HC Deb 23 July 1986 vol 102 cc443-50 9.26 pm
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Supplementary Benefit (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 1986 (S.I., 1986, No. 1259), dated 18th July 1986, a copy of which was laid before this House on 21st July, be annulled. We have tabled this prayer for three reasons. First, the proposals involve a cut in single payments of between £150 million and £200 million. I have based that on the figure that the Minister gave in his statement two days ago, when he referred to a current rate of £400 million. There is, therefore, a cut of something over 45 per cent. in expenditure on single payments, regardless of need, despite the increased number of those dependent on supplementary benefit. We believe that that must cause intense and widespread hardship.

Until now, it has always been accepted that the supplementary benefit scale rates are fixed at so low a level on the assumption that expenditure on major household items must be met separately. Indeed, many believe that the cut in expenditure is an attempt to accustom claimants and others to the limits under a future social fund. We believe that these regulations give us an insight into the sort of conditions that will exist under the social fund when the Bill is enacted.

Secondly, we object to the regulations because the new rules are extremly complex. Any hon. Member who reads the draft regulations will see what I mean. Moreover, they are contrary to the Government's stated aim on social security policy, which is to simplify administration. As a result, there is likely to be confusion, hardship and a low take-up, even among those who are entitled to benefit.

Thirdly, we object to the regulations on the ground of procedure. We are extremely disturbed about the manner in which the regulations have been tabled, with little or no time for hon. Members and outside organisations to consult on the response made by the Social Security Advisory Committee to the Government's proposals before today's debate and implementation on 11 August. Indeed, implementation is less than three weeks' time. Thus, we have yet another example of the Government's precipitate and indecent haste to put these measures into operation.

The Government sat on the highly critical report of the SSAC on these proposals for two months. The committee's report is dated 22 May. Yet only three weeks have been allowed for claimants and staff to find out about these complex changes. In the middle of the holiday period, it is totally unreasonable for DHSS staff to be expected to master these new complex rules in time to apply them by 11 August. The staff are already struggling to cope with what the Secretary of State referred to recently as the major operational burdens that the present scheme places upon them. Claimants are even less likely now to find out about the changes before the axe falls on 11 August. The Opposition believe—I say this advisedly — that this is a deliberate ploy to prevent people claiming their entitlement while they still can.

The problem, as the Government see it, is one of rising costs. The Minister shakes his head, but he will be able to speak in due course, and no doubt shortly. That was very much in evidence in what he said two days ago, when he spoke a great deal about exploitation and abuse. There is evidence, however, of a bottomless pit of need which is fed by rising unemployment, the growing number of claimants who have been unemployed for two or three years, the gradual erosion of other resources, such as savings, and the inadequate levels of weekly benefit payments.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

On Monday, my hon. Friend the Minister talked about leaflets circulating throughout the country containing tick lists under the slogan "closing down sales". He said that during the four weeks to 3 June there had been claims amounting to an annual rate of 5.5 million payments involving at least £400 million. It is no coincidence that these leaflets appeared throughout the country. Who was behind that smash-and-grab raid? Was it the Labour party? Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House here and now?

Mr. Meacher

I am sure that the House will be interested to know who is behind the smash-and-grab raid of tax cuts for some of the highest-paid people in the country.

Mr. Favell

Answer my question. Who is behind it?

Mr. Meacher

If individual Tories pay accountants to ensure that they receive all the reliefs to which they are entitled, why should not welfare rights officers, on behalf of poor people, obtain benefits for their clients to which they are entitled? These are benefits to which they have a right under legislation. The Government pretend at least that they wish there to be a high take-up rate and that benefits should be paid to those who are entitled to receive them.

Grants for exceptional needs are precisely that. Proving need is a basic condition before claims can be made and they are not paid without proof of need. That is set out in the regulations. The Minister has spoken of grants running at £400 million annually and the Government have said that they will return to the 1984 level, which will be entirely arbitrary now that we are in 1986. The effect of that move will be a reduction from £400 million to £216 million. That is a cut of about £190 million, not the £100 million that the Minister talked about originally.

The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)

The figures that I used on Monday were based on one month's figures, which were the four weeks to 3 June. They reflect in part the astonishing activities that are taking place throughout the country, some of which I referred to on Monday and to which I shall refer again this evening. The plain and blunt fact is that currently it is difficult for us to know what the position is on single payments.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

The Government are in charge.

Mr. Newton

We are in charge, and we believe that the present torrent of claims could cause the breakdown of the entire social security system. That is why we are taking action.

Mr. Meacher

The Minister's last remark, when he was under some pressure, is significant. He is saying that when people claim their rights, which they are entitled to do under legislation which applies to the social security system, the system is in danger of breaking down completely. It is an astonishing claim to make. The fact is that those welfare rights claims are purely to ensure that people get what the House has said they are entitled to claim. It is the Government who should be ensuring that they get that and we should not need to depend on welfare rights officers, financed by various voluntary organisations.

Mr. Frank Field

Did my hon. Friend notice the condemnation from Conservative Benches of voluntary organisations issuing leaflets with check lists of items to which people may be entitled? Will he remind Conservative Members who initiated that process? Is he not aware that earlier in this Parliament, with the cut in staff, the Government themselves started sending leaflets to old people, asking them to tick off items to which they may be entitled? Surely one is just learning from what the Government themselves have done.

Mr. Meacher

My hon. Friend makes an effective point. That is true. One section of the population that is in need, about which the Government are concerned, is the elderly —purely because of their numbers, one suspects. They have employed those methods to ensure that some elderly people get more benefit, but as soon as it is lone parents, the unemployed, or single unemployed persons claiming benefit, the Government strongly object. But they all have rights under the legislation. It is wrong to suggest that the social security system depends on a massive failure to take up benefits. That shows what a charade it is in the minds of some Conservative Members.

I wish to refer to the reasons advanced by the Government in a statement that they made two or three days ago to justify the measure. First, the Government see an inequity between those who are on supplementary benefit and those who are not. That is an odd argument because it was the Conservative Government in 1980, when the social security rules were changed, who removed entitlement to lump sum grants from those not on supplementary benefit and not in full-time work. They are now using that removal to withdraw the right to such grants from others. In other words, one chips away part of the edifice and, when one sees an inequity, one chips away at another part. If there is an inequity between the low paid and supplementary benefit claimants, surely the answer lies in improving the position of the low paid rather than further worsening that of supplementary benefit claimants.

The second argument used by the Government was the increased value of the scale rates since 1979, which they say reduce the need for single payments. However, the scale rate takes no account of the differential impact of price increases on the poor. I do not know whether the Government accept the low-paid price index, which was developed by the Low Pay Unit and the Civil and Public Services Association. Perhaps they do not. But it is a significant and carefully controlled independent effort to arrive at a fairer retail prices index for the low paid. On that basis, there has been not an increase in the rates, but a 1 per cent. cut in the value of the rates. However, another point is relevant. The Supplementary Benefit (Requirements) Regulations set out a claimant's weekly requirements to be covered in the scale rates. They do not include an amount towards major items of household equipment and furniture. That is what we are talking about.

The third argument concerns the increased number of single payments that have been made since 1981. I was surprised by the figures quoted by the Government until I looked into the matter more carefully. The fact is that 1981 is a deceptive base line for comparison because it was the first year of the new social security scheme in which single payments were set out in regulations. Neither the public nor many DHSS staff knew the rules. In that year, single payments as a proportion of the number of claimants were at their lowest level since 1971. For that reason, it is scarcely surprising that we saw the results that we did.

Two other arguments to which the Government and Conservative Members have referred tonight relate to the welfare rights take-up campaigns. It is extraordinary that Conservative Members should make so much of that. In effect, the Government have said that they introduced rights to single payments in 1980, but, now that people are exercising those rights, thanks to the efforts of local councils to improve take-up, those rights will be curtailed. A right is acceptable to Conservative Members as long as it is not taken up by too many people. The omens are ominous for future attempts to improve take-up of benefits. That raises serious questions about the Government's commitment to decent levels of benefit. It suggests that the Government support the means test because they know that there will be substantial underclaiming.

The implication is that people do not really need the single payments that they are claiming. A recent academic study into the matter was carried out by Berthoud and that study was much quoted in Committee. Berthoud states: There has been a massive and continuing increase in the number of payments made especially for bedclothes, furniture and a range of household goods. This is not an artificial demand by claimants who have learned how to obtain extra money. The need for household items was there all the time and is only now beginning to be met. I am sure that Berthoud is absolutely correct. All that local take-up campaigns have done is to attempt to make a reality of the right that claimants were promised in 1980. That is a job that the Government should undertake.

The examples that the Government have given of abuse involve ways in which claimants get round the regulations regarding entitlement to clothing grants. I would be the first to admit that there is some abuse in this system, as in any system involving money, whether it be tax, bus fares or whatever. The so-called abuse of clothing grant regulations is a reflection of the absurdly restrictive regulations. The Government have always refused to admit that the 1980 reforms involved a severe cut in clothing grants. The Minister looks doubtful, but I can tell him that between 1978 and 1981 the number of grants dropped from 137 per 1,000 claimants to 15 per 1,000 claimants. Such extraordinary attempts are made to get round the regulations because there is a great need for clothing and almost no help is now given.

Berthoud also states: The evidence suggests strongly that claimants are not in a position to exploit the rules by making unmerited claims and it is clear that the needs being met by single payments are genuine. None of the Government's arguments holds water. We are back to the simple, stark, crude but real aim behind the proposals, and that is to save another £150 million to £200 million at the expense of poor people, in addition to the £300 million which has already been lopped off by the vote taken a few hours ago.

The supplementary benefit scale rates have always been fixed at a level so low that they were never intended to pay for major household items such as furniture, bedding, cookers and clothes. Yet that is what will now happen. The effect of the measure must be to force many poor families to go without these essential household items or to drive them deeper into poverty and debt. Either way, to do that, on this day of all days is especially offensive and we totally reject the regulations.

9.44 pm
The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)

I begin by reminding the House of the basic facts that I put to the House on Monday, without going back as far as the last Labour Government, who were also concerned about the growth in this area.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) clearly misunderstood. There was no reference whatever to 1981, so all his remarks about using a false base were entirely irrelevant. I said in my statement that, comparing 1979 with 1983, the number of payments virtually doubled to almost 2 million and that expenditure almost quadrupled to more than £140 million. By 1985, both figures had more than doubled again, to more than 4 million payments at a cost of more than £300 million, and the growth shows no sign of diminishing. Whatever else may be said about those figures, I did not use what I acknowledge would have been the low base year of 1981. Indeed, my previous sentence covered the 1981 position by saying that the measures that we took in 1980 appeared to have had some success.

I shall not repeat all that I said on Monday, but the points that I made then are in no way shaken by what the hon. Member for Oldham, West has said today. The trend cannot be explained merely by the increase in the number of claimants, because the rate of payment per claimant has itself doubled since 1979. I made it clear that, apart from the real increase in weekly benefit levels, there have been specific improvements — for example, in some of the scale rates for children, in the rate of additional heating payments, especially for pensioners, and in the rules governing the payment of benefit, especially at the long-term rate, for lone parents and for the sick and the disabled. That has also brought about a substantial improvement in the amount that people receive, especially at certain periods. We estimate very roughly that the total effect of the changes in benefit rates that we have made over the period is probably about £250 million in real terms for many of the people who the hon. Gentleman argues are affected by the proposals.

I note the hon. Gentleman's comments about entitlement and take-up. I made the point on Monday, and on several occasions since then, that I very much doubt whether any Government could live with a system of this kind growing at the rate of 1 million payments and £100 million per year. If, by some mischance, the hon. Member for Oldham, West had been the Minister responsible I am sure that he would have done something about it by now.

Mr. Meacher

Yes, we would have cut unemployment.

Mr. Newton

What has been revealed by what has happened? The serious point to which the House must direct its attention is whether the system is workable in the long run. As I have said twice this week, that is why we have brought forward proposals for a different system through the social fund in the Social Security Bill, but we have nearly two years to go before those proposals can be implemented and we face a dramatic problem affecting local officers now.

I was amazed when the hon. Member for Oldham, West implied that there would be much grumbling by staff at being asked to digest complex regulations at short notice. I have had quite a lot of contact with DHSS staff recently, and not just with people at headquarters who sometimes seem remote. If there is one thing that DHSS staff throughout the country want it is relief from the burden of single payments work which is making it almost impossible for them to do the rest of their work properly.

Mr. Bob Clay (Sunderland, North)


Mr. Newton

I have a letter from the hon. Gentleman complaining about the delays at his local DHSS office.

Mr. Clay

I have indeed written to the Minister and I spoke to staff at both my local DHSS offices last Friday. They want to get rid not of single payments but of the average eight-week backlog. People are waiting eight weeks for cookers and babywear. The DHSS offices want more staff and sufficient pay, even if it means working overtime to clear the backlog. They say that, if Ministers would pull their fingers out and do something, the backlog could be cleared in two weekends.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman knows that we are in the process of substantially increasing the number of staff in DHSS local offices because of a variety of problems. I suspect that almost anybody with a serious knowledge of the social security system accepts that nobody is likely to devise a means of coping sensibly, without some priority needs suffering, with the type of influx of claims that some local offices have experienced.

I mentioned on Monday a Sheffield office which received 4,000 claims for bedding over a relatively short period of time and 2,500 claims for furniture in four days. No serious administrative system can cope with that problem. I have here a schedule which I asked my officials to prepare. It lists the hon. Members who have asked about delay problems in their local offices during the past few weeks. I guess that at least half of them are sitting opposite me now.

Mr. Frank Field

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because I have most certainly asked about delays. I have also asked how many of the extra 5,000 staff will come to Birkenhead, and the reply has been nil. Is the Minister aware that, in view of the way in which he is developing his argument, we must ask him a fundamental question—for whom is the welfare state being run? The Minister's answer is, the officers in local offices. That is one consideration, but we are also anxious about claimants. Is he aware that many of them have needs which must be met through the system? How will he guarantee that that happens?

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman knows that I have a lot of respect for him. I am sure that he will want to listen to me when I say that the people who are most at risk of suffering as a result of what has happened in regard to some of the single payments campaigns and claims are claimants with genuine needs. Their cases should be considered as a matter of priority, but they all too easily get buried at the bottom of some unmanageable heap. Other sufferers are people who want a speedy and proper resolution of their normal weekly claim to benefit.

Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)

Is the Minister aware — I am sure that he is—that DHSS staff said before there was any welfare rights campaign such as the Minister has referred to that they have for some considerable time been labouring under an increasingly intolerable work load, involving even routine business? It is disgraceful for the Minister to blame welfare rights campaigns for the problems in his Department. The staff have been telling him about them for years.

Mr. Newton

I am not trying to do what the hon. Lady suggests. Acting faithfully within the current and agreed complementing system, which is being reviewed, and the results of which review we shall consider when we have them, Ministers have been trying to ensure that DHSS offices are properly staffed to do their work. I do not believe that it is possible in any reasonable administrative system to cope with sudden torrents of work such as this, which are being experienced by some DHSS offices. The sufferers are not our staff, difficult though they may find it, but the claimants for whom we are unable to do the job that we would like to do and whose proper claims we cannot process as we would like.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I think that I am right in saying that about 800 of the 5,000 new jobs will come to Scotland. What is the likelihood of a similar number being created in the following year to deal with the delays?

Mr. Newton

I gather that the exact figure that the hon. Gentleman seeks is 869. Regarding any further developments, I have said that we are awaiting the results of the complementing review, and obviously, we will want to look carefully and faithfully at those results when we have them.

Rather to my sadness, the hon. Gentleman was not present in the House on Monday when I had hoped to use one of my most interesting examples of what has been going on, in view of his well-known dedication to Strathclyde social work department. If he has read my statement or talked to some of his hon. Friends, he will know that I am concerned about the tick list which was filled in by a claimant who had been visited by a Strathclyde social worker — [Interruption.] I can understand that Labour Members do not wish to listen. They do not like this, do they? This list—[Interruption.] I am grateful to the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow, because I know he takes a serious interest in the work of the Strathclyde social work department.

The social worker visited the claimant and filled in the tick list form, asking for four single beds and mattresses, bedding for the whole family, two wardrobes, a three-piece suite, a cooker and cooker guard, three fires and fire guards, four hot water bottles, curtains, rods and something I cannot read, floor covering, repair of the washing machine and vacuum cleaner, cleaning equipment, kitchen utensils, crockery and cutlery. a carpet sweeper—

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Newton

I am not going to stop. The list, continues with bath, hand, and tea towels, light fittings, draught-proofing material, a hot water tank jacket, a pushchair, a high chair, a safety gate, clothes and shoes for the whole family, fuel costs and rent arrears.

Dr. Godman


Mr. Speaker

Order. Only one hon. Member may be on his feet at a time, and at present it is the Minister.

Dr. Godman


Mr. Newton

I shall not give way until I come to the end of my little story. Having ticked all those items, the social worker got the claimant to sign the form and then sent it to the local—

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I have already heard this three times.

Mr. Newton

The hon. Gentleman may have heard it three times, but it is well worth hearing a fourth time.

Having sent the form to the local DHSS office, the social worker provided the claimant with a copy of it, at which point the claimant decided to write to the local DHSS office in these terms: I am Writing this letter As my social worker came to visit me and told me I could claim for different Items he said he would send it to yous. I signed it and he posted it I dident pay much attention at first the next day he Gave me a copy I realised Most of the things I dont need so I am writing to let yous know the Items I do need. and could yous Ignore the letters he has sent I want to apply for these items I have listed below. If that is what social workers and other welfare rights workers are doing in Strathclyde, it is deplorable.

Dr. Godman

The Minister mentioned me by name. May I first point out that the campaign was undertaken with the full support of the 19 district councils in the region, including — that rare animal — the few Conservative councils? The Minister quoted extensively from a letter, but in fairness he should also have quoted from the letter that was circulated with the check list. The letter states: Dear Sir/Madam We are writing to you to draw your attention to certain proposed changes in Social Security legislation which will affect the rules for receiving grants for essential needs for those in receipt of or entitled to Supplementary Benefit or Housing Benefit Supplement. These changes are being introduced prior to the major changes proposed in the Social Security Bill. If I catch Mr. Speaker's eye, I shall be able to enlarge on the campaign. I remind the Minister that the Strathclyde council, with other Scottish regional and islands councils, carried out joint campaigns with the DHSS to help my constituents, and other Scots who are severely handicapped, to acquire what is theirs by right.

Mr. Newton

As a number of hon. Members wish to speak, perhaps my best observation is that my confidence in what has happened in Strathclyde is not enhanced by the knowledge that all 19 district councils have joined in.

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