HL Deb 18 July 1969 vol 304 cc563-8

11.10 a.m.


I beg to move that the Supplementary Benefit (Determination of Requirements) Regulations 1969, the draft of which was laid before this House on June 17 be approved. I have already had occasion, when moving the Second Reading of the National Insurance (No. 2) Bill the day before yesterday, to explain the general purpose of these Regulations, and I will therefore speak on them very briefly today. The main increases in supplementary benefit rates proposed are 5s. for the single householder and 8s. for the married couple: as I explained to your Lordships, this ensures parity over the period since 1967 with the main National Insurance increases. Appropriate increases are proposed in the rates of benefit for other adults and for children. The increases proposed will benefit over 2½ million claimants and, when dependants are included, some 4 million people in all, representing, in the main, the most vulnerable members of our community: the elderly, the sick and disabled, widows, fatherless families and others who are not in a position to support themselves.

The cost of these increases, taken by themselves, would be an additional £42 million in the first full year; but because of the higher increases in National Insurance and other benefits which will be received by some three-quarters of all supplementary benefit claimants, there will be a net saving (on supplementary benefits alone) of some £23 million. This has to be seen in the context of an estimated cost, taking all these changes into account, of some £470 million for supplementary benefits as a whole. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Supplementary Benefit (Determination of Requirements) Regulations 1969, laid before the House on 17th June, be approved.—(Baroness Phillips.)


My Lords, this is the customary consequence of any uprating of National Insurance benefits, and we certainly would not seek to disagree with the steps that have been taken in this regard. I am right in thinking (am I not?) that the ultimate effect of these Regulations will be to leave the supplementary benefits 4s. behind the National Insurance rates for a single person, and 5s. for a married person. Of course, at the same time, there is the long-term addition of 9s., which in the case of those eligible for supplementary pensions, and those of a lower pension age who have been receiving supplementary allowance for two years, is added to their requirement in calculating their needs.

I should like to ask one or two questions here. First, what alteration is being made in the allowance for personal requirements in the case of people in local authority homes and hospitals? The allowance was 18s. a year ago, according to the Ministry of Social Security Report published in July, last year. I ask this question because this is a point that is a little apt to be overlooked, and it seems to me logical that the allowance for personal requirements in these circumstances should be increased at the same time.

The second question I should like to ask is on the disregard of earnings, which is at present £2. Here again, when we have rising costs of living, rising prices, this figure ought also to be varied from time to time. I was wondering whether it is the intention to move it on this occasion. After all, the exemption limit for payment of National Insurance benefits is now being moved, and it would seem to me possibly justifiable also to move the disregard of earnings. There is also the disregard of other income, which has stood at the figure of £1 for some time. We always have to have regard to these levels when we are considering rates. The amount which the noble Lady has just given to this House, £470 million, is a very considerable amount and well over double what it was in 1964–65.

We all want to make certain that the poorest people in the country are looked after, but I think it is only fair to point out that in the past Governments have been attacked because of the size of this amount, and it has been argued that the size of the amount is due to the fact that the National Insurance levels were not adequate. It is remarkable how these amounts have increased over the years, and one has also to bear in mind that there are some people who are entirely dependent on supplementary benefits. For example, I understand, that in 1967 there were still 183, 000 people over pension age who were entirely dependent on supplementary benefits. I wonder whether the noble Baroness can tell us what that figure is today. This again is a figure to which we must have constant regard.

11.16 a.m.


My Lords, I shall detain your Lordships for only a very few moments. There are one or two comments I should like to make. Naturally, I have followed the progress of the Supplementary Benefits Commission with particular interest. I spent ten years of my life on the National Assistance Board. I am still not convinced that the best way of administering this service is not through a separate Department enjoying a considerable measure of independence, as I did when I was Chairman of the Board. That is a matter of opinion, and at present the system is completely transformed and integrated much more closely than it was in my day with the Ministry of National Insurance.

There is only one point that I should like to put to the noble Baroness, and I apologise to her for not having given notice of this. In the memorandum which she has circulated she refers to the addition of 10s. a week which is made to the requirements of people over pension age, and to others apart from the unemployed, who have received supplementary benefit for two years. That is not altogether a new payment. I remember that when I was at the Assistance Board we dealt with this matter of an additional allowance to certain classes of person in a rather different way. We paid what we called, "exceptional needs grants". Unlike the uniform payment of 10s., which is made now, the exceptional needs grants were assessed upon the actual needs of the individual who received the grant. That resulted in some cases in a supplementary grant a good deal less than 10s. But there were cases—very many cases indeed, and I should almost go so far as to say there were more cases where this happened than not—where the exceptional needs exceeded the 10s. payment which is made now.

I do not know whether the Minister has power to make an additional exceptional grant if one is required. If the Minister is not able to make a supplementary allowance in a case where the need exceeds 10s., it is a little difficult to see how he meets these very difficult cases where the exceptional needs are high. In some cases they were quite extraordinarily high, particularly in cases of crippled persons.

The other matter I should like to refer to very shortly is this. Every increase in supplementary benefit rate results in a good deal of disappointment when it is accompanied by the increase in the insurance rate, as it will be in the case of this increase. I am not saying for one moment that this disappointment is justified—it is not—but my experience was exactly the same as I expect the Minister is experiencing it now. A person who expects to get an increase in his pension of 10s. finds he gets only an increase of 5s. It is perfectly true he had the other 5s. six months age, but six months is a long time and that is forgotten. There is nothing you can do about this.

I was confronted with this problem for many years. I made sure that my visiting officers thoroughly understood what was going to happen in each case, and when they paid their calls they explained it as fully as possible to the pensioner. It may be that since I left the Board some other method has been found of enlightening the pensioners as to what they are really getting. On the face of it, they are getting only half the increase in the pension which the popular Press told them they would receive. I hope the noble Baroness will be able to tell us that something if; now done to allay the disappointment—unjustified, but nevertheless very real—which many of these beneficiaries will feel when they find that they are not to receive the full amount of the pension increase.


My Lords, if I may take the last speaker first, using the term in the biblical sense, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Ilford, for his contribution and to pay great tribute to his work, which I recall reading about and still read of when dealing with these documents. I would assure the noble Lord that the visiting officers make every effort to explain these matters to the beneficiaries. I know personally from my work with old people, especially the retirement pensioners and those on supplementary benefits, what a marvellous relationship is established between them and the visiting officers. They regard the visiting officers as their friends whom they can ask for advice, not only on matters of pension benefits but on other matters, and I assure the noble Lord that this is a splendid relationship that I have seen at first hand. I would also point out, as I am sure the noble Lord will know, that the special leaflet explaining the changes in supplementary benefit is sent to all these people and is explained, as necessary, by the visiting officer.


My Lords, unfortunately these people do not read leaflets very carefully. The noble Baroness will receive a lot of letters from Members of Parliament for whom the leaflet is more appropriate.


I am sure the noble Lord will agree with me that many leaflets which are issued to the general public need a certain amount of explanation, but in this particular case the visiting officers recognise that this is part of their function.

I would assure the noble Lord—although he has not mentioned it this morning I know he is particularly concerned about the non-pensioners—that more work is being done in an effort to bring into the net the people who are entitled to benefit but who often do not claim it because they do not know about it. I trust the noble Lord has seen the new leaflet called The Right to Help, which is very good and which clearly explains the principal benefits which they may have.

I feel I owe an apology to the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, because I am afraid I did not adequately deal with his excellent speech the day before yesterday, which was even better when I read it than when I listened to it. The fact that I did not deal with all the points was largely due to pressure of business, which we are under again this morning, as the noble Lord will know. First, with regard to his point about the people in residential homes; there is an increase from 18s. to £1. This is not dealt with by this Order but by another Order. The noble Lord then made a point about the number of people over pension age who are entirely dependent on supplementary benefit (in the sense of having no retirement pension or other benefit): the figure is 166,000.

As the noble Lord will appreciate, the disregards can be altered only by main legislation, not by Regulations—I know it is not necessary to tell the noble Lord that. In 1966 the Government made it clear that they considered the disregards should be increased less often than the benefit rates. Any disregarded income will mean, of course, that the people concerned are above the basic supplementary benefit levels. I think those were the factual matters raised by the noble Lord but if there were any others I will reply to him in writing. I think there is general acceptance that these Regulations, as the Bill itself, are a genuine attempt to obtain better living standards for the most vulnerable members of our community, and I hope noble Lords will accept that Her Majesty's Government are well aware of their responsibility in this connection.

On Question, Motion agreed to.