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TOP MARKS FOR GUILDFORD BC'S REVENUES & BENEFITS SERVICE

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Revenue services provided by Guildford BC are excellent and will improve further, according to an independent repor...
Revenue services provided by Guildford BC are excellent and will improve further, according to an independent report released today by the Audit Commission.

An inspection team gave the service three stars because it is efficent, well managed and responsive to customer needs.

Peter Wylie, regional director, southern region best value inspection service, said:

'Guildford offers a high standard of service to its revenue services customers and we believe that this trend is set to continue. The council is very clear about the standards of service customers can expect. It has made great efforts to improve it's performance across all areas and its current performance across the range of indicators shows it to be among the best in the country.

'There is consistent track record of improvement over a number of years and there is a strong culture to continue the development of the service to customers from councillors, senior management and staff at all levels of the organisation.'

The inspection report highlights a number of key strengths:

-Collection of council tax and business rates are in the top 25 per cent of councils in the country. It is also among the best nationally in the speed of paying benefit claims.

-Clear customer service standards exist with evidence of good practice.

-Reception facilities include a range of information for people including videos, leaflets and electronic information display.

-Accessible hours of service, with later opening on Thursday evenings.

-A wide range of information leaflets available including the ability to read and 'download' via the internet.

However, there are some areas where more detailed work is required to improve the service to customers:

-Information to customers is not available at all the offices that may be expected by local people;

-People need to be clear as to when their claim is to be renewed so that changes can be dealt with quickly and over/underpayments minimised.

To help Guildford develop the services and improve its position in the top 25 per cent of councils nationally, inspectors made a number of recommendations, including:

-Maximise the recovery of overpayments of housing benefit and assist vulnerable people by developing systems to ensure that people are treated fairly, equally, and as soon as possible to prevent difficulties escalating, and by ensuring that claims are re-assessed before the date due for renewal.

-Improve take up of benefit and understanding of council tax and benefit issues by ensuring that new technology improves the standard of letters produced and the ability to adapt them to meet individual circumstances, and by examining the opportunities to display information at other relevant sites such as libraries and leisure centres.

-Ensure that people who are invited to continue to claim benefit are advised of their correct benefit entitlement by dealing with renewal applications in a timely manner.

Copies of the report are available from Guildford BC or on the best value website.

NOTES:

1. The service was inspected as part of the government's best value initiative, which places a duty on all councils to deliver the most economic, efficient and effective services possible.

2. The inspection involved interviews with council staff and members, and members of the public using the service.

3. The best value inspection service was established to provide the public with an independent assessment of whether best value is being achieved by their local council. Inspection reports judge how well a service is currently serving local people, based on a star rating from 0-3 where 0 is poor and 3 excellent, and how likely it is to improve in the future.

4. The government has placed a duty of best value on councils requiring them to improve local services over the next five years. Councils must report annually on their performance (best value performance plans) and review all of their services over the next five years in order to identify and achieve continual improvements in local services.

The council commented yesterday on its favourable report as follows:

'The government's best value inspection service today released their report on Guildford BC's revenues and benefits service and has awarded it a maximum three stars, for both the excellent level of service it currently provides and for its future plans.

The best value inspection service is in the process of assessing the services provided by every local authority in the country with the aim of improving standards. The inspection involves two judgements: 'How good is the service?'; and 'Is it going to improve?'. Both judgements are measured against four grades of achievement.

This is the first time that a revenues and benefits service has achieved the top rating, and only eight other local authorities have received such an award, out of 600 reports submitted so far. Guildford BC enjoyed success earlier this year, when Spectrum Leisure Complex became the first service in the country to achieve three stars on both best value judgements.

The revenues and benefits service is part of the borough treasurer's department at the council, and is responsible for collecting£50m in local council tax,£55 million in business rates, and the payment of £20m in housing and council tax benefit.

Borough treasurer, Mike Paddock, says: 'This is fantastic news. We are absolutely thrilled to be awarded top marks which is recognition to all staff who have maintained such high standards over a number of years now.'

Assistant borough treasurer, Steve White who is responsible for the revenues and benefits service adds: 'Equally important for us, is the award of top marks for our plans for improvement - which means we cannot be complacent about our current performance. We are aiming to continue improving the services for residents, including the payment of legitimate claims for housing and council tax benefit on the day following the receipt of a claim. It will also soon be possible for customers to access council tax and business rates account balances on-line, via the council's website.''

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