§ 4. Laura Moffatt (Crawley)
What additional (a) financial and (b) practical help is offered to pensioners who are in hospital for more than six weeks. 
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle)
There is no additional financial help, although community care grants may be available to help with fares for other family members to visit a person in hospital. After six weeks in hospital, a person with a basic rate pension would receive £58 a week, or £44.20 if they had no dependants. Housing benefit would remain in payment for people on the minimum income guarantee. In terms of practical help, every patient should have a discharge plan, including an assessment of their future care needs, developed from the beginning of their hospital admission. All hospital in-patients have access to a social worker. From this April, patients in every NHS trust will have access to a patient advice and liaison service to help them with their dealings with the hospital.
§ Laura Moffatt
I completely understand the principle behind the clawback from pensioners, but I was a nurse for many years and spoke to many couples who had a loved one in hospital, and the extra burden—including, as she rightly said, transport—is often difficult over a sustained period. I hope that the Minister can consider other practical measures to ensure that our pensioners do not suffer if they have to spend an extended time in hospital.
§ Maria Eagle
I assure my hon. Friend that the Department keeps all matters relating to all our benefits under review—but I must also make the point that in written answers on 8 January to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser), recorded at columns 699–700W of Hansard, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions made it clear that at present we have no plans to make any changes in the hospital downrating provisions. The principle of avoiding double provision is a key cornerstone of the system of national insurance; it was introduced more 9 than 50 years ago, and has been supported on both sides of the House. Indeed, as recently as Thursday, Lord Higgins, who speaks for the Conservative party in the upper House, supported it by suggesting that one way round the problem that arises on the resumption of benefits would be to continue them throughout a hospital stay, but to charge the individual for rent, accommodation and so forth. That is the Tory answer.
§ Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)
Can the Minister give some reassurance to Age Concern in Tiverton? I met its representatives on Friday night, and they expressed concern about the increasing number of elderly people in hospital who are demanding to be sent home just before the six weeks are up. One of the factors behind that is the long delay in getting their benefit books back after they have to surrender them for the adjustment. Is there no minimum turn-round time that the Benefits Agency has to work to? If so, it is not working in my constituency. Will the Minister take a particular interest, and do something about that?
§ Maria Eagle
I would be happy for the hon. Lady to refer those cases to me so that I can look into them in detail. The Department does have a target for those who are claiming back a benefit. The target for dealing with a new claim for income support and the minimum income guarantee is 12 days, and the latest figures show that in fact we turn such claims round in 9.4 days. For claims concerning changes of circumstance the target is four days, and our performance shows that in fact we turn those claims round in an average of two and a half days. If the hon. Lady is running into problems in her constituency, I shall be more than happy to look into them if she refers them to me.
§ Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South)
Obviously I do not want to raise an individual case, because that sort of thing caused some controversy last week—but is my hon. Friend aware that there is concern, especially among elderly people, who are most vulnerable during a stay in hospital, and who may feel that they will lose all their benefits? Will she examine the situation and make sure that social workers give adequate information to the people who are most vulnerable?
§ Maria Eagle
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes; it is important that when people are vulnerable in hospital they get proper advice. However, as I am sure everyone in the House would accept, giving people benefits advice when they are not feeling well could cause confusion and fear. There is no reason why the rules should not be well known—they have been operating for 54 years, since the beginning of the welfare state—and I hope that those dealing with vulnerable elderly people make the position clear to them. It has not changed recently.
§ Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)
It seems risky being a pensioner in hospital these days. Will the Minister at least acknowledge that there is fresh and growing concern about the hospital downrating rules? They may have been around since 1948, and be based on the principle of avoiding double provision, but will she at least acknowledge that there is a problem in getting clear advice to patients while they are in hospital? Even when 10 they are sick, they may still be worried about their benefit situation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said, there may be a particular problem in getting people back on to their benefits when they leave hospital. The process needs to be streamlined as much as possible, so will the Minister undertake to discuss the whole project in good faith with Age Concern and others who have direct experience of the human and practical implications?
§ Maria Eagle
Of course we have ongoing discussions with Age Concern and other organisations with an interest in these issues and we will certainly continue to do so. This rule has been in existence for 54 years; the Conservative party was in power for 35 of those years and did not do anything about it. However, I notice that the Leader of the Opposition's Parliamentary Private Secretary has signed early-day motion 542, so perhaps that signals a change in the Conservative party position. I remind my right hon. and hon. Friends about the Conservative party's views on bed and breakfast in hospital, which was reiterated as recently as Thursday in the other place.