§ 11.6 pm
§ Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South)
I beg to move,That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Child Benefit (General) Amendment Regulations 1988 (S.I. 1988, No. 1227), dated 15thJuly 1988, a copy of which was laid before this House on 15th July, be annulled.It may be for the convenience of hon. Members if I make it clear at the outset that as the regulations that we are debating represent a degree of concession from the harsh legislation inflicted on young people by the Government, we shall not be voting against them. However, we do want to take the opportunity to express not just our reservations, but those of the many groups and organisations who seek to help the vulnerable young, about the implications of what the Government are doing to save, as I recall, some £97 million. I recognise that the Government argue that there are some commensurate costs. However, there is no argument but that a substantial net saving is expected from the legislative cuts that the regulations reflect.
Let us first put on record that the Government have removed the rights to benefit from all 16 and 17-year-olds —not from those who refuse youth training scheme places, not from those who refuse jobs, or any of the other glib excuses that the Government have trotted out over a period of time. Not one 16 or 17-year-old in the country will enjoy the right to benefit when the regulations are approved, as I presume they will be, this evening. But the Government will allow some exceptions to that general deprivation, exceptions which, although welcome, are inadequate in their scope and degree.
We do not query the exemptions that the Government are allowing, but we question how they will work, who will not benefit and how the regulations fit into the general scope of the new social security scheme—a point with which I should like to begin.
Although the age of majority is now 18, not 21, the Government are setting a new age of majority for those forced by circumstances to depend on benefit and setting it at 25. The imposition of a junior rate of benefit below that age, and, still more, its consequential effects on an aligned scheme of housing benefit, has saved the Government, again from memory, £150 million to £200 million.
The attitude that sets that as a new age of majority permeates a wide range of social security law. The assumption seems now to be that all under-25s live at home in a happy and supportive family who welcome their presence and, with the financial and other resources, accept without any serious difficulty their continuing, indeed their permanent, presence up to the age of 25 in their childhood home.
It seems to be only with the utmost reluctance that the Government concede that there are any exceptions to that rosy picture and, with still more reluctance, accept any responsibility to help those for whom that picture is outside their experience—a particularly dangerous assumption when dealing with those aged 16 or 17.
The Government seem to be saying—in this I am following their advice and former slogan of looking at the action and not the words—that if those are not the family circumstances of the young, they should be, and it is no concern of the Government that they are not. It is easy to 369 say that there ought not to be young people who are homeless, jobless and destitute wandering the streets—we could all agree with that—but there are, and the Government's policies and lack of recognition of the wider scope of the regulations make matters worse.
During the debates earlier this year on the Social Security Bill, of which these are consequential regulations, we asked what would happen to young people receiving income support but who had to wait two weeks. We asked how they were to make £150 bed-and-breakfast payments in London, for example, not because that represented the best type of lodgings for young people, but because it offered the only chance of a bed without strings that most of them would have. The administrative convenience of paying income support in that way alone causes problems for 16 and 17-year-olds in particular.
Recently, the Minister suggested to concerned organisations that payment could be made on a daily basis, enabling people to book into a hotel. However, experience shows that that arrangement is not acceptable to the people running such establishments, and it is not accepted. The Minister also suggested that those starting to receive income support normally already have a regular income, so the payment of income support in arrears does not matter and is simply part of the general pattern of payment in arrears. Again, that is not likely to apply to 16 and 17-year-olds in particular, who may have just left home.
The relationship between benefit and the YTS makes matters even worse. Those organisations which in the past have sought, with some difficulty, to help the young homeless must try to find them not just a bed but a job or a training place if they are to enjoy any income at all. Without the one, they probably will not get the other, and they may be caught in a vicious spiral of despair and homelessness. Now that such young people have no right to income support, and none to an urgent needs payment —which, basically, does not exist anyway—all that they could possibly be offered, as has been suggested, is a crisis loan. However, the people with whom these regulations deal will not be offered a crisis loan because the young, homeless or not, have a low priority need under the Government's guidelines for crisis or any other loans.
Even if the young were not rated as having a low priority need, in the case of the Westminster office, for example, officers took one look at the needs payments made to the young homeless last year and realised that if crisis loans were made to the same people this year, there would be no social funds left for any other claimants.
When one considers the framing of the regulations and the exceptions they embody, one returns again and again to the basic theme that the Government appear to be adopting towards the young—that they should not be homeless or jobless. If they are, what then? To hell with them? That may be an all-too-accurate description of the fate that will befall the most vulnerable. How can suitable or any YTS places be found, and how fast? If they can be found at all, it will take time. Meanwhile, how are those young people to live and eat? How are they to keep clean so that they may impress a prospective employer?
The Government's rules are not merely unjust; they are impracticable. During our debates on the Social Security Bill, we asked Ministers what would happen if it proved impossible to find enough YTS places for all 16 and 17-year-olds who might need them by September. The Minister of State said that that was a matter for the 370 Department of Employment, and it had assured him that everything would be all right. The Under-Secretary of State, who, mercifully for him, has now left that slot, was not so wise. He kept saying that it would not happen. Over and over again, the hon. Gentleman, who now occupies high office in the Ministry of Transport, assured the House that it would not happen.
I have been asked to bring to the Minister of State's attention the situation in Cleveland, using figures from my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ms. Mowlam), who, sadly, is unable to be present. In Cleveland, there are currently on the books 750 pre-1988 school leavers for whom one YTS place is available; there are a further 250 Easter school leavers for whom no YTS place is available; and there are, of course, this summer's school leavers still to come. How are all those extra YTS places to be magicked out of thin air between now and September? If they are magicked out of thin air, we are still confronted by the anxiety that was most forcibly expressed in Committee—that the number of places, not in any sense the quality, will take precedence. That is likely to lead to a mismatch that is even greater than usual between the opportunities that should be available and are right for the individuals involved and those into which they are being forced because otherwise they will not receive benefit. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar has asked me to seek confirmation from the Minister that if our fears turn out to be justified—if, by September, there are not enough places, whether it be in Cleveland or elsewhere—he will make a commitment to consider extending the bridging allowance beyond the eight weeks for which it could now be on offer.
The regulations offer a possible entitlement to income support for a young person who has left home because of abuse. I suppose we should say, "Thank God for small mercies." But how is that to be judged? Will there be specially trained officers, skilled at dealing with an emotionally explosive situation? Or will the poor DSS counter clerk be told to demand proof—and what kind of proof—or simply to reject most such claims? Those problems, too, arise directly from the decision to remove all right to benefit.
There seem to be anomalies of timing. The framing of the regulations suggests that even young people whom the Government accept cannot live at home—because they have no home, have been kicked out of the home or have been abused in it—will have the limited protection that is offered withdrawn after the child benefit extension period. In other words, those identified by the Government as being at risk will get three to four months' grace to find a YTS place, and after that they will have no rights.
§ Ms. Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the regulations carry a risk of making the problem of homelessness in London even greater, particularly for young people who are attracted to London from the north and other places where unemployment is high because they think that there is a chance of a job, but who will find it almost impossible to get accommodation or to survive because of the lack of benefit? The Government do not seem to have taken that problem into account.
§ Mrs. Beckett
My hon. Friend is right. The problem is causing great anxiety, and the more pressure that the Government put on young people, as they are doing in the 371 legislation and the regulations that flow from it, to be in a job or a YTS place, the more likely it is that those who see little chance of such a prospect in their own area will travel to places where they have been told there is a better opportunity and render themselves vulnerable.
The regulations seem to make no allowance for those who, having had the right to benefit in the family from the child benefit extension period, become homeless after that time. They may crack after years of abuse in February rather than in October. The regulations seem to have been framed for the administrative convenience of the Department rather than to take account of those whose life experience does not fit precisely within the dates for which they allow.
I suspect that the Minister's answer will be that such cases could be met by the provision that the Secretary of State is able to recognise cases of severe hardship. The difficulty that we see is that that provision has existed in the board and lodging regulations, and we have noted—as have those who deal with these matters—that the Secretary of State, like every Secretary of State, seems to have extreme difficulty in recognising such cases. Few cases which most of us would think should qualify get past the Secretary of State. In any event, there is no proper appeal procedure for cases put to headquarters—to the Secretary of State—to decide whether there is severe hardship. Only the Secretary of State or his departmental officers have the right to exercise discretion. There is no scope for the judicial consideration of decisions. That is arbitrary in the extreme.
The problem of young people who are abused at home is an emotional and difficult one, but what about another judgment that is less emotionally fraught—whether somebody who is caught by the regulations is over 18? That is likely to occur in the kind of cases that my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms. Quin) identified, when young people leave home and seek jobs or training opportunities elsewhere.
Will the Department accept birth certificates? They have sometimes refused to accept that evidence. Is the ludicrous guidance that has been used in the past still to apply: that other proof should be sought, such as the family Bible? The people who write this sort of stuff live in another world. How many families ever had a family Bible? How many families have a family Bible now? Is it likely that when young people aged 18 leave home they will think to shove the family Bible into their case? Even if they had, would it survive the sleeping rough, which is the only option that the Government offer, until they can prove that they qualify for benefit?
The Minister knows that the Department is coming under heavy pressure to look afresh at the implications for the homeless of all these questions, including the payment of income support in arrears and the possible extension of benefit to young people who are estranged from their parents and involved in resettlement programmes. The long experience of organisations that have tried to help this most vulnerable group of young people leads them to believe that this further additional burden will create considerable problems. Young people will be required to find a job or a YTS place before they can qualify for a legitimate income. I ask the Minister seriously to consider the case that is being put to him.
372 I suspect that in this debate we shall concentrate most on vulnerable young people who are being placed seriously at risk by the harshness of the Government's policies. We ought to put on record the concern that is felt by all who know about and understand what the Government are doing and the danger of their approach to this problem. I have no doubt that the Minister of State will refer to the need to offer proper choices to the young, but when we consider the changes that the Government are making to the rights to benefit and to benefit entitlement we have to conclude that in their heart they know that they are not offering proper choices to young people. They are seeking to corral and coerce the young into fitting into an unsuitable system.
Sixteen and 17-year-olds sometimes come to the conclusion that the world is against them. It is a great pity that the Government seem to be working hard to confirm that view. The removal of starter credits is regarded as a levelling down, as this Government always do. There is a real difference between the encouragement and support of young people to exercise sensible choices that will provide them with good opportunities and compulsion, which is all that the Government seem to be prepared to offer.
The Opposition fear that the Government are creating a great deal of resentment and that they are increasing the lack of a sense of responsibility and of a place in society, as well as removing the last life-line from the young, who are in the most desperate need. I beg the Government to monitor carefully the development of their policies for young people and, most urgently, to heed the advice that is being given to them from the organisations that deal, especially in the big cities, with the vulnerable young. They must not wait until well publicised, personal tragedies occur among the young homeless before they take action.
§ The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Nicholas Scott)
I welcome the recognition by the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) of the fact that the application of the regulations will be largely beneficial, although they are part of the implementation of a policy with which the Opposition profoundly disagree. Therefore, the Opposition will not seek to divide the House.
The point of principle that forms the background to the debate was settled in Committee and during the other stages of debate on the Social Security Act 1988. We took the view that able-bodied young people capable of work and/or training should not be given the option of moving from full-time education to benefit. Whatever doubts the Opposition may have about the detailed application of the provisions, the vast majority of people in this country will agree with that fundamental principle. I can think of nothing more corrupting than offering young people generally the option of moving straight from full-time education to benefit.
Earl's Court is in my constituency, in the centre of London. I know of some of the problems that have arisen because young people have had the option of coming to London and claiming benefit. They have been subjected to all the temptations and problems of living in the area. I do not want to see——
§ Mrs. Beckett
With great respect, the Minister has used a very dangerous word. He said that he could think of nothing more "corrupting" than young people being 373 tempted to come to London and claim benefit straight away. I recognise the case that he is putting, although I know of no evidence to support the argument that young people come to London because they can get benefit. They tend to come to London either because of the bright lights syndrome or because they hope that they will get a job or training place.
I can think of something more corrupting than being drawn to London by the promise, thought or offer of benefit; young people may come to London in the hope of finding better prospects here but then find that they have no income at all because the Government have withdrawn their right. That is the most corrupting option of all.
§ Mr. Scott
I had intended to deal with that rather later. We need to strike a balance in this matter. Of course, I want to ensure that young people who are in genuine need have proper protection through the social security system and I shall go on to explain why I believe that the regulations will meet that requirement. But the hon. Member for Derby, South, for whom I have considerable respect, does not seem to understand the temptations for those who believe that they can come to London and establish themselves, with semi-independent status, on the benefit system and without the prospect of a job.
I know that many young people come here wanting a job or a training place which may not be available to them elsewhere, but many come on spec, thinking that when they get to London everything will be all right and that they can sustain themselves through the benefit system. Almost always that dream ends in tears, and I have known many tragic circumstances to arise from that in my own constituency of Chelsea.
§ Ms. Quin
Does not the Minister recognise the contradiction in the Government's policy? They urge young people to show initiative and to move from one area of the country to another to find work, yet when young people reach the place where the work is available, they do not have the financial wherewithal to become established. They have to wait until their first pay packet comes in, and it is difficult for them to find accommodation that they can afford.
§ Mr. Scott
The hon. Lady's point centres on the problem of the payment of benefit in arrears when young people come to London. Again, we need to strike a balance. People may be encouraged to up sticks, leave their own homes and come to London on a speculative basis in the hope that they will get jobs and that they can live on benefit if they do not, and I have talked about all the dangers inherent in that.
Having said that, although we hear much about young people coming to London and failing to find accommodation, we still have a considerable number of vacant spaces in the resettlement units in central London each night. I am told that many voluntary organisations in central London also have vacant beds at night, and young people could go there if they wished to do so. Our local offices in central London, which deal mainly with the transient population here, have reported not an increase but a decrease in the numbers of those seeking help since the implementation of the reforms on 11 April.
Mr. John McWilliant (Blaydon)
That is not our information; our information is that many young people are coming to London, and that they seek help from those 374 organisations that can give them help in the short term. In the long term, however, finding permanent accommoda-tion—somewhere that they can describe as their abode —is a real problem now that the two weeks' benefit is being denied them until they get here.
§ Mr. Scott
I understand that, but at the moment the evidence is that there is a decrease rather than an increase in demand. There is also evidence that, as those who provide accommodation for young people realise that they will be paid in arrears and as those young people give them a piece of paper which states that the benefit will be payable, albeit in arrears, landlords are adjusting to that situation.
Having said that, I want to find out the truth. Therefore, I have asked officials in my Department to meet the organisations concerned, and to discuss with them the evidence that they have, which may conflict with that which the Department is receiving. As an hon. Member representing a constituency in central London, as well as bearing my ministerial responsibilities, I am concerned to find out the facts. I have asked for that survey and those discussions to take place, and when I have the results, I shall review the situation and consider what, if anything, needs to be done. I believe in my heart that we should be wary of encouraging young people to come to London on the speculative chance that they may be able to obtain accommodation and jobs.
The hon. Member for Derby, South mentioned YTS opportunities. At the end of June, there were 162,000 unfilled places on that scheme. I cannot deal specifically with Cleveland tonight, but it is quite clear that throughout the country there are a considerable number of unfilled places on the scheme. Therefore, I see no difficulty about us being able to fulfil the commitment given by my hon. Friend the former Under-Secretary of State when we discussed these matters in Committee.
Whatever the hon. Lady says, the net expenditure— that is, the withdrawal of benefit from 16 and 17-year-olds unless they are prepared to take a place on YTS and the cost of providing places on YTS programmes—means that there will be a net cost, not a net saving, to the Exchequer. Therefore, we are investing in young people, not making overall savings at their expense.
In simple terms, we believe that it is neither necessary nor healthy for young people to see dependence on state benefits as the natural step to take after leaving school. I am sure that the vast majority of hon. Members agree with that. I shall not repeat the manifesto commitment, except to say that the withdrawal of benefit is closely linked to the guarantee of a high-quality training place for every school leaver under 18 who wants one. I believe that, as the scheme develops, we shall convince even the sceptics on the Opposition Benches of the merits of the training for young people that we shall provide. We all know that the training allowance that they will receive will be substantially in excess of anything that they could get on income support.
However, we appreciate that the burden of the regulations centres on the particular aspect that there are some young people who do not fit into the general pattern and who require special protection. The regulations deal primarily with the situation in which benefits will remain available to young people over the age of 16 when the new arrangements take effect on 12 September.
We have sought to identify two groups for whom income support will remain available. There are those who 375 are not required to be available for work or training, such as lone parents, the severely disabled and the registered blind. They will still be able to claim income support at all times. Then there are those who are required to be available for work or training, but may have to leave home because of physical or sexual abuse, broken homes, and so on. They will be entitled to benefit for a short period while they are considering the work or YTS opportunities that are available to them.
The categories of young people who are entitled to support can be found in the schedule to the regulations. All hon. Members will agree that we have gone to not inconsiderable lengths to try to identify as precisely as we can the categories of young people who are most in need. I am sure that, if we trawl through, it will be possible to identify smaller groups who do not fit tidily into the categories. My answer to that is that we have always recognised that it would not be possible to regulate for every conceivable circumstance.
Therefore, we have expressly taken power under the Social Security Act 1988 so that, when a person under 18 is not entitled to income support and it appears that he or she would suffer severe hardship unless benefit is paid, the Secretary of State may direct that the young person should be so entitled. That is an important and significant fallback to protect any who may fall outside the regulations, however much we have tried to identify categories that may need that help.
In short, the vast majority of people in this country will applaud our initiative in seeking to deprive 16 and 17-year-old, able-bodied people who are capable of work or of taking a training place of the opportunity to go directly on to state benefits. At the same time, we shall guarantee a place on the YTS for those who can take their part. We shall have the protection for the most vulnerable groups in the way that I have described. I commend the regulations to the House.
§ Question put and negatived.