HL Deb 20 June 1984 vol 453 cc287-9

2.55 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Carlisle

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government, in view of the increasing number of persons unemployed for long periods on low incomes, whether they will now consider transferring the long-term unemployed to the long-term rate on supplementary benefit.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Lord Glenarthur)

My Lords, the Government are aware of the argument for extending the supplementary benefit long-term scale rate to long-term unemployed people but the cost would be £480 million and on that ground alone cannot be justified.

The Lord Bishop of Carlisle

My Lords, while thanking the Minister for that reply, is he aware that this matter is felt very keenly as a matter of injustice—not only by members of all the Churches but also by members of all political parties as well? Is he aware also that in failing to act the Government are placing many families under very great strain and that they are being excluded from the common life of the community?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I note the view of the right reverend Prelate, but the fact is that after this particular rate was introduced by a Labour Government in 1966, no Labour Government extended the long-term rate to the unemployed. But since this Government came into office we have reduced the qualifying period from two years to one year, and we have given automatic entitlement to the long-term rate to all men aged 60 and over. We have also made receipt of long-term incapacity benefits a qualification for eligibility to the long-term scale rate. It is not possible, with the means available to us, to do everything, but those are certainly steps in the right direction.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, can the Minister explain why the Government appear to be taking no notice of their own Social Security Advisory Commission, which said quite clearly: The denial of the long-term rate to the majority of the unemployed seems to us to be wholly unjust"? Is it not unfortunate that these busy people are set up in commissions and then have their advice ignored?

When the Minister suggests that the Government cannot afford such a measure, can he say how many people are involved? Can he say how much they cannot afford receiving short-term benefit when they are long-term unemployed? Perhaps he will tell the House how much money the Government have collected by taxing benefits and how much money the Government have given away by, for example, abolishing the unearned income surcharge?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, I cannot give the latter figures for which the noble Baroness asked. The fact is that the Government are aware of the advice of the SSAC but nevertheless, for the reason I gave in my original Answer, it is not possible to extend the benefit with the means at our disposal. The noble Baroness will be aware that the review which my right honourable friend is now conducting into the supplementary benefits scheme will include an examination of the scheme's structure, and that will inevitably involve looking at the provisions made for different groups of claimants.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, will the Minister not consider making a beginning by starting with those people who have been long-term unemployed for more than three years and who at April last numbered 334,000? Having taken care of those people, would it not be possible then to move on to those who have been unemployed for between two and three years, who at the same date numbered 287,000? Could the problem not the approached progressively in that manner?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, various suggestions have been made for extending the long-term scale rate to different groups of unemployed claimants; those with children, those whom the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, mentioned, and older people. But they would all involve a substantial cost and I am afraid that the money is not available.

Lord Wells-Pestell

My Lords, is the Minister seriously telling the House in respect of the long-term unemployed—who are known to be suffering severe limitations and in some cases not receiving an adequate amount of food each week—that the Government cannot see their way clear to doing something for them? Are we really to understand that?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, there will of course be cases throughout the country where some people who claim supplementary benefit are in a worse way of being than others. But it is not possible to produce money out of a hat in the way that the party opposite so often claims that it is possible to do. If we are talking about excessively large sums of money, then they have to be found at times when the conditions are right for them to be found. At the moment, the time is not right.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, given that noble Lords opposite are so devoted to their manifesto, how does the noble Lord reconcile his replies with the Government's promise in their last manifesto to reduce the poverty trap?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that we have already taken steps to reduce the poverty trap, and these were made quite clear in the up-rating statement last year. The fact that we have been able to achieve so much for all sorts of people by reducing the rate of inflation—which was so prevalent at the time when the party opposite was in power—has done a great deal to help many people, including those on supplementary benefit.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, would the noble Lord the Minister not agree there is growing evidence that there are more families within the community suffering extreme deprivation? Would he comment on the latest report showing that there are now many pregnant women who are unable to afford the necessary diet, which is doing untold harm to themselves and their unborn children?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords. I have not actually seen the report to which the noble Baroness refers but I shall certainly look at it. The fact is that, in addition to supplementary benefit as such, claimants can also get additions and single payments for all sorts of different facilities. The noble Baroness will be aware of the enormous list of benefits of that type which are available, and that is also a considerable help to them.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, as the number of long-term unemployed is a natural consequence of the Government's economic policy which it is said will be of great benefit to the country in the long run, have not the Government a moral obligation to pay more attention to its victims?

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, the Government have many obligations: some of them are moral and some of them have to be based on economic fact. Only on Monday my noble friend Lord Gowrie explained to your Lordships at Question Time that, while the problem of the long-term unemployed is a real one, the solution to it lies in the economic policies which the Government are adopting.