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Social Security Advisory Committee

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.

Amendment proposed: No. 67, in page 69, line 18, leave out '8 nor more than'.—[ Mr. Orme.]

The purpose of this amendment is to make the membership of the Social Security Advisory Committee 11. We have had many debates on the general composition of the SSAC and its workings. I remind those hon. Members who were not on the Standing Committee and who may not have studied the Bill in as great a detail as others of us that the new committee will replace two existing bodies—the Supplementary Benefits Commission, which will go out of operation in November, and the National Insurance Advisory Committee, which will be wound up at about the same time.

The right hon. Gentleman reminds me that the Northern Ireland body is included as well.

The SSAC will have a wide function. It is reasonable to urge that its membership should be increased from eight, as provided in the Bill, to 11. The committee will be considering the various detailed workings of the social security system, and eight is a small membership when we consider the duties that it will have to undertake. I contend that a membership of 11 would be more appropriate.

10.30 pm

If the membership is increased to 11, I hope that the Minister of State will emphasise the semi-assurance that he gave in Committee that he is considering appointing some women members to the new committee. If the membership is increased, it may encourage the right hon. Gentleman to consider appointing women. As I reminded him in Committee, women are not a minority group in Britain. Many women receive supplementary benefit, or are claimants of other benefits and pensions. Women represent nearly 52 per cent. of the population. Surely we are entitled to some direct representation on the committee.

I failed in my efforts in Committee to ensure that three of the eight members of the committee are women. I am not pressing that argument now. Indeed, I could not do so. I merely say that if the Minister accepts the amendment, which would increase the membership from eight to 11, that should give him added encouragement to consider appointing at least three women.

The committee will replace three bodies, and even a membership of 11 would be quite small, however, high-powered, expert and learned the members may be. Incidentally, I hope that some of them will have some grass roots experience and will not adopt only an academic or research point of view. I hope that some of the members will consider with heart and feeling the difficulties which face pensioners and the various claimants we have been discussing in our deliberations.

The additional membership would add only little to the cost, which we have heard so much about during the 130 hours that we have been discussing the Bill. It seems a small matter on which to secure the Government's agreement. I am not asking for too large a committee, bearing in mind the size of the problem that it will be considering.

I wanted my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) to introduce the amendment as she spoke so eloquently on this issue in Committee. She spoke of the right of women to be represented and the need for members to be appointed who have had experience of claimants and who know what the system is about.

It is important to stress that the committee will be replacing two bodies—the National Insurance Advisory Committee and the Supplementary Benefits Commission. Those bodies deal with different areas of benefit, and the committee members will have to divide themselves into specialist groups to deal with the national insurance and supplementary benefit aspects.

If the eight are not to be full-time members, what will be the role of the Chairman? We have been given no guarantee that he will be full time or nearly full time. We still do not know how the committee members will operate. No doubt they will be part-time members, as members of the SBC are at the moment. However, their work on both sides of the entire social security system will amount to a massive operation. I have seen the SBC in operation under the chairmanship of Professor Donnison. No doubt present Ministers, like me, have sat in on a full-day session of the commission. In that way one becomes aware of the amount of work that it has to do and the detail into which it must go.

The Government are altering the basis and main functions of the SBC. That is why some of us are so concerned about the changes that are taking place. Perhaps exclude from that my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who goes around with a chopper in his hand at times. He appeared to welcome the changes. However, I am sure that even he would want to emphasise that the new committee must have not only teeth but the right type of members. They must have experience and ability. That is why we propose a membership of 11 as opposed to eight. That is the minimum size that can be contemplated, and that is why we are pressing the amendment.

I should like to say a few words in support of amendment No. 67, not just because my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) politely suggested that I should perhaps say something as one who voted for the abolition of the Supplementary Benefits Commission. Even at this late hour in the proceedings on the Bill, I do not repent doing that. I took the right decision. However, I ask the Government to consider seriously the idea in the amendment to increase the number of members to at least 11. I say that partly for the reasons advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Miss Richardson). One of the difficulties that I experienced in Committee in speaking after my hon. Friend was that she covered an amendment in such a comprehensive way that it was always difficult to say something different. I therefore underline the points she made, but perhaps present the arguments in a slightly different way.

The proposed committee may be only advisory, but it will oversee to some extent the expenditure of £18 billion of public money. Whereas some of us would like this Chamber to have a tighter grip on public expenditure, and perhaps hope that our new Select Committees will provide some improvement, we all have something to gain if the new body can work well. Therefore, I commend to the Minister, not for any Socialist reason that the size of the quango should be increased, but for the good old reason that Burke advanced, that even "the humblest he" has something of importance to add to the conversation. If there are 11 humble he's or she's, the deliberations will be better.

We wish the committee well in its task. It will be following the SBC and the National Insurance Advisory Committee. Over recent years the commission has done an immensely important job, beginning the task of acting as a watchdog on the poor. How much better that work will be continued if the committee can not only represent a fair balance as between men and women and as between the different regions of the country, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) said, the consumers of the service. We have emphasised today, yesterday and in Committee that we get few concessions from the Government. Will the Minister drop a few crumbs from his table tonight and accept this amendment?

I find the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) persuasive, as always—and all the more so when he quotes Burke.

The essence of our proposal is that there should be an element of flexibility—if I may use the word "flexibility". It has been an overworked word in our debates on the Bill, and I have done my share of overworking it.

We are not necessarily proposing a figure of eight. We are proposing that we should have the power to create a committee of not fewer than eight and not more than 11 members. That pattern has been followed in the appointment of similar committees in this area. The National Insurance Advisory Committee can have between six and 10 members, in addition to the chairman. The Industrial Injuries Advisory Committee can have any number of members, provided that there are equal numbers of employer and employee representatives. The Supplementary Benefits Commission can have not more than six members, in addition to the chairman and deputy chairman. The Occupational Pensions Board can have between eight and 12 members, in addition to the chairman and deputy chairman. In those cases there has been a bracket within which the final total could be decided.

There are a number of balances to be considered. We want a body small enough to be effective as a forum for fairly intimate discussion, but we want it to be large enough to reflect a number of different kinds of experience. As the House will know, we are committed to the appointment of one member who is representative of employers' interests and one member who is representative of employees' interests. We are committed to including a member with a knowledge of Northern Ireland, because the committee will be taking over the functions of the Northern Ireland Supplementary Benefits Commission. We are committed to including a person with special knowledge and experience of the disabled.

There are other balances to be struck. The hon. Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) reminded the House of the discussions in Committee. I told her then that we were considering names that included those of some women. She asked whether we were also considering the names of some men. I answered that question in the affirmative. I expect there to be men and women on the committee.

To achieve that kind of balance, and at the same time not to be too rigid, it is sensible that the statute should lay down a span of numbers. It might be found by the committee, or by the Secretary of State looking at the working of the committee, that some form of knowledge was missing and that it would be advisable to make an additional appointment. I suggest that the Bill, as formulated, provides the best way of meeting those requirements.

Amendment negatived.

10.45 pm

I beg to move amendment No. 69, in page 69, line 19 at end insert—

'1A. The chairman of the Committee shall normally devote not less than 17 days in each month to the work of the Committee.'.
Of all the Opposition amendments, Mr. Deputy Speaker, this is probably one of the clumsiest. I should have preferred you to select amendment No. 68.

The Opposition's difficulty is that we pressed hard in Committee that the chairman of the advisory committee should be full time, or at least should work for fourth-fifths of the week. Having pressed amendments to that effect very hard, and having received no assurances from the Government, we felt that we should return to the matter on Report. In order to do so, we have had to table a rather clumsy amendment. It would have been better if we had provided for 17 working days in each month. But the amendment is a vehicle to press the Government for assurances on how much time the new chairman will give to his duties.

Two bodies are in a sense being merged—the National Insurance Advisory Committee, which meets occasionally, and the job of whose chairman is very much pant time, and the Supplementary Benefits Commission. Although the SBC's chairman has recently supposedly been putting in four-fifths of a week, most people believe that his four-fifths have been at least as good as most people's full week. Therefore, in effect, the SBC has had a full-time chairman.

In logic, as the Government are putting two bodies together, the chairman should have a working week which is the aggregate of those of the present chairmen. The Opposition's fear is that he might work for only the average of the two, or that possibly the new body will be much more like the National Insurance Advisory Committee than the SBC. Therefore, we again press the Government for assurances that they really are looking for a chairman who will work full time, or so close to it that the difference is not noticeable, and that they are not looking for a chairman who will put in less than half a week or fewer than 17 days in a month.

By this stage the Government must be close to drawing up their short list of names, if they do not have a final name for the chairman. I hope that the Minister will assure us that those on the short list, or the final choice, will in effect be full time or so close to it that people will not notice. Unless that is so, most of U3 will think that the committtee will be very much an advisory body with no teeth, and that all the claimants will be badly let down over the years.

I repeat what I said several times in Committee, that we are estab lishing an advisory committee. That must be emphasised. But in so far as the committee takes over the duties of the Supplementary Benefits Commission, it takes over its advisory role and not its executive role. However, it is certainly the Government's view that the committee should be a body of considerable influence. In order that that may be so, we should expect a substantial commitment of time by the chairman.

The intention of the amendment is similar to that of amendments moved in Committee, which is to define in the Bill the precise amount of time given by the chairman. That is not wise. It is not necessary, and it could be restrictive in a way that would be very unhelpful.

Everyone who has studied these matters has respect for the distinguished work of Professor Donnison as chairman of the SBC in recent years. A number of tributes have been paid to him, and I am sure that a number will be paid to him between now and his retirement from that post. When he was appointed by Mrs. Castle, it was on the basis of working four days a week. He preferred—and she agreed—that he should have time available for other activities. He considered that he could do a more effective job by reason of that. Nothing was laid down in the legislation under which he was appointed that constricted that agreement.

All that I am suggesting is that the same degree of freedom should now exist. I repeat that when we make a new appointment we shall require a substantial commitment of time from the new chairman. However, it would be unreasonable to write too precise a definition into the statute. Indeed, it might be harmful to do so.

The amount of time taken will be affected by three factors. I mentioned those factors in Committee, but perhaps they are worth repeating. First, the amount of time needed in practice will depend on the way in which the committee's work develops. Secondly, the amount of time given by the chairman will depend on who is approached, his problems and availability. The amount of time given will depend upon what he considers reasonable, provided that he meets the criterion of a substantial amount of time. Thirdly, different individuals work at different paces. As has been said, the present chairman achieves a good full week's work in four days. That is true of some individuals, but not of others.

I ask the House for flexibility. I repeat the assurance that we shall seek a chairman and members who are committed to giving enough time to do the job that we would expect.

I have listened to the Minister's remarks. He has been more positive than that when he was in Committee. However, he has not met our point. We sought a full-time chairman. We would have been satisfied if the Minister had been prepared to use the criteria that apply to the chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission. He is not prepared to do that. We spoke of a full-time chairman, or one who would sit four days a week. The new advisory committee covers national insurance and supplementary benefits. The chairmanship will involve a major task. The committee will oversee millions of claimants and have a budget of about £18 billion. The committee will not be responsible for the budget. That is a matter for Parliament and the Government.

We are disappointed that the Government have not seen fit to meet us on this point. We shall await the appointment of the chairman, and the terms of that appointment, before judging whether the Government intend to give the committee the correct leadership.

Amendment negatived.