I visited the family credit unit at Blackpool on 30 May 1991 and was delighted to be able to mark the 2 millionth award of family credit since the scheme started in 1988 and to put on record, as I do this afternoon, my appreciation to the staff for all their efforts in delivering this high-quality benefit.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the average family in need now receives about £30 a week in family credit compared with about £11 a week under the old income supplement scheme? Is not that evidence of our ability to deliver to families in social need and does not it compare favourably with the wild and uncosted promises from the Labour party?
My hon. Friend adverts to the fact that Opposition Members have a policy of allowing family credit to wither on the vine. In putting the fertiliser on the roots, we have been able to ensure that the take-up of the benefit has grown to a record caseload of 328,000 people. The figures that my hon. Friend quoted about the awards made are entirely correct.
Is the Minister satisfied with the speed with which applications are dealt, especially those concerning the self-employed? The procedures there seem to be so bureaucratic that many families are left on the breadline. There may be a back payment once a decision is reached, but that is no consolation to such families.
The performance of the family credit unit is the subject of continual concern and of continual monitoring by the Benefits Agency. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that in March the performance target of dealing with all claims in about 18 days was exceeded, although subsequently some operational difficulties have caused a one-day delay. In general, the cases of the self-employed present particular complexities. That is what the research to which I referred a moment ago is designed to cure. I give the hon. Lady the assurance that we will do all that we can to deal with the problem to which she has rightly drawn my attention.
Why has not the Minister linked the questions on family credit?
The Minister talks about 2 million successful applications for family credit. What do those figures represent in percentage terms? Is it anywhere near the 80 per cent. claimed by Ministers three or four years ago? What are the Government doing to persuade more people to apply for family credit? What advertisements are being placed in local papers to attract those who are entitled to claim family credit because of their lousy wages?
I chose not to link the questions because we give, I hope, service from the Dispatch Box and we like to respond to every question put to us by hon. Members. The hon. Gentleman shows the assiduity of his attendance in the House by the fact that he was unable to be in front of his television set during February and March. If he had, he would have seen our latest advertising campaign, which drew people's attention to a message printed in 6·8 million child benefit order books, or on the automatic credit transfer letter, giving to every family with children a detailed message about the family credit to which they might be entitled. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the cost of that advertising campaign—£1·5 million to reach 6·87 million families—was damn good value for money.
Our latest estimate is that there is potential for about 65,000 families where a parent is currently working between 16 and 24 hours to gain from the change in the hours rule. In addition, this should also encourage more people to take up employment and so improve their income with the help of family credit.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. What is the maximum that a lone parent with, say, two children under the age of 11 can earn? Does he agree that the Government have eradicated the benefit precipice for lone parents and replaced it with the excellent bridge of family credit, thus encouraging more lone parents back to work?
In my speech on the Second Reading of the Child Support Bill I referred to example 10 in the White Paper "Children Come First", which is a clear exposition of the benefits of our proposal. It shows that a lone parent with a child could be much better off in work with family credit and at the same time meet about £45 of in-work costs. Our proposals reduce a person's step-up from income support back into work and are a worthwhile development.
Does the Minister agree that it is misleading to say that there are 2 million recipients of family credit because each applicant has to apply every six months and many people are being counted three or four times? Is not it also highly misleading to quote the number of applications for family credit when there is a 42 per cent. turndown of applicants? Is not it equally misleading to draw a comparison with the previous family income supplement figures when many of the benefits under the previous regime were cut in the 1988 review? When will the Government give straight answers to straight questions?
In about one second. I do not choose to mislead the House by one iota. I have made it abundantly clear that my answers are about the number of successful awards. Anybody who looks at those will see how the figures are constructed. This benefit has enabled us to put £1·4 billion to the benefit of people in low-income employment to help them to maintain their position in the workplace. I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman's figure of 42 per cent. However, I recognise that 70 per cent. of present applicants for family credit are successful.