HC Deb 03 July 1989 vol 156 cc3-6
4. Mr. Andrew Smith

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement on the extent of poverty in the United Kingdom.

13. Mr Macdonald

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement on the extent of poverty in the United Kingdom.

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

Like Ministers in previous Governments, I reject the concept of a poverty line. I share the view of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Social Services that is is absurd to claim that a third of the population lives in poverty.

The term "poverty" is deliberately being confused with income inequality and those who claim that the poor are getting poorer ignore improvements in living standards and real income growth for people at all income levels since 1979. Perverse statistical definitions of poverty do not help to identify individuals and families in genuine need.

Mr. Smith

Did not the right hon. Gentleman contemptuously dismiss other definitions of poverty in his end-of-the-line poverty speech, and has he not done so again today? Does he at least owe it to the poor and to this House to state his definition of poverty? How many poor people does he believe there are in Britain today?

Mr. Moore

The hon. Gentleman obviously had considerable difficulty in hearing. I did not—nor did I today—dismiss, define or even seek to define poverty. Nor has anyone who has had the responsibility of Government. I sought to dismiss the absurd statistical definition described as the poverty line. As I said, that dismissal was shared by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Social Services, although it is not shared by the Labour party.

What I sought to do in that speech, and what I seek to do in Government, is to help those who can be identified as being in need. That is why we are spending a record amount of money on social security.

Mr. Macdonald

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there has been a growing gap between the very richest and the very poorest in our society since 1979? Does he disown responsibility for that, or is he merely indifferent to it?

Mr. Moore

The hon. Gentleman is beginning to accept the fact that we are debating and discussing, with all sections of the population—all the deciles—improving their lot over the past 10 years and examining the relative position between them. We can then begin to discuss matters on a more rational basis. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt wish to know how the Government, thanks to their economic success, have helped the poorest far better than did the previous failed Labour Government with their miserable performance.

Mr. Hayes

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although, under this Government, pensioners have had the largest-ever increase in their living standards, many pensioners are in difficulty because they do not regard the state pension as a top-up? Will he consider ways to help that group? It would not be a major strain on the state as the group comprises people who cannot take advantage of the economic miracles to which my right hon. Friend rightly referred.

Mr. Moore

As my hon. Friend said in Select Committee, he recognises that the Government are trying to deal with precisely the problems that he mentioned. For example, this autumn the Government will go beyond the 16 per cent.— 1.6 million pensioners—who are already on income support with the special pensioner package to help 2.6 million pensioners. That is an effort to help those least able to help themselves who have not benefited by quite as much as the remainder of the pensioner population.

Mr. David Nicholson

Is not one advantage that has flowed from my right hon. Friend's speech on poverty some weeks ago the sensible, realistic and constructive debate in the country about the needs of various groups? The debate has been contributed to by, among others, the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) in an article in The Sunday Times. What groups has my right hon. Friend identified as requiring further attention and what he is proposing to do to help them?

Mr. Moore

I am glad that my hon. Friend referred to the constructive debate in the country. All the editorials in the major press had identified the absurdity of a statistical definition before the Labour party introduced its review, in which it confirmed its attachment to that absurdity.

Two sections of the population where, with better statistical definitions, we have identified clear need are needy families and pensioners who have not historically benefited as much as others. Our new premium structure in income support this spring and our new special package to be introduced this autumn will help precisely those groups and will, I imagine, be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. Kirkwood

Does the Secretary of State agree that notwithstanding the welcome help that will be given in October to that group of pensioners, who are suffering dire financial hardship, there is still a need? Have the Government planned beyond October, and is there any hope of the Christmas bonus being increased or of help being given with fuel during the coming winter?

Mr. Moore

I fully understand why the hon. Gentleman would like to open up the debate beyond the autumn. I recognise that we should constantly try to understand and to resolve the real needs of those who are relatively less well off. I shall try to continue that process, because I know that it will he welcomed by rational right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. McCrindle

Whatever may be our definition of poverty, can it possibly extend to those people to which an article in The Sunday Times referred yesterday under the heading Jobless tenants living for free in luxury flats"? Is it true, as that article alleged, that private landlords are making substantial profits? If so, does my right hon. Friend intend taking powers to control that situation, on the basis that although we have no wish to be difficult with the jobless, we must look to the taxpayers, too?

Mr. Moore

My hon. Friend has a long history of understanding and trying to help people, so I know that he would like me to remind the House that all those on income support have their housing benefit—their rent essentially 100 per cent. covered. I saw the article in The Sunday Times, and my hon. Friend is right to remind the House that it is necessary to prevent abuse. He will be happy to know that we are taking additional powers through the Social Security Bill to protect the public purse while equally trying to protect those in genuine need.

Mr. Frank Field

Although I accept that it is the Government's policy to be selective, I invite the Secretary of State to quote all my article, not just part of it. In the article that he cited, I compared British society up to 1979 with a train journey, with first, second and third-class compartments—the political debate being about who received which tickets, but all of us heading in the same direction. Since 1979, some of the compartments have been detached and there has emerged from them an underclass. How do the Government answer that part of the argument?

Mr. Moore

I have the whole of the hon. Gentleman's article before me, but no doubt neither he nor the House would want me to argue against it all. The critical point that I sought to make was that the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), unlike the Labour party, understands the statistical absurdity of defining a poverty line. I know that the hon. Gentleman would like to be reminded that, taking all the 10 per cent. categories in the country over the past decade, the bottom 10 per cent. have seen an improvement, according to the latest data that we have, and their real position has improved by 6 per cent. All the other groups—all the way to the top—have shared in the inherent growth in prosperity. I know that the hon. Member for Birkenhead will welcome that.

Mr. Baldry

Is it not right to say that between 1975 and 1985 households having the lowest one fifth of incomes have seen their incomes rise by about 14 per cent? If that is so, does it not make complete nonsense of any notion that the poor are getting poorer? Does it not prove that that is simply not true?

Mr. Moore

My hon. Friend is right. The whole subject merits nothing less than the most serious attention, and it does not serve those who are in need to argue the statistical absurdities by which some people have allowed themselves to be trapped. Instead, it serves people in need to identify that need so that more effective help can be given. Fortunately, we have the wealth of a much more successful society to enable us to do that now.

Mr. Robin Cook

Does the Secretary of State accept that if poverty is in decline, it certainly has nothing to do with the Government's social security policies? Did he notice last week's study by York university of unemployed families, showing that three quarters of them cannot afford essential clothing and that two fifths cannot afford to a sound diet? Is not that reasonable evidence that those families are in poverty? If the Secretary of State accepts the truth of that, what does he say to another of the report's conclusions: that, as a result of last year's benefits cuts, half the families concerned are now even poorer than they were two years ago?

Mr. Moore

I start by asking the hon. Gentleman to be more accurate. I imagine that he has not had the benefit of reading the reports. I certainly have not, but I have the benefit of understanding their basis. The survey was conducted before last year's social security reforms. Researchers only suggest, and the reports themselves studied only 67 families in the autumn of 1987. Given the smallness of the survey, and the fact that it covered a period before the reforms, I do not accept the conclusions that the hon. Gentleman has drawn. What I do say is that the hon. Gentleman should have welcomed the way in which the Government have been able to increase, in real terms, expenditure on those least able to look after themselves by more than 31 per cent. in the past 10 years. That is a sign of targeted additional help as a consequence of the present wealth of the country.

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