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Minimum Income Guarantee

5. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): How many pensioners who are entitled to the minimum income guarantee are not claiming it. [36328]

The Minister for Pensions (Mr. Ian McCartney): As at November 2001, 1,200 pensioners in the hon. Gentleman's constituency were receiving minimum income guarantee, and 16,000 were receiving winter fuel

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payments. The latest estimate of the number of pensioners who fail to claim the minimum income guarantee is reported to be upwards of 390,000 nationally.

The research report that contains those figures warns that care must be taken in interpreting them, as they come from estimates from data that are less than perfect. We have therefore commissioned further research so that we can better identify the people who are entitled to benefits, especially pensioners.

The figures pre-date the latest MIG take-up campaign, which has had a huge response, and produced some 127,000 new successful claims. As a result, those pensioners are on average £20 a week better off.

Mr. Rendel: I am grateful to the Minister for his answer, which revealed that up to a third of all pensioners who are eligible for MIG are not currently taking it up. Does he acknowledge that his colleague in the other place recently revealed that a third of pensioners who will be eligible for the pension credit will not take it up? Does he accept that, in spite of the efforts that he and the Government have been making to increase benefit take-up by pensioners, they are not working if a third will not take up pension credit?

Mr. McCartney: That is a misrepresentation of what my right hon. Friend Baroness Hollis said in the other place. She made it clear that, at the commencement of the new benefits system, we expect more than two thirds to take it up, and we will build up that figure. That is in line with what has happened when new arrangements have been introduced previously, such as tax credits. The main point is that we are the first Government in the last three generations of Governments to do something about pensioner poverty. The Liberal Democrats whinge to deceive. They whinge, whinge, whinge. The Government have made an effort to eradicate pensioner poverty, but the Liberal Democrats have opposed every measure that we have taken, whether it be winter fuel payments or the minimum income guarantee. The truth is that they talk a good game, but it is the Government who do something about it.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): Does my right hon. Friend accept that, although take-up is not perfect, measures such as that introduced in October last year under which every fresh pension application is automatically assessed for the minimum income guarantee will help to ensure that it improves?

Mr. McCartney: The Government have never concealed the fact that the minimum income guarantee is a rough and ready measure, but it needed to be taken and 2 million pensioners have been lifted out of poverty as a consequence. I am not going to apologise for that. Why should a Government who are taking 2 million people out of poverty apologise for it?

We made it clear that the interim measures would be replaced by the pension credit, which, for the first time since the creation of a national pension system, will give pensioners a minimum income guarantee and pay them a reward for saving too. Under the current system, thrifty pensioners who save lose out, but the new system will

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ensure that we deal not only with poverty, but with those pensioners with small savings who lose out—a good deal for all pensioners under this Government.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): As the minimum income guarantee, like so many Government credits, depends on means-testing, by what date will the Government achieve the aspiration set out by the Chancellor when he said:

By what date?

Mr. McCartney: By October 2003, the introduction of the pension credit will mean that new pensioners coming up to claiming their—[Interruption.] I am answering the question. Unlike Opposition Members, I do not have to spin. I tell it as it is.

By October 2003, for the first time, pensioners claiming their basic state pension will claim for the pension credit at the same time. This Government are targeting pensioner poverty, not pensioners. As a consequence, 2 million pensioners have already been lifted out of poverty—and, I may say to the hon. Member for Wycombe(Mr. Goodman), pensioners were pushed into poverty by the last Tory Government.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): Despite all the success of the Government's measures in recent years in trying to tackle pensioner poverty, I know from the former mining communities in my constituency that many pensioners still feel reluctant to claim the minimum income guarantee because they worry about the stigma attached to it. What further practical measures can we take, especially in former mining communities, to ensure that every pensioner is lifted out of poverty by claiming the minimum income guarantee?

Mr. McCartney: I also represent a mining constituency. The winter fuel payment and the creation of the new pension service and the pension credit are designed to assist retirement pensioners, including those abandoned bythe last Conservative Government in the coalfield communities. In addition, we are working with the National Union of Mineworkers pension trustees to improve basic pensions from the mining fund. It is important that all those building blocks are put in place and we must also improve investment in services in local mining communities, which older people use more than others. Pensioners' income, environment and social and health care are all getting big investments under this Government, and they will continue to get big investments.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): Will the research to which the Minister referred look at take-up in areas such as Wales, the north of England, Scotland, Cornwall and Northern Ireland? If, as I suspect, it shows that the deficiencies of the minimum income guarantee are more apparent in those regions, what steps will the Government take regionally and nationally to increase take-up?

Mr. McCartney: The research covers the whole country. This Government are concerned about and interested in pensioners wherever they live in Britain. The purpose of the new pension service is to maximise

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Government involvement with pensioners and their organisations, so the research will inform us on how best we can work more closely with those organisations and on take-up campaigns over the next few years. That is the focus of the new pension service.

Equal Opportunities

6. Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden): What recent studies he has undertaken to identify the obstacles facing women returning to work. [36330]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown): Research commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions has identified four main constraints that affect women who want to return to work: child care; ill health and disability; a lack of relevant skills and work experience; and housing costs. The Government have several measures in place to alleviate those problems, including the national child care strategy, and the introduction of more than 1,000 lone parent advisers in our jobcentres.

The Government recognise the part that employers have to play in encouraging a healthy work-life balance, in addition to our own campaign on that. We also know that women from ethnic minority groups are much less likely to be in employment. Next month, we are introducing a new service in five areas to reach out to people from ethnic minorities, who face a disadvantage in the labour market.

Siobhain McDonagh: Will my right hon. Friend comment on Opposition Members' assertions that the Government's plans to increase maternity pay and leave will make it even more difficult for women to continue in work?

Mr. Brown: I do not think that that is right. Indeed, employers themselves stand to benefit: if only 10 per cent. of those who currently do not return to work stayed in work, the savings to employers on recruitment costs would be about £39 million. We have also extended relief for small employers. About 10,000 firms are now entitled to recover 100 per cent. of the payments, and they also get an extended contribution to cover the costs.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Is the Minister aware that the vast majority of workless lone parent households are women-led and that his new deal for lone parents has proved an abject failure, making it more difficult for women to return to work? That, plus the obstacles that the Government are putting in the path of women claiming pensions, is making it more and more difficult for women in the workplace.

Mr. Brown: The first part of the hon. Lady's assertion is of course correct—the majority of lone parent households are headed by women—but I do not accept that the new deal for them is a failure. In fact, it has had substantial successes. Moreover, there is no alternative—a phrase that will no doubt echo with her. The fact is that, if we want to abolish child poverty and enhance the

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income of lone parent households, by far and away the best way of doing it is to get them an income from work rather than leaving them dependent on benefits.

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North): A major obstacle to moving from benefit to work, especially for single parents, is the loss of the free school meal entitlement. Is my right hon. Friend aware of any moves to extend that entitlement to recipients of working families tax credit?

Mr. Brown: I cannot make an announcement now, but I am aware of the issue. The most commonly asked questions are about the effect of returning to work on people's housing benefit and on council tax rebate, and for single parent households with a substantial number of children, school meals are clearly an important factor. We are considering what more can be done, but I cannot make an announcement yet.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Is the Minister aware that, in addition to the list that he enunciated, which is clearly right, many women of a certain age would like to go back to work but cannot do so because employers discriminate against them because of their age?I appreciate that it is extremely difficult to do anything about that, but will he assure us that he takes the matter seriously and tell us what steps he has taken to alleviate the situation?

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman is right: there are still discriminatory practices, often based on subjective perception and not rationally founded, against older people, including those who seek to return to work. Older people have a great deal to contribute. I often discuss the matter with private sector employers. The many services provided by Jobcentre Plus are, at least in part, available to older people who want to return to the labour market.

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