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News : Benefits Advice Offices May Be Unmanned After St Austell Trial
Nov 13, 2014 -- St. Austell's One Stop Shop is piloting a controversial scheme which, if successful, may signal the end of face-to-face advice at benefits offices across Cornwall.
The trial period started on Tuesday and will run for four weeks. It means that benefits claimants will no longer be able to talk to an adviser at the council's Penwinnick Road office.
Instead, queries will be dealt by telephone or e-mail, and forms will be sent direct to the council through the post.
For the next month the nearest One Stop Shop offering face-to-face benefits advice will be in Bodmin.
Cornwall Council said the decision to trial the scheme came after an 18-month review which found that fewer and fewer people were using its face-to-face services.
A spokesman said: "Analysis has shown that over 80 per cent of customer contact is to hand in documents.
"However, there is no longer a legal requirement for original documents from those applying for benefits so customers will be asked to post copies to a central address or be directed to a secure post box on site.
"Further analysis of the remaining customer contacts has shown that customer inquiries could be managed effectively by the Assessment Contact Centre, i.e. via the telephone and, where appropriate, via our website."
The council claims the approach could help it save money over the next four years.
But critics have questioned its timing, and whether the trial could place vulnerable people at further risk.
St Austell town councillor Steve Double said: "I applaud Cornwall Council for trying to find ways to save money, but I think it's very strange that they have chosen the busiest one stop shop in Cornwall at probably the busiest time of year in the run-up to Christmas to trial it.
"That One Stop Shop serves a huge area, and some of the most deprived in Cornwall. By definition those areas contain some of the most vulnerable people. "I think it's a mistake to have chosen St Austell, particularly at this time of year."
Liberal Democrat MP for St Austell and Newquay, Stephen Gilbert, also expressed his concern over the plans.
"Anything that reduces people's ability to get the help they need is a real cause for concern," he said.
"As the MP I want to hear about anyone who has problems with the trial arrangements and I will raise them with the council."
A council spokesman added: "Feedback from customers will be monitored and reviewed with a view to considering further rollout."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Published: Friday, November 14, 2014