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Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his intervention. The handling of this issue, and others, by the previous government did, I believe one can say quite gently, contain many defects. So far, we are pleased that there is no epidemic. However, there have been eight cases since last March and there are now 18. That is not an epidemic, but it is serious. In government one always finds oneself in the dilemma, especially when one is dependent on scientific advice, to which my noble friend referred, whereby one has always to preserve the balance between caution over the national health--and one probably always has to be over-cautious--and over huge costs. History will judge whether the previous government got that right. But we, with them, would not want to take major risks with the health of the nation.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I should like, first, to congratulate the noble Lord on his new post. I should also like to say how lucky in my opinion the farming industry is--and I declare an interest as a farmer--to have someone of such ability in the position that the noble Lord now occupies. Secondly, I must say that I find myself very much in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. Of course, I am delighted that the present Government are following some 90 per cent. plus of the previous government's policies. However, this is one area where, frankly, they should scrap them totally. They should cease to attempt to appease the unappeasable in the case of Europe and recognise that, however much anyone may be trying to get a balance between budgetary constraints and risks to human health, there is no way in which we can justify spending £3.5 billion on 18 cases of a disease which may be linked to BSE in cows. Indeed, there is no way in which the budgetary decisions so made could be justified.
With the massive majority that the Government have, perhaps I may urge the Minister to take a totally fresh look at the matter and say, "We shall not export our beef until BSE is ended". It will end in due course because the numbers are falling rapidly at present. Indeed, there is probably a great deal less BSE in Britain than there is
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks. I have taken note of his alliance with my noble friend who is sitting behind me. I am not sure whether that has always been the case and, therefore, I shall view what the noble Lord says with even greater care. I shall certainly report his views to my right honourable friend. Nevertheless, I have to tell the noble Lord that we are not totally--or even 90 per cent. in general--continuing the policies of the previous government, but we are locked into a particular process and we have certain obligations which we shall pursue while taking a radical look at them. We would not wish taxpayers to pay more than is necessary. We are most concerned about the consumer interest, but the health of the country is our top priority.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, I have perhaps an easier question for the Minister. Can he say what progress is being made to secure the removal of heads, spinal cords and some other offal from beef carcasses imported into this country from continental Europe?
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. However, I can assure him that it is my observation that there are no easy questions in this department. We announced last week our proposals to ensure that specified risk materials are removed, and, indeed, are removed from imports. We have given the European Union until 22nd July to come forward with proposals to ensure that it has similar controls. Therefore, we have taken quite new and radical steps in that respect. I hope that that will satisfy the noble Lord.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the case we have to put before the Scientific Veterinary Committee is an unanswerable one? We have all the evidence and we have done all the things that we need to do in order to be able to get the committee to agree with us. If we find the committee continuing with the obfuscation and obstruction which it has demonstrated on this occasion and which may be a hangover from previous days, or if at the end of the process it reaches the conclusion that we should not be allowed to go ahead with a certified herd scheme, would that not be a great disappointment to the Minister and cause him to question whether the approach being taken by his Government towards Europe is going to pay the dividends which he hopes? Further, can the Minister tell the House what conceivable disadvantage would occur to any other part of the United Kingdom--except perhaps to the amour propre of the Scots--if Northern Ireland were allowed to go ahead of the rest of us in getting permission to market its beef?
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. I believe that our case is very strong. It is not in all specifics the case that we might have submitted; indeed, it was submitted by the previous
I should also tell the noble Lord that my right honourable friend has been in contact today, by telephone, with both the relevant commissioners--namely, Commissioner Fischler and Commissioner Bonino--to discuss how we should take the matter forward positively. It is clear that their view is that this step is not a slap in the face or a rejection; it seeks to establish the basis on which we can go forward and secure a lifting of the ban. It should be viewed more positively than it has been in the British press.
As regards Northern Ireland, I can only repeat what I said to the noble Baroness. We sympathise with and are concerned about the beef industry in Northern Ireland. We shall do everything we can to help it. However, our basic aim is to seek a lifting of the ban for the whole of the United Kingdom. If we obtain specific concessions--for example, on certified herds or on animals born after certain dates--there is no doubt that those in Northern Ireland will be the main beneficiaries. As regards damage, I do not believe that the industry in Northern Ireland could inflict any damage on the rest of the United Kingdom. However, the Scots are often sensitive about these matters.
Lord Monson: My Lords, I wish to pick up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Denton of Wakefield, which I do not think was answered. Does the noble Lord accept that what infuriates the British people more than anything else with regard to the beef ban is the power, or purported power, of the European Commission to ban exports of our beef and beef derivatives to countries outside the European Union which may wish to buy our beef, notwithstanding the BSE scare? I suspect that 18 months ago 99.99 per cent. of the people in this country would have found it quite inconceivable that the European Commission possessed such draconian powers at the expense of national parliaments. Will the Minister say under what clauses or paragraphs of the Treaty of Rome, the Single European Act or the Treaty of Maastricht the European Commission is given such powers? If he does not have the facts at his fingertips, will he be so kind as to write to me? At the same time can he say whether the power to ban such exports is confined solely to agricultural produce, or could it be extended to manufactured goods which the Commission deems to be in some way unsafe?
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of this Motion is to persuade the Government to think again, or rather to persuade a new Government for the first time to think through the present proposals further to tighten eligibility for funeral expenses payments. In my speech to this Motion I depend for my facts on a number of briefs, but most particularly on the respected and impartial brief of the citizens advice bureaux. I also rely on my noble friend Lord Falkland to raise some matters which I shall not be able to touch on.
However, I depend for my motivation, as opposed to my facts, on my experience as a parish priest, where I suppose I have more experience with the bereaved than most Members of your Lordships' House. That moves me to know that this is one area where it is important that any government fall over backwards to be as humane and as compassionate as possible. Unlike other social security areas, in this case the damage done by fraud cannot be of major and overwhelming importance. Death comes to all of us but at least it comes only once.
The citizens advice bureaux consider that the present proposals further to tighten eligibility for funeral expenses payments and to limit the amount allowed will lead to people being deprived of assistance by harsh rules which fail to take account of the significance of funerals for those who are bereaved. The rules governing access to funeral payments are now so complex that not only does this cause problems for Benefits Agency staff administering the scheme, but it is virtually impossible for anyone apart from a partner of the deceased--and not always then--to know if they will qualify for a payment, let alone how much they will receive. The proposed amendments are another example of how short-term demands to cut costs take precedence over the creation of a system which is comprehensible to claimants and easy to administer.
There are two main aspects to the new proposals. First, an "immediate family member" test will be introduced. That will mean that, where there is no surviving partner, a funeral payment will be refused if there is a parent (including an absent parent) or a son or daughter of the deceased who is not in receipt of an income related benefit. In this situation relatives or close friends who would otherwise qualify for financial help in arranging a funeral will be refused. Secondly, the £500 limit will rise to £600, but with a reduction in assistance with specific expenses. The effect is likely to be a reduction in the overall payments made to individuals.
The CAB service believes that the new immediate family member test will lead to cruel and arbitrary decisions where the person judged to be an immediate family member may well have no interest or intention in paying for the funeral of the deceased and may not even be available to do so. Already CAB evidence shows that Benefits Agency officials are rejecting claims from close friends or relatives on the basis that it is not reasonable that they should take responsibility--usually where the deceased has other relatives who are not in receipt of qualifying benefits.
For example, a CAB in Wales reported the refusal of a funeral payment to a single parent on income support. Her mother had died in suspicious circumstances and the father had been arrested for her murder, then sent to a mental hospital, from which he had disappeared without trace. The Benefits Agency argued,
Where immediate family members are exempted from responsibility for funeral costs if at school, a student, in prison, in hospital or in the Armed Forces, these exceptions are too rigid to cope with the variety of other situations where it might be unreasonable to expect an immediate family member to pay. For instance, they do not deal with the situation where the immediate relative is mentally ill but living in the community on contributory benefits. I am afraid that such cases are only too common these days. They do not cover the situation where the immediate family member is not traceable. There will be particular problems for immigrants to the UK who may have immediate family overseas. An elderly parent living in Pakistan or Nigeria for example will not be in receipt of qualifying benefits
The proposed rules are likely to cause further grief to the parent of a deceased child. The Child Support Act has emphasised the financial obligation of each biological parent regardless of any estrangement between them. The new rules exempt from the "immediate family" test a parent, son or daughter who is estranged from the deceased. This exemption will not necessarily assist parents who are estranged from each other rather than the child, in particular if the absent parent had contact with the child or had been pressing for contact.
The further proposed restrictions on the amount awarded for funeral expenses merely throw into relief how inadequate the payment has become in enabling poor people to bury their dead without falling into debt. The truth is that even modest funerals cost more than £600. Many examples are reported to the citizens advice bureaux where it has been impossible for the person involved to pay the expenses. The proposed new limit on funeral expenses bears no relation to reality. As a result, the DSS appears indifferent to the consequences for poor people.
I know that the measure is a result of bureaucracy rather than necessarily hard-heartedness. However, I would expect the present new Government to be able to give us a new start in this matter. We consider that poor people should be allowed to bury their loved ones with all proper respect. Assistance with funeral costs is one of the oldest and most valued forms of help which the social security system in this country gives. The proposed new rules are a further erosion of claimants' rights to be treated with dignity, not least at moments of greatest distress. If we are committed, as I hope we all are, to helping those who are most in need of help, this is a situation where I sincerely hope that the Government will be able to think again. I beg to move.
The Viscount of Falkland: My Lords, my noble friend has outlined admirably the view from these Benches. I should not have been dealing with this subject, but my noble friend Lord Russell is not available today.
Like most noble Lords I have had a funeral in my family. During the past two years my mother died. She did not have an elaborate funeral, but I know full well the costs of that funeral. It was not in the London area; it was in the far west, in Devon. The cost was considerably in excess of the £600 allowed under the scheme. I agree with my noble friend and support him in saying that the limit of £600 is too rigid. In general terms the amount is inadequate.
The £600 limit affects everyone. However, homosexuals are particularly vulnerable as regards the immediate family test. Distress is caused to the surviving member of the partnership if he is denied the responsibility of taking care of the funeral expenses. Under the regulations, if it is necessary to probe and investigate whether there is a close member of the family who is not receiving benefit that adds additional complications in the case of homosexuals. Many are living with a partner of which the family is ignorant, and of whom they would wish the family to remain ignorant. In some cases the family has taken a disapproving view of the relationship and there has been an estrangement.
I have no reason to suppose that the tidying up measures imply any discrimination against homosexuals. I have read all the papers concerned with these measures. It is a bureaucratic tidying up and an attempt to ensure that there is no abuse of benefit claims. I have no doubt that there are examples of fraudulent benefit claims in this area. However, it is a sensitive subject. It is on record that in the old days, as many of your Lordships will know, people who were very poor saved all their lives for a funeral. It was commonplace until perhaps 20 or 30 years ago for people to spend several years worrying and enduring hardship, saving for a funeral so that they would not load their families with the distressing responsibility of having to scrape around to give them a decent burial. I think that that situation is preferable even if there were some hardship, rather than having to undergo what is clearly a distressing, painful and probing investigation in order to qualify for the benefits under the regulations.
I have read in the papers of general cases which if they were not so tragic would be ludicrous. The cases do not involve homosexuals about whom I am specifically concerned. The Benefits Agency has felt it incumbent to make inquiries and investigations, with statements in letters to people who suffer the distress of grief. We are enjoying again the programme "Yes, Prime Minister". Those statements make some of the jokes in that programme not so far fetched. I should like to see the removal of that distress. It is surely not beyond the means of the Government to devise a scheme where the most simple criteria are exercised, giving the least possible distress to the bereaved even if that increases slightly the risk of the occasional claim being made which is not strictly correct.
I conclude on this note. The Terrence Higgins Trust which has done good work in the area of AIDS and in caring for those who have suffered distress and bereavement through AIDS has reiterated that if the situation is allowed to continue it will cause distress not only to people who are bereaved but also to a great
I utterly reject that in a more permissive society we are seeing evidence of more homosexuals taking on this kind of lifestyle. It is just that there are now fewer people suffering in silence under the appalling burden of not being able to reveal to their families and to the world at large that they are homosexual, and that more of them are out and living in these kinds of relationships. Unfortunately, in these kinds of relationships, and because of the dreadful disease of AIDS, there are a great number of fatalities. It is just as painful for a homosexual who has lost his partner, and sometimes more painful in terms of grief and upheaval in their lives, as it is for people living in heterosexual relationships. The additional difficulties imposed by these regulations, which I hope I have articulated clearly enough, make the matter well worth our attention. I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to give me some help and encouragement to believe that the situation will alter in due course.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, on putting down this Prayer, although in fact I suspect I should be congratulating his noble friend Lord Russell, who had intended to put down this Prayer on the last day of the last Parliament. However, it suddenly dawned on the noble Earl that he could actually put it down in this Parliament if, as I suspect he then thought, a new government decided to continue the policy of their predecessors. Certainly the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, should be congratulated for today, but he really does not deserve the full congratulations because these should rather be directed to his noble friend. Actually I think he should be doubly congratulated because in the few weeks of this Parliament we have had from the Liberal Democrat Benches for the first time some tentative--and I must say they have been pretty tentative--criticisms of the new Government. To date it has been a fairly lap dog performance from the Liberal Benches. Its members have jumped up one after the other to ingratiate themselves with the Government Benches, to such an extent that we all wonder on these Benches how long it will take for one of them to be given a job. It will not surprise anybody who has read--
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