State Pension Credit Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Brazier: I shall give just one example of the myriad difficulties of means-testing 5 million pensioners: how is income to be treated? The Secretary of State may announce at the Dispatch Box, ''We said all along that income from work is going to be treated the same way as income from pensions'', but if the assessment is only five-yearly and

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the pensioner is doing a job in which the income varies sharply from week to week, how on earth is income from work to be treated? That question was asked repeatedly in another place at Committee stage and was never answered.

The Chairman: Order. The question of assessment of income comes later in the Bill.

5.30 pm

Mr. Boswell: I bow to your strictures, Mr. Atkinson. Indeed, I was drawing my remarks to a close. The essential point, which goes wider than the Department for Work and Pensions, its Ministers and its policy, is that it is all very well to want things to happen—I would not deny that Ministers have a passion for them to happen—but we must get on with the job of checking that they work. If they do not, we had better level with everyone and think of a better way of doing it. We proposed the report framework so that there would be no doubt in the minds of Parliament about what is happening, what could and what needs to be done to improve matters, and whether Ministers have the will to do it. That is a basic prerequisite for putting the policy in place. That is an important part of our case.

Mr. McCartney: Under the guise of the amendments, we have had an interesting general debate on the reporting of take-up, women, lack of incentive both to save and to make long-term savings in the private sector, means-testing, the Pension Service, and language and other services for those with special needs.

I do not wish to stray on to the subject of clause 3. You are quite right that issues have been raised which come up in later amendments, Mr. Atkinson, but I am not trying to dodge questions. We are here to answer questions and to be accountable. If the hon. Member for Northavon permits it, I shall write with the answers to his questions. If I address my letter to the Chairman, every member of the Committee can have a copy. I can scoot into the Library or trouble you to photocopy it for them, Mr. Atkinson. I shall do that as soon as I can.

Having listened to Opposition Members for the past hour or so, I must say, so that we do not get too depressed, that on top of the 3.9 million pensioner households that gain from pension credit, another 700,000 households that will not receive the credit will gain from changes to housing benefit, council tax benefit, and the way in which capital is treated; higher applicable amounts will follow from the changes. This is still a good news story, but no one would think so from listening to members of the Committee.

Having created a massive pool of poverty, Conservative Members stick their heads in the sand. Up pop the Labour Government, and suddenly there are ways of resolving the problem. The matter is complex and difficult; we cannot simply write away poverty, and we cannot make changes to a complex pension and benefit system without difficulty. Simplification of the state benefit system and pension policy is a very complex thing indeed. One of the first

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and most enduring lessons I have learned as the Minister for Pensions is how complex changes are, even when it seems right to introduce them.

Whatever happens when we challenge, change and modernise the benefit and pension systems, and whatever the relation between the public and private sectors—we have a very mature relationship in this country—none of us thinks that the changes themselves are not difficult. However, if we add to that the creation of a new Department, for the first time identifiably offering services for children, working age people and older people—bringing together 130,000 people who had never worked together before and galvanising them into new departments and agencies from 1 April—and if we add the new pension credit and other modernisation strategies, including the £1 billion plus investment in new technology to ensure that the scheme works even more effectively over time, we face a big challenge. I accept and understand that.

I also accept that the House and other institutions, such as those that represent older people, are entitled to scrutinise us and hold us to account. After all, the Department is not just providing a service for more than 1 million people a day. That service is paid for by taxpaying citizens and we have a responsibility to them. I do not duck any of those big issues—neither the complexity of the situation nor the need for us to be accountable. I shall come on to that in a moment.

I reconfirm that we are aiming for a take-up rate of 67 per cent. of eligible households during the first year to October 2004. That will mean that more than 1 million more pensioners will receive additional financial support than currently do under MIG. That in itself, as a first stage in the development and rolling out of the policy, is a major operation. Some 1 million more will be helped than are helped under MIG, and 2 million are helped under MIG who did not previously get any support. For the further hundreds of thousands who have had no support through council tax benefit or housing benefit, this is a major change, bringing more than £2 billion worth of benefit to older people.

On take-up, the hon. Member for Northavon is right that we could argue till the cows come home about interpreting figures, but we must have figures to interpret. I do not think it sensible to say that the figures look partisan—although I make partisan remarks, so I take such things on the chin—or that Ministers somehow rubbish their own figures. That is not the case. Ministers receive independent advice. The taxpayer pays for that advice and we are the custodians of it. It is not the case that that advice is given at any stage in a partisan way or in an attempt to influence anyone. It is therefore important to look from time to time, as we move forward, at the way in which take-up figures and other figures have developed.

We must get that right, so that social or any other type of policy can develop in a scientific way. There must be facts. That is more important in the area of poverty than in many other areas. Utilising figures should not be a yahoo game. The figures and information concerned must be seen from a non-

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partisan viewpoint. There must be a rigour to the research, a willingness for those whom the research is about to participate in it and a transparent analysis of that research. We should all operate on those principles, and that has not always been the case. I do not mean that the previous Government fiddled unemployment figures. However, it is important that those who create the figures are independent. This Government have brought about that independence. There must also be transparency.

It is important to get the figures right. That is why, some months ago, we and the Secretary of State had discussions with those who compiled the figures. Increasingly, they have said, of their own volition, that the figures on pensioners have been slightly unreliable, to say the least. The areas of tolerance are huge and growing, to such an extent that the figures are difficult for politicians, social scientists or those who represent pensioners to interpret.

It is important to get that matter right, so we are putting resources into developing ways of getting more accurate information, making the information transparent and encouraging older people to be involved in the research. That is a lesson for us all. If we are to have accurate information, older people must have the confidence to participate and we must encourage them to do so. In the end, the information must be of a nature that can be utilised to their benefit. Therefore, we all have a job to do. We must also come up with a better way of giving access to information on a regular basis.

I am enthusiastic about take-up; it is important to maximise it. In order to do that, the following measures will be taken. We will publicise the pension credit from April 2003 so that its availability is widely known among the eligible population. We will transfer existing MIG recipients to the pension credit, ready for payments to be made from October 2003. During the take-on period through to October 2004, we will write to all pensioners who are not already receiving MIG to alert them to their possible pension credit entitlement. Any who apply before October 2004 who are entitled to a credit will have payment backdated to October 2003. It is important to make that clear.

During that period, we will also work with local partners to help with communications to pensioners, and we will constantly review take-up and tailor our marketing and communications activities accordingly. We will review take-up during autumn 2004 to plan further necessary activity.

Earlier in the debate, when I was asked by the hon. Member for Daventry about having discussions between Members and officials in the run up to the introduction of the pension credit, I said that I would write to them in a positive way. If it helps, in addition to that and as part of the process, I am happy to take ideas from Members about their locality and generally about the way in which they would like us to develop pension credit take-up services and our campaign strategy. I would welcome that.

Mr. Boswell: I welcome the Minister's tone. The matter is important, and I stress that we have a common interest in ensuring that things work as well

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as they possibly can. Will he particularly bear in mind the importance of non-governmental organisations such as pensioner groups and other groups—he has already given them credit—not merely in facilitating the Pension Service, if not acting as delivery agents, but in providing ideas and examples of good practice to the Pension Service?

 
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