HC Deb 10 January 2000 vol 342 cc17-9
18. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

If he will report progress on achieving reforms in welfare benefits. [102948]

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

We are reforming the welfare system to eradicate child poverty by creating opportunity for all. The working families tax credit, together with the minimum wage and other measures, will lift 1.25 million people, including 800,000 children, out of poverty.

Seven million families will benefit from the highest-ever rise in child benefit. One and a half million pensioner households are benefiting from the minimum income guarantee, which means £10 a week more for single pensioners and £15 a week more for couples.

The new deal has already helped more than 200,000 people move off benefits and into work.

Sir Sydney Chapman

I am grateful for that report of progress. Will the Minister confirm that, according to the definitive measurements that his party supported in opposition, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened in the past 30 months? If he claims that it has not, will he publish the figures that would prove his assertion?

Mr. Rooker

I am grateful for the first part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I gave only a partial report—I could spend the rest of the day detailing the successes of our welfare reforms. The hon. Gentleman's point is correct and has been raised before. It is based on research and evidence that predate the Government coming to power. As everyone knows, we freely entered into a contract with the electorate to accept the spending limits imposed by the previous Government for the first two years. That has consequences, which we all understand. In September we published "Opportunity for All", the first-ever national audit of poverty in Britain by any Government. We will produce a report each and every year, so that we can be judged against the standards in that report and, in due course, we will alter the figures that the hon. Gentleman quotes.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that some of us would have been happier if he had junked the figures agreed with the Opposition much earlier. Although the Government have produced some positive and useful results, will my right hon. Friend give me one undertaking? There have been a number of cases recently in which the detail of various benefit arrangements has been incorrect. It would be helpful if we could guarantee in future that all the calculations coming from the Department were as accurate as possible. Although human beings always make errors, in these matters errors can have devastating effects for the people in receipt of the benefit concerned.

Mr. Rooker

I can only answer yes. If my hon. Friend has particular examples, I will be pleased to look into them. We are endeavouring to take error out of the system by getting the calculations right at the beginning. It is better for people to get the lawful rights to which the House has agreed that they are entitled, and it helps us to stamp out error and fraud. We have a programme to get the figures right at the outset, and if there are specific problems, I will be happy to look into them for my hon. Friend.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Will the Minister confirm that, with the introduction of the working families tax credit, the number of households with children that are dependent on means-tested benefits and tax credits will rise; that, where the working families tax credit is combined with housing benefit, the net taper of tax and benefit withdrawal will be 89 per cent.; and that that must lead in the long ran to large numbers of households having no incentive to better themselves—the very reason why the WFTC was abolished in Canada recently?

Mr. Rooker

As we say from the Front Bench, that was a very good point. It does not alter the fact that 1.25 million people—800,000 of them children—have been lifted out of poverty as a result of the working families tax credit and the national minimum wage. We have arranged matters so that it is no longer possible for people to say that it does not pay to work and that it pays to stay on benefit. We have reversed that position, which must be wholly good for both the country and the individuals concerned.