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Entitlement And Amount

Volume 895: debated on Monday 7 July 1975

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

10.25 p.m.

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 10, leave 'out the appointed day' and insert '5th April 1976'.

With this amendment we may also discuss the following amendments:

No. 15, in Clause 16, page 10, line 6 leave out from 'with' to end of line 7 and insert '5th April 1976'.

No. 17, in Clause 23, page 16, line 12 leave out from 'means' to end of line 13 and insert '5th April 1976'.

No. 18, in page 16, line 12 leave out from 'means' to end of line 13 and insert '5th April 1977'.

I would like to thank you, Mr. Speaker, for choosing my amendment as the subject for our first debate.

It has precisely the same effect as the amendments in the names of my hon. Friends which are being considered with it. The object is to bring the child benefit into effect at the beginning of April 1976—the beginning of the tax year.

This is only a structure Bill and it does not lay down the rates of the benefit. They remain to be decided in future. But there are certain decisions we have to take now and one is to resolve to bring in this benefit as quickly as we can.

The amendent will not add to costs. It need not increase public expenditure and might even result in a reduction of public spending; but it would have a serious effect which would be an advantage. It would give hundreds of thousands of people part of their income as of right instead of leaving them entirely dependent on means-tested supplementary benefit. More important—and I hope that this might reach the Secretary of State's heart, because she is not easy to reach on this subject—it transfers cash from wallets to handbags. By reducing the amount of tax concession through child allowances and increasing the money payable to mothers in child benefit we would do something to redress the balance between the spending power of menfolk and the spending power of mothers.

In the present inflationary conditions the men get the higher wages, but the women have to pay the higher prices. In all too many cases family finances do not recognise the strains on the family budget which are being imposed by inflation and the end of cheap food.

The Government have a duty to redress this balance. As head of the health service the Secretary of State will know that there are the beginnings of serious deficiency diseases in children resulting from under-care and under-feeding, and these are appearing not just in a handful of problem cases but are all too widespread throughout the population. By this broad redistribution of income from husbands to wives the amendment will change for the better the present pattern of spending. It will mean more money being spent in butchers' shops and less in betting shops.

The Secretary of State might ask why introduce the benefit from 1976; why not wait? It seems anomalous that the House should be hastening to bring the Bill on to the statute book and at the same time be prepared to keep mothers waiting 18 months or so before they may enjoy its benefits. If the Bill is so good—I have praised its principles—why should we tolerate this interminable delay?

10.30 p.m.

The Bill is an example of Socialist priorities. The Government are prepared to hand out hundreds, probably thousands, of millions of pounds in higher wages but they are not prepared to do anything quickly to help the mothers of families in need. We do not know yet whether the Government will settle for the 10 per cent. across-the-board wage increase. If so it would be another example of the Socialist Government giving most money to those with the least need. Perhaps they will accept the alternative proposal for a £6 increase. That would be better because—

Order. I want to do justice by the hon. Member, but he must relate his argument to why the date must be changed.

I am seeking to prove that it is necessary to act in a situation which is rapidly deteriorating. It is not sufficient to postpone the introduction of the child benefit, as the Secretary of State proposes, till the Greek calends. She has insisted that the Bill should impose on her no commitment as to when the benefit should be introduced. That is wrong. My amendment seeks to force her hand and to oblige her to recognise the needs of poor families by acting with the minimum of delay.

I recognise that there are overwhelming reasons why the benefit should be brought in at the beginning of a tax year. I say that it should be done at the beginning of the next tax year, not subsequently.

It seems that the Government feel they have money to release for personal spending, but they will do it at the expense of employers and not of society as a whole. So much for the social wage. When it comes to the crunch, we realise that the concept of the social wage is a sham. The Government will insist upon higher wages as compensation for the changes taking place in society through inflation; but they are not prepared to compensate the very people in most need, namely, those who have no income at all except supplementary benefit or what they are able to get through their family relationships.

The retail price index is a misleading guide to what has been happening in recent years. I was able to quote some figures in Committee. They have not been denied, and I should like to state them again briefly and add something to them. The Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection gave me comparisons of families of different sizes in the face of inflation from 1970 to 1974.

These are the figures that I have deduced from them. Average weekly household expenditure on basic items increased for one adult between 1970 and 1974 from £13·12 to £20·35, a rise of £7·23. The comparable figures for a family of two adults and two children was an increase from £31·70 to £53·20, a rise of £21·50. That is about three times as much, although by reference to the retail price index, one would assume that inflation had affected both single people and families to the same extent. This means that the average family's outgoings had increased by £14·27 a week more than those of a single person during 1970 to 1974.

During the period October 1970 to October 1974 take-home pay for the average single adult manual worker rose from £19·98 to £32·59, an increase of £12·61, against an increase in basic costs of £7·23, which amply compensated for the rise in his basic living expenses. For a married man with two children under the age of 11 the take-home pay in the same period rose from £22·66 to £37·43, which was a rise of only £14·77 against a rise in costs of £21·50, based on official estimates. In round figures the average family lost £7 a week in the four years to October 1974, while the single man gained £5. The take-home pay of the average family was already well below the average household expenditure on essentials at the start of the period, so we have a serious situation.

The figures illustrate that something has to be done. We cannot allow the right hon. Lady to continue her dilatory way. We realise that in her opinion mothers do not matter as much as trade unionists because that is the position of her party and she is, above all, a very good partisan; but I still hope that what we have to say and the opinions of the House may change her. The figures I gave were only up to 1974. In 1975 inflation is that much worse, and in 1976 we expect that we shall go into an economic depression and that the Government will be obliged to bring food subsidies to an end. What was happening up to 1974 will become much worse in the next couple of years.

We come back to the old question: can the machinery cope? Again and again the right hon. Lady falls back on the argument that however much she might wish to help she cannot because it is not possible. We have to reflect on the facts. The tax credit policy of the previous Government was confirmed in the middle of 1973, so two years of agreement on the policy which is the main principle of the Bill have already elapsed. Although the right hon. Lady saw to it that her party challenged the tax credit idea, I do not think it was ever thought that she was not accepting that part of it which referred to child benefit, which is what we find in the Bill. We have had two years of agreement in principle between the parties, and what I am saying is that action should now be taken in the next nine months.

We have this unhappy balance. On the one hand, there are 7 million mothers of first children waiting for benefit. On the other, there are perhaps 700—or possibly as many as 7,000—officials. The right hon. Lady inclines to their convenience rather than to the interests of 7 million mothers. Once again it is a matter of Socialist priorities. What we are hearing from her is the well-known phrase, "The dogs may bark—the caravan rolls on". The right hon. Lady does not mean to change.

The right hon Lady has already had 18 months in office in which to prepare for child endowment. That should be ample time, considering that Germany carried through this reform in six months. Admittedly the Germans ran into some snags, but what we have to conclude is that the Secretary of State's heart is not in it. Mothers do not rank high in her scale of priorities. Or have we to say that she is simply not a suitable person to run a large administrative staff?

Let us judge her by the fruits of her administration. All credit to her, she increased family allowances, but not by as much as the rise in the cost of living since the last increase. There was cheeseparing there. Consider the maternity grant. It is still £25, in spite of the other upratings announced last month. It is so long ago that it was fixed at that figure that I cannot ascertain even when it was.

We have still not debated the Finer Report. When we had the rather heartbreaking lobby by the Gingerbread mothers here last week, where was the right hon. Lady? She had other concerns. She was too embarrassed to meet them. She put one of her Ministers in instead. I do not think that that was a good gesture on her part. If she had heard what those mothers had to say it might have softened her attitude somewhat. British mothers are tired of being taken for granted and being left behind because militant trade unionists have got control of the Government machine. A year is a long time in the life of an under-fed child. Can we not, even at this stage, expect from the right hon. Lady a commitment to do something at once? Or does the House have to sit back and bear with her in her heartlessness and ineptitude?

As is so often the case in our social service debates, we are indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys William) for enabling us to begin the debate with one of the key issues that has concerned the House throughout the development of the Government's child endowment scheme. The Government have reneged on their original intention to introduce this benefit by April 1976 and are now seeking to delay it by a further year. They will not commit themselves because there are further amendments giving them the opportunity to delay until 1977.

This dispute between us is not just a question of sheer administrative practicality or convenience. It is a question of political will and social priorities and has great significance for the families affected. As our debates have gone on about child endowment, the background efforts have made the issue of the date of the introduction of the benefit much more important. It is more important now than it was at the time of Second Reading. Even then there was a big enough controversy. We now know what the economic background facing these families is likely to be for the next 12 months, when in other circumstances which no one can foresee, they will need these benefits as soon as possible.

It is disgraceful to delay. April 1976 is the date pin-pointed by the amendment. It is fair to predict that between now and then we shall see the Government, if they have the courage of their convictions stated last week, going through an attempt to reduce living standards in the national interest. If inflation, which is racing ahead of wage increases, is to be brought to an end we shall have to go through a period of severe restraint. Incomes are unlikely to keep pace with the inflation which is in the pipeline as a result of last winter's wage and salary settlements. Those directly affected by the Government's policy will suffer reduced incomes in the next few months. If the Government are determined to hold to their policy, as seemed to be foreshadowed by the Chancellor last week, they will have to be seen to be doing justice to those who are most vulnerable.

10.45 p.m.

Among the most vulnerable families who will need protection are those with numbers of children and with modest incomes. Over the past year or two this group has received no mercy from the miners and other militant trade union leaders who have forced up their living standards and their incomes. This group needs help from the Government. Potentially help is in the Bill if we can get it to them by April 1976.

This Bill is the only part of the Conservative tax credit scheme which the Government will agree to bring forward. By combining ultimately child allowances for tax and the old family allowances, it channels help to the families who most need it who did not get the maximum benefit from child allowances in the past. It channels it to the first child and gets near to honouring the Conservative election commitment to give help to the first child, and, most importantly, it channels it through the mother. It transfers purchasing power from the wage packet of the husband to the handbag of the mother in a way which helps families to cope with their budget in what may well be a difficult winter.

I accept that, given that is the nature of the help, we must if possible get it to the families by April 1976. Part of the economic package is that it is possible that the scheme will then have to be introduced at neutral cost as far as public expenditure is concerned. It seemed clear from the illustrative figures which the Secretary of State gave on Second Reading that about 1·94p a week would be envisaged for the benefit if, when introduced, the Government decided that neutral cost was the proper way to approach the matter. But even introducing it on that basis by April 1976, with a nil increase in public expenditure, would speed up the giving of help to the advantage of those families below the taxpaying level who perhaps will be adversely affected by the Government's proposed wage restraints.

The Government originally intended to introduce the benefit in April 1976, but most hon. Members are probably familiar with the ridiculous tragi-comedy in which the Government have backed down from April 1976 and are now left in the hopeless position of trying to defend April 1977 as a starting date. The essential background—the one which the Secretary of State will most vehemently try to deny—lies in the decisions about social priorities in relation to the election commitments which the Government made in internal discussions earlier this year.

There were extremely well informed reports in The Guardian and in New Society to the effect that a Cabinet committee—called, somewhat ironically, the Anti-Poverty Committee—had decided that it was not possible to pursue this election commitment to go ahead with the child benefit scheme by April 1976 because there were no funds available, and it was the Secretary of State's intention—though how she intends to give effect to it in the present circumstances I do not know—to have public funds available when she introduced her scheme. It seemed that the Government wanted to spend additional public money when introducing the new scheme because they were extremely worried about taking money from the pay packets of men and adding it to the housekeeping money of women. The right hon. Lady no doubt felt that she and her right hon. and hon. Friends might have difficulty in facing their political friends—the higher paid industrial workers in key industries—if they introduced it with neutral public spending.

However, the Cabinet refused to go ahead with finding the money to authorise the beginning of the scheme in April 1976. As one newspaper pointed out, as a political sop, the Government came up with the idea of the interim benefit for one-parent families. It is a fairly useless political sop because, as Gingerbread pointed out to the Government, it does nothing to help the poorest one-parent families because they will lose it from their supplementary benefits.

There are snags involved in interim benefit for one-parent families. If the amendment is accepted, so that the scheme is introduced by 1976, the Government will be spared the embarrassment of problems with one-parent families under Clause 16. Everyone will be able to start off on the same footing with the scheme as it was intended that it should operate. However, the Government decided that they could not do that. They said that April 1976 was not an attainable date.

Since that time the Government have tried to find ways to excuse the delay, especially since hon. Members on both sides of the House were impatient that the benefit should be introduced as quickly as possible, although the impatience of Government supporters has thinned in the past weeks. We shall hear how impatient they are in the course of time. Nevertheless, the Government tried to excuse the delay.

The urgency of the problem and the nature of the Government's intentions were revealed for the first time on 29th January during the discussion of the Social Security Benefits Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Kensington, leading the debate, put forward the idea of— surprise, surprise—child benefit for the first children of one-parent families, which the Government perversely voted against, but which some months later they decided to reintroduce.

In that debate I canvassed extensively the problem of the delay in introducing the measure. I accused the Government of not intending to stick to their commitment to introduce it by April 1976. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) suggested that possibly some administrative difficulties or problems with the building at Washington were responsible.

The Government had an adequate opportunity to reply, but at that stage they did not have their excuses ready. The Under-Secretary put forward this explanation of why there might be some difficulty in introducing the scheme. He said:
"It is unrealistic for Members, on both sides, to believe that a child endowment scheme of this size can be implemented without considerable preparation and without appreciating the considerable difficulties. We are talking of taking on 3 million singleton children. We say that, even before we can entertain claims from these children, we are talking of major computing programme difficulties, major printing programmes, housing difficulties and staffing problems. I do not suggest that any one of those problems is the cause of delay. But it would be folly for us to start out on a scheme of this nature without ensuring that all those problems were first solved. It is the total of these problems which is one factor influencing my right hon. Friend in making a firmly dated decision on this matter."
I single out the comment:
"I do not suggest that any one of those problems is the cause of the delay."[Official Report, 29th January 1975; Vol. 885, c. 457.]
By the time we reached the Second Reading the cat was out of the bag. The Secretary of State's remarks bore no relation to what her Under-Secretary had said earlier. Those who want to refresh their memories of the Secretary of State's remarks will find them recorded in col. 336 the Official Report of 13th May 1975, which contains a passionate explanation that the Secretary of State's best intentions and deepest political wish were to introduce the allowance in April 1976, but that unfortunately there were major administrative problems and other difficulties, including that of high alumina cement, which adversely affected the construction of the temporary office accommodation which it was hoped to occupy in Washington, County Durham. An extraordinary explanation was put forward that the Government's political intentions were frustrated as they could not find a suitable office block. They were defeated by the problem of high alumina cement.

We received a curious invitation to inspect the concrete beam which caused all the trouble and which constituted the spoke in the wheel of the Government's plans. I cannot tell one beam from another. It would not be of much help if I looked at concrete beams in Washington or anywhere else. However, that is not the point. The Government first said that their plans were frustrated first by a strike on the building, secondly by high alumina cement and thirdly because no building was available within 12 or 13 miles of Newcastle on Tyne which would allow the Government, however willing, to move in the computer and get the new scheme going. We have queried that throughout. The Government were in a dilemma as a result of acute political difficulties inside the Cabinet and of having got their spending priorities wrong earlier in the year.

In Committee the new Under-Secretary of State found that on his transfer of duties he had come blundering into this mess that the Government had created, and he was left trying to explain the difficulties of finding office blocks in the North-East. We pressed our case, saying that we were surprised to be told that nowhere in the North-East was there an adequate office block to be found to enable the Government to fulfil their good intentions. Again, the new Under-Secretary of State, with the same honesty that marked his predecessor, said:
"As my hon. Friend made clear on Second Reading, we are talking about an accommodation need for 2,200 staff. The extent of the premises is 150,000 square feet. These are substantial buildings. I do not wish to suggest that there are no buildings in Newcastle which could accommodate that number, but at the same time it has to be in that area, near the existing facilities. But whether one can acquire premises at very short notice on this scale at precisely the time when they are wanted is quite another question. I think that he "—
meaning me"—
"is being a little unfair in not taking account of our difficulties."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 26th June 1975; c. 273.]
The hon. Gentleman did not wish to suggest that there were no buildings in Newcastle of that kind. We do not believe that the Government have made any serious attempt to discover such buildings. The variations in what has been said by the Government throughout confirm that suspicion, however vehemently the Secretary of State may say in a few moments that high alumina cement and strikes in the North-East are to blame.

I quote in my support what the hon. Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) said in the Second Reading debate. What she said so upset the Government that she is not in her place tonight. She was not allowed to put her views in Committee because she had been so naughty as to say a few critical words about the Government in the Second Reading debate. She has given up in despair. She said:
"It is not only a matter of resources, not only a matter of staff, not only a matter of buildings; it is also a matter of political will, and it is the political will nationally, it is the political will of this House, apart from the handful of hon. Members who are here tonight, that it is necessary to mobilise if we are to see the benefit brought in earlier, as I hope we shall."—[Official Report, 13th May 1975; Vol. 892, c. 352.]
The result of making remarks like that on social security matters nowadays is that an hon. Member on the Government side never gets inside a Standing Committee.

The political will of the Government was illustrated in Committee, with five payroll Members and 14 back benchers, one of whom had no interest in the subject and one of whom—I see him in his place—spoke movingly for but voted against his own amendment and with the Government. The political will of the Government manifested itself mainly in attempting to iron out all opposition or dissent on their own side to the commencement date.

The Government's political will is further illustrated by the Report stage of this important Bill being taken at 10 o'clock at night, suggesting that the Bill is being relegated to second place in the Government's priorities. Every attempt is being made by the Government to minimise debate and to so avoid embarrassing questions and, presumably, to try to persuade people outside that there are administrative reasons which Parliament is not able to reopen. We wish to reopen this matter. We think that there has been a serious breach of faith.

The Government preference on this subject, as on many other aspects of social security policy, is to produce public relations type Bills embracing apparently good intentions but extremely thin on action and producing very little in practice for the people about whom the House should be most concerned. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington said, the important matter is the social priority of the mothers who are waiting for help and wondering what next winter will be like, given the economic crisis, the nature of the measures which the Government will have to take and the need for the Bill to give some relief to hard-pressed families. That is the burden of the case.

11.0 p.m.

I should like to make clear how reasonable and conciliatory we are. We expect the Government at last to abandon this nonsense of guiding office development to the North-East, but should they seek to reject the amendment in that respect, we have tabled Amendments Nos. 15 and 18 to give them the opportunity to write in their own stated dates. No. 15 suggests the date of April 1976 for one-parent families and No. 18 suggests 1977 for the whole scheme.

I am sure that the Government will not resist these amendments, because they have used these dates throughout as a defence, and even I would not dare to suspect them of just fobbing off the House. I am sure that they would not come back with the lame excuse that they did not have the necessary powers, or that the building was not ready, or that perhaps another part of it had fallen down, or that the carpets were not ready, or something else of that sort, so that they could claim that it was not possible to proceed in 1976 or 1977. But in case the Treasury succeeds in encouraging the Department to take that view, we have provided the opportunity for the Department to put its own date into the Bill.

I cannot see why the Government should resist that. I cannot visualise what arguments the right hon. Lady could use for not putting her own stated dates into the Bill to make clear the Government's good faith and to make clear that something will happen in April 1976 or 1977.

However, if the Government's lackadaisical approach to this important social priority and their complete indifference to the plight of families result in their resisting these amendments, they will be thoroughly revealed. I trust that the right hon. Lady will surprise us and go beyond her own dates and see the virtue in what was urged upon her by the Opposition and her hon. Friends on Second Reading until they were purged from our debates.

The hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) started his speech by saying that he was deeply grateful to his hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams) for having brought this matter before the House. It is rather surprising if that is so that the hon. Member did not begin by co-ordinating his arguments with those of his hon. Friend. The whole case of the hon. Member for Kensington was that we could not possibly resist Amendment No. 1 because it did not involve any extra cost. If that is the argument, the whole pretence of the hon. Member for Rushcliffe, that somehow we are reneging on a commitment, because the selfish miners are not prepared to meet the extra cost, falls lamentably to the ground Perhaps we may have a co-ordinated case put by the Opposition before we are expected to answer it.

In fact, as the whole House knows, the political slapstick to which we have been listening for the past 25 minutes is designed exclusively to hide the Opposition's political nakedness. The hon. Member for Rushcliffe referred to what he called my acute political difficulties. I would rather have my alleged difficulties than the hypocrisy of the hon. Member and the record of his Government in family support. His Government—and he knows it—won the 1970 election by promising the Child Poverty Action Group to increase family allowances immediately.

No, I will not give way. His Government then reneged on a solemn election manifesto commitment, whereas in this Bill we are solemnly fulfilling ours within a matter of only 18 months, and fulfilling it in exactly the terms in which we advanced it. The hon. Member knows that he is talking manufactured rubbish when he talks about our going back on a commitment as to the date. It was not until Second Reading that we were in a position to put a date before the House, and the hon. Member knows that he cannot produce an earlier date on which we have reneged.

I come to what he called his party's election manifesto commitments. I should be delighted if the House would return to a study of them. Both in February 1974 and October 1974—and October 1974 particularly—the Conservative Party was cleverly and wisely cautious about the details of the commitment. It told us that its great tax credit scheme—we all know that operated today it would cost £3,000 million—would have to be introduced by stages.

Further, there was no commitment to introduce the great child credit element of the scheme even in the lifetime of this Parliament but when economic circumstances were right. Nobody will pretend that economic circumstances at this moment are particularly favourable. Only the other day the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe) was calling for public expenditure cuts of over £4½ billion. Nobody believes for a moment that if the Conservatives had been in Government they would have introduced the child credit element of their tax credit scheme, but we have done so by—

The right hon. Lady said that nowhere had she declared herself to be in favour of an earlier date. I have had time to look up the debate on Second Reading. The right hon. Lady is recorded as saying:

"It was certainly our original intention that the benefit would start in April next"—[Official Report, 13th May 1975; Vol. 892, c. 336.]
I understand that she also made that declaration in her letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams). My hon. Friend had earlier written to the right hon. Lady on behalf of the Family Allowance Movement.

Nothing that the hon. Gentleman has quoted reverses what I was saying earlier. I was saying that the Government at no stage had given a commitment to a date. The first announcement of a date was on Second Reading. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for vindicating what I said. It is true that when we announced the date we said that we would have preferred to introduce it earlier, but it had never been a question of our having said in the election campaign "Vote Labour and the child benefit scheme will be introduced in April 1976". In fact, we said "Vote Labour and you will get the child benefit scheme during the lifetime of this Parliament". It has been introduced not only within the lifetime of this Parliament but within 18 months of the return of the Government.

In the interim we have already had the increase in family allowance benefits. The Conservatives failed to increase the family allowance not in 18 months, my heavens, but since the previous Conservative Government had done so in 1956. One would have thought that a modicum of humility would have kept Conservative Members in more muted terms. Of course, we all know the tactic of going into the attack when one has a weak case.

Conservative Members know that their record is such that they have to be extremely defensive. The House knows that the arguments and the amendments that have once again been put forward are either inoperable or unnecessary. We all know that their purpose is to give Conservative Members the opportunity of calling me a liar in parliamentary terms. They may wrap up then allegations in the sort of language that we have heard tonight—"unconvinced" and the rest of it—but the reliability they are calling in question is not the political will of the Government but the word of our experts, who report to us that completion of the provision for the introduction of the child benefit scheme is impossible before April 1977. It is impossible to achieve this by April 1976. It is more likely to be April 1977 because when tax is involved it must be introduced at the beginning of the tax year.

When the hon. Member for Kensington is driven to quote the words of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales in his previous incarnation in my Department and, by twisting the emphasis, tries to make out that he was repudiating our case, he must be in a difficult posiltion. What my hon Friend was rightly saying was that the delay is due not to any one of these problems but to a complex of them. Of course it is not just one item that causes difficulty. A building would not be a problem if it were not for the fact that we have a highly centralised system of family allowances—a system quite different from the German system. We have weekly cash payment books. Payments are not made into bank accounts, as happens in 80 per cent. of cases in Germany. We have a different system.

The number of officials involved—and the hon. Member for Kensington has been told this before—is not 700 or 7,000 additional officials. The exact figure is 2,200 additional officials. Quite naturally those officials have to be housed. The hon. Member for Kensington becomes somewhat pathetic when he says, "Look at this heartless woman who puts the needs of 7,000 officials against that of 7 million mothers.

No, I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. Having heard the hon. Gentleman's speech, I would not give way to him if he were the last person left in the House of Commons. After that speech, he does not deserve the parliamentary courtesies.

One cannot have 2,200 officials roosting like hens in a barn. They have to have an office.

Let us remember that this is a provision which has been planned by two Governments. The planning of these buildings began, before we came into office, in 1974. It began on such a scale and location because our predecessors in government knew that if there were to be a child benefit scheme, it would require buildings of this size near to and in the environs of Newcastle, and nowhere else.

The additional work arising from the payment of child benefit with the benefit to the first child, including 7 million families, could not be done within the existing resources available to my Department. They know that any new centre would have to be reasonably close to Newcastle to link with the computer facilities there and with the existing family allowances branch. The new Emerson building in the city was commissioned by the Property Services Agency to be ready for occupation in July 1975 and to house 2,200 staff necessary to action the claims from 3 million "single families" in time for the scheme to begin in April 1976. It is true that this involves accommodation of about 150,000 sq. ft. That is about half the size of the vast Alexander Fleming complex in which, for my sins, I work.

11.15 p.m.

Against the possibility of delay in the building programme, fall-back arrangements were made to use temporarily another large building in Washington New Town, called Durham House, which was already under construction for other purposes by Property Services Agency. By March 1974 it was clear that the Emerson Building programme had slipped. As no other suitable buildings were available which could be made ready on time—and that is the factor; one cannot just walk into any building; it has to be adapted for its purpose—Durham House, the fall-back premises, became our mainstay for the take-on operation.

It was in September 1974 that we learned, as many other Departments learned about the public buildings under their control, that high-alumina cement had been used for some components in its construction. Therefore, work had virtually to stop while the need for precautionary measures was considered. The hon. Gentleman had better make un his mind. In the Standing Committee he said that he understood the argument about high-alumina cement. With the evidence available, he would find it difficult not to understand it. Yet he returns to the subject today and accuses us of having dreamed up all the excuses we could.

Of course, my Department made an urgent re-examination of the alternative ways of achieving the 1976 start. But no alternative ways were available on time because in order to have an April 1976 start the staff have to be in the building setting the whole thing up by the previous summer. Local offices under our system, unlike the German system, could not have issued the order books. As for buildings in other areas, Newcastle had to be ruled out—

No, I will not give way to the hon. Member for Kensington—not after that speech.

I tell the House advisedly—and here I am pledging not only my word but the word of the staff who have been examining this problem on my behalf—that in the autumn of 1974 Property Services Agency made a thorough search in the Newcastle area for suitable alternative buildings. The few large ones in that area which would have been available and might otherwise have been suitable could not have been made ready on time. Therefore, the delay to Durham House made it impossible to start the scheme in 1976.

I say, therefore, that if the House were to pass this amendment, it would prove to be inoperable. I can assure the House that staff are not going to camp in the streets in order to obey the whim of an irrational Parliament. They have to be housed in conditions in which the necessary work can be done. But I can give the House this assurance: for the 1977 start the original Emerson Buildings are to be used. I have checked and rechecked, and I am told that no further slippage has taken place, but, as a precaution against further delay, other buildings in the Newcastle area are being obtained. Therefore, the Government are introducing this long overdue change at the earliest practicable moment.

The right hon. Lady seems to have finished her history of the problem, which is the fourth version we have had so far. If she is trying to tell us that it was known in the autumn of 1974 that no alternative accommodation was available when a search was made by Property Services Agency, why was the House told none of this on 29th January of this year on the Social Security Benefits Bill when this question of delay was considered and the problems at Washington were expressly canvassed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young)? Why were Ministers totally silent in January 1975 if the right hon. Lady is saying now that they knew then as a matter of fact that it was impossible to get this scheme into operation by April 1976?

The House has always been told this. The hon. Member for Kensington knows perfectly well that when I received a deputation from him and a mothers' action group many months ago I explained to him then the absolute physical difficulties we were experiencing in the Washington situation and the slippage in the building programme which had occurred there. Of course we have never hidden this. We have been constantly canvassing it. It was not until we had exhausted all the possible alternatives that we were forced to face the facts as I have put them to the House.

I repeat that we have gone back to the Emerson building, which we expect to be ready for the 1977 start. I repeat that Amendments Nos. 1 and 17 should not be supported, because they are inoperable and it is obviously absurd for the House to pass amendments which it knows, if it is honest, cannot be carried out. As for Amendment No. 15 which seeks to fix the date for the introduction of interim benefit, hon. Members opposite, and certainly the hon. Member for Rushcliffe, know full well that it is the long-accepted practice in social security legislation—a practice faithfully observed by the Tories when they were in office—that the principal legislation lays down the benefit structure and the operational dates are set out in a commencement order and not in the Bill itself.

The hon. Member said that he would be very interested to know my reasons for not accepting the amendment embodying the date in the principal Bill. My answer is that my reasons are those that his own Government have always advanced, namely, keeping in line with the common practice of successive Governments that the date is put in the commencement order and not in the Bill itself and that there is no reason whatsoever for changing that practice at present. We are following that pattern.

We are committed to introducing the interim benefit by April 1976. In the same way, the Chancellor and I have told the House that child benefit itself will begin in April 1977. I assure hon. Members that the 1977 start is not at risk because of building difficulties, because it does not depend on the use of Durham House in which the high alumina cement was discovered. Therefore, I suggest to the House that we drop the charade of the phony wrath of hon. Members opposite, face the facts, and get on with this great step forward in this reforming structure Bill.

As the right hon. Lady did not allow me any opportunity of intervening, I am afraid I have to ask the leave of the House to say a few more words on my amendment. We all waited to hear her make some clear commitment as to when the interim benefit would start and how much it would be, and when the child benefit would start and how much that would be. If her position and that of her Government is so clear, why was she not able to take advantage of this amendment to spell it out and tell the House instead of forcing us to divide?

In spite of the Secretary of State's histrionics, ill-temper and governess-like approach to me, I could not help thinking that she had a very poor case. What would someone like Peggy Herbison or Eleanor Rathbone have done in a similar position? She would have turned to her colleagues in Cabinet and insisted that mothers got the assistance they need in the current inflationary situation. It is no good looking to the Secretary of State to be a champion of mothers. She is interested in women who are members of trade unions—she is prepared to fight for them—but mothers embarrass her and for them she is not prepared to fight.

The British Civil Service is capable of meeting this challenge if it is properly led, but it is not getting the necessary leadership from the Secretary of State and her Ministers. When there was the emergency over petrol rationing, there was speedy enough action. Indeed, when family allowances were first introduced, we did not have stories of difficulties in finding office space and staff. There was the will to bring in family allowances and it was done.

The House has had to suffer from the right hon. Lady the sort of display seen at a small company's shareholders meeting when an inefficient old managing director is trying to explain things to angry shareholders who know they are going to vote to get rid of him. The Government benches have been empty during the debate. Labour Members are as uninterested in mothers as is the Secretary of State. But they will vote in strength and that will prove their social priorities.

What we are getting from the Secretary of State is ineffective leadership and smugness. She is quite happy with what she

Division No. 277.]


[11.30 p.m.

Arnold, TomHolland, PhilipPage, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)
Bain, Mrs MargaretHooson, EmlynPardoe, John
Beith, A. J.Howells, Geraint (Cardigan)Penhaligon, David
Benyon, W.Hurd, DouglasPercival, Ian
Boscawen, Hon RobertHutchison, Michael ClarkPrior, Rt Hon James
Bottomley, PeterJohnston, Russell (Inverness)Raison, Timothy
Brittan, LeonKilfedder, JamesRathbone, Tim
Brotherton, MichaelKnox, DavidRawlinson, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath)Lawrence, IvanRees-Davies, W. R.
Chalker, Mrs LyndaLawson, NigelReid, George
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)Le Marchant, SpencerRenton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts)
Cockcroft, JohnLester, Jim (Beeston)Renton, Tim (Mid-Sussex)
Cordle, John H.Luce, RichardRhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Crawford, DouglasMcCrindle, RobertRidley, Hon Nicholas
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord JamesMacfarlane, NeilRoberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)
Eden, Rt Hon Sir JohnMacGregor, JohnRoss, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke)Mather, CarolSainsbury, Tim
Evans, Gwyntor (Carmarthen)Maxwell-Hyslop, RobinShaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Ewing, Mrs Winifred (Moray)Mayhew, PatrickShelton, William (Streatham)
Eyre, ReginaldMeyer, Sir AnthonyShepherd, Colin
Fairgrieve, RussellMiller, Hal (Bromsgrove)Sims, Roger
Farr, JohnMiscampbell, NormanSmith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Fisher, Sir NigelMontgomery, FergusSpicer, Michael (S Worcester)
Fletcher-Cooke, CharlesMorgan, GeraintStanbrook, Ivor
Fowler, Norman (Sutton C'f'd)Morgan-Giles, Rear-AdmiralSteel, David (Roxburgh)
Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry)Morrison, Charles (Devizes)Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)
Grylls, MichaelNeave, AlreyStewart, Ian (Hitchin)
Henderson, DouglasNeubert, MichaelStradling Thomas, J.

is doing. She says the amendment would be inoperable and says she would not carry it into effect, but the amendment would not be inoperable under better leadership. Does the whole of her staff believe that this reform is impossible or are there not some who know that it could be done? She talks about the difficulties in our system and refers to the German system, but if the German system is better than ours, surely she could introduce something like it? Then we could also have the regular upratings that will be necessary if this Government stay in office.

The Secretary of State looks back over a long political career and feels that she has performed many services for women, but she is not performing a service for 7 million mothers by standing in the way of their receiving the benefits they need and deserve. The best service she could perform now for families is to resign. If we on these benches cannot convince her that she should resign, there will soon be people on her own side who will.

She is going to lead her party to vote in strength against introducing this benefit at the earliest possible date. I hope that my hon. and right hon. Friends will support my amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 98, Noes 109

Thompson, GeorgeWainwright, Richard (Coins V)Winterton, Nicholas
Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)Wall, PatrickYoung, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Townsend, Cyril D.Watt, Hamish
Tugendhat, ChristopherWeatherill, BernardTELLERS FOR THE AYES
Vaughan, Dr. GerardWelsh, AndrewMr. Fred Silvester and
Viggers, PeterWilson, Gordon (Dundee E)Mr. Anthony Berry.


Anderson, DonaldGeorge, BrucePark George
Armstrong, ErnestGilbert, Dr JohnParry, Robert
Ashley, JackGrant, George (Morpeth)Pavitt, Laurie
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N)Grocott, BrucePendry, Tom
Atkinson, NormanHamilton, James (Bothwell)Phipps, Dr Colin
Bagier, Gordon A. T.Harper, JosephPrice, William (Rugby)
Bates, AlfHarrison, Walter (Wakefield)Radice, Giles
Bean, R. E.Hatton, FrankRichardson, Miss Jo
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N)Hooley, FrankRoberts, Gwilym (Cannock)
Bidwell, SydneyHoram, JohnRobertson, John (Paisley)
Bishop, E. S.Jackson, Colin (Brighouse)Roderick, Caerwyn
Blenkinsop, ArthurJackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln)Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Boardman, H.Johnson, James (Hull West)Rooker, J. W.
Buchanan, RichardJones, Alec (Rhondda)Rose, Paul B.
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)Kilroy-Silk, RobertSedgemore, Brian
Cartwright, JohnLestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough)Sillars, James
Castle, Rt Hon BarbaraMabon, Dr J. DicksonSilverman, Julius
Clemitson, IvorMcCartney, HughSkinner, Dennis
Cocks, Michael (Bristol S)McElhone, FrankSmall, William
Cohen, StanleyMacFarquhar, RoderickSnape, Peter
Cook, Robin F. (Edin C)Mackenzie, GregorSpearing, Nigel
Cox, Thomas (Tooting)Mackintosh, John P.Stallard, A. W.
Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill)Madden, MaxStoddart, David
Cryer, BobMarks, KennethTaylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Davies, Ifor (Gower)Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)Tierney, Sydney
Dempsey, JamesMeacher, MichaelTinn, James
Doig, PeterMellish, Rt Hon RobertTomlinson, John
Dormand, J. D.Millan, BruceWainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Duffy, A. E. P.Miller, Mrs. Millie (llford N)Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Dunnett, JackMorris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)Ward, Michael
Edge, GeoffMurray, Rt Hon Ronald KingWhite, Frank R. (Bury)
English, MichaelNoble, MikeYoung, David (Bolton E)
Ennals, DavidOakes, Gordon
Ewing, Harry (Stirling)O'Malley, Rt Hon BrianTELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E.Ovenden, JohnMr. John Ellis and
Flannery, MartinOwen, Dr DavidMr. Donald Coleman.
Fraser, John (Lambeth, N'w'd)Palmer, Arthur

Question accordingly negatived.