HL Deb 29 March 1983 vol 440 cc1485-91

5 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 7th March be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move the first Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper, and with your Lordships' permission I will speak at the same time to the second Motion in my name and then move it formally when we reach it. Since the amendment to the resources regulations is straightforward, I think it would be helpful to your Lordships if I spent more time on the housing benefit consequential amendments to the supplementary benefit regulations.

Your Lordships will recall that housing benefit brings together two current schemes of help with housing costs—local authority rent and rate rebate and rent allowance schemes and supplementary benefit. The removal of housing requirements from the various sets of supplementary benefit regulations and the necessary adjustments due to housing benefit changes have proved to be a complicated task. However, I am glad to be able to tell your Lordships that the end is in sight. I propose to describe only the more significant provisions in the final set of regulations now before the House. There are some technical adjustments which I shall naturally be willing to resolve if any noble Lord so wishes.

The first amendment of significance occurs at Regulation 2(5)(b), which provides for an addition to housing benefit supplement. This arises out of a point which I believe was first picked up by the Disability Alliance. As your Lordships know, the supplement protects those who would otherwise be brought below supplementary benefit level after paying that part of their rent and rates not rebated by the local authority. Supplementary benefit recipients who must pay an inescapable charge for amenities—for example, heating—are protected if their charge is high by having the amount of their charge above a standard amount included in their rebate. This means that no supplementary benefit claimant in this position is obliged to find any more than, for example, £5.60 a week for heating from his income. This amendment puts the housing benefit supplement recipient in exactly the same position. We do not think that there are many people who could be adversely affected in this way, but there may be some 5,000 of them and they could lose quite considerable sums—up to £5 or more a week. I am sure your Lordships will agree that we should put this right by making this regulation.

If a householder has non-dependent adults in his household, a deduction is made from his supplementary benefit. We have made a number of changes to the provisions for these non-dependant deductions. In Regulation 2(6)(b) we have provided for no non-dependant deduction to be made from supplementary benefit housing requirements where the claimant is already having a deduction made in the calculation of his housing benefit. This applies particularly to those who are buying a share in the equity of their home and paying rent on the balance. It would clearly be wrong to make two non-dependant deductions merely because their housing costs can be met only by combining housing benefit and supplementary benefit.

It is at Regulation 2(6)(c) that perhaps the most important change is made. The regulations currently provide that a full deduction shall be made—£4.70 per week—unless the non-dependant is in receipt of supplementary benefit, of pensionable age, or aged under 21. This meant that some unemployed or sick people, whose incomes were only a little above supplementary benefit levels, could have difficulty in paying the full contribution to housing costs. We have therefore provided that the deduction in such cases should be reduced to £2.20 a week providing the non-dependant has been in receipt of certain benefits related to sickness or unemployment for at least 13 weeks and has income comprising only one or more of unemployment benefit, sickness benefit, maternity allowance, injury benefit or child benefit.

The regulations also provide transitional protection for those few claimants whose benefit would otherwise be reduced by the provisions of these and the earlier sets of amendment regulations. I shall mention one in particular. Your Lordships will recall that from 4th April 16 and 17 year-olds will not be eligible for the non-householder housing contribution. My honourable friend the Minister for Social Security undertook to protect young persons under age 18 who are receiving supplementary benefit when the change comes into effect. This has been done at Regulation 2(7)(b). Young persons age 16 or 17, providing they are receiving benefit in the week commencing 28th March, will continue to receive the non-householder contribution for as long as they remain in receipt of supplementary benefit as non-householders.

I shall now turn to the short set of regulations which introduce a new partial disregard of adoption allowances to the supplementary benefits scheme. Adoption agencies are now able to introduce schemes for the payment of adoption allowances in cases where without such help a suitable adoption would not be possible. We anticipate that this new development will be of particular help to long-term foster families and for children whose special needs make them difficult to place. When the adoption agencies began to draw up their schemes, they expressed strong concern about the effect of the existing supplementary benefit regulations. These would require the whole allowance to be taken into account in the family's benefit assessment, subject only to the normal £4 disregard. An adoption allowance would thus be of substantially less value to a family on supplementary benefit than to other adoptive families.

We recognise, as do the Social Security Advisory Committee in its helpful and very thorough report on the draft regulations, that this problem raises difficult issues of principle for the supplementary benefits scheme. We concluded, however, that it was important to allow the adoption allowance initiative a fair trial for all families, including those on supplementary benefit. The draft amending regulations therefore introduce a disregard of that part of an allowance in excess of the adopted child's supplementary benefit requirements. This will ensure that the full allowance is available to put towards the child's welfare. We are bringing forward this regulation on the same experimental footing as the adoption allowance initiative itself. The time for long-term decisions will be when the future of adoption allowances themselves comes to be reviewed in the light of experience gained during the present experimental period.

I commend both sets of regulations to your Lordships, and I beg to move the first Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 7th March be appproved.—(Lord Trefgarne.)

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, I am sure we are all indebted to the Minister for the clear way in which he has tried to lead us through all these complications. Successive Governments have found that it is very difficult to express regulations referring to social security matters in clear and understandable terms for the people most concerned; that is, the beneficiaries. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to say that the department will be publishing translations in leaflet form which are intelligible to those most affected, who are often those least able to follow the regulations, with their frequent cross-references, which are put before Parliament.

I know that in Command Paper 8788 in respect of amendments to the directors' earnings-related contributions it is said that the Government will be sending out leaflets; but in the other orders relating to people who may be equally concerned there is no specific reference to the intention to send out leaflets or to take any action to make these regulations understandable to those most concerned with them.

I want to refer first to the Supplementary Benefit (Resources) Amendment Regulations 1983. Of course we all welcome the more generous ideas about children who are adopted. I understand that this matter has not been through the House of Commons yet but that is no reason why we should not discuss it tonight.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness very rudely, but I understand that they are being taken, I think, today or tomorrow in the other place.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, the noble Lord is not being rude; he never is. I was not sure about the clock, as to whether the regulations had actually gone through the House of Commons yet.

One aspect that worries me somewhat is that we are cross-referenced to the 1983 Report of the Social Security Advisory Committee in this connection; but when I tried to get hold of a copy of that report I was advised by our excellent Library (in whom I have total faith) that this is not available. I could not read the 1983 account. If this is available to some Members, and if there is a mistake in the Library, I am sorry about that; but I was informed very firmly that the 1983 Report of the Social Security Advisory Committee is not yet available. I hope that I am wrong, but I felt that I must mention this. I had honestly tried to do my homework on this and I was unable to make out the cross-references. I have of course Command Paper 8824, but there did seem to me to be some diversion between the adoption allowances payable and the contents of the unseen committee report. It may be that when the noble Lord the Minister replies he can help me to work this out somewhat.

On the second matter to which the noble Lord the Minister referred, I understand this went through the Commons on the nod. As the noble Lord the Minister says, this is the most complicated and difficult problem. I am finding that many people who are entitled to these benefits are totally confused about them. I want to ask just one or two questions. On page 4 of the draft statutory instrument there is a reference to: a non-dependant who is receiving full-time education at an educational establishment and whose needs are provided for, in whole or in part, by the claimant or his partner". What does "in part" mean? Does it mean 5, 10 or 20 per cent.? If I go on, I find that in paragraph (d) on page 10 of the Explanatory Note there is the statement: it is provided that no deduction at all shall be made in respect of certain students and boarders". How certain is certain? Who are these "certain students" for whom no deduction is to be made? This must be very unclear to a couple who have a son or a daughter studying at a polytechnic or who is working as an apprentice or an articled clerk. What is the connection between paragraph (d) on page 10 and paragraph (e) on page 4? I apologise if your Lordships think that this is nit-picking; but I assure your Lordships that for the families concerned these points are of vital importance.

On page 10 at paragraph (a), there is a reference to heating: A restriction on the applicability of certain amounts for heating is limited to householders but extended to include those that are co-owners". This is a very puzzling statement to ordinary people. Is the householder a tenant; is he an owner? What is a co-owner? Who is excluded under this statement from applying for a heating allowance? In fact I must say to your Lordships that the regulations about heating are very confused and are causing a great deal of discussion and puzzlement.

I refer your Lordships back to page 4, paragraph (c), which mentions subsection (6)(a)(ii), which refers to non-dependants who are getting sickness benefit under section 14 of the Act. I must ask the Minister whether that would include people who are getting the new statutory sickness benefit from their employers. That is very unclear to some of the people most concerned.

Those are the main points which I wish to raise on these first two orders before your Lordships and I do so with all understanding of the difficulties and the complications of this situation. But I am sure that it would be very helpful if some of these points could be met, and in any case I hope that the Minister will take up my point about the necessity of getting plain leaflets out to the people concerned. I do not understand why one of the documents before us tonight says that directors are to have a leaflet telling them about their earnings-related contributions but there is no reference in any of the other papers to proposals for publication. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that he has very much in mind the need to make these complications clear to the people most concerned.

5.17 p.m.

Lord Banks

My Lords, I should like to join the noble Baroness in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, for his explanation of these orders. I think perhaps the most important one—although, as the noble Lord said, it is the more straightforward—is the order which deals with the Supplementary Benefit (Resources) Amendment Regulations 1983. As the noble Lord said, it raises a matter of principle which created a minor crisis of conscience for the Social Security Advisory Committee.

As the noble Lord explained, local authorities and other adoption agencies are now able to submit schemes for the payment of allowances to people who adopt children in circumstances where adoption would not otherwise be financially possible. This, as the noble Lord said, is to be for an experimental period of seven years. But, where parents are on supplementary benefit, the allowance is counted as income and therefore it is deducted from supplementary benefit and they lose the benefit. Foster parents, on the other hand, do not lose in these circumstances. They do not lose since the child is not regarded as being legally part of the family unit.

The Government have decided to put the adopting parents who are receiving supplementary benefit in the same position as foster parents in similar circumstances. This created this dilemma for the Social Security Advisory Committee: Should they opt for justice as between foster parents and adopting parents or should they opt for justice as between different recipients of supplementary benefit? It is of course a breach of the normal rules and procedure to exempt the income from the computation for supplementary benefit, although of course this is only for a trial period of seven years.

I am glad that both the Government and the Social Security Advisory Committee have decided—although in the latter case with some misgiving—for justice as between foster parents and adoptive parents. I believe that that is right. Certainly if those on low incomes but not on supplementary benefit or family income supplement are to be helped by adoption allowances over and above their normal income, then so should those on supplementary benefit be assisted. I should like to ask the Minister whether I am right in suggesting that those who are not on supplementary benefit, nor on family income supplement, but who are on low incomes and so without the allowance would find it difficult to adopt, are entitled to the allowance. Am I right in saying that they would be eligible for an adoption allowance?

Whether or not they are, the present position would be a financial disincentive to foster parents to adopt. The problem that is raised by this conflict (if that is the right word to use) between the adoption allowance and supplementary benefit is the kind of problem which always arises with means-tested benefits. It will be very important to monitor the comparative position of those on family income supplement, who will have no disregard, though we are assured that, while losing, they will not lose so greatly as will those on supplementary benefit. As I say, it will be very important to monitor the situation to see whether it works out in that way. I think it worth mentioning that the Social Security Advisory Committee once again states that in its view today's supplementary benefit rates are inadequate.

If we turn to the other regulations, which are consequential upon the coming into operation of the Housing Benefits Regulations 1982, I think that we see that they ease the position created by the change to housing benefit, and in so far as they are designed to achieve that, we welcome them. As the noble Baroness said, this is a very complicated field. I have no specific question to ask the Minister with regard to the regulations, but I should like to know when we may expect consolidation, since it is extremely difficult to operate from different sets of regulations and to relate one regulation to another before one can know where one is. We on these Benches are content that the regulations should be approved.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, we on this Bench also wish, briefly, to thank the noble Lord for his lucid introduction of the regulations. From the moment of the passing of the Social Security and Housing Benefits Act 1982 it was clear that there would have to be substantial amendments to the supplementary benefit regulations, and now we have them. I rather sympathise with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger. One of the original purposes of the 1982 Act was to remove the confusion resulting from two types of rent and rates entitlement, and it would be a pity if we ended up with confusion worse confounded. Therefore, I, too, should like to ask the noble Lord what plans his department has for issuing guidance in simpler terms—I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, referred to a translation—not so much perhaps to claimants themselves as to those bodies which are called upon to advise beneficiaries and claimants. Certainly consolidation is desirable for parliamentary purposes, but it will not be of much assistance to the ordinary beneficiary. I hope that we can hear something from the noble Lord about his department's plans in this respect. Otherwise, I think that we can say that, along with our Liberal friends, we welcome the general burden of the regulations.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I had to agree with all noble Lords and the noble Baroness who spoke when they said that these matters really are extraordinarily complicated. The noble Lord, Lord Banks, asked me when we could expect a consolidation measure to bring all the regulations under one heading. I agree with the noble Lord that that would be highly desirable. Without taking advice I am not certain quite what timescale is envisaged, or indeed whether we propose to take such action, though I feel sure that it is somewhere in the pipeline. Perhaps I may make some inquiries and write to the noble Lord about it.

I was especialy asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, and the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, about what measures had been taken to bring these matters to the public notice, and in particular to those people who might be affected by them. We are running a national press advertising campaign to tell claimants in simple terms about the administrative changes. The campaign started in January, and will continue until the end of March. In addition, local authorities and local offices will be letting individual claimants know how the new schemes will affect them. For social workers and others who advise claimants we have produced a special edition of Social Security Notes, which explains how the new scheme will work. A supplement to the Supplementary Benefit Handbook, giving details of the supplementary benefit changes, is also available. Our regional information officers will also be giving publicity to the scheme at local level.

The noble Lord, Lord Banks, also asked whether we would keep under review the question of people with family income supplement particularly with regard to the adoption allowance arrangements. I can assure the noble Lord that we shall be doing that. As I said in my opening remarks, the scheme with regard to the adoption allowance is an experimental one, and all these points will need to be taken into account when in due course we review the scheme as a whole.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, quite properly also raised a number of detailed points about the regulations. I wonder whether she will allow me to write to her with answers to all those points. I do not wish to duck anything that noble Lords put to me across the Floor of the House, but perhaps the noble Baroness would prefer a considered, reflective reply, rather than something off the top of my head. I hope that your Lordships will agree to the first Motion.

On Question, Motion agreed to.