Council error sees £250,000 in benefits overpaid since 2016

Incompetence from Sutton Housing Partnership and their law department has seen bailiffs pay a visit to Sutton Council offices over an unpaid bill.
By our Sutton investigations reporter, CARL SHILTON

Busted: the council-owned housing company had the bailiffs in for a £900 debt that ended up costing Sutton residents £27,000

Sutton’s usually sedate council budget-setting meeting took place on Monday, but proved entertaining for all the wrong reasons.

In between interruptions and a suspension of the meeting due to anti-ULEZ demonstrators in the chamber, the ruling Liberal Democrat administration predictably blamed everything that was wrong in the world on the Conservative government, while Tory, independent and Labour councillors attempted to highlight the borough’s waste and failures.

The most surprising revelation of waste came from Tory councillor Tim Crowley, in his response to the budget motion proposed by LibDem councillor Sunita Gordon. This related to the council’s wholly-owned housing company, Sutton Housing Partnership, which manages and maintains the borough’s housing stock of around 7,500 tenanted and leasehold properties.

In a tale of bureaucratic blundering and incompetence that reaches Croydon-esque levels, Crowley told the meeting that he had discovered that a £900 debt owed by Sutton Housing Partnership was not paid, resulting in a court claim and a County Court Judgment against the council-owned company.

When Sutton Housing Partnership then failed to pay the judgment amount, they received a visit from the bailiffs and that £900 debt ballooned to charges and costs of an astonishing £27,000.

Uncovering waste: Conservative councillor Tim Crowley at Sutton’s budget meeting

Inside Sutton understands that the debt accrued with Sutton Housing Partnership’s failure to make repairs to a resident’s property.

As allowed by law, the resident had the works completed by a private company and they invoiced Sutton Housing Partnership. When Sutton Housing Partnership failed to pay this bill, the court claim was issued.

Sutton Council long ago outsourced its civic law department to South London Legal Partnership, the running of which it shares with neighbouring boroughs including Kingston and Merton. It was South London Legal Partnership who were handed the task of dealing with the court claim for the unpaid housing repair bill.

By law, bailiffs must give at least seven days’ notice of an intended enforcement visit. The massive increase in the Sutton Housing Partnership’s costs and liabilities suggests that the claimant had incurred serious legal expenses in enforcing the CCJ over a considerable period of time.

The episode raises serious questions over the competence of Sutton Housing Partnership and its in-house legal advisors in handling the claim.

Crowley told the council meeting that, in mid-February, the bailiffs had entered council offices with a warrant to enforce the judgment, and began the process of removing computer equipment. Only when a settlement was hurriedly agreed, with a payment of the amount in full, did the embarrassing episode come to an end.

This £27,000 of squandered tax-payers’ money, though, pales in comparison to a “legacy issue” identified by council staff, who have discovered that at least £250,000 in housing benefit has been overpaid by Sutton Council since 2016.

In an email sent to all Sutton councillors, and seen by Inside Sutton, Sam Barker, the council’s “assistant director customers transformation and strategy” (got all that?) said that “the council has identified a legacy issue when it comes to a small number of residents who we pay housing benefit to”.

Barker told councillors that 69 residents had continued to receive the family premium, an element of benefit that was discontinued nearly seven years ago, in May 2016.

“We will not be asking for this money back,” Barker wrote, “and we will be writing to those residents who have been impacted this week to apologise and inform them that from their next payment date, their housing benefit will decrease.

“The maximum amount that their benefit could decrease by is £11.73 per week.”

Barker added that, “We are working closely with our auditors and others to understand why this issue has happened.”

Councillors who received the email suggest that Barker has underplayed the significance of the council’s error. The family premium was actually set at £17.45 per week at the time it was discontinued. Estimates of the total overpayment, for nearly 70 families over almost seven years, even at Barker’s suggested lower level of overpayment, tots up to at least £250,000.

And while the council won’t be seeking to recover the money overpaid through its own error, the families affected could get a nasty shock when they start to receive almost £50 per month less than they have come to expect, in the middle of the worst cost-of-living crisis for a generation.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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2 Responses to Council error sees £250,000 in benefits overpaid since 2016

  1. Jim Bush says:

    Councils may not have enough funding, but they are not exactly helping themselves/encouraging more generous funding settlements….
    There is this story of incompetence at Sutton Council, the ongoing failings of Croydon Council are especially well-documented by Inside Croydon, and here is a story of housing repair failures at Lambeth Council.
    Running a council properly can’t be rocket science, although it seems be beyond the capability of London’s third-rate politicians ?

  2. Bob Nish says:

    He’s correct because HB tapers at 65%. Still not a great look but we need to stick to facts.

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