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Mr. Dewar : The right hon. Gentleman has offered me a splendid series of options. The first point that I must make is that my right hon. Friend is entitled to float any idea he wants to float. I hope that the Secretary of State is not suggesting the introduction into the Labour party of the thought police concept that, presumably by implication, exists in the Conservative party.
The former leader of my party is a very welcome entrant to the debate about the future of the pension system. I did not see the television programme to which the Secretary of State has referred, and I do not think that a transcript has been printed. Thus, I am not aware of the detail of my right hon. Friend's comments. No doubt the Secretary of State has a transcript. I can think of no
industry--especially in social security--that has experienced more growth than the business of producing transcripts. Indeed, I have several here, so the right hon. Gentleman and I could play snap. It would be unfair of me to comment on something of whose details I am unaware, but I welcome any contribution to this debate.
Mr. Dewar : The right hon. Gentleman is playing intellectual games of a particularly peelly-wally sort, and I am not impressed. My understanding of the proposal is that it made use of the tax system and certainly was not as dependent on any form of means testing as is the system employed by the right hon. Gentleman, who has condemned 1.6 million people to very heavy means testing by leaving them to make ends meet through income support. The Secretary of State's suggestion that his hands are clean does not bear examination.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will continue to clarify his position. We now know that he has abandoned any hope of a system that would provide for opting out of the basic pension scheme. I cannot invite him to intervene, but he might like to tell us at some point whether he agrees with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who said that everyone was in favour of family values, but that the day-to-day practicalities of politics had to deal with society as it was. Society had changed a lot and would continue to change,
"but I do not think we should use things like the welfare state as an instrument for trying to move these changes in any particular direction."
Perhaps the Secretary of State agrees with that. I hope that, if he gets a chance, he will confirm his position. We should have an interesting background for future debates were we to know where he stands.
There will undoubtedly be many more debates on this subject. There is a great deal of argument to come. I am not
Column 1000satisfied that the Secretary of State can take pride or satisfaction from the collection of instruments that we are considering today.
Of course, the Secretary of State always has a little list when a Conservative party conference is looming. That is the trouble. He then usually produces something that is far from his finest hour. But the tragedy is that he has another list with a more serious intent--a list of trimming, cutting and undermining measures such as have been enacted in recent legislation. I suspect that even some Conservative Back Benchers have had to push and shove through measures about which they probably had considerable doubts.
I accept that has not been a big bang approach, but the incremental approach is no more acceptable if the end product is wrong. When the Minister says, as he did last year, that he has a coherent and sensible reform programme, few will agree. Many of the vulnerable people who have been, or will become, the casualties of his efforts will testify to that.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : Before I start what I intended to say, I must tell the House that I too saw the broadcast on Saturday evening in which the former leader of the Labour party was shown some of the options by representatives of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The conclusions drawn and the implications of the programme, in terms of what the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) said about means- testing pensions, were most interesting. I shall be keen to see what more he does with the idea, and whether he takes it forward.
The Secretary of State knows--in fact, he keeps reminding me--that, at our party conference in Torquay, I lost an argument about means-testing pensions. However, in retrospect I am happy to confess that it was right that I lost. [Laughter.] How is that for baring one's soul and conscience? As we look at the future costs of pension increases
Mr. Kirkwood : It is not embarrassing at all. We have free debates and make decisions at our party conference and we are honest enough to confess the circumstances in which we subsequently find ourseleves. I am now fairly persuaded that future increases in pension provision will have to be targeted to be meaningful. That does not go as far as the former leader of the Labour party went when he was being led astray by the IFS representatives, who draw simplistic straight lines down boards with fibre- tipped pens. Alas, if only the solutions to social security problems were that simple. A tempting prospectus was laid before the right hon. Member for Islwyn, and he accepted it a bit too glibly for my liking. The Liberal Democrats as a party are prepared to consider potential increases in the future provision of pensions being targeted. That is not to say that we would interfere with the existing universal state pension but, as has already been said, that is only 15 per cent. of national average earnings. If over a long period it were allowed to take its course in terms of its share of national wealth and earnings, and we considered carefully how to target increases, targeting could enable us to get help to the people over retirement age who are in desperate need of help, as some of them are.
Column 1001The Government are right to have considered the average position of people over retirement age, and they can take some credit for that. We supported the moves by the Government some years ago to encourage the provision of private pensions. It was the right thing to do. The sum spent on it--£6 billion or £7 billion--went a little over the top ; they got the judgment wrong on the incentives. But although that was a substantial sum, the mistake was a detail in comparison with the policy decision to encourage private provision, which was right. That decision will pay handsome dividends in future when we examine the need for the State to supplement the provision made for people who are over the retirement age. Having agreed with the Government and welcomed the increases available to people on what is now the average income for pensioners--I am happy to acknowledge the fact that has increased--I still do not think that the Government are doing enough to look after the people who are left to exist on the state pension alone. If that is true now, it will be even truer after April, when the increase in VAT comes into play.
We can argue about whether the package of measures intended to compensate people was enough. I do not think that it was, and I am now beginning to find both in my case work and in the letters that I receive that people are anticipating the prospect of the VAT increase with real apprehension and genuine fears about how they will make ends meet next winter. Whatever else the Minister says when he replies, I hope that he will spend a moment or two saying what he has in mind in terms of careful monitoring. Obviously it is too late to change the uprating orders, and the increases are welcome so far as they go, but they do not go anything like far enough.
I am especially worried about the 2.7 million children identified by some pressure groups as being in families on income support who will be left short and may go cold next winter. The compensation package may well be enough for households in average circumstances ; I do not deny that. However, the IFS work on the distribution of the tax advantages over the past few years, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), is right, and the statistics show that the distribution of wealth over that period has benefited the better-off sections of society. Households living on below average incomes are in for some hard times.
The Government have not paid enough attention to people living on state pensions who suffer from disabilities of one kind or another, or to families on or around the poverty line--big families, with consequent additional costs, on low incomes. There is no extra help for people who are unemployed, for people just above benefit levels, or for people who do not claim their full benefit entitlements. So there are still some worrying areas. Those may not be complete groups in society, but large numbers of people are in those special circumstances, and I do not think that the uprating caters for them. A 3.9 per cent. increase across the board is welcome so far as it goes, but it does not deal with the difficulties that many of those groups will face.
The Minister should take account, too, of the wider implications of the IFS tax distribution study. It reveals facts that the Department of Social Security should take to heart in the arguments at the broader national level
Column 1002concerning the share of national wealth that it is right to devote to social security spending, because those arguments are pinned back into the proposals in the uprating order.
There is loose casual talk, much of it from the Minister's colleagues, about a crisis in welfare spending and the need to take precipitate emergency action to deal with it. If the expenditure devoted to that important area is measured as a share of national wealth, I do not believe that it is right to say that there is a crisis. There is no need for precipitate action, although there is an urgent need to keep the situation under close and careful review. Talk of crisis and great disasters immediately impending is not right, and we must keep that fact in mind. By and large, the percentage of national wealth devoted to social security has not increased dramatically. Nor need it be increased if sensible policies are adopted on a continuous basis.
I am pleased that the Secretary of State is paying attention to the need to constrain fraud. However, he must be careful that he is not heavy-handed in the way in which he enforces measures. There are savings to be made. I met his colleague in another place and I was impressed by some of the work that is being done to try to save money so that we can be more generous in some of the uprating orders in future.
The Secretary of State must also be careful when he sets targets. Of course there may be as much as £500 million to be saved, but he must not go at that figure too hard and too fast, as has the Child Support Agency. He could have saved himself a lot of heartache in the CSA contest if he had tapered that agency's targets for recovery in a less steep way. To try to recover £530 million in the first year of operation was far too ambitious, and he is paying the price. People such as myself are beginning to question the principle of the legislation because the practice is being so rigidly enforced. The Government deserve some recognition of the steps that they have taken in the overall uprating increase and of some of the longer-term policy changes, but there are three small areas that I would like the Department to consider. First, in the totality of Government policy, the question of carers and how they are catered for in the social security system as it exists at present is inadequate. The orders do not recognise some of the demands placed on people looking after people with disabilities.
I acknowledge that the budget for benefits to people with disabilities has increased substantially in the recent past--not because the benefits are becoming more generous, but because more people are encouraged to claim eligibility and are being accepted. The provision for carers needs to be considered and, with a little ingenuity and creativity, a lot more could be done to help them. The second issue is not directly related to the orders, but is more a direct responsibility of the Department of Education. The withdrawal of income support for students during long vacations is having an adverse effect on the income available to students. In his previous incarnation, the Leader of the House, who is in his place, and I argued over whether it was right to pay for students through the income support system, and he persuaded me that it was not. However, that is not to say that the system which replaced the withdrawal of housing benefit and income support in the long vacations is anything like adequate.
In considering some of the uprating orders before us, the Department of Social Security has a duty to consult the Department for Education and to be absolutely satisfied
Column 1003that the Department for Education is providing properly through the scheme which replaced the original social security assistance to students. There is emerging evidence, not only through my case work, but in information from national organisations and pressure groups including the National Union of Students, that some students are not completing academic courses because they cannot make ends meet. If the problem is as extensive as I believe, the Department should have urgent talks with the Department for Education to try to resolve the matter.
Thirdly, I turn to the issue of statutory sick pay. It is not terribly convenient to discuss all the orders mixter-maxter. We always used to have a clear uprating debate, which I much preferred. Dotting about through all the orders makes it more difficult for the House to give proper attention to their detail and importance. I perfectly understand that, currently, the business of the House is not always under the control of the Leader of the House and that he has to deal with the nonsense that the Opposition land on him. That is a subject for another debate which will happen sooner rather than later.
The hon. Member for Garscadden raised an important point about the draft Statutory Sick Pay (Small Employers' Relief) Order by adverting to the answer given in the other place to a question asked by Lord Jenkin. The Government revealed that it would cost only £10 million--not an insignificant sum of money--to reduce the four-week period of SSP to a two- week period for small businesses with effect from April 1994.
If I were a Minister, I would be careful considering that. Taken as a package, industry may benefit, as the Government point out with statistics and arithmetic, which I accept, but tiny businesses with two, five or 10 employees, which may face flu epidemics or the like, will not be able to cope easily with the regulations as they stand. There is a good argument for spending that £10 million. It could address the entire issue once and for all and, as the hon. Member for Garscadden said, we should consider it carefully.
An argument which raged 18 months to two years ago has raised its head again recently in a way in which worries me greatly. It concerns preserved rights of income support for people in residential homes. It is a technical area which affects a relatively small number of people, but I have come across a couple of cases--not only of constituents but of people in other parts of the country--in which people with preserved rights are finding it difficult to make sense of being unable to top up the income support that they receive. Not only are those people unable to top up their own income support, because of lack of money, but the health boards and local authorities in Scotland, England and Wales are not in a statutory position to help.
Mr. Kirkwood : Indeed : the question was raised in the past year and I accept that some changes were made. However, the changes made were to cope with circumstances such as evictions and emergencies. I make a plea that the Government consider the question again and give at least an element of discretion to health authorities or local authorities--I do not care which--to enable them, in certain compelling circumstances, in which people are
Column 1004no longer able to stay in the home of their choice despite arguing for a variety of reasons that home is especially appropriate, to allow residents to stay.
It seems extremely cruel to require people to move from that home for the sake of £6 or £7 top-up per week. It would not cost an enormous sum of money and if health authorities or local authorities were given that power, they would not go mad and be profligate. The legislation as it stands, even though it has been amended recently, is not sophisticated and sensitive enough to cope in a common-sense fashion with circumstances that affect old people who have lived with preserved rights for many years in places such as the Leonard Cheshire homes. Such homes provide an invaluable service and back-up support. At the moment, income support cannot help them, but the Department should talk to the Department of Health and to local government to try to achieve a more sensitive system which could cope in such circumstances.
It would be helpful if the Minister would consider that point. It would not cost a lot of money to solve the problem and it would not affect thousands of people. The Minister could open the door and enable discretion to be used to provide immense relief to people who are currently caught in a statutory trap. That trap was created inadvertently ; Parliament did not have it in mind to prevent the opportunity for topping up in certain circumstances when people are facing eviction.
When the Minister replies, I hope that he will consider the consequences of the imposition of VAT on low-income households and families. Although the Minister was right to say that his package may well cater, on average, for the needs of the majority of people, large sections of the community--a figure of 2.7 million children has been referred to--will suffer greatly as a result of exposure to cold and hardship next year unless the Government urgently reconsider the scheme and introduce improvements in the very near future.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : I am pleased that we are having a debate on the orders, but I am disappointed that there are not more hon. Members here to participate in it. There is clearly much controversy about the issue, and the future of the welfare state is at stake. That future is bound up inextricably with the orders and with the onward march to the Valhalla of the Adam Smith Institute to which the Secretary of State for Social Security is trying to lead us.
The Minister is a long-term conspiracy theorist and, to be fair to him, he sets out his theories in public. He is publicly trying to dismantle and destroy the welfare state. He is publicly trying to privatise as much of the welfare state as he can, and he is publicly trying to create a very divided Britain. He is being very successful at that.
One need walk for only 10 minutes from this building to find large numbers of young people sleeping on the streets of our capital city. If one walked the same distance in another direction, one would find many people paying £100 a night for hotel rooms because they can afford to do that. One would also be able to see people eating meals in restaurants and paying bills that amount to more than the weekly income support giro cheque. The Minister is presiding over the division of the country. At least he has been open about that.
Column 1005The Minister has been very clever to shift the terms of the debate by claiming that this country can no longer afford universal welfare benefits, universal pensions and the welfare state. People like the Minister have cleverly pursued that point in the broadsheet press, and to some extent on radio and television, to the exclusion of all considerations of poverty. The voices of the homeless and the poor and the voices of those expected to subsist on a state pension are largely unheard. Instead, experts on huge salaries tell the poor how they should live and say that the poor are an increasing burden on our society.
Year after year, as the Tory party conference approaches, the Minister, like his predecessors, searches around for a new scapegoat on whom to blame all the nation's problems. I recall when 16 to 17-year-old feckless youths were the target of that year and were accused of not seeking work. As a result, many of them now receive no benefit. Many end up on the streets, and many of those are then driven into drugs and prostitution. Ministers should think about such things before they set off in particular directions.
The Minister attacked single parents at the Tory party conference last year. He has consistently attacked single parents, claiming that they are a drain on our society and that their children under-achieve. The Minister might try to deny it now, but he has consistently attacked the whole principle of single parents. He knows that is the case, although when he appeared before the Select Committee he was remarkably coy on that subject.
The Minister has approached benefit fraud as though someone, somewhere, actually approves of it. None of us approves of benefit fraud, but the Minister assumes that large numbers of people do. He should remember that London local authorities, the majority of which are Labour, are doing their best to stamp out conspiracies to defraud the public purse in respect of housing benefit. However, the Minister should consider the amount of housing benefit money that is paid into the pockets of private landlords and the owners of bed-and-breakfast hotels through the system of rent deregulation.
The real fraud, as revealed in one of the orders, relates to the change in the unemployment benefit system. To reduce from one year to six months the time when unemployment benefit can be paid is a fraud on a massive scale. After all, it is a contributory benefit. It is something for which people have paid all their working lives. However, we are being told that this is some kind of advance.
Who on earth is the Minister of State to decide that change should be made? As the Minister's predecessor did before the war--those people had the same kind of blinkered mentality about the divisions of society and the rich and the poor--the Government are blaming the unemployed for being unemployed and making them the scapegoat for the recession that the Government created and advanced.
The orders do not provide us with the opportunity to reduce or eliminate poverty. Instead, they are a further step on the road of division. We should think very carefully about this. If we want to live in a Britain in 10, 20 or 30 years' time with a permanently unemployed work force of
Column 10063 million to 4 million, permanent divisions between rich and poor and a very small number of extremely rich people, we are heading in the right direction.
The Minister has created hysteria about the cost of the welfare state. Fortunately, there are those who do not accept that hysteria. I refer the Minister to the excellent work of the Rowntree Trust carried out by John Hills at the London school of economics in which he sets out a range of options about the costs of the welfare state. However, he also sets out the consequences of not maintaining the welfare state.
In a very good summary of John Hills's research, Will Hutton states :
"it is vital to wrest the argument from those who insist that such is the financial stringency the only issue is to make each welfare pound most effective ; rather the debate should be about how we choose to live as a society. The welfare system is just one of a series of building blocks, all of which interconnect to construct our common home."
That surely should be the approach, but it is not. Instead, as the pension uprating order confirms, pensioners are being defrauded by the break of the link with earnings which was removed in 1980. In 1975, Labour passed legislation stating that the pensions should be uprated annually by the higher of either earnings or prices. That principle was broken in 1980 and substituted with prices. As a result, each pensioner is about £18 a week worse off.
The Government glibly talk about the number of pensioners receiving occupational pension schemes and the number of pensioners who have investment income. They quote various average figures to show that no pensioners are worse off. However, they deliberately hide the serious plight of a considerable number of pensioners who have to live solely on the basic state old age pension. Those people may possibly receive housing benefit to assist with the rent, but they lead a pretty miserable existence. The Government should pay some regard to them. Perhaps they do not because the majority are old, women and do not have access to occupational pension schemes.
We are told that, because of demographic trends, it is important to equalise retirement ages upwards to 65. That is absolutely extraordinary. The country is considerably wealthier now than it was in 1910, when pensions first came fully on stream, and wealthier than it was in 1948 when the universal welfare state was virtually completed. However, we apparently now cannot afford to allow people to retire at the lower age.
I do not mind if people want to work beyond the age of 60. I have no problem with that. However, people should have the opportunity and the right to retire at 60. It is a monumental fraud on women workers to tell them that they will now have to work until they are 65 when they have been told all along that the retirement age was 60. In that respect, the Minister prayed in aid the fact that similar moves were taking place in other European countries. The fact that a bunch of right-wing monetarists around Europe are peddling the same nonsensical theories, which have driven Europe to its present level of poverty with 15 million people out of work, is hardly a reason for rejoicing. It should be a reason for shame for the Government. Instead, we should be looking to share the wealth so that people can retire at an earlier age if they so wish. I should like to see a proposal to equalise the retirement age downward for both men and women so that couples will have an opportunity to enjoy retirement together.
Column 1007Claims about costs are extraordinary. In population projections, there will indeed be a peak in the number of people of retirement age at about 2030--in other words, in about 36 years--but, after that time, the number starts to decrease, as the Secretary of State will be aware. Instead, the Government choose to end all their predictions at that point and claim that there will be an enormous increase in the cost of the state retirement pension unless something is done about it now. That is why the link was broken and that is why the Government tried to destroy the state earnings-related pension scheme as an option.
The push towards private pension schemes, individual schemes and personal portable schemes is extremely dubious--dubious because of the methods in selling many of them, dubious because of the security of some personal schemes that are on offer and dubious because of the legal position of many pension schemes at present. I am a member of the Select Committee that is still examining the administration of pension funds. Some of the things that we hear make one's hair stand on end. The Maxwell pension fraud was just one example. Although this matter is slightly irrelevant, I hope that the Minister will give an inkling of when the Government will propose legislation on the control of pension funds.
There is now 22 per cent. unemployment in my constituency, and a large number of people are unable to claim unemployment benefit and therefore are not included in the real statistics--the real figure is much higher. Such people do not lead particularly exciting lives ; indeed, they lead very miserable lives. Annual rent increases, even those in local authority rents, particularly for people on low earnings, are much higher than the rate of inflation, although those paying them receive housing benefit if they are unemployed or on income support. Their children are not growing up in a particularly exciting environment, because they face more cuts and increased charges for school meals, trips and so on. Our children are growing up in an increasingly divided society. I hope that the Secretary of State will at least begin to address those issues.
The Secretary of State talked glibly of the job seekers' allowance ; he said that if only there were a different allowance that would encourage people to seek work. He seems to fail to understand that people do not like being unemployed. It is not a very exciting life, it is not a holiday camp, it is a time of great depression. Many of the long-term unemployed become extremely depressed. The longer they are unemployed, the harder it is to find work.
The Secretary of State attacks people in receipt of invalidity benefit as though a monumental fraud is going on. People receive invalidity benefit because they have been invalided, often as the result of accidents at work. Instead, we are moving to an incredibly expensive system of examination of the detailed cases of people on invalidity benefit. Likewise, the Government have removed the single payment system. In 1986, the Prime Minister piloted through the House the legislation that established the social fund. Recently, in an answer to me, the Minister admitted that the social fund is the most expensive of all benefits to administer. It is probably the least effective for that.
I do not welcome the measures, because they do not go far enough. Clearly, there are some increases for some people, and there are some improvements as a result of enormous pressure by some very effective pressure groups, but I do not believe that the Government or the Minister have any vision of eliminating poverty or of the maintenance of a universal welfare state. The Minister's
Column 1008vision is of an onward march towards privatisation and divisions in society. He should look at the record. A fifth of Europe's poor live in this country. Poverty and divisions are increasing. I hope that we return to the subject of the future of the welfare state and consider it not in the mealy-mouthed way that the Minister does but in the spirit of trying to eliminate poverty and provide real security. 7.33 pm
Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) : On Monday night, when I rose to speak on the local authority housing support grant, some of my colleagues questioned whether I was qualified to do so, as I represent the constituency of Strathkelvin and Bearsden, which is generally reckoned to be fairly middle-class and well-heeled. It is described as a leafy suburb. Many people might wonder at my interest in the uprating of social security benefits. It is true that my constituency is reasonably well-off. If the boundary commissioners have their way, there will be virtually no public sector housing in my constituency after the next general election.
I am particularly interested in the issues. In my constituency, a significant number of people rely on various benefits which, for many of them, are an important lifeline. I am also reminded now and again by constituents in the wealthier part of Bearsden just how adequate many benefits are. Often, people who have lived life in a fairly comfortable manner and are fairly comfortably off, for reasons not necessarily of their own making, suddenly find themselves on hard times and falling back on benefits. It is only then that they realise just how inadequate those benefits are. I am faced by irate constituents who ask, "How on earth am I supposed to live on this? How on earth is one expected to get by on these benefits?" Such questions would be asked by all of us in that position.
For that reason, I wish to examine four aspects of the measures, but none more so than the one which hits many of my
constituents--income support benefits for nursing and residential care. As we know, nursing and residential care are booming. Certainly in my part of the country, nursing homes and residential homes mushroom every day. One can be certain that, if a school closes, it will open the following week as a residential care home.
Let us consider the costa geriatrica--the Ayrshire coast. Glaswegians no longer go "doon the water" for their holidays. Who does? Granny goes doon the water, into the geriatric home on the Ayrshire coast. Such homes have blossomed even in post-industrial areas--they are everywhere, and they are becoming an increasingly important part of our social structure.
The measures are particularly important because the NHS withdraws from the nursing care of the elderly when it should not do so. Many individuals who should be looked after within the NHS and within long-term care are being sent to nursing homes. There have been recent cases of individuals with head injuries, brain diseases or other diseases being removed from long- term care and being placed in nursing homes. Money must be found for them, partly from benefit and, depending on the circumstances and the relevant home, partly from the resources of those individuals or their relatives.
The matter is becoming increasingly important and it is throwing greater burdens on families who thought that it would not be a matter for them or for their relatives later in life. It will become increasingly obvious to many people,
Column 1009as their relatives grow older, that such care has been privatised without anything being done about it. I have constituents whose elderly relatives are decanted and placed in residential homes, and they find that they have to pay additional amounts. Although there are numerous residential and nursing homes for which income support is adequate through the social services, there are more in which the individual must make an additional contribution.
I have two important questions for the Minister. I do not want to say the usual, "We do not have enough ; give us more," and so on. We will take that as read and spare ourselves the boredom of going through it again, but there are two matters that we should consider. I was recently approached by a constituent whose relative had to go into a nursing home. He brought with him a file about 2 to 3 in thick, containing the paperwork--mostly relating to the financial implications--involved in having his relative put in the residential home. He was highly intelligent and articulate, but he had spent several months on the matter and had to complete a large amount of paperwork. He and I wondered how the many others managed to cope. I plead with the Minister to consider making the provision of residential nursing care simpler.
My constituent said that the finances demanded of him did not cause a problem. One of the first acts of the nursing home was to put the finances in order, but the medical side was allowed to slip. He faced difficult problems, including 2 or 3 in of paperwork from the Department of Social Security, the social services and the Department of Health. Everyone batted the paperwork around the residential home. Will the Minister consider how such matters can be dealt with more easily? Residential nursing provision is often sought at a time of great difficulty for families, who may have suffered recent bereavement and may have many other matters with which to deal. In addition, they face the catastrophic problem of dealing with multiple forms and individuals.
The regulation of residential nursing homes is a matter for the Department of Health, but the subject should also concern the Department of Social Security, which provides large amounts of money. I should have thought that the Minister would want to ensure that the money was used properly and effectively.
I am sure that the Minister would agree that the regulations are inadequate ; many of them are out of date. They involve matters relating to fire escapes, the number of car parking spaces, the temperature of the tap water, what the carpets are like and whether the windows should be open. They do not deal adequately with the care of residents or contain powers to close homes. There are no means to deal with inadequate legislation. Often, a board or authority wishes to take action against a home but cannot do so because it is not within its powers.
I accept that such matters are not the responsibility of the Minister's Department, but he should be concerned about them and he should have discussions with the relevant Departments. I want the Minister to consider regulations to cover those problems. I do not want to repeat the argument that there is not enough money available--we shall take that as read. It is an important matter and we need the regulations. My constituents, who live in the leafy suburbs of Strathkelvin and Bearsden, constantly come to see me about such problems.
Some of my constituents also complain that they cannot live on the benefit provided. I live in a constituency with little public sector housing. If the boundary commissioner has his way, it will have no public sector housing, but will remain a Labour seat. I realise that would be unusual in other parts of the country, but it is not in Scotland. On Monday, we discussed the relationship between the reduction in deficit funding and housing support grant, and the greater emphasis being placed on rents and housing benefit. I make a plea for more funds to prevent pockets of deprivation, even in my constituency.
I also make a plea for the retention of child benefit. People who receive it throughout my constituency, including its better-off parts, appreciate its value--not only in financial terms, but for its recognition of the family and the integral part that it plays in our society. For many people, child benefit forms an important part of the budget and helps them to avoid poverty. It also recognises the importance of the family to children and the cost of having a family. The Government should recognise that and should constantly uprate child benefit. I realise that the issue is always at the forefront of Conservative ideology.
Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point) : The hon. Gentleman said that he would like a general increase in benefits, particularly for housing. The hon. Gentleman has made some excellent points, with which I have some sympathy. But does not he realise that, since 1979, social security spending has increased in real terms by 75 per cent? If he wants to increase that budget, by how much would he increase it and how would he fund it?
Mr. Galbraith : I said that I would not repeat the usual litany of saying that there were not enough funds and please could we have more. I hoped that Conservative Members would not go through the usual litany of asking how we would pay for it. I shall not fall into that trap. It was worth the hon. Member giving it a try, but he will understand why I choose to ignore him. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) wish to intervene? Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset) indicated dissent.
Mr. Galbraith : Very well--I shall ignore the hon. Gentleman. The subject of workmen's compensation and industrial diseases benefits is a wide one. I understand that they are not the responsibility of the Minister, but I should like him to consider the general principles of those benefits and diagnosis in relation to such matters.
I was involved in a long-running case and correspondence concerning asbestosis and mesothelioma., compensation for which was the responsibility of the Department of Employment, as the Minister will be aware. The Department was generous in dealing with compensation and making back payments, but the issue centred around whether compensation should be paid from the time of diagnosis or after the board. The issue involves the Department of Health, the Department of Social Security and the Department of Employment. We should consider the matter further. Officials at the Department of
Column 1011Employment tell me that they are considering and monitoring the subject, which generally means that they are not doing much. That is not a specifically political issue, so there need not be any disagreement between the parties. Many of the decisions on when compensation should be paid and when the diagnosis was made were based on criteria that were established many years ago. With improvements in technology, we can alter the criteria for diagnosis and we should be considering that.
Mr. Corbyn : I have a constituent whose mother worked as a cleaner in a Glasgow bus garage and died as a result of asbestosis. Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the problems for people suffering from industrial diseases and illnesses brought about by working conditions, such as asbestosis, is that the settlement of fault often takes so long that the person who has suffered dies before he or she can receive any benefit? The case of the lady who worked at the Glasgow bus garage was a particularly serious example of that.
Mr. Galbraith : Compensation made while people are still alive is double the amount of compensation made after death. Although the diagnosis may have been made by biopsy, if the individual dies before the board can confirm the diagnosis and make the award, the compensation is halved. It is the difference between £23,000 and £11, 500. That is grossly unfair.
The basis for the system is that, in the past, diagnosis was difficult. It was probably based on a physician listening to the chest and saying, "Say 99. Breath in and out. Let me look at your fingers for clubbing." If people were lucky, they may have had a chest X-ray. However, that is no longer the case for many people. Objective criteria can now be used in many cases.
I would like the Minister to address the four issues that I have raised, especially the one relating to residential care. We should make it easier for individuals to deal with residential and nursing care and stop the need for everyone to have a 3 inch file. These issues transcend all sections of society. As I said, my constituency is mostly middle class and after the next election it is likely to be totally owner-occupied. However, these are major issues within it. The issues are not isolated in one pocket or confined to one group in society. They relate to everyone in our society. I hope that the Minister will look favourably at the issues.
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) : It is a pleasure to speak briefly in this important debate on pensions and other matters. The subject of pensions occupies us greatly because, with the funds available, they represent a large slice of our national wealth. It is fair to say that we will be on an extremely dangerous path if we follow the line presented by the Government and accept their mythology. The greatest improvement to our pension policy took place in 1975 with the introduction of the state earnings-related pension scheme, which was supported by all parties. When the Conservative Government came to power, they changed that policy and announced that they would get rid of SERPS altogether. They did not do that, but in the mid-1980s they degraded the value of SERPS to a large extent--and that is continuing. After that, an inquiry into pensions was held. I believe that the Government made their great error in the way in which
Column 1012they proceeded from there, because they then announced that they would give the country a choice by making personal pensions available and they bribed people to take them.
There are many examples of what was said in the House at the time. There was some disgraceful advertising. Rather than go for the sleazy operators, I took two of the principal banks--Barclays and Midland--to the Advertising Standards Authority for the advertising that they carried out in 1989. It was wickedly deceptive and, indeed, my case was proved. The banks advertised by saying, "You can have a gift of £5,000--don't be a SERP" --as if a SERP was a nasty, oily, unpleasant animal. They said that people should not be fools and should take the £5,000 gift--that was the word they used--from the Government. The gift consisted of people's contributions to the state scheme and the contributions made by employers, plus a little tax allowance, plus the alleged gift, which one would more accurately call a bribe, which was paid out of the national insurance fund. Many of the people who took that line--at least 2.5 million of them--now bitterly regret their choice. What happened was that the greedy sales people from the banks and the building societies--many of whom were employed for only a short period--largely oversold the policies, especially to people over a certain age. The policies were of no value to many people in their forties and fifties--indeed, they endangered their financial futures.
That is one of the major scandals that will be revealed in the future. We already know about those who were persuaded to leave fine occupational schemes and go into personal pensions. Once again, they were oversold because the sales people involved received huge commissions on the sales. After a short period, many of them found that the £5,000 had gone altogether. At least £2,000 would have gone in commission and the rest in administrative expenses, and people were left with hardly any funds at all.
The other point about personal pension schemes which has never been explained is that they are not pension schemes as people traditionally understand them ; they are savings schemes. The amount that is paid at the end does not depend on what the person is likely to be earning at the end of his life--it depends on what is happening on the stock exchange. That would be good if the circumstances were similar to those in the 1980s, but it would be dreadful if they were similar to those in the 1970s.
We must ask the Government to reassess their support for personal pensions and their whole pension policy because they did not provide people with a choice. They threw millions of people to the wolves. Another issue that will be raised in the debate on uprating concerns us all.