The Social Fund

Part of Orders of the Day — Schedule 3 – in the House of Commons at 9:15 pm on 14th March 1988.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook , Livingston 9:15 pm, 14th March 1988

I beg to move amendment (a) to the Lords amendment, in line 3, at end insert 'or accepted by a social fund officer'. The Opposition retain their strong objections to the social fund on the ground of principle. Those objections have been well established in previous debates, but the fact that, at this late stage, less than a full month before the social fund becomes operational, we are debating another five amendments to the primary legislation setting it up, demonstrates more vividly than anything we could say how shaky and imperfect the structure of the social fund is.

Our objections fall into two categories. I shall briefly rehearse them, but I shall not detain the House for long, because some of my hon. Friends may wish to speak. It is entirely wrong that help for the poorest in society should now come by way of loans rather than grants. If the Government accept that claimants from the social fund need help, they should not oblige them to pay for the help out of their own budgets.

Secondly, it is wholly illogical that such a fund should be cash-limited. If the Government accept — it appears to be the basis of the social fund — that it is there to meet need, and it is clear from the draft manual of guidance that it must he real and desperate need, claimants should not be put in the intolerable position of being told, as some of them may well be, that they qualify and meet all the criteria, but the money available in a particular office that month does not allow them to be included in the priority categories that will receive grant. Payment should be based on whether a claimant qualifies under the criteria, not on whether an office has a sufficient store of money left for the rest of the month.

These objections remain fundamental. The social fund is objectionable and when it is implemented in a month's time it will readily produce a stream of horror stories that will make many Conservative Members who voted for it Start running for cover when confronted by constituents who have been affected by being refused loans from the social fund.

I refer to three new pieces of evidence that confirm our objections and show how solidly based were the arguments that we advanced on the two previous occasions since the turn of the year when we debated the matter.

First, we had a parliamentary answer, provided, I think, by the Under-Secretary of State to my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen), about the reduction in single payments. The Under-Secretary has repeatedly defended the cash limit on the social fund as preserving the current level of expenditure on single payments. That answer to my hon. Friend dramatically demonstrates the extent to which the expenditure on single payments has decreased over the past year.

9.30 pm

My hon. Friend asked the Minister to give the expenditure for the six months to October 1986 and for the six months to October 1987. The figures show that expenditure fell from £29 million in the six months to October 1986 to £15 million in the six months to October 1987. That was within my hon. Friend's region. That clearly demonstrates a very rapid reduction of about 50 per cent. It reflects the extent to which, under the Government, and as a result of the new criteria introduced in the summer of 1986, it is very much more difficult to obtain a single payment.

Secondly, the evidence of what that means in human terms is spelt out in the report published by the Child Poverty Action Group entitled Single payments: the disappearing safety net. I have time to read only one paragraph, but it is one worth sharing with the House because it demonstrates the desperation of people who are now being turned away. It says: Parents are taking children with splinters in their feet to advice agencies only to be told that floor coverings are no longer necessary household items. Families with young children are told that a cooker is unnecessary and they can live on Cuppa soup, sandwiches or fish and chips or that three pairs of socks are an adequate substitute for a pair of shoes. Claimants are supposed to make do with dangerous second-hand cookers. They are the kind of situations that are becoming increasingly commonplace and which we are willing to countenance in the midst of an affluent society. That was written on the basis of information provided by people all over the country to citizens rights offices and citizens advice bureaux — the people who are currently being refused single payments.

When the Government tell us that the cash limit on the social fund preserves the current expenditure on single payments, they are saying that they have reduced single payments to a floor. Now, with the social fund, they will turn that floor into a ceiling of maximum expenditure. Over the past two years, there has been a major reduction in the amount of help available to families receiving single payments which the social fund will now institutionalise as a cash limit.

The third and last piece of new information to which I shall refer and which confirms our criticism of that cash limit was provided by the Under-Secretary of State in the debate on Thursday instigated by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle). It was a debate on poverty and low pay and it took place during the proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (No. 3) Bill. I noticed that in his reply the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security gave as one of the reasons for ending single payments and introducing the social fund the fact that in 1984, which I presume was the last year for which he had figures, only one in five claimants who might have qualified obtained a single payment.

I fully agree with the Under-Secretary that the present take-up rate is extremely uneven. We can see that demonstrated every time a local authority starts a take-up campaign, because there is a large increase in the number of single payments. It is precisely because the take-up rate is so uneven and so much below 100 per cent. — probably it does not even approximate 20 per cent.— that it is entirely wrong to take the present level of expenditure and then turn it into a cash limit ceiling.

I have strong feelings about this matter, as well I might, because my constituency faces the largest cut. The Bathgate local office, which meets the needs of my constituents, has a different experience from that described by the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) as the experience of his DHSS office. We had a budget of £2·25 million for expenditure on single payments in 1986–87. Next year we will have a cash limit on our social fund of £750,000—one third the level of expenditure of only two years ago. When we compare that with the amount available by way of grants rather than loans, we see that we have only £250,000 compared with expenditure of £2·25 million in grants two years ago. Collectively, that represents a cut in the benefits available to claimants in my constituency of £2 per head per week. That is a real cut in their standard of living.

For all those reasons, we wish to reiterate our strong-rooted objections to the social fund. However, we are happy to try to make the amendments presented to us as unobjectionable as humanly possible. That is why we have tabled our amendment to the Lords amendment. The Lords amendment provides, for the first time, that applicants may be required to submit their claim in a prescribed form. Until now, nobody has thought it necessary that there should be a prescribed form in order to submit a claim. I am bound to say that it is difficult to see why it should now be thought that we require a prescribed form.

I referred earlier to the suggestion by Ministers that it was a banking facility. The truth is that DHSS offices know more about their claimants than any bank manager. They know about a claimant's income in exhaustive detail. They retain the right, which no bank manager does, to send someone round to check up in the middle of the night if they feel like it. How much more do they need to know by way of a prescribed form?

Of course it is entirely proper and reasonable that the social fund officer should have the right to refuse an application that he does not think is in acceptable form. However, it is entirely wrong to oblige him to refuse it because it is not in the prescribed form. Therefore, we have tabled what I regard as an extremely modest amendment. It would enable the social fund officer to accept an application if it is in a form acceptable to him.

As I have said, it is a modest amendment, and I hope that the Minister will recognise its modesty by giving it a fair hearing and a fair wind. Today's debate began with stress being placed on what an awkward bunch the Opposition are, how they cannot agree and, if they do, how they cannot keep an agreement. Let us test the Minister's spirit of compromise and invite him to end the proceedings on a note of agreement by accepting our amendment.