Vulnerable in north ‘at a disadvantage’

VULNERABLE people living in north Northumberland who face changes to their benefits may not be given vital council support – because it costs too much time and money to send officers to tribunals.

The admission was made in a report to councillors at a scrutiny committee meeting at County Hall, which says the cost and time restraints of sending support staff are factors in deciding whether an appellant is provided with assistance from the council’s Welfare Rights Unit.

Cases in the north of the county are heard in Berwick, which means officers asked to assist elderly and disabled people applying for benefits or contesting changes to their entitlements have to travel from Morpeth.

The report states that as a result, residents in the rural north are less likely to receive this support.

Newton on the Moor resident David Rixon is the Conservative spokesman for the Longhougton County Council Division and a former Alnwick District councillor.

He said: “What we are talking about here is vulnerable, elderly and disabled people who lose their benefits being less likely to receive support from the council if they live in rural north Northumberland.

“We have one county council and it should be treating all residents equally, not discriminating against those of use who do not live in the urban south east.

“We need to have more places where these tribunals can take place, so more hearings can happen and people in rural areas can get the support they are entitled to.”

Coun Peter Jackson, Leader of Northumberland Conservatives, added: “It is my understanding that the scrutiny committee that received this report has written to the council Executive asking it to consider making resources available to solve this issue.

“This could either take the form of extra funding for support staff or more local tribunals, which would give more time to support residents of rural areas.

“We are also pressing the Court Service to make arrangements to hold the tribunal hearings in locations much closer to the residents of Northumberland so that they do not have to travel many miles to attend.”