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House of Commons

Monday 3 July 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Flint Office

1. Mr. Raffan : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will review the area covered by the boundaries of his Department's office in Flint.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lloyd) : A review of the boundaries in this area is planned foSeptember.

Mr. Raffan : As part of the review, and to assist claimants from the more rural areas of my constituency, will my hon. Friend give serious consideration to bringing the communities of Brynford, Cilcain and Mannerch under the Department's Flint office, as they are much closer to Flint than they are to Rhyl, which is the office under which they now come? Will my hon. Friend similarly reassess the communities of Leeswood and Pontblyddyn, which now come under the Wrexham DSS office?

Mr. Lloyd : I am aware of my hon. Friend's concern about these matters because he has been in touch with me. I assure him that the review will take particular account of the views that he has expressed.

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Disability Benefits

2. Mr. Hannam : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if, in the light of the Social Security Advisory Committee's report, "Benefits for Disabled People : A Strategy for Change" he has any plans to increase spending on disability benefits.

The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Nicholas Scott) : We have already provided for an increase in spending on the sick and disabled in real terms of £1.9 billion by 1991-92. This is a real increase in expenditure of nearly 25 per cent. When we assess the implications of the outcome of the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys' surveys of disability we shall give careful consideration to the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee and other representations. However, it is too soon to say how this will affect existing expenditure plans.

Mr. Hannam : I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he accept that most disabled people fall into the lowest income groups and that the sharply increased spending which he quoted is largely due to the increased numbers drawing benefit? Will he take into account in the proposed review of the benefits system the extra costs that the disabled face in their normal day-to-day living and ensure that increased resources are made available?

Mr. Scott : My hon. Friend and the entire House will be glad that there is increased take-up, especially of the best-targeted benefits for the disabled. When we have all the results of the OPCS surveys, and when various organisations have had a chance to comment on them, we shall want to examine all the evidence, including the general situation of disabled people and the extra costs that they bear, to ascertain whether the benefit system deals with those needs as effectively as possible.

Mr. Corbyn : In his review of these matters will the Minister let the House know when he expects to be able to announce that he will make attendance allowance available to the parents of children under the age of two who are severely disabled? Those parents clearly suffer badly because of the need for extra care for their children. No extra benefit is currently available to them under the

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social security system. The Minister promised when the recent Social Security Bill was being examined in Committee that with the outcome of the OPCS report he would make a statement about future benefits.

Mr. Scott : The hon. Gentleman has raised one of a small number of subjects to which we are giving urgent attention. We must await the arrival of the last of the OPCS reports before we can come to a conclusion on the priority to be accorded to various matters. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that we are considering the matter with urgency and sympathy.

Mr. Alfred Morris : Is the Minister not ashamed of his recent complaint that, under supplementary benefit, people with AIDS received some double provision for diet since, as he must know, doctors are recommending diets costing over £30 a week for which many now receive no extra help at all? Will he accept that his inaction is life threatening? At the very least, will he make the disability premium available without the six-month delay? Finally, what is his response to the Disablement Income Group's current finding that about 50 per cent. of attendance allowance claimants find objection to some aspect of the medical examination?

Mr. Scott : What I said was true. Within the basic system of supplementary benefit and income support there is provision for a normal diet, and there are enhanced dietary payments. By the time that we got rid of additional requirements we introduced the disability premium at a level of £13.40 a week, if I recall correctly, and that will cover the majority of extra diets. All these matters, including the right hon. Gentleman's second point, will be appropriate to to be considered when we examine the findings of the OPCS reports.


4. Mr. Andrew Smith : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement on the extent of poverty in the United Kingdom.

13. Mr Macdonald : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement on the extent of poverty in the United Kingdom.

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. John Moore) : Like Ministers in previous Governments, I reject the concept of a poverty line. I share the view of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Social Services that is is absurd to claim that a third of the population lives in poverty.

The term "poverty" is deliberately being confused with income inequality and those who claim that the poor are getting poorer ignore improvements in living standards and real income growth for people at all income levels since 1979. Perverse statistical definitions of poverty do not help to identify individuals and families in genuine need.

Mr. Smith : Did not the right hon. Gentleman contemptuously dismiss other definitions of poverty in his end-of-the-line poverty speech, and has he not done so again today? Does he at least owe it to the poor and to this House to state his definition of poverty? How many poor people does he believe there are in Britain today?

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Mr. Moore : The hon. Gentleman obviously had considerable difficulty in hearing. I did not--nor did I today--dismiss, define or even seek to define poverty. Nor has anyone who has had the responsibility of Government. I sought to dismiss the absurd statistical definition described as the poverty line. As I said, that dismissal was shared by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Social Services, although it is not shared by the Labour party. What I sought to do in that speech, and what I seek to do in Government, is to help those who can be identified as being in need. That is why we are spending a record amount of money on social security.

Mr. Macdonald : Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there has been a growing gap between the very richest and the very poorest in our society since 1979? Does he disown responsibility for that, or is he merely indifferent to it?

Mr. Moore : The hon. Gentleman is beginning to accept the fact that we are debating and discussing, with all sections of the population--all the deciles--improving their lot over the past 10 years and examining the relative position between them. We can then begin to discuss matters on a more rational basis. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt wish to know how the Government, thanks to their economic success, have helped the poorest far better than did the previous failed Labour Government with their miserable performance.

Mr. Hayes : Does my right hon. Friend agree that although, under this Government, pensioners have had the largest-ever increase in their living standards, many pensioners are in difficulty because they do not regard the state pension as a top-up? Will he consider ways to help that group? It would not be a major strain on the state as the group comprises people who cannot take advantage of the economic miracles to which my right hon. Friend rightly referred.

Mr. Moore : As my hon. Friend said in Select Committee, he recognises that the Government are trying to deal with precisely the problems that he mentioned. For example, this autumn the Government will go beyond the 16 per cent.--1.6 million pensioners--who are already on income support with the special pensioner package to help 2.6 million pensioners. That is an effort to help those least able to help themselves who have not benefited by quite as much as the remainder of the pensioner population.

Mr. David Nicholson : Is not one advantage that has flowed from my right hon. Friend's speech on poverty some weeks ago the sensible, realistic and constructive debate in the country about the needs of various groups? The debate has been contributed to by, among others, the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) in an article in The Sunday Times. What groups has my right hon. Friend identified as requiring further attention and what he is proposing to do to help them?

Mr. Moore : I am glad that my hon. Friend referred to the constructive debate in the country. All the editorials in the major press had identified the absurdity of a statistical definition before the Labour party introduced its review, in which it confirmed its attachment to that absurdity.

Two sections of the population where, with better statistical definitions, we have identified clear need are needy families and pensioners who have not historically

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benefited as much as others. Our new premium structure in income support this spring and our new special package to be introduced this autumn will help precisely those groups and will, I imagine, be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. Kirkwood : Does the Secretary of State agree that notwithstanding the welcome help that will be given in October to that group of pensioners, who are suffering dire financial hardship, there is still a need? Have the Government planned beyond October, and is there any hope of the Christmas bonus being increased or of help being given with fuel during the coming winter?

Mr. Moore : I fully understand why the hon. Gentleman would like to open up the debate beyond the autumn. I recognise that we should constantly try to understand and to resolve the real needs of those who are relatively less well off. I shall try to continue that process, because I know that it will be welcomed by rational right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. McCrindle : Whatever may be our definition of poverty, can it possibly extend to those people to which an article in The Sunday Times referred yesterday under the heading

"Jobless tenants living for free in luxury flats"?

Is it true, as that article alleged, that private landlords are making substantial profits? If so, does my right hon. Friend intend taking powers to control that situation, on the basis that although we have no wish to be difficult with the jobless, we must look to the taxpayers, too?

Mr. Moore : My hon. Friend has a long history of understanding and trying to help people, so I know that he would like me to remind the House that all those on income support have their housing benefit--their rent-- essentially 100 per cent. covered. I saw the article in The Sunday Times, and my hon. Friend is right to remind the House that it is necessary to prevent abuse. He will be happy to know that we are taking additional powers through the Social Security Bill to protect the public purse while equally trying to protect those in genuine need.

Mr. Frank Field : Although I accept that it is the Government's policy to be selective, I invite the Secretary of State to quote all my article, not just part of it. In the article that he cited, I compared British society up to 1979 with a train journey, with first, second and third-class compartments--the political debate being about who received which tickets, but all of us heading in the same direction. Since 1979, some of the compartments have been detached and there has emerged from them an underclass. How do the Government answer that part of the argument?

Mr. Moore : I have the whole of the hon. Gentleman's article before me, but no doubt neither he nor the House would want me to argue against it all. The critical point that I sought to make was that the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), unlike the Labour party, understands the statistical absurdity of defining a poverty line. I know that the hon. Gentleman would like to be reminded that, taking all the 10 per cent. categories in the country over the past decade, the bottom 10 per cent. have seen an improvement, according to the latest data that we have, and their real position has improved by 6 per cent.

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All the other groups--all the way to the top-- have shared in the inherent growth in prosperity. I know that the hon. Member for Birkenhead will welcome that.

Mr. Baldry : Is it not right to say that between 1975 and 1985 households having the lowest one fifth of incomes have seen their incomes rise by about 14 per cent? If that is so, does it not make complete nonsense of any notion that the poor are getting poorer? Does it not prove that that is simply not true?

Mr. Moore : My hon. Friend is right. The whole subject merits nothing less than the most serious attention, and it does not serve those who are in need to argue the statistical absurdities by which some people have allowed themselves to be trapped. Instead, it serves people in need to identify that need so that more effective help can be given. Fortunately, we have the wealth of a much more successful society to enable us to do that now.

Mr. Robin Cook : Does the Secretary of State accept that if poverty is in decline, it certainly has nothing to do with the Government's social security policies? Did he notice last week's study by York university of unemployed families, showing that three quarters of them cannot afford essential clothing and that two fifths cannot afford to a sound diet? Is not that reasonable evidence that those families are in poverty? If the Secretary of State accepts the truth of that, what does he say to another of the report's conclusions : that, as a result of last year's benefits cuts, half the families concerned are now even poorer than they were two years ago?

Mr. Moore : I start by asking the hon. Gentleman to be more accurate. I imagine that he has not had the benefit of reading the reports. I certainly have not, but I have the benefit of understanding their basis. The survey was conducted before last year's social security reforms. Researchers only suggest, and the reports themselves studied only 67 families in the autumn of 1987. Given the smallness of the survey, and the fact that it covered a period before the reforms, I do not accept the conclusions that the hon. Gentleman has drawn. What I do say is that the hon. Gentleman should have welcomed the way in which the Government have been able to increase, in real terms, expenditure on those least able to look after themselves by more than 31 per cent. in the past 10 years. That is a sign of targeted additional help as a consequence of the present wealth of the country.

Social Fund

5. Mr. John Evans : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement on the progress of his Department's publicity campaign to increase take-up of social security fund grants and loans.

Mr. Peter Lloyd : We will shortly publish information material on the social fund to improve awareness among those who have the greatest need for these payments and, most importantly, their advisers.

Mr. Evans : That is all very interesting, but of what benefit has all that expensive advertising been to a 55-year-old unemployed male constituent of mine? He lives alone, has recently been refused the higher level of benefit and is now forced to exist on £35.52 a week. Is that not a classic case of the poor getting poorer?

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Mr. Lloyd : As the hon. Gentleman knows, I cannot discuss a particular case at the Dispatch Box. If he wishes to get in touch with me about it, I should be happy for him to do so .

As the hon. Gentleman knows very well, there has been no expensive advertising for most of the benefits that are available. They are very well taken up. We are running right up to profile on the budgets for the social fund, which has become well known and is doing a good job.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark : Does my hon. Friend agree that, although it must be right to target money where it is most needed, the problem of targeting is that most social security offices, certainly in Birmingham, are much under spent because people need almost an honours degree to know what they can claim? Does my hon. Friend also agree that saving people distress is much more important than saving money and that, if we are to get the changes truly right, we must ensure that people know what they have a right to and that the appropriate people obtain the care that is so desperately needed?

Mr. Lloyd : Let me answer the general point by saying that £9 of every £10 of social security benefits is claimed. As for the social fund, I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important for people to know what is on offer, and that they are entitled to it. The information material to which I referred in my answer to the main question is designed to ensure that groups with a particular entitlement to the social fund know exactly how far it extends and what is available to them.

Disability Surveys

6. Mr. Thurnham : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what representations he has received about the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys' surveys on disability ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Scott : Organisations of and for disabled people are already commenting on the published findings of the OPCS surveys of disability. We welcome these comments, which contribute to the process of reviewing disability benefits in the light of the final data.

Mr. Thurnham : Having extended the availability of the mobility allowance from 75 to 80-year-olds, will my right hon. Friend now use the OPCS surveys as a basis for a thorough review of disability benefits, and will he consult fully the relevant disability organisations?

Mr. Scott : I am anxious to announce--when we have the final data--a timetable for further action and consultation will balance the need to listen carefully to the views of organisations of and for disabled people with no undue delay in the necessary action.

Mrs. Beckett : The whole House will welcome the fact that, even before all the reviews have been published, the Government have accepted the case for restoring to the terminally ill some of the payment for attendance that they lost during the latest social security cuts. Will he reconsider the refusal to put even an enabling clause into this year's Social Security Bill, as, by definition, most of those who fail now to meet the six-month qualifying period are likely to be dead before the change in the law takes place?

Mr. Scott : We must wait until we have the final results of the survey. As I have said, that--along with the matter

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raised by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn)--is something that we were prepared to consider on a faster track than other matters. I think that I must let it rest there for the time being.

Family Credit

7. Mr. Riddick : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many families on low incomes have experienced an increase in their incomes in real terms as a result of the introduction of family credit ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Moore : Precise estimates of real increases in income are not possible, but family credit is now providing more help to more families. The average amount in payment is over £25 compared with £15.28 for family income supplement and the very latest figures show that at the end of last week 263,400 awards were actually in payment. But with 86,400 claims still being processed I estimate that the underlying case load is now 315,000.

Mr. Riddick : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that many families at the bottom end of the income scale are definitely better off since family credit was introduced? However much the Opposition might huff and puff, that cannot be denied. Does he agree that rather than handing out indiscrimimate blanket subsidies through child benefit, it is far more sensible to target those families who genuinely need help through family credit, as the Government are now doing?

Mr. Moore : I remind my hon. Friend of what my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security said in a debate not too long ago : that there is a judicious mix of targeted benefits that go along with, as in the case with income support, a special family premium and family credit. I am delighted that there has been a major improvement in take-up consequent upon the advertising campaign. We are spending £4.5 billion out of a budget of £9 billion on help to families with children. I remind my hon. Friend of what we said in our election manifesto on the issue, as well as of my statutory duties. We are seeking to achieve a balance between broad, targeted benefits and indiscriminate benefits of the child benefit kind.

Mr. Frank Field : As the Government are so pleased with the take-up of family credit, may we assume that they are equally pleased with the amendment that was passed recently in the other place linking increases in child benefit to the increases in this new, super family credit?

Mr. Moore : I am as pleased as I am sure the hon. Member is that additional help is going to families on low incomes. The hon. Gentleman is referring to an entirely different matter. The other place is still considering the Social Security Bill, which will return to this House at some stage. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will recall vividly that the House took a clear decision on the subject earlier this year.

Mr. Knapman : Does my right hon. Friend agree that those on low incomes are most affected by inflation and that it ill behoves the Opposition to lecture us on either subject?

Mr. Moore : That is absolutely right. For generations inflation destroyed the savings of pensioners. Above all else, we must ensure that we eradicate inflation.

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Housing Benefit

8. Mr. Allen : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what steps he is taking to ensure that delays at social security offices do not lead to housing benefit claims being held up with consequent accumulation of unanticipated rent arrears ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Peter Lloyd : I am not aware of delays in social security offices that may affect the award of housing benefit. Turnround times for income support claims for the month of April 1989, the latest available figure, averaged 4.7 days while those for changes in circumstances averaged 1.3 days. These figures compare with 8.1 and 4.8 respectively for April 1988. This significant improvement reflects the success of the Government's reform of social security and the hard work and commitment of the staff of local social security offices.

Mr. Allen : I am staggered that the Minister has no evidence of delays. I shall certainly try to help him with evidence from Nottingham, North and no doubt some of my hon. Friends will send him information about their constituencies. Has he read the National Audit Office report on the implementation of the charges in housing benefit which was published recently? Has he also read in the report the evidence that was given by a senior officer in his Department? Is the Minister aware that his Department and his boss are criticised in the report for delays, for not bringing forward the programme early enough, for not allowing local authorities to develop their software and for not allowing local authorities enough time to put their staff into place? I ask the Minister to read the report. It affects constituents. Some of my constituents lost almost £1,000 through a build-up of arrears that were totally unknown to them. They had never been in debt before. The report was signed by members of his Department, and they agreed the wording. Will he either sack them or implement the recommendations of the National Audit Office report?

Mr. Lloyd : The hon. Gentleman is talking about something that is quite different from his question. I know of no delays in local offices that are holding up the payment of housing benefit. There have been complaints about the delay in transitional payments, but when they are examined one finds that in most cases the hold-up is due to information not having been received from local authorities.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell : As the supplementary question referred to delays in local social security offices, and as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) and I share at least one such office, would it not be fair to the staff who work in that office to make it plain to the House that normally they deal with every single claim that comes into the office within five days, and with most of them within 48 hours?

Mr. Lloyd : I believe that the performance of the local offices in Nottingham is very good indeed. I took it that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) was implicitly criticising them in asking his question. If he has any particular examples that he wishes to bring to my attention, I shall be happy to investigate them.

Dr. Reid : May I recommend that the Minister reads the National Audit Office report? Like my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), I am a

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member of the Public Accounts Committee. I have read that report, and I can assure my hon. Friend that his summary is far more accurate than the Minister's response--which was based on a 30- second conversation with his boss, the Secretary of State, who is sitting beside him. Transitional units are merely compounding the problem that they were set up to alleviate due to the long delays in assessment and because when assessment produced a rebate the money was not forwarded to the local authorities in time, so tenants who had never been in arrears in their lives received an assurance from the transitional unit that they would get rebates but the money never arrived, producing a commensurate build-up of arrears. Will the Minister do something about that?

Mr. Lloyd : The transitional payments are operating extremely well, although there were some hiccups, but the main question was not about transitional payments. Like the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) has not referred to cases in his local offices or cases known to him in which payment of housing benefit has been held up due to a lack of information passing from the local office to the local authority.

Social Security Reform

9. Mrs. Roe : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what changes he has made as a result of monitoring the social security reforms introduced in April last year.

Mr. Scott : The memorandum supplied by the Department to the Select Committee on Social Services on 6 June, copies of which are available in the Library, includes a full list of the major changes we have made.

Mrs. Roe : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his reply, but what has been done to help 16 and 17-year-olds who are forced to live away from home?

Mr. Scott : I know that my hon. Friend agrees very strongly with the main thrust of the Government's policy towards 16 and 17-year-olds, but the whole House will welcome the fact that 16 and 17-year-olds who have to live away from home will receive a higher rate of income support--the rate normally paid to 18 to

24-year-olds--if they are estranged from their parents. The higher level will also apply to those on housing benefit.

Mr. Pike : Why does not the Minister make at least one further change to help those people on protected payments who were on supplementary benefit before the system was changed and are now on income support, who received absolutely no increase in April? With inflation running at 8.4 per cent. they are considerably worse off. Why does he not make at least one change to help those people?

Mr. Scott : When we introduced the new system, we wanted to get rid of the complexities of the old supplementary benefit system. To avoid the erosion of transitional protection would perpetuate those inequalities and complexities for the future. I am quite sure that we are right to erode it.

Sir Anthony Meyer : Has my right hon. Friend been able to monitor the working of the social fund, particularly the ability of people living on very low incomes to repay loans

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for items of domestic equipment which go wrong and on which they have to borrow? How can they find £5 a week out of £46 a week?

Mr. Scott : We shall shortly be publishing the first report on the social fund. A report has also been produced by the social fund commissioner herself. There is little evidence to show that people are unable to take up loans from the social fund because of their inability to pay.

Mr. Robin Cook : May I press the Minister on the observation of my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) about claimants on transitional protection? Is he aware that figures from his own Department show that next April 200,000 claimants will get no increase as a result of transitional protection? What does he say to the chronically sick claimant who wrote to me because he had just been informed that he would get no increase for another four years? Is it fair to leave a disabled claimant without any increase for seven years in total? What more monitoring do Ministers need before they recognise that in common decency all claimants, whether or not they receive transitional protection, must share in next year's uprating?

Mr. Scott : I still believe that the policy of eroding transitional protection is right. No constituent can know or calculate the number of years that it will take before his transitional protection is entirely eroded. I also remind the House that in October we shall be providing protection for elderly and disabled pensioners which will not affect their transitional protection.

National Insurance

11. Mr. Harry Greenway : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how much he expects to collect in national insurance contributions during the current year ; what the expected figure will be next year ; what the figures for each of the last two years were in real terms ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Lloyd : The yield from national insurance contributions is expected to be more than £32 billion in the current year and more than £33 billion in 1990-91. In the past two years, contributions yielded £31.1 billion and £32.3 billion in real terms.

Mr. Greenway : Will my hon. Friend confirm that those figures represent 16 per cent. of Government revenue and that NICs as an acronym for national insurance contributions are not aptly named? Will the Department be pressing the Chancellor to remit national insurance contributions from more low-paid people as happened this year?

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