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Pensioners (Means Testing)

5. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): How many pensioners are (a) eligible for and (b) claiming means-tested benefits in (i) Great Britain and (ii) Northamptonshire; and if he will make a statement. [102900]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (James Purnell): It is estimated that around half of pensioners living in private households in Great Britain are eligible for means-tested benefits. Of those entitled to guarantee credit, 70 to 81 per cent. are estimated to be claiming, although 43 to 50 per cent. of those entitled to savings credit are estimated to be claiming. Since its introduction, pension credit has lifted 2 million pensioners out of absolute poverty. An estimate for Northamptonshire is not available.

Mr. Hollobone: It is disappointing that figures for Northamptonshire are not available, as I suspect that thousands of pensioners in the Kettering constituency are entitled to means-tested benefits but are not claiming them. While congratulating Kettering’s citizens advice bureau, welfare rights advisory service and Age Concern for doing all that they can to encourage pensioners to claim, what specific steps are the Government taking to ensure that more pensioners claim the tax credits and other benefits to which they are entitled?

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to know that, last year, the Pension Service visited more than 1 million people, and is calling 5,000 people every week. Take-up has increased from 74 per cent. to 81 per cent. When we came to power, there were 3 million pensioners in poverty, but now there are fewer than 1 million. That may not be perfect, but it is very good progress, and it would not have happened under his party, which opposed every one of those measures.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): Control of the growth of means-testing is one of the stated objectives of the Government’s pensions reform programme. The Government estimate that means-testing will fall to less than 30 per cent. by 2050 under their proposals. However, the Pensions Policy Institute, a respected independent think tank, estimates that the figure will be closer to 50 per cent? Is it wrong?

James Purnell: We have been working with the institute on the reforms, and will shortly put forward figures that narrow the funnel of doubt, as it is described. We have published information on our website, which everyone can look at, setting out our estimates. We are confident that those are right and that our system is more effective at modelling the impact of the state second pension, and that our reforms will result in less than a third of people being entitled to means-tested benefits compared with 70 per cent. if the current policy continued.

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Mr. Hammond: We shall see, but even if the Department for Work and Pensions’ figures can be substantiated, a third is still a high level of means-testing in the system. Discounting the Liberal Democrats’ fantasy proposals, we accept that there is no easy and affordable way of further reducing means-testing in the short term. Bearing in mind the Chancellor’s 1994 commitment to eliminating the massive means-testing now imposed on the elderly, will the Minister say whether the Government share our long-term aspiration to see the level of means-testing fall still further, as and when that becomes affordable in future?

James Purnell: It depends entirely on how the hon. Gentleman’s party proposes to do that. He is right to say that the Liberal Democrats’ policy is a fantasy, because it would put 5p on income tax. According to the 2005 figures, however, about half those receiving means-tested benefits are receiving disability benefits or carers’ premiums, which means that they can collect £160 a week in pension credit. I assume that the hon. Gentleman is not saying he would want to take that money from such vulnerable groups.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): One of the groups who find the situation hardest are pensioners who own their homes and are eligible for council tax benefit. They have not previously been in the benefit system, and are concerned about giving information. The take-up of council tax benefit in that group is comparatively low. What are the Government doing to try to increase take-up of council tax benefit among pensioners on fixed incomes?

James Purnell: That is a very good point. We are transforming the system for claiming council tax benefit and, indeed, housing benefit. People used to have to fill up a 26-page form; now there is a three-page form which can be filled up in minutes. A survey by Age Concern of people who had claimed the benefit showed that 70 per cent. found it easy. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to work with his constituents to ensure that as many as possible claim.

Contact Centres (PAC Report)

6. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): When he will respond to the Public Accounts Committee report on contact centres, “Department for Work and Pensions: Delivering effective services through contact centres”, HC 1034, 2005-06; and if he will make a statement. [102901]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): In line with normal procedures, the Government will respond formally to the Public Accounts Committee report on contact centres in January 2007.

Mr. Amess: In response to the Department’s efforts to save £375 million, many local offices are being closed and are being replaced by 62 call centres. As the Minister knows, the Public Accounts Committee has described the call centres as unresponsive, unreliable and frankly not working. Will he please reassure us that efficiency savings are not hitting front-line services, as they appear to be?

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Mr. Murphy: Since April this year, call centres have received 22 million calls. All but 0.3 per cent. were answered, and only 0.3 per cent. produced the engaged tone. A National Audit Office report showed that 86 per cent. of customers thought their calls had been dealt with in a reasonable time. Of course we can go on finding more ways of improving customer care for benefit recipients and customers, which is why in the last couple of weeks we have announced a freephone number—a single point of contact—for all working-age benefit claimants. I think that that will be welcomed by customers and citizens throughout the country.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): In responding to the report on call centres, will the Minister pay particular attention to the problems currently affecting crisis loan helplines? Citizens Advice reports that in some parts of the country there are severe delays in the answering of calls, and that some people are having to make calls repeatedly over a number of days before they are answered. Given that people in need of crisis loans are among the most vulnerable in society, will the Minister ensure that steps are taken to ensure that calls are answered promptly and claims are processed as quickly as possible?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point from his temporary position on the Back Benches. It is true that on some occasions performance is unacceptable. For example, two years ago those claiming disability living allowance did not receive the support and customer care to which they were entitled. We have now increased the number of telephone lines to make it easier to help people in the position that the hon. Gentleman describes. If he finds that his constituents are not getting through to helplines despite that increase in capacity, I shall be happy to listen to further representations from him.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Many tens of thousands of people are still unable to get through to contact centres. This summer, for example, it took 25 days for a centre to call back and pay jobseeker’s allowance to a constituent of mine, causing severe hardship. Given that the Gershon process calls for no reduction in service due to efficiency gains, will the Minister commit the Department to working towards the elimination of blocked calls and ensuring that all calls are returned within a day unless a longer period is requested?

Mr. Murphy: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position on the Front Bench, and hope that his future questions will be a little better informed. As I said, since April our telephone lines have received 22 million calls. Of course, if his constituent is one of those who make up the 0.3 per cent. of customers who have received an engaged tone, that is unacceptable. In the public sector, we want continually to find ways to support customer service and responsiveness in the public services. We can learn from some of the innovations in the private sector. We want continually to find ways to provide a first-class service to our public sector customers, regardless of whether they are benefit recipients, benefit customers or anyone else.

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Child Support Agency

7. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What progress has been made on reforms to the Child Support Agency; and if he will make a statement. [102902]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): In July, and in response to Sir David Henshaw’s report, I set out the broad direction of reform to the child support system. We will publish a White Paper with final proposals shortly.

Mr. Bone: What will happen to claimants who are owed thousands of pounds by non-paying ex-partners when the CSA is scrapped?

Mr. Hutton: We must make sure that we crack down on people who are not paying up. We all know from examples in our constituencies that, sadly, relationships end but responsibilities must never be allowed to do so. We have invested more: we are investing more right now in the CSA to make sure that we increase the amount of historic debt that is recovered to parents with care. It is important that we do that. But the hon. Gentleman will have to wait a little longer to see our specific proposals, which will be set out in the White Paper shortly.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Looking back on the genesis of the existing CSA, there were three key reasons why it failed so abysmally: the inadequate number of staff; the focus on driving down benefit costs as a central objective; and an appallingly designed computer system, which was slow and unstable. Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that the CSA’s successor will focus on driving up income in the families concerned, that it will provide adequate numbers of people in the new CSA to manage the whole process, and that it will go nowhere near—not with a bargepole—the existing computer supplier?

Mr. Hutton: We need to learn the lessons from previous attempts to get this right. We will not do our constituents or the country any favours unless we are prepared to be open and frank about where things have gone wrong. I think that we have done that, and that David Henshaw’s report gives us a proper blueprint on which we can plan for a much more successful system of child support in the future. We must make tackling child poverty its No. 1 objective; we have made that clear already. In relation to the point of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), who asked me to reveal to the House the contents of the White Paper ahead of its publication, let me reassure him and his hon. Friends that we will propose a series of much stronger and tougher enforcement powers; but I am sure that the House will understand why I cannot go into the details of that today.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): As agreements will be an important part of the new system, will the Secretary of State at least tell us whether he has had discussions with the Scottish Executive as to how they will work in the Scottish legal system, and in particular whether there will be provisions for implementation of these agreements and for variation on change of circumstance?

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Mr. Hutton: Yes, we have had full and proper consultations with the Scottish Executive.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): Over £1 million of the money that the CSA has failed to collect is owed not to the Government but directly to thousands of parents, who have suffered extreme financial hardship. As a result of that, will the Secretary of State confirm today that he will continue to pursue those payments, and that he will not at some point in the future decide to write off any of that money?

Mr. Hutton: I warmly welcome the hon. Lady to her new Front-Bench responsibilities. I know that it will sound unfair if I say this, but the amount of unclaimed debt is not £1 million; it is £1 billion. We are not prepared to see all of that debt just waved away. We will do everything possible to recover as much of that money as we reasonably can, to make sure that families—the parents who are looking after the children—benefit from that maintenance.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Will the Secretary of State bear in mind that a constituent of mine in Shetland calculates that it will take 15 years for the child maintenance arrears for her child to be paid, which means that her child will be 27 before all the arrears are paid? Will he ensure that the people who are in that situation will not be the victims of a mass write-off of debt? That is the real concern that she brings to me.

Mr. Hutton: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not know the details of that case, and rather than repeat the answer that I gave the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), I would prefer to leave the matter there. There is a very significant amount of debt in the system that we have got to clear up as quickly as we can and, as I said, we will do whatever we can to recover as much of it as possible.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I welcome the plan in the Queen’s Speech to introduce a child support Bill. One problem with current system and the existing agency has been a lack of robustness in the assessment process. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the new Bill takes that point on board and improves the assessment phase?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, we certainly will. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait until the White Paper, but we will set out in it some pretty radical, long overdue reforms of the assessment and collection process.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Is the Secretary of State aware of the problem of absent parents who own a business avoiding maintenance payments by paying themselves small salaries and using the business account to pay living expenses and give their partner a salary? Does he think that the current provisions on variations in, and diversion of, income are working well to tackle this problem, or do they need reform?

Mr. Hutton: No, they are not working well and they need to be reformed.

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Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that one reform will be introduced? Where the parent with care has received no funds whatsoever through the Child Support Agency from the absent parent and the child then moves from one parent to the other, the parent who is owed thousands of pounds cannot set that off against the money that she then has to pay to the absent parent who defaulted. Should it not be possible for a debt to be set off against a future liability in those circumstances?

Mr. Hutton: It should be possible for that to happen. The right hon. Gentleman has raised a very important issue, but I might need to refresh my memory as to what the White Paper says about it. However, he has made a very effective point.

Unemployment (Older People)

8. Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): What recent representations he has received on help available to unemployed people over the age of 50 years. [102903]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): There are 1 million more over-50s in work than a decade ago. We have received a number of representations on what more can be done, none of which advocates the abolition of the new deal 50-plus, but perhaps we are about to hear the first.

Anne Main: The Government have a stated aim to get more older workers back into work and the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has said that we must be more focused on employability skills. If the Government want to demonstrate any joined-up thinking on this issue——I doubt they can——could they tell me exactly what representations his Department have made to the Department for Education and Skills?

Mr. Murphy: We have a joint project with the DFES and we are a playing an active role in the consideration of the Leitch review and the skills gap. As the hon. Lady’s party will be aware, the Welfare Reform Bill will play an important part in the skills agenda for the over-50s. About half those on incapacity benefit are aged over 50. An enormous amount is being done to support such people in their efforts to get into work. Indeed, in the past year there has been an increase of more than 200,000 in the number of people aged over 50 coming into the labour market.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): Over 50s reported that one of the main barriers to work was the attitude of employers, who saw them as over the hill and not worth employing. Has my hon. Friend detected any change in employers’ attitude and an improved work-entry rate since the introduction of age discrimination legislation?

Mr. Murphy: A variety of initiatives, including the “Age Positive” and “Be Ready” campaigns, are aimed at changing perceptions of older workers. In advance of the age discrimination legislation, there was a remarkable increase in the number of older workers staying in the labour force or returning to it, so there have been improvements. However, my hon. Friend is right that we have further to go in supporting the ever-increasing number of those aged over 50 who wish to work, in order to give them the chance to get back into the labour market.

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