HC Deb 13 November 1991 vol 198 cc1183-99
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The regulations have not been subject to a report by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, but we have printed a memorandum about the statutory instrument that we received from the Department, and made copies of it available. We thought it right to publish the memorandum to help the House understand the background to the instrument. In terms of the powers of the Minister, it is quite within order, but we thought that as the background was unusual we should publish the memorandum. Unfortunately, because, in this case, we are talking about not a prayer—because of the time expiry—but simply a revocation resolution, the usual notification is not given on the Order Paper. That is why I have raised the matter on a point of order.

Mr. Speaker

It is a prayer, but I thank the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments for his courtesy in giving us that information, which I am sure will be much appreciated by the House.

10.29 pm
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Social Security (Adjudication) Amendment (No. 2) Regulations 1991 (S.I., 1991, No. 1950), dated 30th August 1991, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th August, in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled. The regulations against which the Opposition are praying concern backdated entitlement to benefit where there has been official Department of Social Security error or where relevant evidence was not known at the time of the original DSS decision.

The regulations represent the Government's second attempt to amend the regulation that previously applied in such cases—regulation 72, introduced in April 1987. The Government first attempted to exclude altogether supplementary benefit and national assistance from the scope of regulation 72. By the same token, back payments of income support were to be limited only to a three-year period starting in April 1988.

In other words, the effect would have been that, even where official DSS error was proven and admitted in the case of those receiving supplementary benefit prior to 1988, no back payment to rectify the error would have been made. So, whatever else followed in the wretched little saga that I am about to describe, it is crystal clear that, right from the outset, the real object behind the Government's manoeuvrings was the cutting back—indeed, the large-scale elimination—of people's entitlement to back payments of benefits where there had been official error.

The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Nicholas Scott)

You are wrong.

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

You are wrong.

Mr. Meacher

It is perfectly clear. I am talking about the first attempt to amend regulation 72 to exclude supplementary benefit and national assistance from the scope of that regulation. If one cuts through all the technicalities and complexities of the document, which has actually gone to the Social Security Advisory Committee, it is perfectly clear that that was the core intention behind the Government's move.

That first Government attempt to amend regulation 72 provoked universal and vociferous opposition from all the bodies from which the SSAC sought evidence and, indeed, from the committee itself. As a result, the Government backed off, and the new regulation, which should never have been proposed in the first place, was ignominiously withdrawn. However, the Secretary of State then came forward, in August, with a second, revised regulation, which dropped the exclusion of supplementary benefit and national assistance and sought instead to lay down a more restrictive set of conditions for back payments.

The reasons why the right hon. Gentleman took that action are set out in his letter to me of 14 October. Increasingly…the Regulation was being interpreted in a way which was much wider than intended with applications for review becoming ever more speculative. As a result in some areas the ability of local officers to deal with other customers was being affected by the number of review applications. I want to deal with each of those two arguments—and, indeed, with the others that have been advanced by the DSS in support of the present regulations. First, the Secretary of State clearly blames welfare rights advisers for manipulating the regulations and for making speculative claims. The answer to that argument is very simple: manipulation is impossible in a system that requires an adjudicating officer, a social security appeal tribunal or a commissioner to be convinced that the law has been complied with. The Social Security Advisory Committee put it more tersely: Cases which have no merit ought to be rejected by the present wording of regulation 72. To the extent that they are not, this is a matter for adjudication and not an amendment to the regulations. That disposes of the Secretary of State's first argument.

In his letter to me of 14 October, the Secretary of State said that the number of review applications would have seriously impaired the ability of the Agency to deliver a proper service. I can inform the Secretary of State straight away that there is a much more immediate cause seriously impairing the ability of the Agency to deliver a proper service and that is the swingeing cuts in staff numbers of up to one third in each local office that the Secretary of State has carried through in the past two years under the operational strategy. Again, the Secretary of State's specious point is answered point by point by the Social Security Advisory Committee which stated: The number of applications for review, while it creates additional work for local offices, may simply be a measure of use rather than manipulation of the provision. If such reviews succeed on their merits, this is surely a demonstration of the extent of past missed entitlement. If they succeed without merit, the fault would appear to lie with the way the appeal system is operating rather than in regulation 72 as it is currently worded. I could not have put it better myself. So much for the Secretary of State's second argument. That is checkmate for his argument.

The Department of Social Security has also offered arguments with which I will now briefly deal. The DSS note states: There is also the practical problem that the routine destruction of case papers means that evidence no longer exists in many cases. However, the Department supports the right to seek a late appeal being kept open. If enough evidence and expertise exists to deal with a late appeal, there must be enough evidence and expertise to deal with a review under regulation 72. There is nothing in that argument either.

The DSS then states: Moreover, as supplementary benefit was replaced by income support from April 1988, local offices are becoming less likely to possess the expertise to handle supplementary benefit and national assistance matters. That is a rum excuse. The DSS has been arguing successfully for years that if a claimant was ignorant of his entitlement, that did not justify his failure to claim or justify his having a back payment. If that is so, then by the same reason, if a DSS officer is ignorant of the past benefit system, that does not justify his preventing a person from obtaining retrospective entitlement to benefit.

The only other argument that I have been able to find in support of tonight's regulations is where the DSS states that the use of regulation 72 puts an over-emphasis on the Department's welfare role and overlooks the fact that persons acting for the claimant could have made inquiries on the claimant's behalf. The Secretary of State and his Ministers do not like to be reminded that they have a welfare role, but I must stress that the back payment of entitlement at issue tonight occurs under the National Insurance Act 1946, a Social Security Act and the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976 which all state that DSS officers shall: exercise their functions in such a manner as shall best promote the welfare of persons affected by the exercise of these functions.

Mr. Scott

indicated assent.

Mr. Meacher

If the right hon. Gentleman agrees with that, he should be ashamed at the way in which the Department is now trying to wriggle out of having a welfare role. The majority of people who had benefited by the use of regulation 72 have suffered some kind of physical and/or mental disability. How can the limiting of regulation 72 be justified by a Department which has the declared aim of targeting benefits where they are most needed? It obviously cannot be justified. It is clear from the right hon. Gentleman's first attempt to amend regulation 72 that the Government's motive is to save money and administration—the motive is so absolutely blatant that I am amazed that even the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, whose eccentricities are well known, could not deny the obvious—while, at the same time, blocking or restricting back payments of entitlement, even where there has been official error.

Furthermore, the indecent haste with which regulation 64A was brought forward in the recess, and then—it must be unprecedented—replaced by another identical regulation 64A, designed to come into operation immediately the next day, in the middle of the 21-day period that a regulation is supposed to lie on the Table before being implemented shows not only the willingness but the eagerness of Ministers to block or restrict those entitlements.

It is sickening that the Government would never dare to treat taxpayers in that way over their entitlements to past reliefs or past allowances. Such treatment is reserved by this Government only for those who are some of the most vulnerable in our society. These are mean, niggardly and unnecessary regulations, and I call on all hon. Members who have any decency in them to throw them out.

10.41 pm
The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Nicholas Scott)

I was going to say that I was grateful to the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) for raising this issue, because I agree with him that it needs to be properly debated on the Floor of the House. However, when I heard his speech, I was very grateful to him for having raised the issue in such a way. It gives me the opportunity to explain in proper terms why the Government took that step and to give the lie to many of the hon. Gentleman's arguments.

There has been much misunderstanding, and the hon. Gentleman has done his best to manipulate that misunderstanding. [Interruption.] He has, because he has totally misunderstood. If he has not misunderstood, he has deliberately manipulated the reasons why the Government introduced regulation 72.

The hon. Gentleman will know, or at least his advisers will know, that regulation 72 was originally introduced in April 1987 to provide for the unlimited payment of arrears of benefits in cases where an error in the determination of entitlement to benefit had been made by an official of the Department. All hon. Members understand why that was a perfectly proper arrangement. Until that time, the only statutory means by which payments of arrears in excess of the then statutory limit of 12 months could be made was by means of a late appeal to the social security appeal. Hon. Members know that that was a cumbersome and difficult procedure.

The annual report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration criticised the system whereby claimants had to go through a cumbersome late appeals procedure to obtain the full arrears benefit to which they were rightfully entitled where those exceeded the statutory 12-month limit. When giving evidence to the PCA, the then permanent secretary to the Department agreed that that situation could not be defended, so we decided to put it right.

Our original intention in enacting regulation 72 was to facilitate the unlimited payment of arrears of benefits in cases of clear official—[Interruption.] I hope that the hon. Member for Oldham, West will listen to this because his total distortion of the case——

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Scott

Of course I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Dr. Godman

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way with his characteristic courtesy. If we can put all this point-scoring to one side, I should like to ask him a question concerning several thousand of my constituents. I think that I am right in saying that regulation 3 provides that the changes will not affect pending applications for review. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the deal relating to the collation of the applications, which was struck in all good faith between the social work department of Strathclyde regional council and the DSS there, still holds? Will those applications, which total 4,500 from my constituency alone, be assessed fairly and reasonably by the DSS in Strathclyde and will he assure me that there will not be the delays that characterised the applications for disability benefit vis-a-vis vibration white finger and beat knee claims?

Mr. Scott

I think that the hon. Gentleman and I know each other well enough to understand these matters. Those decisions will not be held back. They will be decided perfectly properly on the basis that the claims have been made. There may be some delays, because we have to process them according to the normal procedures, but there will not be any undue delays. All the claims from Strathclyde and other offices will be properly decided according to the previous arrangements. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman. If it does not, perhaps he will come back to me on it.

Let me try to explain to the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West that we were faced with an undoubted campaign to swamp the arrangements for deciding such cases. Many genuine cases would have been put aside, delayed and not arranged in time—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Oldham, West would like to challenge me on that——

Mr. Meacher

I am very glad to challenge the right hon. Gentleman. That is an absurd claim when, irrespective of the regulation that we are discussing, there are regular delays of between two and four hours for routine applications to social security offices. Often benefit is not paid for weeks on end, so to claim that the regulation would result in some of the expeditious service from the DSS that the Minister likes to talk about is absurd. This is happening for totally different reasons.

Mr. Scott

It is not absurd. That is exactly the situation with which we were confronted. Our intention was to ensure that genuine cases could be dealt with properly, such as those where the claimant had contributed or had produced fresh evidence that was relevant to a particular decision. But the idea of people making frivolous, contrived or other cases in effect to swamp the social security system with decisions was——

Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

Many hon. Members have written to the Minister about appeals. We receive letters telling us that a notice was put on a board in the office telling people that they could claim. Many people are illiterate or do not understand the technical language, so people learn by word of mouth or various other processes that money is available. These folk claim, but then they are turned down. I do not know how many times I have had such replies on social security appeals that have been turned down. It seems that the Government are not prepared to accept that a lot of people are not sufficiently intelligent to understand the system and the bureaucracy that the Government have created.

I have dealt with reasonably intelligent people who have discovered that they could have claimed more money. The Government say that there can be no back payment. It is through no fault of those people that they did not receive the money, but there is no way in which they can receive it. The Minister tells us tonight that everything is hunky-dunky and everyone gets the money to which they are entitled. That is absolute nonsense.

Mr. Scott

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People, I understand, of course, that some people have the feelings that the hon. Gentleman has just outlined. However, it is important for him and the Opposition Front-Bench team to understand that when we replaced the old supplementary benefit scheme we sought to target help on the people who needed it most.

When I arrived back in the Department from the Northern Ireland Office, I appreciated the complexities of the old supplementary benefit system. We wanted to make it simpler for people to understand. We wanted to make it easier for people to get the money to which they were entitled, and I set my hand to introducing the reforms in a way that would enable people to do so. The scheme applied to elderly and disabled people, families and lone parents.

Supplementary benefit was run by this Government and their predecessor. It had become almost impossible for claimants and those who advised them to understand the system.

Mr. Graham

It is clear that many Opposition Members, and possibly some Conservative Members, have received letters telling us that claims could not be paid because a bill board had been placed in the social security office. It was: "Hard lines if you can't understand it: you get back only so much." But we are talking about people who are living in poverty. Their poverty creates worse poverty. All of a sudden, the Government run some campaign to highlight to such people that there is something else that they can claim.

I see the Minister smiling. It is not a smiling matter when one lives in Strathclyde and sees real poverty. Such people are looking for help, not hindrance, from the Government. So please take on board that it is not good enough to answer that a notice was put up to tell people that they could claim, when many people are blind or disabled or do not have the wherewithal to understand. They are living in poverty. They are in a dreadful position. The Government must help them more.

Mr. Scott

The hon. Gentleman's point is important. We do not seek to deny people their rights and benefits. Indeed, the thrust of what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I seek to do is to tell people of their rights, how they can best achieve them and how they can claim in a way which is much different from before. Through benefit inquiry line and forms designed and checked out with disability and welfare rights groups, people are given the opportunity to claim benefits to which they are entitled. The system is much better organised than before. I promise——

Mr. Cryer

I draw the Minister's attention to the explanatory memorandum of the report of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, and specifically to the fourth paragraph. The Department stated: In anticipation of the proposed revision to the regulation, in some parts of the country"— the Minister has mentioned this— campaigns were organised which resulted in non-specific applications for review on a scale which would have flooded the benefit system. It seems that it is being said that, with the onset of the campaigns, the Department feared a flood of "non-specific applications" and therefore withdrew the original regulations and laid new regulations, to come into force the following day. Will the Minister elaborate? The background is at odds with his claim that he wants people to make applications. It seems that, with the hint of campaigns in unspecified areas, with no details of the number of applications, the Department took the unusual step that we are discussing—an unusual one on its own admission.

Mr. Scott

I play cricket with the hon. Gentleman, and I know that he understands the laws of that game. I hope that I can enable him to understand the laws of the game with which we are now involved. I want to ensure that the genuine claims of those who are in need are dealt with properly, promptly and accurately, I do not want campaigns to be organised on the basis that people sign a piece of paper that has been delivered to them by a welfare rights organisation. The form may state: "Put in this claim. Sign your name at the bottom." The result is that the system is swamped.

That prevents the proper delivery of claims by those who are really in need being dealt with properly and in a timely manner. If the hon. Gentleman really believes that he has outlined a proper approach, I ask him to reconsider his position.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

I am tempted to accept the Minister's explanation of his motivation, but those in my constituency, one of the poorest in the country, who made claims at the time of the reforms found it more difficult to obtain any decent benefits from the system. That is the experience of the people. That is what I have been told in my surgeries and elsewhere. Does the Minister not understand why there is suspicion about the motivation behind the changes that we are debating?

Mr. Scott

If the hon. Gentleman writes to me about any individual cases, I shall respond in detail. I do not accept that the agency and the new arrangements that have been introduced are delivering a less good service than hitherto. We are delivering—[Interruption.]

Mr. Meacher

indicated dissent.

Mr. Scott

If the hon. Member for Oldham, West, the Opposition spokesman in this debate, wishes to intervene instead of shaking his head in dismay, I shall give way to him.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Scott

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Oldham, West.

Mr. Meacher

We are some way from the context of the debate, but if the Minister really wants evidence of how appallingly badly the service is being delivered, I shall be extremely glad to send him the 20-page Tower Watch survey of Archway Tower social security office. It is—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), laughs and cackles, but I have no doubt that she has not been to Archway Tower. A dreadful service is badly delivered. I went there and found that people who had been waiting for four hours or more had still not received satisfaction. If the right hon. Gentleman is satisfied with that, he should resign.

Mr. Scott

Every piece of evidence that I have seen shows that the service that is now being delivered is substantially better than anything that was ever done, not least when we last had a Labour Government in office delivering those services. The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong and wrong again.

Dr. Godman

I have a great deal of respect for the officials and managers of my local offices. There is a widespread belief among claimants in my constituency—about one third are in receipt directly or indirectly of social security income—that claim applications encouraged by what are known as take-up campaigns are subjected to a form of discrimination compared with other applications that go across the desk in the normal way.

Will the Minister give us an assurance that genuine applications that are encouraged by take-up campaigns are not subjected to discrimination in terms of the length of time taken for their assessment? Why is it that, in Greenock and Port Glasgow, genuine claims for disability benefit in respect of vibration white finger are almost always forced to an appeal? That is disgraceful.

Mr. Scott

Let me try to put the point. The hon. Gentleman knows how much respect I have for his campaigns in this area. Where individual claimants submit a genuine, soundly based claim or appeal to an adjudicating officer, if there is an organised campaign it is reasonable for our adjudicating officers to consider the claim with an eye that, although fair, takes account of the fact that it is an organised campaign. The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Gentlemen will know that those cases are still looked at fairly, but perhaps with the attitude that all the claimants were given a form and asked to sign their name at the bottom of the list, rather than submitted a carefully considered claim. It is understandable for our staff in the offices to look at such claims in a different way from that of someone who comes in off the street.

Mr. George Howarth

I had not intended to intervene again, but the Minister has invited me to do so. If a percentage of those claims turn out to be valid, the process must be utterly fair. We cannot discriminate between those who happen to have been advised that they might be entitled to claim and those who, of their own volition, decide to claim. Both are equally valid.

Mr. Scott

Cannot the hon. Gentleman understand that we are running a social security system in which we are trying to deal with the real needs of people who need support? If a welfare rights organisation or some other body hands out thousands of forms saying, "Sign at the bottom and send to your local social security office," that makes it more difficult for people with problems and claims to have their needs settled.

Mr. Peter Arch (Warley, West)


Mr. Scott

I have great respect for the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Archer

The right hon. Gentleman never fails to show courtesy. Our problem is that we do not understand how officials can know whether a claim is frivolous until they have looked at it.

Mr. Scott

If a claim comes in in the normal sequence of events and our adjudicating officers are asked to adjudicate, that is one matter. If they have 500 claims on a pro forma where people are simply asked to sign their name at the bottom, it is not unreasonable for them to consider those claims with a certain degree of scepticism.

There may be some genuine claims among the hundreds or thousands submitted. Some welfare rights organisations damage the cause of some genuine claimants when they mount campaigns that result in offices being swamped with claims, as that inevitably delays the decision on those genuine claimants.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the essence of this matter is that, if one makes a claim, one should be able to give evidence in support of it? How can anyone who has a genuine concern for the people they are trying to help or any genuine concern for the taxpayers who provide the funds have any well founded objection to producing such evidence? Just signing a form that states that one would like the list of one's benefits considered is not evidence but mere assertion.

Mr. Cryer

What concerns me is that, in effect, the Minister is saying that all campaigns are condemned before they begin. If not, does he have any figures relating to such campaigns, the number of forms that were received at offices and the percentage of claims that were rejected? The right hon. Gentleman has said that those forms were filled in arbitrarily and that they have no substance. Does he have any figures to support his claim that, in some parts of the country, such campaigns were so vigorous that the Department had to take action?

Mr. Scott

I think that I can satisfy the hon. Gentleman. In Strathclyde, 39,395 review applications were made. In Merseyside, more than 16,000 applications were made, and in the north-east, some 13,000 applications were received. Most of those applications were made in a few weeks. They came flooding in because they were deliberately organised by welfare rights groups in those areas.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) knows me well enough, and I hope that I can convince him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will seek to meet any genuine needs. However, we are aware of campaigns that have resulted in tens of thousands of applications. People have been simply asked to sign their name at the bottom of a sheet of photocopied paper that says, "I want you to look again at my rights." Such pro forma applications will not help genuine claimants who need help through the social security system. It is wrong.

Mr. Gordon McMaster (Paisley, South)

Is the Minister suggesting that, because a claim is made on a printed pro forma, it is less valid than other claims? The right hon. Gentleman should congratulate authorities such as Strathclyde regional council on encouraging people with a genuine entitlement to such benefits to take them up.

Mr. Scott

If I were playing tennis, I would put the ball back in the hon. Gentleman's court by asking whether he thinks that those claims are genuine because they have been put through someone's letter box and because they ask the recipient to sign the form and post it back.

Mr. McMaster

How will we ever know if those claims are not assessed?

Mr. Scott

All such cases are assessed by adjudication officers. If Labour Members were sitting in my seat—[HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] Not when—if, perchance, Labour Members were in that position in 20 years' time, would they be prepared to have the whole system of assessing and adjudicating upon genuine claims destroyed by the campaigns that are being organised in some parts of this country?

Mr. Graham

The Minister will be well aware of one of the first campaigns that Strathclyde regional council ever mounted. I happen to be a former Strathclyde councillor. We were very successful in getting more than £40 million for unpaid benefits. Obviously, we have information about poverty and deficiencies in Strathclyde, and it is right that local authorities and organisations tell people that they are entitled to benefits. Surely they are in the business of improving the quality of life for people living in poverty and of trying to get further finance from the Government for that purpose. Therefore, I see people who say that the pro forma is a marker. Never in my life have I seen social security payments abound unless they were for a pound of flesh. DSS officers do not hand out money lightly, but look for evidence to support claims.

Mr. Scott

I understand and respect the work of welfare rights organisations. They do a valuable job in alerting the Government and local social security offices to need in individual areas. However, the speculative element of applications is in real danger of distorting the situation. In Merseyside, there were more than 16,000 applications for review; 11,000 were decided, and 848 of the 16,000 applicants were awarded payments. Just think of what that has done to the system there and to all the other applicants who have been seeking help from a Department that tries to ensure that people are given the awards to which they are entitled. It distorts the situation.

Will Opposition Members try to persuade the welfare rights organisations in their constituencies to behave responsibly? I promise that I want to ensure that people who really need help get it. I want to ensure that the system works properly and effectively, but I assure Opposition Members that, if they persuade and encourage welfare rights organisations to make speculative claims, they are not helping those who are in real need.

Dr. Godman

May I put Strathclyde's record straight? Strathclyde has a substantial history of take-up campaigns, some of which were undertaken with the full co-operation of the DSS. I remind the Minister of the take-up campaign that sought to improve the lot of mentally handicapped people attending adult training centres. DSS officials played a constructive role in that campaign.

I also remind the Minister that the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), told me in a letter that we had every right to help organise a campaign for former employees of British Shipbuilders, who had a right to 13 weeks unemployment or supplementary benefit. So let us be consistent. In the past, the DSS has even helped organise take-up campaigns——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. I must tell the House and the Minister that there are only 15 minutes left for this debate; other hon. Members wish to participate and I hope that they will get the chance to do so

Mr. Scott

I shall respond briefly. I understand that other hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate before it concludes.

There are different sorts of take-up campaigns. I certainly respect the genuine ones that have been organised in response to industrial injuries, and have been conducted properly and sensibly, and the Government have responded to them. However, there is a distinction to be drawn between those and some of the speculative campaigns.

If I allow other hon. Members to contribute, perhaps I could have five minutes or so, along with Opposition spokesmen, to make my wind-up speech and give a total justification of what the Government are doing.

11.16 pm
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

We have heard the Minister repeat the same argument in response to several interventions, and there seem to be two strands running through it: one of principle and one of administration. As the Minister stressed repeatedly, where there are take-up campaigns involving tens of thousands of vouchers or pro-formas, they undermine and devalue the system.

However, the Minister must be careful when making such an argument. One could use the intent and motive argument to claim that to maintain the standing of the House one should seriously devalue and perhaps scrap early-day motions. Even if we have not drafted early-day motions and have not seriously studied their subject matter but are broadly in favour of the sentiment, we stick our names at the bottom. Does that mean that those motions should be ignored because we have not studied the subject matter in detail in the way that the Minister says he wants people to consider social security matters? Members can present petitions at the close of business of the House each day, but in future should we disregard them because people have merely put their signatures to something which, according to the Minister, they may not give a damn about?

Surely it is particularly ludicrous to make that argument about social security, because even those with expertise on the subject find it difficult to understand fully. There are few enough hon. Members who can claim genuine expertise in the intricacies of social security matters. When we deal with constituents at our surgeries we have difficulty understanding the complexities. How can people be expected to submit detailed applications when, for a variety of social reasons and through no fault of their own, they do not have the wherewithal, information and literacy to express themselves? For many of those people it is probably a godsend when someone hands them a piece of paper that might unlock the door to access to a benefit that they would otherwise not receive. Therefore, the Minister must be careful when he argues about the principle of the matter.

As the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) suggested, the ham-fisted way in which the regulations were tabled, withdrawn, retabled and finally, under tonight's negative procedure, introduced, meant that many mentally and physically handicapped people lost out on their claims. Whether or not that was the intent of the regulations—and I am willing to believe that it was not the Minister's intent—that has been the net effect of the way in which the three-week period was cut off due to the way that the regulations were tabled.

If the Minister is saying that the proposal is liable to bog down the entire system and cause administrative chaos, he may be right as regards some of the effects. However, he should ask himself why it is that, when people are given access and are judged eligible for the benefits, the administration is so inadequate that paying out the genuine benefits breaks the system. That begs two important questions, and it would be good if the Government were to address those issues rather than the one that they are now tackling.

11.19 pm
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

One of the difficulties of debating with the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) is that if one is not careful one is sucked into the vortex of hyperbole in which he seems to live. I have had the dubious privilege over the years of debating with him on many occasions. The hon. Gentleman's grasp of detail is usually so light that the idea of actually debating with him at all is risible.

I have debated several prayers over the years, but I have never participated in a debate in which the points made by the Labour party were so bogus. The Government's proposition is simple: a person making a claim that may date back a great many years ought to be able to produce some evidence to back it up. The hon. Member for Oldham, West, echoed, somewhat surprisingly, by the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy), says that people should be able to sign a piece of paper in the hope that it will unlock riches for them.

We have a responsibility to bear in mind where the money paid out in benefits comes from. For the most part it does not come from wealthy people such as the hon. Member for Oldham, West and other hon. Members—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman seems to think that he can go to his constituents and say, "Woe is me, I only earn £30,000 a year as a Member of Parliament." The amounts given out in benefits may seem trifling to people earning that sort of money. The hon. Member for Oldham, West may giggle, but £30,000 is riches beyond the dreams of avarice to many of the people whom he claims to represent. As I say, for the most part the money is not paid by the likes of me or of the hon. Gentleman; it is paid out of the wages of people who never get beyond the basic rate of tax paying. We owe it to them to ensure that their money is not squandered. It is therefore plain common sense to require evidence.

On these occasions, the hon. Member for Oldham, West is always quick to try to compare social security with the Inland Revenue's processing of people's tax returns. He always forgets that, with the Inland Revenue, we are considering how much of a citizen's money should be handed over to the state, whereas in matters relating to benefits we are considering how the taxpayer's money is handed out on our behalf.

If the hon. Member for Oldham, West or I wrote to our local tax inspector and claimed that someone had put a form through our letterbox requiring only our signature for the taxation officer to open up our tax affairs for the past 30 years on the offchance that we might be entitled to something, that would be farcical. Yet the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is how our benefit system should be run. He was once a social security Minister and he does himself no credit by forgetting that there are two sides to every argument. He also does himself no good by laying a prayer that has to be among the most bogus, ill thought out and badly argued measures to come before the House for many a long year.

11.23 pm
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

After Mr. Nasty, Mr. Nice Guy.

Every Member of Parliament here tonight probably represents thousands of constituents who will be affected by this mean little regulation. The people targeted by the Government include the elderly, those with learning difficulties and their carers, the mentally handicapped, and the physically disabled. Those people are not exploiting a loophole or grabbing at a large pot of gold. They are entitled to these benefits, they should have received them in the past, and they should have received them by law. The House legislated for that help for the most needy in society, and the proposed legislation will remove from many the ability to claim backdated benefits. The current legislation allows benefit to be backdated indefinitely by reason only of a mistake made or something done or omitted to be done by an officer of the DHSS. That is quite simple. A person unwittingly cheated of his entitlement because of official error would receive backdated benefit when the error was discovered. There are many people in that position, and they have been found by hon. Members and by social workers and others involved in welfare matters. Many of those people remain dependent on officials in the Department.

There is widespread ignorance about what may he claimed. Unbelievably, I discovered tonight that the majority of people in disability categories 9 and 10 fail to claim attendance or mobility allowance. Many of the claims that we are debating are made by those with a mental handicap, people who almost by definition are unable to act by themselves. Recently, it was found that a mentally handicapped woman in Durham had been wrongly denied benefit for a number of years and that the cumulative total was £25,000. That was entirely due to official error. She finally received the money, but now the Conservatives wish to obstruct such people in their pursuit of backdated benefit.

Mr. Scott


Mr. Allen

The Minister tabled the statutory instrument when the House was not sitting and has just delivered a speech lasting 40 minutes. He has abused——

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not unprecedented for an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman to refuse to give way to a Minister in a case such as this?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am sure that there are precedents. It is for the hon. Member who is on his feet to decide whether to give way.

Mr. Allen

It is unprecedented to deny people benefit by means of a statutory instrument tabled and coming into force when the House is not sitting. When the House finally has a chance to debate the matter the Minister of State takes 40 minutes over his speech. Conservatives seek to obstruct people who wish to claim backdated benefits.

Mr. Scott

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I impress upon the hon. Gentleman that any case of official error—[HON. MEMBERS: "That is not a point of order."] I make it absolutely clear that in any case of official error, no matter how far back the case goes, payment will be made.

Mr. Allen

One is tempted to ask why the statutory instrument is needed. The Minister is condemned by his own words and by his original statutory instrument which sought to remove entirely the words "supplementary benefit" from the regulation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) has said, the Minister withdrew the statutory instrument and introduced the new one only when more than 50 voluntary organisations and others vehemently objected to what he was trying to do. The new instrument seeks to skin the same cat but in a slightly different way. This way of skinning the cat involves changing the burden of proof, extending the way in which benefits can be used, and not backdating them.

The burden of proof has switched from the Department which made the error to the claimant. The individual—perhaps an elderly or disabled person—will already have suffered through losing benefit a repetitive, accumulating and hurtful loss.

It being half-past Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Prayers against statutory instruments, &c. (negative procedure)):—

The House divided: Ayes 211, Noes 271.

Division No. 9] [11.30 pm
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley, N.) Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Allen, Graham Corbett, Robin
Alton, David Corbyn, Jeremy
Anderson, Donald Cousins, Jim
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Crowther, Stan
Armstrong, Hilary Cryer, Bob
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack Cummings, John
Ashton, Joe Cunliffe, Lawrence
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Cunningham, Dr John
Barron, Kevin Dalyell, Tam
Battle, John Darling, Alistair
Beckett, Margaret Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Beggs, Roy Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Bell, Stuart Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'I)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Dewar, Donald
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish) Doran, Frank
Benton, Joseph Duffy, Sir A. E. P.
Bermingham, Gerald Dunnachie, Jimmy
Bidwell, Sydney Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Blunkett, David Eastham, Ken
Boateng, Paul Edwards, Huw
Boyes, Roland Enright, D.A.
Bradley, Keith Evans, John (St Helens N)
Bray, Dr Jeremy Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E) Fatchett, Derek
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E) Faulds, Andrew
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith) Fearn, Ronald
Caborn, Richard Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Callaghan, Jim Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Flannery, Martin
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley) Flynn, Paul
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g) Foster, Derek
Carr, Michael Foulkes, George
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Fraser, John
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Fyfe, Maria
Clelland, David Galbraith, Sam
Cohen, Harry Garrett, John (Norwich South)
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) George, Bruce
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Moonie, Dr Lewis
Godman, Dr Norman A. Morgan, Rhodri
Gordon, Mildred Morley, Elliot
Gould, Bryan Mowlam, Marjorie
Graham, Thomas Mullin, Chris
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham) Murphy, Paul
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Nellist, Dave
Grocott, Bruce Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Hain, Peter O'Brien, William
Hardy, Peter O'Hara, Edward
Harman, Ms Harriet O'Neill, Martin
Heal, Mrs Sylvia Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Healey, Rt Hon Denis Parry, Robert
Henderson, Doug Patchett, Terry
Hinchliffe, David Pendry, Tom
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Pike, Peter L.
Home Robertson, John Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Hood, Jimmy Prescott, John
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Primarolo, Dawn
Howells, Geraint Quin, Ms Joyce
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd) Radice, Giles
Hoyle, Doug Randall, Stuart
Hughes, John (Coventry NE) Redmond, Martin
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Reid, Dr John
Illsley, Eric Richardson, Jo
Ingram, Adam Robertson, George
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) Robinson, Geoffrey
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W) Rooker, Jeff
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Rooney, Terence
Kennedy, Charles Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Kilfoyle, Peter Ross, William (Londonderry E)
Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil Ruddock, Joan
Kumar, A. Salmond, Alex
Lambie, David Sedgemore, Brian
Lamond, James Sheerman, Barry
Leadbitter, Ted Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Leighton, Ron Short, Clare
Lestor, Joan (Eccles) Skinner, Dennis
Litherland, Robert Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Livsey, Richard Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)
Lofthouse, Geoffrey Smith, J. P. (Vale of Glam)
Loyden, Eddie Soley, Clive
McAllion, John Spearing, Nigel
McCartney, Ian Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
McCrea, Rev William Steinberg, Gerry
Macdonald, Calum A. Stott, Roger
McFall, John Strang, Gavin
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West) Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
McKelvey, William Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
McLeish, Henry Thompson, Jack (Wansbock)
Maclennan, Robert Turner, Dennis
McMaster, Gordon Vaz, Keith
McNamara, Kevin Walley, Joan
McWilliam, John Wareing, Robert N.
Madden, Max Watson, Mike (Glasgow, C)
Mahon, Mrs Alice Williams, Rt Hon Alan
Marek, Dr John Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Winnick, David
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Wise, Mrs Audrey
Martin, Michael J. (Springburn) Worthington, Tony
Martlew, Eric Wray, Jimmy
Maxton, John Young, David (Bolton SE)
Meacher, Michael
Meale, Alan Tellers for the Ayes:
Michael, Alun Mrs. Llin Golding and Mr. John McAvoy.
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Adley, Robert Aspinwall, Jack
Alexander, Richard Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Baldry, Tony
Allason, Rupert Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Amess, David Batiste, Spencer
Amos, Alan Beaumont-Dark, Anthony
Arbuthnot, James Bellingham, Henry
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Bendall, Vivian
Arnold, Sir Thomas Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)
Ashby, David Bevan, David Gilroy
Biffen, Rt Hon John Gorst, John
Blackburn, Dr John G. Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Body, Sir Richard Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Gregory, Conal
Boscawen, Hon Robert Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Boswell, Tim Grist, Ian
Bottomley, Peter Ground, Patrick
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Grylls, Michael
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Hague, William
Bowis, John Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes Hanley, Jeremy
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Hannam, John
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')
Brazier, Julian Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)
Bright, Graham Harris, David
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's) Haselhurst, Alan
Browne, John (Winchester) Hawkins, Christopher
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South) Hayes, Jerry
Buck, Sir Antony Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney
Budgen, Nicholas Hayward, Robert
Burns, Simon Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)
Burt, Alistair Hicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)
Butcher, John Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Butler, Chris Hill, James
Butterfill, John Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Carlisle, John, (Luton N) Hordern, Sir Peter
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)
Carrington, Matthew Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Cash, William Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Chope, Christopher Jack, Michael
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Plymouth) Jackson, Robert
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Janman, Tim
Clark, Rt Hon Sir William Jessel, Toby
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Conway, Derek Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest) Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Kilfedder, James
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Cormack, Patrick King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Couchman, James Kirkhope, Timothy
Cran, James Knapman, Roger
Currie, Mrs Edwina Knight, Greg (Derby North)
Curry, David Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g) Knowles, Michael
Davis, David (Boothferry) Knox, David
Day, Stephen Latham, Michael
Dickens, Geoffrey Lawrence, Ivan
Dicks, Terry Lee, John (Pendle)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Dover, Den Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)
Dunn, Bob Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Durant, Sir Anthony Lord, Michael
Dykes, Hugh Luce, Rt Hon Sir Richard
Emery, Sir Peter Macfarlane, Sir Neil
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd) MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)
Evennett, David Maclean, David
Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas McLoughlin, Patrick
Fallon, Michael McNair-Wilson, Sir Michael
Fenner, Dame Peggy McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey Madel, David
Fishburn, John Dudley Malins, Humfrey
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Mans, Keith
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Maples, John
Fox, Sir Marcus Marland, Paul
Franks, Cecil Marlow, Tony
Freeman, Roger Marshall, John (Hendon S)
French, Douglas Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Fry, Peter Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Gale, Roger Maude, Hon Francis
Gardiner, Sir George Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Gill, Christopher Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
Glyn, Dr Sir Alan Meyer, Sir Anthony
Goodhart, Sir Philip Miller, Sir Hal
Goodlad, Alastair Mills, Iain
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Miscampbell, Norman
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Mitchell, Sir David Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Moate, Roger Squire, Robin
Monro, Sir Hector Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Montgomery, Sir Fergus Steen, Anthony
Morris, M (N'hampton S) Stern, Michael
Moss, Malcolm Stevens, Lewis
Neale, Sir Gerrard Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Nelson, Anthony Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Neubert, Sir Michael Stewart, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Newton, Rt Hon Tony Stokes, Sir John
Nicholls, Patrick Sumberg, David
Nicholson, David (Taunton) Summerson, Hugo
Nicholson, Emma (Devon West) Tapsell, Sir Peter
Norris, Steve Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley Taylor, Sir Teddy
Page, Richard Temple-Morris, Peter
Paice, James Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Patnick, Irvine Thorne, Neil
Patten, Rt Hon Chris (Bath) Thurnham, Peter
Pawsey, James Townend, John (Bridlington)
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Porter, David (Waveney) Tracey, Richard
Portillo, Michael Tredinnick, David
Powell, William (Corby) Twinn, Dr Ian
Price, Sir David Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Raison, Rt Hon Sir Timothy Viggers, Peter
Redwood, John Walden, George
Ridsdale, Sir Julian Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn Waller, Gary
Roe, Mrs Marion Walters, Sir Dennis
Rossi, Sir Hugh Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Rost, Peter Warren, Kenneth
Ryder, Rt Hon Richard Watts, John
Sayeed, Jonathan Wheeler, Sir John
Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas Whitney, Ray
Shaw, David (Dover) Widdecombe, Ann
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Wiggin, Jerry
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Wilkinson, John
Shelton, Sir William Wolfson, Mark
Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW) Wood, Timothy
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Woodcock, Dr. Mike
Shersby, Michael Yeo, Tim
Skeet, Sir Trevor Young, Sir George (Acton)
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Soames, Hon Nicholas Tellers for the Noes:
Speed, Keith Mr. David Lightbown, and Mr. Sydney Chapman.
Speller, Tony
Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)

Question accordingly negatived.

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