HC Deb 02 December 1981 vol 14 cc347-65 10.17 pm
Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Social Security Benefit Up-rating Regulations 1981 (S.I., 1981, No. 1510), dated 26th October 1981, a copy of which was laid before this House on 2nd November, be annulled.

Mr. Speaker

I think that it will be in the interests of the House to discuss at the same time the following social security motions: That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Supplementary Benefit (Aggregation) Regulations 1981 (S.I., 1981, No. 1524), dated 21st October 1981, a copy of which was laid before this House on 2nd November, be annulled. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Supplementary Benefit (Claims and Payments) Regulations 1981 (S.I., 1981, No. 1525), dated 26th October 1981, a copy of which was laid before this House on 2nd November, be annulled. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Supplementary Benefit (Conditions of Entitlement) Regulations 1981 (SI, 1981, No. 1526), dated 23rd October 1981, a copy of which was laid before this House on 2nd November, be annulled. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Supplementary Benefit (Resources) Regulations 1981 (S.I., 1981, No. 1527), dated 26th October 1981, a copy of which was laid before this House on 2nd November, be annulled. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Supplementary Benefit (Single Payments) Regulations 1981 (S.I., 1981, No. 1528), dated 23rd October 1981, a copy of which was laid before this House on 2nd November, be annulled. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Supplementary Benefit (Urgent Cases) Regulations 1981 (S.I., 1981, No. 1529), dated 26th October 1981, a copy of which was laid before this House on 2nd November, be annulled.

Mr. John

First, the Government are lucky in that on a day when they have unerringly once again selected for their policy of continuous sacrifice those who are without work, through no fault of their own, and those who are in receipt of short-term social security benefit, these orders are consolidating measures. In cutting by 2 per cent. the short-term benefit and unemployment benefit the Government have singled out the weakest in the community for deliberate discrimination.

All hon. Members who heard the Chancellor of the Exchequer's sheer insensitivity when talking about the unemployment problems this afternoon will know that he is a man who just does not comprehend or sympathise with the problems of those people, especially the unemployed. The question that was not answered in the Chancellor's statement—I hope that the Minister will try to answer it this evening, or on a more suitable occasion—is why the Chancellor and the Government think that the unemployed and the short-term social security recipients should be made the scapegoats of the Government's financial incompetence. That merely sets the scene, because the accident that this is merely a series of consolidation measures prevents the Opposition from mounting the immediate and sustained attack on the squalid meanness and gross inhumanity of the Chancellor's measures that would otherwise have been mounted.

As you have said, Mr. Speaker, we are dealing with seven sets of regulations, which are needed to consolidate what was hastily done in 1980. The 1980 regulations were drafted, and the catalogue of errors and the incomprehensibility of some of them, and the extremely complicated nature of others, meant that by July 1981 two more sets of amending regulations had to be brought into operation.

It is fair to say to those who have to attempt to find their way through these minefields that the regulations as at present constituted are a total mess. They represent a sort of legislative "snakes and ladders", in which ascertaining the exact legal position of an individual is extremely difficult. It probably dooms most people to failure, but even if they can ascertain their position by dint of hard work, they then spend many unhappy hours trying to find a way through the regulations as at present constituted.

Presumably—and I hope that the hon. Lady will deal with the point when she replies—the trades disputes regulations and determination of questions regulations, together with the requirement regulations, also await consolidation, so there is another instalment to come.

Faced with such a mess, we would not ordinarily oppose the consolidation. However, I wish to point out the consequence to other people of the necessity to consolidate the measures. Law is not a cosy occupation for legislators. Especially in this area it has a meaning for people outside both Houses whose rights are affected and whose livelihood is vitally affected. It is because of their bewilderment and their rights that we take exception to the way in which the Government are consolidating the measures.

I put two points to the hon. Lady about the regulations—points that have been communicated to her by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). The first is whether the resources regulations calculate the £2,000 capital in a different way. As she will realise, if there is a difference between that and the previous set of regulations it goes beyond a properly consolidated measure.

Secondly, I press the hon. Lady about the single payments regulations in the light of a case, details of which my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr can give but which I intend to outline briefly. Under regulation 9 of the old regulations there was an escape clause or a way in which a single person could obtain a cooker or heater without having to go through the period of six months' incapacity. The new regulations suggest that that is not possible. I believe that a local office in North Shields told a claimant that there was such a difference and deprived the claimant of the single payment. If that is so, it seems to me—because the local officials were certain that the regulations had been changed by the consolidation measures—that it is properly a matter that should be investigated by the Minister. If it is correct, the Minister should agree without demur to the annulment of that regulation, because it should not be consolidated. I look forward to the Minister's answer on that point.

I return to the question of how recipients of social security and those affected by the regulations know what their entitlement is. The main way in which claimants are advised of their rights is by means of an HMSO publication, known as the "yellow book", which I believe is used widely by the many voluntary bodies and workers active in the social services.

Last year the book started at a price of £14, which is hardly in the paperback class. With every alteration of the regulations out comes a fresh supplement, without which the book is as relevant as last year's calendar. During the first six months after the regulations were passed there were three supplements, which cost an extra £10.20. Then, for those who were unwise enough to believe that their ordeal was over, and no doubt because of inflation, we have had four supplements in the past six months. That is a total of seven supplements during the past year, the latter four of which cost an extra £17.45.

The unhappy subscribers to the yellow book have got as far as November, because they received their supplement for July only in November. Now, seven supplements and £27.65 later, the cost of the yellow book to the hapless subscriber is £41.65. That is wholly out of the range of the pocket—even if it were within the inclination—of any claimant who wished to consult the regulations.

The voluntary bodies, which often operate on a low-budget shoestring, are hardly in a position to buy a book costing £41.65, with the threat of another three regulations. The regulations that we are considering tonight will be added to that amount. They do not tell those who subscribed to the yellow book anything new. They simply consolidate information that is currently available. Every amendment must be circulated. If a person relying on the regulations inaccurately quotes the authority he will be less likely to receive benefit.

How much will tonight's exercise add to the burden on the voluntary bodies and others active in the area of welfare rights? They are already short of money. Will they have to fork out another £15 or £20? Are we now in the era where the yellow book will cost £60, with more amendments to come? Where will the process end?

Will the Government consider two matters? First, can this supplement be issued free of charge to existing subscribers, with the cost borne on the DHSS Vote? After all, it was the drafting or misdrafting of the regulations that caused the need to issue an additional supplement. Secondly, I enter a plea on behalf of new purchasers. They should pay only the cost of the additional material, and not the cost of the material that is already out of date or scrapped.

We must consider the effect of the regulations and amendments on all the other non-official publications that seek to guide people, at various levels, on their entitlement to welfare benefits. All the references to regulations will have to be amended. Where regulations are laid that come into existence three weeks later, it is wholly impossible for even the most commercial of publishers or the most diligent of private editors to update the regulations and references in the non-official books. Those books, published as an aid to people who wish to know their welfare rights, will be misleading or out of date. The further obfuscation of welfare rights will continue.

We must remember that the regulations provide a guide to both the rights and the entitlements of some of the most disadvantaged sections of our community. Often they need great help, not only with the legislation but with commissioners' decisions and other matters. The whole effect is a complication in speed of application and expense and puts necessary information out of the reach of ordinary people and those called upon to advise those seeking welfare benefits. There will be little semblance of fairness between the claiment and the State.

I do not wish to raise the blood pressure of the Government, wedded as they are to leanness, fitness and competitiveness, but is it not time that they considered subsidised publications to tell people of their rights? Should there not be an annual publication—this question has long been discussed—to update the regulations? As I understand it, the unsubsidised cost of such an annual publication would be about £10. For the poor person who would have to face a charge of £60 for the yellow book, that might sound like the bargain of the year. With a small subsidy from the Government, an annual volume of that sort could be produced at a cost of £5. That would be within the pockets of many more people and organisations.

The snag, as the Minister will say, is that the frequency with which we are faced with these consolidation measures and the need to revise regulations which have been rushed through the House means that we cannot always meet the date of an annual publication. It is true that we would have to pick upon one date by which all amended regulations should be made to operate—say, from the date of the uprating every November. It is preferable for the regulations to have to wait a while before they come into force in order to serve what is, after all, the Government's chief responsibility, and to discharge their primary function, which is to enable those who are primarily affected by the legislation to understand their rights and entitlements, or, if they cannot do so, to get the relevant expertise and the most up-to-date advice possible.

10.31 pm
Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) has joined the ranks of the social security Members. Without being patronising, I think that he will find the subject less controversial than defence matters. I am delighted that some of my hon. Friends have prayed against the regulations to highlight their increasing complexity.

It is no wonder that we are living in the kind of society that breeds welfare rights officers, claimants unions and all the rest. As a Member of Parliament, I regarded myself at one time as being fairly knowledgeable about social security matters. It is now beyond my comprehension of the subject to give advice to any constituent. There are so many benefits. The rates are continually changing because of inflation. What we are now discussing are regulations which flow from years of study by the Supplementary Benefits Commission in an attempt to simplify procedures. If these are simplified procedures, I am almost longing for those that I could understand before they were simplified.

I see a DHSS office as almost like the present Government. Perhaps the manager may be in charge, or the captain may be in charge of the ship, but the further one gets from the top, the more confusion there is, with one person knowing only a wee bit about his particular job. That shows how difficult it is to be sure that a client or a constituent is being treated properly in regard to all the benefits that may be available to that person.

Paragraph 6 on page 7 of the Supplementary Benefit (Resources) Regulations deals with capital resources to be disregarded. It is always difficult to tackle a Minister who is sympathetic, and the Under-Secretary has acquired such a reputation. Nevertheless, when we are examining the vexed question of a person having £2,000-worth of capital resources, in ignoring the value of a home we are overlooking the tendency for people to borrow or to acquire an income by giving away some of their rights to that capital asset. I see the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle) nodding his head. I assume that he knows something about such things. Has this matter been properly investigated? If somebody attracts an income from his home, will he be treated on all fours with a poor person who does not own a home but who may have scraped together £2,000 after a lifetime?

If the Government pursue their present policies, they will have to tighten up on such issues. There is no end to the scrutiny that will be required of those who happen to be owner-occupiers. In my constituency, I doubt whether there are as many as 100 owner-occupiers, despite the fact that there are about 25,000 houses. This is a matter of genuine concern. Labour Members have made representations about the absurd £2,000 cut-off and about the need to review it. I hope that the Minister will comment on that. The issue highlights the fact that many people must have valuable capital assets, although they live in dire poverty. I hope that the Minister will tell us something of the discussions that have taken place.

I turn to the Supplementary Benefit (Single Payments) Regulations and to the subject of fuel disconnections. I do not care whether Labour Members or anyone else agrees with me, but I object in principle to public bodies having to write off the debts of private individuals. I do not care whether it is Linwood or Talbot that is getting away with public funds, or British Leyland in Bathgate, West Lothian or whether an individual, with whom one has some sympathy, has got into difficulties. I see no reason always to use public funds to pay off private debts.

The electricity boards and other public bodies that are owed money by constituents will not go bust simply because the debt must stand on the books for five, or even 10 years. Therefore, I am not arguing for increased public money from the Department of Health and Social Security or from the social work department in order to pay off debts to the electricity board, but for a much more—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

The hon. Gentleman should be arguing about the first regulations and he should relate his remarks to them. The other regulations are purely consolidation measures, and the hon. Gentleman can argue only whether they should be consolidated or not.

Mr. Brown

We are always learning. That narrows my comments. I am sure that the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Regulations cover my point somewhere. I am not trying—as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker—to be out of order. I genuinely misunderstood the situation. However, I suggest that the Government should have shown more sympathy. A point of principle is not involved. I understand that provision is made to take on board the payment of a charge when a prepayment metre is installed or altered. I think that the Minister knows about the controversy over the South of Scotland Electricity Board and Scotland's social work department. I beg her to consider the regulations sympathetically. The principle is the earliest reconnection of supply consistent with safeguarding the interests of the board's current requirements rather than the meeting of outstanding debts. I hope that this matter can be covered by the regulations.

10.40 pm
Mr. Mike Thomas (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)

I intervene briefly to seek information relating to the regulations in the light of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's statement this afternoon. Given the right hon. and learned Gentleman's sleight of hand in referring to the uprating of benefits, I should like the Minister to list those benefits that are regarded as short-term benefits, which will be increased only by the rate of inflation and will not have the shortfall of 2 per cent. made good. The hon. Lady may prefer to give her answer through the Official Report, because I doubt whether she will be able to give a reply now. I hope that she will tell us the number of people who will be affected by the failure to uprate benefits to make good the deficiency through under-estimation of inflation.

10.41 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

There must be concern about these regulations coming before the House soon after the Chancellor's statement. A consensus has existed for a long time among political parties that the main aim should be to reduce the number of people who need to rely on social security and to see instead that they receive benefits as of right. This afternoon, however, the Chancellor spelt out firmly that his policy was to take away benefits and to place more people on social security. The regulations before the House explain the complexity of the system and the fact that many people fail to obtain their rights because of that complexity. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is taking away benefits that are relatively easy to understand and is pushing people into the safety net of the complicated social security system. This is a total change of policy.

It is ironic that the House has passed a social security Bill that was supposed to make the regulations simpler and easier for people to understand and to give benefits to those people as of right. Hon. Members who have read the regulations cannot believe that they are simpler. I am sure that the Opposition will wish to return to the argument for taking people off, and not putting them on, social security.

I wish to press the Minister on the issue of capital resources. The regulations deal with the consolidation of uprating. The Government say that they are inquiring into the capital cut-off at £2,000. I accept that the Government are acting in good faith, but they have taken a long time. It is accepted that the Government were wrong in their legislation. I hope soon to hear an announcement that they intend to put matters right. While the inquiry has proceeded, inflation has continued at a rate of over 10 per cent. for 12 months. Whatever the Government decision on the long-term problem, they had a duty, in these regulations, to uprate the sum of £2,000 to at least £2,200. This may not have made a great deal of difference, but it would have made some difference to those now caught in the cut-off.

In their failure to take account of inflation the Government have denied social security to another group of people. There is no excuse for the Government's not having included them in the uprating order with all the other areas in respect of which they have increased the amount. The Government say that they accept that they have to come up quickly with a long-term solution, but they should have said here and now that they intended to put on the extra £200.

I want to know whether these are merely consolidation measures. If they are not merely consolidation measures, why did they not go to the social security advisory committee for approval? If that has not happened, are they ultra vires? If they are ultra vires, will the Government withdraw them tonight, or at least accept the humble Address in respect of them?

The Under-Secretary should give us an early reply, because we may not be in order in discussing these regulations if they are not correctly laid, and they should be withdrawn by the Minister at the earliest possible opportunity. We should not have to wait until the end of the debate for a statement, or we shall be debating regulations that clearly are out of order.

It is a sad day when a Government firmly say that they want to push more and more people on to social security and supplementary benefit rather than long-term benefit. We need an early statement by the Government that they will operate the £2,000 cut-off, at least to the extent of 10 per cent. We also want a statement from the Government on the question whether some of the regulations are ultra vires.

10.47 pm
Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)

I share my hon. Friend's frustration at not being able to talk about the appalling announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer this afternoon and at being confined to the more limited but equally important aspects of the regulations that are before us.

I shall follow what my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) said about the £2,000 capital cut-off. I agree with him that we should have expected an uprating at least in line with inflation. Like him, I am extremely disappointed that that does not appear before us.

I want to ask the Under-Secretary a question about part II of the resources regulations, which refers to the calculation of capital resources. One or two people have come to see me about the calculation of the surrender value of insurance policies as part of the calculation of capital resources. I remember one Conservative Member asking "Since when has it been Government policy to have a tax on thrift?" That applies particularly to insurance policies. Many people have taken out insurance policies for the very good reason that they do not have occupational pensions and have no likelihood of getting any other pensions. It is one way in which they can be thrifty and save for their future. To ask such people to surrender their insurance policies before they have expired is a foolish thing to do. Those people will not get the full worth of those policies. It is a particularly foolish and unwise thing for any Government to do.

I have looked at the regulations—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) understands these matters inside out, and no doubt the Under-Secretary knows them equally well—but I cannot find the proviso, the justification, the reason or authority for this regulation to include the surrender value of insurance policies. Yet that is being done. So I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell me, first, by what authority it is being done, because I have gone through all the regulations and can find no authority. Secondly, even if the Under-Secretary can find some authority, what is the justification or rationale for making people surrender insurance policies—often very small policies—at that stage? It is an unwise and unfair thing to ask them to do.

My second argument relates to the take-up of benefits, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) referred. In reply to a question the other day the Under-Secretary of State repeated the 1977 figures for the take-up of supplementary pensions. She said that 610,000 pensioners were not taking up supplementary pensions and that the average value of each was £3.10 a week. That means that £1.9 million is not taken up each week.

I blame one person for those pensions not being taken up—the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat). His campaign against the so-called social security scroungers has frightened many people who are entitled to the benefit. They do not take up their entitlements for fear of being labelled scroungers. The Government's duty is to counter the appalling propaganda in which the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South indulges.

My friends on the Strathclyde regional council tried to do something, but they were berated by the Under-Secretary of State. They had some success. If the hon. Lady does not like Strathclyde's method she must say what the Government intend to do to ensure that pensioners who are losing £3 a week receive that money and gain access to the many other benefits to which supplementary pensioners are entitled.

The Under-Secretary has said that she will soon have more up-to-date figures, based on the 1979 family expenditure survey. When will they be available? If the new figures show, as I suspect they will, that the situation has become worse since 1977, I hope that the Government will take urgent action.

The regulations describe the circumstances in which people are to be treated as being available for employment. Tribunals often misunderstand the type of work that people do. In my constituency there is a lack of understanding of the working conditions of miners. Tribunals may have recommendations from doctors in the mining areas who understand the conditions in which miners have to work in the pits, but they certify people as fit for work when they are not fit for that type of work. They may be fit for the work that we do in this pleasurable place, or that lawyers do in their offices. I should like some of the legal eagles who sit on the tribunals to be forced to work down a pit for a day or two, so that they understand the conditions, before they lightly certify miners as being fit for work.

I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will deny that there is a general directive from the Department to take people off sickness benefits and put them back to work, irrespective of whether they are fit for their type of work.

Regulation 1510 deals with uprating. Our discussions have been based on the retail price index. We have stated categorically that whatever lies—I am sorry; I must be careful what I say. We have said that whatever assertions to the contrary are made, even on the basis of the retail price index, the upratings are not sufficient. For the poor and the pensioners the retail price index is not right, because the essentials that form the major part of the budget of the poor have risen by more than the average commodity included in the retail price index. It is kept down by the fact that the price of luxuries, which the poor and the pensioners cannot afford, has not risen as much. The cost of housing—an increase in council house rents was announced earlier—and the cost of fuel and food has rocketed.

Studies show that the people who have suffered most in the last two and a half years under the Government's policies are those relatively poor people who live in council houses. The retail price index is inadequate as an assessment of the need for uprating.

The lack of understanding and awareness of Conservative Members of the real plight of the unemployed is appalling. The unemployed have already had their unemployment benefit cut by 5 per cent. in real terms, and there is a further shortfall of 2 per cent. that will not be made good. Do Conservative Members know how people who have been unemployed for more than a year are living?

A month ago, on a Saturday, when the girocheques did not arrive for the people living in Patna, in my constituency, 24 men contacted me because they had literally nothing in their houses on which to feed their families. They were waiting for their cheques to arrive so that they could buy the groceries. I had to telephone the director of social work for the Strathclyde region to get him to instruct the social work department in Ayr to issue food vouchers to enable those men to feed their children.

That is the position to which the Government have reduced our unemployed people. Whether or not people in the Doon valley area have bicycles, they cannot find jobs. There are no jobs within reach of the area. Those people are being subjected to gross humiliation by the Government, and their plight will be made worse by the Government's failure to uprate the benefit sufficiently. That is the sort of humility that the country can no longer tolerate and that makes sure that the Labour Party will be dedicated to getting rid of the Government.

10.58 pm
Mr. John Major (Huntingdonshire)

I wish to take up one or two of the points that have been made and in particular to raise the specific point of the calculation of capital resources for the purpose of the disqualification level of £2,000 for supplementary and other benefits.

The hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes) raised the pertinent question of the position of insurance policies that have a surrender value of £2,000 or more. I am greatly concerned to discover that such insurance policies are regarded as an asset that must be surrendered and cashed in, perhaps even at a substantial capital loss, because their value is not disregarded when calculating entitlement to benefit.

The hon. Gentleman asked on what authority such policies are to be included within the capital resources. I can only assume from a study of the social security regulations that it can be found in part II, paragraph 5 of the resources regulations—S.I. No. 1527. If that is so, I should be grateful for my hon. Friend's advice on paragraph 6 of the same regulations, which states that among the capital resources to be disregarded are the value of any personal possessions except any which—… are in the nature of an investment. I seek my hon. Friend's advice on the way in which an insurance policy is regarded. It seems entirely consistent with the philosophy of Governments over the years, admittedly to different degrees, that it is desirable for individuals to make the maximum degree of self-provision for their retirement years and for other circumstances. Successive Governments have provided tax incentives precisely and entirely for that purpose.

I appreciate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, seeing you perched on the edge of your Chair, that I must restrict myself to discussing whether there should be consolidation of these regulations. Before we determine whether they are satisfactory for consolidation, it will be of interest to the House if my hon. Friend elaborates briefly on an important matter which has been aired already by hon. Members and to which I add my voice briefly. I ask my hon. Friend to consider the possibility of disregarding the surrender value of insurance policies in future when calculating entitlement to benefits. Will she please give an undertaking that the Department will consider this issue? The present practice is grossly unfair and out of sympathy with the general trend of our philosophy over recent years, and it causes many people to feel great resentment.

I move on to slightly safer ground by directing my remarks to Statutory Instrument No. 1510. The present level of disregard of £2,000 could legitimately have been uprated under the present regulations. If that is not to happen under these regulations, I hope that my hon. Friend will give an assurance that she will consider in future whether the disqualification level can be subjected to annual upratings.

11.2 pm

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has drawn the attention of the House to the first instrument on the Order Paper, Statutory Instrument No.1510. The Joint Committee recognises the enormous complexity of the regulations and it thought that the memorandum provided by the Department would be of help to the House and those outside in providing some authoritative guide to the instrument, which provides a useful background and encourages others to look to the House for information. That is why the instrument is before us.

The Joint Committee deals only with the potential ambiguities and the unusual use of powers that are contained in the list of references made by the House to the Joint Committee. It cannot deal with the merits of the references.

The Joint Committee has been concerned that any supplements to the social security law that are issued by the Department should be issued as rapidly as possible. There will be difficulties if there are gaps in the guide while the supplement is being issued following the issue of a statutory instrument. We have had correspondence and a memorandum on this issue only this week from the Department. We encourage the Department to issue its supplements as rapidly as it can.

We take the view strongly that when mistakes are made in instruments and instruments have to be issued afresh by the Department, the mistakes should be borne by the Department and not by HMSO. Naturally, HMSO does not want to bear the responsibility for the mistakes of Departments because it prints all the instruments. A number of mistaken instruments are issued each year by Departments and sometimes they have to be revoked and replaced by new instruments. The Joint Committee has drawn the attention of the House on many occasions to faulty instruments.

My attention has been drawn to the Supplementary Benefit (Resources) Regulations 1981 and the Supplementary Benefit (Single Payments) Regulations 1981. Both are consolidation measures. The explanatory note specifically says that they are consolidation measures. In both the instruments the explanatory note does not refer to any changes that are being made in the legislation. By and large the Joint Committee recognises the usefulness of consolidation measures.

A consolidation measure should draw together several instruments and thereby make it easier for the users of the instruments—there are millions of users of such instruments—to wend their way through them. I hope that they will have to look at one consolidated instrument instead of perhaps half a dozen. In these cases, that is not so because the instruments that are repealed are often in parts, so those people will still have to wend their way through the instruments.

It has been said that if alterations have been made in the instruments—the Committee's attention was not drawn to any specific alterations—the primary legislation may require the social security advisory committee to be consulted. Normally the recommendations of the advisory committee would also be presented to the Joint Committee. If alterations were made in the two instruments that I have mentioned, a requirement of the primary legislation has not been carried out, so the questioning of the status of the instrument by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) is reasonable.

Nothing was drawn to the attention of the committee by our legal advisers, but I would be interested in the Minister's comments on the claim that the explanatory note may have been an interpretation by one of her offices. It is important that if a claim is made in an explanatory note the measures are purely consolidation measures, that should be absolutely, strictly and completely adhered to.

I now turn to two points on merits of the regulations which are separate from the Committee. In the Supplementary Benefit (Resources) Regulations, instrument No. 1527, section 7 refers to maximum capital resources, which have been mentioned by two or three of my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Huntingdonshire (Mr. Major). There is little point in consolidation if the Minister knows that shortly there will be an alteration. The Minister has a committee of officials looking at that point at the moment.

We made representations on numerous occasions that the £2,000 limit should be increased because many people approaching middle age, in their 50s, are facing the grave and saddening possibility that they will not gain work again because of the recession brought about by the present Government's policies.

Many people in their 50s have said to me that they have been saving for their old age to try to make themselves a little more comfortable, yet after 12 months' unemployment benefit, they have only a few quid more than £2,000 which they were saving for their old age. They will not be able to claim supplementary benefit because of the limitation. The Minister says that she is considering that matter and that she must wait until the working party reports. I should have thought that that was a reason for not consolidating until the working party reports so that an increase, which I hope will be made, can be incorporated into the instrument.

If that is not so, there will have to be an amending instrument—yet a further cost in the enormous cost mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John). Instrument No. 1527 alone costs £2.30. Even the smallest amending instrument these days costs almost £1. The cost of the instruments that we are discussing tonight is about £13. Therefore, clearly they are all beyond the reach of the people who most of all need the instruments to act as a guide and who sometimes need the information to challenge the sometimes rather offhand information that is given in DHSS offices. I say "sometimes"—not "always"—because many DHSS civil servants deal with numerous difficult cases with a fair amount of sympathy and understanding. Nevertheless, we all know of cases where the information has not been properly and clearly given. I hope that the Minister will elaborate on that.

The Minister ought to recognise the cost and complexity of these regulations. She ought to help local authorities to provide guidance to assist people to make a claim. The local authority in Bradford circulated a large number of households within the metropolitan district at its own expense. There was a good response, with many people claiming as of right benefit of which they were unaware or hesitant to claim.

Of course, that campaign was of a limited nature. As we well know, all local authorities are severely limited in the amount of money they can spend. I therefore suggest that the Minister seriously considers making a modest grant to those local authorities, perhaps on a 50 per cent. basis, that are prepared to mount such a campaign. I dare say that they will be Labour-controlled authorities, but at least it will give people some idea of their rights.

11.11 pm
Mr. R. A. McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

I shall detain the House for only a few minutes. In a way, I wish to endorse the point that has been made by both sides of the House about taking into account the surrender values of life assurance policies under the Supplementary Benefit (Resources) Regulations.

I know that some people take the view that to take account of capital resources at all is unacceptable, but I contend that when limited resources are available for supplementary benefit there is no escape from looking at capital resources in some way.

As I said to my hon. Friend the Minister during Question Time the other day, to pitch the figure at £2,000 for 1981 is not being unduly generous. I am pleased to hear that a committee will advise her on whether there is a case for upgrading that figure. I certainly believe that there is.

A Labour Member indicated that there might be some uprating of the £2,000 under Statutory Instrument No. 1510—the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Regulations. That is not necessarily the best way to deal with it. At best that would simply increase the amount by about 10 per cent., whereas the committee might well be persuaded that there is a case for a substantially greater increase, perhaps to £3,000 at least.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

There is a strong case for doing what the hon. Gentleman suggests, but since that committee has now been sitting for about five months we should surely have got the 10 per cent.

Mr. McCrindle

That is an arguable point. I feel that had there been a 10 per cent. uprating it might have persuaded the powers that be that the urgency of attending to this matter in the fashion that I have suggested could somehow be relegated. I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but it is an open argument.

I come back to the point about the surrender values under life assurance policies. My hon. Friend is correct in deducing that the authority for this comes under paragraph 5(a) in part II of the regulations. Therefore, in applying the regulations in the way that they have been applied, and by taking into account a surrender value in excess of £2,000, the authorities are being perfectly correct.

I want to suggest a way in which—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will relate his arguments to Statutory Instrument No. 1510, as that is the matter now before the House.

Mr. McCrindle

I shall try to do that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the process, I shall show that although it is perfectly proper to take account of the surrender value in the way that I have suggested there may at some future date be a strong argument for taking account of the surrender values only where they do not relate to the systematic payment of premiums over a given minimum period. In that way we shall continue to take into account surrender values of £2,000 and over if they are the product of a tax-saving device, but they will not be taken into account if they are the product of genuine, systematic saving.

In that way, if I may relate my remarks to something that I said earlier, we would not run the risk of penalising thrift in the way that one of my hon. Friends accused the Government of doing the other day.

I end by saying that if we do that in relation to one form of systematic saving we may in future have to consider paragraph 6(c)(i) of the resources regulations and to take into account, as an exclusion from the investment aspect of the consideration before us this evening, the same sort of application where a person holds Build-up shares in a building society rather than an insurance policy. I appreciate that I am skating on rather thin ice in continuing along such lines, but I hope that I have said sufficient to make the House appreciate that the point is worthy of future consideration.

11.16 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mrs. Lynda Chalker)

This has been an interesting debate, ranging over a wide number of issues, some contained in the orders and some not.

I start by welcoming the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) to our deliberations. He will learn that a friendly rivalry goes on. We try to work together to improve regulations, although some people from outside the House this evening may wonder whether our efforts are worth while.

First, I wish to clear up the point that has been raised by many hon. Members about the consolidation orders. I was grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) for ringing my office this morning, although his telling me that the problem was in the first half of one set of regulations was rather like sending me through the haystack to find the piece of grit that he thought was there. He has no doubt given me plenty of food for thought during the day.

I shall try to explain what has happened and assure the House that these are consolidation regulations. They contain no new material. However, the matter is complicated and in trying to make it clearer I suspect that many people have misunderstood what is going on.

When I talk about the original single payments regulations, I am referring to those that we discussed in the House on 27 July last. Regulations 9 and 10 of those original single payments regulations have been reordered especially so that regulation 9, in the consolidated version, contains only the list of essential furniture and household equipment. That has meant that some reorganisation of the remaining provisions was necessary, especially paragraphs (1) to (3) of the original regulation 9, which govern the entitlement to single payments for the purchase of items.

It is suggested that in doing so—that is the gist of the messages that have been going back and forth—we have changed the meaning of regulation 9(3), which is now, under Statutory Instrument No. 1528, paragraph 10(1)(b). For the benefit of those listening, I wish to go through original regulation 9(1) to (3).

Paragraph (1) provided that the claimant who had recently become the tenant or owner of an unfurnished or partly furnished home—I shall refer to him as a recent tenant or owner—and who satisfied one of the conditions in paragraph (2) was entitled to a single payment for the purchase of an item.

There are four alternative conditions in paragraph (2), but in the case of two of them, sub-paragraphs (c) and (d), a further condition has to be satisfied. In effect, he is not entitled if he moved into unfurnished accommodation when there was suitable alternative furnished accommodation in the area.

Paragraph (3) was plainly intended to cover—and, I say, did cover—other situations. The original 27 July version applied where one specified condition of paragraph (2)—namely, sub-paragraph (b)—was satisfied, or the item needed was a cooking or heating appliance, or the claimant was a squatter. As from 27 July this year, paragraph (3) was amended so that it could apply where another condition of paragraph (2) applied—subparagraph (c). That refers to claimants with no prospect of employment.

The House may recall that sub-paragraph (c) has a further condition attached. For example, where someone has recently become a tenant or owner he can succeed only if there is no suitable furnished accommodation available. That further condition was not imported into paragraph (3). It would, however, be nonsense to suggest that a recent tenant or owner who has no prospects of employment but does not satisfy that further condition could nevertheless succeed under paragraph (3).

Plainly, paragraphs (1) and (3) are mutually exclusive. Any other construction would render the original paragraph (1)(c) and its further condition otiose. A recent owner or tenant can succeed only under paragraph (1) and cannot benefit under paragraph (3).

I apologise for the fact that the matter is so complicated. I hope that when hon. Members read the Official Report they will follow what I have been seeking to explain to them.

I think it is clear that there was some confusion in the original 27 July wording. That may be the reason for the case in North Shields that was mentioned, and I shall be glad to receive details of it so that it can be given further consideration.

Our legal advice was that the proper construction was that a recent tenant or owner could succeed only under paragraph (1) and not under paragraph (3). In the consolidation the opportunity was taken, while reordering the provisions, merely to clarify the position. That is perfectly permissible within the terms of consolidation. I hope that that answers the point made by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer).

Paragraph (3) of the old regulation 9 is now paragraph (1)(b) of regulation 10, prefaced by the words the claimant has not recently become such a tenant or owner". I hope that I have been able to assure the House that the consilidated version reflects the law as it was before consolidation. I shall look into any case brought to my notice by the hon. Member for Keighley or any other hon. Member. I do not believe that there is anything to worry about here. Does the hon. Member for Perry Barr wish to intervene?

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving me the opportunity. Under the previous regulation, it was possible for a claimant who was single and on benefit for less than six months to obtain payment for a cooker or a heater if he moved into a flat without one or both of those items. That was the position up to 23 November last. The position since then has changed, because a person in that position cannot now claim under either regulation 10(1)(a) or 10(1)(b). It is not possible for a person in that position to succeed in a claim.

A difficulty arose on Friday of last week at the Meadow Well community rights centre in North Shields. A single man on benefit for less than six months was refused payment for a cooker when he moved into a flat which did not have one. Under the regulations before 23 November, he would have got one. Everyone knew that; there was never any dispute about it. He will get it only when he has not recently moved. In other words, he has to live in the fiat, without the cooker, for an indeterminate period before he can qualify. That is the position under regulation 10(1) (b). He qualified before last Monday, but he does not qualify now.

The Minister cannot be expected to have all the necessary paperwork in front of her on the Floor of the House. I am not convinced, however, that a person in those circumstances—a single person on benefit for less than six months—will get payment for just a cooker or heater because they were separately itemised and because of the escape clause from the previous barrier in regulation 9. A person who moved into a place without those two items was getting benefit automatically under the regulations before 23 November. He does not get it now, and as the regulations are worded there is no way that he can get it.

Mrs. Chalker

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Perry Barr for going into that case in greater detail. I am convinced, from the deliberations during the day, that there has been no change. One of the changes of the new supplementary benefits scheme is that the benefit officer is an adjudicating officer in his own right.

I cannot comment on the North Shields case without having the detail in front of me, but it would be wise to advise that an appeal is made on that specific point. I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that that matter will be gone into in considerable detail. However, I am convinced from the way we went through the detail earlier in the day that there has been no change.

I give notice that if I have misunderstood the hon. Member for Perry Barr in any small detail, I shall return to the point. I am told that the gentleman concerned in North Shields will still qualify. However, I shall go into that, because I am sure that the position is as I had understood it, without knowing the detail of the North Shields case.

For the convenience of the House, I shall say a word about the resources regulations. That has been mentioned, and ten pages of questions have been put to me, and we are rapidly running out of time. The resources regulations are purely a consolidation measure. The question that concerned hon. Members was resources regulation 13—now in Statutory Instrument No. 1527—which was formerly regulation 11(3) in the 27 July set of regulations. It relates to payments by liable relatives to be treated as income and taken into account in full. In particular, provision is made for the calculation of lump sum payments on a weekly basis where the liable relative is making no regular payments or where regular payments are insufficient to cover liability. That may not have been the point that Labour Members were raising, but we have gone through the whole matter in some detail and that is the only aspect that we considered might have been their concern on the resources regulation.

Mr. Rooker

Yes, that was our concern and, judging from the amending wording, the Under-Secretary has chosen one of two former interpretations. It so happens that the one chosen normally suits the Department, and that was considered to be a change. In a previous case Commissioner Rice said how vague it was, and that the interpretation normally all went in one direction—not in the Department's favour. The Minister obviously knows that that is not as black and white as the other case. Nobody said that it was, and I stated to her office that she has the point. We are concerned with the lump sum from a liable relative and how that is treated as income in the future.

Mrs. Chalker

Again, we have gone through this in some detail. At the time we discussed the Supplementary Benefit Aggregation Requirements and Resources Amendment Regulations 1980, hon. Members and those in another place expressed their concern about the intelligibility of the regulations. The consolidated version attempts to meet that point only by restructuring the old regulation in a way that clarifies the position.

I emphasise that the new regulations are no more than a consolidation of the existing law, and that they do not represent a change. However, I shall consider what the hon. Member for Perry Barr has said because I want to clear up any doubt that may exist about it.

I shall move on to the comments made by hon. Members in the debate and say something about regulation 15(10) which is under discussion tonight—

It being half-past Eleven o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER proceeded to put the Question pursuant to Standing Order No. 4 (Prayers against statutory instruments &c. (negative procedure))

Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for us to have gone through the debate with the Under-Secretary answering only points that were raised earlier in the day, and not those raised during the debate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Standing Order on which this procedure is based states quite clearly that the debate must end at 11.30, and that nothing can be dealt with after 11.30. How the time is spent must be determined by those who speak.

Mr. Foulkes

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would it be in order to ask the Under-Secretary to give an assurance that the detailed points that have been raised will be answered in writing afterwards?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Not after 11.30.

Question put and negatived.