Taking exception

    The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is pushing ahead with the payment modernisation programme, which is its term for the abolition of benefit order books. Rather confusingly for social services staff, the DWP has given this electronic transfer of weekly benefits the name of “direct payments”.

    The DWP has published details of what it calls the “exceptions service” for those who can’t manage to pay direct. From October 2004 cheques can be cashed at a post office. The types of case where the DWP envisages offering it are where the claimant has problems:

    • Remembering and using a PIN number.
    • Using a cashpoint machine or cheque book to access their money.
    • Requiring different agents or carers to collect their benefit.

    Here is the experience of service user Marie Jones (not her real name), who was represented by a relative, Geoff Fimister, a welfare rights specialist. “Marie Jones is housebound and gets her order book cashed at the post office by an Age Concern volunteer,” he says. “She has a bank account, but nobody to whom she would be prepared to entrust a PIN.

    “She got a letter about direct payments and was worried about how she was going to get her money, so I rang the phone number advertised on it. The DWP person recited the mantra three times to the effect that direct payments into an account was the only possibility. She finally admitted that there were other possibilities, but that I would have to talk to the ‘pensions office’. The next person I spoke to also tried to tell me that payment into an account was the only option. When I pressed the point, she suggested that I became Jones’s appointee.

    “I pointed out that I lived in Newcastle and Jones was in Liverpool. She gave in and conceded there must be arrangements to deal with this situation, but didn’t know what they were. She said she would find out and get back to me within two days. This was two weeks ago and I’m still waiting. Meanwhile, I got the information from Age Concern.”

    Another problem is that uncrossed cheques, issued weekly, will lead to more being “lost in the post”. That may act as an additional form of pressure on people to switch to direct payments, of course.

    Where a cheque payment does not arrive, the proposed arrangements look far from satisfactory. The DWP is suggesting there should be “an exchange of forms with the customer and a further cheque payment being sent through the post”. How long will that take?

    Alternatively, the claimant will be invited to the social security office to report details of the loss and get a counter payment – unfeasible for housebound older people who will need the exceptions service. Only in “cases of extreme circumstance or severe hardship” will a DWP officer make a home visit to replace the missing cheque.

    The exceptions service will at least enable a third party to cash the cheque on a customer’s behalf. This will be a huge help to people who rely on others to get their benefit for them. However, the DWP’s plans still seem to be based on hard-selling a scheme that meets the needs of the DWP more than those of claimants.

    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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