Council chiefs accuse minister of planning cut-price welfare service

    Pensions minister Malcolm Wicks was accused last week of trying to
    deliver an older people’s welfare service “on the cheap” by setting
    up joint local teams with social services.

    The Link Age service, now being piloted, joins Pensions Service
    staff with local government benefits advisers. The aim is to
    prevent needless duplication of assessment and verification for
    various benefits, and to make access easier.

    But delegates at a Local Government Association conference last
    week voiced concern that the change was being forced through to
    deliver Gershon review savings, and that independent advocacy would
    suffer.

    “Is what we are doing here going to be the new local Pensions
    Service on the cheap?” asked Rob Price, principal welfare and
    finance officer at Shropshire Council. “In the light of the Gershon
    cuts, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is to lose perhaps
    40,000 jobs. So what we are doing as local authorities is
    delivering services that otherwise the Pensions Service would
    deliver.”

    Wicks said the remarks were unfair and the same service could be
    run locally with fewer staff and new technology.

    Alaster Calder, head of Surrey Council’s welfare rights unit,
    questioned claims that the joint teams would be tailored to suit
    local initiatives.

    He accused DWP staff of prioritising their own approach to
    identifying older people who might claim pension credits – by
    scanning retirement records – at the expense of the council’s
    favoured method of targeting housing and council tax benefit
    claimants not in receipt of an attendance allowance.

    “How is it building on local initiatives when initiatives like ours
    are being challenged?” he asked.

    Calder told Community Care he was also concerned that joint teams
    would lead to a loss of local autonomy. “If the chancellor decides
    that DWP staff should have a push on pension credit, there’s
    nothing a joint local authority board could do about it.”

    Mark Heholt, Link Age programme manager at the DWP, predicted that
    joint teams would improve services and, in effect, reduce the need
    for independent advocacy.

    But Ryan Sampson, of older people’s charity Age Concern – a partner
    in a Link Age pilot project in Richmond upon Thames – said the
    opposite was true. “If independent advocacy had not been in place
    in Richmond, the joint team would have been unable to proceed.”

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