HC Deb 06 April 1982 vol 21 cc809-10
1. Meacher

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services how many persons are now in receipt of supplementary benefit; and how many he estimates are eligible for benefit, but are not claiming it.

14. Mr. Winnick

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services how many (a) persons of working age and (b) pensioners receive supplementary benefit; and how many did so in May 1979.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)

In December 1981, 3.7 million people were receiving supplementary benefit, of whom 2 million were below retirement age and 1.7 million were supplementary pensioners. The present total is probably nearing 4 million. In May 1979 there were 1.2 million beneficiaries below retirement age and 1.7 million supplementary pensioners.

On the second part of his question, I refer the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) to my written reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) on 5 April 1982.

Mr. Meacher

Those are significant figures. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there are now about 6½ million people, including dependants, living on the supplementary benefit poverty line? Is he further aware that, including those entitled to but not claiming supplementary benefit, according to official figures, there are now nearly 9 million people living in poverty—about one in seven of the entire population—mainly because of the huge increase in the number of long-term unemployed created by the Government?

Is the Minister aware that, while the Government have made the rich richer, they have reintroduced means-tested poverty on a massive scale as in the 1930s? Is he not ashamed—[Interruption.]

Mr. Newton

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's first figure should be as high as 6½ million. My information is that it is a little more than 6 million. There has undoubtedly been an increase in the number of people receiving supplementary benefit. I do not doubt that that reflects the economic problems that the country faces. However, we are undoubtedly beginning to get on top of those problems. Meanwhile, we have been able to bring significant extra help to quite large numbers of the population, including the disabled.

Mr. Winnick

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the substantial increase in the number of people receiving supplementary benefit is undoubtedly due to the return of mass unemployment and the abolition of the earnings-related supplement? Do the Government not accept some responsibility for the numbers who have been driven to the poverty line as a result of Government policies? What action will the Government take to rescue those people from poverty and the difficult surroundings in which their chilren are being brought up?

Mr. Newton

The figures undoubtedly reflect the rise in unemployment. There is no mystery about that. The increase in the number receiving supplementary benefit reflects the extent to which the supplementary benefit system is performing its proper task of helping people in short-term difficulty. It remains the Government's determined aim to solve the problems on which the hon. Gentleman touched by resolving the underlying economic problems. I am determined that my Department will play its part in that process.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Is my hon. Friend aware that I fully support the Department's aim to help people in need? Will he emphasise that keeping up the level of supplementary benefit will make more people eligible for it?

Mr. Newton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his observations.

Mr. Ashley

How many people entitled to supplementary benefit are not claiming it? When does the hon. Gentleman propose to set up the advice and information centre that was recommended by the advisory committee?

Mr. Newton

The right hon. Gentleman will, of course, have read the advisory committee's report. I was pleased to note its compliment about the work that the Department is carrying out to introduce computer processes into the business of giving advice and information. We are proceeding with that task. I was grateful for the committee's complimentary observations upon it.

Mr. John

The hon. Gentleman will know from an answer in another place that 1¼ million people who are eligible for supplementary benefit do not claim it. Does he agree that £6 million per week is therefore not being claimed by persons entitled to supplementary benefit? What does he intend to do to make that money available?

Mr. Newton

Had the hon. Gentleman studied the figures that I published yesterday, he would have seen that there is special cause for concern about take-up by the sick and the disabled. I announced yesterday that, as part of our attempt to tackle that problem, we intend to issue leaflet SB1 automatically to all sickness benefit claimants when they have received benefit for eight weeks. I believe that that will help. The hon. Gentleman also knows that we are taking other steps to improve take-up. We shall continue to do that to the best of our ability.