My Lords, I rise to move Amendments 46E and 46F in my name and that of my noble friend Lord McKenzie of Luton. In doing so, I remind the House of my declared interest as a senior independent director of the Financial Ombudsman Service in case it should prove relevant to the debate.
I will not go back over the substance of the matter, as we discussed it in some detail in Committee. However, I want to push two points that I did not feel, in the end, were satisfactorily addressed by the government response. Amendment 46F seeks to retain the SMI grant scheme for claimants who are in receipt of pension credit; in other words, our poorest pensioners. In Committee, I dubbed this the reverse Salisbury-Addison amendment, reminding the House that we were helping the Government to maintain their manifesto commitment to protect all pensioner benefits, since that is, in fact, who this is mainly aimed at. My concern is that the effect of this policy is essentially to wipe out what is usually the only asset of poor pensioners, and currently their safety net in case they need equity released for care or other emergencies. As I reported last time, Age UK expressed a concern that older people would be reluctant to take on extra debt, so whereas they might have taken a grant, they will not take out loans. They may indeed compromise their own well-being by limiting essential spending instead. I do not think the Minister addressed that, so I would be grateful if he would.
I also asked a number of other specific questions. I had answers to some at the time, and answers to others in writing later. Sometimes the answers in writing were not the same as those given in Committee, but we will come on to that in a moment. I just want to deal with a couple that are left.
I raised the issue of people who die without enough equity in the house to meet the debt and who might worry that it would not leave them with enough money to pay for their funeral. I had hoped to persuade the Minister to leave a cushion untouched, but he was not having it. His response was that the family could apply for a grant, a funeral payment, from the Social Fund. So will all SMI loan recipients be automatically entitled to access a funeral payment from the Social Fund? If so, how much is it? Will it be enough to cover the fast-rising costs of a funeral all around the country?
I also asked if the loss of SMI would result in someone no longer being entitled to pension credit and thereby losing access to passported benefits such as cold weather payments, help with health costs or access to funeral payments. After a series of questions, supported by the right reverend Prelate of Durham, about the advice that would be offered to people, and having reread the record and read the letter that was given, I wish to tell the Minister what I think has been said and he can correct me if I am wrong. I understood him to say that people will get generalised guidance rather than advice about their own particular circumstances and what they should do. Is that right? I gather that the claimant may have to pay for the advice. Is that right?
During the debate the Minister assured me that the provision of advice would be independent of the party recovering the debt. He assured me that that was case but then wrote to me afterwards and said that in fact it was not the case. I assume that he did not change his mind but that he misread his brief. Either way, can he reassure the House about that because it seems to be a potential conflict of interest? If someone who is advising a pensioner to take out a loan is also making money out of the recovery of that debt, is that not a conflict of interest? If not, how not? I asked him whether a face-to-face option would be available, at least for vulnerable clients. Can he tell me that?
Amendment 46E would require regulations for the scheme to be introduced by the affirmative procedure. The House will recall that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee expressed significant concern about the fact that the draft regulations for the SMI loan scheme had not been made available to the House for debate, given the plan that the scheme be set up by negative regulation. Effectively, the Bill abolishes the grant scheme and empowers Ministers to create a loan scheme but there are no draft regulations before us. Under the proposals they would be introduced under the negative procedure. The committee therefore recommended that regulations under this clause should be subject to the affirmative procedure. It is usual practice that such a recommendation would be followed. Can the Minister confirm that this will happen? If for some reason he cannot, can he tell the House when the Government last refused such a recommendation from the DPRRC? I beg to move