John Major – 1986 Speech on Poverty in Barnsley

Below is the text of the speech made by John Major, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, in the House of Commons on 30 January 1986.

It is never a hardship to listen to the right hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Mason) representing his constituency. Yet again, he has spoken movingly about the problems that he sees in Barnsley, and I am pleased to be able to respond. I will try to pick up as many of the issues that he raised as possible in the time remaining to me. I am pleased to see that the hon. Members for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) and for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) are in their places.

I am aware that social security provision is an emotive matter, which arouses considerable controversy. I also understand that the present Bill, which I strongly support, which proposes fundamental changes in the social security structure, is a matter of high political dispute. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends accept that, whatever might be the political disagreement between us, the Government share their deep concern for the effects of poverty. We believe that many of the proposals in our Bill, as with many of our other policy proposals, are geared to alleviate precisely the problems that the right hon. Gentleman has outlined.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned some of the problems that apply to Barnsley at the moment. I appreciate, and would not deny, the special difficulties that have been caused to that area by pit closures and the resultant high unemployment. The latest unemployment figures for Barnsley are depressing and dispiriting. I cannot deny that and would not wish to.

I share with Opposition Members the hope that unemployment will soon begin to fall, but I can understand their frustration at the fact that the present high levels appear to be remaining for so long. Despite the difficult circumstances, people in Barnsley are finding jobs. Between April 1985 and January this year, the employment service placed more than 2,300 people in ​ permanent employment in Barnsley—an increase of 23 per cent. on the same period in the previous year. I am sure that we all hope that that trend will continue.

It is not true that the Government are unconcerned and harsh about the problems in Barnsley and elsewhere. I might draw attention to the substantial funds that are made available to Barnsley in the urban programme. In recognition of its economic problems, the need to help the area and the need to broaden its industrial base, Barnsley qualifies for help under the Inner Urban Areas Act 1978. The council, to which the right hon. Gentleman paid tribute, has responded by establishing industrial and commercial improvement areas in Barnsley and in the outlying mining town of Goldthorpe. There is also a conservation workshop at Hoyle Mill, which is funded in conjunction with the Manpower Services Commission. It places 80 trainees, who are engaged in restoring sites of historic interest in and around Barnsley. There are other interesting and innovative projects in the area.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about housing and some of the related problems. To help Barnsley overcome its difficulties, some £6·7 million has been allocated under the housing investment programme, and there is a further allocation of up to £1 million to meet obligations under the Housing Defects Act 1984. Despite those and other initiatives with which I shall not bore the House, Barnsley faces great problems, many of which spill over into social security requirements.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke of current board and lodging regulations. We have monitored their effect carefully. On the basis of preliminary information, there is no evidence that they are causing nomadism on the scale that many people feared. The time limits to which the right hon. Gentleman referred are subject to many exemptions. For one reason or another, large numbers of young people will find that they are exempt from the time limits, even if they are in circumstances in which they would otherwise be applied. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the limits do not apply to people who were in their accommodation some time ago.

I am not familiar with the cases that the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned this evening, but I strongly suspect, although I cannot guarantee it, that those young people may have been entitled to some form of exemption. If the right hon. Gentleman cares to let me have the details of the cases, I shall carefully consider them and respond to them.

In his remarks the right hon. Gentleman spoke of social security provision. At present. spending on social security is running at more than £40 billion a year. That is a pretty substantial amount by any standards. It is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that that money is well spent, and primarily that is what we seek to do through the proposed changes in the Social Security Bill, which will go into Committee early next week. In many quarters, the review that preceded the Bill has been represented as a cost-cutting exercise. That is simply not so. I understand that that is the type of representation that often occurs in political debate. We believe that the proposals that underpin the Bill are principled and worthwhile. They are a part of the reform that we believe will simplify a social security system that is far too complex. They will direct resources far more effectively than at present to the people of whom the right hon. Gentleman spoke, who are in the greatest need.

The right hon. Gentleman is clearly worried about the living standards of those families in his constituency on low incomes. We, too, are worried about people on low incomes. Under the Bill those families are likely to be eligible for income support, if unemployed, or family credit if in work. The right hon. Gentleman said that many of his constituents would be worse off if the White Paper proposals were enacted. On the basis of the illustrative figures published with the White Paper we shall be spending £200 million a year more on family credit than we spend at present on family income supplement. The income support scheme is likely to cost more than we spend now on the main structure of the supplementary benefit scheme.

One aim of the social security reforms is to ensure that help goes to the people who need it most. Our reforms will direct that help to families with children. That applies to low-income working families and to those where the parents are unemployed. Today, those families are often in the greatest need, in Barnsley and sadly, in other areas too.

Our proposals will substantially reduce the unemployment trap, in which people are better off out of work than they are in work. They will eliminate the worse effects of the poverty trap, where a rise in earnings can be more or less wiped out as benefits are withdrawn.

The new family credit scheme will cost substantially more than family income supplement—about twice as much. It should reach more than 400,000 families—double the present number on family income supplement. Almost all those families will be better off than they are with family income supplement.

On the basis of the illustrative rates in the technical annex to the White Paper, a couple with two children on gross earnings of £100 could receive £27·40 in family credit compared with £5·50 on family income supplement.

The right hon. Gentleman is rightly concerned about people who are not in work. Our proposals will get more help to families who are not working. Income support will replace supplementary benefit and in our judgment that will be a significant improvement. A noticeable feature will be its simplicity. At present, to determine the amount of weekly benefit, staff may need to make intrusive and detailed inquiries, such as the number of baths taken by a claimant or what his special laundry needs are if someone in the family is incontinent. However tactfully those inquiries are handled, they are plainly embarrassing and often insulting to the people to whom the inquiries are directed. Yorkshire men and women especially would find those inquiries deeply offensive.

We must find a better way of getting help to people who are in need, and with the system that we propose—one of premia based on easily identifiable criteria—it will be entirely possible to remove many of those intrusive inquiries. That simplicity—that certainty of entitlement —will be a great improvement, and will be generally welcomed in the House when the proposals are more fully understood.

I would have wished to have been able to say much more this evening, but only a short time remains. On the transitional protection for claimants, no one receiving supplementary benefit at the point of change to income support will have his weekly income reduced by the change. Anyone on family income supplement whose FIS award is higher than his family credit will keep the FIS award—the higher award—for the remainder of the ​ 12-month award period. We made that clear in the illustrative figures published with the White Paper, and I emphasise it again this evening.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned single payments. I deeply regret the fact that time does not permit me to deal in detail with the points that he raised, but if he wishes to discuss that matter later, I shall be happy to meet him and his hon. Friends at any time, when we can discuss the anxieties that he expressed this evening.

The reforms that we shall make will be seen in due course as a positive advantage to people on low incomes, whether in or out of work. That is part of the intention of ​ the reforms, and we shall seek to persuade the House and the country that they are compelling and worthwhile reforms. In the meantime, may I conclude by telling the right hon. Gentleman that I understand the difficulties which he faces in Barnsley and which he has expressed this evening in such compelling fashion. I hope that he will accept from me that our reforms are aimed at helping people in special difficulty, wherever they live. We believe that they will, and we hope that they will generally be seen to do so when they are more fully understood.