HC Deb 31 January 1994 vol 236 cc601-2
1. Mr. Flynn

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what proposals he has to improve the operation of the benefit system.

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lilley)

We are continually improving the operation of the benefit system. Over the past two years, the time taken to process claims for most key benefits has been reduced by an average of 30 per cent. and output per member of staff has been increased by more than 20 per cent. For the future, I announced last September the one-stop programme to improve customer service and value for money even further.

Mr. Flynn

Has the Secretary of State noticed that the Social Security (Incapacity for Work) Bill is only the latest in a long series of salami cuts in the income of people on invalidity benefit? If the benefit were still being paid under the same conditions that operated in 1979, each single person on invalidity benefit would receive an extra £35 a week and each couple would receive an extra £47 a week. Are not a Government who scapegoat the sick in that way nauseating, weak and hopeless?

Mr. Lilley

If long-term sickness benefit were available only to the number of people receiving it under the last Labour Government, expenditure would be halved. We have allowed it to double in 10 years and to treble in 15 years. We want to ensure that, in future, money is focused on those who are genuinely unable to work because of sickness or disability and that it does not go to those who are able to work and who should be helped back into work on the back-to-work benefits. If the Opposition wish to revert to the old system, from where will they get the money?

Mr. Sims

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is very strong feeling about the extent to which some people are receiving benefits to which they are not legally entitled? The extent of that was demonstrated by my right hon. Friend's announcement last year that he intended an initiative to save as much as £500 million worth of benefits that were being drawn wrongly. What success has my right hon. Friend had in reaching that target and what steps is he taking to prevent fraudulent claims so that money can go to those who are genuinely entitled to it?

Mr. Lilley

My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is widespread resentment among people of all parties and none, and particularly among those on modest incomes who are striving to support themselves and to pay their taxes. They feel that some of their taxes are being misused and abused by those who are defrauding the system. I set a target last year for the Benefits Agency of identifying and stopping £500 million worth of abuse. I am happy to say that it exceeded that target and it is well on the way to matching a higher target this year. That will be welcomed by everyone who has at heart the best interests of those who genuinely need help from the benefits system, as well as the best interests of the taxpayer.

Ms Glenda Jackson

Does the Secretary of State intend to review payments to the 1.5 million families who are dependent on income support, in the light of the report published today by NCH Action for Children? According to that report, the £4.15 a week that is deemed sufficient to feed a child is 30 per cent. less than what was spent by Victorian workhouses in 1869, when it was £5.46. Is that not a disgraceful decline in our standards with regard to feeding our children?

Mr. Lilley

For several reasons, that does not ring true to anyone, not least because there is no sum designated specifically for food within the income support system. The sum given is available for parents to decide how they should spend it in the best interests of their families. I believe that the hon. Lady is referring to a figure that might have been implicit in the supplementary benefits system. However, she is somewhat out of date with regard to the reasoning behind the press release. Her allegation that people would be better off if we returned to the Victorian workhouse system discredits the hon. Lady.