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House of Commons

Monday 4 March 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Attendance Allowance

1. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): What recent assessment he has made of the take-up of attendanceallowance. [36324]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): There has been an increase of 21 per cent. in the number of people aged over 65 receiving the extra cost benefits since 1996.

As eligibility for attendance allowance depends on the effects of an impairment on a person's care needs, not on the existence of an impairment per se, it is difficult to predict the right level of take-up among the over-65 population.

Vernon Coaker: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. She will know that this is a most important benefit, and that although there is much concentration on the take-up of the minimum income guarantee the take-up of attendance

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allowance is often not discussed so much. Will she consider whether the new pension service can signpost older people towards ensuring that they claim attendance allowance? In particular, will it focus on the fact that attendance allowance has not only a lower rate but a higher rate, on which significant numbers of people may miss out unless they are properly informed and advised?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend makes some interesting points. The number of people who claim successfully is increasing. In fact, there is evidence to show an upward drift from the lower to the higher rate. In 2001, 47 per cent. of those on attendance allowance received the higher rate, whereas in 1996 the figure had been only 42 per cent. We are always trying to make it easier to claim and to encourage take-up. Our Bristol office is today beginning a three-month trial of a shorter form—16 pages, instead of the current 34—for over-75-year-olds.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): I am very relieved to hear that, because I spent the weekend before last filling in two of the forms—one was 12 pages long and the other was 18 pages long—for a 91-year-old constituent. I went to four universities and found them hard enough to fill in—and I am under 65. I do not know how the Minister expects someone over 65 or 75, let alone a 91-year-old, to fill in the forms. Has she ever tried?

Maria Eagle: I could have saved the hon. Gentleman the trouble, because he would be eligible only if he was over 65—he clearly is not, so he will be turned down. There is always a difficult balance to strike with the size of the form. The important thing to remember is that we are not testing whether people have a certain condition or impairment; we ask them what effect the impairment has on their care needs. [Interruption.] I must speak up—I am sorry to be so short. The form must give our customers the opportunity to let us know the effect of the impairment on their care needs. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that we are trying to get that difficult balance right. The general trend recently has been to decrease the size of the forms, which we hope will continue.

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Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons why people, especially elderly people, do not take up attendance allowance is probably that many of them think that it is income related and therefore worry about it affecting their minimum income guarantee, income support or other benefits? Perhaps we ought to try harder to make it clear to them that it is not income related.

Maria Eagle: I hope that everyone can hear me now. My hon. Friend makes another important point, related to the point made by hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) about the pension service. We hope that the pension service will be able to signpost elderly people more coherently towards their eligibility for this benefit. Some 20 per cent. of new claims are unsuccessful, so an awful lot of 75 and 85-year-olds—

Michael Fabricant: And 91-year-olds.

Maria Eagle: Yes—and 91-year-olds fill in long forms but end up not getting the benefit. We hope that the personal and tailored service that the pension service is designed to give elderly people will enable us to be much clearer in advance about those who are likely to be eligible for the benefit and to ensure that people do not fill in the long form to no purpose.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth): Does the Minister accept that the take-up of attendance allowance in Scotland will be substantially reduced shortly, as a result of the United Kingdom Government's shameful decision to withdraw some £23 million of attendance allowance from those who will qualify for free personal care? Are the Minister and her colleagues prepared, even at the eleventh hour, to reconsider that unjust decision?

Maria Eagle: Unsurprisingly, the hon. Lady is wrong. We are not withdrawing any benefit from anybody in Scotland. What is happening there is a result of policy choices made by the Scottish Parliament and has nothing to do with eligibility. We have not changed eligibility for attendance allowance in any way whatsoever. The Scottish Parliament and Scottish policy makers need to take into account the effect of their policy on people's benefit entitlement.


2. Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): What steps his Department is taking to improve work opportunities for carers. [36325]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): Last April, we increased the earnings limits for invalid care allowance so that carers who combine some work with their caring responsibilities can keep more of their earnings. The earnings limit will now be increased regularly in line with changes to the lower earnings limit. However, ICA is not designed to be an in-work benefit. Carers are also benefiting from the introduction of our new Jobcentre Plus service. In pathfinder areas, a personal adviser will

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help carers who are making new or repeat benefit claims to look for employment or training that suits their circumstances and provide support to them.

Dr. Palmer: I very much welcome my hon. Friend's comments. Does she agree that there is still a problem with income support and carers allowance, because, above a fairly low level, the benefit is withdrawn, pound for pound, if the carer takes paid work? Does she agree that a policy review would be in keeping with our policy of encouraging people to take at least part-time work where that is possible?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend refers to the interaction between different benefits. People on income support lose their eligibility if they work more than 16 hours a week, as such work is full-time. He should remember that the income support carers premium is payable only to people who are receiving ICA, which, as I said, is not an in-work benefit. Eligibility for ICA depends on spending at least 35 hours a week undertaking caring responsibilities. However, as the average length of time spent on ICA is, I am told, two to four years—I do not quite understand why it is not three years—we are keen to ensure that recipients can stay in touch with the labour market.

The ICA earnings limit is intended to allow carers to undertake part-time work. My hon. Friend should also remember that the earnings limit is calculated only after allowable expenses, which might include tax, national insurance contributions, half of any superannuation payments and help with the disabled person's cost of care, are taken into account. In practice, therefore, someone on ICA can earn much more than £72 a week and retain their entitlement to that benefit.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): Last week, I was visited by a constituent who is looking after her daughter, who has ME, but is working and is obviously over any of the limits that my hon. Friend described. What help can she expect? She is clearly saving the taxpayer money by looking after her daughter at home, and it would cost the taxpayer a great deal more if her daughter moved out and lived independently. She is obviously looking for some help from the Government. Can they give her any help at all and reward her for looking after her daughter at home?

Maria Eagle: The assistance that we could give would depend very much on the individual circumstances of my hon. Friend's constituent. I would be perfectly happy to make some suggestions if my hon. Friend wants to write to me and we can get a full account of those circumstances. ICA is not primarily an in-work benefit and the rules on earnings are intended to allow people who have to undertake at least 35 hours a week of caring responsibilities to keep in touch with the labour market and gain some part-time earnings. There may be other benefits or tax credits from which her constituent could gain some advantage, so if she would care to write to me with the full details I shall look into the case.

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