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New Clause 14

Volume 77: debated on Thursday 18 April 1985

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Invalid Care Allowance For Married Women

'In the Social Security Act 1975, in section 37(3), leave out "and a woman shall not be entitled to any such allowance if—
  • (a)she is married and either—
  • (i) she is residing with her husband or
  • (ii) he is contributing to her maintenance at a weekly rate not less than the weekly rate of such an allowance; or
  • (b)she and a man to whom she is not married are living together as husband and wife.".'.—[Mrs. Beckett.]
  • Brought up, and read the First time.

    :I beg to move, That the clause he read a Second time.

    The Opposition decided to table the new clause before we were aware of the new clause that the Government intended to introduce on the same issue. However, the two new clauses on the half test go neatly side by side. As I understand it, the Government were not obliged by the European directive to take the action that they did on the test. Both the half test and the invalid care allowance test are discriminatory against women generally and married women especially. We hope that the precedent that the Government have set will be one which they will be eager to follow.

    The Minister sought to argue in Committee that the invalid care allowance was not covered by the directive in the same way as the half test. He may have been mistaken in saying that. He argued that looking after an invalid was a risk which was not covered by the directive because it was only one's own direct invalidity to which the directive could possibly apply. If invalidity is incurred by someone other than the potential recipient of the invalid care allowance, the directive does not state that invalid care allowance is thereby excluded or that carers should not be covered. That is the conclusion which the Minister drew from the way in which the directive had been drafted.

    The basis of the directive and of the judgment which we feel that the Government should make is that invalidity interrupts capacity to work. That applies to the person who is made an invalid and to the person who is in the position of having to draw the invalid care allowance.

    I draw the Minister's attention to an appeal which was upheld on 1 March. I understand that the tribunal was chaired by the new president of the social security tribunal. The Minister commended him to us as a man of sound judgment when we were in Committee last year, so I am sure that he will be only too happy to accept his judgment. Under the president's chairmanship the tribunal ruled that the equal opportunity directive covers the invalid care allowance. It awarded the benefit to the lady who brought the case, Mrs. Drake.

    I believe that the chief social security commissioner has chosen to refer the hearing to the European Court. I want to know what the implications are for Government policy and what the Government now have in mind. How many women are now thought to be eligible for the invalid care allowance? I should like the Minister to give us the latest figures that are available to him. What does he anticipate will be the cost of extending the allowance to those who are now barred from claiming it? It has been suggested since the Drake case—we believe that this should be publicised—that women should make a claim in anticipation of a decision from the European Court. Of those women who are eligible to make a claim, how many have done so? That is relevant in the light of an earlier new clause in which reference was made to the McCaffrey case, in which it was made clear that the date of the claim was crucial in determining entitlement. The Government are taking steps to ensure that people are not able to claim the allowance merely because they are entitled to it. We advise anyone who thinks that he or she might be eligible to claim the allowance now.

    Caring for an invalid involves substantial cost. It is suggested that it costs about £4,000 a year to care for a mentally handicapped child. It was suggested even five years ago that it cost £6,000 a year to care for a demented elderly person. That does not take account of the fact that such individuals often lose state benefits to which they might have been entitled if they had to move in with members of their family because of invalidity.

    Against the background of these costs and pressures on families, we ask the Government to tell us what action they propose to take if, as seems likely, the European Court's judgment goes against them.

    Concern about the invalid care allowance is shared by many of my right and hon. Friends. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security is aware of this, but it seems appropriate to reiterate the fact in the hope that he will seek to tackle the anomalies in the spirit of reform in which he has approached his job.

    One of the most startling injustices remaining in our social security system is that the invalid care allowance is not available to married women regardless of for whom they care while it is available to all other carers. This places an unfair burden on a dedicated group. There is an increasing unfairness because more and more married women are working. It is essentially an earnings replacement allowance.

    My right hon. Friend might reasonably say that that would not be an applicable argument in every case, but it is right that many married women who care for invalid spouses or others are forgoing earnings and should be entitled to the allowance.

    We are trying to develop initiatives for caring in the community. Care involves a wide variety of options and one of them is care at home. It is right that many of those who are mentally ill or mentally handicapped, or invalids for other reasons, are much better off by staying at home and receiving care than by being in an institution. We must seek to make it easier for these people who stay at home if that is at all possible. The fact that the invalid care allowance is not available to married women causes more people to go into institutions. I do not wish to advance my main argument on a financial stance, but the economic considerations must be considered. It may cost the Health Service less if more money is put into invalid care and extended to married women.

    I understand that the latest estimate of the cost of extending the invalid care allowance to married women is £85 million. This week my hon. Friend the Minister has found a fairly substantial sum of money to deal with the half test. Last year he found a reasonably substantial sum of money to deal with anomalies in the housewives' noncontributory invalidity pension scheme and improved that by the severe disablement allowance. Therefore, he has a good record of reform and I hope that he will give this matter some considerable priority as his next step.

    We all have our favourite shopping list within the social security budget for change and reform. I should like to see this reform accepted by my hon. Friend as being pretty well near the top of the list. He might consider it when he looks at the whole matter of social security and the making of savings in other areas. To right that injustice should be a priority when new resources become available as a result of reviews.

    In the same spirit of all-party support that greeted some of the announcements made by the Minister this evening, may I complete the all-party pressure on the Minister to come forward with further good news? If he cannot do that tonight, I hope that he will at least give us a sign that he is moving in that direction.

    I fully agree with the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) and with her new clause and with the hon. Member for Halifax (Mr. Galley). Surely the case now is overwhelming for the extension of invalid care allowance to married women. It is worth emphasising that all too often we take for granted within the welfare state the fact that, without the informal network of care, often free from institutions or direct institutional production or support mechanisms, we would indeed be talking about a crisis in the welfare state of a proportion that no hon. Member would suggest exists at the moment. Heaven knows, we argue enough about the welfare state and about the dangers and problems that it faces. The last part of that informal network clearly comes from the role of married women in caring for dependent, elderly, partly disabled or handicapped relatives, and so on.

    I remember speaking last year at a meeting of a careers organisation at which the Department was represented by the Earl of Caithness. He explained on that occasion why, mainly because of revenue implications, the Department could not come forward with the extension of the allowance at that point. None the less, I hope that, now that we are a bit further down the track, the Minister will be able to be a bit more forthcoming tonight, particularly as a review of social security has just been completed. It would be extremely encouraging to think that one of the things that was reviewed and decided in that process was that this anomaly should be rectified and that that benefit should be, and will be, made available. If the Minister can give us any hints or otherwise in that direction, they will be gratefully received with the same all-party welcome that other contributions have been received.

    In view of the warmth with which the House greeted some of my earlier remarks, I knew that my luck had to run out sooner or later, and I think that it just has. I fear that I am unable to answer on the invalid care allowance for married women in as forthcoming a fashion as I was able to on earlier matters, in particular, on the married women's half test.

    The hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) asked her questions in a reasonable way. She asked for the current estimate of the number of married women who would stand to benefit from the extension of invalid care allowance, were such to occur. Our best estimate at present is about 70,000. She asked what it would cost and the up-to-date answer has already been given by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mr. Galley). The up-to-date estimate of the net cost, after allowing for savings in supplementary benefit and so on, would be around £85 million.

    The hon. Lady asked how many married women had claimed since the judgment in the case of Mrs. Drake. About 300 claims from married women have been received since the Drake case was published. That is about four times the number of such claims usually received in the same period. Those claims are being put on ice. They are being acknowledged, but adjudication will await the judgment of the European Court and the subsequent decision of the social security commissioners.

    8.15 pm

    I can confirm, as the hon. Lady said, that in early January the Drake case was put to the independent adjudicating authorities with the ultimate aim of securing a judgment from the European Court on the application or otherwise of the directive to invalid care allowance. As I have said on previous occasions, our legal advice was and remains that the directive does not cover invalid care allowance. I understand that the Commission shares that view but, as I have also said on a number of occasions, ultimately it is clearly a matter for the European Court, and, as the hon. Lady said, the social security commissioners have referred the case to the court and a judgment will be made in due course at which time the judgment will have to be considered by the Government.

    There is not a great deal more than I can usefully add to the views that I have already expressed in Committee and on a number of other occasions on the Floor of the House on the issue. It will come as no surprise to hon. Members to know that, were resources not a problem, I should like to see this change. But resources are a problem. Even were this amount of money to become available there would be a real issue as to its ranking order alongside a number of other social security claims, arid, not least, the claims of other disabled people. I spent part of yesterday afternoon at the annual general meeting of the Middlesex Association of the Blind where I was once again fairly heavily lobbied on the issue of a blindness allowance. We can all think of extensions of benefit that would be attractive to many people.

    There is the other problem of whether money would not in some circumstances be at least as well spent in supporting disabled people and their carers by additional expenditure on home helps and other forms of care in the community. I do not want to labour any of those points. I have put them before the House and the Committee before as reasons for my hesitation in responding En the way that hon. Members would wish.

    I know how difficult it is, given all the competing claims, when there is only so much money, but is there not a double disadvantage in the case of the invalid care allowance? It is not only that the carers need the money but the present position is discriminatory in the sense that married women cannot claim while single women and men can. Should not that aspect be taken into account?

    It cannot be denied that it is discriminatory in the sense that there are manifestly special rules for married women in relation to the claiming of invalid care allowance. The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Derby, South and other hon. Members have been kind enough to refer to the record that we have acquired in making progress towards equal treatment over the past two or three years. That is certainly something in which I take pride but a problem remains here because it is our legal advice that this matter is not within the terms of the directive. Clearly, that can only be decided ultimately by the European Court and I am simply rot in a position to say to the House tonight that I can suddenly make £85 million available for the extension of benefit now.

    It sounded from what the hon. Member for Derby, South said that I might conceivably have misled her. She referred to the fact that our action on the married women's half test had been taken without regard to the directive. I wish to make it clear that our advice had become that the residual effects of the married women's half test were probably in contravention of the EC directive. Rather than argue further about that, we felt that it would be appropriate to introduce the change of which I spoke earlier and to backdate it to 22 December 1984—the date on which the directive finally took effect. That is not quite on all fours with invalid care allowance, either regarding the amount of money or our present Legal advice.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax referred to the money involved in the half test. I admit that it is fairly significant although it is only about one third of the sum involved in ICA. The one significant difference is that the money in the half test will rapidly decline to nil because the effects have already been working out as a result of its abolition for all those who became 60 after 1979. It was a diminishing problem. The same could not be true of ICA in view of its association with attendance allowance, the demand for and take-up of which has been rising sharply. Therefore, there is not a complete parallel between the two, even in financial terms.

    I am genuinely sorry not to be able to say something more to the taste of hon. Members who have spoken, but I hope that I have made the present position reasonably clear.

    I wish to make only two further brief comments on the issue. First, the Minister suggested that the Commission accepted that the invalid care allowance was outside the scope of the directive. Although I recognise that some remarks have been made about the fact that usually one is referring to the person who is made an invalid, and although it has been admitted that there is no directly comparable benefit in Europe to ICA, the directive states that

    "it would be desirable … not to exclude the benefit in question from the scope of the Directive."
    That appears to suggest that the matter does come, or should come, within the scope of the directive.

    I shall leave the Minister with one final thought to consider about the European Court's decision. I wish to press him on the date when people will be given the allowance, if the Government decide to do this, or are forced to do so. I noted with interest that when the Government introduced their new clause to abolish the half test, they made it retrospective to the date of implementation of the directive. Therefore, it would clearly be desirable, logical and would follow precedent to implement ICA from the date of the directive. If ICA is introduced, it should at least be from the date of the judgment on the Drake case rather than from the date on which people make individual claims, as it is at present. If it is right to abolish the half test from a consistent date, it is right to do so in abolishing the discrimination in ICA, should that happy day come. We all hope that it will, perhaps even in the next year. Tonight we have sought to clarify the Government's intentions and, therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

    Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.