HC Deb 30 January 1990 vol 166 cc182-219
Mr. Speaker

I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

As we have had a late start on this motion, I appeal to the House for brief speeches from the Front and the Back Benches.

4.57 pm
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

I beg to move, That this House, noting that there are now some 3 million more people forced to live on or below the poverty line than in 1979, noting that total tax cuts over the last decade have been more than paid for by benefit cuts in excess of 20 billion pounds imposed on those on lowest incomes, especially pensioners, and noting that the Government's deliberate increase in inequality has not promoted economic efficiency but trapped millions of low-income individuals deeper in poverty, calls upon the Government to provide incentives for all to achieve pathways out of poverty and to gain the fair share in rising living standards that is offered elsewhere in Europe.

It would be easy to make the case that the number of people forced to live in poverty on supplementary benefit —now income support—has risen by over 50 per cent. in the last decade to more than 9 million people today, and that there are now some 2.5 million people living below the level of income that Parliament has laid down as the minimum on which anyone should live.

It would be easy to make the case that the worst-off in our society have seen their living standards fall sharply over this decade by comparison with those in work. It would be easy to make the case, too, not only that the rich have been made richer by this Government but that it has been done by making the poor much poorer. The savings that the Government have made at the expense of pensioners by cutting them out of rising living standards —savings to the Government, but cuts, of course, to pensioners—which over the decade now amount to over£20 billion, more than cover the total cost of all the Government's tax cuts since 1979.

It would be easy to make that case, because it is all true and widely known to be true. That is precisely why I shall not rehearse it in detail. Instead, I intend to take the Government's own declared philosophy in its own right, and to assess that against reality, as far as possible through the eyes of those at whom it is directed. On that basis I shall then press three serious charges of which, even in their own terms, the Government are guilty.

The Prime Minister's view on all this is clear and unequivocal. She told the House——this almost takes one's breath away but these are her words:

"people who are living in need are fully and properly provided for."—[Official Report, 22 December 1983; Vol. 51, c. 5611 Let us test that against the facts. The report of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, published this month, on social fund applicants includes this example: "Young man, tetraplegic, rehoused in flat following a year in hospital and two and a half years in residential care. Refused grant for fridge to reduce need to shop, because there was no indication that 'without a grant you would have to enter residential institutional care'. I shall give one more example from another NACAB report published three months ago:

"A CAB in Yorks/Humberside reported a client who first contacted them seven days after his bridging allowance had run out. He had an offer of a job, but it was not due to start for a week and would then be paid a week in arrears. By the time he was paid, he would have been three weeks with no money. DSS refused a crisis loan and told him to go to a soup kitchen. He was unable to take the job due to his deteriorating physical state and revisited the CAB a couple of weeks later. By this time he was starving, physically weak and unable to keep down a hot drink. The client's mother is dead and his father is terminally ill. So he had no one to turn to but the DSS, and the DSS turned him away.

The Prime Minister's belligerent pretentions brook no doubts. In her letter just before Christmas chastising church leaders for attacking the Government's record on poverty—which I note they did effectively again yesterday —she went even further:

"Over the last decade living standards have increased at all points of income distribution—and that includes the poorest. If that is so, one wonders how she knows, since her own Government have suppressed all the relevant evidence. They have abolished the Royal Commission on income and wealth, curtailed the general household survey, abolished the Supplementary Benefits Commission which regularly published relevant information, made more changes in unemployment statistics than there are holes in a colander, removed from "Social Trends" the material on the link between unemployment and ill health, and blocked the publication of the Black report on health and social class.

How then does the Prime Minister know? We could do with a little glasnost, since the political concealment of the truth is highly reminiscent of pre-Gorbachev Soviet censorship. There can be no better indicator of official shamefacedness. Is that the reason why we have had no official statistics on low-income families for the last five years?

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

My hon. Friend has given two examples. May I give another example from my constituency? I have a constituent called Melvin Wall who two years ago had his toes removed. He received mobility allowance. Later, one leg was removed below the knee. Then the other leg was removed below the knee. His mobility allowance was stopped after only two years. The junior Minister has the case in his in-tray, and we may get a response at some stage. What happens is that occasionally there is a trawl to try to remove people from the payments system. Obviously Melvin Wall was caught up in that.

Mr. Meacher

It is a pity that the Prime Minister is not here, because it would be nice to know how she thinks that that person who is in need is fully and effectively provided for. My hon. Friend has illustrated one case from thousands around the country which show the complete indifference and lack of concern about need in Britain today.

What we know shows that the Prime Minister is downright wrong. The latest information from official sources shows that the number of people below pension age living on or below the supplementary benefit level more than doubled, to 6.5 million, between 1979 and 1985. The Government's explanation is that the rise in the real value of supplementary benefit, which was about I per cent., accounted for half the huge increase. That gives the whole game away. Even if we accept the Government's explanation, which I do not, the fact remains that the other half of the increase, nearly 2 million, is implicitly admitted by the Government to be due to a rise in absolute poverty.

My real charge against the Government is not merely that there has unquestionably been a substantial increase in poverty in the 1980s, but that the Government's policy for redressing poverty is completely discredited. The Government claimed that, if entrepreneurs were motivated with big incentives, the trickle-down effect would ensure that some of the gains went to low-income families. What the Government never admitted was that the big incentives were to be paid for by squeezing the very people on low incomes who were supposed to be the beneficiaries of the policy. Indeed, the Government have done what no other Government, even previous Tory Governments, ever did before: they have pushed whole groups of people below a poverty line which was always accepted by all previous Governments as the minimum for healthy physical survival.

People who get loans from the social fund are forced to repay them out of basic income support. Where, as in most places, the poll tax levy is higher than the Government's supposed national average, individuals on the lowest incomes will have to pay out of income support the amount by which the levy exceeds the 20 per cent. allowance. People living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation now have to pay amenity charges out of income support for facilities such as hot water or breakfast, which they often do not get.

Let me quote just one example of the trend, which is far from untypical. A single girl, aged 17, was placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation by a local authority because she was regarded as a vulnerable single person. Her basic income support was assessed at£18.72 from which£4.87 was deducted for repayment of a social fund loan. She actually received 13.85 in income support. Out of that she was required to pay£6 a week for heating, breakfast and other services, even if those were not available. Her actual living income was therefore£7.85 a week.

My first charge is about the Prime Minister's boast, as she expressed it again in the House in 1988:

Everyone in the nation has benefited from the increased prosperity—everyone."—[Official Report, 17 May 1988; Vol. 133, c. 801.] Not only is that boast completely phoney, as millions could tell her, but she has reduced even the little share that they already had. If the Prime Minister would only get out of her bullet-proof limousine and visit her subjects occasionally, if she would only take a short walk from here to cardboard city on the South Bank, or perhaps go on the Underground for a change, the truth would stare her in the face.

Mr. Eric S. Heller (Liverpool, Walton)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister could do nothing better than to read an excellent new report from the Church, "Living Faith in the City", which says: "Too much emphasis is being placed on individualism and not enough on collective obligation"? The Prime Minister could read that report with great interest and benefit from it. It cites some statistics:

"The official General Household Survey shows that in 1986 1 million households in Britain (5 per cent.) had a gross weekly income of£40 or less and 33/4million households (18 per cent.) had a gross weekly income of£60 or less. I suggest that the Prime Minister has a go at supporting a family on that sort of income.

Mr. Meacher

My hon. Friend makes an effective point. A former Conservative MP boasted that he could exist for a week on supplementary benefit, as it then was. He did so brazenly in front of the television cameras, but he could not get through to the end of the week. He was a fit young man, and people in a much frailer state of health have to endure that standard of living for months, if not years, on end.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

Does my hon. Friend agree that matters can be even worse than that for an individual living on supplementary benefit? If he takes out a social fund loan, money will be taken away from him in repayments, and the poll tax may be deducted from his benefit as well. Such people will have to subsist on a pittance.

Mr. Meacher

My hon. Friend eloquently makes a point that I have touched on, and anticipated other questions to which I shall come.

My second charge is that the Prime Minister has consistently talked about the incentive society with open opportunities for all, yet her policies have effectively shut out a quarter of the nation. That matters as remedying poverty is not primarily a matter of improving benefits but of giving people the chance to earn their own living. A major feature of British society today is the fast-growing number of marginalised poor people living alongside others who are increasingly affluent and consumer-orientated and unable to share in any growing prosperity. In their experience, this is not "opportunities Britain" but "obstacle course Britain".

Lone parents, of whom there are now more than 1 million in Britain, three quarters of them previously married, illustrate that point poignantly. I shall cite one example:

"for the past two years Mrs. Barnes has been out of work, living off the£33.28 weekly that is left in benefit after her mortgage has been paid … determined to do the best for herself and her son, aged eight,

she has taken a job as a home help for Kent County Council, helping old people and the disabled with shopping, cleaning and cooking … As yet, she is not sure whether she will be left with more or less money out of her earnings of£2.3 per hour, once the mortgage of£171 per month is paid because Family Credit, the benefit that is supposed to make it worthwhile for the low-paid to remain in work does not, of course, take account of mortgage payments.

"Either way, it will be a matter of a few pounds which effectively means she is working for almost nothing … Money is not the fundamental problem which forces Mrs. Barnes into the underclass. It is the lack of child care after school and during school holidays which prevents her from earning her living and becoming independent.

Mrs. Barnes's case illustrates the mortgage trap, but there are two further ways in which Government policy has made it more difficult for lone parents to get work. First, there is the child care trap. While the earnings disregard was raised in 1988 from£12 to£15 a week, no account is taken of work expenses, and that effectively traps those unable to get free child care. In addition, there is the benefits trap. Low-income families lost their entitlement to free school meals in the Fowler review, and that means that it is more difficult for lone parents, especially those with more than one school-age child, to go out to work. With sharper clawbacks, too, for the rate of loss of housing benefit, it is not surprising that fewer lone parents have a part-time job now than before the Government's social security review.

Then there is the debt trap, in which persistent very low incomes force people into the arms of the social fund—with all the consequences to which my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) referred—or even into the hands of loan sharks. That drives people deeper into poverty and makes the recovery of economic self-reliance much more difficult.

Many other people are discriminated against by the Government's rules. Two months ago, the Secretary of State introduced a£43-a-week means test on unemployment benefit. A part-time worker who works one day or more a week will now lose a whole week's benefit. I submit to the right hon. Gentleman that that is a serious disincentive to people taking up part-time work.

Perhaps the worst way in which the Government are blocking the way out of dependency is the double bind in which they have placed 16 to 19-year-olds over work and accommodation. In a report issued two months ago, the Association of Chief Officers of Probation cited one example from its case notes:

a 17-year-old girl, in care since she was four … was supposed to be repaying a social fund loan as well as a fine, but had received no benefit since she left YTS. She was

'homeless and without any income, in danger of prostitution and drug abuse, very vulnerable.' The likely outcome was `starvation and reoffending'. She had damaged a telephone to get into police cell for food and shelter. What is needed, and what the Labour party proposes, is a recasting of public services so that they become fully accessible as pathways out of poverty. High-quality training needs to be more widely available, particularly for women re-entering the labour market after caring for dependants, for 16 to 19-year-olds and for the long-term unemployed, if they are to gain entrance to the enterprise culture. Disabled people need improved local services, such as appropriate transport and community care, adaptation for access to buildings and skills and benefits that make part-time work worth while for the partially incapacitated.

We would also abolish the unfair and discriminatory tax that is currently levied on the imputed value of workplace nurseries, which, despite being such a limitation, raise only about£1 million a year in revenue. We deplore and would reverse the worsening of the social wage in recent years, our poor public transport, the lack of home helps and other community services and damp and unfit housing—all of which not only lower the quality of life but stifle initiatives to gain and hold employment. Only then will we begin to transform excluded Britain into an enabling society.

My third charge against the Prime Minister is that she is letting this country fall further and further behind Europe, in basic social rights as in so many other ways. I am well aware that there is rather a sterile debate about whether poverty is absolute or relative, but there can be no argument about the need for us to achieve, if not exceed, common standards in Europe, and it is undeniable that in the 1980s our record became much worse in comparison with that of the rest of Europe.

Take pensions. The latest figures from Eurolink Age suggest that, relative to earnings—and that is the right comparison—the basic state pension is only half that of other major EEC countries. On average, a single person in Britain now receives a pension that represents only 46 per cent. of his previous net earnings. A person in an equivalent position in Italy gets a pension that is 81 per cent. of his previous net earnings. In Germany the figure is 82 per cent., in France it is 92 per cent., and in the Netherlands it is 93 per cent.

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Meacher

Of course it is true—

Mr. Devlin


Mr. Meacher

I may be anticipating what the hon. Gentleman is about to say, but perhaps he will just let me make this point.

Of course, it is true that many pensioners in Britain have an occupational pension also, but it is equally true that for many people that pension is very small. The basic pension represents the safety net provision for older people throughout Europe, and Britain's low level of provision really does matter because we have the third largest number of elderly people in the EEC and one of the largest populations of old elderly, many of whom have no extra pension.

Mr. Devlin

I was interested to hear what the hon. Gentleman said about comparisons with pensions in Europe, because my constituents raise that point with me all the time. However, I wonder how the hon. Gentleman responds to this point. Britain is the only country in the European Community that offers all its pensioners a guaranteed state minimum pension. It is also the only country that gives all women a pension, regardless of whether they have worked. It is all very well to say that pensioners in France receive 80 per cent. of their previous net earnings, but that means that some people have extremely low incomes because, not having earned a great deal during their lives, they do not get a great deal of pension.

Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, which is a surprising one to come from a Conservative Member. The guaranteed state minimum pension was, of course, put in place by the Labour Government in the 1970s. I remind him that not only SERPS, which is excellent and which I am convinced is the best pension scheme available as a top-up to the basic pension, but our guaranteed minimum pension for occupational pensions is underwritten by the state. It was a Labour Government who did that, and since 1979 the Conservative Government have been doing their best to unravel it. It was a Labour Government who ensured that women would be able to receive a full-rate SERPS pension on the basis of 20 years' work, so that women who had brought up a family and could work for only 20 years would not be disadvantaged in any way.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that those are very real advantages, but I should like him to address his remarks to his right hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench, who have been doing their best to undermine that part of their inheritance from the previous Labour Government.

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)


Mr. Meacher

I thought that that might bring the right hon. Gentleman to his feet.

Mr. Newton

Only briefly, to observe as mildly as I can that I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has addressed the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) put to him, which was that, against the comparisons that the hon. Gentleman has sought to make with Europe, people in Europe who are low paid almost certainly do less well than their counterparts here, and married women in Europe, not being entitled to a pension on their husband's contributions as they are here, may well end up without any pension. The hon. Gentleman should take those points into account in his comparisons.

Mr. Meacher

I am the first to admit that it is difficult to make comparisons with Europe, not only on pensions, but on other aspects of social welfare, and any comparison must be significantly qualified. However, as the right hon. Gentleman regularly talks about "the average" in our debates—indeed, that is probably the fairest way of making comparisons—I remind him that I had been considering the pension that is available to a person on average earnings, and that that consideration leads to the picture that I presented.

Mr. Devlin


Mr. Meacher

No, I shall not give way again. The hon. Gentleman will be able to make his own speech and I have been speaking for some time now—

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman. (Lancaster)

Giving Meacherisms.

Mr. Meacher

Well, I shall try to draw to a close now.

I now turn to child care provision. Family benefits for a couple with three children under 12 now amount to£21.75 per week in Britain. In France they are double that, at£43.30 per week. British families are the worst off among the major EEC industrial nations, with only Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Greece paying less in family benefits.

I now take low wages as an example, because low pay is such a potent cause of poverty. The minimum rate set by the wages councils in Britain, which cover one tenth of the work force, is£338 per month. In Germany it is nearly double that, at£653 per month. Again, Britain is behind all the main EEC industrial nations and ranks firmly in the second league, along with Greece, Spain and Portugal.

All those facts speak for themselves. It is clear in my mind that the Prime Minister's rooted objection to the European social charter stems much less from any belief that it will undermine economic efficiency than from her recognition that, if implemented, it would expose her deplorable and shameful social record.

The social charter is not about a drain on market forces. It is about providing a launching pad so that people can participate in and contribute to the society around them. It is the Prime Minister's wilful obstinacy which makes her demand compliance with the enterprise culture, and which refuses to acknowledge that her own policies block people, however willing, from participating fully in society.

I conclude with the story of Adrian Loveless, which has already been raised with the Secretary of State in correspondence by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo). Adrian Loveless is an unemployed photographer whose wife Hilary had a bit of a windfall when her ex-business partner sent her $2,000 out of the blue. A condition of the enterprise allowance scheme is that the person concerned must put up £1,000 in capital himself or herself. They therefore decided to put that money into the enterprise allowance scheme.

To make ends meet, Adrian was told that he would receive £40 in enterprise allowance, and that he could claim family credit. He was also told that he would lose his children's entitlement to free school meals. However, he was not told that his housing benefit would also be lost or reduced because he would be claiming family credit. He applied for family credit on 7 August last year, but it was refused. Mr. Loveless appealed and a claimant adviser told him to withdrawn the appeal and to claim again. The new application was also turned down. Adrian asked for help from the social fund, but was refused because he had capital. His housing benefit was cut off because the local authority assumed that he was receiving £60 in family credit. At this stage, the free school meals were withdrawn.

Adrian Loveless commented later: Since the summer I have lived in a Catch 22 situation … My family credit was withdrawn. I couldn't get income support because I was working for more than 24 hours. Things were impossibly tight, but I couldn't get a crisis loan because we were not destitute. We have had to spend the 2,000 dollars to keep alive, so now I haven't got the money for the EAS. On Tuesday 17 October, all our money had gone. All we had was the child allowance. It amounted to £29 for six of us.

So much for the Prime Minister's enterprise culture. It is because there are millions of people across the country like Adrian Loveless, who are frustrated, embittered and deprived, that we shall press our motion tonight.

5.27 pm
The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: notes with approval the Government's plans to increase substantially spending on social security in the coming financial year bringing the total to an unprecedented £55.6 billion reflecting further growth on top of the 36 per cent. real terms increase which has taken place since 1978–79; and commends it for introducing a reformed structure of benefits enabling these massive resources to be targeted more effectively on those in need thereby ensuring that, from April this year some 1.5 million families with three million children will again have their income-related benefits increased in real terms bringing the amount of extra help provided for them to over £350 million in real terms since April 1988, for improving incentives by virtually eliminating marginal deduction rates in excess of 100 per cent., thus ensuring that working families keep more of the money they earn, and for providing an improved, more accurate and speedier service to the public.

I do not propose to comment on some of the anecdotal cases that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) raised. Obviously we have had difficulty with some of the cases that have been raised by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, and where it is possible to identify the cases or where we have been given identifying details, I shall, of course, look at them. I shall specifically look at the last case that the hon. Gentleman mentioned about which he said that one of his hon. Friends has written to me. I shall make sure that that case is fully and faithfully looked into with a view to seeing whether improvements could and should be made in the working of the benefit system. I can give the hon. Gentleman that undertaking, but beyond that I am sure that he will understand that it would be wrong for me to seek to make off-the-cuff comments about individual cases.

I had some difficulty in relating what the hon. Gentleman said about millions of people being in the position that he described to what most people would perceive as being the broad reality. I remind him that the real take-home pay of married men in this country has risen by about a third in nearly 10 years and that in the past year alone the real take-home pay of a man on average male earnings has increased by about £20 per week, including the effect of cuts in national insurance contributions. In addition, we have had the longest period of falling unemployment since the war. Employment is at the highest ever level and the work force in employment has risen for some six years and has increased by more than 2.25 million. I do not make those points simply to dismiss what the hon. Member for Oldham, West said.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Newton

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, we have been asked to make brief speeches, in view of the curtailment of the debate. While I do not rule out giving way, I should like to complete my point.

I do not seek to dismiss out of hand every point that the hon. Member for Oldham, West made. He put his case in what I regard as a characteristically overheated and exaggerated way which did not give a true picture of the social and economic realities of Britain. One of the important and encouraging developments of the past 10 years, which have been marked by a rapid rise in prosperity brought about by economic growth and productivity, is that prosperity is increasingly more widespread. There is a better regional spread of prosperity. There has also been an encouraging resurgence of many inner-city areas. That was acknowledged by the church men who produced their report yesterday. All those improvements rest on a significantly better economic performance in the past decade than in the two previous decades.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Newton

I have already said that I shall be hesitant about giving way. The House knows that I usually give way readily. In these circumstances, I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) and then to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn).

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

Will my right hon. Friend add to his catalogue of ways in which we have done exceptionally well the fact that separate taxation for women, from April, will be of enormous benefit to pensioners? Women will be able to receive tax relief on their pension, which they cannot do at present.

Mr. Newton

That is one of the many instances where changes in taxation, which the hon. Member for Oldham, West vilifies—to use a strong word—are by no means confined to helping those whom he chooses to describe as rich.

Mr. Corbyn

Will the Secretary of State take his mind back to his remarks about unemployment levels? He claims that the Government have presided over the longest continuous period of falling unemployment. I remind him that 1.2 million people were unemployed in 1979, that the Government managed to increase the number of registered unemployed to 3.3 million and that, on their own adulterated figures, there are still almost 2 million unemployed. That is still far higher than when the Government came into office in 1979, and it is one of the highest figures for industrial countries in Western Europe. Is he proud of that?

Mr. Newton

I am proud that the Government have tackled some of Britain's long-running, underlying economic problems, in particular our relatively low rates of growth of productivity and of the economy as a whole, in comparison with other countries. We have tackled those problems far more effectively than many of our predecessors. As a consequence, we probably have the best record in Europe for creating new jobs and for the number of jobs that we provide for our work force. Our improved economic performance and the wealth that it has created for the whole country has enabled us to put steadily increasing amounts into many important forms of social provision, not least social security.

One fact that should be firmly registered in this debate is that expenditure on social security will exceed £55 billion next year. That is £1 billion a week, or more than £20 every week for every man, woman and child. It is almost £40 billion more than in 1979 and, as the public expenditure White Paper published today states, will be further increased to over £63 billion in 1992–93.

The plans that we published in more detail today imply a growth rate in spending on social security of an average of 4 per cent. a year for the next three years over and above the assumed increase in prices. That is on top of a 36 per cent.—more than a third—increase in real terms since 1978–79. That record and those plans are not those of a Government who, as the hon. Gentleman seeks to suggest, seek to undermine the welfare state. It is the record of a Government who recognise that a growing economy is the prerequisite for improved social provision.

Mr John Battle (Leeds, West)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Newton

As the hon. Gentleman takes a careful interest in these debates, I shall give way.

Mr. Battle

The Secretary of State referred earlier to average wages. Does he accept that one of the primary causes of poverty in our society is low pay, often for temporary or part-time work? Many people in inner-city areas and in my constituency earn less than half of the average take-home pay of £258 a week. Why do the Government consistently refuse to accept the Council of Europe decency threshold as a means of taking people on low pay out of poverty? That would provide an accurate assessment of poverty in our society.

Mr. Newton

I make two points in response to the hon. Gentleman. First, any assessment would require a national minimum wage. Some people, including perhaps the hon. Gentleman, support that, but most people accept that one of the first results would be fewer jobs. That would not benefit the people that he seeks to help.

Secondly, the problem of people who find that they would be only a little better off by working usually arises primarily, not solely, out of family responsibilities. The hon. Gentleman and, to be fair, the hon. Member for Oldham, West are rightly worried about that problem. Family responsibilities are taken into account in the social security system, particularly through family credit, but they are not taken into account in the wage system. In any society it would be difficult to achieve—this is more than a debating point—a wage system that avoided the need for the type of help that we seek to give to low-income families through family credit—

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

What about a national minimum wage?

Mr Newton

A national minimum wage would not overcome that problem. It is difficult to see how it could do so. If a national minimum wage were set, for example, at the level required to overcome the need for family credit—

Mr. Meacher

No one suggests that we eliminate family credit by that means.

Mr. Newton

Exactly. The hon. Gentleman knows that any attempt to do so would cause a dramatic rise in unemployment because it would price many people out of work.

Ms. Short

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Newton

I will give way because the hon. Lady is a Front-Bench spokesman. However, I hope that you will understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I seek henceforth to respond to Mr. Speaker's plea for brief speeches.

Ms. Short

How does every other country in the European Community manage to have a national minimum wage while the British economy cannot?

Mr. Newton

It may have something to do with the fact that we have had such a successful record in generating new employment. The hon. Lady will find that we have a good record in generating new jobs and, for example, on the level of employment among married women. Another reason may be that we have not set a national minimum wage.

I hope that I have made it clear that I do not suggest that some people do not have needs for which we wish to do more. I simply wish to bring some balance to the framework of the debate after the hon. Gentleman's speech. If I were in a more aggressive frame of mind—I rarely am—I might say that I saw little reason to accept lectures from a former social security Minister in a Government who twice failed to pay the Christmas bonus to the pensioners. [Interruption.] I appreciate that the Opposition Front-Bench team do not like being reminded of these facts, but I am entitled to point them out, as I have done on a number of occasions, and to remind the hon. Member for Oldham, West—he is always good natured when I do so—that it is not so many years since he, as a social security Minister, was shouted down by a trade-union organised pensioners' rally when he tried to defend the Government's record.

Mr. Meacher


Mr. Newton

I can hardly resist the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Meacher

It is pathetic that the only riposte the right hon. Gentleman can make is to draw attention to the one occasion when the Christmas bonus was not paid—

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

It happened twice.

Mr. Meacher

The important consideration—and the right hon. Gentleman, given his profound knowledge of the social security system, knows this perfectly well—is the percentage real increase in pensioners' income during the lifetime of the Labour Government. The basic pension increased by 20 per cent., even after taking account of the failure to pay the two Christmas bonuses. Under the Conservative Government, the safety net provision has increased by 1 or 2 per cent. only. The basic pension provision was 10 times better under Labour.

Mr. Newton

I am not prepared to accept the hon. Gentleman's strictures, especially as he seems unable to remember that the Government of which he was a member failed twice, not once, to pay the Christmas bonus. He also conveniently forgets the manipulation of the uprating technique in the mid-1970s. That technique took about £1 billion in today's money from pensioners.

I am led to remind the hon. Gentleman of what must be uncomfortable and displeasing facts because of what underlay the events of that time. I know the hon. Gentleman well enough to know that he would have been unwilling to go into Government with the aim of not paying the Christmas bonus or of undertaking the various other measures adopted by the then Labour Government. We know why it happened. The Labour Government's spending ambitions and promises so far outran the capacity of the economy to produce the necessary resources that the International Monetary Fund stepped in. In effect, it told the Labour Government not to pay the Christmas bonus and to get on with cutting expenditure in various ways. Against the background of that record, it is legitimate for me to say that I am at least sceptical about the receipt of the type of lecture the hon. Gentleman sought to give us this afternoon.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West is aware—he has not sought to dispute the fact seriously—that we have faithfully adhered to our obligation and commitment to maintain the value of the retirement pension in line with the increase in prices. As I have already emphasised endlessly, we have sought successfully to pursue policies to create a stable and increasingly prosperous economic environment in which the value of pensioners' income from other sources can grow. Although the hon. Gentleman may believe that I am repeating a point he has heard before, in the context of what he said about state pensions I must remind him forcefully that of particular importance is what has happened to pensioners' incomes as a whole, from all sources. One should not focus on one particular source. The hon. Gentleman is aware of the facts as they have been adverted to in the House on a number of occasions.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

We hear about them every week.

Mr. Newton

I make no apology for referring to them every week as the facts are good and they are too little noticed either by Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen or by people elsewhere.

Between 1979 and 1986, the average total net income of pensioners increased by 22 per cent. in real terms. The proportion of pensioners in the lowest fifth of national income distribution fell from 38 per cent. to 24 per cent. To hear the hon. Gentleman talk, one would think it had risen. The proportion of pensioners whose only income is from state benefits fell from 24 per cent. to under 20 per cent., but those pensioners whose only income is still from state benefits have enjoyed a 25 per cent. increase in their income.

The hon. Members for Oldham, West and for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) know that the critical ingredients in that improvement are—

Ms. Short


Mr. Newton

No. It is the growth in occupational pensions and, above all, the fall in the rate of inflation. That has meant that pensioners' incomes from their savings and the returns from them have doubled.

Between 1979 and 1986, pensioners saw a 64 per cent. real increase in their incomes from savings. That compared with the position under the Labour Government when their income from savings fell by 16 per cent.

We have always recognised that those trends that are helpful to and welcomed by pensioners as a whole do not mean that all pensioners have enjoyed the same increase. I do not seek to minimise that fact in any way. Not all pensioners have occupational pensions or savings; increasingly, younger pensioners have such savings. We have, however, concentrated additional resources on raising the income support premiums, as we did in October. We have also increased the help given through housing benefit to the older or more disabled pensioner who is less likely to have the advantage of an occupational pension or a savings income, which help so many others. In all, those measures and other improvements have led to a real increase of 22 per cent. in spending on benefits for the elderly since 1979. I do not believe that anyone can suggest other than that that represents a strong commitment to help those who need help.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West also spoke about the disabled. Since they were debated at some length in the House less than a week ago, I shall make only a brief reference to them. I must remind the House that social security expenditure on the long-term sick and disabled has virtually doubled since 1979, to a total of more than £8 billion a year. That represents a huge increase in the coverage of all the main disability benefits. In 1979, fewer than 100,000 people were in receipt of mobility allowance, but now more than 600,000 people are in receipt of it.

Ms. Short

That is all to do with take-up. It has nothing to do with the Government.

Mr. Newton

I am afraid that I must remind the hon. Lady of something else of which she is obviously unaware. In 1979, we inherited from the Labour Government a snail's-pace implementation of the mobility allowance. We specifically speeded up the implementation of that allowance and we have contributed to the growth in the number of those in receipt of it.

Ms. Short

Surely the increased spending on people with disabilities is due to an enormous increase in the take-up of rights created by the Labour Government and not because of new rights created by the Conservative Government.

Mr. Newton

No, that is not true. The hon. Lady should listen for 10 seconds instead of popping up and down constantly as I might enlighten her.

I accept that mobility allowance was introduced by the Labour Government, but it was implemented at a slow pace and, from 1979, we accelerated its implementation. The numbers in receipt of attendance allowance have risen from about 250,000 to 800,000 people. In the past 10 years take-up of that allowance has trebled. That benefit was not introduced by the Labour Government; it was introduced by a former right hon. Friend of mine, Lord Joseph, in the 1970s.

Similarly, when the hon. Lady makes that point, she should remember that invalid care allowance—which has risen in coverage from only 5,000 in 1979 to 110,000 now—was confined by the Labour Government so that married women could not have it. Its extension to married women—which has mostly caused the huge increase in coverage—was carried through and paid for by this Government. That was against a restriction specifically imposed by the previous Government.

I am sure that the House is well aware that we have recently come forward with another wide range of plans of various kinds to improve still further benefits for disabled people, give additional help especially to those who are disabled at birth or early in life, improve the coverage of help with the costs of disability and do more to help those disabled people who can and wish to work.

I shall touch on some of the matters raised by the hon. Member for Oldham, West, including low-income families with children. As the House knows, last April we used the flexibility of the new social security system to give more help to low-income families, over and above what was needed to keep pace with inflation. In October, I announced that from April 1990 we shall do so again to help the families who most need it. We shall give increases in the family premium, income support and other benefits, and a particular increase for those working families on family credit. As a result of those policies, 1.5 million families, with 3 million children—roughly a quarter of the nation's children—will have their income-related benefits increased in real terms, bringing the amount of extra help provided for them to more than £350 million in real terms since April 1988.

Our efforts have been directed not only at improving the help that we give to those who clearly need it, but helping those who wish to reduce or end their dependence on the benefits system. The hon. Member for Oldham, West focused on this. We are tackling some of the traps and disincentives which undoubtedly exist. That has been done in a variety of ways within the basic structure—most notably in recent months by abolishing the pensioners earnings rule. The proposals which I included in my uprating statement also increase the amount of earnings that people can have without losing their invalid care allowance, increase the amount of earnings which people can have in certain circumstances—the so-called therapeutic earnings limit for those disabled people getting invalidity benefit or severe disablement allowance. They also contain measures to encourage and help disabled people seeking to take employment rehabilitation courses.

The hon. Gentleman touched on the fact that I have proposed a substantial improvement in the earnings disregard for lone parents in respect of housing benefit. That will particularly help lone parents who are working but do not receive income support.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Newton

Yes, but this will have to be the last time.

Mr. Latham

When my right hon. talks about thresholds, will he bear in mind the capital threshold disregard? That is particularly important for pensioners with small occupational pensions who will not receive community charge rebates because of the capital figure.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend will know that the capital limits in respect of what will now be community charge rebate, but until now has been rate rebate, were improved shortly after April 1988. That was a welcome move. He may not know that we recently introduced a small improvement in the capital rules connected with people receiving help from the social fund. Both moves show our awareness of the point made by my hon. Friend.

In the wake of all the interventions in my speech, and in the interest of keeping my speech to a manageable length, I shall briefly make two further points. I have talked about the improvements in the earnings disregard and other rules which seek to help people who wish to work within the present system. A major strategic structural improvement has been made with considerable success which is directed at that very problem—the introduction of family credit. That takes about twice as much money to 50 per cent. more families than were being helped by its predecessor.

We also plan to build on our strategic aim of doing more to help those who would like to work with our recent proposal for a disability employment credit. We shall work that out in detail with a view to introducing it in April 1992. That is aimed at a matter that has long been the subject of discussion in British politics—the need for a partial incapacity benefit to reduce the number of disabled people who feel themselves, rightly or wrongly, trapped on benefit by the present system, but who can and would like to work, at least to some extent.

There is an issue which has had considerable discussion both inside and outside the House in recent months which is connected with lone parents. While the sort of improvements which I have mentioned in relation to both family credit and earnings disregard can undoubtedly make a useful contribution to easing some of the difficulties, it is common ground—although the hon. Gentleman did not say a great deal about this—that we all wish significantly more to be done to collect maintenance from absent parents when it should be paid.

At present, for only a quarter of lone parent families on income support does the absent parent pay any maintenance. That is fairly widely regarded as unfair to the taxpayer. Just as important, it is clearly unfair to the children in the family and, not least, to the lone parent because maintenance income provides a good foundation on which to build for a lone parent seeking to move from claiming benefit to work. As the House knows, we are working towards bringing forward later this year proposals related to this matter, taking into account recent overseas experience, for example, in Australia, the United States and New Zealand, where there have been significant improvements in the way in which maintenance is both assessed and collected.

The House will not expect me to predict now what those proposals will be but will wish me to confirm that to help us in carrying that work forward my Department, together with the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Home Office, the Scottish Office and the Lord Advocate's Department, has commissioned a survey from a sizeable sample of courts and local DSS offices. That will give us better information on the sums of maintenance which are awarded and collected by the courts and local offices and about the amounts of maintenance paid to those on benefit. It will also give us more information about the means of absent parents and, thus, assist us in determining what maintenance payments we can reasonably expect from a different system.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, despite the Prime Minister's statement and what he has said today, during the past 10 years the number of people involved in collecting money from absent parents has declined dramatically? Unless those people are replaced, the chances of getting money from absent parents will be nil.

Mr. Newton

My hon. Friend leads me to my concluding point. He may have slightly misunderstood what I sought to say. At present, there is a set of rules within the DSS for seeking to get maintenance for those on income support—which I am about to mention. They have not been as effectively used as they should have been during the past 10 years. I agree with my hon. Friend about that.

The issue which I raised a moment or two ago, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister raised a week or two ago and which led me to refer to experience in other countries including Australia, New Zealand and the United States, runs wider and is not simply concerned with DSS matters. That was why our work involves the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Home Office and others.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that there is clearly scope in the existing systems operated by the Department of Social Security for improving the way in which maintenance is collected. Steps have already been taken by my predecessor, as he made clear to the House a year or more ago, to improve things. Whereas in 1988–89 we recovered about £155 million from liable relatives, we are aiming in 1989–90 to increase that to £180 million, and it looks as though that aim will be achieved.

Next year we are changing our procedures in ways which we expect to take that figure to more than £200 million, including strengthening the basis on which an absent parent's ability to pay maintenance is assessed by our local officers. The present assessment rests on leaving a margin of 25 per cent. of net earnings over and above the appropriate income support level plus full housing costs. We propose to reduce that figure to 15 per cent., although, as always in our present system, any failure to reach a reasonable agreement would mean that a final decision would depend not on the DSS but on the courts.

The action that we are taking in that area, together with the help that I described earlier for pensioners, disabled people and low income families with children, and our record of increased expenditure on social security which underlies what we have been able to do, show the Opposition's motion to be the nonsense that it is and which the House will judge it to be when it votes.

6 pm

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

No objective person would seek to deny the Secretary of State's description of the growing prosperity and rising living standards in Britain over the past decade, but amidst those rising standards there is, unhappily, also a rising and perhaps largely ignored level of poverty, to which public opinion and the Government should be awakened. We must at least assume that in a democracy public opinion will have some influence on Government, even though their conduct of the ambulance drivers' dispute does not give us much hope.

Because this is an important issue, I am glad to have associated myself with a campaign which was launched just before Christmas by an interdenominational group of churches called Church Action on Poverty. In its publication it quotes the figures issued by the Government in 1985 which clearly show that some 9 million of our fellow citizens are living at or below the official supplementary benefit levels—a 50 per cent. increase since 1979.

To a large extent, the explanation for that is the dramatic rise in unemployment that we saw in the middle of the decade, and that is also part of the explanation for the greatly increased Government expenditure on social security, a figure that the Secretary of State gave us. But those are explanations rather than excuses, and it should be a matter of concern to what is basically a prosperous country that we have that substantial level of poverty in our midst.

Some of it is the result of direct policy changes by the Government. For example, the result of changes in the tax and benefit systems combined is that the bottom 60 per cent. of earners have had their incomes cut by £6.6 billion since 1979, while the top 10 per cent. have had an overall increase of £5.6 billion. There has been a deliberate shift in the redistribution of weekly and monthly wealth in Britain.

Similarly, the impact of the poll tax has yet to be understood by those who represent constituencies where the poll tax has not yet come into operation. Most hon. Members I see present have not yet had experience of this, but I speak as a Scottish Member. Research undertaken by the local government information unit demonstrates that the poll tax will add to the trend that I have already described, resulting from the changes in tax and benefit policies. Of the poorest tenth, some 83 per cent. will lose out by the introduction of the poll tax compared with the old rating system, while 71 per cent. of the richest tenth will gain. That is an additional factor that is yet to have an impact on most of the United Kingdom's economy in the current year.

There is a new level of poverty on which no one has touched and on which I do not propose to dwell—I am not sure that poverty is precisely the right word—created as a result of the Government's policy, which my party fully supported, to sell council houses. The impact of huge interest rates and mortgage increases means that many people are now struggling to pay their mortgages. The latest figure that I have shows that, in the middle of last year, some 45,000 home buyers in Britain were more than six months in arrears with their mortgage payments. That has caused great stress to many of our fellow citizens.

The existence of poverty on that substantial scale in Britain cannot be explained away by a mixture of bad luck and personal weakness. It is caused by the economic and political processes which direct our society. It is caused largely by Government policy and we must be concerned that a country that is capable of generating so much wealth is also capable of generating so much division between rich and poor in our society.

About 18 months ago in Canada, I listened with interest and amusement to a lecture by the American Liberal economist, J. K. Galbraith. His description of the experience in the United States applies to Britain. He said: We have had, in these last years, large reductions in the effective rates of the income tax on the very rich. And also a powerful crusade against the welfare services to the poor. The rich, it is held, need incentive to greater economic effort; the poor need release from the debilitating effect of welfare … The rich have not been working because they have too little money; the poor have not been working because they have too much. A great deal of that philosophy has been around in economic and political circles over the past decade. But the underclass that has been created and isolated from the rest of society by its poverty is, in the main, composed of people who do not work. A few, admittedly, may be workshy, but most cannot work because they live in the wrong areas, have no usable skills, are too old or have children or relatives for whom they have to care.

In some of the big cities that I have visited during the past decade, which other hon. Members represent—parts of Liverpool and Birmingham—most notably the cities that have suffered major industrial decline, there are communities of mass poverty of those who do not work. There is one difference between them and the poverty that afflicted the Victorian generation: they have before them night after night the vision of the other society on their television screens. That is one reason why there is a direct correlation between the areas of deprivation and the rising crime rate, particularly the rising rate of crime against property. The contrast is obvious between their life experience and the picture that they see presented to them not only in television programmes but in the acquisitive, attractive nature of television commercials.

Poverty is not limited to the much publicised inner cities. I congratulate the Opposition on choosing this subject for debate. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) gave one or two examples from newspaper cuttings, still valid for all that, but which enabled the Secretary of State to say that the Ministry should be sent names, details and facts. I want to give the House five snapshots of actual cases that I have dealt with in my constituency over the past two years. The first is related to the poll tax.

A young man aged under 25, whose needs under the Government's new policy are assessed as less than those of other human beings, came to see me. He was doing something of which the Government approve—he was on a Government training scheme. His income was £44 a week and he had received a poll tax demand for £17 a month. The first thing that I did was to check with the local authority that his rebate had been properly calculated, and it had. I wrote to the Secretary of State—this is my response to his concluding remark—asking how he expected a man on £44 a week to pay £17 a month poll tax. His reply was that the rebate was a matter for the local authority to determine. That is the truth, but it is not the whole truth. The local authority can only determine the rebate on the scales laid down by the Secretary of State's Department. I repeat the question: how can one expect a person on an income of £44 per week to pay poll tax of £17 a month?

My second snapshot is of an elderly widow in Lauderdale on an income of £44 per week combined pension and income supplement. Because of changes to the rate rebate system the year before the introduction of poll tax, she received a rates demand for £75 on the house that she rents from her late husband's employer. She asked me how she was expected to pay that bill on her income. Again I checked that the amount being demanded of her was correct, and it was.

The lady also showed me her bank book, with details of her life savings, saying, "You must understand that if I pay that £75 now out of those savings, and something the same next year, and then poll tax the year after that, soon I shall have nothing left to see me decently into my box". That is the reality of life for many people—not just in the inner-city areas but in small towns and villages throughout the country.

My third snapshot concerns a single man living in Galashiels, who had been unemployed for two years. His income of £33.40 was subject to a deduction of £5 as repayment for a social fund loan. He asked me how he was expected, from an income of £28 a week, to feed and clothe himself, and to keep warm. I replied that I could not answer his question.

My fourth snapshot is of a couple from Innerleithen, with a weekly pension of £80, who, despite both being ill and requiring medicine, were refused free prescriptions. Again, I checked that that refusal was correct. The husband wrote to me that he was informing his doctor that, when the present round of prescriptions came to an end, he was taking no more medicine because he could not afford it, and that he and his wife had the greater priority of keeping themselves warm.

The Government's attitude to prescription, dental and eye test charges is fundamentally wrong. In response to a survey published a week or two ago showing that the number of people submitting themselves for eye tests has fallen by 36 per cent. in the nine months since charges were first introduced, the Secretary of State for Health was reported in The Daily Telegraph as saying: Clearly, the market has not had time to settle, but I am sure that most people are not going to be deterred from visiting their optician because of the requirement to pay a relatively modest charge.

That attitude is all right for a Cabinet Minister on a salary of £50,000 per year or more, because of course a charge of £10 or £12 is relatively modest to him. But it is not a modest charge to the kind of people I have been describing and who visit my constituency clinic; nor is it a modest charge if one is an ambulance driver. When the Government bandy about phrases such as "a relatively modest charge", they are being very insensitive.

My last snapshot is of a widow in Selkirk who wrote that, because of the prospective pension increase in April, she would lose £1 of income support, which I also checked. She wrote to me that she was worried sick. I shall read a brief extract from her letter: I wrote to Mrs. Thatcher about two years ago about the cost of the television licence for the elderly, as there are a lot who find it very difficult. I myself have gone back to black and white. Her answer was that we could afford it quite well. I would like her to live for one year completely and utterly on the pension and have rent, poll tax, heating, etc. to pay from it. She would give up long before the year was out. That backs up what the hon. Member for Oldham, West said about a former Member of Parliament who attempted the same thing.

I conclude with two suggestions. The first is a technical one. The Government ought to look at the proposal from the working party under the chairmanship of my noble Friend Baroness Seear for the integration of the tax and benefits system and for the introduction of a low-income benefit that would guarantee a minimum income regardless of the individual's circumstances, including whether or not he was in work. That solution should be carefully and immediately examined.

My second suggestion is for a change of attitude by the Government. I have not forgotten the Prime Minister's remark: No one would have remembered the good samaritan if he had only good intentions—he had money as well.

She ignores the fact that the good samaritan had concern for the misfortune of someone from a completely different background. This country has the money, but we lack the will to change. Young people of 24 are able to leave university and immediately obtain jobs in the City at a salary of £25,000 a year. Good luck to them—but do we not have a common conscience about the less well-off? The present system has created a submerged population—an underclass living in poverty and despair. It is the responsibility of the whole of the community, and especially of this Parliament and of the present Government.

6.15 pm
Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)

The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir. D. Steel) will forgive me if I do not pursue the moving stories that he told the House. I shall not do so, because the debate began at three minutes to 5 o'clock and must end at 7 o'clock. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State sat down at 6 o'clock, with more than half the time available for the debate having been occupied by the speeches of the two Front Bench spokesmen. Allowing one quarter of an hour for wind-up speeches, seven Back Benchers are left competing for the remaining 40 minutes.

The specific point I want to make concerns the capital cut-off for benefit eligibility, which is currently £8,000. The most difficult question for any Conservative Member to answer is why people who were prudent during their working lives and who put aside money for their retirement are effectively penalised by the social security system—whereas others who were not so prudent and enjoyed a higher standard of living during their working lives are entitled to income support, housing benefit, and other rebates.

We try to answer that question the best way that we can, but the truth is that there is some disincentive to save and some incentive to reduce capital. That aspect was mentioned also by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham) in an intervention. I hope that my right hon. Friend will reconsider the capital cut-off limit, because if it is raised it will blunt the cutting edge of the criticisms of the system that are made repeatedly and are deeply felt by those who were prudent enough to put money aside.

My first general point is that the nature of poverty has changed, so the way that we tackle it must change as well. In the old days, the poor were born poor, grew up poor, and died poor—and their children were poor as well.

Ms. Short

Which days were those?

Sir George Young

I hope that the hon. Lady will remain silent.

The general approach in those days was to raise incomes. Today, poverty is more closely related to changes in life style, retirement, widowhood, disablement, lone parenthood, AIDS, and young people leaving home. The Finer report on single-parent families and the poverty that confronts them makes it clear that poverty is simply a phase. If it is the case that poverty is linked to changes in one's life style or life cycle, it follows that one must focus measures to tackle it on the general circumstances that I have described. The benefits system must examine those life cycle changes of retirement and bereavement, and of the husband leaving the family, and try to focus help on those specific changes, rather than raise universal benefits all round—although that was the right approach to poverty when the situation was very different from that of today.

The Government are adopting that approach by focusing extra help on the very elderly and on very poor pensioners, and by taking a more rational approach to the disabled and to lone parents. That approach, which I warmly welcome, must be pursued further when looking at the young who have left home. I hope that the Departments of Social Security and of the Environment will take a fresh look at the young homeless, who are the most blatant example of today's poor.

My second general point is that one can plot the income changes of the typical married couple. They often start life together with two incomes, but that falls to one income when they start a family. Subsequently, when the family has grown up, it reverts to one and a half or sometimes two incomes. One can thereby plot the changes in income.

One can also plot the changes in commitments—typically, a mortgage and the cost of bringing up children. If one plots the income flow of a family against its commitments, one finds that its income is at its lowest at the point when its commitments are at their highest. With only one wage earner, the mortgage takes a disproportionate portion of income, and there is the responsibility of child rearing.

We should put some work into seeing whether we can rearrange the flow of income available to families in a way that more rationally matches their commitments, so that they do not find at the age of 45 or 50, when the responsibility of child rearing is over and the mortgage is paid off, that they have surplus cash which they desperately needed when they were younger. I leave that thought with the Minister in the hope that we shall find a way round that mismatch of resources against commitments.

Related to that is the resource that many people have when they retire—a house that is worth a substantial sum—whereas those living in it may be on low incomes. Having encouraged people to turn income into capital throughout their lives by encouraging them to purchase homes, we should do more to encourage them to change the capital back into income when they retire, when they need the income and when it is often a waste of resources for them to pass the capital on to their children, who are often enjoying higher living standards than they are.

We need only look at the increase in expenditure on benefits—20 per cent. more in real terms since the Conservatives came to power—the increase in the value of benefits and the number of new benefits to see that the case for resisting the Opposition's charge and supporting the Government amendment is extremely strong.

6.21 pm
Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South)

It is absolutely unbelievable that we should be told that poverty is the result of changed life styles or circumstances, and that it could be alleviated by helping those who have nothing to manage nothing more sensibly so that they can get out of the poverty trap.

To suggest that that can be done demonstrates how the Government seek to put a human face on the scandal of their actions against poor and low-paid members of the community. The Guardian was right last month to say that the social fund must be regarded as the most shocking and cynical piece of so-called welfare machinery ever to have been put in place.

The strategy of the Government is to try to make the poor vanish. The Secretary of State should be called to account for presiding over his Department at a time of moral dereliction in what is happening to our people and over what the Government claim their intentions to be. The reality of what is going on in vast numbers of people's lives is positively surreal.

It is surreal to tell women on benefit, pensioners and single parents who are struggling to make their meagre incomes pay increased charges, such as the poll tax and rent increases, that the answer to their problem is to manage their incomes more sensibly.

It is surreal to tell unemployed women who enter training schemes in an effort to return to the paid labour market that the money they receive by way of grant must be directly deducted from their income support. It means them struggling to make ends meet at the same time as they are trying to be trained.

It is surreal for the Government to claim that it is right to freeze child benefit, and then to say that they are interested in the fate of women as they try to return to the paid labour market. Even those women in Avon who manage to return to work earn only 64 per cent. of the pay given to men in the same labour market.

I will give a few examples of case work, of which there are many hundreds, because they are the sort of cases about which I frequently write to the Minister. These examples show not only how people are unable to escape poverty but how they are being drawn positively into the poverty trap by the Government's meanness.

I cite the case of a couple who found themselves homeless and had to enter bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That cost them £112 a week. Their total income, including housing benefit, was £111. In other words, they did not have enough to pay for their bed-and-breakfast accommodation, let alone live. That is how surreal are the intentions of the Government.

Tell young people trapped in board-and-lodging accommodation how to manage on the £5 to £17 a week that they have left after they have paid their lodgings. Can the Government persuade them that their policies are designed to get them out of the poverty trap? The Government are confining them to the poverty trap.

Imagine the plight of people who are anxious to return to work but who need clothes or equipment to enable them to enter the paid labour market. Such people are now denied grant with which to buy specialist clothing or equipment. The Government do not understand what the poverty trap is about.

I invite the Government to explain their policies to a constituent of mine whose wife is suffering from Huntington's chorea. He gave up work to look after her some years ago. Her condition has deteriorated to such an extent that she has had to be admitted to a specialist private nursing home. No other nursing home would accept her. The cost of that nursing is £320 a week. The total amount that that family can claim from the Government is £275 a week, so there is a difference of £45 which that unemployed family must find each week. That husband and his 13-year-old daughter are trapped in a vicious poverty cycle. Would the Government tell them that they are being extravagant in their budgeting?

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston)

I have drawn the attention of the Minister to the plight of a constituent of mine, although I understand that there has been a change in the circumstances of the case since I raised the matter with him.

My constituent removed from institutional care his severely handicapped adult brother, having decided to look after him personally. I accept that he had no legal responsibility to do that. He did it out of love and family loyalty, thereby saving the state a great deal of money. He is given by the grateful state an income of £34.90. The severely handicapped brother is dependent entirely on benefit. Between them they have an income of about £100 a week.

Would the Minister care for a severely mentally handicapped brother, if he had one, for £34.90 a week? Would he be grateful if he was then told by the Governmeent, "There will be another premium of £10 a week. You are lucky to be living under a Tory Government"? I intervene to tell that story because it is the sort of case to which my hon. Friend is referring so eloquently.

Ms. Primarolo

I entirely agree. That is yet another illustration of the fact that the Government's rhetoric is completely divorced from any understanding of what is happening in people's lives.

A constituent has written to me complaining about the Government's strategy to help disabled people to retrain or return to full-time education. If someone is given a place on a full-time course, he is no longer regarded as ill, and therefore cannot qualify for any form of benefit. Education and training attract various kinds of maintenance funding, but that funding does not take account of the special living costs of the chronically ill and their families.

The Government's famous report on the disabled, which has just been published, admits that the majority of disabled adults live in family units containing low earners trapped in poverty. If they have jobs, those jobs are poorly paid. The study carried out by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys does not make it clear whether low pay follows from disability or whether those in low-paid occupations are more likely to become disabled. The truth is probably a combination of the two: class inequality and the oppression of the poor combine to produce patterns of inequality and disadvantage. The Government are reinforcing those patterns, not challenging them, and they should be ashamed of themselves.

6.31 pm
Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

I shall be as brief as I can, but I must say at the outset that it is entirely unfair for Opposition Members to speak for so long and to allow such long interventions from other Opposition Members who have no intention of speaking. [HON. MEMBERS: "Get a move on."] The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) also took far too long to open the debate.

Yesterday a report was published by the Church of England attacking what it called the "injustice of urban poverty". The report observed: It is the corporate responsibility of the community to reflect the justice of God and it is the responsibility of the Church to remind the body politic of its obligation to do so, not simply in a carping, critical sense, but also in positive recognition". Introducing the report, Bishop Butler of Willesden said that he did not believe the situation to be as grave as four years ago, when the Faith in the Cities report was published, because the problems were now high on the Government's agenda. That is in today's edition of The Daily Telegraph.

I came to the House in June 1987. On 12 September 1987, the Prime Minister visited my constituency to launch the inner-city programme from Teesside: £160 million was to be invested in Teesside, and in each of the other five second-generation urban development corporations. Since then, there has been a third generation, and a crop of mini-urban development corporations has ensued.

Most of the poverty about which Opposition Members profess to be so upset is to be found in our inner-city areas. The purpose of the inner-cities initiative was to invest in those deprived areas—such as the northern and eastern corners of my constituency, which are now covered by the Teesside development corporation. At the same time, the Government introduced major reforms in the social security system—changes in the employment benefits and regulations—and began to invest huge sums in inner-city housing.

In today's edition of The Daily Telegraph, next to the report of the Church of England's new initiative, is an article headed "£190 million extra to rescue decaying estates". The result of those endeavours has been a significant reduction in unemployment throughout the land. In my constituency, it is down from 7,109 to 4,956, a fall of 44 per cent. Across the country, there was a fall of 25 per cent. in the inner cities last year. Government spending of £3.5 billion on the inner cities has been matched by spending of £55.6 billion on the social security budget as a whole, a real-terms increase of 36 per cent. since 1979.

Earlier in the debate, we heard some talk from the Liberal party—the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) is not here now—about the measurement of poverty. I think that all hon. Members would find that task difficult. Certainly a number of people—even in my constituency, in the inner part of Teesside—are, by any standards, living in poverty, and many are still living on benefits or low incomes. About one third of the population either receive income support, or have incomes only 40 per cent. above the income support rate. The problem is, however—as I would have said to the right hon. Member if he were here—that:, if that is taken as the poverty line, every time benefits are increased to combat poverty the number of people below the line increases.

According to the Labour party, however, the measurement of poverty must be relative rather than absolute. In 1976, the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme), then Minister of State for Social Services, said: Poverty is a relative matter, and the Government do not accept that a simple poverty line can be drawn."—[Official Report, 26 October 1976; Vol. 918, c. 255.] New Society also condemned the concept of absolute poverty in 1986.

Taking the relative view of poverty, Labour politicians now claim that the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer; yet if we examine income levels, we find that in real terms they have grown at all levels. Nevertheless, let me say a word of caution to the Government. Between 1979 and 1985, the incomes of the poorest tenth of households rose by approximately 6 per cent. in real terms, and the average increase for the whole population was 9 per cent. In terms of living standards, however, the picture may be somewhat different—and here I sound a note of caution to Opposition Members before they condemn us for that earlier statistic.

Between 1981 and 1985, the poorest 10 per cent. improved their living standards by 8.3 per cent., while the figure for the whole population was only 6.4 per cent. In the north of England, where I come from, massive strides have been made. Although income levels are generally lower than in the south-east, living standards are generally higher: 10 years ago, hardly any households possessed videos, microwave ovens or home computers, whereas today one household in five has a home computer, one in three has a microwave and half have videos. Share ownership in the region has reached 13 per cent.

That picture of rising living standards across the board has passed a few people by. The Labour party need not crow as I acknowledge that, for I am every bit as concerned as other hon. Members to remedy the problem. People on half average earnings have experienced a significant increase in their take-home pay under the Conservative Government; under Labour, it was actually cut.

Perhaps the solution is to integrate jobcentres with unemployment offices and to place them as near to their client population as possible; that is the solution that I propose for Thornaby, in my constituency. Certainly we can have nothing but praise for the inner-cities initiative, which is transforming our region and the rougher parts of other regions and cities.

In my region, two issues concern me particularly: the plight of the elderly and the condition of the housing stock. As I said in an earlier intervention, I hear a good deal from pensioners about how little they have on which to live, and I have considerable sympathy for some. On average, however, pensioners' total net income grew by 23 per cent. above inflation between 1979 and 1986—twice as fast as the growth in the incomes of the mass of the population, and by as much each year as in all five years of the last Labour Government.

Pensioners tell me that they cannot keep up with price rises, and that I cannot tell them how well off they are. I would not pretend for a moment that they are wealthy; next April, however, the single person's pension will increase to £46.90, and the couple's pension to £75.10. Moreover, 70 per cent. of those who are now retiring have some form of occupational pension. In October, the Government announced a package of measures costing £200 million a year to give additional help to pensioners on income support and housing benefit.

During the speech of the hon. Member for Oldham, West, we debated very briefly the position in Europe. He conceded that his point about the better-off pensioners of Europe was not quite as well-founded as he had thought. Let me quote for his benefit the words of Dorothy Rhodes, the president of Pensioners' Voice: We have talked about the percentages of pensions in Europe, and I have been one who has spoken loudly in support of parity with Europe, but during the past year I have been to Pensioners Congresses in Italy and Greece and, having spoken at length to those who actually receive the Euro pensions … and discovered that in many cases the actual cash received in relation to the cost of living is often lower than in the UK, I am revising my opinion; for in no way can our Federation ask for an equality that would disadvantage our own people.

Of particular note is the extra carers' allowance for those looking after people who are ill and the earnings limit for those on invalid care allowance, which will be increased by 66 per cent. This, I believe, will go some way to offset the impact of what has been called the granny tax—the provision whereby no reduction in community charge is available for elderly relatives living at home. In my view, that point also needs some further attention from the Government.

I was going to say something about housing stock in the north of England, but I shall leave that for a housing debate. What I can say is that the Opposition have sought to mislead the House, and I urge hon. Members to support the amendment.

6.41 pm
Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

In the limited time available, it will be difficult to answer some of the grossly misleading statements that have been made by the Secretary of State and by other hon. Members speaking in support of the Government. I know that the Secretary of State is a very intelligent man, so I assume that what he did was absolutely deliberate. That makes it less honourable than the course taken by some of his hon. Friends, who read Central Office handouts and believe all the fabricated statistics that are fed out. Indeed, I have a copy of such a handout, so I recognise large parts of the speech that the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) has just made.

The Secretary of State claimed that we have had unusually high economic growth under this Government. That is absolutely false. I have here a table showing economic growth since 1948—year by year, cumulatively, and in graph form. The table shows that under this Government the average economic growth has been 2.2 per cent—less than the growth under many previous Governments. What the Government say about there having been an economic miracle is just not true. It is false, deceitful, and dishonest. These statistics from the House of Commons Library, which we all accept, show it to be so. I do not know why, in a debate on poverty, the Secretary of State should claim to have had such enormous economic growth. If he lives in our society, he must know that many people are now really struggling. Indeed, if we had had the economic miracle that the Secretary of State claims we have had, it would be even more shameful that that should be so.

The Secretary of State went on to claim that all is well, and that the Government have been deeply generous and caring. It is not so. Our country is more deeply divided and more unequal than it has been at any time since the second world war, and the people who live in the country understand that. In response to every poll and every survey of British social attitudes, they say that Britain is now too deeply divided, that they are against that, and that they want to see the division and the inequality reversed.

We have too many pensioners struggling to make their money last week by week. I meet many of them at my advice bureaux and as I go around Birmingham. People come up to me on the street and say, "I have managed all these years, but I am finding it really difficult now." Do the Secretary of State and his hon. Friends live in the society that we live in? Do they talk to people who have to live on state benefits? They say that twice the Labour Government failed to pay the Christmas bonus, yet they have deliberately changed the uprating of pensions so that a single pensioner gets £13 less every week, and a couple £20-odd less. Are they not ashamed to play those games? The Secretary of State should be ashamed of himself.

This is not a game about Christmas bonuses of long ago, before people like me were elected to this House. If bonuses were cancelled, that is regrettable, but a reduction of £13 or £20 a week for people who are finding life difficult—people, indeed, who cannot manage—is an absolute outrage. But the Government did this deliberately. The funds were available, but money has been taken away from the worst-off pensioners in order to give tax cuts to the richest people. And the Secretary of State belongs to a Government who have done that deliberately.

We have a record number of people on low pay. The Government have introduced a whole series of measures deliberately to encourage people to do low-paid work. They have even given employers subsidies conditional on wages being low. If there were more time, I could go through the list of measures. Indeed, the Government have deliberately incited low-paid work. They have pushed many citizens who want the pride and dignity of work into living in poverty and having to claim benefits. People do not like it, and it is economically inefficient. It means that we, the taxpayers—and increasingly the bulk of tax is paid by lower paid workers—are subsidising the most inefficient employers—employers who pay low wages, who do not train, who do not invest, and who have a high rate of labour turnover. It is unjust, it is unequal, it deprives people of the dignity of going to work, and it is economically inefficient. It is not the way to build a modern, high-pay, high-skill economy. It is a disaster for the lives of people, and it is a disaster for the British economy.

We are told that, suddenly, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State are concerned about lone parents. That is difficult to believe. Big poverty traps have been built for lone parents by the cumulative effect of this Government's benefit changes. We have a higher proportion of lone parents relying on benefits than ever before. The Government have deliberately brought that about. They are eroding the value of child benefit—the one non-means-tested benefit that helps people such as lone parents to climb off benefits and into work. They are forced to rely on means-tested benefit.

What other change have the Government made? It used to be possible for a lone parent working part time to claim benefit to top up income and to have the cost of child care taken into account—a step out of one parenthood into part-time work, hopefully enabling the parent, as the children get older, to move into full-time work and independence, and not to have to rely on benefit. But the Government have abolished that. They have made that impossible. They have created poverty traps, forcing lone parents into reliance on benefits. So I fear that all this talk of encouraging fathers to maintain their children—and, of course, I agree completely with that principle—is not about caring for those children or those families; it is about saving even more money on the benefit bill. It is as cynical as that. That is the Government's intention.

These problems of inequality and poverty are not an accident; they are the deliberate result of Government policy. One of the major objectives of Government policy was to increase incentives. They said so very clearly. This meant that the rich could keep more of their income, and those less well off—always a contradiction that we pointed out—had to be squeezed harder, had to be given an incentive to work harder in order to become better off. The Government set about systematically changing the benefit and taxation system in order to move money from those with less to those with more. The figures are absolutely clear. I have quoted them before, but it is important to the House and to the country to base debates such as this on the truth rather than on fabricated statistics that seek deliberately to mislead. Let me quote from Hills—and I invite any hon. Member to crawl over these statistics in detail. Since 1979 the cuts in direct taxes have been entirely paid for by cuts in the generosity of benefits…Overall, the bottom 60 per cent. of the income distribution has lost, while the top 30 per cent.—especially the top 10 per cent.—has gained…The losses for the bottom 50 per cent. average out at nearly £8.50 per family…while the top 10 per cent. have gained nearly £40 per family. Overall, the bottom half of the population has lost £6.6 billion"— £6.6 billion has been deliberately taken away from them, producing the kind of poverty problems about which we have been talking.— of which £5.6 billion has gone to the top 10 per cent.; indeed, £4.8 billion has gone to the top 5 per cent. As the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) said, the poll tax will make the position much worse. The statistics will become even more gross.

Let us not pretend that any Conservative Member thinks that any of the poverty in this country is regrettable. Britain is the 15th richest country in the world. If we want to be fair, we have the capacity to ensure that all our people are cared for and can live a decent life in a fair society. The Government have deliberately made things more unequal, taken money away from pensioners and encouraged low pay; then they have pretended that that is not so. I have no respect for that attitude.

The Government stood for monetarism, or Thatcherism, which meant increased inequality which they claimed would increase incentives, plus the mumbo-jumbo, which has been proved false, about M0, M3 and the medium-term financial strategy, which now happily has been forgotten with the resignation of the former Chancellor. The Secretary of State should be honest and speak the truth. He is part of a Government who have deliberately made many of our people much poorer and who have increased poverty to give enormous tax handouts to some of the richest people. The right hon. Gentleman is responsible for that policy. The British people do not like it, and we do not like it, which is why we are increasingly confident that we will soon have a Labour Government. We will implement the policies in our policy review, creating fairness and pathways out of poverty. That will mean a better Britain and a fairer future.

Mr. Corbyn

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Tonight, 11,000 people will sleep on the streets of London in cardboard boxes around the National theatre. Is it in order for the House to confine a debate on the crisis of poverty and homelessness to rather less than two hours in order to spend three hours discussing football? I am sure that you agree, Sir, that the House should find ways to spend more time discussing the crisis of poverty rather than the issue of football which, although significant, has no importance compared with the poverty of the people of Britain.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

That is a matter for the House, not the Chair. I am aware that the hon. Member is one of a number of Members who hoped to speak but so far have been disappointed.

6.52 pm
The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Nicholas Scott)

The subjects for debate and the time allocated to them on Opposition days are matters for the Opposition Front Bench. If the Opposition shared the view of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), they could have spent a whole day on this subject, and we would have welcomed it.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

If Labour Members are so concerned, why are there only 11 Labour Back Benchers in the Chamber?

Mr. Scott

The Labour party must answer that. Labour has ordered the priorities; we are simply responding to them.

On Second Reading of the Social Security Bill, I said that, as society changes, social security systems must change to reflect those changes. It is no secret that we believe that, in the immediate past, today and in the future, the overall aim should be increasingly to target—I prefer the word "focus"—extra resources on those who really need the most help. To do that, we undertake a range of monitoring exercises to establish the facts, rather than listen to the type of rhetoric that we have heard from the Opposition today.

We have monitored the system carefully and have made adjustments, as anyone who looks at it in a fair-minded way would have to recognise. We conduct research, collect statistics, analyse the cases of Members of Parliament and look at an endless flow of articles, books, programmes and so on—and, not least, we listen to the House on this issue. [Interruption.] We fine-tune the system. We try to establish those parts of the social security system where the shoe pinches unduly and make adjustments to it. We have helped families on low incomes, whether in or out of work. We have adjusted the system to concentrate extra help on the poorest elderly and disabled pensioners. We have changed the capital limit on housing benefit. We have done a number of things because we have listened to debates in the House and evidence from outside and have been prepared to fine-tune the system.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Scott

I have had to endure an intervention on a point of order from the hon. Member for Islington, North, but I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Field

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Everyone is pleased at the small changes that the Government have made. The Opposition repeatedly make the case that the basic benefits are inadequate. Will the Government act on that matter?

Mr. Scott

In real terms, benefits have been improved—perhaps just a little—under the Government. [Interruption.] All right, but benefits are certainly better than they were under the Labour Government. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, coverage has increased massively, which means that those on benefit as a whole have had a substantial increase in resources under this Government.

We have listened carefully to the more dispassionate and constructive contributions to the debate. We will obviously weigh all the evidence and the contributions in the balance when we decide priorities. The further that those on the Opposition Front Bench get from having experienced the responsibilities of government, the more they come to fall under the magic wand syndrome—the idea that, somehow, when Labour Members return to office, they will be able to find resources to make improvements across a range of issues. Now that Labour Members are perhaps approaching the halfway mark in their period of opposition, they are even further away from reality than normal. There are no magic wands in government. Government is about priorities and hard choices. We have made those choices, and will continue to do so, based on real priorities which we have established.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) asked about the publication of official statistics on living standards over the past five years and asked when we expected to publish the next edition. We will publish them in the near future, but the Social Services Select Committee has asked us to study the possibilities of considering at the same time publishing comparative data on earlier years, and we are looking into those possibilities. We certainly have no intention of delaying publication of the series on average household incomes.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West made comparisons between EC countries which were highly misleading. There are significant differences in the structures of pensions throughout the European Community, as he well knows. In theory, it may appear that other states' retirement pensions are higher than ours, but in practice few people may qualify and many may be paid well below the standard, let alone the maximum, rates.

A point was made in an intervention about unemployment. I rebut the idea that our performance has fallen below European standards. At 5.8 per cent. United Kingdom unemployment is well below the EC average—below the rates in France, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy—and over the past two years the unemployment rate has fallen faster in the United Kingdom than in any other major industrial country. The largest falls in unemployment have been in the north, Wales and Scotland.

Mr. Corbyn

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Scott

I will not give way.

No one denies that poverty exists. It has existed under Labour and Conservative Governments. The important point is that we seek to see that poverty is alleviated to the maximum possible degree. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) said, people at all income levels are far better off. By definition, there was more poverty under the last Labour Government than under the present Conservative Government. The Labour Government had a chronic inability to run a successful economy, so they were unable to fulfil their laudable objectives. The Labour party is good on rhetoric, but pretty poor on achievement. Like the late lain Macleod, I believe that a successful competitive economy is the engine of a compassionate society. More people have benefited because of our economic success.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 212, Noes 287.

Divison No. 56] [7 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) Cartwright, John
Allen, Graham Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Alton, David Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Clay, Bob
Armstrong, Hilary Clelland, David
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack Cohen, Harry
Ashton, Joe Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Corbett, Robin
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich) Corbyn, Jeremy
Barron, Kevin Cousins, Jim
Battle, John Crowther, Stan
Beckett, Margaret Cryer, Bob
Beggs, Roy Cummings, John
Beith, A. J. Cunliffe, Lawrence
Bell, Stuart Cunningham, Dr John
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Dalyell, Tarn
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish) Darling, Alistair
Bermingham, Gerald Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Bidwell, Sydney Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Blair, Tony Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'I)
Blunkett, David Dewar, Donald
Boateng, Paul Dixon, Don
Boyes, Roland Dobson, Frank
Bradley, Keith Doran, Frank
Bray, Dr Jeremy Douglas, Dick
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E) Duffy, A. E. P.
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E) Dunnachie, Jimmy
Buchan, Norman Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Caborn, Richard Eadie, Alexander
Callaghan, Jim Eastham, Ken
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Evans, John (St Helens N)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley) Fatchett, Derek
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Fearn, Ronald
Canavan, Dennis Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n) Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Fisher, Mark Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Flannery, Martin Moonie, Dr Lewis
Flynn, Paul Morgan, Rhodri
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Morley, Elliot
Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S) Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Foster, Derek Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Foulkes, George Mowlam, Marjorie
Fraser, John Mullin, Chris
Fyfe, Maria Murphy, Paul
Garrett, John (Norwich South) Nellist, Dave
George, Bruce Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John O'Brien, William
Golding, Mrs Llin O'Neill, Martin
Gordon, Mildred Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Graham, Thomas Owen, Rt Hon Dr David
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham) Patchett, Terry
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Pendry, Tom
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Pike, Peter L.
Harman, Ms Harriet Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Prescott, John
Healey, Rt Hon Denis Primarolo, Dawn
Heffer, Eric S. Quin, Ms Joyce
Henderson, Doug Randall, Stuart
Hinchliffe, David Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn
Hoey, Ms Kate (Vauxhall) Richardson, Jo
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Robinson, Geoffrey
Home Robertson, John Rogers, Allan
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Rooker, Jeff
Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath) Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Howells, Geraint Ross, William (Londonderry E)
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd) Rowlands, Ted
Hoyle, Doug Ruddock, Joan
Hughes, Roy (Newport E) Sedgemore, Brian
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Sheerman, Barry
Illsley, Eric Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Ingram, Adam Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Janner, Greville Short, Clare
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) Sillars, Jim
Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Môn) Skinner, Dennis
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W) Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Kennedy, Charles Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
Kilfedder, James Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)
Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Lamond, James Snape, Peter
Leadbitter, Ted Soley, Clive
Lestor, Joan (Eccles) Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Litherland, Robert Stott, Roger
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Strang, Gavin
Lofthouse, Geoffrey Straw, Jack
Loyden, Eddie Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
McAllion, John Taylor, Rt Hon J. D. (S'ford)
McAvoy, Thomas Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
McCartney, Ian Turner, Dennis
Macdonald, Calum A. Vaz, Keith
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West) Wallace, James
McLeish, Henry Walley, Joan
Maclennan, Robert Wareing, Robert N.
McNamara, Kevin Watson, Mike (Glasgow, C)
McWilliam, John Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Madden, Max Williams, Rt Hon Alan
Mahon, Mrs Alice Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
Marek, Dr John Wilson, Brian
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Winnick, David
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Wise, Mrs Audrey
Martin, Michael J. (Springburn) Worthington, Tony
Maxton, John Wray, Jimmy
Meacher, Michael Young, David (Bolton SE)
Meale, Alan  
Michael, Alun Tellers for the Ayes:
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeiey) Mr. Frank Haynes and
Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute) Mr. John McFall.
Aitken, Jonathan Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Alexander, Richard Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Ashby, David
Amess, David Aspinwall, Jack
Amos, Alan Atkins, Robert
Arbuthnot, James Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)
Baldry, Tony Freeman, Roger
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) French, Douglas
Batiste, Spencer Fry, Peter
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Gale, Roger
Bellingham, Henry Gardiner, George
Bendall, Vivian Garel-Jones, Tristan
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Gill, Christopher
Benyon, W. Glyn, Dr Sir Alan
Bevan, David Gilroy Goodlad, Alastair
Biffen, Rt Hon John Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Blackburn, Dr John Q. Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Gorst, John
Body, Sir Richard Gow, Ian
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)
Boscawen, Hon Robert Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Boswell, Tim Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Bottomley, Peter Gregory, Conal
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Grist, Ian
Bowis, John Ground, Patrick
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes Grylls, Michael
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Hamilton, Hon Archie (Epsom)
Bright, Graham Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's) Hampson, Dr Keith
Browne, John (Winchester) Hanley, Jeremy
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South) Hannam, John
Buck, Sir Antony Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')
Budgen, Nicholas Harris, David
Burns, Simon Haselhurst, Alan
Burt, Alistair Hawkins, Christopher
Butcher, John Hayes, Jerry
Butler, Chris Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney
Butterfill, John Hayward, Robert
Carlisle, John, (Luton N) Heathcoat-Amory, David
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Carrington, Matthew Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)
Carttiss, Michael Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Hind, Kenneth
Chapman, Sydney Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Chope, Christopher Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)
Churchill, Mr 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 Hunter, Andrew
Conway, Derek Irvine, Michael
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest) Irving, Sir Charles
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Jack, Michael
Cormack, Patrick Jackson, Robert
Couchman, James Janman, Tim
Cran, James Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Critchley, Julian Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Currie, Mrs Edwina Jones, Robert B (Herts W)
Curry, David Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd )Spald'g) Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Davis, David (Boothferry) Key, Robert
Day, Stephen King, Roger (8'ham N'thfield)
Devlin, Tim Kirkhope, Timothy
Dicks, Terry Knapman, Roger
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Knight, Greg (Derby North)
Dover, Den Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Dunn, Bob Knox, David
Durant, Tony Lamont, Rt Hon Norman
Eggar, Tim Lang, Ian
Emery, Sir Peter Latham, Michael
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd) Lawrence, Ivan
Evennett, David Lee, John (Pendle)
Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Fallon, Michael Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Favell, Tony Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Lightbown, David
Fishburn, John Dudley Lilley, Peter
Fookes, Dame Janet Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)
Forman, Nigel Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Luce, Rt Hon Richard
Forth, Eric Macfarlane, Sir Neil
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Fox, Sir Marcus MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)
Franks, Cecil Maclean, David
McLoughlin, Patrick Sackville, Hon Tom
McNair-Wilson, Sir Michael Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas
McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick Shaw, David (Dover)
Madel, David Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Malins, Humfrey Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb)
Mans, Keith Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)
Maples, John Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Marland, Paul Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Marlow, Tony Shersby, Michael
Marshall, John (Hendon S) Sims, Roger
Martin, David (Portsmouth S) Skeet, Sir Trevor
Mates, Michael Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Maude, Hon Francis Squire, Robin
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick Stern, Michael
Mellor, David Stevens, Lewis
Meyer, Sir Anthony Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Miller, Sir Hal Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Mills, lain Summerson, Hugo
Miscampbell, Norman Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling) Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Moate, Roger Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Monro, Sir Hector Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Montgomery, Sir Fergus Temple-Morris, Peter
Morrison, Sir Charles Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Morrison, Rt Hon P (Chester) Thorne, Neil
Moss, Malcolm Thornton, Malcolm
Moynihan, Hon Colin Thurnham, Peter
Mudd, David Townend, John (Bridlington)
Neale, Gerrard Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Nelson, Anthony Tredinnick, David
Neubert, Michael Trippier, David
Newton, Rt Hon Tony Twinn, Dr Ian
Nicholls, Patrick Viggers, Peter
Nicholson, David (Taunton) Waddington, Rt Hon David
Nicholson, Emma (Devon West) Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Norris, Steve Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley Walden, George
Oppenheim, Phillip Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Page, Richard Waller, Gary
Paice, James Walters, Sir Dennis
Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Patten, Rt Hon Chris (Bath) Warren, Kenneth
Patten, Rt Hon John Watts, John
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Wells, Bowen
Pawsey, James Wheeler, Sir John
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Widdecombe, Ann
Porter, Barry (Wirral S) Wiggin, Jerry
Porter, David (Waveney) Wilshire, David
Portillo, Michael Winterton, Mrs Ann
Powell, William (Corby) Winterton, Nicholas
Price, Sir David Wolfson, Mark
Raison, Rt Hon Timothy Wood, Timothy
Redwood, John Yeo, Tim
Renton, Rt Hon Tim Young, Sir George (Acton)
Rhodes James, Robert Younger, Rt Hon George
Riddick, Graham  
Rossi, Sir Hugh Tellers for the Noes:
Rost, Peter Mr. Irvine Patnick and
Rumbold, Mrs Angela Mr. Stephen Dorrell.

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 notes with approval the Government's plans to increase substantially spending on social security in the coming financial year bringing the total to an unprecedented £55.6 billion reflecting further growth on top of the 36 per cent. real terms increase which has taken place since 1978–79; and commends it for introducing a reformed structure of benefits enabling these massive resources to be targeted more effectively on those in need thereby ensuring that, from April this year some 1.5 million families with three million children will again have their income-related benefits increased in real terms bringing the amount of extra help provided for them to over £350 million in real terms since April 1988, for improving work incentives by virtually eliminating marginal deduction rates in excess of 100 per cent., thus ensuring that working families keep more of the money they earn, and for providing an improved, more accurate and speedier service to the public.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should like to raise a point of order on the five-page written answer which was given by the Minister of State for the Armed Forces today to the hon. Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall). This answer is establishing an inquiry, under Mr. Calcutt, into the reasons for the termination of the employment of Mr. Colin Wallace. In particular, the answer admits that Ministers caused inaccurate statements to be made to the House; that is to say, they misled the House.

But the appeal is to be limited to the handling of an inquiry. Why is Mr. Colin Wallace, who is apparently now being believed on this issue, not going to be allowed to have his views expressed on other matters? We believe that this is of such importance that a five-page written answer is not satisfactory as far as the House is concerned. We therefore ask, through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the Leader of the House take the appropriate steps tomorrow to ensure that a statement is made, not by the Minister of State, but by the Secretary of State for Defence, about this very pressing matter, which requires the attention and scrutiny of the House as a whole.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

I have listened carefully to the point made by the hon. Gentleman and understand why he has raised it in this way. If I may, I will arrange for the matter to be considered through the usual channels in the light of the request that he has made; the House will be informed tomorrow in one way or another what our response is.

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I first welcome the positive response of the Leader of the House? To suggest that this matter be discussed through the usual channels is fine, but I want to press him a little more to say that he will ensure in one way or another that there is a full oral statement to the House of Commons about this very important matter at the earliest possible opportunity.

Mr. Cecil Franks (Barrow and Furness)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of which I gave you notice earlier. It concerns a report on Independent Television News at 5.40 this afternoon concerning the debate in the House on the ten-minute Bill. Independent Television News reported the speech of the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), and I have no criticism of that. It then moved to show a panned view of the House from the cameras opposite showing the Government Front Bench, with the following newscaster's comment over the view: The Government did not bother to reply. It is the convention of the House, known to every hon. Member and equally well known to every member of the press lobby, that the Government do not speak during a ten-minute Bill.

I seek your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as a private Member—I know that other private Members feel exactly as I do—on how I and other private Members may deal with this point. I refer you to "Erskine May", page 121, "Constructive Contempts", and will quote the relevant parts: Reflections on either House"—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. I must interrupt the hon. Gentleman. If, as I think, he is now talking about a possible contempt of the House, or a matter of privilege, he must raise that in writing with Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Franks

Can I see your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and ask you to consider the matter? Can you advise me at this stage whether this is a fit and proper matter for private Members of the House to refer to the Select Committee on broadcasting? To my mind, and to the minds of many other Members of the House, this is a gross distortion of procedure.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has now answered his own point. If he feels that there has been a breach of the conventions, he is absolutely right to refer it to the appropriate Select Committee.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

Further to the earlier point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, can I ask the Leader of the House to ensure not only that a statement is made but that consideration is given overnight by the Government to ensuring that the terms of reference of any inquiry are adequate to deal with what is arguably one of the most serious constitutional crises we have had in recent years? It is something that affects not just one or two individuals but a former Government, and casts a great deal of unfavourable light on an entire Government Department. For that reason, and for the sake of the standing of the House, can the Leader of the House ensure that a full and adequate statement is made explaining precisely what is intended?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I hope that the House will feel that this matter has been ventilated now and, furthermore, that the Leader of the House has given an assurance on the matter. I hope, therefore, that the House will feel that, as we are cutting into an important debate in Opposition time, we should let the matter rest there and get on with that debate.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke)

Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Franks), Mr. Deputy Speaker, about the television broadcast at 5.40 pm, is it not the case that the Independent Broadcasting Authority has a duty to ensure that ITN has a balanced view of what happens in the House? The fact is that neither the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) nor the Division figures were given in the report. The implication was that there was no opposition to the speech of the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook).

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I think the hon. Gentleman will realise that that is not a matter for the Chair. If he feels that there has been a breach, it is open to him to refer the matter to the Select Committee on broadcasting.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), Mr. Deputy Speaker. Could the letter of 30 January that I received from the Minister of State for the Armed Forces on the subject of Colin Wallace be considered? Could one other matter be considered—namely, what we, as Members of Parliament on either side of the House, have to do to get things examined properly? At unconscionable length and far too often for the patience of many of my colleagues, some of us have gone back and back and back to the issue of Colin Wallace. Now we find that a statement is made: I greatly regret that the fact that relevant records were not brought to Ministers' attention has in recent years caused inaccurate statements to be made to the House and in both ministerial and official correspondence. After all that has been said, what about the treatment of the House of Commons?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

These are not matters for the Chair. The hon. Gentleman must use his well-known ingenuity to raise the matter.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not want to detain the House, but the issues raised go beyond a disciplinary question in the Ministry of Defence. What Colin Wallace said he did, and what he did, was to publish disinformation about Members of the House. I have in my possession leaflets published by his organisation involving certainly my right hon. Friends the Members for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) and for Salford, East (Mr. Orme), and myself. Therefore, this cannot just be a question of a Ministry of Defence disciplinary inquiry.

If false information was authorised by the Ministry of Defence, designed to damage the reputations of people who were Members of Parliament—the fact that they were Ministers at the time is almost secondary—then, overnight, Mr. Speaker should consider the implications for the House as a whole before the statement is made, so that the interest of the House in the matter can be taken into account. The House is concerned quite as much as the Ministry of Defence, which did this man a grave injustice.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will the Leader of the House, when a statement is being made, consider setting up a Select Committee on Northern Ireland so that there may be proper scrutiny in the House of the affairs of Northern Ireland? You, Sir, and hon. Members will realise now some of the difficulties that we have in scrutinising business.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I hope the House will feel that the matter has been ventilated. The Leader of the House has already responded. I understood the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), to accept the assurance.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)


Mr. Deputy Speaker

When I have called the right hon. Gentleman, I hope that we can get on with the next debate.

Mr. Rees

Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Leader of the House has responded, and I hope that there will be a statement tomorrow. As I think the written answer reveals, I was consulted because I was a Minister at the time. I have no complaint about that. Certainly, as will be revealed, these things were not given ministerial approval. There are various documents. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has one. I have a document from an American thanking me for donations to the Provisional IRA.

There was a dirty tricks set-up outside what is in the parliamentary answer. I have raised this because I want the Leader of the House to know that we do not want to consider just the Ministry of Defence aspect, which is important. There is more to the matter than that. I hope that by tomorrow afternoon he will have considered it so that we can raise all these issues and not just the narrow point.