asked Her Majesty's Government:
What percentage of claims received for the War Widows' Pensions reinstated last July by the Pensions Act 1995 have now been approved and paid, and whether interest is added to the initial payment of claims which were delayed due to a shortage of staff in the War Pensions Agency.
My Lords, decisions have been made in almost 90 per cent. of the completed claims received and in almost 50 per cent. of these cases war widows' pensions have been put into payment together with appropriate arrears. It is anticipated that the large majority of pensions will be in payment by the end of March. At its peak we employed 58 staff on this additional work. There is no justification for the adding of interest to the initial payment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer although it is disappointing on the subject of interest. Did not the War Pensions Agency estimate over a year ago that there would be about 16,500 reinstated awards? Indeed, your Lordships agreed the appropriate amendment during the Report stage of that legislation exactly a year ago today. Is it not the case that fewer than 12,000 claims have been received, which is less than 70 per cent. of the workload estimated by the War Pensions Agency? With all that warning time and less work than expected, has there not been some maladministration leading to prolonged delay in processing and paying the claims? The Inland Revenue is now quick to charge interest on tax which is paid late. Will the Government reconsider the position on interest on those payments?
My Lords, no, we will not reconsider paying interest on those payments. The position for the department in total is that discretionary special payments are allowed in payment of compensation for loss of money where the benefit has been delayed by official error or misdirection for a period of at least 12 months. In this case, the Act did not come into force until July, which was rather earlier than we thought. We have put a considerable number of staff on to the work. We have done the job quickly, and many of the widows concerned are receiving £148 a week tax-free more than they were receiving before. Rather than be criticised I should have thought we should be congratulated on the way we have proceeded on this matter.
My Lords, while the Royal British Legion acknowledges the Minister's endeavours and appreciates his efforts, will he please write to me with the detail of what he said in his reply? I wish to reiterate once again that we appreciate the endeavours he has made on our behalf.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. He will be able to read what I said in Hansard tomorrow. As I said, the position is that as at 5.30 p.m. last night about 12,148 decisions have been made; 12,046 have been notified; 6,617 are already in payment; and we expect the bulk of the remainder to be in payment by the end of the month.
My Lords, my noble friend the Minister has given some interesting figures. Will he assure the House as to their accuracy?
My Lords, absolutely. I can indeed assure my noble friend that as at 5.30 p.m. last night those were the figures supplied to me by the division in the War Pensions Agency which is dealing with this issue.
My Lords, will the Minister explain why in some cases pension books were withdrawn before the new pension books were issued? In some cases there was a gap of several weeks. Does the Minister understand that some of these ladies are among the most vulnerable of our society, and that even a gap of one week made difficulties for them? Can he explain how it happened?
My Lords, of course I cannot explain a particular case, but in general terms, because of the book system that we operate in the DSS, if there is a change in the payment the book has to be withdrawn and a new or amended book issued. That causes a problem over the whole of the department. It is one of the issues which will be finally resolved when we move over to a plastic payment card, because then there will be no need to make that return and there will be no interruption in the payment.
My Lords, there have been reports in the media and elsewhere of war widows in receipt of reinstated pensions having their benefit payments reduced by local authorities. Have the Government received any evidence of that? Does the Minister agree that there could be cases of giving with one hand and taking away with another?
My Lords, we have discussed this issue on a number of occasions. I believe that the noble Viscount is referring to housing benefit and council tax benefit. Out of their £148 a week tax-free, war widows are allowed to retain £60, all but a few pence, without it being taken into account. That is disregarded when it comes to the calculation. However, local authorities have the ability and discretion to make a bigger disregard, and indeed a total disregard. Many do and some do not.
My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House why there has been a gap between the clearing for payment of pensions at Norcross, where there may have been problems finding the original records, and actual payment from Newcastle where those problems did not exist?
My Lords, the situation with this benefit, as with all other benefits, is that when a decision is taken that the person is eligible for a benefit—the war widow in this case—that then has to be sent to Newcastle to check against the other benefits which she may be receiving. Both benefits have to be matched together, because in some cases—for example, if she receives £148 free of tax—if the person is also on income support, the new benefit (the war widows pension) will mean a reduction in her income support. We have to ensure that people are being paid the proper amounts from all the directions from which they come before we put the pension into payment.