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Baroness Seear: My Lords, I apologise that I was not in my seat when the noble Baroness began to speak to the amendment to which I too have attached my name. There is little to add; the case is self evident.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, we discussed the matter at length in Committee. As I said then, I believe that the underlying issue relates to the provision of the national assistance charging regulations and the way in which local authorities use their discretion under those regulations when one member of a couple has an occupational pension and moves into residential accommodation. As I promised, I passed on the anxieties raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and other noble Lords to my right honourable friend, Mrs. Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health. I assure your Lordships that the issue is being considered most carefully.
As I explained in Committee, at present it is left to the local authorities, using Department of Health guidance, to decide whether it will be beneficial to a particular resident spouseand each individual case may be judged on its meritas to how much they take from a pension. We expect local authorities to take into account the individual circumstances of each case; for instance, the previous living standards or particularly high outgoings. Anyone who is not satisfied with the way in which a local authority has exercised its discretion has recourse to the local authority complaints procedure, which all local authorities must operate in relation to their social services.
Since the previous debate, I have written to the noble Baroness apologising for the misunderstanding that occurred regarding evidence that local authorities were refusing to exercise their discretion in cases where a resident's entire occupational pension is taken into account towards the charge for his accommodation. From what I said a moment ago about the Department of Health circular, your Lordships will realise that that is certainly not our intention. We have now seen the briefing material from Age Concern. I must say that while of course the cases quoted and those quoted today by the noble Baroness are tragic, they do not actually show that local authorities have refused to exercise their discretion to allow residents to make a proportion of their occupational pensions available to their wives. Indeed, I invited Members of the Committee to produce hard evidence of examples where authorities had not exercised their discretion reasonably. Apart from the briefing note from Age Concern, I have not received any further material. If I receive any such material, I shall pass that evidence on to my right honourable friend.
I note that the noble Baroness said that local authorities are not exercising their discretion in that area. But the fact is that they have the discretion and before believing that we can proceed, I should like evidence that there is a widespread failure to use the
The second amendment seeks to extend the scope of what are known as the "substitution provisions" in the state pension scheme to married couples where one member is in residential accommodation. As I explained in Committee, the substitution provisions allow people whose marriages have ended by death, divorce or annulment and who do not remarry before reaching pension age to improve their basic pension entitlement by substituting their former spouse's contribution record for their own for the period up to the termination of the marriage. Separated couples do not come within the scope of the substitution provisions because where a couple are not residing together the woman is still able to claim a married woman's pension. The married woman's pension is paid at a lower rate than the standard basic pension and I can understand the noble Baroness's reasons for wanting to improve the position of people in the circumstances that she has described.
However, amending the legislation in the way proposed by these amendments would not necessarily benefit everyone concerned, in particular in cases where the remaining spouse receives an income-related benefitcommonly income support. All income-related benefits must take pensions fully into account. In these cases, the spouse at home would benefit only if the amount of pension that she received was substantial enough to lift her entirely above the level of income-related benefit that she received.
On the other hand, the spouse at home may have very substantial resources. It could not be considered to be an appropriate use of the limited public funds available if people in those situations were allowed to retain a share of the occupational pension while the spouse in care was having to be supported by the local authority or through the benefit system.
However, as I hope I made clear in Committee, I have a great deal of sympathy for what is being said, but I believe that the issue goes a good deal further than the question of rights in pension schemes. As I said earlier, I have referred the matter of residential charges to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health and I can only reiterate that she is considering the issue very carefully indeed. Once again, I shall pass on the points made in this afternoon's debate to my right honourable friend so that she can take them into consideration.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that conciliatory and sympathetic reply. But the problem is that we are no further forward. The Government have one basic argument; namely, that local authorities have the power to exercise discretion. The Minister is not aware whether or not that discretion is being exercised, and until he has evidence of that he is not willing to move. I do not believe that that is a travesty of what he said.
First, both Age Concern and the Alzheimer's Disease Society have carried out a trawl of a number of local authorities and have reached two conclusions. First, there is wide variation in practice; but, secondly, even within a region or within a county with metropolitan authorities responsible for social services, very few local authorities exceed by more than £5 or £10 per week the £13 which they are required to recycle back to the home.
I am surprised that the Minister has not received the material that I have received from Age Concern and the Alzheimer's Disease Society. One of its county officers told Age Concern that although at one time the local authority had regularly used the discretion, it rarely did so now because of its financial situation. We know that from our own experience. All local authorities are having to cut back on every discretionary service in order to provide the statutory services to which they quite rightly give precedence, particularly when the Department of the Environment not only actively expects local authorities to charge but penalises them through the standard spending assessment if they do not. Those are the facts.
It is because of that that I wish to pursue the amendment. The amendment provides that, if some authorities are following that course but a few are not, we shall bring bad practice up to good. If most authorities are not exercising their discretion, which appears to me to be the case, there is an even bigger problem of acute emotional and financial distress which we need to address. This amendment will ensure that, wherever you live, the response of local authorities when someone is taken into residential care will be broadly the same. It is the equivalent of national guidelines. We need this provision now and I am going to ask the House to support the amendment.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.