HC Deb 06 November 1991 vol 198 cc547-54

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

10.19 pm
Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the case of the late Mr. Andrew Docherty. I have two purposes in raising his case. The first is to draw attention to what I and others believe to be clear injustices in the way in which he was treated before his death and the second is to expose the fact that the injustices faced by Mr. Docherty affect many others in similar circumstances, and are a direct consequence of Government policy.

I do not intend to point an accusing finger at individual officials in either the Department of Employment or the Department of Social Security at local level whose actions may have a bearing on Mr. Docherty's case. I am satisfied that in their dealings with Mr. Docherty, which I will describe, they were following to the letter the procedures required of them by present Government policy. As the Minister knows, my criticism and concern are directed at Government policies which had a major bearing on the difficult circumstances faced by this man in the period immediately before his death.

I first met Mr. Docherty, a 32-year-old man who originates from the Hemsworth area, while canvassing in a local government by-election in my constituency during March this year. He raised with me certain personal problems that he was facing and I asked him to come to my regular constituency surgery to discuss matters in more detail.

Mr. Docherty came to see me in April, desperately concerned because he was homeless and had insufficient money with which to feed himself. He told me that he had recently been sacked from his job as a long-distance lorry driver for refusing to drive a defective and dangerous vehicle. He told the police that the vehicle concerned had a virtually bald front nearside tyre and a gash in one of the rear tyres, and that its tachograph was not working. Two days later, he was dismissed and as a consequence of his dismissal, his unemployment benefit was stopped and he received reduced rate income support of, I understand, £23.79 a week.

As he previously spent most of his time living in his cab or in bed-and-breakfast accommodation while he was working, his dismissal meant that he had nowhere to live. His mother and stepfather, who was in poor health, had a two-bedroom house and another relative also resided there. I subsequently established from Mr. Docherty's mother that the other factor preventing him from living at home was the fact that his presence would have had an impact on the family's eligibility for housing benefit and would have resulted in additional poll tax liability which the family simply could not meet. To my knowledge, such considerations have had a major influence on the circumstances of many other homeless people in West Yorkshire and elsewhere.

Mr. Docherty told me that he was sleeping rough either in his car or in a small tent. He expressed concern that he was not getting sufficient sleep to carry out work as a driver, to which he hoped to return shortly.

Following his interview, I wrote an urgent letter about his circumstances to the local housing department, although I recognised that it could be some time before he received any offers of accommodation. My office is inundated with referrals concerning housing needs and the official figure for homelessness shows an almost 40 per cent. increase over the past two years within Wakefield district. The latest annual report from the Wakefield metropolitan district council housing department states that in terms of homelessness, the major problem we face is that 30 per cent. of all referrals are from single people and there is simply not enough suitable housing for this client group". The local authority in Wakefield has a good record on housing. Its voids are less than 1 per cent. and the average property turnround time is within the lowest Audit Commission quartile. Our housing problems stem directly from the fact that the Government have actively prevented replacement of the 9,500 council houses lost through the right to buy. With the exception of the war years, last year was the first since the Labour Government of the 1920s in which no new starts were made on council dwellings in Wakefield.

The consequences of that are only too apparent in cases such as that of Andrew Docherty. After seeing Mr. Docherty I wrote to the manager of the local unemployment benefit office for her comments on the circumstances leading to the suspension of his benefit. She replied promptly on 26 April stating: When Mr. Docherty claimed benefit he wrote, 'got sack' on his claim form. Our instructions state that we must suspend benefit pending further inquiries to his last employer. We did this. On receipt of the reply from the employer it was stated that Mr. Docherty had been dismissed for misconduct. In these cases we are instructed to refer to the Adjudication Officer for a decision on whether the claim to benefit should be allowed or disallowed. The claim is currently being considered by the Adjudication Officer who is awaiting a reply from the employer regarding Mr. Docherty's response to their claim that he was dismissed for misconduct. If no reply is received from the employer by I May then the Adjudication Officer will make a decision. If Mr. Docherty's claim for benefit is allowed he will receive the benefit to which he is entitled. If it is disallowed then he will, presumably, continue to receive reduced Income Support for the period of disallowance. My office was subsequently informed by telephone on 10 May and by a letter dated 13 May from the deputy manager of the unemployment benefit office that Mr. Docherty's case had been allowed by the adjudication officer, and that he was therefore entitled to arrears of benefit. I wrote back to advise them that, unfortunately, Mr. Docherty had committed suicide by inhaling exhaust fumes in his car on the Monkton industrial estate in Wakefield, in my constituency on Saturday 4 May.

I gave the office details of Mr. Docherty's next of kin—his mother in Hemsworth—and said that presumably any outstanding benefit should be paid to her. Given the circumstances of the case, I was surprised and angered to receive a further letter dated 29 May from the deputy benefits manager stating: Unfortunately it is not the policy of the Department to inform next of kin of any outstanding benefits, the onus is on the individuals concerned to instigate the action. The Minister is aware that when I received that letter I immediately tabled a question on the matter, and had subsequent correspondence with her fellow Under-Secretary of State, who has been most helpful and concerned. I know that he had hoped to take part in this debate but had to be elsewhere; I pay tribute to the fact that he has shown a personal interest in the case. That is appreciated by me and also, I am sure, by Mr. Docherty's family.

The Minister may wish to refer to our correspondence when she replies to the debate. As she knows, I was far more concerned about the circumstances leading to the suspension of benefit and the effect that that had on Mr. Docherty immediately before his death.

I could substantiate the information that Mr. Docherty gave me through contact with the West Yorkshire metropolitan police. The divisional commander for the Wakefield area informed me in a letter dated 6 September that he could confirm that Mr. Docherty sought the advice of a PC Lingard during March 1991. The letter continued: According to the officer, Mr. Docherty had been directed to use unroadworthy vehicles belonging to his employers, RT Transport. He was advised that if he did use the vehicle he and his employers may be liable to prosecution. The officer also reports that Mr. Docherty appeared to be aware that if he was dismissed from his employment due to refusing to drive the vehicle, he may have problems regarding his DSS benefits. The officer agreed to confirm the conversation with the Department of Social Security if he was contacted. The letter continues: A short time later Mr. Docherty advised PC Lingard that he had been dismissed from his employment and that his claim for benefit had been refused. The officer was also contacted—although two weeks later, by the Department of Social Security and he confirmed details of the conversation. Bearing in mind the fact that the Departments of Health and of Social Security were advised of Mr. Docherty's complaint to the police before his dismissal, at the time of his initial claim to benefit, it is surely a matter of great concern that his benefit was suspended in the first place, leaving him facing the most difficult financial circumstances on top of his homelessness. The Minister may also wish to elaborate on why it took so long for her Department's officials to contact the police regarding Mr. Docherty's case.

There are additional factors of which I was not aware when I was dealing with Mr. Docherty's case. Apparently, during April and early May, Mr. Docherty had contact with the Wakefield centre for the unemployed, which is based in the same building as my constituency office. The centre, which is mainly funded by the local authority, gives a tremendous amount of support to local people who are facing the trauma of unemployment. The centre's welfare benefits adviser, Mr. Nick Hodgkinson, has advised me that, when Mr. Docherty initially made contact, he had been refused a crisis social fund loan to supplement his weekly income of £23.79. He was actively seeking work as a driver and, in addition to having insufficient money to feed himself, or come anywhere near funding any accommodation, he was having the greatest difficulty in meeting the petrol costs of his car—an essential item in his search for work, in addition to being his home at that stage.

Following advice from the centre for the unemployed, Mr. Docherty successfully obtained a crisis loan of £13.60 from the Department of Social Security. I was astonished to be told by Mr. Hodgkinson that Mr. Docherty was required to repay the loan at the rate of £5.95 per week, leaving him a mere £17.84 on which to live. The centre made a formal written request on his behalf that the repayment should be reduced to £1.98 per week because at that stage its staff were becoming concerned about Mr. Docherty's physical and mental state. After they arranged for him to see a GP, he was prescribed medication and given a sick note which was sent to the Department of Social Security on 20 April, in the hope that his money would be increased to the full rate of sickness benefit. Nine days later, when Mr. Docherty called again at the centre, his sickness benefit had still not materialised.

During that period, Mr. Docherty depended on cans of food provided by the centre, which he was warming on a small camping stove. On 29 April, the DSS confirmed that a giro for 11 days' sickness benefit would be ready for collection on 2 May, but that a social fund deduction of £5.95 was being made. No decision had been made regarding the request for a reduced repayment rate.

I understand from Mr. Hodgkinson that Mr. Docherty called in again on 1 May, and the centre contacted the DSS adjudication officers in Doncaster regarding the voluntary unemployment investigation. They were informed that there would be the normal delay while the DSS waited for employers to respond to letters, and that it could be up to three or four weeks before a decision was made on his case.

Mr. Docherty's suicide note, which I have with me, was written three days later. It included the words, I am sorry to everyone concerned. PS. I asked for help but I got none. Andrew Docherty was better known to Mr. Hodgkinson than to me, and I feel that it would be appropriate to quote Mr. Hodgkinson's comments in his letter to me on 2 October, because they provide a most appropriate summary of the situation: It seems that this was a man who worked hard during his adult life, and who was honest enough to lose his job rather than break the law and endanger the lives of other road users, who paid tax and national insurance during his many years' employment, but was unlucky enough to come up against the rules regarding homelessness, which deemed him not vulnerable enough to be given priority status; against the lack of single person's accommodation in Wakefield, which left him sleeping in his car or tent; against the voluntary unemployment investigation procedures which, in effect, hold you guilty until you prove yourself innocent; and against a Social Fund system which insists that people who are accepted as being in crisis are forced to live below the poverty line as they repay the crisis loan. Mr. Hodgkinson went on to say: He is not the first and, sadly, will probably not be the last person for whom the trauma of unemployment, homelessness and poverty—none of which could in any way be said to have been caused by any wrong doing on his part—was simply too much. I have met Mr. Docherty's mother and I pay tribute to the courage that she has shown over the past few months following this bereavement. I hope that lessons can be learnt from Mr. Docherty's case and I look to the Minister to provide his family and many others with some hope arising from what has happened.

A whole range of injustices may have been factors in Mr. Docherty's decision to commit suicide. Clearly, I cannot prove that, but knowing some of the factors, I am sure that they had a bearing on his decision to take his own life.

I urge the Minister to look specifically at three particular issues to arise from Mr. Docherty's case. The first is the plight of the homeless and, in particular, the single homeless. I appreciate that that is not the Minister's direct responsibility, but in her Department she has contact with vast numbers of homeless people and single homeless people through the benefit system. As a result of this debate, I hope that she will make representations to the appropriate Department about the problems facing single homeless people in Wakefield and elsewhere.

Secondly, with regard to Mr. Docherty's case, I draw the Minister's attention to the operation of the crisis loan system which may have added to his problems. It is clear that the burden imposed on Mr. Docherty was unreasonable and the same thing is happening to many other people who face similar problems.

Finally, the main issue that I hope the Minister will address is the automatic assumption in the Government's benefit system that when an employee is dismissed from a job, he or she is assumed to be the guilty party. Mr. Docherty clearly was not the guilty party. I am grateful for the presence tonight of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) who is making his debut on the Opposition Front Bench. My colleagues and I wish him well in his future as a Front-Bench spokesman. I hope that he and the Minister will remember Mr. Docherty's case and will press the Government to do something about such cases.

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

I congratulate the honourable Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) on obtaining this Adjournment debate. The issue that he raised is the tragic case of a man without a home who took his own life after having lost his job. I extend the condolences both of myself and of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), to the family at this difficult time. I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for stating that he did not feel that the staff at our local offices were in any way to blame for this tragic sequence of events. He has rightly pointed out that they were obeying the rules as they stand and it is to those rules that I wish to address the bulk of my remarks.

I was also grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments about my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, who has taken a deep personal interest in this case, and he sends his apologies to both the hon. Member for Wakefield and to the House for his unavoidable absence this evening. He is abroad on ministerial business.

The hon. Gentleman has two criticisms of my Department. First, he criticises what may be described as a presumption of guilt in determining unemployment benefit where there is a question of voluntary unemployment. Secondly, he criticises failure to inform relatives where a deceased person is entitled to arrears of benefit. He has also raised the subject of social fund loans and their recovery.

I shall deal with the events in the local offices of the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency between 11 March 1991, when Mr. Docherty made his first claim to unemployment benefit, and 3 May 1991, when the adjudication officer decided that Mr. Docherty was not disqualified for receiving unemployment benefit.

Perhaps at this point I should say, in response to the hon. Gentleman's description of the circumstances which surrounded Mr. Docherty becoming unemployed in March, that it is indeed, regrettable that that man appears to have been offered a decision between safety and employment, although the facts of the matter I have not established. However, if the hon. Gentleman's description of the circumstances is accurate, perhaps the employer in question would also wish to reflect on the lessons of this case.

The decision by the independent statutory authority that Mr. Docherty was not disqualified for receiving unemployment benefit was made after Mr. Docherty had claimed sickness benefit on 25 April. It was also made on the day preceding that on which he so tragically took his own life.

When Mr. Docherty, a divorced man of 33, made his claim to unemployment benefit he gave his occupation as a heavy goods vehicle driver. In a statement on why his job had ended on 9 March, he said that he had been sacked. That answer clearly raised the question whether Mr. Docherty had lost his employment through his misconduct. The local office wrote to his last employer, R T Transport of Wombwell, Barnsley, seeking information on the circumstances of the dismissal. The employer's reply was received on 19 March.

The question was then referred, quite properly and in accordance with normal procedures, by the local office of the Employment Service to the adjudication officer for a decision. The Social Security Act 1975 requires any such question arising in connection with a claim for benefit to be submitted forthwith to an adjudication officer. In this case, the reference was made on 21 March, two days after the reply had been received at the local office. I hope, therefore, that it will be accepted that local officials acted with all necessary dispatch.

Again in accordance with normal practice, the adjudication officer invited Mr. Docherty to comment on the statement from his late employers. Having no fixed address, he did not make his response to the statement until he next attended the local office on 11 April. His comments conflicted with the information given by the employers and the adjudication officer directed that R. T. Transport should be given the opportunity to see Mr. Docherty's further statement. The adjudication officer did not receive an early reply from the employers and decided that he would make a decision if he still did not receive their reply by 1 May.

On 3 May, the adjudication officer gave his decision to the effect that Mr. Docherty was not disqualified on the grounds referred. When that decision was received by the Employment Service, it was passed immediately to the connected local office of the Benefits Agency where the calculation was made of the arrears of income support due. Those amounted to £44.13 and arrangements were made to ensure that the payment was ready for Mr. Docherty when he next attended the local office.

Mr. Docherty received income support payments covering his entitlement from the date of his initial claim to unemployment benefit until he claimed sickness benefit on 25 April. He received £28.29 on 21 March and £44 on 4 April. He then received £62.80 in respect of the period of 3 April to 21 April and a further £6.80 on 23 April. On 29 April, he received £45.47. Because he had no fixed address, he collected his benefit personally. That continued until he claimed sickness benefit. The Employment Service office was unaware that Mr. Docherty had committed suicide until the hon. Gentleman's letter of 23 May was received by the manager.

I now refer to the presumption of guilt.

Mr. Hinchliffe

Has the Minister seen a copy of a letter that was sent to me on 7 October by the deputy manager of the Employment Service office in Wakefield, stating the income support payments made to Mr. Docherty? The figures that I have been given conflict with those that the hon. Lady has given.

Miss Widdecombe

There is a further conflict in respect of the social fund. I have indeed seen a copy of the letter. My information is documented information from the local office. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue that point after the debate, I suggest that we correspond or meet on the issue. I shall be very happy to resolve any differences.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is a principle underlying the payment of benefits to the unemployed that the lack of employment should not be attributable in any way to the actions or choices of the claimant. Disqualification under the national insurance scheme is intended as a recognition of the basic principle that a person can be insured only against events for which he or she is not personally responsible. Any disqualification for the receipt of unemployment benefit is met with a corresponding reduction in the rate of income support. The principle of paying a reduced benefit rate until a decision on disqualification has been reached by the independent statutory authorities has been followed by both Labour and Conservative Governments.

Mr. Docherty stated that he had been sacked. If claimants making such declarations were paid their full income support entitlement pending the adjudication officer's decision, we would probably be faced with substantial unrecoverable debts. The hon. Member will, I am sure, be aware of the many difficulties that face us in recovering overpayments in the normal course of events. To enable us to cover these debts, with safeguards built in, would require a major change in primary legislation. I am not convinced that there is a sufficient case for us to depart from the principle that has been adhered to by successive Governments.

Although I am not able to offer the hon. Gentleman any prospect of change in terms of voluntary unemployment deductions, it is perhaps worth pointing out that the 40 per cent. of the personal rate of benefit which is removed while inquiries proceed is modified to 20 per cent. if any member of the family is pregnant or seriously ill and if the family has less than £200 capital. No reduction is applied to benefit payable in respect of dependants. There is, therefore, a policy of trying to protect the most vulnerable.

However, the hon. Gentleman's second point has brought action from my Department. My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde wrote to the hon. Gentleman on 10 June thanking him for bringing to his attention the omission in the procedural instructions issued to local officers. It is more regrettable—and is profoundly regretted—that when notified of Mr. Docherty's death, the local office staff did not have instructions before them which ensured a sympathetic approach to the question of the payment of arrears to those who had just suffered the loss of a relative. My hon. Friend expressed his sympathies to Mr. Docherty's family and passed on assurances from the Employment Service that an invitation to claim arrears of benefit will be issued to a legal personal representative or next of kin where either, or a third party, notifies the Employment Service that the claimant has died.

I am pleased to tell the House that the Employment Service has now issued new instructions to that effect to everyone in its offices and has made managers responsible for inviting claims for any outstanding benefit. The new instruction emphasises that, when inviting such a claim, discretion must be used to ensure that no further distress is caused to relatives. The instructions arise directly as a result of this tragic case and I hope that they will act as some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman that the treatment which Mr. Docherty's relatives received will not recur. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde in expressing sincere regret for the additional distress which must have been caused by the original absence of such directions.

I turn to the applications made by Mr. Docherty to the social fund. He applied for a crisis loan on 27 March as his fortnightly payment of income support was not due until 4 April. He was paid £28.09 and agreed to repay the loan at the weekly rate of £5.51. I should say at this point that it was open to Mr. Docherty, as it is to any applicant for a crisis loan, to negotiate a lower rate of repayment, particularly if it is likely to cause difficulties at the rate set. In this case, recovery did not commence until 29 April—a month later—by which time Mr. Docherty had left the unemployment register and was receiving income support at the full rate while sick.

Further crisis loans were made on 11 April and 24 April, when the social fund officer decided that Mr. Docherty's personal circumstances were such that these were appropriate. The weekly recovery rate of £5.95 was deferred until the earlier loan had been paid off. Clearly then, Mr. Docherty benefited from the fact that the social fund is a flexible scheme and he was able to use it to mitigate the effects of his reduced benefits.

As the hon. Gentleman said, a letter was received from the Wakefield centre for the unemployed, requesting a change in the rate of recovery. Had Mr. Docherty lived, this would have been discussed with him and a revised rate of recovery would have been considered in the light of his circumstances.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to the fact that Mr. Docherty was homeless and searching for accommodation at the time of his death. I know that the hon. Gentleman was assisting him with an application for local authority housing. Homelessness is a complex problem about which the Government as a whole are seriously concerned and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Department of the Environment has been taking a number of initiatives. I shall, of course, draw to that Department's attention the situation that the hon. Gentleman has described and shall ensure that it fully understands his comments and concerns on this matter.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eleven minutes to Eleven o'clock.