§ 11.32 a.m.
§ Lord Henley
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
This is by no means a long Bill, but it is no less important for that. The social security system needs to be kept constantly under review, as it deals with 508 needs and circumstances which are constantly changing. Our duty as a government is to ensure that we are aware of such changes and act accordingly. Solutions which were found for the problems of years gone by may no longer be relevant. This Government have the will to challenge outdated attitudes and to take social policy in this country into the 1990s. The Bill helps us to continue that process and it introduces the reforms to contributions and benefits announced in the Budget speech.
I am sure there will be general agreement that one of the more marked areas of change in recent years has been in the labour market. Jobs have been created in record numbers and unemployment is falling rapidly. We have now seen 33 consecutive months in which there has been a drop in the figures. The cry from many employers is that there is a shortage of labour. Sometimes they are referring to skilled persons, but by no means always so. In a typical month there are between 600,000 and 700,000 jobs on offer, many of which can be taken up by people with no specialist skills and without the need for specialist training.
But more than that, each vacancy is an opportunity for those who are unemployed to gain the self-respect and independence that comes from supporting themselves and their families by their own efforts. The Government believe that it is their duty to help those people towards that end, and the important changes to unemployment benefit in this Bill will assist in fulfilling that duty.
It will, I am sure, be common ground which goes right back to 1948 and continued under governments of all political persuasions, that while the state rightly accepts a duty to provide benefit for the unemployed, there shoud be conditions attached to its receipt. While the Government accept the responsibility, as far as is compatible with broader economic aims, to create an environment of enterprise and job creation, they are entitled in return to expect individuals to take the trouble activately to seek work. There was genuine surprise, I believe, when this Bill was introduced, that legislation did not currently require this. I should like to make it quite clear that those powers do not exist at the moment. The decisions of social security commissioners in recent years have made that abundantly clear. Claimants can argue tht if they attend at the Jobcentre and claim benefit every two weeks they have satisfied the present requirements.
It is, of course, the case that the vast majority of claimants take the initiative themselves in looking for work. But recent evidence suggests that this is not true of all. The 1987 labour force survey showed that 730,000 benefit claimants were not taking active steps to seek work, and about half that number were not interested in obtaining any sort of job. A report on the London labour market compiled a year ago reported that over 25 per cent. of the claimants interviewed had not looked for work in the previous week, and, of those, nearly half had not looked for work in the previous four weeks; 5 per cent. had never looked for work at all. The Government believe they have a right to expect all claimants, not just some, to be active rather than passive in their search.
509 Clauses 10 and 13 will therefore ensure that benefit claimants must show that they are actively seeking work. It will clearly depend on the state of the local job market and the particular skills of the individual among other things as to what steps should be taken. Employment service staff will give advice and make suggestions to those who are having particular difficulties in their job search. From time to time they will make further inquiries of the claimant, and if there is any doubt about whether he has been doing all he could, the independent adjudication officer will decide whether benefit is to be paid for the period in question.
The other major proposal for unemployment benefit is to ensure that claimants cannot continue indefinitely to price themselves out of any job they might realistically be expected to get. Newly unemployed people generally start their job search by looking for vacancies in their normal occupation, paying wages at a level they have been used to. That is quite reasonable. But it would be quite wrong for such people to be able to restrict their search to such jobs indefinitely. Clause 12 makes it clear that there will be a "permitted period" during which an unemployed person will be able to escape disqualification for unemployment benefit if he turns down a job which is not in his usual occupation and at his usual wage. This period will not be of more than 13 weeks' duration, but will be decided on an individual basis, and will depend on the state of the labour market and the skills and experience an individual can offer.
I should make it clear that individuals will not be forced into genuinely inappropriate jobs. There will continue to be the facility for an individual to decline a job on grounds of "good cause"—which covers factors such as health, family circumstances, religious belief, travelling difficulties and so on. But after the permitted period, an individual will not be able to turn down, solely on the grounds of pay, a vacancy which has been offered to him by the employment service.
Included in Clause 12 is a further measure to encourage unemployed people in their search for work. There are very real fears among many, particularly after a lengthy period of unemployment, of taking any sort of risk in trying out a job which they have not done before. One of the obstacles has been that if a job does not work out and the claimant leaves voluntarily, he may be disqualified from receiving unemployment benefit. We therefore intend that anyone out of work for at least six months can be sure that he can leave a job voluntarily without fear of disqualification, provided that he has given the job a fair trial. We also intend to protect those receiving transitional protection on income support, so that they do not find themselves worse off as a result of taking such an initiative. I am sure these proposals will be widely welcomed by your Lordships as an imaginative approach to a real problem for some claimants.
At this point I should say just a word about Clause 7 which abolishes from 1st October this year the earnings rule for those receiving state retirement pension. Not only does it fulfil one of the Government's manifesto promises, but it also 510 removes all the restrictions which prevent people enjoying their pension while continuing to contribute to the economy and to their own incomes through earnings. A large number of our elderly citizens will gain from these changes—about 200,000 alone who have, we believe, deferred receipt of their state retirement pension because of the earnings rule. This clause will remove the penalty which has been a major disincentive to elderly people contributing their particular skills and expertise to the economy.
Clause 1 reforms the structure of employees' Class 1 National Insurance contributions, by reducing those contributions for almost all employees and abolishing the steps in the contribution rates between lower and upper earnings limits, and by introducing an initial contribution of 2 per cent. of the lower limit. This reform builds on those introduced in 1985 which cut contributions paid by lower paid workers and their employers. The 1985 reforms were a welcome change for the lower paid, but they had a major difficulty; when a person's earnings crossed the lower earnings limit for National Insurance (£43 a week in 1989–90) he had to pay 5 per cent. of all his earnings; that is £2.15 a week. Under our proposed reforms a person earning £43 a week will have to pay only the small sum of 86p a week as an entry fee for National Insurance benefits. Benefit entitlement will be earned if that small sum is paid throughout the year. But our reforms go further than this because they also improve incentives—particularly for people earning around £75 and £115 a week who can be deterred at present from increasing their earnings to take them over these cliff edges. These reforms have been widely welcomed and I am sure that the House will welcome them too.
The Bill also deals with another feature of the benefit system—one which dates back to 1948. When a person is injured he may become entitled to social security benefits. If liability for that injury can be established as falling to another party, he may receive compensation through the legal system for those same injuries. It may be worth reminding your Lordships of what Sir William Beveridge said in his report in 1942 on the problem of alternative remedies. In relation to industrial accidents he said (paragraph 260):Another general principle also is clear. An injured person should not have the same need met twice over. He should get benefit at once without prejudice to any alternative remedy, but if the alternative remedy proves in fact to be available, he should not in the end get more from two sources together than he would have got from one alone".In recent years the courts have ruled repeatedly in favour of this principle. What this currently means is that payments of a range of benefits simply and directly reduce the amount of compensation to be paid to injured people by defendants. The injured person gains nothing from this arrangement, but ordinary people, paying taxes and contributions, are effectively subsidising defendants and their insurers.
The Law Reform (Personal Injuries) Act 1948 provided for different arrangements to be made for different benefits.This was a compromise based on the assumption that because of the industrial injuries scheme not many people would claim damages. In those cases, compensation is reduced by 50 per cent. 511 of the value of the benefits to be paid by the State over five years but is retained by the tort feasor. So in these cases too, the taxpayer or contributor is effectively subsidising defendants and their insurers.
Criticism of this inconsistency has been received from the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee. In presenting our proposals we have adopted two basic principles supported by that committee. The first is that accident victims should not be compensated twice. The second is that the party responsible for the accident should not be able to escape part of that liability at the expense of the taxpayer. That cannot be right.
Clause 22 provides the framework for a scheme whereby the value of benefits paid as a result of an injury up to the point of a legal settlement will be deducted from the compensation due for the same injuries. That sum will then be paid to the department. But your Lordships will be interested to know that the amount recovered from defendants will not include any sums in respect of benefit payments made after the date of the settlement of the claim and that recoveries will be made only in the case of compensation payments above a certain figure.The amount of £1,500 has been mooted but will be reconsidered before the scheme is actually operating. I must stress that a person's actual benefit entitlement is not affected in any instance.
The Bill also breaks new ground in Clause 23, which deals with the question of discrimination in occupational social security schemes. Such schemes will no longer be able to deny access to occupational pensions or pay lower benefits on the basis of sex. The measures in the Bill implement the EC directive and will apply to schemes from 1st January 1993. In broad terms the legislation will override any difference of treatment in occupational pensions schemes, whether relating to membership entitlement, contributions paid by members and employers or the benefits members receive. There are, however, special safeguards for those absent from work for maternity or family reasons. If schemes wish, they may make the changes themselves before the overriding provisions take effect.
Many schemes still have different pension ages for men and women. The Equal Treatment Directive contains a derogation which excepts such differences from its scope and we have incorporated that exception into the Bill.
Clause 3 abolishes the Treasury supplement to the National Insurance Fund. It is useful to recall that the Treasury supplement has been a feature of the National Insurance scheme since it started in 1948. The scheme originally provided flat rate benefits in return for flat rate contributions paid by insured persons and by their employers. In 1948 the Treasury supplement was essential because contributions on their own could not cover the outgoings from the fund. But the social security system has not stood still since 1948. In 1975 earnings-related contributions were introduced whose yield is buoyant. The income needed to finance contributory benefits has been provided increasingly by contributions and the 512 supplement has been reduced steadily. We now think that it is right to abolish the supplement, the taxpayers' contribution to the fund, and that contributory benefits should be paid for wholly by the contributions which earn entitlement to them. The expenditure on contributory benefits will not be affected in any way by the abolition of the supplement.
The Bill contains other modest but useful amendments clarifying and consolidating existing legislation making it more relevant to today's circumstances. Clause 5 brings social security legislation more into line with family law by extending the liability of parents to maintain children in full-time education up to the age of 19.
The Bill strengthens the link to recent work in the test for requalifying for unemployment benefit in Clause 11 and takes account of the great success of personal pensions in the abatement of unemployment benefit which operates for other occupational pensioners aged 55 and over in Clause 9.
Clause 19 deals with the ramifications of the repeal of Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act. It is necessary to ensure that sanctions remain against unauthorised disclosure of personal and private information in the social security field.
Clauses 6 and 8 deal with widows' and mobility allowance respectively. Clause 6 extends entitlement to widows' benefits under the pre-reforms legislation to all women widowed before 11th April 1988. Clause 8 extends the upper age limit for payment of mobility allowance from 75 to 80. This allowance is an important ingredient for the quality of life for severely disabled people and its extension will enable its oldest recipients to make plans for meeting their future mobility needs. This is an interim measure until consideration can be given to the reports following the surveys carried out by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys.
In conclusion, my right honourable friend has, as he has promised, been monitoring the 1986 Act changes and continued to review the whole of social security law and practice. I believe this Bill promotes a more coherent social security system and reflects the environment of a modern labour market. It challenges difficult issues—the anomalous relationship between benefits and awards of damages, differing treatment of men and women in pensions schemes and the outdated funding of the National Insurance scheme. But, most of all, it reinforces what we believe the social security system is all about: supporting those who cannot support themselves, and encouraging people to accept the responsibility to support themselves and families by their own efforts. I commend the Bill to the House.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Henley.)
§ 11.48 a.m.
§ Baroness Jeger
My Lords, the House will wish to thank the noble Lord for setting out so clearly some of the implications of the Bill. I agree, as do many of my noble friends, that in the field of social security there should be continuing review and 513 improvements in order to meet the changing times. My main criticism of the Bill is that it does not make improvements, except in one or two small instances.
We welcome Clause 7, which abolishes the earnings rule for pensioners. However, I must ask why that will not come into effect until October. Many people may not live that long and they will be denied the benefit.
The other pleasant measure of agreement that we have is about the change of age for the mobility allowance. There again, I must ask why the age should be fixed at 80. I can imagine that an old gentleman of 79 would adore his mobility allowance and having, as the Minister said, the quality of his life enhanced thereby. But that poor old man reaches his 80th birthday and the chopper falls. That is cruel. Why should that measure not apply to old ladies and old gentlemen when they reach their 80th birthday at a time when they most need help with mobility?
I also believe that we should re-examine, and perhaps in Committee we shall be able to do so, some of the criteria for the mobility allowance. Many of us feel—and I have had consultations with many people in this sphere—that there is too much emphasis on physical immobility and perhaps not enough on people who need help with getting about because of psychiatric or other problems; for example, poor sight or hearing and other difficulties.
I then have to come to less friendly words. In 1986 we were told that there were fundamental changes to be made in the whole system, the greatest shake-up since Beveridge, and that that would put everything right. It is extraordinary how many changes have been brought in since that long and seemingly endless Bill went through this House. Since then, the department has been divided. That is something which I happily agree with. I never agreed with merging health and social security even when my friends in another place carried that through. We have had a series of revisions, statutory instruments and orders galore.
We are now told—and I hope that the Minister can enlighten the House because we have to learn so much of the Government's plans from the press nowadays—that there are plans for private agencies to take over the payments to applicants. I am worried, as are many people, about what is to happen to the present staff and how the new staff will be appointed. What is the reason to think that people employed by private agencies will behave any better than the overworked, underpaid and often tormented staff in the offices at present? I conclude that this is a matter of philosophy and that this Government are even prepared to privatise poverty.
Instead of dealing with some of the fundamental problems which disfigure society, the Bill seems to me to lose a considerable opportunity of helping people who most need it. I do not agree with the noble Lord that we should welcome the abolition of the Treasury supplement to the National Insurance Fund. During the lifetime of this Government the Treasury supplement has been reduced from 18 per cent. of contributions to nothing. The noble Lord seemed to suggest that that is because there was so much money in the National Insurance Fund. If 514 there is all this money sloshing around, why not increase the benefits instead of cutting the Treasury supplement, which has been part of the welfare system for a very long time?
I should like to mention one or two situations with which the Bill omits to deal. I do not know whether noble Lords are aware that this week is called by some people "Sleep-out week". A number of young people and adults, under the patronage of the Duchess of Gloucester, are sleeping out in cardboard boxes, not because they are homeless but because they wish to show their concern and solidarity for those people in that position.
I thought that the Minister's speech, to which I referred earlier, was extraordinarily graceless in his remarks about the poverty lobby, as if we had a lot of people trying to make out that matters are worse than they are. Therefore, I shall not give the House the poverty lobby figures but the most respectable Audit Commission figures. In 1979 the Audit Commission said that there were 56,750 known homeless families. In 1988 there are 112,730—and please note that that refers to homeless families. Unknown numbers of single people, the sort of people we see as we go home from this House, have to be added thereto. People who deal with this question at the coalface, as it were, and who try to help are all convinced that changes in social security and the board and lodging arrangements and the reduction in housing benefits contribute largely—I shall not say entirely—to that problem.
The Minister referred to the necessity of encouraging people to get jobs, to go to work and to take whatever chances there are. I have talked to some of those people. They do not feel that they can, with any prospect of success, present themselves at an interview the day after they have been sleeping out in their only clothes in the rain in the park at night. They suffer a loss of social security because they do not always have an address, and employers always want an address. It seems to me that we are missing an opportunity to deal with a very real deprivation, to say nothing of the dangers which many of those young people encounter in London. We saw a particularly distressing case in the press recently of the result of a young boy wandering about penniless.
There are other problems. The noble Lord and his colleagues often compare life now to 10 years ago. I cannot understand why the social uprating was so far below the rate of inflation. People must arithmetically—and even I can work that out—be worse off. Now with inflation at 8 per cent. the upratings which were established last autumn seem irrelevant to many old people, who have to depend entirely on their state pension, with very little extra help.
In order to refresh my memory I looked at the Conservative manifesto for the last election—and I assure the noble Lord that this is the real one. It states:We will continue to maintain the value of the state retirement pension".How can the value of the state retirement pension be maintained if inflation is at 8 per cent. and the 515 pension goes up less than that? From some of the indications, it looks as though matters could become worse as time goes on.
I shall leave my noble friends who have special knowledge and interests in other parts of this Bill to deal with them. However, on the whole we feel that the clauses which deal with changes in unemployment pay are not in the best interests of the unemployed. The Bill makes fundamental changes. We do not know why Clause 20 of the main Bill is not effectively enforced, because that seems to us much fairer than these rather draconian suggestions which could have—and it may not be the noble Lord's intention—the effect of driving more and more people into low paid jobs.
When the noble Lord said that people would not be pushed into unsuitable jobs, I take that to mean that an out-of-work violinist would not be told to go and be a bricklayer. I hope he can be more specific about that.
My other general criticism of the Bill is that, as with so much government legislation, everything is to depend on orders and regulations. In Clause 1 National Insurance contributions can be altered by secondary legislation. In the clauses covering unemployment pay, we are told that rules will be made and details set out on what, for example, is suitable employment. Therefore, in many aspects of this Bill we are being asked to vote totally in the dark. I suppose that the Bill will be passed, but we shall not know for what we are voting in any detail at all. That happened with the last social security measure and it is happening with far too much government legislation; there are orders and statements and these measures go through without the full understanding of the House and without detailed examination.
I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, will be glad to know that I do not intend to speak about child benefit this morning. I hope that other speakers will. However, I must say from this Front Bench that we greatly regret that there is no provision in the Bill as it stands for the uprating of child benefit. We shall return to that subject in Committee.
I have tried to be fair but I must say that one of the troubles nowadays with so many Conservatives is that they do not read enough Disraeli, particularly his novels. The other night I was re-reading Sybil, which I always enjoy, and I was fascinated to find that in the foreword Disraeli had quoted a statement from Bishop Latimer:There never were so many gentlemen and so little gentlenessI am sure that noble Lords like to think that they are all gentlemen, except for the ladies, but this Government's underlying philosophy seems to be caustic, abrasive, penny-pinching and mean, and I only wish that it were illumed with a little more gentleness.
§ 12.2 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, first I should like to congratulate my noble kinsman Lord Henley on his 516 elevation to the Government Front Bench. We have, therefore, the rather unusual situation of being able to conduct a family quarrel across the Chamber. I think we can both undertake to do so with a discretion suitable to the House. The coincidence extends further than that, for we are both leading on our first Bill. I hope, therefore, that our tale of two noble kinsmen will not in the course of the Bill degenerate into a comedy of errors.
This Bill was described by the Opposition in another place as a curate's egg. That is a description from which we on these Benches would not wish to dissent. I want initially to look briefly at those parts of it which genuinely are excellent. We on these Benches warmly welcome the abolition of the earnings rule for pensioners. We agree with Lord Palmerston that it is not expedient to exclude so many able people from the public service. We welcome the extension of the mobility allowance to the age of 80, but we agree with the question put by the noble Baroness—if 80, why not life?
We also warmly welcome Clause 23 implementing the Brussels directive on sexual equality on pensions. We on these Benches have no difficulty in welcoming directives from Brussels when they are asking us to do something which we think is rather good. We are also pleased that on this occasion the Government are levelling up and not levelling down, as they were in the rather mean little statutory instrument we discussed on Monday night.
There are some clauses about which we have misgivings and which we will pursue further in Committee. Clause 15, dealing with housing benefit, seems to touch on an area where the Government are not altogether letting their left hand know what their right hand is doing. I shall not pursue that now, save only to say that I was delighted to read the letter of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, in this morning's Independent. We also have considerable misgivings about Clause 3, which abolishes the Treasury supplement for national insurance.
I take the point made by my noble kinsman that the system has not stood still since 1948, but, by the same logic, why should the system stand still after 1989? I think we are burning our boats for the future. The effect of this clause, with the demographic time bomb waiting for us in the next century, will be to force us to bring in yet further legislation. There are no doubt many noble Lords who view the appearance of an unexpected extra Government Bill in May or June, as it may be, with a great deal of misgiving. That is a prescription for wasting parliamentary time.
I next touch on a few points which are not in the Bill. I do not intend to develop now the argument about child benefit, save only to say that the Government have not heard the last of it. We are concerned also about the income support regulations for the young. Ministers sometimes talk as if it were only social security that enabled the young to leave home and run into difficulties. That is not so. They have been doing that for as far back as recorded history. Indeed, the legend of Dick Whittington is a vital part of the enterprise culture.
517 I agree with what the noble Baroness said about agencies. I hope we shall have an opportunity to debate that subject in the future. I also agree with what she said about homelessness. That is a subject which we shall have the opportunity of debating on 7th June.
The bulk of the argument about this Bill is, of course, concentrated on the question of actively seeking work. We on these Benches are entirely in favour of the principle that the unemployed should be actively seeking work. We accept that there always has been a certain number who may not be. The problem deserves attention. The first point that concerns us is that we thought that this was already the law. We are not certain what it is that the Government want to do that at present they cannot do. I refer, for example, to leaflet UBL 671, which reads:Unemployment benefits are payable only to people who are available for work with an employer. We may ask you at any time what efforts you have made to find a job.Always keep a note of what you have done to find work and jobs you have applied for".That is perfectly proper. It is known at the moment for claimants to be denied benefit on the ground that they are not available for work. My recollection is that in the past year 101,000 claimants lost benefit for that reason. That is one in 20. If the Government can do that now, what precisely is it they want to do under this Bill that they are not able to do already? I would very much welcome some clarification on that; it might save us a certain amount of time in Committee.
I should like to know also why, among a good many problems about the long-term unemployed, this problem is singled out as a solitary priority for legislation. It is not the only thing wrong. The problem facing the Government is that they came into office with too many top priorities including, in this case, reducing public expenditure and abandoning a Keynesian commitment to full employment. Anyone could have told the Government that their priorities were liable to conflict. There is nothing new about that, of course. Plenty of governments have too many top priorities. However, what really tests the mettle of a government is what they do when they find their top priorities conflicting.
The response of this Government has been to see no evil. It has been to readjust the flow of information in the hope of making the problem appear to go away. That is part of the reason why we have had so many changes in the unemployment statistics. It is also part of the reason why the Government are so interested in explaining long-term unemployment by invoking the concept of the workshy. It is not the whole problem.
There is also here a certain statistical improbability about the Government's case. The latest figures show that we have 1,856,000 registered unemployed and 222,000 declared vacancies at Jobcentres. In a Written Answer, for which I thank him, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said that recent research suggests that this is about one-third of the total vacancies. It is not a very confident phrase. This rule of thumb that there are three 518 vacancies for every job at the Jobcentre is only an estimate. But, even if it is correct, it brings us only to the figure that my noble kinsman gave of 600,000 to 700,000 unfilled vacancies. It is a good way short of the total number of registered unemployed.
The Government rely here on the London labour market survey. I have read that interesting survey. It contains some material that supports their case, but in some respects I believe it is a flawed study. It has a very limited range of questions. For example, it has not asked employers whether they are willing to entertain applications from the long-term unemployed, though the report itself commented:Employers would be likely to find it easier to fill vacancies if they were to recognise that unemployed people in London represent a valuable asset for both unskilled posts and those requiring skill and experience".There should have been statistical backing for that statement.
I should also have liked to see an investigation of why 51 per cent. of the London unemployed are single. It is a startingly high proportion. It made me wonder whether we are on the edge of the territory of the Griffiths report which is rapidly becoming a kind of parliamentary Godot. I believe that the working of this Bill may well deserve Lord Burghley's stricture on the Court of High Commission, that it will be rather a device to seek for offenders than to reform any. I also think that this will be yet another Bill which produces numerous unintended consequences. Clearly, it insists on a flow of applications. It abolishes the concept of suitable work, so it is insisting on a flow of unsuitable applications.
If I were an employer receiving this flood of unsuitable applications, I know what I would say and I shall not repeat it in this House. As always when you give people a flood of paper the effect is that they develop a rule of thumb to deal with it. What I fear is that employers will, simply as a rule of thumb, weed out and throw away all the applications from the long-term unemployed. That is exactly the opposite effect to the one that we intend. I also believe that we shall be putting a great deal of pressure on the other good causes—which, I was delighted to hear my kinsman say will continue—for refusing employment. In particular I refer to health.
Unemployment is a considerable psychological shock to a good many people. I do not believe that it is always expedient to call attention to mild psychiatric difficulties. But if that is the only way in which you can go on receiving unemployment benefit, you must do it. People will end up going to the doctor when they otherwise would not. I wonder whether the saving of public funds which is envisaged will be entirely swallowed up in increasing the antidepressants' bill for the National Health Service. I wonder whether we have yet again another case of the Government not letting the left hand know what the right one is doing.
I am also very deeply concerned at the abandonment of the principle put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Joseph, that people may not be compelled to take a job whereby they will become 519 worse off. I know that the Minister will say that at present this only affects 0.15 per cent. of families in receipt of benefits. But the question is whether we can ensure that it stays that way. If this Bill goes through it might very well not. I know that there are considerable problems concerning low-paid jobs and that one cannot avoid a situation where people sometimes take jobs which need subsidy from benefits. But one does not need actually to direct and influence them to do so.
I accept the Government's view that claimants cannot continue indefinitely pricing themselves out of any job that they might realistically be expected to get. But surely that argument applies to jobs as well as to people. If people can price themselves out of the market so can jobs. If a job cannot afford to pay a living wage it is not an economic job. There are circumstances in which the Government may subsidise a job for a particular objective.That must be costed and decided on. What I am not happy about is a blanket Government subsidy for uneconomic jobs. If we get that we may end up repeating:
"The little Inn at Speenhamland That lies beneath the hillIs rightly called the PelicanFrom its enormous bill".
§ 12.17 p.m.
§ Lord Seebohm
My Lords, unlike the last two speakers, I find quite a great deal to praise in this Bill. There is one matter that I find very disappointing indeed; that is, the take-up of the social security system benefits. I well remember 24 years ago when I was appointed chairman of a committee looking at the social services as opposed to financial services and social security. We were told early on that if we wanted a successful and effective social service three factors had to be put right.
The first was accessibility. It was no good having offices in basements of town halls and expecting people to go to them. The second was acceptability. People must not consider it shaming to go to these places or that it was something that they did not wish their neighbours to know about, but rather it should be like going to the doctor. The third, and probably the most important of all, was comprehensibility. I believe that we more or less succeeded in putting these three factors right. There is no question about it: when we moved the social services out of the town halls to area units we got people coming and receiving help which they had never had before. The people did so with increasing willingness. I believe that nowadays there is no stigma whatever in seeking welfare services.
I do not believe that this is so with the social security system. I believe it is vitally important, if we are to cure this 40 per cent. non-take-up, to get rid of that situation. We need to have another look at the whole organisation of the social security delivery system. I believe that is something which is not necessarily incorporated in the Bill. The recommendations to the Seebohm Report, if I may call it that, on this subject were not enacted but they 520 were willingly accepted. I do not know whether they can be put into the Bill. I suggest that a small committee should be set up ahead of enactment to consider this subject so that we can get over the disappointing level of take-up.
I am afraid that, to me, targeting has become a dirty word. The more we target and take away from other forms of benefit such as child benefit, the more people will be left in the lurch. This brings me to the question of child benefit, which will be long debated in the House before we have finished with the Bill. I was horrified to read in the papers today that the Government's intention is clearly to do away with it. This is disappointing when we know that 98 per cent. plus of child benefit is taken up. Therefore the 40 per cent. who do not receive social security but who ought to receive it in fact receive child benefit.
I should like to make three points on this subject. First, people who receive child benefit are people with young children. They are nowadays in their twenties and thirties. They are not people in a high income bracket. Those on high incomes are broadly speaking in their middle forties and early fifties. Their children have flown. Not everyone with a high income receives child benefit.
Secondly, when child benefit was introduced in 1976 it was welcomed by all sides of both Houses. It was not costing the country anything. People said that it would cost £4.5 billion. In point of fact, by abolishing children's tax allowance for the husband and abolishing family allowance an amount equivalent to the amount dished out in child benefit was saved. In other words, it was simply a question of transferring money from the husband to the wife. That is not quite true today because personal taxation has been so heavily reduced, but to say that it is costing £4.5 billion is a red herring.
Thirdly, it is always necessary in society to make some redistribution of income from top to bottom by taxation or other methods. It always has been and always will be. The other day I heard an economist give a lecture in which he pointed out that since 1979, thanks to the increase in prosperity and much lower taxation, the top decile—if that is the correct word—of our population has received in real terms a 70 per cent. increase in incomes. The bottom decile has received an increase in real terms of only 13 per cent. The difference between the two has grown enormously over the past 10 years. Child benefit is an absolutely ideal way of redistributing from those who have a lot to those who have very little. I am afraid that we shall have a battle on child benefit and that I shall be in the middle of it.
Much of this matter is technical and there will be many amendments. I should like now to refer to pensioners. One absolutely first-class idea is the abolition of the restriction on earnings by pensioners. This will make an enormous difference, particularly with the demographic change taking place which will result in a shortage of skilled labour. People will continue to work after 65 and will use their skills to the age of 70 or more. Therefore a close look at the system of paying pensions is needed. People who go on working should be able to go on contributing voluntarily to the national insurance fund so that they receive larger pensions if they retire 521 at 70 than if they retire at 65. There are bound to be some serious amendments to the Bill in regard to pension arrangements.
I welcome the Bill as a whole, but we shall have to look at certain matters very carefully indeed. The delivery system will have to be looked at extremely carefully. I hope that my recommendation will be given some consideration.
§ 12.24 p.m.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, it is indicative of the inflationary tendency of modern legislation in respect of length that, in moving the Second Reading of the Bill, my noble friend Lord Henley should say that a Bill which in fact includes 33 clauses and nine schedules, many of them massive, was not a very long Bill. Compared with some other measures with which your Lordships' House has to deal, that is of course relatively true, but it is a substantial Bill and it is simply due to the extraordinary habit of the parliamentary draftsman today of drafting at such immense and meticulous length that my noble friend is led to suggest that it is not a long Bill. It is quite a long Bill; it is also a very important Bill. It is of more importance to the ordinary citizen of this country than any of the other measures which we have been discussing this Session. It is a Bill that really matters in far greater degree perhaps than whether water or electricity should be in private or public hands.
I am happy to begin with two measures of agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger. First, I very much agree with her commendation of Disraeli's novels, of which I am also very fond. I support her recommendation that your Lordships should read them. Many have much relevance to problems of today. Secondly, I join her in asking my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale when he replies to explain why the mobility allowance has to terminate at 80. I welcome increasing the age of entitlement from 75 to 80, but is it suggested that somehow—this is perhaps rather encouraging to some of your Lordships—when one reaches the age of 80 one becomes so much more mobile and physically so much more active that one does not require assistance of this kind? If so, I suggest to my noble friend that he consults his colleague the Secretary of State for Health to see whether that is really borne out.
In all seriousness, it seems curious that this allowance—the noble Baroness is right in saying that it is very much appreciated by a number of recipients—should be terminated at 80 instead of being made indefinite. There may be some good reason. The last thing I would wish to do is to be dogmatic about it, but I should like my noble friend when he replies to explain this point.
With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm—I nearly called him my noble friend because in everything except the technical sense I am glad to think that he is—I disagree with him over targeting. Targeting is a crude and rather inappropriate word, but what it aims to say is surely right. If one is to raise large sums of money, either by way of contribution or by way of taxation, in order to help 522 relieve social need, it is desirable to concentrate it as much as possible where that social need is the most acute.
I shall not open up with the noble Lord—tempted as I am—the question of child benefit except to say that I thought he was a little dogmatic. He suggested that child benefit could not be going to wealthy people because one does not become wealthy until one is 40 or 50 and by that time one's children are off one's hands. In truth and in fact, if my noble friend takes a look at the City of London today he will see that many people in their late twenties and early thirties earn very large sums indeed and, also to their credit, have young families Therefore he cannot ride off the criticism that child benefit goes to those who do not need it as well as those who do by saying that not many people on large incomes are entitled to it. I should be interested to hear what my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale has to say, but as a matter of ordinary experience, with respect, the noble Lord is wrong.
The Bill embodies a great many of the changes that have taken place through the years. Some noble Lords may feel that not all are for the good. One change which is definitely not for the good is the attitude which people now adopt to the National Insurance contribution. In the now remote days when I had certain responsibilities in the matter, the National Insurance contribution was paid by way of a stamped card—at any rate for the Class 1 contribution—and for that reason most people realised that they were contributing towards a very useful, well subsidised insurance. They were in fact getting better value than they would have received from any private scheme.
People realised that the money which they were paying was really contributing to insurance. I doubt, frankly, when the Class 1 contribution is simply deducted with PAYE from people's pay today, whether it is regarded as anything other than a form of tax. I think that that is a pity. It is an extremely useful and valuable institution so far as concerns the individual.
I turn from the changes which have been made to what have been two very familiar features of the National Insurance scheme. First, there is the Exchequer contribution. I think it was always contemplated that when the scheme came to maturity the Exchequer contribution—which was originally included because, if you start an insurance scheme, it will always be in quite heavy deficit and will have had no chance of accumulating balances—would be phased out. After all, the scheme has now been operating for about 40 years, which is full maturity for an insurance scheme. Moreover, I have no doubt that the phasing out of the Exchequer contribution is now justifiable. When I say that, I recall, rather guiltily, that when I was involved ministerially at one time I fought very hard for the Exchequer contribution. I should add, however, that when I changed over to the Treasury my attitude seemed, curiously enough, to adopt a certain modification. But, looking at the matter now, I think that the time has come to finance the scheme out of the contributions from employers and employees and also from the self-employed, and that to finance 523 it directly from taxation has probably very little justification.
The other matter—although I suppose I am probably alone in the House in taking this line—is the end of the earnings rule. I am frankly sorry to see this. That does not derive just from the fact that I had to defend it for many years. One acquires, does one not, a certain affection for any institution which one finds it necessary continually to defend in public? But there is more to it than that.
One of the advantages of the earnings rule is that it encourages a person not to retire for the first five years after retirement age. It encourages them to continue at work and contribute and thereby accumulate rights to a larger pension when he or she does retire. That is quite a valuable stimulus. Indeed, I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, was getting precious near agreement with me on that point at a certain part of his speech. Surely if people are fit for work and want to go on working, it is much better for them to be building up a higher pension for when they have to retire than drawing a pension on top of their earnings.
It is true to say that abolishing the earnings rule takes away a certain incentive to defer retirement and accumulate a higher pension. Of course I recognise that, as this measure was in the party's manifesto and as the Conservative Party on the whole prides itself on carrying out its manifesto promises, it had to go. However, I think that it was a mistake to put it in the manifesto. I am also conscious of the fact that I am probably in a minority of one in being rather sorry to see it go.
On the other hand, I very much disagree with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, about Clause 23. This clause results from one more of those niggling interferences of the Brussels Secretariat with our own internal affairs, which are really of no concern to that body. It is a particularly good example of the difficulties and considerable trouble which interference by people who know very little about the way our institutions work can cause.
Many major companies which pride themselves on their occupational pension schemes allow retirement on the occupational pension, especially in the case of men, well before the age of 65. If they have—indeed, as most of them now have—equality in their occupational scheme between men and women, that could mean in the case of retirement at the age of 63 that the woman is receiving the occupational pension, plus the National Insurance pension, while the man is not. Therefore the woman is receiving a substantially bigger total pension entitlement than her male colleague.
Consequently what happens is this. As I understand it, it is the practice at present of a considerable number of our major and most respectable and reputable companies to pay the man until he reaches the age of 65 a higher rate of occupational pension than the woman. The net result is that the combined pension entitlement over that period of the man and the woman is the same, although the make-up is different, for example, in 524 the case of the woman one of the elements being the National Insurance pension.
The Brussels Secretariat comes happily along with EC Directive 86/378 and in the name of equality appears to suggest that this arrangement should go. But of course it is not producing equality. If the same occupational pension is paid in those circumstances to the man and the woman, and the woman is also receiving the National Insurance retirement pension, the net result of that effort to impose equality is in fact to impose inequality. That, with respect, is a great nonsense and one which is very much resented.
I have been put in touch with one or two of these major companies by companies which have a very good reputation for intelligent and humane pension schemes. I should like to put to my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale who is to reply the question of whether we are bound to go along with this proposition. There is some derogation already from EC Directive 86/378. It seems that if we are to impose inequality in pensions simply because the European Commission is incapable of understanding our system, that will not only cause considerable injustice but will also increase the resentment—which I think already exists in considerable degree in this country—at the interferences to which we are being subjected from that quarter. I should like my noble friend to consider the matter most seriously.
The issue was raised, as I understand it, in the other place. There many honourable Members attacked this imposition of inequality with considerable vigour. I should be inclined to suggest to my noble friend that, if he is not prepared to make some conciliatory noises about the matter at this stage, it may well be that there will be a repetition of that state of affairs at the Committee stage in this House.
There is also the fact that this matter inevitably raises wider issues. Part of the problem arises because this country and Portugal are the two countries in the EC which have different retirement ages for men and women. There has often been pressure to equalise them, but always to equalise them by giving the men entitlement at the age of 60. The cost of that would be enormous and the social justification very small. I say that because, thanks to modern medicine, the great majority of men in their sixties are not only working but are also perfectly capable of so doing. Therefore to impose this large additional burden on the National Insurance Fund—that is, equalising at 60—would be quite unjustifiable.
At the same time, to equalise retirement ages at 65 presumably would not be wholly acceptable to the women's organisations. When I was Minister, we looked at the problem that arose, and wondered whether some compromise of having, say, 63 as the age for both would not be sensible. The difficulty of that was of course that one would have to give many years' notice; it would be highly controversial; and almost certainly some government that came in during the transition period would halt the transition. It did not therefore seem worth doing. 525 This intervention by Brussels, and the ridiculous result that it produces, is at risk of stirring up this issue and will raise difficult issues for Her Majesty's Government.
I welcome Clause 19. It is wrong that any officer of my noble friend's department who in that capacity has knowledge of people's individual circumstances should give publicity to them. It is right that it should be made an offence to do so. I was glad to see that clause.
I shall only be brief on the unemployment benefit point. The provision as proposed in Clauses 10 and 12 is right. I was rather amused when the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, in the context of Clause 12, referred to the possibility of an unemployed violinist being offered a bricklayer's job. I suppose that she appreciates that that would greatly increase his income, because the rate of remuneration would be a great deal higher and he would be extraordinarily foolish if he did not accept it. But that is by the way.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, as to the justification, the indication given by my noble friend Lord Henley as to the way the matter would be handled of, first, keeping open the question of whether an unemployed man should have to accept a less well-paid job for a bit but not allowing someone, because they have once been well-paid, permanently to refuse anything at a lower level, is to be welcomed.
The only other point with which I wish to deal relates to contributions. It is a good improvement. In the days when I was concerned with those matters, there was a flat-rate contribution. I was responsible for introducing for the first time a graduated contribution. That was described from the Opposition Front Bench in another place by that lovable character Dick Crossman as "the Boyd-Carpenter swindle". It was of course followed in the next Parliament by a great increase in the graduation, about which Mr. Crossman had been so unkind when I introduced it. We probably have got the contributions about right, although the contributions demanded of people on high earnings are very high indeed. It is to be remembered that, although one may not sympathise unduly with a man on high earnings, in many jobs today people earn those high rates for only a limited time and have in that time to provide for the whole of their lifetime. I wonder whether we have not taken the contribution on the top earnings rather too high.
I want to ask one question on Clause 25 which relates to war pensions committees. War pensions committees have existed since the 1914 war. As far as I know, they have functioned satisfactorily. When I was involved, they were the most useful, public spirited and sensible bodies with which one could deal. Will my noble friend explain why it is suddenly necessary in Clause 25 to legislate about war pensions committees, excellent bodies as they always prove themselves to be? It seems curious to be legislating about them at a time when the people they are concerned to look after (the war pensioners) are, happily from some points of view, less 526 conspicuous in numbers than they were some years ago.
I have given a general welcome to the Bill. It is right, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, said, that from time to time this important scheme which touches the lives of all our fellow citizens should be reviewed, that improvements and changes should be made which derive from experience and that the scheme should generally be kept up to date. The Government are to be commended on facing the considerable task which that involves. They face the risk of having all sorts of amendments of a difficult character proposed on such a subject. I wish my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale the best possible luck in the considerable number of days' additional work that the Bill will involve for him.
§ 12.45 p.m.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, as a number of your Lordships have said, the Bill brings in yet more changes to the social security system. For that reason, it should perhaps be judged not only on what it contains but on how it measures up against the many real problems which beset so many of our people. I shall give a few examples: the 1 million disabled people who are now worse off than they were before the 1986 Act; the 9.5 million people (one-sixth of the population) living at or below income support level (an increase of 55 per cent. since 1979); pensioners who are now in total £6 billion per annum worse off as a result of breaking the link between earnings and pensions. The Government take considerable credit for the £14 billion surplus in the public sector which is being used to repay the national debt. We should remember that almost half of that figure has come out of pensioners' pockets. There are the 570,000 claimants who saw no increase in their cash income in the recent upratings, and the 530,000 claimants who received less than the full increase.
The anomalies in the law and regulations, which we have discussed in the House on a number of occasions, mean that many disabled people with the same disabilities and living costs, receive widely differing amounts of benefit, depending upon the way in which the disability was caused, and the hundreds of thousands who are suffering from the arbitrary effects of the transitional protection regulations. At the bottom there is the 20 per cent. of households which have seen a decrease in their incomes in real terms since 1979; and the 400,000 or more households which, in effect, pay marginal tax rates of 70 per cent. to 90 per cent. as a result of the poverty trap. One could go on giving examples.
Measured against the problems that I have mentioned, the Bill sadly fails to meet any of them. Our consideration of the Bill is of course overshadowed by the recent remarks on poverty by Mr. John Moore and his egregious attempts to define it out of existence, which is of course much the cheapest way to deal with the problem.
What are the facts? I have already referred to the 1 million disabled people who are now worse off than they were last year. It is undisputed that a much higher proportion of disabled people live at, or 527 below, the poverty line, however defined, than in the population as a whole. If low pay is defined as two-thirds of median male earnings, in 1979 there were 8 million people in that category (38 per cent. of the workforce); this year there are 9.9 million (48 per cent. of the workforce). We should consider the problems of one-parent families and the gap in disposable incomes between all households and one-parent households. In 1979, the gap was £29.50 per week; in 1989, the gap is £82.88 per week. Between 1979 and 1986, the top 20 per cent. of households saw a 26 per cent. real increase in incomes. During the same period, the bottom 20 per cent. saw a 6 per cent. decrease in real terms.
We have heard a good deal recently about the Government's intention to set up three new agencies in the DSS to deal with information technology, benefits and contributions. Anything which improves the efficiency of the service to claimants is to be welcomed; but one can only wish that the same reforming zeal had been shown in putting right the many anomalies and injustices of which I have given just a few examples.
There are number of areas in the Bill where amendments will be put down to improve the legislation. I shall refer to only two. The first, referred to by my noble friend on the Front Bench and by other noble Lords, is the urgent need to improve and extend the mobility allowance. There is the quite absurd anomaly that while some disabled people—war pensioners, for example—will receive a mobility allowance for the rest of their lives, for others with exactly the same disability and exactly the same need for help and assistance the allowance will end at the age of 80.
The allowance should be extended to the deaf-blind and those with challenging behaviour who need continued intervention and assistance from another person. This will involve, it is estimated, some 10,000 to 12,000 people, and extending the mobility allowance to them would cost only some £12 million per annum.
There are three criteria for the mobility allowance. The claimant must be unable to walk, virtually unable to walk or have a condition where walking would endanger life. The third category is where there is an underlying physical condition where exertion would bring on a heart attack. That means that anybody who can walk—in other words, can put one leg in front of the other—does not qualify for the mobility allowance. Possibly the most grotesque ruling ever by a tribunal of social security commissioners is the one where it was said of children with behavioural, sensory or physical disabilities that if they could be made to put one leg in front of the other, either by,the promise of a reward or the threat of punishment",then they could not be said to have a walking problem.
Two television programmes, "Who's Being Punished" in 1986, and "United in Fury" in 1987, highlighted a number of cases. There was Kieran who at 14 was so strong that it took four adults to restrain him, who could not be left in the house 528 alone and, when unrestrained in the street, would run into the road. But he could walk and he was refused the mobility allowance. There was Christopher who was deaf-blind and who had the allowance for four years; then he lost it on review although his condition had certainly not changed. There was David, 6ft 4ins., 15 stone, autistic. When he stopped dead, he just could not be moved. The programme also looked at the case of Wayne who, because of the general hardening of attitudes, lost the allowance even though a specialist's report made it clear that he would soon die and any attempt at walking would cause a coronary collapse. But he could put one leg in front of the other, so he was refused the allowance.
The solution is simple and amendments will be put down to add a fourth category to the criteria: those people who can physically walk, but who are not able to make use of the faculty because of severe mental or sensory disabilities. As I have said, estimates put the number of deaf-blind people affected at less than 2,000 and all others—the autistic, the brain injured and so forth—at no more than 12,000.
The complexity of the case law has now reached the point where it is impossible for the ordinary claimant or carer to know whether or not he meets the requirements of the mobility allowance regulations. All the claimants can see is the injustice of a system which may award them mobility allowance one year and then take it away the next, because while their problems remain unchanged and while the regulations remain unchanged there has been an adverse commissioner's decision in between.
There is also the clear injustice that of two people with identical problems, one may receive mobility allowance and the other may not because they made their claims at different times. Those who are now able to make successful claims invariably need skilled advice and representation and it is not uncommon for claims to take a number of years to be resolved. I would argue that surely entitlement to benefit which is intended to give help with such a basic requirement as mobility should not require skilled representation and should not involve years and years of legal wrangling.
The second area of social deprivation which the Bill should be amended to deal with and which urgently needs attention is the provision of appropriate help to ensure that young people under 18 who are not able to live at home receive sufficient income support until they secure a YTS place or a job.
In his recent speech Mr. John Moore referred to poverty in Victorian times. Shelter have pointed out that the combined effects of the social security Acts, the housing Acts and the board and lodging regulations have created youth poverty on a scale not seen here since Victorian times. It is estimated that there are now some 50,000 homeless teenagers in London alone who are caught in a tangle of DSS forms and red tape. That is before the advent of the poll tax next year makes the situation much worse. The recent dreadful case of Jason Swift has been referred to. This shows what awful risks youngsters run.
529 Perhaps we should reflect on the thoughts of one boy who has lived on the streets for as long as he can remember:To be hassled and jostled and moved on; and really to feel that it would appear to be perfectly true that I have no business here, or there, or anywhere; and yet be perplexed by the consideration that I am here, somehow too, and everybody overlooked me until I became the creature that I am!Those are the words of Joe, the crossing sweeper, in Bleak House, written in 1852. In this respect, Mr. John Moore's comparison with Victorian times may be rather more embarrassing than he expected.
It was pointed out in another place that it used to be the policemen who seemed to be getting younger, but now it is the homeless. We shall certainly wish to put down amendments to improve the lot of the 16 and 17 year-olds who are suffering real social deprivation and who, by any definition, are genuinely poor.
There are many other parts of the Bill which need much improvement and amendment, but time does not allow me to deal with them. Suffice it to say that from this side of the House we shall do our utmost to ensure that at least a few of the injustices with which our social security system is riddled are ended.
§ 12.56 p.m.
§ Baroness Macleod of Borve
My Lords, this is a very important Bill and we are all indebted to my noble friend Lord Henley for introducing it to us so helpfully. I have a pressing engagement later on this afternoon and I therefore hope that, like me, other noble Lords will take only a short time to speak on a few clauses, as is my intention.
This important Bill has 33 clauses and I wish to start my remarks with Clause 4, which details the problems of the widows' benefit. As we all know, there is an unfortunate anomaly regarding women who became widows before 11th April 1988. The reason why I raise this clause is that I am chairman of the Trustees of the National Association of Widows and we have received a great number of inquiries from people worried about the revised benefit package. This affects some 23,000 widows who are caught in the age band. I wonder whether the Minister can tell the House whether the anomaly has been rectified and when the adjustment will be implemented. I have not been able to follow the proposal through, although I telephoned the office this morning.
As the House will know, women are most grateful for what they receive—£1,000 on the death of their husbands instead of the extra amount on the widows' pension which they used to receive for the first 26 weeks. As I said, this is very welcome, but most of us know that the cost of burying anybody, whether it is a dear husband or anybody else, has gone up enormously. Most of the £1,000 goes on the funeral. Because the widow has received that money, she is then unable to claim further financial help from the social fund and is very often left in difficult circumstances.
I wish to ask my noble friend this question. I am reliably informed that it may take from six to 20 weeks for the widow's pension to come through. During that time a woman with very limited 530 amounts of money can be in dire straits. She will of course get a job, as we all have to when we are faced with financial problems. However, I hope that the Minister will consider the amount of time it takes for a widow's pension to come through.
Clause 7 abolishes the earnings rule. I am glad that so many noble Lords have drawn the Minister's attention to this very welcome provision as regards the ability of older people to go out to work. Those people will be able to give of their experience, skills and knowledge to fill the gaps which we are told will inevitably arise in a few years, if not now, when there will be fewer school-leavers. That provision will encourage people to do more with their later lives.
I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, that I think a great number of people will take advantage of his suggestion, in that they will not take their retirement pension but will live on the money they earn and will therefore receive a higher pension later on. I am sure his words of wisdom will be taken note of.
The extension of the upper age limit for the mobility allowance in Clause 8 is generally welcome for the disabled people affected by it. However, like other noble Lords, I wonder whether an age limit is necessary. I suggest that the yardstick should be a medical certificate. I think it is quite simple to decide whether a disabled person is still able to be in charge of a motor vehicle, for example, without endangering others.
The noble Lord, Lord Carter, quite rightly talked at some length about one aspect of our modern life, which is the vulnerability of young people. Those who leave home on account of unhappiness, or who leave a local authority environment, and who fall within the 16-to-18 age group are not, as I understand it, entitled to the same financial help as those young people who fall within the 18-to-22 age group. The noble Lord drew our attention to that.
These young people go out alone unto a very hard world. They leave security behind them, however happy or unhappy that security was. As I understand it, the Government want to encourage initiative and encourage young people to find employment outside their home towns. However, they are discouraging them to do this with what I can only call a particularly mean decision to treat those within the 16-to-18 age group differently to the 18 to 22 year-olds. The older ones will probably have had the opportunity of full employment, even if they have also had to follow YTS. These young people are in real trouble. I am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for giving us some figures.
I wonder whether the Minister can tell us more about whether the Government are going to help young people in the 16-to-18 age group. I welcome this important Bill. After so many hours spent on water, it is almost stimulating to return to talking about people. In my view, your Lordships' House is best at dealing with people. I welcome the Committee stage. I believe that it will be very interesting.
§ 1.4 p.m.
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, this Bill has been described to me as a ragbag of measures. Some of the rags are good and should be retained, others should be discarded. As with all household ragbags, there is room for more.
I am pleased that the upper age limit for the mobility allowance is to be extended. Over a period of time I have received letters from people who have suffered conditions which affect their mobility after they have reached the age of 65. They have been unable to understand why they have not been awarded the allowance. In my replies I have said that, unfortunately, the cost of raising the upper age limit would be prohibitive, and no government could contemplate it.
At the other end of the age scale, I have been told of a number of cases where claims on behalf of physically or mentally handicapped young adults have been rejected because they are able to walk a short distance and negotiate obstacles on the day they are examined. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, expanded considerably on that matter. No account is taken of the fact that their behaviour may be erratic or unpredictable, and that they need assistance. Would it be possible to introduce more flexibility into assessment of applicants, and to take into account reports from their GPs and social workers at an early stage, rather than when a case goes to appeal?
It is not unreasonable to expect parents who can afford to do so to be financially responsible for their children until they reach the age of 19, or are able to maintain themselves. Most parents do this already. We must not forget that relatively small group of 16 to 17 year-olds who, as the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, has just said, are very vulnerable as they have no parental support.
The Government have agreed that young people leaving care should receive income support, but they do not seem willing to accept that those who have left, or who have been thrown out of the parental home because their situation has become intolerable, should be similarly supported. The charities and voluntary organisations which help them have limited means and cannot hope to pick up all the distressed young people who tend to gravitate to the cities. The noble Lord the Minister is well aware of the evils to which they fall prey; he has been told often enough. Why are the Government so reluctant to allow them a little financial security and dignity?
Why do the Government not accept that some 16 to 17 year-olds, who are unable to obtain a place on YTS because a place is not available, should receive income support until a place is available or the young person finds other work? What is the reason for the lower rate of income support paid to 16 to 17 year-olds for their food, clothes and personal needs when they live independently? They do not eat less and are not able to obtain their purchases at a lower price than 25 year-olds. It was said that 25 year-olds have more responsibilities. But now that the housing element has been taken from income support, that argument does not seem to hold water.
532 Other noble Lords have spoken about the higher standard of proof required to show that an unemployed claimant is available for and actively seeking work. I ask the Minister what provision is to be made for those who claim unemployment benefit or income support while they care for sick or disabled dependants. These people, mainly women, selflessly provide round-the-clock care for their relatives, thereby saving the state huge sums in social security benefits. Are they to be penalised because they are not readily available for work?
The Minister will recall that I have asked him before about those who are nowadays classified as having learning difficulties. They may be physically fit. They do not perceive themselves as being unfit for work. They may be in and out of jobs or do casual work. In between jobs they claim benefits, but these are not always paid because the claimant falls foul of the rules. The Minister, in his reply to me, said those people could go to their GP for a certificate of incapacity to work. After my explanation, I found that reply very unsatisfactory. The Minister did not seem to understand that these people are not sick. They are not scroungers, and to maintain their dignity they will go on trying to get work. Cannot special provision be made for benefits to be paid to them during their periods of unemployment? They can be recognised by their work pattern and at interview. I am sure that social reports are also available on them. I shall be most interested to hear what prescribed circumstances the Government intend to introduce.
We should make every effort to persuade the Government to extend attendance allowance to the terminally ill in the first six months of their illness. The Government's excuses for withholding the allowance during that period do not seem reasonable. Both patient and carer suffer unnecessary distress and hardship during this already stressful period. I am growing increasingly sceptical about the efficacy of transitional payments. The Government's promises about special transitional payments to those in receipt of income support who need respite care at regular intervals have been disappointing. Will the Minister assure the House that those who are forced to live in bed and breakfast accommodation with inadequate cooking facilities will be compensated for the loss of the so-called eating out allowance as a result of the changes from income support to housing benefit which took place last month?
Finally, perhaps I may ask the Minister why it is that, when a claimant's circumstances are suspected not to be as claimed, benefits are immediately withheld and are not restored until a decision is made by an adjudication officer, a tribunal or a commissioner. I cannot think of any other situation in English law where an individual is judged guilty until proved innocent. There has been some improvement in the length of time taken to resolve cases, but it is still far too long. Can anything be done to reduce the time involved?
I look forward very much to hearing the Minister's response and to the ensuing debate as the Bill passes through its various stages in this House.
§ 1.10 p.m.
§ Lord Stallard
My Lords, this is the thirteenth major social security Bill since 1979. The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, quite rightly took the Minister to task for calling it a small Bill and almost underplaying it. It is in fact a fairly hefty Bill. Although not as hefty as Bills on some other subjects, this legislation contains enough meat in one clause to occupy quite a number of clauses in any other Bill. I do not see any justification for the underplaying by the Government of the Bill.
Over the same period there have been scores of circulars, directives, instructions and regulations arising from the Bills and from various reviews. So the system is literally under constant, almost daily, review, not always for the best reasons. My noble friend Lady Jeger has mentioned the Government's pledge to simplify the system. It is my view that they have complicated the system. It is now far more complicated than it was when they made that pledge. There are more forms to fill in, more interviews, more questions, more means tests, more penalties and very often less benefit. There is certainly more confusion among people who should be able to understand the system but do not.
All those Bills have had the same objective—to save money by reducing benefits and to use the reductions to finance tax cuts, as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said. Most of the Bills have been guillotined in the other place and pushed through the House. In this House, it is becoming quite common for such Bills to be almost the last item on the agenda. We used to call it "Any Other Business"; now we have social security Bills.
As the noble Countess, Lady Mar, said, the Bill is a mish-mash. Like the others, it has everything in it: it is a very confused set-up. I should like to spend a few moments on some of the issues. Like other noble Lords who have spoken, I welcome some items. I wonder why they are in the Bill when we have already welcomed them. We have, for instance, paid our due respects to the ending of the earnings rule. The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said that this was part of the Conservative manifesto and had to be implemented. I shall not embarrass him by saying how long ago it appeared in the manifesto and how long it has taken to honour the pledge. But it is a fairly long time since the Conservative party first gave that manifesto pledge.
I welcome the moves towards equal treatment for men and women in occupational pension schemes, albeit following an EC directive. I welcome, too, the lifting of the age barrier for mobility allowance. I share, however, the reservations of the noble Countess, Lady Mar, on the age limit of 65. I have never understood why the present rules create the ludicrous anomaly whereby someone who becomes disabled the day before his or her 65th birthday may receive mobility allowance for the next 10 to15 years, but someone who, with the same injuries, becomes immobile the day after his or her 65th birthday receives no benefit whatever. It seems to me that that anomaly should have been rectified when mobility allowance was discussed. Having said that, I understand that the Government have 534 acknowledged that that extension is an interim measure and that there will be further reports when the six surveys by the OPCS on disablement have been completed. Can the Minister say when he expects the final reports of those surveys? That might be a more appropriate time to discuss the anomaly that I have mentioned.
I have fairly strong reservations about other proposals in the Bill, but I do not have time to deal with all of them. One reservation concerns the abolition of the Treasury supplement outlined in Clause 3. Unlike some noble Lords, I do not welcome that change. I take it that those proposals represent the final stage of a process that began in 1981; namely, the erosion of the Treasury supplement to the National Insurance Fund. The National Insurance Fund pays for unemployment benefit, sickness benefit, invalidity benefit, widow's benefit, maternity allowance and retirement pensions. The fund is supposed to operate on a day-to-day pay-as-you-go basis, but the Government have found it to be a more convenient source of income.
The Beveridge Report of 1942 originally envisaged a tripartite scheme of contributions under which the national exchequer would pay a third of the costs of unemployment benefits and one-sixth of the costs of pensions, disability and maternity benefits. The Treasury supplement fluctuated over time, but, in the mid-1960s, it settled down to about 18 per cent. and in 1975, it was fixed at that. In 1980, the then Chancellor announced that the supplement would be reduced from 18 per cent. to 14.5 per cent., thus shifting an extra heavy burden on to those who could least afford it—those on low or average pay. Since then, the Treasury supplement has steadily dwindled until the current year when it stands at 5 per cent. We are now told that it will be abolished altogether.
The Government justified the change as a triumph of a healthy growth in incomes. But what are the facts? For some years now, the fund has taken more in contributions than it has paid out in benefits. That is because, while contribution income automatically rises in line with average earnings, benefit payments are uprated only in line with prices. For instance, this year, the old age pension has risen by 5.9 per cent., but the increase in prices is currently running at 8 per cent. So it does not always follow prices. It has certainly not followed income for a long time. Therefore, the difference between the two has meant massive profits for the Treasury. Last year, it was estimated that the profit amounted to £3,000 million, not because of good management, growth in employment or because the economy is booming, but because the Government had reduced payments to claimants and pensioners. Instead of using the profits to increase benefits or to reduce National Insurance contributions, or both, they simply embarked on a programme of tax cuts, mainly to people who did not need them, using the money taken from pensioners to finance them.
Pensioners have an unanswerable moral case for revolt. They do not have any industrial muscle with which to implement it. But they do not underestimate their strength. They have an increasing awareness of their electoral muscle. I 535 predict that the confidence trick which has again been perpetrated against them by an insensitive Government will not go unpunished.
I should like to say a few words about the nub of the Bill; that is, Clauses 10, 12 and 13 which contain the real reasons for the measure. Those clauses tighten up even further the criteria of whether or not a claimant is genuinely, involuntarily unemployed.
An article in the Independent towards the end of December by its social services correspondent summed it up:The unemployed will be required to prove that they are actively seeking work each week—writing job applications, registering with employment agencies and applying for advertised jobs, with officials checking with employers if necessary—under the Government's Social Security Bill published yesterday…In addition, after 13 weeks, and probably less in areas with large numbers of unemployed, they will no longer be allowed to turn down a job because the pay is too low. The two measures are expected to knock 50,000 more off the unemployment register and save £100 million a year in benefit payments".In my view that is the main reason for this Bill. It always comes down to savings in jobs or money, and in this case both. I do not accept that there is a need for the proposals, unlike the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who claimed a need for the stringent new proposals. In my view there is a perfectly adequate framework of law and regulations to deal with abuses of the system. At present the Social Security Act 1975 disqualifies claimants who, without good cause, either refuse or neglect to avail themselves of suitable employment. It also disqualifies people who without good cause fail to follow reasonable official advice about finding suitable employment, or people who turn down approved training places.
That Act was passed by a Labour Government. These Benches supported it because we opposed abuse of the system in line with everybody else. We have never favoured abuse of the system at the expense of other claimants.
There are also in place stringent tests on availabiity and active search for work. Claimants are asked to fill in a form—UB671—which is an 18-part document which has some very searching questions which have to be answered. Before applicants fill it in they are advised to read the notes it contains. I quote from the document:Unemployment benefits are payable only to people who are available for work with an employer. We may ask you at any time what efforts you have made to find a job. Always keep a note of what you have done to find work and jobs you have applied for. Being available for work means that you can start work immediately. It means that you do not unreasonably restrict your chances of getting a job because of (1) the kind of job you are looking for; (2) the hours you can work; (3) the rate of pay you require; or (4) whether you are prepared to work".Those are fairly stringent conditions. It is hard to know how they can be strengthened but the Government say they have done that in this Bill, which I dispute. Claimants are also asked to produce evidence, if they can get it—they cannot always do so—to say what they have done and all the steps they have taken—phone calls etc.—to find jobs. These forms are backed up by notes of guidance, directives and instructions to regional adjudication officers and to unemployment benefit office managers telling them how to interpret the replies 536 to the questions and advising them how to suspend benefit and for how long. It is almost always the case that as soon as there is something not quite right they are on the phone saying, "Immediately suspend benefit". There are no interim measures. They say "Suspend benefits and we can talk about it. Too bad if the man is not getting benefit in the meantime. Suspend it straight away and then we can discuss it". So there are stringent tests at the moment and very heavy penalties. I say that we do not need the new ones.
As if that was not enough, the availability tests that I have just mentioned are now linked with the Restart scheme which was piloted in January 1986 and implemented the same year. It is now linked to these stringent tests. Again, there is a fairly long form, which says:Being available for work means that you can start work straight away";or if you are doing voluntary work in the community then you get a 24 hours' extension. It also means,that you do not unreasonably restrict your chances of getting work because of the type of job you are looking for; the hours you can work; the rate of pay you want".So it is again emphasised that there are not any other conditions which would stop someone looking for work. They are all taken care of in that documentation.
Availability for work is not a new concept. It was introduced in 1924 in the Unemployment Insurance (No. 2) Act. After a great deal of criticism by the Morris Report, that Act was repealed in 1930. The reasons are set out in the report of the Royal Commission on Unemployment Insurance, 1932, Cmnd. Paper 4185. It is not my intention to read all of it now but it makes very interesting reading. It substantiates my views and those of other commentators that the proposals in this Bill are unnecessary. They perhaps emphasise the need to be more punitive—tighten the screws a little more. They are certainly not sufficient to merit a completely new Bill. I am again left wondering why we have the Bill.
I have said that it is to save £100 million. It is also to reduce the unemployment register by 50,000. But there is another reason, and I should like to end with this point: this generation of renewed publicity and enthusiastic concern about the availability rules. I have a great deal of sympathy with the views of those who link the various training schemes to an increased emphasis on the act of searching for work. I agree with them when they perceive the overall trend as being toward a system in which benefits are given in exchange for compulsory work or training. In my view that is another reason for this Bill. We are moving toward a state of benefits in return for compulsory training. It is not quite the same but is almost like the workfare schemes which operate in the United States.
The Government were taxed with that and denied that they even contemplated the introduction of such schemes. There is a very detailed argument about these schemes in a document published last summer by an employment training organisation. In an article entitled Workfare by any other name it takes the Government to task on whether or not they are 537 contemplating such a system. It is all very well for them to say that they are not, but the Secretary of State has reserved his right to make the ET scheme compulsory. So there is reason to doubt the Government's intentions. I come down on the side of those who feel that the trend is toward paying benefits for compulsory training. Therefore we are into the area of workfare schemes. I predict that probably that will be the concern of the main clause in another mish-mash, hashed-up Bill in 1990 presented on the last day before a recess, just a couple of hours before we go off to enjoy a break.
Like others, I have many more points that I should like to raise but I have taken up enough time as it is. I look forward to an extremely interesting Committee stage.
§ 1.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Faithfull
My Lords, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, I welcome this Bill and thank my noble friend Lord Henley for having introduced it. I recognise that there are some points which need to be dealt with in this House and I hope that we shall be able to persuade Her Majesty's Government to make some alterations so that it leaves here an even better Bill than it is at the moment.
I should like to raise a few points on ways in which we might improve the Bill. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, raised the matter of the attendance allowance for people who are terminally ill. We owe a great deal to the hospice movement for the work that it does in this country. I should like to pay tribute to the hospice movement for the work that it undertakes north, south, east and west in the United Kingdom. It has made representations to me, and I am sure to many other noble Lords, on the question of the attendance allowance. As is well known, the attendance allowance was introduced in 1971. It is paid after a six-month period. However, if one is found to be terminally ill and is likely to die before the six months, one does not receive the attendance allowance. I believe that we ought to help the hospice movement, and all those who are terminally ill, so that they can draw the attendance allowance before the six-month period.
A point that has been touched upon by many other noble Lords is the position of the 16 to 17 year-olds. I support the Government's policy that, where possible and practicable, young people of 16 and 17 years of age should be encouraged to live at home, and that it is wise to expect parents to continue to provide comfort and control for these young people. Before the Social Security Act 1988 a small proportion of young people were drawing supplementary benefit, leaving home, and, in some cases, living on the resorts on the south coast as if on a long holiday. It is right in the interests of those young people to help them so far as is possible and practical to be supported by their parents.
Perhaps I may point out to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that it is not known at what age Dick Whittington walked to London. I had it checked in the Library since he made that comment. The first time that Dick Whittington is mentioned in history as being in London is at the age of 19. He may 538 have come earlier but we do not know at what age. However, apart from exceptional cases—I underline that; and perhaps Dick Whittington was one—I believe that the Government are right to hope that many children will stay at home in their early years.
Having said that, there are a number of 16 to 17 year-olds who cannot be at home and who have no home. This matter came up on the Children Bill. On that Bill we tried to make recommendations to Her Majesty's Government that young adults of 16 to 17 years should be aided and assisted by the social services departments if they had been in care. The Children Bill provides that they may be aided and assisted, not that they shall or must be aided and assisted. As was stated during discussion on the Children Bill, a number of local authorities are not assisted by the local authority social services departments and therefore at the age of 16 and 17 years young adults are living on very little money with no home to go to and no one to cherish and care for them.
Representations were made to the Secretary of State that these children should be properly cared for, in particular, financially. I pay tribute to both the Secretary of State and the Minister, Mr. Nicholas Scott, who in a very short time altered the Social Security Bill, putting up the amount that the 16 to 17 year-olds should receive. I do not wish to look a gift horse in the mouth, but it was not and is not quite enough. Even now young people with no home background, with no one to support and help them, are still at risk.
It is not cost-effective not to help these young people more than we are doing. As one young girl said to me, "I have no option, Miss, but to go on the game. I have no option but to be a prostitute in order to live". Another said to me, "I must go on drugs. I must somehow get through life". I pay tribute to the number of young people who do not do either of those things but manage to live on the very small amount of money that they have, but it is at the expense of their health, without proper food and clothing.
Furthermore, the number of homeless young people in this country is increasing. It is because they cannot afford to pay for anywhere to live. Those are young people who in middle and older years will be sleeping underneath the arches. When we say that people should not be sleeping underneath the arches, we have to consider what happened when they were young. I submit to Her Majesty's Government that, with the passage of this Bill through your Lordships' House, we may improve even further the position of 16 to 17 year-olds who have been in care.
There are also those young people who cannot live at home because they have been turned out of their homes. Indeed, one woman said to me the other day, "I cannot wait for my boy to be 16 for me to get rid of him. I want to go out to work and I do not want to care for him". It is regrettable but a fact of life that a number of young people are turned out of their homes or for various reasons cannot live at home. I make a plea to Her Majesty's Government that although they have been generous in considering this point they might consider it yet again.
539 As almost all other noble Lords have done, I raise the question of child benefit. There is one point that I should like to take up. I listened with interest to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter and the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm. For those who are not well versed in high finance it was an extraordinarily interesting debate between the two of them. How do we know that the wealthy draw child benefit? Who are these people? No research has been done, so far as I know, on the wealthy who draw child benefit. I should be grateful to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter and to the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, if they would explain to me how they know who are the wealthy who are drawing child benefit. I cannot believe that there are very many in the country, and the few who may exist are welcome to it if we can keep child benefit for the remainder.
§ Baroness Seear
My Lords, will the noble Baroness agree that since the Government cannot define poverty they will not be able to define wealthy either?
§ Baroness Faithfull
My Lords, we shall wait and see what comes out of this debate. I take the noble Baroness's point.
I should like to ask the Minister what reasons are given for freezing child benefit for the last two years. This matter was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Stallard. Why has it been frozen? Other benefits have not been frozen, so far as I know. I have tried to check that. Tax allowances have been increased in line with inflation. It worries me greatly that we are rating our children at the lowest end of the scale. If we do not look after our children in this country, then the country suffers. We are putting children at the lowest end of the scale by freezing child benefit. What is the policy on the future of child benefit? We all want to know that. We are all worried at the freezing of child benefit. It is only child benefit—no other benefits. Does this mean that the Government will do away with child benefit? If so, I think that would be most regrettable for reasons which are well known and which I shall not go into now.
There are three other points I should like to raise. One is the question of working lone parents. The Government are pressing women to go out to work. Women are needed for work and the Government are pressing firms to set up creches and nurseries to enable women to work. This issue was also touched on in the Children Bill. Working women have to pay for someone to look after their children. Paying for a child to be cared for is a very heavy expense. I suggest that such women should be allowed to deduct child care expenses from their earnings in the calculation of income support and housing benefit. If they do not allow that the Government will be in some difficulty because the women will not go out to work. It will not be worth their while. I suggest to my noble friend the Minister that perhaps the two Ministries should talk together because there are obviously two different aspects here. Unless this is resolved one department will not get what it wants because of what the other department is doing.
The young single expectant mother is not eligible for income support until her 28th week of pregnancy, 540 yet up to 28 weeks she is receiving £14.10 less a week than a married woman. After she has had the baby she is allowed the full allowance. That is a rather strange anomaly. It seems to me that she should have been receiving the payment during pregnancy if she is to be allowed to receive it afterwards.
There is a further point which I believe the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, will take up, so I shall not develop it; but is my noble friend really happy about payments for bed and breakfast and for the lone homeless person? The Department of Social Security sent out an information sheet saying that most people receiving income support will not have less money each week just because of the change made in April 1989. I have tried to investigate that, and most families in bed and breakfast accommodation in London or the homeless young are less well off now than they were before April 1989.
Those are a few points which I have brought before the House. I believe that the Bill is good but I hope that we can improve it and send it from this House a better Bill.
§ 1.43 p.m.
§ Lady Kinloss
My Lords, I am pleased that, in introducing the Bill, the Government have proposed a number of amendments to the law relating to social security and to occupational and personal pension schemes. It has long seemed to me that some things needed tidying up. So far as the pension schemes are concerned there is just one point that I should like to make. This concerns the case of people who have enjoyed widow's pensions for which their deceased husbands have compulsorily paid. Why should they forfeit them if they re-marry? That seems to me to be anomalous. I know of several cases where naval, military and colonial service widows have found it more convenient not to re-marry but simply to cohabit in order not to lose financially. I realise that this situation has been long in existence, but it seems rather odd that there should be regulations which some find to be a bar to marriage.
I have several questions relating to social security. I am sorry not to see in the Bill any reference to child benefit. One would have hoped that there would be an increase in child benefit, pegged at the very least to price rises. That would have been widely welcomed because in many families the mother, and perhaps therefore also the children, are not necessarily receiving a fair share of the family income to meet their needs. The payment of the child benefit direct to the mother will ensure that in most cases the person most closely responsible for the children has at least some income in her own right.
One group that I am particularly concerned about, and which several noble Lords have already mentioned, are young people who for one reason or another cannot live at home. I welcome the recently announced changes in the benefit rules relating to some 16 and 17 year-olds, who, as others have said, have left care and have no support from their families and cannot live at home. However, the increase in income support to £27.40 will still not completely cover their needs—clothes, food, heating 541 and travelling to look for work. The increased rati which is the amount payable to 18 to 24 year-olds while a substantial one, is, I venture to think, based on a false premise; namely, it is calculated on the basis that young people under 25 are living at home I wonder whether any survey has ever been made o the extent to which these lonely young people ge into debt. That would be most revealing and would perhaps be of assistance in determining the rea problems.
During the passage through Parliament in 1986 of the Social Security Act, the Government made the point that 80 per cent. of young people under the age of 25 live at home with parents and therefore need less benefit. But the problem is for those young people who have left care and who have no home to go to or for other reasons cannot live at home. They are being forced to live on a rate of benefit which leaves very little margin for their other needs. Shelter is most concerned with the difficulties in getting assistance faced by young people who are estranged from their families.
There are also complaints of serious delays in receiving benefits. I realise that a few may decide to leave home and do not want to have anything to do with their parents. Some are difficult or think it would be nice to have money, but surely some way could be found to help those genuine young people who have nowhere to go and no one to turn to, especially those, as I have already said, who have left local authority care.
I am not blaming the Government for wishing to be economical, but those who advise them have not faced up to reality in the matter. This issue was raised during the passage of the Children Bill through your Lordships' House. The noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack assured us that this matter would be dealt with in the Social Security Bill. He assured us that local authorities' duties financially to assist young people who have left their care would be dealt with in this Bill. I do not feel that our hope that it would be had been fully justified. Perhaps we shall be more successful at future stages of the Bill.
I turn now to Clause 7. I am sure everyone welcomes the increase in the age limit from 75 to 80 for mobility allowance, but how many persons over 80 are denied mobility allowance, suddenly finding their independence curtailed? There are an estimated 10,000 people with severe disability problems who do not receive the allowance because of the way in which the conditions for eligibility are worded, and in some cases interpreted. The wording of the test which causes most trouble is "virtually unable to walk". It is a purely physical test which looks only at a claimant's ability to use his or her legs or feet in order to walk. As a result of this test some disabled people who are incapable of independent mobility, fail to qualify for mobility allowance.
It is not only physically disabled people, but those who are deaf-blind who have difficulty in qualifying for the mobility allowance because, although able to walk, they cannot usually do so unattended and may need a skilled guide at all times when walking out of doors. All their problems added together mean that even the simplest journey will need assistance 542 from a taxi or another person, all of which has to be paid for.
Another group which is suffering are mentally handicapped children. They may literally be able to make the physical movement of walking but, because of behavioural problems associated with their condition—for example, they have tantrums or refuse to walk—travel on public transport is virtually impossible. Therefore their parents need a car. In his opening speech I understood the Minister to say that the Government will review the mobility allowance for the severely disabled after the survey of the OPCS has been received. Can the Minister say when that is likely to be?
Clause 10 introduces to the unemployment benefit scheme a requirement to seek employment actively before benefit may be paid. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that that is right; but the position of those people who undertake voluntary work under the new regulations is unclear. Age Concern relies on volunteers to provide direct services to elderly people across the country. Can the Minister say whether voluntary work will be sufficient evidence to show that someone is actually seeking work?
I have raised a number of topics. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments when he replies to the debate.
§ 1.50 p.m.
§ Baroness Platt of Writtle
My Lords, I rise to welcome the Bill, as have many other noble Lords. In particular, I welcome Clause 1 which considerably reduces the percentage of National Insurance contributions and should therefore have a major positive effect on tackling the poverty trap. That is very good news.
Like other noble Lords, I should like to take this opportunity of speaking about child benefit. It has now been frozen and was not completely updated in line with inflation on a number of occasions. One has heard a dialogue about the possibility of its being discontinued, and I should like to speak up for it. It is paid to the parent caring for the child. That is usually the non-earner and usually the mother. It is a vital part of the exercise of her independent judgment on the child's needs, especially in a family where the father is less than generous. Sadly, overall family earnings do not always accurately reflect what is spent on the support of the child.
I realise that in planning their financial policy the Government are targeting benefits toward the low paid. Family credit and increased income supplements do so; that is a good thing. Nevertheless, the fact that child benefit has a 98 per cent. takeup shows its popularity. It is simple to claim, not subject to delay and therefore a great boon to the harassed mother needing the money urgently. It is also the country's investment in the coming generation. It is very much better targeted than the old tax allowance. Few people are entitled to it who could manage without it. They do not need to collect it.
I must point out that the vast majority of the money is thriftily spent. For example, it is spent on children's clothes, shoes and equipment which today are very expensive. Also, on allowing children to 543 take part in school activities, to widen their horizons, perhaps to allow them to learn a musical instrument or take sports coaching. Above all, it allows the caring parent to exercise judgment on individual children's needs. I hope that it will always continue to be paid and will be updated. Money spent on the country's future human resources must be money well invested.
I was delighted to read Clause 6, which is fair to those widows temporarily caught by an unfortunate anomaly. Although I am over 65 I am glad that the Government have fulfilled their pledge to abolish the earnings rule for pensioners provided in Clause 7. Calendar age is not the most important factor and one is as old as one feels. This House is a shining example of that fact of life. Peers in their 80s are intelligently carrying out a daily working schedule that would daunt many people 30 years younger. With the present skill shortages and the fall in the number of 18 year-olds that allows a better use of precious human skills and talents and allows them to benefit personally from their work.
I hope that Clauses 10, 11, 12 and 13 will also achieve that end. Long-term unemployment is the most demoralising experience. The possession of a job, a wage packet and the friendly relationships developed at work are among people's most valuable possessions and are a vital contribution to their self respect.
With the present problem of skill shortages jobs are available which remain unfilled, as the Minister said. Some of those jobs do not require special training. If people are actively seeking work they are more likely to obtain those jobs and be eligible for training which will fit them for unfilled jobs. Having held down one job they they are more likely to obtain another which better suits their skills. I believe that the allied initiatives of the Government, job clubs, employment training and enterprise agencies need to play their separate parts sympathetically in this exercise. Good counselling on self-appraisal, preparing an application form positively and learning how to improve one's job worthiness is of great value. Indeed, it is indispensable to the long-term unemployed.
The idea of a trial job period without losing one's eligibility for unemployment benefit is also good. I was also interested in the suggestion that a person who has obtained a job will have a week in which to prepare himself or herself before starting work. That provision is especially important to women who may have to arrange child care. Can the Minister say whether that period can be extended sympathetically if a woman is finding the provision of child care difficult? A week is not very long.
Finally, noble Lords will expect me to welcome wholeheartedly equal treatment for men and women in occupational pension schemes. During their working lives men and women have equal opportunities and they should have equal opportunities regarding pay and contributions and the drawing of pensions and benefits. I am also glad that the Bill provides for equal treatment directly and indirectly, so that the new legislation 544 will apply to part-time workers pro rata—most of whom are women—just as much as to full-time workers. That is a decision of great benefit and leads to women's greater independence in their old age which they deserve after a long working life.
On behalf of both sexes—and therefore true equal opportunities—I look forward to the equalisation of the state pension age. The day that happens will be a major milestone in equal opportunities terms. Everyone will need adequate warning of the effective date so that it can be properly planned for well ahead. Can my noble friend assure me that the Government are actively considering how to prepare for making that announcement so that it will be made with the minimum of delay? That would signal the achievement of a long-awaited goal. I welcome the Bill in many ways.
§ 1.57 p.m.
§ Lord Pitt of Hampstead
My Lords, unlike the previous speaker I am not sure that I welcome the Bill. In fact I wish that we could find it possible to persuade the Government to change their social security strategy. The social security system has been described as being society's safety net, but the Government continue to find ways of making holes in the net. In 1986 it was the social fund. Last year the 16 to 17 year-olds were penalised. Both those decisions have had unpleasant consequences. One hoped that this social security Bill would amend the social fund as as to remove its cash limitation and substitute grants for loans, and make it less restrictive. The evidence shows that to be the problem with the social fund.
One also hoped that most of the 16 to 17 year-olds would have their entitlement to income support restored because there is plenty of evidence to show the consequences of its withdrawal. Instead of that, what do we have? The Bill puts additional pressures on the unemployed. It creates additional hardships for those who receive housing benefit and it does what I imagine the Government regard as their crowning achievement: it abolishes the Treasury contribution to the social security fund.
It is the opposite which is required. What is more, we are in a position where we can well afford it. Instead of abolishing the Treasury contribution, we should be setting up a proper social security fund. We are in a position to do just that because of our Budget surpluses. In fact we should be doing more for the next generation and the one after if, instead of using the Budget surplus to pay off the national debt, we used it to establish a proper social security fund, because at present the social security fund merely works from day to day on the basis of the payment.
I shall spend my few minutes in addressing two issues which have been brought to my attention by Shelter. Neither issue has been attacked in the Bill but this House has the opportunity to support amendments and I hope that when appropriate amendments come forward, they will be supported.
The first matter I wish to discuss is the position of homeless people who are living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. The noble Baroness, Lady 545 Faithfull, suggested that I would be dealing with that and I shall try to deal with it. On 10th April of this year those people were astounded to learn that their incomes had been severely cut due to changes in the way in which their benefits were paid. Prior to 10th April, boarders received a special rate of income support which included money for their housing charges and a meals or eating out allowance to compensate for the appalling lack of cooking facilities in the hotels. Now all boarders in bed-and-breakfast accommodation receive their housing costs through the housing benefit system rather than through income support and they no longer receive an eating out allowance.
Those changes have left most people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation considerably worse off. The lost eating out allowance was worth up to £21.70 per week per person for adults and children over 11 years of age where a hotel provided breakfast. In addition, families will have to pay certain service or amenity charges out of their income support which housing benefit will not cover. There is already evidence to show the devastating effect of those changes on people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
I should like to provide two examples which have been given to Shelter by a local advice centre in London to illustrate the point. Mr. and Mrs. S and their eight year-old child are a refugee family who have been placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation by the City of Westminster. Before 10th April they received £81.50 income support per week. They now receive a total of £53.82—a loss of £27.68 per week. In addition, they have to pay £11.41 to their hotel for services, which in their case includes £4.50 per week for breakfast even though Mrs. S. for health reasons, does not eat the breakfast. Since the family have been placed away from Westminster, they have to spend £13 per week travelling to English language classes. That leaves them with a total of £28 per week plus child benefit—and at least that exists—to live on, or £1.68 per day per person for food, clothes and other essentials.
I shall give your Lordships another example. There is the case of Miss T, who is a single parent with two small children aged under 11. Before April, Miss T received £62 per week income support. She now receives £45—a loss of £17 per week. There is one kitchen in the hotel shared by 25 families, containing one cooker, with an oven which does not work and a hob with only three rings working. The kitchen is so small that only two people can fit into it at one time. Miss T relies on take-away food since she was badly burned by a pan of boiling oil which fell off the cooker when the kitchen became too crowded. Miss T pays £7.50 in amenity charges, including £4.50 for breakfast, which in her case consists of a packet of cornflakes, seven pints of milk and three eggs per week.
I understand that neither of those families has received any of the transitional protection which was promised at the time of the changes in April. As a short-term measure, I urge the Government to examine payments of transitional protection to 546 families such as those so that at least that dreadful blow can be softened to some extent.
The Government have declared that perverse incentives exist which encourage landlords and claimants to choose bed-and-breakfast over other forms of accommodation. However, that appears to be perverse logic obscuring the true situation. Many families such as the two which I have just described are placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation by local authorities when they become homeless and they face stays ranging from a few months to several years. It is also important to remember that bed-and-breakfast accommodation can be used as last resort accommodation by single people searching for a home or temporary accommodation to keep themselves off the streets.
The conditions which people are forced to endure are scandalous and have been documented by Shelter and many other organisations on numerous occasions. It is not uncommon for up to 40 families to be sharing one tiny kitchen. Facilities for preparing, storing and cooking food are frequently limited or non-existent. Washing facilities are unsatisfactory and there is extreme overcrowding. Fire precautions are often inadequate. There is no doubt that living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation represents a serious risk to health and safety. Studies have shown that babies born to mothers living in hotels tend to have a low birth weight and that young children suffer frequently from a range of illnesses and emotional and behavioural problems. Where are the perverse incentives in any of this?
Nobody would choose to live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation if they had any other option available. Neither is it sufficient to point the finger of blame at local authorities. Of course it is vital that authorities discontinue the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation, but that will not be achieved by cutting the income of homeless families who are forced to exist in such an environment. That is not the way to achieve it. Bed-and-breakfast accommodation is used because of the crisis in housing supply. Council stock is being lost and cannot be replaced due to government restrictions on spending capital receipts and on borrowing. It is cheaper to build new homes for rent than to pay bed-and-breakfast hotel bills. That has been said in this House many times, but it keeps falling on deaf ears. Homelessness will inevitably and unnecessarily increase as people are priced out of even such basic accommodation.
The second issue that I wish to discuss is the position of those young people under the age of 18 whose entitlement to income support has been severely restricted. In September 1988 the age of entitlement to income support was raised from 16 to 18—your Lordships will remember that I tried my best to contest that—except for young people in exempt categories. Young people who cannot reasonably be expected to work or take up a YTS space—for example, parents and disabled people—are entitled to income suppot at least until their 18th birthday. Young people who are unable to live at home with their parents—for example, orphans, those who have just left care and young 547 people who are recently estranged—are also entitled to income support, but for a strictly limited period of either 12 or 16 weeks.
As a direct result of the changes in benefit, these young people are suffering great deprivation, in some cases to the point of destitution. The Government have pledged a YTS space for all young people. That point was made in last year's debate. However, in many parts of the country that pledge is hollow. There are simply not sufficient or suitable YTS places to meet the needs of young people. Experience has shown that many young people have been unable to find a job or a YTS place in the allotted 12 to 16 weeks. Moreover, it is unreasonable to expect that young people who have just become homeless will immediately settle in a job or YTS place while still coming to terms with their situation.
I give two more illustrations of the plight of these young people because it is necessary for the House to understand these issues by example. The first concerns a 17 year-old young man forced to leave home because of the continual violence of his father. He found a YTS place but could not keep it because of his tragic family circumstances and the stress caused by his homelessness. He initially received support from neighbours, but because he was not able to pay for his keep he was forced to move. In fact, he was not forced to do so but he did not feel comfortable and so moved on. Eventually he received £15 per week bridging allowance and found a local authority flat provided for the single homeless.
However, even though he received housing benefit—and this is the point—the income he had to live on was so low that again he felt he needed to move out. After approaching the social services he was referred to a young persons' hostel. At this stage the young man made a claim for severe hardship. I hope the Minister has noted that because that was given as the way out for these young people. Even that was refused. Apart from the eight weeks' bridging allowance, he has received no income since September 1988.
The second illustration shows the difficulties that young people face even when they have found a YTS place because they receive less housing benefit than people over 25 years of age. A 17 year-old young woman is in the second year of YTS and receives £35 a week. She lives in a housing association flat and pays £17.90 rent, plus rates of £6 per week. She had to furnish the flat out of this income and she was not entitled to a grant, which is again my point about the social fund. Out of her £35 income she has to pay £15 towards her own housing costs, leaving her only £20 a week for all her living expenses, including food, fuel, personal expenditure and travel to work. She has a YTS place but she is also in difficulties.
Faced with criticisms from agencies throughout Great Britain as to the effect of these rules, in March 1989 the Minister for Social Security announced a set of concessions to give extra help to some young people. These concessions are more than welcome, but I hold that, while the Minister has correctly 548 identified the problems, his proposed solutions fall far short of what is needed. It has been recognised that there are extra and unavoidable expenses in living independently. The Minister should meet these in full. He should allow the over-25 rate of income support and housing benefit for those 16 and 17 year-olds who have to meet their own housing costs. That is what is required.
The retention of an arbitrary time limit of 12 to 16 weeks in which young people can claim income support fails to address important issues. Experience since September 1988 has shown that some young people, particularly those in the trauma of homelessness, through no fault of their own, have been unable to find work or a YTS place within this period. The time limit also means that only those young people who become homeless as or shortly after they leave school will be helped. For those who become homeless after the child benefit extension period, the Minister's statement offers nothing.
I believe it was the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, who mentioned the 16 and 17 year-olds who become pregnant. They should be able to claim income support throughout the pregnancy and not merely during the last 13 weeks. Once the baby is born the needs and responsibilities of 16 and 17 year-old mothers are recognised and they, like other adults, are entitled to income support in their own right. These needs and responsibilities should be recognised also during pregnancy. Often these young pregnant women have more problems than the older ones. The Minister's statement refers to the "perverse incentives" in the benefits system which encourages young people to leave home. That is a lot of nonsense.
The increasing scale of youth homelessness is testimony to the tragic fact that many young people are forced to sleep on the streets as the only alternative to returning to a home which is no longer safe. That is often the case. In any event, many young people have no parental home. Forty per cent. of young homeless people have spent some time in local authority care. It is surely a perverse logic to deny young people the assistance necessary to enable them to gain access to help and support. The current rules should be changed because they actively prevent young people from resolving their problems of homelessness. If they are homeless, they will find it even harder to seek and find work.
I hope that my pleas as regards these two major issues will have more success than they did last year when I tried to get the Minister to face them as the 1988 Bill was going through the House.
I just want to touch briefly on Clause 22 of the Bill because the medical defence organisations have been expressing concern about it. As your Lordships know, the clause makes provision for the recovery by the Secretary of State of sums equivalent to social security benefit payments made to victims of accidents out of any compensation payments made to the same victims. The sensible argument for this clause is that it will prevent double compensation through the social security system and via damages for the same loss and that it will shift the burden of cost from the taxpayer to the negligent. However, it is clear that, as it stands, this clause will result in 549 some victims of accidents receiving less net compensation than they would have done under the present arrangements.
The main objection to the clause is that most of the benefits which will be paid to victims of accidents will be related to National Insurance contributions, which are wholly separate from general taxation. Clause 3 will make that so and it shows that the Government regard it as such. In these circumstances, the contributions which most, if not all, plaintiffs in medical negligence cases will have paid are akin to payments for any normal accident insurance policy. It is quite wrong therefore to deny people benefits which result from a policy for which they have paid. The question of whether they receive additional money from third parties is quite irrelevant. I have listened to the Minister, but I am not convinced. We shall have to look at this again.
I hope that during the passage of the Bill we will find a way of improving it. We must try to do better by the less fortunate members of our society than we do at present.
§ 2.21 p.m.
§ Lord Craigton
My Lords, Clause 7 abolishes the earnings rule so that a retired person will be able to work full-time without his earnings being affected. There is a parallel situation where certain retired persons whose requirements are at support level can lose that support, or some of it, if they obtain extra money without working for it. The noble Lord, Lord Pitt, referred to the regulations of 11th April. On 11th April 1988 the Department of Health and Social Security brought in new regulations to simplify the system of income support and to prevent abuses. I applaud the intention. It is understandable that in practice there are some regulations that could have been framed in a more understanding way. That was 11th April. Since 12th April the Commercial Travellers' Benevolent Institution, founded in 1849, and I personally as its president have been pointing out the unfairness of one of the new rules.
Our 200 or more recipients are visited by skilled and dedicated local supporters who know intimately about their conditions. They are either very sick or very old, or both. Few have much longer to live. Our purpose is to make their remaining years as happy and as comfortable as we can. One thoughtless cruelty in the new rules is this: before 11th April we had been paying our recipients £4 a week, which was disregarded, plus £50 in cash for a birthday present and £50 in cash for a Christmas present. On 11th April the disregard was increased to £5 and the two £50 cash presents were no longer disregarded. To put it another way, before 11th April we had £100 a year to give each beneficiary for them to spend as they wished. On 11th April that ability to give our people an extra few pounds was taken away. There are so many cases where just a few extra pounds a week would make all the difference. We cannot give it to them without correspondingly reducing their state provision.
I do not accept that the restricted things we are allowed to do are all that should be done for such old folk by a caring society. We can pay for a holiday. 550 But if it is a regular holiday the pensioner has to pay. We can, and do, pay direct to a third party for an items such as a bed. We can, and do, provide a rented television or television licence, an electric blanket, a tea service or towels, a care phone service; but we cannot pay for food, clothing, fuel, housing and footwear, which are met by state benefits. Moreover, we cannot give them that birthday or Christmas present which they used to have.
To most of these old people a Christmas or birthday present is nearly, or actually, their only reminder that someone still cares. They write us newsy letters of thanks with remembrances of busy days gone by. They feel remembered and the £50 to spend is a cause for celebration. However, we cannot do that any more because these would be regular payments and so disallowed.
The Ministry says, "Pay it on another day; don't make it regular". The young and fit do not really like to receive the, "Sorry I forgot" card on their birthday; but for the lonely and old it is an unforgivable and unnecessary insult that we have to do this. It is that inability to give even a few pounds a week in cash in spending money that prevents the occupational charities helping their own unfortunates to just a little more dignity and happiness. It is those very old and infirm people who are the sufferers.
The regulations have not even left such people where they were; indeed, they are worse off since 11th April. Why should they not have a few pounds of extra spending money? After all, the money would come from us and not from the taxpayer. The Minister, the right honourable John Moore MP, wrote to me on 10th October last informing me that he had asked officials to examine and report by this summer on how charities are generally managing. He said that this would give him the best opportunity to identify whether charities were experiencing any unacceptable practical difficulties under the new rules. For us the practical difficulty is to do it well or better—as we know we should—for our beneficiaries, without creating loopholes for exploitation.
The unfairness, the complete lack of sympathy and understanding for our sort of needy people would, I believe, be easily put right by ceasing to insist on the administrative tidiness of treating all charities alike. They are not. Their recipients and circumstances differ as much as those of their beneficiaries. Specified charities should be allowed to make cash payments to their beneficiaries in excess of the disregard, plus the birthday and Christmas presents which, unfortunately, we can no longer give.
Such cash payments should be limited as should the number of beneficiaries. There should be a minimum age or, below that, a medical proof of infirmity. A list of particulars could be produced annually to the Ministry to justify continuance as a specified charity. All that is required is that this report of unacceptable practical difficulties should include an understanding deal for the aged and infirm.
§ 2.28 p.m.
§ Lord Northbourne
My Lords, there are two omissions from the Bill which cause me great concern. The first is the issue referred to by the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, and the noble Lord, Lord Pitt of Hampstead. I refer to the problem of provision of accommodation and support for young people leaving care and going into the world at the age of 16, without a family to go to. I have not brought with me today examples of the problems which such young people are now having in our society, but I shall have no difficulty whatever in doing so at later stages of the proceedings on the Bill if, as I hope, amendments are laid down on this subject. I shall certainly be supporting the noble Lady if she does so.
The other matter that I wish to discuss is the question of targeting in relation to child benefit. The subject of child benefit seems to be a well-trodden path in this debate, but that is perhaps because it is a path which needs treading. Many of us fear that the Government intend to phase out child benefit altogether. I should like to urge upon them the fact that this would be a grave mistake.
Child benefit has the enormous advantage that it is a certain entitlement to every child which cannot be taken away and upon which the parent, who is the chief provider for the child, can rely. Of course that is not true of income-related means tested benefits. The Government have said that they are anxious to target benefits. I am entirely in favour of the principle of targeting. The question is, how does one do it? There is more than one way in which targeting may be operated. It can be achieved by making available funds only after careful inquiry into the means and needs of each family; it can equally well be achieved by making an allowance available to all children, and then clawing it back through the tax system from those who do not need it.
At first sight, the second alternative looks clumsy and inefficient, but it may have real advantages. By what criteria should we judge support? Surely it must be targeted, economic to administer and compassionate in application. With regard to targeting, we must ensure not only that those who are not entitled do not receive the benefit, but that those who are entitled do receive the benefit. Family credits, which are a targeted benefit, working on the principle of testing the means of those who are entitled, are at the moment achieving less than 50 per cent. of take-up; that is, a 50 per cent. failure rate in respect of targeting. By contrast, I believe that child benefit achieves a take-up of over 90 per cent. One earlier speaker said that it was achieving 98 per cent. in respect of successful targeting.
On a superficial view, it might seem that to pay out an allowance and then to claim it back through the tax system from those who do not need it is uneconomic and clumsy. However, the distribution of benefit in respect of every child is extremely simple, and the collection of tax is already provided for through the Inland Revenue service. On any honest assessment of the administrative cost, the churning of those funds may prove not to cost any more, but possibly less.
552 Finally, on the criterion of compassion, there is no doubt that universal child benefit is outstandingly the better solution. How many of your Lordships would like to endure an official inquisition and be obliged to admit, "Yes, I am inadequate. I am unable to provide for my family. Here is the proof of it"? It is a humiliation with which any compassionate society should wish to dispense, especially as it is unnecessary and inefficient. It may be that not many of your Lordships are frightfully keen on the alternative of standing up in front of the tax man and saying, "Yes, I have been doing rather well. I must admit that I am due to pay some more tax". However, in terms of humanity and self-respect it is a better alternative and one in which the taxpayer can take some pride. We should ensure that every child of this nation who needs it receives the statutory support that all political parties agree should be their entitlement. I would ask the Government to abandon any plans they may have for the abolition of child benefit paid on a universal basis. Instead, I would ask them to consider next year an increase in the level of benefit, to bring it more into line with the present day costs of maintaining a child in the family.
§ 2.34 p.m.
§ Lord Mottistone
My Lords, it is always a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I must confess that I found his arguments most persuasive. I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will take them away for consideration and deep study, not necessarily in relation to the Bill—I suspect that it is too late to do anything on that front—but for the long-term process of dealing with child benefit.
I welcome the Bill, unlike some noble Lords opposite. I thank my noble friend Lord Henley for introducing it so clearly. I welcome especially Clause 7 because I may have had a little to do with its introduction. My noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter said that we welcomed the fact that in the past it was possible for someone to defer a pension and then receive more at a later stage. I came upon that situation some three years ago when I reached a great age and was advised by my accountant that, yes, I did get more at 70 but it was nothing like the greater amount I could expect if I wished to get my money back. With the aid of the accountant I put down a Question—this might amuse your Lordships—on 14th May 1987. It appears at column 819 of Hansard.
The Question asked the Government when I would get my money back, why they did not give the full amount to begin with and having reached the age of 70, how long I could expect to live. The Answer was that the average person, this mythical creature, retires quite soon after 65—the majority, I think, within five months. We were given an average. And the Government went on to say that it would take 20 years to recover the money I had foregone so that I would have to live to the age of 90 in order to receive it. I have studied Clause 33. Unfortunately, the Bill is unlikely to be enacted in time for me to benefit from it, or if I do so, it will only be slightly.
553 The Government also made the point that the life expectancy of a man of 70 is only 10 years. I expect to live to 80; I have to live to 90 to get my money back. I accept what my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter says about encouraging people to work in order to get on. But it is on the whole better to have the earnings limit removed, and I am delighted to see Clause 7.
That is by the way. I wish to talk about two main subjects. One has certainly been touched upon; perhaps both have. I am advised on these matters by the CBI and therefore declare an interest. Clause 23 relates to pensions, Schedule 5 goes with it; and the recovery of damages is dealt with under Clause 22.
With regard to equal treatment for pensioners, my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter has explained how many of our largest and most progressive companies have what is called an integrated pension scheme. That enables them to pay a total pension to men and women equally from the age of 60 onwards. Thus the total pension is entirely fair and in that sense in accordance with the directive on which Clause 23 is based.
However, if the Bill is enacted as phrased at present, it will not be possible to adjust the occupational part of the pension to take account of the fact that men and women are paid their state pensions at different ages. That means that women between 60 and 65 will be better off than men, which is clearly unfair. I am sure that my noble friend who recently headed the Equal Opportunities Commission agrees that it is very unfair to men. I expect that most things are unfair to women; but this is unfair to men.
To be serious, this is a matter which companies will find extremely difficult. They have gone to some trouble over many years to obtain agreement from all the people involved, that equal total pensions are the right course. It is also basically in accordance with the theme of the directive.
The problem is that when in June 1986 the directive was approved by the Council of Ministers, the DHSS, in a circular to all the people concerned, including the CBI, gave them clearly to believe that there was provision within the directive to allow for deferment of the application of strict rules as described in certain circumstances. One of those circumstances was the implication of the differences in pension ages of the two sexes for the benefit structure. The CBI thought then and thinks now, as the phraseology has not changed, that that applied until such time as the Government brought the two pensionable ages into line. Everyone would like that to occur as soon as possible, although we also realise that it involves all kinds of financial problems for the Government. Certainly that was the impression the CBI gained from the advice it received from the DHSS in June 1986.
To judge from the discussions in another place, it seems that the Government have been persuaded by some lawyer somewhere that what they told the public in June 1986 was wrong and that it is not possible to defer the adjustment of occupational pensions beyond the due date of January 1993. This is a matter, as I understand it, of legal opinion.
554 One of the larger and more important members of the CBI took counsel's opinion. He has been persuaded that the Government's advice is wrong and that it should be possible to defer making an adjustment to the present integrated pension scheme until such time as the two state pensions come into line. I have sent my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale a copy of the counsel's opinion. Perhaps my noble friend will want to defer discussing the matter until we reach Committee, when I have tabled an appropriate amendment. However, he may wish to refer to it this afternoon. I hope that at some stage he will persuade his legal advisers that they are wrong. It is as simple as that.
If the present position continues, it will result in unfairness. What is worse, at least four countries, Belgium, Germany, Portugal and Italy, have different ages of retirement for men and women and are confronted by exactly the same situation. As far as we can tell, they are very relaxed about it. They do not suspect that any problems will arise, such as being taken to the European Court, if someone claims that a man or a woman has been unfairly treated. I hesitate over the words "man or woman" deliberately. Which sex will the European Court defend? Perhaps, as the court is composed entirely of men, it will defend women. I hope we shall be able to thrash out this important point in Committee.
Clause 22 will give the Government powers to claw back social security benefits from any award of damages made by a person's employer. In future, insurance companies paying a tort award will be required to deduct and pay to the DSS a sum equivalent to the value of any social security benefits the injured person has received. At present, the injured person retains a proportion of the benefits to which he or she is entitled, and the damages award paid by the employer's insurer is proportionately reduced in line with the benefit paid. This compromise rightly reflects the fact that both the employer and the employee have paid contributions to the National Insurance Fund. It is obviously inequitable to require employers to insure themselves twice, once through employers' liability premia, and again through National Insurance contributions. Similarly, it is unfair to reduce the tort awards made to employees as they have paid their National Insurance for social security benefits through their National Insurance contributions. If they were not both contributing to National Insurance, a different argument would apply. However, they have contributed.
This claw back will result in higher premiums being paid by companies thus adding unfairly to their costs. Why have the Government done this? The clause is not backed by an EC directive. It seems to be an unfair way of upsetting the present compromise which pays due regard to insurance already effected, both nationally and privately. Perhaps the Government feel that it is a way of encouraging employers to increase accident prevention, but this is hardly the appropriate legislation for such a measure. It also overlooks the fact that no company wants accidents, they cost money. Furthermore, there is a whole raft of health and safety legislation. So perhaps that is not the 555 reason. Perhaps it is—to put it another way—simply imposing yet another tax on companies, because that is what it will in practice be. It is as simple as that.
Whatever the reason, I hope that the Government will come to see that the Bill would be improved if Clause 22 were omitted altogether. I shall seek to persuade them of that in Committee. I should add that the Medical Protection Society also believes Clause 22 to be inequitable and feels that it should be removed. It has another interest in this matter which shows how broad the opinion is.
In the meantime, perhaps my noble friend can show, when he comes to reply, that the Government have already had second thoughts on the two points that I have explained. I hope very much that we shall not have too much of a battle in Committee. Certainly, those two areas need to be changed, but in other respects, with all sorts of qualifications, I believe that the Bill is a good one.
§ 2.46 p.m.
§ Baroness Seear
My Lords, if my memory serves me right, the abolition of the earnings rule appeard in my own election address in 1950. That was the first of the many unsuccessful attempts that I made to enter another place. However, we on these Benches are familiar with the unintended flattery that comes from imitation. I should say that we have become more familiar with it recently. So I greatly welcome the inclusion of that provision in the Bill. I am afraid, however, that that is where my enthusiasm for the Bill ceases.
In introducing the Bill the noble Lord, Lord Henley, stated—he did not go ino any reasons—that at present there was no effective way of making sure, to put it bluntly, that people were not deliberately drawing benefit while not attempting to find work; in other words, that they were shirking. Several speakers have raised the point that we all—including myself—believed that there were quite adequate ways of checking up on whether people were not genuinely seeking work and that there were penalties which could be applied if they were so doing.
When he comes to reply—I am not trying to make a cheap point; we should very much like to know—will he tell us what is the difference? As he well knows, there are at present ways in which that could be done. Will he tell us where the system has proved to be so inadequate? If we knew that, we would have a much greater understanding of why the Government are trying to do that. The information was given to us as a statement. I understand that it was also given as a statement in the other place, and a little more explanation would help on both sides of the House. It may well be that the Government have a point, but it has not been made clear and we should all like to know what it is.
I should like to start by considering the question of the period of 13 weeks—I understand that that is the outside figure—that is allowed to a person who is seeking employment but wants employment in his own type of work or who puts reservations on the job that is being offered as not being suitable for one reason or another. A period of 13 weeks seems to 556 me to be a very short ultimate date. There may be people who could be expected to find suitable employment earlier than that and who may genuinely be found to be turning down work that they should accept.
However, in today's debate, we are talking as if the fall in unemployment, which is very welcome, was uniform across the country, but it is not. It is perfectly true that in many parts of the South-East—although not in all of the South-East—there is now a tight labour market and it has plainly become much easier to find jobs than it was a couple of years ago. There is no denying that. But equally there is no denying that in parts of the North-East, the North-West, Scotland and Wales it is still very difficult to get jobs. It seems to me that to have an overall 13 weeks absolute cut off point at which people can be required to take jobs which are quite different from those for which they have been trained and in which they have had their experience is much too rigid and is too short a period of time.
One noble Lord has said that if one has a job it is easier to get another one. In one way I think that that is true. On the other hand, if one has taken a different job and fallen out of the job in which one has been trained and out of one's trade or profession, when it comes to applying for another job in that profession—and perhaps for the past 15 months one has been doing something completely different—in the eyes of most employers one is in a very weak position compared with people who have been able to remain in their own line of work. Therefore I urge the Government to think again and consider whether they cannot build more flexibility into that period of 13 weeks.
Of course the Government are primarily thinking about the long-term unemployed. We all know that in fact even at the worst periods of unemployment a great many people were obtaining jobs. To an overwhelming extent they were the people who had had very short terms of unemployment. Equally, we all know that it is much more difficult for a whole variety of reasons for a person to get back into employment when he or she has been out of work for a long period of time. Such people need skilled help and counselling and need to be chivvied if they are to get back fully into employment.
I should like to make the point that has been made on a number of occasions in your Lordships' House in other connections also. The people employed in the Department of Employment and those employed in social security offices who deal directly with the public, giving advice and carrying out interviews, are pretty low down in the hierarchy. They are not given very much time to do this work and above all they are often inadequately trained for what is quite a skilled and sensitive job if they are to explore the needs of the long-term unemployed and give them the right kind of advice.
The information that one receives about the progress of the counselling sessions since the employment training scheme was introduced is very mixed. In some cases it is good but in some cases it is extremely perfunctory. I should also like to ask the Government to look again at the kind of training that they give to the people who will give this advice 557 and counselling, because if the system breaks down at that point it breaks down altogether. The Government do not have an overwhelmingly good record as regards training and could well look at ways in which it could be improved if they are serious about bringing the long-term unemployed back into employment.
As for the employment training scheme, which after all is the instrument for bringing people back into employment and works much better than threats, in many parts of the country it is showing that the amount of additional money that people can obtain over benefit when they undertake the employment training scheme is inadequate in a whole variety of ways. The £10 over benefit is just not enough, not even as an incentive. The Government imply that £10 should be sufficient to encourage people to return to training. That is not the difficulty. The problem is that there are all sorts of expenses that arise when people go into training and begin the business of applying for jobs.
I was involved with an access to business course of that kind. I realised, for example, that if there is practical work involved in the training, and of course there should be a period of working with an employer, one has to turn up reasonably well dressed. If one is put in an office or with a lot of well paid computer people, one cannot turn up in the kind of garb in which the noble Lord would not garden. But that is the kind of situation in which a great many people find themselves. One also has to be able to join in during the lunch time. I am now describing the experience of the people on this course—they simply did not go to lunch or into the bars, which in fact is a part of the training, because they did not have the money to do so.
This situation can affect women in particular. There are many women—whether registered unemployed or not—who ought to be returning to the labour market and ought to be in employment training. I shall not go into the problem of women who do not qualify for employment training. That is another subject. I wish to emphasise the position of women who wish to return to the labour market, who are eligible for employment training but who have the hideous cost of child care if they take the training.
It is all very well to offer £50 for the single mother, but mothers who are not single also have a case. To obtain decent child care costs anything between £15 and £100 a week. I know women in London who are paying £100 to have their children looked after. This occurred in one case of a much appreciated, very successful, training programme for professional women. One of the women paid £100 a week to have her children looked after. An additional £10 over and above benefit will not go very far. Yet unless the women have their children looked after there is no way that they will return to the employment market or to a training programme. I beg the Government to consider that issue. I echo what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. She asked whether women could not have this expense counted against taxation when they start to earn, so that they have some adjustment at that point.
558 I deal very briefly with other points, some of which have already been raised. As did the noble Baroness Lady Platt, and the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, I welcome the equal opportunity clause in this Bill. But what we really want are equal and flexible retirement and pension ages. A good deal has been said about that. However, I should like to underline the issue. I strongly suspect that it will receive all-party support at the Committee stage.
What has been mentioned only briefly is the attendance allowance. The noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, mentioned it in connection with the hospices. I wish to talk about the attendance allowance where people are looked after in their own homes. The same arguments apply that the noble Baroness made for the hospices. Many people who have a terminal illness are looked after in their own homes. However, many of them die before they qualify for the attendance allowance. The allowance is paid a little too late. I do not have to elaborate the point. At that stage the additional money is obviously extremely useful in that household. Can we not reconsider the six-month period? Obviously the Government have to be satisfied that people really need the attendance allowance. But it should not be beyond the wit of the Government and their medical advisers to find some way in which certain categories of ill people can be paid the allowance at a very much earlier period, and do not have to wait until they are dead for it to be ascertained whether the illness was terminal.
In this connection I mention the invalid care allowance which, in a sense, partners the attendance allowance. Provided an attendance allowance is being paid, the invalid care allowance is made available to the person in the home who is looking after the elderly or infirm person. It is a very small allowance in any case but it counts against social security. That is one reason why there is a very small take-up of the invalid care allowance. The argument is the usual one: that nobody should receive two state benefits. But the people who qualify for invalid care allowance are doing a job just as much as is a home help. They are saving the state having to pay a lot of money to look after the people for whom they are caring and who would otherwise be in an institution. Is it really necessary that it should be counted against social security rather than allowed as an extra for people who are doing this extremely demanding but extremely cost-effective work in their own homes?
One other point on that subject: when the invalid care allowance was introduced, one of its great benefits was that it gave people a Class I stamp which qualified them for a pension when they reached pension age and their caring, in most cases, had come to an end. That benefit still stands today. But when it was introduced it also qualified those concerned for unemployment benefit when the person they were looking after died and they wanted to get back into the labour market. I think it is a particularly mean act that has led the Government to withdraw the unemployment benefit while leaving the pension. I am delighted that the pension still stands.
559 When someone has been tied up in a house for years looking after an increasingly infirm and often exceedingly difficult person and that person dies, getting back into the labour market can be difficult. It is a little unreasonable to expect people to go from the graveside to the Jobcentre. They need a little time to look around. They have been doing all this work (and it is work), and it is unreasonable after all those years to expect them to go to the employment centre to register as unemployed persons, and to start drawing unemployment pay, without a reasonable time to look round to find a job that is right for them.
So much for the detail of the Bill. There are two principles in the Bill, both of which I want to attack, at least in part. The Government are devoted, and are convinced that they are right, to the principle of targeting. At first sight it sounds quite plausible: concentrate the money where the need is greatest. About that I should like to say two things: the first is how we should define need. We are back to the debate earlier today, but many of us feel that there is something to be said for what may be called horizontal distribution which arises particularly on child benefits. Yes, there are people of the middle income group who are not in need in the most rigid definition of the word "need".
I speak as a single person who has never had to support a child, but I know that my colleagues who have had three or four children had an infinitely lower standard of living than I had because they were paying out for their children. Many of us felt that it was highly desirable that that transfer should be made from the middle income groups, from people who had no children to support, to the people who had children to support. That is a form of targeting. It is targeting on the people who are carrying the heaviest burdens. They were not destitute or in danger of being unable to pay the baker's bill, though some of them might have found the butcher's bill a bit difficult sometimes. But the difference between colleagues who had family responsibilities and those who did not was most marked, to put it mildly. That kind of thinking, the narrow definition of targeting to which the Government seem to be working, is very unimaginative indeed.
The other point about targeting is the effect it has on the poverty trap, the unemployment trap, the discouragement to get back into employment. We have talked about this so often, but the point has never been answered. If benefits are targeted, the minute people begin to get above a certain level of earning they begin to lose very heavily. That is surely a challenge to the whole idea of targeting. One wants to accept that certain benefits should be targeted, but we should also accept that targeting is not a doctrine that has to be rigidly observed. It should be used in appropriate circumstances, and modified when it seems sensible so to do.
I have gone on for much too long, but I shall merely state that the other principle I want to attack is fairly fundamental. Not for the first time I find myself in absolute opposition to the noble Lord, 560 Lord Boyd-Carpenter. It is not, he will be amused to know, a matter of proportional representation. Even I cannot bring proportional representation into a debate on the Social Security Bill! The noble Lord always accuses me of introducing the subject on every conceivable occasion. This is not such an occasion.
The noble Lord firmly defended the contributory principle; the idea that it should be seen as an insurance scheme. We on these Benches do not believe that that is sensible. We believe that the time has come when National Insurance should be merged with general taxation and when one should go on to obtain the tax benefit scheme in which social security and tax are fully merged. Of course it undoes what the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, regards as absolutely sacrosanct—the contributory principle.
I have no doubt that one of the reasons why the Government have removed the Treasury contribution is that they will then be able to say that at last this is a genuine insurance scheme. Surely we want good social policy sensibly financed. We on these Benches do not want it calculated on a strict accountancy, book-keeping basis of insurance contributions. We want a decent social policy to maintain decent standards throughout the country. Taking away the Treasury contribution will not give us that kind of result.
§ 3.6 p.m.
§ Baroness Turner of Camden
My Lords, the noble Countess, Lady Mar, described the Bill as a "ragbag of a Bill". I have heard it described in the other place as a "curate's egg of a Bill'. Certainly a number of disparate subjects have been jumbled together to form a Bill. I find some of its propositions acceptable but others are not acceptable to Members on these Benches. Of course we shall probe the Government in Committee about those propositions.
In my contribution to the debate I intend to draw attention to some of the provisions which I find unacceptable and to flag those areas where we shall be seeking amendment. First, there is the proposal to end the Treasury supplement to the National Insurance Fund which has already been referred to by a number of noble Lords. I suppose that "tripartitism" is a dirty word to this Government, but Beveridge originally envisaged a tripartite scheme of contributions, there being a contribution from the Treasury together with those from employers and employees. The Treasury contribution was fixed at 18 per cent. by the Social Security Act 1972. Since this Government took office, the Treasury supplement has gradually been eroded. Now, according to the Bill, it will disappear altogether.
The fund is said to be in surplus, but that is largely because of the erosion of benefits. The proposal to do away with the supplement altogether underlines the Government's opposition to social insurance. That opposition is not shared on these Benches. It constantly confuses socially insured benefits with means tested benefits. It is intended to push more and more people onto means tested benefits rather than to social insurance benefits where they are payable as of right.
561 Then there is the proposition to extend the so-called "liable relatives" provision. At present, if parents are separated or divorced, the non-custodial parent—officially known as the "liable relative"—is liable to pay maintenance for a child for whom income support is payable. It is now proposed to extend the definition of "child" to cover someone aged 16 to 19 for whom either parent or guardian is receiving income support. The Government hope to save some money in that way, but the amount is so small—£0.6 million in 1989–90, rising to £2.4 million in 1991–92—that one wonders why it is worth doing. Families in which there is a separation are usually families in crisis. If social benefits are payable, they are also poor. I question whether the proposition is worth carrying out. Perhaps the Government will respond to that point.
A number of noble Lords have discussed child benefit and I need to say nothing more on that subject save to confirm that we on these Benches are committeed to the principle that it should not be eroded and that its value should not only be maintained but also enhanced.
As regards the raising of the upper age limit for mobility allowance, we must surely welcome that as an improvement. However, as a number of noble Lords have said, the Government might have taken the opportunity to deal with the relatively narrow definition under which this allowance is payable. There are disabled people—and I have been briefed on this matter from a number of organisations for the disabled—who would benefit from that allowance but cannot qualify for it under the present definition. Again, as a number of noble Lords indicated, we on this side shall return to the matter in Committee.
There is then the provision to abate unemployment benefit for those with personal pensions. When the previous Social Security Bill was before this House, I and others raised repeatedly the matter of this abatement in regard to those receiving small occupational pensions and pointed to the anomaly which existed if those with personal pensions suffered no such abatement. I am sure that the Government will now claim that they have met that criticism. However, the main argument at that time was that that should not happen at all, that many persons aged 55 and over are still in the labour market and that the amount of pension at which the abatement commenced was far too low and had not been increased in line with inflation. The Government have listened to none of those arguments and have simply extended the injustice to those with personal pensions. We shall take that matter further in Committee.
The heart of the Bill—and that is perhaps a misnomer because, when it comes to the unemployed, I believe that this Bill has no heart—is contained in the clauses relating to the payment of unemployment benefit and the actively seeking work requirement. A number of noble Lords have already dealt with that in great detail. Again the Bill demonstrates the Government's belief that jobs are there if only people will look for them. In many areas of the country that is wildly inaccurate. It is a fact that even in the prosperous South-East there are 562 areas where it is difficult to find employment. The Government seem to be compelling people into jobs which are not suitable. Very often such jobs are badly paid or part-time. It is a real problem—and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, dealt with this—for people who have not been unemployed before if they take work which is quite dissimilar, at a lower level and lower paid than anything they had before. They may be writing themselves off in their normal occupations, since an employer will not take them if they have been doing lower grade work even if productive industry picks up again and higher grade work becomes available.
I had a letter not long ago from an unemployed journalist who claimed that he was being offered a job as a packer in a supermarket. That is happening already. The proposed legislation would push unemployed people further down the road into unsuitable and poorly paid employment. In fact the current test for availability for work already includes the concept of an active search for work, because claimants are asked to fill in a form indicating what they are doing to try to find work. The new wording can only be intended as a means of putting further pressure on unemployed people and as such is totally unacceptable to these Benches.
Then there is the proposal referred to by a number of noble Lords and notably by the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, for the recovery of social security benefits when damages in tort are awarded. In my view, that is a further blow by the Government on the industrial injuries scheme. We on this side of the House can be expected to be hostile to that concept. In fact there is an unusual combination of allies. The TUC is against the Government's proposition, as is the CBI, the Law Society and the Association of British Insurers. At present an injured employee may receive benefit under the industrial injuries scheme on a no fault basis. It is enough that the injury has arisen out of or in the course of employment. It is the only no fault system that we have and it has been gradually eroded under this Government. If, in addition, the employee can demonstrate that the injury arose as a result of employer negligence or the negligence of a fellow employee, he may secure compensation on those grounds from the court.
The Government claim that the injured worker thus receives double compensation, since at present only one-half of certain DSS benefits are taken into account in the assessment of compensation for negligence. The proposition in this Bill, as we have already heard, is that the whole of the social security benefit should be taken into account. Thus, the Government will benefit to the extent of £38 million in a full year. Nobody else will benefit. The CBI believes that its members will have to pay higher insurance premiums, and they undoubtedly will. Lawyers believe that there will be less inclination to settle out of court, so there will be further delays as the courts become clogged with cases.
The ABI is opposed to the proposition too, believing it will involve insurers in a lot of additional administrative work and make cases harder to settle. The TUC is opposed to a further erosion of the industrial injuries scheme and what it sees as an injustice to injured employees. Why do it when we 563 are told that we are more prosperous than ever before and when in any event the national insurance fund is in surplus? As has already been pointed out, if an individual has private accident insurance the benefits deriving from that insurance would not be taken into account; so why do it for social insurance for which the individual has in any case paid? We shall be returning to that point in Committee and I am glad to note from the debate that we shall undoubtedly be joined by noble Lords on the Government side of the House.
Finally, I should like to say a few words about the equality provisions, which in general I support and which the Government are introducing in response to the EC directive intended to achieve equality of treatment for women in occupational pension and other benefit systems. What is proposed here is acceptable. However, there is one aspect which needs to be raised sharply. It has already been mentioned and I must say that, unusually, I am in partial agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and almost total agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone. As I understand it, the directive still permits member countries to apply different ages in regard to entitlement to state retirement benefit. As is known, we have a diference of five years in the UK. As long ago as 1976 the Occupational Pensions Board—of which I am a member—was pointing out that unequal pension ages in the UK were responsible for a whole range of anomalies and that unless pension ages were equalised as far as the state was concerned these anomalies would persist. That is demonstrably the case.
I have been approached by a number of organisations, pension schemes, and, incidentally, by the CBI. As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, some very good schemes run by good employers pay pensions which are integrated with the state benefit. In other words, the pension payable is calculated in relation to the total amount received from the state and from the occupational scheme. Some such schemes, often in response to union claims, have equalised pension ages at 60 for both men and women. As the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, explained, that means that women receive their state pension immediately but men have to wait until age 65. Such employers have been in the habit of paying men a bridging pension until they reach the age of 65. It now appears that this practice is regarded as illegal under European law. I have to say that that is not the view of all lawyers, including some with considerable experience and one who has had a great deal of experience of equality law. I have had a copy of that opinion sent to me and I believe it is the same as the one referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone.
Of course, if only we had equal pension ages for men and women this problem would disappear. By that, I do not mean equalising at the age of 65. Many people would find that totally unacceptable. However, I hope that the Government will grasp this nettle soon. We shall certainly be returning to the point in Committee.
564 As I said earlier, some parts of the Bill are acceptable; others are not. I have concentrated on those aspects which are not acceptable since I wanted to give some idea of the areas in which we shall be tabling amendments. There are also some omissions from the Bill and we shall be seeking to table amendments to cover those omissions.
Finally, perhaps I may say how much I agreed with my noble friend Lady Jeger when she referred to Disraeli. It so happens that I am also a great admirer of his work and in particular of the novel Sybil; the sub-title is of course The Story of Two Nations The two nations in Disraeli's time were the rich and the poor. I very much regret to say that it looks as though that gap is constantly widening under the social policies of the present Government. The Bill does nothing to alleviate the situation.
§ 3.20 p.m.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, the Government's social security programme has an impact on the lives of millions of people in this country; namely, on the unemployed, the elderly, families and young people. We are well aware that social security spending is the largest single item of government spending, accounting for £1 in £3 of public spending and costing each and every household in the land £47 a week. It is crucial that spending on this scale is effective; that was true not only in 1948—we have heard references to Beveridge—1975 and 1979 and now in 1989, but in each and every year. Conditions change and in this modern world they change very rapidly indeed. That is why in recent years we have had an annual Social Security Bill. I cannot see the trend of the past few years being any different.
It is essential that a social security programme not only provides immediate help for those in need but that it does not have unwelcome long-term side effects. The noble Lord, Lord Pitt, said that we must do better. Yes, we are, but that depends on your definition—and, my goodness, we have heard an awful lot today about definitions—of "better". It is right that our social security system should evolve to ensure that it does not institutionalise dependence on the state and create barriers to enterprise and wealth creation. We should also ensure that it does not undermine the family. This Bill seeks to take forward these principles. Perhaps its main themes are fairness and economic efficiency.
In defending the noble Earl, Lord Russell, from my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, I ask whether it is fair, for example, that two people aged 61 retiring from an equally paid job and having paid exactly the same amounts into an occupational pension scheme should receive different amounts of pension until they are both aged 65. Clearly it is not, but some occupational pension schemes currently treat men and women differently not on actuarial grounds, which would be fair, but because women get a pension from the state earlier than men.
I believe that it was the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, who remarked just now that if we equalise the state pension age this problem would go away. Unfortunately that is not quite so. The rules of the occupational pension schemes would still need to be changed and there would be a certain expense in 565 so doing. I believe that that is the main bone of contention put forward by my noble friend Lord Mottistone, who referred to Clause 23 and Schedule 5 where the meat of this problem lies.
The position is that some pension schemes have what is known as a bridging pension, taking into account the state payment that is made to women. Mars, of Mars Bar fame, is one such scheme. It has been quoted so much in another place that that has probably done its sales a power of good. I believe that we need to consider the object the directive spelt out in Article 1, from which all this derives. This is to implement in occupational pension schemes the principle of equal treatment. It is to schemes that the directive applies and I believe that that is very important. Accordingly, in determining whether there is unequal treatment, we have to compare not primarily what a man or woman receives in aggregate from a number of sources but what the scheme itself pays to men and women and how such sums are calculated. The bridging pension might result in a man and a woman receiving the same aggregate sum, the man, from the scheme alone and the woman from both the scheme and the state. When we consider what the scheme provides, the man is paid more by the scheme than his female counterpart. That is where the directive is breached.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we need to look at the precise wording of the derogation in article 9(a) of the directive. It states:Member states may defer compulsory application of the principle of equal treatment with regard to determination of granting old age retirement pensions and the possible implications for other benefits".In other words, it applies to state schemes and not to occupational schemes.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, before my noble friend leaves that point, and in response to his gallant defence of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is it fair that, where throughout their lives a man and a woman have contributed both to an occupational scheme and to the state scheme, for a number of years at any rate the woman receives substantially more than the man?
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, my noble friend will remember that while the contributions to the state scheme are not actuarially based, in almost all occupational schemes they are so based. Therefore I think it would be quite fair. My noble friend has bounced me slightly and I should like to take that point away and study it.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, there is one clause that covers both points of fairness and economic efficiency. Clause 22 deals with the relationship between social security benefits and compensation payments made in respect of the same injury. The underlying principle established by Beveridge is that social security benefits should be available to meet immediate needs but if the person later receives compensation,he should not in the end get more from the two sources together than he would have got from one alone".566 This clause is fully in line with that principle.
Social Security benefits will continue to be paid as now. They are not being recovered. What will happen is that any compensation will be reduced by the amount of benefit which has been paid, much as it is at present. The main difference which this clause provides is that the amount which is withheld from compensation because benefits have been paid will no longer offset the compensator's liability. He must meet the full liability by repaying the Secretary of State for Social Security the amount that he previously would have retained. Most compensators are insurance companies. The cost of meeting the full liability for injuries will inevitably mean that premiums are likely to increase. But by how much is not something anyone can say with any certainty because there are factors involved which cannot be predicted, such as the extent to which compensation payments may increase as a result.
Putting this in concrete terms a company with 1,000 employees and in a medium risk category will currently pay about £140,000 a year in liability premiums. An increase of 8 per cent. would mean an extra £11,000 a year on the total employment bill of £9.3 million. That is fractionally over a 1.6 per cent. increase in the labour bill. In terms of total expenses it will be minimal and, equally, tax deductible.
I am aware that it has been suggested that the scheme is unfair. Those who make that charge have not answered this question. To whom is it unfair? No individual will have his benefits taken away. Many benefits are already offset in full from compensation, and others by 50 per cent. I have identified one that has a total disregard. Only three of the 13 benefits are contributory, so the charge of double insurance contributions, which was levelled at me by my noble friend, fails.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, talked about stoking up problems for the future by removing the Treasury supplement. He almost said that the fund will run out of money early next century. He did not quite say that but that was his theme. No, my Lords, the yield from National Insurance contributions, even after the measures in the Bill, will remain a most crucial source of government revenue. The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, asked why we do not use the resources available to help beneficiaries. We are removing the pensioners' earnings rule—which has been welcomed by all sides of the House—which will add considerably to many pensions in this area. But, as my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter pointed out, there is a down side; it is indeed possible that fewer people may defer their pension. Perhaps I may cheekily remind my noble friend that that is what we have oppositions for: to point out the damaging facts. I am delighted that at various points in the debate today there has been a certain amount of concert across the Floor of the House.
What this House must do is to make decisions on the balance of the arguments. We have recently announced added income support and housing benefit premiums to pensioners over the age of 75 who have not had the opportunity to benefit from a state earnings related pension scheme and of course 567 graduated pensions. That will cost an extra £200 million a year which is financed by the taxpayer and is targeted upon those in greatest need.
We have reformed the structure of national insurance contributions not once but twice. I am sure that the House will welcome those reforms, which improve incentives, especially for those on low incomes.
The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, perhaps predictably, gave the House a blast on the "actively seeking work" provisions contained in Clauses 10 to 13. Indeed, many other noble Lords have made the same point. However, he and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear—and I think also that noble Earl, Lord Russell—mentioned the unemployment benefit leaflet No. 6/71 which asks, among a string of other questions, what efforts are being made to find work. Yes, that is quite true; but the question is asked to indicate the need for extra counselling and out-of-work training, both of which I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, will agree are vital. The intention is not to put pressure on the claimant by withdrawing benefit if the person does not actively seek work. To do so under current law would be illegal.
If it is to be a condition of receiving unemployment benefit that claimants should be looking for work, there must be an additional specific provision to that effect. However, that specific provision does not currently exist in law.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I am sorry to intervene at this point, but I think that this matter needs clarification. Is the noble Lord saying that those who have been deprived of benefit because they were classified as not being available for work in the past year were wrongly deprived?
§ Lord Skelmersdale
No, my Lords; that is not the case at all. There are two completely different concepts. One is to be available for work. I checked up on the matter this morning. I believe that this has been necessary since unemployment benefit was first introduced in 1948.I see that the noble Baroness is shaking her head, but in any event that is the information I received this morning.
§ Baroness Seear
My Lords, it can in fact be put both ways. I believe that "capable of, and available for" was the phrase which was always used.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness. The other concept is rather different. You can be available for work—in other words, you can receive it on a plate if it is offered—but you do not have actively to go and get that plate and help yourself. Those are the two concepts which need distinguishing.
It has been suggested today that the current availability for work requirement is sufficient to ensure that claimants seek work actively. However, that is not the case. The relevant commissioner's decision (RU 580) discusses the requirement to be available for work, which will of course remain in the 1975 Act. The decision clearly says that 568 availability is more than a simple passive step and that the claimant must take some active step to draw attention to his search for work.
What those "active steps" will be will be a matter for great discussion in subsequent stages of the Bill's passage. It is a frequent complaint of your Lordships that the Government ask the House to legislate in the dark, especially in social security matters. However, while I have had the honour of speaking for the department in this House I do not believe that this has been so.
In connection with 16 and 17 year-olds in last year's Bill—of which the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, still has criticisms, but perhaps we shall be able to return to that matter later—I read out at great length what would be in the regulations. As I recall, your Lordships suggested additions, and additions were indeed made. The House then debated the resulting regulations.
So far as concerns this year's Bill I shall not read out now the content of the regulations. However, I shall send each and every one of your Lordships who has spoken today details of what we plan to put into the regulations under Clause 10, and put a copy in the Library. Your Lordships will then have an opportunity to take it apart at your leisure, as it were. I emphasise the fact that the regulations to be made under those clauses are for affirmative resolution, so there will be a final opportunity for debate.
My noble friend Lady Platt put a gloss on the matter, as did one or two other noble Lords, by talking about the problem faced by women in arranging child care when they have secured a job. She suggested that they should be given a week's grace. There are two issues here. First, under current law, benefit claimants are expected to be available to start work immediately. However, that is modified for people such as mothers with caring responsibilities, who are expected to be available to start work within 24 hours. That allows time to make final arrangements for the care of children, but there is an expectation that women claiming benefit and seeking work should have provisional arrangements already made.
Secondly, the new actively-seeking-work condition introduced in Clause 10, provides regulation-making powers to deem claimants to be actively seeking work in certain circumstances. It is the Government's intention that they will include the last few days of a benefit claim which precede the day upon which a person starts work. That will of course be of benefit to mothers in the situation described by my noble friend.
It is no secret that the Government are committed to resolve the issue of an equal state pension age. That subject is under active consideration at the moment. We shall announce our findings as soon as possible. I agree with my noble friend that when a decision is arrived at and legislation is enacted, any change proposed therein cannot take place overnight. There must be a lead time, no matter what the change is. I see noble Lords opposite nodding at that.
569 The debate has again been notable for your Lordships' comments on matters that are not in the Bill. I cannot possibly deal with them all, but there have been themes about which I should like to say something. If I run out of time, I am sorry. The first, of course, is child benefit. The noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, and many others, asked why there was no mention of that in the Bill. The reason is that there does not need to be. Noble Lords must not get me wrong. First, as a concept, it already exists in legislation and therefore we do not need to invent it. At the same time, I should mention the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument put by my noble friend Lady Platt. She will remember that the 1987 Conservative manifesto said that child benefit would continue to be "paid as now" and direct to the mother. The Conservative Party believes that manifesto commitments should be honoured, and that one will be, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said in another place only last year. Any argument in connection with the Bill should recognise that the benefit exists and, at £7.25 a week, at a not unreasonable level.
Many of your Lordships spoke as if you did not recognise that fact. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, is a case in point. The questions under consideration are how and when it should be uprated. The law says—this is the second reason why there is no mention of child benefit in the Bill—that it must be reviewed annually, and it is. However, it does not have to be uprated annually, and therein lies your Lordships' concern. It would need no change in legislation to achieve that end. Families with children at the bottom end of the income spectrum need additional cash, whereas those at the top do not. Therefore the Government have chosen to increase the amount of money that goes to families at the bottom end in each of the two years.
How then do we give them extra money? The only ways we currently have are income related—the noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, called them means-tested—benefits. These have been increased by more than if we had increased child benefit, to the tune of 50 pence per child last year. But, the noble Lord asks, what about the 40 per cent. or so who do not claim income support and family credits? I take the point very seriously indeed. That is why we are currently in the middle of a vast advertising campaign for family credits and, as noble Lords will know, have simplified the claim forms. I have no doubt that we shall be returning to the issue quite soon.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Craigton for raising the important matter of charitable payments, and for the opportunity it gives me to acknowledge on behalf of the Government the valuable work done by many of the charities. As a caring government we have always recognised the importance of concessions for charitable payments within the social assistance schemes. That is why, when the changes were introduced in April last year, we made specific provision for charities to make regular payments in a variety of circumstances and irregular lump sum payments without affecting a person's benefit. When taken together, the changes enable charities to 570 continue to give as much help as they have always done, although I fully accept that a few charities may have to change the way in which they make payments in order to take full advantage of the new rules.
However, I recognise my noble friend's strength of feeling over the absence of a specific disregard for payments made at Christmas and birthdays. The House will know that the Government are committed to monitoring the reforms, including the way in which charities are managing the new rules. Indeed, my noble friend referred to a letter from my right honourable friend saying just that.
We have shown in the past that we are ready to ease the rules when it proves necessary. We shall certainly take fully into account the views expressed this afternoon by my noble friend. I am grateful for his helpful suggestions. However, I believe that the monitoring which we are currently undertaking, and which covers a wide spectrum of charities, offers the best way forward for deciding what further concession, if any, is needed.
My noble friend Lady Faithfull and many others spoke with great feeling on a matter which commands the instinctive sympathy of us all—the plight of the terminally ill. She has urged that we abolish the six months' qualifying period for the attendance allowance for this group of disabled people. I know from the many letters I have received in recent weeks that this is an issue which commands support in many quarters, not least from the hospice movement. I am delighted to have a hospice in my home village. I believe that we all know and respect the incomparable work of hospice staff and the home care teams in helping terminally ill people and their families. I am also aware of the recent reports by the Social Security Advisory Committee, Benefits for Disabled People: A Strategy for Change and Attendance Allowance: A Benefit too Late, which recommend abolition of the attendance allowance qualifying period for people with terminal illness.
Nevertheless, there is a very real problem here. As noble Lords will recognise, attendance allowance is paid to the sick person so that it can help towards their paying for a carer. One does not have to be terminally ill in order to receive it, but one does have to have been ill for six months. The problem is, how do doctors, even if they know that someone is terminally ill, tell them in each case? The psychology of this I find quite daunting. Indeed, I observed the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, wondering whether it is right to have an attendance allowance, as constituted at present, at all. Is the real requirement a carers' allowance, for which we hear calls from time to time, or is it a totally new benefit? I do not pretend to know the answers to these rhetorical questions which demand close, careful consideration, but I think I shall do so quite soon.
§ Baroness Seear
My Lords, if the noble Lord will forgive me intervening I do not recall having said—at least if I did, then I do not know what I was thinking about—that I favoured the abolition of the attendance allowance. I do not think that I said that, and it would be very embarrassing for me to have it on the record.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right, I do not have her remarks down in quotes as saying that, but part of the tenor of her speech was to explore other avenues. It does not terribly matter whether those other avenues include the attendance allowance. I was pointing out——
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, I was referring not to the comments of the noble Baroness but to other questions when I said they did not particularly matter.
The opportunity to scrutinise the attendance allowance scheme and the whole present system of benefit provision for disabled people will shortly present itself when we have all the information from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys disability services. We shall have that by the summer Recess. Therefore I do not think that now is the right time for piecemeal tinkering with benefits for disabled people. I am not alone in that view. The Social Security Advisory Committee made the same point when it presented its recent reports to my right honourable friend the Minister for Social Security and the Disabled. I further add that the Duchess of Norfolk, who, as the House will know, is chairman of Help the Hospices, will discuss this whole matter with me next week. I shall report the results of that to the House as soon as possible.
I am running out of time, but I had hoped to say something about homelessness. That matter was raised particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Pitt of Hampstead. However, as I know that there will be a debate on this subject very shortly, I hope the noble Lord will excuse me if I write to him when I have fully studied the tenor of his speech.
At present, mobility allowance comes to a grinding halt when the recipient reaches 75 years of age. My honourable friend the Minister responsible for the disabled has made it clear that at the moment no one who is already 75 receives the allowance. However, that will change very soon. That is why we are extending the allowance, but only as a temporary measure. I should add that one must apply for the allowance up to the age of 66. However, one cannot receive it between the ages of 65 and 66.
War pensions committees are a matter on which I shall have to write to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. I appreciate that I have not answered all the questions raised by any means. However, as usual, I shall comb through the Official Report and write, as appropriate, well before the Committee stage.
This Bill represents another very important stage in the evolution of the social security system. It builds on the 1986 reforms and underlines the Government's commitment to a system of benefits which provide help when it is most needed, at the same time as reinforcing the principles of individual responsibility and self help. It is important to restate that no social security system can be set in concrete for ever. Society is dynamic and it changes. Social security must change too.
On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.