Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Today's statement is a significant milestone for the Government, as much as for the House, and it deserves some scrutiny. I welcome the fact that the Minister for Welfare Reform has made the statement. He knows that I and all my colleagues have been asking for a statement on the Green Paper for a considerable time. Without being churlish, we welcome its existence and the fact that it has been announced.

The Green Paper has been a long time coming and, therefore, it raises a series of questions. [Interruption.] It is remarkable that it has taken 10 months to arrive and

26 Mar 1998 : Column 687

that the Government say they have been consulting for 10 months. The real question is what have they been doing for 18 years. Have they had no consultation over that time? The reality is that the Green Paper represents not just the sum total of thinking over 10 months, but the Labour party's consultations and thinking over the past 18 years. That is the key point. Regardless of the delay, I welcome the announcement.

At the beginning of the year, we were increasingly worried that, despite all the rhetoric, there was an absence of structure about welfare reform. The reality is that it is important--and it was important--for us to be able to help the Government to create the right structure and to provide the right opportunity for debate. We wanted to be constructive. In January, we offered the Government the opportunity for a constructive dialogue and we laid out our criteria for reform. That was never done for the previous Government, but we did not look back on that with regret. We simply offered the Government the right to have the debate, and we do not shy from that.

We must ask how the Green Paper measures up to the main elements that we set for the Government. The first of the principles is that reform must strengthen the institution of the family. Secondly, it must strengthen personal responsibility and break the dependency culture. Thirdly, reform must strengthen alternative provision of welfare and break the state monopoly of provision, helping to focus welfare on those most in need. Underscoring all that is what the Minister said, which is that it must not depart from those most in need.

As the Minister knows, the late delivery of the Green Paper meant that we could look at it, but not to the extent that we would have liked. However, as I looked at the paper, I began to ask a series of questions about what we had been led to believe was likely to be in it.

First, let us deal with housing benefit. We were led to believe that the Green Paper would set a series of criteria by which benefit fraud, particularly housing benefit fraud, would be dealt with. In fact, there is nothing new in the paper that will suggest to anybody outside or in the House how the Minister intends to take the position forward. There is no specific position.

After so much coat trailing over housing benefit, why is there so little in the document that deals with it? Is it anything to do with the clash with the Chancellor's office after the right hon. Gentleman's article on Sunday? Was it lifted out because of that? Where are all the new proposals that the right hon. Gentleman said would deal specifically with how he intends to reform housing benefit? That underscores the whole change to welfare and the ability to cut costs.

Our second area of concern is disability benefits. We have had a series of scare stories, deliberate leaks and kite flying on disability benefits over the past six months. The Government should show shame, because they set out deliberately to scare a whole group of people without proposing anything at all. They simply set out to make them worried in the absence of any proposals. We asked for the Green Paper because that was happening, but the Government came up with nothing. However, what we have received today is a rehash of earlier announcements on incapacity benefit and other proposals.

As we understand it, the right hon. Gentleman said that the Government will rule out means testing of disability living allowance. I welcome that. However, why has it

26 Mar 1998 : Column 688

taken all these months to make that decision? Why could the Government not have ruled out means testing earlier, and made the position absolutely clear--rather than scaring people, at the Chancellor's bidding? I should like the Minister for Welfare Reform to tell us also whether he has ruled out taxing disability living allowance and other disability benefits.

Why raise the scare stories? Why worry everyone? The Government's welfare reform has been a series of missed opportunities. As today's newspapers have said, the debate on disabilities has to progress gradually and should not be subject to knee-jerk reactions and scare stories. Today, the Minister had the opportunity--he has had the opportunity--to make serious proposals for structural change in disability benefit, but there was little in his statement that had not already been rehashed in the Budget.

When the Government came to power, they acted swiftly on pensions. In their first Budget, they damaged prospects for pensions and pensioners. They raided pension funds, and created real problems for pension reform. Almost immediately, the pension brief was taken away from the Minister for Welfare Reform and handed to the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), who was to conduct a separate pensions review. A major part of the welfare reform process was therefore excluded from the welfare Green Paper.

The right hon. Gentleman's comments on pensions failed absolutely to deal with the changes to pensions that have occurred in the past 11 months. Why did he not take this opportunity to mention the dramatic changes--the decline in pension values--since the Government's first Budget?

The Government said, when they came to power, that they valued occupational pensions. However, since then--in the Budget hit--they have damaged occupational pensions, so that occupational pensions may be frozen and moved to group personal pensions. The Government endlessly attacked personal pensions, going on about personal pension mis-selling--yet they try to move occupational pensions to personal pensions. As the right hon. Gentleman and the Government support occupational pensions, what will they do to rectify that problem? They have missed today's opportunity.

The right hon. Gentleman said that he valued family structures, and realised that the family is important as the basic structure in building a stable society. We share that belief, and I welcome that statement. However, the Budget contained the seed of a serious problem for marriage structures raising children and looking after elderly relatives. In ending the married couple's allowance, the Labour party has sent a seriously damaging message to those who wish to raise children and look after elderly relatives. Taking money from them has very little to do with supporting those structures.

Why did the right hon. Gentleman, given all his previous views and commitments, not take the opportunity to deal with that problem, and send a serious message to those who look after elderly relatives--who now, after last week's Budget, wonder how they will make ends meet?

The right hon. Gentleman made some proposals on the Child Support Agency, and I welcome his comments about the agency. As he has said on many occasions,

26 Mar 1998 : Column 689

CSA reform is a matter on which both sides of the House should agree. We look forward to hearing detailed proposals. Will he explain his specific proposals to deal with the problems in the CSA? We will take every opportunity to support those proposals.

I was intrigued by the right hon. Gentleman's comments on social exclusion. I should like him to explain how, after all his thinking on the matter--for which the Minister without Portfolio, who is on the Treasury Bench, is supposed to be responsible--the Government's sum total of knowledge and determination is in the phrase:

Is that it? After 10 months, is that all that the Government have to say about social exclusion? Is that the sum of the thinking that is driving us forward? They have targeted tackling social exclusion as a means of combating poverty and that is all that they have to say about it.

What about means testing? Year after year, in papers and books, the right hon. Gentleman has said that he was opposed to means testing. He has said nothing today about how he intends to wind back that process or about the taxation of benefits. Where in the Green Paper or the statement is there a personal commitment from the right hon. Gentleman? Nowhere.

The Green Paper gives a series of benchmarks. The Government said in advance that they would set targets. The Green Paper gives only a series of general statements. They say that they want to be measured against certain criteria. The Prime Minister is fond of saying that the Government will be measured against their performance, but they do not want to be measured until after at least another two general elections. The Green Paper gives a target of 2020. The Government want to go to the next election saying, "Don't worry; trust us. We'll get this right not in this Parliament, but perhaps the next--or perhaps not even that but the Parliament after." That is the Government's target for measurement. They are telling the public that the issue does not matter and that they do not want to be measured seriously against their targets. Why does the right hon. Gentleman not tell us how he intends to be measured at the next general election?

The Prime Minister has said that the cost of benefit will be reduced. We have a right to expect that that commitment will be measured at the next election. I hope that the Prime Minister will lean over to his right hon. Friend the Minister for Welfare Reform to tell him that he has the authorisation to tell us that the Government will be judged on that at the next election.

The Green Paper represents a series of missed opportunities after 10 months of promises. Behind the scenes, there has been a battle between the Minister for Welfare Reform and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Given the vacuousness and avoidance of detail of the Green Paper, the Chancellor won. The Green Paper should have been published more than six months ago, but the Budget had to come first. For the first time in history, we have a Green Paper published after a White Paper--the Chancellor's White Paper. The Chancellor is running the show. The Minister has been taken prisoner.

26 Mar 1998 : Column 690

The Prime Minister appointed the Minister on his reputation, to bolster the Government, but he has imprisoned the man.

Next Section

IndexHome Page