HC Deb 23 November 1977 vol 939 cc1712-24

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

1.2 a.m.

Mr. Michael Mates (Petersfield)

I am glad to have the opportunity at this late hour to raise on the Adjournment a matter which has led to items appearing in the Press recently which have caused a great deal of national interest. It is a good thing that we should have a chance of airing the matter in the House.

Before I come to my criticisms of the way in which the scheme for invalidity benefit for disabled housewives is being operated, I wish to say how much I approve of the way in which it has been introduced.

I congratulate the Minister on bringing a whole new benefit to an area where there was none before. He has broken new ground and has given money to people who need it more badly than almost anyone else. I am referring to disabled housewives who have never been able to work, have never been able to contribute to a pension and have even been unable to cope with the day-to-day work in their homes.

Having said that, it is amazing how, the moment one of these new benefits is introduced, it seems that a vast army of bureaucrats begins to decide who cannot benefit. It is amazing how the rules can be made to exclude as many as possible. That in itself is not a crime, because we all have a responsibility to be careful about what is done with public money, but when introducing benefits for the disabled I believe that the other criterion should apply. Surely bureaucracy should try to include as many as possible.

A constituent of mine, a Mrs. Palliser, found that she was in every way qualified to receive the benefit. She is in an advanced state of multiple sclerosis and is confined to her house. The only way that she can get out is in her wheelchair and invalid car. But for once she was given a break from the routine. She was given the holiday of a lifetime by her son. She saw her family in Canada for the first and doubtless the only time in her life. When she returned, she found that because she had been absent from the United Kingdom on holiday for two weeks she did not meet the residence qualification that would allow her to draw the benefit. As matters stand, she will suffer to the extent of about £80 or £90 because she does not qualify to draw the benefit until January or February next year.

I have raised only one case, but enough publicity has been given to the matter to cause a number of other cases to come to the fore. Another lady in my constituency has applied for the allowance. She has been disabled since the onset of polio 25 years ago. She can walk only with difficulty. She can do so only with sticks. She spent a week in Bel gium in August. She took her wheelchair. She does not qualify.

Another lady has written to me from Belfast. She went to Lourdes to take a faith cure on the instruction of her doctor. She was out of the country for 14 days in July. She does not qualify. It has been reported to me that there are about 60 other cases.

When I wrote to the Department of Health and Social Security at Portsmouth I could not believe that the regulation was being correctly applied. The reply from Portsmouth was to the effect that it was being correctly applied and that the office had received approximately 60 claims that appeared to be due for disallowance. To be fair to the Portsmouth office, those claims have not yet been disallowed. The lady in Northern Ireland however, has had information disallowing, the allowance.

Something must be done about this. I appreciate that anomalies will arise on the introduction of a new allowance, but the allowance in question is only an extension of the non-contributory invalidity pension, which was started some time ago and was payable to all except disabled housewives.

It is all wrong, but leaflet NI214 of June 1977 is all too clear. It states that the person concerned must have been in the United Kingdom … or the Isle of Man for the whole of the 28 weeks' qualifying period: periods of incapacity abroad do not count. That is the ground on which the allowance is being disallowed.

In the non-contributory invalidity pension leaflet of June 1975, leaflet NI210, the situation appears to be quite different. Under the title "If you go abroad", the leaflet states: Generally you will be disqualified from receiving NCIP for any period of absence from the United Kingdom. In certain circumstances, however, it may be possible for you to continue to receive the benefit during a temporary overseas visit. Why is there one rule for the NCIP and another for the housewife's NCIP? All that we have is an extension of the benefit that is payable to disabled housewives. The difference seems to be totally illogical, and I ask the Minister to provide an explanation.

I know that there is a case on this issue before the courts. That has happened because the national insurance commissioner has decided that the withholding of payment in a particular case was wrong. Why has the Department not accepted this?

In that case an independent commissioner, who has examined the matter, has come to the conclusion that although the officer concerned thought that he was acting within the regulations, in fact he was not. The commissioner has ordered that a payment which has been denied to a person who would have been in receipt of the non-contributory invalidity pension shall be paid. The Department, for reasons that I just do not understand, is appealing against this decision. At the root of this must be very heartless thinking. Surely the Department could with the best grace in the world, accept the decision of the independent commissioner and pay the allowance.

We are not talking about large sums. What we are talking about is bringing forward a date when people who are otherwise totally qualified to receive this benefit can do so but for the fact that they have spent a very short period abroad.

Once again, I do not want to oversimplify the matter. It must be complex. There must be repercussions of these decisions. However, it surely goes without saying that the first thing we need to provide, once a decision has been taken to give benefit, particularly to disabled people, is certainty to those concerned that they will get the benefit.

In this case the benefit should have been paid from a date last week—17th November, I believe. A large number of disabled housewives do not know whether they are to receive the benefit and, if they are to receive it, when they will get it. This uncertainty must be removed. Although this may be a complicated matter, although the Minister no doubt needs to look into the matter, and assuming that the legal challenge to which I have referred must proceed, in the meantime this very small number of disabled housewives should be told that they can receive the benefit.

The Minister may want to attach strings. He may want to say "without prejudice to the fact that I may have to withdraw part or all of the money afterwards."However, these people must not be left in this state—that is, not in receipt of the benefit to which they were told they would be entitled—and they must not be left in a state of uncertainty as to whether and when this benefit can be made available to them.

If the Minister is able to give me this assurance tonight I shall be very happy, as will be my constituent, and the Minister will be showing a positive attitude which officials, perhaps because of the constraints under which they must operate, have not been able to show.

Without wishing to implicate anybody, I wish to say that when I went to my local social security office to look into this question I went convinced that my constituent had the matter wrong. I was told that my constituent had the matter right. I have to say that all those who were involved in disallowing Mrs. Palliser's disability pension found the whole matter totally distasteful to them. They did not want to have to disallow the payment. They thought that it was quite contrary to the spirit in which the Act was drafted.

As it must be clear to us all that that was not intended, when we are trying to put in qualifications and caveats before we pay out public money, let us remember that it was never intended that a lady who went for a short, much-needed holiday abroad to get away from a very difficult home life should then be deprived of a benefit as a result. As this cannot have been in the minds of those who drafted the Social Security Act and the regulations concerned, surely the Minister has not only the power but the duty to see that it is put right quickly.

1.14 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Alfred Morris)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Petersfield (Mr. Mates) for providing this opportunity for the House to discuss our new non-contributory invalidity pension for married women, which is receivable for the first time this week.

There are inevitably, as with all new benefits, some points of criticism, but I believe that the House as a whole will accept that the introduction of this new benefit represents a further important step forward in helping severely disabled people. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for his generous comments in welcoming the new benefit.

New benefits bring new problems. They sometimes cause not only delight but also disappointment. As the hon. Member noted, they must of necessity exclude people as well as include people. This is one of the penalties of breaking new ground and introducing new benefits. But the difficulties we meet at the margin of entitlement should not discourage us from trying to provide new help for those in special need.

I have here a letter which may be of special interest to the House. It is from a very severely disabled lady, Ann Armstrong, who is known to many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House as an editor ofResponaut. Ann says in her letter to me: It is over 15 years since I first wrote on the 14th March 1962 iN The Guardian, 'Surely if we are to be kept alive through the dangerous period of having polio, then we must be eligible for a disability pension from the State to enable us to lead as near a normal life as possible.' Thanks to the HNCIP, from now on my life should be much nearer normal and I am most grateful to all concerned. That is a very encouraging message. Ann is among the 46,000 claimants so far. Her letter should remind us that the new benefit has brought a great deal of delight as well as some disappointment.

The hon. Member raised in particular the case of his constituent Mrs Palliser, who has made a claim for the new benefit. I very much appreciate the hon. Member's concern about this case, and I am glad to say at the very outset that I will both urgently and sympathetically review the relevant provision as it relates to such cases as that of Mrs. Palliser so as to try to ensure that the specific difficulties which have been identified do not arise again.

Meanwhile, I shall be as helpful and constructive as I can in explaining to the House the regulations as they affect such cases as that of Mrs. Palliser. In so doing, I must very strongly emphasise that this is not a matter of red tape, as was suggested by one local newspaper last Friday. The issue is a complex one, involving both a legal problem and an issue of principle.

I think that it might be of help to hon. Members if I start by briefly reminding the House of the qualifying conditions for the benefit concerned. In order to qualify for the new benefit, a married woman must be of working age and must have been incapable both of her normal house hold duties and of paid work for a continuous period of 28 weeks. It is this latter condition, where the period of 28 weeks includes an absence abroad, which is the concern of the hon. Member. I must, therefore, explain the legal problem relating to this particular qualifying condition.

Mrs. Palliser's case and some other cases are affected by Regulation 4(2) of the Social Security (Non-Contributory Invalidity Pension) Regulations 1975. This regulation affects both men and single women who have claimed NCIP as well as those who have claimed its extension to married women. The effect of the regulation is that, in deciding whether a person has been incapable of work for 28 consecutive weeks, any day on which the person was absent from the United Kingdom breaks that continuous period.

In a similar case to Mrs. Palliser's, the national insurance commissioner has held that Regulation 4(2) isultra vires. The insurance officer concerned—acting as a completely independent authority—sought legal advice in that case. I understand that the advice given to him was that the commissioner's decision was wrong in law.

In order to put the matter beyond doubt, leave to apply for an order of certiorari has been granted to the insurance officer by the High Court. I understand that the matter is likely to be considered by the court sometime in January. To that extent the matter is sub judice. This being so, I am sure the hon. Member will appreciate that until insurance officers are clear as to the interpretation of the law it is impossible for them to decide claims for periods when persons have been absent from the United Kingdom during the qualifying period.

I must stress again to the House that insurance officers are independent adjudicating authorities, and neither the Secretary of State nor I can intervene in their decisions. It is, however, my clear understanding that, in cases such as that of Mrs. Palliser, an insurance officer is likely to be able to make an award, providing her with this new maintenance benefit in her own right 28 weeks after the return of the claimant to the United Kingdom, if the qualifying conditions are satisfied during that period.

I repeat that it is an insurance officer who is seeking the order of certiorari from the courts. Again, it is an insurance officer who will decide whether any particular person, including Mrs. Palliser, is entitled to this new benefit. No Minister has any power to intervene in the actions of an insurance officer.

The hon. Gentleman asked me why my Department had not accepted the ruling of an independent commissioner. It is the insurance officer who has not accepted the ruling. It is the insurance officer who is seeking the order of certiorari from the courts.

Mr. Mates

Is this without the advice or consent of the Minister's Department?

Mr. Morris

Under the law the insurance officer is an independent adjudicating officer. He has the power to appeal. He is exercising his power in the case to which I referred.

Mr. Mates

Yes, but the Minister has not answered my question. Has the insurance officer taken this action with or without the advice and consent of the Department?

Mr. Morris

No Minister has any power to intervene in the actions of an insurance officer. The reply, therefore, is that we have no power to stop the insurance officer taking this course. If the hon. Gentleman would like to ask me any further question, I shall endeavour to deal with it.

Mr. Mates

Is the insurance officer doing this against or with the wishes of the Minister? An insurance officer who is a member of the Minister's Department may say that the commissioner has decided against him and that he is minded to appeal or otherwise. The Minister has a battery of legal advice available to him.

Mr. Morris

This is a very important point. I have emphasised on more than one occasion in my speech that the insurance officer is an independent adjudicating authority. I have said again that no Minister has any power to intervene in the actions of an insurance officer. It is not, therefore, for us to take the kind of action suggested in the question put to me by the hon. Gentleman. He asked why my Department had not accepted the ruling of an independent commissioner. I have explained the situation as fully as I possibly can. As I have said, it will be the insurance officer who will decide whether any particular person, including Mrs. Palliser, is entitled to this new benefit.

I promised earlier to deal also with the issue of principle involved in this qualifying condition, and I turn to that now. As the House knows, before anyone can be entitled to contributory invalidity benefit he must have paid the appropriate contributions and previously have been entitled to sickness benefit for 28 weeks. That "buys him in", as it were. For non-contributory invalidity pension, which is financed from general taxation rather than contributions, the parallel tests are residence and presence in the United Kingdom—instead of actual contributions paid—and continuous incapacity of 28 weeks' duration. Many would argue that it would be entirely unacceptable to have easier rules for the non-contributory invalidity pension than for the contributory invalidity benefit.

The House will hardly need reminding that NCIP for married women is, of course, an extension of the ordinary non-contributory invalidity pension, which, in turn is the counterpart of the contributory invalidity benefit. This is one difficulty in making—as the hon. Member clearly wants us to make—a special case of NCIP for married women and allowing a different qualifying period to be served from that which recipients of the other benefits have to serve.

Mr. Mates

Perhaps I might remind the hon. Gentleman of my earlier question. Why are the two pamphlets different? This is roughtly the same pension. One pamphlet contains one set of rules, and the other contains different rules. It is easier for the housewife who is not disabled, because she is not subject to the business of the short absence abroad.

Mr. Morris

I have to proceed as quickly as I can because there are other matters with which I want to deal, but on the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman I think that the difference is more apparent than real. The point is that once a benefit has been obtained there is the possibility of discretion about continuing the payment if the beneficiary is abroad for a period of time. In Mrs. Palliser's case—and in others, too—we are talking about qualifying for the first time. This is a complicated matter, and I am prepared to contact the hon. Gentleman further on this aspect of it.

To have no restrictions as to absence abroad during the 28-week period would lay us open to the further charge that we are opening the door to fraud and abuse. In many countries acceptable evidence of incapacity may be obtainable, but we would have to concede that in other countries, with different social systems from our own, very little weight could properly be given to some of the medical evidence produced. I entirely appreciate the importance of striking the right balance between humanity and common sense in dealing with cases of this kind, but until we have a ruling from the courts on the effect of the law as it stands at present it would be imprudent to go further than that at this stage. As I have already assured the House, when the law is clearer I shall both urgently and sympathetically review the relevant provisions to try to ensure that the specific difficulties which have been identified do not arise again. I shall do that with all that the hon. Gentleman has said very much in mind.

There is still need, however, for a further cautionary note. All of us must accept that any new scheme on this scale—and it will cover tens of thousands of new beneficiaries—must operate within broad general rules. This is necessary not only so that the public can understand the scheme but because a scheme that is too complicated has less chance of being properly operated by the often very hard-pressed staff in our social security offices. I noted with pleasure the tribute that the hon. Gentleman paid to those who work in the Portsmouth office. As I said at the outset, it must also be accepted that, when any new benefit is introduced, the clearly defined qualifying conditions which must be drawn inevitably exclude some people who feel that they have a valid entitlement but do not satisfy the qualifying conditions.

Having explained to the House as fully as I can the general problem, I should like to return to the case that prompted this debate. Naturally, I have much sympathy with Mrs. Palliser's claim. I understand that she suffers from multiple sclerosis and made a claim for the new benefit in September of this year. I understand further that Mrs. Palliser was in Canada during part of the 28-week run-up period before NCIP for married women was introduced on 17th November.

The hon. Member for Petersfield has been advised that no decision can be made on Mrs. Palliser's case from 17th November 1977 to 9th January 1978, when the 28-week qualifying period will have been completed. Thereafter, Mrs. Palliser is likely to be entitled to the benefit from 10th January 1978. As to the intervening period, the decision of the insurance officer must, of course, await the outcome of the certiorari application.

I should like now to set the introduction of the non-contributory invalidity pension for married women in the context of all the improvements we have made in social security provision for disabled people and their families.

In September 1974, we presented our report to this House on our review of social security provision for chronically sick and disabled people. It was published as House of Commons Paper 276. The report argued that there were substantial gaps in the social security provision for disabled people but that the situation could not be wholly remedied by any single and immediate set of measures. It also recognised that it takes time to identify the groups who should qualify for new benefits and that it was important to set out priorities against the background of the very difficult economic situation we faced.

One of the shortcomings highlighted in the report was the position of those who, through no fault of their own, had not paid the necessary national insurance contributions to qualify them for sickness benefit and thus could not qualify for contributory invalidity benefit. We decided that this had to be remedied.

In setting out our immediate proposals for social security changes, we were guided by the following principles: First, better provision for the severely disabled must come before further provision for the less severely disabled. Second, benefits for those who cannot work should take priority over further provision for those who can, as the loss of the ability to earn is stark, overwhelming and readily identifiable. Third, those of working age who would be at work but for long-standing incapacity should have the right to a benefit without test of means. Fourth, those who relieve the social services and sacrifice work opportunities to look after people at home who are severely disabled should be provided with a benefit as of right. Those four principles had then to be translated into specific benefits. The first such benefit, which we introduced in November 1975, was the non-contributory invalidity pension for men and single women who were incapable of work. This was in fact the non-contributory counter part, although of different amount, of the contributory invalidity benefit. In 1976, we introduced the invalid care allowance for those who were regularly and substantially engaged, for at least 35 hours a week, in providing care for a severely disabled relative receiving attendance allowance. This year, we completed the concrete proposals—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-eight minutes to Two o'clock.