HL Deb 15 May 1980 vol 409 cc432-46

7.6 p.m.

Read 3a, with the amendments.

Clause 4 [Miscellaneous amendments]:

The MINISTER of STATE, DEPARTMENT of EDUCATION and SCIENCE (Baroness Young) moved Amendment No. 1: Page 8, line 34, leave out ("made") and insert (" prescribed ").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move this amendment, which is entirely technical. It corrects a minor error of wording and it does not affect the substance of the Bill.

Schedule 2 [Amendments of Supplementary Benefits Act 1976]:

Baroness YOUNG moved Amendment No. 2: Page 37, line 36, leave out second ("to") and insert ("with").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move. This is another purely drafting amendment.

7.8 p.m.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass. When I moved the Second Reading of the Bill on 1st April I said that it was one of the most wide-ranging and complex social security measures of recent years. Its scope has been very evident from the amendments which noble Lords have felt able to put down in Committee and on Report, ranging from entitlement to invalid care allowance to the possible extention of the option mortgage scheme. However, as your Lordships will be aware, Clause 1 provides that the basic retirement pension and other long-term benefits should be up-rated according to the estimated movement of prices rather than the better of prices or earnings, as at present. The clause gives statutory form to the Government's commitment to protect pensioners against inflation. This is one of the most important guarantees for them and the Government have made it quite clear to pensioners that they regard this guarantee only as a minimum. As and when the economy improves, pensioners and others will share in the rising prosperity.

But the heart of the Bill is the reform of the supplementary benefit scheme. The keynote is simplification. I should today like to re-emphasise the extent to which we are consciously modelling the adjudication system of the reformed supplementary benefit scheme on the national insurance and industrial injuries schemes. We are convinced that this offers the best hope for both present and future recipients of supplementary benefit of a fair, just and open system of income support in which payment will be made as of right for benefits which are publicly and clearly defined. When supplementary benefit replaced national assistance in 1966, we heard much of the emphasis that was to be placed on entitlement to benefit, but I suggest that only now is that objective likely to be realised. With this Bill, and the reforms being made under it, we are finally establishing clear legal rights to benefit for the people who are in need.

If I may turn now to the advice to be given to the Secretary of State, your Lordships are well aware that the Bill creates a new advisory body, the Social Security Advisory Committee, to replace the Supplementary Benefit Commissions for Great Britain and Northern Ireland in their advisory roles and the National Insurance Advisory Committee. This is in line with the Government's overall aim to reduce the number of advisory bodies. We believe it will provide a more effective channel for advice because the new body will span the whole range of social security benefits, contributory 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 that they have been entrusted to an advisory body.

Finally, I should like to say a word about equal treatment. Our proposals are, as noble Lords will know, primarily designed to implement the EEC Directive on Equal Treatment for Men and Women in Social Security, although they do go further than the directive requires in several respects. The Government fully support the principle of equal treatment, but because of the cost involved we have been unable to act as quickly or to do as much as we might have liked. The directive requires us to implement the changes by December 1984. We plan to do so in two stages, in November 1983 and November 1984. As regards contributory benefits, in the first stage married women will be able to claim increases of benefits for their children, and increases of short-term benefits for their husbands, if the husband's earnings are less than the standard rate of the increase of benefit for an adult dependant. In the second stage, married women will be able to claim for their children, irrespective of their husband's earnings. These provisions will fulfil our commitment under the directive but we have gone further by allowing a married woman who is an invalidity pensioner to claim an increase for her husband provided that the husband is not earning more than the amount of the increase.

As regards supplementary benefit, regulations to be made under the Bill will enable a woman as well as a man to claim for the couple. These changes will be introduced in November 1983, when equal treatment will also be introduced into the family income supplement scheme. This is another area in which we have gone beyond the strict limits of the directive since the family income supplement scheme is not within its scope.

There are besides a number of minor and technical changes. However, the complexity of the Bill should not blind us to the simplicity of its aims. On this side of the House we are grateful for the guarded yet nevertheless welcome words of the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, when he said on Second Reading that it was" not wholly unacceptable "and that, There are many things in it of which one would approve".—[Official Report, 1/4/80col. 1276.] We never expected that the Bill would gain all-party support, but we are convinced of its importance and particularly of the urgent need to reform the supplementary benefit scheme. For these reasons, I commend the Bill to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Baroness Young.)

7.14 p.m.


My Lords, almost exactly three and a half years ago the Third Reading of the Health Services Bill was taken in your Lordships' House and at this particular stage in the Bill no fewer than 13 Members of your Lordships' House, eight of them from the party opposite, moved on the Motion, That the Bill do now pass, and made, if I may say so, Second Reading speeches. There were three or four also from the Cross-Benches and one from the Liberal Bench. They took two hours and 24 minutes to express their view of the then Government's Health Services Bill. I am not proposing to take quite that long tonight, but I want to make it perfectly clear that we feel just as strongly about this Bill as noble Lords opposite felt about the Health Services Bill, and we could say—but perhaps this is not the time to say it—a good deal about the Bill.

On 18th November 1976 in vol. 377, col. 1470 of Hansard, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said of the Health Services Bill's proposals: they have appeared like a religious tract from which no one can move at all, and in which every single word must be enacted, …precisely as the document was drawn up". Perhaps the noble Baroness will allow me to say precisely the same thing about this Bill.

While we may appear to be a little cheerful about this, I should like to remind the Government that at the Committee stage we tabled 76 amendments and divided the Committee on 10 occasions. At the Report stage we tabled 23 amendments and divided the House on three occasions, a total of 99 amendments, to which must be added those tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Banks, and his friends on the Liberal Benches, who tabled 14 amendments at the Committee stage and divided the Committee on four occasions, and three amendments at Report stage and divided the House on two occasions. It made a total of 116 amendments, but not a single amendment was accepted by the Government.

The Bill has caused us on this side of the House many misgivings. I do not want to give too many instances of those misgivings, other than to say that we feel that the Government might have given a little more sympathetic attention to the amendments which we tabled and which we moved (as I think noble Lords opposite would agree) in some considerable detail.

I would ask the Government whether they can give any further information about the Secretary of State reinforcing staff at local DHSS offices where claimants will be able to get help and advice as to their entitlements. Also, I wonder whether the Government can say anything further about the exploration that they are having with Her Majesty's Stationery Office on the publication of a low-cost single volume of matters relating to the new supplementary benefits scheme; and also my own suggestion, which I made on a previous occasion, of asking a trust or a voluntary organisation whether they would undertake the work of compiling a volume which would be useful to professional social workers who, as I said, spend a disproportionate amount of their time helping people as to their entitlements.

My final observation is in relation to the publication of the chief benefit officers' guide. It was a question which we discussed at some length during Committee stage but did not resolve, and I am wondering whether the guidance that benefit officers will receive from the chief benefit officer will be published. In a letter to me dated 18th April the noble Lord, Lord Cullen of Ashbourne, explained: It will be for the chief benefit officer and not for the Secretary of State to consider whether such guidance should be issued ". Of course, until the Bill receives Royal Assent the chief benefit officer cannot be appointed, so I accept that the question of publication of his guidance cannot be decided at this stage; but I have no doubt that he will take into account what has been said on the subject, both in this House and in another place. Therefore, I want to put on record the fact that we regard this as a matter of fundamental importance.

In a long and—if I may be permitted to say so—a very helpful letter from the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on 29th April she said this about the functions of the chief benefit officer: His main function will be to act as a focal point for advice and assistance to benefit officers. He will be concerned to ensure that the decisions of the benefit officers are in strict accord with the law and will act as a point of reference for benefit officers in explaining what the law and case law provide ". On the subject of publication the noble Baroness the Minister said: I do not envisage that it would aid public knowledge of the scheme to publish such guidance, which is purely internal. This is because all the rules governing the scheme will be published elsewhere, either in the Act itself, in regulations made under it or in relevant decisions of the social security commissioners and all the rules will be explained in non-legal terms in the Supplementary Benefits Handbook ". Even if the chief officer's guide consisted of no more than an annotated summary of the Act, the regulations and the commissioner's decisions, there would be a strong case, in my view and in the view of my friends, for publishing it. It would obviously be a valuable aid to advocates and advisers in this field, most of whom have had no legal training. Whatever disputes arose as to the interpretation of the law it would be helpful if both sides had access to the guidance on which the officer's decision was based. Indeed many such disputes would be avoided if that guidance were available to both sides.

It is clear that the chief officer's guide will go much further than this. Although we are told that the new regulations will leave much less room for discretionary decisions than the existing regulations, benefit officers will still have some discretion. We had quite a long discussion on the kind of discretion they would have, especially in relation to exceptional and urgent needs payments where it is clear that the regulations cannot possibly cover every eventuality. One of the chief officer's functions must be to ensure that the remaining discretionary powers are used in a fair and, what is even more important, a consistent manner. His guidance on the use of discretion will obviously go beyond what is in the Act and the regulations and the published case law.

Of course, that guidance will not have the force of law, just as the policy guidance issued by the Supplementary Benefits Commission at present does not have the force of law either. But legally binding or not, it will in practice determine the ways in which this discretion is going to be exercised. Whether such guidance should be regarded as part of the rules of the scheme, which the Government have promised will be published in full, is largely, if I may say so, a semantic issue. From the point of view of the individual benefit officers, the chief officer's guide will have the force of the book of rules just as much as the regulations themselves have.

Even more important than discretion as such will be the many crucial areas in which benefit officers will have to exercise judgment in applying the law. I will mention, if I may, just two of them. Supplementary benefit payments will include, as they do now, an allowance for rent or mortgage interest. This will be based on the householder's actual weekly rent or mortgage payments up to the amount considered reasonable. What amount is reasonable in a particular case is going to be a matter of judgment and can therefore vary. At present it is the Supplementary Benefits Commission which issues guidance on how that payment should be made, and in future of course it is going to be done by the chief supplementary benefits officer.

My second example concerns the question whether a man or woman is cohabiting, or, in the language of the Bill, an unmarried couple. There is already a limited amount of case law, as we all know, on this question, mostly in the national insurance field, but for the most part it remains a matter of judgment on which detailed guidelines have been issued by the Supplementary Benefits Commission. At Committee stage my noble friend Lord Underhill asked who would issue such guidance in the future, and in reply the noble Baroness the Minister said: It seems clear, however, that such guidance can only come from the chief benefit officer in future, and it will be for him, not for Ministers, to decide whether any changes are needed".—[Official Report, 21/4/80col. 584.] Again there may be room, if I may say so, for argument as to whether that guidance can properly be described as rules. Certainly it will have no legal force, but equally certainly it will determine the way in which benefit officers decide in large numbers of cases whether there is an entitlement to supplementary benefit or not.

Part of the whole problem at the present moment is that professional social workers and other people, as I constantly say, are spending a disproportionate amount of time in trying to advise claimants. It is in this field where I think something needs to be available. If the chief benefit officer when he is appointed decides that his guidelines should not be published, we shall be back in the world of secret rules from which the Government, to their credit, have said that they want to escape. Now they have got an opportunity of escaping and doing something about it. This will be helpful to nobody, if they do not escape from itit will breed suspicion and resentment in the future, as the secrecy of the Supplementary Benefits Commission's "A" Code has done in the past. There will be constant demands for publication, and no doubt there will be illicit and inevitably out-of-date copies circulating among the pressure groups and causing further resentment and difficulties for the benefit officers themselves. All these problems will be avoided if on the day of appointment the chief benefit officer announces his intention of publishing his guidance fully and promptly.

I will not take up any more of your Lordships' time. I mentioned this because I believe it to be of supreme importance. I am not asking for any answer tonight. I have touched upon this matter not once but probably twice before. I wanted this to be really my last word on the Bill, a Bill about which we have a good deal of reservation—although not as many reservations as we shall have on the Social Security (No. 2) Bill, which we shall want to examine even more closely, if it is possible, than we have examined the present one. All I ask of the noble Baroness and her colleagues and the Government in particular is to look at this matter again, show some understanding and some charity, and think of the tremendous contribution the Government can make to the understanding of the scope and function of the supplementary benefit officers and the help that can be given to people whose job it is going to be to deal with these cases. Whatever you provide in local DHSS offices, it will probably not lessen the long queues of people—and I do not say this in a dramatic sense—who go to social workers because they cannot understand what they are entitled to.

7.28 p.m.


My Lords, I made it clear on Second Reading that we on these Benches did not like this Bill very much. Like the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, I regret that the Bill has gone through this House virtually unamended—certainly unamended by the Opposition. It was during the Committee stage in this House that it became apparent that the Government did not intend to proceed to redeem their election pledge to phase out the earnings rule within the lifetime of the present Parliament. That became apparent when the noble Baroness and the noble Lord opposed an amendment that they themselves had submitted only a little over a year earlier. I regretted that decision on the part of the Government and also the fact that the amendments which were moved from the Labour Benches and from our own Benches were not successful in preventing the erosion which is taking place in the maternity grant and the death grant, neither preventing the erosion which has taken place in the past, nor implementing the proposal to prevent any further erosion in the future. I am quite sure that is a matter which we shall have to come back to again at an early date.

The noble Baroness referred to the new supplementary benefit scheme which this Bill introduces. We shall have to see how that works out in practice, and we shall want to look very carefully at the regulations. However, it seemed to me during all our discussions that what was lacking was any measure which would take a large number of people off supplementary benefit. I do not think that we shall have a satisfactory supplementary benefit scheme until that is achieved.

I regretted the fact that the amendments which I moved, designed to safeguard the position of the disabled, were not accepted. We shall have to see how they are effected in practice by the working-out of the scheme. Then there was the amendment dealing with the mortgage option and its relation to elderly, non-taxpayers seeking to increase their income by raising a mortgage on their property to purchase an annuity. As regards that amendment, I think that the Government had a Pyrrhic victory. The support for that amendment on their own Benches was very considerable and was partly reflected in the vote, but not entirely. I am sure that we shall come back to that and I am sure, too, that we shall see that amendment carried before very long.

I did not think that a case was made out during the course of our discussions on Second Reading and during the Committee stage for the breaking of the link between earnings and long-term benefits. A theoretical argument was presented which had some theoretical validity, but on no occasions it seemed to me was any practical evidence brought forward to show that the theoretical argument was working out in practice. Like the No. 2 Bill, this Bill is a Bill designed to reduce expenditure, and all else had really to be subordinated to that. The discussion of the merits of the individual proposals was really secondary, one felt, to the need, as the Government saw it, to reduce expenditure on social security. We now await the No. 2 Bill, and that Bill of course will repeal some of the proposals contained in the Bill that we are just about to pass.

7.33 p.m.


My Lords, I should just like to say a few words, but I am sorry to say not very kind words, about the Bill. The Bill, in the main, deals with a most sensitive area of social security; namely, the poverty trap. But without a word of exaggeration, in my view, and in the view of many other people, it is a most insensitive Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, who certainly did a very good job for a Government on those Benches, not always I suspect lacking sympathy for the amendments moved, said tonight that the keynote of the Bill was simplification. I cannot accept that. How can a Bill bring in a simplified system when we are bringing in a whole series of complicated and lengthy regulations about which, unless we get some guarantee, the general public and those people helping the underprivileged will not have an opportunity of obtaining adequate information unless the Government move quickly to provide the information that my noble friend Lord Wells-Pestell has requested?

I turn to the subject of retirement pensions. In November 1979 they increased by 19.5 per cent., but what is inflation today?—21 per cent. I understand that the increase will be 16.5 per cent. next November, but what will inflation be then? The Government should do justice to the old-age pensioners by giving them at least a pension which takes full account of the inflation rate.

There is another Bill to come and I dread it. It will be far worse and, in particular, it will hit very hard the handicapped and the sick. I know that we have had moments of sympathy from the Benches on the other side, and I think that in Members' hearts they have been genuine moments of sympathy, but there has been resolute objection to any amendment. This Bill has received the same treatment as any other Bill we have had so far. We have put forward amendments which have received support from the other side, but the Government Front Bench, no doubt acting under orders—and I do not blame them—just will not accept the amendments because, "Mummy says, no". That is the position, as I understand it.

In a recent debate the noble Baroness said that she has a heart. No one would accuse her of being heartless. She certainly has a heart and sympathy, but—and this is the burden of my reproof—the Government as a whole, committed to a monetary policy, are operating a policy as regards social security which is heartless and insensitive; and that is my verdict on the Bill. I regret it and I certainly regret the coming forward of the No. 2 Bill.

Baroness YOUNG

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to try to answer the various points that have been raised at this stage. First, I should like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, how much I appreciated the fact that he had taken the trouble to read my comments during the Third Reading of the Health Services Bill four years ago. I must remember to re-read his comments on a similar occasion; I think it would be very useful for us all.

A number of very important points have been raised and I should like briefly to deal with them. First, the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, asked me about advice points in local offices. The matter is still under consideration. As regards that and the points that he made about the publication of the chief benefit officer's guidance, I should like to assure him that we shall take full cognisance of all the points that have been made in your Lordships' House this evening, and in another place, on the publication of guidance.

I should now like to turn to the question of the publication of the Yellow Book, to which reference has been made in the course of these debates, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, who made the suggestion that we might make available in annual form the law relating to supplementary benefit at a cheaper price than the Yellow Book, which initially retails at £20. We are still not in a position to give a definite answer as to whether or not we can proceed along the lines envisaged in the amendment which the noble Lord moved on Report. This is because detailed discussions between officials of the department and Her Majesty's Stationery Office have not yet been concluded. I am afraid that these matters do take time.

However, we remain committed to the principle that it is essential for interested parties to have access to the published rules of the scheme. The latest estimate we have of the cost of the kind of annual publication which the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, had in mind, is that it would be at least £6 or £7 a copy. This calculation—which I emphasise is a provisional one—has been made on the reasonable assumption that the demand for such a volume would be more than is currently the case for the Yellow Book. Furthermore, as we do not yet know the full extent of the regulations, this cost has been estimated with regard to the current size of the Yellow Book; and as the new regulations are bound to increase that size, it must be expected that the cost will rise in proportion.

However, I should like to emphasise that we remain convinced of the value of continuing to produce the handbook as the principal guide to the scheme for the informed layman. One further point on this matter, to which I should draw your Lordships' attention, is that the issue of an annual publication may just work against the best interests of the people it is intended to help; that is, claimants and their advisers. This is because, under the new scheme, there will be many more regulations than there have been in the past on supplementary benefit and inevitably it will become necessary to amend the law more frequently.

We cater for amendments in the law at present by issuing supplements to the Yellow Book roughly twice a year so as to keep all purchasers up-to-date. If the need for these supplements were to arise more frequently than that—and I suggest that under the new scheme that could well be the case—it is not difficult to envisage a situation where annual publication might be out of date for some months before the next edition was due. Supplements to the Yellow Book presently cost between about £1.50 and £3, and I cannot see that the cost of these could be reduced at all. Given that we certainly do not think that it would be practicable to produce the complete paperback volume, if I may call it that, at shorter intervals than a year, because of both the extra cost and the extra staff time involved we might ultimately be faced with having to operate the same kind of arrangements as we have at present. However, in the absence of more concrete information, we have not yet arrived at a final decision. I should like to assure the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, that I shall write to him again when we have done so.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Banks, that the question of the earnings rule will, of course, be a matter for discussion on the No. 2 Bill and that, although he has described this as a Bill to reduce expenditure, I should like to confirm that, in relation to supplementary benefits, there will be no saving. As we have explained, these changes are being introduced at neutral costs with changes which result in costs being offset by others which result in savings.

Finally, I should like to make two points on the remaining discretionary powers. It is the firm intention under the revised scheme that all the points affecting entitlement to benefit should be public knowledge. As we made clear at an earlier stage, such points, including any which are not the subject of regulations, will be published in the handbook. This, and publication of the law, will, we believe, provide ample information for those who advise claimants. On the point of simplication, we acknowledge that regulations will be detailed, and for that reason will appear complex, but the changes made in the supplementary benefit scheme will simplify it, and we shall ensure that the new rules are available in simple language leaflets for all to see.

In conclusion, I should like to thank both my noble friends Lord Cullen of Ashbourne and Lord Sandys for their great help, without which I certainly should not have managed this Bill. To the noble Lords, Lord Wells-Pestell, Lord Wallace of Coslany and Lord Banks, I should like to say that we have been grateful for the way in which they have conducted their very difficult task in these complex debates—so agreeably for us all in very difficult circumstances. We may not have agreed, and we do not agree now, but I think that we have conducted the debates in the best traditions of this House, and I should like to pay tribute to all who have taken part.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons.

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