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Pensions (Payment)

4. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): How many pensioners currently use a pension book. [146785]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond): The number of pensioners using an order book is 5.3 million, about 500,000 fewer than the number receiving benefits and pensions direct into an account.

Mr. Heath : That is 5.3 million pensioners who have chosen to use the order book and, if my constituency is anything to go by, many of them would like to continue to use their order books either for their own convenience or to support their local post offices. At the moment, when the Government contact them to ask them to change, they are given three options, but they are not told about the fourth option—the fourth way—which is the exceptions service. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us why that is and whether those who do not sign up for the alternatives before April 2005 will automatically be entered into the exceptions service so that they can continue to use their post office?

Mr. Pond: The hon. Gentleman will realise that people are choosing direct payment of their own volition. Nine out of 10 pensioners already have an account into which their pensions or benefits could be paid, and the numbers moving to direct payment have been moving in that direction for some time. We are fully committed to the Post Office network, which is why we have invested £2 billion in it. We are also fully committed to saying to people that they can continue to receive their benefits and pensions on a weekly basis at the post office and to supporting the Post Office in extending the range of banking services available in its outlets. We are developing an exceptions service for the small minority of people whom we expect not be able to open or operate a bank account, and I am talking to the bodies that represent those groups to see how best we can design that service to ensure that everybody receives pensions and benefits when they are entitled to receive the payments.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend elaborate on his plans for delivering that service via his partner, the Post Office, when in my constituency and other urban areas, the Post Office proposes to close local outlets and make it impossible for anyone to get to them to claim their entitlement except by using a taxi? Does he intend to deliver it house to house as I suggest?

Mr. Pond: I repeat to my hon. Friend that we are fully committed to making sure that there is a full and comprehensive network of Post Office outlets, and that is why we are making the investment—the £2 billion overall and the £450 million to ensure that we do not have unnecessary closures in rural areas. However, I have to say to him that requiring all our customers to continue, often against their own choice, to be paid by giro or by order book is the not the solution for the future of the Post Office network. We need to make sure that we can support the Post Office in its attempts to build links with financial services industries to ensure

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that a wide range of financial services are available in post offices. That will be the future of the post office network, not the order book or giro.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) (Con): I think that I heard the Minister say that just over 5 million pensioners receive their pensions by going to the post office whereas slightly more than that—I think that he said 6 million—do not. I do not understand how he can therefore say that 90 per cent. receive their pensions in the other way.

Mr. Pond indicated dissent.

Sir Sydney Chapman: I am sorry, I have misunderstood the Minister. The Government are currently writing to people. Although I realise that they have probably written to only about 1.5 million pensioners, have not almost a third of them not replied? Is he taking it that those who have not replied are registering acquiescence or an objection? I mention that only because although I do not want to be patronising, elderly people sometimes get confused and fixed in their ways and thus need special consideration—and I declare an interest.

Mr. Pond: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his humility in saying that some people can get confused and fixed in their ways. I shall clarify the situation for him. I said that 90 per cent. of pensioners already have a bank account that would be suitable for the receipt of pensions or benefits. In countries such as Holland and Australia, 99 per cent. of pensioners and others receive their payments directly into a bank account. I will not join him—if this is what he is suggesting—in saying that our pensioners are more likely to be confused or less able to operate a bank account than those in other countries. We recognise that a small proportion of pensioners and others will not be able to open or operate a bank account and we are ensuring that they will have an alternative service so that they can get their money on time with dignity and independence. I hope that he will join me in overcoming confusion among some pensioners and others about the idea that the only way to get their money at a post office is through the Post Office card account or an order book. A range of bank accounts is available at post offices, and the future of the Post Office partly depends on us getting that message across to people.

Pension Credit (Watford)

5. Claire Ward (Watford) (Lab): How many pensioners in the Watford constituency are receiving pension credit. [146786]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): As at 31 December 2003, there were 2,364 households in the Watford constituency, comprising 2,735 individuals, receiving pension credit. That is a 31 per cent. increase over the number of recipients of minimum income guarantee in Watford, and the average payment is £48.65 per week, which is more than £7 more than that from minimum income guarantee claimed.

Claire Ward : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I am pleased to hear that there has been an increase in

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take-up, but does she agree that it is likely that a number of pensioners in my constituency are still not accessing pension credit? What can she and her Department do to encourage pensioners in Watford and throughout the country to take up the pension credit?

Maria Eagle: As my hon. Friend knows, we have undertaken a range of activities to encourage people to take up their entitlement. The latest customer satisfaction survey on our pension credit application line shows that 90 per cent. of those who contact us are satisfied with the application process and that 80 per cent. find the application form clear to understand. The key thing is to get those who might be eligible to pick up the phone and make contact with us. I know that my hon. Friend is active in that respect, which is shown by figures illustrating the increasing numbers of people taking up pension credit in her constituency. All that I can do is urge her constituents—and anyone's constituents—who think that they might be eligible to pick up the phone and call us. We have already received 1.84 million calls to the application line and there is a high level of satisfaction with the service that it offers. I urge anyone who might be eligible to pick up the phone and apply for pension credit because the money to which they are entitled is theirs.

Pension Service

6. Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Whether all pensioners who request a home visit from the Pension Service will receive one. [146787]

The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): Where someone requires a home visit, we aim to provide one. Pensioners will have that option, but in reality the vast majority of queries will be dealt with swiftly and effectively without the need for a home visit, usually on the telephone. I am pleased to report that latest figures show that in Hereford, which of course covers the hon. Gentleman's constituency, 2,621 visits were made to elderly people in the period January to October last year and an impressive total of 270,000 visits have been made nation wide by our local pension services.

Mr. Wiggin : That does not cover my constituents who live in Worcestershire. Why did the head of the Pension Service say:

How could she be so wrong?

Malcolm Wicks: If the hon. Gentleman has evidence—not conjecture—that people are not getting a home visit, he should write to me and I will ensure that elderly people get such a visit. As I said, the principle is clear: if people want a home visit, they will get one. The fact that 270,000 home visits have been made—I think that that figure will surprise hon. Members on both sides of the House—shows that the arrangement is working and is an important part of the Pension Service.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Pension Service in Northampton on its outstanding work, not just on home visits, but with voluntary organisations,

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including Age Concern, to target the small groups in need and to ensure that pensioners receive their pension credit? I know that he is aware of the particular problem in Northampton with the interpretation of the housing benefit rule and its impact on those in receipt of pension credit. What is he doing to clarify that specific issue?

Malcolm Wicks: I much enjoyed my visit to my hon. Friend's constituency the other day, including talking to the local Pension Service and elderly people. The principle for those on pension credit with a guaranteed element is that they have full access to housing benefit and council tax benefit. The fact that some receive just the savings credit element is taken into account with regard to pension credit. Overall, however, people are gainers as a result of pension credit.

I thank my hon. Friend her for her kind words about the Pension Service. Most hon. Members want to back public service rather than get on the back of public servants who are doing a good job.

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