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Supplementary Benefit Recipients

Volume 957: debated on Tuesday 7 November 1978

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asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what has been the increase in the number of people drawing supplementary benefit, including dependants, since December 1973.

About 900,000 as at November 1977. A change in the method of estimation prevents exact comparison with 1973.

We are dealing here, as the Minister and the Government know, with means-tested benefits. It remains the announced policy of Her Majesty's Government to reduce the dependence upon means-tested benefits, yet since December 1973 the number of people being means tested has increased by 1 millon. In other words, the greatest increase since the war in such benefits is being presided over by this Government. Does the Minister agree with those facts? What do this Government intend to do about the situation?

The Government's policy is, of course, to reduce unemployment. That is one of the major areas where there has been an increase in numbers. We are also committed to reducing reliance upon means-tested benefits, and a number of non-means-tested benefits have been introduced during the life of this Government. In future years, our new pensions scheme will reduce still further the number of pensioners who have to resort to supplementary benefit.

On the other hand, it must not be forgotten that it is one of the aims of this Government—and, I hope, of the whole House as well—to ensure that people who are entitled to supplementary benefit but are not at present claiming it are encouraged to do so, and that must lead to some increase in the figures.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the main factors in accounting for the increase in the number of families with children which are dependent on supplementary benefit is the general large increase in the number of one-parent families? Is it not time that the Government looked seriously at the case for a separate and more satisfactory system of income support for these families?

We are well aware of the problem of one-parent families which are dependent on supplementary benefit, and my hon. Friend is quite right that the numbers are increasing, just as the number of one-parent families in the population as a whole is increasing. But to introduce a simpler benefit so as to take one-parent families off supplementary benefit would be very expensive and would raise difficult questions of priorities between two-parent familes and one-parent families and other disadvantaged groups which have a claim on our resources.

Is the Minister aware that the situation where some families claim supplementary benefit and some get local authority rebates is worsening? Will he take steps to help the local offices to deal with the necessary claims of many families who would be better off with the rebate than with supplementary benefit but where the information is inadequate to get them on to the right benefit at the right time?

I agree with what the hon. Lady said. One of the reasons why the number of supplementary pensioners has decreased is the introduction of the housing finance benefits. The special exercise that we mounted in 1975 to identify claimants who would be better off getting a rent rebate or allowance or a rate rebate also helped. The exercise had a major effect, and we shall consider the possibility of repeating it. But it is, frankly, wasteful of our manpower resources, which are a top priority.