HL Deb 25 April 1996 vol 571 cc1252-4

3.31 p.m.

Lord Stallard asked Her Majesty's Government:

What response they have made to the current week's campaign by Age Concern on unclaimed benefits.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish)

My Lords, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary with responsibility for pensions (Mr. Oliver Heald) recently met Age Concern to discuss (among other things) unclaimed benefits and ways of improving benefit take-up. In 1994–95 the Government spent over —26 million on publication and information about the benefits available.

Information and leaflets about which benefits to claim are widely displayed, not only in local benefit offices, but also in many other locations such as post offices, doctors' surgeries and citizens advice bureaux.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, especially the part about the response in another place, of which I was well aware. However, does the Minister realise that in 1993–94, the latest year for which figures are available, up to £1.25 billion was unclaimed by one-third of all pensioners who were eligible to claim the benefits? There is also the question of expenditure on fraud. Can the Minister say whether the new benefit cards, which will contain an element to try to prevent fraud, will have any information on them that will help people to be identified as eligible for benefit?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, it is difficult to know how much faith to place in the accuracy of such surveys. They ask about people who do not claim benefit and obviously they do not come forward to say, "I do not claim benefit". One must bear in mind the broad margins of error that they may contain. The noble Lord ought to know, before he goes any further, that an average take-up of around 75 per cent. of income support among pensioners has been reported in surveys over quite a few years, including in the 1970s when the party opposite was in power.

We try to ensure that pensioners realise that they are eligible for benefits; for example, the reverse side of the pension book contains a little entry which asks them if they can manage and whether they are entitled to income support and/or housing benefit. It suggests where they can go to find out more about those benefits. In relation to the card, we are still working on that. It is too early to say how much information one can reasonably put on a plastic card.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that if elderly people fail to claim the income support to which they are entitled, they will be living below income support levels, possibly unable to afford heating and food? Why then has the Benefits Agency cut its benefits advertising budget in real terms from £8.5 million in 1994–95 to £6.9 million in 1995–96? Equally importantly, why are the Government threatening to cut the free benefit helpline used by 3 million people, mainly pensioners? We have cuts in advertising budgets and cuts in helpline advice. Is that how the Government plan to cap social security expenditure—by discouraging the old and the poor from claiming that to which they are entitled?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, as usual the noble Baroness goes over the top. It is a pity that she did not listen to my answer when I pointed out that the figures were pretty similar for the three years of the surveys during the government of the party opposite in the late 1970s. The histrionics about the motivation behind what we are doing is totally uncalled for. We are spending £26 million, as I said.

In relation to the helpline, the position is that we are examining the scheme with some care. We sent out questionnaires to individual branches and are looking at who uses it and how it is used. I am afraid that the noble Baroness has no evidence at all that it is largely used by pensioners because I do not have any evidence of that either. We do not break down the inquiries into categories. If I do not know, the noble Baroness certainly does not know. The important point is that pensioners are considerably better off today than they were when the party opposite left power.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, can my noble friend give me some figures on the number of claims for child benefit for 16 and 17 year-old children still at school? Is that well claimed? Is it a popular benefit?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, one of the important aspects of child benefit is that the uptake is extremely high. That covers the whole sphere, including the child benefit which we pay to 16 and 17 year-olds. As my noble friend will know, the party opposite intends to remove that benefit from those parents and families who keep their children on at school. It sounds to me very much like taxing the poor for sending their children to school.