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Clause 8

Volume 981: debated on Wednesday 19 March 1980

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Provisions Supplementary To Sections 6 And 7

I beg to move amendment No. 61, in page 13, line 6, at end insert

(d) provision for treating normal requirements specified in the regulations as exceptional needs under section 3(1) of the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976 in parts of Great Britain so specified;'.
The Minister may wonder about the meaning of the amendment. If I could give it a sub-title, it would be "to prevent riots in Glasgow". I am sure that the Minister is aware that in parts of the country, especially in some parts of Scotland—not least in Glasgow—there is a strong tradition of payments of exceptional needs payments, especially for boots and clothing.

In principle, we do not support geographical differences. However, during a transitional period—and this is what the amendment is about—that difference is necessary, especially as the Government are not compensating for the reduction in ENPs by increasing the scale rates or introducing periodic lump sum payments, as recommended by the Supplementary Benefits Commission.

The Government must take special cognisance of the position in certain parts of the country. There may be many such areas, but Glasgow comes immediately to mind. No doubt the Minister has visited some of the Glasgow offices and knows of the special problems that exist in that area.

It is worth reminding the Minister of the Supplementary Benefits Commission's response to the review report. It said:
"While we support, in principle, the replacement of some—never all—exceptional needs payments by regular lump-sum grants, that change should not be introduced abruptly and universally. Practice varies enormously from one area to another. In some, claimants have long relied so heavily on exceptional needs payments that an abrupt withdrawal of this help would cause severe hardship. In such places the transition should be brought about in stages, with careful attention being paid to the timing of each phase".

Having made that quotation, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that that took account of the inclusion of lump sum grants. But under the legislation proposed lump sum grants will not be paid. Therefore, that quotation should be even stronger as a result of the way in which the Bill has developed.

Earlier I referred to the fact that lump sum payments would not be made. My hon. Friend will be aware chat we had long debates in Committee about the exceptional needs payments and the issue of discretion. Discretion is being removed here.

I put this point seriously to the Minister, despite my rather spectacular language about the prevention of riots in Glasgow. Nevertheless, there could be difficulties. Obviously we do not want to see problems arise and we want to help to prevent them. There is a very strong case for the Minister looking at the phasing here. We hope that the Minister will give us a firm date for implementation after the Bill has received Royal Assent. In Committee we talked about a date, but we were given no definite information.

I wonder whether the Minister is prepared to look at exceptional cases, recognising the difficulties about phasing. The Supplementary Benefits Commission made some strong remarks about this and the Government should take account of them. We tabled this amendment in order to elicit information from the Government. If the Minister is unable to give it this evening, perhaps she could let us know when the Bill goes to the House of Lords. No doubt she can answer some of the central points that we have put to her tonight.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme). He used rather colourful language in describing what he feared might be the effects of the changes in the payment of exceptional needs grants in certain parts of the country. He restricted his remarks to Glasgow, but there are other cities which have problems as well as Glasgow. It is unfair to single out Glasgow even though Professor Donnison and other members of the Supplementary Benefits Commision have been exceptionally worried about that city.

There is no doubt that whenever we have had schemes that are so reliant on discretion—and we have had them since 1966 and even before that—variations have grown up between different areas. When we were in Standing Committee we were told how different it was in inner city areas from places such as Fort William.

In practice the variations that have grown up over the years have never been part of the policy of the Supplementary Benefits Commission, either implicit or explicit. It is precisely because of the variations in different parts of the country that we need to spell out individuals' entitlement. That is one of the things that we are doing in the regulations which will accompany this Bill when it becomes an Act of Parliament, as I hope it will. When we discussed this in Committee we tried to spell out in the annex to notes on clauses, paragraphs 74 and 75, those circumstances in which claims for exceptional needs payments would be permissible. I believe that this will be to the great advantage of claimants and also of our staff in all offices particularly in the inner city areas. Where there are problems with exceptional needs payments which occasionally lead to arguments, at least the law will be clear, the facts will be written down, and the staff will not be accused of interpreting them too loosely or too widely. The facts will be there for all to see.

When the review team was preparing social assistance schemes it spent a great deal of time analysing the figures and visiting the sorts of areas described by the right hon. Member for Salford, West. Subsequently, as he will know—because he was then a Minister at the Department—the team attended a number of public meetings in those areas to discuss the proposals and to listen to the views of claimants and staff to make sure that their proposals were reasonable.

Some local offices make large numbers of exceptional needs payments, but neighbouring offices in adjoining territories do not make such payments. The ratio between offices in adjoining neighbourhoods can be as high as 7:1, even in areas such as Glasgow.

We are all aware of the local traditions that have grown up in Glasgow. They date back to the start of national assistance, and even long before that. The arrangements are the subject of consultation and discussion between the Department in Scotland and the social services group there. The review team had discussions with them, and we are continuing that consultation.

There will be no abrupt withdrawal of exceptional needs payments. The rules will provide for exceptional needs payments for non-scale rate items as of right. and such exceptional needs payments will be paid with less fuss in future and on a more uniform basis. We must seek to achieve that.

There will still be some exceptional needs payments for scale rate items. Any refusals will be subject to the right of appeal. Those cases will only arise where second and subsequent demands are made, and where special arrangements are needed and will apply.

I am following the hon. Lady's argument with interest. Is she saying in effect that there will be variations in areas if difficulties arise? Is she saying that there may be a differentiation between Glasgow and other parts of the country? She said that payments would be phased in, rather than being abrupt. Will that be the case for every part of the country?

The point that the right hon. Gentleman made earlier was valid. To make an abrupt change after years of tradition would be courting trouble. We do not intend to treat one part of the country more favourably than another. However, what has become long-established practice will be looked at closely. We shall ensure that there will be transitional arrangements.

We have made provision for extra staff to deal with these special arrangements, and the results will be monitored carefully. I have no reason to think that special arrangements and extra staff will not be able to cope with the problems that will emerge. They will not simply affect Glasgow. They will affect Merseyside, and possibly some parts of the North-East and London. We must take account of the varying practices that have grown up, while still pursuing our aim. which in simplifying the supplementary benefits scheme must be to regulate those matters that can be defined, and to work out solutions to the difficult problems in the special areas.

We shall keep a close eye on what happens after November. Any Minister would be unwise to ignore the problem. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Salford, West for raising it. However, we cannot continue with an overall system of localised discretion for ever and a day. That would make a nonsense of what we are seeking to do and would have a confusing result for the staff, for the claimants and for everyone else involved. In addition, it would be grossly inequitable for claimants who did not live in the right area.

9.30 pm

Where truly exceptional circumstances arise which are specifically covered in regulations we have a residual discretionary power to meet them. I referred to that many times in Committee. However, the vast majority of cases must fall within the scope of the regulations.

The new arrangements for the supplementary benefit scheme could not take effect overnight everywhere. Therefore, we shall be phasing the new arrangements in gradually, not just for the areas that have been mentioned in the debate. The main benefit of the gradual implementation will probably be felt most in areas where there is the greatest difficulty. I am therefore seeking to meet the right hon. Gentleman's point, and I hope that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

I am pleased to hear the Minister's assurances, but I wish to press her on one aspect. Where local offices have perhaps been generous, it is probable that some of the voluntary organisations, which in other areas meet certain needs, have not developed to the same extent. We have discussed in Committee on several occasions the problems of claimants who get shuffled from one person or one agency to another. In many areas where exceptional needs have not been met as generously by supplementary benefit, voluntary groups have accumulated stocks of clothing and household goods which are made available to people in need. I hope that in the phas- ing out operation in those generous areas there will be good liaison with the voluntary organisations to make sure that they are encouraged to meet needs which will no longer be met by the local offices.

It would be unfortunate if someone went along to the WRVS, for example, seeking help, and was told that supplementary benefit was normally provided to deal with the problem without it being realised that the help had been phased out. I hope that it will be made clear that some of that help will no longer be available from the supplementary benefit office. I hope that the voluntary organisations will know what is happening and will be able to do more to fill the gaps that in some areas were previously filled by supplementary benefit.

With the leave of the House I shall reply to the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett). We are well aware of the excellent voluntary organisation liaison that exists in many areas. That is one of the factors to which I have always paid a lot of attention. We seek to encourage that laison.

The new arrangement will depend on the co-operation of the local authority social services departments and the voluntary organisations, particularly in difficult areas. I hope that that will in no way discourage the most valuable continuing and expanding role of many voluntary groups to seek to help the communities within their areas. Whatever the State does, a voluntary effort is made to help people who need assistance by way of explanations as well as goods. This is an invaluable binding aspect in our society and we should do everything we can to foster and encourage it.

The hon. Member for Stockport, North has made an excellent point, but he knows already that we shall have 400 specialist staff who will help with just this sort of problem. I do not wish to repeat what I said in Committee, but I can assure him that his point is carefully taken on board. I hope that the role of the voluntary groups will continue to be one of great assistance in addition to what the State may provide.

With the leave of the House, I speak again. I welcome what the Minister has said in recognising this problem in what is a difficult area. We shall obviously want to see how the phasing in or phasing out takes place.

On the assurances that we have been given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.