Listening and Learning: Prison Discharge & Welfare Benefit Specialist Support
By Sharon Sharman, Learning and Evaluation Manager, VOICES
The 2018 independent evaluation of integrating a welfare benefit specialist within the VOICES team (1) provided us with evidence-based conclusions of what works well in ensuring that people experiencing multiple disadvantages can access the correct welfare benefits that they are entitled to. The evaluation also demonstrated that the model works more effectively in offering learning, consultation and direct support to frontline staff when compared with traditional style and ad hoc training sessions.
Following the evaluation, VOICES accessed systems change funding to pilot the Welfare Benefits Listening and Learning (WBLL) support across the citywide partnership – welfare specialists became part of the teams at Brighter Futures, Housing First and Concrete and are working with staff to increase their knowledge, skills, and confidence to better understand the welfare benefits system and to support customers with claims and appeals processes.
Recently VOICES has undertaken work with a focus on prison discharge; a five-month community of practice including a published prison discharge plan case study (2) and current engagement in a national evaluation of prison discharge led by CFE – appointed evaluators of the Fulfilling Lives programme.
Following the community of practice, discussions took place between VOICES, CASNS (Citizens Advice North Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent), HM Probation Service and Staffordshire Police in which we agree to a pilot project to embed a WBLL specialist within the prison discharge pathway. The pilot started on 1st February 2021. John Ryan, CASNS Advisor, is now supporting customers on their journey in accessing welfare benefits by linking with Melbourne House and Longton police station staff.
Leanne Barnett, Senior Probation officer. HM Prison and Probation Service says,
“Our Service Users often have significant difficulties claiming the correct benefits and understanding the welfare terminology can be difficult for staff and service users, so having some support around this will be very helpful. Increasing our organisations knowledge of the welfare system can only be a good thing to support service users, but also will allow us to collate data to evidence the level of need to consider future options”.
“I think increasing our networks is a positive aspect of this project and we should be able to build up a catalogue of contacts and resources to use moving forward. Increasing staff knowledge is always of benefit, and any support available for service users which can assist with welfare issues will not only assist Service Users on a personal level but could also benefit in terms of re-offending and indeed harm. I think the welfare project is all valuable for the Probation Service. I think we will have more complex cases than perhaps anticipated, hence the plan to collate data on those we cannot refer in at this time, to be used later”.
The prison discharge WBLL pilot will be evaluated, and findings shared at a later date.