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Senior Citizens: Means-tested Benefits

Volume 822: debated on Monday 23 May 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that senior citizens avail themselves of the means-tested benefits and allowances to which they are entitled.

My Lords, it is more important now than ever that we ensure that all eligible pensioners claim the vital financial help that pension credit provides. That is why we have been working really hard to increase the take-up of pension credit. On 3 April, we launched a new pension credit awareness campaign. Pension credit not only tops up the incomes of the most vulnerable pensioners but is a passport to other benefits, such as help with housing costs and heating bills, council tax reduction schemes and free TV licences for the over-75s.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but over 2 million senior citizens now live in poverty in this country—yet billions of pounds in means-tested benefits go unclaimed every year. As she rightly said, this is urgent now, given the cost of living crisis and the start of a period of escalating energy price increases. The Minister referred to take-up awareness campaigns and so on, but surely more could be done about the availability of data and joining up benefit application processes. Will she commit to ensuring that even more will be done to put more money in the pockets of pensioners? After all, this is money to which they are fully entitled.

I will answer the last question first. The Prime Minister has been clear that we are working extremely closely on this and will continue to do so. We will do more; no option is off the table but, unfortunately, it will take a little more time for us to announce those initiatives.

My Lords, there is no doubt that the triple lock is so valuable to pensioners. The Government announced a one-year response to it—because of exceptional circumstances post pandemic, they said. I ask my noble friend the Minister: will the Government commit to restoring the triple lock? What support will be available during this time for pensioners who face fuel poverty as a result of soaring energy prices?

The Chancellor has already committed to restoring the triple lock. Before I came here, I double-checked this and I can say that, yes, the triple lock will be restored. On fuel poverty, a package of support to help households with rising bills, worth £9.1 billion, was announced on 3 February. Customers of the state pension are also entitled to an annual winter fuel payment worth up to £300. The cold weather payments and the warm homes discount scheme will also be available to those in receipt of pension credit.

My Lords, mindful that many people, particularly senior citizens, have great difficulty in making ends meet and have to choose between eating and heating, will the Minister and her colleagues give careful consideration to a dedicated programme for the take-up of benefits among that cohort of senior citizens throughout the UK, working with the devolved Administrations as well?

I thank the noble Baroness for that contribution and suggestion. As I said, it is important that we do everything we can. I cannot commit to a dedicated support service but, as I have done on many occasions, I will take it back to the Minister for Pensions and will write to the noble Baroness in due course.

My Lords, it is of course important that people entitled to pension credit get it, but what are the Government doing to help the poorest pensioners? The winter fuel payment is lower than it was in 2009 and cold weather payments and warm home discounts have not increased for over 10 years. Given that in the pandemic the Government considered that a £20 a week addition to universal credit was needed, perhaps current emergency situations require consideration of similar measures for the state pension, or at least pension credit.

I reiterate what the Prime Minister has said: no option is off the table. We will do what we can but noble Lords will have to wait a little longer for those announcements to be made.

My Lords, I am glad that nothing is off the table but I would quite like to see something on the table. Maybe the Chancellor could be encouraged to think that there is a bit of urgency about this. One reason take-up is not always the answer is that the amount of pension credit that goes unclaimed is around £1,900 for every family entitled to receive it. That is why the state pension matters so much and why abolishing the triple lock this year—of all years—was so damaging. However, as this is about take-up, I looked at the stats and found that take-up is lower among older pensioners than younger ones. It is markedly lower for pensioners who are single rather than in couples. What does that tell the Government and what are they going to do to make sure that the money gets to where it is most needed?

On pension credit take-up, the noble Baroness has made interesting and accurate points. We have this campaign. The Minister for Pensions is working with the BBC, other media outlets, GP surgeries, post offices and so on. It is our job to make sure that people are aware of the benefits of pension credit and to encourage take-up, but there is only so much we can do in that way. We really believe that families could be helping relatives entitled to pension credit to claim it.

When the benefit uprating comes, based on the September figures for that year, the triple lock will be restored.

My Lords, what has been done to improve the application process for pension credit and make it simpler and more easily accessible to many pensioners, particularly those on their own and older pensioners who may not have easy and quick internet access?

The noble Baroness’s question prompts me to go back and have a look at the application process. Perhaps I can come back to her on that. I am not sure that I can answer her other question about the internet, but I will go back and see what we are doing in particular to encourage and help people to claim via that.

My Lords, notwithstanding everything that has been said about poverty among pensioners, they are not the only group in society suffering poverty. In the Minister’s enthusiasm to make sure that something is put on the table to help pensioners, can she also deal with the large number of people who are in work but getting such low pay that they have to get means-tested benefits? There is just as much of a problem in making sure that they apply for the available benefits, and I hope the Minister will make sure that she gives full attention to them as well as to pensioners.

I assure the noble Lord that all groups are being looked at, in terms of making sure that they get what they are entitled to. We have universal credit, which in its technical form is working very well, and we are going to do the migration to universal credit, which will help to make sure that people get the benefits that they should have.

My Lords, I know that there has been extensive advertisement of pension credit in the national newspapers, but has my noble friend considered using local papers—particularly any freebies that are going, because they are read by a lot of older people?

My noble friend makes a very good point. We are also making sure that we promote it in doctors’ surgeries, day centres, post offices and the local press. If anybody has any ideas for how we can do it better in local media, please let me know.

My Lords, evidently, the campaign is not reaching the most vulnerable in our societies, including those who may have problems in accessing such campaigns. I have said this a number of times in the House, but will the Minister consider contacting some of the local newspapers and council newspapers as well as the satellite channels for this campaign, to reach the most vulnerable in our society?

I would like to think that all those people are being contacted, but let me go and check. I shall make sure that that gets fed into the system.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned that this was an urgent priority for the Government. It is an unfortunate fact that it has been an urgent priority for all Governments for at least 70 years. Will she agree that the only ultimate answer is to make sure that more people retire with an adequate pension, without the need for means-tested benefits?

The noble Lord has made that point on many occasions and I admire his tenacity. We are doing what we can to make sure that the state benefit is there and that there is a benefit system to support people, but I cannot commit to the challenge that the noble Lord has given me.