HL Deb 30 June 1986 vol 477 cc589-646

3.5 p.m.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Hooper.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD ABERDARE in the Chair.]

Clause 32 [The social fund and social fund officers]:

Lord Wigoder moved Amendment No. 88: Page 41, line 23, leave out ("directions given") and insert ("regulations made")

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I propose to speak also to Amendment No. 90, and to Amendments Nos. 101 to 104 inclusive. That has been agreed as an appropriate course because those amendments taken together seek to provide a framework within which, in the future, single or additional payments should be made out of the social fund.

The present system, as the Committee will know, is that those payments are made to persons on supplementary benefit for exceptional and pressing needs; matters such as maternity expenses, funeral expenses, essential bedding, clothing, footwear, furniture, fuel, or even visits to a sick child in hospital—matters of that nature. Those are precisely the kind of single payments that will be made out of the social fund in the future.

The reason why it is proposed that there should be a structured framework for the payment of those sums is, first, because it is the only way in which to secure consistency. Secondly, because as a matter of constitutional principle, it is right that the regulations should be those approved and passed by Parliament and not simply directions given by the Minister without debate or discussion. Thirdly—and perhaps most importantly—because there should be a right of appeal to an independent body for the aggrieved citizen.

The present system is familiar to many Members of the Committee; but perhaps they will forgive me if I go into a moment's explanation for those who may not be aware of some of the detail. At present, by Act of Parliament and by parliamentary regulation, supplementary benefit amounts are determined by adjudication officers who are appointed by the Secretary of State from among the staff of the DHSS, but who then assume an independent statutory position. They deal with the single payments that will in future come out of the social fund.

Those determinations are then subject to a right of appeal to a social security appeal tribunal. I believe that is commonly referred to as the SSAT. It is that right of appeal that the Government now propose to abolish and within which -these amendments are primarily determined. The SSAT is a totally indepen-dent tribunal. In very limited circumstances, there can be an appeal from there to social security commissioners. Indeed, in even more limited circumstances there can be an appeal to the courts by way of judicial review. The importance of the appeal tribunal is demonstrated by the figures, because we know how many appeals there have been to those tribunals over the latest four years for which figures are available in respect of single payment adjudications.

The total is large. In 1981 it was more than 21,000; in 1982, 26,000; in 1983, 29,000; and in 1984, 36,000. That means that over those four years there have been 112,000 appeals relating to single payment issues, with which we are today concerned and which are to be paid out of the social fund, to an independent appeal tribunal. It is an extraordinary fact that no fewer than 25,000 of those appeals, one-quarter of them in all, were successful. In other words, 25,000 of our fellow citizens discovered, when they appealed to the independent tribunal, that the original adjudication by the adjudication officer had been inadequate to meet their needs.

Those were, of course, decisions that concerned claimants who were, by definition, poor people in need, vulnerable, and perhaps the least literary in our society. It is because there has been that number of appeals dealt with sucessfully, in that way, that there is a general feeling among those people who have the misfortune to need this assistance from the state of confidence in the appeal system.

As I say, that is the present system. Under Part III of the Bill, which we are dealing with this afternoon, all that is to go. What the Government now propose is that there should be a social fund officer who would be appointed by the Secretary of State. He would have the power to determine the amount of any single payment. He would also have the power, as he has at the moment, to review his own decisions. That is the situation that arises under Clause 33.

There was much debate in another place as to whether or not there should be a right of appeal, and in due course the Government conceded that the case had been made out for a right of appeal. That right of appeal is now enshrined in Clause 34, which says, in effect, that there can now be a right of appeal to another officer of the DHSS appointed by the Secretary of State, only this time a regional officer rather than a local officer. It is our suggestion that that is a totally inadequate substitute for the present system.

It is difficult to make out at the moment, and I do not think there has been a clear answer, whether the Minister himself will in future be accountable for any particular decisions made by either the social fund officer or the social fund inspector. I suspect that the answer is going to be "No": that it will not be possible to challenge the Minister on independent decisions and that the officers will have the same sort of status as have the present DHSS officers. If that is right, what the system now comes to under the Government's proposals is that the finding of a DHSS official should be final, except that it can be reviewed by another DHSS official.

I suppose there is a very remote prospect of judicial review through the courts in highly exceptional circumstances, but there will be no appeal in the form of an independent tribunal and there will be no direct ministerial responsibility for any decision so made. All that is in an area of great importance to the people who are involved—a large number of our people—and in an area of very great sensitivity. It is an area where the figures demonstrate beyond argument that officials, however well intentioned, can and do make a very big proportion of mistakes.

In those circumstances, I think one must compare the merits and demerits of the two alternatives: the existing system with an appeal to an independent tribunal, or the new proposal by the Government that there should be an appeal simply to a further regional DHSS official. It is a matter of balance. I would not be so naive as to suggest that the arguments are all one way and that there is not something to be said on the side of the Government. However, I suggest that when one looks at all the various issues involved the balance comes down overwhelmingly in favour of retaining the right of appeal to an independent body.

Let us consider the issues. First, there is public confidence. I doubt very much whether the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, will stand up in due course today and say that the public—those who have to apply for the single payment—will have just as much confidence in a regional officer of the DHSS as they have acquired over the years in the independent statutory system of appeal that has served them so well. Secondly, there is the question of local knowledge, which can be crucial on these issues of single payments. Who is going to have more knowledge? Is it going to be a DHSS official sitting in his regional office, one of a small number scattered throughout the country, or is it to be the social security tribunal which sits in hundreds of centres in this country and which is familiar in every case with local circumstances?

There will be the issue of expert knowledge. Here I concede that the DHSS official will have the requisite expert knowledge. So, indeed, will the SSACs, the tribunals whose members have been specialising in this type of work for a great many years. There is the question of consistency: which is the more likely to be consistent? Is it the tribunal system—a system developed over the years which has a precedent, regional officials, a system of communication for decisions and standards that have to be kept up and maintained, with reasons that have to be given—or is it to be a system of regional DHSS employees acting as inspectors? Again, I suggest that the balance is overwhelmingly in favour of the argument that it is the appeal tribunal system which will provide the consistency rather than that of DHSS staff who are accountable to no-one.

There is then the test of speed, and here the Government may in due course want to say something. Clearly, if people are going to appeal for money on a matter of urgent pressing need it is desperately important that they should be dealt with speedily. Is there any reason why a matter should be dealt with more speedily at a region by a DHSS employee than by a tribunal which sits locally and which can be called at a moment's notice? Indeed, a tribunal will continue to sit for a great many other functions apart from this particular function. I suggest that if the tribunal system is working efficiently, as I believe it is, a tribunal can be just as speedy in reaching a decision as any official at the department. One must not forget that we are not speaking about courts of law; we are speaking about tribunals which are informal bodies that can meet at short notice. They do not need pleadings or documents being served, or any matters of that nature. They can meet and determine matters with very great speed.

In the course of the progress of this proposal the Government have raised some other objections to the suggestion that there should be an independent tribunal to deal with these payments. They said in the Green Paper that it was taking a sledgehammer to deal with small sums. There are two answers to that. The first is that some of the sums can be very substantial, running into four figures. Secondly, there is the more important consideration that what might be a small sum to someone who has drafted a Green Paper can be a very substantial sum indeed to a citizen of this country in his hour of need.

It was then suggested—I think in another place—that another objection to tribunals dealing with these matters is that because of the discretionary element involved a DHSS official is more suitable than an independent tribunal. That shows up a considerable misunderstanding of recent history. Down to 1980 the tribunals in any event dealt with an entirely discretionary system and did so, so far as I know, perfectly satisfactorily. Since 1980, and at the present time, the tribunals have dealt with a whole variety of issues which are discretionary. They have to interpret the words "reasonable", "necessary", "practicable", or whatever it may be.

I come to the final matter which the Government raised in the other place that I have been able to trace. It is the notion that a regional officer, sitting in his office, perhaps a very long distance away from where the appellant lives, in some way will personally be able to deal with the appeal more satisfactorily than a SSAT sitting in the local town or the local large village, with the appellant before it and able to talk to him, and so do justice in that way. One has only to put forward the proposition to realise that there is very little in the contention that the system proposed by the Government will be satisfactory.

I ought perhaps to deal with one other matter in case it is put forward by the Government today, and that is the question of on-going appeals. Clearly it is desirable that there should be finality in this matter and that if possible one appeal should suffice. I suggest that there is very little to choose between the two systems in that way. The Government's proposal allows for an appeal to a regional officer; the alternative that we are putting forward allows for an appeal to a tribunal. In theory it is possible to go on to the Social Security Commissioners. In theory it is possible; but one could very easily amend Schedule 5 to the Bill to ensure that such a thing would happen only where there was a matter of law, and on the whole matters of law do not arise where single payments are concerned. It would at once rule out some 99 per cent. of any possible further appeals.

As regards judicial review, that will take place, if it takes place, either under the Government's system or under the tribunal system, because it is quite clear from the wording of Clauses 33 and 34 of this Bill that judicial review may lie in certain circumstances, just as it may lie in certain circumstances from the Social Security Commissioners. However, that is a very improbable situation. For all practical purposes there is really one appeal whichever course is taken, the Government's or that contained in the amendment.

In those circumstances the amendments to which I am now speaking, comprising Amendment No. 88, Amendment No. 90, which is in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, and Amendment No. 101, in a sense are paving amendments. They simply seek to ensure that in Clauses 32 and 33 there is a legal framework, so that it is not a matter of the Minister making directions at his own whim without any control by Parliament and which, for all one knows, are not published and not open to criticism; instead, there must be regulations which are approved by Parliament in the usual way. I doubt whether that would make very much difference to the content of the directions or the regulations, but I think it is desirable that Parliament should have the last word and should have control over them.

Amendment No. 102 is really the principal amendment with which the Committee is concerned at this moment. It restores the right of appeal to the SSAT—the tribunal. It restores the right of appeal, but limits the powers of the tribunal, as the Committee will see from Amendment No. 102, to doing whatever it is and only whatever it is that the social fund officer could have done in dealing with the application. That is perhaps a restraint on the complete independence of the social security appeal tribunal. It differentiates the proposal in Clause 102 from that in Clauses 103 and 104. It may perhaps be marginally more acceptable to the Government for that reason and I think that it would meet the case if there were tribunals which had that power.

The last matter that I want to raise concerns the constitutional implications of the Government's proposal. The fact is that there has been a right of appeal on payments of this nature for something over 50 years—since 1934 in fact. I suggest that clearly it is therefore a matter of constitutional importance when a government come forward and say, "A right of appeal sanctified by time, approved by thousands of people who have had to use it, is now to be abolished". I do not say that it is impossible for a government to take that view, but I suggest that very cogent reasons are needed before it can properly be supported.

I think it was with this primarily in mind that the Council on Tribunals considered this whole issue. I know that the Committee will be aware that the council is an independent body appointed by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate. I had the pleasure of sitting on it at the material time, though I am happy to say that I have now "expired".

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Wigoder

The Council on Tribunals considered this matter with very great care and issued the special report which I know that most Members of the Committee have seen. It is only the second time in the history of the council that it has issued a special report, and the first occasion concerned a largely internal matter. I do not propose to read very much of the report to the Committee, but I do not think I can better end my observations than by reading the concluding observation that the council made in paragraph 12 and asking the Committee to agree with it. The council said: The people most affected by this proposal are among the most vulnerable in our society. Very good reasons are needed before the abolition of the right to an independent appeal in such circumstances, an appeal which has existed for over 50 years. It would probably be the most substantial abolition of a right of appeal to an independent tribunal since the Council on Tribunals was set up by Parliament in 1958 following the Franks Report. It is for these reasons that we are so critical of the proposal. In our last Annual Report we described it as highly retrograde". I invite the Committee to agree with that sentiment and I beg to move the amendment.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

I rise to support the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder. It is indeed a happy circumstance that it is only his term of service with the Council on Tribunals that has expired and not the noble Lord himself. He has thrown light on a very serious issue which the Committee must decide today, arising out of the operations of the social fund, which in itself makes a major change in the administration of social security to those in the community who are most in need.

He has emphasised two vital matters: namely, as the Committee will see from Clause 32, that the fund out of which payments will be made may make payments, in accordance with this Part of this Act and with any directions given or guidance issued by the Secretary of State". In our view—and this is the proposal in some of our amendments—there should be a requirement that in place of mere "directions" there should be a statutory duty and statutory regulations, first of all giving a right to the parties concerned to be able to rely upon them and, secondly, above all giving Parliament the opportunity of examining both the regulations and the proposals to see that justice is done.

But the main thrust of the amendments lies in regard to the abolition of the right of appeal. Ever since the social security system started, way back in the days of unemployment assistance in 1935, and continuing through the national assistance scheme, there has always been the right of appeal given to the applicant who is refused or denied. It is a vital part of the system which has been relied upon in thousands of cases. The statistics which are given in the special report of the Council on Tribunals, to which the noble Lord has referred, show that during the four years from 1981 to 1984 a total of over 25,000 decisions about single payments were changed by the tribunals on appeal. Never has there been a more dramatic illustration of the need for an appellate system and of the value of the appellate system being by way of appeal tribunals.

We had considerable discussion about the Council on Tribunals during the time I was in another place. I am glad to say that we extended its field of activity very considerably indeed. It is now a vital part of the administration of the welfare state. A great deal of decision making has been taken out of the hands of civil servants and of the courts and a great deal of dependence has been placed upon the council. In my time in office we had a thorough review of the functioning and operation of the council. The report that emerged produced significant changes and brought the tribunals to a position where they are respected and where their services to the state are great.

The noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, has perhaps shyly not given enough attention, if he will permit me to say so, to the remarkable special report passed by the council upon the Government White Paper setting out what is now proposed by way of withdrawal of the right of appeal. The council begins by saying that it believes the proposal to be misconceived. It goes on to say, as the noble Lord said, that it would abolish a right of independent appeal which has existed for over 50 years—as I said, from the days of unemployment benefit onwards. Over 50 years of history are behind this, and the purpose is to help and to protect the most needy people in the community.

What has somewhat shocked me recently has been the insensitivity of the Government about those most vulnerable people. We had a taste of it with a change in the legal aid regulations, which made it more difficult for a family with a large number of children to have legal aid than a family with rather fewer children. That insensitivity is marked in this Bill and in the proposals. It is identified by a council of great distinction under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Gibson-Watt.

Having pointed out that the proposal would be highly retrograde, the report examines in detail the matters of discontent. It states: The Council consider that the proposed arrangement for reviewing decisions lacks independence". Since then there has been an attempt by the Government in another place to make provision for a review of the decision by a DHSS inspector, whose obligations and commitments are inevitably, putting it as carefully as I can, influenced by his position within the system which is to apply the schemes. In our view, that is a wholly inadequate substitute for an independent council on tribunals.

The council also emphasises that the matter goes further than depriving claimants of the right to independent appeal. The accountability of social fund officers is also very much in question on the basis of the proposals. No indication has been given that there will be ministerial accountability for decisions or actions of social fund officers or that they will be independent of the DHSS, in complete contrast with the present position of the right of appeal to a tribunal.

Here, then, is a constitutional change in the highly sensitive field of social security (which is in any event difficult to deal with) of a grievous character. The findings of DHSS officials would finalise the matter, even though experience has shown that the need for appeal is, if anything, greater than it has ever been. What is proposed to Parliament in the measure is retrograde, oppressive and a staightforward denial of a well-established civil right. I hope, therefore, that the Committee will throw it out, and will throw it out with vigour.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

The noble and learned Lord said that 25,000 appeals had been heard in a certain number of years. Does he by any chance have figures for how long each appeal took? That would be helpful to the Committee.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

That is not stated in terms, but these things take a little time, as would the Government's proposal of a review by inspectors. The time taken in order to have the right to appeal is not too high a price to pay. What is more important, it is a price that those affected would be willing to pay to be sure that they had justice, not just in a few cases but in the vast majority.

Baroness Faithfull

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, for so ably and sensitively moving the amendment, and I thank the noble and learned Lord for his comments. I am puzzled about the position of the social fund. Can my noble friend the Minister clarify three points? Although the social fund as a piece of administrative machinery is not unacceptable, does she not consider that we are entering a political minefield in connection with the fund if the procedure is to be dealt with by inspectors who are part of the DHSS staff and not by external tribunals?

What is meant by the statement that the social fund is finite? If there is a proven need, the fund has run out and the claimant appeals, what is the position of the inspector? Will the inspectors be looking in two directions throughout the year—at the justice of the claimant's appeal and at the same time at the money available in the social fund? Are they in part to safeguard the interests of claimants, or are they to control the expenditure of the social fund? If as a matter of policy the social fund is to be kept within certain limits, I can understand that appeals should be kept clear of judicial procedure. If it is the intention that inspectors should temper their judgments to the availability of money—and we admit that viable needs must be met—local social service departments and voluntary organisations will feel compelled to make good the shortfall. Neither of those two sectors could carry that financial burden.

My second question therefore is: are the inspectors in post to control DHSS expenditure or are they there to safeguard claimants' well being? Secondly, why are internal inspectors a better mechanism to deal with claimants' appeals than external tribunals? What will the administrative structure of the inspectors be? I understand from the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, that they will be based regionally. If so, will they deal with appeals on paper or will they take oral evidence from the claimants? I am not sure about that point.

The report issued in January 1986, to which both the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, referred, outlined the improved service given by the tribunals. I admit that the question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, was a good one because when tribunals were first set up, the procedure was slow. I think that I am right in saying that that procedure has improved greatly. Furthermore, all hearings are oral. Many claimants do not turn up to them. Claimants rarely appeal for small items, but they do appeal for £50 which is a large sum to those drawing supplementary benefit. What are the advantages of inspectors over tribunals?

I should be most grateful for the help of the Minister on my third point. Does she not agree that justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done?

Claimants, by the very reason of their position, are vulnerable. This point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder. Some claims are only on the rim of reasonableness. If their applications are dealt with by internal DHSS staff who are far away and whom they do not see claimants will feel, reasonably or unreason-ably, unjustly treated. Is Her Majesty's Government at ease over claimants' possible attitudes that they will experience a sense of injustice? Such injustice can lead to anti-social behaviour.

Lord Kilmarnock

The noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, in his eloquent and convincing speech, referred also to Amendment No. 104 in the names of my noble friend Lord Banks and myself, and therefore I thought that I should say that we accept the slightly greater limitation on the powers of inquiry of the tribunals embodied in the main amendment, Amendment No. 102, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, which would restrict their functions merely to decisions which could have been made by a social fund officer, and would not go outside that. We accept that, and are happy to add our full support to the series of amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder.

Most of the discussions so far have been of a legal nature and have had to do with rights and natural justice. However, the consumer councils—the National Consumer Council and the consumer councils for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland—are extremely worried by the provisions in the Bill as it stands. The DHSS makes mistakes. The 1984–85 report of the chief adjudications officer found that about a quarter of supplementary benefit decisions were wrong. An independent appeal system is obviously vital to secure fair and equitable treatment. An internal review alone, as the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder said, will not command the confidence of claimants. A review by regional officers will be seen as biased, whether it is or not. Inspectors may well become case hardened and remote from local need. A point which has not so far been mentioned is that they will be held personally responsible for their decisions and may well become the subject of resentment and abuse. The amendments would protect the position of the claimants and those who administer the system.

Social security appeal tribunals have shown themselves capable of dealing with a range of decisions. Some social fund decisions will involve discretion within a framework of rules and guidance. Social security appeal tribunals have been greatly improved in the past few years. It seems a great pity not to build upon that body of expertise.

In the absence of an appeals system, complaints will not just go away. A failure to provide a proper mechanism will lead to a greater use of judicial review and more formal reference to the ombudsman, procedures which are slow, expensive and unsuitable. Social security staff will be held personally responsible. The proposed amendment will go a long way towards protecting them as well as the claimant.

It is not the best way to gain acceptance for a new and untried system not to provide a proper appeal procedure. On those grounds, it is vital the amendments should be accepted.

3.45 p.m.

Baroness Lane-Fox

I was extremely disappointed to hear the words of my noble friend Lady Faithfull because I welcome the introduction of this inspector. If ever there is a time for spot-on decisions, it is in situations of daily need. For that reason I welcome this new idea. From my experience with evacuees in the last war, I know that immediate attention to such daily difficulties can greatly alleviate a situation and add to flexibility. It seems to me that this proposal could be a much simpler method for dealing with the kind of small problems which at the moment often have to come before tribunals. Those problems could thereby receive quick attention. A claimant would not then have to cope with a tribunal and the delays involved.

Lady Gardner of Parkes

I oppose the amendments. I think that the system proposed in the Bill will be a much quicker way of deciding the cases, which I think is important.

Baroness Jeger

May I ask why?

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

At the moment, all appeal procedures take a long time. I know that the noble and learned Lord said that that was not too high a price to pay for the right of appeal. If one is in urgent need, it is far better to have that need met then and there.

A point made was that in 25 per cent. of cases the decisions had been proved to be wrong. I take issue with that. I should say that 25 per cent. of the appeals were upheld. That means that the tribunal came down in favour of the applicant. It does not necessarily mean that the first decision was totally wrong. There is often a fine balance. I have sat on many appeals, not social security but others. A lay tribunal often gives someone the benefit of the doubt. It is rather too sweeping to say that 25 per cent. of the decisions were wrong in the first instance. It would be much more accurate to say that 25 per cent. of the appeals were upheld.

This is a new system which should be tried. If it is then proved to be wrong, there is no reason why it cannot be changed. The department brings some type of Bill to the House every year. After the system has been implemented and tried we should then know more accurately whether it is an improvement, as I believe it may well be.

Lord Ennals

Before the noble Baroness sits down, what advantage is there if, as the new system proposes, officials act as reviewers and the claims are turned down? Claimants will only go to such a review if they have been turned down by another official. What conceivable advantage can there be for them?

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

If I understand the proposal contained in the Bill, the first decision will be made by one special officer. There will be a rapid appeal procedure to another and higher officer. He will be a regional instead of a local officer. Am I wrong in that?

Lord Ennals

Not at all. He is merely another official. There is no independent appeal. There is a great deal of difference between another official, who is obviously operating under some sort of guidelines from the Secretary of State and looking at what one official has done, and an independent tribunal. Over many years, indepedent tribunals have proved their independence by the judgments that they have made.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

I would like to respond to that point, if I may. I think I have a greater faith in the independence of these inspectors than the noble Lord opposite seems to have, in that I do believe in the independence of the Civil Service and I do not believe that one inspector would automatically support another inspector. I think it is a rather cynical view to say that this would happen. I also believe—and I hope to hear confirmation from my noble friend—that there is to be special training for these officers, who are meant to be set apart from the department so that they are no longer in the position where one looks upon the other as a colleague, but where each is independent. I will wait to hear what the Minister says on this, but that is as I understand the position.

Baroness Turner of Camden

I should like to contribute to this debate. I have Amendment No. 90 standing in my name. I have very little to add to what the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, said on the issues of principle, because I think those principles are irrefutable; but I should like to tell the Committee that for many years I was a member of a social security tribunal, which are tripartite bodies with a legally qualified chairman. The people who came before us were, in the main, unrepresented. Nearly all of them were very vulnerable and extremely poor people. We did our job as an independent tribunal. We put them at their ease. The whole environment was a very relaxed one. I felt that at the end of the hearing the people who came before us felt that they had had a fair hearing and a fair deal. Sometimes we found for them and sometimes we did not, but we were at least able to persuade them that they had put their case before an independent body and the insurance officer, who was the official concerned, had to justify his decision to an independent body.

I think this is a very necessary element in our social security legislation, and I think it is invaluable. I would strongly urge the Committee not to do away with it in relation to this new legislation. I support absolutely what Lord Wigoder has said. I shall therefore not be moving my amendment, because it seems to me that the series of amendments which he and his colleagues have moved amply covers the situation. Based upon my own experience I can tell the Committee that we were able to deal with the people coming in before us in a sympathetic and entirely humane way. It was a speedy procedure in that there were no long delays before cases came before us—unlike the ordinary court system, which is incredibly lengthy. We were able to deal with the issues speedily, and I commend the procedures to this Committee.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Baroness Trumpington)

To reply to the overlord of BUPA, to an ex-Lord Chancellor and to other distinguished noble Lords is a daunting prospect. I am not daunted—nervous, but not daunted!

The noble Lords have made clear in moving this amendment that they are in effect opposed to social fund decisions being made flexibly on a judgmental basis. They are seeking, through this amendment, the uneasy mixture of a social fund governed by regulations. It is obvious that I cannot agree with noble Lords on this issue, so fundamental to our proposals for a social fund. This amendment seeks to retain the regulated basis of the present system. I simply cannot believe that that is right, and I also cannot forbear from pointing out that many of those now defending the present system have previously criticised it for complexity and inflexibility.

We now have a system which seeks to deal with special one-off needs by setting them all out in detail in regulations. This creates rigidity. Let me remind the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, that if a need is not listed in regulations, if we have not anticipated it or it has not been possible to interpret the legal drafting in a way to allow a payment to meet it, then no help can be given. This means that help is available only if someone is able to match precisely a set of circumstances and a particular need against a list and criteria set out in regulations. This cannot be the correct way to handle the special and individual difficulties of claimants. Exceptional personal needs do not fit into neat categories. The social fund will tackle the needs expressed by people seeking help in a more sensible way. It will enable us to tackle the need in the context of the wider individual circumstances rather than simply matching a request for help against a detailed check-list.

There is one claim often made for a regulated scheme which I also find dubious. This is that it ensures that claimants know exactly where they stand. I am not sure that this claim bears much examination. A person may know that in certain circumstances he can receive a single payment for a certain item, but what is involved in determining these circumstances? The local officer must decide that there is a need for the item. He must be sure the person does not already possess it, does not have available a suitable alternative, has not unreasonably disposed of it, or has failed to avail himself of the item, and so on. We are only half-way to a decision. It is misleading to suggest that a regulated system makes everything clearcut. Tension results when judgments on individual and widely varying circumstances have to be handled within an adjudicated approach which can make only broad distinctions between circumstances and considerations to be taken into account.

The Committee must recall that under the social fund decisions will not be taken in a vacuum; nor will they be taken on the basis of secret instructions. My right honourable friend will issue directions and guidance, and these will be published. Social fund officers will make their decisions within the scope of these directions and guidance. My noble friend Lady Faithfull has asked whether people would get oral hearings at reviews. We intend that where the social fund officer cannot satisfy the applicant's objections by looking at the papers, then the applicant will be invited to an interview where the whole case can be talked through in detail and any new information brought to light. The social fund officer's manager will then decide the case, taking into account all the information so far gathered. Where the individual is still dissatisfied, he will have a right to a review by a social fund inspector.

My noble friend Lady Faithfull also asked about reviews and whether inspectors would look at the budget. The question really relates to the principle of having a fixed budget for the social fund. We have discussed this before and will no doubt come back to it later, but inspectors will be expected to check that reasonable decisions have been taken in the light of all the circumstances of the case, including the budget. However, I would stress, as we have done before, that spending will be monitored and the budget will be handled flexibly so that the money will not simply run out before the end of the year.

The noble Baroness asked whether the inspector's job is to safeguard the interests of the applicant, and the answer is, "Yes, of course" That is why we have added this provision to the Bill.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, asked about the position of the DHSS staff, and I must resist the notion that our staff will somehow be ciphers in the way they discharge their duties. That does not occur now, when they are appointed as adjudication officers, and I feel that it is doing less than justice to DHSS staff to imply that they will not take their responsibilities to claimants properly.

My noble friend Lady Faithfull asked whether claimants would feel justly treated. It was because of the concerns expressed that reviews confined to local office management might not seem sufficiently impartial, and because of fears that there might appear to be local bias, that we introduced at Report stage in another place the proposal for social fund inspectors. They will be independent of the people who took the original decision. They will be trained to take a careful and dispassionate look at the way the decision was taken. Their conclusions will be explained to the applicant. This is the safeguard that we are proposing.

The noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, said that this was the most significant reduction in appeal rights since the establishment of the Council on Tribunals and that it involved the abolition of a 50-year-old appeal right. Of course, we believe that claimants who are dissatisfied with the decision should have a right to have it reconsidered, but the form of that review must fit the nature of the benefit. The appeal system represented by the Council on Tribunals has been developed over the last 50 or so years in a different context to meet different requirements. The social fund is not like other benefits; nor will it be administered in the same way. It would not be right for it to take over an appeal system designed for other needs just because it is familiar, nor to set up a new independent appeals system that is different in name only from the present one.

What we are proposing for the social fund is normal practice outside the world of social security. In banks, for example, when a client is dissatisfied with a decision, he complains first to the person who took the decision. If he is still dissatisfied, he asks for the manager to deal with it. That is what will happen in the social fund. Our guidance will ensure that dissatisfied claimants know that they have a right to a review and that their objections will be properly considered. In addition, we are now proposing a further tier of reviews by inspectors outside the local office to check that decisions are properly taken and to ensure against any actual or perceived local bias.

The regulated system in this area has been shown to be complex and confusing. Few people would argue that there should be discretion in the system. Our proposals are a recognition that the type of issue appropriate to the social fund does not lend itself to the rigidity of a regulated system. It has led to situations that should be left in the imagination of Lewis Carroll, such as a social security commissioner, the highest tier of adjudicating authority, deliberating over whether a 78-year-old woman should receive a payment for a screwdriver or a ladder, or whether to increase a one-off award by 49 pence. I ask the Committee not to accept the amendment.

I now turn to the second group of amendments in this part of the debate. These three all deal with the way in which a social fund decision may be reconsidered if the person concerned is unhappy with it. The amendments provide for an appeal to tribunals. It is important, I believe, not to overlook the safeguards that are now written into the Bill. The Government introduced at Report stage in another place a new clause, Clause 34. This introduces to the Bill two things. First, it gives people a statutory right to have their cases reviewed. Secondly, it establishes a further review by a new group, the social fund inspectors. There is a statutory right to request a further review of a case if a person remains dissatisfied following the first review.

What this means—I address these remarks particularly to my noble friend Lady Faithfull—is that if someone is unhappy with a social fund decision, he will exercise his legal right and apply to the local office for it to be reviewed. In the first instance, this means that the social fund officer will reconsider the case. He will check the facts of the case and the directions and guidance of the Secretary of State. He may need to take account of any new information provided by the person concerned. This re-examination of a case is what happens now when an appeal is introduced. If this does not lead immediately to the application being granted, then the case will be examined, still within the local office by the social fund officer's manager. He, too, will check the facts and ensure that the social fund officer took proper account of them and of the guidelines. I should also make clear that, at this stage of the review, the individual will be able to put his case in person at the local office.

However, if, after this thorough reconsideration at local office level, the decision remains unchanged and the person remains unhappy, he can exercise his right to a further review. This case will then be considered by a social fund inspector. I stress that the inspector will be outside the local office and independent of its management chain. He will be appointed by the Secretary of State and will be accountable to him for the way he carries out his duties, not to local offices or regional management. His task will be to ensure that a reasonable decision has been taken in the light of the full facts and of the Secretary of State's guidance and directions. He will have powers to confirm a social fund officer's decision, substitute his own decision, or send the case back to the social fund officer to investigate further and reconsider.

We should not get the number of single payment appeals out of proportion. There were indeed some 37,000 single payment appeals heard in 1984; but this compares with almost 3 million single payments that year. The tribunal found in favour of about 8,000 cases. That means that appeal tribunals were responsible for about a quarter of 1 per cent. of the single payments that were made that year. Further-more, as my noble friend Lady Macleod pointed out, the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, did not say how long these appeals took to resolve the matter. Time does count when the need is urgent. That is the reason for the social fund.

With regard to accountability, the Secretary of State will not be accountable for individual decisions any more than he is accountable for adjudication officer decisions now. But he will be accountable for the way the system works. The noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, talked about the rights before 1980 on discretionary decisions. I would reply that it is indeed the case that appeal tribunals reviewed discretionary decisions before 1980; but the Government do not regard that experience as wholly satisfactory. The tribunals were not bound by the Supplementary Benefits Commission's policy of guidance. The effect was that discretion could operate on two levels. It was not a guarantee of consistency and accountability.

Again with regard to the tribunal, what we are proposing for the social fund is normal practice outside the world of social security, as I have said. I resent any suggestion that this Government have not been sensitive to the needs of the poor. What have the Government done to help the poor? Social security spending has gone up by 35 per cent. in real terms since 1978–79. Nearly one half of this represents a real increase in the average amount of benefit paid. Only one-third is due to extra unemployed people. Supplementary rates have gone up by 6 per cent. ahead of prices, and there have been larger increases for people with children.

We have been particularly anxious to help people on low wages. The family income supplement rates have gone up in real terms by between 13 and 25 per cent., depending on the size of family. These families will also have been helped by the reduction in national insurance contributions for the low paid and increases in personal tax allowances. So do not say to me that we are not sensitive to the needs of the least well off.

There is now, I submit, an adequate means of redress for people dissatisfied with social fund decisions. It has been reinforced by the introduction of the new clause by the Government in response to concern. But more importantly it recognises the different nature of the social fund and its decision making.

Our clear view is that one cannot apply the appeal system which is designed for an adjudicated regulated scheme to a system operating on a different discretionary basis. We need to have consistency in approach between the way decisions are made and the way they are challenged. At the moment vast sums of money are being spent, not always reaching the most deserving cases. I believe passionately that the Government's approach to this matter is right. Flexibility, speed of decision, fairness and compassion will result, and I believe people will have confidence in the Government.

I realise that those who want to retain inflexibility, narrow outlook, and endless waits for an urgent need may not have been swayed by my arguments. But I do not think that the new clause and amendments which are being put forward are necessary and I cannot commend them to Members of the Committee.

The Countess of Mar

Before the noble Baroness sits down may I ask whether or not she agrees with the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, that not only should justice be done, but it should be seen to be done? To this end is she not aware that the banks to which she has referred have recently appointed an independent ombudsman?

Baroness Trumpington

I entirely agree that justice should be seen to be done, and I have explained the public nature of this whole process.

Lord Blease

May I ask a question along similar lines? Is it intended that the social fund with its inspectors—and I assume that there will be a number of them—should publish a report of the cases coming under its review procedure, as happens under the appeal tribunals? In other words, will there be reported cases which would give guidance and help public understanding of the way in which an inspector had exercised his discretion?

Baroness Trumpington

To be perfectly honest, I do not know.

Lord Wigoder

I rise with reluctance in order to wind up this discussion. The reluctance stems primarily from the fact that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, was going to undertake this task. Unhappily he has been detained by very urgent personal reasons and he asks me to present his apologies to Members of the Committee.

Points have been made on behalf of the Government's proposals. I always expected that they would. On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, as to the length of the hearings, the answer is that we do not know. We do not know how long the social fund inspectors will take to dispose of a case. What we do know is that through the way the social security appeal tribunals have developed, with sympathetic chairmen, and through their being well organised they can now deal with these matters a great deal more rapidly in terms of each hearing than they used to.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

Can the noble Lord, as an expert, give us any idea at all of how many days, weeks, or months it takes from the initiation of the appeal to the hearing and the appellant being satisfied?

Lord Wigoder

The answer is, no I cannot, any more than I can give any estimate of what will happen under the new proceedings. All I am venturing to suggest is that we have no grounds for thinking that one will be any better than the other; that is all.

The other point that was raised was, how long it might take matters to reach a hearing. That is the point that the noble Baroness has just mentioned. I was dealing with her original point as to the length of each hearing on which I thought that she was commenting; I misunderstood the noble Baroness.

The question of the speed of the hearing is a factor, but it is a factor that fades into insignificance beside the importance of consistency and public confidence which are issues that the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, has hardly mentioned. What she mentioned repeatedly was that this would be a discretionary system as it has been in the past and that for some reason tribunals were incompetent to deal with it. The thousands of our fellow citizens who serve on tribunals—

Baroness Trumpington

I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me for disturbing his peroration, but I never said that tribunals were incompetent. I said merely that under the new system they will not be suitable.

Lord Wigoder

I thought that in her closing comments the noble Baroness made certain observations about the membership of tribunals to which they will not take kindly when they read in Hansard tomorrow what she said.

I come, finally, to the issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, raised. Are we going to have a fixed budget each year, determined almost whimsically by civil servants? Are we going to have a situation where there is not a regulation but a direction? For some reason the noble Baroness does not want a regulation approved by Parliament. Consider the case of a woman in conditions of extreme poverty who might be entitled to a small grant to pay her train fare to see her child who has been involved in a serious accident 50 miles away. But at the end of the year the social fund runs out and the inspector says, "I am terribly sorry, if only you had come last week". What is the meaning of a finite fund in those circumstances?

I would venture to submit that on the balance of the argument—and there is a balance to be struck—the case for these amendments has been fully established by what the Committee has been told. In those circumstances I press Amendment No. 88.

4.17 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 88) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 131: Not-Contents, 115.

Airedale, L. Craigavon, V.
Allen of Abbeydale, L. Crawshaw of Aintree, L.
Amherst, E. Cudlipp, L.
Annan, L. Darcy (de Knayth), B.
Ardwick, L. Darwen, L.
Attlee, E. David, B.
Aylestone, L. Davies of Penrhys, L.
Banks, L. Dean of Beswick, L.
Barnett, L. Diamond, L.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L.
Birk, B. Donoughue, L.
Birmingham, Bp. Elwyn-Jones, L.
Blease, L. Ennals, L.
Blyton, L. Ewart-Biggs, B.
Boothby, L. Faithfull, B.
Briginshaw, L. Falkender, B.
Brockway, L. Falkland, V.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. Fisher of Rednal, B.
Buckmaster, V. Fitt, L.
Burton of Coventry, B. Flowers, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Foot, L.
Chitnis, L. Gallacher, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Gladwyn, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Mulley, L.
Grimond, L. Murray of Epping Forest, L.
Halsbury, E. Nicol, B.
Hampton, L. Northfield, L.
Hanworth, V. Ogmore, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. O'Neill of the Maine, L.
Hatch of Lusby, L. Oram, L.
Hayter, L. Phillips, B.
Henderson of Brompton, L. Plant, L.
Heycock, L. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Hirshfield, L. [Teller.]
Houghton of Sowerby, L. Prys-Davies, L.
Hunt, L. Rathcreedan, L.
Hunter of Newington, L. Reilly, L.
Hylton-Foster, B. Richardson, L.
Irving of Dartford, L. Ritchie of Dundee, L.
Jacques, L. Rochester, L.
Jeger, B. Seear, B.
Jenkins of Putney, L. Seebohm, L.
Kaldor, L. Sefton of Garston, L.
Kearton, L. Shepherd, L.
Kennet, L. Silkin of Dulwich, L.
Kilbracken, L. Somers, L.
Kilmarnock, L. Southwark, Bp.
Lauderdale, E. Stallard, L.
Leatherland, L. Stamp, L.
Listowel, E. Stewart of Fulham, L.
Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Lloyd of Kilgerran, L. Strabolgi, L.
Lockwood, B. Taylor of Mansfield, L.
Lovell-Davis, L. Tordoff, L. [Teller.]
McCarthy, L. Turner of Camden, B.
McGregor of Durris, L. Underhill, L.
Mackie of Benshie, L. Wallace of Coslany, L.
McNair, L. Wedderburn of Charlton, L.
Mar, C. Wells-Pestell, L.
Masham of Ilton, B. White, B.
Meston, L. Wigoder, L.
Milford, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Mishcon, L. Willis, L.
Molloy, L. Wilson of Rievaulx, L.
Morris of Kenwood, L. Young of Dartington, L.
Morton of Shuna, L. Ypres, E.
Aldington, L. Elliott of Morpeth, L.
Ampthill, L. Elton, L.
Arran, E. Fortescue, E.
Auckland, L. Fraser of Kilmorack, L.
Bauer, L. Gainford, L.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Gardner of Parkes, B.
Beloff, L. Glanusk, L.
Belstead, L. Glenarthur, L.
Blake, L. Gray of Contin, L.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Gridley, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Hailsham of Saint
Brougham and Vaux, L. Marylebone, L.
Broxbourne, L. Henley, L.
Caithness, E. Hives, L.
Cameron of Lochbroom, L. Home of the Hirsel, L.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Hood, V.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Hooper, B.
Carnock, L. Kemsley, V.
Cathcart. E. Killearn, L.
Coleraine, L. Kimball, L.
Cowley, E. Kinnaird, L.
Cullen of Ashbourne, L. Lane-Fox, B.
Dacre of Glanton, L. Layton, L.
Davidson, V. Lindsey and Abingdon, E.
De Freyne, L. Long, V.
Denham, L. [Teller.] Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Denning, L. Lyell, L.
Derwent, L. McAlpine of Moffat, L.
Drumalbyn, L. McFadzean, L.
Duncan-Sandys, L. Macleod of Borve, B.
Dundee, E. Mancroft, L.
Eccles, V. Manton, L.
Ellenborough, L. Merrivale, L.
Elles, B. Mersey, V.
Elliot of Harwood, B. Molson, L.
Morris, L. Sandford, L.
Mowbray and Stourton, L. Sandys, L.
Murton of Lindisfarne, L. Shannon, E.
Norfolk, D. Shaughnessy, L.
Norrie, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Nugent of Guildford, L. Sudeley, L.
Onslow, E. Swinton, E. [Teller.]
Orr-Ewing, L. Teviot, L.
Pender, L. Thorneycroft, L.
Penrhyn, L. Tranmire, L.
Peyton of Yeovil, L. Trefgarne, L.
Plummer of St Marylebone, Trumpington, B.
L. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Polwarth, L. Vickers, B.
Porrit, L. Vivian, L.
Portland, D. Watkinson, V.
Portsmouth, E. Westbury, L.
Quinton, L. Whitelaw, V.
Rankeillour, L. Wise, L.
Reay, L. Wynford, L.
Reigate, L. Young, B.
Romney, E. Young of Graffham, L.
St. Davids, V. Zouche of Haryngworth, L.
Sanderson of Bowden, L.

Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.

4.25 p.m.

Lord Banks moved Amendment No. 88ZA: Page 41, line 24, after ("State,") insert ("which will normally be in the form of grants rather than loans").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 88ZA. The object of the amendment is to ensure that in the normality of cases payments from the social fund will be made in the form of grants. We are very concerned at the intention to deal with special needs by means of loans. To put struggling people on income support into debt seems to us to be the height of governmental folly. In view of their limited resources, many claimants may well be in debt already, and to add to it will only compound the problem.

Grants made today under the single payment regulations are required for such matters as a fuel debt arising out of exceptional circumstances; the replacement of an essential item of household equipment; or meeting an exceptional clothing need—for example, if a coat or a pair of shoes is accidentally lost or damaged. In most such cases loans are now to be provided instead of grants and they are to be repaid through automatic deductions of 10 per cent. from income support. If a family has more than one debt then the deductions will not exceed 15 per cent. of income support.

Income support is subsistence support. It is designed to provide a subsistence benefit. What, then, is likely to be the effect of knocking 10 to 15 per cent. off it? Some idea of the scale of indebtedness likely to be created can be obtained when it is appreciated that 300,000 claimants have fuel debt repayments at the present time and there are approximately 1 million single payments each year. If only two-thirds of single payments were replaced by loans, the number of families forced into debt and to living on an income 10 to 15 per cent. below the poverty level would be between half a million and three-quarters of a million.

If single payments are replaced by loans, then more children are likely to be received into care on a voluntary basis because parents will feel unable to cope with the added financial pressure. That will mean extra residential care costs, court costs and costs of social services' time. We believe it is essential to establish that loans will be the exception to the rule and that payments will normally be in the form of grants. To increase the indebtedness of the poorest of the poor would indeed be a crime. I beg to move.

Baroness Trumpington

Before the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, comments on the amendment, I should like to clarify with the noble Lord, Lord Banks, that he is speaking also to Amendments Nos. 90, 93 and 94.

Lord Banks

Of the four amendments to which the noble Baroness has referred, the only one which is mine is No. 88ZA.

Lord Ennals

I support absolutely everything that has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Banks. In my view most people hate to be in debt, and that applies especially to elderly people who are not even prepared to get into debt—as they call it—by hire purchase. They believe in being paid-up at the end of the week. There are very many people who suffer hardship. Again, I am thinking particularly of the elderly, because most of those who will be receiving loans or grants will be elderly. Such people will find it unacceptable to be in debt at the end of the week because that was not the way in which they were brought up.

This amendment does not say that there are no circumstances in which there should be loans, and that when those loans are paid there should be an agreement that there should be a loan and that the person receiving the money understands the nature of the loan and accepts that it will be deducted from their pay. Though I must say I find rather horrible the thought that a loan or a grant would be refused to someone—and 1 am looking at Clause 33 at the top of page 43 of the Bill—if there was money from perhaps some other source, from some other member of the family, or the possibility that some other person or body might partly meet it, are people going to say, "Is there perhaps a charity that might bear this instead of the grant being made?" Those who feel that they have to turn to charity are going to find, from what the charities say to me, that they are simply not going to be able to meet the needs.

One of the fascinating things about this Bill is the way in which ancient charities—what they call "quiet charities"; and I think of people like the Family Welfare Association, the Church Army, the Children's Care Association, and the National Institute for the Blind—have all gathered together to express (and I had a meeting with them last week) their desperate concern. That includes their concern that a normal method of payment would be by loans.

One has to ask, unless there is someone who has funds that they can see they will be able to draw upon in order to repay the loan week by week, how are people living on the breadline going to pay? If it is said that it is going to be taken week by week out of their regular allowances, what will go? No one is suggesting that the regular allowances are going to be above the needs of that individual. What will go? Will it be food? Will they not have adequate meals? During the winter will it be that they will not have adequate heating? Will it be that clothing or shoes will go? I do not know how this will happen.

We are in a difficult situation. The Joint Consumer Councils Social Security Committee said: The explosion of lending has brought benefits for the many, but has led to severe problems for the minority unable to pay their bills. Consumer debt, housing, fuel, water and rates arrears have all risen sharply. Money and debt problems now top the list of all consumer problems. The figures tell a story of human misery, as families struggle with mounting bills, demands, summonses and court orders, and experience the fear of disconnection, eviction and loss of household possessions. Most debtors are neither feckless nor wilful". If the social fund were, under most circumstances, to make a loan, it would be to someone who is so poor that they need to go to the social fund—and they are going to need to be poor to do that. I fear that it will drive people into debt. Driving people and families into debt is a severe thing to do to honest British people. Perhaps more than in most other countries of the world, British people—and I think again of the elderly—despise being in debt. Our hope in this amendment is not to say that there are no circumstances in which loans should be made, but in the generality of cases that it should be a grant as to which there is no expectation of repayment.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

I am doubtful, first of all, about the form of this amendment: which will normally be in the form of grants rather than loans". That gives no guidance to those who have to administer the benefit as to the circumstances in which loans would be appropriate. It merely says that "normally" it will be grants. If the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, would put himself in the position that he used to hold as the Minister responsible—a position in which I also was involved for some years—one would not know what Parliament was trying to say if you merely used the word "normally". If the amendment spelt out even roughly the circumstances in which loans would be permissible, that would at least give some guidance to those responsible, but simply to say "normally" seems to me to be building up real difficulty for those who have to administer the scheme.

Nor do I wholly share the view of the noble Lords opposite that loans ought normally to be ruled out. There are quite a number of circumstances in which loans are perfectly appropriate. One set of circumstances is where you have a man of considerable potential earning capacity who has had a run of bad luck—perhaps the sickness of himself or his family, or an accident—and temporarily has to come to the fund, but whose outlook for the future is quite a reasonable one. Indeed, he may be going to have substantial earnings again in a few months' time. There is no reason at all why such a man should not be helped by a loan. Therefore, both on the form of the amendment and to some extent on its substance I am against it.

Lord Broxbourne

Before my noble friend sits down, could he, drawing on his distinguished experience in this particular department, recall to the Committee whether he knows of any precedent for the use of this generalisation "normally" as a statutory term without any definition? I do not think that any has been volunteered by the noble Lords, Lord Banks and Lord Ennals.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

I am indebted to my noble friend Lord Broxbourne. I have no knowledge of any precedent in any statute, but I have not sufficiently examined the mass of legislation which exists on this subject for me to be able to say with any great confidence that there is no such precedent. I have often found—as I am sure has my noble friend—that when one says confidently that there is no precedent for this, almost always some noble Lord finds one and one's argument is therefore invalidated. But for my part I have not. If my noble friend, whose experience of the law is considerable, has not seen it, that strengthens my doubts.

Lord Blease

Speaking in support of this amendment I would wish to indicate that this clause, Clause 32, and indeed Part III of the Bill, are viewed with much concern by representative organisations in Northern Ireland, and particularly those bodies with direct responsibilities for the sick, the unemployed, and the under-privileged. At this Committee stage of the Bill it is not my intention to make a Second Reading speech. The detrimental effects of the changes proposed by this legislation on the Northern Ireland community were ably and forthrightly expressed by my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs in her speech during the Second Reading debate on 3rd June.

The introduction of the proposed loan system, in place of the existing grant arrangements as exist under the Supplementary Benefit (Single Payments) Regulations, will create greater hardship, not only for those in Northern Ireland but for those in need throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. My noble friend on the Front Bench, Lord Ennals, has already mentioned that the widening cycle of poverty and the forcing of needy people into further debt will, without doubt, acutely exacerbate preventable human misery for large numbers of families throughout the United Kingdom.

The realities of this situation are well borne out in the Written Reply on 23rd April in another place by Mr. Needham, Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to a Parliamentary Question by Mr. Peter Archer, Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland affairs. The Question asked for details of "single social security payments" made during 1985. The reply is contained in the House of Commons Hansard, Volume 96, No. 1380, at columns 155 to 158 on 23rd April last, and goes into considerable detail. I propose to quote only what I consider to be the relevant details—the extent of the range of single payments Single payments awarded [in Northern Ireland] during 1985 Pensioners 36,400 Unemployed 148,900 Others 91,500", a total of 276,800 single payments at an average of £114. It has been estimated that about one-third of the total families in the whole of Northern Ireland will be affected by the proposed Bill.

The range of single payment awards under the Supplementary Benefit (Single Payments) Regulations (Northern Ireland) are important. They give an understanding of the type of payments that are required. I quote the round figures rather than the detailed figures given in the Parliamentary Question: maternity needs, 10,000 awards of an average of £112; funeral expenses, 1,600 individual awards of an average of £296; purchase, repair and installation of essential furniture and household equipment, 100,000 awards in one year averaging £140; bedclothing, 38,000 awards at an average payment of £71; removal expenses, 2,000 awards at £64 average; draughtproofing, 6,000 awards at £54 average; redecoration, 20,000 awards at £51 average; fuel cost, 1,000 awards with £139 average; clothing and footwear, 30,000 awards at £77 average; other types of payment for people in need, 10,000 awards averaging £85.

The significance of these figures will be readily understood and assessed. I believe the figures raise sharply the question: if the Government are really serious about redirecting resources to those people in most need, can the Minister state how the conditions for those types of families will not be worsened under the proposed changes?

While I do not have the relevant statistics for other regions of the United Kingdom, by noting that Northern Ireland has about one-fortieth of the total population of the United Kingdom it is not difficult to relate the extent and the range of the present single payments to other regions. I am sure it will be readily admitted that there are many regions in Great Britain where poverty, bad housing and human need are as manifest, sadly, as they are in Northern Ireland. Indeed, throughout the United Kingdom the notion of two nations is very real. Social statistics and unemployment figures reveal a nation divided into wealth and poverty, into the "haves" and the "have nots"; a nation where a measure of health and human happiness can be acquired by cash, while preventable human suffering and misery are subject to rigorous Scrooge-like policies.

As has already been indicated, the present single payments regulations provide for one-off payments for a range of items of expenditure for the needy which cannot be foreseen or which cannot be met out of basic benefits. The kind of social fund help required is a sensitivity of approach and an understanding of what it really means to a family or an individual to undertake additional financial commitments by way of a social fund loan when already many such people are in penury, as has already been mentioned by my noble and learned friend Lord Elwyn-Jones.

Does not this proposed loan arrangement portray a Shylock mentality, demanding the pound of flesh when one is already under straitened circumstances at a time of critical need of urgent financial help? On behalf of many representative organisations in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, I support this amendment for the principle of grants rather than the proposed "loan office" system, and that the principle should be written into the Bill rather than determined by ministerial direction.

4.45 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark

The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, asked whether the word "normally" was appropriate for legislation. I do not know the answer to that, but I think I know what most people mean by it. If blame is to be placed anywhere it should be placed on the draft legislation which we have here, the measure, which studiously avoids giving us any indication of what the balance might be between loans and direct payments. I have looked carefully at Clause 33, and it gives no indication of that point. The word "normally" for most of us means "in the majority of cases". That is what we would expect, though I daresay it may be important to find a more precise word for it. In the Second Reading debate on this Bill I made the point that I had had a number of letters, as I am sure many other Members of the Committee have had, from people who are deeply concerned about the implications of putting many people into the position of having further debts which they will find very difficult to repay.

My other point is that the amendment we have just passed changed the words "directions given" to "regulations made". I would have assumed that one of the regulations to be made should indicate fairly clearly which categories of need would be met by direct payments rather than by loans. The onus of the matter would be on indicating where social fund officers—

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

I hope the right reverend Prelate will allow me to intervene. If he is right on that point, then this amendment is wholly unnecessary.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark

I do not think I agree with that because we need to spell it out quite clearly, but I see the point.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

In his wisdom the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, thought that the majority of people would be elderly. I want to put forward another section of our community that I know a tiny bit about, though perhaps not as much as the noble Lord—those people now coming out from psychiatric hospitals. To my knowledge they do not always have homes to go to and they are allowed out because they are able to make their own homes. But as they do not have homes they need to borrow. They do not necessarily need grants, but they need to borrow money to pay for the necessities in their new homes.

I believe I am right in my answer, but I should like the Minister's reassurance that when somebody applies for a grant or a loan that person can stipulate which he or she would prefer, because the people I have in mind I am sure would prefer to have a loan, bearing in mind that the majority of these people are allowed out of psychiatric hospitals because they are able to work again and on the whole have been found jobs. That is the point I wished to make.

Baroness Faithfull

I believe the Committee are in some difficulty over this amendment. I agree with my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter that, as drafted, it is difficult to see how the amendment can be administered. What this ties up with is the question of discretionary payments or regulations. If it were laid down by regulation, for example, that in certain circumstances loans were to be given and in other circumstances grants were to be made, this would meet the point of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. If somebody found a job at a later stage, then by regulation he could pay back. But we should not say that a number of people should have loans rather than grants. It is distressing in our country at the moment to see how many people are in debt.

I have here the figures from the Citizens Advice Bureaux. Last year the bureaux dealt with £500 million-worth of debts. Seven per cent. of all citizens advice bureaux inquiries were debt problems: that is, half a million inquiries. One-quarter of all debt is concerned with local authority housing. In 1984 the Audit Commission found that about one in four of all council tenants was in arrears. Twenty per cent. are concerned with fuel and telephone costs, and 30 to 50 per cent. are housing area problems such as second mortgages and so on. I am afraid that in this country we are in many cases, in all sectors of society, living in debt. I would wish it were otherwise, but I do not think the way to put it right is to make loans rather than grants in this area which we are dealing with today. I believe it could be put right if we had regulations laid down rather than the making of discretionary payments.

Lord Ennals

I wonder whether, before the noble Baroness replies, I may make three points clear. First, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, that there are circumstances in which loans are appropriate. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod that some people may actually opt for a loan as opposed to a payment. I find that totally acceptable. I would not agree for one moment that those coming out of a psychiatric hospital would want loans—and I say this as chairman of MIND—because the chances of their getting a job in the next few months or even in the next few years are not too great; and even accommodation could be a great problem for them. So I would put them down as people who, if they were to inherit a loan on coming out of a psychiatric hospital, would be adding another burden to the burdens they already bear. The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, asked what the word "normally" means. He will know that we are debating with this amendment Amendment No. 90. That amendment reads: and the Secretary of State shall make regulations stating the circumstances in which an award shall be made to meet the expenses and needs specified in section 32(1) and the amount that shall be paid". It is clear that the Secretary of State makes regulations which make quite clear in what circumstances a social fund officer would make a grant and in what circumstances he would make loans. This amendment has been taken before the other ones and the amendment I have just quoted, which stands in my name and in the names of my noble friends. It makes it quite clear that first, as the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, says, this is not the time to put more people in debt. Therefore the regulations, when being drawn up, should make it clear, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark said, that "normally" means more of one thing than another; so that the normal thing would be to make a grant and in other circumstances, as defined by regulation, a loan would be made. I do not think there is any difficulty at all in terminology because the Secretary of State would himself draw up regulations which would inevitably come before your Lordships.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

May I say to the noble Lord opposite that I understand his argument perfectly well, but surely it is contradictory? If the regulations are to define, as I think he is suggesting, the circumstances in which there should be grants or there should be loans, they should do so. Therefore, it is surely wholly unnecessary, confusing and misleading to put in before that an amendment saying that "normally" it shall not mean by loan.

Lord Ennals

It is exactly the opposite, if I may say so.—

Lord Boyd-Carpenter


Lord Ennals

The purpose is to say to the Secretary of State what Parliament thinks he should do. If this amendment were carried, Parliament would be saying that we think the Secretary of State should say that normally it should be grants, as opposed to loans. That is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

If the word is "normally" then we are back to the original point that I made which has not been answered, that the officials handling this are given no guidance whatsoever. If the regulations were not to use the word "normally" but to define the circumstances, then at least that difficulty would be overcome; but simply to say "normally" is to leave the Secretary of State or his officials, or probably both, in a state of confusion.

Lord Kilmarnock

I wonder whether I may ask the noble Baroness to clear up something for me and to enlighten me as to what system of repayment of loans is envisaged under the social fund. Would the social fund become in effect a preferential creditor with the right to take payments at source out of benefit each week? Am I right in reading the Government's intention in that way?

As the noble Baroness knows, under the Consumer Credit Act, borrowers who cannot meet their commitments can go to the county court and ask for time to pay. Presumably, no such right exists in regard to the social fund, and I imagine that the social fund officer can only be asked by a claimant to exercise discretion. If that discretion is not favourable, are not a number of people going to find themselves in great difficulty? It seems to me that there must be a minimum level of weekly support and a limit to the amount that claimants can afford to have deducted from their benefits. If the noble Baroness could help us by saying a word or two about that, it would help us a great deal and increase our confidence in the proposed loan system.

Baroness Lane-Fox

Surely, what we want to do is to improve things for people in need. There can be few noble Lords present who would not love to give endless grants, in the same way as many of us would love to be Father Christmas. But how could any responsible government give open-ended grants ad nauseam? Interest-free loans, on the other hand, could help enormously in cases where some people could not get grants; and for that reason I welcome the introduction.

Baroness Trumpington

As we consider this important group of amendments, I hope that noble Lords opposite will not mind my saying that the effect of Amendment No. 94, which I am taking in the grouping as agreed, if taken in isolation, would be that maternity payments, which are at present non-recoverable, would become recoverable. I cannot believe that that was the intention of the mover of this amendment.

Your Lordships will see that the power to direct that a payment is recoverable can apply only to payments for funeral expenses or other needs, by virtue of the inclusion of "(b) or (c)". However, I do realise that the thrust of this group of amendments is against recoverability and I will address my remarks to that in a moment.

The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, said that people will look to charities for help. He is referring to the circumstances set out in Clause 33, which is the subject of Amendment No. 98, standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Banks. I am sure he will forgive me if I do not comment further on this point at this stage.

With regard to the question of regulations and discretion, mentioned by my noble friend Lady Faithfull, clearly we shall want to consider the implications of the amendment which has just been agreed to by your Lordships. I hope your Lordships will recognise that I cannot go further than that at this stage.

Let me now return to the main discussion. From the outset we have made quite clear our proposal that some social fund payments should be recoverable. I would ask your Lordships to put yourselves in the place of the low-paid worker or pensioner, whose income is just above the supplementary benefit level—as low as 50p or £1 above.

You have an urgent need for something. What do you do in such a position? I suggest that you have three options. First, you buy on credit or hire purchase, which can mean heavy interest when you pay it back; secondly, you approach a moneylender, which may mean even heavier interest, and, thirdly, you do without. Let us now compare your plight with the position of persons on a fairly similar income but getting supplementary benefit. For those people the options are rather more straightforward. They can apply for a single payment from the social fund and, provided that they satisfy the rules, they will get a grant and such grants can often—and do—run into hundreds of pounds.

I suggest to your Lordships that these arrangements raise considerable questions of fairness. The social fund proposals will redress this balance. The person in receipt of income support will continue to receive grants in certain circumstances, such as for maternity and funeral expenses. That is in answer to my noble friend Lady Macleod. In other cases, such as a person leaving a long-stay hospital to be resettled in the community, we will also help by way of a grant. But in other cases help will be in the form of a loan, although without any interest at all. I wish to make that clear. This seems to me to be more equitable. Why should the out-of-work person be given grants for every need, for every replacement of household items, when his counterpart in low-paid work, with an income just 50p or £1 above income support level, is given no help at all? This underlines our proposals for recovery.

Some mention has been made of the levels of rates of help and that they will be too low to allow recovery. Of course, it is sensible that the system of extra payments for particular difficulties should be set in the context of the general help with weekly needs. The direct link can be overstated. We must remember that the present system of single payments is rather haphazard. In any one year, only a minority of claimants would receive a payment. By far and away the most significant help for claimants is their regular weekly support.

If we look at the wider context of scale rates, we see an interesting picture. It is slightly at odds with some of the claims we have heard. We have already spoken of the explosion of single payments which took place in the early 1980s. They have risen from 1 million payments, totally some £45 million in 1981, to over 4 million payments, totalling over £300 million in 1985. This development has taken place at the same time as we have seen significant improvements in the supplementary benefit scale rates.

I remind the Committee that since this Government took office the real value of scale rates has risen by 6 per cent. We have presided over a real increase in the rate for a pensioner couple of £3.80 a week, and for a non-pensioner couple on the ordinary rate of £2.90 a week. Because of structural changes, there have been improvements in the rates of children, particularly those aged under 5 and 11 and 12, whose rates were levelled up in 1980. Let me give two examples. For an unemployed couple with two children aged four and six, the value of support has gone up by over £5.80 a week—over £300 a year. For a lone parent on the long-term rate with a child under five, it has gone up by over £4.30—over £220 a year.

We can argue about the level of support that we should be arriving at, but there have been significant improvements and our proposal shows that we are aiming to improve the support further. Noble Lords greeted with pleasure my announcement last week of a family premium. But the priority must be put in regular weekly income, not in the retention of the sort of single payment system that we now have.

If I may just turn briefly to Amendment No. 88ZA, the decision on whether a grant or a loan will be made will depend upon the individual circumstances. It will undermine that intention if we write restrictive provisions into the Bill. This is especially true, I fear, of such vague terms in this context as "normally". We could end up in constant discussion over whether a particular set of circumstances was exceptional or normal. What has become clear is that this amendment is technically a horror. On that ground alone, I must resist it. The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, is arguing the case for a discretionary system governed by regulations and there is confusion of thought here. I believe that this amendment would stop the social fund from working properly.

The noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, asked about the rates of recovery and whether there would be a maximum. The full scheme would not come into effect until 1988, which is nearly two years away. The maximum rate of recovery has not yet been decided, but from this the Committee will see that we intend to have one. The purpose of this will be to ensure that people who are having social fund payments recovered do not have an amount deducted which is too large, or that deductions should go on for too long a period.

Of course, there are rules at the moment governing the amounts which can be deducted from benefit for various purposes; for example, if a person has a housing debt then the maximum deduction is 5 per cent. of the single householder rate. There are rules governing other deductions and rules governing the priority for debts when there is more than one deduction. So it is yet another area where we can examine the way in which similar rules have operated in the scheme so far and build on that experience. We all have enormous sympathy for those who are. alas, out of work and living on income support. My compassion, and the Government's compassion, lies equally with a chap struggling on a low-paid job to support his family and whose resources put him just outside the scope of automatic state aid.

To conclude on the general principle of recovery, the Government believe there must be provision for the one-off exceptional expense which anyone can face from time to time. But, equally, it is not right to retain the present open-ended commitment to assist one group of low-income families when others do not have the choice. The social fund is a sensible balance between these two considerations and I ask the Committee to resist these amendments.

Lord Auckland

My noble friend the Minister has given a generally very informative reply to this amendment, but I wonder whether she can qualify paragraph (c) of Clause 32(1). Does this mean payment for the long-term mentally or physically disabled in the form of grants or loans? Just what categories are covered by paragraph (c)?

Baroness Trumpington

One of the areas where we envisage that help will be available, and indeed where grants may be made to further community care, is in this field, in order to enable people leaving long-stay hospitals to set up homes in the community.

Lord Banks

It has been widely understood that the Government's intention operating through this new Bill will be to substitute loans in a great many cases where there would now be grants. It is understood to be the Government's intention to move towards a system in which loans will be the norm rather than grants, although as the noble Baroness has made clear, grants are not ruled out. It is a fact that this understanding of the Government's intention has caused a great deal of apprehension and concern among people who have to deal all the time with those who are unfortunate enough to require supplementary benefit. As I said in my opening remarks, the feeling is that if you switch over to a system which is mainly of loans and deduct the repayments from the income support, you will be putting people on to an income which is below subsistence level; that they will suffer deprivation as a consequence and that you will put them into debt, and perhaps greater debt than they may well be in already. It is this feeling which so many people have that lies behind the amendment.

The amendment makes it clear that the intention of the Bill would not be what at the moment is understood to be the Government's policy; but that as the general rule the officials would be seeking to provide, as now, grants, whereas there might well be cases where loans were appropriate or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, said, even requested. This would make clear the general principle and the general line in which it was anticipated that the DHSS and its officials would go. It is argued that that is not guidance of sufficient strength. But it is guidance of very much greater strength than is in the Bill at the present time. There is no proper guidance in the Bill at the present time but it is understood that the Government intend to go in a particular direction—hence the alarm. The inclusion of this amendment would, as the right reverend Prelate said, establish the principle.

That is what we on these Benches and those who support the amendment want to do today. We want to establish the principle that the main emphasis of the administration of the social fund will be to provide grants, while it is not ruled out that there could be circumstances in which loans might be appropriate. I beg to move.

5.11 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Amendment (No. 88ZA) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 120; Not-Contents, 134.

Airedale, L. Falkender, B.
Amherst, E. Falkland, V.
Ardwick, L. Fisher of Rednal, B.
Attlee, E. Fitt, L.
Aylestone, L. Flowers, L.
Banks, L. Foot, L.
Barnett, L. Gallacher, L.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Gladwyn, L.
Birk, B. Graham of Edmonton, L.
Birmingham, Bp. Hampton, L.
Blease, L. Hanworth, V.
Blyton, L. Harris of Greenwich, L.
Briginshaw, L. Hatch of Lusby, L.
Brockway, L. Hayter, L.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. Henderson of Brompton, L.
Buckmaster, V. Heycock, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Hirshfield, L.
Chitnis, L. Houghton of Sowerby, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Hunt, L.
Crawshaw of Aintree, L. Irving of Dartford, L.
Cudlipp, L. Jacques, L.
Darwen, L. Jeger, B.
David, B. Jenkins of Putney, L.
Davies of Penrhys, L. Kaldor, L.
Dean of Beswick, L. Kearton, L.
Diamond, L. Kilbracken, L.
Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L. Kilmarnock, L.
Elwyn-Jones, L. Lawrence, L.
Ennals, L. Leatherland, L.
Ewart-Biggs, B. Listowel, E.
Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B. Roll of Ipsden, L.
Lloyd of Kilgerran, L. Sainsbury, L.
Lockwood, B. Seear, B.
Longford, E. Seebohm, L.
Lovell-Davis, L. Sefton of Garston, L.
McIntosh of Haringey, L. Shaughnessy, L.
Mackie of Benshie, L. Shepherd, L.
McNair, L. Silkin of Dulwich, L.
Mar, C. Southwark, Bp.
Meston, L. Stallard, L.
Milford, L. Stamp, L.
Mishcon, L. Stewart of Fulham, L.
Molloy, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Morris of Kenwood, L. Strabolgi, L.
Morton of Shuna, L. Taylor of Gryfe, L.
Mulley, L. Taylor of Mansfield, L.
Murray of Epping Forest, L. Tordoff, L. [Teller.]
Nicol, B. Turner of Camden, B.
Northfield, L. Underhill, L.
Ogmore, L. Wallace of Coslany, L.
O'Neill of the Maine, L. Walston, L.
Oram, L. Warnock, B.
Phillips, B. Wells-Pestell, L.
Pitt of Hampstead, L. White, B.
Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L. Wigoder, L.
[Teller.] Willis, L.
Prys-Davies, L. Wilson of Rievaulx, L.
Rathcreedan, L. Winstanley, L.
Rea. L. Young of Dartington, L.
Ritchie of Dundee, L. Ypres, E.
Rochester, L.
Ampthill, L. Gridley, L.
Arran, E. Hailsham of Saint
Auckland, L. Marylebone, L.
Bauer, L. Henley, L.
Beaverbrook, L. Hives, L.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Home of the Hirsel, L.
Beloff, L. Hood, V.
Belstead, L. Hooper, B.
Bessborough, E. Hunter of Newington, L.
Birdwood, L. Hylton-Foster, B.
Blake, L. Kemsley, V.
Blakenham, V. Killearn, L.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Kimball, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Kinnaird, L.
Brentford, V. Lane-Fox, B.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Lauderdale, E.
Broxbourne, L. Layton, L.
Caithness, E. Lindsey and Abingdon, E.
Cameron of Lochbroom, L. Long, V.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Lyell, L.
Carnock, L. McAlpine of Moffat, L.
Cathcart, E. McAlpine of West Green, L.
Coleraine, L. McFadzean, L.
Cowley, E. Macleod of Borve, B.
Craigavon, V. Mancroft, L.
Cullen of Ashbourne, L. Manton, L.
Dacre of Glanton, L. Marchwood, V.
Davidson, V. Merrivale, L.
Denham, L. [Teller] Mersey, V.
Derwent, L. Middleton, L.
Dilhorae, V. Monson, L.
Drumalbyn, L. Morris, L.
Dundee, E. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Eccles, V. Murton of Lindisfarne, L.
Eden of Winton, L. Newall, L.
Ellenborough, L. Norfolk, D.
Elles, B. Nome, L.
Elliot of Harwood, B. Nugent of Guildford, L.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Onslow, E.
Elton, L. Orkney, E.
Fortescue, E. Orr-Ewing, L.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Pender, L.
Gainford, L. Penrhyn, L.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Peyton of Yeovil, L.
Glanusk, L. Plummer of St Marylebone,
Glenarthur, L. L.
Gray of Contin, L. Polwarth, L.
Porrit, L. Teviot, L.
Portland, D. Teynham, L.
Portsmouth, E. Thorneycroft, L.
Quinton, L. Torrington, V.
Rankeillour, L. Tranmire, L.
Reay, L. Trefgarne, L.
Reigate, L. Trumpington, B.
Richardson, L. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Romney, E. Vickers, B.
St. Davids, V. Vivian, L.
Sanderson of Bowden, L. Watkinson, V.
Sandford, L. Westbury, L.
Sandys, L. Whitelaw, V.
Sempill, Ly. Wise, L.
Shannon, E. Wolfson, L.
Skelmersdale, L. Wynford, L.
Somers, L. Yarborough, E.
Sudeley, L. Young, B.
Swinton, E. [Teller.] Young of Graffham, L.
Terrington, L. Zouche of Haryngworth, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

5.21 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs moved Amendment No. 88A: Page 41, line 25, at end insert ("in relation to a mother of any age;")

The noble Baroness said: This amendment seeks to restore to mothers who are under 16 years of age their entitlement to maternity benefit, which they at present hold in their own right. Under the provisions of the Bill, those schoolgirl mothers would only qualify for social fund payments as dependants of their own parents. Their parents will only be eligible for payment of the grant for their daughter if they are themselves either on income support or family credit. For those potential grandparents who rise just above the threshold for income support or family credit there would be no other source of help available.

Fortunately, we are dealing here with only a very small group. In 1983, the number of births to mothers aged under 16 was no more than 1,226. On the other hand, I am sure it would be generally agreed that, although those young mothers are a very small group, they are a very vulnerable one. Statistics show that the risk of stillbirth or of early death to babies born to mothers as young as that is two and a half times that for the population as a whole. The high incidence of illness and early death among babies born to such very young mothers would seem to indicate that they do need more support, and that one should not take away the little support that they have at present.

In the debate in the other place on this particular issue, two arguments were put up to justify the removal of maternity grant to schoolgirl mothers. The Minister responsible first struggled with the concept of a parental responsibility if the parent was a girl under the age of 16. However, if one accepts the fact that at present we recognise and support young mothers' family responsibilities by paying them child benefit, and one parent benefit if appropriate in their own right, then surely it is illogical not to accept that they have a parental responsibility if they are under the age of 16. Therefore, their entitlement to help with their maternity costs should be considered in the same light.

Secondly, there was the argument that giving benefits to mothers under the age of 16 might encourage under-age pregnancies. However, a payment of £75 could hardly be considered an adequate inducement to a girl of 14 or 15 to take the enormous step into motherhood. Indeed, the figures show that since the Government made a maternity grant available to those under 16 in 1982, together with other mothers who were entitled to it, there has been a small reduction in the number of pregnant schoolgirls who actually had their babies.

The amendment does not ask for any new or additional benefit for those very young and vulnerable mothers. It simply seeks to restore that which the Bill will take away from them. It would give them direct help when they need extra support very much, one would have thought, to be better parents. I hope that the Minister will look favourably upon this amendment. As I have said, it is entirely logical and rational. However, if the Minister does not agree, she will have to explain on what grounds that most needy group is to be deprived of the little help to which its members are currently entitled. We are all critical of the girl of 14 or 15 who has a baby, and of course it is entirely to be deplored. But it is the interest of the baby that must be considered. It is that interest we have in mind and which this amendment would in some small measure safeguard.

Baroness Trumpington

The noble Baroness. Lady Ewart-Biggs, has drawn attention to the position of young mothers under the age of 16 in relation to the social fund. I congratulate her on raising this important subject but must say at the outset that I cannot agree to the proposal. The noble Baroness asked me for an explanation, and I would have thought that that was what I was going to give her when I rose to my feet.

When considering this issue we should remember one simple fact. Young people aged under 16 are still legally children. Consequently they will normally be in full-time education and living at home in the care of their parents or with a guardian. If circumstances prevent that, then they will not be able to take up a tenancy and establish their own household. In those circumstances, they would probably be in care—especially so in the case of a young child who has had a baby. It remains my view that it would not be sensible to treat young persons under 16 as having become independent adults, with independent title to benefit, simply because they have had a child.

I remind the Committee that that approach does not represent a change in government policy but rather one that has been adopted by successive governments. It has always been the case, for instance, that young girls in that position would be excluded from supplementary benefit. Their needs and that of their children continue to be aggregated with the young mothers' parents. We do not propose any change in the principle for income support. To allow access to payments from the social fund would, quite rightly, lead to accusations of inconsistency on our part.

It is our intention with the social fund that we should adopt the same approach to the problem as we do now in the supplementary benefit scheme. Supplementary benefit single payments are not payable to young mothers under 16 in their own right. But if the young parent's father or mother—the grandparent—is in receipt of supplementary benefit, he or she will be entitled to claim a single payment for maternity expenses. We believe that that is the best way to direct help to households most in need. I remind the Committee that help from the social fund will be available to young mothers living with parents who are receiving family credit as well as those receiving income support. I hope that the noble Baroness, having heard that explanation, will withdraw her amendment.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Jeger

Earlier, the noble Minister was pleading the cause of families who were just above the social security level and saying how sorry she was for these poorly paid families. Now she does not seem to have the same sympathy towards a poorly paid family just above the supplementary benefit level whose daughter is found to be pregnant. What will happen in families in that situation, where often there is a great deal of discord?

I feel that my noble friend made out the case very well. There will be considerable expenditure which the parents will have to meet. I know that in the other place the Minister emphasised that the plight of these young girls is the responsibility of their parents, and I wish that real life was like that. I can see difficulties in the fact that extra financial burdens are placed on parents who may not be very sympathetic, who may be separated and who may have their own debts and money troubles as well as their emotional difficulties in accepting the situation. However, to have further money difficulties cannot add to the harmony in any family which finds itself in this situation.

I share my noble friend's concern about the baby. There must be all sorts of difficulties for a baby born in such circumstances. There are higher rates of illness and neonatal mortality among them. I should have thought we would all agree that this was an area where we could do something to help. Fortunately, it is not a frequent problem but there are too many schoolgirl mothers in difficulties and too many of them belong to families who are already deprived and, as I said, poor but not poor enough to benefit from social security payments.

Baroness Trumpington

The noble Baroness must forgive me if I return to the debate. She obviously did not listen to me, because I said that help was available to the families of children. We believe that the best way to direct help to households most in need is to give the family help for a child of theirs who has borne a child.

The numbers of births we are talking about were 1,263 in 1983 and 1,328 in 1984. We are indeed compassionate about those on very low incomes, which is why we are supporting the families of children who give birth to babies and who are living with them.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

When I asked the Minister for an explanation I merely meant a justification for the change, and it is indeed a change from the present system, where a young schoolgirl mother gets maternity benefit in her own right. When my noble friend said that the families need this benefit she meant those families who are above the threshold for income support and family benefit but who are still very poor and who will lose out on this benefit altogether because their daughter will not receive benefit in her own right. I think it is inconsistent to pay them child benefit and one-parent family benefit and yet say they are not independent and that they are a member of the family. As I said, this is a completely inconsistent change, whereas at the moment there is a consistency in which these schoolgirl mothers receive benefits—all three of them—in their own right.

It is a pity that the Minister has been unable to give a satisfactory answer. However, I will look at what she said and in the meantime beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Henderson of Brompton moved Amendment No. 89: Page 41, line 28, at end insert— ("( ) Within the scheme prescribed in subsection (l)(c) above, regulations shall make provision for entitlement in prescribed circumstances to grants in respect of essential items of furniture and household equipment and other essential items for which periodic payments of income support do not provide.")

The noble Lord said: I beg to move the amendment in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, and the noble Lord, Lord Ennals.

This amendment is at least precise; unlike Amendment No. 88ZA, to which the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, took exception for its imprecision. This amendment is, incidentally, also about grants or loans, but there can be no question about the precision of its wording. It states that within the subsection (l)(c)—that is, not maternity and not death grants—

Baroness Trumpington

I hope the noble Lord will forgive me for intervening but may I ask a question? In the grouping of amendments that I have, the noble Lord is moving Amendment No. 89 and speaking to Amendment No. 95. Am I correct?

Lord Henderson of Brompton

That is what has been arranged and I am quite happy that it should be so, although I was not exactly consulted.

The amendment is as precise as it can be made because it refers only to an entitlement—and no one can quarrel with the word "entitlement"—that in prescribed circumstances grants (grants, not loans) shall be made in respect of essential items of furniture, household equipment and so on for which periodic payments of income support do not provide.

The present position is that single payments, by regulations, shall provide for one-off grants for families with children, and others living on the poverty line, for a range of bulky items of expenditure which either cannot be foreseen or cannot be met out of the basic rate of benefit. These include basic items such as bedding, furniture, and household equipment without which families could not live in their own homes but would have to live in institutional care.

The Bill proposes that grants would be limited to a few very closely defined situations, and these are so closely defined and so few that a large number of those people who, in existing circumstances, are in receipt of the payments which I am saying should be an entitlement would no longer receive those payments. One way of putting it is that this amendment seeks to provide for the maintenance of the status quo; and that is exactly so. I do not wish to say anything against the concept of the fund but I think that one should not be so rigid as to say that it shall be the fund and only the fund without one or two essential entitlements. I maintain that this amendment is concerned solely with those whose entitlement should be justified on the ground of essential need.

I illustrate what would happen if, for example, those who are on income support had a loan but not a grant. I understand that the DHSS proposes that 10 per cent. of the claimant's income support would be deducted at source for the repayment of a loan. The claimant would then be existing at 10 per cent. below the poverty line. However, a great number of these claimants already are in debt for fuel, which may be another 5 per cent; so there would be poor people living at 10 per cent. or 15 per cent. below the poverty line if they receive, by way of loan rather than grant, what I suggest should be an entitlement.

This is a large number of people. I am told that if only two-thirds of single payments were replaced by loans, the number of families that were forced into debt and had to live from an income of between 10 and 15 per cent. below the poverty line during the period of the repayments would be between half a million and three quarters of a million. It is of those people alone that I am speaking.

Perhaps I may add that the effects of a loan system on the 8,000 or so young people who are released from care each year would be very considerable. Is it really right that such vulnerable young people should begin their adult life in debt? It can only have adverse consequences. I believe that Mr. Tony Newton in a note to the Standing Committee dealing with this Bill in another place said that work on this part of the social fund (that is, grants or loans for one-off expenses or community care needs) is at an earlier stage of development than arrangements for maternity payments and funeral payments, and that there is a certain amount of time—two years or so—for these needs to be formulated. I think that two years is really a long time to wait for the formulation of this important category of need. Also, I should have thought that the decision should be made by Parliament rather than by the Minister. It is on those grounds that I beg to move this amendment.

Lord Banks

I should like to support the amendment which the noble Lord has just moved and also to speak to Amendment No. 95, which has a very similar purpose. As I understand it, under the amendment that is now before the Committee grants will be available for furniture and household necessities, whereas under Amendment No. 95 payments for removal expenses and essential furniture and essential household repairs will not be repayable.

Scottish Women's Aid, which is a registered charity that gives advice, support and refuge to battered women and their children, has drawn my attention to a particular situation. Mrs. T and her three children came into the Women's Aid Refuge because of her husband's violent behaviour toward her. Mrs. T was given a tenancy of her own by the local authority. As is often the case for women fleeing from violence, she had to leave her furniture behind in the marital home and her husband refused to give her anything from the house. Under the current legislation Mrs. T would be entitled to a grant from the DHSS for essential furniture and household items. As we understand it, under the proposed legislation the money obtained by Mrs. T to set up home could take the form of a loan from the social fund. Given her situation as a single parent, who is in poorly paid full-time work and has all the attendant child care problems, it would be totally unrealistic to expect her to repay the money, since any repayment would reduce her income to below the poverty line. I think that that particular example helps to illustrate the importance of this amendment.

Baroness Faithfull

I should like to support this amendment. In particular I have in mind the homeless who are living in bed and breakfast accommodation and, as has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, young people who are coming out of care. As it stands at the moment, the law under the Children and Young Persons Acts cannot help any child who comes out of care at the age of 18. Even if they find one unfurnished room, which is what these young people usually find, they have no means of purchasing a bed or any furniture whatsoever. Moreover, if they are to be given a loan, they will never be able to repay it. I regret to have to say that various misfortunes stem from this situation and the young people get deeper into debt or into trouble. Therefore, in the light of such cases I support the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, in this amendment.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Ennals

I want to be very brief in supporting both the amendments—the one that is proposed and the one that has been spoken to. I have added my name to both amendments. The group of persons upon which I should like to touch is a group that has been mentioned earlier, in particular by the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod; namely, those who have been discharged from psychiatric hospitals, having in many cases been there for a long time, and who are either moving into group homes or into some other form of community accommodation. Certainly they will come out of hospital without furniture or household effects and in some cases there may be need for essential household repairs.

Both the amendments before the Committee relate to a large number of people. I think it is good that we— the Government and the country—are managing to proceed as fast as circumstances and the funds permit to ensure the discharge of patients who do not need to be in a psychiatric hospital. They should be in the community, but we cannot expect them to come back into the community and settle down unless they can obtain the necessary furniture and other items that are essential to enable them to set up home. If the first thing that they are asked to do is to start repaying a loan, they will be in very great difficulty.

Viscount Buckmaster

I, too, should like to support this amendment and I do so particularly in the context of refugees. As the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, will know, there are a number of refugees who come to this country from warm climates in the colder months of the year and their need for warm clothes is absolutely vital. They need warm clothing, footwear and various other essential items. I myself have seen refugees who have come to this country with the scantiest of clothing and I feel that in that context this amendment is very helpful.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

The noble Viscount who has just spoken has to some considerable extent undermined the case for this amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, was on a very strong point when he mentioned the person who is discharged from a psychiatric hospital, because it is quite obvious that if help of this sort is to be given, it is required to be given by grant. It would be absurd to do it by loan.

Of course, the trouble is that the terms of the amendment that the noble Lord is supporting go far wider than that and when read with Amendment No. 95, or even independently of it, they appear to imply that in all cases grants shall be made for this purpose and in no cases shall loans be made. That seems to me to be going too far. It is perfectly possible that there could be circumstances in which loans were the appropriate method of financing these particular needs. The obvious example is that of someone who has had a series of misfortunes but who has considerable earning capacity. When he has been helped, and properly helped, by the social fund through those troubles, he will be able to earn on a substantial scale, and can be expected to do so. Thus he would be in a position to repay the social fund. Indeed, he might even wish to opt for a loan for reasons of self-respect.

The example that has been quoted by the noble Viscount who has just spoken of the refugee coming to our cold climate in winter is a case in point. Many such refugees are people of very considerable ability and considerable earning capacity. They come here as refugees and, as the noble Viscount has quite rightly said, they need warm clothing at once. However, in a matter of months they might be earning extremely well and it is really quite absurd in those circumstances to exclude such cases from being dealt with by way of loan.

Therefore it seems to me that the amendment goes too far. Otherwise, it is perfectly true, as the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, says, that probably the great majority of these are cases for grant. I think that my noble friend would be quite wrong to accept an amendment which makes it grant in all cases and excludes the possibility of loan in any case whatever.

Viscount Buckmaster

With great respect to the noble Lord, it is extremely unlikely that such refugees would be in a position to earn quickly. Indeed, it may take a year or more before their position in the country is legalised.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

Illegal immigrants are another matter. I am not sure that an amendment designed to benefit illegal immigrants is particularly attractive to the Committee. But many legal immigrants—which is what I am talking about—have great earning capacity. The noble Viscount has only to bear in mind the Pakistanis, who arrive here and almost invariably set up a highly successful shop—which generally, I am glad to say, provides sales on Sundays and follows therefore the view of this House as to the propriety of Sunday shopping. They are earning excellently. It is quite wrong to say that it must be presumed that any refugee will be in poverty for years. I am glad to say that many of them are not.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

On the last occasion that the Committee met we heard from my noble friend Lady Faithfull about the refugees she helped in Oxfordshire, who bought, I think five houses, and paid back every penny of a loan.

Lord Ennals

As chairman of the Ockenden Venture, which has been responsible for the resettlement of half the quota of Vietnamese refugees settled here, I happen to be deeply involved.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

Very successfully.

Lord Ennals

Very successfully, yes, but not in terms of employment. That was the point that I was going to make to the noble Lord. They arrive here without linguistic abilities and often with skills which are not immediately needed, and they may often need retraining. For many, employment possibilities in their first two years or so are slight. Otherwise, I agree absolutely with everything that the noble Lord said. He recognised that there were certain circumstances when loans would be appropriate and other circumstances when grants would be appropriate. If the noble Baroness agreed about that, I should be happy.

Lord Kaldor

Would the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, support Amendment No. 89 if there were inserted after the words, in prescribed circumstances to grants", the words, or loans, as may be appropriate"?

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

I agree with the noble Lord that that would be an immense improvement to the amendment, but whether it is necessary at all to legislate on the point is a matter on which I should like to hear my noble friend the Minister.

Lord Banks

Is the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, correct in saying that Amendment No. 89 excludes loans? It seems to me that Amendment No. 95 does, but Amendment No. 89 says: for entitlement in prescribed circumstances to grants". That seems to qualify it, and I think perhaps that meets his point.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

If the noble Lord will look at Amendment No. 89, he will see that it refers to grants only.

Baroness Trumpington

As Amendment No. 88 has already been carried, there is now written into the Bill a provision for payments from the social fund to be governed by regulations. The Committee has already provided for a measure of entitlement; we must consider that. I note the noble Lord's further comments on this amendment.

Let me say a few words specifically on Amendment No. 95. It provides for a sharp distinction among items of help. That is not the approach that we intend. Indeed, it takes us back to the drawbacks of the current regulations. It would quickly become a matter of contention as to which items of furniture or household equipment were essential. There would tend to be endless arguments as to where lines should be drawn. We are proposing that decisions on whether a payment should be a grant or a loan will depend more on the surrounding circumstances of the need and the individual rather than the fact of whether it is on a checklist of items.

We have always made it clear that certain payments from the social fund, including those to support community care needs, will be in the form of grants and not loans. As my honourable friend the Minister of State indicated in another place, we would consider help in the circumstances where a woman was leaving home as a result of domestic violence. Similarly, we would consider a grant for essential furniture and household equipment to a lone parent setting up home after a marital breakdown or domestic violence.

On the question of refugees, we shall ensure that asylum-seekers get help with living expenses much as we do now. As we have previously indicated, we are considering making the help available through income support rather than the social fund, and we shall also consider sympathetically what help might be given to asylum-seekers with, for example, immediate clothing needs.

With regard to young people leaving care, I am glad to say that that is one of the vulnerable groups for whom we shall be considering grants to set up home in the community. I submit to the Committee that the amendment is unnecessary and I ask the mover not to press it.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

That is an emollient reply, if I may say so. I should like to respond in the same way. First, I apologise to the noble Baroness for not sitting down when she rose to interrupt my opening speech. I suppose that I more than most should have known better.

Secondly, let me say a brief word about what the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said, although I know that it is dangerous to do so because he comes back on the riposte. He again brought forward the example of the man who is down on his luck, who has to resort to income support, but in due course may earn a great deal. He is right to draw attention to that rare case. I wish that it was frequent, and I hope that it will be more and more so. But that man will still be the exception, even if there are many more, as I hope there will be. But I think that he would be quite happy to repay the loan voluntarily. If he did not do so, perhaps he would be happy to repay it through the tax system. I regard it as a good but not very important point, and not one that destroys the purpose of the amendment.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

Will the noble Lord give way?

Lord Henderson of Brompton

I anticipated a riposte!

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

As always, the noble Lord is most courteous. Given what he said—that there will be cases in which a loan would be a perfectly sensible provision and that indeed the man might voluntarily repay it—why in his amendment does he limit the provision to grants? Why not have grants or loans, as appropriate?

Lord Henderson of Brompton

If the amendment was to be agreed subject to that amendment, no one would be happier than I. Perhaps the noble Lord would care to put down that amendment and I should be happy to agree with it.

In her reply I thought that the noble Baroness made a promising reference to the fact that the Committee has accepted Amendment No. 88, which was to leave out "directions given" and insert "regulations made". I am very keen indeed on that amendment. After all, there are two parts to the amendments which were taken together. One was that there should be regulations laid before Parliament and the other was the independent appeal; there are two elements. Taking the regulations argument, the noble Baroness has given almost a hint that that might be, if not accepted, at least considered sympathetically.

Baroness Trumpington

I am sorry for jumping up. Lord Henderson of Brompton: I sit down at once.

Baroness Trumpington

No hints; it was a mere statement of fact.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

No more than that; no hint that it may be sympathetically considered. If that amendment were to stay, I should perhaps be happier that this amendment could be withdrawn. That puts me in something of a difficulty. Before 1 do one thing or the other, I should perhaps say to the noble Baroness that I sympathise very much with the kind of person she has in mind. She asks us to remember the man or the family whose income from employment is marginally above income support and how unfair it would be if those below income support were to receive benefits which that man or family could not obtain. I sympathise with that, but I ask her to sympathise with the case that I put forward, which is of those who are on income support and who therefore live below the income suport level, if from the start they have to pay 10 per cent. of the loan and perhaps 5 per cent. of a fuel bill. They may well have to pay 5 per cent. for late payments for fuel in addition to 10 per cent. for the loan from the DHSS. They will therefore be living 15 per cent. below the poverty line.

The noble Baroness has given us one kind of person or family to wring the heart, and I give another. They should both be considered. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, that the few exceptions who could repay a loan are so few that I should prefer to leave my amendment drafted precisely as it is now, for grants and not for loans.

I am in the hands of the Committee as to whether or not to press the amendment. I should quite like to withdraw it at this stage, pending a decision by the Government as to whether they will accept Amendment No. 88. If I have the feeling of the Committee, and without prejudice to bringing this matter back at a later stage, that for that reason it is desirable to withdraw, I shall do so. May I have the leave of the Committee to withdraw the amendment?

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 90 not moved. ]

Baroness Jeger moved Amendment No. 90A: Page 41, line 31, at end insert— (" ( ) It shall be a direction in calculating social fund payments to registered blind persons that the existing separate blind addition shall be maintained.").

The noble Baroness said: The amendment provides for the continuation of the special allowances for the blind. There has been a long tradition in this country of recognising the special needs of blind people. Preferential treatment for them was incorporated in the national assistance scheme as a continuation of local authority practices under the Blind Persons Acts of 1920 and 1938. There is nothing revolutionary, therefore, in what I have suggested.

Between 1948 and 1980 there were separate blind scale rates. The adult rate exceeded the ordinary scale rate by 15s, as it used to be, in 1948. The extra allowance for blind people was set at its present level of £1.25 in November 1969. It has not been increased since. If it had been increased in line with the movement of the retail price index, it would be well over £8. I understand that the Government have no plans to review the allowance.

I have also to ask the noble Baroness if she knows whether the Inland Revenue will continue to allow a personal allowance of £360 a year against income tax for blind persons. That was introduced because blind persons who have earnings that bring them within the tax limit usually have higher expenses. They often have a blind dog or escorts to take them to work. If they type, they need a Braille typewriter, which is more expensive than an ordinary one. In many ways, blind people who try to earn their living earn it at considerable cost, and that is why there has been this arrangement with the Treasury.

I know that the Minister will say that what the Treasury does has nothing to do with her in her present capacity. That only underlines a fact that has been stated again and again in these debates. Until we have some communion between the Treasury and the DHSS, we shall not have this whole subject of benefits and taxation right. I do not apologise for raising the matter today. I hope that the noble Baroness can at least assure us that the Government do not intend to alter that arrangement, for the time being anyhow.

There is an old principle in industrial negotiations that I have often found in social security regulations: that when one makes changes one tries to stick by custom and practice as far as practicable, and to establish a "no detriment" provision. I do not think it would be the Committee's wish to make blind people worse off and to take away something that they already have.

When I raised this matter on Second Reading I was told—and I have been into the matter since—that blind people would be treated as the disabled and would receive disability help. However, I have received no undertaking that there would be any extra help by virtue of their blindness. I know that not everyone agrees that there should be, but if the result of the change means that blind people are to be worse off after the Bill comes into effect than they are now, that would be regrettable.

The question was raised on 22nd February 1984 in this Chamber, and the then Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, said: Although we are sympathetic to the case for the introduction of a special cash allowance for all blind people, it would be wrong for me to suggest that the necessary resources are likely to become available in the foreseeable future. —[Official Report, 22/2/84; col. 840.]

It seemed to me that the then Minister was not opposing the matter on principle because he said he was sympathetic to it, and it was a question of whether he could find the money to introduce it.

A great deal of anxiety is being caused to a great many blind people because the Bill is unclear as to the basis of the calculations of the amounts which they are to receive. It would put at rest the minds of everybody who is concerned about blind people for them to know that there would be no detriment and that a fact of life will be that their income support, whether from tax or social security, will be maintained. I beg to move.

Lord Kilmarnock

I support the noble Baroness. However, I should like to make a slight correction to what she said about the period during which the blind addition has not been changed. In fact, it goes back to 1962, apart from a 2½p rise on the introduction of decimalisation in 1969. We have not moved on that figure for nearly a quarter of a century. As the noble Baroness said, had the amount moved in relation to the retail price index, it would now have been about £8.

Setting aside the question of the amount, the real argument is that the Government proposal, as I understand it, is that in fact all the additions which many blind people receive at the moment should be subsumed in the new disablement premium, which is a sum of £12.25. The trouble with that is that in the past blind people have been entitled to a considerable number of additions which, taken together, in many cases work out at more than the disablement premium. Many of them are likely to find themselves worse off under the Government's proposals.

Let us take, for example, a single blind person currently receiving the following supplementary benefit payments: the long-term rate of £37.50; the blindness addition of £1.25; the heating addition of £5.45; the diet addition for a slimming diet of £1.60; water rates of £1.35, and maintenance and insurance £1.85. That adds up to £49. If we deduct the available scale margin, that comes out at £48. Under the Government's proposals, as I understand them, that person would now receive £42.85 a week from income support—that is to say, £30.60 plus the £12.25 disablement premium—and the net loss would be £5.15. Now the additions that I have mentioned in that case are very usual in the case of blind people. The heating addition is certainly greatly needed by people who are confined by blindness to the home and who therefore consume more fuel.

There is another case which I shall not go into in detail except to note that it includes a diabetic addition. This Committee will be aware that diabetes is frequently associated with blindness and in this case there is an addition of £3.70 on that specific account. There is also a heating addition of £3.70 and a laundry addition of £3.25. In this second case the net loss under the Government's proposals is £4.05.

I have given these instances but I could give many more examples, some of which involve larger losses. However, I have tried to choose cases which are representative and therefore more likely to affect a larger number of people. It does seem to me that in these circumstances it is an absolutely minimal requirement that, apart from the net losses that they may suffer from the transfer from the additions under the supplementary benefit system to the new disablement premium, blind people should not also suffer the loss of the £1.25 which has not been changed in 25 years. That seems to be adding insult to injury for people who are among the most disadvantaged in the whole of our society.

I, along with the noble Baroness, very much hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, will say that is not the Government's intention, and that the Bill as drafted is not intended to make blind people worse off. In so far as it does have this unfortunate effect, I hope she will say that at least there will be the amelioration of preserving the blind persons' addition. This certainly ought to be put up. We are not, however, moving that in this amendment but merely seeking the preservation of what exists. I hope very much that the noble Baroness will give us good news on this.

Lord Wolfson

I should like to support the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness. In human terms it is morally right, and this is one of those occasions when both the heart and the head can work in unison. I hope the Government will agree.

Baroness Trumpington

Perhaps I may start by saying that I think the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger and the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, are addressing the wrong part of the Bill. Their concerns are to do with the arrangements for regular weekly benefit covered in Part II, dealing with income support, and not the social fund.

If I may say at the outset of my reply to the noble Baroness that I cannot recommend the amendment to the Committee, perhaps I can explain the reasons why and hope to take the noble Baroness with me. She is quite right to highlight the fact that blind people receive recognition in the supplementary benefit scheme. This takes the shape of a weekly addition of £1.25 which is payable automatically to blind people. There is also an addition which can be paid by blind non-householders; but I think that when we refer to the blind addition we generally mean the weekly addition of £1.25. This additional help is the only help given solely because of blindness.

When we introduce income support we shall be replacing the system of weekly additions, including that for blindness, with a better system of premiums. These will also be paid weekly and will go to particular groups. One of the premiums, as the Committee will know, is for disabled people and an entitlement for this will be blindness. Therefore blind people will automatically receive this additional help through weekly income support, and I hope the Committee will agree that the new scheme helps to carry forward the help which is currently available to blind people. I am sure that this is right. However, I am not convinced that it is for the social fund to give an extra weekly payment to blind people if that is the intention of the amendment. We have made it clear that the social fund is intended normally to deal with one-off payments to meet unexpected or particularly expensive needs. The Committee will realise that this is different from weekly income support. Indeed, the main thrust of our proposals is to split the two forms of support. There is no provision for additions to be made to single payments in the current scheme, and I am sure the Commitee will agree that if a payment is intended to meet the cost of an item, then that should be the determining factor rather than that of a characteristic of a person.

I realise that the noble Baroness is concerned to maintain the position of blind people and believes that this amendment might be the best means of achieving that goal; but I think this still confuses the roles of the two schemes. If a blind person has his underlying entitlement in some way reduced by the switch from supplementary benefit to income support, then transitional arrangements will ensure that there is no drop in cash income. But this will be achieved by an addition to weekly benefit and not by additions to one-off payments. Therefore I hope it will be seen that we must leave the special provisions for weekly help to income support and not to the social fund. Otherwise we lose the gains from our proposals for structural reform.

The noble Baroness mentioned Inland Revenue. This is not a matter for this Bill, as she acknowledged; but I shall draw her concern and her remarks to the attention of my right honourable friend, the Chancel-lor of the Exchequer. In the meantime, I hope that the noble Baroness will agree that as blindness is a qualification for the disablement premium there is no need to make a separate provision as she suggests.

6.15 p.m.

Baroness Jeger

I thank the noble Baroness for that reply and I hope that I heard her rightly when she said that she could state that there would be no cash loss for blind people. That will give them some reassurance.

Baroness Trumpington


Baroness Jeger

I appreciate that it is not for the noble Baroness to talk about income tax, but I think it is very important for that allowance to be maintained because it is expensive for blind people to get to work; it is expensive for them to keep a guide dog; and it is expensive for them to have escorts. I think the blind are very brave. I often see them getting on buses and I admire them very much. I hope the blind will be protected. I understand that this part of the Bill will not come into force in any case until April of 1988, and I am sure that by then we shall have a different government and we can look at this again. I beg leave to withdraw.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Turner of Camden moved Amendment No. 91: Page 41, line 33, after ("amounts") insert ("as are necessary to meet fully all social fund payments, and there shall be no other determining factor as regards the amount of payments into the fund, and he shall make payments").

The noble Baroness said: The aim of the amendment is to prevent the fixing of cash limits for the social fund. Clearly cash limits would be inappropriate and a demand-led area like the social fund. In particular, there could be extra unexpected claims due to factors like very bad weather and floods, successful take-up campaigns, and higher and longer unemployment than has been estimated.

Recent experience in the growth in single payments shows how difficult it is to give exact predictions. For example, I gather that the figures were under £1 million in 1981 and over £4 million in 1985.I believe that reference has already been made to these differing amounts. If social fund officers are overwhelmed by demands for help, if there are no rules of entitlement, and if officers have to function within a cash ceiling, it must be concluded that many needs will remain unmet while others will be met only in part. Claimants who call upon the fund at the beginning of the financial year may well have a better chance of success than those whose need arises eight or 10 months later. Claimants in different parts of the country could well come out with different amounts or different treatment.

The level of deprivation is difficult to anticipate. But social services departments may well find themselves full of desperate claimants whose needs are purely financial. The government have argued that claims for single payments are limited and that many claimants receive little help from single payments. It is probably true that claimants in touch with a social services department or advice agency will be more likely to apply for single payments than others. As with all means-tested benefits, it is likely to be the case that the most deprived and vulnerable claimants will be the least likely to claim payments unless supported by an agency. This, however, is not an argument for imposing a cash ceiling to limit the benefits available for those who do come forward to claim. It is an argument for improving communication about benefits and for improving advice services.

If this amendment is not carried and if the Government do not change their mind, it can be foreseen that charities will be snowed under with applications for assistance and forced to ration their money. Already, it is said that some charities are imposing arbitrary limits on sums allocated to clients in order to spread their help as widely as possible in the face of an every growing volume of genuine need. Social fund officers reaching the limit of funds available could well be beseiged in their offices by desperate claimants. We have had some discussion in the Chamber about the problems that already face social security officers with shortages of staff and the number of people who now have to have recourse to social benefits.

A cash ceiling on the social fund may meet the short-term needs of the Treasury, but it will cost more in the longer run and will cause chaos and considerable hardship at grass-roots level. Since we have agreed this afternoon to adopt an amendment providing for a method of appeal, this will clearly have an effect on the original concept of a fund that was cash limited. I ask whether the noble Baroness can make a statement in that regard this afternoon. I believe that the passage of the amendment has an impact on the concept of a cash limited social fund. I beg to move.

Lord Banks

I should like to support the amendment. The idea that special needs—needs that are admitted by the Government to be special—should depend on a fund that is cash limited must give rise to considerable concern. It would certainly appear to mean that whether an award, however justified, is made or not, this must depend on how much cash is in the fund at any time. It would seem to be true, as the noble Baroness said, that those who claim early in the financial year would appear to be better placed to make sure of getting their award than those who come later in the year. If some are not to be in danger of not getting their special needs met, it is difficult to see what the cash limitation means.

Baroness Trumpington

In responding to this amendment—I take up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner—I must preface my remarks by saying that in the light of the debate that has just taken place we shall need to consider the issues of regulations versus discretion and appeals versus reviews following this afternoon's vote. Clearly, the outcome could affect the status of the budget that we envisage for the social fund. Nevertheless, it is right that I should explain the thinking behind the proposals that the Government have put forward. I shall make my remarks on that basis.

This amendment seeks to constrain the role of the Secretary of State in making payments into the social fund. We have always made clear that there should be a limit to the role of the social fund. This limit is set by Ministers in two ways. First, the proposal is that the scope of the payments will be set out in published guidance and, secondly, the amount of money allocated to it will be in the form of a budget. Both of these will be open and public knowledge. It will be possible for us to discuss and agree—and disagree, I imagine—the limits set and the scope it allows the social fund. That is a matter of legitimate and sensible political debate.

There is nothing novel about this in some respects. There are many aspects of government spending which are governed by a budget. It provides a clear indication of the role of the government and, of course, it introduces an element of financial control. This introduction of financial control is the hall-mark, I submit, of responsible government. Expenditure on single payments is mushrooming. We have seen it rise from £45 million in 1981 and £88 million in 1982 to a current level of over £300 million. This may be relatively small in terms of social security expenditure, but it would be foolish of any government to ignore this rise. The Committee will already be aware that we have referred proposals on the current single payments package to the Social Security Advisory Committee. But that cannot be a regular event and, of course, it is done on the basis of the current scheme.

As we move to the future, we choose to exert financial control by the means which are used elsewhere in government spending—that is, an annual budget. The question of proper financial control and planning of expenditure is inescapable, whatever the legal structure. Of course, having a budget means emphasis on monitoring of expenditure. It is not sensible to have one without the other. We shall need to watch our allocations carefully and react if they look wrong. Was our estimate unrealistic? Has the ground shifted suddenly since we made it? Is our guidance unclear? Any number of indications may be called into question. But this method of operating is responsible budget management and something I hope the Committee would welcome.

I must take the opportunity to comment on some of the criticisms of this approach. I am afraid that some of them have been far from sensible. There have been claims that, if a budget is set, some local offices will close down half-way through the year because their money has run out. One lurid picture was painted of groups of people going from office to office looking for one with money. And yet our White Paper responded specifically to this point. I can do no better than to quote from it: The purpose of a budget for the fund is to establish a system where there is effective monitoring and control of expenditure. But the Government recognise that it will take time for people to become accustomed to such a system, and that the system should be flexible enough to ensure that payments should not cease because a local office had run out of money before the end of the financial year". We realise that in its early stages the system must be operated flexibly. But I do not see why the system cannot be accommodated. Such events do not happen in local authorities where social services departments have budgets. And so I hope that the Committee will understand why, given the whole nature of the fund and its intended effect, I cannot recommend acceptance of this amendment. It makes a nonsense of the whole idea if we establish a fund and then provide in the Bill that there can be only one determining factor as to the level of that fund.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Ennals

Before the noble Baroness sits down, may I ask one or two questions as to how this will operate? First, can she tell me, since this is clearly a demand-led service, what is the difference between this and the family practitioner service? Would it not be inconceivable for a doctor to say to someone, "I am very sorry, we have finished. I have done my ration for the month", or the week, or the quarter, or whatever it was? Because it is a demand-led service it is the only part of the health service that is not cash limited. Cash limits apply to all the rest.

Can the noble Baroness explain to me how one can cash limit this type of demand-led service? Surely, one will not know in advance what the weather will be like, whether one will have a very cold winter, or what will happen to prices. All these factors which affect whether one needs to have a one-off payment seem to me to be issues on which it would be almost impossible to forecast.

How does a local manager operate, having been given his cash limit for a year; or is he given it for a month, three months, or six months? Does he divide it equally week by week? How does he do the job when clients come before him and say, "Please may I have this piece of furniture, this piece of clothing", or what have you? Can the noble Baroness explain to me how it can be cash limited?

Lord Kilmarnock

Before the noble Baroness replies, may I add something which is germane to what the noble Lord said? On an earlier amendment I made a note that the noble Baroness said that the budget will be handled flexibly so that it does not run out before the end of the year. Can she expand a little on what she means by that flexibility? Will that be done by scaling down means, for example, so that if someone has a specific need, one can meet only 50 per cent., 60 per cent. or 70 per cent. of it according to the time of the year? Can the noble Baroness expand on that a little?

Baroness Trumpington

In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, I would say that the budget would operate in exactly the same way as hospital services which are cash limited now. That is my answer to him.

From the flexibility point of view, it is not likely that there will be the same quantity of demand in each part of the country. Therefore, there will be flexibility to move money around. But it is precisely because of just these kind of factors that we have made clear that there will be flexibility. All people who provide services over a year have to plan the way they provide them—and the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, knows that.

Lord Wigoder

May I ask the noble Baroness a question, so as to make sure that I have understood correctly what she has just said about the social fund? Does it imply that a responsibly budgeted social fund, which she has been indicating will be the case, would not be in any fundamental conflict with a responsibly operated appeal system?

Baroness Trumpington

I have already said that we would have to look at the way it operated and see whether we have the balance exactly right in every kind of way. Of course we want the whole scheme to be utterly successful. It would be rather stupid in our part if we did not. Therefore, when it comes to the time to put it into operation we shall have examined all those possibilities, always with the proviso that we can make changes if we find there is any trouble of any kind.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

Does the Minister realise that she has given the game away by saying that the social fund will be cash limited in the way that the hospital service is? Because the hospital service is cash limited we often have to close wards in order to save cash.

Lord Banks

I am not quite clear about this. The Bill seems to say that in making an award an officer must take into account any relevant allocation under Clause 32(4). That is stated in line 7 on page 43. Then, when one looks at Clause 32(4), one sees that it says: The Secretary of State may allocate an amount, or allocate different amounts for different purposes, for awards by a particular social fund officer or group of officers in a financial year". It would appear, in dealing with a particular award, that an officer has to take into account what is in the fund. That seems to run rather contrary to what the noble Baroness has been telling the Committee.

Baroness Trumpington

I can only suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Banks, reads what I have said.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

Will the noble Baroness inform us whether her definition of "flexibility" would include provision for bringing forward supplementary estimates if the fund itself was clearly in danger of being exhausted?

Baroness Trumpington

I cannot possibly anticipate what my right honourable friend would wish to do, but I can certainly bring the remarks of the noble Lord to his attention.

Baroness Turner of Camden

I find the response of the noble Baroness a little disappointing. It seems to me that she has not dealt with the questions that have been raised regarding what happens when one is dealing with social need where people are in desperate straits and a limit has been reached. As my noble friends on this side of the Committee have said, if one relates this to the hospital service, does this mean waiting lists? One would hope not. On the other hand, the situation has been slightly changed this afternoon because the amendment in relation to provision for appeal has been passed by the Committee. That plainly means that the social fund and regulations in connection therewith may have to be looked at.

I do not propose to press my amendment. I shall look very carefully through Hansard at what the noble Baroness has said and consider the matter again on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Trumpington

Before the noble Baroness sits down I must come back, if I may, and say this. The matter of waiting lists is a totally different question. It is a red herring which has been introduced into the debate.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth) moved Amendment No. 92: Page 49, line 9, at end insert ("save that a social fund officer shall be under a duty not to disclose information relating to the personal circumstances of the applicant, other than to the applicant or his representative, without the prior consent of the applicant").

The noble Baroness said: Before moving Amendment No. 92 which is in my name and the names of my noble friend Lord Henderson of Brompton, the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, and the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, I should point out that there is an error in the amendment as printed on the Third Marshalled List. The "special fund officer" should of course read the "social fund officer".

The purpose of this amendment is pretty clear. It is to prevent the social fund officer passing on to other people detailed personal information about an applicant without his prior consent. The Disablement Income Group, the British Council of Disabled People, the Spastics Society, RNIB, RADAR and the Disability Alliance all feel that this amendment is necessary. I feel that they are not being unduly sensitive. DIG has details of many instances where local authorities have distributed very personal details about disabled people to others, either directly, or indirectly through a third party, without asking for the client's consent.

It is very important that this should not happen with social fund officers who will be deeply involved in making inquiries about applicants and in relaying details about them. Indeed, the White Paper envisaged in paragraph 4.45 that the social fund officer, will be the focal point for liaison with outside agencies". and a glance at Clause 33(9) will give an indication of just how deeply the social fund officer will have to delve.

The matter of confidentiality was discussed at a meeting that the disability organisations which I mentioned earlier had with the Minister for the disabled and the Secretary of State for Social Services. I understand that neither Minister would expect the social fund officer to act at variance with the spirit of this amendment, and so it is not out of line with Government thinking.

If we look at Clause 33, we see on page 43 at line 8 that subsection (10) provides for the Secretary of State to issue guidelines about the manner in which the social fund officer shall determine questions referred to in this clause. It may be that the Minister will consider that disclosure of information on a client could be covered by those guidelines, or she may even like my amendment. In that case, it is possible that it ought to be to Clause 33, not Clause 32; I am not sure about that. I look forward with a good deal of hope to hearing what the Minister has to say.

I should like to make one final point. It is important that the social fund officer should tell the applicant to whom he will disclose the personal information; he should not just receive blanket permission to disclose. I beg to move.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

I am not quite certain that the amendment is necessary. I understand that in this day and age everything is put on computers. Therefore, practically anyone can know anything that is put on a computer. Although I agree with the principle behind what the noble Baroness has said, I do not think it is a viable proposition.

Baroness Faithfull

I support the amendment. I take the point which was made by my noble friend Lady Macleod. I have been out of social work too long to know whether or not all the information is put on computers, but I rather think that it is not. For instance, it is the most natural thing in the world for the social services department to telephone the supplementary benefit department and for the supplementary benefit department to telephone the social services department.

I should also point out that in this country there are a number of co-ordinating committees within local authorities which discuss various different cases and how best they can be helped. There is the procedure by which case conferences are held. Sometimes by using these mechanisms of co-operation we have rather slipped into discussing people and their circumstances without their permission and without their knowledge.

Speaking for myself, I always found, as the noble Baroness has said, that it was important to ask the permission of anyone whose case was to be discussed whether it could be discussed and whether it could be discussed with the particular people concerned. In 99 per cent. of cases approval was given, and if approval was not given there was very often very good reason. However, it is most important that people do not feel that their cases and their personal circumstances are bandied about without their approval and without their permission.

I wonder whether your Lordships will forgive me for raising an additional matter. On Second Reading I took the opportunity to say that many of these problems would be overcome if the supplementary benefit offices were run in a different way. I paid tribute, as did my noble friend Lady Trumpington, to the staff in the supplementary benefit offices. I do not know how any of them manage to live from day to day, week to week and year to year doing what they have to do. I pay tribute to them.

However, I hope that when the Bill has completed its passage we may look at the way in which supplementary benefit offices are used and run. I submit that many of the problems about which we have had to talk today, particularly with regard to appeals and confidentiality, could be cut down to a considerable extent if the offices were run in a different way. I am sorry if I have overstepped the scope of the amendment. However, I support the amendment.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

I should like briefly to support the amendment. I do not believe that there is much between the Government and those who have put their name to the amendment. In view of what the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, has said as a result of her experience, it is very difficult to resist the amendment. I only say to the Government that I should have thought that it would be good public relations for the Government to accept this amendment, or something like it. If the social fund is to work and is to be run by social fund officers, it is of prime importance that the confidence of the public should be attracted, especially the confidence of those who will be on that level of support and who will be, as it were, the customers of the social fund officers. For that reason alone I think that the amendment is well worth considering.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington

I am quite surprised at the words of the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, because I totally understand the concern which underlies the motives of the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth), in moving the amendment. However, the confidentiality of information given to officials in the Department of Health and Social Security is a matter which we take very seriously, and, so do the officials themselves. I do not think that it would be a PR jot)—as the noble Lord suggested—from their point of view. I hope that my reassurance about the seriousness with which those working in local offices view the matter of confidentiality will be sufficiently good for the public.

I very much welcomed the remarks of my noble friend Lady Faithfull who echoed what I said the other day about the excellence of those who work in those offices. The Committee may find it reassuring to know that social fund officers will be bound by the same rules which govern any other member of the DHSS about the unauthorised disclosure of confidential information. That information includes any which comes to their notice in the course of their official duty and would, therefore, embrace any details which may be furnished to the social fund officer by the person seeking help. If that information were disclosed it would constitute a breach of staff rules, which would make the offender liable to disciplinary procedures.

I hope that the Committee will be content with that assurance, because I must suggest that it would not be advisable to press the amendment. I do not think it necessary to write this provision into Part III of the Bill any more than it is written into Part II for the purposes of income support, or, indeed, in the supplementary benefit Act at present. Moreover, we should be very careful not to circumscribe too closely in legislation the social fund officer's ability to respond to difficult circumstances.

I very much share the concern that my noble friend Lady Faithfull expressed about ensuring that any discussion is handled with due sensitivity. We must, at all costs, avoid people feeling that their personal details are being bandied about. However, occasionally a social fund officer will be dealing with a particularly difficult case and will have to establish contact with someone in the social services department, a hospital or a health authority. I could give the committee an example, but time is against me. It may be necessary in such circumstances, in the best interests of the person or his family, to speak confidentially to those professionals. However, I expect that to be very much the exception and that it would occur only in extremely special cases.

Officers of the department are bound by the staff rules on official secrecy and the disclosure of information. Those rules draw attention to the provisions of the Official Secrets Act, which covers the actions of all civil servants. In addition, the rules emphasise that information relating to a claimant for benefits, pensions, allowance, etc., is to be regarded as held strictly in confidence. A breach of staff rules is not to be taken lightly. Staff are warned that disciplinary action will be taken in cases of unauthorised disclosure. We think that the matter can be covered in staff instructions.

Having heard what I have said, I hope that the noble Baroness will not press her amendment.

Lord Ennals

It will be for the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth), to decide whether or not to press her amendment to a vote. However, I was very disappointed in the reply of the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington. Certainly in my day—and I am certain that it applies now—the question of confidentiality was taken very seriously by the department. I point out to the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, that in my view—and the facts may prove me wrong—a computer is a safer measure of keeping information secret than a collection of papers in a file. I think effectively-run computers, with people not having natural access to them, are a much safer measure.

The noble Baroness said that it was not necessary to put this in because of the serious way in which the department took confidentiality and the Official Secrets Act, and that the social fund officers would undoubtedly do this. What she did not say in her answer was why it should not be put in. There are a number of reasons why it should be put in, even though the noble Baroness gives us an assurance that everything is right and that no one is going to pass on information. I am not casting any aspersions at all at those social fund officers who will be fulfilling their duty, but it is necessary to satisfy the applicants.

The people who will be worried about whether information they have given will be shared with someone else are the applicants. It may be that the applicants, unless they have an assurance—and they will have an assurance if it is written into the Bill—that information is not going to be disclosed, may be more reluctant to give information that they may be asked to give. Whereas if it is clearly known that there is no danger that that information will be disclosed, then they will feel satisfied and give such information as the social fund officer will need in order to make a fair and proper judgment.

I look at the wording. save that a social fund officer shall be under a duty not to disclose information relating to the personal circumstances of the applicant, other than to the applicant or his representative, without the prior consent of the applicant". I cannot see what, in those words, the noble Baroness can disagree with.

If I may say so on a more general point—and the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, took us slightly away from the central issue of the amendment—the purpose of a Committee stage is not for the Government automatically to defend everything that is in the Bill if the arguments go the other way, and yet the noble Baroness has resisted everything. I should have thought that this was in a sense completely inoffensive, utterly inexpensive, absolutely principled, and totally right. With all those considerations, and particularly bearing in mind the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, who said that it would be nice to give this and rather nice to make a gesture, I think it would be rather nice for the noble Baroness to make a gesture before the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy (de Knayth), makes her decision.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

The noble Baroness referred especially to what I said about the public relations exercise. I have no wish to speak against the social fund officers or to cast any aspersions on their goodwill and intentions. What I wished to convey—and I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, did convey—was the public concern at the social fund in particular because of the element of discretion associated with it.

It is this element of discretion which makes the task of social fund officers that much more delicate than that of other officers of the department who now administer funds, which they have to do more or less by rule of thumb. It is this particularly delicate function that they are performing that requires that the public should have absolutely unmistakable confidence in them. For that reason, I believe that the argument I advanced has a special reference to this particular part of the Bill.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My own doubts about this amendment were rather brought to a focus by the talk of making a gesture. It might well be that a gesture of this sort would have a rather less favourable effect on the staff of supplementary benefit offices and so on who, if consulted, might ask, "Why is it necessary? What have we been doing wrong?" I doubt whether the effect on them would be as salubrious or as salutary as has been suggested.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, asked why this should not be accepted. There are two circumstances, neither very frequent, which would make for difficulty if this were enacted and put into the law. One is if investigation into the personal circumstances of an applicant were required for the purposes of a ministerial reply in this House or in another place if the case were raised, for example, by the local Member of Parliament of the person concerned. In those circumstances it would be necessary for the local officer to supply upwards the material required for briefing the Minister.

The other instance is of course if the personal circumstances of the applicant were relevant to the commission of a crime, and it became the duty, as I would see it, of the social fund officer to report the matter to the police. Both of those passings on of information would apparently be stopped if this were put into the Bill.

Baroness Phillips

May I take up the point that this would be implied to be some criticism of the social fund officer. If that were so. why was it necessary for us to have the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, which wrote into law that certain facts could not be revealed. There has never been any evidence that the police, or the people concerned with handling these people, revealed any information, and yet we had an Act of Parliament which made it clear to everyone that these facts would not be revealed. I cannot see any objection to having this written into an Act of Parliament under similar circumstances.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

I think that the noble Baroness misunderstood the point that I was trying to make, and I am sure that it was my fault. What might be revealed in the personal circumstances of an applicant could be plans for the commission of a criminal offence. In an extreme case it might be people associated with terrorists in Ireland. All these things might be revealed. It would not be frequent, but it would be quite wrong to say, and to enact by Act of Parliament, that that information should not be passed on without the consent of the person concerned, particularly if that consent in those circumstances would plainly not be given.

Baroness Trumpington

As the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, said, confidentiality rules are exactly on the same basis now as when he was Secretary of State. Therefore he is really undermining his own case in pleading for something different. This is not a matter that is appropriate for main legislation. What matters is how we discharge our responsibilities. My assurance on the way we shall discharge this duty should be enough.

The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, will know that we do not cover staff rules in main legislation, including, in relation to other sensitive matters, administration of attendance allowance, for instance. It does not make sense to separate out this element.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)

I should like first to thank all noble Lords who have supported this amendment, and indeed all noble Lords who have spoken for or against it. I am rather surprised that such a small, innocuous amendment should stir up such a lot of talk. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, who from her great experience said what she said about asking permission of a person about their personal details being bandied about, and also to the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, for his well-argued support.

I would say to the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, that I tried to explain that the social fund officer will have to delve deeply into the lives of these clients, and as my noble friend Lord Henderson of Brompton said I think they should have some protection. The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, is really talking about something quite different. When I talk about intimate personal details, I am talking much more about people's toilet arrangements, or their situation with their wives, more than whether they are planning to rob the Bank of England, which one probably could disclose.

I am glad to hear what the noble Baroness said about breaching the rules of confidentiality. But I am disappointed. I thought she would say it could be covered in the guidelines to Clause 3(10)) and this could be written into the guidelines. I am more worried about what she said about certain instances when it might be in the interests of the client—

Baroness Trumpington

Before the noble Baroness sits down—

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)

I am sitting down!

Baroness Trumpington

The noble Baroness must tell me! Perhaps I may give an example of what we are thinking about: it was given by an honourable friend in another place. A visiting officer may notice evidence of possible cruelty to a child and would probably refer the matter to the social services department so that it could determine whether the child was being maltreated. It is only within such narrow confines that staff would generally breach the strict rules on confidentiality. If the amendment were accepted it would inhibit that useful and desirable practice of visiting officers and perhaps others in the department.

Baroness Darcy (de Knayth)

I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. This amendment may not be the answer, but I still think one could write into guidelines some way in which the social fund officer should behave. However I shall not divide the Committee. I shall read what she has said very carefully, go away and have a little think and I hope that perhaps the noble Baroness may have a little think as well. I reserve my right to come back at the next stage with something slightly different. Meanwhile I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hooper

This may be a convenient moment to break our proceedings. In moving that the House resumes may I suggest that we do not reconvene the Committee stage before 8 o'clock? I beg to move that the House do now resume.

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

House resumed.