On Thursday I visited Lisburn City Council to announce a new pilot programme of benefit uptake for the Downshire area of Lisburn. This pilot will enable us to explore a new method of working with churches and community groups to increase benefit uptake and ensure that those who are entitled to receive benefits get what is rightfully theirs.
I was also able to announce the results of the 2011/12 benefit uptake programmes and as a result of these programmes over 4,000 people in Northern Ireland have more money in their pockets today than they did this time last year. My department's benefit uptake campaign for 2011/12 saw over 4,000 people receive an extra £13.1 million in new and additional benefits and arrears, trebling the coutcome from the previous year, which was £3.95 million.
My department has stepped up its work and is investing more than ever before in new initiatives to promote benefit uptake and I am delighted with our success this year.
It is vital that we ensure that all those who are entitled to benefits do indeed receive them. The fact that we have managed to secure an additional £13.1 million this year for people in need in Northern Ireland - which is more than three times the amount for the previous year - is very encouraging. I am committed to making sure that our efforts in this area continue and grow.
Local people, including pensioners, who benefited from the uptake campaign were better off by an average of £60 a week.
The current economic climate is putting real pressure on everyone, especially many of our most vulnerable citizens. £13.1 million is a substantial amount of money that will not only make a real difference to the lives of vulnerable individuals and families but will also make an impact on the lcoal economy as this extra money will be spent in local businesses in Northern Ireland.
Benefit uptake is a priority for the Department for Social Development. Since 2005 the Social Security Agency has delivered a range of targeted exercises and outreach activities along with benefit specific mailshots and advertising. To date this has generated over £50 million in additional benefits and arrears for people.
The 2011/12 programme included:
- An exercise providing 25,000 customers (older people, those with a disability and carers) with an opportunity to receive a full benefit assessment.
- Raising awareness of potential entitlement among older people through a community outreach promotional campaign targeting local council areas
- The Make the Call advertising campaign targeting older people.
- An Innovation Fund pilot programme where the community and voluntary sector is helpign to test new and innovative ways of reaching and informing people in order to improve the uptake of benefits.
The Innovation Fund was a new initiative last year and the Lisburn pilot is another new initiative this year. I hope that it is successful and if so it can be extended to other areas.
Meanwhile one area of special concern is that many older people do not avail of all the benefits to which they are entitled and I have also initiated a piece of work to discover the reasons for this. I can certainly guess at some of them but we need a better understanding of the reasons so that we can increase uptake among the senior citizens.
Overall my assessment is - well done, getting much better, but still room for improvment.