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Standing Committee A
Thursday 25 April 2002
[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]
The Minister for Pensions (Mr. Ian McCartney): On a point of order, Mr. Griffiths. I want to make a correction to the Hansard report of the fourth sitting of the Standing Committee on 18 April. I said the right words and Hansard took the right words down, but somewhere in the transposition there was a slight mix-up, which significantly changes what I said. I do not attach any blame to this. These things happen when millions of words are being transcribed every day.
In relation to amendment No. 25, I gave some examples of the types and treatment of income that will be relevant to the calculation of pension credit. These do not appear to have been reflected correctly in the Official Report, so I thought that it would be useful if I set out our intentions in that important area. Specifically, column 127 indicates that war disablement and war widows' and widowers' pensions will be subject to a full disregard. That is incorrect—they will be subject to a £10 disregard. However, as stated, the whole of any war widow's supplementary pension, paid in addition to the normal pension to certain pre-1973 war widows, will be disregarded.
In addition, the Official Report indicated that matrimonial maintenance payments, working tax credit and employer's sick pay would be subject to a £10 disregard. They will not, and all income from those sources will be relevant to the pension credit calculation. I would like to apologise to the Committee for any confusion that those inaccuracies may have caused, but I hope that I have clarified the position.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Further to that point of order, Mr. Griffiths. We readily accept the Minister's explanation of the confusion that has arisen, but I want to make two further points. First, if such confusion can arise, it is perhaps a function of the complexity of the matter, so one can imagine what might happen during a telephone conversation between a pensioner and the Pension Service.
Secondly—perhaps somewhat stretching the point of order—despite our political differences, hon. Members of all parties have some affection for the Minister, so we would like to wish him a very happy birthday. In the circumstances, I am sure that he would not want us to pull our punches or give him anything other than a hard time, but we will respect the spirit of his birthday and hope that he thoroughly enjoys it.
The Chairman: I am sure that we can endorse that from the Chair.
Mr. McCartney: I just want to say how pleased I am with those remarks. As the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) knows, usually when I am in
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Committee, it is either my birthday or I become a grandfather again. The Committee was delayed because of the Easter recess, when I did become a grandfather again, for the eighth time, and when the Committee was sitting the other day it was my granddaughter's sixth birthday, so it has been a happy week for me. I hope that the jollities of today will not be reflected in the answers that we are yet to hear, but I thank the Committee very much—the drinks are on the Chair.
The Chairman: Thank you very much.
New clause 1
'(1) Regulations shall provide for the circumstances in which any individual seeking advice with regard to the state pension credit may receive that advice.
(2) Such regulations shall provide that such advice shall be—
(a) available on a face-to-face basis;
(b) provided by a suitably qualified person;
(c) available either at home in specified circumstances or else within a reasonable travelling distance of home;
(d) provided within a reasonable period of time.'.—[Mr. Webb.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
We tabled the new clause to give the Committee an opportunity to probe the Government about their intentions with regard to the Pension Service. Our central tenet is that the pension credit is a complicated benefit, so pensioners will need a lot of easily accessible and good advice. The new clause sets out some of the criteria by which we might judge whether the service provided to pensioners is good enough.
We suggest that there should be regulations, setting out the quality and type of service that people who want to know about pension credit can expect to receive. Subsection (2) lists some of the features of what we would consider to be decent standards of advice. Paragraph (a) suggests that advice should be available ''face-to-face''. It is not meant to undermine the Minister's assertion that pensioners want the option of contacting the Department by telephone or that many would find it more convenient. We do not have a problem with that. We want to ensure choice. The telephone is great, if that is what pensioners want to use, as is the internet. However, we believe that there should be a statement of their entitlement to ask for advice face to face. It has been suggested that face-to-face advice will be available, but it would help if we had a little more clarity about that.
We have listed further qualifications under paragraphs (b), (c) and (d). Paragraph (b) provides that the advice should be given by a ''suitably qualified person''. At the moment, pensioners who are unsure about pension entitlements and income support can go to the Benefits Agency office because, somewhere in the building, there will be someone who understands pensions. The division between Jobcentre Plus, which is for people of working age, and the Pension Service, which is for people of pensionable age, will result in the number of people in the Benefits Agency who
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know about pensions diminishing to nil. For the first year or two, pensioners will be told, ''Fred in the back office, who used to work in pensions, will know something about it. Go and see him.'' My worry is that in five years' time, once that segmentation has taken place, and because those who want an immediate face-to-face interview will have to go to a Benefits Agency or Jobcentre Plus office, such expert advice will no longer be available.
Paragraph (c) is about home visits. We have been given assurances by the Minister that people will be able to have a home visit if appropriate. On the face of it, that is excellent news. Some of the people involved are very frail and elderly, and may be disabled, and a home visit would be the best and only way to help them. However, it is not clear—again, it would help if the Minister could place it on the record—how absolute is the right to a home visit. We cannot have 5 million of 10 million home visits; it would not be practical. Will all those who say, ''I'd like you to come to me,'' get a home visit? Will they have to satisfy a disability test or a test of competence? Will discretion be allowed?
One can imagine a constituent telephoning the constituency office and saying, ''I want someone from the Department for Work and Pensions to come and see me about pension credit.'' However, the answer may be, ''I am sorry, but we don't have enough people to make all those house calls. You will have to come to us because you are obviously fit enough and well enough to do so.'' What will be the nature of the entitlement? Will people be entitled to a home visit, or will it be done at the service's discretion? How pushy can pensioners be if they are told that the office is fully booked for the next few weeks and that they need to visit the office?
Paragraph (c) mentions also a ''reasonable travelling distance''. The danger is that although the Department might say that pensioners could be given advice face to face, it might be available only at major regional centres. For those living in rural areas, a requirement to go to a city centre might not be good enough. The Minister has said that face-to-face advice will be available, but how far will people have to travel to get it?
John Mann (Bassetlaw): What does the hon. Gentleman mean by ''reasonable''? It is a vague word; how does he define it? It would assist the debate if he were to be more precise.
Mr. Webb: We have not yet reached paragraph (d), which provides for a ''reasonable period of time''. I get the impression that the travelling surgeries that the Department is talking about—the Age Concern session at the local library or sessions at the citizens advice bureau or the council office—may be held less often than weekly. I hope to clarify those matters. If we were dealing with the successor to income support, the poverty line safety-net benefit where people are not intended to go even a week without the bare minimum income, a delay of more than a week would be unreasonable.
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I do not want the new clause to be too prescriptive. I want to probe and to see what is offered. However, I wish to raise two other issues about the Pension Service. Listening with care to both Ministers, one starts to capture their vision. It sounds really good, and I am sure that all members of the Committee welcome the idea of a proactive service. We have tabled amendments to other Bills saying that the onus should be on the Department to seek people out and to ensure that they get all that they are entitled to, and they have always been rejected. In the past, the argument has been that the onus is on the individual; it is not the Government's job to get benefits to people, but the people's job to claim benefits. I hope that I shall not be misunderstood if I welcome the reversal of that ethos to the extent that the Pension Service has reversed it.
However, my worry is how we are to get from the present culture of not always being proactive or clear to the promised land that the Minister has described. I reflected on that last night when I came across a letter that I had received from the Pension Service. It was on plain paper—I assume that the new letterhead has not been printed yet—and included this fragment of a sentence, from a decision maker at Bristol East Pension Service:
''We should not chase up capital details if the capital is under £5,500''.
Fair enough, but it continues:
''user case controls should be set to box on annual reviews that do not need to be carried out until the system has been upgraded.''
User case controls should be set to box? I have read that half a dozen times and I do not have a clue what the letter means. I will not name the individual who wrote it; that would be unfair. My point is that there is an existing culture, a bureaucracy—