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29 Jan 2001 : Column 1

House of Commons

Monday 29 January 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Widows' Benefits

1. Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): What plans he has to amend the rights of those widowed at a young age to widows' and widowers' benefits; and if he will make a statement. [145957]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): We are introducing bereavement benefits in April that will be available to both men and women equally for the first time. There will be a new weekly benefit for widowed parents who satisfy the qualifying conditions, and a new lump sum bereavement payment of £2,000, which is double the existing widows' payment.

Mr. Dalyell: Against the background of a sad constituency case from Linlithgow on which my hon Friend has had time to reflect, should a mother who loses

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her husband when she is eight weeks pregnant with a second child be entitled to full maternity allowance? Is the anomaly that that case constitutes uncommon?

Angela Eagle: The case to which my hon. Friend refers is especially tragic. He has made me aware of it, and the person concerned has written to me. She fell into particular circumstances because of overlapping benefit rules, which have been a feature of the national insurance-based system since its inception. They enshrine the principle that flat-rate benefits, which are designed to help with income maintenance in specific contingencies, are not added together. It would be unfair and costly if the social security system allowed them to be added together, and I am sorry to tell my hon. Friend that the Government have no plans to do so.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): I am pleased to know that--not before time--the widow's payment will be increased from £1,000 to £2,000.

The Under-Secretary will recall the case of Corrina Smith of Margate, which I raised in an Adjournment debate last April. As the hon. Lady will remember, Mrs. Smith's husband died tragically in a chemical fire. Mrs. Smith applied for the widows' payment of £1,000 and was told that she could not have it because her application had been made after three months and was therefore out of time. Mrs. Smith did not receive the death certificate from the coroner until the three-month period had elapsed. Has the Department considered starting the clock at the time when the death certificate is issued rather than at the time of death so that people such as Mrs. Smith get the money that they so richly deserve?

Angela Eagle: We dealt with that matter in some detail in last year's Adjournment debate. People can apply for the benefit without a death certificate. The hon. Gentleman's constituent fell foul of backdating rules

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introduced by the previous Government, for which he voted. There are no plans to change the current arrangements.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): In little over nine weeks, widows will be in a worse position because they will receive only a year's pension. When that announcement is made, the true victims of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999 will be known. What provision has the Department made for offering guidance to the newly widowed so that they understand that they have only a year's pension, and not the pension for life that they had previously?

Will the Minister answer a question to which she failed to reply in Committee: how soon after bereavement will widows be expected to have their first work-focused interview?

Angela Eagle: The system is obviously intended to treat those who have been recently bereaved with care and respect. There will be no sudden rushes to force those who are bereaved--widows or widowers--quickly into work. However, we believe that it is important that those who have lost a spouse while still young are given a chance to retrain and to consider how they can get into the labour market when the time is appropriate.

Child Poverty

2. Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): What percentage of children live in households in the bottom (a) decile, (b) quarter and (c) half of household income; and if he will make a statement. [145959]

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker): In 1998-99, the proportion of children living in households in the bottom decile, quarter and half of income distribution before the deduction of housing costs were 13 per cent., 33 per cent. and 61 per cent.

Mr. Williams: I am grateful for that information.My hon. Friend knows that during the period of Conservative government between 1979 and 1997, the incidence of child poverty in Britain trebled. This Government have done a great deal to tackle that through the working families tax credit, child benefit, the minimum wage and the new deal. How will the new child tax credit help to solve the problem, especially for households with the lowest income?

Mr. Rooker: I apologise to my hon. Friend because it is too early for me to answer a question in detail about a credit that will be introduced in the next financial year. However, it will ensure that help through the tax system is targeted on families who are raising children.

My hon. Friend is right about child poverty: in1996-97, approximately one in three children lived in low-income households, which was three times the rate in 1979. A substantial increase in child poverty and, as we know from our debates, pensioner poverty has therefore

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occurred. The gap opened up during the 18 years when the previous Administration were in office. However, we have taken considerable steps to reverse the trend since 1997.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Given that a New Policy Institute report shows that 500,000 more people are living in poverty, will the Minister confirm whether the Government continue to pledge that 1 million children will be removed from poverty by the general election?

Mr. Rooker: Yes, there is no doubt about that. I was careful that my original answer was specific as to dates. The 1998-99 figures are the latest that we have. We are now at the end of January 2001, so the figures that I gave are almost two years out of date. Substantial changes have taken place--the introduction of the working families tax credit and the national minimum wage, and extra significant increases in child benefit. Given the measures in our four Budgets as a whole, we are absolutely confident that 1 million children will be taken out of poverty, if poverty is measured as 60 per cent. of median earnings after housing costs.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): Will the Minister confirm that, through the child benefit system, his Department holds the names and addresses of every child in the country, but that when the Inland Revenue tried to send out child tax credit forms, it did not use that information, but instead issued millions of forms, including 1 million to families with no children? Is it not the case that the Revenue did not use his Department's records to get the child tax credit to families because the form would have had to be sent to non-tax paying mothers, who would have had to pass it to tax-paying fathers? That would have made it apparent that the Government are not giving the support to women and mothers, but are transferring it to men.

Mr. Rooker: I honestly think that that question should be directed at my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

Departmental IT Systems

3. Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): How much has been spent on new technology by his Department since May 1997; and if he will make a statement. [145960]

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Department spent£1.3 billion on information technology between May 1997 and December last year. As a result of the spending review, more money has been allocated to replace the ageing IT system that we inherited. That investment is essential if we are to drive out fraud and combat error.

Mr. Wyatt: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he give serious thought to the housing benefit crisis in Swale borough council? We are 16 weeks behind, some people are being evicted from their houses, and the housing association has complained to the

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ombudsman. There is a problem with both the hardware and software for dealing with the matter. Is a task force available at headquarters that could sort out the problem?

Mr. Darling: I am aware of the problems in my hon. Friend's local authority. I realise that there is a substantial backlog of claims and that the council is trying to recruit additional staff to deal with it. I hope that that will clear the backlog.

On my hon. Friend's central request, as I announced a short while ago, the Department is establishing specialist teams of people to go into councils where there have been difficulties. The problem is that, although some councils can administer housing benefit well, far too many cannot do so. We want to ensure that failing local authorities that are not dealing properly with housing benefit receive the skills and expertise--indeed, acquire the IT--that they need to administer the system. I hope in the near future to be able to announce the councils that will be the first to benefit from that additional assistance.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I welcome the Minister's statement that the Department will clamp down on fraud. How far is modern equipment being used across Departments? We have already heard a suggestion that it is not. For example, in a social security fraud in Northern Ireland, a social security worker who came before the courts had 28 or 29 ghost clients--he was ripping off money. Are we using modern equipment to cross-check all applicants?

Mr. Darling: When we get the new IT equipment that we need, we will be able to cross-check information far more effectively. The problem experienced by the DSS is that some of its IT equipment is getting on for 30 years old. I am not the world's leading IT expert, but even I know that green writing on black screens is somewhat out of date. Many of our staff go home to find their children using better IT than they are expected to use at work.

We are systematically replacing the entire IT system at the DSS. As part of that replacement programme, we will ensure that equipment is compatible with that held by the Inland Revenue and other Government agencies, precisely so as to make the necessary checks.

The matter does not involve only IT. One of the best ways to stop fraud and error entering the system is to ensure that the front-line staff are in place, and we have stabilised DSS staffing.

One reason why we will save £1 billion during this Parliament is that we will be getting claims right. When we took over, two in every five income support cases were wrong; we have halved that. If the Conservatives were to get in and cut civil service staffing in the way that they propose, the Benefits Agency would lose 5,000 staff in one year, which would once again open the floodgates to fraud and error.

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