Hundreds facing more taxing time

Councillor Brian Stephenson (left) presents John Wood with his certificate as fellow welfare champions looing on

Councillor Brian Stephenson (left) presents John Wood with his certificate as fellow welfare champions looing on

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HUNDREDS of desperate families have already come forward seeking help with issues including the controversial bedroom tax - even before a new project got off the ground to offer support.

The Welfare Champions scheme, which sees an “army” of volunteers taken on to give advice on welfare reforms, has already helped 300 people access support.

The initiative has also seen a rise in the number of referrals for food parcels.

Malcolm Fallow, chief executive at East Durham Trust, which runs both the Welfare Champions and Food Emergency East Durham (FEED) projects, said: “Bedroom tax and illegal money lenders are a big problem. The numbers of claimants at such an early stage clearly justifies the concept of the project.”

Mr Fallow added: “People are more likely to turn to someone in their community for help.”

Trust chiefs also say the volunteers have been hearing from people worried that the new Universal Credit, which replaces the six main jobless benefits, can only be accessed online and that this could be a barrier.

He said the Welfare Champions have been able to point residents in the direction of agencies that can help, including Jobcentre Plus, East Durham Homes, Durham County Council’s welfare rights team, Citizens’ Advice Bureau and East Durham Credit Union.

The volunteers had two days of training six weeks ago and the scheme was officially launched yesterday. The 20 volunteers have been available at impromptu drop-in sessions at community venues and one of them even gave advice to someone on the seafront.