HC Deb 12 January 2004 vol 416 cc518-20
7. Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber) (Lab)

What plans his Department has to increase the take-up of pension credit. [146788]

9. Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con)

What estimate he has made of the (a) number and (b) percentage of people who will be claiming pension credit by 2006. [146790]

The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks)

We have a take-up target for at least 3 million households to be in receipt of pension credit by 2006. This corresponds to around 3.7 million individuals, but we want all eligible pensioners to take up their entitlement.

I am pleased to report that 2.53 million individuals now receive pension credit. That includes approximately 486,000 individuals who were not previously receiving income support minimum income guarantee who are now receiving extra money for the first time. We have today published the latest monthly pension credit progress report, including numbers of recipient households in each parliamentary constituency in Great Britain.

Mr. Stewart

My hon. Friend is well aware that the two main barriers to claiming pension credit are stigma and an over-complicated claims procedure. What further steps is he planning to ensure that every last penny of pension credit is fighting pensioner poverty?

Malcolm Wicks

We are aware of the traditional barriers to means-tested benefits. That is why we made the application process for pension credit easy and focused on the needs of the citizen. We monitor progress carefully and published results of our customer service inquiry today. It finds that 80 per cent. of respondents were satisfied with the pension credit application line and 90 per cent. were satisfied with the overall process. I am pleased to report that 96 per cent. of telephone calls from members of the public are answered within 30 seconds. We analyse the barriers and seek to overcome them through a pension credit that is a million miles away from the old style means-testing.

Mr. Djanogly

I notice that the Minister did not answer my question and give the figures for 2006. Is not it the case that by subjecting more than half of pensioners, which is what the figure is likely to be, to means-tested state dependency, the Government will destroy the incentive for working people to save?

Malcolm Wicks

Contrary to the hon. Gentleman's analysis, the pension credit rewards savings for the first time while targeting extra resources on the poorest pensioners and the hard-pressed, two thirds of whom are women, and many of whom are the older elderly. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the fact that now, in the early days of pension credit, 1.7 million people are gaining financially from the measure, including a significant number in his constituency.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab)

When disabled pensioners have a problem with pension credit or any other aspect of their dealings with the Pension Service, they sometimes go to DIAL, the disability information and advice line, for help. Whereas Age Concern and citizens advice bureaux have dedicated hotline arrangements with the Pension Service, my understanding is that DIAL does not. Will the Minister look into that and try to arrange a hotline service for DIAL? That would help disabled pensioners and might even cut the number of home visits that are necessary.

Malcolm Wicks

I shall certainly consider that suggestion. Our aim is to provide a number of ways for elderly people or their carers to access pension credit. They usually use the telephone, but if they prefer, they can fill in the application form, with which they can get help, visit an advice surgery or have a home visit.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con)

Is it not true that, according to the research published by the Department, only 22 per cent. of the higher income group who were asked, and 12 per cent. of the lower income group, had even heard of the pension credit? Is it any wonder then that, even on the Minister's projections, 1.4 million of the poorest pensioners will never be helped by pension credit because they will be deterred from claiming by the complexity or the intrusive means-testing, or both?

Malcolm Wicks

I reject those figures. We have takeup targets for 2006, and yet I have said that our aim is to ensure that every elderly person entitled to the credit should receive it. We are rolling out pension credit over a period, which is sensible administratively, and we still have not written to some people; we will not write to some of them until June. However, anyone applying up to autumn this year will be able to get pension credit from last October.

This is a successful piece of public administration and a decent, targeted social policy, presided over by an excellent new public service, and I hope that people in the House of Commons will start to support the pension credit,instead of denigrating it.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)

I recognise that the Government are doing everything possible to ensure that people eligible for pension credit get it, but I am sure that the Minister will recognise that almost half a million people were not receiving the minimum income guarantee despite being entitled to it. I realise that correspondence is scanned at Pension Service centres, but does the Minister accept that many pensioners—one came to me last week—find it confusing to receive letters from different officers in the service, because they do not understand who is dealing with their case?

Malcolm Wicks

If my hon. Friend writes to me with details, I will look at any difficulties. The fact that, in the early days of pension credit, so many people are already gaining is a remarkable testament to our Pension Service. When we enable people, some of whom never applied for the old minimum income guarantee, to apply for pension credit, we often find that we can also access their claims to housing benefit or council tax benefit, and as a result, although the average weekly gain might be £7 or £8, we find many cases of people getting £30, £40 or £60 extra as a result of the human touch used by our local Pension Service.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) (SNP)

The Minister mentioned his written statement to be published today which gives a breakdown of take-up by constituency, but what is missing is a breakdown of the targets for each constituency or, indeed, for Scotland as a whole. Will he publish those figures? Given the fact that most hon. Members are already urging all pensioners to take up their entitlement, does he feel that the Government need to be more proactive in encouraging those to whom we are not getting through, rather than simply calling on them to pick up the phone? A large number of pensioners will never apply for the credit by telephone.

Malcolm Wicks

We published estimates of entitlement for Scotland, Wales and the regions of England. Methodologically and statistically, it would not be easy to do the same, with precision, for constituencies, but I will look into that.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman thinks that we are not trying hard enough. I should have though that our excellent Pension Service running advice surgeries in every constituency and making 270,000 home visits shows that our public servants are trying very hard—and not only trying but being successful.