HC Deb 23 June 1986 vol 100 cc21-6 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. Norman Fowler)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about invalid care allowance.

Invalid care allowance is intended to help people who care for severely disabled people at home. It is a noncontributory benefit and depends on the claimant caring for the disabled person for at least 35 hours a week. It was introduced by the then Labour Government in 1976 for men and single women who had given up their sole means of' livelihood to look after a severely disabled relative, but the legislation specifically excluded married women from benefit.

Since taking office, this Government have extended invalid care allowance to those caring for non-relatives and have also increased the earnings limit. Clearly there has also been pressure to extend invalid care allowance to married women. A case concerning their exclusion is now before the European Court of Justice and a debate is expected very shortly in another place. The Government have therefore reviewed the exclusion and have decided that, irrespective of the European Court decision, the allowance should be extended to married women on the same terms as married men and single persons. Accordingly, the Government will very shortly introduce an amendment to the Social Security Bill to achieve this.

The extension of invalid care allowance to married women will mean a very substantial expansion in the scope of the scheme. At present there are fewer than 11,000 beneficiaries and the cost of the allowance is £13 million. We expect up to 70,000 married women to claim the allowance, at an additional net cost of around £55 million in a full year.

The extension of the invalid care allowance to married women represents a very large improvement in the provision that we are making for disabled people in the community. It will recognise the vital role that married women play in looking after disabled people. I hope that the change will be welcomed on both sides of the House.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

Is the Secretary of State aware that this extension of the invalid care allowance to married women is undoubtedly right and will be wholly welcomed by women's organisations and the 70,000 married women who will benefit? Is he also aware that carers are often persons who have given up jobs to look after severely disabled relatives or friends? In that light, the payment of £23 a week invalid care allowance to married women carers, to bring them on a par with men and single women, is the minimum that they have a right to expect, when the alternative of residential or nursing care by the state would cost at least £170 a week. In other words, carers save the state eight times as much as they are given by the state. Is he aware that this is a complete vindication of the case that was fought right up to the European Court of Justice by Mrs. Drake, and that it is only tragic that this decision has been left to the last possible moment by the Government and that it was not made before that case started on 20 December 1984?

More specifically, will the Secretary of State clarify whether back payments will be made to all married women carers who have been denied invalid care allowance in the last 18 months, which the European Court will almost certainly rule tomorrow has been denied illegally? Is he aware that proceedings are already in hand to take the Government to court again if this entitlement is still denied?

Is the Secretary of State aware that while he is now giving to carers with one hand, he is taking away from carers with the other? Is he aware that carers are already disadvantaged by the current Social Security Bill, in two important ways: first, that they will no longer be able to qualify for the higher long-term rate of supplementary benefit after one year; and., secondly, that, of all client groups, they are singled out almost uniquely by the absence of any premium for them in that Bill? Is the Secretary of State aware, too, that support services, especially respite care, are every bit as important to carers as financial support, when it is known that two-thirds of them are in poor physical or mental health at any one time and that nearly seven in 10 suffer physical injury as a result of their caring duties?

Now that the Government have been dragged kicking and screaming through the courts to reach a decision which the Labour party made in 1983, will the Government face their responsibilities and provide the second half of what carers need—respite care and other support services — more graciously and more promptly than they conceded the first hall'?

Mr. Fowler

I am grateful at any rate for the hon. Gentleman's first words, when he said that the Government were entirely right to make this decision, but the further he continued with it the worse I thought his contribution became. If the Opposition feel so deeply on this issue, why was it that the last Labour Government specifically excluded married women from the legislation that they introduced? Married women were specifically excluded from the Social Security Benefits Act 1975, and it is that exclusion by the last Labour Government that is before the European Court at the moment. The Government will have to introduce primary legislation to put that right, and that is what we intend to do.

The question of the payment of arrears will need to be decided in the light of the European Court's judgment. Obviously we shall meet any legal obligations, but what those obligations are will depend upon that judgment. The European Court's judgment is thought to be imminent, and the Government will need a few days to consider it, but I shall make clear the position on arrears as speedily as possible. Of course I understand and support the extension of support services for the disabled.

As for the Government's record concerning the disabled, the fact of the Matter is that the Government have doubled the mobility allowance; they have removed the invalidity trap; and they have taken a whole range of measures which have improved the position of disabled people in this country. The Government are therefore entirely content to stand on their record.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

As one who has campaigned for years for the extension of the invalid care allowance to married women, I congratulate my right hon. Friend and thank him and the Government, and I extend my thanks to that least thanked of all Departments, the Treasury. Through my right hon. Friend, may I put it to the Treasury that it has set an example today from which I hope it has learnt that by looking not for narrow accounting but for total national cost benefit it may do a great deal more to help the carers in the future and that it may earn for itself, as well as for my right hon. Friend some Brownie points?

Mr. Fowler

I shall pass on my hon. Friend's thanks to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Of course, the whole Government stand by this policy. I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said, but in particular I am grateful for what he has done over the years. I recognise the campaigning that he has carried out on this issue.

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

I, too, welcome the change in the legislation that is proposed by the Secretary of State in his statement today, which rectifies a piece of sexist legislation of the previous Labour Government. I also congratulate Mrs. Drake on her perseverance in persuading the Government to change this particular piece of legislation. Does this mean that everybody who cares for a severely disabled person at home will receive the invalidity care allowance? Will the Secretary of State look through other social security benefits which might also be thought to be sex discriminatory and rectify those before other people have to go to the European Court to do so?

Mr. Fowler

We shall obviously make entirely clear, not only in the publicity that we provide but by writing to as many people as we conceivably can in receipt of attendance allowance, the precise qualifications for invalid care allowance. Broadly speaking, as the hon. Gentleman knows, it goes to the carer on the basis that the disabled person should be in receipt of attendance allowance—that is, caring for the most severely disabled person—and the person caring should do so for 35 hours or more a week. It is intended as an income replacement and, broadly speaking, will not go to people over retirement age.

Mr. Fred Silvester (Manchester, Withington)

Will my right hon. Friend not be put off by the rather miserable and mean-minded Jonah the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), who led for the Opposition on this matter, and accept that although many of us will still have a "shopping list" on behalf of the disabled, we are grateful to him for taking this action so speedily and effectively?

Mr. Fowler

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The public will make up their mind on the basis of what the Government have done, how we have acted and the extra resources that will be made available and compare that with what I took to be even more new promises, which are worth about as much as the old promises, of the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher).

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Would it be fair to say that this afternoon's statement breathes new life into Dr. Johnson's phrase that to be hanged in the morning concentrates the mind wonderfully? May I offer the right hon. Gentleman the opportunity to congratulate Mrs. Drake and the Child Poverty Action Group, whose campaign has strengthened his hand against the Treasury? Will he confirm that this is new money from the Treasury and that he will not have to make savings from his existing budget, and can he tell married women the week in which they will pick up the money for the first time?

Mr. Fowler

I am certainly talking about additional resources. I must again point out to the hon. Gentleman that we shall have to introduce primary legislation because the Social Security Act 1975 specifically excludes married women and there is no way round that. The hon. Gentleman is typically fair, and I see from his response that he recognises the truth of what I am saying. Claims should be made from now onwards. We shall issue new leaflets and write to all those in receipt of attendance allowance. The new rules will start when the Bill receives Royal Assent.

Mr. Robert McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

Is not the rather sour attitude of the Opposition a case of the fox being well and truly shot? Reverting to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price), will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that, in having gained the co-operation of the Treasury in implementing this welcome change, he will not consider that it in any way diminishes the continuing need to press for other desirable improvements in the social security system?

Mr. Fowler

Yes, I agree with both my hon. Friend's points. The response, particularly from the hon. Member for Oldham, West was grudging. The hon. Gentleman would be opposed to motherhood if he thought that it had been introduced by a Conservative Government. We shall continue to develop the social security system as we are doing.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Can the Secretary of State understand that most people recognise that the statement has been motivated, not by any generosity on the Government's behalf, but because they face the possibility of a humiliating finding of the European Court that their previous attitude discriminated against women? Will he give some figure for the amount that married women have been saving the state by caring for severely disabled people, and also some clearer details than he has done so far about what expense his Department will undertake to ensure that the benefit is widely publicised? Will he again give some estimate of the number of women who will benefit from the statement that he has made today?

Mr. Fowler

I thought that I had given those figures. We expect there to be about 70,000 new beneficiaries. There will be about 50,000 net gainers because of the interacting effect of the entitlement to dependency addition. The Government cannot really do more about publicity than I have promised. We shall write to everyone in receipt of attendance allowance, as that seems to be an eminently sensible course to take. On the general position, I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I remind him that we are putting right the Labour Government's legislation.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (Surrey, South-West)

I join in congratulating my right hon. Friend on his decision. I have for some time urged the Government to make the right decision about married women and the invalid care allowance. Four out of five carers are women, and there are often more women looking after dependent elderly relatives and disabled people than there are looking after children. Will my right hon. Friend renew his efforts to look at the needs of carers in the broadest sense? They require emotional and practical support, and not just financial help, and the best way of providing that is often in partnership with the voluntary sector.

Mr. Fowler

I have great sympathy with what my hon. Friend has said. As she may know, the Government have been developing policy in this area and seeking to introduce further proposals. I hope that in the not too distant future I shall have something to say about the further development of that policy.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does the Secretary of State realise that the public have become increasingly aware that their best defences against sexual discrimination are the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights? Is he satisfied that the Government's proposals on tax credits, which are currently being considered, will not fall foul of similar anti-discriminatory European legislation? Should the proposals not be withdrawn?

Mr. Fowler

The hon. Gentleman has taken us a little away from the question of invalid care allowance. The Government have taken a whole range of actions to remove sex discrimination from our social security legislation. Since 1983 men and women have been able to claim income-related benefits on the same terms. We have changed the household duties test, and there is equal treatment over claims for dependency benefits. In other words, quite apart from decisions by the European Court, we have taken a whole series of steps that have achieved greater equality.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Is my hon. Friend aware that his announcement today will give particular pleasure to my contituency, where the Association of Carers resides? Would he care to pay tribute to the association for giving every hon. Member a great deal of information about carers, even though some of it ended up in a rather vituperative statement from the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher)? That information has been useful to us all.

Mr. Fowler

I certainly join my hon. Friend in paying that tribute. I think that there is broad support in all parts of the House for this step.

Mr. Rober N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

Although I welcome the Government's decision, belated though it may be, did not the Minister for Social Security say last April that the cost of this extension would be about £100 million? We are now told that the figure is £55 million. 1las the discrepancy occurred because in between times, while by-elections have been held, the Government have changed their mind, have decided that they can make the extension, and have accordingly lowered their figures? Alternatively, are some of the calculations inexact? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the present level of benefit will be maintained, despite any inflation during the next two years, before the Government's demise?

Mr. Fowler

That is a matter to be dealt with in the uprating statement. I pay tribute to the efforts by the Minister responsible for the disabled. He has always made it clear that the Government accept the aim in principle but that there are problems of both resources and priorities.

The figure is an estimate. We think that £55 million in a full year is the net cost. The gross cost is about £80 million, but the extension of ICA to married women means that some entitlement to dependency additions will cease. That is the difference between the gross and the net costs. Another factor that must be taken into account is that new estimates have been made following the European case involving Mrs. Drake, and we can now base our estimates on actual applications.

Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South)

I join in congratulating my right hon. Friend on his statement, which will be welcomed by my constituents. Does he agree that the churlish attitude on the Opposition Benches is strongly influenced by the fact that, despite protestations about sex equality, women's committees and women's rights, it has taken a Tory Government to move in this direction?

Mr. Fowler

My hon. Friend is right. We have taken the action. The hon. Member for Oldham, West only talks extravagantly about it.

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the purpose of social security benefit is to meet need, rather than desire? Is he sure, given that £55 million has been added to his budget today, that the disabled could not be more effectively helped in other ways, for example, by the extension of mobility allowance for certain groups?

Mr. Fowler

Conflicting and competing priorities will always exist. However, ICA enables us to recognise the position of those who have given up the opportunity to work so that they can care for a disabled person. Such help is entirely in line with what most people want.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that his statement rectifying Socialist legislation will be widely welcomed, not only by married women, but by many others who genuinely believe in boosting community care rather than relying on official Government sources?

Mr. Fowler

Yes. My statement should be seen in the context of community care policy, and not as an individual policy.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his decision, but can he explain to the British public how an institution of the Common Market, which we joined at the time of the referendum on the basis of free trading with Europe, can make a judgment on how much social payment we should make, to whom, how and why? Where will it end? Will my right hon. Friend ask the European Court, since it seems to have power over our social payments, whether it would be proper to allocate family credit on the basis of the sex of the recipient?

Mr. Fowler

We are bound by the directive on equal rights, and the case has gone to the European Court under that directive. I have made it clear in my statement that irrespective of what the European Court decides we intend to go ahead with this policy.