In 2015 MPs passed a bill that would give the government the power to introduce its UK-wide welfare reforms to Northern Ireland. The Benefit Cap Team at Northern Ireland’s Department for Communities, led by Colin Harding and Marie Nolan, were tasked with processing the first part of the Welfare Reform (NI) Order 2015, which introduced a limit to the total benefits working-age households could receive.
“This was to ensure that out-of-work households would not receive more in benefits than the average wage for working families,” Harding and Nolan say.
As with anything to do with welfare, it was contentious and sensitive, especially as the benefit cap was a new process in Northern Ireland and as many as 55,400 households could potentially be affected by it. Yet Nolan and Harding say the team had “significant experience in the delivery of social security benefits”, so they “welcomed the opportunity to take on a new challenge”.
The benefit cap was brought in from 31 May 2016. “Naturally, there were a few challenges along the way, but training, enthusiasm and teamwork ensured they were able to deliver a service that caused minimum disruption to our customers with focus on quality to ensure the correct action was taken on all households impacted,” the team leaders say. The process involved detailed planning, experiencing news ways of working, and working with other divisions including housing, benefit processing centres and HMRC.
The team was commended for its customer service at the 2017 Civil Service Awards. They were noted for demonstrating “outstanding service and behaviours to deliver the right outcomes for customers impacted by the benefit cap”, according to Harding and Nolan. In addition, they were recognised for “ownership and showed perseverance to understand and positively respond to complex customer needs and challenging circumstances”, demonstrating “strong professionalism [and] a commitment to continuous improvement”.
Sir Jeremy Heywood, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service, said the team “implemented with sensitivity and accuracy a process involving detailed planning, new ways of working and close collaboration with multiple partners and stakeholders”.
Nolan and Harding were both pleased to win the award. Despite the challenges, they say “advance planning and staff training was key to ensuring the threshold change was implemented in a timely and effective manner with a critical focus on quality”.
They added: “This meant standards were maintained across the board, customers were supported through the change programme with additional support provided by the Department for Communities Welfare Supports Services.”
For the future, the team leaders say they are “committed to providing a quality service that is responsive to our customers’ change of circumstances”. In terms of best practice, the team says “advance planning and staff training were key to ensuring the threshold change was implemented in a timely and effective manner with a critical focus on quality. This meant standards were maintained across the board”.
“We look forward to continuing to work alongside our colleagues and key stakeholders to deliver a high standard of performance,” they added.
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