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The Chairman: Order. Before calling the next speaker, I advise hon. Members that it would be helpful if I could call the Minister at or around five past 10 to give her adequate time to set out the Government’s case, and to respond to points that have been made. I hope that hon. Members will tailor their contributions accordingly.
9.58 am
Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, although I am disappointed that I cannot have a cup of coffee. The regulations in this place have always fooled me, and continue to do so.
I have been taken aback by the contributions this morning. All change causes concern, and we will watch it with considerable interest. Every hon. Member who has spoken on the Opposition Benches has received letters and requests, and visits from the citizens advice bureaux, and it is very difficult to understand why I have received no letters about this issue, no requests for a meeting, and no statements from the CAB. My elderly people’s lobby is active, not just in Stockton, South, but throughout Teesside, so I am staggered that Opposition Members have received so many letters and addressed so many concerns when I have not. I know that my group is a very active one.
If I were to say anything at all that was positive, it is that the officers from the DWP office are incredibly good at ensuring that my constituents understand what the regulations are and how they can claim. They are proactive in ensuring that they claim the maximum.
If I were to make one statement that my elderly constituents make consistently, it is that they have never been as well off. It was 18 months ago and it does not relate to this morning’s discussion, but when my own nan picked up her pension, she gave the money back to the post office official assuming that she had been given the wrong amount. It was £500. She had never received that amount of money from anyone. There is an element of duplicity here and I am really sad to make that statement to the Committee.
Mr. Waterson: I will draw a veil over the use of the word “duplicity”. I note the hon. Lady’s best efforts and those of her local pension service, but has she any evidence that the take-up rate for pension credit is significantly higher in her constituency?
Ms Taylor: I will provide written evidence for the hon. Gentleman so that he can see that what I am saying today is substantiated.
Finally, no pamphlet, however brilliant, is totally adequate. We all know that. We can say these things over and again. Many of our elderly are very proud. Many will say to me, “I do not want to claim that benefit, thank you very much. I am independent.” We must respect that. I will watch how these regulations are enforced and administered. I am confident that they will be valuable to my elderly constituents if they speed up the whole process and ensure that people are not waiting and wondering whether they will receive anything. I think that they will be pleased when these regulations come into force.
10.2 am
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): May I join in the plaudits that have already been paid to your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow? It is nice to see a fellow traveller from the class of 1997 doing so well and being so respected in the House.
I shall be brief as we want to hear from the Minister. I simply want to reiterate the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire. The Government clearly wanted to deal with their ballooning deficit in December last year when prudence still mattered to them. Now, with the banking crisis and everything else that has happened and the economic and fiscal situation being more lax, these regulations have been taken over by events. It would be entirely appropriate to give people on lower incomes more money if they were eligible for it and fit the criteria for pension credit or working families tax credit.
I suspect that there will be something in the PBR to help pensioners with their energy costs, which have gone up a great deal. If the Government do that, it will be a universal benefit to all those who meet the criteria which will be all pensioners. It will therefore go to pensioners who are well able to afford their energy costs if they are on the higher end of the income distribution stream. However, the pension credit goes to people who really need the money and cannot afford their energy bills and other things this year. I strongly urge the Minister to think again.
The Chairman: Order. It is not normal practice for the Chair to comment on the decisions of the Committee of Selection, but it is worth noting for the record that this meeting was changed from a previous date. The composition of the Committee was determined by the Committee of Selection, upon whose decisions I make absolutely no comment except to say that I do not think that the hon. Lady was missed off as a result of some administrative or clerical error. The Committee of Selection made its own choice, and colleagues can make their own judgment about the merits or otherwise of that choice.
10.5 am
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Ms Rosie Winterton): May I, too, say how pleased I am to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow? It is a pleasure, as always.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South, in her indignation at some of the comments made by Opposition Members. Through the introduction of pension credit, the Government have been able to lift some 900,000 pensioners out of relative poverty, which we can be incredibly proud of. It was this Government who introduced the winter fuel allowance, to which the hon. Member for Bromsgrove referred. I remember, when I was first elected, seeing women in my constituency who were receiving the cold weather payments that were in place under the Conservative Government. It is outrageous for Members to say that this Government have not looked after the poorest pensioners.
I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Eastbourne say that the Conservative party, if elected, would keep pension credit. He did not say whether it would reverse the changes that we are introducing today. If he wishes to put on record that it would, I invite him to do so.
I understand that the Liberal Democrat policy is to abolish pension credit and replace it with a universal state pension of £151 a week.
Jenny Willott: No, it is not.
Ms Winterton: Perhaps the hon. Lady would like to intervene.
Jenny Willott: I wish to clarify that the Liberal Democrat policy is to introduce a citizens’ pension at the same level as the guaranteed credit, which is £124. It would be for everybody who has been resident for more than a certain time.
Ms Winterton: In which case, the most vulnerable pensioners should be wary of any policies from the Lib Dems. At present a single person can claim £124 a week, but on top of that they are entitled to housing benefit averaging £60 a week and council tax benefit averaging £14 a week, which takes the total up to £198 a week. If the Liberal Democrats abolish pension credit and introduce a flat rate, it will be pretty bad news for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. If the hon. Lady wishes to say that Liberal Democrat policy is really that the pension will be £198 a week—
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): No, £30, Clegg said.
The Chairman: Order.
Ms Winterton: Of course, my hon. Friend is right. It is interesting that the sum has now risen from £30 a week, which was rather a sad state of affairs.
As hon. Members have said, the regulations introduce changes to the time allowed for backdating a claim for pension credit from 12 to three months, and to the period for which housing benefit and council tax benefit claims by working-age customers may be backdated from 52 weeks to six months. The regulations also extend to 13 weeks the period for which pension credit customers can go abroad without losing their benefit.
I shall look into whether the explanatory memorandum was clear enough, and see whether the language can be made more consumer-friendly in future. I know how irritating it is when such memorandums are not clear.
Mr. Waterson: I cannot speak for the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central, but my main beef is that explanatory memorandums are meant to be factual and informative to Committee members. Today’s appears to contain a certain element of spin, which I thought had been scrapped by the Government.
Ms Winterton: I thought I was being rather helpful, but there we are.
Several hon. Members seem to feel that the regulations have been sneaked through, but my predecessor, who is now the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), announced the changes on 5 December last year, as part of the annual uprating statement. In that announcement, he also made it clear that the reduction in backdating periods for pension credit, housing benefit and council tax benefit would be brought in from October 2008. That is the convention with changes to benefits.
The proposals were sent to the SSAC in April, and we received its comments in late July. Obviously, we wanted to consider its comments and recommendations carefully and to respond formally. That information was published on 15 September, alongside the regulations, which were subject to the negative resolution procedure under the primary legislation. Moving the date on which the regulations came into force would have undermined the efforts that we were making to advertise the changes taking place. That would have caused confusion to customers at a time when we wanted to send a clear message.
Jenny Willott: Regardless of whether the changes were announced in December, it is unusual, is it not, that hon. Members did not have the opportunity to see the regulations and discuss them, or even to request such a discussion, before they came in?
Ms Winterton: We are discussing them now.
Jenny Willott: After they came into place.
Ms Winterton: But they went through the negative resolution procedure, in line with the legislation. I am not sure whether the hon. Lady had an Opposition day debate or a debate in Westminster Hall—the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said that he might have contributed to one—but it would help me to know whether such a debate took place. Having come to my present post only six weeks ago, I cannot remember.
I do know, however, that my predecessor announced the changes in December, and that he wrote to all Members in February to remind them of the changes and timings. The letter also reminded them of the need to advise pensioners about the changes and encourage them to claim benefits, in the way that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Perhaps he passed the letter on to his older persons group. If the hon. Lady had wanted to hold a debate on the issue at that point, it was open to her to do so.
There was also national and regional press coverage, supported by more than 100,000 targeted mailings to pensioners, encouraging them to claim. I know that the hon. Gentleman is slightly worried about the use of leaflets, but I find, in my constituency work, that they are a good source of information. He is right to say that we should make sure that there is also personal contact. Our local Pension Service makes about 13,000 visits a week in order to have face-to-face contact.
We had informal discussions with Age Concern and Help the Aged, and I am sure they briefed the hon. Lady. There were many opportunities for her to raise the issue. I held discussions this week with Age Concern and Help the Aged. I am aware of their concerns, and we have agreed to work together to ensure that we do more to encourage people to take up pension credit.
Ms Winterton: There are two points there. My hon. Friend is right that we should keep in close contact with organisations such as Help the Aged and Age Concern, which will shortly become one organisation, to ensure that when the changes take place, people are aware of them and are encouraged to claim benefits as quickly as possible. The point about the working age changes is that they will be reviewed in 2009. We responded to the Committee on that by saying that instead of reducing the backdating to three months, we would reduce it to six and review it in 2009.
My hon. Friend was right that this is a range of measures. The changes are part of a package that we agreed with Age Concern and Help the Aged to bring in other beneficial measures that they were keen to see, such as enabling housing and council tax benefit to be dealt with entirely by phone. As part of that package, we have made pensioners’ claims for housing and council tax benefit more automatic. Customers will be able to claim those benefits alongside pension credit by calling just one number, and that will benefit an estimated 50,000 pensioners over the next two years.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I, too, have an active senior citizens forum in Plymouth, and I know from them and from other constituents that one of the difficulties with claiming pension credit and other benefits is the intrusion into people’s circumstances. Does the Minister hope that the streamlining will result in less intrusion, and therefore perhaps better take-up?
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