Re-think on welfare advice

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A public petition asking for council officers to look into the needs of benefit claimants in the region has been presented to Scottish Borders Council.

Jenni Craig, the council’s service director for customers and communities, has been told by councillors to implement the demands of the petition: to increase accessibility and support for benefits claimants and re-evaluate a restructure at the council, which petitioners claim has negatively affected the ability of disabled people to claim benefits.

The council formerly employed welfare benefits assistants, who helped people fill out application forms and could represent claimants at tribunals.

However, following a restructure designed to save the council £300,000, these roles were absorbed into a combined customer, homelessness and benefits service.

The restructure was carried out without public consultation, which petitioners say has led to confusion among benefits claimants.

Presenting the petition to Scottish Borders Council’s audit and scrutiny committee last week, Jenny Mushlin, chair of the Borders mental health forum and chief author of the petition, said: “There is known to be an association between financial uncertainty, money worries, and poor mental health.

“Whilst fewer than one in ten people without a mental health problem have debt problems, this rises to close to one in four among those with depression or anxiety.

“Problems with welfare benefits and poverty can trigger both new and known mental health problems.

“We would urge you to recognise that the welfare benefits service is a vital service for the mental health and wellbeing of all in the Borders, monitor all the effects of changes and take appropriate action.”

In response, service director Jenni Craig said: “Prior to November 1, 2017 the equivalent of 1.7 welfare benefit assistants were employed to assist with basic benefit enquiries including form filling with customers.

“We now have 49 customer advice and support advisors across a wider range of locations, with a remit to assist customers at the first point of contact with their enquiry whether they present in a locality office face to face, over the telephone or online.

“These advisers already deal with a range of benefit enquiries and applications as well as carrying out assessments for blue badges.

“However, in hindsight we would have benefitted from consulting with service users before the restructure.

“The whole ethos was to bring savings but also to balance our responsibilities.

“We now have a new model where we have staff coming together and providing advice, and we want to offer a wider, more accessible service right across the Borders.”