HC Deb 07 December 1971 vol 827 cc1259-68

10.13 p.m.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

The case for publishing the Supplementary Benefits Commission's "A" Code is not merely one of open government in a democratic society, nor even an issue between paternalism and rights in the welfare State, though it closely involves both of these. The case for publication rests squarely on the Ministry of Social Security Act, 1966, which marked the deliberate transition from the meeting of needs to the establishment of entitlement. Yet obtaining benefits under the Act depends at least as much on the unpublished "A" Code rules as on the Act itself and the accompanying Regulations.

If, then, entitlement is to become reality, the rules giving substance to the rhetoric must be made known. Wider issues are involved. Perhaps the most important is that it would begin to reverse the power imbalance between the weakbecause-ignorant claimant and the strongbecause-knowledgeable social security officer.

At present the weakness of the rules allows stereotype and prejudice in many controversial areas of policy to go unchecked. One example is the reduction of certain allowances in the case of coloured immigrants on the grounds of communal living arrangements or the absence of rent books. Another is the tactic of deliberate discouragement particularly used against unemployed men and deserted mothers, of paying the smallest sum permissible or even altogether cutting off an allowance as a short cut to dealing with suspicions of fraud and scrounging.

Still the rules remain secret, and while they do it is difficult to see what wholly reliable controls can prevent such abuse of discretion. A former executive officer of the Supplementary Benefits Commission, Mr. Michael Hill, said flatly: The only real control over the actions of executive officers when they took a harsh line was the protests of individuals who were thus made to suffer. Yet if the official guidelines remain unknown, how can even such protests be as frequent or as persistent as might be desirable?

Of course, the positive control for the proper working of a discretionary welfare system is a full complement of experienced and highly trained staff, yet the shortage of personnel, the briefness of training and the high levels of staff turnover all suggest that, despite the valiant and commendable efforts of the Commission, this crucial condition is very far from satisfied.

What has happened, I believe, is that whatever the theoretical advantages of discretion in permitting a little bit extra for the claimant, the rules have actually become an instrument for preventing overpayments, if the Sunday Times revelations of 8th August are correct. Because of lack of public scrutiny, the rules have developed as an instrument more for limiting public expenditure than for helping the claimants.

Perhaps the most fundamental reason for publication of the various codes is that only this will finally secure a decisive public debate on the viability or otherwise of a discretionary means test welfare system. I appreciate that this means that the Government must have the courage of their convictions over their basic policies of selectivity, but this is what political courage and democracy are actually all about. Only publication of the welfare codes can properly answer the question whether a means test structure, for all the support of discretionary improvisations, can ever be seen comprehensively to meet need.

One has to ask, in view of all this, why it is that publication has been resisted. The main argument has been that it would destroy flexibility. Surely, this is based on a fallacy, quite apart from the fact that it belies the "A" circulars recently brought to light, which are designed to secure uniformity of discretion, for if the "A" Code still permits an officer to use his discretion, then publication will not remove this option. If, however, it does not permit the use of discretion beyond certain stated alternatives, then publication can impose no further check, but what publication will ensure is that the alternatives are fully known and appropriate action is taken.

Another objection, and one which, I suspect, will form the mainstay of the Government's reply tonight, is it would not be proper to furnish what are, after all, internal memoranda to the Department's field staff. There is an important precedent here. In 1962 Mr. Butler, as he then was, the then Home Secretary, published "Instructions to Immigration Officers," which set out a comprehensive set of rules with regard to how the officers ought to operate the Commonwealth Immigrants Act. Admittedly, the entry certificate officers responsible for the allocation of certificates in the country of origin did retain a considerable degree of discretion. Indeed, abundant evidence was produced by the British Council of Churches Standing Committee on Migration in its evidence to the Select Committee on Race Relations on 23rd May last year to show that this discretion was still used arbitrarily, and that the regulations were often applied rigidly where permissible discretion could have been used. All this suggests both that a precedent does exist and also that in order that residual discretion is not used to the disadvantage of claimants—and it is here that the pinch comes—evidence should be brought before an independent tribunal before benefit is discretionally withdrawn or reduced.

But, further to the question of publishing internal staff instructions, the Secretary of State said on 6th April this year in answer to a question from me: … in any event, the Supplementary Benefits Handbook provides a full explanation of the scheme and full information in non-technical language on the way in which the Commission exercises its discretionary powers in deciding claims to benefit."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th April, 1971; Vol. 815, c. 66.] The Secretary of State must know that that is a disingenuous answer. In countless ways, the handbook fails to provide the comprehensive technical information on which alone a full system of rights can be built. Indeed, if the handbook contained all that is in the "A" Code, why not publish the "A" Code and be damned? It is the failure to do this which leaves lingering suspicions about what is not revealed in the handbook.

But there is a whole range of matters with which the handbook deals with regard to procedures where it is thoroughly imprecise. For instance, how exactly is an applicant assessed in terms of his general health and mobility if he is applying for a fuel allowance? What exactly are the entitlements to clothing and bedding in lump sum grants, especially for the families of the unemployed, or deserted mothers, or unmarried mothers? When exactly is a disabled man judged capable of employment and liable to the wage stop? The list of unanswered questions is very long.

Moreover, there are several crucial procedures which are left entirely vague and unexplicit. The handbook implies, for example—this is a very important example—that men subject to the withdrawal of their supplementary allowance under the four-week rule, which is perhaps the last remaining benefit which may be available to them, do not have to reapply at the end of four weeks. Paragraph 171 says: The allowance is continued for whatever period is appropriate. But this is the opposite of the truth.

Nor does the handbook permit appeals to be made against procedures which are declared improper by the "A" Code, such as referring families to the W.V.S. for secondhand clothing, if the impropriety of the procedure is never published. This impropriety was revealed by chance during the Child Poverty Action Group's programme, but how many corresponding breaches of the rules are never brought to light? Perhaps the Commission does not know, because, if the rules are not made known, any feedback of complaints is automatically prevented.

I must mention two other possible objections to publication. One is the fear sometimes expressed that under-pinning welfare rights rather than restricting public expenditure may be expensive. But either the Government intend that people should get the benefits to which they have a right or they do not. If they do not, they should say so, but if they do, the Government should end the charade of mealy-mouthed rhetoric and show that their intentions are fully carried out—which means publication. Or, to put it another way, if the full distribution of benefits would be too expensive, the Government must not pretend that they are entitlements.

If, on the other hand, the Government genuinely support the ideology of the 1966 Act, they must not duck the issue, that a discretionary means test system is not necessarily the great financial saving that the Government like to assume.

It may of course be said that it was never intended that poor claimants should obtain their rights in benefit either in cash or in kind to the uttermost item. The answer to this is quite simple, that, if the Inland Revenue income tax regulations are opened to public inspection, thus providing scope for tax avoidance manipulation, the formulae for welfare entitlement should similarly be available. If tax avoidance—I appreciate that this is an ad hominem—is seen as a rational husbanding of resources to the best advantage—this seems to be the Government's view—surely obtaining welfare benefits for exactly the same end cannot be construed as less reasonable or rational.

Perhaps the pith of the debate lies in the political objection to publication—that the "A" Code rules are not meant to offer publicly an itemised list of entitlement but are concerned, it may be said, merely with limited charitable extras designed to ease the lot of the poor in certain circumstances.

If this is the Government's view, then this is precisely the overwhelming argument for publication; namely, that it would indeed effect the transition from paternalism to rights. It would change the rôle of the poor from subservient and grateful claimants—[Interruption.] It is no good hon. Gentlemen opposite protesting, because that is certainly the attitude of many claimants.

Publication would change the whole situation in terms of their rights. It would change it in such a way that they would become dignified and unashamed citizens for the first time. This is both an opportunity for the Government to act and their unavoidable duty to act in this matter.

10.26 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Paul Dean)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) for raising this subject because it gives me an opportunity to remove some of the fallacies that are around, some of which he has been fostering, and to deal with some unjustified criticisms.

I regret that in raising this subject the hon. Gentleman did not feel it proper to say one word of praise for the work of the Supplementary Benefits Commission and its officers. I do not for a moment claim that the present system is perfect. I do claim, however, that we have a sensitive and sympathetic method of detecting human need and responding to it.

One need only look at some figures to appreciate this. For example, about 115,000 claims are made each week and about 200,000 calls are made at our local offices weekly. This shows the substantial load which is on the Commission and its staff. Mistakes will, of course, be made, but in the vast majority of cases we have a sensitive mechanism of which we can be justly proud.

Whatever else the hon. Gentleman may have said in his strictures and lack of praise, he will I think agree with the two main aims which the Government and Supplementary Benefits Commission have. The first is to give claimants and those who help them all the information they need to get what benefits are available to them under the scheme. The second is to spread understanding of the scheme and so encourage take-up.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the "A" Code. This is a rather sinister sounding phrase and an unfortunate one for what is, in fact, something totally unsinister. If people think, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, that it conceals instructions for holding down expenditure or withholding benefit from claimants, I give him a categorical assurance that this is simply not so. This has never been the intention and it is not the intention now.

It is a manual of guidance and operating instructions to the staff on very similar lines to that which any big organisation has and which it does not publish. Claimants and their helpers need a clear guide to entitlement and knowledge of the help to which they may be entitled under the discretionary powers.

I freely admit, and we all learn from experience, that until fairly recently this type of thing has not been available. That is not so now. The Supplementary Benefits Handbook and the Family Benefits and Pensions Handbook, both of which have gone into revised editions which have come into operation this year, give the basic information which claimants and their helpers will need. The important way in which they differ from the code of instructions and guidance to the staff is that they are written with the claimant in mind. They give a complete description of entitlement and a clear indication of the kinds of discretionary help available. There may be a few rare situations which are not covered but for most claimants and their advisers the handbook provides all that is needed to enable them to claim.

The Commission has gone further. There have been special reports on difficult areas. I am thinking particularly of the special reports on the wage stop and cohabitation which have given a great deal of information about the problems involved and the way in which discretionary power is used. The Commission is actively considering other areas of its administration where a similar frank and full explanation might be helpful. There is no doubt that there will be more reports on the lines of those I have mentioned. We welcome suggestions as to the sort of difficult areas in which more light might possibly be thrown through this type of special report.

Another aspect I want to mention is the appeals procedure for those who are aggrieved and who feel that they are not getting the benefits they should receive. Here we have a procedure of appeal which is entirely independent of Government and the Commission. The appeal tribunals do not have the manual of instructions and guidance before them; they do not know what is in this guidance. This is deliberate because their job is to determine what is reasonable in all the circumstances of each case. They are not bound by the Commission's practices and it is important to avoid any implication that they are expected to follow them.

The take-up of benefits is another criterion of the genuineness of the efforts being made by the Government and the Commission to ensure that those eligible for benefits obtain them. Whatever else the hon. Gentleman may say, he cannot say that substantial and successful efforts have not been made during this past year to encourage people to obtain benefits which they were not formerly receiving and to which they are entitled.

Let us take the family benefits for example. Since the main campaign on the family benefits, the milk and welfare foods, prescriptions and other Health Service charges, there has been a substantial increase in new awards—of well over 300,000. With the family income supplement scheme, which is still in its infancy—it started in August—there have been no fewer than 92,000 awards. I quote those figures to show the genuineness of the claim we are making that we are determined to find methods by which those who are entitled to benefits are brought within the system and obtain them.

Mr. Meacher

How much in extra resources is involved as a result of the increased take-up last year? How many people have been taken out of poverty by having their resources brought above the poverty line as a result of the extra benefits? If the hon. Gentleman is to use the take-up of benefits as a criterion of the success of the present discretionary means test system, will he explain why only about 2 per cent. of elderly people receive any special help for fuel? Why do appeals against termination of supplementary allowance under the four-week rule total only about 3 per cent?

Mr. Dean

What I am saying is that the hon. Gentleman is not entitled to belittle the successful efforts which have been made by the Government, the Supplementary Benefits Commission and its staff in bringing to the notice of people benefits to which they are entitled, which they were not receiving before and which they are now getting. I very much regret that the hon. Gentleman never seems to find it in his heart to give some credit where it is due.

Mr. Meacher

If the hon. Gentleman reads carefully in HANSARD what I said, he will see that I made a specific reference to the valiant and commendable efforts of the Commission's officers to make the system work. Nothing I have said is to be construed as an attack on their worthy efforts. It is the system they are trying to operate that I believe to be inoperable in an entirely just and comprehensive manner.

Mr. Dean

I am very glad to hear the hon. Gentleman say that. It is an earlier omission that he has now put right. There have grown up, in recent months in particular, unfortunate attacks and smears on the staff of the Commission. It sometimes looks as though the object is not so much to help the claimant as to discredit the system. Some of the remarks the hon. Gentleman made tonight rather give weight to that view. Of course, mistakes are made, but it is far better that when they are made they should be brought to our notice so that something can be done about them. The vague smears that are made from time to time can only damage claimants and make it more difficult for the staff to do a good job.

I am not claiming for one moment that there are not improvements that can be made in the instructions to staff and in our publicity arrangements. This is a continuing job in which the Commission is anxious to make improvements, as are the Government. But equally we can fairly say, from the points I have made tonight, that progress in both these key areas is being made, and it is the determination of us all that that should continue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Eleven o'clock.