Benefits Services Rated 'Poor'

24 March 2011, 06:00

A Thames Valley authority's has been rated one of the worst in the country for the way it hands out benefits.

On a scale from zero to three stars the Audit Commission inspection team gave the service a ‘poor’, zero-star rating. This is because some customers wait too long for changes to their benefits to be decided, and for any complaints and appeals to be considered. Those who telephone the council about benefits can wait a long time before they speak to an advisor. The service is not delivering value for money - its costs are high and performance is poor in key areas.

Tim Savill, Audit Commission Benefit Policy Lead, said:

"Successfully claiming benefits is an essential safety net for many people, especially during the current economic downturn. Oxford City Council has much to do to improve the benefits service for local people. It recognises this and has begun to tackle the problems. It is committed to providing a better customer service and plans to complete an extensive review soon, in order to make the service more cost-effective and efficient."

Strengths include:
*       Customer satisfaction with the service is high and increasing (although this is based on a small sample).
*       The service has carried out good work with vulnerable groups in the city.
*       The service tackles fraud effectively.

Weaknesses include:
*       Contacting the service by telephone is difficult and high levels of calls are abandoned.
*       Complaints, appeals, requests for reviews and changes of circumstances all take too long to process.
*       The level of accuracy is poor.
*       Not enough is being done to ensure efforts to promote the take-up of benefits are effective.
*       Too little is being done to reduce the level of overpayment debt outstanding and this is increasing each year.

To help the service improve, inspectors made a number of recommendations. These include:
*       Improve the speed and accuracy of the service provided.
*       Make it easier to access the service, and ensure it meets the needs of all of its customers.
*       Take action to improve value for money.

Oxford City Council told Heeart they don't accept it's a fair assessment of the service. In a statement they said:

"Over the last 12 months a lot of work has been done to improve the service. We are now amongst the best authorities nationally for our speed of processing Housing Benefit Claims. This year, we are embarking on a review of the way the Service is delivered to achieve further efficiencies and to reduce our costs."

Paul Wilding, Benefits Manager at Oxford City Council, says:

 “We have introduced a new performance management system to get the best performance from staff and we have developed our quality assurance system to improve the accuracy of benefits processing.  They stated that our accuracy rates are in the bottom 25 per cent of local authorities. However, there is no basis for making this comparison as each authority measures its accuracy in different ways”.

The report criticised the Council because its waiting times on the phone are sometimes too long.

Paul adds:

“Customer service is one of the Council’s priorities, and we are making significant investment to improve the experience for our customers. In the Summer we will open a new face-to-face customer service centre in St Aldate’s and a single contact centre, both of which will be able to deal with a wide range of Council service enquiries at the first point of contact. This will lead to shorter waiting times for all types of enquiry and a more accessible and improved service.”

Councillor Val Smith, Board Member for Customer Services, says:

“There were numerous changes that the Audit Commission had to make to their report about the Council which invalidates the process and their overall findings. The Audit Commission claimed that we would not improve which is wholly wrong as we have proven already that we have substantially improved our service to our residents. New claims are now being dealt with in less than nine days and amendments to claims are being made in under seven days. 95 per cent of our customers are satisfied with our service and we want to improve that figure.  This is a testament to the dedicated work of our officers to improve the service. The improvement in the service has been remarkable and sustained in the last year. A fair assessment would say that the Benefits Service is improving but still faces challenges in the coming year.”

Oxford City Council’s benefits service pays out around £70 million in benefits each year to over 10,300 people claiming council tax benefit and over 11,000 people claiming housing benefits.

The service is run in-house as part of Customer Services within the City Services directorate, with 49.6 full-time equivalent staff. The cost of running the service in 2009/10 was £2.9 million, of which £1.2 million is funded by the Department for Work and Pensions and the balance is met by the council.