Money: UK State Benefits Red Tape Shambles

Britain's benefits system is beset by fraud and error because of its own over-complicated rules and regulation, an independent 'watchdog' has found. In all, the erroneous payments come to 2_600_million_GBP out of a total benefits bill of 109_000_million_GBP. The revelations from 'The National Audit Office' ('The NAO') threaten to undermine government pledges to crack down on benefits cheats and streamline the social security system. 'The NAO' report comes after the government was forced to postpone a long-promised paper on welfare reform until next year. Mr.John Hutton, the new 'Work and Pensions Secretary', is the fourth person to hold the post in a year, and was appointed two weeks ago after Mr.David Blunkett resigned. Shortly before he quit, Mr.Blunkett described the benefits system as 'crackers'. 'The NAO' investigators echo that conclusion, albeit in less blunt terms.
'The effects of complexity can be seen in many ways,' 'The NAO' found. 'For example, it can be associated with errors in benefit payments, due to staff and customer mistakes. 'It can also reduce the ability of staff to explain benefit regulations to customers and makes it hard for some customers to understand what is required of them.'
While 'The NAO' acknowledged the government has made 'some' progress on reforming the system, Sir.John Bourn, the auditor-general, yesterday made clear ministers still have a long way to go.
'There is a balance to be struck between a system which is detailed enough to respond to needs and yet straightforward enough to be run efficiently, communicating clearly with customers and minimising error. 'This balance has not yet been reached,' he said.
Mr.James Plaskitt, a junior minister at 'The Department of Work and Pensions', yesterday, 2005-11-18 accepted the criticisms, but insisted the situation was improving.
'The complication in the system does contribute to errors,' he said. 'Mistakes can be made both by people applying for the benefits and by our staff administering the benefits. 'Now we are putting new systems in place to make it much easier to get the benefit assessment right in the first place and to give support to the system so that the benefits stay correct throughout their operation.'
The suggestion that over-complex rules are causing misadministration is not a confined to the benefits system. Independent 'watchdogs' and MPs alike have frequently made the same charge against the disaster-prone tax credits system, which is overseen by 'HM Customs and Revenue'. Government critics are clear about who bears ultimate responsibility for these problems: Mr.Gordon Brown. The Chancellor, it is said, imposes restrictive rules on the tax and benefits systems in order to maintain tight Treasury control over all spending. Mr.David Willetts, a Conservative front-bencher, yesterday accused The Chancellor of trying to dictate how much every single benefits claimant receives, 'down to the last 50p or pound'. The result, Mr.Willetts said, is that the benefits system is
'collapsing under the weight of its own complexity with people getting money they are not entitled to and others not getting help when they need it'.
Mr.David Laws, the Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokesman, also said the difficulties of the benefits system were merely part of a wider problem.
'Welfare reform is turning out to be one of the great disaster zones of Labour's third term,' Mr.Laws said. 'The figures would be even worse if tax credit fraud was added in.'
'Watchdog slams benefits system', James Kirkup, The Scotsman, 2005-11-19, Sa


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