Friday, September 3, 1999 Published at 03:57 GMT 04:57 UK
Poor 'at risk' over benefits reforms
Elderly people often fail to claim the benefits they are entitled to
Vulnerable people could miss out on benefits because of changes to the appeals procedure being introduced by the government.
Campaign groups, including Age Concern and the Child Poverty Action Group, fear plans to reduce appeal times for a range of benefits from three to one month will mean people will be "unjustly denied benefits".
The government says the change, which is part of the new decision-making and appeals programme, is designed to simplify the system and make it more efficient.
And it adds that the time limit can be extended to up to 13 months if there are special circumstances.
But Age Concern says there is no guarantee people will be allowed to make a late appeal.
The appeals time limit will apply to Widow's Benefit from 6 September, to Attendance Allowance, Disability Living Allowance and Invalid Care Allowance from 18 October and to Income Support and the Social Fund from 29 November.
Expert help often needed
Ken Hazard, manager of an Age Concern benefits advice service in Nottinghamshire, said: "These reforms would be more credible if, as well as reducing the client's time for making the appeal, the Benefits Agency undertook to reach decisions on appeal within a certain time period."
The agency used to set a target of 14 days for making final decisions, but this has since been made more vague.
Joan Martin, an Age Concern advice worker from Rochdale, said part of the problem with appeals was that many elderly people did not realise they could challenge a Benefits Agency decision until they had spoken to an expert.
"It's not unusual for an older person to visit us about another problem, for example, not being able to pay a bill, then we get talking, and we find out they've been refused benefits.
"Once the deadline for appeal is reduced to a month, people like this will inevitably miss the opportunity to challenge the decision."
Sally Greengross, director general of Age Concern England, commented: "It is difficult to see how this change will benefit older people and it may even result in rough justice for some if they miss the deadline through no fault of their own."
She urged elderly people and their carers to seek expert advice as soon as possible if they are refused benefits.
The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) says up to £3.5bn in benefits goes unclaimed because people are not getting enough support to make claims or do not know they are entitled to the money.
"These reforms will do nothing to help, although the intention to speed up the decision-making process is good," said a spokesman.
He added that one in 10 people currently do not make appeals within one month of being rejected for benefits.
He feared the changes were primarily motivated by a desire to cut costs rather than to help claimants.
"The government has promised to improve efficiency, but so far the balance seems to be shifting more responsibility onto claimants at a time when take-up is still low."
The CPAG believes more investment in independent advice services for claimants would redress the balance, including an independent watchdog to monitor the Benefits Agency's decision-making process.
It says that, because of increased means testing, the red tape currently faced by claimants can be "very intimidating".
But it is wary of reducing this in case it leads to cutbacks in entitlement.