Link-Age unravels the red tape to ease access to services

When pensions minister Malcolm Wicks asked older people in a small
town in the South West how they knew what their benefit and service
entitlements were they kept replying “because of Deb”.

Initially confused as to what this apparent acronym stood for,
Wicks soon realised Deb was a real person who worked in the RNIB
shop and signposted older people to statutory services in the

The message was simple: older people, faced with a complex and
bureaucratic pensions and benefits system look to individuals in
the community to help them navigate it.

So Deb has become the inspiration for a blueprint launched by the
Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) last week to join up pensions
and social care services so they can better assess and meet the
needs of older people. Named Link-Age – pun totally intended – it
is hoped it will become the gateway to social care and benefits for
many older people.

Under Link-Age, joint teams of pension service staff, social
workers, benefits and financial assessments staff will identify
needs and eligibility in a single visit to a person’s home. The
teams may also include housing and council tax benefit staff and
someone from a voluntary sector organisation.

This will do away with the numerous visits separate services often
undertake and speed up the process. One professional will take the
lead role and help clients fill in forms.

The concept is already used by 18 councils in south west England,
but 136 – including some in Wales and Scotland – have agreed to
implement joint visiting teams. Three quarters of them will be
fully operational by April 2005.

“If I go somewhere in two years’ time and there isn’t a joint
visiting team I’d be disappointed,” says Wicks. Even so, the plans
are out for consultation until late November and Wicks describes
the blueprint as a “direction of travel” rather than a compulsory

“I expect to see a great deal of variation depending on the needs
of local people,” he says.

Care Direct pilots are likely to form part of this variation. The
free telephone service launched to great fanfare three years ago
offers advice on social care, health, housing and benefits for
older people.

But ministers decided not to roll out Care Direct across the
country, instead intending to feed lessons learned by the pilot
projects into a new “Third Age” service. This, in turn, has been
replaced by Link-Age “because we felt [the name] was a bit woolly”,
Wicks adds.

The minister says the six Care Direct projects in the South West
will continue and could incorporate elements of Link-Age into them.

However, Paul Searle, project leader of Care Direct in Devon, says
guidance to Link-Age looks similar to that provided for Care
Direct. “It would appear the government is recommitting to
objectives and aims successfully piloted by authorities that
developed Care Direct in 2001.”

He adds that he has had talks with the DWP about future resourcing
of the Care Direct service, but has received nothing from
government about Link-Age since last year.

Somerset is one of the pilot areas for Link-Age, but Care Direct
operators there seem unaware even of its existence.

Perhaps the lack of awareness is down to branding. Whereas Care
Direct had a distinct and strong image, a DWP spokesperson
emphasises Link-Age is “an approach in how things should work
rather than a brand”.

Ultimately what Link-Age will be judged on is whether it improves
the experience clients have of statutory agencies and whether it
speeds the delivery of benefits and services.

Dan Vale, head of social care policy at Citizens Advice, welcomes
anything that would make services less complex but insists its
success will depend on involving non-governmental organisations.

“It’s a bit early to say whether it’s going to have significant
meaning for older people nationally,” he says.

– Consultation from

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