Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 12 of Session 2002-03, dated 9 April 2003


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today that there was an urgent need to reduce confusion about the benefits available to pensioners and increase benefit take-up.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 12th Report of this Session, which examined action taken by the Department for Work and Pensions and The Pension Service (created in 2002) to tackle the barriers to take-up by pensioners of entitlements including Minimum Income Guarantee (previously Income Support), Council Tax Benefit, and Housing Benefit.

The Committee found that the Department has begun to focus more on increasing levels of take-up of some benefits. The creation of The Pension Service is a positive step, focusing more on pensioners and their needs than administering individual benefits. The success of the new approach will depend on The Pension Service having stretching targets for take-up and improving the quality of information on take-up levels.

Confusion about the system and difficulties in understanding its complexity are major barriers to take-up. Many pensioners find it difficult to obtain information on benefits, and rely heavily on what friends and relatives tell them. The Department has started to issue better literature and should continue to find simple and imaginative ways of communicating complex information to pensioners, their relatives, and others including health service professionals who come into contact with them, to widen awareness of what benefits are available.

Many other organisations have an interest in encouraging take-up and it would be wasteful to duplicate their efforts. The Department and The Pension Service are developing partnerships, for example locally with local authorities and nationally, through the Partnerships Against Poverty forum. There are also examples of good practice in taking advantage of the contacts that others have with pensioners to provide information, but limited published data on what works. The Department should take a lead in identifying and disseminating successful approaches, so that resources can be targeted effectively.

Systems for administering benefits in central and local government have grown up separately, and there are technical and data protection barriers to sharing data. As a result, people must still provide the same information to different agencies. There remains significant scope to simplify processes, use information more effectively, and reduce duplication. We have repeatedly expressed concerns about the Department's computer systems and the impact of their weaknesses on customer service. The Department has an on-going IT strategy, but 2006-the promised date for significant improvements in information technology systems-is nearing without clear evidence of progress.

Mr Leigh said today:

"Some 2 million pensioners live in low-income households but almost £2 billion of the main pot of benefits available to them remains unclaimed. I welcome the creation of The Pension Service to focus on the needs of pensioners. The lamentable state of affairs where vulnerable pensioners are confused about the support they are entitled to and have to provide the same information time and again to different agencies must be addressed as a matter of urgency."

Click here to view the Report