HC Deb 19 December 1988 vol 144 cc4-7
3. Mr. Boyes

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the latest estimate of the take-up of family credit.

7. Mr. Eastham

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the latest estimate of the take-up of family credit.

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. John Moore)

Since the start of the new scheme over 450,000 claims have been received. At the end of November, over 260,000 families were receiving family credit. In addition, about 47,000 claims were on hand, 32,000 of which were awaiting replies from inquiries to employers or claimants. Overall, the underlying caseload is now approaching 300,000.

Mr. Boyes

Are not the figures still well below the 60 per cent. objective or target that was set? Are they not well below the 40 per cent. to which the Secretary of State is said to have referred to because he takes into consideration the fact that not everyone who submits a claim will be successful? Is form FC1 not one of the problems? I do not know how many hon. Members have seen that form which people must fill in. It consists of 16 pages, 13 sections and almost 100 questions in small type. I went through the form this morning trying to fill it in and I had a hell of a problem. Does the Secretary of State agree that making that form simpler would help matters? Will the Secretary of State press his colleague, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to provide £500,000 for an advertising campaign to help people take up family credit? If one Department can get such sums, I hope that the Secretary of State will fight for it as well.

Mr. Moore

I shall correct some of the hon. Gentleman's extraordinary inaccuracies. First, there has been, and continues to be, a sizeable advertising campaign. As compared with the figure mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, more than £3 million has already been spent and more is currently being spent on a targeted campaign. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that still more is needed.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, about form FC1, although he personally may have difficulty with it, by comparison with the old family income supplement system, the success rate using the form about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned, and with which he has such difficulty, is more than 70 per cent. Having said that, if there is any way in which we can improve form FC1 and the method of application, we shall certainly consider it. If one makes the form too short and too simple, one has the problem that the process may have to be gone through twice.

As to the hon. Gentleman's first point—he made many—I stress that, on the figures that I gave him, we are running at a caseload of nearly 40 per cent. That takes into account the expectation that some applications will not be successful.

Mrs. Roe

How much is being spent on providing family credit as compared with family income support?

Mr. Moore

My hon. Friend raises a point that I would have covered had I not been too extensive with my previous reply. We are spending at more than double the rate that the expenditure pattern was under FIS. That very successful expenditure pattern is illustrative of the degree to which family credit is helping those families in greatest need.

Mr. Eastham

Earlier, the Minister made reference to there being 260,000 recipients of family credit by the end of November. Does the Minister agree with estimates that 750,000 people are probably entitled to benefit? Is there not a possibility that those who qualify feel that there is a stigma attached to making an application, because of means testing, which creates indignity and acts as a deterrent to taking up benefit? In Manchester, 4,000 families have taken up family credit, from which one can calculate that more than 12,000 families are actually entitled to it. When will the Government do something to make the public understand that there should be no stigma; understandably people are appalled at the very idea of a means-test system.

Mr. Moore

I accept entirely the aims behind the hon. Gentleman's question. We should make clear that no stigma is attached to the current benefit, which I recollect was welcomed by both sides of the House on its introduction. The problem is not of stigma, but of trying to attract attention to and publicising family credit—of trying to get it across to people and to communicate. The take-up is reasonable, but it is not yet at the levels that I and right hon. and hon. Members would wish. Anything that I and the Government can do by way of targeting of the kind that we are now undertaking—at post offices, which people visit to collect child benefit—will be welcomed and encouraged by us and, I know, by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Madel

As this is an important benefit for those having modest incomes but who still have to pay mortgages or rents, and rates, will my right hon. Friend ask local authorities and building societies to see what they can do to publicise it?

Mr. Moore

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point—[Interruption.] It is extraordinary that Opposition Members, who are supposed to be concerned about people who are on low incomes and about low employment figures, do not seem to be interested in helping to publicise a benefit such as family credit. Those right hon. and hon. Members who are genuinely concerned, as opposed to those who are concerned with the politics of care rather than with real care, will continue making sensible suggestions, as does my hon. Friend. I shall certainly consider them.

Mr. Frank Field

When will the Government meet their modest objective of achieving a 50 per cent. take-up rate? May the House be given a Christmas bonus today and be told the actual date?

Mr. Moore

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the House will not have its Christmas bonus withdrawn as a consequence of Labour's economic failure. The hon. Gentleman knows full well that I am as disappointed as he is about the take-up so far. However, I am not over-disappointed at the level of expenditure, which is now running in excess of that planned. The hon. Gentleman also knows—and I shall return to this point in a later question—that there is an enormous distinction to be made between the expenditure pattern and actual caseload take-up. Expenditure is already running at a level greater than that which we anticipated.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Does my right hon. Friend accept that one of the most effective means of working towards a higher take-up is the campaign in the post offices, through which mothers with child benefit books can receive leaflets giving full details of family credit? Is my right hon. Friend certain that the post offices are making the leaflets readily available to their targets?

Mr. Moore

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is the second stage of the campaign: there has already been advertising in the national media, including television. Along with the current radio campaign, a targeted leaflet campaign is taking place in the post offices, and so far take-up has been excellent. I want to study the results carefully to see whether any similar campaigns will be necessary before the next major television advertising campaign.

Mr. Kirkwood

I recognise the need for increased information and publicity. Does the Secretary of State recognise, however, that all that will be to no avail if there are not enough properly trained staff to deal with and process the claims? Will he comment on last month's Public Accounts Committee report, which had some disturbing things to say about the resources devoted to staff in local offices?

Mr. Moore

As the hon. Gentleman follows these issues with care, he should distinguish between matters concerning local offices and the way in which the benefit is being handled at north Fylde. There have been no problems with the new system apart from initial difficulties. The only additional complication at north Fylde was caused by the postal strike earlier in the year. In all other respects, arrangements there are working excellently. The only other difficulty that sometimes delays receipt of family credit is the need to refer to the employer for additional information, and we are not far from our target of 18 days' turnround from the time of application.