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.