HC Deb 26 February 1980 vol 979 cc1152-4

4.2 pm

Dr. Edmund Marshall (Goole)

I beg to move: That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to continue to use the Post Office for payment of long-term social security benefits, except where a payee requests otherwise. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will have become aware over recent weeks of the great concern throughout the country caused by the review undertaken at the request of Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Security of methods of payment of social security benefits, which at present are mainly through local post offices.

The volume of correspondence sent to hon. Members on this subject has been extremely large. From my constituency I have received representations from 18 sub-postmasters, from villages as far apart as Fairburn, Adlingfleet, Monk Fryston and Hatfield Woodhouse, from 26 other individual constituents and from six local councils and other organisations. Some of these representations have enclosed petitions containing hundreds of signatures. In addition, as all hon. Members will know, last Wednesday a mass lobby of the House was conducted by several hundred sub-postmasters from most parts of the country.

There is no need for me to repeat all the arguments used in opposition to any proposals to change the basic method of paying social security benefits. Indeed, all the arguments were deployed in debate in the House last Tuesday. I have carefully read the report of that debate, and I regret to say that I do not think anything was settled. Ministers merely muddied the waters with vague undertakings, and they still continue to discuss the outcome of their review of these matters. I am still awaiting a reply from the hon. Lady the Under-Secretary of State to a letter on this subject that I sent her on 29 January. At Question Time today the Government tried to make encouraging noises, but there is still no definite future for the maintenance of the present system of payments of social security benefits.

In the absence of any definite commitment by Ministers to preserve the present system, Parliament should now exert its authority to enact a legal requirement that Ministers should pay benefit as at present.

The present state of the law is very weak. Section 81 of the Social Security Act 1975 gives the Secretary of State wide discretion as to the time and manner of payment of benefit. Any regulations made by him on these matters are subject only to negative parliamentary control. So far as I can determine, if the Secretary of State wishes, there is nothing in the present regulations to prevent him from using any method of payment. He could even go round on the back of a lorry handing out benefits in cash. That would be legal under the present arrangements.

In view of the far-reaching social implications of these matters, especially concerning the key place of sub-post offices in most local communities, the law needs to be much more precise on the time and method of payment of benefit. At present the Secretary of State has far too much discretion—discretion that has led to all the uncertainty of recent months that continues unabated. New primary legislation is needed to tighten up the law. That would be provided by the Bill that I am seeking leave to introduce.

The simple principle of the Bill is to propose a legal requirement that the Post Office be used for the payment of long-term social security benefits, except where a payee requests otherwise. If the House in its wisdom grants leave for such a Bill to be introduced, it will be assenting to that general principle. It will be giving a clear indication to the Secretary of State of what is desired by the House and by the vast number of our constituents who have left us in no doubt about their views.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Edmund Marshall, Dr David Clarke, Mr. Arthur Davidson, Mr. Terry Davis, Mr. Eric Deakins, Mr. Peter Hardy, Mr. Barry Jones, Mr. Austin Mitchell, Mr. Martin J. O'Neill, Mr. David Stoddart, Mr. Roger Stott and Mr. K. J. Woolmer.