1 MERTHYR TYDFIL COUNTY BOROUGH COUNCIL DATE WRITTEN 14 th October 2005 REPORT AUTHOR Mark Horrigan COMMITTEE DIVISION Strategic COMMITTEE Cabinet COMMITTEE DATE 16 th November 2005 TO: Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen HOUSING AND COUNCIL TAX BENEFIT OVERPAYMENT RECOVERY POLICY PURPOSE OF REPORT: To seek Councillors approval for the Housing & Council Tax Benefit Overpayment Recovery Policy. 1.0 INTRODUCTION 1.1 Councillors will be aware of the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate s report in 2004 on the Housing and Council Tax Benefit section, and the recommendations contained therein. 1.2 One of the recommendations referred to the need to improve the recovery of benefit paid to a customer to which they were not entitled, commonly known as an overpayment. 1.3 Overpayments can be made for a number of reasons, but it is the Authority s responsibility to recover these overpayments, by the most appropriate means. 1.4 The BFI commented that a clear policy document was required, to enable the Authority to make progress in this area of the service. 2.0 THE REPORT 2.1 The report sets out the background to Overpayments, how we identify and classify them, and our methods for recovery. 2.2 It provides a clear policy to Councillors and Officers on the recovery of the overpayment, to assist us in maximising the income to the Authority. 2.3 The report itself was written with the assistance of the Department for Work and Pensions Performance Development Team, who have been working with the service in the last 9 months, and their guidance and support is appreciated.
2 3.0 PERICLES SOFTWARE 3.1 Councillors will be aware of the significant past and current problems with Anite s Pericles Benefits system. 3.2 At the Cabinet meeting held on 5 th October 2005, Councillors were advised that issues with the software had prevented the section from invoicing customers for overpayments since the system was introduced in August Anite have advised the Authority that this problem should be resolved in a new software release due in October 2005, although the software to allow staff to follow up unpaid invoices with reminders and final notices will not be available for another year 3.4 I feel it appropriate that Councillors are aware of this matter, due to the impact it will have on the overpayment recovery rate 4.0 RECOMMENDATION 4.1 That Councillors approve the Housing and Council Tax Benefit Overpayment Policy. GARY THOMAS DIRECTOR OF CUSTOMER COMMUNITY SERVICES INTERNAL REPORT CONSULTATION: The following officers have been consulted in respect of the proposals and recommendations set out in this report. Chief Executive Director of Customer Corporate Services Director of Integrated Children s Services Director of Adults, Families and Lifelong Learning Director of Corporate Centre Chief Officer, Finance, Audit and Risk Management BACKGROUND PAPERS: Title of Document(s) Document(s) Date Document Location
3 MERTHYR TYDFIL COUNTY BOROUGH COUNCIL HOUSING & COUNCIL TAX BENEFIT SECTION BENEFIT OVERPAYMENT RECOVERY POLICY October 2005
4 Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council Housing & Council Tax Benefit Service Overpayments Policy Introduction Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council (MTCBC) is committed to providing a high quality benefit service to all its customers through the Housing and Council Tax Benefit schemes. Our Vision statement says we will aim to provide Merthyr Tydfil with a customer focused, secure, and accessible Benefits service, which promotes confidence and satisfaction, and it is our intention to achieve this aim in all areas of the service. Overpayment of Benefit Local Authorities pay out vast sums of Housing and Council Tax Benefit, with MTCBC itself paying out approximately 10.6m in 2003/2004, and whilst every effort will be made to prevent overpayments occurring, it is inevitable that some overpayments will be made. For clarification, an overpayment is an amount of Housing or Council Tax Benefit paid out to which there was no entitlement, and it is the Local Authority s primary responsibility to take action to recover these overpayments. Having identified that an overpayment has occurred, the Local Authority must determine: The cause of the overpayment Whether or not the overpayment is recoverable Whether or not recovery should be made From whom the recovery should be made The method of recovery These are some of the guidelines provided by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on the recovery of overpaid benefit, and form the basis of our Policy document. At the heart of this policy are the following core values that MTCBC promote: Guidance and advice to customers on the requirement to advise the Authority of change in circumstances, which will prevent overpayment of benefit A commitment to operating a policy for the creation, notification and recovery of overpayments, which is fair and equitable, and which complies with Housing and Council Tax Regulations and best practice. Working practices that minimise the creation of overpayments, but where necessary, the recovery of overpayments by the most appropriate means. The level, method and rate of recovery will be appropriate to the amount of the debt, the personal and financial circumstances of the customer, and the cost effectiveness of taking enforcement action
5 The development of good practice in the creation, classification, notification and recoverability of overpayments, and to fully advise claimants and Landlords of their rights The operation of a fair, equitable and effective appeals procedure in accordance with the Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit (Decisions and Appeals Regulations 2001) The monitoring, maintenance and improvement to systems that seek to prevent and minimise overpayments caused by misrepresentation, or failure to report changes in circumstances The monitoring of overpayment recovery rates, and the reporting of this information to Senior Officers and Councillors The establishment of proper internal checks and quality control mechanisms, to ensure the correct application of the policy. A regular monitoring and review process by senior Officers, which will take account of any legislative changes and the result of any debt analysis. The review will also take account of the cost of recovery, the income from overpayments reclaimed, the deterrent effect of the policy, and subsidies and incentives paid by Central Government. Housing Benefits Policy Local Authority officers will treat overpayment debtors with due courtesy and respect and take full account of the Authority s Equalities, Race Relations and Disability Discrimination policies. The Local Authority will not operate blanket recovery policies, but will treat each case on its merits based on the personal and financial circumstances of the customer. The Local Authority will always attempt to negotiate an agreed repayment rate with the claimant based on their ability to pay. However, it will make every effort to recover the overpayment as quickly as possible depending on the size of the debt and the circumstances in which it was raised, whilst giving due consideration to the claimant s circumstances The recovery of the overpayment will depend on individual circumstances, and the table shown in Appendix 1 is to be used as a reference guide only. The Local Authority will try to minimise overpayments by operating the DWP s Verification Framework, which secures the gateway to Benefits and ensures that assessments are correct. The Local Authority will advise claimants and Landlords of their obligation to report changes in circumstances promptly, and will reassess claims within a reasonable time period, in order to reduce any ongoing overpayment. The Local Authority will proactively pursue debtors, which will provide an effective deterrent to non-payment.
6 Trained staff with knowledge of all relevant Benefit legislation will make decisions on whether a customer has been overpaid. The amount adjudged to have been overpaid will be reduced by any underlying entitlement, and/or any uncashed cheques or BACS payments. The officer will assign the correct reason for the overpayments, so that the correct subsidy and incentive can be claimed. Overpayment staff will be fully trained in Benefits Regulations and legislation, and provided with comprehensive procedure notes, documentation and guidance on recovering debt, in accordance with DWP guidance and the Local Authority s Debt Management system. When an overpayment decision is made, the customer will be offered the right to request a reconsideration or explanation of the decision, or to submit an appeal to an independent tribunal as determined by the Regulations. The decision as to whether or not the overpayment is recoverable, and from whom recovery should be sought will be made in accordance with legislation, DWP Guidance, and best practice as suggested by the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate. Decisions not to recover an overpayment will be properly documented for audit purposes. When making a decision not to recover the overpayment, the Local Authority reserves the right to collect the overpayment at a later date, particularly where inaccurate information has led to the decision not to recover. Customers in employment Where an overpayment has been created for a customer who is now in employment, the Council will make every effort to agree a mutually acceptable repayment rate, based on the customers present circumstances, and at a rate no less than the minimum for claimants still in receipt of benefit, ie 8.55 or per week. Any other income such as capital, will also be taken into account when calculating the repayment. If no agreement can be reached, the Council will take the necessary Court action to recover the overpayment through an Attachment of Earnings Order. Examples of recovery rates are shown in Appendix 1. Customers no longer in receipt of benefit In cases where the customer is no longer in receipt of benefit, MTCBC will issue an invoice and seek to recover the overpayment in full as quickly as possible. Where MTCBC decides this is not possible, it will seek to facilitate easy and mutually satisfactory repayment levels, by offering the customer instalment payment arrangements. However, the repayment rates will be based on the requirement of the Authority to recover the
7 overpayment as quickly as possible, without causing undue hardship to the customer. Examples of recovery rates are shown in Appendix 1 Customers who have committed fraud In cases where the overpayment of benefit has been caused by a fraudulent non declaration of capital or property, and that sum is equal to or exceeds the value of the overpayment, MTCBC will take the necessary action to recover the overpayment in full on issue of the invoice. If the Council is unable to obtain payment by this method, it will commence County Court proceedings for the recovery of the debt, though this will not prejudice or be prejudiced by any similar action taken by the local Authority s Benefit Fraud Investigation Team. In cases where the value of capital or property is less than the sum of the overpayment, the Council will seek to recover the amount of overpayment as quickly as possible by mutually agreed instalment payments. In cases where the Council is unable to obtain payment by the method, it will follow the procedures outlined in the previous paragraph. Customers who are still in receipt of DWP benefit payments Customers who are still entitled to Housing Benefit will have the debt recovered from ongoing entitlement through the DWP s Debt Management service, at the rates prescribed by legislation. Examples of recovery rates are shown in Appendix 1 Hardship In exceptional cases where hardship can be demonstrated, consideration will be given to reducing the rate of recovery. This may be allowed when the debtor is at risk of losing their home; where there are multiple debts; where health problems exist or where severe hardship has been proven. Recovery of overpayments from Landlords Whenever an overpayment occurs, we will tell the landlord how it was calculated; the reason for it; the amount and period involved; the method of recovery; and details of the landlords right to dispute the decision to recover from them. The collection of overpayments in respect of existing claimants will be undertaken by deducting amounts from future payments to the landlord, or by invoicing the landlord if they have agreed to repay the overpayment directly to the Authority. Legislation allows the Authority to recover an overpayment from an existing tenant, where the overpayment was in respect of a previous tenant whose benefit was paid direct to the landlord. This can be in respect of former tenants; tenants no longer entitled to benefit, or other tenants of the same landlord.
8 In cases such as this, the landlord will receive written notification of our intention to recover the overpayment by this method Payment and additional recovery methods Following the issue of an invoice, payment will be accepted by the following methods: - in full by cash, cheque, credit or debit card at the Authority s cash offices - by calling the 24 hour Automated Payment System on , with your credit or debit card details - by instalment by cash, cheque or standing order Where not already outlined previously, the following methods will also be used to recover overpayment of benefit: - Deductions from other Social Security Benefits, where the law allows - Deducting from any arrears of Housing Benefit due - Repayments from the person to whom the Housing Benefit was paid (for example, the Landlord) - Deduction from benefit owed to the Landlord or agent for a third party tenant - Registering the debt in the County Court followed by the appropriate enforcement action. Write-offs The Authority recognises that when recovering overpayments of Housing Benefit, it is potentially dealing with some of the most vulnerable members of the community. While an overpayment may be recoverable by law, consideration should be given as to whether recovery should be sought or not, and in certain cases, this may mean that the debt will be required to be written off. A senior Benefits Officer, in consultation with the Chief Finance Officer, will make a decision on such cases, and document the reasons supporting the decision to write-off. The Authority will seek to minimise the cost of write-offs to Council Tax payers by taking all necessary actions to ensure that debts are actively pursued. All proven recoverable debts will be subject to the full recovery, collection and legal procedures as outlined earlier in this policy. The Authority recognises that where a proven, recoverable overpayment debt is later deemed to be irrecoverable, a regular write off of such debts is an essential part of good business practice. The write off of a debt would normally be considered where one or more of the following criteria applies: - The Authority is unable to trace the debtor - The Authority s nominated Collection agency is unable to recover the debt - The customer is no longer in receipt of benefit
9 - The debt is not cost effective to pursue - The debt is statute barred - The customer dies and there are no funds in the estate - The customer is a declared bankrupt. This would need to be supported by a letter from the Official Receiver confirming the date the debtor was made bankrupt, proof that the Local Authority are not a priority debt and that the debt will not be repaid. In the cases of bankruptcy, the Local Authority will seek to register the debt as part of the Winding Up Order in all cases. No debts will be written off without prior approval from the Chief Finance Officer, Customer Community Services Portfolio Councillors (debts under 500), or Cabinet (debts over 500). In each case, the Head of Benefits will provide the Chief Finance Officer with a written report, outlining the name and address of the debtor, the amount, and reason for write off, in accordance with the Council s Financial Regulations. The Council will reserve it s right to recover any debt which has been written off should it be possible and cost effective to collect it in future. Council Tax Overpayments of Council Tax Benefit will be recovered from the Council Tax Account, in accordance with normal recovery procedures. The only exception to this procedure relates to an overpayment of benefit caused by a non-declaration of capital or property. In cases such as this, the recovery procedures referred to earlier in the policy will apply. Council Tenants Where possible, overpayment from Council Tenants will be recovered from ongoing Housing Benefit entitlement. Where the rent account has a credit balance which corresponds to the value of the overpayment, the overpayment will be recovered in full from the credit. Where there is ongoing recovery from the rent account, the figure will always be shown as overpayment recovery, to enable Rent Arrears staff to distinguish overpayment recovery from rent arrears. In the case of a death or vacation of the property the overpayment will be debited to the rent sub-account. Prioritisation of overpayment debt Overpayment debt will be managed in the following priority order: - Fraud overpayment - Recent overpayment (under 18 months old) - Large overpayment (over 250) - Older overpayment (over 18 months old)
10 Monitoring of the policy The Council will ensure that it operates robust procedures to monitor the quality of overpayments raised, to respond to customer complaints, and to deal with any issues raised by or on behalf of its customers. Regular accuracy checks on decisions, classification and recoverability of overpayments through internal monitoring mechanisms, will ensure that this policy is applied fairly and equitably. In addition, this will ensure that claimants are given their full and proper rights of appeal, and that an independent assessment is taken on each case. All debts deemed to be non-recoverable, and those where write-off is deemed appropriate will be authorised within this policy. The effectiveness of this policy will be monitored by senior Benefit officers, the Director of Customer Community Services, and the Chief Finance Officer, with written reports provided to Councillors on a six monthly basis. Mark Horrigan Head of Benefits October 2005
11 APPENDIX 1 - TABLE OF OVERPAYMENT RECOVERY RATES Claimants still in receipt of benefit: Weekly deduction 8.55 As above, but where overpayment has occurred as a result of fraud Weekly % deduction from net weekly earnings (minimum rate of 8.55 or per week) Not exceeding 55 0% % % % % % 370 and above 17% of first 370 and 50% of remainder Monthly % deduction from net monthly earnings (minimum rate of or per month) Not exceeding 220 0% % % % % % 1480 and above 17% in respect of first 1480 and 50% of remainder
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