§ 1. Mr. Murphy
To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security whether he has any plans to review the benefit entitlement of 16 to 18-year-olds.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mrs. Gillian Shephard)
We are continuing to monitor the effects of the 1988 reforms. Our overall policy remains correct, but I am pleased to announce that we are making a number of administrative improvements to ensure that all claims from 16 and 17-year-olds are handled more effectively and sympathetically. I will. with permission, put details of these changes in the Library.
§ Mr. Murphy
We are grateful to the Minister for her answer. Does she agree that 16 to 18-year-olds have been badly treated as a result of the social security changes? Does she accept that sometimes these young men and women are among the most vulnerable people in our society? When will she listen to the people who matter most in terms of advising her and the Government on these matters—people such as those in the National Association of Probation Officers, the Children's Society and the Salvation Army? All those bodies say that the policies have failed lamentably and need to be reviewed immediately.
§ Mrs. Shephard
I do not agree that those young people have been badly treated. There is no need for any of them to be without an income because there is a YTS place for every 16 and 17-year-old in the country—at present there is a surplus of 110,000—together with the accompanying allowance. Our policy has operated without difficulty for the vast majority of young people, and 400,000 are benefiting from YTS. However, our monitoring arrangements, including our close liaison with voluntary groups —some of which, as the hon. Gentleman said, have recently produced reports—show that there have been some difficulties in a small number of cases. We are, therefore, taking steps to ensure that all 16 and 17-year-olds are interviewed about their claims for income support unless there is no doubt about their entitlement. All claims will be automatically considered.
§ Mr. Nicholas Bennett
Does my hon. Friend agree that the present arrangements are a great improvement on those that existed under the previous Labour Government whereby young people were paid welfare benefit and allowed to sit at home without making any attempt to find work or to go on a scheme? The present scheme helps young people to train for the future.
§ Mrs. Shephard
I certainly agree that it is in the interests of young people to take advantage of training if they do not wish to continue in education or to take a job. I should like to continue my announcement. All claims will automatically be considered for the severe hardship provision where young people are not otherwise entitled. The rest of the details in the announcement will be placed in the Library.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
I welcome the Minister's announcement. One of the most disturbing conclusions reached by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux in its important report produced in October was that the availability of crisis loans and the severe hardship provisions were not being revealed to young homeless people. If the announcement puts that right, I welcome it.
Will the Minister review the level of benefits available to 16 and 17-year-olds? It seems iniquitous and wrong that somebody who is living independently should be penalised simply because he is young.
§ Mrs. Shephard
The hon. Gentleman is right to be concerned about the information that is available to those young people. The details of the announcement will be placed in the Library, and the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that we are producing a leaflet aimed specifically at the group. It will be produced with the aid of the voluntary organisations, including the citizens advice bureaux, which have expressed concern.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the level of benefit that is available. The Government have responded already to that concern by making the level of benefit available to these young people equal to that for 18 to 24-year-olds. This was announced in July.
§ Mr. Barry Field
Is my hon. Friend aware that some parents are cynically pushing children out of their homes to rid themselves of a financial responsibility? It is no fault of the children. Has my hon. Friend any plans to recover some of the costs of the social security benefits from families who are taking this action deliberately so that claims can be made on the social security system?
§ Mr. Shephard
We have no such plans, and the Department has no evidence that that is taking place. It is clear that parental action would not be in the interests of young people.
§ Mr. Meacher
Instead of the Minister trying to make a statement at Question Time, it would be helpful if the Government came forward with a proper statement at 3.30 pm. How can young people get jobs unless they have somewhere to live? How can they get somewhere to live unless they have the money to pay landlords the large down-payment that they demand? The Government refuse to provide any benefit to young people to make that payment. Do not the Government care about the tens of thousands of young people who are sleeping rough in freezing weather in cardboard boxes?
§ Mrs. Shephard
Despite the hon. Gentleman's tone, I welcome him to Opposition Dispatch Box. I say again that there is no need for any young person to be without income. If young people take up the offer and the opportunity of a youth training place, they will receive an allowance. I remind the hon. Gentleman that responsibilities in this area cut across many Departments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment announced recently the new measures that his Department is taking. The Government have not ignored young people's housing needs, and 21,000 places have been approved in hostels and shared housing since 1981. Many measures were announced by my right hon. Friend last week and I advise the hon. Gentleman to take careful note of them.