HC Deb 19 October 1998 vol 317 cc938-9
3. Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

What further steps he is taking to reduce pensioner poverty. [53468]

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling)

One and a half million of the poorest pensioners will benefit from a significant increase in their income support from next April—three times the amount that would apply under normal uprating. We are also committed to continue winter fuel payments for a further three years beyond this coming winter. From next winter, every eligible pensioner household will receive £20.

Mr. Thomas

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware of the excellent teleclaims initiative, which helps people in my constituency to submit their pension claims in a more user-friendly and efficient way? Can he assure me that, when that initiative is evaluated, the voluntary sector—in particular, Age Concern and the citizens advice bureaux, which do excellent work in my constituency—will have a direct role in the evaluation of that scheme and others to combat the low take-up of benefits by some pensioners?

Mr. Darling

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for welcoming the initiatives that the Department has been taking to increase telephone take-up. I strongly believe that the Department of Social Security can do far more to use the telephone to reach people in their own homes. The experience so far with the take-up of pensions, and the pilot programme to which he referred, shows that only 1.3 per cent. of cases required any further action. Getting cases right first time not only means that pensioners get the money that they need, but saves valuable resources in the Department, so we certainly want that to be encouraged. We also want to ensure that the voluntary sector, including Age Concern, continues to work with us, as its advice is sometimes invaluable.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

The Opposition sincerely congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his promotion, and indeed the Minister of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), on managing to survive the night of long knives.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) has done the House a service by reminding us of one set of fraudulent expectations that were carefully and cynically cultivated among pensioners by the Labour party during the previous Parliament, but were cruelly dropped as soon as Labour came to power. Is not the so-called minimum income for pensioners from next April another fraud on the pensioner? Of course, we shall all be delighted at any initiative that is designed to get pensioners to claim the benefits to which they are entitled. However, does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that, contrary to the impression that he just gave, not one pensioner will be entitled to a single additional penny as a result of that fraudulent initiative? All that is happening is that those who are entitled to means-tested benefits will have some of them repackaged under a new name. This Government will in due time learn the hard way that pensioners are not as stupid as they think.

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is required to ask a question at Question Time.

Mr. Darling

In the past 10 years, I have enjoyed many hours of exchanges with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) on Finance Bills. I wondered where he had gone, but now I know. Frankly, putting this in the nicest possible way, he is talking complete nonsense. The Government have done more for pensioners in the past 18 months than the previous Conservative Government did in 18 years. This Government not only introduced the minimum pension guarantee, which is helping the poorest of pensioners, who lost out under the previous Government, but have cut value added tax on fuel to the lowest level that we could, have abolished the gas levy, which has meant that household fuel expenses have decreased for pensioners and, in addition, have introduced the winter fuel payment, which meant that pensioners got real help last winter with their fuel bills and will get it again this winter. The Opposition did absolutely nothing about that in the 18 years that they were in power.