HC Deb 10 March 1986 vol 93 cc784-8

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

12.12 am
Mr. John Watts (Slough)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the case of my constituent, Mr. Singleton, who was unable to work for two years because of ill health before he qualified in 1983 for invalidity benefit and retired prematurely due to permanent ill health.

While Mr. Singleton was still in receipt of sickness benefit, a friend offered him an opportunity to spend two weeks' holiday in Spain between 24 April and 8 May 1983. He was aware that he should notify the Department of Health and Social Security that he would be going abroad for a holiday from the instructions in form BF11P which, on page 3, states: You must tell your local office if any of the following changes occur while you are receiving benefit". One is, "You leave this country." The form continues: You should consult your local office as soon as possible so that they can advise you if benefit is likely to be affected during or after the absence from this country. The words in form BF11P are important. Claimants are instructed to "tell" the local office so that they can advise you if benefit is likely to be affected". It is apparently a model of clarity.

Mr. Singleton complied with the instructions on 7 April 1983, when he wrote to the Slough DHSS office to "tell" it that he was leaving the country for a short holiday and to give the dates, which were then two and a half weeks ahead. He then waited for the advice which was promised to him in form BF11P. Regrettably, no advice came. Perhaps if he had been aware of the volume of case work handled in the local office, he may have realised that two and a half weeks was not long enough to allow for a reply. If the information in the form had been that benefit was likely to be affected if one went abroad, he might have chased that elusive reply. But his information was only to notify the office so that it could advise him if benefit was likely to be affected. As he received no such advice, he made the perfectly reasonable assumption that his entitlement to benefit was not affected.

On Mr. Singleton's return from holiday he found a letter from the DHSS dated 21 April—three days before his departure on holiday—but date-stamped 28 April, four days after his arrival in sunny Spain. Much to his consternation, the letter told him that he would lose benefit for the period of his holiday. Understandably, he felt aggrieved that he had not been given information to which he was entitled before his departure, although he had complied to the best of his ability with the Department's instructions and given adequate notice of his intentions. He was further aggrieved that the letter was back-dated. If that back-dating was deliberate, it was reprehensible. If the letter was written on 21 April before he set off on holiday, but nobody bothered to post it for a further seven days, that would also merit censure.

Mr. Singleton took up his case with the local tribunal, which upheld the decision of the insurance officer of 26 October 1983. At that point he came to see me. On 9 November 1983, I wrote to the local manager, Mr. Peasley. I always find him and his staff extremely helpful in trying to resolve problems. I asked whether he could exercise any discretion to pay the £50 which had been withheld, but he replied that, as he had no such discretion, he could not make the payment. Mr. Singleton was then refused leave to appeal to the commissioners.

In February 1984, I wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson), who was then Minister for Social Security, pointing out that the insurance officer's submission to the tribunal made great play of the nature of Mr. Singleton's letter of 7 April. The officer claimed that the letter from the claimant was purely a notification of the claimant's intention and did not make any inquiry", although the back-dated reply of 21 April from the Department commences:

In reply to your inquiry about the effect on benefit of your absence abroad". Clearly, Mr. Singleton's letter was seen as an inquiry, although later that was explained away as the use of a standard letter which should have been adapted before issue. Mr. Singleton's reply of 9 May 1983 was turned against him because he stated: I would have expected my letter dated 7 April to have made it perfectly clear I was not making an inquiry but acting in accordance with your note in form BF11P which requires me to inform you of absence abroad. Such nit-picking by the Department has not been at all helpful.

If at any stage Mr. Singleton had received any semblance of apology for the dilatory back-dated reply, and an acknowledgement that he had complied with the requirement to tell the office of his intention to go abroad, he might have been willing to let the matter drop.

In his reply to me of 20 March 1984, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North arranged for further inquiries to establish when the holiday was booked, whether Mr. Singleton believed that he would be entitled to benefit and whether he would have cancelled his arrangements had he known benefit would be lost. Such inquiries did not and do not seem to me to have been particularly relevant, because Mr. Singleton's complaint is not that benefit was not payable under the regulations while he was abroad, but that he was entitled to be advised of his position before the start of his holiday, about which he had informed the local office in good time.

In the event it was not possible to establish whether Mr. Singleton would have cancelled his holiday. Clearly such hypothetical questions can rarely be given definitive answers. Subsequently the complaint was referred to the ombudsman, but it appeared that he did not have adequate powers to investigate. Mr. Singleton also pursued the complaint in correspondence with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services and with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The cost of answering all the letters alone, and of the hearing before the tribunal, must easily have exceeded the £50 of benefit lost. Because no other means of redress have been found, I raise the case in the House on the Adjournment.

At the very least Mr. Singleton is entitled to an apology from the Department for not having been given advice to which he was entitled, and at the right time. Further, if there is any power under which he could be given an exgratia payment, that also should be done.

Finally, I ask my hon. Friend what steps, if any, have been taken to revise the advice contained in the now notorious form BF11P so that no one in future should be the innocent and unwitting victim of its less than adequate advice about the effect on benefit of going abroad.

12.21 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. John Major)

The case of Mr. Singleton has been a long-running saga and I congratulate my hon. Friend on the persistence with which he has pursued the matter on behalf of his constituent. It is entirely proper for him to have brought the matter to the Floor of the House. I am grateful to him for the clear and precise way in which he has set out Mr. Singleton's cause for grievance.

Let me begin by saying—without any equivocation—that I well understand Mr. Singleton's disappointment and annoyance when he returned from his holiday in Spain to find that he would not be, as he had expected, paid sickness benefit for the period that he was abroad. I respect the persistence with which he too has pursued this matter. He and my hon. Friend make a formidable pair.

I must also accept at the outset that there were shortcomings in the way in which officials in my Department dealt with Mr. Singleton's first letter. If the local office's reply telling him that he would not be entitled to sickness benefit while he was in Spain had been sent to him earlier, he would have received it before he left this country and would have been aware of his position. I understand that the local office did, in fact, apologise to Mr. Singleton for its failure to write to him promptly and I hope that Mr. Singleton is content to accept this apology. There is, of course, no question of Mr. Singleton having been at fault, nor of his being penalised by the Department at any time. I wish to make that quite clear. It is simply that the straightforward application of the law means that he is not entitled to benefit. My hon. Friend will understand that the Department is bound to apply the law as it stands.

If this situation seems curious to my hon. Friend, I will endeavour to explain how it comes about. Under the Social Security Act 1975, and the Social Security (Persons Abroad) Regulations 1975, sickness benefit is not normally payable in respect of a period abroad. There are two exceptions which applied at the time of Mr. Singleton's holiday in April and May 1983, and which continue to apply. These exceptions enable benefit to be paid to someone who has either gone abroad for the specific purpose of being treated for incapacity which commenced before he left this country, or to someone who has been continuously incapacitated for six months or more. Neither of these exceptions applied to Mr. Singleton, and it is for this reason that he was not entitled to benefit.

My hon. Friend will know that my Department issues leaflets describing all our benefits, which are freely available to claimants, and the one which deals with sickness benefit, under the heading, "If you go abroad", says: Generally you cannot get sickness benefit for any period outside Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man. But, you may be able to get benefit in some circumstances and in some countries. That sets out the position clearly, and should not lead anyone to think that benefit will automatically be paid during periods abroad. Form BF11P, which my hon. Friend called "notorious"—perhaps he made it that way —entitled "Notes on Sickness or Industrial Injury Benefit" which is issued to claimants, says under the heading, "Leaving the Country", that he or she should, consult his Local Office as soon as possible so that they can advise whether benefit is likely to be affected during or after the absence from this country. This is brief, but I think it gives adequate warning and again should not lead anyone to think that benefit will necessarily be payable during absence abroad. None the less, my hon. Friend asked me to reconsider the form, and I undertake to do as he requests.

However, in the absence of specific contrary advice Mr. Singleton believed that he was entitled to sickness benefit while abroad, and, as was his right, appealed against the decision which had been given by the insurance officer in the Department's overseas branch at Newcastle. His appeal was heard by the local tribunal on 26 October 1983, and dismissed on the grounds that Mr. Singleton did not comply with the conditions for payment of sickness benefit to someone abroad. He applied to the tribunal for leave to appeal to the commissioner, but this was refused, and his further application to the commissioner for leave was also refused. Thus, the statutory authorities confirmed that the law had been applied correctly.

My hon. Friend—and I suspect Mr. Singleton—may wish to know why we have this restriction on entitlement to sickness benefit. Why do we not simply continue to pay when people who are entitled to sickness benefit go abroad?

The main reason for the longstanding rule is that when someone is abroad we cannot carry out the normal checks on incapacity for work which we apply to anyone who claims benefit in this country. These are the checks which have been found to be necessary if the national insurance fund and the interests of the general body of contributors to the fund are to be properly safeguarded. When sickness benefit is paid in this country the usual doctor's statement will have come from a practitioner here whose existence can be checked, and who can, if need be, confirm his signature. Then we can ask a claimant to attend for a medical examination, or we can send someone to visit him at home. Because those checks can be operated, we can be reasonably certain that sickness benefit is being paid correctly. However, I should say that there is not the slightest doubt about Mr. Singleton's illness, and we would not have seen any need to check on his capacity for work—that is not in question at all.

We recognise that there may be individual cases from time to time where it may seem unreasonable not to pay sickness benefit, but a scheme the size of the national insurance scheme must operate within broad rules that apply to the generality of cases. The exceptions to the general rule are those where overall risks are kept to an acceptable level. Where someone goes abroad for the specific purpose of being treated for an existing incapacity it is reasonable to accept the evidence that there will be treatment abroad as an alternative to our normal controls. Where someone has been incapable of work for six months we can accept that incapacity is likely to continue for a further period and pay benefit during a temporary absence. There are also a few reciprocal agreements on social security with other countries which provide for payment of sickness benefit while a person is there, but these are normally dependent upon the other country's giving us the benefit of its supervision system.

It has also been suggested that had Mr. Singleton received the local office's letter dated 21 April 1983 before he left, he could have cancelled his holiday. Had the letter from our local office been sent to him at the proper time, he would have had the opportunity to change his arrangements, and even if he had had to pay a cancellation charge, this could have been less than £41.67—not the £50 my hon. Friend mentioned—which was the amount of sickness benefit that would have been payable had he remained here. The question arises: should we have made an ex-gratia payment, as my hon. Friend suggested we might consider, to compensate Mr. Singleton for his lost opportunity?

Considering the situation as a whole, and in relation to the interests of other insured persons, I fear that the answer must be that we should not. The situation was clearly set out in the sickness benefit leaflet, and there was no reason to assume that sickness benefit would be payable. Had Mr. Singleton been positively misinformed by officials, this would have been a different matter, but this was not so.

Thus, while I sympathise very much with Mr. Singleton in his disappointment at finding that he was not, as he had thought, entitled to benefit for the period of his holiday in Spain, and I regret that he was not promptly informed of his position, I must say that he has received the benefit to which he is, in law, entitled. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that Mr. Singleton's problem has been considered carefully and in detail, and that it would not be appropriate for me to take any further action.

However, I accept that there is an element of misfortune about this case. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will express my apologies to Mr. Singleton for the frustration he has suffered and that Mr. Singleton will understand why I am unable to recommend an ex-gratia payment.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Twelve o'clock.