Collaborators: Benefits information on wheels

Two age and disability charities have created an advice service with a difference

Ivanhoe is not a just a romantic novel by Sir Walter Scott set in the 12th century - it's also the pet name of a former railway maintenance lorry that dispenses benefit advice to older people in Hertfordshire.

So successful is the 21st-century Ivanhoe, a joint initiative between Hertfordshire Action on Disability and Age Concern Hertfordshire, that it has won an award from the National Information Forum.

The scheme is funded by the Department for Work and Pensions as part of its Pension Service Partnership Fund, which aims to improve the take-up of older people's benefits among hard-to-reach groups.

The charity partners are near- neighbours in Welwyn Garden City and already worked closely on a number of issues. Their chief executives were also acquainted with one another, so they decided to apply for a grant from the £13m DWP fund.

HAD provides the transport, while Age Concern recruited, pays and manages the benefits advice worker aboard Ivanhoe.

"We have one member of staff - Karen Walsh - based on Ivanhoe," says Bob Green, community services development manager of Age Concern Herts. "She accosts people and talks to them about their benefits and their entitlement to make sure they are aware of what they can claim."

The service was launched in May 2005 and, since then, Walsh has talked to more than 7,000 people about benefit issues. And it's not just older people she talks to; she is also familiar with the benefit entitlements of people with disabilities. The initiative has also been promoted through a new Age Concern Herts magazine, Fifty Matters.

According to Green, the project has been a "very useful awareness-raising exercise". The only drawback is the working conditions. "This time of year, it's freezing cold," he says. "Karen is the only wearer of the Age Concern thermal underwear outfit in the whole organisation."

Another problem is that funding is running out. The DWP grant was intended to enable the service to run for only two years. The project will end in March 2007 unless an application to the Big Lottery Fund is successful.

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