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Islington, North is one of six constituencies served for social security purposes by the Department's offices at Finsbury Park, Highgate and Hoxton. In May 1983, 41,373 people were receiving supplementary benefit from these three offices. In May this year this figures was 50,530.
Would the Minister care to reflect on the fact that that represents a grave increase in poverty throughout the area concerned? What staffing cuts have there been at the three offices? Does the hon. and learned Gentleman accept that the staffing cuts have led to a high level of rent arrears among people on housing benefit and often to claims being wrongly assessed because there are insufficient staff to deal with them, leading consequently to great misery among the people of the area and to unacceptable delays in dealing with queues of urgent cases involving supplementary benefit allocations?
On the question of overall poverty, the hon. Gentleman should remember that since 1979 the volume of social security spending has risen by 35 per cent. and that nearly half that spending represents real increases in the average benefits paid to meet those needs. We recognise the staffing problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred. As a result, we have increased the complement for those three offices from 500 to 582 staff, and we are building towards that figure.
Does the Minister realise that the staffing increases proposed by his Department are totally inadequate to provide a proper, prompt and decent service to claimants in those offices serving not only the northern but the southern part of Islington'? What are the hon. and learned Gentleman's proposals to ensure that claimants are treated decently, properly, and promptly rather than as Dickensian supplicants?
We are anxious that all claimants should be treated properly, but I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman that an increase of 82 on 500—an increase in complement of some 25 per cent. at the Finsbury Park office—is totally inadequate. We are taking steps to ensure that the refurbishment of that office, which was improved last year, is maintained.
As many of those in greater poverty are the long-term unemployed, as their numbers are increasing and as the Government have told the Common Market, whatever they may tell the people of this country, that they expect that to continue, can the Minister tell us when the Government expect to pay the long-term unemployed the long-term rate of supplementary benefit and bring them up to the poverty line?
Our whole objective is to target our benefits towards those in real need. Those have been identified, above all, as families with low incomes. The House will know that our benefits have been targeted in that direction.