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9.30 pm

The amendment is an attempt to persuade the Government to compromise and accept the adverse effects that clause 72 will have on many vulnerable people. I have already explained that the clause can claim no parentage from the previous Government. It is not open to the Minister to claim, as the Secretary of State claims, that in some bizarre way he is a prisoner of the Conservative Government's spending plans.

What is the Government's motive in bringing forward those tough provisions? Are they designed to correct some perceived unfairness or anomaly in the existing system? The answer is no: clause 72 is about saving money, and nothing else. In fairness, the Government have been very up front about that. The sole reason given for the clause was to meet the costs of the Government's decision to revoke the single room rent restriction on single housing benefit claimants aged under 25. By way of parenthesis, it is interesting to note that the Minister has had very little to say about the future of 25 to 59-year-olds--it seems that that is a matter for review.

It was also pointed out in Committee that research has shown that the Government's plans were based on there being 155,000 more rent allowance claimants than there actually are. A recent report by the National Federation of Landlords has estimated that housing benefit expenditure could be as much as £500 million less in a year than had been anticipated.

That brings me to the curious case of the constant £57 million. As the Minister readily conceded in his letter to the Committee of 25 November, when the Bill was first published on 9 July, the explanatory and financial memorandum stated that clause 72 was expected to generate net programme savings of £57 million in a full year. I have pointed out that, on Second Reading,

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Ministers said that they were already thinking about possible exceptions. However, as the Minister said in his letter, they

    "had not decided on the range and type of specific exceptions".

The Minister explained how the Government had been taking careful note of the representations from groups such as Age Concern and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. He said:

    "it was only very recently that final decisions could be taken on the range of exceptions".

The use of the word "final" is curious because in his letter and in Committee the Minister said that the proposed regulations were certainly not set in stone, yet the line taken by the Minister both in correspondence and in Committee was that the figure of £57 million remained valid.

When pressed by me in Committee on how the original estimate would be affected by the exclusions he had just announced, the Minister maintained that the figure included those exceptions. It surely cannot be right that the original figure of £57 million remains accurate and takes full account of the long list of complex exclusions. Is it really the case that those exclusions will not make a difference of a penny more or less to the predicted figure?

In Committee, the Minister talked about a "broad brush", but the figure of £57 million is pretty precise in the broader context of the social security budget. Now that he has had more time for mature reflection, I ask the Minister to be a little more frank on that subject. It stands to reason that either the £57 million figure was right originally and is now wrong, having been overtaken by events--we could all understand that, and there would be no shame in admitting it--or, if the new figure is believed to be accurate and takes full account of the proposed exemptions, the original estimate must have been wrong. It would also be helpful if the Minister could explain precisely how he and his colleagues intend to spend that not insignificant saving. Will it be taken up elsewhere in their budget, or will it be snaffled by the Chancellor of the Exchequer for other purposes? Since the Committee stage, the Minister has had a fair time to reflect on the matter and I await his answers with interest. In passing, I note estimates that, in a single year, the Government's clause will affect 105,000 income support claimants, 50,000 housing benefit claimants and 115,000 council tax benefit claimants.

I have explained the circumstances in which the Minister's announcement came to be made in Committee. I make no personal criticism of the Minister, but it would be fair to say that the Committee was taken by surprise--it was "bounced". Without any notice or proper briefing on that long, complex list of exclusions, all that I and my hon. Friends could do was give the Minister's announcement a cautious welcome. I said that we would give it more detailed consideration, as would concerned organisations.

That has happened and, in many respects, the Minister's announcement has been seen through. For example, Age Concern says that, for means-tested benefits, the Minister's much-flaunted exceptions are very much in line with the current "special reasons" for backdating. In future, a maximum of one month will be permitted in replacement of the current three months for

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income support and 12 months for housing and council tax benefits. The one-month limit will apply even if the claim has not been pressed because of misleading information from benefit staff or other sources, or because someone had been seriously ill at the time.

Age Concern is also worried about the inflexible one-month limit for means-tested or non-means-tested benefits where there has been a bereavement. The Minister tried to deal with that in Committee by saying that nearly all widows' benefit claims are made within one month of the death of the spouse, but Age Concern, which should know after all, does not accept that that is necessarily true for means-tested benefits for which people will qualify only after the death of the spouse.

In Committee, we welcomed the Government's acknowledgment of the problems that can arise where a benefit claim depends on the claimant's entitlement, or another person's entitlement, to another benefit. However, I join Age Concern in seeking reassurance from the Minister that the backdating provisions will be applied flexibly, so that people do not have to make unnecessary claims for benefits to which they know they are not entitled.

I have no doubt that the Minister will repeat the argument that if people are better informed about the benefits to which they are entitled, that will reduce the need for backdating. That is a superficially attractive argument. Surely a better system can be devised, so that we do not depend on backdating to get things right. That is precisely why my amendment is in the form that it is. The majority of people, with the right information, will be able to claim their full entitlement in due time. However, it is still the vulnerable groups to which I have referred that will find it hardest to be informed fully and, due to many likely circumstances, will not be willing to start to sort out their affairs for a period that might exceed three months, let alone one.

Age Concern makes the same point. It rightly welcomes the announcement of research into why older people do not claim income support and of other pilot studies to try to improve take-up. Of course, that is absolutely right. Forty per cent. of my voters in Eastbourne are over retirement age. All too often in my advice surgeries, I come across elderly people who simply do not claim the benefits to which they are clearly entitled, but I agree with Age Concern that we should start to tinker with the backdating rules only if and when we have tackled the problem of low take-up.

After careful reflection following the Committee stage, Age Concern's conclusion is particularly damning. It says:

Help the Aged has also written to express its concerns. It says:

    "The effect of clause 72 will undoubtedly cause additional hardship to many of the most vulnerable older people."

It also makes the valid point that many such claimants use the money from backdated claims to pay off debts such as rent arrears that have accrued in the meantime.

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In some ways, the reaction of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux is even more disappointing for the Minister. It refers to the exemptions announced by the Minister in Committee, saying:

It points out, however, that the exemptions were merely a reiteration of the circumstances in which income- related benefits could be backdated, prescribed by the previous Government in April this year. The only significant difference--and it is a big difference--is that the Minister proposes to reduce the existing three-month period to one month.

The citizens advice bureaux are in no doubt about the Government's true motives. They say:

They point out that, in March this year, the Social Security Advisory Committee recommended that the then new limits on backdating should not be proceeded with.

The citizens advice bureaux also have sensible things to say about the balance to be struck between encouraging take-up and limiting backdating. Of course they support the Government's stated wish to improve the system so that people understand what they are entitled to--who would not?--but they conclude, and cite a number of cases in support of their view, that

I suspect that, deep down, the Minister agrees with that view. Indeed, he admitted as much in Committee, during a debate on a quite different clause, when he said:

    "If any amendment imposed such a requirement on us now, the problems of administration--which is already complex, bureaucratic and inefficient--would be exacerbated, as our current systems cannot always work in the integrated fashion to which we aspire."--[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 28 October 1997; c. 48.]

That was a very clear statement by the Minister of the position as he saw it.

The citizens advice bureaux also cite a number of specific examples in regard to which they have sought clarification from the Department since the conclusion of the Committee stage--sadly, without success in a number of instances, particularly the exception in which one benefit is linked to others. I shall not weary the House with all the detail, but they mention attendance allowance and disability living allowance linked with a subsequent claim for income support, cases in which a carer's entitlement to invalid care allowance depends on a successful claim for attendance allowance or disability living allowance by the person being cared for, incapacity benefit and income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit.

Our new scedule is an attempt to persuade the Government to compromise, and to accept the adverse effects that clause 72 would have on many vulnerable people. It is reasoned and reasonable. It makes provision for those people, and gives them at least two extra months. If the Government reject it, they will deal a direct blow to the elderly, widows and the severely disabled, putting small budget savings ahead of their needs. On any view, these are harsh measures, even when we weigh them against the exemptions announced in Committee. I believe that, if they accepted the new schedule, the Government

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would still keep a large part of the envisaged £57 million saving--and, at the same time, they would have the satisfaction of helping those who are most in need.

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