Pensioners in Northern Ireland are missing out on up to £200m a year in unclaimed benefits, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal today.
Thousands of older people are consistently failing to apply for government funds they are genuinely entitled to.
This ‘lost’ money — which comprises a variety of benefits including pension credit and housing benefit — could go a long way in the battle to prevent winter deaths.
Spread the Warmth is an Age NI campaign aimed at easing the suffering of frail, vulnerable elderly people, some of whom could end up dying needlessly during the bitter cold winter.
As part of this initiative, the Belfast Telegraph’s Feel the Benefit drive will encourage pensioners to take up benefits they are entitled to. Our objective is to get 100 local senior citizens calling the Age NI helpline over the next five days to claim money that is legitimately theirs.
Age NI has calculated that a successful benefits check can boost an older person’s weekly income by £62 — or £3,224 a year. That means our campaign could potentially unlock £6,200 in unallocated funds in just five days. That equates to a staggering £322,400 a year — another indicator of how much benefit is lying unclaimed. Sobering new figures reveal that 24,000 people died in the UK alone from the effects of cold weather last winter.
Across Northern Ireland, hard-pressed households are struggling to cope with soaring bills, and many face a stark choice between keeping warm or putting food on the table.
People who work with the eld
erly said it was uncivilised for the UK to tolerate more cold-related deaths than snow-bound countries like Finland.
Age NI chief executive Anne O’Reilly said it was a disgrace that the lives of vulnerable citizens are being put at risk because they can’t afford to switch the heating on. “Our research suggests that up to £2.3m worth of pension credit alone is going begging every week, for a variety of reasons,” she said.
Chief among them is a perceived stigma attached to accepting what some see hand-outs. This unallocated cash is then sent back to the Treasury — and not injected into the local economy.
Ms O’Reilly added: “One call to our advice service could make a real difference to an older person’s income, so we’re encouraging people to get in touch.”
Belfast Telegraph editor Mike Gilson said it was imperative to raise awareness of this important issue.
“’Feel the Benefit’ is our campaign to help Age NI spread the warmth this winter, and to encourage pensioners to take up the benefits they are entitled to,” said Mr Gilson. “We are living in a difficult economic climate and times are very tough, but no one should be suffering in silence.
“Help is out there, and in this modern day society it is our collective responsibility to let everyone know how to access the services they need.”
One local carer said action was needed to end the scandal of unnecessary winter deaths among older people. “Even in very cold countries such as Finland, such deaths are much lower than here — because they take staying warm seriously and prepare for cold weather,” the carer said.
Saved from a life of poverty ...the war hero aged 91 who was left living from hand to mouth after his wife died
By Claire McNeilly
When war veteran John McMillan Leishman lost his beloved wife of 67 years he was left living hand to mouth.
For as well as having to deal with the pain of Florence’s death, the 91-year-old had to re-assess his finances which forced him to cut back on what he spent on food.
“I was living hand to mouth on less than £100 a week after Florence died,” said John, a former army sergeant.
“For months after she passed away in Belfast City Hospital on May 1 2008, I felt completely lost.
“Money was tight, even though I don’t smoke or gamble, so I started cutting corners on food and I wasn’t eating very much.
“I couldn’t afford to go out anywhere either and I started to feel as though my life had gone too — until I contacted Age NI.”
The Dundonald pensioner, who is a father of two, grandfather of four and great-grandfather of four has credited the charity for saving his life.
“It was like being reborn. After carrying out a benefits check they discovered I was entitled to housing benefit, rates rebate and attendance allowance,” he said.
John has seen his weekly income double thanks to the help he received from Age NI.
“Now I get weekly benefits amounting to £209, which has made a huge difference to my life.
“I had to go through a bit of a battle to get my pension credit, but after an initial rejection Age NI persuaded me to pursue my application and I was eventually awarded the benefit as well as a rebate of more than £6,000 for back payments,” he explained.
“When I got attendance allowance and housing benefit I thought I was in heaven. Then since the pension credit came through, I’m living in glory.
“I like travelling and plenty of good food and now that I have £209 a week to live on, that allows me to save up to do things.
“I can also afford to go on holiday and I can buy proper food to keep me going.
John, who served in the armed forces during the Second World War, has urged other pensioners to pick up the phone to Age NI.
“I don’t think there is any shame in turning to an organisation like Age NI and I’m very thankful I found out they were there.
“They respect you, they look after you and they go well out of their way to help you and there’s no need to be embarrassed about that,” he added.
“They looked after me — and now I’m sure I’ll live until I’m 100!”
One phone call could make all the difference for someone in need
By Claire McNeilly
Age NI is urging older people to pick up the telephone and contact its advice service this week to check what benefits they are entitled to.
The organisation’s chief executive Anne O’Reilly said that one chat with an experienced adviser could be the difference between life and death for someone who is currently suffering in silence.
Her call comes as the Belfast Telegraph launches its Feel the Benefit campaign in support of Age NI’s Spread The Warmth initiative, which aims to stop pensioners dying needlessly in winter.
“One phone call to the Age NI advice service could make a real difference to an older person’s in
come,” said Ms O’Reilly. “All too often, older people are reticent about claiming what’s theirs. Sometimes people think it’s too difficult to get extra financial help — they don’t know who to ask, they think that the forms are too complicated or they believe that they won’t be eligible.”
She added: “All of these reasons explain why £200m in support for older people goes unclaimed every year in Northern Ireland, so we are asking you to lift the phone today.”
Statistics provided by Age NI for the Belfast Telegraph show that today 20% of the population (350,000) in Northern Ireland is over 60 years old.
They also reveal that 23% of pensioners here live in poverty, compared with 16% elsewhere in the UK. Furthermore, the level of poverty among the elderly across the province has gone up 27% since 2009, while declining in Great Britain.
Spread The Warmth was launched in November. Last year the campaign helped more than 88,000 older people following 4,000 calls to Age NI’s advice service and 2,000 client visits.
If you, or someone you know, may be entitled to benefits call the Age NI service on 0808 808 7575. Calls are confidential and free
14 benefits you may be entitled to
Are you getting the all the financial help available to you? Consumer correspondent Claire McNeilly details the benefits
Means Tested Benefits
1. Pension Credit (PC)
Pension Credit is a tax-free top up of weekly income to a minimum level made up of Guarantee Credit, paid to those who have reached minimum qualifying age and savings Credit to those over 65.
2. Housing Benefit
Paid to those who need help to pay rent, based on income and rent charged. Those on Guarantee Pension Credit may qualify for full benefit.
3. Rates Relief
Home owners may get help with payment of rates. Those in receipt of Guarantee Pension Credit may get full help with rates. Pensioners with savings up to £50,000 may be entitled to help.
4. Regulated Social Fund
Access to regulated Social Fund includes Cold Weather Payment and Funeral Payment available to those in receipt of Pension Credit.
5. Income related Employment Support Allowance
A benefit paid to people whose ability to work is limited by ill health or disability. Part may be means tested.
6. Income related Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA)
Jobseeker’s Allowance is paid to people of working age seeking work. Part can be means tested.
7. Passported Benefits – Cold Weather Payment for those receiving PC
Access to Discretionary Social Fund (Community Care Grants, Budgeting Loans, Crisis Loans). Because they are discretionary they are not guaranteed payments, and are limited to given budgets. Access to Warm Home Scheme.
Non Means Tested Benefits (Non-Contributory Benefits)
8. Attendance Allowance (AA)
A tax-free benefit paid to those with health problems who can demonstrate a need for help with personal care paid to over 65s not in receipt of other disability benefit; low rate for those with day time needs and high rate for those with day and night needs.
9. Disability Living Allowance
If you need help with personal care or have difficulty moving around you may qualify but must claim before 65. DLA has two components: care for those who need help with personal care and mobility for those with difficulty outdoors. The care is at three levels, mobility two.
10. Carers’ Allowance
Paid to those who provide at least 35 hours care weekly to a person in receipt of middle or high rate of the care component of DLA or either rate of AA. Carers must not be in full-time education or earn over £100 a week.
11. Lone Pensioner Allowance
If you are aged 70 and over, liable to pay rates in your home and if you live alone you can get a 20% reduction in rates.
12 .State Retirement Pension
Based on national insurance contributions paid in working life and paid at pension age.
13. Contribution based Job Seeker’s Allowance
This element of JSA is based on the contributions paid up until onset of unemployment.
14. Contributory Employment Support Allowance (ESA)
This element of ESA is based on national insurance contributions paid up until the onset of illness or disability for a limited period.