Previous Section Home Page

Column 751

were brutally indifferent to young people. They were brutal in their treatment of their own children. The homes of the wealthiest were often places of misery and torment.

That tradition of domestic violence has survived today. Young people are often forced to leave home because of intolerance or the threat of violence --either physical violence or sexual harassment. For the Prime Minister, as for the Victorians, those problems do not exist, or, if they do, it is only because the benefit system encourages them. The Prime Minister and the Government are blind to the fact--it has been reiterated by every agency concerned with the young homeless--that the pressure on some young people is so great that they leave home whatever the consequences.

The Government's policies force that most vulnerable group of young people who, at that traumatic time, need help and support, into grinding poverty. There is often a risk that they will have to commit offences to obtain even the most basic means of survival. An illustration of that occurred in Coventry, my own town. A young man, on his way to an appointment with a benefit advice agency, was arrested by the police for the theft of a loaf of bread. That young person may have been forced to steal that loaf of bread through sheer desperation.

One young person on a youth training scheme had to pay £10.50 for rent and rates and £3 towards the cost of travelling to the YTS placement, which was some distance away. His total travelling cost per week was £10. That person was left with only £16 from the £29.50 allowance. From that he had to pay £2.20 for a prescription for a chest infection, which under income support rules would have been free. From the remaining £13.80 per week that young person had to pay for fuel bills, food, toiletries and clothing. He had no proper shoes for winter and no proper coat. He was forced to leave home. He said :

"My father and I had such violent rows before I left that it nearly caused the break-up of my parents' marriage."

In a similar case, a young person was left with only £12.50 a week because a card meter had been installed to pay for a previous electricity bill. The first £3 per week went towards that bill and the standing charge before any electricity was provided.

Circumstances can be even more difficult for young people who are not on youth training schemes. All that is available for those youngsters is a bridging allowance of £15 per week for up to eight weeks in a year. It ignores the fact that YTS placements are subject to selection by the employer. Employers select according to their prejudice or preference and not according to social need. That reinforces the discrimination against black people and women, particularly pregnant women.

For example, a 17-year-old woman who was five and a half months pregnant had her income support stopped on 12 September. Since then she has been receiving £15 a week bridging allowance. She had been living with her aunt, but there were other people in the house and she had to leave to take a council bedsit. She had no furniture, no bedding, no cooker and no utensils, but she was not eligible for a community care grant because she was not on income support. The flat was all-electric and she had to pay by card meter at a rate of £6 per week. She was not receiving free milk because since April free milk tokens can be awarded only to claimants on income support. From her allowance she was supposed to find £3 towards her rates


Column 752

and water rates. She could not obtain a YTS placement because she was within 11 weeks of her confinement. The Secretary of State was asked to use his discretion to top up her £15 a week allowance to the income support level, but he refused on the grounds that she was not experiencing "severe hardship".

That woman was well over halfway through her pregnancy, which is a time when most women would be experiencing extreme tiredness. She had a difficult pregnancy. For the sake of both her and the unborn child, she should have been eating a healthy diet rich in tissue-building proteins and containing a proper balance of vitamins and minerals. Such food is costly. The Secretary of State made his decision not to top up her allowance and it was a judgment against which there was no appeal.

Those are not isolated incidents. They are part of a pattern of exclusions which begins by excluding people from the unemployment figures. It excludes people from the opportunity of earning a livelihood, from decent housing and from having hope.

There is the case of a young woman who was unable to live with her parents. Her situation was so desperate that she was admitted to a hostel run by the Coventry young homeless project. Because she was in receipt of a bridging allowance awaiting a YTS placement, she was not entitled to assistance in paying the cost of her accommodation. She is awaiting a decision by the Secretary of State to see whether hers is a case of severe hardship.

There is the case of a woman, estranged from her parents and living alone for over a year, who has not managed, despite considerable efforts, to obtain a YTS placement, and her bridging allowance has now expired. Consider the case of a young woman whose parents are in receipt of income support. They have thrown her out of the house saying that they cannot afford to keep her. She too is awaiting the Secretary of State's decision.

The problem is obvious. It is obvious to television journalists from watchdog organisations who have interviewed a young woman who left home and was forced to beg on the streets and whose own father had advised her to "go on the game". Does the Secretary of State believe that that young woman left home prematurely?

The problem is obvious to foreign observers and to the royal family. Prince Edward was forced to comment on precisely this aspect of the Government's legislation. He pointed out that young people such as I have described were a prey to pimps and pushers and he said that legislation was depriving charities which had been set up to aid the homeless of the ability to provide temporary homes. In other words, they were being deprived of funds because of the small print. If one is on income support or YTS allowance, one is entitled to an allowance of up to £70 a week to cover a hostel charge. But if one is not on such benefit--if one is in receipt of a bridging allowance--one is a sort of non-person ; the Secretary of State does no recognise such a person. The problems are apparent to everyone, but are ignored by the Government, who hide their penny-pinching behind a smokescreen of sanctimonious rhetoric. There is now a Government tradition that every Minister responsible for social security camouflages the sweeping savagery of benefit changes. Frozen payments and cuts are concealed behind a multitude of conditions, qualifications


Column 753

and subsections in the intricate, convoluted, crooked path that each Minister pursues in bringing about changes which completely disregard the suffering that they involve.

I recently attended a dance organised by the transport union in my locality. A young disabled woman was dancing, enjoying herself as much as any other dancer. She was able to join in and have fun only because she had been provided with a chair which cost £3,000. That chair had not been provided by the Government. They prefer to give the equivalent of 52 chairs a week to Sir Ralph Halpern of Burton as a tax handout. That reflects the priorities of this Government. 7.32 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford) : We must not forget as we discuss this new Bill that the Government are spending a record amount, over £50 billion, on providing financial support and aid to the less well-off, the sick and the disabled. The constant carping and humbug from Opposition Members should be seen in that context. Social security has become a contentious issue in the last two years, but I must remind Members in all parts of the House that no one political party has a monopoly on compassion or caring. We are all concerned and wish to alleviate hardship among the poor, the sick and the disabled.

Where we differ from Opposition Members is that we believe that policies can be implemented to bring maximum help to those in the greatest need. I would point out as delicately as I can--so as not to cause synthetic howls of rage from Labour Members--that any discussion about how to apportion the record amounts of money now available for social security would be academic but for the fact that the Chancellor's economic policies have ensured the creation of wealth and the generation of tax revenue in such a way that public spending on social security has increased year by year in real terms. On a less contentious note, I congratulate the Secretary of State on honouring the pledge he gave last November to raise the upper age limit for mobility allowance from 75 to 80. I am sure that that will be warmly welcomed by all, particularly as it is a benefit paid on top of other income and is non-taxable.

I shall concentrate my remarks on probably the most important part of the Bill--clauses 7, 9 and 10--which deals with the "actively seeking work" requirement for receiving unemployment benefit and disqualification for refusing employment. These clauses are long overdue, for it is ludicrous that taxpayers' money should be spent to support those who wilfully refuse employment. Why should an able-bodied person who makes no effort to find work draw unemployment benefit simply by signing on once a fortnight? That is clearly nonsense and I welcome the fact that, when the Bill becomes law, an unemployment benefit claimant will be required to show that he or she is actively seeking work.

I am also glad that the Bill will provide regulations setting out examples of what steps a claimant may take to show that he or she is seeking work. I predict that, as a result of this legislation, the unemployment figures will decrease further and will to a degree melt away like snow in summer because a cynical minority--and I accept that it is only a small minority-- will no longer be able to exploit the existing rules.

I strongly recommend those who disbelieve that last statement to read the London labour market report which


Column 754

was published last year and to which other hon. Members have referred. It graphically proves my point. While the situation in London is not exactly the same as that in other parts of the country, we must remember that the majority of the population of England lives in the south-east.

The report graphically shows that

"there is a wide range of vacancies which could be filled by many of those who are unemployed. Many of the unemployed have educational and training qualifications and a surprisingly large minority have high level qualifications. At the same time, many of the vacancies do not require special qualifications or experience and could be filled by unemployed people witout established skills."

The final summary of the main findings of the report states unequivocally that unemployed people need to look more intensively and effectively for work. The findings show that, in the summer of 1988, there were 288,000 claimants in London and 150,000 vacant jobs. The co-existence of high levels of vacancies and unemployment could not be explained primarily in terms of a mismatch between the skills and experience of unemployed people and the type of vacancies available.

One quarter of the vacancies were for managerial and professional jobs ; one quarter were for clerical jobs ; 17 per cent. were for skilled or semi- skilled manual work ; 18 per cent. were for retail and catering jobs and 14 per cent. were for unskilled manual work. At least one third required no previous knowledge or experience. The report shows that many longer-term unemployed people in London are, in any case, well equipped to fill jobs which require experience or qualifications. Nearly 10 per cent. of those interviewed had previously held a managerial or professional job and 25 per cent. had held a skilled or semi-skilled manual job. Nearly 10 per cent. had a degree and over 50 per cent. had some sort of academic or vocational qualification.

It is significant, as the Secretary of State said, that 27 per cent. of the unemployed people interviewed had not looked for work in the previous week and that 45 per cent. of the group had not looked for work in the preceding three weeks. Nearly 5 per cent. of those interviewed had never looked for work since becoming unemployed. While four out of five people looking for work claimed to look at advertisements in newspapers at least once a week, only 55 per cent. of them visited their local jobcentres at least once a week. Those figures show that many claimants, cushioned by an over-generous state, show a lack of intensity and effort in actively seeking work. First, it should be pointed out that some longer-term unemployed people are liable to lose touch with the labour market. That results in a lower level of motivation and therefore a limited job search.

Secondly, some unemployed people have become reconciled to being out of work and pursue or develop interests which enable them to use their time productively through leisure activities, voluntary work or study and thus dull their desire or willingness to seek work actively.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Burns : I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I am very short of time.

Thirdly, there is the category of those who are claiming benefit but are also working. I am convinced that the black economy is a factor in determining the lack of job search by some claimants. There is no point in burying one's head in the sand and pretending that that problem does not


Column 755

exist. Hon. Members do not have to simply take my word for it. The Departments of Employment and Social Security are equally convinced that there is a problem. That is why the Government have cracked down on dole fiddlers by markedly increasing the number of investigators. As a result of their work last year a record £65 million was saved for the taxpayers, 90,000 people withdrew their claim to benefit and 4,000 were prosecuted.

Part of the Bill attacks the very heart of state-subsidised indolence for a small minority. It will provide a powerful incentive for people to seek work and release valuable financial resources that can then be properly targeted on the genuinely needy, the sick and the disabled. For those reasons, I strongly support the Bill and look forward to the day when it receives Royal Assent.

7.41 pm

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) : During the speech of the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) there was a little discussion about literacy. However, he also displayed a problematic control of numeracy. He said that not many Opposition Members were present and that showed a lack of interest. At that time, there were 21 hon. Members on the Government Benches and 16 hon. Members on the Opposition Benches. I consider that that reflects the composition of the House.

I do not believe that the non-attendance of hon. Members in any way reflects a lack of interest in the Bill. As has been said, it affects us all in one way or another and we are concerned about it. Therefore, I am pleased to have been called to speak, despite the fact that the legislation generally does not apply to Northern Ireland. That means that there will be an Order in Council when we may be allowed to talk for an hour or so but will be unable to affect or change the legislation that will come before us on that occasion.

The Bill affects Northern Ireland. I do not doubt that in every community there are those who are workshy. But a young constituent of mine came to London and had employment in London. Then, because the landlord of the house in which he was living wanted to claim grants to upgrade the premises, he was put out and could not find alternative accommodation. Ultimately, he had to leave his job here and return to the unemployment register in Northern Ireland. Another constituent has been unemployed for three years. He has taken Government training courses, and on each occasion he has discovered that that affects his income support grant and he loses out by going on Government training courses to equip him for the job market. Does the motivation behind Government thinking stem from the reply I received some months ago saying that the largest number of long-term unemployed is found in the south-east? Has the judgment of issues there, for whatever reason, been translated into an overall countrywide and national approach that will have an adverse affect on many people in regions where it is not possible to find work? I wish to take up a point made by the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns). He mentioned those who had developed side issues or other interests. I understand what he meant when he said that they may not be looking for jobs with more remuneration, but we are living in an age when there will not be full employment, and there is a


Column 756

tremendous need for people to use their spare time in a voluntary capacity to serve the community. We should not in any way discourage such work.

I welcome the Bill's proposals and I have tried to figure out how they might apply to Northern Ireland. The argument is that people are not looking for work. However, under impending legislation for Northern Ireland, a person is not allowed to go knocking at firms' doors and employers are not allowed to employ people who look for work in that way. They must advertise and carry out selection procedures. People are discouraged from looking for work in that way.

This morning, before leaving home I heard a short excerpt from a programme on BBC Northern Ireland. A local expert on social security was asked about the problem of take-up of income support and other grants. She said that she understood that the form in Northern Ireland is simpler than the form in Great Britain, but that nonetheless it was the first hurdle that applicants had to get over before receiving benefit. The Disability Income Group put that forward as one reason why there is not greater take-up of mobility allowance. One of the Government's obligations in the Bill is to simplify forms and procedures so that the people on whom they wish to target benefit genuinely receive it.

I have no objection to encouraging anyone who is workshy to seek work. In the depression in the 1930s, my father worked as a labourer on the railways for more than a year before he could get back to his own trade. I am not minimising the need to encourage some folk to seek work. Nonetheless, some people have been unemployed for many years for reasons beyond their control and we have to acknowledge that, even with massive retraining, some of them will never be equipped to do the work that they are mentally and physically capable of doing. They may have gone soft, they may not be capable of intellectual pursuits, they may be better suited to physical pursuits, or appropriate work may not be available to them.

In the time that remains, I should like to put on record, the fact that I welcome the extension of the mobility allowance. However, I draw the Government's attention to the lack of take-up and urge them positively to encourage it. I wonder whether the Government accept the criticisms of the campaign for equal state pension ages that they have ducked the issue again. I press upon them the encouragement of their own Back Benchers, who urged them to consider it. There are professions in which a man retiring at 60 will have a life expectancy of anything up to 15 years, but if he continues until 65 he will have a life expectancy in retirement of two years. In dealing with equal rights, we have to balance those issues.

Finally, I raise the issue of the lack of information. I understand from the recently published audit report on the DHSS in Northern Ireland that regional management information offices were created which seemed to create a fair amount of employment for that part of the Civil Service. However, since 1985 they have not come up with any dramatic figures, other than the escalating cost of keeping their people in jobs.

I am puzzled about whether we are tackling the problem from the right angle, but I am also puzzled about whether the Government have the statistics to guide them. I regret to say that, in September 1988, I received a letter from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland which stated :


Column 757

"As your second question about publication of low income statistics has implications for Great Britain, we have had to consult with the Department of Social Security before responding on the Northern Ireland dimension. I shall write to you again about this as soon as possible."

It is now 10 January 1989, and even allowing for the Christmas break, it seems that there is a problem of communication as well as one relating to the statistics that would guide us to deal with the real problems that affect our people.

Accordingly, while welcoming some of the Bill, since we are excluded in principle, my colleagues will vote against it tonight. 7.50 pm

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East) : I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). We are all pleased that unemployment in Northern Ireland is decreasing, although it is still high. I believe that it is now below that in Eire, but it is twice as high as the percentage in Great Britain and must cost United Kingdom taxpayers many hundreds of millions of pounds because of the high level of benefits and the lower level of the operation of the economy there. I hope, and am quite sure, that the Government's measures will continue to work in the right direction in improving the economy of Northern Ireland.

I very much welcome the Bill. There have been some excellent speeches from Conservative Members but, I regret, some confused speeches and interventions from the Opposition. We have heard some extraordinary statements. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) tried to make out that the Government were promoting low wages, at a time when real take-home earnings are rising at a record rate. How can one make such a totally inconsistent statement--that the Government are promoting low wages when wages are far higher than they were when the Labour party was in government?

Mr. Battle rose --

Ms. Short : Will the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) give way on that point, because he has insulted me?

Mr. Thurnham : In a moment.

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) said that the Bill punishes people. When the Labour party was in power, there were far more prosecutions for malingering. If we go back several years--one has to go back a long time to find a time when the Labour party was in power-- prosecutions for malingering were running at over 20,000 per year. That was in the early 1970s and the figure had been 28,000 per year previously. The small handful of prosecutions now shows that this Government are not punishing people in the way that the Labour Government did.

Ms. Short rose --

Mr. Thurnham : Yes, I shall give way in a moment.

We have also heard that no work is available. I must draw the attention of Opposition Members to the great successes that job clubs are achieving. They are having a positive outcome for two thirds of the people who go to them. There are now over 200 job clubs in the north-west, and I am glad to say that six are in Bolton. Over half the


Column 758

people who go to job clubs come out with a job. Therefore, I do not see how Opposition Members can say that no jobs are available.

Ms. Short : I should like to respond briefly to the hon. Gentleman's insult. He has obviously not desegregated the figures on the growth in wage levels. If he did so, he would see that, for the bottom 20 per cent., the growth is below average and, relatively, those people have been getting significantly worse off for a number of years. I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at the figures in detail.

Mr. Thurnham : There is no doubt that the greatest cause of poverty is unemployment. Only the Opposition could want unemployment rather than people getting into jobs and on to the earnings ladder so that they have a chance to increase their earnings. It is this Government who have created 1 million extra jobs.

Although the Bill is concerned mainly with unemployment benefits, it relates also to benefits for other groups. In his excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) touched on the question of widows' benefits. I should like to remind my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that I went to see my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security about two widows in my constituency who I feel have been harshly affected. I believe that about 1,000 widows in the country as a whole have been harshly affected by the changes made last April to the conditions of widows who were just under the age of 45 and who had children who were just coming up to 18. If my right hon. Friend the Chancellor finds that he has a small amount of money to give away in the forthcoming Budget, perhaps he could do something for that small number of widows who have been harshly affected and who, if they were to remain unmarried for the rest of their lives, would lose over £10,000. Although their chances of remarrying are significant, at a modest cost my right hon. Friend could do something to ameliorate the harshness of the circumstances in which that small number of widows have found themselves. We also have the opportunity to review the working of the mobility allowance. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that these changes are an interim measure. I shall be interested to know what he has in mind for beyond them. I have had to campaign strongly for a small number of mobility allowance cases in my constituency. The great point about the mobility allowance is that, once it has been granted, it should not be taken away except with the greatest possible thought. I am pleased that we have been able to extend it for those aged 75 to 80, although I wonder why we cannot extend it for life. This measure only puts off the problem for another five years because such people will have the allowance removed when they reach the age of 80.

The allowance affects only a small number of people at the moment, but it is reckoned that, by the end of the century, the 500 who receive the benefit now will rise to about 60,000. Obviously, the Government must do some thinking about the mobility allowance. We should consider whether we can replace it with a different sort of benefit altogether so as to help people to get out and about who otherwise would not be able to do so. The latest figures from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys show--at least as I read them--the number of people who receive various benefits combined. I do not


Column 759

know, for example, how many people who receive mobility allowance also receive attendance allowance. We should look at the workings of the whole scheme.

The Government have an excellent record on the payment of benefits to disabled people. Mobility allowance alone has risen in cash terms from £79 million in 1979 to £650 million this year. In real terms, that is an increase of 400 per cent. The figures for other benefits that are paid to disabled people show similarly large increases. The total figures are well worth looking at. The figures given to me by the Library show that, for this year, benefits for disabled people total £7.5 billion--a rise in cash terms from not much more than £2 billion in 1979. That shows the most enormous increase in payments to disabled people by this Government and shows which side of the House is helping disabled people, by creating an economy that can afford to make such payments.

The Bill relates primarily to the unemployed and to those who are seeking work. It is worth reminding ourselves that, in Japan, the definition of an unemployed person is somebody who has looked for work in the past week. Unemployment in Japan is currently only 2.5 per cent. and has decreased from a level of 3 per cent. two years ago when I was a member of the Select Committee on Employment and we visited Japan. Therefore, despite a strong currency, the unemployment rate there has dropped.

An interesting study was carried out by Professor Layard some years ago, although I do not agree with all his views. He looked at the effects of separating benefit offices and jobcentres and showed how, in the old days of labour exchanges, somebody who had been visiting regularly was selected and given priority when a job was going and was told to take the job and not to go back. Those were the days when there were prosecutions for malingering if people did not take a job. We should bear in mind exactly how the system used to work when looking at the changes that we are now bringing in.

I welcome the Bill and look forward to its implementation. I am sure that it will be considered carefully in Committee, including the question of how the "actively seeking work" test will be applied to disabled people. I am sure that the Bill will be of great benefit to all when it reaches the statute book.

7.59 pm

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East) : The hon. Member for Bolton, North -East (Mr. Thurnham) appeared to suggest that low pay did not exist or, if it did exist, it was not a problem, because it was merely at the bottom rung of the ladder of earnings. I believe that his remarks were both ill- informed and insensitive and they show the extent to which any understanding of the problems of the poor does not exist in the minds of Conservative Members. That is the real reason for debating such a niggardly, disgraceful proposal as the one which is the centrepiece of the Bill. I refer, of course, to clauses 7, 9 and 10, which are recognised, even by Conservative Members, as the most important part of the Bill. We are told that those clauses are meant to tighten up the criteria for assessing whether a claimant's unemployment is genuinely involuntary.

I admit that I find it difficult to take seriously the phrase "unemployment which is genuinely involuntary",


Column 760

because it suggests to me that there is such a thing as mass unemployment that is genuinely voluntary, which is what the Minister appeared to suggest when he opened the debate. He referred to as many as 360,000 people who choose to be unemployed. In fact, he was quite pleased when he told the House that there were as many as 360,000 people who choose to be unemployed. No doubt he will be equally pleased to say that the 2.9 million who are unemployed merely represent three times as many people as chose to be unemployed under Labour. That is a vindication of the Government's commitment to extend choice throughout the United Kingdom.

The idea that hundreds of thousands of people volunteer to subsist on £32.75 a week unemployment benefit, or £33.40 a week income support, is, of course, completely mad. There would not be many hon. Members who would volunteer to live on £32.75 a week. Indeed, after the salary increases awarded to hon. Members, we now earn the princely sum of £66 a day--£462 a week. Even those princely sums are not enough for some Conservative Members. They become part-time Members of Parliament, who sell themselves in the City of London as consultants or directors, and some earn as much as £100,000 a year outwith their parliamentary duties. One hundred thousand pounds is not enough for them, but £32.75 a week is too much for 360,000 unemployed people.

I find it deeply dishonest, even morally objectionable, that we should have a spectacle here tonight of wealthy men--they are mostly wealthy men-- sitting in moral judgment on whether the poor people deserve the paltry sums which are given to them by the State on which to subsist from week to week. If nothing else, I hope that personal embarrassment will prevent many Conservative Members going through the Lobby tonight in support of this disgraceful Bill. However, I fear that personal embarrassment will not come into it and that hundreds of them will troop through the Lobby in support of a proposal that denies £32.75 a week to thousands of poor people-- the very sum that such hon. Members would spend on a meal out with their wives or husbands.

The regulations are meant to test whether claimants are actively seeking work. The offence to refuse suitable employment without due cause no longer exists, but from now on just to refuse any employment without just cause is reason enough to stop someone's benefit. It appears to be an extension of the treatment which has been meted out to 16 and 17-year-olds by making the youth training scheme compulsory.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment wrote to me recently saying that YTS was not compulsory and that in fact youngsters have a choice--they can either take it or leave it. Of course, if they leave it, they will be denied any benefit or income whatsoever. What the Minister failed to understand is that, unlike him and his family, thousands of youngsters belong to families who do not know what it is to be comfortably well off and who need every single penny in their household budgets if they are to survive. If any Minister threatens to remove a youngster's £19.40 a week benefit, or his £25 a week YTS allowance, effectively he is removing choice from that family altogether.

In the same way as the YTS has become compulsory, by this Bill low-paid employment will too. If we take away £30-odd from people who are living in poverty, we remove


Column 761

all choice from them, because they must accept whatever job is on offer for fear of losing their benefits. I believe that that is the real reason for the proposal.

Far from tackling the dependency culture or encouraging the enterprise culture, which we hear so much about from Conservative Members, the proposal will worsen the desperate situation of low-paid employment in the United Kingdom. The Government cannot expect any other commentary upon them other than that they are colluding with unscrupulous employers to worsen the critical problem of low pay throughout the economy, which of course, especially affects Scotland.

We have heard already a reference to an analysis of the London labour market. I shall draw the House's attention to another report which was issued recently by the Low Pay Unit and the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, entitled "Sweatshop Scotland". The report presents disturbing evidence of a decline in the pay and conditions of many of Scotland's poorest workers. It also exposes the practices of certain unscrupulous employers, who are paying illegal wages. It shows that the Wages Act 1986 in Scotland has caused the wages and conditions of many Scottish workers to fall, without any corresponding increase in employment in the sectors affected. That is in spite of the fact that the Government pushed that Act through on the argument that, if wages came down and conditions worsen, employment would increase in those sectors. It shows, too, that, while these employers continue to pay illegal wage rates, the Government continue to turn a blind eye to their activities. There have been virtually no prosecutions of such employers.

I shall refer quickly to three examples of conditions of employment in Scotland. The first is a video shop in Clydeside, where the manageress, aged 20, is working 66 hours a week for £2 an hour--and not a penny of overtime. Secondly, there is a shop assistant in Argyllshire, aged 19, who works 78 hours a week. She does not receive a pay slip, but her net pay is £47 a week. Thirdly, there is a shoe shop in central Glasgow, where a 16-year-old female is working a 30-hour week for £1.44 an hour, with no paid holidays in her first year. Those are the kind of conditions already existing in Scotland and, once the Bill is passed, those conditions will spread even further.

Such defence as once existed against those conditions are being steadily eroded by the Government through the weakening of the wages councils, and probably their eventual abolition, as well as their failure to prosecute employers who fall foul of wages councils' regulations. The report rightly warns that a new servant class is emerging in Scotland, and the Government must accept their share of the responsibility for creating the conditions in which that has occurred.

The Chancellor recently described as poor those who had to live on half average earnings of £107 a week. How would he describe the woman who is working 78 hours a week for £47? She is taking home less than half the wages of what the Chancellor calls the poor. I suppose that one of the Government's successes has been to add new dimensions to the meaning of poverty in Britain today.

We are told that the three new clauses are expected to reduce expenditure by £100 million in a full year. Of course, that will be achieved by forcing tens of thousands into low-paid employment. What about the black economy--the tax avoiders and evaders, whom experts believe to be worth some 5 per cent. of the United Kingdom's gross domestic product or, in other words,


Column 762

£24,000 million a year? Why do the Government not turn their attention to those instead of the unemployed? Why do they not have special task forces, White Papers and Bills to take on the tax avoiders and evaders instead of taking on the unemployed? Why are the rich not pressurised into paying what is due rather than the poor fiddled out of what is their right? Of course it is par for the course that the Government should choose to pick on the poor and unemployed. The poor have long despaired of any justice at the hands of the Government.

In 1979, unemployment was a terrible experience for anyone, but 10 years on, in 1989, it is much more so because of the direct actions of the Government. Their actions have led to the abolition of earnings-related benefit, the decline in the relative value of unemployment benefit and what it can buy for the claimant, the narrowing of eligibility for benefit whether through the Fowler reviews or the availability for work tests, and the Bill we are discussing.

The unemployed have become the Cinderellas of the welfare state. Their position has deteriorated dramatically without any of the outbursts of public indignation that have accompanied attacks on the Health Service or child benefits. One of the speakers at the annual conference of the Child Poverty Action Group, Professor Julian Le Grand, commented on why that should be so. He believes that the primary factor is the role of the middle class. He argued that the middle class had a substantial interest in various key areas of the welfare state--both as users and as employers. The middle class could and would be mobilised in defence of those key areas, but unemployment is not one of them. In the main, unemployment affects the working class and the poorer members of our society. That is precisely why the Government have been at their most oppressive, unjust and vindictive in their attacks on the unemployed. No doubt the Government have made the calculation that the unemployed can be safely discounted because the electoral arithmetic is such that they can be elected without the support of most unemployed people and even without seeking to concern themselves with giving them justice. It must be said that, so far, they have been proved right. But they are right only in so far as they enjoy minority support among the electors. Between 57 and 58 per cent. of United Kingdom voters and 76 per cent. of Scottish voters have rejected the Government's class-ridden policies and their ongoing war against the unemployed.

The Prime Minister and the Government have been able to sustain themselves in office simply because of the divided nature of the majority Opposition. The Government cannot count on that state of division continuing indefinitely, nor can they count on their supporters continuing to turn a blind eye to the attacks that the Government are making on the poor and the unemployed of our country. The poor cannot look to the Government for justice, but they can look towards the majority of the people uniting together at the next general election to deliver justice to them by removing the Government from office.

Several Hon. Members rose --

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker) : Order. I know that Mr. Speaker imposed the 10-minute limit on speeches between 7 and 9 o'clock, but looking at the number of hon. Members seeking to catch my eye, it might


Column 763

be sensible to take a more relaxed view, although, of course, that must not be interpreted as an invitation to make lengthy speeches. 8.12 pm

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak under the more relaxed conditions. It gives me an opportunity to reply to the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion). I do not believe that there are Conservative Members who knowingly wish to disadvantage those who genuinely need help for any good reason. Let us consider the Government's record since they took power in 1979. They appreciated the structural problems that existed within the economy and the problems connected with employment training. They have steadily worked to put those matters right so that the problem of unemployment can be properly addressed. When one considers social security one is inevitably struck by the fact that it is complex and requires practical treatment. The Bill addresses the complexities as well as the practicalities. My hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security should note, however, that I have spoken to people who work in social security offices and in job-centres, and they have made a strong plea that they should be heard. In many cases they have to make policies, such as those outlined in the Bill, operationally sound. Before we finally commit the Bill to the statute book, I hope that Ministers will find time to talk to the front-line troops about the operational aspects of the Bill. They must make certain that it can be operated with the compassion that all sides of the House would welcome.

Clause 2 deals with the ending of the Treasury supplement to the national insurance fund. I am delighted that the success of the economy, the buoyancy of incomes, and the growth of earnings have allowed the national insurance fund to yield an income above that which requires further support from the Treasury. If nothing else, it provides the opportunity for the Treasury to listen to the appeals of Social Security Ministers for additional funding to help work in other areas.

I am aware that, as we approach the end of the century, the demographic table suggests that the number of national insurance payers will decline. At present, there are 2.3 national insurance payers per claimant, but by the turn of the century, that figure will have declined to about 1.8 payers per claimant. I hope that the Bill will not be a hostage to fortune and that the national insurance fund will not run out of money.

I believe that the clauses that deal with the test for work introduce a dynamic into the efforts that people must make to find employment. It is not an occasional test, but a continuing test of the efforts that people make to seek work. Now I find it easier to support further developments of the test for work because of the other efforts that have been made to assist people back into work. Only last week I visited a number of people who had taken advantage of the Government's employment training scheme. I was struck not only by the quality of the training, but by the fact that some of the people on those schemes had been out of work for a considerable time. They had voluntarily agreed to go on the training course because they appreciated that it could lead them back into work.


Column 764

Sad to say, those people who work in the various social security offices are aware of certain claimants who persistently find ways of avoiding the various tests and their implication- -the eventual removal of their unemployment benefit. Many people in those offices feel a deep sense of frustration when they see genuinely able- bodied people who, for whatever reason, have chosen to ignore work and remain in receipt of benefit. The clauses answer a genuine plea from the public that the system be tightened up.

All too often it is forgotten that the taxpayer funds the system. Of the money spent by the Government, £1 out of every £3 goes towards social security. There is plenty of folklore, some with a factual basis, that suggests that there are people who have found a way around the system. The provisions of the Bill will tackle those people.

Much has been said about the black economy. That demonstrates that there are people willing to work, but not legitimately. Taxpayers who have accepted lower-paid work feel sore about people, for example those in the building trade, who do jobs on the side and pay no tax or national insurance contributions. The improvement in some of the tests of benefit will tackle that problem and will take a thorn out of the side of many working people who presently pay for the luxuries that a group, albeit a small one, enjoy.

Much effort has been put into employment training. there are posters around London at the moment advertising companies such as IBM, Sainsbury and Wimpey who make it clear that where there are no people for the jobs they will provide the right training. The Bill introduces an element of activity into the tests to be given to those seeking unemployment benefit. I am glad that that dynamism has been introduced. Recently I spoke to a lady who was a restart counsellor. She was frustrated that she had little sanction other than bringing people back continually for further interviews when determining whether they were genuinely seeking work. I believe that clauses 7, 9 and 10 will properly address that frustration. Clause 13 deals with transitional payments and obviously I am delighted that we are giving legal sanction to those payments, but I have to say that one of the sadnesses about the Bill is the fact that Ministers have not perhaps taken every opportunity to learn some of the lessons of the review of the 1986 Act. I felt that the Minister for Social Security gave the House a genuine reassurance that the effects of the 1986 Act would be closely monitored, but I do not want at this stage to detain the House with a series of examples about individual problems, save to say that I have come across some very difficult cases where I am certain that the transitional payment scheme was never designed to deprive people of help. Certain technicalities have come to light in the operation of these recently introduced measures and I pray that Ministers may just think it fit to use the opportunity of this Bill to address those matters. Clause 15 is very interesting because it deals with the computerisation of the social security system, and I very much welcome that, because it begins to address some of the criticisms we have heard from the Opposition about the take-up of benefits. The one thing that the existing computerised systems of income support will do is to ensure that people get the benefit to which they are entitled, and the fact that clause 15 enables payments and


Column 765

upratings to be made on computerised systems, without the need of intervention by senior civil servants in benefit offices, is to be welcomed.

But there's the rub, because inevitably computers require fewer people, and clearly some particularly well-qualified people in benefit offices are already thinking about their future in the service. It is also clear that to recruit good quality people into the social security system is becoming increasingly difficult, and while I support the technical nature of clause 15, I urge Ministers to examine the implications for personnel in the service. Local authorities, anxious to find qualified people to implement the terms of the community charge, are already looking closely at the availability of people in social security offices who are doubting their future in the system. Many of these higher qualified staff understand the complexity of the system that we are seeking to amend, and I hope that in implementing clause 15 we will not allow good people to leave the service.

Clause 19 deals with pensions and equalising the opportunities for men and women. I warmly welcome the clause. I think that it follows up a theme that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer showed in his Budget. He recognised the growing importance of the work that women do and gave them the promise of a separate tax status. Now the social security legislation is again recognising that there should be an equal opportunity for women in respect of their pensions. I worked for a company that, unfortunately, did not have that equal opportunity for pensions.

There is one element about which I am not entirely clear. It is right to equalise opportunities, but some young girls starting work quite relish the fact that their wage, which may be low initially, does not have a subtraction from it for a company pension scheme, because it may be their intention to work for a short time and then, after marriage, to leave work altogether. For them cash flow is one of the most important things, and I hope that, in framing the regulations that will enable the equalisation to take place, the Minister for Social Security will bear that point in mind. Certainly, for women who are looking forward to a long period of work, pensions equalisation is a vital provision which I am sure we would fully support. But I am quite certain that its passage through the House will also occasion debate about the bigger and more difficult problem about the equalisation of retirement age for the sexes.

Finally, the Bill addresses some minor provisions affecting war pensions, and in particular war pension committees. I cannot let the opportunity pass without saying that it is perhaps sad that the Bill does not address the wider subject of the pensions paid to those who have formerly served in the armed forces. I know that Ministers are aware from much lobbying and many speeches at political conferences how strongly many people feel about this subject, and I take this opportunity to press them again to keep under review, as I know they are doing with their colleagues both in their Department and in the Ministry of Defence, the whole question of officers who retired before 1973 and the pension that their widows get, compared with the more generous treatment given to those who were widowed after 1973. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have drawn attention to the fact that there is much in the Bill to


Next Section

  Home Page