§ 2.41 p.m.
§ The Question was as follows:
§ To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have any statement to make arising from the report Low Pay in Northern Ireland on 30th June by the Low Pay Unit.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY UNDERSECRETARY of STATE, NORTHERN IRELAND OFFICE (Lord Elton)
My Lords, the question of pay levels in Northern Ireland raises a number of difficult and complex issues, and the contribution to the problem by the pamphlet Low Pay in Northern Ireland produced by the Low Pay Unit is currently being studied.
§ Lord BLEASE
My Lords, while I thank the noble Lord for that reply, may I ask whether he is aware that the Low pay Unit pamphlet recommends a number of matters that the Government could usefully implement to help those caught in the poverty trap and the low pay bracket? Is he aware that one-third of full-time workers in Northern Ireland are paid less than the recognised living wage and that, compared with the United Kingdom, six times as many families in Northern Ireland rely on family income supplement?
Even within the statutory social security payments scheme, could the Government not undertake some way of helping and alleviating the problem? Has the noble Lord given attention to at least one form of assistance?—namely, the suggestion in the pamphlet that a single client—orientated form might be more usefully implemented than the various departmental schemes whereby a person seeking social security or welfare benefits has continually to pursue various offices.
§ Lord ELTON
My Lords, I regret that I cannot retain all the questions which the noble Lord, Lord Blease, asked me.
§ Lord ELTON
My Lords, I think there were seven questions. The principal one, with which the noble Lord concluded, was on the question of the simplification of forms, which is something with which I sympathise. Simplification and integration of benefits is a worthy goal, but as the supplementary benefits review and various studies on housing benefits have indicated, cost is likely to be a determining factor. Nevertheless, the Government will keep this aspect under review.
The noble Lord also raised a number of points about the relative incidence of poverty in the Province and in Great Britain, and made a comparison between the two areas as regards low pay. Earnings in some industries are higher than in others. Average earnings in an area such as the Province, therefore, will be dependent on the area's occupational mix within industries. As an example, higher paid executives normally work in centralised head offices rather than regionalised branch offices. In Northern Ireland, with its preponderance of low-paying industries—such as, agriculture, construction, clothing and footwear—and its lack of large head offices, average earnings can be expected to be lower than those in Great Britain. The lower level of earnings does not necessarily mean that a lower rate is being paid for an equivalent job.
§ Lord BLEASE
My Lords, will the noble Lord agree that to cite that there are persons with higher earnings in Northern Ireland does not really touch the problem that I have raised? The problem is that there are six times as many people in Northern Ireland as there are in Great Britain who are caught in the poverty trap. Will the noble Lord not agree that there are ways in which the Government could alleviate the position—particularly in relation to school meals and school uniforms—of persons who are caught in this trap as regards the cutoff rate and the incomes of which they are in receipt?
§ Lord ELTON
My Lords, yes, there is a difference in the aggregate between the Province and Great Britain. This is also reflected by the higher volume of payments of assistance in family income supplement and supplementary benefits. Therefore, the Government are aware of this, and the machinery takes account of it. As regards school meals and school uniforms, I would ask the noble Lord to bear in mind that the free school meals and the uniform allowance will continue to be available to all those families in receipt of supplementary benefit and family income supplement. Therefore, account is taken of the poorest sector of the community. Will the noble Lord further remember that there will be an increase in the family income supplement scales in November?