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Column 966I support the Government in their intentions and their measures. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), who ably supported the Government's record and their intentions. Eventually we must do something about the language of drafting. I know that it is said that it is required for legal purposes, but that is not good enough. Other countries can do things better. When a Member of Parliament has to spend three hours in the Library to begin to understand the simplest statutory instrument, something is wrong. Therefore, I hope that I shall have all-party support in saying that we must work to remove gobbledegook and to increase understanding of our regulations.
Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston) : You will be pleased to know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, not only that I intend to speak exactly to the terms of the debate and to the regulations, unlike most Conservative Members, but that I do not intend to waste a lot of time reading out the regulations from the papers in front of us.
So far as Conservative Members have dealt with the regulations at all, they have paid fulsome compliments to the Government for, as they have put it, "helping" families with children, with disabled relatives or with children in care when they come home for the weekend, as if the Government were giving those families something. I shall quote just one line from the regulations, a sub-title that refers to
"Amendment of regulation 14 of the Income Support (Transitional) Regulations 1987".
That means that, since the regulations came into force all that time ago, families with children in care who have come home for the weekend have been penalised. Although it took the Government until 14 December 1989 to remove that penalty, Conservative Members compliment their Front Bench on that dilatory action. Obviously, their expectations of their Government are low.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay) on his able speech on vibration white finger. I shall not repeat his comments, but I will repeat his challenge. If the regulation will not affect many people because most people have already been able to claim their benefit, why waste the time of the House in bringing it forward, and why cut from benefit the very few people who might be left? However, if the regulation will affect a great many people and save the Government a lot of money, it is grossly unjust. The provisions will mean that people who have been injured through their work--often because of the carelessness of their employers, in my opinion--are to be deprived of benefit. My hon. Friend's challenge needs to be dealt with.
We also face a clawback on some compensation payments. There was an interesting contradiction in what the Minister of State said. In his speech he said that claimants should not get more from two sources than they would have got from one. That makes it clear that claimants are being deprived of what he sees as an extra benefit. However, in an intervention, he told my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) that the provisions were directed not against claimants, but against insurance companies. The right hon. Gentleman should remember what he said in his speech when intervening only a few minutes later. I hope that that will be clarified.
Column 967My hon. Friend the Member for Ladywood pointed out that the state will claw back money that has been given in compensation for pain and suffering. The Minister of State did not deny that. The state, which has felt no pain or suffering, is taking from people who have felt such pain and suffering the money to which they are entitled. The right hon. Gentleman expects us to believe that the provision is simply to ensure that insurance companies do not make too much profit.
I conclude by referring to the severe weather payments. As my hon. Friends have said, the statutory instrument is an improvement, but it is a meagre improvement. It would be foolish of us not to take the opportunity of this debate to show exactly how meagre it is. Eligibility for the benefit is still far too restrictive. Yes, the Government have brought the age limit down to 60 and have increased the capital threshold from £500 to £1,000. However, it is possible to be severely ill and still not qualify for the extra £5. A claimant must either be chronically sick and in receipt of a benefit or have been sick for at least 28 weeks. That means that a person can suffer a severe or dangerous illness and yet not meet the eligibility requirement for this meagre benefit. In addition, the Government have retained the £5 claim limit that has existed since 1986, thus allowing the benefit to wither.
The Government have also retained the same silly way of measuring whether claims can be made. People who do not live near weather stations might suffer severe weather--and even meet the ridiculous stipulation about seven days at freezing point--but because they do not live near a weather station, their weather may not be recorded and they cannot claim.
The Government have also retained the system whereby people have to make a claim. They need to know that the weather station has recorded seven consecutive days of "freezing point" weather and that they will therefore be eligible. How many people would know that? It is within the competence of the Department of Social Security to pay the benefit automatically. The Department is keen on talking about efficiency. This would be a way of demonstrating it.
In all, we are justified in regarding such improvements as are contained in the regulations as completely inadequate and meagre, and the cuts as mean- spirited in the extreme.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. If hon. Members follow the example of the hon. Lady and take no longer than seven minutes, the four hon. Members who have been waiting patiently for a long time will get in. 9.5 pm
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) : The speech by my neighbour, the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise), and other Opposition speeches highlight a problem for the Opposition in debating social security. They are long on advice but short on ideas as to how we might have a workable social security system, sufficiently resourced. That point was made amply by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell).
One fact that seems not to have been made clear by Opposition Members is that the Social Security
Column 968(Recoupment) Regulations will add £55 million to the social security budget. We have heard a lot from the Opposition about how we will pay for the improvements which the various regulations bring into force. Here is £55 million, but there was not a word of praise from the Opposition for the Government's courage in producing the regulations.
I am concerned about how the recoupment regulations will operate. I am worried about the complexity of the regulations which appear to take away something. The public may worry that their entitlement to a range of benefits listed in the regulations will be denied them. When people talk to me in my advice bureau about how the social security system works, they are worried about the principle that a person cannot be compensated twice for the same type of claim. I seek from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State reassurance that the Department will address the question of communication with potential claimants.
I am also concerned about how insurance companies may react to the implementation of the regulations. I seek reassurance from my hon. Friend that insurance companies will not try to minimise compensation, particularly in out-of-court settlements, so as to reduce their liability to recompense the Department of Social Security. Obviously, insurance companies, whose requirement is to look after the interests of their clients, might be tempted down that road. It would be helpful if my hon. Friend could reassure the House that she will keep the operation of the regulations under close scrutiny to ensure that people are not disadvantaged by sharp practice.
Something positive could result from the recoupment regulations in that insurance companies and those subject to compensation claims may recognise where their liability lies. For example, industrial injury claims may be made because of a company's inappropriate practices that could injure workers. The insurance company might say to that company, "We have had to stump up on a number of claims. Your claims record is costing us money. Put your house in order." That positive benefit might come out of the introduction of the regulations. I praise the Government for ensuring that the Macfarlane Trust, whose funding has been increased recently to deal with haemophiliacs, will not be subject to the recoupment provisions. That shows an appreciation of the problems of that group who are much in need of support.
I also note that miners are singled out for--
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) rose--
I see that miners are also a favoured group under the pneumoconiosis regulations. Did my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary give thought in drafting the regulations to the needs of nuclear workers who might be affected by industrial injury? I have some in my constituency who would be interested in her comments, either when replying to the debate or by letter afterwards. The regulations also indicate that the Department of Social Security must advise people of their liabilities to recoupment within four weeks of request for that information. Will my hon. Friend assure me that her
Column 969systems are capable of delivering that information as rapidly as it is required? Recoupment, therefore, has much to commend it. On the subject of cold weather payments, however, while I support the order--any improvement is better than none--when I checked with my local social security office I found that the last time this particular benefit was paid--I note from comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) that it was not available to people under the last Labour Government--the office had received about 3,000 applications, only 500 of which were granted. If my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary cannot at this juncture move as far as some kind of additional flat-rate payment during the cold winter months, could she look at ways, perhaps through the use of the order book, of helping people to understand who is entitled to this particular payment? I am sure that, being a cost-conscious Minister, she will understand that to process 3,000 requests and pay out on only 500 of them costs a lot of money.
The problem of the aged and heat is one that voluntary organisations and local newspapers have tried to address. I put on record my praise of my local branch of Age Concern and the Blackpool Evening Gazette for what they have done this winter in trying to show elderly people how they can keep warm. Having visited many elderly people in my constituency, I was struck by one particular constituent who lives in a house with rather old- fashioned electric central heating. She was worried about being able to pay the bills and whether she should turn the heating on.
I am aware of the efforts made by the gas and electricity boards to assist elderly people. If my hon. Friend cannot change the regulations, could she discuss with the power suppliers the possibility of providing advice, such as energy audits of elderly people's houses, so that they can make the best use of their money? After this order is in place, perhaps my hon. Friend could reconsider the whole question of reassuring elderly people, perhaps through financial means, that keeping warm must be their first priority. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who I am pleased to see in his place on the Front Bench, knows of the efforts in my constituency--he attended an excellent meeting two years ago--and knows of the worries expressed by elderly people on this score. The time must now be right to look at the whole question of heating for the elderly and how it can be made affordable.
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow) : I begin by asking the Secretary of State a question about cold weather payments. Will he ensure that they are paid promptly and that delays in payment are reduced to an absolute minimum? I want also to make a plea on behalf of my constituency that a more appropriate weather station be chosen for it. Many of my constituents in Greenock and Port Glasgow who live in poor housing are several hundred feet above sea level and hence several hundred feet above that particular weather station. I want to speak principally about statutory instrument No. 73, regulation 13. I shall preface my remarks with a comment about one of the aims of the regulations, which must surely be an improvement of the quality of service given to claimants. The Minister seems not to show dissent when I say that. That is how it should be, especially in the
Column 970light of the report of the Public Accounts Committee, which was concerned with the quality of service to the public at local social security offices. When that report was debated in the House on 30 November last year, I directed most of my remarks to the sufferers of vibration white finger. I said that the tough criticisms of the poor quality of service to claimants did not hold for the two offices in my constituency.
With hindsight, that was a little rash of me, because on 15 December I received a report from the parliamentary ombudsman concerning an investigation that I had asked him to conduct into the disgraceful treatment meted out by DSS officials in Greenock and Port Glasgow to a young pregnant woman. Because of her resilience and determination and the assistance that she was given by an able social worker, she persisted with her applications for financial help. Her mother had put her out when she had announced that she was pregnant. At the time, I said that it was like a Victorian melodrama. The parliamentary ombudsman was scathing in his criticism of the treatment meted out to that young girl.
As you know, Mr. Speaker, I am fair-minded, so I must point out that the Under-Secretary--who is not in her place at the moment, although she has been here all evening--sent me a lengthy letter offering the Department's apologies to that young woman. She assured me that no other young woman in those circumstances would be treated as that girl was. I am willing to accept the assurances of the Under-Secretary and of the Minister concerning such treatment.
Dr. Godman : I shall keep a close watch--as I always do--on the behaviour of DSS officials in my constituency, given that several thousand people are directly dependent on social welfare incomes. I am sometimes tempted to think that the Minister should clear out, in wholesale fashion, the senior management of the DSS in the Scottish headquarters in Lady Lawson street in Edinburgh, but that is another matter.
Mrs. Wise : On the question of young pregnant girls, it is not simply the attitude of officials that is at fault, it is the regulations. My hon. Friend may not be aware that 16 and 17-year-old girls who become pregnant are not entitled to income support--even if they are put out of their homes, such as in the case that my hon. Friend described--until they are six months pregnant. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is disgraceful?
Dr. Godman : Of course I agree with my hon. Friend. As I have said, it is not only the disgraceful treatment meted out by officials, but the gaps in the regulations which, at that time, were new regulations. The problem was caused by a combination of the regulations and the treatment meted out by officials.
Let us now return to vibration white finger. Since I met the Minister, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay) and two or three others--and we were treated courteously--about 2,200 men in Greenock and Port Glasgow have made applications for that backdated disablement benefit and for the reduced earnings allowance. I regret to say that when I sought from the Minister's office details of the numbers who had
Column 971applied for the benefit throughout the United Kingdom, I was told that they were not available. However, I received them readily enough from my local DSS office.
For example, I wanted to know how many shipyard workers in Belfast had applied for that benefit, to which they are entitled. If the Minister is not willing to extend or to pull back the statutory instrument, I must ask him to answer my earlier question about letters of application that are to be posted on Monday of next week. When the doors of the DSS offices are closed on Monday evening, the 2,200 claims from Greenock and Port Glasgow will not be allowed. Many men who are entitled to this benefit live in remote areas of Scotland, in the Highlands and Islands, and many of them are miles from social security offices. They should be given some sympathy.
Mr. Frank Field : I should like to add my weight to what my hon. Friend said, because there are about 2,000 applications in the Birkenhead offices for this benefit. I was alarmed to find that although the commissioner's decision was made in September, processing of claims in the Birkenhead offices did not start until 19 January. Does my hon. Friend agree that the processing of claims and the sending out of decisions is one way to spread by word of mouth the knowledge that people may be entitled to claim? Given that the officers have sat on the applications, it is crucial that the message goes out clearly from the debate that people have a few more days in which to make applications. As my hon. Friend says, applications posted on Monday should be accepted.
Dr. Godman : I am grateful for that fine intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). The concept of justifiable ignorance can still be applied to many people. A Mrs. McLoughlin telephoned me from Edinburgh today. She had heard about what we in Scotland call the take-up campaign and went to the Causewayside office of the DSS to make an application, but was turned away by the official at the counter.
It is lamentable that in Scotland the Department has failed to publicise the implications of the test case in Sunderland in August last year. In the case of Belfast, any publicity urging people to make such claims has come from the conveners of the shop stewards' committee of Harland and Wolff. In Sunderland, it has come from the unemployed workers' offices, and in my constituency I paid for a big advertisement in my local paper urging people to make such applications. The Fees Office will pick up the bill for that advertisement.
One of my major criticisms of the DSS is its deliberate failure to advertise the implications of test cases for claimants and would-be claimants. We have the vibration white finger take-up campaign in Scotland. I am talking about ex-forestry workers in our remote communities and construction workers living in the islands who will get to know about this benefit when, perhaps, it is too late for them to claim. There has been a failure to reach those people and meet their legitimate claims.
I look forward to the day when the English electorate puts out these Ministers. I say English electorate because Scottish Ministers are doomed. When a Labour Minister is in charge of the Department of Social Security, I should like to see him sort out the senior officials in that
Column 972Department, because they have badly let down many of my constituents and many other people throughout Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : This is my second opportunity to make a brief contribution today. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) for referring, albeit in passing, in his short and useful contribution to the fact that the changes in regulation 13 affect not just shipyard and industrial workers in heavier industries--the people that will be mainly affected--but such people as forestry workers. The Government must bear that in mind when they are considering the implications of this change.
As I represent a constituency that does not have a heavy industry base providing part of its employment prospects, perhaps it is useful that I should support the able case that was made by the hon. Members for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay) and for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) on the question of the proposed change in regulation 13. It is a very shabby change. Ministers should have had the courage of their convictions. They should have told their officials quite clearly that they, the officials, cannot always seek to redress unacceptable decisions--unacceptable as the officials see them--taken by tribunals in the adjudication process, that they cannot simply use secondary legislation changes like the change to regulation 13 simply to redress the balance.
The important effects of vibration white finger are felt throughout the length and breadth of the land. However, the cost of retaining the provisions of regulation 13 must be finite, and it is quite wrong to move the goal posts in this way.
I want to refer now to the Income Support (Transitional) Amendment No. 2 Regulations 1989. Ministers' decision to make this change has my unequivocal support. They must have been under an inordinate amount of pressure from their officials to have no truck with any changes, to avoid tinkering with transitional support. I understand that it is a difficult benefit--for a reason to which, if I get a chance, I shall refer later. I recognise that this step must have taken courage, and I welcome it wholeheartedly.
Having said that, I have to point to the fact that about 200,000 people on transitional support will still feel the effect this April. If there have been problems in advertising the proposed changes in regulation 13, there will certainly be worries this April because of the changes in transitional support, and people will be unaware of these, too. The Department is not doing nearly enough to make clear to people, by advertising, the difficulties that they will have when the uprating advantages come through.
Some people who are falling out and are being floated off transitional protection will find that they are getting no actual cash increases. It is my experience, and my submission, that a vast proportion of those 200,000 people will, in ignorance, look forward to operating in the normal way. They will get a shock. They will find themselves in severely straitened financial circumstances in the 12 months following April 1990.
The Government must recognise that, for example, there have been significant changes in the financial circumstances of some poorer families and pensioners, particularly as a result of the poll tax changes. The poll tax
Column 973provisions that are about to be visited on people south of the Border have been in operation north of the border for nearly a year. There will be a great need and a great demand for the full protection that the uprating orders afford, but, because of the erosion of transitional protection that has been built in since 1988, that will simply not be available to people who are currently expecting it. The Government must pay some attention to this matter.
The changes relating to severe weather payments, in so far as they go, are welcome. I want to repeat and to reinforce a point that was made earlier : that the flat-rate £5 payment, which was set originally in, I think, 1986, must be a candidate for uprating in some way, either on an occasional, ad hoc basis--every few years--or as part of the price protection available with other benefits. Ministers should look carefully at the level of flat rate benefit for the severe weather payment and find ways to increase it in the immediate future.
Secondly, many DSS offices fall within the ambit of weather stations that are near the coast. The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow cited an example of this. The weather stations near the coast regularly reflect warmer temperatures.
The best case to illustrate my point is that experienced by my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) who, in 1987, found the temperature at Aviemore was minus 16 deg C but his constituents did not receive any severe weather payments because the weather station was linked to Kinloss, which never experienced temperatures below zero. Only Eskdalemuir, which is in my constituency, regularly triggers payments, and that is the most inland weather station in Scotland.
The ambient ground temperature can often be significantly reduced by the wind chill factor, and my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) has made strong representations to the Department about that. There are easy and simple methods to establish temperature that include the wind chill factor, so that the Government cannot argue that it is too complicated to do so. The need for the severe weather payment, although luckily not felt this year, is as great as it was, and unless the Government find ways to improve the system, the benefit will be eroded and, like child benefit, will wither on the vine.
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) : The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Stevens) accused the Labour party of not giving credit where credit is due. I hope that we shall have the pleasure of thanking the Minister and giving him full credit for it when he withdraws the regulation altering the law on vibration white finger. My hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay), for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden), for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) have ably destroyed any case for this change. One of the reasons we feel so passionately about this is our personal experience of heavy industry and our knowledge of how one of the bonuses of working is underpaid degrading jobs is often a crippling disease. It was clear from the speeches of Tory Members and the difficulty that one of them had in pronouncing "pneumoconiosis" how unfamiliar they are with this experience.
Column 974This regulation is cruel and unjust and should be withdrawn. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will do that. I cannot think of any answer that they could possibly give to justify the regulation. However, my hon. Friends are grateful for the intervention by the Minister of State, which was wholly justified, to allow so many others to come forward. If only 1,000 or 2,000 are left who have not met that claim, their rights should be protected. The hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) criticised us for not making practical suggestions. However, we have some practical suggestions for the severe weather payments scheme, which is miserly, paltry and unworkable. If it ever has to be operated again, if the greenhouse effect is abated, the scheme will collapse under the weight of its own absurdities, as it did in 1986-87. As hon. Members have said, the payment is only £5 when we know that, on average, pensioners spend over the year £9 a week on heating, and over the winter that is substantially increased. Therefore, £5 is fairly meaningless. The hon. Member for Fylde valuably drew attention to how badly the scheme operated when it was tested. He gave an example of 3,000 people applying and only 500 being successful.
That is precisely what happened. Large numbers applied and, although 1.4 million were entitled to claim under the scheme, 500,000 were not successful, let alone the many people--the one to six who applied--who were not entitled to participate in it. The cost of advertising the scheme in the winter of 1987 represented the price of making 82,000 severe weather payments at that rate.
We suggest that the Government pay out under a scheme that is automatic. It could be done, because the system as it exists provides full details of all those entitled to severe weather payments. The only additional information needed, the Minister informed me some time ago, is how many claimants would be eliminated because they have capital--what was then £500 but is now £1,000. The simple answer is to increase the capital limit--the funeral money--from £1,000 to the usual £3,000. In other words, the information is already in the hands of the Department.
That would end the farce of local temperature triggers. The pay-out could be made on a national basis the moment bitter weather arrived and we would achieve a worthwhile gain for only a modest increase in the number of people receiving benefit. The administrative cost would be slashed to nothing, and the take-up would rise to 100 per cent. Such a system would be simple and cheap and would reach those in greatest peril.
We are well aware of the seriousness of the situation in view of the excessive number of winter deaths. We should send out a signal from the House that does not say, as it was once suggested from the Government Benches, that the elderly should dress up like Mother Hubbard or, as a predecessor of the Under-Secretary suggested, that they should go to jumble sales and deck themselves out for the winter.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mrs. Gillian Shephard) : When the hon. Gentleman says that the scheme should operate nationally, does he mean that, although it is freezing in Aberdeen and boiling in Brighton, the scheme should nevertheless apply all over the country?
Column 975Mr. Flynn : I am shocked and outraged at the hon. Lady's suggestion that Aberdeen is in the same country as Brighton. I am sure that there would be similar objection if she suggested that Cardiff was in the same country. For this purpose, I am suggesting that the nations within this kingdom are the nations of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales.
At present, the real value of the scheme is being drowned in administrative costs. It is a ludicrously wasteful arrangement. If it were changed, the nations could be divided into north and south--as many people think they should be divided in England--and in Wales and Scotland the system could work. I think I see Conservative Members shaking their heads in dissent, but that is what happened last time. The scheme was thought to be so ludicrous that hon. Members on both sides were up in arms, saying that it was crazy to wait for triggers that were miles from where the people lived. Finally, the Government decided under pressure to declare a national trigger. Why should they not do that again?
The important message that should go out from the House to the elderly who are at severe risk--and thousands of deaths are involved in this issue--is : "When the cold weather strikes, put up your heating. Keep warm and the costs will be met." That is not the message that is reaching them now. The message coming from the Government is, "We do not care. We are not bothered with what you do." All hon. Members are aware of cases where there is central heating in homes but the elderly do not use it ; it is rarely, if ever, switched on. That is a terrible waste.
When discussing the recoupment regulations, the Minister gave an interesting account--it was something fresh for those of us who were on the Standing Committee which considered the enabling legislation--when he said that there would be a saving to the Government of £55 million. Perhaps he should have called it a cut. Either way, where will it come from? We were assured, if I understood the Minister aright, that it would not be a cut in benefits, that it would not be benefit confiscation.
In fact, that is precisely what it is, for while those on benefit will receive their benefits--there is a long list of essential benefits--they will not receive the compensation due to them. It is another Government cut. The Government have suddenly discovered an opportunity to save money and they are doing it in the teeth of universal opposition.
The Minister of State announced in a press release that he had listened to the Association of British Insurers. I accept that he had listened to them, but he had not done what they asked him to do, which was to set the limit at £5,000. I say with some certainty that, in the years ahead, Conservative Members will encounter in their surgeries cases that are so complex and unjust that they will ask themselves, "How on earth did we ever pass that legislation?" The Government's action is laudable in many ways, and that there is courage behind it is something for which we give them credit. However, there is also in it some recklessness. The Government are trying to achieve an impossible objective in trying to mix compensation paid for injury, suffering or pain with social security funds paid out for very different reasons to maintain a standard of living under certain circumstances. Parts of the scheme are crude legislative lunacy, as will become apparent when cases involving contributory negligence come to the fore.
Column 976The Government are taking from claimants not the value of the benefits themselves but the value of compensation that will now never be received. That is the simple truth of the matter. Under the Government's scheme, sometimes the guilty will be rewarded and the innocent will suffer. Many right hon. and hon. Members will find cases coming before them that will be difficult to believe. The great flaw in the scheme is the Government's attempt to mix oil with water, in trying to exchange benefits for compensation.
A number of hon. Members have referred to the Lawson embarrassment bonus, and at least one hon. Member read from a brief that related to the previous debate. If we are to reach some kind of agreement and save unnecessary disputes between both sides of the House, it may be as well if the briefings given to Conservative Members are circulated among right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House. The much-lauded Lawson embarrassment bonus seems to be giving great comfort to Government Members. The story needs repeating. The sum involved is only £90 million for the first year and £200 million for the second. Right hon. and hon. Members will remember the remarkable series of events. There was the Autumn Statement and an uprating statement, yet there was no mention of the Lawson embarrassment bonus in either of them. Suddenly a remarkable event occurred. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer held a press conference in the company of 12 untruthful, lying journalists and one silent tape recorder, as a consequence of which it was inaccurately reported that the Chancellor intended to means-test pensions. A matter of weeks passed, and the then lamented Secretary of State for Social Security pulled out of the hat a marvellous new measure--but one involving only a tiny amount of money.
Mr. Flynn : I am sure that there was a Freudian reason for my mistake, but I would not be so indelicate as to explore it. We entirely share the Government's view that a group of elderly pensioners need special help. However, the new benefit will be means tested and will assist only those aged over 75 who are already receiving income support, or those aged over 60 who are receiving disablement benefits. Half the pensioners on income support will not enjoy that new benefit. The amount payable is only £2.50 to a single person and £3.50 to a married couple, which compensates in only tiny measure for the great cuts that pensioners have suffered because of the breaching of the link between prices and earnings.
In reality, life today is very different from the fantasy world portrayed by Conservative Members. This very day, a report has revealed that 250,000 households in Britain
Column 977are in serious financial trouble because of debt. The report, published by the Church of England Children's Society, is part of a great confetti of reports. They come out weekly and they all make the same points. They are issued by bodies which are not Left-wing but are genuinely independent and involved in the care of children and the elderly. The message is repeated on every page of this report. It says that social security cuts have savagely divided Britain. I see that the Secretary of State has the report with him, and I am sure that he will be able to see a condemnation on every page. It says that the YTS rates are too low ; that loans are not working ; that making a claim is so difficult that only the desperate succeed ; that the system absurdly discourages young people from going to work ; that the social fund is inadequate ; that the system is hostile to pregnant young women--the list goes on and on.
Each year that the Government have been in office they have produced one major piece of legislation that has cut an important benefit. We have become a divided and unhappy nation. The rich have had tax cuts lavished on them, and the poor have been cruelly robbed. In a mockery of their poverty the ex-Chancellor--the great architect of divided Britain--today flaunts his new wealth. Moonlighting from his parliamentary job, he now brings in a gross salary greater than the earnings of 100 pensioners.
Finally, I quote early-day motion 105, which I commend to Conservative Members :
"That this House notes that at times of growing international tension the Government's policy is to increase spending on weapons, in times of stability the Government's policy is to increase spending on weapons and in times of lessening tension the Government policy is to increase spending on weapons ; and calls on the Government to answer a changing world situation with a flexible response." There must be a flexible response, and we look for a peace dividend as a result of that. Hon. Members on both sides of the House who wish to use that peace dividend constructively for social service will unite to say that a rich slice of it must be spent on social security.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mrs. Gillian Shephard) : This has been a wide-ranging and interesting debate --as it is usual to say. The measures have been described variously as squalid and sensible, as cuts and beneficial. There seems to be general agreement on their complexity, and my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson), who reminded the Government of the need to produce simpler regulations, should remember that the Department has received the plain English award for the simplicity of its forms.
There have been balanced contributions from a number of hon. Members, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell), for Nuneaton (Mr. Stevens) and for Fylde (Mr. Jack). There have been passionate contributions from Opposition Members on the understandably difficult issue of industrial injury.
I shall attempt to deal with as many of the issues as possible, which is more than I can say for some of the contributions that have been made.
The draft Social Security (Industrial Injuries) (Regular Employment) Regulations 1990 are, as my right hon.
Column 978Friend the Secretary of State said, wholly beneficial. I am glad that those regulations at least commend themselves to all Members of the House.
I listened with interest to the points raised by the right hon. and hon. Members of the Opposition in connection with the proposal to repeal regulation 13 of the Social Security (Industrial Injuries and Diseases) Miscellaneous Provisions Regulations 1986, and in particular, of course, to their concern about that condition known as vibration white finger. There were strong contributions from, among others, the hon. Members for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman), for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay), for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden), for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) and for Preston (Mrs. Wise).
I remind the House that the original decision to revoke the regulation was made as long ago as December 1988. Almost a year and a quarter will have passed before the regulation ceases to have effect. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, the transitional regulation has been in operation for nearly three and a half years and there is no justifiable reason now why it should continue. Those for whom this regulation was originally intended have been provided with an opportunity to claim and those who also might benefit from the wider interpretation put upon the regulation by the tribunal of Commissioners in August 1989 have also had ample time to make a claim for benefit.
We have, following representations from Opposition Members, allowed regulation 13 to continue for a further three months. Claims received after the regulation ceases to have effect--this should be remembered--will still be accepted and considered under the current rules. Transitional regulations, especially those of a quite exceptional nature, cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely. The regulation was never intended to cover justifiable ignorance, but circumstances in which a person was mentally or physically incapable of putting in a claim on time. It is a transitional regulation which has been in place more than three years. The time is now right to amend it.
A question was asked about the number of claims that have been received under regulation 13. The answer is 26,000.
Mr. Clay : I hear what the hon. Lady says, but will she give one small undertaking as a gesture of sincerity from the Government? Will she undertake that offices will be asked to locate those claims that were made between vibration white finger becoming a prescribed industrial disease and the Kenneth Potts case? Where, until the commissioner's decision, DSS officers told people that they did not have good cause to claim, will the DSS write, inviting them to resubmit a claim without a time limit?
Although claims received at local offices on Monday 12 February will have to be dealt with under the new amendments, I shall ensure that any claims lodged at local offices before that date, including the weekend, will be endorsed accordingly. The adjudication officer will then be able to deal with the claims under the current provisions.
The social fund cold weather payments scheme is one of a range of measures that the Government have taken to help those most at risk during periods of cold weather. It
Column 979has a number of merits. It is simple to understand. It provides £5 for particularly vulnerable groups for any seven-day period of cold weather--when the average temperature is 0 deg C or below. The use of that clear, fixed trigger point avoids confusion about eligibility, which is more than can be said for the half-baked suggestions emanating from the Opposition Front Bench.
Our scheme is sensitive to differences in local conditions and although windchill is always a matter for debate we reviewed the effectiveness of the weather stations this autumn and are satisfied that each one is reasonably representative of the main centres of population in the local office's area. The scheme also targets help on those particularly at risk. Payment can be made to the elderly, sick, disabled and very young.
In the past year to October 1989, gas prices fell in real terms by 16 per cent. It now costs less than in 1970. The price of domestic electricity fell by 8 per cent. in the same five years.
The regulations widen access to the scheme further by raising the savings limit for elderly people from £500 to £1,000. As announced by my right hon. Friend, that increased limit for elderly people will be used for the rest of the social fund from April. In order to make it possible for more elderly people to receive cold weather payments this winter, the regulations bring forward the effective date of the change for the cold weather scheme to 1 January. That should be welcomed by the House.