§ 3.8 p.m.
§ Lord Denham
My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Social Security Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament, for the purposes of the Bill.
§ Read a third time.
§ Clause 10 [Extension to personal pensions of occupational pension provisions relating to the abatement of unemployment benefit and the meaning of "earnings"]:
§ Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 1:
Page 9, line 35, at end insert—
("( ) Regulations shall provide that if a person is deemed not to be actively seeking work he shall be given written notice of not less than three weeks, by a duly authorised person, before his benefit is withdrawn.").
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, my amendment concerns the withdrawal of benefit. It provides for those suffering this genuinely severe penalty to be given three weeks' notice that it is to take place. The penalty can cause a good deal of disclocation in the lives of those concerned. It is a great deal easier to handle if, as with loss of a job or other benefit, some time is given to adjust one's affairs.
§ I appreciate that the withdrawal of benefit does not necessarily lead to complete destitution. The Minister has rightly drawn attention to the existence of hardship payments which will be made, he said, if appropriate. However, the record on the making of hardship payments is, if I may so put it, patchy. Severe hardship has sometimes been perceptible and sometimes, in what one might have thought to be equally well-displayed circumstances, not perceptible to those concerned to adjudicate on it. Obtaining these payments is also something which takes time, causes anxiety and is liable to increase 574 that regularly recurring tendency to slight paranoia which may result from repeated dealings with the social security system.
§ I believe that there is a vital need here for time and there is also a legal point of some substance. As my noble friend Lady Seear pointed out, this is a case where it looks as if the penalty may be coming before the judgment. It seems to be the wrong way round. My noble friend compared it to the treatment of a parking offence. There may be something in that, because it seems to me that there is a risk that those who fall foul of the social security system may be turned into a sort of "Flying Dutchman" of the system, in effect perpetually moving on and disappearing into the rapidly growing and rather perturbing underclass which the system is at present tending to produce. I should have thought that it might be in the Government's interest to try to avoid that and, if they did that, it might in the end perhaps save them a certain amount of money. I beg to move.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Skelmersdale)
My Lords, the noble Earl put down, with others, a very similar amendment at Committee stage. Evidently I failed then to explain why the Government believe that this amendment is unnecessary. I share the noble Earl's concern that claimants should not suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves without benefit. We have ensured that this will not happen, and I hope I can reassure the House. The safeguard is in the way in which the employment service and the independent adjudicating officers will operate the new condition. The process we have agreed on has been outlined a number of times, both by myself and in another place.
When someone first becomes unemployed and goes along to the unemployment benefit office, he will be interviewed by the new client adviser. This is an executive officer who will be specially trained for the task. The adviser will, among other things, discuss what kind of job the individual is looking for. If a claim for benefit is made, the adviser will issue general advice, in leaflet form, about how to seek work actively. He will in addition discuss with the claimant the ways in which it would be sensible for him to look for the particular job he wants and what he might need to do to show that he is seeking work actively.
If, subsequently, employment service staff wonder whether the claimant is doing sufficient to satisfy the new condition, a further interview will be held. Except where the claimant expressly states that he has made no effort at all to seek employment and has no intention of looking for work, benefit will not be withheld at this stage. At this further interview, additional advice on what steps to take will be given if necessary. The interviewing officer will confirm this advice in writing and remind the claimant of the suggestions made. The letter will also contain a reminder that the claimant has to seek work actively in order to qualify for benefit. Payment due (normally for the previous two weeks) will be authorised as normal.
575 In summary, therefore, a claimant will be made well aware at the outset of his claim of what he needs to do. He will, if necessary, also be reminded subsequently.
At this stage, as I say, benefit will continue. If, even after all this advice and the reminder about the conditions for benefit, a claimant does not take such steps as are reasonable in his case to seek work, the independent adjudication officer must be asked for a decision. But this will not happen until at least a further two weeks have elapsed since the second detailed interview and reminder to the claimant. By now there will be a clear doubt about the claimant's entitlement. It would obviously not be right to continue benefit; it would stop.
I believe that it would be helpful to remind the noble Earl that, where a loss of benefit causes hardship, there are already arrangements for claiming income support. In such circumstances, full payment is made to the claimant's family, although the claimant himself normally suffers a 40 per cent. deduction from his personal allowance. Consequently, no one should be left without any form of provision, which is surely the worry of the noble Earl. Indeed, in those circumstances I should also have been concerned.
I hope that the noble Earl can now see that this amendment, despite the good intentions which are typical of the noble Earl's concern, is quite unnecessary. We have taken care to devise arrangements which will give claimants ample knowledge of what is expected of them and will ensure that normal benefit does not stop without good opportunity for them to meet the new test. I hope that the noble Earl is reassured.
§ 3.15 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very detailed and careful reply. I sometimes wonder whether, in the Government's eyes, amendments put before the House divide into two categories: the unnecessary and the wrecking. I am well aware that this is not a wrecking amendment so I am not surprised to find it placed in the other category.
I am aware of the safeguards so carefully outlined by the Minister. He has succeeded in persuading me that they exist but has not entirely succeeded in persuading me that they are sufficient. It seems to me that we have here a rather uncomfortable mixture of a counselling and judicial system. Withdrawal of benefit does happen from time to time in cases where, on appeal, it is found to be unjustified. I accept that normally a great deal of care is taken by the staff concerned. However, I should not be inclined to endow them with papal infallibility. I still believe, granted that these safeguards exist and granted the point stressed by the Minister, that the family will not be left in total destitution. Nevertheless, the whole measure might work in a more efficient and humane manner if there were a little time allowed for adjustment.
This is not a point which I feel I must press to a Division, however. I beg leave to withdraw my 576 amendment in the hope that the Minister will continue to think about the problem.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 11 [Unemployment benefit: requirement to seek employment actively]:
§ Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 2:
Page 10, line 45, at end insert—
("( ) In regulation 12(1)(c) of the Social Security (Unemployment, Sickness and Invalidity Benefit) Regulations 1983, for "twenty-four hours" substitute "fourteen days".").
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, this amendment deals with the provision of child care under the availability for work rules. The present situation, as outlined by the Minister on Second Reading, involves a situation in which a parent offered work is supposed to have child care available within 24 hours; the theory of that being that the child care should be available before the job is offered.
§ My concern on this point is that I am simply not convinced that that is practical. I do not think that you can arrange child care for a job before knowing where the job is, what hours it entails and how much the job will pay. For example, let us suppose that I live in Hendon, I arrange child care in Colindale and I am offered work in Kensington. If I have to take my child to Colindale and then go to Kensington, I shall very likely end up being late for work. It is even possible that the nursery concerned may not open until an hour which is too late for me to arrive at work.
§ Of course, not all work takes place at exactly the same time. For example, let us suppose that I was working on the London Underground. It is possible that that might involve hours quite incompatible with the prearranged hours of a nursery.
§ Also, I believe that it is worth remembering that, when one is trying to arrange child care, one is not looking for a left luggage office. One is looking for the best arrangements possible. Of course, in practice, the best arrangements possible inevitably mean the best arrangements that one can afford. Therefore, I do not see how it is possible to go into the market to look for child care without knowing how much money one will have to pay for it.
§ When the Minister has dealt with this before, he has given me two different answers. I am rather perplexed as to how to reconcile them with each other. First, he said that this was a commonsense easement of the availability for work rules. I am grateful to him for that comment. On the other hand, he also said—and here I find him slightly more difficult to follow—that this proposal broke the link with benefit on the basis of unemployment. That, I confess, I simply did not understand. I supposed, no doubt in my innocence, that you were unemployed until you were employed and took up work, when offered it, at the first possible moment. I did not see any reason to suppose that I was proposing to break the link between benefit and unemployment by assuming that you remained unemployed until you actually started doing a job. If the Minister will accept the principle that child care cannot be arranged until you know what you have to arrange 577 it for, I should not have thought that two weeks was an excessively long time in which to arrange it. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Seear
My Lords, I strongly support this amendment. Surely it is not asking too much that adequate time should be allowed to provide child care. As my noble friend made clear in his graphic phrase, it is not looking for a left luggage office in which to dump your child but finding the most suitable place in which to leave the child and be happy with the arrangement. I should add that if you make arrangements which are unsatisfactory you will shortly be losing the job. It is therefore not a good idea to encourage women who are going to work to make child care arrangements which they do not regard as entirely satisfactory. It will not benefit the woman, the child or the employer.
Is it so difficult a concession for the Government to allow a longer period of time for women to be satisfied that they have the sort of child care arrangements that can be trusted? Only a relatively small number of people will be affected. It cannot be used as a precedent, because there is nothing like providing child care in any other circumstances. The cost would be very little but it would make a great deal of difference to the efficient working of the system and in getting women back into employment.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, clearly I shall have to have another go. Regulation 12(1)(c) of the Unemployment, Sickness and Invalidity Benefit Regulations serves to help people claiming unemployment benefit to declare that they are available for work. It might help the noble Earl to reconcile my two, apparently to him, contradictory statements at a previous stage if I say that unemployment benefit is not the benefit for people who have substantial commitments in caring for someone or in providing any other kind of service. It is for people who, while unemployed, are filling in their time usefully but whose prime aim is to get back to work as quickly as possible.
The amendment seeks to change a current easement in the availability for work rules. This easement gives unemployed people who are providing a service while looking for a job a short period of grace in order to arrange their affairs and still be regarded as available for work. Someone providing a service—perhaps undertaking some voluntary work or looking after a child—can be deemed to satisfy the availability for work condition if it would not be reasonable for him to make himself available to take up a job or attend an interview without 24 hours' notice.
This provision, as the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, will recognise, makes sense. It provides a degree of useful flexibility for the claimants involved. However, we must not forget that availability for work for the remainder of unemployed claimants means having to be able to take up work or attend an interview at once. To do as the amendment suggests and extend the period of grace for some people from 24 hours to a complete fortnight is surely not fair on other claimants; nor is it compatible with 578 the fundamental requirement for unemployment benefit that it should be paid only to someone who holds himself ready to take up any job offer when it arises.
While a modest easement of this requirement in the circumstances I have described is sensible, exemption for 14 days would overturn the basis for unemployment benefit. People would be able to receive it on the basis of being available for work some two weeks ahead. This is not a concept with which noble Lords would expect me to agree. It would not be right to continue to pay unemployment benefit to someone whose caring responsibilities or other commitments in providing a service mean that he misses out on a job opportunity. For someone with caring responsibilities, income support provides a source of financial support. In appropriate cases it can continue right until alternative arrangements can be made and work is taken up.
If a claimant does not have to be available for work in the same way as other claimants, and if that different condition continues for a considerable period, we are effectively creating a new benefit. The person who receives benefit for two weeks without needing to be available or to look for work is effectively being granted benefit to support another activity—in this particular case, child care.
I am satisfied that it is important to retain the current 24 hours' provision. This is consistent with the aims and principles of unemployment benefit and a reasonable way of dealing with the particular group of claimants. A 14 days' period of grace would go against the whole purpose of unemployment benefit, which is to get people back to work as quickly as possible.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I confess to being somewhat puzzled by that reply. I take the point that those who are receiving unemployment benefit must be available for work, but the Minister appears to be defining "available for work" in such a way that no single parent can possibly be available for work. The Minister knows perfectly well that, the Secretary of State is much concerned about the cost of single parents to the social security system. If single parents cannot be regarded as available for work, I cannot see how the Secretary of State can bring that cost down.
The Minster said that, if this amendment is carried, people would be receiving benefit as available for work while engaged in another activity. However, every single parent should be engaged in another activity, and if not I should like to know why not. We cannot have a situation in which the law is defined in such a way that single parents cannot be available for work. The Secretary of State, both metaphorically and literally, would pay for that very heavily indeed. Since it is a great concern of the Government that single parents should be able to go back into employment if they wish, to pile Pelion on Ossa, I believe that the Minister is contradicting government policy. I commend the amendment.
§ 3.27 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 2) shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 90; Not-Contents, 114.580
|DIVISION NO. 1|
|Ailesbury, M.||Jay, L.|
|Airedale, L.||Jeger, B.|
|Amherst, E.||Jenkins of Putney, L.|
|Ardwick, L.||John-Mackie, L.|
|Aylestone, L.||Kilmarnock, L.|
|Beaumont of Whitley, L.||Leatherland, L.|
|Blackstone, B.||Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.|
|Bonham-Carter, L.||Lloyd of Kilgerran, L.|
|Boston of Faversham, L.||Lockwood, B.|
|Bottomley, L.||Longford, E.|
|Briginshaw, L.||Lovell-Davis, L.|
|Broadbridge, L.||Macaulay of Bragar, L.|
|Bruce of Donington, L.||McNair, L.|
|Burton of Coventry, B.||Masham of Ilton, B.|
|Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L||Mayhew, L.|
|Milner of Leeds, L.|
|Carter, L.||Molloy, L.|
|Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.||Mulley, L.|
|Cocks of Hartcliffe, L.||Nicol, B.|
|Darcy (de Knayth), B.||Ogmore, L.|
|David, B.||Peston, L.|
|Davies of Penrhys, L.||Phillips, B.|
|Dean of Beswick, L.||Pitt of Hampstead, L.|
|Dormand of Easington, L.||Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.|
|Elwyn-Jones, L.||Reilly, L.|
|Ennals, L.||Ritchie of Dundee, L.|
|Ewart-Biggs, B.||Rochester, L.|
|Ezra, L.||Russell, E. [Teller.]|
|Falkland, V.||Sainsbury, L.|
|Fitt, L.||Saint Brides, L.|
|Foot, L.||Seear, B.|
|Gallacher, L.||Serota, B.|
|Galpern, L.||Shackleton, L.|
|Graham of Edmonton, L. [Teller.]||Stallard, L.|
|Grey, E.||Stoddart of Swindon, L.|
|Halsbury, E.||Strabolgi, L.|
|Hampton, L.||Taylor of Blackburn, L.|
|Hanworth, V.||Taylor of Mansfield, L.|
|Harris of Greenwich, L.||Tordoff, L.|
|Hatch of Lusby, L.||Turner of Camden, B.|
|Henderson of Brompton, L.||Underhill, L.|
|Hirshfield, L.||Wallace of Coslany, L.|
|Hooson, L.||White, B.|
|Hunt, L.||Williams of Elvel, L.|
|Irving of Dartford, L.|
|Alexander of Tunis, E.||Butterworth, L.|
|Alexander of Weedon, L.||Caithness, E.|
|Allenby of Megiddo, V.||Campbell of Croy, L.|
|Allerton, L.||Carnegy of Lour, B.|
|Alport, L.||Carnock, L.|
|Ampthill, L.||Chelmer, L.|
|Arran, E.||Cholmondeley, M.|
|Atholl, D.||Cockfield, L.|
|Auckand, L.||Constantine of Stanmore, L.|
|Belhaven and Stenton, L.||Cox, B.|
|Beloff, L.||Crawshaw, L.|
|Belstead, L.||Cullen of Ashbourne, L.|
|Bessborough, E.||Dacre of Glanton, L.|
|Blatch, B.||Davidson, V. [Teller.]|
|Blyth, L.||De Freyne, L.|
|Borthwick, L.||Denham, L.|
|Boyd-Carpenter, L.||Dundee, E.|
|Brabazon of Tara, L.||Eden of Winton, L.|
|Braye, B.||Effingham, E.|
|Brougham and Vaux, L.||Ellenborough, L.|
|Erroll of Hale, L.||Murton of Lindisfarne, L.|
|Fanshawe of Richmond, L.||Newall, L.|
|Ferrers, E.||Norfolk, D.|
|Fraser of Carmyllie, L.||Nugent of Guildford, L.|
|Fraser of Kilmorack, L.||Orkney, E.|
|Gainford, L.||Pender, L.|
|Gridley, L.||Platt of Writtle, B.|
|Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L.||Porritt, L.|
|Harmar-Nicholls, L.||Quinton, L.|
|Hayter, L.||Rankeillour, L.|
|Henley, L.||Reay, L.|
|Hesketh, L.||Rodney, L.|
|Hives, L.||St. John of Fawsley, L.|
|Holderness, L.||Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.|
|Home of the Hirsel, L.||Sanderson of Bowden, L.|
|Hood, V.||Savile, L.|
|Hooper, B.||Sharples, B.|
|Johnston of Rockport, L.||Skelmersdale, L.|
|Joseph, L.||Slim, V.|
|Kaberry of Adel, L.||Strange, B.|
|Knutsford, V.||Strathcarron, L.|
|Lindsey and Abingdon, E.||Strathclyde, L.|
|Long, V. [Teller.]||Strathspey, L.|
|Lyell, L.||Swinton, E.|
|McAlpine of Moffat, L.||Terrington, L.|
|Mackay of Clashfern, L.||Teviot, L.|
|Macleod of Borve, B.||Thomas of Gwydir, L.|
|Marley, L.||Thorneycroft, L.|
|Merrivale, L.||Trafford, L.|
|Mersey, V.||Trumpington, B.|
|Middleton, L.||Vaux of Harrowden, L.|
|Milverton, L.||Westbury, L.|
|Monteagle of Brandon, L.||Windlesham, L.|
|Morris, L.||Wolfson, L.|
|Mottistone, L.||Wynford, L.|
|Mowbray and Stourton, L.||Young of Graffham, L.|
§ Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
§ 3.35 p.m.
Lord Henderson of Brompton moved Amendment No. 3:
After Clause 14, insert the following new clause:
§ ("Applicable accounts
§ .—(1) In paragraph 1 of Part 1 of Schedule 2 to the Income Support (General) Regulations 1987, after the words "applicable amounts and polygamous marriages" there shall be inserted the words "except that, for this purpose, any person aged less than 25 to whom any paragraph in Part 11 of the Schedule 1A applies or would apply if he were aged 16 and had not reached the relevant date determined under regulation 13A(3)(b) shall be treated as if he were aged 25."
§ (2) In paragraph 1 of Part 1 of Schedule 2 to the Housing Benefit (General) Regulations 1987, after the words "17(a) and (b)" there shall be inserted the words "except that, for this purpose, any person aged less than 25 to whom paragraph in Part 11 of Schedule 1A to the Income Support (General) Regulations 1987 applies, or would apply if he were aged 16, claiming income support and had not reached the relevant date determined under regulation 13A(3)(b) of those regulations, shall be treated as he were aged 25.").
The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 3 is grouped with Amendment No. 4. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that the last line of Amendment No. 3 contains a misprint. The end of the sentence reads,
as he were aged 15".
It should read,
as if he were aged 25".
That is a quite material difference of 10 years. I hasten to say that the error is not my fault. Apart from the misprint, the amendment is the same as
that which I moved in Committee. Its aim is to ensure that young people under the age of 18 who are unable to live at home for one reason or another—they may be estranged from their parents—shall have income support until they secure a YTS place or a job; and also that all 16 and 17 year-olds shall be in receipt of income support up to the amount received by those who are 25 years of age.
§ I do not wish to elaborate on the second limb because we have talked about it at great length, except to say this in encapsulated form. If you are 16 or 17 it costs at least as much to eat as when you are 25. The experience of some of us in families is that our 16 and 17 year-olds eat a good deal more than grown-ups. That is an important point which I shall leave aside.
I much appreciated some of what the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said in his reply of 29th June (Official Report, col. 90) that he, and I hope the Government, have some sympathy with the amendment. But he fears that,
a perverse incentive for some young people to leave home needlessly",
would be provided by the amendment if it was carried into the Bill. I wonder whether that is not a groundless fear. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said, is it to be seriously considered that young people will leave home for the privilege of living on benefit of £30 a week? There cannot be many, if any, who would fit into that category. I suggest that that is an exaggerated fear held by the Government.
§ The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, also said that those who leave YTS places without finding a job are considered for severe hardship provision. I am very glad that that is the case. Even if they are considered for severe hardship provision and it is granted, it is only for a limited period. I think that that is right: so that is not the complete answer. I am going through what the Minister said to us in Committee and I am giving him credit for having thought about these matters carefully.
§ He said of the 10,000 or so decisions up to 23rd June—I imagine that is on the severe hardship provision—65 per cent. of those who applied were successful. I am glad for those who formed that percentage of applicants, but I must ask about the remaining unsuccessful 35 per cent. who are without a home and without a YTS placement or a job. Are they to get nothing? Are they to get no benefit—not even severe hardship provision? That I find unacceptable.
§ As the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, asked in Committee, will the Minister please see that guidelines are issued so that young people in this parlous state can be more sympathetically treated? It is far better for them, and also better ultimately for the taxpayer, that they should be treated with generosity rather than stinginess at such a vulnerable period of their lives.
§ I look at these matters partly because I am interested in the penal system. I know that the Home Secretary and the Minister of State at the Home Office are as anxious as noble Lords to reduce the 582 number of those held in custody. One of the many things we can do to stop this over-use of custody is to treat with sympathy and concern young people who are homeless when they leave school, and are without YTS place or job, and not leave them on the streets with no money, sleeping rough, facing the alternatives of going into male or female prostitution or stealing and getting into the criminal system in that way.
§ That is why so many of us on all sides of the House are anxious about this group. It has nothing to do with politics. This is a vulnerable stage in people's lives when they need sympathetic treatment. I ask the noble Lord to consider the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, that the guidelines should be sufficiently flexible so that people in this parlous state can be treated with due sympathy.
I was alarmed to read an article in yesterday's Observer under the heading:
Jobless facing 'try harder' rule".
I looked in vain for the flexible approach for which the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, and noble Lords on all sides of the House had asked. I beg the Minister to offer some hope that the Government will realise the importance of an understanding and sympathetic approach to this age group. In Committee the amendment was withdrawn. In my case it was withdrawn certainly in the hope that the Secretary of State would consider the special problems of these young people and bring forward at a later date a proposal to meet the concerns expressed from all sides of the Chamber.
§ In the interval between Committee and Third Reading I have had no communication from the noble Lord, and so I have had no alternative but to bring the amendment forward again, hope that the noble Lord will have something constructive to say. I do not really wish to press the amendment to a Division, but unless he can meet our anxieties I may have to seek to divide the House. I beg to move.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Faithfull
My Lords, Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 are grouped together. The noble Lord, Lord Henderson, moved Amendment No. 3. I shall, if I may, speak to Amendment No. 4. Although the amendments are different they are inter-related. Both concern two groups of young people aged 16 to 18 years.
The first group are those who have been in the care of a local authority social services department. This usually means that as children they were removed from their parents by court order. The second group are those who leave home for an understandable reason—for instance, a girl whose stepfather seeks to interfere with her, or a boy whose mother's common law husband wants the boy out of the house. These young people are what we call the estranged children. It is essential, as the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, said, that these groups are helped to find accommodation and training or a place on a YTS scheme. It is essential that there is the wherewithal and the time to get them settled.
Amendment No. 3 deals with the amount of money that young people can draw. Amendment 583 No. 4 deals much more with the length of time for which they can draw the money. At the moment young people leaving school in the summer can draw family credit or child benefit until Christmas. Without helping resources, these young people have no address and no decent clothes. Not unnaturally, an employer will not take them on. Yet without a job they cannot obtain accommodation. It is a chicken and egg situation. The two amendments seek to make it possible for young people to settle and to do an effective job of work. That is in their interests and in the interests of the country.
I support the Government's policy of encouraging young people to stay at home or with relatives and to work and train and outwardly to be self-supporting. I do not propose to seek the opinion of the House on my amendment. I have to confess that I hope the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, will feel able to withdraw his amendment. I agree with both amendments, but, strategically, I believe that we should now pursue another path to support not only the young people cited in the amendments but all young homeless people.
I have changed my mind on this matter due to radio reports yesterday and the reports in the press concerning the Government's policies towards young homeless people. I have a copy of yesterday's Observer. The press reports led me to suppose that the Government would oppose the two amendments. I wish to consider the country's policy not only towards those referred to in the amendments, but towards all homeless young. They include the two groups in respect of whom the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, has moved his amendment and about whom my amendment has been tabled.
Accordingly, having read the reports in the press and listened to the radio, I was grateful to my noble friend the Minister with whom I had discussions this morning. He has agreed that I should make arrangements for interested representatives from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to meet at the Department of Social Security. I hope that at such a meeting representatives from the Department of Employment can be present. My noble friend Lord Caithness has already met some of the organisations concerned with housing. In this way, Ministers and civil servants would learn of the problems of the drifting young homeless whom we are discussing.
I know that social security policy is monitored by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State through the local social security offices. But I believe that there needs to be more dialogue and interchange of views among Ministers, civil servants and those working at the grass roots of a problem. We employed that dialogue during the passage of the Children Bill. I believe that as a result there was a better understanding on both sides concerning areas of disagreement. We were especially grateful to the Ministry of Health for its co-operation.
I recognise that the problem which the two amendments seek to solve will not be dealt with immediately. But, at least, using my strategy the door will not be closed. Obviously, my noble friend the Minister cannot give positive assurances as to 584 the outcome of such meetings. But I suggest that such meetings would enable people to express the problems and also to learn of the Government's difficulties.
As I said at an earlier stage of the Bill, we have all received representations from the citizens advice bureaux; from 75 voluntary organisations under the umbrella of the National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations; from the National Children's Bureau; the Scottish Council for the Single Homeless; the Scottish Association of Children's Panels; and the Simon Community (Northern Ireland) in Belfast. The views of those organisations should surely be heard and not disregarded.
The problem of the drifting, young homeless is a serious one. Such young people are vulnerable to drugs, drink and prostitution—although, gallantly, many do not succumb to those temptations. I hope that your Lordships will understand why I do not support the amendments at present. They deal only with a sector of the problem of homelessness. The strategy of meeting all those organisations, to hear what are the wider problems for all homeless young people, would be beneficial to the young people themselves and to the country, and would give civil servants, Ministers and those working with young people the opportunity to meet.
It is for that reason—although I originally put my name to these amendments—and in the light of the events which took place over the weekend that I have changed my mind.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, no one would doubt the sincerity of the feelings of the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, for these young people. However, I should like to point out that this matter has been going on for a long time, and we first raised it during the passage of the Children Bill last autumn. I refer to the problem of children leaving care with nowhere to go, together with the problem of certain other groups which are referred to in the noble Baroness's amendment.
After reading these newspaper articles in the Observer and The Sunday Times yesterday, headed—just in case some noble Lords have not seen them—in the Observer, "Jobless facing 'try harder' rule" and in The Sunday Times, "Homeless face tougher rules on benefit claims", I find it difficult to take the fact that the Government have apparently drawn up regulations which will make it even harder for the homeless. Therefore, when the Minister comes to reply, we shall want to know whether those regulations have been drawn up and what they say. That will really show what the Government mean.
The concept of the meeting is most important and would be very good. However, why have the Government not offered that opportunity before, if they are anxious about the problem? As I said, the problem has been going on for months and months. Moreover, when we were discussing the Children Bill the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said that this was a "social security matter". Well, here we have a Social Security Bill. Therefore a great deal depends upon what the Minister says when he replies.
585 The Minister was good enough to write to me about the meeting. His letter states that his wind-up speech will contain the promises which I demanded:namely, continued monitoring of the situation, and a meeting on demand when the situation is clearer".I do not think that that is really quite satifactory. I gathered from the noble Baroness this morning that a meeting was imminent, and not to be held only when the situation was clearer. The monitoring, as we have been told, has been going on for some time. Therefore that is nothing new.
My position is really the same as that of the noble Lord, Lord Henderson. Unless we have a very strong move on the Government's side to deal with the problem I shall be inclined not to withdraw the amendment, as the noble Baroness has indicted she will do.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I listened very carefully to the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. I was much impressed by what she said but at present I retain an open mind. The situation is a serious one. The estimates we are now given show that there are about 50,000 homeless teenagers in London. The number is estimated to have risen by as much as 35 per cent. since last April. Moreover, for the whole country a probable estimate seems to be in the region of 150,000 homeless teenagers.
One may ask, as did my noble friend Lady Seear as regards the 100,000 people who are supposed to be eligible for the mobility allowance: where are they? Those noble Lords who travel about in the centre of London will probably know the answer to that question. A great many of those young people are begging. After I last raised in this House the problem of teenage begging, I was touched by a teenage beggar before I had reached the inside of Westminster tube station. It is a rapidly growing problem, as is teenage prostitution. It has been estimated by Centrepoint, which is probably as closely in touch with the problem as any organisation, that of those known to that centre 20 per cent. of both sexes have been approached to sell sex.
What are those people supposed to do? Before the age of 18 they are supposed to have income support of £20.80 or, for a 12 to 16 week period —the child benefit extension period —the sum of £27.40. If they are over 18 and under 24, they are entitled to £27.40. Your Lordships may consider the possibility that it is extremely difficult to live on those amounts in London. Therefore, if people are asked to do so, they will inevitably turn to begging, prostitution or crime. Regrettably, the view that it is not a sin for the destitute to steal from the rich to support themselves is not confined to St. Thomas Aquinas.
Why are we in this position? In the other place, the Prime Minister said on 7th June last year:those young people already have a home to live in, belonging to their parents … There is a number of young people who choose voluntarily to leave home; I do not think that we can be expected, no matter how many there are, to provide units for them".—[Official Report, Commons, 7/6/88; cols 704–5.]That is why we have had the change in the benefit system which has caused the situation about which 586 we are now complaining. It was thought that the benefit system, as Ministers put it, provided a perverse incentive to leave home.
This notion of a perverse incentive involves a very strange notion of human motives. I do not know how many people are prepared to break up a happy family life and endure the considerable hardships of being a teenager on the run, in order to live the life of Riley on £30 a week. I cannot help thinking of the words of John Stuart Mill. He said:We will not do such persons the injury of supposing that their conception of human nature is drawn from their own consciousness".Moreover, the notion is based on an out-of-date picture of teenage fashion. As a university teacher, I have occasion to listen to young people quite frequently. It strikes me very strongly that the '60s fashion of breaking away from parents has been dead for a pretty long time. It is now very much in fashion not only to feel affection for parents but also when you do, to admit it.
I shall not follow the noble Baroness any further into discussing how far it is a good thing that teenagers should live at home. I say only that if the Prime Minister succeeds in making them all live at home she will be the first person to succeed in that since Moses began the exodus.
The amendments are not concerned with joining issue with the Prime Minister on that point. They are concerned with much more limited objectives. They are concerned with those who cannot find a YTS place and cannot live at home; those who have been in care and therefore have no home to go to: and those who leave home because of abuse or cruelty. It is striking what proportion of the teenage homeless those categories cover. Some 40 per cent. of teenage homeless were formerly in care, and some 38 per cent. have been abused or compulsorily thrown out by their parents. They are people who have no home to go to. It is irrelevant whether we do, or do not, think that teenagers should live at home. They cannot, unless they have a home.
The theory is that those people should all find a YTS place. In some cases, that is easier said than done. In Glasgow in February 1989, there were 1,484 fewer jobs and YTS places together than there were young people registered for work. I do not know what those 1,484 people are supposed to do.
In a case of child abuse it is not necessarily a good thing to push the child into going back home. Those who saw last week the admirable Thames Television play "Somewhere to Run" will appreciate the problem that arises where a teenager who has been abused leaves home. If the father knows where she is, he may follow her and continue what he is doing. There have been cases of teenagers having to leave YTS places because that was happening to them.
I take the point made in Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, that allegations of child abuse are not always true. That is important. But if a child should wrongly make an allegation of child abuse against his or her parent, that is still evidence of something pretty badly wrong in the family. It is asking parents for something approaching sainthood to ask them to take back the 587 child in that situation as if nothing had happened and before any of the underlying problems have been sorted out.
I shall quote briefly two cases. One girl was thrown out by her mother. She spent two months living with one blanket in a squat. She finally met a generous YTS manager who cut a corner and offered her a YTS allowance in lieu of a place which he did not have. She is now in full-time employment and living in her own flat. The other, a boy, left home because of assaults by alcoholic parents. He registered with YTS, found no place, spent three nights on the streets with no food or money, applied for emergency accommodation, was asked to pay in advance, and of course could not. He was not eligible for a crisis loan because he had no income support to pay for it, and he disappeared. If any of your Lordships should find your wallet or your handbag snatched on a dark night it might be wise to stop and wonder whether he just possibly might be the person who did it.
I take the point made by the noble Baroness about this week's newspaper reports. They might change one's mind but it is a question of in which way. I should like the Minister to deny, if possible, some of the points made in the report in yesterday's Sunday Times which I have showed to him in advance; in particular, the checking of teenage homeless. The article states:If young people are in dispute with their parents or guardians, or there is financial harassment, a local authority may ask for evidence of a court order or eviction order. When sexual or violent abuse is alleged, a medical certificate will be requested".Have those people not heard of Cleveland?
Urging me not to press the amendment, the noble Baroness said to me over the weekend that the first question to consider is the interests of the children. On that, we are at one. The question upon which I remain in suspense and upon which I shall listen to the Minister with a great deal of care is whether those chidlren can be significantly helped without a change of government.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, no one with any experience of social security administration would dispute for a moment that the two amendments deal with a real, and, in present circumstances, growing problem—the problem of homeless young people. Indeed, those of us who use Sloane Square underground station will be familiar with the sight most mornings of a young man who—I do not know whether he has been there all night—is making his home in a corner at the bottom of the stairs in conditions of great squalor and who appears not to be receiving—I hope that I am not being unfair—any help from the local authority's social welfare department. That is a real problem.
Another real problem is what your Lordships, at this stage of the Bill, should do about it. We are offered two alternative courses. The noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, has proposed an amendment upon which he says, if he does not receive satifaction, he will seek to divide your Lordships' House. The fate of that amendment I would not want to forecast; nor, if carried, would I want to forecast the likelihood of its acceptance 588 in another place. I rather doubt that it would be acceptable. My noble friend Lady Faithfull, who is not, shall I say, notorious for her timidity in pressing her point of view argues for a different approach—a meeting of all those concerned to try to find a way forward in dealing with the matter. There are two alternative courses before your Lordships.
I agree with my noble friend Lady Faithfull. If one wants progress, it is much more likely to be made as a result of full discussions with relevant Ministers. In that way there is always the possibility that in the new Session—if Ministers cannot give a satisfactory reply—one could come back to it. That is much more likely to produce results than the pressing of an amendment whose fate must be, at the very best, doubtful.
The only other comment I wish to make is one that seems relevant at this stage of the Bill. It has been said several times before, and rightly, that we deal with individual items in your Lordships' House without, in most cases, any clear knowledge of the financial consequences of the priorities concerned or of what other claims might be made. The noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, said that there would be some savings to the Exchequer if young people were kept out of criminal activities. That is plainly the fact and no one would be silly enough to dispute it. But the noble Lord did not advance, even tentatively, a figure for the total cost of his amendment.
Your Lordships may think that this is perhaps characteristic of someone like myself who has been involved in administration of this kind over the years. But it seems to me difficult to deal with an amendment, however attractive it may seem on the face of it, if one does not know even approximately what it will cost; and therefore what other good proposals may have to be restricted in order to find the funds to pay for it. Therefore, unless my noble friend the Minister can put a price tag on it, I am left in some doubt as to whether it would make much sense to press the amendment.
Having said that, I wish to urge on my noble friend that he should not dismiss what lies behind the amendment. There is a very real problem here. Whether we meet it by making the payments to the 16 and 17 year-olds, as the amendment proposes, or through discussions, as the noble Baroness proposes, is a matter on which opinions can legitimately differ. But that it should be dealt with is something, I believe, on which your Lordships should be all but unanimous.
I hope very much that when my noble friend comes to reply—from the manner in which he is shuffling his papers it looks as though that state of affairs is imminent—he will indicate first that the Government and the department understand the gravity of the matter; and secondly, that they have some ideas as to the best way of dealing with it.
§ Baroness Macleod of Borve
My Lords, I wish briefly to add a word or two because at infrequent times I try to help the people with whom we are dealing today. I agree with my noble friend Lady Faithfull in asking people of like mind—in other words all Members of your Lordships' House—to 589 give of their interest and experience in dealing with these people in real trouble in our society.
As my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter said, or at least I think inferred, we do not know at the moment the numbers of people with whom we are dealing who come into this category. Perhaps I might suggest to your Lordships that it might be worth waiting for a report that will soon be available. I am not a "waiter". I do not like waiting: the problem has been with us long enough. As I am sure noble Lords will know, the Salvation Army has been carrying out an in-depth study of these people for the last two years. It has been helped by one of the major universities in the country. Those of us in this field are now awaiting the report which I understand is likely to be with us at the end of this month or the beginning of August. I suggest that it would be enormously helpful to all of us not to make up our minds on a subject and on figures about which we know very little at this time.
I hesitate to postpone a decision of your Lordships any longer. On the other hand, I urge the House to wait until the report is with us. From the way in which the noble Baroness described the meetings so far the report will be available for those meetings. I would certainly wish to wait myself.
§ Baroness Phillips
My Lords, I wish to say how saddened I am that the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull—for whom I have great respect—has taken this very strange line at Third Reading. I have been a Member of this House for a long time; I find it unusual for someone to speak against their own amendment. Perhaps the point is unimportant. But to argue that the noble Baroness has had meetings with Ministers leads me to ask: where have the Ministers been until this stage of the Bill? We all know that it is the easiest thing in the world to call somebody in and have a chat. I would not wish to be totally cynical and say that they might offer her a seat on the Front Bench; I do not know. I can only say that out there are the young people whom the noble Baroness mentioned. I have worked with them; the noble Baroness has worked with them.
If we help one undeserving person yet we help a hundred deserving people, then surely the money is well spent. Why do we always come back to money when we are talking about something like this? Last week we debated the estimates on armaments. I do not remember anybody talking about money; maybe they did. But now when we talk about people in need, we also talk about money. Perhaps I may make this appeal to the Government—not the most popular Government at the moment, for various reasons. Do they want to look like the most hard-hearted Government as well?
We all know that this is the Third Reading. If the amendment is passed, all right, these discussions can still continue. They do not in any way militate against the Bill. But the amendment shows that we in the Lords—let us face it—are the ones who can look at things impartially. Perhaps I may plead with the Members on the Cross-Benches to come and vote with us on this. It is important. It is caring. For heaven's sake, it will not affect that number of 590 people. I read two articles in the Sunday newspapers. I am very concerned about what is happening in social security. I am particularly concerned that when we rise next week for the summer recess and there is nobody to challenge them, the Government will bring in some strange regulations. That is another issue which I am following up and watching very carefully. Let us show that we are a caring House and that we really want to help these young people, the number of whom will never be very large.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord Harmar-Nicholls
My Lords, that was a good Second Reading speech or a good eve-of-the-polls speech. However, I think we should look at the matter in the practical way in which my noble friend has looked at it. I felt that the noble 13aroness, Lady David, was a little grudging in the way in which she reacted to the efforts made by my noble friend to keep the matter alive.
As regards the subject being brought up on Third Reading, which the noble Baroness mentioned, I believe that it is an ideal thing to do. We have gone through all the stages of the Bill. All have done their best to have various points included in order to give effect to what they regard as the important provisions and decisions that have been made.
We are now on Third Reading. Either we can form a judgment that this is an amendment which will revolutionise all the other arguments and that we can completely alter one stage of the Bill by a vote now; or we can come to the conclusion which it looks as though my noble friend Lady Faithfull has reached. It is that having reached Third Reading and almost finished with the Bill so far as Parliament can deal with it we can keep alive the vital issues we think important so that when regulations and other decisions arising from the Bill are made we make a practical contribution to the good we want to do.
So my noble friend is using the Third Reading stage in a way which I think is admirable, constructive and likely to produce the worthwhile results which we would all desire. She referred several times to her strategy—and a jolly good strategy it is. She made it clear that she has had conversations with the department concerned. I gathered from the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady David, that she had received a letter along the same lines. Am I wrong on that?
§ Baroness David
My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord. I received a letter but I said that it did not give me quite the satisfaction that I had hoped it would.
§ Lord Harmar-Nicholls
My Lords, I agree with that. But the point I am making is that the conversations which my noble friend has had and the letter which the noble Baroness received show that the department is still looking for improvements, if it can get them, in the general administration of the provisions of the Bill when it is enacted. The comment I make is that the noble Baroness criticises the point being made at Third Reading, but I think this is an ideal time at which to make it.
591 I could not understand the remark about what money has to do with it. If the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, is not to do with money, I do not know what it is to do with. It has force only because it is to do with money. Earlier, it was said that in overcoming the problem so graphically described by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, even when those cases had been subject to a hardship investigation, 65 per cent. had good results or to a large extent the measures met the point which had caused the problem. Then the question was put: what about the other 35 per cent.? If this matter is approached impartially, it should strike noble Lords that if people are assessed by a properly set up committee or tribunal, the 35 per cent. who do not succeed in their appeal may well not succeed because they do not have a good case. Why should it automatically be accepted that 100 per cent. of the people who apply for these things have a watertight case and that they should succeed in their appeal? We all know the world we live in. My noble friend, the noble Baroness on the other side and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, have made it perfectly clear that they have an understanding of what goes on. I think we all do.
I have never lived anywhere but in the Midlands region and have spent a fair amount of time in London in the course of my parliamentary work. Of course we know what goes on, and of course we would like to see this problem got rid of, or at any rate minimised, if we can. But behind it all we know that we are seeing the break up of homes in a way that did not occur when we were youngsters. There are all kinds of reasons for that, but I suggest that one of the reasons is that when one is 16 or 17, having just finished the discipline of school and all the things that go with it, there is a psychological wish to be separate and go away. That is a normal wish for a young person, particularly an active and virile one.
I do not believe that by legislation or by benefit, be it money or anything else, we should do anything that would encourage the desire to leave home in those who would not leave home if these amendments and other such provisions were not carried. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, with all that he has told us of people who have to resort to prostitution or snatching old ladies' handbags, that I could also put on record incidents that I know of from having sat as a magistrate. I sat as a magistrate for a sufficient number of years to form some kind of a view on this matter. Whatever money one gives to that certain percentage of the 35 per cent. already referred to who are supposedly not being looked after, one will not prevent a certain number of them snatching old ladies' handbags. One will not prevent a certain number of them from going into prostitution, awful and horrible though that is. It is no good pretending in our speeches that all we have to do is pass an amendment such as this and those things will go away.
I wish to congratulate my noble friend on the efforts that she has made, which I gather will culminate in a meeting where more evidence will be brought to bear on the department to show where the provision can be of use. I gather from what 592 my noble friend has said that she will choose the members of the group who will meet the department, and that she will accompany them. Those of us who know my noble friend and the way she has battled in this House on the subject will appreciate that if she leads a deputation of experts to meet the department, she will see to it that all the worthwhile points are properly, fully and deeply made. In the belief that that will be the outcome of the visit, I think we should take the advice of my noble friend and allow the meeting to go ahead before committing ourselves in the form of an amendment which does not have all the available evidence to support it.
§ Baroness Seear
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, still talks as if many of these youngsters were people who had left home through natural exuberance and who wished to find their way to London rather like young Dick Whittingtons. However, we have figures which show that well over 70 per cent. of these young people have either been brought up in institutions and therefore do not have a home to go to or have been chucked out from their homes for reasons which are not of the jolly kind that he is suggesting here.
I do not think that the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, and the amendment should be presented to us as alternatives. I do not understand why we could not pass this amendment and still have the meeting, unless some kind of bargain has been struck that it should not occur. If such a bargain has been struck, it does not seem to me a very appropriate way of doing business. We could still pass this amendment and then have the meeting. I find it extremely odd that in a matter as serious as this—we are all agreed it is serious from every point of view: social, economic and others—there was not a meeting like this a long time ago.
This Bill has gone all through the House of Commons and we are now at Third Reading in this House. Is it not sensible for representatives of the department, experts in the field and the Government to meet on a matter of this kind? I find it very strange that they did not think of it until so late in the day.
§ Baroness Jeger
My Lords, I rise briefly to support the spirit of the amendments. I am sure we all share in that. We are all very anxious to hear what the Minister says, but before he replies I wish to give him notice of something that is worrying me in the hope that he can include it in his reply. He may remember the day before we rose for the Christmas Recess. That was a memorable and very distressing day because it was the day of the Lockerbie bombing. On that day we had to put our minds to the question of the homeless young people. I reminded the Minister that another Minister had received representatives of 32 organisations dealing with homeless youngsters. I have never heard the outcome of those discussions which took place last year. That makes me very cynical about the faith of the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull—I hope I may make that pun—in the usefulness of meetings with Ministers.
593 Ever since that meeting I have received repeated information from the organisations involved of growing strains on them and of increasing problems. I cannot see that since that pre-Christmas meeting there has been a jot of improvement anywhere. I agree very strongly with the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, that if these amendments are carried this afternoon they will not prevent another meeting being held. However, what I am worried about is that if we do not carry the amendments, there will be another useless meeting.
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, gave your Lordships the opportunity of returning to the substance of this amendment. I therefore in my response intend to address the points that noble Lords have all made but also to address the two amendments which are tabled on the Marshalled List. I wish to start by stating the position under the law as it stands at the moment, which is that while most 16 and 17 year-olds are not entitled to income support, we ensured that the two most vulnerable groups are. The first group comprises those who are, for instance, lone parents or young people who because of disability cannot work or take advantage of the guarantee of the offer of a YTS place.
The second group of vulnerable 16 and 17 year-olds who are eligible for income support includes those who are capable of work or training but who have no parent or cannot live at home. They may, for instance, be at risk of physical or sexual abuse, or there may indeed be other reasons. This group is entitled to income support for a short period known as the child benefit extension period.
No Minister at any time has ever claimed that the mammoth changes which were made in the 1986 Act were perfect in every respect when they came to be implemented in April 1988. The result of this is that when we introduced income support in April 1988 we undertook to monitor the effect of the new scheme.
The meeting that the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, has just mentioned was part of that new monitoring. She knows as well as I do what has flowed from these events as regards 16 and 17 year-olds. One result of our careful monitoring has been the improvements which came into effect only last week. They give extra help to 16 and 17 year-olds on income support who have to live independently. This group now receives the personal allowance normally appropriate to 18 to 24 year-olds; that is, £27.40, compared with £20.80. That is an increase of over 30 per cent. This money has only just started to flow.
We were persuaded throughout the monitoring of the 1986 changes that there was clear evidence that this increase was justified. However, this new clause goes even further and gives those 16 and 17 year-olds, and 18 to 24 year-olds in the same situation, the over-25s rate of allowance. What noble Lords should therefore ask themselves is: should such young people get the 18 to 24 year-olds rate of benefit, or should they get the rate for those aged 25 and over?
594 I believe there are a number of reasons why we should stay where we are in this regard, at least for the moment. First, there is an important difference between the under 25s and the over 25s which we should not overlook, and that is their earning capacity. Young people under 25 generally earn a great deal less than those over 25, and the personal allowances reflect that. I believe that is an important point and not one to be ignored.
The group which the amendment would affect now get the personal allowance of £27.40. Because they receive income support, they also get maximum housing benefit—100 per cent. of their rent and 80 per cent. of their rates or, as the case may be, community charge.
Underlying the debate this afternoon have been articles which appeared in the press over the weekend. I can say without equivocation that we have no plans whatsoever to withdraw housing benefit from the young homeless or any other group. Nothing arising from the present Bill or the regulations alters the position on housing benefit. If it does, and the House again does not trust my words, your Lordships will have the opportunity before very long to debate the regulations which accompany this Bill. That will be the time to find out whether or not you trust what I am saying. Of course I agree that staff should handle young homeless people sensitively. That is very important in social security offices; and DHSS staff have special training in this regard. However, I say again that we have no plans for tightening the conditions in respect of housing benefit.
I accept that, having paid their residual housing costs, young people are left with an amount that is not generous. However, I believe it is adequate. It is, as I have said, over 30 per cent. more than it was a fortnight ago. I do not want to reach the situation where we restore the perverse incentive that existed before April 1988 for young people to leave home because by doing so they could increase their benefit, net of housing costs, by over 60 per cent.—not, I would tell the noble Earl, Lord Russell, a primary reason, but an added incentive.
We accept that for a few young people living at home is not an option: that is a point which has been made perfectly clear to me this afternoon. The improvements for 16 and 17 year-olds, which I have already described, recognise this sad fact. We also recognised that some young people living independently could be worse off taking a YTS place or a job than being on income support because of the effects of housing costs and expenses associated with their training or work. After meeting such costs and expenses, young people with YTS income might have been left with less than the income support rate for their other needs. We therefore decided to extend the over-18 personal allowance to all 16 and 17 year-old housing benefit claimants, not just those in the special circumstances prescribed for income support. Now all young people living independently have over 30 per cent. extra left after meeting housing costs from which to meet any work or training expenses. If we were to consider making any further concession to housing benefit claimants we would want to do so on the same basis.
595 As I pointed out, this action, which was not in the 1988 Act, was the result of careful monitoring of the situation of 16 and 17 year-olds after leaving home. I want to make it quite clear in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady David, and my noble friend Lady Faithfull that this monitoring will continue, and we have agreed to hold discussions with those interested parties to ensure that the Government are kept fully up to date on any problems facing the young homeless. Whether it is a matter for me or for my possible successor, either of us will want to know what is going on on the ground. That is a point which your Lordships regularly address to me. We want to know what is going on, and we also want to know why it is going on; and it is those two things that I hope such a meeting will expose. I shall return to the meeting, or possible meeting, in a moment.
While we thought it right to direct this extra help towards 16 and 17 year-olds, we believe that to introduce an increase of the order proposed for all under 25 year-olds would be irresponsible. It would clearly be unfair to those of the same age who are in employment; and it would be a perverse incentive for those brave youngsters the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, seeks to help—those leaving kindly, caring homes—by encouraging them first to get into income support and then to remain on it.
Regarding the argument, as it were, between the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, and my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, money has to be taken into account in connection with any social security measure. I agree on that immediately. But in fairness to both sides of this particular argument I should point out that in this particular instance this cannot be a primary reason for throwing out the amendment. It may help the noble Baroness to know that the YTS arrangements and allowances already cost more than income support. Therefore what we are interested in is how should these youngsters be looked after so far as the state is concerned? The noble Lord, Lord Henderson, referred to that as this parlous state.
There is no reason why young people who cannot live with their parents should be dependent on state benefits. If they are capable of working and training I can see no advantage in enabling them to rely indefinitely on income support. This present provision gives young people at least 12 weeks or so to sort themselves out and to get a YTS place if they want one: it will be more for summer school leavers. They will also have the whole of the vacation preceding this period and many will have started considering their future options long before leaving school, through careers teachers and so on.
The noble Lord, Lord Henderson, with his characteristic interest and concern in these matters, wanted to know what happened in severe hardship cases for the 35 per cent. of people who do not receive income support in those circumstances. Reasons why young people do not get benefit under the severe hardship provision would be, for example, because they have sufficient resources to prevent severe hardship. Also they may have help available from others—it may be another member of the family—or there may be other sources. They may have rejected other means of preventing hardship, such as taking 596 youth training scheme courses. There are a myriad of reasons: I said at an earlier stage that the 65 per cent. success rate in severe hardship on income support was a justification for saying that the system was working and I believe that to be so.
Regarding the duration of severe hardship awards, which was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, they are of course given for a period which is considered to be long enough to enable a young person to find another YTS place; that is what they are there for. Those outside the child benefit extension period who are subject to a severe hardship direction and are of necessity living away from the parental home will get the higher rate of income support for the duration of their award, as I have already explained.
I hope I have made it clear from this short speech that the Government fully share the anxiety for the homeless. The thrust of our housing policies is aimed at helping in those areas with the greatest needs. We are taking forward the review of payments legislation with appropriate speed, and we have been helped in this by recent independent reports. I agree with my noble friend Lady Faithfull, and I too am awaiting with great eagerness the report of Dr Barnardo's. As my noble friend has confirmed, the voluntary organisations have been consulted in that.
We are not going to hang about. A Statement will be made as soon as conclusions are reached. I agree with those noble Lords who have suggested that that is no reason not to hold a meeting. We wish to hold it as promptly as those noble Lords concerned desire.
If your Lordships wish me to hold the meeting either before or after it is entirely clear what is going on in the Department of the Environment with regard to homelessness matters, that is entirely in your hands. I am prepared to have a meeting with whomsoever, whenever at whatever point your Lordships desire. If it is necessary, and it is agreed in advance that it is necessary, to have officials from other departments, officials from other departments will be there.
To return to the present, I believe that we must now wait to see how these improvements work out. As I have made quite clear, we shall continue to monitor the impact of our changes and I have undertaken to continue the Government's monitoring of those changes especially as they concern 16 and 17 year olds. That monitoring can undoubtedly be improved by a meeting such as has been suggested by my noble friend, and I am grateful to her for the suggestion. However, for the reasons that I have already given, at this moment I am not convinced that the approach described in these two amendments is right for 16 and 17 year-old youths.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down perhaps I may remind him that he has not answered one of my questions; namely, about the draft regulations which according to the article in yesterday's Observer have been drawn up by the department and will make it more difficult for young people to obtain their benefit support.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, I am absolutely confident that there is absolutely nothing in the 597 draft regulations, which have started to be worked upon—it would be unnatural if one had not started to work upon the regulations—that has not been discussed during the course of the Bill. Perhaps I can go back to an answer that I gave earlier in relation to the articles in the Sunday Times and the Observer. I can say without equivocation that we have no plans whatsoever to withdraw housing benefit from the young homeless or any other group.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, I was not only referring to housing benefit. I was referring to the other support.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, with the leave of the House—and perhaps this ought to be for the last time—the other matter which concerns young people and income support relates to actively seeking work and indeed availability for work. Again the position has been made quite clear during the course of the Bill both in this House and in another place. Nothing in the regulations will detract one iota from what has been promised either by this Front Bench or the Front Bench in another place.
§ Lord Henderson of Brompton
My Lords, whether or not these amendments are well drafted or acceptable to the Government, they have at least served the purpose of stimulating a debate in this House of over one hour. There have been speeches from all round the House. I very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, has listened in particular to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, who asked him not to dismiss the feeling and the thought underlying these amendments and said that they had the support of everyone in this House.
So this is not at all a party matter. It was a serious appeal from a most serious and respected Member of the House who has also been a Minister for Social Services in his day, albeit under a different name. I think that that was a very important plea. While I am still on the matter of what the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said, I suggest that there is a matter of urgency here. Of course talks are extremely welcome. I was very glad to hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, said—and I shall elaborate on that a little. In the meantime there is an urgent question: what will be done ad interim? If there is nothing to be done, I fear that a big problem is being built up by the Government's inertia. I shall say no more on that subject at the moment save that, even if talks take place, there is still something that needs to be done.
As to the talks, I was extremely glad to hear what was said by both the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, and the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. The noble Baroness said that the talks would cover all parts of the United Kingdom, which is welcome, and relate to all the homeless young, not just this age group, which again is welcome. The talks are to deal with the very large problem of drifting young homeless, who may be as many as 150,000 as we heard from the noble Earl. That is a very big problem which concerns us all.
598 I believe that talks with just the Department of Social Security are not enough. The Department of Employment has to be involved and so does the department concerned with housing. I am very glad indeed to see the noble Lord nod his head. I hope that he will nod his head when I include in that list the Home Office. I do not see a nod. However, I should like to see the Home Office involved and not only the Home Office but also the Department of Health. Those two departments are necessary as well. That shows the width of this problem. Unless all those departments are concerned, quite frankly it will not be enough.
I am puzzled to know what to do. The noble Baroness, Lady David, said that this situation had been going on for a very long time and we are used to having the matter shuffled from one department to another. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor when speaking on the Children Bill said that this was a matter for the Department of Social Security and that the House must wait for this Bill. We have not been satisfied and it is now at the stage of Third Reading. It is indeed a matter of being shuffled from one department to another. It is another reason why these talks should take place and, now that I have my shopping list, perhaps the noble and learned Lord's department should be added as well. I should very much like to include the noble and learned Lord's department. However, I should not like to do anything that would jeopardise these talks.
I should like to take up the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. I cannot believe, with the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, that these are alternative courses. They would be a very feeble government who were deterred by a vote in this House from setting up talks which they have publicly announced will take place. So, if there were to be an expression of opinion in this House, I cannot believe that the Government would be so feeble as to cancel those promised talks in a fit of pique. Frankly, I am not influenced by that argument.
I am influenced by the fact that when the noble Baroness and I went to see the Secretary of State and the Minister of State in February or March this year, we had a receptive meeting and results flowed from it. That weighs in the balance with me. I therefore do not propose to press this amendment in the light of the undertakings which have been so clearly given to the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, and repeated by the Minister in this House. I therefore propose to ask leave to withdraw the amendment. Whether or not I shall be allowed to do so is not up to me. I am in the hands of the House. For my part, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ The Deputy Speaker (Lord Murton of Lindisfarne)
My Lords, is it your Lordships' pleasure that the amendment be withdrawn?
§ 4.48 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 3) shall be agreed to?599
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 91; Not-Contents, 121.600
|DIVISION NO. 2|
|Addington, L.||Kilmarnock, L.|
|Airedale, L.||Leatherland, L.|
|Amherst, E.||Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.|
|Aylestone, L.||Lloyd of Kilgerran, L.|
|Beaumont of Whitley, L.||Lockwood, B.|
|Blackstone, B.||Longford, E.|
|Blease, L.||Lovell-Davis, L.|
|Bonham-Carter, L.||Macaulay of Bragar, L.|
|Boston of Faversham, L.||McCarthy, L.|
|Bottomley, L.||McIntosh of Haringey, L.|
|Broadbridge, L.||McNair, L.|
|Bruce of Donington, L.||Masham of Ilton, B.|
|Burton of Coventry, B.||Mayhew, L.|
|Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L||Milner of Leeds, L.|
|Carter, L. [Teller.]||Mountevans, L.|
|Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.||Nicol, B.|
|Darcy (de Knayth), B.||Peston, L.|
|David, B.||Phillips, B.|
|Davies of Penrhys, L.||Pitt of Hampstead, L.|
|Dean of Beswick, L.||Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.|
|Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L.||Prys-Davies, L.|
|Donoughue, L.||Ritchie of Dundee, L.|
|Dormand of Easington, L.||Rochester, L.|
|Ennals, L.||Russell, E.|
|Ewart-Biggs, B.||Sainsbury, L.|
|Ezra, L.||Seear, B.|
|Falkland, V.||Serota, B.|
|Fitt, L.||Shackleton, L.|
|Foot, L.||Stallard, L.|
|Gallacher, L.||Stedman, B.|
|Galpern, L.||Stoddart of Swindon, L.|
|Gladwyn, L.||Strabolgi, L.|
|Graham of Edmonton, L.||Taylor of Blackburn, L.|
|Gregson, L.||Taylor of Gryfe, L.|
|Grey, E.||Taylor of Mansfield, L.|
|Hanworth, V.||Tordoff, L. [Teller.]|
|Harris of Greenwich, L.||Turner of Camden, B.|
|Hatch of Lusby, L.||Underhill, L.|
|Hirshfield, L.||Wallace of Coslany, L.|
|Houghton of Sowerby, L.||Walston, L.|
|Hunt, L.||White, B.|
|Irving of Dartford, L.||Wigoder, L.|
|Jay, L.||Williams of Elvel, L.|
|Jeger, B.||Wilson of Langside, L.|
|Aldington, L.||Craigton, L.|
|Allenby of Megiddo, V.||Crawshaw, L.|
|Allerton, L.||Dacre of Glanton, L.|
|Arran, E.||Davidson, V. [Teller.]|
|Atholl, D.||Denham, L. [Teller.]|
|Beloff, L.||Dilhorne, V.|
|Belstead, L.||Dundee, E.|
|Bessborough, E.||Eden of Winton, L.|
|Blatch, B.||Ellenborough, L.|
|Borthwick, L.||Elles, B.|
|Boyd-Carpenter, L.||Elliot of Harwood, B.|
|Brabazon of Tara, L.||Elton, L.|
|Brougham and Vaux, L.||Erroll of Hale, L.|
|Butterworth, L.||Faithfull, B.|
|Caithness, E.||Ferrers, E.|
|Campbell of Alloway, L.||Fraser of Carmyllie, L.|
|Campbell of Croy, L.||Fraser of Kilmorack, L.|
|Carnegy of Lour, B.||Gainford, L.|
|Carnock, L.||Gridley, L.|
|Chelmer, L.||Grimston of Westbury, L.|
|Cholmondeley, M.||Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L.|
|Colnbrook, L.||Harmar-Nicholls, L.|
|Constantine of Stanmore, L.||Harrowby, E.|
|Craigmyle, L.||Henley, L.|
|Hesketh, L.||Newall, L.|
|Hives, L.||Orkney, E.|
|Holderness, L.||Orr-Ewing, L.|
|Home of the Hirsel, L.||Pender, L.|
|Hood, V.||Platt of Writtle, B.|
|Hooper, B.||Prior, L.|
|Hunter of Newington, L.||Pym, L.|
|Hylton-Foster, B.||Quinton, L.|
|Jenkin of Roding, L.||Rankeillour, L.|
|Johnston of Rockport, L.||Reay, L.|
|Kaberry of Adel, L.||Redesdale, L.|
|Killearn, L.||Rodney, L.|
|Kimball, L.||Sanderson of Bowden, L|
|Knutsford, V.||Savile, L.|
|Lauderdale, E.||Seebohm, L.|
|Lindsey and Abingdon, E.||Shannon, E.|
|Long, V.||Sharples, B.|
|Lyell, L.||Skelmersdale, L.|
|McAlpine of Moffat, L.||Somers, L.|
|Mackay of Clashfern, L.||Strange, B.|
|Macleod of Borve, B.||Strathclyde, L.|
|Margadale, L.||Strathspey, L.|
|Marley, L.||Swinton, E.|
|Marshall of Leeds, L.||Teviot, L.|
|Merrivale, L.||Thomas of Gwydir, L.|
|Mersey, V.||Thorneycroft, L.|
|Middleton, L.||Trafford, L.|
|Milverton, L.||Trefgarne, L.|
|Monk Bretton, L.||Trumpington, B.|
|Monteagle of Brandon, L.||Vaux of Harrowden, L.|
|Morris, L.||Westbury, L.|
|Mottistone, L.||Windlesham, L.|
|Mowbray and Stourton, L.||Wise, L.|
|Munster, E.||Wolfson, L.|
|Murton of Lindisfarne, L.||Wynford,. L.|
|Nelson, E.||Young of Graffham, L.|
§ Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
§ [Amendment No. 4 not moved.]
§ Clause 23 [Recovery of sums equivalent to benefit from compensation payments in respect of accidents, injuries and diseases]:
§ [Amendment No. 5 not moved.]
§ 4.56 p.m.
§ Moved, That the Bill do now pass—(Lord Skelmersdale.)
§ Baroness Jeger
My Lords, I hope that I am in order if I make a few remarks on the Motion that the Bill do now pass. I should like to express our appreciation of the Minister's hard work and sympathetic understanding of what many of us have been trying to say. Many noble Lords have contributed a great deal of thought and, I trust, hope on this difficult subject. It has been a complicated jumble of a Bill, with 33 disparate clauses and nine schedules. We have done our best to make some improvements in spite of a very tight timetable. Perhaps I may remind noble Lords that in another place the Committee stage had 27 sittings compared with our two. However, I believe that we put our time to good advantage.
I have been trying to draw up a balance sheet of the effects of the Bill. With my amateur book-keeping, on the credit side put Clause 7, which gives benefits for women widowed before 11th April 1988. Clause 8 can be credited for the abolition of the earnings rule. Clause 9 can have half a mark 601 because the age limit for mobility allowance will be increased to 80 years, but it does not go any further. We welcome the new Clause 5 to which your Lordships agreed concerning the increased allowances for children. We are very glad to see that under Clause 9(1) the amendment to help deaf blind and other invalids to receive mobility allowance is incorporated into the Bill. We all hope that these amendments will remain because they were agreed by Members of different parties and I believe that they improve the Bill.
On the debit side are Clause 3, the abolition of the Treasury supplement, and Clauses 11 to 13 which make life much harder for the unemployed and their right to benefit. We are opposed to Clause 23 about the recovery of sums equivalent to benefit in compensation cases. On the debit side also goes Clause 24, with complications of equal pensions for men and women in the matter of occupational and personal pensions. I debit the Government too with their failure to help people in bed and breakfast accommodation, and the under 25 year-olds and with regard to promising other young people only a meeting. I hope that it will not end up as a meeting about a meeting. The situation regarding pregnant girls brings no hope to young women. The Government rejected an appeal for the Parliamentary Commissioner to be written into the Bill. On the whole I cannot give the Bill many marks.
There have been criticisms from some noble Lords opposite because they felt that we had been trying a piecemeal approach to improve social security by picking on different needy groups in turn instead of concentrating on the totality of the problem. That is not our fault. The Fowler reforms of 1987 were heralded as a total reform, but that has not happened.
On 29th June (at col. 902 of Hansard) the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, who knows so much about these matters, referred to the danger of dealing with them item by item. Another noble Lord (I believe it was the noble Lord, Lord Joseph) referred to the archipelago of social security. I do not know whether he meant that in a derogatory sense, but I see nothing wrong with archipelagos. Indeed the noble Lord sent me daydreaming about the archipelagos of the Aegean Sea, which I have always found very beautiful. But if he meant that we were reducing social security to a series of separate islands, that is a matter for thought, but it is not a party political matter. It is quite right that we have to have changes, that we need some kind of definition, but above all we want a more comprehensive approach to the whole problem of the needs of people who for whatever reason are in difficulties.
What the Government have not done in the Bill is to further a coherent policy for social affairs, a policy which would lead people out of poverty and alleviate the problems of the disabled and the homeless. Everything that can be done should be done, and more comprehensively. It is probable that the debate we have had many times about bringing together benefits and taxation needs a fuller study, so that we have some pulling together of fiscal and social benefit policies. That might even turn out to be cheaper in the long run.
602 I believe that we have heard too much about the OPCS. I am sure that the Minister is tired of hearing about it. The impression has been left sometimes that the Government are more concerned with the statistics that might have come out of the studies than with social policies. In our debate the other day about extending mobility allowance to the deaf blind and other seriously handicapped people the Minister said that the Government must wait for reports. There were long arguments about numbers, including those produced by my noble friend Lord Carter. Does that mean that, if the OPCS comes up with the news that there are many deaf blind people, there will be less chance of them being helped than if there were only a few of them? This fixation with finding out about how many there are before a decision is made to do anything about them seems to me to be rather unfair on the people concerned.
This is the same kind of mentality which finds comfort sometimes in producing statistics for a reduction of the percentage of unemployed people. But an unemployed man is 100 per cent. unemployed, no matter what happens to the whole population. We are anxious that this kind of continuing alibi of waiting for reports one way or another should be halted because reports do not make policies. They can only give information on which policy can be based. It seems to many of us that there is plenty of evidence about the needs of the people we have been talking about during the passage of the Bill.
The Government have been in power for 10 years. I am sorry if they still have to find out a great deal more about the problems. The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and others have in their wisdom talked about how much things will cost. We appreciate the Minister's concern with costs, as he has his battles to fight. But when we are reprimanded for not pricing our amendments, I want to ask the Government how they price their savings by passing the Bill. How much will the Government save, and how much will the public lose? I have read the Financial Memorandum and the Government's expenditure plans, which were published before the Bill came out. Those of us who were challenged about the cost of the amendments are entitled to ask the Government about the cost of their savings as well as the cost to the public.
I have one last question. I was surprised to hear the Minister say:your Lordships will find that this legislation must receive Royal Assent by 30th July of this year. Otherwise, we shall be in breach of our EC obligations."—[Official Report, 12/7/1989 col. 282.]I am puzzled by that because I do not know which EC obligation involves Her Majesty giving her Royal Assent by 30th July. Some of us thought that there would be benefit in considering parts of the Bill during the gap after the Recess and before the next Session of Parliament, but that was ruled out on the grounds that the Queen has to obey our EC obligations. I hope that at some time that point can be made clear, because it seems to us that there are parts of the Bill that we need to discuss further on which we should like to hear more from the department. If there is a guillotine, if I may put it that way, on 30th July we want to know why.
603 With those few words I thank the Minister. On the whole this has been a good occasion for the House in all parts. All the speeches have been thoughtful and careful. We appreciate the spirit in which the Bill has been conducted.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for a great deal in the conduct of the Bill. First, I should like to thank him for his unfailing good humour during debates which sometimes have been pretty hotly contested. I should like to thank him for a great deal of helpfulness. I should like to thank him for his letters which have saved me from putting forward a great deal of criticism which I might otherwise have uttered. I know that in the light of what I have uttered the Minister may be surprised to hear that, but it is true.
I should also like to thank the Minister for the care, the courtesy and the hard work put into the meeting that we conducted on Clause 23. I am quite sure that, if there had been an agreement there to reach, we should have reached it. I am sorry that we were unable to do so.
I should like to thank the noble Baronesses on the Opposition Front Bench. I have benefited a great deal from being able to rely on their experience of the subject, on which I am something of a novice.
I have also noticed that it is a regular feature of this House that, in any debate, we rapidly evolve for that debate what I might call a professional Front Bench—somebody who speaks for the profession which is under discussion. The part was played on the Education Reform Bill by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, and in farming matters by my noble kinsman Lord Stanley of Alderley, on this Bill it has been played by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. She represents a Conservative tradition of social reform which goes right back to the Earl of Shaftesbury. Like my ancestors, I have some difficulties at times in understanding that tradition, but it is a vital part of our political life and one without which the Conservative Party would be very much less electable than it is. It also means that even on occasions like today, when I am very tempted to do so, I cannot look up from my place, see the noble Baroness sitting opposite and say that Conservatives do not care. Her party is lucky to have her.
As regards the Bill, I am delighted that we have carried two significant amendments and I commend them to another place. The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, on the mobility allowance has convinced the broad centre of the House, as any rough look through the Division list will show. I know that this Government wish to be thought of as a caring government. I believe that they will find that a great deal harder if they reverse the noble Lord's amendment.
Naturally, I am also delighted that the amendment on child benefit was carried. I remind the House that for the second time in two years an amendment has been carried on the subject. In 1988, an amendment was carried on the initiative of my noble friend Lord Banks. I hope that when Ministers consider the amendment they will not ascribe its success to any defects in their tactics, nor even to 604 any strengths in ours, but to the tact that it is a matter on which there is a natural majority in this House.
I sometimes think that this House has a place in Parliament a little like that of Scotland in the union. I know that we are still formally called the "upper House". However, I believe that in practice we accept the fact that in the partnership between us and another place we are normally the junior partners. Nevertheless, like Scotland in the union, we sometimes feel that the word "partner" as well as the word "junior" requires attention.
We are frequently told that we do useful and important work as a revising Chamber. We should like to accept that that is true. We should find it easier to do so if, every now and then, something that we did appeared to those who manage business in another place to be an improvement.
As regards the points in the Bill which are good, I agree roughly with the list offered by the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, especially the abolition of the earnings rule. Of course, there are points in the Bill about which I still have considerable misgivings. The clauses concerning unemployment appear to be intended to validate the mistaken notions for the causes of unemployment; for example, the one about unrealistic wage expectations. I believe that in due course the Government will discover that they were mistaken and I pray them in the bowels of the Lord when the time comes to do so.
Of course, I regret the fact that nothing came of the attempts to improve Clause 23. I believe that there the Government may be the worst losers. I believe that when it comes into operation it will cause so much confusion that they may well wish that we had succeeded in defeating them. I am sorry that we could not oblige the Government.
I shall say no more about the subject of today's debate. I shall express some disappointment about the treatment of board and lodging in bed and breakfast hostels. That is a matter about which we all agree that a great deal more thinking needs to be done.
I shall make a final point about costs. We on these Benches accept the fact that it must be a matter of money. We accept that it costs a great deal and that we should be concerned about keeping that sum down. However, we believe that, when we look at the kind of levels at which benefits usually stand, the amount of pain caused by the withdrawal or cutting of benefit is usually greater than any benefit that could be gained by the Exchequer in saving it money.
We are concerned to see whether by floating people off benefit—as the Minister puts it—we can find room occasionally to save money by the use of the carrot as well as the stick. When the hypothetical next year's Social Security Bill comes before the House, I shall be looking to see whether the Minister and I can find common ground in that respect.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, I can give myself the rare pleasure of beginning by agreeing with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, in respect of two points. It is a rare experience which may not be repeated too 605 frequently. I agree with his graceful and justifiable remarks about the Minister. I strongly agree that he has conducted this important and sometimes contentious Bill with great skill, patience and the capacity to carry conviction.
I was also glad that the noble Earl referred as he did to my noble friend Lady Faithfull. As he said, she is a perfect example of the carer. Sometimes the care that she gives is a trial to the Minister of the day. That she represents an important strain in the party to which she and I belong is undoubtedly a fact, quite apart from the enormous good personal service that she gives to the less fortunate of our fellow countrymen in a whole variety of directions.
I am glad that the noble Earl gave me the opportunity to make those comments. Those of us who have seen only a little of what my noble friend does outside this House realise what valuable work she carries out with so much patience, trouble and energy.
This is a very important Bill. It is probably more important to a larger section of our fellow countrymen than any of the other measures which we have taken this Session. It has a direct personal impact on a large number of people, favourable or unfavourable as that may be. It is absolutely right that your Lordships' House should have given it the close and careful attention which I was glad to see.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, referred to the possibility of there being a more comprehensive way to administer social security, as is often suggested in learned works and in the press. She mentioned the idea which has often been touched on during the past 25 or 30 years; that of uniting the social security system with that of taxation. However, when anyone has got down to looking at what would be involved both in administration and legislation they have tended to recoil with horror from that idea. Although there is a good theoretical and philosophical case for such a system, the practical difficulties are very real. I fully understand the attitude of the Government in not going down that path.
Inevitably, the Bill is a series of individual measures, helping individual sets of people, on the lines of previous Social Security Bills during the past 25 or 30 years. It has been subjected to the inevitable process. Obviously, my noble friend and his right honourable friend have obtained sufficient accommodation from the Treasury to enable certain expenditures to be increased. Equally obvious is the fact that there is a limit to that. Therefore they had the difficult task of deciding which needs of which sections of society are the most urgent and should receive the financial help which, within limits, it is possible to give.
I know from experience that that is a hideously difficult task. One is up against people who believe that one particular section of the benefits of our social security system has a more compelling case than all the others, and they believe that with sincerity and force. On the other hand, it is necessary for the Minister in charge to try to weigh one section against the other—infinitely difficult in human terms—in the light of the limited expenditure which 606 he can undertake and within limits by which he will always be bound by all governments at all times.
Indeed—and perhaps I may venture a controversial observation—it is a tribute to the success of the financial policies of this Government that these increases in expenditure, of which this Bill contains the last few instalments, have been possible. Of course, it is only on the efficient working of our economy that the financial support necessary for our immensely expensive and elaborate social security system is achieved.
The noble Baroness spoke of the pricing of amendments. I was not sure whether she meant that in a slightly derogatory sense. Of course, were she sitting opposite that Box that is precisely what she would have to do because she would know, as all Ministers know, that there is a limit to the amount of funds available and that if you are particularly generous in one direction, that will inhibit you from similar generosity in another. Therefore, the inevitable and proper reaction of any Minister in the social security department is to ask of any proposition: how much?
One can only judge the decisions and the Bill by seeing whether one thinks that the priorities achieved are roughly right. My own impression is that they are. There are certain directions in which I should be more sympathetic than my noble friend and therefore, as a necessary corollary, less sympathetic in others. However, the balance achieved seems broadly right and carries our social security system forward to deal with some of the new problems of the new age.
Like the noble Baroness, I am puzzled by the reference to EC obligations. I do not know what they are and I do not know whether they need to be taken very seriously. The operation of our social security system is subject to the sovereignty of our own Parliament. No government, whatever our EC obligations, can make changes in our social security system, in deference to these orders unless both Houses of Parliament agree. In this respect, ultimate sovereignty lies with this House and another place. At the moment EC obligations seem to affect us only in respect of the timetable. I hope that we shall be quite clear that decisions on social security are for this Parliament and not, with the greatest respect, the European Commission. Having said that, I am rather glad that my noble friend Lord Cockfield is not in his place because I am sure that there would have been an explosion on my right.
I should like to refer specifically to three items in the Bill. Clause 3 deals with the abolition of the Treasury supplement. When I was responsible for those matters years ago there was a substantial Treasury contribution. However, it was diminishing. It was always understood that it would diminish. After all, when you start a social security system as we did in the 1940s, you have to bring in considerable financial support because no reserves have been accumulated. However, over the years, as the contributions have mounted, the need for our Treasury contribution diminishes. That is, in a way, something of a landmark in the history of social security. I do not find it in my heart to criticise it.
607 On the other hand, as I said on Second Reading, I am probably alone in this House in being sorry to see the abolition of the earnings rule. I hope that I used to defend it with some vigour and conviction; it has operated rather usefully. It has encouraged men at the age of 65 and women at the age of 60, who are fit and well and who have a job, to continue working. That must be not only to their own good; it also helps to build up further increments to their pension. The effect of the earnings rule was that if you had earned beyond a certain amount, you then had your pension cut. There was the stimulus to go on working for the extra five years bearing in mind, as your Lordships know, that when the man reached 70 or the woman 65, he or she then received the pension with increments regardless of what he or she might be earning. I am glad to say that in this country—and one can perhaps look around your Lordships' House—a number of people in those age brackets have good and satisfactory earnings. Good luck to them! The only other clause to which I refer is Clause 11 dealing with unemployment benefit. I know that this is controversial. Unhappily, a limited number of people—not a great many—have been happy to subsist on unemployment benefit and have made no great exertions to find work. That is bad for them. It is almost worse for them than for the community. Few things can be more demoralising than not working or not trying to find work. Equally, it is quite wrong that other people who have contributed should pay for people who could get work but do not seek it.
Although the exact drafting is difficult, it is important that it should be clear that unemployment benefit is only to be paid to those who are genuinely unemployed in the sense that they want work and are trying to find it. My judgment is that the clause as it stands will achieve that object. I consider it extremely well drafted. I say that as someone who, as my noble friend knows, has been rather criticial of the drafting of some measures considered by your Lordships' House.
We come to the last stage of a Bill which, I believe, will bring help and comfort to a certain number of our fellow countrymen. It represents, I believe, an improvement to a social security system of which all in your Lordships' House and in this country are very proud. I wish it well.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to add my own words of thanks to the Minister for the courtesy and good humour which he has shown in the conduct of the Bill. We are all aware of the considerable personal concern which he shows for the various problems which we have brought to his attention.
I wish to intervene briefly. Some important information has come to light since we debated the amendment on the mobility allowance last week. It should, I believe, be placed on the record and be taken into account in the other place when it considers that amendment later this week.
Your Lordships will remember that we produced a figure for the number involved in the improvement to the mobility allowance; it was fewer than 8,000 608 people. The Government said that they thought the figure could be up to 100,000 people. The organisations concerned point out that the Government appear to have discovered 96,000 mentally handicapped people in need of control and guidance. They would like to know where those people are. As providers, they have not known of their existence. There is no way that the questionnaires used in the OPCS survey could single out severely mentally handicapped people in need of control and guidance. Intellectual capacity is far too broad a category to define and establish that minority group.
I was so concerned that I approached the OPCS and also the data archives at Essex University where the data tapes are kept. The Minister will remember that he said that the OPCS survey would not produce that information and that it was on the data tapes. There seems to be a real mystery here. It is correct that the OPCS survey is not able to produce the information. And it also seems extremely difficult to obtain the information from the data tapes. Therefore, the other place will have to be assured as to where those figures come from. The whole burden of the Government's argument seems to be not so much on the principle of the amendment but on the number of people involved.
Indeed, the link programme for the disabled, in which I should declare an interest because I have a connection with it, covered that item only a fortnight ago and put some questions to the Minister's private office. The questions were: do the Government accept the estimate of 4,400 mentally handicapped people who will be eligible for the allowance? If they do not, how many do the Government say will be eligible? The answer from the press office was that the numbers depend entirely on how the criteria are drawn up, and that it is not clear whether they can be defined to produce a number of beneficiaries. We discussed this at the Report stage and the Minister's press office did not answer the question of how many the Government believed would qualify and did not produce the figure of 100,000 people; which seems extraordinary as it was only a week earlier that we had debated the amendment.
This is not intended to be carping at this stage of the Bill, but it is important that the other place has an opportunity to deal with this point when considering the amendments. All the organisations who have provided the information are entirely confident in the figures given. We urge the Government to accept the amendment in the other place. We have all had a number of letters from organisations who have expressed gratitude for the change in the Bill and we hope that the Government will not disappoint them.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, this Bill has been very well handled in this House on these Benches by my noble friend Lady Jeger and other Front Bench spokesmen, and also by others referred to this afternoon—the noble Earl, Lord Russell, the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, the noble Lord Lord Boyd-Carpenter, who has tremendous experience in this subject, and also the Minister. Therefore, I have 609 not thought it right to take up the time of the House with interventions. But perhaps I will be allowed to offer a few thoughts this afternoon, as presumably, the only person present who was personal assistant to Sir William Beveridge—later Lord Beveridge —when he was drawing up his report to which reference is frequently made.
When Sir William Beveridge produced his report it united the nation. I do not wish to patronise the Minister, who is so popular, but this all took place before he was born. Older Members—possible the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and a few senior Members of this House, including the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot—will remember the tremendous impact of that report when it was published. I remember going into a newsagents the next morning and trying to buy a newspaper. I was told by the lady in charge of the shop that they were sold out. "It's that Sir William Beveridge" she said, "He's going to abolish want." That is how the report was received at the time.
I am bound to say that it was touch and go up to the last minute. Speaking as one of his small team, we did not know until the very last moment whether the Government, with their Conservative majority, would accept the report. We had no doubts about the Labour and Liberal members nor, may I say, about the support of the younger Conservatives—presumably the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, was serving elsewhere—such as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, who would perhaps now be called "junior wets". They were very cordial in their reaction to the report but, as I said, it was uncertain to the very last minute whether the report would be accepted.
I can still hear the voice of Mr. Ronald Tree, the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Brendan Bracken, the Minister of Information. Mr. Tree telephoned to say, "Here is Mr. Ronald Tree with a very nice story to tell you." We were told that at that last moment the report was to be accepted by the Government. Indeed, it was flashed around the world and became an important element in war propaganda. Naturally we were all very happy and Beveridge seemed to be accepted.
However, he was not accepted by everybody. Many years earlier, Sir Winston Churchill had encouraged Beveridge and used him in some capacity when Sir Winston Churchill was a Liberal Minister. Beveridge thought that Churchill would be delighted to see him. After all, Beveridge had been received by the King with tremendous enthusiasm, so why not Churchill? Therefore, he wrote to Sir Winston Churchill asking whether he would receive him. Churchill replied with the kind of letter that Gladstone could have written, saying what a joy it would be to see such an old friend, that nothing would give him greater pleasure, but that it would have to wait until the war was over.
Therefore, the only person who would not talk to Beveridge was Churchill. We knew, of course, that there were strong elements in the Conservative Party who did not like the report. Later, when the Labour Party was in power and the national insurance Bill 610 came to the House of Commons, Mr. Butler, as he then was, on behalf of the Conservatives, welcomed it in generous terms. We can say, therefore, that from 1946 it was all-party policy and that the Beveridge ideas were generally accepted.
I should pick up something that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said about the state contribution. In Beveridge's eyes, that was an essential element. It is true that the most essential element of all was compulsory insurance. In happier days, Sir Winston Churchill would call it the "magic of averages". At any rate, the essential plan was the abolition of want through compulsory insurance. Second only to that was the principle of redistribution of wealth through the use of a state contribution. That was important to Beveridge.
The Liberals will no doubt tell me that Beveridge entered the House of Commons as a Liberal and sat on the Benches in this House as a distinguished Liberal Peer. However, that again was touch and go. I remember when Mr. Arthur Jenkins, who was a kindly, optimistic man, the father of the Leader of the Liberal Peers, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, organised a small dinner at the Oxford and Cambridge Club for the two great men, Beveridge and Clem Attlee, who was then deputy Prime Minister, with acolytes Mr. Arthur Jenkins and myself in attendance. The dinner was intended to seal the decision of Beveridge to join the Labour Party.
Unfortunately, the two great men feel asleep, first one then the other. I cannot remember which of them feel asleep first, but there was a moment when both were asleep. Consequently, no progress was made on Beveridge's political education. I assure the noble Lords that this is a true story.
Afterwards, as we walked along Pall Mall, the two great men in front followed by Arthur Jenkins and myself, Arthur Jenkins said to me, "I think that went rather well, don't you?" I thought that nothing could have gone worse, but Arthur Jenkins was such a sweet man that I pretended to agree with him. Very soon afterwards, Beveridge joined the Liberal Party and was a very distinguished convert. I suppose that is what one can call only just, or marginally so.
Whether Beveridge was Liberal or Labour, he was always a radical. He believed in the redistribution of wealth. In that sense he had something in common with Mrs. Thatcher—they both believe in the redistribution of wealth. However, Beveridge believed in redistribution of wealth in favour of the poor, whereas Mrs. Thatcher, as we have seen in the past 10 years, believes in redistribution in favour of the rich. No one doubts that that has happened and I do not intend to insult the intelligence of noble Lords opposite by saying that it has happened by accident; on the contrary, it is Government policy of redistribution of wealth in favour of the rich, which is the exact opposite of Beveridge's ideas.
I do not want to upset the Minister if I say that he does not look at all like a Thatcherite. I do not see anybody less like a Thatcherite than the Minister. I hope that does him no harm in exalted quarters. At any rate, the policy of his Government that he loyally interprets is this redistribution of wealth in favour of the rich.
611 I remember many years ago—it seems 100 years ago, but whenever it was—I used to propound these ideas myself. I remember reading a leading article in The Times which said,Unfortunately wealth is like heat, it is only when it is unequally distributed that it can perform what the physicists call workI remember thinking, "Good show. That's the stuff to give them". However, I am afraid to say that that is an entirely ludicrous and unethical doctrine that has been in operation for some years.
Therefore, we have this conflict between the Beveridge ideas and Thatcherite ideas. I do not say the conflict is between Beveridge ideas and Conservative ideas, because in the beginning people like Lord Butler were saying on behalf of the Conservative Party how proud they were to participate in such a great venture. That was in 1946. Therefore, I am not condemning the Conservative Party as such because there has been this strong demand in the country, including Conservatives, for a consensus in such matters.
Unfortunately, the Conservatives who stood most eloquently for that now find themselves on the Back Benches opposite. In other words, they have been relegated and they have been unable to sustain their positions. We welcome them here, but I am afraid it is to the detriment of the nation because they are not in control. However, things look better now. We know that we must not pay too much attention to the Gallup polls. We like them when they favour us; we do not like them when they do the opposite. It is a better outlook altogether. I am hoping that in not too far distant times we shall see the triumph of the original Beveridge idea, which was supported from the beginning by the Labour Party, the Liberals and all that was best in the Conservative Party.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Lord Henderson of Brompton
My Lords, I wish to follow the noble Earl in his charming and amusing anecdotage. But it has nothing to do with the Bill in front of us to which I now wish to return.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, how is it that it has nothing to do with the Bill? The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, spoke about the abolition of the state contribution with approval. Why am I not allowed to refer to that with disapproval? The noble Lord is simply not following my remarks, because he is so keen on the eloquent thoughts that he is about to offer us.
§ Lord Henderson of Brompton
My Lords, I am sure that none of us would have wished to miss the past 10 minutes. However, I wish to confine my remarks to the Bill. Before doing so, I thank the Minister for the personal qualities that he brings to the Front Bench and the Dispatch Box. I believe that his equability remained unruffled despite some occasional provocation. As regards board and lodging, I very much hope that the noble Lord and his department will not forget the distress in the House concerning the eating-out allowance. That is something ad interim not to forget while the department is busily trying to dismantle the board and lodging system altogether.
612 Dealing with income support and housing benefit for the young; namely, those of 16 and 17 years of age, I was in doubt whether to press the amendment to a Division. I am happy to say, in the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, that his support for the thought behind the amendment was certainly influential in my deciding not to press it. I would much rather that this matter were dealt with through all-party pressure on the Government than through partisan pressure. I am grateful to him for conveying to the House through the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, the proposal of the Secretary of State to have meetings.
I had a little shopping list and I have added various ministries that I consider should be consulted or party to the meetings. I wish to add two items to my list. I believe the noble Baroness said that those who will be brought into the consultations will include all the voluntary societies most closely concerned with this problem. I am concerned that the statutory bodies should not be left out. I am very glad to see the noble Baroness nodding her head. Of course, she is the most experienced Member of this House concerning the social services. I feel that these organisations must be included and also the probation service.
The next item in my shopping list is a small matter but I should not like it to be forgotten. There is a great deal of distress caused by benefits being paid two weeks in arrear. A man coming out of prison has a small allowance but he cannot claim any benefit until two weeks have elapsed. If he is a child he gets nothing when he is released. Is that really wise or right? I ask whether that is not an invitation for him to commit crime again. Something should be done. If the benefit cannot be paid in advance, then I hope that the Government will cease to pay benefit two weeks in arrear. That is a matter that requires thought at this series of meetings which the noble Lord has announced and which I welcome.
The next matter is the question of flexibility for which I have appealed perhaps ad nauseam. The noble Lord, Lord Pitt, also appealed for it. There is a case for saying that the new legislation since April 1988 is too hard and has too many rough edges. Social security officials are not allowed sufficient discretion. I believe that social fund officers are being offered training so that they can fit their decisions to the people in need. I am told that training will take perhaps half a day or, at most, a day. I wonder whether that is enough. It is a very important and complicated matter which will require more than half-a-day's training. That is a subject that needs looking into.
Apart from those factors, I am concerned about the two amendments which the House has passed and their fate. With regard to child benefit I recall, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, did, the archipelago described by the noble Lord, Lord Joseph. Child benefit is the one island in the archipelago that is on firm ground in the public mind. They want to stand on that firm ground which is called child benefit. That terra firma has been restored by us in the Bill. I feel that it will be submerged in another place. The public will get their feet wet and they will not like it. I do not believe that is right or that it is electorally 613 popular, though that is none of my business. But I believe that the general feeling around the House is that this is a matter of great importance and that the public confidence in, and knowledge and understanding of, this important matter should be respected.
I am afraid it is too late to influence the Government at this stage. We shall have to face rejection by another place. We shall all have to acclimatise ouselves to that unfortunate fact. However, I offer a suggesion which I hope the Government can take up between now and the next election—and the sooner the better; that is, whether they would reconsider the policy of indexing this benefit in return for bringing it into tax.
I know that such a provision would not please the purists on child benefit. I do not regard myself as a purist on this matter. I believe that an immense amount of confidence would accrue in the nation if the Government would only agree to keep child benefit, and to see that it does not fall behind like the death grant and become a derisory figure. I do not believe that would be a respectable posture for the Government to take concerning child benefit. Instead I believe there is a good deal to be said for bringing the benefit into tax. I offer that suggestion for the future, if not immediately.
As regards the mobility allowance, like the noble Lord, Lord Carter, I seek from the Government something more definite than their figure of 100,000 which none of us finds to be credible, especially when we have been told by the experts that the number is between 4,000 and 5,000. That is too big a discrepancy to be credible. There is a credibility gap here. We need to be reassured by the Government that their figure of 100,000 is not right, and that the figure is much nearer the one those who supported the amendment consider to be right.
Finally, I wish to speak about the ombudsman. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, has been very patient with me for over a year now. I am very glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, sitting in his place It was something like 15 months ago, during the passage of the previous Social Security Bill, that the noble Lord was in his place and the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, raised this matter as to whether or not social fund officers were or were not subject to the parliamentary commissioner. In an intervention, the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said he was quite sure that the social fund officers were subject to the parliamentary commissioner.
Like the Minister himself and the noble Lord, we had all assumed that social fund officers were subject to the parliamentary commissioner. It is natural that they should be so. However, after six months of consideration by the noble Lord and the department, I received a Written Answer to the effect that neither they nor the social fund inspectors were subject to the parliamentary commissioner.
I have challenged that statement in the House at various stages. On the last occasion, I asked the Minister two questions which were perhaps rather fast and which he was not able to answer at the time. Does he agree that it is a question of statute which 614 officers are, and which officers are not, to be subject to the parliamentary commissioner? Should it not be a matter for an independent judge to determine, rather than the department concerned or the Civil Service? It cannot be right either for the department or the Civil Service to be judge in its own cause.
My second question arises to a certain extent out of the first. The noble Lord's reason for excluding social fund officers from the jurisdiction of the parliamentary commisioner was that they were to be treated like—
§ Lord Henderson of Brompton
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. Adjudicators have been excluded from the jurisdiction of the parliamentary commissioner. As the social fund officers were akin to them, they too have been excluded. I ask again my question to which I am sure the noble Lord will now have an answer. Who made that decision about the adjudicators and in what circumstances? Was it made by judicial authority or by the Civil Service Department? This matter is not just of local importance. It is not confined to the Department of Social Security and to this category of officer. It is a matter of general public importance. I look forward to hearing what the noble Lord has to say in reply.
§ Baroness Phillips
My Lords, I should like to congratulate my noble friends on the Opposition Front Bench on the hard work they have put in. I should also like to congratulate my noble friend Lady Jeger on the hard work she always puts in on this subject. She made a very moving speech at Second Reading. It was rather sad that the press, who mentioned everybody else, did not mention her splendid speech, so I should like to put that on the record now.
We congratulate the Minister. He has carried through this unpopular measure with his usual skill. I was a little concerned that he referred to his successor. I hope that he is not being reshuffled or placed somewhere else as he carries great skill to all his work. I can say nothing good about the Bill except in one connection. I have to be generous in this regard. For about 20 years I have attacked all governments—including governments of my own party when I was a back-bencher—about the earnings rule. It has taken this Government to remove the earnings rule.
When I was still working at the age of 60, I retained the widow's pension because the earnings rule did not apply to it. I can assure the House that, while I collected the widow's pension while earning, under our fiscal system all of it went back to the state. So why we worry about people getting too much out of any government is laughable. All governments have a way of getting the money back if they think one is getting too much. Now that there is a shortage of younger people, the over-50s and over-60s are the best things since sliced bread. They are to be begged to come back to work. It is absolutely right that their earnings should at least be their own property.
If I read the Bill correctly—under this Government I am always a little nervous if I read 615 something that is an improvement—a widow who is over 40 but under 55 will receive benefit. Previously, she would have to be over 45. That must be good. We in the women's organisations have fought for this change for many years. I congratulate the Government on those two points.
The rest of the Bill saddens me. I have just received a touching letter from a lady which says, "Thank God"—it happens to be from a member of my own religion, but that is by the way—"some people are fighting still for the poor". We should continue to fight for the poor and the deprived in our society.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, while I do not believe in repeating the arguments that have been made at previous stages, nor indeed in advancing those that may still have to be deployed, I can confidently say that we have had an excellent series of debates over the past couple of months on practically every area of the social security system. The short debate which we have just had on the Motion, That the Bill do now Pass, is no exception.
In spite of what the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, calls the disparate nature of the Bill, discussion has certainly ranged much wider than its contents. I have no quarrel with that. It is right and proper that such important issues should be debated. Nevertheless, this has been a difficult Bill, and our debates have been characterised by noble Lords wishing to push the government in directions where we do not wish to go; not ever, but not now. At a previous stage, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, summed this up by calling it the "doctrine of unripe time". And that for two reasons.
The first is the series of OPCS reports, whose publication was not completed when amendments were made. The data tapes—whenever this happens and I understand that it is imminent indeed—will take rather longer to analyse. The second is that, however worthy the causes espoused by your Lordships, they could, if taken to extremes—which in the form proposed by the House they usually could be—cost a total of about £800 million. That is a tidy sum, amounting to almost 2 per cent. of the social security budget, which is totally unplanned. It may be that my noble friend Lady Faithfull will spring to mind when I make this point. While I am thinking of my noble friend, I should say that I for one recognise her campaigning attitude which is so much appreciated in many quarters.
Unplanned government expenditure leads, as we all know, to inflation. Yes, we must look at costs but that, as I said to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter earlier this afternoon, need not always be an overriding consideration. Your Lordships must conclude for yourselves what effect an inflation rate of 8.3 per cent. should have on our decisions at any point in time.
So, inevitably, I have been characterised as Shylock; not in so many words, but the unspoken thought is there. I would say to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, whose knowledge of Sir William Beveridge and his plans of 47 years ago I respect, that neither of them in their wildest dreams would have believed that the welfare state would evolve to 616 the point it has, with benefits split almost 50:50 between non-contributory and contributory ones.
How pleased the noble Earl's boss would have been that one of his few failures—the 1948 Act compromise—had been abolished 40 years later; how pleased he would have been that his contributory social insurance scheme would cost only 86p a week to enter at the lower earnings limit. The figure in 1948 terms was almost 25p a week, which only goes to show what inflation has done over the past 40 years. It was not cheap, but ordinary decent men and women working at levels that are scarcely above income support will, from October, see their contributions fall by a totally planned massive £2,750 million in a full year, at the same time as we have abolished the Treasury supplement. That is no mean achievement, as I am sure noble Lords will agree. That is why I am proud of the Bill.
I am also proud to have introduced a measure to this House which abolishes the earnings rule for pensioners. I must say that I would not describe my noble friend as having crocodile tears but I understand the point he made. I am also proud to have helped the House by agreeing on behalf of the Government to two matters which have concerned your Lordships; namely, removing the six months' qualifying period of attendance allowance for the terminally ill and doubling the statutory disregard in housing benefit for war pensioners.
I am grateful to my noble friends the Duke of Norfolk and Lady Gardner of Parkes for drawing those two matters to the attention of your Lordships. They will not have long to wait for their desires to be realised. However, I cannot project the same as regards the two amendments which were carried against the Government.
I have been asked why I made what some noble Lords regard as a strange remark in answer to an intervention made by the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, which I think took place on Report. He asked why we had to get the Bill on the statute book by 30th July of this year. The Bill is made up of a whole series of measures—a point which has not been lost on me. One of them is embodied in the current Clause 24, which reads:Schedule 5 to this Act shall have effect for the purpose of implementing the directive of the Council of the European Communities dated 24th July 1986".Unfortunately, by signing up to that directive, we obligated ourselves to act within three years of signature. Had your Lordships decided that this was the only part of the Bill which actually mattered and had a whole series of amendments been tabled to leave out all the other clauses and schedules in the Bill, that would have been a matter entirely for your Lordships. But I, for one, was not going to suggest such a course of action.
The noble Lord, Lord Henderson, asked me about the position of former prisoners and those people who are in financial difficulties because benefit is paid two weeks in arrears. Of course, former prisoners, and people in similar situations, can obtain crisis loans from the social fund to tide them over until normal income support is paid. 617 Incidentally, a point I did not make earlier to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is that lone parents do not have to be available for work in order to receive income support, not less, actively seek it.
The noble Lord, Lord Henderson, is quite right. We have indeed had a running—I would not call it a battle—discussion on the subject of the ombudsman. I am not sure that I can satisfy him even today at this late stage of the Bill's proceedings. However, I am perfectly content—if he is—to continue the discussion as long as is necessary.
I have two points to make on the matter. First, the ombudsman does not have to be a judge. Therefore, it is not necessarily a judicial decision which is made in ombudsman cases. Secondly, Section 5(2) of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 expressly precludes the Parliamentary Commissioner from examining cases where the aggrieved applicant has the right of appeal, reference or review to a tribunal constituted by, or under, any other enactment.
Further, it excludes the Parliamentary Commissioner from conducting investigations where an aggrieved person has, or had, a remedy by way of proceedings in a court. As I understand it, that is why adjudication officers are excluded from the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner. As regards the issue of who made the decision, I think we should have to delve back into the Hansard of 1967 when the Act was put on the statute book. I say that because the matter is enshrined in the 1967 Act.
I think that I have answered enough points for the present. I should finally like to thank all noble Lords on all sides of the House who have spoken sometimes in support and at others in contradiction of the Government, and sometimes from the same mouth. Alas, they are too numerous to mention.
The firmness and good humour of the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, is something I have always appreciated. I hope that I shall be able to continue to do so for some time in the future. The good temper with which our debates have been conducted is due in large part to her. I admire the way in which her new amanuensis, the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, has turned her hand to the intricacies of social security law. That remark is also appropriate to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, although he will appreciate that as the Bill has passed through its various stages I have had a growing sympathy with Henry II. I only hope that it has not shown too much.
Last, but by no means least, I should like to express my grateful thanks to my personal Puck, spinning, good humouredly, as my noble friend Lord Henley has, in a girdle from sides to middle of the Chamber in less than 20 seconds. For myself, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, has made the point: if you prick me, do I not bleed?
On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.