Massive cut in Waveney council’s benefits bill

A COUNCIL faced with a crippling �9m benefits bill has seen 18 months of hard work pay off with a massive reduction in the final total.

Waveney District Council was landed with a bill in March 2009 from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to repay �8.9m in overpaid benefit subsidies.

Waveney insisted that the problem related to payments made between 2004/5 and 2007/8 and arose because of the transfer of data from paper to a new computer system and now, after more than a year of finding new evidence, the council has been told that its bill is now only �379,000 - a 97pc reduction on the original demand.

The council was told earlier this summer that the final bill would not exceed �3.6m, and council leader Mark Bee said the fact that the total has been cut significantly further is down to the 'tireless and outstanding work' of officers at the authority who have been working to find supporting evidence to send to the DWP.

Mr Bee said: 'This has been a long and hard road, from the paralysis of the original bill to the delight of this latest figure, and I can't praise the efforts of Waveney's staff too highly.

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'We faced a huge financial challenge but were determined to prove that the original figure could not possibly have been right. The onus was on us to prove the error and to prove our position, and that is exactly what we've done.'

He added: 'We're grateful to the DWP for showing us the flexibility that allowed us to continue bringing the bill down, but most importantly, I cannot thank Waveney officers enough for their brilliant efforts throughout.'

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Earlier this year, the council was forced to declare that it was unable to set a balanced budget for the coming year because of the DWP bill but now its financial situation is looking brighter.

Mr Bee said: 'With the original liability hanging over us, we had been left with no alternative other than to issue a statutory report declaring that we would not be able to present a balanced budget - a grave situation for any council.

'However I promised at the time that we would fight this, that we would not let this matter drop and that we had right on our side.'

He said that the final figure is 'well within' what the council is able to pay, having already budgeted �300,000 a year to pay off the bill. 'Councils throughout the country are regularly asked for 'clawbacks' by the DWP and although there is still a repayment, it is a tiny fraction of the �200m that we have paid to benefits claimants during this period.

'We are no longer in the dark shadow of this issue and I'm delighted that the council can now move on,' he said.

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