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Supplementary Benefit: Single Payments

Volume 479: debated on Monday 21 July 1986

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3.37 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement on single payments being made in another place. The Statement is as follows: "Mr Speaker, with permission, I should like to make a Statement about single payments of supplementary benefit.

"I first simply set some facts before the House. Between 1974 and 1979, under the previous Government, what were then called exceptional needs payments rose from 0.8 million to 1.1 million, and their cost from £11.5 million to £38 million. These numbers were already a matter of concern, and one of the objectives of the review carried out in 1976–78 was better control of such payments. In 1980, the present Government made changes which it was hoped would overcome the problem, and which indeed took account of the recommendations of that earlier review. Initially, they appeared to have had some success. But by 1983 the number of payments was virtually double the 1979 figure at nearly 2 million, and expenditure had almost quadrupled, to over £140 million. By 1985, both figures had more than doubled again, to more than 4 million payments at a cost of over £300 million. And the growth shows no sign of diminishing.

"This trend cannot be explained by the increase in the number of claimants: the rate of payments per claimant has itself more than doubled since 1979. Nor can it be explained by changes in weekly benefit levels: the weekly scale rates rose in real terms by some 6 per cent. between November 1978 and November 1985. There have also been other significant improvements: for example, in some of the payments for children; in the amount and scope of regular additional heating payments, especially for pensioners; and in the rules concerning benefit for the long-term sick and disabled.

"Against this background, our firm conclusion in the recent social security review was that the present system of single payments could be neither justified nor sustained. It is incompatible with sensible planning and efficient administration, as is shown by the fact that, althouth only some 5 per cent. of supplementary benefit expenditure, it accounts for nearly 50 per cent. of all supplementary benefit decisions and over 50 per cent. of appeal hearings.

"More fundamentally, it is clearly not achieving what Parliament intended. Despite elaborate regulations and adjudication, wide discrepancies occur from one area to another. It is increasingly perceived as unfair by others, on incomes little or no higher than supplementary benefit, to whom no comparable help is available. There is unacceptable scope for exploitation and abuse, yet, at the same time, insufficient flexibility to meet the real needs of genuine claimants.

"As the House knows, it is for these reasons that the Government have brought forward in the current Social Security Bill proposals for an improved structure of regular weekly income support, coupled with a clearly distinct social fund designed to give appropriate help with genuine special occasional needs in a more practical, manageable and flexible way. We believe those proposals are essential to the proper working of the benefit system as a whole.

"Meanwhile, however, the growing unworkability of the present single payments system could not simply be ignored. In February, therefore, we put for consultation to the Social Security Advisory Committee draft regulations making a number of changes within the existing structure as an interim measure. The principal elements were to restrict furniture and bedding payments to more clearly defined categories of need, paying particular attention to the needs of pensioners, the sick and disabled, and those leaving hospital after a long stay; to introduce time rules for repeat claims for items of furniture; to set standard sums for specific items such as cookers, and standard amounts to cover a range of miscellaneous household items which can at present be individually listed; and to introduce a standard pattern of help with maternity needs.

"We have now given very careful consideration to the committee's report, which is laid before Parliament today together with my right honourable friend's response. The report clearly recognises the difficulties to which the Government are seeking to respond. It also recongises the effort which has been made to take account of the needs of those thought to be most vulnerable, and welcomes in principle the introduction of standard payments and lump sums. While making it plain that the committee do not endorse the proposals as a whole, it nevertheless suggests a number of specific modifications they would wish to see if the Government should decide to proceed.

"For the reasons I have given, the Government continue to believe that action is needed. Moreover, those considerations have been greatly strengthened by the continued escalation of single payments in recent months. The most recent figures, for the four weeks to 3rd June, were equivalent to an annual rate of 5½ million payments and at least £400 million. Many local authorities and other bodies are mounting campaigns to stimulate further claims; for example, by circulating leaflets containing extensive 'tick lists' of items under some such slogans as 'Closing down sale'. Apart from anything else, the consequent growing burden on DHSS offices, despite the additional staff we are making available, is seriously detrimental to the interests of claimants themselves.

"The Government therefore propose to proceed with new regulations, but with a number of important modifications to meet detailed suggestions which the committee have made. These include further steps to protect the position of refugees, women who have been subject to domestic violence and young people leaving local authority care; a lengthening of the qualifying period for maternity payments; the extension of lump sum payments for miscellaneous items to childless claimants setting up home; and, perhaps most important, a doubling of that lump sum from £25 to £50 for each dependant. Regulations incorporating those changes have been laid today with a view to bringing them into effect on 1lth August".

That, my Lords, concludes the Statement.

My Lords, my first comment must be that the fact that we have this Statement today indicates the tremendous disarray in which the Government find themselves in regard to social security. We are now in the middle of the Third Reading of the Social Security Bill, which, in the Government's view, is supposed to put everything right, and suddenly we have this very extensive and important Statement thrust upon us. I must protest on behalf of my noble friends and myself.

I wonder whether it has occurred to the Government that the reason for the increase in demands since 1979 and the fact that the demands have doubled might have something to do with Tory Government policies, with increasing poverty and with increasing unemployment. It is not for the Government to complain that costs have gone up: it is for those who suffer from the Government's policies to complain that their needs and their impoverishment have increased. I thought that the Minister seemed to be, in repeating the Statement, reproving the local authorities and claimants' committees who seek to bring their rights to the attention of claimants. The fact that more people are becoming aware of their rights and are asking for them is not a matter of regret on this side of the House, and I am sorry if it is a matter of regret on the other side.

I must ask one or two questions, although, in view of all the business we have to do today, I promise I will not make a Second Reading speech. However, there are some very puzzling points here. I must first ask the noble Baroness if this list of single payments is likely to be transferred into the social fund when that comes into effect. I read in the Green Paper, volume 1, paragraph 13.6:
"Payments from this fund will not be governed by detailed regulations".
I hope I am not anticipating what is going to happen to the social fund, about which there is some confusion, but if the Minister could give me guidance I would appreciate it.

I must next ask the Minister whether there will be any appeal against the allocation of these amounts. Will there be any special help during severe weather? We know the muddle that exists in the Government's policies on helping people to keep warm in severe weather. Also, I appreciate there have been some concessions, but I have to ask the Minister whether people from board and lodging accommodation will get the chance of a house. Will they be given the necessary assistance?

I also wonder, when the increase in these amounts is discussed, whether the Government are putting on the credit side the fact that, by making single payments to many families who have been homeless or people coming out of institutions, there has been a net saving in the cost of their institutional care or board and lodging care. I therefore do not regard those figures as being entirely a debit in the Government's finances.

Additionally, I cannot think why 1lth August has been fixed. There is no Royal wedding that I know about, and there is no special magic that I can see about 1lth August. I am sure that the Minister will tell me why that date was chosen. However, I imagine that there will be a great rush between now and 1lth August by all the claimants who will find out that they have a right to ask for these benefits, and I only hope that the Government will take on extra staff to deal with them! Seriously, my Lords, this is no way to undertake the revision of such a serious matter.

I thought that the Statement was only just about fair to the Social Security Advisory Committee and o course I received its long report only a few minute; ago. However, I alway first look at the end. At the end I read:
"The Government's response has been to propose much tighter conditions of eligibility and a greatly limited range of items. This response, because it seeks to attack the symptons (increased public expenditure) without fully analysing the causes, must necessarily run the risk of causing widespread hardship amongst claimants who are already living at what is generally recognised as the poverty level'
We all say "Hear, hear" to that—at least most of u . would, I am sure.

My Lords, we on these Benches an grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement made in another place. I should like to make it clear at the beginning of my comments that we on these Benches would certainly be against abuse. I abuse is proved, we should certainly want to see i tackled. However, it is very difficult to tell how much the increase is due to the increase in poverty, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, suggested—due, for example, to unemployment—and how much is due, as I noticed in a quick glance in the past few minutes that the Social Security Advisory Committee suggests, to a reservoir of unmet needs which is only now being fully appreciated.

It seems to me that those are weighty matters which ought to be investigated very thoroughly. The views of the Social Security Advisory Committee have beer published only today along with the regulations. We have not had a chance to look at those to see precisely what they are saying, or to consider them in any detail However, it is here that the advisory committee has criticised the impact of the changes on some of the poorest people. On the other hand, the Government are intent on going ahead with their regulations with certain modifications and one must ask why there is the rush. Why should the public and Members of Parliament not have the opportunity to consider the views of the Social Security Advisory Committee at greater length? Why is there not a proper time for reflection?

There is then the important point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, as to whether these regulations which are now being issued will form part of the regulations controlling the social fund. That would seem to be contrary to what we have understood was going to be the position. The rush with which this matter is being pushed through without adequate time for general consideration of the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee is something about which we too would wish to protest.

My Lords, let me start with the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, who said that we were rushing things through—as indeed did the noble Lord, Lord Banks. We announced our proposals on 24th February 1986, but we did not receive the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee until 22nd May. Since then we have been giving careful consideration to the committee's report and to the representations which it received. We have made a number of significant changes to our original proposals. However, we could not bring them before the House until we had concluded our considerations, and these considerations have taken time to prepare.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, asked about exceptionally severe weather payments. Those proposals do not alter Regulation 26, which deals with payments for exceptionally severe weather. In the light of last winter's experience, the Government are looking at this issue most carefully and plan to bring forward before next winter proposals which would also deal with those who pay for fuel by slot meter.

With regard to the right of appeal against amounts, all decisions as to whether or not a claimant is entitled to a single payment will be made by adjudication officers. All decisions will still carry the right of appeal, but disputes about amounts payable should arise much less often. The noble Baroness asked about widespread hardship and the view of the Social Security Advisory Committee. But let us be clear about the sums of money that will still be available. A lone parent with two children setting up home for the first time following a breakdown of marriage could receive furniture and bedding payments of up to £800. An unemployed couple could get over £250 to replace a cooker and a bed after a year on benefit. Those are not insignificant sums when compared with the position of other low income groups.

The noble Baroness also asked me whether the list is to be transferred to the social fund. I must tell her that no decisions have yet been taken on what items will be in the social fund. Appeal rights would continue. With regard to board and lodging claimants receiving assistance, yes, they will receive assistance if they qualify or, for instance, have a good reason as defined in regulations, or are leaving special care hostels.

On the question of staff to cope with further claims before 11th August, it is the department's aim to continue to match staffing of local offices to the workload through a complementing system which has been agreed with the trade unions. This system is underpinned by regular complementing reviews which are intended to adjust the basic complement. Previous complement reviews have had to be abandoned due to industrial disputes which so affected working patterns that the results would not have reflected how work is done in local offices. Because of the exceptional pressures which have built up in local offices, 5,000 more staff have been made available than would have been justified by the strict application of the complementing system for the current year. This addition was made pending the results of the complement review now taking place.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, asked: why 1lth August? The noble Baroness will know that there is normally a three-week period between laying regulations and their coming into effect. Three weeks from today is 11th August. The noble Lord, Lord Banks, asked why the Government were laying these important regulations so late. We would answer that we announced our proposals on 24th February, as I have already said. I think that I have already answered that question. I welcome the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Banks, against abuse, which were not quite followed through by the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger.

My Lords, may I assure the noble Baroness that this side of the House has always been—when it was on that side of the House also—as opposed to abuse as that side of the House has ever been?

I want to ask one question. Why was not the Social Security Advisory Committee's report published so that we could all see it, consider it, and have it in our hands at the time when this important Statement was made? The report has some very critical comments in it. Surely those should have been available to your Lordships as well as to those in another place and to the public at large?

My Lords, I thought I had answered that we received it on a certain date—I am looking back at my notes—and that we have been having complicated dicussions on our views. But it has been published, as is the normal practice, today.

My Lords, yes, indeed; today. Perhaps I may clarify this point. The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, said earlier that they were telling people what they were entitled to. I have a splendid letter from a lady in the North, who wrote to the social security office saying that she had been urged to claim for all manner of things. She did not want to claim for more than three very modest items. The form filled in was clearly not filled in by her, but by somebody else. She wished to disclaim that form and claim merely for the three items that she needed.

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, can she tell us how many such letters she has received? Was it only one letter and, if so, is it not rather an abuse of the argument to refer to one letter? I could refer to many other letters.

My Lords, the Statement refers to the wide discrepancies that occur between one area and another. Am I right in thinking that the Government regard this as being totally undesirable? Am I also right in calculating that the great majority of those discrepancies arise as between the decisions of adjudication officers and not as between decisions of various independent review tribunals?

My Lords, for the sake of speed I shall write to the noble Lord on that matter.

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister say whether the amounts we are talking about are to be grants or loans?

My Lords, as the single payments scheme is in operation until the social fund takes over, the single payments scheme will proceed as it is now.