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Northern Ireland (Social Security)

Volume 931: debated on Thursday 12 May 1977

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12.58 a.m.

I beg to move,

That the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 (S.I. 1977 No 610), dated 30th March 1977, a copy
out that if a Member of Parliament or a professional man uses a room in his house as a study or an office and claims income tax relief the Inland Revenue says "You have claimed tax relief and we shall clobber you for capital gains tax", but if he does not claim tax relief he does not have to pay capital gains tax. But a landlady cannot claim tax relief for turning her room over to a student, and I say that we should remove this very minor and inexpensive constraint from her.

I therefore hope that many hon. Members will join me in the Division Lobby.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 18, Noes 54

of which was laid before this House on 7th April, be approved.

This order has been made under paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Act 1974, which empowers Her Majesty by Order in Council to make laws for Northern Ireland during the interim period within the meaning of that Act. By reason of urgency, the order has been made without a draft having been approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament. The order, if it is to continue to have effect, must now be approved. The order is absolutely necessary if Northern Ireland is to maintain the principle of parity with Great Britain in cash social services.

It might be helpful if I explain that the order, which has 21 articles and one schedule, could be described under two headings. Under the first heading are included provisions corresponding to those recently enacted for the rest of the United Kingdom in the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, which, among other less important matters, dealt with the earnings rule for pensioners, the extension of mobility allowance to beneficiaries under the former vehicle scheme and the treatment of claims to supplementary benefit by students during the short vacations. As right hon. and hon. Members are familiar with the contents of that Act, it is unnecessary for me to give detailed explanations of the articles falling under this heading except to draw attention to Article 13(1), which eases the conditions for the requalification for unemployment benefit after exhaustion of title to that benefit. This amendment, although affecting a relatively small number of persons, will be particularly welcomed in Northern Ireland by trade union leaders who have been making strong representations for a change in the law on behalf of their members employed in the docks at Belfast and Londonderry.

Under the second heading are provisions which are additional to those contained in the Act and which are necessary to bring the social security law in Northern Ireland into line with that in Great Britain. They are referred to in the order as other miscellaneous amendments and involve some repeals of a minor or technical nature.

I now refer to the two most important amendments. The first relates to the repeal of Section 27 of the Supplementary Benefits, &c. Act (Northern Ireland) 1966, under which the Supplementary Benefits Commission was empowered to establish advisory committees to secure advice and help in difficult cases involving claims to supplementary benefit. In 1971 the equivalent section in the Great Britain Act was repealed and the committees were disbanded on the ground that they had outlived their usefulness. But it was decided to retain them in Northern Ireland pending the reorganisation of local government as it was thought that members might be involved in a useful public relations role. In the event, this has not been necessary and the committees were allowed to lapse when their appointments terminated last September.

The second important amendment concerns an amendment to paragraph 8 of Schedule 2 to the Social Security Pensions (Northern Ireland) Order 1975 relating to pension schemes covering persons employed in various public bodies under the aegis of Government Departments. Before amendment this paragraph permitted only the Department of Health and Social Services, after consultation with the bodies representing the interests of employers and earners concerned, to make regulations in relation to these public service pension schemes enabling the appropriate Department to act as the employer for the purpose of contracting out of the additional component of the new State pension scheme. This amendment provides that the power to make the regulations and the duty to consult the bodies representing the employers and earners concerned rests with the appropriate Department. The change represents a return to the situation which existed under the former graduated pension scheme and restores parity with Great Britain, where the power and duty is to be exercised by the Secretary of State responsible for the scheme in question.

Recently the Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Security announced his intention to make certain improvements in the supplementary benefit appeal tribunal system. One of these, which would allow a direct right of appeal from the tribunals to the High Court on a point of law, can be achieved for Great Britain by the making of an order under the Tribunals and Inquiries Act 1971. The introduction of a corresponding right of appeal—that is, to the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland—requires an amendment to the Supplementary Benefits, &c. Act (Northern Ireland) 1966, and such an amendment is contained in Article 18(21) of the order. This provision will not be brought into force until the date on which the Great Britain order takes effect.

One of the provisions in the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act reproduced in the order relates to the pensioners' earnings rule. It was essential that this became operative before 4th April, and the only way in which this could be achieved was to make the order by the urgent procedure.

I hope that this brief explanation will give the House an adequate outline of the object and intention of the order. As I indicated earlier, it maintains the principle of parity in the cash social services between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I commend the order to the House.

1.06 a.m.

I thank the Minister for his exposition of an order that is intended to bring the law of Northern Ireland into line with that of Great Britain, and I seize this opportunity to acknowledge the courtesy of the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Office in keeping the Opposition posted on the present difficulties in the Province.

I should like first to invite the Minister's assistance on Article 3(1), which I find difficult to understand. I have studied Section 124 of the Social Security (Northern Ireland) Act 1975, but I am not clear about the purpose of the exclusion referred to in this paragraph of the order. I have an idea that there is a change in book accounting, but I should be grateful if the Minister could enlighten me.

The Minister referred to the earnings rule, and this is one of the weightier elements in a complicated and important order. The House knows the Opposition's opinion of the earnings rule. The Conservative manifesto at the last General Election described it as
"socially harmful as well as widely resented. It discourages able men and women, merely because of their age, from making a contribution to society which would help both them and the rest of us."
Conservative Administrations have relaxed the rule, and we want to see an end to it.

Ours is an ageing population. In Northern Ireland, those of 65 and over have increased at each census since 1901. The percentage of the population in that category has increased from 10·1 in 1961 to 10·8 in 1971 while the percentages in the age groups 15 to 44 and 45 to 64 have correspondingly declined. On present trends, the Province will contain an increasing number of elderly people for a decreasing number of young people to support. For the sake of the economy and the well-being of the elderly themselves, it is surely necesary to encourage the elderly to work and not to deter them.

When the Great Britain legislation was going through, the Opposition carried an amendment against the Government in another place. As we said in "The Right Approach"
"We inflicted a defeat on the Government over the earnings rule, raising the amount which a retired person can earn without any reduction in pension to £35 a week in 1976–77 and to £50 a week in 1977-78."
Subsequently an amendment was carried in this House requiring the Secretary of State to review the cost of abolishing the earnings rule, including the extent to which it acts as a disincentive to work, and to make a full report to Parliament by 31st October 1978.

That review is to be welcomed while there is an earnings rule to be reviewed, but actuarial minds far superior to mine are sceptical whether, on sheer grounds of cost, it is necessary to retain the earnings rule. I wonder what would be the cost in Northern Ireland if there were no earnings rule in operation.

I understand from the order that, although there is to be a review of the working of the earnings rule in Great Britain, there is not to be a review for Northern Ireland. In other words, Northern Ireland will follow the result of the review in Great Britain. I am not clear why the review should not be a United Kingdom review. We are all in favour of parity, and we would like to see parity in the abolition of the earnings rule as soon as possible. I quote again from "The Right Approach"
"Abolition remains our ultimate aim, because we believe it is wrong to discourage those elderly men and women who wish to work".
We all know of examples—perhaps our own relatives—of old people who after enforced retirement from gainful, satisfying employment decay almost before one's eyes.

I turn next to the mobility allowance provisions. Surely there is "an invidious distinction"—those are not my words but the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) speaking in the House on the Great Britain legislation—that disabled drivers of three-wheelers and others in receipt of the now obsolete private car allowance can keep the mobility allowance after retirement age whereas everyone else—the majority—will lose it on reaching retirement. What would it cost to pay the mobility allowance to those in Northern Ireland past retirement age?

I now mention Article 10(3), which was a product of constructive opposition during the passage of the Great Britain legislation. It is only right to give this protection for the private person against public error or delay.

I would finally mention Article 11, which, as the Under-Secretary has explained, deprives certain full-time students of claims to unemployment benefit during short vacations. Certainly awards and grants in the support of students are a matter for the Northern Ireland Department of Education rather than for the Department of Social Security. I wonder whether this article does not breach the insurance principle in depriving students, who have worked and paid their contributions, of unemployment benefit. I see both sides of the argument, and I should be grateful for a comment about this.

1.13 a.m.

As the Under-Secretary made clear, this is one of those orders the effect of which is to bring the law in Northern Ireland into harmony with that in the rest of the United Kingdom. Quite a number of orders which are approved in these circumstances at this time of night have that effect. It is an effect that my hon. Friends and I in general principle welcome.

Where the subject matter is related to the social services and concerns the entitlements of those whom the social services protect, it is proper that our proceedings on these orders should be on the Floor of the House rather than in the Northern Ireland Committee. We are indebted to the Government for their ready acceptance that this is proper.

The Under-Secretary pointed out that the greater part of the harmonisation in the order is in obedience to the time-hallowed principle of parity. From an early phase in the form of self-government in Northern Ireland which was inaugurated in 1922, it became the principle to which Ulster Governments passionately adhered that in all such matters as the social services parity should be maintained between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

This parity is more than a mere phrase, more than a matter of theory. The social services and the figures which we write into social service legislation are designed to take into account the conditions of life and the cost of living of those who will be supported by those social services. Notoriously, those circumstances differ in different parts of the United Kingdom, but it is a consequence of the unity of the realm and of the legislative authority of this House that the same standards are laid down and the same principles are prescribed for all parts of Great Britain.

Parity for Northern Ireland means that we accept as overriding that unity of the United Kingdom, from which there follows the identity of the social security provisions and legislation. The cost of living in most respects in Northern Ireland is higher than it is in the rest of the United Kingdom and the average family income is somewhat lower. We therefore, by accepting—indeed, demanding—the principle of parity, are making an assertion of the unity of the United Kingdom, which is, as I say, by no means theoretical but is something of which we fully accept the practical consequences.

It would be absurd for us to attempt to traverse in a debate upon this order the ground covered by the long debates upon the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act for Great Britain. Consequently, there is only one specific detail to which I should like to draw attention. It occurs in Article 9(2), which provides what had hitherto been missing—the possibility of Prayers against regulations made by the Department under Section 2 of an Act there mentioned. I draw attention to this provision because it has a certain irony.

By that article we are apparently providing in Northern Ireland recourse to the negative procedure which is already available in comparable cases in Great Britain. At the very moment that we do that, however, we know perfectly well that in what is euphemistically called the "interim period" there is no such negative procedure in operation.

The moral that I draw from that relates to my immediately preceding remark that is, that in all cases where we find ourselves legislating by order for Northern Ireland, instead of by Act of Parliament for the whole of the United Kingdom, we are in fact accepting drawbacks for Northern Ireland. This is a minuscule case, but it is a case in point.

We are saying that there shall be a negative procedure, a means of querying regulations if we wish to do so, either on the Floor of the House or in a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, yet, because this is a subordinate instrument, that is a feast of the Barmecide: it is a power which is entirely nugatory and of no effect.

Despite the parity that has been maintained, we recognise that it will be a considerable time before the two codes of law are sufficiently approximated that future legislation and future amendment in respect of the social security code can be made for all parts of the United Kingdom at the same time. However, we say that the sooner that time comes the happier we shall be and the more effective will be the safeguards, both in the passing of legislation and in the surveillance of subordinate instruments, that are available to us on behalf of our constituents in Northern Ireland.

I have one further observation to make that may be of future use. It is a suggestion for future convenience. The Secretary of State was good enough, as this is an order concerned with harmonisation, to supply my hon. Friends and myself with a detailed statement of the minor respects in which the order differed from the Great Britain Act that it is reproducing. It was extremely useful to have that guide and we are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and his officials for providing it.

In this instance I believe I am right in saying that there was no proposal phase and no draft phase in the making of the order. That is because we were using the accelerated procedure. The suggestion that I put to the Under-Secretary of State is that in the many cases—they are much more numerous—where we are making harmonising orders with the full procedure, involving proposal and draft phases, a statement similar to the one with which we were provided for the purposes of this evening, a statement of the differences still remaining between the Northern Ireland order and the Great Britain legislation, should accompany the explanatory memorandum that is sent out with the proposals to receive the comments of interested parties in the initial phase of our procedure. There should be no difficulty in doing that and I am sure that those in Northern Ireland, as well as those in the House, who endeavour to scrutinise proposals for draft orders would find it helpful if such additional assistance were given by the Government.

1.23 a.m.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), I welcome the order in general. I welcome particularly Article 18(23), which amends the definition of voluntary organisations. In the list of comparisons to which my right hon. Friend referred, the following words appear:

"Not required in Great Britain, peculiar to Northern Ireland."
The House will be aware that we have certain organisations peculiar to Northern Ireland that we could do very well without, but those are not the excellent voluntry bodies that the Minister has in mind or with which we ourselves are concerned. I hope that my remrks indicate the desire of my colleagues and myself to encourage the growth and scope of the voluntary bodies.

My right hon. and hon. Friends and I made that point very strongly in our submissions to the Royal Commission on the National Health Service. We did not leave the matter there. We made some practical suggestions as to how that might be brought into effect. I hope that that desirable feature will be further developed in the parliamentary structuring of social security aspects.

It was suggested some time ago that the order should be referred to a Statutory Instruments Committee and should not be taken on the Floor of the House. I concede that that was a perfectly reasonable view. As my right hon. Friend has said, the order is designed to achieve and maintain parity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. However, as it is based mainly on the Great Britain Act, which was considered during its passage through this House to be a major piece of legislation, we felt it right and proper that its Northern Ireland equivalent should be given equal status. Our attitude is based on the proposition that, as Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom legislation, Northern Ireland legislation should follow a course which is as close as possible to the main stream of legislation for Great Britain.

When the Parliament of Northern Ireland functioned, in this kind of case it would have taken the Great Britain Act and made the small amendments and adjustments contained in the order. It would have solemnly debated the Bill, as it would have been in those days, and would have voted on it as it went through all its stages. What is even more important, the details of the debates would have been spread across the pages of the newspapers in Northern Ireland, and the people would thus have been given at least the impression that they and their elected representatives were participating fully in formulating legislation which would make a signficant impact on their everyday lives.

We, the present-day representatives of Northern Ireland, would be failing those who elected us if we were to acquiesce in any kind of government by committee, because that would not be tolerated in any other part of the United Kingdom. I am very well aware that, particularly at this time of night, we risk criticism for taking up the time of the House. As always, we are eager to help, and my right hon. Friend has put forward a suggestion which I heartily endorse. It is that all that is required is that an inclusion clause be inserted in future Bills for Great Britain. A Bill would then become a United Kingdom Bill, and a United Kingdom Act would result from it. We could feel that we could legitimately play our part in the debates and Divisions on it and represent those who sent us here. We could tell them that they were now being governed in exactly the same way as their fellow citizens in other parts of the United Kingdom.

With regard to the administration of the social security legislation, I would say that Northern Ireland is probably better served than other parts of the kingdom. We who have the duty of taking up with, first, local officers and, second, Ministers the problems of our constituents have always found the managers and staffs of the local offices to be very co-operative. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that because of the various civil disorders, which seem to be ever present, they probably have more problems in their offices per thousand population than do their counterparts in any other part of the kingdom.

We must also remember that they are operating in conditions which are very far from ideal and in which they are not entirely removed from personal danger. It is to their credit that, in spite of all that, they remain humane and patient in their dealings with even the most abrasive of our constituents.

Our relations with the managers of the local offices have greatly improved following the encouragement given by the Secretary of State and his Ministers to deal with Members of Parliament at their local level where no issue of policy is involved, where it is simply a matter of removing a minor administrative tangle, resolving the issue there rather than adding to the troubles of the Department and the Ministers at the top.

We also wish the Under-Secretary of State to convey to his noble Friend Lord Melchett our appreciation of the co-operation we receive from his Department in the other matters of rather more general issue, particularly where issues of policy are involved. I have found in most cases that in a particularly difficult complaint the constituent will, by and large, accept—perhaps not with very good grace, but he will be satisfied to some extent—the rejection of his claim, provided that he is given the facts clearly and the reasons are set out in a way he can understand.

There has always been an obvious hurdle for hon. Members in the matter of dealing with that member of the ministerial team in Northern Ireland who sits in another place, and it is to the credit of Lord Melchett that he has reduced that handicap to a minimum. He has made himself available to all of us despite what one might call his normal Northern Ireland commitments in another place, and we wish to place on record our appreciation.

1.32 a.m.

I thank the hon. Membei for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) for what he has said about my noble Friend Lord Melchett and my other ministerial colleagues. What has been achieved could not possibly have been successful without the ready understanding and cooperation of the Members of Parliament for the Province itself. To erect something of this kind needs co-partnership and understanding and a working relationship which benefits all concerned. I return the compliment to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues for the way they have assisted us to deal with some of the problems so quickly and with understanding and sensitivity.

The hon. Gentleman also brought to attention the problem of government by committee. As he will realise, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my other colleagues made it plain to the House that we believed that there were advantages in working away from that procedure and trying to erect something more meaningful. It meant that more and more business for Northern Ireland would come to the Floor of the House. This has shown already a measure of success. Even if now we come on late on a normal parliamentary day, we may not always stand in that order of priority. It may be regulated as time goes on. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will continue to share with us the further progress of this experiment.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to give all the encouragement we can to the voluntary organisations. We firmly believe that self-help very often is probably the best help, and that that can be supplemented by financial assistance as and when requirements emerge. We think that the voluntary organisations serve such a direct and useful purpose and, by their direct knowledge of case histories in which many of them are involved, bring in another dimension of direct awareness which might escape us.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) raised the question of the non-domiciled mariners under Article 3(1). I am advised that, if regulations are made imposing on employers the liability to pay secondary national insurance contributions for certain seamen who are not domiciled in Northern Ireland, such contributions shall in future be paid into the Northern Ireland National Insurance Fund and will attract appropriate Exchequer supplements. This is in line with the position that already exists in Great Britain. The hon. Gentleman rightly says that no doubt this is a transfer of resources from one book to the other, but with the added advantage that it gets Exchequer supplement whereas previously this might not have been so clear.

The hon. Gentleman also brought to my attention the earnings rule and the annual review of the pensioners' earnings limit. He will forgive me if I do not transgress into the policy document of his party. If I refrain from making any comment, it is not because I am not aware that there may be differences of emphasis and, indeed, policy that exist between us but rather that I would stay at my last at this late hour of the night and say that if, as a result of the annual review provided for in Section 7 of the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1977 for Great Britain, the earnings limit for retirement pensioners and others were raised above the present limit of £35, the new limit would be applied in Northern Ireland by an order made by the Department of Health and Social Services.

What we are attempting to achieve is exact parity of the earnings limit in Northern Ireland with that which will exist in Great Britain and that we shall automatically follow the annual review; and we would follow it by making the necessary order as the requirement may indicate.

The hon. Gentleman also pointed out the anxiety and concern relating to students. Article 11 refers only to supplementary benefits for students. Unemployment benefit will be dealt with by regulation, as, indeed, is the case in the rest of the United Kingdom. But it will still mean that most students would not qualify for unemployment benefit during the short vacation periods. Article 11 deals only with the supplementary benefit position.

This also partly answers the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). Although we have parity, we can clearly see that there are variations in the conditions and cost of living within the regions of the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, special regard is paid under the supplementary benefit regulations, right across the board, to take account of these very special circumstances. But the basic benefits will remain the same. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would wish that situation to continue. The harmonisation is important to Northern Ireland, and if we were to lose that advantage we might be placed in great difficulty.

As regards the mobility allowance, the concession that is being granted to trike holders in Northern Ireland is the same as that being granted in Great Britain. It would be wrong of Northern Ireland to go beyond that which already exists in Great Britain. We would, first, be denying the principle of parity, and if we were to try to create a very special benefit within the circumstances of Northern Ireland we should find great difficulties in being able to put it into operation and to implement it. Then we should find that at some later date when we were trying to claim harmonisation and parity we should have denied for ourselves the argument of parity.

The right hon. Member for Down, South brought to the notice of the House the appreciation of the explanatory statement about the order which was circulated by my right hon. Friend and my noble Friend. He suggests that the differences that still remain between the regions, particularly between Northern Ireland and the majority of Great Britain, should be included in an annex, perhaps, to any future statement that is circulated. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I shall bring his request to the notice of my right hon. Friend and my noble Friend.

However, the right hon. Gentleman will be the first to realise that there may be some difficulties about this. I do not know what they may be. There are complications about publishing such documents. We may not be able to get all the statistics quite right in time to circulate them, and the right hon. Gentleman would not wish documents to be held up. However, as I say, I shall bring the matter to the notice of my right hon. Friend and my noble Friend.

There is a problem about the negative procedure. The right hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this matter in several contexts but following the same vein.

The Northern Ireland Act 1974 made special provisions. If we were to follow that Act completely, as naturally as night follows day there would be integration. At the moment, that is not the apparent wish of all in the Province and those who represent them. There are variations of the theme. We are trying to protect the statute book of Northern Ireland for any form of devolved government which may be agreed and implemented within the Province. We are torn between two situations. One is that we would like continuity and the other is that we want to protect the Northern Ireland statute book. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are trying to protect the statute book.

I shall draw the right hon. Gentleman's comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who in the first instance will wish to consult his colleagues on these important matters.

I hope that, with that brief reply, the House will approve the order.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 (S.I. 1977 No. 610), dated 30th March 1977, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th April, be approved.