A form of help?

Recently this column (16 October) discussed the attendance allowance claim form that the Department for Work and Pensions introduced in early October without a great deal of warning. The National Audit Office’s new report, Difficult Forms: How Government Agencies Interact with Citizens,1 is highly critical of the previous AA form, so the improvements are timely.

The NAO report states that much of the first section of the previous form was concerned with gathering information that the DWP already had – details of names, addresses, preferred payment methods and so on. The second part of the form is criticised for asking repetitious questions.

The form also asked applicants to explain “in your own words” their difficulties with a range of personal care tasks. Claimants were given seven pages to fill and were asked about daytime and night-time problems. The focus groups that the NAO used to comment on the forms found these questions very confusing. People found themselves entering the same information time and again, referring to the same problems – causing many of them to fear that they had misunderstood what was being asked. People could not relate their own experience using the fine-tuned categories required by the form.

The six most disabling conditions that attract awards of AA are arthritis (more than double the numbers under any other heading), frailty, mental health causes, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, and stroke-related causes. Thus it has always been the DWP’s belief that the majority of AA claims are made by people acting on behalf of older claimants, rather than by older people themselves.

However, according to the NAO, the DWP does not hold any systematic data on how many forms are filled in by older people who have assistance. Nor do they know whether some older people perhaps fill in the forms on their own, or attempt to do so and then give up. “These issues have not been a focus of survey research or investigation by the department,” says the report.

The new form merges the separate sections, and cuts the overall length of the application from 34 to 16 pages, and from 268 to 123 questions. The piloting of the new form will run for a year and the DWP says that the results are already being evaluated. But, worryingly the NAO could not find any evidence that the DWP were systematically evaluating the new forms. My experience so far is that the new forms are certainly quicker to complete. But the jury is still out on whether they enable the claimant to prove adequately that they meet the criteria for getting AA.

As every application for AA costs the DWP just over £40 to administer, and with applications running at about 400,000 annually in recent years, it would seem sensible that the impact of these forms is closely monitored. However, even more important than the impact on administration and costs is the effect that the new forms have on the take-up rate of AA among older vulnerable claimants.

1 National Audit Office, Difficult Forms: How Government Agencies Interact with Citizens, October 2003

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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