administration of housing benefit and council tax benefit by Sedgefield BC.
An inspection was carried out earlier this year under the
to deliver the most economic, efficient and effective services
possible. Inspectors make a judgement on whether performance is
excellent, good, fair or poor. The BFI report finds that the benefits
service provided by Sedgefield BC is fair but has
promising prospects for improvement.
The report recognises the progress that has been made in
restructuring the benefits service since the council conducted its
own best value review and that this increases the likelihood for
improvement. The level of commitment to the benefits service has been
stated clearly at all levels of the council and has been demonstrated
by additional funding.
There are a number of areas that the report highlights for
improvement including weaknesses in the management of claims for
benefit. Among the recommendations made by BFI to help the council
improve is that the benefits service should be pro-active in
developing relationships that would benefit the customer directly. It
recommends that the service works more closely with the housing
department, landlords and the rent service.
In 2000/2001 the council paid out£23.5m in benefits. This is
36 percent of its gross expenditure.
A press release from the local authority follows.
'Prior to implementing the Verification Framework in October 1999, Sedgefield BC had a top performing benefits service.
'Unfortunately, like many councils who have adopted the Framework, which requires a much greater degree of checking and verification of personal details, the service deteriorated and a significant backlog of claims began to build up.
'As a result, the borough council reviewed the Benefits Service in accordance with Best Value principles and approved a Service Improvement Plan in July 2001. Additional resources of£165,000 per year have been allocated to make significant improvements in service delivery.
'The borough council welcomed the inspection from the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate (BFI) and agree with their findings that at the time of inspection the Benefit Service was fair, with promising prospects for improvement. The BFI, whilst confirming many of our own findings, put forward a number of recommendations, which the borough council was pleased to adopt to further strengthen the Improvement Plan.'
John Moran, cabinet member with responsibility for supporting people, confirmed Sedgefield BC's commitment to regain its position as a top performing council.
Mr Moran said: 'Benefits is a key service and we are determined to make it much more accessible and responsive for the many thousands of households in the borough that rely on benefits.'