Skip to main content

Social Security

Volume 164: debated on Monday 8 January 1990

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



To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many applications have been made to the social fund since its inception for loans and grants by people with AIDS; and how many of these have been refused.

I am afraid that the information requested is not available. Applications for social fund payments are quite properly not required to give any information about their medical condition, and thus data on the number of applications from people suffering from a particular medical condition is not collected.

When will the Government accept that the social fund has been a social disaster for the poor? Is the Minister aware that people with AIDS are among those who are suffering most as a result of the abolition in April 1988 of the weekly additions and special payments?

The Government have demonstrated their concern for AIDS sufferers and the terminally ill by announcing the intention to extend entitlement to attendance allowance. Far from being a failure, the social fund has been a success because of the help that it has given at the margins of the social security system to those most in need of help. It is certainly a great deal better than the system that it replaced.

I acknowledge the work that the Government have done for AIDS sufferers. However, will my right hon. Friend ensure that social security officers in local offices receive training on aspects of AIDS and how it may apply to the social fund? Will he also have a word with our right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary about what help prisoners on discharge receive if they leave prison HIV positive?

I shall note those points and have a word with my right hon. and learned Friend about the matter. We seek to see that staff in our local offices are trained to deal with the range of sensitive issues with which they are presented, and I shall look at the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) in relation to that.

I recognise that the Government have moved some way in relation to AIDS sufferers, some of whom, of course, were not in any way personally responsible for what has happened to them. However, is it not scandalous that some Conservative Members have said that it was quite right for AIDS sufferers to be treated in the way that they are, when in many cases the sufferers were not personally responsible for contracting the virus? Even if it was the sufferer's fault, it is not right for them to be treated as they are and I ask the Government to have another look at the whole matter.

Those matters are generally outwith my responsibility and are rather for health Ministers. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the first tranche of money for the Macfarlane Trust for haemophiliacs suffering from AIDS, and recently an extra £19 million has been provided for that trust.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there has been a welcome transformation over the past few years of the public's attitude to AIDS sufferers which has moved from ignorance and prejudice towards sympathy and understanding? The Government should take some credit for that. Will my right hon. Friend ensure, through his Department, that where possible his local offices give help promptly to AIDS sufferers so that they do not have to wait unduly for any assistance that is available to them?

I agree with my hon. Friend's first point about the public's attitude and I welcome that, as he has. The removal of the six-month waiting limit for the terminally ill is a significant move towards meeting my hon. Friend's second point.

Pensioners (Charter)


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what recent meetings he has had with pensioners' representatives to discuss the pensioners' charter; and if he will make a statement.


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is his policy towards the pensioners' charter; and if he will make a statement.

While I am not aware of any current request for such a meeting, our policies will continue to reflect our concern with pensioners' needs—as was clearly shown, for example, by the extra help given last October to some 2·5 million of the disabled or older pensioners who are least well off.

Yes, and a lot of those people have written to hon. Members, particularly Opposition Members, to tell them that they did not get a penny piece out of those so-called improvements. Why does not the Secretary of State do something about the pensioners' charter? There is all this waffle and talk about the social charter. Let us give the pensioners a square deal by abolishing standing charges and introducing concessionary fares for all pensioners. Why does the right hon. Gentleman not repay the £12 a week that has been stolen from every single pensioner in the land by this Tory Government in the past 10 years?

Many hon. Members will recognise that what most effectively damages pensioners is a roaring rate of inflation such as we had during the latter part of the 1970s. Opposition Members cannot disguise the extent to which pensioners' average real incomes have risen faster under this Government than under the previous Labour Government, principally because the rate of inflation has been so much lower.

Why does not the Secretary of State understand the bitter resentment felt by so many pensioners at the way in which they are treated? Is it not the case that if pensions had been increased in line with earnings—an arrangement which was discontinued in 1980—married pensioners would be almost £21 a week better off and single pensioners £13 a week better off next April? Why should Britain's pensioners be among the poorest in the Common Market?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's proposition for reasons that relate to the absurd experience of what happened when the previous Labour Government pursued those policies. At the same time, and partly as a result of those policies, they generated a rate of inflation which seriously damaged pensioners and which meant that their incomes rose less fast in real terms than they have under the present Government.

I am glad that my right hon. Friend mentioned that point. Many retired people in my constituency and in the constituencies of my hon. Friends face difficulty, because they thought that they had made provision for their retirement through savings or modest occupational pension schemes. They found that inflation in the 1970s, under a Labour Government who could not even keep the promises that they made to pensioners, destroyed those savings. I hope that my right hon. Friend will continue his efforts to ensure that pensioners, particularly those in need, continue to receive better benefits.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. His point is encapsulated in the fact, which is becoming increasingly well known, that whereas pensioners' income from savings has risen by 64 per cent. under the present Government, it fell by 16 per cent. under the previous Labour Government. Not all pensioners have the advantage of having savings. It is precisely for that reason that last October we directed so much additional help to the older and more disabled pensioners who are least well off.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that when the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) reach retirement age, they will be entitled, like the majority of people who have employment pensions provided for them, to a generous pension? Does he agree that by concentrating some £200 million last October on the poorer pensioners, the Government are tackling the problem the right way rather than trying to give everyone, including the fairly well off, a much smaller amount?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I am grateful for the way in which he put his point.

The Secretary of State mentioned his genuine concern for pensioners. Does he accept that many elderly and handicapped people still face the choice between heating and eating? Would not one way forward be for the Government to provide an allowance for the heating needs of the elderly during the winter months rather than rely on the strange system that we have now, which does not have a good level of uptake?

Perhaps the hon. Lady has forgotten that when the changes were made to the old supplementary benefit system and when the current income support system was introduced, the value of heating additions was much reflected in the premiums paid to precisely those groups of pensioners about which she is rightly concerned. In other words, they are reflected in the regular weekly payment of benefit in the form of premiums for pensioners and disabled people.

Why is it that the 2 million poorest pensioners who depend solely on state benefits have had a zero real increase in their pensions under this Government in the Thatcher decade, while the parliamentary pay of Cabinet Ministers has been increased in real terms by no less than 79 per cent? Why is it that Cabinet Ministers have looked after themselves so handsomely, while reneging on their commitment to enable the poorest of pensioners to keep pace with rising living standards?

I do not accept for a moment the way in which the hon. Gentleman advanced his argument. He knows well that we have adhered faithfully to our commitment to increase the basic retirement pension in line with prices year in, year out, and we shall do it again next April. As I have said at least twice in this exchange, we acted last October to give significant extra help to about 2·5 million of the older and more disabled pensioners who are least well off. That reflects our concern and determination to continue doing whatever we can to help.

Unmarried Mothers


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement about the level of social security payments made to unmarried mothers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security
(Mrs. Gillian Shephard)

At May 1988, the annual cost of income support for families headed by an unmarried lone mother was estimated to be about £700 million. Information by marital status on other benefits paid to those families is not available.

Has my hon. Friend anything to say about recent newspaper reports that payments to single mothers are now in excess of £1,000 million? The traditional family has no resentment when it comes to maintaining mothers who have been deserted by their husbands or treated badly by them, but what of those who leave their husbands for no good reason? What about those who have never been married, who have children? Is it not true that a young woman having a baby need not work until the child is 16 years of age, is entitled to free council housing accommodation, and costs other people about £70,000 to bring up her child until the age of 16?

The Government are concerned about the increasing numbers of lone-parent families, including unmarried mothers, and their reliance on benefit. We are constantly examining the benefit arrangements for them and those for other groups. It is important that the benefit system should not create incentives for lone parenthood or for dependence on benefits, but it should provide support for those who are in need. Of course, fathers should pay maintenance for their children, whether or not they are married to their mothers. The Department takes action to try to secure maintenance and it is considering actively how to make its procedures more effective. I remind my hon. Friend that decisions on maintenance payments are made by the courts.

Why do the Government continue to stir up apathy on this issue? Are the Government aware that the proportion of young single mothers drawing benefit who gain help from the fathers has halved during the past 10 years? When will the Government bring forward new plans for the House to discuss, so that mothers can make over maintenance orders to the state, with the state taking responsibility for collecting the money and paying it regularly, weekly or monthly, if the mothers want that? When are we to hear about plans on those lines? They would reinforce parental responsibilities and increase the freedom of single mothers.

As always, the hon. Gentleman makes an interesting contribution to the debate. He is, at least partly, describing what is happening in Australia. The findings from a recent visit to Australia are being closely studied by my Department. I repeat that the Department is continuing actively to review how to make its own recovery of maintenance payments from fathers more effective. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Department has commissioned some independent research, involving lone parents who are served by 44 local offices, to examine the motivations and perceptions of lone parents. When the research is completed, the results will he fully examined.

Will my hon. Friend consider taking as many increased powers as may be necessary to pursue fathers through the courts and, if necessary, genetic testing to prove paternity where there is doubt?

The measures that my hon. Friend describes are more suitable for consideration by the Lord Chancellor's Department.

Will the Minister give an assurance that the Government will not adopt a punitive attitude to lone parents? After all, a significant number of the members of the Cabinet have created lone parents themselves—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] That is true. We heard the comments of the hon. Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell), and Conservative Members should not have double standards. Is the Minister aware that the number of parents dependent on benefit has grown under the present Government because their benefits policies and cuts have created many poverty traps? Many lone parents cannot take a job because that would reduce their income. Is not the answer to restore child benefit to a proper level, to implement a national minimum wage and to allow lone parents to offset child care costs when they want to work? The Government are trapping lone parents into dependency on benefit, which is not what those parents want—and it should not be allowed.

Nothing that I have said in reply to questions so far has suggested that the Department wants to take a punitive attitude towards lone parents. It simply does not want to create perverse incentives. I remind the hon. Lady that incentives for lone parents to work already exist within the benefits system. There is an earnings disregard within income support, the same adult credit is given for single lone parents as for couples in family credit. and an increase in the housing benefit earnings disregard from £15 to £25 was recently announced.

Will my hon. Friend take it from me that many of my married constituents who pay to bring up their own children resent additional taxation to pay for bringing up other people's children? Can she state the amount of subsidy to local authorities through the rate support system because of the number of unmarried mothers in their areas? That situation is highlighted in my constituency, where Middlesbrough council receives millions of pounds more than Langbaurgh council, solely because of the number of one-parent families that Middlesbrough must support.

I have already mentioned the Government's concern at the increasing number of all lone-parent families. Matters relating to the rate support grant are for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Social Fund


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will list the cash limit for social fund loans and grants from Department of Social Security offices at Finsbury park and Highgate for 1989–90 and the amount expended by 18 December in the current year.

Information on social fund allocations to local offices is placed in the Library. Finsbury park and Highgate are included. That information is updated monthly.

The Minister has not given much information that would be of help to anyone. Why is it that in the case of Finsbury park social security office, of the 139 applications for community care made grants during December, 31 were allowed but 61—nearly half—were disallowed, and the remainder carried forward to the next month? That has been happening month after month in the two offices named in my question. Will the Minister put a stop to the practice of carrying forward applications from one month to another so that applicants have to wait longer and longer for desperately needed community care grants? No increase in the cash limit is made available the following year, so in reality the amount of money available for grants to people in my area, as in many other areas of inner London, decreases year on year. People desperately in need of community care grants cannot obtain them, and they suffer as a consequence.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will avail himself of the information that has been placed in the Library to help all right hon. and hon. Members assess the situation at their local social security offices. Some applications in any local office will inevitably slip from one month to the next if they are made late in the month. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not mention in his supplementary question that an extra £3 million was allocated recently to some local offices under particular pressure. Highgate office was one of the beneficiaries.

Can my right hon. Friend tell me whether anyone has applied for a social fund loan at the Finsbury park office, who has contracted AIDS as a result of an operation or a blood transfusion, but who is not a haemophiliac? If so, will he put those people into the same category as haemophiliacs, and ensure that they receive the welcome assistance that is now being given to haemophiliacs?

I suspect that my hon. Friend will not expect me to know whether there are such applications at the Finsbury office, but I shall consider the matter that she raised.

Would not the position in Finsbury park, Highgate and other offices be massively improved if the Government allowed local offices, as they collect back loans, to keep them to add to the social fund?

Of course, the rate of recovery of money from loans affects the national kitty, and resources available nationally. The allocation to local offices is best met by an assessment by us, at the centre, the likely burden, and of the level of need in the local area. I should be reluctant to link the rate of recovery specifically to the resources available in local offices, as that might not reflect the level of need as well as the present system of allocation does.

Child Benefit


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many letters he has received supporting the decision not to uprate child benefit in the coming year.

The decision not to uprate child benefit does not appear to be terribly popular. Does my right hon. Friend agree that because of the low take-up of means-tested benefits compared to child benefit, the freezing of child benefit for a three-year period hits poorer families particularly hard?

No, I do not agree with that. It is well known that, because of the way in which the system works, an increase in child benefit does nothing for the least well-off families and for those on income-related benefits. What we have been able to do with some of the resources made available is to improve the benefit for the least well off, and for families that includes a quarter of the nation's children. We must recognise that no conceivable increase in child benefit could do as much for low-income families who are in work as family credit now does.

Does the Secretary of State agree that he was one of the supporters of child benefit? What has changed? How can he come to the Dispatch Box now and defend the freezing of child benefit?

The question whether one is a supporter of child benefit is different from the question whether to increase child benefit as opposed to the other steps that could be taken with the money available. What I was able to do, as I set out in the uprating statement, was to give far more help to the least well-off families than an increase in child benefit would have done, and it did far more for disabled people and families with disabled children.

I applaud my right hon. Friend's intention to help the least well off. Will he assure the House that more than 50 per cent. of those who are due to receive benefits under the new system are getting them?

I assure my hon. Friend that the take-up campaign that we waged last spring was extremely effective in raising the number of people receiving family credit, and I welcome that. The number increased by some 40,000 to about 320,000, and we are currently running a further advertising campaign, which I hope will contribute to making the benefit as effective as we would like it to be.

Does the Secretary of State accept that child benefit is a universal benefit, with almost 100 per cent. take-up, and that it is paid to the mother? It is often the only income that she has to herself, of right. Why does the right hon. Gentleman not say, even at this late stage, that he was wrong to cave in to the Prime Minister's Victorian attitude, and that he will uprate child benefit?

Family credit is also normally paid to the mother. The average payment of family credit is now £25 or £26 a week, and over a third of the payments are more than £30 a week. There is no doubt that family credit does more for low-income families in work than child benefit could.



To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what was the cost of sending greetings telegrams to centenarians in 1988, 11 and 16 years ago; and if he will make a statement.

I am pleased to say that in 1988 the Department sent a total of 2,142 telemessages to centenarians at an estimated cost of about £11 each. The cost includes the message itself and local and national staffing costs. The cost of sending telegrams in 1972 and 1977 is not readily available; however, 1,283 were sent in 1972 and 1,510 in 1977.

As centenarians already receive a telegram from the Queen, will my hon. Friend gladden that special day in the lives of those who achieve their century by offering them a choice between the departmental telegram, a certificate of age, a bottle of champagne, whisky, brandy or parsnip wine and a tin of House of Commons fudge?

My hon. Friend lent a happy note to this first Question Time of the New Year. Today is the birthday of seven centenarians, and given his obvious good spirits my hon. Friend will no doubt wish to join me in congratulating them. As for his specific suggestions, may I make a positive suggestion to him? If I give him the names and addresses of those seven centenarians, he may wish to conduct a straw poll to establish whether they would prefer a certificate of age, a bottle of whisky or brandy or—in particular—some House of Commons fudge!

Mr. Speaker—[HON. MEMBERS: "Declare your interest."] Yes, I declare my interest. I am retiring at the next general election, but that is another matter.

I ask the Minister to ignore the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway): all that he is on about is grabbing money. The people who receive the telegrams are entitled to them. The hon. Gentleman should be pointing out that the welfare state, is responsible for the fact that people are living longer. That lot over there are trying to destroy the welfare state, but when we are sitting where they are we shall put that right, and defend it.

Let me merely say to the hon. Gentleman, who has made his customary interesting intervention, that the increase in the number of congratulatory telemessages speaks for itself, demonstrating the Thatcher achievements in welfare.

My hon. Friend will know that the oldest person in Britain lives in my constituency. She is 112½, and has received more telegrams than anyone else; she enjoys and looks forward to receiving them. May I suggest that my hon. Friend does as I do, and takes her a bottle of whisky every time she has a birthday?

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) will take the advice of his hon. Friend.

As there is a precedent for the Department of Social Security to send people telegrams on special days in their lives, will the Minister consider extending the principle to those who reach their 16th birthdays without jobs, YTS places or entitlement to social security benefit? Will she consider the report published today by the Family Policies Study Centre, which has found independently that many of those youngsters face destitution because of the Government's evil decision to withdraw benefit entitlement? Will the Government please repent of that decision, which is causing poverty and hardship for so many 16 and 17-year-olds on the streets of our cities?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity in asking such a supplementary to a question about centenarians. I remind him that there is no need for any 16 or 17-year-old to be without income: each and every one is entitled to a YTS place and the accompanying payment.

Couples (Benefits)


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what assessment he has made of the financial effect on couples who live apart for employment or educational reasons, of their treatment under the income support, family credit or housing benefit regulations as if they were living together.

The financial effect on individual couples will vary according to individual circumstances. As a general rule, as long as both partners normally live in the household, temporary absences are ignored for the purposes of entitlement to income-related benefits.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in a small minority of cases the rule that he has just outlined may lead to one family having two sets of living expenses that often have to be paid for out of one set of benefits? A reduction in a particular benefit can bring that family way below the poverty line, purely because one member of the family has decided to seek training or education as a means of bettering himself or herself.

I am not sure that my hon. Friend is absolutely right about training and education. There are special housing benefit arrangements for couples who have to live apart because one of the partners is a student or is on a training course. In those circumstances, housing benefit can be paid for an unlimited period for both homes.

Does not the Secretary of State accept that there are some anomalies? If one of the partners has to undergo education or training in order to try to return to employment, on many occasions the couple loses money. Will he undertake to examine the anomalies and ensure that that deterrent to either party returning to education or training is ended and that they do not lose money?

I have already referred to one aspect of the way in which the system seeks to take account of that kind of problem. The hon. Gentleman has made his point fairly and reasonably. I accept that this is a difficult area. These cases are relatively rare and the circumstances can be quite complicated. If there is a particular case that the hon. Gentleman would like to draw to my attention, I shall certainly have a look at it.

Social Fund


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the current backlog of social fund loans and grant applications in Department of Social Security offices in London.

The latest information available is for November. In London as a whole, 8,500 applications were brought forward as uncleared from October. These were made up of 2,400 community care grant applications and 6,100 budgeting loan applications. There were no outstanding crisis loan applications.

The Minister surely knows that the Government are saving a vast amount of money under the new system, as opposed to the old single payments system. It is totally unacceptable that such a backlog should be allowed to develop. Will he please look again at the possibility of introducing more flexibility into the system as a whole? It is ludicrous that certain offices underspend their social fund budget, although applications are outstanding. As that money cannot be carried over to the next financial year, it is lost. There should be some means of transferring money between offices so as to match overspend and underspend. I ask the Minister to look again at the system to see what flexibility can be introduced.

We do, of course, monitor very carefully the social fund. It is worth pointing out that the figure that I gave to the hon. Gentleman means that, on average, 35 community care grant applications and 97 loan applications in London's local offices were carried forward. If one bears in mind that in the case of some of those loan applications the client or the applicant had already been offered a loan but had not yet accepted it, that is not too bad a record in all the circumstances. However, as I have already said, we monitor the social fund very carefully.

Will the Minister look carefully at the report that has been sent to him by the leader of Southwark council—a report which received all-party support in Southwark—requesting a meeting but highlighting cases where loans had been requested but grants had been refused? Is not the system far too inflexible? Many people are turned away when they are totally impecunious. They are told that they cannot have money for a cooker, or furnishings and the rest, so they keep on coming back, hoping, believing and expecting that there must be something in the system that will provide them with the money with which to survive. At the moment, much of the delay is caused because people have to return for money since they have none, on account of the system not allowing them to have grants when they need them.

The vast majority of refusals under the social fund are because the applicants do not meet the basic eligibility criteria. Under 10 per cent. of the refusals relate to insufficient priority being accorded to the application; less than 2 per cent. of refusals are because it is judged that the individual cannot pay. In those circumstances, money, advice or other guidance is given to the individual concerned. I shall of course look carefully at what Southwark is sending me, but it is worth saying that in 218,000 cases where loans have been refused, community care grants have been given instead. However, those loan refusal cases are still included in the statistics.

Is the Minister aware of the independent report by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux which says that 49 per cent. of pensioners' applications to the social fund were refused and that the applications of up to 80 per cent. of young persons and unemployed people were refused? Is he further aware that among those refused was a young woman who was due to have a baby in two days' time? She was refused a grant for a bed on the excuse that she could sleep on the floor, a disabled couple were refused a grant for a cooker on the ground that they could eat out, and a crisis loan was refused to a young man on the ground that he could eat out in soup kitchens? Is this a success?

I shall study with interest what NACAB has produced. The report was a small snapshot of a limited number of people who have been in touch with citizens advice bureaux. Moreover, the survey was taken in the first year of the social fund's operation, which I do not believe is typical of its operation since then. Our figures suggest that, far from 55 per cent. of applications being refused, 39 per cent. are refused. That compares favourably with the level of refusals which were 42 per cent. in the last year of the single payments scheme.

Social Security Offices (Sussex)


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement about staffing levels in local social security offices in Sussex.

Staffing levels in local social security offices in the Department are calculated using an agreed complementing system which aims to match staffing to work load. Under the system, staffing resources are allocated to regional offices where local circumstances are taken into account before these resources are distributed individually to local officers.

I appreciate the existence of that formula, but is my hon. Friend aware that, too often, too little attention is paid to the difficulties confronted by staff in local offices who have to introduce new benefits, use new methods, co-ordinate with local government and overcome difficulties with upgrading their offices? Can she build into the equation a greater appreciation of that, and the need to delegate to managers so that they can manage more effectively?

There have been difficulties at the Lewes local office during the year. Additional help in the form of casual staff, overtime, regional reserves and staff on detached duty has been made available to offset the shortfall. A new complementing system is to be introduced in April 1990. It will take account of the point raised by my hon. Friend, by being more sensitive to local office needs and taking account of local circumstances. I remind my hon. Friend that an additional £25 million was made available during the year to help local offices with their increased workload.