And more than one family in four - 27 per cent - now depends on means- tested benefits as the major source of their income, according to figures released by the Department of Social Security.
The numbers have grown dramatically since 1979, the year the Tories took over. Then, one household in five, or 20 per cent, had one or more members receiving one or more of the main income-related benefits. By 1992/93, that figure had reached 30 per cent.
The numbers were disclosed yesterday by Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, in his response to a report from the Commons Select Committee on Social Security in June which warned that means- tested welfare was "destructive" of "character, honesty and motivation".
The figures left Mr Lilley under attack from both left and right. Alan Duncan, Tory MP for Rutland and Melton and a member of the committee, said one in three was "a truly staggering statistic. We are fast reaching the point where a minority will have to support the majority. This is clearly bonkers".
He called for a 10- or 15-year programme to replace state help with self- provision wherever possible, while warning that Britain needed both lower employment costs and reduced benefits for the unemployed to encourage employers to provide jobs and the unemployed to take them.
Frank Field, the committee's Labour chairman, said the figure of one in three was "an unbelievable indictment of the Government's claims that they are trying to end the culture of dependency. What we have seen over the past 16 years is a process of bulldozing people on to dependency by a government that then turns round and blames the victims for the effects of its policies".
Mr Field, whose committee is to examine restoring a system of non-means- tested insurance benefits, said means tests "penalise efforts to improve your own lot, they confiscate savings and they tax honesty".
The numbers receiving the three main income-related benefits - income support, housing benefit and family credit - reflect the large growth in unemployment since 1979, the increase in non-working lone parents, and government policies to produce higher rents which have put many more people on to housing benefit. In addition, more than 600,000 households now receive family credit - a means-tested benefit which tops-up wages.
Mr Lilley welcomed the committee's concern at the growth of social security expenditure, but said: "The Government does not accept that means-tested benefits are destructive." In common with all statutory benefits, "they have disincentive effects," he conceded, which was why his reforms "focused not on extending means testing, but on changing the condition of entitlement to benefit".
Means tests, however, were a long-standing feature of social security, and in the short run there were only two alternatives. "One is to remove means-tested benefits", which "would destroy the state safety net". The other would be to give benefits that are currently means tested to everyone.
"This would be immensely costly and not a good use of taxpayer's money."
The real issue was "not means-tested benefits versus contributory benefits" but "how to reduce benefit dependency". The Government was encouraging self-reliance, with a revised family credit helping people support themselves in work and with employers being offered national insurance rebates for taking on the long-term unemployed, he said.
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