HC Deb 19 July 1979 vol 970 cc2153-72

11.37 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mrs. Lynda Chalker)

I beg to move, That the draft Child Benefit and Social Security (Fixing and Adjustment of Rates) Amendment Regulations 1979, which were laid before this House on 18 July, be approved. I start with a word about the legal situation on these regulations because I regret that when the draft statutory instrument was first laid it omitted the commencement date of 12 November. The instrument was therefore withdrawn, and on 18 July the draft now before the House was laid. It is in identical terms, except that the date has been inserted. However, the withdraw draft had already been seen and passed without comment by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments on 17 July. On technical grounds the Committee may have to consider the relaid draft, but it could hardly take a different view on it since the substance in it is no different from that in the first instrument.

In this House there is no formal requirement that the Joint Committee must have considered the draft before a motion to approve it can be moved and debated, and therefore I hope that the House will agree to its going ahead tonight. In another place Standing Orders do so require, and the proceedings on the draft instrument containing the date of 12 November will be taken next week.

Next, I want to explain the purpose of the regulations, which is already well known to most hon. Members. The purpose is to implement in the week beginning 12 November the increase in the premium paid to lone parents, which will raise it from £2 to £2.50 per week, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services announced to the House on 13 June last.

I know that the House is fully aware of why we decided to increase the premium without at the same time increasing the main rate of benefit. The reason is quite straightforward. If this country is ever to overcome its economic problems we have to control public expenditure, but within that framework it is important to consider carefully the implications of increasing benefits. My right hon. Friend is statutorily required to review the rate of child benefit every year. The House knows full well that the main rate of child benefit was increased from £3 to £4 in April, only three months ago, and we could not justify making another increase in November when there were so many other competing claims for the restricted resources with which we have to do our best for those in most need.

The same argument is not applicable to the premium or the child benefit increase—the payment which is made for the first child in a single-parent family. Single parents who are caring for and raising children on their own, for whatever reason and in whatever circumstances, can generally be said to have more inescapable expenses. They are at a disadvantage compared with other parents: they do a double job. Therefore, on this occasion the available resources were best concentrated in giving help to those single-parent families. Even though it is an increase of only 25 per cent., I know that it is welcomed.

I emphasise that there are no grounds for drawing the conclusion that we are satisfied with the general level of child benefit. Anyone who has been in Government knows that there are always severe limitations and restrictions that apply, particularly when the spending of money is involved. We should like to do more. The previous Administration found when introducing the child benefit scheme—as the right hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) will well remember—that things cannot always be done as quickly or as generously as the Government wish.

The efficiency of the scheme depends not only on the Department but also on the exchange of information from the claimants to the centre. The scheme has not always been as efficient as we would like. There are delays in the payment of child benefit for some people, as many hon. Members will know. These delays occur because of the combined effects of an unofficial strike at the child benefit centre for five weeks during March and April which was followed by an overtime ban which came into effect before full recovery had been made from the effects of the strike.

At the time of a work peak, when 800,000 children are leaving school, many constituents are complaining, and I regret the inconvenience that is being caused. In fairness, it must be said that the centre arranges payment for 7 million families and a great majority of these families continue to be paid normally and without interruption. In no way am I trying to minimise the problem for those who are without an order book. However, it is important to see the numbers in perspective and to recognise that the system is not coming to a standstill.

Those most vulnerable to inconvenience are those who have to return their order book to the centre for an alteration that reflects a change in circumstances. These books are being given priority but the delay is being added to by the unreliability of the postal system, which has been variable across the country. Anybody in urgent need should seek help from the local office, which will do what it can to make contact with the centre. The centre is authorised to instruct the local office to make the payments in the case of urgent financial need.

The books for straightforward renewal are on time, and there are over 140,000 books going out each week. They are being despatched between three or four weeks ahead of the first order day. However, when dealing with 800,000 school leavers and an increasing number of changes of circumstances in one-parent families, there is a problem.

I assure the House that in the future we shall be examining the current methods to see how they can be improved and other ways in which to better the administration of the system. The right hon. Member for Salford, West was well aware during his period of office of the enormous problems that were caused. The Government cannot do everything at once, but I assure the House that I shall not leave any stone unturned to try to put right the probem that is hitting the system. I hope that the House will bear with us in trying to get it right in as short a time as possible.

I commend the regulations and the increase in the child benefit premium to the House, and I hope that they will be approved tonight.

11.45 p.m.

Mr. Reginald Freeson (Brent, East)

I thank the Minister for her report on the situation regarding delays in the reissuing of books that have to be varied because of a change in circumstances. The problem is serious, as many hon. Members will know, not only from the number of constituency cases but from their nature.

The Minister suggested that the problem related essentially to the reissuing of books to parents whose circumstances had changed. There is not the same sort of problem with renewals, but I know of difficulties for new applicants who have only recently had children. They are having problems in getting their books issued. I understand that other hon. Members may have similar cases in their constituencies.

For those with a reasonable income already, the delay in the issuing of books is not a great problem, but some of my constituency cases concern parents near or on the poverty line who have been put in serious difficulties. I join the Minister in hoping that the matter will be resolved soon.

I hope that the Minister will make clearer, if not tonight perhaps in Question Time next week, the prospects of solving the present difficulties. I take her point about studying the system to see what improvements can be made. It has been a matter of concern for some time. However, may we expect a resolution of the current problems within a matter of weeks, or are they expected to go on indefinitely? I am not being critical, but that point did not come over clearly in the Minister's speech. I hope that the matter will be resolved quickly so that those in need do not continue to suffer.

This is not the occasion for a major debate on child poverty, but child benefit, along with wider social action—housing, education, social services, employment, amenities and so on—should be seen as central to a progressive community's policy on family support. I start with that general statement.

We support the small and, as I shall seek to show, temporary improvement in financial help for single parents and their first children, but, whatever gloss the Government put on their action, two things are clear.

Before I go on to those matters, I must express my concern at the absence of support by other Ministers from the DHSS on such a matter. It is a little surprising to see the Under-Secretary on the Front Bench by herself. I say no more than that.

Whatever may have been said by the Minister tonight or by the Secretary of State and other Ministers in recent weeks, it is clear that by failing to increase the standard child benefit from next November and by other actions that the Government are taking in cutting various public services, they are already reneging on pre-election pledges in support of families with dependent children. It is also clear that the 50p supplement in child benefit for lone parents only for this November will prove inadequate with inflation approaching 20 per cent. in the autumn—and the Government must know that.

In his Budget speech on 12 June, the Chancellor of the Exchequer calculated an inflation rate of up to 16 per cent. by the end of September. The following day, the Secretary of State for Social Services announced that inflation would reach 17½ per cent. by November. On 18 June the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that a further 13½ per cent. inflation was forecast by the following September.

Thus, parents—indeed, all of us—have the prospect of 30 per cent. inflation during the next 16 months, and the indications are that the cost of housing, heating, lighting, children's clothing, food and other items which many lone parents in particular are hard put to afford will rise far more sharply than the general index. The conclusion must be that the 50p increase in child benefit for one-parent families will be well eroded in the next few months, even before it is paid out, the Minister cannot deny that.

It follows at the least—I say " at the least "—that if the rate of inflation between now and October points to more than the 17½ per cent. now forecast for November, the Minister should return to the House with proposals for more help for one-parent families. When I pressed the hon. Lady on this at her Department's last Question Time, she got very near to agreeing with me and saying that the matter could be looked at again. I do not have the text with me but I recall the occasion well.

I turn now to the Government's failure to increase the standard rate of child benefit generally for parents with depend- ent children as distinct from the uprating in the lone parent's supplement. Despite what the hon. Lady has said, it cannot be fairly argued that we could not afford this. However frequently it may be repeated, that cannot be sustained just as a generalisation. Although there has been a big improvement in the real value of child support in recent years, it is still—believe it or not—lower than it was in 1955 when our gross domestic product was well below today's level, whatever our present problems may be.

Moreover, the recent Budget has given tax concessions chiefly to benefit the better off and the childless taxpayer—concessions running to hundreds of millions of pounds. I shall not go over all the ground of the Budget debates now, but that has to be stated as a basic fact. In these circumstances, with all respect to the hon. Lady—and I have respect for her—one cannot get away with a generalised statement such as she made that " the country cannot afford it ". That is sloganising, not argument.

Failure to act on the standard child benefit cannot be justified by the Government on grounds of public expenditure constraints, for the present Secretary of State for Social Services on 12 July 1977 declared the Conservative Party's commitment to treat increases in child benefit in the same way as reductions in taxation. In this context the next Conservative Government, which is pledged to major reductions in direct taxation, would regard improvements in child benefits which are replacing child allowances as part of this process "— not as something separate, but as part of this process. I emphasise that those are the right hon. Gentleman's words, not mine. Where is that pledge today?

I quote again: Our tax system must be more family-oriented. That was the present Secretary of State for Social Services speaking at the 1977 Conservative Party conference, and I agree with those words. He said We must concentrate "— note the word " concentrate "— relief where there are dependent children. I give you this pledge: the next Conservative Government will … give it "— the child benefit scheme— top priority. Note that he said not just " priority ", but " top priority ". Where is that pledge today?

Whatever else may be said in criticism or in support of the Budget, it certainly does not concentrate relief where there are dependent children ". It does not give " top priority " to the child benefit scheme, and it cannot possibly be described as " family-oriented ". Those are the words of the Secretary of State for Social Services when he was in Opposition.

Cuts in housing, nursery education, day nurseries, health care and local amenities to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds is what we shall experience at an increasing rate from now on. This is the year when child tax allowances have finally been phased out. If they had continued, there would have been automatically increased tax relief under the Rooker-Wise amendment to the 1978 Finance Act for families with children. That amendment was supported by no less a person than the present Financial Secretary to the Treasury. I think that it should have been called the Lawson-Rooker-Wise amendment.

The child tax allowances which would otherwise have been automatically increased have now gone. But, apart from the increase for the first child only of lone parents, the child benefit remains at the £4 to which the last Government increased it in April this year. The previous Government proposed to increase the benefit to £4.50 in November to be met out of the Government's Contingency Fund. That would have ensured that dependent children were taken care of during the sharp rise in inflation to which we have now returned—a much sharper rise than was running in April when the decision was made to uprate the child benefit.

The Government have argued that there is now no need to increase child benefit—they have not argued it tonight, but they have done so previously—because it was increased in April, whereas the lone parent supplement was not. That increase in April gave only small net gains to families because April marked the final phasing-out of child tax allowances. Standard rate taxpayers with children under 11 gained a net 37p a week. With a child aged between 11 and 16 they gained 14p net a week.

The Government then took credit for the increase in income gained by families as shown by the tables published on Budget day. The table showing the effect of the Budget on families with two children under 11 compared families' net weekly income up to the June Budget with their net weekly income before the April 1979 increase in child benefit.

One-parent families with more than one child would gain more from a 50p increase in the standard child benefit than from the 50p increase in the supplement for the first child only. In any case, things have changed since April—and I do not mean only the Government. I refer to the rate of inflation.

I put the following points as factually as I can to the Minister. First, to maintain the November 1978 value of child support in November 1979 under the now increased inflation rate of 17½ per cent would mean child benefit for a child under 11 of £4.27p, for a child aged 11 to 16 of £4.53p, and for a child over 16 of £4.76p.

Second, the low-paid who are below the tax threshold or who pay tax at the 25 per cent. rate—the FIS families—will be hit worst by the VAT increases because they gain least, if anything, from the tax cuts. The best way to compensate them is to increase child benefit.

Third, the Chancellor and Ministers at the DHSS have made much of goods such as children's clothes being zero rated. They will be aware that older and well-developed children cannot get into the zero-rated children's clothes and school uniforms. They are affected sharply by the VAT increase.

Fourth, the Price of school meals will increase by 25p a week in the autumn. School meals of 30p a day will account for over one-third of the weekly child benefit. This affects in particular families with incomes just below the new eligibility limit for free meals and those who do not claim the free meals to which they are entitled.

Fifth, the increase in VAT to pay for the cutting direct taxation reverses the shift of resources from wallet to handbag introduced by child benefit. An increase in the standard child benefit would counteract that.

On the basis of those facts and others, we are justified in pressing the Government hard to uprate the standard child benefit immediately. We are justified in condemning their failure to do that so far.

I ask the Government to give three specific and reasonable undertakings for the near future on which there could be common cause in the House. I hope that the Minister will give a clear answer to these demands. First, will the Government undertake to treat child benefits in the same way as forgone revenue—that is, tax allowances? Second, if the rate of inflation exceeds the 17½ per cent. forecast for November, will the Government undertake to increase the one-parent child benefit supplement beyond the 50p increase which is proposed tonight?

Third, will the Government introduce a further increase in the standard child benefit next April? If it is left until November 1980, families will have to wait 19 months for an increase, during which time their standards of living will fall considerably in relation to childless taxpayers.

There is nothing partisan about those three questions. Hon. Members on both sides are entitled to clear, positive answers on behalf of all families with dependent children. Without clear, positive answers to those three requests, the Government cannot honour their pre-election pledges. I hope that they will give a clear indication that they intend to stand by those pledges tonight by giving the three undertakings that I seek.

12.3 a.m.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

The Under-Secretary of State said that the Government were hard-pressed and could not afford to make the increase in child benefit that they would have liked to make. I am sure it was because the hon. Lady wished to be brief that she did not mention that the Budget cut direct taxation to a record degree—by £4.6 billion.

Apart from the few pennies being paid under these regulations to some single parent families, not one penny of that sum goes to families with children. It is difficult for the Government to argue that the resources are not there. It is the will that is not there.

I do not wish to be partisan tonight. I wish to build a bridge across the divide, but it was a bit much for one of my hon. Friends to say that the penalty of increased school meal charges was to be imposed this autumn. Who announced the increased price of school dinners? To their shame, that was done by the Labour Government. Occasionally the House gets family policy right, but it does not consistently get it right. If Ministers are left to their own devices, they soon produce plans that penalise families with children.

I wish to take the debate on from where the Minister left it. The result of the Government's failure to honour their pledge to all families is that rich and poor families have lost out in the Budget. The Government knew that they were vulnerable so their purpose was to construct a fig leaf. The fig leaf was to announce an increase in the premium for single parent families. Some poor families are helped, but I challenge the Government to cite an example where a fig leaf has been bought at a cheaper rate than by increasing the premium for single parent families.

The argument advanced by the hon. Lady does not stand up to examination. The essence of her argument is that the Government are singling out the very poorest families. When she replies, I challenge her to produce one piece of information that indicates that the very poorest families are single parent families. If she draws on Government data—the family expenditure survey—she will find that the largest group of the very poorest families are those who earn their poverty and are two-parent families. There are 190,000 such families. There are fewer than 20,000 single-parent families who live below supplementary benefit level.

The only way of helping the very poorest families is to increase child benefit overall. The Government have not done that largely because they did not understand the commitment that they gave over a long period not only to poor families but all families. I remind the Government of some of their commitments. The Government have already been reminded of some but the point has to be driven home to them and to some of my hon. Friends. I observe the pecking order and I direct attention to the Prime Minister's remarks. The right hon. Lady has often gone on record as saying that the Conservative Party is the party of the family. That was reflected in the Conservative Party manifesto, which stated that one of the tasks of a Conservative Government would be to support family life. Those commitments do not have shallow roots. They have deep roots within the Conservative Party.

Mr right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson), speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, referred to what was said by the Secretary of State at the Tory Party conference. The right hon. Gentleman drew attention to the need to make the tax system more family oriented. I ask the hon. Lady to tell us what it was which appeared in the Budget that made the tax system more family oriented.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State, the Minister and many other Conservative Members supported an early-day motion that was tabled when the Labour Government were in office. The motion drew attention to the way in which families with children, both rich and poor, were being penalised by inflation much more heavily than childless couples or single people. They argued that in a tax-cutting Budget and a Budget which shifted the burden from direct to indirect taxation there was a crucial need to increase child benefit as part of the package.

What has happened to the increase in child benefit, that family orientation in the Budget, that was so often promised by the Government when they were in opposition? I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer a series of questions and he has finally come up with the answers. From them we can see the extent to which the revenue from a record tax-cutting Budget of £4.6 billion goes to families with children. Two questions in particular are of importance. Were the poor protected and were families protected as a result of the Budget? If we look at the lost revenue from those who would have paid the higher rate of tax had the Government's proposals not been brought into effect, we find that 5 per cent. of taxpayers—the richest—benefited from 38 per cent. of all tax cuts. The poorest taxpayers, the 12 per cent. who gained from the reduced band of tax, picked up only 3 per cent. of all tax concessions. The poor with children were not protected by the general tax cuts made at the top and at the bottom.

Much more important than that, if we look at the distribution or revenue between those families with children and the childless, we find that 53 per cent of taxpayers have children but they picked up only 36 per cent of all the tax revenue given away in the Budget. That is including rich and poor taxpayers.

Tonight's debate, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East said, is not a debate about the increase in child benefits, although both he and I have spoken specifically about that. It enables us to draw attention to how rich and poor families have lost as a result of the Budget. One of the sadnesses for me in the Budget debate was that practically the whole of our time was spent in examining whether rich or poor had gained from the Budget; in other words, we looked at the classical vertical distribution of income. Almost no concern was shown by hon. Members for an equally important distribution of resources in our community. I refer to what the economists, in their horrible jargon, call the horizontal distribution of income—that between those with children and those without. The big losers have been families with children, whether those families be rich or poor.

We are asking the Minister this evening to tell us what happened to those pledges in the Conservative manifesto, at Tory Party conference, and in early-day motions, which promised to protect rich and poor families. Why did the Government produce only this miserable, weak little fig leaf to hide their failure to support and protect all families, whether they be rich or poor?

Given that the reason for increasing the single-parent family's premium was that single-parent families are the poorest, will the Minister present one piece of evidence to this House to show that the poorest families are single-parent families and not two-parent families?

12.13 p.m.

Sir Brandon Rhys Williams (Kensington)

At this hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is not suitable to dilate at length on the Government's whole policy on family benefit, but there are several points that ought to be made about the proposed regulations, if only because they apply to such a very large number of cases.

The right hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson) and the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) have drown attention to the whole field of family support and child endowment, and it is perfectly proper that they should do so, because what we do for one-parent families must be seen in the context of the programme for family support. I am quite sure that Conservative Members who are concerned about family poverty are just as disappointed as Opposition Members that in the Budget the Government were not able to make a further increase in child benefit.

It is not quite true to say that families received nothing out of the Budget. As I have pointed out on very many occasions, now that the national insurance contributions are earnings-related and not flat rate, they are in fact just another branch of the income tax. If there is a cut in national insurance contributions or in income tax—it makes no difference which—the families are receiving the same benefits for lower contributions. That is the strategy that the Government have followed this time, but I still think that the case remains unanswerable for an increase in child benefit as soon as the economy is able to afford it. Therefore I hope that we shall see it even before the end of this year.

In the case of the one-parent family, the Government felt able to make a small but extremely welcome increase, and I want to make only two points in regard to that. First, it is a benefit for one-parent families as of right. It is not a means tested benefit. It is based on the identification of the special status of the one-parent family. That needs to be stressed. It is important, and although we are moving only slowly towards the implementation of Finer's recommendations, it is a step in the right direction in that the payment is based on the status of the family and is not determined in relation to its need.

Secondly, this is a benefit that is not paid in respect of each child but of each family. Therefore what we see is a positive householder's allowance coming into being. I have tried on many occasions to draw attention to the need for a positive householder's allowance to be included in the whole structure of national insurance. It is latent there in the figures, but it should be stressed that it is there. In the case of one-parent families, the Government are coming out into the open and making a householder's allowance, and that is a welcome development. I should like to see a housing allowance made a postive element in the provision of minimum incomes across the board. It should be a recognisable element in the calculation of all national insurance entitlements and net personal taxation. A new look is desperately needed at the whole basis of housing subsidies and household support, as distinct from the purely personal allowances in the system of minimum income guarantees.

12.16 a.m.

Mr. John Sever (Birmingham, Ladywood)

I have two suspicions. First, I suspect that the hon. Lady would rather be bringing to the House a somewhat more exciting document. The flicker of a charming smile seems to indicate that I am right. Secondly, I believe that several hon. Members would rather be discussing the ways in which more help can be given to families in greatest need—which includes some of the groups that we are discussing. At this late hour it is difficult to encourage many right hon. and hon. Members to take part in the debate, although if the Government had found time to extend the subject of the debate many would have been pleased to join a wider ranging debate.

I do not wish to misinterpret the hon. Lady, but in opening the debate I believe that she indicated that she was not satisfied with the levels of child benefit. The hon. Lady has a public record to establish her in the category of those hon. Members who wish to see some progress in that area. Whatever influence she is able to bring to bear on her ministerial colleagues to achieve improvements will be warmly supported by many hon. Members throughout the House.

We are looking somewhat to the future. The regulations will not be with us until November, and we are considering how the Government might approach child benefits and other social benefits to assist the lower paid and disadvantaged in our community. The hon. Lady said that she wanted to make the fullest possible investigation throughout the system. I hope that that is so, and in that she will be supported by Labour Members. I urge on her the necessity to do that and to cast the net as wide as possible for information and representation from all groups.

The hon. Lady referred to the difficulties encountered by many families because of, among other things, the postal disturbances. Considerable efforts were made by various offices in the hon. Lady's Department throughout the country. I pay tribute to those in Birmingham, Ladywood which experience special difficulty as the recent Birmingham post office bombings were both within my constituency. I know that they caused great upheaval to the system. The staff of the local offices concerned responded tremendously well to reduce to the minimum the inconvenience occasioned to many families.

My constituency is characterised by large numbers of disadvantaged families, those on low incomes, and a great many on no income at all other than what the State can provide. Mention was made of families with two parents and those with only one. I should like to concentrate on one-parent families.

I recently visited a primary school within my constituency. I was told by the headmaster that more than 50 per cent. of all the children throughout the school coming from the catchment area had ony one parent. The 50p mentioned in this measure will not go a long way towards helping the vast number of my constituents who look to any Government for the help that they desperately need and justifiably deserve to get from one week to the next. By the time the 50p is received it will have been whittled away by the grabbing hand of galloping inflation. I know that the Minister will bear that point in mind when she considers the benefit in the coming 12 months. The benefit will have to be beefed up again in the autumn to keep pace with inflation and people's genuine and reasonable aspirations.

The Government have not given any indication, in their fiscal and monetary measures, of their promises made before the election. I suspect that many votes which the Conservatives gleaned at the ballot boxes a few weeks ago were based on the promises which were made in that campaign but which clearly have not been delivered. The Government have an obligation to fulfil those promises. They can start with those who are most disadvantaged in our community.

I ask the hon. Lady to give the deepest possible consideration to the three points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), which represent the feelings and desires of so many thousands of disadvantaged families throughout the country. They are clearly looking to the Government to fulfil those promises. If they find reasonable and helpful responses to the points made, the Government may, with some justification, say that they are looking after the most disadvantaged. If they fail to do so the hon. Lady need not be surprised if people become more and more annoyed and disenchanted with what is proposed for their future.

12.23 a.m.

Mrs. Chalker

By leave of the House, I should like to reply briefly to the points made. I shall try not to deserve your correction, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by straying too far from the order. However, in discussing this issue it is almost impossible not to stray into other areas.

I do not think that the House is in any doubt—as obviously the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. Sever) is in no doubt—about our commitment to the child benefit scheme. However, some points were raised on which the record should be set straight.

First, the Government have never been in any doubt about the importance of the family and the importance of child benefit in the family budget. When we came into office on 3 May, the public sector borrowing requirement was £2,000 million worse than we had been led to believe. Therefore, we must get the economy under control and first of all seek to protect those who are most in need.

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

By attacking families.

Mrs. Chalker

We shall not attack families. I am about to come to points which were totally ignored by certain Opposition Members in this debate.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson) on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box as Opposition spokesman on secial security matters. We look forward to seeing him at the Box on future occasions. He began by referring to the problems which are being experienced at the child benefit centre at Washington. This has been a long-running problem, as the right hon. Gentleman will readily acknowledge. The problem has been greatly exacerbated by the unofficial strike in March and April this year. Just as things were beginning to improve, an overtime ban was imposed and a work-to-rule.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what I thought would help to resolve the matter. Certainly resumption of normal working would be the best way to help families who are without benefit. But resolving current problems will not resolve the total problem. That is why I can assure the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. Sever) that in looking at the system, we shall examine not just what has happened in latter months but the whole method to see whether it can be improved. Having made those comments, I wish to pay tribute to the staff who are working very hard to overcome the problems caused by industrial action. I know that many of the staff have made extra efforts.

I turn to the question of new claims to benefit. The right hon. Member for Brent, East asked about new births. This aspect is being cleared by the child benefit centre within three weeks of receipt of information. However, we find that claims are not being received until at least five weeks after the birth. Therefore, there is already an inbuilt delay in the first five weeks, and that delay is to be taken with the troubles of which I have already spoken. As long as the overtime ban lasts, the position at the centre will remain difficult in respect of new births. We are giving immediate attention to claims from those who are most in need. Any family that is in genuine need has only to go to the local DHSS office and special measures will be taken to try to help resolve the difficulties.

It is always a matter of regret when a Government find that they cannot do what they very much would like to do. But I remind the House that child benefit was increased last April from £3 to £4—

Mr. Rooker

Under a Labour Government.

Mrs. Chalker

It did not escape my notice that there was then a Labour Government or that an election was on the way, but that is beside the point. We are aware of the problems of many families. We are also aware that it is the prime duty of the Government to get the economy of the country straight. We shall then be able to undertake many of the matters mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams) in achieving a proper family policy—a policy on which the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) often states his views.

There is one point which has been totally overlooked by Opposition speakers in this debate. I refer to the fact that there are now 1,300,000 fewer people paying tax than was the case before the Budget. The whole of the problem of the complications between taxation and child benefit has at long last been resolved by the introduction of the full child benefit—a year later than we had hoped—and the reduction of the child tax allowances. But I take the point that the two systems still do not work in tandem.

As for the comparison with 1955, I agree that today the figure would need to be £4.14 rather than £4 but there were far fewer taxpayers in 1955 and there were three reduced rates of tax. The non-taxpayer and those on reduced rates receive more child support than ever before and for basic rate taxpayers it is higher than in earlier years.

On the specific question asked by the hon. Member for Birkenhead, the proportion of one-parent families who are poor is higher than the proportion of two-parent families, although the absolute number of two-parent families who are poor is higher.

Mr. Field

Will the Minister give way?

Mrs. Chalker

I think I should continue, since the hour is late, but I know of the hon. Member's concern on this issue. I study carefully everything he says and writes. We shall see what more can be done for those in most need. I am sure that that is where he wants the help to be concentrated.

The right hon. Member for Brent, East asked for an undertaking that I would treat child benefit as forgone revenue and quoted from the present Secretary of State in July 1977. Any increase in child benefits adds directly to the public sector borrowing requirement, irrespective of the method of accounting. Whether we are talking about the Red Book or the Blue Book, the relationship between personal tax allowances and child benefit is something that we are still considering, and we shall continue to do so when reviewing the rate of child benefit.

I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance that I should like to give him tonight, because I am not the Secretary of State. Therefore, I ask him to accept that I shall bring his comments to the notice of my right hon. Friend in the morning, and I hope that in due course he will be satisfied with the Secretary's of State's answer.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked for an assurance that if the rate of inflation should exceed the estimate of the Government statistical services of 17.5 per cent. between November 1978 and November 1979, we shall take other steps to help one-parent families. He wanted us to increase the supplement for the first child in that family beyond 50p. As he knew before asking the question, I am not a Treasury Minister and cannot answer that question. I am appraised of the problem for one-parent families, which is much more than just financial. The right hon. Gentleman has my assurance that I shall fight and fight again to ensure that the right help is given whenever it can be achieved.

I cannot answer the right hon. Gentleman's third question, willing though I would be to give him my personal preference which would be to increase child benefit as soon as we can. But I can assure him that in our review of everything going on in the Department, we are extremely conscious of the growing importance of child benefit to low paid working families and of the changing role which this benefit can now play in their budgeting.

With those assurances, which are as far as I can genuinely go tonight, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that our concern for the family is in no way diminished by the economic situation we have inherited. I do not want to end on a discordant note, but politics is the art of the possible, and our aim is to make it possible to help families much more than they have been helped in the past.

12.35 a.m.

Mr. Freeson

It is quite clear that on not one of the issues upon which the Government, when in Opposition, were prepared to declare themselves is the hon. Lady in a position to give an undertaking tonight. I made three requests for undertakings. She said that I would understand that she could not speak in place of other Ministers. I put it to her that she is a member of a Government who take a collective responsibility.

Each of the undertakings that I sought was totally in line with declarations that have been made by the Secretary of State for Social Services, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other members of the Government within recent times, and not one of those undertakings, even as a general objective, has been given. We deplore that. We can do no more than that tonight, but I say quite clearly that at the earliest practical opportunity we shall seek to raise this question of child poverty for debate in the House in order to seek as soon as possible the general undertakings that I have sought tonight.

People in poverty can get no pleasure or satisfaction out of the general expressions of concern that we have received, and which I do not question. They will get satisfaction out of actions in line with pledges given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and by the Secretary of State for Social Services and which are on record at Tory Party conferences. We shall return to this issue; it will not go away.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Child Benefit and Social Security (Fixing and Adjustment of Rates) Amendment Regulations 1979, which were laid before this House on 18th July, be approved.