HL Deb 13 December 1988 vol 502 cc822-4

2.53 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the latest figures for the take-up of family credit.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Skelmersdale)

My Lords, since the start of the new scheme over 450,000 claims have been received. At the end of November over 260,000 families were receiving family credit. In addition, about 47,000 claims were in hand but in 32,000 of these we were waiting for replies to inquiries from employees or claimants.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, when do the Government expect to achieve their target of 60 per cent. of take-up?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, this is a new scheme so it is inevitable that it will build up slowly. However, looking at the awards made between April, when it started, and November, I can tell the noble Lord that there has been an increase of 26,000 in claims. So it will build up slowly. I cannot give a date at which any target level may be achieved; however, the scheme is building up quite well.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the citizens' advice bureaux that part of the reason for the low take-up is what they call client confusion? Might not client confusion have something to do with the very difficult application form, FC1, which has to be filled in? The form is in 13 parts, in rather small print. I reached question No. 70 and then had to give up. Will the Minister put some FC1 forms in the Library to see how many noble Lords are able to get beyond question No. 70?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I shall be delighted to put form FC1 into the Library. I accept straight-away that it is long and that it looks very complicated. It is designed to be simple to complete. There are full explanations about what is required and most claimants can skip whole sections which do not apply to them. Nevertheless I accept the implied criticism of the noble Baroness. We are considering ways of shortening the form and simplifying it still further.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, the figures that the noble Lord has given indicate that a great many people are still waiting to have their claims processed. What liaison is there between the income support officers and the housing benefit officers? I know of a deaf and dumb man working in a sheltered workshop who has been waiting 22 weeks to have his family credit processed. In the meantime the housing benefit officer has been deducting what he thinks will be the man's family credit from his housing benefit, so the man is being penalised doubly.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am interested to hear the noble Countess's supplementary question. I should like further details of that case. I know that there were some problems in the early weeks of the new scheme, but average clearance times have now reduced to about 23 working days. I accept that that is still too high and that the target is 18 days. As staff become more experienced I am confident that we shall soon be hitting that target.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether anyone outside his department will be entrusted with the task of simplifying the form? If it is left to the department is it not likely that a defensive feeling about the need to make itself safe will prevent the production of a form which people can use and understand?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the new form that I mentioned is being widely consulted upon. I should not like to give my noble friend the name of any particular organisation which we are consulting. I assure him however that the form will be looked at by people outside the department before it is printed.

Lord Banks

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that those who are entitled to family credit and do not get it suffer doubly through the fact that child benefit is not being uprated? Will the noble Lord agree that the best means of ensuring that all receive their dues is an index-linked universal benefit offset by the operation of the tax system on the remaining taxable income?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I agree with the first point that the noble Lord, Lord Banks, has made; namely, that if people are eligible for family credit the freeze in child benefit will not be compensated in the case of those who do not claim. That is why we have made it our policy to increase the rates of family credit very generously. For example, in a local job centre near my home an experienced hair stylist was advertised for at gross weekly pay of £78.80. For a family with two children aged between 11 and 15 the payment would be £39.63 in family credit if they applied today with an extra £6.83 after the uprating in April.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, in view of the figures the Minister has given could he not try to make an estimate of the achievement of the 60 per cent. take-up target? Is it not a fact that means tested benefits seldom achieve their targets? In this case is it not made much worse by the disgraceful decision to freeze child benefit? If we had a decent level of child benefit payment would this not be much better than the ill-conceived scheme of family credit?

Lord Skelmersdale

No, my Lords, I do not think so. If one's objective it to target money to poorer families it is of no benefit to increase child benefit. We have uprated family credit by the Rossi index of 4.7 per cent., adding 45p, which would have been the increase in child benefit, and then adding an extra 50p to channel extra help to poorer families.