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1979-1987 - Mr Major’s Statement on Maternity and Funeral Payments

Below is the text of Mr Major’s Commons statement on Maternity and Funeral Payments debate, held on 22nd January 1987.


The Minister for Social Security and the Disabled (Mr. John Major) With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about a technical defect which has emerged in part III of the 1986 Social Security Act.

The Act introduces, among other things, a social fund to provide better targeted help with exceptional expenses to people on low incomes. Most payments from the fund will start in April 1988, but, as the House knows, we intend help with maternity and funeral costs to begin in April 1987. These payments will replace the universal maternity and death grants, and the existing supplementary benefit single payments for maternity needs and funeral expenses.

The Government's clearly stated intention has always been that the social fund maternity payment should be a flat-rate sum, and that the reasonable specified costs of a funeral would be met from the social fund. We always intended to define not only those low income groups eligible for such payments, but also the amounts payable. Those intentions were recognised in debates here and in another place during the passage of the Social Security Act.

The Social Fund Maternity and Funeral Expenses (General) Regulations 1986 were laid last month to give expression to that policy. It is now clear, following consideration of the regulations by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, that there is a defect in the primary legislation. This is because the Act gives powers to prescribe the "circumstances" in which maternity and funeral payments may be made but does not provide, as had previously been understood, a specific power to prescribe the amount of such payments.

We propose to correct this defect immediately and shall introduce a short amending Bill to the House tomorrow. In the meantime we shall revoke the general regulations and intend, subject to the agreement of Parliament, to make and lay a fresh set under the powers to be provided by the proposed amending Bill. These will enable the new arrangements for help with maternity and funeral costs to be implemented as intended from April this year. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be making corresponding provision. Our policy of directing help where it is needed most is clearly right and we intend to carry it through.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West) Is the Minister aware that this blunder over the regulations, together with the current debacle over the Local Government Finance Bill, is the second time this week that the Government have demonstrated crass incompetence in the pursuit of highly objectionable legislation? Is he aware that, after his climbdown over cold weather payments, this is his second apology to the House within three days, and, after the shambles of repeated court action over the illegal board and lodging regulations, it only enhances the Government's growing reputation for bungling ineptitude in the handling of their business?

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the botch-up has occurred only because the Government were so impatient to vote down thoroughly reasonable amendments in another place on the rights of independent appeal from social fund decisions, so reckless in forcing through the Bill in the last hours before the summer recess, that in their indecent haste they rushed the drafting?

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it is only because the Government are so anxious to reduce expenditure by £200 million a year on single payments such as funeral and maternity expenses, which are so essential to pensioners and poor families, that Ministers are embarrassed by this legislative gap which would otherwise prevent them from cutting payments to the poor?

How can the Government claim to believe in the family when they are going to such lengths to replace grants by means-tested loans for maternity and funeral expenses? Even more important, what is the morality of abolishing at a stroke the death grant, which is an insurance benefit for which people have paid all their lives? Is the Minister aware that, by insisting on taking powers to cut funeral payments to pensioners and others, he is forcing more and more of them to build up savings for their funerals and thus disqualify themselves from cold weather payments because their savings exceed £500?

Is the Minister aware that, instead of insisting on further legislation to enforce cash-limiting the relief of poverty, the Government ought to be taking action to reduce poverty, which has doubled under their regime until it now involves more than 10 million households?

Mr. Major The hon. Gentleman has somewhat overplayed what has happened. I fear that he is being characteristically pedantic. We are discussing an error, I concede that, but it is a technical error and is in no sense a policy change. It is regrettable that there is an error, but it is most certainly not unprecedented. It may have happened under many other Administrations and may happen under future Administrations, whoever are in government.

The hon. Gentleman should not be so critical of mistakes because he rarely gets anything right himself. This provision targets help more directly on the people whom we believe most need it and we believe that judgment to be correct. As for means-tested loans, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the change to which we are referring established a regulatory system for maternity and funeral payments that will be of particular help to people on low incomes.

Mr. Robert McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar) I regret the legislative slippage to which my hon. Friend the Minister has referred. Does he accept that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) is wrong in maintaining that the way forward is to maintain small and largely meaningless payments of death grants? Is my hon. Friend aware that most Conservative Members endorse the policy that the Government introduced into legislation last year, under which much more substantial assistance is paid where need exists and that, notwithstanding the delay, he is heading in the right direction and should not be deterred?

Mr. Major I am grateful to my hon. Friend; he is right. We propose to correct the defects and proceed with the policy that we enunciated some time ago. If the hon. Member for Oldham, West believes that the present system is so inadequate, it is surprising that the last Labour Government did not upgrade the death grant or the maternity grant.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye) I express to the Minister my sympathy on the onset of a political condition that the doctors call Ridleyism. I hope that it proves not to be terminal. As he is now looking again at the death grant and proposes to use new regulations to correct this fault, would it not be more sensible to increase substantially the value of the death grant as presently constituted but make that money reclaimable from the estate of the deceased - [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes. The money would therefore be targeted on those most in need and give more substantial help to them.

Mr. Major The hon. Gentleman has shown that he may have misunderstood the policy. We are concerned with targeting funeral assistance most appropriately on the people in greatest need. I believe that it is possible to proceed in the fashion suggested by the hon. Gentleman under the provisions before us.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (Surrey, South-West) Although one regrets this error, would my hon. Friend keep the matter in perspective? The death grant of £30 has become almost meaningless when funerals cost several hundred pounds. Neither grant has been upgraded for nearly 20 years. It is extremely important to give realistic help to those in genuine need.

Mr. Major My hon. Friend is entirely right when she describes most acutely the policy that we have enunciated and propose to follow.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles) Since low weight pre-term babies are likely to be handicapped and this can be forecast, and since there will be flexibility in the system, will the Minister give increased maternity grants to mothers at risk of producing disabled babies?

Mr. Major The proposition is for a flat rate maternity grant, which I announced some days ago, of £80 in respect of the groups who qualify. The underlying proposition about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned is met in a number of ways in social security and social services legislation but is not particularly appropriate to the change of the sort that I believe he has in mind.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst) Surely we all want to ensure that resources are directed to those most in need in the most appropriate quantities. Is that not what the Bill is designed to do? Is not the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) making a mountain out of a molehill?

Mr. Major My hon. Friend is precisely right on both counts.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone) Does the Minister not realise that his statement is regrettable in that seeking to put right what is wrong seems to be the Government's classic disease in their legislation? The words used by the Minister - "targeting" and" guiding towards those on low pay" - are emotive words to give an impression of compassion and efficiency, when this is only a major rescheduling of money from the poor to the poorer still and is taking money out of the welfare state.

Mr. Major The hon. Member might like to bear in mind the substantial increase in directly targeted help to those people on relatively low or very low incomes. We believe that that policy is correct and we shall pursue it. Insofar as we can target the help most adequately in that direction, we can deliver a greater measure of help than would otherwise be the case.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge) Does not my right hon. Friend find it remarkable that the one complaint that can be made here is in relation to a purely technical error on the part of a draftsman which now has to be corrected? Instead of addressing himself to that problem, the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) harks back to a time when tiny death grants were dished out to people who for the most part, did not need them, instead of looking forward to a time when help is going to be targeted to those who most need it.

Mr. Major I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks. Ministers must accept responsibility for the error in the Bill. We are content to do that and to correct it without delay.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall) Are not the Government likely to keep landing in the cart, making errors and over-taxing the law people, civil servants and draftsmen with their proposed revolutionary changes, tearing up the Beveridge report, as they are consistently doing with the death grant and insurance right? Why does not the Minister try to return to the real core of traditional Toryism, that of gradualistic change, instead of bringing in these revolutionary measures?

Mr. Major The hon. Gentleman is exceedingly tempting. I shall confine myself to saying that, after 40 years, there is general agreement, whatever differences exist, that a substantial number of changes are required in the social security system.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton) Will my hon. Friend go back to his Department and tell his draftsmen that the House of Commons is getting fed up with these errors, that, if they cannot get it right, they need not expect their CBEs in the Honours List and that we would rather put the work out to contract?

Mr. Major My hon. Friend is characteristically forthright, but I must reiterate two points. First, the error arose as a result of an attempt to reflect quickly the will of the other place. Secondly, when a Bill is presented to Parliament, the Minister is responsible for any mistake.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East) Although the Minister generously accepts responsibility for the follies and foolishness of his lawyers, does he not think that it is time that the DHSS sacked the lot of them and exposed them to the market economy for failure to deal with the job that they have been given? More to the point, since we are talking about general expenses, is it not time that the Minister relaxed the £500 capital disregard in relation to grants made for fuel allowances? It is unacceptable to the House that that should remain in force unadjusted while we are moving into the new system.

Mr. Major Although I understand that the hon. Gentleman would not have meant it personally, he is being very unfair to the many lawyers who worked on the Social Security Bill it was a substantial, difficult and technical Bill to carry through. I regret the fact that this error has occurred, but it has. Insofar as the £500 capital limit is concerned, I can add nothing to what I had to say on Tuesday.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, during the past half hour, we have seen the two sides of the ugly face of Toryism? The Neill report was treated with disdain by Ministers after a £100 million swindle at Lloyd's in the City. Now another junior Minister has come along to tell us that a mistake has been made, and he does not have the decency to allocate a proper funeral allowance without applying the means test, despite calls from both sides of the House for such an allowance. It is no wonder that Lubbock's body is going to the dogs.

Mr. Major The hon. Gentleman is being characteristically obnoxious. Frankly, he needs a verbal straitjacket.

Mr. Skinner Even your vocabulary is not very good.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) I am just waiting for my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to finish.

I am intrigued that the Minister should come to the Dispatch Box and accept ministerial responsibility for this mistake. This is in stark contrast to the attitude of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who came to the Dispatch Box and tried to share the blame among a range of people - in fact, to put the blame on anyone but himself. Will the Minister tell the House who spotted the mistake?

Mr. Major That is clear from my statement. It arose as a result of the consideration of regulations made under the primary legislation by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.