HC Deb 12 February 1985 vol 73 cc157-9
8. Mr. Nellist

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services when he expects to publish the social security reviews presently being conducted by his Department.

11. Mr. Kirkwood

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services when he expects to publish the result of his departmental review on the supplementary benefit system.

Mr. Fowler

I expect to announce the Government's conclusions on the review and proposals for change in the course of the next few months.

Mr. Nellist

When will the Secretary of State lift his perhaps justified secrecy about these reviews and confirm to working people that he has refused to include in them proposals to abolish the £10 Christmas bonus, the £30 death grant, the £25 maternity grant, other woefully inadequate housing and supplementary benefits and the ending of the right to supplementary benefit for 234,000 16 to 17-year-olds? On Thursday 28 February, will the right hon. Gentleman meet a delegation representing upwards of 5,000 youngsters who on that day will be outside this House demonstrating against his proposal to end supplementary benefit to unemployed teenagers?

Mr. Fowler

Before the hon. Gentleman brings a delegation to see me, it would probably be a better idea if he discovered what the proposals are. As he does not know, it would seem slightly premature to have the sort of demonstration that he wants. It is obvious that the hon. Gentleman is in one of his more reasonable moods, and I must tell him that there is no point in having a review if we reject options in advance. We are looking at all options in social security, and I have no intention whatsoever of confirming or denying the kind of rumours that are around at present, however wild they may be.

Mr. Kirkwood

Will the Secretary of State accept that in principle I and my hon. Friends wholeheartedly agree that a review is very much needed? However, is he aware that the constitution of the reviews has been very much Government-orientated, in that they do not contain very many independent experts, and that the time scale is extremely short? Will he assure us that the consultation process will allow adequate time for people to respond and that he will publish all the evidence, or at least summaries of it, which he receives in private, as distinct from public hearings, so that we can all consider the matter properly before legislation is introduced?

Mr. Fowler

There will, of course, be a period of time for consultation between the publication of the review and the time any legislation is introduced. As to outsiders, I must point out that the supplementary benefit review which the Labour Government carried out in 1978 was done entirely by departmental officials. We did not take that view, but felt that we should include outsiders. One has only to look at the pensions review to see how many independent outsiders were involved in that. What applied to that review applies to all the other reviews as well.

Mr. Nicholls

As the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) suggested that the pensioners' Christmas bonus might be abolished, will my right hon. Friend remind the House that that bonus was abolished for two years, and on both occasions by a Labour Government?

Mr. Fowler

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There were two years in the 1970s when the Christmas bonus was abolished by Mrs. Barbara Castle when she was Secretary of State for Social Services. The only party which abolished the Christmas bonus was the Labour party.

Mr. Pavitt

Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider what he said about the time scale? Does he realise that on 19 March he is the supremo of two of the major spending Departments? Therefore, his reviews should be published before the Budget, otherwise we shall be discussing a very nebulous approach to expenditure for the coming year.

Mr. Fowler

I doubt whether I shall be able to satisfy the hon. Gentleman on bringing out the proposals before the Budget. A moment ago I was urged to bring them out later rather than earlier. I hope that the proposals will be produced within the rough time scale of the Budget considerations, because I think that the hon. Gentleman has a fair point about the connection between the two.

Mr. John Townend

Will my right hon. Friend reassure Conservative Members that if the reviews, when published, show areas in which savings can be made, that cash will be used to reduce public expenditure rather than to increase benefits?

Mr. Fowler

If there are savings in any area, the Government will have the alternative of putting the money into other benefits or reducing public expenditure and raising tax thresholds. I must stress that the aim of these reviews is basically to make the best use of available resources and to channel such resources to people who most need them.

Mrs. Beckett

May we yet again press the Minister to publish the reviews themselves, because only by comparing the evidence he has received with the conclusions and proposals of the Government can we properly judge what the process of review has been? What assurance can the House or the country have that, even if we believe that the Government are not attempting to destroy the welfare state through these reviews, they will not do so by the inadvertent incompetence that is the hallmark of this Administration?

Mr. Fowler

On the last point, the hon. Lady will just have to wait and judge the proposals as they come. In regard to publication, the hon. Lady, with her knowledge of the review process, will know that all the proposals to be put forward will be Government proposals. There is no question of publishing separate review reports. Clearly, different issues are contained from those in the housing benefit review, which is under independent chairmanship and which the House will want to see.