Council has fair benefits service

A WATCHDOG has judged that East Devon District Council s benefits service has slipped from good to fair following an inspection.

A WATCHDOG has judged that East Devon District Council's benefits service has slipped from 'good' to 'fair' following an inspection.

However the service, which was given one-star out of three with 'uncertain prospects for improvement', was judged using a new much stiffer method test - that has downgraded every council inspected under the new rules.

Of the 17 council's assessed under the new rules every one was judged 'poor', bar four, including EDDC, who were judged fair.

The commission said EDDC dealt with new claims and changes in circumstances more quickly than before, as well as providing good value for money.

But it added that people cannot always use the service when they want because its opening times are limited and more could be done to promote benefits to those who might need them.

Strengths listed include an easy to use website and improvements to the way discretionary payments are made to people in particular need.

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But the report also says the council has allocated limited resources to fraud prevention and fraud is not tackled as effectively as in other councils.

Martin Green, Audit Commission senior manager, said: "I am pleased to see the improvements the council has made in its housing benefits service in the last two years.

"In particular it is deciding and paying claims much more quickly. This is important as more people need help in the recession. The service is good value for money.

"But the council needs to do more to find out what local people want and make changes to meet those needs. Senior managers and councillors need to get better at checking the quality and cost of the service in future."

Inspectors recommended that performance could be improved if staff report more frequently to managers and councillors.

Manager's roles should also be clarified and confidentiality for customers visiting council offices should be improved.

While the council, it was also recommended, should look at sharing fraud investigation services with neighbouring councils.

"We're bemused by some of the criticisms since they are not based on any facts and anyway our customers seem to appreciate the service we provide," said Councillor Andrew Moulding, Portfolio Holder for Resources.

"I'm pleased that the Audit Commission recognises the recent improvements in the service, which are continuing.

"I would like to congratulate the staff who have introduced improvements over the last year, at the same that demand has risen by 34 per cent because of the economic climate - all this with fewer staff than last year. We are very proud of our teams and their great achievements.