HC Deb 20 May 2002 vol 386 cc1-4
1. Norman Lamb (North Norfolk)

If he will make a statement on the take-up rate of the minimum income guarantee. [55487]

The Minister for Pensions (Mr. Ian McCartney)

More than 2 million pensioners benefit from the minimum income guarantee. Those pensioners are on average £20 a week better off. Some 3,400 pensioners in the North Norfolk constituency are claiming MIG.

We have introduced several measures to make it easier for pensioners to understand and claim their entitlement, including a new 10-page claim form and a dedicated MIG claim line, and claims for MIG are now invited when pensioners apply for their retirement pension.

Norman Lamb

May I draw the Minister's attention to research carried out by a university of East Anglia student, Victoria O'Brien, which I will send to him? It sets out the extent and impact of the lack of take-up of the minimum income guarantee in North Norfolk and nationally. In particular, I draw his attention to the estimate that in North Norfolk alone the poorest pensioners are failing to receive between £2.5 million and £4.5 million. The impact on them, and on their access to food, heating and so on, is obviously considerable. What further steps is the Minister taking, beyond the big initiative back in 2000, to ensure that the poorest pensioners get what money is due to them?

Mr. McCartney

I would welcome a copy of the review of MIG by the hon. Gentleman's constituent. Local authorities also conduct reviews. In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell), my Department, the local authority and community groups have collectively made a great effort extensively to increase the number of those who can benefit from MIG. We will do anything that we can to achieve that in North Norfolk and more widely between now and the introduction of the pension credit, which will be a further major boost by the Government to older people's income.

In my first answer, I told the hon. Gentleman about some of the measures that we have taken, but since September last year we have also been making more information available. We have been looking at older people's life cycle events and linking those to our attempts to involve them in claims. We have introduced a dedicated Pension Service, the role of which is to act as a first-hand evidence system and an advocate on behalf of older people. Between now and the introduction of the pension credit, the Government are taking a whole range of measures, including advertising and making direct contact with older people and with organisations that represent them. We want to ensure that we build on the success of benefiting 2 million people.

Let me put the matter into context: when we came into power, more than 2 million pensioners were not getting the benefit of MIG, which we introduced from a standing start. Those pensioners were in poverty, forgotten about and voiceless, but under this Government they are out of poverty and have a very strong voice.

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the pilot programme to which he referred has increased the take-up of MIG from 76 per cent. to 81 per cent. in less than 18 months? Will he consider encouraging all local authorities to set targets to raise the take-up of MIG in that way, specifically using the unique system developed in Tameside whereby pensioners can claim online? Just by putting in their national insurance number and their council tax benefit number, they can automatically find out whether or not they are entitled to MIG.

Mr. McCartney

I honestly did not know that my hon. Friend was behind me when I mentioned him; I thought that I would give him a plug for his excellent work anyway. I hope to visit his borough in the next few months. It has an exemplary record in introducing systems of working directly in the community. Those include making household visits to everyone over 60, introducing new technology, setting up local advice centres in conjunction with our departmental officers and working with community groups. As a consequence, there has been a huge increase in the take-up of MIG there. Indeed, more than £800,000 of additional income has been claimed through MIG simply as a result of the campaign.

I shall study that best practice in the hope that we can introduce it as part of the local work by the Pension Service. We need to look at the best of what local authorities do and at the best of what we do, put the two together and ensure that every pensioner who is entitled to income from the Government gets it.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe)

With up to a quarter of those eligible for MIG not taking it up and with the take-up of housing benefit and council tax benefit falling, is it not now clear that the Government's mania for means-testing, which leads to low take-up, is betraying the very vulnerable people whom they were elected to represent?

Mr. McCartney

One of the main reasons why the take-up of housing benefit has fallen is not a lack of take-up by older people but the fact that the Government have got more than 1 million people back into work. They are getting a fair wage, so they do not have to claim housing benefit, unlike the position that they were left in by the previous Government. As well as MIG, we are introducing the pension credit, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support that measure in the Lobby on Thursday. The pension credit means not only that 5.1 million pensioners will get additional income, but that, for the first time, many pensioners will get access to both housing benefit and council tax benefit because of our changes to the rules on capital. That would never have been done under the Conservatives.

Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw)

The Minister will agree that take-up of any benefit is important, but it is especially vital for our poorer pensioners. Will he assure me that pensioners will be able to visit the new Pension Service agency centres throughout the country and speak to staff face to face to ensure that they receive the benefit to which they are entitled?

Mr. McCartney

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. One of the new pension centres is situated in his constituency. It will be welcomed by pensioners in Scotland and will provide new jobs in the area. The role of the Pension Service is to create pension centres that will deal with up to 80 per cent. of the total case load. The other 20 per cent. includes household visits, take-up and special needs campaigns and issues associated with people with special needs such as language and disability. We will focus the local service to deal with that work on a local basis. Older people will have the choice of doing their business through pension centres such as the one at Motherwell or receiving home visits and participating in other local activities. By providing that choice, we will make improvements for the older pensioners who need to access such services from time to time.

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