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Council Tax Benefit

8. Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): What steps he is taking to increase the take-up of council tax benefit. [5080]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): We are working with local authorities to encourage people to apply for council tax benefit. For example, in February we advised local authorities of around 340,000 cases that we had identified where pension credit was in payment but there was no evidence of a live council tax benefit claim. That has already resulted in 5,000 new awards of council tax benefit to the poorest pensioners, and around 4,000 more claims are being processed.
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Mr. Djanogly: What was the cost of the Government's most recent campaign to increase the take-up of council tax benefit?

Mr. Plaskitt: The important thing, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree, is to ensure that those who are entitled—[Hon. Members: "Answer."] No, no—it is to ensure that those who are entitled to council tax benefit get it, because it is a very important benefit. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is active in his constituency in contacting pensioners who have not taken up the council tax benefit and encouraging them to do so. That is what we are doing, and it is money well spent.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The Minister will know that I introduced a private Member's Bill on this subject during the last Parliament. More than £1 billion of council tax benefit goes unclaimed, mostly by pensioners. Will the Minister estimate how much council tax benefit will go unclaimed this time next year? Just how effective does he believe his schemes will be in ensuring that poorer pensioners get the council tax benefits to which they are entitled?

Mr. Plaskitt: I am anxious to ensure that the amount unclaimed comes down, and we have embarked on a series of initiatives to achieve that. For example, winter fuel payments, which go of course to every pensioner household, will be accompanied by a flyer promoting council tax benefit. I should also tell the hon. Gentleman that we launched a £13 million fund in January under the partnership fund. That is providing two years of funding to around 170 organisations across Britain to finance local initiatives to improve take-up of these benefits.

Occupational Pension Schemes

9. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): If he will list the occupational pension schemes whose members have been affected by the wind-up of their scheme and will not receive assistance from the financial assistance scheme. [5081]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): The draft regulations for the financial assistance scheme will be tabled later this week. An indicative list of 380 potentially eligible schemes was published on 22 February. Formal decisions on eligibility will be made once Parliament has agreed the regulations.

Mr. Jones: Does the Minister accept that £400 million over 20 years, welcome though it is, is wholly inadequate in providing meaningful compensation to those pensioners who have been affected by the wind-up of their schemes? Indeed, informed commentators estimate that closer to £5 billion is required. That being the case, will he give serious consideration to Conservative proposals that the Government should utilise unclaimed funds in the hands of financial institutions to bolster the fund?

Mr. Timms: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for    welcoming the Government's commitment of
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£400 million. As we have said, we will review the funding and other aspects of the scheme after three years. I was previously the Treasury Minister responsible for banks and building societies, so I am familiar with the work done on the scale of unclaimed assets. I discovered in that role that there is a long list of ideas about how to spend those resources but rather less clarity about the amount. Work is going on to establish that, but I caution the hon. Gentleman against believing that the assets will be available for this purpose.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware that there has been some concern about whether pensioners from the MG Rover pension scheme will be assisted through the financial assistance scheme, particularly as more than one company in that group is not currently in administration. I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's very firm commitment on sorting the matter out. Can my hon. Friend update us on that, particularly as regards the rather perverse situation of people who have taken early retirement but could end up with less money unless we get their position sorted out?

Mr. Timms: The Pension Protection Fund, rather than the financial assistance scheme, is the likely source of help for former employees of MG Rover. I acknowledge that it is a worrying time for MG Rover pensioners. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We believe that it remains a question of when, not if a PPF assessment period will start, and we are considering closely the way in which the PPF regulations work and how they are likely to apply in the case that my hon. Friend raises.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Like the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), I take a great interest in the Rover pension scheme. However, I would be grateful if the Minister could be a little clearer about the way in which it will be sorted out. He will know that no application can be made to the Pension Protection Fund because one of the Rover companies is still trading. Until they are all in administration, no application can be made. How can an application be made to the fund while the company is still trading? Until the application is made, no money will be forthcoming under the Government's legislation.

Mr. Timms: We have been looking for some time at the impact of the regulations on the Pension Protection Fund. We propose to make several amendments in the coming weeks to reflect issues that have arisen through the operation of the regulations so far. When the hon. Lady sees the proposals, I believe that she will welcome their likely impact on the case that she raises.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): APW, formerly known as Veros, is nowhere near as prestigious or as politically sensitive as Rover, but for my constituents who have lost 80 per cent. of their pensions, the problems are no less real. The Minister has agreed to meet a delegation this week, and I thank him for that. However, will he consider the specific group of schemes whose trustees were forced to wind up the
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schemes last year, thus falling between the financial assistance scheme and the Pension Protection Fund, and for whom nothing is currently on offer?

Mr. Timms: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the meeting that we shall hold, and I look forward to the discussion with his constituents. The financial assistance scheme is for defined benefit occupational schemes when the sponsoring employer is insolvent. It is important that solvent employers stand behind their pension promises. I am sure that when we meet we shall have a full discussion of the circumstances in the case that my right hon. Friend raises.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): Is not the Minister a bit embarrassed that more than year has passed since the financial assistance scheme was unveiled in the House, yet not a penny piece has been paid out to any pensioners, including those who face penury or suffer from a terminal illness? Why, in the meantime, have the Government spent their energies on trying to restrict eligibility and the level of pay-outs under the FAS? Speaking for the 60,000 pensioners and others whose cases are yet to be tackled, will the Minister agree to bring forward his review of the grossly inadequate funding for the FAS?

Mr. Timms: We have been making good progress on setting up the FAS. I made the point earlier that the draft regulations will be published this week. I hope, contrary to a press report today, that we may be in a position to make the first payments before the end of the calendar year. We have been careful throughout not to raise people's expectations unfairly. It would be wrong to commit to a specific date for making the first payments before Parliament has agreed the regulations. It remains our position that we will review the funding and other aspects of the FAS after three years.

Incapacity Benefit Claimants

11. Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to help claimants of incapacity benefit into work in Lancashire. [5083]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Margaret Hodge): Through our new, innovative programmes, which we have called pathways to work, incapacity benefit recipients can receive one-to-one support from a personal adviser. They can access services to help them manage their condition, and there are financial incentives to support them back into work. At the end of March, we had successfully helped 1,392 people back into work in the east Lancashire pilot. From October, customers in west Lancashire will also be able to access the service, as will a third of all incapacity benefits claimants by October 2006.

Mr. Borrow: I thank my right hon. Friend for her reply. May I urge her to extend the east Lancashire pilot into affluent constituencies such as mine as speedily as possible? The problems experienced by people on long-term incapacity benefit are just as great in relatively affluent areas, where many people get stuck on incapacity benefit. They need the certainty that if they
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move off incapacity benefit and into work and things do not work out, they will still have a chance to go back on to that benefit rather than on to very basic allowances.

Margaret Hodge: The early evidence from the pathways to work pilots is extremely positive. In fact, in those areas, six times as many people are moving away from a life of dependency on incapacity benefit into a life of opportunity in work. I am as anxious as my hon. Friend to learn from those pilots and to extend that good practice across the country as fast as we can.

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