A DAMNING report has branded Oxford City Council’s benefits service as “poor” and criticised its high cost to taxpayers.

The Government’s public services watchdog handed the council a “zero star” rating and raised failings in accuracy, the time taken to deal with claims and customer service standards.

It described management within the department as “weak” and pointed out the cost of the service, which processes thousands of claims each year, is also much higher than many other councils.

City debt advisers, who deal with the fallout from delayed payments, said last night the verdict was “no surprise” and called for a complete overhaul.

But the council claimed the Audit Commission’s verdict was “unfair”. It admitted its service was failing but said improvements had been made.

The Labour-run council deals with more than 10,300 people claiming council tax benefit, while 11,000 people claim housing benefits each year.

Jim Saunders, manager of the Agnes Smith Advice Centre in Blackbird Leys, said it was clear from the cases his advisers dealt with that the service was failing.

He added: “It doesn’t surprise me,. The council benefits systems needs a complete overhaul.”

Mr Saunders said people were threatened with eviction by landlords because housing benefit payments had been delayed.

He added: “Quite a few of our debt cases also involve problems where benefits have taken a long time to process.”

The watchdog report revealed processing times for new benefit claims (23 days during 2010-11) were worse than the year before, when it was 19 days.

The service took 10 days to process changes in circumstances in 2009/10 compared with a national average of eight days – that figure was 17 days in 2010-11.

It added: “People made vulnerable by their circumstances are not being helped as quickly as they should be.”

The cost of running the service in 2009-10 was £2.9m, of which £1.2m was funded by the Department for Work and Pensions.

According to the council’s own figures, it cost them £110 to process each claim, much higher than the national average of £60 to £70.

Tim Savill, from the Audit Commission, 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.”

But Val Smith, the council executive member responsible for the service, said significant improvements had now been made.

She added: “There were a lot of things that went wrong and we have taken professional advice to put it right. The arrangements for staff and the way they were managed was not good. It was taking longer and that was costing money.”

Asked if the council needed to apologise to those it had failed Mrs Smith said: “Absolutely. I am horrified anybody would have to wait and we are making sure that does not happen, “ she added.

Liberal Democrat councillor Stephen Brown described the report as “very damning” and said the poor performance was well known within the council. He added: “The cost is very, very concerning. We haven’t really got to the bottom of it.”

Good and bad points:

The 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.
  • The level of accuracy is poor.
  • Too little is being done to reduce the level of overpayment debt outstanding and this is increasing.

The 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.
  • What is your experience of the council's benefits service? Email us at news@oxfordmail.co.uk or call the newsdesk on 01865 425500