Access to Pension Credit

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:54 pm on 24th July 2019.

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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.