Pension and benefit books scrapped
PENSION and benefits books will start being phased out from today amid fears many people do not fully understand the changes.There are concerns the switch to electronic payments – which the Government hopes will save millions of pounds in administration costs and fraud – could also result in many post offices losing crucial trade and being forced to close.
By Danielle Nuttall
PENSION and benefits books will start being phased out from today amid fears many people do not fully understand the changes.
There are concerns the switch to electronic payments – which the Government hopes will save millions of pounds in administration costs and fraud – could also result in many post offices losing crucial trade and being forced to close.
From today, pension and benefits books will be replaced by electronic payments – where money either goes directly into a bank account or into a new post office card account.
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New computer systems have been installed in post offices throughout the region, but pensioners will still be able to draw money from their pension books for at least a year because they have not yet been able to apply for the new post office account.
But sub-postmasters last night said they were expecting to be bombarded with inquiries from worried elderly people, who had been left confused by the changeover to the new system.
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They also fear there could be widespread closures if people decide the post office card account is too complicated and opt for a bank account as benefits and pension transactions form an estimated 40% of a post office's business.
Paul Marks, sub postmaster of Great Finborough Post Office, near Stowmarket, said: "I think there is great confusion from the majority of our customers, many of whom have thought that they have had no alternative but to have their money put directly into a bank account.
"I'm going to an old peoples' home this week to talk to the residents who are really worried.
"The information on how to assist customers in opening accounts is incomplete and we are still not sure in respect of those customers that are partially sighted on how they will handle pin numbers."
In some parts of the country, letters have already been sent to people asking them which method of payment they want but it is expected the system will be gradually phased across the whole country over a two-year period.
Jon Richardson, regional secretary of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, said post offices were prepared but did not expect to see the first customers using post office accounts for many months.
"Obviously it starts today and in certain post offices in the country they have actually issued the cards, but in this area they haven't issues any cards yet. It could be several weeks until we start to have them which is ridiculous," he said.
"They made it very awkward for people to get the post office card account in the first place but they haven't actually started sending out application forms yet.
"We're very annoyed about the way the department has gone about it because they've made it difficult for people to understand the system."
Mr Richardson accused the Government of giving more prominence to the bank account option when informing people of the changes.
"They have spent a lot of time sending out letters what really push people towards banks and haven't been allowing us a level playing field in the way people receive benefits in the future," he said.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: "We have written to a small group of 1.3million people and will continue to write to people on a group by group basis.
"The information lists what the three options are for the changes in order for the books to be phased out.
"We make customers aware of all the three options and it's up to the customer to choose the option that best meets their needs."
The spokeswoman added that it had alerted customers to a call centre number that would help them if they had any concerns.
Jack Thain, chairman of the Suffolk Pensioner's Association, said the organisation had held many meetings to explain the new changes.
"We admit we don't like the change in the first instance. Elderly people really don't like changes. There are elderly people living alone worrying," he said.
"They are not prepared. We have done our best as a pensioner organisation to ensure they are prepared but they still aren't really ready."