HC Deb 26 April 1984 vol 58 cc871-2
7. Rev. Martin Smyth

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he proposes a review of the social security system in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Chris Patten)

I do not propose to establish independently in Northern Ireland a review of the social security system or of individual benefit schemes. However, as the social security system in Northern Ireland is in all major respects indentical to that operating elsewhere in the United Kingdom, the recently announced reviews for Great Britain will extend as appropriate to Northern Ireland.

In view of differences in the administration and funding of the housing benefits schemes in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, however, the remit of the housing benefits review team will not extend formally to Northern Ireland. Instead, I propose to establish a small team of officials to keep closely in touch with the review in Great Britain and to provide local interests with an opportunity to contribute their views on the operation of the Northern Ireland schemes.

As there has been a recent comprehensive survey of the disabled in Northern Ireland, I do not propose to establish a fresh study on the lines of that now proposed for Great Britain.

Rev. Martin Smyth

I thank the Minister for his reply. As he has acknowledged that there is parity, will he recognise that Northern Ireland has been regarded as one of the most deprived areas of the United Kingdom? Will he comment on the findings of a recent edition of "Regional Trends", published by the Stationery Office? Is there any significance in the fact that Northern Ireland appears fifth in the league table? The hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) will be interested to know that we are even behind Scotland. Is it possible that people in Northern Ireland, who are entitled to benefit from national insurance, supplementary and child benefits, are not taking up their entitlement?

Mr. Patten

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the importance of improving take-up. I recently launched a scheme to improve the take-up of family income supplement. I think the hon. Gentleman will accept that in most areas of social security the figures show that take-up in Northern Ireland is better than on this side of the water.

With regard to the level of deprivation in Northern Ireland, I hope that our problems will be taken into account by the reviews, the existence of which has been announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Dr. Mawhinney

How many people are employed to detect social security fraud in the Province? Is my hon. Friend contemplating a review of the effectiveness of that aspect of the system?

Mr. Patten

We have kept the all-too-high level of social security fraud under regular review. I cannot tell my hon. Friend offhand how many people are involved in that activity. Just as it is important to increase take-up of benefits, so it is extremely important to stop people from abusing the system.

Mr. Soley

Does not the Minister's answer betray the Government's callous disregard of the real problems of people in Northern Ireland? Is he aware that the real problem is high rent costs, high fuel costs and low incomes in Northern Ireland? Until he grasps that and recognises that those people need a different structure that reflects those problems, many people will continue to suffer from poverty of a level well above that experienced in the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Patten

I accept that we have particular problems in Northern Ireland. I imagine that the hon. Gentleman was trying to pay me some form of compliment in the first part of his question. I do not think that his criticisms are shared by the Social Security Advisory Committee, which was recently in Northern Ireland and was, I believe, impressed by our efforts to deal with the social problems that we concede exist.