Councils should process housing benefit claims within 14 days or make an interim payment, but delays of one month or more are common. As rent arrears accumulate, some tenants are being evicted from their homes, according to a report from the housing charity Shelter, and the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux.
Landlords are refusing to rent accommodation to people on benefits. 'The general picture which emerges from CABs and Shelter housing advice centres is of a service in serious disarray,' they say in a report reviewing the administration of the benefit. 'Far from promoting a high quality, customer-oriented service, as envisaged by the Citizen's Charter, statutory obligations are often ignored.'
About pounds 8bn is expected to be paid this year in housing benefit to 4.6 million householders, yet almost one in five of those eligible do not claim.
The Audit Commission found in a survey earlier this year that in 25 per cent of local authorities, most claims were not processed within 14 days. Many councils did not make any interim payments.
A Shelter advice centre in Somerset reported that one client on income support living in a bedsit applied for housing benefit last March.
In July he still had not received any benefit, and was told he would have to wait until August as the council was still processing February's claims. While awaiting payment of the benefit he ran up pounds 250 in rent arrears.
The report urges the Government to consider introducing compensation for those tenants who suffer financial loss or lose their home as a result of administrative delays. It also calls on ministers to guarantee that housing benefit should meet agreed rents.
For Whose Benefit; Shelter Publications, 88 Old Street, London EC1V 9HU; pounds 7.70.