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Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As today is an Opposition day, could you confirm that it would be in order for the Opposition to change the subject of the debate, which they have on the Order Paper, to cover that which we have been talking about this afternoon- -if they believe that this case is as important as they say it is--
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : I urge you, Mr. Speaker, to read Hansard to see what Conservative Members have said during proceedings on this private notice question. On a number of occasions they referred to Mr. Mendis either as acting illegally or as a criminal. That was specifically said by the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill). The truth is that it is everybody's right--whatever the Home Office says--to use proper representation through the courts and the tribunal. Therefore, Mr. Mendis is not a criminal.
Mr. Cohen rose --
Mr. Cohen : Of course it is a matter for you, Mr. Speaker. For example--this was the substance of my point--many Opposition Members would regard the Chancellor as a criminal. Whether he is or not, we would regard him as such. Is it therefore right for us to sit here and tell him that he is a crook? Conservative Members have said that Viraj Mendis is a criminal when he is not. He was acting within the proper democratic procedures. He--
Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman is abusing the privileges of the House by seeking to raise points which are not matters for me. [Interruption.] Order. He well knows that it would not be in order to make such allegations about hon. Members of this House. Mr. Mendis is not a Member of this House. What was said this afternoon was not out of order.
Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. While respecting you, Mr. Speaker, and always respecting and supporting your decisions, if you felt at any stage like reconsidering your decision, many hon. Members on this side of the House would support you, because we believe, quite fundamentally, that the Labour party on this issue is completely out of touch with the mass population of this country. If the subject were debated, yet again the Labour party's unsuitability for the government of this country would be fully demonstrated.
Mr. Speaker : I shall hear Mr. Tony Lloyd, but I warn the hon. Members concerned that there is great pressure on the subsequent debates. I hope that they will not make submissions to me afterwards saying how sad it is that they have not been called.
Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford) : This is a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware that the Home Office has stated that Viraj Mendis will be deported on Friday. I do not challenge your ruling on the Standing Order No. 20 application, but that means that there is a limited amount of parliamentary time available between now and his deportation. Given the fact that it is important that the House has the opportunity to challenge the Home Secretary's decision and that we at least have explained to us his assessment of the risk faced by Viraj Mendis in Sri Lanka, can you tell us, Mr. Speaker, when it will be possible for my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Litherland) to have a reply from the Home Secretary on those points in a debate, which we have not been able to have this afternoon?
Mr. Vaz : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During Question No. 4 to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) asked about the conduct between the Department of the Duchy of Lancaster and Church organisations in inner-city areas. In view of the Government's actions this morning, do you not think it appropriate that we have a statement from the Home Secretary tomorrow about the relations between Church organisations and the Government?
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As there is a possibility that the Home Secretary will make a further statement before Friday, and taking into account the Government's obsession with deportations of a certain kind, can we have an assurance through you, Mr. Speaker, from the Home Secretary, that if and when that deportation takes place accompanying Mr. Mendis will be Roberto Fiore, an Italian who is wanted by the Italian authorities? He is a terrorist who has been in this country for seven years. Presumably, he is being guarded by the British police. Despite the fact that the Italian authorities are after him, the Home Secretary is keeping him here.
Mr. John MacGregor, supported by Mr. Secretary Walker, Mr. Secretary Fowler, Mr. Secretary Ridley, Mr. Secretary Clarke, Mr. Secretary Rifkind, Mr. Donald Thompson and Mr. Richard Ryder, presented a Bill to substitute new provisions for section 18 of the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 ; to amend section 19 of that Act ; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed. [Bill 43.]
That the draft Grants to the Redundant Churches Fund Order 1988 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Chapman.]
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the appointment of a Minister with responsibility for retired people ; to require local authorities to report annually on the condition of retired people ; to require health authorities to report on their services for the elderly ; to ensure that standing charges for gas, electricity, water and telephones are abolished for pensioners ; to provide for concessionary transport schemes for the elderly ; to ensure that unit costs for food are the same for small purchasers ; and to ensure that the state old age pension is linked to average earnings.
This is my sixth attempt, with the support of hon. Members and hundreds of pensioner organisations all over Britain, to introduce-- [Interruption.]
The House has a responsibility to debate the situation of pensioners and to enact measures to protect and improve their living standards. The Government are continually telling us that the number of elderly in our society is increasing, and that is true. There are now 9.5 million people of pensionable age and that number is likely to increase into the next century. Instead of recognising the need to provide more resources for pensioners, the Government continually under-fund pension schemes, put pressure on pensioners to take out private pension schemes, thus undermining the state scheme, and reduce the amount of state funding which benefits elderly people. The House should recognise that a civilisation should be judged on how well it treats its elderly, not on how well it escapes from its responsibility towards them.
Many statistics show the condition of elderly people. When the Social Security Act 1988 abolished supplementary benefit and what went with it, 30 per cent. of Britain's retired population were living on or below supplementary benefit levels. Despite the Government's claim that many elderly people are quite wealthy, at that time only 39 per cent. lived more than 140 per cent. above the level of supplementary benefit. In other words, at least 60 per cent. of Britain's elderly people live at a poor level, and 30 per cent. of them live below the poverty line. That is a scandal and the House should draw attention to it and enact my Bill to improve that situation.
We are in the middle of probably the mildest winter on record, but there are more deaths from hypothermia in winter than in summer and should there be cold weather later this month, next month or into March, the annual death toll as a result of hypothermia will become apparent. Hypothermia is often not recorded as the cause of death on death certificates by doctors in hospitals throughout Britain. They ascribe such deaths to other causes. But in reality many elderly people die in winter because their homes are too cold and they have insufficient money to feed themselves properly. Those are serious matters and it is a scandal that there should be twice as many deaths in winter through hypothermia than in summer.
We must challenge the Government's philosophy. In 1980, they broke the link between the real cost of living for pensioners as measured in the earnings index and
Column 349pensions, and they have encouraged pensioners to prepare for their old age through private investment. Instead, they should be ensuring that they are properly treated.
Above all, the Government have cut Health Service and local government expenditure so that everywhere the elderly bear the brunt of growing hospital waiting lists and are deprived of vital social services. An elderly person living at home, unable to go to a day centre because it is closed, unable to have meals on wheels or a home help because the services have been cut, is more likely to die in misery, poverty and loneliness than one who had that necessary local caring community support.
Over the past 15 years, the elderly have had to pay at least 6 per cent. more on average in housing costs and 2 per cent. more in transport costs, and their income from part-time employment has been halved.
The Government talk about inflation being low, but inflation is always higher for elderly people because they buy in small quantities rather than in bulk. The inflation index for elderly people over the past 15 years has been at least 12 points higher for the elderly than for the rest of the population.
The Bill is a seven-point plan which, if carried into law, would change the face of Britain and eliminate poverty among the elderly. If the House believes that pensioners should be properly treated, it should support the Bill and ensure that it becomes law.
First, the Bill requires the appointment of a Minister with special responsibility for retired people, who must report annually to the House on the condition of Britain's elderly.
Secondly, it requires local authorities to report annually on the condition of elderly people in their authority so that one can see the cuts that are taking place, or the complete lack of services for the elderly, such as meals on wheels, day centres or transport schemes in some parts of the country.
Thirdly, it requires health authorities to report annually on their services for the elderly--the length of waiting lists and the special treatment available for the elderly.
Fourthly--something for which many people have campaigned for many years-- the Bill seeks to abolish standing charges for gas, electricity, water and telephones for elderly people, to prevent those services being cut off and to protect unit costs for other customers. Any codes of practice for cutting off services that gas and electricity boards presently have should become a statutory requirement so that their services are protected. Above all, the Exchequer should fund this provision rather than putting the burden on other consumers. Fifthly, the Bill seeks to provide universal concessionary transport schemes so that free transport is available throughout Britain and not just in areas such as London and Sheffield, where pensioners have successfully persuaded local authorities to fund transport. All elderly people need the right of mobility.
Column 350Sixthly, the Bill seeks to deal with the point that I made earlier about increased inflationary costs for the elderly. Food prices are considerably higher when one buys in small rather than large quantities. It seeks to protect unit costs for food so that those who can afford to buy in bulk do not receive even greater discounts at the expense of the elderly.
Those matters are urgent and important, and I hope that the House will support them.
All that I have suggested is a palliative. It only helps to alleviate the already serious poverty among elderly people. The root cause of poverty among elderly people is the grossly inadequate level of the state old-age pension. It is among the lowest in Europe. In 1980, the Government broke the link with the cost of living and it is time not just that that was restored but that in future pensioner couples should be guaranteed a pension equivalent to half average earnings, and single pensioners one third of average earnings. That would be a dramatic increase in pensions and it would bring the British pension more or less into line with some other wealthy industrial countries.
Britain is the seventh richest country in the world. It is a disgrace that so many elderly people die alone and in misery through hypothermia, not for lack of resources to provide for them, but for the lack of political will to distribute those resources to ensure that pensioners are well cared for and can live in decency in their retirement.
This is a modest and simple measure which, if enacted, will change the lives of pensioners and give them hope instead of misery. It will show Britain to be civilised towards the elderly rather than brushing them aside and treating them with contempt, as presently happens. Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Dennis Canavan, Mr. Dennis Skinner, Mr. Tony Benn, Mr. Bill Michie, Mrs. Audrey Wise, Mr. David Winnick, Mr. Paul Boateng, Mr. Chris Smith, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mr. Tony Banks and Mr. Bernie Grant.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn accordingly presented a Bill to require the appointment of a Minister with responsibility for retired people ; to require local authorities to report annually on the condition of retired people ; to require health authorities to report on their services for the elderly ; to ensure that standing charges for gas, electricity, water and telephones are abolished for pensioners ; to provide for concessionary transport schemes for the elderly ; to ensure that unit costs for food are the same for small purchasers ; and to ensure that the state old age pension is linked to average earnings: And the same was read the First time, and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 3 March and to be printed. [Bill 44.]
Mr. Speaker : I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. In view of the late start of this debate, I appeal to spokesmen on both Front Benches, as well as to Back Benchers, for short contributions so that as many hon. Members as possible may be called.
That this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to increase child benefit in line with other benefits.
The motion and debate honour the commitment that I gave at the Dispatch Box immediately before the recess that, at the earliest opportunity, the Opposition would give the House the chance to debate child benefit separately and to vote on its future. Our honouring that commitment contrasts with the position of the Government, who have twice frozen child benefit since the last election and never once asked for the opinion of the House or offered it a vote on whether the benefit should be frozen.
Our motion must be one of the shortest in the history of Supply debates. It concentrates with single-minded focus on uprating. We have spared the Government any political rhetoric ; we have not included in the motion a breath of criticism of them. That rather contrasts with the Government amendment, in which they heap turgid approval on themselves and have the gall to invite the House to congratulate them on having reviewed the level of child benefit. They may have reviewed it, but that did not result in a single extra penny being added to it. We have resisted the strong temptation to criticise the Government in our motion. Nothing in it would cause offence to even the most delicate Conservative Back Bencher. There is nothing in it to prevent Conservative Members voting for it--provided that they agree with it. If they do not, they must vote it down. The clear inference that we and the country will draw from Conservative Members' decision to vote down the motion is that they are against child benefit being uprated and are prepared to connive at the strategy of the Secretary of State, which is to freeze child benefit to death.
As briefly as possible, I want to show Conservative Back Benchers why they should not vote with the Secretary of State and why, instead, they should vote with us to defrost child benefit--
Mr. Hanley : I seek clarification of an interpretation that we might place on the motion. No doubt the hon. Gentleman would not like to be seen to be giving tax-free benefits to the wealthiest people in society. Is he now also pledging that he will make sure that child benefit is taxed in future, should there be a Labour Government?
Mr. Cook : That would be a far-fetched interpretation of the stark words on the Order Paper. The hon. Gentleman has disappointed me. I had rather hoped when he began his intervention that he was about to invite me to offer an interpretation of the motion as follows : that we want child benefit uprated in line with the tax cuts that the Government have made. If he had proposed that, I would have been inclined to accept it.
Turning now to the four major reasons--
Mr. Cook : No. I said that I would not be able to give way as often as I might have done because of the time factor--[ Hon. Members-- : "Answer the question."] I have answered it. I do not propose to tax child benefit. My party has never done so, and I do not expect to do so. I hope that that finally gets through to the hon. Members for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) and for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett), who have not been listening to what I am saying-- [Interruption.] I appreciate that the hon. Member for Pembroke wants to carry on a dialogue by himself. If he does, I suggest that, for the convenience of the House, he removes himself to the Tea Room. Let us get on with the debate.
Of course we oppose the taxation of child benefit. There has never been any suggestion to the contrary. I should be inclined to examine the issue again when child benefit reflects the cost of looking after a child. At a time when it reflects one third of that cost it appears utterly ludicrous to suggest that we lower its value by another quarter. So I hope that in words of one syllable, carefully and slowly spelt out, I have finally got through to Conservative Members what we are trying to say. If the hon. Member for Pembroke intends to attend future debates, we can arrange for a blackboard for him. I want to give four reasons why Conservative Members should vote to unfreeze child benefit before they tax it. The first is that child benefit provides the only recognition in our tax and benefit system of the extra costs of raising children. It is the only device for channelling resources from taxpayers without children to households with them. Almost every civilised nation recognises the extra costs of children and that those extra costs must be supported by taxation or benefits. Ironically, under a Government who claim to be the party of the family, Britain alone in Europe is limping towards 1992 refusing to accept that families with children are families with extra expenditure.
The second reason why child benefit should be kept and uprated is that it puts money in the hands of the mother, the parent who buys the food and chooses the children's clothes. It is an efficient way of ensuring help with the costs of children, and of ensuring that that help is spent mostly on the welfare of children. For many mothers, child benefit is the only stable, reliable and independent income on which they can count. The Secretary of State is much given to lecturing the nation on the evils of the dependency culture. Not uprating child benefit increases the dependence of mothers on men. If the House remotely represented the balance of the sexes in the electorate it
Column 353would not dream of tolerating the freezing by the Government of the benefit that goes to mothers. The only reason why the Government imagine they can get away with such a strategy is the grossly inadequate representation of the mothers of Britain in the Chamber. The third reason why the benefit should be kept and uprated is that it reaches nearly every mother. If the objective is to help mothers, child benefit is well targeted--almost perfectly so : it hits 98 per cent. of its targets. It gets through to them, because it is simple, easily claimed and does not have to be reclaimed every time circumstances change. No stigma is attached to having a child benefit book. On the contrary, it is a badge of citizenship, not a label of poverty--
Mr. Cook : With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, the idea that I am afraid of him stretches credulity to snapping point. The fourth reason why child benefit should be uprated and retained is that it provides a life-line to households seeking to clamber out of the poverty trap. It is the one benefit that does not penalise them if they manage to improve their income. It does not kick them back into poverty by clawing away from their benefits whatever they make in extra earnings.
For all these reasons, child beneft was universally welcomed when it was introduced. It was introduced by a Labour Government, but I refrain from claiming sole paternity rights to it. The objective of the debate is to seek cross-party support for child benefit. In 1975, it was warmly endorsed by the then Conservative Opposition----
Mr. Cook : I am sorry, but I have a quotation of my own to share before the hon. Gentleman gives his. Conservative Members who were in opposition at the time claimed to have thought of child benefit themselves. The only problem was that they never got round to introducing it when they were in government. They were so keen on the idea of child benefit that as the official Opposition they pressed an amendment to oblige the Labour Government to uprate child benefit by law, not just once a year but twice a year. The Conservative spokesman at the time said :
"I cannot see how a reputable case can be raised against that proposal. If a case is raised against it, it runs the risk of saying that, when the child benefit scheme comes in the benefit will be steadily eroded It is not a situation which we can accept."--[ Official Report, Standing Committee A, 24 June 1975 ; c. 150.] That spokesman was the gentleman with whom the Secretary of State has a job-share agreement at Richmond house--the Secretary of State for Health. These are changed days. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) is busy seeking to dismantle the NHS. The Secretary of State for Social Security is allowing child benefit to be eroded and to fade away through lack of uprating.
Column 354Since taking office 18 months ago, the Secretary of State would have been obliged--under the amendment of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe--to uprate child benefit three times. Instead, he has never once uprated child benefit. He makes no bones about it. His decision is based on ideological reasons. In fairness, to the Secretary of State, although I may not often agree with his policies, I give him full marks for honesty and candour. He is opposed to universal benefits and wants to replace them with means-tested benefits. That must be for ideological reasons because nothing else could explain why he remains so blind to the abundant evidence provided by the Government's giant experiment with social security last April, which showed that means-tested benefits alone do not remove people from poverty--they keep them in poverty.
Family credit is the means-tested parallel to child benefit. The take-up of family credit has been a first-class disaster. A year ago we were promised ambitious figures for the take-up of family credit. The Minister of State promised a take-up rate of 60 per cent., and on one occasion the Secretary of State--I think that he was carried away at the time--promised a 70 per cent. take-up rate. It has never come anywhere near those figures. At its best, family credit peaked at 35 per cent.--half the promised rate.
A year ago, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo), in a debate on family credit, described the 50 per cent. take-up rate of family income supplement as "minuscule and feeble". It is a great shame that he has now departed from the Department of Social Security. Would he were with us for this debate. If a take-up rate of 50 per cent. earned such a lofty rebuke from the hon. Gentleman, in what terms of contempt would be describe a take-up rate of 35 per cent.? That is the rate which has now been achieved by the replacement benefit that he and his colleagues devised in place of family income supplement.
Even worse is that we now know that the numbers are not increasing. At the end of November the number in receipt of family credit was more than 260,000--I use the figures given during the last social security questions. In an answer given to me last Friday the figure at the end of December was 255,000. I notice that one newspaper has put it about that the numbers on family credit fell last month because of the Christmas effect. Apparently, poor families forget to renew their applications in the hectic rush to complete their Christmas shopping.
The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. John Moore) : I always hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman but I know that--unlike some of his hon. Friends--he is conscious of accuracy and I would not want him to make too much of the point. To be precisely accurate, during the Christmas period there was a slow down in applications and processing. The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to know that last week there were more than 17,000 applications--a record rate above the normal 10,000 to 13,000. The case load rate is running at at least, if not in excess of, 300,000-- about the 40 per cent. level that we were discussing.
Mr. Cook : We have to be careful with the last phrase used by the Secretary of State. When he refers to case loads, he is referring not to those who receive family credit but to those receiving family credit plus those who have applied for it. The number of applications at the end of
Column 355both November and December was 47,000. I am sorry to say that his figure of over 300,000 is entirely consistent with 260,000 or thereabouts receiving family credit. If the Secretary of State is arguing that one of the problems with family credit is that over Christmas there is a seasonal fluctuation when the numbers fall while the Department of Social Security is on holiday, I regard that as another solid argument against relying on the means-tested benefit and for depending on child benefit, which is not subject to such seasonal fluctuations.
I want to make it clear that, because we criticise the take-up rate, the Secretary of State should not suggest, as he has once or twice been inclined to do, that we are opposed to a high take-up rate. On the contrary, we are worried that the people who are missing out on family credit are the very people who were hit by cuts in benefit last April. They are the mothers who lost free school meals for their children and who now have to face an average weekly bill of £6 for two children, or £8 if they live in Bradford under a Conservative council. They are the families who lost housing benefit and who are now saddled with part of the mounting rent arrears that have hit every housing authority since last April.
Throughout 1986-87, we were told that we did not need to worry about the families that were facing cuts in their budget through loss of free school meals and changes in housing benefit, because they would be more than compensated, and would come out smiling as a result of family credit. We now know that family credit is not getting through to them. They are left with the cuts that they faced last April and without the benefits that were designed to protect them.
We have also heard that even those who have received family credit are not fully compensated for their losses. There will shortly be broadcast a television programme on child poverty. Its makers set out to try to find a family receiving family credit that was better off than it was before the changes in social security. So desperate did they become in their hunt that they placed an advert in a tabloid newspaper inviting any family that was better off as a result of the April changes and the introduction of family credit to contact them. The producers have been unable to unearth a single family that is better off as a result of the changes, even if it is getting family credit.