Memorandum submitted by Age Concern and
Help the Aged (DM 04)
Key points and recommendations
· Decision making for Pension Credit appears satisfactory in the majority of straightforward cases but we sometimes come across problems with more complicated cases.
· There needs to be a clear process whereby more difficult Pension Credit cases are identified and referred to experienced staff at an early stage.
· When overpayments occur this can take time to sort out and can cause worry to those affected who are often unclear why the overpayment has arisen and what their obligations are in terms of repayment.
· Generally speaking the decision making process for AA appears to be working effectively although where people claim without support they often do not understand the process and may not include all the relevant information.
· Following the court case on exporting AA, DLA and Carer's Allowance we have been hearing from older people living abroad who are experiencing problems with benefit decisions.
· The time limit for challenging a decision and submitting an appeal should be extended to at least two months.
· The appeals process can be daunting for individuals and care needs to be taken to deal with people sympathetically,
· Many older people find it difficult to understand the benefit systems and decision making processes so it is important that advisers are able to speak to relevant benefit staff and act on their client's behalf.
1.1 Age Concern and Help the Aged welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Committee's request for evidence to its inquiry into decision making and appeals in the benefits system. This response is based on the comments we have received from older people contacting our national information line and from feedback from staff and volunteers providing information and advice in local Age Concerns. Although our services provide help with a range of benefits we most frequently deal with Pension Credit and Attendance Allowance (AA) so experiences around these benefits are the main focus of this response. Many Age Concerns provide information, advice and support around benefits. Where a home visiting service is provided this often concentrates on helping people claim AA and linked benefits. Some Age Concerns provide in depth case work and help with appeals while others will refer people on to other organisations.
2. Decision making and Pension Credit
Decision making for Pension Credit appears satisfactory in the majority of straightforward cases but we sometimes come across problems with more complicated cases.
There needs to be a clear process whereby more difficult Pension Credit cases are identified and referred to experienced staff at an early stage.
2.1 Generally speaking the decision making process seems to go smoothly for the majority of straightforward Pension Credit cases. However one local adviser had noticed a decline in the quality of decisions and delays which she put down to the closure of their pension centre and staff being transferred to Jobcentre Plus to deal with increased unemployment.
2.2 There are sometimes difficulties with more complicated cases for example those involving additions (which are sometimes missed off), mortgage interest, overpayments (see below) or fluctuating earnings. Often when an adviser reports that an additional payment such as the carer addition has not been awarded this will be rectified. However sometimes it appears that a request for a decision to be reviewed or appealed is not registered as a formal challenge. One adviser said 'Pension Credit appeals are often just ignored in my experience!'
2.3 We also hear of cases where individuals or advisers have to press hard for a decision to be rectified. For example we heard from one man whose claim had been refused who had contacted the Pension, Disability and Carers Service (PDCS) on 'umpteen' occasions and been given contradictory information and promises to call back which were never kept. Finally after over 7 months and a letter to the Chief Executive at PDCS he received confirmation of his award, a 14 months backpayment and an apology.
3. Overpayment and official errors
When overpayments occur this can take time to sort out and can cause worry to those affected who are often unclear why the overpayment has arisen and what their obligations are in terms of repayment.
3.1 Although not a common area of complaint for us, when overpayments do occur there can be lengthy delays and contradictory information. It can be hard for people to understand the reason for overpayments and whether an overpayment is recoverable or whether because it was due to an official error they do not need to repay the money. Advisers tell us they can have difficulties getting responses once the case has been handed over to Debt Management (the organisation which deals with the management and recovery of debts on behalf of the DWP) and sometimes when they challenge a decision no justification is given.
3.2 Many older people are very worried to learn that they have been paid too much benefit. For example an adviser told us about a case where an older couple realised they had been incorrectly awarded an additional £200 winter fuel payment and wanted to know how to repay this. The adviser talked to the winter fuel payment helpline and was told this was their error so they did not need to pay the money. Some time later the couple were concerned to receive a letter asking for the money to be repaid.
3.3 We are pleased that the DWP are now looking at debt management and have been reviewing letters sent to individuals about overpayments.
4. Decision making and disability benefits
Generally speaking the decision making process for AA appears to be working effectively although where people claim without support they often do not understand the process and may not include all the relevant information.
4.1 Feedback from Age Concerns who help people claim AA indicates that in general most are satisfied with the decision making process and claims are normally successful when the adviser expects them to be. There was however some mention of inconsistency and the odd unexpected decision and concern that if a claim was turned down some people were not keen to ask for a revision or appeal. We also had some feedback that decision making was more likely to be inconsistent when people have particular conditions such as mental illness.
4.2 When local organisations do encounter problems it is often because someone has claimed without support and has been turned down or had help from friends and family who do not have knowledge of benefits. Older people without support often do not know what information is required and do not understand how a particular decision was arrived at. This makes it very difficult to know whether they can challenge a decision.
4.3 We recognise that ringing claimants can be an easy and quick way to obtain additional information to help decision makers. However a number of our local advisers remarked that older people are often reluctant to admit they cannot manage so when a phone call comes out of the blue they may underplay their needs. There will also be times when a call is inappropriate. For example one local adviser told us about a man with dementia who received a call about his claim for DLA. The claim was refused and although the adviser recommended challenging the decision the claimant's wife, who was very upset by the process, did not wish to pursue the claim.
4.4 Although most people who seek support from local Age Concerns are over state pension some organisations are seeing an increasing number of younger people. One adviser who told us that he came across very few problems with AA or DLA decisions but was concerned that he had recently seen 4 people whose claims for Employment and Support Allowance had been turned down where he felt there was a case to challenge the decision.
5. Exporting AA, DLA and Carer's Allowance
Following the court case on exporting AA, DLA and Carer's Allowance we have been hearing from older people living abroad who are experiencing problems with benefit decisions.
5.1 Age Concern and Help the Aged's Older People Residing Abroad programme looks at the experiences of people who have retired abroad and works to raise awareness of their needs and improve the support and services available. We regularly hear from older British people who live in another European country and feel it is unfair that they cannot receive certain benefits abroad. Since the European court case on exporting AA, DLA and Carer's Allowance many people have contacted us with about delays or problems with the claims or appeals process. For example:
· Clients waiting a very long time for the exportability team to respond to initial enquiries.
· The exportability team sending out 'holding letter' to clients, citing 'complex issues' as an explanation for the delay in respond to enquiries.
· Very few clients receiving dates for their tribunal hearing, despite numerous requests.
· Those who do receive a tribunal date but need to change the venue can experience long delays.
· The application of the past-present test to claims disallowed in error by the DWP in the run up to the ECJ decision being made. Claimants affected by this error must now submit a new claim or request a reconsideration.
· Requests for new claims since moving abroad
5.2 The process has resulted in confusion for clients, many feeling overwhelmed by the process and amount of paper work received. For people living abroad it can be particularly difficult to deal with problems because of the costs of international telephone calls and the lack of access to local advice agencies for support.
The time limit for challenging a decision and submitting an appeal should be extended to at least two months.
The appeals process can be daunting for individuals and care needs to be taken to deal with people sympathetically,
6.1 Some of local Age Concerns help people with appeals although others will refer to other agencies. We have had feedback on three specific issues.
Time scale for making appeals
6.2 The one month time limit for challenging a decision and submitting an appeal does not give people sufficient time. Many people need information about appeals and help with the process. They will often delay taking action until they have sought advice from friends or family or a local advice agency. However agencies are under particular pressure at present and may have a waiting list for appointments so there is a danger that if the client does not emphasise their need for urgent help it may be too late for an appeal.
6.3 The short one month time limit also makes it difficult to obtain evidence, such as a copy of the original claim form (if the client applied on their own) in order to help advisers decide whether to recommend that an appeal is made. As a consequence appeals may have to be made without fully considering all the issues or people may be reluctant to pursue their case if an adviser cannot explain, for example, how additional evidence could change the decision.
6.4 A number of local organisations commented on the time appeals take to be heard - with one saying this could be several months another saying it could take up to a year.
Experiences of appeals
6.5 Although the procedures are intended to be informal all staff involved in tribunals need to treat people sympathetically and be aware that the experience can be daunting for individuals. Some people find the procedures formal and legalistic and one Age Concern noted that some tribunal Chairs were much better than others at putting people at ease. One adviser said that in their area tribunals used to be held in a portacabin but were then moved to the local law courts which was more intimidating for people.
7. The need for support
Many older people find it difficult to understand the benefit systems and decision making processes so it is important that advisers are able to speak to relevant benefit staff and act on their client's behalf.
7.1 Because of the difficulties understanding both the benefit rules and the system of claiming benefits and challenging decisions older people often need support from local advice agencies.
7.2 However advisers tell us that they can have difficulty getting through to the appropriate member of staff dealing with a claim and persuading them they are authorised to act on their client's behalf. This is despite all staff having guidance about dealing with third parties. One adviser said it had taken 20 minutes to persuade the member of staff who answered the telephone to let her speak to someone dealing with her client's case even though the Age Concern acts as an Alternative Office. Concerns about third party authorisation have been raised with the DWP and we understand PDCS staff have been reminded about the guidance.
7.3 The main problems appear to be with the pension side of the PDCS. We welcome the idea of an 'adviser hot line' referred to in the Committee's recent report Tackling Pensioner Poverty which could operate in a similar way to the service currently provided for advisers wanting to discuss AA and DLA claims.