HC Deb 08 July 1971 vol 820 cc1640-2
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

I beg to move Amendment No. 12, in page 6, line 18, leave out from '(1A)' to end of Clause and insert: An amount payable under paragraphs (a) to (d) of subsection (1) above may, at the discretion of the authority administering, be abated so as to permit recovery to be made from arreas in replayment of corresponding supplementary benefit paid to the claimant's separated dependants.

This Amendment relates to a difference of view about the purpose of Clause 3, on which we had a short debate during the Committee stage. This matter was set out in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum to the Bill as follows: Clause 3 slightly enlarges the scope of Section 16 of the Ministry of Social Security Act 1966 (which relates to the prevention of duplication of payments), so as to permit recoveries to be made from arrears of certain social security benefits in respect of supplementary benefit paid to the claimant's separated dependants.

That sounds complicated enough. It is saying that the provision will close a loophole through which people are getting too much supplementary benefit for separated dependants. But the Clause itself contains 30 lines of very complex phraseology. It was these lines to which I took exception in Committee. The Under-Secretary kindly invited some Amendments to make it more simple. These words may not meet the need, but a Statute should be tied up as neatly as possible.

In this case, the matter will be decided not in court but in a tribunal under the existing Acts. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Hugh D. Brown) said, the introduction to the social security handbook says: An exclusively legal approach to a non-contributory benefits scheme can only lead to a narrower and not broader concept of the 'rights' of claimants, since those rights are or should be social as well as legal. It will also tend to a more restrictive rather than a more generous or adaptable range of entitlement.

The Clause as it stands not only cannot be understood on a brief reading or on any reading at all, but probably ties up the matter too tightly. Very little in my Amendment does not already appear in the Explanatory Memorandum, which is not printed in the Bill as amended, or in the Clause.

The clause passes three tests which I would apply to any legislation of this sort. First, does the Clause clearly express its purpose? As written it does not, but with my Amendment it would. Second, does it show the basis on which its purpose shall be implemented? I suggest that the Clause as written does not, but my Amendment does. Third, does it give any latitude for interpretation in dealing with exceptional cases? The Clause as written ties it up far too tightly.

We all know the case, either in court or in a tribunal, in which an exceptional situation arises, and it is argued out in court before the chairman or the president, who in the end has to say, "We are very sorry; you have a very good case, but, with the law as it is, you cannot have it". Then, we all say that the law is an ass. So in this sort of case, we need to give a little discretion to the authority administering the law, to provide for that exceptional case which no legislation can ever foresee.

If the Clause is passed as it is, this is what will happen. It will be far clearer with my Amendment, because it will express the purpose as the Clause at the moment does not. I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell us why he cannot accept it, if he cannot. Perhaps the wording that I have suggested is not that which he would suggest. Perhaps if he accepts this principle, he will agree that it should be amended in this way in another place.

Mr. Alison

The hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) has fairly responded to an invitation which we extended in Committee—that if he could find a refinement of terminology which would achieve the same object, we would look at it on Report. He has certainly produced a commendably brief version, but I am genuinely sorry to tell him that it falls short of what we have to try to secure in the Clause. I say "genuinely", because I share with other hon. Members the shock and horror of reading some of the legal jargon which has to go into statutory form to give law its precise and indisputable meaning and which invokes all the expertise of lawyers.

9.30 p.m.

In so far as the law must be precise and indisputable and not capable of any shadowy interpretation or meaning, the hon. Gentleman's proposal does not contain the necessary exactness, and it might help if I were to explain precisely what is necessary so that he has a chance to weigh carefully the words I am using when he reads them in the OFFICIAL REPORT, and by that means he will see the exact extent to which the Amendment falls short in this respect.

The Amendment does not, first of all, cover the Commission's power to determine the amount of supplementary benefit that would not have been paid—that is, if the person entitled to the insurance benefit had paid the dependency increase thereof over to the person drawing supplementary benefit. That is the first objection we have.

Secondly, the provision as drafted in the Bill limits recovery to the extra amount of supplementary benefit payable as a result of the person claiming insurance benefit not having a dependency increase thereof, while under the Amendment it would be open to the insurance authorities to offset the whole amount of supplementary benefit paid to the dependant against the arrears of insurance benefit dependency increase.

In these circumstances, and despite the commendable attempt on the part of the hon. Gentleman to introduce clarity with simplicity, I regret that he has still not satisfied the full rigours of the legal requirements in this matter. I therefore ask him to withdraw the Amendment because it would be to the disadvantage of all those involved if we do not maintain the necessary precision.

Mr. Spearing

It would obviously be wrong of me to pursue this point at greater length tonight, though I may do so in another way in another place.

The Under-Secretary persisted in mentioning the judiciary, despite the fact that it is extremely unlikely that this provision will be a question of dispute in a court of law. The Clause refers to the discretion of the administering authority. I should have thought that the exactitude to which the hon. Gentleman referred was almost self-defeating, but in view of the hour and his pleas, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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