HL Deb 01 April 1980 vol 407 cc1261-306

2.46 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill before the House is one of the most comprehensive and wide-ranging social security measures of recent years. This is reflected in the fact that the other place spent a record number of hours, for a Bill of this kind, in debating it—over 100 hours in Committee and two days on Report. This is not altogether surprising.

Social Security Bills tend to be complicated, and this is no exception. It may be helpful to your Lordships to know that the changes being made in the supplementary benefits scheme, which lie at the heart of the Bill, are detailed in a short White Paper—The Reform of the Supplementary Benefits Scheme. This is necessary reading because not all the changes which it is proposed should be made appear on the face of the Bill, as many of them will be provided for in regulations. It will be helpful to your Lordships to be aware of the full range of what is proposed in your consideration of Schedule 2 to the Bill, which provides for detailed amendment of the Supplementary Benefits Act. l have arranged for the Notes on Clauses as well as the report, entitled Social Assistance—a Review (.,1' the Supplementary Benefit Scheme, to be in the Printed Paper Office for the convenience of noble Lords and Baronesses who are taking part in the debate on the Bill.

The Bill also contains a device known as a keeling schedule. This forms Part 11 of Schedule 2. It sets out the provisions of the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976, as amended by the proposals in the Bill. It will enable your Lordships to see what that Act will look like when the Bill becomes law. I turn now to the substance of the Bill. It has live objectives. First, it changes the provisions relating to the uprating of basic retirement pensions and other long-term benefits, by linking them to prices only rather than the better of prices or earnings, as at present. Secondly, the Bill introduces an important package of reforms of the supplementary benefits scheme. I should perhaps explain that this Bill is concerned in the main with redistribution of resources within the supplementary benefits scheme. It is not to be confused with the Bill, which was announced last week, to reduce public expenditure on social security benefits.

Thirdly, and as a result of the supplementary benefit reforms, it abolishes the separate Supplementary Benefits Commissions in Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the National Insurance Advisory Committee, and replaces them with a single Social SecurityAdvisory Committee. This new committee will cover both contributory and non-contributory social security benefits. Fourthly, it confers powers to extend equal treatment for men and women in social security. Fifthly. it makes a number of minor, technical, and tidying up changes in social security law.

The first of the Bill's objectives, that relating to pensions uprating, is contained in Clause 1. The Government recognise the concern that has been expressed, both in Parliament and outside, about the effects of this clause on pensioners' living standards. But we believe that its underlying principles are sound. This clause enacts the Government's firm commitment to protect retirement pensioners against rising prices. It is a most important guarantee for pensioners and this the Bill achieves. Pensioners can therefore be assured that the real value of their pension will be maintained. The Government have made it quite clear that they regard this only as a minimum, and that as and when the economy improves, pensioners and others will share in rising prosperity. But we believe that the economy must come first. The priority in economic policy, as re-emphasised in the Chancellor's recent Budget speech, is to bring down the rate of inflation, through firm control of the money supply and Government borrowing.

As your Lordships will know, under the present law, pensions and other long-term benefits are increased each year in line with the estimated movement of prices or earnings, whichever is the greater. This means that in years when earnings rise faster than prices, the real value of pensions increases. But conversely in years when prices rise faster than earnings, the real value of pensions is maintained. The rule that we propose requires pensions to rise when earnings rise and to hold their value when earnings fall. Over a period of years the effect of this rule must be that pensions will rise faster than both prices and earnings. Indeed, the last Labour Administration found that having the rule as it has been has created enormous difficulties, and the last Labour Admin- istration were obliged to break the earnings links in two of their last three upratings, and were set to break it again in 1979.

So we have to remember that this is a period in which we are making provision through the new pension arrangements embodied in the 1975 Act for people to retire in effect on two pensions—the basic fiat-rate pension and either an earnings-related component on top, paid by the State, or if they are contracted-out an occupational pension provided by their employers. All this has to be paid for, and it is in general paid for by the working population out of their current earnings and by their employers. If the working population had to pay not only for the second pension but also for an ever rising real value of the basic pension, this would impose a heavy and we believe unacceptable burden upon them. In the Government's view, to protect pensioners against rising prices, and then to look each year to see whether more could be done, is a much more realistic, a more honest and, above all, a more sustainable prospectus, and it is one that we intend to keep.

There is one other change in the up—rating provisions. At present, the new rates of benefit have to come into force not later than a date 12 months after the end of the previous uprating. This means that the uprating date creeps forward each year. In 1975, it was the week beginning 17th November. By 1979 it had moved forward to 12th November. I am sure this was never intended, and the Bill gives rather more flexibility to fix the date at which increases will take effect. As the Secretary of State announced on 27th March, these provisions are to be used this year to uprate benefits in the week beginning 24th November.

I now come to the heart of the Bill, which is the reform of the supplementary benefits scheme provided for in Clause 6 and Schedule 2. This important package of reforms has been drawn up in the light of the response to Social Assistance, the report of the team of officials set up by the previous Government to review the scheme. One message that came over clearly from the reaction to that report—and over 1,000 written comments were received—was the need for urgent reform, if the supplementary benefits system is not to collapse under the pressure put upon it. This danger has also been highlighted on many occasions by Professor Donnison, the chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission.

The measures before your Lordships today comprise the Government's first response to this challenge. The keynote of the reforms is simplification. This takes two main forms. First, a new legal and administrative framework is provided. This will make the rules clearer and simpler for all to understand. Under this frame-work, the emphasis of the scheme will be shifted from discretionary payments—the cause of so much hostility and confusion—to payments under clear rules of entitlement. Secondly, we are proposing to simplify the structure of the benefits themselves. The new legal and administrative framework will set out a claimant's entitlement, and obligations, in full in the form of regulations. The rules will also be explained in layman's language in an expanded and simplified version of the present Supplementary Benefits Handbook.

For the future, we are providing an independent adjudicating machinery to take decisions on benefit entitlement. In the first instance, a supplementary benefits officer will take the decision. From this there will be a right of appeal to a local tribunal, and a further right of appeal, on a point of law, to a social security commissioner. The system will closely resemble that which already exists in the National Insurance and Industrial Injuries schemes. As with National insurance officers, supplementary benefits officers will be entirely independent of Ministers, who will not be able to interfere in any way in their decisions on individual cases.

These changes remove the Supplementary Benefits Commission's current executive responsibility. Its policy responsibility, that of deciding and interpreting the rules in the crucial discretionary area of the scheme, will, under the reformed scheme, be taken over by Ministers and Parliament in drawing up regulations which will replace the present discretionary rules by published rights. This leaves the commission's important advisory role, but the Government have decided that there would be considerable advantage in continuing this by amalgamating it with the advisory role performed by the National Insurance Advisory Committee and the Northern Ireland Supplementary Benefits Commission to form a single Social Security Advisory Committee. This is provided for in Clauses 9 to 1 I of the Bill, to which I shall come. But here let me add to the tributes that have been paid in another place, and elsewhere, to the hard work and skill which Professor Donnison, and indeed all the members of the commission, have shown in their task. We all owe them a great debt. I do not propose to go into all the changes we are making in the structure of the benefits themselves. As I have said, they are described in the White Paper The Reform of the Supplementary Benefits Scheme. But I should like to say a word about their themes and about some of the major changes.

First, the package as a whole is constructed on a cost-neutral basis; that is to say that those changes which require more money and more staff are balanced by others which will produce savings. This was, indeed, the basis on which the team of officials appointed by the previous Government carried out the review of the scheme. We believe that it represents the only realistic prospect for reform now. We should have liked to make the sort of wholesale reforms which would produce major simplications. But there are not the resources available at present to do all that we could wish. For example, it would cost £2.2 billion a year to remove the need for benefit for even half the supplementary pensioners currently getting it by raising the level of the retirement pension. Sums of this order are just not available. This is not, however, a reason to let things drift, and that is why we have come forward with this sensible, level-headed set of proposals which, we believe, represents the "best buy" within available resources. But I should emphasise, as does the White Paper, that the Government see this as only the first stage of reform of the scheme. As resources allow, further reforms will be introduced.

Perhaps I may say a few words about some of the improvements we are making. The most important change is that resources are being directed to families with children. They will be helped in various ways. First, the reduction in the number of children's scale rates from five to three, as well as being a useful simplification, will give additional help, at the November 1980 rates announced last week, of up to £1.95 a week to 340,000 families with children under the age of five and between 11 and 12 age range. Second, many families with children will gain from the reduction in the qualifying period for the long-term rate of benefit. This will help about 98,000 claimants, some 62,000 of them single parents who will gain £5.85 a week from this change. Lone parents will also benefit from being allowed to retain more of their part-time earnings; there will in future be a tapered earnings disregard of 50 per cent. of earnings between £4 and £20, instead of the present £6 rule with a pound for pound cut-off after that. This change should encourage more lone parents to become self--supporting when circumstances permit.

There is one other change to which I shall refer, as it has provoked much comment. That is the proposal to defer school-leavers' entitlement to benefit until the end of the holiday following their last term at school. This proposal to defer school-leavers' entitlement should make available some 500 staff, shared between the DHSS and the Department of Employment, for other changes in the scheme. However, any change which defers people's rights to benefit is bound to be criticised, but we think there is a strong case on merit for this proposal because of the danger of abuse, a danger to which the Supplementary Benefits Commission referred. I quote from their response to Social Assistance: The present system tempts youngsters, at their first encounter with the social security services, to misrepresent their plans in order to obtain benefit during the school holiday. In fact some are being advised to do just that". Their parents' entitlement to child benefit or to National Insurance benefits will be extended through the holiday and there will also be special provision to enable those who have, for example, left home to claim benefit.

I turn to the third main objective of the Bill, to which I referred at the beginning, the establishment of the new Social Security Advisory Committee to replace the Supplementary Benefits Commissions for Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the National Insurance Advisory Committee. This is provided for in Clauses 9 and 10 and Schedule 3 to the Bill. This new body will span the whole range of social security benefits, contribu- tory and non-contributory, with the exception of industrial injuries benefits, which will remain within the purview of the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. Child benefit and family income supplement will come within the new body's remit—the first time they have been entrusted to an advisory body. We are not proposing any changes in the Attendance Allowance Board or the Occupational Pensions Board.

I have already paid tribute to the work of Professor Donnison and his commission and I should like to thank Professor Dennis Lees, the chairman, and members of the National Insurance Advisory Committee for the excellent work they have done. The establishment of the new advisory committee will be of considerable importance in the development of the social security system. For the first time, Ministers and Parliament will have the benefit of advice from an independent advisory body which spans the major part of the social security system. And it is important that the new committee will have statutory backing for its advisory role, something the Supplementary Benefits Commission never had. Indeed, the SBC itself has given the new committee a very positive welcome.

It was made clear in another place that we are looking for an effective and useful body capable of building on the work that has gone on before. Its effectiveness will depend, as it always must do, on the dedication and imagination of the people who are appointed to it. The Bill provides a very substantial framework for the new body, leaving it with room for manoeuvre to look at other matters besides those referred to it by the Government. If it wishes to do so I feel sure your Lordships will support it.

Turning now to the provisions for equal treatment for men and women contained in Schedule 1(1) to (7), the proposals we are making are designed to implement an EEC Directive on the subject. The Directive requires us to implement the changes by December 1984. Schedule I provides for the removal of discrimination in two stages. First, married women will be able to claim increase of benefit for children if the husband's earnings are less than the increase of benefit being claimed for him. In the second stage, married women will be able to claim for children irrespective of their husbands' earnings. Where married women are claiming short-term benefit, they will also be able to claim for a husband if his earnings are less than the benefit increase, in the same way as a husband can claim for a wife as at present.

These provisions will fulfil our commitment under the Directive, but they go a little further. First, a married woman receiving invalidity benefit or industrial injury unemployment supplement will also be able to claim an increase for a husband if his earnings are less than the benefit increase payable for him, rather than under the tapered earnings rule which applies where a husband with invalidity benefit claims for his wife. And increase of benefit payable for someone who has the care of a child for whom the beneficiary receives an increase will be payable for either a man or a woman, instead of for a woman, as at present.

There are other changes under the schedule; the abolition of a little-used provision under which beneficiaries can receive increase of benefit for certain other relatives, for example a daughter at a university. This has become an out-of-date provision and abolition of it is in the interests of simplification: only about 200 payments at any one time have been made, and then only for short periods. Transitional arrangements will protect existing beneficiaries for up to two years.

I am particularly pleased, as I am sure your Lordships are, that the family income supplement is included in these equal treatment measures. Family income supplement is not itself subject to the EEC Directive, so this is doubly satisfactory. It has always been a source of discontent for some couples with children that they are prevented from claiming family income supplement if it is the wife and not the husband who is in full-time work. They should not be ignored because they are relatively few in number. We have always made it clear that it will be necessary as well as desirable to have equal treatment in family income supplement when this is introduced into supplementary benefit. The two schemes are complementary, family income supplement being the benefit for working families and supplementary benefit for those who are not in full-time work. The fact that we are paving the way in this Bill for equal treatment in both schemes, starting in 1983, is a significant step forward. It will then be possible for the family which has to depend on the wife's earnings for full-time work—because, for example, the husband is a chronic invalid—to have those earnings supplemented by FIS. This recognition or encouragement—call it what you will—will be a boost to the family's morale, quite apart from the good that a little extra money at the margin can do.

Finally, to turn to the minor changes made by the Bill, perhaps I should single out Clause 5, which makes maternity grant non-contributory. This clause was introduced into the Bill during its Committee stage in the other place by a Government supporter and I particularly commend it to your Lordships. Maternity grant is at present payable to an expectant mother on either her own or her husband's National Insurance contributions. This means that a small but significant number of expectant mothers, including single parents, do not receive maternity grant, and these are perhaps the most vulnerable mothers in our society.

The common law wife, even where there is a stable relationship, obtains no maternity grant except when she can do so on her own contributions. Of course, those who do not qualify may have their needs met by an exceptional needs payment of supplementary benefit and, because of this, the expenditure implications of this clause are not large: part of the cost is recouped by savings on supplementary benefit. But, for the mothers involved, there is a world of difference between a means-tested payment, even though it is a right, and an automatic payment. And I should point out that, because it will now be possible to link payment of this benefit to payment of child benefit, this clause will make it possible to introduce administrative simplifications which should save some 200 staff.

There is one final point which I should mention. Clause 4(4) of the Bill provides for automatic recovery of any over-payment of benefit paid into a person's bank or other account. This proposal attracted a great deal of criticism in another place and, although we were not able to amend the Bill then, I can tell your Lordships that we shall be bringing forward fresh proposals to meet the criticism during the Committee stage in this Chamber.

This is an important Bill. Some parts of it are controversial, but at its core are significant and overdue reforms of the supplementary benefits system designed to give claimants a better deal and help staff to administer the system in a more equitable way. I believe these reforms to be worthy of the support of the whole House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill is now read 2a.—(Baroness Young.)

3.9 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Baroness was perfectly right when she said that the Bill is not only comprehensive but also complicated. It is indeed a most complicated Bill, and to some extent it has been further complicated by the appearance within the past few days of the Social Security (No. 2) Bill which, if I understand it correctly, to some extent negates some of the effects of the present Bill. However, we shall be dealing with this further Bill in due course.

I see little point in dealing in great detail this afternoon with the Bill now before us. I say that because I recall listening to much of the debate on the Education Bill at Second Reading. A number of your Lordships took part in the Second Reading debate, but it had no profound effect at all upon the Government. There does not seem to be much point in discussing Bills at great length on Second Reading. So I prefer to wait until the Committee and subsequent stages to deal fully with those matters which cause those of us on this side of the House real concern.

It is not my intention today to comment upon the amount of individual benefits, but rather to consider certain aspects of the Bill. The noble Baroness was perfectly right, and most helpful, when she said that the Bill can be divided into five sections, or perhaps I should say that it has five chief objects. It proposes to link pensions with prices, and thus depart from the practice of the last Government which linked pensions with prices or earnings, whichever were the greater. The present Government regard that method as being—and I use their phrase—"an unsustainable commitment"; and this is, I believe, a point of controversy between us.

Our view has been, and still is, that pensioners must be protected against rising prices, and this the Government are proposing to do. But it is also our view that pensioners should share in a higher standard of living which higher earnings make possible. If the system which the Government are now proposing to adopt had been in operation in recent years, it would have resulted in the weekly retirement pension being £5 less than it was when the present Administration came into office. We know, since the Government frequently tell us, that expenditure must be cut; but in our submission this should not be done at the expense of those sections of the community who are unable to afford such cuts and who most of the time are faced with considerable need.

One wonders what might be the Government's reason for this proposal. Is it because a saving of I per cent. on an uprating yields no less a sum than £130 million a year? I repeat that, my Lords: a saving of 1 per cent. on an uprating yields £130 million a year. Is this the Government's reason for lining up the pension with prices, not with earnings, and thereby in fact keeping the pension down, and thus not giving to elderly people who have made their contribution to the community over a good many years the opportunity for a more reasonable standard of living in their old age? I ask that question.

Until now the invalidity pension has been paid at the retirement pension rate, ever since its introduction by the Conservative Government in 1971; that was an innovation which will always be to their credit. This coming November the increase will be £1.85 less than the retirement pension. I find it difficult to understand why this coming November there should be a reduction in the value of the invalidity pension, since I cannot imagine that the needs of those in receipt of an invalidity pension are less than the needs of those in receipt of a retirement pension. I am equally puzzled as to why, if the No. 2 Bill is ultimately passed, the invalidity pension is to be reduced by five percentage points each year for the next three years. Is this intended by the Government as a hidden method towards raising some taxation over the next three years?

I have been looking at the question of the invalidity benefit for young disabled people aged between 16 and 17 years, who are now in receipt of the non-contributory invalidity pension of £14 a week. Had they been on supplementary benefit, they would have received £12.95, and would have been eligible for special needs benefits. Had they been on supplementary benefit at the age of 18 they would have been eligible for the long-term benefits, which now amount to about £20.15 a week, but if they were receiving the non-contributory invalidity pension, the amount would be only £14.

Having regard to the fact that the Bill concerns itself with the position of the disabled, I am very surprised that those Members of your Lordships' House who were most vocal on behalf of the disabled when we had a Labour Government do not appear to be here today. If those noble Lords agree with what the Government are doing in regard to the disabled, they ought to be here, and say so. If they do not agree, nevertheless they should still be here, and should tell the Government why.

Clause 1(3) causes us some concern. Under the Social Security Act 1975 the Government of the day are required to uprate once a year—that is, every 52 weeks—and the noble Baroness said, quite rightly, that the tendency was for the uprating to occur a little earlier each year. Nevertheless under that Act the benefits have to be uprated every 52 weeks. I accept that the Bill before us is very complicated and complex, and perhaps there is much of it that I have not understood correctly. However, if I have correctly understood Clause 1(3), it provides for the uprating to take place at any time before the end of November. This year the uprating will take effect on 24th November, as the noble Baroness said. Next year it could presumably take place later in the month, and that would save the Government millions of pounds at the expense of the pensioners. Whether the uprating takes place on the 24th or the 30th of the month may not seem important to many of your Lordships, but it could—and I am not saying that the Government are going to do this—have a very serious effect upon income.

The Bill provides for the reform of the supplementary benefits scheme and for the abolition of the Supplementary Benefits Commission in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as well as for the cessation of the National Insurance Advisory Committee, which when we were in Government noble Lords strongly supported because it was an important body, often taking decisions and making recommendations against the Government. We recognised that there was a need to examine carefully both the benefits of the supplementary benefits scheme and the Supplementary Benefits Commission itself; and, as we have been told, the last Government were instrumental in setting up the review. We nevertheless have reservations which we may pursue at subsequent stages of this Bill. We shall need to examine the position of pensioners on supplementary benefit, who will lose out financially when benefits are brought into line with the National Insurance rates.

Since the publication of the review, we have not committed ourselves to any particular measure of reform other than the fact that we have never felt, nor do we feel now, that it could be done on a no-cost basis. This may well have been the approach of the review body, but, if I may say so, it was not the view of the last Government that it could be done on a no—cost basis, and we could not subscribe to that view now. The review of the Supplementary Benefits Commission recommended a sweeping change in the legal structure. Discretion will go, and in its place will come entitlement—entitlement to benefits and payments which will be clearly set out. That, of course, is a highly desirable thing. The applicant will know what he or she is entitled to claim. The present guide, I acknowledge, is much too complicated, and we accept that it is desirable that entitlement to benefits and payments should be clearly stated. I am familiar with the booklet. It is so complex that I have known officials at a local DHSS dependent upon the interpretation of it by, perhaps, a senior social worker in the district. So I think the Government are to be congratulated on seizing this opportunity to set out clearly, frankly and fully what the entitlement is so that even the humblest citizen (shall I say?) can be left in no doubt.

Having said all that—and I look at this from the point of view of having been a professional social worker—uniformity can mean rigidity, and, when dealing with individual needs, some measure of discretion is absolutely essential and desirable. It may well be that an element of discretion will remain, but I am not sure. I am sure that we shall be told that the supplementary benefits officer will have discretionary powers, and I note that a claimant has a right of appeal to the local tribunal. Will that right apply in respect of every decision? I mean, would it apply in respect of any discretionary power the officer has? A further right of appeal is provided to the commissioner, but only on a point of law. It may well be that I have missed it, but I do not find anything in the Bill about the tribunals, and I am assuming that the present structure of appeal tribunals will remain in being. If not, perhaps the Minister would let me know at some stage. I do not seek an answer this afternoon.

I gather from the Bill that the rules will be published in the form of regulations. I ask that Parliament be given the opportunity to consider those regulations, and that they will be affirmative orders. I would ask the Government whether there will be consultation on the content of the regulations with the various organisations representing beneficiaries before the regulations are drafted. I realise I may well be told that this would be too long and drawn out a procedure, but I believe that it is important that in drafting regulations of this kind, which are going to give legality to actions of members of the staff, we should take the advice of people who have been working in this field for some very considerable time.

The fourth object of the Bill is to extend equal treatment for men and women in respect of social security. My understanding of the Bill is that it does not fully implement the principle of equal treatment for both sexes. It appears to improve the position of women, but if I have understood the position correctly they will have to meet certain qualifying conditions. I could not find the conditions in the Bill, and I assume that they will be framed in due course. Again I ask: Will we have the opportunity to consider them? I think the Government will need to be much more forthcoming in this matter than the Bill indicates. The fifth objective is, as the Secretary of State himself said, the inevitable tidying up amendments to existing social security law. I do not think I need bother your Lordships about that at this stage, because these are matters that we can deal with, if we are so minded, in Committee.

May I say, in conclusion, that the Bill is not wholly unacceptable. There are many things in it of which one would approve. But, of course, in our view there are things which will need amending in many places, although in another place they were not successful in so doing; and, as I say, I fear that we on this side of your Lordships' House will perhaps have very little chance of doing so ourselves.

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for the very careful and thorough explanation of the Bill which was given to us. It is, as she said, the first of two Bills giving effect to the Government's proposals in the field of social security. The Bills are remarkable in that they both contain provisions designed to reduce the value of benefits below that which they would otherwise have attained. The No. 2 Bill ends the automatic uprating of short-term benefits, which must mean that those benefits will in future decline; and we have what has happened to the death grant as an awful warning. The No. 2 Bill also provides for the reduction and the eventual abolition of the earnings-related supplement to short-term benefits. This Bill, as the noble Baroness explained, ends the provision whereby long-term benefits, including pensions, are increased in line with increases in earnings or prices, whichever are the higher. In future, these benefits will be increased only in line with prices.

Together, the two Bills will ensure that both long-term and short-term benefits will be lower than they otherwise would have been, and that the gap between long-term and short -term benefits will increase. Taken together with the failure to make good shortfalls on both long-term and short-term benefits, the failure to increase child benefit sufficiently to take account of inflation, the provisions which have been discussed in this House recently for school meals and the cuts in the pers- onal social services, they constitute a considerable assault upon the boundaries of the Welfare State.

The most controversial proposal in the Bill is the proposal to end the link between long-term benefits and earnings. The Government say (and the noble Baroness said this afternoon) that it is the Government's intention that people on long-term benefit, pensioners, should share in any increase in prosperity that there may be. It does not seem to be very evident at the moment that we shall have such an increase in the immediate future; but the noble Baroness says that the Government want the pensioners to share it. But, unless they are going to share to the extent provided for in the mechanism which is being abolished, then they must share in it to a lesser extent. This means that those on long-term benefits will gradually he left behind the rest of the community; they cannot share in that increase in prosperity to the same degree as the earnings section of the population.

The Government complain of the ratchet effect and the noble Baroness explained this; when prices are higher than earnings, the value of the long-term benefit is maintained; when earnings are higher than prices the value of the long-term benefit is increased. Therefore, say the Government, the percentage of national average earnings provided by the pension or other long-term benefit must increase progressively with the passage of time. That is the theory, but I think we are entitled to ask why suddenly this has become a problem. It was not clear from the Government Actuary's report (which was made available in connection with the Social Security (Benefit Up-rating) Order 1979 and the Social Security (Contributions Re-rating) Order 1979) that the ratchet effect was seen as a great problem. Indeed, unemployment was singled out as the important factor.

During the Committee stage in another place, figures were produced which suggested that since 1975 the ratchet effect was scarcely detectable. I do not think that these figures were successfully challenged. It is true that the pension for a married couple would be £5 a week lower today, as the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, pointed out, if the Government had been working on the basis that the present Government now propose. But the pension as a percentage of average earnings, whether taken gross or net, has barely changed.

We on these Benches, with many others, have long held that the pension is too low. The Minister, Mr. Prentice, shares this view. He stated at the Committee stage in another place at col. 216 of the Official Report: I accept that pensions are too low and have always been too low. I also accept that they are too low as a percentage of average earnings". I repeat: "I also accept that they are too low as a percentage of average earnings". That is the view of the Minister of Social Security. We on these Benches have always wanted a definite link between the basic pension and average earnings. In our most recent report on our tax credit proposals, we argued for a pension for single persons of 33 per cent. and for married couples of 66 per cent. of male median earnings. The most recent figures are 25.5 per cent. and 40.9 per cent. of the male median earnings. So that there is some way to go to our target. I do not precisely know what Mr. Prentice's target is, but he has made it clear in the statement that I have quoted that his target is higher than the percentages which we now have.

Why worry, then, about the ratchet effect at the present time? It is barely detectable so far and, in so far as it does have any effect, it will help to move benefits slowly towards the target and ought to be welcomed. When the target has been reached, it will be possible to apply the formula which has been suggested by Mr. Tony Lyne. He suggested that when you get the pension at the level which you think is right in terms of the percentage of earnings, then you continue to increase it for increases in earnings and prices; but when it is increased for prices there is no further increase for earnings in the future until the target level (which must have increased by that increase of prices) is restored again.

The Government fall back on the argument that pensions as a higher percentage of earnings mean higher contributions. They pose as the champions of the contributors. I should like to ask this. Based on the experience of the last five years, what increase in the percentage contribution do they anticipate would be necessary in, say, the next five years to cope with the ratchet effect? The most recent small increase, I understand, was due not to the ratchet effect but to offset the cost of unemployment benefit. But perhaps the Government's concern is over the 18 per cent. of the National Insurance Fund contribution which comes not from the employers' and employees' contribution but from the Exchequer. The real concern is to get the National Insurance Fund to make a contribution to the Government's general cuts in expenditure.

The second most controversial aspect of the Bill is the decision to carry out a reform of the supplementary benefit scheme on a "no-cost" basis. The Supplementary Benefit Commission have explained in detail why they rejected the "no-cost" approach when it was first put forward by the review body within the Department of Health and Social Security. The Supplementary Benefit Commission firmly stated: If the reform of the scheme is to be worth while and if the living standards of claimants generally are to be protected and improved, it follows that the no-cost assumptions adopted in the review report must be rejected". Of course, the big problem with the supplementary benefit scheme is that there are far too many people on it. It was never intended that it should operate for the vast numbers that are now on it; one in 10 of the population depends on it in one way or another. It is important to take people off it. It is because of the large numbers which are on it that the working of the discretionary power becomes so difficult and is causing a breakdown of the scheme. If you could take large numbers of people off supplementary benefit, then no doubt you could retain the discretion for the comparatively small number you would seek to leave on it. That was one of the objects of the tax credit proposals to which I referred earlier. But a substantial increase in child benefit would go some way to achieving that. This was recommended by the Supplementary Benefit Commission.

They said: The over-riding priority in reforming the supplementary benefits scheme is to increase the level of benefit for families with children and for all claimants who have to live on the lower ordinary-scale rates". I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, that the clearer legal structure is to be welcomed. There has been some improvement in scale rates, but these are at the expense of other claimants. I understand that 13/4 million will lose as a result of the changes and 13/4 million will gain. I welcome the decision to reduce the waiting time for the long-term rates from two years to one year; but the Supplementary Benefits Commission and the Department of Health and Social Security review said that the highest priority should be given to extending the long-term rates to the unemployed. I regret that that has not been done.

The third most controversial part of the Bill is the abolition of the Supplementary Benefits Commission and its replacement by an advisory committee, as the noble Baroness has explained, covering national insurance benefits, supplementary benefits, family income supplements and child benefits. I should like to join in the tribute that was paid to Professor Donnison and the members of the Supplementary Benefits Commission for the work which I they have undertaken and the way in which they have done it. But I agree that it is practical to have all these different aspects of social security dealt with by one body, although I doubt whether it is wise to deprive the new body of all executive experience.

There is a great deal in the Bill to which I have not referred. I hope that we can look at those matters closely during the Committee stage. We shall want to look particularly carefully at the proposals for equality of treatment between men and women to which the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, referred; the position of the disabled—and he referred to that as well; the position relating to the transfer of benefits of those moving from one contracted-out pension scheme to another; the need to increase the death and maternity grants; and the possibility of extending the mortgage option scheme to elderly people seeking to increase their income by raising a mortgage on their house. I think that I have said sufficient to indicate that there are parts of the Bill to which we strongly object.

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, like other noble Lords, I also found this Bill very complicated but at the same time very important. Those who have to administer it, and indeed also the recipients, will be grateful to the fact that the Government are consciously trying to simplify the working of the ensuing Act. For far too long too many well-eaning administrators have been trying to make entitlement fair without any really firm guidelines, and too much has been left to their own discretion. For many years, while I was the wife of a Member of Parliament living in the constituency, I had to try to deal with the pensions problems of my husband's constituents. The fact that at the top responsibility was shared by Ministers and the DHSS on the one hand, and the Supplementary Benefits Commission—he statutory authority—on the other, made it very complicated when one got down to individual cases at local level.

This is why I warmly welcome the Government's decision to abolish the Supplementary Benefits Commission and the National Insurance Advisory Committee, and put the one body, the Social Security Advisory Committee, in its place. It will be very important for this body also to be seen to be independent, as it seems that it will be responsible for advising the Secretary of State to the DHSS on the whole range of national insurance benefits, supplementary benefits, child benefits and family income supplements. But, as I understand it, the new committee will not have the responsibility of policy-making as the original committee had. This, quite rightly, will be undertaken solely by the DHSS. I also welcome the decision that the Government's policies will be clearly set out in a guide, written, I very much hope, in understandable English. From this guide the claimants will be able to calculate their own entitlements.

The second part of the Bill which must be warmly welcomed is the decision to link benefits to rising prices. The present Government have always been committed to protecting pensioners from the effects of inflation and rising prices. But the older pensioners still cannot get used to the different values of money with which the younger generation have grown up. As an example, a pension which is not index-linked and was received even as recently as 10 years ago is now of very little value. The cost of living in real terms bears no relation to the values with which our senior citizens have grown up. I am, however, confident that when our country is prosperous once more the Government will continue to do their best for those in need.

I am sure that neither my noble friend the Minister nor my noble friend Lord Cullen of Ashbourne will be surprised when I refer to one or two anomalies that affect widows. I shall refer to only one this afternoon. There are many however which are mostly caused by the overlapping benefits rule. I want to ask the Minister's advice as to how this reformed Bill will affect one specific category of widow. This is the widow who has been receiving an invalidity pension. It was interesting that the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, also brought up this problem. When married the wife became ill and was awarded a pension. When her husband died she was entitled to a widow's pension; but because of the overlapping benefit rule she lost her invalidity pension. She thus had to cope with everyday life, not only without her husband but without his financial support and also in a physical condition which had already been recognised by the State since she was a beneficiary of a pension. Would I be right in thinking that she can claim supplementary benefit on the long-term rate, and that that will be able to be claimed forthwith? It would be very helpful if the Minister could give me some guidance on this point.

Briefly, I should like to pay a tribute to the Chancellor of the Exchequer because for the very first time acknowledgment and help has been given to widows in his recent Budget. There are many other points and parts of the Bill to which other speakers will refer. I should like to thank the Minister for making the Bill as simple as I hope the eventual Act will prove to be.

3.48 p.m.


My Lords, Social Security is always a very complicated subject, and the Bill that we are considering today is no exception, as the noble Baroness in her introduction demonstrated. Nevertheless, as the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, has just indicated, it is a very important subject. Therefore we must try to find our way around the complications. We are at the beginning of a new era at the start of the 1980s, and it would seem appropriate that we should seek to legislate in the field of social security for the 1980s. In some ways this Bill tries to do this. In other ways I suggest that it does not. My major interest in the Bill revolves around Clause 2 and Schedule 1, which is designed to give effect to the EEC Directive on equal treatment for men and women in social security.

However, before going on to that point I should like to digress for a moment and welcome—as the noble Baroness did—the extension of the maternity grant to a non-contributory basis. This is a very welcome move indeed. It would be even more welcome had the Government been able to see their way to increasing the benefit. I understand that to bring the benefit to the level of 1969, when it was last up-rated, would cost something like £45 million per annum; but, if we contrast that with the lives and the illness which it might save, I wonder whether we are really getting our priorities right. For example, the Spastics Society have estimated that it costs £250,000 to maintain a severely handicapped child for life, and the £45 million extra that we might spend on up-rating the grant would represent 180 such severely handicapped children. So if the Government could see their way to looking at this from the point of view of preventive health care rather than from the point of view of what it is going to cost in terms of benefit, I think that in the long run it would be to the advantage of the country.

I turn now to Schedule I of the Bill. Some months ago in a previous debate I congratulated the Government on indicating that they intended to take early action to implement the EEC Directive. However, I see from the various dates given in the Bill that we are getting close to the final implementation date of the Directive before the provisions become effective. Nevertheless, I should like to thank the Government for some of the things that have been included that they intend to do. To take in particular the tapered earnings rule as it applies to single parents, I join with the noble Baroness in saying how helpful this will be to such families. Equally, I welcome the coverage of FIS, because of the discrimination there has been in relation to the family income supplement, which has been payable only to husbands. That has been a problem ever since its introduction. Therefore I welcome these provisions.

Broadly, Clause 2 and Schedule 1 will mean that certain short-term and supplementary benefits in relation to a spouse and to children will be provided on a more or less equal footing for both husbands and wives. But there are some diversions from the concept of equal treatment. I notice that the noble Baroness in her introduction referred to Schedule I as being intended to provide equal treatment: yet if we look at the Bill it indicates that we are looking at "similar treatment" for men and women, and not equal treatment. The EEC Directive, of course, calls for equal treatment. The Bill's description of "similar treatment" might be more accurate because, as has already been indicated, there are some discriminations remaining which are not covered by the Bill, and I should like to refer to one or two of them.

I would refer to the non-contributory invalidity pension, which has not been extended so as to ensure that housewives are covered in the same way as their husbands. We are still going to have the housewives' non-contributory invalidity pension, which means in effect that disabled married women will have to undergo an additional test. Any claimant for this benefit will have to undergo a test of disability, but the married woman has to undergo the test of whether or not she can perform normal household duties in order to establish that the pension is suitable for her as well as establishing that she cannot take up paid employment.

The difficulty arises here when we try to define what are "normal household duties". After all, the man who is benefiting from a non-contributory insurance pension does not have to undergo such a test or indicate, for example, that he is incapable of pruning the roses or of helping his wife with the washing up. That test is applied to housewives and it seems to me that if we are moving into "equal treatment" then really this additional test which is applied to housewives is surely wrong.

Secondly, I would refer to the invalid care allowance, because that allowance is not available to married women at all. It is, of course, assumed that the invalid care allowance is available for someone who is taking care of a dependent invalid. Again, the assumption here, as with the housewives' non-contributory pension, is that a woman is likely to be at home looking after her family and is unlikely to be out at work, earning an income in her own right. Additionally, I think we might say that these same married women who are looking after invalids must save the Exchequer an enormous amount of money each year by keeping them in their own homes rather than their being given institutional care. Therefore I wonder whether, in the final analysis, this is an economic approach to the problem.

The third point I would raise is in relation to the tapered earnings rule, which I welcomed in another respect a few moments ago but which, again, is being applied unequally between men and women. That is because although the invalidity pensions are to be made available to women, as the noble Baroness says, there is a difference in the way the benefit will be applied. The tapered rule will apply to men but not to women. Women will be dependent on what the regulations say, but it seems that at the moment if the husband earns up to £14 a week the wife will not be able to obtain the benefit.

Here we have three areas which do not provide for real equality between the sexes so far as the Bill is concerned. I suppose the truth is that we are still suffering from the hangover of the Beveridge concept of wives being financially dependent on their husbands. Beveridge served us very well in the 'forties and 'fifties, but we are now in the 'eighties and therefore we need a different concept. Nowhere can this be better illustrated than in the provisions for supplementary benefits.

Like other noble Lords and Baronesses, I pay tribute to Professor Donnison, the chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission, for his work in that sphere and for the concern that he showed towards the principle of equal treatment for men and women in social security. I should also like to pay tribute to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Mrs. Lynda Chalker, who, with great care and in great detail, has looked at this problem to see whether it is possible to bring about equality between the sexes. In the end, I think she has come down on the basis that complete equality is, for the time being, out. But what she has done is to recognise, in the payment of benefits, the contribution that part-time women workers make to our society and to the economy of their own family.

Supplementary benefits are, at the moment, payable only to husbands, except that in very exceptional circumstances, when the husband is incapable of self-support, they are payable to the wife. The Bill takes us beyond this. It takes us to the point where certain criteria will be laid down and will be applicable to both men and women. One of the criteria will be whether a person has been in employment for a period of six months or so, or has an employment record.

I suggest—and this is one of the points that was put to Mrs. Chalker—that such a condition could be indirectly discriminatory against women, bearing in mind two factors. First, under the present social security system, there has been no incentive for married women who have opted out of paying their full national insurance to register as unemployed and therefore to have, as it were, an employment record. Thus it could be more difficult for them to comply with this rule.

Secondly, we could have a situation where husband and wife were wanting to reverse roles. For example, it could be that a wife wanted to take up employment in order that her husband could pursue some study which might not get a full mandatory grant, and he would look after the family in order to release his wife to go out to work. Again, if there were any problems in that changeover, the wife would not qualify. I know that this is a rather complicated argument and perhaps time does not permit us to go into it in more detail at present. But I would flag it up as a warning that we could find ourselves faced with indirect discrimination in this area.

My final point is that, where discriminatory administrative arrangements arise at the present time and where in the future they will need to be amended, I hope we can assume that all the administrative changes will be in line with the principle of equality between the sexes. In that sense, I join with the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, in asking that the fullest scrutiny be made available to the House and to outside bodies, in order that these points can be checked.

4.5 p.m.

Baroness VICKERS

My Lords, I rise to welcome this Bill. I think that social security Bills must be the delight of every Parliamentary draftsman and this one is no exception, as there are many changes and many technical points. Having by chance watched "Yes, Minister" on the TV last night, I think it would be interesting to learn how near the truth this series is and which one wins—the Minister or the civil servant.

This is an extremely important Bill, as it deals with more people than even the Education Bill, and I welcome many points which have been made by my noble friend Lady Young, who introduced the Bill in such a succinct manner. The noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, mentioned normal household duties. On the EEC Committee in this House we have been discussing all the points that she raised and many other points, which I hope she will find helpful. I hope that the MEPs in the European Parliament may take up many of the points which she has raised, and which are mentioned in our documents.

I welcome very much the maternity grant and I thought that the noble Baroness was a little ungenerous in her remarks. I should like also to mention the EEC Directive, which clarifies the law in regard to equality between the sexes. I am still anxious—and, unfortunately, this is not in the Directive—that there should be equal retirement ages. It is a pity that we do not have this and I hope that we shall give a lead. To begin with, I should like to see age 62 apply in both cases, and I think that there should be harmonisation as soon as possible. I look forward to a White Paper next year concerning the possibility of the introduction of a flexible retirement scheme. This may provide a solution to the many points which we have been discussing today, including equal age and dependency allowances for men and women.

I am very delighted that Clause 7 changes the conditions for family income supplement. I am glad that the woman will now have an opportunity to draw it, if she is the breadwinner. But I must admit that I have always been against the FIS. I think that it is an unfortunate manner of supplementing the income of people. I believe that they should be paid an adequate wage for their work, and should not be dependent on low wages being supplemented by the FIS. As the noble Baroness suggested, it will be helpful for claimants to have a written explanation of their benefits, but I should like to see more information about how one can claim at the beginning, because I have often found that people have no idea of their rights in this field.

My main point is to put forward the need for option mortgages, which fall within the scope of this B ill in Clause 20 and in Schedule 4. There are about 10 million homeowners, 51/2 million of whom are over the age of 65, while only 300,000 get supplementary pensions. Furthermore, 1.1 million are not taxpayers and do not receive supplementary pensions. I should like to acknowledge that the noble Lord, Lord Banks, debated this matter on 9th February 1978. My noble friend Lord Cullen of Ashbourne also took part, and that is why I believe that he will be very knowledgeable and able to give me an answer on this matter today.

Almost all homeowners under 65 years—about 51/2 million—get tax relief or subsidy, which averages about £250 per annum. The home income plan pensioner obtains tax relief of about £270 per annum, but the non-taxpaying pensioner gets no relief unless he moves. I under stand that 47 per cent. live in the same house for 21 years or more, and 24 per cent. for 11 to 20 years. These are not grand houses; their value at the present time is between £15,000 and £17,000. Why should they have to move, if this can be avoided by an option mortgage? They were brought up in a different age from the present time. They were brought up in an age when they considered that they had made adequate preparations for their retirement. But inflation has ruined all this. Therefore, they have one asset left to them, and that is their house.

I have visited a number of these persons, and have very often found they are able to use only one room. Sometimes they bring their bed downstairs and make one room into a bedsitting room. And they use their kitchen. In some cases they cannot climb upstairs, which is another reason why they have to use the downstairs rooms; and many of them have sold much of their furniture. Over I million elderly home-owners who are non-taxpayers are not receiving supplementary pensions. Is it right to expect them to move at their age? Perhaps they have a few friends in the neighbourhood, or helpful neighbours. If they are widowed, their beloved one is probably buried in the churchyard nearby. Perhaps they go to the Women's Institute, or to clubs, where they can meet people whom they have known for many years.

I realise that on 9th February, as I mentioned just now, the noble Lord, Lord Banks, raised the matter in this House. At col. 1232 the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said: What is proposed is therefore not a housing matter at all. It is a means of boosting the income of one group of the elderly". Therefore I am wondering whether or not that comes into this part of the Bill. She added: But we believe that the correct approach lies in policies for meeting the income needs of all the elderly, and not just those of the home-owners"—[Official Report; 9/2/78.] What happens to so many of these houses when eventually they have to be sold? Many of them are, of course, in very bad repair because the owners were unable to do the necessary repairs while they were living there. When these houses are bought, the persons buying them very often ask the local authority for a subsidy to help to deal with the repairs. And they get it. Therefore, I feel that it would be much better to help the people living in these houses at present rather than to wait until they are dead and then give to other people the benefit of things which earlier occupants could not undertake. My noble friend Lord Cullen of Ashbourne said on 9th February, 1978, at col. 1230: …the Conservative Party has a solution to this problem, but until such time as we can put it into operation it is for the Government to deal with the matter". Of course, the Opposition were then in Government. I should be very grateful if the noble Lord could say whether he has now found a solution to the problem, and whether there is any chance of putting it into action in the near future. I think that this would be very beneficial. It may be, of course, that the noble Lord will have another way of dealing with the problem—perhaps by the adoption of tax credits.

There is also the fact that many of the changes brought about by the Bill are going to be undertaken by regulations. I sit on the Statutory Instruments Committee, and many of these matters come before us. What worries me so often is that they come into operation without 21 days' notice being given; they are put into operation before then. I should like assurance that action will be taken to give the Statutory Instruments Committee every chance to go through them properly before they are implemented. I should like to refer to page 11 of the Bill and to Clause 7(1)(b) which I find is quite incomprehensible. It says: at the end of that subsection there shall be inserted the words 'except that persons who include a married or unmarried couple shall not be a family for the purposes of this Act if one of the couple is engaged and normally engaged as aforesaid and the other member of the couple is receiving such payments as may be specified by regulations' ". This is dealing with the family income supplements. This is the most complicated thing I have read for a long time, and I should like an opportunity to go through it before it comes to fruition.

The final point that worries me is the question of those who, I regret to say, are by so many Conservatives called scroungers. I do not believe that many people in the category we are talking about today are scroungers. When I was a Member of Parliament I found that many claims could have been made. Many people were living in distressed circumstances through no fault of their own, because they had too much pride or did not understand how they could get help. Many of them were in their sixties and seventies. I pointed out to them that they had paid taxes and that they had got this as of right; it was not charity. They had paid their National Insurance. The simple fact was that, through no fault of their own, their own income had proved to be too little for them at the end of their lives. They had probably calculated that they would not live until they were over 70, but they were living much longer than that. This has brought many difficulties for many people. Therefore I should like consideration to be given to the option mortgage scheme which would be able to give a comparatively small number of persons real relief in their old age.

4.15 p.m.

The Countess of LOUDOUN

My Lords, prior to April 1979 there had been several informal discussions on the question of a disablement costs allowance with disablement groups, together with the then Minister for the Disabled, the right honourable Alfred Morris, and officials from the Department of Health and Social Security. Preparations for issuing a green paper were in hand, and I understand that considerable progress had been made, but of course that all ceased when the present Government took office. All three main parties are on record as agreeing that a disablement costs allowance should be introduced in due course.

The most recent election manifestos of the Labour and Liberal Parties promised the provision of a special disablement costs allowance to help offset the extra expenses of daily living as a disabled person, and the Conservative Manifesto referred to: a coherent system of cash benefits to meet the cost of disability, so that more disabled people can support themselves and live normal lives. We shall work towards this as swiftly as the strength of the economy allows". But to have a coherent system there must be prior consultation with all concerned—best achieved, I believe, through a green paper or other consultative document. Often in the past, disabled people have missed waves of prosperity and a green paper now would ensure that they will not miss the next one, which I am sure is "just round the corner".

This Social Security Bill will, among other matters, provide for the simplification of the supplementary benefits system, but that will adversely affect some severely disabled people, because many of the special financial needs they have as a direct result of being disabled will no longer be met by the system. In effect, these disabled people are being simplified out of the supplementary benefits system. That is very worrying, because the essential alternative means of meeting their special financial needs, the disablement costs allowance, is not yet available, although the major parties are all committed to introducing it at some time.

I believe it to be essential that there should be discussions as soon as possible to agree what financial provisions will take the place of supplementary benefits for these disabled people. If the noble Baroness the Minister were to agree to a green paper being issued, that would allay many of the fears of the disabled themselves, as well as the fears of those of us who are endeavouring to help them.

4.19 p.m.


My Lords, I seek information on Clauses 6, 9 and 11. I support the change with regard to the new committee, the Social Security Advisory Committee, but first, I, like other noble Lords, wish to pay my tribute to Professor David Donnison and his staff. Professor Donnison has shown compassion, has been sensitive to the difficulties of claimants and of staff and has always shown a sense of realism. His knowledge and judgment have been beyond question. One of his greatest assets has been his originality and approachableness. If the Supplementary Benefits Commission is to be abolished—and I agree that it should be replaced by the Social Security Advisory Committee—I wish to have an assurance that the local offices of the social security network will receive the same kind of support help and advice as have local offices in the past.

As the Social Security Advisory Committee is only advisory, I presume that it will not be responsible for the social security offices throughout the country. Perhaps the Minister when he replies to the debate will tell us what support the local offices will receive and whether it will be on similar lines as the support given in the past by the Supplementary Benefits Commission.

I agree that the social security system relating to supplementary benefits, National Insurance, child benefits and family incomes supplement should be amalgamated because those services are interdependent. I believe that the Supplementary Benefits Commission has been at a disadvantage because it has been unable to advise on the overall social security system.

I very much hope that the new advisory committee will be composed of people of understanding and knowledge rather than, as my noble friend Lady Vickers pointed out, the type of "Man from the Ministry" whom we saw last night on television. We hope that such people will have a sense of commitment as well as a knowledge of the whole spectrum of social security.

I wish to make one or two suggestions. Now that there is to be a comprehensive system, I hope that we shall do away with the deserving and undeserving poor. When one visits the offices dealing with contributory benefits one finds that they are pleasant offices where one may sit in great comfort. On the other hand, the supplementary benefit offices contain large rows of bare counters and glass partitions. I appreciate why that has been done, but in our debates on the Education Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, agreed with me—although he said he did not often find himself my ally—in asking for older, more experienced people to undertake this type of social work when dealing with people at the grass roots or "coal face" level, as it were. I suggest that since there is to be a new system, we should carefully examine the staffing of local offices. I believe that those offices should be staffed at counter level—that is, when claimants are being interviewed—by more mature people. I am not saying that young people do not do well in this sphere because they do, but I believe that we should take a leaf out of the book of the medical profession in which consultants deal with the most difficult cases. Many of the applicants who are dealt with at counter level are in great trouble and they often feel, possibly wrongly, that youth has not the depth of experience which some cases require.

I come now to the question of discretionary grants and regulations. Up-to-date, those of us who have had to help claimants have been bewildered by the number of differing claims and discretionary grants. I am sure that all social workers would welcome a case law for the social security system. Social workers obviously exist to help people and it can sometimes take a whole morning to go through the various regulations governing discretionary grants to find out a person's entitlement. Obviously we welcomed discretionary grants when they were introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Collison, because the numbers of claimants were comparatively small, but at present there are undoubtedly different interpretations of discretionary grants in various parts of the country.

If there is to be case law in this field, I wish to support my noble friend Lady Macleod in asking for the regulations to be simplified. Could not everybody concerned have a copy of the regulations? I believe that citizens advice bureaux, probation offices, social service departments and public liararies should all have copies, so that everybody can see exactly what is and what is not permitted. I very much hope that there will be an element of flexibility to meet very special circumstances.

There is one point on which I am a little confused. The Supplementary Benefits Act 1976, in Schedule 5, deals with applications from voluntary organisations, particularly those dealing with homeless families of an itinerant nature, those with an unsettled way of life. At present, the Supplementary Benefits Commission assists such shelters financially. I believe that there are about 34 voluntary organisations in England which run shelters for people who have an unsettled way of life. The Bill does not make clear who will be responsible for these matters, because the Bill merely states that the new committee is to be advisory. I very much hope that this work will not fall on the shoulders of local authorities. In an area such as Camden, for instance, in which people with an unsettled way of life constitute a high figure, it would be difficult for local authorities to undertake such work. Perhaps my noble friend Lord Cullen will be able to inform me where this is dealt with in the Bill.

I wish to touch on the subject of child benefits. I appreciate that such benefits have recently been increased from £4 to £4…75, but I believe that to compensate for inflation they should have risen to £5…20. I know that this will cost the country a great deal of money, but, as a former local government official and ex-civil servant, it worries me that one column of finance in the figures is often quite unrelated to another column. We are looking at the child benefits as being a very expensive item, which indeed it would be. But, my Lords, the poverty trap is very expensive and the lack of incentive is very expensive. A number of people have said to me, "I cannot afford to work, because if I work I shall be getting less than I am getting now, and it is a responsible attitude on my own part not to work because I am a low paid earner and I must look after my wife and children". Therefore, there is not the incentive for the low-paid worker to get a job. I believe that, if it were possible to up-rate the child benefits even more than has been done, we should save money in another area because we should provide incentives to work. I know that is not dealt with in this Bill, but I hope very much that the Minister will be able to look at the whole position of child benefits.

4.31 p.m.


My Lords, I have listened with great interest to all the speakers and to the introduction by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and I shall be very short, because in fact almost everything I wanted to say has been said, and said very well indeed. My experience in this field is not so much in dealing with individual cases, but having been chairman of a social work committee for something like 20 years I have found we were always having the complications of case work that was entailed for the social workers by supplementary benefits of one kind or another. Therefore, I welcome the appeal made by the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, and also by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithful, for simplifying the machinery of supplementary benefits as much as we possibly can.

I would underline strongly the appeal that has been made for some kind of booklet or description which would make it easier for people to understand what they were entitled to, or were not entitled to, and for the social worker and administrator to be a person of knowledge and experience and sympathy who would be able to deal with the people who come to inquire about the various benefits to which they are entitled. I think the suggestion made by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithful], and by the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, that the person who is at the administrative end of this Bill should be someone of sympathy, understanding and knowledge, and not necessarily of academic training, is something we should follow up; I am sure it would be a great help in administration. So I hope, first, that the machinery will be as simple as possible, so that everyone will be able to understand it.

I did not quite understand the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, when she spoke about the increased help for children and supplementary benefits. I was told that for children under five at the moment the claim is £5.20, and in November it is going up to £7.30. That may be a different grant, but I thought that was very helpful indeed and as it comes into this Bill I should like to support it very strongly. I also think that the alteration in maternity grant, making it noncontributory, will be much appreciated and very useful. It will be an addition which everybody will be anxious to have, and again it will simplify matters and make it easier for people to know where they stand with regard to the grants.

The noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, spoke much more knowledgeably than I can about the question of equal payment for these grants, and I would support her in that I am sure we should try as much as possible to make the conditions and the principles under which these grants are administered as fair as possible as between men and women. This comes into the Bill because I believe for the first time it is now going to be possible for women to make the same claim as men for grant aid if the circumstances are such that they are the people who are working and the husband is either ill or unable to work. The wife will be able to claim the benefits which previously could have been claimed only by the man. All these things are a great improvement, and I very much hope that it will help in the administration and also assist the recipients. Let us face it, the supplementary benefit schemes and all that this Bill covers are extremely complicated, and the easier we can make them so that people may know what they are entitled to, the better.

I believe the maternity grant will help something like 60,000 mothers, of whom half will be single parents; so that in itself ought to be a great help. As the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, said, it is in the Committee stage of this Bill that we shall go into all the various details, and I am sure that we shall have both the time and the interest to do that. But as it stands now, I support the Bill and I hope very much that we shall be able to deal with it in a detailed but a careful manner.


My Lords, I apologise for intervening when I had not put my name down to speak, but I just want to ask the noble Lord this question. Is it possible for this booklet (which I think will be of great benefit to many people) to include information on which benefits are taxed and which are not? That is a point which I think puzzles a great many people and clarification would be of considerable help.

4.37 p.m.


My Lords, for my part I have some considerable doubts about this Bill and, cynically enough, I feel that 1st April is an appropriate day for us to discuss it. But for a moment I want to look back to a time over 30 years ago. Towards the end of the last war the main topic among the forces was the Beveridge Report, discussed as it was in aircraft hangars, Naafi canteens and elsewhere. Here was a challenge; something which offered a bright new dawn for all the darkness and danger and fear of the war years. Time passed, and on 7th February 1946 I made my maiden speech on the National Insurance Bill —speaking from the last Bench but one, now behind me, in this Chamber. It was an emotional moment: the establishment of the Welfare State. I concluded my maiden speech as follows: This scheme, above all other schemes, will strike deep to the heart of humanity in every home in this country. I make a plea for the humane administration of the scheme. I ask the Minister to reduce the number of forms, and to make the necessary forms as simple as possible. I know the terrific worry which old age pensioners have had in the past in getting forms completed. We must aim at reducing, and not adding to, anxiety. It will be to the eternal credit of this nation that, after a long and devastating war, we are now able to introduce this scheme. In some quarters we may be accused of haste, but I believe that in introducing this scheme at this time we are setting an example to the world, and showing faith in our own people ". That was over 30 years ago and many changes have taken place since then. Tonight my emotion is different; a degree of sadness, tinged with understandable bitterness, for which I do not apologise. For let me say quite bluntly that this Bill is soon to be followed by another, even worse, and it marks a severe erosion of the Welfare State for which many of us fought for many years.

The late Lord Beveridge envisaged a system under which most people would be entitled to National Insurance benefits. For those not so entitled, there would be a small safety net of means-tested benefits. However, the work of the Supplementary Benefits Commission has continued to grow, and its greatest asset has always been its discretionary powers exercised with care and with compassion. The appeals system was flexible and reasonable, and many of us who have served in public offices, and as Members of Parliament in another place, have had first-hand experience in our constituencies of dealing with the Commission, particularly in persuading elderly people with their proud approach to life, that they should go and obtain something to which they were fully entitled.

There is some justification in trying to simplify this system of supplementary benefits, but to abolish the Supplementary Benefits Commission and to substitute supplement officers without discretionary powers, backed by a whole series of regulations, with a system of appeal in the final stages so tightly drawn that justice will be a remote possibility for those unfortunate enough to receive an adverse decision on a claim, is not simplification; it is a decision weighted against those most in need.

So far as the extensive list of regulations to be made are concerned, the power to fight them is subject to a statutory instrument procedure; but does that mean that individual regulations can be challenged in this House and in another place? Not all people, particularly the elderly, apply for supplementary benefit. But, as some of us are aware, Members of Parliament in their weekend interviews with constituents —and I avoid "weekend surgeries" because I hate the term —can and do persuade people to apply for help. That also applies, and we must not overlook this, to the citizens advice bureaux, the social workers and to many others involved in welfare work.

The regulations are bound to be numerous and costly to purchase. May I ask whether they will be made available free to approved welfare bodies to assist them in the considerable work that they are bound to face as a result of the proposed changes? It is in the field of supplementary benefit that we hear most talk of "scroungers" and the "work shy", so frequently arising without foundation from people who should know better, or those prompted by malice and envy. Scroungers and parasites exist in all sections of the community, and why should we concentrate on the area of those at poverty levels? Those who are guilty of abuse of benefit claims should be traced and punished, as indeed they are. Unfortunately, their cases hit the media headlines in terms which often group the majority of innocent needy with a minority.

I come to a point that is not in this Bill, but it has angered me beyond measure; the system of snooping blessed by the Government, of neighbour spying on neighbour, which is already flooding social security offices with telephone calls; it is to be deplored. My own local officer has said to his local paper that he is being overwhelmed with calls and he will have to put on several more staff to deal with the claims because he must investigate them. It is stirring up in increasing measure envy, malice and greed, which is against the interests of the community. It means more staff to check the tales of the informers and involves innocent needy people being subjected to investigation on the whispered words of some local busybody. It is a hateful system and anti-Christian in its effect.

There is, however, one detail in the Bill that deserves a welcome; that is, the decision to give applicants written details of the assessments of their claim, because that will not only help applicants but it will assist those, including Members of Parliament and others, helping and advising people to receive just consideration. This House will of course scrutinise in detail the Bill's provisions in the Committee stage. Your Lordships' House has a deserved reputation as a revising Chamber, but I must say that with the exception of the subject of school travel in the Education Bill those at present on the Government Benches seem to maintain a stolid defence of detail of their legislation; sometimes we get sympathetic murmurs, followed by rejection. In moving amendments, one gets the impression of bashing one's head against a brick wall. All we can do is to be constructive and indulge in hopeful anticipation. Of course, in the tradition of this House, we shall give the Bill a Second Reading, although in my case it is with some regret. To my mind it signifies a degree of retreat from the welfare state for which many of us have fought hard and long in the past. I am not referring to any member of any individual party, but I know that the late Lord Beveridge in his report and in his book, which I still have, indicated to the country something that was worth fighting for, and I hope that we shall remember always the tributes that have been paid to him in the past and we shall revere his memory, and the memory of those that brought this into operation.

4.47 p.m.


My Lords, we have had a most interesting debate on a Bill which I think every speaker has agreed is a very complicated one. A number of points have been raised by noble Lords, although I propose to deal with general points and leave many matters to the Committee stage, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell.

As my noble friend Lady Young made clear, the main purpose of the Bill is the reform of the supplementary benefits scheme. The growing complexity of the scheme has been evident for a number of years. That, and the increase in discretionary payments, were stressed in the 1975 annual report of the Supplementary Benefits Commission, which was published in 1976. I should like to emphasise that the proposals for reform in this Bill represent just the first stage; that simplification is needed is universally accepted, not only by the Supplementary Benefits Commission and the Government but, I believe, by the Opposition and by many pressure groups and, very naturally, by the staff who administer it.

How good it would be if we could do now all that we should like to do. Unfortunately that is not possible, owing to the lack of resources. We would dearly like to increase other benefits so that supplementary benefits would be required only for cases of particular hardship. An obvious example would be to raise retirement pensions so that pensioners would not need supplementary benefit. To remove half of these people from that category would cost £2 billion, as my noble friend Lady Young told the House. Therefore, we propose to simplify as much as possible at nil cost, to make clear to claimants to what benefits they will be legally entitled, and to ensure that they receive written notices of their assessments.

The Bill lays down the basic principles and empowers my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to lay down the detailed rules by regulations. The noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, asked if these would be subject to affirmative or negative resolution. I understand that the important regulations will require affirmative resolutions and subsidiary ones negative resolutions. As I said earlier, I am not proposing to go into much detail at this stage, but I would mention that the main theme is a redistribution of resources towards families with children, especially lone parents. Here I would instance improvement in childrens' rates, reduction in the qualifying period for the long-term rate from two years to one —and nearly two-thirds of the beneficiaries are lone parents —and the more favourable disregards for lone parents to keep more of their part-time earnings without changing their benefit entitlement.

I should now like to deal with some of the points that have been raised. Much concern has been expressed about breaking the link for benefit up-rating between the higher of the increases in earnings or prices. The view of the Government on this issue was made extremely clear by my noble friend, but I would add that we believe that pensioners are immediately concerned not so much with the increase in earnings of those in work but with the cost of the goods and services which they buy. In good times (and we shall have good times again when we have won the fight —or should I say the war —against inflation in which all of us are, or should be, engaged) and when living standards rise again, pensions will be able to be uprated by an amount to encompass that rise. As my noble friend said, when the economy improves, pensioners will be able to share in the improvement in prosperity.

I think that at this stage I should correct a slip which my noble friend Lady Young made in her speech so that the record is put right. My noble friend said that the rule that we propose requires pensions to rise when earnings rise and to hold their value when earnings fall. What she intended to say was that the rule that we propose to change requires pensions to rise when earnings rise and to hold their value when earnings fall.

The noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, asked me one or two questons which I shall try to answer. He referred to the matter of discretion. The intention is that wherever possible the nature of additional payments available to claimants will be set out in regulations. But there will be some discretionary powers remaining, as the annexe to the notes on clauses explains. There will be a right of appeal against the benefit officer's decision, whether that decision is taken under discretionary or other powers. The noble Lord also referred to appeals on supplementary benefit. There will continue to be a right of appeal to a local supplementary benefits appeals tribunal. This right in future can be exercised within 28 days rather than 21 days as at present. There will also be a right of appeal against the decision of the local tribunal on a point of law to a social security commissioner.

The noble Lord referred to the supplementary benefit regulations and asked whether they would be subject to consultation with interested organisations. The noble Lord is well aware of the continuing dialogue which goes on between the DHSS and other organisations, and he also knows that it will be no easy task to prepare these regulations, debate them in Parliament and publish them by November. What I would expect is that the Social Services Select Committee would wish to scrutinise these regulations. As your Lordships will be aware, it is open for this committee to look into any matter concerning the work of the department. I expect these regulations to occupy a high place in the committee's list of priorities. They will, of course, also be debated in both Houses.

The noble Lord raised the matter of equal treatment, as did other noble Lords. On the National Insurance side, the Bill does not give completely equal treatment in all areas; for example, pension age, widows' benefit, dependency increases for longer-term beneficiaries. The Bill does do all that the EEC Directive requires us to do. Regulations will mostly be consequential and of minor importance but will be submitted to the Social Security Advisory Committee.

The noble Lord said that if pensions had been increased only in line with prices over the last few years the rate would be £5 a week less now. The requirement to increase pensions in line with prices is a minimum statutory requirement. The Government have said that as the economy improves pensioners will share in increased prosperity. Over the period 1970 –1974, when there was no statutory requirement to increase pensions, a Conservative Government increased pensions by significantly more than prices. This was a point also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Banks.

The noble Lord asked about young people in receipt of the non-contributory invalidity pension. He asked why young people in receipt of NCIP cannot qualify for the higher rate of supplementary benefit. There was an anomaly in the law here, in that the rate of NCIP is higher than the ordinary rate of supplementary benefit, currently £14 as compared with £11.25 weekly. Therefore, NCIP recipients were never able to qualify on time for the more favourable long-term rates of supplementary benefit which would have rendered them better off on supplementary benefits. However, the Government announced at Report stage in another place that young people aged 16 to 17 will in future be able to count periods in which they have been entitled to NCIP towards qualification for the long-term supplementary benefit rate. That will ensure that in the longer term, that is after they have been on benefit for one year, these people will be better off because they will qualify for the long-term supplementary benefit rate.

Several noble Lords have referred to child benefit and complained that we have not adequately increased it. The reasons for that is very simply that it is a very expensive benefit; every 10p costs nearly £60 million. I do not think it is any secret that any Government would have liked to have been able to increase it further. But noble Lords opposite are presumably concerned specifically on account of those who are particularly in need, and I would therefore point out that the changes in benefit level for children are particularly favourable to those who are drawing supplementary benefit.

My noble friend Lady Faithfull asked whether grants previously made by the Supplementary Benefits Commission to voluntary organisations would cease or whether SSAC would be able to continue them. I would prefer my noble friend to page 69 of the Bill, which deals with Schedule 2. Paragraph 4 states that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State may make contributions to such organisations which provide courses or places of re-establishment or resettlement.

My noble friend Lady Vickers and the noble Lord, Lord Banks, raised the subject of the option mortgage scheme, on which, as my noble friend said, I became involved in a debate some time ago. There is, I know, a great deal of interest in this idea and it is a matter which perhaps we could discuss in Committee. But, in short, I would say that it would need a Government subsidy and I could not really give an idea of quite how much that would be, as it is difficult to know how many people would, in fact, go in for this option mortgage scheme. But, in the present circumstances, I doubt whether money would be made available. The other aspect is that the scheme appears to favour one group who are property owners, as opposed to those who pay rent, and it seems to those people to be perhaps not quite fair. However, that is a matter which we could well go into later.

The noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, gave, I thought, an extremely interesting speech from which I personally learnt quite a lot and I shall learn a great deal more by reading her speech later. I have no doubt that she will be raising a number of these points in Committee. The noble Baroness suggested that the Government's proposals might be indirectly discriminatory against women. We hope that the scheme which we have constituted will not prove to be so discriminatory. However, there will be time between the introduction of the arrangements in November 1983 and the time that the EEC Directive is to be implemented, for us to consider the practical effects of the arrangements and to make such changes as seem necessary. The noble Baroness also referred to "similar" rather than "equal treatment. She is quite correct that the Bill does not provide for equal treatment in all areas. The Bill implements fully the requirements of the EEC Directive and I do not think that we can go further than that at this stage.

The noble Baroness also referred to NCIP and ICA. The previous Government referred both of those matters to the National Insurance Advisory Committee and the committee's report is expected soon. The noble Baroness referred to the tapered earnings rule. Male invalidity pensioners can get a full increase for their wives if they earn less than £45 a week. Women invalidity pensioners will only get an increase for their husband if he earns less than the increase of £14. This is not an area where we are required to give equal treatment under the Directive, and this suggests that the £45 rule, thought to be on the high side for men's earnings, is more appropriate for discussion during the Committee stage of the Bill.

My noble friend Lady Vickers said that she was baffled by Clause 7(1) (b) concerning equal treatment as regards FIS. I understand that the purpose of this paragraph is to exclude couples from FIS where the non-working spouse is receiving a type of income to be specified in regulations. Income to be so specified will be any which indicates a strong probability that the non-working spouse is likely to return to work during the year's currency of the FIS award. That is needed to avoid creating a new way of manipulating FIS —for example, enabling claims to be made on the basis of a wife's low income while the husband is only temporarily out of work.

The noble Countess, Lady Loudoun, asked whether we could have a Green Paper with regard to the disabled. I cannot say when a Green Paper is likely to be with us, but I do not think that it will be for a considerable time. We well know the views of organisations representing chronically sick and disabled people and what further help is needed. Any new proposals and current research will, of course, be studied by the department. However, all the indications are that new benefits will not be available for some considerable time and it would therefore only raise hopes if a Green Paper were produced at this stage.

The noble Countess also raised the question of supplementary benefit and the disabled. The existing additions to weekly benefit which apply particularly to the disabled —for example, extra heating additions and special dietary additions —will continue. We shall have a chance to debate this matter in detail later, but I would suggest that, in the meantime, the noble Countess should consult the annex to the Notes on Clauses, which sets out in detail the payments that will be available. In addition, many of the changes that we are introducing —for example, the shorter qualifying period for the long-term rates —will help disabled claimants as others.

My Lords, I do not think that I should deal with any more questions. I should think that the House has probably had about enough. I shall close by saying that there will be a great deal to consider in the later stages of the Bill and there will be many regulations to debate in the coming months. However, I think that simplification of the supplementary benefits scheme is acknowledged by all to be necessary and I commend the Bill to your Lordships.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down I should like to ask him one question to which I do not require an answer this afternoon. Is he aware that when his noble friend referred to the fact that maternity benefit will, in future, be a non-contributory benefit, no mention was made as regards age? The word used was "mother Every year there are many girls of 11 years of age who become mothers. Girls become mothers at the age of 12, 13 and upwards. Is the House to understand that it will be payable to them, or will there be a starting age, as it were, which corresponds, for example, with marriage at the age of 16? I think that this is an important matter and that the House will regard it as being very important indeed. If no decision has been made, I hope that before a decision is made the view of the House will be taken.


My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord has made an extremely good point and I am very grateful to him for not asking for an answer today.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.