Seamless service?

The Pensions Service certainly seems to think that joint teams with local authorities are the way forward in delivering services to older people. And it could mean social security staff working directly alongside council employees, especially finance staff involved in Fairer Charging and Supporting People. Tasks and offices would be shared, with housing benefit staff also being involved eventually.

The grand plan is based on developing what the Department for Work and Pensions calls a Third Age Service. This is an integrated service, where older people would have just one point of entry into the welfare system, whatever their needs were. The forerunner to this is the joint team. The idea is that older people would only need to give financial details once, and they could then get assessed for home care and residential charges, have their housing benefit calculated and have their overall benefits position checked.

It is certainly attractive to some authorities, which have set up pilot joint teams already. Many others are considering the option too. The DWP has even set a target of having joint teams in 70 per cent of all local authorities by next autumn and 100 per cent coverage by 2005. Their plans are so advanced that they have even suggested management board and team structures.

The advantages are obvious. For the client, they only have to give financial data once. For the local authority, it gets (on the face of it) a team of “benefits advisers” at no cost. And for the Pensions Service? Well, it gets an office base in a locality, which has otherwise been sacrificed as it moves to a regional, phone-based service. It also gains access to a relatively vulnerable client group, who are assumed to be under-claiming, thus helping the service to meet its take-up targets. So what’s wrong?

First, there is considerable uncertainty about the type and quality of advice that can be offered by Pensions Service staff, however well meaning. The DWP have drawn back from their original plan of incorporating welfare rights staff into the joint teams, and have recognised the need for “independent” advocacy and advice. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of concern that Pensions Services advisers won’t go the extra mile in ensuring that home care service users, for example, get the initial help they need to make successful attendance allowance claims.

Second, there is a real issue of the funding of advice services. Some councillors will be tempted to think that advice services can be cut because the Pensions Service are doing the same job, effectively for free.

Third, and somewhat ironically, many local authorities don’t like this idea of an imposed “partnership”, initially developed solely by central government, with a non-negotiated timetable and scant regard for any local arrangements already in place.

Last, there are many practical problems to overcome before joint teams can be successfully developed. How will they work in county authorities, for example, with often 10 or more housing benefit services to be integrated? How will local authority staff feel if they are asked to do the job of a Pensions Service visiting officer, and how well will Pensions Service staff be able to explain charging policies? Despite these worries it looks as if the DWP will persist with their “one size fits all” solution.

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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