HL Deb 08 December 1970 vol 313 cc820-30

4.42 p.m.

Debate further resumed.


My Lords, may I invite your attention again to the debate under discussion, and to say immediately that in large measure I find myself in agreement with the speech of my noble friend Lord Davies of Leek. It certainly was not cacophonic, though I found myself in some difficulty in recognising one or two of the late harmonic resolutions. But it was a condemnation of the Bill, and I find myself in concert with him in discovering this Bill to be unsatisfactory: and therefore I must record my opposition to it.

I would preface the various articles of opposition by remarking that I speak from an experience of social work over many years, and I find that few, if any, of my friends in the field of social activity have any good thing to say about this Bill. I happen to know that though some of my ecclesiastical friends are not physically present they are in spiritual concert with me as well when I remark that I find the Bill unsatisfactory, because it seems to me to inflict damage upon certain quite basic elementary principles which ought to govern the exercise of any Administration in its attempt to deal with poverty.

As a parson, may I take a text. It is as follows: "The only way of tackling poverty in the short term is to increase family allowances and operate the 'claw-hack' principle". That does not come from Holy Writ; it comes from the speech of the late Chancellor, Mr. Iain Macleod, and was repeated by Mr. Heath in precise terms in a letter which he wrote on June 1 to the Child Poverty Action Group.

I was not impressed by the argument set forth by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, that there are technical and financial reasons for which the application of this principle should not now be continued or advanced. On the contrary, I find that the increase of family allowances meets and overcomes objections to the treatment of poverty which accord entirely with my own experience; and if it is very largely in human terms, I remind myself that there is no such thing as poverty; there are only poor men, and poor women and poor children. It is essentially a human question, and as I see it there are certain valid and overwhelming objections to the treatment of poverty according to principles which belong to this Bill.

The first has to deal with the means test. I abominate means tests, and I recognise, as I am sure your Lordships recognise, the animosity they create and the sense of resentment they generate; and yet at the same time it is obvious that some kind of means testing is inevitable in a sensible and well-ordered society. The point is, where does the means test operate in such a way as to be obviously just? Where does it operate in such a way as to be obviously unjust? I believe that the answer is that if selectivity is at the beginning of the process, then it will appear to be an unjust imposition upon those who have to plead poverty. If, on the other hand, it is comprehensive in its initial stage and selectivity comes later in what is precisely regarded as "clawback," then there is not the same sense of injustice on the part of those who will, I think, be disposed to recognise that some assessment of need is requisite and necessary if some provision is to be made to satisfy it.

The provision of family allowances observes the principle of comprehension to begin with and selectivity later on. The principle of this Bill is entirely opposite, and it will perpetuate the sense of injustice among those people who are poor and feel that they are imposed upon in being required to declare their justice, in their sense of poverty, and to expose themselves to what they believe, quite realistically and I think genuinely, to be an insult to them.

It is surely a most important matter to remember that poverty is not only a financial loss of income or an absence of means; it is also a mental and, I would add, a spiritual affliction as well; and part of the elements that go to make up poverty-stricken people is their sense of inability to cope with the problems which come fairly easily to those of ampler means. This sense of having to go and declare themselves to be poverty-stricken within a narrow framework such as this Bill provides is a perpetuation of that injustice which in my judgment makes the resolution of this problem of poverty insoluble, and will continue so to do.

In the second regard I object, and I hope your Lordships do, to the specification of a particular group as coming under a particular claim to poverty or a particular condition of poverty and exercising a particular right. Surely, the essence of any attempt to relieve poverty is to bring those who are poverty-stricken within the general framework of the society as a whole, and not to isolate them by stigmatising them as possessing a particular need which has thereafter to be treated in a precise and particular way. This, again, is a human problem, and it is the isolation of many of those who are poverty-stricken which has been one of the outstanding experiences which has come my way in about 43 years.

In the third place, any provision, even for a narrow category of those who are in poverty, must be efficient or it is worthless; and in a number of respects it seems to me that this particular Bill will be inefficient. There is no adequate computation of those who will fall within categories to be rewarded or to be in receipt of these emoluments. There is the likely, I would say the inevitable, consequence that the take-up will not be larger than it has been in similar enterprises in the past.

The overall take-up in this field, where people have to claim rights and privileges, or opportunities, or money, or subventions, is not more than 27 per cent. over the whole area of such claims. It is lower with regard to spectacles and free prescriptions; it is relatively higher in rate rebate. But in no case is it more than about 52 per cent. of those entitled to such a provision. I see no evidence whatsoever that in this particular case there will be a higher take-up of these particular and especial provisions; in fact, the old pattern is in my judgment certain to be continued, and the expectation of the Government that this will be a welcome and rewarding exercise is surely a victory of hope over experience.

But I suppose that there is an even more damaging indictment of this Bill. It is that it will be profoundly disincentive. Surely, one of the prime objectives of those who would seek to relieve poverty is so to exercise benevolence as to inspire self-effort; so to provide help as to encourage those who receive it to make their own more dynamic efforts to get out of the situation in which they have lingered so long. I see no reason to think that this particular provision, this Bill, will do anything to provide the man of the house with a deeper incentive to get a better job or to exercise his right to do overtime. In fact, he will be so penalised as the Child Poverty Action Group have demonstrated by a wealth of detail and data which are available to anybody who cares to read them.

Furthermore (and this is a point which has not yet been dealt with) I entertain the belief from a long experience—and I say this with care—that if more of the responsibility for the care of poverty-stricken homes were in the province of the mother, those poverty-stricken homes would have a better distribution of the meagre resources than they do now under the patriarchal system which still exists to such a large extent. It is an astonishing and degrading thing to record that, in my experience as a social worker, over and over again the woman does not know what her breadwinner earns, and is doled out with such monies as he has over after he has spent a good deal in other and less meritorious practices. That is not a general condemnation. There are as good and decent people in poverty stricken areas as anywhere else. Nevertheless, one of the objections to the provision of money to those who are already in work is that, although it is not by any means certain, I should think it very likely, that instead of that money being adequately and better distributed for the general care of the household, it would go on the personal desires and habits of the man of the household. Whereas in the provision of family allowances, such provision being made to the mother of the family or the woman in the family, a very much more equitable distribution of the available resources will occur and may well provide the incentive for emergence from that particular state of poverty.

In all these measures this Bill is ill-conceived and, I believe, should be aborted. It provides no solution. It is but another attempt to deal—from what is obviously a genuine desire—with human suffering by wrong, out-dated and totally fallacious measures. There is only one way to deal with this problem, and that is vastly to increase, and for the first child, the allowances that go to the family. That is equitable. It is what Mr. Macleod believed in; it is what Mr. Heath believed in and said. It was placarded in many of the Conservative programmes at the General Election. I believe it is still an equitable and sensible way of beginning to deal with a vast evil. Proceed with this Bill and it will not be long before we are confronted with the same evils which have haunted the hopeful for so long—a condition which unfortunately means that more people, in my experience, are poverty stricken than there were, and that the divisions in the society in which we live tend to become more gaunt and more open.

I hope that if this Bill goes through—and I cannot support it—there will be a quick review of its effects, and that the Government will discover, by the process of experience, that they have embarked upon the wrong programme. As it is, I believe poverty will still be with us and its main evils will not be abated by this Bill. I would plead with the Government that they look again at the whole structure of their attempt to deal with poverty, and set it within the framework of a new and entirely inspired, as I think, attempt to reinstate the family as the centre and hope of a decent society.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I point out, with regard to his antagonism to the means test, that we all have to have a means test every year when we send in our tax returns. If you send your child to a university, you have a means test. I cannot understand the objection of the noble Lord to a means test. It is not undignified. It does not hurt anyone's pride, and I cannot understand it.


My Lords, with all courtesy, I wonder whether the noble Viscount attended to what I said. I did not say I objected to a means test. What I said was that I objected to the unjust application of a means test which began with selectivity and never achieved comprehensiveness. What I want is a means test which begins by spreading the opportunities as widely as possible, which will relieve a sense of injustice and will claw back from those who can afford it what is their proper contribution to an equitable society.

4.56 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, for allowing me to intervene for a few moments, even though I did not put my name down. I would add only a few sentences to this debate. Personally, I would hesitate to speak against any measure to help the poorer sections of our community, but this Bill does not resolve my anxieties. I am very happy to follow my noble friend Lord Soper, although I disagree with him on one or two things that he has said. I believe that the Supplementary Benefits Commission does a good job, and would go on doing a better job than this Bill could. The Bill puts a "poverty cap" like a kind of dunce's cap on a special section of our community. Here is where I do not disagree but do not go all the way with my noble friend Lord Soper; I am not against all means testing. I perhaps go a little further than he does in this matter. I am against the kind of provision in this Bill which is somehow very unfair and unattractive, because pride will stop some of the poorer people in our community from taking up the benefits, while it will not stop the scroungers, as these will not mind.

The Government have given us no idea of the numbers involved and no estimates of the number of people which the Bill is going to help. Personally, I also have reservations about increasing family allowances, which the Child Poverty Action Group recommends and on which my noble friend Lord Soper is so keen. I feel that this Bill will not help many categories of people in need. Finally, I do not believe that poverty can be solved on the cheap, and that is where I think the Bill really falls down.

4.58 p.m.


My Lords, I had not intended to speak, and I will do so only very shortly. There are just one or two points I should like to mention in support of my noble friend who has moved the Second Reading of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Soper, said that he was anxious that there should be a family service in connection with social work and social services, and with the general aspect of poverty and the less well off sections of the community. That is exactly what we have at the present time under the new Social Service Act which is operating in Scotland, and which will operate here when the same Bill goes through for England. It is the family that we are dealing with. The social workers are working together in a group rather than individually, and they are working with the family for the family.

It depends very much on how good your social work group is, but many local authorities in Scotland have taken enormous trouble to get together a really first-class group of social workers. No longer does a family now get dealt with by one social worker, and supplementary benefits questions dealt with by another one, and so on. We have a family service for social work, and it is working quite admirably. It does what I hope this Bill will do. The noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, has just mentioned a difficulty which has occurred for centuries—that of not getting the honest people you want to help, but getting the scroungers. It is the honest people one wants to help, and it is the job of the social workers under the new Social Work Act to find those people and to help them, and avoid—as I think we all want to do, as it happens continually in family care work—helping only the scroungers. I think that this new Family Income Supplements Bill will be a service, because those people who are working with families will in certain cases be able to get the additional help which they want. That will be very valuable indeed.

I do not think there will be embarrassment, and I do not think this is putting the clock back or doing any of the other things which were mentioned to-day. In fact, I think the Bill will bring to social work a really personal touch which is very important. While it is very difficult to say what should be the basic figure, I consider the figure of £15 is a very fair one. However, with inflation growing it is very difficult to tell whether or not it is the right figure. It may well be that it will be only a guideline and no more, and that people whose incomes are not exactly £15 will still be helped.

I am also glad that it is suggested we should help the woman who has, perhaps, been deserted by her husband and is living under great difficulty. As the noble Lord, Lord Soper, said, she carries the heat and burden of the day and it is very often the women, rather than any other section of the community, whom one would prefer to help. It will be possible to do that under this Bill, which will be very useful. If the Bill is operated, as I hope it will be, by a group of social workers on a family basis, it will be a very valuable contribution in helping the less well-off people in the community.

5.2 p.m.


My Lords, I did not expect noble Lords opposite to give a warm welcome to this Bill, but I must say that I was a little disappointed that they did not recognise at least some of its very real benefits to considerable numbers of people. I do not know whether the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, was here when I opened the debate, but I said then that it would help 180,000 families and 500,000 children. Those are our estimates. If we can help those people, or as large a proportion of them as we can, then we shall be doing a worthwhile job. I stressed that this is not the end of the road.

I take the point which has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Soper, and other noble Lords, that there are various other ways which might better solve this problem of poverty. I agree fundamentally with the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek—naturally, as a fellow Celt I have to find myself in great sympathy with his Celtic outburst, which I agree was not in the least cacophonic—that the proper answer to all these problems is that wages should rise to a point where there are no families living in poverty. We very much hope that it will be possible to achieve this, but it requires an expanding economy. That is what we are after; but so far no Government of any colour have yet achieved it. So what we found was that there are these families who are living in poverty although the breadwinner is working, and that this is the quickest, simplest and least complicated way of bringing some help to them. I should like to express my great gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, for her kind personal remarks to me. I always found her most accommodating when she was at this Box and I was at the other one. She asked me a number of questions and I hope to answer all of them. As we are not to have a Commitee stage, I appreciated why they were somewhat detailed.

Of course this is a highly selective method of help. As I said, we found that there are people with children in need and this is the quickest way of getting help to them. The noble Baroness and others mentioned the disincentive effect. There may be something in that, but, for that very reason, we have restricted the make-up point to 50 per cent. of the difference between the family income and the target income. The noble Baroness asked me about the single parent family, particularly the mother with children to look after. If the mother is working full-time she will be eligible for family income supplement, but if she is working part-time she can get supplementary benefit. The two work in conjunction, and she will get some help one way or the other. But until this Bill is passed she cannot get help if she is in full-time work. The noble Baroness also asked me about the prescribed amount. As she realises, this can be altered by Affirmative Resolution. It is normal to put a figure in a Bill; and, indeed, in her own Government's Ministry of Social Security Act the supplementary benefit amounts were so specified.

She asked me about Clause 8. If there is an under-payment, it will of course be made good as soon as it comes to light. If there is an over-payment, there are precedents for its recovery from other benefits. She also asked me about Clause 4 and the seasonal worker. This presents a difficulty. Presumably, the seasonal worker who may be earning above the minimum at one moment will not claim and will not be eligible. But he or she is quite at liberty to claim, provided that the person is in full-time employment and the earnings justify it.


Even if they draw it when they are getting more money?


Yes, my Lords. Once the claim is agreed it will go on for twenty-six weeks. The noble Baroness then referred to the staff. I think she mentioned 600 extra staff, but the figure is really 200. I should like to pay tribute, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, did, to the staff of the Supplementary Benefits Commission—they certainly deserve it. We are able to keep the figure of extra staff required as low as that because of the simplicity of the scheme. I think I have answered most of the noble Baroness's questions, except the one about family allowances to which I shall come in a minute.

May I say how grateful I am for the speech of my noble friend Lord Ilford? He has vast knowledge and experience of social security matters and I very much appreciated his acknowledgment that we might be right in adopting this new method for the sake of speed and simplicity. I should like to assure him and the noble Lord, Lord Soper, that we shall watch the results of the Bill with the greatest care, and after a year or so will see exactly what the lake-up is and what we can do. My noble friend talked about rent. There are obvious difficulties in taking the actual rent into account, because it would so complicate the scheme, but the prescribed figure of £15 for a family with one child assumes an average rent of 50s. which covers many of the rents about which my noble friend spoke. I think he said that the average in London is 53s.

The noble Lord, Lord Soper, and other noble Lords laid great stress on family allowances. Of course I see the arguments for family allowances, and we have not closed our minds to that method, but, as I tried to explain in my opening speech, there are great difficulties. The tax threshold is so low that to increase family allowances by even a small amount would not help a great many people who need help; while to recast the whole system and to introduce family allowances for an only child is a very large administrative exercise. Perhaps, in the long run, that could be the answer, but at the moment we see a need to get this help quickly to working families.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, thanked me for letting her come into the debate. I am afraid I have no control over the noble Baroness, but I am delighted that she did come in. As regards her remarks about a means test, I would say that this is really an incomes test and not a means test. It does not in any sense take into account the means of the family. There is no question of more than the person's income being taken into account, and that is over the five weeks previous to the claim. So this does not involve a complicated means test and it is, in fact, a pretty simple incomes test. Finally, I should like to say how grateful I am to my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood for rounding off the picture and showing that we are really concerned about this matter.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I do not like to contradict, but I doubt whether what he has just said is absolutely accurate as to the earnings of a child who sells newspapers or goes collecting berries (whinberries, as we used to call them) at a certain season, or hop-picking in Hereford, as they used to do. That very point came up in the Committee stage in another place. Would the noble Lord check that? I do not want to be contradictory, but I should be grateful if he would check that statement.


My Lords, it is my understanding that the income is the income of the father or the mother, and that any casual earnings of a child would not be taken into account.


I do not want to be dogmatic.


My Lords, there is in fact in the Bill, as the noble Lord will be aware, provision to take account of the income of a child, but that is specifically to take account of possible abuse. I think I am right in saying that the earnings of a child who gets paid for picking whinberries would not be included as part of the family income.

May I again thank my noble friend Lady Elliot for her help and support, and for mentioning the other part of the parcel, the Social Services Department, the family allowances which are already being paid and the supplementary benefits. Finally, to fill the one hole which is at the moment unplugged, there is the family incomes supplement, which I recommend to your Lordships' House.

On Question, Bill read 2a: Committee negatived.