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House of Commons

Monday 19 December 1988

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Birmingham City Council Bill

Southern Water Authority Bill

Lords amendments agreed to.

Harwich Harbour Bill


Order for Third Reading read.

Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.

Read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.

Oral Answers to Questions


Income Support

1. Mr. Macdonald : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make it his policy to give income support to 16 to 18- year-olds for whom the Government have not found a YTS place.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Nicholas Scott) : No, Sir

Mr. Macdonald : Has the Minister considered the case of my constituent, Mr. Calum Morrison, the details of which I sent to him on Friday? My constituent will be

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leaving school at Christmas and will have to wait seven months before an appropriate YTS place becomes available. Does the Minister appreciate that there are a number of young people in my constituency in exactly the same circumstances? Will he therefore agree to restore eligibility for income support to youngsters who are willing to work and train, but for whom no work and training is available? Does he agree with Prince Edward that the denial of income support in those circumstances is a blow that could wreck a young man's life?

Mr. Scott : The facts are slightly different from those presented by the hon. Gentleman. The young man concerned was offered a similar training scheme with the construction industry training board to start in January. However, it was located in Inverness and, for his own reasons, he decided that he would prefer to wait for a local course. It remains an option for the young man to remain in school until the end of the academic year. There are two schools which could offer him full courses during that time and he could then move straight on to his youth training scheme.

Mr. Speaker : Order. I did not stop the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) at the time, but I remind him that we do not use the names of members of the royal family to support our arguments.

Mr. McCrindle : Although I generally endorse the Government's policy of weaning young people away from state benefits, does my hon. Friend recognise that a place has not yet been found on a YTS for some 16 to 18- year-olds who are both unemployed and homeless? Will he tell me whether consideration is being given to flexibility in the operation of that rule? Is this not an ideal example of targeting benefits where the need is greatest?

Mr. Scott : First, the number of places available exceeds the number of people wishing to take them up in every region of the country. Secondly, vulnerable groups are of course able to receive income support and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State retains a power to pay that benefit where, otherwise, exceptional hardship might be caused.

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Ms. Mowlam : The Minister has just said that there is an excess of places in specific regions. Statistically, that may be the case, but is he aware that the difficulties of a youngster in travelling from Redcar to Hartlepool, and the costs incurred, are similar to those faced by the youngster in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) in travelling from the Western Isles to Inverness? It is ludicrous for the Minister to suggest that young people can make such journeys without any financial assistance.

Mr. Scott : Unless the young person is particularly vulnerable and falls within those groups, or is likely to suffer exceptional hardship, I take the view that it is better for him to obtain a YTS place, even if that involves some travel, rather than start life on benefit.

Mr. Marlow : My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle) has implied that there are young people who cannot get youth training schemes and therefore they cannot get other benefits. They may be required to live on their own. They therefore have no income support. Will my hon. Friend make it clear that any young person can, if he so wishes, get a youth training scheme and, if he does so, will then qualify for the other benefit?

Mr. Scott : I confirm exactly what my hon. Friend has said.

Severe Weather Payments

2. Mr. Wallace : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what representations he has received about the effect of the wind-chill factor in determining the eligibility of claimants for exceptionally severe weather payments.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lloyd) : Only one recently, from the hon. Gentleman himself

Mr. Wallace : I am very grateful to the Minister for the reply that he sent me last week. Does he agree that it is not acceptable, when the meteorological office can find precise ways to measure the wind-chill factor, for him to give as a reason for not incorporating those measurements the excuse that they would lead to uncertainty? Does he accept that the wind-chill factor is a real element for many people and that draughts can cause more discomfort, particularly to the elderly, than the air-ground temperature, which is the current basis for measurements? Will he consider the evidence from the meteorological office and agree to reconsider the matter?

Mr. Lloyd : I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is right. The main factor is air temperature. Wind-chill is a much lesser factor. The hon. Gentleman is also wrong to state that wind-chill would not complicate matters. It certainly would and it would make the system much less fair. Top-floor flats would fare much worse in that respect than ground-floor flats and southern aspects are much better than north-facing aspects.

The benefit of the scheme that we have introduced is that it is easy to understand, easy to administer and payments can be made very quickly on the basis of air temperature, which is overwhelmingly the main factor.

Mr. Flynn : The Minister has shown eloquently just how insupportable is the scheme. Does he recall that when it

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was put to the test in the winter of 1987, it collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity and complexity? Should it not now be replaced by a scheme that is much easier to understand, where payments are decided automatically at a national level, and paid automatically? Simply advertising the scheme last time cost the equivalent of 82,000 severe weather payments. For how many more winters are the Government going to dole out cold comfort in a scheme that is crude, wasteful, unintelligible and paltry?

Mr. Lloyd : The present scheme is much improved in comparison to that to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It stands no comparison with what existed when the Labour party was in office, because there was no such scheme. Is the hon. Gentleman trying to suggest, in contradiction to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), that there should be a national figure to trigger payments rather than a regional one? The hon. Gentleman should know, and hon. Members from Scotland will support this, that different regions experience very different weather at different times. Our system is far fairer than that suggested by the hon. Gentleman because it recognises that.

Mr. John Marshall : Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a large element of cant and hypocrisy in the comments-- [Interruption.] How much was spent on the payments in 1978-79 and how much was spent in the last tax year?

Mr. Lloyd : My hon. Friend is right. There was no such scheme under Labour. The scheme worked very well last year. We have improved it further and it will work better still.

Family Credit

3. Mr. Boyes : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the latest estimate of the take-up of family credit.

7. Mr. Eastham : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the latest estimate of the take-up of family credit.

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. John Moore) : Since the start of the new scheme over 450,000 claims have been received. At the end of November, over 260,000 families were receiving family credit. In addition, about 47,000 claims were on hand, 32,000 of which were awaiting replies from inquiries to employers or claimants. Overall, the underlying caseload is now approaching 300,000.

Mr. Boyes : Are not the figures still well below the 60 per cent. objective or target that was set? Are they not well below the 40 per cent. to which the Secretary of State is said to have referred to because he takes into consideration the fact that not everyone who submits a claim will be successful? Is form FC1 not one of the problems? I do not know how many hon. Members have seen that form which people must fill in. It consists of 16 pages, 13 sections and almost 100 questions in small type. I went through the form this morning trying to fill it in and I had a hell of a problem. Does the Secretary of State agree that making that form simpler would help matters? Will the Secretary of State press his colleague, the Chief Secretary to the

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Treasury to provide £500,000 for an advertising campaign to help people take up family credit? If one Department can get such sums, I hope that the Secretary of State will fight for it as well.

Mr. Moore : I shall correct some of the hon. Gentleman's extraordinary inaccuracies. First, there has been, and continues to be, a sizeable advertising campaign. As compared with the figure mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, more than £3 million has already been spent and more is currently being spent on a targeted campaign. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that still more is needed. On the hon. Gentleman's second point, about form FC1, although he personally may have difficulty with it, by comparison with the old family income supplement system, the success rate using the form about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned, and with which he has such difficulty, is more than 70 per cent. Having said that, if there is any way in which we can improve form FC1 and the method of application, we shall certainly consider it. If one makes the form too short and too simple, one has the problem that the process may have to be gone through twice.

As to the hon. Gentleman's first point--he made many--I stress that, on the figures that I gave him, we are running at a caseload of nearly 40 per cent. That takes into account the expectation that some applications will not be successful.

Mrs. Roe : How much is being spent on providing family credit as compared with family income support?

Mr. Moore : My hon. Friend raises a point that I would have covered had I not been too extensive with my previous reply. We are spending at more than double the rate that the expenditure pattern was under FIS. That very successful expenditure pattern is illustrative of the degree to which family credit is helping those families in greatest need.

Mr. Eastham : Earlier, the Minister made reference to there being 260,000 recipients of family credit by the end of November. Does the Minister agree with estimates that 750,000 people are probably entitled to benefit? Is there not a possibility that those who qualify feel that there is a stigma attached to making an application, because of means testing, which creates indignity and acts as a deterrent to taking up benefit? In Manchester, 4,000 families have taken up family credit, from which one can calculate that more than 12,000 families are actually entitled to it. When will the Government do something to make the public understand that there should be no stigma ; understandably people are appalled at the very idea of a means-test system.

Mr. Moore : I accept entirely the aims behind the hon. Gentleman's question. We should make clear that no stigma is attached to the current benefit, which I recollect was welcomed by both sides of the House on its introduction. The problem is not of stigma, but of trying to attract attention to and publicising family credit--of trying to get it across to people and to communicate. The take-up is reasonable, but it is not yet at the levels that I and right hon. and hon. Members would wish. Anything that I and the Government can do by way of targeting of the kind that we are now undertaking--at post offices,

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which people visit to collect child benefit-- will be welcomed and encouraged by us and, I know, by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Madel : As this is an important benefit for those having modest incomes but who still have to pay mortgages or rents, and rates, will my right hon. Friend ask local authorities and building societies to see what they can do to publicise it?

Mr. Moore : My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point-- [Interruption.] It is extraordinary that Opposition Members, who are supposed to be concerned about people who are on low incomes and about low employment figures, do not seem to be interested in helping to publicise a benefit such as family credit. Those right hon. and hon. Members who are genuinely concerned, as opposed to those who are concerned with the politics of care rather than with real care, will continue making sensible suggestions, as does my hon. Friend. I shall certainly consider them.

Mr. Frank Field : When will the Government meet their modest objective of achieving a 50 per cent. take-up rate? May the House be given a Christmas bonus today and be told the actual date?

Mr. Moore : As the hon. Gentleman knows, the House will not have its Christmas bonus withdrawn as a consequence of Labour's economic failure. The hon. Gentleman knows full well that I am as disappointed as he is about the take-up so far. However, I am not

over-disappointed at the level of expenditure, which is now running in excess of that planned. The hon. Gentleman also knows--and I shall return to this point in a later question--that there is an enormous distinction to be made between the expenditure pattern and actual caseload take-up. Expenditure is already running at a level greater than that which we anticipated.

Mr. Jacques Arnold : Does my right hon. Friend accept that one of the most effective means of working towards a higher take-up is the campaign in the post offices, through which mothers with child benefit books can receive leaflets giving full details of family credit? Is my right hon. Friend certain that the post offices are making the leaflets readily available to their targets?

Mr. Moore : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is the second stage of the campaign : there has already been advertising in the national media, including television. Along with the current radio campaign, a targeted leaflet campaign is taking place in the post offices, and so far take-up has been excellent. I want to study the results carefully to see whether any similar campaigns will be necessary before the next major television advertising campaign.

Mr. Kirkwood : I recognise the need for increased information and publicity. Does the Secretary of State recognise, however, that all that will be to no avail if there are not enough properly trained staff to deal with and process the claims? Will he comment on last month's Public Accounts Committee report, which had some disturbing things to say about the resources devoted to staff in local offices?

Mr. Moore : As the hon. Gentleman follows these issues with care, he should distinguish between matters

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concerning local offices and the way in which the benefit is being handled at north Fylde. There have been no problems with the new system apart from initial difficulties. The only additional complication at north Fylde was caused by the postal strike earlier in the year. In all other respects, arrangements there are working excellently. The only other difficulty that sometimes delays receipt of family credit is the need to refer to the employer for additional information, and we are not far from our target of 18 days' turnround from the time of application.

Social Fund (Applications)

4. Mr. Stern : To ask the Secretry of State for Social Security how many requests for review of a refusal of assistance under the social fund have been received to the latest convenient date ; how many such reviews have been completed ; and what proportion of those reviewed have led to a reversal of the previous decision.

Mr. Peter Lloyd : By 31 October 54,925 applications for review had been received by social fund officers. They revised their decisions in 30 per cent. of those cases. I regret that information about the number of reviews completed in DSS local offices is not available.

Mr. Stern : Does my hon. Friend agree that the review system is extremely speedy compared with the previous appeals system that applied under the equivalent single payment regulations? Does he also agree that it appears to dispense no less justice?

Mr. Lloyd : My hon. Friend is quite right. One of the merits of the new system is the speed of review. Reviews by social fund officers take a matter of days, and outside reviews by social fund inspectors are completed in an average of 17 days. That compares with 21 weeks for appeal under the old single payment system.

Mr. Tony Banks : But why are one in three of them wrong at the point of application? That is the truth behind the statistics that the Minister has given. They mask a great deal of misery and suffering throughout the country. The Minister is playing Scrooge, but without Scrooge's generosity and open heart.

Mr. Lloyd : The hon. Gentleman would display his talent for indignation even more if the review did not lead to any changes. The statistics were intended to show that in 30 per cent. of cases the social fund officer considered it right to think again. That is wholly beneficial in a brand new system in which officers for the first time must exercise discretion, which is one of the merits of the system. That the changes are under review shows that decisions are being thought about hard, and that bodes well for the continuing success of the scheme.

Mrs. Beckett : Does the Minister recall that, whether on review or on initial decisions, some 7 per cent. of those rejected for social fund loans are rejected because they are already so in debt they simply cannot afford to repay a loan? Since by definition those people must be the poorest of all, how do the Government square that with their claim to target help on those in the greatest need?

Mr. Lloyd : I do not think that the hon. Lady's logic is impeccable. The fact that people are already in debt does not necessarily mean that they are the poorest ; it means

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that they are the people who borrowed the most. It would be stupid to bring into the system an additional loan making the debt even harder to repay. In any event, the scheme is so devised that in cases of real hardship the officer can extend the period of repayment so that essential purchases and loan payments can be made.


6. Mr. Dykes : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will express in terms of an index of real values the amount of pension received by a single pensioner and a married couple at the latest available date, and the comparable figure (a) two, (b) five and (c) 10 years ago.

Mr. Moore : Taking November 1976 as the base expressed as 100, the index by income units of retirement pension and income-related benefits, plus occupational pension, was, in 1981, 113.7, in 1984, 125.9 and in 1986, 133.6, respectively.

Mr. Dykes : My right hon. Friend and I can imagine what the index equivalent would have been in 1978 or 1979. Do not those figures speak volumes? Do they not show that, once again, when it comes to the aggregate deal that pensioners in this country receive, from Labour they get rhetoric and propaganda and from us they get real results?

Mr. Moore : I am delighted to say that I could not have expressed that better than my hon. Friend.

Mr. John Evans : Will the Secretary of State confirm that if the Tory Government had not scrapped the link between pensions and average national earnings, pensioners would be receiving a substantially greater sum than that which they now receive?

Mr. Moore : The hon. Gentleman seems to ignore the very point that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) made--that the supposed support for pensioners while the Labour Government were in office meant that, on average, the pensioner had an increase-- [Interruption.] It is relatively important to the pensioner. The pensioner had an increase of less than 3 per cent. during the whole period when the Labour Government were in office, compared with the 23 per cent. increase that they have already received under this Government.

Mr. Waller : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the achievement of a substantial increase in real terms is particularly significant in the light of the very considerable increase in the number of pensioners as a whole, which has resulted in a greater call on resources? Does my right hon. Friend also agree that, thanks to the substantial growth of the economy, the great majority of pensioners who are retiring now can look forward to a substantial income from the pension that relates to their former employment?

Mr. Moore : My hon. Friend is right. It is a fundamental mistake to fail to notice the extra 1 million pensioners who are, I am happy to say, living longer. It is also a mistake not to recognise the combination of benefits to which a pensioner is entitled, a combination that is so often ignored by the Opposition, who nearly destroyed for a whole generation of pensioners the work and the thrift that had been put into their savings.

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Mr. Battle : Does the Secretary of State agree that when the pension increase to which he referred is coupled with the reductions in housing benefit, very many pensioners are worse off because their disposable income is much less?

Mr. Moore : Again that is utter nonsense. If it had been at the back of his question, I should have given the statistics to the hon. Gentleman, but I draw his attention to the appalling problem that pensioners faced over relative increases in housing benefit, along with rent increases, during the period when the Labour Government were in office. That was not, of course, his question, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not want to examine those figures with too much care because he would then realise how appalling was the Labour Government's record.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett : How does the value of pensioners' income in the United Kingdom compare with those of pensioners in the European Community as a whole?

Mr. Moore : Pensioners here do very much better than pensioners in most of the European Community countries. The pensioner in this country receives benefits on top of his basic state pension. If the Opposition had any interest at all in the real lot of the pensioner, they would understand that only two other nations in Western Europe offer to all pensioners a similar basic rate pension entitlement. It means that all pensioners here, especially the poor, have a basic pension, unlike those countries, quoted in bizarre literature produced by the Opposition, that do not offer to pensioners the same basic pension and where those on very low income, receive practically no pension at all. If those are the politics of the new Socialist party, heaven help the pensioners.

Child Benefit

8. Mr. Terry Davis : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what representations he received following his decision to freeze child benefit.

Mr. Moore : I have received less than 200 letters on child benefit since my uprating statement on 27 October.

Mr. Davis : Have any of those representations made the point that the people who are most badly affected by this decision are those who are working for low wages and that the take-up rate for child benefit is 100 per cent., compared with 40 per cent. for family credit?

Mr. Moore : It is not 100 per cent. ; it is less than that. To be precise, it is 98 per cent. There is a difference. The facts to which the hon. Gentleman refers rightly draw attention to problems with the take-up of family credit, but that does not deny to families the opportunity and the ability, with the help of hon. Members, to avail themselves of family credit. That would mean an increase of almost double what they would have received, had they simply received a flat rate increase in child benefit.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell : Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that many Conservative Members do not feel that child benefit as presently constituted is best targeted? Will he particularly bear in mind the importance of ensuring that those very large sums of money go to the families and the children who are most in need and are not spread in the very untargeted fashion that they are at present?

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Mr. Moore : My hon. Friend is quite right to remind the House that the absence of an uprating this year does not exclude the fact that we are spending £4.5 billion on child benefit in the coming year. He was right to remind the House that 70 per cent. of child benefit goes to families with above average incomes.

Mr. Madden : Does the Secretary of State accept that information about child benefit and family credit will be much harder to obtain if benefit shops in Bradford, Shipley and Keighley close on Friday and are not re-opened next year? Will he call upon Bradford council to keep those advice shops open pending a meeting that I have requested with Ministers of his Department, Members of Parliament and other representatives from Bradford? Will he urge Bradford council to keep those shops open pending the outcome of that meeting because of the urgency of the situation in which many people will be placed early next year?

Mr. Moore : I am tempted to say that I admire the way in which the hon. Member has got in the point about which he has written to me, but that might only encourage such activity. I remind him, as I did through my Office and in correspondence, that the benefit offices for which I am responsible remain open and able to give capable advice.

Mr. Neil Hamilton : Does my right hon. Friend agree that most child benefit is paid to households who pay out more in taxation than they receive in benefits of one kind or another, and is, therefore, a badly targeted benefit? Does he understand the extraordinary attitude of the Opposition who oppose tax cuts for average earners, yet are prepared to shower child benefit on the rich?

Mr. Moore : My hon. Friend is right to remind us that more than 80 per cent. of families in receipt of child benefit are taxpayers and have benefited more than somewhat from the reduction in taxation this year and in previous years.

Mr. Robin Cook : Is the Secretary of State aware that during the lifetime of this Government successive Chancellors have raised the married man's allowance by 22 per cent. while successive Secretaries of State for Social Security have cut child benefit by 13 per cent? Will he explain by what leap of mental gymnastics his Government have concluded that the cost of maintaining a wife has gone up by one fifth but the cost of bringing up a child has gone down by one eighth? Will he also explain why they regard universal tax allowances as being well targeted, but universal benefits as being badly targeted?

Mr. Moore : I find it almost incomprehensible that the hon. Gentleman, for whom I occasionally have some fondness, has the temerity to make any comparison across the Floor of the House about the relative help and support for families with children between the Opposition when in office and the Government. In only one out of 62 sad months while they were in office did their ability to help families with children come anywhere near the complete record of the Government in office. That is their record of failure and it is an appalling base on which to ask a question.

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Administration (Paperwork)

9. Sir Geoffrey Finsberg : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what steps is he taking to reduce paperwork relating to social security administration.

Mr. Peter Lloyd : The operational strategy--our innovative and massive programme to computerise social security administration--means that by mid-1991 most local office work will be computerised. That will result in a considerable reduction in paper records as well as producing a more efficient service for customers and better jobs for staff.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg : Will my hon. Friend assure me that he is continuing the work started by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker), now Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, in simplifying the forms, and that the computerisation will enable us as Members of Parliament to get slightly swifter answers to the queries that we send to what was the DHSS and is now the DSS than we are receiving at present?

Mr. Lloyd : Yes, it should certainly help the latter. More importantly, it will enable us to get information more quickly to the claimants. As for the leaflets and forms to which my hon. Friend referred, we have reviewed all our forms. We still have more work to do on them, but the object is to make them fewer in number, clearer and easier to follow. That is already apparent in many of the forms now available, but I should point out that it will not always mean that they are shorter. One of the misapprehensions is that shortness makes for clarity. It does not. We design our forms so that they can be gone through logically and easily filled in, so we are aiming for simplicity as well as a reduction in numbers.

Mr. Rooker : What action is the Minister taking to ensure that paperwork is readable? Conservative Members do not hold as many surgeries as my hon. Friends-- [Interruption.] Does the Minister appreciate that the legibility of some of the forms, especially the carbonless paper forms, causes massive problems for constituents and makes it more difficult for us and others to advise them because we cannot read the information entered on the forms? Something must be done to improve that part of the operation.

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