Orders of the Day — Social Fund (Maternity and Funeral Expenses) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:04 pm on 5th February 1987.

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Photo of Mrs Virginia Bottomley Mrs Virginia Bottomley , South West Surrey 6:04 pm, 5th February 1987

I am at something of a loss to know how to respond. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) talks about a kick in the teeth for families in crisis, but I have always felt, ever since I took my first job working for the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), that the families who are constantly kicked in the teeth are those working on low incomes. It is precisely those who are not receiving supplementary benefit or income support who stand to benefit most from many of the changes in the Social Security Act 1986 and from the modifications that are being made to the death and maternity grants. It is to precisely those people that I want to refer.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West referred to the contributory principle. I was not sure whether he would develop this argument and say that in order to protect the contributory principle and to ensure that all those with maternity or funeral needs should be properly provided for he would extend maternity and death grants — at the rate of £80 for maternity grants and several hundred pounds for funeral grants — to all those who had contributed, in which case the £28 billion spending programme appears likely to cause older people much more anxiety than their present very real concern of sonic of them that they may be unable to meet their funeral costs.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the Government's attitude to the welfare state in terms of knocking down an edifice. The welfare state has developed in recent years in such a way that now it is rather like a chaotic, higgledy-piggledy housing estate through which it is quite impossible to find one's way, with muggers around every corner. Coherent, clear planning, so that people know what benefits are available and how they can be obtained, is long overdue. In my view, that is precisely what the Social Security Act has sought to achieve.

The hon. Gentleman also read out a list of benefits that he suggested the Government are modifying. I should be interested to know whether he can recite the precise details, thresholds and amounts of each and every one of those series of benefits. I could not do so. I doubt whether even the respected hon. Member for Birkenhead could go through precisely all those benefits and describe how they work.

The complexity of the present system leads inevitably to unfairnesses and to the need for an army of welfare rights advisers to help people to discover how the single payments system works. It has led to enormous inequalities in different parts of the country, dependent on whether one is clever enough to work out these vast complexities by going through paragraphs of regulations and matching one's predicament to all those regulations.

The social fund is both a much more flexible and a much more simple response. Above all, it will be understood much more clearly by ordinary claimants, as opposed to welfare specialists. That is a laudable goal. At the same time, more help will be given to that long overlooked group of people, those who are on low incomes.

The new help that is to be provided for funeral expenses will be much more realistic. The £30 grant hardly covers the cost of two bouquets of flowers. Many people suffer great anxiety about how to finance a funeral under the existing arrangements. Ludicrous restrictions are placed on those payments concerning the relationship of the claimant to the deceased. Furthermore, if there is deemed to be money in the estate, even though it is inaccessible. claimants are not entitled to help. The death of a relative causes an emotional crisis for many people. It can also create a financial crisis until the financial position of the deceased finally emerges. These arrangements will ensure that more people will benefit and that those involved will be provided with a sensible and realistic benefit.

I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister referred to widows, on the basis of the case that was mentioned earlier. The fact that the widow's £1,000 will be entirely disregarded, let alone the value of any property that may have been left by the spouse, will make a substantial difference.