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10 Dec 2009 : Column 173WHcontinued
Many Members spoke about the importance of take-up, and asked what we were doing to improve it. The significance of take-up can hardly be underestimated. That is why, every week of the year, the Pension, Disability and Carers Service undertakes 13,000 visits to pensioners. Earlier this year, my hon. Friend the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination, then a DWP
Minister, wrote to nearly 250,000 recipients of pension credit about the passporting of benefits such as council tax benefit.
The importance of ensuring that no stigma attaches to people who claim benefits is well understood. That is why, following a campaign by the Royal British Legion, the Government amended the Welfare Reform Bill a few weeks ago-it has now been enacted-to take the power to rename council tax benefit "council tax rebate".
Since November 2008, people have to make only one telephone call to claim pension credit, housing benefit and council tax benefit. We have also removed the need for people to give a signature, which was unnecessarily bureaucratic.
Paul Rowen: Will the Minister confirm whether there are still 0845 numbers, or are calls now totally free?
Helen Goodman: I am sorry, but I do not know. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.
The majority of housing benefit and council tax benefit recipients are passported from pension credit. That is why we believe that it is right for the PDCS to remain the first port of call for such benefits.
Mr. Waterson: The Minister told us that the power had been taken in legislation to change council tax benefit to council tax rebate. When will it happen?
Helen Goodman: It will happen as soon as is practicable. It is obviously a complex matter. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the fact, but council tax benefit and housing benefit are administered by local authorities, so it is not completely under the control of the Department for Work and Pensions. We need to set up a system that everyone can operate; computer systems will have to be changed and so on, and that cannot be done overnight.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood asked about automaticity. A national pilot will take place over six months during the next financial year to test how the concept works. I hope that it will provide the opportunity to build the evidence base necessary to support consideration of how we might use the information that we hold at the moment to increase take-up while minimising fraud and error. It is important that we have tight data-sharing systems, so that people can be sure that information that they give to one arm of government is used for appropriate purposes and does not get lost.
My hon. Friend asked about an adviser hotline, with only one telephone number. We now have a dedicated pension centre liaison officer in every pension centre. That person has a separate, dedicated phone number. We hope that that service is effective. It is bedding in at the moment, and we will evaluate it to ensure that it works properly everywhere.
My hon. Friend also spoke about the needs of carers. The Government have taken a number of steps to improve the position of carers. The first will benefit them disproportionately-it will benefit them more than most groups. It is the decision to reduce the national insurance contributions requirement to 30 years. One reason why carers do not have full contribution records is that they have been out of the workplace caring for relatives.
Secondly, from April 2010, we will introduce the carers credit; people will be credited with NICs if they are caring for a member of the family for at least 20 hours a week. Thirdly, we have enabled people over the age of 65 to receive the carers allowance, although it will be offset against their basic state pension. As a result, they will receive an extra £30 a week. That is significant for the quarter of a million people who are entitled to it.
One thing that really concerns people of working age is that they should be able to combine their caring responsibilities with a job. We are therefore having people trained to ensure that every jobcentre has someone on the staff who understands the needs of carers and can advise them specifically on finding work that will fit with their caring responsibilities. My colleagues in the Department of Health have done much to improve the availability of respite breaks.
My hon. Friend pointed out that the administrative arrangements for applying for carers allowance in order to qualify for the additional pension credit, even if unsuccessfully, is not quite the model of streamlined government that one would expect in the 21st century. We have said, and I reaffirm it today, that we will look carefully at the Committee's proposals for carers in the long term. We are also considering how to improve the process in the shorter term for pensioners in receipt of pension credit, in order to make it more straightforward. As I said about housing and council tax benefits, there are IT issues, but we wish to address them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud spoke about the quality of life of pensioners. In addition to enhancing the pension, the Government have introduced bus passes, free swimming, support for the television licence fee and the Warm Front scheme; and we have maintained the level of the cold weather and winter fuel payments this winter. On Monday this week, the Energy Bill received its Second Reading; it will introduce social tariffs, from which poor pensioners should benefit.
I turn to the question of why we do not have targets for pensioner poverty like those that we introduced for child poverty. Essentially, we come back to the incentives point that I made earlier. The fact of the matter is that, in most cases, pensioners have had the opportunity to take actions to enhance their income in retirement. We want to set up a system that removes the barriers to people doing that, which is why we have placed such emphasis on the changes to the rules for carers and women who have had particular difficulties because the
rules were not structured to acknowledge their different life patterns. Moreover, the system should be forward-looking so that we provide incentives for the future. That is the essential difference between pensioners and children.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne concluded with a speech of such negativity that I wondered whether we were living in the same country. The benefits uprating statutes normally link benefits to the retail prices index. Although the September RPI was minus 1.4 per cent., the Chancellor has decided to increase the basic state pension by 2.5 per cent. from April next year, which is almost a 4 per cent. increase in real terms. He has increased other benefits by 1.5 per cent., which means bringing forward 1.5 per cent. of the following year's increase. There is no question of a cut in benefits under the Government's plans for April 2011. That can be clearly seen in the Green Book, and in table B4 in particular. Paragraph 5.19 states:
"To provide additional support to households during the early stages of economic recovery, the 2009 Pre-Budget Report announces that the Government will bring forward a proportion of the increases expected in April 2011 a year earlier, thereby providing a 1.5 per cent increase next April for those benefits and tax credits normally uprated by RPI. In April 2011, rates will be increased by the remaining amount necessary to make up the difference with the RPI for September 2010. This locks in the real increase that arises from not reducing benefits next April, but avoids a further permanent increase in expenditure that would reduce the amount available for frontline services in the next spending review."
I hope that that clarifies the fact that the Chancellor, instead of freezing rates, which he had the opportunity to do, has chosen to protect pensioners in this country to enhance their incomes in real terms. This year, we will be spending more than £13 billion more on pensioners than we would have done if the policies that were in place in 1997 had continued.
A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation described an historic reversal in the fortunes of pensioners over the last decades, with people over state pension age now the age group at the lowest risk of poverty.
I hope that the Government and the Select Committee can continue to maintain a constructive relationship as we move forward to address the serious issues that pensioners face in this country.