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Lord Higgins: My Lords, we are debating a considerable number of social security matters on the same day. Without going into the mysterious workings of the usual channels, there is perhaps some convenience in proceeding in this way. This particular order uprates a large number of benefits, and I am sure that the recipients appreciate that. In a more general sense, it is rather worrying that government policy has been erratic. For example, there has been an increase of 75 pence in the basic pension in one year followed by a 5 increase in the next. Who knows what will happen next year? Having for many years represented a constituency which has more pensioners than any other, I believe that that kind of erratic measure will be viewed with considerable concern. People are still worried that the RPI used for pensions is not the same as that used for fuel and so on. But I do not think it is appropriate at this stage in the proceedings to make a large number of partisan points in response to what the Minister has said.

However, I make one particular point. We appear to be in a situation where debates on these matters divorce the increase in benefits from the increase in contributions. That is a reflection of the structural changes introduced by the Government. When I raised the issue of contributions on an earlier matter, the Minister replied that it was a matter for the Treasury. But, as she well knows, she and other Ministers in this House answer for all departments and the Government as a whole, not just their own department. Therefore, it is legitimate to say that here are these increases which take place, but what is the effect on contributions? Considerable concern was expressed at the way in which the Government, in announcing these changes--more particularly the Chancellor of the Exchequer--sought to take much credit for the increase in the benefits, but they did not point out that the contribution increase was something like three times the rate of inflation for a substantial number of people. Perhaps I may restrict my question on this occasion to

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asking the Minister to tell us what are the implications in terms of the contributions which are necessary to finance the increase in benefit to which she has referred.

Earl Russell: My Lords, by convention this debate is used for a review of the general feel of social security. I shall use it to that effect as briefly as I can at this time of night. I appreciate that we are coming to the end of a marathon debate. But we are also coming to the end of a Parliament. In those circumstances, it is legitimate to review what has and has not been achieved.

Perhaps I may say to the Minister that she is a trooper and an old hand. She will not take anything that I may say personally. She has been a distinguished and excellent Minister. Unless what I say refers directly to her words or actions, I do not intend to imply any criticism of her personally.

The Government's overall record on social security is probably worse than their record in any other field except possibly the Home Office. I shall not say that I am disappointed about that. I read the Prime Minister's Amsterdam speech of February 1997 very carefully indeed. I expected nothing else.

First, I came into this Parliament with a long shopping list of things which I hoped to see reversed by the Government. I shall not rattle through that list. I am sure the Minister knows perfectly well what is on it. Most of them have not been touched. The single parent case is worse. The CSA case is worse in many ways. I remember everything that the Minister said when the legislation relating to the JSA was before the House. As Lord Henderson of Brompton put the issue at the time, it was the introduction of measures designed for the policing of the unemployed. No change there.

I am not sure of this judgment, but, with regard to asylum seekers, were I an asylum seeker I would rather try to run the gauntlet of Michael Howard's Bill of 1996 than penetrate the ring of steel set up by Jack Straw in 1999. I know what the Minister will say against that. It has substance; but so do the points on the other side--and the balance is difficult.

I shall not say "all is forgiven", but I do say to representatives of the previous government that we are not that much better off, if indeed we are at all. It is true that from the Government we do not have the hacking out of large slices from the safety net, like cutting a cake. Instead what we have through the use of benefit sanctions--I shall not repeat what I have just said--is pushing individuals out like pushing mashed vegetables through a sieve. The amount that goes out is probably about the same in both cases.

I know that there are remedies for poverty on offer. But what we find over and over again is that the Government always believe that they know best what is in the interest of the person who hopes to escape from poverty. They do not merely believe that their own judgment is better than that of the claimant but that they are entitled to enforce it by compulsion. Perhaps I may refer to the exchanges that we had a few moments ago on CSA reduced benefit penalties. The Minister was quite certain that she knew what was in the best

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interests of the child better than the child's mother. That is a question on which just a little doubt might well be becoming.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, that is a somewhat unfair summary. I was making the point that there are occasions when the interests of the mother seeking a clean-break divorce and the interests of the child, because they can never divorce their parents, do not coincide but diverge. When that happens, decisions need to be made, and in that situation, they are difficult. I believe that the Government's primary responsibility is to children because they are the dependent ones.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that explanation. I agree there are circumstances in which interests may diverge. What I am querying is the certainty the Minister feels that the interests diverge in this case. A little bit of hesitation about whether the mother's or the Minister's judgment is right is something I should be glad to hear.

We should remember that in dealing with the administration of the benefit system we have a gross inequality of power between the system and the claimant. Where we have that gross inequality, and that inequality is backed by the power to take benefits away altogether, we have a situation which may easily be perceived as oppressive on the receiving end.

We also have the constant repetition of the mantra, "Work for those who can; security for those who cannot". I previously suggested to the Minister that that has led to a denigration of benefits. Last night I looked at the use of the phrase "cash handouts" in the Green Paper on welfare reform. The Minister perfectly well remembers the passages to which I refer. That links up with the problem of uprating only by prices. That is not consignment of pensions. The Minister knows very well that I am not taking refuge behind the walls of the castle. I am not recommending a return to the earnings link. But, from time to time, as resources allow, it is necessary to uprate above prices.

The Acheson report pointed out that benefits were at a level inconsistent with preserving health. But on that point at least I am beginning to think that the Acheson report has gone the way of the Black report. No action on this point has followed. The problem is regularly perceived by the Government as one of getting people to want to work rather than of there not being any work. I have said this many times before, but it was clearly confirmed by an article by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment writing in the Observer as recently as last Sunday. He expressed the matter in these words:


    "Jobs are there for the taking in most parts of the country".

He is not particularly impressed by any shortage of jobs. He said:


    "It used to be thought that the number of jobs in the economy was finite ... The more people available to work with the right skills, the more jobs that are created".

If there is any research that sustains that proposition, I should be glad to see it.

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As for jobs being there for the taking, I looked at last January's figures for unemployment by constituency. I admit that they are a year out of date, and if the Minister has the information to bring me up to date, I should welcome and listen to it. A year ago, 34 constituencies had unemployment above 10 per cent overall. Constituencies where male unemployment was above 10 per cent numbered 84 in England and 15 in Scotland, including a rate of male unemployment in Sheffield Brightside of 12.9 per cent.

In his maiden speech in 1987 Mr Blunkett said he believed that he was the only Labour Member who woke up the day after the election looking on the "Brightside". Perhaps he should do it a little more often. It is because of the belief that jobs are there for the taking and that the number of jobs expands with the number of skilled people that we get addiction to compulsion and to thrusting people out of the safety net. I know that they may say that yesterday's announcement on neighbourhood renewal is getting away from the top-down approach, but I listened to the discussion of this issue on last night's "Newsnight". John Holman, who works in Glasgow Easterhouse, said:


    "This is not really the case. The Government sets the targets and whatever power is devolved, it is still dominated by the targets. So in the end the Government makes the decisions".

I am even more concerned by what the Secretary of State said at the end of his article. He said:


    "Our intention now is to make full employment a reality too".

That is fine if it is to be done by creating additional jobs. But if it is to be done by redefining the workless so that fewer of them are classified as unemployed, that could be a cause of very grave anxiety. When I look forward to the possibility of a Labour second term and I think of all that I have heard said in this Chamber and elsewhere on the theme of rights and responsibilities, I view a future Labour Government after the next election with dread.


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