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Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): We called this debate in our own time with the aim of giving the Government an opportunity of clarifying and explaining their own policy, and we did so in a genuine spirit of inquiry on behalf of many millions of claimants, who want to know what the Government mean by reform. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) said that the Government are in a continuous reform programme. All I can say is that we have not noticed that. The windy rhetoric that accompanied the first election victory of the Labour Government has simply not been carried into practice.

Again, in this short debate many questions have been raised and almost no answers have been provided, so I do hope that when the Minister gets to her feet to wind up the debate she will start to give us some hard answers to some of the hard questions that we have asked—not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), who in an excellent short speech asked, in effect, which side is the Department on: the Prime Minister's, or Back Benchers'—or perhaps its own side? That triangulation is going on between different bits of the Government and the Labour party, and it is profoundly damaging to any real or genuine reform.

For instance, we have not got to the bottom of the incredible shrinking Green Paper on welfare reform, which the Prime Minister promised immediately after the election. In fact, I think that it was the first promise that he made in May this year. He said that the Green Paper would be produced by the new Secretary of State by July this year. I join other hon. Members in welcoming the new Secretary of State to his position, but I hope that, despite the fantastic turnover of Secretaries of State in the Department for Work and Pensions, he will survive long enough to see the publication of his own Green Paper.

The victims of the continuing confusion and delay are not just successive Secretaries of State and Ministers, but more importantly, the benefit claimants themselves who are trying to grapple with a system of increasing complexity that is not only beyond their own comprehension, but very often a bafflement to those whose job it is to administer the system. The National Audit Office made some observations on that only earlier this month. It pointed out that the very
 
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complexity of the system is itself an inducement to fraud, because those who are administering the system are trying to process vast quantities of information, often of a very personal kind, and—in the language of the NAO report—that

We need a massive simplification programme as part of the reform, but we know that benefit claimants are not part of the debate at all. The real dynamic is between No. 10—the Prime Minister and the policy unit—on one side and the Department on the other. The Prime Minister generally cries, "Forward." The Department cries, "Back."

Edward Miliband: May I take the right hon. Gentleman to a point of substance in the debate: the nature of the pathways to work programme? Earlier, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said that the programme did not apply to existing claimants. In fact—I have checked this—11,000 existing claimants have volunteered for the programme, and from February 2005, the programme has been applied to more existing claimants. Will the right hon. Gentleman correct the record on that point?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: No. The hon. Gentleman is making a mistake. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) was referring to the Green Paper programme, which will not apply—at least initially—to existing claimants, but only to new ones. Of course the pathways to work programme, to which he was not referring, applies to new claimants. That is a simple category mistake, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to refer to the Official Report.

Edward Miliband: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: No; I will not give way again. I have answered the hon. Gentleman's point.

What we had in February this year was a five-year plan. Despite its rather Stalinist title, it gave us some indication of how the Government wish to split incapacity benefit in two: one benefit more appropriate for those who will never work, and other benefit to become a pathway back into the world of work. We did not agree with all the substance in the February paper, but it was at least reasonably specific and somewhat detailed. So imagine our surprise when, on 7 October this year, we went back to what are called the "Principles of Welfare Reform".

Remarkably, in eight months, the Government have gone from fairly specific proposals to very general principles. The world was rather surprised that the new policy on welfare reform was summed up in various phrases. That document says:

It continues:


 
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What support? What interventions? We have got beyond principles; we want to know what the Government are going to do. Of course the reason why the Government are now taking refuge in vacuous and general phrases is that No. 10 has vetoed the specific proposals that the Government announced back in February.

Another factor in all this, of course, is the purported discontent among Labour Back Benchers, but what we need from the Government now are some answers. We want to know how the Government want to put those principles into action. Will they still pursue the split in incapacity benefit in the way that they set out back in February? We also want to know what has happened to the promised review of housing benefit. That has not been mentioned in the debate, but in the Queen's Speech, Her Majesty read out the following sentence:

Will the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform tell us when she responds to the debate how that is progressing? Her Majesty may not want to know the answer, but the House does.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me; I must reply to some of the points made.

The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) referred to pensions. We did not hear a word on pensions from the Secretary of State, although pensions form part of both the motion and the Government's amendment. Of course the truth about pensions is that the halving of the savings ratio under the Government has dealt a body blow to the entire concept of private sector provision. The reason for that goes back, again, eight years to 1997, when in almost the Government's first fiscal action, they removed dividend tax credits from private pension funds. The Government's siphoning of money from the private sector pensions into the Treasury has gone on year after year. If the Prime Minister wants to pick a fight with a Department, I suggest that he should do so not with the Department for Work and Pensions, but with the Treasury and the Chancellor, because that is where the damage to pensions has been done.

In 1997, our pensions system was an acknowledged international success. We had more private sector pensions under management than the rest of Europe put together. That fact has been alluded to many times by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and other hon. Members of all parties. That policy is now in ruins. Instead, the Chancellor's contribution to welfare reform—and his main legacy from the Treasury—will be a vast extension of means testing. Again, that has been alluded to in the debate. Almost half of all pensioners are now subject to means testing and the proportion is increasing. So the Treasury is responsible for not only the policy, but the shambolic administration of child and pension credits, as we know from our surgeries and advice centres, and the developing, unresolved mess that that is producing.

In the debate, we have seen again the wide and growing gap between Labour's words and deeds. Despite repeated promises of reform, the welfare system
 
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is complex, badly targeted and sets up perverse incentives. It is prone to error, fraud and abuse. It lets down the taxpayer and those whom it is supposed to help. We should be having an open debate on how to change the system, instead of which it is a subject of repeated wrangles and leaked memos between No. 10 and the Department. It is time that the House expressed its displeasure and dismay about this continuing state of affairs, and I urge all my hon. Friends to vote for the motion.

6.49 pm


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