HC Deb 31 January 1991 vol 184 cc1216-22

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

10.46 pm
Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

I do not wish to detain the House for too long, but the case I have to put to the Minister is very important. I will be interested to hear her reply.

It relates to a constituent of mine, Mrs. Morris, who lives in a village called South Anston. She has a son, Simon, who is a spastic quadraplegic and is obviously severely handicapped. Before 1989, she received the higher rate attendance allowance, severe disablement allowance, mobility allowance and, from 1985, the invalidity care allowance for caring for Simon. In 1989, Simon got a place at a residential school near Huddersfield. Obviously, Mrs. Morris expected a change in her income, but because she had to care for Simon at weekends, in school holidays or if he was ill, she was not able to get a job. She had to be available to care for Simon at any time and all times. Mrs. Morris understands that and accepts that her benefit would change when she is not actually caring for Simon.

The problems with receipt of her invalidity care allowance began when Simon was home for an occasional weekend—that is, when weekends either side of one spent at home were spent at school. On those weekends, she was refused invalid care allowance, even though she was receiving attendance allowance. Mrs. Morris felt aggrieved at her treatment, and lodged an appeal against the decision not to pay invalid care allowance. Although the tribunal was sympathetic, it turned down her appeal for payment on those weekends, even though she cared for Simon for up to 66 hours on those occasions.

I have a detailed schedule of the times Mrs. Morris has cared for Simon. In the week commencing Sunday 29 October 1989, Mrs. Morris cared for Simon for 31.5 hours; in the week beginning 12 November 1989, she cared for him for 33.5 hours; in the week beginning 26 November 1989, she cared for him for 32.5 hours, and in the week beginning 3 December 1989, she cared for him for 33.5 hours. Those times were for Fridays and Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays.

On all those occasions, she received two days attendance allowance, but the regulations for invalid care allowance specify that, in a week that runs to Saturday midnight, Mrs. Morris must have cared for Simon for 35 hours. Even if she might have looked after him for 66 hours over the weekend, the fact that it does not amount to 35 hours on either side of Saturday midnight means that she is denied benefit.

This case was originally brought to my attention in October 1990 by Paula Walker, who is a community worker in the advice section of the Church of England Children's Society in Maltby in my constituency. It is a worthwhile project that not only runs activities such as play groups and summer play schemes but gives good advice to my constituents when they are in need. Paula Walker wrote to me and rightly pointed out the inflexibility of the regulations for claiming invalid care allowance.

In November last year, having spoken to Paula Walker and Mrs. Morris, I wrote to the Secretary of State asking him to use his discretionary powers to grant Mrs. Morris invalid care allowance payments on the weekends when Simon is home. The reply that I received from Lord Henley was, as he acknowledged, disappointing. He said: I am sorry that Mrs. Morris finds that the strict interpretation of the 35-hour rule is causing problems for her, but a provision in the Social Security Act 1975 defines a week as a period of 7 days beginning with midnight between Saturday and Sunday. I do appreciate that caring for a disabled person is not an easy task. It is certainly not our intention to make it difficult for carers to get ICA: we are anxious that as many carers as possible satisfy the qualifying criteria but the regulations do not allow for discretion in this matter. Like Mrs. Morris, I believe that that bureaucratic trap is nonsense. There is no reason why invalid care allowance cannot be as flexible as attendance allowance.

Will the Minister review the regulations and introduce an element of discretion, so that Mrs. Morris can receive payment of invalid care allowance for the time that she is looking after Simon, which is only what she is entitled to?

10.51 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Miss Ann Widdecombe)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) on his success in the ballot and on eloquently raising the case of his constituent, Mrs. Morris.

Although the subject of the debate concerns the case of an individual, it raises points of wider interest, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on them. I shall do my best, in the time available, to address the issues that the hon. Gentleman has brought to the attention of the House and of the Government.

My reply, therefore, will range more widely than the present rules of one benefit in an individual case, although I shall address the points that the hon. Gentleman made. I should describe the background of the Government's wider policy on community care and the social security benefits that are provided for those who need care and say something about our record on that policy. I shall then address myself to the rules that must necessarily frame any benefit scheme, which in a few cases act in ways that appear contrary to the spirit of the scheme.

First, I shall try to fit invalid care allowance into the wider picture of community care. To do so, I must give an indication of the resources that are devoted to helping many people in circumstances similar to those of Mrs. Morris and Simon through the Government's policy on community care and, through social security, to disabled people and the people who care for them.

Community care has been a large and growing part of local and central Government expenditure for more than a decade. Our commitment to it is beyond doubt, and a significant increase in social services expenditure—a 45 per cent. real terms increase between 1979 and 1990—is proof of it. April will see the implementation of phase 1 of the community care policy, as set out in the White Paper "Caring for People". That policy will be implemented in the context of a local authority settlement for 1991–92, which provides personal social services with the best increase in financial provision in 15 years. Only a few days ago, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment confirmed details of that settlement, which allows for a standard spending assessment for social services of £4,503 million. That represents a cash increase of more than 23 per cent. over the current year.

The Government recognise the contribution of informal carers to community care, as evidenced by the initiative of improving community care services. One of the six key objectives in the White Paper "Caring for People" is to ensure that service providers make practical support for carers a high priority. Assessment of care needs should always take account of the needs of caring family, friends and neighbours. The White Paper recognises that carers need help in maintaining their valuable contribution to the spectrum of care and with services that respond flexibly and sensitively to their needs, greater involvement in the development of services, advice and support as well as practical services and improved access to information about facilities.

I know that many carers give generously of their time and energies. I listened to the hon. Gentleman's speech with admiration for his constituent, Mrs Morris, and for her son, Simon. I am sure that other hon. Members present were similarly impressed by Mrs Morris's devotion and commitment and, I was going to say, "simple hard work", but I understand that caring for Simon can never be merely simple.

Before moving from the general to the particular, I must say something about the proper role of personal benefits for people with disabilities and their carers. We have been looking at benefit provision for people with disabilities very carefully recently. The Disability Living Allowance and Disability Working Allowance Bill, which I am at present involved in steering through Parliament, is a good example of our commitment to developing and extending provision for disabled people living in the community. It takes a fresh look at benefits for a wider range of disabilities than hitherto, just as the community care plans look to providing better services for individuals and their carers on an even wider spectrum than before.

The proposals in our White Paper "The Way Ahead" as a whole give £300 million extra help to 850,000 people. Nearly 300,000 people will gain as a result of the restructuring of attendance allowance for the under-65s and mobility allowance to form the new disability living allowance, at a cost of £240 million by 1993–94.

A new benefit called disability working allowance will go to about 50,000 people, at a gross cost of £85 million, which will be broadly offset by savings elsewhere. These plans are welcomed by those needing care, by those who care for them, by their supporters and by professionals in the field. Indeed, it may be that Mrs. Morris's son Simon will benefit from the improvements that we are making now for disabled people to live in the community.

For the immediate future, we will remember the statement on the uprating of benefits made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in October and the improvements and increases in provision it contained not only for disabled people and their carers, but for handicapped, sick and elderly people who live in the community.

Making the most effective use of our benefit resources is and will continue to be, for this and any responsible Government, a matter of great importance. Our primary aim with invalid care allowance, which is the subject of the hon. Gentleman's Adjournment debate, remains that of the Labour Government who introduced the benefit in 1976. It is to provide help in maintaining the income of someone who gives up the opportunity of full-time work to provide regular and substantial care to a severely disabled person. To achieve that aim, the legislation and regulations that move those policy principles out of the world of good intentions and into the world of action set out the necessary rules.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the principal conditions are that the severely disabled person is someone in respect of whom there is payable attendance allowance or constant attendance allowance; that, to be treated as engaged and regularly and substantially engaged in caring for any week, the carer must show that he is, or is likely to be, engaged and regularly engaged in that caring for at least 35 hours in that caring week; and that the carer is between the normal ages for employment—that is, between 16 and pensionable age—and that he or she is in neither full-time education nor gainful employment. In other words, by caring for 35 hours a week, that carer has given up the possibility of full-time earnings. The provision is not a payment for caring services; it is directed towards the maintenance of income.

I am aware that I have given a somewhat exhaustive analysis of the benefits that we have introduced, but the tests are aimed—

Mr. Barron

On the specific point about the 35 hours, Mrs. Morris receives attendance allowance, so that is clearly more flexible in its application than invalid care allowance. She receives a full day's payment of attendance allowance on a Friday when she receives Simon at home, or collects him from his education establishment, at, say, 3 pm. Surely the simple thing would be to shift the midnight deadline and apply the provision to 35 hours in any seven days. Would not that be one way of helping Mrs. Morris, who does not have the opportunity to go out to work? If Simon fell ill tonight, for example, Mrs. Morris would receive a telephone call and she or her husband Roy would have to go to Huddersfield and bring Simon back home, because he has to be looked after independently of other people.

The Minister should agree to table amendments to the Disability Living Allowance and Disability Working Allowance Bill, which is to be considered in the House next Thursday, to shift the tight 12 o'clock deadline. I do not think that any hon. Member would argue against such a proposal. No matter which Labour Government introduced the provisions, no one could possibly want to deny Mrs. Morris that payment for looking after Simon.

Miss Widdecombe

First, let me disabuse the hon. Gentleman of his belief that it would be possible to table amendments concerning invalid care allowance to the Bill that is currently before Parliament. Invalid care allowance is not dealt with in that Bill, and it therefore could not be amended to influence the allowance. That would require new primary legislation. I do not wish to make a technical point about that tonight, but we could not do that even if we wished to.

The problem of the midnight division is simple. If we put that division somewhere else—on Sunday night or Monday night—people other than Mrs. Morris would have difficulties. They would include those who care for people who may be discharged from hospital on short stay. There is no guarantee of when such patients may come out of hospital; that, too, could fall either side of the line.

I appreciate that the watershed is a problem. However, it may interest the hon. Gentleman to know that, in the year to May 1990, 35,800 invalid care decisions were made. Of those, 270 were referred for further investigation on the basis of the 35 hours criterion and the relationship of the 35 hours to intermittent, as opposed to constant, caring. Of those 270, 120 were eventually unsuccessful. In other words, only 0.34 per cent. of total invalid care allowance applications were unsuccessful. Clearly, considerable sympathy is exercised in trying to assess whether people are eligible.

I must stress that the aim of the benefit is to provide maintenance of income. Suppose that we did what the hon. Gentleman suggested. Suppose that we did not draw a line at all and said that the 35 hours could start anywhere, in any old seven days. If we did that, there would be a danger that we might be talking about someone caring only over the weekend and maintaining a full-time job during the week. The benefit is specifically designed to help people who cannot do that—to help people of earning age who are not in education and who could go out to work and bring in a reasonable income if—and only if—they did not have to care for someone for 35 hours. That is the basis on which we decided on the 35 hours, which is roughly equivalent to a working week. We are trying to measure the working week against the time given for caring.

Hon. Members will be aware, however, that the bar on gainful employment is not absolute. Carers may establish or maintain a link with employment without losing their entitlement to invalid care allowance. They can earn £20 a week, after allowing for reasonable expenses such as fares to work, and those earnings do not affect their entitlement to ICA.

Similarly, a carer can take the opportunity of an educational course for a limited number of hours to remain in contact with the world outside the one of caring. So, although there are strict guidelines about the number of hours and when they are to be counted from, there is also that flexibility built in for people who do intermittent caring and have some free time, for example, during the week to take advantage to a limited extent of earnings or education.

We have, in fact, since its introduction in 1976, widened the scope of ICA to non-relatives of the disabled person in 1981 and to the large number of married women carers in 1986. The net result is that the scheme has grown from 5,000 recipients at a cost of £4 million in 1978–79 to an estimated 130,000 carers costing £229 million in 1990–91. Very recent improvements in the attendance allowance rules are the extensions last year to children under two and for the initial six months of a claim for people with a terminal illness, which will also mean that more carers can qualify for ICA. So I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are certainly not trying to restrict or diminish ICA in any way.

As well as extending the range of carers who can benefit from invalid care allowance, we have been able to improve the conditions under which it is paid. Last April, the earnings limit was increased from £12 to £20 a week, and it will increase again this April to £30. As with other benefits, the amount of benefit has been consistently uprated in line with inflation.

Another significant improvement for carers was introduced last year. For carers receiving the income-related benefits, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was pleased to introduce last October a carer premium of £10 a week, which is expected to help 30,000 people. That too will be uprated in April. Moreover, in October this year, the premium will continue to be paid for up to eight weeks after caring ceases, which helps ex-carers to make the transition back into employment. All these are important developments. We have aimed at flexibility in the provision of services and benefits in so far as it is administratively and financially possible to do so.

The carer does not have to provide care every day of the week but must be caring regularly for at least 35 hours a week. The Government consider that that is a sensible way of measuring the degree of care provided; a degree of commitment which, as I have stressed, deprives the carer of the opportunity of full-time work.

Mr. Barron

I know exactly what the regulations say, but I am still not absolutely clear on this point. Does the Minister think that it was the intention of Parliament when it introduced the 35-hour rule that somebody such as Mrs. Morris, who cannot, because of her circumstances, get employment—even if there were any in my constituency, where it is very thin on the ground anyway—should look after people as severely disabled as Simon, and get other state allowances for doing so, for up to 66 hours a week, which is far beyond the 35-hour test for ICA, and not get this payment? Is the Minister telling me that there is no way, through an appeal or through discretion, to get over this? Is there no flexibility at all about this cut-off at midnight? Does the Minister say that that is the case and that there is no flexibility or likelihood of flexibility with regard to Simon Morris?

Miss Widdecombe

I must stress again that invalid care allowance is not an allowance as payment for caring services. It does not compensate people for caring. It is specifically aimed at compensating people for inability to take full employment. There are people outside the categories who are suggesting—people studying, people who perhaps are already over pension age, and other people—who are not available for employment and who might well be providing that level of care, and they are not eligible.

Certainly it is not the intention of Parliament to deprive people of this allowance where they qualify. It is not a payment for caring services. The question is not how many hours people care but whether they are prevented from taking up full-time employment. The 35 hours a week is the guideline and the definition of that point.

I know that the watershed midway through the weekend, about which the hon. Gentleman complains, is unfair to Mrs. Morris, and may indeed seem to be unfair, but the purpose of ICA, as I have said several times, is to replace the earnings income of a person who forgoes the opportunity of work in order to care. In that context, the present provision is in line with what for most people is the working week, which is usually Monday to Friday.

Since ICA is to help those who have forgone full-time work by providing substantial and regular care rather than a payment for caring, the present test is not, in my view, unfair. Where the disabled person returns home every or almost every weekend, the total hours of care in any week will generally add up to 35. So carers performing their role regularly but not necessarily every day can be entitled. Where the weekends or holidays at home are intermittent, as in Mrs. Morris's case, the test of regular and substantial care may not be met.

The extent of Mrs. Morris's attention to her son's needs during the hours that he is at home is not at issue. Nevertheless, I do not feel that it is feasible to change the rules to meet her particular circumstances. As I have said, to use a different day would simply mean that we eliminate other people who benefit from the arrangement. There are very likely to be other examples of regular patterns of caring in which ICA is payable at present that would suffer from such a change. It would also remove a common link with other social security benefits.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman may be asking himself whether we have done anything to gauge the extent of the effect of the rule. As I explained, we estimate that decisions that go against the claimant number only a hundred or so in a year, whereas, at present, there are 130,000 recipients of ICA. The extent of the problem identified by the hon. Gentleman would not appear to be great.

In summary, I do not feel that we can change the rules to meet a particular case. The test that we have laid down is consistent with social security benefits, consistent with what most people regard as the start and end of the week, and consistent with our aim of trying to compensate people who forgo full-time employment. It is not a payment for caring services. It is not to compensate somebody for caring. It is specifically aimed at earnings potential. We have devised a fair method. Even the fairest method will throw up anomalies and exceptions. Could I do so, I would not propose to change that method this week or in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Eleven o'clock.