Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

HC Committee [National Insurance Bill] (1st Thatcher Amendment)

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [703/849-55]
Editorial comments: 2030-2055. The whole of the debate on this amendment has been included for better understanding.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 1601
[column 849]

Mrs. Thatcher

I beg to move Amendment No. 8, in page 2, line 43, at the end to add:

(9)Death grant shall be payable in respect of any person who at the time of his death is severely mentally handicapped and has been so since childhood, notwithstanding that at the time of his death he was over the age of nineteen years.

This is a probing Amendment about a problem which arose towards the end [column 850]of my time on the other side of the Committee and in which I know that the right hon. Lady, particularly, was very interested, as were, indeed, a number of other hon. Members because they had individual cases on this very matter.

The difficulty has been that of paying death grant in respect of a person who never effectively entered insurance. I have restricted this Amendment to those [column 851]children who are severely mentally handicapped and who, although, they grow up, never attain any age beyond the mental age of a child. Should one of those children die, then up to the age of 19 he is covered for death grant purposes on the parent's insurance. Should the child die beyond the age of 19 a very real problem arises, as was shown in the case of such a child of a widow.

The widow was not earning very much—I believe about £10 a week—when one of her children, then aged 20, who had been severely mentally handicapped and who had never been capable of entering ordinary life, died. She applied for a death grant but could not get one. Had the child died below the age of 19 she would have obtained a death grant in respect of the child on her own insurance, but she could not get one because the child was over the age of 19.

We tried various ways to help her. We investigated the position through National Assistance, because, normally, as soon as they are eligible for National Assistance, from the age of 16, these young people apply for and receive National Assistance. They do not pay insurance stamps because they come under the small income exemptions. But we found that there is no power whatever in the National Assistance Act to pay a grant in respect of a person who has died except through a living person who is herself in need. Had that widow herself been on National Assistance she would have been a person in need and could have claimed some help from National Assistance to meet the funeral expenses. But National Assistance has no power to pay a terminal grant in respect of a person who, although on National Assistance during life, has just died.

Investigating this problem, therefore, we were driven back to try to find a solution within the National Insurance Scheme. We tried the possibility of making the death of such a child eligible for death grant on his or her parents' insurance. But frequently such a child dies after the parents have died. This would have meant keeping records in existence for a very long time. It also meant that if a mentally handicapped person were living with another relative, that other relative would probably not [column 852]have been able to claim had death grant been dependent upon the parents' insurance. That line of investigation, like that of National Assistance, was ruled out.

It seemed that one of the few lines left, which I feel the right hon. Lady is pursuing, was to try to reduce the contribution conditions for death grant to such a point for these people that they could easily become entitled to a death grant. There is one analogy already in the insurance scheme. Although it is an insurance scheme—that is to say, benefits are payable only in return for contributions—there is one case within the scheme in which benefits can be obtained without so much as a single contribution having been paid. That benefit is the orphans' or guardians' benefit, when the child entitled a person to guardians' benefit if the parent of the orphan child was himself or herself an insured person. Being an insured person means no more than having been a British national and in this country at some time between school-leaving age and retirement age. If the parent of an orphan were an insured parent but had paid no contributions then the orphan would attract guardians' allowance, at the moment 37s. 6d. and under the Bill 40s.

It seemed that the test of being an insured person would be one test whereby the mentally severely handicapped person could enable someone else to draw a death grant in the event of that handicapped person's death. I am aware that if one substitutes this test one can run into difficulty. It would have to be substituted for a very narrow range of people, such as the severely mentally handicapped, and it would be difficult to define that group. What is a severely mentally handicapped child? One which has been handicapped since birth or one which by some accident has become severely mentally handicapped? If one followed the test of being an insured person it would have to be narrowly defined. Many people are excluded from the death grant provision because they were too old when the scheme was brought into existence or because they were within 10 years of retirement age. If such a person were substituted so as to qualify for benefit, this would put up the cost of the measure very considerably. [column 853]

It seems that if we can possibly get a narrowly defined test confined to those people who for one reason or another—severely mentally handicapped or severely physically handicapped—were never able effectively to become contributors to insurance, we might reach some solution to the problem. If we confined it to this small group of people the cost would be negligible. This is in no sense an expensive measure. But if we cannot confine it, the cost would be considerable. I ask the right hon. Lady, as I am sure she will, to carry on trying to find a solution to this problem of enabling severely mentally handicapped children to qualify persons who are in charge of them for a death grant when the severely mentally handicapped person dies.

Mr. Pentland

We are all deeply concerned about the position of the unfortunate people referred to by the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), and referred to also in the Amendment. We are right to be concerned about this problem and it is one which I think everyone will agree will always have to be approached with sympathy and understanding. The Government intend to approach it in that way, and I have taken note of what the hon. Lady said.

I was impressed by the hon. Lady's moderate tone in moving the Amendment because, having sat here since half past three this afternoon, it has been nauseating to see the tremendous feeling now being expressed by some hon. Members on the benches opposite about the problems and anomalies which exist in the social security scheme. I find that absolutely hypocritical in many respects. As my right hon. Friend said a few hours ago, the Government have been in office for only a few weeks, yet we are being asked to solve problems and deal with anomalies which have existed for many years, and were known to exist by the previous Government.

I was informed, and the hon. Lady has now made it perfectly clear, that over the years considerable investigations have been undertaken to find possible ways and means of making provision for the payment of a death grant on the death of permanently handicapped children. Incidentally, I was pleased that she pointed this out in her remarks, be[column 854]cause the Amendment refers only to a mentally handicapped person and makes no definition of that term. It omits the possibility of making provision for physically handicapped children, and, therefore, its effect would be very restrictive indeed.

As the hon. Lady said, the problem here is not primarily one of expense at all—far from it. There are estimated to be only about 3,000 such deaths a year. The real difficulty here—and the hon. Lady referred to it—is to decide how the Government can make provision for the payment of a death grant on the death of a permanently handicapped person without bringing in its train considerably wider changes. This is a question to which we will have to find a solution.

I do not want to weary the Committee. The hon. Lady was brief, and asked for certain assurances, so I shall not go into detail about what the changes would mean. I assure the Committee that they would be far-reaching, with implications much wider than in the field of death grant benefits, and I am sure that the hon. Lady, with her experience of these matters, appreciates that.

In the short time that we have had available to us we have examined this problem very carefully indeed, and we have found, as the previous Government did, that it is a difficult one to solve. I am not going to say this evening that we have found a solution to it. My right hon. Friend, and all those associated with her, are deeply concerned about it. We want to find a solution—make no mistake about that—and we are determined to find one if it is at all possible. We want to assure the Committee that we shall embark upon a detailed study of this matter. This will not be brought within the ambit of the major review. It will be an independent study into this problem.

We approach this question with sympathy and understanding. We are hoping that as a result of our investigation the prevailing difficulties, which are now understood by all hon. Members, can be finally overcome. In the meantime, I would ask the hon. Lady and her hon. and right hon. Friends to accept that assurance and withdraw the Amendment, otherwise I must invite the Committee to reject it.

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Mrs. Thatcher

I shall be quite happy to withdraw the Amendment. I am aware that had the Parliamentary Secretary been able to find the solution it would probably have been in the Bill, as was the right hon. Lady's solution of the home confinement grant and the maternity grant. I was a little disappointed that the solution to this problem was not in the Bill, but we shall be having a consolidating Measure later, presumably, and I hope that it will then not be out of order to put one or two things like this into that Measure. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.