Benefits backlog could mean a blue Christmas for Norwich families
Delays in dealing with new housing and council tax benefits claims means some city families could find themselves still waiting for their money until after Christmas.
Bosses at Norwich City Council have admitted that the average processing time this year for such claims has increased to 52.1 days, way over the authority's target of 21 days.
The council this week outsourced the dealing of some of those claims to a specialist bureau in an attempt to speed up the time being taken.
But, with almost 650 claims outstanding, there is a danger some of the people waiting, who include some of the city's most vulnerable citizens, will not get a decision on their money before Christmas.
As reported in the Evening News, City Hall staff have been working at weekends to try to clear the backlog and, in September the average time it was taking to deal with claims was cut to 45 days and to 42 days in October.
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Of the 648 claims, 183 of them involve people who have been waiting beyond the council's 21 day target.
Lucy Galvin, Green city councillor for Wensum ward, said: 'The average turn around for housing benefits and council tax is still very high. 'I know there's a plan in place, but it is taking some time to work and this has an effect on people in a difficult situation.
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'When the Norwich Foodbank was discussed by scrutiny recently, one of the reasons they gave for people needing the foodbank was delays in getting benefits.
'I think it's a very important thing to tackle and to speed up the process.'
The council says part of the reason for the long turnaround times is that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) also sends hundreds of automatic emails to the authority each week, informing them about changes in people's circumstances.
Staff have had to deal with those as well as trying to clear the backlog, so the council this week agreed to use some of its budget to send those claims to a specialist bureau.
That, the council said, would free up their own staff to concentrate on tackling the delay in the new benefit claims.
But Alan Waters, deputy leader of the council, said the current economic climate meant even the best laid plans could be thrown out of kilter.
He said: 'When Uniglaze went bust, straight away we had a hundred people on the phone, so you do get unexpected spikes.
'It reflects what an unpredictably environment we are in. The changes to benefit rules, a flat economy and changes in people's circumstances are the context to all this. 'It's important for us to see that landscape and to try to mitigate for it. But it's a very turbulant environment which our staff are having to operate in.'
The city council administrates �26m of housing benefit for social housing and private tenants each year and �32m for people who claim housing benefit and live in the city council's 17,000 council homes.
The council also administers �15m worth of council tax benefit each year.
• Have you got a council-related story? Contact Norwich Evening News reporter Dan Grimmer on 01603 772375 or email firstname.lastname@example.org