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House of Commons

Monday 24 June 1991

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Pensioners (Telephone Bills)

1. Mr. Jessel : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he has made any estimate of the financial position of pensioners who receive social security pensions in the light of their expenditure patterns in relation to items such as telephones.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Miss Ann Widdecombe) : My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that the increased prosperity of pensioners is reflected in the extent to which they now have access to important household items. For instance, 86 per cent. of pensioners had use of a telephone in 1989, compared with less than 50 per cent. in 1979. Those figures will be of considerable encouragement and comfort to my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine), who has often raised the matter in parliamentary questions and who celebrates his 77th birthday today.

Mr. Jessel : As it is so important for pensioners--including my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine)--to be able to telephone, and as this large and welcome increase has taken place because of the successful management of the economy by the Conservative Government, does my hon. Friend agree that such improvements could be placed at risk by the extravagant and foolish proposals of the Opposition?

Miss Widdecombe : Indeed. The extravagant expenditure proposed by Opposition Members will not benefit pensioners who need it most, and neither will they target resources on the poorest pensioners--their plans will result merely in large rises in national insurance for everyone, including the lower paid.

Mr. Alfred Morris : In regard specifically to disabled pensioners, will the Minister confirm that the local authority has a duty, under section 2 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, to assess their need for a telephone ; and that, as I was legally advised as Minister, for provision of a telephone to be withdrawn is unlawful without diminution in the need in any particular disabled pensioner's case?

Miss Widdecombe : The right hon. Gentleman has correctly interpreted the law on the responsibilities of local authorities. The Government are particularly concerned to channel extra help with telephones to elderly or infirm

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people who depend on the telephone as a lifeline, as so many do. We have therefore ensured a better deal than ever before for elderly and infirm people, whereby in many cases rental prices will be halved and low users will receive 30 free call units every quarter.

Sir Bernard Braine : I thank my hon. Friend for her kind reference to me. The trend towards more people acquiring personal pensions is welcome, but would it be possible at some stage to publish proposals to encourage people to make their pension arrangements at an earlier stage? Would that not be a marvellous step towards encouraging people to take responsibility for their own pension arrangements as I know that the Government wish to do?

Miss Widdecombe : Indeed. My right hon. Friend will be interested to know that more than half the pensioners taking retirement, and a considerably larger proportion of all retired persons, have provision other than the state pension, of which personal pensions are one aspect. As the original question was about telephones, it may interest the House to know that the increase in pensioners' prosperity has been such that 70 per cent. now have central heating, compared with 43.2 per cent. under the last Labour Government, 96 per cent. have a fridge, 71 per cent. have a washing machine and 98 per cent. have a television.


2. Mr. Pike : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he proposes to make any changes in the way income from savings is assessed for benefit purposes.

Miss Widdecombe : The present capital rules give the greatest help to those with the lowest savings. The rules continue to be kept under review, but no further change is proposed at present. Substantial changes were made only last year to the amount of capital that a person can have and still receive income-related benefits.

Mr. Pike : Does the Minister recognise that most of the people claiming housing and poll tax benefit under the existing regulations believe that, in 1991, £3,000 is a fairly modest amount of savings? Should not the tariffed income basis, which takes 20.8 per cent. interest, be amended? When people begin to lose in that way, should not something be done to give them a better deal?

Miss Widdecombe : The hon. Gentleman should do his sums again. He will find that there is a clawback of only 1.6 per cent. interest from those at the lower end of the income scale. The present system means that it is better to have a tariff than to take into account the actual income of those with low savings, because that is precisely the point at which the tariff benefits them. I know of nowhere else where interest would be assumed to be just 1.6 per cent.

Mrs. Roe : Will my hon. Friend reassure the House that the Government have no plans to introduce a tax on savings, as mooted by the Labour party?

Miss Widdecombe : I assure my hon. Friend that we have no such plans. Our plans will encourage savings and, more important from the pensioner's point of view, protect savings--unlike what happened to pensioners' savings under the last Labour Government.

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Earnings Disregard

3. Ms. Short : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what plans he has to adjust the earnings disregard for single parents on income support.

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton): We increased the earnings disregard for working lone parents on housing benefit and community charge benefit to £25 per week from last October, but we have no plans at present to change the corresponding £15 income support disregard, which is already £10 higher than that for most other claimants.

Ms. Short : As there has been an enormous growth in the proportion of lone parents dependent on income support under the present Government, because various changes have increased the poverty trap, would it not be much better to increase the disregard for income support and maintenance payments so that lone parents can move off benefits into semi-independence and then into work, rather than do as the Government have done and push more and more of them on to benefits, which the Conservatives then bellyache about because of the much bigger poverty trap?

Mr. Newton : The hon. Lady, despite her long-standing interest in these matters, has perhaps failed to focus on the fact that simply operating on income support earnings disregards works against the process that she wishes to advance of lone parents moving into what counts as full- time work. Much the more productive approach is to do what we have done, as I said in my first answer, and improve the earnings disregards for the in- work benefits. We shall build on that, in addition to the Child Support Bill proposals, by reducing the number of hours required to qualify a person for family credit and by introducing a maintenance disregard.

Mr. Harris : I accept that my right hon. Friend said that and I pay tribute to what the Government have done, but two lone parents who came to see me on Friday at my surgery in Penzance made the point that if the earnings disregard were raised from £15 they would be able to earn more through part-time work and therefore be able to devote more of their income to their children--for example, through school uniforms and school trips. Will my right hon. Friend consider that matter sympathetically?

Mr. Newton : To some extent, I am virtually driven to repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short). Perhaps some of those people who went to see my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) did not focus sufficiently on the proposed change that would reduce family credit hours--to use a form of shorthand--from 24 to 16, together with other changes that the Government have already made.

Mr. Frank Field rose --

Hon. Members : Hear, hear!

Mr. Field : Does the Secretary of State accept that his argument in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) was inadequate? My hon. Friend merely asked the Government to continue a policy that they have already begun and to raise the disregard. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, as

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the disregard is increased, more single parents may find an opportunity to find part-time work--and, in the long run, a full-time job--and more single parents may be able to raise the cash to cover child care costs? If it was right in the past to raise the disregard, why is it wrong to raise it in the future?

Mr. Newton : First, to advert to the warm murmurs of approval from the House, I should say how delighted we all are, regardless of party, at the hon. Gentleman's success in Birkenhead at the end of last week.

If the hon. Gentleman examines what I said earlier, he will see that I have not ruled out further consideration of disregards in this respect, as in others, but for the past year or two I have thought it right to concentrate on disregards for in-work benefits and on the improvements to family credit to which I referred. Sixteen hours would, in many people's book, count as being closer to part-time than to full-time work, yet above that threshold people will now be able to qualify for family credit. One has only to consider the figures, which show a larger number of people--including lone parents--on family credit to know how important a benefit it is proving to be.

Family Credit

4. Miss Emma Nicholson : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what has been the total value of spending on family credit since its introduction.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Michael Jack) : In the three years since the introduction of family credit, we have spent approximately £1.3 billion in cash terms, or £1.4 billion at 1990-91 prices, and by the end of the present financial year we expect to have spent £1.8 billion.

Miss Nicholson : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the average expenditure on family credit per family is about £30 per week, whereas average expenditure in today's terms on Labour's family income supplement would have been £11 per week? Does my hon. Friend therefore believe, as I do, that the modern Labour party is utterly hypocritical in its supposed concern for the poor when its Front-Bench spokesmen said that Labour would allow family credit to wither on the vine?

Mr. Jack : My hon. Friend's last point reminds me of the fact that whereas we have awarded family credit to 2 million people, the Labour party's policy for those on lower wages would mean the loss of 2 million jobs through the minimum wage proposals. My hon. Friend's figures for family credit are correct. In 1979 family income supplement was about £5.26, which is £13.50 in today's terms ; 65 per cent. of people on family credit now get £20 per week or more, 30 per cent. get £40 per week, and 17 per cent. get £50 per week.

Mr. Kirkwood : Will the Minister say a word about the difficulties of the self-employed? As some of my case work substantiates, the bureaucratic application procedures are especially difficult for self- employed people such as farmers and fishermen. I know that the Government are turning their attention to academic studies, but will the Minister say something positive today?

Mr. Jack : The hon. Gentleman does his self-employed constituents much service in the way he has represented

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them--especially the share fishermen--on the question of family credit. He will know, however, that nearly 45 per cent. of self-employed people receive £50 or more per week. The Government intend to take careful note of the research commissioned through the social policy research unit at York university, which is examining carefully the way in which family credit works for self-employed people, with a view to improving the delivery of the service to that group.

Mr. Peter Bottomley : Does my hon. Friend accept that family credit and other benefits repay detailed consideration, and that even though there are serious differences between, for instance, the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and the Government, it is one of the issues to which Militant and the far left have nothing to contribute and where they have never shown much interest in the poor?

Mr. Jack : As always, detail is an important element in social security. I made a detailed search of the Opposition's spending proposals for any changes that would benefit the people on family credit, but I could find none.

Mr. Madden : As family credit is essentially a state subsidy for low pay, will the Minister say by how much family credit spending would have decreased if a national minimum wage had been in place for the past three years?

Mr. Jack : I do not believe in answering hypothetical questions. The Conservative party has no intention of introducing such a ludicrous system. Family credit enables people to accept lower-paid work in order to get back to work, with the advantage of having their finances supplemented by family credit. That is something to be applauded.

Pensioners' Incomes

6. Sir Michael McNair-Wilson : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the latest estimate of the value of the average pensioner's income from savings and occupational pensions ; and what were the comparable figures in 1979.

Miss Widdecombe : From 1979 to 1987, the average pensioner's net weekly income from savings increased from £9.10 to £20.90 and occupational pensions income increased from £13.20 to £23.30 at 1987 prices.

Sir Michael McNair-Wilson : I welcome those figures. Does my hon. Friend agree that inflation remains the greatest threat to the prosperity of pensioners? In those terms, is she satisfied that the retail prices index accurately reflects the costs borne by those pensioners who depend mainly on the old age pension, or does she think that some other index of costs for pensioners should be sought?

Miss Widdecombe : At the moment, we have no plans to change the index by which we assess pensioners' incomes, but it is, of course, something which we always keep under review, and we shall continue to do so. From the figures that I gave my hon. Friend, however, it appears that our policies are working and are raising pensioners' overall incomes, which grew by a net 31 per cent. between 1979 and 1987--an average of 3.5 per cent. per year--whereas between 1974 and 1979, when inflation was rampant, the average increase was a mere 0.6 per cent. per year.

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Mr. Meacher : Will the Minister confirm that all the figures that she has quoted are gross, and therefore conceal the enormous increase in the taxation of pensioners in the past 12 years? According to the figures that she herself produced in Hansard a fortnight ago, the poorest one fifth of pensioners paid 28 per cent. of their incomes in taxes in 1979 but now have to pay more than 40 per cent. How can she justify the fact that after 12 years of Toryism those pensioners are paying proportionately more in tax than was paid by the richest one fifth of households in 1979, when we were told that high taxes were driving the rich out of the country?

Miss Widdecombe : The hon. Gentleman's arithmetic does not improve with each new statement that he makes. Those were, indeed, my statements, but the hon. Gentleman is persistent in either accidentally misunderstanding or deliberately misinterpreting such statements. I said clearly at the start that the figures that I gave were net.

Mr. Grylls : Does my hon. Friend agree that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson) has said, the best Government for pensioners is the Government who keep inflation firmly under control, as the Conservative Government have done for the past 12 years? In that respect, will she assure pensioners and the House that her Department will ensure that spending is prudent and does not get out of control, in contrast with the plans of the Labour party, which would unleash massive inflation and thus ruin the standard of living of all pensioners? Will my hon. Friend give the House that assurance?

Miss Widdecombe : Indeed, public opinion appears to be waking up to the dreadful implications of Labour's spending plans, as shown by the movements in opinion measured at the weekend. We shall, of course, pursue a prudent policy. We shall not promise what we cannot deliver, and we shall not promise to spend vast sums that will then have to be raised from the taxes and national insurance contributions of the less well off as well as from others.


7. Mr. O'Brien : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will consider making some special provision for students during the summer vacation who are unable to obtain temporary employment ; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Nicholas Scott) : Financial support for full-time students is properly the responsibility of the education maintenance system, which has been considerably enhanced in the current financial year.

Mr. O'Brien : The Minister has ignored my question, which was about the assistance available to students who cannot obtain casual employment during the vacation and who, with their families, will therefore face hardship. I am asking whether the Minister is prepared to give those students some assistance, either through income support or in some other way, when they find that the requests that they make to employers for casual employment are met

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with the answer, "No, we cannot help you." Will those students be given some assistance for the summer vacation? Can we have a direct answer?

Mr. Scott : The hon. Gentleman referred to students and their families. Those in vulnerable groups, such as lone parents, student couples with children, and disabled students, will be entitled to access to the benefit system. The role for supporting other students lies with the access funds set up by the Department of Education and Science. To make provision also through the benefit system would be to make double provision. The institutions are aware that access funds should be available not only during term time but during vacations.

Mr. Burns : Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that many of his colleagues were students in the past? Is it not better to target the available money to the genuinely less well off in society rather than to students who, when they have completed their training, will have the opportunity to earn considerable sums of money as a result of their privileged opportunity to become highly qualified?

Mr. Scott : I do not dissent from that for one moment. It must be recognised that provision for supporting students has been substantially improved during the current academic year and students in difficulty can fall back on access funds.

Mr. Meacher : Will the Minister acknowledge that the Government's ending of all entitlement to benefit for 16 to 17-year-olds, and the imposition of a lower rate of benefit for 18 to 25-year-olds have pushed more young people, including students, into poverty than ever before? Is he aware that the link between poverty and inadequate diet, ill health and low educational achievement has been conclusively demonstrated in a series of research studies published in the past month? When will the Minister and his colleagues apologise to the House, not just for the fact that poverty has more than doubled in the past 12 years but for the fact that it is now conclusively shown that the main cause of the growth in poverty is the Government's policies?

Mr. Scott : First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity in bringing 16 and 17-year-olds into an argument about full-time students, which manifestly they are not. Secondly, I deny absolutely that there has been a growth in poverty under this Government. Labour Members' tendentious use of statistics seeking to prove that case has been absolutely refuted by statistics which have been widely available for some time. We are monitoring carefully the impact of the changes on 16 and 17- year-olds, but I still believe that it was bad for society for youngsters to be leaving school and going directly on to benefit.

Pension Funds

8. Mr. Cran : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security when he expects to bring forward regulations to restrict self-investment by pension funds.

Miss Widdecombe : As my hon. Friend may be aware, draft regulations for restricting self-investment by pension funds have been referred to the Occupational Pensions Board for consideration. The board has consulted widely

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on the proposals and will consider the responses at its next meeting, in July. We intend to bring forward draft regulations as soon as practicable after that.

Mr. Cran : The draft regulations are undoubtedly a step in the right direction and will be widely welcomed. Does my hon. Friend accept that some financial institutions believe that any level of self-investment, other than for very small funds, is undesirable not only because of double jeopardy but because of conflicts of interest in take-over situations and problems with insider dealing legislation?

Miss Widdecombe : My hon. Friend is right. A body of opinion holds that no self-investment could be ideal. I hope that my hon. Friend will also appreciate that it would be impractical to try to move towards that when there has been a certain amount of self-investment in property. To insist on immediate disinvestment of that nature would mean that firms would be disposing of the very assets that they use on a day-to-day basis. Although I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I am sure that it will feature in the consultations, the position of certain companies is such that total disinvestment would be neither practical nor desirable.

Mr. Tony Banks : Is it not time that employees received far greater protection for their pension funds through legislation? The Government continually talk about involving parents in school decisions and about enabling doctors to opt out of the national health service, so how about allowing employees to make decisions about how their pension fund money is used? Those funds should be protected from predators such as Hanson, who was stopped in the courts last time but who considers taking over such companies with a view to using the money from pension funds for other purposes. The workers deserve protection. When will they get it?

Miss Widdecombe : They already have protection to a large measure and the regulations that we are introducing are designed to improve it. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that pension funds are already protected by requirements for the reserves kept, so they are far less easy to plunder than he suggests. Nevertheless, what he says is important and will not be overlooked. It has formed the basis of much that we are now trying to do.

Family Credit

10. Mr. Butterfill : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security when a Minister from his Department last visited the national family credit unit at North Fylde.

Mr. Jack : I visited the family credit unit at Blackpool on 30 May 1991 and was delighted to be able to mark the 2 millionth award of family credit since the scheme started in 1988 and to put on record, as I do this afternoon, my appreciation to the staff for all their efforts in delivering this high-quality benefit.

Mr. Butterfill : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the average family in need now receives about £30 a week in family credit compared with about £11 a week under the old income supplement scheme? Is not that evidence of our ability to deliver to families in social need and does not it compare favourably with the wild and uncosted promises from the Labour party?

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Mr. Jack : My hon. Friend adverts to the fact that Opposition Members have a policy of allowing family credit to wither on the vine. In putting the fertiliser on the roots, we have been able to ensure that the take-up of the benefit has grown to a record caseload of 328,000 people. The figures that my hon. Friend quoted about the awards made are entirely correct.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing : Is the Minister satisfied with the speed with which applications are dealt, especially those concerning the self- employed? The procedures there seem to be so bureaucratic that many families are left on the breadline. There may be a back payment once a decision is reached, but that is no consolation to such families.

Mr. Jack : The performance of the family credit unit is the subject of continual concern and of continual monitoring by the Benefits Agency. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that in March the performance target of dealing with all claims in about 18 days was exceeded, although subsequently some operational difficulties have caused a one-day delay. In general, the cases of the self-employed present particular complexities. That is what the research to which I referred a moment ago is designed to cure. I give the hon. Lady the assurance that we will do all that we can to deal with the problem to which she has rightly drawn my attention.

Dr. Godman : Why has not the Minister linked the questions on family credit?

The Minister talks about 2 million successful applications for family credit. What do those figures represent in percentage terms? Is it anywhere near the 80 per cent. claimed by Ministers three or four years ago? What are the Government doing to persuade more people to apply for family credit? What advertisements are being placed in local papers to attract those who are entitled to claim family credit because of their lousy wages?

Mr. Jack : I chose not to link the questions because we give, I hope, service from the Dispatch Box and we like to respond to every question put to us by hon. Members. The hon. Gentleman shows the assiduity of his attendance in the House by the fact that he was unable to be in front of his television set during February and March. If he had, he would have seen our latest advertising campaign, which drew people's attention to a message printed in 6.8 million child benefit order books, or on the automatic credit transfer letter, giving to every family with children a detailed message about the family credit to which they might be entitled. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the cost of that advertising campaign--£1.5 million to reach 6.87 million families--was damn good value for money.

11. Mr. Barry Field : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many families are expected to gain from the proposed reduction in the number of hours that must be worked in order to qualify for family credit.

Mr. Jack : Our latest estimate is that there is potential for about 65,000 families where a parent is currently working between 16 and 24 hours to gain from the change in the hours rule. In addition, this should also encourage more people to take up employment and so improve their income with the help of family credit.

Mr. Field : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. What is the maximum that a lone parent with, say, two children

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under the age of 11 can earn? Does he agree that the Government have eradicated the benefit precipice for lone parents and replaced it with the excellent bridge of family credit, thus encouraging more lone parents back to work?

Mr. Jack : In my speech on the Second Reading of the Child Support Bill I referred to example 10 in the White Paper "Children Come First", which is a clear exposition of the benefits of our proposal. It shows that a lone parent with a child could be much better off in work with family credit and at the same time meet about £45 of in-work costs. Our proposals reduce a person's step-up from income support back into work and are a worthwhile development.

Mr. Flynn : Does the Minister agree that it is misleading to say that there are 2 million recipients of family credit because each applicant has to apply every six months and many people are being counted three or four times? Is not it also highly misleading to quote the number of applications for family credit when there is a 42 per cent. turndown of applicants? Is not it equally misleading to draw a comparison with the previous family income supplement figures when many of the benefits under the previous regime were cut in the 1988 review? When will the Government give straight answers to straight questions?

Mr. Jack : In about one second. I do not choose to mislead the House by one iota. I have made it abundantly clear that my answers are about the number of successful awards. Anybody who looks at those will see how the figures are constructed. This benefit has enabled us to put £1.4 billion to the benefit of people in low-income employment to help them to maintain their position in the workplace. I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman's figure of 42 per cent. However, I recognise that 70 per cent. of present applicants for family credit are successful.

Older Employees (Redundancies)

13. Mr. Dykes : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will consider establishing intermediate supplementary assistance on a short-term basis to assist older employees suffering unexpected redundancies ; and what information he has on the practice in other countries in respect of short-run social security help to complement conventional unemployment payments made from public funds for older members of the work force.

Mr. Newton : A range of social security payments may be claimed by older workers who are made redundant in addition to redundancy payments from their employer, which are based on age and length of service.

The Department regularly collects information about social security provisions in other countries. However, international comparisons are often misleading because of the wide range of factors, including provisions outside the social security system, which need to be taken into account.

Mr. Dykes : I thank my right hon. Friend for that comprehensive reply. We all hope that the recession is beginning to abate and that there will soon be an upturn in the economy. However, there will be a time lag, which is particularly hard on the growing number of redundancies of people who are 50-plus, because such people experience difficulty getting other jobs. We all know of such cases in our constituencies. Will my right hon.

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Friend consider some additional mechanism, bearing in mind the fact that it is Government policy to try to tailor some benefits to individual needs?

Mr. Newton : The latest figures, which I think reflect the latest analysis in detail, show that the number of unemployed over the age of 50 fell by about 45,000 between April 1989 and April 1991. I do not intend to build too much on that, but it is an interesting point. Those who become unemployed and entitled to income support after the age of 60 are entitled to what in other circumstances would be called the pensioner premium. That may assuage some of my hon. Friend's concern.

Mr. Allen : Does the Secretary of State accept that they are the very people who are facing an ever-diminishing state pension? They read about the massive profits announced by the electricity companies over the last week or so and hear of fat salaries being paid to the chairman and directors of British Gas. Will the Secretary of State give those people some hope for the future by restoring pensions to the levels at which they would have been if they had been index-linked in the way that they were under the last Labour Government?

Mr. Newton : The hon. Gentleman would not wish to mislead anybody. The retirement pension has been index-linked to the retail prices index and its value has been fully and faithfully protected. The social reality reflected in the earlier answers from my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) is that this age group includes a growing number of people benefiting from the development of occupational and personal pensions.

Family Credit

14. Mr. Sayeed : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what percentage of current family credit applications are being approved.

Mr. Jack : I am pleased to be able to tell the House that the success rate for family credit claims in May 1991 was 74.1 per cent., the highest ever.

Mr. Sayeed : May I say to my hon. Friend how welcome are the Government's effective efforts in increasing the take-up of this important benefit? Are not the two great advantages of the benefit that it provides an added incentive for people to work their way out of their difficulties, unlike the FIS system, and that this system pays 272 per cent. more for the average family?

Mr. Jack : Earlier I alluded to the percentage of people on different levels of family credit. For many it is a stairway back into the world of work. The improvements that we shall make, with the reduction of hours, will introduce more people to the opportunities available and we shall be looking at further campaigns to ensure that the message continues to get through to those who need help.

Mr. Winnick : Should not there be some concern about the many people whom employers are exploiting by paying them the lowest possible wage? I am glad about the take-up of benefit, because anything that increases the income of such people is to be welcomed, but we must remember that the main responsibility should be with the employer. Some poorly paid workers are bound to compare their plight with the position of the chairman of

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British Gas, with his obscene increase of 66 per cent. Perhaps we can have some reflections from the Government about what happened last week.

Mr. Jack : Sometimes Labour Members do not seem to be living in the real world. I should like to take the hon. Gentleman to a biscuit factory in my constituency, where many of the work force are able to obtain family credit. The employer puts on display in the entrance hall a copy of the family credit pack. Those people are on seasonal employment, making biscuits for the Christmas trade. Their hourly rate is quite reasonable, but the number of hours that they work each week is not sufficient to give them an adequate income for their families. However, their income is made adequate because they are able to claim family credit.


Church Urban Fund

28. Mr. Simon Hughes : To ask the right hon. Member for Selby, representing the Church Commissioners, what was the number of commissioners at the last meeting of the Church Commissioners, (a) voting for and (b) voting against (i) the proposal to use £1 million of the Church Commissioners funds towards the church urban fund and (ii) the proposal to use £0.5 million of the Church Commissioners' funds towards the church urban fund ; whether the Church Commissioners follow a policy of majority voting at their meetings ; and when the Church Commissioners will implement the wishes of the commissioners on this subject as decided at their last meeting.

Mr. Michael Alison (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners) : The hon. Gentleman refers tthe last meeting of the commissioners' board of governors, on 23 May. It is not the commissioners' practice to disclose voting figures relating to the internal and confidential discussions, but all the board's decisions, including those to which I am about to refer, are made on a majority vote, after the expression of opinion by individual governors. The board was meeting to decide recommendations for the allocation of surplus income to the commissioners' annual general meeting, to be held on 26 June. In the light of financial problems caused by the recession, but with considerable reluctance, it decided that it was unable to recommend a further immediate grant to the church urban fund, but would review the position towards the end of this year.

Mr. Hughes : I am grateful for that answer, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is widespread anger and disbelief because it is widely known that the majority view of the board of governors was that the church urban fund should receive £1 million, or at least £500,000, in grant from the Church Commissioners? It expressed that view in a vote at its last meeting. Is the reality that the annual general meeting this Wednesday of the Church Commissioners has the power to continue to enact the policy of the Church and the new archbishop to give money to the church urban fund, or will the AGM be told that it is not in its power to deal with a recommendation by saying, "We do not accept the

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recommendation. We believe that we should give money to the church urban fund"? A cut because of the recession may be acceptable, but a removal of all grant is not.

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