Orders of the Day — Cohabitation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:41 pm on 4th February 1983.

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Photo of Mr Roland Moyle Mr Roland Moyle , Lewisham East 2:41 pm, 4th February 1983

I wish to draw the attention of the House to the case of Mrs. Amy Peirce as it affects the cohabitation rule. I do so not in order that the Minister may move to resolve her troubles, because that option was removed at an early stage by the reference of Mrs. Peirce's case to an appeals tribunal under social security legislation which has decided against her. Indeed, even as we are debating the issue here this afternoon, it may be that her legal advisers are filing an appeal to the social security commissioners to take the matter further.

I want to use Mrs. Peirce's case to seek from the Minister an undertaking to consider it and use it as an opportunity to clarify the cohabitation rules so that in future people, particularly elderly people, might be protected from the harassment which the general vagueness of the regulations presently causes. I also do so because the case illustrates how one arm of the Department of Health and Social Security can be used to frustrate the Secretary of State's policy in respect of another arm—the National Health Service.

Whatever the outcome of an appeal to the social security commissioners, the regulations are not clearly enough drawn at the moment. They should so be drawn and perhaps drawn in a more liberal fashion.

To recapitulate the facts, Mrs. Peirce is a widow aged 63. Her husband died in 1974. For as long as she could Mrs. Peirce worked as a bakery manageress and gave up that job in 1979. By then it was clear that she was suffering from multiple handicaps in the shape of Parkinson's disease and osteoarthritis. Since 1979, those disabilities have caused her increasing pain and loss of mobility. The time came when it was difficult for her to look after herself. She now spends most of her time in a wheelchair and, as I discovered when I called on her recently, she can walk around the house only with the aid of a walking frame. She suffers considerable pain as a result of her disabilities.

Mr. Barnett, who is aged 74, and his wife were friends of the Peirces for many years. He is a widower and until about two years ago he was living in a room above a pub opposite Mrs. Peirce's house. They had what seemed to be a brilliant idea that was touched off by Mrs. Peirce's increasing infirmity and by the fact that there was an empty house next door to her, which was the subject of continual vandalism which caused her considerable anguish. She was not only helpless, but frightened.

The brilliant idea was that Mr. Barnett would leave his room over the pub and move in to Mrs. Peirce's house—she is an owner-occupier—and look after them both. All went well for two years before DHSS officials descended on them and decided that they had breached the Department's cohabitation rules. Mr. Barnett and Mrs Peirce were so innocent of any intent to defraud that they co-operated fully and freely with the officials and made all the necessary information available so that the officials could take their decision.

I understand that the cohabitation rule is that a single person living alone is entitled to one set of social security payments. If two single persons are living together—as man and wife, as the rules put it—they are not entitled to twice a single person's social security payments. The theory is that a number of overheads can be shared and, therefore, the social security payment is less than twice the amount to which a single person is entitled.

I have often come across people falling foul of the rule when they are living together, but pretending to live apart, and, thus, drawing twice the benefit to which one person would be entitled. The case that I am discussing concerns two people living apart, but pretending to live together—a reversal of the normal situation. There is no question of any sexual relationship between Mr. Barnett and Mrs. Peirce.

In another capacity the DHSS preaches the doctrine of care in the community. When I was the Minister for Health, I often made speeches in the House and outside about the importance of handicapped people being taken care of in the community rather than in institutions. We used to promote good neighbour schemes to encourage neighbours to do kindly acts for elderly and incapacitated people.

We always had to persuade people that we were not arguing that the NHS and social services should dodge their responsibilities and force their problems on to the shoulders of overworked relatives. We pointed out that there was a network of social services in the community which could be used to support elderly and handicapped people.

Nevertheless, the voluntary support of the elderly and the handicapped in their own homes is the best and most caring way of looking after them. I should have thought that the arrangement that Mr. Barnett and Mrs. Peirce entered into was an ideal example of what successive Ministers for Health have pressed for.

As a result of the arrangement falling foul of the cohabitation rules, Mrs. Peirce has now lost £15 a week in social security payments, or £780 a year, which is a substantial sum for an elderly couple reliant only on pensions for their income, supplemented by social security payments.

It is odd that if Mr. Barnett had been Mrs. or Miss Barnett, Mrs. Peirce could have carried on drawing her £780 a year. Also, the DHSS has saved £780 on its social security budget. But what happens if Mr. Barnett decides that to allow Mrs. Peirce to resume the payment of £15 a week to her he will retire across the street again and live in his pub room and not have the same close relationship with Mrs. Peirce that he has had up to now? She will then draw the £780 from the DHSS, but the London borough of Lewisham social services department stands at risk of being heavily involved in substantial payments.

Mrs. Peirce would probably have to be visited seven days a week for at least one meal a day by meals on wheels. In the borough each meal brought to an elderly person in a van costs £1·17, which works out for the whole year at £425·88. It is then almost inevitable that Mrs. Peirce would have to be helped by the home help service to get the household duties performed. An hour's visit by a home help costs the borough £2·92. Supposing that she had the minimal commitment of a home help for two hours a week—I do not think she could get by on less—it would cost the borough £303·64.

It may also be thought desirable for a community nurse to visit for at least an hour a week. That is £3·99 an hour, plus—I have not been able to calculate this—London weighting. A sum in excess of £4 a week could be expended on a district nurse, which would cost the health authority at least £207 a year.

As a result of Mr. Barnett leaving Mrs. Peirce because of the Department's enthusiasm for extracting the full £780 a year from Mrs. Peirce, the London borough of Lewisham and the health authority would be paying out £937 in extra services, as well as having to return the £780 supplementary benefit that it removed from her. That is only the minimal cost. It may be thought desirable to take Mrs. Peirce out of her home six days a week to an occupational or physiotherapy centre by ambulance to give her therapy and a meal at the centre. She is in an advanced state of handicap and disability. If that happened, it would cost the borough £2,444 a year.

Finally, because of Mr. Barnett's absence, Mrs. Peirce may deteriorate, being on her own, and become introverted. We all know that that leads to an acceleration of mental and physical handicap. It may be felt that the borough should remove her and put her in part 3 accommodation. That decision would cost the borough £5,705 a year.

Not only would we have these substantial extra costs, admittedly borne on budgets other than that of the DHSS, but as a result of those expenditures by the borough the risk is increased that it would be visited by the Secretary of State for the Environment and penalised for overspending its targets. Indeed, the policies of Gradgrind, as practised by the DHSS on social security in this case and in many similar ones, are leading to the economics of lunacy. The public budget which the Government are so anxious to cut would be substantially greater as a result of the regulations being followed with an intelligent application of the cohabitation rules.

We need clarification of the regulations so that the Mrs. Peirces of this world are not wracked by uncertainty as Mrs. Peirce has been since last August and may well, as a result of an appeal to the social security commissioners, be for weeks to come. I am informed by Mrs. Peirce's legal advisers that if they do not get a favourable decision they will consider taking the matter on appeal to the High Court. They believe that they have a sufficiently good case in view of the vagueness of the regulations and the various obiter dicta by judges in cases involving the regulations.

The present position is out of tune with modern thinking. A recent study on the family produced a report "Families in the Future" which states: Less than half the people over 65 now believe it is morally wrong for couples to live together"— that is, to live together outside matrimony.

As a minimum, the Government should restrict the cohabitation rules to couples below retirement age as an incentive to the elderly to team up and look after each other, thus extending care in the community. I know that that is the aim of the present Secretary of State, as it was of the Labour Secretary of State. The present position is indefensible. The Minister cannot do anything for Mrs. Amy Peirce, but he could do something for the Mrs. Amy Peirces to come.