HC Deb 14 March 1972 vol 833 cc271-4
4. Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services whether he is satisfied with the operation of the Social Security Act, 1971, insofar as it applies to the payment of supplementary benefits in industrial disputes; and if he will make a statement.

Sir Keith Joseph

I am satisfied that the Act has achieved its stated purpose which, as I said in the debate on the Second Reading, was to counteract certain abuses of the supplementary benefits scheme; namely the high level of dis- regards of income tax refunds and strike pay, which enabled a striker receiving them to have as much income as an ordinarily unemployed man, and reliance on supplementary benefit instead of advances of wages after a strike.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

Surely my right hon. Friend would not ask the House to accept that in the passage of the Act it would be expected to pay over £6 million for supplementary benefit in the case of a single strike, when this was not the sort of situation that was foreseen? Would he bear in mind that there is resentment from our constituents about the way in which they are required to kiss the rod by having to subsidise strikes which cause very grave inconvenience and even hardship?

Sir K. Joseph

The Act did not purport to end the situation in which the dependants of strikers receive benefits of their resources justify it during a strike. What the Act set out to do—and I stated this—was to end certain abuses, and in that it was successful. I accept my hon. Friend's point that there is a great deal of resentment from supporters of both sides of the House about the payment of public money to the dependants of strikers. The Government have undertaken to review the position in the light of our experience during the miners' strike.

Mr. Milne

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the amount of payments in social security during the dispute reflect the deplorably low rate of wages prevailing in that industry? Will he make certain that he does not submit to the blandishments of his hon. Friends who want this very valuable service to be removed entirely?

Sir K. Joseph

There is no evidence that it is only the low paid, who might be thought to have less chance to save, who go for supplementary benefits for their families during a strike, as opposed to those who are higher paid but who just have not saved enough.

Mr. Redmond

Does my hon. Friend accept that no one on this side of the House wishes to see families of strikers suffering—

Mr. William Price

The right hon. Gentleman does.

Mr. Redmond

—for what their father does? On the other hand, would he encourage the trade unions to contribute towards the cost of strikes instead of the whole thing falling on the State?

Sir K. Joseph

That is a point of view with which I and many others have much sympathy.

Mr. O'Malley

Does not the amount of money paid in supplementary benefit to the dependants of strikers represent only a tiny fraction of the amount paid in taxation by the miners in any given year? Secondly, as the right hon. Gentleman is reviewing the current situation, would he agree that it would not be conducive to good industrial relations if the Supplementary Benefit Commission were to be used as a weapon against strikers by starving even their wives or children into submission?

Sir K. Joseph

It is no good hon. Gentlemen opposite, particularly from the Front Bench, seeking to avoid the issue. The Government of the day have to reconcile two conflicting aspects of this problem—on the one hand, the protection of wives and children, and, on the other, the protection of taxpayers from the voluntary hardship to wives and children that results from strikes.

15. Mr. Duffy

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what additional steps he took during the exceptional conditions arising from the coal strike to bring to the attention of people likely to be in need, the existence of supplementary benefits for special needs such as extra heating.

Mr. Dean

A number of people who are within the scope of the supplementary benefits scheme may find difficulty in meeting their fuel bills because they had to use alternative and more expensive forms of heating during the miners' strike. The local offices of my Department and the social services departments of local authorities have been authorised to tell them that extra help may be available under the scheme to meet this expense.

Mr. Duffy

Is the Minister aware that there appears to be some evidence of fuel shortage among elderly people in areas like Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, where supply to old people was carefully preserved? Will he therefore tell the House what additional steps his Department took to safeguard the rights of old people during that crisis, and to alert them to their entitlement?

Mr. Dean

Our officers had an extremely difficult time during the strike, and the whole House will wish to pay tribute to them and to the local authority social service departments for the work that they did to try to avoid hardship. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that in any case where a supplementary pensioner had no option but to spend more than the normal amount on heating that additional spending will be made up by the Commission.

Sir B. Rhys Williams

Does my hon. Friend accept the view, which we understand is held by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Stetchford (Mr. Roy Jenkins), that the living standards of retired people will be safeguarded only if there is restraint on the part of the population as a whole?

Mr. Dean

I am sure that my hon. Friend is absolutely right. A big step that has been taken is the annual review of pensions.

Mr. Dempsey

When the Minister is considering cases of exceptional need could he also look at the rate of the allowances given for special heating, for instance? I find that in my area the average is about 26p a week. As the cost of fuel has risen considerably, is it not about time that this was raised to a more realistic rate?

Mr. Dean

The scale rates take account of the cost of heating, food and other items. The review is taking place, and my right hon. Friend has said that the results will come into operation in October.

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