David Prosser: Gordon's good intentions don't make up for his failures

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The Independent Online

It must be tough being Gordon Brown. Whatever he offers in each Budget, one group of opponents accuses him of electoral bribery, while another complains he has not been generous enough.

It must be tough being Gordon Brown. Whatever he offers in each Budget, one group of opponents accuses him of electoral bribery, while another complains he has not been generous enough.

I don't want to add to the debate over whether free bus passes for pensioners are a cynical attempt at vote-rigging or a mean-minded gesture that should have been extended to all forms of public transport. What is much more frustrating about this Chancellor is that even when he acts with the best possible intentions, things so often go wrong.

No one can argue that Brown does not have a genuine desire to improve the lot of hard-up working families and pensioners. But while he remains so obsessed with tax credits and means-tested benefits, too many people continue to fall between the cracks.

The theory of means tests is absolutely sound. With a limited pot of cash each year, all chancellors have a choice: they can make modest increases to universal payments such as child benefit and the basic state pension, or they can target the money at those who need it most. Brown understandably prefers the second option, with the child tax credit and the pension credit his chosen methods of delivery.

In practice, however, both these benefits have serious flaws. In the case of tax credits for families, the system was introduced before the Inland Revenue had invented a computer system capable of administering it. The inevitable chaos has never really been sorted out, but one consequence was the weird system we now have where the money people get is based on out-of-date information.

As a result, the Revenue is now trying to work out how it can reclaim cash from hundreds of thousands of families that have received too much in tax credits over the past three years. Many parents are being presented with hefty bills, or being told their credits will be stopped until the overpayment is recovered.

Last April and May alone, the Revenue admits it paid 455,000 households too much. Families have the right to appeal when presented with a demand for repayments, but it is currently taking more than six months for each case to be heard.

Meanwhile, a different problem dogs pension credit. All the evidence shows that pensioners are reluctant to undergo means tests in order to claim extra income from the state. Some find such tests demeaning, while others are put off by the red tape involved. Yet the pension credit requires them to complete a complicated form, full of intrusive requests for personal information.

Not surprisingly, take-up figures remain low, despite a government publicity campaign. Of 3.8m pensioner households entitled to claim the credit, only about 2m actually do so.

The Department for Work and Pensions conceded that a high failure rate is inevitable, right from the launch of the credit in October 2003. Its aim has always been for 75 per cent of those eligible for the money to be claiming by 2006, which implies it thinks a million pensioners missing out is acceptable.

It is against this backdrop that the Chancellor's claims to be helping working families and pensioners must be judged. Even leaving aside the question of whether jam today will be replaced by bitter Budget pills following the election, too many people aren't getting the help they have been promised.

* If you're planning a serious DIY session over next weekend's Easter break, check your home insurance policy before you get out the drill. Churchill Insurance says the number of claims made on home contents policies doubles every Easter, and the rise is directly attributable to DIY disasters.

There are fewer problems on Good Friday, as people are out buying tools and materials. Calls to insurers' crisis lines increase on Saturday and Sunday, before peaking on Easter Monday.

At Churchill, the average DIY disaster results in a claim for £401, but the insurer has paid out thousands in some cases. The lesson is clear: good home contents insurance, with accidental damage cover, should be just as vital for DIY fans as the latest power tools.

How long will insurers hold back on genetic tests?

The decision by insurers to extend their moratorium on the use of genetic testing for six more years is welcome. But at some stage, new law is sure to be needed to protect people who tests show are more likely to develop particular health conditions.

The Association of British Insurers has this week said its members will extend a deal to ignore genetic testing until November 2011. The agreement means people buying health, medical and life insurance can't be required to take a genetic test, or to disclose the results of any tests they have taken.

For now, this is an easy bargain for insurers to make. Just one test, for the hereditary brain disease Huntington's, has been cleared by the Genetics and Insurance Committee, the government watchdog. As more tests become available for a wider range of conditions, insurers will feel less comfortable offering cover without access to this technology.

It's a tricky debate. Genetic testing could lead to a whole group of people becoming unable to get insurance, with disastrous consequences for their families. Some people might be put off seeking crucial medical help, in case it prevents them buying cover.

But is it fair to ask insurers to cover you against a problem you are known to be likely to suffer? Morally, it's right that all should have access to basic insurance. But insurers are profit-driven companies. So ministers will eventually have to decide whether to turn the voluntary agreement into compulsory legislation.

d.prosser@independent.co.uk

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