Page last updated at 17:15 GMT, Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Public Accounts Committee

Even if all pensioners availed of their full benefit entitlement it would not mean the end to pensioner poverty, a senior civil servant told MLAs, on 7 March 2012.

Will Haire, the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Social Development (DSD), was giving evidence at a meeting of the Stormont public accounts committee.

An Audit Office report on low uptake of benefits by pensioners was the matter under discussion.

The 2011 report noted that one fifth of Northern Ireland's pensioners were living in poverty, and that 55% of pensioners' income came from benefits.

It gave a number of recommendations for the encouragement of benefit claims, the main suggestion being the wider sharing of data across the benefit-paying agencies.

In reply to a question from committee chair Paul Maskey of Sinn Fein, Mr Haire outlined the ways in which the department worked to ensure pensioners were made aware of their entitlements.

"For every pound we spend on this we get £11 of benefit uptake," he said.

Mr Maskey gave the example of an 87 year-old constituent who had come to him after receiving a letter saying he owed £10,000 due to benefit overpayments.

Tommy O'Reilly from DSD said they were happy to look at a case like that on an individual basis.

Mr Maskey was also concerned about variations in the poverty rates shown in the report.

Mr O'Reilly said the statistics could not be relied on.

Mr Haire added that the Family Resources Survey was used to consider other aspects of poverty, but it did not provide useable data for this "very complicated" problem.

At the end of the lengthy session, Alex Maskey asked whether, if everyone took up the benefit they were entitled to, it would mean the end of pensioner poverty.

"No," replied Mr Haire. "We can give the full entitlement to many people and they will still be in poverty".

Public Accounts Committee membership


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