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Social Services

Volume 977: debated on Tuesday 29 January 1980

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Expenditure

1.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what is the latest estimated saving in the field of social services which he expects to make during the current financial year.

Before answering the hon. Gentleman's question, I hope that I may be permitted to extend our best wishes to Mr. Speaker on his birthday.

Local authorities have been asked to reduce their overall current expenditure in 1979–80 to a level of about 1½ per cent. below that for 1978–79. It is not yet possible to estimate how far authorities will make part of this saving in the personal social services.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the cuts in spending are causing the closure in Liverpool and in other cities of old people's homes, children's homes and establishments for the physically and mentally handicapped? Does he agree with such policies that attack the most vulnerable in the community?

It is up to individual local authorities to decide how best to achieve the reductions in the light of local circumstances. As I have been around the country visiting social services departments, I have been impressed by how many have been able to meet real needs more effectively while, at the same time, spending less public money.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that every encouragement be given to the elderly to stay in their homes? Will he ask our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to reconsider paying a shortfall on pensions? Failure to do so would be a breach of a moral obligation.

I understand that that matter was raised extensively in Standing Committee this morning. My hon. Friend gave a full answer concerning the Government's position.

Is the Minister aware that, within the area health authority that serves both his constituents and mine, cuts in social security benefits have led to serious consideration being given to the closure of a children's home? While that is being considered, the Harrow school—registered as a charity in the same area—gets a tax relief of £36,000. Is not that obscene?

It is for the Home Secretary to decide the law on charity. It does not concern my Department.

Has my hon. Friend given any thought to how much money could be saved by the National Health Service if we investigated the abuse of its facilities by tourists from other countries, with which we do not have a reciprocal arrangement?

That subject is under active consideration within the Department. At the same time, we are urging other countries to extend the same hospitality as we offer visitors to our tourists when they are overseas.

May I, Mr. Speaker, endorse the birthday congratulations that have been extended to you. We offer you our warmest best wishes.

Has the Minister seen the charge that appeared in The Times today by the Bishop of Coventry that the Government's policy of reducing personal social services by 7 per cent. is inconsistent and self-contradictory? Has he also seen the statement by the president of the Association of Directors of Social Services that this policy will tear families with disabled children apart? When will the Secretary of State stand up to the Treasury and end this mean and demeaning policy?

In 1977–78 the Labour Government cut local authority current expenditure by 2 per cent. in real terms. That was a much bigger cut than we are seeking this year.

Heating Costs

2.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he intends to increase the heating allowance to recipients of supplementary benefit.

4.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if, in the light of large impending increases in fuel charges and the continuing rise in the rate of inflation, he will bring forward proposals to give extra help to one-parent families.

It has already been announced that the Government are reviewing the whole range of help available to assist needy consumers, including lone parents, with their fuel bills. The supplementary benefit heating additions were increased last November and are due to be increased again in November of this year.

Does the Secretary of State accept that, unless there is a substantial increase in the heating allowance, which takes account of the appalling level of inflation and of the disgraceful gas and electricity price increases recently imposed, there is a danger that an increasing number of old people will die of hypothermia next winter?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman realises that the supplementary benefit heating additions are uprated on the basis of increases in the fuel component of the retail prices index. They take into account expected future price increases, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that that is a reasonable way of dealing with that element.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the massive tax on gas—decreed by the Government—is equivalent to the medieval salt tax? It will have a brutal effect on the standards of living of the poor. It can be justified only by major compensatory payments throughout the range of the social benefits scheme.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that the Government have given a clear promise to bring forward further proposals—[HON. MEMBERS: "When"]—which will give special help to those on low incomes—including the elderly—to meet their fuel bills.

I welcome the Government's review of the whole range of fuel allowances, but will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he will press ahead as fast as possible with that review? There are understandable anxieties among the elderly, disabled and other needy groups, concerning the inevitably escalat- ing fuel costs, for which the Government are not to blame.

I recognise those anxieties. The price increases will begin to take effect in April. However, I think it is right that they will not be reflected in consumers' bills for another three months—and then only for the summer quarter. The main impact of those increases will not be felt until next winter. We intend to announce the results of our review long before then.

Is that good enough? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] Conservative Members seem to think that it is enough. Is it good enough to announce a review that has been announced four or five times when similar questions have been asked? It is well known that something must be done as quickly as possible to establish some type of fuel allowance or rebate scheme. It is possible for the Government to be open. They do not need a private review. They should open up the question and allow hon. Members and others to put proposals to them. The Government should come forward, before this summer at the latest, with a scheme, or alternative schemes, for a fuel allowance similar to that operated for rent allowances.

Order. I must remind the House that at Question Time hon. Members must not argue a case. They must ask questions.

No doubt that question will be raised in debate this afternoon. From the right hon. Gentleman's experience in the Department of the Environment, he will know that any question of a major, new and comprehensive fuel scheme cannot be contemplated now, because of the inevitable administrative constraints, quite apart from the question of cost. We aim to provide meaningful help to those in greatest need who would otherwise be hit hardest by the fuel price increases. I hope that we shall be able to announce the results of the review long before next winter.

Will the Secretary of State give us an assurance on two counts? First, will he assure us that the restricted number of categories that presently applies will be extended under the new scheme? Secondly, will he assure us that the size of the increase will be commensurate with the enormous percentage increase in electricity and gas bills?

The right hon. Gentleman is asking me to anticipate the results of the review. That, of course, I cannot do. It is clear that the scheme which I announced before Christmas gave substantial help to those in greatest need. It covered all fuels, not just electricity and the electricity discount scheme.

If there is not already an index, will my right hon. Friend set up an index that measures the cost of living for one-parent families? Children have only one childhood. If their cost of living appears to be going up at a rate that is faster than normal, will he persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to raise child benefit, and other support for one-parent families, in the Budget?

I know that many hon. Members in all parts of the House are anxious to do the best they can for one-parent families as they face particular difficulties. In our fuel help scheme, which we announced before Christmas, we therefore included provision for those at work who receive family income supplement. We gave the supplementary addition automatically to those with children under 5. The question of a separate index is a different point. If my hon. Friend tables a question, I shall try to answer it.

Benefits (Payment)

3.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what is his policy on the method and frequency of the payment of social benefits, and in particular the use of post office facilities.

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what consideration has been given to altering the method of payment of social benefits by the Post Office.

15.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what proposals he has for withdrawing his Department's services from post offices.

As part of the Government's campaign to improve efficiency, an ex- amination has been made of the arrangements for paying social security benefits, including the frequency of payments and whether the public should be able to choose payment of their benefits direct into a bank account. Changing these arrangements offers scope for saving taxpayers' money by reducing administrative costs. My right hon. Friend is considering a study team's report on these arrangements in conjunction with Sir Derek Rayner. Any changes emerging from this study will be made only after the most careful consideration of the social and other consequences and after proper consultation.

Does the Minister agree that to pay pensions and other benefits less frequently might cause a great deal of hardship? As many recipients are unlikely to have bank accounts, the suggestion that they should be paid in that way should be carefully investigated before proceeding. Will the Minister confirm that any suggestion of ceasing to pay social benefits through sub-post offices will mean that those post offices will experience great difficulty in surviving?

No one will be forced to have his payment made direct into a bank account. We wish to ensure that the most vulnerable groups in society—those on supplementary benefit and the very old—will be able to receive their payments weekly, and through post offices if they so wish. Other people may need to adapt to a different payment period that will strike a better balance between their wishes for fairly frequent payment and the needs of taxpayers who have to foot the bill. No one will be forced to receive payments through the post office. Those who are vulnerable will not be forced to receive payments other than weekly.

Will the hon. Lady assure the House that we shall have an opportunity to discuss the issues before the Government make a decision? Is she aware that many people receiving social security already have difficulty coping with a weekly payment, and a less frequently paid benefit would cause a great deal of distress?

When I saw the report, I raised many of these points. However, as has been done in many other countries, we must consider payment direct into bank accounts where that is desired by the recipient. We should, however, ensure that there is a choice. We should also ensure that we specifically help those families who have difficulty in budgeting, even on a weekly basis.

We have heard similar words from the Government before without seeing any action. Is the Minister aware of the considerable hardship and inconvenience that will be caused, particularly to old people? That factor must be taken into consideration when she and other Ministers are contemplating so-called efficiency. The Minister said that there will be a choice and I hope that she will ensure that it is so.

Is the Minister further aware that many people have never even heard of a bank account, let alone possess one, and that the proposal will be of benefit to only a few people? Finally, what will the hon. Lady say to sub-postmasters who have invested their savings in their businesses and who may go bankrupt as a result of such measures?

In recent years the number of people opening bank accounts has greatly increased. The facility is being requested. The previous Government were making preparations for automatic credit transfer and we are doing likewise.

With regard to sub-post offices, there has been a lot of erroneous comment. It will not be a compulsory measure, as hon. Gentlemen are mouthing at me. I assure the House that we are considering the measure in great detail.

I hope that my hon. Friend and the Government will not make too much of a meal of the measure. Is it not already possible for people who wish it to have their pensions paid through a bank account?

I regret to inform my hon. Friend that, although a payable order may be sent to a beneficiary, it is not possible to have it paid direct into a bank account. That is part of the proposal that we are considering as a result of the study team's report?

Does the Minister agree that it is bad enough for the Government to fail to meet their commitments, for example, with regard to the shortfall in pensions, but they are now proposing a fortnightly or monthly payment? Is the hon. Lady aware that there are 26,000 post offices throughout the country? Is she further aware that a principle of child benefit is that it should be paid to the mother, and that the proposal will run counter to that?

I am well aware of how many post offices there are. I am also well aware of the false comments that have been made in recent weeks. It is important that, as of right, the mother should receive child benefit. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I am taking all these matters fully into account.

May I reiterate to my hon. Friend the point already made from these Benches—that sub-post offices are of great importance in rural areas? They alone perhaps keep the village shop economically viable. At a time when so many facilities are being withdrawn—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is not putting a question. He is asserting a point of view. Perhaps he will now put a question.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We are well aware of the importance of the sub-post office in suburban communities and particularly in rural communities, where it is often the only shop. I am considering the whole matter in conjunction with Ministers from other Departments.

We cannot yet forecast definite savings. It has been estimated that savings in administrative costs could rise to £50 million a year, but simplification should lower that saving to perhaps £35 million. Administrative charges are constantly increasing and money available should be spent on benefits, not administration.

Vaccine-Damaged Children

5.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if any changes have been made in arrangements made to assist vaccine-damaged children; and if he will make a statement.

No. The arrangements remain exactly as my predecessor left them.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, but is he not surprised at the low percentage of claimants whose claims are being satisfied? Bearing in mind the low numbers, the latest campaign is understandable. In the light of all that, can he repeat his assurance that there has been no amendment in the advice given by his officials on the interpretation of the Act?

I assure my hon. Friend and the House that the scheme that is being administered is that which was approved by Parliament when the Vaccine Damage Payments Act was passed. No administrative directions have been given to those operating the scheme. Over 300 awards have been made, and, if the 1,100 claims awaiting review by tribunals succeed in the same proportions as hitherto, the total number will be around 600. No one has ever suggested that we are dealing with significantly greater numbers of vaccine-damaged children than that.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the present payment scheme is not a compensation scheme in the same way as that operated for other special cases, such as industrial injuries compensation? Can he tell the House whether he refuses to pay proper compensation because he rejects Pearson's views that vaccine-damaged children are a special case, because the Government cannot afford to compensate the number of children damaged, or because he believes that these children are less injured than people compensated for industrial injuries? Finally, does he believe that he can fob these children off with £10,000 because they do not have a powerful trade union to fight for them?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that these are difficult problems. It was because the House recognised the special duty that the community owes to vaccine-damaged children that we agreed on all sides that it was right to make a special payment under the provisions of the Vaccine Damage Payments Act. However much sympathy we have for these unfortunate families, we have to ask our- selves how far it is right to go on making more special payments to that group when we all know of families with children suffering equal hardship and disability and with equal needs but who would not qualify for compensation. Our view is that any further scheme of help for families with severely disabled children must await the time when we can introduce a general benefits scheme, which will of course have high priority when further resources become available.

Will my right hon. Friend look into the delay in hearing appeals under the scheme? Some cases have been outstanding for a long time.

I recognise that fact, that it causes great anxiety to parents. The number of tribunals that can operate is limited by the need for highly specialist medical representation. I hope that cases will be cleared as swiftly as possible, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that it is even more important to give a fair hearing to each case.

Is the Secretary of State concerned about the small number—only 320—who have so far been given compensation? Is he satisfied that the term "seriously disabled" is not being judged too harshly? Is he still insisting, as he has a right to, that when there is a problem of proof, which is always difficult, the balance should always be in favour of the claimant? Finally, is he satisfied that the scheme is working as well as intended?

I recognise the anxieties. The scheme is unchanged from that introduced in the last Parliament by the right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals) himself. Of course, there is a number of families who will have genuinely thought that they might be eligible for help but whose handicap, on the balance of probabilities—that is the test the Government wrote into the Act—cannot be attributed to the vaccination programme.

The degree of handicap was again approved by the last Parliament. An 80 per cent. degree of disability was set. It was felt that help should go to those families with the most severely disabled children. That is the line that was taken. That is the law now being administered by the tribunals.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the difference between this group of handicapped children and others is that this group were handicapped through following a policy publicly urged on the country by successive Governments and that the Government therefore have a responsibility to them, over and above other groups? Does he agree that it would be appalling if the Government refused to introduce a comprehensive compensation scheme for handicapped people based on the Pearson report? If that is not to happen—we shall be pleased to know whether it is or not—will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to review those people coming within the £10,000 scheme to make sure that, instead of receiving an interim repayment, they get full compensation for their injuries?

I must take up the right hon. Gentleman's point about an interim payment. I have refreshed my memory of the exchanges I had with his right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North on Second Reading of the Bill. Both he, from the Government Dispatch Box, and I were careful not to describe the £10,000 as an interim payment. The right hon. Gentleman made care to look up the references.

A longer-term scheme of help for families with severely handicapped children, which was the Pearson recommendation, is something on which neither side has felt able to commit itself in the light of the resource implication. I am glad to have the assent of the righthon. Member for Norwich, North to that. If those on the Opposition Front Bench are saying that this should be introduced straight away, it is surprising that they left no provision to pay for it.

Child Benefit

7.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services when he expects to announce an increase in the level of child benefit.

8.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will make a statement about child benefits.

11.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services when he expects to announce an up rating of child benefit allowance.

Is it not clear from the Minister's answer that the value of child benefit willfall, and has now fallen, below the combined value of family allowances and tax allowances? What happened to the present Secretary of State's promise in July 1977 that child benefit would be treated in the same way as direct tax reductions? When will the Secretary of State and other Ministers at the DHSS stop operating as moles on behalf of the Treasury? It has been put to me by constituents and others that this Government now stand charged with an act of unparalleled electoral betrayal and social vandalism. They have been seen through.

The House has been made aware on a number of occasions that the Government considered that, with so many other competing claims last autumn, a general increase in benefit in November last year could not be justified. We fully appreciate the value of the child benefit, particularly for working families with children. But any uprating is expensive. An extra 10p costs about £60 million a year. The right time to increase the benefit is November when all social security benefits are uprated.

The Government intend to take all steps in relation to tax and benefits to make sure that work incentives are improved.

Will the hon. Lady go away and bow her head in shame and put on sackcloth and ashes for the way the Government have let down and cheated families? Is she aware that families are now worse off in relation to child benefit, which the Government side of the House welcomed and said they would support, than they were before child benefit with family allowance and income tax relief? Will the Government abandon their present position and agree now to an up rating in the child benefit allowance?

I do not intend to act in any strange clothes in this House. I must inform the hon. Gentleman that the value of child benefit at present is higher than at any time going back to 1971.

While recognising the deplorably weak economy that the Government have inherited after many years of Labour rule, will my hon. Friend aim to review child benefit along with the other benefits at the annual review as soon as possible?

Does not the hon. Lady accept that many mothers are forced to go out to work because of the eroding of the value of child benefit? There are strong economic as well as social reasons for a substantial increase in child benefit so that these mothers can stay at home when they so desire.

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is getting at. But it is inflation that has eroded family income. We are well aware, therefore, that any inflation will hit benefits already in payment. I cannot accept, however, the hon. Gentleman's statement that women are being forced out to work. The child benefit, raised to £4 last April, and the child benefit increase of a further 50p in November, is obviously losing value because of the state of inflation. The Government's job is to get on top of inflation and to make sure that money retains its value.

Is the hon. Lady aware that her hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) said last Friday that his Government had cheated the pensioners? Today she is cheating the families. How do the Government intend to help millions of working families? Where has all the talk about incentives to work gone? Child benefit is a direct incentive to working families. This Government have let them down.

I cannot accept that this Government have cheated the family. We have been clear and honest from the beginning. If the country does not have the money to pay the benefits, we cannot pay the benefits. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that child benefit plays a most important part in family income and that it is crucial to restoring incentives. His words and mine on that score are in complete accord. They are being said day by day in the proper circles.

Disabled Persons

10.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what additional measures he is proposing to assist registered disabled persons to withstand the increased cost of goods and services which are essential to aid their mobility.

Local social services authorities provide help with mobility to registered disabled persons and it is for individual authorities to determine, in the light of their own priorities, what help should be made available. As to assistance from the Department, the mobility allowance was increased by 20 per cent. last November and my right hon. Friend will be considering, before the end of the tax year, what the rate should be from November 1980.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. In view of the cost of living rise, which causes many problems for disabled people, will he consult his colleagues in the Treasury to see if the mobility allowance can be made non-taxable since it is an inevitable and unavoidable extra expense?

The mobility allowance will be reviewed along the lines that I have suggested. It is unlikely to be made untaxable.

Will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that disabled people will not be required to pay prescription charges, as some are doing at present? Will he give a categorical assurance that they will not pay any increased prescription charges?

No, Sir. I can give no such assurance. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a wide list of exemptions from payment of prescription charges.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government's view is that they will not give further benefits to disabled people until the economy improves?

There will be a review of benefits in November. As to the introduction of new benefits or the extension of the scope of existing benefits, the hon. Gentleman is right—such improvements must await an improvement in the economy.

Has the mobility allowance been fully phased in? If not, how many eligible people are still awaiting the allowance? Can the Minister say whether the increases in motoring costs will be taken fully into account in increasing the allowance in November?

On the latter point, the increase in motoring costs will be one of the factors taken into account. I cannot say that it will be taken fully into account because the allowance was never envisaged as covering all the costs of mobility. It simply makes a contribution towards them. Those people between 60 and 65 have been phased in—more rapidly than planned by the previous Government. New claims are still being processed and the processing is not quite complete.

Will my right hon. Friend consider whether some special help could be given to the war disabled from the First World War? Although they are not entitled to receive a mobility allowance as such, many of them cannot use motor cars and find it very difficult to get out. Does he not agree that some special help should be given to them as there are only 2,500 of them?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, special allowances are payable to the war disabled. I think it is unlikely that an increase would be paid to the First World War disabled only. However, if my hon. Friend will contact me about this matter I shall look at it further.

Industrial Dispute (Supplementary Benefit Payments)

13.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services how many strike centres have been set up to handle claims from steel workers on strike; where they are situated; and what is the total sum that has been paid to date.

16.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what has been the aggregate cost to public funds of supplementary benefits paid to those involved in the British Steel Corporation strike, and to their dependants, respectively, to date.

Nineteen centres were set up to handle claims for supplementary benefit—mostly on behalf of dependants —of striking employees of the British Steel Corporation. One Teesside centre has been closed and I will circulate in the Official Report, the list of areas in which the others are situated.

Up to the close of business on 22 January, the latest date for which figures are available, a total of about £790,000 had been paid, including £260 to strikers themselves.

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the time has come to stop setting up these strike centres? Is it not time for the trade unions to bear the responsibilities of the strikes that they have brought about? Is it not wrong to make the taxpayer finance these strikes?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend's sentiments. It is not for me to comment on the pace at which we shall implement our manifesto pledges in this respect, but it is deplorable that so much money is being spent in subsidising the strike. This is more so than usual because the two main steel unions and 11 out of the 13 smaller ones involved have decided not to pay a penny piece of strike pay.

Is it not abusive that a union such as the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, which is sitting on a piggy bank of more than £11 million, is allowed to use that money to buy the services of gentlemen from the polytechnics to man the pickets, yet does not provide one penny piece to those whom it has called out on strike without any consultation? Will my right hon. Friend please see that our manifesto commitment is actuated as soon as possible?

It is utterly deplorable that, on top of inflicting damage on the nation by the strike, the unions concerned should add insult to injury by expecting the taxpayers to subsidise the strike to the extent of the figures that I have announced. The House will have noticed that those figures are almost a week old. Therefore, by now certainly well over £1 million will have been paid out to strikers' families. That is money which should have been contributed by the unions themselves.

Is the Minister aware that it is not necessary for him to seek to outbid some of the contemptible sentiments from his own Back Benches with which he seems to think he must enthusiastically compete? Will he tell us the average payments per person? Will he also remind the House that, except for £260, all these thousands of pounds have been paid for the needs of women and children? Will he remind himself of the fact that these women and children are entitled in law to this money, that they have been so entitled for years, and that they shall continue to be so entitled?

The right hon. Member and his hon. Friends might ask themselves why the Transport and General Workers Union and the General and Municipal Workers Union are meeting their formal obligations and paying strike pay, whereas the two biggest unions involved in the steel strike and 11 out of the 13 smaller ones are not paying a penny piece.

Is it not important to keep a sense of balance and proportion? Is it not true that, even if the unions paid strike money, there would be no guarantee, unfortunately, that the money would go to wives and families? Why should they be penalised?

I agree that it is necessary to keep a sense of proportion. However, the conduct of the unions in this dispute, which is deplorable in general, is particularly deplorable in that they have not met the normal minimal obligations of unions for their own members and their members' families.

The following is the list:

Cumbria: Workington;

North-East: Consett, Hartlepool, and Teesside;

South Yorkshire: Rotherham, Sheffield (2);

North Lincolnshire: Scunthorpe (2);

East Midlands: Corby;

North Wales: Connah's Quay;

South Wales: Bridgend, Cwmbran, Ebbw Vale, Llanelli, Morriston, Neath, Newport.