§ Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston)
I beg to move,That this House recalls that in April Her Majesty's Government imposed savage cuts in Housing Benefit which continue to cause serious hardship to millions of claimants; notes that the vast majority of losers are not eligible for help from the emergency scheme of transitional protection which Her Majesty's Government was forced to set up; is concerned that three months after this scheme was announced to the House only a handful of applications have been processed and that at the present rate it will be at least February 1989 before Her Majesty's Government achieves its inadequate target of 350,000 successful applications; records its alarm at recent Ministerial statements that even many of those who are successful will lose their transitional protection next March; takes the view that the scheme has failed to relieve the pressing hardship caused by the cuts in Housing Benefit; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to reverse those cuts forthwith.
§ Mr. Speaker
I must announce to the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
§ Mr. Cook
Last April, the Government, as an act of deliberate policy, cut housing benefit. That removed housing benefit from 1 million claimants and reduced housing benefit for 4.5 million other claimants. How popular that step turned out to be can be gauged from the front pages of today's newspapers in which the Secretary of State, who had to defend those cuts in the House, is variously described as "shunted sideways", "chopped in half" or "sidelined".
Over the past 12 months, I have developed a degree of affection for my sparring partner. I was not always sure whether that affection was reciprocated, but, nevertheless, I have a healthy respect for my opposite number. I regret the fact that he is unable to be with us on this occasion, owing to another engagement, but I am sure that he will read the report of our proceedings. As his skills of presentation have been somewhat criticised over the past 24 hours, I take this opportunity of putting it on the record that I, for one, am quite sure that, if it were possible to make popular the idea that taking £10 off the weekly benefit of a pensioner was a step toward ending the dependency culture, the right hon. Gentleman could have achieved it.
The Government are in trouble over health and social security not because the man at the top is not a good enough saleman, but because nobody wants to buy the Governments policies on welfare. I note that one of today's papers says that the Secretary of State is now left withthe dull routine of benefit payments.Let me offer encouragement to the Secretary of State, because he may need cheering up in his current position. Those constituents whom we meet who live on benefits do not regard the question of their payments as a dull routine. On the contrary, they are matters of vital necessity and importance to them. To nobody is that more important than those constituents whom my hon. Friends have met 262 over the past three months, who have seen their housing benefit cut by £40, £80, £100 a month—by definition, people on low incomes.
There is a droll debate going on among the new Right on how one can define poverty. Let me offer an invitation to any hon. Members who may find it difficult to work out what poverty is. They need not worry themselves any more about such a difficult question. All they have to do is to come with me and my hon. Friends and meet the people we know who know the meaning of poverty because they live with it every day of their lives and have seen it worsen over the past three months. The most telling testimony to their poverty is the evidence that they simply cannot afford to pay the new levels of rents that are being demanded of them.
Rent arrears across Britain have bounded ahead since April. In Wales, a survey by the Association of District Councils has found that rent arrears have increased by 50 per cent. Lancaster informs me that its rent arrears have increased by one third since April, and it understands that that is one of the lowest increases in Lancashire. Edinburgh projects that the increase in rent arrears will double over the course of this year.
That evidence was not available to the House when we last debated the matter on 27 April. On that occasion, the then Secretary of State for Social Services wisely gave up the attempt to defend the scheme that he had just imposed. Instead, he pulled out of the hat an emergency package to mitigate the worst consequences of his own scheme. We were invited then, and we are invited again in the Government's amendment, to applaud the Government for their generosity in protecting some people from the worst consequences of the Government's cuts.
It is now three months almost to the day of that debate and I—and I suspect that I speak for many of my hon. Friends—have yet to meet anyone who has received a payment for transitional protection. I know that I meet different people from Ministers. I know that with some confidence because two weeks ago, opening a debate in the Scottish Grand Committee, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), expressed surprise when he heard of complaints that people had not been receiving transitional protection and proceeded to assure the Committee that if any hon. Members had evidence that somebody was not receiving the transitional protection he would investigate it on their behalf. He was obviously blissfully unaware that, on the day that he spoke, nobody in Britain had received a single payment for transitional protection. He is, I concede, not a Minister in the Department of Health and Social Security, only a Scottish Office Minister with responsibility for housing and, as such, cannot be expected to know about such things.
Since then, a handful of claimants have managed to get under the wire. Last week, in answer to a parliamentary question from me, the DHSS stated that 18 people had received payment for transitional protection. I checked again this morning and was informed that yesterday that figure of 18 leaped ahead to a total of 68 claimants who have been paid transitional protection. Some of my hon. Friends have met more losers of housing benefit in a single weekend in their constituencies than that figure.
I note that in today's amendment Ministers again preen themselves on the fact that it is remarkable that anyone 263 has been paid in such a short time. The last time that the Minister of Social Security and the Disabled took part in Question Time, he said:It is a remarkable achievement that we have been able to set up the new office, employ and train the staff, establish the procedures and advertise".—[Official Report, 12 July 1988; Vol. 137, c. 172.]What busy people those Ministers are. No wonder they need another Secretary of State to help them shift the furniture around the new office. The truth is that it is not the Ministers who did all this, but the much-abused civil servants who have gamely set out to make sense of Minister's decisions.
I give credit to the civil servants who have been working these past three months to fit into that tight timetable, but I give none to the Ministers because for three years they knew that the cuts were coming. For three years they were warned what those cuts would mean by the citizens advice bureaux, Help the Aged, the Child Poverty Action Group, and the National Consumer Council, and for three years they did nothing to soften the blow.
One of the last things that the current crop of Ministers did before the blow fell was to abolish housing benefit supplement in the last week of March, rather than in the first week of April, in a deliberate attempt to stop those claimants qualifying for the transitional protection that they would otherwise have received. It is perfectly clear not only that Ministers did nothing for three years before the cuts were made, but that they would have done nothing in the three weeks that followed had they not faced the possibility of defeat on our motion of 27 April. As it was, the Secretary of State then produced the minimum necessary to buy off rebellion among his own Back Benchers.
I must utter a word of warning to Conservative Back Benchers, because I fear they are about to discover from their outraged constituents that they were bought off too cheaply. There has been another fresh development in the past couple of weeks. Not only have the first payments been made by the transitional protection unit, but the first rejection slips have been issued by that unit. Last week, 190 claims were processed by the transitional protection unit and, of that number, 96 did not qualify for a penny in transitional protection. Half of those who applied have been refused all benefit. They are the claimants who do not meet the scheme's small print.
I note from the circular to local authorities explaining the inquiry form that is completed in response to every application for transitional protection that where they fill in the boxes marked "No", they should then go straight to what are described as the "escape points". There are plenty of escape points in that form, each of them devised to evade liability to that particular claimant.
First, young tenants with no children are excluded from transitional protection. That is rather odd, because they are the very people who are hit hardest by the invention of a new junior rate of benefit. Any young adult under 26 years of age loses housing benefit at the ferocious marginal rate of 85p in every £1 on any income above £26 per week. I know of one case in Nuneaton of an unemployed man who has been in work, has paid his contributions, and who therefore qualifies for unemployment benefit of £32.75 per week. Out of that meagre income he must pay, as a result 264 of the cuts in housing benefit, £5.70 rent per week, although his sole income is unemployment benefit. He is not entitled to a penny in transitional protection.
In my own constituency, I know of one person who is working on an MSC scheme, as are many of his generation, and whose net pay is £56 per week. He is now paying a full rent of £24 a week. He would be better off out of work than in work. He also does not qualify for a penny of transitional protection.
Nor is the existence of children itself sufficient to unlock the key to transitional protection. On the contrary, I predict that relatively few families with children will qualify. I can predict that with confidence because the Government's scheme offsets what they lose in housing benefit by any gain that they make in family credit.
I refer to a case that has been passed to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham) concerning a Mrs. White, who is a single parent holding down a low-paid job. She gained £12.60 in family credit, but she also lost £13.60 in rent and rate benefits. On top of that, she lost £3.50 per week in free school meals and milk for her children. Therefore, she is £4.50 per week worse off. My hon. Friend took up Mrs. White's case with Ministers. I have before me the reply from the former Under-Secretary of State. I shall preserve it all the more carefully, because this morning I heard John Cole announce that he is a man who should be watched as a future Prime Minister. I shall treasure his letter with due care and as a memento that I knew him when he was a young man.
Replying to the case of Mrs. White, who the House will recall lost £4.50 per week in benefits because of the changes, the former Under-Secretary wrote that her casedemonstrates the success of this scheme.Mrs. White is deemed to be a success. If the scheme's successes loses £4.50 per week, how much do its failures lose? Still, the Under-Secretary was promoted. In his letter, he helpfully went on to explain the scheme's details, although it must already have been clear to him, as it is clear to me, that Mrs. White has no hope of qualifying for transitional protection because her net loss of £4.50 is not large enough to make her eligible for it.
I turn to the largest number of people not qualifying for help because they are not hit hard enough by the cuts. The Government claim that anyone who has lost more than £2.50 housing benefit will qualify for transitional protection. That comes with a number of footnotes. First, that commitment to £2.50 maximum loss does not include the new 20 per cent. rates penalty that is now excluded from housing benefit. Since that is a new feature of the most startling novelty, I am perplexed as to why it is not covered by the transitional protection that was devised to help phase in the new scheme. I am particularly perplexed because, having met many tenants who have seen their benefits reduced, I can assure Ministers that not one of them has the remotest idea which part of that loss is attributable to the 20 per cent. cut and which is attributable to the general housing benefit cut.
In my own constituency—and, conveniently and coincidentally, in the constituency of the Minister of State —that 20 per cent. adds an average of another £2.60 per week to loss of benefits. Additionally, there are this year's rent and rates increases, most of which took place in April and which are good for another £2 increase in most weekly charges. That, again, is exempt from any transitional protection. That also is rather curious because the 265 increased rent and rates charge qualifies for housing benefit but apparently it does not qualify for transitional protection, to compensate for the cut in housing benefit.
There may be no logic in those exclusions, but I can understand their political attraction. They enable Ministers to keep saying that they have limited losses to a maximum of £2.60 per week, when in reality they are only helping people who have seen their weekly bills increase by a minimum of £7 per week. One of the dangers of which I am conscious—and it is a failing of which I myself am sometimes guilty—is that, because from time to time I and my hon. Friends meet people who have suffered spectacular losses in housing benefit, we end up with a dulled appreciation of their devastating impact on tight weekly budgets of lesser sums. To individuals or couples whose total weekly income is £50, £60 or £70, £7 per week is an enormous sum.
It may be difficult for certain hon. Members to appreciate the enormity of that sum to many people when, to them, £7 represents the price of a large round in the Smoking Room. However, I can tell hon. Members what £7 means in a pensioner's weekly budget. It means one dozen eggs, a daily newspaper, a couple of loaves, half a kilo of margarine, seven tins of soup, and half a stone of potatoes. That is what £7 means to pensioners, and that is what they must give up if they are to find another £7 out of their weekly budget. Those are the purchases that they must do without.
§ Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)
My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), in commenting that the Minister does not care, will have noticed that Conservative Members do not care either. Look at the empty Government Benches. They are not at all bothered about the subject that we are debating today.
Is my hon. Friend aware that there are many widows and pensioners in Nottinghamshire who are being served a dirty deal by the Government? The heating allowance that they receive from British Coal because of their service is linked to housing benefit, and part of that benefit is reduced because those widows and pensioners receive cash in lieu. That is how the Government serve the pensioners in my constituency.
§ Mr. Cook
My hon. Friend has made a brilliant cameo speech. Let me take him up on his second point first. It was precisely to allow for such local financial considerations that local authorities used to have the discretion to top up the rent rebate scheme that the Government have taken away
As for the numbers present in the Chamber, I remind the House that in a previous debate I pointed out that each Conservative Member represents an average of 7,500 losers of housing benefit. Many of them, tragically, go unrepresented in today's debate, but I suspect that many will be in touch with their Members of Parliament in the weeks ahead as the rejection slips come in from the housing benefit transitional protection unit.
Among those excluded from transitional protection are the claimants who have fallen into one of the many oubliettes with which the new regulations are studded. I remind Ministers of one of the deepest traps, which I drew to their attention when we debated the regulations last November. That is the provision that, after six weeks in hospital, a tenant effectively loses entitlement to housing benefit, because of the odd notion of Ministers that after 266 six weeks in hospital any person needs only pocket money. Now such people lose housing benefit at 85p in the pound on any income over £8.25 a week.
When I pointed that out to the House in November, the then Under-Secretary said that I had misunderstood the provisions. As he has kindly joined us for his swan song, let me tell him about an elderly constituent of mine who is currently in the local psychiatric hospital. As usual with such illnesses, she has been there for over six weeks. Now, on a single person's state pension, she is paying a weekly rent of £24 a week and is £157 in arrears. Last week she received a notice of repossession from the local authority. It would be an understatement to say that that is unlikely to aid her recovery from a psychiatric illness.
If the House wants to savour the full degree of political bias in the regulations, let me point out that my constituent would continue to qualify for maximum housing benefit if she were in a private hospital, because the regulations make explicit provision to protect the housing benefit of paying patients. However, she qualifies for no transitional protection towards the cut in her housing benefit.
As well as claimants who are not entitled to transitional protection, there are the minority who are so entitled. The real tragedy is that most of them probably will not receive it. Here it is necessary to grapple with the sheer complexity of the structure that emerged from Ministers' panic response to the consequences of their own cuts. We now have a system in which each claimant must apply to the local authority for housing benefit and then make a separate application to an entirely separate agency—the DHSS—for compensation for the cut in housing benefit that the same DHSS has imposed on the local authority.
If the claimant is lucky, he will end up with two separate payments for the same rent: payment of housing benefit from the local authority, and payment of transitional protection from the DHSS. It would be unkind at this point to remind Ministers that they promised us that the scheme would be simple to administer and less confusing for claimants. It has certainly succeeded in confusing some of their own Back Benchers. The Minister of State will recall the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) causing some hilarity at Question Time by asking if he would use his influence to get Norwich city council to hurry up payment of transitional protection, as the delay was causing hardship to his constituents. The Minister was rather more reticent than Norwich city council subsequently turned out to be in pointing out that it was nothing to do with the council.
How many claimants are as confused as Conservative Back Benchers we do not know. Nor do the Government. We know from a parliamentary question three weeks ago that the Government have made no estimate of the take-up rate of transitional protection. That is probably wise of them, as the indications are that it will be pretty miserable. In the past couple of weeks, Ministers have made much of the fact that applications are coming forward at a rate of 4,500 a day. That is a tiny fraction of housing benefit claimants. To be precise, it is 0.0006 per cent., or six per 10,000 claimants. On current form, half of them will receive nothing anyway. At the rate of 2,250 successful applications each working day, it will take until February to hit the Government's own pathetic target of one in 20 claimants—and four weeks later, in March, some of them will lose it again.
We now know from a letter from the Secretary of State that some claimants will lose their transitional protection 267 at the end of the first year and others at the end of the second. That is because the protection is apparently to be subject to what is described as an erosion factor. That erosion factor has yet to be announced. Let it be announced today. Let us find out just how long "transitional" will be, and just how long the few claimants who receive transitional protection will be entitled to it before they are exposed to the full depth of the cut in their housing benefit.
It was always clear that the emergency package of transitional protection was too late and offered too little help to too few claimants. It is now clear that the scheme is failing to achieve even the Government's meagre targets for it. It is difficult not to compare this grudging, mean little scheme with the unstinting way in which our society helps with the housing costs of more affluent people. In the past week, the press has been full of coverage of the rise in mortgage rates. That 2 per cent. rise will cost the Treasury £900 million in tax relief—nine times the cost of transitional protection. It is given automatically: there is no need to fill out form RR4 and send it to the transitional protection unit. It is not transitional at all, but permanent —or at any rate for as long as interest rates remain high, which, under the present Government, would appear to guarantee it a degree of permanence
The arrangement that automatically releases that support is not in contention between the two sides of the House. No doubt it is proper that a Government who have just forced up mortgage rates should subsidise owner-occupiers for the extra cost. I am sure that all quarters of the House were impressed a fortnight ago when the Prime Minister made the stirring declaration that she got very cross if anyone wanted to stop mortgage interest relief when they themselves had got their feet on the first rung of the ladder by making use of that relief. But what about the people who buy their houses and get their feet on the first rung with the help of mortgage tax relief, and then vote to take away the benefit that the poor need to pay their rent? Why does that not make her cross? Is it because she is among them?
I will tell the Prime Minister what makes Opposition Members angry. It is sitting in our surgeries and hearing the despair and bewilderment of those who have seen their careful weekly budgets wrecked. It is sitting in the Chamber witnessing how the Government can always find the money for tax handouts that target more help on those who need it least. Ours is not a heated, unwise anger, but a cold and resolute anger that leaves us with the determination that, although we may lose the vote tonight, we will spare no effort in gaining the support that we need to end this wicked Government and their evil priorities.
§ The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Nicholas Scott)
I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof,'applauds the Government's recent reforms of social security; notes that these will result in more taxpayers' money being spent this year than if the old system had continued, and spent in a way better targeted towards those in most need; recognises that the coverage of housing benefit had become too broad; notes that after the reforms housing benefit will still be received by more households than in 1979 and at greater real cost to the taxpayer; welcomes the Government's 268 announcement of 27th April that some transitional protection for losses in housing benefit is to be made available to people in vulnerable groups; commends the Government for the speed with which the unit to administer these payments has been set up; and congratulates it on meeting its stated target of making the first payments in July.'.I shall respond to the criticisms and comments of the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) by putting them in the context of what the Government have done about social security and housing benefit since they came to office. I remind the House of what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in his Budget statement:But while tax reform is a simple matter for the armchair critic, it is very much more difficult in practice. It is difficult technically and difficult politically—since any tax system, however it arose, creates powerful vested interests in favour of the status quo."—[Official Report, 15 March, 1988; Vol. 129, c. 999.]If that is true of the tax system, it is certainly true of the social security system.
Since we introduced our reforms in April the Opposition have been looking back all the time to a system to which, after this system has been running for a year or so, I do not believe for one moment anybody will wish to return. This system will be infinitely more desirable, flexible and able to cope with need than the previous system.
Apart from the structural reforms that we have introduced, anybody could be forgiven, after listening to Opposition Members, for forgetting that the Government are spending more, not less, overall on social security in the current year. It is worth reminding the House that, within the scope of the additional resources that we had made available, we have sought to simplify the social security system so that claimants are better aware of that to which they are entitled and staff are better able to administer the system.
We have sought to target the additional help that is available to those who need it most, to get rid of the nonsenses and idiocies of a tax and benefit withdrawal combination in excess of 100 per cent., and, above all, to deliver a better service to those who need the help of the social security system. Of course it is a huge change. It is the greatest change in the social security benefit system since the end of the second world war. No change of that kind can be introduced without problems, but at least the Government have had the courage to tackle the inadequacies, the complexities and many of the nonsenses of the old system.
§ Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)
The Minister castigates what he calls the old system. Why does he not tell the truth? The old system was introduced by the Conservatives. The brand new system that they have introduced is causing so much chaos that they are having to rectify it because it is inflicting so much unnecessary pain and damage.
§ Mr. Scott
I intend to answer it, but I should like to develop my speech. However, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. In April we changed a system whose basic structure 269 was established in 1948. As the years went by bits were bolted on to it, which added to its complexities and difficulties. We had the courage to put that right.
§ Mr. Scott
No, I shall not give way again. This is a short debate. The hon. Member for Livingston was not interrupted, and I should like to get on with my speech. The subject can then be debated for the rest of the afternoon.
It is worth reminding the House and those who read the accounts of its proceedings of the Government's record on social security. The taxpayer is now spending £1 billion a week on social security. That is one third higher in real terms than we were spending in 1979. We have spent that amount at a time when unemployment has come down in each of the last 21 months. It is also worth reminding the House that it is possible to pay the extra benefits only because of the success of the Government's economic policies.
Since 1979 we have steadily been spending more each year on housing benefit than was spent in previous years. Expenditure this year is running at over £5 billion. In real terms that is an increase of about 50 per cent. since we came to office in 1979, even after allowing for rises in rents and rates during that period. During the last Labour Administration, using the same measure, expenditure increased by only 3 per cent. in real terms.
§ Mr. Scott
The hon. Gentleman knows that I always give way to him, but perhaps he will allow me to finish this point.
About 6 million people now get help—one in three households. In 1979–80, the equivalent figure was 5 million. I am prepared to stand by that record. We have given more help to more people than the Labour Government ever did.
§ Mr. Scott
This year we shall spend £50 million less on housing benefit, but that has to be set against an overall w expenditure of £5.2 billion. That is a minimal clawback of a benefit which was set inexorably to rise and which we believed it right to bring under control. Increases in benefit, increases in the expenditure on social security and increases in expenditure on housing benefit do not matter to the Opposition. To them, April 1988 was Paradise lost.
Today we heard not a word from the hon. Member for Livingston about an alternative strategy. With his incisive intellect, the hon. Gentleman knows the kinds of problems that those in control of the social security system face, but he made no attempt to free himself from the intellectual and political baggage with which the 1987 general election landed the Labour party—a muddled, inconsistent and expensive policy. He set out no new strategy. He simply harked back to what the Opposition regard as the good old days.
Of all the graffiti that have bedecked our walls in recent years, the one proclaiming that nostalgia is not what it used to be might best be used as the Labour party's slogan.
270 The reality under a Labour Government was, as Lord Barnett said, that when they were in office they spent money that they did not have, that they ended up in the arms of the International Monetary Fund and that they had to cut back, not enhance, the social security system. We have never been driven into that position and we do not intend to be.
In April 1988 we embarked on a new strategy. We said goodbye to over 20,000 paragraphs in the manual required to operate supplementary benefit. We said goodbye to the opportunities to be better off on benefit than in work. We said goodbye to an effective marginal tax rate of about 112 per cent. We also said goodbye to housing benefit supplement, the Byzantine bridge between two entirely different systems of help with housing costs for those in work and those not in work. The English language is rich in a variety of wise sayings. The saying that empty vessels make the most noise is the most accurate one to describe the Labour party. We said goodbye to many indefensible anomalies and extraordinary social security complexities which the last Labour Government had failed to tackle. We said goodbye to all those things—and good riddance.
I shall not pretend that there are no problems or dilemmas to be faced in remodelling social security. It is hard to achieve the right balance between providing a safety net for life's emergencies and creating disincentives to employment. It is hard to achieve a balance between the objective of targeting help on those most in need and the wish to avoid over-detailed and intensive means testing. As society changes, and as time goes by, we must constantly review and revise our judgments on these issues. We cannot indulge in the luxury of ignoring them, as the Opposition do.
I re-emphasise the point that the changes and the extra resources would not have been possible without steady growth in the economy, the tight control of inflation and a firm grip on public expenditure. Those were not qualities that were noticeable under the previous Labour Government. That is why we can spend more, not less, on social security. It is worth reminding the House that under this Government inflation over the past five years has been about the same as it was in a single year under the previous Labour Government.
I understand, of course, that the main thrust of the debate is on housing benefit, and it is right for me to set that within the context of the Government's wider policy on social security reform. I shall refer in a little more detail to the system that we have replaced. When we introduced changes to housing benefit, our objective was always to protect the poorest and neediest. Many families on low incomes who receive housing benefit will gain overall because of the more generous family credit scheme, so our reform of housing benefit reflects our overall approach to the reform of the system. We aim for a better targeted, simpler, system that helps those who are really in need, without encouraging dependence on the state—that is, the taxpayer. The old system was costly, complicated and random, and this Government have had the courage to tackle it.
Prior to April this year, 3 million householders on supplementary benefit were getting full rent and rate rebates paid by their local authorities. Another 3 million people on low incomes had their incomes judged by local authorities against a series of needs allowances. The amount of help that they received with rent and rates varied, depending on their individual circumstances. That 271 was the system that was criticised by the Supplementary Benefits Commission in 1976. The anomalies that were pointed out and the criticisms that were made were not tackled by the Labour Government, and it was left to us to introduce changes finally in 1983. However, the continuance of two separate means tests made the system difficult to describe, and even more complicated to administer, and it was difficult for claimants to understand. The system worked very badly indeed.
The problems were easy to identify and costs were rising fast, but the system still did not give enough help to those who really needed it. It insulated many people against the real costs of local services, and we continue to believe that accountability suffered as a consequence. Therefore, we introduced a new system, with common rules for the three income-related benefits, and the same income test for everyone. People on similar incomes are treated in the same way. We also introduced the system whereby benefits are calculated on the basis of net, rather than gross, income, and that means that ordinary people see a cash increase for extra money earned. The Labour Government never tackled that problem. People on income support will continue to receive the maximum help available, as will others on similar incomes.
§ Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)
Will the Minister concede that many of us sought figures in the Green Paper "Reform of Social Security" that would show how the equalisation of benefits would work out, and that the only figure that the Government submitted showed a reduction in housing benefit? That was the only figure in the Green Paper. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is in the Green Paper?
§ Mr. Scott
We never made any secret of the fact that total expenditure on housing benefit was growing inexorably and that we thought it right to cut it back. We made that clear from the outset as we re-ordered our priorities in the overall system of social security. Although we have cut back expenditure very modestly, the reform of social security has meant that we are spending more on social security and are giving more help to those in greatest need. We have given almost £100 million extra to families through the income support structure, in which we have identified the real needs in society.
§ Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)
Is it not a fact that many Opposition Members will not be happy until 100 per cent. of the population are dependent on the state or their town hall for housing?
§ Mr. Scott
I have to say that sometimes I have that feeling when I listen to speeches from the Opposition.
In my opening remarks I referred to the issues that face those who have the responsibility of office when they seek to change and reform systems in the sensitive area of social security. One of the most important is the pace at which change can be introduced. When we made our reforms in April this year we recognised that there was a need for transitional protection from the outset for the poorest in our community—those who receive supplementary benefit. In April we listened again to the reasoned and reasonable arguments that changes in housing benefit were too sharp for some vulnerable groups.
272 We were not forced into that, as the Opposition motion implies. We followed the promise that we had given the House on several occasions to monitor, review and, if necessary, to act if we saw that the benefit system was not operating as it should. We did that, and I repeat today that we intend to continue to do so. That commitment was honoured and led to the changes that were outlined by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services on 27 April.
The changes showed that we could respond sensitively and quickly to areas of genuine concern about the operation of housing benefit, and we took swift action when we had identified what was necessary. We committed another £100 million to the already massive social security budget. My right hon. Friend then announced, less than 12 weeks ago, transitional payments to help up to 350,000 people. The first payment was sent out on 14 July and the unit set up to deal with applications on a national basis is now fully operational. It will quickly build up to optimum efficiency and output.
Any Opposition Member who has seen the application form for payments could not possibly—[HON. MEMBERS: "How many have gone out?"] I shall give hon. Members the figures. Thousands of them have been sent out and are available, and we shall make the process even simpler in future. Special arrangements have been introduced to deal with cases of urgency, and freepost and freeline services have been set up to provide help and advice to those who need it. Those services have been extensively used by the public and by many Opposition Members.
§ Mr. Alistair Darling (Edinburgh, Central)
The form is very simple, but many people simply will not qualify for transitional payments. What will the Government do to help those who have lost out and who do not qualify under this miserable scheme?
§ Mr. Scott
I have already explained what the transitional protection scheme was designed to achieve, what it is achieving and what it will achieve in the near future. We have already run one national publicity campaign to encourage take-up for this very important protection. We shall launch another campaign later this week, which will run for two weeks. The advertisement will include a cut-out coupon so that people can receive an RR4 application form from the Department by return of post.
Despite the whingeing from the Opposition Benches, by any standards the arrangements for transitional protection have got off to an excellent start. In my letter to colleagues on 5 May I promised that freeline and freepost facilities would be put in place at once, and they were. We undertook to ensure that payments were made immediately to those in urgent need, and that has happened. The first general payments for housing benefit cases were promised for this month, and the first payments were made on 14 July. The next step is to ensure that applications are processed in the week when they are received. We are well organised to do that.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit the Glasgow unit. I spoke to a number of the 500 staff now in post there. They have been recruited and trained in record time to do that job and I was impressed by their commitment, their interest and the enthusiasm with which they are tackling the job. There was a feeling of drive, efficiency and commitment in the office. As a result of the applications 273 that have come in, the staff have already issued 50,000 inquiry forms to local authorities—[Interruption.] I thought that the hon. Member for Livingston was at pains not to criticise the civil servants who are doing that important job. The sneering by some of the hon. Members behind him at junior staff who are tackling the job ill becomes them.
About 50,000 inquiry forms have gone out to local authorities to provide the information that we need to process the claims. Of course we depend on local authorities' commitment to turning round those applications.
§ Mr. Scott
I intend to set firm and tight targets for the processing of the applications, although, to an extent that remains in the hands of the individuals to apply promptly and the local authorities to turn round the applications quickly. For our part, in the transitional payments unit, we shall seek to meet those very tight targets and to respond to individual needs.
§ Mr. Scott
I should have thought that we should get some credit for coming to the House to talk about a scheme that has been introduced to provide significant help to pensioners, the long-term sick and disabled, widows and families with children, but I should have known better
In my view, the Government have demonstrated a speedy and flexible response to large cash losses, but we have done that without deviating from the overall aim of providing a simple and straightforward system of housing benefit which is much better than that which it succeeded.
§ Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles)
After that speech, I do not think that we are in any danger that the phrase "incisive intellect" will be thrown around the Chamber. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and I were trying to ask the Minister a very simple question to help us with our own remarks: how many payments have been made to date under the transitional scheme? My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) raised that point. I believe his figures are correct and I have tried to check them. If a scheme is to be talked about in this way, it is essential that we should know exactly how it is working.
I take issue with the Minister on two other points. He made a distinction between the needy and the real needy. He spoke about those in "real need". People are either in need or they are not in need. His definition of the real needy means that large numbers of people who will not qualify for transitional payment will be left in poverty and need. The Minister did not deal with that.
The Minister made great play of the fact that the Government are spending more money now on social security than ever before. Of course they are, given the number of unemployed people in my constituency and 274 throughout the country. That is not something to be proud of. Incidentally, they would not have had that money to spend without the revenues from oil and from selling off many of the country's assets. [AN HON. MEMBER: "He is not listening."] Of course the Minister is not listening; that is part of his arrogance throughout the debate. He should not be proud of the fact that we are spending more money; he should be ashamed of the fact that the rise in poverty and unemployment in areas such as my constituency have forced us into this situation
I do not have very long, so I cannot read out all the cases, but this morning I spoke to my local DHSS office and my local city council. I have a large number of cases, which I shall be sending to the Minister; indeed, some have already been sent. They include the disabled, the elderly and one-parent families who are in desperate need and who have been badly affected by the changes in benefits, including housing benefit. As far as we can discover from the guidelines on the transitional benefits, insofar as they exist, those people will not qualify for those benefits
The Minister did not deal with a matter that concerns many of us—the fact that transitional payments will not include the 20 per cent. of housing benefit that people will lose, so the qualifying amount is actually higher
The Minister said that the scheme is working very well. This morning, I spoke to Salford city council. I understand that there is some pilot scheme in my area, but I am told that there is now a form to apply for the forms to start making applications for transitional payments. I remind the Minister that in my constituency, where the divide between the north and the south is very graphic, where industry declined over the years and where there is a large number of long-term unemployed people, the people who are receiving benefits are all in need. The Minister seems to have forgotten that the people were not receiving benefits that they did not need or to which they were not entitled. The people were already in poverty and already had very grave problems. Those other people have been very badly affected
I should like to draw the House's attention to a letter that I received today from Salford city council, asking me to draw this point to the attention of the House of Commons:the increase in the number of tenants in rent arrears rose … by 6 per cent., which represented a rise in monetary arrears of £140,000in the period in which we have had a reduction in housing benefits. I am asked to draw to the attention of the Housethis increase in the amount of rent arrears, which is a direct result of the reduction in housing benefits which has made more tenants responsible for paying their water and general rates.So the burden will be borne by many local authorities which are not in a position to bear it.
I could read out to the House many cases similar to those that were read out by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston. One particular case is very important. It involves a constituent with injury who claimed supplementary benefit in 1984 but was not entitled, as his income exceeded requirements, even though those included high rate heating addition and diet, the cost of extra baths and a lower-rate diet for his wife. However, he was awarded housing benefit and housing benefit supplement by the local authority. When housing benefit supplement was abolished, he was then entitled only to housing benefit. As a result, he was liable to pay approximately £10 a week more for rent and general rates. Income support replacing 275 supplementary benefit was not payable, as it was argued that his income exceeded requirements. Therefore, his total weekly reduction is now about £12 a week.
The DHSS in Salford said that this was very disturbing, but as far as the regulations are concerned, there is very little that it can do to counter it. I have asked whether he will be entitled to transitional payment, but I am told that on the basis of the guidelines he will not. There are many others, including pensioners and disabled people. A mentally handicapped person who is rehabilitating herself and has found a small job is now worse off than she would be had she remained in residential care. A pensioner receiving £40 a week retirement and industrial injury pension is now having to pay £15.90 towards his rent and rates instead of £1.74 before April.
I could go on reading out such cases, as I am sure we all could, but we have not gone around the country looking for them. Details arrive in our postbags, and they come to our constituency surgeries. I do not believe that Conservative Members have not experienced similar cases, and I do not understand why they are not defending their people. Right across the country, those who can least afford to meet the problems and pay the money are being discriminated against. It is an absolute disgrace.
As I said at the start, most of the people in that situation in my constituency were already in need. I object to the hon. Gentleman's distinction between "real need" and need: they were not scroungers. They were not getting something to which they were not entitled. By virtue of the kind of constituency that I represent, they were in need, are in need, and will continue to be in need.
The hon. Gentleman dealt with transitional payments in a cavalier fashion—as though they were flowing well and people's needs were being met. He did not answer the question about how many people had received transitional payments. He did not answer the question about what guidelines will determine what people are entitled to. Many people in my constituency and in other constituencies will be pushed into greater poverty. They were already in poverty, and that poverty will now be greater. As far as I can tell, despair is moving to deep distrust and misery. It is reminiscent of what happened in the 1930s. Poor people will get poorer, while those who have money will get richer. That is an absolute disgrace.
§ Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)
There are three acknowledged staples of life—food, clothing and housing. Food and clothing are predominantly provided by the private sector. There is variety, choice and good standards. There is a much larger public sector component in housing. That is why that staple has always been hedged about with political controversy and argument. It is part private, part public, and inevitably and understandably political. Among political contentions there have been disputes and debates about state and municipal intervention in the cost of housing. General assistance has taken two traditional forms. Tax relief on mortgage interest has benefited the home owner. Subsidised council housing has benefited the municipal tenant. Again, there is a kind of political counterpoint in the two general forms of housing assistance.
§ Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that more than half of owner-occupiers do not benefit from mortgage interest relief? They are owner-occupiers, usually elderly and usually on low incomes, who bought houses way back in the past and have paid them off. Therefore, they do not benefit from mortgage interest relief, and are dependent upon the housing benefit system, in common with all the other people about whom the hon. Gentleman is about to talk.
§ Mr. Taylor
It might oblige the hon. Gentleman if I concede his contention that not all home owners have the benefit of mortgage interest tax relief. That point must be self-evident. I do not know the exact proportion. I was endeavouring to be fair to an Opposition Member and let him comment on my somewhat undeveloped remarks. I was merely giving the background to financial intervention in housing, and showing that it had taken an essentially political form. On the one hand, by their origin and development, certain benefits tended to favour home owners and, on the other hand, certain other kinds of assistance helped municipal tenants. They are general assistances.
Specific assistance, which is directed to the individual rather than to his ownership or tenancy, has grown out of rent and rate rebates that were initially administered by local authorities. Furthermore, in the earlier stages, various local authorities introduced rebates according to their own rules. There was a different pattern of rules for rent and rates rebates before they became part of a national structure. Another origin from which specific personal housing assistances were derived were housing and rental additions, which were part of the national assistance scheme. That was one of the original principles of the welfare state, and a precursor of what we now call supplementary benefit. Payments of specific help were intended for the poorest members of society, and quite rightly so, and they were invariably means-tested.
We can be sure of one thing, and that is that, with every proper and supportable intention, those who devised the systems to help the poorest people cannot possibly have contemplated that, by 1987–88, amid quite admirable levels of general prosperity, qualifiers for "the neediest need" would have increased to one third of the population. In the words of a satirical newspaper, "Shomething wrong, surely."
I admit that it is easy to point out that something is wrong. One can mock a regime by highlighting anomalies—some hon. Members have made careers out of it—but, by any admission, it is a great deal harder to replace an outworked system with a new one that will be proof against all the old criticisms, cost less to operate, be much simpler to understand, and command instant universal respect, acclaim and even affection. They never found El Dorado, and they will not find such a benefit system either.
Over the course of time, I have learnt that man-made benefit systems are inevitably arbitrary. It is because they are man-made. They follow no natural law, because there is none. Instead, they follow a series of definitions. That is as true of education grants as it is of invalidity allowances and housing benefits.
One critical thing about definitions is that they describe qualifiers, but that is not the most critical thing that they do. The most critical thing that they do is to describe and define non-qualifiers. That is the original sin of man-made 277 arbitrary benefit systems. Their public face—their appearance from the street—is one of instruments of exclusion. Some people are only just excluded at the margin, frontier or boundary of the definition. They are the truly marginal cases.
Woe betide anyone who thinks that protestations about marginal cases can be bought out or paid off by pushing the frontier outwards a little, slightly extending the definition, or moving the margin. All that one gets for that is a new, larger category of marginal cases who were previously resigned to being some distance from the definition—even content to be so —but who now see themselves as only just outside the adjusted definition. They are a new set of near-qualifiers, who resent what they are only just not getting.
It would surprise me if the Government expected to win battalions of friends by introducing benefit system reforms. But if it is the Government's realistic purpose to tackle systems that have outgrown their original Good Samaritan intention and strength, they will gain respect for doing so, and hon. Members will support their amendment in the Lobby tonight.
§ Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)
The Minister is popular and respected in the House, even if hon. Members do not always agree with his policies, but in response to the characteristically excellent and incisive speech of the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) —this is an important issue to thousands of people—his speech was an utter disgrace. It was a disgrace to churn out that hackneyed cliché-ridden trash and to give so little information about the workings of the transitional payments centre. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have written to him daily on this matter, so he must be aware that a tremendous amount of anxiety is deeply felt by many thousands of people. He did himself and his Department—what is left of his Department—less than justice.
Although the Minister did not have the gall to refer to the amendment too much, it is one—although the Government have made a complete shambles of the issue —that applauds, welcomes, commends and congratulates. I wonder sometimes how Ministers have the gall to do such things.
Presumably the House appreciates that it is being asked to applaud a cut of £540 million in housing benefit. Presumably Conservative Back Benchers are welcoming the fact that many poor people have to start paying 20 per cent. of their rates contribution, and want to commend the fact that the capital limit that has been introduced, along with the taper that is now in place, will leave many pensioners who would otherwise have qualified for support ineligible. No doubt they are willing to "congratulate"—in the words of the motion—a transitional payments system which had to be introduced because of the original shambles and revolt.
From what the Minister said, we have no clearer idea how long that transitional protection will last. That was a specific question put to the Minister, which he skated around completely. He was asked how many payments had been made, but he did not tell us. If press reports are to be believed and it will take some 31 more weeks at present processing levels to meet the full payments, what will happen to those people whose transitional payments 278 may not be fully met until next February, and who may be affected by further changes a few weeks after that? None of those questions was dealt with by the Minister. I hope that when he makes a further contribution we shall hear more.
The transitional protection scheme was designed to limit the losses of some groups of claimants—for example, the elderly, the sick and those with children. In other words, there will be no extra help for young single people. The Government's thinking comes over time and again —they believe that such people should not qualify for help, because they should be working.
We heard another illuminating speech from Ministers in the Scottish Grand Committee, and the hon. Member for Livingston referred to another one a few weeks ago. If the Minister had been at the Committee, he would have heard the figures quoted for job opportunities for young people. For every 50 youngsters coming out of school in Strathclyde, there is one job. How can it be unnatural for them not to be in employment? The Government appear to miss the fact that unemployment continues to bite deep.
Secondly, the Minister did not deal with the fact that the loss is to be limited to£2.50. It must be said again and again that that £2.50 maximum does not include any loss from the 20 per cent. rates contribution. It is much more tightly drawn than many of those who have applied, or who are seeking to apply at the moment, realise They suspect that they will have a much more significant cushion in terms of their benefit loss than will prove to be the case.
I wonder to what extent the second round of the advertising campaign—I must have missed the first one —will underline that reality. That would avoid a second blow to morale when people make the application, find out about the centre, expect a transitional payment to come through, and then find out that it is limited strictly to the housing benefit implications and will not cover the other losses caused by the social security changes.
Perhaps this is a matter for a written question, but I wonder how much the DHSS is spending on those two advertising campaigns in comparison with how much was spent on the privatisation of British Telecom or the British Airways advertising campaign.
I very much endorse the comments made by the hon. Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor) about the dubious and distasteful distinction that is now being introduced between the needy, and the non-needy, or the legitimate needy and the less needy, when considering applications for transitional protection payments. The Minister makes a face, but his speech was shot through with such a distinction.
I shall take as an example one of my constituents. A Mrs. Corbett, who lives in Invergordon, came to see me recently. Mrs. Corbett has had housing benefit withdrawn. She now gets only £2.26 a week housing benefit towards her rent. Therefore, out of her £62.11 take-home pay as a caretaker in a community centre, she has to meet her rent of £17.67, minus £2.26 which she is losing, and all her rates. That equals £22.45. Her available income to spend is £62.11 minus £22.45, which works out at £39.66
If Mrs. Corbett chose not to go to work, she would get a weekly allowance of £33.40. On top of that, all her rent would be met, as would 18 per cent. of her rates. Her weekly disposable income would therefore be £33.40, minus 20 per cent. of her rates—£1.24—which would give her £32.13 a week. For working a 40-hour week in a 279 low-paid job, and looking after a young family as a single parent, she is the princely sum of £7.53 per week better off. However, that does not include her travel costs to and from work. We were told that the Government introduced this system to help people in that position—people whom the previous Secretary of State referred to as those who are poor with families.
Mrs. Corbett could not believe it when this scheme was introduced. She wrote me a letter in which she stated the position rather well:Can this really mean that someone with a good salary and any amount of savings is to be asked for only £2.26 more per week (the full rent and rates) than myself?The answer is yes. How the Minister can be sanguine about that I do not know.
§ Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton)
I appreciate the problems that the reforms have brought about for some individuals, but I cannot understand what general point of principle the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) is putting forward. Unless he is prepared to say that there will be no rate of withdrawal, regardless of income, and he is therefore proposing a sort of basic earning guarantee which is non-taxable and unrelated to income, we shall always be faced with the problem of tapers and withdrawal of benefit, which will produce high marginal rates, which will be a combination of tax and withdrawal of benefit. The aim of the reforms is to reduce those difficulties to below 100 per cent. Surely that is an improvement.
§ Mr. Kennedy
The principle which I am enunciating, which I suspect is shared by Conservative Members with guilty consciences, is simply that social security reforms should not hit the poor, who are at the weakest end of the income spectrum. That is the simple principle which should guide any Government with a sense of morality. The case of Mrs. Corbett is indefensible and was a direct result of the changes. She was exactly the sort of person that was supposed to be helped
For the longer term, I support full integration of the tax and benefits systems and the allocation of credits which are withdrawable as income rises, so that some of the worst marginal effects would be mitigated far more effectively than under the present system. The Government, however, have not seen fit to pursue that course of action.
§ Mr. Scott
I am not sure which party the hon. Gentleman is a member of at the moment, but the predecessor party which supported the Labour Government in office, and Opposition Members who were making such a noise earlier, supported a system in which there was a combination of tax and withdrawal of benefit of 112 per cent. We have at least got rid of that nonsense.
§ Mr. Kennedy
I think that the Government have got it down to 85 per cent. withdrawal in certain categories and 65 per cent. for most others. That is an improvement, certainly, but I do not accept the principle on which the new structure is established. I and my right hon. and hon. Friends opposed it in the previous Parliament and we shall continue to oppose it and argue for our alternative.
I have a second example of a problem. It arises because, lo and behold, the Inverness office has had a computer 280 breakdown. That is hardly unheard of, but as a result, it has been impossible to assess many people's entitlement to transitional protection
Another constituent —a widowed pensioner with an income of £53 a week—has written to me. At the moment, she pays an extra £10 into her rent account each fortnight in the hope that it, with her old rent payment and her new housing benefit entitlement, will cover the new figure. Given her age, she could well be entitled to transitional protection if the council ever manages to work out how much housing benefit she has lost. It is unable to do that, however, because of computer problems.
My constituent writes:I have been paying £10 approximately extra but it is hard going and this very long delay has changed me from a happy person to an anxious old woman … I desperately want to go to visit my elder sister who is ill in Aberdeen but want to be clear before I go. I am a widow over 70 and unfortunately just above the magic figure which would entitle me to supplementary benefit so fare worse than most. My total income is £53 and with heating so necessary in this cold glen every penny has to count.There are thousands of such people. Dozens come to my constituency surgery each weekend. They are confused, upset and dismayed about what they have lost and what they may still lose. Many are under the false impression that the £2.50 cushion is applied generally and is not drawn strictly for housing benefit. Many are confused because they do not know what they are eligible for. They find it almost impossible to believe the loss that they have already suffered.
The Minister has not answered the salient questions asked by the hon. Member for Livingston—how many payments have there been so far, for how long will the transitional arrangements go on, and what happens to the payments that are caught up with early next February? What steps is the Department taking to salvage this sorry and, from the point of view of the lack of political principle involved, increasingly sordid move towards changing housing benefit, with all the attendant misery?
§ Mr. Michael Irvine (Ipswich)
Before last April's reforms, one household in three received housing benefit. That statistic shows eloquently that housing benefit was being applied wrongly and that it was being distributed too widely and too indiscriminately.
It was absurd that a person with £30,000 in a current account could still be entitled to housing benefit. It was absurd that a person could have £20,000 in, for example, a low-yielding Japanese unit trust and still be entitled to housing benefit. It was unjust that capital was not taken into account.
Housing benefit cried out for reform. Reform was not just necessary£it was imperative. We needed a redirection of benefits towards those people in greatest need. Such a process inevitably means that some will get less. There is, at that point, a political dilemma. Alterations involve grave risk of political unpopularity.
By deciding to do something about the problem, and by facing the dilemma, the Government have shown high political courage. It is all very well for Opposition Members to mock the Government and to accuse them of callousness and hard-heartedness, but I should have a lot more respect for the Opposition's arguments if they acknowledged that there was a problem and a need for reform. Instead of approaching the issue positively, 281 however, Opposition Members only put forward the solution of never-ending waterfall of additional public expenditure.
§ Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)
I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument carefully. He seems to be arguing that, simply because of the number of people who receive housing benefit, there is a need for reform. Has he noted that one third more people get mortgage interest tax relief? What proposals does he have for reform of that system?
§ Mr. Irvine
The hon. Lady is trying to deflect me from my argument. As much as one household in three received housing benefit. That shows that the benefit was not being directed effectively.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
As the hon. Gentleman is arguing that people who do not deserve assistance have received it—an argument which I do not accept in respect of housing benefit—can he tell us whether he has ever received tax relief on mortgage interest? If he has, has he refused it on the grounds that, as a lawyer and a Member of the House of Commons, he does not require it? That being the case, did he refund the money to the Exchequer?
§ Mr. Irvine
I have received tax relief on mortgage interest. The hon. Gentleman is well away from the point that I am arguing. I am attacking Opposition Members because——
§ Mr. Irvine
—instead of making constructive arguments and acknowledging that there is a problem, they are entirely negative, try to deflect the thrust of the argument and resort to jeers, abuse and personal innuendo. That will not do.
In their heart of hearts, the thinking element of the Opposition, in so far as there is a thinking element in the Opposition, acknowledge the need for reform. They also acknowledge that any reform involves deciding priorities and making hard choices about how to allocate benefits. Such changes involve the danger of political unpopularity.
One of the most refreshing features of the Government throughout their nine years in office has been their readiness to face short-term political unpopularity and grasp the nettle of reform to attain necessary, desirable and long-term objectives. The House is debating another instance of that today.
Inevitably, when there is a major reform on the scale of that which was introduced last April, certain hardships and injustices will come to light. Opposition Members have referred to the volume of constituency correspondence that they have received and to the fact that Conservative Members must have received similar letters. I am sure that we have all received them and that we have all made our points to the Government. What is more, the Government listened and, within a month of the reforms coming into operation, announced the transitional arrangements. Far from being a sign of weakness or retreat, that was a sign of the Governments strength and readiness to be flexible and to adapt. Having listened to their Back Benchers, the Government announced the transitional arrangements and, moreover, directed those 282 transitional measures rightly so as to give protection to pensioners, disabled people, low-income families with children, and single parents.
While congratulating the Government on their political courage, may I, however, say to my hon. Friend the Minister that there is no doubt that some people—a minority—have suffered sudden and proportionately severe reductions in their income levels and standards of living as a result of the introduction of the changes. It is a fair point that a reduction of £7 or £8 a week on an income of £70 or £80 is a substantial hardship. I acknowledge that.
The Government must have in mind two essential points. First, it is important that the Government should press ahead with all possible speed to implement the arrangements for transitional protection. I am glad that the transitional protection unit has been set up and is now in operation. It is important that the unit is given all the forresources that it needs to operate effectively.
Secondly, it is essential that the Government remember that there are some people on modest incomes who, for one reason or another, fall just outside the qualification for transitional protection. In recent months I have sent details of cases where that is so, or where it seems to be so, to Ministers for their consideration.
Careful monitoring of the effects of the changes that have taken place in housing benefit is essential. There are bound to be further instances of hardship and further injustices that require to be remedied. However, if there is careful monitoring and identification of such cases, and if injustices are remedied promptly, the underlying merits of the Government's reforms will become more speedily apparent. The Goverment would then end up reaping long-term benefits from their courage in facing short-term unpopularity and taking the difficult decisions necessary to implement the reforms.
§ Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)
This morning I received some staggering information about soaring rent debt in local authority housing in my constituency. Because I received this information this morning, I tried to raise the problem under a Standing Order No. 20 application, but was advised that I might be called to speak in the debate.
Before April and the so-called reforms of housing benefit, the record of rent arrears in my constituency was comparatively good, despite the fact that the economy has been through troubled times, and despite the fact that we are an area of high unemployment and low wages. Good counselling, a good committee and a good housing management kept rent arrears at a reasonable level, considering the poverty and distress that people face.
However, since April, when the Government introduced the changes, there has been a serious escalation in rent debt. On I April the current debt outstanding stood at £468,582. In the 10 weeks that followed, including one free week, rent debt soared to over £639,000. That increase in debt of over one third was almost certainly due to the reductions in housing benefit.
§ Mrs. Mahon
No, it is a short debate and I want to get some facts on the record.
A similar pattern of escalating debt is evident throughout the country. It is important that the responsibility for such an increase falls squarely where it belongs—at the feet of the Government. In Calderdale, after 48 weeks of the financial year ending April 1988, 11,344 people—76 per cent. of council tenants—received housing benefit, totalling £236,580. By the 11th week of this financial year 10,077 people—68 per cent. of tenants —received housing benefit, totalling £220,076. That is a loss, not only to tenants, but to the local economy, because that money is not available for other things. Therefore, the level of housing benefit has fallen despite the fact that there were rent and rate increases in 1988 which mask the full level of the reduction.
Those shocking figures do not include housing association tenants, of whom there are many. There is no doubt that housing associations have suffered a similar increase in rent arrears. Many elderly people, and many people who fall into special categories, need to live in housing association accommodation. In fact, there are specific schemes for them.
I should like to read out a couple of cases and to give some figures of some of the people whom the Minister claims to have protected. We know that 6,000 tenants now have to pay a weekly water rate charge, plus 20 per cent. of their general rates. Those are the protected people, but they have to pay. The capital cut-off point was £6,000—it is now £8,000—and the national income from capital calculations for persons with over £3,000 has affected about 1,000 rent rebate claims. Steeper taper adjustments of 65p for rent rebate and 20p for rates rebate applied to every pound of excess income over income support levels have meant reduced entitlement for about 3,000 tenants. I repeat that the people who have lost all that enjoyed the Minister's protection. About 400 single parents not on income support have had their benefit entitlement reduced because single parents are no longer treated as couples when benefit entitlement is assessed. None of those people has £30,000 in the bank, which is what the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Irvine) hinted.
A single male, aged 24, recently came to my surgery. He is employed on a Manpower Services Commission scheme for three days a week. Before April he paid £24.26 rent and received a rebate of £15.19. After April his rent was £26.02. He is worse off by £16.95 per week. That is a substantial reduction by any stretch of the imagination.
I also have the tragic case of a 20-year-old who is unemployed and is worse off by £17.55 per week. He is now in serious rent arrears and is before the county court for repossession. That young man had to leave home because of the depressing situation there. Those are the people whom the Minister claims he has protected. He should be ashamed of himself.
My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) already described the difficulties with the transitional arrangements. According to the information that I received this morning from my local authority, it is facing many problems with people complaining that the forms are difficult to understand. The housing staff in my local authority have concluded that the forms appear to be designed to deter people from applying for benefit. They are under no illusion about that.
I do not know whether we will have any impact on the Government, and I do not believe that they will make the 284 transitional arrangements work to the benefit of the poor. I believe that they are designed to do the opposite. I believe that these arrangements are part and parcel of another attack on local authority housing. Perhaps that was the bonus that the Minister handed to the Prime Minister and to the Minister for Housing and Planning.
The housing benefit reforms represent an attack on local authorities as providers of public housing. Any loss as a result of the write-off of arrears must be borne by the housing revenue account. Obviously the reduction in rent income adversely affects a council's cash flow. Ultimately, that will lead to a loss of interest on balances and, therefore, to rent increases
§ Mrs. Mahon
I have already said that I will not give way. This is a short debate and the hon. Gentleman can make his own speech.
The housing benefit reforms will damage the provision of local authority housing and will also damage housing associations, which the Government purport to want to help.
The Minister has made the outrageous claim that he wants to protect the poor and that the reforms are intended to do that. The poor know that they are worse off. The young man who I shall see in my constituency next week knows that he will be homeless and that he will not have a roof over his head. People who are getting further and further into debt are aware of that possibility. Because one is poor and on an extremely low income, it does not mean that one is brain-damaged or mentally inadequate. People know that they are receiving less money. The Minister should cease to adopt a hypocritical stance and stop talking about reforms, because doing so insults the dignity of people who are in serious debt and it also insults the intelligence of hard-working housing officials and councillors who are trying to cope with the disgraceful increase in debt that the Minister has deliberately triggered.
§ Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)
My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), in an elegant speech, spoke of the three staples of food, clothing and shelter and the danger of allowing the state to assume responsibility for them.
My hon. Friend's speech reminded me of a conversation that I had with a German boy whom I recently took round the Houses of Parliament. We got on to the inevitable subject of the unification of Germany. I asked him if he thought that that was likely and he said that he thought that it was extremely unlikely. On being asked why, he told me that a completely different philosophy exists in East Germany from that in West Germany. He said that 40 years of Socialism had completely changed the East German people. Although the East Germans originally came from the same stock and spoke the same language, he thought it highly unlikely that the unification would take place. I asked him why he had come to that conclusion, and he told me about two boys who had recently joined his school after coming over the border from East Berlin with their families.
At first those two boys were absolutely delighted to be in West Germany and thought that people were better off, that housing was better, that the standard of living was 285 better, that they had a great future before them and that things were much brighter and more cheerful. However, gradually they became more depressed because their family background was one of complete dependency on the state. The West German boy had come to the conclusion that those two boys would go back to the grey, drab life from which they had come because of the way in which they and their families had been oppressed for the Conditions in our country are completely different from those in East Germany. In terms of housing—one of the three staples mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull—almost 64 per cent. of the population own their own homes.
§ Mr. Favell
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) for his help.
Despite the fact that 68 per cent. of the population own their homes, one third of all households depend upon housing benefit for help towards the payment of their rent and rates. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security recently asked: where is the sense in two thirds of the people supporting one third of households to meet their housing costs?
The figures are bad enough for the entire country, but in certain parts of the country the position is far worse. In Manchester, for example, 57 per cent. of all households are receiving housing benefit. In Liverpool, no less than 81 per cent. of council house tenants receive rent and rate rebates. That means that more than four fifths of council tenants in Liverpool receive housing benefit. They are dependent upon the town hall and the state for the most basic human need, shelter. Because they are dependent and unable to move they are held capitive within their grey surroundings. What a joy that is to their Left-wing Socialist masters, but what misery for those dependent upon them.
Those people, deterred from work lest they lose their housing benefit and unable to save to provide for themselves, are caught in a vicious circle of dependency and are enslaved by the masters of Liverpool.
I welcome the first brave steps away from housing benefit, away from state subsidy of housing costs and towards a greater concentration upon family credit. That will encourage poorer families to look for and to stay in work, and eventually it will enable them to escape from their grey, drab housing estates in Liverpool and the other northern cities that I know so well.
§ Mr. Favell
With a major upheaval such as the reform of the housing benefit system, there have been some hardship cases and it is to the Governments great credit——
§ Mr. Favell
My constituency also happens to be on the Mersey, but my constituents do not depend on Socialist masters to provide for all. Four fifths of council tenants in my area do not receive housing benefit because we have an independence culture and the people are happier. Unemployment in my constituency is now under 7 per cent. Such are the differences between a town further up the Mersey and Liverpool, where the people who run that city insist on having the local population dependent upon them because that keeps them in their fat jobs in the town hall.
§ Mr. Battle
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the unemployed should have their housing benefit cut to price themselves into work? Is that the logic of his argument?
§ Mr. Favell
The logic of my argument is to encourage people to go out to work rather than to stay at home.
§ Mr. Favell
It is to the Government's great credit that they have recognised the hardship cases. The hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) has said that the surgeries of Opposition Members have been packed with people bemoaning their loss of housing benefit, but in the previous breath he was bemoaning the lack of people claiming transitional relief. The only conclusion that I can draw from that is that fewer people are dissatisfied with their lot than the hon. Gentleman would have us believe.
I was glad to learn from my hon. Friend of the Government's determination to continue to roll back the sea of housing benefit, which now reaches one in three households in the United Kingdom. I have already mentioned the unemployment trap in places such as Liverpool and Manchester, which are close to my constituency, but such unemployed people will be relieved by the doubling of family credit.
Housing benefit has other unwelcome effects. For example, as much as 57 per cent. of the population of Manchester depend upon housing benefit to pay their rates. Therefore, there is absolutely no incentive for that town hall to keep its spending down. For that reason, I also welcome the introduction of the 20 per cent. payment of the community charge, which will be paid for by everyone. That will control spending. It will bring sense to our town halls; and the sooner it is introduced, the better. I shall have no hesitation in supporting my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Lobbies tonight.
§ Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)
Like other Opposition Members—if not Conservative ones—I have talked to people in my surgery, who are in tears, who wonder how they will cope with the severe loss of the income that they used to get in housing benefit. Some of them have asked me to explain why this is happening, because they cannot quite believe it. I shall send a copy of today's Hansardto every one of them. Then they will understand why this is happening—when they read the speeches made by Conservative Members, whose conduct hardly merits the description of "honourable". They inflict misery on people who have done nothing to deserve it.
We have heard how hard it is to achieve the right balance, and that the objective of the Government is to protect the poorest. I shall spend a few minutes talking about a mere sample of the hardship cases that I have 287 heard of in my surgery. These people are only a few of the large number of losers in Maryhill and other constituencies. The Government have said that they aim their benefits at those who need them most. I know of a wide variety of people in all sorts of need. Who will benefit if they do not?
I shall use people's initials, because some of them have expressed the fear that if I name them in public they will incur some sort of disbenefit. That shows the sort of mentality that people get into when they are desperately poor and do not know where the next penny to buy a loaf of bread will come from. They fear to raise their cases because of the sort of people who make up this Government.
Mrs. S, a widow on a pension, will have to find an extra £49.60 a month to pay rent and rates. I know of two couples who are losing their higher pension premium on benefit supplements. One of those couples used to be on invalidity benefit. They changed to the old-age pension, so they are denied the higher pension premium and will be worse off by £48 a month. Another couple, have lost their housing benefit supplement and two chronic sickness allowances. They will be worse off to the tune of £37.80 a month. These people are already on very low incomes. There are pensioners in my constituency who are losing anything from £17.36 a month to £66.20 a month—not the £7 or £8 a week of which a Conservative Member spoke earlier.
One man had a distinguished war service. He proudly showed me the commendation with which he left the Army at the end of the second world war. He loses £38 a month. He told me—he could hardly control his voice because he was shaking with anger and very upset—that this was the reward he got for serving his country and being a hero years ago. Now he was being treated like this.
The Government talk about pensioners who have savings over the limit. One couple have a whole £3,000 —a fortune. That is nothing to many Conservative Members, who have their profits from the City and from other businesses on top of their salaries as Members of Parliament. This couple received the £3,000 as a lump sum after a recent retirement. They will have to find an extra £23.60 a month.
I shall now give some examples drawn from the single unemployed. One such person, on income support, is a private tenant in the much vaunted private sector, with a private landlord. He used to receive a sizeable housing benefit but now finds he has much more to pay. He will have to find another £70 a month merely to keep his private landlord in the better standard of living to which he is accustomed.
A single pregnant unemployed woman will lose the transitional protection following the birth of her child, and will have £10 a week extra with which to bring up the baby. As was said earlier, that is the price of a small round in the Bar of the House, and it is the amount with which she will have to bring up her child.
Let us consider the mentally ill and handicapped. There are people in a housing association in my constituency which is especially intended for the mentally handicapped. They will lose benefit because the extra services no longer count towards housing benefit.
288 I could multiply these examples, but I also want to mention people who have been in receipt of industrial injury benefit. A disabled pensioner had an accident at work and could no longer be employed. He will have to find an extra £74.80 a month. A widow of a man who was injured at work and who eventually died from his injuries now finds that she will have to pay £99.07 more a month. The worst case of all that has come to my attention is that of a man who is disabled and retired following an accident at work. He will have to find an extra £102.36 a month ——
§ Mrs. Fyfe
I will not give way; but I will tell the hon. Gentleman something. I am not here to engage in a polite debate, as if this were university debating club. I am here to speak for my constituents, who have no voice of their own—but it will be heard today. I urge my hon. Friends not to make fine speeches—they are wasted on Conservative Members. They should just list case after case of the kind of hardship that people are suffering. They should give the House the facts. The Government keep on saying that there must be balances, that some will benefit and some lose. We are listing case after case of those who lose——
§ Mrs. Fyfe
I shall not. I have no time for the likes of people who can do this to the poorest among us. They can go and make their own speeches.
If all these people are losing, who gains? We should all speak for our constituents who have no voice of their own. El Dorado? That bunch on the Conservative Benches must be joking. It is far from that: it is a living hell for the people we are talking about.
§ Ms. Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)
Conservative Members have tried to justify the changes in the social security system, particularly the changes in the payment of housing benefit, by complaining that one in three households get housing benefit. When we point out to them that almost one in two households get mortgage tax relief, they have nothing to say. It is entirely characteristic of the Government that when the poor get money it is a problem, but when the rich do, it is a political advance. If the problem is so serious—if it is an ipso facto problem—why have the Government nothing to say about the arrangements for paying mortgage tax relief?
A Conservative Member bravely said—it may have been an attempt at a pun—that the Government would reap long-term benefit from the changes. I do not know about that, but on the evidence of the hundreds of people who have written to me or seen me in my surgery I think that people in Hackney will reap long-term proverty from the changes—in many cases, ill-deserved poverty.
Many of those who come to see me are pensioners. We have heard many sneering remarks about the poor from Conservative Members, but many of the people who have suffered under these housing benefit changes are pensioners who have contributed all their lives to occupational pensions and who now find themselves, despite all the brave words about transitional protection, having to pay £5, £6 or £7 a week more out of incomes as tiny as £30 or £40. What long-term benefit will accrue to 289 them? It is as if 50 or 60 years of work, service and contributions count for nothing. They speak of paying in for many years and now having the money taken away from them.
I should like to put some questions on behalf of those people mentioned by my hon Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe)—people who cannot speak for themselves. Exactly how many staff are in post in the unit in Glasgow? When can the people who have applied up to the end of this month expect to be paid? People in Hackney want to know the detail about the operation of the transitional unit. While the Government are making press statements and statements in the House, people in my constituency are running up rent arrears, and now they cannot pay. Old people are terrified by the threat of eviction. They do not want to know about the Government's press release but about how the unit is working and how soon they can expect to get their money.
I should like to know exactly how long the transitional rent arrangements will apply. That is another question put to me by people in Hackney. I understand that there was a recent announcement about new protection under the arrangements for people on income support. Who will be able to claim protection? There is a great deal of confusion about that.
In my constituency, 5,000 people have lost over £5 in their heating allowances because in the past Hackney used its discretion and was quite generous to old people in its heating payments. What will be the cost of newspaper advertising and the printing of the forms for these arrangements? Presumably the announcement means that the forms will have to be reprinted and new advertisements placed. Would that money not be better spent on housing benefit? Do the Government propose to repeat their advertising campaign?
It is all very well for Conservative Members to talk in generalities and to speak about incentives to go out to work. They talk in high-arching terms of the enterprise culture. Hackney is one of the poorest areas in Britain and I cannot talk in generalities, in wide-ranging terms or in the abstract. I can only talk about the hundreds of cases of real loss and poverty and about the fears that I deal with as a result of the Government's change in housing benefit. I want specific answers to specific questions, because public relations rhetoric will not put food on the tables of my pensioners in Hackney.
§ Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton)
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) introduced an unfortunate party political note into the debate, when he sought to advance the proposition that, because very few of us were in the Chamber to listen to the debate Conservative Members did not care about the poor. I apologise to the House for having to pop in and out of the Chamber. That was because constituents and others had come to see me about a variety of matters, basically to do with the Barlow Clowes affair, and I felt that it was right to see them. I should like to correct the record. A majority of Conservative Members are in the Chamber at the moment, and to advance propositions such as that advanced by the hon. Gentleman does not help us to understand the problems of poverty or to cure the inefficiencies of the social security system. We have a long way to go to achieve that.
290 I am sorry that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) did not allow my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) to intervene in her speech. We are not here just to make set speeches into microphones. The hon. Lady should seek membership of inferior assemblies, such as the one in Strasbourg, if she wishes to operate in that way. My hon. Friend wanted to put a point to her and she refused to allow him to do so. If we all took that attitude it would mean the end of parliamentary debate.
I listened to the cases that the hon. Lady described and would have liked to ask her how many of those cases have been reconsidered in the light of the transitional arrangements that have been announced. It seems likely that the transitional arrangements will cover a great many of them.
§ Mr. William McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)
A great many people in Scotland applied for transitional benefits, but encountered difficulties because no forms were available. Eventually they got the forms, and two weeks ago I asked a Scottish Minister to name one person who had received a transitional payment, which, after all, is to relieve hardship. He could not supply one name. I put down a parliamentary question asking for the names or the numbers of those in Scotland who had received transitional benefit. The Minister wrote to me saying that he could not do so at the time and that he would reply further at the earliest opportunity. He has failed to do so. May I assume that no one in Scotland has received transitional benefit and that people are suffering hardship because of massive reductions in benefit? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can answer that question.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is criticising the public sector and thinks that we would do better to contract out or privatise. It may well be that he is correct. I am not in possession of the facts, and I am not sure whether he is. I am not prepared to attempt to answer the question that he asked without hearing the other side from the Minister concerned.
It is extraordinary that, when speaking about the effect of the housing benefit reforms, Opposition Members are unable to agree that the social security reviews have bestowed significant advantages on people. Nobody denies that under these reforms there are losers. Constituents have come to me with problems similar to those described by Opposition Members. I am not unaware of the problems of poverty, as Opposition Members seek to say.
When we look at the overall effect of the reforms, the whole package—and that is the only fair way to look at it —we see that nearly nine out of 10 people on benefit are now receiving the same amount as before, or are getting more money. Even after taking account of inflation, 57 per cent. of those on income-related benefits, such as housing benefit, are better off, or no worse off, including 81 per cent. of sick and disabled people, 77 per cent. of couples with children and 60 per cent. of single parents. Although there have been losers, there are significant gainers, and they outnumber those who have lost.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
No doubt the hon. Gentleman accepts that we have not made up these examples. We are only responding to people who come to us and say that they are worse off. We take no pleasure from giving these examples. Will the hon. Gentleman tell me why anyone previously on supplementary benefit should be made worse off? Even if 291 there were only one, that would be grounds for complaint. He knows that many thousands are worse off, Why should anyone be worse off?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I shall come to that later in my speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Irvine) gave cogent examples of cases where, under the old rules, it could hardly be fairly stated that all recipients of benefit were justified in claiming it. I am not saying that individual examples should be quoted across the Chamber, but some people might be described as deserving cases. In any big reform of the social security system, if we guarantee that no recipient will lose, we will not be able to make sensible reforms that introduce more accurate targeting according to need. Unless we face the problems that the Government have at least partially faced, we shall not be able to sustain the system of social security that has been built up over the years in an ad hoc way without any centralised thought behind it and with very little rationale.
§ Mr. Robert Hayward (Kingswood)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the changes to which he is referring emanate from a level of expenditure by the state that is dramatically higher than the level that we inherited in 1978–79? When we are talking about the changes, we must bear in mind the massive improvements that the Government have introduced over the past few years.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I entirely agree. Opposition Members talk of savage cuts in the social security budget, but they must be totally unaware that this year the social security budget is in excess of £50,000 million. Even after the changes that have been announced, although we are saving about £600 million on housing benefit, £650 million extra is being spent on family credit and income support. We are seeking—no one is saying that we shall succeed in every case—to target the expenditure more accurately on those who are most in need.
§ Mrs. Beckett
With respect to the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward), if they go back to the Whips Office they will find that they have been given the brief for the debates that we had last year and the year before, not the brief for the speeches that they should be making today.
Let me correct the figures given by the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton), which are completely inaccurate. There is no way in which there are more gainers than losers from the so-called reforms. Even the figures given by the hon. Gentleman for people who stand still are inaccurate, although I accept that they are Government figures, so I do not altogether blame the hon. Gentleman for that. However, his figures for increased expenditure on family credit assume, for example, a vastly greater take-up of family credit. That is not money being spent now; that is money that the Government say will be spent. In fact, the take-up of family credit is running at half what the Government expected, so all the hon Gentleman's figures for increased spending are totally illusory and flawed. I suggest that he goes back to his hon. Friends in the Whips' Office and has a word with them about the Trade Descriptions Act.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I cannot accept what the hon. Lady says, because the Government have laid down a planning total that is available for spending on social security benefits if 292 those who are entitled to them take them up. I fully accept that in the past the take-up rate on many social security benefits has been inadequate. That has been one of the products of the complexity of the system. People simply could not understand the benefits to which they were entitled. That has been one of the primary causes of poverty. It is not that Governments of all persuasions have not wanted to assuage poverty, but that the huge, conglomerate social security system that has grown up ad hoc over the years has become far too complex for ordinary people to understand. They are intimidated by it.
§ Mr. Greg Knight
Is there not another point at issue, which the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) did not address, namely, that some of the examples given to the House tonight have been of people with savings? Will my hon. Friend tell the House why someone who has substantial savings in excess of £8000 should look to the taxpayer before using his or her own resources?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.
I confess some astonishment at the remarks of the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) in that respect, because the proposition that she appeared to be advancing was that, regardless of the level of savings, a person should be entitled to housing benefit and there should be no withdrawal rates or tapers of any kind. If ever there was an anti-Socialist proposition, it seems to me that that is it. I would welcome the hon. Lady to our side of the House with pleasure, but it appears to me rather peculiar for somebody of her political persuasion to imply that if a person has savings he or she would still qualify for the benefit when there are people on low incomes with no capital who are inadequately provided for at the moment.
§ Ms. Abbott
Will the hon. Gentleman accept two points? First, no Opposition Member is saying that there is no level of savings at which a person's housing benefit should be reviewed. We are drawing the Government's attention to the failings of the taper currently in operation. That is not a party political point. All the interested voluntary organisations have made similar representations to the Government.
Secondly, will the hon. Gentleman use his imagination and consider the state of mind of people in their 60s and 70s who, all their lives, have been taught that they must save against a rainy day? They are now faced with a Government who tell them that they have no option but to run down their pittance of a saving. If the hon. Gentleman has not met those terrified old people, I have. It makes no sense for a Government who make a virtue of thrift and acquisition above all other virtues to tell people in their 70s, who hold that virtue dear, that they must run down their savings to nothing.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I vibrate to the hon. Lady's theme, but I am sure that she would not be able to be more specific about the level of savings that she would take as the point at which withdrawals would begin and about what the tapers would be. Although she agrees with my general proposition that there should be a point at which benefits should be withdrawn, she has not been candid enough with the House to confess what the figure should be.
The rent and rate tapers that we are debating today are a significant improvement on what they were before. As the hon. Lady will know, the rent taper has been changed 293 from 33 to 65 per cent., and the rate taper from 13 to 20 per cent. The starting point for calculating benefit under the new scheme is 100 per cent. of rents and 80 per cent. of rates, rather than 60 per cent. as it was before. That is a significant improvement for people on low incomes with small amounts of capital.
Similarly, to answer the hon. Lady's charge that the Government are introducing a disincentive to save, I should say that we are liberalising the capital rules. Previously, any interest that was received over and above the income on a capital sum of £3,000 was subjected to the withdrawals and tapers. We have now introduced a scheme whereby the interest on the first £3,000 is disregarded entirely, and a person does not lose the benefit entirely, until the sum of £8,000 is reached. That is far more reasonable, because the rate of interest that is assumed on a sum of between £3,000 and £3,250 is 1.6 per cent. No one in this country in his right mind is investing his money and receiving only 1.6 per cent. interest on it. Even on the figures that the Government have chosen to take for the withdrawal of benefit, we are being generous to people and taking only a small portion of the income that they receive as the cause of the reduction in their benefit.
All those are compromises. We can all make claims for different figures, capital limits, tapers and withdrawals. An argument could be constructed for any of them, but it is disingenuous of Opposition Members to criticise the figures that we have chosen, without providing figures of their own in return so that we can subject them to the same criticism that they throw at us. That is the weakness of the Opposition. They will not come clean with us in the way that we, as a Government, have come clean with them.
I welcome the housing benefit review and the changes that have been announced. I welcome also the transitional arrangements, because it is wrong for significant alterations in people's expectations to occur in too sharp a way. That is why I thought it was wrong when Sir Keith Joseph, now Lord Joseph, introduced changes in student grant entitlements in 1985. People had not been able to build into their expectations the changes that were announced. Although I am in favour of making the changes on a long-term basis, there should be a period when we can work ourselves into the new system. That is only fair and just, and therefore I welcome the Government's desire to make the changes that we are debating.
§ Mr. Hamilton
We can argue about that. It is much better to take the view that we should monitor how the system works, the take-up levels and how great the need is, and then adjust the system in the light of experience, rather than take a theoretical view at the start and make hard and fast decisions that may turn out to be wrong.
§ Mr. Winnick
I echo all the views put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms. Abbott) about the hardship and misery that has been caused by the change in the housing benefit regulations. Does the hon. Gentleman receive tax relief on his mortgage interest, or has he decided to refund that sum to the Exchequer? Surely on his income, which, as I understand it, is not exclusively parliamentary, he does not require any such financial assistance.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I have a mortgage and I claim tax relief on the maximum amount allowed of £30,000. Is the implication of the hon. Gentleman's remark that the Labour party is now in favour of the abolition of mortgage interest relief? Again, the hon. Gentleman—whom I would dearly love to see on the Opposition Front Bench; I cannot think why he has not been promoted, nor why I have not been promoted, because we could make a double act of this—makes a disingenuous point. If we were starting from scratch, we would not introduce mortgage interest relief. It is an anomaly in the tax system that has existed for a long time. However, for practical reasons, neither party ——
§ Mr. Haynes
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) has taken 17 minutes up to now. He knows that there is not enough time for every hon. Member who wishes to speak. Other hon. Members have been present throughout the debate, but he walked in after it had begun and is making a long speech because no other Conservative Members wish to speak. It is completely unfair.
§ Mr. Hamilton
It is undesirable that Opposition Front-Bench Members should attack their Back-Bench colleagues for intervening in my speech and so protracting it. I am always delighted to give way, because that is what true debate is all about, rather than simply moving from Front-Bench spokesman to Back Bencher bawling out views that add nothing to the debate. The exchanges that we have had across the Floor have brought a great deal of light to the debate, unlike the hon. Gentleman, who merely adds heat and noise, which gets us nowhere.
§ Mr. Hamilton
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am always keen to support our democratic parliamentary institutions and to debate, calmly and rationally, matters such as this, which are of great importance to our constituents. I only wish that many more Labour Members took the same view. If they did, I am sure that their party would do much better in the country. I am certainly not attempting to filibuster. I have made most of the points that I wanted to make in an orderly way in a somewhat disorderly way as a result of the interventions of Opposition Members.
§ Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)
Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sure that the House wishes to assist you in having a genuine debate. Surely it is unreasonable, as well as unfair, for an hon. Member who has not heard all the debate to keep waiting other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), who have heard all the debate and are anxious to speak.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
I hope that the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) will have regard to the points of order that have been raised.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I do not wish to be unreasonable Nothing is further from my thoughts, and I shall sit down shortly. I have been in a similar situation on many previous occasions when Opposition Members have spoken at inordinate length without adding as much light to the debate as my speech has done. I feel for them, and I shall observe the points that have been made.
All I would say about the system that we are defending here today is that we are introducing a simplified system 295 that will add to the understanding or ordinary people, for whom the system is constructed. It is fairer than the old system. It deals partly with the problems of the poverty trap and it targets more accurately the benefits that are available under our social security system. Therefore, I have no hesitation in supporting the Government's amendment to the Opposition's motion. Conservative Members are prepared honestly to face the problems of the social security system, whereas the Opposition are prepared only to make generalised assertions, without telling us what their proposals would be. They are prepared to attack us without giving us the opportunity to attack them.
§ Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)
Government Back Benchers have expressed confusion about particular points that have been made, and that confusion extends to the Government Front Bench. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd) on the Government Front Bench. The hon. Gentleman has inherited the post of Under-Secretary of State from the fastest moving Minister, as he has been described in the press today, who has moved on to other things.
As we have been reminded, we have said goodbye to paragraphs in the manual and we have now said goodbye to the Under-Secretary of State. However, he has left behind the remains of the debate on housing benefit that I attended, as I have attended every minute of this debate, late at night on 19 July. The Under-Secretary of State might like to recall his colleague to answer a point that arises from something that he said during that debate or ask his Department for a clear answer, because people need to know.
The then Under-Secretary of State was pressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) about the transitional arrangements. He said:The transitional protection will run from the beginning of April until 31 July for those who apply after 31 July. The date of 31 July is not a cut-off point for the receipt of applications. I hope that I have made that point clear.Some of us were surprised by that remark, and when I pressed the Minister further he said:We have given that undertaking several times. I said in my introductory remarks that the 31 July date is not a deadline for applications. It is a deadline for transitional protection, which can be paid only up to that date, but applications will be welcome beyond that time."—[Official Report, 19 July 1988; Vol. 137, c. 1051–61.]I am advised that if members of the public telephone the DSS to ask about that reply, they are told that it was wrong. I hope that the Minister will assure the House that it was not wrong. I hope that he will clarify that point, because people do not know what the transitional arrangements are. People may not be put off from applying, but will those who apply after 31 July receive transitional protection only from the date of application and not from 1 April? That could make a world of difference, particularly if the transitional payments cannot be processed until months later, because that will mean that such people are applying after the period of transitional protection so they will not be entitled to that relief. If that reference simply disappears from Hansard, it will be a case of Government by Tipp-Ex—rubbing out the 296 inconvenient bits rather than putting before us policies that can be clearly explained to the people whom we represent.
There are only five days to go before the 31 July deadline. Conservative Members do not seem to be aware of the scale of what they simply refer to as anomalies. Leeds has 60,000 council tenants on benefits and 17,000 private tenants, of whom 10,000 receive income support. Originally, the transitional protection did not extend to those who did not receive income support—in other words, 25,000 of those 60,000. Then the Government extended the scheme to those who receive income support, but not to those who receive over 80 per cent. help with their rates, which is the vast majority of that group, nor those who have lost less than £2.50 a week. In other words, they have not lost enough to be cushioned against the changes.
In effect, only 25,000 in Leeds may receive help. According to anybody's arithmetic, there are clearly many more losers than gainers. As I said last week, elderly people are now arriving at my advice surgeries in tears asking why their benefits have been cut for the first time in their lives. They cannot understand the Government's policies.
§ Mr. Greg Knight
I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Will he explain why, if things are as bad as he makes out, on an Opposition day only five Labour Back Benchers are in the Chamber? Is that not a disgrace?
§ Mr. Battle
I am growing used to the Government's tactics in this Chamber. When Conservative Members do not have an argument to make, they try to slide in a little abuse to keep the debate going.
§ Mr. Tom Clarke
My hon. Friend was referring to the elderly, but does he accept that the problems he outlines, which are common to most constituencies, suggest that the Government's policies have struck a blow at community care? Is he not surprised that, although the Griffiths report was published the day after the Budget, there has still been no Government statement, no debate, and no understanding of the Government's view of it?
§ Mr. Battle
Someone has already commented that it seems as though the Government's social security policy is made up day by day. That may now change because the Department has been divided, but we are still looking for clear policies to help people, rather than accepting the fictitious impression given by the Government, which has been reinforced by Conservative Members restating it, that people are being supported. That still does not explain to my constituents where they stand. Before 1 April, they paid £13.60 rent out of their pensions, but then they found that it had been increased to £22.11. It can be argued that the capital rules have changed and that those pensioners will get their money back. However, those repayments will only be backdated to 30 May, not 1 April, which means that such pensioners will lose two months' money at the rate of £8.51 per week. Where do they stand? Why must they lose as a result of the Government changing their mind over a period of three weeks since the original rent regulations came before Parliament?
Leeds city council is currently running a programme to identify cases eligible for transitional protection. However, that programme will be ready only at the end of this week, which coincidentally matches the very date of the scheme's 297 closure. It seems to many of us that the Government are making up the rules as they fumble along. They produced form RR4, which claimants must obtain and complete before returning it to the Glasgow unit. That unit then sends those details to each local authority, and they in turn fill in form TP3 and return it to Glasgow. Glasgow then sends the claimant a declaration, which must be signed before any payment can be made.
There are two problems with that process. First, form RR4, having barely been distributed, is already out of date because its first draft did not include those who are on income support, but it does now because the rules have been changed. Secondly—and more disastrous for the people whom we represent—claimants are forced to borrow money at high rates of interest so that they may pay their rent while they wait to learn whether or not they will get their money back. As was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), the scheme certainly hits the erosion factor.
In a question for written answer, I asked the Minister whether any account had been taken in the calculations of housing benefit for next year of the rent increases that will result from the implementation of the Housing Act in September. His answer was crystal clear—that housing benefit would not be there to match the rent increases accruing as a result of the introduction of the Housing Act this autumn.
That will mean that in future, the poor in society—I note that the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton), who spoke for so long, does not have the courtesy to listen to the speeches following his, which I assumed was a custom of the House—will have to pay more than one third of their income on housing, which places them in an impossible situation. Those on low incomes will be left with absolutely no margin. There is no question of any problem in implementing increases or extra resources, as has been suggested.
The housing benefit proposals were crystal clear in the Green Paper, "The Reform of Social Security." When the whole process of reform began, the Labour party and many of my hon. Friends pressed for the figures. It was clear from one figure that housing benefit would have to be cut back. That was presented very much in the terms used by the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Irvine), who suggested that people ought not to receive housing benefit, and that, if they did not have a job, the need to get the money to pay their rent will provide them with the incentive to obtain one. The cut in housing beneflt—and the Government cannot get out of it now—has come home to roost on the Dispatch Box, and the Minister must answer for that cut, no matter how much he may argue that other changes have made life easier for claimants.
As one pensioner put it to me, the people who will pay the price of those changes can do the arithmetic. Their question to the Government is, "Why can't you do the arithmetic? Why are you spending more on telling the public about Sid or on advertising the 1992 Euromarket than you are on supporting and informing people who are on benefits?"
§ Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston)
A diabetic constituent of mine, who is aged 75, and his wife will lose £5 per week. He said to me, "This cannot be right." I had to tell him that it is correct in the Government's terms, but certainly it is not right in moral terms. Does my hon. Friend agree?
§ Mr. Battle
I agree absolutely. The public at large understand that one cannot take money from the poor and give it to the rich, and then claim that one is on the high moral ground. People openly see and acknowledge the injustice of doing so. I would only add this rider to my hon. Friend's observation. Although we present case after case to the Government, they are shrugged off as anomalies or as individual instances, whereas they hallmark a fault in the structure of the changes. It is the structure that is wrong, and we shall continue to challenge and expose it.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
A whole group of people will not benefit, and I have many instances of them in my own constituency. I refer, for example, to young single people in low-paid work. I could not elicit an answer from the Minister, but what does my hon. Friend think of a single man of 19, having a gross weekly income of £52.56, losing about £14 per week because of housing benefit changes? What am I to say to such a constituent? Should I tell him, "Don't worry, because someone else will benefit from them."? The Minister would not tell me how I should reply, so perhaps my hon. Friend will give me a clue as to what I should say about this vicious and evil Government.
§ Mr. Battle
What strikes me about my hon. Friend's remark is that I remember that in one of the first weeks of this Parliament, nearly one year ago, a Conservative Member suggested that perhaps the whole social security system ought to be reformed. He did not seem to realise that that process had been going on for years and that the Government set out to reform the system to achieve precisely what some Conservative Back Benchers suggest —a cut in the social security budget, regardless of who pays the price. We all know that those who will pay the price are at the bottom of society. Sadly, we are left to explain to our constituents that that reform is not bettering people but is taking money from the worst-off for redistribution not only in the social security system but also through the tax system to ensure that the best-off in our society benefit from it. That is the difficulty.
I ask the Minister to give a clear and unequivocal statement about the transitional arrangements. Will he assure the House that paragraphs in Hansard of the last housing benefits debate will not be rubbed out as a mistake at the Dispatch Box by the former Minister, who has now moved on to another Department? Will the Minister stand by what was said then, or will he tell the House what is the latest situation? Unless those matters are clarified, of course people will remain anxious about whether or not they will receive transitional payments. It is not simply that people have had money taken away from them, but that the Government's proposals to do something even about the margins of that problem are seriously in question.
Let me drive home to the Government a point made to me by a pensioner. The people who pay the price can do the arithmetic. I hope that the Minister is getting his Department to do the arithmetic about all the cases that the Opposition have mentioned this afternoon. Conservative Members who refuse to sit and listen to the debate and who write off our examples—as my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) has said—as if we had invented fictitious characters, should listen to us rather than go into the Lobby tonight to vote against us ostrich-like with their heads in the sand. If they do that, they will be seen to be 299 deliberately and blindly voting down the poor into the margins of our society, and they should be held to account in every constituency in the country.
§ Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)
I have sat and listened to the debate from the start, and I have paid close attention to the argument by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) in his moving address. I acknowledge that he and many of his hon. Friends have considerable knowledge of the subject, and that they have put with passion and care their arguments about the way in which the changes in social security, and particularly in housing benefit, have affected their constituents.
I hope, however, that the hon. Member for Leeds, West does not think that he and his hon. Friends have a monopoly in their handling of these issues, or that Conservative Members are entirely hard-hearted. The present Government have at least had the courage to get hold of the social security system and to recognise the inescapable underlying fact of a decreasing working base and an increasing number of people who are dependent for part of their lives on some form of state benefit.
§ Mr. Jack
Part of the Government's policy has been to reduce the standard rate of income tax, and the value of mortgage relief has been falling over a period. Let us put mortgage relief to one side. It may be a way out—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) would like to make a proper intervention, I shall sit down, but sedentary interventions that have not been thought out are not helpful at this stage. The hon. Gentleman has clearly not thought out his intervention, so I shall continue.
I have paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Social Security for his appreciation of some of the problems that followed the changes in social security. I hope that my hon. Friends will not mind my mentioning what happened when a number of us got together with my hon. Friend the Minister and told him how we saw the first stab at the subject of housing benefit. My hon. Friend listened carefully to what was said, moving quickly and arguing his case well in Government to bring forward the transitional arrangements. It is often said that once Government have decided what they want to do there is no way which they can be moved. It is a tribute to my hon. Friend's powers of advocacy that we are here tonight debating the arrangements.
Let us examine some salient points. According to a Library research note, it is estimated that in the financial year 1988–89 some 3.4 million people will still receive a rebate in connection with rent, and that 5.8 million will receive rate rebates. Despite all that has been said, the Government will be spending some £5.4 billion. That is a good deal of public money. Opposition Members do not often take into account when chastising my hon. Friends on the Front Bench the fact that someone has to pay for it all, and many taxpayers are glad that the Government have had the courage to address the problem.
§ Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)
Does the hon. Gentleman accept—or perhaps advocate—that an 300 86-year-old widow in my constituency, who receives £44 a week in pension, £35 a month in National Coal Board pension and £4.50 a week in concessionary coal allowance in lieu of coal, should now find that the Government no longer allow concessionary coal allowance money to be counted in housing benefit? She must now pay £8 a week extra. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that that old lady should help to pay for the concessions that the Government have supposedly given, or does he think that she should receive transitional help as well?
§ Mr. Jack
In an earlier debate my hon. Friend the Minister said that he would monitor carefully the way in which the new arrangements were to be phased in, and it is barely six months since he gave us that assurance. I am sure that he will have noted the technical point about the way in which the regulations operate.
When people came to my advice bureau, I observed that much of their confusion was due to the effects not only of increased council rents but of large rate increases. People in Lancashire have suffered from an 18.5 per cent. rate increase. Some of the background details explain why people are complaining about the cost of housing. There is a way out of some of the problems put to us by Opposition Members: to run housing more efficiently and to reduce the costs of local government.
One group has been rather missed out in this debate —the people who bought their own homes and were affected by the £6,000 capital rule. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister decided to change that, because many of those people are now able to gain some benefit. I have been struck by the negative tone of the debate, in which no one has considered whether there are other ways if increasing people's income rather than expecting them to turn to the state for some form of handout. Will my hon. Friend use his Department's considerable powers to see whether there are ways of helping people who have an asset in their homes to unlock it and generate income, so that they can be freed from the dependency culture and given an added impetus?
Will my hon. Friend talk to his hon. Friends in the Treasury? I asked a parliamentary question about the number of people receiving housing benefit who also happened to be taxpayers. Will my hon. Friend ask the Treasury to tip the balance slightly to help such people to stop being taxpayers? The Conservative party has done much to reduce the standard rate of tax and increase allowances, but a little push from my hon. Friend might remove those people's need for housing benefit, thus freeing resources that could then be applied—through my hon. Friend's skills—to deal with some of the cases put to us with such compassion by Opposition Members.
Conservative Members too are compassionate; we are concerned about the factors that lead people to need housing benefit. But we also recognise the need for the social security changes, and we shall support them in the Lobby.
§ Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)
It is right that now, before the summer recess, we should look at what is happening and will be happening to many of our constituents during and after that period. It is also right that we should remember—as my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) said at the outset—that the cut of £650 million from housing benefit payments made in 301 April is not a mistake, a miscalculation or a misunderstanding, but, as the Secretary of State courteously informed us, a deliberate act of Government policy.
The Minister of State gave us a long list of all the things to which the Government said goodbye in April, but I should like to remind him of an item that he omitted. They said goodbye to 1 million people who were no longer entitled to housing benefit of any kind. The act of taking that money from housing benefit was deliberately and specifically supported by the vast majority of Government Back Benchers, with a few honourable exceptions. I am pleased that so many Conservative Members have defended their Government's policy. They put their names, necks and reputations on the line and said that the Government are right to take this money from people who are suffering.
The Government have alleged that this is a more generous scheme. They say that it costs more now than it did in 1979. There are a number of reasons for that. The number of people who have retired has increased. That is a demographic change. There has been an increase in the number of unemployed people. There have been increases in rents and rates following the cuts in housing support and the rate support grant. For which of those reasons do the Government seek praise in their amendment? They have reiterated that housing benefit is paid too far up the income scale, even though some of the Ministers who have passed before us in dizzy progression at the Dispatch Box knew that the right to housing benefit was lost at far below average earnings, unless rent or rates were exceptionally high.
The next bit of the script, delivered in hushed tones, was that housing benefit went to one in three households. That always worked. It would be unkind to speculate on whether the Government Whips Office holds training sessions for Back Benchers so that it is sure that there will always be cries of "Shame," or other noises off. They were a little more subdued today than they had been in the past.
Finally, it has perhaps begun to dawn on Conservative Members that if one household in three is receiving housing benefit, many of them must be in their constituencies. It is notable that those who cried, "Forward," when they heard that magic statistic in the past soon cried, "Back," when they realised how many of the losers live in their own constituencies.
The Minister of State accused us of scouring the country looking for victims, but they came to us. I am confident that all my hon. Friends and even Conservative Members remember at least one of those who stepped forward—a pensioner who did not understand why the cuts had been made. Nobody had told her. The Prime Minister was utterly shocked and dismayed to discover at her constituency advice bureau that pensioners in her constituency were losing large sums of money.
The Government say that three years of meticulous planning went into the changes and that they were all carried out under the eagle eye of the woman who misses nothing. It looks as though the Prime Minister suffered from a severe case of unpredictable memory loss. Such memory losses are always triggered by serious Government difficulties. It is a form of anxiety neurosis for which the right hon. Lady should seek medical advice. Either the Prime Minister was incompetent because she did 302 not know what the Government were doing, or her staff failed to warn her that this issue would cause her the most difficulty.
There is another possible explanation. Perhaps the Prime Minister hoped that her constituents would blame the local council in whose name the bad news would be sent forth. It has worked often enough in the past. Up and down the land, councils of all political colours have carried the can for cuts dictated by the Government. As with major crimes, the police nail the small fry but the bigger culprit continues to enjoy unscathed his large house and fat income. That explanation fits the evidence.
For three years, while the Opposition and a few very honourable Conservative Members, as well as housing and social security experts across the country predicted the losses that people would experience, the Government remained utterly indifferent. Even in the week after the cuts were made, the Government did nothing and said that they would continue to do nothing. It was only when they realised that they were getting stuck with the blame for their actions that they panicked and rushed through the emergency package.
Ever since, they have loudly congratulated themselves on their wisdom and generosity. Was it wisdom to give back £100 million that they should never have taken in the first place from the most vulnerable groups in the community? The Minister of State said that he thought that the Government ought to be given credit for giving back a bit of what they had taken away. Were the Government generous to keep the other £550 million? Would the Minister be grateful to a mugger who gave him the bus fare home?
Even with this much vaunted transitional protection, the scheme is still in something of a mess. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) referred to the complicated system that local councils and the transitional payment unit have to follow. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms. Abbott) referred to a recent answer to a parliamentary question about people on income support who had been given transitional protection for some of the losses that they might otherwise have faced. She referred to confusion. My hon. Friend is entirely right: many local authorities are confused. Despite the parliamentary answer, they have not been told officially of these concessions. Confusion also exists at Richmond house. When guidance was sought about the changes, all knowledge of them was denied. We are still experiencing substantial difficulties.
My hon. Friend referred to the very considerable rent arrears that are already building up in local authorities. They will be a problem for local authorities. They will be a problem for local authorities. But what frightens me about the cases that have been identified is that the people who are building up rent arrears are doing so because they believe and understand, based on Government propaganda, that they will receive transitional protection for all losses of over £2.50. I shudder to think what will happen when they realise that their enormous debts may not be paid.
It does not seem to have sunk into the minds of Conservative Members who echoed the Minister of State's self-congratulation that even if we take the Government's defence of their package face value it is still, at best, transitional protection. It escaped the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) who chided my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) for giving 303 various case histories. Even if they are eligible for transitional protection—and it is doubtful whether all of them will be eligible—their losses will be phased in and they will lose that money. It is just a question of how fast they lose it.
§ Mr. Neil Hamilton
Will the hon. Lady let us into a secret? Ought there to be a needs assessment for housing benefit purposes? If so, what are the capital limits and the tapers that she would apply to the withdrawal of benefit? Furthermore, what is the estimated cost to public funds of her proposal?
§ Mrs. Beckett
As usual, the hon. Gentleman dwells on the capital limit. The capital limit will result in very few losses. In this day and age, a capital limit of £10,000 might be just. Most of the losers lose because of the taper, and the loss is extremely severe.
Whatever happens, the transitional protection that we are debating will be whittled away as time goes on, as rents and rates rise and as only last year's income is available to meet next year's prices. It is suggested that that process will not be fast enough for the Government. They might decide that next year the so-called acceptable loss should be £3.50 and that the year after that it should be £4.50. That loss, which is acceptable to the Government, will be on top of next year's rent and rates rises. An income of less than this year's income will have to meet next year's price increases.
Next year's rent increases, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West said, will be substantial, if the Secretary of State for the Environment has his way. They will almost certainly be enough to wipe out the transitional protection that is provided for most of those who receive it. It will leave them, as the Government intended from the first, much worse off than they were in March 1988.
It may not take as long for the scheme to disappear as many Government Back Benchers fondly hope—that is, not before the villains have left the scene and the public have forgotten the names of the guilty parties. It may be next year or the year after, because the point of transitional protection is not to prevent hardship but to break people more slowly into hardship—and I use the word "break" advisedly.
Soon, other voices will be heard—the voices of the newly unemployed, the newly disabled, the newly separated and the newly retired, who are expected to manage on incomes below, in some cases far below, those that they would have received if only they had had the forethought to be 65, or jobless, or sick last year rather than this. The Government have not yet abolished the welfare state, but they are steadily eroding its foundations.
At my weekend advice bureau, I met an extremely intelligent, competent and sensible woman who has worked all her life and is proud of it and who is extremely independent. She has been unlucky. Her marriage failed after many years and she has become afflicted with arthritis. She has only a small occupational pension in addition to the state pension. She receives no other help or support. She is precisely one of those to whom so many Conservative Members have referred in the debate, who are not in sufficient need to deserve help under this Government. She is a sensible person and has no extravagances, but she tells me that she cannot live on her income. She has been fortunate enough to get some 304 part-time work but it is not easy for her to do it because of her arthritis. She asks me what she is to do and how she will manage when she is no longer fit to work, and I do not know what to tell her.
What would the Minister tell her? There is no doubt that her income will drop substantially if she has to cease work. Would the Minister tell her that the country cannot afford any more because we must give priority to those who are already among the wealthiest? Should I tell her that the Government believe that it is wrong to withdraw income from the wealthy at more than 40p in every extra pound, but that it is right to take 80p to 95p from the poor?
The Government have justified the cuts and praised themselves for phasing them in by saying over and over again that we must not help people who do not need help and that we must liberate them from dependency. The Government define the people who really need help as those who are already wealthy. They define those who do not need help as those who are on low incomes. They use the stick for the poor and the carrot for the wealthy.
It is not even true that the Government set their face against dependency. Through the regulations and guidelines, they are telling people to depend on friends and relatives and to scrounge from them. The Government demand that people ask for charity—anything, as long as they do not ask for their rights in a fair society. That would be too independent by half.
The history of the transitional protection scheme is shabby and sordid. The scheme is inadequate, short-term, short-sighted and a sop to public concern. One could call it the figleaf to cover the Government's shame, except that this Government have no shame and show no justice.
§ Mr. Scott
I take the opportunity—the last, I imagine —with the leave of the House, not to reassert the reasons why we introduced the housing benefit scheme in its present form or why we were convinced by rational argument of the need for transitional protection, but to allay some of the anxieties that have been raised during the debate and to answer a number of points[...] that have been made.
I shall first take the opportunity utterly to refute the point made by the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett), that the Government have in any sense embarked on undermining the welfare state or the social security system. Our budget for social security is now about £50 billion a year. It is the largest single programme of the Government, and it is larger now than it has ever been. I cannot accept the hon. Lady's strictures. If we are to be criticised simply because we want to ensure that the money is spent as effectively as possible, she has chosen the wrong target.
It is important to answer some of the points that have been raised, not least because there are people outside the House who may have been made anxious by some of the comments made by Opposition Members.
§ Mr. Scott
Much more significant for the people who are awaiting help from the transitional protection system that we have introduced are the following figures: first, some 4 million application forms have been issued by the Government and the unit; 119,000 and over have been received back; nearly 50,000 have been sent out to local authorities, asking them for information so that the applications can be processed; nearly 8,000 of those have come back; and more than 1,700 people have been told that they will receive payment.
Those figures show that, whatever fun can be had with the 68 payments, the system of transitional protection is now on stream to provide the help that we intend to provide for those who need it. I understand why there was an element of impatience, but it was right to introduce the system with trained staff and properly thought out arrangements.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
I assure the Minister that I can resist him with no great difficulty. Why can he not give local authorities more resources—at the moment they receive only about £5 per form—so that they make their checks that much more quickly? Demands are being placed on local authorities that many of them are not in a position to meet.
§ Mr. Scott
There were negotiations between the Department and the local authorities, and satisfactory arrangements were made to compensate local authorities for their work. I am sure that the vast majority of them will show as much commitment and enthusiasm in helping us to operate the transitional protection as they did in bringing the housing benefits scheme itself into operation.
We estimate that the scheme that we have introduced will help more than 300,000 people, at a cost of £65 million. Opposition Members had fun with projections about the length of time that it would take to process applications. The information that I obtained on my trip to Glasgow yesterday was that some applications are being dealt with in two to three weeks. The maximum time that the processing takes is about eight weeks, and as the staff become more and more familiar with the operation of the scheme, so we hope that the average time will be consistently reduced.
We are anxious to provide the help as quickly as possible to those whose claims are successful. I was immensely impressed yesterday to hear staff answering the freephone and analysing claimants' circumstances so as to give quick and clear advice as to whether they qualified and, if so, how they could apply for help.
Opposition Members were worried about the date of 31 July. I should make it clear that 31 July is the date applying only to those affected by the change in the capital rule from £6,000 to £8,000. Bearing in mind the publicity associated with the introduction of the scheme, I should have thought that three months would have been ample for someone 306 discovering that he had capital of between £6,000 and £8,000 to apply for transitional protection. Even if people fail to do that, however, an adjusted form of transitional protection will be available to them. In any case, the 31 July date does not apply to help under transitional protection in general, and no one should worry about his ability to obtain help if he applies beyond that date for ordinary transitional protection.
The hon. Member for Livingston urged me to make an announcement about the way in which the transitional protection would be eroded, as he put it. The important announcement about transitional protection has already been made. I made it at the Dispatch Box, and other Ministers have reiterated it. Transitional payments will continue as necessary into future years. The exact arrangements will depend on the extent of the loss and the pace at which people's benefits and other income changes in the years ahead. Increasing prosperity in our strong economy may well affect that.
We will come forward with detailed arrangements before the end of the year, but it is important for us to be able to establish, before announcing those details, a clear idea of the extent of successful claims for transitional protection and the average payments that are being made.
I welcome back the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) and whichever party he is representing this month. I can understand him missing some of our advertising in The Sun or the News of the World, but I cannot understand him missing the advertisements which appeared in the Scottish news-papers. We spent some £265,000 on that advertising campaign, and we are about to spend rather more on the second stage of our advertising. I believe that, when we have completed that, there will be no excuse at all for anyone not being aware of the availability of the scheme, which will bring real help to those who need it. I commend the amendment to the House, and I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to support it in the Lobby.
§ Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:
§ The House divided: Ayes 210, Noes 279.310
|Division No. 445]||[7.00 pm|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Buchan, Norman|
|Allen, Graham||Buckley, George J.|
|Anderson, Donald||Caborn, Richard|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)|
|Armstrong, Hilary||Campbell-Savours, D. N.|
|Ashdown, Paddy||Canavan, Dennis|
|Ashley, Rt Hon Jack||Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)|
|Ashton, Joe||Clark, Dr David (S Shields)|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)|
|Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)||Clay, Bob|
|Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)||Clelland, David|
|Barron, Kevin||Cohen, Harry|
|Battle, John||Coleman, Donald|
|Beckett, Margaret||Cook, Robin (Livingston)|
|Beggs, Roy||Corbyn, Jeremy|
|Beith, A. J.||Cousins, Jim|
|Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)||Crowther, Stan|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Cryer, Bob|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Cummings, John|
|Blair, Tony||Cunliffe, Lawrence|
|Boateng, Paul||Cunningham, Dr John|
|Boyes, Roland||Darling, Alistair|
|Bradley, Keith||Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodgo H'l)|
|Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)||Dewar, Donald|
|Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)||Dixon, Don|
|Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)||Dobson, Frank|
|Doran, Frank||McWilliam, John|
|Douglas, Dick||Madden, Max|
|Duffy, A. E. P.||Mahon, Mrs Alice|
|Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth||Marek, Dr John|
|Eadie, Alexander||Marshall, David (Shettleston)|
|Eastham, Ken||Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)|
|Evans, John (St Helens N)||Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)|
|Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)||Martlew, Eric|
|Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)||Meacher, Michael|
|Fatchett, Derek||Meale, Alan|
|Faulds, Andrew||Michael, Alun|
|Fearn, Ronald||Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)|
|Field, Frank (Birkenhead)||Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)|
|Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)||Millan, Rt Hon Bruce|
|Fisher, Mark||Molyneaux, Rt Hon James|
|Flannery, Martin||Moonie, Dr Lewis|
|Flynn, Paul||Morley, Elliott|
|Foot, Rt Hon Michael||Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)|
|Foster, Derek||Mowlam, Marjorie|
|Foulkes, George||Mullin, Chris|
|Fraser, John||Murphy, Paul|
|Galbraith, Sam||Nellist, Dave|
|Galloway, George||Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon|
|Garrett, John (Norwich South)||O'Brien, William|
|Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|George, Bruce||Owen, Rt Hon Dr David|
|Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John||Parry, Robert|
|Godman, Dr Norman A.||Patchett, Terry|
|Golding, Mrs Llin||Pendry, Tom|
|Gould, Bryan||Pike, Peter L.|
|Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)||Powell, Ray (Ogmore)|
|Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)||Prescott, John|
|Grocott, Bruce||Quin, Ms Joyce|
|Harman, Ms Harriet||Radice, Giles|
|Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy||Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn|
|Healey, Rt Hon Denis||Richardson, Jo|
|Heffer, Eric S.||Roberts, Allan (Bootle)|
|Henderson, Doug||Robinson, Geoffrey|
|Hinchliffe, David||Rogers, Allan|
|Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)||Rooker, Jeff|
|Holland, Stuart||Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)|
|Home Robertson, John||Rowlands, Ted|
|Hood, Jimmy||Ruddock, Joan|
|Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath)||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Hoyle, Doug||Sheerman, Barry|
|Hughes, John (Coventry NE)||Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)||Skinner, Dennis|
|Hughes, Roy (Newport E)||Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)|
|Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)||Smith, C. (lsl'ton & F'bury)|
|Illsley, Eric||Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)|
|Ingram, Adam||Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)|
|John, Brynmor||Snape, Peter|
|Johnston, Sir Russell||Soley, Clive|
|Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)||Spearing, Nigel|
|Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Môn)||Steinberg, Gerry|
|Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)||Strang, Gavin|
|Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald||Straw, Jack|
|Kennedy, Charles||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)|
|Kilfedder, James||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil||Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)|
|Kirkwood, Archy||Vaz, Keith|
|Lambie, David||Wall, Pat|
|Lamond, James||Wallace, James|
|Leadbitter, Ted||Wardell, Gareth (Gower)|
|Leighton, Ron||Wareing, Robert N.|
|Lestor, Joan (Eccles)||Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)|
|Lewis, Terry||Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)|
|Litherland, Robert||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Livsey, Richard||Williams, Rt Hon Alan|
|Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)||Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)|
|Lofthouse, Geoffrey||Wilson, Brian|
|Loyden, Eddie||Winnick, David|
|McAllion, John||Wise, Mrs Audrey|
|McAvoy, Thomas||Worthington, Tony|
|Macdonald, Calum A.||Wray, Jimmy|
|McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)||Young, David (Bolton SE)|
|McLeish, Henry||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|McNamara, Kevin||Mr. Frank Haynes and Mr. Nigel Griffiths.|
|Adley, Robert||Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Glyn, Dr Alan|
|Alexander, Richard||Goodhart, Sir Philip|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Goodlad, Alastair|
|Amery, Rt Hon Julian||Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles|
|Amess, David||Gorman, Mrs Teresa|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Gorst, John|
|Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)||Gow, Ian|
|Ashby, David||Gower, Sir Raymond|
|Atkins, Robert||Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)|
|Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)||Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)||Greenway, John (Ryedale)|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Griffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E')|
|Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)||Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Ground, Patrick|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Grylls, Michael|
|Biggs-Davison, Sir John||Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn|
|Body, Sir Richard||Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Hampson, Dr Keith|
|Bottomley, Peter||Hanley, Jeremy|
|Bottomley, Mrs Virginia||Hannam, John|
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)||Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)|
|Bowis, John||Harris, David|
|Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes||Haselhurst, Alan|
|Brandon-Bravo, Martin||Hawkins, Christopher|
|Brazier, Julian||Hayes, Jerry|
|Bright, Graham||Hayward, Robert|
|Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)||Heathcoat-Amory, David|
|Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)||Heddle, John|
|Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon Alick||Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)|
|Burt, Alistair||Hicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)|
|Butler, Chris||Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.|
|Butterfill, John||Hill, James|
|Carlisle, John, (Luton N)||Hind, Kenneth|
|Carrington, Matthew||Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)|
|Channon, Rt Hon Paul||Holt, Richard|
|Chapman, Sydney||Hordern, Sir Peter|
|Chope, Christopher||Howard, Michael|
|Churchill, Mr||Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)|
|Clark, Hon Alan (Plym'th S'n)||Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)|
|Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)||Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)||Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)|
|Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)||Hunt, David (Wirral W)|
|Colvin, Michael||Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)|
|Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)||Hunter, Andrew|
|Coombs, Simon (Swindon)||Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas|
|Cormack, Patrick||Irvine, Michael|
|Couchman, James||Irving, Charles|
|Cran, James||Jack, Michael|
|Critchley, Julian||Jackson, Robert|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Janman, Tim|
|Curry, David||Jessel, Toby|
|Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)||Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey|
|Day, Stephen||Jones, Robert B (Herts W)|
|Devlin, Tim||Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine|
|Dickens, Geoffrey||Key, Robert|
|Dorrell, Stephen||King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Kirkhope, Timothy|
|Dover, Den||Knapman, Roger|
|Durant, Tony||Knight, Greg (Derby North)|
|Emery, Sir Peter||Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)|
|Fallon, Michael||Knowles, Michael|
|Farr, Sir John||Knox, David|
|Favell, Tony||Lamont, Rt Hon Norman|
|Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey||Lang, Ian|
|Fishburn, Dudley||Latham, Michael|
|Fookes, Miss Janet||Lawrence, Ivan|
|Forman, Nigel||Lee, John (Pendle)|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark|
|Forth, Eric||Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Norman||Lilley, Peter|
|Fox, Sir Marcus||Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)|
|Franks, Cecil||Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)|
|Freeman, Roger||Lord, Michael|
|French, Douglas||Luce, Rt Hon Richard|
|Fry, Peter||Lyell, Sir Nicholas|
|Gardiner, George||McCrindle, Robert|
|Garel-Jones, Tristan||Macfarlane, Sir Neil|
|Gill, Christopher||MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)|
|Maclean, David||Portillo, Michael|
|McLoughlin, Patrick||Powell, William (Corby)|
|McNair-Wilson, P. (New Forest)||Price, Sir David|
|Major, Rt Hon John||Raison, Rt Hon Timothy|
|Malins, Humfrey||Rathbone, Tim|
|Mans, Keith||Redwood, John|
|Maples, John||Riddick, Graham|
|Marland, Paul||Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas|
|Marlow, Tony||Ridsdale, Sir Julian|
|Marshall, John (Hendon S)||Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm|
|Marshall, Michael (Arundel)||Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)|
|Martin, David (Portsmouth S)||Rossi, Sir Hugh|
|Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin||Rost, Peter|
|Meyer, Sir Anthony||Ryder, Richard|
|Miller, Sir Hal||Sackville, Hon Tom|
|Mills, Iain||Sainsbury, Hon Tim|
|Miscampbell, Norman||Sayeed, Jonathan|
|Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)||Scott, Nicholas|
|Mitchell, David (Hants NW)||Shaw, David (Dover)|
|Moate, Roger||Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)|
|Monro, Sir Hector||Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')|
|Montgomery, Sir Fergus||Shelton, William (Streatham)|
|Moore, Rt Hon John||Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)|
|Morris, M (N'hampton S)||Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)|
|Morrison, Sir Charles||Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)|
|Morrison, Rt Hon P (Chester)||Shersby, Michael|
|Moss, Malcolm||Sims, Roger|
|Moynihan, Hon Colin||Skeet, Sir Trevor|
|Mudd, David||Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)|
|Neale, Gerrard||Soames, Hon Nicholas|
|Neubert, Michael||Speller, Tony|
|Newton, Rt Hon Tony||Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)|
|Nicholson, David (Taunton)||Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)|
|Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley||Stern, Michael|
|Oppenheim, Phillip||Stevens, Lewis|
|Page, Richard||Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)|
|Paice, James||Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)|
|Patnick, Irvine||Stewart, Ian (Hertfordshire N)|
|Patten, John (Oxford W)||Stradling Thomas, Sir John|
|Pawsey, James||Sumberg, David|
|Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth||Summerson, Hugo|
|Porter, Barry (Wirral S)||Taylor, Ian (Esher)|
|Porter, David (Waveney)||Taylor, John M (Solihull)|
|Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)||Ward, John|
|Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman||Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)|
|Temple-Morris, Peter||Watts, John|
|Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)||Wells, Bowen|
|Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)||Whitney, Ray|
|Thorne, Neil||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Thornton, Malcolm||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Thurnham, Peter||Wilkinson, John|
|Townend, John (Bridlington)||Wilshire, David|
|Tracey, Richard||Winterton, Mrs Ann|
|Tredinnick, David||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Trippier, David||Wolfson, Mark|
|Vaughan, Sir Gerard||Wood, Timothy|
|Waddington, Rt Hon David||Woodcock, Mike|
|Wakeham, Rt Hon John||Younger, Rt Hon George|
|Waller, Gary||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Walters, Sir Dennis|
|Mr. David Lightbown and Mr. Kenneth Carlisle.|
§ Question accordingly negatived.
§ Question, That the proposed words be there added,put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.
§ MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House applauds the Government's recent reforms of social security; notes that these will result in more taxpayers' money being spent this year than if the old system had continued, and spent in a way better targeted towards those in most need; recognises that the coverage of housing benefit had become too broad; notes that after the reforms housing benefit will still be received by more households than in 1979 and at greater real cost to the taxpayer; welcomes the Government's announcement of 27th April that some transitional protection for losses in housing benefit is to be made available to people in vulnerable groups; commends the Government for the speed with which the unit to administer these payments has been set up; and congratulates it on meeting its stated target of making the first payments in July.