asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what study she had made of repayments of overpaid social security benefits by elderly people, amounting in some cases to hundreds of pounds, evidence of which had been supplied to her by the hon. Member for Cannock; and what instructions are given to social security offices on the question of obtaining such repayments.
My right hon. Friend is aware of the circumstances in which repayment of overpaid social security benefits is required. Instructions to staff in local offices concerning recovery of overpaid benefits are based on the relevant statutory provisions. I have written to my hon. Friend about the individual case and issues he has raised.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the case to which I brought his attention it seems completely wrong that an elderly widow should be asked to make large repayments of this sort to cover money which had been received mainly by her husband? Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance, which so far I have not had, that in these cases the local social services officers, for whom I have a great respect, have absolute discretion whether to ask for payment?
I understand and sympathise with the difficulties that can arise in the case of a widow where her husband received supplementary benefit both for himself and his wife. I assure my hon. Friend that the Department does all it can to spare old people unnecessary anxiety. On the other hand, the Department and my right hon. Friend have a clearly-defined statutory responsibility to effect recovery where payments have been made in excess of the correct amount. Recovery is not enforced if it would cause real hardship, and elderly persons are discouraged from attempting to repay at rates that are clearly beyond their means.I would not want to embarrass the lady in the case referred to by my hon. Friend, but I assure him that there was certainly no attempt by the Department to enforce repayment by a lump sum. The letter I have sent to my hon. Friend fully explains the situation and the background to the case.