HC Deb 14 April 2003 vol 403 cc604-6
6. Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

When benefit application forms were last revised to make them easier and simpler to complete. [108710]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks)

The Department for Work and Pensions regularly updates its application packs to make them easier and simpler. As part of the Department's commitment to modernise our service, the introduction of telephone applications has proved particularly successful in simplifying and speeding up the application process. We are building on that success for those applying for the new pension credit.

Mr. Cox

While I note that reply, I am sure that my hon. Friend will be aware of the National Audit Office report that was published toward the end of last year. It clearly said that vast sums of money are not being claimed year on year by retired people who are entitled to benefits. That clearly happens because forms are too complex and long. That point was made repeatedly at a meeting of the Wandsworth pensioners forum in my constituency last month. Whatever changes the Department has made, they are insufficient to encourage people to claim the benefits to which they are entitled. Will he look again at the forms and their complexity and length?

Malcolm Wicks

And we do. I pay tribute to our staff in the Department who, for example, have recently won a plain English award for their work on trying to simplify forms. We also work closely with citizens advice bureaux. Obviously, we understand that forms are daunting at first sight, which is why the new Pension Service and people's ability to use the telephone to apply for benefits are so important. We shall take on board the points that my hon. Friend makes. We have made a lot of progress on our forms, but there is more to do. He raises a very important point for pensioners.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

The Minister mentions the plain English award that the Department has won. I have in my hand a piece of paper from the Department. It is the standard letter sent to pensioners who apply for invalid care allowance, which begins: We are pleased to tell you that we have looked at your claim and decided you are entitled to Invalid Care Allowance". The next sentence says: However, we cannot pay the benefit to you". The letter continues: You are entitled to £43.15 a week from May, but the next sentence says: We cannot pay you from May.

Does the Minister understand why pensioners in my constituency think that that is complete rubbish? Will he examine both that specific letter and the way in which pensioners are urged to apply for a benefit that they then cannot get?

Malcolm Wicks

We are still grappling—[Laughter.]—with the old computer systems that we inherited from the laughing Opposition. We have invested in computer systems and will get things right in future. The problem that the hon. Gentleman raises relates to the overlapping rule, but I take the point. He has a piece of paper in his hands and recent events suggest that his party is still associated with appeasement.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton)

I am happy that the Minister has held talks with the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux on the compilation of forms, but many local bureaux are overwhelmed by people seeking their assistance in filling them out. The Department should try much harder to simplify the forms so that people take up the benefits to which they are entitled.

Malcolm Wicks

Again, I understand the point, but let us consider what has happened in practice. The minimum income guarantee form has been reduced from 40 to only 10 pages, and people will be able to apply for pension credit by telephone when they can talk to another human being who will explain it to them. Obviously, the forms are often complex and we need to simplify them, but we are making great progress.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

In general, the simpler the form, the better the take-up. The Department's figures show that the number of people claiming incapacity benefit and disability living allowance on the grounds of mental illness increased by a quarter and by three quarters respectively between 1997 and last year. Why should that be? Is it simply that the application forms for those benefits have been simplified—welcome though that is—and that take-up has increased as a result, or does the Minister think that there are more significant and potentially alarming factors to do with the state of mental health in Britain today? What practical policies do the Government have to assist those with mental health problems both to stay in work and to find work rather than becoming trapped in dependency on benefits?

Malcolm Wicks

Again, that is an important question. It is interesting that more people across the western world have claimed incapacity benefits not in the last six years alone, but since about 1979. It is also the case that in recent years the proportion claiming that benefit because of mental illness factors or stress has increased, and we need to understand that. We are emphasising the importance of joining up different agencies around the theme of rehabilitation, and a number of pilot studies on that will start soon. It is unacceptable to the individuals concerned—many of whom would like to work—that so many are on incapacity benefit. It is a big issue. The number of those on such benefits has increased roughly threefold since 1979. We all need to think hard about that and to take action, which is what we are doing.