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House of Commons

Monday 27 November 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]



Motion made,

That the Lords Message (22nd November) relating to the River Tees Barrage and Crossing Bill [Lords], the Happisburgh Lighthouse Bill [Lords], the Great Yarmouth Port Authority Bill [Lords], the Southampton Rapid Transit Bill [Lords], the Heathrow Express Railway Bill [Lords], the London Local Authorities (No. 2) Bill [Lords] and the Greater Manchester (Light Rapid Transit System) Bill [Lords] be now considered.

That this House doth concur with the Lords in their Resolution.-- [The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.]

Hon. Members : Object.

Penzance Albert Pier Extension Bill

Motion made,

That so much of the Lords Message (2nd November) as relates to the Penzance Albert Pier Extension Bill be now considered.

That the Promoters of the Penzance Albert Pier Extension Bill shall have leave to suspend proceedings thereon in order to proceed with the Bill in the next Session of Parliament, provided that the Agents for the Bill give notice to the Clerks in the Private Bill Office of their intention to suspend further proceedings not later than the day before the close of the present Session and that all Fees due on the Bill up to that date be paid ;

That on the fifth day on which the House sits in the next Session the Bill shall be presented to the House ;

That there shall be deposited with the Bill a declaration signed by the Agents for the Bill, stating that the Bill is the same, in every respect, as the Bill at the last stage of its proceedings in this House in the present Session ;

That the Bill shall be laid upon the Table of the House by one of the Clerks in the Private Bill Office on the next meeting of the House after the day on which the Bill has been presented and, when so laid, shall be read the first, second and third time and shall be recorded in the Journal of this House as having been so read ; That no further Fees shall be charged in respect of any proceedings on the Bill in respect of which Fees have already been incurred during the present Session ;

That these Orders be Standing Orders of the House.-- [The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.]

Hon. Members : Object.

UK Overseas Trade Statistics 1990


That there be laid before this House a return of statistics relating to Overseas Trade of the United Kingdom for the year 1990 and for each month during 1990.-- [Mr. Greg Knight.]

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Oral Answers to Questions


Benefits (Young People)

1. Mr. Murphy : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security whether he has any plans to review the benefit entitlement of 16 to 18-year -olds.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mrs. Gillian Shephard) : We are continuing to monitor the effects othe 1988 reforms. Our overall policy remains correct, but I am pleased to announce that we are making a number of administrative improvements to ensure that all claims from 16 and 17-year-olds are handled more effectively and sympathetically. I will, with permission, put details of these changes in the Library.

Mr. Murphy : We are grateful to the Minister for her answer. Does she agree that 16 to 18-year-olds have been badly treated as a result of the social security changes? Does she accept that sometimes these young men and women are among the most vulnerable people in our society? When will she listen to the people who matter most in terms of advising her and the Government on these matters--people such as those in the National Association of Probation Officers, the Children's Society and the Salvation Army? All those bodies say that the policies have failed lamentably and need to be reviewed immediately.

Mrs. Shephard : I do not agree that those young people have been badly treated. There is no need for any of them to be without an income because there is a YTS place for every 16 and 17-year-old in the country-- at present there is a surplus of 110,000--together with the accompanying allowance. Our policy has operated without difficulty for the vast majority of young people, and 400,000 are benefiting from YTS. However, our monitoring arrangements, including our close liaison with voluntary groups- -some of which, as the hon. Gentleman said, have recently produced reports- -show that there have been some difficulties in a small number of cases. We are, therefore, taking steps to ensure that all 16 and 17-year-olds are interviewed about their claims for income support unless there is no doubt about their entitlement. All claims will be automatically considered.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett : Does my hon. Friend agree that the present arrangements are a great improvement on those that existed under the previous Labour Government whereby young people were paid welfare benefit and allowed to sit at home without making any attempt to find work or to go on a scheme? The present scheme helps young people to train for the future.

Mrs. Shephard : I certainly agree that it is in the interests of young people to take advantage of training if they do not wish to continue in education or to take a job. I should like to continue my announcement. All claims will automatically be considered for the severe hardship provision where young people are not otherwise entitled. The rest of the details in the announcement will be placed in the Library.

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Mr. Kirkwood : I welcome the Minister's announcement. One of the most disturbing conclusions reached by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux in its important report produced in October was that the availability of crisis loans and the severe hardship provisions were not being revealed to young homeless people. If the announcement puts that right, I welcome it.

Will the Minister review the level of benefits available to 16 and 17-year- olds? It seems iniquitous and wrong that somebody who is living independently should be penalised simply because he is young.

Mrs. Shephard : The hon. Gentleman is right to be concerned about the information that is available to those young people. The details of the announcement will be placed in the Library, and the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that we are producing a leaflet aimed specifically at the group. It will be produced with the aid of the voluntary organisations, including the citizens advice bureaux, which have expressed concern.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the level of benefit that is available. The Government have responded already to that concern by making the level of benefit available to these young people equal to that for 18 to 24-year- olds. This was announced in July.

Mr. Barry Field : Is my hon. Friend aware that some parents are cynically pushing children out of their homes to rid themselves of a financial responsibility? It is no fault of the children. Has my hon. Friend any plans to recover some of the costs of the social security benefits from families who are taking this action deliberately so that claims can be made on the social security system?

Mr. Shephard : We have no such plans, and the Department has no evidence that that is taking place. It is clear that parental action would not be in the interests of young people.

Mr. Meacher : Instead of the Minister trying to make a statement at Question Time, it would be helpful if the Government came forward with a proper statement at 3.30 pm. How can young people get jobs unless they have somewhere to live? How can they get somewhere to live unless they have the money to pay landlords the large down-payment that they demand? The Government refuse to provide any benefit to young people to make that payment. Do not the Government care about the tens of thousands of young people who are sleeping rough in freezing weather in cardboard boxes?

Mrs. Shephard : Despite the hon. Gentleman's tone, I welcome him to Opposition Dispatch Box. I say again that there is no need for any young person to be without income. If young people take up the offer and the opportunity of a youth training place, they will receive an allowance. I remind the hon. Gentleman that responsibilities in this area cut across many Departments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment announced recently the new measures that his Department is taking. The Government have not ignored young people's housing needs, and 21,000 places have been approved in hostels and shared housing since 1981. Many measures were announced by my right hon. Friend last week and I advise the hon. Gentleman to take careful note of them.

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Community Care

2. Mr. John Greenway : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what assessment he has made of the implications for social security benefits of the Government's plans for community care.

The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Nicholas Scott) : The Government's proposals which were published in the White Paper "Caring for People" on 16 November, will be a substantial improvement on current arrangements.

Mr. Greenway : I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, the Government's announcement of an increase in income support for next year and the clear commitment in the recent White Paper for preserved income support for existing residents of care homes. Does my right hon. Friend recognise, however, the need to uprate preserved income support in the future so as to avoid any erosion of the value of the benefit? Such an erosion would lead to a deterioration in the availability and standard of care home places in the private and voluntary sectors which are so crucial to the Government's plans for community care.

Mr. Scott : Yes. We have no intention of altering our approach to the uprating statement once we change to the new system. We shall apply exactly the same criteria after 1991.

Mr. Hinchliffe : In considering the Government's response to community care in the White Paper, will the right hon. Gentleman examine the problems of many elderly people in private residential care who are forced to spend their weekly personal allowances on things which are necessary for their care because of the inadequacy of income support? Is he aware of the many people who do not have a penny to spend on new underwear, hairdos or even a packet of sweets, who in some instances have to be subsidised by relatives, some of whom are low paid and from low-income families?

Mr. Scott : I find nothing offensive in relatives helping the elderly in residential or nursing homes with their fees. It was never the intention from the introduction of income support that it should meet the cost of all fees, however high they may be set. We are still confident that the system meets the majority of fees being charged, but other methods of topping up--by relatives, charities and other sources--are a central part of the system.

Mr. Dunn : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the community care proposal is really about improving the quality of care, and that the arrangements have enough sensibility to take account of the demographic changes in society in the next 20 years? When I reach the age of 70 in 27 years' time, there will be only two people in work compared with the three people currently in work for every person aged 70.

Mr. Scott : I reinforce my hon. Friend's observation that the changes have nothing to do with saving money but are about improving the quality of care. The decision whether a person should enter residential care or be supported in his own home should be a financially neutral one for local authorities.

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3. Mr. Foulkes : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security whether he will review his decision not to uprate pensions in line with earnings.

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton) : I have no plans to change the basis on which pensions are uprated.

Mr. Foulkes : Will the Secretary of State confirm that the result of the Government breaking Labour's link between pensions and earnings is that the single pensioner is being robbed of £12.65 per week and a married couple of £20 per week? Instead of allowing pensioners to share in the nation's increasing wealth, and at a time when the national insurance fund is in surplus to the tune of £10 billion, the Government are cheating pensioners to pay for their tax handouts to the wealthy. Where is the fairness in that? Will the Government think again?

Mr. Newton : I can confirm that pensioners' incomes as a whole have improved much faster under the present Government than they did under the Labour Government. That is because, above all, of the dramatic drop in inflation--which did so much to erode pensioners' other incomes when Labour was in office. Under this Government, pensioners' total net incomes have on average risen by one quarter, which is massively faster than under the previous Labour Government.

Mr. David Nicholson : Did not the previous Labour Government fail to honour their pledge on pensions, and did they not have a dismal record of increasing real earnings--by contrast with the record of the present Government? Given that 80 per cent. of pensioners have incomes from private sources--that figure is improving all the time--is it not better to concentrate help on poorer pensioners, as the Government are doing, than go for an across-the-board increase?

Mr. Newton : Four out of five of the recently retired have an income from savings, and about three quarters of them enjoy substantial occupational pensions. In those circumstances, I agree with my hon. Friend that the right course for the Government is to concentrate additional state help on those who have not had the opportunity to build up savings and occupational pensions. That is what we did with the major increases in income support for many older and disabled pensioners last month.

Mr. Orme : Is the Minister aware that under the Labour Government, pensioners' incomes increased in real terms by more than 20 per cent. above the rate of inflation? If the Minister is not prepared to do anything about uprating, will he do something about the Christmas bonus and see to it that pensioners receive a real return in that way?

Mr. Newton : That is a pretty major own goal from the Minister for Social Security in the Labour Government who failed to pay the Christmas bonus for two years.

Mr. Knapman : If pensions are lower than they might reasonably be, is that not because people paid for their pensions with real money in the 1950s and 1960s and had it confiscated by a Labour Government in the 1970s? Will my right hon. Friend see to it that that never happens again?

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Mr. Newton : I shall certainly do my best, and we have succeeded so far. Under the present Government, the value of pensioners' incomes from savings has risen by 64p in the £1. Under the Labour Government it fell by 16p in the £1.

Ms. Short : Have the Minister and his party lost contact completely with what is happening in Britain? Does not the Secretary of State know that millions of pensioners find it very difficult to manage every week-- especially at this time of year, when high heating bills must be met? The reason for their difficulties is that the Government deliberately broke the link with earnings and deprived pensioners of a massive sum of money-- £20 per week for couples and £12.65 for single people--to give tax cuts to the well-off. The British people do not support that action and are increasingly worried that the country is becoming too divided. We do not want pensioners to be left out of improvements in the nation's wealth. Will the Secretary of State reconsider the matter and re-establish the link between pensions and increases in earnings or prices--whichever is higher?

Mr. Newton : I share the hon. Lady's entirely proper wish to do more for pensioners who have not benefited from occupational pensions and the other items that I mentioned. I hope that I carry her with me when I say that it was exactly that thought which led only last month to increases of up to £3.50 a week for about 2.5 million single pensioners and pensioner couples. Those are the people whom we need to do more to help, and the people whom we have done more to help.

Mr. Foulkes : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of that answer, I should like--in my capacity as joint chairman of the all-party pensioners group--to raise the matter on the Adjournment.

Heating Bills

4. Mr. O'Brien : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what extra help he intends to give to old people and families on low incomes to assist with heating bills this winter ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Scott : Income support is intended to meet all day-to-day needs, including heating. Groups with extra needs, such as the elderly, the disabled and families, receive additional help through the premiums. When the weather is very cold, those people receiving income support who are elderly, disabled or have a child under five are eligible for a cold weather payment from the social fund.

Mr. O'Brien : Will the Minister take it from me--if not, he can check with local offices in the Yorkshire region--that a tremendous number of widows, pensioners and families on low incomes will face a cold, bleak winter because they receive insufficient support to meet the costs of heating, hot water, cooking fuel and lighting? When will the Minister do something, instead of hiding behind certain categories of payment that are due?

I have here a gas bill for £10.60 received by a pensioner. Of that amount, £1.66 is for energy consumption and £8.70 is the standing charge. When will the Minister act to ensure that pensioners do not pay £2.50 a therm for gas, given that everyone in this Chamber pays much less? Can we have some action to deal with energy poverty?

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Mr. Scott : It is precisely because we recognise the extra pressures on those with low incomes--whether they are in or out of work--and the poorer pensioners that we have singled out those groups for special help rather than spread resources thinly across the board.

Mr. Favell : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that anyone on a basic pension, with no other income such as an occupational pension, is entitled to a supplementary pension to help with exactly those costs?

Mr. Scott : That is true. It is also worth reminding ourselves that an extra £2.50 for single pensioners and £3.50 for couples was introduced in the October package, and that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already announced enhanced upratings for those on the family premium, the disability premium and the disabled child premium, to be implemented next April.

Mr. Flynn : Is the Minister aware that, even if the bitter weather of the past 48 hours continues for another five days, not a single person in England and Wales will qualify for this miserly scheme? Is he also aware that the life-saving scheme for loft insulation and draughtproofing is on the point of collapse in at least seven English counties? Does he realise that every winter 40,000 people die because they are either old as well as cold, or very young as well as cold? When will the Government give us a policy to deal with those unnecessary deaths?

Mr. Scott : The incidence of excess winter mortality has been diminishing steadily, and we should all be glad about that. Last week I launched the latest "Keep Warm Keep Well" campaign, which not only provides advice for those who are at risk from cold weather but seeks to raise the awareness of their relatives and neighbours about the dangers that cold weather can pose to vulnerable groups.

I believe that the £5 payment scheme will provide significant help for vulnerable groups when the weather becomes especially cold.

Family Credit

5. Mr Yeo : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the latest available figure for the number of households receiving family credit.

Mr. Newton : More than 320,000 families received family credit for the last week in July. That is the latest date for which comprehensive information is available.

Mr. Yeo : Does my right hon. Friend agree that family credit represents the best method of giving help to families on low incomes? Is not everyone who is concerned about the cost-effective use of resources now obliged to do their best to promote the take-up of family credit rather than to argue about child benefit?

Mr. Newton : I should welcome any efforts to improve take-up still further, but I am very pleased with the results of the campaign that we waged last spring. It raised the number of those in receipt of family credit by about 40,000. I hope that the campaign that we are about to mount will increase still further the numbers receiving family credit.

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Mr. Molyneaux : Although I acknowledge the Department's efforts to increase the take-up of this benefit, will the Minister consider enlisting the aid of a range of voluntary organisations?

Mr. Newton : I shall gladly enlist the help of anyone who would like to help, because it is an important objective.

Mrs. Roe : Is family credit usually paid to the mother? Are there certain families on low incomes who benefit from family credit but who would not benefit from an increase in child benefit?

Mr. Newton : It is difficult to conceive of a rate of child benefit that would give as much help to many families as family credit gives, which may range between £25 and £30 a week, or more. As for the first part of my hon. Friend's question, family credit is received by the mother in the overwhelming majority of cases.

Mr. Rooker : Why does it take so long to get a new order book when the family credit order book is used up? Due to administrative bungling, families might have to live without any benefit whatsoever for five or six weeks. They also live in fear that their benefit may never be restored. Are those who qualified for family credit in July, but who did not get any money, included in the July figures?

Mr. Newton : The July figures include those whom we know were entitled to family credit in July and who have received it in respect of July. I acknowledge that there have been some administrative difficulties. We are seeking to improve our performance. If the hon. Gentleman has a particular case in mind, I shall gladly look into it.

Mobile Claimants

6. Mr. Harris : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what special arrangements are made to pay benefit to mobile claimants, including those who attend pop festivals.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard : If there are large numbers of these claims, the Department of Social Security will bring together a mobile team of officers to handle them. This, as my hon. Friend knows, occurred twice in the west country in 1989.

Mr. Harris : Does my hon. Friend know that the cost of policing a recent pop festival in Cornwall was nearly £250,000? Is she aware of the anger felt by many people that taxpayers are financing this type of claimant? Is she able to explain how on earth these people can qualify for benefit, using the old qualification of availability for work, let alone the new one of actively seeking work, when they go from festival to festival during the summer months?

Mrs. Shephard : I understand my hon. Friend's exasperation, and that of his constituents, about the cost of policing these festivals. As he knows, it is separate from the Department of Social Security cost, which is very modest--in the region of £6,700. I assure my hon. Friend that mobile claimants, like all other claimants, have to satisfy Department of Employment officials that they are available for work and, with effect from 9 October, that they are actively seeking work. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to satisfy those requirements.

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Mr. Skinner : Is it not ironic that the Tory Member of Parliament who asks about the cost of policing these festivals failed to tell us how much much it cost to organise and control the recent Tory party conference?

Mr. Tony Banks : Over £1 million.

Mr. Speaker : Order. The Minister is not responsible for that.

Mr. Skinner : The point that I am trying to make is that if it is right to complain about the heavy cost to the taxpayer of policing festivals, what about the Tory party conference, which cost £1 million?

Mr. Speaker : Order. That has nothing to do with social security benefits.

Mr. Skinner rose--

Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman must take his chances where he finds them.

Mr. John Marshall : Are we really being told that all the individuals who attend pop festivals are potential pop stars and not layabouts?

Mrs. Shephard : The issue is whether those who attend pop festivals- -whether or not they aspire to be pop stars--can demonstrate effectively to Department officials that they are actively seeking work. That remains to be seen, as I have said.

Arcola Street Office

7. Ms. Abbott : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security whether he has any plans to visit Arcola street social security office in Hackney.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard : My right hon. Friend has no plans at present to visit the Arcola street social security office.

Ms. Abbott : Is the Minister aware of recent reports that the transfer of social security records from London offices to provincial centres and to Glasgow has resulted in an appalling error rate, possibly as high as 80 per cent., but certainly much higher than the national average? Does she agree that that error rate means that hundreds and thousands of the poorest people in London are being cheated of the money that they need to live on? When will the Minister make money available so that local offices such as my local office in Arcola street in Hackney can provide the professional service that the staff wish to provide but are prevented from providing because of the Government's meanness?

Mrs. Shephard : I can reassure the hon. Lady that there are no plans at present to relocate work from her social security office in Arcola street. I shall refer briefly to the Ealing office, to which the hon. Lady alluded. I believe that the hon. Lady obtained her information from a report in The Guardian this morning. I can reassure her that the error rate cited in The Guardian was vastly overstated--the actual rate was about 34 per cent. when the scheme began in August. However, not all the errors concern payments. As cases are converted from clerical to computer records, points such as whether the correct postal codes or national insurance numbers are held will be picked up. If I may return to the-- [Interruption.]

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Mr. Speaker : Order. That was a very good and sufficient answer.

Carers' Premium

8. Mr. Bowis : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many carers he expects will be helped by the proposed introduction of a carers' premium.

Mr. Scott : We expect the new £10 premium, being introduced next October, to help 30,000 carers--one third through income support and the remainder through housing benefit or community charge benefit.

Mr. Bowis : I thank my right hon. Friend for that very good news and congratulate him on being part of the first Government to give formal and financial recognition to the unsung band of heroes and heroines who look after the elderly and the sick. As my right hon. Friend's policy progresses, will he consider particularly the perhaps 20 per cent. of carers who are themselves elderly and may have a small second pension which precludes them from benefiting from the premium? Will he also consider the whole question of respite, because many more people could act as carers or remain as carers if they had a break from time to time? Perhaps my right hon. Friend will take that into account when working out the funding for community care.

Mr. Scott : I should make it clear, of course, that a pensioner in receipt of invalid care allowance would be entitled to the premium. People cannot qualify for invalid care allowance after retirement age because the allowance is intended specifically for those who have given up work or refrained from work to look after someone. However, I will bear in mind both the points made by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Ashley : Instead of polite gestures to carers, is it not time to recognise that looking after severely disabled people is a full-time job which should bring a proper income? When can carers expect that?

Mr. Scott : The Labour Government failed to proved any recognition for the role of carers. This measure is a modest but important recognition of their important role.

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