HC Deb 13 November 2003 vol 413 cc149-53WH
5. Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South)

What action is being taken by the local Pension Service to encourage take-up of the pension credit. [137443]

8. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

What steps the Government are taking to maximise take-up of the pension credit. [137447]

The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks)

We want every pensioner to take up entitlement to the new pension credit. At the heart of our campaign is a direct mail pack to all pensioner households who have not been converted to pension credit automatically through the old minimum income guarantee scheme. We have already written to 1.7 million households and we will be writing to the remainder by June next year. To support this process, we have a television, radio and press advertising campaign. The Pension Service locally is doing remarkably good work in spreading the word about the new pension credit.

Mr. Tynan

"Give credit where it is due, and would you thank the Government from the bottom of my heart?" So speaks an ex-Conservative voter in Hamilton, South who received £46.20 in pension tax credit. However, there is concern regarding take-up. The Pension Service in Motherwell is in the constituency next door to mine. Would the Minister confirm that we have the resources to ensure that as many people as possible will receive personal information regarding the pension credit? Will he commit himself to ensuring that there are plenty of roadshows in my constituency and throughout the country, and will he ensure that adequate finance is available for that process?

Malcolm Wicks

That is a very important question. We are absolutely determined that those entitled to pension credit should receive it. It is terrible to think that someone who could be better off by £30 or £40 a week will not hear about the pension credit. We all have a role to play.

Despite much irresponsible scaremongering, pension credit has got off to a very good start. We reported to the House earlier this week that already 1.4 million individuals are better off because of pension credit. However, locally through advice surgeries, home visiting and in all sort of other ways—we need the advice of Members of Parliament about where best to locate advice surgeries—we are enabling the message about pension credit to get through. We all have a duty to make it a success. We are talking about some of the poorest and most vulnerable elderly people. They deserve pension credit; I am determined that they should receive it.

Kevin Brennan

May I also commend to the House the campaign by the Sunday Mirror for respect for older people? In the implementation of the state pension credit, it is to the Government's credit that the check on the resources of people applying for the state pension credit will take place only every five years. That is an innovative way to show respect for older people while targeting the benefit at those who actually need it. In asking the Minister to make sure that the Government maximise the take-up of pension credit, I want him to minimise its take-up in one small respect by making sure that my constituents who used to work at Allied Steel and Wire and who have lost their pensions are compensated and therefore have no need to apply for it.

Malcolm Wicks

My hon. Friend has led an important campaign for those workers. He knows that we are examining all reasonable ideas, but I must repeat that we cannot make promises because it would be wrong to raise false hopes. I commend his campaign and the skilful way in which he has brought that issue into a question about pensions.

We are determined to maximise the take-up of pension credit. We have got off to a very good start and are on course to meet our target of 3 million people receiving the credit by 2006.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Can the Minister confirm that far from getting off to a very good start the figures, that were produced two days ago show that only an extra 93,000 households out of a target of 1.2 million are getting the benefit? At that rate, it will take six and a half years for the Government to hit their modest targets. Can he confirm those figures? I am visiting the Pension Service in Eastbourne tomorrow and shall be keen to see whether the figures are borne out locally.

Malcolm Wicks

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have a good visit and I should like to hear his impressions of it. Like many of us, he will be impressed by the Pension Service. When the shadow Secretary of State, who is the new director of policy development for the Conservative party, said how long it would take to reach our target on pension credit take-up, he was, with all due respect, talking nonsense and engaging in irresponsible scaremongering. I am confident that we will hit the target by 2006. It does not do much good if some people pretend that the pension credit is going badly when it is going very well. We all have a duty to try to ensure that people claim it.

Mr. Waterson

The Minister speaks about targets, so can he confirm that it is still a Government target for 1.4 million of the poorest pensioners in this country—more than 2,000 of them live in my constituency—not to get round to claiming or receiving the pension credit?

Malcolm Wicks

No, that is not the case. Some 4 million households are eligible, and our target is for 3 million households to receive the credit by 2006. The target is based on logistics and planning, but we want to go beyond it. My personal target is 100 per cent. take-up, because it is important that everyone who is entitled to the pension credit claims it. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Brennan) mentioned that the pension credit is 1 million miles away from the old-fashioned means test. The only thing that people must report is changes in their circumstances, and that will occur rarely. Allowing claims to be made over the telephone rather than by filling in a form is a new approach to targeting the poorest.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister, but unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan), I do not have any ex-Conservative voters in my constituency—come to think of it, there are not too many Conservative voters.

I have asked the Minister several times about the simplification of the documentation—the forms and paperwork—that is used after the telephone conversation. I am still waiting for an answer on the documentation relating to the pension credit, which is compiled by a computer. I have read many of the letters, and I am starting to get my head round them. However, does not the documentation make it difficult for the elderly?

Malcolm Wicks

As I have said before, my hon. Friend is a mighty champion for older people in his constituency. I thank him for that. It would probably be helpful if he and I could sit down together to consider the issue in detail. We obviously review the position and want to improve it, but the fact that elderly people do not have to fill in the form themselves—it can be done over the telephone or during a home visit—is a major breakthrough. If there are issues to resolve, however, I hope that my hon. Friend will accept my invitation to discuss them.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West)

The telephone claim system is a great step forward, backed up by home visits for those who request and need them. Can the Minister give us some idea as to how the telephone system has worked? Sometimes, with private call centres, for example, one has to hang on a long time before the call is answered, and one call is not sufficient. What is happening with the call centres of the Department for Work and Pensions?

Malcolm Wicks

Performance has been good, even during the first week of pension credit when, from memory, we had 160,000 phone calls. We are currently receiving fewer than that, but 95 per cent. of them are answered within 30 seconds. The system is standing up very well. Clearly, if telephony is at the heart of the service, the telephones have to be answered. We monitor the centres carefully, and so far the performance has been excellent. I congratulate the people in our pension centres and in the pension credit application centre on doing a good job in offering that public service.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

If the use of call centres to apply for pension credit is so good, why did the Sunday Mirror—of all newspapers—say: The very fact a senior has to pick up a phone, tell someone in a call centre they are poor, tell them how much money they have and ask 'can I have some more?' is very demeaning and straight out of a Dickens novel."? That is the Sunday Mirror's verdict on this Government policy.

Malcolm Wicks

The previous Government relied heavily on means-testing, but the old-fashioned sort. It was a weekly means test, and any savings were knocked off the means-tested benefit, pound for pound. Our system is a long way from that. We have a savings credit, and we are not worried about people with £6,000 of savings, and that includes some 85 per cent. of those who are entitled to the pension credit. With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, how dare he lecture us about means-testing when his Government exercised that old-fashioned regime?

I do not think, from the evidence, that there is anything demeaning about having a 20-minute conversation to apply for pension credit. One of the wonderful things is that people who are eligible for pension credit are hearing for the first time about housing benefit, attendance allowance and other benefits. It is a success story, whether the hon. Gentleman likes it or not.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Lady Hermon.

Lady Hermon (North Down)

May I ask a question on pension credit, Mr Deputy Speaker, before moving on to my own question?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I call the hon. Lady to ask Question 7.