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Amendments Of Social Security Act 1975

Volume 981: debated on Wednesday 19 March 1980

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

4.13 pm

I beg to move amendment No. 7, in page 27, line 34, at end insert—

'2A. After subsection (1) of section 47 shall be inserted the following subsection—"(1A) Where a person whose invalidity pension is increased under the preceding subsection becomes entitled to a Category A retirement pension, the weekly rate of the retirement pension shall be increased by the amount by which the invalidity pension would have been increased under the preceding subsection if she had not become so entitled.".'.
This amendment and the following group deal with the question of equality of treatment in the social security system and the implementation of the EEC directive. We had some interesting debates in Standing Committee on a number of our amendments on these subjects, although we got nowhere with them. We had an interesting, not to say, occasionally, amusing debate about the relationship between the words "similar" and "equal", and I and other Labour Members were grateful for the letter that we received from the Under-Secretary of State in which she showed how it was necessary to use "similar" rather than "equal".

In the debate we tried to show that the words were the same, but the hon. Lady demonstrated that "similar" has been used because it is not possible at the moment to use "equal" throughout the system. With great regret, I accept that. I hope that she or the Minister for Social Security will explain—if not in this debate, in a subsequent one on the whole question of equality—the timetable the Government foresee for implementing equality of treatment for women in the social security system.

The amendment deals with the case where a wife is drawing invalidity benefit and is getting an increase for her handicapped husband, which increase she will lose when she attains the age of 60 when she becomes a retirement pensioner. In Standing Committee the Minister for Social Security said, in referring to this point,
"This is perhaps an example of the fact that, whereas we are legislating here for real improvements, there are still rough edges. Again I should like to consider this point in case there is something that we can and should do, but without making any firm commitment."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 12 February 1980; c. 387.]
In the absence of any move from the Government Front Bench showing that the Government are able, if not willing, to improve the situation, we tabled the amendment because we believed that it would ensure that in this limited class of case the increase for the dependent husband would continue after the wife reached retirement age.

I stress that this problem involves a minuscule number of people, but it would help those people if the Government would take another sympathetic look at the matter to try to iron out this inequality. Only a small number are involved, but it is an imposition upon them as well as being a source of resentment. It means that they lose out. I hope that we shall obtain a guarantee from the Under-Secretary or the Minister on this point.

As the hon. Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) said, we had a number of interesting and important debates in Standing Committee on the effect of the EEC directive. We have accepted the directive and on certain points have gone beyond its provisions. The hon. Member quite rightly said that this question was discussed in Committee and that I had indicated that we would look at it again. I have to say with some regret that, having looked at it, I cannot meet the point he makes in the amendment. The amendment would have the effect of allowing the invalidity pensioner who had been receiving the increase for her dependent husband to go on receiving that increase on retirement.

There are two basic arguments against the proposal. First, our social security legislation does not provide for the payment of dependency increases for the husband of a retirement pensioner. Second, the EEC directive does not require equal treatment in this area, because the married man is not entitled to claim a retirement pension on his wife's contribution, and it would be inappropriate to allow the married woman retirement pensioner to claim the dependency increase for her husband instead.

The Bill provides that a woman receiving sickness benefit can receive an increase for her husband provided his earnings are not more than the amount of the increase. Although this is not required by the directive, it allows her to go on receiving this increase when she becomes entitled to invalidity benefit. Further, it allows a woman invalidity pensioner who does not retire at 60 but whose invalidity pension is thereafter paid at the retirement pension rate to carry on receiving an increase for her dependent husband until the age of 65 if she does not retire earlier.

Where is the dividing line to be drawn? It seems to be consistent with our general legislation that the dividing line for adult dependency is drawn not between sickness benefit and invalidity benefit but between incapacity benefit paid during a person's working life and benefits paid after retirement. We have accepted that increases should continue to be paid during the grey area, if I can use that term, between the ages of 60 and 65 where a woman elects to prolong her working life. But to go further and extend the provision into retirement proper would be to breach the traditional dividing line affecting retirement.

I accept, as I did in Committee, that carrying out this directive inevitably leads to some rough edges. Indeed, if we had accepted the directive as it stood the edges would have been rougher than they are in the way that we propose to legislate. Some edges are left rough, and I see no alternative. We cannot take further major steps at present, nor can we complicate the scheme even further for the sake of the relatively few people who would find themselves in this situation. Therefore, I cannot recommend that the House should accept this amendment.

The Minister's reply was very disappointing. The EEC directive that we signed and which the Government accept calls for implementation. The Government have put back the implementation to the further possible date, with one exception. This is not an issue that we want to pursue to a vote at present but we shall pursue it further with the Government, not least as regards the invalidity benefit as referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) and the disabled. We shall be discussing the disabled in more detail a little later. On that basis, we shall not press the amendment to a vote at this stage.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 28, line 13, leave out 'a female'.

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 9, in page 28, line 13, after 'residing', insert

'and for the words "the female person's earnings" there shall be substituted the words "the person's earnings".'.

These amendments cover the same area as amendment No. 7, although they relate to a different point. They deal with the increases of retirement or invalidity pension for a person of the opposite sex who is caring for the claimant's children. At present the increase is payable only to a male claimant and we seek to make that equal by the insertion of the word "female" in line 13. Amendment No. 9 is consequential.

If these amendments were accepted they would extend the benefit to the female claimant who has a person—to put it in those terms, a man or a woman—looking after her children. In Committee the Minister of State said that he would look again at what he said was the
"slight difference in the way that the man and the woman pensioner who is child-caring and might not be married is treated."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 12 February 1980; c. 382.]
Like the previous amendment, these amendments affect a very small number of people. It is difficult for the Opposition to quantify the number and the cost, but I know from the researches that we have carried out and the advice that have been given, including advice from the Equal Opportunities Commission that only a small number of people would be in- volved. If the Minister says, as I expect he will, that he is not able to extend the benefits to this further small group of people, I should like him to tell us what the cost would be so that we know the size of the sum.

Although bits of the EEC directive have been implemented in a fuller sense than originally stated—I accept that—and some have not been implemented, the whole idea of it was that women were asking not for special treatment but merely for equal treatment and for the same value for money as men receive from their national insurance contributions. The whole tenor of this debate, as in Committee, has tended to be that women are asking for a privilege in trying to obtain equal treatment whereas they are merely asking for what I believe—and I think the overwhelming majority of people outside would also believe if they knew the difficulty—is a matter of right. They are not putting themselves into a better position than men. I look forward to what the Minister has to say.

Again I am genuinely sorry that I have to give a negative reply. May I say in extenuation that on the next amendment I shall be meeting a point? This is a complicated question, and I accept that I promised in Committee to look at it to see whether we could meet the point.

The effect of the two amendments would be to enable an increase in retirement or invalidity pension to be paid to a person of either sex who had the care of the pensioner's children, subject—if the amendments were carried—to the £45 tapered earnings rule which applies at present to the earnings of a wife of a pensioner. At present a male or female pensioner can get an increase in pension for a woman having care of children for whom he or she receives increases and the woman's earnings do not affect the benefit unless they exceed £45 per week, any earnings from caring for the children being completely ignored.

As drafted, the Bill permits the child-carer to be male or female but allows a male child-carer looking after a pensioner's children to earn only up to the level of the increase payable for him—£14 per week.

The main argument against allowing the benefit of the tapered earnings rule to male child-carers is that he would then be treated more favourably than the husband of the pensioner. The increase for the husband of an invalidity pensioner is, of course, subject to the £14 earnings rule, while no dependency increase is payable for the husband of a female retirement pensioner.

Thus, the Bill as it stands gives equal treatment as between the female child-carer and the wife of a pensioner who both benefit from the tapered earnings rule. It also ensures that a man caring for a pensioner's children is not treated more favourably than a pensioner's husband. Again, we are talking about rough edges, but it seems to me that no sufficiently strong case has been made on social grounds for the amendment; and the EEC directive, of course, does not require us to make the amendment.

I do not have a figure for the cost, but I accept that, as the hon. Lady says, it would be very small. However, the implication is that if we accepted the amendment we should have to go on—we should certainly be under considerable pressure to do so—to treat husbands of pensioners equally with wives of pensioners. I am advised that at present rates of benefit the cost would be £11 million a year. In other words, if that result followed, it would be very expensive.

I am sorry that for those reasons I cannot accept the amendment.

4.30 pm

It is clear that even the most modest proposals from the Opposition are rejected, as in Committee and again yesterday, not simply on grounds of very marginal additional public expenditure—in terms of national figures, £10 million or £11 million is marginal—but now on the ground that acceptance could lead to pressure for further expenditure in six months, a year, two years or three years. That is not a good enough argument. Basically the only case that the Minister advanced was that the amendment could lead to a further rationalisation—I should say a further simplification—of the operation of the scheme.

The right hon. Gentleman also said that there had not been sufficient social grounds put forward. That is not so. We are not saying that there is a social problem. But there are individual problems, no matter how few. We should remember when we talk about social problems that they are made up of individual cases.

We are naturally becoming a little tired of the Government's approach. I understand what goes on in government when proposals are considered in Departments. Those proposals receive the response in the Department or through contact with Treasury officials: "Do not do this, because it might lead us to be put under pressure, in a year, five years or some indefinite time, to do something else". The answer is that no matter what pressure is put on Ministers or the Treasury, they have the answer in the end, as we have experienced during consideration of the Bill. They simply resist the pressure, saying "We shall not go to the House with proposals for that further expenditure".

Therefore, if the risk of spending another £10 million or £11 million at an unknown time is serious, it is solved simply—not that I wish to advocate this when the time comes—by Treasury Ministers, the right hon. Gentleman or his successor saying "We are not having it". The right hon. Gentleman has got used to doing that on the Bill. Surely when we come to little matters such as this we can have a positive response, instead of being told that in a few years' time it may lead to pressure for further expenditure in another level of the operation of the scheme.

For heaven's sake, let us have a positive response on at least modest proposals.

We on the Opposition Benches are very disappointed by the Minister's response. He suggested that he would be more favourable to us in the next amendment, which gives a concession of seven days on a question of appeals. But the EEC protocol on the similar treatment of women, as opposed to equal treatment, was signed on the basis that implementation must take place within five years. It is amazing that our Government have decided to take the maximum time to implement the necessary regulations.

It is not that Government are saying that they cannot afford the small amount involved by next week or even in November. They say that they cannot afford it in 1983 or probably in 1984. They are admitting that their economic policies will not bear fruit by then.

I realise that it is administratively convenient to have dealt with the regulations in the Bill, but if the Minister cannot commit money that far into the future now, can he not give us an indication that the House will have an opportunity to consider the matter again before the regulations come into effect? I should have expected that he at least would try to claim that the Government's economic package would result in there being enough money available for small improvements in 1983 and 1984.

If the right hon. Gentleman must tell the House that he expects his Government's economic policies will be so disastrous that they can offer no hope of minor improvements of this kind by the time the regulations are introduced, he should consider whether it is worth continuing to support that Government. If the Government will not go along with the regulations, that seems to be a clear admission that their economic strategy is failing.

If the Minister says that we must wait to see the outcome, will he tell us how the House will have an opportunity further to discuss the regulations before they come into effect, so that we can take into account whether the economic strategy has succeeded? If it has, there should be a small sum available to remove these anomalies.

I have faith in the Government's economic policy. I think that it will bear fruit.

The hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) is right in saying that our implementation of the directive is a year or two away. As has been the position for a year or two, we shall probably continue to have a Social Security Bill every Session. Therefore, every hon. Member will have opportunities to move amendments. What the answer will be, and whether the House will give this matter priority over other matters, I do not know, but the door is not shut for ever. It will be open to the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member who wishes to do so to return to the question in the future, possibly in advance of the period when the regulations take effect.

Amendment negatived.

I beg to move amendment No. 10, in page 29, line 40, at beginning insert '21 days'.

I am glad to be able to meet a point put to me in Committee. It may or may not be considered a coincidence that this is a totally inexpensive amendment, the purpose of which is to extend from 21 days to 28 the period for making an appeal to a national insurance local tribunal against a decision of an insurance officer.

The Bill as drafted makes some improvement. The 21-day appeal period had always in practice been operative from the date on which the insurance officer's decision was notified to the claimant, but a recent decision of the National Insurance Commissioner laid down that that was not strictly in accordance with the law, and that the operative date should be the date on which the decision was made. Therefore, the Bill as it was originally drafted, and as it is now before the House, already made some improvement, in that it restored the law to what we thought it had been, in counting the 21 days from the date on which the decision was notified rather than the date on which it was formally made.

In Committee there was some confusion, in which I must confess that I shared, about whether decisions were notified by first-class or second-class post. I can assure hon. Members that they are notified by first-class post, conferring whatever benefit that amounts to these days. However, hon. Members still felt anxiety that the 21 days might be insufficient.

We envisaged an appointed day in November. That will allow time for forms to be reprinted. It will also coincide with the various adjudication changes that are made in the Bill. Every hon. Member will agree that a time limit on appeals is necessary. Successive Governments have taken that view and the House has endorsed it whenever it has considered this subject. A time limit avoids the possibility of indefinite opportunities for appeal. However, we wish to be sure that we are being fair to claimants. In practice there will not be a large addition to the number of appeals. The number of appeals falling between the 21 to 28 day period will be small.

It is important to do justice, and to be seen to do justice, to those who feel that they have a case for appeal. I therefore commend the amendment.

We welcome the fact that the Government have at last made a concession, even if that concession represents only seven days and apparently costs the Government nothing. These amendments deal only with national insurance appeals to local tribunals. Will the Minister ensure that it applies equally to supplementary benefit and FIS appeals? Such a process would appear logical.

Perhaps the Minister could give people a little more information. He has assured us that the forms that notify the decision are sent by first-class post. I accept that those forms inform people that they have a right to appeal. However, the form is not as helpful as it might be. Many people do not know how to make an appeal. Perhaps more guidance should be made available by bodies such as the citizens advice bureaux. That would help those who do not know how to begin to make an appeal.

Some people may make appeals because they are annoyed about the decision. They may then get cold feet and fail to turn up at the hearing. Many people put in an appeal and then either withdraw it or decide to ignore the system and to try to teach it a lesson. The latter do not bother to turn up. Others have every intention of turning up, but get cold feet. They are frightened of representing themselves and of the difficulties involved. If more advice and guidance were given, it would be helpful.

I realise that great difficulties are involved. The availability of advice in different areas varies widely. However, perhaps claimants could get advice from the local office about how to make an appeal. That would be useful. Indeed, such a scheme might save the Govern- ment money. If people are better advised, it may reduce the number of appeals. People would appeal only if they thought they had a genuine chance of winning. They would not make an appeal simply as a criticism of the system. I hope that the Minister will consider that point. I also hope that the extension from 21 days to 28 days will apply to supplementary benefit and FIS appeals. It is only logical to have some uniformity.

4.45 pm

I assure the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) that the legislation will apply to FIS and supplementary benefit appeals as well as to national insurance appeals. Forms sent to claimants state clearly that there is a right of appeal. However, as a result of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, I shall look at the form again to see whether any amendment is needed. I shall write to him on that point.

As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, many sources of advice are open to claimants. Obviously the availability of advice varies from area to area and from claimant to claimant. It is not humanly possible for the House to ensure uniformity of advice. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I would like a claimant to make an appeal if he has the slightest scintilla of doubt that he is entitled to something that has been turned down by the insurance officer, or by the benefit officer.

I have attended appeal tribunals as a trade union officer and as a Member of Parliament. I have found the chairmen and members of local tribunals extremely helpful. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that tribunals assist claimants in every way. I do not think they do so merely because a Member of Parliament or some other representative is in the room. They have a general record of being helpful. I shall take this opportunity to pay public tribute to them for the valuable work that they do on behalf of the community, and on behalf of claimants.

I agree that tribunals are helpful. However, many of those who would like to appeal do not know that. They are put off. A constituent who came to see me at my advice bureau one Saturday morning had been put off because he had been told that the appeal would be held in the local town hall—

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he is not permited to make two speeches on Report. If he is making an intervention, that is fair enough.

With respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I had thought I was making an intervention. I thought that the Minister had given way.

People are put off from attending tribunals. They do not know that they will be treated as sympathetically as the Minister has described.

I thought that I had sat down, but perhaps I can change my mind and treat the hon. Gentleman's remarks as an intervention.

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. Of course, people will react differently. We cannot legislate for every situation. However, all hon. Members would wish to encourage the view that I attempted to express a few moments ago, namely, that the appeal machinery exists and should be used. The public should be encouraged to put their case to the test, if they feel that they have one. The more hon. Members and other active members of society can persuade claimants of that, the better.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 11, in page 29, line 41, at beginning insert '28 days'.[ Mr. Prentice.]