18.1 The Operations Manager - Benefits and Business Support, Amy Mayes, reported that performance in the processing of new claims had improved. The target for processing changes of circumstances was being met despite the target having been made more challenging and there being a significant increase in the volume of forms, many of which resulted from a central Government fraud reduction scheme involving larger employers.
18.2 Councillor Osborne asked which larger organisations provided information to the Department for Work and Pensions. Ms Mayes explained that she did not know which organisations were involved but said that they would be larger employers who were able to provide payroll information electronically.
18.3 Ms Mayes reported that overpayments continued to be kept well below the Local Authority Error subsidy threshold, which allowed the Councils to gain full subsidy for the overpayments made.
18.4 The age of the cases being dealt with by officers had reduced, meaning that cases were being closed earlier. The vast majority of those cases over 35 days old were related to Universal Credit claims where information was not supplied.
18.5 Ms Mayes highlighted that the level of discretionary Housing Payments made by Babergh District Council and Ipswich Borough Council had increased and that it was likely that the Government grant provided to make these payments would be exhausted prior to the end of the financial year. This issue had been raised with the relevant S.151 officers.
18.6 Universal Credit was now available to the majority of working age claimants; officers were closely monitoring the relationship between Universal Credit and Council Tax Reduction schemes.
18.7 Councillor Patrick asked why the proportion of Council Tax Reduction claimants who were also receiving Universal Credit was so much higher in Babergh. Ms Mayes explained that this was because Universal Credit had been rolled out in Babergh earlier than in Ipswich and Mid-Suffolk.
18.8 The Operations Manager – Revenues, Andrew Wilcock, explained that the proportion of Council Tax collected was slightly down on the same point in 2017 in Mid-Suffolk and Ipswich, whilst it was slightly up in Babergh. There were issues to do with the regular recalculation of Council Tax Reduction entitlement related to Universal Credit which had impacted on collection rates.
18.9 Mr Wilcock explained that procedures in the recovery process had changed slightly, with informal approaches such as text messages being used initially for debts of less than £20 which saved the need for the more costly formal process in many cases. The level of recovery had not reduced as a result of this cheaper approach.
18.10 The proportion of Business Rates collected was down in Babergh and Mid-Suffolk with the debt profile changing; Mr Wilcock explained that NNDR remained volatile. There were also still Valuation Office Agency appeals pending from the 2010 rating list, meaning that provision needed to continue to be made.
18.11 Councillor Patrick asked whether the £4.5 million NNDR Valuation Appeals contingency for Babergh was likely to be needed. Mr Wilcock explained that the level of risk was assessed by an external contractor; he highlighted that a small number of large sites could lead to much of the contingency being used.
18.12 Councillor Whitehead asked how any deficit in the Business Rate Collection Fund was shared. The Assistant Director - Corporate Resources, Babergh and Mid-Suffolk District Councils, Katherine Steel, explained that the proportions were: Central Government 50%, District Councils 40% and County Councils 10%. Each Council within the Shared Revenues Partnership retained its own Business Rate Collection Fund.
18.13 The Head of Finance and Revenues, Ipswich Borough Council, John Chance, reported that the Shared Revenues Partnership was currently predicted to end the year in a break even position against its budget.
18.14 Mr Chance explained that the Shared Revenues Partnership had achieved most of its Transitional Vacancies Target already, although this had placed additional pressure on staff and the use of Agency staff was being considered, especially as the ongoing restructure meant that there would be a freeze on recruitment to allow for redundant staff to be redeployed.
18.15 Councillor Meudec asked whether any of the additional £36,000 funding received for Universal Credit could be spent on additional staff. Ms Mayes explained that the use of this fund was still being considered, although some of it would need to be spent on revisions to forms and other changes related to the introduction of Universal Credit.
18.16 Councillor Patrick noted that the amount of Partner Contributions paid so far, as shown in the table at paragraph 8.2, was considerably more than one quarter of the annual budget. Ms Mayes explained that the proportion paid in the first quarter was higher to cover annual costs and that the authorities would pay a total of £4,752,860 across the year.
18.17 Councillor Patrick asked what the recharges listed in the table at paragraph 8.2 paid for. Mr Wilcock explained that these covered the occupation of the office space at Grafton House, Human Resources Support, ICT facilities and a number of other smaller services. Mr Chance said that he had asked that a review of recharges be carried out and that this would provide assurance that these services were good value.
18.18 Councillor Rudkin asked whether there was a lack of skilled staff to fill the vacancies in the partnership. Amy Mayes explained that it took around two years to fully train a benefits officer, as they needed knowledge of 10-15 years worth of benefits schemes. Work was currently streamed so that more experienced officers dealt with more complex cases, which helped to mitigate the inexperience of some staff.
18.19 Councillor Osborne explained that the Citizen’s Advice Bureau in Sudbury regularly received queries about Universal Credit and asked whether any funding had been given to organisations to provide this advice. Ms Mayes explained that each Council had been allocated funding to provide Assisted Digital Support and Personal Budgeting Advice. In Babergh and Mid-Suffolk Districts the Councils had decided to provide this support directly, whilst Ipswich Borough Council had decided to provide funding to Ipswich Housing Action Group to provide Personal Budgeting Advice. The take up of these services had been lower than anticipated by the Department for Work and Pensions.
18.20 Mr Chance explained that the consultation on alterations to the structure of the Shared Revenue Partnership had closed on 3 September. Ms Mayes reported that 70 questions had been received, although there did not appear to be many which had not already been considered, which was good. It was felt that holding discussions with staff at an early stage and including many of their suggestions in the proposal had helped to make the consultation easier.
18.21 Councillor Patrick asked whether many staff would experience a significant change of emphasis in their work. Mr Wilcock said that the intention was to increase the skill levels of staff and reduce the number of cases which were handed off to colleagues. Visiting officers would, for example, be able to complete the reports resulting from their visits. Ms Mayes added that a larger, combined, revenues team would allow greater flexibility. This approach had been employed within benefits and had been seen to deliver performance improvements.
18.22 Councillor Osborne asked whether the streamlining of processes would lead to a requirement for less resources. Ms Mayes said that the need for staff to collect revenues would continue to grow. Universal Credit was likely to cause the number of staff required to administer benefits to reduce with time, however, this wasn’t likely to happen quickly. Mr Wilcock explained that the proposal which had been consulted on included a reduction of 3 FTE staff, although there were currently more vacancies than that.
18.23 Mr Wilcock reported that the launch of a new customer portal had begun, which would both allow customers to view information online and enable e-billing. A soft launch had taken place to test the system thoroughly, before a publicity campaign in the future.
18.24 Councillor Osborne asked whether training on the new system could be given to officers of Sudbury Town Council and the Sudbury Citizens Advice Bureau. Mr Wilcock explained that this would not be appropriate at this stage as the system was being refined through the soft launch process.
18.25 Councillor Meudec said that she was aware of delays in the current process for new bills being issued and asked whether e-billing would solve this. Mr Wilcock said that it would, with changes made by customers online being added to the database overnight and new bills issued either electronically or despatched by post the next working day.
that the Shared Revenues Partnership Data Protection Policy be approved.
Reason: The Policy will ensure that the Shared Revenues Partnership meets the requirements of the General Data Protection Regulation.