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Column 684The Secretary of State referred to the statutory sick pay scheme and gave the impression that these changes were marginal, affecting only a few people. I do not take that view ; I understand that in April the Government are introducing changes to the scheme which will affect more than 2 million people who depend on statutory sick pay for help in the event of falling ill. I understand that those who earn between £46 and £83 a week, and who now receive £36.25 a week under the scheme, will get an increase in April of £3, to £39.25. Those earning £125 and above and who now receive £52.10 will get an increase of 40p in April, to £52.50. But the group of people about whom I am most concerned, those earning between £84 and £124 who now receive £52.10, face a cut in April to £39.25--a drop of £12.85 a week. I am advised that that will save the Government--or rob our constituents of--about £70 million or £80 million a year.
I come now to the changes made to the entitlement to unemployment benefit of those forced into short-time working. I have raised this matter several times recently in debate and in parliamentary questions. There are 9,000 workers on short time in the textile and clothing industries, many of them in Bradford. If they earn more than £43 a week they will not be able to apply, as they have done in the past, for unemployment benefit to top up their wages. I wonder whether Ministers in their luxurious offices could live on £43 a week. I doubt it. Most of them spend much more than that on lunch every day, yet my constituents and thousands of other people on low incomes who are forced into short-time working because of trading conditions will be compelled to live on that sum and be unable to receive the unemployment benefit that they formerly got.
I have read the proceedings of the Committee that dealt with this matter and discovered that no Minister mentioned that many short-time workers would be adversely affected by the changes that crept in on 10 December.
Probably few hon. Members have heard of the welfare milk scheme. I had not until I started receiving a stream of letters from those who deliver our milk daily and from a number of organisations which are concerned about the likely effect on recipients of not receiving welfare milk on the doorstep.
The welfare milk scheme has been in existence for 40 years. It sets out to provide free milk to pregnant women, single parents in receipt of family credit who have children under five, and the long-time unemployed. These people are provided with a weekly token which can be exchanged for seven pints of milk. The milk is usually delivered by a roundsman, although tokens can be used in shops and supermarkets. Tokens have a nominal value equivalent to the suppliers' current normal retail price. Typical doorstep prices outside London result in a token value of seven times 30p, which is £2.10.
Without discussion in the House, still less with real negotiations with the industry, the Government are proposing to reduce the amount of the token value to the roundsmen, making it uneconomic in many constituencies, including mine, for the milk to be delivered daily to the doorstep. That will result in roundsmen going out of business, especially in areas where they are financially dependent on supplying welfare milk, and many pregnant mothers and women with large families will be forced to buy their milk daily at the supermarket or corner shop, with all the inconvenience of having to bring it home. I
Column 685understand that these changes will be introduced on 28 January, and I urgently appeal to the Minister to make it clear that that will not happen.
I am indebted to Mr. J. T. Blackburn, managing director of Northern Dairies, who wrote to me earlier this month as follows :
"In areas of high density of welfare milk tokens, which admittedly affect a relatively small number of rounds, the introduction of this discount could threaten the viability of the service. For example, we are aware of customers of ours who collect over 200 tokens per week. The impact of the proposed discount of 21p per token is to reduce that individual's income at worst by £42 per week. This could make the difference between viable or non-viable business in areas where doorstep delivery is often already not without its difficulties." I urge Ministers to get a grip on this matter. I am aware of correspondence sent out by bureaucrats in the Department in which they claim that these matters have been extensively discussed with the the trade. My information is that that is untrue. Ministers must suspend the scheme that is due to take effect later this month so that proper negotiations can take place.
My last point is about elderly people in Bradford. We are involved in great controversy over the council's closure of 12 elderly persons' homes. Local residents have attended two large public meetings about Upper Syke home and made clear their wishes in a community ballot. Of more than 1,000 people who voted, 97 per cent. voted to keep Upper Syke as an elderly person's home and to keep the grounds round it as an open space. They did not want it sold for development into eight luxury bungalows that will sell for £250,000 each. That home and the others should be kept.
I have been told about a gentleman aged 87 who is of Ukrainian origin and speaks little English. He suffers from a range of physical complaints that plague him daily with a great deal of pain. He has been in care--if that is the right term--of Bradford social services for the past fortnight. His neighbour wrote to me and said : "The arrangement was that an attendant would come to him three times daily, and alas, this has not happened.
On Saturday morning one visit included a breakfast, (porridge only) and a few sandwiches for later, a repeat performance occurred on Sunday morning after a lapse of 24 hours.
This morning I inquired why this was and was informed that this is regarded as weekend cover.
I think you will agree that this is totally inadequate for a person this age, and whose mental confusion can lead to tragic consequences, especially when left alone for long periods.
Although he is waiting for a place in which he can be given respite care, this has not so far been available, and the events leading up to it are turning out to be dismal."
I spoke to that neighbour tonight by telephone and was told that the old gentleman is still in exactly the same plight. He has every right to proper respite care, which was available at Upper Syke and which would be available at the other homes if our
Conservative-controlled council were not busy selling them off at less than market value.
I hope that Ministers will heed what has been said in debate and will not ignore it as the blind, the disabled and others who were outside their offices this morning were ignored and will continue to be ignored unless they take action. The Government will have great difficulty painting those blind and disabled people as Left-wing extremists, subversives and agitators. They speak for the decent
Column 686people of this country who want resources put into the pockets of those who are most in need and not into the pockets of rich and privileged people who can look after themselves. That is the message of the debate. For 10 years the Government have turned a deaf ear to that message and I plead with them to heed some of the points made in the debate. I hope that they will pay heed quickly, not for our sake but for the sake of those whom we seek to represent.
Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West) : In his statement of 10 January my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services identified three main strategic needs. He said : "The third is to help those disabled people who can and wish to work by making it easier for them to keep or take up jobs."--[ Official Report, 10 January 1989 ; Vol. 164, c. 941.]
He went on to describe the two new benefits by which he would achieve those goals. One was the disability allowance which would address itself to the care needs and mobility needs of those of working age and below, and the other was the disability employment credit which is aimed at supporting those in work and those who would like to work and could do so but whose earning capacity is low. That followed his October 1989 package which aimed to improve the benefit structure for those who choose to go on to employment, rehabilitation courses or beneficial employment.
In this debate the Secretary of State spoke of his desire and purpose to help those for whom the system does least at the moment. To me, that shouts immediately about the young disabled seeking work and I want to bring to the attention of the House some small points which might sink into people's hearts and minds and make them think a little harder about how the Secretary of State can achieve his goals.
Only one third of young disabled people seeking work after leaving school or college manage to find it. That compares with nearly three quarters of their peers--the non-disabled of the same age group. Some 51 per cent. of them end up not in work or in youth training schemes. That is one in two, whereas less than one fifth of the non-disabled find themselves in that position--17 per cent. This is where the issue impinges on the Secretary of State. Some 49 per cent. of the young disabled rely on social security benefits as their main source of income, and that compares with 16 per cent. of the general population. All those people had less than half the income of those with a job--£31 a week as opposed to approximately £78 a week. I take issue with Opposition Members because poverty and disability are relative. I have just been in India where the definition of poverty is different from the definition here. I strongly support the Secretary of State when he talks about relative poverty. There is also relative disability.
The tragedy for these youngsters is that most of them want and deserve to work and they have much to offer. Disabled people have great motivation, an ability to plan and a knowledge of how to use scarce resources to reach a goal in a prescribed time. They are good at those things, because for them they are the stuff of everyday life. They may have a lower physical or mental capacity than other people, and in order to achieve their goals they have to plan and work with scarce resources. Those are the hills that they climb every day.
Column 687Nearly 80 per cent. of all disabled people are unemployed compared with about 6 per cent. of the general population. I suggest that that is the real discrimination in our society and that we face a psychological barrier in society's perception of the disabled. The title of that popular BBC programme "Does he take sugar?" sums it all up.
The needs of the disabled are shared by three Departments--the Department of Health, which looks carefully at prevention and treatment, the Department of Employment, which cares for the job provision of the disabled, and the Department of Social Security, which, in today's world, defines how we treat people with needs other than those that we have ourselves. That is why the Secretary of State for Social Security has to be the brand leader in changing society's perception and in supporting the disabled in their initiatives to enter the outside world.
The psychological barrier is particularly profound in the world of work where employers deliberately turn aside from tapping this deep vein of marketable skills and energies, yet little is asked of the employer. The Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944 set a quota of only 3 per cent. of registered disabled to be met only by companies employing more than 20 people. In 1965, a total of 53.2 per cent. of companies met that target. In 1980 it was 35 per cent. and in 1989 it was 26 per cent. The percentage of employers not meeting the quota at all because they were issued with exemption permits--and that includes Parliament and the BBC--was 27 per cent. in 1965, while in 1986 it was well over half. One fifth of all employers neither meet the quota nor have permits. They just ignore the system. The scheme has failed the disabled and thus they are not registering.
In 1950 just under 1 million disabled people registered as opposed to 389,000 today. That is 1 per cent. of the total population. Perhaps our failure in offering employment to the disabled accounts for the huge gap between those who are registered disabled and the number that the OPCS survey found as disabled--6.5 million, more than 10 per cent. of our total population.
Much is being done, and I am proud to support the Government's many initiatives. We have a fund for employers to adapt premises, which has been quite widely used, although not widely enough. We have a fund to provide for a disabled person's introductory period at work, which I welcome. There is a fund for special equipment--such as a wheelchair, or a computer for a blind person perhaps. We have a fares-to-work scheme for peole who cannot use public transport, and that, too, is a welcome initiative.
Into that pattern fall the large new proposals introduced by the Secretary of State. There is so much that my right hon. Friend can do. I call on him to undertake a large and widespread educational programme to change the public's perception of disability. I call on him to ensure that knowledge of his new initiatives is widely disseminated in a form or forms that disabled people
Column 688themselves can understand. Disability so often means lack of educational opportunity. Many deaf people cannot read properly or have other similar problems. Many blind people also have problems of perception.
I challenge the Department of Employment, and call on the Secretary of State to do the same in his leading role in this crucial matter, on the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944. How many prosecutions have there been under that Act? None that I can trace. Although it is not a crime to be under quota, it is a crime not to take on a disabled person for the next vacancy when one is under quota. Who has been prosecuted? No one that I can find.
The Secretary of State for Social Security and his Department should take credit for the extent of their achievements to date. The Secretary of State is not present, but I believe that hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree that his perception and sensitivity have been great, although he has much more to do . I support the Bill.
Mr. Jimmy Wray (Glasgow, Provan) : We have been told that we should congratulate the Government on the Bill, but, in my opinion, it is an absolute disgrace. Many of my constituents have written to me about the original version of clause 1, which deals with the attendance allowance. That has now been amended, and the person who suggested the six-month qualifying period must have been a Rasputin. The clause caused a great deal of concern and indignation to people who have watched their parents dragged out of bed by a rude, abrupt or abrasive doctor. As recently as 12 January I received a letter from one of my constituents to whom that had happened. Sometimes medical practitioners get it all wrong, and it is difficult anyway for them to determine whether a person will live or die. One of my constituents was told by the doctor whom she had called out that she should not be wasing his time--that she should not have called him out because an emergency call-out cost £40. That was on a Friday. My constituent did not bother to call him out the following Sunday and the patient was dead by Sunday night. People who live in poor areas tend to believe what their doctors say.
Last week another constituent wrote to say that her father had been reduced to tears by a doctor who had been called out to try to get the question of the six-month qualifying period out of the way. The Government did not change the clause because of compassion ; they were shamed into changing it. In May I tabled an early-day motion which was supported by many of my hon. Friends who had also received letters from their constituents. It was some time before I received a letter from Lord Skelmersdale, who was very sympathetic and who told me that there were plans to change the clause.
What about the psychological effects of the provision on those suffering from terminal diseases? Some children do not like to tell their mothers or fathers--or any other member of the family--that their time is up. How will they claim the allowance? Is it not sad that the financial tally-up in the Bill allows for only 52,000 of the 150,000 people who are dying to claim, at a possible cost of £18 million? What about the other 100,000 people? And what about sons and daughters who do not bother to tell their terminally ill parents or grandparents that they are not claiming any allowance? The Minister did not mention such cases.
Column 689Clause 2 deals with the age-related addition to the severe disablement allowance. What a pittance that is--at £10, £6.50 and £3.10. That illustrates the way in which we are treating the disabled. Look at all the legislation that has been passed about which nobody cares. People are not really interested. The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1972 is one example. A great deal of time was spent amending that Bill and telling local authorities what they should do. The Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986 wasintroduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke). The Government gave the Confederation of Scottish Local Authorities instructions regarding that Act--that Scottish local authorities should implement only those provisions which did not involve expenditure.
That is why disabled people do not trust the Government. To implement that Act fully would have cost about £26 million. Thousands of pounds remain unclaimed under the Act and thousands of chronically sick and disabled people have never even been interviewed by the social workers of their local authority because there is a large backlog. The chronically sick and disabled do not owe this Government any favours.
The extent of poverty in this country is a scandal. I remember the miserable excuse that Ministers gave when we last debated child benefit, which has remained frozen for three years--that the Government do not want to subsidise people who do not need the benefit. The Government claim that they cannot afford to do that, yet they can afford to lose £1.6 billion by not lifting the national insurance ceiling for higher-paid workers and a further £2.1 billion by reducing the top tax rate from 60 per cent. to 40 per cent. That is how hypocritical they are.
When I was a regional councillor, I was chairman of the monitoring group in Strathclyde, and I remember how the disabled felt then. They produced a document called "Living in a Hostile Environment". Those disabled people were not looking for a pittance of £10, £6 or £3.10, but wanted an independent centre so that they could live a normal life. They wanted better access to local authority and private buildings. The proposals to improve access and to form advisory panels were not implemented because the Government did not make available money for that purpose.
Clauses 2 and 3 are a cause of concern to many disabled groups, especially the provision in clause 2 affecting attendance allowance, which is to be abolished, and the earnings-related element of clause 3. What will be done for the people who will suffer as a consequence of those measures? What will be done for those people who will lose security benefits and housing allowance? They have not been mentioned. Where will they go to? The poor suffer all the time. What of the poverty that has been created by the Government? They have a golden opportunity to do something for the poor. Instead, they introduce in clause 10 insulation grants for low-income families. Last year, 16,000 people in Scotland had their electricity supply cut off. What will the Government do about that situation?
Why has this Bill of shame been brought before the House? It does nothing for the homeless or for those in poverty. Despite everything that has been said in this
Column 690House, in London 30,000 people still live in cardboard boxes. What kind of heat insulation do they enjoy? The Bill should aim at clearing up the streets of London and of Scotland, where thousands of people are homeless and have little chance of getting a meal at night. Amendments to the Bill should have those purposes in mind. If the Government have any intention of acting, they should introduce a Bill of compassion and pay the money that is needed to resolve the problems that I have described.
Mr. Timothy Wood (Stevenage) : I support the Bill for a variety of reasons. It improves the conditions of entitlement to attendance allowance, which is why I was surprised by the comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Wray). Although some of his criticisms relating to those who care for the terminally ill were justified, the Bill addresses them. He may disagree with certain details of the Bill's drafting, but it will bring a major improvement in an area that has been the subject of complaints that I and many other right hon. Members have received over the years.
I welcome also the modifications to the help available for the disabled. The Government have a good record, contrary to the suggestions made by Opposition Members, of increasing the money provided to the disabled over the past 10 years by more than 100 per cent. in real terms--and many benefits are given more efficiently.
Ms. Short : In fact, there has been a 90 per cent. increase in spending on the disabled, but 90 per cent. of that is accounted for by increased take-up of benefits that were in place before the present Government took office.
Mr. Thurnham : Does my hon. Friend agree that the Opposition are being ungenerous in disputing the value of the Government's new measures? One of the benefits will allow a family with a disabled child to enjoy an income £65 more than anything previously in existence. It is untrue to say that there are no new benefits. There are, together with improvements to existing benefits. Together, they have brought about a huge increase in expenditure in real terms on disability benefits.
Mr. Wood : I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend's comments. The truth is that there are more benefits and that greater assistance is given to the disabled, which I welcome. I hope that in coming years help will be given as and when new problems are identified. I welcome also the insulation grant scheme, which will give valuable assistance to low-income households as well as being an energy-efficient measure in itself. Together, those provisions are ample justification for the Bill.
I want to concentrate my remarks on occupational pension schemes, which have also been the subject of problems that the Bill seeks to address. I commend the Government for developing pensions provisions over recent years. In moving away from the state earnings-related pension scheme, the Government
Column 691recognised--though after it had been recognised by many actuarial advisers--that SERPS could hit major problems during the next century. It would be absurd to keep in place a scheme that might run into severe funding difficulties. It is no use making pie in the sky provision for the next century if, when it comes to the pinch, it cannot be financed. A number of actuaries responsible for examining pension schemes feel that the Government have still not moved far enough away from SERPS and that there are risks inherent in the level of commitment that remains even now.
At the same time, the Government have enabled and encouraged a wide variety of new private pension provision. In particular, they acknowledge the need to ensure proper job mobility. A considerable number of people, when contemplating a job move, were inhibited from moving because they were nervous of the effect that such action would have on their pensions. Despite the fact that that aspect was widely debated both within the pensions industry and within companies themselves, little was done until the Government took action. Therefore, the legislation covering portable pensions and company schemes is most welcome.
The Bill makes important improvements to the provision for and the protection of members of occupational pension schemes. I join my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) and for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) in welcoming the proposal for a pensions ombudsman. The creation of that office would assist and reassure pension fund members who feel that they have been given a raw deal. At times, those members have gained the wrong impression, but it will be immensely valuable for them to be able to refer to an objective, independent observer of the scene. That would serve to increase members' confidence in schemes and in the trusts that run them.
Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North) : I wonder whether my hon. Friend has encountered cases similar to those that have affected my own constituents. When a firm is taken over by another, obviously existing pension rights should remain with the employees, but responsibility for them should move to the new employer. In such circumstances, difficulties can arise, which, in my own experience, are difficult to overcome. Will the new Bill help right hon. and hon. Members better to assist constituents who find themselves in the circumstances that I have described?
Mr. Wood : The ombudsman may be able to take up a difficult issue, and the Bill makes provision for when problems arise if a company takes over another and that company's pension fund is ended or combined with that of the company taking it over.
I hope that the pensions ombudsman will be required to produce an annual report. That would be immensely valuable as it would demonstrate the problems that arise. Many members of pension funds will believe that they have been mistreated in some way because they have insufficient understanding of how their pension fund operates. If the ombudsman can clarify such difficulties in his report so that pension funds and their advisers can draw the necessary information to members' attention, that would be a great help.
The Government's intention to increase protection and to revalue pension fund rights for early leavers from
Column 692pension funds because they move company or because their company is taken over is admirable. Improvements have been made in such arrangements, but they can be enhanced. They are being enhanced by the Bill.
The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) waxed long on whether pension fund provision could be increased completely to cover inflation. We have to reach a rather more careful balance than he suggested. We have to consider commitments and obligations to pension fund members, but we have also to consider the risks and liabilities that might fall on employers. It is all very well to say, when there is a surplus--I have some sympathy with what has been said about surpluses--that the first call must be to improve inflation protection, but it would be wholly unreasonable to say that if a pension fund isunable to meet all those things that people might desire, the employer could foot the bill. That would put awholly unreasonable liability on employers in some circumstances.
While it can legitimately be argued that employers are good at providing pension funds for their employees, if we increase the risks and liabilities on employers excessively, they might be reluctant to provide pension funds. That applies to the changes that we have made with portability. Some of the attraction for employers, and some generous pension fund provision, has already disappeared. We must tread carefully so as not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.
I cannot conceive of how the hopes and ambitions of the hon. Member for Oldham, West could be sustained, in view of the increasing commitment to pensioners. I believe that the pensions industry will be appalled at his commitment concerning liabilities that may fall on pension funds. It would be wholly unreasonable to put all those liabilities on pension funds and the companies that provide finance for them.
The Government are right to propose constraints on self-investment, but I wonder whether the relaxation concerning directors of small companies is sufficient. For a small company with four or five directors and two or three others--or perhaps slightly larger--the proposed constraint on self- investment may be excessive. That should perhaps be considered further in Committee.
The Government have taken several useful steps forward to ensure that we have improved pension provision, taking account of the desirability, in many cases, of employees moving firms. The Government have not followed the unwise course suggested by Opposition Members, who have said that we should put unreasonable and unfair obligations on pension funds or the employers who provide them. Overall, I am delighted to be able to welcome the Bill. The Government's record on pensions and social security matters is good. The Opposition may scoff, but the finances available to pensioners, albeit on average, have increased substantially. I admit that that is substantially the result of occupational pension funds and the private savings of some individuals, but the Government, to complement that, have rightly concentrated their attention on helping those in most need who may not be properly provided for by occupational pension schemes or savings. The Government have taken important steps to continue the policies they have pursued for the past few years.
I am worried, however, about people with small private occupational pensions. Some constituents tell me that,
Column 693because they have small schemes, they are just above the level at which they can receive income support benefits and that they miss out on various passported benefits. We should encourage people to provide for their old age when possible through a pension scheme or private savings, but, if we create a system in which those who have done their best are deprived of benefits with the result that they are worse off than if they had not saved or taken out occupational pensions, we shall damage our policy of encouraging people to provide for themselves. Although I disagree with much of what Opposition Members have said, I thought that one element worth taking up. I hope that it will be borne in mind.
Mr. Thurnham : Does my hon. Friend agree that the greatest enemy of savings is inflation? That is one of the reasons why we should give priority to dealing with it. When Labour was in power inflation reached an average of 14 per cent. per annum, with a peak of 27 per cent. That is why it is so important for us to keep it strictly under control, so that the value of savings is not eroded ; and that is why the people of this country have so much more confidence in the present Government's ability to manage the economy than they ever had in the ability of the Labour party to do so.
Mr. Wood : My hon. Friend is right. One of the most damaging experiences for pensioners was the substantial destruction of the value of their savings under the last Labour Government. Furthermore, modest pensions that appeared to be adequate turned out to be inadequate, because of the fall in the value of money engineered by the Labour party.
Mr. Patrick Thompson : I believe that the Government's spending on social security has now reached £1 billion a week. Can my hon. Friend envisage that amount being spent if the Opposition had been in charge of the economy for the past 10 years?
Mr. Wood : If a nation is not generating wealth, it is not possible to help those who are in need. One of the great developments over the past few years has been the generation of more wealth by our nation, which has enabled us to make adequate provision. That is revealed by the various figures giving the average position of pensioners.
Mr. Wood : The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) may say from a sedentary position that there is a steady growth pattern, but nothing could be further from the truth : the unsteadiness of the pattern is one of its characteristics, and often reveals which party is in power. I hope that such sedentary interventions will be treated with less than full regard.
I welcome the additions and modifications to the major social security legislation that has already been enacted. I look forward to their implementation, and hope that in the coming years it will be possible to make further refinements to improve both occupational pension schemes and the provision for those who are most in need when they reach old age.
Column 6948.42 pm
This cannot really be described as an "election Bill"--except, perhaps, vis -a-vis the Opposition. Given the growing number of pensioners in the community, we must face the fact that there is a good deal of discontent among them and that they are asking for more. Some elements, certainly, have done remarkably well, but a large percentage, including members of the Public Service Pensioners Association, have been pleading with Members of Parliament to take their worries on board. If public service pensioners are worried, we must assume an even deeper concern on the part of those who are simply on state pensions--although their number may be declining proportionately--and we must ask whether we are doing enough for them.
I welcome some of the proposals in the Bill, and I echo the tribute paid by the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) to the caring attitude of the Secretary of State. Over the years, he has sought to improve provision generally. I agree, however, with the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) about the comment by Age Concern that nothing should have been done until a review had been conducted. It may be thought, however, that it is better to give some people something until we have got everything right. We have been waiting since the mid-1980s for a comprehensive review of social security and the disabled, and I believe that disabled people feel increasingly dissatisfied that their cause has not been dealt with more speedily.
I want to mention two aspects of the Bill in particular. First, let me again make a plea for carers. At a meeting of the all-party disability group that I attended last week, a carer described the problems that she had had to face over the years in looking after a young disabled person. She welcomed some improvements in the system--as do we--but pinpointed a perceived need. She had been granted an allowance to care for her disabled child, and was later able to obtain qualified respite help. She then discovered that the helper was being paid £5 an hour, while the allowance with which she was provided worked out at only 15p an hour.
Surely that is not a proper benefit for those who carry the burden of community care. Does the Department really value a loving family relationship at £4.85 and then pay 15p for care, while paying £5 an hour to someone who comes in from outside, is not related to the disabled person and is not capable of the same individual, personal love? I ask for more attention to be paid to those who carry that weight, whether they are parents, sons or daughters--and some are themselves growing elderly.
An article in Saturday's Belfast Telegraph, headed "New benefits under scrutiny" and dealing with the disability allowance--which is intended to combine the old attendance allowance and the mobility allowance--observed :
"So far from simplification, we seem to be due another complex benefit unless it is changed before 1992 when it comes in. I can't help thinking that (praise God) I am strong and in sound mind, but can barely understand this lot."
Column 695As we are seeking to improve the benefits system, should we not bear in mind those for whom it is intended, and create simpler and more helpful arrangements for their needs to be met?
The Government must surely admit that the clause is an attempt to disinter energy efficiency from the knackers' yard into which it has fallen over the past 18 months. The Minister of State, Department of Energy is not here now, although he was earlier ; he will probably recall the oral question that I asked him 11 months ago about the state of play regarding the collapse of the community insulation schemes for local authorities and voluntary organisations. The schemes enabled them to arrange draught proofing and loft insulation in the houses of low-income families.
The Minister told us about the high-powered negotiations that were proceeding between his Department and the Department of Energy to preserve the good work that had been built up under the scheme in the years it has been in existence, and the tremendous enthusiasm that must be maintained. We all knew, however, that, after the last of the community programme schemes disappeared in August 1988, employment training unfortunately came in. Community insulation was no longer of value in the mighty massage parlour that goes under the name of the Department of Employment--or the bureau of unemployment statistics. I am pleased to see that the Minister has now returned.
The Prime Minister used to heap praise on the noble Lord Young for bringing her answers while other Ministers brought her problems. I do not think that she says that now, but at that time he was thought to be the person who could dream up wizard wheezes for apparently bringing down the unemployment. When the Government thought that they had a good tale to tell about unemployment, all these bright ideas for killing two birds with one stone, achieving energy efficiency in low-income households on the cheap, and massaging the unemployment figures in a downward direction by giving everybody three days' work a week if they were under 25 and did not have family
responsibilities--all that went by the board in August 1988. The Secretary of State, perhaps understandably, tried to elide the 17 or 18 months that have gone by since then. In his introduction he said that when the community programme came to an end we would have to do something about it. But that was 17 or 18 months ago. This is one of the outstanding examples of interdepartmental
cross-sterilisation, even for this Government. It has resulted in 18 months being taken to come up with a clause in a Bill. We welcome it on this basis, but it will take another few months for a scheme to become operational. But for the first time energy-efficiency projects in low- income households will be separated out from the employment training or community programme rules for giving temporary work to the unemployed.
I suppose it could be said that the Bill has some of the same characteristics as the policy on pension funds, income support and social security. The Government cannot quite make up their mind what they mean by
Column 696targeting and what they mean by generalised support for a wholesale objective--in this case, energy ; in another case, prosperity in old age. In this case, what does targeting really mean? The Government do not want something that old-age pensioners or people on low incomes can regard as an entitlement ; they themselves want to be Lord and Lady Bountiful distributing the windfall apples in the autumn and feeling very good about it. This is not an entitlement ; it is a device from which the Government will extract the maximum benefit at the next election.
As it has taken so long, Ministers will have to excuse some scepticism on our part. We have to ask what the Bill is intended to achieve. What, after all, is a low-income family? Is it a family with a below-average wage? Is it a family on income support? Or should it perhaps be related more specifically to people in whose case the absence of heating will hurt most? That will not necessarily be the people on the lowest incomes. It may be people with children or with particular health or disability problems ; or the oldest pensioners. They are not necessarily the same thing. A family comprising two people in their thirties or forties with no health problems and on income support would not be as much a priority as a couple with a much greater income and with four small children or something of a health problem. The Government need to tell us exactly how they will get round the problem of defining exactly what constitutes priority in the context of low income.
We also want to know more about the administrative mechanism that will be used. Will we have another fiasco like the student loan scheme? Can the Government tell us in what financial year they intend to come to an agreement with the contracting-out agency--clearly they intend to contract it out--to administer the scheme for them? We ought to know what is their target for getting something going. After all, they have told us that they have only £12 million this year because it is the tail end of the Department of Employment expenditure, but they have not told us what expenditure they will assume in a typical financial year when the scheme is up and running and when they have a contracting agency to administer the scheme for them.
We have been told that they have indicated to some of the voluntary agencies that might get involved a budget of £20 million in a typical full financial year. I shall be very glad if the Minister who replies to the debate says something about that matter. The proposals should be efficient in energy terms and in administrative terms, and not simply an attempt to say, "We have done something on the energy-efficiency front for low-income households" when, in the end, it will not amount to anything more than the neo-brutalism of the sadly-departed junior Minister at the Department of Health, who told everybody to lag their grandmothers' legs for winter. I hope that the Minister who replaced her will adopt a more profound attitude to the means of dealing with problems of hypothermia amongst the elderly, the problem of cut-offs for families with young babies to look after, and so on.
I want to make two final points. First, this appears to be a three-part scheme, starting simply with continuation of the draught-proofing and loft- insulation schemes that formed a classical part of the community insulation schemes that have been going for five or six years. The Bill contains a promise that it will go on to a stage two and a stage three. Stage two will involve cavity wall insulation