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Pension Credit

7. Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber) (Lab): What plans his Department has to increase the take-up of pension credit. [146788]

9. Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): What estimate he has made of the (a) number and (b) percentage of people who will be claiming pension credit by 2006. [146790]

The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): We have a take-up target for at least 3 million households to be in receipt of pension credit by 2006. This corresponds to around 3.7 million individuals, but we want all eligible pensioners to take up their entitlement.

I am pleased to report that 2.53 million individuals now receive pension credit. That includes approximately 486,000 individuals who were not previously receiving income support minimum income guarantee who are now receiving extra money for the first time. We have today published the latest monthly pension credit progress report, including numbers of recipient households in each parliamentary constituency in Great Britain.

Mr. Stewart : My hon. Friend is well aware that the two main barriers to claiming pension credit are stigma and an over-complicated claims procedure. What further steps is he planning to ensure that every last penny of pension credit is fighting pensioner poverty?

Malcolm Wicks: We are aware of the traditional barriers to means-tested benefits. That is why we made the application process for pension credit easy and focused on the needs of the citizen. We monitor progress carefully and published results of our customer service inquiry today. It finds that 80 per cent. of respondents were satisfied with the pension credit application line and 90 per cent. were satisfied with the overall process. I am pleased to report that 96 per cent. of telephone calls from members of the public are answered within 30

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seconds. We analyse the barriers and seek to overcome them through a pension credit that is a million miles away from the old style means-testing.

Mr. Djanogly: I notice that the Minister did not answer my question and give the figures for 2006. Is not it the case that by subjecting more than half of pensioners, which is what the figure is likely to be, to means-tested state dependency, the Government will destroy the incentive for working people to save?

Malcolm Wicks: Contrary to the hon. Gentleman's analysis, the pension credit rewards savings for the first time while targeting extra resources on the poorest pensioners and the hard-pressed, two thirds of whom are women, and many of whom are the older elderly. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the fact that now, in the early days of pension credit, 1.7 million people are gaining financially from the measure, including a significant number in his constituency.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): When disabled pensioners have a problem with pension credit or any other aspect of their dealings with the Pension Service, they sometimes go to DIAL, the disability information and advice line, for help. Whereas Age Concern and citizens advice bureaux have dedicated hotline arrangements with the Pension Service, my understanding is that DIAL does not. Will the Minister look into that and try to arrange a hotline service for DIAL? That would help disabled pensioners and might even cut the number of home visits that are necessary.

Malcolm Wicks: I shall certainly consider that suggestion. Our aim is to provide a number of ways for elderly people or their carers to access pension credit. They usually use the telephone, but if they prefer, they can fill in the application form, with which they can get help, visit an advice surgery or have a home visit.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): Is it not true that, according to the research published by the Department, only 22 per cent. of the higher income group who were asked, and 12 per cent. of the lower income group, had even heard of the pension credit? Is it any wonder then that, even on the Minister's projections, 1.4 million of the poorest pensioners will never be helped by pension credit because they will be deterred from claiming by the complexity or the intrusive means-testing, or both?

Malcolm Wicks: I reject those figures. We have take-up targets for 2006, and yet I have said that our aim is to ensure that every elderly person entitled to the credit should receive it. We are rolling out pension credit over a period, which is sensible administratively, and we still have not written to some people; we will not write to some of them until June. However, anyone applying up to autumn this year will be able to get pension credit from last October.

This is a successful piece of public administration and a decent, targeted social policy, presided over by an excellent new public service, and I hope that people in the House of Commons will start to support the pension credit, instead of denigrating it.

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Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): I recognise that the Government are doing everything possible to ensure that people eligible for pension credit get it, but I am sure that the Minister will recognise that almost half a million people were not receiving the minimum income guarantee despite being entitled to it. I realise that correspondence is scanned at Pension Service centres, but does the Minister accept that many pensioners—one came to me last week—find it confusing to receive letters from different officers in the service, because they do not understand who is dealing with their case?

Malcolm Wicks: If my hon. Friend writes to me with details, I will look at any difficulties. The fact that, in the early days of pension credit, so many people are already gaining is a remarkable testament to our Pension Service. When we enable people, some of whom never applied for the old minimum income guarantee, to apply for pension credit, we often find that we can also access their claims to housing benefit or council tax benefit, and as a result, although the average weekly gain might be £7 or £8, we find many cases of people getting £30, £40 or £60 extra as a result of the human touch used by our local Pension Service.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Minister mentioned his written statement to be published today which gives a breakdown of take-up by constituency, but what is missing is a breakdown of the targets for each constituency or, indeed, for Scotland as a whole. Will he publish those figures? Given the fact that most hon. Members are already urging all pensioners to take up their entitlement, does he feel that the Government need to be more proactive in encouraging those to whom we are not getting through, rather than simply calling on them to pick up the phone? A large number of pensioners will never apply for the credit by telephone.

Malcolm Wicks: We published estimates of entitlement for Scotland, Wales and the regions of England. Methodologically and statistically, it would not be easy to do the same, with precision, for constituencies, but I will look into that.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman thinks that we are not trying hard enough. I should have though that our excellent Pension Service running advice surgeries in every constituency and making 270,000 home visits shows that our public servants are trying very hard—and not only trying but being successful.

Housing Benefit

8. Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West) (Lab): What progress has been made in reforming housing benefit. [146789]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond): Our major structural reform, the local housing allowance, has been introduced today in the private rented sector in Coventry and Teignbridge, having already started in Blackpool and Lewisham. In the remaining five pathfinder areas—including Conwy, which covers part of my hon. Friend's constituency—it will begin in the next few weeks. The aim of the reforms is to create a

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simpler, fairer system that puts real choice and responsibility in tenants' hands—one that supports work and cuts the risk of fraud.

Gareth Thomas : My hon. Friend is right to say that the reforms will be introduced in my constituency, where it is believed that they will enable claims to be dealt with rather more speedily and fairly, as well as bear down on exploitation by some landlords. When do the Government intend to introduce the reforms in the social housing sector?

Mr. Pond: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Already in Conwy and other areas, considerable progress has been made in administering housing benefit, in part as a result of the extra investment that we are putting in to help local authorities to administer the system as it currently operates. We wish to extend the reforms to the social rented sector, because we believe that people in that sector should benefit in the same way from the choice and extra flexibility that the reforms can give, but we have to be mindful of the need to wait for further rent restructuring and increased choice in that sector before doing so. We are seriously considering the design of a scheme for the social rented sector, and we shall consult in the not-too-distant future on how to move ahead.

Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (LD): That was an interesting answer about the social rented sector, given that in their response to a Social Security Advisory Committee report the Government appeared to suggest that they were seeking a pilot or pathfinder project to test the idea. Is that the case? If so, how close are the Government to establishing a test? How on earth can the Department expect the market to be injected into the social rented sector when there is no ability to shop around?

Mr. Pond: We certainly want to pilot the scheme first—we would not move ahead in the social sector without first making sure that the design is appropriate and that people are getting extra choice and are not worse off as a result. We are carefully considering how to move ahead in the social sector, because we recognise that circumstances in that sector are very different from those in the private rented sector. The reforms must go hand in hand with increasing choice in rents in the social sector and with conditions in which rents reflect much more closely the quality, standard and size of accommodation available.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Part of the Government's reforms on housing benefit is to consider taking housing benefit away from neighbours from hell. Will the Minister confirm that in the responses to the consultation, the people who write about the issue are against the reform, whereas the people who are on the receiving end of the behaviour of neighbours from hell have all submitted evidence asking for sanctions to be imposed? When the Government make up their mind on the matter, will he weight the evidence in favour of those who are on the receiving end, not of those who merely write about the issue?

Mr. Pond: My right hon. Friend has been a vigorous campaigner, not only on the use of housing benefit

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sanctions, but on the full range of other measures that are necessary to deal with loutish and antisocial behaviour. He knows that the consultation ended in August. We are still considering the responses to it, but it is fair to confirm that those who are directly affected by antisocial behaviour want us to use every weapon that is practically available to us. We are considering whether removal of housing benefit is a weapon that we could give to local authorities to use in appropriate circumstances.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): Following the question asked by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), in May 2002, the Prime Minister told the House that housing benefit should be withdrawn from people whose antisocial behaviour is persistent. More than one and a half years later, however, all those people are still drawing housing benefit. Does the Minister not concede that on housing benefit withdrawal, spinning tough measures but not delivering them accurately describes the "totality" of the Prime Minister's intentions?

Mr. Pond: The hon. Gentleman has clearly not been paying attention to what is happening in the Chamber. We have both discussed at length and implemented a full range of measures on antisocial behaviour, showing the Government's commitment to dealing with a problem that affects almost every constituency. We are consulting—if we were not consulting properly on such a measure, the hon. Gentleman would be at the Dispatch Box criticising us for not having thought carefully about whether it was a practical measure that could work and make a genuine contribution along with our other measures on antisocial behaviour. If we are convinced that it can do so, we shall go ahead with it.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby) (Lab): Given the Government's aim of reducing housing benefit fraud significantly by 2006, can the Minister tell us how well the partnerships are working with local authorities to reduce housing benefit fraud to £250 million a year?

Mr. Pond: We have tough targets on dealing with housing benefit fraud, as my hon. Friend knows, and aim to reduce it by a quarter by 2006. Our partnerships with local authorities are working very effectively indeed. Both local government and central Government, as represented by the Department for Work and Pensions, are determined to do everything possible to stamp out housing benefit fraud, mindful of the fact that taxpayers' money is involved, and the taxpayer requires that benefit is paid to people who are entitled to it and not others. I am not suggesting that there is not more to do—there is clearly a lot more that we can, should and will do to tackle housing benefit fraud.

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