The impact welfare reforms will have on Fife Council’s spiralling debt is like a “car crash waiting to happen,” councillors have been told.
That’s the view of Les Robertson, the Fife authority’s head of Revenue and Commercial Services, the body responsible for collecting the region’s unpaid rents, as well as charged with trying to recover some of the £8m outstanding housing benefit over-payments made by Fife Council in recent years.
Mr Robertson did not mince his words when asked by members of the council’s Standards and Audit Committee what impact the continuing role out of Westminster’s new welfare reforms, in particular Universal Credit, will have on the the council’s debts and his team’s ability to deal with claimants.
He predicted problems when welfare reforms are properly deployed.
“I can see a car crash happening when Universal Credit is fully rolled out,” he said.
“We are currently only dealing with people with a specific set of circumstances, we have 16,000 people who are yet to transfer over to Universal Credit under a planned migration.
“When that happens I’ve got real concerns that if problems are not dealt with the whole system will be affected.
“We will then have to look at huge aditional resources to administer this.”
With the council’s DWP subsidy to deliver the service on the government’s behalf having been slashed from £3.4m four years ago, to £1.3m, Mr Robertson added: “We once got 60 per cent of admin costs but now that’s been reduced to 35 per cent and that’s a massive challenge.
“We are now effectively subsidising the department for administering a statutory service.”
And despite huge improvements in efficiency with staff now on average processing 34 claims a day to that of 22 claims four years ago, further council cuts in budget in a bid to balance the books will only further impact on the council’s ability to cope with the administration of Universal Credit.
Despite the housing benefit overpayments debt which is yet to be retrieved having increased to a staggering £8.36m in 2016/17, an independent report by Audit Scotland praised Fife Council’s recent improvement in the amount of debt recovered.
£1.5m of the £1.7m of overpaid housing benefit in 2016/17 was recovered, however the overall recovery rate of overpaid debt was just 15 per cent. well below the national average.