§ 2.55 p.m.
§ Baroness YOUNG
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved, that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Young).
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The Lord Aberdare in the Chair.]
Lord WELLS-PESTELL moved Amendment No. 26:
Page 32, line 35, after ("cases") insert ("and in any other case in which, in the opinion of a benefits officer, it is necessary for the avoidance or relief of hardship").
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 26 which stands in the names of my noble friends and myself. It will be for the convenience of the Committee if, while moving Amendment No. 26, I speak also to Amendment No. 28. Your Lordships will remember that last week we had a long discussion about the scope, function and activities of the supplementary benefit officers in the future, in the event of the Bill receiving Royal Assent. Amendment No. 26 would enable benefit officers to make exceptional need and urgent need payments in circumstances not specified in the supplementary benefits regulations.
§ As I see it, a central aim of the Bill is to enable nearly all the payments now made under the Supplementary Benefits Commission's discretionary powers to be prescribed in regulations. In certain respects it is already clear that the regulations will be far more restrictive than existing practice, especially in regard to exceptional need payments for clothing and other matters. But in general the intention seems to be that existing policies will be written into the regulations.
On Second Reading I tried to point out how extremely difficult it is for regulations to incorporate everything that is likely to come before a supplementary benefits officer. The White Paper presented this
change in positive terms. It said:
All claimants will reap the benefits of the emphasis on legal entitlement and published rules".
§ Replacing discretion with legal rights is, in principle, desirable; but it is important that where legal rights end there should still be discretionary powers to give help where a particular help is needed. Therefore, the amendment would give benefits officers the power to make lump sum exceptional need payments in cases not covered by the regulations, in order to prevent hardship.
§ At present Section 4 of the Supplementary Benefits Act has the effect of waiving the normal assessment rules in cases of urgent need. That means, for example, that urgent need payments can be paid to a person in full-time work or, in any kind of emergency, to a person who might not qualify under the normal rules. Perhaps I may give a case in point. I remember—I think that my recollection is right—a man who was in full-time work who had his tools stolen and who could not carry on with his work until such time as they were replaced. It was possible, if my memory is correct, that that situation could be met and it was, I believe, in fact met. This is a safety net provision and Section 4 quite rightly does not attempt to define "urgent need" or to limit in any way the type of case in which this power can be used.
§ As I understand the situation, the Government now propose to limit urgent need payments to the type of case prescribed in regulations, and I am not against that. I think that it is a good thing that we set it out clearly. I am saying that it cannot be set out so clearly as to incorporate emergencies which it is not possible to put down by way of prescription. Paragraph 14 of the Annex to Notes on Clauses lists some of these. It gives local disasters, loss of money, loss of travel tickets, and so on. The passion, if I may say so, for putting everything in regulations has, I think, been taken too far in this instance. The difficulties of drafting regulations to cover every predictable kind of emergency will be absolutely immense. I should like to take just two examples. I wonder how one defines a "local disaster". I am not being facetious about this; but how does one define it? For example, how does one define "loss of money"? It is more than just losing money; very often it is how the loss came about.534
§ However widely the regulations are drawn, they are bound to exclude some of the unpredictable emergencies that occur, and the whole point of Section 4 is, or ought to be, to cover the unpredictable. Moreover, the need to consult complex regulations will obviously impair the ability of benefits officers to respond promptly to cases of urgent need. The whole purpose of urgent need is that it is urgent, and they ought to be in a position to deal with such cases urgently. This is why we believe the two amendments—Amendment No. 26, which I am now moving, and Amendment No. 28, to which I am speaking—are essential in the interests of everyone concerned, including the supplementary benefits officers. I beg to move.
§ Baroness WOOTTON of ABINGER
I should like very warmly to support my noble friend in this amendment. The experience of most of us is that the one outstanding characteristic of emergencies is that they are not predictable, and it is on that ground that I should like warmly to support my noble friend.
§ Lord BANKS
I, too, am sympathetic to this amendment. I see the dilemma we are in. The object of the Bill is to reduce discretion. One can see why that must be done. If we are to continue to have on supplementary benefit the large numbers that we have on it at present, in the absence of any measures which will take a large number of those people off supplementary benefit, some restriction of discretion would appear, unfortunately, to he inevitable. But even so, it seems that there should be some final opportunity to deal with a case which it may not be possible to categorise in any of the prescribed categories.
Therefore, I can see the argument for the possibility of making a lump sum exceptional-need payment in particular circumstances beyond those prescribed. I know that the answer to that is, "You are opening the door and allowing discretion back in", and "How far will that discretion then go?". But I would rather risk that than think that there was a particular hardship, or series of hardships, which could not be helped because no provision had been made in the Bill.
§ Lord CULLEN of ASHBOURNE
One of the major areas of concern identi- 535 fied by the Supplementary Benefits Commission before the supplementary benefits review was set up by the previous Government was the growth in the number of discretionary payments. The commission pointed out that reliance on discretion led to very wide variations in awards in different areas, and also made it more difficult for claimants to know what payments were available to them. As a result the system operated unfairly as between different claimants. It led to conflict between claimants and officials, and to increasing pressures on the system. These matters have been discussed by the commission and fully documented in their annual reports. The supplementary benefits review confirmed this picture and pointed to the dislike of claimants and staff of a system which depended to such an extent on discretionary payments.
One of the major changes proposed in the new legal structure for the supplementary benefits scheme is the shift from discretion to entitlement; from generalised terminology to established rules and published rights. The changes proposed in Section 3 of the Supplementary Benefits Act and the regulations to be made under it are of the very essence of these changes. We intend that claimants should know exactly where they stand with regard to additional payments, as with other aspects of the scheme. What we have in mind is to identify, and to specify in regulations, all the expenses for which additional payments can be claimed. We recognise that in an area such as this it is probably impossible to dispense with discretion altogether. That is why regulations will provide that single payments may also be made in very exceptional circumstances where, in the opinion of the benefits officer, an expense has been, or has to be, incurred in order to avoid severe hardship. Thus, the object is to provide for payments for specified expenses to be available as of right, while retaining some discretion to deal with the truly exceptional situation that cannot be anticipated.
This power will be spelled out in regulations and to that extent, therefore, the amendments are unnecessary. I cannot today quote all the circumstances in which it might operate—by its nature this would be an impossible task and the Committee will have an opportunity to debate the regulations when they are made, 536 if it so wishes—but I should like to make it clear that we are confident that it can be limited to very exceptional circumstances, because the great majority of cases for which additional help may be needed can be clearly spelled out in the regulations. We are sure that this approach is the best way of ensuring consistency of practice throughout the country, and of achieving the spirit of openness about entitlement which, I hope, we all desire. These amendments cut right across that spirit and would represent a return to the days of doubt and uncertainty. I therefore call on the Committee to reject them.
§ 3.7 p.m.
§ Lord UNDERHILL
The noble Lord has said that this would be spelled out in regulations. But I should like to put it to the Minister that if it is to he spelled out in regulations, why cannot he accept the amendment? It seems logical to me that the amendment covers the very point which he made. However, if the regulations are to attempt to spell out every single urgent case, there will be some cases that will not be covered. Either we must have an escape clause, leaving discretion to the officers concerned, or we shall find that certain hardship cases will arise because we have tried to spell it all out in some detail.
§ Lord CULLEN of ASHBOURNE
I thought that I had made it quite clear that we shall spell out in regulations all that can possibly be spelled out, but there will still be residual discretion.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
On the face of it, the reply by the noble Lord on behalf of the Government seems to be perfectly reasonable. The noble Lord has said that these cases will be in the regulations and that we can debate the regulations. As I understand the situation, if the Committee takes exception to any part of those regulations—I may be wrong about this, and, if I am, I hope that someone will put me right—then we have to decline to accept the regulations as a whole; we cannot alter them. This seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse.
We do not want an endless number of people spending a considerable amount of time coming forward with a whole set of regulations, which your Lordships will 537 have an opportunity of debating, only to find that there is general agreement that one or two of those regulations, or parts of the regulations, are unacceptable; and then we have to reject the whole thing. I think that that would be a terrific time-waster. I think that Amendment No. 26, which I have moved, and the other amendment, which I think is even more important, are desirable and in the best interests of good government.
§ Lord DRUMALBYN
May I mention one point. I wonder whether my noble friend could assure us that there would be no question at all of the sort of gather-up provision that he was envisaging in the regulations setting up the prescribed cases being found to be ultra vires when one came to the regulations? It seems to be a curiosity when regulations are to set out prescribed cases that those same regulations would also try to deal with cases which are not prescribed, and leave a discretion there in addition to the provisions which are intended to avoid such a provision.
§ Lord CULLEN of ASHBOURNE
The whole idea is to put into regulations as much as can reasonably be put in. There is a great deal of experience over many years of the Supplementary Benefits Commission's working of the various things that have cropped up. A great many of those things will be covered by the regulations put in. It is obvious, as the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, said, that one cannot think of everything, so there will be residual discretion for those hardship cases not covered by the regulations.
§ Lord BOYD-CARPENTER
Can my noble friend answer the question that my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn has just put to him? Has he already taken legal advice as to whether the kind of escape clause which he outlined would be intra vires in this particular Bill when it becomes an Act? I know that it is an awkward question to ask in Committee, but I make this suggestion to him. If the noble Lord opposite withdraws the amendment, will my noble friend undertake to obtain a considered legal view, if necessary from one of the Law Officers, before the next stage of the Bill? Perhaps some noble Lord would then put down an amendment and my noble friend could 538 make a statement on that. That would reassure us, because the point of my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn has raised a doubt in. my mind. I go with the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, so far as to say that I think to have no escape clause, to try to forecast every conceivable type of problem and hardship, will beat the ingenuity even of the highly intelligent people in the noble Lord's department.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
May I beg the noble Lord and the noble Baroness the Minister to take the advice of two distinguished Members of their side who have held distinguished office in this particular field? Together they are unbeatable when it comes to knowledge. I should be happy not to press this amendment to a Division if the Government felt they could undertake this.
§ Lord HALE
I rose to put this point before my noble friend intervened. I am impressed by the argument put forward by my noble friend Lord Wells-Pestell. It seems to me that the suggestion he now makes is greatly to the advantage of the Government so far as the law is concerned. If he accepts the amendment now he is only taking what will be something similar to a residual power after the specific order is made. If he accepts the amendment now it will not be so much incumbent upon him to set out this long and difficult list in the order. He gets the benefit of it both ways. He is taking no more, on his own statement, than an amendment which provides for an exercise of discretion, and he says, and keeps on saying—I am bound to say that I sympathise with the fact that some commentators have rather overlooked that he said this—that he intends to provide a final discretion after he has set it out. To have it now gets over the point about ultra vires and enables him to rethink the drafting of the order if he decides the order is necessary, and without involving any special legal difficulties.
§ Baroness WOOTTON of ABINGER
In the nature of the case we have not seen the regulations. We cannot at this stage. We do not know how comprehensive they may be. Surely the logical procedure, as the noble Lord opposite suggested, is to cover in the regulations all the things which experience shows are likely to happen, and to put into the Bill itself 539 the safety net. Surely a safety net stuck into the regulations is rather illogical. If regulations are made to provide for all these emergencies, you can then properly put into the Act itself,and also in cases of exceptional hardship discretion will remain with the officer.
§ Lord SANDYS
My noble friend has expressed willingness to look at this, but there were some points which the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, raised that I think it would be timely to mention now because he also spoke to Amendment No. 28. In this regard the brown volume, the Notes on Clauses, at page 93 has much information to impart. I should like to draw Lord Wells-Pestell's attention to paragraph 14. I can at the same time assure him, when he referred to local disasters, that they were included. If I may, I shall quote my honourable friend Mrs. Chalker in another place, at column 788 in Standing Committee E. She said in this particular regard:I think I can give the right honourable Gentleman a complete assurance. It would include local and individual disasters".She went on to give an example, which might help the noble Lord, because she defined the circumstances. She said this:I remember one in my constituency. A house was burnt to the ground overnight and the family left without clothing or household goods. There were seven children to be looked after. That would be covered by the ultimate discretion even if the persons in that household were not in any other way entitled under the regulations to be made under the schedule".I hope that that is helpful to the noble Lord.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
I am grateful. I have found it difficult to absorb 103 hours (I think) of talking in another place in Committee stage, which took something like 23 or 25 days, and it is quite clear that I did not pick up that particular example.
§ Lord CULLEN of ASHBOURNE
In view of the pressure from behind me, I am very happy, after what my noble friends Lord Drumalbyn and Lord Boyd-Carpenter have said, to take this back and see what legal aspect there is to this, and we can return to it at the next stage.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
May I say to the noble Lord that it was not only 540 behind him but it was on his extreme right—and he must be careful of anything coming from the extreme right. With the leave of the Committee, I beg leave to withdraw this amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 3.19 p.m.
Lord JANNER moved Amendment No. 27:
Page 32, line 38, at end insert ("but no account shall be taken of any powers which may be available to local authorities as defined by section 2(i)(a) of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970.").
§ The noble Lord said: I am speaking on behalf of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, of which I happen to be a vice-president. I introduce this amendment to seek clarification. Basically, the AMA is concerned with several matters in the Social Security Bill which could affect the expenditures of local authorities, especially the hard-pressed metropolitan areas. These are the effects on local authority expenditure and services in kind of typing up SBC discretionary payments. I shall be quoting several examples which give rise to concern, especially the home help charges.
§ When the Minister for Social Security, Mr. Reg Prentice, responded to a proposed amendment to the Bill put down by Mr. Andrew Bennett for AMA probing its effects on local authority expenditure, a categorical assurance was given in Committee in the other place that there was no intention behind the measure to transfer extra financial responsibility from the supplementary benefits system to local authorities, and that this regulation that would be made would carry forward the existing principles. The association welcome this assurance but they are still concerned. Currently, people receiving home help services can be granted a contribution by the Supplementary Benefits Commission towards their expenditure on fees for home help services.
§ For example, where local authorities charge home help flat rate of £1 per week, people already in receipt of supplementary benefit may be given an additional amount of 50p or 70p per week towards the cost. Others may, because they must spend on domestic assistance, come within the 541 eligibility criteria for supplementary benefit assistance. But it is clear from correspondence between the DHSS and the local authority associations that after November SB officers will discontinue meeting any claims for a contribution to the cost of home help services. Worse still, the SBC is already withdrawing from some existing local schemes whereby increases in home help charges would have been covered by the SBC. This occurs in places like the London Borough of Enfield and also in Wakefield. Indeed, the AMA was very surprised to find for both home help charges and other fees that the local offices in the Wakefield area are already interpreting the Bill as taking effect from now and reducing benefits immediately. They are saying that any changes in a client's supplementary benefit—for example, to take account of rent or rate increases—means any contribution towards home help would cease; and, although the client may already have been in receipt of such allowance, so far as places such as Wakefield are concerned, since the benefit of most clients will be adjusted to take account of the rate increases with effect from 1st April 1980, this virtually means that charges for other things like home help services would cease to be allowed as from that date, as would possibly other grants as well.
§ This is particularly surprising for the AMA, since they had understood from the SPC in a letter sent at the end of February that existing beneficiaries, whose entitlement to an addition for local authority home help charge arose before 29th February, still retained their additions at least until November 1980. It is quite clear that SBC is interpreting very rigidly its stated view that local authority savings should not be achieved by a transfer of financial responsibility to the centrally-funded supplementary benefits scheme. This is clearly worrying to local authorities. They are not income maintenance agencies. The Government's own figures on this reckons that there will be a saving to the SBC of £140,000 in November.
§ This is not a saving to local authorities and they are now in a dilemma. Either they have to forgo any projected income from new charges by waiving or reducing charges to those eligible for supplementary benefit, or they have to insist on the full charge being paid by those whose financial 542 need for extra supplementary benefit is not in question. Thus, life is made even more difficult for those already in a precarious financial position.
§ Claimants will already have to pay 50p out of their basic allowance as a new payment. Now they may have to pay £1, unless authorities which have budgeted for this income can waive the charge and find reductions on other services to compensate—and we all know what that means; other services for other needy groups could suffer, for example. I should therefore like to press for some clarification from the Government on these issues. A lot has already been said about the regulations, both here and in another place. The regulations could reflect my point. The regions should have discretion in such local schemes as those in Wakefield and Enfield in operation, otherwise there will be much suffering. I beg to move.
§ Baroness YOUNG
The point that the noble Lord, Lord Janner, has made is, of course, that he is concerned that the Government are hoping to shift the responsibility from the social security system on to local authorities and I should like to make it quite clear immediately that the aim of the regulations is to codify practice. It is not to introduce a new practice but to codify what it is; and it may be helpful to the Committee to remind them that the annexe to the Notes on Clauses beginning on page 86 do in fact set out the general line of the recommendations so that they can be looked at now before they are published later on in an order. I think this perhaps answers the point that the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, made in moving his amendment.
A distinction, therefore, is already drawn and will continue to be drawn between the duties and powers of local authorities. As regards duties, it would clearly be double provision from public funds if there were to be an entitlement to an exceptional needs payment for an expense which local authorities have a duty to meet. Hence, the regulations will not provide for exceptional needs payments for telephone installations for the disabled. Section 2 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1972 clearly makes it a duty for the local authority to provide help with telephones if they decide this is 543 necessary. Since that Act came into operation the Supplementary Benefits Commission have been very little involved in this field and provision will not be made in the future through the supplementary benefits scheme. The fall-back power to provide exceptional needs payments to meet expenses not covered specifically elsewhere in the regulations will also preclude payments where a local authority is already required to meet the expense, otherwise there would be an overlap.
The noble Lord, Lord Janner, has specifically raised the point about home help and the home help service, and he might note that in fact this point arises on Amendments Nos. 41A, 65B and 72—and will, I think, be debated when we come to debate them. The present amendment, No. 27, is concerned with the general point about overlaps between local authority duties and the supplementary benefits scheme, and I hope I have said enough at this stage to make clear that we do not believe that there is an alteration of the principle by the regulation-making powers for the Supplementary Benefits Commission. It is simply codifying the practice and not establishing a new one.
I should like to thank the noble Baroness for the reply that she has given and I shall certainly report this to the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord WELLS-PESTELL had given Notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 28:
Page 33, leave out lines 5 and 6.
§ The noble Lord said: I am working on the assumption that the Government, while looking at my Amendment No. 26, will also look at Amendment No. 28; in which case I do not propose to move this amendment.
§ [Amendment No. 28 not moved.]
§ 3.31 p.m.
§ The noble Lord said: I have already informed the Committee that I am speaking on behalf of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, and I have already spoken about discretionary payments and regulations to be made about special payments. My other main point concerns foster parent payments. This I feel to be a very important matter of principle. In some parts of the country foster parents, who do a valuable job for society, find that payments from local authorities for the maintenance of foster children are taken into account by the SBC if they are supplementary beneficiaries. This makes the foster parent ineligible for supplementary benefits for herself, even though there may be no element of "reward" in the payment from the local authority. This is despite an earlier ruling by the commission, in a letter to the association on 22nd March 1978, that such payments (that is, for foster children) should be disregarded. Local authorities are trying very hard to recruit foster parents. These are very important people, who do a wonderful job for the community; and because they operate from their own homes, they are not tying up resources in expensive residential accommodation for local authorities to provide.
§ May I draw the Committee's attention to one case which the association recently heard about in Sheffield. There the issue has been brought to the forefront by the DHSS withdrawing supplementary benefit from a foster mother who has recently fostered a severely handicapped child, and whose own child has now reached the age of 16 years. This case is by no means unique, and other local authorities have been experiencing similar difficulties, since the SBC are following a clear policy on this matter.
§ However, with reference to the Sheffield case, the regional controller at the DHSS has refused to exercise any discretion for making an exception to the policy in the case of this foster mother. She has also appealed to a tribunal against the decision, but has had her appeal refused there, also. I gather that the regional controller says that, although women who are solely responsible for dependent children under the age of 16 who are living with them, are exempt from being 545 required to register for work as a condition for receiving supplementary benefit, this does not apply to foster children. In other words, any person who accepts a foster child into her home when her own children have reached, or are about to reach, their 16th birthday, would cease to be entitled to supplementary benefit because the foster parent would no longer be able to satisfy the condition of registration and availability for work.
§ The commission says that the local authority has to pay the foster parent sufficient for her own needs as well as those of the foster children, but this argument fails to understand the concept and objectives of fostering, which are that people should be encouraged to take into their own homes children whose own parents cannot care for them, and care for those children as members of the family. This provides a child with a home environment which is as normal as possible, and which he or she would otherwise be denied. To turn fostering into paid employment undermines the whole basis of this objective, and many social services staff have been of the view that if paid fostering was to become the norm, rather than the exception, it would be difficult to exclude people whose motivation is financial gain rather than commitment to the wellbeing of the children.
It may be that the argument which has been put to Sheffield by the SBC; namely,
In the commission's view it is for the local authority, as is the practice of some authorities, to pay the foster parent sufficient for her own needs as well as those of the foster children",
§ is intended to apply only to those small number of foster parents who would otherwise be eligible for supplementary benefits. If not, the cost at a time of restriction in local government expenditure would be immense. To offer such a payment just to a small minority of foster parents, many of whom would be different from other foster parents only in the single fact that they would otherwise be eligible for supplementary benefit, will be seen by other foster parents to be so obviously inequitable and unjust as to he a deterrent to the effective development and extension of fostering programmes.
§ The alternative, which Sheffield has adopted as a temporary measure in 546 relation to this particular case—and I believe that other authorities have also done the same—is to pay enhanced fostering rates to those foster parents who have been excluded from supplementary benefit in this way; but this is hardly a satisfactory solution, since the people concerned enjoy the rights neither as claimants nor as employees, and the way that their income would be regarded for the purposes of other welfare benefits claims is unclear. Thus it could well be a source of further confusion and controversy.
§ Local authorities are now paying a more reasonable and uniform set of rates across the board for standard fostering schemes. They have recently completed surveys for the local authority associations in order to demonstrate this. This is admirable, but there will still be cases where people such as the Sheffield lady with the handicapped foster child, who, in other circumstances would be entitled to supplementary benefit, are deemed to be ineligible for it because she is being given a grant by the local authority. This is a matter of social policy which I think the Government should look at. We all want a good fostering service. We must do our best to encourage it. I beg to move.
§ Baroness YOUNG
I am sure that we have all listened with great interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Janner, has had to say, and let me say right away that the Government are very much in favour of fostering arrangements, for all the reasons that the noble Lord has enumerated, with which I agree entirely. As a Government we have repeatedly emphasised our commitment to the promotion of family life, in the belief that the family provides the best environment for the healthy development of children. What we are talking about in this particular amendment is how fostering arrangements should be funded.
The intention is that the revised supplementary benefit scheme should follow closely the present policy of the Supplementary Benefits Commission. Under that policy, a person who has been a local authority foster parent for some time before claiming benefit will not be regarded as available for other work and will not therefore be required to register for 547 employment as a condition of receiving benefit. The same view will be taken where a claimant is looking after the child of a relative, since we recognise that this is often a feature of a close-knit family.
However, I suggest that different considerations apply where a person already getting benefit, who has no children of her own, and who is capable of work, decides to take on the task of fostering children for the local authority. Had she taken on other full-time work, then supplementary benefit would have ceased. The purpose of the decision in these circumstances to become a foster parent is to change the claimant's status from unemployed to lone parent. The effect, if the intention of the amendment were accepted, would be to continue the payment of supplementary benefit which otherwise could have ended.
The Government's view is that in these circumstances the payment of supplementary benefit is inappropriate. In effect, I am giving the answer which the local Supplementary Benefits Commission gave to the particular inquiry which was made by the Sheffield authority, and which the noble Lord quoted in his remarks. It is for the local authority to make it possible for people to act as foster parents. It is the principle of supplementary benefit that people who are capable of working should receive benefit only while they are actively seeking work and are registered for it, which clearly would not apply in the case of someone taking on foster children in those circumstances.
I hope that I have said enough to indicate that there is no intention to apply that principle rigidly, but we think that, in the circumstances that I have explained, it would be right to continue to regard the claimant as available for work. It follows that we should not go to the other extreme proposed in this particular case. I hope I have said sufficient to enable the noble Lord, Lord Janner, to feel that we have taken the point; but if we accepted the amendment, it would be establishing a completely new principle, and so I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw it.
§ Baroness JEGER
I rise to support my noble friend Lord Janner. I am amazed that the noble Baroness refers 548 to a woman taking on this job as being capable of work. I cannot imagine harder work for a woman to take on than, as in the case to which my noble friend Lord Janner referred, a very severely handicapped child. That must be the hardest work in the world; and all the reports which have come in indicate that this child has made progress and that there seems to be a very good and stable relationship.
I should have thought that, even if there is no other reason for sympathy towards such cases, there should be on the grounds of cost to the Government. If a woman in this position is told to go and get another job, then what is to happen to that child? My understanding is that if a severely handicapped child is taken into the very specialised form of local authority care that disability would need, it costs public funds something like £100 a week for the rest of that child's life. It seems to me quite absurd on economic grounds, and quite wrong on the basis of human relationships and the sort of one-to-one care that disabled children need in as normal a family as possible. I hope the noble Baroness will look at this again. There cannot be very many cases of this kind; and I am sure there is a wide appeal, right across party lines, to all of us who care about the bringing up of children with severe handicaps, particularly.
§ Baroness YOUNG
I wonder whether I may answer the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, because I think we are talking at cross-purposes on this matter. She has said that it is quite wrong to suggest that somebody who is fostering children is capable of work. The point I was making is that there are two quite separate sets of circumstances. The present situation, as I understand it, is that a person who is now a local authority foster parent and has been for some time before claiming benefit would not be regarded as available for other work because, of course, she is a foster mother, and therefore would not be required to register for employment as a condition of receiving benefit. So that case is met, which I think is the case which the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, raised.
The case which, as I understand it, the noble Lord, Lord Janner, is raising is the slightly separate issue of somebody who has been receiving benefit, who has 549 not been a foster parent but who might become a foster parent and should continue to receive benefit. The difference is that, had she not taken on the foster children and no longer needed the benefit, she would have been capable of work. She is therefore in a position different from that of somebody who is actually fostering. We are talking about two different sets of circumstances. What we are trying to say is that we are not altering the rules in any way under this Bill. They remain as they were before; and I think it would not be right to extend them in the way which has been suggested, but of course it would be right to maintain them in the way that the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, has described.
Perhaps I may emphasise the point which the noble Baroness has made. We are dealing here with a very important subject. Far from it being a normal subject, it is something that affects children who otherwise have suffered because of the conditions under which they have lived before. The provision of a satisfactory foster home for them is something which I am sure every member of this Committee, as well as everybody outside, would wish to see done in a way which would not embarrass or hurt the foster parent herself or himself. Of course, I have listened very carefully to what has been said by the noble Baroness. I do not think that at this stage I want to press the amendment, but I hope that she will consider this matter between now and the following stages. In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 3.44 p.m.
§ Lord WALLACE of COSLANY moved Amendment No. 30:
Page 33, line 43, at end insert—
("(4) Subsection (1) above does not apply to a person becoming engaged in remunerative full-time work until the expiration of a period of 15 days from the beginning of the engagement in the case of a person whose remuneration is normally paid weekly and 30 days in any other case.").
§ The noble Lord said: This amendment deals mainly with monthly-paid people. I think noble Lords who have run businesses will appreciate that when one promotes a member of the staff and he suddenly 550 finds himself moved from a weekly wage to monthly pay, it presents a problem, but the employer usually helps out. But when the worker is unemployed and is starting a job on monthly pay, then the problems are even worse. Amendment No. 30 would allow monthly-paid workers to continue drawing supplementary benefit for the first month after starting a job instead of doing so for only 15 days.
The question was in fact discussed in Social Assistance, paragraphs 4 to 18—and I quote:
If it were thought desirable to achieve a greater equity as between weekly and monthly paid the present 15-day period could be retained, but the practice of making supplementary benefit awarded in the period from then until the first pay day recoverable could be dropped".
§ I repeat that monthly-paid workers should be entitled to receive supplementary benefit for a month after starting a job instead of the 15 days allowed for weekly-paid workers. This is in recognition of the fact that the monthly-paid normally have to manage for a month on their last wages payment on becoming unemployed. At present, they may exceptionally be able to get urgent need payments after 15 days, but such payments are recoverable, and the Government propose that this should continue.
§ Although I admit the ground was covered very fully in another place, I ask: can the Minister give an assurance that the power of recovery would not be used in these cases? I am only seeking that assurance, and I do not intend to press hard on this if the Minister can give a reasonable assurance. I beg to move.
§ Lord CULLEN of ASHBOURNE
I acknowledge that the present 15-day rule is generous to the weekly-paid, for it means that their entitlement to benefit continues up to their first pay day even where they have to work a week in hand. But for the monthly-paid, who have to wait a further fortnight for their first pay day, this is on the face of it less generous. The present rules are designed to treat everyone alike, and I think this is perfectly defensible. The monthly-paid receive the same help as the weekly-paid. Adapting to the monthly pay cycle is admittedly more difficult, but most employers who adopt this system make it flexible enough by way of advances of salary to cater for those who cannot 551 manage; and the monthly-paid are usually better placed to cope with such arrangements and the necessary repayments.
There is a further consideration, and that is the cost involved in any change. The cost is very difficult to quantify, but this would be an open invitation to claim benefit, and if all unemployed people who entered monthly-paid jobs were to claim supplementary benefit for the full period the cost would be very considerable. The most recent estimate was that this could be as high as £30 million. At a time of great pressure on resources, we do not think that this change, even if it were fully desirable in principle, could command sufficiently high priority to justify money being diverted to implement it. The number of claims at present from monthly-paid workers is thought to be relatively small, so that whether there is a real need for help through the supplementary benefits scheme is at the moment unproven.
Monthly-paid workers who claim supplementary benefit currently outside the 15-day period are eligible for urgent need payments under Section 4 of the Act, which would normally be recoverable. Although this is not specified in the annex to Notes on Clauses, we intend that they should continue to be eligible for payments on that basis, and will so provide in the regulations. We cannot go any further than that, and we do not think there is a need to do so. I therefore ask the Committee to reject the amendment.
Lord WALLACE of COSLANY
This is a wonderful assurance! I would classify it as a kick in the teeth. The noble Lord was talking about millions of pounds and said there were very few cases; and then he said that an employer is usually very good in these cases. We are talking about people who have been unemployed. If an employer has taken on a new employee from the unemployed queue, he must have some reservations about whether that employee is going to be worth while keeping on for that month. Therefore, the employer is not so ready to advance in a case like that. I would be the same if I were an employer. It is a risky business. Therefore, I do not think that the Government are being at all reasonable. However, we have even greater issues to argue 552 and I will not argue this one further. I will withdraw the amendment on the understanding that probably we shall come back to it at another stage.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 3.52 p.m.
Lord WELLS-PESTELL moved Amendment No. 31:
Page 33, line 45, after ("subsection (1),") insert ("for the words "his requirements for" there shall be substituted the words "so much of his requirements as exceeds £16 for any week during" and").
§ The noble Lord said: It may be that a number of noble Lords will feel that this particular amendment would be better raised under the Social Security (No. 2) Bill when it comes before us. What I want to say now I say more in sorrow than anger; because, the day after the first Committee stage of this Bill in this House, the other place had the Second Reading of the Social Security (No. 2) Bill. It may be that noble Lords with a great deal of experience behind them will feel that it is really discourteous, and I would go so far as to say offensive, to the dignity of this House to have the No. 2 Bill before Parliament at a time when this House is considering the No. 1 Bill—which the No. 2 Bill is going to change dramatically and drastically.
§ Parliamentary procedure permits of a No. 1 Bill and a No. 2 Bill—I was about to say almost simultaneously but certainly one after the other, but I cannot remember a single case where a No. 2 Bill has sought to change very fundamentally the No. 1 Bill. I begin to ask myself, as no doubt do other noble Lords, why we are bothering about this Bill at all if, in a short space of time, we have to consider another Bill which is going to change the No. 1 Bill very substantially. It is because I think it is important that matters which will come before us under the No. 2 Bill can be dealt with in this particular Bill. I have already on a previous occasion referred to one matter and I want to refer now to the position of the industrial disputes which the No. 2 Bill will he dealing with by way of reduction of supplementary benefit for strikers.
§ In moving the amendment which stands in my name and those of my noble friends behind me, I want first to set out 553 the present position because I think there is a good deal of ignorance of what comes the way of the striker in this country. At present a married man on strike can receive supplementary benefit only for his wife and children; single men and married women can normally claim no benefit at all, except in very restricted circumstances of urgent need. The rates for families of strikers are £14.65 for the wife and for children (according to the age of each child) as follows, but subject in each case to a reduction of £4 for child benefit: for a child under five the wife or mother gets £5.20; for a five to 10 year old, £6.25; for an 11 to 12 year old, £7.70; for a 13 to 15 year old, £9.35—subject in each case, as I have said, to a reduction of £4 for child benefit.
§ It is fair to say that, in addition, the amount of household rent or mortgage interest repayment will normally be added, although this amount will be reduced if there are any other adults living in the household. The amounts calculated as above will be reduced by any other income which the family has, subject to the disregard of certain small amounts. If the striker's wife is working, her net earnings will be taken fully into account except for the first £4. All other income will be taken fully into account except for the first £4 of such income. This will apply to any strike pay, tax rebates and picketing expenses, less actual fares, which a striker is receiving and to any other personal income which he has, such as disablement or war pension.
§ When one takes that into account, there is a very considerable imposition placed on the striker's family. In addition, even a married man will not normally be entitled to any supplementary benefit in respect of his family needs for strikes of short duration or the initial periods of longer disputes, because his last wages before the dispute started and any wages in hand and holiday pay will be treated as covering the equivalent future period.
§ What I have just said applies to all strikes and also to lockouts by employers, regardless of the merits of the disputes or actions of employers prior to the disputes. Thus, it covers cases where an employer has acted in breach of agreed procedures and where he has acted illegally; where, 554 for example, he failed to observe wages council rates or health and safety legislation. The rules apply not only to workers who themselves go on strike or refuse to cross picket lines but also to workers laid off as a result of disputes if any aspect of their terms or conditions of employment stand to be affected.
§ May I ask your Lordships to look at the Government's proposals? The Government's main proposal is to treat a person on strike or lockout as a result of an industrial dispute as receiving a certain amount of extra income. They have tended to drop the word "deeming". I do not know what the net effect of that is: whether they deem that a striker is going to be in receipt of £12 a week. But if they have finally decided to drop that, then their intention is to reduce the amount of supplementary benefit by £12. This £12 is not to be attributed in law to any particular source, but the Government clearly intend—or did intend; we are not sure of what their intention is—that it should come from union strike pay.
§ In the case of single people, they already have no entitlement to supplementary benefit except on grounds of urgent need, and the Department of Health and Social Security will only accept that there is urgent need where there is a combination of adverse financial and personal circumstances. Single people living with their parents (unless they themselves are on supplementary benefit or sharing with other adults) are unlikely to qualify. However, where single people can qualify the DHSS will bring up a claimant's income only to a maximum of £12.50 per week at present. Assuming that the reduction of £12 is going to be made, then, certainly as far as a single striker is concerned—if it applies to him—the remaining entitlement to supplementary benefit would, as your Lordships will see, be minimal.
§ I want to talk about the effect of the Government's present proposals. This will hit hardest those workpeople who are lowest paid, particularly with larger families, and who will have least other resources on which to fall back. We have to face the fact—even if the Government have not done so—that it could mean the break-up of some such families and more children having to be taken into care at 555 local authority expense or claims to social workers for cash help under the Children and Young Persons Act. It will further harm local shops and businesses in towns and villages where a large proportion of the Community are affected by strikes. I have in mind the steel, mining and motor industry and the docks because families will have even less money to pay off existing debts and make new purchases during the strike. The saving to the Government expenditure in turn will be quite insignificant in the context of total social security expenditure.
§ At Second Reading, I mentioned what the amount was. Betweeen 1974 and 1979 the total amount of supplementary benefit paid during the disputes averaged less than £3 million a year. By any reckoning, that is an insignificant sum. Strikers and their families can already lose a lot of money during strikes and will be further penalised by the Government when forced to resort to exercising their right to strike. The argument that I am about to put forward may not commend itself to the Committee, but I think that it is something to be proud of: we in this country for decades have allowed men to go on strike when they have felt the need and the justification to do so and yet at the same time have said, "All right, while we will not contribute towards your maintenance, we will not let your wife and family suffer." This is the essence of real democracy. As I have said, the amount is less than about £3 million a year. In all other EEC countries, and in Japan and the United States of America, public assistance of some kind is available also to strikers' families. Strikers and their families can only lose a lot of money during strikes and will be further penalised by the Government when they are forced to resort to exercising their right to strike.
§ The only other point I want to make is that I think that the Government's proposals will only make strikers' families financially even worse off than at present without making any contribution to removing the reasons for striking or promoting solutions. More difficult to assess is the effect of supplementary benefit on the duration of disputes. It is quite clear that supplementary benefit generally makes up only a small proportion of income during disputes. So the Government's proposals would not be effective if they are to be used 556 as an instrument to force men back to work. That is quite clear. There are items such as savings, tax rebates, strike and hardship pay, earning of spouse or children, child benefit or borrowing to contribute to the family upkeep and in addition normal spending is cut back including deferment on hire purchase, rent, mortgage payments and other things.
§ This is going to impose a tremendous burden upon the family. It may well be that there is a school of thought in the Committee who have no sympathy with people who go on strike, whether it is an official or unofficial strike. We on this side certainly do not like unofficial strikes. We have had sufficient experience to know that there are very often legitimate reasons why men should withdraw their labour. If Members on the other side of the Committee can look at it dispassionately—and it may be difficult for them to do so—they will realise that this is so.
§ What is the purpose of this? Can there possibly be any other purpose than to force people back to work or force them by the threat of almost starvation so that they cannot exercise what is a democratic right? I find it very difficult to believe that the Committee will feel that this is desirable. There has been abundant evidence in the history of this country that it has been necessary on more than one occasion for people to threaten and ultimately withdraw their labour. It is not something that one wants to encourage; one would like these difficulties and disputes to be dealt with (shall I say?) in a better way of conversation, rather than confrontation. But when it does happen, the situation is going to be aggravated if the Government's present policy is carried into effect. It certainly is not going to help; it is going to make matters worse. I beg to move.
§ Lord RENTON
My Lords, I wonder whether I may venture to comment on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, when he complained that in considering this part of this Bill we were embarrassed by the fact that there is a Social Security (No. 2) Bill passing through another place. Whether or not that Bill might one day amend the contents of this Bill, I suggest that there is nothing we can do about it. There does not appear to me—as I hope to explain to your Lordships—to have been any 557 infringement of the rules of procedure of either House of Parliament by the introduction into another place of the No. 2 Bill. Nor does it give rise to any conflict between the two Houses. If the noble Lord has in mind—as perhaps he has—the well-known rule of both Houses of Parliament against anticipation, I wonder if I may remind him of what Erskine May says about that in the 19th edition at page 371:Stated generally, the rule against anticipation (which applies to other proceedings as well as motions) is that a matter must not be anticipated if it is contained in a more effective form of proceeding than the proceeding by which it is sought to be anticipated, but it may be anticipated if it is contained in an equally or less effective form".I suggest that any public Bill is the equal of any other public Bill. Therefore, for the reasons stated in the passage which I have quoted from Erskine May, the rule against anticipation has for that reason alone not been infringed. I hope that I do not need to trouble the Committee by putting forward any other reason for saying there has been no infringement of this rule.
Surely this situation is not unprecedented. Even if the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, has a valid point, it is one which should he made against the Social Security (No. 2) Bill in another place rather than in our Committee when we are discussing this Bill which is now before us. We have to deal with the Bill now before us as we find it, and I suggest that we ought not to make any assumption whatever about what the contents of another Bill which is now going through another place might or might not be when the Bill reaches your Lordships' House. Therefore, with the respect which I always have for the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, I would suggest that, whatever one may think about his other arguments, his procedural point has no force in it.
§ 4.10 p.m.
§ Lord ELWYN-JONES
I wonder whether the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is not a little unreal on this matter. After all, the Government are in charge of the legislation; they are responsible for the introduction of the Bill which your Lordships are now considering in this Committee. While the Bill is proceeding through this Chamber 558 they see fit to introduce a Bill in another place at the very same time, and that Bill makes a substantial amendment and alteration to the provisions of this Bill. At the very least, I would say that this is a shambles as regards the management of Government business and legislation. That is point number one, and if we were sitting on the other side of this Chamber, my goodness! what eloquence we would hear on that theme.
Secondly, I am not sure that it does not go so far as to be a discourtesy regarding the proceedings of your Lordships, and I think that your Lordships are entitled to have an explanation of what is the factor which has suddenly brought about such an element. I imagine it will be said that there is some urgency in the need for the amendment that it is hoped will be achieved in this Bill when the No. 2 Bill comes here. But what is the element that explains this, and what is the pressure that has been brought upon the Government to make this indecent change while the proceedings on this Bill are still going through this Chamber?
I do not think that this is a trivial matter. I do not know what precedents the noble Lord, Lord Renton, can cite for this sort of thing—while this Bill is going through this Chamber another Bill is introduced into the other place which will have the effect of amending in due course the proceedings here in connection with this Bill. Of course, we can go on merrily ignoring the No. 2 Bill, except that it would be totally unreal if we did so. No, I think that the Government owe an explanation to your Lordships for what they have done, and I hope we shall get one. We have not had one so far.
§ Baroness YOUNG
Perhaps I could intervene at this moment, because I think the noble and learned Lord has raised an important point and I would not wish your Lordships to feel that any discourtesy was intended in the arrangements which have been made. In making my remarks, I would say that I do not in any way set myself up as an expert on procedure, but I would hope that we could accept the reasons why this has come about. I shall not attempt to follow my noble friend in his quotations from Erskine May, though I listened with great interest to the point that he made. My 559 understanding of the position is that there is nothing either invalid or improper in the procedure that we are now following. In fact, the progress on the Social Security Bill is coming on quite well in this Chamber and it will, of course, receive the Royal Assent before the No. 2 Bill is due to arrive.
The reason for that—and I think it is right that the reason should be given—is in relation to the statements that were made by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Social Services on 26th and 27th March. As the Committee will know, the Social Security (No. 2) Bill was published on 28th March. These events took place before the Social Security Bill that we are currently discussing came to your Lordships' House: the Second Reading was on 1st April. These events have been subsequent to it, and I think it is right that we should have on record an explanation to the Committee of how it came about; but it is certainly not intended as a discourtesy to your Lordships.
§ 4.16 p.m.
§ Lord HALE
I have now risen four times, and I wish to say only a few words, addressed with deep respect to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, who began by saying that one Bill is the same as another Bill and that they are always equal. That is not the fact in this Chamber. In this Chamber, Mr. Speaker's Certificate that a Bill is a Money Bill cannot be challenged. It stops any right of debate, and so the point that one Bill is equal to another Bill is just about as silly as the statement that one noble Lord has exactly the same rights as another noble Lord. I have not found it to be so by experience.
The second point is that it places your Lordships individually in a very serious dilemma to be called upon to discuss clauses which, after all the argument is finished in this Chamber, they know it is proposed to vary by a second Bill. They are not amending, of course; they are taking measures which considerably affect the debate that is taking place at this moment, because the No. 2 Bill has the fullest provisions about the question of the £12 deduction, and certainly it was discussed last week in another place on Second Reading. I feel that this is discourteous.
560 There was an occasion quite recently when Mr. Speaker's Certificate about a Money Bill, in special circumstances when speed was essential, excited some criticism from the people who can criticise such a ruling, and the writers upon constitutional law. Indeed, it excited a certain amount of raising of eyebrows. And at this moment, in a Chamber which is being attacked by both sides, it is well that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, should remember that when I was in another place, and while the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, was conducting debates about the future of the House, there arose a code of conduct between the two Houses which enabled a great deal of legislation to be put through, in the first instance by a Labour Government. That code of conduct was observed in the last Parliament on one occasion by a Conservative Government, at a time when it must have been quite difficult for them to do it and when they were doing it obviously only in order to maintain the obligations of courtesy and consideration which had grown up between the two Houses. In those circumstances, I should have thought that the comments made from the Front Bench on this side were amply justified, and indeed were put modestly and with a certain reserve.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
May I, in order to get the position quite clear, say this. I think that when the noble Lord, Lord Renton, reads what I said in Hansard tomorrow, he will see that I made it perfectly clear that I did not question the legality or the procedure. I went so far as to say that it is quite common if one looks over the years, for a No. 1 and No. 2 Bill to run almost simultaneously in some respects, and certainly as far as the two Chambers were concerned. I was not questioning the Government's right to do it: all I was questioning was whether it was not an affront to the dignity of your Lordships' Chamber.
§ Lord RENTON
I wonder whether your Lordships would bear with me, as what I said has been challenged. First, as regards what was said by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, whose parliamentary experience is exactly the same length as my own, though his is much more distinguished, I would again resort, if I may, to Erskine May where, on page 493, 561 it says this:There is now no rule against the amendment or repeal of an Act of the same Session".So, at least, that power is established. As to precedents, I have not the slightest doubt from my own experience, although my memory fails me on detail at the moment that one could dig up a number of occasions when Acts of a Session have been later amended by a Bill in the same Session. Of that there is no doubt whatever. I do not think it can be said that there is anything approaching what I think the noble and learned Lord described as a shambles in this Session.
Let us bear a sense of proportion about this. In this Social Security (No. 1) Bill, we are dealing with a vast range of material which, as I understand it, is not overlapped in any sense in the Social Security (No. 2) Bill, which has been introduced in another place, although I have not yet had the advantage of seeing it. The truth is that any overlap arises out of the amendment which is now before us, and which has been moved by the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell. So it seems to me, as he so rightly and candidly said, that we are perfectly free from the technical point of view to deal with this matter, and I must confess that I feel no sense of shame from the political point of view.
I have only to answer the noble Lord, Lord Hale, who accused me of having got it wrong when I said, in effect, that all Bills are born free and equal. I take his point about the limitation of our powers with regard to Money Bills, but nevertheless, so far as the rule against anticipation is concerned, and as stated in Erskine May, all Bills are equal.
§ Lord HOWIE of TROON
I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is correct in his assertion that all of this procedure is within the rules of Parliament, though I am not quite sure that his lengthy quotations of Erskine May will help me. As Erskine May's phrases floated across the Chamber, I joined certain other Members in looking slightly stunned. I am quite sure that the noble Lord is right, but that is not really the point. The point is: is this a sensible way to conduct parliamentary business? Are the Government intending to legislate by serial, producing legislation in monthly parts, like David Copperfield, the monthly parts depending on which particular faction in 562 the Cabinet has the upper hand at a certain moment in their animosity towards the trade union movement? Are we to see the Social Security (No. 2) Bill followed by the Social Security (No. 3) Bill, when some other uprising in the Cabinet has produced a slight change in the centre of gravity of that august and important body?
It may be within the rules of Parliament, and I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, was correct when she said that she and her colleagues meant no discourtesy to the House. Nevertheless, it is not a sensible way to proceed. If the Government are able to make up their minds in the course of the Parliamentary Session what they want in the way of social security arrangements with regard to strikers, then they should do so and legislate accordingly. But they should not chop and change from day and from month to month in the way they are doing. It is quite improper and senseless.
§ 4.24 p.m.
§ Lord SANDYS
If I may, I should like to take up the last point made by the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon. Such very experienced parliamentarians as my noble friend Lord Renton, chairman of the committee on the preparation of legislation which bears his name, and the noble and learned Lord sitting opposite, have exchanged some very weighty considerations on an amendment which is not correct. I have examined with interest the Bill and the amendment which we are looking at, and I listened, also with some interest, to what the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, said, because Amendment No. 31 reads as follows:Page 33, line 45, after ("subsection (1),") insert ("for the words "his requirements for" there shall be substituted the words "so much of his requirements as exceeds £16 for any week during "and").In fact, the words "his requirements for" do not occur in line 45 on page 33. Therefore, unhappily, I must first say to the noble Lord that the amendment is defective.
There are many further considerations on this amendment, and the noble Lord rightly, fully and accurately described the present basis for paying supplementary benefit to people involved in trade disputes. The Bill now before the Committee makes no changes in these rules. When the Bill was debated in another place, my honourable friends explained 563 that at that time decisions had not been finally taken about these cases, and that proposals would be put forward in due course. They have now been put forward of course, in the No. 2 Bill. This is why I say that consideration of these matters should be deferred until the No. 2 Bill is debated in this House.
The Social Security Bill which is now before this Committee amends the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976, but makes only minimal changes in the provisions of that Act governing payments to people involved in trade disputes. I must make it clear that the No. 2 Bill makes further amendments to the 1976 Act, but changes made by the two Bills are quite separate and do not overlap except, as I have said, in very minor ways. This is an important point, which I think supports and enhances what my noble friend Lord Renton has just said. I do not believe that there is a conflict here between the two Houses over the procedure.
There were a number of further points in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, which I should like to take up. He referred to supplementary benefit expenditure during trade disputes as averaging no more than about £3 million a year. I should like to make the point that payments of benefit to strikers' families during the recent steel strike alone—and this is one dispute—amounted to £8 million, and expenditure of this order can surely not be called insignificant.
Another matter of great interest to your Lordships was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, and I think that it bears further examination. He referred to social security benefits paid to strikers in other parts of the world. I must confess at this stage that I have not studied the ILO statistics on this, nor can I say that our information is totally complete. However, to the best of my belief at the present time, the situation is this. Social security benefits are not normally paid to strikers, but unemployment benefit may be paid in very restricted circumstances in Belgium and certain states of the United States of America. There are limitations over benefits because, with the exception of the Republic of Ireland and the United States of America, social assistance is not automatically paid to a striker or to his family. It is paid under exceptional circumstances where 564 there is particular hardship. In the two countries quoted, the striker may receive no assistance for himself, and in most countries payment may be subject to a lengthy waiting period.
This is a complicated and technical matter, and I think it bears further consideration. However, I would challenge, in general terms, what the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, said in part of his remarks. I am sure that he did not wish in any way to mislead the Committee, nor do I wish to mislead the Committee in what I have said; I think that knowledge is no doubt being acquired on both sides of the Committee in this regard. May I, however, say that our general impression is that it is very difficult to draw a precise parallel between the two. The terms are different; the amounts are different; the regulations are different; and, indeed, the structure of trade unions is different.
I think it would be improper to continue further along that line at the present time, but I should like to say this. Returning to the amendment, under the present system in the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976 and the proposed system in the Bill, single strikers are not entitled to benefit. They may, however, be entitled to urgent need payments. I think that is common ground between us. However, these amendments would make supplementary benefit payable to a striker in his own right. This would alter the whole basis for payment of supplementary benefit to people engaged in trade disputes which, since 1948, has been that they are entitled to benefit only to meet the requirements of their dependants.
I do not propose to go into the merits of what is contained in this amendment because I do not think that the Bill is the right vehicle to discuss such a radical departure from the present scheme. In this Bill we are making only very minor changes, as I said earlier, to those sections of the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976 which deal with supplementary benefit for people involved in trade disputes. These are detailed on pages 58 and 59 of the book to which we have referred several times already this afternoon—the Notes on Clauses—and in the main are consequent upon other changes made in the Bill to the supplementary benefits scheme.
As your Lordships will be aware, the Government are bringing forward these 565 new proposals to implement their manifesto commitment to review the question of financial support for strikers. As we have already said several times, these are contained in the No. 2 Bill. Therefore, at this stage I feel that I should ask the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, whether he would see fit to withdraw the amendment.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
I do not feel disposed to do any such thing, if I may say so very kindly, because I do not think that the Government—and it may well be my fault—have appreciated what the amendment seeks to do. It refers to paragraph 8, on page 49 of the Bill, of Schedule 2. It seeks to amend paragraph 8, in line 11. It may well be that the Government have not connected the two, but I should have thought that the amendment was very, very clear. I gather that the intention of the amendment has not been appreciated, and obviously the Government must be satisfied that the amendment which I am seeking to move today is in connection with Schedule 2, page 49, line 11.
If I do take the advice given to me by the Government and at this stage withdraw the amendment, I do not feel disposed to withdraw it entirely. It may well be that I shall want to come back to it at Report stage, notwithstanding the fact that it is a matter which will come up in the No. 2 Bill. But sufficient unto the day, so far as that is concerned. Meanwhile, I shall withdraw this amendment to give the Government an opportunity to look at it in relation to line 11 on page 49.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 4.34 p.m.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL moved Amendment No. 32:
Page 34, line 1, leave out paragraph 8 and insert—
8. Section 9 shall be omitted.".
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move this amendment. The effect would be to repeal Section 9 of the Supplementary Benefits Act, the section which provides for the repayment by deduction from wages of any supplementary benefit paid to a striker during the two weeks after he returns to work. The Minister will know 566 that Section 9 was enacted by the Conservatives in 1971 as part of their anti-strike legislation. Normally, benefit paid during the first two weeks after starting work is not recoverable. This is obviously reasonable because a man who loses his job will not normally get supplementary benefit until two weeks later. The same is true of strikers who do not normally get supplementary benefit during the first two weeks of a strike, which explains why most strikers never claim supplementary benefit at all. Yet strikers who claim benefit after returning to work to tide them over until the next pay day are told that they will have to repay it by weekly deductions from their wages. The employer is put to the trouble of making the weekly deductions and paying over the money to the Department of Health and Social Security.
I submit that Section 9 is unfair and inimical to good industrial relations. The Minister of State, as he is now, Mr. Reg Prentice, said during the Committee stage of the 1971 Social Security Bill:
The principle is simple but needs to be reiterated at every stage. If a family is in need and meets the test laid down by regulations and shows that its income is below the levels prescribed by supplementary benefit rules, that family is entitled to benefit as non-returnable money rather than a loan and is entitled to that benefit for every week in which it has to meet the tests".
§ If the Government are not inclined to meet this point, I would say that in calculating the weekly amount that an ex-striker can afford to repay out of his wages he is allowed a margin of £3 a week over the basic supplementary benefit rates for himself and his family. The £3 margin has never been up-rated. To do so, I know, would require an Act of Parliament. By this November, to restore its original relationship to benefit rates, the £3 should be somewhere in the region of £10. However, it is not quite clear from the annex to the Notes on Clauses whether the Government intend to allow any margin at all in the future. What I should like to ask is this: Will the Minister confirm that the margin will not only be retained but will be increased, and that in future it will be increased regularly as part of the annual benefit up-rating? I beg to move.
§ Lord CULLEN of ASHBOURNE
These amendents, like those relating to a striker's own requirements, Nos. 31 567 and 56 in the Keeling schedule, would involve a quite radical departure from what is now long-established practice in the supplementary benefits scheme. The power to recover supplementary benefit paid in the first fortnight following return to work after a strike was introduced, as the noble Lord said, by the Social Security Act 1971. It has been operated by Governments of both colours since then.
As page 59 of the Notes on Clauses makes plain, in this Bill we are making only very minor changes to Section 9 of the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976. However, as your Lordships will be aware, the Social Security (No. 2) Bill contains some important new proposals on the subject of supplementary benefit for those involved in trade disputes. I suggest that these amendments are better considered in the context of that Bill and therefore I ask the noble Lord to withdraw this amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 4.40 p.m.
Lord WELLS-PESTELL moved Amendment No. 33:
Page 34, line 47, at end insert ("if his failure has continued for a continuous period of five days or wore").
§ The noble Lord said: This amendment is concerned with cases of failure to attend a re-establishment centre. I hope the Government will give careful consideration to this matter because it seems to me that here there is lacking sympathy and understanding in relation to a group of people in our society who need a great deal of understanding and interest. The present position under Section 10 of the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976 is that if a person fails to maintain himself or his dependants the Supplementary Benefits Commission can ask an appeals tribunal to make a direction, the effect of which is that the person can be required to attend a re-establishment centre as a condition of continuing to receive supplementary benefit. If he fails to attend the re-establishment centre his benefit may be withheld. I use the word "may" because I know that sometimes it is not, but Section 10(4)(b) 568 gives the commission power to make such payments as they think fit in any case where a Section 10 direction is in force. In practice a man who fails to attend a centre regularly does not necessarily lose his benefit. I accept that. We are dealing in many instances with feckless people; people who sometimes really do not know what they are doing and may not even know really where they are going. Many of them are quite inadequate people.
§ Given that normally such people have been out of work for long periods of time and that their morale is at a low ebb, it may be counted as a success if one only gets them there for two or three days a week. I think the Government have lost sight of that point. When we are dealing with a lot of inadequate people, a lot of depressed people, a lot of feckless people and we can only persuade them to go to a re-establishment centre for two or three days a week, then I think something has been achieved.
§ Therefore I ask of the Government that the power to withhold benefit should be used sparingly, especially where there are dependants. I know the Minister will, quite rightly, say that benefit is not withdrawn automatically in every case. What I am concerned about is that it should be withdrawn at all without there being some clear understanding of the nature of the individual. The proposal in Schedule 2 to the Bill is that the direction to attend the centre should be issued by the benefit officer and not by the appeal tribunal, although I recognise that there is still a right of appeal. Subsection (4) of the new Section 10 however provides that a person who fails to comply with a direction shall not be entitled to a supplementary benefit allowance while he so fails. That seems to me to be too definite and, if I may say so, too dogmatic and very unsympathetic. If I have understood the Bill correctly, withdrawal of benefit would be automatic however short the period of failure to attend may be and regardless of the reason for failure.
§ I come back to what I have already said. I have seen some of the people who have gone to re-establishment centres, and for that matter to other clinics and, short of being taken there, it sometimes could be an ordeal for some of them to go. In the main, as I have said, many of them are inadequate and feckless people, and I 569 think we should feel pleased if we could get a reasonable percentage of them going for a reasonable amount of time. I do not like this legislation which would make automatic the withdrawal of social security supplementary benefit. This amendment would ensure that the benefit was not withdrawn unless a person failed to attend for a whole week, being a continuous period of five days or more. That does not seem to me to be unreasonable in the circumstances. I beg to move.
§ Lord RENTON
I hope the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, will not think that I am quibbling with him when I say that I have a great deal of sympathy with his use of the word "inadequate", but no sympathy at all with his use of the word" feckless" in this context. I hope my noble friend on the Front Bench will give very careful attention to what the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, has said; but how far we should legislate in order to protect people who are so "feckless", to use the word used by the noble Lord, that they are not prepared to co-operate with public authority when attempts are being made to help them, I find very difficult to swallow.
§ Lord SANDYS
I should like to respond to what the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, has said in regard to this amendment. First, he rightly quoted Section 10 directions from the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976 and it may help the Committee, in considering this amendment, if I explain that these directions are usually given to people who are plainly making no effort to find work or who have indicated that they have no intention of trying to support themselves; and I think my noble friend Lord Renton is correct in laying emphasis on the particular situation with which we are dealing.
Before such a direction is given the person is invited to attend a course voluntarily, and it is explained to him that the purpose of the course is not to train him in any special skills but simply to help him to get back into the routine of getting up in the morning and doing a day's work. I think the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, rightly pointed out that we are dealing with a very special category of person here. Only when the man fails to take the opportunity, or needs a certain amount of pressure in order to get him to take the course seriously, is a 570 direction given. Thus the benefit is made conditional upon his attendance.
Where a man telephones the office or calls in to say that there is some good reason why he cannot attend—possibly he or his wife is sick—then allowance will be made for that. The sort of person who is given a direction to attend, however, is more likely not to comply with the direction for the very reason that he has been asked to attend the course in the first place. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, that if one has personal knowledge of a situation of this sort, which he clearly has from his professional expertise, it is quite significant when one can persuade an individual to accept that situation. The person has become content to be supported by the community in general terms. He has reached the situation where he has totally accepted that he has no particular responsibility, and of course there is a major gap to be bridged.
It might be argued, and indeed the noble Lord has argued, that five days' grace should be given, and of course in effect it is a working week. But Section 10(3) requires that there should be at least 28 days between the time the direction is given and its coming into force. I think this point is significant. Far from causing hardship, I would suggest that the sanction of stopping a man's benefit will be very much in his long-term interest and in fact will help to concentrate his mind wonderfully. I therefore urge your Lordships to reject the amendment.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
This leaves me speechless; it really does; the lack of understanding, the lack of sympathy, the lack of knowledge that is exhibited! I do not hold this against the noble Lord, Lord Sandys; I know him too well to believe that any of that applies to him. But I wonder if your Lordships realise that we let out on parole hundreds of men and women from our prisons every year; from our detention centres they are now allowed out on licence; from borstal they are allowed out on licence. They have to report to their aftercare officer, who is a probation officer, regularly. If the probation officers were to recommend their recall the first or second time they failed to keep these conditions most of them would be back in borstal, in detention centre or in prison. It is 571 because so many of them, after long periods of incarceration, and for other reasons that got them there in the first place, are inadequate—I use the word "inadequate" and I rest on the word "inadequate"—that you cannot get them to lead an ordered kind of existence.
You are dealing with precisely the same kind of people in this situation. I imagine many have been to prison or have been incarcerated in some institution, and life is a very real problem for them. To suggest that the bulk of them who fail to keep this commitment, having been instructed to do so, are people who have no intention of providing for themselves and their families is to show a complete lack of understanding of the real situation. All I am asking is that the supplementary benefit should not be stopped until they fail to go for a week. Surely to goodness that is not too much to ask. I know it is not cut off if they miss just one day or two days. What I am saying is that anything short of a week would be unreasonable.
I think it may well be necessary for the department to find out whether there is a possibility that, when a person is instructed to go to a re-establishment centre, he or she is seen by a qualified social worker who can make some kind of assessment as to whether there will be any difficulty in getting him or her to go, and—what is much more important—who will spend a little time, which very few civil servants have these days, to talk to the person as to the value of going and how he is likely to benefit. If it is given to them as a kind of instruction, then this is authority, which they tend to run away from, and we are doing the very thing that we are trying to avoid. I ask the noble Lord to accept this amendment.
§ Lord RENTON
I really do think that the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, is under a misapprehension. Some of us have experience of these things. I myself was responsible under the Home Secretary for the Prison Service for several years and have taken part in another place in legislation dealing with these very matters. If I may say so, I think that, in the remarks the noble Lord has just made in his second intervention on this amendment of his, he was doing an injustice to the aftercare officers, because it is among the prime 572 duties of the aftercare officers to see that the man gets the supplementary benefit he is entitled to. It is also among his duties to see that he either gets employment, if he can, or training if he needs it. I doubt whether it is right to suggest that the matter should be, I suggest, with respect to the noble Lord, confused by bringing in social welfare officers as well, other than the aftercare officers, who are very experienced and well versed in this work. I am very doubtful indeed whether it is right or necessary to suggest that in the circumstances of aftercare some special additional latitude needs to be given to these discharged prisoners. But in any event I implore the noble Lord to realise that we are not oblivious of the difficult circumstances in which these men find themselves.
§ Lord SANDYS
I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Renton once again for putting so clearly what is the Government's intention. We believe that the aims of this amendment are misplaced. We believe that the amendment seeks to produce good practice in a particular situation, and in effect what my noble friend Lord Renton has said is that good practice is established already. To spell it out in the Bill in the way suggested, we believe, would be harmful in the long run. Undoubtedly regulations, which have constantly been referred to, will be drafted, but we believe that the spirit of the revised legislation is no different in essence from the existing Section 10 of the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976. Under the present Act and during the period of direction the payment of a benefit can be made conditional on the claimant attending a re-establishment centre. The effect of the legislation as amended by the Bill will be exactly the same; that is, the benefit will be paid providing the man attends the course. What the revised legislation will do is to clarify the right of appeal, which may at present not always be apparent where the direction is made in the first place by a tribunal. I feel that the amendment is attempting to do something which is unnecessary and that good practice can be sought in other ways. I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
§ 4.59 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 33) shall be agreed to?
|Their Lordships divided: Contents, 62; Not-Contents, 95.|
|Amulree, L.||Gaitskell, B.||Phillips, B.|
|Ardwick, L.||Gordon-Walker, L.||Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L. [Teller.]|
|Aylestone, L.||Goronwy-Roberts, L.|
|Bacon, B.||Greenwood of Rossendale, L.||Ritchie-Calder, L.|
|Balogh, L.||Hale, L.||Seear, B.|
|Banks, L.||Hampton, L.||Sefton of Garston, L.|
|Birk, B.||Henderson, L.||Segal, L.|
|Blease, L.||Howie of Troon, L.||Stamp, L.|
|Blyton, L.||Janner, L.||Stedman, B.|
|Boston of Faversham, L.||Jeger, B.||Stewart of Alvechurch, B.|
|Brockway, L.||Leatherland, L.||Stewart of Fulham, L.|
|Bruce of Donington, L.||Listowel, E.||Stone, L.|
|Burton of Coventry, B.||Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.||Strauss, L.|
|Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.||Lloyd of Hampstead, L.||Taylor of Mansfield, L.|
|Cooper of Stockton Heath, L.||Lovell-Davis, L.||Underhill, L.|
|Darling of Hillsborough, L.||Maelor, L.||Wallace of Coslany, L. [Teller.]|
|David, B.||Meston, L.||Wells-Pestell, L.|
|Davies of Leek, L.||Morris of Grasmere, L.||Wigoder, L.|
|Davies of Penrhys, L.||Northfield, L.||Winterbottom, L.|
|Evans of Hungershall, L.||Oram, L.||Wootton of Abinger, B.|
|Foot, L.||Peart, L.||Wynne-Jones, L.|
|Ailesbury, M.||Fraser of Kilmorack, L.||Northchurch, B.|
|Airey of Abingdon, B.||Galloway, E.||Nugent of Guildford, L.|
|Alexander of Tunis, E.||Geoffrey-Lloyd, L.||Orkney, E.|
|Allen of Abbeydale, L.||George-Brown, L.||Orr-Ewing, L.|
|Amory, V.||Gibson-Watt, L.||Rawlinson of Ewell, L.|
|Ampthill, L.||Gisborough, L.||Reigate, L.|
|Auckland, L.||Glenkinglas, L.||Renton, L.|
|Avon, E.||Gowrie, E.||Rochdale, V.|
|Balerno, L.||Gridley, L.||Romney, E.|
|Bellwin, L.||Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L. (L. Chancellor.)||St. Aldwyn, E.|
|Belstead, L.||St. Davids, V.|
|Berkeley, B.||Harvington, L.||St. Germans, E.|
|Caldecote, V.||Henley, L.||St. Just, L.|
|Campbell of Croy, L.||Holderness, L.||Saint Oswald, L.|
|Cathcart, E.||Hornsby-Smith, B.||Sandys, L. [Teller.]|
|Cockfield, L.||Hylton-Foster, B.||Sempill, L.|
|Cottesloe, L.||Inglewood, L.||Sharples, B.|
|Craigavon, V.||Kimberley, E.||Strathclyde, L.|
|Cullen of Ashbourne, L.||Lauderdale, E.||Strathspey, L.|
|Daventry, V.||Linlithgow, M.||Swinfen, L.|
|de Clifford, L.||Long, V.||Swinton, E.|
|De Freyne, L.||Loudoun, C.||Teviot, L.|
|Denham, L. [Teller.)||Lucas of Chilworth, L.||Trefgarne, L.|
|Drumalbyn, L.||Lyell, L.||Trenchard, V.|
|Ebbisham, L.||Mansfield, E.||Trumpington, B.|
|Eccles, V.||Merrivale, L.||Vaizey, L.|
|Ellenborough, L.||Monckton of Brenchley, V.||Vaux of Harrowden, L.|
|Elliot of Harwood, B.||Montgomery of Alamein, V.||Vickers, B.|
|Emmet of Amberley, B.||Morris, L.||Vivian, L.|
|Faithfull, B.||Mowbray and Stourton, L.||Westbury, L.|
|Ferrers, E.||Murton of Lindisfarne, L.||Wise, L.|
|Fortescue, E.||Norfolk, D.||Young, B.|
§ Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
§ 5.6 p.m.
Baroness YOUNG moved Amendment No. 33A:
Page 35, line 22, leave out ("of the Economic Community").
§ The noble Baroness said: I beg to move amentment No. 33A and to speak 574 to Amendment No. 58A. These are two short technical amendments. I am advised that, by virtue of the Interpretation Act 1978, the expression "member State" is construed as meaning a member State of the European Economic Community and that, therefore, the words "of the Economic Community" in Schedule 2 are unnecessary. I beg to move.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.575
§ Lord UNDERHILL moved Amendment No. 34:
Page 37, line 33, at end insert—
("() for the payment of supplementary benefit in respect of clothing requirements at prescribed intervals;").
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 34 and to speak to Amendments Nos. 40 and 41. This amendment seeks to add to those paragraphs in the 1976 Act which deal with the administration of supplementary benefit, a provision to enable payment of supplementary benefit in respect of clothing requirements. This amendment is of the utmost importance for many poor families with children. I am certain that most of your Lordships will know of examples and, therefore, I shall not take time in mentioning such examples.
§ In another place the Minister stated that the phrase "normal requirements" includes expenditure on clothing. However, I should like to ask where that is stated clearly in the Bill. As the Government are seeking to be explicit by writing in the legal entitlements of claimants, surely the position about clothing should be made absolutely clear by accepting the amendment which I have moved. In the same speech the Minister argued that the normal scale rate of benefit is intended to cover clothing requirements. I am certain that all of your Lordships will agree how impossible it becomes to meet clothing requirements from weekly benefit payments.
I think that I should quote from the response of the Supplementary Benefits Commission to the review report. It says:
If we are to reduce the reliance of the scheme on discretionary payments, some alternative provision must be made to recompense claimants. Basically, there are two ways of doing this: by raising the scale rates sufficiently to cover items such as clothing which they are supposed to cover, or by giving everyone a payment such as the lump-sum grant proposed in the review report … we recognise that substantial increases in the scale rates are unlikely to be made soon. Thus lump-sums should be paid to help the family buy clothing and other items which the scale rates are supposed to cover".
If claimants are not to be forced back again into demanding exceptional needs payments for things like shoes and clothing, the new lump sums which go to everyone must be set at a sufficiently high level".
§ The scales have not been sufficiently increased to cover clothing needs. Nor is there any compensation for the withdrawal of discretionary grants, as proposed in the Bill. Therefore, those are the reasons for moving this amendment. Amendments Nos. 40 and 41 are consequential to provide that, in addition to the three requirements listed, there should be added a fourth; that is, the clothing requirement. I beg to move Amendment No. 34.
§ Lord SANDYS
Am I correct in saying that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has spoken to Amendments Nos. 34, 40, 41, 64 and 65, which are being taken together?
§ Lord SANDYS
These amendments would enable periodic lump-sum payments to be made for clothing requirements. I am well aware of the Supplementary Benefits Commission's support of the idea that regular lump-sum payments should be made in addition to weekly-scale payments to help claimants' budgets for items such as clothing, which the ordinary-scale rates are supposed to cover. This idea was canvassed in another document, which was available to your Lordships called Social Assistance at paragraphs 9.40 and 9.43, but I am afraid that the response to it was very mixed. Some feared that far from encouraging responsible budgeting, the lump-sum payments would very quickly come to be regarded as a regular sum to be spent on non-essentials, and would not significantly reduce the number of claims for exceptional need payments. Others supported the idea in principle, but argued that the suggested amounts were set too low. For example, the Child Poverty Action Group took this view, but the majority of national organisations, which responded to the review, opposed the idea in principle.
It must also be borne in mind that even the options set out in Social Assistance range in cost between £45 million and £85 million net in one year. Sums of that order are just not available within the nil-cost package. The proposal is also very costly in staff terms. For example, the added complexity of dealing with advance payments and working out pro- 577 portional payments for people who cease to be entitled to benefit, would undoubtedly add to the existing workload. The review team calculated that 400 extra staff would be needed. I do not think that the supplementary benefits scheme would be improved by the addition of what would, on the response to the review, be an unwieldy, unpopular and expensive system of lump-sum payments. I would ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
As the noble Lord has spoken to Amendments Nos. 40 and 41, I think that I should respond to his remarks on them. In this particular field, we are considering a change in the category. As your Lordships are aware, the Bill provides for three categories; that is, normal, additional and housing requirements. In his amendments the noble Lord would produce a fourth. I think that the whole Committee would agree that discretionary elements in the supplementary benefits scheme ought to be diminished. If this is not completely common ground, I think that it is common ground in many parts of the Committee. This Bill begins that process, but it does not do it at the expense of the claimant.
Under the present scheme the basic-scale rates are intended to cover ordinary expenditure on the repair and replacement of clothing and footwear. In parenthesis, I might say that, of course, the Government are very well aware of the rising costs of both these commodities. Exceptional needs payments are available only if there are special circumstances. This will remain the position under the new scheme, the difference being that the circumstances in which extra help will be given will be set out in regulations rather than hidden behind the discretionary powers of the Supplementary Benefits Commission. These circumstances are outlined in paragraph 12(c) of the Annex, to which, of course, we have referred many times already. To quote the Annex, they are:That is quite a frequent occurrence.
- "(i) where the claimant has not been receiving benefit for which he has been eligible;
- (ii) where the need has arisen … other than by wear and tear; or
- (iii) where ill health or admission to hospital necessitates the purchase of certain clothes the claimant does not already have".
578 I should add that the determining authorities will have some discretion left to award an extra payment in truly exceptional cases not covered by the regulations if there is severe hardship. The Government believe that that is a major advance on the present system, with all its attendant difficulties of ensuring consistency of treatment across the country, and that it is not necessary to create an additional category of "clothing requirements", which is suggested by the amendments. To do so would lessen the claimant's freedom of choice in deciding how to spend his money; and where should we stop? Should there be separate food requirements, transport requirements and other requirements? The Bill provides for three categories of requirements, which I have already alluded to; that is, normal, additional and housing requirements. They are essential, and I suggest that the three categories are sufficient. More would add to the complexity of the scheme instead of simplifying it, as is our intention.
For that reason I trust that your Lordships will reject these amendments, and bear in mind that although it was the aim of the noble Lord—and I fully understand why he wishes to introduce a category entitled, "clothing requirements"—it would in effect diminish the effectiveness of the rest of the categories.
§ Lord UNDERHILL
I thank the noble Lord for his reply. He said that the scale of payments are intended to cover normal clothing requirements. How many people who are in receipt of supplementary benefit will find it possible to meet normal clothing requirements from their normal-scale receipts'? I could give personal examples of people I know. One such person, a young teacher, is very close to me. Prior to Clegg his eldest boy had to have a clothing allowance; quite apart from someone who is on supplementary benefit. Therefore, I still think that my principle is the correct one. Before deciding whether to withdraw my amendment, I should like to ask the noble Lord this question. In the earlier part of his speech, he said that the Government are considering a change in the categories. Then towards the end of the speech he said that they think the three categories are sufficient. Are they suggesting a change, or is it intended to keep the present three categories?
§ Lord SANDYS
I hope that I did not mislead the noble Lord; I certainly did not intend to. His amendment intends to change the number of categories from three to four. The Government intend to retain those three categories.
§ Baroness PHILLIPS
I wonder why the Minister says that to call it "clothing requirements" would be confusing? I should have thought that the others—normal, additional and so on—would be even more confusing. Surely, what is normal to one person is not necessarily normal to another. We are talking rather gaily about this lump sum as if it is a vast amount of money. Anyone who has attempted to get shoes repaired—always assuming that one can find a repairer—will know that it does not take very long. The scales which relate to the buying of clothes are quite out-of-date. I was mystified by the suggestion that, because you call it what it really is, it confuses people. I should have thought that it simplified it.
§ Lord SANDYS
In response to the noble Baroness, I think that the point is this. If with three categories you associate a fourth category it makes the administration more complicated. I quite agree with her that the naming of categories may possibly be beneficial, but if you introduce a fourth category you are not easing the administration.
§ Lord UNDERHILL
I beg leave to withdraw this amendment, but we should like to have a further look at this situation because we still believe that it is not possible to meet clothing needs from the supplementary benefit.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 5.21 p.m.
§ Lord UNDERHILL moved Amendment No. 35:
Page 37, line 33, at end insert—
("() as to the circumstances to be taken into account by a benefit officer in deciding whether a man and a woman who are not married to each other are an unmarried couple".).
§ The noble Lord said: This amendment would enable the Secretary of State to lay down in regulations the criteria to be applied by benefit officers in deciding whether a man and woman are an un 580 married couple; that is, they are cohabiting. If they are an unmarried couple the woman would no longer be able to claim a supplementary benefit for herself and her children. The man would be expected to support.
There will be some in your Lordships' House who will say that the whole thing is none of our business. But we have to deal with matters as they are and deal with what the Government are proposing. At present the factors to be taken into consideration by benefits officers in making this decision are laid down in instructions issued by the Supplementary Benefits Commission which are based on a report published by the commission in 1976. With the abolition of the commission responsibility for deciding whether a couple are an unmarried couple will rest on individual benefits officers, but they will still need guidance to ensure that the rule is applied with consistency throughout the country. This amendment is designed to ascertain first who will provide this guidance; secondly, whether it will be published in accordance with the undertaking given in the White Paper that:
the rules governing entitlement to supplementary benefit will be published, and published in full".
§ It would appear that there are only two possible sources of guidance: either the Secretary of State or the chief supplementary benefit officer. If it is to be given by the Secretary of State it will undoubtedly take the form of administrative guidance in an internal code of instructions, which Ministers have confirmed will not be published. In any case, is it right that the department should issue to benefits officers guidance on what will in effect be an interpretation of the law (because that is what the cohabitation criteria really are) and bearing in mind that the benefits officers are supposed to be independent adjudicating authorities.
§ The alternative to the Secretary of State is that the guidance should come from the chief supplementary benefits officer. But the Secretary of State has stated that that officer's guide will not be published. The chief supplementary benefits officer would seem to me to be the proper person to issue this guidance, for like the local benefits officers he will be independent of the Secretary of State. But this officer is not yet appointed, and no one can be sure what line he will take. Yet the 581 Secretary of State told the Standing Committee in another place that the Supplementary Benefits Commission's criteria would continue to be used as guidance to their officers. This was confirmed by the Under-Secretary of State on 19th March in another place, describing these criteria as guidelines as to the interpretation of the law.
This is just one example, but an important example, of the confusion that is likely to arise from the ambiguous relationship between the chief supplementary benefits officer's responsibility for consistent treatment of cases and the Secretary of State's responsibility for the administration of the scheme. It is important to get the division of responsibility absolutely clear from the start, to ensure that the Secretary of State will not act in any way that conflicts with the benefits officer's independence, and to ensure that all rules will be published as has been promised. Incidentally, the Under-Secretary of State in her speech in another place added, at column 477:
Guidelines cannot cover every set of circumstances. Benefits officers will be unable to judge simply by adding up so many pluses and so many minuses, although doing that may help. They have to use a lot of common sense in deciding whether the guidelines are accessible".
§ Yet it was understood that the Government wanted to be definitive on matters and to remove this kind of discretion. The Government just cannot leave discretion in the case of suspected cohabitation but remove it from other important matters. I hope that the Committee will agree to the amendment. I beg to move.
§ 5.26 p.m.
§ Baroness YOUNG
The Committee will have listened with great interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has said on this amendment. I suggest that the position is not quite as vague and indefinite as he has suggested. I recognise that of course the definition of what constitutes an unmarried couple in this sense is important, but a considerable amount of case law has been built up, and I do not think that the Government are being inconsistent in this matter in suggesting that we need a degree of flexibility. It is not our view that it would be desirable to put a more specific 582 definition into the regulations than that to be made under the Act.
In explaining the reasons for this I cannot do better than quote from the Administrative Paper No. 5 Living Together as Husband and Wife, which was produced by the Supplementary Benefits Commission in 1976. They say:We have indicated that we do not think it desirable or even possible to give a precise definition in the statute of the meaning of living together as husband and wife. The courts have had remarkably little to say on the subject. Such decisions as there have been have tended to show that it is a matter which must he decided on the facts of each case. The Lord Chief Justice said in 1973, 'We have been invited to give some guidance upon the phrase 'cohabiting as man and wife', but for my part it is so well known that nothing I could say about it could possibly assist in its interpretation hereafter'".The national insurance commissioner in a reported decision has said:In the variety of ways in which human beings arrange their affairs it must always be a question of fact whether or not a man and woman are cohabiting as man and wife".It seems to us, following this statement that has been set out, that it is really better to allow case law to build up, as inevitably it will, on what constitutes cohabitation. In the meantime, it will be for benefits officers to take decisions having due regard to all the guidance that is available to them.
The new guidelines for staff that were proposed in the Supplementary Benefits Commission's report, Living Together as Husband and Wife, have been in full operation since the beginning of 1978 and are designed to help officers to adopt a flexible and sensitive approach to living together cases. The commission have emphasised that where there are grounds for doubt whether a couple are living together as husband and wife, the element of continuity and stability of the relationship is an important factor in making a judgment on cases.
The new guidance, which follows closely the line taken in the commission's report, is designed to create a more confident and frank relationship between claimants and commission officers, and it has been arranged that interviews with claimants where the question of living together is discussed are carried out by officers who have had the special training for this particular task. I hope therefore that it will be seen that what we are suggesting 583 is in fact building on good practice that has been established along agreed guidelines, and that in fact it will not be an area in which we have decided for any unusual reasons not to prescribe in the regulations. I hope that with this explanation the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ Baroness PHILLIPS
I think this is one area where Governments again cannot really ever make up their minds. We come back again to this question of flexibility. I do not know what the situation is now, but I remember that certain widows who were accused of living with men had their pensions taken away, and they were found guilty while being proved innocent which was unusual except in that circumstance. There we had a position of flexibility which built up to some very sad cases which I remember I actually handled. On the other side, I recall (unless the Act has been changed), because I think I was then at the Box dealing with this particular one, the one for people over 80 when the State very generously gave them 25p a week extra if they survived that long. If I remember rightly, they could also collect this even if they were living in sin. When you are older, as my mother once said: "The sweets of life go to those who have no teeth." The Government cannot really clear their mind—I do not mean this Government in particular but most Governments. I think there is a danger in leaving it too flexible, bearing in mind the real hardship caused to widows. That I saw for myself.
§ Baroness YOUNG
I very much take the noble Baroness's point. There have been hard cases in the past, but my understanding of the position is that, in fact, particularly under the new guidelines that have been in operation now for just over two years, there is a degree of case law which is building up and the rules are much more flexibly applied. So I hope we do not have a repetition of the hard cases to which the noble Baroness referred and which we would ail regret.
The difficulty is to lay down what is meant precisely. I indicated during my earlier remarks that in the document that was published by the Supplementary Benefits Commission itself in 1976, it 584 was made quite clear that no one has found a very good definition of what is meant and it is because of that particular difficulty that we feel unable to write a definition into the face of the Bill itself.
I think the point that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, made when he was quoting from the debates in another place was that the information relevant to the determination of supplementary benefit will, of course, be published. That will be published so far as the claimants are concerned so that they will know that any changes of the policy in this area—as a result, for example, of the commissioner's decision—will be reflected in the Supplementary Benefits Handbook. The basic rules will be laid down in regulations but other information will be made public in the supplementary benefits handbook which will continue to be published in an expanded form. What we are saying is that, although we are not putting a definition in regulations but relying on case law, we are, from the claimant's point of view, not only publishing the rules in the form of regulations but publishing any relevant information in the Supplementary Benefits Handbook which I think everybody will agree will be helpful to claimants.
§ Lord UNDERHILL
I thank the noble Baroness, but could she just tell me who will give the guidance to the benefits officers? She said that the benefits officers will be expected to rely upon case law that has been built up and also the document, Living together as Husband and Wife, but who will be giving the advice? This is the question which I posed in my earlier remarks. Will it be the chief supplementary benefits officer or will it he the Secretary of State'? If it is the chief supplementary benefits officer, how can the Government at this stage say what advice he will give? He will be an independent officer who in effect will be interpreting the law, and what we are asking for in the amendment is merely that these circumstances to be taken into consideration should be made quite clear. We are not asking about all the different types of decision that might be arrived at.
§ Baroness YOUNG
The answer to the question of the noble Lord is that the guidelines will remain the same as they are now and those under which supplementary benefits officers will operate will 585 continue to be as they are. The new guidance which follows closely the line taken in the commission's report is simply designed to create really a better relationship between claimants and commission officers. So far as we know, these new arrangements are working well and we see no reason for changing them.
What I think is important to recognise—and I do recognise it—is that this has long been an area of public concern. We believe that in having any kind of cohabitation rule at all we are aiming at equity between women in similar circumstances whether they are married or not. That is the basic principle on which we are working and on which judgments will be made, and it will, as I understand it, be for the new commissioner whether there are changes to be made in this matter. If I am not right about that, I shall, of course, write to the noble Lord, but I think we are all agreed on the general principle which should operate.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 5.37 p.m.
Lord WELLS-PESTELL moved Amendment No. 36:
Page 40, line 39, leave out ("subsection") and insert ("subsections").
§ The noble Lord said: This is a paving amendment for Amendment No. 37. No. 36 on page 40, line 39, leaves out the word "subsection" and inserts "subsections" to make way for the two subsections which come in Amendment No. 37. This is a matter which we showed concern about when we were discussing the role of the chief supplementary benefits officer, his legal status and powers and what he would be able to do. We are rather concerned that he should have some definite responsibility as far as Parliament is concerned. One of the points I made when we were discussing his position was that he did not appear to be responsible to anybody; he was not going to be responsible to a Minister. I asked the question: What would be the position of Members of Parliament who wanted to take matters up on behalf of their constituents, and that question is I know being looked into.586
§ What I want to do, in moving Amendments Nos. 36 and 37, is to make sure that there are a definite legal status and statutory functions so far as the chief supplementary benefits officer is concerned, and to require him to make an annual report which would be laid before Parliament. I think we all acknowledge that the chief supplementary benefits officers will have a vital and important role in the new supplementary benefits scheme and he alone will have the power to issue guidance to local benefits officers on the interpretation of the law, on the use of their remaining discretionary powers, and on questions such as how to determine whether or not a rent is reasonable and whether it should he met in full. These are matters on which at present the Supplementary Benefits Commission issues instructions and guidance to its officers, but the Supplementary Benefits Commission is open to approaches from MPs (a point that I made a moment ago), professional advisers and members of the public.
§ Under the new Bill the chief benefits officer will be an official operating behind closed doors, we believe, and apparently responsible to no one, not even to the Secretary of State, since benefits officers, including the chief benefits officer, will be independent authorities. I do not wish again to go over a point that I have already gone over, but this seems to be a very unsatisfactory situation. The chief benefits officer ought to be responsible to someone; many of us think that he still ought to be responsible to the Secretary of State, as the Minister responsible. So we want to take the opportunity to see that he will be answerable for those matters for which he is responsible. I beg to move.
§ 5.41 p.m.
§ Lord DRUMALBYN
When my noble friend replies will she take the opportunity to say a little more about supplementary benefits officers, with regard to the areas for which they are likely to be appointed, the numbers which the brigade (so to speak) will be comprised of, and any necessary training that they will undergo? Perhaps my noble friend could draw a parallel with the local national insurance officers, who are in much the same position, though of course local supplementary benefits officers hitherto have had much more discretion. Apparently it is intended 587 that there will still be discretion of some kind for supplementary benefits officers.
I should like to take up the point that the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, was asking about regarding responsibility. Where there is a system under which there is a facility of appeal, and where at each stage the officers, or the tribunal, reach independent judgments, it is not immediately apparent why there should be a special dependence upon a chief supplementary benefits officer. One can talk about general control, especially the control of the education, and indeed the choice, of supplementary benefits officers. Presumably in this case there is more of a parallel with the police system, where the choices are made in very much the same way.
However, given that the regulations are there for the local supplementary benefits officer to study, and given the fact that he has to exercise his independent judgment, I do not quite see what would be the purpose of a chief supplementary benefits officer. No doubt someone has to watch the guidelines, and presumably someone has to keep an eye on how things are going in general. If this is to be the role of the chief benefits officer, no doubt as a matter of organisation he could issue to local benefit officers a bulletin about what is going on. I hope that my noble friend will say something about the general system envisaged, because so far we have not heard much detail about it.
§ Baroness YOUNG
In regard to these amendments, I have been asked a number of questions which I shall do my best to answer, with regard to both the appointment of a chief benefits officer and the question of an annual report. My noble friend Lord Drumalbyn has asked me to say something more about the general background regarding benefits officers. The Bill provides for:the question whether any person is entitled to supplementary benefit, and the amount of any such benefit and any other question relating to supplementary benefit which arises under this Actto be decided by benefits officers. The Bill goes on to require my right honourable friend the Secretary of State:… to appoint persons to perform the functions" of benefits officers.588 The adjudication system of the revised supplementary benefits scheme will be modelled very closely on that of the National Insurance Scheme, to which I think my noble friend referred, and which I think people will agree has worked very satisfactorily since it was established after the war. The role of benefits officers will be to decide claims and questions on the basis of the evidence and in accordance with the law, and it is the intention that their decisions shall be independent, as indeed are those of insurance officers.
In preparing myself for the discussions that I thought we might have on this matter I asked a number of questions in order to see what exactly are the parallels proposed between the two systems. My understanding is that over the course of time national insurance officers have in many instances had to deal with very many similar situations, in particular—and I have no doubt that many other noble Lords will be much more familiar with these than I am—in cases of industrial injury, for example. The national insurance officer has had to make a judgment in the particular case, and he would be under a chief officer in that particular sphere.
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has already said that it is his intention to appoint a chief benefits officer. His purpose in so doing is mainly to preserve the independence of benefits officers, who will look to the chief benefits officer for any advice that they may need on the provisions of the law. The Bill also requires the Secretary of State to:… make arrangements with a view to ensuring that benefits officers … exercise their functions in such manner as shall best promote the welfare of persons affected by the exercise of those functions".The appointment of a chief benefit officer will also be consistent with this requirement because, as the amendment suggests, the chief benefits officer will be in a position to monitor the decision-making of benefits officers and to ensure a fair and consistent approach, which I am sure we all accept as a very important factor in this matter.
I believe that the difference of opinion and thought between us is on the question of the need for a statutory appointment. I am happy to have been able to give the Committee the assurances that I have about the intention to appoint a chief 589 benefits officer, which will certainly meet the spirit of the amendment, but I am assured that no special powers are necessary, other than those that I have already quoted from Section 27 of the earlier Act.
May I now turn to the proposal to require annual reports. I know that there has been much discussion about this—certainly in another place—and we have been, and are considering, this matter, but there are, I believe, difficulties about it. There is a possible danger of confusing the chief benefits officer with the Supplementary Benefits Commission itself, or with the new Social Security Advisory Committee. I should like to assure your Lordships' Committee that their respective functions in fact will be different, and that those of the chief benefit officer will not on the face of it be such as to call for a report each year. However, should it prove desirable for him to make a report, there will be no need of a statutory requirement in order for him to be able to do so. He will be able to make a report if he thinks that it is the right thing to do.
One must see these provisions in relation to the whole structure of this area of the Bill. As I understand the position, until now, or indeed until this Bill, a great many of the decisions have been left to the discretion of benefits officers up and down the country. This has been largely criticised for a whole variety of reasons, not least the fact that the benefits and the decisions are not the same in every instance, and therefore there is a great variation. The object of this part of the Bill is to do away with this variation and to include all the general principles in published regulations; and therefore there will be less discretion than there was before. One needs to see the decisions that we have taken within that framework, because one is, I hope, getting something much clearer and much fairer over the country as a whole—much clearer and fairer and more consistent for the claimants, which is important—and, therefore, the areas of discretion are smaller.
Where they are, we are bringing the whole principle much more into line with the national insurance scheme, which has worked, I understand, satisfactorily for a number of years now; because in fact the world we are dealing 590 with is a very different world from the original intentions of what was called national assistance when it was first brought in. It was originally absolutely a long-stop for a small number of cases, whereas now, of course, we are in a world in which the Supplementary Benefits Commission, as I understand it, deals with about 3 million people and, including their dependants, about 5 million people. So it cannot be regarded as national assistance was originally. Therefore, one wants a different system, intelligible and clear, and much better both for those administering it and for claimants. It is within that system that we are making these other proposals; and I hope that makes clearer to my noble friend what it is that we are intending to do.
§ Baroness WOOTTON of ABINGER
I understand the noble Baroness's explanation, and she is very persuasive, but surely there is a new situation, and is there not a gap? There is the advisory committee, there is the chief benefits officer and there are the rules. The rules are not rules which are made for ever, and it will be somebody's business to say how the rules are working out. Surely that is the thing upon which the chief benefits officer would feel obliged to report. They may well work out in all sorts of ways which are unexpected. There may be very heavy demands under one head and very little demand under another head. Surely he should be able to report on the rules; and the advisory committee, who are not directly in touch, as he is, with what is going on in the field, would then be able to say whether or not the rules ought to be altered. Is there not a gap there which ought to be filled?
§ Baroness YOUNG
The noble Baroness has made an important point. As I understand the situation, the advisory committee will not in fact make the rules. As its name implies, it will be there to advise. The rules are set down in regulations, and that makes the position quite clear.
§ Baroness WOOTTON of ABINGER
If I may interrupt for one moment, the advisory committee will surely advise the Minister about new rules, will it not? Otherwise what else will it do? Does it not give advice on the rules?
§ Baroness YOUNG
Precisely, yes. The advisory committee gives advice, but it does not make the rules. The question has been asked as to whether there is a gap in these arrangements. I think the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, raised this point, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. What happens if, for example, a Member of another place or of your Lordships' House, or indeed anybody else, has something to say on these matters? How do they get it discussed and debated? How do they get the rules altered? I would suggest to the Committee that there would be a number of ways open to anybody in those circumstances. They can approach the advisory committee; or they can, as now, write to the Secretary of State, whoever he may be. After all, the rules would be altered because, for example, a Member of another place would say, "At my constituency surgery I was very worried because the following cases were brought to me"; or something that he or she knows from their own personal experience. This is how these things generally arise. Or some specialist organisation became very concerned that the rules were not working properly and wished to draw it to the attention of the chief benefits officer, to see whether the rules might be altered.
There are all the normal ways that we in public life all have of altering the rules or of bringing to someone's attention a need to alter the rules; and I believe that it would be right for the chief benefits officer to be able to publish a report and say, "As a result of representations made to me the rules should be altered, and therefore I am altering them". There is nothing to prevent the chief benefits officer publishing a report and saying all this. But to publish a report every year, and to write into the face of the Bill the provision that there must be an annual report, has seemed to a lot of people to be something which is really unnecessary; because, after all, what one really wants to know is when the rules are going to be altered and why they are going to be altered, and what they are as a result of their being altered. This does not require a report being made every year.
§ Baroness WOOTTON of ABINGER
If the noble Baroness will forgive me for interrupting again, he has more access to data than anybody else.
§ Baroness YOUNG
Precisely; but there is no point in publishing an annual report unless there is something. quite specific to report on what the rules ought to say about this matter. The noble Baroness will know as well as I do—indeed, anybody who has been in public life will know this—that the publication of annual reports is an enormously time-consuming matter, taking up the time of a great many people. Because of the new structure, if there is nothing new to say the purpose of an annual report is not as clear as it would have been. But I take the noble Baroness's point. There is a point in being able to publish when there is an alteration; and nothing in this Bill prevents that happening.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
If the chief benefits officer is not responsible to Parliament or is not responsible to the Minister, is it going to be left to him entirely to decide how much information he makes available? What about statistical information? What about matters relating to trends in the field of social benefit and supplementary benefit? I may have missed this, but who will be responsible for the appointment of the chief supplementary benefits officer? Is this going to be made by the Minister, or does he come up from within somewhere?
§ Baroness YOUNG
My understanding is that the chief supplementary benefits officer would be appointed by the Secretary of State, but the Secretary of State wishes to ensure his independence. I think this has been a general rule in all these matters, which we would all agree would be right. If it is thought that he should publish a report or produce this information, it would of course be perfectly possible for him to do so. Indeed, the Government themselves could publish statistical information. They do on a great many matters. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent this happening.
§ Lord BANKS
The annual reports of the Supplementary Benefits Commission have been of extreme value, and they have reviewed the whole operation of the supplementary benefits system. Even although a great deal—everything, if you like; almost everything—is going to be laid down in the Bill, that still does not get rid of the need for monitoring how that 593 is actually working out in practice, what the effects of it are, the number of people involved, and so on. It would seem to me that the chief benefits officer would need to make a report available on those lines which ought to be commented upon in an extended report by the advisory committee.
§ Lord DRUMALBYN
What puzzles me a little about what my noble friend has said——and I am most grateful to her for the full answer which she has given to me—is her remark that consideration was given as to whether the appointment should he statutory or non-statutory. As I understand it, the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, wants it to be statutory. I wonder whether my noble friend could let us a little further into her confidence on this, as to what were the considerations as to whether it should be statutory or non-statutory? What would making it statutory involve that would not he necessary if it were non-statutory, and vice versa?
I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Banks, about the very great value of reports by the Supplementary Benefits Commission, statistics and so forth; and, of course, a great deal of what we might call the extra-parliamentary monitoring of the whole system arises from a study of these reports. Are we not to have them at all in future; or are they merely to be produced when the Government see fit? If they are to be produced regularly, what is to be the machinery for producing them? It seems to me that it would be a good idea to make this part of the functions of the chief supplementary benefits officer, if only because he is going to be in charge of monitoring the system. He would then be reporting to the Secretary of State.
It might be thought that the Bill should lay down a little more in the way of requirements for the publication of the report at the times when he reports to the Secretary of State, and so forth. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, has raised an important point. As things are, it seems that the Government have decided not to make this appointment statutory. If I may say so with respect to my noble friend, I do not think that she has yet made it clear on what grounds that decision was made.
§ Baroness GAITSKELL
I read the report of the retiring chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission, David Donnison. It gave me a great insight into what had been happening in the Supplementary Benefits Commission, what they had been doing, what the effects were—the good effects and the bad effects; and it seems to me very important to have the Supplementary Benefits Commission going strongly.
§ Lord UNDERHILL
May I support what has been said about the Supplementary Benefits Commission reports? There will be this gap. The important thing is that it was an independent commission. Its reports were independent and sometimes critical of legislation, and even of what the Government of the day might be proposing. I am certain that the Committee will be pleased to learn from the noble Baroness that the Secretary of State says that he intends to ensure the independence of the chief supplementary benefits officer. But, surely, that independence should not go so far as he deciding whether or not he will produce a report. Surely, it is up to Parliament to say whether it wants to have a report; and he should be completely independent and free to produce it. That is the most important aspect of this matter.
§ 6.4 p.m.
§ Baroness YOUNG
It may be helpful if I try to explain these points a little further. We are moving into new territory. I accept that these are very important points and I should like to feel that the Committee is satisfied by the explanations, because this concerns everybody who takes an interest in this matter and, not least, the claimants. If I may go through the whole process as I understand it, the rules that will replace what have been the decisions by supplementary benefits officers will be in regulations. These will be made by the Secretary of State and will he subject to Parliament in an order. They will be published. This is the new framework which I think we are all agreed is desirable.
The function of the chief benefits officer will be to explain to other benefits officers what the law is. In addition, of course, case law will develop, as inevitably 595 it must, from the decisions made by the social security commissioners. Because the rules themselves are in regulations and are published, so the case law will be published; so that, as there are interpretations of the rules (which may be altered) all this will be published and will become known. They will publish a report on this so that as the case law develops it will be possible to see how it will work.
§ Baroness YOUNG
This will be published by the social security commissioners.
The question of statistics and trends was raised. This information will be published by the Secretary of State in publications such as the social security statistics. At any time (as I have already indicated) it is open to use all the normal parliamentary procedures, but if anybody wishes to have the information before it is otherwise published the information can be made available by Parliamentary Questions and so on. As I have indicated, the Government would continue to publish this information as before.
The noble Lord, Lord Banks, raised a rather separate point. It would be for the Secretary of State to monitor the system and to decide how it is working. It would be for the new advisory committee themselves to decide whether or not they wish to publish an annual report (or a report) and, when they meet, they can determine whether or not they wish to do so. We cannot, I think, say now that they will not wish to do so or that they will wish to do so. It will be for them to decide. That is how we see this matter working.
May I answer another point raised by my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn. The officers to be appointed as supplementary benefits officers will be, broadly speaking, the officers who currently take decisions on individual claims and questions in the name of the Supplementary Benefits Commission. If local officers, they will be graded executive officers. We do not know the exact number of these officers. When I have more information I will write to my noble friend about it. He also raised a point about statutory appointment. It may be that I have not 596 given him a satisfactory answer as to why there is no need for this to be a statutory appointment. My understanding of the position is that it is because we are in a different framework with the published regulations—which is quite different from the case law now established—that the functions of these people are quite different from the functions that there were before; because ultimately it will be Parliament who will approve the regulations. Therefore, it is a different position. If there is something further that I should add I will write to my noble friend. It is because the framework is different that the need is different and the Bill is different.
§ Baroness FAITHFULL
I am sorry but I have not quite understood the position. May I get clear in my mind the line of responsibilities? Is the chief benefits officer directly responsible to the Secretary of State, or is the chief benefits officer responsible to the commissioners? Secondly, on the channel of communications, does the chief benefits officer communicate to the social security commissioners? If he does not, how do the commissioners know what is going on in the country? So, first, I am not clear about the lines of responsibility and, secondly, about the channel of communication.
§ Baroness YOUNG
I will try again on this matter. I realise that this is an important point. We are moving into new territory and I hope that I have got it right. The Secretary of State is ultimately responsible for deciding upon regulations which will be laid before Parliament and approved. The chief benefits officer does not make the regulations. He determines the way the rules are interpreted and other benefits officers look to him for advice. He will monitor to see (where there is a matter for local determination) that it is a fairer way and more consistent throughout the country. In the case of altering the rules, the normal procedures will be open and the advisory committee is there to make recommendations where the rules should be altered.
The whole purpose of the structure is that, because the rules are published in regulations, there are not going to be the innumerable matters of case law and of alteration. It is hoped that a lot of the volume of correspondence that there has 597 been always because one benefits officer has interpreted in one way and another in another way will cease because there will be a more consistent approach throughout the country. Therefore, the benefits officers will have the benefit of working to an agreed set of rules; their discretion will be less; if they are uncertain, they will go eventually to the chief benefits officer, who will be independent in his judgment as to what should be happening because the rules will be made by the Secretary of State and confirmed by Parliament.
§ Baroness FAITHFULL
I am sorry to come back again but I am still not clear. I am sure that it is my fault. If people appeal to the tribunal and the tribunal upsets the decision given by the chief benefit officer, which takes precedence? Where is the difference of opinion between the tribunal and the chief benefits officer documented and to whom is this reported?
§ Baroness YOUNG
On this particular case, if the claimant does take up a case and it goes to a tribunal and it is taken up through the court then the court's decision must be the one which would carry. There is no point in having a decision by a court unless it carries.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
I think that we are all grateful to the noble Baroness the Minister for trying to clear our minds on this matter. I do not think that my mind is entirely clear as to what the pattern will be. I am still very worried about the authority of the chief supplementary benefits officer. He seems to be able to wander round at pleasure and do what he likes and not be responsible to anybody—notwithstanding the fact that he is to be appointed by the Secretary of State.
My friends and I want to look carefully at what has been said. I am sure that we shall want to return to this matter at Report stage. I do not want to divide the Committee over it because if I do we shall lose and that stops any further discussion. I do not want to do that. As the noble Baroness has said, this is most important. Therefore, we do not want to be political over this. We would be political if I divided the Committee. This is a matter of such importance that we have to recognise that there are not political implications as we normally understand them.
598 I wonder whether the noble Baroness would have what has been said on this amendment looked at carefully as the debate has not been all that long—it has been long enough, I concede. The various points could be picked up and those who have taken part in this discussion could have a letter—not different letters, but a copy of one letter—setting out what the position is. I do not mind whether the original comes to me or is sent to the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, for that matter. The noble Lord, Lord Banks, would like to have a copy, I am sure. That might save time at Report stage. It may well be that we shall decide not to pursue the matter. However, at the present moment I would want to pursue this at Report stage.
§ Baroness YOUNG
I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, for what he has said. I entirely agree that this is a very important matter and I have done my best to answer the questions in a new and complex field. I am sorry that I have not made it as clear as I should. I have tried to put it in the terms that I understand, which I find is sometimes easier than the technical language of the Bill over which I struggle and do not find easy. I will look at the debate, write to the noble Lord and copy the letter on the points where I think there is misunderstanding.
To have one last "go" at setting it down on the record, we have the Secretary of State who appoints the chief benefits officer who is responsible to the Secretary of State. The chief benefits officer would be responsible for advising the other benefits officers on those matters for their discretion. The rules and regulations would be made by the Secretary of State but approved by Parliament. There are other matters following the line of the tribunals and the relationship of that. If a claimant goes to the tribunal and is upheld, there is no point in going to the tribunal unless the tribunal carries. I will look at all the points that have been raised in case there should be any misunderstanding. It is very important that the new structure should be fully understood. I will write on this matter.
§ Baroness WOOTTON of ABINGER
I do not ask the noble Baroness to do any more at the moment, but would she 599 observe, as I have observed, that in her last two explanations—which have been models of lucidity—the National Insurance Commission has completely disappeared?
§ Baroness YOUNG
They have not disappeared because they are not important. This is a serious point. When I looked at this matter I found it difficult to understand. I often think it is easier if one looks at a parallel instance and the closest parallel is the national insurance scheme. The more one looks at the national insurance scheme the closer the parallel becomes. They are not precisely the same but the same principles apply. Looking at that is helpful. It is not strictly relevant to the amendments because we are not dealing with that Act but with something else.
§ Lord DRUMALBYN
There is the annual report of the Ministry of Social Security which covers national insurance. Perhaps the noble Baroness will consider whether it also might cover supplementary benefit matters as the best way of reporting.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 37 not moved.]
§ 6.17 p.m.
Lord WALLACE of COSLANY moved Amendment No. 38:
Page 43, line 16, at end insert ("Provided that the resources of a person who is not a member of a married or unmarried couple and who is responsible for, and a member of the same household as, a child or a person who is excluded from entitlement to supplementary benefit by section 6(2) of this Act shall not include the first £6 of his weekly earnings and half of his weekly earnings between £6 and £20.").
§ The noble Lord said: The amendment is to raise the earnings disregard for one-parent families to £6 a week plus 50 per cent. of earnings between £6 and £20. At present there is a flat rate £6 disregard. The Government propose to make £4 plus 50 per cent. between £4 and £20 which would leave some 23,000 one-parent families worse off unless they increase their earnings. All I want to 600 know is the answer to three points. Why should they be worse off? What is the reason for the Government's decision? Finally—the most important one to the Government—what is the cost? I beg to move.
§ Lord CULLEN of ASHBOURNE
As the noble Lord said, lone parents currently have a £6 disregard on earnings, compared with £2 for a claimant who must register for work and £4 for others. The Government's proposals are for a standard disregard of £4 for all adults plus, for lone parents, a tapered disregard of half their earnings between £4 and £20. The justification for special treatment for lone parents in this field is, I think, common ground between us. The tapered disregard will ensure that earnings up to £20 will help increase net income. This will encourage lone parents to earn more and strengthen their link with the employment field, to which many will eventually return when their children are grown up, but it might encourage some to increase their earnings to the point where they no longer need supplementary benefit.
We have made no secret of the fact that, under our proposals, there will be some losers as well as gainers—those earning between £4 and £8 will lose. But the numbers who will lose (as the noble Lord said, 23,000), and the amount lost (up to £1) will be fewer than the numbers who will gain (29,000) and the amounts gained (up to £6). This is borne out by the fact that for this change there will be a net cost of £3.5 million.
I recognise that this amendment would ensure that there would be no losers. But it would, in effect, create a double preference for lone parents. For not only would they have the taper; they would also have a higher standard disregard than anybody else. And it would add an extra £1 million on to the cost, which could not be accommodated within the overall nil cost package unless compensating savings were made elsewhere. Furthermore, the amendment would destroy the simpler approach of a standard disregard of £4, with a concession to lone parents taking the form of a taper. I suggest that the Government's approach is the right one and will achieve a measure of simplification in the rules governing 601 the calculation of benefit. There will still he an incentive to lone parents to earn more and, I suggest, a much more attractive one than the existing one, limited to a fixed sum of £6 a week.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
While thanking the noble Lord the Minister for his reply, I believe it rather implies that the real reason behind this is to get more lone parents working so that they can earn more money and get a much higher disregard. If that is true, are we not saying that more and more parents in one-parent families should be going out and doing more work, probably at a time when they really ought to be at home looking after the child or children?
It seems to me a very short-sighted policy. I have myself complained, and noble Lords opposite have complained about the number of "latchkey children" there are who go out in the morning after their mother or father has gone to work and who come home before the parent arrives. We all recognise that as being undesirable. I see that there is some merit about the idea that if people go out and earn more money they will get a higher disregard and will be better off financially, but we could be paying too great a price for the little extra that we are going to give.
I would have thought that the Amendment which is before the Committee at present, if the Government could see their way to accepting it, would improve the lot of 23,000 lone parents who will be worse off as a result of the Government's decision to take the course they propose. I would also have thought it would have been relatively inexpensive in comparison
§ to (shall I say?) some of the social disorder which might result from encouraging parents to work longer hours when they have very young children.
§ Lord CULLEN of ASHBOURNE
There is a difference of view between us. In our opinion, to encourage lone parents to do some work and get the benefit from it appears to be a very good idea. It seems entirely right to encourage lone parents, where circumstances permit, to take up opportunities in the employment field. We are not trying to force them to do so; we are encouraging them to do so, and helping them if they do. But nobody is suggesting that they are obliged to do this work. Our proposals simply give them the chance to keep in touch with the employment field to which no doubt they will eventually return when their children grow up. I do not quite see the difficulty about this.
Lord WALLACE of COSLANY
I do not regard the reply as at all satisfactory. To force lone parents to go out to work, with all the social dangers indicated by my noble friend Lord Wells-Pestell, is something that makes one think. I believe the Government's reply represents a cold-blooded approach to an extremely sensitive social problem. Therefore, I shall divide the Committee and I hope that anybody with a conscience for one-parent families will support the amendment.
§ 6.25 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 38) shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 54; Not-Contents, 91.603
|Ardwick, L.||Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L.||Peart, L.|
|Bacon, B.||Elwyn-Jones, L.||Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L. [Teller.]|
|Balogh, L.||Evans of Claughton, L.|
|Banks, L.||Gaitskell, B.||Ross of Marnock, L.|
|Beaumont of Whitley, L.||Goronwy-Roberts, L.||Sefton of Garston, L.|
|Bernstein, L.||Hampton, L.||Segal, L.|
|Birk, B.||Houghton of Sowerby, L.||Stone, L.|
|Blease, L.||Janner, L.||Strabolgi, L.|
|Boston of Faversham, L.||Jeger, B.||Taylor of Mansfield, L.|
|Brockway, L.||Kaldor, L.||Underhill, L.|
|Brace of Donington, L.||Listowel, E.||Wallace of Coslany, L.|
|Chitnis, L.||Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.||Wedderburn of Charlton, L.|
|Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.||Longford, E.||Wessl-Pestell, L.|
|Cooper of Stockton Heath, L.||Maelor, L.||Whaddon, L.|
|Craigavon, V.||Milner of Leeds, L.||Wigg, L.|
|David, B. [Teller.]||Noel-Baker, L.||Wigoder, L.|
|Davies of Leek, L.||Ogmore, L.||Wootton of Abinger, B.|
|Davies of Penrhys, L.||Oram, L.||Wynne-Jones, L.|
|Airey of Abingdon, B.||Gowrie, E.||Nugent of Guildford, L.|
|Alexander of Tunis, E.||Greenway, L.||Orkney, E.|
|Amory, V.||Gridley, L.||Rawlinson of Ewell, L.|
|Ampthill, L.||Grimston of Westbury, L.||Reigate, L.|
|Auckland, L.||Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L. (L. Chancellor.)||Renton, L.|
|Avon, E.||Rochdale, V.|
|Balerno, L.||Halsbury, E.||Romney, E.|
|Bellwin, L.||Harmar-Nicholls, L.||St. Aldwyn, E.|
|Belstead, L.||Harvington, L.||St. Davids, V.|
|Brimelow, L.||Henley, L.||St. Germans, E.|
|Caccia, L.||Holderness, L.||St. Just, L.|
|Campbell of Croy, L.||Hornsby-Smith, B.||Saint Oswald, L.|
|Cathcart, E.||Hylton-Foster, B.||Sandys, L. [Teller.]|
|Cockfield, L.||Inglewood, L.||Sempill, Ly.|
|Colwyn, L.||Killearn, L.||Sharpies, B.|
|Cottesloe, L.||Kimberley, E.||Strathclyde, L.|
|Cullen of Ashbourne, L.||Lauderdale, E.||Strathspey, L.|
|Daventry, V.||Linlithgow, M.||Sudeley, L.|
|de Clifford, L.||Long, V.||Swinfen, L.|
|Denham, L. [Teller.]||Loudoun, C.||Swinton, E.|
|Drumalbyn, L.||Lucas of Chilworth, L.||Tranmire, L.|
|Eccles, V.||Lyell, L.||Trenchard, V.|
|Elliot of Harwood, B.||Mancroft, L.||Trumpington, B.|
|Ferrers, E.||Mansfield, E.||Vaizey, L.|
|Fortescue, E.||Merrivale, L.||Vaux of Harrowden, L.|
|Fraser of Kilmorack, L.||Monckton of Brenchley, V.||Vickers, B.|
|Gainford, L.||Mottistone, L.||Vivian, L.|
|Galloway, E.||Mowbray and Stourton, L.||Westbury, L.|
|Geoffrey-Lloyd, L.||Murton of Lindisfarne, L.||Wise, L.|
|Gisborough, L.||Newall, L.||Young, B.|
|Glenkinglas, L.||Northchurch, B.|
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
§ 6.33 p.m.
§ Lord WALLACE of COSLANY moved Amendment No. 39:
Page 43, line 26, at end insert—
("(4) Regulations shall provide that a person to whom a rate rebate under a scheme under section 11 or 12 of the Local Government Act 1974 or, in Scotland, the standard scheme prescribed under section 112 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 (including that scheme as varied under section 114 of that Act) or a rebate or allowance under Part II of the Housing Finance Act 1972, or in Scotland, Part II of the Housing (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1972 has been afforded or granted and who has additional requirements in respect of heating expenses and is not entitled to a family income supplement under the Family Income Supplements Act 1970 shall be entitled during the period in respect of which the rebate or allowance has been afforded or granted to supplementary benefit of at least the amount of those requirements.").
§ The noble Lord said: This amendment extends supplementary benefit heating additions to people in receipt of housing benefits; for example, rate rebates, rent rebates and allowances. The Government's proposals to help low income consumers with fuel costs next winter are heavily concentrated, as they were 604 last winter, on supplementary benefit recipients. The lowest rate of supplementary benefit heating addition will go up from 95p to £1.40, while those now on the middle rate will get the highest rate, which will be increased from £2.85 to £3.40. The additions will be paid, as at present, on grounds of health or accommodation that is difficult to heat or centrally heated, but families with a child under five and supplementary pensioners over 70—last winter it was the over 75s—will qualify automatically for the £1.40 addition.
§ Low income families where the head is in work will not qualify, apart from the small minority on family income supplement because they cannot claim supplementary benefit, and pensioners with incomes just above supplementary benefit level will get no help. On the other hand, the Labour Government's electricity discount scheme was extended to cover those on housing benefits as well as supplementary benefit and family income supplement claimants. This had the effect of helping both low paid workers and those just above supplementary benefit level.
§ The amendment therefore proposes to extend supplementary benefit heating 605 additions to this large additional group of people. They would have to satisfy the same criteria as supplementary benefit claimants; for example, being over 70, having a child under five or having extra heating needs. This is quite an important amendment, because for many people concerned—particularly those concerned with the care of the elderly—the question of adequate heating can sometimes be a matter of life or death. This amendment tries to assist those who are just above the supplementary benefit qualifications whom, so far as I understand, the Government at present have no intention of assisting. I beg to move.
§ Lord BANKS
I should like very briefly to say a word in support of this amendment. The Government's schemes for helping with fuel have ensured that those who are helped get rather more than was the case before. But they are available to a much more restricted number of people and there are many people, as the noble Lord has just explained, who your Lordships might well consider ought to be assisted and who are left just outside. This amendment would certainly help some of them, and for that reason I support it.
§ Lord SANDYS
The Government are very much aware of the problems which this country faces, so far as energy costs are concerned, and I hope that my reply will be looked at carefully by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, because there are a number of detailed figures included in it. I regret once again that the main argument against accepting this amendment is one of cost. There are approximately 3 million housing allowance recipients, nearly two-thirds of whom could become eligible for a payment of at least the lowest heating addition rate of £1.40 a week. At that rate, the cost would amount to £135 million a year, but as some would no doubt qualify for the higher rate of heating addition the cost could be even higher.
A second point of difficulty would be the administration of such additions. The amendment refers to "additional requirements", which presumably relates to the set criteria for heating additions within the supplementary benefits scheme. To refresh your Lordships' memories, it may be helpful if I briefly run through the 606 criteria as they will apply from next November. Heating additions will be awarded where a claimant has central heating, or where his ill-health, restricted mobility or poor accommodation make it necessary for him to have extra heating costs. On top of this, all supplementary pensioner households where the claimant or a dependant is 70 or over, and all supplementary benefit householders where there is a child under five will automatically get the lower rate heating addition of £1.40 a week; disabled people who are also in receipt of attendance allowance, constant attendance allowance or mobility allowance will get the higher rate of £3.40 a week.
The administrative difficulties of identifying those getting a housing allowance who are also in one of these latter categories—the over 70s, the under-fives and the disabled—are real, but not insurmountable. However, the problems involved in trying to assess the 3 million housing allowance beneficiaries for the purpose of identifying those with central heating, ill-health, restricted mobility or homes which are difficult to heat would present an enormously complex and costly exercise. Furthermore, it would erode the whole principle of the supplementary benefits scheme to make payments of supplementary benefit on a non-means-tested basis to people whose incomes are sufficiently high to preclude them from the scheme.
In conclusion, therefore, I must emphasise to your Lordships that the Government cannot protect everyone from the full effect of rising fuel prices. We are already spending £105 million a year to protect those most vulnerable. At a time of economic difficulty, when we are making every effort to restrain the growth of the bureaucracy, the country cannot afford to go down a path which would result in a considerable extra burden on the taxpayer in terms of benefit cost and administrative expense.
I think one should pause here, because we are considering the running cost aspect of heating a home, and bear in mind something which is enormously important and which we have referred to at regular intervals in your Lordships' debates in regard to the conservation of energy—that is, the Government's plan over grants for insulation of housing. Homes which are 607 in need of insulation and which are eligible to attract that grant may qualify for doing so, and it may well be that an insulation grant could be enormously helpful. I must therefore recommend that, so far as this amendment is concerned, your Lordships should reject it.
Lord WALLACE of COSLANY
I am grateful to the noble Lord for the detailed statement that he has made and I shall certainly look at it with care. The main reason which lie advanced was cost. My amendment relates to precisely the same reason—cost to the very people who find it a tremendous burden. Unfortunately, too many elderly people use paraffin, and paraffin has more than doubled in cost. It is costing me twice as much this year to heat my little greenhouse as it did last year.
I agree about the value of home insulation. However, I have in mind elderly people, who are just over the border for supplementary benefit, who will probably be in a very confused state about applying for this and applying for that. Double glazing is also very effective, not only for keeping in heat but also for avoiding undue noise. It is a tremendous social problem. We are referring to the people who are just over the border so far as supplementary benefit is concerned, and it is these people who are suffering.
The best thing I can do is to say that we shall study the matter. Somehow or other we have got to come back to this subject—whether it will be in this Bill or in some other way I do not know. For the moment, however, we shall consider it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 40 and 41 not 1710 red.]
§ 6.43 p.m.
Lord BANKS moved Amendment No. 41A:
Page 43, line 30, after second ("requirements") insert ("including essential domestic help whether provided by a local authority or otherwise").
§ The noble Lord said: This amendment deals with one of the points which was raised earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Janner. It is possible at the present time, as he pointed out, in certain circumstances for persons in receipt of the local authority 608 home help service to be granted a contribution by the Supplementary Benefits Commission towards their expenditure on this service. The noble Lord gave this example: where local authorities charge a flat rate of £1 per week, people already in receipt of supplementary benefit may be given an additional requirement amount of 50p or 25p per week towards the cost. Others may, because of the expenditure for domestic assistance, come within the eligibility criteria for supplementary benefit.
§ The Government have published, as we have heard more than once this afternoon, in the annex to the Notes on Clauses the proposed use of their regulation-making power, as conferred in this Bill. This states that additional requirements will be available for essential domestic help where the claimant is elderly, infirm or has heavy family responsibilities, except where the help is provided by a local authority. This would appear to end the current practice of helping to meet the cost of local authority home help in these cases—that is, where the claimant is elderly, infirm or has heavy family responsibilities. This amendment would prevent a regulation in these terms from being introduced. It seems desirable that help of the kind now given should be available for home help in these specified cases from whatever source the home help may come. I beg to move.
§ Lord SANDYS
In response to Amendment No. 41A, I hope it will be for your Lordships' convenience if, at the same time, I speak to Amendments Nos. 65B and 72, because these three amendments have a close association. Amendment No. 41A, to which Amendment No. 65B is the corresponding amendment in the Keeling schedule, would lay down, in Schedule 1 to the Act itself, that a charge for a home help should be counted as an additional requirement and therefore he met by an increase in supplementary benefit. I think it is worth pointing out that this is contrary to the construction of Schedule 1 to the Act, which provides that what constitutes additional requirements is to be defined in the regulations.
But our chief objection to the amendment lies with the principle involved in extending supplementary benefit payments to cover charges imposed by a local authority for its home help service.
609 Perhaps I may at this juncture pause for a moment to draw your Lordships' attention to the annex to the notes on clauses where, on page 116, there is a particular reference to this problem in item 75G, where it says:… essential domestic help, where the claimant is elderly, infirm or has heavy family responsibilities except"—and I stress that word—where the help is provided by a local authority".This view was made known to local authorities in a circular issued in 1971 and has been reiterated to representatives of the Local Authorities Association on several occasions, the most recent being a meeting of the Joint Working Group on Personal Social Services, Charging Policies, on 4th March 1980.
In fact, most local authorities have in the past agreed with this policy and have charged only people with the resources to meet the charge imposed. The Supplementary Benefits Commission have recently been meeting charges in about 18,000 cases a year, a very small proportion indeed of the total number of people receiving supplementary benefit. And in the case of people assessed at the long term rates of supplementary benefit—that is, supplementary pensioners—the commission is able to meet the charge only to the extent that it exceeds 50p a week (or 75p a week for those over 80) because the legislation requires that those amounts must be found by the recipient from the higher, long-term rates. It is only very recently that the local authorities, faced with the need to make cuts in their budgets, have begun, or planned, to impose charges, in the belief that the Supplementary Benefits Commission would meet the cost and the claimant would therefore not suffer.
The commission saw this as an abuse of their policy. They accordingly decided not to take on any more charges for local authority home help services from 19th February, and people in receipt of supplementary benefit will not therefore be able in the future to receive an increase of their benefit in respect of these charges.
The Government fully agree that it would be wrong to accept the transfer of responsibility for financing the home help service to the supplementary benefits scheme. It would not be fair to the taxpayer to fund local authority savings out of 610 central government funds in this way—through the back door, as it were. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Banks, will accept that there is a special responsibility here. Nor would it be fair to those in low paid work or on other forms of low income whom the supplementary benefits scheme cannot help. To accept this amendment would be tantamount to an invitation to local authorities increasingly to finance their home help services through the supplementary benefits scheme.
It is our intention, in the regulations to be made under the Act, as amended, to provide for additions to meet charges for domestic help privately arranged, and to that extent we shall be meeting the purpose of the amendment. But for the reasons that I have given we think it would be mistaken to provide for local authority home help charges, and therefore I ask the Committee to reject these amendments.
This brings me to the linked amendment, the third in the series, No. 72, and if I may be allowed to say this, I think that from what I have already said it will be clear that the Government agree with the principle lying behind the amendment. However, the Government are also committed to giving local authorities as much freedom from statutory central Government controls as possible. Therefore we would not wish to enforce this point by statute, although we hope and expect that local authorities will take full and proper note of the Government's view. Accordingly, I ask the Committee to reject this amendment.
§ Lord EVANS of CLAUGHTON
I very much regret that the Minister has taken this view about the amendment. It seems to me that what is happening is that in certain parts of the country, being confronted as they are by this Government's proposals for cutting back on public expenditure, with cash limits and every kind of restraint that the Government are imposing as a matter of policy on local authorities, the local authorities are understandably trying to find means whereby they may continue to provide what is a very important service to elderly people without having to put an increased burden on the rate payers. I think most of us who have the rate demand notices coming through our letter boxes at the moment are feeling this 611 burden very strongly, and I think it is absolutely right that the supplementary benefits should be provided to assist the elderly and infirm in retaining a home help.
As I think many of your Lordships know, the home help is the only contact which many elderly and infirm and lonely people ever have with the outside world, quite apart from the assistance in the house. It is the only person they see except possibly the vicar or the local insurance man. It seems to me that with the impositions that this Government are placing on local government it would be tragic if anything happened to limit in any way the availability of home helps to the elderly and infirm. It seems to me to be a proper use of the supplementary benefit that a small amount like this can be provided from the commission to enable the infirm and the very poor to continue to have home helps, which otherwise, presumably, local authorities will either charge for or will withdraw the service.
§ Lord BANKS
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, for the detailed reply that he gave. I did not find it altogether satisfactory and I think what has been said by my noble friend Lord Evans of Claughton has made it very clear that there is another side to this case. The point which has to be taken into account is the changed situation in which local authorities find themselves and the extra burdens which are now being put upon them as a direct result of Government policy. In the light of that change I think it is reasonable to take the line that my noble friend has taken and to support this amendment. For that reason I should like to test the opinion of the Committee.
§ 6.54 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 41A) shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 54; Not-Contents, 84.613
|Ardwick, L.||Elwyn-Jones, L.||Noel-Baker, L.|
|Bacon, B.||Evans of Claughton, L.||Ogmore, L.|
|Balogh, L.||Gaitskell, B.||Oram, L.|
|Banks, L.||Goronwy-Roberts, L.||Peart, L.|
|Beaumont of Whitley, L.||Gregson, L.||Ross of Marnock, L.|
|Birk, B.||Hale, L.||Sefton of Garston, L.|
|Blease, L.||Hampton, L. [Teller.]||Segal, L.|
|Boston of Faversham, L.||Houghton of Sowerby, L.||Stone, L.|
|Brockway, L.||Janner, L.||Strabolgi, L.|
|Bruce of Donington, L.||Jeger, B.||Taylor of Mansfield, L.|
|Chitnis, L.||Kaldor, L.||Underhill, L.|
|Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.||Kirkhill, L.||Wallace of Coslany, L.|
|Cooper of Stockton Heath, L.||Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.||Wedderburn of Charlton, L.|
|David, B.||Longford, E.||Wells-Pestell, L.|
|Davies of Leek, L.||McGregor of Durris, L.||Whaddon, L.|
|Davies of Penrhys, L.||Maelor, L.||Wigoder, L. [Teller.]|
|Diamond, L.||Milner of Leeds, L.||Wootton of Abinger, B.|
|Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L.||Mishcon, L.||Wynne-Jones, L.|
|Airey of Abingdon, B.||Denham, L. [Teller.]||Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L. (L. Chancellor.)|
|Amory, V.||Drumalbyn, L.|
|Ampthill, L.||Eccles, V.||Harmar-Nicholls, L.|
|Auckland, L.||Elliot of Harwood, B.||Harvington, L.|
|Avon, E.||Faithfull, B.||Henley, L.|
|Balerno, L.||Ferrers, E.||Holderness, L.|
|Bellwin, L.||Fortescue, E.||Hornsby-Smith, B.|
|Belstead, L.||Fraser of Kilmorack, L.||Hylton-Foster, B.|
|Campbell of Croy, L.||Gainford, L.||Inglewood, L.|
|Cathcart, E.||Galloway, E.||Killearn, L.|
|Cockfield, L.||Gibson-Watt, L.||Lauderdale, E.|
|Colwyn, L.||Gisborough, L.||Linlithgow, M.|
|Cottesloe, L.||Glenkinglas, L.||Long, V.|
|Craigavon, V.||Gowrie, E.||Loudoun, C.|
|Cullen of Ashbourne, L.||Greenway, L.||Lucas of Chilworth, L.|
|Daventry, V.||Gridley, L.||Lyell, L.|
|de Clifford, L.||Grimston of Westbury, L.||Mancroft, L.|
|Mansfield, E.||Romney, E.||Swinfen, L.|
|Mottistone, L.||St. Aldwyn, E.||Swinton, E.|
|Mowbray and Stourton, L.||St. Davids, V.||Tranmire, L.|
|Murton of Lindisfarne, L.||St. Germnas, E.||Trefgarne, L.|
|Newall, L.||St. Just, L.||Trenchard, V.|
|Northchurch, B.||Sandys, L. [Teller.]||Trumpington, B.|
|Nugent of Guildford, L.||Sempill, Ly.||Vaux of Rarrowden, L.|
|Orkney, E.||Sharpies, B.||Vickcrs, B.|
|Rawlinson of Ewell, L.||Strathclyde, L.||Vivian, L.|
|Reigate, L.||Strathspey, L.||Westbury, L.|
|Renton, L.||Sudeley, L.||Young, B.|
Moved, accordingly and. on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ 7.2 p.m.
§ Baroness YOUNG
At this stage I think it might be convenient to the Committee to have a break for dinner. I would hope that we might break until 8 o'clock, if that is convenient to the Committee.
§ [The Sitting was suspended from 7.3 to 8 p.m.]
Lord WELLS-PESTELL moved Amendment No. 42:
Page 44, leave out lines 3 to 17 in column 2 and insert ("£43.80").
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 42 and, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to speak to Amendments Nos. 44, 45 and 47. Amendment No. 42 deals with the supplementary benefits scale rates for adults. The effect of this amendment to the Bill would be to bring those rates into line with the National Insurance Bulletin benefit rates which, from November 1980 will be £27.15 in the long-term for single people and £20.65 in the short-term, with £43.45 for married couples in the longterm, and £33.40 in the short-term.
§ It was originally envisaged that the alignment of the rates would result in losses for long-term supplementary claimants of 40p a week for single people, and 35p a week for married couples, while short-term claimants were to gain 20p for single people and 25p for married couples. As the gains are smaller than the losses and there are far more long-term claimants (who in this case will be losers) than short-term gainers, it was expected to be one of the biggest money savers in the Bill, saving over £30 million a year.614
§ The effect of the Budget proposals is that the alignment of the long-term rates will go ahead, but that of the short-term rates will not. That is because the short-term national insurance rates are to increase by 5 per cent. less than the increase in prices, while the supplementary benefit rates are to be fully inflation-proof instead of going up by the same amounts as the national insurance rates. As a result, the proposed cuts of 40p for single people and 35p for married couples in the long-term rates will be implemented, but the gains of 20p for single people and 25p for married couples, for short-term claimants, will not—they will get the bare amount needed to compensate for price increases.
§ The amendments which are now before your Lordships would have the effect of cancelling the alignment of the longterm rates, thus avoiding the losses of 40p and 35p. The new long-term rates would be £27.35 for a single person and £43.80 for a married couple. For the short-term rates, the amendments add 20p for single people and 25p for a married couple to the rates proposed by the Government, thus preserving the promised gains. The new short-term rates would then be £21.50 for a single person and £34.85p for a married couple. If the Government accept the amendments relating to the long-term rates so that there will be no losses, it would be reasonable to withdraw the amendments relating to the short-term rates. But, if there is an insistence on implementing the losses, we shall have to consider whether we shall proceed in respect of the others.
§ I ask the Government to give this very careful consideration because in the long run it will make an appreciable amount of difference to the recipients and I would not think—although I do not know—that it would involve the Government in considerable expenditure. I should be glad to hear from whichever noble Lord 615 is replying what, in fact, it means in terms of financial liability. I beg to move Amendment No. 42.
§ 8.5 p.m.
§ Lord CULLEN of ASHBOURNE
I am very happy to take these various amendments together, as the noble Lord has suggested. I shall start with Amendments Nos. 42 and 45 dealing with the long-term rates of supplementary benefit. As your Lordships know, these rates apply to supplementary pensioners and to those under pension age, other than the unemployed, who have received supplementary benefit for at least two years. The Bill proposes that these rates shall be aligned with the corresponding national insurance rates, which means in practice that at the next up-rating the supplementary benefit rates will go up by 35p less for a married couple, and by 40p less for a single householder, than would otherwise have been the case. The amendment would add those amounts to the new rates which were announced recently, and thus reopen the gap between the supplementary benefit long-term rates and their national insurance counterparts.
There is no very good reason for the present small differences between the supplementary benefit and the national insurance rates and that, I am sure, the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, knows very well. They are entirely coincidental, the result of a chapter of historical accidents rather than of any planned policy. The Government's proposal to align the rates will achieve an important simplification for pensioners in the structure of the social security system. It will make the overall benefits system easier for them to understand, and fewer pensioners will then qualify for very small amounts of supplementation. As your Lordships will appreciate, it is most often such small amounts of benefit which are not taken up and it is not really sensible to maintain the benefit system in a way which makes a large number of claims possible for what are relatively small weekly sums.
Alignment of the long-term rates is an essential part of the package of changes to be made in the supplementary benefit scheme. Although the individual amounts are small, the overall saving of over £40 million will make possible, at a time 616 when additional resources are not available, a number of improvements elsewhere in the scheme, such as the qualifying period for the long-term scale rates and in the children's rates. This is a redistribution of resources within the scheme which will provide additional help for families with children. The report by officials on the review of the scheme, Social Assistance, argued strongly that it is families with children, rather than pensioners, who are experiencing the most difficulty in managing on supplementary benefit, so that any redistribution should be directed towards them. I think it is time to say that previously pensioners have fared rather better than families on benefit. For example, between 1970 and 1977 the real incomes of supplementary benefit households, of whom the majority at any one time are pensioners, rose by 12 per cent. compared to 5 per cent. for all households; but for families on benefit with children the average rise was only 4 per cent.
I would stress that the amounts in question, namely 35p for couples and 40p for single householders, are relatively small. This is a once-for-all change which will be made at the same time as the November up-rating. And the effect on individual pensioners will depend on the extent to which they are affected by the overall package of changes; some will receive more overall, while others receive less than the standard uprating.
As I have said, alignment of the longterm rates is an essential component of the overall package, which could not be sustained without it. There is widespread support for the view that the supplementary benefit scheme is in urgent need of reform, but given our present economic difficulties, this must be achieved at no extra cost. That means that improvements in the scheme must be achieved by a redistribution of resources. Our proposals on the long-term rates are a vital part of that redistribution, and I ask the Committee to reject these two amendments.
Turning now to Amendments Nos. 44 and 47, these would raise the main, ordinary supplementary benefit rates by 25p for a married couple and 20p for a single householder, more than the increases already announced for next November. Under the Government's original 617 proposals the ordinary supplementary benefit scale rates were also to be aligned with their corresponding national insurance rates. As a result, the supplementary benefit rates would have been increased by sums similar to those already mentioned. But we no longer envisage aligning the ordinary rates in November. At the next up-rating, the supplementary benefit short-term rates will be fully price-protected and, as a result, they will rise by much greater sums than the national insurance rates.
The scale rates will then be greater than the national insurance rates by £1.20 a week for a married couple and by 65p a week for a single householder. The increases of 25p and 20p proposed by this amendment would have been the result of alignment this November. Without alignment they have no status and could not be justified in their own right. Therefore, I ask the Committee also to reject these amendments.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
The Minister and his friends will realise that we are very unhappy, particularly about the 5 per cent., about which I have had something to say on two previous occasions. We on this side must consider what the noble Lord has said and see whether or not it is worth our while to come back to this matter at a later stage. This is a matter which causes us some concern. As I say, our emphasis may well have to be on the 5 per cent. rather than on the rest of the matter, but that is something which I should like to consider. I beg leave of the Committee to withdraw this amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 8.13 p.m.
Lord WELLS-PESTELL moved Amendment No. 43:
Page 44, line 15, column 1, at end insert ("which shall be the same for persons whose right to a supplementary allowance is subject to the condition that they are registered for employment as for other persons").
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 43, and with your Lord ships' permission, I should like to speak to Amendment No. 46. In some measure, this is a similar matter to the one which we have just been discussing, because these two amendments would give unemployed people the right to 618 receive the higher long-term rates of supplementary benefit on the same terms as other claimants. We emphasise the fact that we are dealing here with unemployed people. At present, the longterm rates are payable to all supplementary pensioners and to all claimants under pension age, other than the unemployed, who have been on supplementary benefit for two years or more.
§ As we understand the position, from this November the qualifying period for those under pension age is to be reduced to one year which from our point of view—and I am sure from everybody else's—is a welcome reform. But the unemployed will still be excluded. I acknowledge that the exclusion of the unemployed from the long-term rates goes back to the commencement of the supplementary benefits scheme in 1966. However, at that time the long-term addition, as it was then called, was only nine shillings a week. Since then the gap between the short-term and the long-term rates has widened dramatically. In point of fact from this November it will be £5.85p for a single person and £8.85p for a married couple.
§ The officials who carried out a review of the supplementary benefits scheme recommended in their report, Social Assistance, that the long-term rates should be paid to the unemployed. The Supplementary Benefits Commission has repeatedly called for this reform and reiterated its demand in its published response to a review report. In fact, the Supplementary Benefits Commission has stated that of all the groups of claimants, the long-term unemployed—especially those with children—have the greatest difficulty in making ends meet.
§ I think that it raises a very important matter; that is, that whether we like it or not—and I do not think that any of us likes it—we must face the fact that there will be a growing number of unemployed. Unfortunately, one must face the fact that perhaps many of them will never work again. Their position will be very acute. It seems to me that some special consideration should be given to the long-term unemployed. I ask the Government to give their consideration to this; I hope that they do not turn it down out of hand. I should like to hear them say for the second time in all the discussions that we have 619 had since last week that they would be prepared to have a further look at this to see whether or not something tangible could be done for the long-term unemployed. I beg to move.
§ Lord CULLEN of ASHBOURNE
Let me say straightaway that the Government recognise that there is some widespread support for extending the longterm rates of supplementary benefit to the unemployed, particularly now that the qualifying period for people under pension age is to be reduced. The review team in its report, Social Assistance, concluded that, whatever the reason for excluding the unemployed originally, that no longer applied. As the noble Lord has said, the Supplementary Benefits Commission has placed this high on its list of priorities for change. The major problem here is, I fear, the familiar one of cost. It is familiar, I am sure, to those who served under the last Government, because they were unable to make this concession during their term of office; indeed, they were unable to go so far as to attempt even to shorten the qualifying period for the sick and lone parents, as we are now doing.
The Government are sympathetic to this proposal, but in order to limit public spending to what the economy can bear we need to be rigorous in setting priorities. At a cost of some £65 millions I do not think we can countenance this concession, at the present time. Although, as I say, we have some sympathty with the point that the noble Lord has made, I must urge your Lordships to reject these amendments.
§ Lord BANKS
I should like to say that I very much regret the decision which the Minister has just announced. We are talking here about equity and fairness. If the long-term rate is a certain figure for everyone else, it seems to be completely wrong that it should be less for the longterm unemployed. The amount of £65 million is, of course, a large sum of money. It is not so large a sum of money when we consider that the total social security bill is £20,000 million. I should have thought that within that total it should be possible to ensure that the long-term unemployed are treated fairly and on an equal basis with other long-term beneficiaries.
§ Lord CULLEN of ASHBOURNE
I think that the noble Lord, Lord Banks, 620 knows very well that this is supposed to be a nil-cost package, and £65 million is a considerable sum of money. I do not think that I have heard any suggestion as to where that £65 million might come from.
§ Lord BANKS
One suggestion as to where some of the money might come from would be if we did not have a ceiling on national insurance contributions. That is a point which the noble Lord might consider. At the moment, after we reach the top limit on contributions, contributions become a decreasing percentage of the income of the contributor.
§ Lord CULLEN of ASHBOURNE
I might have known that the noble Lord would think of some extremely clever idea.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
This is really a serious matter. I do not know how, when we are talking about an increasing number of unemployed, which is likely to reach 2 million before very long, the Government have the gall to say that this has to be a no cost package. Of course the Labour Government did not do anything about this because unemployment during the period of the last Labour Government for a large number of people was much more short term than ever it is going to be under this Government. Unemployment under this Government is going to be long term.
We have to face the fact unfortunately that a large number of the unemployed may never work again. It is a serious situation. The noble Lord, Lord Banks, is right when he says that one has to deal with them—he did not use the word "generously"—in the light of the position in which they find themselves. There may well be an argument that one can properly advance for short-term benefits for a short-term situation, but there has to be a long-term benefit for a long-term situation.
Unfortunately everybody who becomes unemployed knows full well that it is likely to be a long-term situation. One cannot talk about having a package that is a no-cost package if it means it is going to be disproportionately borne by one section of the community. I hope that the Government will look at the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Banks. It is made from a great deal of experience. What weighs more with me is 621 the experience behind the suggestion. On the face of it, it certainly seems that it would be far more equitable to expect people who are earning considerably more money than others to make a larger contribution than they are making at the present time.
§ Baroness SEEAR
I should like to ask the Government to look again at this amendment, particularly in relation to people in the older age group. The evidence not only for the future but—and I know that the noble Lord, Lord WellsPestell, will agree with me—under the past Government, too, was that people over 55 who become unemployed have a very meagre chance of getting employed again, particularly if they are unskilled. We must face that there are going to be a large number—some say a relatively large number—of people in the older age groups for whom there is going to be no employment. Could not the Government take this question back, if only for the older age groups, and have a look to see whether they would be prepared to modify this regulation?
§ Lord CULLEN of ASHBOURNE
The remarks that are made suggest that we on this side of the House are not concerned with the difficulties of the unemployed, and that is by no means so. I should like to remind the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, that during the course of the time that his party was in power the number of unemployed doubled, but they did not do anything about this particular suggestion which has come today. I am afraid that it is a nil cost package, and at this stage, until we can find other money—and the idea that the noble Lord has suggested is completely new to any of the thinking that has gone on so far (I know it has come up before, but it is not considered at this stage)—I am afraid I must ask the Committee to resist the amendment.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL
I do not want to pursue this, but the noble Lord must not try to get out of it by throwing out one word, "doubled". Let him look at the period in which unemployment doubled. Can he deny that in the six months leading up to the last election unemployment decreased month by month? My recollection is that in the six months leading up to the last general election 622 unemployment fell month by month. This is what one has to do when one is talking about things doubling; one has to ask oneself for how long. Did the figures double for one month or two months? Did they continue to double, or did they decrease? I think the statistics show that during the six months immediately prior to the election unemployment in this country fell month by month.
Obviously we are not going to cut any ice with the Government on this amendment, any more than we have succeeded on those that have gone before, and it would be a pointless exercise to divide the Committee at this time of night. There is no alternative but to ask the leave of the Committee to withdraw this amendment, while my noble friends and I consider what course of action we can take.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 44–47 not moved.]
§ 8.26 p.m.
Lord BANKS moved Amendment No. 47A:
Page 44, line 45, leave Out sub-paragraph 4.
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 47A. With the permission of the Committee, I should like to speak to Amendment No. 67B as well; the two are linked. The object of these amendments is to remove the power of the Secretary of State to alter the rates of supplementary benefit by regulation. This Bill aligns the supplementary benefit and national insurance benefit. The No. 2 Bill now in another place allows the Secretary of State, by means of an order, to reduce the up-rating of short-term national insurance benefits by up to 5 per cent. Supplementary benefit, as we heard a minute ago, is however to be fully up-rated. Therefore, short-term national insurance benefits and supplementary benefits, having been aligned in the No. 1 Bill, will diverge again in the No. 2 Bill.
§ This amendment is put down to draw attention, first, to the fact that the Government are taking specific action in one Bill before Parliament and proposing to nullify it in another Bill before Parliament. So they are enacting a law with the immediate intention of changing it. This amendment is put down, secondly, to draw attention to the fact that this action will 623 throw more people on to supplementary benefit at a time when we should be seeking to take people off supplementary benefit and reduce the numbers on supplementary benefit. Thirdly, it is designed to draw attention to the dangers that important policy decisions will be taken by regulation. This amendment would preserve the alignment between national insurance benefits and supplementary benefits.
§ The decision to abate short-term national insurance benefits in the No. 2 Bill will require an amendment of the table in Schedule 2 to the No. 1 Bill. These amendments would prevent such amendment. Whatever the Secretary of State did with short-term benefits he would have to do with supplementary benefits as well. But what I am really seeking is an explanation of why one course of action is taken in one Bill and a contrary course of action taken in the other. I should like to raise too, as I have already said, the question as to whether the Government are taking too much power in the Bill to alter its provisions by regulations. I beg to move.
§ Baroness YOUNG
As the noble Lord, Lord Banks, has said, the purpose of his amendments would be to repeal the power in the revised Schedule 1 to the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976 whereby the table setting out the amounts for normal requirements for supplementary benefit may be modified by means of regulations. He himself has identified one reason for our pursuing this course, which I accept. It is true—and noble Lords will be aware of this—that the table in sub-paragraph 3 does provide for the alignment of supplementary benefit rates with national insurance rates. In November this will be the result for long-term benefits, but as we have already discussed in this Committee my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced on the 27th March that that will not be the case for ordinary benefits.
The Government plan to up-rate short term national insurance benefits by 5 per cent. less than the estimated movement in prices. As we explained when this matter arose earlier on in the Committee proceedings, and, of course, as has been explained in another place, this is an interim measure to take account of the fact that such benefits are not taxed at 624 present. Were this amendment to be carried, of course, this would not be possible but that is not the only reason for having it in the Bill.
The Government believe that it is right that they should have the flexibility to vary the definitions used in the table to cover situations in which the rates provided for in the table would not be appropriate. There are a number of ways in which this power will be used. For example, four students sharing accommodation might, in theory, each have an equal claim to be the householder and so be eligible for the more favourable householder rate of benefit, but it would clearly be unfair to pay this enhanced rate four times in respect of one dwelling only. So what we propose to do is to use the modifying power in sub-paragraph (4) to lay down that each of them shall be eligible for the non-householder rate plus a proportion of the difference between that rate and the householder rate according to how many of them there are in the particular house.
The noble Lord, Lord Banks, asked if the Government were taking too much power under these regulations. I would assure the Committee that the Government will not be able to refuse what might on the face of it seem to be a very wide-ranging power because any intended modifications must be contained in the regulations which would be subject to the approval of both Houses of Parliament. Furthermore, as I understand it, it is quite normal to increase benefit rates by regulation in the Social Security field. I should point out that these regulations will be subject to the Affirmative Resolution procedure so that Parliament will have an opportunity to debate them.
However, there is one final point that I should like to make which is that the Government are determined to maintain the safety net for the poorest people and accordingly the ordinary scale rate for supplementary benefit will be fully price-protected. This will be done by using the modifying power in sub-paragraph (4) to vary the supplementary benefit and national insurance rates. These amendments, by repealing that power, would have the effect of giving claimants whose supplementary benefit is based on the ordinary rates, a smaller increase in their benefit this November than is planned: that is to 625 say by £1.20 a week less for a married couple and 65p a week less for a single householder. This is something which I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Banks, did not intend. However, I hope I have said enough to indicate that there is a further purpose in the way the Bill has been drawn besides making a difference between this Bill and the Social Security (No. 2) Bill, and that the noble Lord, Lord Banks, will see that there are other instances which would be covered by it. It is for these reasons as well as the one that he has identified that we would feel unable to accept the amendments.
§ Lord BANKS
I wonder whether I might ask the noble Baroness a question? In the course of her remarks she has said that the abatement of the short-term benefits by 5 per cent. is to be an interim measure. Does that mean that the short-term benefit and supplementary benefit will be realigned once the benefits are brought into taxation?
§ Baroness YOUNG
I do not think that I can go any further this evening and add to what has already been said on this matter. It is the intention that by 1982 the benefits will be subject to tax and therefore this will be a short-term measure in the interim. I think there has been no further pronouncement than that and I feel unable to make a further statement on that matter to the Committee this evening.
§ Lord BANKS
In that case, it might be a short-term measure which might have a long-term effect, because if the difference is to carry on even though the benefits are taxable, the effect of what is done next year will continue right into the future unless some specific steps are then taken to realign benefits. It was on that point that I was really seeking some elucidation, but the noble Baroness does not feel able to give it.
I do not think she dealt with the question of the sense of having one policy pursued in one Bill and another policy pursued in another. I was not too happy about what she had to say about whether too much power was being taken by the Government to act through regulations. But, in view of what she said about the other purposes for which it is intended that the power should be used and the effects that this amendment would have 626 on them, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 8.37 p.m.
§ Lord WELLS-PESTELL moved Amendment No. 48.
Page 44, line 50, at end insert—
(6) If regulations prescribe as one of the conditions mentioned in the table in subparagraph (3) of this paragraph that a person shall have been in receipt of supplementary benefit during a prescribed period or periods, that condition shall be deemed to be satisfied in the case of a person who, but for that condition, would have been entitled to receive supplementary benefit throughout the prescribed period or periods".
The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 48 which deals with the non-contributory invalidity pension trap to which I made reference on the Second Reading of the Bill. This is a matter which I can take very shortly, and perhaps I may be permitted to quote what I said at column 1273 on the occasion of the Second Reading of the Social Security Bill on Tuesday, 1st April. I said:
I have been looking at the question of the invalidity benefit for young disabled people aged between 16 and 17 years who are now in receipt of the non-contributory invalidity pension of £14 a week. Had they been on supplementary benefit they would have received £12.95, and would have been eligible for special needs benefits. Had they been on supplementary benefit at the age of 18 they would have been eligible for the long-term benefits, which now amount to about £20.15 a week, but if they were receiving the non-contributory invalidity pension, the amount would be only £14".
§ This amendment would ensure than anybody who would have qualified for supplementary benefit for a year, if their income had been below the short-term supplementary benefit rate instead of between the short and long-term rates, would then be entitled to supplementary benefits at the long-term rate. The justice of this, I think, must be clear to everybody. It would help a considerable number of invalidity pensioners, widows and other people, and there really seems no justification why they should be put at a disadvantage. I beg to move.
§ Lord SANDYS
The point raised in this amendment by the noble Lord, Lord WellsPestell, was raised in Standing Committee in another place on 14th February, at column 709–710. As the Minister of State then said. there is an obvious anomaly 627 here. It is perhaps most acute for those young people receiving the non-contributory invalidity pension, and I am glad to say that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State was able to announce on 19th March the Government's proposals for overcoming the anomaly in this area. That was contained in the Official Report at column 248.
The problem is a little more complicated than that. It stems from the fact that a person who would otherwise be entitled to supplementary benefit may be receiving some other benefit—for example, invalidity benefit—at a rate which is slightly higher than the ordinary rate of supplementary benefit, but which falls below the more favourable long-term supplementary benefit scale rate. To become eligible for this more favourable rate, a beneficiary must fulfil the criterion that he need not register for employment as a condition for receiving benefit, and must then have been receiving supplementary benefit for one year continuously at the ordinary rate.
These are grave complications. Nevertheless, we must follow them through, and clearly the fact that a claimant is precluded from receiving supplementary benefit because he is in receipt of another benefit at a higher rate means that he is never going to qualify for the long-term supplementary benefit rate. As I have said, the Government recognise that there is an anomaly here, but I am afraid that the present economic situation militates against our putting it right, since it would cost well over £10 millions to do so.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 49 not moved.]
§ 8.42 p.m.
Lord WELLS-PESTELL had given Notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 50:
Page 47, line 27, at end insert ("by the Supplementary Benefits Commission or").
§ The noble Lord said: I now come to the keeling schedule, and having failed to persuade the Committee to accept any of the amendments that I have moved since the beginning of the proceedings, I come 628 to a substantial number of amendments which I do not propose to move. I do not know whether, with the leave of the Committee, I may indicate that I do not propose to move the next few amendments. If I may, I now so indicate.
§ [Amendments Nos. 50 to 58 not moved.]
Baroness YOUNG moved Amendment No. 58A:
Page 51, line 9, leave out ("of the Economic Community").
§ The noble Baroness said: I beg to move Amendment No. 58A. This is a technical amendment to which I spoke earlier.
§ [Amendments Nos. 59 to 69 not moved.]
§ Schedule 2, as amended, agreed to.
§ Clause 7 agreed to.
§ Baroness FAITHFULL had given Notice of her intention to move Amendment No. 69A:
§ After Clause 7, insert the following new clause:
.—(1) The Secretary of State shall in the tax year 1981–82 and in each subsequent tax year review the level of child benefit for the purpose of determining whether it has retained its value in relation to the general level of pt ices obtained in Great Britain; and, if on any such review the Secretary of State concludes that the sum in question has not retained its value, he shall prepare and lay before each House of Parliament the draft of an updating order increasing the child benefit at least to such an extent as he thinks necessary to restore its value.
(2) A draft order laid before Parliament under subsection (1) above shall be subject to annulment pursuant to a resolution of either House of Parliament.").
§ The noble Baroness said: This amendment was debated with Amendment No. 17, and I do not propose to move it.
§ [Amendment No. 69A not moved.]
§ Clause 8 [Provisions supplementary to ss. 6 and 7]:
§ 8.45 p.m.
Lord WELLS-PESTELL moved Amendment No. 70:
Page 13, line 6, at end insert ("including a person who would cease to be entitled to supplementary benefit by virtue of his capital resources").
The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 70, which would enable the Secretary of State to make transitional regulations to preserve the benefit entitlement of claimants with savings of over £2,000. The Under-Secretary of State, Mrs. Chalker, said in a Written Answer in the other place on 7th December 1979, as reported at column 371 of the House of Commons Hansard:
There will be special transitional rules to prevent an overall loss of benefit income for the vast majority of claimants. The only exception will be claimants with capital in excess of £2,000 who will cease to be entitled to benefit".
§ She also said that there were 13,000 claimants who in November 1978 each held over £2,000. By November 1980, when they are due to be cut off, there could well be considerably more of them as a result of the higher benefit rates now payable. In December 1976 there were only 6,000, according to the report Social Assistance.
§ Under the present rules capital of £2,000 is assumed to produce an income of £4 a week. A claimant with £2,000 capital and no other source of income—for example, a lone parent receiving no maintenance payments—could therefore be receiving a substantial amount of supplementary benefit, which will cease abruptly in November 1980. It is true that she would be able to requalify by spending half of her capital in order to reduce it to below the £2,000 limit, but clearly it is desirable that a woman in that situation should be allowed to retain her savings for future use.
§ For many claimants the £2,000 cut-off rule will be more favourable than the present £1,200 limit, above which a notional income from capital is taken into account. The "all or nothing" nature of the new rule, however, makes it particularly important that the £2,000 limit should be increased regularly to take account of inflation. I would hope that the Government would be able to give an assurance of this kind, although I recognise that it is not relevant to the amendment; I think that it would be reasonable to ask the Government to give that assurance.
§ What is relevent to the amendment is the level at which the limit is to be set initially. The Social Assistance report published in July 1978 stated that the £1,200 limit would then have needed to be 630 increased to about £1,600 to restore its real value to the 1975 level, but that if there were to be a fixed cut-off point which would be harsher in effect, it would need to be set at a higher level. The authors of the report suggested £2,000, but I suggest that these figures are already out of date. Simply to restore the real value of the £1,200 limit in November 1980 would mean raising the figure to about £2,300 I understand. An appropriate level for the proposed cut-off would therefore be about £3,000. At the very least the £2,000 limit should be adjusted to take account of the 162 per cent. inflation predicted for the year to November 1980; and judging by the way that things are going, the rate will be considerably more than 16½ per cent.
§ Raising the limit would reduce the number of claimants at risk of being cut off, thereby making the amendment which I am putting before your Lordships now less necessary. The cut-off point is not specified in the Bill, but will be prescribed, so I gather, in regulations. I should like to receive an assurance from the Government that in the regulations the figure will not be less than £2,350, because if it is (if I may use the expression which the noble Lord, Lord Cullen of Ashbourne, used a moment or two ago) the Government will be making a profit from the nil-cost package, and I think that would be very unfair. I beg to move.
§ Lord CULLEN of ASHBOURNE
Under the current rules, capital of £1,200 or less is ignored altogether in calculating a claimant's resources for supplementary benefit purposes. On sums over £1,200, an income of 25p for each complete £50 of capital is assumed, and this assumed income is offset against a claimant's benefit entitlement. This rule is certainly very complicated for claimants, especially pensioners, to understand, and, of course, it complicates for staff the task of calculating the amount of benefit payable to individual claimants. That is why we are proposing the much simpler rule that anyone with capital in excess of £2,000 should no longer qualify for supplementary benefit, but, on the other hand, that if they have capital of up to £2,000, none of it should be taken into account against their benefit entitlement.
This will mean that from November of this year some 13,000 people who had been 631 entitled to supplementary benefit will no longer qualify for it because they have capital over £2,000. We have always intended that we should make transitional arrangements to protect the position of beneficiaries who would otherwise lose in overall cash terms under provisions of the new scheme. But we cannot extend this protection to those supplementary beneficiaries who have capital over £2,000. This is simply because it would cost about £5 million a year to ensure that these people continued to receive benefit after November. We do not consider that this protection should constitute a first call on scarce resources, since people with substantial capital are by definition among the better-off on supplementary benefit. Furthermore, since the supplementary benefit package of reforms is designed to be cost-neutral, the £5 million would have to be found at the expense of improvement elsewhere in the scheme. Although ideally we should like to protect the position of all beneficiaries, I cannot accept that it should be a priority to do so in this area.
The noble Lord asked me whether the £2,000 would be adjusted for inflation in the future. I cannot promise that we will be able to increase regularly the capital cut-off limit. Any further consideration must depend on the economic circumstances of the day; but the figure will be in regulations and will be kept under review. So far as concerns making a profit on this, there will be no question of a saving as a result of retaining the capital cut-off at £2,000. Our costings have been done on the basis of this figure to give a nil-cost result. I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ Lord DAVIES of LEEK
From my experience of the Ministry, may I ask the noble Lord and the Government one question? Suppose I were a widow, owning my own house and nothing else and my pension was a meagre little pension. My husband having been a miner, I have a very small pension and I own my own house, which has to be repaired, et cetera. Where do you put that so far as the £2,000 is concerned today? What would you do with me were I that widow?
§ Lord CULLEN of ASHBOURNE
We are talking about cash when, in this context, we talk of the £1,200 which exists 632 today and the £2,000 which will be the case from next November. It has nothing to do with the value of the house.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Baroness YOUNG
I think this might be a convenient moment to conclude the Committee's proceedings for today. I would therefore propose that the House do now resume.
§ House resumed.