HC Deb 05 April 1977 vol 929 cc1128-31

4.27 p.m.

Sir Brandon Rhys Williams (Kensington)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the payment of an identifiable householders' allowance as a separate benefit under the National Insurance Scheme; to permit such an allowance to be varied to take account of housing costs; and for related purposes. The special needs of householders should be and are of special concern to the House. Within the national insurance system there is, in fact, already provision for householders, but it is concealed in the way in which the figures are published and it does not seem to be calculated on any rational basis. We can deduce what it is only from the figures.

I shall try to be as brief as I can, and I hope that the following figures will not be totally incomprehensible to the House. For pensioners, the published rates show that the current benefit for a single man is £15.30, but for a couple the figure is not twice as much as that. Having a dependant increases the single person's entitlement by only £9.20, making a total of £24.50.

It would be perfectly possible to publish these figures of entitlement to show the personal allowances both for the pensioner and his wife as £9.20 each, and to put the householder's allowance of £6.10 as an additional benefit. That would make the figures come to the same total but would draw attention to the fact that there is this concealed householder's provision in the National Insurance Scheme.

I believe that it is fruitful to make these examinations because we find that not all categories of beneficiary under the National Insurance Scheme are entitled to the same. The differences should attract attention. If for example we examine the entitlements of the long-term unemployed on exactly the same basis, we find that they are entitled to £8.00 for each individual person in the household, but their householder's allowance is only £4.90.

Why is a pensioner's household allowance £6.10 under the National Insurance Scheme while that for long-term unemployed is only £4.90? There may be a good reason, but I have never heard it explained to the House. Were I to go through the whole list of benefits, I could draw attention to other seeming anomalies as well. The amounts of money involved in total are so large, and so many people are dependent on national insurance benefits that we should ask whether this household provision is appropriate. And is it enough? The Department of the Environment in recent weeks published a consultative document about housing problems which, it was generally felt, was preparing the public for rises in the general level of rents. The House is probably aware that rents have been left behind by inflation and that something needs to be done. But we are all equally aware that there are many people in this country who cannot, or who can barely, meet their rents already. So if we are moving into an area of generally higher rent levels, the House must pay special attention to the problem of householders who are in difficulties.

This problem cannot be solved by a blanket benefit. We need to help householders differentially. The cost of living index is not an adequate guide to what is likely to happen to household costs. Blanket increases leave many social needs unsolved. We must also reflect on the regional differences in housing costs, which are acute.

That this fact is already recognised by the authorities is shown in the way in which the Housing Finance Act has been interpreted. I understand that the maximum limit for a household allowance or a personal rent allowance under that Act is generally £8 but that in Inner London it has been more than doubled, to £17.

The object of social policy should be to give help where it is needed to the best effect with the resources available. The help which we are giving householders is not achieving that object. For instance, pensioners who are not householders because they live with relatives are much less in need than pensioners on their own, particularly in the inner city areas.

We need also to protect the self-respect of the recipients. If we are moving forward to generally higher rents, we shall wash hundreds of thousands more people into supplementary benefit, because that is the only way in which they will be able to meet the higher rents under the present system.

I have often drawn attention to the fact that there are three roots of entitlement to welfare benefits—need, record of contributions and citizenship. Contributions and citizenship are satisfactory to the recipient, but need is the least acceptable root of entitlement and we should minimise the number of people who have to plead need as an excuse for obtaining public resources to help them to a minimum income.

Need is an unsatisfactory criterion because of the continuous case work involved—and also because of the natural reluctance of those entitled to benefit to apply for it, which still shows up in the relatively low take-up of the need-based benefits, as against those based on citizenship or on record of contributions. There are also the endless disagreeable inquisitions, particularly in the area of cohabitation.

My recomendation would largely solve the problems which arise over the determination of entitlement in cases of cohabitation. Because the household element would be separate and identifiable and couples living together would obviously be entitled to only one household allowance, whether they were married or were single people living together.

The Chancellor lost a chance to introduce a special tax allowance for householders in this year's Budget—that is to say, in the negative Welfare State. But it is also appropriate to pay special attention to the needs of householders in the positive Welfare State, of which the National Insurance Scheme is the obvious example.

My Bill would cost nothing in the first instance, but if it were enacted or put into effect by the Department, which would be possible without an Act, it would bring the whole problem of householders' costs to the attention of the public and of the House, which is the best hope of progress. I hope, therefore, that the House will give me leave to introduce the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir Brandon Rhys Williams, Mr. Robert Boscawen and Mr. John Cope.