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Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): That was a very powerful speech by the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Trickett). I had the privilege of spending some time in Hemsworth before a by-election there in the last Parliament. Although I was only there for a few days, I can perfectly understand the hon. Gentleman's passionate plea to get some extra resources into his constituency, and I am sure that we all support him in that. I cannot resist the observation that if he is really looking for special treatment before he goes to hospital, telling the House in a speech that he is going to hospital is a sure-fire way of getting a consultant physician to meet him at the door with a cup of tea. None the less, we wish him well--a safe operation and a speedy recovery.
This has been a good debate, composed of good speeches, but some key players, such as my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey), have been caught. If we get only 24 hours notice of the disposition of the subjects, it makes it difficult for some of the important Front-Bench spokesmen to be as attentive to the debate--an important debate--as they otherwise might be. Perhaps the usual channels will consider that suggestion for next year. Obviously, it would need to be taken up with the consent of the official Opposition, but it would improve the ability of Front-Bench spokesmen and others to accommodate their diaries and attend a debate. I do not by any means imply criticism of people who are not present.
This year's has been one of the best Queen's Speeches that I have ever come across, for this reason if for no other: that it is the right size. I do not believe the rumour that there will be a general election soon. I am a trusting kind of chap. This year's Queen's Speech is exactly the right length for the House to contemplate at the start of a full year's Session, because we are suffering from legislative overload to a ridiculous extent. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker--and as the members of the Chairmen's Panel, your colleagues who chair the Standing Committees, know--the number of statutory instruments and Orders in Council that the House now seeks to scrutinise in a year is excessive.
I consider that the Queen's Speech sets out a full year's work. I shall certainly treat it in that way, and I hope that in future its size will be used as a model for a Queen's Speech that is contemplable and capable of being properly scrutinised.
The speech by the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) was particularly apposite. He has been campaigning for the proposed tobacco restrictions for many years, and it must be a pleasure to him at last to see a realistic prospect of success. There were some other excellent speeches, too, by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) and others, and this has been a good debate.
As Chairman of the Select Committee on Social Security, I must mention that I see a motion on the Order Paper for the replacement of one of the distinguished members of the Committee, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who since the start of this Parliament has played a crucial role in the Committee on behalf of the Conservatives. We are very sad to lose him, but he is going on to do other important things. We are glad that he is to be replaced by the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), who is also a very experienced Member--but I place it on the record that I, as Chairman of the Committee, have appreciated all his support, help and hard work.
I would also like to say--I hope that the Minister might pass this on, although she is from a different Department--that the work that the Committee has been able to do has been considerably enhanced by the support of the ministerial team in the Department and the staff who serve Ministers. The Committee is just about to
I shall say a word about the context of this year's Queen's Speech. I do not know about anyone else, but I got rather frightened in the course of the summer uprising--I suppose that is how one would describe it--of discontent about fuel prices. I was in the middle of a series of the rural tours that I always do at that time of year, and I was perplexed by the discontent, alienation and disfranchisement that I came across in my constituency. It was as though the whole country had suffered a collective loss of trust, not just in the Government, but in the whole political process. I hope that we do not assume that that was a complete aberration--a one-off, which will never happen again.
We must be very careful. The whole political process, not just the Government, must be careful to ensure that we understand what is going on and reconnect public opinion with the political process here in Parliament. That applies to Opposition parties just as much as to Ministers.
From my experience during that summer period, there certainly seems to be a world of difference between the reality on the ground and the political rhetoric--and the economic indicators. Indeed, all the economic indicators are looking positive. From the books and statistics alone, one would think that the country was doing well, but that is not the experience on the ground, and other Members who have spoken have reflected that in their own way. The experience on the ground is hard, and people are facing difficulties. That is the context of this debate, as we pick our way through next year's programme for the mother of Parliaments.
My constituency covers a rural area. The older I get, the harder it seems to make social security systems and public policy matters apposite both for Hemsworth and for Roxburgh and Berwickshire. They are worlds apart. The problems and the scale of the problems are different. The contexts and geographical settings are different. In my major town of Hawick there are lots of empty houses. There are perfectly reasonable, well appointed council and housing association tenancies going a-begging.
The right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) is present, so her constituency springs to mind. I am sure that the pressures there are different, and the attention that her constituency has been getting reinforces that opinion. I listen to my colleagues on the Select Committee, the hon. Members for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), and realise that the extent and scale of the problems facing them are wholly different from those facing me in my rural constituency in south-east Scotland.
That is not to say that we do not have our problems. I was pleased to get from the Leader of the House at business questions the positive response that Ministers will be present for the important European Standing Committee debate on total allowable catches in advance of the Fisheries Council in Brussels later this month, and that we shall all have a chance to make our points. White fish stocks in the North sea are under pressure. The whole of the eastern coastal community in my constituency may be under blight if the catching capacity of the fleet is reduced to such an extent that the processing sector on land is without the raw material for its products. That will further challenge employment levels in an area where they are already being challenged. The situation is exacerbated because the farming industry is in a serious state of decline, and has not been assisted in any way by the inclement weather from which we have been suffering.
People in rural parts perceive the political process, and Whitehall's centralised approach, as ignoring their difficulties. Their noses are being rubbed in it by the Government's proposal to introduce anti-foxhunting legislation. That must be a low priority. I am not in favour of banning the hunting of foxes with dogs, so I was interested in the speech made by the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas). He rather bravely is taking the same view, and I congratulate him on that. Legislation to ban foxhunting will do no more in my constituency than divert police and criminal justice resources to chasing men and women who are riding across the Border hills in pink coats. When there is a small number of police officers who already face a challenge in doing the real work of criminal detection, that suggests a warped sense of priorities. The proposal is going down extremely badly in rural areas, and I hope that the Government will think about that carefully.
Post offices are under threat. I know that the Minister of State is aware that the Department has a continuing interest in that issue. I give his colleagues in the DTI credit for acting in good faith to develop the universal bank as a platform on which to build. I hope that they succeed--and that if they do not, the Department will be prepared, even at the last minute, to consider postponing the withdrawal of the system of benefit books and girocheques for a while, if that will provide the extra time necessary to ensure that the Post Office network is not challenged. As things stand, it is seriously challenged. Rural post offices are often the heart of little villages in constituencies like mine.
South-east Scotland faces real long-term problems--for example, skills shortages and an aging work force. The political process should focus on finding local solutions to some of those problems. Some policy making remains too centralised. A lot of resources are available, but they are not allocated so that local communities can find solutions to meet their needs. There are difficulties, for example, in matching funding. European aid is available through structural funds to help deal with some of these problems, but because of the shortage of capital available to local authorities and local enterprise companies, we cannot develop solutions apposite to our communities. That feeling will not be unique to south-east Scotland. There is a feeling in the rural hinterland of the United Kingdom that people are being ignored, and that perception needs to be addressed.
The work being done by John Veit Wilson and others to establish minimum income standards is important. I am not saying that a Government can immediately leap to meet these new levels and that households can look forward to them. That is unrealistic. Sister European nations use minimum income standards effectively to measure how far the Government of the day still have to go at any given time. The work being done by the family budget unit is instructive, and I hope that Ministers will continue to consider it.
The Minister probably knows that I have always been in favour of cross-cutting Government work to bear down on poverty. There is no other way of doing it. Sir Michael Partridge, who has been released from his previous role as permanent secretary, but knows a thing or two about the inner workings of the Department, said in evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee that the influence of the Treasury in the micro policy-making process was getting slightly out of hand. The direction, initiatives and new benefits delivered through the Inland Revenue all seem to be coming from the Treasury. That worries me. Obviously, the Treasury must be on board and involved in any sensible evolution of policy in this area, but there is concern that it is dictating the pace to an unhelpful extent. I hope that Ministers will bear that in mind in future.
There is a welter of change and much of it is positive. Certainly the principle and intention are good. However, the pace of change and the rate at which reforms are introduced raise questions of implementation and coherence. We all know how tricky it can be to get proper IT systems up and running. The Child Support Agency remains deeply mired trying to get that aspect sorted out.
I acknowledge that for the first time, under the comprehensive spending review, Ministers managed to get their hands on adequate resources to do the job. The policy will take time to implement, and I am patient enough to wait to find out whether that will be done. There are employment credits, integrated child credits and the working families tax credit, and even those who specialise in such matters find them hard to understand; it must be hard even for Ministers.
The Department of Social Security must try to achieve sensible time scales and programmes of implementation and structures in future. The Minister of State has headed part of the disaggregation process in the Department, which has resulted in a pensions agency. That process is welcome, but we must ask ourselves where it will end. It is conceivable that the Department could be abolished in the next Parliament. I am not necessarily against that, but if we are heading in that direction, it is not good enough for the Prime Minister suddenly to issue a fiat one Monday, saying, "We have a successful free-standing pensions agency, a working families agency and the ONE programme, and children are being looked after through an integrated child credit paid for through the Inland
I shall make two more points about social security. I am becoming increasingly concerned about the growing number of households in the United Kingdom below income support level. Those who do not study such issues as closely as members of the Select Committee on Social Security tend to believe that everyone has a safety net. However, a growing number of people--some of them, such as asylum seekers, may be less deserving in some people's eyes--live in households that must find a way to live below income support levels. They include, for example, families whose housing benefit is restricted because their rent is too high. Thousands of households are in that situation.
Families on housing benefit can be subject to a non-dependant deduction, and those deductions are not made good by the non-dependant who is part of the household. Some people have deductions taken from their benefit because of debts under the social fund. The Select Committee will consider that matter next. We are conducting an inquiry into the social fund because we think that many families are in that position. Hon. Members will know that many people are formally on incapacity benefit, but if they appeal against a decision to be taken off that benefit, their income is paid at 20 per cent. below the normal rate. People can be disqualified from jobseeker's allowance if they have lost their jobs through misconduct or have refused reasonable job offers. People who have opted to pay a financial penalty rather than face prosecution for fraud because they have incurred an overpayment in circumstances which could lead to prosecution not only have to repay the money, but incur a 30 per cent. penalty as well. I could cite other examples of households that have to live below income support levels, and I have not even begun to mention pensioner households that refuse to claim means-tested benefits. I hope that Ministers will consider those real problems during the coming year.
I shall now talk about the anti-fraud provisions in the Queen's Speech. I have carefully studied the consultation document "Safeguarding Social Security", which was produced in July, although the consultation did not end until 21 October. In so far as the Department wants extra powers to gain access to third-party commercial organisations--whether building societies, banks, insurance companies, or student grant or loan bodies--I am absolutely content, so long as any action taken is proportionate, lawful and falls within section 8 of the European convention on human rights, although we shall look carefully at the safeguards involved. No right-thinking person could be against such measures.
I am worried that the concentration on fraud and crackdowns, and all the emotive rhetoric that is used, increases the level of stigma. That is always the dilemma. We must always bear in mind the fact that the system is becoming increasingly means-tested. Whether that is right or wrong is a different argument, but the more means- testing in the system, and the more people talk and write up the fraud, the more people will leave Benefits Agency offices flitting from shadow to shadow, not wanting to be seen claiming because people may think that everyone
The extra powers that the Government want to take are right, but they are only minor; they represent prudent housekeeping. It is much more important to invest in front-line staff, to have proper computers and IT systems that work, and to use home visits and ethnic translators for claimants who do not speak English as their native language. I have learned that from the work that I have done with my Labour colleagues on the Social Security Committee. The problem is big, and the solution will not be cheap. The official Opposition propose to clock up benefit savings by bearing down on fraud. To stop fraud, to get it right first time, to keep it right and to prevent further fraud, will cost a lot of money in the first five years. It would be a spend-to-save policy, which would be worth while, but it is certainly not cheap to take £2 billion from public expenditure each year.
Simplification is an important part of bearing down on fraud, especially in the housing benefit system. If the Labour Government can be accused with some justification of one failure, it is the fact that they have done nothing about housing benefit. The problem is not easy, but simplifications are readily available. However, those opportunities have not been properly taken.
The "two strikes and you're out" policy goes against the grain. It is improper to use the benefits system to impose sanctions on people. I do not know who will take the decisions to dock people's benefit. I do not know how long benefit docking will last, nor whether discretion or any waiver will be allowed in terms of who will be hit if they make mistakes twice. The benefit verification programme has produced some unfortunate casualties--