HC Deb 31 March 1983 vol 40 cc471-4

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

10.48 am
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I am glad of the opportunity to bring to the attention of the House before it adjourns the subject of supplementary benefit entitlement of Northern Ireland citizens during absences in Great Britain. The more I have examined the problem, the more I have realised how widespread it is and that it can and must be resolved. Therefore, I look for a positive response from the Government to the debate. Delay causes distress to some of the most needy sections of our community.

I said that the problem was widespread. It affects not only those who are resident in Northern Ireland but other United Kingdom citizens who may have to visit Northern Ireland from time to time. The subject is therefore of importance to all right hon. and hon. Members, who, I am sure, have already been approached by irate constituents who are disappointed to discover their rights to social security being denied in another part of the United Kingdom.

For example, as recently as Tuesday of this week I was contacted by a young mother who was visiting Belfast. Incidentally, she is an adopted candidate for the forthcoming local government elections in an English town. I hasten to assure the hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley) that there is no question of Ulster Unionists contesting English constituencies, although they may have to do so to give an opportunity to Unionist-tninking people to support true Unionism.

That young woman went to the local post office in the town where she was visiting her friends to draw her child benefit, thinking that that was her entitlement. However, it was denied to her because her book was marked "GB". I recognise the technical difficulties, but most citizens see "GB" as an abbreviation for "United Kingdom". Believing in the unity of that kingdom as well as the equality of its citizens, that young woman could not understand why her basic right to benefit was denied to her while she was in Northern Ireland. On visiting the post office to find out at first hand what was going on, I discovered how widespread the problem is. For example, some books are stamped "NI". I saw one the other day that was stamped "NI", "GB" and "IOM". Therefore, there is a wide range of books for the payment of social security benefits within the United Kingdom.

I think that I understand the historic reason for that distinction. However, for social security benefits, for which I believe there is parity throughout the United Kingdom, I maintain that such a distinction has not been applicable for at least the past 10 years. Northern Ireland has been legislated for by this Parliament, albeit sometimes in a more fanciful way than for other parts of the United Kingdom. Furthermore, if I understand Government and Opposition thinking correctly, it does not appear that in the foreseeable future Northern Ireland will have an unrigged democratic legislature arid the responsibility will continue to rest with the House.

Even with proper devolved government, I contend that every citizen in the nation should be entitled not only to parity of benefit but to the payment of such benefit in any part of the kingdom. If ii is possible to have reciprocity between nations, it should be possible within this nation.

When we look at what happens within the nation, we discover that Scottish people visiting England are entitled to the payment of benefit. Northern Ireland is nearer to England than are many parts of Scotland. Therefore, Ulster people should be entitled to the payment of such benefits, if need be with proper notice, and, vice versa, those visiting from Great Britain should receive payments in Northern Ireland.

Today I speak particularly of supplementary benefit. I warmly welcome the recent circular from the Social Security Advisory Committee, dated 24 March. The committee states that it is examining different benefits and relationships with Northern Ireland. It is important that supplementary benefit regulations are reviewed regularly. While the regulations in the first instance would apply only to Great Britain, it is clear that the Department of Health and Social Security would make corresponding regulations for Northern Ireland.

I not merely stress parity of benefit but ask that before the House adjourns citizens should be assured that that grievance will be remedied. Supplementary benefit is normally paid to those who have no other means of financial support. When, for whatever reason, they travel to Great Britain, not only are they denied that benefit in Northern Ireland, but regulation 3 of the Supplementary Benefit (Conditions of Entitlement) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1981—I stress the year 1981, because that comes within the ambit of the House—states that benefit is payable only to a recipient in Northern Ireland. Undeniably, that has hit many people. From time to time I have drawn the Minister's attention to the embarrassment and distress caused to some of my constituents. For example, a young person seeking to further his educational prospects finds that if he travels to seek openings he loses his supplementary benefit.

One person could have had his supplementary benefit paid to him if the regular commissioning board that he was required to attend had met in Northern Ireland, but it met in England and he was thus denied benefit. Another young person, obliged to travel with an invalid widowed mother to England, was not only faced with the additional expense, but was denied his benefit. He was penalised for doing his duty to his mother by visiting another part of his own country.

It appears that the Government recognise that the Great Britain and Northern Ireland supplementary benefit schemes are separate and not reciprocal. Anyone who crosses the Irish sea or the North channel to attend an interview for employment or for an educational opportunity loses his or her entitlement to benefit while away from home. That happens although there is supposed to be parity in social benefits in the United Kingdom and although the Prime Minister has urged our citizens to be more mobile in seeking employment.

I understand that the lack of regulatory powers allowing continuing entitlement to supplementary benefit during temporary absences from Northern Ireland to Great Britain and vice versa have been causing concern in some Government circles. However, it is my conviction that concern is not enough. I hope that the Government will announce that some steps are being taken to correct that gross inequity. It has never been the practice, especially of those in the Christian tradition, to ignore the needy in an effort to save public expenditure. I do not believe that that is the intention, let alone the desire, of the Government. Nevertheless, the longer the practice continues the longer some of the most needy citizens of our country will be victimised and deprived of their recognised rights. Even in this credit card era, there is no substitute for cash on the spot.

11 am

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. John Patten)

I have listened with great interest to the points made by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). The difficulties that he has pointed out, both generally and from his constituency experience, are problems with which we have long been familiar in the DHSS both in Northern Ireland and this side of the water. I am grateful for the concern that the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) have shown about this from time to time. I hope that it will not surprise the hon. Gentleman too much and will be a source of unqualified pleasure to him when I say that I have good news for him today, in that I am in a position to give precisely the positive Government response that he seeks.

I remind the House that under the existing regulations pensioners and other claimants not required to be available for work as a condition for receiving supplementary benefit already retain their entitlement to supplementary benefit during short absences from their homes. That has been the position for some time. The difficulties referred to by the hon. Gentleman have always arisen, I believe, when the claimant was required to be available for work as a condition for receiving benefit and was thus not covered by the existing regulations on this side of the water or the existing statutory rules on the other side of the water.

The hon. Gentleman will not need to be reminded that the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton), announced in a written answer on 22 March that the Government intended to lay amending regulations before the House before the end of this Session. Among other things, the regulations will provide that all claimants in Great Britain in receipt of supplementary benefit, including the unemployed and the sick, will remain entitled to those benefits when absent from Great Britain for up to four weeks, provided that they continue, as in the past, to satisfy all the relevant conditions.

I am pleased to tell the House that those regulations will be referred to the Social Security Advisory Committee in the very near future. The draft regulations do not deal only with the problem of entitlement during short absences from Great Britain. They also deal with a number of other important issues, including payments that in future will be available for travel expenses, removal expenses and funeral expenses between the two jurisdictions. That is the position with regard to the Great Britain regulations.

Immediately after the amending regulations have been approved by the DHSS on this side of the water and laid before the House, the DHSS in the Province will make corresponding statutory rules for Northern Ireland. The provisions of both the Great Britain regulations and the Northern Ireland statutory rules will come into force together and will be brought to the attention of claimants and DHSS staff in the normal way. In this context, I welcome suggestions from hon. Members as to the most efficient means of drawing the attention of recipients to the new provisions.

I do not think for a moment that the numbers involved are likely to be large, but it is clear that the amended provisions should ensure that no claimant who is temporarily absent from his or her home on whichever side of the water loses supplementary benefit as a result of an absence of up to four weeks. In a practical sense, it might be said that we are about to abolish the Irish sea for supplementary benefit purposes, although in a formal sense two separate schemes will continue to exist.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is satisfied with the clear undertaking that I have given on behalf of the Government in response to his request.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

One suggestion occurs to me which the Minister might cause to be taken into account—the bringing to the notice of claimants of the four-week limitation. There will be little problem in notifying potential new beneficiaries of their new right because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Smyth) emphasised, most of them assume that they have that right and are startled and shocked to discover that they have not. It may escape their notice, however, especially when on a visit which may be of some duration to another part of the kingdom, that the new right is limited. It should thus be brought to their attention at the first moment of their availing themselves of the new facility that it lasts for only four weeks, so that they may make arrangements in good time. I hope that the Minister will arrange for that to be considered to see whether there is any substance in it.

Mr. Patten

The right hon. Gentleman makes a valuable suggestion. I shall ensure that careful attention is given to ways of drawing attention to the four-week entitlement for those travelling to other parts of the United Kingdom.

I hope that the new regulations and statutory rules will be enforced in the not too distant future—perhaps in the summer, but certainly by the autumn.