reasons, so they are now having to struggle to pay their rent, their bills, feed and clothe themselves and pay off other debts that they incurred from family to help pay their rent when the Housing Benefit had been stopped. The reason that they desperately had to borrow from family was because a section in their tenancy agreement with their landlord states that the landlord can start eviction proceedings if the tenants fall into two weeks arrears.

The Johnsons are not eligible for a crisis loan having made the necessary enquiries; in fact the Social Security office suggested that they should contact the bank for a loan! Having been overdrawn because of all of this, having gained a bad credit record because of this, they are not even entitled to a bank loan or an overdraft.

Some of us are lucky enough to borrow from family or get a crisis loan, but what would happen if you couldn't?

So the question is now... What is taking them so long to process these claims when they know full well that people; real people are at high risk of losing their homes and becoming homeless? I visited York City Council and interviewed Julie McMurray who is a manager in the Housing Benefits department.

Here is what I found out:

It is all down to “Bureaocracy”. Julie told me about the entire process from claim to payment in the Housing Benefits system. She told me that they do ask for so many proofs as a means to track people's identity, to protect themselves from Benefit Fraud. The actual timing itself occurs if for example "Somebody does not inform us of changes in circumstances straight away. It is important that they do tell us as soon as there is a change, otherwise the claim will be delayed." And also when the Rent Officer is making his or her decision.

Julie also told me that if a person was to make a claim straight away, bring in every bit of proof on that day then the process would be a lot faster. A great deal of the time, if not all proofs are handed in straight away, the Council will write and tell the claimant that more proof is required, they have a standard time in ALL cases that they deal with of 7 - 10 days correspondence period and no longer as they do have an exceptional number of cases to deal with.

When your benefit claim goes in, there is a 10 - 14 day "Pending Period" which is standard on all claims to allow claimants to organize any proofs that are needed. This in itself takes time and is "extra bureaocracy to the sideline", the Council have to then wait for this assessment, they cannot go ahead until that person has made that assessment. Once the Rent Officer has assessed a property and gets back in touch with the Council he gives them his/her decision, the Council make a further decision on what benefit is due to the claimant. This is an example of how they calculate this (taken from the Housing & Council Tax Benefit for Tenants and Home Owners booklet from the City Of York Council):

Private Tenants Only: "Your rent is (considered) unreasonably high and higher than average. If the reasonable rent is higher than the local reference rent (the average rent for that type of property in your area) then your maximum rent is equal to the local reference rent.

You pay £65.00 per week for a bedsit. The Rent Service decides that your landlord could reasonably charge £60.00 (claim-related rent) but that, generally, the rents for bedsits in your area are £50.00 (local reference rent)

The rent you pay is £65.00 - The claim related rent is £60.00 - The local reference rent is £50.00 - Your maximum housing benefit is £50.00 per week.

A barman from York told us that "When I claimed for Housing Benefit, it took so long that I fell into arrears and was evicted by my landlord. This landed me on the street. I was living rough for a while"

What our government cannot seem to comprehend is that they are dealing with real people not numbers. It may be number that are creating the backlogs in the system, but with the cost of living so high (this country alone is one of the most expensive places to live in Europe) people are having to rely on help from state benefits. And if landlords cannot understand or will not accept Housing Benefit, then people end up on the streets needlessly.

Admittedly this is not just York City Council; it has been the same for West Yorkshire, South and East Yorkshire councils. Even as far as Lincolnshire County Council.

The Benefits Agency themselves are not obliged to tell a claimant of things that they are entitled to unless the claimant specifically asks them. Why? Is the government withholding people's entitlements? And where is our money going?

I asked all of the people that I interviewed who had been on these benefits what they thought of the Housing and Council Tax benefits system, what improvements they should make in their service and if they agreed that changes needed to be made in making decisions.

Some of them told me that they found the place intimidating, that everyone gets treated the same - like a 'bum' no matter what your circumstances, that some of the Customer Service staff talk down to you like you know nothing, that they do not offer help unless the claimant is enquiring about a specific thing; otherwise a claimant could be missing out on other entitlements. I was also told by one of those interviewed that the staff do not communicate with each other, especially the advisors to the managers. That not only is there a lack of communication but there is also a lack of speed in the service and knowledge.

During my interview with Julie McMurray, I was told that the Council are supposed to help you and a large number of leaflets are available throughout the Council Offices telling people of what they are entitled to. She also stated that the Council do have a Customer Service charter which is in force throughout the Council. Advisors go through at least six months minimum training as there is a constant change in government rules and legislation, and because the changes are so frequent there is a great deal to take in.

As I was also informed by Julie, York City Council itself has an upgraded system in the pipeline which will create better speed and efficiency in processing claims as the current mainframe system that they use takes a lot of time to process the claims.

As far as it goes for arrears - Julie told me that they do have a priority system when it comes to the Housing and Council Tax Benefit claims for Private Tenants as landlords are not as understanding about the time it takes for a claim to go through. When in cases for some of the Housing Associations and Council Tenants, claims take their normal time unless there are special circumstances.

The Housing & Council Tax benefits department are not directly linked with Council Housing either and that is why Council Housing do contact tenants who are in arrears. Normally these tenants, if in arrears would receive a "Notice of Intention to Posses" which I was told are not a huge thing to worry about, the notice basically means "You are in arrears with your rent!" if an eviction was to occur then an "Indicative Notice" would be in force whereupon the Council Housing department would contact the Housing Benefits department and ask what the score is on that tenant's Housing Benefit.

All of those that I interviewed have made suggestions that there should first of all be new means testing involved whereupon the council or the benefits agency needs to assess a person's outgoings as well as their income to ensure that the Housing and Council tax benefits system is safer and that arrears are not hanging over your head. That they need to also review your circumstances every three months or so, especially if you are on Jobseekers Allowance and have been claiming this for a long time without any work being done, whether part time or not.

They also stated that they felt intimidated by the ticket system; they did not mind the waiting it was that they felt that certain matters are private and you are sitting there talking to an advisor in front of other people, sometimes waiting for an appointment delays matters even further.

All of them feel that some major changes should be made, that decisions should be made based on your own circumstances. If you are ill or on a low income you should not be made to feel bad about having to claim benefit. One of those interviewed said to me in our session "They look at you and treat you as if to say Oh here's another one, or Oh, You again! Where is the customer service that they seem to pride themselves upon so much?"

What is taking so long - is there still a backlog? Should there be a higher priority system? And if the Council owe Housing Benefit to a Council Tenant, should there not be a better communication system between Housing Benefits and Council Housing?

One of those I interviewed suggested the Council should release a standard payment on the type of property from the beginning of a claim which is re-calculated after the rent officer's decision and the Council/Benefits Agency's decisions have been made. This would to ensure that tenants would never fall into arrears so long as they are claiming Housing and Council Tax Benefit. Another suggestion is that a Housing & Council Tax Benefit leaflet should be either issued upon receiving a claim form so that the claimant can get a gist of what happens in the process, if not handed out, the advisors should point these leaflets out. All suggested that it needs to take less time for processing - which City Of York Council are working on currently with their up-coming system, they are also placing new information racks in the drop-in area as well as more in the main reception area.

My advice for you if you do need to make a claim - DO NOT HESITATE to ask for all the written information you can get, make an appointment when you first take your completed claim form and proofs in so that an advisor can help you fill in the form and discuss your circumstances in confidence. If proofs are required take them all in on the day you hand in your completed claim form and get receipts. If you are on a low-income and the Council ask for 5 consecutive payslips but you don't have them all tell the Council that you have not got them all yet, then can (as I have been informed during my interview with Julie) assess an average on what you do have so long as you provide them will the others as they come so that the correct amount can be calculated, this will not delay the claim. If you are starting part-time work, inform the Council that you are going to sign off and being this work before the Jobcentre do you will then have to fill in a change of circumstances form - also enquire about other entitlements like Extended Payment, if you don't inform the Council before the Jobcentre, your claim can be automatically stopped and you would have to re-claim.

When I spoke to Ms McMurray, she did agree with me that some peoples' situations are terrible and that unfortunately sometimes nothing can be done by the Council if they are bound to these rules, the Council has to follow government guidelines and legislation, decisions are made in accordance with this.

In relation to what is happening to our money - the Councils and the Benefits Agency are given set rules and guidelines which they must follow which is in force from the government. Cuts in our money, most believe are because of what the other things the government needlessly spends its money on. As well as NHS and Education, people's Benefits are also the ones to suffer.

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Comments by other Members

roger at 19:57 on 12 April 2003  Report this post

If this is a report to a specific council/government department, then fine. But if it's designed for general consumption, I'm afraid it comes over (to me, anyway) as a bit of a rant, and I suspect that 'Mr General Reader'doesn't particularly want to be ranted at. You're making a very serious and valid point, one that needs making, and you provide lots of evidence to suport your case - but perhaps a bit too much.I think this could be considerably shortened without losing anything. In fact, a much tighter approach might make your point stronger and more effective. There are a few typos, so maybe it's a first draft, in which case coming back to it in a few days for revision, paying special attention to 'removing the unnecessary' would, I think, be very worthwhile. Lots of potential, and as said earlier. a worthwhile non-fiction subject, so well worth pursuing.

old friend at 09:13 on 16 September 2003  Report this post

Your enthusiasm and concern for people who have to make claims comes over very clearly. It would not be a commissioned Report to A Council since this would require a different structure and with less emotion. It would also need to be less one-sided.

If it is intended for a Newspaper or Magazine it should be more concise and - ironically - include far more emotion through what the victims say how all this has affected their lives, their children and so on.

It would be interesting to read something of your fiction for you obviously feel deeply about things and you have a good pen.

However you should read the above carefully as there are errors that require your attention.

old friend, Len

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