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Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): At lunchtime today I spoke at the Sutton carers forum, which represents 20,000 carers in that London borough. Hon. Members will probably not be surprised to learn that carers are alarmed by the Government's proposals relating to invalid care allowance and its backdating by only one month.

I want to quote from a letter that was handed to me by a constituent at the meeting. He gave up a well-paid job to care for his wife. He wrote:


It was six months before that carer realised that the money had run out and that he needed benefit. By seeking to backdate invalid care allowance by just one month, the Government are hitting the poorest hardest. I am afraid that that seems to be a habit that the Government are acquiring. I hope that they will think again, because carers deserve much better than is currently on offer.

9.45 pm

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): I have written to the Minister about backdating being limited to a month, and I am grateful for his response. Perhaps in his winding-up speech he will address the issue of bereavement. After the death of a loved one, many widows are in shock, and sorting out their finances will not be their top priority in the month following the death. Many of them may not be capable of sorting out their finances in that time. For example, there may not be close family members to help them. Within the marriage they may not have been in charge of finances or, indeed, had anything to do with them. Perhaps the deceased had full control of the finances. Widows might not know that they are suddenly poor and eligible to apply for benefit.

When such conditions apply, I would favour some discretion by the authorities to allow them to pay benefit to such widows. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) said that the Government had allowed extra time in some cases. I am not aware of that from the Minister's reply to me, and I seek some clarification about widows in the month following bereavement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Keith Bradley): I shall deal first with amendment No. 2, new clause 2 and amendment No. 6. The amendments seek to provide longer general time limits for the backdating of late claims for benefit--12 months and three months respectively rather than the one month that we propose. Amendment No. 2 and new clause 2 would return us to the position prior to the changes that were introduced in April by the previous Administration. They would not only cause the savings resulting from our proposals to be lost but introduce further costs of about £135 million a year.

Part of the reason for the measure was to not extend the single room rent restrictions to 25 to 59-year-olds. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) incorrectly said that we were not extending the restrictions

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to those who are under the age of 25. We are evaluating the previous Government's restrictions to the under-25s. That is being closely monitored, and we shall report on it early next year.

Good government means setting the right priorities within limited resources. Where savings are needed, our priority must be the payment of benefit to meet current entitlement. That is a prudent and reasonable approach. We have to make realistic choices, and we have chosen sensibly according to reasonable priorities. We have also taken care to ensure that special cases will be covered through a range of exceptions. They will ensure the necessary flexibility in a scheme which we want to be as straightforward and easily understood as possible by customers and staff.

In reply to the first question by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen), the exceptions will fall into three broad categories. Under the first category, backdating will be allowed beyond the general one-month time limit. It will apply to both non-income-related and income-related benefits. It will include cases in which entitlement to a benefit is dependent on the claimant's or another person's entitlement to another benefit. It is obviously unreasonable for administrative delays in awarding one benefit to deprive a person of entitlement to another.

The second group of exceptions will be on income-related benefits, for which the basic rule will be no backdating. Backdating up to the one-month time limit will be permitted if special reasons apply. That will include cases in which the customer has difficulty communicating because he has learning, language or literacy difficulties, or he is deaf or blind and there is no one else to make a claim on his behalf. It also includes customers who are caring for a person who is ill or disabled and there is no one else to make the claim.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): I have noticed that, from time to time, all Governments in the past 20 years have, when they have found it necessary, spent considerable sums telling people that they should claim various benefits. Newspaper advertisements tell people how to claim. That gives the impression that the Government are saying, "We've got some money, and you ought to be getting hold of it," which runs counter to this restriction on backdating. The implication is that there are loads of people out there who are ignorant of the benefits that they can claim, but my hon. Friend is proposing to prevent the people whom we are anxious to ensure receive benefits from backdating their claims. One runs counter to the other. Will he explain how he has come to that conclusion?

Mr. Bradley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I shall come to that specific point a little later in this reasonably brief summing up. I shall first complete the list of exceptions.

The third category will provide for up to one month's backdating of income-related benefits for customers who are forced to delay claiming for various reasons: the appropriate office was closed and alternative arrangements were not available; they were unable to attend the appropriate office because of difficulties with

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the normal mode of transport and there was no alternative; there were adverse postal conditions; they have recently separated from a partner; or a close relative of the customer has recently died. I shall elaborate on that in relation to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).

Our proposals also provide a basis, as part of our general review of social security, for our medium and long-term aim of streamlining existing arrangements for claiming benefits. In line with that aim, I have asked officials--I explained this in Committee, but unfortunately the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) did not refer to it--to examine whether the processes for claiming specific benefits can be significantly improved.

The Bill contains a provision on data sharing. When someone has made a claim for one benefit in one part of the organisation, that information is automatically made available to ensure that it triggers entitlement to other benefits. That practice will be extended across agencies, such as between the Benefits Agency and a local authority, to ensure that people do not have to search around to find out about their entitlement: it is automatically triggered.

I have also asked whether specific administrative arrangements can be established to ensure that when a baby is born, that information automatically triggers the receipt of child benefit. Whether the baby is born in hospital, at home, or under the domino arrangement, proper provisions will be in place to ensure that the claim is made. The same applies to widows' benefits. I am sensitive to the traumatic effect of a death, but whatever the circumstances, it has to be registered within five days. If that process is linked to the administration of benefits that flow from that death, backdating does not apply, because the widows' benefit will have been triggered.

We shall have a much more streamlined service. Officials are examining closely how we can put those arrangements into practice.

Mr. Godman: Will my hon. Friend assure me that the provisions will cover those with learning difficulties, particularly in cases in which someone with a learning disability, or perhaps with mental health problems, has lost what might be called a caring adult?

Mr. Bradley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for enabling me to repeat the point that exceptions for learning difficulties are included in the list.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) made a very important point on industrial injuries benefit, specifically as it relates to diseases. In Committee and since then, he has repeatedly made representations to me on that point. I repeat what I said in Committee. I am sympathetic to the point, and I think that we shall have to consider imaginatively how we can deal with it, quite separately from the way in which the backdating proposals will operate. I have been in touch with officials to investigate how industrial diseases of the type that my hon. Friend mentioned can be dealt with more appropriately.

Administration of the system is important. It will be made easier when evidence supporting a claim is fresh and immediately relevant, as there will be less need for staff to make follow-up inquiries to check on the accuracy of details that are often several months old. In that

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context, the approach that we advocate--a one-month backdating time limit, with a prescribed list of exceptions--will be easy to understand, underlines customers' responsibility for making a claim on time and is consistent with the general public's expectations.

Taking into account the principles underlying the proposal, and in view of the exceptions that we intend to adopt, I ask the hon. Member for Northavon to withdraw his new clause and not to press his amendment.

Amendment No. 32 and new schedule 1 propose to include in the Bill a list of exceptions that allow backdating of income-related claims for up to one month and, in certain circumstances, backdating of specific benefits beyond the one-month maximum. As I announced in Committee, we propose to provide for exceptions in regulations. Those exceptions include all the specific circumstances stated in the new schedule.

I am pleased that the Opposition support the exceptions that we propose. It would not be sensible, however, to add the new schedule to the Bill. Exceptions are necessarily stated precisely and in some detail. Although the proposed schedule would allow us to add further exceptions by making regulations, it would not allow any amendment of the details that are currently included without recourse to primary legislation.

The listed exceptions cover administration of a number of benefits. Should any small change be needed--perhaps for only a technical reason--we would have to come back and take up the House's valuable time, to obtain the necessary authority to change primary legislation.


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