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Lord Higgins: Members on this side of the Committee have accepted that a considerable amount of extra money will go to people with the same pension; we do not dispute that fact. However, the point that I am trying to make in the present context is that a large number of extra people will fall within the means testing system. That is not open to dispute. No doubt the Minister can give us the exact figure. If it is 5 million, or whatever, compared with the present number of those subject to means testingnamely, over a million or less than 2 millionallowance must be made for the number of staff engaged in the process if the take-up target is to be achieved. We are simply asking whether it is the case that the number of staff will be increased proportionately.
There is a serious point behind this argument; indeed, I sometimes take on this point with my noble friends sitting behind me. If one uses such words, they can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because pensioners will not claim the benefit if the language used suggests that this is about means testing, charity, invasion, and so on. We are trying to promote a language of entitlementfive-year assessments and targetingby which we can remove stigma and increase information. In future, I trust that noble Lords will join me in seeking to achieve the same objectives.
Amendment No. 66 seeks to ensure that when customers approach the qualifying age for pension credit, initially age 60, they can get access to informationor "a benefit check", as the noble Baroness describes it in the amendmentabout entitlement to pension credit. Like the noble Lord, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising the issue. It is a key question and reflects precisely the sort of world that we want the Pension Service to deliver.
I do not need to repeat the steps that we propose to take, but the Pension Service will play a key role in ensuring that pensioners receive the entitlement that is due to them. We intend to provide a dedicated service for pensioners using modern technology, whether by phone or through the Internet, by post or by face-to-face contact. We aim to give pensioners a better service in the future by providing accurate information to help them make decisions about their future pension provision.
Many pensioners have told us that they prefer to make contact with us by telephone; indeed, about 75 per cent seek to do so. Business will, therefore, normally be done in that way. However, we shall offer alternative ways to do business with usfor example, by post, by e-mail, by face-to-face contact through our local service, including home visits, if necessary. We shall seek to do all we can to ensure the appropriate take-up, as mentioned by the noble Baroness. Obviously, the simplest way is by telephone. Most pensioners now feel comfortable with that form of contact.
The local service will also work closely with other locally-based organisations to provide information on the full range of local services of interest to pensioners through outreach and visiting activity. This will be made up of two key elements: direct local services provided by Pension Service staff; and partnership
For customers approaching state pension age, the Pension Service will seek to establish entitlement to pension credit when we are dealing with their state retirement pension. They will be offered the choice of either telephoning the Pension Service and having an agent fill in the claim form for them, after which it will be posted to them for correction. Alternatively, they can request a claim form and complete it themselves. Exceptionally, if one of our customers is unable to use our telephone, postal or e-channels, a Pension Service visiting officer can go to his or her home to establish entitlement.
We are trying to do all we can to reach out: we are working with Age Concern and Help the Aged to ensure that they have sufficient information to promote take-up. A key element is involving them in the development stage of our information products, such as forms and leaflets. I have seen some of the early drafts of the latter. I can assure the noble Lord that they are much improved. I am rather cross with myself because I did not bring examples with me today. I could have shown them to the Committee. As I said, they are much better, but they are still not the glossy, simple and easy-to-read forms that we want to see as our final outcome. We need to test these forms with experts to ensure that they meet pensioners' needs; and that is what we propose to do.
Ensuring that everyone who might be entitled to pension credit actually receives it is a top priority of the Pension Service. We have designed the new service and the benefit to be accessible and customer friendly. For that reason, I hope that Members of the Committee will agree that the noble Baroness's amendment is unnecessary. We are working both locally and nationally with organisations and local authorities. We are devising new forms and extending the telephone service, which, where appropriate, we are backing up with a home visiting service. I believe that nothing will be left undone as a result of our activity.
In conclusion, perhaps I may bounce this with the Committee: step one will be to convert existing pensioners on MIGthe 1.7 millionover to pension credit; step two, from spring onwards until 2003, will be the general advertising for other pensioners of the benefit to be paid from October 2003; and, thirdly, step three will be writing to all pensioners directly from October 2003, with claims backdated to that dateand that will include those likely to be entitled. I am so pleased to see the noble Earl, Lord Russell, in his place. He will be pleased about the final step. Finally, we are undertaking extensive research to ascertain what obstacles there may be in the way of those who, though entitled to the benefit, are failing to claim, as well as
I hope, therefore, that Members of the Committee agreeI certainly believe itthat the department is making the most extensive efforts possible to ensure that those pensioners who are entitled to it see for the first time a reward for their own savings which would otherwise be lost in the generosity of our MIG payments. I am sure that the Committee will recognise that we are reaching out in ways that are unprecedented.
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts: Before the Minister sits down, will she confirm the number of additional staff? Did I hear a figure of 800? Will that be sufficient to cover the 5 million people who will be entitled to this benefit and provide the service that has been referred to?
Lord Skelmersdale: Before the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, decides what to do about the amendmentI am sure that the answer will be to withdraw itperhaps I may ask the Minister a question. She said that many of the investigations and much of the "commerce" between the department, pensions offices and individual potential claimants will be by telephone. Does she realise that for many people on many occasions the use of the telephone is a very frustrating exercise? Will ringback be available?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am delighted to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, to our deliberations. I thought I was missing something. It is very nice to see him. I do not have a clue about ringback. All I can say is that it was quite a shock to me, when dealing with the Child Support Agency, that that number was among the 10 family-friendly numbers on which a discount was available. I shall see whether the same applies to the Pension Service.
Baroness Barker: I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for his correction. I believe that I made an error. However, I was not alone in doing so. Others have come to the same conclusion about the Government's figures regarding take-up. I realise that an unprecedented number of noble Lords are present to hang on my every word. I shall endeavour to be as brief and succinct as possible.
I hear what the Minister says about the ways in which the Pension Service will work, and in particular the ways in which it will work at local level. I decline to say too much about the detail as I do not wish to stray into areas where I have a conflict of interest.
The Minister used the word "entitlement". Based on the Government's previous research on income support, the more a benefit is seen as an entitlement, the higher the claims are. The way in which the Pension Service operates must reflect "entitlement". If it does not, it is an expensive and wasteful exercise.
I could stray into a number of other areas, but I shall not. However, I want to raise a point about language and about black and ethnic minority elders. I should like to know whether we are talking about 800 full-time staff.
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