§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Graham.]
§ 4.21 p.m.
§ Miss Jo Richardson (Barking)
Before he leaves the Chamber, may I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, 1804 South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) for his courtesy in allowing me to have my Adjournment debate at a reasonable hour? I promise him that I shall not interfere again with his effective way of continuing the debate about his hospital.
I want to talk about a different question involving the social services. The subject with which my hon. Friend is concerned is far removed from mine. I wish to talk about the effect of public expenditure cuts on the Civil Service and in particular upon the Department of Health and Social Security. In the continuing debate about the effect of public expenditure cuts much is made by the Opposition about the numbers of the Civil Service. There is talk about overstaffing and faceless bureaucrats. The civil servants are sometimes represented as layabouts. It is said that the numbers should be cut in the interests of efficiency.
We see many stories in the Press about the Opposition's approach. I am disturbed to find that there are discussions going on between the Department of Health and Social Security and the staff of the Department about further cuts in the staffing of local social security offices.
I have always taken the stories and the protests of the Opposition about overstaffing with a large pinch of salt. In my experience, the staff of these Departments are hard-working and in many cases overworked. They have a great sense of service to the community. This particularly applies to DHSS staff, who have a special relationship with the public, which can be hard on them since it involves a continuing process of dealing with complaints, difficulties and sorting out a complex set of procedures.
I am worried to learn that there are discussions going on concerning the cutting by 500 of the staff in local social security departments. These savings can be made only at the expense of the service offered to the public. The staff savings will affect the beneficiaries. They will affect service to old-age pensioners, the sick, disabled, the unemployed and single-parent families, all of whom are least able to help themselves.
One of the effects of a reduction in staff would be a cutting down on the amount of home visiting. I have had many good contacts with my local social security office and, looking at it from a Member of Parliament to constituency 1805 point of view, one of the purposes of home visiting is to ensure that the full facts of each individual case are known so that financial and welfare needs can be met.
The social security system is very complex and needs to be fully explained to all new claimants. Guidance and advice are a permanent necessity. Face-to-face contact in the home environment, as distinct from the environment of the social security office itself, is an important aspect of the service. It is only in this way that needs can be identified and catered for. It is impossible to administer such schemes without this kind of personal contact. A Government who deprive the public of the right to a full and comprehensive service are running away from their responsibilities.
The review of the supplementary benefits scheme currently under way is designed to make a fundamental study of the whole scheme. I understand that in the review every aspect will be looked at with a view to improving the scheme and making it as efficient, comprehensive and humane as possible. I hope that it also makes it less complex. We must tackle the complexity of the system and the difficulties that recipients of benefits have in understanding and trying to unravel benefit upon benefit.
It is vital that such a review should have full public participation and that every opportunity should be given for evidence to be submitted and debated publicly. It is totally premature to make arbitrary cuts at this stage when the review has only just commenced. The whole purpose of the review could be totally wrecked. Full participation and debate will be denied to everyone.
It is wrong to impose cuts on social security staff in the present economic climate, when people are feeling the effects of rising prices, which fall most heavily on people at the lower end of the income scale, such as old-age pensioners and single-parent families, as well as the whole range of other people who draw social security. They need the service that they have now, and this is not a time to cut the service by reducing staff.
There is no evidence to suggest that home visiting should be cut, or that it is being overdone. All the evidence points 1806 to the reverse and to the need to increase this aspect of the service. At a time when local authorities are being forced to cut back on their social services, the need for adequate back-up services is even greater.
Home visiting also ensures that abuse is kept to a minimum. We heard a great deal from certain Tory Members about abuse, and I know that the Department is inundated with what are in many cases fictitious letters and complaints from the public about abuse. If abuse exists, home visiting and inspection of the home circumstances are one way of curing it.
Let us look at the impact of the proposals on the public, especially on the unemployed. I understand that it is proposed that all new unemployed claimants should be interviewed in the local office and that home visits should be made only if there are known specific problems. On that basis many problems will go unnoticed and will be allowed to grow. More problems will be created for the unemployed claimant and his family.
This is an area where there is an increasing need. We have 1.3 million unemployed, and that number is growing. Surely, when a man or woman is thrown on the dole he or she needs help and support. Much more is needed than a visit to the local office and a conversation across the counter.
When a man is newly unemployed, he needs every support that he can get from the State to adjust to his new status of being on the dole. He will experience a sudden reduction of income and will not know of the supplementary benefit rates available. He will not be familiar with the range of facilities available and, by ignoring this kind of claim and depriving the claimant of a home visit, the Department may be leaving thousands of families without the support to which they are entitled.
We then come to the extra needs payments. Lump-sum payments will be made to meet additional needs on request, I understand, so long as they do not exceed £15, or £25 where children are involved. No visit will be made under the new proposals to investigate why an addition is required, and the payment of the money by itself might not simply solve the problem. Many claimants may simply be claiming the basic maximum whether or not it is sufficient to meet their needs. 1807 If there is no visit, no genuine contact between the social security office or the unemployment benefit department and the recipient in his or her home serious hardship might result.
The very request for an exceptional needs payment and the very words "exceptional needs" indicate that the claimant is undergoing some special hardship and is having difficulty in managing on the rate of benefit. Many other factors could be involved. A home visit could cover all these aspects, and yet it is proposed that such visits will be abandoned.
We come then to visits by inspectors, and this is another aspect of the difficulties that will face beneficiaries if the Department cuts down on its staff and, consequently, on home visiting. Inspectors' visits are part of the back-up system for cases dealt with by post. A visit used to be made every five years to check that all payments due were being correctly paid and to ensure that the welfare aspect had been fully reviewed. The Department proposed that these visits should be made at least every three years when the home visiting procedure was reviewed in 1976. But now, if these new proposals go through, I understand that the visits will be completely abolished. The final safety net will disappear altogether.
I come to the home visiting procedure generally. Claimants who continue to receive supplementary benefit for more than six weeks receive a home visit at some stage depending on their circumstances. A home visit is required initially to determine how frequently visits should be made in the future. The needs and circumstances of the claimants are—and they should be—the deciding factor.
If these visits are not now mandatory and if claimants will not be allowed to have them as of right, the deciding factor will move from being the claimant's need to being what is considered to be a satisfactory work load for the local offices. That is entirely the wrong premise upon which to decide whether a home visit should be made. In other words, in future the arrangement will be that where the staff is not available, no visit will be made.
I understand that cases of high priority will still receive a visit, but how are priorities to be measured if so many cases have not been visited and their needs 1808 are not adequately known? This is a vicious circle and I am surprised that the Department has got itself into such a mess over the proposed cuts.
Inequality of treatment could occur because circumstances vary from office to office and from town to town. Visits will be made at the discretion of the manager instead of automatically following a claim for supplementary benefit. I dare say that the Minister will say that there will be greater use of postal procedures, but, if they are to be efficient, they must depend on a well-educated public which fully understands the system.
I have already referred to the complexity of the procedures, the complexity and range of benefits and the complexity of the leaflets which describe these benefits. It is not too bad if people are unable always to understand them so long as a home visit takes up the points that they have not been able to understand. But if these home visits are not made and if the Department's staff has to rely on postal procedures to sort out the needs of the claimant, there will be a very large number of people who will have to go without what they are entitled to.
Claimants will be required to call at their local offices as a result of the cut in home visits. I am sure that the Minister himself, as a Member of Parliament, has received complaints from constituents, as I have, about the already overcrowded waiting rooms in social security offices. That is not to apportion any blame on the members of the staff. They are dealing with claimants as quickly and expeditiously as they possibly can. But there will be more queues if people are required to go to the office to see the clerk.
It is not the best place in the world to discuss one's private life, or what one needs, in front of a crowded public-caller section. It is totally the wrong environment. There is an appointment system, but that will become absolutely overloaded and delays will be inevitable. I believe that these proposed cuts will be a disaster, because they will mean that the cases that really need a special kind of treatment and that need to have identified for the claimants the areas where they can claim will go virtually unnoticed.
I have already heard from staff members in local offices at all levels, from the 1809 level of the counter clerk to the level of the manager, about the difficulties that they are undergoing at present and about the heavy work load that they have to suffer. Nevertheless, they are at present doing an enormously good job. But if the staff are cut, the remaining staff are forced to take on the work load of the staff who disappear as a result of the cuts, and the whole situation will become impossibly difficult for the remaining staff to endure. That will reflect very badly upon the recipients of all sorts of social security benefits.
There seems to be no real evidence to suggest that these cuts will do anything but harm. I feel that we should rely upon the review of the Supplementary Benefits Commission which is currently under way. We should wait for that to see how we can smoothe and iron out the difficulties in our social security system.
I beg the Minister to give the House some assurance on this whole question. The proposals are just not sensible. They will not only increase unemployment among the staff—a factor that must surely be taken into account as well—but they will have a serious effect on those people in our community who are at present the hardest hit and who need the maximum help, understanding and care from the community.
§ 4.39 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Eric Deakins)
I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) on raising this important topic and on providing the opportunity to give the House later information than that given by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security in his Written Reply to her series of questions on 18th March 1977.
As the House already knows, all Government Departments and public services have been asked to examine their projected expenditure in order to achieve administrative savings, and my Department is no exception. In consultation with officials, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), as Secretary of State for Social Services, agreed on broad administrative areas of the Department's work which would be 1810 examined as candidates for a reduction in expenditure. That examination has, under the overall supervision of the Department's establishments officer, almost been completed for those savings which it is proposed to make in this financial year.
For my Department the need is to reduce or eliminate activities which would produce savings in our administrative costs equivalent to some 2,040 man-years in 1977–78 and 5,290 man-years in 1978–79. At current prices these figures represent some £6.6 million and £19.2 million respectively.
Although we shall not necessarily have to reduce our staff numbers to the extent I have quoted, depending on the amount of administrative savings we can effect in other ways, we are of necessity a staff-intensive organisation and it is inevitable therefore that a large part of the savings will have to be made by cutting out or simplifying work so that fewer staff will be needed. I should add, however, that we hope to achieve the savings generally without giving rise to any redundancies.
I now come to some of the specific proposals about which my hon. Friend is rightly concerned. We know that both claimants and local office staff find the present supplementary benefit scheme complicated. This makes for difficulty of comprehension and difficulty of administration. The Supplementary Benefits Commission, in its admirable report last year, drew attention to the labour-intensive nature of this scheme which now pays approaching £1.5 billion a year in benefits and provides assistance to nearly 3 million claimants plus their dependants.
We have seen the number of staff in local offices working on supplementary benefits grow from about 12,500 to about 30,000 in the last 10 years or so, compared with an increase of 25,000 to 30,000 for local office staff working on contributory benefits. There are many good reasons for this disparity in growth rates, but it shows that we need to look very carefully at our system of administering supplementary benefits to see whether it can be simplified, because the option of simply recruiting more and more staff is not open to us.
That is one of the reasons why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State 1811 for Social Services announced last September the establishment of a small team of officials to conduct a review of the supplementary benefit scheme. We hope that this team will be able to produce some ideas for public discussion early next year. In the meantime, in looking at ways of saving administrative expenditure in the more immediate future my Department has therefore had very much in mind the theme of simplification of procedures in our supplementary benefit scheme.
One of the possibilities which we have been examining extremely carefully has been that of reducing the number of supplementary benefits children's rates. At present there are five rates, covering the ages 0–4 years, 5–10 years, 11–12 years, 13–15 years, and 16–17 years. A reduction from five rates to three would produce some worthwhile savings in administrative expenditure as well as simplifying the scheme a little. We are therefore currently considering whether this reduction in the number of rates is worth proceeding with.
We sympathise entirely with the concern expressed by my hon. Friend that in seeking administrative savings we should not take action which hits at the poorest groups in our society. That is why we do not wish to rush into a decision on this issue, and I can assure the House that we shall be considering extremely carefully the points raised by my hon. Friend, representatives of staff interests, and others about any reduction in the number of children's rates. We shall in particular take full account of the views of the Supplementary Benefits Commission on this. I know that the Commission is not opposed in principle to a reduction in the number of rates because it realises that, if the scheme is ever to be simplified, a start has to be made somewhere. I share the Commission's concern about making any changes which would make families as a whole worse off. The Government will therefore be examining this question carefully in the coming weeks and will announce their decision in the not-too-distant future.
Another area within the supplementary benefit scheme with scope for administrative savings and simplifications is that of what has become known as the "tolerance rule". This relates to an arrangement affecting supplementary benefit 1812 order books whereby small reductions of up to 20p in benefit following a change of circumstances are deferred until the current order book expires. Deferment of reductions in benefit is compulsory and this works to the advantage of the claimant, because the difference is not recouped. We are thinking of increasing this limit from 20p to about 50p.
At the same time, we are also contemplating the introduction of a comparable rule for small increases of benefit. At present there is no such rule, although where the increase is not more than about 20p, claimants are encouraged to leave matters until the next order book is due, when arrears are paid to them.
We are now thinking of introducing a compulsory savings rule so that increases of about 50p in benefit will be deferred until the next order book is due or entitlement ceases. We would, of course, release payment of any increase where it was clear that hardship would otherwise be experienced. Taken together, these changes in the "tolerance rule" would considerably reduce the number of order books which have to be withdrawn and replaced and would produce administrative savings of the equivalent to the cost of about 60 to 70 staff. It would also of course be a useful simplification. No final decision has been taken by Ministers to proceed with these changes but if we do go ahead it will be necessary to make changes to the Supplementary Benefit (General) and the Supplementary Benefit (Claims and Payments) Regulations.
My hon. Friend has drawn attention to her fear that a reduction in the number of visits made to recipients of Supplementary Benefit could result in their needs, including exceptional needs, not being adequately catered for. From the days of Poor Law onwards, the making of home visits to claimants has been accepted as the normal method for obtaining the facts needed to assess individual claims.
Familiarity with this system has led some to see it as the only proper way to obtain information in relation to supplementary benefit claims. At the same time others have sometimes criticised our insistence on visiting all claimants initially and thereafter at intervals for review purposes, and this led to changes in 1966, at the time of the introduction 1813 of supplementary benefits, whereby pensioners have had the right to have their claims dealt with exclusively by interview at the local office.
Visiting claimants is of course a staff-intensive and therefore expensive way of eliciting facts about a claim, and within recent years the Department has successfully introduced a method of reviewing supplementary pension claims and their equivalent through a system of postal review. This system is not used in those cases where it is known that the claimant cannot read or makes known the difficulties in form filling.
Together with this postal review, the appointments system, which has vastly improved the ability of local offices to handle office interviews, has now allowed the Department to consider proposals to deploy reduced visiting resources where the maximum benefit will be gained in terms of obtaining information relevant to the assessment of benefit entitlement, identifying welfare needs and deterring and discovering fraud and abuse. To supplement this, more use will be made of other methods, such as letters and telephone calls.
These proposals in total should make no difference to the ability of claimants to make known their needs. The methods for some will be different, but the service, which has so often been praised by hon. Members for its excellence, should not be impaired.
For some time visiting had been increasingly considered and discussed within the Department as being in need of change. The mandatory system, whereby local offices are required to visit certain categories of claimants at predetermined intervals, is increasingly imposing a burden upon offices which they cannot always meet, despite substantial additions to staff, particularly when faced with other pressures.
A working party of officials had therefore been set up to look at the future visiting needs. The requirement to seek reductions in this area of the work was therefore referred to that body. It has now proposed that visiting should be reduced in four specific ways to which my hon. Friend alluded and that local office managers should in times of pressure have guidance, in the form of 1814 standard priorities, for the remaining visits.
These priorities may be varied to suit local circumstances. This will give a degree of flexibility not hitherto available under the mandatory system, which in practice, to greater or lesser degrees from office to office, was beginning to creak. Local offices will be staffed to provide a full visiting service in normal circumstances and managers will be expected to provide that service. The flexibility I have just described is to cope with the abnormal. I shall now outline the four areas in which officials have recommended that we reduce or discontinue visits.
First, most unemployed claimants for supplementary benefit already take advantage of the appointments system and make their claims in person at the local office. This, it is considered, should be extended to all unemployed claimants so that, unless travelling distances are unreasonable, they will be called to the local office for interview, fares being paid as necessary. They will, of course, be required to produce evidence of their circumstances and where this does not prove sufficient to support their claim or establish their bona fides, an urgent visit will be arranged to examine the claim in detail.
Secondly, current instructions to local office staff require that where a claim is made at the local office, a running award can be made without a prior visit unless there is doubt about the validity of the claim, or there are found to be other problems requiring quick resolution. In those cases where a running award is made, a visit has to be made in the sixth week of the claim if benefit is still in payment. An examination of this procedure has shown that little is gained from it. We are producing much fuller guidance for local offices on the need to establish the genuinness of claims and what to look for in considering this aspect so that doubtful claims will be visited sooner, and this will further reduce any value these visits have. We propose, therefore, that the visits made after six weeks should be discontinued.
Thirdly, at present all claims for exceptional needs payments, with the exception of those made during a call at 1815 the local office for items such as working clothes, have to be investigated by a home visit. The number of requests for exceptional needs payments has risen dramatically for a number of reasons in recent years. It has doubled since 1968 to 945,000 requests in 1975.
We propose three changes to reduce the number of visits on this account. When a grant for clothing is requested and it is for items that the SBC would normally pay for, a payment will normally be made without a visit unless a grant for similar items has been made within the past year or the amount involved exceeds a figure yet to be determined—say, £20. Where a grant is requested for something not covered in the scale rates—for instance, repair of a cooker—and the facts can be established, no visit will be made. Then, where a social worker supports a claim and the request does not appear unreasonable no visit will be made.
1816 Fourthly and lastly, the system of inspectional visits, originally introduced to test the effectiveness of a postal review system, is proposed to be abolished. However, I assure my hon. Friend that no firm decisions have yet been taken. I should like to make clear that other proposals which would have no impact upon the public are under consideration. Some would produce as an equivalent in manpower terms only minor savings, but in total they add up to a not insignificant figure.
There is also a proposal under consideration whereby claimants for legal aid who submit—
§ The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned at nine minutes to Five o'clock.