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House of Lords

Thursday, 26th June 1997.

The House met at three of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.

The Earl of Albemarle--Took the Oath.

Council Tax: Carers' Discount

Lord Rix asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What plans they have to ensure that local authorities inform carers about the "carers' discount" on their council tax.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has produced a leaflet on the council tax which includes specific information about the carers' discount. This leaflet has been distributed widely to local authorities and should be widely available. Local authorities are under a general duty to ensure that discounts are being granted to the right households. Authorities are also required to include with council tax bills information on the circumstances when a council tax bill may be subject to a discount. Beyond these general responsibilities the Government believe that it is up to individual authorities to decide what further steps they need to take to ensure that their local taxpayers are aware of the entitlement to a discount.

Lord Rix: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful Answer. Is she aware that there is still considerable confusion between the poll tax and the council tax? Under the poll tax only paid care workers could claim discounts, but under the council tax unpaid workers, including parents, can claim discounts. Is she further aware that wording is being put out from various councils in the following terms:

    "Reductions available; care workers who meet certain conditions"?
That does not appear to clarify the difference between the poll tax and the council tax. Can the Minister ensure that Statutory Instrument No. 552, the Council Tax (Additional Provisions for Discount Disregards) Regulations 1992, is again distributed to local authorities in the near future and translated into plain English for council tax payers?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. It is essential that those entitled to discounts understand the provisions that are available to them. It would be useful to ask officials to take the first possible opportunity to remind local authorities of the need to encourage take-up of the discounts by ensuring that people understand the eligibilities and that information about them is expressed as clearly as

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possible in council tax bills. Indeed, I undertake to ask officials to do so. I am a great believer in spreading good practice. This is an instance in which the department could be helpful. I undertake to ensure that we are as helpful as possible.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, how can local authorities ensure that carers are aware of the discounts unless information is supplied in the council tax documents which must be sent to every household? Only a few words are needed, leaving consequent applications to be dealt with in detail.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the noble Lord reinforces the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rix. There is no need to circulate a great deal of information, but it has to be clear and well presented. We will do what we can to ensure that it is.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, my noble friend's response and promised action are warmly welcomed. However, as some local authorities have denied that a discount is available, will she monitor the response to her leaflet?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, there should be no doubt about eligibility to the discount. Its purpose is to ensure that people with disabilities and their carers do not pay more council tax as a result. Other provisions are designed to take account of the specific needs of disabled people. When we bring the matter to the attention of local authorities I undertake to ensure that they are clear about the provisions.

Lord Bowness: My Lords, does the Minister agree that while the whole House wishes to ensure that carers receive the discount and their full entitlement, it is important to emphasise that any suggestion of prescription of either forms or procedures would be at odds with a shared desire that local authorities should be less constrained by central government and that well run authorities make it their business to ensure that information is available? Furthermore, now that the initial problems have been overcome, can she tell the House whether there is any evidence that local authorities are not making the evidence available?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, we would not wish to be prescriptive but, as I said earlier, we do wish to encourage good practice. It is important that people with disabilities and their carers should have access to a standard of clear information on the issue, which is a universal provision. I believe that the noble Lord asked me a second question.

Lord Bowness: My Lords, I asked the Minister whether she had any evidence to show that local authorities are not fulfilling their duties.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I believe that a number of voluntary organisations are concerned that while the duty may be being fulfilled technically, the quality of information--the point, I think, made by

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the noble Lord, Lord Rix--is such that people with disabilities and their carers are not able to access the discounts.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, will the Minister tell the House whether the Government are proposing to review the criteria for the discount? At the moment, I understand, a carer must be paid no more than £30 per week for at least 24 hours work per week. By my arithmetic, that works out at something like £1.20 per hour, which strikes me as pitiful.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, as I understand it, there are a range of carers who are eligible. Their presence in the house makes the householder eligible for the discount on council tax. Perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to write to him with further details.


3.14 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

    In National Osteoporosis Week, what action they are taking to increase public awareness of preventive measures and treatment of this debilitating condition.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, the Government are aware of the devastating effect that that condition can have on both women and men who suffer from it. Improving public awareness about prevention and treatment will be part of our new public health programme. We shall continue to fund the excellent work of the National Osteoporosis Society. I am pleased to tell the noble Baroness that in one of the very rare fine intervals this week, my honourable friend the Minister for Public Health and I took part in a splendidly named event, Take Your Bones for a Walk. We both enjoyed it and we were joined by about 50 Members of both Houses of Parliament.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I am delighted that she went on the walk. It is extremely important to bring out the point that it is not only women who suffer from osteoporosis. One in 12 men aged over 50 suffer from it. Is the Minister aware that the estimated annual cost to the health service of treating men's fractures caused by osteoporosis is about £150 million? It is particularly important to have follow-up treatment to prevent recurrence and a second fracture. Is the Minister also aware that people who fall suffer from a fracture only if they have osteoporotic bones? Will she make it clear that the condition affects not only women but also men; and it can also affect young people, including athletes and ballet dancers, who may suffer from stress fractures if they have been on very restrictive diets?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for reinforcing the point

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which I made briefly in my original Answer--that the condition unfortunately affects both men and women, and also young people. I understand that there are about 60,000 hip fractures every year which are attributed to osteoporosis and the total cost to the NHS is about £700 million each year for treating that condition. Anything that we can all do to reinforce public health messages about taking walks and having an appropriate diet is both useful for individuals and helpful to the health service.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of the work that has been done at the Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham? The orthopaedic surgeons there have found an unusually high number of osteoporotic stress fractures among young male farmers. Will the Minister say whether her department has had time to consider my request for £35,000 for funding further research into that matter?

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I am aware of the extremely unfortunate situation where, as the noble Countess says, several young men who were both active and much younger than the average age for osteoporosis appeared to have developed those symptoms. At the moment that research is not funded by the Department of Health but I understand that the National Osteoporosis Society is looking into the matter further.

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