HC Deb 25 June 1998 vol 314 cc1208-42
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

I should point out to the House that Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

5.38 pm
Mr. John Swinney (North Tayside)

I beg to move, That this House notes that Britain spends less on welfare as a percentage of GDP than many of its European partners; believes that economic growth and enterprise must be matched by policies designed to promote equality and social justice, and in this light expresses concern over the Government's recent actions in respect of benefits for single parents and claimants of disability living allowance; and calls on the Government to ensure that any further reform of the welfare system focuses on the needs of the most vulnerable in society rather than the demands of the Treasury and is neither discriminatory, economically inept, morally repugnant or spiritually bereft.

I have to thank the Liberal Democrats for rapidly accelerating the time scale for today's debates. The Government Whips Office told our Whips Office that the Minister for Welfare Reform would reply to this debate, but, because of the accelerated time scale, he has not yet arrived. [Interruption.] I was going to say—I hope that my comments are appropriate—that no debate on welfare reform would be complete without the Minister for Welfare Reform, and I see him arriving excellently on cue. My longer-serving colleagues advised me that it is unusual for a Minister in a Department other than the Scottish Office to reply to a Scottish National party Supply day debate, so we are particularly grateful that the right hon. Gentleman is here. I hope that he can catch his breath as quickly as I have had to catch mine.

I shall cover four areas: the reality of Labour's welfare actions since May last year; the proposals in the welfare reform Green Paper; the vision that the SNP offers for improved social welfare through the Scottish Parliament, when the Scotland Bill has finished its passage; and, finally, the outlook for meaningful improvements to the welfare system in an independent Scotland.

My colleagues will pick up on part of the detailed critique of existing Government welfare priorities and offer some advice on the fine tuning, which Ministers may wish to take into account. As Labour Members will be aware—some of them may not be quite as aware as they are about to be—the Government have some problems in Scotland just now, not merely in the opinion polls but in local authority by-elections.

Some Scottish electors who voted handsomely for the Labour party in Scotland in May last year are beginning to find that what they got was not exactly what they were expecting. Ministers may want to listen and learn from criticisms made on the doorsteps of central Scotland, where seats have been changing hands—from the Labour party to the SNP—in by-elections. The Government should start to listen to some of those criticisms, because the more they continue down their present road of welfare reform, the more out of step they will become with what many of us would acknowledge to be the accepted values of the mainstream community in Scotland.

Perhaps more than in any other area, in welfare the Labour Government have pursued a definitive direction since the general election, but that direction has put them at odds with their grass roots in Scotland. When they came to power last year, they did so with upbeat political support behind them. People expected things to get better. They are now realising that, in so many respects, things have not got that much better in respect of welfare. For that matter, things have not been much different from the policy that the previous Government were intending to pursue.

There was general surprise that one of the first actions of the Labour Government on welfare was to pursue a Social Security Bill that tampered with entitlement to back payments of housing and council tax benefits, leaving the most vulnerable worse off. The new Government even took the previous Tory Government's proposals one damaging step further. Who would have thought that the centrepiece of that legislation would have been cuts to benefits for lone parents? At the time, the Government justified their decision by talking up limited packages of welfare to work for lone parents and child care, but the Government ignored the warnings from both sides of the House that their schemes did not protect all the losers.

The Government emphasised that the benefit changes would not affect those already on benefit. What about those who go into work through the new deal and then, unfortunately, return to the dole queue? What about those who find the opportunities for child care inadequate—with levels of financial support well below what is required, especially for parents with more than one child—and who are forced to choose to concentrate on their No. 1 priority, which is looking after the children? Those mothers and fathers find themselves losing out as a result of their efforts to get back into the workplace. When the Department of Social Security publishes the figures for that area later in the year, I am confident that our assertion will be supported by hard evidence.

Welfare to work for lone parents is undoubtedly a step forward, and the measure has received a general cross-party welcome, but it does not match the damage caused by the reduction of single parent support. I hope that the scheme will develop through improved support for child care and wider options, including for study or training. In itself, however, it does not recognise the reality that not all parents are or will be in a position to enter the workplace. That group—often the most vulnerable single parents—is the one that has been and will be most damagingly affected by the lone-parent benefit cuts.

The Government cannot run from that reality, and it is the most powerful indictment of the philosophy that runs through their welfare reform efforts, which seem intent on creating a division between the so-called deserving and undeserving poor. The Government's philosophy is increasingly that of sink or swim. Unfortunately, the cuts in single-parent benefit mean that some people are undoubtedly sinking.

The other main area of welfare reform on which there has been Government action rather than the preliminary work of proposals, as we have seen in the Green Paper, is the benefit integrity project review of those on disability living allowance. That is where we see the clearest evidence in the Government's approach of the use of budgetary controls as a means of deciding welfare priorities.

Most of the criticisms surrounding the benefit integrity project to date have been of the administrative failings, the inadequacy of procedures and the rather cruel abruptness of the review process. I am glad to say that, after sustained pressure from both sides of the House, some of those technical failings in the procedure are slowly being ironed out. The Select Committee on Social Security applied pressure with a particularly well-produced report, and I am glad to see the Chairman of that Committee here tonight. I hope that he will contribute to the debate. I hope that he is much recovered from his sore back, which we all read about in Hansard. We hope that mobility will still be extended to him, if to no one else—it certainly has returned to him, at least.

The report highlighted the advantages of the Select Committee process in looking into an issue that has caused genuine concern to all our constituents, regardless of our party. The fact that Labour Members of the Select Committee, with all the pressures involved in being on the Government side, were prepared to associate themselves with a report so critical of the benefit integrity project was particularly helpful in forcing action over the weaknesses of the project.

Interestingly, many of the criticisms made and questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) in her Adjournment debate on the benefit integrity project some months ago were repeated in last week's debate. My hon. Friend's debate revolved around whether the project should be suspended temporarily, pending a review, or amended as we went along. The debate last week did not appear to have moved much further forward, although the desire for a cessation of the project was certainly as vociferous on both sides of the House then as in our earlier discussions.

There has been movement in the Government's response to some of the details of the project. In February, the Secretary of State for Social Security confirmed in a written answer to me that new evidence requirements were to be introduced to ensure that no claimants lost benefit purely on the basis of information supplied by them in their assessment forms. In recent months, there have been further concessions. In a parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Moray, the Government confirmed that disability groups would be more closely involved in the preparation of the letters and forms used in the project, and that there would be improved training for visiting and assessment officers and improved access for disabled groups to the departmental decision-making process. Those are all welcome steps.

However, I think that the Government have accepted that that still leaves many questions as to how a project of that seriousness and sensitivity was allowed to wreak such havoc within our community without the process of government drawing it to account and delivering a more soundly based initiative.

I accept that there is some uncertainty about who has ownership of the benefit integrity project. I suspect that more of it lies with the previous than with the present Government; we could take until 10 pm to debate that, so I shall leave it there. The project was first mooted under the previous Government, but the present Administration have continued with the scheme because of a flawed analysis of the problem. The Government have asserted that the review will ensure that claimants receive the benefits to which they are entitled, but even a cursory examination of the categories covered by the review process shows that that is not the whole story. The benefit integrity project focuses on those disability living allowance claimants who receive the higher rates of care and mobility allowance. If the process examines only those who receive the most money, there is likely to be a disproportionate number of cases in which benefit is reduced. If one genuinely wants to ensure that all people receive the benefit to which they are entitled, the process must look at those on the lower rates, so that their assistance can be increased if necessary.

The one-sided nature of the benefit integrity project gives the public the perception that it is, more than anything else, about cost saving. From listening to the individuals who come to my constituency surgeries to tell me about their difficulties with the disability living allowance, I believe—I am no medical practitioner—that mistaken judgments have been made, based on a desire to contain expenditure of DLA rather than pay that benefit to the people who are entitled to it.

The Conservatives triggered the benefit integrity project on the flawed assumption that fraud was widespread among those claiming DLA. The results of the project so far clearly disprove that theory, but the mechanisms employed are still those negative procedures of a drive to root out cheats in the benefits system. That approach insults the vast majority of honest recipients; it is designed to erect hurdles to claimants and to put unnecessary and unjustifiable fear and stress on vulnerable people. The lesson is that benefit fraud should be tackled as an administrative problem, rather than as a structural problem in some benefits.

If the project is an example of the thrust of future welfare reform, many people in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom will be left with a nasty taste in their mouths—they will believe that there is real reason for concern about the development of welfare reform and its implications for our citizens. With cost saving at its core, and with claimants having to jump through administrative hoops before they receive what they are entitled to, the reform means that we are moving away from one of the basic requirements of a decent society.

The values of such an approach are divisive; they are not the values of that modern, progressive, social democratic society that we should all seek to create. That approach belongs to a party and Government whose strategy on welfare is founded not on the need to establish the support structures of a comprehensive welfare state, but on two glaring misconceptions.

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I apologise to him and to the House for not being present at the start of the debate—it took me somewhat by surprise.

The hon. Gentleman talks about a strategy for welfare benefits reform; in anticipation of this debate, I took the trouble to try to research the welfare benefits strategy of the Scottish National party. Unfortunately, the only information that the SNP website provides is that all policies are currently under review, so the only available document is the SNP's manifesto for last year's general election. Having studied it carefully, however, I cannot see one word in it about welfare benefits reform or about an overall strategy for welfare benefits. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will take this opportunity to explain his party's strategy.

Mr. Swinney

The hon. Gentleman apologises for being absent from the Chamber at the start of my remarks. If he had been here, he would have heard me having to apologise for the fact that I, too, was almost absent because of the speed with which the previous debate collapsed. I welcome his presence and his intervention—I am sure that there will be many more such interventions. The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear me say that I shall deal with my party's priorities on welfare reform strategy later in my speech, so perhaps he will allow me to make progress—if I do not deal with his point, I am sure that I shall hear from him again.

The Government are pursuing a strategy that is, I believe, based on two misconceptions: first, that the United Kingdom spends too much on welfare support; and, secondly, that we face a demographic time bomb. The Government must explain how a nation that spends less per head on welfare support than 12 of our European Union partners can be deemed to be spending at an unsustainable level.

Mr. Browne

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for very generously giving way again. The hon. Gentleman's statistics were in The Scotsman this morning, although they were not directly attributed to him. Again, in anticipation of this debate, I researched those statistics, and found that they were wrong. The hon. Gentleman's office told me that the basis for the figures was a document published by the Scottish Association for Mental Health. I have a copy of the document, which, indeed, cites those statistics, but does not give their provenance. Perhaps, before he moves on, he could tell us where they come from.

Mr. Swinney

The hon. Gentleman digs into some of the background to the debate, which I am about to fill in.

The figures show, for example, that the United Kingdom spends on social security £2,000 less per head than France and £4,000 less per head than the small independent nation of Denmark, and that, in terms of percentage of gross domestic product, the United Kingdom spends less than many western nations.

Mr. Browne

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Swinney

No. I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman twice, and I want to make progress on what is a substantial speech.

The Government's priorities have led them to make choices about the level of welfare expenditure and to insist that the welfare budget is out of control, but, in comparative terms, we do not spend nearly as much as other countries, despite the fact that we can find resources to spend on defence—indeed, we are third from the top of the European league in terms of defence spending as a percentage of national wealth.

The Government frequently state that we face a demographic time bomb, with a rapidly increasing elderly population draining the national wealth. That ignores the important contribution that our elderly population make to the generation of wealth. For many years, people have argued that there is a demographic time bomb and that we face a looming crisis, yet they ignore the fact that, according the Office for National Statistics, we spend a smaller proportion of our welfare budget on the elderly than we did in the early 1950s. They should ask why spending for social security for the elderly has remained static—at about 5 per cent. of GDP—for the past 20 years. Indeed, spending on the elderly is far lower in this country than in many European Union nations. We need to ask why the Government have not made moves to improve the financial support to ensure, for example, that the basic state pension is increased in line with earnings rather than with prices.

Ms Sandra Osborne (Ayr)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that up to 1 million pensioners do not claim the income support to which they are entitled, and that welfare reform should focus on how financial support can be given in a more practical way?

Mr. Swinney

I am happy to associate myself with what the hon. Lady says. From our constituency contacts, we all know about people's lack of awareness of the benefits to which they are entitled.

The perceptions that we allow people to have about claiming benefits are important to the welfare reform debate. If claiming benefits is stigmatised, and we all know that it can be, people will be put off claiming their benefits. I do not want a single person to receive anything that he or she is not entitled to, but I want those who are entitled to benefits to have them. We must not create a climate in which people believe that they are not entitled to claim certain benefits because of our attitudes to them.

Mr. Browne

The hon. Gentleman will hear no dispute from us over those remarks, but the starting point for any debate on welfare benefit should be the Government's Green Paper. Why has he not yet mentioned the principles set out in the Green Paper?

Mr. Swinney

This Supply day debate is the first time since I became a Member of Parliament that the Scottish National party has had parliamentary time in which to pursue its own argument. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to finish what I am saying, he will be satisfied by my comprehensive coverage of the anxieties that trouble him.

Choices must be made about priorities within the Government's choice of public expenditure priorities. They have chosen to continue with substantial expenditure on, for example, Trident nuclear missiles. They have failed to adopt a sufficiently progressive taxation strategy; abolishing the ceiling on employees' national insurance contributions, for example, would return some progressiveness to the system. They have made their choices, but, if they were prepared to make different choices, we could divert some of what are described as the burgeoning public finances into a social security system that could end the dependency of the means test and guarantee a basic income for everyone. That is the basic question hanging over the Government's welfare reform agenda.

As we have seen, the Government's actions create unease among those on the receiving end of benefits. The Government's strategy in the Green Paper—can the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) hear me?—seems to be built around the notion of a welfare contract under which the state accepts certain obligations, mainly the provision of access to opportunities for work, while the citizen accepts the obligation to seek work.

However, the concept of a contract implies that, if one party breaks its terms, the other party's obligations cease or are radically abridged. That does not lie easily with traditional notions of social obligation, drawn from family, religious and non-religious backgrounds in our civic society. It has been assumed that society has an unconditional obligation to support its weakest members, an assumption fundamental to any discussion of welfare reform.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

The hon. Gentleman is reaching the part of his motion that refers to the Government's policy being "spiritually bereft", which is an intriguing phrase. I do not think that the Minister for Welfare Reform can be described as spiritually bereft. What does the hon. Gentleman mean by the phrase?

Mr. Swinney

The source of that remark was a motion put to the Labour party's Scottish conference in March, which reflected on the Government's position on lone-parent benefits.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

The motion was carried.

Mr. Swinney

The hon. and learned Member is right. The motion brought an uncharacteristically ferocious reaction from the Secretary of State for Scotland; perhaps each of us would be angry to have our own party say that about us.

I have two main criticisms of the agenda set out in the Government's Green Paper. Where their actions are not misplaced, they are mis-focused. I want to discuss welfare-to-work initiatives, the integration of the tax and benefits systems, the focus on fraud, welfare in 2020, and the proposals for a stakeholder pension.

Many of us have often accused the Chancellor of the Exchequer of being a one-club golfer whose economic policy rests solely on the interest rate decisions of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee. The Government's social security policy appears to take a similar tack in its dependence on welfare to work. Only 25 per cent. of benefit goes to those who may be able, economic climate permitting, to transfer from benefits to employment. Welfare to work is not a big idea, but a small part of what should be a broader reform strategy. Many people who receive benefits will never be able to work, and there is a danger that welfare to work will structure the Government's alternative to a well-funded benefits system.

The strategy is limited in detail, and in what it ignores. There are clearly identified weaknesses in the various schemes on offer, the details of which my hon. Friends will develop. Perhaps most seriously, the strategy of getting people back to work is trumpeted and pursued, almost to the detriment of any other aspect of reform. That sidelines the equally important idea of keeping people in work. When key support benefits for the disabled can be accessed by the unemployed only to help them back into work, rather than by the employed to keep them in work, something does not quite work. Early reports on the success, or otherwise, of welfare-to-work schemes suggest that the rate of access to jobs is increasing. We shall be in a better position to judge that following a full economic cycle.

My main criticism focuses on the philosophy underlying the scheme. Everyone agrees that it is important to maximise access to work, and to remove barriers created by high marginal tax rates caused by means-testing and the sudden removal of benefits such as free school meals and assistance with council tax or housing costs. Such moves are steps in the right direction, but the Government must not demonise those who are unable to return to work, whether or not that inability results from disability, caring or parenting. To promote paid work as virtuous, and dependence on benefits as morally suspect, is to stigmatise those who must, for good reasons, depend on benefits. The current effort focuses assistance on those who can move back to the workplace, but the rhetoric sets apart those who, through no fault of their own, cannot do so.

The Government's proposals for linking the benefits and tax systems to encourage people back to work are welcome as far as they go. However, they offer little to those who are not in a position to return to the workplace. The Government's approach is unbalanced; they offer tax incentives for those on low incomes, through packages such as the working families tax credit, but they do not refocus their spending policy on extending the tax responsibilities of those with high incomes who receive universal state benefits.

Much more should be done. The closer integration of the tax and benefits systems should provide an opportunity to provide a minimum guarantee for our citizens that is tied into greater redistribution of the resources available in the welfare pot. We should give more to those at the bottom, and less to those at the top. There should be more streamlined and efficient administration and distribution systems for benefits. The Government seem to fall between two stools: they are unable fully to grasp the thistle of their initial steps into a more co-ordinated welfare and taxation system because of their electoral dependence on voters who are perceived not to be prepared to pay for the system.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Don't give way to him. He has just come in.

Mr. Swinney

I am well into my speech, and the hon. Member for Falkirk, East has just arrived, so I will not give way to him.

We must not forget that 75 per cent. of those who receive benefits do so because of age or some degree of disability. Welfare support cannot, and should not, be avoided. That group feels increasingly marginalised and threatened by the rhetoric of the Government's welfare strategy, which implies that people are getting something for nothing, or claiming more than they are entitled to.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

The hon. Gentleman says that the Government should focus on the needs of the most vulnerable in society. How are the Government to do that without getting people back to work, giving people a minimum wage and making savings in other parts of the welfare system to spend more money on the very group that the hon. Gentleman describes as the most vulnerable? Does the Scottish National party propose means testing to make sure that vulnerable people get the benefits that they deserve? If not, how would the SNP do it? The hon. Gentleman cannot merely criticise the Government without telling us what the SNP would do.

Mr. Swinney

I shall advance our solution in due course. The hon. Lady must say what parts of the welfare budget she is prepared to cut. We delude ourselves if we believe that the welfare budget is at an appropriate level. We must recognise our society's difficulties, and ensure that resources are applied appropriately for individuals.

The Green Paper contains much that should concern people. Much of that is encapsulated in the Government's vision for welfare in 2020. It is a statement of intent that does not show a clear and positive vision of the future of our welfare state. The Government state that, by 2020, they hope: Welfare will be provided by three channels: our Active Modern Service, based on a single work-focused gateway into the benefit system; mutual organisations and private providers, delivering a substantial share of welfare provision, particularly for pensioners; and high quality health, education and other welfare services. Cut through the language, and that means that the poor will be justified only by work, and private provision will be at the heart of welfare provision. The Government give the sense that their social obligation to the weakest in our society is not as great as it has been in the past. [Interruption.] That child's cry shows that my argument about the dangerous future for welfare reform if left in the custody of the Labour party was far too compelling.

Let us consider the welfare reform agenda as it relates to the dimension created by the Scottish Parliament. I want to set out what could be delivered by a Scottish Parliament, with its limited powers, and under independence, the preferred policy of my party. The Government had the opportunity earlier this year to join welfare rights organisations across Scotland in supporting amendments to the Scotland Bill to allow devolution of the administration of social security to Holyrood. That would have allowed the Scottish Parliament more flexibility and the chance to reform and streamline the structure of benefit delivery. The Government opposed those measures. It is left to individuals and the Scottish Parliament to find a meaningful role for the Parliament in assisting in the provision of welfare support.

Over the past few months, the SNP has been preparing our proposals for the Scottish parliamentary elections. One of the policies that I shall outline today would have a direct and immediate impact on the most vulnerable sections of Scottish society. It has always been our central philosophy that the interests of the people of Scotland come first. In the Scottish Parliament, we want to develop a best deal department that has as its core the identification of measures that will get the best deal for Scotland from the framework set out in the Scotland Bill. It would find opportunities in Westminster legislation and European directives to secure the best deal for the people of Scotland. The team will interpret directives and legislation in the best interests of groups in Scotland. Welfare reform offers an important focus for it. It has been estimated in parliamentary answers that more than £300 million of social security benefits remain unclaimed in Scotland. A few years ago, the SNP-controlled Grampian and Tayside councils vigorously promoted measures to help pensioners with their fuel bills that resulted in substantially increased uptake of benefits.

Miss Begg

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Swinney

I have spoken for some time. I want to allow other hon. Members to say their piece.

An SNP Administration would conduct a programme of benefit-boosting reviews nationwide. It would be the team's job to seek additional money for Scotland's pensioners, single parents and disabled people.

Miss Begg

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Swinney

No, I want to make progress.

Unlike the Department of Social Security's reviews, ours would focus only on those who are entitled to claim more benefits. For a small investment, the door is open to a financial boost of potentially hundreds of millions of pounds for the poorest sections of Scottish society, with the burden borne by the Treasury rather than the already limited Scottish budget.

That is only one way in which the Scottish Parliament can advance the social welfare agenda in Scotland. There is little doubt that any strategy for pushing forward welfare frontiers must include efforts to co-ordinate our work through improved availability of social housing and better community health care. Initiatives in residential care, care in the community and so on should also play a part. For the first time, Scotland will have a scrutinising, investigating, legislating, innovating Parliament which can pull together the threads of reform and co-ordinate our activities to ensure that the best possible support is given to the people of Scotland.

The radical welfare provision changes that I believe are required will come only when the people of Scotland have the ability to use all their own resources and have powers on all aspects of policy making at their disposal. Under independence, the SNP would pursue priorities that would improve the delivery of the benefit system. The first step would be much closer integration of the tax and benefit system, going further down the road tentatively embarked on by the Chancellor in his most recent Budget. That would partly involve returning the progression removed from the taxation system by the Conservatives. That strategy is based on the underlying philosophy that the waste in the system does not lie in welfare support to people. We must ensure that we have a fair and progressive system that applies to all groups.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok)


Mr. Swinney

To be fair to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg), who was formerly one of my constituents, I shall not take any more interventions.

I have three further points on our proposals. First, welfare strategy must seek simplification of the tax and benefits system. There is much more room for linking the operations of the Inland Revenue and the various benefits agencies, and integrating administration and delivery to cut the bureaucratic jungle of 12 different agencies and numerous forms, procedures and access points. Integrating those systems is essential to allow improved assessment of benefit needs based on existing tax liabilities.

Secondly, our approach must allow more effective targeting of benefit fraud without the excesses of schemes such as the benefit integrity project. Designing tighter schemes should remove the room for abuse. Thirdly, closer integration of benefit payments and taxation would open the door to more efficient targeting of resources, diverting them away from those at the upper end of the income scale towards those on the lowest incomes. The money in the system should be focused on those with the greatest need, but not through the crude mechanisms of means or affluence tests. There should be a general calculation of tax liability that pays out benefit and pays in tax as required. That is the substance of progressive taxation.

The focus of any welfare strategy in Scotland, or the UK, should be on the faults in the system, rather than on the faults of those who claim. The debate must avoid, at all costs, stigmatising and deterring the poor and focus on opportunities for more sensible solutions. Regrettably, the Government's welfare strategy is a new Labour fix based on Tory foundations. It is little wonder that the words read out by the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) were used by the Labour party's Scottish conference. The Minister for Welfare Reform is a fair-minded man. He knows that the words came from his political friends, not his political enemies. They are words of warning that the Government should heed.

As we look at the future economic development of our society, it is clear that we shall be part of a highly competitive international economy. Some individuals in our society will be able to prosper in that economy; others will not. As that pattern emerges, we must be prepared to distribute resources to those who cannot prosper. It is far from clear in the Government's thinking that they recognise the consequences of that economic inequality. The reforms proposed by the Government and the thinking that they display suggest that there will be a diminishing role for the state, rather than a continuing and demanding role, which is what we perceive. The Government appear to be moving in the opposite direction to that which the public require.

6.20 pm
The Minister for Welfare Reform (Mr. Frank Field)

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: welcomes the Government's comprehensive approach to welfare reform around the principle of work for those who can, security for those who cannot, which was set out in the Welfare Reform Green Paper; notes the Government's commitment to consultation with organisations of, and for, disabled people, and the substantial safeguards included in the Benefit Integrity Project; notes the Government's commitment to helping today's and tomorrow's pensioners and welcomes the establishment of the Pensions Review and the action taken already to help today's pensioners through cutting VAT on fuel and paying winter fuel payments to all pensioners, notes that the new Deals for Lone Parents, for the Young and Long-Term Unemployed and for Disabled People are the largest assault on worklessness and social exclusion ever undertaken in Britain; and welcomes the action taken by the Government in the Budget to support families and children through increasing child benefit and the family premium in income support and by the proposals to introduce a working family tax credit and a disabled person's tax credit .'. As a fair-minded person, I pay compliments to the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney) for opening the debate. This is the first debate that we have had on welfare reform in the round. The official Opposition have not chosen to use any of their time to stage such a debate, so this is the first opportunity that I have had to come to the Dispatch Box to set out the Government's views. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that.

As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, Opposition day debates usually allow Back Benchers to participate fully both in criticism and in the development of policy. In the previous Parliament, the then Secretary of State for Social Security was the then right hon. Member for St. Albans. He has moved to another seat, which shows that on this topic he had certain judgment, which one respects. The right hon. Gentleman built up a reputation for taking almost an hour to open such debates on behalf of the Conservative Government. The hon. Member for North Tayside, in his enthusiasm to engage us in a debate on welfare reform, almost broke that record. I shall be as brief as I can.

The structure of the Scottish National party motion is clear, although it was not always followed in the opening speech. The hon. Gentleman was at liberty not to do so. I wish to take each of the main ideas and comment on them, and then move to the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and other right hon. Friends. I shall comment on each of the main points in our amendment. Before I do so, perhaps I may say a word about the Green Paper.

The hon. Member for North Tayside, no doubt being a fair-minded person like me, failed to mention the Government's approach to welfare reform. The Green Paper is not a shopping list of ideas that we brought into office and intend to ram through irrespective of the comments and views that people hold. It is not a laundry list that we have gathered up from somewhere and which we think can be commended to the House and the nation without the most careful thought. It is understandable that some people have not immediately understood what we are about in the Green Paper.

For the first time ever, the Government have laid down the principles that should govern welfare reform. Likewise, the Green Paper has listed 32 success measurements so that the Government can audit their affairs internally and stand accountable to the electorate as the Parliament unfolds for our success in achieving those objectives. The Government have not waited, as some parties might have done, until near an election date to name the success measurements. We have laid them down at the beginning of the Parliament so that we can turn them into clear measurements to guide our policy and be held accountable for it.

When the period for consultation is over, we shall introduce more detailed policies within the framework of the principles of reform to help fulfil the success measurements that we have outlined.

While I welcome the motion, I checked before I came here whether the welfare reform unit had received the comments of the Scottish National party on the Green Paper. They have not yet arrived. I await them anxiously. No doubt the hon. Gentleman can rightly say that he has begun that contribution in this debate, but, if he wants to add anything, I am happy to give way.

Mr. Swinney

I can assure the Minister that he will have a submission from the SNP before his deadline.

Mr. Field

I am immensely grateful for that undertaking.

There are five main assertions in the motion. The first is that the country and the Government should move to spending on welfare something similar to the proportion of gross domestic product that other countries spend. I take issue with such a simplistic view of what welfare expenditure should be about. The previous Administration could boast that they increased welfare expenditure by double the rate of increase in GDP. If we look at the consequences, we find that there was a doubling of the number of people living in households drawing means-tested assistance. Merely to spend more is not necessarily better, and does not necessarily achieve the objectives that we want to achieve.

The United States spends double the proportion of GDP that we spend on health. Does anyone think that Americans are twice as healthy as people in Britain? Surely this debate is about what the money is spent on and the objectives of welfare expenditure in the round.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I have a high regard for the right hon. Gentleman's comments on the subject. His record speaks for itself. I seek from him clarification of the definition of expenditure on the welfare system. Is it household income, family income or individual income? That comes into the general debate, and it would be helpful if we could have that guidance.

Mr. Field

I have spent many Parliaments debating these issues with the hon. Lady, and she knows perfectly well the answer to that question. It depends which aspect of welfare spending one is looking at.

Of course the Government are spending more, but we are concerned with why we are spending what we are on welfare and what the outcome of such expenditure will be.

The second assertion in the motion is: economic growth and enterprise must be matched by policies designed to promote equality and social justice". That is one aspect of the motion to which we fully subscribe. If we look at the Government's record to date, we see that there is a growing insistence on, for example, equality of the respect that should be accorded to individuals. Similarly, there is a massive concern in the Government about equality of opportunity—not just one opportunity but a renewal of opportunity through individual lives. The hon. Member for North Tayside alluded to that.

While we do not sign up to the view that there should be equality of outcome—that is not achievable this side of paradise—there is a duty endlessly to re-offer opportunities to those of our fellow citizens who have not been able to make the most of opportunities that occurred early in life. I hope that one of the great themes of this Government is the extension of social justice. When I discuss our amendment, I shall try to persuade doubters—if there are any in the House—of our intent on that score. The third assertion in the motion is an expression of concern over the Government's recent actions in respect of benefits for single parents". The hon. Member for North Tayside, being a fair person, listed at least some of the opportunities that the Government have offered and are continuing to offer to single parents who are currently on benefit. However, I wish to affirm today, from the Dispatch Box, that the Government believe that the stance we have taken on lone-parent benefit is right. It is a policy with which I agreed when I was in opposition; I spoke in favour of it then—there are hon. Members here who were present in the Chamber when I did so—and the hon. Gentleman could hardly expect me to do otherwise now that I sit on the Treasury Bench.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

I respect what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, but will he confirm to the House that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security and other Ministers in the Labour Government changed their minds from their pre-election rhetoric, in which they utterly condemned the policy that they have now implemented?

Mr. Field

The hon. Gentleman is clearly running a campaign to present himself to the House and the country as a non-serious person. I knew that I should not give way, as he cannot resist saying things like that. We all have a job on our hands to protect his image and prevent his views from gaining wider currency. The answer is simple: the Government's intention is clear and if Ministers change their minds to the point where one agrees with them, one should stand up and say, "Well done," instead of nitpicking and trying to undermine them. Our objective is to equalise support for children. I advanced that view in the previous Parliament, and it is now being advanced by the Labour Government.

Mr. Burns

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Field

I shall not give way again—I have to try to protect the hon. Gentleman from himself. If he behaves himself, he might be able to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The motion also expresses concern about claimants of disability living allowance, but the hon. Member for North Tayside found it hard to disagree with the Government's stance. The DLA was one of the elements of the benefit integrity project, which was introduced by the previous Administration. We had been concerned about the operation of the project, we listened to the House, and we made changes. I was not sure what other changes the hon. Gentleman wanted us to make, other than scrapping it and starting again.

Mr. Webb

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Swinney

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Field

I shall happily give way to both hon. Gentlemen in a moment.

The crucial fact that the House has to face is that the benefit integrity project is being run in respect of all the major benefits. The Public Accounts Committee wishes us to carry out those reviews, because it is concerned about the delivery and accuracy of our benefits. If hon. Members think that the Government should be doing other things and ignoring what the Public Accounts Committee requires us to do, they should say so.

Mr. Webb

Is not the scandal about the benefit integrity project not so much that the Government knew nothing about it until the infamous phone call at Preston station, but that when they did find out about it, it took them the best part of a year to sort it out? The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) had an Adjournment debate and Sunday newspaper headlines pushed them on a bit, but the Government had to be forced, inch by inch, to introduce a halfway decent system. Should they not have acted last summer and not taken so long to listen?

Mr. Field

The answer to that is no.

Mr. Swinney

The right hon. Gentleman asked what more I should like to be done. One issue that has been continually raised is that all those who had their DLA reduced before the 9 February changes in the rules should have their cases reviewed on a mandatory basis. I believe that the Government are moving in that direction, but if the Minister would take this opportunity to confirm that, no one would be happier than I.

Mr. Field

If the hon. Gentleman had read the debate that we had not so long ago in the House, he would already know the answer to that. The Government are as concerned as he is about that matter, and we have acted.

The last of the assertions, facts, beliefs, opinions—whatever one wishes to call them—in the motion is that the Government should ensure that any further reform of the welfare system focuses on the needs of the most vulnerable in society rather than the demands of the Treasury"— which is a euphemism for cuts. I remind the House of what I said when announcing the Green Paper, with the authority of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the whole of the Government: this is a reform of welfare that is not cuts-led. I made it clear at that time what was negotiable and what was not negotiable in respect of the reform programme. We said that our historic commitment to the poor was not negotiable. We said that our wish to reform was also not negotiable, but that how we reform was negotiable. That is why I am so anxious to receive the SNP's comments on our Green Paper, because they will help to inform the next stage of our debate.

Referring to the Government amendment, I shall merely draw the attention of the House to the main actions that we have already taken to fulfil our election commitments. In doing so, I want to emphasise—it is right that our amendment does so—that we say that we shall consult at each stage of the reform programme, not because we think that it is an easy option, but because, no matter how much one thinks one knows, no matter how clever one thinks one's civil servants are, no matter how much expertise one might think one brings into government, a reform programme that is open and inclusive, and which listens and learns, will clearly be a more effective programme than one that reforms by ambush. The Government's commitment to consult is real, and it will continue throughout the whole of our reform programme.

I am disappointed that, despite the brevity with which the hon. Member for North Tayside spoke when commending his motion to the House, he did not find time to highlight the actions that the Government have already taken to fulfil our election promises and to carry out the wishes of the House. No mention was made of our review of pensioners' income, which is to be used as the foundation both for deciding what action we take to help today's pensioners and for ensuring that we have in place policies to prevent many of today's workers from becoming poor, as did their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

The hon. Gentleman made no mention of our action on VAT on fuel, of our winter fuel payments, which were universally given and designed to help the poorest pensioner households most. No mention was made of the Government's determination to take seriously our responsibility to counter fraud, and our equal determination, unlike the previous Administration, diligently to seek out those who are eligible for benefit but not claiming it. There was little about that in the hon. Gentleman's speech.

Mrs. Ewing

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I have pursued the issue of fuel poverty over many years in the House and, while I do not want to detract from the action that has been taken, does he admit that there were serious flaws in the implementation of that scheme this winter? Many pensioners became extremely confused, as some were paid twice, while others were not paid at all. There is still a need for further action on ensuring automatic payments to those vulnerable people during the cold winter months.

Mr. Field

Of course there is. The Government are learning and we want to learn from that huge initiative, which no other Government had undertaken. There was no machinery in place—we had to start from scratch. If the hon. Lady is trying to tell the House that many of her pensioners were confused, I have to say that, happily, that confusion was not shared by Birkenhead pensioners, at least not by those I have met.

There was some mention of the opportunities now being offered to lone parents. The hon. Member for North Tayside said that that was undoubtedly a step forward, but he made little mention of our efforts, particularly those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security, to ensure that our proposals are successful.

There was little talk, other than negative, carping criticism, of the opportunities that are being offered to young people through our welfare-to-work proposals. There was no mention of the medley of measures that we have unveiled for the long-term unemployed. I may have missed it, but I heard no mention of the pilot projects for which we have sought bids to extend employment opportunities to the long-term sick and disabled.

It was as if, for the Scottish National party, there had been no Budget. There was no talk about the Chancellor's announcement of the biggest ever increase in child benefit or the increase in the scale rates of income support for younger children. There was no mention of next year's change in the family premium or of the minimum wage, which was mentioned by one of my hon. Friends. There was no talk about the working families tax credit proposals, which will ensure that people with children will be better off in work than on benefit.

As I said before, the motion refers to a policy that is neither discriminatory, economically inept, morally repugnant or spiritually bereft. I shall deal with each of those points. We plead guilty to having a discriminatory policy. Almost all the measures that we have introduced discriminate in favour of the poor and those who are excluded from the labour market. If we are charged with discriminating in favour of the poor and ensuring that, in spending taxpayers' money, we most favour those who have least, we plead guilty.

We are told that our proposals have been economically inept. Those words are on the Order Paper; they may have been used elsewhere, but I am happy to answer them. The Government have introduced the biggest ever programme to extend opportunities and access to the labour market. If that is economically inept, we plead guilty to that charge. Our programme will continue to be guilty of that.

We are told that our policies are morally repugnant. The Chancellor has levied more than £5 billion from the privatised utilities to offer opportunities to individuals who, under the previous regime, faced, at best, a blighted future. The Chancellor has significantly reshaped national insurance contributions to make it more advantageous to employ those who earn least rather than those who earn most. If that is morally repugnant, we plead guilty.

We are told that our policies are spiritually bereft. If a Government who begin the biggest ever crusade to combat social exclusion are spiritually bereft, we plead guilty. If it is spiritually bereft to initiate the most significant ever crusade to offer hope to people who had blighted lives, we happily plead guilty to that charge. If it is spiritually bereft for the Government to begin the most determined ever crusade to raise educational standards in all our schools, we want to plead guilty. If it is spiritually bereft for the Government to initiate the most fundamental ever crusade to extend lifetime opportunities, we want to plead guilty.

If the Scottish National party wants to go into the election for the Scottish Assembly or any other election on that ticket, claiming that we discriminate in favour of the poor, that we are so economically inept that we have offered the unemployed the most ever opportunities and the most access to the labour market, that we are morally repugnant by significantly redistributing wealth through the Chancellor's two Budgets and that we are spiritually bereft, the fight is on. Many of us will greatly enjoy the battle ahead.

6.44 pm
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney) on securing the debate. However, as I listened to his fairly long speech, I began to think that even some Labour Members might be thinking, "Come back, Bill, all is forgiven."

I welcome a debate on the strategy for social welfare in this country, even if, at times, the strategy is somewhat blurred and difficult. I shall begin by stating some basic principles that I suspect do not divide the House in any way.

I believe, as I suspect does every Member, that the state has a fundamental duty to provide a safety net to help those in our society who are genuinely less well-off. In any civilised and decent society, it is the duty of those who are more fortunate and successful to make a contribution to ensure that those who fall on hard times for part of their life or who have difficulties throughout their life are provided with help through the state to enhance their standards of living.

I believe also that it is crucial that any Government, regardless of their political complexion, do all that they can to minimise the evils of unemployment. There is nothing more disastrous than people who desperately want to work, but who, though no fault of their own, are unable to do so. The concept that is abroad in far too many parts of this country, that people on welfare are simply scroungers, is obscene, and it would help if we could educate people out of the ignorance of making such trite comments, which are bandied around far too often in our pubs and on our highways and byways.

Mr. Field

There is more rejoicing in heaven over the repentance of one sinner.

Mr. Burns

I deliberately hesitated for that intervention from the right hon. Gentleman, but, if he had read more of my speeches over the past 11 years—sadly, I know that that is low on his list of priorities—he would understand that I have not once changed that original view.

Mr. Field

I have read all the hon. Gentleman's speeches. I notice that he was promoted only after a period of silence.

Mr. Burns

I am confused by that remark, because I was not promoted from being a Trappist monk straight to this position; I had a job in between, and it certainly did not require me to be silent.

I suspect that the motion tabled by Scottish National Members is part of their war with the Labour party which will continue until the Scottish Assembly elections next year. Their motion will obviously be attractive to many Labour voters in Scotland—and, indeed, in England—because many of them believe that, after Labour has been in power for one year, they have been betrayed. Nothing shows the starkness of that betrayal more than the rhetoric on lone parents before and after the general election.

The Minister for Welfare Reform's speech, particularly the second half of it, was eloquent—not to say impassioned. But however clever and endearing the speech was, I have to say it was long on soundbites and short on substance. Indeed, the Government amendment is the same, tending to gloss over—we would expect this of any Government—some of the glaring failures of Government policy.

Take, for instance, the new deal for lone mothers. Of course its aim is laudable: no one in his right mind would criticise an initiative to help lone parents, by means of advice and so on, back into work, thereby enhancing their standard of living and that of their children. What has marred the new deal is the soundbite politics that has accompanied it. I acquit the right hon. Gentleman of that charge, but there have been too many grandiose claims of success during the early stages of the new deal.

Last October, the Secretary of State got into terrible trouble on the "Today" programme and on "Newsnight", because she was too eager to claim success after the first three months of the new deal, trying to use figures cleverly to portray a triumph that was not all it was cracked up to be. That is regrettable; it brings the whole process into disrepute and causes problems for the Secretary of State's credibility and the credibility of her policy.

We face the same problem now. Government statistics show that a monthly average of 75 per cent. of the 22,402 letters being sent out are not responded to—

Mr. Field

What changes would the hon. Gentleman make to the scheme?

Mr. Burns

I am glad the right hon. Gentleman asked me tha—I had anticipated it. I shall come to the answer shortly.

Of all the people who have received letters, about 7.5 per cent.—on the latest monthly figures—have got into work, but, at the same time, there has been a 15 per cent. drop-out rate among the lone parents who have found work. If the Government stick to their original budget for the new deal, some 6,000 lone parents will get back into work, at a cost of just under £30,000 a job. Ironically, that works out at about £15 an hour—just over three times the national minimum wage which the right hon. Gentleman's party plans to bring in.

I have been asked what changes I would make if I had the power to make them. I would make two variations to the scheme. First, I would make it compulsory for lone parents in receipt of an invitation to attend a first interview. I would not make the whole scheme, like Wisconsin's, compulsory: that would be wrong and draconian. A compulsory first interview, however, would enable lone parents to learn more at first hand from a personal adviser exactly what the new deal is, what it may have to offer them, and how it can help them into work. At present, some of them may cynically dismiss this as just another unhelpful Government scheme.

Secondly, I would carry out more research into the 75 per cent. who are not replying to their letters, by chasing them up and finding out more about why they think the scheme is not relevant to them. Taken together, those two changes would advance the aims and aspirations of the policy.

Mr. Webb

Uncharacteristically, the hon. Gentleman is making a measured and constructive contribution. He criticises the new deal for lone parents for the low response rate, but he must know that it was modelled on Parent Plus, initiated by the Conservatives, who budgeted for an even lower rate of response than the Government have achieved. So how can the hon. Gentleman criticise the Government scheme?

Mr. Burns

We monitored the Parent Plus pilot schemes with a view to detecting the problems and weaknesses in them so as to be able later to enhance the performance of the plan. I hope that, as the new deal progresses, the Government will also try to learn from some of the problems that have emerged, and will work out some of the reasons why the new deal does not attract more people into work. That would enable them to fine-tune the scheme.

The benefit integrity project is mentioned in laudatory terms in the Government amendment, as one would expect—but what has been going on behind the scenes? Throughout the second half of last year and early this year, there were the problems with the disability living allowance. Recipients of that allowance were petrified and confused by the rumours and counter-rumours, the briefings and counter-briefings, about what was to happen. Would it be means-tested; would it be taxed?

Then the benefit integrity project gave rise to even greater concern and hardship. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. There is a general buzz of conversation in the Chamber. I ask hon. Members to listen to the Member who is speaking.

Mr. Burns

A significant number of the appeals heard before 25 March were successful. That shows that the decision to go ahead with the project was wrong and taken in haste. I cannot yet put my finger on exactly what happened, because I have not yet had an answer to my questions on the subject—I have been waiting for a week but have received only a holding answer from the DSS. No doubt I will get a proper answer shortly.

I find it extraordinary that, two days before polling day, following pilots, but without a ministerial decision, civil servants could decide to launch such a scheme nationwide. It is even more extraordinary that, for 26 or 28 days after coming to office, Ministers seemed oblivious of the benefit integrity project. It is particularly odd that the junior Minister in the other place, who has close links with disability lobby groups, was oblivious of the scheme until that extraordinary phone call on Preston station on 29 May.

I look forward to answers to my questions. I should like to know the extent and content of the briefings Ministers were given by civil servants on first entering the Department last year. It seems incredible to me that such briefings did not mention the project—a massive project which, as many people now know to their cost, had a significant impact on their lives. How could it have been unknown to Ministers; how could it proceed without their direct authority?

As has been said, it seems extraordinary that, as the problems became greater as the number of people affected increased, nothing was done until the Secretary of State for Social Security took action in February 1998. As I said in the debate initiated by the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) in February, and again in last week's debate on the Social Security Select Committee report, I do not believe that the Select Committee's approach—to put the scheme on probation until 31 July—is the best one. We shall go into recess shortly after—or, if we are lucky, shortly before—that date, which effectively means that no action will be taken to assess that probationary period until we return to Westminster in the autumn. The Government should have accepted that there was a serious problem, and that more fundamental things were needed than those that the Secretary of State had done, and suspended the project until they had ironed out the difficulties.

Behind the words of the Government's amendment is the inescapable fact that the Government have, in the minds of many of their supporters in many parts of the country, broken their election promises and done things—especially on child benefit—that supporters who, in good faith, voted for Labour candidates on 1 May 1997, never believed that a Labour Government would do.

I exonerate the Minister for Welfare Reform, because, as he said, he always took the view that the way that the previous Government were proceeding on equalisation of child benefit, in particular, was the right way to proceed, even if it was politically unpalatable to some. I also think that we have been witnessing the confused emergence of a policy that is still emerging, because so many things have been kicked into the long grass through reviews—and, in some cases, reviews of reviews. We have the extraordinary situation regarding pensions—which, to the best of my knowledge, no one has discussed in detail tonight—where the Prime Minister stepped in, a month or so ago, and told everyone to get together and come up with a policy in the autumn, when we had been expecting one in the first half of the year.

There is confusion, there are reviews and there have been broken promises. On the fundamental issue, however, I cannot believe that anyone in the House would disagree that the state has a duty to enhance the quality of life of those less well off in society, although we may disagree on some of the avenues of approach and the fine detail of how to achieve it.

7.1 pm

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I wish to make a short speech—[Interruption.]—unless I am provoked, in which case I might speak for a long while.

It is important to have prime time debates on social security issues. I want to spend 10 minutes reflecting on some of the problems north of the border. The Government have broken new ground in some areas and in some of the approaches that they have adopted in exchanges across the Chamber. My position on some of those approaches is clear: the Government should be encouraged in the main thrust of their strategies. Some of the ideas in the Green Paper are well worth considering and promoting. Nevertheless, there are peculiar problems, some of which are found north of the border.

I want to put one or two ideas into the head of the Minister for Welfare Reform; the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith), might address some of them when he replies to the debate.

I was a wee bit disappointed earlier in the debate. I have a lot of time for the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney), the Scottish National party spokesman who opened the debate, who I know thinks about these matters a lot—although perhaps not for the style and approach of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), who was pushing his luck with interventions—but it is difficult to know what the shape of Scottish National party policy would be were there ever to be an independent Scotland.

I would never want to promote an independent Scotland—I will die in the ditches arguing against it—but it is a perfectly honourable political position. We, north of the border, will be hungry for high-quality debates about social security and other matters that introduce into the debate some better statistics and better arguments. I look forward to crossing swords with the hon. Member for North Tayside in the coming months to discover what the Scottish National party has in store for the people of Scotland—and I shall express my point of view as well.

The most important thing that I have to say to Ministers is that I have inquired into not only Scottish National party policy, but the availability of statistical data about the disaggregation of the amounts that are spent on benefits in Scotland, and I believe that it is extremely difficult to mount the properly informed debate that is essential. I hope, above all, that Ministers will try to identify ways of finding out how the system works now and how it might work in an independent Scotland. There are important questions to be asked about that, which I shall discuss later.

I listened carefully to what the Minister said. I believe that we need a strategy with a slightly different perspective north of the border. The best way to illustrate that is to consider what has been happening in the Republic of Ireland, which has a national anti-poverty strategy. We could learn many important lessons from that.

The Republic of Ireland has taken the United Nations 1995 Copenhagen resolution and set out a strategy in cold print. Annual reports of the strategy are produced; the first is a model of its kind. Scotland could adopt such a strategy. It could even be done within the integrity and the coherence of a United Kingdom social security-based system. Although, for reasons I shall explain, I am absolutely committed to keeping the coherence of a United Kingdom system, I believe that it would be possible for Scotland to adopt such a strategy.

The Under-Secretary might take the Irish example as a model and produce an annual anti-poverty report for Scotland, containing the same elements, showing how well—or otherwise—benefits were meeting modest but adequate needs. He might try to formulate plans. In the Green Paper, the Minister is bringing forward success measures. Some of those success measures are very difficult to quantify, but those in the Irish national anti-poverty strategy are very easily quantified.

The Irish are brave enough to determine what they believe to be a poverty line below which people should not fall. People do fall below it—sometimes that is inevitable. Hon. Members may spend too much time considering absolute numbers and snapshots, whereas some of the more important poverty problems start to emerge only when people have been in poverty for a long time. People who fall into poverty briefly should not concern us as much as those in long-term poverty. The statistics must be interpreted properly, correctly and sensitively, but at the moment there are next to no statistics for poverty north of the border to inform what will be a crucial debate, especially in Scottish terms, during the next 12 months.

I am especially disappointed by the progress made by the social exclusion unit north of the border. It has taken a little lottery money—£15 million to £20 million—and spent some of it on considering anti-truancy programmes; nothing else has happened. We were told that some great conference would take place in the summer. Lord Sewel, the Minister responsible for that, cannot answer for himself here tonight, but I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell us what is planned. I am repeatedly told that the conference will take place next week or next month—it keeps being delayed. There is no coherent action in Scotland that builds on the work of the social exclusion unit. It is disappointing that more has not been done.

There are very peculiar perspectives that we need to address in peculiar and special ways north of border. I need not tell the Under-Secretary that peripheral estates are a special problem; but there are also problems in rural areas. Rural deprivation is a real issue, and it exists in Scotland not just in the highlands and islands, but in south-east and south-west Scotland. Many innovative project-based approaches are available which, used in a decentralised way through the social exclusion unit, with a little public finance—it would not break the bank in public expenditure terms—could make a real difference to real communities. People living in straitened financial circumstances in multiple deprivation in some housing estates would benefit from their deployment. I do not see any evidence that that is happening in Scotland today.

I support the Government's welfare-to-work programme, but I invite the Minister to examine the work of David Webster in Glasgow. He has deployed a plausible analysis of the situation. The problem is not skilling people so that they can participate in the labour market, but creating more jobs. In places such as Glasgow, there are simply not enough jobs. I know that there are special employment areas—although I do not know what will happen in them. It is early days, and we must be patient as the Government have been in office for only a year, but I think that David Webster is correct to point out that, despite all the up-skilling in the world, we will not achieve long-term progress if we simply see more and more people competing for a diminishing number of jobs.

Mr. Field

We have invited David Webster to visit the Department and give a seminar. I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives an invitation to that event.

Mr. Kirkwood

Another invitation. I wish that the Minister would stop acting as though he were in charge of the Social Security Committee: he gives me so many things to do that I do not have time to do things for myself—and I have a sore back. I welcome the Minister's announcement; it is very good news. I look forward to seeing the results of that seminar.

It is all very well for the Minister to say, correctly, that the Government have invested £5 billion in the process—that is welcome—but what will happen when the money runs out? I do not believe that the problem of joblessness and the other difficulties that welfare to work seeks to address will be solved before the money is spent. What will happen in phase 2? If the Government are returned for another term, how will they finance phases 2 and 3 of the programme? We must view such things in the longer term.

The Government must address three other points in relation to Scotland. First, housing benefit is a key problem. The Government are still considering that issue, and we await their conclusion with bated breath. According to a recent newspaper article, about 80 per cent. of households in Glasgow receive some level of housing benefit. That is a terrible position to be in, and we must do something about it. I believe that the biggest hurdle to getting people off benefit and into work is housing benefit; it has a huge impact on preventing people from taking jobs.

Secondly, I urge the Government to examine the capital disregard thresholds for residential accommodation and, more important, means-tested benefits. The figure has been £3,000 for years. I cannot understand why the Government do not accept the need to uprate it. It is unfair and it impacts dramatically in Scotland. I hope that that issue is on the ministerial agenda. Thirdly—and most important in Scottish terms—poor, elderly, single pensioners are the most deprived group in the country and require urgent attention. I do not mean that those pensioners are waiting for stakeholder pensions, tier 3 pensions, compulsory pensions or any future plans that must be addressed in the long term. This problem may exist in other parts of the world—I know that the Minister's constituency is not short of difficulties—but that generation of pensioners needs assistance.

I say openly to Scottish National party Members that we need better statistical information regarding the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and how social security will operate in that Parliament. If we were to increase taxation using existing powers, we would immediately affect incapacity benefit and the other six benefits that are taxable at present. We must be very careful about how we use existing taxation powers. As the hon. Member for North Tayside readily admitted, taxation and benefits are closely related. The hon. Gentleman called for greater integration. We must ensure that we take into account the social security aspects of any increase in taxation.

I ask the hon. Member for North Tayside to examine carefully the likely Scottish share of administrative costs and back-up if there were an independent Scotland. I have referred to the departmental report for this year, and figure 25 on page 39 reveals the Department's running costs as £3 billion. The social security Benefits Agency running costs are £2.6 billion, the Child Support Agency costs are £202 million, the Contributions Agency costs are £204 million, the War Pensions Agency costs are £32 million and the Information Technology Services Agency costs are £282 million. Without those services, benefits could not be paid.

If we add those sums together—as I did on the bus this morning—we get a total of £6 billion. If we divide that figure by 10 for a tenth of the population—this is fag packet economics with a vengeance—we can see that we must find £600 million-ish to run a free-standing benefit system north of the border. That does not take account of the Social Security Advisory Committee, the independent tribunal system for appeals and a whole raft of other bodies. One page of the departmental report reveals £600 million in costs. If we spend money on those services north of the border, we shall have a lot less money with which to pay benefits. I think that the situation is even worse than that.

Mr. Swinney


Mr. Kirkwood

I shall give way in a minute—I am not finished yet.

The Scottish National party must tell us how it would disaggregate the national insurance fund. Independence will create all sorts of problems; what mechanism will be used to disaggregate the national insurance fund? We all know that pensions are paid on a pay-as-you-go basis and that the Government of the day accept liabilities for the future on the basis of previous contributions. How will a Scottish Government in an independent Scotland begin to put together a programme that gives them the responsibility for future liabilities?

We must then ask ourselves: where are the contributions measured? Contributions are measured and collected by the national insurance computer. We are involved in a private finance initiative arrangement—which is known as NIRS2—with Andersen International. That company has the international copyright for the system, so it is not just the Government with whom the Scottish National party will have to negotiate on the day independence dawns.

I wish that the Government Whip would not gesticulate at me—it is a bit obvious. I am enjoying myself; leave me alone.

Mr. Wallace

We are enjoying it, too.

Mr. Kirkwood

And I have a sore back.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Not only do I think that we should return to the subject of the debate; we are in danger of straying again into a debate on devolution—and I would not want hon. Members to do that.

Mr. Kirkwood

They are all against me. I take your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I give fair warning to the hon. Member for North Tayside: more work must be done in all those areas. If there is an independent jurisdiction north of the border, the operation of the Child Support Agency will create more problems. For example, people in the United States of America avoid parental liability by jumping states. People can travel from Newcastle to Edinburgh more easily than they can cross state boundaries in America. Furthermore, big differential rates of benefit will encourage people to migrate in order to receive more benefits. Having been engaged in that slight tirade for the past 10 minutes, I shall now give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Swinney

I shall interrupt the hon. Gentleman's tirade briefly. He referred to the costs involved in running the social security department, the Benefits Agency, the Contributions Agency and so on. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the people of Scotland already pay a proportion of those costs through their contributions to the national Exchequer? The hon. Gentleman has raised many important issues that must be part of the independence debate. I look forward to engaging him in that discussion.

Mr. Kirkwood

That is fine. We shall leave it at that. It is fair to say that we look forward to future debates. Certainly we must consider the sharing of costs. Potentially, we shall lose economies of scale.

Mr. Wallace

Does not my hon. Friend think that he is being too reasonable? Even taking one tenth is not an accurate estimate of what is involved, which is not only running costs. We shall have to duplicate capital costs. The figure will be greater than one tenth.

Mr. Kirkwood


Mr. Swinney

There are computer centres in Scotland.

Mr. Kirkwood

There are also two large computer centres at Blackpool and Newcastle. It is—[Interruption.] I am being provoked. Cumbernauld is a bad example because it is not a mainframe computer. Livingston would be a better example. These arguments will continue.

We need a social security system that is based on the United Kingdom as a unit. There can be elements of decentralisation within that in a way that I do not think is in the Government's contemplation. I hope that the Government will examine the issues and the costs carefully so that the argument can proceed. I shall continue to support the Government on the basis of the principles that they have adopted and because they are engaging in an inclusive debate. That is important, but I do not think that the Government can congratulate themselves on having all the answers. There is a long way to go before we can say that.

7.20 pm
Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in what has been a useful and, I hope, constructive debate. This is the first general debate on welfare reform, as the Minister fairly acknowledged. I intend to develop some of the points touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney), with a particular focus on the concerns of disabled groups about the development of government welfare policy and some of the detailed problems arising from the various new deals.

First, I wish to focus on the concerns of the disabled. My hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside has examined in some depth the problems surrounding the benefit integrity project. The arguments have been well rehearsed. I shall focus on the problems and opportunities facing individuals as a result of the new deal for the disabled and for the claimants of incapacity benefit.

Even the limited resources available for the new deal are welcome, but I would be interested to hear the Government's justification for spending 15 times less per head on the new deal for the disabled than on the new deal for the young. I ask the Minister to give a detailed commitment that the budget for the new deal for the disabled will be extended to a more reasonable level if these schemes prove to be successful, which we all hope they will be.

The focus on helping disabled people back into work is welcome, but only as far as it goes. In the run-up to the debate, I was provided with some briefing material from Disability Alliance. It makes the rather obvious point that many of the problems facing disabled people are not those of returning to the workplace but of staying in work when their condition first develops or when their health starts to deteriorate. Disability Alliance's briefing reads: Every disabled person currently on Incapacity Benefit once had a job (IB being a contributory benefit). If some of these people had been provided with the appropriate support—financial and practical—when they first developed health or impairment problems they might have been able to remain in work. That is something that we should all support. I should like to see the Government giving the maximum possible practical help to allow that to happen. The benefit system could be fine-tuned to help such people remain in work, by allowing them to move to part-time work, to a more limited job description or to additional training.

The mechanism employed by the new deal to bring people back into the workplace could and should be redeployed to help keep them in work. It seems ridiculous that help is available only when people have fallen out of the job market or are struggling to get back into employment. I would appreciate it if the Minister, in replying to the debate, would expand on these important and practical points. It is more difficult to return to work after a period of unemployment than to redefine one's working capabilities when still employed.

Many of the criticisms of the new deal that focus on its concentration on people who are out of work rather than on those still in employment apply also to the assistance offered through the disabled persons tax credit, which I suggest could be amended to become a mechanism for job retention, as well as offer a route back into work. It would seem logical to apply the benefits of the disabled persons tax credit to those who become disabled while still working rather than allowing them to fall out of work and out of the workplace before they can receive assistance to re-enter it.

I know that the Government have been discussing the way forward with disability groups, but it might be useful for the Minister publicly to address concerns about the future of the disability living allowance and the possibility that an affluence test may apply or that disability benefits may be taxed. I hope that the Minister will respond to some of the real concerns that are being expressed. These are big issues that, with the impact of the benefit integrity project, are causing much concern in the community.

There are areas where fine tuning and minor reform would be widely welcomed and fit into the Government's strategy of encouraging disabled people back into work. The previous Government altered the definition of therapeutic work in such a way as effectively to exclude any disabled person whose condition was unalterable—for example, a blind person. The Tories also set a 16-hour limit on therapeutic work for those in receipt of incapacity benefit. Both changes need to be re-examined, and I call on the Government to return to the previous arrangement, which would allow more disabled people to take part in work which although not directly improving their condition would play a positive part in bolstering their self-confidence or improving the quality of their lives. These are practical steps that could be taken, which would be of immense benefit to the people involved.

As the Minister will be aware, my region of Scotland—Tayside—was one of the pilot regions for the new deal. The data on the initial success of these schemes are just beginning to appear and it is now too early in the day to judge whether the limited initial successes will be turned into something more sustainable. Future sustainability is the goal that we are all seeking.

Take-up rates among lone parents in pilot areas were disappointingly low. Only 10 per cent. took up interviews, and only 3 per cent. found work. I ask the Minister specifically to address those take-up rates, which we must all be dissatisfied with and concerned about. However, there are factors that may explain lone parents' reluctance to commit themselves to the new deal. First, the Government's decision to reduce lone parent benefits must have acted as a disincentive, and there was genuine fear that a temporary return to the workplace could result in a longer-term loss of benefit assistance.

The Minister must know the realities of the workplace today. There is no such thing as a job for life, so any government scheme must tackle the genuine fear that it is too great a risk to abandon the relative security of welfare support for the insecurity of the jobs market. There are steps that could be taken, such as extending beyond the 12-week link period the time during which the benefit rights of lone parents—for the higher rate premium, for example—who do not return to welfare are protected. There could also be a phasing in of the removal of passport benefits, especially items such as free school meals. Such confidence-building measures may cost a little more in the short term but would produce a clear longer-term saving if they gave lone parents the confidence and support to enable them to make a successful transition back into employment.

Education and training is another route for lone parents that has been closed off to some extent under the current new deal proposals. Why do the Government not extend to lone parents the benefits offered under the education option of the new deal for young people? The extension of the travel and child care assistance rights to lone parents entering further education or embarking on a training course would allow them to develop the skills necessary to compete effectively in the jobs market and, obviously, to improve their chances of securing long-term employment.

My final comments on the detail of the Government's new deal proposals concern the new deal for young people and the difficulties that have suddenly been created for young people who are keen to remain in employment by the decision to set a two-rate minimum wage. There is little doubt that the greatest challenge for young people who find work through the new deal will come at 21, when their employers may face a 20 per cent. rise in the cost of employing them. The obvious danger is that employers will find it easier to replace 21-year-olds with 18-year-olds so that they can continue to pay lower wages. The new deal will be of limited worth if the minimum wage creates an unemployment black hole for young people as soon as they reach 22.

I have focused on the detail of specific welfare packages rather than on the broader sweep of welfare strategy. Although there have been successes in Government policy, there is still room for improvement. I hope that my remarks will be taken as constructive criticisms and positive suggestions. There is little doubt, however, that far more has to be done in respect of the bigger picture than a tweaking here or an extension there. The Government have to decide who the beneficiaries of their welfare reform strategy are supposed to be—the taxpayers of middle England or the vulnerable in society.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Sam Galbraith)

Oh, come on.

Mr. Welsh

The Minister may say that, but the Government will have to face up to that decision when they seek re-election on the votes of middle England. They have adopted plenty of the previous Government's policies to do exactly that. It is a fair question, and I look forward to the Minister responding to it instead of scoffing from a sedentary position.

I put a specific question to the Minister. Who can afford to lose a few extra pennies a month—the higher rate taxpayer or the lone parent, the disabled person or the pensioner? I know what my answers would be and I know how the majority of Scots would answer. In a Scottish context, the Government have got their political calculations wrong. Mrs. Thatcher put tax cuts before social cohesion, and look what happened to her popularity in Scotland. The Government's welfare strategy clashes with many of the dearly held principles of mainstream Scotland, which is why the people of Scotland are turning away in increasing numbers from new Labour's old Tory-style attacks on the social fabric of our nation. I simply say to the Minister: the Government have been warned.

7.32 pm
Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Although I am in danger of sounding like an elder statesperson in the House—I am in my fourth parliamentary term—I am amazed that Labour Back Benchers have not participated in the debate, other than to try to harass my hon. Friends the Members for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney) and for Angus (Mr. Welsh) during their speeches on a fundamentally important issue, which should be addressed with sincerity.

The Minister for Welfare Reform, whom I may have promoted to Secretary of State in an intervention, mentioned figures for expenditure on the mentally handicapped during the speech of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne). We said that Scotland is third from bottom in terms of spending per head, but the Library has suggested that Scotland is fourth from bottom, and we have used its figures. The Minister will accept, however, that comparing different systems is difficult. Whether we are third or fourth from bottom is not an aspect that the Society for the Mentally Handicapped would want to hear about. Mental handicap and mental illness are often the forgotten aspects of social welfare, and they should be addressed much more seriously.

I assure the Minister for Welfare Reform that he will receive a comprehensive response from the Scottish National party by 31 July. I have participated in previous responses on issues pertaining to social welfare reviews, including the Fowler report. He, too, was involved in responses on that subject back in the 1980s. I hope that all responses, whether from political parties, voluntary organisations or statutory organisations, are taken on board. I find it distressing that people who are working in the forefront of the welfare system often think that their knowledge is ignored. I hope that the Government's responses will be constructive.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside has opened up the debate. The SNP is given limited time to initiate debates in the House, but, if they studied our record, people would see that we have carefully chosen matters of genuine concern to the public. We have not made cheap political points, but have opened up spheres of interest so that the public know that people are working on the public interest.

The SNP initiated debate on the benefits integrity project when people did not realise exactly what was happening in that sphere. Concessions have been made because we initiated that debate, and they have been welcomed by parties in all parts of the House. I do not understand the difficulty in accepting that the SNP, which has independence as its goal, opens up such matters for genuine discussion in the House. I wish that some of the interventions had not been quite so petty.

The issue is what the public think is happening in the review of social welfare. The words in our motion were coined not by me or by my hon. Friends, but by supporters of the governing party. They reflect a concern in society that has to be addressed. At one point, the Minister for Welfare Reform left his usual gentlemanly style behind and read a brief from one of the spin doctors, because he clearly thought that we had coined those words. That was unlike him, because he is usually courteous.

I should like to think that we shall have high-quality debates on this subject, especially when the responses have come in, and I presume that we will go into it in greater detail during the next Session. Unfortunately, no SNP Members serve on the Social Security Committee, although we hope to be allocated a place on it in the interests of consensus, and hope to submit oral and written evidence.

One of the difficulties that the Minister for Welfare Reform faces is that he is too genuine a person—it is almost a curse when everyone says that they respect him. When the rumour went around the House that No. 10 had said that a new Beveridge was needed to think the unthinkable, the response was, "Coffee or tea?" He would not take such a facetious approach to this political issue, because he has taken on board the changes in our society and the need for new approaches. He has had difficulties in his party and in his constituency association because of the strong stances he has taken.

Like the Minister for Welfare Reform, I recognise that there are no simple solutions to the welfare issues that society faces. If there were, there would be a unanimous vote in the House—we would all walk into the same Lobby if we could immediately resolve those problems. I hope that we can join together and argue for a sensible approach to the problems that have been outlined by my hon. Friend and other participants in this debate.

I wish to pick up on an issue that is dear to my heart—the demographic time bomb that faces our society because of the growing number of elderly people. When I worked as an social services administrator, we referred to the problem in the Strathclyde and Dumfries Galloway area as a "sleeping elephant". Most Members of Parliament realise from their constituency postbags and surgeries that it is a serious problem. The problems experienced by elderly people are vast. Points have been made about the elderly single pensioner, and the problems of housing, benefit, warmth and heating, and a variety of health matters.

I recently read an article, which I would recommend to the Minister and to the Minister of State, Scottish Office, who may already have read it. On 13 June, the Herald magazine published a review of a book by Linda Grant, in which she speaks about the problems that she and her family faced with their elderly mother who suffered from dementia. The book is entitled "Remind Me Of Who I Am, Again".

Some of us have experienced the same problems with elderly parents or elderly members of our families, and I am sure that nearly every Member of Parliament has experienced problems with constituents who face the same difficulties. Linda Grant speaks about the guilt that is felt, about the decisions that have to be made, and about choosing between permanent and residential care. I recommend that hon. Members at least read extracts from the book. This is not a commercial for the book; the subject is close to my heart.

The review was followed by an article by Reg McKay in the same weekend magazine. The figures he quoted came essentially from the Association of Directors of Social Work—I think that the Scottish Office Minister was present at the relevant conference. He said: Constant, 24-hour support at home from the cheapest provider will cost at least £50,000 per person per year and as much as £80,000 in rural areas. That is if we hope to keep elderly people within the community. He went on: It is estimated that Scotland has 340,000 elderly living in the community, who need care or support … There are 125,000 people in Scotland who are practically full-time carers. Those carers sacrifice their careers, relationships, education and leisure.

The Association of Directors of Social Work has advised that it should be a central aim of social policy … to support and to complement the long-term care given by carers and that there should be a simultaneous development of community services". That aspect can be considered within the Scottish Parliament, because local government, health and community care will come within its auspices.

The Minister asked earlier whether we could make recommendations. Obviously we shall make our own recommendations in our response to the Government's paper, but during the conference, the ADSW made 16 firm recommendations in the context of the elderly, and I would certainly recommend them to the Ministers present today, because I very much agree with them.

One of the greatest problems faced by elected Members is that our constituents approach us with fears of uncertainty about what the welfare programme holds. When the benefits integrity project was introduced, many worried disabled people asked us whether they would be reviewed and would lose money. I have a substantial file on the difficulties that those people faced. Without the work that was done by the citizens advice bureaux in my area and the Benefits Agency, many people would have been even more deeply worried. Indeed, I still receive letters on that subject.

The Government must ensure that no action is ever taken which worries an individual who feels vulnerable. It is easy for Ministers to say that they recognise that, but let us ensure that the legislation we introduce is sensible and comprehensible to all those involved. Let us have genuine proposals, not just circulated thoughts that cause unnecessary and unwarranted concern.

The subject of pensions is extremely complex. The Minister and I have worked together, on all-party and other groups, on that subject. I do not want to malign other hon. Members, but I suspect that most of those in the Chamber today are roughly of the same generation as me. Various options were open to us, but no options were open to the older generation. They assumed that, by paying their national insurance contributions, they would be guaranteed security until the end of their days.

I am always impressed when we interview young people who come forward for employment opportunities. At the age of 20 or 21, one of the first questions they ask is, "What are your pension provisions?" Thus there is a generation gap. I recognise the difficulty of drawing lines at any point, but we owe a debt to our older generation, who assumed that in the post-war period they would be looked after until the end of their days.

In opening up this debate, which I know will be continued, we have put forward our motion in a genuine desire for a constructive debate. It is incumbent on all of us, as representatives of the electorate, to do so. We should not attempt to make party political points on the matter, as some hon. Members tried to do earlier. It deserves genuine and serious consideration. The Scottish Parliament will have the opportunity to consider welfare, health and community issues. In the meantime, we must address those matters with all seriousness.

7.46 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Sam Galbraith)

You will be delighted to know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that, not being an aficionado on this subject—indeed, it is unusual for me to speak on it—I shall not take long in replying. However, I have enjoyed listening to the various aficionados speak so briefly on the issues before us, and I shall try to deal with one or two of the points raised.

The hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Welsh) asked about the disabled. He has a long and reputable history of support for, and of speaking in the House on, the disabled, which he continued tonight. He asked whether we would spend more on the disabled in the new deal. The answer is yes; we have only made a start, and are waiting for other projects and proposals. Should they prove useful and beneficial, that will be done.

The hon. Gentleman also asked what we can do for people who are in work. We shall consider how we can retain them in projects under the new deal. We are looking into anti-discrimination legislation to ensure that it is easier for them to retain their jobs.

The hon. Gentleman made other points, and I hope that he will include them in his party's submissions on the Green Paper. He spoiled his speech at the end by referring yet again to middle England, as if it was a headed monster that is different from middle Scotland. I realise that he cannot throw off the habits of a lifetime—his bad political practices, and his usual whinges and cringes. Apart from that, it was a reasonable performance.

I was grateful to the hon. Member—is it Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles? Roxburgh and Berwickshire.

Mr. Kirkwood

Middle borders.

Mr. Galbraith

Middle borders, thank you. The House was grateful for his very short speech. It lasted about 18 minutes, but for him that was a short speech. He asked for better data. We have begun a project that will enable us to disaggregate and collect much better data. That is important, particularly in the context of the new assembly.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to investigate the Irish anti-poverty strategy, and referred to the social exclusion unit. We already have an anti-poverty strategy: it is to deal with social exclusion. Perhaps he has not heard us talk about the new deal, but I cannot believe that. Our strategy is to do with rural inequalities in health, priority partnership areas, urban programmes, the new deal for schools, and child care. We do not want more money pumped into research and theoretical arguments about what is or is not poverty: we want action. The social exclusion unit met for the first time on Monday, and it is considering all the data.

I waited with great anticipation to hear the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney), who introduced the debate. He is generally considered to be one of the more thinking members of the Scottish National party. [Interruption.] That does not say much for the rest of them. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he should address his remarks to the Chair.

Mr. Galbraith

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I enjoyed the hon. Gentleman's speech, although it was rambling and vacuous at times. I say that as a friend of his: I am not being awkward. He fell into the trap of bandying around nebulous statistics. The statistics produced by the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends usually have no firm basis, and are only used to effect. The hon. Gentleman said in The Scotsman today: statistics analysed by the SNP"— we now know that they were not analysed by the SNP, but were given to him by the Library— showed that the UK was already spending less per head on welfare support than 12 of its partners in the European Union. My right hon. Friend the Minister made the point that total expenditure is not the main measure of social welfare—it is what we do with it that counts. As my right hon. Friend said, the United States spends more than 10 per cent. of its gross domestic product on health, yet it has a worse, not a better, service, because it wastes a large proportion of that expenditure.

The hon. Member for North Tayside should not indulge in silly notions of spending per head. It is extremely difficult to make statistical comparisons across nations. The populations being compared must be the same, and they usually vary from area to area. However, the method accepted in Europe is called social protection expenditure. The latest figures—

Mr. Welsh

"It says here."

Mr. Galbraith

Yes, I have done a bit of research on this as well. It is interesting, because I realise how much rubbish is talked.

The social protection expenditure figures show that we are not bottom of the league. In fact, we are average. Many countries are below us, including Belgium, Greece, Ireland, which the Scottish National party is always keen to mention, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain. We should take all these figures with a little pinch of salt. Every time we analyse figures produced by the Scottish National party, the only thing we can be sure about is that they are wrong.

I was also disappointed with the Scottish nationalists' big new ideas. They have been thinking about this issue for a long time, and wanted a full debate. What were their big new ideas? More bureaucracy. They suggested another welfare rights officer for Scotland, which would duplicate what we already do UK-wide to promote benefits. We have many pilot projects: the Secretary of State for Social Security was in Paisley only yesterday at one of these projects. Never mind duplicating the work of local authority welfare rights officers: let us have more bureaucracy. The Scottish National party's only suggestion for the social security system in Scotland is more and more bureaucracy.

The Scottish nationalists' argument was full of straw men. They say that they want a social security system that concentrates on the needy. Was anyone arguing about that? They just kept repeating their argument. I was slightly disappointed that no reference was made to what has been done. The new deal and its various facets were briefly mentioned, but that was all. The hon. Member for North Tayside did not talk about the minimum wage. The hon. Member for Angus mentioned it, but only to deride it. There were no thanks for introducing a minimum wage for the first time ever in this country. He just whinged about it as usual.

Nothing was said about the new deal for schools or child care. How can we talk about a social strategy for the country and never mention child care? The hon. Gentlemen never mentioned the proposals in our Green Paper, and they did not make a proposal of their own. Nothing was said about what we have done to improve the tax and benefits system. Family tax credits will give working families £180 a week, which is equivalent to a national minimum wage of £5 an hour. The hon. Gentleman did not mention any of those proposals.

The hon. Member for North Tayside did not deal with this issue in the round. There is no one solution to this problem. We must consider the whole structure: the health service, housing and education. Above all, we must provide jobs. A job is the key that unlocks the door to everything. We have provided not only a safety net, which the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) asked for, but a springboard to the future, and a stake in society.

Many of our problems result from unemployment. If people are unemployed, they have no future and no stake in society. They need a job to have a future, to have a stake and to have the economic means to make choices. That is why our social strategy is based on giving people a job. If we give them a job, we give them integrity, decency, a stake in society and a future. That is what a Labour Government will give them.

Question, That the original words stand part of the Question, put and negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments) and agreed to.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House welcomes the Government's comprehensive approach to welfare reform around the principle of work for those who can, security for those who cannot, which was set out in the Welfare Reform Green Paper; notes the Government's commitment to consultation with organisations of, and for, disabled people, and the substantial safeguards included in the Benefit Integrity Project; notes the Government's commitment to helping today's and tomorrow's pensioners and welcomes the establishment of the Pensions Review and the action taken already to help today's pensioners through cutting VAT on fuel and paying winter fuel payments to all pensioners; notes that the New Deals for Lone Parents, for the Young and Long-Term Unemployed and for Disabled People are the largest assault on worklessness and social exclusion ever undertaken in Britain; and welcomes the action taken by the Government in the Budget to support families and children through increasing child benefit and the family premium in income support and by the proposals to introduce a working family tax credit and a disabled person's tax credit.'.