Bristol City Council’s benefits service has been given a ‘zero’ rating because of problems including delays to claims and appeals.
The Audit Commission’s report found the service was “poor” because customers waited too long for claims to be processed, too long to get telephone advice, and faced long delays if they appealed against a decision.
The report also said levels of debt were increasing because the council was poor at collecting overpaid benefits and action to deter fraud was inconsistent.
A spokesman for the authority described the Audit Commission’s judgement as “harsh” but said the council had decided against making a formal challenge because “taxpayers were better served by the council focusing its efforts on building a better benefits service”.
Auditors said there were some strengths in the council’s service, including a range of locations for residents to claim benefits and fraud was prosecuted when it was detected.
Audit Commission senior manager Philip Suter added that Bristol recognised the need to improve and has begun to tackle the problems. “It is committed to providing a better customer service, building on work already started,” he said.
In a statement, Bristol’s cabinet member for regeneration Anthony Negus (Lib Dem) accepted that the benefits service was not of the speed and quality that people expected. “We need to deliver a faster, more responsive service that offers value for money,” he said.
But he added: “We were unhappy at the failure of the Commission to acknowledge the improvements already made and we feel that this omission is unfair.”