Service for whom?

Whatever the long-term benefits might be of providing an integrated
service for people above and below working age, the re-organisation
of social security into the Pension Service and Job Centre Plus
continues to produce short-term problem areas.

One example is the sad saga of the underlying entitlement to
carer’s allowance that has resulted in at least 3,000 older carers
being denied their correct entitlement to income support.

As the Pension Service moves towards its goal of being a mainly
telephone-based service, the need to move benefit assessment to
regional centres has grown. All that remains of the service at
local level in many areas is a piecemeal and unsatisfactory
“outreach service”.

This might be a price worth paying if the quality of work done at
the regional centres was uniformly high. But this is far from the
case. This is in part because of the enormous number of new staff
that have been recruited to work in the new centres: in some cases,
more than 80 per cent of the staff are new to social security.

This inexperience manifests itself in many ways, not least in the
treatment of income support claims from older carers. Since October
2002 carers aged 65 or over have been able to claim invalid care
allowance (as it was known up until this month). Although the
allowance is often not paid (it is normally less than the
retirement pension that the carer already receives), it is still
worth claiming. This is because the unpaid carers’ allowance can
trigger the carer premium within income support, housing benefit
and so on.

Or at least it should. But many of the inexperienced staff in the
Pension Service failed to grasp this aspect of the benefits system.
Advisers have been aware for some time that Pension Service staff
seemed incapable of awarding the carer premium in cases of
“underlying entitlement”. In some cases, the premium was simply
refused; in others, it was awarded but the cared-for person then
had their own severe disability premium stopped. Belatedly, the
Pension Service has acknowledged a serious problem. It seems that
up to 3,000 cases have been identified where Pension Service staff
made a mistake and pensioners have been underpaid or refused income
support altogether.

Pension Service staff do not have an easy job – pay and morale are
poor and the quality of training and support seems inadequate. But
that is no excuse for mistakes on this scale. Also, it is only
because of the external pressure applied by advice workers from the
voluntary and state sectors that the problem was even identified.
It calls into question the Pension Service’s internal quality
control systems.

This is a crucial issue with claims for pension credit now being
handled. When I ring the dreaded call centre about my car insurance
or my credit card, at least I am told that some calls are recorded
for training and monitoring purposes.

If the Pension Service wants to ape the private financial sector
and move towards a mainly phone-based service, it must at least
embrace the quality standards to which those companies aspire. At
present, we seem to have the worst of both worlds and the loser, as
ever, is the unrepresented claimant.

Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council.
He is unable to answer queries by post or telephone. If you have a
question to be answered please write to him c/o Community

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