Benefit bites the dust

    Housing benefit: end is nigh?

    Several local authorities have begun piloting a new “local
    housing allowance” which is intended to replace housing benefit.
    Although the results from the initial pilots have yet to be
    evaluated, let alone announced, it looks as if the Department for
    Work and Pensions is to press ahead with these allowances
    nationally.

    Tenants will receive a flat-rate of benefit, linked to family
    size, instead of a payment based on the rent level of the property
    they live in.

    Nine councils will start implementing LHA from April 2005. These
    are (with go-live dates): Wandsworth, London (11 April), East
    Riding of Yorkshire (18 April), St Helens (23 May), Argyll and Bute
    (30 May), South Norfolk (6 June), Norwich (13 June), Pembrokeshire
    (20 June), Guildford (4 July) and Salford (25 July).

    The government has the intention of rolling out the LHA
    nationally for private tenants by March 2008. When it will begin to
    be applied to tenants in council or housing association properties
    is unknown. For more, see www.dwp.gov.uk/housingbenefit/lha

    Pension changes afoot

    The pension service is looking very closely at how it deliver
    services to older people. Most of its service is, of course,
    provided by remote regional pension centres, contactable only by
    phone.

    However, locally, the service has been providing advice
    surgeries and other outreach work. These local services have now
    been placed under national control and have had their work
    “reviewed”. One conclusion is that local pension service staff
    should concentrate on home visits and “appointment-only” rather
    than “drop-in” outreach sessions.

    The pension service is at great pains to emphasise that this is
    not a reduction in service. It is based, they say, on the
    recognition that most customers who are able to attend drop-in
    surgeries and events are not the most vulnerable older people that
    it is funded to access and support.

    However, the level of service offered by the remote pension
    centres is a cause of concern. In one office, for example, we have
    been told that all the claims from one county are in boxes, waiting
    to be assessed, so it is not possible to locate a claim waiting to
    be processed. Any post sent in will not be linked to the new claim
    before it is processed, which means the assessment may well turn
    out to be incorrect!

    Utilities for the vulnerable

    Early last year there was considerable media interest in the
    case of an older couple who were found dead after having had their
    gas supply disconnected. The utility firm claimed that it had been
    unable to alert social services to the couple’s situation because
    of the Data Protection Act. In response, the Energy Retail
    Association, representing the suppliers, has issued a new document:
    Protecting Vulnerable Customers from Disconnection (order from ERA
    on 020 7747 2932; or from www.energy-retail.org.uk).

    This document sets out how social services staff can help
    prevent vulnerable people from being disconnected. It claims that,
    in 2003, suppliers recorded that four gas and seven electricity
    customers were disconnected who were either pensioners, disabled or
    chronically ill. Since December 2003 no vulnerable customers, based
    on a revised definition, have been disconnected. These figures
    sounds far-fetched to me!

    Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire
    Council. If you have a question to be answered please write to him
    c/o Community Care

     

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