My Department, through the Social Security Agency, provides a wide range of services to make people aware of their entitlement to benefit, including outreach services, the production of specific publications, participation in local community-level promotional activity, use of the NI Direct website, an online benefits adviser service, and general assistance and information available through the network of local and centralised benefits offices.
Since 2005, specific actions have been undertaken annually as part of the benefits uptake programme. Activities included on an ongoing basis are, for example, direct invitations to existing customers offering a full and confidential benefits assessment, involvement of the independent advice sector, assistance with making a claim and a free phone benefits advice line. Those are only examples. That work has generated an additional £27·1 million in unclaimed benefit for older people since it began in 2005.
The 2011-12 benefit uptake programme consisted of four separate but complementary strands of work, whereby 25,000 existing customers, the majority of which were over 60, who may have additional benefit entitlement were written to directly to offer them a full and confidential benefits assessment. That assessment is provided by the independent advice sector.
There has been promotional outreach to older people through the Make the Call campaign, which has been extremely successful in identifying potential recipients of additional benefit. The Social Security Agency is also working with community and voluntary sector partners to test new and innovative ways of trying to reach out to those who have been more difficult to engage with in the past. A total of £375,000 from the innovation fund was allocated to seven projects to do just that.
The Make the Call campaign began on 14 November, and in the first two weeks there were over 3,000 calls. Over 2,500 callers availed themselves of a full benefit assessment. I am particularly encouraged to report that more than 40% of those calling the freephone number have had potential additional entitlements to benefits, services and support identified. I have also received some responses from individuals saying —
— “Thank you very much for the offer, but I have more than enough money. I am quite happy the way I am.”
I thank the Minister for his fulsome response and the recent launch of the benefit uptake campaign and the Make the Call campaign. Given the widespread view that the implications of welfare reform will be rather negative, can the Minister advise us what strategy he has in mind for giving wider support to advice services, which may be even more necessary in the time ahead?
Support for advice services comes not only from my Department but from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment as well. As we move forward into welfare reform and all of its implications, the concern that every Member of the Assembly — at least, most Members — shares is that we need to be very conscious of the demands that will be placed on advice services.
We are looking at regional infrastructure support, and the advice sector is one of the themes in that area. So, that will be very much to the fore of our thinking over the next while. It is important that we not only get the right structure but that we have enough funding to support it.
As the Member will be aware, we put in additional support in recent days for mortgage advice, as that is a very pertinent issue for folk at the moment.
In his initial response, the Minister referred to the generation of £27·1 million of unclaimed benefit for older people. The Minister will no doubt also be aware that a lot more money could be claimed by many other people. Is he content that enough is being done to ensure that the people who are entitled to those benefits get them? Does he see the advantage of using organisations such as Access to Benefits to ensure that people get adequate benefits?
In the earlier part of my answer, I mentioned that certain groups are particularly difficult to reach. That is why we introduced this programme, and through it, we are working with the community and voluntary sector to test new ways to reach people. As we see the effectiveness of those new ways, we will certainly feed that into future planning for benefit advice.
For the second day in a row, I find myself in agreement with Ian McCrea, so there will be a similarity in what we say, for which I apologise. Does the Minister agree that, although figures for benefit that is claimed fraudulently quite rightly receive a fair degree of publicity, the value of benefit that is not claimed but lawfully entitled is liable to exceed the amount that a substantial proportion of people claim fraudulently?
I think that it is difficult to put an exact figure on, or even to make a guess about, the amount of benefit that is unclaimed. That figure is certainly very substantial, and we have an indication of the amount of money that has been gained for people through the advice services. I assure the Member that we are doing all that we can by using those new and innovative approaches to complement the ongoing regular, mainstream services. We are doing all that we can to reach out. I have been impressed by the feedback that is coming in. There is huge potential to draw in additional money, particularly for those who are most in need.
It is a good news story that so many older people in our community are receiving the benefits that they have been lacking for years. Would the Minister consider extending the campaign throughout Northern Ireland to other vulnerable groups so that they can have the benefit of the Make the Call campaign?
The innovative approaches that we are adopting are focused on a number of specific sectors. We said to the community and voluntary sector, “You come back to us and tell us how you might do this”. It was in response to that that we provided the funding to them. We will be in a much better position to see what can be done in the future when we get a proper evaluation and have actually seen at the end of the year how that has worked out. If there are gaps, they will certainly need to be considered.