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Benefit Take-up

6. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): What research he has commissioned to ascertain the reasons for the variations in take-up of targeted benefits. [154863]

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker): We are always doing research--the Department commissions it--to understand the reasons for non-take-up of benefits and the circumstances of those whom the benefits aim to assist.

All findings from research undertaken by the Department are published and placed in the House of Commons Library. They have led to the redesign of forms: my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave the example of the income support form and the minimum income guarantee claim form, which was reduced from 40 pages to 10 in the current pilot, which will be in general use later this year.

Mr. Prentice: I recognise that the Government have done a huge amount for pensioners, but when, as my right hon. Friend said, the MIG claim form was 40 pages long, now reduced to 10, is it any wonder that there were 500,000 pensioners out there entitled to MIG but not claiming it? After a campaign that cost an arm and a leg, and the sending out of 2.4 million letters, there is still a substantial number of poor pensioners not claiming their entitlement. Why do not we embrace what I believe is the Liberal Democrat policy of making MIG universal for the over-80s, clawing back the money from those who can afford it?

Mr. Rooker: Tens of thousands of pensioners are better off by £20 a week following the MIG take-up campaign, although we do not have final figures and it is not always easy to disaggregate those who have walked into a Benefits Agency office or telephoned us from those who have called the hotline. We wrote to 2 million pensioners and had about 800,000 responses, so we have a database of more than 100,000 people who missed out because their capital was too great. Next week, when the capital limits change, they will be eligible for MIG. We can make direct contact with those who responded to our campaign, and we can get more money to the least well-off pensioners. That is what we intend to do. If we spread the money right across everybody, the increase would certainly not average £20 a head.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): When I tabled Question 19, asking the Government to ensure that all pensioners receive their winter fuel allowance before the end of this winter, it was before the end of the winter. Now, it is past the end of the winter. With reference to the variations in take-up of targeted benefits, what does the Minister say to all those who have yet to receive last winter's winter fuel payment? Is the hope that they will simply receive £50 less the next winter?

Mr. Rooker: The only people who will not have received the winter fuel payments for last winter are those who had to claim.

Mr. O'Brien: Exactly.

Mr. Rooker: Some people choose not to claim. Some men between 60 and 64, perhaps in full-time occupations,

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have chosen not to claim. Anyone who claims willbe paid: 11 million were paid automatically before Christmas. We are dealing with the claims as they come in. If people choose not to claim, that is up to them.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Has any research been undertaken into how pensioners hear about the minimum income guarantee? Is my right hon. Friend aware that in my constituency I have worked with the churches and distributed 20,000 leaflets to everyone attending church over the past three weeks to make them aware of the minimum income guarantee? We have been struck by the number of pensioners who were not previously aware of the benefit. What research is he undertaking to see what role the voluntary sector can play in making pensioners more aware of these benefits?

Mr. Rooker: I applaud the role played by the voluntary sector all over the country and by local authorities. Central Government have, for the first time ever, run a take-up campaign by writing directly to 2.3 million individual named pensioners, almost 900,000 of whom responded. In addition, along with other forms of advertising, there was the television campaign with Thora Hird, Peter Sallis and, in Wales, Nerys Hughes, which was well received. We have done our level best to reach as many pensioners as possible, which is borne out by those who have made successful claims. The average person who made a successful claim is £20 a week better off. That is the best testimony to our efforts.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): Will the Minister confirm that 500,000 pensioners are entitled to the minimum income guarantee on the basis of the current rules but do not take it up, 400,000 families are entitled to the working families tax credit but do not take it up and 1 million families are entitled to the children's tax credit but do not take it up? The Government have only one take-up campaign that is working--their campaign on fraud. Their own evaluation shows that it has led people to believe that benefit fraud is easy to commit. We have the scandal of decent people being put off getting benefits by the sheer complexity of the system while fraudsters exploit that very complexity, encouraged by one of the most misconceived and ineffective advertising campaigns that a Government have ever undertaken.

Mr. Rooker: I am confirming nothing of the kind.I am not claiming that by directly contacting more than2.3 million pensioners, we reached every pensioner who might be eligible. However, it is the first time that any Government have ever attempted to get to the poorest pensioners in that way. They are real people with names and addresses. The figure of 500,000 is an extrapolation from a 5 per cent. survey built on figures that cannot always be checked by the Department, so I am not confirming any of the hon. Gentleman's figures.

Mr. Willetts: The Minister refuses to confirm figures that he has given to the House of Commons in written answers. Let us see whether he will confirm the following figures on the costs of his Department's advertising campaigns. He said in a written answer on 26 February that the cost of all these take-up campaigns in 2000-01 was £11 million. In another written answer on 19 March, the figure had gone up to £14 million. In the departmental

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report out last Friday, the figure had risen to £21 million. Which is the correct figure? Is not the truth that not only are his take-up campaigns useless but so are his parliamentary answers on how much they cost?

Mr. Rooker: I went back and checked the first written answer to which the hon. Gentleman referred. He did not read out the whole answer. The average cost of advertising in my Department in the four years since the Government took office is exactly the same as that spent by the previous Government in their last four years. They object to the fact that because we have got to grips with their legacy, we have needed to advertise more. We did not waste money advertising in the first couple of years. We have hardly spent a penny more than the previous Government did in their last four years of office. [Interruption.] No, I will stick to what I said. The Government contacted 2.3 million real people. Whatever the Conservatives might say, and whatever answers we might give on the best evidence that we have from statistical surveys, with the best will in the world, and without attacking the professionals, statistical surveys that have been extrapolated are exactly that--statistical surveys. They are not real people with real names and addresses. The Government went to 2.3 million real people with real names and addresses. That does not apply to the 500,000 hocus-pocus figure that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. [Interruption.]

No; that is a statistical extrapolation. It is a legitimate figure, but it is not real people with real names and addresses.

Vaccine Damage Payment Scheme

7. Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles): What progress is being made with the implementation of changes to the vaccine damage payment scheme. [154864]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley): In July 2000, we increased the amount of the vaccine damage payment to £100,000, which is a very considerable increase on the £30,000 that we inherited in 1997. Subsequently, we have made 804 top-up payments to past recipients, to a value of more than £53 million. We intend to make the remaining outstanding changes to the disability threshold and time limits for claiming a payment in a regulatory reform order that will be provided for by the Regulatory Reform Bill, which is currently before the House.

Mr. Stewart: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. It is good to hear that the Government are keeping their promise to legislate by regulation on the threshold and the time limit. Will the Government tag that regulation on to either of the two social security Bills that the House is currently considering?

Mr. Bayley: First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who led a magnificent campaign on behalf of the families of those very unfortunate people. Nothing, of course, can make up for their suffering, but we are determined to improve the payment scheme. We will get that legislation through the House using a regulatory reform order as soon as we can--subject, of course, to the House agreeing the Regulatory Reform Bill. I am confident, however, that the House will agree that measure. The official Opposition

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have already made statements confirming that they will help us to pass those improvements to the scheme as quickly as possible, and I am sure that they will honour those commitments.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): Does the Minister accept that some of those people have been waiting some time to receive that assistance, that time is of the essence, and that it is important that payments are made as quickly as possible after the orders have been passed? Will he also give an undertaking that, despite any changes, there will be no question of compensation clawback being allowed to reduce the money that is paid?

Mr. Bayley: On the latter point, provided that the victim of vaccine damage is still alive, it is possible to put the money into trust. If the money is put into trust, there would be no question of a consequential abatement of social security benefits. The vast majority of the higher-rate claims that we have received have been paid. There has been a delay only in cases in which we are going through the process of establishing trusts to achieve precisely the outcome that the right hon. Gentleman wants--to ensure that income support or other income-related benefits will not be abated because of capital being taken into account.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): I welcome the Government's commitment--which was, and is supported by the Conservative party--to ensure that there is compensation for those who are suffering from vaccine damage. However, what action will the Government take to ensure that people are aware of the availability of compensation schemes? Will they use Thora Hird and Nerys Hughes to do that? What will the Government do to ensure that the families and individuals who have been so blighted by vaccine damage can apply for compensation?

Mr. Bayley: The hon. Gentleman rather undermines his argument that there is a bipartisan approach to the issue. The current Government, not the previous one, have made a very substantial improvement to the vaccine damage scheme that has been welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Claims are made because people are aware of the vaccine damage payment scheme. Fortunately and thankfully, however, not many claims are made because very few people are damaged. However, when there is damage, payments can be made. Only recently, I announced to the House another extension to the scheme, in relation to vaccinations for meningitis C.

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