Andrew Cowie: Assurance and scrutiny – reporting on the vital role of Scotland’s housing benefit services
Andrew Cowie, a member of the Accounts Commission, discusses future reporting on the performance of Scotland’s housing benefit services.
Every year, Scotland’s councils pay out £1.4 billion in housing benefit. Council benefit services are a lifeline service to many needing vital help and support at what can be the most difficult and complex time in their life. And it’s the Accounts Commission who have a responsibility to report on the performance of this critical service.
We provide assurance that councils are delivering an effective and efficient benefit service. Alongside this, auditors regularly scrutinise the performance of claims processing.
In our recently published strategy, we set a priority to report on how well local government is working to reduce the multiple impacts of inequalities, including poverty, housing, education and access to care.
Our reporting on the performance of housing benefit services is an important part of delivering that priority. In 2019 we changed our approach by introducing reviews on specific themes. We want to provide additional value and independent insight into aspects of this service where performance is declining, but also understand areas of strong performance which would support improvement across all 32 councils.
In October we published a report on the impact of Covid-19 on the performance of housing benefit services across Scotland. Our study considered the approaches taken by councils to deliver this service remotely due to pandemic restrictions, how these restrictions affected performance and looked to identify good practice that could be shared.
Scottish councils responded positively to restrictions on service delivery caused by the pandemic, effectively meeting the significant challenges they faced. We also found a strong link between councils with reduced resources and a fall in the rate at which claims were processed.
Our next study will focus on the resourcing of the benefit service. A focus on resourcing will provide clear information about the structure of each council’s benefit service, allow us to understand the impact of non-housing benefit related work and establish the links between the structure of benefit teams and claims processing performance. This work will highlight best practice to councils, and the potential benefits, risks and impacts of skills, resourcing and different team structures.
The Accounts Commission will also be working alongside the Auditor General for Scotland to explore how our joint work programme can reflect our shared interest in poverty and inequalities. The Auditor General for Scotland has, for example, a focus on the devolution of significant social security responsibilities to the Scottish Parliament*.
Covid-19 has magnified and intensified inequalities, particularly poverty, throughout our communities. Reporting on this will be a significant focus for the Accounts Commission. We will report on the contribution local government makes to reducing the impact of inequalities on our communities, in particular the critical role of health and social care services.
*The Auditor General for Scotland continues to report on how the Scottish Government is managing the delivery of the devolved social security powers through the work programme. The next report will be published in spring 2022.