Benefits backlog hits thousands in Norwich

Thousands of Norwich families have been caught up in a benefits backlog, which means some of the city's most vulnerable people have been waiting months for payment.

And it means staff at Norwich City Council have had to work at City Hall on Saturdays to try to clear the backlog.

The city council says the problem has been caused because of an unprecedented number of applications from people applying for benefits or needing to make changes to their existing benefits, at a time when the authority has had to shed staff.

There are 900 new benefit claims which have yet to be dealt with, plus thousands change of circumstances applications stuck in the queue.

Some of the claims date back to December last year and benefits staff at the city council have been going into work on Saturdays to try to clear them, for which they have been paid overtime.

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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.

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Some 70pc of the claims which go through the council come from the Department for Work and Pensions, the Job Centre or the Pensions Service.

But not all of the claims have the details, such as identification, household details verified, which then falls to city council staff to sort out before payments can be made.

Any change in circumstance - such as unemployment, changes in working hours, change of address or the birth of children - needs to be reported and on average, there are six such changes each year per claimant.

And, with the current economic climate causing more changes in circumstance, that, the council says, has led to a far higher workload, with 175 new claims each week.

At the same time, the city council has seven fewer benefits staff compared to two years ago, because cuts have had to be made as the council looks to save millions of pounds.

Brenda Arthur, leader of Norwich City Council, said: 'We are trying to do the very best we can to get on top of this benefits backlog, but with an increasing number of people claiming, it is an uphill battle.

'We have got committed staff who have been doing extra work to try to sort it out, but it is indicative of the difficult times we are living in, that unemployment is increasing and more people are needing to claim benefits.

'At the same time, local government is being asked to do more with less, so it becomes very difficult.'

The council has urged people who need to submit new claims not to do so by post, but to head into City Hall instead.

A spokeswoman said that, by seeing people in person, council staff could ensure that they had all the relevant documents and forms before they submitted their claim.

That, she said, would mean staff could deal with the claim in as little as 28 minutes, which would prevent their claim getting caught up in the backlog.

Last night Claire Stephenson, leader of the opposition Green group at the city council, said this was a 'serious problem' that needed to be dealt with as soon as possible and that she would be monitoring the situation. She added: 'Clearly it is unacceptable for families to be waiting and not even knowing whether they are going to get their benefits for several months.

'With more families needing to put in applications at the moment, it is up to the city council to make sure it has the staff there to process those claims because otherwise it could lead to incredible hardship for people who are probably experiencing other difficulties in their lives.'

Part of the Green group's budget proposals last month, which were rejected, were to use part of the money raised through a 3.3pc increase in the council tax to pump �30,000 more into the revenues and benefits staffing group.

• What do you think? Write to Evening News Letters, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE or email

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