HC Deb 08 May 1958 vol 587 cc1558-66

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

10.47 p.m.

Mr. Martin Lindsay (Solihull)

I wish to plead tonight for a relaxation in the somewhat rigid time limits within which National Insurance benefits must be claimed if they are to be paid. We all appreciate that there must be some time limits, but I submit that they are at present far too tightly drawn.

I will illustrate my argument by taking the case of maternity benefits. These are payable from the fourteenth week before the expected confinement, provided that the claim is submitted by the eleventh week. If, in fact, the claim is not lodged by the eleventh week, benefit is payable only from the beginning of the week in which the claim is lodged. I have a constituent who claimed maternity allowance immediately after the birth of her child. Her claim was disallowed for the fourteen weeks before her confinement, in respect of which she would have received the allowance in full only if she claimed by the eleventh week beforehand. I consider that that is altogether unreasonable treatment.

The attitude of the Ministry is that people who are entitled to benefits must be responsible for knowing their rights, and they must put in their claims in time. In my submission, the Ministry has an equal responsibility in discharging what is nothing else than an obligation. This is not—to use a phrase which came from the benches opposite five minutes ago—a matter of distributing charitable moneys. It is no less than a matter of meeting a contract, an obligation, in paying people what they are entitled to by right, by virtue of the National Insurance contributions which they have paid.

Can we imagine one of the great insurance companies or Lloyds quibbling behind an excuse that it will not pay a benefit which is part of a contract because the claim is a few days out of date? It is inconceivable. State insurance should offer as fair and reasonable treatment as private insurance companies. I am appalled when contributors' claims are disallowed on the ground that they are a short time out of date.

When one writes to the Minister or to the Parliamentary Secretary, or goes to see them, one is agreeably received, but what does one get? One gets the answer that these are the regulations and that the person concerned has a right of appeal. As they know, appeals to the appeal tribunals are farcical because the tribunals are bound by the regulations. It is impossible for the person concerned to put in an adequate reason why the claim is late—that they have been ill or that they did not know—and no such excuse is accepted. So much for the question of maternity benefit.

Exactly the same applies to sickness benefit, whether it is the personal benefit due to the actual contributor or what is known in the jargon as "dependency increase", that is to say, additional allowances to which the contributor is entitled for his wife and children. Here again, benefit is not automatic and it is a question of whether or not the claim has been made in time. It must be submitted within one month.

I have a constituent who claimed six weeks afterwards and was, therefore, a fortnight too late. The usual thing happened; the claim was disallowed. It is shocking that the Ministry should take advantage of a quibble of that nature to avoid meeting an obligation. I cannot use words softer than that; it is avoiding meeting an obligation which the Ministry should honour.

What is the Ministry's defence for action of that kind? When tackled on the subject, the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary shelters behind the 1952 Report of the National Advisory Committee. The sentence quoted is that time-limits are necessary to protect the Insurance Fund against stale or doubtful claims. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will manage to do better than that tonight. What is stale or what is doubtful about a baby which has arrived in the world three days before a claim is made? It is a preposterous defence. The constituent of whom I am speaking gave birth on 3rd February last year and submitted her claim on 7th February; fourteen weeks' allowance was disallowed on the grounds of being too late. Was that a stale or doubtful claim? Equally, what is stale or doubtful about the claim of my other constituent who claimed sickness benefit, supported by the usual medical certificate, fourteen days too late?

I do not want to labour this matter. There is no need for me to say anything more on the subject at this late hour. It is perfectly obvious that the regulations are far too rigid and that we ought to be able to get more flexibility and more humanity at the Ministry. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us that the Minister has decided to refer this whole question once again to the National Insurance Advisory Committee for another investigation into the whole question.

10.55 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (Miss Edith Pitt)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. M. Lindsay) has said, some time limits are necessary with claims to benefit under National Insurance. The strongest point I can make to support that argument is to say that there are 25 million insured people, making a very big job for our Ministry to administer, and it is obvious that we need rules. The figures I am about to quote to the House indicate the size of the job.

In 1957, there were approximately 9½ million claims for sickness benefit—a benefit in which my hon. Friend is especially interested. Although that was exceptionally high, the average is 8 million a year, which is still a formidable figure. In that year the number of claims for unemployment benefit was 2½ million, maternity benefit 860,000, injury benefit 760,000, retirement pension 450,000, widow's benefit 100,000 and disablement benefit 162,000.

The history behind the application of time limits is part of the history of insurance benefits. There were always time limits under the old schemes, for sickness, unemployment and other benefits. The three-day time limit for notifying sickness has stood the test for the past forty years.

There is advantage in retaining those rules which experience has shown to be of value; although the rules have not remained rigid. The history of the rule for sickness benefit has its roots founded in the experience of Approved Societies and it is now well known to the insured population.

In 1946, the comprehensive National Insurance Act continued the practice of time limits which had applied to the earlier insurance schemes, and the regulations made in 1948 under that Act laid down time limits for all benefits. I emphasise, and I hope that this will be of some assistance to my hon. Friend, that all these time limits can be extended where good cause is shown for delay.

The method is that all claims are decided by the independent statutory authorities. As hon. Members know, those are the insurance officer, the appeal tribunal and, finally, the Commissioner. The rights of the claimants to benefit are protected in this way.

Over the past ten years that is, since the comprehensive National Insurance Scheme was introduced, the public has become familiar with the operation of the Scheme and has acquired a knowledge of its rights, and more and more we find that the system works smoothly. At the beginning of the Scheme, all families were issued with the Family Guide to National Insurance in order to try to bring home to them their obligations and rights under the Scheme. Since that time their experience has grown and they have become used to the procedure for claiming benefits. Furthermore, they know that the local officers of my Ministry are always willing to help. Nevertheless, I must emphasise—and I am sorry to do this, because my hon. Friend has already made the point—that despite what we do to make their rights known to them, the responsibility for making claims rests with the people concerned.

I believe that the great majority of insured people know this. What is certainly a fact is that the great majority of insured people need their benefit fairly quickly when their earnings are interrupted, and normally they do not delay in putting in their claim. It is the essence of the National Insurance scheme that benefits should be available when the need arises. To do this smoothly, efficiently and above all promptly, so that payments may be made when there is need, some limit on the time within which the benefit can be claimed is essential.

The title to benefit has always to be established, and to extend the time limit still further might make for delay in checking the title to benefit and in making sure that the conditions have been satisfied. It would certainly mean more records and more paper work, and the consequence is probably that it would delay payment, which is the last thing any of us would wish to inflict on those people who claim National Insurance benefits.

For sickness benefit, notice must be given within three days and the claim itself made within ten days. I must again emphasise that attention is drawn to this on the first medical certificate which is issued to the applicant by his doctor. It is very clearly worded. I have a specimen in front of me and it reads, This form should be completed and sent WITHOUT DELAY to the local Pensions and National Insurance Office. You may LOSE BENEFIT if notice is not given within THREE DAYS from the start of the incapacity or if further certificates are not sent weekly while you are ill. If people read these documents they are immediately made aware of their obligation to submit claims in good time.

There is one exception to the three-day time limit for sickness benefit and that is for those people who claim for the first time and cannot be expected to have had experience of the methods we employ. In that type of case they have twenty-one days within which to lodge their claim. My hon. Friend cited a case of one of his constituents who put in a late claim for dependency benefit. He correctly put in his own claim for his personal benefit, and that was paid, but six weeks later he was reminded by his employers, I think, that he was entitled to claim for dependency benefit, and he submitted a claim which was too late because the time limit in such cases is one month.

Again I emphasise that if the claim is late, the claimant has the rights of appeal which I have already mentioned, and experience has shown that the Commissioner, who is the last and final authority, has always taken a lenient view of delay occasioned by serious illness or by the nature and extent of the claimant's illness.

My hon. Friend said that it was a quibble to deny claims because they have been made late, but I took the trouble to look up some of the Commissioner's decisions before coming to the House to reply to the debate and I found it interesting to see the human way in which the service is administered. A late claim was allowed to a man who had poliomyelitis, because his illness incapacitated him to such an extent. A late claim was allowed to a man who had sent his medical certificate to his secretary at the office with instructions to her to post it on but she had failed to do so. He had nevertheless given instructions, and his claim was allowed. A late claim was made by a man who had fallen sick, and, during his convalescence his wife fell sick as a result of the worry of nursing him. Both were so preoccupied that, again, the claim was allowed. I could quote many more instances, but I hope that this shows that when a good reason can be advanced a late claim is allowed.

I will not give the conditions of maternity benefit, as my hon. Friend gave them accurately, but I must make this point—and it applied to his constituent. When the expectant mother claims her welfare foods she receives a book of milk tokens which contains a notice of the time limits for claiming. It is brought to her attention as much as possible, and we always take care that notices are posted in the welfare clinics.

We do not keep statistics of late claims as a matter of routine, but a count of claims for sickness benefit in November, 1955, and January, 1956, showed that less than 2 per cent. failed for lateness, which is a lower proportion than in 1953, when the figure was 2.5 per cent.——

Mr. Lindsay

Before my hon. Friend leaves this question of maternity benefits, can she give the House one real reason why, when a claim is made by the woman when the child is born and the Department starts paying the claim, it cannot pay back for the fourteen weeks beforehand? I cannot see that she has given any good reason why that cannot be done.

Miss Pitt

This is not for me to answer, Mr. Speaker, but for the independent authorities to decide whether she has good reason for making a late claim, but one question that would come into it would obviously be up to what stage she worked, because the benefit is not paid while she is working. That is for the independent authorities.

The proportion of late claims for sickness benefit has fallen, according to the last count; and, in 1957, less than 0.5 per cent. of unemployment benefit claims failed for lateness, less than 1 per cent. of maternity grant claims, and the number of claims for the other main benefits so disallowed is much lower.

What is important is that in sickness benefit claims the percentage of late claims allowed is estimated to be over 60 per cent. Further, there has been a substantial decrease in the number of appeals to local appeals tribunals and to the Commissioner in recent years. In the case of sickness benefit, appeals arising from late claims have been nearly halved since 1953, which is the year when figures of appeals arising from late claims were first shown separately. Sickness claims also give rise to a lower proportion of appeals than do unemployment benefit or pensions, and, again, I think that that supports my statement that experience is growing and that people know their rights and the fact that they have to put in their claims quite quickly.

There is much more that I would like to say. I should have liked to quote the National Insurance Advisory Committee, but my hon. Friend is aware that it has made recommendations, and, in fact, because of its recommendations, these time limits have been reviewed and changed in the years since 1948.

To sum up, I should say that some rules are essential, because this is a large and complex Scheme. The percentage of late claims is small by comparison with the total number, and it is growing smaller. The public are gaining in ex- perience and familiarity with the Scheme. The rights of the public are protected by the appeal machinery, and the rules have been amended in the light of experience. We try to operate fairly and reasonably on behalf of beneficiaries who are, after all, the contributors who provide the funds which we administer.

My hon. Friend concluded with the hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister might be prepared now to refer this matter to the National Insurance Advisory Committee yet again. I cannot give him such an assurance, though, of course, my right hon. Friend will read this debate tomorow, but I think I have now said enough to show that the question of time limits is one that is kept constantly under review. Although some rules are essential, and always will be, we have tried to change them in the light of experience in order that they may work more smoothly for those who have to benefit from them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Eleven o'clock.