PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

HOUSE OF COMMONS

OFFICIAL REPORT

Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

SOCIAL SECURITY MISCELLANEOUS PROVISIONS REGULATIONS 1989

Wednesday 17 May 1989

LONDON

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1

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Geraint Howells

Beaumont-Dark, Mr. Anthony (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Bradley, Mr. Keith (Manchester, Withington)

Corbyn, Mr. Jeremy (Islington, North)

Fallon, Mr. Michael (Darlington)

Flynn, Mr. Paul (Newport, West)

Gordon, Ms Mildred (Bow and Poplar)

Holt, Mr. Richard (Langbaurgh)

Kirkwood, Mr. Archy (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Lloyd, Mr. Peter, (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security)

Maxwell-Hyslop, Mr. Robin (Tiverton)

Patnick, Mr. Irvine (Sheffield, Hallam)

Raison, Mr. Timothy (Aylesbury)

Ridsdale, Sir Julian (Harwich)

Shepherd, Mr. Colin (Hereford)

Smith, Mr. John P. (Vale of Glamorgan)

Speed, Mr. Keith (Ashford)

Trotter, Mr. Neville (Tynemouth)

Wise, Mrs. Audrey (Preston)

Mr. M. R. Jack, Committee Clerk

2
3 Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Wednesday 17 May 1989

[MR. GERAINT HOWELLS in the Chair]

Social Security Miscellaneous Provisions Regulations 1989

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lloyd): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Social Security Miscellaneous Provisions Regulations 1989. These regulations are of somewhat impenetrable nature when put down on paper so it might be helpful if I describe them briefly.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak): Briefly.

Mr. Lloyd: As my hon. Friend says, briefly. The main purpose of this instrument is to revoke two provisions in the Social Security (Benefit) (Married Women and Widows Special Provisions) Regulations 1974 which are contrary to EC directive 79/7 on the equal treatment for men and women. At present, regulation 2 of these regulations provide credits in certain cases to women whose marriages have ended, either by widowhood or divorce, enabling them to obtain short-term national insurance benefits. These credits are awarded only for the purposes of a particular claim and do not affect a woman's pension position. It is because these credits are available only to women and not to men, who may be in precisely the same situation, that they are discriminatory. This change will affect only a small number of women and this number is decreasing as more married women are working and can claim benefit on the basis of their own contributions record. We are also revoking regulation 3(10) which relates to regulation 2. Those women who are already benefiting from regulation 2 will continue to be able to benefit from it under the transitional provisions contained in this instrument which provide the same degree of cover as the transitional arrangments which apply to the recent change in contribution conditions. This means that no continuing claim will experience a change in benefit before October 1989. Regulation 8, which is also to be revoked, requires adjudication officers to take account of the special circumstances which can apply to married women when considering whether a woman has left a job voluntarily. Additionally, this regulation is now redundant because the more recent adjudication regulations require that all relevant factors are considered in every case. The other provisions in these regulations are good housekeeping measures. Members will know, for 4 example, that the basis for calculating earnings factors, on which entitlement to contributory benefits is based, was changed from April 1988. Earnings factors are now derived from earnings on which contributions have been paid rather than on the contributions themselves. These regulations amend the married women and widows special provisions regulations to reflect the current practice. Calculations for years before April 1988 will continue to be made on the old basis. Another change concerns the treatment of posted benefit claims and notices of retirement. These are now treated as being made, or given, on the date on which they arrive in one of the department's local offices. These regulations amend the widow's benefit and retirement pensions regulations to bring the treatment of posted notices of de-retirement into line. To complete this package of good housekeeping measures, the regulations also make a number of purely technical changes such as the repeal of regulations that are now redundant. I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate the need for these minor changes. I therefore commend the regulations to the Committee.

10.34 am

Mr. Paul Flynn(Newport, West): Thank you, Mr. Cadeirydd, and Bore da! I suggested to the Minister that we should conduct our sitting this morning in the language of heaven, but he tells me that his Welsh is a little rusty, so we shall have to conduct it, as usual, in the language of the other place. May I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for the Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith). It is his first experience of a parliamentary Committee and he will find it marginally less exciting than the politics of the Vale of Glamorgan. While the Social Security Miscellaneous Provisions Regulations 1989 were not a major issue in the Vale of Glamorgan, social security certainly was. I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of the regulations because often when we are presented with statutory instruments, they are impenetrable and difficult to understand, and we look with expectation to the explanatory notes. In this case most of us would find the explanatory note even more impenetrable than the regulations. The Minister said that one reason for the change is the need for equality of European regulations on discrimination. We have sympathy with the idea of eliminating discrimination, but it is sad that discrimination should be downward and not upward. We agree entirely that the circumstances apply to many househusbands who have domestic exactly the same responsibilities as widows and others and it would be better if there was a change of regulations to level up rather than level down. We hope the Government will not set a precedent when they are seeking to end discrimination between the sexes and apply the worst provision for either sex. We understand the need for the regulation and the need for many of the consequential regulations that inevitably follow each year after decisions have been taken. The original regulations, as laid out in Ogus 5 and Barendt, state that a woman may obtain employment for the first time where a marriage has been terminated by death or dissolution. The position of such a woman, as described in that standard work, is analogous to that of new entrants and similar credit facilities are available. The Government have now abolished the starting credit for young people. They no doubt feel that in their plan relentlessly and remorselessly to spread misery equally they have now to abolish the re-starting credits for divorced women and widows. We shall not argue about regulation 6, which provides transitional protection from the repeal of regulation 2 of the 1974 regulations for women already receiving a short-term benefit when that repeal comes into force on 28 May. We are unhappy about unemployment benefit because that protection ceases on 1 October, rather than continuing, as would be logical and tidy, until the end of the 52 week unemployment entitlement. It continues for 17 weeks only and that seems unnecessary and mean. Regulation 2(4) repeals regulation 8 of the 1974 regulations, which provides that: "The question whether a married woman is subject to any of the disqualifications for unemployment benefit…shall be determined on the same basis as that applicable to a single woman, but not so as to exclude such considertion of the responsibilities arising from her marriage as is reasonable in the circumstances of the case." In other words, if a married woman leaves a job voluntarily, any domestic reasons arising from her responsibilities as a wife and mother can be taken into account in deciding whether she has a just cause. That provision did not exist before 1974, although there were some decisions that pointed in that direction. It is probably, sadly, of little practical importance these days as social security has become more harsh and oppressive with each annual Social Security Act that has been passed in the past decade. Nowadays a woman to whom it might apply could well have her benefit questioned, as was suggested by the Minister for other reasons, such as on the grounds of non-availability. It was a civilised and worthwhile provision and there seems to be no virtue in repealing it, even though its application will be less than in the past. That might well be a reason for keeping it, because it will not involve any great cost. I mentioned sex discrimination earlier. There is logic in the Government's thinking behind these changes if one accepts their starting point, but they will mean a loss to many people. It is a shame that, once again, people will be affected at a time of divorce or widowhood, when the benefit should be at a maximum instead of the Government appearing to be penny-pinching and depriving people in those circumstances of an asset and money that has been available for a long time. Will the Minister give us his view on that?

Mr. Peter Lloyd: First, the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) hoped that these changes were not an example of a continuing process of levelling down because of equalisation under the rules. I assure him that that is not the case. The 6 Government look at each issue on its merits. As I said in my opening remarks, the regulations affect very few women, and the number is declining, as more married women have their own contributions on which they become entitled to sickness and unemployment benefit, the two short-term benefits affected by the regulations. If one was, in the hon. Gentleman's terms, to level up on this issue, one would give a right to a tiny number of men. The real cost is not in the benefit but in the necessary administrative machinery and procedures. The Government feel that in this case those resources are much better directed elsewhere. The hon. Gentleman's second point related to the length of transition time, which he thought was untidy and unfair. I believe that it is both fair and tidy, because it is designed to mesh in with the transition period brought in when the new arrangements for qualifying contribution conditions were enacted last year. Therefore, the qualifying period for the small changes under these regulations fit precisely the transitional period in last year's more substantial changes. Finally, I think that the hon. Gentleman was referring to regulation 8 and the revocation of the requirement for adjudication officers to take into account any special circumstances of a married woman. This change is more apparent than real, as I tried to suggest in my opening remarks. It is not acceptable for the adjudication officer specifically to take into account circumstances only when they apply to a married woman. Under other regulations on adjudication he is required to take into account all an individual's relevant personal circumstances. He will not be excluded from considering matters that he might have considered specifically for a married woman under the head of the regulation that we are revoking, so there will be no loss to a married woman. Perhaps I may illustrate that point in this way. The adjudication officer would previously have considered whether a woman had left her job because her husband had obtained a job elsewhere and she was required to move. Under the regulations that we are revoking, the adjudication officer might have regarded her reasons for leaving work as good ones and therefore not have disentitled her to benefit. The same consideration can now be taken under the adjudication regulations recently brought in, but that would apply equally to a man who left his job because his wife was offered a job elsewhere in the country and he moved with her. There is no loss of right, but an equality of treatment that was not apparent in the previous regulations, even though they might have worked in that way if we had not revoked the other regulations that men would be considered under the new regulations and married women under the old ones. I think that I have covered all the hon. Gentleman's points. If I have missed any, will he say so?

10.45 am

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston): These things are impenetrable, as was said. I now know the guidelines that the Government follow, because I was a member 7 of the Committee that considered the Employment Bill. Hon. Members were told that if two competent lawyers from different parts of the country understood the legislation, that was all that was required. It is an interesting definition. The Minister has dealt with some of the points that were raised, but I want to press him further on the final point. The example that he gave was interesting, useful and reassuring, but can he be even more reassuring and establish that the instructions that are now being given to adjudication officers spell out the extension of rights? Do they specify that circumstances relating to family or spouse can be taken into consideration, or do they rest on saying "all relevant circumstances"? What instructions have been given to adjudication officers? I accept the way in which the Government intend the extension to work, but I want to make sure that it will work in that way. Other examples, which do not come readily to mind, could apply. On levelling up on the first regulation, the Minister said twice that it would affect only a small number of women. Can he tell us how many were affected in the last available year or give us the Government's forecast for the next year? "Small number" is a very loose term. The Minister raised the problems of levelling up where not many people are affected. His explanation seemed poor. He said that the expense was not in the number of people affected, but in the administration. If the machinery is activated only by a few people, I cannot see that the presence of regulations and procedure is expensive; if it is activated by only a few people, the machinery seems to cost little I find it difficult to decide because of the imprecision of the Minister's points. I wish to press him about the numbers.

10.48 am

. Peter Lloyd: May I deal with the hon. Lady's points in reverse order? The primary reason for the change is not cost, but to remove a discriminatory provision on paper. The question then is whether the Government should extend the rule to men or remove it altogether. It is not the existence of the rule that causes concern, but its complexity; complexity piled upon complexity is of no use or benefit to claimants, as well as being an extra complication and difficulty for staff which prevents them from giving as streamlined and good a service as they would like. One has to justify any complexity. There are two additional reasons that we should take into account. First, the regulations deal primarily with entitlement to unemployment benefit. The purpose of the new entitlement provisions that were introduced last year was to ensure that those who were entitled to unemployment benefit had a recent and clear connection with the labour market. The arrangements that existed under the regulations that are being revoked did not ensure that, which is why we have moved in that direction. It would be a perverse way of moving to give a special right to men 8 who had no recent connection with the job market to qualify for unemployment benefit, and we do not wish to move in that direction. It would not be the right way to go. The hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) asked how many women will be affected. I do not know. One reason why I do not know is that the number is extremely small. Because we do not keep special tabs on the numbers concerned, I cannot give the hon. Lady a number without it being total guesswork, but if she went to her local office she would have difficulty in finding many women—perhaps she would find none—who had been affected over the past year. However, if she wishes to assess the number, that would probably be the best guide. The hon. Lady also asked about regulations covering whether married women have left their jobs voluntarily and with good cause. We do not give instructions to adjudication officers. Their job is to interpret the law and the regulations under the guidance of the chief adjudication officer. It is not laid down in regulations, but the adjudication officer is requried to consider every relevant factor in each case. If we tried to list in the regulations those points that the adjudication officer should consider, it would imply that the points not listed were either less important or should not be considered. We require the adjudication officer to take each case on its merits and judge whether that produces good cause. The example that I have given is a good illustration of how they are expected to work. The guidance and instruction will come from the chief adjudication officer. If adjudication officers are considered by those claiming entitlements not to have considered a relevant factor, the claimants could seek to establish that on appeal. It would be wrong for the Government to give instructions or guidance to adjudication officers. We do not do that, but we are satisfied that the regulations are sufficiently widely drawn and clear for adjudication officers to take into account all the factors that they would have taken into account under the regulations that are being revoked. It is perfectly clear that they would have to take those into account for men who are in similar situations.

Mrs. Wise: I must protest about a Minister who tells us that it affects a small number of people, but does not know how many. He cannot even give an estimate. He must have some basis on which to tell us that it is small. I now have a reflex action. As soon as a Government member uses the words "small", "few" or "little", I know that they are a disguise for a total lack of knowledge and total lack of care. The Minister suggests that I go to my local office to ask, and says that that would give me an example of the position in the Preston area. My rejoinder is that it is the Minister and his Government who are bringing forward the regulations. It is his job to have done even a small exercise like that. If I can do it with a local office, why could not the Minister; instead of saying "a small number", say that in X office no claimants, six claimants or whatever it might be were affected by this regulation. It is his job to present us with facts. He says "a small number" and then he 9 says that he has no basis on which to make that claim. That is totally unsatisfactory. His idea of a small number might not be mine and, however small a number, it is a truism to say that for the individual concerned it might as well be a large number, because for him it is 100 per cent. I protest not simply about this issue but about this method of doing business, which is now the habit of Conservative Ministers, and I want to register a strong complaint. It is time that Ministers were specific and factual and did their homework before they came to Committees instead of telling us to do it after the regulations have been approved. Secondly, with regard to the guidelines, I realise that it is the chief adjudiciation officer who issues guidance, but I asked whether there had been any such guidance. Have the Government any expectation that guidance will be given along the lines that the Minister outlined? He is confidently saying how adjudication officers will interpret the regulations. It is a simple question to ask whether he is confident on the basis of fact. Has the chief adjudication officer issued any guidelines? Have the Government drawn the chief adjudication officer's attention to the fact that revoking this provision is intended not in a negative way but to reinforce the point that all relevant circumstances for all people, married women or men, must be taken into account? I should feel happier if I knew even that the Government had sent a letter or had drawn attention in some way to the fact that this revocation is not intended negatively. Otherwise, it is possible that adjudication officers, seeing that the regulation relating to spouses has been revoked, will come to the conclusion that Parliament intends it not to be taken into account and that it is regarded as relevant to the particular case because the individual is being treated as an individual and not in relation to spouse or family. It does not follow automatically that the regulation will work in the way that the Minister want it to work. My question was very simple: will those who are administering this system know what is in the Government's mind?

Mr. Peter Lloyd: I am confident that the adjudication officers will not interpret their role more narrowly than they did before. The regulations clearly say that they should take into account all relevant factors in each case. Secondly, the hon. Lady is worried about the exact number that will be affected. The basis of this revocation is not the numbers that will be affected, although that is a point in the discussion. We do not know these figures because the credits are issued at local offices, different numbers of credits will be issued at different offices and they are not collected centrally. My helpful suggestion to the hon. Lady was that, if she wishes to know how many are affected in her constituency, she should go to the local office. If she cares to write to me about the matter, I should be happy to approach the local office to find out the figure for her. The Social Security Advisory Committee, was as is our practice, given the new regulations in draft and consulted on them. No outside organisation suggested that it was against the 10 change. Only one responded; it said that it had no knowledge of any individual who would be affected. On that basis, we believe that the number would be small. If the hon. Lady makes her inquiries, or I make them for her, she will find that to be so. The basis of the changes is not dependent upon the exact numbers affected. May I welcome the victor, the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) to the Committee. He has joined a Committee which shows all the excitement, interest and intellectual vigour that the House displays; there is no better place for him to start.

11.1 am

Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar): I must apologise for my late arrival, which was due to a police block in Birdcage walk which set me into a snarl of traffic lights for half an hour round Victoria. I was notified of my appointment to the Committee only on Friday, which did not give me enough time to obtain and study the relevant Act and documents. Forgive me if I am missing the point. What worries me is the amendment of the Social Security (Benefit) (Married Women and Widows Special Provisions) Regulations that permitted special credits. How will the regulations affect women who give up work to nurse husbands who are terminally ill? This happens frequently. They may give up work and be at home for six months; then the husband dies. The new regulation appears to be detrimental to their interests. Will the Minister explain it?

Mr. Peter Lloyd: I can answer that briefly. It will not affect them at all; it changes the rules not a whit in a manner that affects them.

Mr. Flynn: I am grateful for the contributions from my hon. Friends. As has been made clear by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise), there seems to be no effective basis for the change in the regulations. The Minister made an engaging confession—something that we always thought it was too brutal to accuse the Government of—that the Government were basing their changes to the law on guesswork. The Minister has confirmed this morning that the best that he can do in arriving at a figure of how many people are affected is guesswork. Major legislation has been passed when I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan now, first came to the Committee in all innocence, I thought that in the Social Security Bill that is currently going through Parliament no major change would be proposed without a vast amount of evidence and detailed studies being presented. The actively seeking employment rule is being presented on the basis of anecdotal evidence. The most convincing evidence was from the man on the Clapham omnibus whom everyone knows; the mythology of the scrounger, dating from the 1920s, was brilliantly displayed on Monday this week in a television programme, which showed how the mythology was established. Much of the decision-making in this place is based on prejudice, fuelled by malice and ignorance. 11 I accept much of what the Minister said about some matters, but he seems to be saying that we should change the law for the purpose of making the legislation tidy, yet it affects only a microscopic—a protozoan—number of people. Hardly anyone is involved, so why bother? It is nonsense. In the first Social Security Bill that we are planning for the next Labour Government, it may help to have legislation that is tidy and orderly. The Government have not made a case this morning for a change in the legislation. If there is an element in the legislation that provides generous treatment to widows—it must be painful to Conservative Members present, if not 12 to their Government, to take money from widows and divorcees at such a time in life—there is a case for saying, "Leave it in because it affects very few people and, if it does not, it does not matter, it is no administrative burden and no great problem. Why on earth change it?"

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Social Security Miscellaneous Provisions Regulations 1989.

Committee rose at five minutes past Eleven o'clock.

THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:

Howells, Mr. Geraint (Chairman)

Beaumont-Dark, Mr. Anthony

Fallon, Mr.

Flynn, Mr.

Gordon, Ms.

Lloyd, Mr. Peter

Patnick, Mr.

Raison, Mr.

Ridsdale, Sir.J.

Shepherd, Mr. Colin

Smith, Mr. John P.

Trotter, Mr.

Wise, Mrs.