HC Deb 07 July 2003 vol 408 cc743-5
9. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

What steps he is taking to publicise the pension credit. [123529]

The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks)

We began writing to pensioner households in April to explain the pension credit and invite advance applications. In addition, the 1.8 million people who receive the minimum income guarantee have been advised that they will be transferred automatically to the pension credit. Regional and national television and press advertising begins in September. We are also working at national and local level with organisations such as Age Concern to spread the good news about the pension credit.

Simon Hughes

Given that the figures apparently show that nearly 3 million people will not have an automatic entitlement but will have to ask for their pension credit from October, why is it that many people will be written to after October and, indeed, up to next summer? Is it not the case that up to 70,000 people may die before they claim their entitlement? Will Ministers review the timetable and make sure that everybody is written to before the date on which they become entitled to the money?

Malcolm Wicks

I hope that the House will appreciate that it is logistically impossible to write to the whole pensioner population within a few weeks or even months. We are staffing up the centres and the telephone service as best we can, and we must perform the task in the right way. The pension credit comes into force in October, and people can apply then, but we will steadily write to people. The Liberal Democrats' cynicism about what happens when people die is not worthy of the party. I wish that Liberal Democrat Members would start to be positive in debates and not always be thinking of next weekend's press release.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Does my hon. Friend agree that welfare rights organisations such as citizens advice bureaux and local authority advice services have an important role to play in drawing pensioners' attention to their rights to benefits and in ensuring that they are calculated correctly? Will he ensure that such organisations are adequately funded? If one of his pensioner constituents came to his surgery with details of their income, would he be able to calculate for them exactly what pension credit they are entitled to?

Malcolm Wicks

As a former Minister for Lifelong Learning, I would certainly have a go. Despite being typecast as old-fashioned, stigmatising means-testing, the pension credit can be applied for over the telephone. One of our staff fills in the application, simply asking the pensioner to verify it. Minor changes of circumstances over a five-year period do not have to be reported. This is a new approach to targeting help on some of those who need it most. I hope that all Members of Parliament, who have thousands of people in their constituencies who can apply, will get behind it. We must make sure that we push take-up to as close as possible to 100 per cent. in due course.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire)

The Minister talks about targeting, but does he accept that the combination of the minimum income guarantee and pension credit will increase the number of people on means-testing and reduce the number who are encouraged to save over the years? Does he accept that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) knows a great deal about the matter and has made that point?

Malcolm Wicks

As I am trying to argue, pension credit is not the old weekly means test. The problem with the system that we inherited from the Conservative Government was that it penalised savings. People with a small occupational pension and savings in the Post Office had money knocked off, pound for pound, from their minimum income guarantee on income support. That was wrong. We want to encourage savings, and pension credit will do so.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

I congratulate the Minister on his well-deserved promotion to his new role. Does he agree that the mind-boggling complexity of pension credit makes it difficult to publicise and undermines the savings culture? If he disagrees with me, could he explain, in the brief time that Mr. Speaker will allow, how to calculate the entitlement to pension credit for someone on low earnings?

Malcolm Wicks

We are already receiving a number of good reports from pensioners whom the Pension Service has written to and who have understood the leaflet and are applying for pension credit. The idea of being able to apply for it over the phone, when not the pensioner herself, but one of our staff expert in the matter calculates the entitlement, is a major advance. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his congratulations and ask him to concede that the new system is an advance on the position under a previous Secretary of State.