A service which helps Lancashire residents claim the maximum amount of benefits to which they are entitled is to stop offering advice over the phone.
Lancashire County Council’s welfare rights service can currently be contacted directly by members of the public. However, from next April, it will focus largely on referrals from other council departments which identify people in need of support.
The move – which will also see a reduction in the number of people working in the service – will save just over £100,000. It had originally been intended to reduce the welfare rights budget by £380,000, but a public consultation concluded that there are no alternative schemes run by the voluntary sector which could offer similar advice.
“It was hoped that the work could be picked up by district organisations such as Citizens Advice, but it seems the required skills are not currently there to take on some of the more complex casework to ensure vulnerable people access the service they need,” County Cllr Shaun Turner, cabinet member for health and wellbeing, told a meeting of the authority’s cabinet.
The changes will not affect the legal support which the service provides to help people challenge benefit decisions – but will reduce direct access to general benefits advice for the elderly, disabled and those experiencing poverty.
The work done by the welfare rights team secured an additional £7.8m in benefits for people in Lancashire last year – £5.2m from tribunal cases and the remainder from advice and targeted campaigns.
Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali said he had sat in on the welfare advice telephone service during which callers had been “at the end of their tether”.
“At a time when universal credit is being rolled out, foodbank [use] is growing and we have holiday hunger, I think it’s a wrong decision to cut this particular service. I think it’s short-sighted to cease the telephony service – it will be a major problem [for] people who don’t have IT skills or access to IT,” County Cllr Ali warned.
The meeting heard that the authority would be offering training to other agencies to help them become better equipped to offer the kind of specialist help which some residents require.
Papers presented to the cabinet meeting acknowledged the potential impact on other council services of the original proposal, but Conservative council leader Geoff Driver said that he was confident that the welfare rights team would continue to deliver similar levels of service under the revised proposition.
“The proposal is to delete [already] vacant posts, so we have a strong expectation that the capacity will be fine,” County Cllr Driver said.
But Labour’s deputy opposition group leader John Fillis warned of the knock-on effects elsewhere of any reduction in capacity within the welfare rights service.
“People tend to spend this money in their local communities, so that is a double benefit to Lancashire – people increasing their standards of living and local services like shops being maintained,” County Cllr Fillis said.
The meeting heard that other recent cuts to the welfare rights service – which has been operating for 30 years – had seen reductions in the levels of additional benefit entitlement which residents were able to access. Cash gains dropped from £13.7m in 2015/16 to £7.8m last year.