HC Deb 18 November 1970 vol 806 cc1340-53
Mrs. Shirley Williams

I beg to move Amendment No. 42, in page 2, line 38, leave out 'Supplementary Benefits Commission' and insert 'Secretary of State'.

I understand that we are to discuss at the same time Amendment No. 44, in page 3, line 2, leave out 'Commission' and insert 'Secretary of State'.

These two Amendments are designed to deal with the division of responsibility as the matter stands at present. In our view, the Secretary of State should be wholly responsible for the administration of the family income supplement scheme. Earlier in the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. Peter Archer) sought to discuss the possibility of the entire scheme being the responsibility of the Supplementary Benefits Commission, but in our Amendments now we suggest that the responsibility should be accepted where it belongs, that is, by the Secretary of State.

As the Bill is drafted, there is a most unsatisfactory sharp division of responsibility, with responsibility for paying the family income supplement and for receiving claims resting with the Secretary of State, under Clause 5, while a whole range of determinations and decisions which will to a great extent, in effect, decide the scope and practical consequences of the Bill are left to the Supplementary Benefits Commission, under Clause 6.

If the Supplementary Benefits Commission was to be left with the responsibility of deciding a whole range of crucial questions very much affecting the families involved, why did the Secretary of State not pursue the logic of that argument and ask the Commission to undertake the whole responsibility? We conclude that there are reasons why the right hon. Gentleman did not take that course, and we wonder whether they have anything to do with the fact that virtually no independent body concerned with poverty has given the Bill any kind of welcome at all.

If that is the situation, and if, in consequence, the Secretary of State and his Department must take responsibility for the Bill, we argue that the responsibility should go rather further than it does under Clauses 5 and 6. As the Bill stands, the Supplementary Benefits Commission will have to decide a range of questions which are normally thought to be policy matters. For instance, it will be asked to decide such questions as what constitutes a family, a question which has been to some extent widened now because the right hon. Gentleman has agreed to give serious consideration to the position of grandparents, whether as part of a household with children or whether themselves responsible for their grandchildren. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) has raised the question of foster-children. There is also the question of children in care and whether they constitute children for the purposes of the Bill. Again, as things stand, this will be a matter to be decided by the Supplementary Benefits Commission.

Let us suppose that a man spends part of the period of five weeks or slightly longer—the qualifying period for a family income supplement—in prison or other form of detention. It would be the Commission which will have to decide what his income ought rightly to be considered to be. Again, I understand that the period which will be taken as the proper period on which one can justify having a family income supplement will be a matter left to the Commission to decide. It will have to decide whether an occupation is such that a period of only two months is adequate for the basis of an application or whether the five weeks rule will suffice. Clearly, if families have casual or seasonal earnings, or if the earner is in and out of work, all these questions will be of crucial importance.

Such questions must be resolved because, if they are not, Ministers will find that there are vast anomalies in relation to the 26-week period of FIS based upon what has happened in the five weeks or slightly more on which the income supplement is based. For example, if the husband is away and out of the house for the period of five weeks, possibly on a seasonal job, will he be considered a member of the family for the purpose of family income supplement?

Who decides where responsibility for children lies? Who decides whether a child is part of the family? I am referring here not to a foster-child or to a child in care but to a child who is not a blood relation but who has normally lived with the family in the past.

In short, what we see in the Bill—we have raised this matter time and again—is a disturbingly wide range of discretion. Some part of the discretion is left to regulations, and this is why we have as an Opposition probed and pushed so hard for the terms of the regulations to be defined in advance, so far as they can be.

9.0 p.m.

I turn to the other part of that range of discretion which will never be discussed by the House of Commons and which will not even be subject to the negative resolution procedure, under which most regulations fall, namely, that part which rests with the Supplementary Benefits Commission. I ask the Under-Secretary of State to tell us why this range of discretion has passed, not just from the hands of the Secretary of State, but, from our point of view more seriously, from the position in which Parliament can question and can be the ultimately responsible body and is passed to the Commission.

It is not that we on this side of the Committee distrust the Supplementary Benefits Commission. We recognise that it is a body which almost invariably—though not invariably—tries to come down on the side of the applicant. But we are disturbed that the Commission is now being asked to undertake what one can only describe as a minimal policy rôle. We do not believe that this is the job which the Commission was set up to do, and we do not think it fair of the Secretary of State to ask it to do this job.

We are dealing with a whole new range of benefits for families in work. Consequently, this range of discretion will have behind it no case law, no precedents—nothing of that kind—on which a body like the Supplementary Benefits Commission can depend. The decisions will be made afresh. They will be made against a background of no history at all. It is, therefore, even more disturbing that the Secretary of State and his colleagues should permit this power to pass to a body which is not directly answerable to Parliament.

The Supplementary Benefits Commission is desperately overworked, as all of us who are in the last interested in pensions and social security affairs know. The Under-Secretary of State will know, as I do, that the people who work for the Commission are working very long hours of compulsory overtime and, consequently, there are grave difficulties about recruiting to this no longer particularly attractive, though very dedicated, type of service. By putting so many more responsibilities on this body, we suspect that the Secretary of State and his colleagues may take it to breaking point. The Bill suggests that an additional 200 civil servants will be required. It would be helpful if the Under-Secretary of State would make clear how they will be divided between the Ministry and the Commission so that we can know whether the Commission will be expected to take on this load in addition to the very heavy load which it carries now.

I wish to put to the Under-Secretary of State a question which will become all the more important if his reply is that he cannot accept the Amendments and we continue with this highly unsatisfactory position of divided responsibility. If that is his answer, I must ask him to give, if not the Committee, then the applicant the benefit of the doubt at every stage. This means that the House of Commons must ask to see the form upon which the application is made and, not the regulations laid before the House, but the codes of conduct which will be used in reaching decisions in the way in which codes of conduct are used in respect of supplementary benefit. Will the Under-Secre- tary of State tell us whether any applicant whose case is to be decided, not at the appeal tribunal, but before the Supplementary Benefits Commission, will be permitted to be represented by a relation, trade union or an organisation such as the Child Poverty Action Group?

I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will not under-estimate the seriousness of this very unsatisfactory administrative situation, will say why the Supplementary Benefits Commission has not been given the whole responsibility, which we believe would be logical, and will reply to the questions about representation of the client and the means test form and will say whether Parliament will be able to survey and watch matters to try to make good what we believe to be a very serious lacuna in the Bill.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown

Hon. Members opposite cannot have it both ways. If they argue, on the one hand, as they have just argued concerning disregards, that simplicity must be of the essence, they are caught with their own arguments concerning disqualifications. The lack of detail that we have had is frightening.

I hope that I will not be misunderstood when I say that if we as a Government had attempted to bring in a scheme like this, every hon. Member opposite would have accused us of creating a scrounger's paradise. I like to feel that it is a test of our genuine concern for unfortunate people that none of us has used that argument during the debate. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) hinted at it on Second Reading. We are entitled to more information.

In a Written Answer on 13th November dealing with Clause 6 and, to some extent, Clause 5, the impression was given that there would be 80 assessment offices. Does that mean that it will be only at those offices that inquiries can be made? It is no use the Minister saying that every assistance will be given at each local office throughout the country when he does not have, or does not seem to have, the support or the willingness to operate the scheme from the Supplementary Benefits Commission. I do not think that the Minister has had proper regard for the staff who will be required.

Here, therefore, we get into a kind of hybrid situation. My hon. Friends argue that it should be a matter for the Department of Social Security. I think that it should be a matter for the Supplementary Benefits Commission. Nevertheless, I want assurance that proper regard has been given to the acute staffing position in the local offices. Relationships with the public are difficult enough in dealing with the whole variety of people with serious social problems, but when we are dealing for the first time with wage earners, we obviously want to be assured that properly trained staff and adequate accommodation will be available.

What about disqualification? My hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) has mentioned prison. What about strikers? We hear a lot of hon. Members opposite thundering away about the gross abuse of public funds in helping the dependants of strikers. Will strike action be a disqualification, or is the Minister giving a categorical assurance that there will be practically no disqualification once an award has been made for 26 weeks? He cannot have it both ways. Is there to be simplicity on this side also?

Prison is another example which has been mentioned. I see nothing in the Bill which leads me to believe that there should be an exclusion, unless it is because a person is not in full-time employment when he is in prison. He may be deemed to be in full-time employment, but prison is not full-time employment under the definition.

The lack of information and the lack of detailed thought which has gone into these matters is appalling. I hope that we shall get more information when the Minister replies.

Mr. Dean

This has been an interesting debate. I hope that I shall be able to reassure the Committee, because I think that the hon. Lady the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams), in moving the Amendment, has somewhat misunderstood the position and how the scheme will work. What the hon. Lady has not, perhaps, fully appreciated is the clear distinction which will be drawn, as with all our social security arrangements, between the laying down of the structure of the scheme and the determination within that structure of the benefits to be made available to the people concerned.

The Bill and the regulations will lay down the structure of the scheme. The sort of things that we have been discussing on the Bill—the definition of earnings over the five-week period and the definition of a family, for example—are factors which are not specifically in the Bill but which will be laid down in regulations. In that sense, therefore, the Secretary of State is responsible and will be responsible to Parliament for the actual structure and definitions within the scheme.

I do not think the hon. Lady would want the Secretary of State to decide also to determine within the structure which he has laid down, which Parliament has agreed, exactly the entitlement of the individuals concerned; because, surely, we would then be in a position in which the Secretary of State, a Minister, would be judge and jury; we would be departing from the traditional structure which we have of independent statutory authorities who make decisions on these matters rather than a Minister himself. This, I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman, the Member for Dulwich (Mr. S. C. Silkin), would agree, is a fundamental principle. He knows much more about the law than I do, but certainly in our National Insurance arrangements the determination of questions is made by statutory authorities who are independent of the Minister.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will explain a little more clearly what he means when he says that questions as to policy will be a matter for the Secretary of State through regulations. In subsection (1) we have a very clear statement: Any question as to the right to or the amount of a family income supplement shall be referred to and determined by the Supplementary Benefits Commission was a right of appeal. Are we to take it that what that really means is that this will be a purely mechanical procedure and that all the policy decisions will have been taken first by means of regulations? If that is so, then would the Under-Secretary of State say why he feels that, so far as this Clause is concerned, the negative resolution procedure is adopted, when, clearly, very important matters are going to be decided under it?

Mr. Dean

There is nothing unusual in the procedure being proposed here. The intention of the structure of the scheme, with the definitions which are envisaged in the regulations, will be laid down by statute—in the Bill and in the regulations which will follow the Bill—with the due approval of Parliament, but the actual determination of entitlement, for example, is a function which the Commission will fulfil, in exactly the same way as the Commission fulfils very similar functions in regard to supplementary benefits at the present time. For example, various questions which have been discussed during these debates are very similar in type to the questions which the Commission determines now for supplementary benefit purposes. So there is clearly an exact parallel here between the legal framework, in the Bill and in the regulations, and the determination of entitlement within that framework, and the latter will be the task of the Commission, in much the same way as it is the task of the Commission to determine, within the framework laid down by Parliament, entitlement to supplementary benefit. The parallel is really very similar.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

I am sorry to press the hon. Gentleman, but is that really so? Surely, the position of the Supplementary Benefits Commission at the moment is that it is dealing with matters which are discretionary; it exercises its discretion. What I understand to be the purpose of this legislation is to give people a legal right to claim, where the combined effect of the Bill and the regulations provides for that situation. There is all the difference in the world between a body which is exercising and is used to exercising a discretion and a situation in which there is a legal right.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. Dean

It is true that the commission has a discretion, and therefore it has more manoeuvring room than there is here but even there the commission's discretion is exercised within a framework which is laid down by Parliament and altered from time to time. The commission works from the basic scale rates and it has discretion over and above that so there is a fairly exact parallel here. The legal aid scheme, with which I have no doubt the hon. and learned Gentleman is more familiar than I, is perhaps a more exact parallel. The commission administers the legal aid scheme, and the procedure here will be similar to the function that it will have with regard to the legal aid scheme.

The effect of what the hon. Lady is proposing—and I am sure this is not what she intends—is that the Minister would be judge and jury. He would not only be laying down, with the approval of Parliament, what is in the Statute and in the regulations following from it, but he would also be determining the entitlement. That would be a substantial departure from the concept of independent statutory authorities determining these matters, which I feel sure both sides of the Committee agree is a valuable safeguard to individuals who think they are entitled to benefit, and also to Ministers who occasionally wish to appeal to the statutory authorities.

With that explanation, I hope that the hon. Lady will be assured that we are following past precedent and practice, and that to adopt her suggestion would not be in the interests of the independent administration of this scheme or in the interest of ensuring that justice is done and seen to be done to the individuals concerned.

Mr. Peter Archer

I follow what the hon. Gentleman says about the determination of claims, although I would not wish to express myself as being in agreement. Will he now address himself to the other question which was asked? Why, in that case, is it suggested that the Secretary of State should receive claims and make payments? What is the distinction between the making of payments under this scheme and under the supplementary benefits scheme? Is it intended that the two should be duplicated?

Mr. Dean

I was coming on to that point, which was raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Hugh D. Brown). The administrative arrangements we envisage are that payments will be made from a central office rather than from offices dispersed throughout the country. This will produce administrative savings. The actual claims can and will be made through the local offices, but we envisage central payments, and the more we can achieve this as we get the scheme running the more administrative savings we shall get.

I was asked whether people who for a 26-week period are getting FIS payments will continue to receive payments regardless of the circumstances. Broadly speaking, the answer is "Yes". We intend to simplify the scheme as far as possible, and that is why we laid down a comparatively long period. A great many people will benefit from this. We were asked what would be the effect on sickness benefit. My right hon. Friend stated that the FIS payment will continue, and that is the answer to this question. I am not certain, off the cuff, what happens about someone who is in prison, but I suspect that in practice the wife and children will almost certainly be eligible for supplementary benefit, which in many cases will be at a higher rate than the FIS payment.

I hope with that explanation the hon. Lady and the Committee will feel reassured.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

Before the hon. Gentleman comes to the end of his speech, may I ask whether he has said all he intends to say about the reasons for having this divided system? With respect, in the light of all he said before in explaining why the S.B.C. was giving the final decision in some cases, I thought his explanation about why it had not been chosen was a very lame one. It seemed to boil down to the S.B.C. not having a central office, but the hon. Gentleman will know as well as I do that the S.B.C. could be asked to allocate one office for the purpose and could therefore administer the scheme.

If the hon. Gentleman takes the view which is put forward in the Amendments that because, in the words of his right hon. Friend, the Government are not setting up a parallel supplementary benefit scheme for those in work, the S.B.C. would not be the appropriate body, he has not satisfied us why quite considerable decisions will be made by the S.B.C. just the same.

If the hon. Gentleman is ending his speech, I press on him the last two questions to which he did not reply. They are quite crucial to asking Parliament to accept this scheme. We ask that the procedures, the rules of working and the application form shall all be put before Parliament so that we can at least exercise surveillance over this divided responsibility.

Mr. Dean

Yes, I readily reassure the hon. Lady on both those points. We intend to make the maximum information available to those who are likely to benefit. The whole intention of the take-up campaign is to do just this. The information will be made available to Parliament and to others who are interested.

I also give the hon. Lady the assurance for which she asked with regard to representation. People who wish to have help from relatives or friends will be able to have that help in making a claim in exactly the same way as when they are making a claim for supplementary benefit or any other allowance under our social service arrangements.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

I beg to move Amendment No. 45, in page 3, line 4, leave out 'affected by' and insert 'reduced by reason of'.

I am emboldened to hope that this Amendment will be accepted. The reason for this optimism is that in relation to Clauses 2 and 3 when we tabled Amendments suggesting that the figures in the Bill should be in an upward direction rather than either upward or downward as circumstances change and no doubt inflation gathers, the right hon. Gentleman in each case put down his own Amendments, Nos. 65 and 66, to accomplish the same purpose.

The Amendment I am now proposing is intended to have the same effect on the situation in Clause 6, under which it is now proposed that family income supplement as determined by the Commission shall be payable for a period of 26 weeks and that the rate at which it is payable shall not be as it reads at the moment: affected by any change of circumstances during that period". This seems to us to be a precise parallel to the circumstances of the earlier Clauses.

Although we would not wish to see the rate reduced during the course of this long period of 26 weeks, we see no reason why it should not be increased if circumstances arise which make it a hardship upon those concerned that it should continue at the same rate for what is after all a substantial period of half a year. Would the right hon. Gentleman suppose a situation involving a person who has applied for F.I.S. and who, owing to his circumstances, has not been able to get it and perhaps a week or two later finds his circumstances change for the worse and is then able to reapply and would get it? As the Bill stands at the moment, a person who gets family income supplement and whose circumstances change for the worse during the period of 26 weeks, unless the regulations otherwise provide, will not be able to get any improvement in his family income supplement as a result of those changes of circumstances. This appears to be very odd and, indeed, to produce a situation of hardship.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Bob Brown) asked how the regulations would work, and this is crucial to the point I am putting forward in this Amendment. If we were assured that the regulations would provide for the possibility of an increase during the 26-week period so much the better, but we want to know what is intended. Indeed, we want to know a great deal about these regulations. What, for example, will be the position of people who are on strike? What will be the situation of a woman who is in receipt of family income supplement but who ceases to cohabit? Is she by virtue of regulations to have the supplement immediately cut off? There are all kinds of situations of that kind which might arise and I hope that we shall be given answers on them. The main point of the Amendment is that we feel it to be logical and right that any change should be in an upward direction, and not as the Bill stands at the moment.

Mr. Dean

The hon. and learned Gentleman is tempting providence a little in moving the Amendment, although I accept that it is probably largely probing in nature to seek information about the Government's intentions. The Clause clearly lays down that the rate payable shall not be affected by change of circumstances during the period; that is, during the 26 weeks. In other words, the intention is neither to reduce it nor to increase it. Therefore, the optimistic parallel the hon. and learned Gentleman drew with earlier Amendments which we were able to accept in slightly changed form does not apply here.

9.30 p.m.

If the hon. and learned Gentleman were to press us to say that in no circumstances would regulations be introduced to reduce the amount during the 26-week period, I think that he would agree that we should probably also have to ask to take power to ensure that they were not increased either. Would not it be very much better in the circumstances for us to leave the situation as it is, with the assurance I have given that the whole essence of the arrangement, as we see it, is that the 26-week award system should stand, because of its simplicity and the other advantages which we discussed under earlier Amendments? It is a for-better, for-worse arrangement; it is a simpler arrangement. It is not the intention that there should be either an increase or a reduction during that period. I hope that in view of that explanation the hon. and learned Gentleman will not wish to press his Amendment.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

I am by no means satisfied with the hon. Gentleman's answer. In particular, he does not seem to me to have dealt at all with the point of the parallel between the person who gets nothing and then can apply a short time afterwards and the person who happens to have been successful in his application and may suffer a drastic change of circumstances for the worse during the period of 26 weeks.

I should have been much happier if the hon. Gentleman had felt able at least to say that he would look into that point and, although I would not ask him to give any undertaking to make a change on Report, at any rate consider the kind of situations which have been shown as being likely to arise and see whether there is any possibility of dealing with them. If the hon. Gentleman wished to interrupt me and give such an undertaking now, that would make me much happier.

Mr. Dean

I think I can help the hon. Gentleman. What I can tell him is that if a person would be in a more favourable position, if he would get a larger F.I.S. by claiming rather later, then that is a valid point, and I can give him the assurance that it is the sort of point we will examine to ensure that it is met effectively through regulations.

Mr. Siikin

I am very much obliged to the hon. Gentleman. In view of that undertaking, so far as it goes, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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