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Mr. Dunn : I did not ask an answer. I asked a question. I am not in the business of asking answers, but I want answers to my questions. The whole point of tonight's debate is not only to give the Bill support, but to find out what Opposition Members think--not that there are many of them present. We are not much further forward. They have told us that such a person will not be entitled to benefit, but my hon. Friend asked whether they should be entitled to benefit, and we can check that in Hansard. Some Opposition Members may think that such a person should be entitled to benefit.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham made the point that claimants should not be entitled to benefit if they refuse a job for which they are suitably qualified. I make the point that Opposition Members are of the opinion that such claimants should be entitled to benefit in that situation.
Ms. Short : I believe that the hon. Gentleman is being sincere and does not understand the legislation's existing framework or the Labour party's position. Under existing law a claimant must be available for and positively seeking work ; otherwise, benefit will be disallowed. The Bill goes beyond that. It will force the unemployed into schemes
Column 738that do not suit them or which are not good for their futures. It will compel them to accept jobs at levels of pay far below those that properly reflect their qualifications and skills. Current law says that claimants must be available for and take suitable jobs. Does the hon. Gentleman understand that? He is defending the Bill by describing the legislation that it replaces.
Mr. Dunn : We shall all check in Hansard what we have said, but the hon. Lady will find that she is wrong in the statement that she made. Later, perhaps, she will make points that will clarify exactly where she does stand. She cannot speak for the whole Labour party, in the sense that
Mr. Dunn : The hon. Lady suggests that I do not understand Labour party policy. Nor does she, and nor does any right hon. or hon. Member understand what Labour party policy is. It is clear that tonight we have the re-emphasis of Tammany hall philosophy. The Labour party loves to have, across the community, tied interest groups at the behest of, and subject to influence from, the centre. We saw that in our debate on council house sales and on the educational reforms to which I was a party, and of which I was a supporter. We saw it also in the matter of share ownership and the involvement of workers in industry.
Mr. Dunn : In time, the Labour party will come to accept those reforms as essential. As they accept the sale of council houses, at least some educational reforms, and the concept of worker involvement in industry, so will they accept the purposes and provisions contained in the Bill and in other legislation.
I make one final point to the hon. Member for Birkenhead. The people who resent social security abuses are not Surrey stockbrokers or the retired people of Fylde, but the ordinary people living on housing estates and in communities. They are decent people living according to an economic regime, who see others taking advantage of that regime. That is the fundamental distinction between our understanding of the whole social security system and that of the Opposition.
I am delighted to be resurrected, and again to be back on the Back Benches, and I am delighted to be here in support of the Bill. 6.32 pm
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : I am puzzled by the turn that the debate has taken, and two points made by the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn), confused me even more. Speaking for myself and for a number of my own right hon. and hon. Friends, I give the hon. Gentleman a categorical assurance that if claimants turn down suitable jobs, they are disqualified from receiving benefit. I also reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are just as interested as he is in rooting out genuine abuses, because anyone who abuses the system does so at the cost of other claimants. The hon. Gentleman seems to criticise the Opposition for taking the opposite point of view. However, our criticism of the Bill does not relate to either of those two aspects. The House should accept that that is so, and let the debate move on to more pertinent issues.
Column 739What also puzzles me about the debate is that Ministers on the Treasury Bench vigorously shake their heads when Opposition Members take the point that the existing law gives the Government the power to tackle those who are workshy, or whatever one likes to call it. I adduce in evidence the very good Library brief on the Bill, from which I shall quote--and people on the Treasury Bench will, I hope, spend some time clearing up this point :
"At present, Section 20 of the Social Security Act 1975 disqualifies claimaints who, without good cause', either refuse' or neglect to avail' themselves of suitable employment'. It also disqualifies people who without good cause' fail to follow reasonable official advice about finding suitable employment or people who turn down approved training places."
Mrs. Beckett : Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will also bring to the attention of the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn), who seems somewhat bewildered, the fact that the Social Security Act 1975, with its stringent provisions, which we support, was passed by a Labour Government.
The Library brief, dealing further with the matter of a claimant actively seeking work, comments :
"An influential Commissioner's Decision [Ref.R(U) 5/80] [Item 11] stated that availability is not a passive state in which a person may be said to be available provided he is sought out. Rather it implies that the claimant takes some active steps to draw attention to his search for work. The DSS treat this as a generally applicable rule." Either it does or it does not. In all my constituency work, I have operated on the basis that power is available to the Department. I am astonished that the Government, and the Secretary of State in his opening remarks, appear now to refute that. There has been a great deal of shaking of heads, with the Government saying, "No, it is nothing to do with us. We cannot control people who are workshy and who abrogate their responsibilities." But the power for the Department to act already exists, and if it is not being used, I want to know why. If that power is not being exploited as it should be, that is the Government's fault. The principal reason why the Bill is unnecessary is that it gives the Government "additional" powers when, even if they do not know it, the Government already have them. The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) was right to say that the Bill fundamentally redraws the state's powers and
responsibilities in respect of individual unemployed claimants. Another fundamental point, which the Secretary of State glossed over in his introduction, is the abolition of the Treasury supplement, which has been until now a fundamental and integral part of the Beveridge reforms. However, when opening the debate, the Secretary of State simply waved it aside, saying that the rationale for it had gone.
A figure of £1.75 billion has been taken out of the national insurance contribution fund, which finances maternity payments, unemployment, pensions and other benefits. A sum of £1.75 billion has disappeared just like that, because the rationale for it has gone. Just imagine what could be done with that substantial amount of money. The Secretary of State could have reduced employers' or employees' contributions, which might
Column 740incidentally have created more than a little employment. If he did not want to do that, he could alternatively have increased benefits. Right hon. and hon. Members know from their constituency casework of the difficulties that many claimants are having. It is not good enough for the Secretary of State to say that because the rationale for the Treasury supplement has gone, under clause 2, £1.75 billion will go out of the window just like that. The House should carefully consider the implications of that fundamental change and the consequences it will have for right hon. and hon. Members' constituents. When the Government took office, the Treasury contribution was about 18 per cent., but since 1980 it has been whittled away. The change was announced in the Autumn Statement--this came as no surprise--that it was now down to zero. The House should not accept such a fundamental change lightly.
The House should also be reminded that according to the financial memorandum in the Bill, the savings from clauses 7 to 10 will be £100 million. Fortuitously for the Government, 50,000 benefit and unemployed claimants will come off the register, too.
Changing the tests for work has some deeply worrying consequences. The hon. Member for Birkenhead made an important point about this. He said that it was a given fact, derived from Lord Joseph's statement at the time the legislation was introduced in 1975, that claimants would never be forced to accept work that would remunerate them less than the benefit they were receiving. I hope that that is true, but I turn it now into a question.
Is it true that there are circumstances in which an unemployed benefit claimant could be required to take a job under the terms of this Bill that would bring him less money in his hand than he got in benefits before being required to take it? Perhaps the hon. Member for Birkenhead will put me right about this. I do not think that the House should consider the Bill further without this being established one way or the other.
Mr. Frank Field : I hope that we shall get a clear answer when the Minister winds up, as he did not respond immediately. Perhaps it was foolish of me not to push the point ; when I said that claimants would not be forced to take jobs that made them worse off, the Secretary of State agreed with me, and I assumed that it would be good to have that clearly put on the record before the Bill went into operation.
People should accept suitable jobs that they are offered, but what will happen to the families of these claimants if benefit is withdrawn entirely? Will they be entitled to social fund loans, for example? Have the Government thought about that? Given the Government's record in this area, the Opposition parties are worried that the Government are drifting towards insisting on work, training or some other required service or activity in return for benefit--a move towards workfare. I believe that the Minister has
Column 741confirmed in written answers that that is not the Government's intention, but some of us are beginning to worry that it may indeed be their long-term intention.
Finally, clause 13 authorises the Government to pay out of the Consolidated Fund the money that was properly allocated to transitional payments. I am still worried about this. The Secretary of State earlier gave me some reassurance about the proportion of people who will gain no increase in benefit at all this April as a result of the changes brought in by the 1986 Act. I was grateful for that, but claimants in my constituency do not really know what the uprating will mean until they receive their Giro cheques. I fear what will happen in April : there will be frustration and anger. If the Government were sensible, they would make some provision. The Secretary of State was forced to do so with the housing benefit transitional payments, which I welcomed. Machinery should be put in place to ensure that all claimants will get at least 50 per cent.--I pluck the figure out of the air--of the benefit they would expect to receive from the normal operation of the uprating formula this coming April as an additional transitional measure over some years.
The Secretary of State raises his eyebrows at that. The Consolidated Fund provision is £37 million, falling to £14 million in 1991-92. It must be possible to obtain some additional transitional protection in April. I am certain that, when the time comes, I shall be proved right about this.
We cannot support the Bill as it stands. It is muddle-headed, mean and confused. It has missed an opportunity to provide the benefits that unemployed people in particular deserve. I agree with the Secretary of State that the intention should be to give everyone the opportunity to increase his or her potential ; this Bill misses the chance to do just that.
Mr. Timothy Kirkhope (Leeds, North-East) : First, I want to praise the Bill in general. It is extremely progressive, and worthy of a Conservative Government. Tonight, however, I shall confine my remarks to unemployment benefits and entitlements.
It is difficult to discuss these matters calmly and objectively when faced with a Labour Opposition who seem to live 50, 60 or more years in the past. As the Secretary of State rightly said, the flexibility to meet new circumstances is essential, and we now live in the late 1980s, not the 1920s or 1930s. We must adapt everything to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
Over the years, we have held many debates on unemployment, and I suppose that we would all agree that it is unfortunate that we need to discuss the issue so often. But is is a sad fact of life throughout the developed world that there has always been unemployment to a greater or lesser extent, so we should always use opportunities such as this to restate our deep concern for all who, through no fault of their own, are unemployed.
The hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) spoke about divorce and other domestic problems arising from the Government's proposals to ask unemployed people to seek work. I say that those who are unemployed through no fault of their own deserve our especial concern because they are the ones who often suffer the problems of divorce, depression and the like. We must find ways of
Column 742alleviating those problems. Temporarily, we do so through state assistance, but in the longer term what is most important to those people is the prospect of work.
Over the years, Conservative Governments have done much by providing an economy with growth, which improves the prosperity and hence the prospects of work for more people in this country. Our attitudes to the unemployed have been very progressive--we now have the restart arrangements, a great number of training places and much encouragement for training. More has been done by this Government in these areas than by any other.
We are discussing here the voluntarily unemployed more than the involuntarily unemployed--people who make themselves unemployed and do not try to seek work. Beveridge and 1930 have been mentioned. Opposition Members should remember the Unemployment Bill of 1933. No one in the House at that time thought that many people would not be keen to have work if work was available. So it is disappointing to hear Opposition Members suggesting that things are so much different now.
Of course we must bear in mind demography and the declining birth rate. It is also important to remember the need that employers will have for employees in the 1990s. We shall be desperately short of people to perform all the important jobs in this country then. Almost an army of people sitting at home are voluntarily unemployed, contribute nothing to their country, and consume resources that others provide for them. We know that unemployment is an unacceptable phenomenon, but there must be a clear differentiation between those who are willing to work and those who are unwilling. Some people have been unemployed for a long time, whereas many others have become unemployed recently and are the short-term unemployed. Some people, regrettably, have been actively unemployed and remain actively unemployed. If such people put the same activity into finding new work as they put into being unemployed, the country would be far better served.
We have done much to help those who genuinely want to work. I have already referred to restart and training schemes, and it is right that we have a more enlightened and flexible view of those who are genuinely keen to find a job. There are, however, a large number of people who need greater prompting--not "prodding", but prompting--hence the need for a change in the regulations. To the layman, the idea of benefit being paid by the state to someone who is capable of working but who chooses to avoid it is an anathema.
There are those who through misfortune and inadequacy are not motivated sufficiently to look for a job. Is it not right that there should be help and encouragement for such people to fulfill themselves by working? We praise those who assist the physically and mentally disabled to find some useful work by trying to protect them from becoming--
Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) : What reply would the hon. Gentleman give to one of my constituents who was blinded in one eye and partially sighted in the other eye after an industrial accident at Gullick Dobson's in Wigan? The company could not provide long-term alternative employment and, sad to say, he was put on the dole. He was interviewed for the restart programme and refused benefit. He has worked all his life and fought in the second world war. Having been blinded in one eye, and being partially sighted in the other, he was interviewed for
Column 743the restart programme, but now he has no benefit because of the actions of the Social Security Minister. What answer can the hon. Gentleman give?
Mr. Kirkhope : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right to be concerned about that case, as we all would be. I am trying to point out that a great number of organisations and individuals do their very best to find work for the disabled and seek to ensure that they do not become locked in the isolation of their disability. Of course, there are some people who, despite all attempts, unfortunately are still unable to work and who would give their hind teeth for the possibility of obtaining work. I remind the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that, unfortunately, there are some who are not prepared to look for work, and that is an affront to people like the hon. Gentleman's constituent, who is, no doubt, very sorry that he cannot work; I, too, am very sorry that he cannot work. It is right to have an enlightened approach to such people. However, those who are actively avoiding work should be obliged to look for it just as actively if they want to receive benefit. Surely that is a fair suggestion and one which most people in this country would support. Everyone should do their bit to help.
Mrs. Beckett : Whether or not the people of this country would agree with that proposition is irrelevant. The Bill states that the workshy and those desperately seeking work alike will be punished every week of their lives. That includes the constituent of my of my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney). They will be punished because they will have to prove every week what they are doing to look for work, even when there is no work. If the hon. Gentleman does not call that punishment, he knows nothing about the unemployed.
Mr. Kirkhope : The hon. Lady does not understand the Bill, which does not seek to punish anybody. It will merely ask people to indicate that they are actively looking for work. What is wrong with that? Clearly, the hon. Lady misinterprets the proposal. The result of more people working will be greater prosperity for everybody and the old dependency culture mentality, which the hon. Lady and her party seem to be perpetuating, will change. That mentality has been brought about by decades of Socialist paternalism and that is precisely why the Labour party opposes the proposals. Dependency on the state is inherent in all its policies. We seek greater initiative and a willingness to work as a result of that initiative. At present, the regulations are sloppy and open to abuse. Disqualification from benefit for those who turn down offers of employment is based on the premise of such refusal being without good cause and in relation to suitable employment. The word "suitable" has been referred to by other hon. Members. Anyone can claim that an offer is unsuitable-- perhaps the work is hard or involves other inconveniences. It is a veritable lawyers' paradise. The removal of the word "suitable" is sensible and will ensure that fractious or unreasonable refusals are eliminated.
Clauses 7 and 10 relate to the applicant for unemployment benefit receiving it only when he or she is available for and actively seeking work--as opposed to simply being available--and are particularly important. There are many examples--no doubt other hon. Members
Column 744can point them out--of employers desperately looking for workers to fill jobs. In practice, questions are raised about the efforts made by an applicant to find employment, but active steps are not conclusive evidence of effort.
Some Opposition Members appear to have misunderstood that point. We need to include the word "active" because it shows a different approach to the problem and more commitment to finding work. Availability alone, however, is open to much misinterpretation in a legal sense. Self-imposed restrictions have been limited by regulation, but can result in someone not being available. Of course, it is important that there should be differences in adjudication in different parts of the country and different circumstances, and the Bill allows for that.
The changes confirm the Government's intention to ensure that the needs of employers for workers are met by the available supply as far as possible. That will allow many more people to use their skills and talents, which are being wasted at present, and which are almost encouraged by the Labour party to be wasted. I commend the Bill to the House.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : I have been a Member of the House for almost six years. We seem to have a Social Security Bill about this time of year every year. Every year, Ministers arrive at the Dispatch Box and inform us that the previous year's Bill is inadequate in some way. I should have thought that, after almost 10 years in office, the Government would have got it right by now. Perhaps they are not really satisfied that they have yet created the nasty atmosphere and degree of central control and punishment of the poor people in this country, particularly the long- term unemployed, that they seek.
The way in which Conservative Members have been talking about unemployment implies that it is something to do with weather cycles or that it is completely beyond the control of humankind. In reality, unemployment is nothing of the kind. It is due to an economic system that seeks to rely on people being unemployed or working for very low wages.
The Government promote an economy that creates an enormous amount of wealth for a small number of people, who are well rewarded. There are more millionaires in this country than ever before. But there are also more people sleeping on the streets of London than there have been at any other time this century, and more people scraping ends together every week with decreasing facilities from the state to help them and increasing problems of health, malnutrition and emotional difficulties. That is true for large numbers of very poor people in this country and the Bill should address those serious social problems.
In common with all other hon. Members who represent either industrial or inner-city constituencies, every day of the week I come across social problems that are the creation of the Government--a few Ministers in that Government are present this evening. Last Friday, for example, at my surgery--which was busy and long as it always is--I met a youngish couple with children. The husband works as a security officer in a west end office and his wife works as a school meals assistant in my constituency. Their total income for 80 hours of work between them is £110 a week. They have suffered cuts in
Column 745housing benefit and the loss of free school meals for their children, and they are now faced with the poll tax which will come in in 18 months.
That couple put their wage slips on the desk in front of me and said, "Mr. Corbyn, how can anyone be expected to live on this and bring up a family on it in this day and age?" Nothing in the Bill does anything for that family or offers them any hope. It is quite possible that one of them will lose his or her job : neither is in a very certain occupation. The stock market crash might mean that there was no longer any need for a security officer, and cuts in the school meals service could equally lose the wife her job. But all that the couple will be told by Conservative Members in such an event is that they are feckless, useless and workshy because they are not seeking work to an adequate degree, when the work is simply not available. Although it may be too late, I ask the Minister to develop a sense of the purpose of his job and of his Department, and to say what the Bill is doing other than to promote low wages and a cut of roughly £100 million in public expenditure. I believe that that is what is really behind it.
During the recess, and for a long time before that when I unfortunately had to stay at home owing to illness, I was able to read a fascinating and wonderfully written book called "Ten Lean Years" by Wal Hannington. He described how, in the great crash of 1931--when people were already working for low wages and living in conditions of poverty, and when crisis after crisis hit the free enterprise economy--the Government blamed the unemployed for being out of work and for not looking for it adequately, and sought to cut their benefit time after time.
We have seen exactly the same process in all the present Government's social security legislation. It is dressed up in different words, but the Government are always trying to blame those who are making a desperate effort to lead a decent life, to bring up their children in the way they want, and to live in decent housing. Their benefits are cut, and their opportunities reduced and then taken away. But they are constantly told that they live in a successful country with an enterprise economy.
If this is a successful country with an enterprise economy, why are so many people sleeping on the streets of London? Why are so many people hitch- hiking around the country looking for jobs that are not there? Why are there so many long-term unemployed with no hope of getting work, because most of the employers taking on new people for most of the new jobs that are created do not take them from the long-term unemployed register? If they are lucky, people are taken from the short-term register, but usually those taken on are already in work elsewhere. Such issues should be dealt with, both in the Social Security Bill today and in the Employment Bill tomorrow. We disagree profoundly with a number of clauses in this Bill. However, I want to talk particularly about people looking for work and whether work is available for them. We are always told that thousands of jobs are available. When pressed, London Tories reach for a copy of the Evening Standard and find that there are 100 vacancies for computer operators. But someone who has been a skilled worker in industry will probably not be able to take on a job as a computer operator : not many people have experience of such work. And so it goes on.
I looked at the figures for my borough. According to the Department of Employment, in September 1988--the
Column 746latest month for which the figures that I sought were available--there were 718 registered vacancies. That was in the London borough of Islington, just outside the ring of wealthy inner London, which contains considerable poverty.
I recognise that not all employers register vacancies, although I think that they should be compelled to ; I think that every vacancy should be registered with the Department of Employment. But if the number of registered vacancies is multiplied by four, that means roughly 3,000 vacancies in the borough--and that is a very optimistic interpretation of the possible number of unregistered vacancies. I looked up the unemployment figures for the nearest equivalent period, November 1988. The number of registered unemployed in the borough was 11,297. That means that 11,297 people were chasing 718 vacancies. A more accurate definition of unemployment is not those who are registered unemployed, because, owing to all the changes in regulations, many thousands have been forced off the register--not into work, but into poverty. According to figures produced by the unemployment unit, which calculates unemployment on the basis on which it was calculated when the present Government came into office, 16,022 people were unemployed at that time, searching for--according to the Department's figures--718 vacancies, but possibly as many as 3, 000. That is still less than one vacancy per five unemployed people, even if we assume a skill match.
The way in which the Department's officials conduct restart interviews and the way in which people are forced to look for jobs that may or may not exist, or that may or may not be suitable for them, suggests an over- simplification of the problem and a fundamental misunderstanding of it. I do not know many people, if any, who like being unemployed and living on benefit ; who like the indignity of not having a job to go to. But I know many people who deeply resent being humiliated at restart interviews every few months and being forced to answer endless detailed and frankly unpleasant questions, only to be told that they are not suitable for work. Many of those people simply cannot find work, because it is not there to be found.
We should examine the way in which the figures have increased. In 1985, payment was withheld from 53,000 people because they were deemed not available for work. In 1987, the figure doubled to 107, 000. I do not know what the figures for 1988 or 1989 will be, but I bet that they will be a substantial increase on last year's figure. The basic thrust of all that the Government are doing is to force people off the register by any possible means so that they can claim, quite falsely, that prosperity is evenly spread throughout the country and that unemployment is genuinely falling.
What the Government also do--this is linked to other legislation that they have enacted--is remove all the mimimum wage legislation that they are able to remove, and refuse to support the idea of minimum wage legislation to guarantee minimum earning levels for all families. Instead, they remove all the safety nets at the bottom to force people into lower and lower levels of employment at lower and lower levels of remuneration, and indeed to subsidise employers to pay low wages. That is all that the Government seem to understand. The other side of this is the increase in the time necessary for someone to re-qualify for benefit, from 13
Column 747weeks to 26. That adds up to roughly 50,000 more people being denied benefit, at a saving of £100 million for the Government. Why does the Minister not come clean at the outset and say that the purpose of the Bill is to save the Treasury £100 million--that the Government are stacking up the savings so that they can give bigger tax handouts in the next Budget to people who simply do not need them, showing disgraceful personal profligacy in a society riddled with debt, poverty and misery as a result of the Government's economic strategy?
I have looked through the Bill carefully. Some of it is ominous and nasty, particularly clauses 7, 8 and 9. Will the Minister tell us exactly what is meant by the reference in clause 12 to housing benefit money being withheld from local authorities that do not provide suitable information to central Government in the form in which it is requested? The clause may be perfectly innocent, but I doubt it. I suspect that this has something to do with further demands on local authorities related to rent levels or tenancies. I should be grateful if the Minister could explain.
I should also be grateful if the Minister could tell us why the Bill does not deal with the problems that have arisen from previous legislation. Many of us take seriously the operation of the social security system, and a number of reports have been produced which show in devastating detail the way in which DSS offices are run--the shortage of staff, the high turnover and the poor standard of service that the majority of claimants receive. The Minister has expressed his anxiety about that, and there have been some improvements ; but there is a long way to go. Matters are not helped by continuous rumours and reports of the threatened closure of social security offices. If the DSS office in my constituency closes, it will result not only in the loss of a major employer of predominantly young workers but in increased inefficiency in the provision of services to the people in my community.
The attendance allowance scheme needs careful examination. I had a meeting this morning with the local branch of Mencap in my constituency. There are disturbing reports from a number of people with severely handicapped children or adults for whom they care who have been refused attendance allowances by the DSS. Those allowances have unfortunately been refused in a way which causes great hardship to those concerned.
Finally, I should point out that the social fund is becoming so restricted and tight that every office seems to be underspending, be it grant or loan, because the Government want it that way, so that in future years the social fund can be cut. There is not just an underspending on a lower figure but a gross underspending on a figure that was already too low because social fund officers are refusing benefits that are needed. The social fund needs to be expanded and opened up to help with removal expenses for workers buying tools or work clothes for new jobs for work related travel expenses or for crisis loans to cover workers starting new jobs who are without money for up to a month.
So many things could have been included in the Bill, but all it seeks to do is to punish the unemployed for being unemployed, to punish the poor for being poor and to seek this great retribution by getting them off the register and out of the Government's hair. We shall oppose the Bill.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean) : Order. I remind the House that the 10-minute limit on speeches is now in operation, and I appeal for the co-operation of those hon. Members who are called during the next two hours.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) : I cannot help feeling that the opposition to the work test for unemployment benefit is rather synthetic. The shrill tones of the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) seemed to be over the top. I cannot really believe that she has so mellowed in her attitude to the community charge that she now regards this measure as worse than the reform of local government finance.
The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) seems to believe that all people in Islington should obtain jobs in Islington and not look at the wider London market, which provides a rather better picture than the labour market in Islington.
About one third of the unemployed in Britain are in London, the south-east and East Anglia, and in all those parts of the country it is possible to find a job. One has only to walk down the high street to see the jobs on offer. They almost fall out of the shops. It is difficult to see why anyone should object to that test being applied strongly in those parts of the country. I accept the Opposition's arguments that in other parts of the country where jobs are not readily available, which is still, unfortunately, the case in some towns, although it is not universally true in the north any more, it will be necessary to administer the scheme with more local sensitivity. I fully accept the assurances of my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench that that will be the case.
I also welcome the clause that deals with the reform of the war widows pensions committee arrangements. I like the idea of fewer committees and of strengthened representation for the war widows. I put in another plea. I hope, that when war widows' pensions are next uprated, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will argue for a better than average uprating. War widows have not had a particularly good deal over the years since the two world wars. The Government have been trying to rectify that, but more could be done and it would be a nice touch if in next year's uprating war widows were given a better than average increase in recognition of their particular circumstances.
I wish mainly to occupy myself by looking at the proposals on occupational pensions. We have before us a proposal born of a Brussels directive and initiative which talks about the applications of the surpluses within occupational pension schemes by way of levelling up all schemes to the best practice whether it be for men or women so that the other sex can enjoy best practice. That is unexceptionable. In many ways it is welcome, but we must understand that we are talking either about an increased cost for employers or about the allocation of surpluses that still remain in funds thanks to years of good investment performance since 1981, despite understandable moves by the Treasury to limit the extent of the surpluses.
I hope that in Committee the Government will consider one or two other matters that could be dealt with when considering how to apply those surpluses. A far worse problem for members of occupational pension schemes than the imbalance in provisions between men and women lies in the indexation provisions. I am pleased to say that the Government introduced the first indexation measures
Column 749governing occupational schemes. They were right to see that occupational pension schemes could not hope to match all inflation at whatever rate and in whatever circumstances. They could be driven into bankruptcy.
But the first step--I hope that it was the first step--was a modest one and I should like to think that the Government are now contemplating a second step to increase the level of protection from inflation for those in occupational pension schemes. It is a cruel deceit if someone reaches retirement age, obtains an occupational pension at two thirds or one half of their retirement salary, and 10 years later discovers that it has been eroded by inflation because the indexation does not match the level of inflation that has been experienced.
Another problem that does grave damage to people's rights in occupational pension schemes arises when a person transfers from one scheme to another. It is wrong for some people in the occupational pensions industry to imply that a person who frequently changes his job is in some way unreliable and so should not be given protection by his occupational scheme. Again, I welcome the fact that the Government have taken steps to deal with that problem.
All hon. Members should support the Government. After all, we are inveterate job changers. Since the days of the younger Pitt is has been a rare occurrence to come here straight from school, so, by definition, hon. Members have to have a job first. If they are unfortunate, their rights will be removed when they enter the House because of the transfer arrangements from their outgoing occupational pension scheme.
Mr. Redwood : I am sure that it does. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have never worked for Central Office. I had a proper job in the commercial sector before I came here. I am not talking about my situation but about the situation of other people who have found when changing jobs that their occupational pension rights have been removed or limited by the way in which the actuarial calculations are made.
That relates only to final salary pension schemes. I welcome the moves towards money purchase that the Government have rightly instituted and which will remove all those problems, but many people will wish to remain members of a large number of final salary schemes. I hope that when looking at the application of the surpluses the Government will once again consider whether existing transfer arrangements are working properly or whether people moving from one job to another may in some ways be let down by the calculations of actuarial value and whether they are also finding it difficult to take the value out when they wish to move to a personal portable pension which may provide a better guarantee for them in terms of the amount of cash that is theirs.
Finally, I want to talk a little about the problems that arise in implementing the EEC's views on equality between men and women in the state pension scheme. I believe that the Government were looking favourably at a scheme which would involve a decade of retirement, and I recommend that to them. If we offered people choice whereby men or women could decide when, between the ages of 60 and 70, they wanted to retire, we would begin to make progress.
Column 750Employees would be offered choice subject to the rules of their employers, and agreement and negotiation with them. If they decided to retire at 60, they would receive lower pensions based on lower contributions. If they retired at 70, they would receive higher pensions, but, under the law of averages, it would be paid for fewer years.
It would be possible to calculate a system with no net cost to the Treasury. The problem would be that, in order to balance the fund, we would have to make worse the terms under which some women enjoy pension rights. It is not right for the Government to take away women's pension rights when they are in their 40s or 50s, and anticipating their retirement at 60. That would be a harsh blow. I would recommend an extended period of transition. Steps could be taken to balance the scheme for younger men and women. The group of women who had already made substantial contributions over the years and who would be offended by the sharp removal or reduction of their rights could pass through the system on an unequal basis. I hope that, in the long term, the Government will move towards equality in the state scheme for men and women and will introduce the element of choice--on a no- cost basis if they wish--by allowing people to retire when they choose. That choice would be with the agreement of their employers, and their pensions would be adjusted in relation to their contribution record.
I shall support the Bill, but I hope that it will go further on occupational pensions.
Mr. John Hughes (Coventry, North-East) : I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, but that gratitude does not extend to hon. Members who have debased the office of Government, abused the stewardship with which they were entrusted, and used the protection of the House to steal from the poor.
The attitude and actions of those hon. Members have realised the fable of Pandora's box, as millions of impoverished people suffer poor health, inadequate diets, lack of housing and the rigours of the cold. Every age group is affected, and no one is sacrosant. The Bill ignores the massive problems facing young people under the age of 18. They will suffer in order that the Government can continue to give handouts to their wealthy friends. The Government are driven by the need to make cheeseparing economies that hurt the poorest and most vulnerable.
In "Oliver Twist", the workhouse governors carped at the cost of keeping the orphan inmates, while those governors lived in the lap of luxury. How eager they were to see the children in their care farmed out to an employer who was more concerned to exploit their labour than provide a proper apprenticeship. The parallel is uncomfortably close to those 16 and 17-year -olds of today who no longer live at home and are now required to accept YTS placements if they wish to obtain the wherewithal to live. For many-- the most disadvantaged--a scheme that was designed to be voluntary now has the compulsion of a prison sentence.
The Prime Minister is known to be a great admirer of the Victorians. Presumably, therefore, she believes that children--she includes 16 and 17- year-olds--must inevitably submit to the will of their parents. The Victorians