HC Deb 25 June 1996 vol 280 cc135-7
1. Mrs. Ewing

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make social security benefits available to (a) 16 and (b) 17-year-olds. [32972]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Roger Evans)

They are already available. Our policy is to encourage young people to stay on at school. Child benefit is an important element in this. Those young people who do not remain in education are guaranteed a suitable training place. If they are registered for employment and training, they have access to income support if they would suffer severe hardship while awaiting placement.

Mrs. Ewing

I realise that the Minister wishes to attack the official Opposition on their attitude to child benefit for 16 to 18-year-olds, but may I draw his attention to the fact that the International Labour Organisation has said that a substantial number of young people in Britain are not currently eligible for unemployment benefit between the ages of 16 and 17? Is he aware that the House of Commons Library estimates that we are talking about a budget of about £187 million for the whole of the United Kingdom and £21 million for Scotland? Why do the Government have a Scrooge attitude to young people, who when they set out on adulthood should have the concept of independence available to them?

Mr. Evans

It is not a Scrooge attitude. The Government's policy is to encourage people to stay at school to take A-levels and to learn more, which the majority do these days, to obtain suitable training or to obtain a job. It is not the Government's policy and we reject the idea that one should encourage young people aged 16 and 17 into welfare dependency at an early stage unless there are compelling reasons of hardship. I should stress to the hon. Lady that 79 per cent. of hardship claims were met in 1995.

Mr. Fabricant

Would not the abolition of child benefit be not only a teenage tax but a retrogressive tax of the worst kind? Would it not attack the poor families who would like their children to go to secondary school and on to university—the very people whom we care for and for whom the Labour party does not care a damn?

Mr. Evans

My hon. Friend is right. One quarter of the households in which child benefit is paid to 16 and 17-year-olds are in receipt of income-related benefit. They are part of the £700 million alleged savings relied upon by the official Opposition. Presumably, the Opposition intend to take child benefit away from the poorest section of the community.

Mr. Sheerman

When the present Prime Minister was a social security Minister did he not take benefit away from 16 to 18-year-olds? If one looks at the record, that coincided with the greatest surge in juvenile crime that this country has ever known. Is it not a fact that the less advantaged young people in Britain have been penalised by the Government's mean-minded attitude?

Mr. Evans

No. The striking feature of the past 18 years has been the rising number of people aged 16 and 17 staying at school to study for A-levels and doing training. That is the correct policy. We shall continue to pursue it.

2. Mr. Nigel Evans

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what assessment he has made of the role of child benefit for 16 to 18-year-olds in encouraging children to stay in full-time education. [32973]

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

Child benefit clearly plays an important role in encouraging young people over the age of 16 to stay on in full-time education. Removing it for 16 to 18-year-olds, would only make it more difficult for parents to enable their children to stay on and acquire qualifications which will help them to get decent jobs.

Mr. Evans

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government have no intention of leaching child benefit off the backs of 16 and 17-year-olds who decide to stay on in full-time education? Does he believe that if we were to adopt the policy of the Labour party, it would give a dire choice to many young people: they would be taxed for staying on at school or they would be forced to leave school and to find work?

Mr. Lilley

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. Child benefit reflects the costs of having dependent children. It does a double task for over 16-year-olds, as it enables them, and encourages them, to stay on at school. Once a party has adopted a policy of withdrawing or means testing child benefit for those over 16, it is hard to see on what basis it can justify keeping it for those under 16. The Labour party will need that money to finance all of its other extravagant spending plans.

Mr. Wicks

Does the Secretary of State accept that child benefit for children over 16, together with related measures, is neither rational nor fair given that no support is going to many of the most disadvantaged children and their families? Given that the Government froze the level of child benefit for three years running, does the Secretary of State accept that their present attempt to pose as the guardians of family benefit has nothing to do with integrity and everything to do with hypocrisy? Does he accept that when the mothers of Britain see the Conservative Government posing as the friends of the family, they start to count their pound notes?

Mr. Lilley

The hon. Gentleman has read out the text supplied to him by the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown). He has asked me to justify the policy of his hon. Friend—he should ask his Back Benchers, not one of whom has endorsed the policy of the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East. They know that it is nonsense and they know that he adopted it on the basis of misinformation about the number of children from unskilled households staying on at school and in the mistaken belief that it was, in his words, primarily a subsidy for the mothers of children at public schools. He knows that that is nonsense, and it does him no credit that he is trying to justify a policy in which he has never believed.

Mr. Harry Greenway

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Labour party's talk of pound notes—which went out of circulation many years ago—shows how out of touch it is? Has my right hon. Friend made an estimate of the number of 16 and 17-year-olds who would be forced out of education, and therefore a lifetime opportunity, by the Labour party's determination to take away child benefit, if it ever gets the chance? Would not that be wicked?

Mr. Lilley

My hon. Friend picked up a Freudian slip that was made by the Labour party—which is extremely revealing. The parents of approximately 1.1 million children over the age of 16 are in receipt of child benefit. It is hard to judge how many children would be dissuaded from staying on at school if the Labour party's policies were adopted. Between 1974 and 1978, a mere 20 per cent. of children of unskilled parents stayed on at school; today, more than half of such children stay on at school.