HC Deb 07 June 1993 vol 226 cc1-4
1. Mr. Campbell-Savours

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will further review the arrangements for the payments of benefits.

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lilley)

My Department has made significant progress in modernising and streamlining the delivery of benefits. For instance, clearance times for most major benefits have been reduced by nearly a third in the two years since the creation of the Benefits Agency. The Benefits Agency has published proposals on moving towards a one-stop service so that each claimant can obtain a comprehensive service covering all benefits from one point of contact.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Will the Secretary of State tell me how I am now to reply to the cries of concern and anguish being expressed by my constituents in West Cumbria and throughout the north-west region over the prospects of cuts and revisions in invalidity benefit, in housing benefit and in sickness benefit, which can only generate even greater insecurity in families who already live on the breadline? Does the Secretary of State understand that people throughout the country are deeply concerned about what is happening in his Department'?

Mr. Lilley

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman responds in two ways. First, he should speak to his Front-Bench spokesman who has been deliberately scaremongering. Secondly, he should refer his constituents to the exchange between myself and the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) on 19 May, when I asked him to name a single scare that he had run in the whole of the past year which had come true. He failed to do so because he could not do so. He is a scaremongerer. We are in the business of improving the benefit system—that is what our long-term review is designed to achieve.

Mr. Alan Howarth

In my right hon. Friend's proper concern to ensure that benefits are provided both cost effectively and in a manner convenient to clients, will he, with colleagues in other Departments, look again constructively and sympathetically at the case for allowing local authority social services departments to make cash payments directly to severely disabled people to enable them, when they wish to do so, to make their own arrangements for personal and domestic assistance?

Mr. Lilley

I recognise the important part that my hon. Friend has played in this question. He was concerned to ensure that there was a cash element and we did achieve a cash element in the disability living allowance. My hon. Friend would like it to go further. We were not able to make it possible for local authorities to give cash grants —indeed, they do not have the legal power to do so. However, I will keep the matter under continuous review. I recognise the importance of my hon. Friend's point.

Mr. Bradley

The fears of claimants throughout the country, not only in the north-west, are about the level of benefits. They are especially concerned following the imposition of VAT on fuel. Since the Secretary of State for the Environment stated that pensioners will be more than compensated—I repeat, more than compensated—for the imposition of VAT on fuel, will the right hon. Gentleman allay the fears of millions of pensioners, both those on benefit levels and those just above, and tell us today exactly what that compensation will be?

Mr. Lilley

I have made it clear that I shall be announcing in the normal way—in the uprating statement in November—the arrangements that we propose to make to give extra help to the most vulnerable groups. That is over and above the automatic reflection of the increase in the cost of living that comes through in all benefits in the subsequent November. We will have extra help in the pockets of people in the most vulnerable groups at the time when the increased cost comes through.

My right hon. Friend made it quite clear in that interview that he had referred to the additional money that we have already put in people's pockets from April this year. [HON. MEMBERS: "More than compensated."] Oh, he did. He referred to the change in arrangements that means that no one will have to pay a penny of council tax. For the most vulnerable groups, that is worth £2.90 a week.

Mr. Ward

In reviewing the arrangements for paying benefits, will my right hon. Friend look again at the arrangements for so-called new age travellers? It seems that those people can still claim benefit. They are clearly not available for work; they are an absolute scourge on the south-west of England; and they are taking up a lot of police time in our constituencies.

Mr. Lilley

I understand the great concern that is felt both by hon. Members and by people at large at any thought that people who are not entitled to benefit are ripping off the system—whether they are new age travellers or not. My hon. Friend will remember the changes that I made last year, which meant that people who are not actively seeking work and make no pretence of doing so will not be entitled to even the hardship rate of income support. I am pleased to say that during one large gathering—called a rave, I believe—at which several thousand of these gentlemen and ladies were present, only 100 people made any request for benefit.

2. Mr. Simon Hughes

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how much he expects to pay in 1993–94 in compensation for late payments of benefits under the new compensation arrangements announced on 4 May.

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

The revised compensation scheme significantly improves the arrangements that have been in place since 1977. It is not possible to predict how much will be paid in 1993–94. However, we expect some 80,000 to 90,000 people to benefit from the special scheme for disability living allowance customers, at a cost of around £3 million.

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful to the Minister for the statement that he made. Does he not accept, however, that much more important than compensation for late payment is prompt payment of benefit to which people are ordinarily entitled? In that context, will he tell us what is the review procedure for ensuring that the backlog is reduced, what rights people have to enable them to deal with maladministration resulting in benefit delays of the sort with which his statement of 4 May was intended to deal and, above all, how organisations such as the Drink Crisis Centre in my constituency—which is owed more than £50,000 by the Benefits Agency—can expect to be able to secure prompt payment so that people suffering hardship today, rather than in the future, can be compensated at the time at which they are meant to be paid?

Mr. Scott

If the hon. Gentleman has a look at what is being achieved by the Benefits Agency in the delivery of benefits, he will find that there have been substantial improvements. For example, income support, in respect of which we set a target of five days, is now being delivered in 3.5 days on average and social fund decisions, which were being made within seven days, are now made within 4.3 days. That improvement in performance is reflected across the board.

There is a specific question about DLA later and I prefer to deal with that subject then.

Mr. Sweeney

Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what the Benefits Agency is doing to try to speed up the payment of disability living allowance?

Mr. Scott

Yes. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the chief executive of the Benefits Agency announced some months ago the specific actions, which included an increase in the number of staff, the establishment of remote processing units and the working of overtime. Those measures have delivered: virtually the whole backlog of DLA claims has now been cleared and the benefit is being delivered ahead of the targets that we have set.

Mr. Jim Marshall

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that one of the objectives of the system should be to ensure that unnecessary fears are not placed in the minds of recipients of benefits? In that context, does he further accept that there is a great deal of fear among old-age pensioners—fear that has been generated not by my right hon. and hon. Friends but by the interpretation placed on the future intentions of Ministers by organisations representing post offices and by the popular press? In the light of the words of the Secretary of State a few weeks ago, will the right hon. Gentleman give a firm undertaking that no changes will be made in the present system under which old-age pensioners and others can receive their benefits through sub-post offices?

Mr. Scott

I cannot do better than to reflect the remarks of my right hon. Friend not a few months ago but a few moments ago, which was that our aim is to secure an improvement in the present system of social security, including the delivery of benefits to those who are entitled to them. We regret as much as anyone the scaremongering that takes place among Opposition Members.