HC Deb 17 November 2003 vol 413 cc474-5
9. Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West)

What plans he has to maximise take-up of the pension credit. [138641]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith)

Pension credit is already making a real difference in the lives of pensioners. As I reported to the House last week, at the end of October there were 1.97 million pensioner households—around 2.3 million individuals—receiving pension credit, and 1.2 million households—around 1.4 million individuals—are now receiving more money than they did before, with an average award of –47.10 per week. Our advertising campaign is continuing and we are working with partner organisations, such as Help the Aged, Age Concern and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, to fulfil our aspiration that as many pensioners as possible should take up their entitlement.

Rob Marris

I suggest to my right hon. Friend that take-up of pension credit is likely to be higher if there is confidence in the assessment and delivery process, and conversely, that if confidence fell, take-up would fall. The computer history of large organisations in the private sector and in the public sector, including the Department, is not always good. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the telephony and the computer systems are robust enough for pension credit?

Mr. Smith

Yes, indeed. We learned the lessons of previous experience in that area, and ensured that the project was not dependent on new IT, that the staff were thoroughly trained, and that the take-up was phased. On telephony, I can report that the average to date is 95 per cent. of calls being answered within 30 seconds, not by a metallic recording machine, but by a human being. Last week the pension credit application line answered 100 per cent. of calls within 30 seconds.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

Does the Secretary of State recall his Minister of State, the Minister for Pensions, saying: No one of sound mind could advocate wholesale means-testing"? Does the Secretary of State believe that the pension credit, requiring 60 different pieces of information on one's financial circumstances, is not a means test, or does he think that means-testing more than half of the entire population of British pensioners is not wholesale means-testing, or are we driven reluctantly to conclude that the Minister of State thinks the Secretary of State is not of sound mind?

Mr. Smith

As emerged from the pensions debate that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues initiated a few weeks ago, the income assessment for pension credit is a million miles away from the old intrusive, demeaning means-testing that disfigured this country in the past. I note that last week the hon. Gentleman was forecasting that it would take six to seven years to reach the 3 million figure. I will make a deal with him. If we are wrong and it takes that long to hit 3 million, I will apologise to the House. If and when we hit our target, as I am confident we will, he should be back in the House explaining why we are right and admitting that the Opposition were wrong.

Mr. Willetts

Let me tell the Secretary of State that we do not do deals. The Government must do the deals. As a matter of arithmetic, at the current rate at which the pension credit is being taken up by new claimants, if he extrapolates that trend, when will he reach his target for the take-up of the pension credit?

Mr. Smith

The hon. Gentleman knows that we must hit 3 million by 2006. I am confident that we are on course and look forward to his coming to the House and apologising when we hit our target.

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating St. Helens council on recently holding an advice street stall in the town centre at which hundreds of pensioners were helped with the pension credit? Will he encourage more councils to do the same?

Mr. Smith

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating his local authority, working in partnership with the Pension Service. Such activities are taking place across the country, because partnership is at the heart of our drive to maximise take-up of the pension credit. It is a pity that the Conservative party does not join in that partnership to encourage the take-up of pension credit. Anyone listening to the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) a few minutes ago would have thought that the Conservative party would abandon the pension credit.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Further to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Havant, when the Labour Government came to power, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that one of the Government's central objectives was to get rid of means-testing for the elderly. Was the Chancellor of the Exchequer right or wrong, or have the Government done a massive U-turn?

Mr. Smith

I have already pointed out that the pension credit is a million miles away from the old, degrading, intrusive weekly means test. We receive hundreds of messages through the local Pension Service to the effect that pensioners who have successfully applied for pension credit appreciate not only being better off, but the value of the sensitivity and the helpfulness with which the Pension Service has handled their applications. That is amplified not only by those working on the telephone lines, but by the important work of the local Pension Service, which visits people in their homes and helps them to claim their entitlement. Conservative Members should admit that that is not the old-style means test.