Norfolk taxpayers hit by housing benefit mistakes

Housing benefit mistakes are costing taxpayers �150,000 a week with fraud, errors and delays meaning Norfolk councils overpaid almost �23m of public money in three years.

Authorities have overpaid �22.8m since 2008 in housing benefit, mainly as a result of claimants failing to tell councils about changes to their personal circumstances.

Last year these errors cost Norwich City Council, which overpaid more than �17m in three years, �4.6m – the same amount by which the city council budget is being cut in the next 12 months.

Figures obtained by the EDP through the Freedom of Information Act show that stamping out housing benefit waste could have filled the black hole in the city's budget.

Norwich housing benefit cheats have taken an additional �1m since 2008 through fraud.

A council spokesman said: 'We doggedly track down people who intentionally defraud the council, taking legal action to recover money where necessary.'

Last year the council exposed 51 housing benefit cheats, with the biggest fake claim reaching �30,650. And the work to target fraud has meant �108,136 was paid back through legal action in the past three years.

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Since 2008, the percentage of housing benefit wrongly paid has dropped from 11pc of the total amount spent on housing benefit to just over six per cent this year.

Last year, the city authority gave out �69m in housing benefit money from the government.

Deputy council leader Alan Waters said: 'The vast majority of claimants are legitimate, with benefit paid to people who genuinely need it. With more people claiming housing benefit, this means increased demands on local authorities to keep up with and process these payments.

'We strongly urge people to keep us informed about any change of circumstances so we can respond appropriately to these.'

At Broadland Council �1,141,200 was overpaid in the same period – �1,058,600 of which was caused by mistakes by claimants and �82,600 by mistakes from the council, while fraudsters took an additional �311,200.

South Norfolk Council paid �76,314 in error and fraudsters took �782,193.

In King's Lynn, overpayments since 2008 total �964,748. The biggest amount overpaid was �36,224. But the figures have more than halved since 2008.

Breckland Council said it did not keep a record of how much it paid by mistake. But since 2008 fraudsters took �585,491 and 49 people were taken to court by the authority.

At Waveney Council, 926 errors were made with housing benefit in 2011, resulting in �603,250 being overpaid. At Great Yarmouth Council, �459,731 was taken through fraud and 17 cases were brought before the courts.

North Norfolk Council has overpaid �1,767,440 since 2008 through fraud and mistakes.

All Norfolk councils said they were attempting to claw money back and were punishing false claims through courts, sanctions, warnings and fines.

But with fraud only accounting for a small fraction of the �23m, councils will have to target those who delay in disclosing changes to circumstances (such as changes to income or number of children) to combat the waste.

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