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Pension Credit

6. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What recent representations he has received on erroneous payments of pension credit. [196320]

The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): From time to time, there are individual errors in the payment of pension credit, but overall accuracy is good. Pension credit payment accuracy levels were running to target at
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around 94 per cent. during August and September, for example. The Pension Service aspires to provide the best possible level of service and accuracy at all times.

Miss McIntosh: To what extent does the Minister attribute the erroneous contributions made to constituents in the Vale of York to the closure, after opening only two years ago, of the pensions office in York and its relocation to Dundee? What else can be attributed to the fact that he has unnecessarily chosen the most complicated formula, ensuring that he rewards only those who have failed to save throughout their working lives?

Malcolm Wicks: On the hon. Lady's final point, I am proud of the fact that, at long last, we have a system of assistance that rewards rather than penalises modest savings. Under the old system presided over by the Conservative Government, people were penalised pound for pound for any money they saved, so we are making progress on the savings incentive.

On the question of erroneous payments, I do not think that we have been in correspondence about any particular problems in the Vale of York. If there has been correspondence, I apologise and undertake to look further into it. I am proud of the fact, however, that 3,000 pensioner households in the Vale of York are now receiving pension credit. I hope that the hon. Lady will also be pleased about that and will congratulate our excellent Pension Service on that result.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East) (Lab): The Minister will be aware of the unhappiness felt by many pensioners who lose their pension credit if they spend more than four weeks out of the country. They may have scrimped and saved to go abroad to meet other family members, for example, but on their return they are faced with bills to pay back their credit. Will the Minister take steps to extend the amount of time that pensioners are able to spend outside the country before they lose their pension credit? The period should be extended to help them.

Malcolm Wicks: Yes, we need to look further into that and, indeed, we are reviewing it. I am sympathetic to the point that my hon. Friend raises. Obviously, I will have to consider any resource implications. We also need to make it absolutely clear that this is not an exportable benefit, but one that exists for people who are resident in this country. As I say, we are looking very vigorously into that matter.

Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (LD): Does the Minister agree that one of the best ways of ensuring that pension credit payments are accurate is having a properly staffed and resourced local pension service? When the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) sold the idea of pension credit to the House, he strongly supported the idea of developing pension services locally. Can the Minister provide an assurance that despite the incidence of staff cuts, which the Government are working through, staffing levels for local pension services will be protected; otherwise, the erroneous payments will continue and get even worse?

Malcolm Wicks: We need to safeguard local pension services. It is a tough decision, but we are right to expect
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that, in future, we can run an efficient Pension Service with fewer staff. That is an important efficiency saving. However, at the local level, 638,000 home visits have been made and advice surgeries have seen 448,000 customers, so the local service is important and we will safeguard it.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend conducted any satisfaction surveys of pensioners in receipt of pension credit, which would help us to understand what pensioners believe is the most appropriate way of assisting them?

Malcolm Wicks: Customer satisfaction surveys are running, if I remember correctly, at about 80 per cent.—a high level of satisfaction. We listen to all shades of opinion on the success of pension credit and the Pension Service, but I am sure the House would agree that we should listen most to our customers, who are satisfied. We are also satisfied, but not complacent. When we can improve matters, we will do so.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): Those, of course, are the customers who have managed to get through the incredibly complicated procedure and managed finally to secure the pension credit. The figures do not include the 1.7 million pensioners who are not receiving the pension to which they are entitled.

What would the Minister say to the pensioner who contacted the citizens advice bureau after applying for pension credit and receiving a letter from the Pension Service, which stated:

Is not that absurd? Does it not show that a system as complicated as the one introduced by the Minister is prone to error, leads to high administration costs and fails to get help to the pensioners who really need it?

Malcolm Wicks: The pension credit is a great social advance, although in that individual case it was an advance too far. If the hon. Gentleman's accusation is that, in a system that deals with millions of people and pieces of information, we occasionally make mistakes, well yes, we do. However, I am proud of the fact that the customer satisfaction level is high. Indeed, it is much higher than the satisfaction level with the British Conservative party.

Mr. Willetts: We are getting confused messages from the Government. The Secretary of State thinks out loud about the future of means-tested benefits. Indeed, I have not heard him defend means-testing and the pension credit in his new role at the Dispatch Box. Every time he appears, he offers some new criticism of the system that he is supposed to be defending. Now the Minister of State tries to maintain that the pension credit is a success. Does he really believe that the pension credit is the right long-term solution to Britain's pension crisis?

Malcolm Wicks: The right long-term solution is to ensure that more of our citizens in the future, including young workers today, retire on pension incomes above means-tested levels, through a combination of state pensions and private or occupational pensions. However, while there is a major problem of pensioner
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hardship and poverty, pension credit will have a significant role to play. As for the charge of complexity, under a previous Tory Government people had to fill in a very long form: the form is now shorter. Under a Tory   Government, people could not apply over the telephone: under a Labour Government, they can. Finally, under a Tory Government, the Pension Service did not exist and there were no home visits: our system makes it easy for the customer. I am proud of our record. I hope that he is ashamed of his.

Pension Service

9. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): If he will make a statement on the administration of the Pension Service. [196324]

The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): The Pension Service is making good progress—as we have just heard—against its target of improving delivery to customers. I always appreciate a planted question at this stage. We made an announcement on 29 June about plans for business transformation to secure high levels of service with increased efficiency in the Pension Service as part of wider efficiency gains in the Department.

Andrew Selous: If the Pension Service is indeed making such good progress, perhaps the Minister can explain why one of my constituents had to receive seven letters from the Pension Service before it could organise direct payment into her bank account, the last letter being in Welsh. I am aware that the European Union managed to lose Wales from the map of the United Kingdom, but does the Department for Work and Pensions think that it has arrived in south Bedfordshire?

Malcolm Wicks: We are a joined-up Government and we always seek to improve language skills wherever possible. If one of the hon. Gentleman's constituents has received too many letters from us, I apologise. I would be grateful if he would let me have the details. However, this Government do not expect a single pensioner to live on £69 a week, as the Tories did. We have a guaranteed income of £105 for a single person. The vast majority of those entitled to the pension guarantee receive it. We are attacking pensioner poverty and I am proud of that: I hope that the hon. Gentleman is, too.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I know that my hon. Friend is a keen follower of Wolverhampton Wanderers football club and will be aware that it seeks a new manager. Is he also aware that Jane Whitaker, the excellent and much more successful manager of the Pension Service in Wolverhampton, is also looking for a job because the DWP proposes to close the pension centre in the town? It has met and beaten its targets and has even taken in work from elsewhere in the UK, but the Department still proposes to close it. Will my hon. Friend reconsider that decision?

Malcolm Wicks: We do have in common the support of a certain football club and I am pleased to answer as an old-fashioned inside left. We need to make efficiency savings. If we are to convince the British public—as we will—that we can have a modern welfare state for the 21st century, it needs to be efficiently run. We needed to
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build up our staff to launch the pension credit successfully and we now need an efficient service. Wherever possible, we will redeploy people within the Department or elsewhere in government. We have had some success in that already and we will find other uses for pension centres that will not be required for the Pension Service in the future.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): If the civil servants operating the Pension Service have done such a marvellous job, should not the Minister move them to the Child Support Agency?

Malcolm Wicks: It is always useful to have some light relief. We are determined that all our public agencies should be run efficiently. That is true for the Pension Service and it must also be true for the Child Support Agency. We realise that a challenge faces the agency, and we must meet that challenge for the sake of lone mothers—and, indeed, some lone fathers—who are being let down by the other parent and who need that support for the sake of their children.

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