§ Mr. Thurnham
asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what representations he has received about the financial loss suffered by some local authority councillors because of the interaction between their invalidity benefit and allowances paid for their council work; and what action he proposes to resolve the problem.
§ Mr. Major
There has been growing concern about the dilemma facing councillors dependent on invalidity benefit. Even if those councillors chose not to draw the allowance paid for each attendance on council duties, current rules mean that they may lose all their benefit as soon as the allowances for which they are ordinarily eligible exceed £25.50 a week. This is the maximum amount that someone is allowed to earn from work medically considered desirable while still fulfilling the basic benefit condition of incapacity for work. The same rules apply also to sickness benefit and severe disablement allowance, but with invalidity benefit in particular the financial loss can be considerable.
Experience shows that people with long-term sickness or disability can give valuable services as councillors even though they cannot undertake normal employment. It would be wrong if they were deterred by the rules of the benefit system from contributing to local democracy as elected representatives. These criticisms have been put to us by right hon. and hon. Members from all parts of the House and we take them seriously. We have decided that the rules must be changed in this special case.
We propose that in future councillors receiving sickness benefit, invalidity benefit or severe disablement allowance 364W should not automatically lose all their weekly benefit (or, as happens in some cases at present, their benefit for the particular days worked) once their council allowances exceed £25.50. Instead, so long as a councillor remains eligible for the benefit on grounds of incapacity, it will be reduced pound for pound once allowances exceed £25.50. This change requires primary legislation, and we will make the necessary amendments to the Social Security Act 1975 at the first available opportunity. However, since we do not wish to deter candidates from standing for the local authority elections in May, I wish to make it clear now that we shall introduce new procedures in local offices to ensure that, to the extent that it is possible within existing legislation, the effect of the proposed new statutory arrangements will be achieved by ex gratia payments. This will take effect from early May.