HC Deb 28 January 1997 vol 289 cc144-6
8. Mr. Austin Mitchell

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what estimate he has made of the number of pensioners entitled to income support who do not claim it. [11376]

Mr. Burt

The only way to determine the precise number not taking up their entitlement would be for them to come forward and make a claim. However, the most recent figures suggest that between 800,000 and 1.1 million pensioners have an unclaimed entitlement to income support.

Mr. Mitchell

Why are the Government so complacent about that extraordinarily high number of pensioners not claiming income support? The income of those million pensioners not claiming income support is £14 a week lower and they are not entitled to cold weather payments. Other estimates suggest that 800,000 of those pensioners are single women living on their own with no occupational pension and no savings. If the Government believe in targeted benefits, should they not be seeking out those people and ensuring that they get the money to which they are entitled, instead of wringing their hands and being complacent because they are saving money?

Mr. Burt

The Government are in no way complacent about those figures. It is the responsibility of the Department to present information to the public about the availability of benefits. The Department's publicity budget for the past three years, including the current year, has been £84 million. Some £9 out of every £10 worth claiming is claimed and four out of five claimants are paid. Take-up campaigns must be properly targeted to be effective. We do that successfully with family credit. It is not possible to target a take-up campaign on pensioners in the way that the hon. Gentleman would like. However, there is a new Benefits Agency national awareness campaign, running from 13 to 26 January, entitled "Pensions and Benefits for Older People". It is our job constantly to put information before the public. If someone comes forward with a claim, we can, we will and we want to honour it.

Mr. Gallie

Will my hon. Friend give a commitment to maintain the level of old-age pensions above the rate of the rise in the cost of living, as the Conservatives have done over the past 18 years, unlike Labour, who allowed the value of pensions to plummet while they were in office?

Mr. Burt

I can make that commitment to maintain the value of the pension. I am sure that my hon. Friend and the House will be happy to learn that, while 31 per cent. of those in the lowest tenth by income of the population in 1979 were pensioners, today that figure is only 7 per cent. Our commitment to maintain the value of the pension in line with inflation is clear. We have not threatened to means-test it, as has been suggested by Opposition Members.

Mr. Denham

The Minister says that he is not complacent. Does he agree with the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, his hon. Friend the Member for North Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who told the Standing Committee considering the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Bill in December: we do not know why certain pensioners do not take up income support"?—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 5 December 1996; c. 44.] Is that not the Tory scandal? While the Secretary of State has pushed up the cost of Tory failure by £15 billion a year, the Government have not even had time to find out why 1 million pensioners go without £14 a week, why 1 million pensioners miss out on cold weather payments and why 1 million pensioners cannot even get their eyes checked for nothing.

Mr. Burt

I am more than happy to agree with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who was entirely right. The hon. Gentleman's bluster would mean a great deal more if he committed himself and his colleagues to a take-up campaign that would deal with the problem that we face. No such commitment has been made, either while we were considering the Bill or since. It is all bluster and no money up front from Labour Members. We will continue to make sure that benefits are available to all who need them and to publicise them. The considerable advance in the position of pensioners under this Government is likely to continue only under the economic policies advocated by the Conservatives.

Mr. Devlin

Will my hon. Friend confirm that taking up benefits is not compulsory? There may be a variety of reasons why elderly people do not wish to claim income support or other benefits. The best way to target those people is to make them aware that benefits are available if they want them, not to sneak into records of their savings and other matters to find out whether they are entitled and to tell them that they must have the benefit.

Mr. Burt

My hon. Friend is correct. It is not possible to define in every circumstance why someone has not taken up a benefit. It may further reassure the House to know that local authorities are now under a general obligation, set out in our guidance, to use whatever information they have if it is suggested that someone might have a claim for benefit. We have also provided local authorities with the software to assist them in that task. The matter is much more complex than the Opposition suggest. If they are to work, take-up campaigns must be properly targeted. That was the case with family credit, and we increased the number of people claiming it. We shall continue our efforts to ensure that all those who need benefits get them.