Help the Aged’s Mervyn Kohler asks if
the newly-launched Pension Service can deliver the
government’s older people strategy.

The Pension Service has now been officially
launched with the aim of providing a smoother, more
customer-focused service.

It covers seven main benefit strands,
including the retirement pension and the minimum income guarantee,
and will make increasing use of a telephone service to deal with
claims and queries. The new agency is also investing heavily in
internet services, partly because it wants to close the local
Benefits Agency offices.

But is it right to place such reliance on a
telephone and internet service, especially for a target audience of
older people? The experimental use of a call centre approach to
improve MIG take-up has been deemed a success, even though the
eligible non-claimants still number between 350,000 and 750,000 (up
to 30 per cent). And MIG was just one benefit with relatively
simple criteria: it is a different proposition to handle the full
range of benefits.

Older people are becoming marginalised in the
rush to deliver e-government services, since they have neither the
training and experience for these systems, nor the machinery to
access them. That is not an argument for retaining the old systems,
which have no glittering record of consumer satisfaction, but it
does highlight the absence of any government programme to
encourage, stimulate and support the engagement of older people
with the internet.

It is unclear how the new service will fit
together with housing benefit and council tax benefit – which are
significant for many older people – or with the benefits based on
medical assessments. These latter, primarily incapacity benefit,
disability allowance and attendance allowance, cost £19bn a
year, and have just been scrutinised by the House of Commons public
accounts committee. It found that 50 per cent of decisions were the
subject of an appeal, 40 per cent of appeals were upheld and a
quarter of these were on account of errors by Benefits Agency
staff. Clearly the complexity of the benefits world defeats even
its own administrators, let alone its customers.

This complexity will be added to in spades
with the proposed pension credit in October next year. The Commons
work and pensions select committee has just reported on this,
expressing doubts that the “fledgling Pension Service” will be up
to the task of means-testing half our pensioner population and
delivering the service accurately.

The broader question is whether the Pension
Service is capable of delivering the government’s hugely
bureaucratic agenda in general. Older people in poverty were shown,
in the latest statistics, to comprise 27 per cent of older
households. They therefore depend very significantly on welfare
payments, the whole policy of providing for a successful and
independent older age depending crucially on the benefits strategy
and how it is delivered. The Pension Service has a lot to

Mervyn Kohler is head of public
affairs, Help the Aged.

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