Housing benefits staff at Oxford City Council have been praised for almost halving the time it takes to process new claims in the past year.

In the first quarter of 2003/4 it took staff 66.2 days to process new claims. In the first quarter of this year it took 38.1 days. The target for the year is an average of 40 days per claim.

In an Audit Commission report on the city council's performance released earlier this year, poor processing of housing benefits was cited as a contributing factor to a "weak" performance, with the public dissatisfied with the way calls were handled by staff.

In July 2003, the processing of claims was still among the slowest in the country, with staff taking an average of 66 days to process new claims.

But on August 4 finance scrutiny committee heard that a new management structure in the revenues and benefits department had led to significant improvements.

Stephanie Etherton, operations manager for benefits assessment, said the council's performance when it came to adapting existing claims was close to the top quarter of local authorities.

She added: "We are beginning to see the light. We are chasing up claims and telephoning customers rather than sending out letters. If we do send out letters we make sure we use first-class post.

"Performance management in the department is being monitored very closely and we are continuing to make improve- ments."

Liberal Democrat councillor Stephen Tall, chairman of the committee, said: "The benefits staff should be praised for their impressive performance."

The council is also working to improve council tax collection, which is also the responsibility of the revenues and benefits department. In 2003/4, the collection rate was 95.4 per cent compared to 94.6 per cent the previous year.

The target for this year is 97 per cent.

Robert Randall, acting head of council tax collection, said council tax payers could now arrange direct debit payments over the phone and a campaign would be staged later in the year to encourage more people to do so.

Only 55 per cent of residents pay their bills by direct debit and Liberal Democrat councillor Tony Brett said a series of incentives should be considered.

These could include giving payers a discount off their Slice cards, which allow them entry into leisure centres and swimming pools, he added.