Mistakes and delays in housing benefit payments cost Haringey Council more than £1.4 million in a single year.

The council made £1.45 million in housing benefit overpayments during 2017-18 but was unable to claim the money back from the Government because there were too many mistakes in the forms it had submitted.

Another £577,000 of overpayments have been made in the current financial year – but the council is hoping to recover all of the money.

External auditor BDO says the council should be able to get the £577,000 back “subject to continued good performance for the remainder of the year”.

The problems arose due to a staff shortage in the council’s benefits team.

This meant that change of circumstances forms – used by claimants to tell the council of changes that could affect the amount of benefits they receive – were not being dealt with quickly enough.

Councils can normally claim back any overpayments made due to errors and administrative delays through a subsidy scheme run by the Department for Work and Pensions.

But Haringey’s efforts to clear a backlog of cases meant it could not claim back any of the money for 2017-18 because the number of overpayments was too high.

The findings – which come as Haringey faces cuts of £19.6 million to its budget in 2019-20 – were discussed at a meeting of the council’s corporate committee on Tuesday.

Leigh Lloyd-Thomas, engagement lead at BDO, said the council had made good progress in clearing the backlog.

He said: “As you brought that backlog down, you were creating more and more overpayments.

“What that has meant is over £1.4 million of local authority payments that breached the government’s threshold for that year (2017-18). You got nothing of that back.

“Our last report on January 14 showed just over £0.5 million of overpayments. Unless it goes badly wrong, you will probably get all of that back.

“There are definitely green shoots. It is all looking better.”

Cllr Dana Carlin, Labour member for Hornsey, asked how much the council was paying consultants to make up for the nine vacancies in its benefits team.

Mark Rudd, assistant director for corporate resources, said: “They are not consultants. They are a very experienced company that employs ex-local authority benefits people.

“In the past, we have used temporary staff to fill vacancies. That has led to the errors.”

Mr Rudd said employing the extra staff had not led to more costs for the council as they were being funded out of the department’s current budget.

Head of benefits Amelia Hadjmichael said the council was having problems recruiting staff because the roll-out of Universal Credit – a welfare scheme that replaces housing benefit – meant they would soon face losing their jobs.

She admitted the backlog had arisen “because of a lack of resources”.

Ms Hadjmichael said: “Because of all the vacancies, we did not have enough staff to assess the cases.”

Committee chair and Labour member for Tottenham Green Cllr Isidoros Diakides asked whether the council’s wage levels had led to recruitment problems.

Ms Hadjmichael said: “We are no longer willing to recruit untrained officers – we need good quality staff.

“But we are finding it difficult because other neighbouring authorities do pay more than Haringey, and staff will tend to go for other boroughs.”

Councillors also raised concerns about the impact of benefit mistakes on people’s lives amid fears people could be evicted due to the errors.

Ms Hadjmichael said she was not aware of a case in which someone had been made homeless due to the overpayments issues.