HC Deb 24 May 1999 vol 332 cc8-10
7. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

What steps he is taking to ensure that all pensioners receive the benefits to which they are entitled. [83997]

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

We are particularly concerned about pensioners being worse off than they need to be because they are not receiving the help to which they are entitled through the minimum income guarantee. The pilot projects that we set up last year were designed to test new ways of identifying potential beneficiaries and the best way of encouraging them to claim. We will examine the results when they become available and make proposals as soon as we are in a position to do so.

Mr. Kidney

Does my hon. Friend agree that the minimum income guarantee's future reliability depends on ensuring that pensioners claim the income support to which they are entitled? Is he aware that South Staffordshire district, part of which lies in my constituency, was one of the pilot areas? Can he confirm that often pensioners who do not claim their income support entitlement nevertheless claim other help, such as council tax benefit and housing benefit? Will he instil into all Benefits Agency staff the approach that pensioners who come to them who are entitled to receive income support will indeed receive it?

Mr. Timms

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the minimum income guarantee is an entitlement. Like him, I am interested in the fact that more people seem willing to claim council tax benefit and housing benefit, even though they are means-tested, than are willing to claim the minimum income guarantee. There are some important lessons for us to learn. We look forward to the results of the pilots in his area and in others so that we can find out what those lessons are.

Members of Parliament should take the opportunities that we have to point out to people that the minimum income guarantee is an entitlement. Tomorrow morning, I shall participate in a virtual conference for older people, on-line with older people throughout the country, taking advantage of the fact that many of them are internet users. I have no doubt that the minimum income guarantee will be one of the many subjects raised.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

I am sure that many hon. Members will have received visits in their surgeries from pensioners rendered very anxious by the extension of means testing to incapacity benefit, widows benefit and other basic state benefits, through the introduction of the minimum income guarantee. How does the Secretary of State intend to deal with the disincentive to save that the measures will produce?

Mr. Timms

There is no disincentive to save. We want to ensure that even the least well-off pensioners in our society can share in the benefits of rising national prosperity. The increases in the minimum income guarantee this year and next will mean an extra £250 a year for a single pensioner on income support, and up to £400 for a couple in which one partner is over 80. Those are large sums that can make a significant difference to the least well-off pensioners in our society.

Through the state second pension, in combination with the minimum income guarantee, we are ensuring that all those who work and contribute throughout their lives will, when they retire, receive an income above the level of the minimum income guarantee. Those two measures in tandem mean that we can ensure that there are good incentives to save but that the least well-off pensioners will share in our rising national prosperity.

Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North)

Does my hon. Friend have a recent estimate of the number of elderly people not claiming means-tested income support? Are there any early indications—either virtual or non-virtual—from the pilot schemes? What is the target for the number not claiming that entitlement in 10 years' time? Does he agree that if we are to have a genuine pension guarantee we must find more sensitive and effective ways of ensuring that every person who is entitled to income support—many are in their 80s or 90s—actually gets it?

Mr. Timms

I have much in common with my hon. Friend on this point. We estimate that between 400,000 and 700,000 pensioners are entitled to the minimum income guarantee but have not claimed it. We are reviewing the figures, and we expect to have revised figures by the summer. We are considering a range of approaches to the problem. It is interesting to note that in some areas the take-up of housing benefit and council tax benefit is as high as 95 per cent., but the take-up rate for the minimum income guarantee among the same population is a good deal lower.

We are not setting a target for the take-up in 10 years' time, but we are anxious, through new methods such as telephone claims, which will make claiming easier, to ensure that as many pensioners as possible receive the minimum income guarantee to which they are entitled.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) referred to anxiety caused to pensioners by Government policies. Will not much more gratuitous anxiety have been caused to millions of pensioners who collect their benefits from post offices, and to post office staff, by the Secretary of State's reluctant admission just now at the Dispatch Box, which was dragged out of him by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), that the pathway project was facing problems? There were two disgraceful, unsatisfactory and unacceptable aspects to that admission. First, if it is true that there had been problems for several years, why was my hon. Friend given a deceptive parliamentary answer last week on the pathway project that did not mention any problems? Secondly, why did the Secretary of State say that the answer to the question will be given not by him but by some other Minister in a different context? The people of this country will begin to wonder why we waste our time with Question Time if this Government intend systematically to bypass Parliament.

Mr. Timms

It is Conservative Members who are doing the scaremongering. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State dealt fully with the point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is responsible for the Post Office and that is why he will make the announcement later today.