This FIT team’s working well for the benefit of everyone ...

Every penny counts for people who have to claim benefits and the council's financial inclusion team can help
Every penny counts for people who have to claim benefits and the council's financial inclusion team can help

More than £29 million of benefits have been won for North Lanarkshire residents, thanks to expert advice from a specialist council team.

North Lanarkshire’s Financial Inclusion team (FIT) was formed to help people negotiate a very complicated benefits system which has seen massive changes in recent years.

It brought together the knowledge of the council’s welfare rights and debt management teams along with staff from health and social care.

The result was council residents being able to claim £29,015,130 in additional benefit income.

Among the specialist services FIT provides and run in partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support is The Macmillan Lanarkshire Advice Service which has helped claim £4,264,125 for people and families affected by cancer.

In addition, the Financial Inclusion Team’s appeals team has a success rate of 66.5 per cent at Social Security Appeals Tribunals – compared to the UK national average of 46 per cent.

Both of these services were set up by the council as it began to realise the far-reaching impact benefit changes would have on North Lanarkshire residents, many of whom are already on the poverty line.

“The benefits system is very complex so completing the right forms with the appropriate information can be daunting for many people,” explained Councillor Michael McPake, convener of the infrastructure committee.

“Our staff know the system inside out and are able to help residents apply for the benefits that meet their needs and circumstances.

“The team offer full benefit checks to residents, making sure they receive all the benefits they are entitled to and maximising their income.

“They also provide advice and help with completing benefit applications and represent residents at appeals tribunals.

“By maximising incomes, we are helping to reduce poverty in our communities, boosting the local economy and improving the quality of lives of local people.”

A report into the team’s work found that for every £1 the council invested in delivering the service, it generated £25.91 for residents – money that goes back into the local economy.

Huge changes people are contending with include incapacity benefit being replaced by employment and support allowance (ESA).

People who are unable to work for health reasons had to reapply for the new benefits – so while the people hadn’t changed, the system had.

“The changes were nothing really to do with the condition a person had,” John Campbell, who leads the team, explained.

“The scoring changed, so under the new system you might get a score of ten but you needed 15 points – that sort of thing was common.”

The changes reduced the benefits bill – in 2008 19,000 people in North Lanarkshire were in receipt of Incapacity Benefit; by 2013, around 13,000 were receiving the new ESA.

With constant headlines about ‘scroungers’, the government’s crackdown was supposed to target people who could work but chose not to.

John believes this is overstated.

“No-one can say there isn’t fraud but it’s a very, very small percentage,” he said.

“The reality is that there are more unclaimed benefits than those fraudulently claimed – that’s according to information released by the DWP itself.”

And stories about the amount of money people receive are wildly exaggerated.

“Some people say that people on benefits are driving BMWs and watching Sky TV – but they’re not doing that on £73.10 a week!

“Yes, people can survive on that for a week but try living on benefits for a year!”

The council has found that money spent in this area saves on social services in the long run, as a bit of extra income allows people to manage their own affairs.

Poverty is also closely linked to ill health – physical and mental – so well targeted cash can save a huge amount on health services.

The money that the team has generated will not make anyone rich – for many it will merely keep their heads above water financially.

Looming ahead is the controversial Universal Credit, piloted in North Lanarkshire.

The Financial Inclusion team is now gearing up to help people cope with that when it is fully introduced.