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I am aware that whenever one talks about take-up, one faces two battles. The first concerns statistics. Whatever statistics one quotes about people who do not take up benefits, there are always those who say, "Ah, but there are those who do not claim the benefits simply because the result will be such a minimal change that they feel it is not worth while. They may know about the benefits but they do not claim them." There are others who say that one can never do enough because, however much information one gives, there are those who simply choose not to claim benefits.
I have been active in spreading the word about take-up of benefits over the last 20 years, during which time I have worked happily as a volunteer for the CAB in various capacities. I declare my interest as I am currently president of my local CAB. I would like to bring to the attention of noble Lords some projects which I hope the Minister can say will continue in the foreseeable future.
One can give assistance by way of direct grants, by seconding personnel and by use of technology. Through making grants one can issue more and more leaflets; one can translate them into more and more languages; one can issue them in Braille and use other means of making them accessible to people with disabilities. All of those measures are welcome. One can have benefits buses travelling the countryside giving information at various points to facilitate easy access for people with mobility problems.
Here I enter a special plea in another guise, as spokesmen on agriculture, that one should never forget the needs of those who live in rural areas, not just those who live in the Highlands and Islands and in Wales, who experience special difficulties. In the rural areas of England, travelling, even if you are able bodied, may be difficult, particularly if you have two or three children in tow under the age of five. Life can be extremely difficult even if you are making every effort to keep yourself well informed.
The DSS and the Benefits Agency have already made great strides and I hope that they will continue to do so. On a visit to the Aberdeen Benefits Agency office two years ago, I was delighted to learn that one member of staff was being seconded to the local citizens advice bureau and vice versa; somebody from the CAB was going to the Benefits Agency. It was the intention that they should break down the barriers of misunderstanding between the two organisations by learning how each other operated, what their objectives were and how better to serve the claimants in the area.
I have seen the work done in the district offices of the Benefits Agency; they act as customer service officers--people who often feel that they are at the end of the line when the Benefits Agency hands out funds within the district. I make a special plea that we should continue the fight, as we did when we were in government, to make sure that the Benefits Agency properly recognises the work that these customer services officers do. I have seen them, for example, in Portsmouth working closely with representatives of local charities to bring information from them to individuals to make sure that they claim the benefits to which they are fully entitled.
There is then the issue of technology. Last week I moved an amendment in regard to computers. I said then, and I say again, that I welcome the use of information technology whenever possible when it is to the benefit of the claimant. I welcome the development of touch screens. Where we are able to work in partnership with the Benefits Agency, local charities and local authority organisations to produce touch screens, we should welcome that opportunity. Some local offices have worked closely with CABs and other organisations to provide basic facilities such as direct fax lines so that they can easily exchange information.
I should like to add a caveat. When the Government increasingly refer in the area of social security and other policy areas to increasing use of the Internet on which to post information, will they please bear in mind that there are those in this country who will never have access to the Internet? Even if they have access to a local charity, that charity may not have access to the Internet. Therefore I hope that we do not produce a situation in this country where we have the information rich and the information poor. I made that plea last year in a debate on information technology. That argument will continue to be relevant in future years.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, raised the issue of fraud. When one encourages take-up, one also faces the problem that some people will not claim because they think that, if they claim, they will be put alongside all those who are targeted as being fraudsters, and they do not wish to be considered in that way. It is a problem that we have all faced. In a debate on 12th November 1996 the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and I pointed out that there is a danger for government in stressing how important it is to combat fraud. This Government have continued our battle against fraud. The noble Earl said that combating fraud leads to under-claiming. We should look with equal intensity for people who ought to be receiving benefit and who are not doing so.
I support the amendments. I hope that when the Government continue the fight against fraud they will bear in mind those who need to claim and who should not in any way feel discouraged because they might be associated with those who claim wrongfully.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: The aim of Amendments Nos. 127 and 128 is to require action to be taken to inform people of their possible entitlement to benefit. I suspect that this may be one occasion on which I also speak for the noble Earl, Lord Russell, when I say that I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, is on our side on the issue of take-up. Her colleagues in a previous incarnation resisted a great many proposals in regard to social security. I am delighted to see a meeting of minds.
Baroness Anelay of St. Johns: The Minister has been here longer than I, but I have read Hansard and I am aware that my noble friends in the past have always wished to encourage those who are entitled to benefits to claim them. But, as I recognised in my comments, I know the problems of government in encouraging benefit take-up. My noble friends who occupied ministerial office, I am sure, have made the point at the Dispatch Box that the Minister now occupies that one would always wish to encourage benefit take-up where there is entitlement but not in cases of fraud. If the Minister can point in Hansard to where my noble friends have stated that people who are entitled to benefit should not be allowed to claim it, then I would be delighted to read that.
As a result, while I entirely support the sentiment behind the new clauses, I hope to persuade the Committee that, given the action the Government are taking, it is not necessary to include them in the Bill. I hope the Committee will listen to what I shall say about take-up, which was never addressed, even in warm words, let alone practical terms, by the previous administration. Even the noble Baroness will accept the distance that has been travelled by the Government and the department. The Government are already starting work to find out what it is possible to achieve in terms of identifying people entitled to benefit using data-matching techniques. When I moved an amendment to that effect in opposition, it was rejected by your Lordships and the Government.
Our priority in this work is the situation which arose under the previous administration, namely, the fact that 1 million pensioners are not claiming their income support entitlement was ignored. That is possibly the biggest single group experiencing disentitlement--in other words, failure to take up benefits--of any of the client groups. That will not be allowed to continue under the Government. We believe that all pensioners should share fairly in the increasing prosperity of the nation. We have a manifesto commitment to examine means of delivering help automatically to the poorest pensioners. We are already delivering on that commitment.
Within a few months of taking office we commissioned research to find out why those pensioners do not claim their entitlement to income support. As I am sure the Committee will agree, it is important to gain an informed view of a problem if one is serious about tackling it. The research will help us to ensure that the help available is targeted efficiently and effectively at those who need it.
But we are doing more than that research project. Starting today, as I said earlier, we are running pilot projects in nine areas of Britain to find the best ways of identifying and getting help to the pensioners who are not taking up their income support entitlement. That work is testing the effectiveness of data-matching between computer systems in practice. We are spending some £15 million on the pilot projects. The noble Baroness made a point about rural areas: two of those projects are in rural areas--Stroud and East Renfrewshire. We are serious about getting help to those pensioners quickly and want to see whether rural areas have additional, more difficult or different problems in comparison with their urban counterparts.
While we are taking immediate direct and new action to help the poorest pensioners get their income support entitlement, we would encourage anyone who thinks they may be entitled to a benefit to make a claim. We have already taken steps to put across that message.
For example, one of the first jobs, to my delight, on coming into this post, was when last May and June we informed all MPs, GPs, welfare rights organisations and relevant trade unions of the new, more generous rules governing industrial injuries disablement benefit which will make it easier for coal miners suffering certain diseases to receive the benefit.
We have taken specific measures--again, a new step--to increase awareness of family credit. As part of the New Deal service, lone parents are given advice about in-work benefits which may be available to them. That, of course, includes family credit. The intervention, the New Deal, also ensures higher take-up.
I turn now to Amendment No. 128 in the name of my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley. The noble Baroness's concerns arise, I know, from her outstanding achievements on behalf of carers via the Carers National Association. I am sure she would welcome the tributes that the Committee would wish to pay to her organisation and the valuable contribution that carers make. It is especially important that they should be aware of potential benefit entitlement.
Carers may be entitled to invalid care allowance if they are looking after a severely disabled person for a substantial period each week. "Severely disabled" means being in receipt of attendance allowance or disability living allowance care component at the middle or highest rate. They are complex benefits which can take some time to determine, largely because of a need to obtain further evidence. If carers delay making their claim until one of those qualifying benefits is in payment, they may not be able to have it backdated as far as they would wish. The ideal time for them to claim is when the disabled person puts in a claim for one of the benefits I have mentioned. I understand that the noble Baroness seeks to ensure that carers are alerted to the possibility of claiming invalid care allowance at the earliest possible moment. That is absolutely right and I wholeheartedly agree that we must do everything we can to achieve it.
What we cannot do is to make the two benefits run simultaneously, because caring responsibilities may well follow, in terms of rules of entitlement to ICA, several months later than the person moving on to DLA, which triggered that entitlement, would wish. If the Committee wishes, I could enlarge on the point, but I am sure that my noble friend will understand the point very well.
I hope the Committee will be reassured to know that officials are looking at ways of alerting carers in just this way by giving them the information in the relevant claim packs. In addition, as we have just discussed, the Benefits Agency is committed to improving the service by improving information available about benefits, providing better access to help and advice about benefits, and streamlining the claims procedure.
We have already discussed other measures taken by the Benefits Agency to make sure that people have access to clear, helpful information about benefits. The amendments require the Benefits Agency to do something it already has a responsibility to do and is
Amendment No. 127 also seeks to require a formal report to Parliament every year of the steps taken to improve the take-up of benefits. The Department of Social Security already produces an annual publication giving estimated take-up levels for the income-related benefits. I have here the publication, which I am sure many Members of the Committee will recognise and already use. In addition, Ministers have kept and will keep Parliament fully informed of the initiatives taken to promote take-up by the various needy and vulnerable groups being targeted. The Committee would think poorly of me, in view of my concern over the years on the issue and that of many Members of the Committee, if I were not to bring such information to the House at the earliest possible opportunity, as we progress. I hope that in my reply I have met the substance of the noble Earl's amendment and that in the light of those commitments the noble Lords and the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, will feel able to withdraw their amendments.
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