Clause 7 - Fixing of claimant's retirement provision

State Pension Credit Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 23rd April 2002.

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Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 11:30 am, 23rd April 2002

I beg to move amendment No. 29, in page 5, line 15, leave out 'except in prescribed circumstances'.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 28, in page 5, line 17, leave out paragraph (b).

We have had a wide-ranging debate, which is not unreasonable as clause 6 is the first of five related clauses. However, from now on I shall be eagle-eyed, and I shall be grateful if the Committee keeps closely to the amendments that we are debating.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

At the risk of having my words picked up and swept away under your eagle eye, Mr. Atkinson, I shall say that I think I can manage to stay in order in talking to amendment No. 29. It is a simple probing amendment concerning the technicalities of clause 7, which according to the explanatory notes establishes that

''Specifying an assessed income period has the effect of fixing, for that period, what is to be treated as an element of the claimant's retirement provision''.

That is important when it comes to determining how much the pension credit is going to be.

Subsection (4) creates a mechanism for making adjustments to the amount of retirement provision. The explanatory notes say:

''The intention is that the regulations will provide for the amount of income from a pension or annuity to be deemed to increase from time to time in line with the terms of a claimant's pension or annuity arrangements and for the rate of return on capital to be treated as adjusted from time to time. In some cases, the assessed amount may be deemed to stay the same.''

The subsection provides that the assessed period should be deemed to change in that way ''except in prescribed circumstances''. We would simply like to know what those prescribed circumstances might be, and when the amount would not be adjusted in line with changes in pensions and annuities, as the explanatory memorandum is silent on that point. The purpose of the amendment is to deem which prescribed circumstances would be an exception to that rule.

Amendment No. 28 concerns subsection (4)(b), which provides that the assessed amount of income from capital may be increased or decreased by regulation. We would like to know a little more about how return on capital is to be so adjusted, particularly in the light of earlier remarks. It would be helpful to have an extra explanation of that.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Subsection (4) deals with the way in which someone who makes a claim for pension credit will have imputations made about their income from capital for up to five years, which is the period between making claims. The innocent-looking subsection to which the amendments relate has the potential to be the administrative nightmare of the pension credit. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hertsmere for tabling amendments on subsection (4), as they will give us the opportunity to hear from the Minister how the

process to which the probing amendments relate will work.

An individual might report an occupational pension at the start of the five-year period. The subsection says that the Government may make an assumption about what happens to income from that pension in the next five years. The assumption might be that it should rise in line with inflation. There would then be a recalculation each year, because there would have to be an annual recalculation of the pension credit anyway, as all the rates will change. The recalculation will be made on the basis of a guess as to what that occupational pension will have risen to one year on, two years on, and so on.

As soon as one says that, one realises the problem. People may have pension income from a multiplicity of sources. They will have worked for more than one employer, and may have annuity income and all sorts of private savings income. As I understand it, subsection (4) allows the Secretary of State to deem an increase for every one of those sources of income, according to the rules of the pension scheme. When people apply for the credit, in this unintrusive, bureaucracy-light or bureaucracy-free way, will they have to state the name and address of the pension provider of each pension that they receive? Will they have to stipulate the indexation rules for each pension of which they are in receipt—

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Some of them are discretionary.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Some of which are discretionary, as the hon. Gentleman says. If not, will that be a regulatory burden on the pension provider? In other words, will everyone who pays a pension to a recipient of pension credit have to tell the Department for Work and Pensions the uprating rules for each pension paid, which will differ?

Will the system be based on an individual-specific assumption about indexation—the ''deeming'' in subsection (4)—for each pension that each claimant receives, and who will provide that information? If so, that will involve an enormous administrative cost. If not, will people be deemed, using a broad-brush approach, to, for example, have added price indexation when many of them will not have done? Although over one year at 2.5 per cent. inflation that might not worry us too much, over five years at 4 per cent. inflation, for example, it could worry us considerably. Either a guess will be made that could be badly wrong and lead to people seriously missing out, or a specific and individualised calculation will have to be made for each pension and recipient, which will mean a huge administrative and regulatory burden. Either of those avenues would worry me. I hope that, when he responds, the Minister will make it clear exactly how the process of deeming will work.

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions

I shall first answer some questions. We intend to use the power for pensioners who enter retirement homes, when their capital disregard increases from £6,000 to £10,000. That will be significantly beneficial.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point that the proposals seem bureaucratic. As we said earlier, making pensions simpler can be complex in the back

room, but the complexities lie with the Pension Service, not the pensioner. He asks the legitimate question, will this be a bureaucratic nightmare for older people? The answer is no. Each stage in the assessment will include safeguards, some of which will be automatic. If the assessment is wrong, pensioners themselves can intervene and tell us, and a relationship will develop between the older person and the Pension Service.

Clause 7 is part of the family of clauses 6 to 10 and is designed to help pensioners in their relationship with the Department. Subsection (4) ensures that foreseeable and regular changes in retirement provision are taken into account during an assessed income period. The words ''foreseeable and regular'' are important. The one thing on which we agreed in the previous debate was that the income of the vast majority of pensioners is stable, as are, generally, the sources of that income. That does not constitute a huge burden, as part of the claims process is establishing the rate and timing of second pension increases, using information from either the pensioner or, with permission, the provider. Only if we cannot establish the actual rate will we deem the rate to be that of the September retail prices index. Again, that is part of a process that takes place now. Every September, an RPI rate is deemed that everyone knows and understands, and we are using that.

The provision is intended to allow for annual increases in second pensions and annuities and to allow us to give effect to a change in the rate of return on capital or the amount of capital disregarded within an assessed income period, which will be done automatically.

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions

It is important to get our head around this. I shall give way later to the hon. Gentleman, who usually makes a point that is worthy of a response.

Pensioners may at any time provide the actual rate. That is important, and that answers one of the points that the hon. Member for Northavon legitimately makes. We do not have a system that is designed to simplify for the back office but gives problems for pensioners. It is designed in the opposite way—to ensure that the back office deals with the technicalities and responds to pensioners and that pensioners believe that if an assessment is wrong, they can intervene directly and have the matter resolved in their favour.

Minimum income guarantee claimants must give details of pensions that they receive now. It is better to ask at the claim point how their pension goes up than to ask every year. That is part of the process in developing a rolling programme for pension credit.

Having dealt with those who are currently in the system and moving automatically to the new system, the relationship will be different for those who come later. It will not be the old-style relationship but one from the point of their application for pension credit. The simple but effective questions that need to be answered in order to assess them for pension credit will

be asked at that point, rather than year after year. It is important to make that distinction. The hon. Member for Northavon is right. If it were the old-style way of dealing with matters, it would not work. It would be bureaucratic and ineffective.

We are also allowing for non-standard ways of increasing pensions. Each year, we shall tell pensioners what figures we are using. That is, again, important. Pensioners will have a clear knowledge of the transparent relationship. Transparency is important in the relationship with pensioners. The system will be proactive on behalf of pensioners and sensitive enough to take into account changes in their income that necessitate our increasing their income. That is how we have designed the relationship.

From 2003, the assumed rate of return on capital will be £1 for every £500 above £6,000. We intend that that will be reviewed annually as part of the normal uprating process, as hon. Members will understand.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Perhaps the Minister will deal with a particular example. If the amendments are not agreed to, how will the system deal with the case of a pensioner, one of whose sources of income is an occupational pension from a pension fund that has discretion? To add a further dimension, let us suppose that the discretion of the trustees for many years has been to index in line with inflation, but that the pension fund is now experiencing financial difficulties, and it looks as though for the next two or three years they may not be able to afford to do that. How would such a case be treated under the rules?

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions

If I get this wrong, I apologise, but I understand the situation to be as follows. It is best to take an example. The last figures from a survey on the impact of RPI on pension provision are from 1995. Those figures suggest that 82 per cent. of private pensions that year had a rate of increase of about 2.4 per cent. The RPI at the time was 3.5 per cent. Therefore, the vast majority of pension increases are in the ball park of the average RPI.

Secondly, as I said earlier, if an older person receives from us a notification that the percentage is, let us say, 3.5 per cent., and there has been no increase, the constituent may intervene and notify us that the increase is nil, and the calculation would be based on a nil increase. The system works in favour of pensioners. They will not be lumbered with a 3.5 per cent. increase if their increase is nil. We shall notify them of the assumed figure that we are using. If they respond and say that they receive no increase, that will be taken account of in that way. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman's question, but if not, it is not a resigning issue.

Amendment No. 28 would remove our ability to give effect to a change in the rate of return on capital or the amount disregarded as part of that process within an assessed income period. It would remove flexibility and tie the hands of future Governments, preventing them from ensuring that the rate of return on capital was applied equally, whether or not an assessed income period was in place. One pound in £500 strikes a fair balance between the treatment of capital and pensions. The Bill therefore provides the

flexibility to alter the treatment of capital within an assessed income period, should it become necessary to do so.

We know that, in most cases, second pensions and annuities will be liable to be increased annually. We therefore propose to take powers to deem the amount of that increase. That will avoid the need for pensioners to report such changes every year, thereby reducing the level of intrusion into their private affairs. We also know that most private pensions keep pace with inflation. If a pensioner is unable to provide information about the rate at which their second pension increases, we shall assume that it is uprated at least in line with prices.

However, in some cases retirement income will not increase. A significant minority of pensioners may have chosen a fixed annuity, for example, or been forced to do so under a defined benefit scheme. We do not want to assume that there would be automatic increases in income in such cases, which answers the point made by the hon. Member for Northavon. Amendment No. 29, however, proposes that we make such assumptions, although I accept that it was intended to elicit from me what I hope are the right answers to hon. Members' questions. If we assume that pensioners are experiencing increases in income, but they do not actually receive any, we will disadvantage them and their entitlement to pension credit will be reduced. Of course, pensioners will be able to ask for their pension credit to be reassessed at any time, but we do not want to pay out the wrong amount to this group of customers and to rely on them to tell us so that we can correct the problem later. That is, however, the effect of amendment No. 29. The hon. Member for Hertsmere seems to be setting the Pension Service up to get payments wrong. As it stands, the Bill enables us to get them right from the outset and to correct them quickly if we do not.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I am listening carefully to the Minister's helpful explanation, but perhaps I can save him a little time. These are probing amendments, and he need not spend too long knocking them down. I want, however, to draw him out a little further on a point that runs throughout his speech. He said that the Government would tell pensioners about any technical changes, but will he say a little about how they will do that?

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions

As soon as we get permission from the House to enact the Bill, we shall have the opportunity to press ahead through the new Pension Service with a range of arrangements and a timetable. When work on those is completed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or I will write to the hon. Gentleman and other members of the Committee to clarify what processes will be put in place to carry out the pre-work on notification. We will also discuss who will be notified first and what arrangements will be put in place to do that.

We also intend to provide Members of Parliament and their staff with a briefing pack, and it is important that we do so. I have no doubt that their advice centres and offices will receive inquiries in the course of their

daily work, and we want to ensure that we take the strain off them. Hon. Members can rest assured that user-friendly materials will be available to cover the whole programme. It will be a big logistical operation to transfer more than 2 million people on to pension credit immediately and another 4 million within a year. That is a big exercise in anyone's language, and we are undertaking a great deal of work on planning and logistics.

In the past few days, we have published the Pension Service business plan for 2002–03—I hope that the hon. Gentleman has received a copy—which sets out many of the priorities in relation to pension credit. I shall write to hon. Members about the implementation process at the earliest opportunity, but I am not allowed to do so until the Bill has been enacted. At that point, we shall move forward quickly.

With those remarks, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I want to take up a couple of points that arose from the Minister's response. As I understand it, the first assumption is that the applicant will be asked to say what the indexation rules are. The Minister is nodding, which is helpful. On the form, which will be cut down from 40 to 10 pages and will be very simple, one question will be: ''Please set out the indexation rules''—it will probably be put in simpler language—''that apply to each of your pensions.'' Given the breathtaking ignorance of many people about pensions, I wonder about that question. People come to the end of a private personal pension and do not realise that they can buy the annuity from anyone, not just the provider. They end up with less income for the rest of their life because of that. That is a fundamental aspect of pensions, which people do not understand.

The fact that people will receive this form and be asked for such complex information concerns me. Assuming that many of them cannot provide it, the Minister seems to be saying that the provider will have to do so, potentially for millions of pensioners. I confess that I have not studied the regulatory impact assessment for the Bill very closely, but will the Minister say whether it deals with that point and whether an extra administrative burden on providers is expected? Two other points are germane. First, there is take-up, for which the Minister says that there is a safety net. If things go wrong, pensioners will receive a letter telling them the assumptions that have been used. If those assumptions are wrong, the pensioners will inform the Pension Service. However, my fear is that because the matter is so complicated people will either file the letter in a shoebox or not understand it and will therefore miss out because they have not spotted that an incorrect assumption has been made.

The final aspect of the matter is limited price indexation. The Minister cites the case dating from when inflation was 3.5 per cent. and pension schemes typically increased by 2.5 per cent. It is all straightforward when inflation is low, but the Bill has to work in a high-inflation environment as well. Once inflation has risen above the limited price indexation covered by most schemes, there will be huge variations in the amount of indexation that will be ''deemed'' under subsection (4). That could cause

real problems of non take-up. If the RPI is wide of the mark in a high-inflation environment, what pensioners actually get will vary enormously. Those are big unresolved issues.

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions

The majority of pensioners will be guided through the claims process by Pension Service staff over the phone. A large proportion will not fill in a form themselves—they will simply be asked to indicate that the information provided is correct. It will be a change not just in emphasis but in the whole way in which the system works. The job of the Pension Service is to be the advocate on behalf of pensioners, not the gatekeeper on behalf of the state. That is a fundamental change and that is why the service's new staff are being trained in a fundamentally different way.

Some of the hon. Gentleman's points were very legitimately put. One gets nightmares when trying to design such a system. I can only ask the hon. Gentleman to trust me that his points are being taken into account. As regards the regulatory impact of the measures, we are preparing the regulations now. I think that I gave a commitment in a previous sitting—if I did not, I am giving it now—that as soon as we can get the regulatory regimes in place and the Bill is enacted, Opposition spokespersons will have the opportunity to meet officials and go through it with them so that they can have some input. The important thing is to get the regulations right. The Bill itself is easy, but the regulatory regime is another job altogether. I give the hon. Member for Northavon that assurance.

A passage from the explanatory notes relating to the regulatory appraisal has been handed to me. It states:

''There may be an increase in the volume of queries made to the financial services industry at the initial claim stage as the objective is to reach more customers than the numbers currently receiving the Minimum Income Guarantee . . . However, this will be counterbalanced by fewer queries in the medium and long term as a result of plans to introduce a less intrusive income assessment and indefinite awards with five-year reviews.''

Those are excellent words, but they do not answer the hon. Gentleman's question about how much the measures will cost. The notes do not tell me, so I assume that the assessment is that there will not be a huge burden, because if such a burden were predicted, it would have to appear in the notes. Just in case there is an error, I will check for the hon. Gentleman and write to him. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman's queries and that we can now move on to another clause.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I was reading The Guardian the other day. It described the pension credit as ''a complex beast''. When or if the author of those comments studies the debate, what has been said will not dissuade him from that conclusion.

I listened carefully to the Minister's remarks. The debate has been useful and I look forward to receiving the letter from him. These were only probing amendments and, as they have served their purpose, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 12:00 pm, 23rd April 2002

I beg to move amendment No. 30, in page 5, line 28, at end insert—

'(d) any other relevant income to be taken into account in the determination of pension credit'.

The amendment relates to clause 7 (6), which contains the definition of ''retirement provision'' and the types of income that are to be the subject of the process described in the clause. The amendment simply asks whether any other types of income should be subject to the process.

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions

I have a reasonably substantive response for the hon. Gentleman, at the end of which I hope that he will again say that I have been helpful.

I appreciate that the amendment is simply a probing amendment. If it were included in the Bill, it would leave a hole of at least £500 million in the Chancellor's budget. The Liberals will probably pick that and add it to the 1p.

I shall explain the objectives of the clause. As we said in response to previous amendments, the purpose of the assessed income period is to replace the weekly means test. That means that for most pensioners the requirement to report changes in their circumstances is extended from the immediate to every 5 years. That may be like a red rag to a bull to the hon. Gentleman, but I keep repeating the same point to emphasise how fundamental is the change in the measures under clauses 6 to 10. The clause provides the structure that enables us to make that change.

I shall go back a step. Most pensioners' incomes are stable when all the provisions that they have made for their retirement are settled. Obviously, some of their income streams will change—occupational pensions, for instance, will probably be protected from inflation. Capital could change as well, as pensioners utilise their capital or receive windfalls from a family will, for example. Some pensioners will need to draw legitimately on savings from time to time and some may receive money through inheritance. By and large, however, their main sources of income will not change to any extent. The clause essentially takes advantage of that fact and fixes in time these income streams.

The main sources of income that will be fixed are described in clause 7(6). They include retirement pension income, as specified in Clause 16, which includes any non-state second pensions, such as occupational pensions, stakeholder pensions and other private pensions, but excludes state benefits and pension income from non-pension annuity contracts and the income that we shall assume from capital.

Pensioners do not have to tell us about increases in these incomes. Let us be clear about this: if a pensioner wins the lottery in the second week of his or her assessed income period, the increase in capital, be it £10 or £1 million, will not be reflected in the pension credit entitlement until the end of the assessed income period—in four years and 50 weeks' time.

Only those who believe that the pension credit is some benefit of last resort have any reason for alarm,

but it is not the case. The pension credit is an entitlement that combines a decent guarantee with a savings reward, and is far removed from the world of income support. The new system is very different from the old system, under which pensioners would have to report even the aforementioned penny. In fact, the sum involved would be only a tenner, but hon. Members will understand my point. Under the old system, any increase in income had to be reported and would be lost in adjustment, so the new measure represents a dramatic change in practice.

The amendment would allow all state pensions and benefits to be fixed for the duration of the assessed income period, but it would go further: it would allow all income received in a pensioner's household, from whatever source, to be fixed. Thus, during the assessed income period, no account would be taken of new benefits received by the claimant or his partner. In pension credit, as in other income-related benefits, most other benefits are taken into account as income. If the claimant's younger partner started to receive incapacity benefit, it would not be set off against pension credit until the end of the assessed income period. That would amount to double provision and is therefore not acceptable. Secondly, no account would be taken of increases in earnings, so if a younger partner got a highly paid job, that, too, would be unacceptable.

I feel sure that the Committee would agree that there is a difference between the income sources that we intend to fix and those where we will still require changes to occur when they happen. I trust the balance that we have made in clause 7 and I hope, after that explanation—

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The Minister helpfully referred us to the definition in clause 7(6)(a) which, as he has just said, says that retirement pension income is defined in clause 16. In the long list on page 10, clause 16(1)(h) says:

''Income from a retirement annuity contract'',

so retirement pension income under subsection (6)(a) includes income from a retirement annuity contract. However, subsection (6)(b) says:

''Income from annuity contracts (other than retirement pension income)''.

Can the Minister clarify the distinction? It is not clear to me why retirement annuity contracts are counted in subsection (6)(a) and annuity contracts are separately listed in subsection (6)(b) and the amendment refers to inserting additional categories.

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions

I am just as hazy as the hon. Gentleman, so we shall keep waffling until we get an answer. That illustrates the importance of Committees—it is impossible to know every answer under the sun.

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions

I know that the hon. Gentleman is trying to help me. If he is going to embarrass me, he had better make it worth while.

The answer might be that it is to take account of the different types of annuity. Some annuities have fixed interest returns and some have non-fixed returns. Some relate to a small payment on death that comes from some of the capital. I hope that I am in the right ball park, because if I am not, it is a really big embarrassment.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

To reiterate my earlier point, does the Minister agree that it is important, without alarming pensioners, to give them the fullest possible information?

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Maybe we should start with Ministers. I hope that we can, at some stage, have a good discussion about the relationship of the Pension Service to the issues raised by the hon. Member for Northavon and others. That is increasingly seen as a critical factor in the successful outcome and implementation of pension credit. We have between now and October 2003—which is not a great deal of time, given the task before us.

I think that I have offered, but I cannot remember whether it was during this debate, to arrange for any Opposition spokesperson who wants to visit our emerging pension centres to do so. They will be open visits, with no restrictions, and we hope that they will return and tell us what can be done to improve the centres. [Interruption.] Ah, God is on our side. I shall read this for the record.

''Retirement pension annuity—required to purchase before age 75 if a member of a defined benefit scheme. Non-pension annuity—for example home equity release.''

Clause 15 lists all categories of income including pension income. Pension income is given a more detailed definition in clause 16. I hope that that answer helps the hon. Gentleman. It has helped me, in that the provision does what I thought it would by differentiating the various incomes that come from annuities. If the hon. Gentleman reads the answer and is still not satisfied—if he thinks that I am still talking gobbledygook—I shall offer a fuller and more detailed explanation. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that googly; I hope that it is the last in this Committee.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

It has been a useful debate. I emphasise that it was a probing amendment. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I beg to move amendment No. 35, in page 5, line 38, at end insert

'or of any decision where it seems to the decision-maker that the claimant has acted either fraudulently or without the utmost good faith in making the claim'.

The amendment would allow decisions on entitlement to credit or retirement provision to be changed if claimants had acted fraudulently or without the utmost good faith when making their claims. We shall come to the general question of fraud later, in a new clause. The amendment is designed to explore how decisions on income received, and the effect that that will have through the pension credit, could be revised in the circumstances outlined. We imagine that there is some mechanism whereby a decision can be revised if the applicant has behaved fraudulently, and

we look to the Minister to say a few words on the subject. It might also be worth exploring whether decisions should be revised if the applicant may not have acted fraudulently but did not act with the utmost good faith.

Photo of Ian McCartney Ian McCartney Minister for pensions, Department for Work and Pensions

Over the years, pensioners have put off claiming the help that they are entitled to because of the nature of the claims process. Claiming is sometimes seen as stigmatising. We do not want to debate that today, but clause 7 tries to deal in a practical way with those issues, which are real to older people, but to take account of them when developing a system that meets the taxpayer's need for the decision-making process to be secure.

I realise that it is a probing amendment, but I do not want those taking part in this debate—even if only the hon. Gentleman and I are in the firing line—to think that we are accusing pensioners of fraud. Indeed, fraud among older people is comparatively rare. For example, for the 12 months to March 2001, only 3.2 per cent. of MIG cases were found to be engaged in fraud compared with 8.9 per cent. of income-based jobseeker's allowance cases.

The principal types of fraud are incorrect declarations of capital and savings by claimants, and the new system will significantly reduce that error rate. Claimants will continue to receive benefits while living abroad or when on extended leave from the United Kingdom that has not been reported. Another fraud is incorrect declarations of benefit received and other sources of income, including occupational pensions. We are developing a strategy for measuring losses for fraud and error. Pension credit is a brand new benefit and it means that we can scrap the weekly means test. It is important to ensure that our strategy for measuring underlying losses for fraud and error is robust.

None of us is interpreting the hon. Gentleman's intention in moving the amendment as anything other than honourable towards older people. He is attempting, rightly, to discover whether we have put effective arrangements in place to deal with it. Subsection 8 already provides the powers that he refers to in the amendment. The amendment, is therefore, redundant.

Committee members will no doubt appreciate an explanation of why we seek those powers. It is a bit like following a string through a labyrinth, but here we go. We will have powers to revise pension credit decisions that have been based on a mistake or ignorance as to a material fact, including those that have arisen through fraud or misrepresentation. Those powers derive from section 9 of the Social Security Act 1998.

Pension credit is included in the provisions of the 1998 Act by virtue of the consequential amendments contained in part 2 of schedule 1 of the Bill. In turn, overpayments that arise through fraud or misrepresentation are recoverable under section 71 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992. Pension credit is included in that provision by paragraph 10 of schedule 2 of the Bill. Happily, very few pensioners

seek to defraud the taxpayer or obtain an overpayment deliberately. However, we recognise that, especially with the existing regime, the continuous requirement to report changes can cause pensioners to be overpaid inadvertently. Indeed, for that reason, some pensioners are put off claiming the MIG. We do not wish to brand decent, well-intentioned pensioners as fraudsters, and another major positive effect of the assessed income period will be that changes in income will no longer have to be reported. Where cases of fraud or misrepresentation do occur, I hope that I have satisfied the hon. Gentleman that the Bill already provides for the powers that he seeks in his amendment, which I ask him to withdraw.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 12:15 pm, 23rd April 2002

I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. We have drawn out, first, that the powers exist to revise such decisions and, secondly, where those powers lie. For those of us who do not have section 71 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 at our fingertips, the Minister's response is helpful.

I appreciate the context in which the Minister has set the debate. I agree with him if he is saying that a balance needs to be struck in these matters, and that one should not introduce unwarranted measures that may alarm pensioners or put them off claiming. Pensioners understand as well as anyone what fraud means, and the amendment is designed to bear down on fraud. Fraud requires a dishonest intention to defraud, and I am sure that pensioners feel as strongly as everyone else feels about those who fraudulently divert the money of honest taxpayers into their own pockets.

We shall have a wider debate later about tackling fraud. I agree with the Minister that benefit fraud is less prevalent among older people, but it does exist. However, having drawn out from the Minister which part of the Bill contains the power to which he refers—clause 7(8), although the power is not spelt out in the clause—I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.