Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Higgins: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Surely the contributory principle is that one only gets benefits if one has met certain contribution requirements. Therefore, the argument that this ought not to be covered by the Green Paper seems an extraordinary one.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the Green Paper set out the principles by which we will go on to adopt reforms. Perhaps I may take up the points made about the social insurance scheme. Our approach has three principles. The first is that protection is better than cure. It is better to fence off the precipice than send in the ambulances. We seek partnership with the private sector and we seek to prioritise in order to focus most resources where they can do most good.

The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, raised the issue of social insurance benefits. There is a popular assumption that social insurance benefits must always be better than means-tested benefits. This is a false dichotomy. Not all benefits are either contributory benefits or means-tested benefits. Child benefit and disability living allowance are neither contributory nor means-tested. The new incapacity benefit for younger people who have become disabled before the age of 20 will neither be contributory nor means-tested. We have extended, to coin a phrase, a third way of benefits between those two. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses.

Noble Lords do not need me to remind them that national insurance benefits are cheaper to administer and command wider political support, but they have rarely been paid at a substantial level and they are not well focused on need. Means-tested benefits can be expensive to run and can discourage saving but can be more focused on need. We need a variety of benefits. No one category fits all need. Over the next couple of years we will be working out the best benefit structure to meet the different categories of need in our society. We should be judged on the efficacy of that structure.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, commented on the confusion of our messages, particularly to women and to families. No, what we were saying was not confusion. We were saying that there are choices that individuals, not government, may seek to make. A woman may choose to stay with her children; she may wish to have some work and also have childcare; she may wish to work full time. We are saying that, whatever her choice, we as a society and we as government stand behind her shoulder and empower her to make those choices. Therefore, we will support her in whichever of those paths she treads. That is not a confusing message. It is not a conflicting message. We are saying that we are behind her right to choose and will make that right a reality by empowering positively, through childcare, education, training and family-friendly employment, her right to make those choices.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. Will she confirm that lone parents will not be required to come to interview to take jobs in order to be entitled to payment? That is where the confusion lies. At some stage over the past few weeks many speeches have been made on the topic.

5 Nov 1998 : Column 448

Some of the lone parents I have spoken to have been under the impression that they would not be entitled to payment if they did not come to interview. I explained in my speech that some of them feel that they would like to choose not to have to come to interview, that they do not wish to work and that that is their right. On the one hand, it has been suggested that they have to come to interview in order to be entitled to the benefit. Indeed, what will happen to those on benefit now? On the other hand, the Minister has today implied that that is not so. That is where the confusion lies.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, that confuses two separate policy initiatives. I can well understand why people might be confused as they do overlap. One is the New Deal, which is voluntary and is for lone parents and disabled people, and the other is the single gateway. In the single gateway process we are saying that in certain pilot areas--it may well be rolled out nationwide after the year 2000 if it is successful--new claimants for benefit acquire that benefit through the process of an interview. That was commonplace in 1979 when we carried out 5 million to 6 million interviews a year. It was dropped in the name of expediency by the subsequent government and the number fell to around 500,000. In those gateway pilots we are saying that to acquire income support a disabled person or a lone parent will have an interview. One signs on through an interview rather than through a telephone call or the return of a piece of paper. At that interview, if one is a lone parent, one will probably discuss access to child maintenance, opportunities for education and training, and so on. But there is absolutely no compulsion to go beyond that attendance at interview. That is the first point at which one claims benefit. There is no requirement to go on to work subsequently if one is a lone parent or disabled person. That is one's choice.

We want people to have the knowledge to make an informed choice. In a way compulsion is a red herring. We say that benefit is acquired at the interview rather than as now through a piece of paper. That has always been the way it has been done in the past. I can see why the message has become confused. We regard childcare as being at least as important as going out to work, but we know that most married women choose to do both. We want to ensure that lone parents have the same right to exercise that choice as married women. Seventy-five per cent. of married women with a child under 12 work whereas only about 40 per cent. of lone parents do so. Why? The answer is that they do not have the mechanisms for child support, the knowledge and the infrastructure that they would otherwise have. We will help them if that is what they wish to do but they cannot make that choice unless they know about it. That is how we hope to use the interviewing process.

Time has moved on and I am exploiting the goodwill of the House. I have not covered every point and I shall write to noble Lords as necessary. I could go on for another half an hour but to your Lordships' relief I shall not. To conclude, the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, said

5 Nov 1998 : Column 449

that the Social Policy Association's assessment of the Green Paper A New Contract for Welfare was that they could do better. The Government agree. As a society we can, should and must do better. The Green Paper sets out the principles for reform, not the reforms

5 Nov 1998 : Column 450

themselves. We are now putting those principles into practice. We have already done a good deal and we shall do more, and by that we shall rightly be judged.

        House adjourned at twenty-two minutes past eight o'clock.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page