HC Deb 05 May 1987 vol 115 cc577-81 3.30 pm
Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

(by private notice) asked the Minister for Social Security what arrangements he is making for the provision of assistance to families with urgent financial needs, who were denied the payment of benefit during the civil servants' dispute; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister for Social Security and the Disabled (Mr. John Major)

This is a pay dispute which extends across the Civil Service, although the two unions taking action have chosen to target local offices of my Department and of the Department of Employment. We are now in the fifth week of a rolling programme of strikes, which this week will affect the public in London and the south-east.

The situation for those who will not receive on time giro-cheques due this week will be broadly the same as for Scotland over the Easter period. If claimants cannot manage to tide themselves over the few days until their girocheque arrives, they may be able to obtain help from their local authority.

This falls far short of the standard of service that we wish claimants to receive and I greatly regret the fact that the two unions have chosen to further their pay campaign in a fashion which is bound to hurt the most vulnerable members of society.

I must make it clear that the Government believe that the Civil Service pay offer is a fair one. For the second year running, it is above the rate of inflation and will give many civil servants increases of between 5 and 6 per cent. Three Civil Service unions have accepted the Government's offer. The Society of Civil and Public Servants and the Civil and Public Services Association should do the same.

Mr. Taylor

Is my hon. Friend aware of the acute hardship that will be suffered by many low-income families and benefit recipients if this regrettable dispute continues and escalates? Will he take some emergency measures in co-operation with local authority social service departments to ensure that deprivation is avoided wherever possible? As the employing Minister, will he convey to the Treasury the special problems of recruitment in areas such as the south-east, where costs are high and competitive wages and fringe benefits in the private sector are much higher? Does he agree that our civil servants, whose general standards of service are higher than those in other competitive nations, merit at least a proper review of salaries comparable to that recently given to teachers and nurses?

Mr. Major

As I stated in my answer, approaches have already been made to local office managers and to local authorities to provide, in cases of hardship, emergency help under the standing contingency arrangements that apply in all our local offices. Experience in other parts of the country has been that services are quickly restored to normal after the strike, with urgent cases being given the highest priority.

On my hon. Friend's second point, we have made it clear to all the unions, including the CPSA and the Society of Civil and Public Servants, that the Treasury is entirely ready to talk to them about a flexible pay system similar to that recently concluded with the Institution of Professional Civil Servants. As my hon. Friend may know, that agreement includes a framework for settling pay, based firmly on the recommendations of the independent Megaw report of 1982.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

Is the Minister aware that to avoid industrial disputes in social security offices, which all of us wish to avoid, it is incumbent on the Government to provide decent working conditions and fair pay? Is he aware that the working conditions are Dickensian and the pay is at poverty level? Is he aware that the workload per person has increased by 30 per cent. while at the same time pay has decreased by 30 per cent. relative to comparable workers, such as bank clerks? Is he aware that one third of social security staff earn less than the Council of Europe's decency threshold and that 40,000 staff have pay so low that they are entitled to means-tested benefits? Is he aware that conditions are so bad that staff turnover nationally is 70 per cent. and that in London it is over 100 per cent. per year?

Is the Minister aware that against that background the Government's offer of 4.5 per cent. is no answer for staff who are grossly overworked, undertrained, undervalued and underpaid and whose morale has hit an all-time low? Until a proper pay offer is made which is not 50 per cent. below the current going rate, what emergency payments will the Government make under section 1 to protect claimants, especially families, who are the innocent victims of this dispute, who in many areas support it, and who are currently penalised by the Government's meanness?

Mr. Major

I shall tell the hon. Gentleman precisely of what I am aware. I am aware that this is a fair pay offer which will provide a minimum increase of £5.75 a week for everybody over the age of 17; that many civil servants will receive between 5 and 6 per cent.; that they will also get improved leave arrangements; and that this is the second successive year in which the pay award is well in excess of inflation. I am aware and surprised that the hon. Gentleman and many of the unions concerned seem to oppose many of the computerisation improvements which will lead to better working conditions and a better service to the public. I am also aware— I hope that the hon. Gentleman is, too, because he did not mention this—that it is unreasonable for those with secure jobs to threaten the interests of those with no jobs.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

Is my hon. Friend aware that most people will see it as the height of cynicism for any trade union leader to pretend that we can get a better Civil Service by holding the most needy to ransom?

Mr. Major

I entirely accept my hon. Friend's point. The majority of civil servants have high standards and offer a good service. We wish to reward them for that with a fair pay offer, and that is what we are doing.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

Will the Minister, as a useful backdrop to this sad dispute, provide figures showing the increase in the number of social security claimants since 1979 compared with the increase in staff to administer that system? Will he concede that a comparison of those proportions shows that the terrible scenes, particularly those which we witnessed in Glasgow over Easter, and the dispute could have been avoided if the Government had been more sympathetic to the position of social security staff? Does the Minister agree that the voluntary sector is having to make a major contribution because, clearly, local authority input, which the Government expect, is curtailed because of the constraints imposed by central Government on its budget?

Mr. Major

It is precisely because we are concerned about the interests of both claimants and staff that we have sought to introduce a far simpler social security system in the Social Security Act 1986, much of which the hon. Gentleman's party objected to and voted against during its passage through the House. The hon. Gentleman may well be aware that we have substantially increased the staffing level in the past 12 months and that we are seeking to introduce a computerisation system which will make life much more efficient for both claimants and the staff working the system.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Is it the Government's view that the present pay offer is sufficient to recruit, retain and motivate the civil servants to whom the pay offer has been made?

Mr. Major

For the second successive year the pay offer exceeds inflation and on that basis it is fair and will achieve the objectives that my hon. Friend sets out.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Is the Minister aware that many of my constituents work at the Livingston centre in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and naturally come to my hon. Friend and me? Will the hon. Gentleman answer a factual question? How many employees at the Livingston centre claim benefit? The Minister has been pressed for figures on that. Some of us suspect that it is one-fifth or one-sixth of the workforce. Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House how many staff are claiming benefit?

Mr. Major

I have no reason whatsoever to suppose that the figures quoted by the hon. Gentleman are accurate, but I will investigate them and let him know.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is not this latest example of the abuse of trade union power—which is used to harm some of the weakest people in our society and which has the support of the Opposition Members—a cogent reminder of the importance of returning a Conservative Government?

Mr. Major

On the latter point, the electorate will make their own decision at some future stage. On the substantive point, I must repeat that this is a fair offer, it is one that the trade unions should accept, and it is unreasonable of them to target their action on a section of the community that cannot otherwise be defended.

Dr. Oonagh McDonald (Thurrock)

Will the Minister acknowledge the Government's responsibility in bringing about this dispute? Is it not the result of eight years of attacks on the value of the services that are performed by the Civil Service, particularly in the DHSS offices? Is it not the case that under-staffing has been allowed to continue and that working conditions have deteriorated? Is it not the Government's responsibility, because they dismantled the pay research unit in 1980, thus leaving civil servants with no proper means of arbitration and is it not that which is now required to bring this dispute to an end?

Mr. Major

I think that the hon. Member is wrong on many of the points that she has made. Over the past 12 months staff levels have been increased substantially and, for the second year, the pay offer is above inflation and the system has been simplified.

Mr. Meacher

So the Minister keeps saying.

Mr. Major

I will continue to say it because the country needs to know it.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Leicester DHSS offices are in the hands of militants? The leader of the CPSA in Leicester, Mr. Tony Church, took great delight in announcing on the radio that my constituents would suffer and that it did not matter that new claimants would not receive their money for a while. Is he aware that no ballot has been taken, yet the CPSA is taking action starting on Monday 11 May? Does the Minister agree that that is callous and greedy and that it shows no care, love or understanding for those who are desperately in need and that the union is merely a servant of the Labour party?

Mr. Major

I had no knowledge of the circumstances in Leicester. My hon. Friend speaks most forcefully for his constituents. In my judgment, the vast majority of civil servants, even though they may be caught up in this dispute, carry out their jobs in a wholly non-partisan and effective way. I want them to accept this fair offer and return to providing the service that the Government, and the majority of them want them to provide.

Mr. Hugh Brown (Glasgow, Provan)

Does the Minister accept the figures quoted by the two unions involved that some 40,000 members are in receipt of social security benefits? Is that not why in some local offices—and they are not all Militant-controlled — the vote, taken on a democratic basis, was, perhaps sad to say, overwhelmingly in support of industrial action?

Mr. Major

I am not sure whether the figures quoted will include the universal child benefit payment. I have not seen the breakdown of the figures quoted by the union leaders. If the circumstances are as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, surely it would be sensible to accept the offer, which is substantially above the rate of inflation?

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Is the Minister aware that his crocodile tears for the claimants will not fool anyone outside the House and very few people in it? The cause of the dispute is the disgraceful pay of many civil servants, who do a good job trying to deal with the most appalling social problems that have been created by the Government. The culprits in this dispute is the Minister and the Government who have paid insufficiently high benefits and have maintained very low wages and provided disgraceful working conditions for hard-working civil servants.

Mr. Major

In no sense was I seeking to cry crocodile tears, but in no way does the hon. Gentleman condemn the action that hurts many people who have no jobs and who will lose their social security benefits this week. Why does not the hon. Gentleman condemn that?

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Is it not a fact that the Government are once again blackmailing an orderly and well-behaved section of the community, as they did with the nurses and the teachers? Have not the Government driven these people to desperation because they knew that they would not take action as they wanted to look after those whom their jobs entailed them looking after? Are not these people turning because they are desperate? Does the Minister lake pride in doing this to these well-behaved people? Is it not obscene that a wealthy lawyer, the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), who is mostly out of the Chamber and in court making money hand over fist, should attack these poor people? Tory Members, especially the hon. and learned Member, should be ashamed of themselves.

Mr. Major

The answer to most of the questions asked by the hon. Gentleman is no. I reiterate that the Government are seeking, have been seeking, and will continue to seek a fair settlement, and we believe that one is on offer.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must have regard for the rest of the business on the Order Paper. This is an extension of Question Time.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

No. I will take points of order at the end.