HL Deb 16 July 1993 vol 548 cc422-5

11.20 a.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will consider amending the Social Security (Unemployment, Sickness and Invalidity Benefit) Regulations 1983 to enable recipients of invalidity benefit to take on voluntary work for citizens advice bureaux and other voluntary organisations.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Henley)

My Lords, the regulations already permit people receiving invalidity benefit to undertake voluntary work, so long as they continue to satisfy the conditions for receiving the benefit. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has no current plans to amend those regulations.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, although I can hardly say that it adds greatly to my knowledge. There can clearly be no complaint about the proper application of the regulations as regards invalidity benefit, but is the Minister aware that the enforcement has a requirement that recipients of the allowance who want to take on unpaid voluntary work—that is, just like any other workers—have to show that the work is likely to be medically beneficial, and that that is proving to be a very considerable deterrent?

An exception to the requirement has already been made for the recipient sitting one day a week on a disability appeal tribunal. Therefore, in addition, would it not be possible to provide that people can take on, say, up to 10 or 15 hours a week of voluntary work? After all, no money would be involved and those concerned are not people who would be taken on by any employer for paid employment. It seems to me that it would be entirely consistent with the Government's general policy of encouraging voluntary effort.

Lord Henley

My Lords, we are certainly very grateful for all the voluntary work that is done. We recognise the importance of the voluntary sector. However, I should make it clear that invalidity benefit is a benefit for those incapable of work. I believe that it would be illogical to allow those who can work—unless, as the noble Lord put it, the work is therapeutic—to receive it. If people are capable of work, there are other benefits available such as unemployment benefit or income support that they can seek in order to gain assistance. To make the change suggested by the noble Lord could make it very difficult indeed to then disallow benefit to someone who was clearly capable of work but who, simply because he was doing voluntary work, could argue that he was not so.

Lord Renton

My Lords, should not the principle be established that it would be wrong for anyone undertaking unpaid work for good causes to be disentitled from benefits to which he contributed when employed and upon which he totally depends when not gainfully employed? Should there be any exception to that at all?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am trying to make it clear that it is illogical that people should receive a benefit designed for those incapable of work when they are capable of work. If they are capable of work, then there are other benefits such as unemployment benefit—which, as my noble friend put it, they have contributed towards—or there is income support.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, is not the Minister himself being illogical now? If a person is in receipt of invalidity benefit because he cannot do physical work, that does not prevent him from doing mental work such as, for example, advising in a citizens advice bureau.

Lord Henley

My Lords, if someone is so capable of doing regular, remunerative work he should not be in receipt of a benefit designed for those who are incapable of work. There are other benefits designed to help those people, such as unemployment benefit or income support. If people cannot work at all, obviously they can still receive invalidity benefit or, if the work is therapeutic, then again they can still receive invalidity benefit.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, with the greatest respect to my noble friend, I fear that he is rather going round the mulberry bush. Is he aware that the essential principle for which my noble friend Lord Renton contended, which is a perfectly simple, fair and proper one, has not been addressed in a logical fashion?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am sorry; I simply cannot accept what my noble friend said. I think that it is perfectly logical when you have a benefit designed for those incapable of work—and I stress that that is not a disability benefit; it is a benefit for those incapable of work—that those incapable of work should receive it. There are exceptions such as allowing them to do a certain amount of therapeutic work. But, if such people are capable of doing work, they should not be receiving that benefit and should in fact he receiving another benefit.

Lord Rix

My Lords, does the Minister accept that local authority councillors are incapable of work because such people are exempt from a disregard in regard to that benefit? Is the Minister aware of the fact that they are able to work unlimited hours?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I shall not make comments on what is permitted to local authority councillors as regards work, especially as I see a former local authority councillor sitting opposite me in the Chamber. I have accepted that there are different rules for both councillors and members of the disability appeal tribunals. A special case was made because there was a very real problem, in that such people received allowances above the therapeutic earnings limit and, therefore, could not have retained their benefit without those special rules. However, we do not see a case for extending the special rules to volunteers.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the growing number of people on invalidity benefit is due less to more people taking up the benefit than to the fact that they are staying on it longer and not coming off it? Does he also agree that, in consequence, disabled people lose touch with the world of work and the confidence and skills that they may need even to move on to claim disability working allowance? Therefore, does the Minister accept the views expressed from all parts of the House that encouraging disabled people rather than discouraging them to do piecemeal voluntary work may help them in due time to re-enter waged work?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I shall answer the first two questions put by the noble Baroness. She is, of course, correct. That is why we have the therapeutic earnings rule. It allows people to keep in touch with work if it can be beneficial to them.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, it seems to me that the Minister has, perhaps, misunderstood some of the representations that has been made. We are not talking about remunerative work. Exceptions have been allowed for service on a disability appeal tribunal, which is remunerated. However, in view of the opinions that have been expressed on all sides of the House, will the Minister take the matter away and reconsider it?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I cannot repeat the test. The test is whether such people are capable of doing regular, remunerative work. They are still allowed to do voluntary work and, indeed, they can do as much voluntary work as they like. But if, by doing such voluntary work, it becomes obvious that they are capable of undertaking regular, remunerative work they should not be in receipt of the benefit. If any individual volunteer has doubts about his own case, I can only recommend that he goes to our officers in the local offices to ask for advice. There is no reason why such people should be denied benefit if they are not capable of doing regular, remunerative work. However, if they are capable of doing regular, remunerative work there are other suitable benefits.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I am sorry to intervene again, but the Minister's reply merely reinforces the view that he has not understood the point that has been made. I implore him to think again.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I quite understand the point that has been made. I have received representations from the bodies that advise noble Lords on various occasions. I have explained the position. I shall certainly consider the matter again. As I explained it, invalidity benefit must be for those who are incapable of regular, remunerative work.