HC Deb 04 March 2002 vol 381 cc1-3
1. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

What recent assessment he has made of the take-up of attendance allowance. [36324]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle)

There has been an increase of 21 per cent. in the number of people aged over 65 receiving the extra cost benefits since 1996.

As eligibility for attendance allowance depends on the effects of an impairment on a person's care needs, not on the existence of an impairment per se, it is difficult to predict the right level of take-up among the over-65 population.

Vernon Coaker

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. She will know that this is a most important benefit, and that although there is much concentration on the take-up of the minimum income guarantee the take-up of attendance allowance is often not discussed so much. Will she consider whether the new pension service can signpost older people towards ensuring that they claim attendance allowance? In particular, will it focus on the fact that attendance allowance has not only a lower rate but a higher rate, on which significant numbers of people may miss out unless they are properly informed and advised?

Maria Eagle

My hon. Friend makes some interesting points. The number of people who claim successfully is increasing. In fact, there is evidence to show an upward drift from the lower to the higher rate. In 2001, 47 per cent. of those on attendance allowance received the higher rate, whereas in 1996 the figure had been only 42 per cent. We are always trying to make it easier to claim and to encourage take-up. Our Bristol office is today beginning a three-month trial of a shorter form—16 pages, instead of the current 34—for over-75-year-olds.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

I am very relieved to hear that, because I spent the weekend before last filling in two of the forms—one was 12 pages long and the other was 18 pages long—for a 91-year-old constituent. I went to four universities and found them hard enough to fill in—and I am under 65. I do not know how the Minister expects someone over 65 or 75, let alone a 91-year-old, to fill in the forms. Has she ever tried?

Maria Eagle

I could have saved the hon. Gentleman the trouble, because he would be eligible only if he was over 65—he clearly is not, so he will be turned down. There is always a difficult balance to strike with the size of the form. The important thing to remember is that we are not testing whether people have a certain condition or impairment; we ask them what effect the impairment has on their care needs. [Interruption.] I must speak up—I am sorry to be so short. The form must give our customers the opportunity to let us know the effect of the impairment on their care needs. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that we are trying to get that difficult balance right. The general trend recently has been to decrease the size of the forms, which we hope will continue.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons why people, especially elderly people, do not take up attendance allowance is probably that many of them think that it is income related and therefore worry about it affecting their minimum income guarantee, income support or other benefits? Perhaps we ought to try harder to make it clear to them that it is not income related.

Maria Eagle

I hope that everyone can hear me now. My hon. Friend makes another important point, related to the point made by hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) about the pension service. We hope that the pension service will be able to signpost elderly people more coherently towards their eligibility for this benefit. Some 20 per cent. of new claims are unsuccessful, so an awful lot of 75 and 85-year-olds—

Michael Fabricant

And 91-year-olds.

Maria Eagle

Yes— and 91-year-olds fill in long forms but end up not getting the benefit. We hope that the personal and tailored service that the pension service is designed to give elderly people will enable us to be much clearer in advance about those who are likely to be eligible for the benefit and to ensure that people do not fill in the long form to no purpose.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth)

Does the Minister accept that the take-up of attendance allowance in Scotland will be substantially reduced shortly, as a result of the United Kingdom Government's shameful decision to withdraw some £23 million of attendance allowance from those who will qualify for free personal care? Are the Minister and her colleagues prepared, even at the eleventh hour, to reconsider that unjust decision?

Maria Eagle

Unsurprisingly, the hon. Lady is wrong. We are not withdrawing any benefit from anybody in Scotland. What is happening there is a result of policy choices made by the Scottish Parliament and has nothing to do with eligibility. We have not changed eligibility for attendance allowance in any way whatsoever. The Scottish Parliament and Scottish policy makers need to take into account the effect of their policy on people's benefit entitlement.

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