Access to Pension Credit

– in Westminster Hall at 4:25 pm on 24th July 2019.

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Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons) 4:25 pm, 24th July 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered access to pension credit.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I am grateful that this important issue has been selected for debate before the parliamentary recess, and pleased to see so many hon. Members present from many political parties to discuss this crucial issue. Their presence, along with the large number of colleagues who have voiced real concern about the problem in recent weeks, clearly illustrates that it is by no means constituency-specific; it affects people in every constituency in the UK and in all parts of the communities that we represent. My argument is a simple one, but the solutions to the problem are far from straightforward.

Pension credit is failing. It is failing the ballooning number of pensioners who are living in poverty across our communities, and the Government’s broken promise on free TV licences could be about to make things much, much worse. It is perhaps fitting that on the day the Prime Minister leaves office, we are here discussing just one of the numerous “burning injustices” that she failed to tackle—and that actually got worse on her watch. More of the same will not cut it. We must end this moral emergency.

The backdrop to our debate is simple but shocking. After nearly a decade of Tory austerity, almost 2 million pensioners are now living in poverty—a statistic that should not only shock us, but utterly shame us. In the now sixth-richest economy in the world, I am truly saddened and alarmed that the UK Government have allowed pensioner poverty to soar to such an extent. Indeed, I now believe that the situation is a moral emergency. To any Government Member who seeks to counter that claim, I simply ask: how can it be right that by this time tomorrow another 226 older people will have fallen into poverty? That is more than 80,000 pensioners per year—more than the number of people in most of our constituencies.

The frankly staggering rises that we are seeing will be difficult to reverse, but the Government’s continuing paralysis over Brexit must not mean that the issue is allowed to slip further down the new Prime Minister’s in-tray. If we do not address this moral emergency—if we allow this deeply damaging trend to continue—we have to ask ourselves what we got into politics for.

The issue does not affect just older people. The decisions that we take today to support older generations will have a real and marked impact on the future of young people across our country and on people of working age. If the Government continue to turn a blind eye to pensioner poverty, they will be sending one message, and one message only: “You can work hard all your life, pay into the system and try your best to get on and do well. But even if you do, there will still be a real risk that you will not be able to enjoy a dignified and comfortable retirement.”

No responsible Government should allow the situation to continue. One thing we could do to address it over the summer recess is take real steps, rather than just speaking warm words, towards making people properly aware of their pension credit entitlement. The Government’s appalling decision to break their 2017 manifesto commitment to protect pensioner benefits has, rightly, caused hon. Members across the country to shine a light on the low uptake of pension credit across the UK.

Under the new BBC licence fee rules, as hon. Members will be aware, only households with someone over the age of 75 who is in receipt of pension credit will be eligible to continue having their licence fee waived.

Photo of Hugh Gaffney Hugh Gaffney Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill

In Scotland, £300 million goes unclaimed in pension credits, including £7 million in my constituency. Surely that £7 million would help with those TV licence fees.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. My point is that if all our constituents claimed the pension credit they are entitled to, it would cost more than providing free TV licences, so surely a good option would be to get better take-up of pension credit and to continue with free TV licences.

The new approach, when packaged in a Government press release, might at first look like a logical step for some to take, but when we unpack it and look at how many people are not accessing the financial support to which they are entitled, we see how utterly disgraceful the policy is and how much of a backward step it is. Put simply, the Government need to stop outsourcing their welfare policy to the BBC.

Of course, the Government provide a range of measures to protect the most hard-pressed pensioners, many of which are welcome and needed, yet their flagship policy to lift pensioners out of poverty—pension credit—is failing.

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Opposition Whip (Commons)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that the Government need to launch a major awareness-raising campaign about pension credit? There are more than 2,000 households in Blaenau Gwent that could be missing out on a total of £5.6 million every year. They have the right to this money, so let us make sure that they get it.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I completely agree with him that the Government need to do a lot more to encourage pensioners to claim pension credit and make them understand that there is no stigma in their gaining pension credit. However, even in my constituency of Ogmore there is more than £5.1 million that is not being claimed by pensioners, so I completely agree with him, and I hope that the Minister will respond to some of these points at the end of the debate.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Labour, Barnsley East

Further to that point, does my hon. Friend agree that it is quite concerning that the figure nationally for those entitled to pension credit but not claiming it is 40%? Meanwhile, in my own constituency of Barnsley East, more than 4,000 pensioners are due to lose their free TV licences. The combination of these two factors is really concerning. Does he agree?

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons)

I do agree with my hon. Friend. Her intervention re-emphasises the point that this issue affects pensioners right across the United Kingdom, and the Government need to deal with it, starting by better advertising what is available and making sure that pensioners are able to access the money that they need and that is rightly theirs.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs)

Does the hon. Gentleman share my shock and disbelief that pensioners tell me that when they phone up the helpline or claim-line for pension credit, they find that it is not properly staffed? Indeed, some of my constituents have been left on hold on the phone for up to an hour, even though there is no option to apply for pension credit using an application form. Barriers are being put in the way of pensioners claiming this money, which might explain the lack of take-up.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. As I will set out later in my speech, the parliamentary service here has been able to have some interaction with constituents from across the UK, and I have some examples that will almost confirm her view that the Department for Work and Pensions is being deliberately unhelpful when it comes to allowing pensioners to claim pension credit. I will refer to those examples later.

The Government’s flagship policy to lift pensioners out of poverty—pension credit—is failing, and it has been for some time. Pension credit is not working for up to 1.3 million pensioner households that are eligible for this vital support, which could be the catalyst they need to lift them out of poverty, but they do not receive it. In my constituency, I find it completely staggering that there is £5.1 million of pension credit going unclaimed each year, and I know that there are many, many constituencies across the UK where the situation is even bleaker.

By the time the new TV licence rules come into force in 2020, pensioners across the UK will have endured 10 long years of Tory austerity—10 long years of austerity that none of them caused; 10 long years of austerity that many of these pensioners did not vote for. Indeed, 10 long years of austerity have had a devastating impact on the living standards and quality of life of hundreds of thousands of pensioners across the United Kingdom.

In 2003, pension credit was introduced under the new Labour Government. It was created to ensure that all older people received a minimum amount of income and has played a major role in previous reductions in poverty. Indeed, the last Labour Government lifted 2 million pensioners out of poverty as a result of policies such as pension credit.

What have we seen since? Over 400,000 more pensioners have been plunged into poverty, and two in five of the pensioner households that are entitled to pension credit currently do not claim it. That shows that it is not that the policy itself is not working; instead, it is that people who might need this money are not accessing it. The Government have to change that.

Parliament’s brilliant digital engagement team asked people on social media and on the MoneySavingExpert.com forum over the weekend about their experiences with pension credit. It was clear from that research that although many respondents were aware of pension credit, there was much more confusion about what the benefit actually was, who is eligible to it and how it can be accessed. Several of the respondents criticised the way that the DWP promotes pension credit to those who are eligible for it. For example,

Joanne Stannard said that

“there are some over-75s who don’t even own a computer…make their lives easier”.

Susan Brady said:

“I worked for the DWP for over 30 years in operational delivery, so I am well aware how unfair our welfare system is. We seem to despise our older people in the UK. It’s wrong, totally wrong.”

I could go on, but what was clear from the responses is that the system is not fit for purpose. People do not know whether they are eligible for pension credit and many are struggling to get by, despite working hard throughout their lives.

I thank everyone who responded to the questions posted online or shared their views about them, and I pay tribute to the digital engagement team for again helping us to have as informed a debate as possible.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West

My hon. Friend is making a great speech, with lots of very salient points. Recently, when it was announced that over-75s would get their TV licence free only if they are on pension credit, I wrote to all the over-75s in my constituency, so I will just add a response that I received to those that he has cited. One constituent said that he not only received his pension credit but now also gets

“council tax credit, help with…glasses and dental, and a premium on…carer’s allowance.”

He was forced into poverty because of a lack of information that only I, as his representative, could correct. Is that not something that the Government should do?

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The point that I will make later in my speech is that there seems to be this assumption that increasing publicity does not necessarily work or that trying to get cross-benefits, for example around housing benefit, would not solve the problem. However, his intervention shows that where Members of Parliament are proactive—arguably, the Government could be proactive instead—they can gain more support for their constituents. I pay tribute to him for doing that already; perhaps the Government could follow his lead.

Over the last few weeks, I have been working closely with the older people’s charity Independent Age, which has put forward some sensible recommendations that could help us to improve this situation. Indeed, its “Credit Where It’s Due” campaign has already made waves across the country, and I am proud to support it in its entirety.

Working with sector stakeholders and with all levels of Government, it is essential that the Government act to ensure that everyone who is entitled to pension credit receives it. To achieve this, I impress upon the Minister the need for him to make three clear commitments today. The first is to ensure that at least 75% of eligible people receive pension credit by the end of 2020. The second is to ensure that that figure is at least 95% by the end of 2022. The third is to ensure that it is 100% by 2025.

Independent Age estimates that if measures are put in place to achieve a 75% take-up target by 2020, half a million pensioners could be lifted out of poverty by putting an additional £1.25 billion into the pockets of our poorest pensioners. To reach those targets, the Government must put in place a comprehensive action plan that is ambitious about the full range of improvements that can be—indeed, need to be—made. Simply continuing previous approaches, such as focusing merely on new awareness-raising campaigns, will not allow us to make the progress on this issue that is desperately needed.

Of course, the voluntary sector plays a vital role in supporting older people to access pension credit, but such support cannot be relied upon to improve uptake across the country if used in isolation.

Photo of Anna McMorrin Anna McMorrin Labour, Cardiff North

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech with some excellent points. In Cardiff North, nearly 1,400 older people are missing out on a combined total of £4 million of pension credits. That has a huge impact on my constituency. I am reaching out to those older people. He has secured this important debate to reach out to the Government to do more, and his points are very salient. Does he agree that the Government need to be far more proactive in this area?

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. She makes a strong case as to why the Government should do more, because, as I have already said, this issue is clearly affecting every constituency right across the UK.

Previous Government attempts to work with older people’s groups and charities to raise awareness of pension credit have made a positive difference in the short term, but they have not been enough to achieve the longer-term change that we need. For the record, I have no problem at all with the Government engaging with and working with the voluntary sector to support pensioners. There are many reasons why voluntary groups do extraordinary work in supporting pensioners’ groups and older people’s groups to tackle loneliness or offer support. I take nothing away from any of that work, but the Government need to take responsibility for the fact that there are millions of pensioners who are not receiving the pension credit that they should rightly receive.

The four stages of Independent Age’s action plan are a clear and decisive way to turn this around. First, the Government must take responsibility for getting pension credit to older people. Previous research has generally focused on the failure of older people to respond in the way that the system demands. Barriers to claiming pension credit can include confusion about the application process and the stigma associated with claiming benefits. Many people do not apply because they think they are ineligible. At times, there has been more ambitious thinking. In 2012, the Department for Work and Pensions ran a small trial in which pension credit was paid to people without them having to apply. However, that approach has not been fully explored or rolled out. The Government need to use the information and techniques they have at their fingertips to significantly simplify, or even remove altogether, the application process for pension credit.

Secondly, the Government should consider the trigger points affecting pensioners on low incomes and explore cross-referral across agencies. They should look beyond retirement age and explore the role of other services at those trigger points, such as the role of GPs, or ensuring that applicants for disability or carer benefits are notified about pension credit at the point of award. The DWP should explore its role in notifying such individuals about pension credit; for example, Tell Us Once is a service that lets a person report a death to most Government organisations in one go. That could be a route to notifying the bereaved about the support they may be entitled to.

Thirdly, the Government must explore the role of housing benefit. Some 80% of households take up housing benefit, compared with as few as 58% for pension credit. We know that over half of the 330,000 pensioners who have moved into poverty since 2013 are renting. Some of those people will be entitled to, but missing out on, pension credit. Currently, the Department for Work and Pensions passes on the information received for a pension credit assessment to the relevant local authority, so that the applicant is able to claim housing benefit. However, the reverse does not happen. There is therefore an opportunity to ensure that when housing benefit has been awarded, the information used in that assessment is passported from the local authority to the DWP for a pension credit assessment.

Lastly, the Government should explore options for using behavioural insight. The Government should ensure that every element of the action plan is developed in partnership with older people. For example, they should explore co-producing communications with older people to maximise the likelihood of getting a response. This is about focusing less on assumptions and more on actually understanding the needs of older people.

I will briefly highlight some of the fantastic work being done to support pensioners in my constituency of Ogmore, including by the various older people’s groups that I meet with on a regular basis in Cefn Cribwr, Llanharan, Brynna and Maesteg, as well as the men’s sheds in Tondu, Ogmore Vale and the Garw Valley. Those organisations do an extraordinary amount of excellent peer-to-peer work to support older people by trying to tackle issues such as loneliness and secure the support that pensioners are entitled to. Nothing makes me prouder to be the MP for Ogmore than seeing different parts of those communities coming together to support one another. However, it is now time for the Government to step up and support the valiant efforts of those organisations by delivering the changes we need to stop any more pensioners falling into the dangerous cycle of poverty.

We stand at yet another turning point in our politics. Tomorrow we will likely have a radically different Government from the one that is before us today. While he has only been in office a matter of hours, the new Prime Minister’s in-tray must have more issues in it than the number of positions he has had on Europe over the years. However, this issue must not be parked until after we do or do not Brexit. The Government have to start realising that constitutional issues must not trump the real-life impact that their failures are having every day on our communities up and down the UK. Therefore, in all sincerity, I ask the Minister to not come back to us with warm words, but to give pensioners a real action plan that will deliver the poverty reduction that we need.

If austerity really is set to come to an end, it is time that this Government give back to the communities that have felt the brunt of the pain their policies have caused over the past 10 years. The first big but important step towards doing that is to ensure that older people receive the money that they are legally entitled to. Surely that is not too much to ask.

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Defence) 4:44 pm, 24th July 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Elmore on securing this afternoon’s debate, and thank him for the case that he has outlined.

As we have heard, pension credit is not working. Over £200 million of pension credit is not reaching older people in Wales each year, including almost £6 million that is not reaching people in my constituency. As many as 80,000 people in Wales, and over 1 million in total across the UK, are currently missing out. The financial support that pension credit provides would be a life-changing event to a great number of those people, who are finding it harder and harder to get by due to years of Tory austerity. That is certainly the case in constituencies such as mine in the south Wales valleys, where it can often be easy for geographic isolation to cause older people to suffer from loneliness and poor mental health. Pension credit can enable people suffering from loneliness or isolation to take part in a range of social activities they would not otherwise be able to, not to mention make shopping and other bills affordable.

I also want to mention free TV licences for the over-75s. Following the Government’s cruel decision to offload responsibility for that concession to the BBC, there is a policy to means-test pensioners’ eligibility for free TV licences through pension credit. That is not a suitable test, since the current take-up of that benefit is so low. Not only will about 3,220 pensioner households in my constituency and many thousands more across the UK continue to miss out on that essential benefit, but they will now be hit by a bill of over £150 for a TV licence.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore said, almost 2 million older people in the UK are living in poverty. It is shocking that more than two in five pensioner households are not receiving the pension credit to which they are entitled, an average of £49 per week. That money would make a huge difference to some of the poorest people in my constituency, across Wales and across the UK. Those pensioners have paid into the system their entire working life, but that very system is now letting them down.

The Government must now act to improve the take-up of pension credit and launch a campaign to create wider awareness of it, in order to lift pensioners out of poverty and give them the quality of life that they deserve. I plead with the Minister to consider the real and grave concerns that have been raised during today’s debate, and come forward with answers, not words, to address an injustice that is causing hardship to those who can least afford it.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 4:47 pm, 24th July 2019

I will speak briefly, because I know a lot of Members want to speak. I thank Chris Elmore for having secured this important debate.

It is a disgrace that pension credit—the support in place to help our poorest pensioners—has been under-claimed by £7 billion since June 2017 across the UK. In my constituency, that figure stands at £7.4 million. While many pensioners often have to choose between eating and heating, they are unaware that other support has been set aside for them. I have raised this issue on the Floor of the House, and asked what the Government were going to do to publicise that support and ensure that our poorest older people were aware of it. Predictably and disappointingly, the answer I received was rather dismissive.

It seems to me that unacceptable obstacles have been placed in the path of those who might claim and benefit from this support. In my constituency, as I said earlier, I have been told by old people that when they call the pension credit claim line, it is not properly staffed. After being kept on hold, sometimes for up to a full hour, the would-be claimant gives up and hangs up. On hearing that, I advised my constituents to apply for pension credit via post, but guess what? Only those living in Northern Ireland can do so. I wonder why that is; perhaps the Minister can explain why there is more concern for constituents in Northern Ireland than for those in North Ayrshire and Arran.

Why does this matter? It seems to me that by not informing older people that pension credit exists, and then making it as hard as possible for them to claim, the less it costs and the more can be clawed back by the Treasury. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of pensioners in my constituency and across the UK are robbed of vital support that could make a material difference to their circumstances. That is before we talk about those who may miss out on pension credit and, as a further blow, will lose their right to a free TV licence when those are cut by the Government, not to mention the fact that pension credit is often a gateway benefit to other support.

The cuts in pension credit for mixed-age couples were sneaked out under the cover of the Brexit chaos. Add to that the betrayal of women born in the 1950s, who have been robbed of their state pension, and we have a UK Government breaking their manifesto pledge to protect pensioner benefits.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

The hon. Lady is not the first representative from her party to complain on behalf of the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign. However, there is devolution in Scotland. If she really cared about the issue, should the Scottish National party Government not put their money where their mouth is?

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs)

The WASPI women are not stupid, and they have heard that myth peddled repeatedly. There is a particular section in the Scotland Act 2016, which I recommend the hon. Gentleman reads, that forbids the Scottish Government from providing benefits

“by reason of old age.”

If he were to read the Act, he might learn a thing or two before peddling that myth. I also remind him that the Scottish Parliament does not exist to clear up a Tory mess.

It is clear that the Government are no friend, supporter or protector of our older people. It is time for the Government to get a grip, stop punishing our older people, stop punishing people for being poor, get on with the day job and properly address pensioner poverty.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Labour, Newport West 4:50 pm, 24th July 2019

It is a pleasure to speak briefly in this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I commend my hon. Friend Chris Elmore, and congratulate him and his new wife on their wedding last weekend. I wish them many happy years together; hopefully they can draw their pensions together in years to come. I will say a word about the level of pension credit take-up in Wales, and I commend my hon. Friend for raising the issue. I know that a couple of other things are happening in this city today, but although minds will be focused on the new resident in Downing Street, I hope the debate gets the focus and attention that it deserves.

As all colleagues will know, and as my hon. Friend indicated, pension credit is the main means-tested benefit for pensioners. For those people reaching state pension age before April 2016, pension credit has two parts—guarantee credit and savings credit. Guarantee credit provides financial help for people aged over the qualifying age for pension credit whose income is below a set amount. Savings credit is an extra amount for people aged 65 or over, who have made some provision for their retirement.

As we have heard, in 2016-17 up to 1.3 million families who were entitled to receive pension credit did not claim the benefit. That equates to about £3.5 billion of available pension credit going unclaimed. On average, that amounted to about £2,500 per year for each family, and in Wales in 2016-17 more than £170 million went unclaimed by some of the poorest older people in our part of the United Kingdom.

I have been an MP for only a few months, but before my election to this House I worked in the NHS for more than 30 years. It was clear to me then, as it is clear to me now in my new role as the Member for Newport West, that food poverty and fuel poverty are on the rise, and that there is a homelessness crisis. In this House, and in all four parts of the UK, we need to do more to assist those eligible to apply and we need to ensure that people know that they are eligible.

There is a communication issue here. We need to do more, go further and be clearer about the fact that pension credit is there to help those who need it. The Government’s welfare policies leave a lot to be desired. Frankly, the Government should be ashamed of much of the last nine years. However, for all that shame there is support and we should encourage our constituents to seek it. I will use my role as the Member for Newport West to champion the issue, and will continue to work with and support my hon. Friend to raise these issues.

I do not know whether the Minister has been notified, but I would like him to address two questions. First, the take-up of pension credit by couples continues to be lower than that of single people. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that the rate at which couples claim pension credit increases? Secondly, according to the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales, £170 million of pension credit went unclaimed in 2016-17. What steps are the Government, alongside other Departments, taking to increase pension credit take-up rates in Wales?

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland) 4:54 pm, 24th July 2019

I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Elmore on an excellent introduction, in a comprehensive speech about a great injustice.

Recently, I visited the Alive and Kicking project in my constituency, which was a great organisation to discover. It was set up in the year I was born, so it is 30 years old. It has been an amazing charity—a stalwart in the Springburn area in helping to involve older people in the community in social activity when otherwise they might be isolated on the fringes of our communities.

Such organisations, the length and breadth of Britain, are the backbone of ensuring that social isolation and alienation are not a more common occurrence. We often underestimate the capacity of those organisations. Yet, sadly, they face significant financial pressures due to local government cuts. It is an onslaught on every front that many such organisations—the infrastructure that supports older people—face.

The people at the Alive and Kicking project were very hospitable. They gave me my lunch and we had a game of bingo. I had a great time with them, but we also had a Q and A session. There was so much anger from the older people about the TV licence being taken away. I could not believe the anguish that it was causing a lot of people—the feeling that they had done so much for their country over the years, working all the hours that God sends, as one lady said, to be greeted with that. She was recently widowed and the television is a critical part of her social existence. When she is not at the social club she is just alone at home and she communicates with the world through that television.

That is an insight into the hardship that the change is causing. It is not good enough to pass the buck to the BBC. We know the true reason why it has made the cutback; there is no point in trying to sugar-coat it. In my constituency, 1,400 people who currently qualify for the TV licence will be denied that opportunity. That adds extra impetus to the issue of pension credit under-claiming. We have to focus on the barriers to access, which have been referred to.

Many people spoke to me at the club about issues that they have had in accessing the benefits, their lack of awareness and even organisations’ lack of knowledge of how to assist users and maximise benefit claims. [Interruption.] Perhaps the Minister is confirming the details of how people claim those benefits. It is clear to me that the interface for normal people dealing with it has been deliberately designed to deny access.

We know for a fact, as a result of freedom of information action, that deflection scripts are practised for universal credit. There is an insidious ethos within the Department for Work and Pensions to deflect and deny access to rightful entitlements. That is utterly shameful and is a fact—an example was alluded to earlier. In my constituency, just 56% of those who are eligible to claim pension credit do so, according to the recent Independent Age study. That means that about 4,610 people claim it but 3,648 do not, leading to a cumulative total of £11 million a year that is unclaimed in my constituency.

That is not good enough, I am afraid, in a constituency that faces some of the worst social challenges in not just Scotland but the United Kingdom. It is a mark of shame on the DWP that the figure is as high as it is. There is a clear correlation between levels of social deprivation and the under-claiming of benefits that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. We currently have a regressive system, because the onus is on the individuals with the least capacity to claim the benefits. That must be fixed. The dice are loaded against them and it is not good enough.

That was just a simple insight into one example of when I went around my constituency and discovered the hardship that this issue is causing. I think that the people at the Alive and Kicking club would appreciate it were the Minister to commit to sending a DWP representative to visit the club, speak to the service users there and talk to them about how they can maximise their rightful entitlement. I think that that would be received very well. I look forward to the Minister committing to give at least that measure of reassurance to my constituents. The figures as they stand are shameful, and I hope that the Government will address them with due urgency.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment) 4:58 pm, 24th July 2019

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Buck. I congratulate Chris Elmore on an excellent speech. It is noticeable that the Celtic nations have dominated the debate so far, with one honourable exception in Stephanie Peacock. I have noticed something else in the debate, and we should show sympathy and solidarity with our Conservative colleagues, who are all nervously watching their telephones as the reshuffle begins. If social media is to be believed, we are looking at an episode of “Game of Thrones”—“The Red Wedding 2”—but we will see what happens in the next few hours.

As I said, the hon. Member for Ogmore made an excellent speech on access to pension credit and pressed home the statistics that he read out. The Independent Age charity informed me that there is an unclaimed £9,664,000 in the Glasgow South West constituency on a yearly basis. Frankly, that is an astonishing figure. It is outrageous that the Department for Work and Pensions is allowing billions in benefits to go unclaimed by poor pensioners. As the hon. Member for Ogmore said, four in 10 pensioner households that are entitled to pension credit are not receiving it. When we add that to the TV licence proposals, which I will come to, it looks very much look like poorer pensioners are missing out on many aspects of state support that they should receive.

Mr Sweeney and others have rightly invited DWP to try to sort out the situation, but some of us feel that, as Members of Parliament, we have to address it as well. I am organising a pension credit event for pensioner clubs and other organisations—bowling clubs, for example—during the summer recess, to show their members what they are entitled to and highlight that they will have friends and neighbours who are entitled to pension credit but are not receiving it.

We have other decisions on pension credit. The outrageous decision to cut pension credit for mixed-age couples could cost some couples £7,000 a year. It really is not good enough for the Government to say that a decision was made in 2012. There have been two general elections since then, and the make-up of Parliament is a lot different. There really should have been parliamentary scrutiny before 15 May, when the Government decided to put that forward. It is unacceptable, and just another addition to the long list of policies that are hurting older people.

I want to touch briefly on TV licences, because I think a number of hon. Members have suggested, and I agree, that it could end up being a false economy for the Government—[Interruption.]—I am obviously getting agreement from outside, as I am being cheered. It is a false economy because what could end up happening is that we will have people claiming pension credit to try to keep their free TV licence, which will cost the DWP a lot more than if it had kept TV licences under its domain. There is also the issue of the 1950s-born women, many of whom were not properly informed of the changes. Some have been affected by the mixed-age couple rules, and some single 1950s-born women could be eligible for pension credit, but they will have to wait longer to claim it because of the increase in pension age.

I want to close by emphasising that any suggestion that austerity is over is absolutely farcical. The Government have continued to target austerity at the most disadvantaged. The changes they are making to pension credit, and the fact that they are not proactive in ensuring that poorer pensioners know they are entitled to it, emphasises the point very well indeed.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions) 5:03 pm, 24th July 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. The people who built Britain are entitled to expect but the best in retirement. As my hon. Friend Gerald Jones put it, they paid in throughout their lives in the expectation that they would be supported in the twilight of their years. The sense of grievance was brilliantly brought to life by the outstanding speech given by my hon. Friend Chris Elmore. I pay tribute to him for securing this debate and for everything that he is doing.

Let us look at the history of pensioner poverty. In 1994-95, 28% of pensioners lived in poverty. That fell to 13% in 2011-12 as a consequence of action taken by a Labour Government: a fall achieved by offering extra help for poorer pensioners. However, that progress has been slammed into reverse, partly because of the chaos over pension credit, but also because of the changes to welfare policy. Pensioner poverty is now rising—back to 16% in 2017—suggesting that the previous progress has indeed been slammed into reverse. The sense of grievance about that was encapsulated by the excellent contribution from my hon. Friend Ruth Jones.

Some 14 million people now live in poverty in the UK—over one in five of the population—and they include 1.9 million pensioners. Reference was made to the excellent work done by Independent Age. I pay tribute to that remarkable organisation, which found that a more than a million pensioner households across Great Britain are forced to live in poverty owing to the Government’s failure to act on pension credit—these are the pensioner households missing out, or PHoMOs. Since the last general election, that has meant that the Government have held on to a staggering £7 billion—£3.5 billion each year—in unclaimed pension credit that should have gone to pensioners, a figure that will increase to a staggering £17 billion by 2022, equating to £10 million every day.

That is why my hon. Friend Mr Sweeney was absolutely right to point to the sense of anger at the situation. His is an organisation called Alive and Kicking and mine is called Elders with Attitude, but the message is the same. In fact, I have their T-shirt.

Getting pension credit is all the more important now because of what is happening with TV licences, about which I will say more later on. Forgive me if I stress once again that, as an initiative, pension credit was a landmark achievement of the last Labour Government. They cut pensioner poverty consistently, and at the heart of that achievement was the strategy relating to pension credit, but it has been slammed into reverse.

As hon. Members will know, the origin of pension credit was as an income-related benefit specifically designed to lift pensioners out of poverty. Introduced in 2003, it was created to ensure that all older people receive a minimum amount of income and has played a major role over the years in the reduction of pensioner poverty, until now. It is all the more important that pension credit is paid and that the people who deserve it get it.

On the one hand, there is a stereotype that all older people own their own homes, but, sadly, this is against a background of decreasing home ownership and rising rents in the private sector. Independent Age’s research shows that more than half a million older people in England now live in private rented accommodation, and that more than half of the 330,000 pensioners who have moved into poverty since 2013 are either private or social renters. Pension credit is all the more important for them.

On the other hand, pension credit is essential—for example, to pay for transport costs. Particularly in rural areas and for people with health or mobility issues, a car or taxi can be the only way to reach necessary services. Pension credit can also mean that older people are able to take part in social activities, reducing the risk of loneliness.

Pension credit is important for all those reasons and an additional one, which my hon. Friend Alex Sobel mentioned: it is a gateway to accessing other benefits. People missing out on pension credit could also be losing out on up to £7,000 a year in additional help. Pension credit can act as a gateway to housing benefit up to £5,020, to council tax support up to £1,670, to the warm home discount at £140, and to NHS costs, including dental treatment or eye care, up to £296. So it is all the more important that people who are entitled to pension credit get it.

To add insult to injury, it was announced earlier this month that free TV licences for the over-75s will now be means-tested. Several hon. Members have referred to that, and rightly so. The Library’s research shows that more than 3 million people will be affected by that move. It is estimated that 1.3 million poorer over-75s are eligible for pension credit but do not claim it. They will lose their free TV licences due to the proposal to tie licences to pension credit.

It is also estimated that 1.6 million pensioners living alone will lose their free TV licences in a means-tested system. That is absolutely wrong. In my experience, television can indeed be a friend to a lonely pensioner. The Tories’ idea to increase take-up of pension credit is, as is often mentioned, an “online toolkit”, but the problem is that its track record of achievement is lamentable. Pension credit is an online toolkit, but that has shown drastically declining usage since 2014. More than half of over-75s in the UK say that they have not used the internet in the past three months, and the amount of people accessing the toolkit fell by 84% between 2014 and 2018, with only 2,078 people using it last year. The fact that more than 1 million households in the UK are not claiming the pension credit to which they are entitled shows that the Government’s efforts simply are not working. It was therefore right that my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore secured this debate to focus on that.

I will refer to one other outrage, to be frank: the changes to pension credit slipped through on the same night as the first Brexit meaningful vote: from 15 May, new pensioners whose partners are younger than the state retirement age of 65 may no longer claim a means-tested top-up called pension credit. Instead, they will be forced to claim the much less generous universal credit alongside their younger partner. The couple rate of universal credit is £114.81 a week, compared with £255.25 a week for a couple on pension credit. That amounts to a potential loss of £7,320 a year—an absolute outrage.

The crucial question is what the Government will now do about that. I strongly support my hon. Friend’s recommendations on targets and his call to hear the Government’s action plan to right an undoubted wrong. As my hon. Friend Anna McMorrin said, the aims set out by Independent Age are eminently achievable over a five-year period, with targets being incrementally increased to get us to a position where 100% of those entitled to pension credit actually get it.

I will close with the point that I started with. We have a sacred duty to those who built this country. They endured so much not only in the world of work, but in conflict defending this country. The scale of the problems they had to overcome throughout their lives is sometimes unimaginable. They paid in throughout their lives. In retirement, they expected to be looked after for the rest of their years. It is absolutely wrong that pension credit is not working and, as a consequence, hundreds of thousands if not millions of pensioners are not getting that to which they are entitled. I say to the Government in all earnestness: Ministers should be ashamed of that.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 5:12 pm, 24th July 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck.

I congratulate Chris Elmore on securing this important debate, which I accept addresses significant and real issues. I must also congratulate him on his marriage. He will agree with the Prime Minister—bear with me—when she made the point at Prime Minister’s Question Time today that those who choose to marry a Member of Parliament do so with great bravery. It is an honour and privilege to get married, but choosing to marry a Member of Parliament is a bold thing. I wish Mrs Elmore well, and I wish them both well for the future.

It is also a great privilege and pleasure to welcome Ruth Jones to this place. This was the first time I have heard her speak; she spoke most eloquently. I congratulate her on her win, and wish her good fortune and enjoyment of this great privilege to hold a position in this House, where she will hold Government to account and possibly, in about 30 years, have a Labour Government—obviously under a new leader, as everyone in the House of Commons seemed to agree today.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the debate, I will make a point that is fair across the board and yet matters. It is entirely right for the hon. Member for Ogmore and the Opposition parties generally to hold Government to account, but it is also right that we all celebrate, support and talk glowingly about the various voluntary and charitable organisations that do such great work in all our communities.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

I am grateful to the Minister for making that point. Does he agree that organisations such as the Gloucestershire Older Persons’ Association, which helps with everything from digital technology to benefits and so on, are precisely the ones that Government ought to be supporting to ensure that those who are entitled to pension credit or any other benefit get them? Supporting those charities is something that, respectfully, the Government could do.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I will not necessarily make fresh policy on Government support for charities—

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Much though I am urged to do so by the hon. Gentleman. Chris Stephens asked if my phone was turned on, but it is most definitely turned off—with respect and due deference to the Chair—and it is not for me to make new tax or incentives policy.

A perfectly legitimate point, however, can be made in two ways in answer to my hon. Friend Alex Chalk and several other speakers. Voluntary organisations do a fantastic job of explaining to our older community—some of whom are digitally challenged and some fully up to speed online—the opportunities to claim and the things out there that the Government will provide, and that applies to any Government down the years. Basically, those organisations should have all our support, and anything that individual Members of Parliament, local authorities and local organisations can do to assist their efforts is entirely right. In my constituency, I have visited the Men’s Shed in Hexham and various support organisations, such as Age Concern in Corbridge. I fully accept that they do a fantastic job, as similar organisations do in Cheltenham and as does my hon. Friend. If we have the ability to use them more, I am happy to take any suggestions on board.

I accept that Government actions are criticised and I understand that it is for us to make our case, but I make a further point that the pension credit toolkit that we reissued in April, with two versions this year, provides copious advice not only to the individual who wishes to claim but to the voluntary organisations out there. I urge any voluntary organisations without access to the pension credit toolkit—which gives guidance, advice, assistance and recommendations of how to disseminate vital information to our constituents—to take it up, because it is of great importance.

All those things having been said, I want to make it clear that part of our case is that we would love pension credit take-up levels to be higher. The benefit is specifically intended to provide support to some of the poorest and most vulnerable pensioners in our community, and there is no question but that we are already committed to ensuring economic security for people at every stage of their life, especially when they reach retirement.

We are forecast to spend more than £120 billion on benefits for pensioners in 2019-20, which includes £99 billion on the state pension. As a result of the triple lock, from April 2019 the full yearly amount of the basic state pension is about £675 higher than if it had been uprated just by earnings since April 2010. That is a rise of more than £1,600 in cash terms.

In respect of pension credit, the value of the standard minimum guarantee this year is the equivalent of more than £1,800 per year higher in cash terms for single people, and more than £2,700 for couples, than it was in 2010. As a Government, we also spend £2 billion a year on winter fuel payments, which are payable to all pensioners, including those on pension credit.

The overall trend in the percentage of pensioners living in poverty has been a dramatic fall over recent decades. Rates of material deprivation for pensioners are at a record low. In fact, between 2009-10 and 2017-18, material deprivation for pensioners has fallen from 10% to 7%, and rates of relative pensioner poverty before housing costs have halved since 1990. We want to maintain that achievement. It is important that hon. Members understand that more than 1.6 million people already claim pension credit. That equates to £5.4 billion of claims. Indeed, as of November 2018, there were 2,450 pension credit claimants in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ogmore, and over 100,000 in Wales as a whole.

Moving on to the point about the BBC—

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am going to answer several of the hon. Lady’s points, but I will give way.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs)

Before the Minister talks about TV licences, will he tell us whether he will investigate the concerns brought to me by constituents about the claim line not being properly staffed?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I was going to come to that at a later stage, but I will address it now. I am told that there is no evidence that not enough people are manning the phone line, which is a freephone number. However, if the hon. Lady provides me with the specific information by letter, I will look into it and respond to her. She also raised the issue of the ability to communicate by post. Anybody can make an application by post; it is not restricted to Northern Ireland, as I think she seemed to suggest. There is a difference because Northern Ireland is a devolved Administration and is dealt with in a different way, but 20% of the population make a paper claim by post. As I understand, postal applications are possible—I will be corrected if I am wrong.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I will not give way again, because I have a lot of points to cover.

I want to deal with the point that the hon. Lady and other Members made about the state pension age increase. Jack Dromey is married to a former Minister, now Mother of House, Ms Harman, who was in favour of the state pension age in the dim distant past in 1997, when she was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Hon. Members will understand that I am the latest in a long line of Ministers who have continued the policy of successive Governments to increase the state pension age by reason of equality legislation and the increase in life expectancy, which is light years away from the three score years and ten of our grandparents.

Patricia Gibson raised the situation of the Scottish Government in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham; I refer the House to the letter of 22 June 2017 from my opposite number Jeane Freeman to my hon. Friend Richard Harrington, in which she explains the section 26, 28 and 24 powers under the Scotland Act 1998, which provide opportunities for the Scottish Government to intervene should they so choose, particularly in respect of the section 26 discretionary payments.

I now turn to the issue of the BBC. Its decision to limit free TV licences only to those aged 75 and over and in receipt of pension credit is disappointing. We expected it to continue the concession, and we want it to look at other options to help more elderly people who rely on TV to stay connected to the world. The BBC has indicated that it will write to all existing TV licence holders, advising them of how the new policy will work and when they need to act.

The Government look forward to hearing more from the BBC about its detailed plans for communicating and implementing that change. That is clearly a matter for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; Government officials continue to engage with the BBC, but it would be wrong not to point out that in 2015, when the decision was made, the director-general at the time stated:

“I think we have a deal here which is a strong deal for the BBC. It gives us financial stability...The government’s decision here to put the cost of the over-75s on us has been more than matched by the deal coming back for the BBC…I think being in control of our income…is a very grown-up response for the BBC and a grown-up response for any organisation”.

The House can draw its own conclusions from what Lord Hall said in 2015 and the consequent decision that it has made. I hope that the BBC will think again once it has reflected on the comments that it made in 2015 and the nature of the pushback that there has been.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

Is the Minister seriously suggesting that the Government bear no responsibility whatsoever for the BBC’s decision? Does that not sound like the Government are washing their hands of responsibility?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

No; I was quoting what the BBC said about the fiscal settlement, which made it clear that it was a strong deal that gave the BBC financial stability, and that the decision to put the cost on the BBC had been

“more than matched by the deal coming back for the BBC”,

which it then decided to take a differing approach to. Officials will continue to monitor the position.

I want to talk briefly about historical activity. Successive Governments have tried to promote pension credit, yet the take-up has remained stubbornly at around 60% for some considerable time. When pension credit was launched in 2003 there were higher figures, of up to 74%, but the Office for Budget Responsibility’s fiscal risk report from May 2008 stated that

“experience from 2003 to 2008, suggests that very large increases in take-up are unlikely”.

The Department for Work and Pensions under the Labour Government commissioned and examined that report. Successive Governments have put forward a variety of innovative approaches, but research in 2010 indicated that the most common reason given by those identified as eligible, for not claiming pension credit was that they believed they would not be entitled, typically because they had savings or other sources of income.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I will not give way because I only have a minute before the hon. Member for Ogmore will make his closing remarks. There are other reasons, and I urge hon. Members to publicise pension credit. I urge the voluntary organisations, which are the most trusted organisations in a community, to support the processes. We use a variety of channels to communicate information about benefits, whether pension credit or other benefits. People can check whether they are likely to be entitled using the online calculator on gov.uk, or they can make a claim by calling a freephone number.

We engage with people who may be eligible for benefits at pivotal stages, such as when they are approaching state pension age. An accompanying leaflet contains information about pension credit and advice on how to check eligibility, and a freephone telephone number if they wish to discuss their pension credit entitlement. We also target those who report a change of circumstances. We know that the best way to reach eligible customers is through trusted stakeholder organisations, which may be best placed to understand the local circumstances and needs in their communities. That is why I strongly recommend the online toolkit for the agencies and individuals, but I welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter.

The Government are committed to increasing the number if at all possible. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the debate, and I wish him very well in his future married life.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons) 5:28 pm, 24th July 2019

I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate today. There seems to be a bit of a Celtic theme coming from across the Scottish and Welsh nations, but I also thank all those colleagues from across the House who represent seats in England.

I thank the Minister for his response—it would be churlish of me not to—but it is disappointing, because there is a real need not just to rely on the voluntary sector to increase the use of pension credit.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons)

I can see the Minister nodding, and I am sure he would acknowledge that. The reality is that pensioner poverty is increasing. The Government need to do more, not only in advertising; they need a constructive way, through other DWP benefits such as housing benefit, which I mentioned, to try to increase the uptake. They should be talking to Independent Age about how the Government can finally start to increase the access to pension credit.

I do not think it is just a case of the Minister’s saying that he wants to do this; the next Minister or the next Secretary of State, whoever they may be in the rolling hours, needs to take this on as a real task, to ensure that pensioners get the benefits that they are entitled to. As my hon. Friend Jack Dromey said, those pensioners built this country; they deserve our support and it is crucial that they get the benefits they are entitled to. I am grateful to everyone who made a contribution, and to the Minister and various hon. Members for their congratulations on my recent marriage on Saturday. I can confirm that my wife is a good advocate for marrying an MP; she ensures that I behave myself and everything else.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).