§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Stanley Orme)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill makes a number of changes in the law relating to social security. These include the extension of the upper age limits for mobility allowance which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services announced on 9th November, changes in attendance allowance, improvements in appeal procedures and miscellaneous changes, particularly in relation to the new pension scheme.
Hon. Members will recall that the contribution provisions of the new pension scheme, including those for contracting out of the scheme, came into force on 6th April last. From next April, the benefit provisions of the new scheme will come into force and the improved pensions provided by that scheme will begin to be paid. This has been a great achievement, laying as it does the foundation for the development of better pensions in the rest of the twentieth century. Let me say straight away that we appreciate the cooperation which we have received from all sides of the House and from the occupational pensions interests in bringing the scheme to fruition.
This has been achieved at the same time as other major improvements in social security provisions: following the uprating of social security benefits last week, pensions and other long-term benefits now stand some 20 per cent. higher in real terms than when we took office; the child benefit scheme is now operative, and by next April child benefit will have reached £4 for each child; and we have legislated for a range of new benefits for the disabled.
All this has been a major administrative task for my Department. As I explained to the House when I moved the Second Reading of the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act some two years ago, when we came to consider the detailed procedures necessary to introduce the provisions of the new scheme we 1112 found that a number of technical amendments to those provisions were necessary. Further work on the preparation for the introduction of the new pension benefits next April has revealed further areas in which there are defects in the statutory provisions, a number of which must be corrected before April if our original intentions are to be carried out and the new provisions are to work effectively.
When we are introducing highly complex major new schemes within a fairly tight timetable, it is perhaps not surprising, although it is to be regretted, that some of the provisions are found to be defective when we come to apply them. Most of the changes which the Bill introduces are minor and of a highly technical nature, about which I need not trouble the House at this stage. Some of the more important ones I shall refer to but we shall, of course, be very ready to explain all of them in Committee, and we are preparing, as we did for the previous Bill, detailed notes on clauses which we propose to make available to all hon. Members who serve on the Standing Committee. We shall also put them in the Library for the benefit of other hon. Members who wish to study the provisions of the Bill in detail.
I shall deal first with the more important provisions of the Bill, beginning with mobility allowance. Clause 3 removes the pensionable age limit for the allowance—65 for a man and 60 for a woman—and substitutes a new limit of 75. This in itself will, I know, be welcomed by the many thousands of beneficiaries who faced the prospect under existing legislation of losing their allowance at pensionable age. It is an extension we have wished to make for some considerable time, subject to resources being available, and we have been able to achieve it before any beneficiary had actually reached the age at which the law would have obliged us to stop the allowance.
That, however, is only part of what the clause achieves. At the same time, we have sought to provide equal treatment for men and women. At present, a woman has five years less in which to establish entitlement to the allowance than a man. A man who is disabled at 61 can receive the allowance, but a woman cannot. This has always concerned us, and we have taken this opportunity to make further progress. The 1113 effect of the clause, therefore, is that both men and women can receive payment of the allowance between 65 and 75, provided that they can establish entitlement before they reach 65. As a consequence, women aged between 60 and 65 will be able to claim the allowance when their age group is phased in. As the House knows, we are committed to a completion of the phasing-in programme by the end of next year. We now intend to include women aged 60 to 65 in that programme.
I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister who has responsibility for the disabled for all the work he has done to bring these improvements forward. He will be winding up the debate and will expand on the details of the new provisions.
The remainder of the clause is largely technical and the details are best considered in Committee. I should, however, perhaps comment briefly on subsection (4). The provisions of section 13 of the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1977, and of regulations made under that section, enable certain vehicle scheme beneficiaries to claim mobility allowance on favourable terms, without age limit and generally without medical examination. The intention has always been, as my right hon. Friend mentioned to the House on 23rd July 1976, that these special concessions should be available only to those people who had an invalid "trike" at the relevant time or who had the alternative production car or private allowance. The effect of subsection (4) is to put the original intention beyond legal doubt.
I now turn to the provisions relating to attendance allowance, which are largely concerned with the position of kidney failure patients. Three changes are proposed, and these are set out in clause 2. The first is to ensure that the generality of kidney patients undergoing treatment by dialysis at home receive the allowance. This will restore the position for these patients to what it was before the Attendance Allowance Board revised its interpretation of the present law in June 1977.
As a consequence of that revised interpretation, a number of those who dialyse at home have lost the allowance, even though their circumstances have not 1114 changed, and they still need the same kind of help from others while dialysing as they did previously. My right hon. Friend announced, as hon. Members will recall, that we would be bringing our proposals for an amendment to the Social Security Act before the House. This we have now done.
The second change will affect patients undergoing dialysis at hospital as outpatients where their attendance needs are met by the hospital staff. The majority of such patients have little need for attention outside the period of dialysis. This is another unintended effect of the present law. Payment of the allowance in these circumstances will cease.
A third provision in the clause will enable us to waive the six-month qualifying period where a person loses the allowance because of an improvement in his health but shortly afterwards suffers a relapse. Having once satisfied the six-month qualifying period and received the allowance, he ought not to have to serve a further qualifying period. The provision in the clause will enable a change in the present law to be made giving effect to this, regardless of the cause of disablement for which attention is required. The regulations which are needed to give detailed effect to the provisions of this clause will be laid before the House as soon as possible after the Bill receives Royal Assent.
§ Mr. Patrick Jenkin (Wanstead and Woodford)
Will the Minister confirm that these provisions will be retrospective? Will he point to the part of the clause or to the commencement provision in the Bill which makes them retrospective?
§ Mr. Orme
This is a detailed but important point with which my hon. Friend will deal when he replies to the debate. We want to explain fully the point about retrospection, and I would rather it were done on that basis.
I wish now to deal with supplementary benefit appeals. Clause 5, with schedule 2, amends the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976 in order to make further improvements to the supplementary benefit appeal tribunal system. Hon. Members may recall that, in response to a Question from my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) on 18th 1115 January 1977, I announced a number of important proposals which, while not requiring legislation, would improve public confidence in the working of these tribunals. The time is now ripe to go ahead with legislative amendments to the supplementary benefits adjudication system, in particular to take steps to institute a two-tier appellate system and to appoint senior chairmen.
Clause 5(1) inserts a new section 15A into the Act, and the effect of this is to provide a second-tier appeal system which will replace the present right of appeal to the High Court— in Scotland to the Court of Session— from the decision of a tribunal on point of law. My noble Friend the Lord Chancellor and my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate have made the order granting the direct right of appeal to the High Court and Court of Session in the expectation that it would be an interim measure.
As the national insurance two-tier appellate system has stood the test of time, it makes good sense that an appeal against the decision of a supplementary benefit appeal tribunal should lie to a national insurance commissioner. The present right of appeal to the High Court is hardly an ideal solution for supplementary benefit claimants. It seems an unnecessarily formal method of reviewing a decision from a tribunal of this kind. In addition, the procedure is likely to prove a deterrent to claimants who, Although dissatisfied with a tribunal's decision, fight shy of seeking legal advice and lack ready access to a citizens' advice bureau or other advice centre.
Although I am seeking wide powers to make rules to provide for a right of appeal to the national insurance commissioners, the Government have no plans at the moment to extend the right of appeal beyond appeals on points of law. Otherwise, it would not be possible for the commissioners to cope with the likely flood of appeals. The decisions of the commissioners will, of course, be subject to judicial review by the courts.
The new position will be that if an appeal goes to a commissioner as opposed to going to the High Court, and if the appellant is not satisfied with that, he will still have the right to go to the High Court, We are, however, inserting 1116 an intermediate procedure which will make matters easier for the appellant.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
What provisions are there at the moment for legal aid? If there is none at the moment, will provision be made in the future?
§ Mrs. Helene Hayman (Welwyn and Hatfield)
Will my right hon. Friend look at this matter carefully? Surely the current position is that when an appeal goes to the High Court the applicant can get legal aid because he is going into the judicial system. If these appeals are to be transferred into the national insurance system, appellants will not be eligible, since they will be appearing before a tribunal, for legal aid. In effect, this will be denying legal aid to some categories of appellant.
§ Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)
May I put this the other way round? There are occasions when people who go to these tribunals cannot get legal aid and cannot be legally represented. On such occasions the Government are legally represented. May I suggest, therefore, that if legal aid and legal representation are not available to applicants, the Government should undertake not to be legally represented?
§ Mr. Orme
I cannot give that undertaking to my hon. Friend, but I can tell him that I shall look seriously at both the matters raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) and for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) and see that the House has satisfactory replies.
Subsection (2) of clause 5 substitutes a new schedule dealing with the constitution, jurisdiction and proceedings of supplementary benefit appeal tribunals. 1117 Apart from the provision for the appointment of senior chairmen, there will be no significant effects as the new schedule merely makes statutory provision for existing practices in a manner more closely aligned to tribunal arrangements under the Social Security Act.
The introduction of legally qualified senior chairmen into the supplementary benefits adjudication system is, however, an entirely new feature in social security adjudication. Professor Bell, in her report on supplementary benefit appeal tribunals in 1975, came out strongly in favour of such appointments in the interests of emphasising and strengthening the independence of tribunals. Unfortunately, her recommendation of the appointment of a senior chairman to each region has been precluded by cost— at 1978 levels, nearly £400,000. Nevertheless, despite all the improvements made in the system, there is still no way of monitoring satisfactorily the performance of tribunals. This is a function which senior chairmen could usefully combine with the training role Professor Bell envisaged for them.
With legally qualified senior chairmen responsible both for the quality of decision making and the conduct of tribunals, the position is safeguarded for the continued retention of, first, the right of appeal from the decision of a supplementary benefit appeal tribunal on a point of law and, secondly—a matter of considerable importance to the trade union movement—the services of able lay chairmen. We are therefore intending to make a modest move in this direction by the appointment of a small number of senior chairmen, and in so doing we shall not overlook the interests of Scotland and Wales.
§ Mr. Patrick Jenkin
This is a curious innovation which I have no doubt my hon. Friends will wish to explore in more detail in Committee. Is it envisaged that a claimant will have some kind of procedure to activate the senior chairman in his or her region to have a case examined, when it is a matter of fact as opposed to one of law, with the possibility of having the determination over-ruled?
§ Mr. Orme
I imagine that difficult cases will be referred to senior chairmen, 1118 and no doubt people will also be able to refer to them. But, again, this is a matter which we can explore in detail in Committee. This is purely an experiment, and we are not yet in a position to appoint a senior chairman in every region. However, we feel that we ought to go ahead with what should be an important innovation.
I turn to the national insurance commissioners. In addition to these important changes relating to supplementary benefits adjudication, the Bill makes a number of other, relatively minor, changes in adjudication arrangements. The most important of these is the provision in clause 8 which extends the categories of those who are eligible for appointment as national insurance commissioners. At present, only barristers and advocates of 10 years' standing or more are eligible for appointment, but the clause enables solicitors with the same seniority also to be appointed. I hope that the House accepts that. I hope, too, that my barrister friends also accept that this will make available many more legally qualified people for important posts.
§ Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)
In declaring an interest as a member of the Bar—and in no way suggesting that this proposal is wrong—may I ask the Minister how many commissioners there are and whether there has been any difficulty in filling posts with those of sufficient experience before deciding to make this change?
§ Mr. Orme
I am informed by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that there are 10 commissioners at present. As for the difficulty of filling posts. I was about to say that this step should enable commissioners to be appointed rather more readily than is the case at the moment. It is difficult to find barristers with 10 years' experience who are available for this type of work.
The thinking behind the proposal is that more commissioners are needed to deal with the large volume of work and the difficult issues that face them these days—resulting substantially from our efforts to assist the disabled by the introduction of new benefits, without jeopardising the high standards for which the commissioners are well known. There are also a few other provisions relating 1119 to adjudication and to situations where decisions are reviewed—clauses 6 and 7 and schedule 3, paragraphs 7 and 8—that do no more than fill minor gaps in the existing law and remove certain technical anomalies.
I now turn to the main miscellaneous changes which the Bill brings about. I deal first with clause 4. Clause 4. with schedule 1, makes miscellaneous changes in the statutory provisions relating to retirement and invalidity pensions, in order to rectify defects.
Part 1 of schedule 1 precludes the duplicate payment of invalidity allowance to certain people over pension age who have not retired; it eases the conditions for the award of the non-contributory category D pension—the over-80 pension—by providing that only a person's basic contributory pension shall be taken into account when considering title to a category D pension; it enables a person with a non-contributory category C pension—the wife or widow of a man over pension age in July 1948—to receive her category C pension in addition to any earnings-related additional component to which she may be entitled; and it remedies defects and omissions in relation to retirement pensions for the widows and widowers of people who are contracted out of the new pensions scheme.
Part II of schedule 1 rectifies defects in relation to events occurring before 6th April 1979, when the benefit provisions of the Social Security Pensions Act 1975 come into force.
It has always been the Government's intention—this has been made clear on a number of occasions—that some of the improvements in pension provisions introduced by the new pension scheme should apply only where the relevant event—for example, death or the attainment of pension age—occurs on or after 6th April 1979, when those improvements come into effect. These include the payment of a retirement pension to a widower on his deceased wife's contributions, the topping up of a surviving spouse's retirement pension with the deceased spouse's pension, similar topping-up provisions in relation to a married woman's retirement pension on her own contributions with one on her husband's contributions, provisions relating to invalidity pensions for certain widows and widowers, and the abolition of the married woman's half-test 1120 These were all considered to be integral parts of the new scheme, and it was intended that regulations should provide for them to apply only where the relevant event occurred on or after 6th April 1979. But when we came to consider the making of the appropriate regulations we were legally advised that the Pensions Act did not provide the necessary powers. The only way to achieve the original intention was, therefore, to amend the relevant provisions in the statutes, and this will be achieved by the amendments set out in part II of schedule 1.
The consequences of not making these amendments would be most serious. For example, in the case of the married woman's half-test, those women who had reached pension age before 6th April 1979 and who had not qualified for a pension on their own contributions because they failed the half-test could apply to have their claims reviewed. The administrative implications of this are considerable and we can see no way of carrying out reviews on this scale.
The half-test has been in force for the last 30 years, and we do not have the resources to deal with a flow of applications from those who have failed the half-test in the past. There would, in any case, inevitably be much confusion and delay. The incidence of successful claims would be arbitrary, not least because many of the applications would fail since those concerned would be receiving a higher pension on their husband's contributions.
Of those who might succeed, many would be entitled to only a small amount of pension. But, even so, the cost of failing to correct the current deficiency in the legislation would be massive—possibly some £100 million in 1979–80 alone, for which there is no provision in our public expenditure plans.
§ Mr. Patrick Jenkin
This provision has caused some confusion outside the House. Can the Minister confirm that it does no more than restore the position to that which everybody thought existed after the 1975 Act reached the statute book?
§ Mr. Orme
The situation is as the right hon. Member states. The provision to abolish the half-test from April 1979 still stands. There is no change. Women will be in exactly the same position and 1121 will be judged on the half-test on the same basis.
I have already dealt with clauses 6, 7 and 8. Clause 9 corrects defects in the provisions of the Pensions Act relating to the revaluation of earnings factors to ensure that revaluation orders may be laid in the intended time scale and format.
Clause 10 of the Bill remedies a number of technical defects in section 59 of the Pensions Act. This section of the Act replaces the provisions in the Pensions (Increase) Act 1971 for increasing official pensions—a category of occupational pension that includes the pensions paid to former employees from all the main public services and, indeed, those of Members of Parliament. These pensions are, of course, the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal. Under section 59, to avoid the current difficulty, official pensions will in future be increased at the same time and by the same percentage as the increase in the additional component of the new State pension.
The most important change in clause 10 is to the definition of the base period for the first year's uprating. Because the increase to be paid on additional components in 1979 will be intended to reflect a full year of price increases, a change in the method of calculating the first year's increase for Civil Service and other public service pensioners under section 59 is necessary to ensure that they are not significantly over-compensated by as much as £80 million a year.
The remaining subsections of the clause are of much more restricted application and are intended to ensure that a minority of public service pensioners should not be made to suffer any worsening in their present pension protection provisions because of unintended side effects of the operation of the new arrangements. The House will wish to know, however, that none of the provisions in this clause represents in any sense an improvement on the present arrangements for public service pensioners.
Clause 11 inserts a new section 126A into the principal Act which provides for the annual review of the value of increments of guaranteed minimum pensions earned by contracted-out employees who have deferred their retirement, so that those increments can be inflation-proofed 1122 within the State scheme. The provisions of this new section replace those of section 3(3) to 3(5) of the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1977 which have been found to be defective and which are being repealed.
Clause 12 is concerned with the secondary class 1 contributions payable by the employers of certain workers who are excluded from the redundancy payment provisions of the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978. The amendment does not reflect any change in the policy on the liability to contribute to the redundancy fund but is for the purpose of supporting existing administrative arrangements under which the secondary class 1 contributions collected from employers of registered dock workers include no redundancy fund element.
Clause 13 relates to the enactment of the provisions of the Bill in Northern Ireland. It is intended that this will be done by Order in Council under the Northern Ireland Act 1974 which will be subject to annulment by resolution of either House. Clause 14 relates to the financial provisions. Clause 15, with schedule 3, contains provisions relating to citation, commencement and extent of the Bill and minor and consequential amendments, with the details of which I do not need to trouble hon. Members.
This is a small and in many ways technical but important Bill. I am particularly pleased to introduce the provisions extending the upper age limits for mobility allowance, those which will help people dialysing at home to qualify for attendance allowance and those relating to improvements in supplementary benefit appeal procedures. Equally important, however, are those which provide running repairs to existing legislation. This is a most useful Bill and I commend it to the House.
I recognise that many parts of the Bill are highly technical and that many hon. Members will wish to examine the Bill in more detail. The proper place to do that is in Committee. That is why the Government are providing explanatory memoranda.
§ 4.47 p.m.
§ Mr. Patrick Jenkin (Wanstead and Woodford)
The House will be grateful for the careful and painstaking way in 1123 which the Minister has described the Bill. We appreciate that there are to be explanatory notes on the clauses and paragraphs in the schedules. There is no doubt that that will facilitate debate in Committee since we are dealing with a complex Bill.
When the Minister was describing clause 11 he said that it was intended to put right defects in the Act that we passed only in 1977. That measure was in turn intended to put right defects in the 1975 Act. The Minister then used the phrase "running repairs". I have the impression that we shall have to jog round this course for years.
The Minister said that the Bill contains three important changes of substance as well as a large number of minor changes. The House would not thank me if I launched into a one-man Committee stage and commented at length upon all the minor changes. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) will be in charge of the Committee stage for the Opposition. I know that I can leave those matters in her capable hands.
First, I should like to deal with the attendance allowance and the changes for kidney patients. Secondly, I wish to deal with the provisions for mobility allowance—the Second Reading of a Bill which makes a major change in mobility allowance gives us an opportunity to review the position generally. Then I shall make one or two general observations about the future of the supplementary benefit scheme as a whole, hanging my remarks on clause 5 which provides new rights of appeal. This is the first debate that we have had in the House which has given us the opportunity to examine the review report "Social Assistance".
My first emotion when I approach a Bill of this kind is that of a sinking heart. The sheer complexity of social security legislation is daunting. I defy anyone reading the Bill, even with the benefit of the lucid explanation by the Minister, to have an accurate or even the vaguest idea of what is intended.
Claimants do not need to know the law but they should know their entitlement. Why is it—and I speak as a lawyer—that the lawyers seem to find it necessary to couch their intentions in 1124 language which is so opaque that ordinary mortals find it impossible to make head or tail of it? Is it necessary always to legislate on these matters so that we spend late hours of the night with wet towels round our heads trying to understand what is to happen?
I spent some years dealing with income tax statutes. This legislation is incomparably more difficult to understand than the taxes Acts. Most of the complex provisions in the income tax Acts deal with people who can afford to pay highly skilled advisers to steer them through the labyrinth. But this legislation is intended to help people who can do no such thing.
§ Mr. Orme
I echo the right hon. Gentleman's sentiments. Preparing for a Bill such as this is a tour de force for a Minister. The right hon. Gentleman was once Chief Secretary to the Treasury and he will know of the need to amend legislation. What we are talking about involves the technical aspects of the legislation, not the benefits themselves. It is our desire to try to make the benefits understandable so that people can apply for them. Since in the Bill we are trying to save £180 million of public expenditure, we are endeavouring to tighten up the legal aspects.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I appreciate that it is necessary for the Government to make sure that the necessary legislation as it reaches the statute book properly effects their intentions. All I am saying is that it is being done in a way that parliamentary draftsmen seem to love, namely, by means of legislation by reference. One needs to uncoil one's way backwards through the statutes to find what on earth they are on about.
This House of Commons—and this is all set out in "Erskine May"—has a respectable procedure called a Keeling schedule. When sections of past Acts are amended, it is appropriate in suitable cases to reprint those sections as amended as a separate schedule to the Bill, so that one can turn to the back of the Bill and say "That is what the section means if we pass the amendment in the form suggested". Why cannot we do that in this case? I searched through the Bill for anything remotely resembling a Keeling schedule. It is with some relief that I acknowledge that it will be some 1125 of my colleagues who will have the task of unravelling these matters in Committee.
Can we not have legislation brought before us in which the meaning is readily intelligible to everybody who reads it? It would be unkind, but not unreasonable, to suggest that if the right hon. Gentleman could understand the Bill that is before us he might reasonably expect the rest of the House to understand it. Without the help of his exceedingly skilled advisers, I doubt whether he would have been able to steer his way through the Bill as skilfully as he did this afternoon.
I now turn to the substance of the Bill, and deal first with the attendance allowance for kidney patients. This is a long saga and my correspondence on the subject goes back almost two years. The disallowance of attendance allowance for kidney patients who now need to dialyse only twice a week instead of three times has given rise to a great deal of acrimony and anguish. It is bad enough to be a patient who has to have dialysis two or three times a week. The person who is dialysing at home knows that he requires substantial support. This was an unkind cut indeed.
The Government are open to some criticism for having failed to deal with this matter sooner. I have studied letters to disabled persons from the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security who has responsibilities to assist the disabled, and I am unimpressed by the arguments why the Department could not accept the Bill put forward last Session by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young). The Government admit that the Bill could have been amended in the Lords to enable it to do everything that was required. The Government could have provided a money resolution as they did with the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1969. If that had happened, the payments could now be being made. One gets the impression that Ministers are so determined that this will be their legislation—legislation introduced by a Labour Government—so that they will be given the credit for it that they are prepared to deprive kidney patients of benefits which they could now have enjoyed for many months.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Alfred Morris)
Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that legislation on a matter as sensitive as this should have gone through the House entirely without debate and should have been discussed only in the House of Lords? I am certain that there was no time whatever at the end of the previous Session for us to give attention to the subject in the way hon. Members required. It was suggested to me that it would have been a constitutional outrage to have limited discussion of such a measure to another place.
§ Mr. Jenkin
There are two answers to the Minister's argument. First, where there is a need urgently to right a wrong and an injustice, the House would not have been quick to take the constitutional point.
§ Mr. Jenkin
Secondly, there would have been an opportunity because, when the Bill came back from another place, there would have been a stage in this House to discuss the Lords amendments. Therefore, all the important changes which the Government required would have been debated on the Floor of this House. I do not think that the arguments that the Minister put forward in The Sunday Times and elsewhere were the least bit convincing.
Let me come to a point of greater substance on which the right hon. Gentleman dodged my question. When the argument flared up in The Sunday Times last month about the housewives' allowance—the non-contributory invalidity benefit—the Minister with responsibility for the disabled riposted with a letter saying how quickly the Department was dealing with kidney patients and attendance allowance. He reminded me of the examinee who was asked to explain the principles of the Archimedes pump and said that he knew nothing about that but could give a list of the kings of Israel and Judah. He will answer questions on HNCIP later, but he must answer on kidney patients now.
One of the reasons which the Minister gave for being unable to accept my hon. Friend's Bill was that that Bill did not 1127 provide for retrospective payments to kidney patients. It is important to realise what the hon. Gentleman said about retrospection. I quote from his letter:In fact, our intentions were different from those of the Bill. We were concerned not only to change the law for the future, but also to act equitably toward everyone who had lost benefit in the past. In fairness to Sir George Young, I must make it clear that he wanted retrospection to the date of the Chief Commissioner's ruling in July. But my purpose was different. I wanted everyone to have back-pay' covering the whole period since the withdrawal of his or her benefit whenever that occurred.He later added:What we now propose is a most unusual step …If it was a most unusual step, it is merely putting right what should not have gone wrong earlier. Therefore, one expected to see in the Bill something on this topic. Although I have read the Bill with extreme care, I can find nothing that provides that clause 2 will come into force with retrospective effect. If I am wrong, I gladly give way to the Minister. I hope that I am wrong.
§ Mr. Alfred Morris
The right hon. Gentleman quoted me as describing how quickly we were dealing with this matter. By contrast, I was explaining how quickly we announced our intentions to deal with this matter—and to deal with it helpfully in each case. At this stage I do not want to intervene for too long in the right hon. Gentleman's speech. I shall therefore return to this matter later and speak to it in more detail.
§ Mr. Jenkin
This is very unsatisfactory because we shall have to wait until right at the end of the debate before we have a clear statement from the Dispatch Box about whether the Minister is to live up to his promise with which he regaled the readers of The Sunday Times. Indeed, so important did he think this pledge that he made it the subject of a special DHSS press release. I am suspicious that neither the right hon. Gentleman nor his hon. Friend has seen fit, in answer to my question, to say "Yes, it is our intention. This is to be retrospective." I believe that they are ratting on that promise. But we shall wait to hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say. If they are ratting, it makes it doubly criminal that they did not accept the Bill put forward by my hon. Friend so that these payments could 1128 at least have started when that Bill reached the statute book.
If I am wrong, why cannot the hon. Gentleman say so? Are these payments to be retrospective?
§ Mr. Alfred Morris
The right hon. Gentleman must not give the impression that he is the only person or that he and his hon. Friend are the only people who have been concerned about this important matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), whom I hope may be called, has played an extremely important part. I want to listen to all that is said and I shall reply in detail later.
§ Mr. Jenkin
The hon. Gentleman has consistently failed to answer my question. Why cannot he answer me now? I am giving way to him. It needs a simple "Yes" or "No". Are these payments to be retrospective as he promised in his letter to The Sunday Times and in his statement? I expect that his hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) will be just as interested to hear the answer to that. We appeared on a television programme together about this issue. I will wait to hear what the Minister has to say, but I am bound to say that if it turns out that he has made a promise he now finds he cannot fulfil he will be open to the most serious criticism.
I turn to the question of the mobility allowance, which is the biggest change of substance in the Bill. We on the Opposition Benches welcome it. It never seemed to me remotely realistic that we could give someone a mobility allowance before the age of 60 or 65 and then take it away at retirement age. I just did not believe that any Government would find that that was a tenable position.
A year ago I wrote to the Minister to ask him whether he would give me his latest thoughts on the possibility of retaining the allowance for those who reached retirement age. He wrote me a long letter in which he said that it was likely that if the allowance was made to the disabled without limit—of course, this was an answer different from the question I asked—it would bring in an extra 500,000 people at an additional cost of about £180 million a year and that he was afraid that the financial resources available made such a move impossible. That 1129 was not the question I asked. I asked whether the Government would allow someone with an allowance to retain it. That is what I have always believed to be the right answer.
The cost is relatively low in the early years. It rises sharply later to the figure of £20 million, which is mentioned in the financial memorandum. It has always seemed to me impossible to take such an allowance away. But one is bound to ask: why 75? What is the magic of that age? If it is wrong to take away the mobility allowance at 65, how is it all right to take it away at 75? Or is it that the Government believe that by then this provision will have been overtaken by a more general scheme for disability benefits? It may indeed be the case. All parties are now committed to move towards a comprehensive system of benefits for disability.
This is an interesting point because it gives an indication of how the Government's mind may be moving en the question of a comprehensive disability system. There are broadly two patterns which have been put to us and to the Government. The Disability Alliance's scheme is for a broadly based provision for all disabled people of benefits of the same kind as are available to the industrial disabled, based on the degree of disablement and providing an income calculated by that. This is the scheme which Professor Peter Townsend has proposed. I think that he is regarded as the main spokesman. He proposed that the scheme would subsume and wrap up the mobility allowance; it would become part of the disability income.
There is the other scheme which has been put forward by the Disablement Income Group for a two-tier system. The first tier would be a tax-free disablement costs allowance, of which the mobility allowance would continue to form a separate and specific part. There would be other costs allowances paid as of right to all those disabled. There is the second-tier income, if it is necessary, to be enjoyed by the disabled person and taxed in the same way as any other income, and paid subject to means. Many of the disabled with the appropriate costs allowance would be able to earn their own living. My own preference has 1130 always been to move in the direction of the DIG scheme, and it seems to me that today's extension of mobility allowance points to the way that the Government may be thinking. They may want to retain a separate and identifiable mobility allowance as part of a costs allowance rather than have it subsumed into a general disablement income as proposed in the disability allowance scheme.
Both Government and Opposition will want to consult widely on this choice facing us. It is something that we need to get clear in our own minds. In the debate on Friday—we discuss these matters with great regularity—we had a long discussion of the problems of disability based on the Pearson report. Members will recognise that many of the relevant issues were widely canvassed in that debate. Therefore, I need not say more.
Looking at mobility allowance, I do not need to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the disabled are a long way from being reconciled to the decision that was taken in July 1976. There are two main fears which are frequently voiced. The first is that the level of mobility allowance is not enough to provide effective mobility in a great many cases, particularly if tax has to be paid on it. Secondly—I deal with this briefly now and will deal with the question of money in a moment—there are still no signs of a specially designed vehicle for the disabled. The representations which we hear from all over the country have led me to conclude that there will continue to be a need for a specifically designed, purpose-built vehicle for a minority of the disabled who will never be able to use a car, however well adapted it might be. I hope that the Minister, when he replies to the debate, will tell us what the Government are now doing about that matter.
The Government have been quite unreasonably obstructive in their refusal to say that they are working hard to find such a vehicle and to make it available. No doubt the Minister will explain what his policy is.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes
The right hon. Gentleman illustrates the dilemma here. For many of the disabled the trike is the only vehicle they can drive. Yet we have been faced over the years with propaganda against the unsociability of the 1131 trike and the fact that it is dangerous on the road. I hope that when the right hon. Gentleman replies to those people—who are now as vociferous against the mobility allowance as they were vociferous to get it—he will point out that many of them have changed their mind and that they ought to consider some of their earlier statements.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I have done that. I have met large numbers of groups from all over the country, and I have made it perfectly clear that I have supported the broad switch to cash. I think that that is right. But there should be a purpose-built vehicle upon which that cash can be spent. I have had long discussions—and I will come to Motability in a moment—with Jeffrey Sterling to discover whether Motability could undertake the commissioning of a suitable vehicle. I believe that it will be necessary, though at the moment there is nothing suitable in sight.
I return to the question of money. Initially the allowance was £5, which was quite inadequate to secure a vehicle. Many of the new disabled had no mobility at all. Since then it has been increased to £10, and that is barely enough on the Motability scheme, to which I will come in a moment. Now a question arises on the road fund licence. One way in which we sought to help the disabled was to cancel the road fund licence for them. Now we are apparently told in a Written Answer that the road fund licence is to disappear. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give a categorical assurance that the value of the road fund licence will be preserved for the benefit of the disabled in receipt of mobility allowances. The fact is that at the moment Motability is finding great difficulty in being able to meet the demand for cars at a cost that is within the mobility allowance.
I wish to say a word about Motability. The other day there was a mischievous, malevolent and ill-informed article in the 20th October issue of the New Statesman. It was written by one Christopher Hird. The cartoon accompanying that article was particularly tasteless. It was of someone in a wheelchair entering the bankruptcy courts. I have strongly criticised the decision to phase out the trike before there was a proper alternative. It has caused grave anxieties. But there is no 1132 doubt that, although it took two years to bring into existence, Motability is now in a position to meet a great deal of the demand, phasing the scheme in, as it has to, over a time to meet the demand for care within the means of a great many of the disabled.
I was kept informed of the developments with Motability and gave a warm welcome to the news of its establishment. It represents a wholly admirable enterprise by private sector banks, insurance companies, motor manufacturers and others to provide cars for the disabled at a cost well below what many of them would have to pay if they went elsewhere. The governors of Motability, under their chairman Lord Goodman, have given of their time and talents without reward. The managing director, Mr. Jeffrey Sterling, also giving his time free, has devoted his considerable energies and abilities over a prolonged period in the effort to get the scheme off the ground.
Mr. Hird's attack was not only malicious; it was entirely misguided because it suggested that the scheme was a racket for the benefit of the banks. What he said was:the banks pocket £100 million of tax relief".That is absolutely absurd. There is no truth in that remark. Most hon. Members will have had Bank Briefing No. 10 and will have seen the dignified response by the banks, to the effect thatthe tax relief is being passed on to the disabled.They make the point that they could use it in other, profitable, business, but they are not doing so. They are passing it on fully to the disabled.
The real damage of this mischievous article is that it will discourage others—or it could do—from coming forward to play their part in helping to meet the social needs of the disabled or other deserving groups. Yesterday, in our debate on the Companies Bill, we heard a lot about the duties of companies going wider than merely serving the interests of their shareholders. We heard of the duty to employees, to the community and to the national interest. Here is a group of companies taking this responsible view for the benefit of a deserving group, and yet so great is the hatred among elements of the Left wing in this country that they are prepared to condemn, and if 1133 necessary distort the facts to back up their condemnation, what most people would regard as a thoroughly worthwhile and desirable exercise.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I do not think that anyone who read Mr. Hird's article could describe it as being anything other than of the extreme Left. We know that Motability has not got it right yet, but these are early days.
The Minister who has special responsibilities for the disabled and I were present at that rather stirring occasion on 25th July at Earls Court when the first cars were handed over to the youngsters who were able, in most cases, to drive them away. No one could possibly mistake the sense of joy of these youngsters. Some of them, for the first time, were being enabled to share in the life of the community outside the walls of their homes or the institutions where they had hitherto lived. Motability is a fine example of partnership between the State and the private sector in social care. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and I are glad to have been invited to be patrons. We shall continue to give Motability our support and encouragement.
I return now to the question of the amount of the mobility allowance as it is affecting Motability in its efforts to provide vehicles. The figures are now pretty telling. I have been given the latest calculations. The current leasing charge by Motability, compared with a £10 mobility allowance, bearing in mind that this is £10 gross and subject to tax—
§ Mr. George Rodgers (Chorley)
The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned several times that this figure is subject to tax. Is he complaining about this? If it were not subject to tax, those in receipt of the highest incomes would obviously pay more tax but would receive a higher sum than those at the lower end of the scale. It seems reasonable, if there is only a given sum available for distribution, that it should be made subject to tax.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I believe that in the long run this is one of those categories of help for the disabled which comes, in the DIG parlance, as a costs allowance and should be tax-free. It is not that anyone gets more; it is that everyone gets the same if sufficiently disabled to qualify. Tax on it would not be paid. In the long run that is the right answer.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes
Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that the mobility allowance should be tax-free, even to people who work?
§ Mr. Jenkin
I will come to the question of the tax in a moment, to show how absurd the results are. The point I am making now concerns the adequacy of the allowance.
The leasing charges at present are, for a manual Mini £10, a Mini automatic £11.50, a Ford Fiesta £11 and a Ford Escort £12.50. That is the weekly leasing fee if the individual pays his own insurance. If the insurance is included in the rental the figures are higher by from £1 to £1.50. It can be seen that Motability is operating at the very margin. These lease figures would be about 50 per cent. higher if the disabled person went for a normal commercial lease. That was a point which even Mr. Hird was prepared to concede.
Motability is operating at the margin. It has to assume that there will be price rises. British Leyland prices may rise by perhaps 10 per cent. in January and a further 4 per cent. next July. I do not know what Ford will be allowed to do. If maintenance costs rise by perhaps 5 per cent. in January and a similar amount in July, the leasing charge rises substantially, by 50p or £1 or more. The figure will be well above the mobility allowance.
One of the points made by Motability—on which I hope the Under-Secretary will be able to comment and give us some encouragement—is that there is a double charge of VAT. There is VAT charged on the car and again on the lease charge. A trader sets off one against the other. It is only a private individual, outside the VAT net, who has to pay VAT on VAT. This seems to the Motability people, and to me, to be a singularly unfair way of making the disabled pay tax. The Minister will remember the figures which were quoted by my hon. Friend the Member 1135 for Wallasey in Committee last year when we considered the taxation of mobility allowance.
If the Government could remove this payment of VAT on VAT, it would take away between £1 and £1.50 from the lease charge and would leave these people with the ability to lease their cars more or less within the level of the mobility allowance. We know that the allowance will go up again in July because this is the undertaking which the Government have given. But there is the period in between.
I come now to the point raised by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Rodgers) concerning taxation. I believe that the mobility allowance should not be taxed since the taxation is extraordinarily capricious. It depends entirely upon which member of the family receives the allowance. If a family man, with two children aged 11 and 15, who is on average earnings receives the mobility allowance, his taxation is £790 a year at current, 1978–79, levels. If, on the other hand, his wife is disabled, if she is not earning and receives the allowance, the taxation on the family is £618 because it is treated as the wife's in come and comes within her earned income relief.
It will be seen that there is a difference of nearly £175 in the taxation burden on the family depending upon which member of it is disabled. How can that possibly be justified? Take the case where husband and wife are both earning national average earnings. In one case the wife is disabled and receives the allowance, while in another case it is the child who is disabled and receives the allowance. In the first instance the tax is £1,167 and in the second instance it is £1,002. The difference is £165—simply depending upon which member of the family is disabled and receives the allowance. This does not seem to be logical.
The answer is to say that the allowance ought not to be taxable, as part of the long-term reform of disablement benefits as we move towards a more comprehensive system. It is a clear example of the disability costs allowance in the system being put forward by the Disablement Income Group.
There is some worry about excess mileage charges. I have been informed that the next issue of the Motability leaflet 1136 will include a separate statement about these charges. Some have complained to me that they did not know about the charges until they were on the point of signing the contract. It is helpful that there is to be a separate mention in the leaflet. I have a letter of confirmation from the secretary of Motability.
I now turn to supplementary benefits. This is the first opportunity to talk about the extremely important report on a major review of the supplementary benefit system. Let us be in no doubt about the background against which the report has to be considered. Professor David Donnison has been a most successful, indeed inspired, chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission. He has brought a refreshing openness to the subject and a lively and imaginative mind, coupled with genuine sympathy and concern for those in receipt of supplementary benefit. He is in no doubt about the state of the system over which he is now presiding.
Professor Donnison and I both spoke at the British Association of Social Workers conference in September. I listened to him talking about the system over which he has been presiding. I quote from the report in The Guardian by Melanie Phillips, which reads:'The supplementary benefits system is already beginning to collapse in some of the more hard-pressed offices around the country.' Professor David Donnison … said last night.A marked growth in the numbers relying on such benefits meant that already slightly more than half the staff in local social security offices were administering benefits which accounted for less than 15 per cent. of the social security payments distributed by the Department of Health and Social Security.Some interesting figures were given recently by the right hon. Gentleman in reply to the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas). It seems that the administrative cost as a percentage of the supplementary benefit scheme was 13.4 per cent. two years ago and even now is still over 12 per cent. That is an astonishingly high administrative cost. The system is immensely expensive to administer.
Professor Donnison continued:The public was also becoming more and more hostile to those drawing benefits. 'As the British people have lost confidence in progress, no longer feeling that society can afford to help the poor without holding back the steady advance of everyone else to greater affluence, they have become less tolerant of those who 1137 live on incomes provided by the taxpayer. That includes civil servants and social workers along with social security claimants.'The system was one of unlimited potential flexibility and so had to protect itself in practice. 'In our case, what happens is that demand is restricted and the service is in effect rationed by ignorance, delay, squalor (in the waiting rooms, for example), hostility, stigma (in the columns of the News of the World and across the counters of social security offices) and in many other ways.'That is a damning indictment. I say at once that the staffs do a remarkable job under great difficulty for the benefit of our constituents. However, we all know that many of the people are not reached. We all know that there is a good deal of abuse. By its very nature no figure can be put against that abuse. Against that background we need to examine the report called "Social Assistance".
The report identifies six main areas for reform. There are three areas within the scheme itself. There is simplification of the structure with fewer rates and simpler rules. There need to be far fewer discretionary payments—about 40 per cent. of claimants receive discretionary payments—along with special arrangements for unforeseen disasters, for example. And there must be a much clearer legal structure with a more precise Act and regulations.
There are two recommendations that relate to other agencies. These are housing costs—that is by far the most difficult area—and overlaps with such matters as education and local authority social service departments. There is one recommendation of general importance, namely, greater equality of treatment for married women.
These are all major, even radical, proposals. They are made against the assumption that supplementary benefit will continue to have to be the main source of income for many people. Paragraphs 1.12 and 1.13 of the report spell that out clearly. Paragraph 1.12 states:The general message is clear. It is unrealistic to suppose that the central problems can be solved by continuing the present scheme with only minor adjustments to the rules.Paragraph 1.13 states:The policy of successive Governments has been to reduce the numbers on means tested benefits. But against the background of continuing restraints … there is no prospect of 1138 finding the massive sums for national insurance benefits or other services that would be needed to reduce the number of supplementary benefit claimants to a low enough level to permit a largely discretionary system to operate.We could perhaps remove hundreds of thousands of old-age pensioners by introducing a pensioners' credit scheme to lift them off supplementary benefit. Such a scheme could perhaps embrace 600,000 or 700,000 old-age pensioners, but it would be extremely costly. However, that is something that has to be considered.
Other groups have to be taken into account. There are the unemployed, with no contribution record or whose entitlement to benefit has run out. There are about 350,000 single-parent families on supplementary benefit. There are the disabled, to whom I referred earlier. In the absence of major changes it seems that we shall continue to have many millions of people living on supplementary benefit. It is right, therefore, to consider seriously the reforms that the report puts forward.
§ Mr. Orme
It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to make sweeping statements about what is wrong. He knows that my Department is paying out benefits to 13 million recipients. We are paying out nearly 19 million benefits. We employ 65,000 staff. Many of them have a difficult job. Sometimes they have to deal with difficult people. They are trying to get through to those who are genuinely claiming benefits. We want simplification. Indeed, that is what the supplementary benefit review is all about. However, no sweeping assertions can bring that about. The right hon. Gentleman has talked about widening general disablement benefit. That would mean more work for the staff. There are difficulties, and the right hon. Gentleman should recognise them.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I recognise the difficulties as clearly as anyone in the House. I have been wrestling with these problems for the past three years.
I state in clear terms the attitude of my party to the report. We on the Opposition Benches accept the main message of the review, namely, that substantial changes are needed if the system is not to break down utterly. We accept that minor tinkering will not solve the central problems that are exposed in the 1139 report. We accept that a major simplification is necessary. We accept that we have to reduce substantially the areas of discretion.
The Government have asked for comments on the report. It is probably agreed on both sides of the House that it is unlikely that there will be legislation to deal with these matters in this Session. Therefore, it will fall to the next Parliament and the next Government to carry matters forward in the light of all the comments and suggestions that are made.
This is an area of policy that, in our view, does not brook much delay. If the system is already beginning to collapse in some hard-pressed offices, as Professor Donnison has testified, it cannot be long before that collapse spreads more generally. The welfare of millions of the old, sick, handicapped and unemployed must not be put at risk.
The report does not stand alone. We must cut the burden of direct taxes and open up a clear gap between those in work and those out of work. We must strengthen the investigatory machinery and curb abuse of the system. We must take action to strengthen the "availability for work" rule. We must give new hope and encouragement to industry and small businesses to expand and thereby reduce unemployment.
However successful these actions may be, it would be foolish to imagine that we can so reduce the numbers that we can afford to abandon any reforming of the supplementary benefits system.
§ Mrs. Audrey Wise (Coventry, South-West)
Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that his continued references to abuses are increasing the stigma that is felt by applicants for supplementary benefit? Does he realise that his calls for decreased taxation on a sweeping scale are the very pressures that will prevent there being adequate resources for the handicapped and the poor in general, such as pensioners?
§ Mr. Jenkin
The hon. Lady has it entirely wrong. It is common ground between both parties that the level of taxation and the burden of taxation at the bottom of the scale has become so high as to create a serious problem at the crossover.
§ Mr. Jenkin
We have talked about cutting the burden of taxation and lifting the tax threshold. That is an essential part of my party's policy. If the public could be assured that those who really needed supplementary benefit were getting it and were the only ones getting it, there would be no hesitation on the part of those who really needed it to apply for it. Because it is known that abuse is widespread, people are reluctant to find themselves labelled as scroungers. We have to tighten up the system.
I have seen and heard Ministers on television boasting about what they have done to tighten up the system to avoid abuse. We see eye to eye on this issue. We would pursue it with rather more vigour. However successful these measures may be, we still need to reform. It is in the interests of the most needy that action is taken. Action is urgent. In the words of the Daily Mirror:We have reached the ultimate absurdity: A system of welfare for the needy which can only operate provided the needy don't get what is due to them.It is against that background that I want to say a word about clause 5 and the new appeals machinery. This is presumably based on Kathleen Bell's study. I am familiar with this study, although I have not read all four volumes. At the end of her report she dealt with the question of a new right of appeal. She put this as "Stage III", with other reforms coming first. She states:The only reason this recommendation is placed in Stage III is that until the decision-making of S.B.A.T.s and their recorded, reasoned decisions can be substantially improved it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a superior appellate body to do its work.I ask the Minister, when he replies, to answer this question. Have the conditions spelled out by Professor Bell been fulfilled? Have the appeal tribunals all made the improvements to decision-making without which, as she said, the second tier body would not work? There are the minor points made in schedule 2 of the Bill, but these do not seem to add much to what is happening already.
Then there is the wider issue, in the context of "Social Assistance" If we are to have a more legal basis—a firmer, 1141 clearer Act and regulations spelling out the entitlement to supplementary benefit—does it make sense at this stage to be trying to introduce a new machinery for appeals tailored to the existing system? I do no more than ask the question. I am not at this stage making a statement. We shall want to examine this question carefully in Committee.
The Minister will know that there has been some lack of enthusiasm in some quarters for the suggestion that there should be yet another layer of appeals machinery between the appeal tribunals and the High Court; it is regarded as a doubtful blessing. We already have an appeal on a point of law to the High Court. We have been told this afternoon that it will be an appeal only on a point of law to the insurance commissioner, and no general appeal on questions of fact. Given the other points that I have made, I seriously question whether this is a necessary improvement at this stage. It is bound to cost more money and it is bound to add delays and complications, particularly when there is the provision in the Bill that benefit can be withheld until the appeals procedure has been followed. I therefore ask: is clause 5 premature?
The Bill is not the most epoch-making legislation of the century, but it makes some welcome improvements. It will require careful scrutiny in Committee. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey will exercise her customary vigilance and diligence. While we shall give the Bill a fair wind today, we do so aware of the fact that major changes, now badly needed, in our welfare system are being left to be made by the next Government. If, as I expect, that is a Conservative Government, I and my right hon. Friends will take up that challenge with enthusiasm.
§ 5.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)
We have just listened to a bland and a bare-faced speech by the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin), whose party is continuously condemning public expenditure by the Government. We have before us a measure that is designed to increase public expenditure for those in greatest need, and yet the right hon. Gentleman comes 1142 to the House not only to condemn but to demand retrospection. How can that kind of attitude be justified? How the right hon. Gentleman can press the Minister about retrospection is quite beyond my comprehension. I want to see retrospection and I hope that Ministers will give this sympathetic consideration, but the demand comes ill from the right hon. Gentleman.
The Conservative Party's scrounger campaign is gravely damaging to unemployed people and to all recipients of supplementary benefit. The right hon. Gentleman should be very careful, because those who are most vulnerable are being very badly hurt. I commend my right hon. Friend's campaign to tighten the measures for ending abuses, but I want to see the opposite of what the Opposition are asking for. I want to see more people applying for supplementary benefit while we have the present system, because many people in need are too dignified, too proud and too fearful to apply. This is causing very grave hardship. I have evidence from my own constituency of old people who say that they would sooner not apply for what they still call charity. No matter what we say, they still regard it as charity. We should encourage many more people to apply.
It is a pity that the right hon. Gentleman did not spell out in more detail what he proposes to do about trade unionists who are on strike, but perhaps this is not the time at which to go into that in detail; it was in any case rather a long speech that he made, although I was interested in his points.
I shall make a very brief speech, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I can see how many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate. I warmly welcome the extension of the mobility allowance. It is a great step forward to help these older people. I congratulate the Minister with responsibility for the disabled on his campaigning for this change, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State on his vital work, and also my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
People tend to overlook the fact that the mobility allowance now helps a vast number of severely disabled people who are passengers. We take this for granted. 1143 When people come to the House criticising and saying "What about retrospection?", and why have not the Government done this and that, they tend to overlook what has been achieved. I want more and I shall press for more. But it is the Labour Members, who are asking for more public expenditure and not condemning the Government for it, who have the logical right and the moral right to do so.
I want now to put some questions to my hon. Friend. First, how many disabled people will benefit from the extension of the mobility allowance? I should like to have exact figures, if I may, because it is rather important that we get these numbers on the record.
Secondly, in view of the fact that there is evidence that many people are not applying for this allowance, as well as other allowances, will my hon. Friend undertake a campaign to ensure that every possible recipient who is eligible is encouraged to apply?
Thirdly, it has been mentioned today that vehicle excise duty is to be removed. Will the Minister tell us how this will affect those people, the old-age pensioners, who will receive the mobility allowance? What will be the attitude of the Government about the ending or the phasing out of vehicle excise duty?
My next main point is to welcome the extension of the attendance allowance to kidney sufferers. This is an appropriate stage at which to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) on his campaign for these people. With all respect to the Ministers concerned, I regard this as a great victory for my hon. Friend and his campaign. It is a long overdue extension and many people will warmly appreciate what the Government have done. But, welcome though this is, the problem of kidney sufferers will not really be resolved until the Government accept, one way or another, the need for kidney transplants and for making automatic provision for kidney transplants. This attendance allowance is a small aspect, but I cannot dwell at length on transplants because that would be going beyond the confines of the Bill. I make a plea and support the campaign by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) for more kidney trans- 1144 plants to be made and for the Government to be more energetic on this score.
The travel-to-work scheme is not working adequately. Many people speak about the mobility of the disabled and many of us thought that this scheme would be a valuable adjunct and an important supplementary provision to help them. The figures which have been produced indicate that not enough is being done with the travel-to-work scheme. I hope that Ministers will press the Manpower Services Commission to speed up and extend that scheme so that many more people can take advantage of it. I know that the scheme has been reviewed and that changes are to be brought in, but a great deal more needs to be done.
Finally, although this is called the Social Security Bill, it does not deal with the biggest scandal of all, that of the unemployed who are denied long-term supplementary benefit. They are the poorest of the poor. I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government have dug in their heels on this matter.
I pay tribute to Professor Donnison. He is doing a marvellous job. All his reports are full of common sense, intelligence and humanity. The spendid job that he is doing deserves to be warmly commended. As the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford quoted from Professor Donnison, I should like to conclude with a quotation from him:The unemployed were originally excluded from qualifying for the long-term addition on the ground that it was intended to provide against special expenses which they in general were unlikely to have. As we have already explained, that is now only a very minor function of the long-term differential. The nature of unemployment has also changed. There are now many more long-term unemployed than there were in 1966 and the expectation is that the number may well continue to rise for at least the next year or so".Professor Donnison goes on to say thatthere is a case, in equity, for considering extending the long-term rates to the unemployed.There is much more than "a case". It is a major scandal that the unemployed, who are out of work through no fault of their own, should be compelled to live in poverty relative to poor people. I do not think that any Government can bring in a Bill called the Social Security Bill and refuse to recognise the case for changing 1145 the income of these people. Therefore I urge the Secretary of State to think again, to change the regulations and, possibly in Committee, to bring in a new clause to end that scandal.
§ 5.43 p.m.
§ Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)
I want to intervene briefly on clause 2, which basically restores the attendance allowance to people with kidney failure who dialyse at home.
I welcome the clause and wish it a speedy passage to the statute book. It rectifies an injustice which goes back to about June 1977 when the Attendance Allowance Board reconsidered its rules and effectively disqualified about three-quarters of kidney patients dialysing at home from the attendance allowance. As those cases came up for review every six months or so, people found that they were losing the attendance allowance. That was basically due to the introduction of faster dialysers.
I concede that a number of hon. Members were concerned about this issue before I was. The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) has been campaigning for many months on this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton) has also been trying to put these injustices right. I pay tribute to all hon. Members who were campaigning on this issue before I was. However, I think that the legislative initiative came from me. I was prepared to get up very early one morning to get a Ten-Minute Bill, which was introduced on 15th February this year. The object of that Bill wasto restore the attendance allowance to a number of kidney patients who have recently had it taken away from them, to ensure that it is not taken away from others who are having their cases reviewed, and to extend it to other kidney patients who would not otherwise qualify because of the tighter rules now operated by the Attendance Allowance Board."—[Official Report, 15th February 1978; Vol. 944, c. 446.]It was an all-party Bill.
It is not true to say that the matter has never been debated in the House. If any hon. Member had objected to what I was proposing, he could have spoken against it on 15th February. This matter has been debated in the House. That Bill received unopposed leave to be introduced on 15th February.
1146 Since then it has been opposed consistently by Government Whips. I understand that the reason was that the Government were awaiting the outcome of an appeal by a Mrs. Broomfield to the national insurance commissioner. That decision was eventually announced on 20th July. We then had an answer in response to a Question by the hon. Member for Derby, North announcing the Government's intention of rectifying the position. Since then there has been correspondence in the national press, to which reference has been made. I do not wish to stir up acrimony between the two parties. Basically I wish to see justice for kidney patients.
§ Sir G. Young
I want to put two questions to the Minister with responsibility for the disabled as I understand that he will be replying to the debate. Will retrospective payments be made to all those kidney patients who have been disqualified from the attendance allowance since the rules were changed? If so, how?
§ Sir G. Young
No extra money is involved. We are trying to ensure that people who are in receipt of the allowance continue to receive it. There is no question of extra public expenditure whatsoever.
§ Sir G. Young
Basically it seems that a number of options are open to the Government. I should like to refer briefly to some correspondence on this subject. One of the officers in the Department of Health and Social Security, in a letter to Mrs. Ward, president of the British Kidney Patient Association, on 25th August, said:There is no power to reinstate allowances when existing awards run out and the law as it stands was properly applied.That is the position at the moment. I see nothing in the Bill which changes the law and allows retrospective payments to be made.
The second suggestion is made in a letter to me dated 31st July. It refers to an ex gratia payment which might be made to overcome this problem. In this 1147 letter Mrs. Ward, the president of the British Kidney Patient Association, said:I had reasonable assurance from them"—that is, officers of the DHSS—although of course they would not be specific, that it is certainly envisaged to make some ex gratia payment to these patients, but thought nothing will have been definitely decided until the beginning of September.That is another option which has apparently been put forward in discussions. Again, there is no legislation before us which would allow that to be done.
I have a specific commitment from the Minister that retrospection will be made. I hope that in winding up the debate the hon. Gentleman will reaffirm that commitment. In a letter to me dated 19th October he said:What I wanted was to obtain retrospection for all these people. This meant that I could not specify any single date for retrospective benefit. What I have been consulting about, therefore, was whether I could go to the length of ensuring 'back pay' for everyone covering the whole period since the withdrawal of his or her benefit whenever that occurred. I know you will now be very pleased to learn now that we shall be making provision for exactly that.I am indeed very pleased. However, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) specifically put that question to the Minister for Social Security and to the Under-Secretary of State—namely, whether they would confirm that retrospection would be effected—neither of them was able to give a clear answer. The doubt in my mind is that there is now some problem about retrospection. I shall listen very closely to the Minister for confirmation that retrospection will be made and how he proposes to effect it.
I hope that this will not become a matter between the two parties. I think that all hon. Members want justice for kidney patients and any injustices which have crept in by accident to be put right as quickly as possible.
§ 5.49 p.m.
§ Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)
Clause 2 has already had an airing. It was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) and the House must realise that it covers two important areas.
The first is the general question of rectifying a real injustice to people who 1148 were previously in receipt of attendance allowance, being kidney patients dialysing at home. The second is the question which arises, in part, from the appeal of Mrs. Broomfield and other cases with which all other hon. Members have been involved, of the latent injustice in the procedure by which one appeals to the commission. That procedure shows the almost impossible hurdles that are put in the way of people who have to take their case to the commissioner.
Many hon. Members have been connected with the consequences of the Broomfield case and other cases like it. Mrs. Broomfield was the test case and almost the entire cast of the programme to which the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) referred are here in the real House of Commons discussing it today.
The point about the case of Mrs. Broomfield is that she actually lost her allowance—I think she was the first person in Derbyshire to do so—in September 1977. I understand from her that she was not even notified of this but that the money just stopped. The doctor examined her and the attendance board intervened and decided that she should lose the money. She has therefore been without the money from that day. We are talking about the period since September 1977 and presumably people elsewhere in the country lost their allowance even earlier. That is why the principle of retrospectivity is so important and why we are all waiting to hear something from my hon. Friend the Minister for the disabled when he replies to the debate.
The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) wrote a very partisan letter to The Sunday Times attacking the Minister for the disabled on this point, saying how he had shocked and infuriated the British Kidney Patients Association and caused very real hardship to a number of patients. I thought that it was a rather intemperate letter because the Minister had done nothing of the kind. The injustice and the hardship to the patients came from the intervention of the board, which decided that it would undo what Parliament had done.
It was the intention of Parliament that people dialysing at home should get the allowance. Somebody on the board, not responsible to Parliament and not answerable in this House, decided, in his wis- 1149 dom, that people dialysing twice a week at home should not get the allowance. The Minister and everybody else who has been concerned with this matter, irrespective of party, has been trying, through the medium of Parliament, to put this injustice right. I hope that today marks the end of that process. I hope that we shall ensure that the back pay—because that is what it is—is paid to these people, going back over this period of 15 months. We cannot leave this debate tonight without getting some such undertaking. I am sure that both Front Bench speakers will deal with it later.
The Broomfield case has other implications. Mrs. Broomfield's solicitor, who took the case to the national insurance commissioner for her, wrote to The Sunday Times after the correspondence between the Minister for the disabled and the hon. Member for Acton to say:As a solicitor concerned in this recent test case, two important aspects of the recent correspondence about home dialysis kidney patients and their loss of allowance occur to me. Firstly, the frightening power of the Attendance Allowance Board to alter previous decisions and their lack of accountability to Parliament. Secondly, the fact that legal aid is not available to disappointed claimants. I wonder how many other test cases there are.I wonder how many test cases there would be but for the financial hurdles that we put in people's way. More often than not people go to the national insurance commissioner not to test a hunch or because they believe that the various local tribunals that rejected their case were wrong and that justice will prevail if only they can get to the national insurance commission. They go because they won their case at the lower tribunal, got the allowance established, and after that an appeal was made against them. That takes them to the commission.
It is quite absurd and ridiculous that the attendance board, or any other such body, should have the power to take a citizen to the commissioner without that citizen being able to get legal aid. When my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security said that we were switching some of these cases away from the courts where legal aid is available to the tribunals and to the commission where legal aid is not available, it seems to me that there is a problem. When the Min- 1150 ister replies to the debate, I want him to consider one or two or these cases.
The Minister and I have had correspondence about another constituent of mine, Mrs. Snell. She has to go before the commissioner because she got the noncontributory invalidity pension and was then subjected to an appeal by the board. The board may have its reasons for doing that, but it seems that, in some cases, it is very hard in its judgment. Mrs. Snell was not even told, when she originally got the money, that there was any right of appeal by the board at all. It was a great shock to her when she discovered later that the money had been taken away.
It is ridiculous that one can put people through the process of appeal before a local tribunal and get them their allowance, which they regard as a great achievement, whatever form of disability they may be suffering from, and then the allowance can suddenly be stopped. In the case of Mrs. Snell, the board has said, magnanimously, that it will not claim back the money she has already received. But it will stop her getting any more.
Therefore, Mrs. Snell has lost that money and has also suffered financial loss because she has to meet the legal costs and has no undertaking that she will ultimately win before the national insurance commissioner.
It seems to me that these cases indicate a lacuna in our provision for representation. When one is sent a letter by the national insurance commissioners, it says that one can take a friend and can claim expenses. However, if one takes a legal friend, he can claim his expenses only if he has been called before the commissioners as a witness but cannot claim for legal expenses. That is wrong and it ought to be changed.
Those are the two matters to which I hope the Minister will refer in his reply to the debate.
§ 5.57 p.m.
§ Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)
I am glad to welcome a United Kingdom Bill rather than a Great Britain Bill. Clause 13 includes a procedure which ensures that identical provisions are brought into force in the Province, albeit by statutory instrument. The Secretary of State for Trade observed yesterday when referring to the intention to introduce a similar 1151 clause in another Bill that hon. Members representing Northern Ireland were thereby enabled—indeed, he could have said duty bound—to participate at every stage in the shaping of legislation which, it is known from the start, will apply to their constituents, as it applies to the constituents of all other hon. Members.
The procedure being followed affords the opportunity to remedy a longstanding grievance relating to social security in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister who is to reply will be able to assure me that the opportunity will be seized. Up to now, under the time-honoured principle of parity in social security, legislation for Great Britain has been applied to Northern Ireland in due course. Until 1972, it was applied by separate legislation in the Stormont Parliament but since then it has been applied by Order in Council. Since the application was, by its very nature, later—and sometimes very much later—there was always a very awkward gap while the appropriate provisions were being drafted and enacted.
That aspect was highlighted recently in the eighth report of the Northern Ireland examiner of statutory rules. I can do no better than quote the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) in the Northern Ireland Committee when he said:There is general agreement that the rules should be received by the Examiner within 21days of making them, but he observes that in some cases the Department—that is the Department of Health and Social Services—'was put in an impossible position of trying to meet the 21 day rule in connection with most of the regulations made under the Social Security … Order …. The officers of that Department," he adds "are always one step behind their counterparts in Great Britain.… No blame for the delay could therefore be attributed to that Department.'We should dwell for a moment upon the consequences in Northern Ireland of the fact that parity rules—if I may so describe them in shorthand—have to be made separately and subsequently for Northern Ireland, under a separate set of rules and separately considered. However, time marches on, and we are learning to deal more conveniently with Northern Ireland legislation. So I urge the Government to consider whether, when rates and conditions of benefit are being altered in effect for the whole United Kingdom, they could not be altered simultaneously by one and the same instrument, to be considered in one and the same way. That certainly would be an alleviation of the work for the Northern Ireland 1152 Departments concerned. It also would mean that they would be brought into full consultation right from the beginning by their Great Britain counterparts on the effect which the regulations will have in Northern Ireland. I should have thought this would have been to the convenience of all who, in the Province, have to administer provisions which are being made for the United Kingdom as a whole"—[Official Report, Northern Ireland Committee" 26th July 1978; c. 3.]The arrangements that my right hon. Friend said were desirable are now practicable. I do not see that there is any reason why the Northern Ireland statutory instrument should not be laid and come into effect at the same time as the Bill. I am sure that Northern Ireland officials at all levels and the Northern Ireland public would appreciate that.
I hope that the Minister is not afraid of being an innovator. He will earn the gratitude of the people of Northern Ireland if he gives those instructions. No doubt he would receive the support of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in ensuring that this opportunity of setting a welcome precedent will not be missed.
There is on omission from the Bill which I regret. One of the conditions of a person receiving the mobility allowance is that he or she must be unable to walk or virtually unable to walk. That is a criterion on which a number of applications have foundered. A lady in my constituency has two dislocated hips and, on a layman's assessment, is virtually unable to walk, but in the opinion of those who make the assessment she is not entitled to the allowance. She works in a local factory and the management arranges for her to be picked up and taken home every day. If she is outside the criteria, perhaps the Minister should reasses the requirements with a view to making more specific what "virtually unable to walk" really means.
§ 6.3 p.m.
§ Mr. John Tilley (Lambeth, Central)
I welcome the Bill, although there are other aspects of the social security system that need reform—particularly those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley).
I wish to concentrate on the parts of the Bill dealing with the supplementary benefits appeals tribunals—the system which affects every category of claimant. 1153 The right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) gave the impression that there is a consensus on the "Social Assistance" report and recommendations, but I hope he does not assume that my hon. Friends will give the report the bland acceptance which he promised from his party.
I am glad that the Bell report has been taken down from the shelf where it seemed doomed to gather dust. However, the Bill does not go as far as Professor Bell suggested and even her suggestions were not sufficient to make appeals tribunals genuinely independent and effective so that the large section of the community who use the tribunals would see that justice was being done and would feel that they had had a fair hearing.
The most important point to make about the appeal tribunals is that they are intended to help people who are already at a considerable disadvantage in our society. They are deprived because, by definition, they do not have the means to support themselves and they are often unfamiliar with, and overawed by, the official procedures. Claimants are also often demoralised because of their financial and other problems and they may not have the reserves of confidence, articulateness and determination that are necessary to carry through any judicial process.
For all these reasons, the Government should bend over backwards, in this area of the law more than in any other, to make the procedures understandable, flexible and informal.
The Bill, with its provisions for an appeal to a national insurance commissioner, its emphasis on more legally qualified chairmen and the senior chairmen proposals, takes key steps towards building up the body of case law that is in line with national policy and reduces the chance which exists at present, of arbitrary and unjust decisions. However, a lot more could be done to put the appeal tribunals on an independent footing. I put forward three aspects which I hope that the Government will consider and perhaps introduce in Committee.
First, the point has often been made that the appeal tribunals cannot really be independent when the Secretary of State appoints two-thirds of the members. That 1154 is an underestimation of his powers of appointment. The other one-third, the members nominated by the local trades council, are subject to veto by the Secretary of State.
For example, the booklet produced last year by trades council members of the South London supplementary benefit appeal tribunal revealed that of 20 nominations made by the Wandsworth trades council, only 11 were accepted by the Secretary of State. One nominee believed that he was turned down because he was a member of the Child Poverty Action Group. Several were asked about their political views and affiliations. Two were turned down because they were supplementary benefit claimants. So much for judgment by one's peers.
§ Mr. Orme
I assure my hon. Friend that no political witch hunt is carried out by my Department. That is the last thing that I would countenance.
There is a problem about the quality of of the people coming forward. I have discussed the matter recently with the TUC. There are not enough people who are naturally suitable for these appointments coming through from the trade union movement. I am thinking not only of members, but of chairmen.
§ Mr. Tilley:
I am grateful for that assurance, but there is no doubt that the people to whom I was referring were asked about their political affiliations. I was not suggesting that there was a witch hunt, but that sort of questioning is not necessary. My right hon. Friend has underlined my point. The Secretary of State has the final say on the entire membership of tribunals.
The second problem is that the clerk of the tribunal is a career officer of the DHSS. I am not detracting from the conscientious way in which these officers carry out their job, but they are placed in an impossible position. I quote again from the experiences of the South London tribunal members. They said in their booklet:Research carried out by Professor Kathleen Bell of Newcastle University found that Clerks do not limit themselves to their official role, but participate actively in the proceedings. We on the Battersea Tribunal have had the same experience. However, while Kathleen Bell thought that Clerks were generally fair towards appellants, we have found them to be disposed 1155 in the Commission's favour and often unsympathetic to claimants. We have even found some to be openly hostile to appellants, asking irrelevant personal questions of them, arguing very strongly against their interests during the decision-making, and even entering into argument with the Chairman to get him/her to change the decision if it has been in the appellant's favour.Although such intervention by the Clerk is sufficiently frequent to be a matter for serious concern, we should state that some Clerks do limit themselves to their official role to quite a large degree, and keep their opinions to themselves during proceedings.That makes my point. Thirdly, training for members of tribunals—a Bell recommendation which is not implemented in the Bill—becomes more important now that more chairmen will be legally qualified. Professor Bell points out that many appellants were dissatisfied by the limited part that other members of the tribunal took in proceedings. This is bound to get worse if more lawyers become chairmen. A tribunal that is already held in private will become increasingly dominated by professionals—lawyers and DHSS officers—while the appellant cannot get legal aid to help himself. I welcome the Minister's assurance that he will look at the question of legal aid. There are a limited number of cases where a lawyer is helpful, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend said he would consider that.
§ Mrs. Wise:
With regard to legal assistance, does my hon. Friend agree that it is imperative that the Government look very closely at the need to provide more neighbourhood law centres because that is by far the best way in general for people to be able to get advice and help on this subject?
§ Mr. Tilley:
Yes, indeed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is equally important for Conservative councils not to close down law centres in areas where they have already demonstrated the great help which they can give to appellants at supplementary benefit appeal tribunals. I hope that that point will be noted by the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker), who lives in the London borough of Wandsworth.
The lack of training for the other members of the tribunal becomes even more important because of the developments in the Bill. I should again like to quote 1156 from the booklet in order to give an example of the level of information at present provided for tribunal members. It says:Once they have started at the Tribunal, members are not normally kept up to date with changes in legislation and policy. An instance of this is the fact that none of us were automatically issued with copies of the 1976 Social Security Act on which all our decisions are based. On phoning the Regional Office to find out why this was the case, we were told that not enough had been printed to make it possible to send a copy to each member, and that they were only supplied In response to a specific request.It seems amazing that tribunal members do not even get copies of the legislation which they are duty bound to carry out. Instead of making serious improvements, which are more than tinkering. I believe that we must seize the opportunity to make the radical changes which are needed to make the supplementary benefit appeal tribunals independent, by divorcing them from the DHSS, by making the Lord Chancellor's Department responsible for appointing them, for providing clerks and for making training compulsory for members as it is for the chairmen and magistrates.
There can be no doubt that many claimants believe that the system is stacked against them. Now that we have time to consider this matter, Parliament has an opportunity of making sure that in future appellants are told the rules and procedure clearly, well in advance and in writing. They must also be told that their chances of winning their appeal are much higher if they turn up to the hearing. They must be told where they can get help about representation, be it citizens advice bureaux, local law centres or, indeed, local lawyers where that is necessary. All this must be spelt out for appellants in a way which it is not at present.
I believe that the official documents must be redrafted. This is a problem which I have encountered, and it is mentioned by Professor Bell as well. At present the notice of appeal is so dominated by the statement of why the benefit was refused that many appellants feel that they have lost before they have started and give up in despair. Another point is that appeals must be held more quickly after the initial DHSS decision.
1157 I should like to quote from Professor Bell's report, on how she sums up the tribunal system at the moment. She says:Despite all this"—that is the improvements which have taken place, and I certainly admit that there have been improvements since Bell—S.B.A.T.s have increasingly been the subject of criticism and complaint. Caught up in a developing citizens' rights movement which emphasises legal rights and welfare, social security tribunals are now recognised as key institutions of the Welfare State. An increasing number of people have become aware of their rights of appeal and are exercising them.The strain on the tribunal system is part of the strain on the whole social security system. That strain comes from the fact that the social security system was originally constructed to help a handful of people but it now has to help growing numbers of people such as pensioners, one-parent families and long-term unemployed. If the Government say that we cannot have the cash to put right the poverty which exists, at least let us make it easier for those who are poor and have limited resources to obtain the limited rights and help to which they are entitled.
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Tony Newton (Braintree)
I am grateful to the Minister for saying that he will issue some explanatory notes before we reach the Committee stage. Having served on the Committee stage of the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, as it now is, I formed the impression that the only people who understood the changes being made to the 1975 Act were those who had served on the Committee dealing with that measure, of whom I was not one. Having consulted my hon. Friends, I have discovered that on this occasion not even those who served on the Committee which considered the 1975 measure understand the relevant parts of the Bill that we are now discussing.
That problem has been running through our debate. We have a Bill which contains three bits with which we all agree and therefore we have very little to say about them, and 10 bits which none of us understands and therefore can say nothing about. Most hon. Members have, therefore, preferred to talk about a matter which is not covered in the Bill at all.
1158 My main reason for speaking is that I have had some connection with the campaigns over the past year or so on two of the most important parts of the Bill. Apart from warmly welcoming them, I should like to say a few words about them. With regard to kidney patients, I entirely share the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) and the welcome which he gave to this part of the Bill. It is a pity that this has not been done more quickly, but it is none the less welcome.
I thought that the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) was perhaps a little unkind in his criticism of the Attendance Allowance Board. Inevitably, Parliament has to give the board the job of supervising the legislation as we lay it down. Frankly, anyone who looks at the criteria for the payment of attendance allowance as laid down in the original Act will recognise that in dealing with people who did not require attendance every day of the week the Attendance Allowance Board faced a very difficult problem. As a board it did not dodge the problem, but it did in all honesty face one.
I believe that as soon as it was clear to Ministers that the Attendance Allowance Board felt that it had a problem, and especially as soon as it was clear which way it would jump in resolving its dilemma, we as a Parliament, and the Government as a Government, should have jumped sooner to resolve that dilemma. Perhaps the only seriously critical thing that I shall say is that I think the delay in acting on this problem contrasts rather sadly with the speed with which the Government acted during the parliamentary recess to remove housewives' non-contributory invalidity pension from a number of people who had been judged to qualify by decisions of the commissioners.
There will always be difficult problems in this area and adjustments will have to be made. But I find it difficult to understand why there should have been so much delay in relation to kidney patients and so much rapid action in regard to the housewives' non-contributory invalidity pension. Apart from that, I endorse and support what my hon. Friends have said about retrospection.
1159 To me it remains a puzzle why we have not had a straightforward, clear-cut answer on this matter. It must imply that there will not be complete retrospection. Clearly, in the light of what the Minister says, this is one of the points that we shall want to examine with great care in Committee.
I turn briefly to deal with mobility allowance. Here again I have some interest, because my own Ten-Minute Bill last Session sought to allow all those who received mobility allowance before retirement age to keep the mobility allowance afterwards. This Bill now goes a long way towards meeting that aim. I do not complain that the Government did not take on my Bill, but I wonder why so many signs of resistance were given earlier this year and why we now have this change of mind. There is certainly no evidence that the public expenditure problems which were quoted as the difficulty earlier this year have disappeared. I welcome this part of the Bill simply because it is a move in the direction which I advocated in my Private Member's Bill.
I welcome also the effective extension of the mobility allowance to women up to the age of 65, rather than 60. This highlights even more clearly the growing anomaly of the different retirement ages for men and women. This is even more pronounced when one compares this part of the social security system with the tax system and the tax allowances. We must have some clear proposals about this biggest of all anomalies which must be resolved.
The proposal to allow mobility allowance to be kept up to the age of 75 is also welcome. It puts off the problem for another 10 years, but it does not dispose of it. In eight or nine years' time we shall have equally agonising discussions about those who will then lose their mobility allowance. I believe that over a period this extension will cause an even greater demand for the mobility allowance to be extended not just to those who get it before they retire, but to those who become disabled after they reach retiring age.
One of the objections to my Private Member's Bill was that it was the thin end of the wedge. I was told that by allowing people to keep their allowance 1160 when they retired one would destroy the argument for not allowing it to those who became disabled after pensionable age. It was argued that the costs of that would be huge and therefore we could not afford to start down that path.
But Ministers have now started down this path. In due course we shall be faced with people of 72 who are receiving £10 a week because they became disabled at 62. Yet others who are identically disabled but have become disabled after the age of 65 will get nothing. That will not be sustainable in the long run.
My main point may seem odd to Ministers at a time when we have not even finished phasing in the mobility allowance scheme. However, I still suggest that we now need a full-scale review of the scheme. There is this doubt about the invalid trike and the continued resistance to its phasing out. We have doubts about the maintenance of trikes and the worry about whether those that are in existence can be maintained. We have anxieties about the criteria, and I support what has been said by the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) about the concern over the definition of the words "unable to walk" or "virtually unable to walk". We have anxieties about the amount of the allowance and whether it is capable of sustaining a vehicle on the road, and we have anxieties, which will be increased by the Bill, about the coverage of the allowance.
Apart from those factors, since the scheme was introduced we have had two or three years of regular piecemeal adjustments. I believe that it is now time to stand back and look at the whole thing. We should ask ourselves whether we have got it right, or whether we need to develop a slightly broader approach and fit the pieces together better. We are in danger of getting into a real muddle over the mobility allowance by this process of piecemeal adjustments, without ever appearing to take a coherent look at what we are trying to achieve and the problems that we have experienced.
I was responsible for moving one of the main amendments to the Finance Bill in Committee last summer on the exemption from vehicle excise duty of disabled people in receipt of the mobility allowance. It was granted, but it is only 1161 just about to be implemented—I believe that it will take effect next month. I have no doubt that the Government's proposal to abolish vehicle excise duty has caused great anxiety, even in its consultation form. Even on the day that the consultation paper was published hinting at the abolition of the duty I received an agonised telephone call from one of the spokesmen for disabled people in my area protesting about the consequences of this policy for the disabled. He pointed out that the disabled had only just got their exemption from excise duty and now the Government apparently proposed to abolish the duty. Therefore they were denying the disabled the value of their concession.
Whatever may be argued about the balance of advantage for any other group in the community, the disabled must be worse off as a result of this proposal. There is no way in which even those disabled who do only a very low mileage can be compensated for an increase in petrol tax when they are already not paying vehicle excise duty. That problem will be accentuated in rural areas such as mine where the disabled need to use their vehicles more.
The Government White Paper, which I picked up from the Vote Office a short time ago, recognises the problem of disabled people. It says:It is too early at this stage to say whether or not it will be appropriate to make some specific adjustments to these benefits to take account of the loss of VED exemption.That is simply not good enough. Disabled people will be worse off. It will be intolerable if they are not compensated. We must give them confidence now by a clear statement from the Government that they will be compensated if this policy is carried through the House.
§ 6.27 p.m.
§ Mr. George Rodgers (Chorley)
I shall make a brief contribution because I wish to confine my remarks mainly to the mobility allowance.
We should clarify in our minds as far as possible the imposition of income tax on the mobility allowance. It is fairly apparent that a set sum is available for the mobility allowance. If income tax is not to be applied that sum will diminish because there are no claw-back arrange- 1162 ments. Consequently, there will be a lesser overall benefit. In that case those at the lower end of the income scale will be penalised and those at the higher end, who are prosperous anyway, will be the greatest beneficiaries. While I would certainly advocate that the mobility allowance should be increased at every opportunity, I am very much in favour of it being subjected to income tax. In fact, I think that the income tax formula should be extended far more widely.
I very much welcome the tidying up aspects of the Bill and support the modest improvements to the attendance allowance provisions. I approve the intention to strengthen the supplementary benefit appeal tribunals. I have been concerned for some time about procedures at tribunals. Far too often the emphasis is on technicalities and details.
I had a case in my constituency of a lady who took her case to the tribunal. She was refused a maternity grant because she applied a couple of days after the time limit had expired. The fact that she had the baby, which was pretty clear evidence of her entitlement, was ignored, but the fact that she applied for the grant too late was considered to be of overwhelming importance. We should examine carefully the proceedings in tribunals, because sometimes curious decisions are made.
The Bill is almost totally virtuous but, nevertheless, it is rather a watery concoction. What is really needed at this stage is solid and substantial new legislation to meet growing problems in many areas of social need. I hope that there will be an early opportunity for another social security Bill which will herald a major advance towards remedying the desperate needs of one-parent families and dealing with the problems that afflict the long-term unemployed. Those should be high priorities.
I turn to the proposition that the mobility allowance should be made available to women up to the age of 65 and that both men and women who have been awarded the benefit before the age of 65 should be allowed to retain it until the age of 75, rather than having to forfeit the allowance on reaching retirement age, which is the present arrangement. The mobility allowance is a bold and visionary 1163 concept which has enlarged the horizons of many disabled people.
I am particularly pleased that the entitlement is extended to children who are severely handicapped. I am well aware that the additional money now in the possession of families in which there are one, perhaps two, or even three disabled members has had a revitalising effect on the domestic scheme. For, let us make no mistake, the misfortune of being disabled is nearly always a very expensive calamity, and people who previously considered themselves a financial burden to their families have achieved a greater dignity and a greater degree of contentment because of the existence of the mobility allowance. It is my fervent hope and firm belief that the allowance is the first step towards an income by right for all disabled people.
I foresee enormous complications arising from the suggested formula which will allow those above the age of 65 to retain the mobility allowance, while denying the same entitlement to others who become immobile after the age of 65. Let us consider the resentment that will occur in the circumstance in which a person of 65 suffers an illness, accident or injury which leaves him or her unable to walk. Such a person will not qualify for the mobility payment, but meanwhile others whose ability to walk is severely restricted but who were awarded the allowance at the age of perhaps 63 or 64 will receive this useful additional payment to their pension—£10 a week. It is quite a substantial payment and obviously will increase over the years. That will continue until the individual reaches the age of 75.
I think that that set of circumstances, in which one person who acquires immobility after the age of 65 receives nothing while someone who acquires immobility before the age of 65 will receive £10 a week over a sustained period, will cause immense problems in the future.
There is another problem that will arise. The consequences of old age are often very similar to those of disability. Indeed, the tribulations of old age are sometimes a direct disability in themselves and the effects of advancing years cannot be distinguished from immobility due to other causes.
I fear that tremendous anger will flow from this proposed policy, and that situa- 1164 tion will have been brought about by a deliberate decision of this House. We as Members of the House will not be able to say "We dissociate ourselves from the position" by pointing out that the ruling has been made about the mobility allowance or lack of it because of an opinion by a medical practitioner or by a tribunal. It will be the result of a policy decision that we make here and for which Members are directly responsible.
I beseech Ministers to think again, to assess and to endeavour to anticipate what lies ahead if these proposals remain in their present setting. It will be much wiser if those over 65 who believe that they have an entitlement to mobility allowance are enabled to submit a claim. I do not believe that the position would be abused. Obviously, most pensioners would much prefer to have the capacity to walk, to get about under their own steam, than to be the recipients of a weekly cash allowance. We must not divide the elderly who are unable to walk into categories, especially when the division is based upon such an illogical foundation. I therefore look to my right hon. Friend to indicate that reform will be introduced at an early stage in our proceedings.
I add my voice to those who have advocated that the mobility allowance should be extended so that blind people qualify. Blindness imposes a high level of immobility. It also denies the blind person employment opportunities. It curtails areas of enjoyment that most of us take for granted. Of course there are other groups of disabled people. As I have already indicated, I look forward to the day when the mobility allowance is converted to a general disability income for all disabled people. Meanwhile, as a first tentative step towards that destination, let us make the provision available to blind people. Very few people would begrudge the blind the right to this tiny consolation. To me, the case seems so apparent that it hardly requires argument.
The Government have a proud record of assistance to disabled people. They have established entirely new benefits. Other Governments, and certainly individual Members of Parliament, have spoken about the need for such provision, but it is the present Administration which has taken action to help the handicapped 1165 and acted with great decency and generosity. Those who are critical of this Administration, particularly those who belonged to previous Governments who had an opportunity to act and did not do so, should be cautious in their comments. I now ask the Government to move a little faster, and perhaps a little further, in extending the entitlement to the mobility allowance.
§ 6.36 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
Like almost every other hon. Member who has spoken in the debate so far, I welcome that part of the Bill which corrects the anomaly of the attendance allowance. I am waiting with great suspense, as we all are, to see exactly how retrospection is covered in the Bill. I suspect that it is covered by clause 2(2). It seems a petty obscure method of doing it, but I await confirmation from the Minister.
We are all greatly appreciative of the extension of the mobility allowance for men over 65 and for women over 60 continuing until they are 75. Reference has been made to the fact that this move is not very expensive. It will cost £5½ million in the next financial year and in four years' time the cost will be £20 million a year. I heard with dry amusement the cavalier way in which the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) dismissed this as a mere bagatelle—only another £20 million. Yet we are always getting vociferous calls from the Opposition for cuts in public expenditure. The cost is considerable, but it is still very worth while.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Rodgers) pointed out that the extension of the mobility allowance will not be without its problems because we shall, with the final passage of the Bill, have created two classes of pensioner—those who will be getting mobility allowance and those who will not. We shall be creating the anomaly that if someone is seriously injured or striken by illness after the qualifying age of 65 he or she will not be entitled to claim mobility allowance. This will cause a great deal of resentment.
But we must recognise that the Bill is primarily an adjusting measure. It extends certain benefits and makes provision for 1166 reducing entitlement in others. It is necessary, as our social security system grows up, for admentments to be made from time to time. What the Bill illustrates above all is the way in which the social securitly benefit system and our special categories of payment have grown up in an ad hoc way. Benefits for specific disabilities, for specific categories of people, have arisen as a response to the agitation of the special-interest groups.
One does not condemn that—it is the way in which our open democratic society operates. People are able to argue strongly for the kinds of change they want to see. That is healthy for democracy, even if it causes problems for those in Government. But a thorough review is needed in order to have a comprehensive disability allowance and to try to ensure that there is some planning ahead in our social security provisions. We cannot stagger on, from time to time adjusting here, taking care of anomalies there, rectifying decisions of tribunals and putting right decisions of attendance boards.
The are in the pipeline a considerable number of claims for special treatment. For example, organisations for the blind are anxious that there should be a blindness allowance. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be aware of early-day motion no. 34 on that subject. To save the time of the House I shall not read it out. My hon. Friend will be aware of it and of the widespread support for it, which is growing as each day goes by. How much does my hon. Friend think a blindness allowance would cost? When can it be introduced? What are the prospects of blind people being able to qualify for the mobility allowance? What would that cost?
We can understand disabled people's feelings of frustration when they believe that they need assistance. It is strange how human beings behave. They can go on happily living with their disability, trying to make the best of it, but as soon as another category receives special assistance they feel a greater sense of deprivation. The more allowances there are, the more people there are on the margins who perhaps have, or believe that they have, a similar disability. One then extends the ring a little further and brings in a greater number of people at the margin. Therefore, as that continues, more and more people feel greatly frustrated.
1167 I understand why people are frustrated. I understand the frustration of those on the margins of a special disability. A decision may seem to them to be taken in an arbitrary way. I am sure that it is done more scientifically by our friends in the medical profession who have to deal with attendance allowance and qualification for mobility allowance, but people often feel that these things are done in an arbitrary way, because they are dealing with the human judgment of one doctor, or perhaps two, whose judgments may differ in different parts of the country. Different doctors within the same city can appear to be a little stricter or a little more lenient. Therefore, someone on the margin of disability becomes very frustrated. We need a fundamental review to see where we go from here.
I should like to speak briefly about appeals to tribunals which are the most difficult matter with which we have to deal. We have long asked that legal assistance be made available. We need to do more than that. We should put on record the great debt of gratitude that many working-class people owe to trade union officers who go to a tribunal as the friend of the person who is appealing, as well as our debt to those who serve on the tribunals.
As the legislation becomes more complicated and the qualifying conditions become more obscure, it is difficult for people doing the work in a lay capacity to have the knowledge to master the subject. I am sure that they do their best, but in many cases the trade union officers cannot provide the expert opinion that they face on the opposite side. They do a splendid job, but perhaps we need to provide more training for lay people to assist with appeals. Certainly, we need to go further in the matter of legal assistance.
I think that I understood my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security to say at the opening of the debate that there would be a system of monitoring how tribunals worked. I did not quite catch what he said, but if he did say that I am delighted, because it is long overdue. I hope that we shall have confirmation of that.
I give my full support to the Bill. Although the improvements and adjustments that it makes are not major, it must be seen in the context of the con- 1168 tinuum of Government policy since they came to office in 1974. The Bill shows the success that the Government have had in revitalising the social security system. It shows that they have compassion for those who need their assistance. But we need to do more. We should also make a more positive drive to make people understand that social security benefits are available as of right, provided they qualify. We should make clear that someone claiming social security assistance has nothing to be ashamed of.
It is significant that absent from the Opposition Benches tonight are those who shout at every opportunity about the abuse of social security and howl about scroungers. They never take the opportunity to come here so that their assertions can be challenged. They prefer to make their speeches to esoteric bodies such as the Chelsea Young Conservatives and various strange animals that exist in the unreal world.
It is significant that those hon. Members are not here. They claim "We are not really against people getting social security. We are only against the abuse", and they say that when they call for a major review what they are really concerned about is to see that people benefit from the system, that taxpayers' money is wisely used and that fairness is done. But when we debate a Bill extending social security benefits, modest though this Bill is, they never take the opportunity to come and congratulate the Government on doing something. They always moan, groan and snipe from outside.
The only part of the speech of the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford that I regretted was when even he could not resist making a snide remark about the abuses of the system and the need to cut income tax generally. He can never square the circle. He cannot say how we can have great reductions in taxation and at the same time find the money to pay for the benefits.
The Conservatives always speak about reducing income tax. They will never say categorically that, on the one hand, they will give out by reducing income tax, but that, on the other hand, they will take back even more through indirect taxation. The way in which they try to pretend that the benefits which we all demand can be provided without the 1169 money coming from somewhere, through some form of taxation, is criminal.
I welcome the Bill. I hope that the review that we have called for will be forthcoming. I am sure that as long as the Government proceed along the way of ensuring that those in need receive the benefit from society and demanding that society recognises its responsibilities they will have our wholehearted support.
§ 6.47 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Boscawen (Wells)
Following on the line of thought of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), I think that there is something more significant still about the Bill—a realisation, not shown in the Bill, that we can no longer move forward on a broad front in establishing improved benefits for those in any particular area, such as the disabled, without taxing people more, either through their contributions or through income tax or indirect taxes, because there is no growth in the economy. The significant point about the Bill is that it is realistic, in that it recognises that no great improvement in the social security system is possible until the economy moves forward again faster and at a much steadier pace than it has in the past few years.
Therefore, I was rather surprised when the hon. Gentleman suggested that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wan-stead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) did not seem to mind that in five years the cost of the mobility allowance would perhaps have increased to £20 million, as a result of the Bill, when at the same time he was calling for cuts in public expenditure. I am sure that what my right hon. Friend meant—I feel this strongly, too—was that in five years we must have more growth in the economy so that we can increase the level of expenditure on some of the things that we want to do. Five years is a long time. I hope that by then we shall be able to swallow the £20 million, and a good deal more for some of the benefits that we should like to see being made available to cover the cost of disability.
I wish to detain the House for only a short time on the question of the mobility allowance and Motability allowance, which is one of the most important 1170 aspects of this small Bill. To provide the mobility allowance beyond the age of 65, making the new limit 75, is an advance. I hope that as the economy grows at a faster rate we shall be able to raise the limit even further. There should ultimately be no rigid age limitation for the provision of the Motability allowance. I have always backed the idea of a mobility allowance, of giving cash for disabled people irrespective of whether they could travel in a vehicle or drive a vehicle. I recognise that this would be a great deal more costly than the old system of selection of those with the ability to drive a vehicle. Being more costly, the level of benefit is not so good.
Now that we have the mobility allowance, and now that this remarkable achievement of Motability has been launched, the Government must put all their weight behind making both work as well as possible. Let us see how far we can go, as soon as possible, to cover the cost of the minimum rental for the Motability vehicle and the mobility allowance. I should hate to feel that the Motability system might fall by the wayside because the Government cannot support it sufficiently on the level of the mobility allowance in the years to come.
On the question of taxation of the mobility allowance, I realise it is not strictly in order in this debate, but I believe that the mobility allowance should not be taxable. The general philosophy of help to the disabled must be in the form of help towards meeting the costs of being disabled and the extra cost caused by disability. The extra cost of disability should be the same for everybody whatever the disability. I feel that the question of taxation has nothing whatever to do with the income of the individual concerned. If he is able to go to work, he should be encouraged to do so. The mobility allowance is partly to enable people to get to work. Then, of course, a person will be taxed on his earnings in the ordinary way like everyone else. The cost of being a disabled person has been realised only in recent years. The allowance should not be taxed. It should be the same for everyone, provided they qualify for it.
I hope that the system will not be so rigid as to exclude more Government help for those who can use only a tricycle or a 1171 specialised vehicle. This is likely to be one of the problems in the future as the trikes gradually wear out and there is nothing to replace them. I hope that the Minister, in his reply—if I may pay him a compliment, he has given much in trying to improve the lot of those on mobility allowance and those who cannot benefit fully from a four-wheel vehicle through a Motability scheme—will say what he has in mind for when the tricycles are no longer available to those who cannot use any other form of vehicle. I do not think we have yet heard the Government's views.
This is not a major Bill by any means. It is a tidying-up measure. It is immensely complicated, as all social security measures are becoming these days. I am sure that the Committee will have a field day sorting out some of its intricate clauses. Nevertheless, it makes a slow movement along the right road in respect of mobility allowance. For that reason, I hope we shall be able to give it a good deal of support.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Mrs. Audrey Wise (Coventry, South-West)
The hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Boscawen) made a general reference to the economy. I have no doubt that what we really need are measures for the prevention of poverty by moving to an entirely different kind of economy, away from the capitalist system. Failing that, or pending it, since it is bound to come one day we need measures for the adequate relief of poverty. Prevention is better, but relief would certainly be an advance.
I regret to say that I do not regard this Bill as fulfilling that requirement. It is a good Bill as far as it goes, but it does not go anything like far enough. It is difficult with a Bill which has no general principle to make a Second Reading speech which is supposed to be about the general principle rather than the detail of a measure. The Bill really consists of details, which creates a problem.
Like everyone else who has spoken, I feel it necessary to refer to some things which are not in the Bill but which ought to be. Some are relatively small, for example, the maternity grant. Is it not about time that the maternity grant was restored at least to its previous level and was not subject to a contributions record? 1172 I recommend Ministers in the Department to read the pamphlet entitled "Reducing the Risk—Safer Pregnancy and Childbirth". This document does not say as much as it ought about the problem. But at least it says thatsome vulnerable groups such as schoolgirl mothers and unsupported mothers not recently at work do not qualifyfor maternity grant. Financial problems undoubtedly contribute to the fact that the perinatal mortality rate for these vulnerable mothers is about twice as high as that for other mothers. Lack of money means that babies die. I think that an alteration so that at least a basic maternity grant is available to all mothers must be a priority.
Incidentally, I wonder where the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) is. She is always so concerned when we are discussing abortion. She could be making the point that I am now making for the protection of mothers and children at risk. She is absent as usual from this kind of debate, because, of course, this is a matter which would involve more public expenditure. Conservative Members know that very well.
Another matter which ought to be in the Bill is the disregard, for supplementary benefit purposes, of the one-parent family premium. That would not provide an adequate income for one-parent families, but it would acknowledge that those one-parent families who are not at work also need the additional premium of £2 which is paid to those who are at work. I am pleased that the Government have acknowledged the need for a special premium, but I have the feeling occasionally that, lurking somewhere in the recesses of the Department, there is someone who is calculating how to ensure that the Government win the least possible credit for any good things they do. For example, failing to give the benefit of the single-parent family premium to those on supplementary benefit seems one way for the Government to secure the least possible credit for having done something which is otherwise good.
There are other important matters. One of my hon. Friends referred to the need to extend long-term benefit to the unemployed. I noted the approval with which the right hon. Member for Wan-stead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) referred 1173 to David Donnison, the chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission. I share that approval. I was waiting with bated breath to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that because of his admiration for and learning from David Donnison's wise words the Opposition would adopt the sort of proposals which he advocates for the relief of poverty, which include the extension of long-term benefit to the unemployed and a reduction in the qualifying term for receipt of long-term benefits.
Those of us who are concerned about children should note that a good way to help families in poverty is by the application of long-term benefit to the unemployed and the reduction of the qualifying term from two years to one year. Two years is far too long a period for a family with children.
The gap between long-term and short-term benefits is widening partly because of a good provision introduced by the Government which ensures that pensioners get increases in line either with the increase in the cost of living or with the rise in average earnings, whichever is the greater. In carrying out their tidying-up operations the Government should bear in mind that this increased gap makes it even more pressing that those on short-term benefit should have the opportunity to graduate much more quickly to longterm benefit.
§ Mr. Orme
I take note of my hon. Friend's comments. She must be aware that the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) has cast doubt on whether the Opposition, should they have the chance, would continue with long-term benefits based on wages or prices. That should be borne in mind.
§ Mrs. Wise
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention. There are clear indications that the Opposition would seek to revert simply to a tie-in to prices and to remove this important advantage from pensioners. I do not know whether the Opposition realise that this provision was introduced to ensure that if there was a general uplift in the standard of living pensioners would share in it. But then the Opposition are not very good with pensioners, are they? They do not even know where to find genuine pen- 1174 sioners with genuine problems to put before us on the television.
I must acknowledge reluctantly that these important requirements that I have outlined are missing from the Bill. It consists of many detailed changes. There will always be a need to look in detail at social security, and detailed changes will always be needed. But it is a pity that so many of the problems stem from drafting difficulties. Much has been said about the difficulty that laymen have in understanding this kind of Bill. I feel that the draftsmen themselves do not understand it too clearly and that it is only when the legislation comes into operation, or when commencement is imminent, that the defects are revealed.
That, I suggest, is a further reason for a drive to ensure that Bills like this are couched in plain language. They should at least be drawn up in language that we in this House, and if possible the claimant, can understand. In the process we should obtain a Bill that needs less subsequent tidying up. That would also give time for some of the other details to be put right.
We need to pay attention to matters such as why regulations seem to be designed to ensure that the Supplementary Benefits Commission has its cake and eats it. For example, different treatment is afforded to claimants who are themselves householders and those who are living in another person's household, where rent contribution is concerned. Assume, for example, that a widow and her son are living together and that the son is a claimant for supplementary benefit. He is deemed to be paying £1.45 towards the rent, and that is what he will get added to his supplementary benefit claim. But if his mother is the claimant, she will be deemed to be receiving from the son half the rent. That is the amount that will be deducted from her rent allowance.
In effect, therefore, the commission is saying to a householder "Make sure that the other members of your family pay proportionately". But to a son or daughter it is saying "Do not pay a proportionate amount towards the rent because you will receive only £1.45". Rather than having to tidy up legislation, we should be able to ensure that that kind of anomaly is corrected.
1175 Clauses 2 and 3 are generally good. The Opposition should remember that in spite of their constant cries for less public expenditure the Government are managing to spend £385 million a year for disabled people. I think that I am justified in suggesting that that is far higher than would be the case if the Tories were in office.
I have been critical about the invalid tricycle and I am seriously worried about the provision of vehicles. I must willingly concede, however, that when the mobility allowance is phased in 125,000 people will get it, whereas only 19,000 people had the benefit of the tricycle, and that is a real advance.
I am pleased that the Bill provides an opportunity to improve the position of women by making it possible for them in future to be entitled to qualify for mobility allowance up to the age of 65. That will be widely welcomed. I think I am right in assuming from the opening remarks of my right hon. Friend that this provision will be phased in equally for men and women. I see my right hon. Friend nodding in confirmation, and I am grateful for that.
Clause 5 deals with tribunals. In broad terms, I welcome this proposal. It is an advance to give the right of appeal to the national insurance commissioners. However, there are one or two aspects which worry me and which possibly can be ironed out. I do not quite understand why the clause does not simply give the right here and now, why it appears to be dependent on regulations and why there is reference to the need to have leave to appeal. My understanding is that at the moment there is a right of appeal on a point of law to the High Court which does not depend on the appellant being granted leave. There might be creeping in some restriction of claimants' rights in this respect. I am sure that it is not intended, and it may be that it is not even there. If I am mistaken, I shall be glad to have my right hon. Friend's reassurance.
Again, I do not quite understand whose leave has to be sought. I am wary of enabling clauses which depend on regulations at a later date, the details of which are not now before the House. I am not certain that that is necessary in clause 5, and it bothers me. However, I welcome the broad principle of the 1176 introduction of this right of appeal to the national insurance commissioners.
Subsection (3) strikes me as very peculiar. It gives the Secretary of State power to make regulations suspending the payment of supplementary benefit pending the determination of questions. I regard this as rather sinister. I do not understand why it has to be in the subsection. It is, after all, already within the power of the Supplementary Benefits Commission to withhold benefit if exceptional circumstances exist. It is already within its power to recover benefit if it has been wrongly given. Therefore, I am a little suspicious of subsection (3). I should like to be reassured about it in no uncertain terms, otherwise this is a provision which I may seek to have withdrawn at a later stage.
I ask my right hon. Friend to bear in mind another danger in this connection, in that there is no requirement for questions to be determined within a time limit in relation to supplementary benefit. If this provision were activated, it could involve claimants in the loss of benefit for a considerable time and, since they are on supplementary benefit only because they have no other money, I regard this provision as extremely worrying. I hope that at some stage, either now or in Committee, we can be reassured about it or have it removed.
I was bothered by the situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley) who talked about various problems which had arisen in relation to tribunals in his area. I should like a categorical assurance from my right hon. Friend that political questions to nominees will be forbidden. I accept the statement that there is no desire to operate any sort of political witch hunt. That being so, I must confess that I do not understand how political questions could be asked of nominees in the first place.
§ Mr. Orme
I have had a word about this with my hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley). I have asked him to let me have the evidence. It is not a matter which can be dealt with on the Floor of the House. Obviously I shall be writing to my hon. Friend, and I am sure that anyone who is interested will have an opportunity to see that correspondence. If my hon. 1177 Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise) will leave that point, I assure her that I shall be dealing with it.
§ Mrs. Wise
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that.
I notice with interest—and I shall look with even greater interest to see how it is implemented—the provision to amend schedule 4 to the 1976 Act. It says that every tribunal shall contain a memberappearing to the Secretary of State to have knowledge or experience of conditions in the area to which the panel relates and of the problems of people living on low incomes.When my right hon. Friend is talking to my hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth, Central about the previous matter to which I referred, I hope that he will also discuss with him the non-appointment of people apparently on the ground that they themselves are claimants. If that is the way the system works, I do not understand the value of this provision in schedule 2. I should have thought that those with knowledge or experience of the problems of people living on low incomes would include people who themselves have to live on low incomes. No knowledge or experience could be more pertinent than that.
There is no doubt that the Bill is a good one. But it is a small one, and I take this opportunity to urge upon my right hon. and hon. Friends the need for a further Bill going much more deeply into the strategy involved in our social security arrangements. When a single pensioner gets £19.90 a week, apart from rent—and no one suggests that pensioners get too much and a mother with a baby gets only 5p more, there must be something wrong. If a mother with a baby happens not to be a householder she actually gets less than that figure.
I hope that there will be no complacency in the Department and that we shall have a further Bill put before us with a challenge to the Opposition to show their concern for the poor, the handicapped and the disadvantaged, and a challenge to them to vote on a Bill which really helps to remedy the basic problems faced by so many people.
I am sorry to say that there is one feature of this whole proceeding which I have had no difficulty in understanding. It is the Money Resolution. It is spelt 1178 out in unusual detail, in words of almost one syllable, making it crystal clear that there is no way of amending the Bill which involves any more money being spent on it. I wish that the Money Resolution were a little more obscure and flexible than it is.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)
It is easy for the Treasury to put into plain English words which say that there cannot be any more money. However, it appears to be difficult for my right hon. Friend's Department to set out regulations in clear English when it is trying to help people.
§ Mr. Patrick Jenkin
It was explained to us earlier by the right hon. Gentleman that the problem is that the Bill is intended to save £180 million. That is why it is so complicated.
§ Mrs. Wise
I shall accept that it is a genuine attempt at tidying up the legislation. It is a genuine attempt to prevent anomalies and peculiarities arising from the ill-drafting of previous legislation. If that is so, I accept my right hon. Friend's assurance, partly because I have my eye on a good deal more than £180 million for changes which should include, for example, making the maternity grant non-contributory.
§ Mr. Orme
Despite the interjection from the right hon. Member for Wan-stead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) I assure my hon. Friend that this is not a Bill which involves public expenditure cuts. It is a Bill to correct errors where moneys were being spent which the Government did not intend. They were genuine errors, and it is wrong for certain people to get money in pension payments which no one intended them to have. There is no element of cuts in the changes. The extra 1179 expenditure is not to be offset against the mobility allowance. We are talking of extra expenditure by the Government.
§ Mrs. Wise
I am prepared to accept the Minister's statement. The Bill will be examined line by line to ensure that what he says is correct. I am sure that he has borne that in mind in giving that assurance.
I welcome the Bill. But we must have another Bill to deal with strategy for the relief of poverty as well as other more fundamental economic changes for the prevention of poverty.
§ 7.21 p.m.
§ Mrs. Lynda Chalker (Wallasey)
Social security measures are becoming more and more friendly affairs for those who take a deep interest in them. Tonight is no exception. I wish to make a few comments in response to the miscellany of "running repairs".
No person who is in genuine need of and entitled to benefit has anything to fear from this side of the House. Much slang is thrown around the House and outside, but there is no way in which we should continue to deceive ourselves that the country has amounts of money which stagnant growth is not producing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Boscawen) and others have commented on the lack of growth in the economy. Hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to see a growth in the economy so that the Minister responsible for the disabled as well as my hon. Friends can do more for those in need. However, until we have greater growth in the economy it would be foolhardy to promise things which we cannot deliver. That is why we have, on occasions, to hasten slowly. That is far better than not hastening at all. That needs to be said in view of some of the remarks made earlier in the debate.
We could always extend further such Bills as this. To make the decision about first priorities is never easy; we understand that. From tonight's debate it seems that we need to look further ahead than just the immediate future. That is why I hope that we shall have a wider debate before long on the supplementary benefits review report "Social Assistance". That report is worthy of more detailed debate than we can give it 1180 in a Second Reading debate. People inside and outside the House have been attracted by the suggestions in that document for helping to meet fuel costs and simplifying the housing rebate system which the Supplementary Benefits Commission found to be in such a mess. The beneficiaries do not understand the fuel system either. It is becoming far too complicated.
I echo the remarks made by the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross). He said that too often Northern Ireland social security and other problems are considered long after we consider similar matters involving England, Wales and Scotland. I welcome the fact that this Bill seeks to include Northern Ireland in this one piece of legislation. I hope that we shall be able to consider the statutory instruments for Northern Ireland at the same time as we consider those for the United Kingdom. It is important that we should be on the same footing on both sides of the water.
One provision in the Bill brings the equal treatment of women a little nearer, that is, the provision to raise the entitlement for mobility allowance to the age of 65 years. When we come to consider further the document "Social Assistance" and other matters in the supplementary benefits arena we must take into account the considerable move in opinion about women's position in taxation and benefits. I hope that that will be possible in due time.
I turn to the question of the attendance allowance provisions in the Bill. Many hon. Members have echoed the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) about how much we welcomed the change and saying that it was long overdue. We realise the problems in arriving at this decision. As a co-sponsor of the Ten-Minute Rule Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), I was disappointed that the Government did not give that Bill a fair wind and amended it, if necessary, when it returned from the House of Lords.
We are insufficiently flexible in this House in dealing with problems that arise in the country. Many people who are involved with non-parliamentary politics sometimes despair of politicians because 1181 of their inability to respond to a situation. We have seen the first chink of light on attendance allowance for kidney patients in the release from the Department of 14th July. This was the document dealing with changes in the law for attendance allowances for home dialysis. It was unresponsive of the Government not to assist my hon. Friend for Acton with his Bill in the summer and the other attempts that have been made, particularly by the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), to rectify a serious wrong.
Now we have a Bill with a clause to rectify that matter. But we have lost six months unless the Minister says that those who should have been receiving the attendance allowance because they dialyse at home but who did not receive it because of the change in the Attendance Allowance Board regulations will have a back-dated payment.
I am no expert on social security legislation, but I have now lived with it for over four and a half years. I am beginning to understand some of the terminology. I cannot for the life of me find any reference to retrospective payments in the Bill.
§ Mrs. Chalker
The hon. Member says that it is there. He has been a Member of the House longer than I, but I cannot rely upon his word. I shall wait for the Minister to tell me that there is a retrospective element. If there are not to be retrospective payments, the culpability of the Government will be even worse than when I first spoke of their lack of response to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Acton, the hon. Member for Derby, North and my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton) in trying to rectify the situation.
A Labour Member from below the Gangway raised the matter of kidney transplants which is not covered by the Bill. We should all do what we can to encourage people to carry kidney donor cards. My card is tucked away in my handbag. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford carries his card. I hope that every hon. Member is carrying his kidney 1182 donor card. That is the end of my "plug".
The Minister will know only too well how upset many of the recipients of the attendance allowance were when it was discontinued. Some were not even told in the post that they were no longer entitled to it. I hope that the Minister in his reply will assure the House that in future, when any allowance is removed for whatever reason, a letter should be sent to the recipient explaining why he no longer qualifies for that allowance.
Above all, I hope that the Minister will say that the attendance allowance payment for kidney dialysis patients who have treatment at home will be made retrospective, in whatever way the Department finds possible. If it is not made retrospective, I suspect that the Minister will have some difficulty in Committee. The Opposition do not wish to be obstructive, but we feel that this is a most important point. I know that all hon. Members share that view.
We welcome the extension of the mobility allowance initial entitlement to women to the age of 65, and particularly the fact that the entitlement should continue up to age of 75. I have a question to put to the Minister, and if he cannot answer it in his reply I hope that he will be kind enough to write to me. What is the Government's estimate of the cost of allowing recipients to keep the mobility allowance, if they are still entitled to it, beyond the age of 75 based on the current age profiles of the recipients—say over the next 10 years? It is important that we deal in the facts and do not take any notice of some of the rather spurious comments too often made by certain Labour Members.
I believe that there are even bigger problems ahead in respect of mobility allowance. I strongly argued at the time of the uprating in mobility allowance from £7 to £10 about its adequacy in allowing a disabled person to lease cars from Motability. At that time we mounted an exercise, and through the Finance Bill debates in this House it was found possible to exempt those disabled persons in receipt of disability allowance from vehicle excise duty, or the road fund tax.
This afternoon the Department of Transport issued a document entitled 1183 "The Future of Vehicle Excise Duty". Paragraph 24 of that document states:It is too early at this stage to say whether or not it will be appropriate to make some specific adjustments to the benefits"—that is, the exemption from vehicle excise duty for the disabled—to take account of the loss of VED exemption.Every hon. Member will realise that eventually all drivers will be able to exempt themselves from any further vehicle excise duty. However, the disabled, in a comparative sense, will lose £50 per year and their additional costs of motoring will rise if they are to pay more for their petrol, as I gather is the intention.
I hope that the Minister will say tonight what he intends to do for those disabled people, numbering 100,000 from December 1978, who would have been entitled to claim the exemption that is already enjoyed by 32,000 people but who will no longer enjoy that additional benefit. That is one aspect of the problem.
The second aspect is the fact that, so I am informed, there are likely to be further rises in the price of basic vehicles. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford spoke of "VAT on VAT" in the Motability exercise in respect of those receiving mobility allowance. We sincerely hope that the Minister will try to persuade the Treasury to appreciate that it is doubly taxing people by imposing VAT on the purchase of a car and then by imposing a similar tax on the leasing of a car from Motability to the disabled driver. We should surely seek to reduce that burden on the recipient of mobility allowance.
We know that this will cost money, but if the scheme is to work at all, as has been the intention of both sides of the House since the scheme's inception, we may have to give up certain parts of our other plans to enable the Motability scheme to work. I hope that we shall have from the Minister tonight an unequivocal answer on that point. It is important for all who receive mobility allowance to know where they stand.
I hope that when the green leaflet published by Motability last June is reissued we shall have a clear explanation of the excess mileage charge for those who travel 1184 more than 10,000 miles a year in cars leased from Motability. The fact that nobody knew about this matter until it was plucked out of some fairly obscure document is worrying. Already our postbags on this issue are beginning to grow—and they will grow a good deal larger unless the next leaflet puts the matter right.
Many hon. Members have expressed fears about the appeals system for supplementary benefits. The hon. Member for Derby, North talked about the power of the Attendance Allowance Board. Perhaps the House should give urgent consideration to those powers, because they are directly related to the Bill.
A cause for even greater concern is the amount of delay in reaching the appeals stage when a person has been disentitled to supplementary benefit for which he has applied. One basic reason why we are having continual problems with the appeal procedure is the fact that it is not understood. Although I appreciate that the Minister with responsibility for the disabled does not deal with this aspect himself I hope that he will be able to comment on it in his reply.
I wish to draw attention to the problems posed by the lack of information about appeals procedure in local DHSS offices. Without disclosing who I was, I inquired about leaflets in a number of offices—offices not in my constituency but in other parts of the country. Such information is almost non-existent in DHSS offices. I believe that we should make available to the public information about how the system works, or we shall dig a deeper and deeper grave.
The hon. Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley), who is not present, had a sly dig at me because he knows that when in London I stay in Wandsworth, and have done so for some years. He mentioned legal advice and law centres and referred to the three law centres in the London borough of Wandsworth. I can assure that hon. Gentleman that I spent most of last Saturday morning discussing the availability of legal advice in the borough of Wandsworth. Therefore, I do not need the hon. Gentleman to tell me to make those inquiries, because I know how important these matters are.
With regard to the supplementary benefit appeal tribunal system, clause 5, which 1185 applies to the 1976 supplementary benefit legislation and the family income supplement legislation of 1970, brings about a welcome change. However, we shall probe this matter in detail in Committee. I have always liked the idea put forward by Professor Donnison about attaching to the benefits paid through supplementary benefit to the claimant a statement showing how the amount is arrived at. I know that this is yet another piece of paper. I am well aware of that, but I think that it might be a cost saving in the long run if claimants knew why they get what they get. This is one of the matters which we have to consider—perhaps not on this Bill, but in discussing the simplification of the supplementary benefit system. Perhaps we can discuss it further when we consider the "Social Assistance" document in due course.
§ Mrs. Chalker
It is nice to know that good sense is being discussed on this issue, although we have doubts about certain others. The point I made in general about appeals is particularly relevant to the supplementary benefit appeal tribunals. I refer to the length of time the appeals are taking and the number of appeals which are now being heard.
We know that appeals proceed more easily when there is legal representation, but speaker after speaker in this debate, including the hon. Member for Lambeth, Central, spoke of the difficulty of getting such representation because it is not possible when it involves the national insurance commissioners. It seems to be wrong that, when somebody has to appeal to the commissioners, he cannot get legal aid, but if he appeals through the High Court, as part of our judicial system, he is then entitled to it. That is another area at which, if we seek to improve the system, we must look. We must bear in mind very carefully what costs that would impose. The growth which we can achieve in the economy will determine how quickly any extension of the system can be introduced.
1186 Another issue struck me most forcefully when reading Professor Bell's report, which has led to this change in the supplementary benefit appeal tribunal result. She spoke of integrating the appeals structures of national insurance, child benefit, family income supplement and supplementary benefit. This report, published in 1975, but on which the last Conservative Government started work in 1972, is very important. There is no way in which we shall achieve the ultimate objective of integrating the appeals structures until we integrate the overall system. That is why we on the Tory Benches placed considerable emphasis on this point. I hope that the Minister can assure us that the provisions of clause 5 of the Bill will not cause further delays in the appeals structure.
I understand why the Government thought it right to introduce the senior chairman proposals. We welcome that, although we shall press for more detail in Committee. I believe that if more delays are caused by this system we may undermine it even further than it has already been undermined by the pressure it is now under with its more than 5 million claimants every year. We have to find a way in which, not only the claimants understand the system and their entitlements, but a system whereby it is also understood that vexatious appeals will not be tolerated. Just as in other areas of the law, there has been an increase in the number of vexatious appeals. I have, I regret to say, come across an increasing number of such appeals in the supplementary benefit appeal tribunals in recent years.
This increase may be due to an extension of the numbers who are now dependent on supplementary benefit. Whether that is so or whether the system is totally out of true, we must rectify it. The senior chairman proposals and the issue of comparability between the different tribunals has worried many hon. Members for a long time. The Opposition realise that we cannot have perfect equality. It just is not part of life. But we can at least have rules and have them equitably applied across the country so that the place of appeal does not determine the result. That is one reason why the Conservatives welcome the senior chairman proposals enshrined in this legislation.
1187 I turn to a couple of other points which have not been mentioned in the debate so far. First, on clauses 6 and 7—and here I suppose that I am giving a warning to Ministers—I believe that the incompatible benefits and the repayment of benefits proposals contained in schedule 3 need to be accompanied by a good deal more warning and advice to those whom they will affect. It is a question of extending the information system about what the benefits are there for, how people claim them and what they may appeal about. Since we have a clause which I realise tidies up the legislation, but which specifically talks about repayment of benefit after appeal, when people have not been entitled to it, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that people know that they must repay the money which they have been claiming but which they are subsequently disallowed by the tribunal. That warning ought to be in the social security pamphlet dealing with the tribunal and appeals section of the supplementary benefit system.
The final point I make about the Bill concerns clause 9. This may be something to which the Minister can give no answer this evening. We fully understand the principle of clause 9, but I found, on looking more deeply into it, that there seems to be a hidden point.
I am concerned with the change of method in calculating the annual revaluation of pensions—a totally new point in this debate. For several years we have discussed this matter. The pensions business has worked on the basis of preparing to take current earnings factors, as revalued by each of the past orders, and then applying a newly derived earnings factor to arrive at the guaranteed minimum pension.
I understand that with this proposal we are to have a consolidated earnings factor. In other words, there will be a distinct earnings factor for each of 10, nine, eight, or however many years apply. There are many pensions organisations and companies which run their own pension schemes and which, after the agreement we reached on the Social Security Pensions Act 1945 and all the steps forward we made in a bipartisan approach, have spent long hours and much money preparing computer schemes to make the calculation of revalued earnings for GNP 1188 much simpler. All that work will be as nought under this proposal.
I hope that the Minister will be able to tell me that this proposal has the backing of all of the pensions organisations, the National Association of Pension Funds, the Life Offices Association, and all others involved, because if it does not have such backing some companies will face incredible difficulties and a great deal of unfair expense because they were never warned that the Government were preparing the introduction of a consolidated earnings factor. In all of my notes on Bills during the past few years I have been unable to find any mention of it.
The Bill has been described as a dog's breakfast, a dog's dinner, or whatever. The debate has covered a large number of issues, some within, and some outside the scope of the Bill. I assure the Government that the Bill will get good speed from us but also that we shall examine it thoroughly. Many of the issues that have been raised by Opposition Members are such as to require much more detailed examination and questioning, particularly on the mobility allowance. On this we shall press for an answer about where we are going and on what the Government's intentions are, because it affects what we do with the extension of the mobility allowance. We do not want to do one thing in isolation if we cannot see the picture which the Government are painting for the future. We shall have to be concerned with those who will not benefit from the provision of a car because they will not be able to benefit from even an adapted car or by being a passenger in the same through the Motability scheme.
There are many unanswered questions. Above all, the Minister must tell the House whether he is to make retrospective the attendance allowance for kidney dialysis patients at home. If he is not to make that announcement, he will have to work out how that will be done. I do not feel that the House will be able to allow this measure to become an Act unless the allowance is to be retrospective for those who really deserve the benefit.
§ 7.51 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. Alfred Morris)
We have had a worthwhile and deeply informed debate. It has also been extremely 1189 interesting and important. I shall deal with as many of the questions that have been raised as possible. Where necessary I shall write to hon. Members.
The Bill provides for some necessary and desirable changes in the law. The right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) referred to complexity. No one doubts that the social security system is complex, as are the needs that it has to meet. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security said that every week we make 19 million payments to about 13 million people. That is why we must accept that our legislation is so complex that running repairs need to be made fairly often. It is not possible to guarantee that every conceivable contingency has been covered. It is only as existing legislation is put into operation that defects not previously spotted come to light.
It would be wrong to consider the Bill as no more than the vehicle for technical changes. The proposed extension of the mobility allowance marks the latest in the long series of improvements in the provision of benefits for the disabled. There has been remarkable progress over the past eight years in provision for the disabled. Until 1970 there was scarcely any legislation specifically for the disabled. We find that as recently as the 1966 General Election no mention was made of disablement in the Labour Party's manifesto. Only the merest reference to it was made in the manifesto of the Conservative Party at that election. How different is the situation now. It is inconceivable that any party's manifesto would be complete without a substantial section on what could be done by way of improving facilities, services and benefits for the disabled.
The important change that the Bill introduces is to bring more people within the scope of the mobility allowance scheme. Under the existing provisions we expect about 120,000 disabled people to be receiving the mobility allowance next year. The Bill will substantially increase that number.
Before I speak about the specific changes, it is perhaps worth while considering how fat we have moved in the past four years. When we presented our 1190 plans in the House of Commons Paper "Social Security Provision for Chronically Sick and Disabled People" in July 1974 the possibility of introducing the mobility allowance was not even mentioned. It was announced in September 1974 as a benefit to be introduced at £4 a week. We introduced it at £5 a week in 1976. We increased it to £7 a week in 1977. It was increased still further to £10 a week in July of this year. For the future it is to be inflation-proofed. It will be increased every year along with other social security benefits. This year has also seen the introduction of the Motability scheme, which enables disabled drivers with mobility allowance to use that benefit to lease a suitable car.
The right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford and others have referred to the important task that Motability has undertaken. I join him in paying warm tribute to Lord Goodman, Jeffrey Sterling and all their colleagues for the progress that they have made so far. I am certain that they will make even more substantial and important progress in the months and years immediately ahead.
My Department deserves a tribute for the work of those who have been seconded to Motability. They are distinguished public servants. I am certain that everyone who is helping the Motability scheme to succeed would wish me to acknowledge the help that civil servants from my Department have given to such a novel scheme.
I have said that the mobility allowance will be inflation-proofed. I emphasise that that is an important advance among those that I have detailed. Improvements in mobility allowance have made a dramatic difference to the way of life of many. I quote from a letter that I recently received from someone in North London who has been paralysed for the past seven years and who still has to use elbow crutches.
In her letter she states:For the first few years I felt almost suicidal—all I ever did was sit indoors watching television from morning till night. Then I was given mobility allowance, and it allowed me to go out occasionally in a mini-cab to visit my parents. We have no car you see, so we could only go as far as my husband could push me in a wheelchair. Now and I still cannot believe it, we are going to have a car, through Motability. At last we will be able to visit people, go out at weekends, and 1191 we are even planning to have a holiday next year, our first ever. Suddenly, being disabled is not so dreadful any more.That is an eloquent endorsement by a severely disabled person of all that the right hon. Gentleman said about Motability.
The Bill will bring the benefits of the mobility allowance scheme to even more people. As the law now stands, women over 60 are debarred from claiming even though men may claim up to the age of 65. We are abolishing the sex discrimination and giving the allowance to women between the ages of 60 and 65. We expect that that will mean another 20,000 successful claims next year. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) will be glad that an extra 20,000 persons will be included in the scheme in consequence of the provision of the Bill.
I shall say a few words about how we propose to phase in the remaining groups that will qualify for the mobility allowance. At present the allowance is payable to those who were born after 20th December 1919. That is, broadly speaking, those who are under 59 years of age. We have undertaken that the phasing in will be completed by the end of 1979. I am glad now to be able to inform the House that that is still our intention, even though the task will now be that much greater since we shall have to get the benefit to a much larger group of beneficiaries, including, as I have said, disabled women aged between 60 and 65 years.
The House may like to know how we propose to go about that task. The intention is that the phasing in should be completed in three groups. First, we shall bring within the scope of the benefit those men and women who are under the age of 61. They will be invited to claim next March. Payment of their benefit will commence next June. A commencement order to that effect will be laid immediately after the Christmas Recess. Later in the year we shall bring in the remainder of those eligible in two groups, first, those under 63, and then those between 63 and 65, so that by the end of the year we shall be taking claims from everyone who was born after December 1914. That information is given in reply to a number of contributions from hon. Members on each side of the House during the debate.
1192 This will be a tough and demanding task. Our experience is that as the older groups are brought within the scope of the benefit, so the number of claims will increase. This is hardly surprising when we are dealing with a benefit which is concerned with ability to walk. It means—and I want to be totally frank with the House about this—that we shall not be able to clear claims as quickly as we would like. As the House knows, there is constant pressure on the Government to keep down the number of civil servants, so we have only a limited number of staff available for this particular job and it is just not possible substantially to reinforce them overnight. We have to deploy our resources so that we can deal immediately with what are sometimes called the bread and butter benefits, such as sickness benefit, retirement pension and, of course, supplementary benefit. Some people will therefore get arrears of mobility allowance for a good many weeks when payment is made.
I should like to pay a warm tribute to the staff of the mobility allowance unit at Norcross in Blackpool. Their job has been far from easy. It is never easy for any group of people to do all the administrative work involved in processing a new benefit. Inevitably, there have been some brickbats about individual cases which have gone wrong, but it is worth remembering that for every such case there are literally hundreds which go right. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman—who well appreciates the strains on public servants who have the task of implementing the decisions of the House—will join me in paying a very warm tribute to those who work in our mobility allowance unit at Norcross.
I am sure that the House as a whole will welcome this important extension of the mobility allowance scheme. The chairman of the Joint Committee on Mobility for the Disabled, Peter Large—who is himself very severely disabled—has already been in touch with me to say what a welcome development it was to to him. As he put it:The establishment of equal treatment for men and women in equal need of mobility help is a very significant step.But although this is a change which is of immediate significance, the Government's decision that once mobility allowance is awarded it should continue in 1193 payment until age 75 is of equal—or perhaps in the long run even greater—importance, because it means that no one will have the benefit taken away from him on reaching retirement age.
I realise—the point has been raised in our debate by the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton) and others—that the age of 75 is itself a somewhat arbitrary benchmark. Again, I want to make the position totally clear to the House. By setting the age limit at 75, no one will have the benefit withdrawn before 1989. We simply do not know what the pattern of social security provision for the disabled will look like by then.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State emphasised during the debate last Friday on the Pearson Commission report, there is a good deal of pressure now from those who represent the disabled—I think particularly of the Disablement Income Group and of the Disability Alliance—for the introduction not of further individual benefits to meet individual needs, but of a general disablement allowance for the civilian disabled, at whatever age.
If it becomes generally agreed that this is the way ahead—and I noted carefully what the right hon. Gentleman said this afternoon—it may well be that by the mid-1980s the overall pattern of provision for disablement will look very different from what it does now. By saying that the benefit should continue until the age of 75 we have, therefore, achieved two objectives. First, we have made sure that no one will be adversely affected in the foreseeable future. Secondly, we have left open options for future action for those who will be looking at this whole area of social policy in the course of the 1980s.
These two improvements between them—bringing in the 60 to 65-year-old women and allowing the benefit to continue into old age—will cost quite a lot of money in the longer term. While expenditure on mobility allowance is expected to go up by £5½ million in 1979–80, it will have risen by an extra £20 million after four years, at current benefit rates, and will go on rising steadily as an increasing number of people who would otherwise have lost the benefit at retirement age carry it with them into their later years. 1194 It is good that we can now devote so much money to this important and still very new benefit. If the resources had been available we would have done so sooner. There are, of course, many competing claims for extra spending to help disabled people. Quite apart from the pressure for a comprehensive new disablement allowance, on a more modest scale we are being asked to introduce a new cash benefit for blind people. My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Rodgers) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) strongly argued the claims of blind people. My right hon. Friends and I are very mindful of the feelings of blind people. We are committed to doing everything possible further to improve provision for them as resources allow.
We are pressed to raise the noncontributory invalidity pension so that more people will be taken off supplementary benefit. We are pressed to abolish the household duties test for housewives' non-contributory invalidity pension. We are pressed—more particularly by the Opposition—to extend invalid care allowance to married women. To those who put forward these important claims I would simply ask: which of them do they consider ought to have come in front of the change that we are now making in the Bill? Is the need for married women to receive invalid care allowance greater than the need for disabled women aged between 60 and 65 to get the mobility allowance? To govern is to choose and I am sure that we have made the right choice. I challenge Opposition Members to come out and say that we have got our priorities wrong.
Speaking of the other benefits available to recipients of the mobility allowance, the right hon. Gentleman—
§ Mrs. Wise
As the Opposition have not risen to the challenge—I gave them time to do so—and as they are in no position to do so, because they gave away about £500 million to the best-off in the Finance Bill, I rise to the challenge. Some of us on the Labour Benches say that the priorities are wrong. Let us spend less on defence and make sure that no moves towards tax concessions for the best off are initiated by our own Chancellor of the Exchequer. We would then have a lot more money available.
§ Mr. Morris
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her chivalry in protecting the right hon. Gentleman. I know that she feels very strongly that he should have this protection from time to time. I was talking about priorities as they have to be selected by my Department. I have to bear in mind, as my right hon. Friends have to bear in mind, the resources which are available to our Department.
§ Mr. Morris
I am certain my hon. Friend will acknowledge that my right hon. Friends have made very important progress for the disabled and for other disadvantaged groups in our society. I believe that when, in the fullness of time, their achievements are weighed it will be seen that they have made important progress. They have certainly taken considerable steps forward.
The right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) and the hon. Member for Braintree among others asked about the phasing out of vehicle excise duty. First, I should stress that this proposal will not take effect until 1983. Thus, it is too early now to say whether it would be appropriate to make any specific adjustment to the mobility allowance to take account of any increased petrol duty which might follow the phasing out of vehicle excise duty. That will depend on what happens by way of overall changes in the provision of mobility help for the disabled before the abolition of vehicle excise duty. The Government will certainly want to give the matter careful consideration at the relevant time. I can go no further than that in this debate. Nevertheless, we are entitled to be judged on our record. We are in the process of quintupling public expenditure on mobility for the disabled, even before the further improvements proposed in the Bill take effect.
The right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford and the hon. Member for Wallasey asked about a specialised 1196 vehicle for the disabled. That, again, is an important matter. We have commissioned the Motor Industry Research Association to undertake a study of available adaptations to ordinary motor cars and of the potential value of further adaptations or specialised vehicles which are available or under development both at home and abroad. One of the aims of the study is to establish the vehicle needs of three-wheeler users who do not wish to switch to the mobility allowance. We are also in touch with the EEC Commission about exploring the possibilities of co-operation between member States.
In all this we have very much in mind our commitment to those former vehicle scheme beneficiaries who continue to use the three-wheeler so long as stocks are available and the need to encourage developments which could lead to a better choice of specialised vehicles or adaptations to production cars becoming commercially available to the disabled generally.
I turn now to a subject which became central to the debate at one stage—the attendance allowance for home dialysis patients. That matter was raised by the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) and the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young). In terms of the numbers affected, there is no doubt that the changes in mobility allowance represent the Bill's most important improvement for the disabled. But numbers are not everything.
I am equally pleased that in the Bill we are able to fulfil our undertaking to restore the attendance allowance to kidney patients who undergo dialysis in their own homes. As soon as the national insurance commissioner confirmed that the interpretation which the Attendance Allowance Board had put upon the law, which meant that quite a number of people dialysing at home were no longer entitled to their benefit, was not erroneous, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State promised the House that we would put matters right by bringing forward amendments to the Social Security Act 1975 at the earliest possible opportunity. I do not think that anyone could accuse us of being slow off the mark in announcing our intentions.
1197 My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North asked when we would make the payments. In making that point he echoed the comments of the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford, who seemed to think that there was some likelihood of the Government going back on their word because he could not find anything in the Bill about retrospection. In a letter which the right hon. Gentleman quoted I said that we would ensureback pay' for everyone covering the whole period since withdrawal of his or her benefit".Therefore, the only question left was when we could make the payments.
The right hon. Gentleman could not find anything in the Bill about retrospection because it is not retrospective in its effect. We have now found a more immediate way of paying the money to the disabled who have had their allowances withdrawn. Given the unusual circumstances in which these allowances were withdrawn and our wish to put matters right as soon as possible, we have decided to make the payments straightaway. Technically, they will be extra-statutory payments. However, I am sure the House will agree that it is better to act in that way than to make cumbersome retrospective provision in the Bill. That means that the kidney sufferers concerned will not have to wait at all. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford and the hon. Member for Acton, who has had a word with me since he spoke in the House, will be as pleased as will my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North at this solution to the problem.
I have asked for all the cases concerned to be identified. We are receiving the help of the dialysis unit administrators so that we may make payments, with arrears back to the dates on which allowances were withdrawn, as soon as possible now that the legislation for putting matters right in future is before the House. Therefore, it will be tailor-made retrospection.
§ Sir George Young
Will the Minister explain why he could not make that announcement on 21st July if legislation is not needed to make the back payment?
§ Mr. Morris
What I have announced shows the merit of not rushing things. 1198 My difference with the hon. Gentleman was whether we could proceed with the Bill that he introduced. Naturally, there has been a need for a great deal of consultation about this matter. The situation is highly unusual. We are talking about tailor-made retrospection which will help the kidney sufferers concerned by giving them the attendance allowance back-dated to the time at which they lost it. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North referred to a lady constituent who lost the allowance in the middle of 1977. Therefore, it was not possible to proceed as quickly as the hon. Member for Acton suggested. I hope that he will now agree that what we are doing is deeply important to some very disabled people.
§ Mr. Patrick Jenkin
I say straight away that I am delighted that the Government have found a way of making these payments. We were given a clear promise and some rather obscure answers this afternoon when the Secretary of State was not present. Under what powers, if not under the Bill, will these payments be made? I ask that because under existing legislation they have been ruled out by the decision of the national insurance commissioner.
§ Mr. Morris
From his background as a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the Conservative Government, the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate the need for lengthy and delicate consultations about this matter. I shall communicate with him in more detail about the precise arrangements that we are making. I am sure that his knowledge of Treasury affairs will give him a fairly good idea of how we must proceed. I repeat that this is an unusual step. The Opposition are not known for their love of retrospective legislation. We want to ensure that the kidney sufferers whom we are seeking to help do not lose one penny in consequence of the decision by the national insurance commissioner in the case of the lady referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North. In that we shall succeed.
§ Mr. Whitehead
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Everyone connected with this matter will be extremely grateful for his announcement. I welcome it unreservedly. Can my hon. Friend explain his decision in layman's language? My 1199 constituents and others may not appreciate the by-play about the arcane character of Chief Secretaries and so on. When will the allowance and back pay be paid, now that it is not dependent upon the Bill restoring the status quo?
§ Mr. Morris
My hon. Friend has played a distinguished part in securing the improvement and other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Acton have been deeply concerned to help. My hon. Friend's constituents and all those who lost the attendance allowance in consequence of the reviews by the Attendance Allowance Board and the decision of the national insurance commissioner will have full pay back to the date on which they lost the allowance. We are proceeding straight away. We want to avoid red tape, white tape or any other sort of delay. They will not have lost a penny in consequence of the decisions that went against them. I am grateful for what the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford said. He used some rather harsh language earlier and I know that he regrets it now.
The other side of the coin is the withdrawal of attendance allowances from people who dialyse in hospital. The Secretary of State made clear in July that this would happen and the proposal has, as far as I am aware, received no adverse comment.
The House will agree that it is a nonsense that a person who has substantially no attendance needs, apart from dialysis, and who receives that two or three times a week at his local hospital, where all the attention is provided by the National Health Service staff, should be getting a benefit to help with the cost of attendance needs. This is just an accident of the way in which the law, which was not specifically designed to deal with these unusual cases, happens to bite. I am sure that we are right to make clear that this must cease.
I must, however, emphasise that our proposal does not mean that everyone who dialyses in hospital will cease to get the benefit. Some of those people have substantial home attendance needs and they will still get the allowance. We shall not suddenly take away benefit from anyone. Under the new regulations, the allowances of those who dialyse in hospital and have no significant attendance 1200 needs at home will not be renewed when they run out in due course. We have tried to be fair all round.
The changes in the supplementary benefit appeals procedures, the right of appeal from a tribunal to the national insurance commissioner and the strengthening of the tribunal system by the appointment of legally qualified senior chairmen will bring some worthwhile improvements and I am pleased that they have been mentioned by hon. Members.
I have concentrated on the mobility allowance and attendance allowance provisions, but that does not mean that the technical amendments and the fine tuning of the social security scheme are not essential. They will doubtless be considered closely in Committee.
I wish to deal with some of the more important points raised on these matters during the debate. We have a record across all social security benefits of which we can be proud. The keystone is the new pensions scheme and the new earnings-related component of the contributory invalidity pension which goes with it. That is a feature that will be increasingly important for sick and disabled people in the years to come.
What we have done for the disabled, although not on such a broad canvas, is equally significant. In Friday's debate on the Pearson report, the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford said that it was important to move progressively towards a more comprehensive system of support for all the disabled, including those disabled in accidents at home. He said that over the years we had built up a system which was often capricious.
The right hon. Gentleman was correct in so far as he echoed the thoughts of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State who has said that we may have gone about as far as is sensible in the construction of further individual benefits for particular sorts of disablement. Had the resources been available, no one would have been more delighted than my colleagues and I if we had been able to make further advances in providing help for disabled people. That is one thing, but simplification of the benefit system, by itself, would not produce additional resources for existing beneficiaries. Indeed, it could have the 1201 opposite effect of spreading what is available more thinly.
When the recent review of the supplementary benefits provisions was published, the deputy director of the Child Poverty Action Group, Ruth Lister, was reported in The Guardian as saying:The suspicion is that the emphasis on simplification may be for the benefit of the administrators rather than the clients.That sort of simplification is not what we want. We have to try to ensure that those entitled to the existing range of benefits are informed of them as simply and clearly as possible. That important point was made by the hon. Member for Wallasey.
To call the existing range of benefits a system which is illogical and often capricious smacks more of sour grapes than of common sense. Certainly the 320,000 people receiving the attendance allowance do not regard it in that way. Neither do the 100,000 mobility allowance beneficiaries.
§ Mr. Patrick Jenkin
The Minister has misunderstood what I said in Friday's debate. There are substantial numbers of people who are just as disabled as those injured in industrial accidents and road accidents or the war disabled who get nothing. That is where the system is capricious. In calling for a more comprehensive system, we want one that looks not at the cause of a disability, but at the needs of the disabled person. That was the whole thread of my speech. The Minister is misinterpreting what I said.
§ Mr. Morris
That was not my intention. It is a serious criticism to suggest that the present system is illogical and often capricious, but that is not the view of the 320,000 people receiving the attendance allowance or the 100,000 mobility allowance beneficiaries. That view would also not be shared by the people who receive the new benefits that we have introduced, the housewives' non-contributory invalidity pension and the invalid care allowance. They total another 170,000.
It is all too easy to talk of the complexities of the system. We are meeting some complex needs and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman agrees that it will not be possible to remove overnight exist- 1202 ing benefits in favour of a general benefit which will be paid to vastly greater numbers of people unless we have more resources or spread the available resources far more thinly.
I now turn to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mrs. Wise), who raised some typically thoughtful and thought-provoking points. I readily assure her that there is no sinister purpose in clause 5(3), dealing with the suspension of benefit. It is there essentially to cope with situations where the SBC wishes to challenge a tribunal's decision. We can assure the House that this power will not be used to cause poverty.
As to my hon. Friend's more general points, I note her priorities. She will appreciate they are close to my right hon. Friend's priorities. These are matters for discussion, bearing in mind their cost and the competition of other priorities, such as development of benefits for disabled people.
The hon. Member for Wallasey suggested that when an Attendance Allowance Board benefit is removed former beneficiaries should be notified of the reasons. I assure her that the Attendance Allowance Board tells a claimant when an allowance is being withdrawn and gives the reasons for that decision in writing.
The hon. Lady also asked about the cost of extending the mobility allowance beyond the age of 75. I cannot give precise figures because I do not have adequate statistical information at this moment. But such statistical information as we have shows that ultimately the cost will be in the range of £50 million to £100 million. Although that may surprise the hon. Lady, who is herself expert in statistics, I must stress that at present the statistical information is not adequate for precise costing. I am glad that she said what she did about trying to improve take-up. My right hon. Friends and I spend a great deal of our time seeking to make sure that the benefits for which we have legislated go to the people whom we wanted to help.
The hon. Lady asked about clause 9. I hope that she will allow me to write to her on that matter. It will be necessary for me to write to other right hon. and hon. Members about points which they have raised.
1203 As I have explained, our benefits for the disabled are complex because the needs of disabled people are complex. I make no apology for recognising the varying needs of different disabled people by different benefits. The inability to walk, the need for attendance and the need for maintenance are separate needs for which provision has to be made. Different criteria apply in each case. Those who argue that the whole system should be simplified are perhaps failing to appreciate that we are here dealing with individual people. There is no "identikit" disabled person. What we have done is to try to bring extra help to individual groups or to severely sick and disabled people as resources have permitted. There has been nothing illogical about this.
While each individual step may be comparatively small when measured against total expenditure from social security benefits, none the less what we have achieved amounts overall to a very considerable move forward. In 1977–78, expenditure on the sick and disabled was in real terms about £387 million more than in 1973–74. We are now spending about £2,000 million a year in social security benefits for such people.
The provisions extending mobility allowance in this Bill mark the latest step forward. It is not the largest, but it is an important one. I take pride in my association with ministerial colleagues who have done so much for disadvantaged people while serving at the DHSS. It gives me the greatest possible pleasure in commending the Bill to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).