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House of Commons

Monday 10 January 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Severe Disablement Allowance

1. Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): What steps the Government are taking to ensure that all those severely disabled people who are potentially eligible for severe disablement allowance are encouraged to claim it. [102927]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley): Severe disablement allowance does not provide sufficient help for those in the greatest need--those who were born disabled, or who were disabled so severely early in life that they may never be able to work and to build up a national insurance contribution record. When our welfare reforms come into effect, those young people will be able to claim incapacity benefit without having to meet the usual contribution conditions. After a year in benefit, that will be worth up to £26.40 a week more than severe disablement allowance. Existing recipients of SDA will retain the benefit in future, as long as they continue to meet the entitlement

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conditions. We are already taking a number of steps to raise awareness of SDA among severely disabled people, and we will ensure that the forthcoming changes are well publicised.

Mr. George: Those who warned the Government against abolition of severe disablement allowance--which will undeniably have a particular impact on some disabled women, on young carers and on low earners--look to them to soften the blow that their policy will inflict on a group of people who are, after all, disabled through no fault of their own. Bearing that in mind, along with the fact that this is the first question of a new century, will the Minister openly recognise that the policy will have a severe impact on some people, and ensure that awareness and take-up campaigns are given high priority this year?

Mr. Bayley: The hon. Gentleman fails to recognise that severe disablement allowance does least for those who are poorest. Seventy per cent.--the poorest--of those who receive it receive not a penny of benefit, because every penny of the SDA that they receive will be lost from their income support. The changes that we are making will help those who need help most: the poorest and the most severely disabled. That is why we are making the changes, and are proud to be doing so. In future, we shall benefit young people of both sexes who in the past would have faced a lifetime on means-tested benefits, but who will now be raised to incapacity benefit level.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill): Does my hon. Friend agree that, when people are wrongly turned down for this benefit--or for any other disability benefit--they are caused severe upset and disappointment? When does he expect to be certain that arrangements are in place to ensure that that does not happen any more?

Mr. Bayley: When anyone is wrongly turned down for benefit, it is a serious matter. We need an appeals system to ensure that people receive the benefits to which they are entitled. The appeals system that we inherited was inadequate, partly because of delays and partly because of

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the faults inherent in it. We have reformed it: we have speeded it up, and our approach to benefits seeks to ensure that the right decision is made in the first place and that decisions remain right thereafter.

Child Poverty

2. Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton): What steps he is taking to ensure that all tiers of government are involved in tackling child poverty. [102928]

4. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): If he will report on the progress of the Government's proposals to tackle child poverty. [102930]

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling): We are making real progress in tackling child poverty. We are the first Government to be committed to eradicating child poverty in a generation, and to halving it within 10 years.

Mr. Twigg: Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in the north-west, more than half a million children live in households with less than half the average income? My constituency has some of the highest poverty rates in the country, and has the highest infant mortality rate in England. Child poverty is an important issue in the north-west.

The difference between this Government and the last lies in the fact that we recognise the existence of poverty, and are publishing indicators enabling us to measure it and to do something about it. Is it not important, however, for all the agencies to work together to tackle poverty through initiatives such as sure start? If we are judged on anything at the end of our tenure, it will be on how much effect we have had in reducing child poverty.

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right. The previous Government spent considerable time denying that poverty even existed, which damned a generation of children from the start because they happened to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time, under a Tory Government.

We recognise that poverty and the causes of poverty must be dealt with. That is why we are increasing child benefit and ensuring that more people obtain jobs through the new deal, as a result of which nearly 170,000 have found work. We have introduced the sure start schemes, one of which is operating in my hon. Friend's constituency, and we are increasing investment in health and education. Every one of those measures is opposed by the Conservative party. It is clear to people in this country that only a Labour Government are committed to eradicating poverty and doing something concrete to deal with the problems that we inherited.

Mr. Robertson: Is not the worst thing that a child can inherit from its parents a belief in the welfare dependency culture, and are not the Government's policies increasing welfare dependency? Is not the best lesson that children can be taught the lesson that welfare can provide only a very basic standard of living, and that the phrase "work ethic" constitutes, of itself, an important concept?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman misses thepoint. The Conservative Government increased welfare

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dependency during their 18 years in power. They increased social security spending by 90 per cent., but there was more poverty, there were more divisions, the gap between rich and poor widened, and nearly a third of children were born into poverty. No decent Government could tolerate that, which is why we have introduced the new deal to get people into work, increased child benefit by a record amount, and increased spending on education and health to ensure that all children are given the best possible chance in life. That would never have happened but for the change of Government.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I commend the Government's actions to combat poverty, especially on behalf of the 3,800 families in Lancaster and Wyre who are benefiting directly from the Government's national minimum wage and the working families tax credit. They are being assisted to work their way out of poverty. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he is also looking at the impact of housing benefit and council tax benefit on those families to ensure that the Government's commendable actions are not undermined by further reductions in those benefits?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right. The objective of the Government's policy is to ensure that everyone who can work does work and that they do not depend on benefits. That is why we have made changes to the tax and benefit system to ensure that work pays through the working families tax credit--again, a measure that is opposed by the Conservative party--and why we are looking at housing benefit reform to ensure that it pays to go into work and that people do not face unnecessary barriers to getting into work.

We have reduced the starting rate of tax and introduced benefit run-ons to ensure that everyone who works sees the benefit of their work, which helps not only them, but, in particular, all the children who, until now, have been condemned to a life of poverty. The important point is that the Conservative party opposes every one of those measures. Were it ever returned to power, every measure to make work pay and to get the country back into work would be completely set aside. It does not believe in tackling the problem in the first place.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): The hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Twigg) is right to say that all tiers of government have to be brought to bear to tackle matters such as child poverty. However, will the Secretary of State confirm that, in the next financial year, his budget for pilot projects and other new programmes, including interdepartmental programmes to tackle such matters, will be top-sliced by some £50 million? Does he share my concern that the top-slicing of the Department's budget is in danger of getting out of control? Who is co-ordinating the work to deal with child poverty and other matters? Will he assure the House that someone is properly evaluating that work?

Mr. Darling: I assure the hon. Gentleman that I spend many hours looking at my budget. I also confirm that the Government have embarked on a number of projects to ensure that we use the best possible means to eradicate child poverty. I commend to him "Opportunity for All" which was published last year and which, for the first time ever, shows what we are doing across government to

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tackle poverty and, most important, to deal with the causes of poverty, such as lack of educational opportunity, lack of jobs, poor health and poor housing. All the measures are being brought together.

The next poverty report setting out the Government's strategy and the progress that we are making--we are the first Government ever prepared to be judged on what we do--will be published in the autumn. I would have thought that most impartial observers, including the hon. Gentleman, would accept that the present Government, unlike any in the recent past, are doing much to eradicate one of the scourges of society: poverty and child poverty in particular.

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