Over £2m in benefits have been secured over the past four years for local people who didn’t know their full entitlements, it has emerged.
In Derry a total of £1,757,356 was secured for people on benefits. A further £486,567 was secured from people in Strabane over the same period, while in Limavady there was £139,139 clawed back.
The figures emerged during a presentation by the Social Security Agency (SSA) before Derry City Council’s Development Committee on Tuesday.
Simon Stuart from the SSA told local councillors that there was small, dedicated team helping people to find out if they were entitled to more than they were getting. A community outreach officer dedicated to the Derry area has also been helping people.
Mr Stuart said the team were “tasked with ensuring people are getting all benefits, services and support they are entitled to”.
He added that they worked with many government departments, councils and organisations such as Age NI, and Disability Action to ensure they reach people.
“Really we are about improving lives,” he said.
As well as checking whether people are entitled to more usual benefits, the staff at the unit also check for things like bereavement assistance, entitlement to schemes such as boiler replacement, Warm Homes and free transport.
He also advised that this money involved was from the treasury in London.
“If we don’t take it, it is lost to the economy,” he said.
Chairman of the Committee, Sinn Fein Councillor Barney O’Hagan, said: “Unfortunately we are all too aware of the assistance required from the benefit system in this area.
“Historically, with lack of investment and lack of jobs ,people basically have been very much dependent on occasion on benefits. That isn’t their fault, it is part of the society we are in.”
Sinn Fein Councillor Eric McGinley added a note of caution however that there were people in the north west who for a long, long time have been giving advice on benefits and that the government service “shouldn’t seek to displace that which is already in place”.
Mr Stuart replied: “We are here to work alongside the advice service. It’s just about choice.”
SDLP Councillor Martin Reilly said that for many people the difference of having an extra few pound meant the difference of whether or not they had to rely on foodbanks.
He also pointed out that the SSA team involved are based in Derry.
Anyone seeking advice can phone the Benefits Advice Line on 0800 2321272 Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm.