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House of Commons

Monday 28 November 2005

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Council Tax Benefit

1. Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): What progress his Department has made in simplifying the application process for council tax benefit. [31681]

4. Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab): What progress his Department has made in simplifying the application process for council tax benefit. [31684]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I recently authorised the third annual publicity and marketing awareness campaign aimed at getting everyone who is entitled to council tax benefit to take it up. In a separate exercise, the Pension Service is already telephoning existing customers nationwide who do not appear to be getting council tax benefit and is filling in a simple three-page
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claim form on their behalf. In addition, from December, the Pension Service will take council tax benefit claims at the same time as new pension credit claims.

Andrew Gwynne: Will my hon. Friend expand on whether it may in future be possible to remove all form-filling from the council tax benefit process?

Mr. Plaskitt: As my hon. Friend will see, we are making good progress towards that objective. There used to be a 26-page form, but now, for many claimants, that is reduced to a three-page form. Some of them do not even have to fill it in—they have only to sign it after the Pension Service has completed it for them. Ultimately, we would like to reach a point at which we can have automatic take-up of the benefit, based on data that already exist in the Department. We are having work done on that and I expect to receive a report on its feasibility next spring.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: There are areas in my constituency of high deprivation and poor adult literacy, so I welcome the fact that we are making the process simpler, but will my hon. Friend assure me that, in doing so, we do not jeopardise the good work being done to tackle fraud and error in the system?

Mr. Plaskitt: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Indeed, as we move to greater automaticity in handing awards out to those who qualify for them, we will remove the opportunities for error that arise when forms have to be completed. I am happy to say that, in respect of housing benefit and council tax benefit, the level of fraud and error is falling. It is down by 8 per cent. over the past 18 months. Fraud alone is down by 30 per cent. over that period.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): One reason why there is so much concern about this issue is the massive increase in council tax that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has put on to councils by
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stealth. Will the Minister tell us how many people were claiming council tax benefit in 1997 and what the latest figures are?

Mr. Plaskitt: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that what is important is to ensure that pensioners who are having difficulty meeting their council tax bills get the council tax benefit that is rightly theirs. We estimate that as many as 1.5 million pensioners might not be receiving that help. They should be receiving £800 million-worth of benefit. It is incumbent on all of us in our constituencies to ensure that pensioners who would benefit from obtaining that help with their council tax bills get it. I hope, therefore, that he will support the take-up campaign.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): The Secretary of State informed the House that forms were now simple for pensioners to fill out. However, that is not the experience of senior citizens in Shrewsbury, many of whom have come to see me to say that the forms continue to be difficult to fill out. Would he be prepared to see some of their letters in the coming weeks and then perhaps reassess what he said earlier?

Mr. Plaskitt: I have studied the forms, so I know exactly what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. As I said, there used to be a 26-page form, but that is now down to three pages. In many instances, pensioners do not have to fill in or even see the form. It can be filled in for them over the telephone. It is then sent to them for their signature and can be returned in a stamped addressed envelope. We have been piloting that scheme from the pension centre in Nottingham and, so far, 100,000 forms have been completed in that way, which has already resulted in 15,000 additional pensioners receiving council tax benefit. That is £10 million-worth of additional council tax benefit being handed out, without anyone having to complete complicated forms.

Basic State Pension

2. James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): By how much the basic state pension will be up-rated in 2006–07; and if he will make a statement. [31682]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): The general uprating statement will follow the pre-Budget report. The basic state pension will be uprated by at least 2.5 per cent. or in line with the retail prices index if that is higher.

James Brokenshire: As the Minister said, increases are generally in line with the RPI or 2.5 per cent. If the RPI for September of this year had been used, that would have resulted in an increase of £1.14 less per week than if an earnings link had been attached to it. Will he make representations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to restore the earnings link, or does he think that that would be a less than fruitful conversation?

Mr. Timms: The hon. Gentleman might find it instructive to check his own party's record in Government on this issue. The basic state pension was uprated 18 times between November 1980 and April 1997, and that was done strictly in line with prices every
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time, except on one occasion in 1994, when an extra 50p a week was added in a futile attempt to soften the blow of VAT on fuel. We shall not take any lessons from the Conservatives on the level of the basic state pension, which is 7 per cent. higher in real terms today than it was in 1997.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): It has been widely leaked that the Turner report will recommend the reinstatement of the link between the basic state pension and earnings. If that recommendation is accepted, will the Government implement it in time for the 2006–07 uprating?

Mr. Timms: I can only advise my hon. Friend to wait for the Turner commission's report on Wednesday. I can assure him that it will be a substantial and important document, and I am sure that he, along with all other hon. Members, is looking forward to seeing it.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Was the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions consulted by the Chancellor before the Chancellor wrote to Lord Turner?

Mr. Timms: I am not entirely sure which correspondence the hon. Gentleman is referring to. If he is referring to leaked correspondence, that is not a subject that I shall comment on, other than to say that the arrangements for the uprating of pension credit have been well established for a long time.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that any decent Government must ensure that a decent basic pension is paid to our poorest pensioners? May I counsel him against taking advice from those who believed that £67 a week was sufficient for a pensioner to live on, and who broke the earnings link in the first place?

Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend is right. In 1997, there was a large number of pensioners whose total income, through income support, was £69 a week. Every single person in that position now is entitled to an income, through pension credit, of at least £109 a week. There has been a dramatic transformation in the prospects of people who were abandoned on low incomes by the previous Tory Government, and we will not go back to those days.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Because the Government have managed to plunder people's pension funds, there are now far more pensioners dependent on either the basic state pension or means-tested benefits than there were before. Is not that a good argument for Lord Turner's recommendation that the basic state pension should rise in line not with prices but with earnings?

Mr. Timms: I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman is driving at, but I remind him of the scandal of mis-selling that took place under the previous Conservative Government, which left many people in extremely difficult circumstances. I hope that he will recognise from his experience among his own constituents on the Isle of Wight that the pension credit has been a means of
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raising a large number of people out of poverty—2 million people across the country as a whole. We must certainly not go back to the days when pensioners were left on an income of £69 a week.

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