HL Deb 07 July 1981 vol 422 cc639-46

7.13 p.m.

Lord Cullen of Ashbourne rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 15th June be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Supplementary Benefit (Requirements and Resources) Amendment Regulations 1981, which were laid before your Lordships' House on 15th June, be approved. As your Lordships will have observed, these regulations are rather complex and technical, and it may be for your convenience if I first explain briefly why the amending regulations are necessary and then give sonic indication of the main matters of substance which they cover.

As your Lordships will recall, last year 13 sets of regulations were made to give effect to the new supplementary benefit scheme, which was designed to ensure that so far as possible entitlements of claimants are prescribed by law, and to reduce the amount of discretion required to administer it. I know that noble Lords on all sides saw that reform as a major advance on the largely discretionary scheme which it replaced, and I am glad to be able to tell your Lordships that the indications are that the new scheme, which has now been in operation for seven months, is settling down satisfactorily, and working well on the whole.

However, we did not regard the enactment of those regulations as the end of the job. Unavoidably, with a change of such size and complexity, some details of the legislative arrangements were not as tightly drafted as would be desirable; and some problems have become apparent in the course of operating the new scheme. In order to clarify and resolve the outstanding issues, we have therefore decided to lay before Parliament two sets of amending regulations—the set which your Lordships' House is debating tonight, which is subject to affirmative resolution, and another set of miscellaneous amendment regulations, which are subject to negative resolution.

The general thrust of both sets of regulations is to give effect to provisions confirming the policy of the former Supplementary Benefits Commission or the established policy of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, as appropriate. Some provisions clarify the law where doubt has arisen about whether it provides cover for accepted policy. In general, the object of the amendments is to put the regulations into the state in which they should have been if it had been possible to secure everything properly last year. They do not, except in a few instances make substantive changes in the rules then intended. It will be apparent to noble Lords that the amendments in the present set of regulations are substantial in number, and that is even more true in the case of the miscellaneous amendment regulations. The job of translating the supplementary benefit scheme into regulations was, however, an enormous task and, if I may say so, a substantial technical and legislative achievement. The scheme itself is complex, despite a measure of simplification and clarification which we introduced last year. It is therefore unsurprising that the settling down of the new machinery has revealed a need for some mechanical adjustment and refinement. The amendments which we are proposing have resulted from our own experience of the working of the new scheme and from a careful review of the detailed effect of last year's legislation. It would, however, be right at this point also to pay a tribute to the contribution which has been made by others to our understanding of how the scheme operates, including comments from noble Lords, honourable Members in another place, members of appeal tribunals and outside commentators.

I wish also to take this opportunity of thanking the Child Poverty Action Group for their work and to assure your Lordships that we are indeed studying carefully the report which was recently published. My officials will shortly be meeting them to discuss the work they have done to date.

These regulations were fully debated in another place last Tuesday night, and noble Lords who are interested would have read cols. 824 to 842 in the Official Report. So rather than weary the House by unnecessary repetition I propose to draw attention briefly to some of the more important features of the amendments to the requirements and resources regulations. I will take the requirements regulations first. Regulation 2 clarifies the definition of a prisoner, in particular to confirm that people committed for hospital treatment following proceedings are treated as patients, and therefore are eligible for benefit, and not as prisoners, who are excluded from benefit. There are a number of provisions relating to housing requirements, and we have also made amendments which clarify the interaction between different conditions of entitlement to heating additions so as to restore the policy of the former Supplementary Benefits Commission.

In the amendments to the resources regulations we have clarified the interpretative provisions relating to students and fostering of children. We have amended the provisions relating to income tax refunds received by people whose employment is temporarily interrupted whether because of a trade dispute or for some other reason. We have clarified the circumstances in which payments in consequence of a personal or criminal injury which are held on trust may be disregarded for the purpose of the supplementary benefits capital rule. We are amending the regulations which provide for the treatment of past earnings received from employment at the start of a trade dispute. This amendment substitutes a new formula to end confinement of the present provisions to the weekly paid, and also limits its application to entitlement which arises during the strike and not when the striker has returned to work. This provision restores the practice of the former Supplementary Benefits Commission before last November.

My Lords, in conclusion, I repeat that we are aware that much of the content of these regulations, as of the regulations which they seek to amend, is very detailed and complicated. We shall, however, be bringing forward consolidating regulations before Parliament later this year. Perhaps I could just add that the passage of these regulations by your Lordships' House, if it accepts them, does not mean that we have reached the end of reviewing progress with the new scheme. The regulations in no way pre-empt the monitoring exercise on which the Social Security Advisory Committee and my right honourable friend's department have now embarked, to which the research I referred to earlier will make an important contribution. We shall, of course, continue also to watch the scheme in operation with great care and we shall be prepared to consider any changes or developments which experience may show to be desirable, although I should make the point that any changes carrying a net benefit or staff cost will have to take their place in the stiff competition for any additional public resources, along with all the other deserving objects of Government expenditure.

I hope that I have answered some of the questions that may have been in noble Lords' minds. I shall try to answer any others that may arise either verbally this evening or by letter. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Supplementary Benefit (Requirements and Resources) Amendment Regulations 1981 laid before the House on 15th June, be approved.—(Lord Cullen of Ashbourne.)

7.21 p.m.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, the noble Lord the Minister has said that these regulations are complex, and certainly his honourable friend in another place at col. 828 on 30th June said: The regulations are detailed and complex". It is rather difficult to follow them because many of the amendments are amendments to amendments. However, I wish to ask certain specific questions. It is very difficult for members of the public fully to understand their rights. I appreciate that one of the intentions of the new regulations was to reduce the discretion of officers so that the claimant could know with greater certainty what were his rights. But I want to ask the noble Minister how the claimant is supposed to know about his rights and about the new regulations.

In another place the Minister promised that a manual would be published next winter. I do not know when winter starts, and I am wondering whether we can have an indication of some date and how much it will cost claimants. I may add in passing that it is very expensive for people to get the publications. I am thinking not so much of claimants as of those who advise them. If people try to buy a book called Law Relating to Supplementary Benefit and Family Income Supplement, plus the regulations, plus the amendment regulations, plus the amendment of the amendment regulations, it will cost them about £30. Surely we must have some simpler and cheaper way of informing people of their rights.

I want to raise one or two points on the details of the amendments which are before us. I regret that there seems to be no reference, no amendment proposed, to the question of supplementary benefit for school-leavers. The noble Lord will recall that we discussed this earlier in this House and that many of us were concerned that school-leavers were cut off from supplementary benefit until September. There is some anxiety among educationists that this could encourage earlier school leaving, which is something much to be deplored.

There seems to be no amendment, which some of us had hoped for, in relation to the capital sum which is disregarded in connection with applicants for supplementary benefit. That sum has been £2,000 since last November. I should have thought that by next November it would be worth very much less. I am wondering whether the Government are giving any consideration to further amendments which would either provide for some tapering off or some inflation-proofing of the £2,000 disregard. I am particularly worried about people who may have £2,000 in the bank for a short period—people who have perhaps collected £2,000 in redundancy pay or from selling some assets. My information is that their supplementary benefit entitlement is immediately cut off and that there is no tied-over period. I should very much have liked to see in the amendments some consideration given to that point.

Next, I should like to ask about heating, which is so important to elderly people particularly and to people who are chronically ill. In the original regulations—I am referring to document 1299 of 1980—Regulation 15 refers to people who pay an inclusive rent. For them there was set out a table of allowable deductions of: £4.35 a week for heating; 35p for lighting; 50p for cooking and 50p for hot water. Surely, in view of the enormous increases in the prices of electricity and gas, there should have been an increase in those allowances. We all know that the price we pay for heating, lighting, cooking and hot water is much more now than it was in November 1980.

In view of the complications of these amendments I am not at all surprised about the low take-up, which is, of course, of great concern to us all. I know that the noble Lord will share my anxiety about making the whole situation clearer. But the figures I have quoted in one aspect of the problem must surely be an illustration of the difficulties which people find in coming to terms with their allowances.

I must refer to another regret of mine, that in paragraph 4 of the 1980 Regulations, which refers to what are called "normal" requirements, there did not seem to be any allowance for household repairs. I can find nothing in the amendments about household repairs, but I do find that there is an amendment which disregards capital of £300 in respect of money borrowed—I am referring to page 19 of document 1299—for certain what I would have thought were absolutely essential improvements such as damp-proofing, the installation of a bath, shower or lavatory; the provision of electric lighting and sockets, the provision or improvement of drainage facilities and the provision of heating. All those things seem to be covered only by help for interest payable on sums borrowed to put them into effect, and not on the capital cost of any of those things. I hope that many of these people will be getting improvement grants, but it seems to me again that if the figure of £300 was fixed as the disregard point in August 1980, it cannot still be relevant.

I am glad that the noble Lord said that consolidating regulations will appear later this year. I hope that they will be in readable English. I hope that they will be in such a form that they will be readily available to those who are most in need of information about their benefits and about their entitlements. I have every sympathy with the noble Lord because he inherited a confusion of regulations—which I readily confess to—but I very much hope that this set of amendments will be looked on as a strictly temporary measure. Above all, I regret that there seems to be no account taken of inflation in respect of the £2,000 capital disregard, the £300 disregard and the allowances for heating and lighting in the inclusive rent cases.

With those observations I express sympathy with the noble Lord, and I am sure that he will share my hopes that this whole difficult matter can be simplified. As long as we make these regulations so complicated and so unavailable in easy terms to the public, the take-up will become lower and lower and then we shall all fail to do what, I agree, we all want to do, which is to ensure a maximum take up of the benefits that are available for people in need.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Banks

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Cullen of Ashbourne, for his explanation of these amendment regulations. The first thing that strikes me about the regulations as a whole—as indeed it struck the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, and I think also the noble Lord—is their complexity and complication. In order to advise on the supplementary benefits scheme or to understand one's own position in relation to it, it is necessary to use, first, the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976, as amended, which is found as Schedule 2 of the Social Security Act 1980; secondly, 13 sets of basic regulations; thirdly, three sets of previous amending regulations; fourthly, these amending regulations which we are now discussing; and, fifthly, the Supplementary Benefit (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 1981 issued at the same time and which, as the noble Lord explained to us, are subject to the negative procedure.

As an additional complication, all the amendments in the two new sets of regulations are intended to come into force on 27th July 1981, except it seems one. Regulation 4(8)(d) of the Miscellaneous Amendments includes additions to the list of "essential furniture and household equipment". Although light fittings, towels, push chairs and high chairs are to be added in July, hot-water cylinder jackets await the 23rd November. I wonder whether the noble Lord can explain to us why this extra complication is necessary. The need for consolidation is very clear and, like the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, I am glad that that is to be dealt with later this year, and I am sure that we all feel that the sooner the better.

While these regulations correct some anomalies, they leave others untouched. As the noble Baroness indicated, there has been much complaint about the capital resources cut-off of £2,000. I should like to ask the noble Lord three questions about that. What is known to the Government of the effects of this regulation? Are the Government considering any alteration to this figure of £2,000, which is felt by many to be too low? Will the £2,000 limit, as a minimum, be uprated in November to cover the expected rate of inflation?

I should like to say a brief word about Regulation 27 of the Single Payment Regulations. This governs entitlements to single payments for clothing and footwear. The regulation is amended by Regulation 4(16) of the Miscellaenous Amendments, but only as regards detail. The regulation will still operate to exclude from entitlements to a single payment for clothing and footwear the family with growing children who formerly did obtain intermittent assistance. I should like to ask three questions about that. What have been the known effects of this regulation? Is the noble Lord aware of any consequent hardship, and are there any proposals for amendment under consideration?

In view of the complication and the complexity, do the Government intend to accept the recommendation of the Child Poverty Action Group, to which the noble Lord referred in the course of his speech, that all decisions should cite the particular regulations used? Insurance officers cite the regulations when giving a decision and one wonders why the benefit officers should not do the same.

In conclusion, we on these Benches do not oppose the amendment regulations. We have these and other specific points of concern with regard to the regulations as a whole and misgiving about the scheme as a whole. It was intended to simplify by removing discretion, but the result is—as is generally acknowledged this evening—very complicated. If very large numbers could be removed from supplementary benefit altogether through a tax credit scheme, that would do more to make possible the simplification of supplementary benefits than anything else.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, we on this Bench share broadly the types of concern expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, and the noble Lord, Lord Banks. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Banks, brought the grand total of sets of regulations up to 18, some of them amending previous regulations. If we find these regulations difficult to understand, how much harder will it be at the receiving end? Like the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, I also discovered to my alarm that the cost of the yellow book on the law relating to supplementary benefits and family income supplements, plus the amendment regulations, now comes to something in the region of £30.

This seems to me to raise the whole question of the mounting cost of HMSO publications. A tax lawyer would have no difficulty in purchasing the consolidated tax Acts and regulations to service his relatively well off clients, but this labyrinth of regulations concerning the less well off is not only almost beyond comprehension, but virtually out of reach on the ground of cost, even to those who might advise the potential beneficiaries. Surely an updated handbook is urgently needed. The only little light on the horizon that we were given by the noble Lord, Lord Cullen, was the promise of some measures of consolidation later in the year, and we very much look forward to that. We must be thankful for small mercies.

While on amendments, it seems—and here I very much agree with both the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, and the noble Lord, Lord Banks—that it is a great pity that advantage was not taken of this batch to amend the £2,000 capital limit rule for supplementary beneficiaries. This rule penalises small savers who have invested in such things as index-linked bonds which they cannot sell without losing on the retirement issue, and those made recently redundant; indeed, anyone who, ever so temporarily, has anything over £2,000 in the bank—for example, as a result of a sale whose object was to get another dwelling or pay the entry into an old person's home. I am convinced that this regulation is causing bewilderment, hardship and resentment and is simply an invitation to profligacy among those who would prefer to be frugal. Perhaps when the noble Lord replies he will say whether the Government will consider either raising the disregard in the near future or reintroducing a tapering system.

Lord Cullen of Ashbourne

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords for their instructive comments and for the sympathy of the noble Baroness concerning the complicated job that this is. The noble Baroness asked when the manual will be published and how much it will cost. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services announced that the S Manual, as it will be called, will be published next winter. I cannot go much further than say that I think that means that it will be in 1981 and not in January or February next year, but I am not absolutely positive of that. The cost of publication will be decided nearer the time. I will certainly see that account is taken of the noble Baroness's comments on that matter.

The noble Baroness also referred to school-leavers, a subject which, as she said, we have discussed before. As I explained at the time, there is a considerable background to the change. We are very conscious of the concern that has been expressed by educational interests suggesting that the new rules will have had the effect of discouraging pupils from staying on to sit their examinations. The Department of Education and Science will be monitoring the examination position this year. The Government have made it clear that if there is clear evidence that the new rules have had negative consequences, they will be prepared to review the change.

The noble Baroness and the two noble Lords who have spoken referred to the capital disregard. Your Lordships will know that the operation of the new capital rule is the subject of a special inquiry by the supplementary benefit policy inspectorate. We shall consider the application of the rule, including the effect of the level of the disregard, in the light of the inspectorate's report, and I shall ensure that comments made by noble Lords are made known to them. I do not think I can say anything at the moment about the household repairs point that the noble Baroness made. If I may, I will write to her on that.

The noble Lord, Lord Banks, asked about the hot-water cylinder jackets. This seems a surprising point, but the simple answer is one of cost. The financial provision for these payments has had to be found from existing resources, and necessary resources to enable payments to be made for hot-water cylinder jackets cannot be made available until November. Hence the payments cannot be made until then. The noble Lord also asked whether we were going to follow the suggestion by the CPAG on the citing of regulations when a benefit was modified or not given. When the new scheme was introduced it was the intention to follow National Insurance practice, as the noble Lord mentioned, in quoting to the claimant the benefit officer's decision where the decision was a refusal of benefit or an award of a modified benefit, and that the decision quoted should give the regulations on which it was based.

Because the forms had to go to print very early before the regulations were published these references had to be in general terms. In reprinting the forms in question the references to this will be more specific. But to give regulation references on all decisions would hardly be practicable. For example, the award of a weekly payment will be based on a whole range of individual regulations, and it would be scarcely feasible to quote them all, so this is really a transitional problem. I hope I have answered at any rate most of the questions I have been asked. I will write to noble Lords if there are any that I have left out.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do adjourn during pleasure until eight o'clock, as I understand was agreed by the usual channels.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.44 until 8 p.m.]