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Mr. McCartney: I hope that we can dispose of this item reasonably quickly, as we debated it for a considerable time in Committee. The next group of amendments, dare I say, contain more meat and are of a higher quality. At the risk of upsetting the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), his amendment has no merit, but I shall come to that in a moment.
The hon. Gentleman first raised these issues in Committee, when he said that convicted prisoners should continue to get the benefit of pension credit. We therefore nicknamed his amendment the Ronnie Biggs amendment. Such was the embarrassment of the Conservative party that it quickly dropped that argument and had to find another reason for tabling such an amendment. It has now found one, and has introduced the Costa del Sol amendment, which I shall deal with quickly.
In Committee, the hon. Gentleman gave me an A for the clarity of my explanation of why the amendment was not only unnecessary, but worked against pensioners, but I only got a C for its acceptability. Having listened to his contribution today, I have to give him a triple X for acceptability, as I am even less persuaded by it than I was by his argument in Committee.
The main effect of the amendment would be to allow a person who went abroad for more than four weeks and had his claim for pension credit closed to pick up where he left off. Any remaining assessed income period from his previous claim would be restored upon reclaiming, so changes in his circumstances would be ignored. The amendment would have the same result when someone lost entitlement to pension credit on going to prison or, in certain circumstances, as a consequence of hospital downrating.
The hon. Gentleman perceives an unfairness in our proposals because he believes that pensioners who can travel abroad may be inhibited from doing so. To use one of his examples, a person may receive a windfall, perhaps after the death of an elderly relative, which makes them much richer. They may continue to live in the United Kingdom and benefit from both pension credit and the windfall gain for up to five years. He contrasted that with someone who goes to another country and, upon their return, finds that they are no longer entitled to pension credit.
Opposition Members have tunnel vision, and need to look at the bigger picture. We are not ignoring lottery wins and other windfalls during the assessed income period because we think people in such a position need pension credit. We are doing so because we want to reduce intrusiveness for all recipients of pension credit. We can live with ignoring individuals' good fortune for the sake of simplifying the system for the overwhelming majority of pensioners, but we should not extend that generous treatment to people who reclaim pension credit because their previous claim rightly ended, whether as a result of going abroad or for some other reason. We must ask questions anyway, if only to be sure that the claimant is who they say they are, rather than an imposter taking advantage of someone's absence.
I know what the answer would be if one asked a typical pensioner in the street whether he would like to retain the weekly means test, in order to avoid some perceived hardship to a handful of pensioners who had had a windfall and who could afford to travel abroad for months or even years at a time. The answer from the vast majority of pensioners would be a resounding no.
In any case, it is more likely that a person who has been abroad for some time will have a lower income stream, having used up savings, rather than a higher income from, say, winning the lottery. That is where the hon. Gentleman's case falls down. When people go on holiday, they are using their capital, so it is more than likely that they will come back with less income. Having paid for their holiday and taken their spending money with them, they are eating up their capital all the time that they are away. They have, presumably, not gone to Spain or any other country to work, but to enjoy themselves. It is therefore in the pensioner's interest that a reassessment is carried out.
As I said in Committee, it may be in the claimant's interest for a full assessment to be carried out on his return from a protracted absence, as people are more likely to win than to lose out. People who have been abroad for some time are more likely to have a lower income stream because they have used up part of their savings than they are to have won the lottery in Spain. I do not know what the odds are for winning
The hon. Gentleman did not dispute my assertion that people who have been abroad for some time are more likely to gain from a full assessment than to lose out. The only people who stand to gain from the amendment are those who have some unforeseen increase in their finances, such as a lottery win or some other windfall, since their pension credit award and who go abroad for more than four weeks. It is not clear why this group so concerns Conservative Members.
As I explained in Committee, we intend to limit strictly the number of changes in circumstance that will require reassessment of income, but we believe that protracted absence abroad is one such instance. We also think it right that where a pension credit claim closes, it closes. It is entirely consistent to undertake a full assessment on a new, fresh claim.
It must be right that while simplifying the system for the benefit of pensioners, wherever possible we simplify administration too. I do not see how one can reconcile this important factor with holding closed claims in some kind of suspended animation, to be re-awakened at some unspecified future time, which may or may not occur.
The same arguments apply with regard to loss of entitlement to pension credit as a consequence of hospital downrating. I remind the House that it was the present Government who increased from six weeks to 13 weeks the period for which a person may be in hospital before having his benefit downrated. People in receipt of the pension credit will be able to retain entitlement to up to eight weeks on temporary absence abroad, as the hon. Gentleman said, for children's treatment.
People who travel abroad to receive national health service treatment will be considered still to be in Great Britain for the duration of that medical care. Ministers recently agreed that people who receive pension credit, income support and jobseeker's allowance who travel abroad for NHS-funded medical treatment will not be subject to the time restrictions on temporary absence from Great Britain. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman and will enable him to withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to the Minister for that reassurance at the end, which represents some progress. I was disappointed by some of his earlier remarks. When he started attributing to me the title of the amendmentthe "Ronnie Biggs amendment"which he himself had used to ridicule it, I knew that we were in for trouble and some lack of understanding.
In arguing for the amendment, I was making the point that there is an inherent inequity between a person who travels abroad and receives a windfall and is then reassessed for pension credit or disqualified, and somebody who remains in the UK, receives the same or even a larger windfall and is untroubled. The Minister explained why that is the case, but the inequity remains.
I am even more troubled by the possibility that a person may feel inhibited, or there may be accusations that a person feels inhibited, from travelling round the European Union by the structure of the benefits system and the disqualification from certain benefits. That does not fully honour the spirit of mutuality of benefits that is beginning to be introduced in Europe.
However, these are complex issues and the Minister has tossed me a very small bone in relation to downrating, which is helpful. I do not want to be churlish and I shall not seek to press the amendment to a Division. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
', except that that part of a claimant's hourly earnings that is equal to the rate of the National Minimum Wage shall be disregarded'.
'but shall in no circumstances include income derived from or calculated as income implied by any compensation fund (whether or not written in trust) administered for the benefit of any claimant for state pension credit in connection with a settlement of a claim on behalf of that person arising from industrial injuries or medical negligence.'.