Older Persons: Provision of Public Services - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:18 pm on 13th June 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 4:18 pm, 13th June 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, whose timing is always politically immaculate and who makes this subject more apposite today than it was last week.

It is an important subject. Both of these concessions form an important part of the network of social protection that the country has embedded in its social security set-up. I have a question which may sound technical—but that does not mean that I do not concur with all the powerful and emotional speeches that have been made.

My noble friend Lord Addington made a point about the BBC not being the DWP. This is passporting that it is getting involved in, with pension credit guarantee; it is passporting undertaken by a non-government department. Passporting cannot be done all that efficiently by government departments; they are struggling to make passporting work with universal credit and still trying to find solutions to some of those problems. It may be premature to ask some of these questions, but can I have an absolute assurance that, if this unfortunate plan proceeds, the Government will cross-examine the BBC on how they are going to do it?

Means-tested benefits always involve cliff edges; they involve disincentives to saving in this case, and they are difficult to administer. We already know that pension credit take-up for 2016-17 was only 60%. If we are looking for extra money and there is a shortfall in take-up of pension credit of that dimension, surely the answer is to get more people to claim what they are entitled to. Then we will all have more money and do not have to start doing the strange, untoward things being contemplated now.

There are 1.2 million entitled non-recipients of pension credit. A question that might occur to people is: what is happening to them? There is an unclaimed amount of £3 billion for 2016-17, and that has been on the books for some time. What is the administrative framework for how this works? The whole question of enforcement comes to mind. Working with households of 75 year-olds often means dealing with advisers and family members, so implicit consent will be necessary to make this work. There will be appeal and verification processes. What happens when one reaches the “can’t pay, won’t pay” brigade? Are we seriously saying that the BBC will take some of these people to court to get the money back? It is deeply concerning that it is assumed that the pension credit link will solve the problem. It will be very difficult. I wish the BBC well, but I do not think it will work as easily as it thinks.

My next point will not please the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, but sometimes I do not. Sir David Clementi, the BBC chairman, has said:

“The Government could of course choose to step in and close the gap from their own resources”.

My personal view—it is not a party view—is that if the upcoming spending review is looking at the triple lock, which is guaranteed only until 2020 anyway, restricting the triple lock to a link with earnings for valorising pensions in future would produce a significant sum of money, which could certainly pay for all this and probably more. It is time to start looking at such things. If my preferred method of raising money, which is increasing the uptake of pension credit, does not work, it is worth looking at the triple lock to find some extra resources to help Sir David out of his difficulty.

The final thing to say, as everybody before me has, is that this is the Government’s responsibility. It lies squarely at the Government’s door. If the Minister thinks that he will get away with shuffling off the blame politically to the BBC in the elections and doorstep discussions that we will all have in the future, he is wrong. This will stick. It has happened on his watch, and his Government will have to answer for it in the fullness of time.