HC Deb 26 October 1976 vol 918 cc255-8
5. Mrs. Bain

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what is the most recent estimate of the numbers in the United Kingdom living below the poverty line, as denned by his Department.

Mr. Orme

Poverty is a relative matter, and the Government do not accept that a simple poverty line can be drawn. In the past, information has been drawn from the annual Family Expenditure Survey as a convenient way of estimating the number of families with incomes below supplementary benefit level. The 1975 survey information suggests that 1,170,000 families comprising some 2,070,000 people have such an income.

Mrs. Bain

Bearing in mind that already dreadful figure, will the right hon. Gentleman indicate whether he has made any estimate of the likely result this winter of the cut-backs in manpower services within DHSS offices, which are even now having great difficulties meeting the demands put upon them at this time of high unemployment and rising prices? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this is the last area in which such services should be cut back?

Mr. Orme

I am aware of the difficulties that now exist in Scotland. It is not the Government's intention to create redundancies. There is a forward forecast, and talks are going on with the staff trade unions which, I hope, will bring this matter to a reasonable conclusion.

Mr. Cyril Smith

How many of the people to whom the right hon. Gentleman referred in his answer are in full-time employment and paying income tax on the level of earnings they are receiving in that employment?

Mr. Orme

I cannot give that information without notice. There is a great problem in regard to what is normally called the poverty trap. We would like to simplify the situation and take many people out of that trap, but that consideration involves many other aspects of Government policy, including taxation and public expenditure matters.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts

Does my right hon. Friend agree that simple steps such as the removal of food subsidies will considerably increase the number of people who fall below the poverty line? Therefore, will he use his undoubted weight in the Cabinet to put pressure on the Treasury in respect of measures of this type?

Mr. Orme

I assure my hon. Friend that my ministerial colleagues and I are fully aware of that argument. He will appreciate that the upratings next month are the highest level ever reached in recent times.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

Does not the Minister realise that the problem of the poverty trap is becoming worse under the Labour Government? This year, for the first time, anybody who goes out to work, whether married or single, and who earns less than the amount of long-term supplementary benefit could still find himself paying income tax on those earnings, even though he might be below the official poverty line. Will he accept that he is presiding over the steady growth in the number of people who find that it does not pay to work? Will he examine the tax credit approach as an answer to the problem?

Mr. Orme

I notice that recently even within the Conservative Party those proposals were criticised because they would have helped people who do not need help in such a situation. I am well aware of the problem of the poverty trap. We are examining the situation, and certainly my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is well aware of these issues. We are as concerned as anybody about the situation, and we should like to take people out of the poverty trap as soon as possible.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

If 4 per cent, of our population are totally dependent on public expenditure for their standard of living, is it not criminal for there to be calls for further public expenditure cuts which would hit their standard of living as well as the standards of all the others who are partially dependent on the increased ratio in the top level of public expenditure which forms the most important part of their standard of living?

Mr. Orme

I take note of my hon. Friend's remarks. He made a powerful speech on this matter at a meeting which he and I attended recently. The House should take account of the increase in benefits which are being made, despite the economic situation, and which are being maintained.

Mr. Hall-Davis

In view of the statement by the Minister of State before the recess that in his view male wage and salary earners were not ready to accept the merits of child benefits, will he undertake to campaign in the next few months to publish details of those benefits? It seems certain that pay policy will be continued if the present Government remain in office and that there may be another excuse for not introducing those benefits.

Mr. Orme

I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to the fact that there are many benefits to which people are entitled but which they do not claim. That group of people embraces one-parent families and those who are entitled to supplementary benefit. I am concerned to see that no genuine people are deterred from claiming their justifiable benefits.