HL Deb 29 March 1971 vol 316 cc1092-8

3.54 p.m.


My Lords, I will with permission repeat a Statement which is being made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services in another place about the Social Security Bill which has been published to-day. The Statement is as follows:

"Section 10 of the Ministry of Social Security Act 1966, like earlier legislation, provides that during trade disputes persons disqualified on that account for receiving unemployment benefit are not entitled to receive supplementary benefit for their own personal requirements though it is payable for their dependants and their rent. But for many years it has been customary to ignore the tax refunds and strike pay (and any other personal income) available to the people involved up to the level of the personal requirements of the strikers and others disqualified because of a trade dispute (currently £4.35) when calculating benefit for their dependants. The result is that the total household income is often brought up to the full supplementary benefit level.

"The Government believe that the principle embodied in the Act is an important one, generally accepted as fair by public opinion; and they do not think that the present practice, which is totally inconsistent with the principle, should continue. The Bill accordingly provides that the personal income of persons affected will be treated in exactly the same way as miscellaneous income is treated in other supplementary benefit claims. The effect will be that, in the great majority of cases, up to £1 only will be ignored instead of up to £4.35.

"When a trade dispute is over, Section 10 ceases to apply and the men, as well as their dependants, are eligible, for up to fifteen days, for supplementary benefit though during this period they are earning wages which will normally at the end of the second week be paid. Because these wages were being earned and advances (or 'subs') were given by many employers upon them, the need for supplementary benefit was in the past fairly limited. But in recent years, and particularly since a strike in 1969 after which employees succeeded in persuading their employer to withdraw an offer of subs, there has been increasing replacement of subs—which are repayable and come out of taxed income—by supplementary benefit which is neither repayable nor taxable. This has played a large part in the rapid increase in expenditure on benefit following strikes. In 1968 it was about £80,000 for large strikes alone. In 1969 and 1970, again for larger strikes only, the figure leapt to £670,000 and nearly £900,000 respectively. If all strikes were included, these figures would be higher still. This cannot be allowed to continue. The proper way of tiding workers over till their pay is due after return to work is by way of advances of earnings. The Bill therefore provides that supplementary benefit paid to men who have returned to work after a dispute, during which they were disqualified for supplementary benefit for themselves, shall be recoverable—though not at such a rate as to cause hardship—through the employer.

"Supplementary benefit paid to the families of strikers and others disqualified during strikes, and to strikers and their families after strikes, amounted in 1970 to £2½ million. The savings from the supplementary benefit changes I have referred to depend on the number and scale of disputes, but if the changes had been in force in 1970, they would have saved about £1¼ million.

"The Bill further provides for a statutory deduction, in most cases of £2.05 (compared with 75p usually at present) from the supplementary benefit payable to those disqualified for unemployment benefit because they have left a job voluntarily or been dismissed for misconduct or refused to take a suitable job offered to them. This will save rafter more than £500,000 in supplementary benefit expenditure a year.

"My right honourable friend has not consulted the Supplementary Benefits Commission about the relevant provisions of the Bill although, as a matter of courtesy, they have been told of them.

"Turning to national insurance, the Bill implements the Government's intention, announced by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on October 27 last, to end the retrospective payment of benefit for the first three days of a spell of sickness, injury or unemployment. The net saving from this change is expected to be about £19 million in a full year.

"The Bill further provides for the abolition of social security local advisory committees. The committees now number 141, with 4,000 members, and in present circumstances sufficient useful work cannot be found to justify the demand they make on the time of so many busy members of the community. Abolition will save about £130,000 a year of public funds.

"I commend these proposals to the House, since they would last year, had they been in force, have saved half the cost to the taxpayer of supplementary benefit in this field—while protecting wives and children."


My Lords, we thank the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for the Statement that he has just made. I must say that the Government Chief Whip's request that comment on Statements should be brief comes strangely to me, having regard to the fact that we have now had a Statement which is nothing more nor less than a preview of a Second Reading speech to be made in another place on a Bill which is being formally introduced there to-day. This seems to me to be a Statement aimed not so much at Parliament as at the Tory Party outside and the Tory Press generally.

I am bound to say that the proposals are detailed. I do not regard this as the appropriate time to examine them in detail, and I do not propose to attempt to do so. But in the meantime I am bound to express shocked surprise that the Supplementary Benefits Commission have not been consulted. I understand also that even the Trades Union Congress have not been consulted about this Statement which has been made to-day, nor about the Bill which it precedes. That failure (if it is such) seems to me to be indicative of the sort of thing which has got the Government into trouble about the Industrial Relations Bill; namely, the failure to consult. This is a very highhanded way to treat something which is of vital importance to a vast number of people within this nation of ours, and I really must express my disquiet at the way in which it has been done.


My Lords, is the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, aware that the views expressed by my noble friend are pretty widely held in various parts of the country? This appears to be a case of the Government taking sides in a strike-breaking action, and I think it is deplorable. The Government are following, and will be accepted as following, a doctrinaire policy which is totally divorced from the realities of what is required for industrial peace.


My Lords, are noble Lords aware that Ruskin, in one statement in his great essay, Unto This Last, spoke about "the dignity of creative labour"? To remove the retrospective payment of the three waiting days of sickness or unemployment benefit (and I will only deal with that point) is an act of vengeance upon people, and undermines the whole fabric of social security. Finally, can we have an opportunity to try and discuss this matter calmly and cooly, without pejorative remarks, at some time in the future and not at this inopportune moment?


My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their remarks upon the Statement. In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Champion, and the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, perhaps it would be proper for me to revert to the words in the Statement which refer to the principle of the Act of 1966. It is the principle of that Act which this Statement is seeking to uphold, and we trust that it will not reflect upon children and wives. These are details which doubtless your Lordships will wish to discuss when the Bill comes to this House.

I fully understand the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, but perhaps it would be right for me to repeat that it is estimated that the non-contributory benefit side, without the three paid waiting days, will probably rise by £3 million under these proposals.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say why the Trades Union Congress and the Board were not consulted?


My Lords, this is a Parliamentary Bill. The Trades Union Congress and the Board (whose most distinguished Chairman sits in your Lordships' House) will have full Parliamentary opportunity to debate it as fully as they wish.


My Lords, the noble Lord has not answered my noble friend's question, nor mine. I asked the simple question why they were not consulted. We know that they were not consulted. We should like to know why they were not consulted.


My Lords, because the Bill is going through Parliament.


My Lords, I should have thought that consultation is not a necessary measure, but it would have been a useful measure. I think that this policy, which makes the Government appear at any rate vindictive, is not going to contribute to the sort of atmosphere in which we can discuss a reasonable economic policy: it will exacerbate the situation and will make for social strife. For the saving of a small amount of money, relatively speaking, to our national income of £42 billion, the Government are jeopardising the possibility of reaching a peaceful solution of our problems.


My Lords, I am not in a position to-day to say to noble Lords opposite that official consultation has taken place. What unofficial consultation has taken place, I do not know. I have no doubt that the Government would have been only too pleased to consult. There have been other occasions this year, and at the end of last year, when they would have been delighted to consult, but have not been able to do so.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Balogh, perhaps I may point out that it was the Non-Contributory Benefit Appropriation Accounts for 1968–69 and 1969–70 which noted: Personal income up to an amount greater than is permitted under the existing law is often disregarded in assessing benefit for a striker's dependants. It is both with the desire to protect public money and, as I say, looking at the Act of 1966 that these proposals have been brought in.


My Lords, public money will be protected by keeping up production. Is not the noble Lord aware of the fact that this is the sort of policy which will force the Government into depressing production and income in this country? When he says that the wives and children are protected, is he not aware of the fact that this is one of the most hypocritical statements that I have ever heard? Obviously, the husband's money is also part of the family income.


My Lords, I wonder, then, why the 1966 Act was passed. I will also by way of answer send to the noble Lord details of the days lost in the last two years.


My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, who is such a nice man, has to make this Statement for the Government in the House to-day. I only wish that the Secretary of State were here, because this, I think, is a shocking example of the way in which this Government tend to treat bodies which ought properly to be consulted by the Government before they introduce legislation.


My Lords, with regard to the answer given to my noble friend by the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, I think that what he said was not correct. I understood the noble Lord to say that the Chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commis sion had not been consulted but that he was a Member of this House and would have an opportunity, presumably, of speaking here. Am I not correct in assuming that if one is appointed by the Government to be Chairman of a nationalised industry one is prohibited from speaking in this House?


My Lords, if I was in error on that point, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Burton. I think I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Champion, whose remarks were pitched in the most generous way, that none the less I have no reservations whatever in making this Statement to-day. One cannot possibly have any reservations if one looks at the statistics of the last few years, which I have promised to send to the noble Lord, Lord Balogh.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that this country is still a democracy, and that the Government's proposals to-day will have overwhelming public support?