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Part of Orders of the Day — Social Security Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 20th May 1986.

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Photo of Mr Archy Kirkwood Mr Archy Kirkwood , Roxburgh and Berwickshire 8:45 pm, 20th May 1986

We have been privileged to listen to a brave speech by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) who is renowned for his work as the joint chairman of the all-party pensioners committee. He would have been doing less than justice to his past work if he had not made the speech that he has just made. I am delighted to follow him.

I have just finished my first Standing Committee on social security, and I wish to pay tribute to the Government Front Bench, especially the Minister of State. Although we may not have agreed with his explanations. he presented them lucidly. I also wish to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett). The burden of the Committee's work fell on their shoulders. It might be stretching the point a bit far to say that I enjoyed the Committee proceedings, but I certainly never found that my time was wasted, and we all learnt a great deal from our discussions.

The Government, in my submission, have made a number of mistakes. They made the first one early on. When the guillotine was imposed in Committee the guts fell out of the proceedings, and that has certainly been true on Report where we have not done justice to the work done during the early stages of the Committee. My conclusion from that is that the Government were mistaken in trying to put three separate Bills into one. The Secretary of State stipulated clearly the three major aims of the measure: a major reform of pensions, a major reform of the income support system, and a major clarification and alteration to the common provisions of the appeal machinery. The Bill has suffered because the Government included all three, and I regret that. The Government should learn that lesson for the future.

I regret that there was no real and objective attempt during the review to assess needs. There was a consultation procedure, but many Opposition Members believed that it was a bit of a charade. The Government would have done themselves more credit if they had assessed the level of need. We would all have had a fright if they had done that and presented the figures because the need is, perhaps, much greater than even we on the Opposition Benches imagine it is. But that omission made our discussions much more difficult.

The Government were wrong to rely so heavily on the need for regulations. I fully understand the need to introduce subordinate social security legislation by statutory instruments but the extent to which the Bill is founded on regulations that will come as a consequence of the primary legislation is a mistake and is to be regretted.

Throughout our discussions during the various stages our work has been made more difficult by the tentative nature of the Government's indicative figures. It is difficult for them to do much about that when the Bill is being discussed so far in advance of it being implemented. However, it would have been better had they been able to have the discussions nearer the time when the Bill was being brought into force, when we would be able to discuss real figures and not the estimates of potential losers and gainers.

The Government have not taken proper account of the fact that the Bill breaks the consensus that has been reached between both sides of the House in social security legislation, and particularly pensions legislation, over the past 15 or 20 years. The Government have underestimated the uncertainty, administrative chaos and financial difficulties that will flow from the fact that, as of this evening, all bets are off and the social security system and the machinery for delivering it are back in the party political cauldron. That is not in anybody's interest.

I listened carefully to the Secretary of State, who said that he had two aims. The first was that he wanted to concentrate on those in need, and the second was that he wanted a more simple system. I understand both of those aims, but, on a nil-cost basis, it is impossible to make the system more simple and get fairer and better targeting because they are in direct conflict. Better targeting needs to take account of individual need and to be done well needs extra resources, especially if the system is at the same time to become more simple.

The Bill is a missed opportunity and the alliance view is that we should embrace the technical difficulties of moving towards the integration of the taxation and benefit systems and attempt to unify them. I am confident that, in my political lifetime, I shall see such a reform introduced.

I have doubts about some of the detailed aspects of the Bill and the alliance will be looking carefully at them. As the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) said, we may put the Bill on the statute book and then find ourselves facing an election. The first doubt concerns the position of single people under the age of 25. I understand that the Government have to strike a balance on how support is delivered to young people, but the age of 25 as a cut-off point is unjustified, arbitrary, unnecessary and unfair. That proposal is unacceptable and I shall do everything in my power to persuade my party to change it. The long-term unemployed without children or dependants will still be in a dire position after the introduction of the Bill, and that is unacceptable, as is the 20 per cent. contribution towards the rates for those on income support. The hon. Member for Kemptown rightly referred to that point.

I hope that the commitment that the Secretary of State gave us on the stroke of midnight last night—I thought that he was about to turn into Cinderella—of further consultations and the delivery of family credit by girocheque to the caring parent is fulfilled. It would be unacceptable to leave the Bill as it stands in this regard. A means-tested death grant is unacceptable, and I tried to amend this proposal in Committee. The Government should have accepted my compromise.

The social fund, even with the new clause that the Government introduced yesterday, is unacceptable and we could not countenance the introduction of anything like a social fund in its present form, because of the difficulty of single payments. I am still not satisfied with the regional disparities, as the incidence of the cuts will fall heavily on places such as Northern Ireland, Scotland and some of the other deprived regions. I should change a number of the Bill's significant aspects if I had any influence on such matters in the future.

The Government must not be tempted, between now and bringing the Bill into effect, to chip away with piecemeal cuts just to try to discount the financial agony that will come about if and when the Bill is eventually introduced. That would be unfair and unjustified. When the Secretary of State introduces the regulations that will flow from the Bill, we shall scrutinise them line by line to try to make the improvements that the Bill still needs.