A PROJECT aimed at supporting people in east Durham who have been affected by benefit cuts will be officially launched on Wednesday (June 19).

The Welfare Champions project has recruited a small army of local volunteers who will provide advice and guidance to people in their own neighbourhoods.

More than a dozen local champions have received initial training in potential courses of action for residents who have been affected by issues such as the so-called “bedroom tax”.

As well as providing initial guidance, the volunteers will also direct individuals to supportive services such as the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) and in some cases will actually accompany them on appointments.

The project - run by the East Durham Trust and funded by the local Area Action Partnership - is based on a belief that local people will often turn to people they know rather than the established routes.

Trust chief executive Malcolm Fallow said: “‘The Government has brought in welfare reform which, combined with the recession and the credit crunch, has put people in east Durham, in some cases, in dire straits.

“A significant number of people would rather seek the advice of a friendly and known local face, rather than the often complicated and faceless public sector mechanisms such as helplines or websites.

“So what we done is train up 16 individuals and we are going to extend that to 24 at a later date.

“They have been educated by people from the likes of Job Centre Plus, Welfare Rights and the CAB. they have a plethora of referral agents they know they can send people to.

"The idea is these people are well-placed in their community."

Mr Fallow added: “The project is already proving a huge success - despite running for less than one month at least 200 people have received valuable help and support.

“Already at this stage the project has justified itself.”

Durham county councillor Brian Stevens will formerly award the welfare champions with certificates and cut a cake to launch the project.

The East Durham Trust, a registered charity, can be contacted 0191-569-3511.