House Of Commons
Tuesday 21st November 1978
The House met at half-past Two o'clock
[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]
Tyne And Wear Passenger Transport Bill
Read the Third time and passed.
British Railways (Selby) Bill (By Order)
Order for Third Reading read.
To be read the Third time upon Thursday.
Cunninghame District Council Order Confirmation Bill
Monklands District Council Order Confirmation Bill
The District Council Of Renfrew Order Confirmation Bill
Considered; to be read the Third time tomorrow.
Oral Answers To Questions
Developing Countries (Arms Exports)
asked the Secretary of State for Defence what percentage of British arms exports are sold to developing countries.
It has been the policy of successive Governments not to divulge the value of defence equipment trade between the United Kingdom and individual countries or groups of countries.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the developing countries are now spending a great deal more on arms than on education or health? Does he agree that that is neither good for them nor for peace? Will the Government change their minds and seek to reduce rather than increase the arms trade?
I have a great deal of sympathy with everything that my hon. Friend has said. However, I must tell him that when the Government took an initiative at the recent special session of the United Nations and put forward a draft programme for disarmament, a considerable amount of resistance came from the developing countries. The way to make progress is through agreement with them and other supplying countries.
Does the Minister agree that the main criterion in such decisions is the interest of the United Kingdom and of NATO? Is China considered to be a developing country by his Department in that regard?
I am not sure that we have considered China's special status. Applications for sales of defence equipment to China are regarded on a case by case basis.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that arms supplied to some developing countries are used not for defence but for repression, as happened when arms were supplied to Iran recently? Chieftain tanks were used in the streets of Teheran to suppress popular demonstrations. Will the Minister consider imposing conditions on the use of arms which are supplied to developing countries in order to prevent that?
The Government take into account a whole series of criteria, with which my hon. Friend will be acquainted, before they agree to sell arms to anybody. We have made considerable efforts to persuade Governments who are buying arms that might be used for such purposes to use non-lethal equipment for not control, as our Government do in Northern Ireland.
British Army Of The Rhine
asked the Secretary of State for Defence when last he paid an official visit to the British Army of the Rhine.
On 14th November.
Is the Secretary of State aware that much of the BAOR equipment is much too old and that BAOR is short of spare parts and ammunition? Is it true that during the recent NATO manoeuvres the British infantry was distinguishable from the infantry of every other country involved by the fact that it had to walk?
The hon. Gentleman may have been too influenced by certain press accounts, but it is a fact that a number of our infantry battalions are not provided with vehicles—not for economic reasons, but because their role in the Fifth Field Force does not require it. Inevitably, there are always allegations of shortages of equipment, and so on, but it is a fact that in the present year 54 new items of equipment are being introduced into the Services generally. On my recent visit I sensed the Army's satisfaction with the fact that new equipment, such as Clansman and Milan, is due to come into operation this year.
What is the current balance of payments cost of our presence in Western Germany, what progress, if any, has been made towards an offsetting agreement with the West German Government, and is not this one of the factors that need to be dealt with before we even consider joining a European monetary system?
I do not see the direct relationship between this matter and the European monetary system. I cannot give my hon. Friend the exact figure, but the offset arrangement with the German Government was announced to the House about a year ago, and is still in force.
How has the right hon. Gentleman the effrontery to claim that he put together a package to improve Britain's defences when he knows that for the past four years he has been a member of a Government who have inflicted untold harm, not only on BAOR but on all British defence forces? The only question is whether he has done more damage to their morale than he has to their equipment.
The reason that I put together a package of improvements was that I was relying on facts. I do not deal in the kind of rhetoric which, unhappily, the right hon. Gentleman has acquired from some of his hon. Friends.
Armed Forces (Work Experience Schemes)
asked the Secretary of State for Defence what consideration he has given to extending job experience schemes currently being promoted by the Government to the Armed Forces.
I assume that the hon. Member is referring to the work experience schemes which are managed by the Manpower Services Commission as part of the youth employment programme. The Ministry of Defence has been considering how it can usefully participate in these arrangements. As a first step we are about to launch certain pilot schemes involving trainees in the civilian industrial field.
I give a halfhearted welcome to that reply. May I press the right hon. Gentleman further and say that, at a time when tens of thousands of young people are out of work and the Armed Forces are short of manpower, a six-months' work experience programme with the colours would be valuable experience for those young people or, as the Manpower Services Commission puts it, would
"help young people gain in maturity, self-reliance and self-esteem."
I accept a great deal of what the hon. Gentleman says. We must wait to see how these pilot schemes go before we push further ahead in that general direction. There could be considerable controversy if we were to use the Armed Forces for some of the schemes which the hon. Gentleman has in mind. The Ministry of Defence makes a considerable contribution to employing young people and also in improving the quality of the national work force in future through our apprenticeship scheme, which is doing extremely well and is at a very high level. We intend to maintain that scheme in future.
asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he is satisfied with the state of Great Britain's air defences.
The air defence forces of the RAF are well-equipped and manned by skilled and dedicated professionals. I am satisfied that these forces represent a strong deterrent to any potential hostile intruder in United Kingdom air space, and that they are capable of playing their full part in the NATO air defence system. We are, of course, always seeking to improve these forces to match the continually evolving threat which they face.
But what are the Government doing to remedy the serious lack of United Kingdom-based fighters, what percentage of the new Tornados will be based in the United Kingdom, and when will all the planes based in the United Kingdom be in service?
The Government are busy trying to restore the air defence capacity of this country, a capacity that was dismantled and discarded by the Conservative Government. There are now more aircraft defending the skies and the integrity of this country than when the Conservatives left office. The aircraft primarily in the air defence role are Phantoms ordered by a Labour Government, which are two to three times more effective than the Lightnings which the Conservatives left us to defend the country. Furthermore, we are increasing the number of Bloodhounds and Rapier ground-to-air missiles. I know that many Conservative Members do not like the facts. They would rather dwell in their own fantasy world, but the fact is that the Labour Government are restoring the air defence capability in this country. As a result the right hon. Gentleman, his hon. Friends and the people of this country can sleep a little more soundly in their beds than was the case when the Tories left office.
Is it true that the Royal Air Force is apparently 250 pilots short? If so, where is the shortage? Is it in line aircraft?
It is true that we suffer deficits, particularly in junior officer pilots. The Royal Air Force board has decided to take certain steps to remedy this situation. I hope that we shall resume fairly rapidly our full complement.
For how long could this country survive conventional air attacks—for five days, or less?
A little longer than it could have done on 1st March 1974.
I appreciate the assurances given by the Minister about the state of our defences, but does he not agree that the "Deep Throat" episode and the fact that the Tories jumped on the bandwagon of the original story have done a great disservice to our national security and to the RAF?
I think that it is always a matter for regret when Members of Parliament, or anybody else, seek to put numbers to the strength of our Air Force when the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour) well knows that the numbers of fighters and bombers remain classified information.
The Opposition do not take the Minister very seriously, but he should not trade too much on that matter. He must know that his original answer was absurd. Is it not the case that the air threat to this country has risen immeasurably in he past four years and that we are therefore very much less ready to meet it?
The fact that we have a growing threat to this country was very well known when the right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State for Defence. It is a matter for regret that he did not take these necessary measures, and a matter for even greater regret that, now that the Labour Government are restoring our air defence capacity, he has not the grace to recognise that fact.
If the air threat to this country was so well known in 1973–1974, how does the hon. Gentleman explain the then defence review, which cut our air defences?
Primarily the reduction in terms of the Royal Air Force was in its transport capacity as a direct result of our withdrawal from the Far East. The defence review and the measures that followed give a complete answer to the right hon. Gentleman's distortions. The air defence capacity of this country is better today than the capacity we inherited when the right hon. Gentleman left office.
Cruise Missile And Beam Technology
asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on British progress with cruise missile, laser beam and particle beam technology.
As I have stated on many occasions, we have no plans either to develop or to acquire cruise missiles. Limited research studies are taking place to enable us to participate in alliance discussions. As regards laser and charged particle beam technology, we are watching with interest developments in the United States and the Soviet Union but we have no similar programme of our own.
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain how he will deal with the SS20 without the cruise missile? Is it not essential that Britain should keep ahead in advanced weapon technology, and what co-operation is being achieved with the United States over these various weapon systems?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the United States cruise missile programme is still under development. It would be wrong to assume that any particular weapon would be appropriate against a particular weapon on the other ide. Therefore, his suggestion does not necessarily follow.
Royal Ordnance Factories (Employment)
asked the Secretary of State for Defence what are the prospects for employment in Royal ordnance and other factories, in the light of recent developments in Iran.
Recent developments in Iran have not led to any reduction in the level of Iranian business with the Royal ordnance factories, nor, so far as I am aware, with any other factories. Consequently there has been no change in the prospects for employment.
Will the Minister assure the House that contingency plans exist in case of cancellation or default of arms orders from our customers in the Middle East? Will he also give an assurance that should these materialise there will be no loss of employment but that it may well lead to re-equipment of Her Majesty's Forces earlier than originally programmed?
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the last assurance for which he asks. Obviously we are hoping that the present orders will continue and have no reason to believe that that will not be the case. Regarding the Royal ordnance factories, the orders for Iran are being pre-financed.
Has my right hon. Friend seen the letter in The Times last week, written by a businessman who said that on his last visit to Iran, where he had been going for many years, he discovered that because of the statements made by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs there was a definite coolness towards him on the part of Iranian business people? Is it not clear that we should be careful about supporting dictatorial regimes, because it does not necessarily help British business? Is it not time that we took an independent attitude on these matters?
I did not see the letter to which my hon. Friends refers. I am sure that he will be aware that the Prime Minister recently sent a message to the Shah urging him to continue with his programme of liberalization and that—despite the recent turn of events in Iran —the Shah has again publicly reiterated his firm intention to do so.
Will the Royal ordnance factories be receiving extra orders for anti-aircraft and anti-armour missiles which are needed by British operational units in Germany?
There is a Question appearing later on the Order Paper about orders for surface-to-air missile systems.
In spite of what the Shah has said, is not my right hon. Friend aware that there is recent evidence that torture and repression are still continuing under this tyranny? Does it not trouble him at times that this tyranny is being upheld by British arms?
Questions about the current political situation in Iran, or any other country, are best answered by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.
Baor (English Language Television Service)
asked the Secretary of State for Defence how many British Service men there are at present in Germany; how many of these can receive the special English language television service provided for them; and what is the annual cost of this service.
There are about 62,000 Service men in Germany and by mid-December about 17.000 of these, plus their dependants, will be able to receive the service. The running cost of the service in 1978–79 is estimated to be £700,000.
Is the Minister aware that the people of Wales will be surprised that so much money is to be spent on a relatively small number of people in Germany, to enable them to receive these television services, when the Government are dragging their feet and waiting until 1982 before introducing a comprehensive Welsh language service for the 750,000 people in Wales? Would the Minister be surprised to learn that the people in Wales will see this as a verification of the dictum that power appears to grow from the barrel of a gun?
I am sure that the people of the Principality would not begrudge the money that we are spending for the comforts of Service men and their families in Germany—any more than people in any other part of the United Kingdom. The implications of a Welsh language programme are not for me but for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. In introducing a television service for our troops in Germany we are seeking to improve the lot of the Service man and his dependants, who have to face the dual problem of the language barrier and frequent separation due to the Northern Ireland commitment. I should make it clear that the BOAR service is not a special language service. We are simply making it possible for Service men to receive programmes which would be available to them were they serving in this country.
Will my hon. Friend be a little more forthright than was the Secretary of State earlier and agree that the balance of payments cost involved in keeping the troops in Germany is about £600 million a year—
Order. That may well be. If the hon. Member wishes to ask such a question he should place it on the Order Paper. This Question is about the television service.
Will the Minister tell us whether the Service men stationed in Germany have made representations about the fact that they lose money when their units are sent to carry out emergency duties in Ulster—
Order. The hon. and gallant Gentleman is also straying. He is over the side of the ship.
The first part of this Question asks
"how many British Service men there are at present in Germany"—
Order. I realise that. But the Question is also linked to the provision of the television service. We had better move on.
asked the Secretary of State for Defence what are the latest figures available for the cost of recruiting a soldier, sailor, and airman respectively; and what steps he is taking to reduce recruitment through prestige town centre recruiting offices and to make use of jobcentres for recruiting.
In the financial year 1977–78, 38,237 men and women joined the Services. In this period the total cost of recruitment was approximately £26·16 million and the average cost per recruit £684. Separate figures for the Navy, Army and RAF were £637, £675 and £763 respectively.As to use of jobcentres, I have nothing to add to my previous answer on this subject to my hon. Friend on 27th June 1978.
Does not my hon. Friend agree that these figures are unacceptably high? Are there not two main factors operating against recruitment? First, there is the terrible apartheid which operates in the Forces between officers and other ranks—[interruption.] Oh, yes. Tory Members do not like it, but it is true. This apartheid operates in terms of pay, pensions and conditions. Does not my hon. Friend agree that the use of prestige town centre offices is highly uneconomic? Does he realise that these prestige offices are usually empty while the potential recruits are at the jobcentre further up the road?
I agree with my hon. Friend to the extent that the average cost per recruit is too high. The Department is bending every effort to reduce the cost. As for the prime town centre site argument, it is necessary for the Armed Forces to have an adequate shop window in main centres of population. A review is taking place in the Department to see whether we can maximise the facilities offered by jobcentres and economise to the maximum on the cost effectiveness of the recruiting system.
Is the Minister aware that the best aids to recruitment are neither jobcentres nor recruiting centres but the presence in our midst of large numbers of contented, high-spirited, soldiers, sailors and airmen who are proud of the job they do? That is what brings in the recruits. Is he further aware that he will get better recruits when he pays these men more?
The standards enjoyed by our Armed Forces are a major factor in any recruiting results. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the cream of our society is still queuing up to join Her Majesty's Forces. We have no shortage of applications. Our difficulties lie in the criteria which are applied to that substantial number of British citizens queuing up to join the Forces.
In view of the answer given by my hon. Friend to a Written Question on 16th November, at c. 364, may I ask him to hold an internal inquiry with a view to informing the House why there is such a disparity between those who volunteer to join Her Majesty's Forces and those who are accepted?
The Written Answer referred to by my hon. Friend demonstrates what I have just said. There are substantial numbers of the cream of our society queuing up to join the Forces. I agree that it might be a useful exercise for the Ministry of Defence to conduct a review to discover why a substantial number of people attempting to join the Forces are denied the opportunity.
In dealing with recruitment, may I ask the Minister to pay tribute to the connection between county regiments and the county recruiting areas from which such regiments draw manpower? Will the Minister have words with the Secretary of State to try and ensure that county regiments keep their headquarters—I think particularly of the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment—within the counties? Is he aware that it does recruiting no good to have a county regiment in the South-West with its headquarters somewhere in the Midlands?
I agree that the county affiliations of many famous regiments in the Army are important factors, both in the maintenance of morale and the extent of our recruitment. The detailed problems of the regiment to which the hon. Gentleman has referred can best be dealt with by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army.
asked the Secretary of State for Defence what is the current recruiting target for 1978 for the Army; and how successful it has been to date in meeting that target.
Since April this year, the Army has recruited some 15,000 men and women. This figure shows an increase over the corresponding figure for last year of about 2,000 and reflects a significantly increased target for 1978–79. The numbers recruited nevertheless fall short of this target. It has never been the practice to give details of recruiting targets.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the best "recruiting sergeants" for the Army are the current serving officers and men, and the extent to which they are satisfied or dissatisfied with their current terms of service is reflected in the recruiting figures?
I do not disagree with anything that the hon. Gentleman has said. Conditions of service are extremely important. The Government have already recognised the Armed Forces as a special case as regards pay awards. A forward commitment was made in April 1978 to restore the full updated military salary in two approximately equal stages by April 1980. That means that the award on 1st April 1979 will be substantial.
Is my hon. Friend aware that young people are marrying much earlier, and that for the young married man who joins the Army there is the additional problem of the payment of the child benefit to his wife? Unlike his civilian counterpart, the benefit cannot go to the mother direct but has to be paid through the soldier's pay. Will my hon. Friend give consideration to this problem and ascertain whether he can make arrangements for soldiers' wives— especially when the husbands are serving overseas— to receive child benefit direct as in civilian life?
That matter has not been brought to my attention before. It is an interesting matter and I undertake to give it consideration.
As recruiting is directly related to pay and conditions, how will the Government's 5 per cent. pay policy be related this year to the Armed Forces?
The forward commitment that the Government gave this year was specific. The forward commitment was to recover the 18 per cent. short fall in two years plus whatever is the going rate. I am not privy to what the Armed Forces Pay Review Body will recommend to the Prime Minister in March 1979. We shall all have to wait and see what the board recommends before there can be any announcement.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the only real way to deal with conditions in the Services is to encourage trade union organisation in the Armed Forces and the setting up of effective collective bargaining machinery?
That is becoming a hackneyed question. We encourage those in the Services to join trade unions so that they are ready to establish themselves in civilian employment at the end of their service. Beyond that we have no evidence that there is great demand for trade unions in the Armed Forces.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the good recruiting figures, welcome though they are, are no adequate substitute for the many trained and skilled men who are leaving the Army and the other Armed Forces? Does his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State regard this as another one of his greatest achievements, or does he intend, at last, to do something to stop the disastrous exodus?
The facts are as the right hon. Gentleman has conceded. Recruiting figures have risen considerably this year. We are still short of target because of the increase in strength of 6,000 men for the Army announced earlier in the year by my right hon. Friend. Furthermore, we concede that more people have left the Army by PVR than we consider desirable. The forward commitment of the Government on pay and conditions will, I am sure, have a stabilising effect. When next April comes and the Armed Forces realise that the Government have made a firm commitment and are carrying it out, I am sure that the situation will improve still further.
What is the good of the hon. Gentleman saying that the forward commitment is having a stabilising effect when he knows that the exodus is continuing and that there is no stabilising effect?
I said that the pay award this year has had the effect of bringing about an improvement. When the Armed Forces realise next year that the Government have given a firm commitment to the Armed Forces and that they intend to honour it, we shall see a vast improvement.
Harrier Aircraft (China)
asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he is yet in a position to approve the sale of the Harrier aircraft to the People's Republic of China.
We are considering the Chinese requirements for Harrier. Before a final decision is reached we shall need to obtain the views of our allies.
Can the Chinese Government be certain that subject to the views of our allies—it is widely reported that they are not opposed to the sale—our Government will be willing to sell the aircraft?
The position was fully explained to the Vice Premier on his recent visit. I have seen many expressions of view attributed to other Governments in the press, but my experience is that Governments prefer to express their views through their accredited representatives rather than through the columns of newspapers.
Will my right hon. Friend explain exactly what is holding up the sale of these aircraft? As I understand it, the Chinese are anxious to buy them. We have obvious employment and financial interests in selling them. There are no NATO objections. What is the difficulty?
The situation is simple. It was only recently that we had some clear indication of Chinese likely requirements and, therefore—
It is true. I have read about Chinese interest in the Harrier since 1972. However, it is only in the past few days that we have had a clearer indication of their requirements. The necessary consultative machinery is now being invoked.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the bear is at its most dangerous when one shows fear of it?
All right, Goldilocks.
Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that the Government's hesitation is in no way influenced by any fear of upsetting the Soviet Union? Is he able to give us an indication of what reservations have been expressed by any of our allies?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman knows from his previous experience that it is not helpful if consultations take place of a private character and they become public. The fact is that consultations are taking place. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we shall not be influenced in our decision. He has made it clear from the Dispatch Box that we shall make our decision when we have gone through the necessary consultative processes.
Royal Naval Pay And Records Office
asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he is satisfied with the performance of the Royal Naval Pay and Records Office at HMS "Centurion" Gosport.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that for over a year the staff of the unit have had to live under the threat of a possible move of the unit to Glasgow? Is he aware that the move would be extremely expensive and disruptive, as has been admitted by the Government? Does he agree that it is shameful that the Government should pay such little regard to the proper functioning of defence services and those who give loyal service to them?
I agree that it is undesirable that any Ministry of Defence employee should have had to endure the period of uncertainty to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I hope that it will be possible to make an announcement by the end of the year about areas of work to be dispersed to the St. Enoch site.
Is it not the Royal Naval Pay and Records Office that is responsible for the handling of the case—I have sent the Minister the particulars —of the Dorset officer who, having been taken on for eight years on the understanding that at the end of that period he would receive a £6,000 gratuity, found his service dispensed with after 7¼ years with no adequate reason given? Will the hon. Gentleman reverse that unjust decision?
I have no knowledge of the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I undertake to investigate it and I shall be in touch with the hon. Gentleman.
China (Vice-Premier's Visit)
asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he met Vice-Premier Wang Chen during his recent visit.
I held no formal meeting with Vice-Premier Wang Chen, but I met him informally on two occasions.
In view of the answers that my right hon. Friend has already given about consultations with allies on the selling of Harriers that Vice-Premier Wang Chen requested, is he aware that United States Government officials have stated that they see no reason for discussions not taking place within COCOM? Will he, therefore, consider consulting the United States on a bilateral basis and not going through the whole formal procedure?
These are matters for consideration, but, as my hon. Friend knows, the conduct of these international arrangements is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. It is not simply a bilateral matter between ourselves and the United States. Many other countries are involved in the COCOM arrangements.
How many extra jobs will be created if the Chinese requirements for Harriers are met?
Until full contractual arrangements as to the time scale and the numbers are concluded, I do not think that a precise answer could be given to a question of that sort.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new-found enthusiasm of the Tories to arm Communist China has a certain piquant interest? If, as is very likely, there is a rapprochement between the Soviet Union and the developing new politicos in China, does he think that the Tories' interest will continue to be the same as it is now?
My hon. Friend asks me a very difficult and almost impossible question. The turns of Opposition policy are so fast that I would hesitate to predict so far ahead.
Is the right hon. Gentleman seriously telling the House that the Government were surprised by the Chinese desire to buy Harriers? If not, why have not the consultations with other Governments taken place before the Chinese visit?
I do not think that anyone is surprised. What might have been of some surprise to other people is that the purpose of the Vice-President's visit was far wider than defence equipment. A very satisfactory agreement, covering a range of industrial equipment, was concluded at the end if his visit. The Government were not surprised that a request was made about Harrier, but one cannot consult allies until one has some idea of the size and character of the request, and, as I have indicated, that come only very recently.
asked the Secretary of State for Defence, what was the expenditure on defence, expressed in per capita terms of numbers employed in the defence services, both civilian and military, in the last financial year.
It was £10,900 in 1977–78, on the same basis as the figure of £9,900 which I gave to my hon. Friend on 16th March last, but updated to 1978 survey prices and reflecting final outturn for the year.
Is it not true that the corresponding figures for the Health Service are about £5,500 and for local authority education services £6,500? Do not these figures demonstrate the hypocrisy of the Opposition when they claim that defence cuts have cost 200,000 jobs in this country, while at the same time they ask for massive cuts in other areas of public expenditure which would he far more destructive of jobs?
I quite agree with my hon. Friend in pointing out the discrepancy in some of the criticisms that we receive from the Conservative Benches. But I must also tell him that I do not see a great deal of relevance in comparing the total cost per capita of employees in defence, which uses expensive and sophisticated equipment, with that in other sectors, where obviously the cost of the equipment is less.
What savings, at the expense of the cream of our society, does the right hon. Gentleman make when he sends Service men, stationed in BAOR, on emergency tours in Ulster at a lower rate of pay?
The hon. and gallant Gentleman knows that these Service men do not have a lower rate of pay; in fact, they get an additional element of pay, quite properly, when they are serving in Northern Ireland. But when they are in Northern Ireland they do not qualify for the local overseas allowance, for the simple reason that they are not in Germany, where it is calculated and paid. The reason that they are in Northern Ireland, as I think the House generally agrees, is for the maintenance of security there, which is a vital matter.
Why does the Secretary of State answer these Questions from his hon. Friend the Member for Luton, East (Mr. Clemitson) in a way which is guaranteed to undermine the commitment to the Armed Forces? Is it not a fact that the reason why the average figure is so low is that the number of people in the Armed Forces— and, indeed, the civilian element as well— had declined so substantially under his own Government's administration? If that were not the case, the figure would be a good deal lower.Should not the Secretary of State also point out to his hon. Friend that half that figure is paid in pensions and salaries, and that half the total number referred to are civilians and not members of the Armed Forces?
It is quite clear that this figure, as the Question requires, is based on both civilian and military manpower. It would be quite wrong for me to seek to re-write hon. Members' Questions. We sometimes have enough trouble in answer- ing them without wanting to re-write them as well. If the numbers were greater we should also need to buy additional equipment for the extra numbers. Therefore, I do not see the relevance of the hon. Gentleman's comment either.
Prime Minister (Engagements)
asked the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 21st November.
In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be holding further meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. This evening I hope to have an audience of Her Majesty The Queen.
During the course of the Prime Minister's visit, will he pause to reflect upon the rather wretched Ford strike? Does he not agree that Ford has no part in this strike in reality, and that apart from the £ 450 million that it will have cost the company in lost revenue, the cost to public funds has been enormous? Will he now give an undertaking that, provided Ford continues to quote better deliveries and lower prices, he will not give instructions to his Departments that they are forbidden to purchase Ford vehicles? If not, will he say why not?
I often reflect on the Ford strike and the consequences of it, including the fact that, if the workers accept the latest offer—that is. their present rate of pay plus 17 per cent. —it will probably mean that over the next 12 months they will be no better off than if they had avoided a nine-weeks' strike and had accepted 5 per cent. I often reflect on that.I shall not give any instructions on this matter. If there is a decision by the Government to refrain from purchasing any particular products, as they are entitled to do as a customer, the firm in question will be notified in the first place.
Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to contact Chancellor Schmidt about his recent speech on the expansion of powers of the European Assembly? Will he say that Her Majesty's Government remain determined to keep to the undertaking, made during the debate on the direct elections? Will he say to Chancellor Schmidt that we do not agree with what he has said?
No, Sir, I have not contacted Chancellor Schmidt about it. I dare say there will be some discussion on the matter at the next European Council. We shall continue to enunciate the policy, as my hon. Friend says, that we have enunciated so far. Whether there is any change in Chancellor Schmidt's position will become clear when we have our discussions.
May I ask the Prime Minister a question about the bakers' strike. Is he aware that the general secretary of the Bakers' Union is threatening those who stay at work that he will use the closed shop legislation to see that they are sacked? Will the Prime Minister condemn those threats?
I have been checking and it is clear that the union cannot use any closed shop legislation for this purpose. The closed shop is a matter for agreement between the employers and the employees. I understand that the employers have said that they would not insist on a closed shop in this particular case.
So the Prime Minister clearly condemns those threats and the use of his own Government's legislation in that way?
At the risk of misrepresentation by the right hon. Lady, which I have no doubt I shall get, I do not believe that it is sensible for me to utter obiter dicta on every industrial dispute that arises and so inflame what is taking place, and I refuse to do so.
Does not my right hon. Friend agree that, if Ford had settled in the early days of the negotiations, that would have avoided a dispute? Bearing in mind that Ford has made a statement that it could absorb the increase without increasing prices, would not that have been a better way of dealing with the problem?
I have not conducted these negotiations with the Ford company and I do not think that the House of Commons is a very good place in which to conduct them—nor, indeed, at the Dispatch Box. Increases in earnings have certain profound consequences on the rate of inflation, on growth and on investment. It is my responsibility to point that out. It is the responsibility of those who negotiate on both sides of industry to see how those particular national consequences fit their individual situations.
Secretary Of State For Defence
asked the Prime Minister if he will dismiss the Secretary of State for Defence.
Is the Prime Minister aware that, thanks to his Government, this country can no longer maintain its commitments to NATO in full? Is he further aware that the Royal Air Force is short of 200 pilots, that skilled men are leaving the Services at record rates and that our soldiers cannot even get enough for such items as boots and pullovers? If we are to go on with this Mad Hatter's tea party, will he agree to pay £7,000 to get rid of the dormouse?
I really begin to wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is in the pay of the Soviet Union. If I did not know that he was vice-chairman of the Conservative Party's defence committee, I should believe that he was, because rarely have I heard such a travesty of the arrangements which affect our Forces today. It is well known that the Royal Air Force is much stronger now than it was five years ago. It is well known that the Phantom aircraft which have replaced older aircraft are far more efficient, and there are more of them.Of course, the hon. Gentleman would like to see many of the other factors which he quoted improved. But it does no good to the morale of the Armed Forces or indeed—I do not think that the Soviet Union will believe it—to other people's appreciation of our efforts to have these things said. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amer-sham (Sir I. Gilmour) will get his chance later, subject to Mr. Speaker. I always like to listen to the intellectual side of the Conservative Party, or perhaps I should say intellectual and liberal.
Which one is that?
The hon. Member for Chertsey and Walton (Mr. Pattie) will be aware that there has been an improvement in recruitment, but it is unsatisfactory that too many experienced men are now leaving the Forces. I hope that can be corrected.
Did the Prime Minister hear the Secretary of State for Defence answer questions about the Harrier aircraft a few minutes ago? If so, does he agree that, if we sell these aircraft to the Chinese People's Republic on the basis that it is the enemy of the Soviet Union, that will make meaningful disarmament talks between ourselves, the United States and the Soviet Union more difficult? Does my right hon. Friend recall the importance that he placed on these talks when he made his excellent speech at the United Nations special session on disarmament?
The position about the supply of defence equipment is extremely political. Therefore, we consider it very carefully in conjunction with our allies. However, we would not allow our relations with any other country to be dictated by a third party. If we are discussing these matters, I can understand the reaction of the United States, for example, in the matter of the supply of MIG 23s to Cuba. All these sensitivities have to be taken into account. I made clear to the Chinese vice-premier that we did not wish to become just an arms supplier to China but that there were big and important commercial undertakings that we would like to explore. I am glad to say that he appreciated that particular matter. We handed to him an agreement, which I understand is to be initialled, which will provide for about $10 billion worth of trade between both our two countries by 1985. I think that is as important as the supply of Harriers.
Does the Prime Minister agree that it is bad for the morale of the Armed Forces for them to hear the Prime Minister once again exhibit his complete ignorance of what goes on in defence? Is he aware that his Government have not bought any new Phantoms but that, under him, they have just changed their role? Therefore, his answer was totally inaccurate. What are the Government proposing to do about preventing or putting a stop to the present disastrous exodus of highly skilled and trained men from all three Armed Forces because they are not being paid sufficient money?
I understand that the exodus of some of the skilled men relates to the fact that they have not vet fully appreciated that there will be a substantial increase in pay in April 1979 followed by another in April 1980 to bring them fully up to the general level of civilian pay. It is important that that should be understood.As regards my ignorance of military matters, I fully understand that I do not have the advantage that the right hon. Gentleman has had for some time of the assistance of the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill), but that advantage has now been removed.
Pay Policy (Tuc Talks)
asked the Prime Minister if he can now make a statement on the discussions that have taken place with the Trades Union Congress representatives about wage guidelines and inflation.
I refer my hon. Friend to the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 15th November.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that many trade unionists are prepared to accept that an incomes policy is an important ingredient in the control of inflation but that they are not prepared to tolerate wage restraint in isolation? Does my right hon. Friend further agree that the control of wages, prices, profits and investments are all part of the mix and that attention should be focused on elements other than income if we are to reach an understanding with the trade union movement?
Yes, Sir, I would certainly accept that. As my hon. Friend knows, it has never been part of my approach to this matter that incomes or earnings are the sole cause of inflation— many other elements enter into it—or that we should neglect the factors to which he referred. But he will allow me to remind, not him perhaps, but others, that inflation is now half of what it was a year ago when the Government called for a 10 per cent. increase in national earnings. That was one of the reasons why it seemed appropriate that we should ask for this ambitious objective on this occasion.Secondly, although there can be individual instances, in general I do not think that profits are too high at the moment if we are to get an appropriate level of investment. I am glad to say that investment is being maintained at a high level.
Does the Prime Minister agree that trade unionists living in rural areas in particular are very concerned about the price of petrol? Will he confirm or deny the stories circulating today that the Government intend to abolish the road fund licence?
I believe that there is a Written Answer on this matter. [Interruption.] Perhaps hon. Gentlemen might care to hear the end of my sentence. It is not unusual to have Written Answers on this matter.
On this major matter?
I am delighted to hear the new Leader of the House in good voice. We look forward to the touch of elegance which he will add to our proceedings from now on. Perhaps I can break the veil of secrecy by saying that the proposal will be spread over a period from now until 1983, and I have a feeling that there will be a substantial number of opportunities to ask questions of this Government between now and then.
I recognise that in the past three or four years the trade union movement and the Government have produced between themselves and employers a result which has been greatly to the benefit of this country; and I understand the Government's present attitude. But does my right hon. Friend appreciate that it is difficult for many strong supporters of the Goverment to talk in terms of restraint on wages when, by direct Government policy mortgages are allowed to rise to their present level thereby creating problems outside the control of ordinary people? People are prepared to co-operate, but they want to see some action taken the other way.
If there had not been a certain amount of uncertainty about the prospects for this winter, mortgage interest rates would not have had to go up. All these things interact on each other. As my right hon. Friend said, it may be difficult to understand, but the general understanding is that if we do not succeed in one part of the economy, we have to take countervailing action in another part. I believe that is being understood more by the public generally. The best possible way during this winter is to have a substantial moderation in the level of wage settlements. If we do that, our present success in economic growth, in employment, with unemployment going down again this month, in the retail price index, in exports and in investment— that is the result of what has happened during the past 12 months—will continue.
May I thank the Prime Minister for having, no doubt inadvertently, appointed me as a member of his Government, but let me assure him that I would rather be a shadow in the house of the Lord than a leader in "the tents of ungodliness".
I should like to say with what delight we welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post. I have a feeling that there will be a great deal of sport in the House over the next few months, or as long as he lasts. His ambition is likely to remain fulfilled for a very long time.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.
Order. Unless points of order arise out of Question Time, I normally take them after statements.
My point of order arises out of a reply given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who confirmed that the Government have decided to announce, by means of a Written Answer, their decision to phase out the vehicle excise duty. That subject is clearly of major importance, not only to West Wales and rural areas but nationally. It seems wrong that there is no immediate opportunity for the House to question the appropriate Minister on the proposal.
That is not a point of order. The Government of the day are always free to choose their own way of giving information to the House. Obviously we cannot discuss it now, but there will, no doubt, be plenty of opportunities later.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker—
Order. I have already said that it is not a point of order. I have ruled, I hope quite clearly, that it is not a point of order for me.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the report of a committee of inquiry into events at Normans-field hospital for the mentally handicapped, which I have published today. Because of printing difficulties, I have placed a limited number of typescript copies in the Vote Office for hon. Members. For this reason, I hope that the House will forgive me if my statement is a little longer than might otherwise be the case.On 5th May 1976, following a long period of difficulty, there was a strike at the hospital and nursing staff refused to resume work until the consultant psychiatrist, Dr. Lawlor, was suspended from duty, as he was later that day. The regional health authority set up an inquiry which was unable to function effectively when Dr. Lawlor declined to give evidence and the medical member of the inquiry withdrew. I therefore had no alternative but to establish a statutory inquiry. I am most grateful to the chairman, Michael Sherrard, QC, and the members of the committee for the thorough way in which they have conducted the inquiry and for the clarity of their report. The main findings include the following: the quality of life of patients at Normans-field was impaired by lack of co-operation between Dr. Lawlor and other staff; although, with one exception, there was no evidence of cruelty or ill treatment of patients by members of the nursing staff, the standard of nursing care was generally extremely low; maintenance of the buildings and standards of hygiene were also highly unsatisfactory, and some patients were improperly secluded. Dr. Lawlor is held responsible for much that was wrong. The report describes his approach as—I quote—"intolerant, abusive and tyrannical" and states that he "needlessly and harmfully restricted" the lives of patients and drove away other staff. But the faults were by no means his alone. There are serious criticisms of senior nurses at the hospital and the administrator and of some officers of the area and regional health authorities and of the authorities themselves, who failed to come to grips with the problems at Normansfield over a long period and specifically failed to tackle the grievances which led to the strike. There are also serious criticisms of two officials of a trade union. I hope that these will be heeded. I am referring the grave criticisms of NHS staff to the responsible health authorities so that they can take appropriate action. As recommended by the committee, certain of Dr. Lawlor's practices, concerning drug prescribing and certain aspects of a research project involving some of his patients, will be referred to the General Medical Council. After the committee had finished taking evidence in May 1978, it revisited Normansfield and reported to me that it was disturbed at what it had seen. I therefore visited the hospital myself, and a subsequent exchange of letters is published with the report. It is very much to be regretted that the efforts to improve the position at Normansfield had met with only limited success, but it is important to remember the circumstances in which the staff of the hospital had been working during the previous two years with the inquiry in progress. After discussion with the chairmen of the health authorities, a task force of senior medical, nursing and administrative staff was appointed to run the hospital. Normansfield faces great difficulties in the months ahead while this report is considered and action taken on its recommendations; but I am confident that the area health authority, as now constituted, will lead the staff and the patients into a better future. A new building development has started. A total of £ ½ million has been spent on maintenance and repairs and the task force is now at work in the hospital. The report may cause grave concern about the care of mentally handicapped patients generally. The Government's aim is to enable as many mentally handicapped people as possible to live in the community, but hospital care will be required for many of these patients for a long time to come. The sort of behaviour and the poor standards of care revealed at Normansfield must not be tolerated in our hospitals. In recent years, staffing numbers have been greatly improved. The Government have given high priority to services for the mentally handicapped, and I shall continue to press health and local authorities to secure for them a growing share in the expanding health and social services budgets. I shall ensure that health authorities next year are able to continue the improvements in mental handicap services made possible by the injection of £50 million for the NHS as a whole in April. We are giving a strong lead nationally on ways of improving the quality of care. Three years ago, the Government set up the national development group and the development team for the mentally handicapped. The group reported recently on "Helping Mentally Handicapped People in Hospital". I have placed in the Library a copy of the statement I made on publication of that report, in which I set out the steps that the Government are now taking to improve the quality of care. There have been other disturbing reports in the past, and the House and the country will share my concern to ensure that events of the kind described in this report are not repeated in other hospitals, now or in the future. To this end I am taking three further steps. First, it is clear that the health authority failed in its duty to monitor performance. Such a failure must not be repeated elsewhere. I am therefore asking all area health authorities to review urgently their monitoring arrangements and I shall be impressing the importance of this on area health authority chairmen when I meet them in the next few days. I am asking regional chairmen to tell me the outcome of the reviews when I meet them in March. Secondly, the development team for the mentally handicapped will continue to be available to authorities to advise them on how services can be improved, but I shall now strengthen the team and I have decided that in future, as well as going by invitation, the team will, where necessary, visit hospitals on my instructions. Thirdly, following discussions with leaders of the main trade unions and health professions, I have recently made proposals for a new NHS disputes procedure designed to settle local management disputes quickly where they arise, rather than allowing them to fester and erupt finally in industrial action. These proposals are in line with the proposals in the report and are being considered by the General Whitley Council, which I hope will embody their essential features in an agreement for early implementation In conclusion, while condemning the faults revealed by the inquiry, let us remember that they are not typical of mental handicap hospitals in the country and let us not forget that the task of caring for mentally handicapped people requires great dedication, and there are many examples of this dedication throughout the country. Those who undertake it deserve our respect and our understanding and support.
We are grateful to the Secretary of State for that long but very disturbing report on the problems of Normansfield. Will he accept that we associate ourselves with the remarks he made about those who devote themselves to the care of the mentally handicapped? Is he aware that, with one or two commendable exceptions, the report discloses a history of failure over a prolonged period as shocking as anything that one can remember reading?I have two questions, the first of which relates to monitoring. Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that the principal cause of the trouble at Normansfield lay in the intolerant character and tyrannical methods of Dr. Lawlor, coupled with weak and ineffective control at area level? Is it not equally clear that the only effective way of dealing with that kind of situation is by firm and authoritative monitoring from outside? In this regard, will the right hon. Gentleman now seek to strengthen both the constitution and the terms of reference of the Health Advisory Council, as it was originally set up in order to monitor the problems in mental hospitals? My second question relates to what the inspector described as the "principle recommendations". These are set out on page 564 of the report. One of the recommendations states:
Does the Secretary of State unhesitatingly accept and endorse that recommendation?"When a conflict arises between rights of the patients not to be endangered by industrial action on the one hand and the rights of staff to take industrial action on the other the rights of the patients should prevail."
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. As he rightly says, this is a very disturbing report. Of course, the industrial action itself was unprecedented. The strike was unprecedented in the history of the NHS. Immediately following on the right hon. Gentleman's last point, I would say without hesitation that I agree with the statement which he quoted relating to where the balance must lie. It must always be the rights of the patients which should prevail. This principle shines through the recommendations in the report. These are certainly issues which I now want to discuss with the leaders of the unions and the leaders of the professions as we look further at how we can improve industrial relations within the Health Service.As to monitoring, the trouble is—the report makes it clear—that many people knew just what the position was. Some of them were in positions of authority with power to act, but they failed to act. The lesson from this is clear: that those who hold positions of authority really must accept the responsibility that goes with it. As to whether it would now be wise to make a change in the health advisory service, I think the right hon. Gentleman knows that since 1975 the development team for the mentally handicapped has taken over the task of advising on mental handicap services. I said in my statement that I am strengthening the team in order to ensure that it has the opportunity of visiting hospitals whether or not it is invited, so that in future it will be able to do so on the decision of the Secretary of State.
As the Secretary of State said that the standards of nursing care were extremely low, and as good nursing is vital to the well-being of patients, when will new senior nursing appointments be made at Normansfield hospital, which is in my constituency, and the nursing staff brought up to establishment? As to the position of the consultant psychiatrist, why is it, not only in the National Health Service but throughout the public services, that if someone is hopelessly or even dangerously unsuitable it is almost impossible to move him? That was why, in this case, it took a strike to force the hand of the regional health authority.
With regard to establishment, I am certain the hon. Gentleman knows—the hospital is in his constituency—that it has been very difficult to appoint new permanent staff during the period of the inquiry and until the report came out. That was why some time ago I appointed a task force to give medical, nursing and administrative leadership there. It is now our hope that, in place of the locums who have been appointed, it will once again be possible to increase establishment at the hospital, although I think the hon. Gentleman will have seen from the report that there is no suggestion at all that what happened at the hospital was due to financial problems.As to Dr. Lawlor and the question of discipline, this is a matter for the employing health authorities. As I have said, certain aspects of his clinical behaviour will now be referred to the General Medical Council. I hope that health authorities will learn a lesson. They must monitor the responsibilities which are being carried out, whether by psychiatrists, doctors or administrators, and if the job is not done properly it is the responsibility of those in charge to see that proper persons are put into such posts.
I have no doubt that members of the all-party committee on mental health will be relieved that there is no evidence of brutality in the report. I am also sure they will respect the work done by Patricia Mills, who has done much to make this report possible.I should like to ask the Secretary of State two questions. First, why did the Department fail to act in September 1975 when it had a warning from a key member of staff about the difficulties at the hospital? Second, as three disastrous appointments were made at the hospital, what advice can the Department give to such hospitals with regard to making the right selection?
As to brutality, I think that I had better quote direct from the report, because it is much clearer than my hon. Friend said. The report said:
It is at least a relief that we are not dealing with that sort of situation. That does not mean that the standards of nursing care were not abysmally low. My hon. Friend asked why the Department did not take action in 1975. The responsibility for the running of the Health Service and of particular hospitals is that of the health authorities. Although many people are criticised in the report, and those criticisms have been made frankly, one thing that comes through is that there has been no criticism whatever of the way in which my Department has carried out its responsibilities. I should very much like to consider whether any further guidance can be given in terms of appointments to psychiatric posts."There is, with one exception, no evidence whatsoever of cruelty or ill-treatment of patients by members of the nursing staff."
The report, albeit perhaps a particularly disturbing one, is by no means the first of such reports, which are always followed by reassuring statements from the Government Dispatch Box such as that to which we have listened today. In the context of monitoring, will the right hon. Gentleman say what practical assistance, apart from exhortation, he proposes to give to area health authorities in this task?Secondly, in the financial context, will the Secretary of State review the balance of financial provision within the NHS, where this particular service has always been something of a Cinderella, to see how far staff difficulties and shortages can be overcome by the provision of proper finance?
Let me first say that I am not giving reassuring statements from this Dispatch Box. However much one would like to do so, it would be impossible to give a guarantee that some such situation may not occur again in some other of our mental handicap hospitals which may cause the same sort of sense of shock as this has done. We must do everything we can to see that this does not happen. But let it be recognised, and I am certain the House will do so, that great priority is now being given to these services.As I said, the ratio of staff to patients has almost doubled since 1969, overcrowding has been greatly reduced and the number of patients is down considerably because of increased provision in the community. We are seeing a much faster rate of spending in this Cinderella area than in other areas of the National Health Service.
If the House will cooperate, I hope to call all those hon. Members who have stood up. However, there is another statement to follow, so I hope that Questions will be brief.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not so much exhortation that is needed as a little bit of exorcism? Will he indicate the active steps being taken by the GMC to ensure that a crackpot like the man who was in charge of this hospital, who himself probably needs psychiatric treatment, is not permitted to carry on?What steps have been taken to ensure that this situation will not occur again? It is most disconcerting trying to read a report like this with 700 pages and to find descriptions of a National Health Service hospital as looking like "a 19th century workhouse". Are things better in Normansfield now, and is there a better spirit among the staff?
The three wise men procedure has been followed on the question of whether Dr. Lawlor needs psychiatric treatment. There was an examination of him and it was thought that he might be suffering from a mental illness. Subsequently a psychiatrist who examined him found no evidence of mental illness, and Dr. Lawlor remained in his job. This is now a matter for the GMC, and there are conclusions that it will draw in general and in particular from this disturbing situation.As far as the present situation is concerned, I was very encouraged to read the recently published report of the local community health council which played a very important part in bringing these facts to light. The council said in its annual report on 30th June:
That was a reference to Normansfield. I believe that progress is being made. I shall visit the hospital again shortly to discuss with the staff how they can work together to build a better future for those who live and work at Normansfield."The CHC is concerned that the publication of the report should not upset the constructive and ever-growing teamwork which has been evidenced in the improvement in our local mental handicap services."
Will the Secretary of State agree that there were people in authority who knew what was going on, that they had power to deal with it and that they clearly did not do so? How many have been sacked?
The report has been published only today. It is for the area health authorities now to decide what action should be taken in the light of the very severe criticism contained in the report of many individuals.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement this afternoon and the words from the Opposition Front Bench will cause grave concern nationally about this appalling story? Will he note that it would appear that this inquiry totally rejects the biased and inaccurate reporting of the medical press? Will he consider that it would appear that the remainder of the staff— particularly the nurses—seem to have been absolutely and unduly provoked by the actions of those in charge? If there is to be any form of penalty, these nurses should not be held responsible for the woefully shoddy administration at this hospital.
Certainly Dr. Lawlor is held responsible for much of what was wrong, and there was a great deal of provocation by him which was not dealt with by the health authorities. There is no doubt that there were genuine grievances and that those grievances were not dealt with. If, however, my hon. Friend is asking me in any way to condone the action of those who went on strike and abandon mentally handicapped people, I simply cannot do so.
Will the Secretary of State accept that we would like to have rather earlier whistle-blowing on situations like this rather than expensive witch-hunts afterwards? Will he consider whether arrangements can be made, particularly when dealing with mentally handicapped people and perhaps sick children as well, for people who believe that things are going wrong and who cannot find satisfaction through the proper management channels to have the opportunity of raising the matter with an outside body? In this way, an investigation could take place earlier.
Of course, everyone has the absolute right to discuss these questions with the community health council, and that council can raise the matter as a matter of concern, as, indeed, it did in this case. I reiterate the point made by the hon. Member about witch-hunts. It is important that consideration should be given to whether those who are named should be disciplined, and, if so, in what way. I hope that there will be no other witch-hunting, and I hope that this report will stimulate those in the community around Normansfield and around other hospitals for the mentally handicapped to help in a voluntary way in order to throw the light of day on these hospitals where the staff desperately need support.
Will my right hon. Friend indicate whether what happened at Normansfield was primarily due to staff shortages or to cuts in public expenditure?
If I may quote from the report,
I reiterate that."The main cause for the shortfall in patient care and development was not lack of finance but a failure of duty".
Does the Secretary of State agree that a debt of gratitude is owed to the task force which has been operating the hospital for some months under considerable difficulties? Will he tell us what confidence he has that the area health authority will act more promptly in future when faced with similar situations?
I welcome the hon. Member's remarks. He has in his constituency Botleys Park hospital, which has done a lot to help and support Normansfield in its time of difficulty. Very many of those now on the area health authority are not those who were there when these events took place. The authority has a new chairman and many different members. Also, there are some different staff. I have absolute confidence that those who now lead the area will be able to take this hospital through its very difficult period.
However deplorable this case study may be, will the Secretary of State agree that it would be unfortunate if these bizarre events were allowed to divert public attention and also the attention of his Department from the general condition of mentally handicapped people who reside not in hospitals but in hostels? There is virtually no monitoring of these hostels, as is the case in Birmingham, where mentally handicapped people are abused, have no rights at all and are treated like rubbish for the benefit of property speculators and for the advantage of Conservative politicians in that city.
I know that the situation to which my hon. Friend has referred is one which he intends to draw to the attention of the Minister of State later today. It is important that we understand that there are problems in hospitals for the mentally handicapped in different parts of the country. But we should also recognise that there has been a threefold increase since 1969 in the number of residential places in the community, and it is important that the local authorities should fulfil their knowledge and responsibilities relating to that residential accommodation.
Since another tribunal, of which the right hon. Gentleman is aware, has revealed other though lesser cases of bullying in a West Suffolk hospital, may I say how much I welcome his words about the need for intelligent monitoring by the area health authorities? I also welcome his forthright statement that, in weighing the balance between the welfare of patients and the rights of staff to take industrial action, the patients must come first. Will the right hon. Gentleman now apply that judgment, with which the whole House will concur, to other industrial action now being taken in some of our hospitals?
There is no doubt that that set of principles must apply to all those who work in the Health Service, he they doctors, nurses, administrators, supervisors or whatever.
Who audited the expenditure upon this hospital and by this hospital? Was it the Exchequer and Audit Department again? Does not my right hon. Friend now agree that the Select Committee on Public Expenditure, the Select Committee on Procedure and the former Shadow Leader of the House were right in advocating an independent audit by this House which would cover not merely financial corruption but efficiency and effectiveness?
There is no evidence of corruption in this case, but I will reflect on the point put by my hon. Friend. He may care to put down another Question.
Bentley Colliery (Accident)
I regret to have to inform the House that there was a serious accident this morning at Bentley Colliery in the National Coal Board's Doncaster area. At 5.40 a.m., three carriages of a diesel-hauled man-riding train were derailed below ground. Seven men were killed and 17 injured. I understand that the Health and Safety Commission has this morning directed that the accident should be fully investigated and that a report will be made public as soon as possible. Inspectors of mining are at the scene of the accident. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has also flown to the mine to express his sympathy, in which we all share.
May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expression of sympathy by the hon. Gentleman to the wives and families of all those who lost their lives in this tragic accident and to those injured? I also take the opportunity, in face of this very serious accident, to pay tribute to the normally extremely high standard of safety in the mines, which is an example to many other industries in this country and which makes this accident all the more tragic.The hon. Gentleman's statement did not quite make clear that there will be a public inquiry. We assume that there will be. In that connection, is the hon. Gentleman aware of the statement made only last week by the senior district inspector for mines and quarries for South Yorkshire? This reported a welcome fall in the number of deaths last year but indicated a quite significant increase in the number of serious injuries. It attributed this mainly to underground transport accidents, indicated that they showed a serious deterioration in the situation and suggested the need for a systematic programme of training of haulage personnel. I hope that that very recent statement will be taken into account in the examination of this very serious accident.
I think that all the relatives of the dead and injured will appreciate the hon. Gentleman's statement of sympathy. What he said about the high standard of safety in our mines is perfectly true. The hon. Gentleman referred to the statement by the mines inspectorate. Although that statement expressed concern about the number of accidents which took place in what is described as the haulage area, it pointed out that nevertheless the safety record was the best in living memory, although, of course, that is of little comfort to the dead and the injured and their relatives.In reply to the hon. Gentleman's question about whether the inquiry will be in public, I can go no further than the statement I have made. People are on the scene and they are assessing the position. There is a time-honoured procedure for such incidents and no doubt there will be a statement later on.
I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to join with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and, I am sure, everyone on both sides of the House in expressing sympathy and deep grief at this appalling tragedy which occurred in the early hours of this morning.There is to be an inquiry, but I want to stress what the hon. Member for Bridg- water (Mr. King) said regarding the seriousness of underground accidents arising from haulage and transport and that they must be fully investigated. After all, in this modern age of high technology it should not be impossible to find solutions for the kind of thing that happened today, when, apparently, a paddy train got out of control, joined a bend and became derailed. I am sure that these things are capable of being solved. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in his absence, for speedily going north. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walker), who volunteered to go up there because he probably has constituents employed in the pit, although they may not have been involved in the accident. He readily agreed to go north in order to give me this opportunity to be in the House this afternoon. I want to stress the question that has been raised in authoritative quarters within the coal industry about the productivity agreement, which could be causing accidents. I want to ensure that the inquiry goes fully into the question of manning levels and of reports on maintenance and inspection, because in my opinion there was some fault at that curve where the train became derailed. The inquiry should cover the question of whether proper inspections are carried out and full maintenance requirements are observed by the National Coal Board. This is the second tragedy to descend upon this small community. About 50 years ago, when I worked in the pit next door, at Hatfield Main, there was an explosion at Bentley colliery, and the gloom which descended on the miners in the Doncaster area had to be seen to be understood. The same gloom will be prevailing there today. These people who talk about "greedy" miners should remember that these men— healthy, strong men, 23 of them— returning from a hard day's work two and a half miles underground, were suddenly crushed. Death came to some of them and serious injury to others. That is the price that men have to pay for coal.
I think that the whole House will understand the feelings expressed by my hon. Friend, with the long association that he has had with the mining industry. We know that throughout the history of mining it has been the lot of miners to weep and bury their dead. I think that the House will also understand my hon. Friend's plea for a full investigation of all the matters he has raised and for the investigation to be made public. I can give the House an assurance that there will be a full investigation and that the findings will be published. The House will understand that people are at the scene at this moment and that assessments and studies are being made.
Along with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and my colleagues, I, too, express my tribute to the families of those who were killed or injured. At the same time, I must point out that I find that I cannot pay too much heed to what has come from the Opposition. They consistently pay tribute to dead and injured miners, but never do they pay tribute to the miners when they are putting in a pay claim or asking for better conditions. [HON. MEMBERS: "Disgraceful."] It needs to be said.Can my hon. Friend indicate whether the inquiry will take into account not the reducing number of accidents as indicated in the 1977 report but more closely the events in 1978, when the productivity scheme started, with a view to establishing whether there has been a shift in the balance that appertains in mines away from safety towards production? Can he assure us that that will be one of the matters to be closely looked into in respect of this accident and others?
The whole House will understand the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) about the injured and the dead. I repeat that investigations into mining accidents in recent history have always covered every aspect. I can only repeat that there will be a full investigation into this accident in all its aspects. Its findings will be made public, and I assume that a statement about them will be made later. If it is humanly possible, we must assure everyone, not only the industry and the House, that such accidents will not happen again.
Vehicle Excise Duty
I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,
I believe that the matter meets the criteria for an emergency debate. I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that it is specific and important. It is specific in that the nature and dimensions of the issue are clear, and it is important because we are talking about something that yields more than £800 million a year for the Exchequer. It seems odd that a subject of this magnitude was not considered worthy of discussion this afternoon. The matter covers the responsibilities of several major Departments of State. I cite first the Treasury. I recall the statement by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Budget Statement in 1976 that he could not countenance a change of this nature, which in his view would have considerable adverse effects on the balance of payments. The Department of Industry is involved because of its responsibility for our domestic car industry and its concern about the likely switch to lower-powered vehicles. an area in which our domestic industry is less competitive. The Department of Energy is involved because of energy conservation; the Home Office because of its responsibilities for the police and the extent to which the police use the vehicle licensing centre in South Wales; the Department of the Environment because of the effect on rural areas arising from the increase in the cost of petrol; the Northern Ireland Office because of security matters; the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection because of the likely distribution costs arising from the switchover—"the Government's decision to abolish the vehicle excise duty in favour of increases in the cost of petrol."
Order. The hon. Gentleman must not make now the speech he would make if the debate were granted. He must give reasons why there should be a change of our business and an emergency debate.
With respect, Mr. Speaker, I am trying to give particulars showing why the matter is important. I believe that it is important because it straddles the responsibility of so many Departments. I was itemising those Departments whose responsibility it covers. I have mentioned most of them.I turn finally to the Civil Service Department and the Welsh Office. The Civil Service Department is involved because of the effect of dispersal of civil servants in, one hopes, making good the gap resulting from the job loss. The Welsh Office is also involved because of its responsibilities for employment in West Wales. As for the second criterion, that of urgency, there is an immediacy about the problem in that the White Paper announcing the decision has, I believe, just reached the Vote Office. There has been no opportunity for the House to discuss the issue immediately. We do not know the answers to major questions, such as the opportunities that will be available in the House to discuss it, whether the changeover will be by order and whether it will be as a result of an amendment to the Finance Bill—all very important questions to which answers should be given. Because we have had no other opportunity, Mr. Speaker, I call upon you, as the protector of Back Benchers and of the House, to give us that opportunity. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear".]
The hon. Gentleman asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he thinks should have urgent consideration, namely,
I listened very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said, and I realise from the noise in the Chamber as he sat down that he is not alone. In fact, I had notice from the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) that he wished to make an application under Standing Order No. 9, but the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) had got in first. As the House knows, under Standing Order No. 9 I am directed to take into account the several factors set out in the order but to give no reasons for my decision. I listened very carefully indeed to what the hon. Gentleman said, as he asks me to set aside business, either today or tomorrow, to give precedence to a three-hour emergency debate. I have to rule that the hon. Gentleman's submission does not fall within the provisions of the Standing Order, and, therefore, I cannot submit his application"the Government's decision to abolish the vehicle excise duty in favour of increases in the cost of petrol."
Statutory Instruments, & C
That the European Communities (Services of Lawyers) Order 1978 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.—[Mr. James Hamilton.]
Orders Of The Day
Social Security Bill
Order for Second Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.The Bill makes a number of changes in the law relating to social security. These include the extension of the upper age limits for mobility allowance which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services announced on 9th November, changes in attendance allowance, improvements in appeal procedures and miscellaneous changes, particularly in relation to the new pension scheme. Hon. Members will recall that the contribution provisions of the new pension scheme, including those for contracting out of the scheme, came into force on 6th April last. From next April, the benefit provisions of the new scheme will come into force and the improved pensions provided by that scheme will begin to be paid. This has been a great achievement, laying as it does the foundation for the development of better pensions in the rest of the twentieth century. Let me say straight away that we appreciate the cooperation which we have received from all sides of the House and from the occupational pensions interests in bringing the scheme to fruition. This has been achieved at the same time as other major improvements in social security provisions: following the uprating of social security benefits last week, pensions and other long-term benefits now stand some 20 per cent. higher in real terms than when we took office; the child benefit scheme is now operative, and by next April child benefit will have reached £4 for each child; and we have legislated for a range of new benefits for the disabled. All this has been a major administrative task for my Department. As I explained to the House when I moved the Second Reading of the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act some two years ago, when we came to consider the detailed procedures necessary to introduce the provisions of the new scheme we found that a number of technical amendments to those provisions were necessary. Further work on the preparation for the introduction of the new pension benefits next April has revealed further areas in which there are defects in the statutory provisions, a number of which must be corrected before April if our original intentions are to be carried out and the new provisions are to work effectively. When we are introducing highly complex major new schemes within a fairly tight timetable, it is perhaps not surprising, although it is to be regretted, that some of the provisions are found to be defective when we come to apply them. Most of the changes which the Bill introduces are minor and of a highly technical nature, about which I need not trouble the House at this stage. Some of the more important ones I shall refer to but we shall, of course, be very ready to explain all of them in Committee, and we are preparing, as we did for the previous Bill, detailed notes on clauses which we propose to make available to all hon. Members who serve on the Standing Committee. We shall also put them in the Library for the benefit of other hon. Members who wish to study the provisions of the Bill in detail. I shall deal first with the more important provisions of the Bill, beginning with mobility allowance. Clause 3 removes the pensionable age limit for the allowance—65 for a man and 60 for a woman—and substitutes a new limit of 75. This in itself will, I know, be welcomed by the many thousands of beneficiaries who faced the prospect under existing legislation of losing their allowance at pensionable age. It is an extension we have wished to make for some considerable time, subject to resources being available, and we have been able to achieve it before any beneficiary had actually reached the age at which the law would have obliged us to stop the allowance. That, however, is only part of what the clause achieves. At the same time, we have sought to provide equal treatment for men and women. At present, a woman has five years less in which to establish entitlement to the allowance than a man. A man who is disabled at 61 can receive the allowance, but a woman cannot. This has always concerned us, and we have taken this opportunity to make further progress. The effect of the clause, therefore, is that both men and women can receive payment of the allowance between 65 and 75, provided that they can establish entitlement before they reach 65. As a consequence, women aged between 60 and 65 will be able to claim the allowance when their age group is phased in. As the House knows, we are committed to a completion of the phasing-in programme by the end of next year. We now intend to include women aged 60 to 65 in that programme. I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister who has responsibility for the disabled for all the work he has done to bring these improvements forward. He will be winding up the debate and will expand on the details of the new provisions. The remainder of the clause is largely technical and the details are best considered in Committee. I should, however, perhaps comment briefly on subsection (4). The provisions of section 13 of the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1977, and of regulations made under that section, enable certain vehicle scheme beneficiaries to claim mobility allowance on favourable terms, without age limit and generally without medical examination. The intention has always been, as my right hon. Friend mentioned to the House on 23rd July 1976, that these special concessions should be available only to those people who had an invalid "trike" at the relevant time or who had the alternative production car or private allowance. The effect of subsection (4) is to put the original intention beyond legal doubt. I now turn to the provisions relating to attendance allowance, which are largely concerned with the position of kidney failure patients. Three changes are proposed, and these are set out in clause 2. The first is to ensure that the generality of kidney patients undergoing treatment by dialysis at home receive the allowance. This will restore the position for these patients to what it was before the Attendance Allowance Board revised its interpretation of the present law in June 1977. As a consequence of that revised interpretation, a number of those who dialyse at home have lost the allowance, even though their circumstances have not changed, and they still need the same kind of help from others while dialysing as they did previously. My right hon. Friend announced, as hon. Members will recall, that we would be bringing our proposals for an amendment to the Social Security Act before the House. This we have now done. The second change will affect patients undergoing dialysis at hospital as outpatients where their attendance needs are met by the hospital staff. The majority of such patients have little need for attention outside the period of dialysis. This is another unintended effect of the present law. Payment of the allowance in these circumstances will cease. A third provision in the clause will enable us to waive the six-month qualifying period where a person loses the allowance because of an improvement in his health but shortly afterwards suffers a relapse. Having once satisfied the six-month qualifying period and received the allowance, he ought not to have to serve a further qualifying period. The provision in the clause will enable a change in the present law to be made giving effect to this, regardless of the cause of disablement for which attention is required. The regulations which are needed to give detailed effect to the provisions of this clause will be laid before the House as soon as possible after the Bill receives Royal Assent.
Will the Minister confirm that these provisions will be retrospective? Will he point to the part of the clause or to the commencement provision in the Bill which makes them retrospective?
This is a detailed but important point with which my hon. Friend will deal when he replies to the debate. We want to explain fully the point about retrospection, and I would rather it were done on that basis.I wish now to deal with supplementary benefit appeals. Clause 5, with schedule 2, amends the Supplementary Benefits Act 1976 in order to make further improvements to the supplementary benefit appeal tribunal system. Hon. Members may recall that, in response to a Question from my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) on 18th January 1977, I announced a number of important proposals which, while not requiring legislation, would improve public confidence in the working of these tribunals. The time is now ripe to go ahead with legislative amendments to the supplementary benefits adjudication system, in particular to take steps to institute a two-tier appellate system and to appoint senior chairmen. Clause 5(1) inserts a new section 15A into the Act, and the effect of this is to provide a second-tier appeal system which will replace the present right of appeal to the High Court— in Scotland to the Court of Session— from the decision of a tribunal on point of law. My noble Friend the Lord Chancellor and my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate have made the order granting the direct right of appeal to the High Court and Court of Session in the expectation that it would be an interim measure. As the national insurance two-tier appellate system has stood the test of time, it makes good sense that an appeal against the decision of a supplementary benefit appeal tribunal should lie to a national insurance commissioner. The present right of appeal to the High Court is hardly an ideal solution for supplementary benefit claimants. It seems an unnecessarily formal method of reviewing a decision from a tribunal of this kind. In addition, the procedure is likely to prove a deterrent to claimants who, Although dissatisfied with a tribunal's decision, fight shy of seeking legal advice and lack ready access to a citizens' advice bureau or other advice centre. Although I am seeking wide powers to make rules to provide for a right of appeal to the national insurance commissioners, the Government have no plans at the moment to extend the right of appeal beyond appeals on points of law. Otherwise, it would not be possible for the commissioners to cope with the likely flood of appeals. The decisions of the commissioners will, of course, be subject to judicial review by the courts. The new position will be that if an appeal goes to a commissioner as opposed to going to the High Court, and if the appellant is not satisfied with that, he will still have the right to go to the High Court, We are, however, inserting an intermediate procedure which will make matters easier for the appellant.
What provisions are there at the moment for legal aid? If there is none at the moment, will provision be made in the future?
I believe that my hon. Friend knows the current position. We do not intend at the moment to make any changes, and these matters will be easier because there will in future be less chance of cases going to the High Court since the commissioners will hear cases.
Will my right hon. Friend look at this matter carefully? Surely the current position is that when an appeal goes to the High Court the applicant can get legal aid because he is going into the judicial system. If these appeals are to be transferred into the national insurance system, appellants will not be eligible, since they will be appearing before a tribunal, for legal aid. In effect, this will be denying legal aid to some categories of appellant.
There is a point here about whether one gets legal aid when going to a national insurance commissioner. I should have thought that that would not be necessary, but I am prepared to look at the suggestion.
May I put this the other way round? There are occasions when people who go to these tribunals cannot get legal aid and cannot be legally represented. On such occasions the Government are legally represented. May I suggest, therefore, that if legal aid and legal representation are not available to applicants, the Government should undertake not to be legally represented?
I cannot give that undertaking to my hon. Friend, but I can tell him that I shall look seriously at both the matters raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) and for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) and see that the House has satisfactory replies.Subsection (2) of clause 5 substitutes a new schedule dealing with the constitution, jurisdiction and proceedings of supplementary benefit appeal tribunals. Apart from the provision for the appointment of senior chairmen, there will be no significant effects as the new schedule merely makes statutory provision for existing practices in a manner more closely aligned to tribunal arrangements under the Social Security Act. The introduction of legally qualified senior chairmen into the supplementary benefits adjudication system is, however, an entirely new feature in social security adjudication. Professor Bell, in her report on supplementary benefit appeal tribunals in 1975, came out strongly in favour of such appointments in the interests of emphasising and strengthening the independence of tribunals. Unfortunately, her recommendation of the appointment of a senior chairman to each region has been precluded by cost— at 1978 levels, nearly £400,000. Nevertheless, despite all the improvements made in the system, there is still no way of monitoring satisfactorily the performance of tribunals. This is a function which senior chairmen could usefully combine with the training role Professor Bell envisaged for them. With legally qualified senior chairmen responsible both for the quality of decision making and the conduct of tribunals, the position is safeguarded for the continued retention of, first, the right of appeal from the decision of a supplementary benefit appeal tribunal on a point of law and, secondly—a matter of considerable importance to the trade union movement—the services of able lay chairmen. We are therefore intending to make a modest move in this direction by the appointment of a small number of senior chairmen, and in so doing we shall not overlook the interests of Scotland and Wales.
This is a curious innovation which I have no doubt my hon. Friends will wish to explore in more detail in Committee. Is it envisaged that a claimant will have some kind of procedure to activate the senior chairman in his or her region to have a case examined, when it is a matter of fact as opposed to one of law, with the possibility of having the determination over-ruled?
I imagine that difficult cases will be referred to senior chairmen, and no doubt people will also be able to refer to them. But, again, this is a matter which we can explore in detail in Committee. This is purely an experiment, and we are not yet in a position to appoint a senior chairman in every region. However, we feel that we ought to go ahead with what should be an important innovation.I turn to the national insurance commissioners. In addition to these important changes relating to supplementary benefits adjudication, the Bill makes a number of other, relatively minor, changes in adjudication arrangements. The most important of these is the provision in clause 8 which extends the categories of those who are eligible for appointment as national insurance commissioners. At present, only barristers and advocates of 10 years' standing or more are eligible for appointment, but the clause enables solicitors with the same seniority also to be appointed. I hope that the House accepts that. I hope, too, that my barrister friends also accept that this will make available many more legally qualified people for important posts.
In declaring an interest as a member of the Bar—and in no way suggesting that this proposal is wrong—may I ask the Minister how many commissioners there are and whether there has been any difficulty in filling posts with those of sufficient experience before deciding to make this change?
I am informed by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that there are 10 commissioners at present. As for the difficulty of filling posts. I was about to say that this step should enable commissioners to be appointed rather more readily than is the case at the moment. It is difficult to find barristers with 10 years' experience who are available for this type of work.The thinking behind the proposal is that more commissioners are needed to deal with the large volume of work and the difficult issues that face them these days—resulting substantially from our efforts to assist the disabled by the introduction of new benefits, without jeopardising the high standards for which the commissioners are well known. There are also a few other provisions relating to adjudication and to situations where decisions are reviewed—clauses 6 and 7 and schedule 3, paragraphs 7 and 8—that do no more than fill minor gaps in the existing law and remove certain technical anomalies. I now turn to the main miscellaneous changes which the Bill brings about. I deal first with clause 4. Clause 4. with schedule 1, makes miscellaneous changes in the statutory provisions relating to retirement and invalidity pensions, in order to rectify defects. Part 1 of schedule 1 precludes the duplicate payment of invalidity allowance to certain people over pension age who have not retired; it eases the conditions for the award of the non-contributory category D pension—the over-80 pension—by providing that only a person's basic contributory pension shall be taken into account when considering title to a category D pension; it enables a person with a non-contributory category C pension—the wife or widow of a man over pension age in July 1948—to receive her category C pension in addition to any earnings-related additional component to which she may be entitled; and it remedies defects and omissions in relation to retirement pensions for the widows and widowers of people who are contracted out of the new pensions scheme. Part II of schedule 1 rectifies defects in relation to events occurring before 6th April 1979, when the benefit provisions of the Social Security Pensions Act 1975 come into force. It has always been the Government's intention—this has been made clear on a number of occasions—that some of the improvements in pension provisions introduced by the new pension scheme should apply only where the relevant event—for example, death or the attainment of pension age—occurs on or after 6th April 1979, when those improvements come into effect. These include the payment of a retirement pension to a widower on his deceased wife's contributions, the topping up of a surviving spouse's retirement pension with the deceased spouse's pension, similar topping-up provisions in relation to a married woman's retirement pension on her own contributions with one on her husband's contributions, provisions relating to invalidity pensions for certain widows and widowers, and the abolition of the married woman's half-test These were all considered to be integral parts of the new scheme, and it was intended that regulations should provide for them to apply only where the relevant event occurred on or after 6th April 1979. But when we came to consider the making of the appropriate regulations we were legally advised that the Pensions Act did not provide the necessary powers. The only way to achieve the original intention was, therefore, to amend the relevant provisions in the statutes, and this will be achieved by the amendments set out in part II of schedule 1. The consequences of not making these amendments would be most serious. For example, in the case of the married woman's half-test, those women who had reached pension age before 6th April 1979 and who had not qualified for a pension on their own contributions because they failed the half-test could apply to have their claims reviewed. The administrative implications of this are considerable and we can see no way of carrying out reviews on this scale. The half-test has been in force for the last 30 years, and we do not have the resources to deal with a flow of applications from those who have failed the half-test in the past. There would, in any case, inevitably be much confusion and delay. The incidence of successful claims would be arbitrary, not least because many of the applications would fail since those concerned would be receiving a higher pension on their husband's contributions. Of those who might succeed, many would be entitled to only a small amount of pension. But, even so, the cost of failing to correct the current deficiency in the legislation would be massive—possibly some £100 million in 1979–80 alone, for which there is no provision in our public expenditure plans.
This provision has caused some confusion outside the House. Can the Minister confirm that it does no more than restore the position to that which everybody thought existed after the 1975 Act reached the statute book?
The situation is as the right hon. Member states. The provision to abolish the half-test from April 1979 still stands. There is no change. Women will be in exactly the same position and will be judged on the half-test on the same basis.I have already dealt with clauses 6, 7 and 8. Clause 9 corrects defects in the provisions of the Pensions Act relating to the revaluation of earnings factors to ensure that revaluation orders may be laid in the intended time scale and format. Clause 10 of the Bill remedies a number of technical defects in section 59 of the Pensions Act. This section of the Act replaces the provisions in the Pensions (Increase) Act 1971 for increasing official pensions—a category of occupational pension that includes the pensions paid to former employees from all the main public services and, indeed, those of Members of Parliament. These pensions are, of course, the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal. Under section 59, to avoid the current difficulty, official pensions will in future be increased at the same time and by the same percentage as the increase in the additional component of the new State pension. The most important change in clause 10 is to the definition of the base period for the first year's uprating. Because the increase to be paid on additional components in 1979 will be intended to reflect a full year of price increases, a change in the method of calculating the first year's increase for Civil Service and other public service pensioners under section 59 is necessary to ensure that they are not significantly over-compensated by as much as £80 million a year. The remaining subsections of the clause are of much more restricted application and are intended to ensure that a minority of public service pensioners should not be made to suffer any worsening in their present pension protection provisions because of unintended side effects of the operation of the new arrangements. The House will wish to know, however, that none of the provisions in this clause represents in any sense an improvement on the present arrangements for public service pensioners. Clause 11 inserts a new section 126A into the principal Act which provides for the annual review of the value of increments of guaranteed minimum pensions earned by contracted-out employees who have deferred their retirement, so that those increments can be inflation-proofed within the State scheme. The provisions of this new section replace those of section 3(3) to 3(5) of the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1977 which have been found to be defective and which are being repealed. Clause 12 is concerned with the secondary class 1 contributions payable by the employers of certain workers who are excluded from the redundancy payment provisions of the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978. The amendment does not reflect any change in the policy on the liability to contribute to the redundancy fund but is for the purpose of supporting existing administrative arrangements under which the secondary class 1 contributions collected from employers of registered dock workers include no redundancy fund element. Clause 13 relates to the enactment of the provisions of the Bill in Northern Ireland. It is intended that this will be done by Order in Council under the Northern Ireland Act 1974 which will be subject to annulment by resolution of either House. Clause 14 relates to the financial provisions. Clause 15, with schedule 3, contains provisions relating to citation, commencement and extent of the Bill and minor and consequential amendments, with the details of which I do not need to trouble hon. Members. This is a small and in many ways technical but important Bill. I am particularly pleased to introduce the provisions extending the upper age limits for mobility allowance, those which will help people dialysing at home to qualify for attendance allowance and those relating to improvements in supplementary benefit appeal procedures. Equally important, however, are those which provide running repairs to existing legislation. This is a most useful Bill and I commend it to the House. I recognise that many parts of the Bill are highly technical and that many hon. Members will wish to examine the Bill in more detail. The proper place to do that is in Committee. That is why the Government are providing explanatory memoranda.
The House will be grateful for the careful and painstaking way in which the Minister has described the Bill. We appreciate that there are to be explanatory notes on the clauses and paragraphs in the schedules. There is no doubt that that will facilitate debate in Committee since we are dealing with a complex Bill.When the Minister was describing clause 11 he said that it was intended to put right defects in the Act that we passed only in 1977. That measure was in turn intended to put right defects in the 1975 Act. The Minister then used the phrase "running repairs". I have the impression that we shall have to jog round this course for years. The Minister said that the Bill contains three important changes of substance as well as a large number of minor changes. The House would not thank me if I launched into a one-man Committee stage and commented at length upon all the minor changes. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) will be in charge of the Committee stage for the Opposition. I know that I can leave those matters in her capable hands. First, I should like to deal with the attendance allowance and the changes for kidney patients. Secondly, I wish to deal with the provisions for mobility allowance—the Second Reading of a Bill which makes a major change in mobility allowance gives us an opportunity to review the position generally. Then I shall make one or two general observations about the future of the supplementary benefit scheme as a whole, hanging my remarks on clause 5 which provides new rights of appeal. This is the first debate that we have had in the House which has given us the opportunity to examine the review report "Social Assistance". My first emotion when I approach a Bill of this kind is that of a sinking heart. The sheer complexity of social security legislation is daunting. I defy anyone reading the Bill, even with the benefit of the lucid explanation by the Minister, to have an accurate or even the vaguest idea of what is intended. Claimants do not need to know the law but they should know their entitlement. Why is it—and I speak as a lawyer—that the lawyers seem to find it necessary to couch their intentions in language which is so opaque that ordinary mortals find it impossible to make head or tail of it? Is it necessary always to legislate on these matters so that we spend late hours of the night with wet towels round our heads trying to understand what is to happen? I spent some years dealing with income tax statutes. This legislation is incomparably more difficult to understand than the taxes Acts. Most of the complex provisions in the income tax Acts deal with people who can afford to pay highly skilled advisers to steer them through the labyrinth. But this legislation is intended to help people who can do no such thing.
I echo the right hon. Gentleman's sentiments. Preparing for a Bill such as this is a tour de force for a Minister. The right hon. Gentleman was once Chief Secretary to the Treasury and he will know of the need to amend legislation. What we are talking about involves the technical aspects of the legislation, not the benefits themselves. It is our desire to try to make the benefits understandable so that people can apply for them. Since in the Bill we are trying to save £180 million of public expenditure, we are endeavouring to tighten up the legal aspects.
I appreciate that it is necessary for the Government to make sure that the necessary legislation as it reaches the statute book properly effects their intentions. All I am saying is that it is being done in a way that parliamentary draftsmen seem to love, namely, by means of legislation by reference. One needs to uncoil one's way backwards through the statutes to find what on earth they are on about.This House of Commons—and this is all set out in "Erskine May"—has a respectable procedure called a Keeling schedule. When sections of past Acts are amended, it is appropriate in suitable cases to reprint those sections as amended as a separate schedule to the Bill, so that one can turn to the back of the Bill and say "That is what the section means if we pass the amendment in the form suggested". Why cannot we do that in this case? I searched through the Bill for anything remotely resembling a Keeling schedule. It is with some relief that I acknowledge that it will be some of my colleagues who will have the task of unravelling these matters in Committee. Can we not have legislation brought before us in which the meaning is readily intelligible to everybody who reads it? It would be unkind, but not unreasonable, to suggest that if the right hon. Gentleman could understand the Bill that is before us he might reasonably expect the rest of the House to understand it. Without the help of his exceedingly skilled advisers, I doubt whether he would have been able to steer his way through the Bill as skilfully as he did this afternoon. I now turn to the substance of the Bill, and deal first with the attendance allowance for kidney patients. This is a long saga and my correspondence on the subject goes back almost two years. The disallowance of attendance allowance for kidney patients who now need to dialyse only twice a week instead of three times has given rise to a great deal of acrimony and anguish. It is bad enough to be a patient who has to have dialysis two or three times a week. The person who is dialysing at home knows that he requires substantial support. This was an unkind cut indeed. The Government are open to some criticism for having failed to deal with this matter sooner. I have studied letters to disabled persons from the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security who has responsibilities to assist the disabled, and I am unimpressed by the arguments why the Department could not accept the Bill put forward last Session by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young). The Government admit that the Bill could have been amended in the Lords to enable it to do everything that was required. The Government could have provided a money resolution as they did with the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1969. If that had happened, the payments could now be being made. One gets the impression that Ministers are so determined that this will be their legislation—legislation introduced by a Labour Government—so that they will be given the credit for it that they are prepared to deprive kidney patients of benefits which they could now have enjoyed for many months.
Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that legislation on a matter as sensitive as this should have gone through the House entirely without debate and should have been discussed only in the House of Lords? I am certain that there was no time whatever at the end of the previous Session for us to give attention to the subject in the way hon. Members required. It was suggested to me that it would have been a constitutional outrage to have limited discussion of such a measure to another place.
There are two answers to the Minister's argument. First, where there is a need urgently to right a wrong and an injustice, the House would not have been quick to take the constitutional point.
There was no opportunity then.
Secondly, there would have been an opportunity because, when the Bill came back from another place, there would have been a stage in this House to discuss the Lords amendments. Therefore, all the important changes which the Government required would have been debated on the Floor of this House. I do not think that the arguments that the Minister put forward in The Sunday Times and elsewhere were the least bit convincing.Let me come to a point of greater substance on which the right hon. Gentleman dodged my question. When the argument flared up in The Sunday Times last month about the housewives' allowance—the non-contributory invalidity benefit—the Minister with responsibility for the disabled riposted with a letter saying how quickly the Department was dealing with kidney patients and attendance allowance. He reminded me of the examinee who was asked to explain the principles of the Archimedes pump and said that he knew nothing about that but could give a list of the kings of Israel and Judah. He will answer questions on HNCIP later, but he must answer on kidney patients now. One of the reasons which the Minister gave for being unable to accept my hon. Friend's Bill was that that Bill did not provide for retrospective payments to kidney patients. It is important to realise what the hon. Gentleman said about retrospection. I quote from his letter:
He later added:"In fact, our intentions were different from those of the Bill. We were concerned not only to change the law for the future, but also to act equitably toward everyone who had lost benefit in the past. In fairness to Sir George Young, I must make it clear that he wanted retrospection to the date of the Chief Commissioner's ruling in July. But my purpose was different. I wanted everyone to have back-pay' covering the whole period since the withdrawal of his or her benefit whenever that occurred."
If it was a most unusual step, it is merely putting right what should not have gone wrong earlier. Therefore, one expected to see in the Bill something on this topic. Although I have read the Bill with extreme care, I can find nothing that provides that clause 2 will come into force with retrospective effect. If I am wrong, I gladly give way to the Minister. I hope that I am wrong."What we now propose is a most unusual step …"
The right hon. Gentleman quoted me as describing how quickly we were dealing with this matter. By contrast, I was explaining how quickly we announced our intentions to deal with this matter—and to deal with it helpfully in each case. At this stage I do not want to intervene for too long in the right hon. Gentleman's speech. I shall therefore return to this matter later and speak to it in more detail.
This is very unsatisfactory because we shall have to wait until right at the end of the debate before we have a clear statement from the Dispatch Box about whether the Minister is to live up to his promise with which he regaled the readers of The Sunday Times. Indeed, so important did he think this pledge that he made it the subject of a special DHSS press release. I am suspicious that neither the right hon. Gentleman nor his hon. Friend has seen fit, in answer to my question, to say "Yes, it is our intention. This is to be retrospective." I believe that they are ratting on that promise. But we shall wait to hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say. If they are ratting, it makes it doubly criminal that they did not accept the Bill put forward by my hon. Friend so that these payments could at least have started when that Bill reached the statute book.If I am wrong, why cannot the hon. Gentleman say so? Are these payments to be retrospective?
The right hon. Gentleman must not give the impression that he is the only person or that he and his hon. Friend are the only people who have been concerned about this important matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), whom I hope may be called, has played an extremely important part. I want to listen to all that is said and I shall reply in detail later.
The hon. Gentleman has consistently failed to answer my question. Why cannot he answer me now? I am giving way to him. It needs a simple "Yes" or "No". Are these payments to be retrospective as he promised in his letter to The Sunday Times and in his statement? I expect that his hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) will be just as interested to hear the answer to that. We appeared on a television programme together about this issue. I will wait to hear what the Minister has to say, but I am bound to say that if it turns out that he has made a promise he now finds he cannot fulfil he will be open to the most serious criticism.I turn to the question of the mobility allowance, which is the biggest change of substance in the Bill. We on the Opposition Benches welcome it. It never seemed to me remotely realistic that we could give someone a mobility allowance before the age of 60 or 65 and then take it away at retirement age. I just did not believe that any Government would find that that was a tenable position. A year ago I wrote to the Minister to ask him whether he would give me his latest thoughts on the possibility of retaining the allowance for those who reached retirement age. He wrote me a long letter in which he said that it was likely that if the allowance was made to the disabled without limit—of course, this was an answer different from the question I asked—it would bring in an extra 500,000 people at an additional cost of about £180 million a year and that he was afraid that the financial resources available made such a move impossible. That was not the question I asked. I asked whether the Government would allow someone with an allowance to retain it. That is what I have always believed to be the right answer. The cost is relatively low in the early years. It rises sharply later to the figure of £20 million, which is mentioned in the financial memorandum. It has always seemed to me impossible to take such an allowance away. But one is bound to ask: why 75? What is the magic of that age? If it is wrong to take away the mobility allowance at 65, how is it all right to take it away at 75? Or is it that the Government believe that by then this provision will have been overtaken by a more general scheme for disability benefits? It may indeed be the case. All parties are now committed to move towards a comprehensive system of benefits for disability. This is an interesting point because it gives an indication of how the Government's mind may be moving en the question of a comprehensive disability system. There are broadly two patterns which have been put to us and to the Government. The Disability Alliance's scheme is for a broadly based provision for all disabled people of benefits of the same kind as are available to the industrial disabled, based on the degree of disablement and providing an income calculated by that. This is the scheme which Professor Peter Townsend has proposed. I think that he is regarded as the main spokesman. He proposed that the scheme would subsume and wrap up the mobility allowance; it would become part of the disability income. There is the other scheme which has been put forward by the Disablement Income Group for a two-tier system. The first tier would be a tax-free disablement costs allowance, of which the mobility allowance would continue to form a separate and specific part. There would be other costs allowances paid as of right to all those disabled. There is the second-tier income, if it is necessary, to be enjoyed by the disabled person and taxed in the same way as any other income, and paid subject to means. Many of the disabled with the appropriate costs allowance would be able to earn their own living. My own preference has always been to move in the direction of the DIG scheme, and it seems to me that today's extension of mobility allowance points to the way that the Government may be thinking. They may want to retain a separate and identifiable mobility allowance as part of a costs allowance rather than have it subsumed into a general disablement income as proposed in the disability allowance scheme. Both Government and Opposition will want to consult widely on this choice facing us. It is something that we need to get clear in our own minds. In the debate on Friday—we discuss these matters with great regularity—we had a long discussion of the problems of disability based on the Pearson report. Members will recognise that many of the relevant issues were widely canvassed in that debate. Therefore, I need not say more. Looking at mobility allowance, I do not need to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the disabled are a long way from being reconciled to the decision that was taken in July 1976. There are two main fears which are frequently voiced. The first is that the level of mobility allowance is not enough to provide effective mobility in a great many cases, particularly if tax has to be paid on it. Secondly—I deal with this briefly now and will deal with the question of money in a moment—there are still no signs of a specially designed vehicle for the disabled. The representations which we hear from all over the country have led me to conclude that there will continue to be a need for a specifically designed, purpose-built vehicle for a minority of the disabled who will never be able to use a car, however well adapted it might be. I hope that the Minister, when he replies to the debate, will tell us what the Government are now doing about that matter. The Government have been quite unreasonably obstructive in their refusal to say that they are working hard to find such a vehicle and to make it available. No doubt the Minister will explain what his policy is.
The right hon. Gentleman illustrates the dilemma here. For many of the disabled the trike is the only vehicle they can drive. Yet we have been faced over the years with propaganda against the unsociability of the trike and the fact that it is dangerous on the road. I hope that when the right hon. Gentleman replies to those people—who are now as vociferous against the mobility allowance as they were vociferous to get it—he will point out that many of them have changed their mind and that they ought to consider some of their earlier statements.