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Mr. Cash: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. McNamara: No. I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman because, unlike so many of my hon. Friends, he has not been in the Chamber since 3 pm today hoping to make his point.

We have made ourselves prisoners to undertakings that we will rue, as we have rued the strange decision on income tax. For the life of me, in the past week, I have not been able to believe not only the enormous, atrocious and obscene bonuses given in the City, and that we are not prepared to tax them, but that we are to cut benefits for single mothers. If they go to work, take advantage of all those wonderful schemes and lose their job, they will receive less benefit.

If my constituents come to me, I will tell them, "Weigh very carefully what is involved. I want you to go to work. I want you to be protected. I want you to be independent and to have your pride, but I want you to ensure that your children have food on the table and clothes on their backs."

Some people may say that £5 or £11 is not terribly important. I tell them to go round the charity shops, and to the supermarkets late at night, when bread is sold off cheap. Then they can ask whether that money is really important to single-parent families.

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11.17 pm

Mr. Kirkwood: We have had a very interesting and dramatic debate, which is what the House is for. I should also like very squarely to tell the Government that if Labour Members have raised dissentient voices, they should be allowed to do so without any type of sanction. To do otherwise would be to deny freedom of speech in the House, to deny hon. Members the right to represent their constituents and to negate the process of parliamentary democracy. Any sanctions taken against any Labour Member in the coming hours or days would be a disgrace, and negate the whole ethos of the House.

The provisions in the latter half of the Bill deal with cuts in benefits and are extremely contentious. I want, however, to deal with the earlier provisions on the modernisation of social security procedures because they are also important and some of them may come back to haunt us.

It was, of course, right to modernise aspects of the system, but some of the new provisions are draconian. The Bill blurs the distinction between the initial decision-making procedure and appellate rights. It also reduces the independent element in the decision-making process. Reducing the powers of the independent appellate bodies is a serious mistake which we make at our peril. The changes may bring about some savings. I suspect, however, that they will be modest and will be achieved at the expense of the poorest in our society.

Why, for example, is it necessary to abolish the chief adjudication officer? The only explanation the Government have given is that he has no resources with which to ensure that his annual reports are enforced. We all know that his annual reports often highlight terrible anomalies in the law and that they can lead to improvements in the standard of decision making.

The Bill, fundamentally, passes all decision-making powers to the Secretary State. Why? The Secretary of State is a Member of the House of Commons. The Benefits Agency officials have taken independent appeal decisions in the past acting as civil servants in an independent system. In future, the Secretary of State will act in her own right. She will not be able to claim independence from the tribunal service. She will be directly held to account in the House of Commons for tribunal decisions taken in her name and we shall not be slow to take up the challenge. We have here a fundamental change to the way in which we do things at the level of appeal tribunals.

The attempts the Secretary of State is making to change the decision-making process will significantly reduce the accountability of independent tribunals and will send a negative message to the poorest and most disadvantaged in our society. There will be inadequate checks on initial decision making which will not be in the interests of those people who appeal. The point has already been made about decisions being made by computer. That is another serious change in social security procedures which I deeply suspect as well.

We are told that agency chief executives will in future have quality control systems in place. I shall believe that when I see it because I do not believe that there will be adequate resources to allow that to happen.

During the passage of the Bill, we have been made aware that the right to an oral appeal hearing has been gradually eroded. That may not be mentioned directly in

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the Bill, but under Tory regulations that have not yet been repudiated by the Government, claimants now have to opt for an oral hearing. We all know that many claimants do not turn up for their hearings; the reasons for that are varied and complex. I believe that social security law is so complicated that claimants often give up when they are faced by a mass of Department of Social Security papers. The Bill will mean that claimants will be forced to resort to judicial reviews to protect their own interests.

My final point--[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] These may be technical but they are important points. The Bill will be likely to fall foul of European law and the European convention on human rights. It is only a matter of time before clauses 26 and 27 are found to be legally wanting. The system that we are establishing in the Bill is essentially flawed. I believe that we shall be forced to return to the provisions in due course in a way that may well further embarrass the Government. They may have to change many of the provisions all over again to get back to the independent system of adjudication appeal that we have enjoyed heretofore.

11.24 pm

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): I do not know whether there will be a vote on Third Reading, but if there is I shall vote against the Bill. I should like to tell the House why.

I was elected to the House and took my seat 47 years ago last week. I joined a Parliament that had taken over a Britain that was battered, bombed and bankrupt. That Parliament's first action was to treble the widow's pension from 10 shillings a week to 26 shillings a week. That bankrupt nation introduced a free health service, put me through college without any charge--I had been a wartime airman--and did not have much of a problem with the welfare bill when unemployment was so low because we were building houses and hospitals and recruiting teachers and nurses.

I was a Minister in subsequent Labour Governments that brought pensions into line with earnings. I am very proud of that. As Secretary of State for Energy, I also introduced a scheme to ensure that everyone on benefit had a 25 per cent. cut in their winter fuel bills, regardless of the temperature. All that is dismissed as old Labour, but I am very proud of it. The arguments for the Bill, which have been well rehearsed, run counter to the beliefs that I have and that the Labour party had--the beliefs that brought me into Parliament and led me to join the Labour party on my 17th birthday in 1942.

I must say, very respectfully, that the Government have not taken a hard decision; they have taken the easiest decision possible, hammering the poorest people who have no bargaining power. They have ring-fenced the richest people, promising them that there will be no increase in income tax. Anyone who has had experience of single parents--up to a couple of thousand have been to my surgeries over the years--knows that the children of split families are affected by their circumstances. They want their mother or father close to them when the other partner leaves. We are going back to the Victorian concept of the deserving poor, who want work, and the undeserving poor, who prefer to look after their children.

I am opposed to the philosophy of the Bill. Every argument that I have heard from the Front Bench has convinced me more and more that this is a bad measure.

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I do not want to detain the House for too long. Another reason why I shall vote against the Bill on Third Reading if there is a Division is that I have also read about the next items on the agenda--tuition fees, the possibility that disability benefit may be targeted or that the pensioners' link with earnings may not be restored.

I have found today's debate fascinating, because politics has come back to the Chamber of the House of Commons. Some of us, including me--I make nothing of that--want hon. Members to say the same in opposition and in government. We want some attempt to be made to assess the rights and wrongs of matters, rather than decisions being taken on the basis of an economic analysis founded on some requirement to be competitive and productive. The cuts that the Cabinet made 21 years ago cost us the 1979 election. Denis Healey, who is an honest man, has admitted that those cuts were unnecessary.

I do not ask anyone else who has not had my experiences to follow me into the Lobby if there is a vote, but I shall vote against the Bill, because this is what Parliament is about. If we separate this place from the concerns outside, there will be a price not just for the party of which I am proud to be a member, but for the reputation of the parliamentary process, as people become more and more despairing because their concerns are not being listened to.

11.28 pm

Mr. Salmond: I had not intended to say anything on Third Reading--today's events speak for themselves--until the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) said that he would have to advise a constituent carefully on whether to move into employment under the circumstances set out by the Government. I watched the Secretary of State for Social Security say, "Shame." If there is any shame in today's proceedings, it lies not on the Back Benches, but on the Front Benches.

The point is crystal clear. If someone loses a job or takes seasonal employment, he or she will return to benefit at a lower rate than that on which he or she started. How can any Member of this place, given the salaries that we earn, do other than advise a constituent in such circumstances to think extremely carefully about moving into employment? We would not be doing our duty if we did anything other than give such advice. If there is any shame in our proceedings this evening, it lies not with the hon. Member for Hull, North but with the Secretary of State.

As an observer of the Labour party's problems on this issue, I do not understand why the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer--those who are pulling the strings--have made a stand. I am told that the stand has been taken so that the Government can appear macho to the City. Apparently it is important to show the fiscal rectitude of the new Labour Government. If it is important to show fiscal rectitude and strength, why not pick on someone who is strong rather than on someone who is weak? There is no strength to be demonstrated in picking on single parents, who are one of the poorest sections of the community. Perhaps the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer should remember the words of Zsa Zsa Gabor, who said, "Macho men ain't mucho." Those words apply to the Government's campaign against single parents.

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In 1992 the Conservative party came to office with a considerable majority. Within a few months, however, it ran into a series of economic circumstances that were largely of its own making. The result was called black Wednesday, and that destroyed the economic credibility of the Conservative party, a blow from which it never recovered. I wonder, when we look back on today's proceedings, whether they might not be seen as new Labour's black Wednesday, which destroyed the social credibility of the new Labour Government. When all is said and done, it will be a pyrrhic victory for the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.


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