HC Deb 07 June 2004 vol 422 cc4-7
2. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby) (Lab)

How many pensioners he estimates have gained financially as a result of the introduction of pension credit. [177312]

7. Albert Owen (Ynys MÔn) (Lab)

How many pensioners he estimates have gained as a result of pension credit. [177317]

9. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con)

What discussions he has had with Age Concern relating to the take-up of pension credit. [177319]

13. Jim Knight (South Dorset) (Lab)

How many pensioners he estimates have gained financially as a result of the introduction of pension credit. [177323]

Lawrie Quinn

I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent answer. In my constituency, many pensioners are now benefiting from that additional help—considerably so, in fact. However, there are still some pensioners who would argue that they are not getting their full entitlement because of their struggle in filling out the paperwork and so on. What can the Minister do to increase the number of pensioners in my constituency and elsewhere who fully understand what they are entitled to and should be receiving?

Malcolm Wicks

I thank my hon. Friend for the lead that he is giving on pensions rights in Scarborough and Whitby. He has a firm reputation in that regard. More than 5,000 households in his constituency are receiving pension credit, the great majority of them—more than 4,000—being financial gainers. But do we need to do more to increase take-up? Yes we do, and I am particularly pleased to report to the House that somewhere in the region of 500,000 home visits have now taken place through our new Pension Service. It is by that exercise of choice over how to apply for benefits that we will push up the numbers even further.

Albert Owen

I thank the Minister for his earlier response. Many people in my constituency are indeed benefiting from the pension credit, but like my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn), I have many constituents who are not. Does the Minister agree that Members of Parliament can play an important role in raising awareness of the pension credit? Will he instruct his Department to dispatch information to individual Members across the House so that we can help our vulnerable constituents by raising awareness and making sure that they receive their full entitlement?

Malcolm Wicks

Again, I thank my hon. Friend for the lead that he is giving on these matters on the island. The local pension service has been in touch with all Members of Parliament, but I will review the arrangements to ensure that that is taking place. There are 2,730 people who are on the credit, financially better off, in his constituency, and I know that there are many advice surgeries, one of which, I note, takes place in the marriage waiting room at the registry office—I did not know that we were into that form of joined-up government, but no doubt it will be welcomed.

Tony Baldry

I understand that about £1 billion goes unclaimed in pension credit. Oxfordshire Age Concern, which covers both the Secretary of State's constituency and mine, tells me that much of its work is now in helping pensioners to claim the credit and fill in the paperwork. Will the Minister consider further ways of helping pensioners to access the benefits to which they are entitled? Age Concern and other charities have been very good at reaching pensioners whom even home visits have not reached, so will he consider giving them a grant-in-aid, so that they can be more active in ensuring that pensioners get all the benefits to which they are entitled?

Malcolm Wicks

Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work with the local pension service. I know that Age Concern is an active constituent, as it were, in that area. We have a small partnership fund, a sum set aside for the very purpose that he suggested, to ensure that local voluntary organisations can work with us on common objectives, but I thank him for the suggestion.

Jim Knight

Pension credit is certainly benefiting many pensioners in my constituency, too, and I congratulate the Government on that, but there are many who believe that if they have any extra income on top of their basic state pension, that makes them automatically ineligible. Can the Government do more to change that perception?

Malcolm Wicks

That is an important question, and I am not complacent about our need to communicate very effectively. We are doing so, but there is still much to do. The point of pension credit, in large part, is that for the first time, unlike the old minimum income guarantee, it recognises and rewards those with savings, which is one reason why far more people are now benefiting than under the old income support system.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con)

Is not the Minister a touch embarrassed to know that, in my constituency, there are many more pensioners who, thanks to his Government's policies, feel fleeced by unnecessarily high council tax bills than are eligible for pension credit?

Malcolm Wicks

I hesitated because I was waiting for the punch line, Mr. Speaker. I hoped for more from a former social security Minister. We are concerned about levels of council tax in many areas, which is why we are reviewing the best methods of funding local governance, and it is one reason why an extra £100 will go to all households with someone aged 70 or over—indeed, we have Report and Third Reading of that Bill tomorrow.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)

My hon. Friend will know that I am a strong supporter of pension credit and of what the Government have done for pensioners. Will he acknowledge that the pension centres have done a really good job in ensuring that people who would not have got the benefit are getting it, and recognise that there are concerns about what will happen to those centres? In particular, there are rumours that Simonstone pension centre will close in a major reorganisation, and fears about what will happen and how we will ensure that pensioners get what the Government want them to get in the future.

Malcolm Wicks

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for recognising the important work that pension centres and the service as a whole are doing. Despite the inevitable scare stories that we get from time to time from Opposition parties, the fact that, for example, 94 per cent. of calls are answered within 30 seconds shows what an excellent service we now have.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con)

Does not the Minister recognise the widespread concern that has just been expressed by hon. Members of all parties about the problem of low take-up of pension credit because many pensioners simply do not want to claim a complicated, means-tested benefit? Did he have the good fortune to hear the Deputy Prime Minister on the "Today" programme the other week, when he said that 1.5 million pensioners were not claiming council tax benefit because they don't like to use the means-tested approach that is entailed in that."? What could be clearer than those words? So as the Minister loyally defends his policy of mass means-testing, does he not feel the tectonic plates shifting underneath him, as he realises how few people believe that it is working?

Malcolm Wicks

I hear the Tory plates crashing all over the place. Of course I listened to what the Deputy Prime Minister said, and we do recognise that some people will fear that this policy constitutes old-fashioned means-testing—not least because of the campaign of fear that some are waging. But when, on phoning our Pension Service, elderly people are able to discover within a short time whether they are eligible for the pension credit, they know that this is a 21st century service. Two out of three people claiming pension credit are women—2 million women are claiming, compared with 1 million men, and the policy is helping elderly women in particular—and that is a very strong feature of this Government's social policy.

3. Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab)

What the rate of take-up of pension credits is in Newcastle-under-Lyme. [177313]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle)

As at 31 May, 3,905 pensioner households in Newcastle-under-Lyme, comprising some 4,700 individuals, were in receipt of pension credit. That is a 50 per cent. increase in take-up of the minimum income guarantee.

Paul Farrelly

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does she recognise that despite Opposition carping, thousands of pensioners in Newcastle-under-Lyme and north Staffordshire have benefited under Labour from pension increases, guaranteed minimum incomes and the pension credit? That is real progress, which would be reversed if the Tories took office again. Does she also recognise that despite the flimsy promise that the Liberal Democrats made last year to knock £100 off council tax, but which they have now dropped—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the Minister can answer the question.

Maria Eagle

Anybody would think that some elections were going on. I did hope to hear what my hon. Friend had to say about the Liberal Democrats, but perhaps we can do so on another occasion. None the less, he is absolutely right to point out that the Opposition's policy would leave poorer pensioners on a—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Even the Minister is not allowed to talk about the Opposition's policies.

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