HL Deb 17 October 1991 vol 531 cc1218-20

3.12 p.m.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to alleviate the serious problems for applicants for social security caused by the present regulations and administrative arrangements.

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

My Lords, I reject the suggestion that there are serious problems in the delivery of social security benefits. However, Her Majesty's Government are continuing to take action to raise the standard of service provided to claimants of social security. Reforms in the social security system itself have directed resources more effectively towards those most in need and made the system easier to understand.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. However, is the Minister aware that the largest amount of work which is carried out by the citizens advice bureau is to do with social security? Why is it not possible for Her Majesty's agencies of social security to offer the same helpful and instructive answers to the problems of the people who apply for social security? CAB seem to do a far better job than Her Majesty's Government's social security officers.

Lard Henley

My Lords, I accept that the CAB does a great deal of valuable work. However, I am sure the noble Baroness would accept that any comprehensive system of social security must necessarily be fairly complicated. We made some reforms in 1988 when we did our best to make the system as simple as possible. We must also preserve the rights of the taxpayer—the national insurance contributor—who is paying for the system. There must therefore necessarily be safeguards. Offering advice to individual claimants certainly is very much at the core of what the benefits agency itself wishes to do. Since it was created on 1st April this year, great steps forward have been made in terms of improving customer care. I shall be quite happy to write to the noble Baroness setting out in some detail the various initiatives that the benefits agency has introduced.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the policy of loans, as opposed to grants, administered through the Social Fund puts off a; treat many people who are in need but who do not wish to fall further into debt? Is he also disturbed at the: apparent very high cost of administering the Social Fund, which the audit report states runs at about 31 per cent.?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate will hive an opportunity later this evening to discuss alleged problems in the Social Fund. In response to the allegation that the fund is expensive to administer, the problem is that the right reverend Prelate is taking the Social Fund on its own. One should look at the cost of the fund and its administration at the same time a s the cost of administration of income support, which is considerably cheaper than its predecessor, supplementary benefit.

Lord Carter

My Lords, if the social security system is working as well as the Minister says it is, will he tell the H ruse why the number of people who are living below the European poverty line—that is on less than half average income—has increased from 4.9 million people in 1979 to nearly 12 million now? That is from 9 per cent. of the population up to 22 per cent. of the population.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I do not accept that there is a poverty line. This Government have never accepted that and nor have any previous governments. This Government have been able to increase resources on social security benefit by some 33 per cent. in real terms. We are now spending the equivalent of £20 per week for every man, woman and child in the country, compared to a mere £14 a week when the noble Lord's party was last in power.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is the Minister saying that if a family has to live on less than half average income, they are not poor?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I said we have no definition of poverty. I do not accept the noble Lord's suggestion that half average income is the poverty line.

Forward to