HC Deb 26 April 2004 vol 420 cc621-3
4. Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab)

What steps he is taking to provide pensioners with information about pension credit. [167678]

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

By the end of this month, ahead of schedule, we will have written to every pensioner household in the country about pension credit. From May, we will make further contact with those households that are most likely to be eligible but that have not responded so far. The campaign will be supported by TV and press advertising as well as local activity in partnership with Help the Aged, Age Concern and Citizens Advice. Thanks to record take-up in March, 2.9 million pensioners are receiving pension credit, with an average household award of £41.34 every week.

Ms Keeble

I am grateful for that response. May I put a particular point to my right hon. Friend about the need for explanations and information for pensioners to include information about housing benefit? I have raised this question with him before, and the information that he has provided has very much satisfied my constituents. None the less, there is a need to ensure that people possess all the necessary information when they make their applications so that they know exactly where they stand financially.

Mr. Smith

I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. She has indeed raised these matters with me personally and in correspondence, and I am pleased to have been able to satisfy her and her constituents. She is absolutely right that it is important for people to have accurate information, including the extent to which thresholds relating to housing benefit and council tax benefit had already been increased to allow for those who would be in receipt of the savings credit.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD)

A pensioner who wants to find out about pension credit might think that ringing the Pension Service was one good strategy. Yet the Minister told me last month in a written answer that in January, the most recent month for which figures are available, 100,000 pensioners abandoned calls to the Pension Service, presumably because they were fed up waiting for someone to answer. Is that not a disgrace, and what will he do about it?

Mr. Smith

If anyone wants information about eligibility for pension credit, I recommend that they ring the pension credit application line on 0800 991234. That has a record of answering well over 90 per cent. of calls within 30 seconds, hence the record take-up of pension credit in March, which has enabled us to hit our target of 2.4 million pensioner households and 2.91 million individual pensioners gaining from pension credit, which is help that they would not have had from a Conservative Administration or from the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Coop)

I shall follow on from the excellent supplementary asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble). Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that the biggest barrier is still the complexity of the present scheme? In particular, I have a constituent who has a 41-year-old daughter living with her who pays hardly any money for her keep. As a result, that pensioner continues in poverty and is also unable to claim the money that she really needs. Can my right hon. Friend ensure that the system is simplified so that take-up by people in such positions can be given a following wind?

Mr. Smith

We have made strenuous efforts to make take-up of pension credit as simple as possible. The most convenient way to do so is through the pension credit application line that I just mentioned. We have had much positive feedback, including independent research, that shows high satisfaction levels with the quality of advice and support that pensioners are given. In addition, we have the local Pension Service, which has now conducted some 400,000 home visits in especially complex cases or if the pensioner involved is frail or very elderly. I commend the home visiting service of the Pension Service, which is doing a great job.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con)

In the context of savings by pensioners, can the Secretary of State explain why the national UK savings ratio has fallen by half since his party came into power?

Mr. Smith

As I have been pleased to explain to the hon. Gentleman before, the savings ratio reflects people's general confidence in the state of the economy and their expectations of low inflation. That is why the ratio has been lower in times of economic stability and confidence, under Governments of both political persuasions, and has been higher when people undertake precautionary saving because they fear inflation. Thankfully people are not fearful of inflation at present and that helps to explain why the ratio is lower. As for pension savings, the measures that we are putting in place through our informed choice strategy—and the measures in the Pensions Bill that my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions has just set out—will build confidence in pension savings, so that a pension promise made will be a pension promise honoured. That is in contrast to the scandalous situation that has arisen from the weaknesses in the Tories' Pensions Act 1995.