HC Deb 02 May 1984 vol 59 cc475-7

  1. (1) It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that such documents relating to any relevant determination made under section 2 of the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976 as are necessary to enable an adjudication officer to review the determination are preserved until either
    1. (a) the determination has been reviewed or
    2. (b) the Secretary of State is satisfied that no such review is necessary for the purpose of correcting an underpayment of benefit.
  2. 476
  3. (2) For the purposes of this section a "relevant determination" means a determination, made before 1st August 1983 and not reviewed on or after that date, as to entitlement to or the amount of supplementary benefit in a case to which regulation 8 of the Supplementary Benefit (Requirements) Regulations 1980 applied at the date of the determination.

[Mrs. Beckett.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mrs. Beckett

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This is a simple new clause, as the Minister is well aware, which refers to a simple matter. Some time ago it was realised that a substantial number of people had deductions made from their supplementary benefit on the grounds that they might have made themselves voluntarily unemployed. However, as was the rule and the norm, when these cases went to the Department of Employment to be checked, decisions were frequently made reversing that original assumption. Therefore, the people involved were entitled to back payment of benefit.

However, through a failure to follow the correct regulations in the DHSS, in about half of those cases no check was ever made with the Department of Employment, no one in the DHSS was aware that the decisions had been reversed. and no back payment of benefit was made.

The Government have checked the files of those with current supplementary benefit claims, and I understand that about 8,000 people have received payments totalling about £200,000. However, the new clause is concerned with those who are not currently receiving supplementary benefit but who are still entitled to the benefit of which they were unjustly deprived.

It is believed that about 20,000 people come into this category. The Department published one advertisement and I understand that about 180 people replied. It has advertised again, and perhaps the Minister will inform us of the response to that second series of advertisements.

In the normal course of events, about 3 million DHSS files, including many of the files to which I have just referred, will begin to be destroyed on 15 June. The Department has delayed the destruction of some of the files to give those concerned the opportunity to make a claim but there has not been much time and, with respect to the Department, there has not been all that much publicity to encourage people to do so. We should like a further opportunity to be given to those who are entitled to the back benefit to claim it. It is for that reason that the new clause asks the Government not to resume destruction of the files on 15 June.

12.45 am
Dr. Boyson

The Department's inspectorate who found this discrepancy discovered that it had existed under previous Governments. Credit should be given to this Government for bringing the discrepancy to light. If it had not been found, it is likely that it would have continued without anyone knowing about it. When it was discovered that deductions had been made unfairly, the Department took action. No criticism can be made of the Government on the speed with which they acted.

The hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) has asked me to state how many individuals are concerned. About 9,600 current claims were found to be wrong and payments of an average of £25 per person have been paid back to those who have made a claim. We decided immediately that the back papers should be kept for a longer period than normal so that any issue that was raised could be considered in the light of the papers. We have twice advertised widely in the national press, on the BBC and on local radio. We sent out posters to the TUC, the CBI, unemployment benefit offices and post offices. We sent out forms for the use of those who were entitled to make a claim. We did everything that we could to make it known to those who thought that they had a claim to back payments that they should approach the Department.

As a result of the autumn advertising, 130 claimants were paid an average of £25 each. We advertised again about a month ago and 133 claims were submitted as a result. We advertised throughout the press and we issued posters. We are keeping the back papers in readiness.

The new clause is asking us to keep the back papers for even longer. Anyone who has seen the mass of documents that are kept in social security offices will understand the amount of space that they occupy and the number of staff who are required to look after them. If we went through the papers individually, it would cost £3.6 million and would take many of the staff away from serving the present clientele. Every Government and every Department must have priorities. The Government decide how much money will be allocated to each Department, and within this Department we have to decide where the money allocated for social security should be spent. The £3.6 million will not come from outer space. If we spent that sum in going through the papers individually, it would have to be drawn from the allocation for another benefit or from another project.

We found that about 9,600 individuals had been unfairly treated and the money has been paid back to those who have made a claim. There have been two large advertising campaigns on the radio and in the press and we have sent posters to all the offices concerned. The Government have done all that they reasonably can to draw attention to the discrepancy, and I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to oppose the new clause.

Mr. Frank Field

How many individuals are eligible for back payment who are within the "dead" files? Is 20,000 a reliable figure?

Dr. Boyson

I have not seen a figure. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman within a week and supply him with an estimate.

Mrs. Beckett

If the Minister is adamant on not responding to the new clause, we shall have to find another way of raising the matter. The Prime Minister has threatened us—I think that that is the right expression—with another term of office. God forbid—I am sure that he will—that that should happen. If she should be fortunate enough to secure a third term, I wonder whether Ministers will cease to blame everything that happens on the previous Labour Government.

Question put and negatived.

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