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Speedy benefits system praised

PUBLISHED: 16:31 13 January 2010 | UPDATED: 11:22 23 August 2010

CLAIMANTS can receive benefits faster and more efficiently but improvements are needed, according to an independent review. Gravesham Borough Council s benefits service has been described as fair , with promising prospects for improvement according to

CLAIMANTS can receive benefits faster and more efficiently but improvements are needed, according to an independent review.

Gravesham Borough Council's benefits service has been described as "fair", with "promising prospects for improvement" according to a report published by the Audit Commission on Monday.

On a scale on zero to four the council collected a one, based on the improved speed with which officers handle new application.

A new fast-track system means that customers can have their claims decided within 48 hours if all the documents are supplied.

But Gravesham was criticised for the amount of time people using the phone were forced to wait before speaking to an advisor.

Too many claims are also not being assessed accurately and people who want to appeal their benefits decisions are waiting too long to have their cases reviewed.

Claire Bryce-Smith, Audit Commission senior manager, said: 'Successfully claiming benefits is an essential safety net for many people, especially during the current economic downturn.

"Gravesham Borough Council has done much to improve the benefits service for local people, but recognises there is more to do."

Other areas highlighted included praise for the council's response to feedback, its robust approach to fraudulent claims and the help provided for people with communication disabilities or whose first language is not English

Gravesham Borough Council's Benefits Service pays out around £32 million in benefits per year to 8,300 people claiming Council Tax Benefit and 6,700 people claiming Housing Benefits.

To help the service improve, inspectors recommended improved opening hours and more work to publicise the fast-track system be implemented

Councillor Adrian Warburton, Cabinet member for transformation, said: "We have made big strides in improving the benefits service and we are continuing this work to improve the overall performance to our customers.

"It is pleasing that we have been able to fast-track new claims in a year when the economy has plunged into recession.

"We are right up with the best in Kent on the two things that really matter to benefits claimants - that is new claims and change of circumstances.

"We are also doing extremely well in dealing with benefits theft and we are determined to continue to crack down on this."

nick.hitchens@archant.co.uk

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