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House of Commons

Monday 31 March 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Pensioner Benefits

1. Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to increase the take-up of benefit entitlements by pensioners. [197190]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Mike O'Brien): We want every pensioner to claim the benefits to which they are entitled, which is why we are making it easier and more straightforward for them to do so. Pensioners can claim a number of benefits by making a telephone call, and the Department will then send them forms to fill in for council tax benefit. Some pensioners do not send those forms in, so, as from October, the process will be done automatically, obviating the need to send in forms. Pensioners will be covered for state pensions, pension credit, housing benefit and council tax benefit—one telephone call for all benefits.

Rosie Cooper: To what extent does the Department work in partnership with non-governmental organisations that deal with the elderly and with partner organisations such as the health service, which may enable us to target pensioner groups? Does the Minister have any plans to extend that? Over-75s receive free television licences, but do we use that information to ensure that people who are eligible are targeted?

Mr. O'Brien: We have access to information, particularly on winter fuel payments, that covers large numbers of pensioners and gives us quite a lot of data on where they are. We work with Help the Aged, Age Concern, citizens advice bureaux, Community Service Volunteers and others to increase the take-up of benefits, and partnerships have been developed with local authorities, too. The aim is to develop joint working partnerships so that we can raise take-up across all the benefits. There are no official links with the NHS as such—we co-ordinate through Departments, but there are not official links locally. We often receive referrals from GPs, hospitals and carers, and the Disability and Carers Service works closely with the Department of Health.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that many of my constituents who formerly worked for Dexion and had their pensions
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stolen from them no longer need to take up benefits, because they will receive compensation from the financial assistance scheme? Will he confirm that the Treasury will not—as a result of Government delay in giving my constituents the compensation that they deserve—take up to 40 per cent. tax from my constituents who have got their pensions through FAS?

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that, this morning, I was able to talk to his constituent, Mr. Humphries, and tell him that we hoped to make an announcement today that the Treasury had agreed that the lump sum payments to be paid to various FAS recipients can be taxed in a way that means that most of those people—it depends on their tax circumstances—will not be pushed into the higher tax bracket as a result of those lump sum payments, so they can spread their tax payment over time. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s constituent will welcome that, and that he will, too.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): One of the benefits that pensioners draw, as my hon. and learned Friend will be aware, is the pension element of the industrial injuries disablement benefit. May I draw his attention to the fact that his Department has received a recommendation from the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council relating to men who worked in the screens on the colliery surfaces during the 40 years up to 1983, proposing that provision for COPD—chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—be extended to cover that group of workers? Will he look urgently at that decision, because the group of men who would claim that benefit are elderly, and we need to ensure that those who are eligible can claim industrial injuries disablement benefit and, in addition, explore whether there is a full and final payment of compensation, similar to that paid to their underground colleagues? It is urgent that that decision be looked at and the recommendation accepted.

Mr. O'Brien: I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we will look at that as a matter of urgency. He knows that I, too, represent an area with a working colliery and a large mining community, and these matters are important to such communities.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): There will be a welcome from Members on both sides of the House if that review is successful. Is the Minister satisfied with the situation of men over 60 in relatively low-paid full-time work who are not automatically reminded that they are eligible for winter fuel payment? Will he look at that to see whether he can make a change to procedures?

Mr. O'Brien: We want to ensure that everyone who is entitled to the winter fuel payment registers to receive it. There is a substantial advertising campaign to ensure that we get that take-up, but people have to register. Indeed, they should have registered already to take up the winter fuel payment this year.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Will the Minister convey the thanks of many Members of Parliament to the Pension Service for the quality of
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care it gives many of our constituents? Given that it is the Government’s aim to increase take-up, what is his estimate for the coming years of the increased number of pensioners claiming the benefits to which they are entitled?

Mr. O'Brien: I am pleased to be able to tell my right hon. Friend that our target for the year finishing tomorrow was to get 235,000 people on to pension credit. In fact, we have reached 250,000, so we have gone beyond that figure. I have indicated that I want to see it increased during the coming year, so I am pleased to tell him that we are continuing to press to get more people on to pension credit.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): The Minister says that he wants to increase take-up and I welcome that, but the Budget tells a different story. If the Government were intending to get the benefits to every eligible pensioner, by 2010-11, an extra £1.75 billion would have been allocated in the Budget. Instead, the Budget assumes no increase in take-up over the next three years. How is he getting on with persuading the Treasury that getting the benefits to the pensioners who are entitled to them is not poor value for money, as the Treasury seems to assume?

Mr. O'Brien: We certainly want to get benefits to all the pensioners who are entitled to them. That is one of the reasons why, just before Christmas, I announced the introduction of automaticity, which sounds complicated but basically means that with one phone call a person can obtain four different benefits.

The process of getting the benefits needs to be simplified. One of the problems that we have had in getting people on to pension credit is that we have written to pensioners—in some cases, four or five times—asking them to apply, and some have chosen not to do so. We cannot force them to apply; it is their decision. However, for those who apply, we can make it easier to get the benefits. That is why, from October, we will introduce the new system of automaticity, where those who get one benefit will get four.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Will my hon. and learned Friend explain how the various Departments are co-operating in promoting benefits for pensioners? He will know that take-up of concessionary bus passes is not particularly high. In my area, they are claimed by about 57 per cent. of pensioners. Will the Pension Service remind pensioners of the enhanced benefits of the scheme and encourage them to apply?

Mr. O'Brien: We certainly want everyone who wishes to have a concessionary bus pass to take up that concession. We will rely on local authorities to promote the project. One of the issues is that local authorities in different areas have different start and finish times. Although the Government are promoting a national scheme and paying for a certain proportion of it, some local authorities have felt able to go beyond that and have raised the extra funding from the council tax system. As a result, running a national campaign is a lot more difficult, but there has been plenty of national publicity, MPs and Ministers have been promoting the
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scheme, and the Government are proud of the fact that we have introduced it and ensured that pensioners can travel on local services around the country at off-peak times. That is something we have done; the Conservative party never even attempted it when it was in government.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): Any measures to boost take-up of benefits are welcome and long overdue, but has the Minister made any estimate of the number of pensioners who are forced to use their winter fuel allowance to pay soaring council tax and utility bills and to pay for basic foodstuffs? Is he not ashamed that the latest EU figures show that Britain is fourth from the bottom of the poverty league, so that only pensioners in Spain, Latvia and Cyprus are more likely to fall into poverty?

Mr. O'Brien: We are the party that has lifted more than 1 million pensioners out of relative poverty. It takes some brass neck for Conservatives, who wanted to increase VAT on fuel to 17.5 per cent. and keep pensioners on basic pensions of £69, to say that they are now worried about pensioners. They seem to worry about the poor pensioner only when someone else is in government.

The Government are making winter fuel payments to deal with fuel poverty issues. We are ensuring that people who need help because they are poor are getting pension credit, and that we deal with the issues related to take-up. The Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported did nothing, and he has some brass neck to suggest otherwise.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Is my hon. and learned Friend considering renaming council tax benefit “council tax rebate”, as advocated by Sir Michael Lyons, to increase take-up among pensioners? Would it be possible to link the systems and computers of the Inland Revenue with those of local government to ensure automatic payment of council tax benefit?

Mr. O'Brien: I always hesitate to assure people that it is easy to link computer systems; it is not always easy. However, we work with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Treasury to see where we can share data to ensure that we get the information we need to target pension credit in particular. After October, pension credit will be linked to council tax benefit, so it will be possible to ensure that people who claim one get the other as well.

Local Employment Partnerships

2. Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): What progress has been made by local employment partnerships in assisting disadvantaged people into work; and if he will make a statement. [197191]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): Local employment partnerships have started well. The initiative is growing rapidly; more than 600 employers have signed up and more than 200 have already recruited through their partnerships, helping more than 3,000 people into work so far.

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Anne Moffat: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware of a partnership programme in Glasgow, whereby John Wheatley college takes deprived adults from communities and trains them to work in the health service? That has come about because of an innovative and dynamic principal called Ian Graham, who has taken chances to do it. It looks as though the initiative will be a great success.

Mr. Timms: I am pleased to say that I have heard about the achievements of Mr. Graham and John Wheatley college. The March employment figures show how strong the UK labour market is. More people than ever are in work and the numbers on unemployment benefit are down into the 700,000s for the first time since 1975. Local employment partnerships such as the one in my hon. Friend’s area will help to ensure that the benefits of a strong labour market extend to disadvantaged jobseekers who have been out of work for a long time. I welcome the progress being made in her area.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Is the Minister aware that one of the partners—Carter and Carter, I believe—that had been due to deliver on the partnership scheme in North Yorkshire has gone into receivership? What are the implications for North Yorkshire, and who will now deliver on that partnership?

Mr. Timms: I am aware of the problems that have beset Carter and Carter Group plc. However, I can tell the hon. Lady that Newcastle college is taking over the contracts for which Carter and Carter was responsible. She can be reassured that there will be continuity of support for her constituents and others.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on what the Government have done to get disadvantaged people—particularly people with severe learning difficulties, who were totally ignored by the previous Administration—into work. However, getting people with such difficulties into work-based opportunities is still proving a tremendous challenge, for obvious reasons. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and representatives from my local employment partnership, the Shaw Trust and Mencap, to discuss what more can be done locally in Crosby to help such people?

Mr. Timms: Yes, I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and representatives of the organisations she mentions. Those organisations have done excellent work, not only in her constituency but elsewhere, under the auspices of the pathways to work programme and other initiatives that we have been supporting. We have been able to make good progress, but I look forward to discussing with her what is happening in her constituency.

Personalised Support

3. Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab): What steps he is taking to provide personalised support for those out of work. [197192]

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The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): Employment increased last month to a new record high of 29.46 million and claimant unemployment has fallen to its lowest since 1975. Our six different new deals have helped 1.85 million people into work. We are now merging the new deals for jobseekers into a single, flexible new deal to tailor the support to the needs of each person.

Christine Russell: In my constituency, there are now 1.25 jobs for every person of employment age. That is a huge success, but there are still large numbers of people on incapacity benefit who have been out of work for many years, and many of those people have acute mental health problems. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have to do an awful lot more to help people with mental health problems to get back into training and, ultimately, back into the workplace?

James Purnell: Yes, that is absolutely right. We commissioned Dame Carol Black to consider that issue, and her report of last week gives us a good way of doing exactly that. We will continue to reform incapacity benefit, which we are committed to abolishing. In October, we will introduce the new employment and support allowance, which will be based on what people can do rather than what they cannot. That very much includes people with mental health problems. We are considering how we and the NHS can ensure that we give them the support to get them back into work.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): On Friday, I visited the Pertemps agency in West Bromwich and was very impressed with the fact that it has got 910 people, many of them long-term unemployed, back to work since last April. It was obvious from my discussions that barriers to employment relate not only to skills, but to psychological, cultural and a range of other factors. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that when the Government look to get people into work, their approach takes all those factors into account?

James Purnell: Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. That is exactly why we will involve the voluntary and private sectors in delivering personalised support to each of those individuals and will pay by result so that they have the freedom to decide how to get people back into work, but will be rewarded on the basis of how they do so.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The Secretary of State has said that the Government will reassess all existing incapacity benefit claimants between 2010 and 2013. How many extra pathways to work opportunities will there be over and above those already announced to help those who are reassessed, where that is appropriate?

James Purnell: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are extending pathways to work to the whole country from this April. I believe that his party has exactly the same goal as us on incapacity benefit. The Conservatives have announced that they want to match our goal of getting 1 million people off incapacity benefit, and we
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welcome their support for our policy. I hope that he will now stop promising completely non-existent welfare reform savings.

Child Poverty

4. Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to tackle child poverty. [197193]

8. Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to tackle child poverty. [197197]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): On Budget day, we published “Ending child poverty: everybody’s business”, reaffirming the Government’s target of halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020. The measures announced in the Budget will invest an additional £950 million and reduce child poverty by a further 250,000 children by 2010-11. Combined with announcements in last year’s Budget and pre-Budget report, that means an extra 500,000 children will be lifted out of poverty.

Ian Lucas: I particularly welcome the Government’s decision, announced in the Budget, to disregard child benefit for the purposes of council tax benefit and housing benefit claims from 2009. What steps will be taken next year to highlight that with all child benefit recipients?

James Purnell: My hon. Friend is right that this is a vital move towards making work pay, and I congratulate him on his campaigning on the issue. I believe that his early-day motion 1736 called for this last year, so he has clearly had a big influence on Government policy. It is a good thing that he has, because this measure, combined with others, means that 250,000 children will be lifted out of poverty. People will not have to apply for it—it will happen automatically—but we will ensure that they know that it, combined with other measures, means that work really does pay and that they can lift their family and children out of poverty.

Ann McKechin: As my right hon. Friend will be aware, it is also important that we have appropriate complementary as child care and early intervention policies. I understand that he will soon visit Scotland and very much hope that he will be able to visit Glasgow, where there are a number of very successful projects. Will he ensure that he clearly puts the message across to the Scottish National party Administration that they need urgently to consider their refusal to promise all vulnerable two-year-olds a place in nursery school, which had been promised by the previous Labour Administration, and that they need to do much more in prioritising child care support, which has received little attention?

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