I begin by explaining my interest in this matter. It arose because of anxiety which I found expressed by those engaged in social service work in the Borough of Islington. That anxiety lay in the fact that people got wind of the proposed change that the Secretary of State intended to make, namely, to cut back drastically on home visiting to long-term recipients of supplementary benefit, which means, chiefly, pensioners.
The Under-Secretary of State confirmed to me in a Written Reply to a parliamentary Question on 17th December that this change was proposed. He contended that postal contact would largely be substituted and that this would lead to improved contact and an improved service. I wrote to the hon. Gentleman on 21st December and said that I was extremely disturbed by his reply. I posed a number of specific questions to him and asked him to amplify the overall situation. I received no acknowledgement of that letter and, because I considered it to be a matter of some urgency, I decided to make my own inquiries.
It so happens that I act as a consultant to the Civil and Public Services Association, which represents the bulk of the staff in the hon. Gentleman's Department, including some 28,000 in the Department's local offices. Talking to representatives of the union, I found that it was extremely hostile to the proposed change since it felt that it would be adverse to its members and also that it would be extremely adverse to those members of the public who were in need of this form of help.
I spent some time checking my facts very carefully. Subsequently, on 11th
January, I had an article published in The Times. At that stage, it appeared that the hon. Gentleman began to wake up to the very controversial nature of what he was suggesting. Three days later, he had a letter published in The Times in which he accused me of failing to check my facts with him before rushing into print. He also suggested that I was irresponsible for trying to embroil
…our loyal and hard working staff
in what he called my "ill-founded argument".
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have the grace to make at least a partial apology for his remarks. I accept that he is entitled to the opinion that my argument was ill-founded. It may be that I shall be able to change his mind about that. But he cannot say that I did not try to check the facts with him, because I did, as I pointed out in a subsequent letter to The Times. It so happens that on the day that my letter was published, the Minister chose to reply to my original letter, and he tried to answer some of my points.
The hon. Gentleman's allegation that I attempted to embroil the staff in my argument is best dealt with by referring to another letter in The Times from Mr. W. L. Kendall, the General Secretary of the Civil and Public Services Association. He described the Minister's reply to me as "petulant", and he stressed that the staff was "incensed" by the proposed change. He told me that the staff felt that the loyalty to which the hon. Gentlemen referred so glibly had been very much abused. Mr. Kendall also said that in his view the proposed scheme must result in a reduction in the quality of the service.
So much for that little piece of history; it reflects badly on the Minister—who, I suspect, at that point knew a little less than he should have known about the scheme.
I turn to the scheme itself. There is general recognition that excessive overtime is being worked in the Department. The staff is overworked and the Department generally is understaffed. As a consequence, the home visiting programme has fallen far behind schedule.
The previous Government approved an investigation into the situation. I mention that because if I did not do so, I am sure that the Minister would. The previous Government approved an Organisation and Methods survey. What they did not do—and I trust that they would not have done had they had to consider the outcome of the investigation of the running of this scheme experimentally in 36 local offices—was to suggest that the scheme had been justified by the result of the experiment and should therefore be introduced everywhere, as is now proposed.
I have a copy of the O, and M. survey. It seems clear that there was a quest for economy; it was not a welfare function. The O. and M. people could not be expected to fulfill such a function. It is a matter for the Minister to decide subsequently what should be done and to what extent, welfare should be taken into account.
I want to give an example of the approach of the O. and M. people which struck me sharply. In their document they talk about "potential problem cases."—I stress the word "potential"—as those people whose cases would be reviewed by clerical visits, by post, or by office interview, at no more than 26-weekly intervals. The examples which the document gave of potential problem cases included women claimants with dependant children, sick, disabled, senile, handicapped or mentally affected claimants living alone, without outside contacts. Those are merely "potential problem cases." The non-problem cases would be visited at five-yearly intervals with only a postal contact in between.
This is the report on which, basically, the Minister is acting, as indicated in his letter to me of 21st January. He says that there will be an improvement in the frequency of contact with pensioners and others who might otherwise neglect to tell us about changes in their circumstances which could result in increased entitlement. He claims that the experiments with postal question-and-answer forms back up this claim, and that if a form is not satisfactorily completed, or not returned, there will a rapid visit to the claimant, or would-be claimant, by the officer of the Department. He says that the great majority of pensioners can deal quite well with this new method, anyway. That is a key part of his argument.
The O. and M. survey—the pilot scheme was carried out—showed that 60 per cent. of claimants could understand and complete without difficulty the forms sent to them, and that a further 13 per cent. could do so provided they had the help of a third party. The O. and M. people seemed to think that that was sufficient, but it means that 27 per cent. of the claimants—that is a high proportion —clearly found it totally inadequate.
That example illustrates the problem that I posed to the Minister. Many old people will not be able to cope with these forms, and many—albeit a minority —will be caused acute anxiety when they receive them. Form filling poses a number of formidable snags. I remind the Minister of the disappointing take up of F.I.S. in that respect. The Minister indicates dissent. I am told that at present officers of his Department are visiting factories trying to boost the figures for family income supplement take up because they are not getting sufficient response. It is curious, if the voluntary take up is sufficient, that that kind of exercise should be necessary. In any case, family income supplement does not involve old people.
I return to the question of somebody making a visit when the form does not come back properly filled in. In some of the 36 offices operating the pilot scheme I understand that the scheme has been found wanting. If the Minister wishes to know how I know, I should tell him that I have talked to some of the staff involved. I understand that it is not necessarily the case that they can make the quick visits to which the Minister has referred, because their workload has continued to increase. I am not suggesting that that is purely because of this change; it is a result of other Government policy in respect of the social services. However, the change has had some effect on increasing the workload. In those circumstances, it means that arbitrary decisions have to be taken whether one of these badly filled in forms requires a visit to be made. If the pressure of work in that office, at that time is heavy, the decision is more likely to go against such a visit. That is clearly the salient, if not the overriding, factor in reaching a decision. It is clear that where the pressure is greatest on those offices, inevitably the need is greatest in that area.
The Minister knows that, with the Government's overall policy on Civil Service manpower—I accept that there has been a small increase in the Department's staff; none the less, the overall policy is to cut back—he cannot give guarantees about future services and the ability of the service and the staff to match the increasing demand. More selectivity, which is the Government's policy in this work at this time, must mean more people to do the selecting. I suggest that the Government in this respect are trapped in a policy web of their own spinning and that those who are likely to suffer as a result are the people who particularly need help.
I should like to deal with another matter which the Minister has previously raised with me: namely, the argument that local authorities should be responsible for keeping a continuous watch on the welfare of supplementary pensioners. The welfare rôle of the Department's staff is very real in local offices. I hope that the Minister will agree. If he thinks otherwise, I suggest that he talks seriously about it to his staff.
The local authorities do not have the resources to enable them to carry out this function. My local authority, Islington, is apparently strenuously trying to improve its social services. However, there are still glaring gaps in those services. There are great problems of liaison between the local authority and the local officers of the Department of Health and Social Security. I hope that the Minister will look into this matter. I believe that he is receiving representations about it.
I should like to remind the hon. Gentleman of a report called "Old and Cold in Islington", about which the Secretary of State has expressed considerable concern. That report was the result of voluntary effort, not of work by the local authority. I shall be approaching the Secretary of State shortly to talk about a similar report which is shortly to be published covering a wider area. The point I wish to illustrate is that such reports show up the gaps in the social services in dealing with welfare which local authorities cannot properly meet.
Another example appears in a report which recently appeared in the Evening News. It concerns a Mr. John Mayberry, an old gentleman of 70, who died of exposure in his Notting Hill council flat. The report says that for two years he was virtually ignored by the welfare services. That is another example of the gaps which I have mentioned. The Department's home visits help to fill these gaps. Sometimes the Department's staff are the only contact old people have with the welfare services.
In a recent article about the work of the staff, Red Tape, the journal of the Civil and Public Services Association, says this:
This home visiting is a vital link in the system showing up, as no amount of interviewing can bring out, the actual background and the full extent of the need.
Yet the central Government are retreating from their responsibility.
The Department's clerical staff are angry at being asked to do executive officer work without compensation. This is an understandable and traditional trade union reaction. It means, too, that the job is being downgraded. Clerical officers who go out to do this work must report back and recommend, whereas if the work is done by an executive officer—I stress that frequently these are emergency cases—he can make an on-the-spot decision to give help. Thus further delay is being caused in the meeting of claims and another tier is added to the decision-making process.
The Minister has not distinguished himself so far in handling this issue, because initially he seemed to want to be unduly secretive.
That is how it seemed. Subsequently, if his letter to The Times was representative, he began to bluster. He risks an unpalatable reaction from the Department's staff if he persists in pushing this change through. I understand that there are seriously conflicting views within the Department at senior level about the desirability of the change.
The Under-Secretary could best distinguish himself tonight by telling me that he is prepared seriously to reconsider the situation with a view to tackling this problem in a very different way. His letter to me probably contained the true answer, because he suggested that he hoped to save £1 million a year by the change. He spoke not of an improved service but of an economy drive.
I hope that the Under-Secretary will come clean tonight and will accept that the change has little, if anything, to do with welfare, but everything to do with saving money. It is short-sighted, unfeeling and potentially dangerous. I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to scrap this economy measure.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. John D. Grant) for raising this subject tonight, because it enables me to deal with some of the misconceptions which have arisen in his mind and to which he has given publicity on previous occasions.
The whole object of these proposals is to improve the service to pensioners and others in receipt of supplementary benefit. Before explaining why we believe this is so, I want to comment on what the hon. Gentleman said about the attitude of the staff and the staff situation generally. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's criticisms. He will realise that it would be improper for me, at a time when discussions are still taking place with the staff through the appropriate Whitley Council, to make judgments on the points he has raised. I fully understand his position.
He explained that he was speaking as the consultant to the Civil and Public Services Association. However, it would be wrong for me, when these discussions are taking place through the duly appointed procedures, with full representation by the staff, to make detailed comments. I can tell him categorically that we are as anxious as he that these new arrangements should come into operation with the full acceptance of everyone concerned. I am sure that this is common ground between us.
We fully accept that the staff work hard and conscientiously. They deserve the tribute of the whole House and the country for the way in which they administer extensive schemes involving large sums of money, in which over 99 per cent. of those who receive benefits receive them on time from a sympathetic staff in the right amounts and with the minimum of trouble.
Equally, I entirely accept that the new benefits that this Government have introduced have meant more work for the staff. But numbers in the Department have responded to this. Staff have expanded considerably over the past two years and this trend can be expected to continue, since we intend to make resources available for the proper expansion of health and social services and for the care of the elderly and infirm.
The hon. Member will recollect that the Prime Minister was very specific about this in this Answer he gave in the House on 27th January. We recognise therefore that the expansion of the social services means additional staff to carry them out. We accept that commitment and have already responded to it.
On the merits of the case, the object is to improve our contact with long-term recipients of supplementary benefit and to give greater attention to those who have special problems requiring more frequent visiting. There is no question of a cutback or an economy drive.
One has only to look at the figures to see the expansion of our social services. I am not making a party political point. This has happened under Governments of all colours. There has been an expansion of the services in the supplementary benefits scheme and an expansion of take-up; as a result more money each year is spent on these services. It is therefore not a question of an economy drive but of the best use of the available resources to do the best possible job.
The main purpose of visiting people in their homes is to get up-to-date information about their circumstances in case they fail to tell us about changes which entitle them to more money. However, visiting is a relatively expensive way of doing this, and in practice we are unable to call on most pensioners more than once every two years.
This is, then, the background to the experiment which began when the Labour Government were in office. The Government, acting in full consultation with the Supplementary Benefits Commission and the staff associations concerned, set up an experiment in 36 selected offices in all parts of the country, to see whether it would be possible to achieve more frequent and satisfactory contacts with pensioners and those receiving supplementary benefit by means of regular postal inquiry at yearly intervals.
This has been a very thorough experiment, lasting more than 18 months and closely controlled by our management service experts and by senior officers in the regions. Experience has shown that a postal inquiry system works well. The great majority of pensioners can deal—
The great majority of pensioners can deal perfectly well with the simple question and answer form we send them. I admit that, as the hon. Member said, there may be a small number who cannot do so, but in the minority of cases where the forms are not satisfactorily completed or are not returned at all an officer visits the person without delay, and this is the real point here. This system will enable us to concentrate most of the visiting service on new claims, and on frequent and detailed attention to difficult cases where interviews in the home are essential. The great advantage of the new system, therefore, is that it will make staff time available for giving more detailed attention to the needs of such people, and it also makes possible thorough investigation of new claims which still have to be dealt with by home visits. Each pensioner is visited at least once in five years and in the vast majority of cases more frequently.
The hon. Gentleman asked very fairly about cases of sudden deterioration or of change in the circumstances of the people concerned. Our normal arrangements provide for our local offices to establish contact with friends or relatives living nearby who can tell us if the elderly person is taken ill or is otherwise in need of help. An inquiry form is sent by post under the new scheme asking whether there are any problems for which help is needed. As soon as it becomes apparent that there are problems which require to be dealt with by visiting, the necessary visits are made. This work is closely allied to the work of social service departments of local authorities.
No change is proposed in the policy of the Supplementary Benefits Commission with regard to the referral of claims to local authority and other social services when the need for them comes to light.
I do not for a moment claim that the link-up between my Department and the local authority social service departments is by any means perfect yet—there is a long way to go—but what I think I can fairly claim, particularly since the new social service departments have been set up with one organisation for personal social service rather than a number of organisations, is that we have already begun to establish more effective links which will undoubtedly be to the benefit of the people concerned, and will make for a more comprehensive range of services than has perhaps been the case in the past.
I mentioned that in practice it is not at present possible to call on most pensioners more frequently than every two years. This is, of course, not an effective way of looking after the welfare of old people: that is the job that Parliament has given to local authorities, not to the Supplementary Benefits Commission and the members of the Commission's staff. Welfare work must be limited to those cases arising in the normal course of investigating claims for benefit, and that is where the link up between the Commission and the local authorities comes in. The services which are now unified under the social service departments have under recent legislation been given an additional function and new targets at which to aim in the level of provision they make for the elderly, the physically handicapped, the mentally handicapped, the mentally ill, for children in trouble and for families at risk.
As the hon. Member knows, my right hon. Friend recently announced that over the next few years additional capital resources will be made available to local authorities, in particular for residential provision for the elderly, and 10-year plans for their social services generally, which he will be asking local authorities to prepare later this year, will provide a national picture of the future development of these services. It is, therefore, the work of the Supplementary Benefits Commission and the work of the local authority social services departments as a whole in conjunction which should be the true measure of the services which are provided.
To return to the scheme of visiting arrangements which the hon. Gentleman raised, our proposals for introducing the new arrangements have the full support of the Supplementary Benefits Commission. They are at present under discussion with the staff representatives on the Departmental Whitley Council. Subject to the conclusion of these discussions we plan to start extending the new arrangements throughout the country from the spring of this year. We hope to complete the process within about 12 months. The results will be closely watched. In due course, we shall be making any modifications which may be thought necessary in the light of wider experience.
This experiment which I mentioned has been very carefully carried out. But we do not claim—no one can claim—that it is perfect and that we shall not learn from a wider extension of it. Assuming that it is agreed, of course we shall make —and we shall be very anxious to make —and changes which the Commission may feel in the light of experience to be desirable.
Concerning the announcements, there is no question of being coy about this. Again, it would have been quite wrong and improper to make a detailed announcement about these new arrangements until they had been fully discussed with all concerned, including the staff. That is why I was not able to give a very full answer to the hon. Gentleman when he put down his Question before Christmas. That is why, too, there was some delay in my replying to his letter. I apologise for the delay in the reply to his letter, but I am sure that he will appreciate probably more than anyone, as a consultant to the association concerned, that he would have had great cause for complaint had we announced in detail what the arrangements were likely to be while we were still discussing them with the staff concerned. But as soon as the arrangements are finalised we shall take steps to see that they are widely known.
There would have been nothing wrong and nothing considered improper by the staff associations—this is an important far-reaching change—if the hon. Gentleman had announced the proposals so that they could have been discussed much more openly not only by the staff associations but also by local authority interests and so on. I should not have thought that there would have been anything improper about that. The hon. Gentleman would not have been announcing a decision. But in the way that he is doing it now he has come very close to announcing a thing after a decision has been made. That is not consultation.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. But, equally, we would certainly have been subject to criticism had we announced the chapter and verse of the proposals while we were still have genuine discussion and consultation on a number of detailed matters through the appropriately constituted machinery for these matters.
But when the decisions are made, arrangements will be made to inform all those concerned in the detailed proposals for the new scheme, both for home visits and for postal reviews. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will be reassured as to our motives, which, after all, were begun under the previous Administration, as to the intention of the scheme to try to improve the visiting arrangements in the light of the work load which exists, and to improve the co-operation which exists between the Commission and the local authority associations. That is the object of the exercise. I hope that what I have said this evening will be of some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman.