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House of Commons

Monday 7 June 2004

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


2.34 pm

Mr. Speaker: I regret to have to report to the House the death of Mr. Jim Marshall, Member for Leicester, South. I am sure that Members on all sides of the House will join me in mourning the loss of a colleague and in extending our sympathy to the hon. Member's family and friends.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): How many people were registered as recipients of either disability, incapacity or sickness benefits (a) on the most recent date for which figures are available, (b) in 1999 and (c) in 1994. [177310]
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The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith): In 1979 there were 690,000 people of working age claiming incapacity benefits. By 1994 there were 2.23 million and by 1997, 2.56 million. In 2003 there were 2.68 million. I have placed information on all the benefits about which the hon. Member asks in the Library.

The numbers of people coming on to incapacity benefits are down by more than a quarter in the past seven years, but we still need to do more, which is why we started the pathways to work pilots. I am pleased to note that the hon. Gentleman's own constituency is included in this innovative approach.

Sir Teddy Taylor: The Department's statistics, confirmed by the Library, show that, over the last five years, there has been an increase of 531,000 in the number of people securing disability living allowance or incapacity benefit. As that figure involves a 20 per cent. increase in DLA, does the Secretary of State feel that there is a case for an inquiry to find out why there has been such a huge increase, particularly as there can be implications for other statistics? When we see such a huge increase, it is important to find out why it has happened. I should greatly appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's help in establishing exactly why there has been an increase of 531,000 in this short period.

Mr. Smith: The on-flows on to incapacity benefit are down sharply over the last seven years, by some 260,000 a year. The hon. Gentleman should draw a distinction between incapacity benefit and DLA, which is non-means-tested and paid to people in work, as well as to those out of work, to meet the extra costs of their disability. I would have thought that he would join me in celebrating the fact that people who need that help because they are disabled are receiving it. Sometimes the Conservative party is quick to criticise us for the lower take-up of benefits. Perhaps, on this occasion, the hon. Gentleman will think again about criticising us for the higher take-up of a much needed benefit.
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Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will know that one third of my constituents of working age are on incapacity benefit, a phenomenally high figure. Does he believe that the role of GPs in, effectively, giving people a passport to benefits for life is in serious need of review?

Mr. Smith: We are reviewing these matters and learning from the pathways to work pilots, which also operate in my hon. Friend's constituency. We have established much closer partnership working with GPs, primary care trusts and those involved in training and voluntary service support for sick and disabled people. The early evidence from the pilots is that a lot of people are being helped into training and work rather than incapacity benefit, including in my hon. Friend's constituency.

Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (LD): The emphasis from the Government on pathways to work and on the pilots is welcome, but will the Secretary of State acknowledge the regional dimension? Is he aware of the recent work by Steve Fothergill—an academic at Sheffield university—and others, which shows clearly that if the economies were stronger in south Wales, the north-east and Clydeside, up to 1.2   million claimants could be taken off incapacity benefit? What are the Government doing to address the regional dimension of the problem, in addition to the individual attention that, rightly, is being given to people in the pathways to work pilots?

Mr. Smith: I am aware not only of regional disparities but of the progress that is being made in the different regions. When one looks at the labour market statistics as a whole over the past seven years—during which we have put 1.9 million extra people into jobs—it is striking that unemployment has fallen furthest in the areas where it was highest. That does not mean that there is not more to do, and through the pathways to work pilots—which are in some of the very areas to which the hon. Gentleman referred—we will be making inroads into what has become a culture of incapacity in those areas. That must change, and I believe positively that it will.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): I hope that we have not spotted another Tory leak—about plans to take benefits away from the legitimately ill. Surely the test here is what would have happened in the past to people with such difficulties and how many of them now are being helped by programmes such as the new deal to get back into work when they are capable of it.

Mr. Smith: My hon. Friend makes a good point. People were left to languish on incapacity and other benefits for years, with no one paying them any attention or giving them any help whatever. What Conservative Members leave out of their analysis of the new deal is the number of people suffering ill health and disability—barriers to work—who have been helped by the other new deals. Some 57,000 disabled people have been helped by the new deal for young people, and 41,000 disabled people over the age of 25 have been helped by that new deal. A further 33,000 people have
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been helped by the new deal 50-plus and 9,000 by the new deal for lone parents. All those are programmes that would be scrapped by the Conservative party.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): Further to the Secretary of State's remark about a culture of incapacity benefit, he will be aware, although he did not give these figures to the House, that since 1997 the number of people claiming incapacity benefit for such conditions as stress, anxiety and depression has risen to 718,000, that that is a rise of 39 per cent. and that such conditions now represent 26 per cent. of all claims. That rise is continuing, and it is clearly out of control. Can the Minister guarantee that it will be reduced by the end of this Parliament, or is his Department too stressed and anxious to do that?

Mr. Smith: There are a number of reasons underlying the increase in sickness and ill health—and, in particular, mental ill health—take-up of incapacity benefit. Greater awareness and an increase in people's readiness to acknowledge mental health conditions are certainly part of the picture, but if the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that it would be wise to examine the gateway through which people get on to those benefits, and offer them support to enable them to get back into work rather than have a life on benefits, I agree with him. I hope that he agrees with us that the pathways to work approach, which combines rehabilitation, mandatory work-focused interviews, and incentives and help with training for those who move into jobs, is the right way forward. It is cutting-edge stuff as far as international experience is concerned, and the Conservative party ought to support it.

Pension Credit

2. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby) (Lab): How many pensioners he estimates have gained financially as a result of the introduction of pension credit. [177312]

7. Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): How many pensioners he estimates have gained as a result of pension credit. [177317]

9. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What discussions he has had with Age Concern relating to the take-up of pension credit. [177319]

13. Jim Knight (South Dorset) (Lab): How many pensioners he estimates have gained financially as a result of the introduction of pension credit. [177323]

The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): We have today published the latest report on the take-up of pension credit. Over 1.8 million households—that includes over 2.2 million individuals—are now receiving more money than they would have done under the old minimum income guarantee system. In addition, following the introduction of pension credit, around 2 million pensioner households now qualify for extra help with housing benefit or council tax.

Our Pension Service works closely with Age Concern at both national and local levels.
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Lawrie Quinn: I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent answer. In my constituency, many pensioners are now benefiting from that additional help—considerably so, in fact. However, there are still some pensioners who would argue that they are not getting their full entitlement because of their struggle in filling out the paperwork and so on. What can the Minister do to increase the number of pensioners in my constituency and elsewhere who fully understand what they are entitled to and should be receiving?

Malcolm Wicks: I thank my hon. Friend for the lead that he is giving on pensions rights in Scarborough and Whitby. He has a firm reputation in that regard. More than 5,000 households in his constituency are receiving pension credit, the great majority of them—more than 4,000—being financial gainers. But do we need to do more to increase take-up? Yes we do, and I am particularly pleased to report to the House that somewhere in the region of 500,000 home visits have now taken place through our new Pension Service. It is by that exercise of choice over how to apply for benefits that we will push up the numbers even further.

Albert Owen: I thank the Minister for his earlier response. Many people in my constituency are indeed benefiting from the pension credit, but like my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn), I have many constituents who are not. Does the Minister agree that Members of Parliament can play an important role in raising awareness of the pension credit? Will he instruct his Department to dispatch information to individual Members across the House so that we can help our vulnerable constituents by raising awareness and making sure that they receive their full entitlement?

Malcolm Wicks: Again, I thank my hon. Friend for the lead that he is giving on these matters on the island. The local pension service has been in touch with all Members of Parliament, but I will review the arrangements to ensure that that is taking place. There are 2,730 people who are on the credit, financially better off, in his constituency, and I know that there are many advice surgeries, one of which, I note, takes place in the marriage waiting room at the registry office—I did not know that we were into that form of joined-up government, but no doubt it will be welcomed.

Tony Baldry: I understand that about £1 billion goes unclaimed in pension credit. Oxfordshire Age Concern, which covers both the Secretary of State's constituency and mine, tells me that much of its work is now in helping pensioners to claim the credit and fill in the paperwork. Will the Minister consider further ways of helping pensioners to access the benefits to which they are entitled? Age Concern and other charities have been very good at reaching pensioners whom even home visits have not reached, so will he consider giving them a grant-in-aid, so that they can be more active in ensuring that pensioners get all the benefits to which they are entitled?

Malcolm Wicks: Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work with the local pension service. I know that Age Concern is an active constituent, as it were, in that
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area. We have a small partnership fund, a sum set aside for the very purpose that he suggested, to ensure that local voluntary organisations can work with us on common objectives, but I thank him for the suggestion.

Jim Knight: Pension credit is certainly benefiting many pensioners in my constituency, too, and I congratulate the Government on that, but there are many who believe that if they have any extra income on top of their basic state pension, that makes them automatically ineligible. Can the Government do more to change that perception?

Malcolm Wicks: That is an important question, and I am not complacent about our need to communicate very effectively. We are doing so, but there is still much to do. The point of pension credit, in large part, is that for the first time, unlike the old minimum income guarantee, it recognises and rewards those with savings, which is one reason why far more people are now benefiting than under the old income support system.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Is not the Minister a touch embarrassed to know that, in my constituency, there are many more pensioners who, thanks to his Government's policies, feel fleeced by unnecessarily high council tax bills than are eligible for pension credit?

Malcolm Wicks: I hesitated because I was waiting for the punch line, Mr. Speaker. I hoped for more from a former social security Minister. We are concerned about levels of council tax in many areas, which is why we are reviewing the best methods of funding local governance, and it is one reason why an extra £100 will go to all households with someone aged 70 or over—indeed, we have Report and Third Reading of that Bill tomorrow.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): My hon. Friend will know that I am a strong supporter of pension credit and of what the Government have done for pensioners. Will he acknowledge that the pension centres have done a really good job in ensuring that people who would not have got the benefit are getting it, and recognise that there are concerns about what will happen to those centres? In particular, there are rumours that Simonstone pension centre will close in a major reorganisation, and fears about what will happen and how we will ensure that pensioners get what the Government want them to get in the future.

Malcolm Wicks: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for recognising the important work that pension centres and the service as a whole are doing. Despite the inevitable scare stories that we get from time to time from Opposition parties, the fact that, for example, 94   per cent. of calls are answered within 30 seconds shows what an excellent service we now have.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): Does not the Minister recognise the widespread concern that has just been expressed by hon. Members of all parties about the problem of low take-up of pension credit because many pensioners simply do not want to claim a complicated, means-tested benefit? Did he have the good fortune to
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hear the Deputy Prime Minister on the "Today" programme the other week, when he said that 1.5   million pensioners were not claiming council tax benefit

What could be clearer than those words? So as the Minister loyally defends his policy of mass means-testing, does he not feel the tectonic plates shifting underneath him, as he realises how few people believe that it is working?

Malcolm Wicks: I hear the Tory plates crashing all over the place. Of course I listened to what the Deputy Prime Minister said, and we do recognise that some people will fear that this policy constitutes old-fashioned means-testing—not least because of the campaign of fear that some are waging. But when, on phoning our Pension Service, elderly people are able to discover within a short time whether they are eligible for the pension credit, they know that this is a 21st century service. Two out of three people claiming pension credit are women—2 million women are claiming, compared with 1 million men, and the policy is helping elderly women in particular—and that is a very strong feature of this Government's social policy.

3. Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): What the rate of take-up of pension credits is in Newcastle-under-Lyme. [177313]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): As at 31 May, 3,905 pensioner households in Newcastle-under-Lyme, comprising some 4,700 individuals, were in receipt of pension credit. That is a 50 per cent. increase in take-up of the minimum income guarantee.

Paul Farrelly: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does she recognise that despite Opposition carping, thousands of pensioners in Newcastle-under-Lyme and north Staffordshire have benefited under Labour from pension increases, guaranteed minimum incomes and the pension credit? That is real progress, which would be reversed if the Tories took office again. Does she also recognise that despite the flimsy promise that the Liberal Democrats made last year to knock £100 off council tax, but which they have now dropped—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the Minister can answer the question.

Maria Eagle: Anybody would think that some elections were going on. I did hope to hear what my hon. Friend had to say about the Liberal Democrats, but perhaps we can do so on another occasion. None the less, he is absolutely right to point out that the Opposition's policy would leave poorer pensioners on a—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Even the Minister is not allowed to talk about the Opposition's policies.
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