HC Deb 25 October 1999 vol 336 cc696-7
8. Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

What is his policy on the uprating of earnings disregards. [93753]

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Jeff Rooker)

The earnings disregards are reviewed annually as part of the uprating process.

Mr. Cousins

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position. As he well knows, for many years the previous Government restricted the weekly earning power of those on means-tested benefits to £5 for a single person and £15 for those with families. Through that policy they ring-fenced the shame and misery of those without work, bringing the fear of fraud to millions of decent families and taxing the energy and enterprise of the poorest in a way that no one has ever suggested should be done to the richest. They made women fearful of looking after their grandchildren and men fearful of mending their mate's car or painting their auntie's house. They restricted self-employment and limited community business. Following the introduction of the minimum wage, the disregard is worth 90 minutes of earning power or four hours for someone with a family. Is it not time that that, too, was modernised?

Mr. Rooker

My hon. Friend is right. He asks what our policy is. It is to review the disregards annually as part of the uprating process. They have not been uprated for several years—not since 1988 for income support or since 1996 for the jobseeker's allowance. However, there have been other changes in the welfare benefits system, not least the working families tax credit, which means that it is no longer possible for any family person to claim that they are better off on benefit than in work.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

May I associate myself with the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) in welcoming the Minister to his post? It is a difficult one and I wish him well.

What incentive does the Minister's response give to people on low incomes? The Government have been in power for two and a half years, but their latest "Households Below Average Income" document clearly shows that the number of people at the poorer end of the income scale has increased and that the trend is upwards. Will he name a year when poor people will be better off under a Labour Government? Will it be next year or the year after? Will it be 2000, 2001 or 2002? Or is what he has said an example of spin over substance? Does he believe that the Government are tackling poverty merely by saying that they are going to do so? Will he name a year?

Mr. Rooker

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous welcome. I know that it was not well meant. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] No one has ever accused me of being subtle, so I have no apology to make. Our document measures the year before our changes came into force and shows the legacy of the previous Government, which will still be rolling along for some time. The hon. Gentleman asked for an example. Constituents of mine—and those of most hon. Members—who have been claiming family credit and have now gone on to the working families tax credit will be substantially better off under this Government, notwithstanding those—

Mr. Pickles

Which year?

Mr. Rooker

This year. I am talking about those who are transferring now as family credit comes to an end. Those who are on the minimum wage will be substantially better off this year.