HC Deb 23 January 1979 vol 961 cc377-82

Amendments made: No. 13, in page 19, leave out line 18 and insert— '8. In section 119 of the principal Act—

  1. (a) in subsection (3)(b), there are inserted at the end the words "or out of a requirement to repay any amount by virtue of subsection (2A) above";
  2. (b) in subsection (4)—'.

No. 14, in page 20, line 33, at end insert— '18A. In section 59(7) of the Pensions Act, after the words "this section"(in the two places where they occur after the definition of "the sum") there are inserted in each case the words "and section 59A of this Act".'.

No. 15, in page 21, line 27, at end insert—


26A. In section 132 of the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978

  1. (a) in subsection (3)(e) for the words "and (3)" there are substituted the words "to (4)"; and
  2. (b) in subsection 4(a) for the words "and (2)"there are substituted the words"(2) and (2A)".'.—[Mr. Orme.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

11.21 p.m.

Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)

I do not wish to delay the House but I must raise a question, under clause 10, about public service pensions. We have all received letters about the uprating of this pension. I declare an interest as one who is involved in this matter. The missing 11 days are mentioned in a letter from Mr. Maxwell of the Public Service Pensioners' Council. I require an assurance that there was proper consultation on this issue.

Mr. Maxwell says: It is accepted by the Council that the changes from those which would have applied under the Social Security Act, 1975 would be an improvement but the changes do not honour the assurance which was given during discussions in 1977 with the two Ministers that no public service pensioners would be disadvantaged by the new arrangement for their pensions to be index-linked under the new Social Security Pension Scheme. The wording of Clause 10 of the Bill, although an improvement on the present legislation (Social Security Pensions Act 1975, Clause 59) does not give complete effect to this assurance by the Ministers. The Council disputes the contention of the Under Secretary of State that the earlier date (12 November 1979 instead of 1 December 1979) would compensate for the loss of 11 days pensions increase. There was no prior consultation with the Council, representing one and a quarter million public service pensioners. … After I had dictated this letter I received a letter dated 18 January from Mr. Charles Morris that there would not appear to be any useful purpose served by a further meeting I am concerned about this matter. Many of these pensioners feel aggrieved. I agree that the sums involved are not large. We accepted that in Committee. But the pensioners feel that there was no proper consultation. The Government said that there would be no loss as a result of changing the date. This matter was discussed in Committee and the Minister took note of what was said. We must be ensured that there was proper consultation.

11.24 p.m.

Mr. George Rodgers

I identify myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant). Many hon. Members have received correspondence on this issue. There seems to be a contradiction. It is claimed that consultations did not take place. I am not sure how we should define the word "consultations". The question of pensions was raised during consultations, but I am not sure that conclusions were reached. Those involved feel aggrieved and are concerned about the impact of the legislation.

I am pleased that the subject has been raised, and I should be grateful for the Minister's comments.

11.25 p.m.

Mrs. Chalker

This is a useful Bill. The Minister described it as making running repairs to existing legislation, in addition to making certain specified amendments dealing with attendance and mobility allowances and supplementary benefit appeals tribunals.

We accept, however, that at some stage not far ahead the Bill will have to be consolidated with the earlier legislation. It is no surprise to anyone dealing with this sort of legislation that one's brief case gets heavier and heavier as the days of debate go by. There is more and more backtracking into previous legislation, and with that the opportuniity for error grows. I have spoken before of the need to make our legislation clearer to understand both by parliamentarians and those who have to work with it, not least the counter clerks and many of the employees of the DHSS.

We well understand that at present it is not possible to take further steps, but I hope that all hon. Members will look at the way in which the invalid care allowance, which is not currently awarded to women whose husbands are severely disabled, is now seen as discriminating not just against women but against the family. That is one of the issues we might have seen in an amending Bill of this nature but which is sadly absent. That must be seen in the context of the fact that an overhaul of all benefits from the Supplementary Benefits Commission is under way with the reviews that are now being made. There is now open discussion about disablement costs and about how, for many years ahead, the Government can best provide for those who do not have the able-bodied or able-minded capacity to deal with the rigours of daily life.

Every hon. Member tries to ensure that attendance allowance goes to those who need it. But I have become aware that some people, including general practitioners, are not as familiar with the rules of attendance allowance as is desirable. It is in the hands of the DHSS to communicate to the general practitioner committees the simple rules about eligibility for attendance allowance and the means of applying for it. That is a further step of clarification and assistance that could be taken for those who qualify for the allowance.

There is a further publicity job to be done—on the mobility allowance. There is already some misunderstanding about the eligibility of women up to the age of 65 or 66. Until June this year, the age limit on phased-in eligibility for mobility allowance is 58. After that date men and women aged 59 and 60 will become eligible for phasing in. Many people think that with the passing of the Bill, which removes the discrimination between men and women in terms of age, women aged between 60 and 65 will become eligible for mobility allowance. But I believe that that will not be so under the Government's phasing-in regulations. That must be made clear through publicity.

We have heard much tonight about the taxation changes affecting motoring. Mobility has been regarded as the substitute for healthy legs. I hope that one day not too far away our economy will so improve that we can make sure that there is no taxation on legs. These people need their mobility allowance because that is their only means of getting from A to B.

We welcome what the Minister said tonight about supplementary benefit appeals tribunals, and we welcome the amendment. I shall go no further into it than saying that I think a sensible compromise has been arrived at. I believe that both sides can be pleased with the work that they have done on this matter in the House.

When we talk of the numbers receiving supplementary benefit, our long-term objective must surely be to look further ahead to the stage when we can reduce considerably the numbers of those who are dependent upon means-tested benefits.

We have gone a long way in the Bill to tidy up odd ends. We know that there will be more to do in the months ahead. But none of this happens without co-operation, which I think has fairly been noted on the Bill, between the Government and the Opposition and all my colleagues in the House and help from all those officials who serve us in Committee and provide us with useful notes for use both in Committee and on Report. In agreeing to the Third Reading, I think that we should pay tribute to those who keep us well briefed on complicated Bills such as this.

11.31 p.m.

Mr. Orme

We think that the Bill is important and that it contains several advantageous measures for dealing with the disabled. It also saves public expenditure. One aspect is the public service pension, in which we all have to declare an interest because, as Members of Parliament, we are covered by it. We must ensure that the public realise that this is dealt with in a correct manner.

The hon. Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant) asked about consultation. Knowing that the 1975 Act would alter the situation, consultation on this matter began on 21st September 1977 with the Public Service Pensioners' Council and with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Civil Service Department. Consultations continued well into July of last year, and beyond. We have taken on board the representations that have been made but we feel obliged to say, in the terms that I have given to the House, that we must go ahead in the manner which we propose.

At the eleventh hour we received this letter from the Public Service Pensioners' Council, which is addressed to all Members of Parliament. It does not alter the fact that I think that the manner in which we have acted is correct, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has sent a detailed reply to hon Members. I think that if the hon. Member for Reading, North examines that reply he will see that it stands up to examination and that in this matter we have to say that the Government have acted correctly.

Mr. Newton

I should like formally to place on record my gratitude to the Under-Secretary of State for the prompt reply that he gave. Inevitably, I have not been able to study every word of the letter with the detail that I should like, but it puts on record the points that the right hon. Gentleman has just made.

Mr. Orme

If hon. Members want to come back on this matter and raise the issues again, perhaps when the hon. Gentleman has studied the letter we shall listen to further representations.

My experience in this Department leads me to believe that, just as the Treasury must have a new Finance Bill every year, so it will be essential for our Department to have a Bill to deal with past and perhaps future measures. I make no apology, therefore, for bringing the Bill before the House, and I thank the House for its co-operation this evening.

11.35 p.m.

Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

I shall detain the House only briefly. I did not have the privilege of serving on the Committee, but I should like to refer for a few minutes to clause 12. I thank those hon. Members on both sides who introduced a new clause into the Bill which brought into the limelight the question of a death grant. The Under-Secretary of State said in Committee that, for the reasons that he had given, the intention was that the death grant should not be increased as a result of the clause. Accepting that that is the case, I am particularly pleased that the Government have not seen fit to alter the clause at this stage.

As Ministers will know, there is a strong feeling in the country, going across party lines and supported by the all-party parliamentary group—I apologise for the absense of the joint chairman, the hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham), who would have liked to be with us but was unable to attend—that increasing the death grant should be given priority. We had a meeting with voluntary organisations, and the feeling is one that is gaining ground all the time.

Age Concern, in its national policy, calls for an immediate increase in the death grant so that it reflects its value at the time of its introduction in 1949. During the debate in Committee it emerged that some people do not receive the death grant at all. About 1,100,000 people receive only half the grant. In congratulating the Government on accepting the new clause, I should like to conclude with the words of the late Brian O'Malley, who, when replying to a debate in the House in 1974, said: It is my firm view, and I am sure the view of the Government, that death grants are an urgent priority."[Official Report, 10 April 1974; Vol. 872, c. 582.] I ask the Minister to bear that in mind.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.