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New Clause. — (Written Explanations.)

Orders of the Day — Ministry of Social Security Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th June 1966.

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(1) Any person to whom a supplementary pension or allowance is paid under this Act shall be given a written explanation of the way in which the pension or allowance was calculated and of any change in it.

(2) Any person whose application for a pension or allowance is refused under this Act shall be given a written explanation of the reason for the refusal. If the reason for the refusal is that the persons' resources are sufficient to meet his requirements, the explanation given under subsection (1) shall show the way in which his resources and requirements were calculated.

(3) Where benefit is reduced under paragraphs 4 or 5 of Schedule 2 or the amount of increase under paragraph 13(1)(a) is less than the net rent payable, a written explanation of the reduction or the reasons for adding less than the net rent shall be given to the person in receipt of benefit.—[Mrs. Lena Jeger.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mrs Lena Jeger Mrs Lena Jeger , Holborn and St Pancras South

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

The purpose of the Clause is to lay upon the officers the duty of giving a written explanation to applicants for supplementary allowances. This may seem a small point, but to me it is very important. We want the Bill completely to change the whole atmosphere of our social security provisions, and therefore we have to help the public to realise the change and we want them to have some direct personal experience of this change. We do not want them to go as applicants to an authoritarian set-up and before officials who can come to decisions without any duty of explanation having been laid upon them.

Such a situation immediately creates a feeling of inferiority among applicants. We want this legislation to work as a dialogue between people who are trying to help and those who are seeking help. I am sure that the best officials would want this to be the case.

How can we do this? I suggest that one way would be to write into the Bill the need for an applicant to be given a full written explanation of the decision, whatever it may be, which has been reached in his case. Under the Bill we are giving very wide discretion to the officers—and quite rightly. This does not arise as a problem where the benefits are laid down statutorily, but it is puzzling to many people who go for supplementary help and who feel that their application has been refused whereas a neighbour is getting a few shillings more. This can create much ill-feeling among people. I do not see why the citizens of this country, who are financing the allowances paid under the Bill, should not be fully entitled to an explanation of the basis of the calculation which affects them individually.

As I said, we are giving very wide discretion to our officials, and such a proposal would be useful because the fact of having to put something in writing is a very useful check upon discretion. It means that a little more thought has to be given to the application and it also emphasises that the benefit is being considered as of right. Those two points are very important. I understand that at present officers do not even have to record the reasons for their refusal of supplementary benefits and there is, therefore, no chance of review because the decisions are not even recorded in the official records.

I want us to take a long step forward and to see not only that fairness and generosity is applied, but that it is seen by the applicant to be applied. The fact of writing down the decision would ensure the possibility of review. Once a decision has been committed to paper, at least it can be shown to somebody else and questioned, whereas on the present basis of a conversation only, it is difficult for the person to take the decision elsewhere for review. He has no information as to how the decision was reached and it is, therefore, not always easy for him to appeal. When people are in the kind of trouble which this Bill seeks to help them overcome, they are very often least able to deal confidently with officialdom. It is the deprived and the more inadequate citizens who are most often inclined to have an inferiority complex, in any event, when dealing with such a situation, and they would be very much helped by my proposal.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will not think that the next point which I make is frivolous. If she agrees to send written explanations to applicants, I hope that they will be less scruffy than some of the communications which come—I must say from her Department, because we are dealing with her Department and I should be out of order if I referred to the generality of Government communications. But these communications are often on a dirty bit of buff paper, in small print, innocent of the influence of any of the advances in typography or printing of our present century, and they are often received by people who are not used to getting letters.

12.30 p.m.

Hon. Members are accustomed to receiving beautifully typed letters on splendid paper in "posh" envelopes, I receive so many letters that I no longer worry about the appearance of them. However, to people who seldom get a letter and who are waiting for a communication which may be the most important one in their lives at that time, such correspondence should not be written on a badly folded scrap of brown paper, usually in the form of a printed statement so impersonal that only the applicant's name is added to it.

Having explained why full written explanations of decisions should be given to applicants, I further appeal for these explanations to be given in a presentable way and should be a joy to behold, whatever their contents.

Photo of Mr Albert Booth Mr Albert Booth , Barrow-in-Furness

I support the new Clause and everything said by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Jeger) and hope that if or when these explanations are written they are written in language which the applicant can understand.

As a comparative newcomer to this place, since becoming an hon. Member I have had to indulge in a great deal of letter-writing and reading. I may be a little better able to judge the difficulty one sometimes has in understanding the language often used by Government Departments than more experienced hon. Members who have become familiar with this language. Indeed, over the years they may unconsciously have learned a new language which is not understood by a great many of our constituents. I confess that much of it may not be fully understood by me.

I therefore urge the Minister to ensure that the letters which will go out if the new Clause is accepted are written by people who understand the nature of the problem and the applicants. It should be remembered that in some parts of Britain the way in which people address one another and the way in which ideas are communicated and explanations understood is so involved that it must be recorded on tape and played back to enable university dons to interpret what has been said. This problem of language exists in the British Isles and it is extremely relevant to this matter.

There is a conflict in the requests made in the new Clause. On the one hand, it asks for a formula to be established by which an amount is calculated. On the other it attempts to show that discretion has been used responsibly and that proper concern has been shown for all the relevant factors. However, this conflict is not an argument against the new Clause but a reason for saying that there is a real problem to be resolved in communicating these matters to the public.

Photo of Mr Thomas Swain Mr Thomas Swain , North East Derbyshire

I support the new Clause, particularly since there is an important precedent for this type of action in legislation of this sort. I refer to the Industrial Injuries Acts. When an amount is assessed under that legislation the person concerned receives a communication from the insurance officer stating, in simple terms, how the assessment was arrived at and a breakdown of the figures is given. That information is of great importance, particularly if the injured person concerned wishes to make an application to appeal. It not only helps that person to put over his case to his representative but assists the representative to present the case to the tribunal.

The new Clause, if accepted, would not interfere with the general principles of the Bill, which are good, and I therefore urge my right hon. Friend for the sake of simplicity and in the interests of humanity and understanding to accept the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Lena Jeger) and ensure that the letters of explanation are in language which they can understand.

Photo of Mr John Pardoe Mr John Pardoe , North Cornwall

I, too, support the new Clause. As a new hon. Member, in a large part of the correspondence with which I have had to deal—and I am sure that this applies to hon. Members generally—I have been concerned with the problem of obtaining information about the decisions of bureaucracy so that it is possible to understand precisely what action has been taken. I have had much correspondence in the sphere with which we are dealing.

After all, we want to humanise bureaucracy. If we must have it and it we accept that it is inevitable, we should make it as acceptable as possible. A large part of the individual's frustration, particularly in social security matters, is this business of not being able to understand the position.

I cannot see any reason why the new Clause should not be accepted. The usual reason given for not accepting proposals of this sort is that they cost money. I cannot believe that the additional letters which would have to be written under the new Clause—and I trust that they will be well written and well set out—would cost much money.

When hon. Members write to the body which up to now has been known as the National Assistance Board we usually receive an explanation in reasonably simple language, and that information can then be transmitted to the constituent concerned. There is no reason why this dual process—of the hon. Member having to get this information and then pass it to the constituent—should he involved. Our constituents should be given this information in language they can understand.

Photo of Miss Peggy Herbison Miss Peggy Herbison , Lanarkshire North

I am glad that we have had this discussion, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Lena Jeger) for moving the new Clause. It is evident, from the speeches of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, that they support this proposal aid do so out of great experience from their dealings with constituents in this matter.

My hon. Friend explained the purpose of the new Clause cogently and gave excellent reasons why written explanations should be provided. I say at once that I and the Government are in agreement with her on this point, which is that people are entitled—and I say this advisedly—to know where they stand. I also agree that in a scheme in which we are stressing the right to benefit—and this is something which I hope we will get over to the public between now and the end of the year—we must see that as much information as possible is given to those who make application. I suggest, however, that this is not a matter for legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) posed what he considered might be a real problem, and I assure him that it had occurred to me. It might indeed be unwise and in some instances quite impracticable in such a scheme to tie a form of notification to a specific statutory formula.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South, who moved the new Clause, and those who have shown interest in it that it is our firm intention that the administration of the new scheme will be developed to meet the major points that my hon. Friend and others have raised. Indeed, we have already taken the decision to introduce a written explanation of award or refusal of benefit as standard practice, at least for the supplementary pensioners, as soon as the manpower is available.

The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) spoke about cost. I am making no case whatever about cost because I agree so much with what has been said, but there is one other point to which I must pay the greatest attention. Even if, right from the beginning of the scheme, we were to give this written explanation only to those who were having supplementary pensions, this would mean another 150 extra staff. I am talking only of the beginning of the scheme. If we were to give notices in all cases, that would require many more staff to do the work.

When it is a case of people having right to a benefit, the Government and I do not want to keep anybody in the dark about their entitlement to it. Indeed, even at present when the National Assistance Board makes a decision, the applicant can ask for a written notification. This is the wording which it is the practice of the National Assistance Board to use: If you would like a full explanation of the way in which your allowance has been calculated, or to bring anything to my notice which you would like me to consider, I shall be glad to write to you if you will let me know. It goes on to say: You can use the enclosed blue form, which is already addressed and needs no stamp, or you can ask the visiting officer when he next calls. That is the existing practice.

I know that my hon. Friends will ask how many of these people would even know or take the trouble to write the note on the blue form. I simply emphasise again that it seems to me and to the Government important that there should be these written explanations. We do not think that the way to do it is by a statutory obligation, but I give the assurance that it is our intention to do it.

I stress that to get the scheme off the ground and to ensure that it will work smoothly at the outset—and we hope that the beginning will be a little before the end of this year—I must ask the officers of this new Department to work a great deal of overtime. From the devoted service which they have always given to these people, I know that they will respond to that call for overtime, but in view of this call for overtime I would not feel that at the very beginning of the scheme I could impose this additional burden upon them. I hope that the assurance which I have given that my intention is exactly the same as my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South has in mind will suffice in this instance.

Photo of Miss Mervyn Pike Miss Mervyn Pike , Melton

I do not want to delay the Committee, and I did not intervene before because I wanted to hear what the Minister had to say. I am glad to say that on this occasion I am in complete agreement with her. We all recognise the force of the argument which has been put by the hon. Lady the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Lena Jeger), but equally this is a matter in which I accept the Minister's good intentions and assurances.

I hope, however, that when the notices ultimately are issued the right hon. Lady will accept her hon. Friend's advice and have them in a form that pays regard to all the new techniques and that the manner of presentation will be acceptable to all of us. In these circumstances, we would do well to take the Minister's advice.

12.45 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Mendelson Mr John Mendelson , Penistone

One element troubled me a little in the reply of my right hon. Friend the Minister and I would like her to be a little more detailed. My right hon. Friend began by saying that she accepted the main point of the new Clause. She did not say which point she did not accept. There might be the crux of the matter. My right hon. Friend went on quickly to say that there were administrative difficulties in implementing this proposal at the beginning of the scheme, which is an altogether different point. She went on quickly also to say that she did not want to be tied or to tie the officers concerned to a particular statutory form.

Are there any particular parts or points in the new Clause that my right hon. Friend would not like to see introduced? All of us with experience of appearing before National Assistance Board tribunals as a friend of a pensioner will know that by the time one appears before such a tribunal, there is considerable tension between the pensioner concerned and the officer involved. This often has made relations difficult for a considerable time. It has also led to reluctance on the part of the pensioner to give as much information as he otherwise might be prepared to give.

When I have questioned pensioners on whose behalf I have appeared before such tribunals, I have often been told, "Well, he was not the sort of person who made me feel that I could talk to him about all these things". That is to be set against the many officers who have created the contrary impression of confidence, frankness and openness, when a pensioner has freely given all the information at his disposal. There are, however, those other cases, and in those cases we have often found that with the co-operation of the chairman of the tribunal we have opened some of the recesses of the mind of the officer concerned and have found an amount of prejudice in those recesses. No officer, in any service or Department, can be assumed to be perfect from the start. We keep on repeating in these debates that most of the officers are doing an excellent job, and I have joined in the praise on those occasions, as I do again today. The legislature, however, must be concerned with the other cases, and they are bound to exist.

I find sometimes that in the decision by the local officer concerned there is prejudice because of the way in which his mind works and because of the way in which the mind of the applicant works. I regard the new Clause as particularly valuable, because it would oblige the officer in the first place, long before one ever gets to an appeals tribunal, to face his own prejudices in any particular case. Nothing is more helpful to face one's own prejudices than to have something put down on paper.

It seems to me to be particularly valuable that the second of the three points of the new Clause should be included in the administrative arrangements which my right hon. Friend the Minister has mentioned. I refer to subsection (2) which states: Any person whose application for a pension or allowance is refused under this Act shall be given a written explanation of the reason for the refusal. If the reason for the refusal is that the persons' resources are sufficient to meet his requirements, the explanation given under subsection (1) shall show the way in which his resources and requirements were calculated. That is of the greatest importance, because very often there is a conflict in the mind of the applicant and in the mind of the officer who has made the calculation as to whether it has been done justifiably and justly.

Although the management of the Clause is in the hands of my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Lena Jeger), I urge my right hon. Friend to give the Committee a further explanation as to whether she accepts all three points in the Clause and is prepared to give the assurance that she will make all three points part of the administrative procedure which she has promised.

Photo of Miss Peggy Herbison Miss Peggy Herbison , Lanarkshire North

I will deal, first, with one point which I did not deal with, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) and of which I have been reminded by the hon. Lady the Member for Melton (Miss Pike). I clearly understand how important it is that any communication sent, especially to an old person or, indeed, to anyone in need should be in the simplest language possible so that the recipient is able to understand it. I am certain that every attempt will be made to do this.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) has raised a number of points. I shall not go over all that I have already said, because I am anxious that we should get Third Reading today, if we are to make the payments before the end of this year. I repeat my assurances. As soon as possible, at least those getting a supplementary pension will receive a written explanation. Others, if there is a refusal, or if they are not clear, or if they do not think that the amount they are receiving is sufficient, will right from the beginning be able to ask for a written explanation, as they can do at the moment.

The most important thing is to get the scheme off the ground and introduce these benefits as urgently as possible. Then the fullest consideration will be given to all the points which have been made in the debate on this new Clause. I, like the whole Committee, want to ensure, not only that justice is done, but that it is clearly seen to be done by all these people.

Photo of Mrs Lena Jeger Mrs Lena Jeger , Holborn and St Pancras South

In view of my right hon. Friend's assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule I agreed to.