HC Deb 12 May 1981 vol 4 cc617-27
The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. Patrick Jenkin)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the arrangements for paying social security benefits.

The House will recall that last December I published a consultative document, Cmnd. 8106, setting out the Government's proposals for improving the efficiency of paying social security benefits. I can now report the outcome of our consultation and announce our decisions.

The Government's proposals in the consultative document fell into three categories: first, that most beneficiaries should be able to have their benefits paid direct into their bank accounts if they wished; secondly, that child benefit should be paid four-weekly to most mothers, except for certain vulnerable groups who could retain weekly payment if they wished; and, thirdly, that cerain improvements should be made in the efficiency of Department of Health and Social Security internal administrative procedures for paying benefits. These changes would have produced savings in administrative costs rising to £38 million a year, at today's prices, by 1987–88.

There was general acceptance of the changes in DHSS administrative procedures, and these will go ahead. I will publish a list in the Official Report. There was also a wide welcome for giving people the option to have their benefits paid direct into bank or other accounts. I stress that this is an option. Pensioners, for instance will continue to draw their pensions weekly from the post office unless they decide otherwise. We will begin to offer the choice of bank payments from mid-1982. These changes will save eventually about £25 million a year at today's prices.

Most of the 600 responses that I have received from individuals, organisations and local authorities objected to the proposal to pay child benefit every four weeks to most mothers. Criticisms varied, but the general theme running through many letters was that mothers should be able to make a voluntary choice between weekly or four-weekly payment. There has also been anxiety about the impact of the changes on the Post Office and, in particular, on the sub-post office network.

In putting forward their proposals the Government have had two objectives in mind: first, to reduce the cost of administration and, secondly, to encourage the movement away from weekly cash transactions to more modern methods of money transmission. The question is how to reconcile these highly desirable aims with the anxieties that have been put to us.

We are in no doubt that in the longer term it is right to encourage the great majority of mothers to accept four-weekly payment. However, we have decided that it would not be right to expect existing claimants to move to four-weekly payments, subject only to the exceptions that were set out in the White Paper. Accordingly, we will give all mothers currently in receipt of child benefit a free choice to decide whether they wish to continue to receive payment weekly or to switch to four-weekly payment. Towards the end of 1981 mothers receiving child benefit will be sent a simple form, which they will need to return to my Department if they wish to continue with weekly payment. From January 1982, for mothers who claim child benefit for the first time, and who already wait about six weeks for the first payments, four-weekly payment will be the norm. Options for weekly payment of child benefit will, however, be available to three categories of new claimant—those receiving supplementary benefit, those receiving family income supplement, and lone parents.

The Government consider that this approach strikes a fair balance between the needs of beneficiaries and our duty to keep administrative costs down. We estimate that about half the existing beneficiaries will opt for weekly payment. On this basis, the saving under this head, estimated in Cmnd. 8106 at £13 million a year by 1987–88, will be reduced to about £7 million a year.

The Government remain firmly committed to maintain an adequate sub-post office network. The modifications that I have mentioned will mean that over the next five years DHSS business over post office counters will drop by the equivalent of about 5 per cent. of total counter business, but this will be more than compensated for by growth of counter business from other customers. The Government have re-examined with the Post Office the forecast of new business made in Cmnd. 8106, on the assumption that the British Telecommunications Bill is enacted, so that the Post Office can provide counter services for a wider range of public sector customers. The Government are confident, from this re-examination, that over the period to the end of 1985–86 counter business from new and existing customers can be expected to grow by up to 10 per cent. That is twice as much as the likely reduction in DHSS business. To provide a further safeguard, the Government also propose to make available from the administrative savings up to £2 million over the next five years to help smaller sub-post offices that are adversely affected if the new business does not grow at the same rate as DHSS business is reduced.

These changes will together reduce administrative costs by about £32 million a year, eventually. They will provide more modern methods of paying benefits without either harming the sub-post office network or causing hardship to beneficiaries. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will accept that we have done our best to meet the concerns expressed in the House and elsewhere while moving ahead to achieve more efficient ways of paying social security benefits.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrewshire, West)

If that is the best that the Government can do to meet the demands that have been made on them, it is a pretty poor show. Does not the Secretary of State agree that the statement is both nonsensical and illogical and has no purpose other than to seek to satisfy the pledges made by the Prime Minister about savings? Is it not true that there is already massive disappointment about the proposals, and that that disappointment will be redoubled because of his endorsement of the main proposal, to which he has stuck, that new claimants will be compelled to go on to a four-weekly basis of payment? Is it not true that of those who at present can choose, over the past year an additional one-third have chosen weekly benefit? Is it not therefore true that the need is widespread? Is it not monstrous to put 80 per cent. of new claimants into a difficult position of need?

Further, does the Secretary of State really believe that giving an opting-in procedure to existing claimants will solve the problem? It is an imposition and a hardship for some of the most inarticulate members of the community.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the basic saving is not the £32 million that he mentioned, because the basic proposal involves changing to a compulsory four-week benefit uptake? Does it not mean that the total saving is a measly £7 million, at the cost of the destruction of freedom of choice?

I have one last question to put to the right hon. Gentleman. In view of his responsibilities, what is he doing to ensure that payments continue by playing his part in bringing his right hon. Friend to the negotiating table or the arbitration room with the Civil Service unions?

Mr. Jenkin

I hope that the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan), too, will wield his influence in trying to get common sense into the Civil Service dispute.

In this day and age it is absurd to imagine that the vast majority of mothers in this country cannot manage with four-weekly child benefit, when one bears in mind that for years mothers in every other European country have been paid family benefits either monthly or even three-monthly. We are being fair, provided that we give the option to those mothers who have been accustomed to receiving benefits on a weekly basis to continue on that basis.

The hon. Gentleman described the option as an imposition. That is a gross exaggeration. The simplest of cards will be attached to the appropriate child benefit book. The claimant will be required only to tick a box if she wants weekly payments. It will then be sent, at the expense of my Department, to the child benefit centre. How anyone can describe that simple procedure as an imposition passes my understanding.

We have had more than 30 years of a benefit payments system that has paid little attention to the enormous advances in technology, the changes in social habits, and the growth of the numbers of people with bank accounts. It is high time we did something about that, and we are doing so.

Mr. Buchan

The right hon. Gentleman is not meeting the main burden of the charge. As he said in his initial statement, virtually everyone involved with child benefit has rejected the proposals to put the bulk of our mothers on to a compulsory four-week uptake. The right hon. Gentleman said in his statement: organisations and local authorities objected to the proposal to pay child benefit every four weeks to most mothers. He has not taken that view on board. Neither has he taken on board the fact that half of our mothers now choose weekly payments voluntarily, with all the problems that that brings. He still intends to impose a four-weekly payment on 80 per cent. of our parents.

Mr. Jenkin

I remind the hon. Gentleman that 7 million mothers will have a free choice whether they remain with the weekly payment system or switch to monthly payments—[Interruption.] Yes, they will. The main burden of my statement is that they will have a choice. If we followed the hon. Gentleman's recipe we would never change anything. That is what Socialism is about.

Mr. Paul Dean (Somerset, North)

I welcome the Government's decision to give freedom of choice to mothers. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that freedom will apply to mothers if they have another child? Because sub-post masters are a vital link in our community life, will my right hon. Friend ensure that new counter business opportunities are available before sub-post offices begin to lose pension business, so that their future can be assured?

Mr. Jenkin

I confirm that existing claimants who have another child will not be treated as new claimants. They will continue to have their benefit paid as they originally opted. We have closely examined the detail of this scheme with the Post Office and have kept the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters fully informed of the various opportunities and options that exist for new business in the Post Office, especially for sub-postmasters. We estimate that during the next five years business from existing customers will grow by 9 per cent, offset by a decline of 3 per cent, giving a 6 per cent. increase in business. A conservative estimate is that there will be another 4 per cent. growth from new business that will be open to the Post Office when the British Telecommunications Bill is enacted. My decision to effect a more gradual changeover to four-weekly payments for child benefit means that we are confident that the build-up of new business will more than keep pace with the decline of DHSS business. If that does not happen in certain cases a £2 million fund will be administered by the Post Office to protect those who may suffer.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

Does not the Secretary of State agree that child benefit is often a lifeline for a family whose circumstances suddenly change—for example, when a mother has been deserted or a wage earner becomes unemployed? Is it not true that the present payment system ensures that the family has some money while other benefits are sorted out? Will he guarantee that the new bureaucracy will allow a mother who wishes to switch from monthly to weekly payments to do so in a matter of minutes at a social security office, rather than wait several weeks?

Mr. Jenkin

I have paid close attention to the circumstances of a mother going on to supplementary benefit and requiring payment of child benefit at short notice. If she cannot manage until her book runs out she can send her book to the child benefit centre immediately and obtain a new book for weekly payment. If she cannot manage, and needs money immediately, the local office will be prepared to make payments pending the new book, and will settle matters when the new book arrives. I am convinced that the new arrangements will protect the cases of hardship referred to by the hon. Gentleman.

Sir Timothy Kitson (Richmond, Yorks)

Because of the importance of the sub-post office in rural areas, will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that if there is not a substantial increase in additional counter business he will consider increasing slightly the £2 million fund to ensure that sub-post offices can continue in rural areas?

Mr. Jenkin

I share my hon. Friend's view of the importance of the rural sub-post office network. There are already a number of safeguards for sub-post offices. The work review takes place only every three years. The 3,000 smallest sub-post offices have a guaranteed minimum scale payment of £1,600. Help is available from the Post Office if a reduction in income causes hardship. Where a loss of income occurs it amounts generally only to about two-thirds of any percentage loss of business.

We are adding to the new opportunities. I am confident that a £2 million fund is more than adequate to protect what I hope will be the few sub-post offices that find themselves in difficulties as a result of the change. The fund stands as a guarantee of the Government's commitment to maintain an adequate sub-post office network.

Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

Does the Secretary of State accept that in 1979 there were more than 21,000 sub-post offices? Does not his calculation of a £2 million fund mean less than £200 per sub-post office per year? Does he think that that is adequate? Will he bear in mind that the village post offices in Cambridgeshire and other rural areas are not showing any confidence in a 10 per cent. upsurge in business? Will he consider using the savings that he will make by the change to increase child benefit?

Mr. Jenkin

The hon. Gentleman's question is not apposite for me to answer on this occasion. It must be considered in the context of the public expenditure review as a whole. It is absurd to do a simplistic mathematical calculation as the hon. Gentleman has done. It is on a par with most Liberal propaganda. The smallest sub-post offices have a guarantee of income. It is in the tranche of sub-post offices with incomes between £1,600 and £5,000 a year that anxieties may arise. The fund will be primarily available for that tranche of about 7,500 sub-post offices. The precise details of how it will be administered are still to be worked out between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry and the Post Office. We shall consult the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters before reaching a final decision.

Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the depth of the consultations and the sensitivity of his proposals, especially in relation to one-parent families. Is he aware that the loss of sub-post offices is an important problem not only in rural areas but in urban areas? Will he ensure that there is adequate annual monitoring outside the Post Office, within the Department of Industry, in consultation with his Department, to ensure that pockets of major problems will be looked to rather than the global position?

Mr. Jenkin

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry will carry out the monitoring for which he asked. The additional business that is already in sight for sub-postmasters includes something that has been badly needed for a long time, namely, the availability of energy stamps. I think that they will be popular and will bring a considerable amount of business. There is also the availability of facilities such as pensioners' rail cards, students' rail cards, family rail cards, bus passes and season tickets.

That is business that is well in sight. It could by itself add 4 per cent. to counter business. I am addressing the annual conference of sub-postmasters at Scarborough tomorrow afternoon and I think that its members will recognise that they are being offered a pretty fair deal.

Mr. David Ennals (Norwich, North)

In rejecting so much of the advice of the Select Committee, which studied precisely these issues, is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that there are two groups that are seriously at risk? The first group consists of mothers with modest incomes who depend upon weekly payments. The guarantee that such payments will continue until 1982 and that thereafter they will not be guaranteed to new applicants is no reassurance to those who are on modest incomes. The second group consists of the sub-postmasters. May I prophesy that when the right hon. Gentleman meets them tomorrow he will find that there is a great deal of concern, which will be reflected especially in the rural areas, at the prospects that may arise as a result of his decision?

Mr. Jenkin

The Labour Government of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member declared themselves in principle in favour of giving the option to switch to bank accounts—

Mr. Ennals


Mr. Jenkin

We did not hear much from them at that stage about the problems of sub-post offices. The right hon. Gentleman is ignoring one of the key issues, namely, that for years for mothers receiving child benefit for the first time the first payment has always been four, five or six weeks in arrears. That is the fact. In the majority of instances mothers who have not been used to budgeting on weekly child benefit payments will not find it difficult to continue on the basis on which they start. If we did not accept that we would never be able to get the efficiency improvements and cost savings that must be the objective of any Government when the administration of social security absorbs so much of our national resources.

Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the mathematical ability of the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) is on a par with his knowledge of sub-post offices in my part of Cambridgeshire? Will he confirm that the £2 million fund is exclusively for the use of sub-post offices and that none of it will be available to Crown post offices?

Mr. Jenkin

I can give my hon. Friend that absolute assurance.

Mr. Mike Thomas (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that provided no undue pressure is brought to bear on those who opt for the four-weekly payment, and provided that he is prepared sympathetically to consider extending the range of exemptions for new claimants if there is a case made for a new category and provided that his forecast of Post Office revenue in the sub-post offices is fulfilled, we may be able to regard his statement as a fair compromise between a move towards economy and modernisation arid the needs of beneficiaries?

Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that the attitude of the official Opposition and the nitpicking on their part is typical of opposition for opposition's sake and does great discredit to the House? No doubt we shall find Labour Members demonstrating at the Elephant and Castle before too long.

Mr. Jenkin

Some of them have done so already, although not on this issue. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support. I believe that we have struck a fair balance and that it will be seen as fair in the country.

Mr. Charles R. Morris (Manchester, Openshaw)

I accept the Secretary of State's concern for administrative economy, but does he agree that his statement will sound the death knell for many of the 22,000 sub-post offices that provide such a real contribution to community services, especially in rural areas? If the £2 million fund proves inadequate, has he in mind to make more money available to sub-post offices? Will he say what the impact of this proposal is likely to be on the 1,800 Crown post offices, in terms of staffing and services?

Mr. Jenkin

The extravagance of the right hon. Gentleman's language is absurd. To talk about a possible 5 per cent. reduction in the business of the post office network spread over five years as the death-knell of sub-post offices is the language of lunacy. With the right hon. Gentleman's knowledge of Post Office affairs he should know better. We shall consider the matter with flexibility. My right hon. Friend will be monitoring developments over the next few years. We are confident that the £2 million fund will be adequate to deal with any possible hardship that may arise.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have been rising in their places to question the Secretary of State.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

Will my right hon. Friend accept from the Government Benches, from one who was concerned about the forced transfer to four-weekly payments for those already receiving child benefit, that his compromise is a good one? May I ask him to confirm that he will keep the situation under review, so that if his expectation and mine turns out not to be right he can consider modifications? Finally, will he confirm that one could take the line advanced by the Opposition and ensure that all payments must be made through post offices, which would enable us all to throw away our cheque books?

Mr. Jenkin

We shall be keeping a close watch. I have no doubt that the regulations that we shall introduce to implement the scheme will include provision for dealing with cases of exceptional hardship if that should arise for any mother in receipt of child benefit. I find the contrast astonishing between the Labour Government's accepting in principle, and apparently cheerfully, the prospect of the switch—

Mr. Ennals


Mr. Jenkin

They accepted a voluntary switch, which is exactly what we are doing, to payment into bank accounts. However, now that they are in Opposition they seem to be opposing root and branch and all along the line anything that is likely to take business away from post offices.

Mr. Ennals


Mr. Jenkin

They demean themselves by their contradiction.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is a feeling, especially on the Opposition Benches, that he is concealing more than he is revealing? Where did the right hon. Gentleman get his information that sub-post offices have some sort of guarantee? Is he not aware that if the Post Office decides to close down a sub-post office neither he nor his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry can lift a finger to prevent the closure? Is he aware that all the new business that he mentioned is not new business at all? It is existing business that is presently administered elsewhere. For example, energy stamps are now sold at electricity board offices. It will be a transfer of existing business. If it is transferred from other establishments, surely that will have employment consequences in those other establishments.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to come clean and to make it clear to the sub-postmasters tomorrow that their future, as my right hon. Friend the right hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Morris) said, is dim indeed. This could spell the end for many of our sub-postmasters and their offices.

Mr. Jenkin

The only details that I am not at present at liberty to disclose in public concern further commercial negotiations in which the Post Office is currently engaged, which will widen still further the range of extra public sector business which will be available to the Post Office and to sub-postmasters. I am concealing nothing else.

I did not talk about a guarantee for sub-postmasters. I said that the 3,000 smallest sub-post offices have a minimum scale payment of £1,600. That is the present level. There is no doubt that we want to see an extension of business. If the hon. Gentleman genuinely believes that by greatly enlarging the outlets for a range of services—for example, energy stamps, bus passes and rail cards—we are merely dealing in a zero-sum game, in that what goes to one will be taken away from another, he is living in a dream world. It is not a zero-sum game. By offering the public wider opportunities to use these facilities we can confidently expect a growth in business.

Mr. Keith Best (Anglesey)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the rural sub-post offices in my constituency, which are critical to the local community, will welcome the Government's assurance that they believe in preserving the rural sub-post offices? How exactly did my right hon. Friend and his advisers arrive at the figure of £2 million? One welcomes the fact that there could be an upsurge in business. I note that the details of the way in which the £2 million will be allocated are yet to be announced and that they are subject to consultations. How is it that my right hon. Friend arrived at the £2 million figure? Was it based on a specific understanding that there would be a certain shortfall, or was it designed to deal with some other matter?

Mr. Jenkin

To a degree, one is dealing with guess work about the future, and it is a matter of judgment. These matters were carefully considered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry and the Post Office. That was their best judgment of what funds would be needed to enable the Government to back their assurances about the adequacy of the sub-post office network. However, as I said earlier, we shall watch the position carefully and we shall be monitoring it regularly. Obviously, we shall need to respond flexibly if it turns out that our forecasts have been belied by events.

Mr. Kenneth Marks (Manchester, Gorton)

Will the right hon. Gentleman take another serious look at his decision to give no choice to new recipients of child benefit? They include some of the most vulnerable groups in the population, at their most vulnerable period. It is a disgrace that they should have to wait for seven weeks. The right hon. Gentleman ought to be shortening that period instead of making them wait for four weeks every time. Did he consult the Child Poverty Action Group? If so, what did it say?

Mr. Jenkin

We consulted the Child Poverty Action Group, although not on the point raised by the hon. Gentleman. I understand that it was happy with the opting-in process that I have announced for the weekly payments for existing mothers. We are already protecting the most vulnerable, in that those on supplementary benefit and family income supplement—which now incorporates incomes of up to £70, £80 or £90 a week—and lone parents will automatically have the option of weekly payments. That goes a long way towards meeting the hon. Gentleman's case. Of course we shall look at this, and if there are particular hardships we may well need to take steps to deal with them. But I am confident that in Britain, as in the rest of Europe, the vast majority of mothers will be able to manage perfectly well on child benefit that is paid every four weeks. Those who have not been used to weekly benefit can perfectly reasonably be asked to go on to four-weekly benefit.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Bodmin)

In view of the importance of the rural sub-post office network, what specific arrangements is my right hon. Friend making, both within his own Department and in his relationship with other Government Departments that have an influence on the pattern of economic and social life, to prevent this kind of anxiety from recurring?

Mr. Jenkin

I have every sympathy with what my hon. Friend said. I shall not easily forget the fury and anxiety aroused about a year ago when some quite misleading reports about what was in the wind gained credence. I shall be addressing the federation's annual conference in Scarborough tomorrow and I hope that I shall be able to allay any anxieties and deal with any fears that may still exist. My impression is that the federation will regard the compromise package as a pretty fair deal.

Mr. Robert C. Brown (Newcastle Upon Tyne, West)

Listening to the right hon. Gentleman's statement, it sounded as though he was much more interested in justifying the Prime Minister's poodle, Sir Derek Rayner, than in taking note of the representations against the proposals. Will he give the House a commitment that future claimants, post-1981, will have an immediate right to opt for weekly payment if there is a change in their circumstances, such as redundancy or unemployment? Will he undertake to consult his right hon. Friends to allow the Post Office to produce one-off payment stamps in units of 50p rather than the multitude of stamps covering energy, television licences, and so on, that currently exist?

Mr. Jenkin

I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's final comments are drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend and the Post Office. I gave a fairly long answer and categorical assurance to the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) about the measures that we are taking to ensure that if circumstances change and people fall into one of the categories entitled to weekly payments they will be able to get payment as promptly as possible—if necessary, on an interim basis from a local social security office. That safeguard will exist, and we shall want to ensure it works properly.

If the hon. Gentleman compares the full report of the team advised by Sir Derek Rayner—which was published in conjunction with the Government's White Paper—with the proposals that I have now announced he will see that we have been more than flexible in responding to the anxieties put to us. The proposals that we will now introduce are markedly different, in a number of respects, from those put forward in the first report. It is rather unfair to say that we are being inflexible.

Mr. Tim Eggar (Enfield, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the realisation outside the House that he made a personal commitment to ensure that proper care and consultation went into his statement? We are all grateful to him. Will local authorities be expected in any way to subsidise sub-post offices, and can sub-post offices expect to be permitted to act as agents for building societies?

Mr. Jenkin

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his generous remarks. None of the figures that I have quoted involves any subsidies from local authorities. There is a statutory power in that regard, but in no way are we relying on it.

The National Federation of Sub-Postmasters and the Building Societies Association are urgently discussing the possibility of sub-post offices acting as agents for building societies, but I am not yet in a position to announce the outcome.

Clearly, there are some obstacles to such a move as building society deposits compete with national savings for money. That is a concern of my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor. It is equally clear that if a building society wants a sub-postmaster to act as agent it could bring in considerable additional business to the sub-post office concerned. It is, therefore, something that we would want to examine carefully.

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)

Contrary to what the right hon. Gentleman said, does not his statement apply only to those beneficiaries who have no bank account? All beneficiaries with bank accounts can continue to draw benefit at whatever frequency they so desire. Does that not confirm the class character of the Conservative Party? Secondly, how does the right hon. Gentleman propose to avoid legislation on this matter?

Mr. Jenkin

I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no need for primary legislation. We can achieve what we want by a change in the regulations. The hon. Gentleman is mistaken. At present there is no facility for the payment of any of these benefits into bank accounts by direct credit. It is perfectly true that some pensioners receive their benefit either monthly or three-monthly in arrear, by an order that they must present to their banks.

Mr. Atkinson

What about the frequency of payment?

Mr. Jenkin

If people want to be paid less frequently than weekly they can ask to be paid either monthly or three-monthly. But that is not by direct credit. That is a new facility and an improved choice. It is our estimate that about 3½ million people will want to take advantage of it in the first instance. As the years go by I expect the proportion taking transfer by direct credit to grow steadily. That is a much more efficient way of making payments of this sort.

Mr. Buchan

This has been an extraordinary exchange. The right hon. Gentleman has succeeded in one short statement in endangering rural post offices, enraging all the groups concerned with child welfare, and causing hardship to millions of mothers. Are we right in thinking that this process of enraging some and causing hardship to others has been designed to save £7 million less £2 million to support the sub-post offices—in other words, to save £5 million?

Secondly, is the right hon. Gentleman not saying that the means of saving the sub-post offices by directing business there must be at the expense of all other public sector—and now, apparently, private sector—employment? Finally, may I take him up on his comment about the demonstration at the Elephant and Castle? May I assure him that if he keeps up this standard he will get a demonstration?

Mr. Jenkin

I think there has been sufficient condemnation of the antics of the Opposition Front Bench—[Interruption.]—in parading with placards and shouting slogans in the street, like any of Arthur Scargill's rent-a-mob. The hon. Gentleman is merely demonstrating his refusal ever to want to change anything.

Mr. Norman Atkinson

May I ask the Minister to withdraw insulting remarks of that sort? What has Scargill's rent-a-crowd got to do with questions of this sort?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have heard much worse exchanges in this Chamber.

Mr. Jenkin

The hon. Gentleman is being absurd. In fact, the savings are over £30 million on the whole packet that I have announced today. The savings that will be achievable in the administrative proceedings for paying child benefits are savings that we need to have—which it is right to have. If we listened to the right hon. Gentleman, nothing would ever change. It seems to me that his is a recipe for total stagnation. No wonder his party lost office.

Following is the information: Changes in DHSS administrative procedure which will result in an annual saving of some £13 million by 1987–88. Computer-produced order books are being standardised at 20 weeks. (They were 12, 13, 18 weeks.) Payment of invalidity benefit and sickness benefit is being combined with payment of supplementary benefit. The level at which evidence of identity is required when cashing a Girocheque is being increased from £30 to £50. The foil limits on order books have been raised to realistic levels to avoid issuing two books. They will be reviewed each year. The period for implementing nationally the DHSS local office computer system is being reduced from four years to two years subject to reconsideration following the pilot study. Retirement and widows' pensions of less than £1 a week will be paid annually in arrears.