HC Deb 07 June 1993 vol 226 cc4-6
3. Mr. Burns

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will outline the aims and objectives of the social security system.

Mr. Lilley

Our aim is to ensure that people have the means to cope with the main risks and needs that they face during their lives from their own or their employers' provision, from contributory benefits or from the state safety net.

Mr. Burns

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. Does he agree that the overriding priority of the social security system must be to provide help for the genuinely less well off? Will he confirm whether he has seen suggestions that have been floating around for using the tax system to claw back universal benefits and for the possibility of ending the universal provision of 'child benefit? Given that those proposals are being put about by the Labour Co-ordinating Committee, does not he think that it is time that the Labour party stopped shedding crocodile tears and spreading scare stories and came clean about what benefits Labour would tax and what benefits it would cut?

Mr. Lilley

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of ensuring that the focus of our benefit system is increasingly on those in greatest need and about getting the Opposition to come clean about their proposals. The Labour party spokesman is present so perhaps he can comment on the proposal of his colleague, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), that we should merge the tax and benefits systems. That can only mean means testing every universal benefit. Is that not what it means? Is that Labour policy or can the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscaden (Mr. Dewar) explain it?

Mr. Dewar

May I first observe the niceties and courtesies of the House by welcoming the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) to the Government Front Bench? I doubt whether he will be able to fill in full technicolour the role played by the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), but we will all watch with interest the development of someone whom the Yorkshire Post described as Just William: the schoolboy sensation becomes a Government Minister. With regard to the question, is it the Secretary of State's view that reflecting and questioning the expressed views of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury amounts to scaremongering? If he is concerned about the fears that are undoubtedly arising from the present review, would it not be sensible for him to trim off now some of the more damaging examples? For example, will he rule out the taxation of invalidity benefit and any changes in eligibility designed to exclude people who are genuinely struggling with ill health? Will he make it clear now that the housing costs of the poor will not be unreasonably increased by mean-minded changes in housing benefit?

Does not he recognise that the fears of those struggling to make ends meet on limited incomes are greatly increased by the failure of the Secretary of State and his like to slam the door on schemes that would spell disaster for some of the most vulnerable in our community? He is in government. He has the power to legislate. I think that he should clear up the situation.

Mr. Lilley

I can respond very frankly to that. I can whole-heartedly and unequivocally assure the hon. Gentleman that none of the changes from our long-term review will make vulnerable people worse off or, in the hon. Gentleman's words, will be unreasonable. However, I do not expect that in any way to influence his campaign of scaremongering or that of his hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) who, on 29 October, released some documents allegedly from my Department which, he said, showed that it was the poorest, weakest and frailest who have been targeted to pay the price"— blah, blah, blah— in the coming PES round. He was wrong, but what has he done? He leaked exactly the same documents last week and made different assertions about what they indicate—never knowingly underleaked.

Mr. Sykes

In view of the disaster that overwhelmed my constituency this weekend when one of our greatest hotels slipped into the sea, will my right hon. Friend ask the local manager of the benefits office to make an urgent visit to the area to help those most in need who have been affected by this most dreadful event?

Mr. Lilley

I realise what impact that very sad event must have had in my hon. Friend's constituency. I will certainly convey his point to the local benefits office. It has a record of prompt response to such emergencies, and I am sure that it will deal with the matter appropriately.

Mr. Frank Field

Does the Secretary of State accept that, although every political party has a duty to taxpayers to look carefully at the size and delivery of benefits, the review that he is undertaking is Treasury-led and is about cutting the size of the social security budget? Does he further accept that if the Government got the unemployment level down to the level that they inherited from Labour in 1979 and recouped merely half of the tax cuts going to the richest 1 per cent. of the population, there would be no crisis in public sector borrowing?

Mr. Lilley

Although I normally agree with the hon. Gentleman on quite a lot of things, I would not agree that the review is Treasury-led or that the objective is to go back to a lower level of benefits—certainly not the much lower level of benefits that we had under the Labour Government, since when we have increased spending by two thirds.

What we want is a better system which ensures that the most vulnerable people in society are protected and that all of us have the means to cope with the needs and variations of life. But to do that we must make sure that the benefits system is affordable. It cannot indefinitely outstrip the economic means that the country has to pay for it. If it did so, it would become unsustainable. That would be the greatest betrayal of those in need and damage the economy. We have a long-term review to ensure that we have a better, but sustainable, benefits system which is growing at least in line with what we can afford to finance.

Mr. Rowe

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that in recent years the disincentive for people to work because they are on social security has been greatly reduced? Will he confirm also that many people are inhibited from going back to work because of the threat to their housing benefit? Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will take that matter very seriously in his review?

Mr. Lilley

On the latter point, I can certainly reassure my hon. Friend that we will take into account such matters when we review those aspects of the benefits system in the long-term review. My hon. Friend is right; there are still some people who face disincentives to work, and we have to keep them under close review. Equally, we have removed the appalling situation in which people actually earned less when they returned to work than they did when they were on benefits. The over 100 per cent. withdrawal and tax combined rates have been eliminated.