HL Deb 12 December 2000 vol 620 cc218-20

2.59 p.m.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many additional pensioners of the 2.3 million whom they are seeking to persuade to take up the minimum income guarantee actually applied for the guarantee in the August quarter of this year.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, the full effects of the minimum income guarantee take-up campaign will not be known until it comes to a conclusion and all the claims have been processed. However, we know that this campaign has reached more pensioners than any other campaign. We have written to 2½ million pensioners, promoted the MIG through television advertising and, so far, have received nearly 750,000 responses.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

I am not surprised that the Minister is reluctant to give a detailed Answer to my Question. I gave her a specific period so that she could not hide behind that formula, "Oh, it is not all finished yet". I asked her for the figures for the quarter ending August of this year. Is it not a fact that the Government's own figures, given to Parliament in various forms, show that for that period, the quarter ending in August, the number of additional pensioners applying for and receiving the minimum income guarantee was 23,000?

I can understand the Minister being reluctant to give that figure but it is a fact. She claims the right to give us further as yet unverified figures for the whole period. Are the Government not aware already of the reluctance of the 2.3 million pensioners they are attempting desperately hard to target for MIG who are deeply hostile to the whole principle of means testing? Pensioners want instead the right to an adequate pension to which they have contributed all their lives.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, my noble friend asked for the statistics for August; it is now December. However, I am happy to give her the statistics for August. Indeed, 23,000 pensioners made successful claims. At the time, only 49,000 claims had been processed. So my noble friend's Question and my Answer were in the best Whitehall traditions: entirely accurate and, by now, entirely meaningless.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, could the Benefits Agency staff be more proactive in finding people and helping them to apply for the MIG. For example, could staff be sent to post offices on the days when pensioners are drawing their pensions, answer their questions and help them fill in their forms? Could home visits be arranged for people who have difficulty getting out?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, those are helpful suggestions. We have had 750,000 responses. Half of those have been through telephone inquiries and half through local offices. That suggests that the campaign is going very well. On the assumptions we have been able to make so far in relation to take-up, processing and satisfactory claims, it looks as though we shall reach as many pensioners as are reached by other income-related benefits; for example, reductions in council tax payments. I shall take up the noble Lord's proposals because, obviously, we want all pensioners to claim the money to which they are entitled. The sums outstanding tend to be about £20 per week. That can make a significant and useful difference to the lives of all pensioners.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, is the Minister really satisfied by the response of 750,000 out of 2.5 million? Furthermore, will she say what proportion of that 750,000 has qualified successfully?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Lord has perhaps become slightly baffled by the exchange of statistics I have had with my noble friend Lady Castle. There are 1.6 million pensioners already successfully claiming MIG. Of those, half are single older women, a quarter are couples and a quarter are single older men. We believe that there are somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000—say, for the purposes of discussion, 500,000— pensioners who may be entitled to but are not claiming the benefit. We believe that we have reached a sizeable proportion of those who should be eligible through the existing scheme. But we are finding that half of those making claims are not eligible for MIG. That is because half of those people have savings just above the threshold, which is why we are raising the savings cap. The other half have a small, modest occupational pension which takes them just above the income level for MIG. That is why we are introducing the pensioner credit.

We believe that as a result of the campaign, we shall reach a significant proportion of pensioners who have the entitlement. But, as I say, we need to follow up all possible suggestions to extend our reach.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, as there seems to be real concern, as expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Castle, that there is a stigma attached to the minimum income guarantee, is it possible for the Minister to say what steps have been or might be taken to reduce that stigma so that people really feel that it is a guarantee to which they are entitled?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords. the right reverend Prelate is exactly right. It really does not help pensioners to come forward and claim what they are entitled to if what they are entitled to is described as "means testing", "charity" and "stigma". If something is described as being stigmatised, it is not surprising that it becomes stigmatised. If my noble friend and others in your Lordships' House wish to see pensioners claiming their entitlement, they should start talking the language of entitlement and rights in relation to MIG and not the language of means testing and stigma.

The right reverend Prelate is exactly right. It is precisely for that reason that we have chosen to use telephone inquiries, postal forms and so on. No pensioner needs to go into a Benefits Agency office to claim his right. We will contact the pensioners concerned.

I have a letter from a pensioner in Newton Abbot who is almost blind—and I realise that the House may not want to hear about a pensioner being appreciative of the efforts that the DSS are making but I want to give a balanced picture—who, having dealt with the matter over the telephone, said: The person I spoke to was extremely friendly and most helpful. I usually dread having to fill things in but it really couldn't have been easier and I would recommend calling the helpline to anyone. It is simple, straightforward and stress free".