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Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): It is a pleasure to be able to take part in this short but high-quality debate on the uprating orders. We have heard some interesting contributionsnot least, the one from the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley). I always think of his constituency as including part of Hammersmith, having been chairman of the Hammersmith Conservatives many years ago and failing miserably to unseat him, to his no doubt considerable relief.
We started the debate with an orgy of self-congratulation from the Secretary of State about the benefits situation. As the debate has worn on, however, some of the gilt has come off the gingerbread. The Government now spend £125 billion a year on benefits and tax credits. Are they spending all that wisely, sensibly and effectively? Certainly not.
As the Secretary of State recognised, however, there is a major problem in getting to claim that particular means-tested benefit. Within that problem is the even bigger problem of owner-occupiers; the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) touched on that important point. All too often in recent times, retired owner-occupiers, with major difficulties in making ends meet, have been faced with gigantic increases in their council tax and are either unable or unwilling to claim council tax benefitin many cases, simply from ignorance that it even exists or that it would apply to them if they asked for it. I welcome the Government's publicity campaign, but that very campaign underlines the immutable problem with all means-tested benefits: there will always be a lack of take-up of those benefits, no matter how much any Government spend on advertising, television or writing to people.
In my constituency last year, there was a 38 per cent. increase in the council tax element generated by Eastbourne borough councilthe fourth highest in the country. The hon. Member for Northavon would be disappointed if I did not remind the House that Eastbourne is a Liberal Democrat-controlled authority. Locally, the Liberal Democrats are running their "Ax the tax" campaign, which is rather like a serial killer pleading, "Please stop me before I do it again". However, in reality, the fact remains that many vulnerable elderly people, who have limited resources and have great problems in making ends meet, do not claim their full entitlement.
I shall return to means-tested benefits in a moment, but first I want to touch on the issue of economic inactivity on which there was some dispute between the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts). There is a growing and worrying problem, which David Smith set out well in an article in The Sunday Times only a couple of days ago. He said that, yes, the headline figures for employment look pretty good, on the face of it. Indeed, only the other day, the Minister for Work, who will be winding up the debate, was quick to issue a press release taking credit for what seemed to be relatively rosy figures, but as the article in The Sunday Times says
Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way in mid sentence, but it is important that he inform the House of two things. First, the press release was issued in response to the monthly labour market figures published not by my Department but by the
Mr. Waterson: That is a helpful intervention. I was certainly not criticising the Minister for putting out a press release; that is one of the things that Ministers do. On the Minister's second point, I am delighted that the penny has begun to drop for Ministers and the Department and that they realise that there is a massive hidden problem
Mr. Browne: I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been over the life of the Labour Government, but, if he does not already have them, I shall send him the documents we have published on the development of our policies to tackle inactivity. He must surely know about the "Pathways to Work" Green Paper, published about two years ago, and about the pilots which have already taken place, and which will be taking place shortly across 10 per cent. of the country.
Mr. Waterson: In a sense, this argument is the wrong way round. The Minister was obviously so incensed by some of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant and endorsed by The Sunday Times that he took the trouble of writing to my hon. Friend on 9 February to complain about the figures on which my hon. Friend has been relying, which I shall cite in a moment. The Minister cannot have it both ways. He cannot agree with what I have yet to say on the subject on the one hand while on the other violently disagreeingalbeit with his usual courtesywith my hon. Friend in writing earlier this month. Or are there two Ministers of the same name prowling the corridors of the Department for Work and Pensions? [Interruption.] The Minister says that he can have it both ways. Perhaps he canat least for the next 15 months.
My hon. Friend the Member for Havant has also drawn attentionin a pamphletto a further issue: jobs in public administration, education and healththat is, public sector employmentrose by 153,000 last year and that self-employment has risen by 294,000. There are two ways of looking at those figures. Self-employment is a good thing, because people are being entrepreneurial and running their own business; but there is also the problem of involuntary self-employmentpeople who have been made redundant or have lost their job and been forced to set up on their own to make ends meet.
It is, however, abundantly clear that there has been a significant drop in mainstream private sector employment. No less a person than John Humphrys put that point to the Chancellor on the "Today" programme recently, although the Chancellor flatly denied it.
The issue is serious and important and we need to debate it, but the hon. Gentleman ought not to distort or misrepresent the figures. That was why I wrote to the hon. Member for Havant on 9 February. In fact, more than 1 million of the 1.7 million extra jobs in the United Kingdom today compared with 1997 are shown to be in the private sector.