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Baroness Greengross: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that explanation. It is rather disappointing because we appeared to be moving in that direction, but I understand. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 [Fixing of claimant's retirement provision for assessed income period]:

Baroness Noakes moved Amendment No. 17.

"( ) Where a recoverable overpayment of state pension credit has occurred as a result of an error which was not caused by the claimant, in the determination of the amount of an element of the claimant's retirement provision, the amount recoverable shall be limited to the amount overpaid in a period of 12 months or the assessed income period, whichever is the shorter."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendment is intended to restrict the amount that the department can recover from the claimant where the overpayment is due to an error not caused by the claimant—in other words, official error. The amendment would allow the department to recover one year's overpayment, but no more. It differs crucially from the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, in Committee, in that it applies only to official error, not those made for any other reason.

Official error is not an insignificant problem. The department's own figure to September 2000 relating to income support and jobseeker's allowance is 3 per cent. There is no reason to think that the error rate will somehow magically be less when dealing with pension credit. So many pensioners may be affected by official error. We also know that old people are fearful of getting into debt and do not like it. The fear of debt—especially of repayment—could well affect the uptake of pension credit. We know that the non-uptake of means-tested benefits generally is high. Some people say that the introduction of this greater level of means testing will mean another great leap upwards in the amount unclaimed by entitled non-recipients.

It is fair to pensioners to restrict the recovery of amounts overpaid where that is not due to their error. It would also act as an incentive to the department to reduce that high official error rate. It might even promote the virtuous outcome through which the department benefits and pensioners need not fear the consequences of overpayment due to error made in calculating their entitlement. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I shall try to allay the concerns of the noble Baroness. The

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amendment is redundant because overpayments that arise through no fault of the claimant—those due to official error—are not recoverable under Section 71 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992. Pension credit is included in that provision by paragraph 10 of Schedule 2 to the Bill.

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 18:

    After Clause 10, insert the following new clause—

The Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament an annual report on the performance of the pensions service that shall include—
(a) an estimate of the take-up of the state pension credit;
(b) the costs to the department, including details of staff, telephone and information technology costs;
(c) service level indicators for judging the performance of the pensions service in providing the state pension credit; and
(d) an analysis and commentary of the performance of the pensions service judged against the service level indicators."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, after the exchange on the previous amendment, we seem to be making progress.

The amendment deals with the question of an annual report and the question of performance indicators. It is what would be described at a Labour Party conference as a composite motion, as it brings together the two matters that we discussed in Committee—I am not sure why that should be a matter for amusement—as recorded in Hansard at cols. 198 to 204 for 29th January.

When we had that debate, there was a widespread view that it was extremely important that the specific question of how the new pension service performed in relation to the state pension credit should be transparent, accountable and focused. Although this is, in no sense, an exhaustive list, we suggest that, in particular, there should be an estimate of the take-up of state pension credit. The whole issue of take-up is absolutely crucial, and there is disappointment in all parts of the House about the low level of take-up. It is a matter that gives us all concern. We must hope that the level of take-up as far as concerns the pension credit is reasonable and that the department will succeed in ensuring that those entitled to it do, in fact, make a claim. More generally, the level of take-up has been giving us cause for concern with regard to a great many benefits.

Secondly, we suggest that the costs to the department should be set out, so that we can discover each year how efficiently the department has operated the scheme. In previous debates, the Minister has put much stress on the fact that the new pension service will rely heavily on telephone services to reach the constituents of Members of another place. It should also rely on information technology, but, as we know from the experience of the department, it is not easy to

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take advantage of modern technology in the field of social security, where matters are so complex. Those are two particular areas where such a report should operate.

In the second part of the amendment, we are concerned that there should be suitable indicators for judging the performance of the service in providing the state pension credit. At the end of each year, the report should contain,

    "an analysis and commentary of the performance of the pensions service judged against the service level indicators".

In Committee, my noble friend Lord Fowler, who, as a former Secretary of State, has great experience of the area of social security, emphasised the importance of post-legislative scrutiny. He quoted a particular example from his own experience. It is certainly the case that we have not given sufficient attention to the matter in the past. In replying to the earlier debate, the Minister said that there was, of course, the department's annual report. I see that the Minister is waving such a report, but I doubt that it is really a best-seller. Quite rightly, the Minister is laughing. I have a nasty feeling that the annual report, which covers the whole range of the department's activity, does not normally come to the fore of noble Lords' daily reading—or even annual reading.

It is, in a sense, a completely new benefit, and we want a focused report that the House can appraise each year. It is right that we should have that, and it is equally right that it should be in addition to anything that may be said in the department's annual report. More particularly, it is important that it should be clearly set out in the Bill, when we are introducing a new benefit of this kind. I beg to move.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Barker: My Lords, I apologise for the slight disruption to your Lordships' deliberations earlier. Noble Lords will be pleased to know that my mobile phone is not with me in the Chamber; it is somewhere else. Perhaps in days to come, when the information services on pagers are improved, noble Lords will be able to get an estimate of their pension credit via their pager.

I strongly support the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, in this matter. Noble Lords will remember that we had a long debate in Committee about benefit take-up. I do not wish to rehearse the arguments that we had then, but I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, is right to suggest that the scale of the change—a change that will bring almost half of the pensioner population into the scheme and is proposed in a framework Bill—represents an enormous risk for the House to take. It seems right that we should have a detailed and comprehensive look at the workings of the scheme in years to come. The DWP annual report may not be a best-seller, but I am sure that it will become bedtime reading for some of us. The operation of the scheme must be examined in significant detail.

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The Minister kindly wrote to me about the plans for research to follow up the research into why pensioners do not claim MIG. It is helpful that that research will go ahead, and I look forward with great interest to hearing what it says. All the way through our deliberations, I have expressed the fear that a scheme that, to the Minister, may be simple mathematics is, in fact, complex in its operation. It will be particularly difficult for lay people to explain to pensioners. We know from the existing research that one of the key factors in benefit take-up is informal information from people such as doctors, nurses, care assistants and other pensioners. The role that pensioners play in explaining to other people what the benefit system offers is often underestimated.

For all those reasons, I believe that the noble Lord is right. I strongly support him on this matter.

Lord Fowler: My Lords, I strongly support the amendment, although not the idea that it is like a Labour Party composite. I always thought that those were the worst possible motions.

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