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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 November 2005, 15:41 GMT
Blind woman gets benefits apology
A Post Office
Some people receive cheques they can cash at the Post Office

A benefits office has apologised after it stopped a blind woman's severe disablement cheques without warning.

Georgina Barbury is one of 120,000 people in the UK who get one benefit paid into a bank account and another paid by cheque.

But the government has been acting to convert people in Ms Barbury's position so that all their benefits get paid directly into a bank account, BBC Radio 4's Money Box has learned.

It is writing to inform them they will be moved to Direct Payment for all their benefits, unless they say "no".

Over the last three years the payment of benefits and pensions has been changed from weekly order books that can be cashed at the Post Office, to Direct Payment into bank accounts.

However, a cheque exemption service was brought in for people who could not operate or manage a bank account.

No warning

In Ms Barbury's case, although she has one of her benefits - Disability Living Allowance - paid into her bank account, this money is used to cover regular bills and she never needs to access it.

But she still wants to keep her other benefit in cash to buy food and everyday items, and the easiest way for her to do that is to take a cheque to the local post office.

They said they were not giving out allowances by cheque any more, they were stopping it
Georgina Barbury
But a few weeks ago, Ms Barbury's cheque just did not arrive.

"I did ring them up, and they said they were not giving out allowances by cheque any more, they were stopping it... I had no pre-warning of any kind," she said.

Ms Barbury contacted the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) for help.

RNIB Policy Officer Helen Dearman called Georgina's payment Office in Sutton and was told that over the previous few weeks, people who receive benefits from that office by cheque were having their cheques stopped.

'Priority matter'

Ms Dearman said: "He told me... they [people] were then forced to contact the office to report them missing and they believed they had been lost in the post, but in fact they had not even been sent out.

"They were doing this so that people would call in and they could tell them that they needed to change from cheque payments to Direct Payment," she said.

"This completely contravenes government policy, and clearly in some instances would be leaving very vulnerable customers, who can least afford to go without payment for a number of days in a position where they had no money."

BBC RADIO 4'S MONEY BOX
The programme was broadcast on Saturday, 19 November, 2005 at 1204 GMT
The local office in Sutton has since apologised to Ms Barbury and restored her cheques.

The Department for Work and Pensions meanwhile has distanced itself from the Sutton Office's tactics, saying it is not government policy and is being investigated as a matter of priority.

But Ms Dearman remains concerned about the government's methods.

The Department for Work and Pensions has assured Money Box that anyone who wants to continue being paid by cheque will be able to.

So for people like Ms Barbury who want to keep receiving money by cheque, if their cheque is suddenly stopped or they receive a letter telling them they will be switched to Direct Payment, they should get in touch with their benefits office to inform them that they still require their money by cheque.

BBC Radio 4's Money Box was broadcast on Saturday, 19 November, 2005, at 1204 GMT.

The programme was repeated on Sunday, 20 November, at 2102 GMT.



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SEE ALSO:
Benefit losses are 'astronomical'
10 Oct 05 |  UK Politics
Direct payment 'works', says DWP
24 Sep 04 |  Business
Getting a benefits check-up
17 Aug 04 |  Business


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