Benefits System (Discrimination)

Oral Answers to Questions — Social Security – in the House of Commons am 12:00 am ar 25 Chwefror 1997.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Mr Fergus Montgomery Mr Fergus Montgomery , Altrincham and Sale 12:00, 25 Chwefror 1997

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what plans he has to reduce discrimination against couples in the benefit system. [15737]

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Secretary of State for Social Security

We intend to bring the benefits for new lone parents and couples with children more into line. From April 1998, new lone parents will receive the same rate of family premium and child benefit as do married couples with children. Existing claimants will continue to receive the current higher rates of cash benefit, but those rates will not be increased in April 1997. As well as being a more even-handed system, this will save around £0.5 billion a year.

Photo of Mr Fergus Montgomery Mr Fergus Montgomery , Altrincham and Sale

As my right hon. Friend has confirmed, if his plan for a fairer family benefit system is brought in, it will save £500 million in the long term. If it is not implemented, will that not mean that public expenditure will have to be increased by £500 million or that the benefits of pensioners and disabled people will have to be cut? Has my right hon. Friend had any representations from the Labour party, which believes in what is called a fixed social security budget and which has opposed the reforms all the way through, to find out what benefits it intends to cut?

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Secretary of State for Social Security

My hon. Friend makes a telling point, and the answer is that I am afraid that I have received no reply to the repeated letters that I have sent to the Opposition spokesman to find out what the Labour party intends to replace those savings with, should it, alas, find itself in power. Labour Members have said that they will stick to the departmental budgets laid down by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary for the Treasury. If they are to forgo £500 million from those savings and spend more money on benefits for lone parents, they must, by definition, take it from other groups—families, single people without children, pensioners or the disabled.

Photo of Mr Alan Howarth Mr Alan Howarth , Stratford-on-Avon

What has the Secretary of State to say about the shocking fact that, for one in five couples of working age, neither partner is in work? Is that not because the Government have vastly increased the number of households on means-tested benefits while holding down earnings disregards? Is not the perversity of the Government's policy that, when one partner loses a job, it makes sense for the other to give up work?

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Secretary of State for Social Security

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wish to welcome the decline by some 300,000 in the number of households in the position that he describes. I am sure that he does not wish to give universally benefits to the non-working partner in a household, regardless of the income of the person in work, because he knows full well that that would be prohibitively expensive. He certainly knows that Labour Front Benchers cannot commit themselves to anything like that because they have accepted our spending totals. It is all very well for Labour Back Benchers to demand more money; they should speak to their Front Benchers, who say that our spending totals are exactly right.

Photo of Lady Olga Maitland Lady Olga Maitland , Sutton and Cheam

Does my right hon. Friend agree that married couples will welcome those reforms because not only are the reforms fairer to married couples, but they have felt discriminated against in recent years because they have been paying tax out of their pockets to support lone parents? Do not the reforms also pass a clear message that we want to encourage young people to have family relationships in which they are committed to each other and stay together for the sake of their children?

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Secretary of State for Social Security

My hon. Friend is right. There can be no basis in the long term for a less generous benefit system for married couples than exists for lone parents. I welcome the comments of the Chairman of the Social Security Select Committee that, if we seize this nettle, it should be supported by the Opposition. I have not noticed that it is being supported by the Opposition as yet.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, for lone mothers, the most important thing is not to depend on benefits paid by other families but to get off benefits and into work? Having cut lone mothers' benefits and abused lone mothers at the Tory party conference with his little list, why has he now given lone mothers a little leaflet? Although it cost £750,000, the leaflet tells lone mothers nothing about jobs, child care or training; it tells them only about how to get more leaflets about more benefits. Will he acknowledge that his policy of saying to lone mothers, "Here is your income support; come back when your youngest child is 16," has left 1 million mothers on income support, 2 million children on the breadline and a £10 billion bill for the taxpayer? Why does not he take up Labour's welfare-to-work proposals and invite lone mothers into the jobcentre for help and advice?

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Secretary of State for Social Security

The House will notice that the hon. Lady has not chosen to inform us where she will get the £500 million that she wants to spend on higher benefits for new lone parents.

However, the hon. Lady is right to say that the best possibility for lone parents is to get back to work. That is why we have sustained in-work benefits, notably family credit. That is why we have improved them by giving a child care allowance within family credit. That is why we have improved them further by giving a carry-on of housing benefit at the existing rate for a month after return to work. That is why we are sending out a leaflet spelling out the advantages of getting back to work, spelling out those extra benefits and spelling out the availability of child care help. I am surprised and astonished that the hon. Lady chooses to ridicule it. On second thoughts, I am not surprised: it is typical.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, for far too long, the benefit system has discriminated in favour of lone parents as opposed to married couples and that it is a long-overdue reform that married couples should now receive the same as lone parents? Has he received representations from the Labour party to the effect that it is prepared to pay lone parents another £20 a week on top of what they currently receive, and what would that cost?

Photo of Peter Lilley Peter Lilley Secretary of State for Social Security

I agree with my hon. Friend. He may be unconsciously echoing almost exactly the words of the only Opposition Member who has made similar points—the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who used very similar words. I understand that the Opposition now propose to allow a maintenance disregard, which effectively will give an advantage of up to £20 a week to lone parents who receive maintenance from the absent father as a result of our efforts, so it will be a disincentive for them to return to work. That must militate in exactly the opposite direction to that which the Labour spokesman advocated a few moments ago.