HC Deb 06 March 2000 vol 345 cc750-1
4. Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North)

What steps his Department is taking to improve the ways in which the Benefits Agency communicates with the public. [111832]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle)

We are improving the way in which we notify and explain decisions to people. We have redesigned leaflets around age groups and life events instead of benefits, making them simpler and easier to follow. We are working through one-to-one personal advisers in the new deals and the ONE service to help people take up the opportunities open to them, which is crucial to our success in tackling poverty. We are also investing in our service to pensioners, so that we can take claims and deal with queries over the telephone.

Mr. Rapson

I thank my hon. Friend for that very good answer. However, is there any way for the Benefits Agency to use the vast network of sub-post offices to underline the Government's commitment to enabling claimants to carry on receiving their benefits through post offices? That would also allay the fears of the 20,000 people in Portsmouth who have been seriously misled by a Liberal Democrat campaign into believing that their benefits will not be paid through a post office. The campaign has succeeded only in worrying a lot of people who should not have to worry about such matters.

Angela Eagle

People must be very careful that they are not seriously misled by Liberal Democrat campaigns. I assure the House that, even after the move to automated credit transfer, people will still be able to choose to access their cash at a post office if they want. The Post Office and the Department of Social Security have recently launched a joint poster explaining that, which should be available in post offices. I hope that it is displayed alongside the petitions.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

The Liberal Democrat's communications appear to be more effective than the Government's. Could the Minister address herself to another aspect of Government communication in respect of the current payments to assist people in meeting their mortgage costs when they are unemployed and on income support? Is she aware that many of my constituents do not believe that they have received adequate communications and explanations about why, since June last year, the rate of 6.6 per cent. that has been set by the Department has not been increased? As a consequence, many people are finding their mortgages increasingly difficult to meet and are in greater debt. Could the Department improve its communication in that respect?

Angela Eagle

There is a great deal of misunderstanding about the availability of mortgage interest support for those who become unemployed. We are trying, with the Council of Mortgage Lenders, to do some more work to persuade people that they need to take out mortgage interest protection for the first nine months when they are not entitled to any benefits.

The hon. Gentleman is referring to the composite interest rates that are used to calculate this benefit. They were introduced a few years ago because of the proliferation of different mortgage interest rates. There were more than 1,000, and it was impossible to calculate them. People need to realise, when they are contemplating a mortgage, that, if they become unemployed, the composite mortgage interest rate will apply. The state will pay not what people owe on their mortgage but the standard interest rate. That is a matter of record.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that some 700,000 pensioners are eligible for income support, but do not claim it? We have heard for some time that the Department intends to publicise those matters, but many people in my constituency are still surprised when I tell them that they are eligible to claim. Can my hon. Friend go into more detail as to how the Government propose to bring the message home that, if people are eligible for benefits, there is no shame in claiming them?

Angela Eagle

My hon. Friend is right to say that there is absolutely no shame in claiming the benefits to which one is entitled. The Government will shortly be making an announcement on this very subject. I hope that she will participate in the take-up campaign when it gets going.

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