Advice sessions show we need to look closer at why benefits are not reaching those entitled to them

Cllr John Cotton, Cabinet Member for Social Justice, Community Safety and Equalities, writes about the work being done to support residents during the cost of living crisis...

As part of our response to the cost of living crisis – which has included the development of warm welcome spaces and financial support for food banks amongst many other things – we began providing extended opening hours at our Advice and Information Centres in Erdington and Northfield at the start of November.

These sessions (which run from 4.30pm-7pm on Tuesdays and 10am-1pm on Saturday) are specifically to help people struggling to make ends meet.

Their focus is to examine an individual’s circumstances to see if they are claiming all the benefits they are entitled to and advising them on how to secure money they appear to be legitimately able to receive.

As our own resources are finite and we are also affected by the issues being faced by households in every neighbourhood of this city, it‘s been important to monitor the effectiveness of these extended hours – and it’s clear they are making a big difference

As of mid-December, our hard-working staff have supported 180 citizens during the extended hours – unlocking a projected £281,677 in extra benefits, equivalent to an average of £1,564 per case over the course of a year, or £30 per week.

Of the total helped, 43 have been “walk-ins”, while 41 have attended by prior appointment.

In addition to this, our staff covering the extended hours have been making targeted outbound telephone calls to families we know are experiencing difficulties (because, for example, we have recently supported them through the Local Welfare Provision programme).

This proactive approach has seen us support 96 individuals.

Whilst in an era of double-digit inflation, the sums of money being identified are life-changing for those who have been helped, with some having their income maximised by in excess of £10,000 per year.

As many of the benefits are not administered by the council, our role is to advise, support and signpost – but our teams are vastly experienced, meaning there is a high degree of confidence that this money can be claimed by the individuals concerned.

We are informing those who we engage with about what needs to be done next, but it is crucial the citizens do their bit (filling in a form or making a call to the relevant agency etc).

But a question this then poses for all concerned is “why are we in a position where so much is going unclaimed?”

Although our immediate focus is on helping people in desperate need, this is something we are looking at and intend to raise this at the highest levels possible with the relevant departments and teams at a central government level.

This is all money existing within agreed benefits budgets, so it is concerning – for whatever reason – this money hasn’t been claimed before.

We need to put forward Birmingham as a case study to kickstart a review of the system so we can get to the root causes.

If this money was reaching the pockets of people in need sooner, it is probable issues they face could be significantly eased. And this of course doesn’t even cover what our advice teams are doing during their regular opening hours.

It’s clear that there are still many problems with the current benefits system. It frequently fails to provide sufficient support early enough to stop people falling into crisis. Many also find it a fiendishly complex system to find their way around, which also deters people from claiming what they are entitled to.

This needs to change – we need a system that helps people as soon as possible, rather than waiting for them to reach rock bottom, as that is when even more extensive support is then needed.

Having looked at data from the extended hours, there are a number of different benefits that are commonly being under-claimed for a range of reasons.

In order to assist, we’ve established a webpage explaining how each of these commonly-unclaimed benefits work – and how to get more information.

We’ve also put up posters at the advice centres, but if someone cannot attend one or access the internet, they can go along to their local library, where staff will help people use a public computer free of charge.

As a council, our message is clear: we will help people however we can during this crisis. Resources are limited, but – through projects like this – there are ways we can make a difference and our support is available for everyone, because nobody is immune to the challenges we face.

And once we are able to, we’ll be asking the Government and other agencies to look at how we can work together to improve early intervention as this is in the best interests of everyone.

Full details of how we are supporting people during this crisis are available via our Help in Brum hub at:

This blog was posted on xx December 2022

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