HC Deb 21 May 1996 vol 278 cc86-7
6. Dr. Wright

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what was the level of unclaimed benefit in the last year for which figures are available. [28809]

Mr. Burt

The rate of take-up varies from benefit to benefit. It is lowest among income-related benefits, but even for those only about £1 of every £10 available goes unclaimed. Child benefit has a particularly high take-up.

Dr. Wright

Does the Minister agree that, although it is very important to crack down on fraud, it is equally important to ensure that people receive the benefits to which they are entitled? Does he understand that there is much anxiety about the proposed threat to the benefit line service, the freeline service and the out-of-hours service which, if it is carried out, would make it much more difficult for people to know about and claim the benefits to which they are properly entitled?

Mr. Burt

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is important that the Benefits Agency gets its message about benefits over. No decisions have been taken about the matters that he raises, but the Department and the Benefits Agency spend £26 million a year getting over information. We have good local information services. Our information officers travel to meet people. There was a joint meeting in Coventry last week with Age Concern, to which more than 300 people came, so there is a wide variety of mechanisms for getting information about benefit out, plus as many welfare rights organisations as anyone would care to mention.

I do not believe that it is possible to substantiate a charge that many people do not know about the availability of benefits or where they can go for help, but we count it as very important that people have information available to them, and the Government and the agency will continue to make available information about benefits.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes

Will my hon. Friend take to heart what the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright) said about people receiving the benefits to which they are entitled? Are not 16 to 18-year-olds entitled to the £1,000 or so help that they receive from child benefit to get them through their A-levels? Would he, like me, be ashamed to be a member of a party that proposed to rob them of that money?

Mr. Burt

My hon. Friend has said it all.

Ms Lynne

The Minister must accept that the low take-up of benefit is a problem; that is why child benefit is so effective. Does he agree that scrapping child benefit for 16 to 18-year-olds would deter many young people from entering further education? Will he also give a guarantee today that the Government will uprate child benefit at least in line with inflation?

Mr. Burt

The Government's child benefit policy was laid out in the manifesto, and we have stuck to it as the cornerstone of support for families. I appreciate the support that the hon. Lady has given to child benefit and her opposition to the cut proposed by the Labour party. If she supported the Child Support Agency instead of organisations such as NACSA—Network Against the Child Support Act—that would be equally welcome to Conservative Members.

Mr. Harry Greenway

Does my hon. Friend agree that the payment of child benefit to children between the ages of 16 and 18 often determines whether they can stay on in education, and that taking away their child benefit significantly decreases their life chances? Is not that a disgrace?

Mr. Burt

Yes, child benefit has been one of the most significant benefits for families—certainly for those who may find it difficult to put their children through education. This extra help for those between 16 and 18 has counted for a great deal. I find it difficult to understand why the Labour party has proposed the cut.

Mr. Denham

Why is the Minister so complacent about the 600,000 pensioners who do not claim the income support to which they are entitled? Will he confirm his Department's estimate that they go without an average £14 a week? Does he agree that such pensioners must be among the poorest people in Britain? Is that why they are so low on his list of priorities?

Mr. Burt

When the hon. Gentleman's party was last in power, the lowest 10 per cent. of the population by income included almost double the number of pensioners who occupy that decile now. I do not think that he cared much about the pensioners then; he does not seem to care about 16 to 18-year-olds now. Care and concern for young people and pensioners is best left in our hands.