St Albans benefits claimants on the rise

St Albans City & District Council

St Albans City & District Council - Credit: Archant

THE number of benefit applications received by the district council has rocketed in the last year leaving a backlog of cases that are over 30 days old.

Latest figures from St Albans district council show the caseload for active claimants for the month of June is up by 38 per cent, compared with the same time last year.

They have also recorded a backlog at the start of this month of 744, with 180 cases waiting information from the claimant, which they said is being tackled by providing more resources to the benefits department.

The council claim the delay has been partly caused by the introduction of weekly updates of people’s circumstances that take two full-time officers to process.

But according to opposition councillors it is due to more people needing help in wake of the so-called bedroom tax.

Labour group leader, Cllr Martin Leach, said: “The introduction of policies like the bedroom tax are adding to the pressure as people’s circumstances are reviewed.

“It all adds up to the huge cost of implementing the government’s welfare reform programme, costing the council hundreds of thousands of pounds in the last year. With more upheaval just around the corner in universal credit we need to make sure we have adequate resources to meet residents needs.”

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Cllr Leach also cited increased rents and the rising cost of living as reasons why more people are applying for benefits saying they are not “scroungers” but “hardworking people struggling to get by on low wages”.

In the council’s performance report, which was discussed at last Thursday’s cabinet meeting, it was highlighted in May 2012 council tax support and housing benefit claims were being processed in around 23 days, but by April this year they were taking more than 34 days.

An additional temporary member of staff was hired by the council last month and part-time staff given more hours to help reduce the number of outstanding cases.

Cllr Brian Ellis, portfolio holder for housing at the council, said: “The council benefits team is experiencing an increase in their workload due to more frequent notification of benefits changes. This knocks-on to the time available to process new claims.

“We are looking at ways to speed up the processing of claims and are increasing the size of the team processing benefit claims.

“Applicants can help us to help them by providing all requested information when they submit their claim.”