HC Deb 05 July 1999 vol 334 cc630-2
9. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

What steps he is taking to ensure that pensioners entitled to income support are encouraged to claim it. [88033]

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Stephen Timms)

My hon. Friend raises an important point, to which we are giving careful consideration. Last year, we undertook some pilot projects and research studies. We expect to receive the evaluation results from them shortly. We are watching with interest more recent partnership initiatives between the Benefits Agency and local authorities, which are showing encouraging results. We hope before long to be able to announce plans to encourage take-up among pensioners.

Mr. Prentice

When did my hon. Friend last look at a pension book? There are references to the help available, but people need 20:20 vision to read it. Why do we not simply redesign the pension book and grab pensioners' attention by saying, "1 million pensioners are entitled to claim income support, but do not do so; it could be you."? Grab their attention!

Mr. Timms

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Actually, it is up to 700,000 pensioners, not 1 million, but I am attracted by his attention-grabbing proposal. Another helpful initiative would be to make it easier for pensioners to claim over the telephone. We have had a good deal success with a pilot service for pensioners to make retirement pension claims over the telephone. That approach has a lot of potential as well, but I agree: it is important that we are imaginative. I want everyone who is entitled to income support—every pensioner—to receive it.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Does the Minister acknowledge that one of the easiest ways in which to deliver help to some of the poorest pensioners is to look at the limitation of the threshold for capital? The limits have been at those levels for some time. The Government have said that they might look at them in the near future. Has he anything to report in that regard?

Mr. Timms

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point; we made it, too, in the pensions Green Paper. We intend to introduce some proposals during the life of the current Parliament, but there is no announcement to be made today.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

I am sure that the Minister would like to join me in congratulating Birmingham city council, which has just completed a pensioner awareness week, which encouraged pensioners to claim all the benefits available to them. Is any focused work being done to identify areas where, as purely statistical evidence indicates, there is particular need and high incidence of non-claiming, and to target initiatives such as the one in Birmingham at city councils throughout the country?

Mr. Timms

I have been very impressed by what I have read of the Birmingham initiative; I have asked for more information about that. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter. There is potential in the statistical analysis that she has described. A couple of weeks ago, I visited Wolverhampton. There has been an effective take-up campaign there, run jointly by the Benefits Agency and the local authority. The local authority identified people who, from its housing benefit records, looked as though they were entitled to income support but were not receiving it. As a result of that initiative, 300 extra people in Wolverhampton are receiving the minimum income guarantee. There is much potential here, particularly in the partnerships between local authorities and the Benefits Agency. We want to explore them fully.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

May I press the Minister further on the interaction between means-tested assistance for pensioners and the stakeholder pension for people on low incomes? He will be aware from comments that have already been made that there is widespread concern among hon. Members on both sides of the House as to why someone should take out a stakeholder pension if all it does is reduce their entitlement to means-tested assistance. He was talking about arithmetic earlier. Let me ask him an arithmetical question. How much money do people have to have—[Interruption.] I am afraid that it is a bit trickier than the earlier question. How much money do people have to have in their stakeholder pension fund if they have no other savings, so as to secure an income that will float them off means-tested assistance?

Mr. Timms

It depends on the level of the minimum income guarantee, which will be uprated in line with earnings, but the point that the hon. Gentleman misses is that, through the state second pension or a stakeholder pension, if people contract out of the state system into a funded pension, they will be delivered on to an income in retirement that is well above the level of the minimum income guarantee. They then have full access to all the additional savings that they have made. People will be much better off in a funded pension. That is why we want every employed person in Britain to have easy access to a good-value, dependable, funded pension scheme.