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Royal Borough performance on new benefits claims 'needs improvement'

Adrian Williams

Adrian Williams

The Royal Borough must improve the time it takes to process new benefits claims and changes in circumstances, a report has found.

At the corporate overview and scrutiny panel on Tuesday evening, councillors and officers discussed the report, which covers the Royal Borough’s performance in the previous quarter.

The report found that the average number of days to process new claims for housing benefit and changes in circumstances forms ‘need[s] improvement’.

The downturn in performance started in March and fell to an all-time low in April – on average, it took more than 20 days to process new claims and more than 13 days for changes in circumstances.

One reason is that the Royal Borough saw a ‘huge increase’ in the volume of new claims and changes of circumstances at the beginning of the pandemic.

Councillor David Hilton (Con, Ascot & Sunninghill) noted that the Revenues and Benefits Team experienced a 400 per cent increase in ‘change of circumstances’ forms, and praised their management of it.

The council expects to see an increase once again as furlough ends, according to Louise Freeth, head of the Revenues and Benefits Team.

However, she added that the team is ‘quite confident’ the Royal Borough will be able to cope with this increase.

Councillor Simon Werner (Lib Dem, Pinkneys Green) expressed a hope that the borough is being ‘as agile as it can’ in shifting staff between departments to handle the increased workload.

“These are some of the most vulnerable people in the borough – it’s a pretty desperate situation for them,” he said.

Ms Freeth assured him that the council does indeed redeploy staff to deal with routine jobs and easier cases, freeing up more experienced staff for more complex tasks.

One complication contributing to the delays is that the council does not always receive word far enough in advance of relevant changes proposed by the Government.

For example, the Royal Borough is responsible for the £500 self-isolation payments to residents – but only discovered this about a week in advance of the new scheme, which began on Monday.

“We are still awaiting final guidance on funding. At this moment we don’t have detailed guidance from Government,” said Ms Freeth.

Local councils would ordinarily receive some information in advance from civil servants. Duncan Sharkey, managing director for the Royal Borough, said that at the moment, this is ‘a mixed pack’.

The need for fast changes in response to the pandemic sometimes means that no information is available in advance.

“I have been sat in meetings with civil servants when the Government has introduced something and they don’t know about it either,” Mr Sharkey said.

Cllr Hilton noted that the consequence was ‘a flood’ of Royal Borough residents calling the council, believing they are entitled to funding, having heard an announcement from the Government.

“The Revenues and Benefits Team is not in a position to say ‘Yes, that’s true,’ or ‘No, it isn’t,” he observed.

In response, Cllr Werner suggested that the panel contact MPs or the Local Government Association (LGA) to look into lobbying for preliminary guidance for councils from the Government.

Councillor Chris Targowski (Con, Riverside), chair of the panel, agreed this was something either the panel or the council in general could re-examine in the future.

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