§ 11. Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford)
What progress is being made in combating pensioner poverty. 
§ The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling)
Some 2 million pensioners are now receiving the minimum income guarantee. On average, they are £15 a week better off than they would have been in 1997.
§ Dr. Stoate
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. It is certainly very good news for many pensioners who have lived for years in poverty. What measures can the Government take to improve the uptake of the minimum income guarantee, and approximately how many people might that equate to in my constituency of Dartford who may benefit from the improvements in their incomes?
§ Mr. Darling
Just over 1,500 pensioners in Dartford receive the minimum income guarantee. We have embarked on a substantial take-up campaign that has resulted in more than 100,000 pensioners throughout the country receiving it, and that group has received on average about £20 a week extra. In addition, the application form for the minimum income guarantee is being reduced to 10 pages and will be available shortly. That and other measures will ensure that more and more pensioners get the money to which they are entitled.
§ Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)
Does the Secretary of State accept that the rules governing hospital downrating for pensions and benefits cause considerable hardship and distress for many pensioners? Will he take steps to review that urgently to ensure that the Department for Work and Pensions is not contributing to the Department of Health's problem with bed blocking? 917 People find it difficult to get their benefits back on-line when they have been in hospital for weeks and have had their benefits first reduced and then stopped altogether.
§ Mr. Darling
I agree that we must do everything possible to ensure that people who ought to be discharged from hospital do not remain there, especially because of a problem with benefits. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that ever since the modern welfare state was established more than 50 years ago measures have been taken to stop the double provision of public funds. All such matters are, of course, kept under review.
§ Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok)
Does the Secretary of State accept that more work needs to be done on the statistics that relate to the minimum income guarantee? Although the overall increase is welcome, it is not certain that it is evenly spread across the country. In particular, my constituency has experienced difficulties in obtaining figures for those who have claimed the minimum income guarantee, despite substantial take-up campaigns. Does my right hon. Friend accept that it would be helpful to identify those blackspots where a large number of pensioners have not been claiming so that we can focus further attention on them?
§ Mr. Darling
It is possible to identify the number of pensioners in each constituency who are receiving the minimum income guarantee. Of course, one can never be absolutely sure how many are entitled but do not claim because the state does not necessarily know their circumstances. However, my hon. Friend is right: the next stage of our campaign is to look at those areas where we have reason to believe that there are problems with take-up to ensure that every pensioner who is entitled to the minimum income guarantee receives it. As I said earlier, after the last campaign those pensioners who became entitled to and received the minimum income guarantee were on average £20 a week better off. That is a substantial increase in their income.
§ Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)
The Secretary of State will be aware that his Department produced statistics and estimates on benefit take-up as recently as 27 September last. Is he not concerned that while last year 500,000 eligible pensioners were not claiming income support, this year's figure is much nearer 600,000, an increase of 20 per cent? That trend is also reflected in figures for council tax benefit and housing benefit, which are in fact slightly worse.
Does the Secretary of State not think that the only plausible explanation for that problem, which I am sure concerns and shocks us all, is that the system is becoming ever more complex? Does he not admit that the only possible solution offered by the Government will make the problem even worse?
§ Mr. Darling
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. In the report that he quotes, the estimated number of pensioners who fail to claim income support is between 300,000 and 600,000. The report itself says that care should be taken when interpreting the take-up statistics as they come from estimates from data that are less than perfect. That particular series of statistics has its limitations precisely because of the very wide range in the estimates.
918 I assume that for the purposes of this question the hon. Gentleman is in favour of more pensioners receiving the money to which they are entitled, and I agree with him that we need to do more to identify pensioners who are entitled to the minimum income guarantee. However, I note that the new leader of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), said of the minimum income guarantee:I can think of nothing to recommend it."—[Official Report, 15 March 1999; Vol. 327, c. 740.]That is a very odd way to refer to a policy that gives pensioners an average increase of £15 a week.