Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Higgins: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for clarifying that point. I obviously misheard what she originally said. None the less, an important and interesting discussion was stimulated. Tomorrow we can read exactly what was said in Hansard.

The noble Baroness has made two false starts. When I used to run, that would have disqualified runners. However, that did not apply in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Archer, who got away with it several times, and that was the least of his crimes. Even so, he never managed to beat me over 100 yards, or metres as it would be nowadays. I am most grateful for the noble Baroness's comments. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 40 to 44 not moved.]

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 45:

The noble Lord said: Subsection (8) states:

    "Regulations may prescribe descriptions of persons in whose case the maximum savings credit shall be taken to be nil".

I should have thought that the Government were fairly clear by now about which "descriptions of persons" would not be entitled to any maximum—or even any minimum—savings credit. I am not quite clear why the Bill cannot state who those interesting if somewhat hard-done-by people are. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: One can tell that the noble Lord was a sprinter. I used to run relay races, and I never had to worry about false starts—just about where the end of the line was. It may be at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m.

The amendment would remove the proposed power to prescribe cases in which the savings credit will be set at nil. The policy intention behind the subsection is to complement Clauses 2(6) and 2(9). The intention is that, taken together, those clauses will provide powers to ensure that prisoners and members of religious orders who are fully maintained by their order will be excluded from entitlement to pension credit.

We intend that prisoners and members of religious orders who are fully maintained by their order will be excluded. That is because the cost of maintaining those

24 Jan 2002 : Column 1679

groups is met by other organisations. The reason for seeking to exclude those groups in regulations instead of in the Bill is simple. That approach affords us flexibility to reflect future changes: for example, we may need to adjust our treatment should the Home Office make changes in the categorisation of prisoners.

The proposed treatment of prisoners in pension credit is consistent with the approach taken in other benefits. For example, prisoners are excluded in working families and disabled person's tax credits and attendance allowance, and the basic state pension payment is suspended for the duration of the sentence. The latest Home Office data showed that in November 2001, 1,385 prisoners were aged 60 and over and 651 prisoners were aged 65 and over.

We intend to provide in pension credit for the housing costs of prisoners held on remand or awaiting trial or sentencing to continue to be met for up to 52 weeks. Similarly, where prisoners are hospitalised under the Mental Health Act 1983, they will be entitled to pension credit in the same way as other long-term hospital in-patients.

I am glad that the amendment was moved—it is useful to put the position on the record; that will help people to advise families in particular in stressful situations. For completeness, I am sure that the noble Lord will want to know how we intend to respond to the situation involving prisoners' families. Where the pension credit recipient is detained in custody, the partner may claim in their own right; however, a new claim would be required. There will be a facility in pension credit for the customer to opt for the claim to be made from "as early as possible". That would allow the decision-maker to consider entitlement for up to three months earlier than the initial date of contact—that is almost like a form of back-dating—provided that the conditions of entitlement are satisfied for that period. Where the partner is imprisoned the decision-maker would want to supersede the existing award to exclude the partner from the day following imprisonment.

I do not know whether that meets enough of the noble Lord's concerns. I could add further details on religious orders, whose members are also fully maintained. These are important issues, although they apply to only a very small group of people. I am glad to have had an opportunity to respond to the issue.

Lord Higgins: I am most grateful to the Minister for that explanation. It is helpful to have this rather esoteric point on the record; it is obviously of considerable importance to those concerned. No doubt those involved with these groups of people will read Hansard and find a clear explanation of the Government's intentions. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Higgins moved Amendment No. 46:

    Page 3, line 34, at end insert—

24 Jan 2002 : Column 1680

"(9) When benefits are reduced under the provisions of the Social Security Hospital—Inpatients Regulations (S.I.1975/555) they shall be restored within one week of the patient being discharged from hospital.
(10) In the event that benefits are not restored within the period mentioned in subsection (9), payment shall be made as soon as possible at twice the normal amount for the period from one week after the patient is discharged until the date that payment is received by the patient."

The noble Lord said: This amendment is concerned with the situation regarding people affected by the Social Security Hospital—Inpatients Regulations. That matter has caused considerable concern. It relates to the way in which a large number of benefits are withdrawn from an individual who is in hospital. I believe that the Government estimate that around 31,000 retirement pensioners are affected by those reductions. As a result, there is a saving in public expenditure of some 60 million per year. That is so far as concerns the retirement pension. I do not believe that figures are available for other benefits. Perhaps the noble Baroness can help us in that regard.

I stress that there is much concern about this matter. As the noble Baroness pointed out on a former occasion, it relates to a provision on double-counting which goes back to the beginning of the national insurance scheme. That is understandable, and sufficient remains of my Treasury halo for me not to question the principle. However, two points give cause for concern. One is that considerable doubts have been expressed recently about whether the extent of the reduction is in line with the savings made by the individual concerned. The noble Baroness may wish to comment on that, although it is not the point with which the amendment is concerned.

The issue on which I have received most representations—I used to receive them from my former constituents—is the long delay that occurs after a person is discharged from hospital before benefit payments are resumed. I see that I have a lot of support on that issue from the Back Benches opposite. It is obviously a matter of great concern. People who have just been discharged from hospital may typically return to their homes alone or, even if other people give them assistance, they may be in a very bad way and unable to cope well with an immediate crisis. If they suddenly find that they are discharged but no longer have the benefits which they received before going into hospital—benefits to which they are none the less entitled once they are discharged—understandably they may feel, or indeed be, distressed.

Therefore, the amendment seeks to impose a limit whereby the benefits should be resumed, at any rate, within one week of their being discharged from hospital. I realise that technical problems are involved. However, by way of incentive—this is perhaps a rather crude way of doing it; I understand that—some form of sanction should be imposed on the benefit-paying organisations. Such organisations are of course varied because they cover a wide range of benefits, but an incentive or sanction should be imposed on those who fail to resume payment with a week. For a person who

24 Jan 2002 : Column 1681

has just come out of hospital and finds that he is not receiving his benefits, even a week can be long enough to cause considerable concern.

This is a probing amendment. I do not necessarily wish to press it in every respect, but I believe that an important issue is involved and somehow we must deal with it. One way in which to do so—again, I am not sure that it is by any means the ideal solution—would be for the benefit to be paid throughout the period. Then, the amount which is deducted because the person in question is said not to have incurred so many costs in hospital could be collected subsequently. The noble Baroness grimaces, if I may use that expression, and I understand that. None the less, such a solution may cause rather less distress than the present situation, which can be quite fraught.

I believe that this is an important matter. Concern is now growing that the amounts deducted are not appropriate and that the system does not provide adequate arrangements for resuming payment the moment the person is expelled—not "expelled"; I am not going to become involved in yesterday's controversy—discharged from hospital. Again, perhaps better arrangements can be made with regard to the procedure for discharge.

These issues are important to those who are affected. They may well be among the poorest of our people and, in any case, may be among those who are least well and least able to cope when eventually they emerge from the hospital environment. I beg to move.

9.30 p.m.

Baroness Greengross: Some important points have been raised by the noble Lord. In October last year I raised this issue in a Starred Question. It is time for a policy that was designed so long ago—in the 1940s—to be updated. We are now in the 21st century. People do not live in hospital any more. They stay in hospital while they are ill and, assuming that they have somewhere to go, they are discharged from hospital. The old geriatric wards have gone.

The situation is very different from the one to which this rule was designed to apply. If frail elderly people do not require intensive medical treatment, they are transferred to care homes. The process of intermediate care should be better and smoother. Often, if such a move does not take place within six weeks, it is not the patient's fault; we know that it is the failure of the authorities concerned to find a suitable place and that leads to bed-blocking. This has been under review since 1948, but I believe that the Government should conduct a genuine review. The current system of taking money away from inpatients is complicated and bureaucratic.

My last point is that there is an anomaly. The five-year period of assessment, that I welcome, does not apply if one has had a stay in hospital. That has to be reported. I believe that if one is ill, one has to report that to the social security department.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page