Dame Thora to lead £10m push on pension claims

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The Independent Online

Dame Thora Hird is to lead Britain's biggest benefits take-up campaign in an attempt to persuade pensioners to claim some £250m owed to them. She will star in television advertisements and in the press this summer to urge the elderly to claim the minimum income guarantee (MIG) of £78 a week for those on low incomes, the Government will announce tomorrow.

Two million pensioners will be directly mailed with information on MIG, while a hotline will be set up to allow people to claim over the phone. Claim forms will also be simplified. More than £10m will be spent on the campaign, the largest advertising blitz since Labour came to office, as the Department for Social Security attempts to identify the 250,000 senior citizens who are failing to claim their pensions.

According to some estimates, the Treasury has saved some £2bn a year in unclaimed benefits, but ministers believe they have a moral duty to publicise the entitlements.

The television adverts will star Dame Thora and will run as a series of four separate stories, each followed up by full-page adverts in the press.

A specialist call centre will be created, using staff from the winter fuel payments hotline, to allow pensioners to make a simplified claim over the phone.

The minimum income guarantee, which is available to pensioners who currently rely solely on the state pension of £66 a week, is seen by the Prime Minister as one of the biggest achievements of the Government.

However, according to the latest British Household Survey, a quarter of a million people could be missing out on the supplement because they have failed to claim it. Many of those thought not to claim are women who live alone. Ministers are convinced the reason for the low claim rate is not pride, but ignorance. The take-up rate for housing benefit and council tax benefit is high for pensioners. One ministerial source said: "There doesn't appear to be much evidence that people are stubbornly refusing to claim minimum income guarantee because they are too proud. They have no trouble claiming other benefits. We think it's because they simply don't know about it."

Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Social Security, will announce details of thecampaign tomorrow as a new report shows the increasing divide between rich and poor pensioners. The research will show that pensioners' incomes have risen faster than earnings over the past 40 years, but the elderly poor have been left behind.

Mr Darling said: "There are too many pensioners at the bottom end of the income scale who lost out. We are determined to ensure that those who did lose out, those that didn't get adequate pensions,should be helped."

Dame Thora, who is 88, was offered the role after research found that she was one of the most popular actresses among the over 60s.

Most pensioners were incensed by the 75p rise in the basic state pension last year and the Government is keen to promote the Minimum Income Guarantee as an invaluable benefit. To head off criticism, MIG will be raised by earnings rather than prices next year.

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