HC Deb 02 May 1984 vol 59 cc492-7
Mr. Alfred Morris

I beg to move amendment No. 23, in page 12, line 20, leave out '20' and insert '25'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 24, in page 12, line 41, leave out paragraph (d).

No. 25, in page 13, line 8, leave out '80' and insert '60'.

No. 90, in schedule 3, page 37, line 28, after 'person', insert

'of an age group eligible to claim severe disablement allowance.'.

Mr. Morris

These are important amendments. I wish to make it clear that they in no way alter our opposition, to the replacement of NCIP arid HNCIP by the proposed severe disablement allowance.

I quote at the outset from a letter sent to me this week by Peter Large, who has the respect of both sides of the House. Writing on behalf of the Disablement Income Group, he said:

You will be interested to note that the DIG Executive Committee discussed the outcome of the Committee Stage of the Bill and what we might seek at the Report Stage. As you will guess, we were very disappointed indeed to hear that the Government dismiss all of our criticisms. We decided that it would be wrong to attempt to have the 80% degree of disablement reduced as this would imply that we accepted the irrelevant test of degree of disability for an incomes maintenance benefit. We cannot accept such nonsense. An income maintenance benefit should be payable on a straight test of inability to work. Peter Large goes on:

This is not the step towards a more coherent system of benefits for disabled people that was promised in the 1979 Conservative manifesto. It will make the rationalization of the benefit system more difficult and force more disabled people on to supplementary benefit for incomes maintenance. It is a step away from what we have consistently sought. It is a step towards further confusion. This is why we have not sought any change in the 80% disablement test — apart from its abolition. We just want Clause 6 deleted. We do, however, fully support the representations of the National Bureau for Handicapped Students for the age cut-off for the single test should be raised from 20 to 25 years. We entirely appreciate the bitter disappointment felt by the DIG executive, and its belief that opposition should be to the whole concept of the severe disablement allowance, for the reasons so well expressed in the letter from Peter Large. Nevertheless, we have taken the view that both the 80 per cent. test and the case for raising the age cut-off from 20 to 25 ought to be debated. We have tabled our amendments for that reason.

We believe the 80 per cent. test to be an additional hurdle to an incapacity benefit. We believe that the test will be vastly expensive to administer, even with the passport arrangements. Indeed, those arrangements will themselves cause many problems. When, as so often happens, the DHSS decides to remove someone's mobility allowance, that person will be told that in order not to forfeit his severe disablement allowance he will have to pass the 80 per cent. disability test.

Which will come first — the appeal against withdrawal of mobility allowance or the 80 per cent. test? Will the Minister allow the same medical board and the same medical appeal tribunal to decide both questions? I ask these questions against the background that it has taken more than a year to decide on the fees payable to doctors for a pilot study of the possibility of assessing mobility allowance and attendance allowance at the same time. What is the BMA's view?

Our amendment proposes to reduce the level of the test from 80 per cent. to 60 per cent., which is the level proposed by the Social Security Advisory Committee. The Minister has said that this would cost £20 million initially, rising to £40 million above the cost of the 80 per cent. test. Perhaps he will now give us the basis on which his estimates are calculated.

If the Minister looks at the figures for the industrial injuries scheme, he will see that only 160 industrial accidents out of 5,240 were assessed at 80 per cent. or above, and only 50 out of 780 prescribed diseases. If 60 per cent. and 70 per cent. awards were included, there would be 150 more accident awards and 100 more disease awards.

One of the criticisms of using the industrial injuries scheme for SDA is that the experience of the scheme in assessing high levels of disability is very limited. The vast majority of assessments are of 30 per cent. and below. Bringing the figure down to 60 per cent. will at least extend the possibility that doctors making assessments will have seen people with a comparable disability before.

Another of our amendments raises the age cut-off to 25. We believe not only that there are clearly identifiable people aged from 20 to 25 who will lose benefit as a result of the Government's decision on the age cut-off but that their rehabilitation and attempts to obtain employment will be impeded.

There are two distinct groups — those who will become recipients of SDA before the age of 20 under the simple incapacity test, and those who will become incapable of work after the age of 20. Someone awarded SDA before the age of 20 will have to pass the 80 per cent. test if he seeks to return to benefit following a period as short as eight weeks during which he is adjudged to be capable of work. I am aware, of course, that periods of training link with periods of incapacity, so we are probably talking only of periods of actual employment. I accept also that many of those who qualify for SDA before the age of 20 would have no difficulty in passing the 80 per cent. test. There are, however, many young disabled, and I believe that the Spastics Society has identified several congenitally disabled in its schools and colleges who would not pass the 80 per cent. test and whose ability to earn a living will not be known until they have tried.

Amendment No. 23 is designed solely to protect the position of those for whom NCIP was created. I refer to those who became incapable of work before they had been able to establish themselves within the contributory system. Taken together, our amendments are important to many severely disabled, not least the young disabled, and I hope that for the reasons I have given they will be received favourably by the House.

Mr. Newton

I shall try to respond to the amendment in the speedy manner in which the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) moved it. The suggestion that the 80 per cent. test is irrelevant to this sort of benefit is an argument that applies similarly to the household duties test. There is no real relevance in a test to ascertain whether someone can do his household duties if what he wants to do, and would otherwise do, is to work in a normal, remunerated occupation. The household duties test was a means of rationing benefit. I have accepted throughout that the 80 per cent. test is a means of rationing the available resources among the disabled under 20 years of age. I contend that a severity of disablement test without regard to sex or marital status is more rational than a household duties test.

I shall consider what the right hon. Gentleman said about passporting and the results when someone comes off passport. There are a number of practical issues that we need to resolve in devising a proper administrative framework for the scheme. I shall not attempt to discuss the broader issues that he raised, but I shall make two specific comments that are relevant to the practical considerations and which go beyond what has been said hitherto.

First and most important is a comment that goes directly to the concern that has been expressed about the position in which someone would find himself if he had qualified for SDA before 20 years of age and then wished to attempt employment thereafter. I said in Committee that I would give further consideration to the matter. I am not in a position to offer a concession on the age of 20—for example, to make it 25—but I recognise the concern about the possible disincentive to seek work which has been expressed in the representations that I have received. As I am anxious not to discourage disabled youngsters from seeking work wherever that is possible, I am happy to say that we shall be introducing regulations that will provide for any break or breaks of up to six months in aggregate to be ignored for the purposes of deciding whether a person has been continuously incapable of work since the age of 20 or before. We intend that this concession shall apply to all SDA claims, including the first.

I wish to make it clear that the proposed concession will not be a linking rule in the normal sense. A person will still have to serve a continuous period of 196 days of incapacity before becoming entitled to SDA after a break in title. Similarly, the rule will apply only where someone can show that he has been continuously incapable of work for a period of at least 196 days beginning before the age of 20. Even with those limitations, I hope that the House will accept that there will be a significant advance for those who have qualified for SDA to be able to have a longer period than some feared under our original proposals to test whether they can work and then be able, if they are not able to work, to qualify for SDA.

My second specific comment picks up an issue that was raised in Committee by the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). As I said in Committee, it is proposed to use the powers in paragraph 6 of schedule 3 to introduce regulations that will enable the adjudication officer to dispense with a reference for a medical examination and to determine the disablement questions himself in prescribed circumstances.

As I said in Committee—and this is the passporting point—we intend that that will apply where a claimant is registered blind or partially sighted, where he is receiving attendance allowance, mobility allowance or war pensioners' mobility supplement or where there is already an industrial injuries or war pensions assessment of at least 80 per cent.

2 am

In specific response to a point raised in Committee by the hon. Member for Birkenhead, I can now announce that the passporting arrangements will also cover cases where an award has been made under the vaccine damage scheme or where a claimant has an invalid trike or car or private car allowance under the NHS or war pensioners' vehicles scheme.

Those are relatively modest points that we were in danger of overlooking. I am indebted to the hon. Member for Birkenhead for raising them in Committee. I hope that, although I have not been able to cover the full text of the amendments, those two points will be welcome to Opposition Members.

Mrs. Beckett

We thank the Minister for his comments on points raised in Committee about passporting. I think that we also thank him for his remarks about linking; certainly, six months is a more sensible period. We shall want to examine carefully the implications of what he has said and may return to the matter.

I wish briefly to raise two points. Amendment No. 24 calls for the deletion of paragraph (d) because there are people who fail to satisfy the conditions for retirement pension. I understand that the largest group will be married women whose husbands are still under the age of 65. We would want their claims to be considered at any age. I recognise that the Minister may wish to consider that point carefully.

On amendment No. 90, one point raised in Committee has not really been dealt with tonight. The Minister will appreciate that I was not present during debates in Committee. However, it appears that from the date when the new benefit is introduced any application for NCIP will cease to be valid. Yet there will be people who, from that date, will not be allowed to apply for SDA.

I know that in Committee the Minister referred to administrative problems. The Department does not like the idea of one benefit running alongside another. We have every sympathy with the problems faced by the Department. However, it is quite unjust that certain people will not be allowed to apply for SDA or for NCIP, for which they might qualify. We recognise that the Minister hopes that that will apply only for a couple of years, but that is still too long.

I hope that the Minister will give us an assurance that he will consider amendment No. 90 or some formulation that will have the same effect. Unless he wants to go down in history for the Newton black hole, he would be well advised to do so.

Mr. Newton

With the leave of the House, I shall reply briefly to the points raised.

I certainly have no desire to go down in history for the Newton black hole, or any other hole. I shall consider the point about amendment No. 24 because, quite frankly, we had not realised what the hon. Lady had in mind.

The overt purpose of the amendment is to allow SDA to be payable to people who first become incapable of work after pensionable age. The hon. Lady will understand the problem immediately. The notion of assessing whether someone is capable of work after he has passed retirement age is somewhat odd. It would be farcical to try to assess someone of 95 for capacity for work. However, I shall consider the hon. Lady's remarks.

On amendment No. 90, I think that I made it clear in Committee—which is why I shall not be especially forthcoming now—that I acknowledged that there will be some people—probably a small number of between 1,000 and 2,000 — who may find themselves in the position described by the hon. Lady. If both the old and new benefits ran side by side, quite apart from administrative problems or any technical objections, some people who might qualify for NCIP during the phasing period might not satisfy the conditions for SDA at the end of the period. In other words, they might find themselves being awarded benefit one week, only to have it taken away the next. If, to avoid that, they were given automatic title to severe disablement allowance, they would have an advantage over those who qualified under the new system in the first phase.

Whatever one does, there will be anomalies. That will always be the case unless one introduces a benefit covering everything in one go. It was the sort of problem that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) faced with the mobility allowance. There is no perfect answer, but we believe that what we are doing is the best practicable way forward.

Mr. Alfred Morris

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Newton

I beg to move amendment No. 26, in page 13, line 11, leave out '2A' and insert '2'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It will be convenient to consider at the same time Government amendments Nos. 87, 88 and 89.

Mr. Newton

These are essentially technical amendments to ensure that the new rates of NCIP, which I presume my right hon. Friend will be setting in some uprating statement in the foreseeable future, are smoothly translated into the initial rate of severe disablement allowance from November.

Amendment agreed to.

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