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House of Commons

Monday 15 April 1991

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Mr. Speaker : I regret to have to inform the House of the death of Sir John Stradling Thomas, Knight, Member for Monmouth, and I desire, on behalf of the House, to express our sense of the loss we have sustained and our sympathy with the relatives of the hon. Member.

Oral Answers to Questions


Family Benefits

1. Dr. Twinn : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the annual spending on family credit ; and what was the spending on family income supplement in 1979.

6. Mr. Alison : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the annual spending on family credit ; and what was spending on family income supplement in 1979.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Michael Jack) : I am pleased to be able to tell the House that we estimate that in the financial year just ended expenditure on family credit will have been £484

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million. That is 20 times in cash terms, or eight times in real terms, the expenditure in 1978-79 on family income supplement of £24 million.

Dr. Twinn : I very much welcome my hon. Friend's reply, which shows the real increase in spending. I know that he will share the concern of the House about those who are not taking up benefit for which they qualify and I congratulate him on the advertising campaign. How successful has it been so far?

Mr. Jack : I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words about our campaign. In the television campaign we have drawn attention to the message in the front of the child benefit book which shows what people could receive in the form of assistance through family credit. That is a cost- effective way of reaching 6.7 million families. The success can be judged from the fact that after five weeks of the campaign there has been a 17 per cent. increase in the number of inquiries about family credit over the figure for the five weeks before the campaign started.

Mr. Alison : Does my hon. Friend recall that when the predecessor of family credit, the family income supplement scheme, was started by the then Sir Keith Joseph in the early 1970s, the Labour Opposition promised to abolish it? Against that abolitionist background, does he recognise that the Labour party has not the slightest hope of matching, let alone improving, the quality and calibre of family credit as it operates today?

Mr. Jack : My right hon. Friend, in his perceptive way, has put his finger on a series of exchanges in the recent Budget debate, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State drew the attention of Opposition Members to the fact that the Opposition's policy on the uprating of child benefit meant that people on family credit would receive no additional payments-- unlike under our much more generous approach to the problem.

Mr. Frank Field : How much would the increase in family credit have been had the Government increased child benefit during their 11 years in office in line with prices?

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Mr. Jack : The hon. Gentleman seeks to highlight a most important point : the fact that people on family credit will, of course, receive the full value of the uprating of child benefit in April.

Mr. Kennedy : Will the Minister conduct an urgent review of staffing levels for handling family credit in Blackpool? He will know that, like many other hon. Members, I am in regular correspondence with his Department about the massive delays encountered by people trying to secure family credit, not least by those in the self-employed category, in the evaluation of whose applications more attention to detail is involved.

Mr. Jack : We in the Social Security Department do not have to wait to be prompted on these matters by questions in Parliament. The hon. Gentleman will find that the target met in March--17 days to deal with family credit applications--exceeded by one day the target that was set. He will also know, if he had time to read the newspapers during the recess, that the Benefits Agency was launched last week, with a commitment to a high quality of public service. I am sure that any remaining problems relating to family credit will be one of Mr. Michael Bichard's first priorities.

Sick and Disabled People

2. Sir Anthony Meyer : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the most recent figure for the increase in spending on benefits for long-term sick and disabled people since 1979.

The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Nicholas Scott) : We have increased spending on long-term sick and disabled people by £5.6 billion in real terms over the last 12 years, to over £10 billion a year.

Sir Anthony Meyer : Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the most encouraging aspects about his reply was not just its proof that the Government have done far more for the long-term sick and disabled than the Labour Government ever did, or than the Opposition seem to be planning to do, but that the Government are boosting the morale of those people by making it more possible for them to earn their living and go out into the world?

Mr. Scott : I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government have spent an extra £470 million in real terms per annum compared with £310 million in real terms during the period when Labour was in office. That is ahead of the full implementation of our proposals in "The Way Ahead" which will aid another 850,000 people at a cost of an extra £300 million in 1993-94.

Mr. Tom Clarke : How much of that money was obtained from the savings that the Government achieved as a result of the shameful decision announced with the minimum of publicity by a junior Minister in another place not to implement the remaining sections of the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986? That decision has shocked organisations of and for disabled people. Since the Secretary of State had much to do with the drafting of those sections, will he assure him that that anger will not go away?

Mr. Scott : The 1986 Act was passed in circumstances very different from those that exist today or are in prospect when the main responsibility for care in the community,

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the representation of disabled people and the meeting of their needs passes to local authorities and is properly within their remit.

Mr. Jacques Arnold : Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the most important aspects is to ensure that disabled people and others get the benefits to which they are entitled? Can he give the number of people who have taken up mobility and attendance allowance in recent years?

Mr. Scott : Those figures have increased dramatically, but we are still not satisfied with the arrangements for paying disabled people the benefits to which they are entitled. I recently announced that from June the benefits inquiry line, which we have been piloting in Reading in recent months, will be introduced nationally. Those who think that they are entitled to a benefit will be able to telephone a trained operator and receive a personal letter advising them of their entitlements. Many of them will be able to get a completed application form for their signature.

Mr. Alfred Morris : Is the Minister aware that the increased spending about which he spoke relates, almost entirely, not to higher benefits but to new recipients of benefits that were introduced by this Government's predecessors? Will he confirm that since 1979 average earnings have gone up by more than 20 per cent., but disability benefits by only 1 per cent? Is not that why huge numbers of disabled people complained so bitterly to the Prime Minister at his recent meeting with their organisations? Does he intend to accept the Lords amendment to his Disability Living Allowance and Working Allowance Bill on the future of the independent living fund?

Mr. Scott : The right hon. Gentleman asks a number of questions. First, the extra resources have been found and, for example, our commitment for 1992 to introduce the disability working allowance from the starting date of the legislation compares favourably with the slow, gradual and uncertain introduction of the mobility allowance by the previous Labour Government. Since we came to office we have found the extra resources to deal with the increased take-up of benefits right across the board. The right hon. Gentleman asked about the future of the independent living fund. We have announced extra resources for that and the long-term future will have to take account of the duties that will flow to local authorities after 1993.

Pensioners (Savings)

3. Mr. Stern : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what percentage of pensioners retiring (a) in 1979 and (b) in 1987 had incomes from savings ; and what was the real average level of savings on each of those two dates.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Miss Ann Widdecombe) : My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that,in 1987, 75 per cent. of recently retired pensioners had income from savings compared with only 65 per cent. in 1979. The average real level of savings for this group was about four times as high in 1987 as it had been in 1979.

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Mr. Stern : I congratulate my hon. Friend on that announcement, which confirms the very real increase in the standard of living of pensioners over the past decade. Does my hon. Friend agree that perhaps the greatest danger to the record figures that she announced would be a resurgence of double-figure inflation of the type experienced under the last Labour Government? Does she further agree that the greatest threat of such inflation comes from the grandiose spending plans of the Labour party?

Miss Widdecombe : My hon. Friend is absolutely right and one need only look at the record of the last Labour Government to see how right he is. During their time in office, pensioners' average income from savings fell by 16 per cent., which was the equivalent of about 3.4 per cent. each year. By comparison, under this Government, pensioners' average income from savings has increased by 130 per cent.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : If the Government are claiming credit for those figures, will they also take responsibility for blighting the lives of many of the pensioners in my constituency who have been put out of work in the past 10 years because of the previous Government-created recession and have found themselves, at the age of 55 or 56, unable to get other jobs and having to retire on basic benefits with no savings at all? When will the Government compensate people who were asked to sacrifice their jobs for the prosperity of the country?

Miss Widdecombe : It is odd that the hon. Gentleman castigates the Government for people retiring on basic state pensions, because the number now retiring with occupational pensions has risen to 77 per cent. in real terms. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman is on weak ground. Pensioners' incomes have increased steadily under this Government, from benefits, occupational pensions and savings. The total increase in income is 31 per cent. The hon. Gentleman should look to the record of the previous Labour Government.

Mr. Paice : Does my hon. Friend agree that the lesson to be learnt from the admirable figures that she described to the House, in terms of savings and occupational pensions, is that any extra resources that can be channelled to pensioners should not be dissipated across all pensioners but targeted to those reliant only on state pensions and those most clearly in need of extra income?

Miss Widdecombe : My hon. Friend is right and that is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been targeting help in that fashion. Recently, we announced increases to the value of £200 million in a full year, devoted specifically to less well-off pensioners. From April 1991, a further £80 million has been devoted to exactly that category. My hon. Friend is right that we can do more for poorer pensioners if we specifically target them.

Mr. Allen : The Minister will be aware that, because of the increase in pensions paid for the first time last week, married couples under the age of 75 now receive 10p more than the income support limit. That means that they will be unable to claim benefits such as free dental inspections, free eye tests, European Community food mountain subsidies which allow pensioners free meat and so on--

Mr. Dickens : The gravy train.

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Mr. Allen : --access to the social fund and cold weather payments. The hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens), who calls that the gravy train, should be ashamed of himself. Did the Government realise that that 10p rise over the income support level would have such an effect? If not, what will they do to help those people?

Miss Widdecombe : The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, as a result of that rise in the basic retirement pension for the category of people whom he mentions, the retirement pension has now risen above the level of income support, so they now receive additional resources each week. He should also be aware that such people are still eligible for national health service benefits, as they are for housing and community charge benefits. Their total income should, therefore, not be eroded.

Disabled People

4. Mr. Summerson : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement about the impact of recent technological developments upon the disabled.

Mr. Scott : Recent, current and future technological developments are making and will continue to make an increasing impact on the lives of disabled people. They will enable many disabled people to live independently and to have opportunities for education, employment and leisure. They will also play an important part in the detection, prevention and amelioration of disabling conditions.

Mr. Summerson : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, wherever possible, money is made available by his Department to ensure that disabled people who cannot afford that new technology are enabled to afford its benefits?

Mr. Scott : I agree with my hon. Friend. We want those developments to be made available on as wide a scale as possible. Clearly, priorities will have to be made about the development and availability of new technology. But we are moving in the right direction and in the next 10 years technology will make a greater impact than anything else on the lives of disabled people.

Mr. Thurnham : Does my right hon. Friend recall his visit three years ago to the disabled living service centre in Manchester, which has a unique display of devices to help the disabled? Does he recognise the national importance of that centre, which is funded almost entirely by charity?

Mr. Scott : I certainly recognise that and there are a number of other centres around the country that also play an important part in enabling disabled people to see what is available to them. I am concerned that we should exploit information technology to the greatest extent possible so that social services departments, voluntary agencies and disabled people can find out, by using the telephone or other instruments of information technology, what is available to them.


5. Mr. Sims : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what measures the Government are implementing to improve their level of service to social security claimants.

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8. Mr. Lester : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what measures the Government are implementing to improve their level of service to social security claimants.

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton) : The creation of the Benefits Agency under the "next steps" arrangements is an important development which will enhance and improve the service given to social security claimants. It will be able to build on other measures already being introduced, including, in particular, the extensive use of information technology.

Mr. Sims : I thank my right hon. Friend for that encouraging reply. The sheer size of the social security organisation and the number of beneficiaries make it inevitable that errors will occasionally occur. What is annoying for our constituents is that, when something goes wrong, it takes so long to be put right--phone calls receive no response, letters go unanswered and papers go astray--and constituents often turn to their Members of Parliament to get a relatively simple matter put straight. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that his proposals for the agencies will speed up the methods of dealing with the occasional mistakes that are bound to occur?

Mr. Newton : Like any other Member of Parliament, I am familiar with the sort of criticism made by my hon. Friend. I well recognise that there has been substantial scope for improvement. If my hon. Friend looks at what has happened to, for example, income support clearance times and the speed of reassessment, when required, he will find that there has already been substantial improvement. However, there is still scope for more and I have no doubt that the emphasis that the Benefits Agency already puts on service to the public will contribute to the further improvement that my hon. Friend and I both want.

Mr. Lester : It is very interesting that, following the Moodie report, my right hon. Friend has moved to the policy of having a Benefits Agency. I welcome his non-complacent attitude and awareness that matters can always continue to improve. Is he satisfied that the interface between the Benefits Agency and the Department of Employment, particularly when dealing with people who move from Department of Employment benefit to income support, is first class, because nobody wants to make it more difficult for people who are currently unemployed or are becoming long-term unemployed?

Mr. Newton : I should not wish to appear complacent about that aspect of the social security system, any more than any other. I am sure that there is scope in that area for further improvement. I am confident that the combination of the Employment Service Agency and the Benefits Agency will produce further improvement.

Mr. Grocott : Cannot the Secretary of State understand the considerable scepticism that exists about any of his planned changes since one consequence of the changes is the diminution of his accountability to the House and the accountability of him and his Ministers to individual Members of Parliament? Is not it the habit of Ministers that when they have anything good to say, they much prefer to say it to the House? Therefore, it occurs to many of us that the reason why the Secretary of State puts himself behind the front line is that he is not too proud of the changes.

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Mr. Newton : The hon. Gentleman is unduly cynical, even by the standards of the House. The accountability, to the House and to Parliament as a whole, of the Secretary of State for Social Security for the social security system is entirely unchanged. In my view, it will be more effective, because it will operate on the basis of clearly set targets and the delegation of responsibility, in terms that make it much easier to judge whether those targets are being met.

Mr. Meacher : As good service is about providing adequate benefits and not less benefit more quickly, is not the Secretary of State ashamed of the EC report of a week ago which finds that while the number of poor people elsewhere in the EC remained broadly stable through the 1980s, in Britain the number of poor households has increased by a third? When will he apologise to the House for the Government having caused that by breaking the pensioner link with earnings, by failing repeatedly to uprate child benefit, by forcing families into poverty as a result of the social fund, by huge cuts in housing benefit and by making the poorest of all pay the poll tax? Is not all the razzamatazz about agency status merely a cover-up for the greatest increase in poverty and inequality since the war?

Mr. Newton : Obviously the hon. Gentleman has not studied with great care the statistics to which he refers. He well knows that average incomes were used as the benchmark for them, which means that at a time when average incomes have been rising quickly there is an apparent increase in the number of those in poverty measured on that basis. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is sensible to rest an analysis of that sort on the basis of figures that appear to produce an increase in poverty when average incomes rise quickly, he should do more homework.

Mr. Meacher : It is an EC report.

Mr. Newton : Of course it is an EC report, but that does not necessarily make it sensible. I am sure that the information is good, but the analysis is wrong, as is the use which the hon. Gentleman made of it.

I take up the point which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People made in another context last week, which revealed again the absurdity of the way in which the figures are used. It happens that 50 per cent. of average incomes was used as the benchmark. Taking Europe as a whole, that produced the result that 50 million people were poor. Had 40 per cent. been used as the benchmark--there was no specially good reason for taking 50 rather than 40 per cent.--the result would have been halved to 26 million. The figures are worth only as much as the interpretation placed on them and the interpretation is ridiculous.

One last point-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. It would be helpful if the Secretary of State answered the supplementary questions, not questions that have not been asked.

Mr. Newton rose--

Mr. Speaker : Very briefly.

Mr. Newton : The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) asked about half a dozen questions. As he put

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forward a proposal to increase child benefit that would have done nothing for the poorest families in the country, I wonder how he has the nerve to raise these matters.


7. Mr. Simon Coombs : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement on the level of savings in costs and time brought about by computerisation within his Department.

Miss Widdecombe : The Department's operational strategy--the biggest and most ambitious computerisation programme in Europe--is proceeding as planned and should be fully implemented in July. Most local offices have already gone live and are providing a quicker, more accurate service. For example, the processing time for income support claims has reduced from 6.2 days to five days and for retirement pensions from 28.5 days to 20.3 days.

Mr. Coombs : Will my hon. Friend tell my constituents how they have benefited from the computerisation process by telling the House the degree to which the accuracy of income support claims has been improved since computerisation took place?

Miss Widdecombe : Swindon is already benefiting from the pension system, which is on line. It will shortly be benefiting also from the income support system. After those systems have been in place for some time, my hon. Friend will notice, as has been noticed in other constituencies, that there is a marked increase in speed and accuracy in responding to claims. My hon. Friend will be aware of the business plan recently published by the Benefits Agency and of the most impressive target for accuracy and speed contained therein.

Mrs. Fyfe : How can the Minister say that when we all have constituents who have waited weeks and even months after claiming benefits, only to receive them in the few weeks before the financial year ended, when officers were reconsidering their budgets? Would it not be more sensible to put the money into people's hands when they need it, not weeks and months later?

Miss Widdecombe : The hon. Lady is describing a system that most of those who are already computerised and have been for some time would not recognise. Among the local offices that I have visited have been those which are now turning round pension claims in days rather than, as previously, in weeks. It is true, in the immediate aftermath of new systems being introduced, there is sometimes some backlog and delay. When that has been cleared, the uniform experience thereafter is greater speed in delivery of benefits.

Child Support Agency

9. Mr. Butler : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what progress he has made in setting up the Child Support Agency.

Mr. Jack : I am glad to report to the House that the key objectives of site selection for the agency's centres are developing well. The appropriate information technology systems are being evaluated and job design for them is also

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progressing well. We are confident that the agency will be able to meet its operational requirements by early 1993, as set out in the White Paper "Children Come First".

Mr. Butler : Will my hon. Friend outline some of the local employment created as a result of this welcome measure? Will any local employment be created in Warrington?

Mr. Jack : I congratulate my hon. Friend on the assiduousness and persuasiveness with which he wrote on behalf of his constituents to those given the responsibility for site selection. We hope to establish up to six regional centres for the Child Support Agency. I assure my hon. Friend that, although at this stage I cannot reveal precisely the locations of the centres, we have taken carefully into account the facts that he put before the House.

Each of the regional centres will employ up to 500 people. In total, about 5,000 people will be employed by the Child Support Agency--an increase of some 3,500 overall in the number presently involved in liable relative work in the Department.

Mr. Meacher : Now that a vote in another place means that the Secretary of State will not be given the proposed punitive power to remove the right to income support from a lone parent who declines, often for good reason, to name the father, will the Minister give a commitment that the Government will use the carrot and not the stick? Will they encourage lone parents to name the father by allowing them to keep a proportion of the maintenance thus obtained? Will the Minister at least give a commitment that he will not reintroduce any punitive measure that forces unemployed fathers below the level of subsistence?

Mr. Jack : I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has asked me that particular question. I draw to his attention the fact that clause 5 of the Child Support Bill remains in place as a result of the discussions in another place. As he will know, that clause contains a requirement that the information be made available to child support offices during their inquiries relating to seeking maintenance. We listened carefully to the arguments on clause 22, which deals with this matter. That consideration continues. Until that operation is concluded, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise answer to his question.

Disabled People (Allowances)

10. Mr. Lawrence : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many disabled people will benefit from the introduction of (a) the disability living allowance and (b) the disability working allowance.

Mr. Scott : We estimate that nearly 300,000 people will benefit from the introduction of disability living allowance and about 50,000 will be receiving disability working allowance at any one time.

Mr. Lawrence : Are not these considerable, substantial and constructive improvements in the conditions of disabled people in Britain? Is not there a world of difference between Labour promises, which are not even priority pledges and which socialist management of the economy could never deliver any more than it did the last time that the Labour party was in power, and actual Conservative deeds?

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Mr. Scott : I am delighted that my hon. and learned Friend recognises both the progress that we seek to make and the failure of the Opposition. There was previously a partial incapacity benefit. For the first time, we are introducing a benefit that will encourage those who are able and want to work, to do so. That is a great step in the right direction. I am also pleased that, in the vast majority of cases, we have moved away from medical assessment to self-assessment, as that is a better way to handle these matters.

Ms. Mowlam : Will the Minister express his disgust at the fact that one group of disabled--haemophiliacs suffering from AIDS--has not yet received a penny from the Government? Will he assure the House now that anyone who applies to the Macfarlane Trust and eventually, through the rhetoric, gets some money, will not be denied any social security benefits such as disability working allowance?

Mr. Scott : The hon. Lady is wrong to suggest that haemophiliacs have not received any money from the Government. They have received a great deal of money. There was a lot of misleading comment in the press this weekend and I should like not only to lay that ghost but to refute the suggestion that payments from the haemophiliac trust, the Macfarlane Trust, are not being disregarded for social security benefits. They are and they will continue to be so.

Child Support Agency

11. Mrs. Gorman : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how the Child Support Agency will assist lone parents.

Mr. Newton : The Child Support Agency will be a purpose-built organisation with a single aim of providing an efficient and effective service for all families for whom child maintenance is an issue. The use of an administrative formula to calculate child maintenance will produce consistent and predictable results, introduce the opportunity for regular review and reduce the scope for dispute.

Mrs. Gorman : I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. I entirely support the Government's intention to ensure that three quarters of absent parents who presently do not support their children should be made to do so. Has he thought about the fact that what mothers in such cases need is the money in their hands? Having been made an award, they will not necessarily get that money unless the father can be tracked down and made to pay. The award that the Government will have made is a negotiable document for the mother. In the private sector, one could factor such an award--go to a bank or some other organisation and be able to get the money up front. When we discuss the Bill in the House, will my right hon. Friend consider introducing that idea into it?

Mr. Newton : I note my hon. Friend's suggestion. The main point that I would make in reply is that one of the groups for whom the use of the agency will be compulsory is lone parents on income support. In those cases, it is difficult to see quite what they would gain from my hon. Friend's proposal, because if maintenance does not come, income support does. The state is providing a guaranteed income.

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Dr. Godman : Will lone parents in receipt of income support, especially mothers bringing up children on their own, receive any assistance by way of advice and representation when they apply for community care grants or crisis loans from their local DSS offices? Are not women in such circumstances often in need of professional advice, especially when challenging decisions taken by adjudication officers?

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