Previous Section Index Home Page

23 Jun 2009 : Column 231WH—continued

Pension credit assessments for people in extra care accommodation appear to be unreliable. I seek the Minister’s help to clarify some issues and to improve that situation. Pension credit is not an ungenerous benefit and can transform the quality of life of the older people who qualify for it. However, in determining the eligibility for this means-tested benefit, certain costs are off-set against income. Those costs include an element
23 Jun 2009 : Column 232WH
of service charges. That is where the problem sets in because there is no clear, easy-to-understand statement of what elements of a service charge are or are not allowable, particularly for those living in extra care accommodation.

I suspect that the Minister has been briefed that the definition of allowable and unallowable costs is clear and well understood by local pension credit decision makers. When I have asked his Department whether that is the case, it has always told me that it is. However, that flies in the face of the facts. One provider of extra care accommodation told me that last year it had 186 clients on means-tested benefits who generated 229 appeals against their assessments, of which all 229 went in favour of the client: 229 examples of when a decision maker assessing entitlement turned out to have got it wrong. Admittedly, the same provider said that the situation this year has been much better—just 17 appeals have been needed—but in two areas of the country the intervention of the local Member of Parliament was needed to avoid the problems of last year. I would like to have a little bet with my hon. Friend: if a new extra care block were to be built in an area where previously there was no such accommodation, a glut of appeals would follow, and they would—again—be won by the clients.

The reasoning behind decisions and the instructions of specialist decision makers are too complex to be understood by many older people. Things could, and should, be made simpler. The DWP has so far refused to provide a list of allowable expenses for people in homes when there is a service charge. Why on earth not? There is no consistency of decision making between local offices. Even those affecting neighbours are sometimes inconsistent. Why? A clear set of principles written in plain English would be to everyone’s benefit and would resolve many of the difficulties. I would like my hon. Friend to commit to producing such a definitive guide to what is, and what is not, an allowable service charge expense for pension credit purposes. Alternatively, instead of the DWP leaving decisions to local decision makers, who, despite their best efforts, have as much difficulty following the guidance of the social security commissioner as everyone else, it could create a small specialist group to make those decisions. That group would understand matters better and create some consistency around the country.

I want to raise another area of concern that arises from arrangements for Supporting People funding. The Supporting People programme is managed by the DCLG, with which I shall also raise this point when I get the appropriate debate. The problem is that local councils can decide arbitrarily whether to pay for the care element of extra care accommodation from that programme. They receive no guidance from Government on what they should do, and, as a consequence, some pay and some do not—even councils next door to each other have different policies. When a council chooses not to support extra care for older people from its Supporting People budget, the element of a service charge that would have been met by the Supporting People programme does not become an allowable expense for the purpose of working out entitlement to pension credit. That can leave leaseholders with a shortfall of £50 per week compared with their entitlement prior to April 2003. Older people living within just a few miles of each other
23 Jun 2009 : Column 233WH
can find themselves being treated very differently. And the situation is getting worse. Council budgets are being stretched and Supporting People funding is an easy target. Quick savings can be made by declaring that extra care service charges are no longer eligible.

I am sure that that is not what the Government wanted, or expected, when they introduced the Supporting People programme. Nor was it—I suspect—what the DWP wanted, or expected, when it agreed to transfer responsibility and the budget for supporting older people in this situation to the DCLG and the Supporting People fund. One obvious solution would be to rescind the ruling that puts extra care for older people within the remit of the Supporting People programme and to return to the pre-2003 arrangements. The DWP could then permit an element of care as an allowable expense within service charges. That would have the immediate impact of encouraging people to provide, and seek to live in, extra care accommodation.

Failing that, the Government must recognise that this client group is probably the only one that does not have a provider or a champion to argue their case and ensure that they are getting their fair share of Supporting People funding in every area of the country. Perhaps my hon. Friend will undertake to discuss this matter with his DCLG colleagues and decide how national consistency can be achieved. At the very least, I would encourage the Government to withdraw the 12 September 2002 guidance note for leaseholders receiving income-related benefits from the pension service or Jobcentre Plus for support services. That note is in some disrepute in the sector. One supplier even calls it fraudulent, given that the availability of Supporting People funding is a matter for local council decision. The Government should rewrite the guidance note and other such notes and do so, this time, with the help of representatives of the industry, who are familiar with what is happening on the ground.

There is a need properly to inform citizens of the benefits of extra care accommodation so that they can seek it out and recognise how it differs from ordinary warden-assisted or sheltered accommodation. There are guidance notes available that are aimed at decision makers, including the largely discredited document that I just mentioned. Other documents are aimed at councils and accommodation or care providers. Factsheet No. 1, from the Care Services Improvement Partnership, which is dated 12 February 2008 and entitled “Extra Care Housing—What is it?”, is good as far as it goes, but it is not aimed at the consumer.

I have a question for my hon. Friend the Minister. If he were an older person who had decided to move into accommodation that was better designed for him in his old age and he had heard about extra care, how would he find out what his benefit entitlements might be? How could he get an answer to the question, “Will I be entitled to pension credit so that I can afford to live in an extra care property?” Of course, he could ask the agency responsible for calculating pension credit, but would he really get clear and accurate information? Probably not. In any case, officials are often reluctant to answer hypothetical questions. He might look at various third sector websites, but most are quite confusing.

23 Jun 2009 : Column 234WH

Surely, we need a guide in plain English to accommodation choices for older people on the Government’s own Directgov website. It should have a link to a page written by my hon. Friend’s colleagues in his Department, giving citizens a guide to benefit entitlement for people in extra care accommodation. That would allow citizens who are considering moving into extra care to estimate for themselves what their entitlement will be so that they can make their choice accordingly.

Just to emphasise the impact of the information deficit, I should point out that before an older person applies for pension credit, they usually need to know what they could be entitled to. Some extra care providers provide a pastoral service to clients to tell them about pension credit and to help them apply, and it is that group of providers that has given me the information that I am using today.

However, many providers do not provide such a service. I therefore wonder how many older people in extra care accommodation would be entitled to support but have never asked for it. How many have applied, been given a wrong decision and accepted it for want of anyone who knows better? How many of the 186 clients I mentioned earlier would have pursued their claims if someone had not supported them and told them that they had a good case? Again, the issue would be addressed by better information and guidance notes.

The outputs that I seek from my hon. Friend the Minister are these: first, efforts to ensure consistent decision making when people in extra care apply for benefits; secondly, efforts to resolve the inconsistencies that arise because of different local Supporting People arrangements, preferably including a return to pre-2003 arrangements for this client group; thirdly, the production of a definitive guide to allowable expenses, as well as completely revised guidance notes for decision makers and benefit claimants, which should be written after consultation with the sector; fourthly, guides in plain English to extra care accommodation and benefit entitlement for those living in extra care to be provided online and as hard copy and to be aimed at service users; and, fifthly, the three Departments responsible for elements of extra care to sit down together to co-ordinate their approach to removing the difficulties faced by residents and providers, and to renew their efforts to encourage the sector.

Lastly, I have a specific request. When I was a Minister, I held the record for the number of Adjournment debates answered in a Session, so I know how they work. My hon. Friend will have his departmental brief telling him that all is well and that the issues that I am raising are not as serious as I suggest. He will have been told that all is in hand and that there is no need for concern. As he sees it, his job will be to be as helpful as he can, but without committing the Department to extensive new work or new policies.

When it comes to Adjournment debates, however, I am the very essence of a poacher turned gamekeeper, and I could not let him get away with such a response. My job is to ensure that when he leaves here today, the notes of my speech are not put into a file and forgotten about.

My final specific request is to ask my hon. Friend to review again the number of decisions affecting older people living in accommodation with service charges who have had those decisions overturned on appeal
23 Jun 2009 : Column 235WH
during the past three years, compare decisions in different parts of the country for consistency, and then write to tell me whether he still believes that they are acceptable. I presume that he is not prepared today to offer to revise all the guidance notes and to produce the plain English guidance that I seek, so will he tell me in that same letter either that he will do so, or why he believes that that is not necessary? With that final request, I hope that the Department will have no choice but to continue to consider these matters a little longer, and I await my hon. Friend’s answer with keen anticipation.

1.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) on raising this important subject, about which he knows a great deal from his previous ministerial position. He set a trap for me in anticipating what I might say. I thought that I would look back at the many Adjournment debates to which he responded to see whether other hon. Members laid the same trap for him. I will put that on my list of things to do.

I want to give as much of the available detail as possible, and I hope that I can provide some clarity and commitments. It is right that there has been success in this policy area, as my hon. Friend said, but we need joint working for it to be more effective. I am sure that we agree that that must be demonstrated locally, where services are delivered. We must also ensure that it occurs effectively in central Government, working across Departments. All Departments with which he intends to have the debate want to work together and not in the proverbial silos. We have done, and will continue to do, a number of things to achieve that, and I will outline them later.

I have time to talk about the Supporting People programme, which, as my hon. Friend rightly said, rests with the Department for Communities and Local Government. He is aware that, on 7 April 2003, we saw the advent of that programme, which brought together for the first time nine housing-related funding streams from across Whitehall, which was no mean achievement. From its beginning, the main aim of the Supporting People programme has been to end social exclusion and to enable vulnerable people to maintain or achieve their independence through the provision of vital housing-related support to maintain a suitable and stable independent home in local communities.

The Supporting People programme provides housing-related support to prevent problems that could lead to hospitalisation, institutional care and homelessness, and it aims to help the smooth transition from independent living for those leaving an institutional environment. The purpose of the programme is to assist in providing a better quality of life for vulnerable people, helping them to live more independently.

The programme’s vision of bringing together at local level better integrated and more securely funded housing and related services for vulnerable people commanded general support, and still does. The intention is to help many categories of people, including older people who want to continue to live independently and other vulnerable people in our communities.

23 Jun 2009 : Column 236WH

Dr. Ladyman: Given what the Minister has said about the laudable objectives of supporting people and the specific targeting of vulnerable older people, can he think of any justification for allowing councils to opt out entirely from providing extra care support for people in their area, as some have chosen to do?

Jonathan Shaw: My hon. Friend will know that services differentiate between local authority areas. A common complaint about the postcode lottery that people often talk about is the difficulty of getting the balance right between local choice for the council to provide for its residents and ensuring that there are standards. I am sure that we will continue to have this debate—particularly when we publish the care and support Green Paper, on which a most important debate will take place, and what he has discussed today will be very pertinent to that. We will publish that document soon. As my hon. Friend knows, we have invested more than £8.7 billion in the programme, and we will spend a further £4.9 billion up to 31 March 2011. The programme has helped more than 1 million people across England.

On the DWP’s role, help with service charges from income-related benefits relies on the charge first being a condition of occupying the home. In practice, therefore, the tenant or leaseholder could be evicted from their home for non-payment. The benefit decision maker decides whether any part of those charges is ineligible for help and removes that from the overall service charge before deciding on the amount of benefit payable. Legislation does not prescribe which service charges are eligible. We have always sought to avoid providing a prescriptive list of eligible service charges, as it would prevent help from being given for worthy costs that are not on the list.

As a general rule, all eligible service charges must be connected with the provision of adequate accommodation. Charges must therefore be related to those services that are property related, rather than to the person’s ability to live in a property, which are usually met by other funding streams. A proportion of the service charge costs in respect of supported accommodation that is owned or leased may be met through income-related benefits, such as income support or pension credit.

We are aware that some decision makers have faced difficulty when the management fee payable on leasehold apartments does not include a breakdown of the service charges included in the fee, including those for providing support. If that breakdown is not available, it may be that the decision maker is unable to establish the eligible charges met by pension credit. The issue of determining and assessing the ineligible service charges for owners was addressed in a commissioner’s decision—CIS/2901/2004—which was reported in April 2005. Essentially, the commissioner decided that the appropriate apportioning of staff costs between housing management and support functions should be determined by how much time is spent on each function.

On the issues that relate to my Department, my hon. Friend mentioned the number and 100 per cent. success rate of appeals made against the pension credit assessment. In those cases where a breakdown was not available at the time of the original decision, that decision can be reconsidered if the information becomes available subsequently and an application for a revision is made. I understand that the total number of pension credit
23 Jun 2009 : Column 237WH
appeals submitted to a tribunal during 2008-09 was 1,387, of which 221 were allowed in full and 32 in part. We believe that the appeals to which my hon. Friend refers are those where the decision has been reconsidered and revised by the decision maker, so that there is no need to submit the appeal to the Tribunals Service. The provision of the information means that the reconsideration can be done, the decision revised and the appeal lapsed.

On issues relating to housing costs, which includes service charges, only 32 appeals were lost. Appeals are normally lost because the decision is on a matter of subjective judgment and the tribunal comes to a different conclusion, or the customer provides extra information at the hearing. Approximately 120,000 decisions were made on service charges last year, of which only 32 were found to be incorrect on appeal. In essence, therefore, only 0.03 per cent. of our decisions on service charges were found to be incorrect in the end. Several appeals were made to the commissioner and upper tribunal judge, to clarify which expenses were eligible and which were ineligible. The commissioner’s decisions are binding and must be followed by decision makers, as my hon. Friend is aware. To ensure that decisions are consistent and in line with the commissioner’s findings, a guidance memo—SPC memo 53—was issued to all decision makers in November 2006. I can send it to my hon. Friend if he wishes.

My hon. Friend asserted that the reasoning behind decisions and the instructions of specialist decision makers are too complex for many older people to understand. The concept behind the decision is straightforward. A resident is eligible for help with service charge costs associated with the provision of adequate accommodation, but not for help with costs associated with counselling, care and support. Complexity arises if the service charge costs comprise both eligible and ineligible elements in unspecified and varying proportions. However, SPC memo 53 simplifies the matter for decision makers by including an automated spreadsheet calculator. The decision maker simply inputs the established facts and the calculator works out the entitlement.

My hon. Friend suggested that the DWP has so far refused to give a list of allowable expenses for people in homes where a service charge adds to the confusion, yet SPC 53 also includes a desk aid containing an extensive list of allowable expenses for people in homes where there is a service charge. The memo has been accessible and in the public domain since November 2006.

Finally, my hon. Friend remarked that there is no consistency in decision making between local offices, or even between decisions affecting neighbours. It is difficult to comment on or analyse the consistency of decisions
23 Jun 2009 : Column 238WH
between local offices or neighbouring areas, because each individual case should be decided on its own facts and will therefore be different from the case of a resident in a similar establishment in the next road, town or village. It is likely that residents within the same leasehold dwelling will have similar entitlements, but those entitlements will be different from those of the residents of a neighbouring dwelling. That individuality was confirmed by the commissioner, who stated that

The Pension, Disability and Carers Service also encourages consistency of decision making in the area. I am assured that decision makers have been provided with the training and guidance to deal effectively with claims. A current programme of work is being undertaken to update existing training modules and provide staff with extra training directed at all aspects of error in decision making. There is a specific training module on service charges, which was launched in April 2009.

PDCS has an independent team that undertakes regular checks of the accuracy of pension credit decisions. When errors are found, feedback is given to staff. The most up-to-date pension credit statistics show accuracy for 2008-09 to have been 92.11 per cent. against a target of 92 per cent. PDCS has a specialist centralised appeals section to handle all pension credit appeals. If the decision referred to the appeals section looks in doubt, the case goes back to the decision maker for reconsideration. Our records show that only 12 cases were reconsidered for service charges in the past year.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing his expertise and understanding of the sector to the debate. I believe that our objectives as a Government and his, as a champion for older people, are the same. I will arrange for meetings between him and officials to ensure that all the points that he raised are covered if I have not been able to respond to them today.

Dr. Ladyman: I will certainly take up my hon. Friend’s invitation, but given what he said about the guidance notes being in the public domain, it seems a small step for them to be put into plain English, so that clients as well as decision makers can understand them. Will he consider that?

Jonathan Shaw: On a final note, of course I will consider it. We always strive to ensure that our publications are in plain English and meet the various marks for that. I hope that we can indeed improve the service.

Next Section Index Home Page