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House of Commons

Monday 5 December 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Delivery of Benefits

1. Mr. David Shaw: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what are his objectives for the delivery of social security benefits.

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lilley): My principal objectives are: to focus benefits on the most needy, to improve incentives to work and save, to encourage personal choice and, not least, to bear down on fraud and abuse.

Mr. Shaw: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, but will he confirm that we are doing enough to incentivise those who are registered as unemployed to take work when it is available? Are we really encouraging people to come off the unemployment register? Why are some of my constituents concerned that people who are capable of work are claiming to be unemployed, despite the fact that, in some cases, employers want to employ them?

Mr. Lilley : We are taking several important steps forward to enable and encourage people to return to work. The jobseeker's allowance, which I announced in the

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White Paper a few weeks ago, will give people an incentive to return to work and will certainly ensure that they fulfil their commitment to the taxpayer by actively seeking work, making themselves available for it and taking jobs when they are available. In addition, in the Budget and the social security statement last week, we announced a £600 million package of work incentives to help to make it more rewarding for people to return to work and for employers to take them on.

Mr. Frank Field: Will the Secretary of State confirm that the pay of the head of the Benefits Agency is linked not only to his effectiveness in combating fraud--the whole House is against fraud--but to ensuring that those who are genuinely eligible for help gain the help to which they are entitled?

Mr. Lilley: We do not give the details of the terms of employment of heads of agencies, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the head of that agency and all its employees aspire to achieve both those objectives.

Mr. Alan Howarth: Does my right hon. Friend accept that, while the objectives that he just stated are necessary, there are tensions between them? What assessment has he made of the effects on pay and skill levels, as well as on public expenditure, of the policy of subsidising low pay through family credit and the new in-work benefit for childless people? Has he compared the consequences of the Government's policy of thus nationalising employers' social responsibility with the consequences of the Labour party's policy of privatising it through the minimum wage?

Mr. Lilley: I believe that employers' primary responsibility is to satisfy the desires of consumers and to provide remunerative employment for their employees. Where the productivity of employees in the marketplace does not lead to rewards commensurate with what they could get on benefit, however, it is reasonable that we should offer them some help to supplement their incomes. I am glad, therefore, that we announced last week a £10

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a week increase in family credit for those working full time, the importance of which should not be underestimated.

Child Support Agency

2. Mr. Bennett: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement about the Child Support Agency.

8. Mr. Kirkwood: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what plans he has to reform the Child Support Act 1991; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Burt): The Government have kept the operation of the ChildSupport Act 1991 under close review for some time. We are now considering carefully the recent report of the Select Committee on Social Security and expect to be in a position to make an announcement shortly.

Mr. Bennett: Does the Minister agree that the words "inept", "incompetent", "unfair" and "diabolical" would all be fair descriptions of the Child Support Agency? Can he think of any other Government Department that has so quickly discredited what was a good idea? Will he now tell the House how much money has been saved for the Treasury and compare it with the amount of new money that has been passed from the absent to the caring parent to look after children as a result of that legislation?

Mr. Burt: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman still recognises that the principles behind the CSA are good, as the House was united on them. I remind him that one of those good principles was relieving taxpayers of the burden of supporting children whom they should not otherwise have to support. The House will be interested to hear whether the hon. Gentleman is now reneging on that principle. Savings to the taxpayer amounted to about £418 million last year, and the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that this year the agency has collected about twice as much maintenance as last year. It is endeavouring to improve its activity in all ways.

Mr. Kirkwood: Does the Minister accept that he has been reviewing the work of the CSA for too long, and that people's patience is now getting exhausted? Second marriages are still breaking down, and people are still leaving work because they cannot afford the CSA's unreasonable financial demands. Will the Minister assure the House that when he introduces proposals he will allow it fundamentally to reconsider the operation of the Act and not just to tinker at the margins of change?

Mr. Burt: I am extremely and genuinely grateful to all hon. Members for the patience that they have shown. They recognise the responsibility that we have because the legislation was supported by both sides of the House. The House will recognise, therefore, that it has a responsibility in relation to the Act and those whom it involves, including parents with care of children, parents who do not currently have care of children, the children themselves and the taxpayer. I assure the hon. Gentleman that our proposals will cover the operations and policy of the agency. The Select Committee on Social Security investigated a whole range of the CSA's activities, which

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it backed in principle. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is as pleased as I am that the Committee had that opportunity to look carefully at the CSA.

Sir Dudley Smith: I welcome my hon. Friend's original reply, but is he aware that far too many men are still being subjected to unfair financial imposts that they cannot possibly hope to counter? In the circumstances, will he do something about the times allowed for appeal and revisions, which are, in many cases, many months overdue?

Mr. Burt: Extra staff have been allocated to appeals and reviews. Changes were made to the formula last February to take into account the number of requests made by absent parents for amounts to be reduced. The Select Committee and the Government will consider whether further changes to the formula are necessary.

Mr. Tredinnick: Does my hon. Friend accept that the new chief executive of the CSA has performed very well in making it more efficient, and that that has gone some way to solving the problems? Will he ensure that his proposals include a reference to clean-break settlements and to travel-to-work costs?

Mr. Burt: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments about the performance of the new chief executive. I hope that all colleagues have noticed that improvement, particularly in relation to correspondence, because the chief executive has made that a very important part of her role. Particular considerations such as travel-to-work costs and clean- break settlements are mentioned in the Select Committee report, but it would be unfair of me to suggest at this stage precisely what the Government are considering.

Mr. Ingram: Notwithstanding the Minister's answers, does he accept that--following Treasury pressure on the Conservative members of the Social Security Select Committee--the recommendations of the report fell far short of what are seen as the major shortcomings of the Child Support Act 1991? Is he now prepared to state that he will recommend fundamental changes to the Act to ensure its wider acceptance by those affected by it? Will he confirm that the Government will not sneak out their response to the report during the Christmas recess?

Mr. Burt: The Select Committee's report was almost unanimous--only one member of the Committee dissented--so we must assume that it carries the weight of the Committee.

As soon as the Government have concluded their review, we will announce, as we did before, precisely what we intend to do. I hope that, among all the concerns that have been expressed about the agency and its working, it will be noticed that, of this year's group of cases, some 77 per cent. of people have not previously been paying maintenance, and 96 per cent. of all cases involve people on benefit. The agency has traced some 49,000 absent parents who would not have been found under the previous system. All that suggests that the principles are right, and that if the House continues to act together we will have a workable child support policy and agency.

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Benefit Payment (Post Offices)

3. Mr. Hawkins: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security whether benefits will continue to be delivered through post offices.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. James Arbuthnot): Yes, customers will continue to be able to chooseto receive their pension or other benefits at the post office. We have three clear objectives for the delivery of benefits: to give our customers the choice of where they receive their benefit, to reduce the cost of delivering that service and to eliminate fraud.

Mr. Hawkins: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he confirm that his Department has given a firm commitment that it will need a nationwide network of post offices? Will he also confirm that that commitment has been widely welcomed by sub-postmasters, one of whose national officers is in my constituency?

Mr. Arbuthnot: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I confirm that that is the Government's policy. In May, Mr. Colin Baker, General Secretary of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, said: "The promise of automation"--by the Government--

"on this scale indicates to us that our future . . . is more secure and that our contribution is valued."

He was right--it is.

Mr. Foulkes: Will the Minister confirm whether the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn) receives his invalidity benefit through a post office? Does he agree that, if the hon. and learned Gentleman is entitled to it, he deserves to get it, but that his comments on other claimants who also deserve their benefit reek of prejudice and hypocrisy?

Mr. Arbuthnot: I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's question. As he well knows, it is not the Government's practice to comment on individual cases. He seems to suggest that he favours means-testing the disability living allowance. If so, it is a pretty peculiar suggestion.

Disability Bill

4. Lady Olga Maitland: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what representations he has had with regard to the proposed disability Bill.

The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. William Hague): The legislative and other measures that I announced on 24 November have been widely welcomed.

Lady Olga Maitland: I warmly welcome my hon. Friend's proposals in the new disability Bill, which has my personal support. Will he confirm that the consultation process on the Bill goes far wider than the process proposed in the summer and that, moreover, the proposals are widely welcomed by disabled groups and their representatives?

Mr. Hague: Yes, I can certainly confirm that. It is a comprehensive package to tackle discrimination across the board, including wide-ranging legislation. We have

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put the proposals together in recent months with the constant encouragement of my hon. Friend and many other people around the country.

Mr. Corbett: The Minister will know that we have broadly welcomed the Bill, although we want to see the detail of it. In that spirit, will he place copies of the responses to his consultation in the Library? Will he pay particular attention to those who argue strongly for incorporation in the Bill of a commission to ensure that those denied rights under the Bill will have some machinery to try to secure them?

Mr. Hague: I certainly intend to publish an analysis of the responses, which will be placed in the Library when it is available. I am not sure whether that will include the entire text of all the responses, which would be a document of enormous weight, but the hon. Gentleman and others will be welcome to read those responses if they so wish. There is no difficulty about that. The Government intend that the legislation will be enforced, will mean something and will be effective. We should prefer to ensure that that is achieved through the routes of conciliation procedures and other means of redress that I have outlined. We are determined to ensure that the legislation works and changes once and for all attitudes towards disabled people in our society.

Unemployment Benefit

5. Mr. Luff: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what incentives to work will be included in his reform of unemployment benefit.

Mr. Lilley: Restoring work incentives has been a central theme of my review of social security. Last week, I announced a £600 million package of work incentives, which included extra financial support for people as they move back into work, £10 a week extra on family credit to make people better off in full-time work and incentives for employers to take on the long-term unemployed and to boost jobs.

Mr. Luff: Will my right hon. Friend assure me that his policy on incentives to work and ensuring that unemployed people approach interviews constructively will be a great deal more consistent than the approach of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), who cannot even make up his mind on the simple question of whether interviewees should be clean and tidy?

Mr. Lilley: I have noticed a certain inconsistency in the remarks attributed to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) in the press. On Sunday, he was reported as saying:

"I do not believe the employment service should be in the business of ordering short back and sides haircuts"

but, when he responded to my statement on the jobseeker's allowance--after, in his characteristically accurate way, reading out the actual text of our proposals from the White Paper--he said: "If it is simply a matter of dress"


"deportment . . . no one could object."--[ Official Report , 24 October 1994; Vol. 248, c. 635.]

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Perhaps he will make it clear today which of his two views he currently holds.

Mr. Winnick: Does the Secretary of State recognise how nauseating it is that those who have been punished as a result of Government policy and who find themselves jobless should now be the subject of attacks time after time from Tory Members? Does not the Secretary of State know that it is a lie--a notorious lie--that the unemployed do not want to work? They are desperate to work, and the current Government have undermined their right to work. That is what Opposition Members are so angry about.

Mr. Lilley: Despite the hon. Gentleman's intemperate language, I actually agree with him that it is untrue that the vast majority of people do not want to work; the majority of people do want to work. It is obvious from the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question that his disagreement is with the shadow social security spokesman, the hon. Member for Garscadden, and he should pursue it with him on the days when they are not in accord.

Mr. Winnick: Hypocrites.

Madam Speaker: Order. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw that last remark.

Mr. Winnick: I retain the view that I expressed but, as I always observe the rulings of the Chair, I have no other alternative but to do what you, Madam Speaker, have just said.

Mr. Wolfson: Will my right hon. Friend continue to keep under review the situation whereby large numbers of people are now getting back into work on a temporary basis, and provide encouragement for that to happen?

Mr. Lilley: Yes, indeed. We introduced the employment on trial rules and liberalised them in the statement on the jobseeker's allowance. They will allow people to take work for a brief period to discover whether they are suited to it. If they are, they stay on; if, after, I think, three weeks, they find that the work is unsuitable and they leave, they do not permanently lose benefits, as they might otherwise have done. That has proved very successful in helping people back into work.

Mr. Bradley: Most of the measures announced by the Government apply to people who have been unemployed for more than two years, although we shall have to wait at least another year before anything is implemented. I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that ex-carers who have been claiming invalid care allowance will not have been registered as unemployed or receiving unemployment benefit. However, many of them have often been out of the job market for more than two years. Will the Secretary of State therefore ensure that all the measures will apply to former invalid care allowance recipients as well as those to who have been registered unemployed?

Mr. Lilley: I shall certainly look into the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about carers.

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, it is not correct to say that most of the measures in the work incentive package apply only to people who have been out of the labour market for two years. That is true of only one of the major measures, which requires primary legislation

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and which will take effect in April 1996. All the others, by and large, will take effect from April 1995, including the reduction in national insurance contributions for employers and the various other work incentives that will often help people who have been out of the labour market for only a short period.

Mr. Sykes: Will my right hon. Friend ignore the carping of Opposition Members? Are not many decent, hard-working families fed up to the back teeth with financing the life styles of scroungers who have no intention of working? Will not the jobseeker's allowance put an end to the "something for nothing" mentality that infects so many parts of our towns and cities?

Mr. Lilley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I know that he is providing jobs for people, which is a good deal more constructive than much of the hot air that we hear from Opposition Members who have never been responsible for a payroll in their lives. We are encouraging the creation of more jobs, and encouraging and enabling people to take them.

Housing Benefit

6. Mr. Cox: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what plans he has to review the present payments that can be claimed under housing benefit.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Roger Evans): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announcedin his uprating statement a wide-ranging package of measures which will stem the growth of public spending on housing benefit while at the same time improving work incentives.

Mr. Cox: Has the Minister yet read Shelter's observations about last week's Budget? Are not the problems of housing benefit a direct result of the Government's policy of increasing rents in both the private and public sectors? That is what has caused the escalation of housing benefit.

In the light of oft-made comments about tenants and landlords negotiating a rent, can the Minister give any concrete examples of that?

Mr. Evans: The Government believe--and this has been the policy--in shifting the burden of public support from bricks and mortar, which means a very open-ended and unfair system, to a much more targeted system related to the individual and his individual housing needs. My right hon. Friend has announced a limitation of above-average rents in certain circumstances for new tenancies in the private sector after October 1995. The effect of that will be to curb the excessive expenditure and target it better.

Mr. Jenkin: Is not the important feature of the reforms in housing benefit, and of announcements about other benefits, the fact that we are responsible enough to point out that social security cannot continue to grow at a faster rate than the economy can sustain? Is it not clear that Labour would just spend, spend and spend, to a point that we cannot afford?

Mr. Evans: The answers to my hon. Friend's last two points are yes and yes. The figures for housing benefit are

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startling. It has doubled since 1988, and will amount to £10 billion in 1994-95--12 per cent. of all social security spending, half of which goes to the private sector.

Mr. Dewar: I refer to the Minister's closing cadenza, and ask him: whose fault is that? As my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) pointed out, it is directly related to the Government's policy on rents.

If rent ceilings are to reflect rent levels for different types of property in an area, will the Minister explain how "an area" is defined? Is it coterminous with the boundaries of housing authorities? Is there not a danger that, once the ceiling levels are defined and established, they will drag rent levels up and the ceiling will become the minimum, to everyone's disadvantage? Finally, may I ask the Minister about the other side of the package--mortgage interest payments? Is there not a danger that the restrictions that have been announced will set back any prospect of real recovery in the housing market? Will the Minister comment on the Building Societies Association's view that the Government are baling out, that their proposals are offensive and that they remove a safety net, as a result of which many vulnerable groups will suffer?

Mr. Evans: Let me take that omnibus series of questions one by one.

Yes, of course the shift from bricks and mortar to individual housing needs means a shift where public expenditure takes place. The question that has arisen is--is that targeting suitable and appropriate? As for the definition of average rents for areas, the Government will consult the Institute of Rent Officers on how the areas should be drawn.

The purpose of, and the justification for, the scheme is that there must be some form of cap to prevent matters getting out of control. For example, even in the Greater London area, 95 per cent. of private sector rents are under £85 a week. Some of the larger figures that have been quoted in the press have rightly given rise to public concern. The hon. Gentleman asked about income support.

Mr. Bradley: Speech.

Mr. Evans: I am attempting to reply.

Madam Speaker: Order. The Opposition spokesman's questions would have been more suitable during a statement than at Question Time. However, as he asked them, the Minister must be given an opportunity to respond.

Mr. Evans: I am grateful for that ruling, Madam Speaker. The last topic raised by the hon. Gentleman was income support mortgage payments. Again, I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that the amount of public finance being spent in that sector, in a fashion that was increasingly seen as indiscriminate, had to be brought under reasonable control. Therefore, the Government first introduced a cap of £125,000, and we have now reduced it. I suggest that no one can seriously argue against that. Theoretically, the hon. Gentleman is right that, at first blush, its impact on the housing market may give rise to some concern, but at

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the end of it all, we are confident that the private sector will come up with insurance arrangements to protect people.

Madam Speaker: Perhaps we can get back to Question Time. Hon. Members should ask just one question each. I call Mr. Marshall and ask him to set an example, please.

Mr. John Marshall: Does my hon. Friend agree that insurable risks should be insured by the individual rather than fall into the lap of the taxpayer?

Mr. Evans: Yes.

Industrial Injury Benefit

7. Mr. Jon Owen Jones: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how he intends to replace industrial injury benefit, and when.

Mr. Hague: Under the long-term review of social security expenditure, every part of the social security programme is being examined. If and when there are any firm proposals to put forward, an announcement will be made.

Mr. Jones: Before making his announcement, will the Minister consider the case, in my constituency, of Mr. Keith Cox, a father of five, who four years ago fell from some scaffolding and is now tetraplegic? Under the industrial benefits system, Mr. Cox is in receipt of £200 a week, which is not a considerable amount in view of the extent of his injuries and of his family circumstances. For the past four years, he and his union have been fighting a case for compensation. That is extremely expensive and perhaps has a diminishing chance of success.

Madam Speaker: Order. Will the hon. Gentleman please ask a question?

Mr. Jones: Reducing or getting rid of industrial injury benefit will mean that people such as Mr. Cox will be considerably worse off and will have nowhere else to turn.

Mr. Hague: In our review of social security expenditure, we shall of course consider expenditure as a whole. Any review of industrial injuries benefit will cover precisely the hon. Gentleman's points. The Government are right to review the social security system, and that is what we must continue to do.

Mr. Ian Bruce: Will my hon. Friend look at legal aid in conjunction with the Minister who deals with that? Many people who would be able to take a case through the courts and get compensation and be able to pay back the social security industrial injuries benefit from that court benefit, which might mean that the Exchequer would end up with more money, are prevented from doing so because they cannot get appropriate legal aid.

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