Ros Altmann: The end of free TV licences for older people offers a chance to boost the take-up of Pension Credit

3 Jan

Baroness Altmann is a Conservative peer.

Whilst there is an understandable focus on child and in-work poverty in the current pandemic, we should not forget there are around two million pensioners in poverty. As we recover from this difficult year, politicians must ensure people in later life are not left behind.

Although many pensioners are better off than previous generations, far too many are impoverished, because they are not receiving the Pension Credit to which they are entitled

Worryingly, for the past decade, four in ten of those eligible for Pension Credit have consistently failed to apply for it, which is the lowest take-up of any income-related entitlement, and has defied all attempts thus far to improve coverage.

Pension Credit is a means-tested payment which tops up pensioners’ weekly income to a standard minimum £173.75 for single people and £265.30 for couples. It can be a lifeline to those whose pensions are less than that level. In addition to receiving this extra income, Pension Credit also passports pensioners to many other valuable benefits, including housing benefits, cold weather payments – and free TV licences.

Living on such low incomes leaves many pensioners needlessly suffering and unable to afford the basics, so it is really important to try to encourage higher take-up.

I believe there is a timely opportunity to use the ending of free TV licences for older pensioners as a hook for a new high profile campaign to encourage more older people to claim the money they are entitled to. Indeed, perhaps the BBC itself could organise a series of TV and radio advertisements to promote take-up, as a way of mitigating the criticism of its decision to only allow those receiving Pension Credit to have free TV licences.

Encouraging pensioners to claim means-tested benefits is not easy, especially as older generations often find the form-filling off-putting and many feel claiming benefits is demeaning. But a new determined public awareness initiative is worth trying.

Earlier this year, it was good to see the Government running a 12-week campaign promoting Pension Credit take-up in GP surgeries, post offices and on social media, but unfortunately the Covid-19 pandemic meant pensioners were staying at home and, therefore, less likely to see any advertisements.

In May, the Government took the excellent decision to update the online Pension Credit toolkit and launch an online claims system in addition to the current methods of post and phone. Although this new online system is already being used to process claims, the impact seems to have been small, especially as so many of the poorest pensioners are not online.

Such initiatives are of course welcome, but do not comprehensively tackle this systemic, long term problem. New approaches are needed.

Why it is so important to increase take-up

Recent research suggests the number of pensioners living in severe poverty could be halved by ensuring those eligible do actually receive it. The charity Independent Age commissioned Loughborough University’s Centre for Research in Social Policy to investigate pensioner poverty. The study estimated the Treasury could save £4 billion a year from reduced pressures on the NHS and social care and the improved health and wellbeing achieved by addressing pensioner poverty. This far outweighs the estimated £1.8 billion of Pension Credit that went unclaimed in 2018/19.

Finding solutions

I encourage the Government to consider further initiatives to boost Pension Credit receipt, including publishing a comprehensive strategy document containing targets and timetables for improved take-up levels. No official analysis of Pension Credit attitudes has been conducted for nearly a decade.

Further research would be helpful, to identify up-to-date reasons why pensioners do not claim this benefit and investigate the regional and demographic composition of households who are missing out.

I would also look again at the possibility of auto-enrolment of pensioners into Pension Credit. An official trial in 2011 was inconclusive, but subsequent significant technological advancements, improved inter-departmental data-sharing could ensure more effective automatic identification of eligibility and unlock a sustainable solution to the issue.

I would encourage fellow parliamentarians to join me in signing up to Independent Age’s initiative to become Pension Credit Champions so together we can help support the Government to implement practical policies to improve take-up.

By ensuring that every pensioner receives what they are entitled to, more older people will be able to better look after themselves. It would be good to see the BBC, charities and the Government working together to ensure that Pension Credit reaches the million or so pensioners currently missing out on achieving economic independence. They are entitled to the money, we just need to get it to them.

Ros Altmann: What Ministers should do to ease the plight of small landlords

7 Jul

Baroness Altmann is a Conservative peer.

Around eleven million people in England live in private rented housing.  Covid-19 has caused considerable anxiety for many tenants who fear its impact on their finances and their ability to keep up rent payments for their current home.

I welcome the policies that stopped tenants being made homeless during the emergency lockdown. The Government rightly decided to suspend evictions in the rental market for a period of three months to provide security to tenants and to ensure that the lockdown worked, backed by a financial package of support for tenants who were struggling to continue paying their rent. This included the furlough scheme and increases to the Local Housing Allowance and Universal Credit.

The Government recently decided to extend the ban on evictions by a further two months, pending the outcome of a judge-led working group that is looking at how to protect those most at risk from Covid-19, while also ensuring landlords can regain possession of their properties in legitimate circumstances.

All these steps are welcome, and have contributed to the vast majority of tenants (90 per cent according to the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA)) being able to pay their rent as normal. It has given tenants a breathing space during this unprecedented national lockdown. But a blanket ban on all evictions is not without its victims.

After so many months, I do wonder whether the Conservatives need to do more to show support for some of the landlords (especially small ones who own only one or two properties).

Many may have been relying on rental income for their retirement or other purposes and are struggling to pay their own bills, while their tenants are not paying rent, or are causing damage and disturbance. Even in such cases, all landlords are currently powerless to take action to protect themselves.

Anti-social tenants who blight the lives of neighbours, communities, fellow tenants and landlords alike cause real distress.  As one tenant recently wrote on twitter: This is a total disaster. I’m living in a shared house with a nightmare tenant. We all want her gone, as does the landlady. Her anti-social behaviour is driving us and the neighbours up the wall. She was due to go on 1st July. I can’t put up with it for another two months.”

The current eviction ban, while protecting tenants, leaves many private or social landlords, especially those who had tenants building rent arrears prior to the lockdown, struggling.

Consider a buy-to-let landlord, who owns just one property, with a tenant who did not pay rent for a few months before lockdown and has not paid since. Having already had to wait to bring a case to court, and then faced delays with getting an order enforced (on average about 6 months) followed by five months of the repossessions ban, the landlord will have received no income for over a year.

Yet they must still meet costs such as licensing fees, insurance, and maybe even utility bills for the property. It is therefore hardly surprising that 29 per cent of landlords are reporting some degree of financial hardship according to the NRLA.

I believe the Government should now draw up plans for the coming months, once the eviction ban is lifted. Tenants who have struggled to pay their rent will be worried about their future whilst landlords with troublesome tenants or rent deficits will be looking for much-needed relief. The following framework of measures could show greater concern for the plight of small landlords, while also helping tenants who do their utmost to behave responsibly:

  • The Government should clearly re-state that tenants must, wherever possible, continue to pay their rent as normal. It is not realistic to suggest the Government should simply suspend the all rental payments because of the pandemic. Such suggestions reflect an assumption that all landlords are wealthy or large firms who can afford to receive no income from their properties. This is certainly not the case and denying people any income from their properties is unsustainable, and possibly illegal.
  • Government should offer landlords and tenants additional support, including mediation, to agree rent repayment plans where arrears have built as a result of the Covid outbreak. This would help prevent some repossession cases coming before the courts, which is important because sustaining tenancies wherever possible should be a priority.
  • Government should urgently consider Court reforms so that possession cases are heard more effectively and speedily. There is a huge backlog of cases and courts will struggle to meet the demand for hearings. This would, therefore, be an ideal time for major reforms, including a focus on modernisation, such as introducing online hearings and making better use of web based arbitration. Court reform is an essential part of ensuring the Government’s Renters’ Reform Bill works, and it has been well over a year since the consultation on developing a housing court closed, so a response is urgently needed.
  • Finally, we need clear plans to deal with the rental market if localised lockdowns are required to combat future Covid-19 outbreaks. The courts may, for example, want to pause repossession cases in those circumstances, but if this happens, landlords and tenants need clarity on the precise areas affected and the likely timeframes for any pause.

The private rented sector plays a vital part in housing the nation. Some seek to paint a picture of tenants and landlords in constant conflict, but in the vast majority of cases they have been working constructively to address the challenges of Covid-19. Once the immediate crisis measures are relaxed, the proposals I have outlined here could engender a sustainable balance between the rights of renters and of landlord. But Conservatives also need to bear in mind the political realities, and must avoid causing long-lasting problems for landlords.