Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 29 of Session 2003-04, dated 8 July 2004


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today welcomed the increased attention given by the Government to developing effective services for older people but said that more could be done to provide the standard of service that older people need and deserve.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 29th Report of this Session, which draws on previous reports by the Committee and the National Audit Office about aspects of the provision of public services to older people.

There are more than 10.5 million people over state pension age; by 2040 this figure is expected to have reached 16 million, or 25% of the population. In general, older people are more likely than younger ones to use public services provided by central and local government and the National Health Service. Around 40% of NHS expenditure on health and social care is spent on those over 65, and those over state pension age receive over £60 billion in pensions and benefits.

The Government has recognised the importance of the ageing of the population and there have been important developments such as the establishment of The Pension Service, and creation of the National Service Framework to improve health services for older people. But other parts of government pay less attention to older people. Stronger co-ordination of the efforts of numerous public bodies is needed to avoid duplication and maintain the momentum towards more joined-up services. The Cabinet Committee for older people-supported by the Department for Work and Pensions-helps to draw together all parts of government but its work is not publicised. Overall performance across government in improving services for older people should be better assessed and reported.

The way services for older people are delivered can be confusing and, unless based on a clear understanding of the needs of older people, this may lead to social exclusion. Complex arrangements and poorly explained rules discourage people from using services or claiming their entitlements. Some people also have problems physically accessing services because of their disabilities or are put off by the way services are marketed. The needs and views of older people should be regularly gauged and taken into account in developing services. Existing research could be better shared across government, and with academia and the voluntary sector.

To draw services to the attention of the hard to reach, government should make greater use of existing contacts older people have with a range of trusted authorities. Research has repeatedly shown that older people often find out more about government services by word of mouth than through official channels. Thus, for example, a review of eligibility for benefits could routinely be linked to the over-75 health check organised through GP practices, as already occurs in some parts of the country. More generally, the consolidation of services, through moves towards 'one-stop' shops, are of considerable value to older people.

Communication with older people should be clearer and public bodies should ensure they test explanatory literature on older people. Although some improvements have been made- for example, to the length of certain application forms and through providing information about services in one document such as Pensioners' Guide-older people still receive overly-complex documents and bewildering letters.

Public bodies should follow the good practice highlighted in this report and elsewhere on how best to consult with older people in developing services. Although it is now common practice to consult with older people, this takes time. Consultation generates goodwill, but this can be undermined by not explaining the reasons for subsequent decisions. Reporting back after consultation with older people and bodies representing them reduces the risk of disappointment. Public bodies could make more use of existing means for gathering the views of older people, such as through arrangements established by Age Concern.

Older people from ethnic minorities have specific needs and may face additional barriers to using public services. The proportion of older people amongst ethnic minorities is growing faster than the rest of the population, and the group are disproportionately represented, for example, amongst those on low incomes. Understanding the need to provide services which meet linguistic, cultural and religious needs is in its infancy. Specific research and consultation will help develop services for different ethnic minorities.

Involving voluntary bodies in developing and delivering services has worked for older people but government should avoid overloading them. However, some voluntary sector organisations do not think government is aware of the effort required of them. Where government looks to voluntary bodies to play a role in providing services, it should identify the capacity required and foster its development.

New technology can improve the lives of older people but careful piloting is needed. Many government websites are not accessible to many older people, particularly those with disabilities, because of failure to apply widely recognised standards. Research and piloting of innovative approaches to service delivery should include testing with older people. More should be done to encourage take-up of technology, for example by UK online centres undertaking projects tailored to the need of older people.

Mr Leigh said today:

"There are more than 10 million people over state retirement age and numbers are growing all the time. Older people are a key group of consumers for public services of all kinds. I welcome the initiatives for older people launched by the Government over recent years. But much more could be done to provide the standard of service that older people need and deserve.

Services should be designed with the needs of older people in mind and must be clearly explained. There should be better co-operation between different organisations. It is sensible for government to draw on the expertise and experience of voluntary bodies, and make the most of their existing contact with older people. But this must not become an unsustainable burden."

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