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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 13: debated on Thursday 26 November 1981

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

Home Department

Police (Foot Patrols)

1.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether there has been an increase in the number of foot patrols now operated by the police.

I know that chief officers share my view that it is desirable to put more officers on foot patrol, both to improve contact between the police and the community, and to provide more effective policing.

In view of the acknowledged importance of this matter, will my right hon. Friend pay special attention to that part of the Scarman report that is concerned with the status of the beat officer? Is he satisfied that police establishments are sufficient to enable enough people to carry out this duty?

On the first point, "Most certainly, yes". On the second point, the strength of the police service in England and Wales has increased by about 7,500 since the Government came to power. That should provide the opportunity for more foot patrols. That is the purpose of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and chief officers.

Is the Secretary of State aware that his statement that he appreciates the importance of having more police on foot on the beat will be widely welcomed, because there is a wide demand for it all over the country? Now that the Metropolitan Police are, I understand, up to strength, has he made any progress on this matter? Has he been able to relieve the police of any of their other duties? Is there any increase in foot patrolling?

Yes, indeed. The Metropolitan Police are not fully up to strength, although they number about 25,000 for the first time in their 150 years of history. Following a recent review the Commissioner has been able to release over 900 officers from mainly internal or civilian duties for operational street duties, so I think that he has done a great deal, as the right hon. Gentleman would want him to do.

Has my right hon. Friend been made aware of reports that since the number of police foot patrols in Brixton has been reduced, the level of street crime has increased? What deductions does he draw from that?

Police foot patrols in Brixton are extremely important, as indeed—and we must be perfectly clear about this—is the need to deal with crime in Brixton. Nothing that Lord Scarman or anyone else has said leaves any doubt that it is essential to deal with crime without differing standards throughout our community.

Has the Home Secretary any fresh proposals to encourage members of the ethnic minorities to join the police force? In the United States, in Washington and New York, we have seen that, despite accusations of "Uncle Tom", blacks join the police. It is worrying that we do not have enough young blacks coming into the police force.

Yes, that is true. It would be very helpful if we had more. I hope that the House will reject the idea, which has been tried in America and, I believe, failed, of having quotas within the police service. That was a mistake. I trust that we shall not go down that road. Lord Scarman did not suggest that we should do so.

We need more such recruits, but, first, those in their own communities have to encourage them to join, to treat them well when they do join, and not say that they are scabs, or whatever the term may be, for doing so. That is important. At the same time, they have to reach the right standards so that when we have a chance to increase the quality of our police constables they will qualify for the police service.

Police Forces (Establishment)

2.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department to what extent police forces are up to establishment; and if he will make a statement.

All forces outside London are up to or near their authorised establishments. At the end of October the strength of the Metropolitan Police was about 25,000, the highest ever, but the force still has about 1,600 vacancies.

In view of the fact that in the area covered by the West Mercia police force there has been a 20 per cent. increase in crime in the last 12 months and a 30 per cent. reduction in the rate of detection, and that there is one constable to over 500 head of population—way below the national average—when will my right hon. Friend approve the recruitment to the final 90 posts of the 350 originally recommended in 1976?

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, I approved an establishment increase of 87 posts for West Mercia in February 1980. Since May 1979 the strength of the force has increased by 174, and it is now at its full establishment of 1,921. In all these cases we have to consider the total number of police officers and the fact that police officers are today an expensive commodity and that we must get the full value for money for their work. Bearing in mind all those matters, I shall consider what my hon. Friend has said.

Is the Home Secretary fully aware of the depletion of the effective resources deployed in individual districts of the Metropolitan Police area because of the removal of large numbers of police for joint London and national occasions? Will he bear that fact very much in mind when next the establishment of the Metropolitan Police comes up for review?

Yes. It should be remembered that all of us are perhaps responsible for promoting strains upon the Metropolitan Police in their national duties. It should never be forgotten that marches and demonstrations of all kinds increase the pressures on the Metropolitan Police. That must be accepted. I shall, of course, consider what the hon. Gentleman has said. I wish, however, to make it clear that the figure of 25,000 for the Metropolitan Police is a very considerable increase on any previous figure.

I do not believe that it is right to increase the size of the force too quickly. We need to make sure that officers who go on the beat receive proper training to enable them to do the job effectively. I should be worried if I thought that we were rushing to a new establishment before making sure that the officers concerned were fully trained and mature enough to appear on the streets.

Civil Defence

3.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will increase the resources available for civil defence.

My right hon. Friend has no present plans to do so. We are satisfied that the additional resources for civil defence which my right hon. Friend announced to the House on 7 August last year are sufficient for further progress to be achieved.

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that the vast majority of people in this country support the nuclear deterrent, but that they require the Government to provide adequate civil defence to go with the nuclear deterrent? Is he therefore aware that more money is required for civil defence, and that if local authorities under Socialist control are not prepared to provide it the Government should step in? Is he further aware that more nuclear shelters are required to guarantee protection in the event of some sad occurrence and to ensure that a large number of people in this country survive?

My right hon. Friend announced in August 1980 that national civil defence expenditure was to be increased by about 60 per cent. annually, to £45 million annually by 1983–84. I agree with what my hon. Friend says about the importance of a nuclear deterrent. The Government are equally concerned to make the point that the case for civil defence is a humanitarian one and that one can be wholly committed to unilateral disarmament and at the same time be very firm for proper civil defence.

Is the Minister aware that the huge upsurge of interest in the peace movement, not only in this country, but throughout Europe, and the tremendous demonstrations that have taken place are due not to the underground activities of the Communist Party in the CND, or even of the KGB, but arise from a real fear of nuclear war and the realisation that there is no adequate civil defence against nuclear attack?

Many of the people supporting those demonstrations are extremely sincere and extremely misguided. It is a grave disservice to them and to the whole country to suppose that, in the unspeakable event of an attack upon this country with nuclear weapons, millions of lives could not be saved by the provision of a sensible degree of civil defence.

How is my hon. and learned Friend getting on with persuading that wayward organisation, the GLC, to play its part in civil defence? Does he appreciate that my constituents and many other people in greater London believe the GLC's attitude to be wholly irresponsible?

My hon. Friend will recall that a fortnight ago the Government published a simple pamphlet "Civil Defence: why we need it" giving the answers to a number of questions that are commonly asked. I am glad to say that the GLC has undertaken to distribute the pamphlet. It has also undertaken to carry out a survey of buildings, as the Government have requested, that might be suitable to provide protection against radiation. I believe that persuasion is the way to approach these local authorities.

What estimates has the Minister made of the cost of effective protection against nuclear weapons?

That is an impossible question to answer. The concept is not capable of being defined. The Government have always made it clear that it is beyond what this country can afford to provide shelters for everyone on the scale carried out in the last war. However, the risk of war breaking out so long as we maintain our independent deterrent is so slight as not to warrant that precaution.

British Broadcasting Corporation

4.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he has any plans to meet the director-general of the BBC to discuss the financing of the corporation; and if he will make a statement.

My right hon. Friend met the chairman and the director general of the BBC last month to discuss the BBC's application for an increase in the television licence fees. No date has been fixed for any further meeting with them.

Will the Minister confirm that the BBC is after an increase to £50 in the licence fee? Will he acknowledge that there are nearly 10 million pensioners in this country who, together with those who are unemployed as a result of the Government's policy, would find extreme difficulty in paying a £50 fee? Is he aware that the Government have recently refused to increase pensions in line with inflation, which has meant a loss of about £50 a year to pensioners? Will he ensure that when the £50 licence fee is brought forward, pensioners will be excluded from paying the whole of it?

I think that what the BBC is seeking in terms of an increased licence fee is public knowledge. Our view is that it is better to continue to assist pensioners and the disabled by benefits in cash, which they can spend in their own way, rather than by benefits in kind. The television licence fee is included in the RPI basket.

Will my hon. Friend accept that many pensioners and others dread the prospect of yet another increase in the BBC licence fee? Will the Government now respond to the growing view that if the BBC needs more money it should be obtained from advertising, which is what happens with the rest of the media?

Our view is that to introduce a system for the BBC based on advertising finance would seriously change the character of the corporation. It could have the effect of diminishing variety of choice in the programmes that it can offer.

Will the Minister reconsider his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) about old-age pensioners? Will he undertake a survey of what old-age pensioners think? Does he not think that their answers would indicate the need for a concessionary television licence? Does he agree that there is too big a difference between a "5p licence" and the proposed £50 licence?

No, Sir. Concessions would inevitably mean either higher licence costs for everyone else or an increase in public expenditure. We believe that the present system is right. The pension takes account of increases in the RPI, which includes the cost of a television licence.

Does my hon. Friend agree that many people do not necessarily believe that the BBC puts to the best use the public money that is available to it? Does he think that before any question of an advance in the fees is considered officially there should be an independent survey of the way in which the BBC spends its money?

There are detailed discussions when the size of the TV licence is fixed. We have to be satisfied that the application is appropriate.

The Minister says that he prefers to assist pensioners by benefits in cash. Does he not agree that the Government have totally failed to keep pensioners' benefits in line with inflation? Is he not aware that pensioners are finding it harder than ever to manage day by day? What consideration have the Government given to assisting pensioners in the event of an increase in the licence fee?

I do not agree that the Government have failed totally to keep pensioners' pensions in line with inflation.

Prison Regime

5.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will give consideration to a reappraisal of the prison regime with a view to achieving a better balance between punishment and reform.

It is not the function of prison regimes to add to the punishment of the sentence of the court. The prison department is constantly seeking to develop new and positive elements within the prison regimes, despite the pressures on resources.

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that if we are to counteract the concept of prisons as penal dustbins we should give thought not only to improving the fabric of the prisons but to the purposes of imprisonment? What is the Home Office research unit doing in looking at this aspect of the penal system?

We do not want our prisons to be dustbins or any kind, penal or otherwise. It is important that the regimes, notwithstanding the shortage of resources from which we are suffering, should be as positive as possible. The regimes committee is involved in a continuous reappraisal of regimes and a review of the prison service's philosophy of management and arrangement of prisoners' home leaves. About four different groups of one kind or another are undertaking the examination of different aspects of the matter. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is very important.

Does the Minister agree that an appropriate balance between punishment and reform cannot be achieved while overcrowding in local prisons makes it impossible to sustain even basic minimum standards of human decency? Will the situation not be exacerbated by the introduction of a partially suspended sentence? Will the Minister reconsider this decision and introduce instead a scheme of supervised release, which would have the effect of reducing the prison population immediately by 7,000?

The answer to the question "Is it impossible for a proper balance to be maintained at present?" is, generally and unhappily, "Yes", but the hon. Gentleman is wrong in what he presses upon me in the second part of the question. The reason why we are now satisfied that supervised release would not be satisfactory is that there is a real prospect that it might add to the numbers of people in prison, rather than reduce them.

Is it not a fact that if more of our prisons provided constructive work for prisoners that would not only contribute towards the reform of offenders, but would help to punish those who are in prison because they are work-shy?

It is the continuous effort of the prison service to provide opportunities for worthwhile work for inmates. That is the case, notwithstanding the shortage of resources. The purpose of imprisonment is partly to help to prepare inmates for a useful and self-supporting life outside prison.

As there can be no improvement in the prison regime until we cut the number of people in prison, has not the Home Secretary denied himself the possibility of that improvement by capitulating to the judges and the magistrates in their refusal to reduce the amount of time spent in prison? If that is now the case, does it not mean that we have urgently to move towards legislation, as suggested by the Select Committee?

The hon. Gentleman was uncharacteristically inattentive to my last reply. There is no capitulation. The reason why the Home Secretary has changed his mind, as he has made clear, is that he has consulted people and heeded what he has been told. It is absurd to talk of capitulation when referring to a consultation that has been properly carried out, and the results of which have been listened to.

Civil Defence

6.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many copies of the publication "Civil Defence: why we need it" have been published; and how extensively it will be distributed.

Five hundred thousand so far. The pamphlet has been distributed to county and district councils, police forces and certain voluntary organisations. Members of the public may obtain copies from these bodies or direct from the Home Office emergency services division.

Does the Minister agree that this is a miserable and pathetic document compared with the earlier document "Protect and Survive"? In view of the fact that in the recent civil defence exercise, "Operation Square Leg" it was estimated that 200 megatons of TNT could be used against Britain—which is equivalent to 16,000 Hiroshimas—what does the document say about dealing with that, on the very day that the Cabinet is meeting to discuss further public expenditure cuts in local authority services? Will the Minister at least respect those local authorities that want to make their areas nuclear-free zones?

The theme of the pamphlet—which is very far from pathetic—is that civil defence is common sense. Even if the hon. Gentleman's constituents were to live in a nuclear-free zone, they would not be protected from the effects of fallout from nuclear attacks on the Continent of Europe. The pamphlet seeks to dispel the confusion that has been sown in people's minds by a great many people such as the hon. Gentleman, who seek to say that no measure of protection can be given to millions of lives.

Is my hon. and learned Friend happy that after a disaster the chief civil power should be in the hands of the chief executives of county councils and similar unelected and unknown nonentities? Would it not be much wiser if each county had at the head of its civil defence some well-known local figure, such as Mr. Ian Botham in Somerset, or Mr. Kevin Keegan in Southampton?

The Government believe that all their efforts have to be devoted to ensuring that no war ever breaks out. We believe that if we maintain our deterrent policy that will be the case. But if there has to be a system for the post-attack government of this country, we believe that it is right to work through local authorities and those who serve them, because they have the best means of knowing the needs of their areas. I think, therefore, that the Government's policy is broadly correct.

Police Constables

7.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what proportion of police constables have more than 10 years' service; and how this proportion compares with the position in 1961.

This information is not held centrally and is not readily obtainable. The results of a survey of forces in England and Wales at the end of 1979 showed that over a third of police constables, and just over half of officers of all ranks, had more than 10 years' service.

So that young police constables can benefit more from the practical experience of the older ones, will my right hon. Friend consider whether a larger proportion of the older ones can be made available for work with the younger ones on the streets? Will he also see whether the salary structure can be examined in order to encourage the retention of the services of experienced police constables?

The answer to my hon. Friend's first question is that that is exactly the purpose of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, and, indeed, of training schemes that he has just instituted at Hendon, the benefit of which will be seen on the streets thereafter. We are suffering from the fact that at an earlier time police pay was allowed to go too low, as a result of which many experienced officers left the force. That has been put right through the Edmund-Davies report, which the Government supported. We must ensure that no similar loss of experienced police officers happens again.

With regard to the efforts being made by chief constables and by the Commissioner in London to recruit black and brown people into the police force, does the Home Secretary agree that if there is some shyness on the part of such young people to join and serve in their own localities, there should be a system to move them to other localities in order to follow this laudable objeective?

Police (Complaints)

8.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will set up an inquiry to study methods of independent investigation of complaints against the police.

10.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he has given further consideration to the establishment of an independent body looking into complaints made against police officers; and if he will make a statement.

11.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if the Police Federation has yet approached him in regard to its wish for an independent body other than the police to inquire into complaints made against the police.

15.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations he has received from the Police Federation concerning the establishment of an independent complaints procedure.

As I said in my statement to the House yesterday, I accept that the procedure for handling complaints against the police must be altered if it is to command public confidence, and I shall bring forward proposals as soon as I can. I met representatives of the Police Federation last week and I shall take into account their views.

I welcome the fact that the Home Secretary is aware that there is a widespread and dangerous lack of public confidence in the system which Roy Jenkins invented, and which was serverely criticised at the time by Back Benchers on each side of the House. Is the Home Secretary aware that the only sensible remedy is to have an ombudsman, appointed by and responsible to the House, to look into complaints that arise against the police?

We have to be careful about leaping into instant solutions, because there are many problems. Any system has to marry the responsibility of a chief constable for the discipline of his force with the complaints that may be made against individuals in that force. The chief constable is accountable for his force. He cannot, therefore, have the discipline of his force—[Interruption.] He is accountable for the discipline of his force.

Order. An occasional intervention is one thing, but to shout from a sedentary position is ill-mannered, apart from being unparliamentary.

He is responsible for the work of his force and for the money that is provided to the police authority in his area. All the Labour Members who were shouting at me are advocating more accountability for chief constables. That being so, they must not deprive chief constables of the right to be responsible for the discipline of the members of their forces. That responsibility has to be married to complaints and the procedure for dealing with them. I am prepared to listen to anyone who has views on how we should effect that marriage. It is a problem that the House was not able to solve in 1976. It did not solve it, because it produced an Act that nobody now likes.

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

Having apparently accepted the principle of the need for an independent body to investigate complaints against the police, will the right hon. Gentleman say when he will be in a position to report to the House? Is it likely that he will report before we go into the Christmas Recess?

I shall not report to the House before we go into the Christmas Recess. I am ready to discuss with right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House how we should devise—this is something that the House should do together—a sensible system that will meet the requirements of both discipline and the handling of complaints. The need to deal with discipline is important. Discipline and complaints cannot be separated, because they frequently lie in the same area. That is why the House should work together to find the right answer. If Labour Members are so sure about their answer, I shall be grateful if they will talk to me and tell me exactly what they want to do.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that when he uses the words "accountable" or "accountability" the majority of the electorate understands him to be referring to an elected body and not to be talking in vacuo? The Police Federation, in asking for what in effect would be a civilian body of the right hon. Gentleman's choosing, or the result of an election, thinks that that will defend it against many of the accusations that are brought against its members. Will he note that the Association of Chief Police Officers profoundly disagrees with the federation because it feels that it is accountable only to itself? What will he do to resolve the problem of the Association of Chief Police Officers differing from the Police Federation?

I think that the hon. Gentleman's comments are somewhat unfair to chief police officers. The federation offered to accept a totally independent system. However, I ask the House to consider some of the caveats and some of the proposals that the federation submitted at the same time, which would go with an independent system and which would be unacceptable to hon. Members. We must not imagine that the Police Federation's ideas would be easily acceptable in the House, because they would not.

Given the depth of public feeling on this issue, as recognised in the Scarman report, and the likelihood that any new system of independent complaint investigation will cost money, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that a balance must be struck between the money that is to be spent and the confidence that is to be gained? Does he also accept that only radical measures can instil the degree of confidence that is required among the public even if there is a fairly substantial increase in expenditure?

The hon. Gentleman touched on an important issue when he referred to expenditure. I have managed over a period to get money for the police, but there are many throughout the country who want the money that is spent on the police to be used in seeking to prevent crime and on helping them to be safe in their own homes. We must remember that hard fact. I accept that the need for a complaints procedure is important. However, if the procedure proved to be wildly expensive, and consequently had an effect on other police operations, I do not think that the House would approve of it.

I think that we all accept that there should be reasonable machinery in operation to deal with complaints against the police. Nevertheless, does my right hon. Friend agree that there are those inside and outside the House who seize every opportunity to make unreasonable complaints and to fan any incident into real harassment of a most important public service?

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. In any system that we devise we should seek to deal with serious complaints by means of the independent element, while at the same time getting rid of a great deal of bureaucratic nonsense involving small, invalid and totally useless complaints.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a Minister should be answerable in Parliament and to questioning in respect of any system that we introduce?

Yes, I think that that is fair. However, the present system has not prevented questions being put to me in the House. I seem to be questioned all the time about it. There are many hon. Members, like the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Race), who think that they can remove themselves from responsibility for what we all did in 1976. I do not seek to remove myself from it, even though I voted against that measure. I am bound to say that I could not think of a better system. We are all in this together. We all decided to accept the proposal that was contained in the 1976 measure. We all know now that we were wrong, and we are trying to find the best way to put things right.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is aware of the general welcome that has been given to his clear indication that he proposes to move on this matter. Allowing for the complications involved in a new scheme and the cost of implementing it, will he confirm now that when he is ready to produce a new scheme he will avoid the principle of policemen against whom complaints are made being investigated and judged by other policemen and nobody else?

Without committing myself in too much detail, I am prepared to say in advance of producing a new scheme that I shall be pleased to have discussions with the right hon. Gentleman, with the Select Committee and with any number of hon. Members to determine how we can meet all the difficult problems that are involved.

Scarman Report

9.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he intends to publish the Scarman report on urban disturbances.

I did not know that when I tabled the question. Will the right hon. Gentleman be rather more forthcoming about what he means by "welcoming" and "accepting" the Scarman report? Does he agree that it is no good welcoming and accepting it if he does not provide the resources and the legislative time to introduce the recommendations that are set out in Lord Scarman's report? Will he confirm that he broadly accepts the recommendations on random checks of police stations and the banning of racist marches?

I made clear yesterday, though some did not think that I did, the matters involving the police that I accepted. I said that the problem of banning racist marches—I have banned them on a considerable scale during recent months—should be considered within the review of public order. I accept also the need to consider carefully how best to achieve arrangements to enable lay people to visit police stations. I think that it is reasonable to reserve some of the comments that I shall make until the debate that is shortly to take place on these issues and until we reply to the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs on racial disadvantage. I hope to prove that my words yesterday were not empty ones.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the prime duty of the police is to protect the public and deter criminals? Is he further aware that, since the riots in Brixton, there has been an increase in street crime of about 25 per cent., mainly involving the mugging of white people by blacks?

It is the job of the police to deter criminals and protect the public. I support what my hon. Friend says. The job of the police is to deal with crime from wherever it comes, without any different standards. That is not my opinion alone. Lord Scarman made that clear when he said that it was right to retain the special patrol group for that purpose. He said that it was right to retain the powers of stop and search. He said that it was important to face up to the need for the police to deal with crime at all times. I fully support what Lord Scarman said. I appreciate the problem involved in policing some of our inner city areas. Equally, I accept that we cannot tolerate crime such as exists in Brixton. That is also something with which the police must deal.

Union Flag (Abuse)

13.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations he has received about the abuse of the Union flag by political extremist groups at Remembrance Day services; and whether he proposes to take any action.

My right hon. Friend has received a specific complaint about the use of the Union flag by such a group at the Cenotaph this year and both written and oral representations about its use by such groups on other occasions. My right hon. Friend is considering the suggestion that this should be prohibited by law in the course of his review of the Public Order Act 1936, and related legislation.

Does my hon. Friend agree that for the National Front to use the Union flag in demonstrations at Remembrance Day services is extremely insulting to the memory of the Service men who died for the country in the fight against Fascism? Does he further agree that the use of the flag by the National Front is extremely distressing for the families of the people who died? Has not the time come to legislate to stop the abuse of the Union flag in public marches?

I share my hon. and learned Friend's repugnance. He will appreciate the practical problems involved in working out how to prevent the use of the flag by a particular group. However, we are thinking about that in the context of our review of public order.

Does the Minister accept that, the use of the flag apart, the appearance of Fascist organisations at the Cenotaph at Remembrance Day services causes grave offence to everyone? In the course of his review of the Public Order Act and the Scarman report, will the Minister consider the possibility of selective bans on Fascist marches and on other demonstrations, not least on that occasion?

I share the repugnance for what has happened. The whole question of marches and racial incitement is part of the examination being undertaken by my right hon. Friend of the Public Order Act.

Shotgun Licences

14.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will review the terms on which licences for shotguns are issued.

No, Sir. We are satisfied that the existing controls are generally adequate.

Does the Minister agree that the number of crimes in which firearms are used has increased and that it should be any Government's duty to make it more difficult for criminals to get hold of guns? Is it not reasonable that provisions for the issue of shotguns should be tightened? Should not law-abiding gun owners be prepared to accept that for the common good?

We are talking about the control of shotguns. We are not persuaded that a more stringent control of shotguns would reduce significantly the level of crime, or that the extra work for the police would be justified. The hon. Member will be pleased to know that the number of serious offences recorded by the police in which shotguns were reported to have been used fell from 760 in 1978 to 552 in 1980 and that that figure was the lowest since 1974.

As there was such a startling decline in the use of shotguns in crime last year, is my hon. and learned Friend looking into the possibility of extending the life of a firearm and shotgun certificate from three to five years?

My right hon. Friend is not examining that possibility at present. Welcome though the reduction is, the figure of 552 is still far too high.

Persons On Remand

16.

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will now take urgent steps to reduce the number of persons held on remand in prison.

We share the hon. Member's desire to see a reduction in the number of such prisoners, but action to that end must be consistent with the interests of justice and the protection of the public. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will continue to pursue ways of reducing the remand population by expediting criminal trials.

Given that as many as 7,500 prisoners can be on remand in custody on a single day—many of whom will he found not guilty or given non-custodial sentences, but who are nevertheless housed in appalling conditions—will the Minister make a speedy response to the recommendations of the Select Committee on Home Affairs to reduce the length of trials and to introduce the 110-day rule, which operates so effectively in Scotland?

The figure is too high. On 31 October the figure was 7,151. Shortly, the Government will be publishing a reply to the Select Committee report. It will comment on individual recommendations. I can say now that I do not see any suggestion in the report of an immediate answer to the problem of reducing the remand population. The Scottish 110-day rule would not provide the solution in present circumstances, because there is a let-out clause when there is a delay that is not the fault of the prosecution.

Prime Minister

Engagements

Q1.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 26 November.

I have been asked to reply.

This morning my right hon. Friend presided at a meeting of the Cabinet. This afternoon she is chairing the meeting of the European Council at Lancaster House.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that some of my constituents have nothing in their larders to feed their children on the day before they receive their unemployment benefit? After this morning's Cabinet meeting, are the Government seriously considering reducing the value of that already miserable benefit?

My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make a statement next week. I ask the House to await that statement.

May we have an assurance that, in spite of Lord Scarman's recommendations in relation to positive racial discrimination, the House will never grant legal immunity to any group of people and that we shall not follow the example of the Director of Public Prosecutions, who recently withdrew charges against offenders in the Bristol riots, in the interests of racial harmony?

There is no question of legal immunity for any section of our population.

I understood Lord Scarman to mean—although it has been distorted—that we have a tradition of seeking to give everyone equal opportunities in life. That is the purpose of many policies and it is far beyond racial discrimination. I should have thought that everybody in the House was committed to that.

May I press the right hon. Gentleman further on his answer about the projected cut in unemployment benefit? There is to be a statement next week, but can the right hon. Gentleman say whether the statement yesterday by the Secretary of State for Wales in the City, in which he clearly forecast such a cut, represents Government policy? Can the right hon. Gentleman and the Cabinet understand what a disgrace it would be if unemployment benefit were to be cut when the Government have helped to create the worst mass unemployment that we have experienced since the war?

Sometimes, patience is a virtue. I am entitled to ask the House to await a full and comprehensive statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer next week. That is what I am doing.

Will the right hon. Gentleman pass on that message to the Secretary of State for Wales? Will he tell us now whether that statement represents Government policy?

I have made it clear that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make a statement next week. I have nothing further to add.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that The Observer in 1976 reported the Labour Party's finance and economic affairs sub-committee as stating that by 1980 unemployment would rise to 2½ million? Is he further aware that one of the members of that Committee was the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) and that another member of that Committee that forecast 2½ million unemployed in 1980 was a Mrs. S. Williams?

No doubt both the right hon. Gentleman and the lady will be able to answer for the statement that they made on that occasion.

Will the Home Secretary, with his vast experience of these matters, dissociate himself entirely from the intemperate attack on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) today? Will he assure the House that neither bombs not bombast will stop the Government from seeking a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland?

I am always hesitant about saying anything about attacks that I have not heard. I did not hear that attack. Having been subject to many such attacks in my time as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I do not like any of them, because I believe that the interests of this country rely very much on making sure that we seek to make progress in Northern Ireland, while always accepting that it is a part of the United Kingdom. That is the position that successive Governments have stood for. That is the position that we stand for. We are entitled to seek to make progress in reconciliation against that background.

Q2.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 26 November.

I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. and learned Gentleman to the reply that I have just given.

While welcoming the Scarman report and its recommendations, and their acceptance by the right hon. Gentleman, may I ask whether he accepts that social disadvantage is the root cause of crime and that while the Government continue to fail to bring help to the disadvantaged in all parts of our society, society will continue to be at risk?

I do not accept that. I accept that there are many factors behind crime. Anyone who has had the privilege of being Home Secretary realises only too well that there are many factors. Of course social conditions and unemployment are among them, but there are many others, and none can be an excuse for crime or violence at any time.

Will my right hon. Friend make it clear to the House that Britain will not give in to Israeli pressure to amend the terms for British participation in the Sinai peacekeeping force, terms that are clearly linked to the Venice declaration and in particular to self-determination for the Palestinians?

I understand that the Israeli Foreign Minister is going to Washington today to discuss those matters with the Secretary of State. It would be wrong for me to comment further in advance of that meeting.

Will the Home Secretary review the events in Northern Ireland last weekend, bearing in mind that one Northern Ireland Member of Parliament has already been murdered? What level of personal protection is afforded to Northern Ireland hon. Members? What protection, if any, was afforded to the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) while he was parading with his armed followers? What was the cost to the long-suffering British taxpayer?

Naturally, those are matters for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I shall draw his attention to what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Will my right hon. Friend draw the attention of the Prime Minister to the fact that over the last six months unemployment in this country has risen at under half the rate of Germany, Sweden and Austria, and is lower than the rate in the Netherlands and Canada? Therefore, is not that a cause for cautious optimism?

What my hon. Friend says is true. [Interruption.] I am disappointed that even a phrase such as "cautious optimism" seems to be so disagreeable to the Labour Party.

Q3.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her public engagements for 26 November.

I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Lady to the reply that I gave earlier.

Is the Home Secretary not aware that there is no feeling of cautious optimism among the women of this country, among whom unemployment has more than doubled under this Government? Is he aware that there is an increasing number of one-parent families mainly dependent on women? Is he further aware that unless something is done about child care and nursery facilities, women will be less able to compete for jobs in a diminishing market? Does not he think that that calls for an inquiry into the employment of women in this economic climate?

Those are wide matters that can be most carefully considered. They have to be considered against a background of high unemployment. If the Labour Party's policies for spending ever-increasing amounts of Government money and imposing ever-increasing rates were to be followed, there would be worse unemployment and more trouble for women in that unemployment.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how far the Government have decided to modify public service index-linked pensions in the light of the Scott report?

The Home Secretary has told us three times this afternoon to await the statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer next week. However, the Chancellor is reported as saying last week that in future sterling M3 will not be regarded as being so important. Is not that another sign of the failure of the Government's fundamental policies? Will the Home Secretary also confirm that the longer leading index has fallen significantly in recent months? Will he tell the Prime Minister to stop kidding the country that the economy is getting better?

I do not accept many of those points. They all seem to add up to the simple fact that it would be much better to wait until my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer makes his statement next week.

Q4.

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

I have been asked to reply.

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave earlier.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the letter in The Times today signed by 17 leading industrialists, in which they urge the Government not to be deflected from their broad strategy against inflation by the rising volume of often partisan opposition? Is my right hon. Friend aware that that is the view of every Conservative Member?

I saw that letter. I should have thought that all Conservative Members would greatly welcome its tone. I know that it will not be acceptable to the Labour Party, which just wants to spend a great deal more money.

Does the deputy Prime Minister really think that after increasing Civil Service pay in their first year by 26 per cent. and increasing VAT to 15 per cent., the Government are absolutely on course with the economic arguments that they put before the electorate at the last election?

Given the problems that the Government have faced with the world recession, the answer is "Yes".

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, looking forward in the economy, it would be sensible for all o us to settle our pay increases in line with the increases in productivity rather than having increases that may continue above 5 per cent?

It is true that low pay settlements would greatly contribute to our productive and competitive capacity, which are vital to our success.

Is it not disgraceful that the Cabinet is talking about £3·5 billion worth of cuts, which will affect those most in need, particularly those on unemployment benefit, while at the same time it proposes to spend a further £2 billion on increasing expenditue on Trident? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that if the Government spend more on the larger Trident missile they will discard £100 million worth of design expenditure, cause an imbalance in the nuclear position in Europe and invite the Russians to instal more SS20s, because the larger Trident missile——

Order. I know that this is a very long question, but it will run us out of Prime Minister's Question Time.

One thing that I can say in advance of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer's statement next Wednesday is that, as he and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have made clear, it is not a question of cuts, as the hon. Gentleman said. It is a question of a reduction in planned increases in expenditure, which is a very different thing.