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3.19 pm

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): I welcome this debate on an important subject for older people in Wales, where 60 per cent. of pensioners live at the minimum income guarantee level—on or below the poverty line—and where the health of pensioners is worse than in the rest of the UK. It does not take an analyst of genius to link those two little facts.

My concern is the centralisation of the Pension Service at the pension centre in Swansea, the perceived lack of a local service from local officers and the problems that have been reported to me with the Welsh language service. I met officials from the Pension Service a few weeks ago to discuss these matters, and personally found them helpful and committed to delivering the best service that could be managed. I do not, of course, hold those individual officers responsible, but the centralisation of the Pension Service in Swansea is by its nature a bad idea for Wales, given the geography of our country and the difficulties of communicating between north and south. I fear and suspect that we will continue to see a complication of the service, which will make it much worse. I am not saying that the problems at Swansea are unique—I would not be surprised to learn that similar problems exist at other pension centres—but it is the only one in Wales and is our national pension centre. As a result, its problems are a national problem in Wales.

The problems with the pension centre are exemplified by a number of cases, and I hope that I am not being unnecessarily negative by examining the problems, which have been raised in my constituency surgeries. First, I want to mention the problems faced by Mrs. Williams of Porthmadog at the start of year. It took a one-woman campaign on her behalf to secure her pension. After five months of continual phoning, writing and calling the local office, she finally secured the pension. I hope that my intervention also helped her to some extent. It seemed to me that Swansea was unable to cope with the case, despite all the phone calls and the help of the local office. Mrs. Williams is a very determined person and someone who likes a certain degree of formality, as do many older people. She found it very difficult to deal with a different person each time, and she would have liked to call officials Mr. Jones or Miss Hughes—she found it difficult to cope with Dave referring to June, Jane, John or Joe. It is a small matter but an important one for some older people. As I said, she has managed to secure her pension and has received compensation from the special unit in Newcastle. She should not, however, have had to go all that way over five months to secure what should have been a straightforward matter—her own pension.

The second case is that of Mrs. Harding from the community of Aberdaron, a small village at the very tip of the Llyn peninsula—about as far away as one can get from Swansea. People in Aberdaron would say that they live centrally, however, and that it is Swansea that is far away. I suppose that it depends where one starts. Mrs. Harding's pension, which used to be paid directly into her bank, disappeared. After a good deal of phoning around and phoning Swansea she was told that it had

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disappeared because she was dead. She was not dead—she was phoning them up. It took a large number of phone calls from her and from me, and letters from me, to restore her pension. I was told—the Minister might like to respond to this matter later—that when someone is registered or entered as dead in the computer system, it is very difficult for the computer to reverse that categorisation. I wonder whether a Lazarus programme could be devised to rectify that.

Again, after a lot of trouble, Mrs. Harding has received a substantial compensation payment from Newcastle. I think that she would have preferred to have her pension paid directly into her bank properly—

Mr. Webb: And bereavement benefit.

Hywel Williams: Perhaps.

I want to refer briefly, given the pressure of time, to two other cases that were brought to my attention this week by a constituent who is an ex-Department of Social Security official, Mr. Ken Jones of Llanberis. The first was of a pensioner who had tried repeatedly to get through to the Welsh language line in Swansea. I should explain to hon. Members that there are two lines in Swansea—a Welsh language line and an English language line—both of which are very helpful at times. The person concerned found it very difficult to get through to the line in Swansea, however, and told Mr. Ken Jones that he suspected that the official eventually phoned from home rather than from the centre, as he apparently heard children playing in the background. Mr. Jones tells me that that would never have happened in his day at the DSS. Perhaps one might look back fondly on one's previous career, but he has a valid point.

Mr. Jones told me that he often contacts the Swansea centre himself, and he feels that the officials there have to refer to someone else for an opinion rather too often, instead of giving an opinion directly. He also refers to Swansea being at the further end of Wales, and to the fact that the centre workers speak Welsh with a pronounced Swansea accent. He stated that some elderly people have despaired and have turned to the English language. I should tell the House that I tried to get the number of the Swansea pension centre today from our wonderful new directory inquiries system, and I was unable to do so. I eventually got through to a local office in Swansea, which gave me the number. It was the number for the English language line, however, even though I had begun the conversation in Welsh. I suppose that those are the complexities of running a bilingual service, but I would have hoped that the Pension Service would have ironed them out.

The last case, which was again referred to me by Mr. Ken Jones, was of a widow who waited for payments for five weeks after her bereavement, and who then received a giro rather than an order book. Again, Mr. Jones referred me to earlier practice, whereby that person would have been paid very promptly rather than having to wait for five weeks.

I can appreciate that this centre, like other centres, has teething problems. The consequences for individual payments and individual pensioners, however, are serious. Even if the majority of claimants get a first-class service, some do not, which is a matter of concern to me and to other hon. Members, as the effects can be

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disastrous. The point that my constituent, Mr. Jones, makes is that a system that was based locally would not have led to such problems. I know that there is a facility for local support and local visits. Is the Minister satisfied that that system is working? Will he tell us what provision exists for monitoring and reviewing the quality of the service from pension centres generally, and specifically from the telephone service in Welsh and English from Swansea? I fear that the complexity of the system will lead to problems, and that the complexity of the telephone system will lead to a disincentive to claim.

On that point, I refer, finally, to the question asked by the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) about whether the Government will set specific take-up targets for pension credits for Wales, Scotland and the regions of England. I would be very interested to know that.

3.28 pm

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): This has been an important debate. We have covered issues ranging from the closure of care homes and the pensions crisis to the burden of council tax. Those are matters of concern to all of our constituents, but of particular concern to many older people throughout Britain.

The debate was opened expertly and powerfully, as we would expect, by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow). I will not spare his blushes by mentioning that this morning The Guardian described him as one of the most knowledgeable and effective politicians on older people's issues. He demonstrated this afternoon why he has attained that reputation.

My hon. Friend highlighted the crisis of closure of care homes. He drew attention to the fact that when a care home closes, those who have lived there have less security of tenure than a council tenant or someone living in rented accommodation. Yet that elderly person can be at their most vulnerable point in life. In some tragic and extreme cases, that disruption can be fatal. My hon. Friend was right to say that in the past 15 months, 13,000 care home places have been lost. That is unacceptable. The Government's amendment to the motion is woefully complacent and inadequate in suggesting what might be done in the circumstances.

The Minister for Pensions, who spoke to the Government amendment, has a history on some of the issues that we have discussed to which I shall refer later, always assuming that he has wandered back into the Chamber by then.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) referred powerfully to the human cost of post office closures, which is another issue of particular concern to older pensioners. She referred to a number of her constituents who will struggle to an alternative post office when their local one is closed. She said that the exercise of walking to the local office is good for them and that the visit is sociable, but that when the local post office is closed, a lifeline will go with it.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) was right to say in response to our concerns about the burden of council tax on pensioners that there is a council tax benefit, but he failed to say that that means-tested benefit has the lowest rate of take-up

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of any benefit. More than 1 million pensioners fail to claim their council tax benefit entitlement and, therefore, it is an inadequate safety net. Rather than have an unfair and regressive tax inadequately corrected by a failed, means-tested benefit, we would prefer a tax that relates fairly to ability to pay.

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