State Pension Credit Bill [Lords]

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Mr. McCartney: I hope that my hon. Friend will tell the hon. Gentleman that what she said was a joke; otherwise, we will get lots of letters.

Maria Eagle: I was, of course, kidding. However, that would be one of the effects of the amendment.

I know that this is a probing amendment, so I do not intend to chide the hon. Gentleman too much, but it would have another slightly strange effect: a person in hospital would continue to receive their pension credit, irrespective of the length of time that they were there, although many other benefits that they might be receiving would be downrated. Therefore, pension credit would be taken out of line with other benefits.

Amendment No. 3, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Northavon, is trying to do a similar thing. With regard to that amendment, I wish to point out a remarkable coincidence. Initially, it appeared to be an amendment to clause 3, rather than to clause 2, and it made sense in relation to both clauses, even down to the line to which it referred. That is remarkable; I have never come across that before. Therefore, it was not immediately apparent whether we were dealing with a typing error. We finally managed to establish that the hon. Gentleman did mean it to be an amendment to clause 2, rather than to clause 3.

Therefore, the effect of amendment No. 3 would be similar to that of amendment No. 14—but not quite the same. It deals with the sin side of things, because it would enable us to exclude prisoners, monks and nuns, but it would still mean that pensioners who were in hospital for the appropriate amount of time would get their pension credit in full, but not their other benefits or their retirement pension. Therefore, it would have slightly anomalous effects.

I hope that the explanations that I have given the Committee are satisfactory, and that the hon. Member for Daventry will withdraw amendment No. 14. However, he must decide about that.

Mr. Boswell: I am touched by the Under-Secretary's response because it puts me in the category of sinners, which I would wish to do myself. With regard to that, the only possible exculpation that I can give is to refer to that famous motto that states that if one is to sin, one should be a good sinner, and trust at the same time in the Lord. Her response also sought to suggest that I had led the hon. Member for Northavon, who always informs our debates, into the path of sin. It was not my intention, unless severely provoked, to advise my hon.

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Friends to divide on a point that would have the side-wind effect not only of abolishing downrating in respect of pensions credit but of bringing in the force feeding of pension credits to nuns.

10 am

The Under-Secretary understands that this is in essence a probing amendment, and she has responded broadly in that vein. They are difficult issues of substance, as she rightly says, and I do not wish to suggest that we are uninterested in avoiding double provision. The hon. Member for Northavon raised some legitimate questions about the extent of double provision—and, of course, we have an interest in the overall cost to the social security system.

Andrew Selous: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is at least slightly curious that if a pensioner received a substantial inheritance or had a lottery win at the start of the five years, there would be double provision because he would receive the pension credit until the next review period?

The Chairman: Order. Before that point is answered, I wish to raise a technical point. If the hon. Member for Northavon wishes to intervene again, you, Mr. Boswell, should not at this stage beg leave to withdraw the amendment—should that be your intention. You should wait until the hon. Gentleman has resumed his seat.

Mr. Boswell: That was very delicately put, Mr. Griffiths. As we are talking about sin, I seem to have become increasingly Jesuitical. I signalled that I would not withdraw the amendment but for the fact that we have an opportunity to return to the subject. However, I to not want to detain the Committee.

The substantive point is that we understand the interest in double provision; indeed, it is part of social security doctrine going back to 1948. In responding to the hon. Member for Northavon, the Under-Secretary did not really stem concerns about the thin end of the wedge. She might have done; there might be some awful skeletons in the cupboard in other Departments that we have not spotted. However, she was worried about it. I understand the principle although, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) pointed out, the reality can be rather different. For instance, a person who entirely legitimately is in receipt of a pensions savings credit may be affluent as a result of a windfall.

I shall not tease the Under-Secretary at length about the choice of the 13-week period now, although I might do so under another clause.. One can always ask—indeed, Oppositions always ask—for evidence and precise specification, and it would be difficult for Ministers to give it. However, given that they have extended the period, and given that the Under-Secretary's helpful explication of the figures showed that it is a substantial relief, I concede. I do not want to go further on that, except to say that I am sure that Ministers will want to note the importance of keeping the matter under review, continuing to consider the overall position of pensioners in those circumstances. None of us in Committee have lost interest in the subject, but it is clearly an advance.

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There is one area that I did not touch on in my opening remarks, which is how the system will operate in practice. The Under-Secretary knows that it was discussed at some length in another place. If the number of persons affected is reduced, that problem would obviously be reduced as well. However, when I first intervened on the hon. Member for Northavon, at the back of my mind was the answer to my parliamentary question to find out more about the restoration of benefit to persons who had been in hospital—for example, how soon they got it back, and so on. The position was not wholly clear or satisfactory.

Hospital authorities do not charge persons in receipt of benefit for their hospital services. That would be another way of doing it, but I am not canvassing; I merely say it for the record. However, that raises much wider issues, and you, Mr. Griffiths, would not thank me if I went into them today. Hospitals have no interest in advancing the matter, except in relation to hospital social workers and advising individual patients. The interest lies with individual claimants who must notify the authorities when they go into hospital for more than a short stay and who must reapply for benefit thereafter.

Earlier, we discussed persons who went abroad, and I may want to return to the matter of assessment. There is concern that it should be much easier to get pensioners through temporary interruptions in benefit—however well founded—and I hope that a means of doing that will emerge as the Pension Service develops.

The Under-Secretary should consider the incidence of outliers in reapplying for benefit. We are discussing people who are convalescing, and their first thought on leaving hospital will not be, ''I must reclaim my benefit.'' They will do that along the way, and the hon. Lady should perhaps think about operational systems that would make it much easier for them to do so.

I say no more about that now, but it would be useful if the Under-Secretary could give an indication of her approach to the matter. Even if there has been relief on the general issue, there is still concern that those who come to the end of their qualifying period and go into disbenefit may lose out.

I shall make one more point about the continuing review. As regards the overall cost or the benefit to the Exchequer of downrating, I had a slightly irritating answer from the Minister, which did not answer the substance of my question. Nevertheless, in so far as the numbers are reduced, the changes that the Minister has made involve a substantial cost to the Exchequer. As one reduces the number of cases to a minority, the cost to the individual of the downrating increases—the individual case cost increases. Ministers should perhaps bear that in mind. They may reduce the pain of downrating for many people, but they may, if not intensify the pain, at least increase the relative pain for those who remain in the system.

Mr. Webb: I shall respond briefly to the Under-Secretary's comments on amendment No. 3. She said that there were three reasons why it would not work. The first related to the principle of double provision,

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but there is clearly no principle at work in the provisions before us. They are, at the least, tempered by pragmatism, and the Government will allow what they see as double provision to go on for 13 weeks. If there is a fundamental, absolute principle at work, why would it not apply in the first week? Because of the effects on the people about whom we are talking. The Government therefore accept that the principle can be breached. Indeed, they have extended the breach of that principle, so it is not a principle at all—we are talking about pragmatism.

Furthermore, the hon. Lady offered no evidence of double provision. If one is to accept the Government's contention that we must have downrating to avoid double provision, one needs evidence of double provision, but the Minister says that there is none. No one has compared the costs of people being in hospital with those of people living in their own home. There is, therefore, no evidence of double provision, so that fundamental reason for carrying on with downrating is not proven—I think that that is the legal term.

The second reason that the Under-Secretary gave was that the amendment would be anomalous. If the Government went through with it, they would get rid of downrating for pensioners, but no one else. However, that reflects the scope of the Bill. We can amend provisions that apply to pensioners on guaranteed credit, but not those that apply to anyone else.

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