HL Deb 01 July 1981 vol 422 cc189-91

2.48 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the uncertainty as to the entitlement in individual cases of handicapped people to statutory benefits and allowances, and what steps it is intended to take to clarify the relevant laws and/or to explain their effect.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Baroness Young)

My Lords, to ensure that people are aware of the benefits to which they may be entitled by law the Government publish a wide range of leaflets explaining in ordinary language the conditions of entitlement to each benefit. In particular, this year we have produced a new and improved edition of our booklet Help for Handicapped People, which is a guide to all the cash benefits and services for disabled people and their families. To date 800,000 copies have been printed and they are availabe to anyone, free of charge, from DHSS offices. We are using television fillers, posters in post offices and some advertising in publications aimed at disabled people to publicise the booklet. In the longer term it is the Government's aim to introduce a more coherent system of benefits for the disabled than the present one, but progress towards this aim depends on the achievement of a strong economy.

Lord Renton

My Lords, may I thank my noble friend for that extremely helpful reply and welcome the information which she has given. Is she aware that the present statutes and regulations occupy over 1,000 pages and even experienced people find it very difficult to advise those who are handicapped on exactly what benefits and allowances they are entitled to claim? When the Government are thinking further about this matter, will they kindly bear in mind the desirability of stating the purpose and scope of each provision of the law instead of trying to cover everything with a mass of hypothetical cases which often cause confusion?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. I shall certainly draw it to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. We are, of course, aware that often we are talking of extremely complicated legal provisions and we try, so far as possible, to translate them into somewhat simpler language in order that those who have to make use of them can understand them.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister is aware of the particular case of people who have difficulty in claiming benefit for industrial diseases which have disabled them? Is the Minister aware that in a number of cases about which I have written to the Secretary of State recently the process of making a claim has been so lengthy that the patient has died before it has been decided? Is the noble Baroness aware that, notwithstanding the availability of these leaflets, if they are not drawn to the attention of the patients in the first place they cannot initiate a claim? While the Secretary of State has said, quite properly, that a doctor in a NHS hospital cannot be given the duty of informing patients of their possible entitlements, where such a patient is diagnosed as suffering from a disease such as mesothelioma or asbestosis the hospital social worker should at least draw the attention of the patient to the relevant leaflet.

Baroness Young

My Lords, we look at all possible ways of getting these leaflets distributed and all places from which people can make inquiries. They can do this at DHSS offices, in local authority social services departments, in citizens' advice bureaux and doctors' surgeries. Leaflets and booklets about the way to make claims are frequently available in post offices. One is aware that there are still some people who are unaware of their entitlement, but we have constantly under review the different methods of publicising the benefits to which people are entitled.

Lord Wells-Pestell

My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness the Minister this question: Bearing in mind that the Government are to be congratulated on making available something like 800,000 copies of the regulations, does she agree that it is important that they should find themselves in the right hands? Probation officers and social workers spend a disproportionate amount of their time trying to advise people of what they are entitled to. Although I know that the Ministry have taken steps to see that this handbook is available in citizens' advice bureaux, may I ask the Minister whether she will make certain that other branches of the social welfare field, such as probation officers, should have a copy of it at the earliest possible moment?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I will certainly draw that suggestion about probation officers to the attention of my right honourable friend.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, is my noble friend aware, in spite of the impressive answers she has given, that it is difficult for people to find out what benefits they may receive? For instance, is it not fair that a father with a severely disabled son should know exactly what his son is entitled to? I understand that in any case he is entitled to an attendance allowance, mobility allowance and invalidity allowance, but not to a supplementary benefit allowance. Can we be told at what figure deductions from any cash reserves start? I understand that the basic figure is £2,000. At what rate do the deductions progress after that?

Baroness Young

My Lords, as the noble Earl has raised a particular case I hope he will accept that it would be better if I wrote to him about the circumstances. On the point of people being entitled to supplementary benefits, I can say that one of the difficulties at present is that a person who receives invalidity benefit may well have an income which is above the supplementary benefit level and therefore would not be entitled to this. There is this poverty trap which comes into these particular cases. It may well be that these are the circumstances in which this particular person finds himself, but I will, if I may, write to the noble Earl about it.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, would not the Minister agree that it would be enormously helpful if there were an inquiry department in each supplementary benefit office, so that everybody would know exactly to whom they could apply at a supplementary benefit office for the detailed information they are seeking?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I certainly note the point made by the noble Baroness. I think that people going to supplementary benefit offices can always get the information they want, but if this is not clearly indicated—

Several noble Lords


Baroness Young

If this is not clearly indicated, it would be a matter for local decisions.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that we are discussing a very complicated and involved matter? Would it not be advisable—I offer this suggestion—to set up a Select Committee to investigate the whole matter with a view to simplification and consolidation of the law involved?

Baroness Young

My Lords, that is really very wide of the original Question, but I should like to say to the noble Lord that over the whole area of social welfare the system of child benefits has reached a state which is intelligible and on which I think there is a great deal of agreement; the second-tier pensions system is very clear, and of course as that comes into full effect so we hope that less supplementary benefit will be necessary. We therefore believe that there will gradually be a simplification of the system in this particular way.