HL Deb 29 July 1971 vol 323 cc646-55

4.20 p.m.

House again in Committee.


Before I call Amendment No. 4 I have to point out that if this Amendment is agreed to I cannot call Amendments Nos. 5 and 6.

BARONESS PHILLIPS moved Amendment No. 4: Page 8, line 30, leave out subsection (2).

The noble Baroness said: With permission, I will discuss Amendments 4, 5 and 6 as before, because again we offer the Government an alternative, but I will not repeat the argument other than to say that there is the opportunity to leave matters as they were, which we offer in Amendment No. 4, or to postpone the introduction of the conditions until 1976, which we offer in Amendment No. 5. This deals with another group in the community—not as large a group as those who are unemployed but a very important group. The last figure I was able to obtain of the number of industrial accidents in a year came from the Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and gave a total of 322,000 accidents yearly. We must ask again which group of workers are likely to sustain accidents whilst at work. I suspect that administrative workers in offices are not likely to sustain industrial accidents, unless they drop the typewriter. It seems that it will again be the people we have been speaking about—the miners, the builders, the shipyard workers. These are the kind of people who suffer industrial accidents—factory workers of all kinds. Although I have searched the replies given by Ministers in another place I could not find any figure given of the extent to which employers' schemes offer coverage. I may have missed it, in which case I shall be pleased to hear it—not necessarily today. When you are a low-paid worker—I am sorry to repeat this and I do not wish to be emotional, but it is a fact—if you suffer unemployment or injury or sickness you need as much help in the monetary sense as you can get, to tide you through what can be an expensive period. I beg the Government, even at this late stage, to leave matters where they are. I beg to move.


I will try again to meet the noble Baroness's points. I hope I shall get the last word this time and not the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, who succeeded on the last Amendment. I am afraid that I cannot accept these Amendments, for the reason that we do not feel that we can make any difference in principle between the three-day waiting period for sickness, unemployment benefit or industrial injury benefit. If there is an argument for abolishing waiting day payment, it must apply generally and not just to payments in respect of sickness and unemployment. It would be difficult to maintain the general principle if we were to make exceptions of one sort or another. In fact, over recent years it has been a long-term aim of all Governments to bring the rules for administering industrial injuries and national insurance benefit more into line. This is not only to give fairness between people who are for one reason or another off work, but also to provide a much simpler scheme to administer in already busy offices. All sorts of anomalies creep in if you make distinctions between unemployment and sickness and industrial injuries benefits, one being whether your period of work comes under one heading or the other heading first.

The other point I should like to make is that those who are injured industrially already receive a higher rate of benefits. They get £2.75 a week more than those who are in receipt of sickness and unemployment benefit, so under the new schemes they will be receiving after September £8.75 a week. That to some extent should help to carry them over. They will be receiving this benefit for the full period they are away from work, and after six months they will be entitled, if their injury goes on, to industrial injury disablement benefit and industrial injury sickness benefit. I am afraid that to accept these Amendments would strike at the root of the whole principle we are seeking to put through in this Bill, and that is to switch this money where we think there are greater priorities. We can only beg to differ from the noble Baroness if she feels that the priorities are different.


I am surprised when the noble Lord says that you can equate the first three days of a sickness with the first three days of industrial injury. I was always under the impression, as I am sure doctors all over the country were, that the changes in the regulations which laid down that the individual who was sick for three days was not paid unless the sickness went on for a further period, were made because some people suspected that some of this short-term sickness might stem from malingering and that the way to foil an individual who had had a good time out the night before, had developed a headache and had decided to take a day or two off, was to stop payment for the first three days. I was certainly under the impression that this played some part in this decision.

With an industrial injury, a man in a factory who catches his hand in a machine is seen immediately by the manager, by the first aid people and so on. Everybody knows that he is incapable of working. That night he is seen by his doctor and there is absolutely no doubt but that the man has suffered injury. I feel it is extremely difficult to equate that with the individual who may say (it is not so in every case, of course), " I'm not feeling too well and will take three days off ". I am surprised that the noble Lord stressed the fact that you must have one rule for all these people.


Under the present scheme neither the person who is off sick nor the person who suffers an industrial injury receives payment during the first three days, but it comes as a sort of bonus after two weeks. It is this payment, a kind of bonus payment, which we think is no longer as important as it was. While I am on my feet, may I also say to the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, that the provisions of employers' sick pay schemes, where they are in effect, do cover incapacity caused by industrial injury as well as by sickness.


I am quite sure that the Minister will not expect me to say that I accept his arguments. I appreciate that he has to make them. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, has a point. Industrial injury is not the same as sickness, and, to me, to argue for anything just because it is administratively more convenient to do when you are dealing with human beings is the worst of all arguments. Nevertheless, I have made my point. In this Bill we are dealing with the lowest paid workers, who can ill afford to be without benefit for these three days. The Minister has repeated several times, and we all know it to be the case that it is a retrospective payment. It does come, but I suggest that we should look at the working of the Act to see why it should take so long to be paid at all. Two weeks seems quite a long time. However, that is not a matter to discuss this afternoon. Making that point, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clauses 7 and 8 agreed to.

Clause 9 [Abolition of local advisory committees]:

On Question, Whether Clause 9 shall stand part of the Bill?

4.30 p.m.


Clause 9 deals with the national insurance advisory committees which, under this Bill, are to be abolished. In another place, the Minister described three functions for these committees. He said they gave advice on the location of offices, and of proposed closures; they gave advice on the personnel who sit on the local tribunals; they interviewed difficult assistance and supplementary benefit cases. The personnel of the advisory committee was described on Second Reading, and was outlined in the principal Act. I should like to emphasise that these are ordinary citizens, and it is an important part of the British way of life that we can always appeal to our peers. It does not matter how good the professional advice is, the fact that ultimately ordinary people can make an appeal to their peers is a vital point.

If we look at the third function of the committee—to interview difficult assistance and supplementary benefit cases—I wonder how far this has been used. I tried to assist a widow on one occasion (I am not certain whether the case would have come under this committee or not) who had her pension book removed because she was held to be cohabiting with a man. The evidence was that she watched television with him. I am happy to say that we were able to get the decision reversed; if that were evidence of cohabitation, it would put a number of your Lordships at some risk. It seemed to me at that time that the fact that we were able, as her own peers, to help this woman was an important point.

These committees have cost the colossal sum of about £20 a week, if my arithmetic is correct. They are manned voluntarily. The Minister in another place said that they had outlived their use and were not being used properly. That is a popular argument when you want to get rid of something. For example, there is the exercise of running down the railways: first, you make it difficult for people to travel on a train; you arrange for the service to be at awkward times or, better still, see that people can travel on the train only if they have a restricted ticket which has to be purchased at the station. I travelled on such a train the other day; there were about 20 people in a coach which could have held far more. If you make anything difficult enough you can justify the argument that nobody wants to use it.

I strongly suspect that these committees have not been used to the full. The national advisory committee at top level is used considerably by the Minister, and the Minister calls its findings in aid on every possible occasion. But it is vital that we should also have local links. This is not the moment to remove a small committee in which ordinary citizens are involved. The amount of money is so small that I beg the Government to allow the retention of these committees and, indeed, to give them more work to do.


We touched on this matter on Second Reading. I should like to pay a sincere tribute to those who have served on local advisory committees over many years. Our decision to abolish these committees was in no way intended as any reflection on the public spirit of the people who served on them or on the way in which they have discharged their duties.

The noble Baroness said that the local advisory committees provided an appeals system for people with social security problems. The appeals system already exists quite independently of these committees. There is a right of appeal to a national insurance local tribunal against decisions on claims to national insurance benefit, and to a supplementary benefit appeal tribunal against decisions on claims to supplementary benefit. The tribunals have chairmen appointed by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and two other members. In the case of the national insurance local tribunals, the members are drawn from two panels—one consisting of persons representing employed persons, the other representing employers, self-employed and friendly societies. On the supplementary benefits appeal tribunals, one of the members is chosen by the Secretary of State, and the other is appointed by him from among representatives of workpeople. That is really where the appeals system lies, both for national insurance and supplementary benefit matters.

The noble Baroness described the functions of the local advisory committee quite correctly. But these functions are no longer giving them enough work to do, and are no longer required, and so we have decided to abolish the committees. It is true that in the early days of the national insurance scheme they were helpful in advising the Department about which outside organisations to consult in building up these panels. The national insurance scheme has now been running for 23 years, and the Department's local office managers are well aware of the representative organisations in their areas, so that the advice of the local advisory committees is no longer needed.

The second function: changes in local office organisation. This was a function which was useful in the early days but again it is not of any practical application now. The third function (and in a way the most important one) was advising the Supplementary Benefits Commission in cases of difficulty. The committees did very good work and on occasion still do; but it is doubtful whether it is worth keeping in being 141 committees, with over 4,000 people serving on them, for this single purpose which it is no longer so essential to have performed by the committees.

The Supplementary Benefits Commission has specialist officers who are experienced in dealing with the problem cases. There are now the new local authority social services departments, many more social workers than there were, and, I am glad to say, increasing contacts between the social services department and the local supplementary benefits commission officers. They are able to sort out many of the problems previously handled by the local advisory committees.

When Mr. Ennals, a predecessor of mine at the Department of Health and Social Security, wrote to all the local advisory committees asking for the views of the chairmen on their future role, there were not enough constructive suggestions to justify any further use of the committees. The main answer that came through referred to considerable frustration. There is a need now to make use of both the human elements in these committees, and the financial elements. I know that £130,000 a year may not be a large sum by some accounts, but it is still money which we would not want to use, except in the best possible way. Nor do I think it right to use the voluntary services of 4,000 willing people in committees if their usefulness is now no longer what it was. I would pay every tribute to those who have served on the committees. I very much hope that they will continue to give voluntary service in other ways, where their services would be very much appreciated. However, in the circumstances I am afraid that I cannot accept the deletion of Clause 9.

4.40 p.m.


I thank the Minister for his explanation. I noted in the principal Act that when these bodies were established it was said: For the purpose of considering and advising upon such questions as the Minister or Commons may from time to time refer to them ". It seems a little hard to ask these inexperienced people what they should be doing. I would put it the other way round. If I were a Minister I would refer to a committee of this kind far more matters than they have had to deal with. I still feel that if a National Insurance Advisory Committee can give such good service there is a function for the local advisory committees. We are trying to get people to understand their benefits. At the moment there is a great publicity campaign; millions of leaflets are being sent out, and I feel that this particular committee would have some function in this connection.

In this recent case relevant to supplementary benefit and cohabitation, I noted that the Press statement issued by the Department said that the Commission freely admitted that in a service of 18,000 staff, errors of judgment would sometimes be made. This one accepts' it is perfectly reasonable. That is the very reason why I think we still want the protection of a small committee of this kind which can interview cases. I am not saying that they find the answers; I am saying only that the individuals have the feeling of satisfaction that they have not been merely dealt with by"them "—the professional worker—but by one of their own kind. I make this appeal because I feel that this is a mistake—but I see that I cannot change the Government's point of view.


I am very concerned with the question—and there has been a good deal of relevant publicity lately—that a woman who is receiving a benefit will be deprived of it if it can be proved that she has a male friend—I put it as broadly as that. In a congested street, if a woman has frequent visits from a man no doubt there will be gossip. My noble friend has put the point that the local advisory committee could protect her in so far as she would be able to explain the position to them. What protection is a woman going to have now if the noble Lord dissolves the advisory committees? I am very concerned. Perhaps he will tell the Committee how the machinery will operate. Will somebody regularly go round spying on these women? Who will do it, and what appeal will these women have from the decision?


As the noble Baroness knows, there are different rates of benefit for single people and for married people. It would therefore be quite unfair if two single people who were in fact living together were able to"get away with it ", as it were, and get more benefit than a married couple. This is the fundamental reason why it is necessary for those who work in Social Security offices to keep some sort of check on the people who are getting the benefits, to make sure that they do not cheat the rules. If a person is dissatisfied with the ruling of the local office, then he has a right to go to the appeal tribunal.


May I ask the noble Lord this question? I am glad that he has answered in that specific manner. He has said that the position is that there may be two people living together and getting a benefit; or we may say that one person is getting a benefit and the other is working. Does he apply the same test to men? If a man is receiving a benefit while living with a single woman, is the man also deprived of his benefit if it is discovered that they are not married?


The benefit is the wife's benefit. It is given by virtue of the fact that she is a man's wife. She has not paid the full contribution. It does not apply to the man who has paid his full rate of contribution. But, with due respect to the noble Baroness, we are getting a long way from the local advisory committees which we are supposed to be discussing.




I should be grateful if I could have the last word on this point; the noble Baroness has had it on all the others—


But the noble Lord has not answered my question. He specifically referred to two single people. I recognise that he is speaking about two single people. I am not speaking just about the wife's benefit; I am speaking about two single people where the guilty party is the man. I am only asking this question: Is he going to send round his inspectors to tell the man that in no circumstances must he live with this woman?


This has nothing to do with morals.


Yes, it is morals.


No; it is a matter of administering the rules. A woman does not pay the same contribution as a man if she opts out, and therefore receives a lesser benefit, and so it is unfair if she gets away with receiving a single person's benefit although she is cohabiting with a man.


That is morals.

Clause 9 agreed to.

Remaining clauses and Schedules agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.