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Mortgage Interest Payments

23. Mr. Pike: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if she will change the system of benefit payments in respect of mortgage interest payments to monthly payments.[9051]

Mr. Keith Bradley: We are undertaking a general review of housing benefit and housing finance, but, at the present time, we have no plans to change those specific arrangements.

Mr. Pike: Does my hon. Friend recognise that, although there may be no immediate plan to make a change, if he discusses the matter with benefit officers it will be found that there will be tremendous advantages in making 12 payments annually instead of 13 four-weekly payments, which cause great confusion to the recipient and to the bank or building society concerned?

Mr. Bradley: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. As part of our general modernisation of social security, we shall study any method that streamlines the system. I am grateful for his comments on that matter, and can assure him that I will include it in the general review of which I have spoken.

Child Support Agency

24. Mr. Gibb: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if she will make a statement on the changes she has announced relating to the Child Support Agency.[9052]

Mr. Keith Bradley: As indicated when we recently debated the Child Support Agency, we intend to look closely at all aspects of the work of the Child Support Agency to ensure that it provides an efficient and effective

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service. Our key objectives for the agency during the coming year are to sort out cases faster, tackle the backlog of work and pursue fathers who avoid paying. With this in mind, an additional £15 million a year will be invested in the agency from 1998-99 specifically aimed at getting more absent parents to pay. This is expected to result in an extra £121 million in maintenance payments.

The Social Security Bill, introduced on 9 July 1997, also contains proposals to simplify and speed up the child support decision-making process.

Mr. Gibb: Can the Minister state precisely how the £15 million will yield the £120 million extra savings which he just said it would yield?

Mr. Bradley: That money will be used across the board to improve the efficiency of the Child Support Agency. We shall look particularly at out-of-hours work, including the telephone system, to try to ensure that people have better access to the agency so that their problems can be sorted out quickly and efficiently, and to ensure that parents pay the maintenance that they should pay.

Income Support

25. Mr. Skinner: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many people were on income support at the latest available date.[9053]

Mr. Keith Bradley: In August 1996, nearly 5.6 million people were receiving income support, almost double the number in 1979. That is the legacy which we inherited from the previous Administration. We now have the opportunity for a fresh start. Most people who are capable of work want to work. We shall modernise the social security system to help them do just that.

Mr. Skinner: Is my hon. Friend aware that one thing the Government will have to do is ensure that work is provided? We cannot get work out of thin air. We can modernise and privatise those offices until the cows come home, but there are large areas of Britain--inner cities, old coalfield areas and other ex-industrial areas--where literally 30 or 40 per cent. of the people are without work. Many are on income support and not on unemployment benefit. The Government must turn their attention not only to welfare-to-work schemes but to providing work.

Mr. Bradley: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. As a Member of Parliament representing an inner city, I recognise the problems that he identifies. We need to re-skill, re-educate and ensure that real opportunities in employment are available throughout the country. We need to look particularly at areas that have been devastated by the previous Administration's policies.

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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The Foreign Secretary has just answered a written question setting out the criteria that will be used in considering licence applications for the export of conventional arms. As you are aware, it is a matter of considerable importance, which has already been the subject of two speeches by the Foreign Secretary outside the House. Was it right for the right hon. Gentleman to announce a change of policy in that way? Is not it yet another example of the Government's contempt for Parliament? Is not smuggling the statement out three days before the recess just a crude attempt to deny the House an opportunity to question the Foreign Secretary on its content? Are you, too, powerless in the face of this further display of arrogance by this high-handed Government?

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Having seen the press reports on that matter, particularly about third-world sales, I wanted to question the Foreign Secretary, not least because of the Indonesian situation, when the previous Government--

Madam Speaker: Order. I am interested not in speeches nor in issues of policy but in the point of order to me.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. This subject was discussed at discursive length this morning in the comfortable ambience of the "Today" programme, whereas hon. Members on both sides of the House would like to question the Foreign Secretary on the economic, industrial and diplomatic consequences of a drastic change in policy, as this apparently is. Having inquired at the Foreign Office, we were told that no review was to be announced on the Floor of the House; we had to go to the Vote Office and get a copy of a written question--presumably written by the Foreign Office, but it was signed by the hon. Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms) and answered in a written text.

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker: Order. I am ready to respond to those points of order. First, however, I should like to hear what one or two other hon. Members have to say; I shall not hear points of order from throughout the House. I shall take two more points of order from the Labour Benches.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Further to the point of order of the former Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the Chamber is becoming like an echo chamber, Madam Speaker. I used to make such points when the previous Government were in power. I, too, deplore the use of the media to get a message across, but I had a maxim about that. I used to say that if a Government spokesman announced a fresh policy on "Today" and repeated it on "Newsnight" the same night, it was policy.

Madam Speaker: I will take one more point of order from the Government side.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Having been in opposition for

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so long, we sympathise with the members of the former Government, who are finding the painful experience of opposition so difficult. We indeed need statements from the Government, especially on the decision of the House of Lords last week, which again found that the former Home Secretary had broken the law. His comments must be treated as those of a recidivist.

Madam Speaker: Order. I am seriously interested in the two points of order that were raised originally. As the House knows, that is not a matter for the Speaker. When a Minister has information to give to the House, that is done by means of an oral statement or by means of a written answer to a question. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), who raised the matter with me originally, were both senior Ministers in a former Government and know full well what the procedure is.

I mean to be helpful in the matter, in which I know that there is considerable interest. I remind the House that we have three hours on Wednesday morning for an Adjournment debate in which such matters can be raised, providing that Members are here and keen enough to do so.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will recall exchanges about "Yesterday in Parliament". You informed the House that you intended to write to the BBC. Obviously, you did so, but I do not expect that you received a positive response, bearing in mind the way in which the BBC is being run at present. Will you be good enough to tell us whether you have received a reply?

Madam Speaker: I have received a reply. I make no comment on it, but I have put copies of the correspondence in the Commons Library for hon. Members to see for themselves.

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