HL Deb 13 July 1978 vol 394 cc1689-92

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will consider as an alternative to arbitrary cuts in Civil Service manpower a simplifying of the systems of taxation and of social welfare benefits which require ever greater numbers of staff to administer them.

The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Peart)

My Lords, I have sympathy with the assumptions which lie behind the noble Viscount's Question. Arbitrary cuts—particularly across-the-board reductions without reference to priorities—are not the answer. The Civil Service must be adequately staffed to meet the demands made on it. I believe that the right approach is to keep the administrative cost of government under continuous review, and in particular to search out possibilities for the simplification and improvement of systems and procedures. The four Departments—Inland Revenue, Department of Health and Social Security, Department of Employment, Customs and Excise—directly concerned with the administration of taxation and social welfare benefits keep under review both the structure and the systems of operation with economy and efficiency very much in mind. Major reviews are mounted from time to time in which the Civil Service Department participates.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Is he aware that there are 50 or so different types of cash benefit for the disabled, and is this a satisfactory situation? Secondly, can he confirm that the take-up of special benefits is something less than 50 per cent.?


My Lords, we are certainly aware of the complexity of the system of benefits for the disabled, and of the difficulties which this may cause to some of them. The Government's strategy, though, has been to provide benefits for the most severely handicapped, and for those who have an inability to work, to walk or to look after themselves. I think that a simpler system would involve very substantial additional expenditure or produce rougher justice. But we are looking at this matter and, naturally, if we can simplify the system action will be taken. On the second question about the appallingly poor take-up of benefits, the take-up of benefits generally is in the range of 75 to 80 per cent.


My Lords, will the noble Lord the Leader of the House agree that, in the case of Governments of both Parties, the obsession with trying to do exactly the right thing in individual cases results in a complication of administration, which inevitably means an immense increase in Civil Service obligations which is quite out of proportion to any real improvement that results from it? I ask this question from no Party point of view, because I consider that my own Party is equally reprehensible in this matter.


My Lords, I accept what the noble Lord has said. On the other hand, I am now responsible for the Civil Service and am anxious that we simplfy matters and ease the administrative burden. That must be our aim. We have achieved success in this, and have even had a reduction in manpower of about 12,000 over the last two years.


My Lords, is the noble Lord the Leader of the House aware that employees claiming sickness benefit always have to wait for certainly three weeks, and often six weeks, and that, if they do not have a kind employer, that can cause hardship? Is the noble Lord further aware that I believe a lot of difficulty is caused by the fact that there are inexperienced staff dealing with these matters, some of whom have very little knowledge of English?


My Lords, I know that there is sometimes a problem, but I would not say that the staff are inexperienced. They are very good staff. But if we wanted to have further surveillance that would mean more manpower, and I thought that the Party opposite was for reducing the numbers of civil servants and expenditure.


My Lords, cannot the noble Lord make a small beginning by dispensing with outside political advisers who now figure on the Civil Service List, but make no contribution to the national good?


That is another matter, my Lords. But the noble Lord knows that there are political advisers even under a Conservative Administration.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether there has been any recent joint investigation by the Departments to which he referred in his original Answer today into the possibility of introducing a tax credit scheme?


My Lords, that is another matter. It is one which we shall note, but we have made no decision on that at all.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord the Leader of the House can give us any idea of the ratio of manpower and wages to the amount of benefits dispensed, because it is a very large sum of money. If the noble Lord does not have the information with him, will he perhaps be able to obtain it?


Yes, my Lords. I will see whether I can get a figure. I do not have one now, but I will certainly go into this.


My Lords, has my noble friend paid any attention to the size of the staff of the Inland Revenue Department, and can he perhaps cut down some of the staff in that Department? Their letters seem to come far too promptly.


My Lords, I think that the Inland Revenue is a very efficient Department. I had the honour and privilege of being their guest at a conference a year ago, and had discussions with them. I think that we are well served by the people in that Department.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some of us are concerned that the least well-off in the community are the least articulate? Any cuts in the service would hit them hard, and some of us would condemn it.


Yes, my Lords. I believe that there is quite a lot in what my noble friend has said.

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