Poorest households fail to claim £5bn of benefits a year

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The Independent Online

Britain's poorest households are failing to claim more than £5bn a year in benefits to which they are entitled, long-delayed government figures showed yesterday.

Britain's poorest households are failing to claim more than £5bn a year in benefits to which they are entitled, long-delayed government figures showed yesterday.

Statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions prove that the take-up levels of income support, housing benefit, council tax benefit and jobseeker's allowance all fell in 2000-01.

The Tories and Liberal Democrats seized on the figures as proof that the Government's drive towards increased means testing and complexity was deterring millions of needy citizens from claiming benefits to which they were entitled.

The figures were due to be published in September 2001, but were pulled suddenly. The opposition parties claimed yesterday that their publication was timed to be overshadowed by the war on Iraq.

The department revealed that 670,000 pensioners failed to claim the £820m of minimum income guarantee, two million people failed to claimed £860m of council tax benefit and 450,000 adults missed out on nearly £1bn in jobseeker's allowance.

In almost all categories, the figures showed a drop in take-up for the third year running and left Labour with a lower rate of claiming than the last Tory government.

The proportion of entitled people claiming income support fell from 84 per cent in 1998-99 to 82 per cent in 1999-2000 and then to 81.5 per cent in 2000-01. Housing benefit take-up fell from 94 per cent to 90.5 per cent in three years, council tax benefit fell from 78 per cent to 73 per cent, and jobseeker's allowance fell from 75 per cent to 66.5 per cent.

In addition, figures for the working families tax credit show that 563,000 people did not receive a total of £1.5bn to which they were entitled in 2000-01, taking the total amount unclaimed to £5bn.

David Willetts, the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, said the figures were "devastating", adding: "No wonder ministers were so keen to delay their publication ... Ministers must accept the blame because every time they change the benefits system or extend means testing, take-up falls."

Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokesman, said: "It is particularly shocking that over half a million pensioners fail to claim what should be theirs by right." Means testing would be extended to nearly half of the population after new tax credits came into force this April and the pension credit is introduced in October, he added.

Andrew Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, pointed out that 170,000 more pensioner families were receiving minimum income guarantee, up one percentage point. Take-up figures were higher among the poorest pensioners.

But Mervyn Kohler, head of public affairs at Help the Aged, said: "The money has been promised, it is available, but the complexity and inaccessibility of the claims process leaves swaths of our poorest, most vulnerable pensioners out of pocket."

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