Access to Pension Credit

Part of the debate – 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 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.