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28 Jul 1997 : Column 1

House of Commons

Monday 28 July 1997

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


Madam Speaker: I regret to have to report to the House the death of Gordon McMaster, the Member for Paisley, South. I am sure that Members in all parts of the House will join me in mourning the loss of a colleague and in extending our sympathy to the hon. Member's family and friends.

Oral Answers to Questions


New Deal for Lone Parents

1. Mr. Rammell: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if she will make a statement on support for single parents.[9028]

The Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women (Ms Harriet Harman): Last week, the Government launched the first stage of our welfare-to-work programme--our manifesto commitment to implement a new deal for lone parents. This is a pioneering programme which marks a radical new

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approach to welfare, bringing work, skills, opportunities and ambition to all those who until now have been left behind.

Mr. Rammell: I thank the Secretary of State for that response. In my constituency of Harlow, 60 per cent. of lone parents are unemployed, not through choice but because of the inadequacy of child care support. Is not adequate child care support absolutely essential in helping lone parents move from benefit into work? In the light of that, will my right hon. Friend explain how the Government intend to restructure the single regeneration budget to aid that process?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that lone parents want to work rather than be dependent on benefit, but many of them say that they would be more likely to get work if there were more child care. That is why we promised in our manifesto that we would have a national child care strategy, which we have already started to implement. As well as increasing the child care disregard in family credit, which gives extra cash help to mothers moving off income support and into work, we have, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, said that, for the first time, child care provision will be an important focus for funds from the single regeneration budget. The new priority that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has given to child care as part of economic regeneration is evidence that we are putting child care at the heart of our economic strategy.

Mr. Baldry: That was a statement.

Madam Speaker: It was much too long an answer.

Mr. Webb: With regard to lone parents who are unable to get off welfare and into work, and of whom there will presumably be several hundred thousand even after the new deal, will the Secretary of State confirm that, from next April, new lone parents on income support will have

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to live on £5 a week less than existing lone parents? What effect does she think that will have on the standard of living of the children in those families?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman well knows the proposals for the lone-parent premium and the one-parent benefit, which were debated in the House last week, but the clear message from lone parents is that they do not want to live on full-time benefits. They want to be in work, financially able to support themselves and their children. Our new deal for lone parents has started with an invitation to all lone parents with children of school age for an interview with a personal adviser, but, even in the first week after the launch of the new deal in eight areas, one of the things that have struck us--I shall report further to the House as the scheme proceeds--is how many of the lone parents who have rung up were not those who were invited, but those whose children are under five but who also want to be able to work rather than bring up their children on benefits.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Social Security Bill which we debated last week will implement a Conservative proposal to reduce the level of child benefit for lone parents. Even though the right hon. Lady opposed it previously, she is now pushing it through, but the point is that there is still a proposal to reduce the premium on income support for lone parents, which requires secondary legislation. Will the right hon. Lady tell us when she intends to introduce that, or does she have some other plans?

Ms Harman: That proposal will be brought forward shortly.

Mr. Burns: When?

Ms Harman: I have answered that question.

The hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) will note the report published this week by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which shows that widening inequality is largely the gap between households in which someone is in work and those without work. There are 1 million lone mothers bringing up 2 million children in households without work. It is because we want to tackle inequality and improve opportunities for those who have been excluded that we shall introduce our welfare-to-work programme for lone mothers.

Claimants (Improved Services)

3. Mr. Andy King: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if she will make a statement on the Government's plans to improve services to claimants by sharing information within her Department relating to claimants.[9030]

Ms Harman: Improving services to claimants to help rebuild public support for the social security system is central to our plans to reform the welfare state. It is unacceptable that claimants have to give the same information over and over again to different parts of the benefits system. Through the Social Security Bill, we shall take steps to remedy the matter.

Mr. King: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her answer. Time and again, people have come to my

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surgeries in despair at the amount of time and energy that they are wasting in trying to find their way through the very complex and inefficient system that we inherited from the previous Government. Will she confirm that, on average, some people who appeal against decisions must wait six months for a decision, and that, in some cases, they must wait up to two years for a hearing? What will she do to tackle that intolerable situation?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend raises two important points: the amount of time that claimants must waste in providing the same information to different parts of the social security system; and the fact that claimants must, on average, wait six months before their appeal is decided. In many cases, those appealing against a benefit decision do not receive a decision for more than two years, and that is totally unacceptable. One of the objectives of our Social Security Bill is to cut the time required for people to have an appeal heard and decided.

Mr. Tredinnick: Is not one related problem the amount of time required for claimants to reach benefits offices on the telephone? Does the Secretary of State have any proposals to improve communications between members of the public and her offices? If so, will she institute a review into the matter?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Government need thoroughly to modernise the relationship between the social security system and claimants, and we intend to do so. The way in which the social security system currently operates--requiring claimants to provide, time and again, the same information to different parts of the system--wastes the time of staff and claimants and taxpayers' money.

Claimants subsequently have to ring a benefits office if they lose track of what stage they have reached in dealing with the system about one of the five benefits that they may be receiving. I am holding the forms necessary to notify one single change in circumstance--that a lone mother wants to move off income support because she has found a job. A lone mother must fill in all of these forms to communicate to the Child Support Agency, the local authority and those dealing with family credit and income support the one bit of information that she has a job. If she subsequently tries to telephone to discover what on earth has happened to any of the forms, she probably will not be able to get through.

Mr. Kirkwood: Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the best ways of improving services to claimants would be to guarantee that they will have ready access to Benefits Agency offices? Is she aware that there is concern that, if the Government--as anticipated, under what is called the prime scheme, the private sector resource initiative for management of the estate--announce that they will dispose of benefits offices as heritable property and lease them back, it will be the prelude to a rationalisation process in which Benefits Agency offices will be closed? Will she give an assurance that that will not happen, and pay attention specifically to the needs of claimants in rural areas, who are sometimes already far removed from the nearest Benefits Agency office?

Ms Harman: We are absolutely determined to modernise and improve social security services, not only

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for those who live in towns and cities but for those in rural areas. The opportunities provided by extended telephone use and new technology mean that there is no reason why claimants should have to waste half their lives trying to deal with different parts of the system. We are ensuring that we shall improve the system so that it wastes less time for claimants and staff, wastes less money for taxpayers, provides a prompt and efficient service and makes the right decision the first time.

Mr. Blizzard: I welcome my right hon. Friend's drive to reduce paperwork in the benefits system. Will she also consider the needs of disabled people who, under the benefit integrity programme introduced by the previous Government, are required to fill in a 33-page questionnaire? If they do not, a home visit can then be followed up by a tribunal. Will my right hon. Friend consider whether that is really necessary, especially in the light of reports from my local disablement information and advice line office, which is inundated by cries for help from disabled people to whom it cannot always respond because of the sheer weight of paperwork from the Benefits Agency?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend raises two points. First, he referred to people with disabilities being required to fill in dozens of different forms that require the same information and then having to repeat the exercise. I addressed that in earlier answers. We share his concern, which affects people claiming benefit as a result of disability as well as pensioners and the unemployed.

Secondly, my hon. Friend referred to benefit fraud. We are concerned to get benefits to people who are entitled to them because of incapacity or disability. However, we are also concerned that those who are not entitled to benefits should not receive them. We want to rebuild public support for the social security system. People will not support a system that wastes claimants' time with hundreds of forms. Nor will they support a system that they know is open to abuse whereby those who are not entitled to benefits receive them.

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