Two weeks ago Angela Eagle was the minister responsible for taxing bingo halls. Yesterday, she told a group of us involved in supporting older people that she was off to a bingo hall in Newcastle to talk about the take up of pension credits. There’s a wonderful symmetry here – and the Minster’s got it right. Taxes, paid by us all via capital gains taxes, income tax or bingo, pay for Pension Credits and every eligible person should get what is theirs. The government is still focused on helping the poorest pensioners - the PSA target to tackle poverty and promote greater independence and well-being in later life remains a government priority.
And the government isn’t going to do it on its own – it’s asking the public services and the third sector to support this campaign. And that’s where you and I come in. As Angela went off to call the numbers, I went to the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle, to gift £280,000 to the Trust to buy vital equipment. Talking to volunteers and staff about WRVS’ refocusing and restructuring programme, I was struck by the enthusiasm for using every one of our 500 odd hospital outlets as a place where older people, their families and carers can go to be signposted to the expert advice provided by other specialist voluntary organisations and DWP itself.
At one meeting with older people’s groups that morning, we heard that talking to the Pensions Agency was like talking to the Inquisition – more interested in catching them out than helping them. And however much officials talk of experienced and kindly staff and Ministers decry the way support for older people is tainted by the stigma attached to services for unemployed people (shades of the deserving and undeserving poor still affect political responses to poverty, after all) the estimated third of eligible people who don’t claim pension credit aren’t suddenly going to trust the official helpline – or even go through the door of an unfamiliar advice agency. What they will do is trust someone who has been there, someone who can make that first call.
That’s why I want to use every contact with an older person, in a hospital café and waiting room, in a day centre, through a Good Neighbours scheme, when they receive their Meal on Wheels, as an access point, a safe and reassuring way to bridge the gap between people’s reluctance to claim and the specialist benefits, and other support, that older people need.