Features: June 9th, 2010

By Emma Gorringe

Since the Total Place pilot, partners in Bedfordshire including Central Bedfordshire and Luton Borough Council have been developing more than 50 proposals which aim to cut crime and improve the welfare benefits system in Bedfordshire and Luton.
Central Bedfordshire and Luton have been one of 13 Total Place pilots across the country, set up to transform public services through improved working between central and local government agencies.

The initiative has been looking at a ‘whole area’ approach to public services, to identify how both councils can lead better services at less cost. Partners in Luton and Bedfordshire adopted the theme ’from dependence to self-reliance’, focusing on streamlining the benefits system and improving offender management.

Delivering better value for money services Councillor Richard Stay, Deputy Leader of Central Bedfordshire Council, said: “This ambitious and challenging programme is bringing together elements of central government and local agencies within a place, aiming to achieve three key things:
1. To create service transformations that can improve the experience of local residents and deliver better value;
2. To deliver early efficiencies to validate the work; and
3. To develop a body of knowledge about how more effective cross agency working delivers the above.

The Total Place report for Central Bedfordshire and Luton, published in February 2010, has identified 50 proposals and many of these service improvements are available locally, at little or no additional cost. Other improvements may require further investment, with some being rolled out nationally or requiring central government involvement or even legislative change. However big or small, these changes will demonstrate a commitment to achieve radical change as the pilot seeks to help improve the experience for service users.

Cllr Robin Harris, Deputy Leader of Luton Borough Council, added: “Rapid progress was made within extremely tight timescales. In November we set up an intensive schedule of workshops involving more than 250 stakeholders to consider and re-design services as our customers would like them. The workshops looked at how we could improve the customer experience, and the subsequent efficiencies that could be achieved through delivering these changes.”

The findings

• The welfare benefits system is complex and full of duplication
• Nearly a third of local Citizen’s Advice Bureau time is spent helping people understand what they are entitled to and how to complete forms
• Claimants answer the same questions in at least two different benefit offices and face delays before getting any money
• High marginal tax rates mean that benefit is cut between 60p to 90p for every £1 earned over a basic needs allowance. This actively discourages many people from coming off benefit and returning to work
• Streamlining administration and simplifying the benefits system will speed up benefit payments to those in need, enable them to re-enter work more easily and cut the cost of providing and administering benefits
• Ultimately we will be looking at how we encourage people away from and off benefits and into gainful employment. But the streamlining of the current system, for those entitled to some form of benefit, is the first phase of the work

Making real changes

Cllr Stay added: “This pilot has really demonstrated the way forward for us and we intend to make it real and meaningful. It is vital we get the process off the ground and start making real changes.
“Local authorities are facing huge economic challenges, so there has never been a more important time to start reviewing our ways of working together. We know that there is going to be less money available for public services and we have a duty to make what resources we do have go a lot further before we consider what it is we stop doing.”

Tackling the problem

There are a range of steps we are taking to tackle the problems highlighted in the report:
‘Access to Benefits’
• Access to benefits could remove many of the hurdles that discourage people from coming off benefits and getting into work. We are therefore looking at creating a single triage ‘gateway’ for claimants. Initial customer assessment will signpost them to appropriate services and co-ordination of support services.
• Creating single teams to visit vulnerable people will help to cut multiple visits by all agencies, including a single fraud and compliance team.
• Electronic customer document and data sharing between Council Tax Benefits Offices and JobCentre Plus and co-locating customer contact to community hubs.
We will be developing a far simpler process for claiming benefits to speed up payments and greatly reduce administration costs, errors and fraud. It will also be fundamental to establish a single benefit assessment process.

Integrated Offender Management

• Current procedures for dealing with offenders are expensive and often completely fail to break the cycle of re-offending.

• A mere two per cent of persistent offenders are responsible for almost a third of crime committed in our area, mainly burglaries and car theft.

• Average cost of dealing with these offenders is around £500,000 each per year.

• Over eight out of ten of these have a drug dependency.

Ultimately, we need to provide support at critical stages of the journey through the system for these offenders. This will enable them to break out of the cycle of re-offending, potentially saving the above amount for every repeat offender.

Our vision

Cllr Harris said, that: ”Our ultimate vision for the benefits system is one that is simplified, coherent and cost-effective and helps people into work. It must be built around customers, it will help them receive their entitlements more easily, but at the same time help tackle underlying problems and assist self-reliance rather than dependency. It will remove many of the systemic disincentives to coming off benefits and returning to employment.”

Stakeholders across Bedfordshire and Luton are in agreement that working together to join up processes and improve partnership working is the only way forward as we enter these challenging economic times. By simply working together on the pilot Total Place project, partners including Central Bedfordshire and Luton Borough Council have proved that we can streamline services and reduce paper work. The future of local government will be about all of us working together to save money and increase the quality of services for those we serve.

Emma Gorringe is with Central Bedfordshire council