HC Deb 14 February 1951 vol 484 cc578-86

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Roylel]

12.28 a.m.

Mr. Bell (Bucks, South)

It is, perhaps appropriate at this hour of the night that I should be asking the House to direct its attention to the question of time limits. The particular time limits to which I invite attention are, however, those relating to the payment of benefits under National Insurance, and more especially to the time limit imposed upon the payment of death grants. These benefits have to be claimed under the existing regulations within a period of one month from the date of death and, in my experience, and from the correspondence I have received from constituents, I find that this causes a considerable degree of hardship to those who are entitled to this form of insurance benefit.

If the death grant or other benefit is not claimed within the prescribed time limits, it is true that the claimant may appeal through the various grades of appeal on the ground that exceptional circumstances exist, but this structure of appeals is so bound by a rigid system of precedents that it has, in fact, been limited to cases of serious illness or absence outside the Kingdom. We have, in fact, something very much like a system of case law which has been built up by these tribunals. Accordingly, I think that not very many of these claims succeed on appeal.

I want to ask the Minister to consider this matter from two points of view. The first is that the period of one month within which claims should be made is, in itself, a grossly inadequate period. There is really no reason why somebody who has paid for the benefit and indeed, more than that, has been forced to pay for the benefit—because we all have to be contributors to National Insurance, whether we want or not—and has, therefore been found strictly entitled to these benefits or, in the case of death grants, whose next-of-kin or personal representative is entitled to that benefit, should be deprived of it by a mere technicality.

I can understand that in the case of illness benefit there has to be a fairly short time limit, because illness is sometimes a matter of opinion and it is essential that there should be an opportunity of checking up on the illness while it is still fresh in people's minds. But death is quite a different matter. There can be no argument whether a man is dead or alive, at least in the strict sense, and that being so, there appears to be no logical reason why his personal representatives should have to claim death benefit within one month of his death. Apart from the regulation which lays down a month, the ordinary law would apply, and that would leave a limitation period of six years. Commercial firms who enter into contracts of insurance of various kinds which the public do, as a general rule, accept the normal limitation period of six years. It is possible by contract to limit the period, but in many cases, if not most, the ordinary period of six years applies.

I appreciate that here one is dealing with a small payment, and often with poor people, and therefore the Ministry wish payment to be made promptly, perhaps to settle the expenses arising out of the death. It is argued by the Ministry that it is desirable to have a short limitation period in order that the Ministry shall know as soon as possible who is the only person who can be entitled to the grant, so that it may be paid fairly quickly. The Ministry's argument is that if you have a limitation period of a month, at the end of the month you know that no one else can be entitled to the grant, because anyone else is out of time, and that saves a lot of trouble and the grant can be paid more quickly. No doubt there are sometimes competing claims, but it seems to me an extraordinarily bad way of distinguishing between good and bad claims to impose a time limit of one month and to say that any claim made outside the month is bad. I should not have thought that an efficient way of distinguishing between good and bad claims.

I cannot see why the Ministry, if they do have many competing claims—which I doubt—cannot distinguish between valid and invalid claims without having recourse to this rigid bar at the expiry of one month. Commercial firms do it. They obviously have to do it, and there is no real reason why the Ministry should not do it. I cannot help feeling that the reason is that it is a bureaucratic arrangement, and so much easier for the Ministry. They do not want to be bothered in assessing one claim against another. The bureaucrats say, "Let the claimants do the work; they must register the claim within a month or they can do without it." That is their attitude. It saves trouble in the Ministry. Many claims are ruled out altogether, so that any difficult decisions are avoided.

I suggest that a proper limitation period for these death claims would be something like a year, or possibly six months, but at any rate something very much longer than a month. After all, when someone dies, the first thought of the people who survive is not to collect death benefit. There are many other things to be done. The members of the family may have come quite a distance on the death of a near relative. They may have to return to work, and often quite a considerable time elapses before they can give their minds to financial considerations which arise from the death. I think this period is a real handicap in those circumstances.

The tribunal to which appeals can be made has ruled that ignorance of the existence of this limited period is not a special circumstance carrying entitlement to relief, and also that no upset caused by the death, or resulting distress, can be considered a cause entitling to relief. The public is not told about this limiting period. I know very well, as most hon. Gentlemen do, the familiar rule of law that ignorance of the law is no excuse. That was a sensible rule in the old days when we knew roughly what the laws were; but with 25,000 Statutory Rules and Instruments to insist that ignorance of the law is no excuse is to take a strange academic stand when dealing with a thing like a death benefit. At least, if the Ministry are going to take that stand, they ought to see that the public as a whole has ample opportunity—not just some opportunity—of knowing what that time limit is, and what the consequences will be if they do not claim within one month.

There is a little booklet "The Family Guide to National Insurance," many millions of which were printed, and distributed all over the country. It is most unfortunate that in that booklet it was not thought necessary to mention that there was any time limit at all for the death benefit. It is true that in paragraph 47 the death benefit is mentioned. It is stated how much it is likely to be, but it does not say anywhere that there is a time limit for the claim. That is a very bad start.

The next thing is that when somebody reports a death, the registrar of births, deaths, and marriages normally hands to the person a copy of leaflet N.I. 49, which is all about death benefits, but the registrar is under no duty to hand the person that leaflet and sometimes he does not do so, either because the office has run out of forms—that is not surprising when one remembers the number of forms—or because he forgets. If that is so, that person almost certainly does not know that there is any period for claiming this grant. Even if he or she is fortunate enough to be handed one of these leaflets, he will find that it is a six-page document and no prominence whatever is given to the existence of a time limit. It is mentioned in only two and a half lines in six pages, in paragraph 13.

The whole emphasis seems to be—"Don't worry too much if you are late; if there is good reason, the time limit will be extended." Of course, the average person thinks it probably will be extended. He has got no idea of the fact that there are appeal tribunals which have set up a system of case law to decide that everything that the claimant thinks is good cause is not good cause. Unless he can show that he was almost paralysed with illness, it will be held that he was disentitled.

These grants are not very large sums of money, but they are substantial to many of the people who seek them. More important, they are something that these people have paid for; they are not a form of assistance or public charity. The State has had their money in the insurance contribution, and hangs on to it and refuses to pay it out because of a sheer technicality which has no substance behind it, because one can always look back and find out when a man died. I must not use the word lightly, but it does come very close to fraud, although that is not the motive. The motive is to make it administratively easy. That is not a good enough reason for having such a short period. The Minister cannot disclaim responsibility for allowing these tribunals to set up an interpretation of special causes which, in fact, deprives most people of the opportunity of relief under them.

Nearly all of what I have said applies equally to claims for maternity benefit, another important claim under National Insurance. There the limitation period is different—six weeks before a confinement—but the same principles apply. If somebody forgets or does not know about that limitation period, the benefit is lost unless special cause can be shown; and once again there is an interpretation of special causes that greatly narrows it down. I have selected two particular instances of these benefits under National Insurance, but what I have said could be applied in varying degrees to the other benefits which an insured person may claim. I except the illness benefit, because that is something which must be considered at the time. There is a reason for time-limits in the case of illness benefits which does not apply in the case of other benefits.

I ask the Minister whether his Department will not consider issuing new regulations, first of all to amend the period and, secondly, to incorporate a directive to the tribunals which hear appeals under these regulations so that any meritorious case, where the claim is undoubted, shall be dealt with favourably. As I know from my correspondence, it causes great discontent when people who, week after week, have had these substantial sums deducted from their pay, find that they are disqualified from receiving some of the benefits for which they have paid upon what they regard, with justice, as a mere bureaucratic quibble.

It is most important that there should be no feeling of that kind—with any justice behind it—over the National Insurance scheme. I know that a Committee of Inquiry is sitting and considering the question of the notification period. It has been sitting for a long time. That is not unusual with Departmental Committees. I hope that, when its report is received, that report will not be pigeon-holed, which is another fate which overtakes Departmental Committees, and I hope that, if the Committee suggests an extension of the period, that recommendation will be accepted.

Finally, will the hon. Gentleman consider making retrospective any change which is made? Many people have already been deprived of the benefits for which they have paid. Although I gather from what has been said that it is not the intention to make changes retrospective, I would point out that, in rather more important matters, the Government have not hesitated to use retrospective legislation for their own benefit. I hope they will not hesitate to have a little retrospection for the benefit of the subject if any changes are introduced.

12.48 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Insurance (Mr. Bernard Taylor)

I was rather surprised and somewhat pained to hear the hon. Member for Buckingham, South (Mr. Bell) say that the time limit to which he has directed the attention of the House is a bureaucratic arrangement to deny contributors who have made a claim to benefits to which they are entitled. In the very short time in which the National Insurance Act and its administration have been in operation, we have tried, with a very large measure of success, to introduce some humanity and some soul into this piece of administration.

I would remind the hon. Member that the administration of the National Insurance Act is a thing of great magnitude. We have 1,000 offices situated in all parts of the country. We are making almost a million payments per week for sickness benefit alone. I mention that merely to indicate the magnitude of this administration. I should like to take this opportunity of denying the allegation that the hon. Gentleman made that refusal to pay claims is on grounds of slight technicalities amounting almost, he suggested, to fraud. That is not so.

When the National Insurance Act was passed and the relevant regulations made—in itself a very big job—very careful consideration was given, both by my Department and by the National Insurance Advisory Committee, to which the hon. Member made reference, to this vexed question of time limits within which those who are entitled to benefit should notify their claims. I am sure the hon. Member will recognise that within a comprehensive scheme, the nature of which I have briefly referred to, time limits of some kind, as the hon. Member himself indicated, had to be devised which would be reasonable from the point of view of the person claiming benefit and would at the same time provide for proper control. Prompt knowledge of the circumstances on which the claim is based is essential if efficient administration, at which we aim, is to be maintained.

I should like to say a word or two about the time limits for initial claims for sickness benefit. I assure the hon. Member that the operation of the time limits, which were settled by regulation in 1948, has been carefully watched since the Act came into force. Already, considerable changes in this respect have been made. The most recent change is that arising from the representations that were made during the debate on 4th April, 1950, on a Prayer to annul the National Insurance (Claims and Payments) Amendment Regulations, 1950.

During that debate, my right hon. Friend agreed to the possibility of making concessions in the time limits relating to sickness benefit claims, and as a result provisional regulations were made to operate from 19th July last. These provisional regulations were made in the terms of the preliminary draft regulations which were submitted to the National Insurance Advisory Committee, who have not yet reported upon them. These new regulations, which apply if the claim is the first made since the appointed day in July, 1948, extend the period for a first claim for sickness benefit from the original three days to 21 days. Further, they exempt the person making such a first claim from the necessity of giving notice of incapacity. The regulations also substantially modify the time limit for persons in hospital.

I come now to dependants' benefit. An alteration which was effective as from 13th March last extends the period for claiming increased sickness and unemployment benefit for a dependant to one month after the date from which a claim for the main benefit is accepted. Previously, the claim for increased benefit for a dependant had to be made within the same time limits as the claim for the main benefit.

The time limits for claiming maternity benefits, to which the hon. Member referred, have been considerably modified since the appointed day. The original time limit of 10 days for claiming attendance allowance was extended in April, 1949—less than one year from the appointed day—to 28 days. At the same time, the limits for claiming maternity grant and maternity allowances were amended to enable these benefits to be claimed up to 11 weeks, instead of seven weeks, in advance.

The several alterations and modifications which have taken place regarding these time limits have suggested to us that a comprehensive review of the whole of the time limits for all kinds of benefits under the National Insurance Act was desirable. Accordingly the National Insurance Advisory Committee were asked by my right hon. Friend to reconsider all the present time limits and let her have the benefit of their advice.

Mr. Bell

May I interrupt the hon. Gentleman before another time limit begins to descend on us? Will he refer to the death grant benefit?

Mr. Taylor

I think I shall have time to refer to it, if the hon. Gentleman will be patient. May I also say that the Industrial Injuries Advisory Committee have been asked similarly to consider the existing time limits relating to the Industrial Injuries Act. Both these Committees have invited representations from interested parties, and I am informed that many communications, representing a wide field of interests, are now before them for consideration.

May I say one word on publicity, a point to which the hon. Gentleman referred? Every effort has been made to see that insured persons should know the benefits to which they are entitled and the time limits within which claims must be made. May I give two instances briefly before coming to the death grant? In the case of maternity benefits, posters are displayed and leaflets are available not only in our local offices but also at ante-natal clinics and food offices. At the latter a leaflet is handed to any applicant for an expectant mother's ration book. Similarly, the person registering a death is normally given a leaflet relating to the death grant at the registrar's office, together with a free death certificate for National Insurance purposes, as a means of inviting early claims both for death grant and widow's benefit. I admit that the registrar is under no obligation in this regard, but this arrangement has worked well.

Now, in the few moments left, may I come to the question of death grant? The death grant time limit presents special difficulty. Prompt payment of benefit is essential so that funeral costs and other expenses can be met as speedily as possible. Anyone who has incurred, or even intends to incur, certain expenses with regard to a death, not necessarily the funeral expenses, has a right to make a claim, but payment can be made to one person only and the death grant cannot be divided. Unless the time within which possible claimants can lodge their claims is reasonably short, there may be undue delay in paying the grant to the person whose claim is finally successful. The present time limit is one month. The hon. Gentleman has drawn the attention of the House to this, and may I say to him that the majority of claims are made well within this period.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having been continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Two Minutes to One o'Clock.