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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 983: debated on Tuesday 29 April 1980

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Question No. 1, Dr. Mawhinney. Question No. 2, Mr. Dormand—[Interruption.] Order. The hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) explained that he would not be here for question No. 1. However, I called his name. The lord mayor of his borough is being buried today, and his duty is to be there.

Social Services

Northern Region Health Authority

2.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what additional funds are being made available to the Northern regional health authority for 1980–81; and if he will make a statement.

£ 118 million, of which £2½ million is real growth in revenue over last year.

Is the Minister aware that the region has suffered a cut of £9·5 million in real terms? Is he further aware that the allowance of 14 per cent. for wage and price increases is totally inadequate and unrealistic, and that it will almost certainly mean that the present level of services cannot be maintained? Does not he accept that the fact that only 0·6 per cent. is being allowed for growth is another example of the Government's vendetta against the Northern region?

We set such importance on the cash limits and ceilings because we believe that 14 per cent. is a realistic figure. I accept that the Northern regional health authority is below target when compared with many other parts of the country. We have, therefore, set the increase in revenue for this year's allocations at 0·6 per cent., real growth.

By what means does the Minister hope to keep pay settlements within the 14 per cent. level on which the Budget must be based? Is he aware that such resources will permit only a limited amount of development in the Northern region?

We are satisfied that the planned level of service for 1980–81 can be realised within the cash limit of 14 per cent.—as announced by the Chief Secretary—provided that health authorities continue their efforts to achieve economies and savings.

Is not the hon. Gentleman aware that a growth rate of 1 per cent. is needed if the Northern region is to stand still and cope with the increasing numbers of elderly people? Is not a growth rate of 0·6 per cent. an appalling performance, compared with the growth rates of 3 per cent. 4 per cent. and 2¾ per cent. which occurred during the last three years of the previous Labour Government?

The right hon. Gentleman ignores the considerable savings that are being made in the Health Service right across the country. A far more realistic view is now being taken. The 1980–81 cash limit reflects the full, planned volume, plus the ½ per cent. growth intended by our predecessors.

Fuel Costs (Low Income Households)

3.

asked the Secretary of of State for the Social Services if he will make a statement on the implementation of his proposals for help with fuel costs to those on low incomes, but not in receipt of supplementary benefit or family income supplement.

The package of measures announced by my right hon. Friend on 27 March directs substantial weekly help to the most vulnerable groups, that is, to those on the lowest incomes who are likely to incur large fuel bills. In current economic circumstances, the Government cannot contemplate going further than that.

Is the hon. Lady aware that there is much disappointment among those on low incomes, because they will not receive any assistance towards paying their fuel bills? Does not she agree that the explanation for this is that they are not receiving supplementary benefits or FIS? Do the Government intend—at a time of never-ending increases in the prices of gas, electricity and other fuels—to give no assistance to those who are not in receipt of supplementary benefit or FIS?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the increased package of over £200 million for the year 1980–81 is based on supplementary benefit and FIS. Some people may be better off on supplementary benefit than on their current housing allowance. There is an automatic award of supplementary benefit heating additions for those aged 70, and others. I understand the problem and anxiety, but in the present circumstances that is all that the Government can do.

Will my hon. Friend discuss with her colleagues as a matter of urgency the possibility of including those who are in receipt of rent and rate rebates and who will not get the advantage of these increased fuel allowances? Will my hon. Friend accept that it is not a fair proposal as there is little to choose in many cases between those on rent and rate rebates and those on supplementary benefit?

There are about 3 million beneficiaries of housing allowance, including those on rent and rate rebates. To extend even £1 a week additional help to all 3 million would cost over £150 million. I understand what my hon. Friend is saying. However, advice in local offices will be readily available to those who have formerly been on housing benefits but might be better off on supplementary benefit. We shall do all that we can to see that help is available to those in greatest need.

Is the Minister aware that many of these older and poorer people are having to turn to paraffin for heating and, in some instances, lighting? Is it possible for all local authorities to have a supply of paraffin, available at wholesale rates? This would not cost the Government anything. Local authorities would then be able to supply these people, who are having great difficulties in buying even paraffin, and it would be a terrific saving for them.

The hon. Gentleman will find that those who are in the greatest need are receiving substantial help of £50 per year towards their heating. The question of supplying paraffin at wholesale prices is not for me, but I believe that it would have serious attendant risks.

If my hon. Friend can do nothing about the problem of those receiving increased fuel allowances, will she at least assure us that the matter will be looked at in the coming financial year?

Is she aware that I attended the annual general meeting of the British Association of Retired Persons this morning, which is a thoroughly responsible and constructive organisation representing the elderly? Will my hon. Friend accept that that organisation feels strongly about this matter? Can my hon. Friend assure us that the Government will consider at an early date extending the allowance to those on rent and rate rebates?

I give my hon. Friend that assurance. As he will know, in the review of the supplementary benefits system the second aspect is the question of housing allowances. We shall further consider the real needs of these people in looking at those housing allowances. The Government are not unaware of the pressures or requirements to get the most help to those in greatest need.

Will the hon. Lady confirm that the future housing allowance system will cover fuel costs? When will the results be announced of that further review? Will she also confirm that the Government intend to have a national scheme to deal with fuel poverty? Is the hon. Lady aware that the extra money could be obtained from the additional revenues that the Government have imposed on the gas industry?

In our review of housing benefits under the review of the supplementary benefits scheme we shall consider the type and amount of housing, as that affects the fuel needs of the elderly. The review is primarily of housing benefits, but fuel needs must come into it. I cannot give an exact date when the review will be complete, but I hope that it will be by the end of the year. We are spending over £200 million on the coming year's fuel help scheme, and we intend to see that it gets to those in the greatest need.

Medium Secure Units (Trent Region)

4.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services how many medium secure units for the mentally sick are now functioning in the Trent regional health authority area; how many such units are now being erected or are in the planning stage; and how many places there will be in each unit.

There are no permanent medium secure units in the Trent region at present. Building is due to start shortly on a 60-bed unit at Towers hospital, Leicester, to serve the southern part of the region. The regional health authority recently suspended planning on a 45-bed unit at Balderton hospital while alternative suggestions for secure provision to serve the northern part of the region are investigated further.

Is the Minister aware of the fears that the proposals will not cater for the mentally sick and handicapped? Will he bear in mind that many people believe that there is room for smaller hospitals inside and in co-ordination with larger general hospitals? Will the hon. Gentleman accept that there is the greatest need for consideration of this issue over a wide area? Is the hon. Gentleman further aware that the attitude of the Sheffield area health authority over Middlewood hospital is creating problems for the other three area health authorities in South Yorkshire? Will he please call all the authorities together to discuss the matter?

I can give the hon. Gentleman some reassurance. The regional health authority is looking at alternative sites for these secure units to serve the northern part of the region and also at the possibility of an assessment centre with links with the smaller units at several hospitals throughout the region. I should like to ponder on the hon. Gentleman's other points, and perhaps write to him.

Is the Minister aware that the Trent regional health authority is receiving £3,300,000 from the Government as a special revenue allocation for the regional secure psychiatric unit, yet, on his own latest figures, has spent only £6,300? Will he accept that that is a disgraceful state of affairs, when these units were recommended as a matter of urgent national priority as long ago as 1974? What action is he taking with the Trent regional health authority and the other regional health authorities to see that those units are established?

I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's comment that it is a disgraceful state of affairs. It was always recognised that, until the permanent units were established, the authorities would not be able to spend the money on interim secure arrangements. They have been allowed to use that money for other purposes, particularly to develop psychiatric services.

Of the 14 regional health authorities, 11 have submitted proposals to my Department. I hope that the units planned will be in action by the mid-1980s.

Invalidity Benefit

5.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what is the number of claimants for invalidity benefit at the most recent convenient date.

8.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what would be the cost of raising invalidity pension by the same percentage as retirement pension.

12.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what representations he has received from disablement organisations concerning the level of up-rating of invalidity benefits.

In mid-1978, the latest date for which statistics are available, 557,200 people were receiving invalidity benefit. The extra cost of raising invalidity pension by the same percentage as retirement pension would be £50 million in a full year.

I have received a letter from the Disablement Income Group expressing disastisfaction with the proposal to apply the 5 per cent. abatement to invalidity benefit.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the majority of those claimants are severely disabled people, who can generally expect to be out of work for several years? As their annual income from invalidity pension is well below the tax threshold, what possible justification is there for saving a beggarly £50 million by docking their benefit by 5 per cent. in lieu of taxation?

I must correct the hon. Gentleman. Only a minority of invalidity beneficiaries would not be subject to taxation, and not the majority. It is also fair to point out that, even with the lowest rate of invalidity allowance and after the 5 per cent. abatement, an invalidity pensioner will still have a higher benefit than a retirement pensioner, whose pension is, at after all, taxed, whereas at present the invalidity pension and allowance are not.

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why the Government, having accepted the principle of increasing the retirement pension to attempt to keep pace with the cost of living, have not extended the same principle to this vulnerable section of the population, which must come within the category of those in greatest need, referred to by the Under-Secretary of State a few minutes ago?

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point, but the invalidity pension has not been taxed, although it is common ground on both sides of the House that it should be, whereas the retirement pension is taxed—

I accept the correction. The pension is taxable.

Perhaps I can give the right hon. Gentleman this assurance. Unlike the other benefits affected by the 5 per cent. abatement this November, invalidity benefit is a long-term benefit. I also give the House this assurance about invalidity benefit. When it comes to tax, subject to the availability of resources, we shall put it back to what it would have been had it stayed in step with the retirement pension this November.

My right hon. Friend has answered the point that I wanted to make. I had intended to ask for an assurance—which he has given—that he will seek to restore the link with retirement pensions. Does he accept that most disabled people are concerned about the breaking of the link with the retirement pension?

I understand my hon. Friend's point, and I am grateful to him for the representations that he has made. I hope that the assurance that I have just given to the House, that subject to the availability of resources we shall restore the level of the invalidity pension—when it comes into taxation—to the level of the retirement pension will go a long way to reassure those who have expressed anxiety about the Government's proposals.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this proposal is shabby and shoddy? Is he further aware that I hope that the Minister will implement the assurance that he has given, because under this Government invalidity pensioners suffer by comparison with other pensioners. I fail to see how a Minister with responsibility for the disabled can serve in a Government whose Secretary of State treats invalidity pensioners in this way. Does he realise that we shall watch for the implementation of his assurance?

I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman will watch carefully the question of the implementation of the assurance that I have given. It has been given after careful thought, and, of course, it has to be subject to the avail ability of resources, as I made clear. I cannot accept the remainder of the right hon. Gentleman's criticisms. Many countries are facing the difficulty of maintaining the level of and the increase in their social security budgets. We have made limited reductions, which still leave our social security budget growing at 2 per cent. a year on average over the next few years. I cannot accept that this is mean-minded or mean-spirited.

While I accept what my right hon. Friend has said, is he aware that I am disappointed that he said that people who enjoy invalidity benefits are in a minority? It makes no difference whether they are in a minority or a majority. Those people most require aid and we should therefore consider their requirements. While it is fair to say that people who receive retirement pensions have an additional benefit, may I ask the Minister to reconsider the proposals?

I understand my hon. Friend's anxiety, and I assure him that these matters are being vigorously debated in Standing Committee B. The Government have accepted, in line with their predecessors, that this, and a number of other benefits which have not hitherto been taxable, should be taxable, and that some time after 1982 it will be brought into taxation. The Government also take the view that it is right that there should be this interim scheme in lieu of taxation. Even if the Government confine themselves to the invalidity benefit, the amount of expenditure that will be saved by the 5 per cent. abatement is significantly less than the amount of additional revenue that would be raised if the benefit were brought into proper taxation this year.

With inflation running at well over 20 per cent., with very much more in the pipeline, does the Secretary of State have any confidence in the figures that he prophesied—and which will be the basis for the uprating—of 16½ per cent. on the retail price index by November? If that is the case, will he still punish invalidity pensioners, as he is now proposing to do?

The right hon. Gentleman has faced these difficult decisions, and he knows perfectly well that it would be entirely inappropriate for me now to attempt to forecast what we might do if the events which he forecasts transpire by November. We shall have to deal with that position if and when it arises. The estimate on which the uprating has been based—a 16½ per cent. increase between the two uprating dates—is the best estimate we have, and we must stick to it.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his remarks about 1982 will do nothing to diminish the suf- fering of some of the most hard-pressed people in Britain over the next two years? Is he not concerned, even ashamed, that the Disablement Income Group has described his policy not only as appalling but as cruelly unfair? It is the stock answer of this Government that the British people are now getting what they voted for 12 months ago. Where, in their manifesto did it say that the Conservative Government would cut the standard of living of people who, through sickness and disability, have had their working lives cut short?

I understand that the right hon. Gentleman and many other hon. Members are anxious about the Government's proposals. He will know that the pressures of the public sector borrowing requirement—[Interruption.] If we do not restore a better balance in our economy and reduce the amounts that the Government have to borrow, there is no hope whatsoever of our being able to restore the prosperity on which the welfare of those people about whom the right hon. Gentleman is concerned depends.

Art And Music Therapists (Pay)

6.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what steps he plans to take concerning the 1979 salary increases for art and music therapists, following the Clegg commission's refusal to recommend appropriate salary levels for them.

These salary levels are at present determined by the Department by relating them to the salaries negotiated for occupational therapists by the professional and technical A Whitley Council. Now that the council has agreed on a settlement of the Clegg award to occupational therapists, new salary levels for art and music therapists will be fixed, with effect from 1 April and they will be announced as soon as possible.

I thank the Minister for that reply. However, is he aware that this relatively small group of professional workers, who make an important contribution to therapeutic treatment, are the only public service employees who have no real negotiating machinery? Their wages are fixed unilaterally by their employers. Is it not time that this nineteenth century Dickensian anomaly was got rid of, and that we moved into the twentieth century?

I am sympathetic to the remarks of the hon. Gentleman on this matter. Discussions are taking place with that sort of goal in mind. I should like art and music therapists to be formally allocated to a Whitley Council, so that their pay and conditions can be properly negotiated between NHS management and the staff organisations concerned.

With regard to the findings of the Clegg Commission, comparing these therapists with speech therapists, will the Minister give an assurance that the Government will not pursue the suggestion that the terms and conditions of service of speech therapists should be reduced, and that their hours of working should be increased? We need a clear assurance from the Government that they will not pursue that recommendation.

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has followed what has happened recently. The grades of art and music therapists are related to the occupational therapists and technical instructor grades.

Abortion Act 1967

7

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services whether he is satisfied with the working of the Abortion Act 1967.

I have no evidence of the existence today of the sort of abuses that were examined by the Lane committee. But I accept that there is no room for complacency, and if my hon. Friend has a particular matter in mind, I shall be pleased to consider it.

Is my hon. Friend satisfied with the upper age limit at which abortions can be carried out under the 1967 Act, and does he think that that limit pays proper attention to advances in medical science? Is he aware that at Southmead hospital in Bristol doctors are having great success in bringing 26 weeks old foetuses, to normal and independent existence? In those circumstances is there not a grave danger that we are asking doctors and nurses to participate in the killing of children aged between 24 and 28 weeks?

I believe that the medical profession is responding to the clinical changes that are taking place. Late abortions will be fewer, and increasingly confined to cases where there are the strongest medical reasons.

Will the hon. Gentleman give a more unequivocal reply regarding the Lane committee report? Is he aware that most hon. Members and most members of the medical profession are satisfied that the Lane committee report was the effective answer to the 1967 Act, and that the subsequent changes have been adequate? The less we tinker about with this basic, important legislation, the better it will be for mothers and children in this country.

I am keeping a very careful watch on the situation. In recent months, for example, I have withdrawn approval from one clinic, refused two applications from other clinics, and closed one advisory bureau because I considered all of these unsatisfactory. I have also taken action to ensure the withdrawal of misleading advertising by advisory bureaux, and I have made sure that every abuse that has come to our notice has been fully investigated.

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that amendment Bills have been introduced into this House by private Members year after year, and all have failed, not on their merits, but for lack of parliamentary time? If he does not wish to legislate himself on this controversial subject, which I can well understand, will he at least arrange through the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip that there are adequate time facilities in the next Session so that we can resolve this problem once and for all?

This is a matter for my right hon. Friend, the Leader of the House. My hon. Friend is correct. There have been six Private Members Bills since 1970, and additionally there have been two Ten-Minute Bills which were both defeated. The House had an opportunity to consider this matter in a Ten-Minute Bill only a few days ago.

Is the Minister aware that there is a great deal of concern about the Government's attitude to the Pregnancy Advisory Service? Will he give an undertaking that he will not impede the provision of legitimate advice to people who ask for it?

I gladly give that undertaking. We wish to see proper counselling carried out and the needs of mothers, who are very anxious about their pregnancies, properly considered. We do not wish to see abuses, by various manoeuvres and procedures, of the intentions of the Abortion Act.

Physiotherapists

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services how many physiotherapists are employed in the National Health Service; and whether he is satisfied with morale, numbers and recruitment in the physiotherapy service.

Some 10,900 physiotherapists are employed in the National Health Service in Great Britain, of whom about half work on a part-time basis. Numbers have grown steadily in recent years and continuing growth is expected for the future. I regret that the disappointment of staff with certain of the findings of the Clegg report led to industrial action, but I am glad to say that an agreement was reached on 23 April by the two sides of the professional and technical A Whitley Council and normal working has been resumed.

Does the Minister realise that at the back of that industrial action was the feeling of many members of that profession and the other remedial professions that the Clegg Commission does not understand how much responsibility and conscientiousness is involved in those professions? These people believe that the Commission does not recognise that their efforts should be rewarded without their having to head for the administrative grades in the National Health Service to get that reward.

I understand the disappointment expressed by many members of this valuable profession when the Clegg report was published. No doubt in the discussions on the 1980 settlement some of these issues will be raised in the Whitley Council. The basic rates of pay now agreed involve increases averaging more than 27 per cent., with the general range of increases varying between 19 per cent. and 35 per cent.

Is the Minister aware that physiotherapists and the paramedical professions have a very important role in rehabilitation? Is he aware that there is a growing need for rehabilitation, and will he not agree that a declining number of paramedical skilled staff will harm severely the development of rehabilitation for the elderly as well as the young?

I would not dissent from those remarks but it is worth remembering that recruitment to these professions has been increasing in the past few years.

Child Abuse

10.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what steps he has taken to promote or to encourage co-operation and co-ordination between local authorities in connection with child abuse and battering.

While this is essentially a matter for local authorities and other agencies, the importance of collaboration has been emphasised in departmental guidance in the past, and some further guidance is in preparation.

Has the Minister's attention been drawn to yesterday's report of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children indicating that the problems of child abuse and battering are increasing and are likely to increase still further? In the light of that does he not feel that his answer is thoroughly inadequate in that it in no way ensures that help will be given, either to the NSPCC so that it may have the resources it needs to do its job properly, or to local authorities who desperately need help to deal with this tragic problem which has shown itself in the city of Leicester, for example, in the Carly Taylor case?

I hope to address the annual general meeting of the NSPCC on Thursday when I would like to respond to some of the points that the society has made in its annual report. However, I find it difficult to accept that there is a clear correlation between the wealth of a country and the way in which parents treat their children. I believe that the underlying reasons affecting cruelty towards children go far deeper and are far more complex than that. On a more positive note, I welcome the growing number of parents who are seeking the assistance of the NSPCC and the statutory services before their children are battered. I hope that we can develop the preventive nature of this work.

Will my hon. Friend take the opportunity, when addressing the NSPCC, to point out that its news release about its annual report was misleading? Is he aware that if only one family in 20 apparently abuses a child because of poverty, 19 out of 20 children are abused by families who are apparently not in poverty? Should we not all be on the look-out for families who are abusing their children? Will my hon. Friend consider bringing the NSPCC up to the level of the societies engaged in the protection of animals and birds, so that it becomes a Royal society rather than just a national society?

I note what my hon. Friend has said. While economic pressures on families may lie at the root of some instances of abuse, the NSPCC would be the first to recognise that there are many other factors, such as the immaturity of parents, their lack of preparedness for the responsibilities of parenthood and, alas, the increasing incidence of alcoholism.

Is the Minister aware that two draft circulars have been issued on the child abuse register? The first was issued by the last Government in December 1978, yet local authorities have still not received the final draft of this circular. Is it not scandalous that there is no unity of practice or of records throughout the country because of a lack of advice in circulars from central Government? Are not the Government aware of the great anxiety about the social services in all parts of the country, because of cuts in local authority expenditure which have reduced child care services?

We propose to issue the circular shortly. It deals with the operation of the child abuse registers. We shall seek to increase the uniformity of practice between one authority and another. We are also looking at the manuals of procedure prepared by the area review com- mittees in order to highlight the good features as a guide to those who are thinking of revising their own manuals.

Budget (Elderly Persons)

11.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what representations he has received from pensioner organisations about the effect of the Budget on the elderly.

13.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what representations he has received from pensioner organisations about the effect of the Budget on pensioners.

16.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what representations he has received from pensioner organisations about the effect of the Budget on the elderly.

I am aware of only a very few such representations, and these have been concerned with our proposals relating to the uprating of benefits, the freezing of the retirement pensioners' earnings rule, the limitation of unemployment benefit for occupational pensioners and the date for this year's uprating.

Will the Minister accept from me that pensioners throughout the country are angry and disappointed that the old rate of pension will be paid for 54 weeks instead of 52? This means that a single pensioner will be cheated out of £7·70 and a married couple out of £12·30. Is he aware that the amount saved by the Government by this shabby measure will be double that which was given away in the heating allowance? Is he not ashamed of this example of sharp practice by his Government?

No. The choice of expenditure reductions in order to contain the growth of the social security budget, which is still growing, meant some difficult choices and this one certainly was difficult. However, we need apologise to no one for bringing the growth of the social security budget under some control.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is widespread disappointment that the earnings limit was not increased in the Budget? Will he confirm that it is the Government's intention to phase out the earnings rule during the lifetime of this Parliament?

It is our intention to phase it out as soon as circumstances allow. We certainly hope that the freezing of the earnings limit will be for one year only.

Will not the Minister concede that, because of the shortfall in the current year that the Government have failed to make up, because of the delay of two weeks in paying this year's pension, and because the increase is nowhere near keeping up with the current level of inflation, however much the Secretary of State goes around arrogantly saying "We are doing our best for the pensioners", no one, least of all the pensioners, believes a word?

That sort of language is quite inappropriate to a situation in which the rate of retirement pension will be increased by nearly £4 a week for a single pensioner and by over £6 a week for a married couple in November. I find that many pensioners understand the need for economic restraint being practised by the Government. They understand that good housekeeping applies as much to national housekeeping accounts as to family accounts.

Will not my right hon. Friend agree that the elderly are far more worried about the forthcoming actions of the TUC and the threat of world war than they are about the Budget?

The pensioners are worried most of all about the extent to which inflation over many years has eaten into the value of their pensions. It is a duty that I believe is incumbent on all hon. Members to urge restraint on the trade union movement in the present situation.

Are not the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues aware that their proposals to increase pensions in November, based upon a 16½ per cent. forecast inflation rate, means, effectively, that there will be a cut, in real terms, in the increase of about £1·50? Ought not the forecast basis to be increased to at least 20 per cent.? Do the Government intend to act now, not in November, to make proper calculations, based upon the real rate of inflation, instead of the phoney figures that they are now using?

No, Sir. A careful calculation was made by the Treasury before the Budget speech. Its calculation was 16½ per cent. As my right hon. Friend said, in response to an earlier question, it is not appropriate for anyone on either side of the House to speculate on whether that will be exactly the right figure.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I have received many bitter letters from old-age pensioners who believe that the Government are guilty of sleight of hand in the matter and that they are forcing the pensioners to pay for their own Christmas bonus?

I am interested that the hon. Member has received several letters. I have had exactly one. I meet a great many pensioners in my constituency. They say to me that it is about time that we had a Government who practise economic disciplines. Their words to me are "Don't be diverted by the criticism. Keep on with the good work".

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the totally unsatisfactory nature of that reply, I give notice that I intend to raise this matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible moment.

Hospitals (Closures And Other Changes)

15.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he is satisfied with the present statutory arrangements for ministerial and public consideration of proposals for hospital closures or for significant changes in the scale or nature of hospital facilities.

I am satisfied that, following the issue of further guidance by the Department last December, arrangements for consultation over the closure or change of use of hospitals are now working well.

Is my hon. Friend aware, particularly following the events of last year, of the fear that temporary closures can become permanent closures and that partial closures or ward closures can alter the character of a hospital without there being statutory rights for the local people or the Minister to intervene? Is he satisfied that the circular he has issued confers statutory rights on local people to be consulted or on the Minister to call in a particular decision in the event of a change of that kind?

Yes. I am satisfied that the new circular is working well. I am keeping a careful watch on the situation. I assure my hon. Friend that no closures will be agreed by the Department unless proper consultation has taken place.

Will the Minister take the opportunity to reinforce the work of the community health councils which make representations direct on these matters on behalf of patients and those in the community? I believe that the councils are at risk at the moment.

Yes. We recognise that the community health councils play an important part when consultations take place over possible closures. We are waiting to hear views, following consultations on "Patients First", as to the future of the community health councils.

Children In Care

17.

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services how many children there are in residential care, including all community homes, in 1979 compared with the total of those in residential care in 1968 and those in approved schools in 1968.

I regret that the figures for 1979 are not yet available, but on 31 March 1978, 47,100 children in the care of English and Welsh local authorities were in residential care, including 32,400 in community homes. On 31 March 1968, 31,700 children in local authority care in England and Wales were in children's homes, special boarding schools and hostels, and on 30 June 1968, there were 7,400 children in approved schools, including classifying schools.

Does not the Minister agree that these figures show that since the passing of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, social service departments and their social workers have placed as many children in residential care as were previously placed in residential care by magistrates under previous legislation and that there is no need to repeal the 1969 Act provisions giving powers back to magistrates to issue residential care orders?

No, Sir. It would be wrong to draw that conclusion. It is misleading to compare 1968, before the 1969 Act, with 1978. Over the past four years, there has been a decline in the number of children in care who are in residential institutions.

Prime Minister (Engagements)

Q1.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 29 April.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, including one with Pastor Georgi Vins. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Will the Prime Minister find time today to answer questions that were not answered by Ministers in the defence debate yesterday? Can she confirm reports that the Diego Garcia base was used by America in the rescue attempt in Iran and say whether she has yet given assurances to President Carter that this country would not support any military intervention there?

With regard to the latter part of the hon. Lady's question, we have not given specific assurances, but the European Council of Ministers and Ministers from the Government Dispatch Box have made clear that they do not believe that military intervention will help to secure the release of the hostages. Equally, they believe that a rescue operation can be distinguished from military intervention.

With regard to the hon. Lady's first point, I do not wish to get myself into a position where I have to confirm or deny movements through allied bases.

Will my right hon. Friend find time to consider carefully the widely reported statements of Mr s. Kate Losinska of the CPSA about infiltration by extremists into the Civil Service unions? Will she ask her noble Friend the Lord President of the Council to institute an urgent inquiry into security within the Civil Service?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend but it would be difficult to do exactly what he requires. I assure him that we shall keep a close watch on the point that has been made.

Will the Prime Minister today ask the chairman of the BBC what fee was paid to Richard Nixon for his interview last night on "Panorama"? Does not she agree that, at a time when the BBC intends to disband the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra it is a disgrace for it to pay any fee, however small, to such a despicable and discredited character?

The answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question is "No, Sir". It would not be right for me to make inquiries of the BBC about specific fees that it pays. With regard to the BBC's decisions on public spending, I may hold extremely strong views that some of them have not necessarily been made in the right places. I believe that direct representation would come better from people who feel strongly about these matters rather than from Government.

Will my right hon. Friend take some time today to look again at the original terms of reference of the Standing Commission on pay comparability? Is she aware that those terms of reference include no explicit reference to inflation and the need to counter it? Will she therefore look again at the matter to see whether future references can include such a reference or, better still, will she abolish the Commission?

My recollection is that the original terms of reference were not so much to make specific recommendations on pay claims as to look into the feasibility of a comparability study. I assure my hon. Friend that we are looking into the whole future of this particular comparability committee.

Control Of Dogs (Departmental Co-Ordination)

Q2.

asked the Prime Minister if she is satisfied with the co-ordination between the Northern Ireland Office, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of the Environment, and the Home Office over the implementation of the inter-departmental report on the control of dogs.

Does the Prime Minister agree that it is appalling that, in a country of supposed dog lovers over 100 dogs a day have to be destroyed because they are straying in the streets? Is it not high time that the recommendations of the inter-departmental working party on the control of dogs were implemented?

I saw the report of the hon. Gentleman's effective Adjournment debate. Of course, we are extremely sorry that there are so many stray dogs which are not properly looked after and have to be destroyed. It is a long time since the inter-departmental working committee reported in 1976. However, I can give no assurance that legislation will be introduced in the near future.

Is the Prime Minister aware that 50 people a year and possibly more—mainly children—suffer severe eye damage as a result of toxicaracanis, a worm passed on from dogs? Would my right hon. Friend like to speculate on the public outcry if the same amount of human damage was caused by nuclear power? Does she believe that she should take strong action?

I am aware of the risk, but I do not think that we can obviate it through legislation. It is of considerable concern that people do not look after their dogs and that so many strays have to be destroyed each year. I much regret it.

Does the Prime Minister agree that this necessary measure should be applied to the United Kingdom simultaneously, particularly since it involves an increase in the licence fee? Does she agree that the recommendations should be implemented as speedily as possible?

A number of hon. Members will feel that action should have been taken before. I have made inquiries about the Northern Ireland position. I understand that legislation has often been different in Northern Ireland and has gone ahead at a different rate. I am told that action is more urgent there than in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Framlingham

Q3.

asked the Prime Minister whether she has any plans to visit Framlingham.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that she would receive a great welcome in Framlingham but that at present such a visit would go largely unreported because of the refusal of the NGA to ballot its members on the present industrial action? Is she aware that that refusal came about because, according to Mr. Wade, it is too expensive to run a ballot? Is not that another indication that the employment legislation going through the House is necessary, will be welcomed by moderate people, and should be supported by the Opposition?

If that is so, certainly the Employment Bill will remedy the position because under it the Government may pay to hold a postal ballot. I understand that two of the other unions held a ballot and that the people involved demonstrated that they did not wish to strike. It is a pity that the Employment Bill is not already through the House so that others could take advantage of its provisions. I would add that I should like to visit my hon. Friend's constituency, even if it were not reported.

Prime Minister (Engagements)

Q4.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 29 April.

Will my right hon. Friend find time today to study the report of the Public Accounts Committee, which tells us that the Polish Government are paying £50,000 for 24 ships, which will cost the British taxpayer £152 million under a deal negotiated by the Leader of the Opposition when in Government? Will she confirm that it is no part of her policy to conclude such preposterous commercial deals with Communist countries?

I agree that that was a waste of public expenditure. The losses on that deal were very great indeed, for 24 ships. We do not know the extent of the losses yet because not all the ships have been delivered. I understand fully the need to try to get some work for the shipyards so that they can have an orderly rundown, but we should not do deals of that kind, which are a bad bargain for Britain.

Will the Prime Minister direct her mind once again to Iran? Does she realise that the piece of electoral military adventurism engaged in by America in Iran has worsened the whole world situation, and yet she described that adventurism as "courageous"? Does she realise that, had the American troops gone near the embassy, there would have been a major shoot-out leading to a large number of dead and that the coffins of the martyrs, so called, would have been carried through the streets? Does she accept that the world situation would have been made worse than at any time since the Second World War? Will she withdraw her support for such military adventurism in the interests of world peace?

May I ask the hon. Gentleman to realise that 50 hostages have been held in Iran in flagrant breach of every single international law? It would be as well if we all directed our efforts to using peaceful means to release them.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the whole country will welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary is to make an early visit to Washington? Will she reflect that Britain has the longest history of good relations with many of the Gulf States of any other country and that therefore our help and guidance can be of the greatest importance in maintaining stability and peace in that area at this time?

I endorse warmly what my hon. Friend has said. Britain could not have a better emissary to those parts of the world than our present Foreign Secretary.

Will the right hon. Lady ponder today that Mr. Brzezinski, in a television interview last night, reiterated the dangers of disintegration in Iran when no such thing is yet happening? Is it not obvious that he is hoping, or helping, to bring that about as an excuse for military intervention? Will she make it clear that we in this country shall not be party to such lunatic intentions on the part of such a dangerously powerful madman?

I think that there may well be a danger of secession of some of the Iranian peoples. I believe that it would be contrary to the interests of the West if that happened. I hope that Iran will retain her unity, but that is a matter for internal affairs in Iran. I have already made clear my views about military action.

Q5.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 29 April.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the opinion poll published yesterday which shows that 63 per cent. of Labour voters are opposed to the TUC's day of action on 14 May? Does she agree that on this issue, as on so many others, she is much more in touch with the people than the Leader of the Opposition, whose silence on this issue is deafening?

I hope that the vast majority of people will join in condemning the plans for such a day of action, which has nothing whatsoever to do with a trade dispute and which will only help Britain's competitors.

Will the Prime Minister take time today to consider more carefully than she has in the past the effect of her various Departments' policies on young families? Will she ask herself whether such families are being asked to bear too great a part of the sacrifices which she is demanding? The right hon. Lady recently said that our standard of living had gone up 6 per cent. Has the standard of living of young families gone up by 6 per cent.?

With regard to the Government's policy on families I believe that it is most important to leave families with a greater proportion of their own income—their own earnings—to spend in their own way. The standard of living of a family must come not from the Government but from the action of the breadwinner.

With regard to specific measures, I believe that it will be of great help to families when more of them can purchase council houses because that will fulfil an ambition for many people. I also believe that it will be of great help to families that the family income supplement is going up by one-third. I believe that family benefit rising by £4·75 will help them to fulfil their very many obligations.

Following that answer, will the Prime Minister tell us—since she wishes council tenants to purchase their houses—why it is that the GLC has stopped lending money to would-be council house purchasers? Will she tell us why it is that there have been fewer council houses sold during the last six months than there were in the last six months of the Labour Administration?

If the Prime Minister really believes that young families have more money in their pockets because they pay less tax why is it that the total level of taxation paid by the average family today is higher than it was 12 months ago?

Had the right hon. Gentleman been in power today the level of taxation would have been a great deal higher. In the first two Budgets of the Labour Government the level of income tax was increased, as was indirect tax. If the right hon. Gentleman takes the view which I deduce from his comments, I trust that he will repudiate—[HON. MEMBERS "Answer".] the comment of his right hon. Friend that the Labour Party would continue to oppose the sale of council houses.