HC Deb 02 May 1984 vol 59 cc434-40

'In the Table in paragraph 2 of Schedule 1 to the Supplementary Benefit Act 1976 after sub-paragraph (b) of paragraph 1 there shall be added the following sub-paragraph—

"(c) has been in receipt of an allowance under subparagraph (b) above for a period of not less than 50 weeks continuously or with such interruptions as may be prescribed.".'.—[Mrs. Beckett.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause is comparatively simple. It is appropriately titled, because individuals who draw supplementary benefit on the ground that they are unemployed are unlucky. Families in such circumstances are particularly unlucky. New clause 13 extends to such individuals, after about a year, the long-term rate of supplementary benefit to which at present they do not become entitled until they reach the age of 60.

The problem is difficult for everyone, and particularly for the Government. Every group, authority and commentator recognises that rules that might have had some validity —although one might criticise them —when unemployment was a comparatively minor problem cannot be held to be valid when unemployment is as high as it is today.

The argument that the unemployed should never be entitled to long-term supplementary benefit because that might act as a deterrent to their seeking a job has no value or plausibility at a time when no jobs are available, no matter how hard an individual may seek. It is especially unfortunate against the background of changes in social security which affect families with children.

The changes which the Government made to simplify the payment of single sums to those receiving supplementary benefit may have been justified on the grounds of greater efficiency, but they often restrict the availability of payments to families with children. If loopholes appear during determinations or appeals, whether on single payments or other matters, the Minister displays a turn of speed that would be the envy of a young lady whose name has been mentioned recently in the House—Zola Budd. No one has seen anything as fast as the Minister for Social Security in closing loopholes and getting through the House regulations to ensure that no loophole can be left through which someone might obtain a little more money.

I do not wish to be too unkind to the Minister, because once again we are trying to assist him in his struggle with his colleagues in the Treasury. We have all had such struggles with the Treasury in our time, but he is having an especially uphill struggle with this Chancellor. We know that the Minister needs help from us, because when we debated this matter in Committee the Minister explained that such a change — we were asking then only that long-term supplementary benefit should be extended to families with children—could not be made because the Government could not afford it. The Minister told us in Committee that it would cost about £220 million to extend long-term supplementary benefit to families with children, and, although he was quoting off the top of his head, he said that it would cost about £480 million to extend it to all unemployed people.

Yet within a week the Chancellor, in just two measures in his Budget — the lifting of investment income surcharge and the changes in stamp duty—gave away no less than £520 million, which is far more than is necessary to make the changes that we sought then or the changes that we seek in this new clause. The Chancellor was less than honest with the Minister, but I assure the Minister that we stand foursquare behind him in trying to get these changes which the Government can plainly afford. It is simply a matter of political choice.

In Committee we observed that the Government have made some movement on this matter during the past few years. In November 1981, they extended long-term supplementary benefit to some men aged more than 60 —those who were not registered—and in June 1983 they extended it to all men aged more than 60 irrespective of their circumstances. We thought that the Government were trying to proceed step by step, so we offered them the opportunity to extend supplementary benefit to families with children. However, they rejected our amendment. Now we are offering a different step that might meet with more approval. With this Government, it might pay to ask for more in order to negotiate down to something that might be acceptable. In the new clause, we ask for the extension of the long-term rate to all the unemployed. If the Minister can negotiate down to families with children—although we shall be sorry that everyone cannot get it—it will be a step in the right direction.

I am being slightly, but not entirely, flippant with the Minister. It is widely recognised that not only is this position anomalous but it is wholly unjust. The Social Security Advisory Committee has repeatedly pointed out the injustice that only the unemployed can draw long-term supplementary benefit. Its previous report drew attention to the ridiculous position of a family in such circumstances. The Minister will be aware that if the family separated, after a suitable period had elapsed, rile woman could claim the long-term rate in her own right for the children. The man would draw his own benefit, which would always be at the short-term rate. If the couple were reunited, they would return to being entitled only to the short-term rate.

As the Minister is aware, at present the difference between the long-term and the short-term rate for such a family is no less than £11 a week. That is a substantial sum for many households. For these households it is an enormous sum. They cannot afford to do without it. The short-term supplementary benefit rates are deliberately calculated to be a subsistence benefit which will keep body and soul together and on which people can live for a short time.

It has been recognised for many years that the rates are insufficient for people to live to a reasonable standard or anything approaching a lack of poverty for any length of time. That is why we have long-term rates of supplementary and other benefits. If it were not necessary for families to have a long-term rate on which to survive, the Government would have done away with it. Even the long-term rate is not generous, yet the families who draw supplementary benefit—through no fault of their own, but because there is no work in many, if not all, parts of the country—never reach a stage where they can draw this extra money.

There has not been much justification over the past few years for the anomaly. Everyone has called for its removal. That is my party's policy. How can the Minister justify maintaining this policy? In Committee he sought to justify it on the grounds of cost, but the Chancellor has removed that justification. How can the Minister justify refusing to accept this new clause?

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) for a number of reasons, not least because she has put the case so comprehensively that following speakers can be brief. I wish to dwell upon two of the points that she made. First, she outlined how unjust it was that unemployed claimants should be stigmatised and draw less benefit. The ordinary rate of benefit continues for as long as they draw supplementary benefit, no matter how long they bear our unemployment.

I wish to make my first point on the theme of unemployment. One often hears unemployment talked about as if people are inheriting their just reward. The Prime Minister has won two elections by putting forward a clear policy — controlling the rise in prices by increasing the numbers of unemployed.

Tonight we are talking about how we should treat those people who have been conscripted into the unemployed army to fight the war against inflation. They are bearing our unemployment so that we can have lower prices. We treat them worse than any other claimants. No matter how long they bear our unemployment, they draw the ordinary rate of unemployment benefit, which is 25 per cent. below the long-term rate. If we are serious about sharing the costs of unemployment more fairly we should extend the longterm rate to those who are successfully fighting our war and keeping down prices.

The second point that my hon. Friend mentioned was the poverty that the families who bear our unemployment for a long period face. Poverty today is different, thank goodness, from that of the 1930s. It is not so easy to spot poor people today by the way that they dress, thank God. Many poor people do not have a much worse diet than many other ordinary people, and we can thank God for that.

This year it was brought home to me when I visited my constituents just how poverty affects people in Mrs. Thatcher's Britain in 1984. It is seen when one goes into their homes, and notices them bend down at the hearth to switch on the fire. It means that for most of the day, when visitors are not present, there is no heating.

9.45 pm

For the first time ever, many of my constituents who are bearing our unemployment face the horrendous prospect of taking to their beds not just for part of each day to keep warm during daylight hours, but for weeks. Poverty is beginning to affect people in that way, especially those who must live on the ordinary rate of supplementary benefit.

If we are moved by the arguments that the war against inflation is most important, the community should ensure the costs of that war bear a little more fairly on some individuals and families. If we are concerned that some people should not have a standard of living that is far below that obtained by most others, such that people cannot even keep warm, we should seek ways to persuade the Minister to extend the long-term rate of supplementary benefit to those who have borne our unemployment for more than a year.

It does little good for the Minister to come to the House tonight and say that the money is not available. He must explain that the Government have priorities other than helping the poorest members of our community who bear unemployment.

I shall quote figures given in a previous debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher). As always, he was being gentle with the Government about the extent to which they have redistributed resources to the rich. My hon. Friend considered the Government's first Budget in 1979 and the amount of money that was given by the Government to those people who were called surtax payers at that time. The Government gave a little more than £1.5 billion. After four years of Conservative Government, we are talking about a cumulative total of £8 billion being given to the very richest members of our society. It is impossible for the Government to say that money to the tune of £220 million is not available. It is available, but the Government have chosen to give it to the richest, not to the poorest, on the grounds—so we were told in 1979—that such a policy would bring forward jobs. Since 1979 we have seen a massive increase in almost every hon. Member's constituency in the numbers of people who have been conscripted into the army to fight the war against inflation.

I hope that the Minister will tell us tonight, first, that the Government intend to share the costs of bearing our unemployment more fairly and, secondly and perhaps more importantly, that the Government will respond to the real horror faced by unemployed families who have borne our unemployment for many a year. I hope that the Government will respond more constructively and compassionately to those needs tonight than they have done in any other debate in the past four years.

Mr. Kirkwood

I shall contribute briefly to the debate by saying that Alliance Members subscribe to the sentiments expressed by the hon. Members for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) and for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). We have always taken that view. If the amendment is pressed to a Division we shall be joining the official Opposition in the Lobby.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Derby, South was right to say that the Minister is operating under financial constraints. We are not daft. We know that that is true. I shall take this opportunity to ask the Minister whether it is true that he is operating within financial constraints and, if so, whether he has a level of priorities, at least in his own mind, of spending money if he were given the chance. I hope that the Minister will try to order in his own mind and explain for the benefit of the House where in his list of priorities comes the need to extend the long-term rate of supplementary benefit to families with children, if he found the necessary £220 million, or to extend benefits across the board to all unemployed persons. Where does that priority come—is it high, low or somewhere in between? The hon. Gentleman must have an idea. We on the Opposition Benches attach an extremely high priority to redressing the anomaly and injustice of, and the dire poverty that is caused by, this part of the social security law. I support the amendment, and ask the Minister to address his mind to that question.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Few issues fill me with greater anger than issues such as this. It is not for me or any of my hon. Friends to claim a monopoly of compassion, but I believe that the Government fail to understand the misery, deprivation and poverty in which millions live today.

I see my commitment to Socialism in the context of believing that all of us as individuals, irrespective of our political persuasions, have a duty at least to look after and pay respect to those in need. At the root of the amendment is the commitment of the British Labour party to those who we know are in need and living in very deprived conditions. There must be a responsibility on Government to understand that, when moneys are available, they should be made available to that group of people.

Not just Opposition Members but all Members of the House must regularly receive correspondence from people living in poverty, who are hiding their problem through pride. They are begging the Government to give them what they so desperately need. How can we justify the expenditure of £350 million by the Government on a measure that we debated the other night in relation to the investment income surcharge, when possibly as few as 250,000 people will benefit from it? To benefit from that, people must be in receipt of over £140 a week. We know that for a similar amount of money a measure could have been introduced by the Government, in supporting our amendment, that would raise many more people out of the poverty in which they live, at least give them a little more hope, and help them to maintain their self-respect.

I find it hard, irrespective of my politics but acknowledging and respecting the rights of others to hold their own philosophy and have a commitment to other political principles, to understand how those people cannot concede the case on this important issue. Something must be done. The voice of the poor people must be heard by Government. Ministers should not come to the Dispatch Box, as they do repeatedly at Question Time after Question Time, whether it is the Treasury, the Department of Health and Social Security or the Department of Employment, and answer questions so insensitively as they have done over the past months. An appeal is coming from every person who lives on supplementary benefit or unemployment benefit to which supplementary benefit is added. They are saying that they cannot afford to live and that they need the money. The Government must be forthcoming in the debate.

Dr. Boyson

I reply to what I take to have been the intention of the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett), who moved the new clause. The new clause would not achieve her aim. It would reduce from 52 to 50 weeks only the movement from short-term to long-term supplementary benefit for those receiving it. I know that that was not the Opposition's intention.

According to the hon. Lady, everybody wants the change that she suggests. In politics, it is those who are not responsible for paying out who make the demands. I should like gently to make the point that the two-layer system of supplementary benefit was introduced by a Labour Government in 1966. That was when the long-term addition was introduced. One cannot claim that the compassion is all on one side and the hard-liners all on the other. It was a Labour Government who brought in the division.

In fairness, one must also remember that the purchasing power of the supplementary benefit allowances is twice what it was when they were introduced in 1948. I do not deny that people would like more and that in many cases they need more, but we must put the matter into perspective.

It was a Labour Government who brought in the division, and a Labour Government could have wiped it out between 1974 and 1979. They did not do so. It is nonsense for hon. Members to claim that everyone agrees with what they wish to do, when they failed to do it themselves when they had the opportunity. That is unfair, and it does not strengthen their arguments.

Mr. Frank Field

None of my hon. Friends has defended the actions of the previous Labour Goverment in that respect.

The hon. Gentleman has referred to the purchasing power of the benefit rates. No one would dispute that in real terms the benefit rates are substantially higher than they were in 1948. Nevertheless, we are asking single people on the ordinary rate of supplementary benefit to exist on less than £4 a day. That is a sum that most hon. Members could lose in their small change. We are asking an army of people to cover all their needs on that sum. It is a small sum to live on from day to day and year to year.

Dr. Boyson

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. However, I think that it is interesting to compare the purchasing levels. The purchasing power of the old-age pension, supplementary benefit and other payments is twice what it was in 1948.

The Government have shown concern for people. The hon. Lady was quite fair about that. In 1980, the qualifying period for the long-term rate was reduced from two years to one year at a cost of £31 million a year. That change helped many people. The idea behind the longterm rate is that people have to replace more household goods and so on, and they should be able to do so without having to apply for special payments.

Furthermore, in May 1983, we gave the long-term rate of supplementary benefit to all men aged over 60, bringing in all the unemployed between the ages of 60 and 65. That measure cost £28 million. We recognised that there was a need to be met. As I told the Committee, the cost of extending that rate to all unemployed people would be £480 million. It would be £220 million for those with children. If one reduced the qualifying age to 50, the cost would be £90 million.

As the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) said, it is a question of priorities. He also asked me directly what my priorities would be. If we could afford increased expenditure on social security, I should not answer that question off the top of my head now. I should go through the list. Indeed, earlier today I listed certain priorities that needed to be tackled. They were general views which may be changed after discussion with colleagues and others. [Interruption.] Other parties may not talk to one another, but we do. We even talk within the Department. That is one of the attributes of Conservative Members and Ministers.

I have great respect for the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) as I have for most Opposition Members. When we took over from the Labour Government short-term supplementary benefit for a couple was £23.25—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.