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9.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. John Denham): After that speech, I begin to fear that rumours of a black market in Viagra may well be true. I hope that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) will calm down before he goes home.

This has been a surprisingly good debate, in which a number of substantial contributions have been made. As we would expect, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks) provided a good historical overview, and was able to set the record of the last Administration in a wider context. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) spoke of the importance of--among other issues--the staff employed by the Benefits Agency to the delivery of the welfare system that we want. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Hope) set out the history of the last Administration very clearly, and the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), the Chairman of the Social Security Select Committee, made a series of valuable contributions.

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The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) also made some interesting points that were worthy of consideration. Although I do not agree with his prediction of the behaviour that would result from the working families tax credit, his was a thoughtful speech. His speech was about what the Government were doing. The premise of the debate called by his right hon. and hon. Friends was that the Government were not doing anything, and the only two speeches that were devoid of content, point or substance were those made by Opposition Front Benchers.

The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) summed it up very well when he said that, yet again, an Opposition day debate on social security had turned into an own goal. I noted the speed with which Conservative Members left the Chamber as soon as the opening speeches were over. I do not think that I have ever attended an Opposition day debate, in six years as a Member of Parliament, at which the only two members of the party that called the debate who were present were on the Front Bench. That, I think, is a measure of where the debate was leading at the opening--although a number of hon. Members in all parties developed it into quite a useful discussion.

It is a shame. The procedures of the House give the Opposition a chance to scrutinise and criticise the Government's record, and I do not think that any Government--certainly this Government--should be concerned about that; but these debates are a test of not just the Government's record, but the Opposition--of whether they have anything to say, whether they have a case to make and whether they can tell us, as they singularly failed to do, what they would have done.

The motion criticises welfare spending. The Conservative party should know because, under the previous Administration, social security spending spiralled and the costs of economic and social failure soared. The cost of social security soared by £43 billion in real terms--[Interruption.] Let me tell the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) what we said in our manifesto:


Over this Parliament, this Government will keep that election manifesto commitment--I am confident that we shall do so--but he must justify the previous Government's record.

Nearly 20 years ago, taxpayers knew that 25p in every pound that the Government spent went to health and education and 23p to social security. By the time that we were elected last year, 31p in every pound of Government spending was going on social security, but it would be wrong to judge the previous Government just by what they spent. What matters just as much is what happened to millions of people--to individuals, to parents, to children. Not just the cost, but the number of people who were being failed soared.

The number of people on income support doubled from one in 12 to one in six. By the time the previous Administration had finished, twice as many households had no one in work as when they were elected. The number of children being brought up on benefit had doubled: 2 million children of 1 million lone parents alone were being brought up on benefit. Nearly 1 million extra people of working age were receiving incapacity benefit.

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That was a welfare system that was not working. It was not working for our society--a society that bore the costs of social exclusion, of young people who thought that they had no stake in our society. It was not working for taxpayers, who had to pay the bill. It was not working for many of those who had to rely on it.

We knew that that was not the welfare system that people in Britain wanted--whether they were paying for it, or dependent on it. We knew that the benefit system alone could not be the route out of poverty for so many children of so many parents on benefits, and I believe that they knew it was not the route out of poverty too.

We knew that 2 million disabled people of working age were working, but that another 1 million disabled people wanted to work. However, no one was giving them the chance to work, to enjoy equal rights and to feel that they were being treated as full members of society. We knew that the system was not working for those people who could not be expected to work because of their health or disability, or because they were retired. We knew that people who had to turn to the welfare system found that it did not seem to be working for them.

Too many people came to believe that they had more opportunity to commit benefit fraud than of earning an honest living. The previous Administration said that they wanted a benefit system where people helped themselves; they did. The organised gangs, the crooked landlords and, sadly, a minority of individual claimants helped themselves, and the previous Government did nothing about it.

The benefit system treated people only as claimants, not as individuals with hopes, aspirations and ambitions for themselves and their families. People did not get what they were entitled to. Perhaps 1 million pensioners, after a lifetime of work, bringing up families and living through war, did not receive even the income support to which they were entitled.

Therefore, as soon as we were elected, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security, with a whole ministerial team--

Mr. Quentin Davies: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman did not give way in his speech, so I do not intend to give way in mine.

We set about changing and reforming the welfare system to make a reality of our principles and values: work for those who can and security for those who cannot. The hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said that we had made and are making no changes, but that is not true.

I make no apologies for the fact that one of this Government's first actions was to invest in new opportunities for people who had been denied opportunities for too long. We invested the windfall tax on the privatised utilities to create new opportunities for young people, for older workers, for lone parents and for the sick and disabled. We gave young people the chance to have a job, to gain skills and to be a full part of society. At the same time--not in the welfare budget, but in the education budget--we invested to raise standards in skills, so that, as today's children grow up, they do not leave our schools with the same lack of skills, education and qualifications that their older brothers and sisters have faced.

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We are extending the new deal's opportunities also to older people--who also should not be written off by the welfare system. We have set out to discover the best ways of enabling sick and disabled people to keep their jobs and to return to work. This week, we shall be announcing the first pilot projects in that programme.

In the new deal--which has been championed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State--we have said to lone parents, "There is an alternative to receiving benefit until your youngest child is 16. You can have a personal adviser who will work with you in dealing with the complexities of looking for work for the first time in years--to sort out training and child care and to understand working benefits."

In the welfare reform Green Paper, which was introduced in the House by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Welfare Reform, we have stated how the welfare system itself needs to be developed--so that the principle of personal advice tailored to the needs of individuals becomes a reality across the welfare system. We are also establishing schemes that will bring the Benefits Agency and local authorities together so that people are not faced with different systems and bureaucracies that cannot talk to one another.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) said that the Government are not moving ahead with technology. I tell him that people can now ring up to claim their pension. Someone will be at a computer screen to enter the information and send out a completed form. That is only the beginning of our plans. In nine pilot schemes--[Interruption.] There is some laughter among Opposition Members. Before implementation of the new system, about 40 per cent. of pension claims made on paper and posted had to be returned for extra information--at an administrative cost to the taxpayer, and a cost in inconvenience to pensioners. Using the new system, over 90 per cent. of new claims are accurate. [Hon. Members: "What about the cheques?"] I shall deal with the cheques in a moment.

It is so symptomatic of the Conservative party's thinking that Conservative Members deride an improvement in service quality that helps to make the welfare system work for individuals and to cut the cost to the taxpayer. Now we know why so little happened over the Tory years.

Opposition Members asked about cheques, and said that people were worried about winter fuel payments not arriving. Under the previous Administration, for 18 years, no pensioner ever worried about winter fuel payments arriving--but they worried about their fuel bills, and about VAT on fuel at 17.5 per cent. Over 18 years, they never made an effort to help every pensioner household with its fuel bills. We have made that effort.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford may think that the fact that one employee of a private company administering benefits transposed two digits and sent out some cheques that were changed within 72 hours should provide the basis for an Opposition day debate, but that just shows the ridiculousness of the Opposition's critique. Conservative Members did not mention a word of how they did not do anything to help pensioners with their heating bills or utter a word of apology for attempting to impose VAT on fuel at 17.5 per cent. They have only words of derision for the changes that we have already

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made to create a benefits system that works for people. Conservative Members stand condemned by their own words.

I should like to ask Conservative Members a key question. For years, they derided Labour Members when we said that we should use modern technology to help the poorest pensioners. However, one week into our pilot scheme, we identified a Scottish pensioner who was entitled to income support. We encouraged her to claim that benefit and now, consequently, she is £51 a week better off. When Conservative Members tabled today's motion criticising our welfare spending--the House is entitled to know the answer to this question--did they want that woman to stop getting that money? Was it that pensioner whom they intended to criticise? Should that pensioner, so long neglected by the Opposition, go without once again? That is what lies behind their message this evening. Should the lone parents who are on average £39 a week better off, with the taxpayer saving £42 a week--


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