House Of Commons
Wednesday 11th June 1975
The House met at half-past Two o'clock
[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]
British Transport Docks Bill
Read the Third time and passed.
London Transport Bill
Greater London Council (General Powers) Bill (By Order)
As amended, considered; to be read the Third time.
Fraserburgh Harbour Order Confirmation
presented a Bill to confirm a Provisional Order under Section 7 of the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act 1936, relating to Fraser-burgh Harbour; and the same was read the First time; and ordered to be considered upon Tuesday next and to be printed. [Bill 174.]
Oral Answers To Questions
Local Government Services
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many additional duties have been placed on local government since February 1974 by central Government.
Local government services have been steadily expanding for many decades in response to the needs of society. But our present economic circumstances require us to limit public expenditure as a whole and this is one reason why we have established the consultative council—to discuss the implications for local government.
I appreciate what the Minister has said, but will he accept that more and more local authorities regard it as most unfair that they are required to carry out certain duties on the instructions of central Government, without being adequately financed by central Government? Will he consult with his colleagues to ensure that adequate finance to implement fully any future legislation, in particular the important Children Bill, will be available?
Certainly the hon. Gentleman has a point. Over the past few decades Governments of different political persuasions have, I agree, been off-loading new duties on to local authorities. However, the consultative council, with which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is so urgently concerned, is intended to ensure that the matter is kept in balance.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of the problems which face local government still arise from the reorganisation carried out by the previous Conservative administration? Does he agree that some of the services which were transferred from first tier to second tier might have been more appropriately run at local level? In particular will he consider, in circumstances where agencies have not been granted, reexamining the library service, with the possibility of restoring it to local level, because local authorities, especially in in the North-West, have great pride in their libraries?
Yes, Sir. If I were to consider all the implications of local government reorganisation on local authorities, there would not be time for any more Questions this afternoon. I take the points that my hon. Friend has made. Undoubtedly, many difficulties arose from the reorganisation. However, to be absolutely fair, some duties were taken away from local authorities, for example, the personal health services and the regional water services. Therefore, there was a mixture both ways.
Local Government Expenditure
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what measures he plans to ensure that Her Majesty's Government's policy that the limit of 1½per cent. growth in local government spending in 1976–77 is adhered to.
We have already issued, or are issuing, the circulars needed to ensure that every authority is clearly aware of the inevitable restraints on local authority expenditure. I am exploring in the rate support grant negotiations and with the new consultative council the consequences of these restraints for individual programmes.
Although local government expenditure is now equivalent to about 20 per cent. of the gross domestic product and is the fastest growing area of Government expenditure, and although the latest Treasury report indicates that the borrowing requirement this year will be between £10 billion and £12 billion is it not the case that if the Minister does not curb local government expenditure now, this country will tip over the brink into hyper-inflation?
I have made my views on local government spending clear and in recent weeks I have articulated them rather firmly. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman will know my views on the general subject. I agree that local government spending has been increasing faster than total public expenditure, the gross national product and, indeed, any measure one can take, and that the increase that has occurred in recent years simply cannot continue under present economic circumstances.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that before the social services are cut at local level there may be a moratorium on ostentatious spending, such as the hospitality accounts of local councils? Although my right hon. Friend may, while eating a meal at the expense of the ratepayers, have described the cost of that as trivial, the ratepayers do not see it that way.
The character of the meal which I enjoyed on that occasion was not a matter for my decision; it was a matter for the decision of the local authority whose guest I was. On the general point, there is of course, quite naturally and rightly, as my hon. Friend says, criticism of excessively lavish hospitality. I accept that and agree with it. But as regards cuts in social services, no, there is no reason why there should be cuts in local government services. What we are asking for is not a cut in local authority services but a containment of the rate of increases.
Is it not clear that the increase in local authority spending in the current year is at least twice the Government's target of 4½ per cent., and does not this make the 1½ per cent. increase target for next year almost impossible to achieve?
No, Sir. I hope to make an announcement on the first point in the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question. It looks to me as though the spending increase will be above 4½ per cent., but nothing like double 4½ per cent.On the second point, I have made it absolutely clear to local authorities that to the extent that they overrun the agreed increase this year, they will be worse off next year than they would have been.
Local Government Staff
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his latest estimate of the total number of administrative employees in local government in England and Wales.
The latest figures published by the Department of Employment for local government staff in England and Wales relate to June 1974, when the total was 2·44 million. The published figures do not separately identify administrative employees.
Is the Minister aware that there is genuine concern throughout the whole country that there are far too many administrative employees in local government? Will he institute a report in this respect and, if necesary, take action?
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point of view. There is one reservation that I should mention. When one deals with technical staff—for example, planners—it is a little difficult to know quite whether they are there as technical staff or as administrators. They do overflow, as I say. But certainly what we shall be able to do with the new curb—the new watch on local authority manpower, which will he by both central Government and local government together—is to watch the difference between non-manual and manual employees. Perhaps that will meet the hon. Gentleman's point.
Will my right hon. Friend give at least some estimate of the increase in planning staff since local government reorganisation? Also, may I congratulate him on his vigorous appearance after last night?
I thank my hon. Friend. The fact is that I have narrowly avoided counting local government administrative officials jumping over red tape. It is a very good way of keeping awake, at any rate. But it is a little difficult to calculate the staff question since reorganisation. I think that I said in answer to an earlier Question that there were movements both ways. However, what I can say is that an essential feature of the 1975–76 rate support grant settlement was that there should be no expansion in staff other than obviously inescapable commitments.
Is the Minister aware that despite the obvious adequacy of extra capacity in the building industry, Newcastle upon Tyne local authority has recently advertised jobs, technical and otherwise and administrative and otherwise, representing an extra burden of £80,000 a year? Will the Minister use his influence on local authorities to cut down on direct labour organisations in the name of national economy?
This is a very different matter. I am afraid I shall have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman in that regard.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is his latest estimate of the number of empty council houses in England and Wales.
The Department's last survey showed that at 31st December 1973 less than 1 per cent. of council dwellings were vacant and available for letting. Information relating to end 1974 will be collected later this year.
Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied that the means of calculating this figure is accurate? As there is some doubt about this, will he consider establishing a new means of calculating the figure?
One can never be totally satisfied about the accuracy of methods of calculation. On the other hand, it is clear that our methods of calculation are about 10 times as good as those of Messrs. Booker and Gray, who got their facts totally wrong in the Observer.
What is the average period between the time when a council house is vacated and when a new tenancy is taken up? What steps are local authorities taking to reduce this period? This is a matter of concern in my constituency and in many others.
Including my own. I very much agree with my hon. Friend that although facts of this kind are not easily ascertainable, it is incumbent upon local authorities, despite the very low vacancy figure I have given, to make sure that every house is fully occupied throughout the year.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will propose the introduction of short terminable leases as a means of bringing empty residential accommodation into use.
I would refer the hon. Member to the answer my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction gave on 6th March to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Silverman)—[Vol. 887, c. 512.]
Is the Under-Secretary aware that in some areas, of which my constituency is one example, there are many converted flats which will remain unused because of the lack of local authority mortgage finance? Why is he not prepared to consider a method to bring those flats on to the market which has been widely welcomed?
I am aware of two facts. The first is the hon. Gentleman's continual obsession in attempting to deprive tenants of security of tenure, which manifested itself during the passage of the Rent Bill. The second is that the Opposition attack the Government for public expenditure and then ask the House for additions to public expenditure, such as increases in local authority lending.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a home without security is not a home at all? Does he also agree that in view of the information which he has just given to the hon. Member for Leek (Mr. Knox) about the relatively small number of void council houses it would be preferable to withdraw the circular which has just been issued relating to the acquisition and municipalisation of the empty properties now available on the market? Would he also consider an increase in the void rate to encourage owners to sell or let such property?
I should like to draw my hon. Friend's attention to what the Minister said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mrs. Jeger) about the various methods the Government are considering to achieve the necessary objective of bringing empty houses into occupation through tenancy.
The Under-Secretary must surely be aware that there are 9 million owner-occupiers in this country who now feel that their security—the security of ownership which they have bought—is severely and seriously threatened by the present law. If the situation continues there is little likelihood of a large section of that housing ever being made available for rent in circumstances where it is in the interests of both the owner-occupier and the lessor. Must not there be a change in the law now?
I am not clear as to the law to which the hon. Gentleman refers. If he implies that if it were not for Rent Act security 9 million owner-occupiers would rush forward to let empty rooms, and if he will bring that evidence forward, we may consider a change in the law.
Houses For Sale
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will seek to reduce the costs of house purchasers and sellers by encouraging local authorities to provide easily available lists of private houses in their area for sale: and if he will make a statement.
I sympathise with my hon. Friend's underlying objective, but when this approach was tried out between 1966 and 1968 the results were disappointing.
Does not my hon. Friend accept, however, that perhaps too little energy was devoted under the previous experiment in this direction? Does he not agree that it seems that the estate agencies appear to be only a burden on both the house purchaser and the house seller, and that the basic facilities for this sort of work are much more available with the local authority? Could not there now be closer co-operation between the local authorities and the building societies, irrespective of what ultimately may happen to the building societies?
Our new plans for cooperation between local authorities and building societies on mortgage lending should help. I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the need to make house purchase easier. He has put this point to my right hon. Friend the Minister, who has responded favourably but cautiously. But I am afraid that when we examined the outcome of the previous experiment it was found that, although that experiment covered a total of 20 councils, known sales of houses amounted to only about 30.
Is the Minister aware that people can perfectly well use the columns of the newspapers in this matter and do not have to employ agents? Agents get a return on only about 20 per cent. of the properties on their books, and the rest is abortive work.
There are various ways of making available knowledge of properties for sale. What my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) is admirably attempting to do is to help people buy houses and help people to sell houses to people who need them.
Local Government Finance (Consultative Council)
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many times the Consultative Council on Local Government Finance has met.
Once, Sir, on 12th May.
I welcome the Minister's reply, but it is disappointing that the council has not met more often than that. Does he not agree that we need to make cuts in Government expenditure this year? When will he send out the second circular, which was mentioned in the first circular, No. 51/71, for which many local authorities are waiting in order to take steps to make the necessary economies in their next year's budgets?
I hope that the consultative council will meet again before the summer holiday period. Certainly the first meeting was very helpful and constructive. I have promised before, and I underline it now, that I hope to issue another statement shortly setting out the implications for different local authorities' programmes for the reduced rate of growth this year and next year.
When may we expect this further very important statement, which I take it will include new guidance about ways of limiting local authority expenditure? Will the Minister also confirm that one of the greatest threats to local authority finance at present may be pay claims which are in excess of what the local authorities can bear and what the social contract can bear?
On the first point, I hope to issue the new guidance very shortly indeed. On the second point, it is of course the case with local government, as it is with industries, that excessive pay claims at the end of the day cause threats to employment rather than an increase in the real standard of living.
As the Secretary of State used the word "suicidal" when referring to wage claims at Grimsby recently, does he realise that ratepayers themselves are feeling suicidal about rate increases? When can we expect some action from the Government?
I am happy to see that the hon. Gentleman looks far from suicidal. He looks extremely chirpy this afternoon. We are delighted to notice that. I regret to have to tell him, however, that I have made it clear on many occasions—I make it clear this afternoon—that after the unprecedentedly generous rate support grant settlement of last year, ratepayers cannot expect any further help this year.
Local Authority Committees
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will introduce legislation designed to ensure that the membership of local authority committees fully reflects the balance of political parties in the parent councils.
No, Sir. I think such matters are best left for each local authority to decide for itself.
Is the Minister aware that, with the generosity typical of my party, I have received a complaint from members of the Liberal Party in the Bromley area that members of the Labour Party were excluded from membership of the policy and resources committee of that borough by the controlling Conservative group, and that this practice unhappily occurs in different parts of the country'? Is not that compounded by the fact that one, at least, of the new authorities in Scotland has decided to pay its members an attendance allowance of £10 a day at party meetings? Should not that be looked at afresh by the Government?
The Scottish illustration mentioned by the hon. Gentleman is obviously a matter for the Secretary of State for Scotland. I should welcome not being concerned with that.On the other part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I appreciate his generosity, and I thank him for it. However, there is one difficulty. It is customary, as I think he probably knows, for the policy and co-ordinating committee of a local authority to come from the ruling party. If that were not done, and if the membership were divided out, my feeling is that we should tend to get less open government, that discussions would go away from the centre, and take place behind closed doors. Frankly, I am against that.
Is the Minister aware that the exclusion of the Labour minority in Bromley followed the leakage of confidential information by that group to the local Press, and that in any case that minority group has its full right of debate within the council chamber?
I was not aware of the situation in Bromley. However I am aware that my Department, with my full-co-operation, assent and willingness, recently issued a circular to all local authorities calling for more open government, and for more co-operation with the Press.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what progress he has made in implementing the Government's policy with regard to improving road safety.
Six thousand, nine hundred people were killed on the roads last year and 82,000 seriously injured, nearly 45 per cent. in cars. These figures show a welcome reduction on previous years, but the most important measure we could take to reduce them still further would be to enact the Road Traffic (Seat Belts) Bill.
Has the Under-Secretary received any information on the effect of road safety of the recently applied 50 mph limit, whether advantageous or otherwise? Secondly, will he report on the progress made on the Green Paper on the proposed new Highway Code?
The 50 mph and 60 mph speed limits were originally imposed to save fuel. However, a reduction in speed results in a fall in the number of accidents. I shall be reviewing that matter later in the year.I hope that we shall be able to bring the Green Paper forward for discussion in the House fairly soon, before the publication of the Highway Code. I expect that the total time taken between the beginning of the discussion and the ultimate publication to be about six months.
Does the Minister agree that the recent coach crashes have highlighted the need for the imposition of a speed limit of 60 mph on coaches using motorways, and that coaches should not be permitted to use the outside lane? I am sure the Minister will agree that unless something is done now there will be a disaster situation on a motorway. I urge the Minister to take urgent note of this matter.
We are all concerned about the recent serious accident in which a coach was involved. However, I do not think that we should base everything on one accident. The inspectors are looking at this. We shall learn everything possible from this tragic occurrence.
Does the Under-Secretary agree that the sign "Blind Summit, No Overtaking" should be placed on the offside, not on the near side, of the road, on the ground that a person overtaking, who does know that it is a blind summit, can see only the offside?
A great deal of trouble and research goes into deciding the placement of signs. I shall draw this matter to the attention of the people who deal with road signs.
Is my hon. Friend aware that many coach trips occur every weekend, especially in our part of the country, and that more and more travellers are becoming apprehensive about the condition of the structure of some of these coaches? Will he say whether, after studying the details of the recent tragedies, special observations will be made as to the roof structure of these coaches before they are licensed to convey passengers on these tours?
My hon. Friend will know that coaches are subject to MOT and other vigorous inspections. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the second point. Of course we shall obtain as much information as possible arising from the recent tragic accidents.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether his plans for the improvement of public transport are based on the assumption of an increasing or decreasing incidence of car ownership.
The latest departmental forecasts indicate that car ownership will continue to increase.
As the Road Research Laboratory forecasts a greater road usage per car and an increase of 20 per cent. in the number of cars during the next five years, will the Minister assure the House that better roads will form a major part of any future transport plans?
The hon. Gentleman should be aware of the basis on which the road programme takes account of the national economic situation. Roads are provided when it is believed that the traffic which will be generated over the next 15 years will necessitate roads of a particular standard.
If my hon. Friend's Department has a desire to improve public transport, may I inform him that it is the opinion of many Labour back benchers that it has a strange way of showing it? Is he aware that, for example, the West Midlands County Council regards his Department's instructions to increase bus fares as not only being unlikely to improve public transport, but as contradicting the election pledges on which Labour county councillors were elected?
Without going into the question of subsidies for public transport at the fares level, my hon. Friend should be aware of the distinct change in the percentage spent by the Government on public transport compared with roads over the last two or three years.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is general scepticism about the acceptance by his Department of these projected traffic figures, in view of the massive increase in fuel prices and other burdens on the motorist? Will he confirm that future policies of his Department will not be based on figures which are suspect in many quarters?
All projections must be continually revised as new facts come forward. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has read the paper from the Transport and Road Research Laboratory and the Director-General of Highways' assessment of it, which is a slightly lower level of expansion than the TRRL suggested. The figures are the best which can be got from the available data, but, because we are dealing with a volatile subject, we must and will continue to revise them.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that many local authorities have been placed in considerable difficulties, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) said, because last year they were encouraged to proceed with fairly ambitious transport policy and programme schemes and now they have been told that everything must be viable? Does he recognise that the real key to successful public transport planning in future lies in the calculation of a proper planning price for energy use so that we shall know how much car use will cost in 10 years?
I agree that we must get our figures as clear as possible. On the question of car use and cost, one point which came out clearly in the report was that individual personal transport can take a large increase in expenditure before people are willing to forgo it. One way of increasing the use of public transport, as well as increasing the cost of private motoring, is to restrain private motoring in certain urban areas.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many local housing authorities have applied to operate a half and half housing scheme.
A formal inquiry has been received from another authority and several others have inquired informally about Birmingham's scheme.
Does my hon. Friend accept that if the Birmingham scheme were launched nationally it could make a significant contribution to the housing needs of this country in that it provides less call on public funds? Will the Department take urgent action on this matter and not let it lie on the shelf, as the previous administration did?
It is because of legislation passed by this Government that the admirable scheme that Birmingham has initiated has been made possible. That being so, we hope that other local authorities will study it to see whether they could introduce it.
Is the Minister aware that any helpful measure of this kind which can be made to work in practical terms is to be welcomed? Does he realise, however, that the helpfulness of this scheme is limited by the restriction which has recently been imposed on local authority funds for this purpose and that that restriction will have particularly unfortunate consequences in large towns and cities? May I also stress that another factor is the willingness of councils, particularly Socialist councils, to make land available for sponsored low-cost housing, so that the fund of houses for purchase by low-income purchasers can be increased rather than reduced under municipalisation plans?
The hon. Gentleman has made yet another suggestion for increased public expenditure. I concur in his general sentiments, however, which will be greatly improved if some local authorities not under Socialist control do not sell off their housing land.
Council House Building
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what new plans he has for the financing of local authority house building.
This is one of the matters which is being considered in the comprehensive review of housing finance which I am now undertaking.
Does my right hon. Friend recall that in our election manifesto we said that housing subsidies would be increased to the point where they were equal to the tax concessions given to owner-occupiers? Since that is not a practical possibility either now or in the foreseeable future, will my right hon. Friend divert his attention to the build- ing of timber frame houses, for instance, which I have advocated in this House for some time, on the ground that they would be much less expensive than the prohibitive prices now being asked of local authorities, and also much quicker to build?
The total subsidies to local authority housing have roughly doubled in the last two or three years.I strongly agree with my hon. Friend about timber frame houses. There are a number in my constituency. They are extremely popular and, as my hon. Friend said, quicker to build than traditional houses. My hon. Friend will have noticed that in our most recent circular, "Housing Needs and Action", we have attempted to give a further boost to the sensible use of systems like the one that he has in mind.
Does the Secretary of State agree that due to the high cost of subsidies and the enormous length of loans that local authorities have to take for local authority building there is no hope whatsover of solving our housing problems through local authority house building alone? Would it not be honest of the right hon. Gentleman to say so and to take more direct steps to assist the many people who would rather buy their own homes than rent them permanently?
If I may say so, that was a particularly stupid question. The hon. Gentleman must know perfectly well that no one on the Government side of the House has ever suggested that our housing problems could be solved solely by local authority housing. Further, the hon. Gentleman must know that this Government have taken a number of crucial actions—as anybody in the private house building industry will tell him—such as the loan to the building societies and other measures, in an attempt to boost the private house building programme.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that local authority house building has an enormous contribution to make in solving our housing problems? Does he accept that we can never solve our house building problems unless we have a new form of borrowing for local authorities which is much cheaper than they are able to obtain at present?
Perhaps I may make a major statement on the Government's housing policy. We believe that both local authority and private house building have a critical part to play in solving our housing problems.
Does the Secretary of State accept that the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) was in fact extremely pertinent? While there is an important role for local authority housing, the fact is that its soaring cost is such that the Government must do far more to bring in the private sector, both in terms of home ownership and private rented accommodation. Will he please tell the Under-Secretary of State not to take such an arrogant and blind attitude towards the possibility of new lease arrangements?
My hon. Friend is noted not for blindness but for clear sightedness, and not for arrogance but for modesty.On the substantive point of that supplementary question, the Government have taken many measures to encourage the private house building industry, and the hon. Gentleman will be as pleased as I am to note that the recent statistics show a marked upturn in private house building.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on his proposals for the future of the council house building and improvement programme, council rents and subsidies.
I have nothing at present to add to the reply which I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Cartwright) on 5th May.—[Vol. 891, c. 308–9.]
Will my right hon. Friend accept a practical proposal? Is he aware that many local authorities, faced with extortionate charges by building firms, wish to use the highly successful direct labour departments of neighbouring councils but are not at present permitted to do so? How soon will he relax that restriction, which I believe he has stated he is prepared to consider but on which he is taking a very long time to act?
My hon. Friend will be aware that we have relaxed the provisions which were causing particular difficulties in certain of the metropolitan counties—for example, in Sheffield and Manchester. He is right in saying that I have made it clear that I would like to see further relaxation of other restrictions on direct labour departments, and I hope to introduce a measure as soon as legislation time permits.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the contribution of the rates to housing revenue accounts has become completely excessive? What are his predictions for council rents next year, and how do they compare with what the rent levels would have been under the fair rents system of the Housing Finance Act?
I cannot predict what the level of rents will be next year without a very much clearer idea of the rate of inflation next year, which I profoundly hope will be much lower than this year. As to what I understood to be the substantive point of his question, the hon. Member is right in saying that over the last few years rents have covered a substantially decreasing proportion of total housing costs, and we are likely to reach a situation in which the taxpayer and ratepayer combined will simply say "We cannot go on indefinitely footing the bill".
Will my right hon. Friend indicate what advice his Department has given to the Liverpool City Council and the other councils in the Merseyside Metropolitan District in relation to the housing programme? Is he aware that about 30 per cent. of unemployment on Merseyside—a very high proportion—is of construction workers? In an area like Merseyside it is important that there should be the fullest support for the local authorities in order to get the housebuilding programme going.
I understand that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has seen a deputation from Merseyside to discuss exactly the points which have just been put. He told the Merseyside local authorities in the strongest possible manner that he thought they should increase their housebuilding programme as rapidly as possible.
I appreciate the generous reply which the Secretary of State has given to this question. Will he accept the following proposition? The whole point of council house programmes must be one of resources related to demand. Therefore, should right hon. Gentlemen not take a look at reducing standards in council house building in order to provide more homes for the homeless? Is it not wrong to cut back on local authority improvement programmes? Those houses which need improvement this year, at whatever the cost, will need it just as badly next year, but at a much higher cost. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider a reduction of standards for council house building and institute a total reappraisal and reassessment of the improvement system for local housing authorities?
I have made an adjustment on council house improvements by switching £100 million from local authority lending substantially to council improvement schemes. I think the hon. Member missed the point when he referred to lower standards of house building. It is clear to me that we can build houses more cheaply and more quickly while maintaining standards at the level we wish to see. This comes back to the question we were discussing earlier, from one of my hon. Friends, which was discussed in the circular "Housing Needs and Actions". We must build houses more quickly and more economically, while maintaining standards.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a further statement on his latest plans for helping the homeless.
The Government Departments concerned have now issued a joint consultation paper, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction announced in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann) on 22nd May.—[Vol. 892, c. 531.]
Although that answer is hopeful as far as it goes, is it not obvious that the best hope of getting immediate help to the homeless lies in greater use of empty properties by Government and local authorities? Although I know that the Minister, whatever his other qualities may be, is personally concerned over the problem of homelessness, can he not put more urgency behind this crucial aspect of it?
I can certainly assure the hon. Member that bringing empty homes into use is a crucial way of dealing with homelessness. That is why we welcome some of the proposals of local authorities with regard to joint management schemes with private landlords and other methods. We are actively pursuing this matter, but the best way of dealing with homelessness is to build more new homes. Housing starts have risen markedly since we came to office.
We accept all that my hon. Friend has said, but can he assist local authorities who at the moment take a slightly ambivalent attitude to the homeless? For example, to one-parent families in which the parent is divorced or separated, their attitude appears to be that they cannot even be accepted on housing lists. This means that the very authorities that should be most concerned with finding suitable accommodation for a wife and children are themselves having to put some people ahead of the existing housing list. This means that they are very ambivalent and cannot make up their minds to whom they should give precedence.
I generally accept what my hon. Friend says. I hope that local authorities, in considering these problems, will adopt a more flexible and humane attitude than they sometimes do within their admittedly difficult housing management programmes. Housing management rules are not laid down on tablets from Sinai; they are really flexible, and should be used as such.
With up to 1 million houses empty, is the Department conducting researches into the effect of successive Rent Acts on this situation? Will the Minister also take up the point of the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) about short-term leases?
We are certainly, first, monitoring the effect of the latest Rent Act, second, considering the whole question of Rent Act legislation, but, third, turning down the Conservative proposals about depriving people of security of tenure.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the difficulty and distress caused by the split of responsibility which still exists between social service departments and housing departments, particularly in areas with two-tier local government, where the departments may be in different authorities? Will his Department undertake to reimpose on housing departments the duty to help the homeless?
I am well aware of the difficulties which are being caused in some areas. We have made clear the view within the Department—many local authorities are accepting it—and we hope that when the consultations are concluded on the paper which we have circulated, we shall be able, if that is seen to be necessary, to bring in definitive legislation to clarify the position.
In the context of the homeless, is the Minister aware that the area of the United Kingdom with the greatest social deprivation is Scotland? Should there not be an annual increase——
Order. Is this a matter within the ministerial responsibility of this Department? I do not think that this Minister has any responsibility for that. Mr. Allaun.
On a point of order——
Order. Will the hon. Lady raise the point of order at the end of Question Time?
Will my hon. Friend inaugurate a great housing expansion. as we are still building at only half the 1967 rate? Does he agree that, far from this being an inopportune time, it is a good time to do so, since we have 182,000 unemployed workers in the building and related industries? Will my hon. Friend note that Germany and Italy, faced with growing unemployment, have started such a vast new deal in house building?
We have launched a great new housing drive; the increase in housing starts since this Government came to office is evidence of that. But, as my hon. Friend will know, we are far from complacent about this. We know that a great deal more needs to be done. I would take advantage of his question to draw the attention of local authorities to the fact that they are able to build without a subsidy ceiling and that many local authorities could be building far more if only they had the will to do so.
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will update to current prices the following totals for housing subsidies in England in 1975–76 which are at constant 1974 prices: total housing subsidies, including rate fund contributions and rent rebate allowances, given as £1,014·5 million, improvement and renovation grants, given as £102·3 million, and local authority improvement investment given as £210·8 million.
I shall, with permission, circulate the figures in the Official Report.
That does not help us today. But in the context of the Secretary of State's reply to an earlier Question, that housing subsidies have doubled in the last two or three years and his reply to another Question, that he was concerned to contain local government expenditure, am I right in thinking that the level of housing subsidies must become of considerable concern to the Government? How do they propose to contain housing subsidies? What and where are their proposals in this respect to contain the use of taxpayers' money by the use of indiscriminate housing subsidies?
The subsidies are not indiscriminate. Nevertheless, I accept that this is a matter which needs to be examined carefully. My right hon. Friend has instituted the most far-reaching housing finance review which has ever been conducted. The results will be available within the next year.
Can the Minister estimate the magnitude of the total deficit on housing revenue account in England and Wales at present? Is this not a matter of the greatest seriousness, about which something will have to be done very quickly?
I accept that there are problems here. I cannot give the figure without notice. However, as a result of our legislation, any surplus on a housing revenue account will not be filched by the Treasury as it was under the Housing Finance Act.
Following is the information:
Revalued from 1974 to 1975 survey prices the figures are as follows:
|Total housing subsidies, including rate fund contributions and rent rebates and allowances||1,218·4|
|Improvement and renovation grants||116·6|
|Local authority improvement investment||240·3|
Since the publication of Cmnd. 5879 I have increased the provision for local authority improvements this year to £290 million.
Local Government Administration
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any proposals for the improvement of local government administration; and if he will make a statement.
Local authorities are themselves responsible for their own internal administration, within the framework laid down by Parliament.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that many people feel alienated and isolated in the new giant authorities created by the Conservative Government's Act? Does he agree that the creation of lavish public relations departments to counteract that alienation is not the solution? Will he urgently consider some form of decentralisation, especially for areas like Keighley, which are geographically remote from the centre? Will he ensure, for example, that they function like the old excepted areas for education? Finally—
Order. That is four supplementary questions already.
The kindest thing that I ever said about the prospect of local government reorganisation when the Bill was going through in 1971 was that it would be an expensive disaster. However, the difficulty that one is in is that although it has been a disaster and has unquestionably created an enormous upheaval, it has been in operation for only 12 months, and so much has taken place during that time that it is difficult to see what changes could be made at this moment. But I take my hon. Friend's point that remoteness and lack of accountability are the major difficulties in local government today.
Is the Minister aware that it would be a "best buy" in comparison with the land nationalisation Bill which he is pushing forward? Will he confirm, as he said earlier this year, that he has no plans in the foreseeable future for changing the present reorganised set-up of local government? Surely we can all agree that their job now is to get on and make the thing work.
The answer to the second question at least flowed from what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer). It would be an even more monstrous upheaval at the moment and would be quite wrong. To the first question, about land being publicly owned by local authorities, the answer is, "No".
When does my right hon. Friend expect to be in a position to inform the House about the take-up of cases by the local government ombudsmen over the last year?
That is an example of a fairly cost-effective organisation. I think that the take-up is running now at about 80 cases a week. It obviously started at very much of a trickle, because, under their constitution the local government ombudsmen were permitted to deal only with matters of maladministration as from April last year. The take-up is therefore on a rising peak. I think that the figures are correct, but if I am wrong I shall write to my hon. Friend.
I agree with the right hon. Member that this is mainly the local councils' job, but I disagree with him when he says that reorganisation was disastrous. Is there not a field in which he could assist local authorities and others by seeing whether the agency arrangements are being carried out to the full, so that there is no duplication of work between the two spheres of local government? Can he give greater advice on the agency arrangements than has so far been given by his Department?
That is certainly one of the difficulties, but it was a difficulty—as I hope the right hon. Gentleman will, perhaps reluctantly, agree—which was inherent in reorganisation. It arose out of a lack of clear definition in the right hon. Gentleman's reorganisation proposals. But of course we are constantly trying to improve that situation. These matters flow quite naturally into the Community Land Bill under Clause 19 and into the land acquisition and management schemes.
Building Societies Association
asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what recent discussions he has had with the Building Societies Association.
My Department keeps in close touch with the Building Societies Association on a wide variety of topics. In the most recent discussions which we have had, the building societies have indicated their willingness to help make good the £100 million switch from local authority mortgage leanding for home ownership.
Is the Secretary of State not just a little apprehensive that with the arrival of the Government's new index-linked savings scheme directed at those who traditionally invested in building societies, there might be a considerable effect on the funds of building societies, with a consequent effect on the availability of mortgages? In any of the discussions he has had with the Building Societies Association, has it ever been suggested that the Government, as they did with the Save-As-You-Earn scheme some time ago, should be prepared to underwrite a similar sort of index-linked system, but tied to building society investment?
I am a little apprehensive about what the Treasury does under any Government. I have discussed this matter with the building societies, and although no one would be so foolish as to dogmatise about it for the future, both we and they for the moment believe that neither that scheme nor the reduction to 7 per cent. in the borrowing rate will unduly jeopardise the inflow of funds. However, this is something to be watched from month to month.On the wider question, I am sure that as part of the long-term review of housing finance we shall have to consider ques- tions like indexation, and others of the sort the hon. Member mentioned.
Is it not unacceptable that at present building societies have an abundance of money that they are able to lend at gross rates of 11 per cet. while local authorities are having to pay nearly half as much again for the money they borrow to finance public authority building? What step does my right hon. Friend intend to take to deal with that situation?
I have said many times in the House that the crux of the difficulty concerns local authorities whose mortgage rate is above 11 per cent. About 50 authorities are entitled to lend above the building society rate of 11 per cent. This problem has troubled me a great deal in recent months, but without finding an additional subsidy, which I am not prepared to do for this purpose, there is no way in which I can help the authorities concerned.
Does the Secretary of State agree that local author-ties can play an increasing part in the granting of mortgages? Would it not be better for them to spend the money they are likely to have to lay out in buying up development land on providing mortgages for first-time buyers instead?
I want to see both local authorities and building societies as actively concerned as they can be in the granting of mortgages to first-time purchasers.
Is it not possible for a scheme to be devised under which building societies can, if necessary, take over some of the existing local authority mortgages thereby avoiding the increasing numbers of authorities who week by week, are having to charge rates of 12 per cent., 13 per cent., 14 per cent., and 15 per cent.? If this situation continues it will lead to disaster.
I take that point. We have spent a lot of time examining that possibility. At the moment the main priority in discussions between ourselves and the building societies must relate to the much wider and larger question of the £100 million switch in local authority lending. There will be regional discussions on this matter between the local authorities and the building societies, but whether out of these discussions can come a solution on the lines my hon. Friend is suggesting we shall have to wait and see.
Questions To Ministers
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I point out that, Question No. 15, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Crawford) asked a supplementary question, related to a report called "Census Indicators of Urban Deprivation" published by the Department of the Environment and referring to multiple deprivation, suggesting that that was at its worst in the West of Scotland? If the Secretary of State for the Environment wishes to wear a Scottish hat for certain purposes, is it not fair that Scottish Members should be entitled to question the right hon. Gentleman? We are being accused of asking too many questions—[An hon. Member "Too long."] If this House is not sympathetic to us on a most important question it knows where to send us. We are all keen to go.Surely the position is that we are entitled to ask questions of the Secretary of State for the Environment for as long as he is wearing his Scottish hat. He is insisting on wearing several Scottish hats. I suggest that we can only look to you, Mr. Speaker, for justice.
Order. The hon. Lady is on a serious point and one which raises considerable difficulty for the Chair. The hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Crawford) had been rising again and again on Questions which seemed to me to have nothing to do with the ministerial responsibility of the Secretary of State. He prefaced his supplementary question by talking about homelessness in Scotland. Action on that can be taken only by the Secretary of State for Scotland. It seemed to me that this was not an appropriate matter for a supplementary question today. I certainly do not want to exclude what I think are legitimate questions.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was seeking to point out in my question to the Sec- retary of State that there should be an increase in Scottish local authority spending. That is surely within the right hon. Gentleman's remit since his Department produced the report on deprivation.
I have listened to the point of order. I shall try to guide my actions accordingly in future. It is a difficult line to draw. If an hon. Member is trying to relate his question to a matter for which he contends that a Minister has some responsibility, l think the preface to the question had better be slightly different.
Business Of The House (Right Hon Member For Walsall, North)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement.In the business of the House which I announced on 22nd May, I included for 12th June the consideration of motions on the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse). The Government are very much aware of the strength of feeling in the House and in the country that the right hon. Gentleman is able to retain his position, privileges and salary as a Member of this House, despite what many consider to be his clear abandonment of his parliamentary duties, and as a result of the effective lack of representation in this House of the electors of Walsall, North. The right hon. Member's constituents justifiably feel extremely aggrieved. The Government fully recognise the force of the arguments advanced by the Select Committee under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), whose reports are before the House. The Government note the Committee's view that the right hon. Member has had ample opportunity to return to the United Kingdom and to attend the House since he was first invited to appear before the Select Committee in January. The Government, however, have also to take account of the fact that there are pending criminal charges against the right hon. Gentleman, including charges of forgery, theft and fraud. The Government have been advised that to proceed with the debate at this time could be prejudicial to the conduct of any subsequent legal proceedings against the right hon. Gentleman, not because the subject matter of the debate would in any way be concerned with questions of the right hon. Gentleman's guilt or innocence of the charges, but because many of the considerations which the House will have to take into account in discussing the motion for the expulsion of the right hon. Member could be held to be prejudicial to public attitudes towards him and might be relevant to issues which would have to be taken into consideration in any proceedings against him. The Government do not believe that it would be right for this House, as the supreme law-making body, to do anything which might in any way prejudice the treatment of any citizen before the courts. A further consideration and an extremely important one, arose last night when the Government were informed that the right hon. Member had been moved to the psychiatric ward of Pentridge Prison, Melbourne. This must, of course, cast doubt on his mental condition, and the House will no doubt agree that this further development is decisive in considering whether or not we should debate the matter. The motions which stand in my name have accordingly been withdrawn and there will, therefore, be no debate on the right hon. Member tomorrow. Following this decision, it has been decided that the business for tomorrow should be rearranged to allow for the completion of the remaining stages of the Social Security Pensions Bill by about 7 p.m., followed by the debate as already announced on motions on Members' interests.
Would it not have been quite intolerable that this House should seek to proceed against one of its Members in circumstances connected with alleged offences for which he had not been tried, let alone found guilty? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the decision which he has announced will be received with relief by all who have the good name of this House at heart?
Will my right hon. Friend agree that while many hon. Members in all parts of the House sympathise enormously with regard to the deteriorating condition of the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse), we must also express considerable sympathy for the 71,525 constituents of Walsall, North who have already been unrepresented for seven months and who could possibly be unrepresented for a further year? Can my right hon. Friend offer any encouragement to the constituents of Walsall, North for believing that this situation will be ended as soon as possible? Does my right hon. Friend not agree that in the confrontation between this House and the right hon. Member for Walsall, North, be he lucid or not, the right hon. Member appears to be winning hands down?
The whole House would wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) for the work he has done in representing the constituents of Walsall, North. We are grateful to him for doing that. I think he will agree about the two considerations which I have mentioned. The first is that a decision this week to expel the right hon. Member would inevitably have an effect on the minds of potential jurors in any trial which may follow later this year. We cannot run the risk of prejudicing the right hon. Gentleman's chances of a fair trial. The other consideration is the fact that the right hon. Gentleman was moved to the psychiatric ward in the prison yesterday. These two considerations together are quite decisive.
Order. In view of the terms of the Lord President's statement, it would be better for the House to move on to the next business.
I will, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, make a statement on Rhodesia.I told the House on 21st May that I was considering the next steps to be taken in the matter of Rhodesia and that I hoped to make a further statement in the near future. I have since been in touch with the Presidents of Zambia, Tanzania and Botswana, with the Prime Minister of South Africa and with Mr. Smith. I have also had further talks with ANC leaders who returned to Salisbury from the Kingston conference through London; and last week I had a useful discussion with Bishop Muzorewa. All are agreed that the urgent objective is to get discussions going to secure a peaceful solution to Rhodesia's problems by negotiation, though of course there are substantial differences of emphasis between them about how best to achieve this. I have concluded that the time has come when the Government should be directly in touch with Mr. Smith at ministerial level. Accordingly, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will visit Salisbury later this month—the precise date is still to be worked out—for discussions with Mr. Smith, with ANC leaders and others. He will consult with all concerned about the modalities and the timing of the next steps. Her Majesty's Government are ready to convene a constitutional conference on Rhodesia. I think it is accepted that there would need to be a formal conference to reach final agreement on a solution based on majority rule for Rhodesia. Some argue that this should come only after a basic agreement has been reached between the Africans and Europeans within Rhodesia. But the progress which has been made on that basis during the past six months is hardly encouraging. Certainly, the more progress that can be made the better, and I am pleased to see that further meetings between the two sides in Rhodesia are in prospect. I believe and hope that both Mr. Smith and the ANC are ready to discuss substantial matters, such as the franchise, in these meetings, and I have urged all concerned to do so. Lest there should be any doubt, however, I should like to state quite clearly now that it is my intention to convene a constitutional conference as soon as the Government consider it opportune to do so. Questions about timing and preliminaries and modalities for a conference are matters which my right hon. Friend will explore further with the parties directly concerned when he visits Salisbury. The House will see that I am not setting a deadline for the commencement of a conference. If, as I hope, both sides in their direct talks began now to negotiate issues of substance, I would not be dogmatic as to the timing of the Government's proposed conference. But a start must be made before it is too late, and if it is clear in due course that substantial progress is not resulting from the direct talks between Mr. Smith and the ANC, it will then become the Government's responsibility to call the parties together. Everybody who has followed the affairs of Rhodesia knows only too well of the wide gap between white and black Rhodesians which remains to be bridged and of the significant changes of attitude that are required. I hope that the ANC itself, when it meets in congress on 21st and 22nd June, will define its policy in terms of a peaceful and multi-racial solution. It is my expectation that my right hon. Friend's visit will assist in these matters. The House will also wish to know more about the question of assistance to Mozambique over the implementation of sanctions, which was advocated by the Commonwealth Heads of Government in the communiqué issued after the conference in Kingston last month. Since then we have been in further consultation with the future leaders of Mozambique. We have indicated that the British Government are ready to make available a generous programme of development assistance in order to assist them in countering the economic problems which would arise for Mozambique from the application of sanctions against Rhodesia. It is our intention that such assistance in countering the problems posed by sanctions should be provided under the auspices of the United Nations, and we hope that other member Governments of the United Nations will also be prepared to assist Mozambique generously in this way. In conclusion, I should like to take this opportunity to emphasise that the Government remain pledged to do all that lies within their power to promote a peaceful settlement in Rhodesia as the alternative to the violence which, as the Commonwealth Heads of Government recognised in Kingston, will otherwise be inevitable. It is up to people in Rhodesia to seize now what may well be their last chance to settle their differences and determine the future of their country without resort to further bloodshed—the last chance, too, perhaps to secure a future in which all races, black, white, Asian and Coloured, have their place. Her Majesty's Government are ready to do all we can to help them do this. But the basic opportunity is theirs.
May I thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary for his statement and say that the Opposition wish the Minister of State all success in his mission? We note that any development assistance to Mozambique will be within the United Nations framework, and that is important. In general, I think we all recognise that the problem of Rhodesia is critical and urgent. While we cannot ourselves express a view on particular solutions at this stage, if the collective wisdom of the House of Commons can contribute to a solution, we shall be happy to take part in it.
I am obliged for the way in which the right hon. Gentleman put his views and those of his hon. Friends. It is my earnest hope that Mr. Smith and the ANC will themselves be able to reach a solution that is agreed between them. That is undoubtedly the most likely way in which we shall get a permanent and lasting solution. It is against that background that, to give confidence to both sides, I have indicated that, if those talks seem not to make progress, Her Majesty's Government will be ready to step in to help. First, I hope that they will continue to make more progress in the next two or three months than they have made so far.
My right hon. Friend knows that the last thing I want to do is to make his unenviable task more difficult, but he will recall that on other occasions I have said that it is a mistake for the Government to get involved in the Rhodesian problem. Will not my right hon. Friend at this late hour urge upon the Rhodesians, both African and European. to get together and resolve the problem for themselves?
My right hon. Friend speaks with great authority on these matters. What he says is exactly in accord with my approach. In my contacts with Mr. Smith and the ANC, both in writing and in conversation, I have urged them to try to solve this problem themselves but, at the end of the day, if they cannot themselves solve the problem, there is still a basic responsibility on the House of Commons and upon the Government of this country to see what they can do.
We on the Liberal Bench register our support for the statement which has been made by the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary. We particularly welcome the choice of the Minister of State as the envoy in this task in view of his record in these matters. Will the right hon. Gentleman make clear to Mr. Smith that intransigence on his part or, to be more accurate, on the part of some of his supporters, can, sadly, only serve to encourage those within nationalist movements who believe that violence is the only way forward?
Yes, Sir, I will certainly do so, and I have done so. It is unfortunate that frequently extremists of both sides can prevent a sensible solution. In this case there is a growing awareness that time is short and that Rhodesia is approaching a watershed. Undoubtedly, within a matter of months there will be a determination to go either one way or the other, and it is our job to see that there is a peaceful solution if it is at all possible.
I wish my right hon. Friend well in his efforts to solve this long-standing and difficult problem. Will he confirm that the basis of the discussions from the point of view of Her Majesty's Government will be the six principles, bearing in mind that the sixth principle becomes increasingly important as time progresses?
Yes, Sir, that still underlines the approach of Her Majesty's Government. As my right hon. Friend says, as the Africans are now engaged in talks with Mr. Smith—and who would have thought it possible that leaders who were in prison a few months ago should now be actively engaged in talks with Mr. Smith?—-it is increasingly important that any agreement that is reached should be acceptable to the African people.
I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman said about talks being possible between the various leaders in Rhodesia, but is it not also encouraging in this difficult situation that Rhodesia's neighbouring States—particularly Zambia—are anxious for a settlement? Is not that a helpful factor? Will the right hon. Gentleman be a little cautious when he refers to the future leaders of Mozambique, because that country is very unstable?
There is no doubt that the President of Zambia, together with other neighbours of Rhodesia, including South Africa, have played and are playing a moderating part in respect of those with whom they have influence. That is one of the hopeful factors. There is no doubt that the new leaders of Mozambique will take over in very difficult circumstances for themselves, and it is our task to help them as much as we can.
If we are serious about helping the new leaders of Mozambique, is it not sensible under United Nations auspices to undertake a joint programme with the Brazilians, who are Portuguesespeaking and have already pioneered in this sphere?
I know of my hon. Friend's good heart, but Mozambique will be an independent country on 25th June. One of the reasons for my being a little reserved in what I have said is that I think that the new Government of Mozambique must reach some of these conclusions themselves. We are willing and ready to discuss with the incoming leaders the best forms of approach, and the kind of proposal that my hon. Friend has made will be borne in mind.
There have been reports recently of mercenaries being recruited in this country to conduct sabotage and acts of terrorism in Rhodesia. If these reports are accurate, will this trade be discouraged in the interests of a worthwhile discussion?
I would certainly hope so. I have no information about this matter, but if the hon. Gentleman cares to table a Question I shall look into it. Clearly mercenaries recruited to fight on one side or the other will hamper the prospects of negotiations at this stage in the discussions in Rhodesia.
I express my support for my right hon. Friend's views on Mozambique and couple with that the hope that the support will be generous enough to make Smith's pips squeak. As regards the resolution of the present situation, whether that results from ANC-Smith talks or from tripartite talks between my right hon. Friend, the ANC and Smith, how does my right hon. Friend propose to enforce the consequences of the talks without giving the Smith régime even more time?
We have already had preliminary discussions on aid to Mozambique. Once they become a fully-fledged and legitimate Government after 25th June, it will be possible to make a further announcement. I hope that it will be of considerable help. As regards the second part of the talks, whether bilateral or tripartite, I think I must see how the talks progress before I make a further report on what we would do to enforce the consequences. I would not want to over-rate the prospects of this country, several thousands of miles away, being able to enforce a solution, which we have not so far succeeded in doing in the past 10 years.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give a boost to negotiations by stating that any agreement that might be reached between the ANC and Europeans in Rhodesia would meet British conditions so far as acceptability and so far as Mozambique are concerned? Will the right hon. Gentleman inform the House whether the commitment to give financial help is in terms of a once-and-for-all payment or an open-ended commitment for an indefinite period of years?
I do not think that it would be proper for me to give a blank cheque to anyone who is discussing this problem in terms that this House will in all circumstances accept the consequences or that the Government will recommend them. I think that we would need to wait and see what emerged. Clearly any agreement that is reached between representative leaders of the ANC and Mr. Smith and his Government would naturally command a great deal of weight in this House. I do not think that we can go further than that. As regards aid to Mozambique, I would prefer to defer an answer to that question, except to say that nothing that the British Treasury ever does is open-ended. We have made specific proposals, but in deference to the new Government in Mozambique I think I should not announce them until they are ready.
Is not the success of these talks likely to depend crucially on the attitude of the South African Government and the pressures that they are willing to bring to bear on Rhodesia? Will my right hon. Friend consider gently suggesting to South Africa that the willingness of this country to bail out South Africa in the United Nations, as we did only two or three weeks ago, will be sharply reduced unless it is willing to bring this kind of pressure to bear?
South Africa has considerable influence in this matter, but I do not think that it would be right for me to make a bargain with South Africa. On an issue of this sort we must judge our reaction in the United Nations by reference to the resolutions put up there and not by reference to what we think South Africa will do if we take a particular course of action.
May I assure the Foreign Secretary how much I personally welcome, first, his realistic assessment of Britain's power in this context and, secondly, his refusal to suggest even any possibility of horse-trading with South Africa, which I am certain would not work. As over the past 10 years events have clearly demonstrated that successive British Governments have been less than fully briefed on the complexity of this situation, will the Foreign Secretary ask his right hon. Friend who is to represent him in Salisbury to take with him the most excellent article that appeared in the Financial Times three weeks ago, which pointed out how complete and far-reaching is the interdependence of Rhodesia and the countries on its borders?
My right hon. Friend will have heard the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that he will do a great deal of reading before he goes to Salisbury. Perhaps I should add, for the benefit of the House, that I have been in touch with the South African Government and that my right hon. Friend will be visiting Pretoria, too, during the time he is in Rhodesia.
Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a personal statement to explain my resignation from the Government.I say at once that it is a real sadness to me that I can no longer continue my work at the Ministry of Overseas Development. The House will know that I have devoted my time to the interests of the Third World for some six years in Opposition and in Government. As I told the Prime Minister on Monday, I had a White Paper in draft. I hope that it will see the light of day. With the dedicated help of my former staff in the Ministry, I have set a course in development strategy which I think is commanding some support throughout the world. One of my last acts as Minister on referendum day, 5th June, was to have my disaster unit send a 50-bed hospital to help the famine in Somalia. Today I was to have announced to the Development Committee in Paris that our assistance to the poorest countries will from now on be entirely in the form of grants rather than in terms of repayable loans. I would like to say through you, Mr. Speaker, to my former Ministry how much gratitude I have to the staff for their work in the past year in meeting the detailed demands of a new strategy and how much I hope for its success, and how sorry I am to leave them. As all right hon. and hon. Members who have ever been faced with such a decision will well know, resignation is never a simple matter. My own decision arises from a mix of factors. I do not today put them in order of importance. Perhaps in a few weeks I shall be able to do so. I can only say to the House that they all entered into my decision last night. The Prime Minister, when he sees the record of my statement, will recall that he gave an undertaking as Leader of the Opposition to create an Overseas Development Ministry as an independent Ministry away from the Department of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. It was part of our manifesto, and it was fulfilled. I do not think that it caused any intolerable problems within the Government. It may have caused good constructive tensions, but I doubt whether my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary could claim that I have made his life too difficult. I regret the Prime Minister's decision to deprive my Ministry of its independence, whatever the change in the status of its Minister. It is my Ministry that is the real loser. Frankly, I can see no reason for the Prime Minister to sack me from my Ministry. I would have enjoyed the opportunity to develop my policies with my colleagues within the European Community. Of course, there is a further background to my decision. Judgments of this kind are immensely serious and they reflect inevitably a mood of anxiety and concern. One is driven over the edge of the abyss not by the specifics of a situation but by its political context. I fear that we are witnessing the first dangerous stages of what could prove to be a historic catastrophe for the Labour Party and the Labour movement. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] I do not expect Opposition Members to agree with me. I am speaking if I may, to my hon. Friends on the Labour benches. I hope that the House will be kind enough to listen to me. If I am right, it is a catastrophe that must be prevented. The City, the CBI and the Conservative Party have served notice on the Government that they must sacrifice the industrial policies on which they were elected and in the shaping of which I played some part in my party. It is a radical policy, but it is a relevant policy. Socialism must always be relevant to the problems of our nation and people. As a nation we face great economic problems. If the Government seek to solve them by capitalist methods—and I trust they will not do so—and abandon their Socialist policies, they will fail to resolve the economic crisis and will betray the Labour movement. Every Minister involved at every stage of the work on the Industry Bill has been displaced. I cannot disregard the consequence of that. I shall support the Prime Minister and the Government. I shall work for my party, for the Labour movement and for the Third World. I leave the Govern- ment with no bitterness or rancour. Policies of political philosophy always matter a great deal more than do individuals. I have tried to make my statement today, which I felt I should do, in concern for my party and its policies.
Child Protection (Medicines)
I beg to move,
It is always not only infinitely pathetic but desperately worrying to have a poisoned child on one's hands. The House has twice given me leave to introduce a Bill to tackle the incidence of accidental child poisoning, but the Government have stone-walled further progress with monotonous regularity with the cry that no Bill is necessary because the whole thing can be done under present legislation. If that is the case, why has this not happened? [Interruption.]That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide protection for young children against the dangers inherent in medicinal substances.
You do not say that to anyone else.
Order. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) must not talk to me like that.
Perhaps it is an apposite moment to say that Ministers have a lot on their minds. I do not cavil at the fact that they have to take a good deal of bullying by myself and others to end a period of delays, excuses and evasions and to bring the Minister to the point of saying that steps are at least to be taken. That can be seen from the Official Report of 23rd April 1975, at column 327.The reason I seek to introduce this Bill today is that those steps are too few and too faltering. The Government must understand that the public demand nothing less than determined, firm and comprehensive action to stop little children from being poisoned by accidentally swallowing medicines from bottles or containers which are too easily opened. Yet the Government deserve a bouquet even if it is, to use the Minister's description of his own measures in his statement, "limited". The Government set up a Committee to study child resistant closures, and they get one bloom for not taking everything it said as gospel. They questioned experts about the report, and it was just as well they did. Parts of the report were sound but other parts were not. As Dr. David Reid, the paediatric expert from Birkenhead wrote:
Dr. Reid concludes by saying:"It is unfortunate that the Medicines Commission did not seek the advice of the British Paediatric Association or its representative on the British Standards Institution before publishing their report on child resistant closures. As the Medicines Commission was deprived of the necessary information about CRCs, it is perhaps not surprising that their report was disappointing."
What an indictment! The Government get another bloom for rejecting that part of the report which suggested that the problem could be solved by introducing strip and blister packs for tablets. This may have been thought to be a good idea, but it is bulky, expensive, and will cause difficulties for patients who have to take two or three pills a day. I give one more flower to the Government for introducing dark-tinted or opaque containers, and yet another for limiting the number of tablets in a bottle of such items as junior aspirin. In an earlier speech in the House I pointed out that 30 junior aspirin can be a lethal or near-lethal dose, but that bottles of 50 junior aspirin were still being marketed. Therefore, the Government are awarded four flowers and a plume of greenery for decreeing that aspirin and paracetamol tablets shall, after 1st January 1977, be packed in child resistant containers. But the bouquet would have been far bigger, and the time of the House this afternoon would have been saved, if the Government had gone the whole hog and said that all medicines which could be dangerous to young children would have to be put in child resistant containers. The Medicines Report rightly states:"Paediatric poisoning will decrease dramatically or almost disappear if CRCs are adopted, as suggested several years ago. The failure of the Department of Health and its advisers has resulted in the unnecessary poisoning over the years of at least 100,000 children."
Why are the Government stopping so far short of covering all dangerous medicines? We are not concerned simply with the deaths of children, because most poisoned children do not die, but with the fact that all of them have to undergo treatment which is extremely distressing and painful—and expensive, too. A night or two in hospital, multiplied by thousands, costs the National Health Service money which it simply has not got. How absurd to fail to take action which, as the American and Canadian experience has proved beyond question, would avoid that pain and expense. Contraceptive pills are not covered, although one doctor said recently that more tiny children have to spend a night or two in hospital recovering from the effects of a stomach pump after taking mother's birth pill than after any other accidentally-taken medicine. These young children have mothers who frequently are on the pill, and of course those pills are kept in the home. Furthermore, cough syrup is not covered, although some contains enough soporifics and anti-histamines to pole-axe any tot who swigs the whole bottle. The flavour is often so good that the tiny tot is encouraged to drink it. No liquid medicines are covered, although much of it is dangerous to small children. Why did the Government not insist that warnings should be put on these bottles? That could be done at once with no expense at all. Finally, I must point out that unless the Government pass legislation adopting CRCs over the whole range of potentially dangerous medicines, all sorts of a soi-disant, do-it-yourself CRC may be used. The chemical industry and the packaging people know that for many reasons CRCs must come. They want to export, and we must remember that soon all countries will insist that these products should be child-resistant. Some firms are already adopting their own. Unless there is a properly agreed standard, laid down by law, some will be poor. Already some cheap copies of American caps, which do not meet American safety standards, have been introduced over here. A hotch-potch of differing closures, some effective and some not, would have very dangerous implications. I ask the House for leave to introduce this small Bill which seeks to do what casualty officers, paediatricians, public opinion and thousands of distraught parents have been demanding for years."Most medicines are potentially dangerous."
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Jill Knight, Mr. John Page, Mr. Philip Holland, Mrs. Joyce Butler, Mr. Robert Boscawen and Mr. Roger Sims.
Child Protection (Medicines)
Mrs. Jill Knight accordingly presented a Bill to provide protection for young children against the dangers inherent in medicinal substances: and the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 11th July and to be printed. [Bill 175.]
Social Security Pensions Money (No 2)
Queen's Recommendation having been signified—
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to provide for relating the rates of social security retirement pensions and certain other benefits to the earnings on which contributions have been paid and to make other amendments in the law relating to social security and to occupational pensions, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of a mobility allowance, under Chapter II of Part II of the Social Security Act 1975, to and in respect of persons under pensionable age (within the meaning of that Act) and suffering from physical disablement such that they are either unable to walk or virtually unable to do so; the rate of the allowance to be £5 a week.— [M r. O'Malley.]
I am sure that the Minister will accept that this is a restrictive money resolution. The House should be clear about its effect. Once it is passed, we shall be unable to question further the amount of the allowance—namely, £5—or the groups to which it applies. In other words, we shall be unable to extend it and to increase it. Therefore, there are a number of points that I should like to ask the Government about.The first point concerns the amount of £5. When the Government originally announced their allowance in the plans which they put before the House last September, the amount was to be £4. The increase of £1 might on the face of it, sound a generous increase but, in fact, it seems simply to take account of inflation. Probably the most useful index to consider is the general index of retail prices for motoring and cycling. Some measure of the inflation which has taken place in this country is manifested by the fact that this index rose between September 1974 and April 1975 by just under 20 per cent. We could look at other indices but they would also show a similar trend. When making a comparison of that kind, we are talking about the date of commencement. The Government are becoming quite fond of announcing increases several months before they become operative, with the effect that those increases sound rather good at the time, but they are not so good when they actually come to be paid. The mobility allowance is different. The dates of payment differ. In a statement last September, the Secretary of State said that she would introduce the allowance in stages. The first stage would start in 1975–76 and the subsequent stages would be spread over the next three years. Therefore, on the plans already before the House, that process will end in 1978–79. I shall leave that point at this stage except to emphasise that the current rate of inflation will almost certainly mean that even at the initial starting date of the allowance, the £5 will not be worth the £4 which was originally announced and, if left unchanged, would become progressively worse. That is a point to which we shall want to return. The second point is clearly the cost to public funds of this allowance. This, clearly, is tied to the rate of payment; but what is the initial net cost to public expenditure of introducing this allowance? Has the Minister any further projections on this matter? Finally, the pension is payable:
As I understand it—and I think I am probably right—the effect of this is that someone who has been paid the allowance for the whole of his working life or for many years will lose that allowance at the age of 65. I am aware that this same criticism could be made of other allowances which are paid by the Department. I simply ask whether our assumption here is correct that allowances like the mobility allowances should come automatically to an end on retirement. Does this not accentuate the break from a working life that is already marked by retirement? This matter may be of particular importance to the disabled. I shall be interested to know what the Government's thinking is on that point and the previous two points."in respect of persons under pensionable age".
We were warned on a previous occasion to look very closely at money resolutions. No matter how hard we tried to table amendments to an earlier Bill, we were defeated by the money resolution. I had hoped that the Treasury would have learned its lesson by now, but apparently it has not.I find it very sad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should have to speak on this money resolution which I consider to be obscene. We are being treated as nothing but Lobby fodder today. I tabled seven reasonable amendments. Those seven reasonable amendments have come from a wide variety of organisations: the Disablement Income Group, Action Research Ltd., the Central Council for the Disabled, the Disability Alliance and the National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children. Those organisations have provided me with information which has enabled me to table these amendments. A substantial number of disabled persons have given hon. Members on both sides of the House information which is crucial to the debate. A substantial number of people who are professionally involved with disabled persons have also provided information. This money resolution absolutely forbids us to table amendments which could be discussed. Through the courtesy of the usual channels, I have been told on good authority that out of my seven good amendments and the one amendment from the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) and the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) only two will stand precisely because of the terms in which this money resolution is drafted. Are we to be told that the Treasury knows more about disabled people than hon. Members on both sides of this House? Does the Treasury know more than the voluntary organisations? Does it know more than disabled persons themselves? Does it know more than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other hon. Gentlemen on the Government Front Bench? The answer is "No". It is high time back benchers told the Treasury "You will not hem us in. You will not prevent us from discussing these matters. You are not the final arbiter. You are our servant, and not our master." Let this be the last time that the Treasury tells us how we shall table our amendments.
I rise briefly to endorse the very forceful plea made by the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones). This is not the first time that this House has been treated in a most disgraceful way. Legislation is brought before the House in a "take it or leave it" attitude. We are not able to amend or improve it; we can only accept it or reject it absolutely. I reinforce what the hon. Member for Eccles said, and I hope that this is the last time that the Department of Health and Social Security takes its instructions from the Treasury in the way that it has done in the past year.
I also rise to support the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones). It is well known already to those of us who happen to use motor cars just how much the cost has gone up, but when we consider the difference in the cost of motoring between last September, when the announcement was made of the mobility allowance, and now we find that it means an increase of 31½ per cent.Because of the money resolution, we cannot discuss those amendments which would seek to provide just the ability to have some mobility and alleviate the specific problems of some groups excluded by the Bill. I hope that, as on previous occasions, both sides of the House will unite, and will do so again if the Treasury should ever try it again, in saying "We have had enough. It is this House, not civil servants, that is here to legislate."
I endorse the strong protests from both sides of the House about the limitation imposed by the money resolution. Many of us involved in consultations and work with representatives of bodies for the disabled outside the House feel very strongly that on such an important matter as the new mobility allowance we should be able to table amendments and raise important aspects of the allowance and its place in the whole range of disability allowances.In the Whitsun Adjournment debate I raised the matter of invalid tricycles. The Minister who replied did not have time to deal with the specific points on the commutation of disability allowances, allowing people to receive in a lump sum, say, four or five years' allowance to purchase a vehicle, something which is very important to people these days. I sought to raise the matter in an amendment, which has been found to be outside the money resolution. I add my voice most strongly to the criticism of the Department for bringing forward this measure with such a serious limitation on the money resolution, not allowing any hon. Member to raise these important matters.
I join in what hon. Members have said about the terms of the money resolution, and particularly endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) said. It is intolerable that the Treasury not only should dictate the total amount of money to be spent, something which may be acceptable, but should seek to dictate by the terms of the money resolution the exact way in which money is to be spent by including the words
That is the very essence of what most of us would have wished to discuss in connection with the new clause. If the Treasury have to lay down a maximum total sum, that is fair enough, but to tell us exactly how the money is to be spent, and the exact rate of the allowance, is to remove from the House the opportunity to discuss matters of vital concern to the disabled and hon. Members. Those are the issues we came here to talk about, and we are precluded from doing so by the money resolution. I sincerely trust that this situation will not occur again."suffering from physical disablement such that they are either unable to walk or virtually unable to do so".
The hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Boscawen) spoke the greatest truth so far this afternoon when he said that this is not the first time the House has laboured to do its work under a money resolution defining the parameters of possible policy. This is the continuing practice of all Govern- ments. If hon. Members will pause and be slightly adult in their response—[Interruption.] I include everybody, and I shall answer my hon. Friends.I say very advisedly, without rancour, that we must be adult in our behaviour in social and economic policy today, and not merely consider that government or democracy or the representation of the people consists of a different group coming to the House every afternoon to demand limitless expenditure on their particular subject which is before the House that day. Art entirely different group of hon. Members might be meeting tomorrow, next Monday or all the days of next week demanding to know whether they do not know better than the Treasury about this or that group in our society, and then walk out, having no responsibility to do the sums, the adding up, which is the job of the Government and the Treasury. Parliament has to do all the adding up, and half the Parliament that is trying to do the spending one day will be defeated a short while afterwards when it comes to paying for it. I say to my hon. Friends that the Government must do both sets of sums—not only the spending adding up, but the paying adding up. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) would be leading his troops into the Lobby in defiance of the Government when it came to paying for the extra expenditure he claims this afternoon the right to demand. Successive Governments have produced restrictive money resolutions—and for obvious reasons. One of the most poignant examples that I have in mind concerns the Pensioners Payments and National Insurance Contributions Act 1972, which introduced the Christmas bonus. The money resolution was drawn so tightly that it was impossible to extend the lump sum payment to any group in our society, however deserving, including the disabled, unless they were pensioners. That was done because the Conservative Government of the day decided that that was all that the economy could manage at the time. We opposed them on that. When we came into office we had to do our sums, including the sums about paying for an extension. Having done so, we legislated to extend the Christmas bonus to the groups that the Conservatives had left out. That is how it must be done. We have been criticised for the increased taxation that we have introduced to carry out the policies in which we believe enough to be prepared to pay for them. I do not mind hon. Members criticising us—
Whilst hon. Members on both sides of the House accept that the Treasury must retain the final decision on how the money should be spent, what they find offensive is that the Treasury has prevented hon. Members from redistributing the amount in ways which they think would better help the disabled.
Detailed points have been raised with which my hon. Friend the Minister for the disabled will be dealing in the later debate.The Government had to do their calculations with great anxiety at a time of acute economic difficulty, and we had to slot the allowance into a whole range of our proposals for social reform, many concerning the disabled, but others providing, for example, family allowance increases and improved pensions—a whole series of advances that we wanted to make. I deeply regret that my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) should, by his intemperate language, have obscured what is represented here as a remarkable advance in policy for the disabled. To say that it is obscene does the cause of the disabled no good. Of course, my hon. Friend has received amendments from seven pressure groups. Those pressure groups would not be earning their living if they were not always pushing at the door. That is what they are in business for. They have had great successes, which have been reflected already in this Government's policy.
The right hon. Lady keeps on referring in a rather derogatory way to pressure groups outside the House. It is a democratic function of those pressure groups to seek to persuade hon. Members, and it is then up to hon. Members to make up their own minds. One of the Opposition's objections to the procedure the right hon. Lady is now adopting is that we have not had time to assess what the pressure groups are saying, and the pressure groups have not had tim eto assess their own case.
I do not accept that. We shall later come to detailed discussions on the lengthy new proposals that we are introducing. My hon. Friend the Minister for the disabled, who is in more continuous and intimate contact with these pressure groups—I do not use the term in any derogatory sense in speaking of these representative groups of the disabled—will be able to demonstrate to the House that their views have been fully sought and fully taken into account, but in the end it all adds up to money.
May I make perfectly clear to my right hon. Friend that I used the term "obscene" not about the mobility allowance, which is absolutely wonderful. I am delighted with it and very pleased that it has come in. Some of us have fought for it for a long time. What I think is obscene is that back benchers cannot play their role in this matter. I tell my right hon. Friend, who is a very great friend of mine, that I, too, am in touch with these pressure groups, and I will tell her quite clearly that they are deeply disturbed by the way in which we have had our hands tied. They have produced for us perfectly reasonable amendments to which they give priority and which, if adopted, would be most helpful to disabled people. But we can do nothing about it.
I appreciate my hon. Friend's work in this connection, and he is right to criticise and attack the motion if he wishes, but what he must accept is that every one of the proposals that he wants to make has expenditure implications that would alter the whole financial ambit within which we have proceeded to work.My point to my hon. Friend is that this package for the disabled, for which we have legislated in a matter of 18 months—this is the fourth item of it—is an outstanding achievement in a period of outstanding national economic difficulty. Let us consider the cost of the mobility allowance alone. The cost of the present scheme for the invalid vehicle and the private car allowance is £12½ million. The extra cost, on top of the £.12½ million, when we announced the scheme was to be £15 million. Now, as a result of a 25 per cent. increase in the amount we postulated, before it has even been brought into operation that cost goes up to £19 million for a mobility allowance alone. I remind Opposition Members that it was their Government, when they were in office, which set up the committee under Lady Sharp to examine the problems of mobility for the disabled, within such restricted terms of reference as to the financial considerations to be borne in mind that it produced a scheme which was not only highly controversial but would merely have added £3 million to the expenditure. So really it does not lie in the mouths of hon. Gentlemen or hon. Ladies opposite to complain that we are merely spending £19 million and restricting the money resolution in such a way that they cannot go ahead and make it £25 million or even £50 million. We would all love to do it, but I repeat that it is not the job of the Opposition to find the money to pay for their ideas.
Would my right hon. Friend accept that many of us understand the difficulties of the Government in the present economic circumstances, and that the amount to be spent on the mobility allowance may have to be limited to £19 million, though many of us would like it to be more? What we do not accept is that it should be determined outside the scope of this House whether that £19 million is to be spent at the rate of £5 a week for those totally unable to walk, or whether it might be preferable to consider giving it at a slightly lower level and making the catchment area wider. What has happened is that that discussion is wholly ruled out of order, and hon. Members legitimately and rightly resent and object to the exclusion of their entitlement to discuss, within the parameter of the expenditure the Government allow, the way in which the money is to be spent.
What my hon. Friend is saying, with immense plausibility—I can see that he has a point—is that one might be able to distribute the money differently, but drawing the money resolution differently would not prevent this House from using its freedom of action actually to increase the amount. We cannot have a situation in which the Government are called upon time and time again by the Opposition to take a tighter control of public expenditure and then asked to introduce an open-ended money resolu- tion which would enable the whole of the Government's budgeting to be blown out of the water. I say advisedly to my hon. Friend that that has happened, and he knows quite well that it can happen. When it happens, the extra money simply has to be taken from somewhere else. That is why there must inevitably be a responsibility upon the Department concerned to try to balance the different considerations for the different sections of society that we are trying to help.I repeat that it should be taken into account that the Government, in their period of 18 months in office, have already legislated for the non-contributory invalidity pension, which is coming into operation in November this year. They have legislated for the invalid care allowance to help those looking after disabled relatives. That is to come into operation in the next financial year. They have introduced the pocket-money pension for the patients in mental hospitals. That is coming into operation in November of this year. Now we bring a fourth item before the House, the mobility allowance, which will come into operation on 1st January 1976. Like the attendance allowance, it is to be phased in over three years. It will extend the benefit of mobility to about 150,000 people. It should be realised again that this is all in addition to a 50 per cent. increase in pensions and invalidity benefit so far introduced by this Government since they came into office—an increase that will go up to 72 per cent. with the further uprating already announced for November of this year. This very Bill meets one of the very clamant demands over the years of the pressure group, with which my hon. Friend and I have both been associated—the Disablement Income Group. We have met its outstanding demand that the disabled should be covered by earnings-related benefit. The Conservative Government, when they were in office, refused to do that in their 1973 Social Security Bill when some of us moved amendments. We do not pretend that we have gone the whole way, but we have, in this remarkably short period, proceeded to advance over the field in which these groups are rightly interested. Nobody is more interested in it than my hon. Friend the Minister for the disabled. This is the answer to the points raised in the opening remarks by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield. Yes, it is a restrictive money resolution, and it has to be. We have spent to the limit. It is as simple as that. I repeat to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann) that if there were a way of drafting a money resolution that allowed the same amount of money to be jigged around without increasing the total, that would be a very different question. We listen, of course, to hon. Members' views, and take them into account. If there were adjustments compatible with the financial total, we would consider them in the light of the debate, but it must be within the overall total of expenditure. That will be the restraint upon any responsible Government at the present time. I repeat that the 25 per cent. increase is remarkable. It is the first uprating of a benefit that has ever taken place, to my knowledge, before it has been introduced. This is an earnest of the Government's recognition that this will not, of course, meet all the motoring costs of everybody. After all, those motoring costs vary according to the mileage, according to the method of transport, and the rest of it. This is intended to be a contribution to mobility, whether it be through helping people to run their own cars or groups of people coming together to share taxis or hire coaches to go on day trips. It is supposed to be a contribution to mobility for about 100,000 people who up to now have been denied it because they have been too disabled even to drive. As for the last point, I put this to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield. It is true that the money resolution restricts us to groups up to pensionable age. It is a three-year phasing point. It is our programme for the lifetime of this Parliament. It is not the programme until the end of time. We had to take certain priority categories, so we took the two groups—those of working age and then the children over five. Those were our priorities. They are all that we can accommodate within the public expenditure forecasts as far as we can foresee them for the lifetime of this Government. It does not mean that we believe that these mobility allowances or other grants should end on retirement. That is the last thing that I am saying today. I am saying merely that I think that we have established certain new principles in help for the disabled, and I know that the disabled recognise this. We have allocated millions of pounds of additional help to them in the lifetime of this Government. We have made a massive breakthrough, and we have kept faith even more fully than our election manifesto specified it. It is for that reason that the Government have to defend their achievements by defending the country's economy through the sort of money resolution that we have had to table.
Question put and agreed to.
That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to provide for relating the rates of social security retirement pensions and certain other benefits to the earnings on which contributions have been paid and to make other amendments in the law relating to social security and to occupational pensions, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of a mobility allowance, under Chapter II of Part II of the Social Security Act 1975, to and in respect of persons under pensionable age (within the meaning of that Act) and suffering from physical disablement such that they are either unable to walk or virtually unable to do so; the rate of the allowance to be £5 a week.
Social Security Pensions Bill
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That it be an Instruction to any Committee to which the Social Security Pensions Bill may be recommitted that they have power to make provision in the Bill for a new noncontributory benefit under Part II of the Social Security Act 1975, payable to and in respect of persons suffering from such physical disablement that they are unable to walk, or virtually unable to do so.—[Mr. O'Malley.]
I should inform the House that Mr. Speaker as selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler). I call the hon. Gentleman to move his amendment.
I beg to move, as an amendment to the proposed motion, at end add
So far, the Secretary of State has taken a slightly patrician view of the rôle of Members of Parliament. We are concerned about the procedure which has been used here. In effect, the Government have introduced at the eleventh hour what we all agree and all accept to be a major change—the mobility allowance. This has no natural connection with the Social Security Pensions Bill. It was not debated on Second Reading. It was not even mentioned. It was not mentioned in Committee, either. The Opposition's objection is that, by adopting this procedure, the Government have effectively deprived the House of the right to scrutinise what in effect is a new piece of legislation. The right hon. Lady has told us of the importance of this legislation and of its wide benefits. It is fundamentally important, we agree. However, it should have been allowed to go through the normal processes of legislation. The details of the new allowance appeared on the Order Paper the day before the Whitsun Recess. They appeared literally as hon. Members left to campaign in the referendum. It will not be surprising if some hon. Members have missed the details of it. I am sure that many people outside this House have missed the details and therefore have been deprived of the opportunity to make their views known—although the right hon. Lady spoke earlier in a somewhat derogatory manner about them. In the normal way, we would have had a Second Reading debate and a Committee stage. The proposal would have been scrutinised properly and, above all, we would have had a proper opportunity to consult not only the national organisations representing the disabled but also the local organisations and people in our constituencies whom we know to take a close interest in these matters. Instead, in effect, we are taking all the stages of this Bill in a couple of hours. What is the Government's excuse? They say that, unless we debate this tonight, we shall not debate it at all. They say that there is no more room in their legislative timetable. Whose fault is that? It is an argument which simply will not wash. The Government are saying that they have a long list of legislation such as the Industry Bill, the Community Bill and measures of that kind and, therefore, that there is no time to take through Parliament in the proper way the necessary legislation for the mobility allowance. In other words, the Government's long list of undesirable measures is being used as an excuse to keep out one of the few desirable measures which they are introducing. It seems to me that we are having one of those all-purpose pieces of enabling legislation foreshadowed by the Leader of the House in his famous radio interview. We now see the effect of such a change and how it results in there being insufficient time to scrutinise and insufficient time to consult. Unhappily, the Secretary of State has left the Chamber. It is always difficult to keep her in her seat for longer than 10 minutes at a time. But I find it strange that it should be the right hon. Lady who is using this device, bearing in mind that she travelled from the Oxford Union to the Brussels branch of Marks and Spencer proclaiming that the Common Market interfered with the right of Parliament to scrutinise and check legislation. The Opposition argue that because the cause of the disabled is so important, a proposal of this kind should be allowed to go through the proper procedures. Obviously we accept that the Government will have their way. Like the right hon. Lady in another respect, we are realists and we accept that the Government will win the vote. If that is the case, I hope that the Government will at least show consistency by not opposing our amendment to this Instruction on disabled housewives, which is an issue that is felt strongly by disabled people. Our amendment is nothing like as procedurally wide ranging as the Government's motion. But it is agreed on all sides that it is a fundamentally important amendment. It seeks to give a commencement date for the pension payable to disabled housewives. The Government have already accepted the case for disabled housewives to be paid benefit, following their defeat in Committee on the Social Security Benefits Bill, and they moved an amendment on Report which the House accepted. However, we still lack a commencement date. The latest Government pronouncement that I have seen suggests that they have in mind to introduce this in the year 1977–78. We say that this is too late. The purpose of our amendment is to put a commencement date to it. It also allows the Government, if the amendment is accepted, to modify it slightly or to go beyond it if they so wish. I know that the Under-Secretary of State recognises the strength of feeling that exists on this subject. Disabled housewives in this country—indeed, in all countries—face special difficulties. As the Department's report on the handicapped and the impaired pointed out in 1971, the disabled housewife faces a whole range of problems, such as problems of cooking, housework and shopping. Everyday tasks that ordinary housewives take for granted present special difficulties to the disabled. Their problem is not only real but, in the view of Conservative Members, also urgent. The hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) pointed out during the Committee stage of the Social Security Benefits Bill, another of the problems which arise, namely, that the disabled man is frequently looked after by his wife but the disabled housewife is, unfortunately, sometimes neglected. The new benefit will not solve these problems, but it will certainly help. That is why it is so important that the Government should accept our amendment. They should, at least, accept the right of this House to debate the issues which are involved. It may be that at the end of the day they will reject our proposed date, or they may undertake to bring forward a new commencement date. However, the Government should give the House the opportunity now to debate this related matter. I hope that the Government will also accept that inconsistencies will arise if the commencement date is not announced. It will mean, for example, that a single woman who receives the non-contributory invalidity pension will have this benefit taken away when she marries. It will also mean that the disabled single woman living in the same house as her brother will receive the benefit while the married woman living with her husband will not. Therefore this is a natural stage at which to debate this issue. There are strong feelings on both sides of the House and outside the House about the rights of disabled housewives. Strong feelings have been expressed by groups such as the Disabled Income Group. The Government have moved to extend the Bill. I hope, therefore, that they will accept our modest extension to the Bill.'and to make provision in the Bill for bringing into force section 36 of the Social Security Act 1975 on 1st January 1976 in respect of the entitlement to a non-contributory invalidity pension of a married woman who is incapable of performing normal household duties'.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) for his reference to the policies on which I have been working as the Government's most "desirable measures". In every administration there is great pressure on those who have to manage the legislative timetable. I hope that it will not be suggested that there has been any impropriety in the procedure that we have followed.There may have been a misunderstanding among Conservative Members, which I shall attempt to correct. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State wrote to the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and other hon. Members of Standing Committee A to explain the procedure which we were following in order to legislate for the mobility allowance at the earliest possible date. Our amendments were tabled before the recess. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield about the need for the fullest possible exchanges on new legislation. Nevertheless, I hope he will accept that we have been trying to move as quickly as possible and that this was the best available vehicle for legislating on the mobility allowance at the earliest possible moment.
We do not want to make a meal of the consultations. It is fair to point out that not our Chief Whip, and neither myself nor any hon. Members, apart from my hon. Friends on the Committee, were informed of this. In addition, no consultations took place on this point.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State was deeply concerned to be both helpful and courteous. It has not been easy to bring the legislation to the House, even at this date. I have had a great deal of help from my right hon. Friend and I trust that it will be accepted that when he wrote to the hon. Member for Rushcliffe and other hon. Members of Standing Committee A, he was attempting to help them and the House as a whole.
Will the Minister accept that the Minister of State wrote to about a dozen hon. Members of Standing Commitee A on the very last day of the last Session? The letter arrived on the Friday when the House was discussing Adjournment motions. Therefore, only a handful of hon. Members were about the House. We had concluded our proceedings and conversations in the Committee the day before. No intimation whatever had been given that the mobility allowance would be added to the Bill, but it must, by that stage, have been the Government's clear intention, because the amendments were tabled as soon as the House, in effect, dispersed, although theoretically it was still sitting. Two of those hon. Members who were discussing occupational pension schemes were on the all-party committee dealing with the disabled.Is that adequate notice to the House of the intention totally to change the nature of a Bill and to bring in changes on a subject such as the mobility allowance—a subject with which most of the Members of whom I speak were not the slightest bit concerned?
The responsibility is mine rather than that of my right hon. Friend. I have been having detailed consultation in order to find a vehicle for this purpose. I have received a great deal of co-operation from my hon. Friends, and I accept responsibility for any difficulty that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen may have in seeking to table amendments. My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones), nothwithstanding any lack of notice, was remarkably productive in tabling amendments. He has argued already that he has tabled far more amendments than it may be possible to discuss.
I should like to make it perfectly clear that I would rather have this desirable legislation passed by this method than not at all. I welcome it. I was reasonably quick off the mark with my amendments because outside organisations got at me quite quickly and gave me the amendments they wanted tabled. They were accepted. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State was a great help to me in Committee. The Whip to that Committee, another great friend, is here also.I have one objection to the procedure, namely, that when we tried in Committee to find a way round the cunning of the Treasury, we were able to beat the money resolution. What has happened here is that we have not had time to consult Mr. Peter Large—whom, I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will not mind my referring to as "the stranger in the House". He helped me on that occasion to find a way around the money resolution. What I am upset about this time is that I have not been given time to find a way of defeating it.
Order. The interruptions are becoming so long that I am forgetting who is addressing the House.
My hon. Friend has my admiration for his remarkable industry during the recent recess in tabling so many amendments.I readily acknowledge the ingenuity of Opposition Members in succeeding, by a novel procedure, in drawing further attention to our entirely new benefit for disabled housewives. The context chosen for this amendment is nothing if not surprising. I hope it will be accepted that the Government have moved with some speed to ensure legislative cover for the new benefit shortly to be debated. The mobility allowance is for many disabled people, including large numbers of disabled housewives. The provision we are seeking to make follows hard on the heels of legislation for our new non-contributory invalidity pension and our new invalid care allowance. The mobility allowance is to become part and parcel of legislation designed, among other things, to provide earnings-related invalidity pensions. All this is in close proximity to a major up-rating and to the announcement of a still further up-rating in November of this year. Jumping on a good bandwagon is not an unreasonable thing to do, but the bandwagon will not benefit from crowding by everyone who supports the new benefit. It has enormous support. Announcing in advance a three-year programme of changes necessarily involves the risk of being pressed to squeeze that programme into one or two years. However, the only way in which we can make that advance at all is by making it systematically, and in line with the realities of social security operations. We cannot simply feed a stream of legislation into a computer and thereby put benefits immediately into people's hands. For my part, I much regret that some observers are still ready to be unrealistic about what can be done and to blame recalcitrant officials for failure to do the impossible. The officials with whom I work are as keen as I am to move as quickly as we possibly can to make the new benefits payable. I need no reminding whatever of the importance of our new non-contributory invalidity pension for housewives. It will be one of the most significant and novel improvements in our social security system. It will be a novelty that by no means all advanced countries share. Moreover, it must be one that is carefully planned and sensibly fitted into what is overall a massive programme of changes. My officials have had preliminary discussions with the Disablement Income Group. I know that the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield will be especially pleased that we have been in consultation with DIG. We are also in touch with a number of other countries which have ventured into this area ahead of us. A doctor and a lay member of my staff have just returned from Switzerland after a detailed fact-finding visit. Further discussions with DIG will follow. I am not committing myself to a definite timetable now. To be definite the timetable must be capable of achievement. As soon as it is clear what is the earliest possible date for this benefit for housewives, we shall announce the date. All I can say definitely at this stage is that with an uprating for over 11 million beneficiaries, changes in supplementary benefits disregards affecting 800,000 beneficiaries, the main non-contributory invalidity pension to be implemented, the mobility allowance to be implemented, and the interim child benefit scheme to be introduced, all at the end of this year and in the early part of next year, there is no possibility of taking on the housewives' benefit in January 1976. Nothing could be worse than introducing a half-baked scheme which imposed intolerable injustices on those intended to benefit from it and imposed intolerable strains on those intended to operate it. There have been some instances of this in other countries. That is a mess which at all costs I should like to avoid here. What I shall gladly do, if some of my hon. Friends or Opposition Members would welcome this, is to arrange for a meeting at which they could explain how they see more rapid progress being made, and my officials could fill out with me the technical details of the broad picture of the challenge they are tackling. I have said to hon. Members previously that if they want to know the pressures on the staff of my Department, they will find that many of their constituents work for the Department and that it can be most instructive for right hon. and hon. Members occasionally to consult their constituents who work in this field and who know at first hand the pressures of which I am speaking. We shall do the job as quickly and as well as it can be done. The proposal embodied in the amendment is not possible of achievement if we are to proceed without injustices and avoidable strains. I hope that on reflection, and having made their point, the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield and his supporters of the amendment will be willing to withdraw it. If not, I must ask the House to vote against it.
I thank the Minister for his offer of a meeting between those of us interested in the problem of assessing the non-capability of the disabled housewife, which is, as I understand it, the problem that is holding up his Department—let alone all the other many things it is trying to do. This offer will be much welcomed. I am sure that we can at the time look at the readily available information from other countries on how they assess the inability of disabled housewives to perform normal household tasks.However, I remind the Minister that we shall fall into a very difficult situation in regard to some single disabled women. We have always spoken of making the situation equal. There will be some young single disabled women who will postpone their marriage because of the inability to bring in the benefit for the disabled housewife at the same time as it is introduced for other people. They may be few in number, but this matter should be considered. I hope that we shall have the meeting about which the Minister spoke very soon, because I for one feel that the disabled housewife should have exactly the same consideration as any other disabled person entitled to the non-contributory invalidity pension.
The Minister has taken up an offer made by three hon. Members at the last sitting of the Committee, when we said that we would love to discuss with him how the disabled housewife benefit could be introduced rapidly. If this is now a firm offer, I gladly accept it.
I have some sympathy for what the Minister has said. However, I should not like this occasion to pass without reminding the House of the strength of feeling that has existed on all sides that the disabled housewife should be included in this legislation at the earliest opportunity, and that the disabled housewife was the kernel of the problem. These are the people we really wanted to help. That is why the House reversed the legislation first introduced by the Labour Government last autumn. It is also why we have continued to press for it on every possible occasion and why my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench, with their ingenuity, have been so active in trying to remind the House again by introducing their amendment that we really mean business and want this done as soon as possible.We know that there are great difficulties and drawbacks and that it is still difficult to assess a married woman's incapacity for work. We accept that. But the will of the House is that something should be done on the earliest possible occasion for this needy group of people.
Having listened to the debate, I cannot help feeling that the whole range of help for disabled people generally would not be available today if the Prime Minister, in his wisdom—although some of us may very much disagree with some of his choices of Ministers, and so on—had not decided to appoint a separate Minister responsible for the disabled. The Prime Minister did a very good job indeed when he did that, and disabled people are benefiting greatly.There is a far greater amount of help coming forward. We can appreciate from our constituency dealings with the Department that the disabled are now getting more help. We are obtaining more help. The Opposition might like to think of that when they are being critical of small details. There is a great deal more help coming forward generally for the disabled because there is now a separate Department. I think that that is to be applauded. I do not think that we should waste time splitting hairs. Progress is being made in the cause of the disabled, including the disabled housewife. I am sure that a great deal more progress will be made now that a Ministry has been set up to do the job.
If the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) attended more of our debates on the disabled, he would find that the splitting of hairs and the study of details occurred to enable the House to discover—despite the Minister's protestations of what has been done in this sphere—that there are serious deficiencies in many aspects of the Government's programme. That is what legislation, the Committee stage and parliamentary discussion are all about. We wish to make sure that the Government's protestations of good intentions, their campaigning and other noises are matched in detail in performance, and that the details of that provision bring the desired benefit to all those affected so that we do not again find the anomalies, to which hon. Members on both sides have objected, between disabled housewives and others.That takes me back to the subject of the role of discussion and the need to go into detail. That is what this House is meant to be about. I congratulate the Under-Secretary on the charming and disarming way in which he dealt with this novel procedure. He explained that there must be an instruction because he had found no other way of getting his legislation on the statute book. He did not refer any further to discussion, to parliamentary procedure, and to the role of Members of the House of Commons. He was very sorry but there was no other way in which it could be done. The Under-Secretary discussed briefly the mobility allowance and the NCIP for disabled housewives. He pointed out that he wrote to two Members of Parliament who were known to have an interest in the subject, pointing out that he intended to adopt this procedure so that they could put down amendments. We all know of the interest taken in the subject by the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones), who is a leading parliamentary figure in this matter, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker). However, there may have been other hon. Members who might have wanted to know that this legislation was coming along so that they could take part in the proceedings.
I do not wish to detain the House unduly. However, the Minister of State also wrote to the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) as the secretary of the all-party Disablement Group.
I am sorry. I was 50 per cent. wrong in my allegation. Three hon. Members with a known interest in the subject were informed on the day before the House rose for the recess, during which most hon. Members participated in the referendum campaign, that this legislation would be introduced three days after the House resumed.The Minister put the case in this way. He said it was absurd for him as Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, with responsibility for the disabled, to try to explain the wider aspects of the matter. However, he is talking about parliamentary problems. The root of what he is saying is that the Government's legislative timetable is in a total mess and that it is overcrowded. The Government led hon. Members on both sides to expect the introduction of a mobility allowance. He was no doubt informed by the Government managers of parliamentary affairs that there was no time for a mobility allowance Bill, and that other vital Bills were in the pipeline. I refer to the Industry Bill, the Community Land Bill, the Hare Coursing Bill, and the Road Traffic (Seat Belts) Bill. He was probably told that other vital matters were coming before Parliament. We know that when it comes to the arrangement of the legislative timetable, anything that might upset the Tribune Group could not be removed from its place. The Minister was probably told that there was no legislative time for a separate mobility allowance Bill. Since there was no time for the Bill, the Minister turned to this ingenious procedure, which involved giving no notice to the House. The procedure of proper notice involves a First Reading. The Bill must then be put down on the Order Paper for a Second Reading. That allows all hon. Members who take an interest to do so. The device of sending out letters was resorted to. However, notice was given to those members of the Committee with an interest in occupational pensions, many of whom had no interest in the mobility allowance. Notice was only given to three other hon. Members. I must also protest about the way in which that letter was sent out on the last possible day. The amendments to this Bill were tabled on the last possible day before the House rose when, according to practice, most hon. Members were away in their constituencies. That was a cynical use of this ingenious device. The Government must have decided before the Friday prior to the recess that they intended to do this. There was only one purpose in sending out the letter on the Thursday to reach those few hon. Members on the Friday—which was that the fewest possible Members of Parliament should realise that this course was to be taken so that there should be the minimum opportunity of getting up a head of steam to protest about the procedure being followed.
If that is the point being made by the hon. Gentleman, if 12 letters were sent out they would have been sent out to the 12 hon. Members who were least interested.
About 12 letters were sent to hon. Members with no interest in the matter. In this case, three hon. Members out of 625 were chosen for their special interest in the subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey points out that she, as Vice-President of the Disablement Income Group, was not sent one of those letters. Therefore we are back to two letters. The letters were held back until the last day before the recess. That was done so that there should be no consultation between hon. Members, so that they should not have the opportunity of taking part.The Minister now comes along with this separate subject, which has no bearing on the pension scheme, which was being discussed on 14 occasions in Committee. This new subject is, as it were, tagged on as a trailer to the Bill.
One Opposition spokesman said that this was one of the best features of the Government policy. Why should the Government wish to hide from anybody one of the best features of our policy?
We must not confuse the issues. I trust that the House will say this to any Minister who tries to do this. We must not reach a situation where it is argued that a proposal which concerns a good cause, which is not likely to be opposed, provides an excuse for not having a proper parliamentary discussion on the matter. This is what is being urged. We are being told that we should abandon our procedural objections because the mobility allowance is desirable in principle. The Opposition accept that the mobility allowance is exceedingly desirable in principle. However, both sides of the House must stick to the principle that we have a right to consider, to discuss and to be given proper notice of the details of the Government's programme, so that there can be a Commit- tee stage and so that interested groups outside can advise hon. Members who are considering the matter. We must not allow Ministers to say that this good cause is being obstructed on procedural grounds to the disadvantage of the disabled, and to produce that as an excuse to avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny.Let me make this clear.