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House of Commons

Monday 6 March 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Disability Benefits

1. Mr. John Evans : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he has any plans to increase disability benefits.

The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Nicholas Scott) : We are spending over £7 billion this year on benefits for the long-term sick and disabled. This is an increase of over 90 per cent. in real terms since 1978-79. The results of the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys' reports on disability will help us judge how well the substantial current expenditure is targeted and whether there are better ways of helping those in greatest need.

Mr. Evans : One improvement that the Minister could make in support for the disabled would be to scrap the six-month qualifying period for the terminally ill, many of whom, I am sad to say, die before they qualify. Does the Minister accept that such a step would be widely welcomed by those who have built up, supported and maintained the hospice movement and by those who support and nurse the terminally ill in their last months?

Mr. Scott : I have noted that. The point has been brought to my attention and we shall certainly consider it. There are somewhat complicated questions about medical ethics and about whether or not information could properly and compassionately be given to people who are terminally ill. I am giving the matter considerable thought.

Mr. Dunn : Does my hon. Friend accept that the figures that he has given for increases in mobility allowance expenditure since 1979 are more than welcome? What is the increase in the number of mobility allowance claimants since 1979?

Mr. Scott : Expenditure on mobility allowance has increased by 550 per cent. in real terms since we came to office. It is a significant increase in terms of expenditure and the number of those who are receiving the benefit.

Mr. Fearn : Will the Minister confirm that all those who reached the age of 60 before December 1984, who care for a relative and are eligible for the invalid allowance, will get their back pay, in accordance with the European Court's latest ruling? When will that back pay be paid?

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Mr. Scott : If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the case which is before the Appeal Court, we would want to await its finding before coming to any conclusions.

Mr. Tom Clarke : Does the Minister accept that there is great support for the point which my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) made regarding the terminally ill? Does he accept also that if the Government conceded his point, that would be entirely consistent with some of the major recommendations in Sir Roy Griffiths' report on community care?

Mr. Scott : I take that point seriously, and I am giving it thought. We will probably look at it in the context of the OPCS surveys.

Public Spending

3. Miss Widdecombe : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what proportion of public spending is taken up by his Department.

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. John Moore) : My Department is responsible for 31 per cent. of all Government spending in 1988-89. This is up from 25 per cent. in the last year of the Labour Government. It is thanks to the success of this Government's economic policies that the country is able to afford the massive resources devoted to social security spending.

Miss Widdecombe : I congratulate my right hon. Friend on that achievement. By what percentage has Government expenditure on support for the family increased since 1978-79?

Mr. Moore : Not surprisingly, support for the family has increased by 27.3 per cent. since 1979, in comparison--just in case the answer needs further embellishment--with the reduction of 7 per cent. under the Labour Government.

Mr. Haynes : Why is the Secretary of State bragging about the amount of money that the Government are spending on social security? I have mentioned it to him before. When will he wake up to the fact that some people in my constituency live in wheelchairs because they have lost lower limbs? They apply for attendance allowance but are regularly turned down. Why? What kind of instructions are going out from the Department?

Mr. Moore : I was not bragging. The emotions of the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) are understandable, but I was happy to be able to reflect on the Government's economic success, which has enabled them to care in a greater and more effective way. I do not for one moment doubt the emotions and support of the hon. Gentleman or other Labour Members, but their economic failure when in office created great difficulties for those whom they wanted to support.

Mr. Hanley : By what percentage has the amount spent on the long- term sick and disabled increased since 1979?

Mr. Moore : Facts such as this are always difficult for the Opposition when compared with their own appalling record-- [Interruption.] Of course, the Opposition want to speed quickly across such issues, which contrast so starkly with their own record. Expenditure on the long-term disabled and sick has increased by 90 per cent. in real terms since 1979.

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Mr. Campbell-Savours : Will the Secretary of State cease his practice of blaming social security officers for not making payments from the social fund? Is not the truth that the system is so circumscribed by regulations and rules that the payments simply cannot be made? Does the Secretary of State realise that Conservatives up and down the land are increasingly concerned about the Government's meanness? They want to vote Tory but want the Government to show more charity.

Mr. Moore : The hon. Gentleman is trapped in utter nonsense. I have never once criticised my social security officers about expenditure on the social fund. I have encouraged them to use their discretionary flexibility when dealing with community care grants. I have criticised authorities-- especially Labour-controlled local authorities--which, despite their supposed interest in the claimant, sought to boycott the social fund in its early stages.

Mainframe Computer

4. Mr. Brandon-Bravo : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security when social security offices will be linked to the mainframe computer system.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lloyd) : Already, Sir. Under the Department's computerisation programme, we have established pilot link-ups between 22 local offices and new mainframe computer systems for pensions and a central index. The largest and most ambitious project, dealing with the processing and payment of income support, was successfully introduced in Bolton and Edinburgh, south, local offices on Monday 27 February 1989.

Mr. Brandon-Bravo : I hope by that answer that my hon. Friend is effectively announcing the end of the Dickensian paper chase which used to cause so much frustration, not just to applicants but to staff in various offices up and down the country. Can he shed some further light on the matter, and say whether computerisation will permit on-line information at the point of inquiry at local offices? Will there be a link-up between local offices, for example, to ensure that the John Doe who applies in one of the Nottingham offices is not the same John Doe who applies at the office down the road in Derby? Such a system would, one hopes, eliminate fraud.

Mr. Peter Lloyd : My hon. Friend is quite right. It will be the end of the paper chase. In two years' time, when the national roll-out is complete, it will certainly be possible for an individual to go into his local office and see the information on the VDU screen, to which every office will be connected. As my hon. Friend suggested, that will also create the valuable by-product of helping to eliminate the small proportion of cases which are fraudulent.

Mr. Allen : Can the Minister confirm that there were problems at Bolton on the very first day of operation? Will he also confirm that the objective of the Government's strategy is to free social security officers to deal directly with clients? How many more people are dealing with clients face-to-face than before the system came in?

Mr. Peter Lloyd : The same number of people are dealing with clients face-to-face, but they do so with better and more accurate information and can answer questions

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quickly. The hon. Gentleman referred to the experience at Bolton. Minor problems were encountered in the offices there, but nothing substantial, and nothing that will in any way hold up our plans for introducing the system. The whole point of having a pilot period is to iron out small difficulties so that when the system rolls nationally there will be no problems.

Mr. Thurnham : Does my hon. Friend accept that it is welcome that Bolton was chosen for this pilot scheme? Will he say a little more about the benefits that will accrue from computerisation?

Mr. Peter Lloyd : As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo), the benefits for the claimants are that he receives a quicker, more accurate and more complete service. The benefit for the staff is that they can work in a way that satisfies them because they can give a better service in better conditions. The benefit for the taxpayer is that he will save on administration in the system.

Transitional Payments

5. Mr. McAvoy : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is his calculation of the number of people who will receive no increase in their income support payments in April 1989 over April 1988, because they are in receipt of transitional payments or they have lost transitional payments during the past year.

Mr. Peter Lloyd : The precise information requested is not available but we estimate that of the 4.4 million people on income support 3.9 million will gain from this year's uprating.

Mr. McAvoy : Does the Minister accept that even these estimates show the suffering that will be experienced by many people this April? The estimate is a disgrace. Surely, the Government should allocate more money to such a needy sector.

Mr. Peter Lloyd : The estimates are encouraging in the sense that they will leave 14 per cent. of income support claimants still with transitional payments. The rest will be receiving a partial or complete increase. The hon. Gentleman should remember that transitional payments were designed to prevent a drop in the cash payments at the point of change. People who have them are being paid at a higher rate than is paid to people in the same circumstances who are coming on to income support.

Mr. Soames : Is my hon. Friend satisfied that those whose financial affairs will be altered by these arrangements have been warned sufficiently far in advance to allow them to make other arrangements?

Mr. Peter Lloyd : Local offices have certainly been informing people on income support of what their position will be after April, so those who will have no increase--the 14 per cent. that I have mentioned--will have been informed well in advance.

Mr. Robin Cook : Does the Minister accept that his answer to the original question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy) was disingenuous? Does he accept that of the 3.9 million people that he mentioned more than 500,000 will not get the full

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increase because of transitional additions, and another 500,000 will get no increase at all? That is not a small minority : it is a quarter of all claimants of income support.

Does the Minister also recognise that by definition none of these one million people received any increase last April? How does he justify a two- year freeze on the most frail and disabled claimants merely because they used to get a little extra help? How does he square that freeze with the often-repeated claim by the Government that they are targeting help on those most in need3

Mr. Peter Lloyd : I told the hon. Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy) that 14 per cent. will still be subject to transitional payments after April. Secondly, I remind the hon. Gentleman that income support rates for the groups he referred to--the elderly and the frail-- will be increased next October.

Income Support

6. Mr. McKelvey : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security in how many cases of which he has knowledge 16 and 17-year-olds have ceased to receive income support without taking up a job or employment training place at the most recent date.

11. Mr. Allen Adams : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security in how many cases of which he has knowledge those aged 16 and 17 years have ceased to receive income support without taking up a job or employment training places at the most recent date.

Mr. Scott : Precise information is not available, but it is perhaps relevant that in the period 12 September 1988 to 24 February 1989 there were more than 3,000 directions under the discretionary powers covering severe hardship.

Mr. McKelvey : I thank the Minister for that reply. I am intrigued to know why figures are not available. Today in Kilmarnock, despite assurances by Scottish Ministers, 120 16 and 17-year-olds are looking for employment training programmes and only 50 programmes are available, so there must be a shortfall. The local DSS does not keep figures for young people who are denied benefit. How are we to know how large is this vast and growing army of young destitutes--Oliver Twists who come to London, for instance--looking for jobs and wandering the country, if there are no precise figures? That is a disgrace ; the Minister should be ashamed to admit that he does not have the figures on these young people.

Mr. Scott : I am considering whether we need to collect these figures in future. As I have said, they are not available at the moment. The 3,000 hardship cases nationwide show the impact in this area. As I have undertaken on a number of occasions, we are carefully monitoring the impact of the new system on 16 and 17-year-olds and we have had evidence and representations from a variety of sources which we are carefully considering.

Mr. Frank Field : Does the Minister accept that his answer is totally unsatisfactory? I support the Government's strategy of saying to young people that they should either be in school or at work on YTS. Will he give an undertaking that when he next appears at Question

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Time he will be able to provide us with figures for the number of people who are now drifting around and on the streets because they are not able to claim benefit?

Mr. Scott : There is considerable difficulty in assembling those figures with any precision. As I say, I am considering whether we can get more information than we have at the moment.

Mr. Baldry : Does my hon. Friend agree that people who are unskilled, unqualified and unemployed at the age of 16 or 17 will almost certainly be unskilled, unqualified or unemployed at 20 or 25 years of age? The whole thrust of our policies must be to make sure that every 16 or 17- year-old has every incentive to get skills, qualifications and further education. Any culture that encourages young people to become dependent on income benefits as early as 16 or 17 is a disgrace.

Mr. Scott : I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. I can think of no worse start to life than to begin it on benefit. When the last Labour Government were in office 65,000 youngsters began their adult career in that way.

Mrs. Beckett : It is four years since the Government were warned of the dangers of cutting benefits to youngsters who cannot live at home, and a year since the Government went ahead and did that. Why are they still studying the inevitable results? How many more thousands of youngsters will have to disappear from sight while the Government hunt for an excuse for a climbdown?

Mr. Scott : We made special provision in regulations for the most vulnerable groups. We recognised that however carefully regulations were drawn some cases would always fall outside them. For that reason we introduced the severe hardship provisions and the use of discretion. We have had serious representations, not just rhetoric, about the impact on other groups of youngsters and we are carefully considering those.


7. Mr. David Evans : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security when he expects the efficiency scrutiny into his Department's anti -fraud procedures to be completed ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. John Moore : The scrutiny will be completed by 21 April. I am determined to maintain a vigorous campaign against those who cheat and rob the social security system. Great progress continues to be made in this area and investigations are producing good results. Benefit savings this year are expected to be about £250 million, over £50 million more than last year. This theft of public funds must be stopped, and I hope that the efficiency scrutiny will help us to get even better results.

Mr. Evans : Does my right hon. Friend agree that so far the campaign has been a great success? Nevertheless, £200 million or more this year is only the tip of the iceberg. Will he assure the House that he will continue to save taxpayers' hard-earned money from cheats and frauds and from people who deliberately go to the social security system to defraud the country? Will he further assure the House that he will maintain his vigilance? How much money does he think is still there to be saved on behalf of the taxpayer?

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Mr. Moore : I entirely endorse my hon. Friend's attitude. No hon. Member and no member of the public in any way supports such abuse of the social security system, which is there to help people in need. We shall continue to maintain the kind of vigilant, effective effort which will produce results such as those that I have announced.

Mr. Morgan : Does the Minister agree that this problem will never be stamped out until his Department finds a way of getting at the collusive employer? There cannot be a fraudulent claimant without a collusive employer who allows the employee time off for signing on. The Minister has received advice from his departmental officials that there is no technique at the moment for getting at the collusive employer. Until he has such a technique, the problem of the collusive employer which creates fraud, especially in the building industry where it is virtually impossible to get a job but only phoney self-employment, will remain with us for a long time.

Mr. Moore : I do not accept that I am not seeking or following advice that would help us to pin down fraud, whether by employers or employees. I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said, and I shall look carefully at this subject. As I said, this issue is of concern to both sides of the House, and no one should be willing to see an abuse of the system through fraud, whether by employer or the employee.

Mr. Kirkhope : Is not the amount of publicity given to cases that are brought to trial insufficient to deter others from taking part in these disgraceful frauds? Could not the media and the press do more, and give more assistance in the campaign to prevent fraud?

Mr. Moore : I am looking forward to the results of the efficiency scrutiny. Publicity impacts and deters, so I shall be looking carefully at any recommendations about it. The cases that come to public attention already receive a considerable amount of coverage.


10. Mr. Wareing : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what steps he is taking to eliminate poverty amongst young people.

Mr. Scott : The Government believe that the best way to improve living standards for all groups is to manage the economy successfully, and, for young people, to provide necessary employment and training opportunities. This we have done.

Mr. Wareing : That utterly complacent answer is absolutely deplorable, and the Minister should recognise that a young person who is lucky enough to be on a YTS scheme has to pay 35 per cent. of his rates-- sorry, 35 per cent. of his rents--20 per cent. of his rates and all of his water rates, and for all the costs of his heating. Many young people are destitute. Does the Minister accept that the Fowler reforms are not a great and radical reform but a charter for destitution? It is time that the Minister tried to live, as Matthew Parris once did, on the benefits that he is recommending for young people.

Mr. Scott : I reject the hon. Gentleman's allegation. He got into a terrible mess over his figures, and even when he got them, what he thought he had bore little resemblance

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to reality. The Government are increasing resources spent on support for social security, and increasing the targeting of it on those who need help most.

Mr. David Martin : How many young people benefit from family credit, and how does that compare with the number who used to benefit under family income supplement?

Mr. Scott : What is happening under family credit is that we are spending more money than we were profiled to spend. This is a successful benefit. We are about to embark on another advertising campaign to encourage greater take-up, and it would be in the interests of those involved if all hon. Members gave this benefit their full support.

Ms. Mowlam : It is not in order for the Minister to criticise the figures given by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing), when the Minister is unable to tell us the number of cases of young people who are no longer on income support because of training and education. If the Minister is so convinced that young people are not suffering under this arrangement, why is there no disregard for young people on YTS after April 1989?

Mr. Scott : We are studying carefully the representations that we have received to see whether we need to take steps beyond those that I outlined in a previous supplementary answer.

Social Fund

12. Mr. Harris : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security whether he will be increasing the social fund allocation per head of eligible claimants.

Mr. Peter Lloyd : When the social fund allocations for 1988-89 were announced in November 1987, the average allocation per head of supplementary benefit caseload was £39. The latest available figures show that the 1989-90 social fund allocation represents £46 per head of income support caseload.

Mr. Harris : Is the take-up for the social fund on target? I welcome the figures, but will my hon. Friend take it from me that in my constituency all the scaremongering that we heard about this fund seems to have been completely unfounded?

Mr. Lloyd : I am pleased to hear what my hon. Friend says about his local office. I can give him the figures for January, which show that there has been a welcome increase in successful applications. In January, the loans budget was 96 per cent. of profile, and the expenditure of the grants was 109 per cent.

Mr. Allen : Will the Minister accept that the social fund as a whole will be grossly underspent by the end of the financial year, largely because he and his colleagues have set the criteria far too high for local offices? Will the Minister be amending the criteria so that all of the social fund can be spent on the needy in Nottingham and elsewhere?

Mr. Lloyd : The criteria in January, when expenditure was up against the profile, were the same in almost all respects as they were when the social fund started. We have kept the budget for the coming year as it was last year, despite the underspend in the early part of the current year.

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That shows that we have great faith that the rules as they are will enable the expenditure that we have seen in January to be continued and to be directed to those most especially in need, as is the object of the social fund.

Mr. Brandon-Bravo : Will my hon. Friend explain why there is such an extraordinary variation between one social fund office and another in almost identical areas? The three offices in Nottingham, for example, serve similar areas, but there are substantial variations in the per capita provision. Perhaps my hon. Friend will explain why that is so.

Mr. Lloyd : If my hon. Friend is talking about the difference between the per capita provision--

Mr. Campbell-Savours : No, he is talking about payments.

Mr. Lloyd : Well, provision was based very much on the pattern of single payments under supplementary benefit. The differences between offices reflect a series of factors, including the difference in the income support case load, the nature of the area, the attitudes of local voluntary and statutory groups and the efforts made by the local offices to ensure that the availability of the grants and loans is widely known.

Widows' Pensions

13. Mr. Michael : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security whether he will make it his policy to restore widows pension entitlement to widows aged between 40 and 45 years when the last child of the family leaves school.

Mr. Scott : As my right hon. Friend announced last Tuesday, we have decided on grounds of equity and fairness to extend entitlement to widows pension to women widowed before 11 April 1988 on the basis of the arrangements applying before that date. Our decision will bring in those entitled to widowed mother's allowance as well as widows allowance. For women widowed after 11 April 1988, there will be no change.

Mr. Michael : Will the Minister confirm the position for two women in my constituency, for instance, widowed in 1974 and 1975 respectively, whose last child will leave school within the next two years, and who would therefore have previously received the full widows benefit, they being between 40 and 45 at the point when the child leaves school? Will the Minister confirm that these widows will now receive the widows pension in full in accordance with the previous regulation? Will the Minister reconsider the inequity that will result for those who have been more recently widowed and to whom the new regulations will apply?

Mr. Scott : Those who would have been on the old widows allowance for six months and instead received the widows payment, and who under the strict application of the rules would not have gone on to become entitled to widows pension, will now be entitled to receive it. If the hon. Gentleman cares to write about the details of the precise case that he outlined, I shall give him a firm answer.

Mr. Rooker : Does the Minister's answer cover widows between 45 and 50, some of whom have lost £20 or more a week as the last child has left school? This has happened without any warning. They were always told that present widows would be protected. The Minister has never spelt

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out that when the last child leaves school, widows will lose massive sums. In addition, there is the gross unfairness faced by widows between 40 and 45 years of age who lost all their rights. In equity, the Minister must extend the provisions to include widows between 45 and 50.

Mr. Scott : I explained what would happen to those affected by widows allowance. That applies also to the widowed mother's allowance. The hon. Gentleman will recall that that was not covered by the commissioner's ruling. However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State decided, in terms of equity and fairness, to include that group.

Mobility and Attendance Allowance Units

15. Mr. Holt : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security when the last management audit was carried out on the mobility and attendance allowance units ; and when it is proposed to hold a further audit.

Mr. Scott : The performance of the mobility and attendance units is monitored monthly. Their staffing and organisation is reviewed regularly so as to maintain sufficient staff to handle increasing work loads. The average time take to decide initial claims for attendance allowance and mobility allowance has reduced from over 14 and over 16 weeks respectively to about seven and a half weeks.

Mr. Holt : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. He may be aware that last week I wrote to our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security about my constituent, Mr. Moore, who has had to wait for a determination because of procrastination, delay, lost papers and the units' inability to answer the telephone. How much longer will Mr. Moore have to wait for the allowances due for Mrs. Moore, who died nearly two years ago?

Mr. Scott : As I said earlier, clearance times have been substantially reduced despite a steadily increasing work load. However, some claims, especially if reviews are involved, can take a considerable time while they are considered by the independent adjudicating authorities and perhaps even by the Social Security Commissioner. Neither Ministers nor officials can intervene in that process.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : Does the Minister accept that that is not a very good example of the way in which a service should be provided nationally rather than locally, and that people in my area find it very frustrating having to communicate with Blackpool and then not receiving the information they require? Would it not be much better to ensure that the service is locally based so that people can receive information and learn why their claims are taking so long?

Mr. Scott : As I said, the time taken to handle the initial claims has been halved, more or less, for those two allowances. It is moving very much in the right direction. I want to see the time reduced even more if that is possible, but some of the claims are complex and that is why we need the expertise of the central units so that they may be judged properly.

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Benefits (Elderly People)

16. Mr. Cran : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security by what percentage spending by his Department on benefits for the elderly has risen relative to the rate of inflation since 1979.

Mr. Moore : Fifty-one per cent. of benefit expenditure goes to the elderly. Spending on benefits for the elderly has grown by 22 per cent. in real terms since 1978-79.

Mr. Cran : Does my right hon. Friend agree that in addition to the excellent figures that he has just given, pensioners' total incomes also matter, and they rose by a pathetic 3 per cent. under the last Labour Government, but by 23 per cent. under this Government?

Hon. Members : Not true.

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