New housing benefit applicants in Wigan are waiting almost three weeks for their claims to be processed – beyond the legally advised response time.
Between January and March 2019, new claimants waited 18 days on average for their application to be completed, Department for Work and Pensions data shows.
That’s slightly below the average across Britain of 19 days including weekends.
But the figure has come down from 24 days previously and the authority today expressed its delight at the reduction.
The waiting time can be worrying for applicants, and the charity Turn2Us, which helps people with financial hardship gain access to welfare benefits, said they can be threatened with eviction and face homelessness as a result.
Legal guidance states that when a local authority decides a claim, it must do it and notify the claimant within 14 days of receiving all the necessary information, or as soon as reasonably practicable thereafter.
According to the figures, the local authority processed 489 new cases during the three month period. Including existing recipients, there were 9,023 claimants in Wigan in that time.
During the same three months in 2018, applicants had to wait longer, with an average delay of 22 days.
Wigan was quicker at dealing with current claimants, who had changed their living circumstances, than those applying for the first time.
Those applications took on average just two days to complete.
Debby Mulling, head of engagement at Turn2us, said: “The longer people are made to wait for their Housing Benefit, the more likely they are to fall into rental arrears, face eviction and end up homeless.
“It is vital that in a time of high rents, low affordability and precarious housing arrangements all benefits are paid swiftly.
“Official measures clearly state that claims for Housing Benefit should be processed within 14 days. The Government needs to provide adequate support to councils so they can achieve this target.”
Lesley O’Halloran, assistant director for customer services at Wigan Council, said: “Previous statistics from the Department for Works and Pensions shows Wigan borough at 24 days for new claims so to see a reduction to an average of 18 days is really encouraging and shows we are going in the right direction.
“We are always looking to improve our performance and we are pleased to see that the hard work of our staff is helping to reduce this figure.
“Housing benefit regulations state that when a local authority decides a claims they must decide the claim and notify the customer of that decision within 14 days of receiving all the necessary information.
“In Wigan new claims for housing benefit are looked at within the same week that they are received, if all the necessary information has been received the decision is made and the customer is notified of their award.
“If further information is required before a decision can be made the customer will be contacted and given a calendar month to provide the information requested, this time limit is set with Housing Benefit regulations.
“We concentrate on the accuracy of the assessments as well as the speed of processing and we also look to maximise customer entitlement to benefits, council tax discounts and exemptions, so that residents are getting what they are entitled to.
“The risk of failing to deliver a high quality service can have a huge impact on some of our more vulnerable residents, and this is why we work extremely hard to ensure claims are completed accurately.
“Residents submitting new claims for housing benefit can expect their claim to be looked at within one week of being received by us, however new claims often require more data gathering often directly from the claimant and this can lengthen the process.
“Care should be taken when interpreting the data, particularly when comparing across difference local authorities, the continued roll out of universal credit impacts on the speed of processing figures at a local authority level.”
Residents are eligible for housing benefit if they rent, their savings are below £16,000, and they are on low income or other benefits.
The amount applicants receive differs depending on whether they rent from the council, or privately, their salary and whether they have any spare rooms.