It was just over two weeks ago, at the last full Salford Council meeting, when City Mayor Ian Stewart praised the Council's Welfare Rights service … "The best in country" he said, adding that the changes in welfare benefits will "raise demand" of an already overstretched service.
"The irony is" he explained "that we are forced to make reductions in resources just when need increases."
Two hours later, Stewart formally proposed next year's budget which had within it a £350,000 cut in welfare and debt advice.
Over the last few years, Salford Council's Welfare Rights and Debt Advice Service has already had a 30% cut – losing five posts for staff working with older people and people with disabilities. The net affect of this has been that, according to a trade union report, 650 fewer people will be assisted with a loss of over £1.36 million a year for vulnerable people. Council funding for Salford Citizen Advice Bureau (CAB) has also had a 24% cut.
Meanwhile, to save over £100,000, people wanting advice cannot phone the Welfare Rights team directly. They have to go through the Council's call centre, which has reduced accessibility considerably as people hanging on to get an answer eventually hang up. The Salford Star understands that calls to the service are down by a third since the call centre system came in - just when people need it most.
Now, the whole Welfare Rights and Debt Advice service is to be `reconfigured', making it even harder for people to get face-to-face advice.
The new `model' aims to direct those wanting help, who are usually desperate and in need of urgent advice, towards a website to get information or to fill in an online form. Yet 68% of those who live in socially rented housing don't have access to computers. Gateways and libraries, where internet access is available, are already understaffed and open shorter hours.
"The model…recognises the challenges that will be presented to the city by the many welfare reforms that are currently being implemented including changes to housing benefits, council tax relief, many of the social care benefits and moves towards universal credits" states a Council report "This will increase demand and therefore, the model ensures that wherever people enter the system there are appropriate choices for them to take, including more opportunities for self-help."
Yet the whole reason why people need advice is that benefit and debt problems are always complicated and need specialised help. Salford was looking at the model used in Stockport but that, the report states, "relies much more on face to face provision and whilst this has advantages, it is one of the reasons for increased cost."
Instead, non-specialised `Customer Services staff' at Gateways and Hubs will be burdened with advice direction duties, while the Council is "considering out-stationing more specialist staff in these places".
The Council report hilariously concludes that the new model "will provide an improved customer journey".
Even after pushing people through call centres or internet advice pages, the savings still won't be enough to hit cuts budgets, unless Salford Council has a change of heart. At the moment there's still a further £350,000 cut to make in the service.
"If the remaining amount of savings required from the corporate target is to be met, this can only be achieved by significant reductions in service levels" states the Council report "This is likely to be in the relation to the capacity within the welfare rights service and the provision of CAB bureaux across the city…"
Previous Salford Star articles (see here and see here) have highlighted the negative affects of the ConDem Government and Salford Council welfare changes – including Bedroom Tax, and Council Tax Benefit cuts - on Salford's people and economy…
£31million a year will be lost to the economy and a possible 1000 jobs lost to the city. These figures come from an internal Salford Council report on the Impact on Salford of the Welfare Reform Act which concludes…
"The combined effect of these proposals will be to reduce the incomes of many vulnerable groups within the City particularly families with children, people with disabilities, long-term ill health and those unable to find work. This will take place at the same time as evidence indicates that the most vulnerable in the community are facing real cuts to their income; increased costs of daily living and the public services upon which many rely are under pressure.
"This is likely to manifest itself in… Increased indebtedness. Increased arrears of rent and Council Tax. Increased use of high interest lenders and loan sharks. Increased homelessness presentations and homes at risk of possession. Fewer people with contents insurance. Fewer people with savings. Higher levels of depression and mental health problems."
The same report states… "There will be increased demand for advice and support services and its role will be critical to building personal financial resilience, assisting the prevention of homelessness, combating child poverty, and linking residents to training and work opportunities."
The report also lists just how successful the Welfare Rights team is in supporting Salford people to get benefits to which they are entitled, and thus bringing money back into the city's economy.
For instance, many people who get kicked off Incapacity Benefit appeal against the decision to get it overturned. Nationally, 31% of decisions are overturned. Salford Welfare Rights Service's average success rate is 79%.
The worst impacts of welfare cuts will be felt when the dreaded Universal Benefits come into force from October this year. By then, Salford's Welfare Rights and Debt Advice Service may well be a shadow of its current form…unless Salford Council decides not to go ahead with further cuts totalling over £300,000…
Salford Mayor, Ian Stewart's "irony…that we are forced to make reductions in resources just when need increases" is purely his own decision. And, as the social disaster unfolds, he will have to live with that decision - as those in need of urgent and desperate advice go on their "improved customer journey"…
• To contact Salford Council's Welfare Rights and Debt Advice Service – click here. Incredibly the service isn't flagged on the front page of the Council's website.