HC Deb 10 February 2004 vol 417 cc1251-3
2. John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD)

How many pensioner households in Scotland are in receipt of pension credit. [152888]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Anne McGuire)

As at 31 January, there were 229,000 pensioner households in Scotland, comprising approximately 271,000 individuals, receiving pension credit. The latest monthly pension credit progress report, including numbers of recipient households in each parliamentary constituency in Great Britain, was published yesterday.

John Barrett

I thank the Under-Secretary for that answer. Does she agree, however, that the increase in the uptake of pension credit over the past month was only 1.4 per cent., and that at that rate of increase it would take another 30 years before everyone who was entitled to pension credit received it? What are the Government prepared to do to remedy that situation? Does she agree that the answer is to reduce the number of means-tested benefits and raise the basic state pension?

Mrs. McGuire

The answer to all those questions is no. The actual fact about the current situation is that more than 4.1 million pensioner households have been written to about pension credit. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the fact that, in his constituency, 2,065 households, comprising 2,424 individuals, now receive an additional £40.43 a week. I ask him to have a conversation with his colleagues the hon. Members for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) and for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), because in the Mearns Leader, which I am sure is well read in Edinburgh, the hon. Member for Gordon said: I am delighted to see Aberdeenshire pensioners gaining significantly by the introduction of the new Pension Credit. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) should have that conversation as soon as possible, before he makes any other misguided comments.

Anne Picking (East Lothian) (Lab)

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that, although the good news story of pension credit is just that, another good news story is that only one third of pensioners in the UK actually pay tax. Is that equation reflected in Scotland?

Mrs. McGuire

I think that I missed the last part of my hon. Friend's question, but I assume that she was talking about the numbers in Scotland. The number of pensioners in Scotland not paying tax will be pro rata to the number in the rest of the United Kingdom. What I do not want to lose sight of is the core of my hon. Friend's comments: we have reduced the tax burden on pensioners so that only about one third of pensioners in the United Kingdom now pay tax.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale) (Con)

Is the Under-Secretary aware that less than 0.25 per cent. of pension credit is currently paid into Post Office card accounts? Does she think that that is too much or not enough?

Mrs. McGuire

I thought that the Conservative party had spent its whole history building on the idea that people ought to have choice. We cannot—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting this—force pensioners to collect their pensions in whatever way suits us. We have offered pensioners a plethora of initiatives, including support for the Post Office cards, to give them the choice of how they want to collect their pensions every week, and I would have thought that he would see fit to support that.

Mr. Duncan

The Under-Secretary is right to say that I am very much in favour of choice, but it must be free and fair choice. I am sure that she is aware of constituents of hers who have tried to get their pension credit paid into a Post Office card account, and she will know how difficult that process is. According to the Government's own figures, 140,000 eligible pensioner households in Scotland will not claim the credit. Does she accept my view that they are likely to be the most disadvantaged and the most in need? Is she proud of that statistic?

Mrs. McGuire

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman leave me to look after my constituents, rather than try to tell me what is best for them. We have widened the choice of ways in which pensions can be collected. One reason for moving from the approach of having books stamped weekly at the post office is that it was open to fraud and theft. Up to 100 pension books per week were stolen. The hon. Gentleman has no credibility on pension credit, because his party is against it.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) (Lab)

I applaud the Government's initiative on pension credit, from which 2,700 families in my constituency—more than 3,300 individuals—are gaining. However, I have found out over the past few weeks that some pensioners do not know that they can claim pension credit. They claim other benefits, and in the middle of it all, forget about claiming pension credit. Will my hon. Friend urge all pensioners and their families to telephone 0800 991234, to get immediate access to pension credit?

Mrs. McGuire

I am sure that the Pension Service will be grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the helpline number. We must make sure that all pensioners have the information they require, and we applaud the Pension Service for making a commitment to contact every pensioner. Sometimes that work is not helped by the denigrating and negative comments that are made by Opposition Members for their own political motives, and certainly not to benefit pensioners.