Blog by Susan Taylor, Benefit Manager, Cheshire West and Chester Council. 15 October 2014.

We started the week by winning the IRRV Excellence in Social Inclusion Gold award! The team collected their prize to the sound of Katie Perry’s Roar- which seems appropriate for those who attended! They certainly did, after a few drinks anyway!

It has taken us 5 years to change our own culture to achieve this award! When we became a Unitary Council in 2009 we created two key posts, to take advantage of new joint working opportunities. Our Visits and Take Up Co-ordinator, is tasked with creating new partnerships, and understanding exactly what is available in the area and nationally. Our Training Officer administers our discretionary funds as well as the appeals and complaints team, training staff and partners and keeping them updated in relation to changes including welfare reforms. Between them they provide the crucial link and support for customers, partners and staff, through their expertise and high levels of knowledge.

Our local welfare assistance scheme is called HELP, designed as a single phone call to the team, who provide a one stop shop of expert advice and assistance in addition to funding. A visiting team, four employment mentors and a debt adviser sit next to this team, and will visit any customers who need urgent help.

The scheme has evolved and we now commission training, pay for licences, and for any work related costs to get customers into work or to keep them in work. For one customer this included paying for his HGV training and licence, as a loan which is now being repaid. Mentors will work with the customer to help them in starting work and to support them once they have started. This sometimes involves liaising with employers during the first few weeks of work. We have helped more than 100 customers into work since April, and through our partnership working in the area our CTRS caseload has reduced by more than 1000, saving the council over £1m.

We have a cashless scheme (normally) providing reconditioned furniture from a local charity, a card payment for fuel top ups, another payment card for food and other sundry items. We have sourced re-usable nappies which we offer to families with young children who cannot afford disposables. Nothing is out of scope, with some unusual awards for a skip and for hospital fares. We work closely with partners and try to consider their needs and any recommendations recognising that it is the outcome for the customer which is important.

Recently we engaged with, and advised a housing provider specialising in homelessness to increase their rent levels, so that they could afford to improve their security and support. This satisfied the Police and Housing Teams, and we agreed to work with them to support their tenants to move on and to engage with employment opportunities.

We visited feeder prisons for this area to discuss the gaps in provision. We changed the scheme afterwards to provide clothing for prisoners and additional housing support.

All of our policies complement each other to:

  • Support those who are unable to work- through benefits, discretionary funds and providing support to improve their financial position
  • Help those who could work to do so- to provide the support they need to work and to move into a better, more affordable financial position.

We use our discretionary funds to incentivise and to support people to work. We have several proactive schemes in place to identify customers who live in deprived areas, or are in targeted groups. For example, we have targeted our under 25 and offered them a Council Tax Reduction Scheme discretionary award if they will work with us to find employment.

As part of our Helping Hands projects we visit everybody on our benefits in each deprived area. This gives us an idea of area related problems such as travel, and housing. We use this to build a picture of each household, to identify poverty and fuel poverty, and to target financial help effectively. We work with the affordable warmth teams, and refer customers for any help which is available at the time of the visit. This includes decent homes loans for household repairs, or help with new boilers or home insulation. Jobs are advertised to partners and within the council and we also use this information to advertise opportunities to individuals. We also work with Children’s Centres to encourage the take up of nursery places, doing joint visits to any family who are not engaging with them.

Where next? We are part of a joint project with the DWP engaging with the hardest to reach groups to prevent entrenched sickness and unemployment, helping to develop a tool for early identification, and a programme of activity for these customers. Our mentors will provide support in the Council run Work zones during the projects, as an early intervention model.