SDLP social justice spokesperson Mark H Durkan has highlighted difficulties faced by claimants seeking assistance from the Winter Fuel Payment Centre.
Mr Durkan said the bunged helpline has deterred some vulnerable people from resolving problems and accessing this critical support.
The Foyle MLA commented:
“Given the time of year there is a degree of expectation that Winter Fuel Payment applications and indeed queries, will be on the rise.
“However, I have been contacted by numerous elderly constituents in recent weeks who have found it all but impossible to get speaking with an advisor on the Winter Fuel Payment Centre helpline.
“I appreciate that eligible applicants will have received their letter advising of a payment date; in most instances payments will be paid automatically between November and December. But for anyone who has experienced any issue with their claim or who may be required to notify the team of a change in their circumstances -such as a change of bank account details- doing so is proving extremely difficult.
“While the busy helpline does signpost users to an online query form (many of which have gone unanswered), some of these claimants are not computer-literate. For them navigating the internet is not an option.
“Surely the Department for Working Pensions who oversee this payment, should have pre-empted the increase in calls and prepared an adequate workforce capacity to deal with the influx of queries. Additionally, the fact that staff are unable to facilitate call backs adds further difficulty in resolving claimant issues should they arise.
“Considering this payment is in place to assist older people in heating their homes during the winter months, the helpline must be fit for purpose. Getting assistance needs to be as accessible as possible.”