SBC debt advisor to be announced this month

THE identity of the successful bidder for the contract to provide advice on welfare and debts issues on behalf of Scottish Borders Council is expected to be announced some time this month, writes Mark Entwistle.

The confirmation came during an answer to an open question lodged for last week’s full meeting of Scottish Borders Council by Councillor David Raw (East Berwickshire, Lib Dem).

Mr Raw, a former portfolio holder for social work, had wanted to know, given rising levels of unemployment and debt in the Borders, together with imminent changes to welfare benefits, what assurances the administration could give that SBC will be able to meet the increasing demand for debt and welfare advice, including support at appeal tribunals.

Giving the local authority’s position on the matter, council vice-convener Ron Smith (Hawick & Hermitage Lib Dem) said SBC had funded the provision of general welfare advisory services across the authority area by way of a grant to the voluntary sector and through the provision of an in-house welfare benefits service.

Mr Smith explained: “I can confirm that last year an award of £225,000 was made to the local Borders CAB [Citizens Advice Bureau] organisations to provide general welfare advice services.

“However, this method of arranging and managing the delivery of services is very limited and does not lend itself to delivering improved and modernised services across the Scottish Borders.

“With this in mind, the Executive, at its meeting on August 16 last year, approved officer recommendations to develop a mechanism by which the council could contract externally for the provision of general welfare and debt advice, through a tendered procurement exercise.

“The contract will initially be for three years with an annual value of up to £225,000 per year. There is also an option within the contract, and subject to performance, to extend this to up to five years before a retendering exercise is required.”

Mr Smith went on to say that the service has now been tendered for, with the date for last submissions having been on January 16.

Submitted tenders are now being assessed and the successful bidder will be reported to councillors this month, with the intention being that the new service is set up and running by April 1.

As for the in-house provision of welfare advice offered by the council, the Executive is to retain its Welfare Benefits Service, but this will be refocused to tackle the more complex welfare benefit activity, such as tribunal activity to ensure that the needs of vulnerable people are protected and supported in the Borders.

Mr Smith added: “In addition, I am also pleased to say that not only has funding to this service been protected for the coming financial year, but, that subject to final council approval, additional provision has been made by the administration within the welfare advice service to provide welfare benefit tribunal support to residents of the Borders who have been faced with a loss of benefit entitlement.”