Defining moments

Being a developing and dynamic language it is inevitable that some English word combinations will have more than one meaning, especially when we reduce them to initials: does LSC mean the Learning and Skills Council or the Legal Services Commission? Does CTC mean child tax credit or children’s tax credit? (Actually, it means both.)

But it takes true genius for civil servants to give three meanings to the phrase “direct payments” – and it is causing a bit of confusion out here in the real world.

First, there were the direct payments that social security used to take out of a claimant’s income support to pay the gas and electricity companies when the claimant was facing disconnection. This was a form of “direct debit” out of weekly benefit that helped thousands of claimants but which the Department for Work and Pensions intensely disliked administering. Each local social security office had a direct payment section that did the paperwork and liaised with fuel suppliers and so on.

Second, there are the direct payments for which social services departments are now responsible – those to disabled people to arrange their own care packages. It has never been made clear how these payments affect a person’s entitlement, although it is assumed they are “benefit-neutral”.

Last, and most confusingly, the DWP decided to launch its campaign to persuade claimants to open bank accounts and be paid by automated credit transfer under the slogan of “direct payments”.

This left three types of direct payments. Even the DWP realised that this was at least one too many, so it has renamed the direct payments to fuel suppliers, landlords and so on as “third-party payments”. But this is what social services call the money paid by relatives and charities towards residential care.

Yet the campaign to phase out order books and giros and replace them with direct payments goes on. About 13 million letters are being sent out to claimants over the next 18 months, encouraging them to use direct payments. There is considerable consumer resistance to this message, however, even though Chris Pond, work and pensions minister, said: “While about nine out of 10 DWP customers have access to a bank account, we will provide an alternative method of payment for that small minority who genuinely cannot open or operate a direct payment account. These customers can continue to use order books until 2005 when the details of the exceptions service will be finalised.”

The message that order books can still be used until at least 2005 appears to be going unnoticed in some parts of the DWP, and there is a worry that resistance to direct payments, especially among older claimants, could spill over into resistance to claiming the new pension credit.

During the script-led conversations between the staff on the pension credit helpline and callers, direct payments are being pushed. The option of being paid by order book is not put to them.

We hear stories of pensioners receiving letters from the DWP about pension credit and letters about direct payments. Unsurprisingly, they are linking the two issues. The drive to improve “efficiency” seems to be winning out over the drive to increase pension credit take-up.

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 Care.

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