HC Deb 10 May 1984 vol 59 cc1171-82 9.51 pm
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Supplementary Benefit (Conditions of Entitlement) Amendment Regulations 1984 (S.I., 1984, No. 518), dated 9th April 1984, a copy of which was laid before this House on 9th April be annulled.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

With this it will be convenient to take motion 3 on the Order Paper:

Mr. Meacher

The Opposition are praying against the regulations for three basic reasons. First, we wish to protest at yet another example of the Government's niggardliness in going out of their way to prevent some of the poorest in our society from receiving just a few more pounds to which the Government's social security commissioners had ruled they were entitled. Secondly, we protest at the Government's high-handed disregard of the Social Security Advisory Committee, an independent appeals system, and all the conventions of parliamentary authority. Thirdly, we wish to protest at the manner in which Ministers are now shown to have misled the House and at the way in which the DHSS can interpret the law as it sees fit and blandly alter the law without redress or compensation when found to have applied the law incorrectly.

We are not complaining about the substance of the regulations, as I should be the first to agree that it is relatively minor. We are complaining about the flouting of principles in the way in which welfare law is increasingly being administered under the Government.

A tribunal of commissioners upheld the argument advanced by the Child Poverty Action Group that holiday pay and pay in lieu of notice each had to be taken into account for supplementary benefit purposes from the date that each became payable. The effect of the ruling was that in most instances payments would have to be taken into account concurrently rather than consecutively, thus enabling an unemployed person to qualify for supplementary benefit sooner.

The Government have introduced an amendment in the regulations to make lawful the DHSS practice of counting holiday pay and pay in lieu consecutively. Their aim is to exclude a person from entitlement to supplementary benefit for longer. Secondly, a social security commissioner confirmed that the Department had acted unlawfully in November 1981 in inserting an amendment in a set of regulations which were laid before the House as merely consolidating regulations. That amendment took away the right of single people to a grant if they were in need of a cooker or heater on moving into new accommodation. The amending regulations will reintroduce that provision.

The Government's swift action to legalise departmental practice by passing legislation without consultation or debate is exactly the same as shown last November when an earlier victory of the citizens rights office of the Child Poverty Action Group was overturned. We debated that matter. On that occasion, a tribunal of commissioners ruled that a single payment could be made for medical needs, but, within days, the Government passed amendments nullifying the decision.

Those three cases starkly reveal the length to which the Government will go to stop people on the poverty line from receiving even the few minimal extra payments to which they are legally entitled while at the same time the Government stuff the mouths of the rich with gold.

Two months ago, in his Budget the Chancellor of the Exchequer abolished the unearned income surcharge. That was a tax, as hon. Members know, affecting only those persons with incomes each year of more than £7,100 from stocks and shares or other investment. In other words, I suspect that only those with share capital of over £100,000 were liable to that tax. Probably only the richest 1 per cent. of people in this country were recipients of that massive tax hand-out, worth to each an average of £1,300.

The same Government who took those measures are determined to rub people's noses in their poverty. Apparently, even when the Government's DHSS appointed bodies and officials grant those people a handful more the Government rush with great alacrity to put a stop to it immediately. If one wanted a symbol of the meanness towards the poor, which is so characteristic of this Administration — far more than previous Tory Administrations—surely these regulations are it.

The Government have been so determined to take away those minuscule gains — I should be the first to recognise that we are talking about a minuscule gain—that they have trodden on every convention of parliamentary government in their gadarene rush to bring about that result. In both cases, the Government have changed the rules without any normal period of consultation with their own advisory body, the Social Security Advisory Committee. Under the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976 the normal consultation procedure can be dropped only when the matter is certified by the Minister as being urgent. The only urgency involved in these cases is the Government's desire to avoid giving help to some of the poorest people in our community, as they have, in effect, been ordered to do by the commissioners.

The Opposition consider this to be an abuse of the rules, betraying an attitude of scant regard and perhaps contempt towards the views of the Social Security Advisory Committee. It is not difficult to see why the Government are doing that. The Social Security Advisory Committee has not turned out to be the malleable and acquiescent body that it was intended to be when the Government abolished the Supplementary Benefits Commission.

The advisory committee's critical attitude to Government policy on benefits is best exemplified by the recent drubbing it gave Ministers on their plans to cut housing benefits. Perhaps that is why the Government set up a completely different body to carry out the review on supplementary benefits, a review chaired, almost without precedent, by Ministers. Presumably this time the Government will take no chances. The She-who-must-beobeyed intolerance of dissent is, regrettably, beginning to find echoes even at the Elephant and Castle.

The Government are being equally dismissive about the appeals system. Its independence is fast becoming something of a mockery. While Ministers pay lip service to the independence of the social security commissioners, it appears from the evidence of these cases that the commissioners are only allowed to make decisions on supplementary benefit which are favourable to the Department of Health and Social Security. Otherwise, the Department steps in immediately and changes the rules. One wonders why one has an appeals system in those circumstances.

Another aspect which I find worrying is the speed at which the Government have moved to quash the commissioners' decisions which extend claimants' rights which has to be contrasted with their slowness in overturning commissioners' decisions which diminish claimants' rights.

In 1981 a commissioner held that people who were licensees rather than full tenants had no right to furniture grants when they moved house. It is now 1984 and the proposals to extend furniture grant to licensees are still, I understand, only in draft. Such behaviour only confirms the suspicions of people who believe that the Government are much more interested in saving money than in promoting the interests of those on benefit.

It is a serious affront to Parliament that the Government have increasingly frequently during this past year, on receiving a decision from the Social Security Advisory Committee of which they clearly did not approve, laid regulations the next day to invalidate that decision. The Government have then taken the regulation as coming into force the day after without any explicit approval by Parliament. It may be months before Parliament has an opportunity to debate the matter and vote on it.

We feel so strongly that this is an abuse of Parliament that I have passed a file on this matter to the Select Committee on Procedure with a request that it urgently studies the matter and, if it agrees with us, makes strong recommendations to the House that such circumventory devices shall be straightaway discontinued by the Government.

Our third complaint against these regulations is the high-handed response of the Government when they were revealed to have misled Parliament. The amendment to the single payments regulations was caused by a ruling of a social security commissioner that the consolidation of those regulations in November 1981 had altered the provisions governing help with furniture. "Altered" is the crucial word. However, on 2 December 1981 the then Minister gave the House the assurance that

the consolidated version"— of the single payment regulations

reflects the law as it was before consolidation."—[Official Report, 2 December 1981; Vol. 14, c. 363.] That that manifestly was not the case became immediately apparent to claimants and their benefit advisers. Before 23 November 1981, which was the operative date for the regulations to come into force, benefit officers were happy to award grants for cookers and heaters to single unemployed people who had recently moved into new accommodation. From that date, all requests for such aid were refused.

The crucial point is that local DHSS officers told advisers that they had been told that there had been a change in the law. Local DHSS officers were saying one thing to claimants and advisers and the Minister was saying a completely different thing to the House.

The Child Poverty Action Group, I think rightly, took a test case on the issue almost immediately the consolidated regulations came into effect. It took over two years for the case to come before the social security commissioner who confirmed that the so-called consolidation regulations were no such thing. There is no doubt that practice in local DHSS offices altered after 23 November 1981 on instructions from above. I know, Mr. Speaker, that you are sensitive about the use of certain language when one is making the kind of accusations that I am making, but equally—I say this advisedly—I find it extremely difficult to believe that the Department was in ignorance of the fact that the consolidation of the single payment regulations altered the law.

There is one other aspect to this whole wretched saga which is seriously worrying and to which I wish to draw attention. It is the ease with which the supplementary benefit regulations can be altered, and that is one of the reasons why they are so sloppily drafted. For the Department it simply does not matter, and that is what is so worrying about this episode.

If the Department's civil servants draft a regulation that does not quite mean what they meant it to say, they know from what has happened in these two cases that they have at least two years of operating the rule according to the original intention before a claimant—if one can be found—has laboriously gone through the appeal court procedure to persuade a commissioner that the letter of the law is not being followed. Judging by what has happened, all that the civil servants have then to do is correct the error. No attempt is made — this is wrong — to compensate the very poor people who have lost out because the law has not been correctly implemented.

There is then the problem of the conditions of entitlement regulations. I repeat again that I have no strong feelings either way—this is not why the Opposition are bringing this matter before the House — on whether holiday pay and pay in lieu of notice should be counted concurrently rather than consecutively, although it does make a difference. That is not the point. However, we feel strongly that benefit officers should implement what the law says and not what the Department meant it to say. In this case, a tribunal of commissioners has held that the law has been wrongly applied since November 1980, but no attempt has been made or will be made by the Government to rectify the errors made in the assessments for tens of thousands of claimants.

For the three reasons of meanness to the poor when the Government have been so indulgent on so many occasions to the rich, bland disregard for an independent appeals system and for the proper acquiring of parliamentary authority, and unwillingness to compensate people or the poverty line when the Government's errors have damaged their interests and when their own Ministers have misled Parliament, we seek the support of the House in throwing out these ill-judged, unnecessary and undesirable regulations.

10.7 pm

The Minister for Social Security (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)

I am grateful for the opportunity to explain clearly to the House why the Government have found it necessary to introduce the two sets of amendment regulations that we are debating this evening and, in particular, why we have used the "urgency" procedure provided for explicitly in section 10(7) of the Social Security Act 1980 and referred the regulations to the Social Security Advisory Committee after, rather than before, they were made.

In both cases, the need for the amendment regulations has arisen because the social security commissioners have found that the law is other than what the Government had hitherto believed it to be. I must make it absolutely clear at the outset that in both cases all the regulations do is restore the status quo. There is no question of any new policy being surreptitiously introduced. The House should bear that in mind in considering the Opposition motion.

Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

Is the Minister telling the House that the Government knew that, for example, their consolidation measure on cookers and heaters was a change in the law only when the social security commissioners so ruled, and that they had no idea before that?

Dr. Boyson

Yes. The Government believed that the law as it stood was as it is now, after the regulations. The regulations are producing what we thought was the case then. Tonight we are only rectifying two factors, without any change in policy, to introduce what we believed was the policy, which was accepted, despite disagreements with Opposition Members, by the House.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

If the Minister believed it to be a consolidation measure, why were instructions in local offices changed?

Dr. Boyson

I am coming to that point. Before 1980–81, when the Government laid down practically the whole of the social security system in regulations, the social security commission regularly changed instructions, and hon. Members did not know that they had been changed. Since we laid down the regulations, hon. Members can examine and disagree with them, and if the regulations are not applied correctly, the House can debate the matter. We made the social security system visible to all — a see-through system. Under the Labour Government the regulations were not brough before the House and changes were made by the social security commissioners without our knowing about them. It is only because we have brought the matter into the open that Opposition Members can debate it tonight.

Mr. Meacher

The Minister has not answered the question. How is it that local DHSS offices said to benefit claimants and advisers that the law had been changed when the Minister's predecessor told the House that there had been no change in the law? My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said that it was recognised that there had been a change and invited the Government to admit it?

Dr. Boyson

It is simple. The legal advisers told the Government that there had been no change. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) must not get over-excited — we are debating social security and not the National Health Service. Local offices were not sent instructions to say that there had been a change, but an interpretation was sent out. Interpretations are sent out regularly from the national centre to the local offices. To my knowledge nothing was sent out to say that there had been a change. Interpretations were sent out under the Labour Government just as they are sent out under the Conservative Government. This interpretation was sent out in October 1981. In the debate at that time it was said that the legal advice to the Government was that it was a consolidation matter. It did not go to the Social Security Advisory Committee. If previous Labour Governments have never been wrongly advised, they have been flaming well lucky. [Interruption.]

I am only on page 1 of my brief and there are 10 exciting pages to come. Perhaps it is because Opposition Members fear what is to come that they try to delay me.

In one case a tribunal of commissioners found that the existing regulations did not support the long-standing policy of successive Governments and the Supplentary Benefits Commission that claimants should be disqualified from supplementary benefit for the consecutive periods covered by earnings, holiday pay and payments in lieu of notice received on termination of employment. It has always been understood that, as against unemployment benefit, supplementary benefit was a benefit of last resort and that any other means of income should come first. The commissioners found that under the regulations then current, the periods covered by such payments should run concurrently rather than consecutively, and the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) was right about the difference.

I should point out that the chief adjudication officer —I remind the House that he has now taken over the functions of the chief supplementary benefit officer under the new unified system of social security adjudication that came into effect last month—has some doubts about the legal basis of the commissioners' decision, and with the leave of the commissioners he appealed against it to the Court of Appeal. He asked the court for an expedited hearing, and I believe that it will take place in July. Therefore, we have appealed against the interpretation sent out. We are not yet entirely convinced that the advice that we received was correct, and only the Court of Appeal can establish whether our interpretation or that of the commissioners is correct.

Mr. Walter Harrison (Wakefield)

That means the hon. Gentleman is not sure.

Dr. Boyson

We are not sure. The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right about that. We are open-minded and do not have the blind prejudice of Opposition Members. It seemed right to the Goverment to put the legal position beyond doubt as a matter of urgency, rather than to wait for the outcome of the appeal, and that is what the Supplementary Benefit (Conditions of Entitlement) Amendment Regulations do. I shall say something more about the use of the urgency procedure in a moment.

The other case was rather different. When the Supplementary Benefit (Single Payment) Regulations were consolidated in 1981, the wording of what is now regulation 10(1)(b) was changed. The Government's intention at that time was to clarify the circumstances in which single payments of supplementary benefit for essential furniture and household equipment could be made. It was not our intention to change the effect of the regulation, and on the basis of the advice available to the Government at the time, we did not believe that we were doing so.

To be perfectly fair, as I have always said, it was argued at the time by the Opposition that the new regulations changed the law. The Government, on the advice that they received, took the other view. A recent decision of a social security commissioner has, however, found that the effect of the regulations in force before 1981 was different from what we believed it to be, and that therefore the 1981 regulations substantially changed the law. The commissioner consequently ruled that as the 1981 regulations had been introduced as consolidating regulations, and had not therefore been referred to the Social Security Advisory Committee, regulation 10(1)(b) was now invalid to the extent of the change.

The Government accept that the commissioner's decision has now settled the legal issue, and that we had previously come down on the wrong side of a finely balanced argument. Those who have read the report will know that there were 18 pages of closely argued legal discussion before the commissioner gave his decision. He said:

The process has involved anxious consideration of complex questions of legal principle. This is by no means a simple issue.

The practical effect of the commissioner's decision would be to make single payments for essential furniture and household equipment, often amounting to several hundred pounds in each case, more widely available than this Government, or any Government, had intended them to be. To take just one example, unemployed teenagers who had a perfectly satisfactory home with their parents but who felt the urge to leave home and set up on their own, would become absolutely entitled—there would be no element of discretion in the matter—to have all the essential items of furniture in their new homes provided immediately at the taxpayers' expense. That is what will happen unless we lay these regulations. We took the view — I should be surprised if it were not shared by the general public—that it would have been irresponsible to leave the law unamended longer than necessary, thus enabling payments to be made contrary to the Government's declared policy intention. Therefore, we decided to amend the regulations as a matter of urgency to restore the original intention, as reflected in the wording of the 1981 consolidating regulations.

I shall say something more about the actual effect of the single payment amendment regulations in a moment. But first I want to deal with some of the points that have been raised on the procedural aspects of both sets of regulations. Let me at the outset ask the House to consider what sort of debate we might have been having on the detailed supplementary benefit issues under the previous Labour Government. As I have already said, the answer is that we would not be having such a debate. The alterations would have been made by the Supplementary Benefits Commission. It is only through the goodness of the Conservative party that there is a debate tonight. I hope that Labour Members will be gracious enough to give a vote of thanks for that. Let me spell the matter out because I do not think that it is understood by many Labour Members. Before the reforms introduced by the Government in 1980, the detailed rules of supplementary benefit entitlement—the conditions for receiving single payments for furniture, the rules for the treatment of holiday pay, and hundreds of other such things—were all set out in a secret code issued by the Supplementary Benefits Commission. There was no S manual at that time. They were not, as now, set out in published regulations subject to scrutiny by Parliament, the pressure groups, the press and the public. Under the Labour Government it was not even Ministers responsible to Parliament who made the rules. They were settled behind closed doors—I will not say in smoke-filled rooms — in Carey street by that worthy but nevertheless wholly unelected body, the Supplementary Benefits Commission. Labour Members may not like the rules, but at least under this Government they have a chance of discuss them and to vote for or against them in the House. At least one can now see how the system works.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Would it not be best to ask claimants what they think about it? I suggest that they preferred the previous system because it was a little more generous than the present one. They resent the fact that each time the regulations unexpectedly work in the claimants' favour the Government change the rules immediately to make things harsher.

Dr. Boyson

If the hon. Gentleman waits, I shall give an illustration of an opposite case, which happened last summer.

I always thought that the hon. Gentleman believed in open government. I now find that he does not. He seems to believe that a little discretion is better than a knowledge of the rules. With great respect, I find that surprising. The hon. Gentleman has always been consistent. I have served with him on many Committees when he has raised matters such as the secrecy of school records and so on. We have brought matters out into the open.

If we compare, case by case, what was spent before 1980, allowing indexation for inflation, I shall be surprised if we are not spending more on social security now within these rules. Everybody knows—certainly all the welfare rights bodies know—what they are entitled to. I have some special figures which I am leaving until the end to show the vast increase that there has been under this terrible Conservative Government compared with under the previous Labour Government.

Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)

If the hon. Gentleman is so anxious, as he assures us he is, to have the fullest possible scrutiny—he has made grand claims on behalf of the Government on that account — why does not he refer the regulations to the SSAC?

Dr. Boyson

They have been referred to the SSAC. The hon. Lady may rest assured of that. An urgency proposal has been written in. When the Secretary of State considers that something is urgent he has the right to put the regulations into operation while simultaneously sending them to the SSAC. I can reassure the hon. Lady that both regulations have been sent to the SSAC. They are urgent because they would change the whole basis of the way in which supplementary benefit is given. If Labour Members are prepared to leave matters for months, I fear to think what would happen if we ever had another Labour Government.

So much for the background. Given that we now have a regulated scheme, it has been suggested that it is somehow unconstitutional, or at least unsporting, to amend the law in cases where the independent adjudicating authorities have found that the law does not reflect Government policy. The idea seems to be that in such cases the correct course would be for the Government., as it were, to grin and bear it on the principle that we win some, we lose some. It is a funny way of running a Government to say, "Let's see what is happening outside. It is hard luck that it costs another £2, but we can afford it in the Labour party." However, I must not be distracted.

I suggest that this view reflects a misunderstanding of the relationship between the legislature and the independent adjudicating authorities. Parliament has given my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State powers to make regulations—subject, I need hardly say, to the normal requirements for parliamentary scrutiny, which we are now observing with regard to the prayer, and I have said that I am grateful for the fact that the prayer was tabled so that we could bring the policy forward. It is the function of the independent adjudicating authorities to decide how those regulations should be applied in individual cases. If, in doing so, the adjudicating authorities find that the law is not what the Government believed it to be, the ball is back in the Government's court. No responsible Government could allow policies to be amended and altered in the way that the Opposition are suggesting without taking action, when it is necessary to do so. I will give an illustration shortly of what was done under the Labour Government at least as fast, if not faster—because we learned how to do it from the Labour Government, and we pay our tribute to them for that.

The other point that has been raised is on the use of the urgency procedure, and whether it is right to make these regulations without prior reference to the Social Security Advisory Committee. Again, I am unrepentant. The urgency procedure was provided for in the main legislation for exactly this type of contingency. In cases where there is no question of any new policy being introduced, but where, on the other hand, the legislative basis of existing policy is shown to be invalid, there is often no time for prior consultation with the SSAC. Urgent action may well need to be taken to put matters right, and this could apply just as much in a case where the effect of a commissioner's decision was to pay less benefit as in a case like those which gave rise to the regulations that we are considering tonight where the effect is to pay more. I promise the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish that I shall come to a case where, last July, we moved the other way to make sure that claimants did not lose money.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Can the Minister say what he will do if the social security commissioners suggest that the Government should not invoke the regulations?

Dr. Boyson

I shall deal with what the social security commissioners say when they arrive. I am not a futurologist. We are studying the history of the last three or four years, and we are also dealing with the present time.

To illustrate the point that it works both ways, I advise the House of the urgent action that we took last year to include at a very late stage an amendment to the resources regulations shortly before the draft regulations, giving effect to what has become the annual amendment exercise, were laid before the House. Again, last July, following a decision of a tribunal of commissioners, it was necessary to restore the policy intention in relation to the treatment, for supplementary benefit purposes, of sums held in trust, particularly for vaccine damaged children. The tribunal had ruled that a sole beneficiary's interest in the trust fund was an actual resource to be taken into account, contrary to the policy exercised by the present Government and by past Governments. A specific provision was therefore added to the draft regulations to be laid before the House, and we informed the SSAC at the same time of the action that we had taken.

All that we wanted then, and all that we want now, is to make sure that the law is what was intended when it was passed by Parliament, by regulation or otherwise. While the annual amendment package provided the opportunity to introduce the amendment quickly, we would in any event have amended the regulations urgently, had that not been the case. Indeed, we put it in the July uprating regulations that were going in, at the same time informing the SSAC what we were doing. This proves the point about which the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish was concerned. It is doing it not only when it means more Government money being spent, but when less money will be spent if the claimants will lose unfairly.

Let us go back to cases where the effect of the commissioner's decision was to pay more benefit than under the intended policy. As I reminded the House in the course of a similar debate last year on the amending regulations affecting entitlement to single payments for medical expenses, the Labour Government took exactly the same line as us on a commissioner's decision in 1978 relating to housewives' non-contributory invalidity pension. I referred to it in detail in the debate on 5 December 1983, when I said:

The previous Labour Government laid similar regulations when the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe was Minister. In September 1978, when the Labour Government were in power, the social security commissioners made a decision about entitlement to housewives' non-contributory invalidity pension . . . Within days, regulations were laid, just as we have laid regulations. They were laid before the matter went to the advisory committee. We learned how to proceed from the Labour Government's actions in 1978."— [Official Report, 5 December 1983; Vol. 50, c. 118.]

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

That was wrong then!

Dr. Boyson

The hon. Gentleman may have the right to say that. I know that the hon. Gentleman is consistent, but I see an Achilles' heel developing on the question of open government. However, we object to Opposition Members attacking us for what we have done when they did exactly the same. We object to them claiming a monopoly of consistency, because it just is not true. However, I exempt the hon. Gentleman from that. Nevertheless we quite fairly object when Opposition Front Bench Members say that they never did something.

It is not even as though the SSAC will not have the opportunity in this case of commenting on the regulations and the underlying policies that they reflect. Both sets of regulations have now been referred to it; interested bodies will be consulted, and the SSAC will produce reports on the regulations, copies of which, with my right hon. Friend's response, will be laid before the House.

Finally, I should like to say something very briefly about the policy underlying the Supplementary Benefit (Single Payment) Amendment Regulations. There has been a lot of criticism of the principle—which those amending regulations put back on to a secure legislative basis—that claimants who are moving home should, in certain circumstances, be entitled to a single payment for furniture only if no suitable alternative furnished accommodation is available in the area. It has been suggested that we should take this opportunity of removing this condition, on the grounds that it is unjust and unworkable.

I freely admit that the regulation is far from perfect and that the "suitable alternative furnished accommodation" condition presents difficulties in practice. There has been another recent commissioner's decision about this condition and the chief supplementary benefit officer—as he then was—issued guidance to local offices about how it should be interpreted in the light of that decision. But difficulties are likely to remain. The Department has asked the social security policy inspectorate to report on the operation of the regulation governing single payments for furniture, and in particular the effects of the "suitable furnished accommodation" condition. That is the same inspectorate as brought to light the voluntary unemployment deductions that were not put back last summer.

As I have indicated, my own feeling is that it is at the very least questionable whether substantial assistance should be given, at taxpayers' expense, almost automatically to people who may only be on benefit for a short while, and who may have suitable furnished accommodation available to them, such as with their parents, while no help is given to those with similar incomes who are in full-time work. Thus the poverty trap is also relevant to this regulation.

We shall need to look at this whole area in the light of the inspectorate report, any views that the SSAC expresses on these amendment regulations and, of course, the current review of the supplementary benefit scheme as a whole. Meanwhile it must be right to ensure that existing policy will be continued.

I turn to the financial side of the issue. To listen to Opposition Members, particularly those on the Opposition Front Bench, one would sometimes think that the Government were spending nothing on social security. One might even think that they were not spending more than the Labour Party spent on social security, given the indignation that is heard from time to time. Yet let us look at what is happening. I have a sobering thought for Opposition Members, and they may wish to adjourn the House so that they can think about it. It must strike at the very heart of their philosophy and confidence, and the very worst thing is to destroy someone's confidence, particularly just before the three-day weekend that some may be looking forward to after the events of last night. The House must be aware of what the policy has meant, in terms of numbers, over the past few years.

Since 1978, the last full year of a Labour Government, the number of single payments for furniture has escalated from about 150,000 to nearly 500,000 a year. That is more than a threefold increase. This terrible Government, who are grinding the faces of the poor into the dust, have trebled such payments in four years. Total expenditure has increased from £5-8 million to £33-2 million—a sixfold increase. I doubt whether even Opposition Members would want payments to be made under certain conditions. The average payment has increased from £39.70 to £67.65.

I have said this before, but it needs to be repeated. The bare statistics alone are proof that the Opposition's charges about the Government's attitude to social security claimants are completely unjustified, and proof that compassion can be found on Government Benches just as often, if not more often, as on the Opposition benches.

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

The Minister has given us statistics showing how much has been spent, but how much would it cost the Exchequer if the Government did not go back and restore the law to what they believe it should be?

Dr. Boyson

The cost would be millions and millions of pounds.

Mr. Meadowcroft

Exactly how much?

Dr. Boyson

I do not know. If the hon. Gentleman knows, he should be backing horses. It is easier to do that than to know how many people would apply for the grant. Anybody could set themselves up elsewhere, having left home or any other furnished accommodation. They could move into an empty flat. There are plenty of empty council flats in inner city areas these days and councils cannot let them. Without the regulations people could claim for £700 or £800 worth of furniture.

Mr. Meadowcroft


Dr. Boyson

They could. The hon. Gentleman lives in cloud-cuckoo-land if he believes that people will not use the law to their advantage. The costs include heaters, cookers, furniture and so on. I shall try to find the exact figures to bring the reality home to hon. Members. If they could say that 67,453 people, for instance, would apply in the next three weeks I could give the figure. Without the figures I am wasting my time. I should, perhaps, be participating in treasure hunts organised by The Standard. It is impossible.

We think that it is wrong that people who have accommodation, or live at home with their parents, should be able to move into empty accommodation and claim the cost of furnishing it from the local social services department. I should be amazed if the majority of people did not think the same. We do not know the cost involved. I have no doubt that whatever Government were in power would bring the law back to what was intended originally.

I hope that I have convinced the House that both sets of regulations are desirable and, indeed essential, and that the House should now accept — sorry, reject — the Opposition prayer without further debate.