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Benefit Take-up

12. Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): What discussions he has had with pensioner organisations about initiatives to inform older people of their eligibility for pensions and benefits. [3587]

The Minister for Pensions (Mr. Ian McCartney): My Department, in partnership with organisations working with older people, is developing a series of initiatives designed to encourage take-up of the minimum income guarantee, including an information leaflet about the guarantee which has been available since the beginning of September. From today, when people claim their retirement pension, we will ask them questions to see whether they are entitled to the minimum income guarantee as well.

Mr. Tynan: I thank my right hon. Friend for the information that he has given, particularly about people going into retirement. I am sure that many hon. Members, like myself, have pensioners in their constituency who are failing to receive their entitlement, especially the minimum income guarantee. I suggest that additional resources are made available for a benefits check to target existing pensioners. That would assist in identifying those who are entitled to the minimum income guarantee and ensuring that they receive it.

As part of his campaign, will my right hon. Friend visit Hamilton, South so that we can make sure that my constituents are exposed to the best possible publicity and receive the benefits to which they are entitled?

Mr. McCartney: Following a request by my hon. Friend and his local council leader, I have agreed to go to his constituency on 8 November to discuss the pensions strategy and our wider plans for older people. [Laughter.] I do not know why hon. Members are laughing. Is that not what Ministers are supposed to do—go out and meet our fellow citizens? The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) used to jeer when 2 million pensioners could not get a penny out of the last Government and were living in absolute poverty. This Government are going out to find those 2 million pensioners and give them their entitlement, which they were denied by the hon. Gentleman's party when it was in power.

I can tell my hon. Friend that we are improving uptake and increasing the resources devoted to that. Secondly, when the pensioner credit becomes available, all pensioners aged 65 and over will, through a new pension service, be invited to participate in a discussion so that

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we can ascertain immediately whether they are entitled to the pensioner credit. Some 5.5 million pensioner households will benefit from that policy.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): A little while ago, the Secretary of State spoke, quite rightly, about employers' prejudice against people with disabilities. Does the Minister agree that there is also employer prejudice against people who are older but below pension age? What steps is he taking to ensure that businesses employ people under 65, who have something very valuable to offer, thus taking them off benefits?

Mr. McCartney: If that is the hon. Gentleman's job application to the new leader of his party, I will take it up on his behalf.

The Government are very committed to working with employers to eradicate age discrimination. We will legislate by 2006 to prevent such discrimination in the workplace. In the meantime, through our code of practice and the national "Age Positive" campaign, which works with employers, significant numbers of older workers are returning to the work force for the first time in many years. A range of employers who would normally make workers redundant because of their age are changing their practice. In addition, advertisements that discriminate on the basis of age have almost disappeared. We have given employers a warning that there is only a short time before such adverts cannot be used.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman does find a place on the Conservative Front Bench before he reaches the age of 75. If he has not done so by 2006, he will be able to use legislation introduced by this Government to do something about it.

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): One of my constituents recently lost her partner in a car crash. He had two pensions: an occupational pension, which will pay my constituent a pension, and a pension from the Teachers Pensions Agency, which does not recognise unmarried partners. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to encourage the TPA and other public sector pension organisations to recognise unmarried partners?

Mr. McCartney: This is a tragic case. There is a meeting today to discuss such issues with the Department. There has been a Government strategy across the public sector in order to try to improve pension arrangements. Changes could include the potential for additional contributions from those in the scheme. However, areas of discrimination are being addressed, and I shall write to my hon. Friend about the matter following the discussions.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): Will the Minister confirm that pension organisations are very worried that older people will not receive their benefits if they cannot cash giro cheques at their local post offices? There is much uncertainty about the Government's plans for a universal bank. I hope that the Minister will today end that uncertainty by answering three specific questions. First, is the universal bank proposal still on track? Secondly, has the Department been asked to take the lead in a review of the universal bank proposal? Thirdly, how many benefit claimants do the Government expect to open universal bank accounts? Following his rather cavalier answer to

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the question asked by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy), it would be helpful to receive real answers and not be referred to a chart.

Mr. McCartney: First, the universal bank is going to happen. Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is overseeing the programme. Thirdly, thank goodness we are a Labour Government. If the Tory Government had still been in office, there would not only be no universal bank but no post office for people to go to.


13. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): What plans he has to enable the hardest-to-help unemployed people find work. [3588]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown): The range of new deals helps disadvantaged groups to move from welfare into work. We are increasing the number of action teams for jobs and extending employment zones, which help people in the most deprived areas. The sum of £40 million has been allocated to the progress-to-work initiative, to help unemployed drug users, which will start early next year. Further funding is also being arranged through the new deals to pilot further specialist help for others, including homeless people and ex-offenders.

Brian White: As my right hon. Friend will be aware, in a city such as the one that I represent, which has benefited from the ONE pilot scheme and where unemployment is now less than 1 per cent., employers are having to recruit from as far afield as Nottingham and Derby. There is a small group of people who employers will not employ, even though they have been through most of the options that the jobcentre can provide. Such people have lost out on national vocational qualifications and so on, and cannot gain employment even in areas such as ours. Will the Minister ensure that, under new procedures and when Jobcentre Plus is rolled out, the plight of that small but vulnerable group is addressed and that there is more flexibility in the system so that they do not lose out further?

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I passionately believe that we should not overlook a group of our fellow citizens who are disadvantaged in the labour market. It is the role of the second wave of new deals to help such groups, and we intend to do so regardless of changing labour market circumstances.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): To follow the question asked by the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), does the right hon. Gentleman agree that some of the most difficult people to get into employment are those who live in very rural areas and that the biggest single impediment that they face is transport—to either employment opportunities or vocational training? Will he speak to his colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills to make it easier for people to get to vocational training centres where public transport is not available? Will he reject the present moped scheme restrictions,

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which do not include large parts of my very rural constituency simply because people live in towns—towns where there are no vocational training opportunities?

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman is right that there are special features to social exclusion in rural areas. There are a range of reasons for that. It is too simplistic to say that it is just about transport problems, although they are clearly part of it. It is the Government's hope that a more proactive approach—through Jobcentre Plus and action zones where they apply—will carry with it a range of local flexibilities that are tailored to address precisely the problems that the hon. Gentleman identifies.

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David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): My right hon. Friend may be aware that one of the 15 pathfinder Jobcentre Plus programmes is in my constituency, in Greenock. Does he agree that to tackle residual and long-term unemployment it is important not only that the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency work together, but that all the other agencies in the field, chiefly the Inland Revenue, the careers service and local authorities, also work in partnership?

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is essential that public services work across departmental boundaries toward a common objective—helping those who are most disadvantaged in the labour market.

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