HC Deb 11 January 1999 vol 323 cc17-8
11. Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

What estimate he has made of the number of basic rate pensioners who have refused increased benefits to which they are entitled; and if he will make a statement. [63196]

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

We are committed to encouraging and helping more pensioners to claim their entitlements. The new minimum income guarantee will help in that respect. Estimates specifically of basic rate pensioners who are not claiming their entitlements, as opposed to pensioners in other circumstances, are not available.

Mrs. Lait

In an earlier answer to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), the Secretary of State referred to the mystery surrounding the number of pensioners who refuse to apply for benefits. Has he never met pensioners in his constituency who are too proud to claim and believe that benefits are charity? Would not it be better for the Government to stop attacking the insurance principle and increasing means testing, and to allow those proud elderly people to feel that they have contributed sufficiently to be entitled to claim?

Mr. Darling

I have been a Member of Parliament for only 11 years, but in all the time that I spent in opposition I never heard the Tory Government saying that they were against means testing. Indeed, I rather got the impression that they were in favour of it. When we made our announcement on pensions in December, we reinstated the insurance principle—the contributory principle—and we are making it absolutely clear that if people work throughout their life and pay their contributions they will get a decent pension in retirement. The reason for so many pensioners now having to rely on income support is that for the past 20 years the Tory Government did absolutely nothing to put pensions on a proper footing for the future.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons why pensioners do not claim the benefits to which they are entitled has been the fact that over the past few years there has been continual talk of fraud in the system? People have been made to feel that they are somehow not entitled to the benefits that they can claim. The Government have introduced measures of success that include take-up rates. If we can encourage people to claim, and measure our success by criteria such as take-up rates, we will ensure that pensioners get the benefits to which they are entitled.

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend is right, and the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) raised an important point—at least in the first part of her question—because some current pensioners who are entitled to income support are not claiming it because they feel that they should not be doing so, perhaps because they are too proud to do so. The whole point of the minimum pension guarantee was to ensure that the money we had available would go to the poorest pensioners. We are determined to ensure, by whatever means that we can, that as many people as possible who are entitled to that benefit receive it, so that they can sit at home and live in some comfort. That simply has not happened in the past.