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Column 547giving a spending commitment ? I have given, and other Labour party spokesmen have given, a clear guarantee that every youngster will be covered in one of the various ways mentioned. Any sensible party should devise the best modern way to assist all those youngsters. If the hon. Gentleman accepts that it is not primarily a spending commitment, I find it difficult to understand what he disagrees about.
Mr. Salmond : That is exactly the point. I accept that it is not basically a financial issue. The sums involved are incremental in public finance, but there is a question of the philosophy of the Labour party at present, which unfortunately means that no spending commitment, however minor, can be given to any group of people, because it breaks the shadow Treasury law that one must not give a spending commitment on anything.
The Labour party was thrown into confusion about that subject. It should have had the political initiative, as a result of the Prime Minister's disastrous intervention--about beggars in the street--in the European election campaign. However, within days, the Labour party's iron law on spending commitments had thrown the Opposition on to the defensive. In the immortal words of the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, something must be done as long as there are no budgetary implications.
Some issues inevitably have budgetary implications, even if those are minor as regards total Government finance, and this is one of them. At base, it is not an issue of finance or Budgets or money, but a moral issue about the withdrawal of benefit from young people in 1988--a wrong that was done to tens of thousands of youngsters, for whom the consequences have been severe --and about how it can possibly be claimed that an emergency provision can fulfil the safety net role which, elsewhere in the benefit system, depends on a universal benefit application.
Why on earth should 16 to 17-year-olds, of all people, some of whom are the most vulnerable groups in the population and 5,000 of whom ended up sleeping rough in Scotland at some time last year, be singled out for the trial run of the selective benefits system down to which the Conservatives will undoubtedly drag this country ? If the Labour party surrenders that principle to the Conservative party when there is very little finance involved, how on earth will it make a stand on any other principle ? It is time to treat the subject as a moral issue, not a financial one. It is time for other hon. Members to justify themselves to 16 and 17-year-olds by joining my hon. Friends and me in the Lobby tonight.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. William Hague) : This has been an interesting debate. It was opened by the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), who began by deploring the absence of hon. Members from other parties. The effect was slightly lessened at the time by the absence of any other hon. Members from the Scottish National party. The hon. Lady has since been joined by some colleagues.
We have had a full debate with some excellent speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) and for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch). We also heard some interesting speeches from the Opposition.
Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East) : The reason why I was not present earlier in the debate was that I was away defending people against another aspect of Government policy--the withdrawal of the ability of adult trainees to train. The Government's attack on adults is mirrored by their attack on youth. I am here to support the Scottish National party, which believes in defending all people who need help and are being denied it by the Government.
Mr. Hague : I am glad to have been of service to the hon. Gentleman by providing him with the opportunity to state his case and show his presence in the debate. His remarks tie in with some of the more outlandish comments made by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who tried to portray the Government's policy on 16 and 17-year-olds as a sign of the Government's intention towards the rest of the population. The difference between 16 and 17-year-olds and the rest of the population is that we can guarantee that they will have education or training places. He said that there seemed to be a presumption by the Government that people do not want to work
The Government presumption is the opposite of that suggested by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan. They presume that people want to work, obtain education and training. Now, the overwhelming majority in that age group are able to do so.
We should knock on the head at the outset the argument advanced at various times in the debate that the youth training system--the guarantee--is not working and large numbers of people are unable to obtain a place. My hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside spoke of his experience in regions of Scotland, including the Grampian region. He mentioned that in one instance only 12 people could not be found a place.
The most up-to-date overall figures for Scotland--for which I think the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) asked--are that, as of 31 May, there are 4,308 people in the guarantee group, more than 1, 000 of whom have been waiting for more than eight weeks. The number of vacant training places is more than 4,000. It takes time to fit some people into the right places, but those are the overall statistics, which we should bear in mind. Where problems arise, resources are directed at them. Fife Enterprise has allocated an additional £500,000 to increase by 400 the number of youth training places available in the Fife region. I hope that the hon. Member for Fife, Central will welcome that.
The hon. Member for Moray asked about the cumbersome claims process. Most of the decision-making on severe hardship has been devolved from the central unit in Glasgow to local offices. That makes the process quicker and the local office can respond to local circumstances. We want to be particularly careful that vulnerable young people receive appropriate support. We have nominated an officer in each Benefits Agency district office who has special responsibility for 16 and 17-year-olds.
We have improved training to make staff more aware of the specific needs of young people and how to deal with them sympathetically. We have also issued a best practice guide to staff, stressing the vulnerability and sensitivity of
Column 549the group. We have improved contacts with voluntary organisations and local groups that deal with young people so that they are aware of the support available.
The Benefits Agency's plans to introduce a one-stop service will be particularly relevant to people in that group. They will eventually be able to have all their benefits business dealt with at one time, in one place and by one person.
Mrs. Ewing : The Minister quotes figures for the youth training guarantee, but the fact is that many young people are not guaranteed a place on YT, and they certainly do not have a job at the end of it. He also talks about a one-stop agency for young people, but when will it start ? The three offices that young people have to go through now deter many of them ; it is a very bureaucratic process, and difficult to understand. We need a date.
Mr. Hague : The guarantee is available to all who wish to take advantage of it, and most young people go on from training to get a job, or they undergo further education or training. The process is succeeding.
The Benefits Agency's plans to introduce a one-stop service were announced some months ago and are proceeding. We cannot give a date by which the whole process will be finished, but there will be established in the agency a one-stop shop, and that is the ultimate objective of the agency's work.
For the moment, the Glasgow unit remains responsible for decisions not to pay and for complex cases. It also closely monitors decisions that are taken. We are reviewing more effective procedures for claiming income support under severe hardship as part of our deliberations on the operations of the job seeker's allowance. The hon. Member for Moray claimed that other European countries were more generous to young people. I must take this opportunity to put her right. In most EC countries, social assistance benefits are not generally payable to young people under the age of 18. In Belgium, they are usually payable from 18, except also to people who are pregnant or looking after a child. In Spain, they are payable from the age of 25, except to people looking after a handicapped person or child. In France, they become payable from the age of 25, and are also payable to those looking after at least one child. In Ireland, 18 is the relevant age, in Luxembourg, it is 30 and in the Netherlands, it is 18. Hence the hon. Lady's assertion that other European countries are more generous to young people of this age group does not quite correspond with the facts. I hope that she will study with more care some of the figures from the Community. The hon. Member for Fife, Central asked about the quality of training places on YT. Stringent requirements are placed on TECs and LECs in respect of the quality of training places. The types of places are geared to the needs of the local labour market. Seventy-six per cent. of those completing training enter jobs, further education or training. Seventy-four per cent. of YT leavers completing their training in July 1993 gained a qualification or credits towards one. That is evidence that the quality of training is good, and local enterprise companies are required by contracts with Scottish Enterprise or Highlands and Islands Enterprise to offer high-quality training appropriate to the needs of the local labour market. If contracts are being breached, cases should be brought to the attention of the relevant chief executive.
Mr. Salmond : If the Minister is correct and all these training places and opportunities are available to young people, will he answer the question that his colleague could not ? In Hague's promised land, why were 5,000 youngsters in Scotland, according to Shelter, sleeping rough last year ?
Mr. Hague : There is no question of "if it is right that these places are available". They are available. There is no reason for anyone to sleep rough on the streets of Scotland tonight. It is, in any case, rather misleading to talk about 5,000, because it is an estimated figure for the whole year. At any one time, the number is probably nearer several hundred. There is no need for any of those people to be there. Severe hardship payments are available for those who need them and there is a guarantee of education or training for the whole of that age group.
Mr. Hague : No, I really must get on. The hon. Gentleman made a 20- minute speech before I began my wind-up and I have answered his point to the satisfaction of a large proportion of the House. The idea that the offer of a guaranteed place is a falsehood is not true. All 16 and 17-year- olds are guaranteed a YT place and a training allowance. If some choose not to take advantage of the opportunities available, it is their choice. The Government believe that young people should make a positive choice for training rather than becoming dependent on benefit. The overwhelming majority make that choice and want to take up education and training.
We want young people to make the most of the opportunities provided. That is consistent with the policies that run through the current review of social security--focusing benefits on those who need them, removing disincentives to work and making sure that social security is affordable.
We believe that young people should start their adult lives equipped for the future and not dependent on benefits. They should not be encouraged to be dependent on the resources of the state. It is better to train in new skills and increase their ability to earn for themselves. That view has wide support on all sides of the House and Labour Members have expressed support for it in principle this evening.
It adds up to a sensible strategy of offering education or training to all, removing any financial incentive not to take up training, creating the right attitude and leaving only a tiny percentage of the total in the age group suffering hardship and making special provision for them if they do.
I wonder what Scottish National party Members think would be gained by a change of the kind they have advocated ? Have they thought through the consequences ? What would happen if their proposals, such as they are, were agreed to ? What would happen if we were to tell 16 and 17-year-olds that they would be better off than they are today if they left home ? What would happen to the quality of our work force in future if we told 16 and 17-year -olds that the state would support them, irrespective of their willingness to be trained ? What sort of nation are SNP Members trying to build ?
We also have to ask how the SNP proposes to pay for it. Labour Members were asked to state their policy this evening. With all due credit to the hon. Member for Fife,
Column 551Central, who made clarification upon clarification of his party's policy, he retreated into a fog of obfuscation. There is no clear Labour party policy on the matter.
We are debating a motion which is only one sentence. The Scottish National party is clearly in favour of it. The Government are against it. We do not know whether the Labour party is for or against it, even though we had a lengthy speech from the hon. Member for Fife, Central. It is even more disturbing that Labour Members do not know whether they are for or against it ; they are waiting for the Social Justice Commission to make some pronouncement and, even then, we do not know whether they will be for or against it.
At least we can give SNP Members some credit for being consistent and knowing what they want to do. It is a pity that they have so many competing spending priorities, such as the commitment to a new national household minimum income or to campaigning for a common Euro-pension of £90 for a single person and £130 for a couple. I do not know how they propose to pay for that, particularly in an independent Scotland. None of it was thought through before they tabled the motion.
It is strange that the SNP chose this subject for its Opposition half-day debate. Why did it not choose to debate the Scottish economy ? Presumably, because it is improving. Why did it not choose to discuss unemployment in Scotland ? Presumably, because it is falling. Why did it not choose to debate inward investment in Scotland ? Presumably, because it is so substantial.
Instead, the SNP chose to debate a policy based on misconceptions. It would be damaging in its effect, it is out of step with the policies of other countries, its consequences have been ill-thought-through and it is put forward without the slightest indication of how it is to be financed. It thoroughly deserves to be rejected.
Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question :
The House divided : Ayes 2, Noes 121.
Division No. 291] [10.00 pm
Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Tellers for the Ayes :
Mr. Alex Salmond and
Mr. Andrew Welsh.
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)
Beresford, Sir Paul
Biffen, Rt Hon John
Blackburn, Dr John G.
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)
Browning, Mrs. Angela
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Davies, Quentin (Stamford)
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger
Column 552Gallie, Phil
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)
Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr)
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Kilfedder, Sir James
Knight, Greg (Derby N)
Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Maitland, Lady Olga
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Moate, Sir Roger
Neubert, Sir Michael
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn
Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)
Robinson, Mark (Somerton)
Shaw, David (Dover)
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Speed, Sir Keith
Spencer, Sir Derek
Spink, Dr Robert
Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Taylor, John M. (Solihull)
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Twinn, Dr Ian
Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Andrew MacKay and
Mr. Irvine Patnick.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments) and agreed to.
Mr. Deputy Speaker-- forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House recognises that vulnerable 16 and 17 year olds and those facing severe hardship continue to have access to benefits ; believes that it is in the long term interests of 16 and 17 year olds that they do not go straight from school on to benefits, but into training, employment or further or higher education ; and fully endorses the Government's training guarantee and the continued expansion of vocational, further and higher education.