HC Deb 10 May 1934 vol 289 cc1277-82

4.7 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 46, line 7, at the end, to insert : (3) Any person, being a person who fulfils the qualifications mentioned in subsection (1) of section thirty-seven of this Act, who persistently refuses or neglects to maintain himself or his family or who persistently contravenes conditions attached in accordance with determinations made under section forty-one of this Act shall be liable on proceedings taken by or on behalf of the Board on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one month. It is apparent that the Bill should contain its own provisions for dealing with persons by whom offences are committed under the new scheme. If a man should persistently refuse to maintain himself or his family, there is an appeal to the appeal tribunal, which may disallow any further allowance for a specified time. Such a man might obviously become a charge upon the local authorities. The local authorities feel that their only protection is the Vagrancy Act, 1824, which condemns a man to a term of imprisonment, if a first offender, as a disorderly person, for a second offence as a rogue and vagabond, and for a third offence as an incorrigible rogue. That places an odium which the local authorities quite naturally shun. Apart from that, there is real doubt whether the local justices or quarter sessions would be prepared to convict under such an Act. A man might be prepared to undergo a term of imprisonment in order to secure that his dependants would be looked after during his absence. Finally, there is some danger of transforming a public assistance service into a semi-penal service, to the cruel harm of very worthy people who must, of necessity, receive some aid from the rates.

4.9 p.m.


I beg to second the Amendment.

I want to find out the position of the local authorities in this matter. I want to know whether the unpleasant duty that the Mover of the Amendment has just detailed is to be performed by the Unemployment Assistance Board or is to be cast on the local authorities. I take it that if there is no power for proceedings to be taken by the board, it must fall on the public assistance committee of the local authority, and, the law being what it is, good or bad, they would be obliged to enforce it. It seems to me that this is a matter that has been omitted from the Bill. Local authorities are all extremely anxious to know whether this duty is cast upon them or not.

4.10 p.m.


I am afraid that to accept this Amendment would cut right across the whole conception of the Bill. The Bill advisedly is designed in such a way as to leave the public assistance authorities as, so to speak, residuary legatees. This Amendment would create a new criminal offence. The Bill does not create any criminal offences at all, and we think that it is most desirable to leave affairs in the state in which they are, for the reason that an offence does not arise in present circumstances unless the man through his action causes himself or his family to become chargeable. The Amendment would create a new offence in cases where the family did not become chargeable, where the family had means of their own. It is very undesirable to create new offences of that nature, and we cannot accept the Amendment.


We appreciate the answer of the Parliamentary Secretary and his clear explanation of what the position is. I think the Mover of the Amendment did not quite understand the consequence of the Amendment. It would create not only a new offence, but an offence which it would be difficult to define, and it might bring in a large number of people whom the supporters of the Amendment would not like to bring in.


I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4.12 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 46, line 7, at the end, to insert : (3) If it is found at any time that an application for an allowance bas been rejected or a reduced amount has been fixed by the non-disclosure or misrepresentation of a material fact, the applicant shall be entitled to recover from the board summarily as a civil debt either the allowance or the difference between the allowance which would otherwise have been determined and the amount he actually received, as the case may be, from the date of the original application, and if any question arises as to the amount to which the applicant is entitled, the question shall be referred in the prescribed manner to the appeal tribunal, and a certificate signed by the clerk of that tribunal, setting forth the decision of the tribunal upon the question, shall be conclusive evidence of the amount to which the applicant is entitled, and any certificate purporting to be signed by the clerk shall be deemed to be so signed unless the contrary is proved. The purpose of this Amendment is to protect applicants for benefit who may not have been treated properly owing to non-disclosure of material facts—who may not have received the amount that should have been given to them. The Clause deals with the obtaining of allowances by misrepresentation, and gives the Minister power to recover the money paid. If there has been any non-disclosure of facts the State can get the money back. We agree with that proposal; we do not think that any one should receive money wrongly. But the applicant for relief should have the same protection, and if some mistake is made by which he is deprived of what is his right, it is only fair that he should be able to get the money that is due to him. I am hoping that the Minister will do something to clear away the suspicion that we have. I do not think there was any idea when the Bill was framed of doing any wrong to any applicant, but this Amendment would rectify an omission.

4.15 p.m.


I beg to second the Amendment, and I do so chiefly because I wish to hear from the Minister whether he is able to do anything to meet the case there set forth. I think it will be generally agreed that if, through some mistake on the part of an official, an applicant has not had justice, there should be some means by which he can secure redress. I can imagine nothing which is more likely to cause bad feeling and bitterness than the knowledge that if an applicant makes a mistake, even unconsciously, action can be taken against him to recover any excess sum which he has received, whereas if a mistake should be made by an official of the Department which tells against the applicant there is no method by which the applicant can get justice. It is small points like these which often lead to a great deal of dissatisfaction, and we ought to make the machinery of this Bill run as smoothly as possible, so that people may have confidence in its administration.

4.16 p.m.


This question arose in Committee stage, and I then promised hon. Members opposite that I would look into the matter to see whether any further words ought to be added to the Bill. I think the House will appreciate that it would hardly be appropriate to insert in the Bill words giving an applicant power to sue the board, because obviously there is no fixed amount to which the applicant is entitled. All that he is entitled to is what the board, in their discretion, acting within the regulations passed by the House, deem to be appropriate. But obviously there will be a certain number of cases in which, through a genuine mistake made either by the applicant or by the board's officer, payment is made at a less rate than would have been the case if the whole of the circumstances had been known. The appropriate action in that case will be an appeal either by the man, or by the man at the instance of the officer, and we are clear that under Clause 40 there will be ample power to make rules providing for the ante-dating of a decision by the appeal tribunal. My right hon. Friend has authorised me to give a promise that when the rules are drawn up he will see that provision is made in them, under Clause 40, to give the appeal tribunal power to ante-date their decisions in appropriate cases, and I think that meets the point which the hon. Member had in mind.

4.18 p.m.


I thank the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Gentleman for the consideration they have given to this matter. Having heard their statement, I think that my hon. Friend will withdraw the Amendment.


I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4.19 p.m.


I beg to move, in page 46, line 31, to leave out "three years," and to insert "one year."

This matter was discussed in Committee, and we undertook to look into it. As I explained to the Mover of the Amendment in Committee, this Subsection deals with summary proceedings for the recovery of civil debts due to the board, and does not cover the whole of the possible rights of the board. This Amendment proposes to reduce the period within which summary proceedings can be taken from three years to one year, and we agree that it is desirable in cases of this sort that if action is to be taken it should be taken as soon as possible.

Amendment agreed to.