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Lord Dean of Harptree: My Lords, I meant to say for every £100 of pay. The figures I have mentioned are the additional costs as I understand the position. I believe that if those figures are accurate they partly explain why our unemployment rate is lower than that of most other European Union countries. They also explain why we are a successful magnate for inward investment. They show how wise are Her Majesty's Government to resist the social chapter, or what is better called the European tax on jobs, as it would be bound to increase labour costs and destroy jobs. I believe that these reductions in the employer's national insurance contribution will make a significant contribution to the economic performance of our country.
I turn now to fraud. I was glad to note that my noble friend made clear that the drive to tackle fraud will continue. It is clearly outrageous that taxpayers should be defrauded of vast sums by people who steal money to which they are not entitled. I was also glad to hear from my noble friend today that the methods of detecting fraud are being improved all the time. I hope he can confirm that that applies not only to domestic fraud but also to fraud among asylum seekers. Can my noble friend give an assurance that these drives against fraud will not be diminished in view of staff economies in his department and in the appropriate agencies?
Finally, I turn to the biggest question of all, which again was referred to by my noble friend; namely, the future costs of social security, and whether we are placing on future generations bigger burdens than we should. As your Lordships well know, in most developed countries, including our own, there is a declining working population and an increasing retired population. This is causing great anxiety, especially of course in countries such as France and Germany where pension schemes operate mostly on a pay-as-you-go basis, and where pensions and other benefits have to be met out of taxation.
Our problems are, fortunately, not so acute because of our well developed funded pension schemes where money is saved and invested. My noble friend has already given the figures and has noted that the savings and investments that we have in our occupational pension schemes are greater than those of all the rest of the European Union countries together. We have now reached the stage where 62 per cent. of people retiring have an occupational pension or other savings income. Of course, the proportion is going up all the time but it is still not high enough. I am glad to note that it is now possible to save through another route; namely, through personal pensions. This is a valuable additional method of saving for those who do not have access to occupational pensions.
The principle of personal pensions is sound in spite of the fact that there has been some misselling when people were wrongly persuaded to leave an occupational pension scheme and take out a personal pension policy. It is important that full restitution should be provided for those people as soon as all the relevant information is available. I am also glad to note that we now have the possibility of group personal pensions where employers who do not have an occupational pension scheme can negotiate group pensions for their employees. I believe that this will be
In addition to the state basic scheme and a greatly reduced State Earnings Related Pension Scheme (SERPS), which both operate on a pay-as-you-go basis, we now have occupational pension schemes, personal pension schemes and group pensions schemes all providing savings and investment. This should ensure that a growing number of people have a private pension when they retire and are therefore less dependent on the state schemes. Another reason that our problems are not as acute as those of most other European Union countries is that the Government have pursued a deliberate policy of step-by-step reforms in social security. My noble friend mentioned that today. It has been a considerable achievement. It is never popular or easy to reform the social security system. Therefore, it is a considerable achievement and I believe that the Government deserve great credit for it.
I am very glad to see that Her Majesty's Official Opposition also now recognise that reforms are required in the social security arrangements. I am glad to see that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, nods her head. I believe that the Opposition are now thinking the unthinkable. The trouble is that when it comes to considering the reforms put forward by the Government the Opposition nearly always seem to vote against them. It seems that when it comes down to brass tacks old Labour is more powerful than new Labour. I hope that that is not the case, because it would be of immense benefit to the stability of our social security arrangements if some element of consensus were to develop. That may be hoping for too much, but it would be a good thing if that were to happen.
In conclusion, I believe that the search for economies must continue if our generation is not to hand on insupportable burdens to the next generation. These orders strike the right balance. They mean more help for the most vulnerable, stability for those who receive benefits and economies where that is possible. They also tackle abuse while at the same time maintaining the essential fabric of our social security system.
Earl Russell: My Lords, normally on these occasions I try to avoid going over old arguments and to concentrate on the material in the orders before us. Unfortunately, today the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, have exercised no such restraints. I shall not rise to all the red rags that have been waved in front of me, but I shall rise to one or two of them.
The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, challenged the Opposition with voting against some of the Government's so-called reforms. He tried to make a number of points about old Labour and new Labour. I have nothing to do with either of those groups, but a great many of us in all parts of the House have voted against the so-called reforms because we believe they offend against common sense, humanity and financial
I shall not rise to the red rag that the Minister waved in front of me about the asylum regulations. However, I shall draw his attention to information I received in this morning's post that in the very first week the regulations were in force 70 people turned up destitute at the door of the Refugee Council. I do not believe that that is a long-term economy.
The Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, had a great deal to say about falls in the level of unemployment. I too welcome that, but I should like to know why it is that when the level of unemployment is falling the percentage of adults on income support is nevertheless rising. Admittedly last year it rose by only 0.1 per cent., which is refreshingly small. That rise needs an explanation. I can think of many possible explanations, not all of them to the Government's discredit. However, the Government ought to be able to tell us, in order to put the debate in a proper context, why the rise has occurred. I do not know; I shall be very interested to hear the answer.
I welcome the decision to up-rate all the major benefits. Through successive public spending rounds the Secretary of State has put a great deal of effort into preserving the up-rating of benefits, and that is appreciated. I notice that he wrote in The Times last August that there was no substantial saving to be made from cuts in benefits. I agree with the Secretary of State; I am extremely glad that he made the point.
I welcome very warmly the increase in the childcare disregard on family credit for single parents. That is something for which I have asked many times. It is therefore incumbent upon me, as well as a pleasure, to welcome it.
I am not so happy with the rest of the policy on lone parents. I am informed by a usually reliable source that the Government intend to reduce income support for lone parents in order to increase the incentive to work. I very much hope that the Minister can tell me that that is not true. If it is necessary to reduce income support in order to create an incentive to work, that surely means that we are entering a world where wages are too low. In fact, we are approaching the same position that has existed for some time with the reduced rates of income support for those under 25.
I promised the Minister that I would not reopen old arguments where I could avoid it. However, I should like to put one or two questions that I have not asked before. Do the Government have any studies of wage levels for those who are above and below 25? Do they match the differential to those wage studies, or have they plucked a figure out of the air? Have they considered the hypothesis that the differential itself may be influencing wage levels? If so, have they considered whether what they are doing is compatible with the principles of a free market? Finally, if they continue along that line, is there any floor which they will put under that desire to reduce income support levels in order to increase the incentive to work? Is there any point where that process could stop, and if so where is it?
The decision not to up-rate lone parent premium or one parent benefit is a decision I deeply regret. There is a considerable amount of evidence, most recently in a report by the Rowntree Trust which I have read, which shows both that there are considerable extra costs in being a single parent, as common sense would lead one to suppose, and that a considerable number of single parents on benefit are having difficulty getting enough to eat. That risks health costs. I believe that there is unpublished research in the Department of Health which I look forward to seeing. I shall say no more than that. There is other research going back to the Finer Committee and the Government's own Green Paper of 1985 which touches on the same point.
On the theme of wages being too low, I have been looking at the report of the Government Actuary. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, that we ought to take that together with these regulations because all form part of a common picture. I notice that the Treasury supplement to the National Insurance Fund is running at 8.8 per cent. of benefit expenditure. The statutory maximum is 10 per cent. When the Government introduced that 10 per cent. cap, I asked them for once in a blue moon to consider the virtues of flexibility. But this Government never seem to want flexibility when there is any use for it. It may be necessary to have further primary legislation to achieve flexibility.
I want the Government to consider to what extent the size of the Treasury grant, which is £1.925 billion, involves a cost of low wages. That, of course, produces a considerable loss to the National Insurance Fund, a great deal of it in the form of people being in part-time jobs under the lower earnings limit. In fact, if one looks at the PSBR figures, a great deal of the problem is a shortfall of revenue rather than an increase of expenditure. I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, to reconsider his remarks about the social chapter having taken that shortfall of revenue from wage cutting into account. It is costing the Government a great deal more than they are aware of. Sound accounting, I think, calls for a proper examination of the question.
Twelve months ago I gave the Minister notice that, if he did not up-rate the capital limits I should want to know why. He decided not to do so. The noble Baroness did the same. He has not up-rated the capital limits. I wish to know why. I have given him 12 months' notice. I had given him 24 hours' notice too. If I do not receive an answer, I shall ask again before the noble Lord sits down.
I agree with everything the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, said about the need to control fraud. It is taking money out of pockets where it legitimately belongs. I should like to make some qualifications with which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, might also agree.
First, the charges of fraud must be a matter of proper standards of legal proof. I was a little dismayed to see in the Benefit Agency's review of fraud that its category of total fraud was made up in almost equal proportions of confirmed fraud and suspected fraud. Suspected fraud is not proved fraud; one cannot punish it until it is proved.
I also support the question of the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, about the effects of cuts in the finance of the department on the drive against fraud. In a document printed in the Guardian, which has not been disowned, Mr. Lilley stated that in the context of the drive against fraud the cut in his department's running costs filled him with despair. I understand that comment. I think that the House is entitled to some reassurance.
Finally, I turn to the increase in the deduction from income support under the CSA. I divided the House at 10 minutes to 12 at night against that deduction from income support when it first came in. I believe that there are too many deductions already from income support. Increasing that deduction to 10 per cent. when there is also a 15 per cent. capacity for deductions for gas, water, electricity, court fines, rent arrears and all the rest will reduce people to real poverty. As regards the recovery under the CSA of money from people on income support, what is the cost of administration per pound recovered? Is this measure really cost effective? I should like to know the answer.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am sure that we should all like to thank the Minister for introducing the up-rating order. Like the noble Earl, Lord Russell, I, too, welcome the fact that the major benefits have been indexed as regards RPI.
It is a brief debate. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, that a debate of such significance in terms of the money spent and the number of people affected should attract more care and attention from this House. However, the noble Lord would not expect me to agree entirely with the remainder of what he said. I agree with him that most believe we are spending too much on social security. Since 1979 expenditure has increased by £30 billion in real terms. Whereas in 1979 one family in 12 received social security, it is now one family in six. To pay for that the national insurance stamp for employees--a true form of taxation--has risen from 6.5 per cent. in 1979 to 10 per cent. now, a 50 per cent. increase.
Yet such expenditure on social security has not reduced the inequality which has grown since 1979. Since that date, as all research now indicates--the Government's own low household income figures support this--the top 10 per cent. in our population have seen their incomes rise by 60 per cent., and the incomes of the bottom 10 per cent., after housing costs, have fallen by 17 per cent. in real terms. The gap between the richest and the poorest in our country has widened more since 1979 than in any other OECD country.
Therefore, even over the past few years we have seen cuts in the benefits of the chronically sick and disabled. When invalidity benefit became incapacity benefit, not only did fewer chronically sick people qualify for it but they received lower benefits. Equally, we have seen the removal of benefits from 16 to 18 year-olds so that 90,000 young people are without a job, training, work and an income. Many of them are living on and off the streets.
Equally, we have seen the removal recently of income support for the mortgages of those who become unemployed. As the building societies warned us at the time, and as is happening, repossession figures have again started to rise. At the point at which someone loses his job and his income he is now again faced with losing his home.
Hence also we have the removal of benefits from asylum-seekers and their families. That is not because the Home Office has said that they are not genuine but because they have applied in-country and not at the port of entry.
Hence also the new jobseekers' allowance which we debated last summer means that, although paid for by national insurance, the moment one claims for a dependant the allowance turns into a means-tested benefit. That acts as a disincentive for a spouse to seek and find work.
In other words, the Government have sought to cut the cost of welfare spending by doing precisely as the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, suggested: by making economies, salami-style, on a range of benefits as they affect a range of people. They have not used welfare spending to help people off welfare but have reduced still further the living standards of those who have no choice but to remain on welfare--the chronically sick and disabled, the unemployed, vulnerable young people and asylum-seeking families.
In social security we should seek to provide a decent floor, a decent minimum, for those who cannot support themselves, while helping those who can and should move into independence. Instead, Government have privatised risk. Under this Government, social security is neither coming from society nor offering security. Each individual is expected to cope as best he can in a world where insecurity is growing so rapidly that even those in work have no assurance that they will have a job in five years or a pension in 20 years.
I am afraid that we cannot reform the welfare state--this is where I so strongly disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree--by making salami-style economies. What is needed is a more coherent, intelligent approach to what the Government should be doing. Yet what do we see in the up-rating? We see more of the same--more cuts, salami-style, and worsening living standards for the poorest--while apart
I focus on the three main issues to which the up-rating order refers. The first is lone parents. The Government propose to freeze lone parent benefit and the one-parent premium, worth £6.30 and £5.20 respectively, to save all of £5 million. According to the Government, that is less on financial grounds than on the assumption that one-parent families are better off not marrying. That is a perverse incentive.
As the Government know from their own departmental research, most one-parent families are in that situation not because they have never been in a partnership but because the marriage or the partnership has broken down. The average age is 33. When people become single parents, they move into greater poverty. The latest information suggests that 80 per cent. of children of single-parent families are on income support or below. Only 18 per cent. of those are in two-parent families. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, has referred to the point that the Rowntree Report of December 1995, a month ago, showed that for a single parent it costs proportionately more to bring up a child than in a two-parent family. Housing, heating and constant costs remain the same, but you then have to consider the cost of child care and the ability to obtain part-time work. As a result, on average single parents have only two-thirds of the income of two-parent families.
Ministers say that single-parent families should be treated in the same way as two-parent families. But they do not start from the same position. Equal treatment in unequal circumstances is not fair. That is what the Government are achieving. As we know, most single parents stay on income support for only two to three years and move off it when the eldest child is five or more and goes to school. We want to help the move towards self-support, yet the Government's strategy of freezing the one-parent benefit makes it harder, because it is a benefit that people can take with them on the train to work. It is perverse to freeze it but the Government are doing so.
The second area in which we have concern relating to the up-rating orders is housing benefits. We are seeing the housing benefit for young people under 25 chopped and limited to the average cost of shared accommodation. What are the implications? First, if the young people are entrepreneurial and energetic, they will share with other young people and rent a house, thus making rented accommodation scarcer and more expensive for families. Secondly, they may go into gungy and dank bedsit land in houses in multiple occupation, where the housing stock is of poor quality and rents are high. What is worse is that they receive their housing benefit one month in arrears. Since most landlords demand the rent a month in advance, with a month's deposit, young people will find it harder to enter the housing market.
What is the third option? If they cannot rent decent accommodation together and are being pressed into the grottiest parts of the private rented bedsit land, their third possibility is to go home and live with their
To summarise, the first concern which I mentioned is the Government's treatment of lone parents and the disincentive to seek work. The second concern was housing benefit. The third concern about the up-rating statement is what the Government are doing about child support. We on these Benches entirely agree that both parents should contribute to the maintenance of the child. There is no question about that. However, what the Government are doing in the up-rating statement is doubling the contribution from £2.40 to £4.80 which an absent father--let us take the man--on income support has to find from his breadline income. Top-slicing £4.80 from an income support income of just £37 a week if a person is 23 or 24 is punitive. It does nothing to help the child because not a penny of it goes to the child, it merely goes back to the Treasury. What chance will the man have to do what we all want--travel to see his child, take it to the cinema or buy it a hamburger? He cannot afford to do that. If that £4.80 were retained by the mother so that it was a contribution to the well-being of the child, we would have less objection. Instead, it is a cut in benefit to punish men who have had a child out of wedlock and are now on income support. That is no way to run a social security system.
So, on the one hand, we see benefits for the most vulnerable cut, while, as the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, rightly said, the total benefit bill soars. Why? It is because the Government persist in spending the money on the wrong things. Why has the housing benefit bill soared?--not because tenants choose luxury accommodation but because the Government encouraged private landlords to decontrol their rents, promising that housing benefit would take the strain. As soon as the landlords did that, housing benefit did take the strain and the Government decided that that would not do. So while rents have floated up, the Government seek to push down people's capacity to pay by cutting housing benefit.
The Government will make much of the fact that they prefer to subsidise people, not bricks and mortar. But the Minister knows well that subsidising people in that context means making them dependent on subsidy. That is what the words mean. It means extending the dependency culture which we are trying to stop.
It would be much better to have lower priced accommodation so that people are not penalised if they seek work. More costly accommodation and housing benefit deducted at 65p in the pound mean that for every pound one earns between £80 and £180 a week, one is only 5p or 8p per pound better off. Through their benefit system and extending people's dependency on housing
Why is social security expenditure rising?--because we are spending too much on in-work benefits. It is probably the fastest growing area of the DSS budget, with in-work benefits topping up low pay. What do family credit and the earnings top-up do? Employers know that they can cut wages, aware that we, as taxpayers, will take the strain in housing benefit, council tax and family credit and soon with the earnings top-up.
I believe that in-work benefits are a decent and benign response of government, but they are the utmost folly if they are not underpinned by a minimum wage. Without it, employers can pitch wages where they will, knowing that when the money wage is below a living wage we, the taxpayers, must subsidise it so that people can live and survive. The in-work benefits are the consequence of falling pay and they cost every taxpayer £750 a year because we are willing to tolerate low pay. Instead of relieving family poverty, we see a vast programme offering arbitrary state subsidies to low-wage and often bad employers. At the same time as we are privatising risk, we are nationalising the employer's wages bill. Odd that, coming from a Tory Government.
We are dealing with unemployment. The reason for that is not merely that, absolutely, there is a major problem of long-term employment, but that work is not appropriately shared. We know from the Dahrendorf Report, which we debated not so long ago, that we are in a society of two-wage earners and no-wage households. The reason for that, not entirely but in part, is the structure of the benefits system that the Government have shaped. It is a result of the means-testing which means that, the moment a wife is in work, she can afford to seek work and retain it only if her husband is already in work himself. The Government have constructed a benefits system based on means-testing that deters the second partner from holding down a job. That is perverse.
Finally, there is the problem of lone parents, on whom the Government believe we spend too much. The children of two-thirds of lone parents are under five and it is perhaps not reasonable to expect such parents to work. We know that when the youngest child is past five, they will re-enter the labour market. Being in work will float them off poverty. Why are we cutting today one of the very few benefits that take lone parents who are currently out of work into the labour market without facing disincentive?
The right way to control the social security budget is not the Government's way, which is to salami-slice individual benefits to make one-off economies that depress the living standards of those who are already vulnerable, sick, unemployed and poor. That is not the right way to tackle the problem. That generates dependency. It confirms the mixture of unemployment and low pay that underlies our soaring bill, along with demographic factors such as old age. Wise strategy would tackle the problem of the job market, low pay and access to the labour market. This up-rating statement does not do so. It represents yet again a major opportunity missed.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the debate, although short, has been an interesting one. I am grateful to noble Lords who took part. In my defence, I ranged rather widely because precedent clearly showed that the debate would range rather widely; and so it has done. Perhaps I may deal with those questions to which there are quick answers.
I confirm to my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree that, indeed, the up-rating is entirely consistent with our commitment to up-rate pensions in line with prices. It has been fully honoured again this year; and war pensions, about which he asked specifically, have also been fully honoured. Our position on this matter is absolutely, perfectly and abundantly clear. We promised to up-rate pensions in line with prices, and that is what we have done.
That contrasts a little with the position of the party opposite. Last year I asked the noble Baroness if she could tell me whether the Opposition intended to restore that link, which was broken some years ago, given the kind of costs I mentioned then of up-rating in line with earnings rather than prices--a cost that I suspect would already have brought the social security spending budget to around £100 billion rather than £90 billion.
The noble Baroness did not answer me then, and she avoided the subject completely today. I am not entirely surprised. In the debate in the other place, my right honourable friend Sir Norman Fowler, a former distinguished Secretary of State for Social Security, specifically asked Mr. Chris Smith, the Opposition spokesman on social security, a question about that up-rating. The answer he received was quite interesting:
I certainly look forward to seeing that policy. Not only will the policy on up-rating, prices and earnings be revealed to us, but also other policies on spending. I understand that that is now to happen in less than three months' time. It started off as six months. I am not sure whether the noble Baroness is part of that great thinking team. She indicates her assent. She will therefore know exactly how many weeks are still to go before the Opposition unveil their social security spending.
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