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House of Lords

Thursday, 14th March 1996.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Ripon.): The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

The Earl of Cork and Orrery--Sat first in Parliament after the death of his brother.

Lone Parents: Benefit Costs

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Further to Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish's Written Answer (9th January, WA14), what were the cost implications for the Department of Health identified in considering the proposals for lone parents announced in the social security uprating Statement and why they have assessed these costs as negligible.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, the most likely cost implication for the Department of Health could be on the NHS low income scheme covering free prescriptions, optical and dental charges. However, as the benefit changes announced would have virtually no effect on the numbers eligible for the low income scheme, we have assessed those costs as negligible.

Earl Russell: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how great are the costs he regards as negligible?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, that is a good question. I suppose that the answer is that negligible costs are regarded as negligible. When it is difficult to see what numbers could be affected, as in this case, the costs must be considered negligible.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, given that the Rowntree study indicates that the level of nutrition of families in poverty--specifically, one-fifth of all single-parent families--is so low that they incur a much higher incidence of illness, especially cancer and ailments associated with the bone and with the bodily development of children, can the Minister say whether that factor has been taken into account?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, we do not believe that there is any reason why people on income support should not be able to follow a normal, healthy diet.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, does the Minister not agree that lone parents and their children are the poorest group in our society but that the Government's latest social security uprating froze the lone-parent benefit and premium to align it with the two-parent benefit? Given that lone parents are much worse off, do the Government really believe that to make marriage stronger they have to make the children of those parents poorer?

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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Baroness in her broad-brush assessment that all lone parents are somehow the poorest in society. We are trying to ensure that the benefit system does not work in the perverse way that it can work, which is to make a married couple with a child worse off than a lone parent with a child. We believe that that is wrong and that they should be placed on an all-square basis. We also believe that the way to help lone parents is to encourage them into work and to improve the position so that the father--there always is a father--pays his due maintenance. As I said, we want to treat lone parents equally with married couples.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, on the Government's definition of what they consider to be negligible expenditure, and in an endeavour to assist the Minister when replying to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that from time to time, when the circumstances suit them, the Government regard the expenditure of £2.5 billion in Europe as negligible?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I would never regard expenditure of £2.5 billion--or even of £2.5 million--in Europe or anywhere else as negligible.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington: My Lords, can the Minister say whether the all-party Health Committee's recommendations in 1992 that what was then the Department of Health and Social Security should undertake research into the food-buying patterns of pregnant women--a matter which is important not only for the mother, but for the beginning of life--have been implemented because, as far as I am aware, they have not?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, talking about particular research projects is a little wide of the Question, but people tend to eat different diets whatever their income. Some quite well-off people eat inadequate diets. Plenty of food is available at reasonable cost and people can thus maintain a reasonable and sensible diet. Although we believe that that is the case, I shall certainly look into the research project which the noble Baroness suggests.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington: My Lords, it was suggested by the all-party Health Committee in 1992.

Earl Russell: My Lords, when the Department of Social Security assessed the costs of cutting lone-parent benefit, did it take into account the survey by the National Children's Home and the Maternity Alliance which showed that 66 per cent. of babies born to parents on income support had a low birth weight? Did it take into account the research carried out by the Medical Research Council on the ongoing costs of low birth weight in the next generation?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, we attempt, with other departments, to take all factors into account. I suggest that the noble Earl looks at the

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research which shows clearly that one of the main reasons for low birth weight is the mother smoking during pregnancy.

Earl Russell: But my Lords, did the department take that research into account?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, as I said, we take all matters into account in our discussions with the Department of Health. I am afraid that I cannot answer a specific question about whether that particular research project was taken into account by the Department of Health. There are many research projects. The point I made remains important. Other than in very premature births, the principal cause of low birth weight is smoking in pregnancy.

War Widows' Pensions

3.8 p.m.

Lord Craig of Radley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What percentage of claims received for the War Widows' Pensions reinstated last July by the Pensions Act 1995 have now been approved and paid, and whether interest is added to the initial payment of claims which were delayed due to a shortage of staff in the War Pensions Agency.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, decisions have been made in almost 90 per cent. of the completed claims received and in almost 50 per cent. of these cases war widows' pensions have been put into payment together with appropriate arrears. It is anticipated that the large majority of pensions will be in payment by the end of March. At its peak we employed 58 staff on this additional work. There is no justification for the adding of interest to the initial payment.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer although it is disappointing on the subject of interest. Did not the War Pensions Agency estimate over a year ago that there would be about 16,500 reinstated awards? Indeed, your Lordships agreed the appropriate amendment during the Report stage of that legislation exactly a year ago today. Is it not the case that fewer than 12,000 claims have been received, which is less than 70 per cent. of the workload estimated by the War Pensions Agency? With all that warning time and less work than expected, has there not been some maladministration leading to prolonged delay in processing and paying the claims? The Inland Revenue is now quick to charge interest on tax which is paid late. Will the Government reconsider the position on interest on those payments?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, no, we will not reconsider paying interest on those payments. The position for the department in total is that discretionary special payments are allowed in payment of compensation for loss of money where the benefit has been delayed by official error or misdirection for

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a period of at least 12 months. In this case, the Act did not come into force until July, which was rather earlier than we thought. We have put a considerable number of staff on to the work. We have done the job quickly, and many of the widows concerned are receiving £148 a week tax-free more than they were receiving before. Rather than be criticised I should have thought we should be congratulated on the way we have proceeded on this matter.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, while the Royal British Legion acknowledges the Minister's endeavours and appreciates his efforts, will he please write to me with the detail of what he said in his reply? I wish to reiterate once again that we appreciate the endeavours he has made on our behalf.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. He will be able to read what I said in Hansard tomorrow. As I said, the position is that as at 5.30 p.m. last night about 12,148 decisions have been made; 12,046 have been notified; 6,617 are already in payment; and we expect the bulk of the remainder to be in payment by the end of the month.

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