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10 Feb 2003 : Column 630continued
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith): We are committed to providing the best possible service for pensioners and the creation of the Pension Service enables us to do that. Twenty four of 26 modern pension centres have now opened, backed up by local services operating in the community throughout England, Scotland and Wales, including local advice surgeries.
Mr. Dismore : Will my right hon. Friend consider the situation at the Glasgow centre? Minimum income guarantee claimants in my constituency have been referred there since November and often have to wait a long time for an answer when they phone. Sometimes they get no answer at all or are put through to the wrong call centre. Worst of all, sometimes they are left on hold, which runs up their phone bills. That is a real concern to MIG claimants. Old age pension claimants in my constituency will use the Glasgow centre from April. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that it works properly as
Mr. Smith: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing those issues to my attention. I know that he has also written to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions. I have checked on what is happening at Glasgow and on the complaints that he has received. I am assured by the chief operating officer that its performance has been improving and in a short while will be at the fully satisfactory standard that we all want to see.
Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): Does the Secretary of State know that as a result of the grotesque extension of means-testing policies by his Government, the work load of the Pension Service in Birmingham is set to increase by something like 100 per cent.? Why does he not stand at the Dispatch Box and apologise to the House for not following the wise advice of his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), on means-testing and for breaking the Chancellor of the Exchequer's solemn pledge in 1993 that the Government would work to reduce, not increase, means-testing?
Mr. Smith: Far from apologising, I am proud of what the Government and the Labour party in office have done to help the poorest pensioners. Let us remember that the minimum income guarantee will increase to £102 for a single pensioner and £155 for a pensioner couple this April. The Government have been responsible for helping the poorest pensioners' incomes increase by 30 per cent. in real terms. The hon. Gentleman and his party should be ashamed for allowing so many pensioners to languish in poverty for so long.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): What help is the Pension Service to my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Howard of Ashbourne, who this month will have their pensions halved as a result of the Maxwell Communications fund pension fiasco? Why did it take the right hon. Gentleman's Department three years to reply to their inquiries?
Mr. Smith: If our Department has taken three years to reply to those inquiries, I shall certainly look into it and write to the hon. Gentleman, as his constituents are entitled to a better service. As for the substance of his question on the Maxwell pension fund, that is a matter between the pension fund trustees, law debenture and the members of the scheme. We greatly regret and sympathise with the position in which the pensioners have been put. The Government, for their part, have honoured in full the terms of the agreement that was brokered by Lord Cuckney and introduced under the previous Government.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): We estimate that by October 2003 about 1.8 million minimum income guarantee claims will be automatically transferred to pension credit. Between October 2003 and October 2004, we expect to take on a further million additional successful applications for pension credit. We want all pensioners to have a decent and secure income in retirement, and are committed to ensuring that all pensioners receive their entitlement. As a result of our policies, from April no pensioner need live on less than £102.10 a week or £155.80 for couples.
Mr. Waterson : Does the Minister agree that if all pensioners claimed what they were entitled to, that would have a massive effect on pensioner poverty? Does she agree with the estimate that nearly 3 million pensioners are not claiming their entitlement? Is not her Government only making the problem worse by overcomplicating the system?
Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman should realise that the pension credit vastly simplifies the way in which pensioners make claims. Pensioners will be able simply to telephone us and make a claim on the telephone once every five years, which is much simpler than the current system under which there is effectively a weekly means test. The Opposition need to get their policy straightwe are not sure whether they are against the pension credit, which gives half of all pensioner households an average of £400 extra a year, or whether they would keep it, which their spokesman, when pushed, keeps saying they will do. We are not sure what their policy isperhaps they can enlighten us.
Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): Will my hon. Friend confirm that the expected beneficiaries of the pension credit are the great many women who retire on low incomes? Will she give an assurance that she will not listen to the Opposition and tinker with that process, whether those voices belong to people who say that they want to review it, or to the Liberal Democrats who say that they want to abolish it altogether?
Maria Eagle: I agree with my hon. Friend. Fifty-four per cent. of pensioners who will gain under the pension credit will be single women, and a quarter of pensioners who will gain will be over 80. The credit will target help on those who most need it to try to eradicate pensioner poverty. If it had not been for the Opposition's time in office, we would have a lot less to do.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): Does the Minister accept that at the moment people are suffering because they are squeezed by works pension schemes that are losing their value and a state system that is so complicated that people simply do not receive the help to which they are entitled? Is she aware that three-quarters of a million people are not taking up the minimum income guarantee and that her target for 2006 will mean that 1 million pensioner households will not
Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman seems to think that he is at Treasury questions, not Work and Pensions questions. In fact, the Government have already made sure through take-up campaigns that an extra 144,000 pensioners are at least £20 a week better off. Once the pension credit starts, we will be able to ensure that that help, which is targeted on those who most need it and who were left in penury under the Tories, can go where it is needed. That is what is important about the pension credit, but the Opposition do not want to admit it.
The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown): Jobcentre Plus has comprehensive arrangements in place for identifying clients who need help with their basic skills and for referring them to appropriate learning opportunities. We are looking at ways of increasing the number of people we help. Last year we piloted a range of approaches aimed at encouraging more people to take up basic skills training. We are currently evaluating those pilots.
Mr. Sheerman : Does my right hon. Friend agree that it may be one of "Brown's blunders" that we now have the lowest unemployment that any of us can remember? That gives us a unique opportunity to tackle hard-core unemploymentpeople who need basic skills if they are ever to work again. Is it not odd that at a time when we have that opportunity as a result of the £1 billion-plus budget, throughout the country we are cutting the smaller education and training providers and going for the big onesthe ones with less local knowledge, less local contact, and in many people's view, less ability to deliver basic skills? Will my right hon. Friend look at what is happening in his Department and see whether he can make changes to favour some of the small providers?
Mr. Brown: The fact that the labour market is as tight as it is right across the United Kingdom gives us an opportunity to help the hardest to help. There can be no doubt that those who lack basic skillsthe ability to read, write and countare among the hardest to help. We should set out to do as much as we can to help those, the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens, into work. I will do as my hon. Friend asks and look at the way in which the Department chooses its providers. They are, of course, chosen in competitive tender operations and there is an audit function that checks the quality of the
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): As the Minister is aware, in many areas, including north Yorkshire, there is a growing shortage of skills, which poses a problem for the employment market. Would he see fit to do more, particularly for the over-50s who have been employed for less than six monthsfor example, by giving them IT skills, which are now essential for many jobs?
Mr. Brown: I am willing to look at what can be done, but of course there are dead-weight costs associated with some of the schemes, which the taxpayer must pay. In all provision, there is a balance between the interests of the individual whom we are trying to help, and the interests of the taxpayer.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Jobcentre Plus facilities which he has just described for the long-term unemployed will be available in Eckington in my constituency, instead of the jobcentre there being closed down? It is important that facilities be provided directly, rather than people having to move to other areas to obtain them.
Mr. Brown: I want to make sure that a full range of Jobcentre Plus services are available to all my hon. Friend's constituents. We met recently to discuss how that can be done. I am looking at proposals, but I cannot promise him today that it will be possible to keep the local facility open.