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Mr. Newton : The hon. Gentleman should perhaps have taken the answer to his question as already having been given in my firm reiteration, made to the House and elsewhere on several occasions, that child benefit is and will remain a strong element in our policies for family support. I made that statement on 24 October, as a statement on behalf of Her Majesty's Government

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collectively ; it was not made off the cuff by the Secretary of State for Social Security. That seems to make the position absolutely clear.

Mr. Frank Field : It is possible to accept that the Government now, thank goodness, have no intention of abandoning the child benefit scheme-- they want to spend the money within that framework in a different way. Press reports sometimes suggest that a Tory party inquiry is being held, sometimes a departmental one, on the various options. Is it possible for the Secretary of State to tell us whether such inquiries are taking place in the Department, in the Tory party or in both?

Mr. Newton : I do not believe that it is possible for me to answer the hon. Gentleman's question in the way in which it has been phrased, but it is certainly not true that all thinking has ceased on the Conservative Benches about possible further development of the benefit system--I presume that the same is true of the Opposition Benches. I am not able to predict the outcome of regular consideration of what is the right way in which to deal with social security matters.

Mr. Field : I do not expect the Secretary of State to tell us the outcome of reviews, but I asked whether such reviews are taking place and where.

Mr. Newton : In that case, the answer to the hon. Gentleman is that, such is the liveliness and vigour of all of us in the Conservative party--I was grateful to note the remarks of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) about my appearing to be in reasonable health--that we are constantly thinking about social security matters in all sorts of ways, at every level and in a variety of forums.

Mr. Field : That is not a good answer.

Mr. Newton : I think that it is a very good one, and I do not propose to try to come up with something better.

The draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 1991 provides for an increase in retirement pensions, and in virtually all other benefits that are not income-related, of 10.9 per cent. That is the increase in prices that took place during the year ending September 1990. As for income- related benefits, the draft order provides for a general increase of 8.1 per cent., which is the increase in retail prices, other than housing costs, over the same period. That difference, as is now well understood, reflects the fact that, for people on income support, help with rent is separately available through housing benefit and help with mortgage interest separately within income support itself.

Rather than rehearse all the many benefit rates to which the general increases give rise--they are set out in the order--it would be more helpful, especially in view of the relatively short time that the House has to consider the order, to concentrate on two ways in which its provisions improve on the general pattern that I have outlined.

This year, we are proposing to spend an extra £80 million through a real increase in the basic pensioner premium that is paid to people on income support aged 60 to 74. That increase will directly benefit about 400,000 pensioners on income support and will feed through to housing benefit and community charge benefit. The

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premiums for single pensioners in that age group will go up by an extra £1 a week, over and above a straightforward uprating, while couples will receive an extra £1.50 a week. That increase builds upon the improvements we made to the premium structure for other pensioner groups on income support in October 1989, which provided £200 million of extra assistance in its first year.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Newton : I could almost have predicted an intervention from the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Winnick : Perhaps that is true, as I want to refer to a report in The Independent today, which says that there were 2,347 more deaths, mainly among the elderly, than was expected during the cold spell. The charity Winter Action on Cold Homes puts a great deal of blame for those deaths on inadequate heating, fuel poverty and the like. Although I was pleased that two payments of £6 were made, far too many elderly people are simply financially incapable of keeping their homes warm, and that leads to a great deal of deprivation and, sadly, death. I hope that the Government will take more effective action than they have so far to deal with that problem.

Mr. Newton : I have seen the report in The Independent this morning and the comments that go with it, but I cannot pretend to have had an opportunity in the intervening period to make a detailed analysis of the figures underlying it. I learned from my previous experience in the job now done by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People, when there was discussion and controversy on the subject, that this country is not alone in experiencing the problem of higher mortality rates in winter than in summer. It is clear that the causes of that problem, which go well beyond this country, are by no means simple to identify or overcome. Those mortality rates include people who, by no stretch of the imagination, could be described as badly off and may be in comfortable and heated residential institutions. It is difficult to draw firm and clear conclusions from the statistics.

I go along with the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) in acknowledging that a range of measures is required. I hope that the cold weather payments recently made will make a contribution. In addition, the Government recently introduced--it was contained in the Social Security Act 1989, although it is not strictly a social security measure--a home energy efficiency scheme, the latest version of a number of schemes designed to improve the way in which the houses of elderly people and others are insulated. The advisory services' "keep warm, keep well" campaign, run by Help the Aged, with Government support, can also make a contribution. There is certainly a problem, towards which a range of measures are directed. This Government, and any other Government, would acknowledge that we constantly need to find new ways to address it.

I do not believe that the evidence suggests that the problem can be solved as simplistically as the hon. Member for Walsall, North suggests--by simply using more money on it. The hon. Gentleman intervened at a point in my speech when it was logical to make his remarks, but the paragraph at the end of which he

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intervened made it clear that, during the past 18 months, we have directed additional regular, weekly support--worth almost £300 million--to the very groups about whom he is concerned.

Another significant way in which the order varies from the overall retail price index or "Rossi" uprating pattern to which I referred, is the increase in the income support limits governing the amounts payable to those in residential care and nursing homes, by amounts ranging up to no less than £55 a week for a nursing home in Greater London--at an overall cost of £225 million. I should make it clear that, under a technicality, the £10 increase in the London nursing home supplement requires a separate set of regulations distinct from the uprating order under debate.

As the House knows, the balance of the increased limits is weighted towards nursing homes. All the evidence, including the Price Waterhouse survey of costs that we commissioned, shows that that is where large increases are most needed.

In view of some of the comments made, I should emphasise two points about the residential care home limits. First, the basic residential care home limit has increased faster than inflation during the past five years. Secondly--this is too often overlooked in such discussions--the structure includes a separate and higher limit for residential care homes for the very dependent elderly, whose care is obviously likely to entail higher costs. That limit, which covers well over a third of all elderly people on income support in residential homes, is being increased by £15 a week.

I hope that it is in order to refer to a matter which is not about uprating but which is of considerable interest to many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) who has rightly pressed us on it. It is the lump sum made available to those who suffer severe neural or physical damage as a result of vaccination. Such payments are made under the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979 and were last increased from £10,000 to £20,000 in 1985, when I held the post now occupied by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People.

I am glad to tell the House that we have decided to increase the amount by a further £10,000 to £30,000, which rather more than restores its value to the 1985 level. The necessary order will be laid shortly. That increase does not represent a changed judgment about the risk of vaccination, but simply our view that it is once again appropriate to increase the payment. I hope that that will be welcome.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest) : I welcome my right hon. Friend's news about the increase. It will be especially welcomed by young people who, through no fault of their own or of their parents, have been damaged by vaccine. The increases are in response to representations that I and other hon. Members have made over the past year. I should like the Minister to look at the rules and regulations under which vaccine damage payments are made. Currently, an 80 per cent. disability has to be proved before any payment can be made. I have urged the Minister in the past to look at this matter, and I hope that he will do so. I thank him for his valuable contribution.

Mr. Newton : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I shall consider the issue that he raises but,

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obviously, I cannot make any commitment at this stage. I pay tribute to him and to other hon. Members for the way in which this issue has been pressed. I am glad that we have been able to announce a response.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) : While we all appreciate the increase, it seems to be just below the increase in earnings for the period and probably in line with inflation. How many vaccine-damaged children will benefit from the change?

Mr. Newton : As with the previous change, this change will apply to new claims made after a certain date, in this case after 15 April. The reasons for doing it in that way were fully explained in 1985, but I can repeat them if hon. Members wish me to do so. Only about four or five vaccine damage awards are made each year. It is a small scheme, and I hope that it is clear to the House that I am not trying to oversell it. However, the matter has been sensibly and rightly raised, and we have responded to it in the same way.

It is customary in such debates for the Secretary of State to conclude by reminding the House of the huge amounts with which we are dealing. The increase in social security expenditure between this year and next, most of it arising from the uprating order, is nearly £5 billion, and it will take the total next year to well over £60 billion. [Interruption.] I wish that Opposition Members would stop muttering.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West) : Instead of trying to take credit for the fact that the budget has increased by £5 billion a year, the Secretary of State should eat a little humble pie by acknowledging that his economic colleagues have completely lost control of inflation, and that that, and that alone, is the cause of the increase.

Mr. Newton : It is absolutely clear that inflation is falling at a very significant rate, and that is welcome to all of us. The hon. Gentleman might have spotted that, although I felt it, as it were, routinely necessary to refer to these macro-economic figures, I was about to move to a rather different way of bringing my speech to an end.

It is possible to take those huge sums and present whatever arguments we may have as to their basis. I prefer to concentrate on what this is all about--the people we are helping. In raising the national insurance retirement pension by £5.10 for a single person, and by £8.15 a week for a couple, we are firmly maintaining our pledge to raise pensions in line with price rises. In providing a real increase in income support for many less well-off pensioners, we are building on what was done 18 months ago for those in this group who are disabled or who are over 75-- taking the total of real additional help to nearly £300 million in less than two years. With the increase in child benefit, we are helping more than 6 million families, complementing the £400 million of real extra help already provided to families who are less well-off, compared with the position that obtained before the social security reforms of 1988. When all that is taken together with legislation that the House passed recently to bring an additional £300 million a year of help to many disabled people, it will be seen that we can take some pride in this order and in the Government's record.

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4.32 pm

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West) : The annual debate on social security uprating is, in effect, a debate on the living standards and prospects of the poorest one third of the nation. On that subject, we have just had a rather modest speech from the Secretary of State. It was a speech full of minor details, but perhaps that is not surprising as, when it comes to protecting the living standards of our poorest citizens, he has a lot to be modest about. However, modesty is not a quality that comes naturally to the present Government. Last July, the then Prime Minister roundly declared : "all people of all incomes have increased their standard of living under this Government."--[ Official Report, 24 July 1990 ; Vol. 177, c. 304.]

Let the Secretary of State say that to the 100,000 claimant households that have not had a penny rise in their benefits since April 1987. Ironically, 24 hours before that declaration by the Prime Minister, the Government published statistics which, for the first time, publicly admitted the opposite.

A Department of Social Security document bearing the sexy title, "Households below average income"--I suppose that only a Government Department could dream up such a title--for which we were grateful, despite its late publication, shows that, between 1979 and 1987, the average income, after housing costs, of the bottom one tenth of the population fell by 5.7 per cent. in real terms, and that the average income of the bottom one fifth of the population fell by 1.1 per cent. in real terms. The 10 million people affected are the subject of today's debate.

Ministers like to say that they have concentrated help on the most needy. I am glad to see that the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People has woken up now that the Secretary of State has finished and I am speaking. On 30 January 1990, he said : "We have adjusted the system to concentrate help on the poorest elderly and disabled pensioners."--[ Official Report, 30 January 1990 ; Vol. 166, c. 211.]

I wrote to the Secretary of State and asked for more details of the poorest 1 million people in this group--the most disadvantaged in our society. After four months, the Minister replied, confirming what we had always suspected--that under the present Government the 1 million in the population with the lowest incomes have suffered a fall in their real living standards of no less than 10 to 15 per cent.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton) : The hon. Gentleman mentioned comparative modesty between the two Front Benches. He will know that, since 1979, the Government have increased spending on family benefits by 29 per cent. in real terms. When the last Labour Government cut spending on family benefits by 8 per cent., where was the hon. Gentleman and what did he do?

Mr. Meacher : I should certainly like to know where those statistics come from. The hon. Gentleman must know that, during their last term of office, the Government have cut child benefit by more than 25 per cent.

Among the groups that I mentioned--they are the subject of today's debate-- one group about which the Government like to claim they are concerned is precisely the group mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, families with children. Indeed, the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People said in his revealing speech a year ago : "We try to establish those parts of the social security system where the shoe pinches unduly and make adjustments

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to it. We have helped families on low incomes, whether in or out of work."--[ Official Report, 30 January 1990 ; Vol. 166, c. 211.] On 26 July 1990, the Government published what has really been happening to families on low incomes. I mention that date only because, as hon. Members may remember, it was the day that Parliament rose for the recess. I am sure that my hon. Friends know that there is no more important Hansard to read than the one that is circulated after Parliament has closed for the recess. That is when all the unwelcome information that the Government have been trying to conceal for the past year finally sees the light of day. It is worth reading carefully. It shows that where the shoe pinches unduly--the poorest 10 per cent. of families on low incomes-- have not been helped by the Government. According to the Government's figures, those people are 7 per cent. worse off in real terms compared with 1979. That is on the record, and I recommend that the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) look at that Hansard.

Mr. Newton : My first point is not my main point, but it needs to be made. The hon. Gentleman appeared to be referring to households on below average income and to the date of publication for certain figures. Those figures were not published on the day that Parliament rose for the recess. I remember that they were published when I was due to appear before the Select Committee on Social Security. We felt that it would be right, if possible, to publish those figures then so that the Select Committee could examine me on them. That must have been before Parliament rose for the summer recess.

I wish to make a more substantive point about the way in which the hon. Gentleman is using the figures. He will acknowledge that he is referring to figures after housing costs, rather than to the total income available to the family. In reckoning their standard of living, most people look at their total income rather than their income after paying their rent or mortgage, although they may need to do that calculation for other purposes.

By concentrating on the figures after housing costs, the hon. Gentleman runs the risk--I put it no higher than that because I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not seeking to run that risk--of being seriously misleading. I shall give one simple example, which I also gave to the Select Committee last year. If a young couple save £50 a week to put towards a deposit on a house, that £50 will still be in their income after housing costs and they will probably be several deciles up in the tables to which the hon. Gentleman referred. When that couple stop saving £50 a week, but instead start paying £50 towards a mortgage, it becomes a housing cost and the couple drop a decile or two in the tables and are suddenly defined as poor. The only change is that they are putting £50 a week into a mortgage instead of saving £50 a week for a deposit. That shows how absurd some interpretations of statistics can be.

Mr. Meacher : The right hon. Gentleman is not correct on a number of points. First, I was not quoting the "Households below average income" figures ; I was quoting Hansard for the last day of the Session, which I think was 26 July, and which was circulated 10 days after. It is correct that the HBAI figures were issued two or three days before, but what the right hon. Gentleman does not add is that they had been sat on by the Government for at least a year. They had been promised the Christmas before, they had been promised in the new year and they

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had been promised before Easter. We finally had them in the last week of the Session, when it was not impossible but extremely difficult to make use of them in the House.

Whether taking incomes before or after housing costs is the fairest representation of the state of overall income is a genuine issue, but it is curious to hear the right hon. Gentleman make such a point on behalf of a Government, who have constantly said that we should ignore the cost of mortgages in the retail prices index-- [Interruption]. That is exactly what the Government have repeatedly said. They say that the mortgage element should be put on one side and that we should look at incomes minus mortgage payments. I do not think that I need to take any lessons from the right hon. Gentleman about which is the correct way of representing the figures.

Mr. Frank Field : Is not one of the difficulties that the Government face that they have been hoist on their own low income figures? When the figures after housing costs showed that the poorest were doing twice as well as everybody else, the Government wanted to use them, but when they were revised the Government came up with some rather good reasons why we should not use them. Should not all the data carry a Government health warning, since both sides of the Chamber use figures for political reasons rather than because they reflect what is happening to the poor?

Mr. Meacher : My hon. Friend, who was Chairman of the Select Committee on Social Services at the time, makes a relevant point. The Government statistics at that time were said to show that the poorest 10th- -I think that it was the lowest decile--had increased their standard of living twice as fast as the rest of the community. That seemed an incredible claim and the Select Committee and my hon. Friend rightly subjected the Government's statistics to independent assessment by, I think, the Institute of Fiscal Studies. It showed that the figures were bogus. Therefore, we should take into account my hon. Friend's point and the way in which the Government have moved the goal posts by presenting figures calculated on a different basis.

The Government have only released figures for up to 1987. That is just as well for them because 1989 was a bad year, 1990 was a dreadful year and 1991 looks like being a disastrous year, not only for the nation, but above all for those on the lowest incomes. Since 1987, for them--it is mainly for them--unemployment has risen sharply and child benefit has been frozen. It can safely be said that if a quarter of the population were worse off in real terms after eight years of Tory government, as the Government have now admitted, they are even worse off now, after 12 years of Tory government. We may be told, although the right hon. Gentleman has not yet said so, that all that occurred under the previous regime--the ancien regime. The Conservative party is now the purveyor of the classless society. Frankly, I have never heard such cant. It was the Prime Minister who used that phrase and it was the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State who, five years ago, presided over the legislation that introduced the social fund ; that virtually ended free school meals ; that abolished entitlement to 90 per cent. of disablement benefit ; that extended the penalty for so-called voluntary unemployment from six weeks to six months ; that removed all entitlement to benefit for 16 to 17-year-olds which led directly to cardboard city ; that

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hacked £500 million off housing benefit for pensioners and other poor families, and which, according to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux caused 82 per cent. of social security claimants to be worse off.

All those damaging changes were the direct result of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State and they came into effect in 1988--the same year in which the Prime Minister, who was then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and a former Chancellor of the Exchequer handed out £2 billion in tax reliefs to the well-heeled and the rich.

I seem to remember that someone once said that people should be judged not by what they say but by what they do. Far from ushering in a classless society, the Prime Minister has handed down some of the most class- conscious and divisive legislation that Britain has suffered since the war. If the Prime Minister really believed in a classless society, he would not be making short-term gestures such as raising cold weather payments by £1 a week for a few elderly people for just two weeks. He would be restoring heating additions to all pensioners in need. He would be reversing the Tory's break of the pension uprating link with earnings, which has made pensioners a class apart--the only people who are denied the rise in living standards enjoyed by the rest of the community.

If the Prime Minister really believed in a classless society, he would not merely be offering an additional £1 in child benefit for just this year for the eldest child only ; he would be reversing the four-year Tory freeze on child benefit for all children. If the Prime Minister really believed in a classless society, he would not merely be talking about opportunity and fairness ; he would be abolishing the social fund that traps millions of our people deeper into poverty and debt.

Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the president of Pensioners' Voice, who says that Labour's commitment to pensioners is weak?

Mr. Meacher : I did not see that and it surprises me because we are proposing--I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to include this in my speech an extra £5 a week for the single pensioner, an extra £8 a week for the married pensioner on top of the normal uprating and, even more important in view of the experience of the past decade, to restore the link with earnings. As a result of that link being broken, pensioners have lost £12 a week if they are single and £20 a week if they are married. Our proposal is not weak--it is a formidable commitment.

Mr. Winnick : Is my hon. Friend aware that, whatever criticism Pensioners' Voice may or may not have about our record and commitment, it has only contempt for what the Conservative Government have done and the fact that married pensioners have lost some £23 a week and single pensioners between £13 and £14 a week as a result of the decision taken in 1980? [Interruption.] I do not know what the junior Ministers are muttering about, but I know that many pensioners in Britain are bitterly disappointed that they are way behind pensioners in other European countries and that they are being treated with contempt by this Administration.

Mr. Meacher : Labour also should be judged not by what it says but by what it does. The previous Labour Government increased, over five years, the real value of a

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pension by 20 per cent., whereas 12 years of Conservative government--as the Secretary of State implicitly admitted when speaking about prices indexes--produced a real increase in the value of pensions of next to nothing. That is a formidable difference between the two parties, and one of which I am sure pensioners will take account at the next general election.

Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South) : Does the hon. Gentleman recall that, in January 1987, in the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnock), he voted in favour of free concessionary television licences for pensioners? Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is Labour's intention to implement such a measure during its first year in office? If so, how much will it cost the taxpayer?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker) : Order. I cannot see how that question arises from the motions on the Order Paper.

Mr. Meacher : I share your view, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that, while I ought to answer relevant questions, I am being dragged a long way from the subject of the debate.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) has spoken for 19 minutes, but has not mentioned any of the orders once. If he is allowed to do that, the House ought to be permitted to hear his answer to my hon. Friend's question about concessionary television licences.

Mr. Meacher : In that case, I shall certainly continue with my speech.

For all the Prime Minister's soothing rhetoric, it is obvious that he does not believe in a classless society or in a welfare state for the needy. His record shows that he believes in a welfare state for the wealthy. Governments are not judged by little gestures--by a little concession or minor amendment here, a further detail there--they are judged by the changes that they make to overall flows of income and by their operation of the social security and taxation systems. That is the measure by which Governments stand or fall. In successive Budgets during the past decade, the Government have, according to independent estimates, engineered a rise in the incomes of the richest one tenth of the population of about £6 billion. According to a parliamentary answer that I received a week ago, the Government have also poured £3.75 million into a public subsidy during the past five years for private pensions for the well-off. On the other side of the balance sheet, according to the Government's own figures, during the past decade, pensioners have had £22 billion taken from them as a result of the break of the earnings link. That puts Conservative Members' comments into perspective. The Government's minuscule improvements are no doubt welcome, but they are insignificant when compared with the financial effect on pensioners of their other measures.

The £22 billion would be enough to give every pensioner a Christmas bonus this year of more than £2,000.

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Sir Robert McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar) : I invite the House to reflect on what happened when there was last a Labour Government. The hon. Gentleman said that he regrets the Government's severing the link between pensions and earnings and linking pensions to prices instead. Is it not the case that, when Labour was in power between 1974 and 1979, it gave an undertaking similar to that which the hon. Gentleman is now offering but, because of the state of the economy, on only three out of a possible five occasions was it possible to honour it?

Mr. Meacher : The hon. Gentleman is not right. The relevant consideration is what happened to pensions in overall terms. As I said, pensioners were 20 per cent. better off after five years of Labour government, but they are zilch better off after 12 years of Tory government. If the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir R. McCrindle) is satisfied with that, I hope that he will give that message to the electorate.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover) rose--

Mr. Meacher : No, I must move on.

Mr. Newton rose--

Mr. Meacher : The right hon. Gentleman has already spoken, but I will give way to him.

Mr. Newton : The hon. Gentleman cannot be allowed to get away with the line of argument that he has used in the last few minutes. What matters to pensioners ultimately is the totality of the effect on them of Government policies. The combination of the pension uprating and the inflationary, taxation, and slow-growth policies pursued by Labour meant that the standard of living of pensioners rose by only 3 per cent. under a Labour Government, whereas average net incomes have risen by 31 per cent. under our Government.

Mr. Meacher : Those figures have been used repeatedly, but they are fundamentally flawed in at least two respects. The growth in shareholding dividends that they incorporate--which can be considerable at a time of rapid growth--have been averaged out over all pensioners. That is absurd. There are some rich pensioners, and they have it all--but the majority of pensioners are poor, and some are very poor. What matters to the poorest of them all is what the Government have done in respect of the state retirement pension, or the additional pension through SERPS. Under the present Government, there has been no increase at all for the poorest 2 million pensioners. They are the people who really matter, because they do not enjoy the advantage of private pensions or of shareholdings. They are the responsibility of the Government and of our generation, yet they have enjoyed no real increase under the Conservatives. They enjoyed a 20 per cent. increase under the last Labour Government. Families have had £750 million pounds taken away from them as a result of the four-year freeze on child benefit. As a result of all the changes to national insurance benefits since 1979, claimants have had an additional £1 billion taken away from them by successive cuts in benefits. That was revealed in a written answer given on 6 February in reply to an excellent question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle).

Vast changes in income flows are continuing, and are growing year by year. The Government have already timetabled huge additional cuts for the future- -most

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notably the abolition of the additional pension for invalidity benefit, from which, in time, the Government will save no less than £1 billion per year, according to their own estimates. Staggering as it may seem, the Exchequer will gain more from cuts in benefit from the poorest one third of the nation than from the proceeds of all the Government's privatisations. That is not producing a classless society, but engineering the sharpest class division since the Edwardian era.

This year, there has been a new phenomenon--one that has not occurred even during 11 years of Thatcherism. I refer to the creation of a new army of debtors, dependent on the ultimate safety net of income support, yet forced by punitive Government measures to subsist, in large numbers, below the poverty line. According to the Government's own estimates, nearly 750,000 people on income support will be subject this year to deductions because of the poll tax. The most recent Government figures that I have seen show that a further 430,000 people on income support have been forced to make social fund repayments averaging £5.25 a week. According to a number of parliamentary answers that I have received over the past two months, a further 250,000 families are repaying electricity and gas arrears averaging about £9 a week, 80,000 are paying back rent arrears, and 45,000 are repaying water charges. In all, more than 1.5 million people--one in seven of all those on income support--are now being forced below the poverty line by compulsory benefit deductions.

Even earlier Tory Governments, in their most repressive phases, never did that. I wonder how many of the Government's grinning supporters realise what it really means. Indeed, I wonder whether a single hon. Gentleman opposite can tell me how much income support is received today by either a single or a married adult. I shall gladly give way to any Conservative Member, or indeed Minister, who can tell me.

Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West) : Does the hon. Gentleman want a gender-free House of Commons?

Mr. Meacher : I certainly do. If my terminology fails to adhere to that excellent principle, I apologise.

I was, however, making a much more important point. I think that it speaks volumes that more than 1.5 million people are in such a position. It is interesting that not one Conservative Member can tell me the current level of income support for a single or a married adult, although a Conservative Government are forcing 1.5 million people to live below the poverty line. Government policy has condemned those people to live on less--sometimes substantially less--than £36.70 a week in the case of single adults over 25, and £57.60 a week in the case of married couples over 18, yet not one Conservative Member can give me the figures.

Mr. Newton : Once again, the hon. Gentleman is using figures in what can only be described as a misleading way. Those figures take no account of the fact that either all or part of their mortgage interest--all of it, if they have been receiving benefit for any length of time--is being paid for those self-same people, amounting in some cases to substantial sums. If they are tenants, they will receive either a rent allowance or a 100 per cent. rent rebate, as long as they are also receiving income support. No one else

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uses the income figures in such a misleading way. Income support levels must be seen in the context of the meeting of housing costs--in full, in many cases.

Mr. Meacher : Actually, they should be seen in the context of people being able to survive to pay all the costs of normal daily living. Housing is certainly one of those costs, but there are plenty of others, including food, clothing, transport and everything else that people require to look after themselves. I see that the Secretary of State at least has the grace to be embarrassed by what I have said : the figures are indeed deeply embarrassing. They suggest that 1.5 million people are receiving substantially less than income support. I have said before, and make no apology for doing so again, that one Tory Member--Matthew Parris, who is no longer in the House--who was young and fit tried to live on income support for a week, but was unable to do so even for that long. These people are being forced to live on it for months and years.

Mr. Frank Field : I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing the Secretary of State back to the Dispatch Box. Has he noticed that the right hon. Gentleman has changed his stance in less than five minutes? When he was talking about low income statistics, the right hon. Gentleman said that it was important not to use figures that took account of housing costs ; he has now told us that it is important to think of income support as the amount remaining after housing costs have been met.

Mr. Newton rose --

Mr. Meacher : The right hon. Gentleman has already made his speech. I realise, however, that he should probably be given an opportunity to reply to that point--although it was extraordinarily effective and relevant.

Mr. Newton : It strikes me as the complete opposite of the real position. I complained before that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) was concentrating on the figures after housing costs ; I am now making exactly the same point--that he is concentrating on the benefit rates after housing costs, regardless of those costs.

Mr. Meacher : The central point, from which the right hon. Gentleman cannot escape, is that, for the first time since Beveridge or perhaps a little earlier--I do not go back to the 1930s--people are being forced to live significantly, and sometimes substantially, below the Government's safety-net level. It is almost impossible to live satisfactorily and healthily on income support for a long time, but to force people to live below it is unbelievably punitive.

Mr. Peter Bottomley : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher : I will not give way again, especially in view of what the hon. Gentleman said to me earlier.

Only the present Government have punished people for being poor. This new army of 1.5 million people is at the bottom of the heap--along with the homeless and those who sleep rough, whose numbers are unprecedented. The cuts in living standards go far wider. In a parliamentary answer that I received about a week ago, the Government admitted that single pensioners are now £12.80 a week worse off, and £20.50 a week worse off than they would have been if they had not broken Labour's earnings link.

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The Secretary of State, of course, says that the Government have kept up with prices, and that pensioners are no worse off in real terms. Even that proves untrue when we consider, as we must, pensioners' increased outgoings, notably the poll tax. This year, the average poll tax is likely to rise by about £1.15 a week. Following the implementation of the orders, pensioners will have less disposable income in real terms this year than last. The same will apply to many of the 2 million people who are unemployed--whose numbers may rise to 3 million within a year--and to hundreds of thousands of low-income families who are now £1.30 a week worse off for the first child and £2.30 a week worse off for the subsequent children as a result of the four-year child benefit freeze. Moreover--the Secretary of State touched on this--the latest evidence shows that thousands of elderly people, and people in residential and nursing homes, will be in even worse straits next year than this year. The most recent independent survey shows that the income support shortfall will rise this year--even after the increases proposed in the uprating orders--to some £25 a week in residential homes and some £52 a week in nursing homes. Evictions of elderly people and closures of homes can therefore be expected to increase. Even more ominous, the survey found that half of all registered homes now refuse to take elderly people who are receiving benefit and cannot afford to top it up from a private source at a rate of up to £52.60 a week. Those people will not receive the care that they need.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West) : Disgraceful.

Mr. Meacher : It is disgraceful. For the first time, I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hughes rose --

Mr. Meacher : I have abundant evidence to support my comments. Another group--applicants to the social fund--is, in increasing numbers being faced with a blank order to go without. Last year, three quarters of such people were refused help. One quarter were refused help because their local Department of Social Security office did not have enough cash left. According to the recent devastating National Audit Office report published a fortnight ago, refusal rates are up to 73 per cent. for loans, up to 79 per cent. for grants and up to 51 per cent. for crisis loans.

The Secretary of State said that the social fund allows assistance to be targeted on those most in need. That is Toryspeak for rationing. It is also a lie. Those most in need--those without any money--are the people most likely to be refused help on the ground that they cannot repay the loan. That must surely be the ultimate hypocrisy.

The social fund is an ugly throwback to the Poor Law. It is a state-funded charity under which officers ration patently insufficient money among desperate claimants who have no right to an independent appeal against refusal. I can tell the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister that there will not be a classless society, let alone any decency or civilised values of care and compassion, until the social fund and its authors are swept away.

Our social security system is a negation of all that it should be. It does not provide social security ; it provides a growing level of insecurity for millions of our people.

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