PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

HOUSE OF COMMONS

OFFICIAL REPORT

Sixth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFIT (DEPENDENCY)(AMENDMENT) REGULATIONS(NORTHERN IRELAND) 1989

SOCIAL SECURITY (CONTRIBUTION) (AMENDMENT No. 2) REGULATIONS (NORTHERN IRELAND) 1989

Wednesday 24 May 1989

LONDON

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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Sir John Stradling Thomas

Adams, Mr. Allen (Paisley, North)

Banks, Mr. Robert (Harrogate)

Flannery, Mr. Martin (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Howell, Mr. David (Guildford)

Meale, Mr. Alan (Mansfield)

Miller, Sir Hal (Bromsgrove)

Miscampbell, Mr. Norman (Blackpool, North)

Morrison, Sir Charles (Devizes)

Mowlam, Ms Marjorie (Redcar)

Needham, Mr. Richard (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland)

Parry, Mr. Robert (Liverpool, Riverside)

Porter, Mr. Barry (Wirral, South)

Riddick, Mr. Graham (Colne Valley)

Rost, Mr. Peter (Erewash)

Smyth, Rev. Martin (Belfast. South)

Spicer, Sir Tim (Dorset, West)

Steinberg, Mr. Gerry (City of Durham)

Taylor, Mr. John M. (Solihull)

Mr. D. J. Gerhold, Committee Clerk

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3 Sixth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Wednesday 24 May 1989

[SIR JOHN STRADLING THOMAS in the Chair]

Social Security Benefit (Dependency) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1989

10.30 p.m.

Ms Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Social Security Benefit (Dependency) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1989.

The Chairman: With the agreement of the Committee, it will be convenient to discuss at the same time the other order before us, namely the Social Security (Contribution) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1989.

Ms Mowlam: Primarily, we brought the regulations before the Committee to obtain clarification from the Minister. Many people, especially Members representing Northern Ireland, complain that legislation on Northern Ireland is not debated properly in the House. It is often discussed late at night and hon. Members do not have a chance to discuss it in detail. Clearly, it is advantageous for us to take any chance that we have to discuss social security benefits given the iniquities in the present system, which are exacerbated by the problems of Northern Ireland. Statutory instrument No. 104 refers specifically to fishermen's shared benefits. On first sight, the regulations benefit fishermen because, as self-employed people, normally they would not be entitled to unemployment benefit. However, they are placed in a specific category under the regulations and, although they are not employees, they are entitled to unemployment benefit. As the regulations lessens their contribution, we welcome them. We seek the Minister's clarification of the regulations because of the level of rural poverty and the difficulties that exist in many fishing villages in Northern Ireland. Although the regulations represents a marginal increase for the fishermen, they are still subjected to a great deal of poverty, especially because of the cost of fuel in Northern Ireland. Does the Minister have any plans to help such fishermen? We are more interested in statutory instrument No. 103. It refers to the cessation of child benefit, which happens when a child finishes school, and enters training or a job. If I understand the regulations correctly, the widowed mother's allowance will stop at the same time. Will the Minister clarify the circumstances in which that will happen? Surely the regulations worsen the position of widowed mothers? What are the likely effects of those regulations? The regulations are important because, since 1985, the Government have frozen child benefit, which represents a 13 per cent. loss and means that they 4 have economised to the tune of £26.7 million in respect of child benefit in Northern Ireland. When child benefit stops along with the widowed mother's allowance, it will cause a great deal of hardship to many single women with families. Because child benefit is paid directly to the woman, we are anxious to see it continued unfrozen and increased in line with inflation. Statutory instrument No. 103 may introduce only a marginal change, but it is an important one because one in eight families in Northern Ireland is headed by a single parent. If the widow's allowance stops at the same time as child benefit, we fear that existing poverty in Northern Ireland will be exacerbated—it is already magnified by such problems as lower levels of training and of employment compared with the rest of the United Kingdom and the absence of state day care. All those factors make it difficult for women there to obtain a decent income. Child care provision in Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the worst in Europe; workplace nurseries are taxed, whereas in France and the Netherlands they attract tax allowances and special grants and facilities in Northern Ireland are worse than those on the mainland. Statutory instrument No. 103 is of particular interest because the bottom 10 per cent. of women who work in Northern Ireland receive less than £75 a week, which compares unfavourably with men to receive 37 per cent, more. Women in Northern Ireland are on low wages, suffer from lack of training and lack of job opportunities. Therefore, what appears, at first sight, to be a minor change worries us because it will worsen their position.

10.36 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Richard Needham): I thank the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) for her lucid and knowledgeable exposition of the regulations. My Department and I were perturbed when we saw an early-day motion on the regulations in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) and other luminaries. I was worried that, from the regulations, the Opposition might have discovered some deep flaw in social security legislation. A great deal of time has been spent in trying to discover what lies behind the Opposition's decision to initiate the debate this morning, particularly as the regulations are exact replications of legislation in Great Britain and, therefore, are parity regulations for Northern Ireland. When they came before the House earlier, the Opposition did not question them and they went through on the nod. Thus we were interested to hear the Opposition's reason for raising them. I am not yet convinced of the reasons behind that decision. Is the hon. Lady against the parity provision? For many years the policy of both our parties has been to ensure that regulations in Great Britain read across directly into Northern Ireland. Statutory instrument No. 104 covers shared fishermen, of whom there are 600 in Northern 5 Ireland. It has long been the practice throughout the United Kingdom for fishermen, unable to fish because they cannot get their boats out of the harbour, to be entitled to unemployment benefit. As unemployment is now falling throughout the country, their contributions towards unemployment benefit need not be as high, so they are being reduced. I welcome the agreement of the hon. Member for Redcar to that reduction on the basis of the Government's successful policy in reducing unemployment. Those fishermen can earn between £500 and £600 a day but they can also earn nothing, so the range of earnings is wide. Even 16 and 17year-olds can earn large sums of money if they have a good catch. We have looked after those fishermen with care and we shall continue to do so. If the hon. Lady comes to Kilkeel to meet some of the fishermen and to discuss the matter in the Kilmorey Arms, I am sure that they would be only too pleased to explain the regulations and the benefits derived from them.

The Chairman: Order. Are we all invited to the Kilmorey Arms?

Mr. Needham: Yes, indeed. It would be an honour, Sir John. Mr. McCullough and his brother, two of the main fishermen in Kilkeel, would be only too delighted to discuss those important matters with you and the hon. Member for Redcar over a small tincture. The hon. Lady appeared slightly confused over the statutory investments. Statutory investment No. 103 is a series of five paragraphs, the purpose of which are to tidy up things. Regulation 2 refers to a wife who is unemployed and claiming unemployment benefit when the man has the care of the children and receives the child benefit. The wife will now be entitled to increased unemployment benefit which she would have not have received previously because the regulations referred, in a sexist way, to men as always being those in receipt of unemployment benefit while the mother received child benefit. There are not many examples of that in Northern Ireland, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Redcar will welcome that regulation, which is in line with European directives and which will ensure that both men and women can claim that benefit. The hon. Lady referred to entitlement to the widowed mother's allowance. That is a complicated provision. At present, if a child of a widowed mother leaves home to take up further education or goes to work, the underlying entitlement to child benefit may not disappear, even though the child benefit ceases to be paid. In those circumstances, entitlement to the widowed mother's allowance would continue. I hope that I have described that provision succinctly. There are only a few people who understand the matter in detail. It has been properly put by my Department so I shall read the brief. Paragraph 3(a) is required to ensure that payment of widowed mother's allowance ceases when payment of child benefit ceases because the child is in remunerative work or is aged between 16 and 19 and in advanced education or is receiving a training 6 allowance under the youth training programme. A reference to section 25(1) of the Social Security (Northern Ireland) Act 1975 was omitted in error from regulation 2 of the Social Security Benefit (Dependency) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1987. The provisions for widowed mother's allowance are thus brought into line from 11 April 1989 with those that have applied to other benefits since 6 April 1987. Paragraph 3(b) follows from the insertion of regulation 9C of the Child Benefit (General) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1979 by the Child Benefit (General) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1989. Regulation 9C provides for payment of child benefit to cease where a child is receiving training allowance under section 4 of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 or article 16 of the Industrial Training Order (Northern Ireland) 1984. A consequential reference in regulation 4B(3) to regulation 9C is therefore required to ensure that payment of an increase of benefit ceases when payment of child benefit ceases. That explains the reason for the regulation.

Ms Mowlam: I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification. Will he expand on the circumstances in which the underlying entitlement changes?

Mr. Needham: I made the position clear in my exposition to the hon. Lady. The key point is that the difference between an entitlement on the one hand and what happens on the other is cleared up. If the hon. Lady wants to go into further detail on the regulations, the orders and the Acts as they apply in Northern Ireland, it could be done; but it is complicated and would take a considerable time. Regulation 4 confirms that retirement pensions are paid on Mondays and Thursdays; the Committee will be glad to know that pensions are now payable on those days. Regulation 5 sets out the ground rules for converting an additional monthly occupational pension into weekly amounts for the calculation of other benefits. Where payments are monthly, the total is multiplied by 12 and divided by 52. That may seem obvious, but it is important and necessary to ensure that such calculations are properly done. Regulation 6 covers those who claim an increase in benefit for a non-resident person looking after their children. Where he or she is already paying that non-resident person out of unemployment benefit, that money is offest against any increase in benefit entitlement. The result is that if someone wants to pay a non-resident carer, the increase that could be claimed in benefit would be offset by the amount of benefit paid. That was overlooked in the original regulations. Such a provision should never have been included, and has never been put into practice as it would be ridiculous to give people more money in unemployment benefit and then take it away because it was paid to the carer. We have never done that. It was astute of the Opposition to have seen that deficiency in the regulations and we have taken this opportunity to put it right. I am delighted that the hon. Lady was able to put her finger on such an important issue. 7 I hope that I have clarified the importance of the regulations. I accept that such issues should be discussed, particularly as they affect Northern Ireland. In future, perhaps it might be possible for us to get at the whole range of those problems in greater detail, rather than dealing with the arcane and esoteric matters that the hon. Member for Redcar decided to debate today.

10.48 am

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): It is a pleasure to share in the debate and to find elucidation from it. What would happen if the Committee suddenly rebelled and turned down the regulations given that they came into operation on 6 April?

The Chairman: Order. I do not propose to give a ruling on that.

Rev. Smyth: I am glad that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments did not decide to examine the regulations, because they represent no change from the regulations that affect the rest of Great Britain. I underscore the concept of parity, which lends force to my argument—with which I am sure the Minister agrees—that it would be better if all the regulations were put together. Such action would save extra printing and debating time. I welcome statutory instrument No. 104 and the benefits to the shared fishermen. Although they might earn £500 in a day, having gone to sea with them from Portovogie I know that, on some days, they earn nothing, to say nothing of the days when they cannot go to sea. It is not sufficient to say that they are wealthy because of their earnings; one must consider other factors. I agree that the McCullough's could enlighten many of us and it is a pity that they could not come to the Committee. I do not want to be disrespectful to the Minister, but if I want to read something quickly I scan read, but, if I am reading something that I do not understand, I read it more slowly until I understand it. The Minister was reading so fast that I was not sure which category applied to him. Six hundred may be an accurate number for shared fishermen, but there are no accurate figures for the numbers of widows affected by the benefit changes. Will the Minister clarify that? I understand why a widow may not receive extra benefit if her child receives training allowance, but I know of cases when widows lost benefit apparently because their children were in full-time education and, therefore, subsidised by the state. That does not, however, alter the mother's financial responsibility, especially if the child lives at home. I am not sure that the regulations clarify that. I welcome the clarification about fathers who are unemployed and providing back-up and care for their children. Over the years I have discovered that when a father dies, the state, charities and neighbours rush in to support the widow. When a mother dies, however, the father, whether in work or unemployed, is often left alone and must bear a tremendous burden. I remember one case when a housekeeper 8 charged bills in the father's name. When that father said that he would not pay the bills, a certain department store said that it would take him to court. His reply was that the shop would have fun proving that his wife, who had died 10 years ago, had bought the shoes that the housekeeper had bought in the father's name. I welcome any measure that relieves the pressure without wasting time by giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Any move to break parity on social security in Northern Ireland would be a tremendous blow to many poor people. If that were done in an attempt to slide Northern Ireland into the system operated in the Republic of Ireland, many people in the Republic would say, "Vote to remain within the United Kingdom because you will be in a worse position under one social security system."

10.52 am

Ms Mowlam: I congratulate the Minister on his detailed grasp of the material. His outline of it was impressive. I do not disagree with the arguments that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) gave on the need to maintain parity, but that was not my argument. Parity should be maintained, but I was trying to emphasise that the specific problems in Northern Ireland—for example, lower wages for women workers, especially part-time women workers, increased cost of living, especially the cost of fuel, and the higher unemployment rate among women—are exacerbated when child benefit and widows' allowance stop. I was not arguing against parity, but the social charter may be altered with the coming of 1992 and the Single European Act. Then there may be changes that my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South would not want to see. I appreciate the Minister's clarification on the other regulations especially Statutory Instrument No. 103. He clarified the matters on which we wanted more detail, but I want to put on record our anxiety concerning two groups. First, when child benefit stops and young people between the ages of 16 and 19 leave school and go on to college, great hardship may be caused to widows who try to support their children until they finish educational courses. I know of two instances of young people who were unable to complete courses because their parents could not afford to continue to support them. Secondly, the Minister has not given sufficient credence to the problems of widows with children who must live on the level of benefit to which the Government have reduced them. With the freezing of child benefit, 10 per cent. of women in Northern Ireland are at the bottom end of the scale and receive less than £75 a week. The Secretary of State for Social Security recently said that poverty no longer existed, but I am sure that the Minister accepts that is not the case in Northern Ireland.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Social Security Benefit (Dependency) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1989.

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Social Security (CONTRIBUTION)(AMENDMENT No. 2) REGULATIONS (NORTHERN Ireland) 1989.

Resolved, 10 That the committee has considered the social security (contribution)(Amendment No.2)Regulations (Northern Ireland).—[Mr.Needham]

Committee rose at five minutes to Eleven o'clock.

THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:

Stradling-Thomas, Sir John (Chairman)

Banks, Mr. Robert

Miscampbell, Mr.

Morrison, Sir Charles

Mowlam, Ms

Needham, Mr.

Parry, Mr.

Riddick, Mr.

Smyth, Rev. Martin

Taylor, Mr. John M.