State Pension Credit Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Boswell: I should like to ask about the periods involved. If the regulations prescribe four weeks, or in the exceptional case that the Minister mentioned, eight, is the decision maker left any discretion about the period? The intention might be perfectly reasonable, but the danger in specifying such matters is that doing so removes the discretion that the decision maker might otherwise reasonably want to use.

Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct. The decision maker's discretion is limited to the reasons involved, rather than relating to the length of time. If benefits are to be paid to people in this country, changing the length of time would affect all benefits. We do not propose to do that for this one alone. The benefit is in line with other income-related benefits. General eligibility is affected after four weeks, unless the person involved is taking a child—the exception to which I referred before—when it extends to eight weeks. That has been so for many years, including, as the hon. Gentleman would accept, when his party was in office.

I believe that I have dealt with most of the points made.

Andrew Selous: The Minister helpfully referred to regulations and guidance notes, and said that the habitual residence test was generally interpreted on the basis of case law. Might she or her Department consider examining that point specifically in cases of pensioner illness or compassionate care of a member of a pensioner's family overseas?

Maria Eagle: Decision makers working in the Department receive mountains of guidance notes about their responsibilities and flexibilities. I am sure that some guidance notes would help, although guidance notes do not obviate the law, and the length of time is not a matter for discussion.

I have made the points that I wanted to make. The hon. Member for Daventry said at the beginning of his remarks that the amendments were probing. I hope that he has found my comments to be of some assistance and will not feel the need to force the amendments to a Division, although he is of course perfectly entitled to do so.

Mr. Boswell: I am delighted to have the first opportunity to welcome the Minister to the Committee. If she continues as she has started, she will do very well. I look forward to a long and constructive relationship on some serious issues of law and practice.

I shall make a couple of personal points that show the reach of the issues involved. The first was stimulated by the extremely helpful speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury. Many people, and not only in the conventional old dominions, are related to people in the UK. On a parliamentary visit to New Zealand many years ago, I had a conversation with someone at a reception. After five minutes, I said to them, ''By the way, you don't

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know it, but you're actually my cousin.'' It happens. There are huge family links, and long may that continue.

My second point is, perhaps, a bit more jocular. I warned the Under-Secretary about my daughter's interests. I notice that already my six-month-old granddaughter becomes extremely animated on mention of the words ''judicial review''. It is the one thing that is calculated to get her going.

I realise that the Under-Secretary is having difficulty. She has a difficult brief marked ''resist''. It is tough. Some hard cases will not be adequately met, for the reasons that we gave. There are several comparisons to be made between the harsh treatment of a person who moves outside the jurisdiction and a person coming in as a benefit tourist expecting the full clutch of social security benefits.

I welcome the way in which the Under-Secretary set up her response and what she said about the habitual residence test. It is one of those things that is at the back of our minds and hon. Members have said that it occasionally comes up in constituency casework. We may think that it does not seem right or that it is harsh. We should, perhaps, revisit that on another occasion in a different format such as Westminster Hall. However, I am pleased that the Under-Secretary emphasised that discretion is available to decision makers and that case law moves the matter in what I hope will be a more friendly direction.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury made an impeccable speech that reminded the Committee about the reasons why people who are outside the world of benefit tourists and who do not seek an unfair advantage may have good reasons to leave the United Kingdom. That may be for such reasons as tending to a sick relative or joining another relative. The system is sometimes harsh to them. Although we will leave it at that point while the High Court considers its decision, such people may well feel a sense of unfairness and inequity.

Those are wider issues, but I ask the Under-Secretary to answer two specific questions that come from a train of thought that arose from our discussions. If a person claims for pension credit and receives an award before leaving the jurisdiction, the credit ceases after four weeks.

Maria Eagle indicated assent.

Mr. Boswell: The Minister nods. That person may have gone on an extended holiday and may wish to return after 12 weeks—that is not unreasonable behaviour for an older person. Will the Under-Secretary assure us that the Pension Service and other people involved in support are geared up to reactivating the claim—for example, they could put leaflets in ports—immediately so that people do not lose their benefit for an extended period while everything is sorted out? I am sure that the hon. Lady wants that to happen, but it would help if she could tell us the ways in which that might be done, and the way in which Ministers and people in the Pension Service will press forward and respond positively. It might be possible for a person to leave a conditional set of papers in which they write, ''I'm going away for

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three months. I'll be back on such-and-such a date. Can you give me a ring to remind me, or can I send an e-mail to say that everything is the same as before?''

I am always worried by cases of people who go abroad beyond the qualifying limits, which could lead to overpayments. A situation could arise in which a person leaves the United Kingdom to tend a sick relative or friend in another European Union country—not so far away. What could have been expected to be a weekend or week's commitment could last for three months. That person would be outside the United Kingdom and disqualified from pension credit after the four-week period. The last thing that they would think about in such a situation would be that they should advise people that they had left the jurisdiction, but they would have no intention of evading the system or taking an unfair advantage. Will the Under-Secretary tell us how she envisages the recovery to occur in such cases and how that would be phased in? Would people be treated reasonably?

I raise a separate question about neutral intention. People who have a pension credit entitlement may decide to leave the United Kingdom. They may be aware that it is being paid and may know that the entitlement is for five years on the basis of the assessment that they received. They may fail to notify their departure out of pure inadvertence, or it could be a deliberate attempt to gain an unfair advantage from other taxpayers by continuing to claim the benefit. However, if they are abroad, they are outwith the jurisdiction and benefit cannot easily be recovered. Not to recover it would be inequitable to those who remain. Will the Under-Secretary tell us now, or by correspondence if that is easier, how people who go on a bona fide holiday can restart their claims easily when they return? What can be done about overpayments that arise inadvertently or maliciously, and in cases in which a person is not within the jurisdiction to make a reclaim easily?

It may have been a form of nuclear deterrent, but the Under-Secretary threatened to read out all her brief on the habitual residence test. Although she kindly refrained, it would be useful if she put the information in a letter to members of the Committee. We could then be informed about a subject that we have already discussed, and which, over the years, we should have given more attention. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary and assure her that, at least on this occasion, she will start with a good record because I will advise my hon. Friends not to press the amendment.

Maria Eagle: I will respond briefly to the hon. Gentleman's points to the best of my ability now and, if he is not satisfied, I will correspond with him later.

In respect of pensioners who go abroad for a three-month holiday, the new Pension Service should be more responsive to the needs of those whom they serve. Given that the hon. Gentleman's fictional holidaying pensioners already have pension credit, there is no problem in informing them of its existence, so we do not have to start from scratch. Certainly, there is no reason why they could not make an arrangement with the Pension Service by telephone or

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e-mail to make contact as soon as they return, and reclaim pension credit as soon as possible.

Indeed, the fictional pensioners could receive advice about their entitlement and whether it would be affected by the length of stay because, although they may be aware of the pension credit, they probably would not be aware without further inquiry that it would cease after four weeks. There is no reason why they could not get advice about the implications of being away for three months before leaving. No doubt the Pension Service will be much more capable of doing that now that it has been disaggregated from the Benefits Agency, and is no longer trying to deal with working-age benefits as well.

In respect of overpayments, whether or not they are inadvertent, the Department always tries to be as reasonable as possible. Clearly, overpayments must be repaid unless the Department is at fault; in which case, there is discretion to look at whether overpayments are collected. I hope that the Department always deals with such issues as sensitively as possible and makes proper arrangements to pay over a period of time. I would expect that to happen in this case. Normal rules apply and nothing will be changed.

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Prepared 16 April 2002