Flagship Tory council Barnet LBC is set to push ahead with plans to close its award-winning welfare rights unit in a bid to save £180,000 a year.
The council – which hit the headlines on 28 August with its plans to pursue a no-frills approach to public services based on a budget airline business model – will instead divert a smaller sum to local charities to help vulnerable residents access benefits services.
According to a report due to be discussed at a cabinet meeting on 1 September, closing the unit will meet the council’s corporate objectives of “deploying the local authority’s resources as flexibly and efficiently as possible”.
The unit costs around £230,000 a year to run and consists of six staff who advise hundreds of children with disabilities and residents with mental health or community care needs each year on what benefits are available to them.
According to the report, an analysis last year suggested the unit generated £1.6m in benefits to local people’s income.
A risk assessment of the proposals conceded they risked leaving vulnerable residents to fall into poverty.
“Partner organisations have stated that they may see an increase in their referral rates if the Welfare Rights Unit is deleted and they may be unable to meet these additional volumes,” the report said.
“If this were the case it would result in the potential loss of welfare benefit income for individuals, increasing the likelihood of poverty and dependency.”
To offset the extra pressure, Barnet plans to allocate £54,600 such organisations.
The report also conceded the council runs the risk of the decision being challenged in the courts through judicial review and has already been contacted by the Public Law Project on behalf of one service user.
The majority of respondents to a public consultation on the closure opposed any changes being made to the unit, with many expressing concerns its closure would lead to the loss of home visiting services and assistance in filling out benefit forms.
But the council insisted it was “by no means unusual” for a council not to have a welfare rights unit, and that many London boroughs “simply sign post to the voluntary sector for welfare-related advice and services.”
The unit was recognised by the Local Government Association in 2004 for its work in battling child poverty.
This week, cabinet member for community services Richard Cornelius said: “Removing the welfare rights unit is not a proposal we have come to lightly but, in increasingly tough economic times, we have had to look at ways that services can be provided more efficiently and effectively.
“Much of the work done by the unit is duplicated by other agencies such as the Citizens Advice Bureau and Age Concern, who are often better equipped to offer a tailored service to those individuals seeking information on the welfare benefits and rights to which they are entitled.
”We already give more than £1million of funding to partner organisations who provide welfare rights-related services so this proposal will not take away this valuable service from vulnerable members of the community.”
See also: Barnet’s ‘budget airline’ plan