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Social Services

Volume 979: debated on Tuesday 26 February 1980

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Family Income

1.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he is satisfied that the indexation of benefits assists in the minimisation of the poverty trap.

4.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if, in order not to aggravate the so-called "why work?" problem, he will take steps to ensure that no more child support is given to non-working families than to those who work.

I recognise that the levels of benefit are an important factor in any consideration of work incentives. But if, for example, we were to increase child benefit by £1.70. so as to produce the same level of child support for a person who is at work as one receiving unemploy- ment benefit, the cost would be £950 million a year. Such resources are not available.

Does not that mean that, while there is a powerful case for increasing some of the long-term benefits by an amount equivalent to the rise in the cost of living, there is, equally, a case for increasing such benefits as short term unemployment benefit to a rather lesser extent, so as to act as an incentive to those receiving that benefit to take some of the jobs that continue to be available?

We recognise the importance of the interaction between benefits, tax and low wages. We are keeping these matters under review. I cannot be drawn any further on this subject at present.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that those not in work receive at least £5.70, and in some cases as much as £9.35, for teenage children, while those in work receive only £4? Does he agree that that is one of the principal causes of the "why work?" problem which the Government are pledged to solve? Will he give an assurance that he will institute a uniform child benefit at the earliest possible opportunity?

I cannot anticipate what may happen about child benefit. Clearly, in principle, we all wish to see it raised a good deal. The general problem has to be attacked in several ways. One is the raising of tax thresholds, on which a useful start was made in the Budget last year.

Is not the Minister aware that his Government's refusal to increase child benefit is deplored by the majority in Britain, especially those who are most poor and needy? Will he give an assurance that child benefit will be increased to its true level in real terms?

The hon. Gentleman cannot expect me to anticipate anything that may be announced in a few weeks' time.

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that if, at the next Budget, the Government decide not to index the tax system through implementing the Rooker-Wise amendment, there will be a substantially reduced case for indexing child benefit? If Rooker-Wise is not implemented, and the indexation of child benefit occurs, will not the poverty trap be made worse?

That is an interesting supplementary question. I cannot anticipate the Budget Statement for two reasons. First, I do not know what is in the Budget and, secondly, even if I did know I would not be allowed to say so.

Instead of listening to his hon. Friends behind him calling for a decrease in benefits to alleviate the poverty trap, will the Minister pay attention to the early-day motion sponsored by his hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) outlining methods to solve the poverty trap?

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that that motion has been signed by 29 Conservative Members of Parliament and calls for child benefit to be raised?

Every hon. Member is in favour of raising child benefit as fast and as far as resources will allow.

Child Benefit

2.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what recent representations he has received requesting an increase in child benefit.

7.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services when he expects to make an announcement on the increase of child benefit.

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will make a statement on child benefit levels.

10.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what representations he has had from organisations regarding the level of child benefit; and how many of these organisations requested that the indexation of this benefit be restored.

16.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what representations he has received requesting an increase in child benefits.

I have had a number of representations. Any change in the levels of child benefit will be announced at the appropriate time.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that he has received many representations not only from Labour Members and Labour Party organisations, but from his own side? Will he take particular note of the Conservative Women's National Advisory Committee, which has also asked him to press for an increase in child benefit? Will he therefore give some assurance to the House that these representations will be taken note of?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his solicitude for Conservative women. I can assure him that I pay the greatest possible attention to what they say to me.

Order. I propose to call first those hon. Members whose questions are being answered.

is the Secretary of State aware that there will be considerable anger among my constituents who are suffering hardship from the inflation that has been caused by the Government's policies and who are failing to get the increase in child benefit that they require to keep up their standard of living? It is not good enough for the right hon. Gentleman to say that the announcement will come later. The announcement is required now.

The only way in which people in this country can maintain and improve their standard of living is by increasing the output which the country as a whole produces. There is no way in which any Government can guarantee for our people the maintenance, let alone the increase, of their standard of living.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that over the last few years the cost of living for families has gone up at least as rapidly as the cost of living index as a whole? Does he further agree that families are among the least well off groups within the community? Would he personally like to see child benefit go up so that it is at least in line with the rate of inflation?

I understand and applaud my hon. Friend's concern for the position of families. I can assure him that the Government have a lively concern for the relative position of families with and without children. However, he cannot expect me to announce, ahead of the due date, what we may be able to do about the increase in child benefit.

Does not the Secretary of State accept that it is his responsibility, not the responsibility of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to state exactly by how much child benefit should be increased in order to restore its real value?

The hon. Gentleman may not be fully familiar with the procedure in relation to the announcement of the November upratings of social security benefits. He will know that for instance, for many years it has been the custom for the Chancellor in his Budget Statement to announce the increase in pensions. There will be an announcement at the due time about child benefit.

The right hon. Gentleman must surely appreciate that parents, who have already been burdened with VAT increases, are looking for an announcement as early as possible with regard to child benefit because they want to be able to budget for the rest of the year. Is there no assurance that can be given on this point at this time?

I have already made it clear in my letter to the right hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) that the Government do not feel it right to make an increase in child benefit this April. Now that child tax allowances have been wholly phased out, and there is a direct interaction between the amount of child benefit and the amount of the child dependency additions for short-term benefits and for supplementary benefit, it makes every sense to increase the child benefit in November, at the same time as other social security benefits, and to make the consequential adjustments in the child dependency additions at the same time. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that an announcement will be made about the uprating of child benefit at the due time.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement that the appropriate time for the increase in child benefit is in November. Will he bear in mind the pleas that have been made from both sides of the House that a substan- tial increase in child benefit can do much to help parents climb out of the poverty trap and also to encourage work and wealth production?

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that the Government have both those considerations very firmly in mind.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, with the amalgamation of child tax allowances and child benefit, child benefit is now part of the tax system just as much as it is part of social security? Will he ask the Chancellor, in considering his Budget Statement, to review the social priorities that apply in the selection of tax concessions, because there are certain classes of recipient of benefit in the income tax system which I believe society as a whole would not put ahead of mothers, given the present state of inflation?

My hon. Friend has pursued these matters with great tenacity over many years and has aroused the admiration of all his colleagues. I think that he would recognise that child benefit, whatever may have been its origins, is a cash transfer from the public to the private sector, whereas a tax allowance is a way of allowing a man to keep more of his own income. As to the decision which a Government face in making proposals to the House, the key question is that either would have an effect on the public sector borrowing requirement. Every 10p increase in child benefit costs £56 million in a full year and the Chancellor considering his tax allowances or the Government as a whole considering the level of child benefit must have regard to the requirement to keep the PSBR under control.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the language that he has just used is not the same language that he used when in opposition, and neither is it the language of the Conservative Party manifesto before the general election? I should like to put a specific point to him. Does he agree that any increase in child benefit, presumably announced at Budget time, should at least allow for raging inflation? Does he agree that to do that there would have to be an increase next November of more than 25 per cent. on present trends? Is he aware that there has already been a net loss of about 20 per cent. in the real value of child benefit since it was last increased, and there will be a great deal more between now and next November?

I honestly do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman expects me to answer questions as to quantum of the child benefit now. That is an announcement which will have to be made at the appropriate time.

Will my right hon. Friend draw, and bring to the attention of his Cabinet colleagues, a graph showing the increase in earnings and pensions and the decrease in the level of child support—either combined child tax allowances and family allowances or child benefit—since 1955?

I shall certainly take careful note of what my hon. Friend says. However, it is fair to put on record that child benefit remains of greater value to most basic rate taxpayers than child support in recent years by way of child tax allowances and family allowances or child benefit.

Does the Secretary of State recall that the Royal Commission on income distribution said that there are more poor children than there are poor pensioners—4½ million as against 3¾ million—and that nearly 45 per cent. of families with three children or more are living in poverty? Is not that a reason for now paying a larger child benefit to large families rather than the case which he has put?

It all depends on what one means by poverty. The case that has been advanced by Professor Townsend and others is that poverty must always be looked at solely as relative poverty—

The hon. Gentleman says "Of course." But the implication of that is that if the standard of living in the country as a whole doubled over a period of years, with no relative change in the position of different groups, exactly the same number of people would be in poverty at the end of that period as there was at the beginning. I happen to regard that proposition as absurd.

3.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what reply he has sent to the Conservative Women's National Advisory Committee regarding its request for an increase in child benefit.

13.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what reply he has sent to the Conservative Women's National Advisory Committee on its request for an increase in child benefit.

My right hon. Friend has conveyed to the Conservative Women's National Advisory Committee his appreciation of its contribution to the discussion on the role of child benefit.

That is what I would call a dusty answer. I am sure that every Labour Member and obviously a lot of Conservative Members, judging from the previous question, must welcome the support of the Conservative Women's National Advisory Committee with regard to child benefit. Will the Secretary of State take time off, and take his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister by the hand, to meet the Conservative Women's National Advisory Committee so that, as women to women, it may try to persuade her of the necessity to raise this important benefit for the family?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend has noted the remarks of the hon. Member for Barking (Miss Richardson). He will no doubt act on them in his own special way.

Since the Government have always claimed to direct resources to those who need them most, how can the hon. Lady, or any member of the Government, defend the giving of enormous juicy carrots to those earning £22,000 a year while at the same time clobbering families with children whose situation has been made worse by the increase in school meal and school transport charges? How can the hon. Lady defend that inequity?

I assure the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that we have taken careful note of the needs of families. We are well aware of the needs of children. The House must await the statement of my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Does my hon. Friend accept that part of the Conservative Women's National Advisory Committee analysis which says that recent Governments, of whatever party, have so organised the benefits system that they have engineered a shift of resources away from families and towards single people?

We have taken careful note of that fact over a period of time. It has not only happened over the last year, but over a number of years. It will be brought to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Will the right hon. Lady write to the Conservative Women's National Advisory Committee giving it her previous statements on child benefit detailing her support for an increase in child benefit, and will she state whether she has now changed her mind?

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Conservative Women's National Advisory Committee is well apprised of all statements made on this issue in the past. It is also aware of our views on the question of raising child benefit.

Pensions (Life Expectancy)

5.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what is the average length of life after receiving the State retirement pension of (a) women and (b) men.

On the basis of the current mortality rates in Great Britain, the expectation of life of a woman at her pension age of 60 is 20 years, and that of a man at his pension age of 65, 12 years.

Does the Minister realise that these vulnerable people in the community, who work all their lives, 'ire now suffering dreadfully due to the policies of his Government? Services are being cut in many ways. The meals on wheels service, home helps and so on, are now difficult to obtain. Has the Minister any plans on the subject of increases in prices, fuel bills, and so on? Has he any plans to review the matter, and to ensure that those people are helped in a proper manner?

No. Sir, I do not accept that statement. The rates of pensions and other main benefits were increased more than the cost of living last November. I accept that pensioners are suffering from inflation. We should all do our best to pursue counter-inflation policies, particularly, in relation to the current level of wage demands.

Is it not sheer hypocrisy for the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) to talk about destroying the value of the pension, when in five years, the Labour Government cut by half the value of pensioners' savings? Will my right hon. Friend now pay special attention to giving additional help to very elderly pensioners?

With regard to any adjustment of rates, we must await the Budget Statement. I agree with my hon. Friend in the earlier part of his question. That is why I underlined the importance of counter-inflationary policies in my answer to the first supplementary question.

Is the Minister aware that, because of a miscalculation, pensioners received an increase rather less than the increase in average earnings? They have been done out of a week's pension by the Government. What will the Minister do about that? There is a legal responsibility on the Government to do something. Is it not time that the Secretary of State started obeying the law?

There is no legal liability to make a good a shortfall of that sort. However, if Labour Members are to argue that it should have been done, they had better count the cost, and decide where they would make the cuts in Government spending elsewhere.

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the added-on element for a pensioner who remains in work is still fair and equitable?

That matter is tied up with the whole question of the earnings rule, and it is the objective of the Government to phase out that rule as soon as practicable.

Will the right hon. Gentleman agree that the quality of life is as important as the length of life for the elderly? Will he consider giving greater priority to the care of the growing number of frail, elderly people in our community?

The community should give the greatest possible priority to frail, elderly people. That is why I am glad that in the last 10 years or so the provision of personal social services by local authorities to the very elderly and disabled people has more than doubled.

Shawbury Community School

6.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will make a statement on the proposed closure of the Shawbury community school in Coleshill.

I understand that the children's regional planning committee and the Birmingham city council are considering the closure of Shawbury school. Before it can be closed, they will need to seek my right hon. Friend's approval to the appropriate amendment to the regional plan.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the extreme concern, expressed locally, about the change in national policies and the withdrawal of community school services, and the particular nature of the problems caused to the staff due to the linking of their employment with tied homes?

We are alive to those problems, but until we hear from the regional planning committee, my right hon. Friend cannot say whether the West Midlands needs the places. On the broader question, alernative methods have been found for looking after those children, which in many ways are better than community homes with education. I support that trend.

Hospitals (Derbyshire)

8.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services how many representations he has received about the closure of hospitals in Derbyshire by the area health authority.

In the last six months I have received 63 letters or telegrams and a deputation, led by the hon. Member, about the Derbyshire area health authority's hospital closure proposals.

Is the Minister aware of the outrage in Derbyshire about the area health authority's decision to close five of those hospitals? Will he accept that that is largely due to over-spending because of the rate of inflation and the doubling of VAT? Will he give an undertaking to the House that, when his Department next discusses resource allocation for Derbyshire with the regional health authority, he will make it clear to the region and to Derbyshire that the provision of a comprehensive Health Service, by the re-opening of those hospitals, should be a first priority?

I do not accept the first statement. Following my meeting with the deputation on 28 January, I wrote immediately to the chairman of the area health authority, asking him to look again at some of the closures, particularly the closure of Etwall. He replied that he still regards it as necessary. I have now written again, asking what other economies might be made in order to reopen Etwall as soon as possible. I shall keep the hon. Member informed.

Is the Minister aware that local people are grateful for his intervention in favour of Etwall but that they are still in favour of the staff sit-in at the hospital and the fact that the hospital is still being picketed? Does he realise that they are hoping for more intervention from the Minister, even at this late stage?

I understand the hon. Lady's concern, and I share it. She may be pleased to hear that there have been no staff redundancies as a result of cash limits.

Order, before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that the question refers only to hospitals in Derbyshire.

Will the Minister place in the Library copies of the correspondence relating to hospitals in Derbyshire with the regional health authority and copies of the 62 letters that he has received, as guidance to hon. Members who may have similar problems?

Those are personal letters between myself and the chairman of the hospital authority. It would he improper to place them in the Library without first consulting him. I shall look into the matter.

If the procedure in regard to these hospitals does not turn out to be as the hon. Gentleman believes, does he agree that a community health council could oppose a closure as a means of getting it on to the desk of the Secretary of State? If community health councils are abolished, as the Government believe might happen as a result of their consultative procedures on "Patients First ", what method does the hon. Gentleman suggest for raising these matters with the Secretary of State?

Once again, the right hon. Gentleman is trying to pre-empt the discussions that are taking place on "Patients First". He has done that consistently in the Committee on the Health Services Bill. It is not the right way to proceed.

Mr A J Gardham

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services why Mr. A. J. Gardham, a constituent of the hon. Member for St. Helens. has been refused benefit by the local staff of his Department in spite of repeated and regular medical certificates indicating that his constituent is unfit for any kind of employment.

Claims to sickness benefit and invalidity benefit are decided by independent adjudicating authorities, which are not bound to accept the opinion of any doctor as conclusive. Neither the insurance officer nor the local tribunal was satisfied that Mr. Gardham was incapable of work, and invalidity benefit was therefore not payable.

The Supplementary Benefits Commission has decided that Mr. Gardham must register for work in order to obtain supplementary benefit.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Mr. Gardham suffers from a serious cardiac illness? Will he accept that to say that he is fit to sign on for light work is to offer him an opportunity that is not available? There are no light jobs to be had. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we have hundreds of disabled people registered for work that they cannot obtain?

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that I could not recommend my constituent to appear before the local appeals tribunal because I have no faith in the chairman, who is receiving professional fees, to make a decision on behalf of the Department?

The decision that the adjudicating authority had to make was whether Mr. Gardham was capable of work. He may be ill but still be considered capable of work. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman followed his supplementary question with an attack on the chairman of the local appeals tribunal. He is doing a difficult job and deserves our support.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of that most unsatisfactory reply, I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment.

Retirement Pension

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what representations he has received about the frequency of payments to those in receipt of the State retirement pension.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a great deal of worry and uncertainty has been created for pensioners through recent publicity? Will he put that right as soon as possible? Further, will he confirm to the House that, if there is any question of fortnightly payments to pensioners, one week will be in advance?

I gave a very clear assurance, in the debate last Tuesday, to pensioners and all those in receipt of social security benefits that it would remain open to anyone who wished to do so to draw those benefits over the post office counter. It is a sad fact that many people have been told, quite erroneously, that benefits were to be paid into bank accounts. That never was true. There never was any such proposal, and I am happy to make that clear.

I also made it clear in the debate on Tuesday that the proposal in the study by officials was that benefits should, in general, be paid fortnightly. I also made it clear that, if that were to be done, one week would be paid in advance and one in arrears.

In the light of the debate, and considering what was said on both sides of the House, the Government are considering how and whether to carry the matter forward.

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what impression he received from representatives of sub-postmasters after the lobby last Wednesday? Secondly, will he confirm that the general desire is for weekly payments? Finally, when will the right hon. Gentleman make a statement to the House?

I had a full and valuable exchange of views with representatives of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters. I believe that they recognise the value of the assurances that I gave in the House. I recognise the strength of feeling that they represented about what they had seen as a threat to their livelihood. I gave a clear undertaking in the House that the Government would do nothing to threaten the network of sub-post offices across the country. I am happy to repeat that.

The Government are considering how to carry forward the study that has been undertaken with the advice of Sir Derek Rayner. We are taking the fullest account of views expressed from all parts of the House. I cannot say when we shall be able to make a statement, but I recognise the great desire that we should make our intentions clear as soon as possible.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that representatives of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters were heartened by their meeting with him last Wednesday and welcomed his assurances?

Since the right hon. Gentleman is looking for ways to reduce the cost of paying out benefits, will he note that in the largest sub-post office in the East End, every morning the sub-postmistress receives from Newcastle on average 60 pension books, each in a separate envelope, separately addressed to her, sealed and posted? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Sir Derek Rayner might look at that?

It certainly sounds like something that should be looked at. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the enormous complexity of the operation at Newcastle. Pensions are paid by reference to the national insurance number rather than to the recipient's address. It is therefore necessary for the pension to be sent to the post office nearest the address given, in a separate envelope.

Of the total of £130 million that my Department pays as an agency fee to the Post Office, only about £30 million goes to sub-post offices, although they transact some 70 per cent. of the benefit business done by the Post Office on behalf of my Department. That is a matter that we shall have to look at carefully.

Voluntary Work

15.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will give an assurance that he will make good any local authority cuts in support for voluntary work.

Has the Minister considered advising local authorities of the advantages of putting out to tender some of the social services that they carry out themselves, such as home helps and meals on wheels? Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be better to contract out to private enterprise some of those services, on the basis that it will be better and cheaper in the long run?

The second part of that question is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I am convinced that local authorities will consider the vital role of the voluntary sector in helping to keep people out of residential care, through the provision of domiciliary services, the development of informal care and in providing whatever support that they can.

Does the Minister realise that, whatever the importance of voluntary service—and it is very great —it is no substitute for professional service?

We believe that there is tremendous scope for a partnership between professional support and the voluntary sector. Going round the country, I am delighted to see the ways in which many local authorities are making use of the untapped resources of the voluntary sector to meet areas of real need in the community.

Is my hon. Friend worried that the local authority social services people will cut services and output from their departments but will not cut their own numbers, thus producing an inflationary rise in the money cost of these services?

That question may be more appropriately put to the Department of the Environment tomorrow. We have urged local authorities to try to protect, as far as possible, certain areas of activity that affect the elderly, children and the handicapped, and to use the resources of the voluntary sector to meet those needs, where possible.

Is the Minister aware of the representations that his Department received from the Association of Directors of Social Services, which refer to the cutbacks that are being forced on its members, not only in their own services but in the financial support that they have willfingly given to voluntary welfare organisations up and down the country?

When the Minister says that it would not be practicable to adopt the idea put forward by his hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Steen), is he aware that such powers are vested in government by way of the urban programme?

The Department has maintained the value of its grants to the voluntary sector this year. We hope to increase those grants next year, as evidence of the importance that we attach to the voluntary sector. I have read the report of the Association of Directors of Social Services. I was disappointed about the lack of reference to the use of voluntary organisations as a means of helping to meet the difficult circumstances that it faces.

Hospital Waiting Lists (Staffordshire)

17.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services how many people were awaiting admission to hospitals in Staffordshire at the most recent count.

I refer my hon. Friend to my reply to him of 29 January in which I said that, at 30 September 1979, the latest date for which information is centrally available, there were 15,259 such people.

Does my hon. Friend agree that that figure is much too high? What steps is he taking to reduce it?

Yes. We are concerned about the level of waiting lists. Unlike the previous Labour Government, we intend to reduce those lists. We are restructuring the Health Service. We are maintaining small local hospitals that serve the local community. We are encouraging voluntary services to help. We are also encouraging the private sector. We have set up a special study on how to reduce the orthopaedic waiting list.

Is the Minister aware that an increasing number of my constituents tell me that, although they are in pain and although they are suffering, they have been told that they can gain immediate admission to a hospital only if they pay sums that are far beyond their pockets? They must wait months, or even years, if they cannot pay.

I do not accept that. By attacking that side of the Health Service, the hon. Gentleman ignores the fact that, when the previous Labour Government were in office, waiting lists increased by 234,998 patients. The appalling strikes of last winter increased the waiting lists by 125,000 patients.

Flowers Report

18.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what consideration he has given to the Flowers report on London medical schools in his examination of the pattern of health care in the London area.

The Flowers report was published this morning. I thank its members for the work that they have put into perparing this very valuable report. Its recommendations will be considered first by the university, since it set up the working party.

At the same time, the London Health Planning Consortium published its report today on the future pattern of acute hospital services in London. Copies of both reports are available in the Library of the House. The two reports together represent a fundamental examination of the organisation of hospital services and medical teaching in London. They make far-reaching proposals that will require careful consideration.

I thank the Minister for that reply. As he has said, considerable changes will be made in medical education and in the distribution of health services in London. Will the Minister give an undertaking that the House will have a full opportunity to debate all the proposals before he makes any decision to implement them?

I agree with the hon. Lady. The Royal Commission recommended that a further inquiry should be made into London. We do not agree. Sufficient inquiries have already been made about what is needed for London. We now need decisions and action. My right hon. Friend will shortly announce the setting-up of an advisory committee to look at the two reports and to recommend action.

As I have been put at risk by the report of the Flowers committee which was published this morning, will my hon. Friend understand if I do not share his enthusiasm for it.' Will he give an undertaking that he, or his right hon. Friend, will consult those members of the academic staff of medical schools who are involved in the delivery of health care, and who will be affected by the report, before any decisions are made?

I am sure that the whole House will sympathise with my hon. Friend. We shall certainly hold wide consultations. There will be full representation on the advisory group that we intend to set up. There will be not only representatives from the university, but from other relevant bodies in London.

Does the Minister agree that irrespective of the quality and content of the Flowers report and of the report of the London Health Planning Consortium, they cover narrow areas? Does he further agree that evidence was not collected with full publicity? Community services, general practitioners and inner city areas are involved. The reports do not pre-empt a public inquiry into the London health services. Will he, therefore, reconsider his decision?

The right hon. Gentleman should wait until he has read the two reports before making any further comments.

Prime Minister (Engagements)

Q1.

asked the Prime Minister whether she will list her official engagements for 26 February.

In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be having meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. This evening I hope to have an audience of Her Majesty the Queen.

Does the Prime Minister share my surprise that Mr. Bill Sirs has called the proposal of the British Steel Corporation to hold a secret ballot in order to see whether the steel workers want to vote on their pay offer "a dirty trick"?

I share my hon. Friend's suprise. Workers who have been without a pay packet for about eight weeks and who have gone without strike pay have a right to expect to be consulted about their wishes for the future.

Will the Prime Minister study today the speech of her right hon., noble and very distinguished Friend, Lord Butler? He spoke yesterday on the Education Bill. Is the right hon. Lady aware that he suggested that the Government could save public expenditure as regards sending a few pupils to private schools, and that they could use the money to maintain free school transport for children?

I noted the observations of my very distinguished right hon. and noble Friend. He went to the type of school that we wish other children to have an opportunity to attend.

During the course of her busy day, will the Prime Minister consider the insidious effect of the activities of members of the Unification Church—known as "moonies"—and the threat that is thereby posed to family unity? Will she consider taking measures to alert and protect citizens from such activities?

I am quite prepared to consider any proposition that my hon. Friend puts to me on the subject.

Will the Prime Minister reconsider her reply to the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr Steel)? Does she not agree that spending public money on private schools such as Marlborough will further divide British society? Will she consider the announcement made by the Minister, who, during the Committee stage of the Education Bill, made it clear that certain expensive schools would not be part of the system?

I obviously disagree with the lion. Gentleman. It is important to give all children the very best educational opportunities. If that includes assisted places at some schools, so be it.

Will my right hon. Friend find time today to consult her Treasury colleagues and to request clearing banks voluntarily to consider some form of reduced interest rate charge on smaller businesses, in view of the banks' substantially increased profits?

My hon. Friend knows that one of the problems of bank profits is that banks inevitably make high profits when there are high interest rates. That occurs when other businesses are in considerable difficulty. Banks do less well when businesses are doing well. That is certainly a difficult problem to explain. However, I do not think that we can have two-tier interest rates. Nor can we do anything to increase the amount of borrowing. That is the cause of high interest rates.

Would the Prime Minister care to try to explain something else in the light of her television discussion last night? As wage earners are apparently able to claim more when an industry is prosperous than when it is not, is she now saying that bank clerks should have a substantial increase while steel workers should get nothing?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that it is not my policy to intervene in pay claims.

2.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 26 February.

Will my right hon. Friend take time today to reflect on the decision of the executive of the Iron and Steel Trades Confereration to expel the Sheerness steel workers from union membership for exercising their desire to work?

I saw the report to which my hon. Friend refers. If it is true it brings the trade unions into conflict with public opinion. These workers wish only to carry on working—

These workers wish only to carry on working in a company which is not in dispute with its own workers. They wish to carry on working to support their families and honour business contracts, and both of those objectives should be encouraged.

Before the elections begin in Rhodesia tomorrow, will the Prime Minister give a categorical assurance that Lord Soames will call on the leader of the majority party in the election to form the Government of Zimbabwe as soon as the results are known?

I have every confidence in my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Soames to do whatever is just and proper—

I have every confidence in my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Soames as the man on the spot, to do whatever is just and proper as soon as the results are known of the free and fair elections which I am confident he will hold.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the overwhelming support of the British people for her television statement last night that she will take the strongest action to get justice for this country in respect of our contribution to the EEC? Will she take time to remind our German friends that the sooner we get justice the less likelihood there is of our withdrawing troops from Germany, since those troops are highly expensive?

It so happens that our German partners are considerable contributors to the EEC budget, and we hope that others will increase their contributions. With all due respect to my hon. Friend, I do not think we can get this issue muddled up with any question of reopening the offset agreement.

Medical Education

Q3.

asked the Prime Minister if she will transfer responsibility for medical education from the Department of Education and Science to the Department of Health and Social Security.

Is the Prime Minister aware that in the Flowers report, which was published today, there are proposals to close down several medical schools of merit and also several teaching hospitals? Is she also aware that the proposals include the closure of several institutions, including the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Institute of Paediatrics and Dental Surgery? Does she not think that the very far-reaching proposals in this report need adequate funding, and adequate discussion by this House and by all interested bodies outside? Will she give serious consideration to this?

I looked quickly through the Flowers report, sufficiently to know that before any opinion is ventured on it, it requires considerable study and consultation. I heard what the hon. Lady said to my hon. Friend the Minister for Health during Question Time and I assure her that this matter will be given full consideration.

Has the Prime Minister had time to reflect on the com- ments of Lord Justice Lawson to the effect that social security scroungers should be sent to gaol? Will she comment on my suggestion that we should ask neighbours to help the authorities in their inquiries?

My right hon. Friend is making strenuous efforts to bring to the courts any who are alleged to be fraudulent in claiming social security benefits to which they are not entitled. When they get to the courts it is a matter for the judge to decide what sentence should be passed.

Will the Prime Minister take time today to study the comments made by the retiring chairman of the Inland Revenue, who estimates that there is a loss of £2,000 million to £3,00e million in tax evasion—

Order. This is not an open question. I shall call the hon. Member when we reach the next question, which is an open question.

Prime Minister (Engagements)

Q4.

asked the Prime Minister what her official engagements are for 26 February.

Will the Prime Minister have the courage to admit that her Secretary of State for Industry has introduced ruthless, reckless and reactionary policies which are dividing our nation and totally rending apart the social fabric of Britain? When will she assert her premiership, move against the monetarists in the Cabinet and sack the Industry Secretary?

My right hon. Friend, to whom the hon. Member has referred, has probably done as much for the social services of this country as any right hon. Member who was ever responsible for the social services. The hon. Member forgets that it was my right hon. Friend who introduced pensions for those over 80, family income supplement, pensions for widows between 40 and 50 years of age, invalidity pensions and constant attendance allowances. He should pay credit where credit is due.

Will my right hon. Friend take time to reread a report in Saturday's Daily Mail which discloses that the Tameside council intends to allow representatives of the Irish National Liberation Army to lecture in Greater Manchester? Will she not only condemn that proposal, but ban appearances by representatives of a terrorist organisation which was responsible for the murder of Airey Neave?

I certainly deplore the fact that this is being done. Subject to further inquiry, I believe that this is a proscribed organisation and, if so, the matter should be taken up formally with the Home Secretary.

Will the Prime Minister study the comments of the retiring chairman of the Inland Revenue, who estimates that this country loses annually between £2,000 million and £3,000 million through tax evasion?

Would it not be more correct to direct the efforts of a substantial number of the 1,000 people who are supposed to be investigating social security scroungers into chasing tax evaders?

It is fraud whether it occurs when people try to claim social security benefits to which they are not entitled, or when people try to get out of paying tax. Both offences should be treated in exactly the same way.

Will the Prime Minister, particularly in the light of her earlier answer, find time to send a message of congratulations and good wishes to the Governor of Rhodesia and to the people of Rhodesia on the eve of the historic act of casting their votes for a democratically elected Government?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I will certainly do so. The Governor has had an extremely difficult task. This is a week of decision for Rhodesia. I shall send him that message from my right hon. and hon. Friends.