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Making life easier for benefit claimants

Date: 27/08/2008           Category: Finance

An innovative approach to helping people sort out their benefit claims has seen a series of surgeries organised in venues across Medway. Medway Council has worked with its partners to introduce the new scheme, which involves advisers going out into the community rather than expecting claimants to visit council offices. “We decided that instead of trying to persuade people to travel in to see us we would get out and about and take our service to them,” explained Senior Benefits Officer Jan Shawyer. “The scheme reflects the council’s determination to make sure that as many people as possible who are entitled to benefits - particularly housing benefit and council tax benefit – are helped to claim them.” The out and about surgeries began with the introduction of weekly visits to the Woodlands Children’s Centre in Gillingham, where staff are on hand to answer queries every Thursday between 9am and 12 noon. Officers will also be on hand at the Elaine Centre in Darnley Road, Strood, between 9 am and 1 pm on Wednesdays from 24 September, at St James’ Primary C of E School Children’s Centre between 9 am and 12 noon on Fridays from 26 September and at the Walter Brice Centre in Hoo once a month from 23 September. All the surgeries are being held in comfortable surroundings, designed to provide a friendly and welcoming venue where people can discuss their situation and make sure that they are not missing out. With Medway currently the second most deprived area in Kent, it is vitally important that people claim all the benefits to which they are entitled, but the evidence suggests that many of them are not doing so. “We send out forms to people that our records suggest should be claiming benefits, but only about 60 per cent of them are returned, which means that as many as four out of every ten people could be missing out,” explained Jan. Further changes in legislation due in October mean the situation is unlikely to improve. “The switch from Incapacity Benefit to Employment Support Allowance and the ongoing introduction of Local Housing Allowance make it vitally important that the council looks at alternative ways of giving customers appropriate advice and encouraging them to claim,” she said. “Taking the surgeries out to new venues across Medway is a new way of helping customers access services locally.” With around 22,300 people in Medway currently on benefit, the council estimates that as many as 60 per cent of them could be affected. Taking the surgeries out to new venues across Medway will allow as many people as possible to get the advice they need as easily as possible. While focusing on benefit issues, the teams will also be able to provide advice on a wide range of other issues, including employment issues, pensions and housing. “We have telephone and laptop computer links to other organisations which means that in many cases we don’t simply give people advice but can make the call and help to solve the problem,” Jan said. “We have very good relationships with people like the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, Jobcentre Plus and many local landlords.” The council’s Deputy Leader Alan Jarrett said: “The council is determined to help people claim the benefits to which they are entitled and I am certain that this initiative will be welcomed by people across Medway. This is another example of putting customers at the heart of everything we do.”