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Pensioners (Income Support Take-up)

9. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): What steps he is taking to ensure that pensioners entitled to income support are encouraged to claim it. [88033]

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Stephen Timms): My hon. Friend raises an important point, to which we are giving careful consideration. Last year, we undertook some pilot projects

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and research studies. We expect to receive the evaluation results from them shortly. We are watching with interest more recent partnership initiatives between the Benefits Agency and local authorities, which are showing encouraging results. We hope before long to be able to announce plans to encourage take-up among pensioners.

Mr. Prentice: When did my hon. Friend last look at a pension book? There are references to the help available, but people need 20:20 vision to read it. Why do we not simply redesign the pension book and grab pensioners' attention by saying, "1 million pensioners are entitled to claim income support, but do not do so; it could be you."? Grab their attention!

Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Actually, it is up to 700,000 pensioners, not 1 million, but I am attracted by his attention-grabbing proposal. Another helpful initiative would be to make it easier for pensioners to claim over the telephone. We have had a good deal success with a pilot service for pensioners to make retirement pension claims over the telephone. That approach has a lot of potential as well, but I agree: it is important that we are imaginative. I want everyone who is entitled to income support--every pensioner--to receive it.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): Does the Minister acknowledge that one of the easiest ways in which to deliver help to some of the poorest pensioners is to look at the limitation of the threshold for capital? The limits have been at those levels for some time. The Government have said that they might look at them in the near future. Has he anything to report in that regard?

Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point; we made it, too, in the pensions Green Paper. We intend to introduce some proposals during the life of the current Parliament, but there is no announcement to be made today.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston): I am sure that the Minister would like to join me in congratulating Birmingham city council, which has just completed a pensioner awareness week, which encouraged pensioners to claim all the benefits available to them. Is any focused work being done to identify areas where, as purely statistical evidence indicates, there is particular need and high incidence of non-claiming, and to target initiatives such as the one in Birmingham at city councils throughout the country?

Mr. Timms: I have been very impressed by what I have read of the Birmingham initiative; I have asked for more information about that. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter. There is potential in the statistical analysis that she has described. A couple of weeks ago, I visited Wolverhampton. There has been an effective take-up campaign there, run jointly by the Benefits Agency and the local authority. The local authority identified people who, from its housing benefit records, looked as though they were entitled to income support but were not receiving it. As a result of that initiative, 300 extra people in Wolverhampton are receiving the minimum income guarantee. There is much

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potential here, particularly in the partnerships between local authorities and the Benefits Agency. We want to explore them fully.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): May I press the Minister further on the interaction between means-tested assistance for pensioners and the stakeholder pension for people on low incomes? He will be aware from comments that have already been made that there is widespread concern among hon. Members on both sides of the House as to why someone should take out a stakeholder pension if all it does is reduce their entitlement to means-tested assistance. He was talking about arithmetic earlier. Let me ask him an arithmetical question. How much money do people have to have--[Interruption.] I am afraid that it is a bit trickier than the earlier question. How much money do people have to have in their stakeholder pension fund if they have no other savings, so as to secure an income that will float them off means-tested assistance?

Mr. Timms: It depends on the level of the minimum income guarantee, which will be uprated in line with earnings, but the point that the hon. Gentleman misses is that, through the state second pension or a stakeholder pension, if people contract out of the state system into a funded pension, they will be delivered on to an income in retirement that is well above the level of the minimum income guarantee. They then have full access to all the additional savings that they have made. People will be much better off in a funded pension. That is why we want every employed person in Britain to have easy access to a good-value, dependable, funded pension scheme.

Benefit Integrity Project

10. Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): If he will make a statement on reform of the benefit integrity project. [88034]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley): The benefit integrity project was terminated on 31 March 1999. We have replaced it with a periodic inquiry process into disability living allowance awards that is both fairer and more sensitive to the needs of individual disabled people.

Mr. Rammell: I thank the Minister for that response. Does he agree that a crucial part of the changes has been the move from a faceless, cost-cutting bureaucracy to a situation in which a claimant is, rightly, able to speak over the telephone to the person who is making the decision on that claimant's benefit eligibility? Will the Minister also reassure the House that the Government will continue to invest in training for Benefits Agency staff, particularly in disability awareness, to ensure that the changes are successful?

Mr. Bayley: Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The benefit integrity project was introduced by our predecessors, before the general election, as a cost-cutting exercise, and was, therefore, seen as unfair by disabled people. The project considered only cases for reduction in benefit, not cases in which people were being paid too little benefit. Our periodic review, however, will do both: it will reduce benefits when people's circumstances change and they no longer qualify for higher rates, but also increase benefits for those whose

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needs increase. That is what is different about the changes, and it is why our new review process will be much fairer.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): According to what precise criteria will discretion be used to decide whether reviewed benefits should be backdated or not backdated?

Mr. Bayley: The rules on backdating are the same as those that applied under the benefit integrity project: one does not backdate benefit to the date of either the inquiry letter or the inquiry visit.

Child Support Agency

12. Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire): What recent discussions he has had with the chief executive of the Child Support Agency on reform of the agency's procedures; and if he will make a statement. [88037]

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling): I meet regularly with the chief executive of the Child Support Agency, and, of course, discuss the way in which the agency works. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, last week, I made a statement to the House in which I described a number of improvements that we propose to make.

Sir David Madel: When mistakes have been made by the Child Support Agency on money due for maintenance and a deduction of earnings order is imminent, whose job is it to get the mistake corrected quickly? If the job is to be ours as hon. Members, surely we should be given power to put a stop on deduction of earnings orders while the matter is being re-examined. That is a perfectly reasonable request, and a reasonable Government would grant us it.

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman has been in the House long enough to remember the time when all hon. Members had a power virtually to stop immigration cases, whereas--certainly in my experience--we were never in possession of sufficient information to be able to reach an informed judgment on those matters. I do not really think that giving Members of Parliament power to intervene in the administrative process--perhaps on limited evidence, and sometimes on the basis of limited partial evidence, from one view only--would be a particularly satisfactory way of doing things.

What I do think is necessary is the root-and-branch overhaul of administration of the CSA, which I announced last week, and to get away from the current situation, in which the very complexity of the formula makes it very likely that there will be mistakes. In future, under the new simpler formula that I announced last week--in which only three pieces of information will be needed to calculate how much is due; the tables showing how much will be due was published in the White Paper--the incidence of mistakes is likely to be much lower.

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South): May I tell the Secretary of State that I do not want the powers described by the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Sir D. Madel)?

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We have had some negative press after the excellent statement made last week by my right hon. Friend on the White Paper proposals, as many people have been confused about interim administration arrangements until the legislation is changed. What can he do--perhaps working with agencies and local authorities--to get across the White Paper's message on how the changes will affect people in the intervening period, until new legislation has been introduced?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend makes a good point. In the next three years, we shall be investing £28 million in the Child Support Agency. We are strengthening the agency's senior management, and bringing in, as agencies, people with far more experience from other branches of the Department of Social Security, to tighten up the CSA's middle management and to get decision- making right in the first place.

Additionally, we are placing far more attention on complaint resolution. More than 600 staff will be allocated to deal with interviews, face to face with those who have complaints or do not understand how a calculation has been made. Moreover, at the earliest possible opportunity, we shall introduce penalties for late payments, and make it an offence to lie to the agency or not to co-operate with it.

I believe that all those changes will mean that the improvement that has been made in the past year or so will get better and better. I am sorry to say that until we get legislative approval to make the formula simpler, the agency will always have difficulties. It will never be popular. We can make some valuable alterations in the mean time, but a new formula is vital to ensure the fundamental changes that we all want.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): The right hon. Gentleman suggested last week that it would be helpful to have cross-party support for reform of the Child Support Agency. Does he realise that the undertakings given across the Dispatch Box will bear materially on whether there is such co-operation? In his statement last week he dismissed our worries about the confidentiality of Inland Revenue files but, on 27 April, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley), assured me that the files would be used only as a last resort, repeating that assurance six times in a relatively short debate. Were the Opposition duped by those undertakings? Has the policy changed, or does the Secretary of State stand by those undertakings?

Mr. Darling: I find it interesting that when we announce reforms that will help 1 million children who do not get help now, the hon. Gentleman is bothered only about the minority of fathers who fiddle the system and conceal their true financial state from their children. Let me make the position clear. We shall ensure that people have every opportunity to tell us how much money they have so that we can calculate how much they should be paying their children. Of course it will be only as a last resort, if they insist on misleading us or lying to us, that we shall go to the Inland Revenue and ask what that individual has said in their tax returns. It is high time that the Conservatives started addressing the real problem of 1 million children losing out because of the mess that we inherited at the Child Support Agency, which they set up.

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