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Mr Robert Piddington

Volume 33: debated on Tuesday 30 November 1982

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

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Garel-Jones.]

11.12 pm

I raise the case of Mr. Robert Piddington, an extremely public-spirited gentleman who has fought for 11 years to do something about the horror of the deaths of young people falling from flats. He invented a foolproof safety catch which prevents such tragedies. As a result, he has found himself in dire straits.

There have been 20 to 30 such deaths in the Midlands, several of them, I am sorry to say in my constituency. Mr. Piddington came to see me after such a tragedy. Two Conservative Members for Birmingham, Handsworth, including Sir Edward Boyle, had previously dealt with the case. Mr. Piddington invented this device in 1966. He took out a patent and believed that he had found his mission in life. He sold his house. He lived on his savings, and did everything to try to prevent deaths and have his invention adopted.

I shall not weary the Under-Secretary of State by explaining why that did not happen. What I have to say involves a great deal of detail and I do not expect the Minister, whom I am pleased to see this evening, to give answers to the involved and detailed questions that I shall raise. I am sure that he will undertake to look into all the points, and I shall be happy if he will correspond with me or enable me to raise the matter further if I need to do so.

The result of Mr. Piddington's public-spirited attitude was that in 1972 he had to draw social security benefit. The Department of Health and Social Security subjected him to great humiliation. On eight occasions he was asked to undergo medical examinations. The sole reason, so far as I can see, was that every time one of these deaths occurred, he appeared on television, spoke on the radio or had his comments quoted in the press and someone in the DHSS assumed that he was making a great deal of money from his inventions and therefore insisted upon the medical examination. He has, in fact, never made a penny out of the inventions because no local authority has adopted them. His inventions should have been adopted. Mr. Piddington's plight worsened because he also suffered from cancer of the ear, a rare complaint that added to his problems.

To try to obtain justice for this man, I wrote to the local manager of the DHSS on 14 July 1980 asking him to make sure that Mr. Piddington, for whom I had considerable sympathy, received all the benefits to which he was entitled. The fact that Mr. Piddington did not receive the benefits is the first major point that I wish to raise. A letter from an hon. Member to the manager of a local DHSS office constitutes, in my view, an application on behalf of the constituent.

Mr. Piddington became eligible for the long-term benefit entitlement which would have meant an additional £5 a week to him. For a man in his parlous position, that is a considerable sum. No literature was produced in the DHSS advising Mr. Piddington or anyone else about long-term benefit entitlement. On my instructions, Mr. Piddington visited the office on a number of occasions to seek such literature after he had been refused the benefit to which he was entitled. The manager of the office wrote one letter to me for which he subsequently had to apologise. I do not criticise the manager on that account. However, if the manager of the DHSS office was not clear about the benefits, was unable to advise an hon. Member and had to apologise, it is no wonder that Mr. Piddington got into some difficulties. His case was rejected. I took the issue to the tribunal in Birmingham.

At the hearing, a supplementary benefits officer stated that
"the claimant's lack of knowledge of a benefit does not convey a right."

In other words, if a benefit existed and Mr. Piddington did not know about it, his ignorance was not a factor. I have already said that there were no leaflets available and that even the manager had got it wrong. I responded by saying that a right, if it exists, cannot be exercised without the knowledge upon which to base it. My letter to the manager demanded that, if that right existed, the manager should have informed Mr. Piddington who should as a consequence, have received an additional £5 a week.

I found the tribunal findings extraordinary. The findings were that if Mr. Piddington had any doubts about the accuracy of his supplementary benefit payments there were numerous opportunities for him to pursue his inquiries by use of the citizens advice bureau and by adequate literature freely available. I have pointed out that no literature was available at the time, or since, at that office. The extraordinary proposition that 4 or 5 million people receiving supplementary benefit can be disallowed benefit which they have not claimed because of their ignorance of its existence on the ground that they have not visited the citizens advice bureaux is one of breathtaking dimensions. What would happen if the 4 or 5 million who are on benefit all went to citizens advice bureaux to check whether they were getting the benefit to which they were entitled? Incidentally, we know that millions of pounds in benefits are not paid because of ignorance of entitlement.

The argument about the citizens advice bureau was never raised at the tribunal. I had no opportunity to comment on it. I suggest that it has no place in its findings and that it was a ludicrous proposition. I hope that the Minister will agree with me when he has had time to carry out an examination. I have no doubt the Mr. Piddington, if he had had any doubt about his entitlement, would have pursued it, but, as I have explained, he did not.

After the tribunal had rejected Mr. Piddington, we found ourselves with the opportunity to go before the supplementary benefits commissioners in London. I had to appear before what was clearly a legal tribunal. Some of the poorest people in Britain may wish to take their cases to the commission, but they are not entitled to legal aid. This is outrageous. I have served in the House for more than 28 years and I am a reasonably knowledgeable Member of this place, but I found myself before a legal tribunal that was presided over by a kindly lady who was a barrister, the commission was represented by another barrister and I faced a mountain of legal books which I had never seen before and was called upon to make submissions of which I was profoundly ignorant.

If I found myself in that position, how could Mr. Piddington even approach such a task? It is outrageous that legal aid does not extend to claimants before such a tribunal. I do not know how much it costs the commission to instruct a barrister, with all his learning and hours of preparation, to try to justify the proposition that Mr. Piddington had not been entitled to his £5 a week long-term unemployment benefit.

It took 12 months to secure a hearing before the commission. Mr. Piddington sold his house, lost his savings and was denied benefit to which he was entitled. He wanted to pursue his case. Even after he appealed, he had to wait for 12 months to get his case brought before the tribunal. That is a serious defect in our procedures.

Certain matters arose during the hearing about which the chairman remained silent in her judgment, even though submissions were made about them. One submission was based on form A124, which is dated November 1979 and printed by the Department of Health and Social Security. It refers to long-term payments but states in the notes that it is applicable to those under pensionable age "(except the unemployed)". Mr. Piddington was unemployed, so he thought when he read it, as any intelligent person would, that he could not apply for long-term unemployment benefit. The submission that I advanced on that ground, which I believed to be a point of law, was ignored by the lady who chaired the tribunal. There was complete silence on that issue. I found the submission extremely relevant.

Further, pages 23 to 34 of the evidence that appeared before the commission were not supplied to me, although I was representing Mr. Piddington. Neither were they supplied to Mr. Piddington. However, they were referred to in the judgment and were used to form that judgment by the chairman of the tribunal. I do not think that this is the responsibility of the Minister, but I draw it to his attention because I hope that he will refer the matter to the Lord Chancellor. It is a serious matter when one goes to a tribunal, representing a constituent, only to find that 12 pages of the evidence have not been provided for the appellant or the appellant's representative.

I have talked about the old form A124. Now we have a new form A124. Surprise, surprise—all the information about long-term benefit rates and rights to entitlement, except unemployment, has disappeared. It is the same form, but all the information which confused Mr. Piddington and which caused him to be improperly deprived of his £5 a week has disappeared from the new form. I hope that the Minister will look into that. We are told that the claimant must inform himself, but all the information has now been removed by the Department from the claim form.

Another issue of importance arises from this case, and I hope that the Minister will look into it. When Mr. Piddington was in receipt of unemployment benefit, plus supplementary allowance, things were reasonably all right, although difficult. However, that terminated on 24 September of the year in question. He was then transferred to supplementary benefit, which was payable on 3 October. We are talking about a gentleman who has held quite responsible positions and who, because of his convictions and his desire to provide safe windows to prevent horrible deaths, is now in penury. The gap between 24 September, when he was on unemployment benefit, and 3 October, when he was transferred to supplementary benefit, was eight days. He was also deprived of another eight days' benefit. I raise the matter because clearly, if this applies to Mr. Piddington, presumably it applies to every citizen in the country—that when a person is transferred from unemployment benefit to supplementary benefit there is a gap of about seven to eight days. I raised this matter at the tribunal, but I received little satisfaction.

Mr. Piddington has been badly treated, in spite of letters and intervention by his Member of Parliament. He has been told ludicrous nonsense by the Birmingham appeals tribunal, saying that he should have gone to the citizens advice bureau about his benefits. Twelve months later, when we finally reached the commission's hearing in London, he was denied legal aid so that he could have legal representation at a body which clearly called for legal representation. I very much hope that some belated justice can be found for Mr. Piddington, and that the Minister will agree to investigate all the matters that I have raised on his behalf.

11.28 pm

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Howell) for the way in which he has raised this case, and in particular for his understanding of the position of, as it happens, the DHSS—it could have been the Department of Employment or, in other circumstances, another Department—when faced with the detailed issues arising from a case that clearly I have not had a chance to study in all the aspects that the right hon. Gentleman has put to the House this evening. I give the right hon. Member an undertaking that I shall look at the points that he raised, particularly those that had not been put to me in the papers that I examined today.

However, I shall go further and look at some of the aspects that I have had a chance to consider today, because it would be wrong to raise unduly the right hon. Gentleman's hopes, or those of Mr. Piddington, that the examination which I undertake to carry out will produce the results that they want.

It may be helpful, especially to those who read the report of our debate in Hansard, if I set out the background to the case. Mr. Piddington had received sickness benefit and invalidity benefit intermittently since 1972. Since then he has been employed for two short periods, the last one being from May 1977 to the end of that year. He had received supplementary benefit for various periods, his most recent claim being made on 9 February 1978 when he was receiving sickness benefit. He was found fit for work on 17 July 1978 and continued to receive supplementary benefit as an unemployed person, in addition to unemployment benefit, his right to which is now exhausted.

In September 1980, it was decided at the unemployment benefit office that he need register for employment only at quarterly intervals, instead of fortnightly. That was due to his age and the period of time that he had been registering for employment. It enabled payments of supplementary benefit to be made by order book from 29 September 1980.

When the claimant made inquiries on 28 October 1980 at the local office concerning entitlement to the higher long-tern rate of supplementary benefit, he was advised that it was a pre-condition of an award that he was no longer required to register for employment.

A photo-copy of a certificate dated 29 October 1980 certifying that the claimant had no reasonable prospect of employment, mainly on account of his disability, was received in the local office on 24 November 1980. The supplementary benefit officer decided that supplementary benefit was payable at the lower ordinary rate.

I should make it clear that the supplementary benefit officer is an independent adjudicating authority. A dissatisfied claimant may appeal to the local tribunal and, on further appeal on a point of law, to the social security commissioner.

Mr. Piddington appealed against the supplementary benefit officer's decision to the local tribunal, and was represented at the hearing by the right hon. Gentleman. However, the tribunal upheld the decision of the supplementary benefit officer. Mr. Piddington then applied to the commissioner for leave to appeal against the decision of the supplementary benefit appeal tribunal on the ground that it was erroneous in point of law.

As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, the case has been carefully considered by the commissioner, who is held in considerable respect. I suspect from what the right hon. Gentleman said that he believes that the commissioner considered the case carefully. Unusually, he granted an oral hearing for leave to appeal.

The commissioner considered Mr. Piddington's case in all its aspects most thoroughly. Perhaps I may quote a few passages from the commissioner's decision. On the question of Mr. Piddington's knowledge of his settlement, the commissioner stated:
"It is well established that the burden rests squarely on a claimant to ascertain his statutory rights to benefits. In the present case, the claimant is an intelligent person who had claimed various benefits over a period of several years. He communicated with the relevant local offices regularly and if he had any doubts about his entitlement to benefit, it would have been reasonable to expect him to make enquiries."

I certainly have no complaints about the fairness of the commissioner who heard the case, except that pages were missing from the notes of evidence given to us.

The hon. Gentleman has reached the kernel of the matter. How can a claimant establish a case if he is ignorant of his rights? Will the Minister agree that when a Member asks "Will you please ensure that my constituent has all the benefits to which he is entitled", he ought to be told if there is any benefit to which the constituent is entitled, but is not claiming because of his ignorance? It is a matter of fundamental importance. Millions of people do not know what they are entitled to, and their ignorance should not be held against them, especially when there is no literature in the appropriate DHSS offices.

I have already undertaken to look at the specific points raised by the right hon. Gentleman. The non-availability of relevant literature was certainly among those points. However, I could not undertake to review the situation by which at the end of the day—as is so often the case in matters in which legal rights are at stake—it is up to the claimant, or his equivalent, to be aware of his rights.

I am treading on somewhat dangerous ground, as I am not a lawyer, but I think that it would be up to a customer in a shop to know his rights. However, I accept that it is up to the DHSS to ensure that the best information is made available as widely as possible.

The right hon. Gentleman raised several other points, which I have undertaken to consider. I simply thought that it would be sensible for me at least to quote something of what the commissioner had said, having carefully considered the case. Subject to my assurance that I shall reconsider the right hon. Gentleman's comments, there are several observations to make about the number of times that Mr. Piddington was called for examination by the Department's medical officer.

First, I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman would dispute that the procedure for referring claimants to the Department's doctor is a necessary safeguard. Secondly, it is true that Mr. Piddington was called for medical examination nine times. That simple statistic on its own worried me—just as much as it evidently worried the right hon. Gentleman—when I first became aware of it. During the course of the day I have looked carefully at that point. I find that those nine examinations were made over a period of nearly six years. At two of them, Mr. Piddington was found to be fit for work, so there can be little doubt that those two examinations were justified. Four examinations were ordered by the doctor—having seen Mr. Piddington and confirmed his unfitness for work, the doctor wanted to see him again after so many months in order to check. Again, that is not unreasonable. On my information there were four distinct examinations, or sets of examinations, relating to four different injuries or sicknesses.

It would not be right for me to go into the details of Mr. Piddington's medical history. However, on the information that I have seen so far, I am satisfied that in each case the referral to the doctor was properly made by the local office, in accordance with its instructions, having regard to the nature of the illness or injury and the period of benefit. The right hon. Gentleman raised a point about legal aid for cases before the commissioner. As he has discovered, there is no provision for granting legal aid for appearances before either supplementary benefit appeals tribunals, or the commissioners. In cases in which the supplementary benefit office is legally represented, the legal representative is there to elucidate the law for the commissioners, rather than to put the case for the supplementary benefit officer.

The broader question of extending the scope for legal aid is, of course, a matter for the Lord Chancellor's Department. However, I shall ensure that the right hon. Gentleman's remarks are drawn to the Lord Chancellor's attention. The right hon. Gentleman has raised several points tonight that had not been drawn to my attention and, therefore, I do not want to go beyond what I have said. I wanted to put those points on the record to balance the case as best I could on the information available to me. As I have said, I shall look carefully at the issues raised by the right hon. Gentleman and, in particular, at his additional points. I shall write to him and look at those issues as sympathetically as possible. However, as I emphasised at the beginning, I do not want to raise false hopes about the outcome in the minds of the right hon. Gentleman and Mr. Piddington.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Twelve midnight.