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The Minister for Pensions (Mr. Ian McCartney): As at November 2001, 3,100 pensioners in the Kettering constituency benefited from the minimum income guarantee. Those pensioners are at least £15 a week better off in real terms than in 1997. More than 2 million pensioners nationally benefit from the MIG. Additionally, this winter more than 19,600 older people in my hon. Friend's constituency received a winter fuel payment, benefiting each eligible household by £200.
Mr. McCartney: The Government have substantially increased the basic income of all pensioners. Initially, our greatest priority was to help the 2 million pensioners who did not benefit from minimum increases, whatever the rate, because for various reasons they were excluded from the basic state pension. We make no apology for being the first ever Government to find out who those 2 million people were and to ensure that they benefit from the minimum income guarantee. We have moved on to the second phase with the introduction of the pension credit; the passage of the State Pension Credit Bill resumes tomorrow. I should have hoped that the Liberals and the Conservatives would have a last-minute change of heart and support the Government in this, not oppose giving extra cash to millions of pensioners.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): After those exchanges, I am not sure whether I should offer comfort to the Minister or to the hon. Member for Kettering (Phil Sawford). Unless the Kettering constituency is highly untypicalI rather doubt it, because it is next to mine and contains some of my former constituentsit, like mine, has 1,000 pensioners who are entitled to the minimum income guarantee but are not taking it up. Is not that wholly unsatisfactory? Will not the position get worse through the additional complexities of the pension credit scheme? Will the Minister consider whether it will be possible to reach out to pensioners who are entitled to the guarantee credit or the savings credit through a pension service that is to be located far away in another county?
Mr. McCartney: If it was not for this Government, the pensioners in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Phil Sawford) and that of the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) would remain abandoned and not receive an extra £15 a week on average. In some instances, the poorest pensioners in the hon. Gentleman's constituency receive an extra £20 a week. When we discuss the State Pension Credit Bill tomorrow, he will have a dilemma, which he may as well face now: will he oppose a measure that will put an extra £2 billion in the pockets of many pensioners, especially women and people who would never benefit under the Tories' previous pension proposals? He should give a straight answer: will he frustrate the opportunity for those people to receive the £2 billion?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): Last April, we increased the earnings limit for invalid care allowance so that carers who combine some work with their caring responsibilities can keep more of their earnings. That was
Carers are also benefiting from the introduction of our new Jobcentre Plus service. A personal adviser will help carers making new or repeat claims for benefit to look for employment or training that suits their circumstances, and provide support that is tailored to their needs.
Mr. Kidney: I am grateful for those details. I shall host a conference in Stafford on Friday about care for the elderly. I anticipate that many carers will say that it should be a reasonable aspiration to balance caring responsibilities with work.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments on advisers and for saying that money for caring responsibilities will not be affected by earnings. However, there must be other support systems for those who are cared for, including out-of-school places for disabled children and daycare centres for elderly relatives. I appreciate that that extends beyond the Department for Work and Pensions, but will she bear it in mind that those matters need to be tackled as well as the steps that she has already outlined?
Maria Eagle: I appreciate my hon. Friend's point. We want to encourage carers who wish to combine caring with some sort of work, and some 30,000 recipients of ICA already do so. We hope that the arrangements that we are making with Jobcentre Plus will enable carers who wish to do that to receive the appropriate assistance and help.
On my hon. Friend's cross-government point, we must ensure as far as possible that we have joined-up services that mean something to people when they try to take up opportunities. There is no point in training people or assisting them to get to work if they cannot obtain the necessary support from social services to enable them to do that. I remind my hon. Friend that there are allowable expenses in ICA that enable those who wish to care to make alternative arrangements and pay for them without such payment being taken into account when their eligibility for ICA is considered. We do what we can about the benefits system, but my hon. Friend is right that we need to do more.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): Will the Minister look into a loophole that can affect carers who give up work to look after a member of the family who develops an illness or disability? If the disability assessment takes many weeks, carers can find themselves without both the income that they previously enjoyed and a benefit income. Local benefits offices are often not effective in helping those people to bridge the financial gap. Will the Minister consider that and encourage them to take a more enlightened view in such cases?
Maria Eagle: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point. Clearly, there are eligibility criteria for ICA, and the person who is cared for must be in receipt of specific benefits to fulfil them. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not suggest that we should take steps that would prevent us from ensuring that those who claim benefit are eligible. We need to protect against fraud and error. We must ensure that those who become entitled to benefits
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham): Does my hon. Friend accept that a large number of carerssuch as Mrs. Greenwell of Bournmoor in my constituencyare of retirement age? Will she comment on the fact that Mrs. Greenwell and others lose their carers allowance when they reach retirement age? Thousands of people are caring for their loved ones without the additional help that they previously received, at a great saving to the Government.
Maria Eagle: I am aware of the problem that my hon. Friend raises. ICA cannot currently be paid at the same time as another income maintenance benefit. This is known as the overlapping benefit rule, and it has been a central part of the welfare state ever since it was established. I cannot promise to get rid of that rule, but my hon. Friend and his constituent may be interested to learn that a regulatory reform measure is making its stately way through the House that willsubject to the House's approvalextend the possibility of paying ICA to those over 65. This will particularly benefit women who do not have full national insurance contributions, and who do not, therefore, get a full retirement pension. The measure will not, however, abolish the overlapping benefit rule. I cannot give my hon. Friend any comfort on that.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): Improving the overall performance of housing benefit administration is key to tackling housing benefit fraud, and many Members know that not all local authorities perform that task well at present. We have introduced new performance indicators to make an improvement possible.
The benefit fraud inspectorate does very valuable work on fraud, and the great majority of local authoritiessome 77 per cent.have now signed up to our verification framework, which provides a rigorous check on people's claims. In these different ways, we think that we are winning the war against housing benefit fraud, and we estimate savings so far of some £100 million.
Helen Jones: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply, and I acknowledge the work that has been done on this matter so far. Will he, however, undertake to discuss further with local authorities how we can ensure that people claiming housing benefit are actually living in the accommodation in which they claim to be living? Iand, I suspect, many other hon. Membersknow of properties that are giro drops: addresses at which people register while living elsewhere. Those people are not only committing benefit fraud but depriving others of
Malcolm Wicks: Among other things, the fact that we will not have girocheques redirected is one part of our armoury that I should draw to the attention of the House. It is also important that local authorities should make house visits, not only in suspected cases but more randomly to verify that people are living in the house that they claim to be living in.
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Is not the real test of the effectiveness of the Government's policies for dealing with housing benefit and social security fraud to be found in two simple facts? The first is that the level of fraud has significantly increased in the last four years; the second is that the number of prosecutions in 2001 was significantly less than in 1997. Is not all this exemplified by the fact that in one recent financial year, more than half of all local authorities did not bring even one prosecution for housing benefit or council tax fraud?
Malcolm Wicks: I will answer the question in a formal way, rather than responding to heckling from the Opposition Front Bench. In terms of levels of housing benefit fraud in recent years, we simply do not know. It was this Governmentnot the last onewho initiated the first proper, ongoing research into this matter, and that will enable us to report to the House on levels of housing benefit fraud. I regret to say that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) is simply wrong about prosecutions following local authority investigations. My reply to the heckler is, therefore, that he is wrong, toonot, I think, for the first time. In 199798, there were 700 prosecutions following local authority investigations; in 200001, there were 1,100. That figure has increased under the Labour Government.