Michael Meacher – 1986 Speech on Statutory Sick Pay

Below is the text of the speech made by Michael Meacher, the then Labour MP for Oldham West, in the House of Commons on 15 January 1986.

First let me make it clear that the uprating principle underlying the order is not in contention, but I wish briefly to use the debate to highlight two main issues where the Opposition remain distinctly critical. One is the experience of statutory sick pay as it has developed, especially in the light of its extension to 28 weeks from 6 April next, and the other is the proposed privatisation of other benefits where the example of statutory sick pay is being used as a model.

Our main objection is that the extension of statutory sick pay represents not only the abolition of state sickness benefit but the prolongation over a much longer period of all the disadvantages clearly manifest in this act of privatisation.

First, unlike sickness benefit—and we take a view of it different from the over-generous picture for employees given by the Minister—statutory sick pay is taxable and subject to deductions for national insurance contributions. Therefore, for many employees, especially those on low earnings, SSP means less money when they are unable to work because of sickness or disability. Indeed, for those on very low incomes, about £50 a week, the loss can be as hefty as £14 or £15 a week.

Nor is it any defence to say, as Ministers do—although the Minister did not do so tonight—that the low level of SSP is compensated for by supplementary benefit. Recent figures show that one third of sick or disabled people do not claim the supplementary benefit to which they are entitled. Perhaps that is the best indication of the inadequacy of SSP. Means-tested supplementary benefit should never be regarded as a satisfactory substitute for an adequate benefit as of right when people cannot work.

Ministers also like to evade the unsatisfactory nature of SSP by referring—as the Minister did tonight—to the number of occupational sick pay schemes. Of course, a few do exist, but many employees are not covered by them because they are generally run on a discretionary basis. In particular, part-time workers and others in low-paid jobs are frequently excluded.

A sign of the amount of loss of benefit from the extension of SSP is provided by the Government’s estimate of the so-called savings that will accrue in the next financial year—of the order of £200 million. Those savings are being made purely at the expense of the sick and disabled who are already having to cope with the extra costs of disability. It is surely wrong and unfair that employees will be paying out more in tax and national insurance contributions because of the extension of SSP, while employers will not be expected to pay any national insurance contribution for SSP payments.

Another matter for concern is that—

The Minister for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)

The hon. Gentleman plainly has not understood the financial basis of SSP. The saving of £200 million is a saving to public expenditure, but it is almost precisely counterbalanced by the revenue forgone from the national insurance fund in compensation for the payments by employers to employees. The notion that either the original introduction of SSP or its extension entail losses to beneficiaries of the sort suggested by the hon. Gentleman is, quite simply, wrong.

Mr. Meacher

The figures are not so very different from what I have suggested. The Minister is right to say that there is an offset, and I wholly accept that. But there are substantial disadvantages to employees. The figure that I am quoting is the public expenditure figure that appears in the Government’s public expenditure papers.

Does the Minister deny that, if employees are to pay substantially more in tax and national insurance contributions, there will be a significant disadvantage for them? Does he deny that as a result of the scheme, many on the lowest levels of income—about £40, £50 or £60 a week—are suffering substantial losses that can be as much as £14 or £15 a week?

Another matter for concern is that the rate of unemployment is already higher among the disabled than among the work force as a whole. An extension of SSP, with the additional administrative burden on employers, is all too likely to lead to discrimination against workers with poor health records.
Indeed, there are other disadvantages to SSP. It has involved a much harsher linking than that applying to sickness benefit, although that is now to be changed.

Moreover, because it is administered by employers—that is not to be changed—and not by the DHSS, there are no powers, short of taking the employer to court, to ​ enforce payment of statutory sick pay by employers. If an adjudication officer, social security appeal tribunal or a social security commissioner issues a formal decision that a person is entitled to statutory sick pay, the DHSS cannot force a recalcitrant employer to pay the correct amount to the employee. Employees in unorganised workplaces, particularly part-time workers or those in low-paid jobs, are vulnerable to harassment by employers in relation to absence through sickness, given the leeway that the DHSS has now given to employers.

There is no protection for employees who are dismissed by their employers so that the latter can avoid paying them statutory sick pay. Extending statutory sick pay in April will increase the employee’s exposure to unscrupulous manoeuvres by some employers.

For those reasons, we contend that statutory sick pay, which was introduced almost without warning and with perfunctory consultation, has worked to the detriment of employees in a variety of ways.

There are good grounds for the fear that the introduction of statutory sick pay will be used as a wedge in the door of further moves to hive off state responsibility for social security benefits. Evidence of further intended privatisation by the Government emerged on 19 December when the DHSS issued a consultation paper on statutory maternity allowance. That proposed that responsibility for paying maternity allowance—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying wide of the order. I have given him a lot of rope, but he must not discuss maternity pay.

Mr. Meacher

I am not seeking to introduce a debate on maternity allowance, but I am making the valid point that the introduction of statutory sick pay is being used as a model for further extending the privatisation of social security benefits. I wish to make one or two other brief comments related to that, but I do not seek to discuss that argument in depth because it is to be discussed in another place.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That can be left to another place because the order is about uprating statutory sick pay, not the principle, which the House has already decided.

Mr. Meacher

I accept that, but it is important that this is being used as a model for further privatisation. It suggests that statutory maternity allowance should be paid at the lowest rate of statutory sick pay—£31·60 a week in April 1986 terms—regardless of earnings. Statutory maternity allowance and statutory sick pay should not in general link to the same period of interruption in work. A further act of privatisation is now to be carried out on the model of statutory sick pay, despite all its drawbacks, but in this case it will be on even meaner terms with only one level of benefit instead of three, and that will be the lowest statutory sick pay level.

We do not dispute the uprating basis in the order, but we want to place firmly on record our strong condemnation, not only of the principle of the privatisation of social security benefits, but of the manifest disadvantages for the employee that this has been shown to involve. We oppose the extension of the principle, with its disadvantages to other benefits such as statutory maternity allowance.

If the Government do not take note of our objections, I give notice that when we come to power we shall deal with them rapidly.

Michael Meacher – 1985 Speech on Child Benefit

Below is the text of the speech made by Michael Meacher, the then Labour MP for Oldham West, in the House of Commons on 27 June 1985.

I beg to move,

That this House strongly condemns the Government’s breach of their own repeated promises to increase Child Benefit in line with inflation which will result in mothers and children being deprived of £175 million in the current year as the first of the Green Paper cuts; notes that Child Benefit is uniquely effective in countering family poverty, reducing the poverty trap and ensuring that mothers are the recipients of monies needed for child care; and therefore calls upon the Government to restore the real value of Child Benefit both now and for the future.

Our case in this debate is very simple and very clear. It is that child benefit is uniquely effective in countering family poverty, in reducing the poverty trap and in ensuring that the person who receives the money necessary for caring for the children is the mother. It was a Labour Government who brought in child benefit and, for the reasons that I have just given, we believe strongly that it is a key benefit, central to our social security system, which should be built up and not cut back. It is a benefit which has attracted widespread endorsement.

I offer at the outset one or two quotations. My first is this:

“We would all, I suspect, like to see an increase in child benefit; I think that it is one of the most effective ways in which you can deal with the problem of poverty and the problem of bringing help to children.”

I am sure that we would all say “Heat, hear” to that. Those were the words not of a Labour Minister, but of the present Secretary of State for Social Services when speaking to the Treasury and Civil Service Sub-Committee on 28 July 1982. That was when he still believed in child benefit, just as, when he set up the pensions inquiry, he.still believed in the state earnings-related pension scheme.

If child benefit was, in the Secretary of State’s own words,

“one of the most effective ways”

of dealing with the problem of poverty, does the downgrading now of child benefit mean that the Government are repudiating that objective? The Secretary of State does not appear to want to reply now. No doubt he will do so later.

On 28 June 1983 the Prime Minister said that the Government’s real increase in child benefit then was

“evidence of our commitment to the family.”—[Official Report, 28 June 1983; Vol. 44, c. 49.]

Quite so, but does this latest princely increase of 15p—which is less than one third of the rate of inflation—now indicate that the Government’s commitment to the family is somewhat wilting? That is another question to which we would like an answer today.

I offer a third quotation:

“It plays a major part in easing the unemployment trap, and so in our strategy of improving incentives for everyone. It is important for families, and particularly for the low paid. Indeed, ​ it is the benefit which provides the greatest help to many of the poorest families in the country. I refer, of course, to child benefit.”—[Official Report, 15 March 1983; Vol. 39, c. 143.]

Again that is not some Child Poverty Action Group enthusiast, as one might think, but the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe), the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 1983.

If child benefit is so effective in all these roles, according to Ministers, why is it being sidelined now? If all those unsolicited panegyrics applied in 1982 and 1983, why do they not apply now?

The Secretary of State’s justification for his backtracking on child benefit was stated by him in his answer to me a week ago, when he said:

“The first priority must be to give help to families in greatest need.”—[Official Report, 18 June 1985; Vol. 81, c. 177.]

It would indeed be a seductive argument if it were true, but it is not. It simply does not reflect what the Secretary of State has done, for three good reasons.
First, only a fraction—about 16 per cent.—of the £175 million saved from the child benefit cut is being used to improve benefits for low-income families.

The improvement in family income supplement will cost just £17 million, and the housing benefit child’s needs allowance £12 million — which had in any case originally been promised for April this year. So the Government are not transferring resources at all; they are cutting benefit to mothers by £150 million.

Secondly, cutting child benefit and spending more on FIS, which is the Government’s strategy, does not concentrate resources on the poorest families. It has the opposite effect. It cannot be stated too often that take-up of child benefit is virtually 100 per cent., while FIS, because it is means-tested, reaches only about half of all the low-paid families which are eligible. Housing benefit is little better—the take-up there is about two thirds. So the losers from the right hon. Gentleman’s package are clear. They are those entitled to FIS but not claiming it, and that is about 200,000 of the poorest families, those with incomes just above the FIS eligibility levels, and mothers and children in families with reasonable incomes, but where the income is not shared fairly. Far from being helped by what the Government have done, those families will be the hardest hit.

There is a third important reason, if one follows through the logic of the right hon. Gentleman’s package, why the outcome contradicts his own claims. It is that even those families which get the family income supplement will find that the so-called extra help that the Government are providing by increasing the FIS prescribed amount by more than 7 per cent. will be swallowed up by the loss of child benefit and the consequential changes in housing benefit.

I shall give an example which effectively demolishes the Government’s case. In March of this year the average FIS payment for a two-child family was £12, which implied an average wage of around £76 a week. Assuming that their earnings increase in line with inflation, this family’s FIS award will increase by £1 in real terms as a result of the higher FIS levels announced by the Government a week ago. However, at the same time, no less than 70p of this £1 increase will be snatched back by the cut in child benefit.

Indeed, the result will be even worse because of the infernal logic of the interconnection between means tested benefits. Because increases in FIS are taken into account ​ for calculating housing benefit, many parents will find that the gain in housing benefit due to the increased child’s needs allowance will be outweighed by the downward adjustment to housing benefit resulting from the higher FIS levels. The Secretary of State looks puzzled, but I hope he realises the logic of his own proposals. That is exactly what will happen even to those who get the fullest benefit of his increases.

The result of all that was the boast by the Secretary of State a week ago:

“The first aim is to direct help to the poorest … That is precisely what we are doing”.—[Official Report, 18 June 1985; Vol. 81, c. 177.]

That is not borne out by the facts. Indeed, the truth is the reverse. Downgrading child benefit and upgrading the odds and ends of means tested benefits at the margin does not bring the greatest help to the poorest families, but traps them even more deeply in their own poverty.

We know the Government’s real motive behind this child benefit cut. It has next to nothing to do with targeting the needy, which is Fowlerspeak for more means-testing. It has everything to do with cutting expenditure on benefits to safeguard future tax cuts, which, as usual, will go mainly to the better off and the rich.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow) rose—

Mr. Meacher

If the hon. Gentleman was in his place at the start and heard my argument, he knows how compelling it is. If it has a fault, I should like to know what it is. It contains the compelling fact that even those who will benefit most by the increase in FIS levels will probably lose in net terms, leaving aside those who, because they do not claim FIS, do not get the benefit.

Far from concentrating resources on poorer families, which will not happen as a result of this package the proposal paves the way for concentrating resources on the richer sections of society — a redistribution which has become the characteristic hallmark of Thatcherite Toryism. That connection was made absolutely explicit yesterday by the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he made a ringing call to bankers and business men at the Carlton Club in favour of further tax cuts at the expense of further public expenditure cuts, and child benefit is the first victim of that renewed Treasury drive.

Mr. Hayes

How can the hon. Gentleman say, hand on heart, looking at the figures, that the Government’s proposals are not designed to help families most in need, when he has not mentioned that one-parent benefit has increased by 7 per cent., that the child’s needs allowance has gone up to £15.40 a week, and that there is a new higher prescribed amount for families with older children?

Mr. Meacher

I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman ran away after a single day when he was setting up a new organisation in the Tory party, if those were the sorts of arguments that he had in mind. He obviously has not listened to my remarks. I mentioned the increases in housing benefit, in the child’s needs allowance and in the FIS prescribed amounts. I agree that for one-parent families the FIS increase is an improvement, but would the hon. Gentleman care to give the details of the increases and the number of families who will receive them? They are minuscule compared with the 12 million children who are losing 35p every week this year as a result of the cut in child benefit.

​This switch from public expenditure to taxation cuts has precious little justification. The Financial Times—scarcely a Left-wing publication—commented on 20 June, just after the Secretary of State announced his package:

“By looking for economies in the benefits but not in the tax allowances which form part of the welfare system, the Government is open to the charge of unfairness. The real value of child benefit, in reality a substitute for child tax allowances, is to be cut by nearly 5 per cent., yet the Chancellor recently raised the married man’s tax allowance, enjoyed by couples without children, by twice the rate of inflation.”

In truth, the married man’s tax allowance has been increased by about 17 per cent. — that is, if it was increased by the statutory price-linked formula which the Government use—whereas child benefit is 3 per cent. lower in real terms — that is, if it was pitched in accordance with that formula. That demonstrates how, long-term, the fiscal trend under Tory policies has worked against families.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

When does the hon. Gentleman intend to depart from the brief prepared by the Child Poverty Action Group? Is he aware that most of us have read it?

Mr. Meacher

I am pleased to hear that. I hope that many Conservative Members, including the Secretary of State, will read it, because it represents a devastating indictment of the Government’s social policies. If the Secretary of State read more documents such as that at bedtime, rather than the briefs from his Department, we might get better policies from him.

I quote again from the document, this time from the Conservative Women’s National Committee, the publications of which I do not normally read. In a passionate plea on behalf of child benefit, that organisation said:

“We recommend that as economic circumstances permit, child benefit is increased in line with increases in tax allowances, or at least protected against rising prices.”

Poor old Emma Nicholson. She really did her best among the upper echelons of Conservative women. Just her luck that the present Government are led by a women who happens to be more like a man. [HON. MEMBERS: “Sexist.”] I am sure that the Prime Minister will be delighted by that reaction from the Government Benches.

There is a further important reason why this attack on child benefit cannot be justified on the grounds of public expenditure costs, which is what I suspect the argument is really all about. Even if child benefit had been indexed fully in line with inflation—as we believe it should have been—expenditure on it would still be falling in real terms. That is because the number of children qualifying for it has been, and still is, falling. It fell by 1 million in the six years up to 1984, and that reduction saved about £300 million at present benefit rates. Moreover, the number will continue to decline in the immediate future because of the relatively low birth rates of the late 1960s.

All of that is in addition to the fact that the Conservatives have cut spending on child support since 1979 by allowing child benefit to fall below its 1979 level during the period up to the November 1983 uprating, and by the steady and continuing reduction in the real value of child support for national insurance beneficiaries. For those reasons, there is absolutely no excuse today, in expenditure terms, for chopping back child benefit even further.​

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

The hon. Gentleman referred to the position in 1979 and then carefully spoke of the November 1983 uprating. Is he aware that in that uprating, and in the November 1984 uprating, the resulting real value of child benefit was higher than in any year under any Labour Government back to 1951?

Mr. Meacher

Quite, and we are approaching November 1985. It is true that at November 1984 prices the value of child benefit rose to £6·85, the level from which it is now being increased. That is marginally, by 15p, above the level in April 1979. However, at November 1984 prices, in the same real terms, it is now to be lowered to £6·57. That is precisely our objection. Child benefit is not being increased steadily in line with rising prosperity and increasing growth, as we are always being told, but is being lowered.

There is even less excuse for any cut in child benefit. The Government are mortgaged to the hilt in terms of promises about child benefit. The previous Secretary of State for Social Services, the right hon, Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) said in 1980:

“We are committed to the child benefit system and it is our intention, subject to economic and other circumstances, to uprate child benefit each year to maintain its value.” — [Official Report, 28 July 1980. Vol. 989, c. 1063.]

Perhaps we should now ask: are the Government saying that the economy is in a worse shape than in 1980, so that the promise of the then Secretary of State no longer holds good? Otherwise, we should like to know how their actions are justified.

Equally important, I quote from the letter from the 38 organisations, including the National Federation of Women of Great Britain, to the Prime Minister in March this year. The letter reminded the Prime Minister of her pre-election assurance:

“there are no plans to make any changes to the basis on which child benefit is paid or calculated.”

Nothing could be more unequivocal than that. Moreover, the letter went on to say:

“In our view, the retention of child benefit, paid at a reduced level in real terms, alongside a restructured system of means-tested child support would mean a ‘change in the basis of that benefit’. The Government would be seen, we believe, to be paying lipservice only to the principle of a benefit for all children, and would be widely suspected of intending to allow the reduced universal benefit to decline in value until it withered away and was replaced entirely by means-tested provision.”

In a nutshell, that is exactly what is happening, despite all the Government’s solemn pledges which are churned out like confetti before an election and then disappear like snowflakes on a boiler after it.

What is most worrying is that this attack on child benefit is not a “blip”—to use a word which I believe is beloved of the Chancellor of the Exchequer—but part of a calculated long-term strategy on the part of the Government to run down child benefit. I quote from paragraph 4.49 of the Green Paper, which is a very important statement by the Government:

“The Government believe that it will be right to give greater priority to assistance for families in the income range covered by family credit than to the assistance given to families as a whole through child benefit. We will therefore have regard to the need to concentrate resources in this area … in determining the overall level of child benefit.”

That says it all. Today we are debating the beginning of the end of child benefit. All that I would add is that to embark on this strategy—​

The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. Norman Fowler)

As the hon. Gentleman is about to conclude, are we to understand that we shall have this debate without him informing us of his own policy in this area? Does the hon. Gentleman still stand by the pledge that he made only two months ago to abolish the married man’s tax allowance?

Mr. Meacher

I shall certainly outline not only our future policies but what we have done in the past. In April 1974 the Labour Government inherited child benefit at £5·14, at November 1984 prices. We increased that to £6·70. We shall not cut child benefit. We shall seek to increase it, not in line with prices as we did previously, but to do better than that. We stand on our record. If only the right hon. Gentleman could do the same. He inherited the level of £6·70, and it will fall this November to about £6·57.

Mr. Fowler

The hon. Gentleman said in a statement only two months ago that he would double child benefit and abolish the married man’s tax allowance. Are we to understand from what he has just said that that part of his policy has been abandoned?

Mr. Meacher

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is used to the terminology of Green Papers. I hope he believes that Green Papers are the subject of consultation. I made it clear that the document I released was not party policy, but a consultative paper. There should be serious consultation about whether we spend £4·5 billion on the married man’s tax allowance, which is in no way concentrated on those who need the money, instead of increasing child benefit, which is far and away the most cost-effective and direct way of assisting those in need. That is a serious question, and if the right hon. Gentleman seeks to make a mockery of it I think that his view will be taken into account by the people of this country.

It is a travesty of consultation that the Secretary of State, having issued a Green Paper, which we presume is for consultation, embarks on carrying out the policy with his first statement no less than two weeks after he issued the Green Paper. Is that his idea of a Green Paper and consultation? That is also a pointer to the shape of things to come from the Green Paper. So far we have been given no figures from the right hon. Gentleman’s policy document, after the most important review of the welfare state for 40 years, except for two. One is a £500 million cut in housing benefit, and now we have a £175 million cut in child benefit. It does not exactly fill us with a great deal of confidence as we await the rest.

It is our contention in this debate that the Government’s family policy—if I can dignify it with that title is fundamentally flawed and misconceived. In seeking to justify the cut, the Prime Minister argued on 20 June that the alternative to raising tax thresholds is

“of particular benefit to families”. [Official Report, 20 June 1985; Vol. 81, c. 433.]

It cannot be said too often and too strongly that that is absolutely wrong. An increase in tax thresholds gives most money to the highest paid and least to the low-paid lifted out of tax, while the half a million working families with children below the tax threshold gain absolutely nothing. An increase in child benefit, on the other hand, is pound for pound a far more discriminating way of assisting families and concentrating help on low-paid families in need.

Even the Government’s Green Paper accepts, at paragraph 4.44, that

“Child benefit is simple, well understood and popular.”

Yet, perversely, the Government now want to give higher priority to family income supplement, which is complicated, poorly understood and unpopular, and moreover, worsens the poverty trap. Not only that, but the problems associated with FIS will be compounded by the shift to the proposed family credit scheme. In particular, not only will payment through the pay packet be used. I suspect, to subsidise low-pay employers, but the benefit is less likely to be spent on the children, and the take-up could be reduced still further.

Last November the Government clawed back £1 a week from pensioners on supplementary benefit who were getting heating allowances. This June they are clawing back £1 a week from families with three children. That cut further threatens the diet and health of children, especially since the Government have already withdrawn school milk and run down school meals, when one third of all children in our society are in families living either at or only just above the Government’s own poverty line. It is not a policy for families; it is a policy for cutbacks at the expense of families. Because 7 million mothers and 12 million children will lose, I earnestly and unhesitatingly request every Member of the House who cares about families to vote for our motion.

Michael Meacher – 1985 Speech on the Social Security Review

Below is the text of the speech made by Michael Meacher, then then Shadow Secretary of State for Social Services, in the House of Commons on 3 June 1985.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, behind all the rhetoric about restructuring, this statement represents the erosion of the fundamental principle of a welfare state for all citizens? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Secretary of State was given a fair hearing.

Mr. Meacher

Is the Secretary of State further aware that the statement represents the reintroduction, for the first time this century, of Victorian values in an invidious distinction between deserving and undeserving poor? Is he also aware that this package as a whole will bring about a net loss in the next few years to pensioners and the unemployed of at least £1,000 million a year even before the huge losses from the abolition of SERPS begin, and that the main beneficiaries, whom he did not mention, will be the rich, who will receive even bigger tax handouts in future Tory Budgets?

We welcome the Government’s limited reprieve on SERPS, in response to our demand.[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. We have a full day ahead of us.

Mr. Meacher

It is patently clear that the Government lost their nerve after their original intention had been made clear in repeated leaks. Is the Secretary of State aware that the Government’s longer-term abolition of SERPS, which is the central arch of the welfare state, is still a betrayal of an unequivocal pledge by the Prime Minister three weeks before the last general election, when she said:

“nor are there any plans to change the earnings-related component of the State pension.”

Is the Secretary of State aware that if SERPS were to continue it would roughly double the pension in the next 13 years, and that if it is abolished millions who would have enjoyed dignity and security without a means test in retirement will be forced into poverty? How does the Secretary of State justify the fact that women, low-paid workers, and the longer-term sick and disabled and the millions of carers who look after them will be shifted compulsorily into private schemes to which they will be forced to make higher contributions for less benefit?

Is the Secretary of State aware that there can be no justification for claiming that SERPS cannot be afforded in the next century, when the Government’s own Social Security Advisory Committee said explicitly less than two years ago:

“At this distance of time we do not think there can be solid grounds for altering the scheme now for fear of all the worst outcomes occurring steadily for 40 years.”

Is the Secretary of State aware that any allegations that SERPS cannot be afforded reflect not adverse demographic trends but an admission that the Government’s policies will lead to longer-term economic stagnation?
Secondly, is the Secretary of State aware that the huge cuts in the housing benefit package will bring a loss to tenants of about £750 million a year, forcing up rents for ​ tens of thousands by £7 to £12 a week? Is he aware that the poverty trap will be enormously intensified by his decision to increase the loss of housing benefit as wages rise from 38p in the pound to 70p in the pound? Is it not harshly unjust that the 7 million people receiving housing benefit, of whom 4 million are pensioners, will for the first time have to pay 20 per cent. of their rates and all of their water rates? Is he aware that nearly 2 million households now receiving housing benefit, of which the great majority are owner-occupier pensioners, especially widows with small occupational pensions, will lose it altogether?

Thirdly, this statement virtually makes the unemployed into the outcasts of society—the new undeserving poor in the Prime Minister’s vision of this new Victorian poor law. Not content with clawing back £650 million a year from the unemployed by taxing unemployment benefit for the first time over the past three years, and not content with ending, three years ago, the earnings-related supplement to unemployment benefit, worth £16 a week to an average paid worker, the Government are now proposing to force the unemployed on to the lowest rate of the new income support scheme. Is the Secretary of State aware that that will take about £5 a week from those who are 25 or younger, will deprive them of all help with heating bills and of single payments for clothing and furniture, will force them, for the first time, to pay 20 per cent. of then-rates and all of their water rates, and will replace the present basic benefit safety net by a discretionary and recoverable loan? The Government have trebled unemployment. With these cuts, they are now gratuitously twisting the knife in their victims.

Fourthly, families across the nation will be hit. Will the Secretary of State confirm that child benefit will be frozen or uprated by less than inflation, so that the benefit for 7 million mothers and 12 million children will begin to decline in real value? Will he confirm, too, that the new, vaunted family credit will begin to be phased out when earnings exceed £40 a week, which is lower than for the family income supplement, and that the rate of withdrawal will be 60p in the pound, which is higher than the 50p in the pound under FIS, so that the poverty trap will be worsened? Will he also confirm that benefit will be transferred from the woman to the man, which is not publicly supported, and that entitlement to free school meals and school milk will be ended? The Prime Minister has not only become the pensions snatcher — she remains the milk snatcher that she always was. Changes such as this will not strengthen family life, but will undermine it.

Fifthly, will the Secretary of State confirm that the death grant will be abolished and that the discretionary help will be available to the deceased’s relatives only on the basis of a means test? Is he aware that this means bringing back for hundreds of thousands of our poor elderly the shame and indignity of a pauper’s funeral, which no civilised society should inflict on its citizens?

This is a black day for the people of Britain — a monument to six harsh years of Thatcherite rule. The themes of this statement are more means testing, bigger cuts, penalising pensioners, the unemployed and low-paid in order to enrich still further the already rich, and the privatisation of the welfare state on the American model, which the people of this country want no more than they want the Prime Minister’s fancy for the Americanising of our hospital management. There is no shred of political mandate for the proposals, since they derive from partisan ​ committees hand-picked by a partisan Government for pre-determined ends. Today’s statement opens up the central issue which will dominate the next general election and, because the Government have profoundly misunderstood the commitment of the British people to the welfare state, it will pave the way for the election of the next Labour Government.