Help keep the cowboys at bay

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The Independent Online
THE FUTURE of a project which has saved thousands of old people from being ripped off by "cowboy" tradesmen is in jeopardy, as its corporate sponsorship is due to expire at the end of next year, writes Linus Gregoriadis.

The Handyperson scheme, set up by Age Concern two years ago, provides voluntary workers who carry out domestic tasks, including fitting smoke alarms and moving heavy furniture.

The volunteers, who wear distinctive overalls and carry identification cards, are a welcome relief for many vulnerable people, who are reluctant to pay for professional help through fear of being overcharged by unscrupulous contractors.

By enabling simple jobs such as changing light bulbs and fitting plugs to be done, the scheme allows many old people who might otherwise be forced to move into residential accommodation to continue living at home.

A spokeswoman for Age Concern said: "Although British Gas has committed more than pounds 500,000 to the project and will continue to work with Age Concern in other schemes, its funding for Handypersons will finish at the end of next year. We are looking for more funding to continue the project."

In 15 schemes across Britain, volunteers for the Handypersons scheme have carried out 24,252 hours of work and completed 15,805 jobs, according to the charity.

Mike Evans, who runs a scheme in Milton Keynes with the help of eight volunteers, has helped about 430 over-60s. He said: "We try to ensure they can stay in their homes safely and in comfort. The scheme removes the worry of finding a tradesman who will come and who can be trusted. We have heard terrible stories of cowboys taking money in advance and then either not coming back or doing a botched job which we have to come and clear up."

Like many old people, Anna, 76, is grateful for the assistance she has received from the project. Living alone in a semi-detached house in Milton Keynes, she has been dependent on a walking stick since she had a hip replacement operation five years ago. She did not want her surname published, for fear of drawing attention to herself. Keith Ellemore, her volunteer, has carried out various jobs, including fitting a new lock on her shed after her lawn mower was stolen. He also installed a light outside her front door. Anna said: "I live in a dark street. It's nicer to have some light rather than groping in the darkness for the keyhole. It also helps you see who has come to the door."

Mr Ellemore, who became a volunteer to occupy his time while looking for a full-time job, said: "Some jobs, like changing plugs, appear to be trivial, but they can make a huge amount of difference to people. It can be a huge weight off their minds getting something sorted out.

"When someone is discharged from hospital, you can create a bedroom on the ground floor of their home for them so they don't have to use the stairs. It can be the difference between staying at home and moving into care."

Nora McCarron, 63, has also benefited from Mr Ellemore's help. "He's been wonderful. He tested my smoke alarm and said that it wasn't working. He went and got one for me. They can recommend people you can trust to do other jobs at a reasonable cost. If you get a plumber in it can cost pounds 30-pounds 35 an hour."

Mr Ellemore says he has been touched by the thanks he has received. "Once I got a spontaneous hug from a lady who had somehow knocked the cover off the battery compartment of her electric wheelchair and couldn't get it back on. It was quite a minor job to fix it, but it made such a difference to her."

Donations to our Christmas Appeal may go towards this or other vital projects run by Age Concern.