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Benefits (Entitlement Regulations)

Volume 21: debated on Tuesday 6 April 1982

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asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will make a statement about the reinterpretation of regulation 7(2) of the condition of entitlement regulations.

As the hon. Member knows, the Government are reviewing the details of the 21-hour rule in the light of the chief supplementary benefits officer's recent guidance on the interpretation of this regulation. Our aim is to secure that the 21 hours covers classroom instruction only, subject to the introduction of additional safeguards to ensure that people who have withdrawn wholly from the employment field to pursue their studies are not entitled to benefit. The details are still under consideration, but I hope to be able to make an announcement shortly.

I welcome the first sentence of the Minister's answer. Everyone who has been concerned about the matter will be very grateful for that. In the meantime, before the instruction is changed, will the Minister ensure that no more local DHSS offices send inspectors round to check whether students are doing their homework? Does he accept that, as we have heard today about millions of pensioners not receiving their proper banefits, it is nothing short of a scandal that civil servants' time at local offices has been used in recent months for that purpose?

I am grateful for the first part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question. I, too, have been glad to make this—admittedly not detailed—statement today. As to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, if he wishes to let me know of a case, he must do so, because we have not set in hand, nor have we any intention of setting in hand, the sort of investigations that he describes.

Does my hon. Friend accept that it is widely believed that the regulations count homework as work done at school? Will he take steps to correct that impression, even if it is not his Department that is responsible, but a commentator on radio who is not a spokesman for the Department? It is just as important.

I was especially concerned to say what I have today because there is uncertainty about the position arising from the new guidance issued by the chief supplementary benefits officer. As to the precise position on the rule, I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that I am in a little difficulty because an appeal case on the point is now before the Social Security Commissioners. We must await the outcome of that, apart from anything else, before deciding what to do.

Will the Minister ensure that all current claims are re-assessed by the DHSS and that not only is homework excluded from consideration, but travelling time?

I cannot insist on the re-assessment of claims that fall to be judged under the current guidance as to the interpretation of the rules. I am sure that the House will understand that it is not up to Ministers in this Department to overrule the advice of the independent adjudicating authorities. It is up to us to decide whether, if the meaning of the regulations turns out to be unsatisfactory, we should change those regulations. That is what we are considering at the moment.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there will be much gratitude for the speed with which he has recognised the foolishness of the judgment on this matter? Will he ensure that, when he is drafting the new regulations, his officers in the various local offices encourage young people who have been genuinely unemployed for some time, but who could benefit immensely from either remedial or craft courses, to take those up, because there has been widespread disparity in the way that the rule has been operated by local DHSS offices?

We are keen to do nothing to inhibit unemployed youngsters from using their time usefully. I take my hon. Friend's point. I thank him and other hon. Members who have played an important part by making representations to us in the past few weeks.