WEST Berkshire Council is taking five days longer to process new benefit claims than it was two years ago.
Council figures show it was taking on average 23 days for payments to be processed between April and December 2016, compared to just under 18 in 2014/15, and 19 the following year.
The figure falls short of the target it set itself of processing claims within 18.5 days.
Last February, contractors who had been employed by the council on a temporary basis to process benefit claims were made redundant as a cost-cutting measure.
The council’s chief executive, Nick Carter, has described it as ‘a blip’ due to staffing issues, but added that he expects the figure to come down soon.
The housing benefit figures are presented in the council’s Key Accountable Measures report, which monitors how it is performing in a number of areas. If the council misses its target, that area is highlighted as red in the report.
Opposition leader Lee Dillon (Lib Dem, Thatcham North) raised the issue at a council meeting earlier this month.
Mr Dillon said: “One that is really concerning is providing benefits, at least 23 days to be able to process.
“I know that the reassessment has dropped down and is getting closer to its 18.5 day target.
“However, I would like to urge again the real impact those extra five working days can have on residents being able to access their funds and pay their rent, and be able to pay their priority bills.
“Looking at the reason for benefits being in red, it was partly down to staff retention.
“So we have lost a member of staff, we then went out recruiting and within two weeks that member of staff had secured a full-time secondment to another area of the business.
“I think we need to be a lot smarter about allowing staff to move on into different areas of the council when it has such an impact on a frontline service such as processing benefit claims.
“I wonder if there is something we can do with colleagues in HR to look at when you are allowed to move on to different roles, particularly the impact they can have on those frontline services.”
Mr Carter replied: “The performance is slightly adrift from the 18 target. It is about 22, 23 days.
“It is not an excuse but that is very close to the national average at the moment. It has been caused by staffing issues.
“We have, historically, used a consultant resource for some of our benefit processing. It is expensive, but it is actually very good.
“We decided to pull back from that this year, largely because of financial reasons, and decided to bring all of it in house.
“It has taken slightly longer to get those staff up to speed than we thought it would, hence the performance has dropped back a bit.
“I am told that we will be back to 18 [days] next year and I am very comfortable that the staffing problems have now settled and are where they need to be.
“So this is a blip, for which I apologise, but we will be back to 18 [days] soon. From the first quarter [of the 2017/18 financial year] I expect to see it lower.”