Unclaimed benefits may total £200m
Pensioners in Northern Ireland could potentially be missing out on nearly £200 million of unclaimed benefits, a Stormont committee has warned.
With an estimated 55,000 older people in the region classified as living in poverty, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has called for action to improve uptake.
A PAC probe found that benefit paying agencies have no accurate sense of the level of payments left unclaimed by pensioners. It could range wildly, from £31 million to £197 million, said the PAC report.
Committee chairman Paul Maskey said: "Currently there is no accurate or up-to-date estimate of the benefit uptake gap. It is simply unacceptable to think that there may be millions of pounds in benefits for older people lying unclaimed from one year to the next.
"Some 55,000 of our pensioners are classified as living in poverty. Social Security benefits make up a significant proportion of older people's income, and it is imperative that older people receive all of their entitlement."
There are three main agencies involved in paying benefits for older people in Northern Ireland - the Social Security Agency (SSA), the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) and Land and Property Services (LPS).
"From my own experience, I know that older people can be reluctant to talk to government agencies or share their personal circumstances with officials," said Mr Maskey. "We also know that many people are more comfortable talking with representatives from the independent advice sector and other community groups.
"We believe that all those agencies involved in paying benefits should work more closely with the voluntary and community sectors to target hard-to-reach groups.
"We also believe that sharing information between agencies responsible for older people's benefits offers the best opportunity for helping them receive the benefit that they are entitled to.
"Activities designed to improve uptake activities such as the "Make the Call" campaign and a new innovation fund, are therefore welcome. It is important to track what they achieve and ensure that there is a coherent strategy and vision. Our older people deserve no less."