HC Deb 14 November 1966 vol 736 cc173-83

10.13 p.m.

Mr. W. R. van Straubenzee (Wokingham)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Supplementary Benefit (General) Regulations 1966 (S.I., 1966, No. 1065), dated 12th August 1966, a copy of which was laid before this House on 24th August, be annulled. If it would meet with your approval, Mr. Speaker, perhaps we might discuss at the same time the other two Statutory Instruments referred to in the other two Prayers: That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Supplementary Benefit (Appeal Tribunals) Rules 1966 (S.I., 1966, No. 1066), dated 12th August 1966, a copy of which was laid before this House on 24th August, be annulled. and. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Supplementary Benefit (Claims and Payments) Regulations 1966 (S.I., 1966. No. 1067), dated 12th August 1966, a copy of which was laid before this House on 24th August, be annulled.

Mr. Speaker

If the House so pleases.

Mr. van Straubenzee

I am much obliged. I am grateful to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for his presence and I apologise to him that these occasions always seem to happen at an ungodly hour in the evening. I wish to make it clear to him that the object of making the Prayer is most emphatically not to persuade the House to vote down the three Statutory Instruments that we are discussing, but rather to draw attention to one or two aspects of the matters contained in them. These three Statutory Instruments taken together cover precisely the sort of matters with which hon. Members will be concerned in, for example, their "surgeries", as we call them, and it is, therefore, of value to have the contents spotlighted for a moment, both from the point of view of the general public and from the point of view of hon. Members themselves.

I take, first, the Supplementary Benefit (General) Regulations, and I have a question to put on Regulation 4, which sets out what the procedure is, first, if a person's net weekly earnings are easily ascertainable. Second, in paragraph (2), the Regulation deals with the case of the person whose weekly earnings are not immediately ascertainable, and provides that in such a case the computation shall be made in such manner and on such basis as the Commission considers appropriate, having regard to all the circumstances.

It might be for the convenience of the House and the general public if the Parliamentary Secretary could go a little further and say what is in his right hon. Friend's mind as to the making of this latter calculation. I think that I am right in saying that for earnings-related sickness and unemployment benefits the basis is a 50-week year to take account of the possibility of earnings having increased over the start of the year. Is this also the basis upon which the hon. Gentleman expects Regulation 4 to be operated? If he could amplify a little what is set out in the Statutory Instrument, this would be of considerable assistance.

The hon. Gentleman will not wish me to go at length into the problems which these Regulations generally give to low wage earners. He and I had an exchange about this at Question Time today. The fact is that these Statutory Instruments, which arise from the Social Security Act, 1966, do not help the low wage earner. The wage-stop is as firmly written into legislation as ever. Indeed, I think it fair to say that it is extended in a way which did not previously apply. It would be helpful to have a clearer view of what Regulation 4 involves.

It would be of assistance also to probe a little more the question of registration for employment. The class in which I am particularly interested in this connection are the disabled unemployed, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will go in rather greater detail into the effect of these provisions upon them. Again, I think that I am right in saying that the disabled unemployed do not qualify for the 9s. a week additional allowance even if unemployed for two years or more. Both sides of the House have been very much concerned about the position of the unemployed disabled.

The Parliamentary Secretary will remember that, when the Bill was debated on Second Reading, it was agreed that unemployment among the disabled was five times the then national average. While not wishing to inject an acid note into these matters, I must tell the hon. Gentleman frankly that this position has, perhaps, become worse. I am dealing now with the registration provisions of Statutory Instrument No. 1065.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have noticed a disturbing letter recently in The Times on this subject from the psychiatric registrar of Brighton General Hospital. This is probably the first occasion on which we have authoritative evidence of the effect of the Selective Employment Tax upon the disabled. Therefore, the provisions of these Statutory Instruments in so far as they affect the unemployed disabled may be even more important than we realised when the 1966 Act was passing through the House.

The psychiatric registrar states in his letter that for several years one of the local mental hospitals has provided a group of patients to work in a factory in Crawley and that as each patient improved and left he was replaced by another living in the hospital, but that today all this has ended. I quote only briefly from the letter.

We must understand clearly that not only in this field, but also for the mentally and the physically handicapped, the effect of the Selective Employment Tax, whatever hon. Members opposite may have intended, may be much more drastic than we realise. Therefore, these three Statutory Instruments, containing the working regulations under the 1966 Act, are extremely important. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to say something about this aspect. I do not pursue it further, because I realise that I must not go far outside the general subject. All three Statutory Instruments, however, have a direct effect upon the matter which I have raised.

Equally concerning registration for employment, I should be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary can assist the House by saying whether he intends under one of these Statutory Instruments to divide the unemployment figures. I am well aware that I must not delve into the full unemployment figures, which are the concern of the Ministry of Labour, but I am concerned about the unemployable. As both sides of the House well realise, this is a much more substantial figure than most people appreciate.

I should have thought it likely that under these three Statutory Instruments and under the parent Act we should be able to separate these sets of figures. For example, it might be possible conveniently under the parent Act, and more particularly under these three Statutory Instruments, to separate the figures, which at present appear as a lump sum figure of unemployment issued by the Ministry of Labour, into figures of the strictly unemployed, which are not germane to this discussion, and the unemployable, which are germane to the discussion and come under these three Statutory Instruments.

We have all been conscious that in time gone by what are parochially called the unemployment figures have contained a fairly substantial section of people who for one cause or another, very often through no fault of their own, are simply not able mentally or physically to do a job. It is that category of person which will, as I understand it, increasingly become the concern of the hon. Gentleman's Ministry under the parent Act, and the detail of it will be dealt with under these three Statutory Instruments. That is why I am raising with him this question at the present time, and why I would be very much obliged if he felt able to give us some idea of his thinking of the breakdown of the figures between the one group and another. I think that on general social grounds it would be of great benefit that any Government should be more accurate in this regard.

Finally—because, as I said, I do not want to detain the House any length of time—in Statutory Instrument No. 1067, which is the one which deals with the supplementary benefit, Regulation 2 states that the claims should be in writing. I hope that the hon. Gentleman—I am sure he will not—will not think I am on a trivial point, a pernickety point. Many of the people concerned with that Regulation are people who do not find it easy to express themselves in writing. Regrettably, we still have a certain number of people who are unable so to do; we certainly have a very large number of people who find it difficult I personally have no doubt whatever, since we are here dealing with the National Assistance Board as was—and no finer group of public servants, in my view, ever existed than the Board now absorbed into the Ministry of Social Security, and I believe that on both sides of the House we have taken every opportunity, rightly, of paying tribute to them—that such persons as they, even in their new guise, will take every possible opportunity to assist people in making their claims, but I hope that I carry the hon. Gentleman with me when I say that it really is most important that anybody who has any feeling of pride, which is a feeling which, in the modern age, many of us have a great respect for, should have it as far as possible removed, and should have the process of claiming under this Instrument made as easy as it possibly can be.

I absolutely understand the action which the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend are taking and have taken in respect of the retirement pensioner. I appreciate that. May I say to him that I think it was particularly helpful that the right hon. Lady was kind enough to circulate all hon. Members and to pass to them the literature which she has circulated through the medium of her Ministry. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will see that that expression of gratitude is passed back to her. It is very helpful to have Members who often have to advise constituents in this respect.

I understand and am appreciative of the action which was taken in respect of the retirement pensioners, but I am speaking now of those who are affected by Statutory Instrument No. 1067 and the various provisions of it and the necessity to make a claim. I am bound to say to the hon. Gentleman that I personally think this has certainly strengthened the views which were expressed to him from this side of the House when these matters were debated, that it would have been a good thing if a positive duty had been laid on his Department in this regard, and if it had not had to be left, in respect of these people, to the action of this Statutory Instrument. However, these arguments we have been over in the past, and clearly we must not resurrect them now. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel that some light of publicity should be brought to these provisions, to bring them to the attention of people who certainly ought to be claiming supplementary payments and who otherwise might not do so.

The hon. Gentleman knows that the outside world may not always easily follow our procedures. Therefore, any endeavour to draw attention to these matters requires the Opposition to appear outwardly to be against them. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that that is the necessity of the procedure, and I merely set it on the record that we are not.

We were critical of certain aspects of the 1966 Act, but those are arguments which we cannot pursue now. We are concerned with the administrative arrangements arising out of that Act, and these three Statutory Instruments are all part of that machinery.

I hope profoundly that the arrangements which the hon. Gentleman has set in motion will move smoothly, and I hope, in the future, that he will be receptive to suggestions from either side of the House for administrative improvements in a field which is very close to and dear to the hearts of the vast majority of hon. Members on both sides and which mark a significant move forward in our provision for social security, although it is true that there has been dissension between us.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel that, even at a late hour, it is not wasted time for him to have the opportunity of explaining a little more fully what is in his mind, and perhaps to answer the questions which I have raised.

10.32 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Social Security (Mr. Norman Pentland)

The hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) has put forward a number of questions to me with his usual courtesy and clarity. I can assure him that I, for one, do not think that it is a waste of time to explain, if I can, many of the matters which he has raised.

Before I come to detailed points on the Regulations, I think that it might be helpful if, very briefly, I gave the background to the provisions embodied in the Regulations. The three sets of Regulations are made under the recent Ministry of Social Security Act to deal with the new scheme of supplementary benefits which was set up to replace the old National Assistance scheme. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the new scheme comes into operation on 28th of this month.

However, it was necessary to make these Regulations as soon as possible after the Royal Assent to the Act in order not only to carry out the re-assessment needed to bring the two million existing National Assistance recipients into the new scheme, but also to allow the time for claims from other persons not receiving National Assistance to be dealt with before the appointed day arrived. The House may like to know that, up till today, about 400,000 new claims have been received already, and these are from people above pension age. That is a figure which speaks for itself.

Two of the sets of Regulations—the Claims and Payments Regulations and the General Regulations—deal with the administration of benefit under the new scheme. Some of the provisions of the Regulations are similar to the provisions of the various National Assistance Regulations which they replace. For example, there is in the General Regulations the rule about requirements to register for work as applied to applicants who are below pension age and who are fit and without dependant children to care for. The Regulations contain many new provisions and many refinements on the old ones, in keeping with the new status of supplementary benefit as an entitlement.

The hon. Gentleman asked how we would calculate weekly earnings when they were not immediately ascertainable. Paragraph 4(2) of the General Regulations deals with the situation where, for one reason or another, a person's net weekly earnings are not immediately ascertainable. The kind of circumstance envisaged is where the claimant of supplementary benefit is running a small business on his own. For example, he may be running a shop or a smallholding. If he keeps accounts—many of them will—it will often be possible to use these to estimate the annual profits, and from this to reach an average weekly figure of earnings from which entitlement to supplementary benefit can be decided.

But, as we know, many of the people who will claim supplementary benefit will be in such a small way of business that they will not keep proper accounts of any kind, and even if they do their accounts will not be 'large enough to attract the attention of the Inland Revenue. For example, a person may have a small stall in a market, which he runs for one day a week, or he may have a very small shoe repair business. Many of us know that in country villages people have small shoe repair businesses which they run from their own homes.

In such cases the Commission's officers will have to make the best possible estimate in the individual circumstances, and, just as under National Assistance at the present time, they may well be helped by local knowledge about the generally recognised rate of profit on the turnover in businesses of this kind. For example, total purchases or sales over a period of time may provide a useful guide to the profits earned.

A rather different kind of case is that of the freelance writer who spends some time writing an article, and is paid a lump sum when his article is published. In these cases the Commission will generally average out the payment over the period when the writing was done, which, incidentally, will usually be to the claimant's advantage.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are a wide variety of occupations in which earnings will have to be calculated in the best way that the Commission can find. I am sure that this is obvious. The claimant has a safeguard in that if he considers that his profits have been over-assessed—I do not suppose that he will worry if it is the other way round—he can appeal to the local appeal tribunal which is particularly well equipped to take local factors into account. In short, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the whole emphasis will be placed by the Commission on being as fair as possible to the claimant.

The hon. Gentleman asked for the latest available information on the question of the disabled unemployed, the unemployable, and so on. The fact that a person is disabled does not necessarily mean that he cannot be registered for work. If he is able to perform even limited work, the Commission will help him, through the Ministry of Labour, to find suitable work. I think that that should be clearly understood. The only information that we have in regard to these matters is what is handed on to us from the Ministry of Labour, because it is this Ministry's responsibility to deal with the employment position of disabled people, the unemployables, and so on. I have a good deal of information in regard to this, and if the hon. Gentleman would like me to send it to him I shall be only too glad to do so.

The hon. Member finally raised the question of the need to search out people who are entitled to supplementary benefit. As he knows, we had a full discussion of many of those aspects in Committee on the Ministry of Social Security Bill. As we pointed out then, under the new scheme we shall be breaking a lot of new ground in our efforts to ensure that people claim the supplementary benefit to which they are entitled. As I mentioned earlier, the publicity campaign at the start of the scheme has already brought in about 400,000 claims for supplementary pension, which, in our view, is a very good start. The Ministry is also issuing leaflets and claim forms about the scheme, and has produced a special leaflet about it for use by social workers, hospitals, doctors, and so on, because, again in our view, these people often know more than anyone else of individuals who will be helped by the new scheme.

Mr. van Straubenzee

Can the hon. Member clear up one point? I think he said that there were 400,000 new claims by people above pension age. Have I got that right?

Mr. Pentland

That is correct. The 400,000 claims which have already come along are from people over pensionable age. I am grateful to the hon. Member for the tribute he paid to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the very helpful leaflets and forms which we have already distributed.

An important development in this scheme will be that each person coming up to retirement age, and every women on widowhood, will be told about the supplementary benefit and invited to claim. Unless a person indicates that he or she is not interested, each invitation will be followed up, if necessary, by a visit, to ensure that as far as is humanly possible everyone who might be entitled in these groups claims the supplementary benefit.

Many people who are below pensionable age, and these are the people about whom the hon. Gentleman was concerned, may be entitled to the supplementary allowance. Two special classes which come to mind are women with dependent children and the physically and mentally handicapped. Here again, the Ministry will be producing special leaflets for each group, explaining its entitlement under the scheme. I am sure that the creation of one Ministry to cover contributory and non-contributory benefits will be a most important factor in encouraging people to claim these benefits. However, I can assure the hon. Member that our Ministry will keep a very careful eye on developments to ensure, once the scheme has got going, that anything further which can be done by us is done, to see that everyone entitled to benefit claims it.

I hope that I have covered most of the points about which the hon. Member was concerned, and I hope that he will accept the undertaking I have given on these Regulations.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. van Straubenzee

I am sure the whole House is once again much indebted to the Minister for meeting the points I have raised. He has a remarkable facility for anticipating what I am going to raise. I am grateful for the various answers that he has given. I also accept his invitation, and I shall be very grateful to receive the information which he has about the situation of the disabled unemployed. I should be glad to receive that.

It has been extremely valuable for the House to be given the figure of 400,000 new claims from people above pensionable age;we can all rejoice at this. But it is precisely those above pensionable age to whom the right hon. Lady has been directing her attention—most effectively. That was the publicity which she was kind enough to circulate to hon. Members. While I understand the special leaflets prepared for the two categories which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, it surely re-emphasises the need for special contact with those likely to be affected, but who do not make the claim.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel that the debate has helped some of those to come forward and to realise that they are emphatically not claiming charity—but something—as they may not have felt in the past—which they have every right to claim. In view of the way in which the hon. Gentleman has responded to the debate, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.