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Lord Norrie: I am most grateful for the full replies that I have received this evening; indeed, my speech certainly generated some steam in the Chamber. I am interested only in the legal connotations. That is my sole concern. If those on the opposite side of the Chamber are satisfied that all this is within the law, then that is fine by me. Perhaps I am trying to be Devil's advocate so as to bring out a few points which I feel are not covered in the legislation. However, provided that the other side is satisfied, I am satisfied. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I think that this might be a convenient moment for the Committee to break for

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dinner. I therefore beg to move that the House be resumed. In moving the Motion, perhaps I may suggest that the Committee stage begin again not before 8.23 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

Social Security Benefits

7.22 p.m.

Lord Morris of Manchester rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what further action they propose to increase the take-up of social security benefits.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am most grateful to noble Lords who have joined me to address a problem of deep importance to many of the most needful people in Britain today. That time has been found for this debate, interrupting as it does our proceedings on the House of Lords Bill, is testimony to the abiding concern of this House for the problems of others as well as its own.

As my noble friend the Minster is aware, my perspective is that of a parliamentarian and former Minister principally involved in legislating for the basic elements of the special financial and other help now available to chronically sick and disabled people. For help to which they are entitled not to be reaching some 50 per cent of those eligible, involving the loss to them of £6 billion in disability living allowance alone, is plainly unacceptable. It is not only hurtful to needful people, but an affront to those in all parties who have striven over three decades to protect them from the social exclusion that poverty inflicts. They include notably my good and noble friend Lord Ashley and, of course, my noble friend Lady Castle, who has phoned me to say how sorry she is that she cannot be here tonight.

This debate is a response to the mounting concern among organisations of disabled people not only about the £6 billion lost in DLA but also the billions more in other unclaimed benefits. It is difficult for them, as for older people, to understand why, when the Government can target a cruise missile at a telephone booth in another country, they cannot successfully deliver cash benefits to severely disabled and other needful people in this country.

In reply to a Parliamentary Question on 10th November last, I was told:

    "My noble friend is right that the amount unclaimed could well exceed £6 billion. We estimate that half those who may be entitled to DLA do not claim it". My noble friend Lady Hollis had told me, replying to an earlier Parliamentary Question on 2nd June last, that the Government were investigating why the estimated 50 per cent of eligible disabled people had not applied for the allowance; but I know of no ministerial statement since then on the outcome of their investigation.

The latest ministerial statement I have seen on take-up was that made to the right honourable Dafydd Wigley by my honourable friend Hugh Bayley in another place on 4th March. After saying that the DSS was working

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with the Disability Benefits Forum to identify ways of improving information and advice about disability benefits, the reply stated:

    "We are determined to improve the administration of these benefits to ensure that decisions about entitlement are right at the outset and that they remain correct. These are necessary steps which must be taken before decisions can be made about the need for a take-up campaign". To this suggestion that it is too soon for a take-up campaign, the disability organisations reply that in fact, when the Government themselves estimate that disabled people miss out on £6 billion in DLA alone, it is already woefully late. They say that figure shouts the urgency of the need for a government-led national campaign.

Moreover, while Whitehall waits, town and country halls show what can be done. It's a right... not a lottery-- giving information on the Local Government Association's Benefit Take-up Initiative--abounds in examples of imaginative ways of reaching people who are failing to claim help that is due to them. Suffolk County Council includes a benefits check on all county care assessments. Last year there were over 5,000 such assessments, and today just under 90 per cent of people receiving home care in Suffolk receive the attendance allowance. Elsewhere the figure is between 60 per cent and 70 per cent.

Some councils which pay housing benefit tell people if they should be receiving other help when their computer picks up details of low income. Newcastle City Council now takes this further in a rolling programme of take-up work, aimed at identifying unclaimed help, while Somerset's Welfare Rights Unit has raised over £5 million in four years by concentrating on claims for people with physical and sensory disabilities.

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting the National Information Forum's annual "Getting the Message Across" awards, one of which went to Bristol City Council's Money Advice Service for a hugely successful disability benefits take-up campaign. With limited resources, the campaign had secured over £4 million a year for more than 2,000 disabled people, most of whom had existed for years on less than their correct entitlement. Important factors in Bristol's success were a telephone service on five days a week and a casework service based on home visits, a key element in reaching disabled people. It was heartening also to be able to present an award to the Benefits Agency for restructuring and simplifying its leaflets and to reflect on how much more it could achieve if the Government prioritised take-up by launching a major national campaign.

It must be hoped that none of the initiatives by local authorities will be restrained by the parliamentary reply given to Dafydd Wigley on 4th March. Improving administration is unquestionably important, as the reply to him says, but so too is timely prevention of preventable hardship among frail elderly and disabled people, as I am sure all DSS Ministers will agree. Local councils often see more clearly than Whitehall that all too many vulnerable people are at high risk when, for

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whatever reason, help Parliament intended for them is delayed, and that for them help delayed is often help tragically denied.

Hopefully we shall hear tonight how the Government intend to tackle the £6 billion loss to disabled people in DLA. Meanwhile we should all reflect on the sheer scale of the sum involved. For example it is treble the annual cost of everybody's TV licence fee in this country. As I was reminded today by Chrissie Maher of the Plain English Campaign, it should also be compared with the pensions mis-selling scandal. When that was discovered, the Government acted with exemplary speed to overhaul the law. But when the problem of unclaimed disability benefits is raised, the answer is that Whitehall's administration must first be improved,

    "before decisions can be made about the need for a take-up campaign". My noble friend has long been respected by disability organisations for her readiness to help and she will know how disquieted they are by the decision to delay a national take-up campaign. They find it extremely worrying too that the consultation paper A New Contract for Welfare--which paved the way for the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill--made no reference to take-up notwithstanding the enormous scale of underclaiming. Nor is failure to claim their entitlements a problem only for disabled people. It affects 700,000 older people who do not receive their entitlement to income support. Age Concern asks why,

    "it is taking so long to conclude the obvious: namely, that many older people are too proud to claim what they perceive as a handout despite the fact that the money comes from the same DSS budget as their state pension; the forms are too long and complicated; and the rules unnecessarily harsh". I honour the work of organisations like Age Concern whose benefit advice services and annual Your Rights Week, together with its guide to money benefits entitled Your Rights, constitute a model of what the voluntary sector can do to inform and help older people. Sally Greengross said recently on its behalf,

    "At £75 a week, income support is £8.25 more than the basic state pension. It is scandalous that so many of Britain's poorest older people are unaware of their entitlement. £2 billion a year goes unclaimed by them. A successful claim for even a few pence of income support could mean extra help with housing costs, the council tax and glasses and dental work". Sally expresses her concern also that far fewer people will be receiving in SERPS what they thought they would. What makes this even worse is that since 1986 the DSS has singularly failed to let widows and widowers know that the amount of SERPS they will inherit is halved on 6th April 2000. My noble friend has told the House that the total cost is £5.5 billion. That is money older people were expecting to receive. Now they are told it will go to the Treasury. I know my good friend the noble Lord, Lord Rix, will also be addressing this other scandal as the debate proceeds and that he will do so with all his customary skill and sincerity.

I conclude, as Agnes Fletcher, to whom I am most grateful, did in a recent paper for RADAR, by summarising the reasons why even people in compelling need often fail to claim their entitlements. Many do not know they are eligible. A vicious circle of poverty creating isolation and social exclusion makes people less

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aware of their rights and how to claim. Again, many feel that there is a stigma attached to claiming, based on generalised allegations of fraud in some parts of the media.

Our principal responsibility as parliamentarians to disabled people, indeed our bounden duty, is to do all we can to reduce the handicapping effects of their disabilities. Failure to ensure that they receive the statutory help to which they are entitled increases the handicapping effects of their disabilities. That is why this question is so very important to Britain's 8 million disabled people.

7.33 p.m.

Lord Addington: My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to debate this subject. Indeed I must salute the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, for once again raising these matters. I welcome his reference to benefits for the disabled. He has soldiered away in this particular trench for far longer than I care to remember.

This is the kind of debate where one can feel the Government machine getting a little uneasy because we are calling on the Government to say that they will spend more money. That may involve departments "having a go" at each other. One wonders whether the Treasury is totally happy with the idea of paying out what it has promised to pay out. I mention that as an aside.

The real point I wish to make is that the system for obtaining benefits increasingly requires pieces of paper to be filled in correctly. Over the past few years it has been established that many people in our society have tremendous difficulty with the written word. I approach this matter as a dyslexic who is involved with various dyslexia organisations. However, I am not just talking about dyslexics in this regard. I refer to people who are educational failures and who consequently usually have tremendous problems in the workplace. Therefore, they are most in need of benefits. The system is designed to help such people. Those people will always experience difficulties when presented with pieces of paper.

When the new single gateway system is introduced will there be enough staff who are trained in dealing with adults who have literacy problems? This is not just a matter of saying to someone, "Here is a form. Oh, you can't read, then?" Staff in these situations require tact, subtlety and a degree of knowledge of the kinds of problems that people experience in this regard. Staff need to know how people like to be approached when information is elicited.

I have given notice of the questions that I wish to ask. Can the Minister tell us what assistance has been made available to people who have problems in understanding forms and filling them in? This is not just a matter of filling in the correct answer. We have long moved away from that concept, although that is still occasionally required. However, we have to address the needs of people who have difficulty in understanding forms. Are staff trained in approaching people to ask whether they have literacy problems?

Let us consider the case of a young man in his twenties who has severe problems with writing and whose experience of the educational process is totally

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negative. Such a person may become nervous merely at the sight of a form. Are staff trained to deal with such people? People with such difficulties are most in need of help. I salute the Government's intention--whether it will be their practice remains to be seen--of tackling this problem. However, will the Government be able adequately to help young people who have extremely negative images of themselves and of the written word? If those people are not helped, many of them will continue not to claim benefits. The knock-on effect of that is that some may be driven to crime. Educational failures tend to become economic failures and they tend to be attracted to crime. Such people may lead miserable lives. The Government have said that they are trying to help such people, but they cannot do that unless they establish a procedure to address this problem of basic understanding that I have described.

I hope that the Minister can give us a positive reply on this matter. If the Government do not address this matter, their policy will have a big hole in it. A sympathetic approach is needed based on expertise. Difficulties will also arise in persuading the people I have mentioned to attend interviews. If they are not on the phone and they have problems with understanding written texts, it will be difficult to contact them to invite them to attend interviews. This problem affects a sizeable minority of the population. I look forward to hearing a sympathetic response from the Minister.

7.40 p.m.

Lord Rix: My Lords, I must thank the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, for instigating this short--but vitally important--debate. MENCAP and its sister organisations in the rights lobby are much concerned that successive governments have seemed more interested in stopping abuse than encouraging take up and, on this score, I welcome the efforts made by the Government to improve benefit take-up. We all await with keen interest the outcome of the pilot projects investigating why so many older and disabled people do not claim benefits to which they are entitled. As the Age Concern campaign, Your Rights, indicates, we are talking about rights, and it is sad that unnecessary complexities and the constant harping on fraud come between people and those rights. The concept of a guaranteed income for elderly and disabled people is welcome. However, the guarantee is of no use to those who are not there to collect it--and a million or so people who should be there, quite frankly, are not. There are good points in the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill now being debated in another place, but it also takes away benefit rights from both contributors and non-contributors. I hope that the reduction in rights to widows' benefits, incapacity benefit and severe disablement allowance will not be seen as enhancing take-up by reducing entitlement.

Unhappily, the point upon which I wish to concentrate is what the Government are doing to ensure that fewer people receive benefits to which they are entitled--or, rather, benefits to which they thought they were entitled. Which leads me, with impeccable timing, I hope, to Whitehall's longest running farce--and title--the State Earnings-Related Pensions Scheme.

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When I was at the Whitehall Theatre I described farce as tragedy with its trousers down, which seems to sum-up the pickle in which the current government now find themselves in regard to SERPS; their trousers are well and truly around their ankles, removed by a previous administration, while many a future widow, and not a few widowers, are faced with the tragedy, or at least the classic unhappy ending, of the reduction in their anticipated pensions when bereavement strikes after 5th April next year.

Edmund Burke coined the phrase "economy of truth". Governments collectively have been very economical with the truth in relation to SERPS. I would love to hear Burke's current "Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents" and I am now holding in my hand but a few of the thousands of discontents forcibly expressed in letters which Age Concern and I have received over this whole shoddy business.

The 1975 Social Security Pensions Act created the right for a widow to inherit her late husband's earnings-related pension and was well publicised in leaflets NP33 and NP34, issued by the DHSS in January 1978 and respectively headed, Pay a little more now for a great deal when you retire and A More Secure Future, which promised,

    "Widows will be given all their husband's pension rights if they are widowed over 50, or at any age while they have a young family to support". Hundreds of thousands of people took the Government at their word and stayed in the new state scheme, while many had no option but to stay between 1978 and 1988, for their employers did not run occupational pension schemes. One such person was me as a salaried employee for the first time in my life of MENCAP. I am aware that the leaflets claim that they should not be taken as a statement of the law, but this was the law at the time these leaflets were issued. There was therefore a legitimate expectation that future pensioners' contributions from April 1978 to 1986 constituted a quasi-contractual relationship which was subsequently reneged upon by the 1986 government. I must point out that most other government changes to SERPS have affected only those rights accruing after the date of the change, not those rights already accrued.

What Parliament gives, Parliament can take away, but the government which prompts Parliament so to do surely has the obligation to inform people of the change. In another place, Mrs. Margaret Beckett demanded this in 1986 but, deliberately or stupidly, officials, on behalf of successive governments, have not only failed to tell contributors of the change, they have positively assured them that there has been no change. At no time have I, and thousands like me, received any notification whatever about the cuts. I, and thousands like me, have telephoned and written to the DSS--some as late as March this year--and all received the same bland assurance that our basic pension and our additional pension would go, intact, to our wives when we died. However, it now seems that if I die after 5th April next year my wife will lose more than £1,200 per annum. I hope she does not take Margaret Beckett's advice in 1986 to put a pillow over my head on 5th April next

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year. To replace £1,200 would now cost £20,000 invested in, say, an insurance bond. Many will lose more, costing more to replace. How many pensioners can afford such a large amount of capital? Precious few, I warrant.

A final point. This Government are committed to sign up to the European Convention on Human Rights, which is reflected in the Human Rights Act. This stops the Government passing legislation that reduces individuals' property rights. In the context of pensions, property rights are interpreted as accrued rights. Thus the changes to SERPS spouses' benefits, cutting back accrued rights, should not be permissible at the present time under either the Convention or the Act, when that comes into force.

I hope that the Minister can say a little more tonight than she could, or would, on 13th April. The Government could pre-empt the Ombudsman's likely conclusion that the DSS has also been caught with its trousers well and truly down by stating that those who started their contributions at the beginning of SERPS in 1978 will receive their benefits in full, while those who went blithely on after 1986, believing the 1975 Act still applied, will receive their benefits in full for the next 13 years to take account of the period from 1986 to 1999 when the DSS dissembled with such devastating results. By doing this and acting as an honest broker, the Government can ensure that they are, as the Motion suggests, taking action to increase the take up of social benefits. Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth--and if we OAPs are not yet in heaven, we are certainly in the waiting room and deserve a little sympathetic consideration.

7.46 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, I wish to congratulate my noble friend Lord Morris on initiating this very important Question. It is in line with his generous philosophy of fighting for disabled people and I commend him most warmly to the House.

I do not intend to comment on the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, except to say that I am very glad that he mentioned the previous government and their responsibilities. It would be a terrible mistake to make this a single-focus attack on the present Government when the previous government were responsible for a great many of the problems.

In the few moments at my disposal I intend to focus on disability benefits, for obvious reasons--partly because disabled people are sensitive to their disabilities and to their "right" to claim. I find it astonishing that £6 billion of disability living allowance should be unclaimed. I am afraid that, in part, the Government are responsible. I readily agree that we need strong action against cheating, but the Government seem obsessed with the issue of fraud. Far too many Ministers seem to be neglecting the constructive, positive aspects of disability and focusing narrowly on fraud. I exclude my noble friend Lady Hollis--she is one of the finest Ministers in the Government--but some Ministers talk far too frequently, far too often, far too publicly, beating their breasts, about how they are attacking cheating.

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I do not know why they cannot tackle cheating and start stating publicly that people who have the right to benefits should get them. They should change the whole emphasis of their work. They could tackle fraud without a great deal of song and dance, and they could stop creating a very damaging atmosphere for disabled people.

My noble friend Lady Hollis disagreed with me at Question Time when I said that, given the power of the Government's publicity machine, with political will the problem of under-claiming could be solved overnight. Of course it cannot be solved overnight--that was a figure of speech--but it can be solved very quickly if the Government have the political will. We need a sustained campaign and a different theme. The theme of "benefit scroungers" should be changed to "Do claim. It is your right".

When my noble friend rejected my arguments the other day, she listed four difficulties: first, knowledge of eligibility; secondly, assessments; thirdly, the application forms; and, fourthly, understanding what the benefit is about. The third and fourth are interconnected. It is not appropriate for a disabled person to try to assess whether he or she is eligible. If the disability is leading to extra costs, then the person should claim and eligibility should be adjudicated by others. That simple message should be pursued by the Government.

I recognise the complexity of application forms, mainly because disability itself is so fantastically complicated and has even more consequences. Nevertheless, every effort should be made to simplify the application forms as much as possible. I commend that suggestion to my noble friend.

On that same occasion, the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, suggested different application forms for physical and mental disabilities and for those with learning difficulties. That is a sensible suggestion. I hope that my noble friend will consider it sympathetically. Perhaps she can tell the House what consideration she has given to that valuable suggestion.

Hand in hand with simplifying application forms as much as possible, the Government should strengthen the advisory service. The most frequently used advice service are the citizens advice bureaux, a first rate organisation which is grossly underfunded. Why cannot my noble friend get hold of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, ask him to give the CAB a mere few million pounds--not £100 million or £1 billion but a couple of million pounds--and ask the CAB to give special training and seek local publicity on entitlement to benefits and why disabled people should claim. If my noble friend is able to do that in conjunction with the citizens advice bureaux and with the help of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, we could make a very big difference to the take-up of benefits.

7.52 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, when I came into the Chamber just before the beginning of this debate the House was engaged in debating property rights. I will not express an opinion on property rights in a debate which I have not followed but I think one may argue

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that there is a rather stronger claim for saying that property rights are involved here and, what is more, the property rights of rather more people.

The delivery of social security benefit to those who are entitled to it and the non-delivery of social security benefits to those who are not entitled to it are both a matter of justice. With regard to either of those forms of justice, one should never forget the other. I wish to join the tributes to the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, for initiating this debate and to the Minister for a long-standing and constructive concern with this subject.

I shall not quote figures because I understand that the take-up figures are in the process of being revised and that a new series of take-up figures are to be published next month. So anything I say may be overtaken by events. But it is clear that, generally, the worst problems of take-up tend to be with income support, the worst problems with income support tend to be with pensioners, and the worst problems with pensioners tend to be with female pensioners. To try to change that, one must think about why it is happening.

Sometimes it is pride. One cannot legislate against pride, and one should not, but one should be careful in judging government rhetoric not unnecessarily to rub pride the wrong way. I am not sure that governments always remember that quite as well as they should. There may be difficulties with access, especially in rural areas. I will ask the Minister, not for the first time--the question runs the whole of the way through the debate--to consider whether the change programme is really working as it was intended. It may be a matter of difficulty--my noble friend Lord Addington said a great deal on this subject that needs attention--or it may be a matter of stigma. Here, again, the Government need to be careful of their rhetoric. Phrases like "welfare dependency", or that unfortunate phrase in the Green Paper about property not being cured by cash handouts, when heard by people on benefit, sometimes have an unfortunate effect.

Technically, subject to the European Convention on Human Rights, one way in which this could be tackled is through data matching. I heard the Minister speak with great eloquence on this subject in the previous Parliament. I should like to know how much is being done on that front. I understand that a housing benefit pilot is in progress in Birmingham. That is extremely constructive. Rhetoric needs attention.

I agree with the thrust of all the remarks that have been made so far about the priority given to fraud. In an interview with The Times on 4th March the Secretary of State said:

    "The prevention of fraud has to be at the top of everything we do at the DSS". Granted that it is of vital importance, surely the top priority for the Department of Social Security is the delivery of benefit to keep people alive; and nothing else should allow a Secretary of State to forget that.

I am also concerned about the minimum income guarantee. I do not know whether it is properly described as a guarantee. My honourable friend Mr. Webb has referred that question to the Ombudsman. I shall be interested in his

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answer. I am concerned about some of the efforts on verification which may tend to delay the delivery of benefit at times when it is quite vital for people to have it, especially the demand for national insurance numbers while the national insurance computer is not yet working. We have in progress some pilot projects on housing benefit where housing benefit is not delivered until a national insurance number is made available.

A Written Answer to my honourable friend Mr. Rendel said that the average time for delivery of a national insurance number is 17 days. If that is accurate, I know a great many unfortunate people. That is perfectly possible and it illustrates the fallacy of statistics. An average time may be a very reasonable figure but with this many people, if 10 per cent. are well above the average there may be a serious problem. A great deal of evidence from local authority sources leads me to suppose that there is, especially in the effect on partners of people with an entitlement who do not get the national insurance number.

I should like to draw attention to one other point. I refer to the number of cases found by the citizens advice bureaux of social fund applications where people are not even allowed to make an application because the Benefits Agency's staff will not give them the papers to make the application. They say, "Oh, you wouldn't get it", so they weed out the application before even the information is available. The National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux is monitoring that. It believes it to be a widespread problem. If so, I think the Minister might be as eager to deal with it as I am. I look forward to her comments on it.

7.58 p.m.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Morris, for initiating this important debate. In one sense one might say that we have rounded up all the usual suspects who are concerned about this issue and I think it is also true to say that we are all on the same side. We all want to improve the level of take-up.

One always speaks with great diffidence on these debates, given the amount of experience on all sides of the House not only with regard to the disabled, a feature which noble Lords have pursued, but also more generally. In a sense, however, my own experience in these matters is not short-lived. Thirty-three years of constituency nights, on Fridays, provided me with quite a good background in this subject. I well remember when I first arrived in Worthing as a constituency MP. Often, elderly ladies in well-cut but well-worn tweed suits would tell me of their difficulties. When I asked what the problem was, they would tell me that they were living on their national insurance pension. I had great difficulty in believing that anyone could live on that amount. I remember saying, almost on bended knee, "Please apply" for what was then termed supplementary benefit.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris, spoke of pride in relation to these matters. That is part of the problem. To use the term "stigma"is to underestimate the problem. Certainly, over the years it has been less of a problem. It has been easier to persuade people that they are entitled to such

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benefits as of right. There are many other areas, not least lone parents, in which one's experience over the years makes one realise that it is sometimes difficult to persuade people to apply for the benefits to which they are entitled. I was surprised at that time to discover that Worthing had the highest illegitimacy rate in the country, which was an odd statistic. So I have a breadth of experience in these matters.

The noble Lord, Lord Rix, rightly drew attention to the excellent booklet from Age Concern which I received a couple of days ago: Your Rights. It is written in straightforward, simple English. It should help in encouraging the take-up of benefits. I would draw attention to just one point. It was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Rix. It relates to the problem that has arisen as regards SERPS. We all recognise that it is a long-running problem; it has faced governments of both political parties.

It is also something of a mystery how this disaster, as it must be described, for a large number of people has come to pass. It is important that arrangements to deal with it should now be produced by the Government. I know that the noble Baroness is working on that. If this booklet is being circulated, perhaps there is a case for the inclusion of a single-page insert explaining the problem and that it is hoped to deal with it. The matter is referred to on page 18 of the document, but there is no mention that the Government are considering the matter. That is a relevant point.

Turning to the broader question of take-up and to the point made by the noble Earl, there is some doubt about the figures. It was said that, so far as concerns income support, some 1 million people a year are estimated not to be taking up the benefits to which they are entitled. I believe that the figure is now being re-examined and that the latest estimates are significantly smaller: somewhere between 700,000 and 400,000. Perhaps the noble Baroness will confirm that. Revised estimates are expected in May 1999--in a few days' time. I wondered whether in reply to this timely debate the noble Baroness would tell us the extent to which the take-up figures have been revised. I understand that a number of pilot schemes have been set up in an attempt to establish the extent of the problem. Therefore, I wonder whether we shall receive during the course of the statistical review a breakdown as regards the reasons why there is not the level of take-up that all of us would like to see.

Another government publication suggests the problem is partly one of "stigma", partly unawareness of entitlement, and partly difficulty in comprehending the application process, a point made by both noble Lords on the Liberal Benches. I hope that if the Government have carried out a full investigation into this problem, we shall receive the breakdown into those three categories. It did not require great investigation to realise that they are the likely categories, but the extent to which each is felt to be responsible for lack of take-up is important.

Another matter that has been raised a number of times during this debate is the question of fraud as against take-up. To some extent there is a conflict between the two. The more stringent the attitude taken, perhaps

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rightly, with regard to fraud, the more complex, onerous or intimidating the application process becomes. That is apparent in the government document: A new contract for welfare: safeguarding social security, which is primarily driven by the argument in relation to fraud. Page 9 of the document indicates an approach that is very much in terms of: legal obligation to produce identity, the idea that it is easy to forge such documents and income support will not be paid until all the evidence has been recorded, and so on. I fear that to some extent the need to prevent fraud, on the one hand, and the need on the other to ensure that people readily apply is a split between the Department of Social Security and the Treasury, or the other way round. The noble Baroness shakes her head. I have previously expressed concern about the extent to which that is taking place.

Another aspect is the take-up of opportunities for making provision for old age, or whatever the particular problem may be. Alas, I see that the clock is already at the seven-minute limit which we are told we must observe. I shall therefore not go into the matter in greater detail. I merely say that these are real problems. We all seek to solve them and we must hope that in working together we can improve on the figures. At all events, if the Government have almost completed their survey on the causes of low take-up, we must hope that it will provide us with a better basis than hitherto for solving this set of extremely important problems. They are of great significance to many; certainly to the disabled, as the noble Lord, Lord Morris, said, but also those on pensions, income support and so on. This has been a helpful debate. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

8.7 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to respond to the points raised in this interesting, informative and indeed conciliatory debate. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. I thank in particular my noble friend Lord Morris for providing the opportunity to raise these points.

As we have heard from all speakers, the subject of the non take-up of benefit is extremely complicated. With some benefits, for instance child benefit and the retirement pension, take-up is thought to be almost universal. The position as regards the take-up of income related benefits is very different. The same benefit is taken up to different degrees by different client groups. Equally, we know that with the more complicated benefits--and, as my noble friends Lord Ashley and Lord Morris said, DLA is especially complicated--the take-up is at its lowest.

The department collects routinely the take-up statistics only for income-related benefits. It is worth reflecting on the latest data, published last autumn. As the noble Lord identified, as did the noble Earl, Lord Russell, we need to correct an error concerning pensioner take-up, where a glitch in the system misconstrued some income streams as they were converted from the Family Resource Survey into the department's computers. Nevertheless, the broad push of the figures illustrates the points that have been made in this debate.

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For example, while we estimate that with income-related benefit the total amount not taken up could range between £2 billion and £3 billion a year, nearly all couples with children and lone parents take up their cash entitlement of income support and housing benefit, and most take up their entitlement to council tax benefit. That, however, compares with family credit, where only 69 per cent of couples and 79 per cent of lone parents take up their entitlement, although their cash entitlement--the percentage of cash claimed--is somewhat higher. In other words, people tend not to claim when the amounts of money involved are quite small. Even so, this is not a satisfactory picture. However, I am sure that it will improve as we move towards working families' tax credit.

The Cinderella of means-tested benefits is council tax benefit. We believe that take-up by expenditure is between 76 and 82 per cent. We also believe that nearly half of all owner-occupiers who are entitled to council tax benefit do not claim, although the sums involved may be quite small: £2, £3 or £4. The particular difficulty lies with the take-up of the two benefits addressed this evening by my noble friends: disability benefits and income support for pensioners. I only hope that when talking about disability my response matches the experience in this area of my noble friends Lord Morris and Lord Ashley.

As a government, department and individual Minister we very much want people to take up the benefits to which they are entitled. There is no plot to restrict access to or information about benefits in a subversive way so that the Treasury can exercise control over public expenditure. That is certainly not the case. But benefit rules are complex and people do not always understand where their own needs match the benefits. Not only are the rules complex but they change, and many people do not know what triggers an entitlement. For example, many people may suffer a drop in wages because of a reduction in hours without necessarily realising that they are entitled to family credit, housing benefit or council tax benefit. Many in low paid work do not realise that they may be entitled to housing benefit.

I take as an example attendance allowance. I now know that my father, in his late seventies, was certainly entitled to attendance allowance. I was then a senior city councillor and did not realise it. If that was the extent of my ignorance how much greater is it in the case of a single elderly person who is isolated at home and without presumed access to knowledge about the system?

We are often pressed as to whether we should be making the system more complex, but the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, identified sensitively the need to ensure that the money goes to those who are entitled to it and that there is take-up. In particular, as one moves into means-tested benefits--we see it with the growth of housing benefit and some disability benefits--the problems of fraud are matched equally by the difficulties of take-up. I have always emphasised--I am glad that my noble friends acknowledge it--that there is virtually no evidence of fraud in DLA. I was always happy to confirm that in the Benefit Integrity Project any difference in the figures resulted from people's condition changing without claimants necessarily knowing that that altered their entitlement, rather than fraud as that was understood.

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However, I am sorry to say that there is certainly fraud in housing benefit, usually practised by landlords who invent fake tenants rather than tenants themselves. There can be fraud, intentional or not, when lone parents claim benefits although they are cohabiting or people claim JSA and earn money on the side. The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, was exactly right. There is no divergence of view between the Treasury and DSS. If people know that others who should not be receiving benefits claim them it rots the general faith in the welfare state. It is not just about money going to the right places. People will claim if they know that the money goes to those who are entitled to it and that it is the decent thing to do. But if some manipulate the system and boast of it and are then labelled by the tabloids as fraudsters it is not surprising that an elderly person who is unsure about a claim will not want to expose himself or herself to that situation. It is a difficult tightrope to tread. At all times we must ensure that not only do we have adequate controls to deal with fraud, because fraud there is, but that we do not use language, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, quite rightly said, to create a disincentive to people who are entitled to claim.

I turn to the main concerns raised by my noble friends Lord Ashley and Lord Morris. I believe that the capacity of my noble friend Lord Ashley to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer is infinitely greater than mine and I invite him to take up the crusade on my behalf.

In the case of disability living allowance and attendance allowance, my noble friend Lord Morris was right. We believe that there are perhaps only 30 to 50 per cent of people who claim the care component of DLA who are entitled to it; perhaps 50 to 70 per cent who claim the mobility component; and perhaps 40 to 60 per cent who claim attendance allowance, which is care without mobility. If the take-up rate for DLA and AA increased to 90 per cent--together with my friends I would be cheering if that happened--expenditure on those benefits would rise from about £8 billion to over £13 billion. Therefore, there is an under-claim of £5 to £6 billion by disabled people whose needs entitle them to that level of benefit.

Why is take-up so low? Our research suggests that there is a variety of factors: lack of knowledge about the benefit (for example, my father was in that position) and a disinclination among older people to claim assistance for what they may see as disabilities that they associate, often mistakenly, simply with ageing. For example, many people progressively lose their sight as they get older. Most elderly people have progressive hearing loss as they grow older. Many of them would be entitled to claim as deaf or blind under the regulations but do not do so because they see it as part of the process of ageing. Equally, the benefits themselves, particularly DLA, are complicated. Elderly people in particular remain baffled as to why there is not a simple read-across from the severity of disability to DLA, but we know that DLA uses a care and mobility test as proxy for the additional costs associated with severe disability. But if they can manage perfectly well without the need for care and mobility, however severe their disability they are not entitled to DLA. This baffles people who do not understand why two people with similar disabilities, but whose capacity to

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manage them and the degree of dependence on care and supervision is different, may end up with very different levels of benefit.

Part of it may be related to claim forms. As my noble friend Lord Ashley suspected, we are working closely with the Disability Benefits Forum to try to simplify forms. The building block of DLA has been a diary of how an individual disabled person sees his or her life and the need for care and support. Such a diary is inevitably reasonably detailed and requires a number of pages on the form. One cannot get the full information needed with very simple forms that require four or five answers. I understand that my noble friend does not suggest that.

I was asked whether we were following up the proposals of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, to have separate forms for different types of disability, in particular different physical and mental health disabilities or learning difficulties. That is being pursued with the Disability Benefits Forum. We want forms that get the balance right so that we have full information on which we can make an award without such complexity that it deters disabled people from applying. But the particular difficulty of the proposal of the noble Baroness is that very many disabled people suffer from more than one type of disability. Therefore, one would be asking them to repeat the information. But we are looking at this matter and working on it with the DBF to ensure that we get the process right.

It is also right that many of those who claim DLA and AA--perhaps 50 per cent--end up not getting an award. I repeat that that is not because there is any suggestion of impropriety or fraud but because of the complexity of the DLA rules. I stress that if people have been refused DLA this year, because the condition may change next year--the illness may be fluctuating or deteriorating, like MS--they should reapply to ensure that they get the awards to which they are entitled.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked about the single gateway to work. One million disabled people tell us that they want to work. The 2 million or so people on incapacity benefit have at one time been in jobs, and many tell us that they want to return to work. Under the single gateway we invite all of them to an interview where they first meet a generalist adviser. If it is clear that they have special needs, such as disabilities, learning difficulties, language difficulties, dyslexia and the like, they will be referred to the appropriate specialist adviser.

The 12 pilots started in June, which will be extended in November, are working with voluntary and private assistance precisely so we can ensure that we learn how best sensitively to address those who are not simply the happy-go-lucky 18 to 24 year-olds who hitherto have got away with JSA and we are now encouraging into work but perhaps lone parents with children, disabled people or those with learning or reading difficulties who can get access to help.

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