HC Deb 24 July 1979 vol 971 cc332-4
6. Mr. Meacher

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services when he expects next to increase the rate of child benefit.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin

I must ask the hon. Member to await future announcements. I have no plans for making such an announcement in the immediate future.

Mr. Meacher

Does the Secretary of State accept that the Government's failure to uprate child benefit, apart from the puny 50p for one-parent families, will increase the disincentive to work and enlarge the biggest single group in poverty—poor families with children? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the utterly indefensible proposed public expenditure cuts will hit poor families hardest? Does he accept that it is his responsibility to resist those cuts and to fight to uprate regularly those benefits that will most reduce poverty?

Mr. Jenkin

I share the hon. Gentleman's desire to help poor families with children. That is why, next November, there will be increases in the child additions for families, the heads of which are unable to work, those who are sick or unemployed and parents who are widowed or earning low wages. They will be helped by the uprating of the family incomes supplement. Lone-parent families will be helped by the 20 per cent. addition to the child benefit increase.

In view of the warm welcome with which that increase was received by organisations representing lone parents, the hon. Gentleman's description of it as "puny" is a little unworthy.

Sir Brandon Rhys Williams

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are overwhelming advantages for the economy, as well as for the families concerned, of paying the same level of child benefit, as of right, to the children of those who are in full-time work as we pay to the children of families of which the head is an invalid or unemployed?

Mr. Jenkin

As a statement of the ideal, I cannot fault what my hon. Friend said.

Mr. George

Does the Secretary of State agree that many families will be delighted to receive the existing rate of child benefit, in view of the industrial dispute? Is he satisfied with the emergency payments system in his Department? Has there been any publicity about it? Will he have a word with the chairmen of the nationalised fuel industries and ask them to be gentle in their policy of cutting off supplies to parents who have not been receiving child benefit? Is he aware that child benefit not being paid can mean the difference between paying and not paying a bill?

Mr. Jenkin

I am grateful for the hon. Member's recognition that the problems are due to the industrial dispute and are not, as one of his hon. Friends said, the result of a Scrooge computer, which seemed to be a strange concept.

Mr. Heffer

It was operated by a Tory.

Mr. Jenkin

The problems of the child benefit centre at Washington arose during the five-week strike which ended on 1 May. The computer was out of operation during that time. Since 20 June the staff have been operating a ban on overtime, which has prevented them from catching up on the backlog that arose from the strike.

About 98 per cent. of the families who are entitled to child benefit are being provided with a full service, and the regular renewal of books is being carried out. However, I recognise that there is a backlog that has caused some families to wait for weeks and months. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) for his suggestion about the fuel industries.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

At what times of the year is it possible to raise child benefit, and how much notice needs to be given to the staff?

Mr. Jenkin

The question of the time of year for raising child benefit is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in conjunction with myself, and we have the matter under regular review.

Mr. Orme

Does the Secretary of State realise that the story that he is giving from the Government Dispatch Box is very different from the one that he gave from this Box on the question of child benefit? Is he aware that millions of working families will be deprived of the 50p per child which the Labour Government had pledged before the last election? What will he do to overcome that? Is he aware that many of these families receive no benefit from tax cuts and that they will suffer from his Government's economic policies?

Mr. Jenkin

The remarkable thing about the Labour Party's 50p is that no money at all was earmarked for it.