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Deaf People (Benefit Claims)

11. Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): What representations he has received about the difficulties that people who are prelingually profoundly deaf may experience while claiming benefits; and if he will make a statement. [31692]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): Our aim is to provide an accessible service to all our customers. People who are prelingually profoundly deaf may claim benefit in a variety of ways, including by using a British sign language interpreter, or suitable communicator, to help in their own home if required.

Annette Brooke: Is the Minister aware that a recent survey of all customer service managers in the disability and carers service by the ombudsman's office revealed that only three requests for British sign language interpreters had been received in a whole year? From the ombudsman's report, which overwhelmingly supported my constituent, it appears that help is needed to access help. Will the Minister assure me that she will work with the voluntary sector and other bodies to improve
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accessibility to the benefits system—and, indeed, pathways to work—for anyone with a sensory disability?

Mrs. McGuire: I am aware of the case that the hon. Lady mentions, and I hope that I can give her some reassurance. Among other organisations, my officials are meeting Sign It!, which I understand was the group that supported her constituent. That group provides communication and interpreter support to the deaf community. We are working with it to explore the potential for improving arrangements for making claims. I reassure the House that the disability and carers service has produced a British sign language DVD version of its customer information leaflet, which will be available from 16 December 2005. We are examining further ways in which we can ensure that communication is extended.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): What impact does my hon. Friend think the access-to-work scheme has had on people who become deaf over time, either while in employment or due to age-related nerve deafness or industrial deafness? Is she aware of a report by the Disability Employment Coalition that says that for every pound spent on the scheme, £1.48 is accrued in extra revenue to the Treasury? Does she agree that deaf, deafened and hard-of-hearing people need help not only to enter employment, but to stay in employment and off the benefit system?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for raising the access-to-work scheme. As she and many hon. Members will be aware, that successful scheme supports disabled people, many of whom become disabled of a result of illness or accidents during their working lives. The scheme helps them into employment and sustains them in employment. I am aware of the report that my hon. Friend mentions. Some of the figures in it are perhaps not universally accepted, but it highlights the importance of such support to disabled people to ensure that they can fulfil their potential in the workplace.

Council Tax Benefit

12. Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): If he will take steps to increase the take-up of council tax benefit among pensioners. [31693]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): We have already done so. Over the winter we will again, with local authorities' support, be running publicity and marketing awareness campaigns that are aimed at getting everybody who is entitled to council tax benefit to claim it. As I said in reply to an earlier question, the Pension Service has, by telephoning existing pension credit customers nationwide, already filled in and issued nearly 15,000 of the new, simplified three-page claim forms. Those are real improvements to help pensioners to get the support that is theirs by right.

Anne Snelgrove: I thank my hon. Friend for that and for his earlier answers. He will know that the issue is important because, according to the excellent House of Commons Library, the take-up of council tax benefit
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appears to be lowest among pensioners, when analysed by either case load, or expenditure. Pensioners who are already claiming benefit sometimes face a long delay before the outcome of their cases. What steps is he taking to shorten that delay for those who are already in the system?

Mr. Plaskitt: My hon. Friend is right to point out that the over-65s is the group with the lowest take-up—it is probably about 63 per cent. We thus think that about 1.5 million pensioners who are entitled to council tax benefit are not in receipt of it. We are moving towards a point at which those who are on guaranteed pension credit can be automatically signed up for council tax benefit. As we have the information, we now know who to telephone, which is what the Pension Service is doing. All that speeds up and simplifies the process. As I said earlier, steps are being taken to make the process automatic, ideally.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Is not a system whereby the basic state pension goes up by only the comparatively small level of prices, even though the council tax has been consistently going up by at least double that level of inflation—if not more—over recent years, inevitably going to cause extreme hardship to some of our poorest pensioners? Is that not inevitably going to drive them on to benefits, especially council tax benefit? Is not the real answer to keep council tax increases at or around the level of inflation? What representations has the Minister made to his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to keep council tax increases down towards the level of inflation so that the poorest pensioners in our country are not caused such hardship?

Mr. Plaskitt: First, it simply is not the case that more and more pensioners are being driven on to council tax benefit. In fact, back in 1997, 3.2 million pensioners were picking up council benefit; it is now 2.5 million. It is a smaller absolute number because of increases in pensioner income, thanks to the introduction of the pension credit and other measures taken by the Government that have gone a long way towards eradicating pensioner poverty. That is why the actual take-up of council tax benefit by pensioners has fallen in absolute numbers.

However, we still need the campaign to encourage take-up because many pensioners, having successfully received pension credit—which is a large additional amount for them in terms of their income—think that that is as far as it goes and are surprised to find that there is additional help. We also find that owner-occupiers mistakenly believe that they are not entitled to help with their council tax bill when they may well be. That, too, is part of the take-up campaign.

As for the size of the increases in council tax, the hon. Gentleman should consider which side of the House has political control of the councils with the largest increases.

New Deal

13. Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the new deal; and if he will make a statement. [31694]
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The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr.   John Hutton): The new deal has so far helped nearly 1.5 million people into work. The lone parent employment rate has risen by more than 11 percentage points since 1997 and studies have shown that about half of that increase can be directly attributable to the Government's welfare-to-work policies, in which the new deal has played a major part. Also, research by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has shown that the new deal for young people now saves the economy £500 million every year.

Mr. Stuart: On the new deal, it is noticeable how selective Ministers are in finding support for it. The Secretary of State mentioned young people specifically. The director of the Centre for Economic Performance suggests that the new deal has had a very small effect on them. In fact, he says:

How many people have gone through the new deal twice, three times or four times?

Mr. Hutton: It is the hon. Gentleman who chooses to be selective. He asked for evidence of the success of the new deal and I presented it to him. He chooses to ignore it. In his constituency, more than 2,000 young people have been through the new deal. If he wants confirmation of whether it has been a success, I suggest he has a chat with some of them.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Will the Secretary of State answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) about how many people have been through the new deal twice, three times, four times or more? If he cannot tell us, will he undertake to write a letter and place it in the Library?

Mr. Hutton: Of course I will be happy to do that.

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