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It is with deep regret that I must say to my Front Bench colleagues that I do not believe that the Bill will stand the test of time. That is clear from the Opposition's statements, not least because a general election will take place before the Bill is fully implemented.
At the same time, I want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his colleagues. The Secretary of State is a dedicated and diligent Minister, but he has faced an impossible task. He was asked to reform the social security system—few hon. Members would deny that reforms are urgently needed—but he was not given the means with which to carry it out. Therefore, his brief could not possibly be effectively fulfilled. For that, one cannot blame him. My right hon. Friend will be remembered not as a great reformer but as a Secretary of State who had an impossible task and tragically was unable to fulfil it.
I cannot support a Bill which will create real hardship, and which will reduce the incomes of many elderly people. Therefore, I shall have no hesitation in voting against the Third Reading. It is utterly wrong to force pensioners on extremely low incomes to pay 20 per cent. of their rates without compensatory increases in their income and without any guarantee that the rating system will be basically altered and reformed. It is wrong substantially to reduce heating allowances for 1 million pensioner households, and to cut the housing benefit of up to 4 million pensioners.
I wish to refer to the standard housing benefit high rents scheme, and to tell the House of a specific case in Brighton. A retired couple live on a total income of £107 a week, and at present they receive £5·45 rent allowance. If the high rents scheme is abolished—I am not talking about the other proposed reductions in housing benefit—they will immediately lose £1·45 in benefit, and a large part of the balance will go with other reductions in housing benefit.
Social fund officers and inspectors will face an incredibly difficult task. I have little doubt that the operation of the fund will inevitably lead to a mass of anomalies. During the severe weather of the past two winters we saw the anomalies that arose in severe weather heating allowances. During the past winter officers responsible for deciding whether that allowance should be paid made different decisions at different branch offices no more than 10 miles apart. In future I can see such anomalies arising on these issues. Yet, despite all the responsibilities and difficulties faced by social fund officers, and despite the inevitable errors and anomalies that will occur, there will not be a right of appeal to an independent tribunal. I accept that the Government have made some concessions on appeals, but I deeply regret that there will not be the right of access to a completely independent tribunal.
A great opportunity has been missed. The Government will rue the day when they introduced the Bill.