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Yes, Mr. Irving.
I have put down this Amendment because I am very much concerned about the problem of continuing poverty which is afflicting so many people. As the Schedule stands—I find this confusing, and, for the benefit of others who may be similarly confused, I am referring to page 21, line 39—we ought to look for a way by which the situation of these poorer families can be ameliorated.
I am directly concerned about the expression "adjustment to normal earnings". I have had experience of families of the sort involved here. The man has, perhaps, been out of work for a very long time. I think of one who came out of a long period in a mental hospital, who was rehabilitated as far as he ever will be, but who remains a very inadequate person, a poor worker. His family is suffering from the wage-stop under the provisions relating to adjustment to normal earnings, but his wife says to me, "I cannot imagine what his normal earnings ever were or ever could be. No one wants to employ him". In such cases a figure is arrived at—I do not say without sympathy—which in many instances of long-term unemployment is confusing and a source of trouble to the families concerned.
Turning for a moment to Amendment No. 8, I am not clear as regards the long-term sick, but I understand that there is a practice—I do not believe that it is laid down anywhere—by which the wage stop does not normally apply for longer than six months. This may be my understanding because my experience has been among particularly sympathetic officers, but I have certainly found that, normally, in cases of sickness there is at least a review of the family's position automatically after six months. I am very glad to have the opportunity to raise these matters and express my own confusion about them if only to enable the Committee to be informed of the true situation. It is not clear to me, and there must be people outside who have similar difficulty in understanding what we are trying to do in this connection.
A strong case can be made for an adjustment to earnings so as not to discourage people from going to work. No hon. Member would wish to see a situation which discouraged people from working at a time when the country needed the fullest possible employment. But I submit that this difficulty could be met by wider use of Clause 30 which gives the Minister power to deal with people who wilfully refuse employment. This would be a better way of dealing with this matter than by financial hardships such as will be laid upon many families under the present proposals.
The difficulty is that the more we improve the benefits the more we increase the number of families suffering under the adjustment to earnings rule. Unfortunately, the number is already rising. In December, 1965, there were 16,000 families suffering from the wage stop, 2,000 more than in the previous year, although the total number of unemployed had fallen. Not only is the absolute figure increasing but the proportion is increasing as well. This calls for anxious attention.
The only way I can see within the terms of the Bill and, I hope, the bounds of order is to suggest that we should review all wage-stop cases at the end of six months. I suggest this recalling that my right hon. Friend said last Monday that the problem of the family receiving less than the basic allowances is a wide and serious one. Would it not be possible for her administratively to ask for each case to be looked at every six months?
Some of these families have deductions of over £3 a week. In 1965, 3,000 families had deductions in their benefit of £3 a week because even those modest standards of benefit would have provided them with £3 more than the man had from his income while at work. Families living at that level cannot have savings or reserves of any kind. Usually, they do their shopping from day to day and their housekeeping from week to week. Perhaps, over a week or two, it is possible to manage, but what we are doing by allowing the wage-stop to continue for a long time is to create a situation of chronic poverty for them out of which they can never emerge, a chronic poverty which becomes worse as time goes on, as whatever small savings they have disappear, as clothes are worn out, as furniture gets broken, and so on. We all know of the accumulating problems.
I appreciate that I must not ask my right hon. Friend to do too much today. It is her wish, I know, to give the most generous treatment possible to these people, and this whole subject is part of another study. But I wonder whether it would be possible administratively to have a review of each of these cases at, say, six months so that the officer could look again at the question of relevance to normal earnings in the area. There might he changes in the area. There might be changes in the employment pattern in the district. There might be new circumstances for the family. It might then be possible for the officer, looking at the case every six months at least, to find other supplementary ways of bringing the kind of discretionary assistance which should be possible.