I beg to move,
That the Family Income Supplements (Computation) Regulations 1977, a draft of which was laid before this House on 3rd March, be approved.
I understand that it will be for the convenience of the House, and particularly hon. Members who take an interest in these matters, if we discuss in the same debate all the other motions relating to social security, as follows:
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Social Security (Child Benefit Consequential) Regulations 1977 (S.I., 1977, No. 342), dated 1st March 1977, a copy of which was laid before this House on 11th March, be annulled.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Social Security (Child Benefit Consequential) Amendment Regulations 1977 (S.I., 1977, No. 417), dated 7th March 1977, a copy of which was laid before this House on 11th March, be annulled.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Pneumoconiosis, Byssionosis and Miscellaneous Diseases Benefit (Amendment) Scheme 1977 (S.I., 1977, No. 380), dated 4th March 1977fi, a copy of which was laid before this House on 11th March, be annulled.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Social Security Benefit (Dependency) Regulations 1977 (S.I., 1977, No. 343), dated 1st March 1977, a copy of which was laid before this House on 11th March, be annulled.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Family Income Supplements (General) Amendment Regulations 1977 (S.I., 1977, No. 324), dated 1st March 1977, a copy of which was laid before this House on 7th March, be annulled.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Social Security (Industrial Injuries) (Benefit) Amendment Regulations 1977 (S.I., 1977, No. 341), dated 1st March 1977, a copy of which was laid before this House on 11th March, be annulled.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When the Lord President announced the business on Monday he mentioned these regulations but did not mention any of the Prayers now on the Order Paper. Therefore, Back Benchers had no warning that the Prayers were to be taken today until they picked up their Order Papers this morning. It is a little unfair on those who take an interest in these matters not to have more warning.
There is a more serious point arising from this. Because the Prayers have been rushed on to the Order Paper there is not the usual rubric saying that the Statutory Instruments have not been dealt with completely by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. There is no Standing Order that the rubrics should appear, but we see on the Order Papjer in relation to the EEC orders that the position of the Joint Committee is duly noted.
The Joint Committee has not completed its consideration of Statutory Instrument 1977 No. 342 and Statutory Instrument 1977 No. 417. According to convention, that should have been noted on the Order Paper. The Select Committee has asked for evidence from officials of the Department on those two Statutory Instruments. It is very inconvenient if we are to debate them without knowing that evidence and without the House having any report from the Joint Committee on those two Statutory Instruments. The question to the Department is whether those Statutory Instruments may be ultra vires in certain respects.
The Joint Committee has not completed its consideration of Statutory Instrument 1977 No. 380, but the Department is not concerned there; it is merely a matter of further advice from Mr. Speaker's Counsel. However, these matters should have been noted on the Order Paper, according to convention. I wish to call attention to the omission from the Order Paper of what we have become accustomed to calling "the rubrics".
I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman for the omission of the rubric. I do not know the reason. I do not deal with these matters, which are not a direct responsibility of my Department.
With regard to the ultra vires point raised by the right hon. Gentleman, I shall need to refer to those who know about these matters to satisfy myself whether the Statutory Instruments in question are in order.
Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that it will be possible for the question of the announcement on Monday to be drawn to the attention of the Leader of the House. It was known—it had been made known through the usual channels—that it was the Opposition's wish to take all the prayers together, because the whole lot are related to child benefit, when the FIS regulations were taken. We indicated that we wanted the debate on the Floor of the House, and not upstairs.
I hope that note will be taken that what has happened is very unhelpful for hon. Members. I was not in the House for the statement on Monday, but I assumed that all this would have been said. I and my colleagues who are principally concerned knew about the matter because we had made the request, but it is inconvenient for hon. Members not to know when many prayers are to be taken with the affirmative motion, so that they have time to prepare themselves to take part in the debate. It is important that this should not happen again.
Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Joint Committee meets on Tuesday, and if the announcement had been made on Monday I am sure that the Department would have put itself out to send officials to give evidence then, so that the House might know by today the answers to the points that the Committee wanted to put to the officials. The problems could have been solved if that announcement had been made on Monday.
I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to the remarks of the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) and the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin).
In order that we may have a reasonable discussion—we are considering seven regulations altogether—it may be helpful to indicate how I intend to proceed.
The central issue of this debate must be the draft Family Income Supplements (Computation) Regulations, together with the Family Income Supplement (General) Amendment Regulations 1977, which are needed to complete the modifications to the FIS scheme in time for the beginning of the child benefit scheme on 4th April. The remaining five sets of regulations I will come to later, and will attempt to deal with them all together. Before mentioning some of the details of the computation regulations, there are two preliminary points that I ought to make.
The first is that FIS was conceived by the last Conservative Government as a simple scheme, and we propose to keep it so. Nevertheless, the introduction of a universal benefit such as child benefit, coupled with a gradual withdrawal of child tax allowances, is bound to have an effect on the formula for the calculation of FIS, and I know that this has led to confusion in some quarters. I have therefore prepared a brief explanation of the FIS rules and how we propose to apply them in the child benefit era. Some hon. Members may already have copies of this note; further copies can be obtained from the Whips' Offices. I hope that hon. Members who wish to follow the proposed changes as I describe them will find it easier to do so by reference to this note.
The second preliminary point is that at present the prescribed amounts and maximum payments are specified in Sections 2 and 3 of the Family Income Supplements Act 1970, as amended by computation regulations at each FIS uprating. Schedule 4 to the Child Benefit Act 1975 amends the Family Income Supplements Act so that, following the introduction of the child benefit scheme, the prescribed amounts and maximum payments are to be specified in regulations, subject to two conditions. The only one that I need mention is that the prescribed amounts, which will apply from 5th April, must not be less than the basic prescribed amount immediately before the commencement of the child benefit scheme. In other words, any changes in the FIS formula needed to take account of the introduction of child benefit could not include a reduction in the basic prescribed amount of £39.
Will it be possible in some way to publish the note—which the hon. Gentleman kindly let a number of us have before the debate—on the effect of FIS on child benefit? I feel that it will not be clear to other hon. Members who are trying to answer the inquiries of their constituents about exactly what is happening unless we can have that statement, which is five or six pages long and has three detailed tables at the back, made fully available to hon. Members and not just left in the Whips' Offices, where, with respect, papers tend to get lost. There are also many people outside the House who need to make these calculations in order to advise their clients. They do not have access to our Whips' Offices. Can the hon. Gentleman make some arrangement for publishing the paper in full?
I take the point. I am not sure about publication as a pamphlet or booklet, and I am not certain that that would necessarily be desirable in any case. But I undertake to do what one perhaps should already have done—to place copies in The Library as well as in the Whips' Offices. This has come at rather short notice, and we prepared the document only fairly recently.
As the House knows, I am not adverse to sending things to all hon. Members. I have just sent something about the married women's option personally to all 635 Members, and I must forbear from undertaking a similar task again at least until my arm has recovered from the experience. But I take seriously the point made by the hon. Lady and, with my officials, I shall examine what further publicity can be given. I cannot promise to publish a pamphlet, but I hope that putting copies in the Library, or making more copies available, will be sufficient.
The hon. Lady mentioned outside bodies. This is not a secret document. I would have thought that either the major outside bodies could ask for it or, if the hon. Lady likes, we could send it to those most interested. I think that that would meet the point that she has made.
I am thinking of bodies such as Gingerbread and the Child Poverty Action Group, which have expressed considerable concern about what is happening over upratings. If they could be sent the paper forthwith, it would save a lot of correspondence that the hon. Gentleman will have to answer.
I take the point. If we can confine the circulation of the document to the major organisations which we know have queries, I think that that will be helpful.
These draft computation regulations specify the prescribed amounts and maximum payments that will apply from 5th April. Regulation 2 specifies that the basic prescribed amount will be £39, the same as it is now, and that the step will be reduced by £1, from £4·50 to £3·50. I shall explain later why we are proposing this reduction, but suffice it to say now that it is bound up with the disregard of child benefit as income for FIS, which is effected by Regulation 2(1) of the Family Income Supplements (General) Amendment Regulations 1977. Regulation 3 of the computation regulations provides for the maximum payment for a family with one child to continue to be £8·50, with an addition of 50p for each child after the first.
Hon. Members will have noted that Regulation 4 of these regulations also provides for an increase of £2·50 in the basic prescribed amount from 19th July; I shall come to the July proposals in a moment. But first let me deal with the changes we propose to make in April.
The first change is that, as explained in paragraph 10 of the note, child benefit and child benefit increase will not count as part of the family's gross income. The second change is that the step in the prescribed amount will be reduced by £1—from £4·50 to £3·50. Examples of the two calculations, one as it is now, the other as it will be from April, are given in the note—examples A and B, respectively. The effect of these changes on FIS awards current in April is set out in tables 1, 2 and 3 of the note. Hon. Members will see that there will be some small increases in the levels of these awards.
The overall effect of the FIS, child benefit and child tax allowances changes in April for tax-paying families is set out in tables 4, 5, and 6. I hope that these tables in particular will have demonstrated to the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford how the figures that he mentioned in the child benefit debate on 9th February are derived.
Ideally, families on means-tested benefits should break even when child benefits are introduced, since we do not wish to reduce the overall level of support that these selective benefits give to the poorest families. But, in reviewing FIS—and this applies throughout the whole complex of means-tested benefits—our aim has been to ensure as far as practicable that the improvement in universal benefit does not leave those already dependent on means-tested benefits actually worse off at the changeover point.
I know that this aim is fully shared by Opposition Members—certainly they have made much of it at various times. For example, in the debate on child benefit regulations on 30th July 1976 the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford was very concerned about the position of people who might be worse off, and in the same debate the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) said:
There will have to be amendments to the regulations and a change in the basis upon which FIS, rate rebates and rent allowances are assessed. I hope, therefore, that the Minister of State will confirm that the Secretary of State is not just saying that he will look at these things, but that action will actually be taken by the Government to make sure that no one is worse off next year. If we cannot have that, and if the Minister of State is unable to tell the House that no one will be worse off next year if he is in the FIS bracket, the Government scheme is a disgrace, remains a disgrace and will be a disgrace
when it is introduced."—[Official Report, 30th July 1976; Vol. 916, c. 1145.]
But the right hon. Gentleman has also pressed upon us the importance of preserving the principle that improvements in universal benefit should reduce dependence on means testing.
The Government share this view—indeed it is embodied in the very concept of the child benefit scheme. But the right hon. Gentleman appears to think that the two aims can be achieved simultaneously and in full. Given the complex structure of the various means-tested benefits that we have inherited, this cannot be done, but our proposals do secure this result as far as is practicable.
FIS is at the heart of this complex, partly because it is a passport to certain other means-tested benefits, such as free school meals, free milk and vitamins. The solution that we have adopted here is to disregard child benefit and make the necessary offset by reducing the step in the prescribed amount. That deals with the core of the problem—