HL Deb 14 April 1994 vol 553 cc1620-2

3.31 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will reconsider their proposals to disentitle Irish nationals and UK residents returning from abroad to means-tested social security benefits.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Viscount Astor)

My Lords, the Government have referred a proposal for a habitual residence test in the income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit schemes to the Social Security Advisory Committee and the local authority associations. The Government will consider all representations made once the committee's report has been completed.

Earl Russell

My Lords, the Government have told the Social Security Advisory Committee that undoubtedly some UK nationals returning to the UK after a long period of absence may not be held to be habitually resident. Does that mean that if those regulations were in force this week a British subject returning from Rwanda with no job to go to, and perhaps not so much capital as a toothbrush, might be denied the means to return in safety to his country? In matters of Anglo-Irish relations is there not a case for letting sleeping dogs lie?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, we believe that all EC nationals must be treated equally, and that to discriminate on the basis of nationality would run contrary to the Treaty of Rome and leave the new proposed test liable to challenge in the courts.

Although habitual residence applies to all claimants, in practice only people who have come to live in this country within the past five years will be asked to complete the additional questionnaire. UK expatriates who have spent most of their working lives abroad may therefore have to re-establish habitual residence on their return. In that case, we shall be looking at whether people have an established link with this country; for instance, a stable employment record in this country; whether they have any ties here, such as family or a house; why they came back to this country or why they came to this country; and whether they have made a genuine commitment to living and working here. We expect that most returning expatriates will be able to satisfy the requirements quickly and easily.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, what happens in the case of a young person who has spent several years in voluntary or low-paid work in a developing country such as Rwanda, as my noble friend said? Would that person be unable to claim any social security benefits? Does not the Minister think that is a disincentive to young people who want to offer their services overseas? Will he consult organisations such as VSO which might have something to say about it?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I believe I have already answered that question with my previous reply. I said that returning residents should be able to establish the fact that they are coming back here. They will be able to satisfy the requirements quickly and easily.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, is the Minister aware that great concern has been expressed throughout the country by people who know about these things that this is the thin edge of the wedge, and that it is obviously the Government's intention to introduce universal means-testing for social security benefits? What effect will these proposals have on those countries with which we have social security reciprocal agreements?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the effect will be to bring us into line with them. The Government have responded positively to criticism of benefit tourism by bringing forward this proposal which would limit the availability of income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit Ito people from other countries who come here without a commitment to this country. Our proposals bring us into line with other member states whose safety net benefits are not readily available to foreign nationals, including those of our citizens seeking work in their countries.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the plight of British nationals coming back from countries where they may be in physical danger probably raises, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, suggested, a special case? Will he undertake to pursue that aspect of the matter after this exchange of questions is over?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I take the point made by my noble and learned friend. I did say that in those cases it would be easy for those people to establish what is required. I should point out that we recognise that it would be difficult for asylum seekers and refugees to prove habitual residence from the day of arrival. Since we do not wish to leave them without any means of support after we have given them refuge in this country those people will be unaffected by the test.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, but does not the DSS consultation document admit that the proposed test will catch many of the 100,000 British expatriates returning home? Given the views expressed from all around the House, will the Minister take this question seriously and bring back revised proposals?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am rather surprised by the comments of the noble Baroness, because we are taking the question seriously. That is why we have asked the Social Security Advisory Committee to report. We will await its report and look: at it carefully, We shall also look at representations made to us by other people before reaching any decision on this matter.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, what has been the response of the Irish Government to these proposals, particularly in view of the fact that British subjects in the Irish Republic are treated as Irish and do not need to prove residence to claim means-tested benefits?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State met Dr. Woods, the Irish Minister for Social Welfare, on 3rd March this year. They discussed the effects of the proposed test on Irish people in this country and the way to reduce the impact, taking account of the traditional pattern of migration and work between our two countries.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that there is no question of interference where there is a mutual agreement on social security with a foreign country? As there are a considerable number of those, he must be aware that such countries give rights to their nationals in this country and our nationals in theirs. Will those be affected?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend is right. Of course, we already test for residence benefits such as family credit, disability working allowance, invalid care allowance, and disability living allowance. If, for example, an unemployed person who has been living and working in Germany, having paid full German contributions and therefore being entitled to German unemployment benefit, comes here looking for work, he or she is still entitled to claim his or her unemployment benefit. We pay that unemployment benefit. We are then compensated by that EC country because such people are allowed to receive that benefit for throe months only.