People are being left on the verge of losing their homes because of errors in the way Milton Keynes Council deals with housing benefits, it has been claimed.
A committee has been told that local councils, including Milton Keynes, had been struggling to fill 35 vacancies among administration officials, which has lead to a backlog of 10,000 cases in the system.
“People have been put on the verge of losing their homes,” said Councillor John Bint (Con, Broughton), at the Audit Committee on Tuesday, last week. “If they are in a position where they are not getting money, that makes me feel intellectually uncomfortable.
“People have been blaming the government, but this is happening under our watch. We should put every effort into getting people the right amount of money.”
Auditors at Ernst & Young have told the council that it has tested hundreds of housing benefit claims, finding both underpayments and overpayments. They found financial impacts of up to £37,862. Councillor Bint had identified 40 cases of errors.
The committee was told, by finance and resources director Steve Richardson, that a backlog of 10,000 cases had been reduced to 2,500 meaning that the system was “almost back to normal”.
There are 35 staff vacancies across the Milton Keynes, Northamptonshire, and Cambridgeshire patch, but 15 agency staff have been drafted in to plug a few of the gaps.
Councillors were told by Mr Richardson that the government’s move to introduce Universal Credit means that people cannot now choose to work in housing benefits as a career choice, which is affecting recruitment.
They also heard that because the government financially punishes errors in Housing Benefit claims, the identification of errors dating back to the period of the backlog could lead to more problems in the coming financial year.
Former council leader Kevin Wilson, who said some “really bad practice had been going on” urged that the committee receive an update in six months’ time.
And Imtiaz Farookhi, an independent member of the committee, said: “I am concerned about the underpayments, it seems to be a very high error rate.”