Thousands of pensioners could be missing out on millions of pounds of government money left unclaimed, a report has revealed.
Report says thousands missing out on entitlements
Up to 36,000 potentially eligible pensioners have not applied for the Minimum Income Guarantee, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General John Dowdall's report to Parliament.
The report said about one third of all pensioners in Northern Ireland - 81,000 - were considered to be living in low-income households, with thousands missing out on benefits to which they were entitled.
Mr Dowdall said more needed to be done to make it easier for people to claim and to seek out those reluctant to seek help.
Although the Department for Social Development and its agencies had made good progress in encouraging eligible pensioners to claim their benefit entitlements, he said "many older people were still struggling to make ends meet".
The report highlighted a number of related reasons for failure to claim entitlements.
They included "the complexity of the system, lack of knowledge of entitlement, a perception of being stigmatised by the receipt of benefit and physical or other difficulties in the processes of claiming".
Mr Dowdall said this failure to claim benefits may also contribute to the problem of fuel poverty among pensioners, as not taking advantage of entitlements could make them ineligible for initiatives such as the Warm Homes Scheme.
It is projected that Northern Ireland's current figure of about 260,000 pensioners will rise to 314,000 by 2021, representing one fifth of the population.
The Audit Office report said more pensioners would become eligible for additional entitlement with the introduction in October this year of the State Pension Credit to replace the Minimum Income Guarantee.
It said the pensions services reorganisation would allow the department to promote benefits in a more co-ordinated and systematic way.
Efforts to reduce the complexity of the benefits system were praised, but the report also emphasised a need for cost-effective, simplified application forms.
It also recommended the promotion of better collaboration with other agencies, and greater co-ordination between the department and local voluntary organisations.
The department should "work more intensively with the voluntary sector in order to engage more directly with pensioners in their own communities by seeking opportunities to provide benefits advice in GP surgeries and health centres," the report said.