THE housing benefits service in West Somerset has been rated as one of the worst of any council in the whole country.
The Audit Commission gave the district council service a zero rating, leaving the council among the 25 per cent poorest performing authorities in England.
The commission’s 2007-2008 report said 3,500 residents had faced ‘unacceptable delays’ as benefit claims took up to 65 days to process, and the service was not demonstrating ‘value for money’.
The inspection team said it accepted the council had made improvements during the past 12 months, including new IT investment, better working practices, and improvements in the continuity of service delivery.
The commission’s senior manager, Sophie Trim, said: “The benefits service at West Somerset Council is now showing signs of improvement following changes in both working practices and technology.
“There is a strong commitment from councillors and staff to deliver improvements, and these improvements have had an impact on customers.
“People now receive their benefit quicker and have better access through telephone, website, and frontline services.”
However, the commission said the council still needed to do further work to improve the accessibility to benefits for customers and to ensure service standards and performance targets were relevant to customers’ needs.
It also recommended further improvements to performance monitoring and management, and for the service to be more proactive in identifying and deterring levels of benefit fraud.
District council leader Council Keith Ross tried to dismiss the Audit Commission’s dreadful report on the basis that it was old.
Councillor Ross said: “There had been a lot of redundancies in the benefits department which slowed down the processing time, but this last year we have improved to processing claims within 11 days.”