BENEFITS paid to Bolton residents have fallen by an estimated £7m per year as a result of welfare reforms by central government.

Council support for residents in times of hardship has been ramped up to mitigate the impact of these changes in the wake of austerity.

Millions of pounds have been spent by the local authority on food parcels, household items and debt advice services.

This includes an anti-poverty budget which has cost the council £1.5m over the last five years.

Around £3m of annual council tax breaks have also been largely covered by the local authority.

A further £400,000 is available as a hardship fund created to support customers struggling to pay council tax.

The services were set up as central government made changes to the welfare system starting with the Welfare Reform Act which was passed in March 2013.

This legislation was responsible for introducing benefit caps of £26,000 per year, limiting Employment Support Allowance and replaced Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payments.

It also led to Universal Credit replacing six other benefits which was rolled out across the borough in November.

READ MORE: More than 12,300 people in Bolton are now on Universal Credit – and it will rise

Additional reformed introduced in April 2013 include local council tax support replacing council tax benefit and Local Welfare Provision replacing the Social Fund.

As part of the Local Welfare Provision scheme, the council provides more than a thousand food parcels every year, thousands more household items, and helps residents with travel costs, gas and electric payments.

The council's Anti-Poverty Budget has funded the creation of a high street shop selling affordable household goods.

It has also provided support for food banks and Bolton's Credit Union as well as putting additional resources into its Welfare Rights and Money Skills services.

There is a contingency fund available to support one-off anti-poverty related projects.

A council spokesman said: “The welfare support we have available at the council includes a range of services and help. All the teams really do make a difference to people who are struggling with all sorts of issues including debt management, rent arrears and benefit decisions.

“Our Welfare Rights service can help people whose claim may have been stopped or refused. They also represent and support them at tribunals and the team’s success rate has increased year on year.

“Our Money Skills service also offer free guidance and training to help people take control of their finances and can even help you switch energy suppliers.

“We would urge people who need help or advice to get in touch with us.”

READ MORE: Millions of pounds won back at welfare benefit tribunals with council's support

For help about benefit decisions, contact Welfare Rights on 01204 333820.

For advice around debt or budgeting, contact Money Skills Service on 01204 332916, or e-mail for problems with debt or for budgeting or fuel advice.