Housing benefits turnaround pledge

A council chief has pledged to do everything within his powers to turn around his under-fire authority's poor performance in processing housing benefit claims.

A council chief has pledged to do everything within his powers to turn around his under-fire authority's poor performance in processing housing benefit claims.

Glen Garrod, chief executive of Waveney District Council, revealed a series of measures had been introduced in a bid to drastically improve the service, which was branded "unacceptable" by a govern-ment minister earlier this year.

Work and pensions minister James Plaskitt demanded that the council act quickly to reduce the time it took to process new claims from 64 days, which ranked it one of the worst authorities in the country.

Local government watchdogs the Audit Commission have also slated Waveney's per-formance and Mr Garrod admitted the criticism had "hurt" the council.

He said: "We have tried over a number of years to improve the service, but the per-formance hasn't been good enough and we have taken a hit for it. The Audit Commission said we were not serving vulnerable people well and they are absolutely right - they deserve a good service from us. This has hurt the council."

Waveney pays out about £37m in benefits to just under 12,000 residents every year and Mr Garrod said a robust and rigorous programme of staff training, and a full review of practices had been launched.

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Other measures include new timetables for dealing with claims, plans to introduce a new service where benefits are paid through bank transfer and closer contact with voluntary groups, landlords and the Citizens' Advice Bureau.

Mr Garrod insisted the new measures were already paying dividends, with the latest figures showing that since the end of January new housing benefits claims are being processed in an average of just under 14 days, well below the Department of Work and Pension's standard of 30 days.

Mr Garrod said: "In this calendar year we have shown that Waveney can make a significant change in the provision of services when it has the right skills, resources and attitudes in place."

He added that the improvement plan would be financed through existing budgets and would not place an extra burden on council taxpayers.

The performance of Waveney's housing benefits' service has been blamed on

a number of factors, including the poor performance of a

new computer system and a failed partnership with a

team of private consultants, who have since had their contract with Waveney cancelled.

The improvement plan is being overseen by revenues and benefits manager Leigh Butler, who said he wanted to reduce the average claim time to less than 40 days by the end of this year and hit the DWP's targets in 2008.