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21 May 2009 : Column 1706

It said that after receiving evidence from a wide range of organisations and having Ministers before it.

The view that changing the name would make a difference is not just mine or that of the Royal British Legion or campaign organisations; it is the view of the Audit Commission, a reputable, well respected organisation with a breadth of knowledge and experience that should not be underrated. It is the view of the Institute of Revenues Rating and Valuation, Help the Aged, Citizens Advice and the Local Government Association. The expertise and knowledge of those organisations should not be ignored, and the new evidence provided by ComRes polling, to which I have referred, gives the quantitative evidence of the deterrent effects of the “benefit” label that the Minister was seeking. I hope that she can give a positive response to that call today.

I turn in passing to a related issue. Political will and intelligent use of data could ensure that people, particularly pensioners, are paid benefits and council tax relief automatically, without the need for claims. Improvements to data sharing between the Department for Work and Pensions, local authorities and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs could be used to identify the pensioners who are most likely to be eligible for financial support. I hope that the Minister will take seriously that suggestion, which has been proposed by Help the Aged and others. Help the Aged, in particular, has suggested that there should be some piloting of such data sharing so that there can be automatic payments. That would help to refine the way of working and improve methods to minimise the risk of overpayment. At the very least, it would widen the net of people who are potentially eligible but currently go unnotified and unnoticed, and who as a consequence do not get around to making an application.

I hope that the Minister will say a bit more about the Government’s plans to boost take-up, including the part that data sharing can play and what other strategies are being deployed. In this time of recession, when families and pensioners are feeling the pinch more than ever and when evidence shows that many of our older veterans are living in poverty, this modest step is worth taking. The misnaming of council tax relief or rebate as a benefit has a deterrent effect—the evidence is clear, as is the weight of support for the change.

I do not pretend that renaming would be some sort of panacea or a magic fix to a significant problem. However, those living on the bottom 10 per cent. of incomes are paying the highest proportion of that income in tax. It is surely right, proper and fair that we take every step we can to reduce that burden. The Work and Pensions Committee described the name changes as a first step, and it is a worthwhile one. I hope that the Minister can take that step today and give us some good news that will help to boost eligibility and raise take-up of council tax benefit.

3.58 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Kitty Ussher): I start, as is customary—but I particularly mean it on this occasion—by congratulating the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing the debate. I say that I particularly mean it because it is the culmination of an excellent campaign. He has raised an important issue and one that is dear to our hearts, as I shall explain.

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It is not just the hon. Gentleman whom we need to congratulate. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) had a ten-minute Bill on this very subject a few weeks ago. A vast array of Ministers listened with great sympathy to the points that she put across. She, in turn, has been working shoulder to shoulder with the Royal British Legion, which the hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned. We should put on record today our appreciation and thanks to Chris Simpkins, who led the campaign, and whom I had the pleasure of meeting only a few days ago. He represents hard-working and honest people who served their country in their own way, including the 25,000 who signed the Royal British Legion petition.

As well as signing the petition, members of the Royal British Legion have campaigned—in their hundreds, as I know for certain, but probably in their thousands— to raise the issue with their constituency Members of Parliament, including me in my capacity as Member of Parliament for Burnley. Age Concern and Help the Aged have been partners in the campaign. On behalf of the Government, I would like to thank everybody who has been involved in one of the best campaigns in recent years. It certainly attracted the Government’s attention. I also thank the many hon. Members who took the trouble to respond to what their constituents were telling them, and who raised the matter with Ministers on behalf of their constituents.

In the short time that remains, I would like to answer the specific points that have been made, say a little about where we are on the matter, and perhaps say something about other measures that we have in hand to boost take-up of council tax benefit. We are keen to do that because, as the hon. Gentleman says, we are as concerned as he is that take-up is not as near 100 per cent. as it could be; it is quite a bit less than that.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and we are listening. We are in the process of working through the issues, and I will explain what we believe to be the outstanding issues shortly. He asked for a timetable, and I hope that we will have a meeting at which we can agree a road map for a timetable. I have a further meeting, which was arranged only today, with the Royal British Legion on 3 June. By then, I hope that we will have a consensus about the best way in which to progress. My attitude is positive and I am keen to help when possible, but we need a shared analysis of the precise problems and what we should do about them before we can change policy.

I shall outline the outstanding issues. If we changed the name of council tax benefit to “rebate” or “relief”—the hon. Gentleman did not state his preference, but that can be discussed—would it require primary legislation? Our advice is that it probably would because council tax benefit exists in law, and the easiest way in which to make a change, should we decide to do that, is to do it in law. We could thus avoid the problem of having to explain in forms and letters to claimants or potential claimants that council tax “relief” or “rebate” means what is defined in law as “council tax benefit”. We therefore believe that primary legislation is required.

Mr. Burstow: I am grateful to the Minister for engaging with the issue so constructively and positively. She talks about legislation. The right hon. Member for Enfield,
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North (Joan Ryan), who introduced the ten-minute Bill, has provided a useful platform to air not only the issue but the mechanism whereby the House could, in this Session, put on the statute book something that no party opposes and could thus progress swiftly.

Kitty Ussher: When I said that our advice was that a change required primary legislation, I did not say that that was a hurdle. However, it is obviously relevant to the way in which any change would be made.

If primary legislation makes the change harder to achieve swiftly, is it sufficient to rebrand? It may be possible simply to do that, if local authorities agree that that is desirable. The words that we use in marketing and in the main forms and letters could be different from those in the primary legislation, as long as there was a link between them at some stage so that the change would not exist in the abstract. Primary legislation is not necessarily a hurdle, but matters need to be agreed and worked through.

There is, of course, also the issue of cost. I will be honest with the hon. Gentleman: at this point in time estimates of the cost vary. I am sure that there is a way of reaching a consensus on that, which I hope to do in the next few weeks. However, if the costs are larger than one might hope, that could be relevant—indeed, I am sure that my Treasury colleagues would certainly say that it is. I am keen to address the issue and come to a shared view on what the costs would be so that we can move forward. I am sure that all Opposition Members would also like to know what they are signing up to, if, as he said, they are to reach a cross-party consensus.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the evidence base. I am grateful for the recent survey, which he referred to, the results of which were also sent to me earlier this week, because I had asked for a better look at the evidence. Although we all agree that making a change makes common sense, we would not want to go through the cost of doing so if the evidence base was not clear.

There is no doubt that a stigma is sometimes attached to the word “benefit”, particularly among those of the elderly generation, who perhaps have great pride at never having signed on. Some will have done so and some will not, but for those who have not, doing so can often be quite a hurdle to overcome emotionally. If that prevents them from accessing the finance to which they are entitled, that is a problem and we would need to look into it. There is a parallel issue, which is that some people do not want to submit to a means test. People would still have to experience that, so we will need to extract the semantic issue from the substantial point. However, we are making some progress on that, and I am grateful for the work of the Royal British Legion in helping us get to the bottom of it.

Those are the outstanding issues on which I am committed to trying to make progress. I hope that we will be able to return to the House in the not-too-distant future to report our progress on how we are moving forward, legislatively or otherwise, what the costs are and how we are ensuring a shared analysis of what the evidence really is. However, if it were not for such an excellent campaign, I might not be looking at the issue this week and next, so I again place on record my thanks to those involved and the hon. Gentleman.

I want also to say a little about general rates of take-up and what we are trying to do in parallel with the
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current exercise, which leads to the automaticity point that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Our figures show that only around 63 to 69 per cent. of all those whom we believe are entitled to receive council tax benefit actually do so, which is a problem. The percentage of eligible pensioners who receive the benefit is even lower, at between 55 and 61 per cent.

The hon. Gentleman said that the problem had got worse, and we will perhaps have to look at the figures, because our figures show that it has remained fairly stable in recent years. That is not good enough—we would like the figure to improve—but I guess it could be worse; at least it is not starting to fall. Even though council tax benefit already helps more than 5 million families, I would like the percentage of people who take up their entitlement to rise, and I am disappointed, frankly, that it has not done so in recent years.

We are doing a lot of things to boost take-up. For example, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions recently wrote to more than 200,000 pensioners who our records show to be in receipt of pension credit already, but who we think may be entitled to further financial support through council tax benefit, to encourage them directly to make such a claim. She has also written to the chief executive of every local authority, urging them to support our efforts to increase take-up and make use of the data that we send them about how people may be entitled. We are fairly optimistic that that will lead to another push, so that more people will receive more of the money to which they are entitled.

We have made it simpler for pensioners to claim council tax benefit. They can now do so at the same time as making a claim for pension credit. In fact, they can claim pension credit, council tax benefit and housing benefit in one call to the relevant bit of the Pension, Disability and Carers Service. That works behind the scenes with details collected during the call being passed to the client’s local authority, so that customers do not have to repeat information or ring two places, and all the rest of it. The service was introduced only in November last year, so we do not yet have figures for its impact, but there seem to be good anecdotal grounds for optimism.

We are also encouraging the take-up of housing benefit and council tax benefit by focusing on those additional benefits in the full benefit entitlement check that our staff now carry out whenever they can, including at the 13,000 face-to-face visits to customers each week, which might be for a number of issues. I thank all our
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staff and local authority staff who make substantial efforts to ensure that people get that to which they are entitled. All that is on top of publicity materials and regular campaigns. We provide best practice guidance to local authorities explaining the barriers to take-up and encouraging them to learn from each other’s good examples of how to overcome those barriers.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned automaticity. We recently took the first step towards seeing whether people could get council tax benefit automatically, by working with four local authorities to test whether data held by the Pension, Disability and Carers Service could be used to identify which customers are entitled to council tax benefit. We do not have the full results of that work yet, but the evidence so far from data-matching exercises is that we are some way from being able to identify sufficiently accurately those who are entitled. That is disappointing, because if we had the data to make that possible, automaticity would be the next policy decision to be made. Initial indications show that only a small proportion of the people whom we had identified and approached ended up making a successful claim. If that is what the full analysis shows, that will be disappointing, but we will use the results of the pilot to identify what the issues were and how we can improve the success rate.

As a result of the meeting I had with Royal British Legion, I shall also ensure that we discuss what the benefit should be called, in our analysis, to see whether we can add to the evidence base, but not in a way that will delay for too long our conversations on policy.

I hope that I have answered all the points that the hon. Gentleman made, and I congratulate him again on raising this issue, which is extremely current in Ministers’ minds. I hope that we can continue the cross-party spirit and side-by-side working that we have managed to achieve with the Royal British Legion as a result of its excellent campaign. Again, I thank the people who signed the petition.

This being the last debate before the Whitsun recess, I conclude by wishing you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and all Members of the House a very restful recess after what has been a turbulent time.

Question put and agreed to.

4.13 pm

House adjourned.

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