HL Deb 20 June 1988 vol 498 cc492-3

2.39 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the level of child benefit has yet been reviewed for 1988 and, if so, with what result.

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

My Lords, no decision has yet been made on the level of child benefit in the 1988 public expenditure round. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services will announce his decision on uprating of social security benefits in the autumn, as usual.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, does the Minister recall that during the last stages of the Social Security Bill, which was recently before this Houses, an amendment was moved which required the Government to review the level of child benefit in April of each year? Has there not therefore been sufficient time for that review to take place?

Further, will the Minister be good enough to comment on references which have appeared in the press about the possibility that the Government may be considering targeting child benefit, in view of the commitment of all sides of the House that that should be a non-targeted benefit?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, Section 5 of the Social Security Act 1988, which is the one to which the noble Baroness referred, sits squarely within existing law. Therefore no practical purpose would be served by bringing the section into effect. That being so, the Government have no plans for laying a commencement order on Section 5 of the Act.

As regards the recent front-page story which appeared in the London Evening Standard, I am of course aware of this and, indeed, I have read the article. However, I can reassure the House that we have no plans to introduce any of the changes outlined in the article.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, perhaps the Minister can explain, in words which I can understand, why the Government do not intend to carry through the decision taken in this House, which was not reversed in another place?

Lord Skelmersdale

Yes, my Lords, I can. The explanation is that there is already an obligation under Section 63 of the 1986 Act to review the level of child benefit each year, but not at any one specific date. In practice it is obviously sensible to conduct the review at the same time as the review of other benefits in the autumn. A review in April would be unhelpful as there would be a full year before the next uprating would take effect.

Further, to have two such reviews would be extremely costly. The last review in conjunction with the public expenditure round last year, and the changes associated with it, cost 2,300 man years in local offices. The net cost of that amounted to £23 million. Although I accept that the work would not exactly be duplicated, there would nonetheless he a considerable cost incurred which I do not think would be to anyone's benefit.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, no; it would not be duplicated. Is the Minister therefore saying that it is simply not convenient to carry out the legal obligation which has been written into the Act?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, it is more than not convenient; it is not logical, because child benefit affects other social security benefits. If we change one, we must change the others.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, what kind of situation are we in if we decide whether or not it is convenient to carry out the law of the land? I simply do not understand.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I suspect that the noble Lord understands the point full well. I remind him that the laying of the commencement order is a matter for the Government. It always has been, and I suspect that it always will be.