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Poverty (Bradford)

Volume 124: debated on Friday 18 December 1987

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

1.1 pm

By any yardstick, Bradford is revealed as a city of past prosperity and present poverty. Deprivation and disadvantage are acute and, in many ways, are becoming more serious. Any reduction in unemployment is always welcome. However, in Bradford unemployment represents a deep social and economic scar. Men and women who want to work and know that they could help in doing the important work that needs to be done in Bradford are denied their right to work. There are more than 25,000 men and women without work. That represents 12 in every 100 people of working age. A total of 21 in every 100 16 to 19-year-olds —nearly 4,000 of our youngsters—are unemployed.

In Bradford, West, my constituency, unemployment is the highest in the city, at nearly 17 per cent. In University ward, also part of my constituency, unemployment rises to 29 per cent. and youth unemployment soars to 70 per cent. That is undoubtedly a reflection of the many difficulties that black and Asian youngsters have in securing employment.

Bradford council has published an important review of the link between poverty, health and disadvantage. An earlier report said:
"Poverty is no longer confined to individuals and small pockets in the district. It is affecting whole communities, and affecting them selectively … Parts of the District are becoming virtually 'poverty zones' with few working people, low incomes and many dependants while other parts are remaining relatively prosperous."
Many people are existing in unrelieved, grinding poverty. They now represent a sullen and hostile subculture that is largely becoming alienated from the rest of the community. Bradford is facing a housing crisis. The city's director of housing in a letter to me this month commented on the Government's latest housing proposals. He said:
"I am deeply concerned at the possible implications for housing in Bradford."
There are some 2,700 houses in multiple occupation —homes for 20,000 people. Most are in disrepair and lack fire safety measures and amenities and most do not have planning approval. There are 7,600 people on the council waiting list and since 1968 some 8,000 council homes have been sold. Some 33,000 homes are defective. Bradford has the highest rate of overcrowding in west Yorkshire and there are more than 1,500 homeless people. There are nearly 34,000 housing benefit claimants in the private sector and 25,700 in the public sector, which represents about one third of all households in the city. In a report to the council last month, the director of housing said:
"Our problems have been and will continue to be depressed incomes and depressed house prices arising from the depressed economy."
Some 118 schools were built before 1914, which represents 40 per cent. of all schools in the city. In almost half of the district's schools, 30 per cent. of the pupils are entitled to free school meals. In 23 schools more than 60 per cent. of their pupils take free school meals. The council estimates that next April 6,000 children in the city will lose the discretionary free school meal that they have hitherto been taking.

The infant mortality rate in Bradford is twice the national average. There are 30,000 children under the age of five years but only 500 public nursery places.

Bradford is known as low-pay city and west Yorkshire suffers from being the lowest paid region in Britain. Men and women in full-time employment in Bradford receive appallingly low wages. More than half of all full-time women workers and three quarters of part-time women workers are low paid. Nationally, two thirds of all low-paid workers are women. Some 5·5 million adult women —one quarter of the work force—are earning less than the decency threshold. They will be expected to pay the same poll tax as someone who may be earning more in a month than they earn in a year.

The poll tax—the Tory tax—will have a devastating effect on Bradford. It has been estimated that, if it had to be paid this year, the poll tax would mean that everyone over 18 years of age in Bradford would have to pay £238. More than 209,000 citizens in Bradford would lose as a result of the poll tax, and 113,000 of those—41 per cent. — will be paying an extra £100 in poll tax compared with their current rates payments.

In the inner-city wards, which are represented by my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, North (Mr. Wall) and Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), who are here today, 90 per cent. of the constituents would lose under the poll tax; 65 per cent would be losing more than £100. In University ward, to which I referred earlier, 94 per cent. of my constituents would be losing under the poll tax and 82 per cent. would be losing more than £100.

The number of people over the age of 85 years in Bradford is estimated to be due to increase by 28 per cent. in the next 10 years. The number of elderly of ethnic minority origin will increase nearly fivefold over the same period. Yet in October the chair of Bradford social services committee wrote to the Secretary of State for Social Services about Bradford's 49 per cent. reduction in block allocation. Councillor John Godward said that there was continuing serious concern about the inadequate level of the capital allocation being made for Bradford, and that it was enduring serious social problems, especially in the care of the very elderly.

Last month Bradford launched a campaign against the cold and distributed up to 10,000 easy-to-read thermometers to vulnerable elderly people, along with help packs that could save lives in emergencies. Yet this week, an Energy Minister, who no doubt glides from comfortable centrally heated home to well heated lavish office and to this place by chauffeur-driven car, had the effrontery to tell me in reply to a parliamentary question that the average increase in a pensioner's expenditure to meet next year's electricity price increase would be no more than 30p or 35p per week.

This week, information was revealed about the expenditure figures for the social fund. That fund is in two parts, grants and loans, and replaces the existing single payments scheme. Unlike the present system of grants, new loans must be repaid by those receiving them through their weekly benefits. The expenditure figures show that there will be a shift of resources from areas such as Bradford to the more prosperous areas in the south-east and East Anglia. That is a dramatic and substantal shift.

In recent years the poor people of Bradford have depended to a great extent upon single payments. However, changes in the regulations have led to a substantial reduction in the number of payments made. In 1985–86 48,000 payments were made, but this year just 5,000 have been made. I have received figures showing the amount of resources received from the Government for single payments covering the three Bradford DHSS offices. Those figures show that, between 1984–87, more than £10 million was paid by the Government to meet claims for single payments at those offices—£4 million to the Bradford, east office, £2·7 million to the Bradford, south office, and £3·7 million to the Bradford, west office.

However, it is clear from the social fund figures published this week that, although expenditure for 1986–87 amounted to more than £3 million, the expenditure for the current year has been savagely reduced to £500,000. Indeed, we are aware that the allocated social fund expenditure for 1988–89 will be £1·7 million. Therefore, when all the figures are swept away and the statistics put to one side it means that some of the poorest people in Bradford, many struggling to bring up families, will face acute hardship and will be robbed of about £2 million.

Therefore, our hard-pressed local economy, with depressed demand for goods and services, shops closing down because of lack of business, firms going bankrupt and new businesses finding it extremely difficult to start off, will lose almost £2 million that would otherwise have been spent by the poor people directly in the city to help themselves and the business community.

I was recently informed by the Bradford citizens advice bureau that there had been two recent cases when the DHSS had refused a lump sum urgent needs payment to buy a cooker on the grounds that the claimants could buy hot food with their personal allowances. I was so concerned about that that I tabled a written question and the Minister who is to reply to today's debate replied:
"The Department's staff are instructed to advise claimants of refusal of a single payment for a cooker by the issue of a special form (Form BO3D). This gives a general explanation of the reasons for refusal, explains the right of appeal to an independent tribunal and refers to the Citizens' Advice Bureau and the local law centre as sources of help and advice in appealing. It also offers a more detailed explanation of the decision if the claimant requests it."—[Official Report, 14 December 1987; Vol. 124, c. 403–4.]
There are many problems involved in such an approach. One of them is that, because of the enormous pressure of work faced by the Bradford citizens advice bureau, it has had to reduce its opening hours from 30 to 20 a week. The manager of the unit, Shirley Ginever, in a recent letter to me — copied to the chief executive of Bradford council—was extremely concerned about this and desperately anxious to try to increase resources to enable more staff to devote more time to the problems of the poor, who are facing acute hardship in our city. She said:
"I would add that the Debt Counselling Unit of the bureau is also under great strain. In anticipation of the increase in demands particularly regarding housing debt, after April 1988, we are trying to raise funds to open a housing debtline telephone consultancy service for statutory and voluntary agencies and the public to use".
I say to the Minister, who, in parliamentary replies, freely advises people facing difficulties to go to citizens advice bureaux, that he should ensure that sufficient resources are provided for the citizens advice bureaux in Bradford and in other cities throughout the country to enable them to deliver their advice.

On 15 January, at Bradford university, a conference is being organised, entitled, "A Hole in the Safety Net?—Responses to the Social Fund". The conference material states:
"In April 1988 the second part of the social fund will come into operation, replacing supplementary benefits single payments with a discretionary system of primarily repayable loans. Its introduction, along with other recent and current changes in social security benefits, represents a dramatic contraction of the rights and living standards of claimants".
That is absolutely right, and it is right that the conference should be concerned.

One of the nastier aspects of the Social Security Act 1986, which comes into force next April, will mean that claimants who are refused their applications for cookers and other urgent personal needs will have no right of appeal. The existing right is inadequate. When I passed on to Shirley Ginever of the CAB the Minister's reply about two claimants who had experienced refusal, she made the point — rightly — that the current waiting period for appeals is seven months. That is to be contrasted with the position after next April, when the right of appeal will be swept completely away.

There will be a series of reviews, but what point is there in administrative review when every DHSS office in Bradford and the rest of the country will be cash-limited? They will allocate less and less money on a monthly basis, and the social fund manager will be held responsible for ensuring that the allocation that each office receives is not overspent. What purpose is there in reviews being made to line management of DHSS offices—even if they were to find in favour of the claimant— when the social fund manager will say, "Hold on a minute—the money is nearly overspent for this month. We cannot grant this application from a claimant who has been refused."

We are now beginning to see the full implications of the Social Security Act 1986, which was passed well before the last general election. The Government did not want the public to see the true implications that that nasty measure would have for them. In Bradford and many other cities, it will mean that people suffering from acute hardship—men and women struggling to bring up families—will not be living, they will merely be existing. Their needs will not be met, because the Government have directed that far less money shall be spent than was the case in the past. That is a public scandal, which will do grievous damage to my hard-pressed, poor city of Bradford.

1.19 pm

I endorse everything that has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden). The Low Pay Unit has produced figures for unemployment, which is the basic source of poverty in this country, showing that in November the official rate in Bradford, South was 10·4 per cent., slightly less than in September. However, the official figures understate the true level of unemployment because they relate only to those in receipt of unemployment benefit. Those who are unemployed and looking for work, but who cannot claim benefit, are excluded from the total.

Since 1979 the Government have made 22 changes in the way in which the official figures are collected, and the independent unemployment unit calculated that the true level in Bradford, South—calculated on the same basis as in earlier years—is now 6,123, or 12·5 per cent., with much greater pockets of unemployment. Many people in Bradford this Christmas will have as a background debts to either the gas or electricity boards. Some pensioners who cannot afford a television licence and do not qualify for a concession will be without even the cheer of television over Christmas.

The Government's economic and social policies make the prospect for the poor worse, not better. I call on the Government to provide proper long-term jobs and to abandon their Social Security Bill, which will result in further cuts and an even gloomier prospect for the poor of Bradford and elsewhere.

1.21 pm

The city of Bradford has many fine buildings and is surrounded by magnificent scenery, but inside its boundaries and within the travel-to-work area there is enormous poverty. Bradford is part of the West Yorkshire region, which has the lowest pay levels of any of the nine industrial regions in Britain. The average wage in Yorkshire and Humberside is £193 a week, almost £70 a week less than the average for the south-east. Families in the south-east spend on goods and services an average of £60 a week more than do families in the Bradford area.

In the Bradford intermediate area — the travel-to-work area — which includes Shipley, Bingley, Pudsey, Cleckheaton, and across to Kirklees, unemployment now runs at more than 30,000, despite the recent small reduction. That is 3 per cent. above the national average. One in six of the unemployed are under 20, and 40 per cent. have been unemployed for more than one year. One third of the population of Bradford receive some form of state benefit, and 60,000 are on supplementary benefit. In July 1986, only 30 per cent. of Bradford school leavers found a job, and fewer than 10 per cent. of Asian children found one.

Through the use of the multiplier, over a three-year period the Government have forced Bradford ratepayers to pay £110 each in rates because Bradford was not allowed the full entitlement of grant. It is a human issue, because it deals with people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) referred to local citizens advice bureaux. Last year's report stated:
"However, the largest increase in volume of work is that which has passed through the debt counselling unit—an unbelievable 40,718 inquiries. It was said last year that the enormous stresses and practical difficulties of trying to exist on a low-fixed income continue to underpin many of the problems brought to us, which increasingly have a debt angle. The large number of restrictive changes introduced in the benefits system over the last year … have undoubtedly accelerated this trend, making it nigh on impossible for those on benefit to make ends meet without any supplementary income; as the possibilities to increase claimants' income decrease, so the need for debt work grows more and more common. This is not to say that it is no longer possible to increase benefit take up. A survey of callers to the bureau in one week this year showed that a massive 76 per cent. were reliant on benefits; 50 per cent. of all callers were reliant on Supplementary Benefit."
That is a sign of the enormous human suffering in Bradford.

During my maiden speech I commented that the Government could talk about popular people's capitalism but it was a hollow joke for tens and tens of thousands of people living in misery and poverty. They have a fin tradition of work, and all that they ask for is the right to use their abilities to work and to bring up their families with some decency.

1.24 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security
(Mr. Michael Portillo)

The House will appreciate that it will be difficult for me to do justice to this subject in the six minutes that are left to me. However, I should like to say that, in common with other cities, Bradford is benefiting from the Government's economic policies, which have brought industrial production to its highest level ever. Since 1980, manufacturing productivity has grown faster in this country than in any of the other major countries of the industrialised world.

The benefits have been felt in Bradford. The latest figures, those for November 1987, show that unemployment is the Bradford travel-to-work area is 25,000—that is a fall of 5,000, or 16·6 per cent., over the year before. That compares well with the decline in unemployment in the country as a whole, which has been about 17·6 per cent. over the same period. Measured in terms of employees, employment and the unemployed, the unemployment rate in Bradford is only 1 per cent. higher than the comparable national figure.

None the less, the Government recognise that there are particular difficulties in Bradford and a need for employment initiatives in that city. Currently, 4,680 people in Bradford participate in the community programme. Under the employment allowance scheme, 1,885 people are benefiting in the Bradford area. Since the scheme was started in 1983, a cumulative total of 6,000 people have been placed by the scheme.

The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) referred to housing. I am sure he will be aware that substantial allocations are being made available to Bradford for housing purposes. The initial housing investment programme allocation for 1987–88 was £12·9 million. This has been supplemented by additional allocations amounting to £190,000 for housing defects and £80,000 for a project to combat homelessness. Additional housing resources have also been made available through the Government's Estate Action team. In 1986–87, an additional £1·5 million was made available to Bradford through estate action — the largest allocation for any authority in Yorkshire and Humberside and as much as 3 per cent. of the resources available nationally.

I know that the hon. Gentleman referred to the housing difficulties, but I should point out that Bradford council did not make full use of its main housing allocation in 1986–87. Every other authority in Yorkshire and Humberside supplemented its housing allocation with expenditure financed by capital receipts in 1986–87; Bradford did not. Some authorities doubled their allocations by using receipts. That does not reflect a high priority for housing investment in Bradford by the city council.

The hon. Gentleman referred also to the ending of free school meals for certain categories of claimants. He will know that under the family credit system, which, by the way, is backed by an extra £220 million expenditure from the Government over and above what is spent on family income supplement, free school meals will no longer be available. However, the amount of money that is being put into the family credit scheme to compensate for the loss of free school meals is higher than the average payment that people will have to make for school meals. There will be more children in families receiving family credit than the present total who receive free school meals under both the family income supplement and the discretionary schemes.

The hon. Gentleman made considerable play about the social fund. I should point out to him that the amounts paid in single payments this year up to November, in the three Bradford offices amount to £1·1 million over roughly a seven-month period. The amount of money that will be made available for the social fund for the coming year is £1·8 million, which is broadly in line with current expenditure on single payments.

The hon. Gentleman is worried about the effect on the local economy of the decline from the peak numbers of single payments in previous years. I remind him that £200 million extra is being put into the income support scheme, over and above supplementary benefit; £200 million is being put into the income support scheme for transitional protection; and more than £200 million extra is going into the family credit scheme. Therefore, if the hon. Gentleman is doing calculations of the effects on the local economy, he will want to bear those points in mind.

The hon. Gentleman is concerned about how the allocation for the social fund has been made. He will be aware that there are substantial regional variations in the sums paid out in single payments, and those variations cannot be explained by reference to any obvious indicators of need. If we had allocated the social fund budgets to individual local offices, simply on the pattern of past single payment expenditure, we would have perpetuated these inequalities. We were concerned to distribute the money more fairly in future than had been the case in the past.

That is why the allocation has been based on the past pattern of single payments and with some consideration to the underlying needs of the area, as measured by the caseload of people claiming supplementary benefit. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned to see that in greater detail, he will no doubt be aware that there is a note in the Library which explains very carefully how that allocation has been made.

Although there will not be a formal appeals procedure unde the social fund, it is our intention that there should be a review procedure. The first part of that review procedure involves the claimant in contacting the local office and asking for a review. On contacting the local office, the claimant will be invited to an interview withthe social fund officer, who will have the opportunity to explain his decision to the claimant. The claimant will have the opportunity to make his or her case to the social fund officer and to be accompanied by an adviser on that occasion. If the claimant is still not satisfied with a negative decision, the case can be referred to a line manager in the office and, above that, to a social fund inspector. The work of the social fund inspector will be overseen, as the hon. Gentleman knows, by the social fund commissioner.

When this matter was considered in another place, Lord Denning, contrasting those arrangements with some of the arrangements in the past, said:
"I have had experience of all these appeals up to the appeal tribunal. They have even come as far as my court. The machinery is far too elaborate, too long, too costly, with too many insurance commissioners and the like. It is all very well to have that elaborate structure in the pursuit of justice, but if it is too elaborate, it ought to be replaced by simpler machinery."
Lord Denning went on to say:
"I see this new proposal … as being simple, fair and just machinery." —[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 July 1986; Vol. 479, c. 426.]