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Orders Of The Day

Volume 14: debated on Thursday 3 December 1981

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Shipbuilding Bill

Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Third Reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

Nuclear Industry (Finance) Bill

Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Third Reading), and agreed to.

It is not possible to have any debate on the Bill because six names have to be appended to the motion that the Bill be debated, and unfortunately one of them has mysteriously disappeared during the night. It would be useful to have your guidance for the future. If an hon. Member, such as myself, were prepared to make cogent remarks for the improvement of the knowledge of the House, would it be in order for that hon. Member to volunteer to take the place of a missing Member?

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman. Some hon. Members may well regret that they will not have the advantage of hearing him; others may feel differently. As the hon. Gentleman has indicated, there were only five names, and I was therefore obliged to put the Question, according to Standing Orders.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.


Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Budgen.]

4.21 pm

I am exceedingly grateful, even at this extraordinarily early hour, for the chance to draw the attention of the House—[Interruption.] I regret to note that some of my hon. Friends are leaving the Chamber. I hope that it is not an indication of their view of the subject that I am about to raise. As I was saying, I am grateful for this early opportunity to draw the attention of the House to the grievance felt against the Government—the Home Office in particular—on two counts by a constituent of mine. The first concerns the Home Office's rejection of his possible re-employment as a prison officer. The second concerns the apparent refusal to tell him exactly what were the reasons for that refusal.

I am referring to Mr. Arthur Green, of Fulwood in my constituency, who applied to be a prison officer in December 1975. After training as a prison officer he had his first appointment, in March 1976, to Maidstone. He was quite happy there, apart from a difficult divorce, which followed upon a separation that he had from his first wife. He was enjoying the work at Maidstone prison as a prison officer on ordinary disciplinary duties.

Mr. Green was given custody of his 10-year-old son at the time of the divorce. That would seem to be an indication of his sense of responsibility in the eyes of the court. I am not an expert in these matters, but I gather that it is unusual for a father to be given the custody of one so young.

Mr. Green applied in March 1978 to become a dog handler, and he was sent on a course which, coincidentally, took place at Preston prison. I say "coincidentally" because Mr. Green is a Prestonian and his family come from Preston. Although he was stationed at Maidstone, he was able to return to Preston prison for the dog-handling course. He was there for two months, June and July 1978. There he met his second wife-to-be. Following completion of training, he has transferred to Risley in Manchester with his dog, Major. There were no difficulties at that time with the dog, with Mr. Green's son or, indeed, with the job. He was living in prison quarters about half a mile from Risley prison.

After a time, Mr. Green decided to remarry. Well before doing so, he had established that his wife-tobe—she had also been rather tragically divorced, and had a 2-year-old son—was petrified of dogs, and particularly in regard to her young child. There was nowhere in the house to which they were planning to move, where the dog could be kept, either in the garden or in the house itself, since Mr. Green's wife-to-be was determined not to have a dog of such size near her child, quite apart from the fear that she had herself.

Accordingly, because of the pressure, Mr. Green sought, through the necessary channels at the prison—through the governor and so on—permission to give up dog handling and to return to ordinary disciplinary duties. He was not expecting any preferential treatment, but by the time of his second marriage, in November 1979, no arrangements had been made for him to leave his dog-handling duties. By now he was living with his new wife in Preston. This necessitated a drive of about an hour each way—sometimes twice a day if he was on the 6 am to 2 pm shift and then had to return for the 10 pm to 6 am shift. In winter time, when the weather and road conditions were difficult, the journey would sometimes take even longer than an hour.

Because of Mr. Green's wife's fear of the dog, and the fact that no arrangements had been made for him to come off dog handling, the dog had to sleep in Mr. Green's van outside the house. He fed it, he cared for it and he exercised it properly, until such time as the strain became too much and he began to worry about the effects on the dog and, of course, on himself. Accordingly, he made arrangements for the dog to be looked after at Risley by the other dog handlers who were resident there.

Mr. Green tells me that he assured himself regularly and continuously that the dog Major was fit and well. He also tells me that any of the dog handlers who were at Risley at the time would bear witness to that fact. Indeed, Mr. Green tells me that he received several compliments from his colleagues and others at Risley on the way in which he was coping with his domestic and his job difficulties at this time of remarriage, and with the move and the difficulties with the dog.

In the meantime, Mr. Green had heard from a recently trained dog-handler at Risley, who had been on a subsequent course at Preston, that this dog-handler had met another trainee from the Isle of Wight who stated that he was taking over Mr. Green's dog, Major, in due course. Not unnaturally, my constituent made contact with that prison officer and offered, at his own expense to take the dog direct to the Isle of Wight. The distance from Preston to the Isle of Wight is, of course, considerable. The offer was refused by the prison service.

Incidentally, following Mr. Green's eventual transfer from the dog-handling section he has maintained contact with the Isle of Wight dog handler, and has on many occasions seen the dog Major since he left the section. The dog has been brought to Mr. Green when the dog-handler from the Isle of Wight has had cause to travel north. Mr. Green has kept in contact with the dog on a regular basis. That is surely not an indication of hostility towards the animal.

Mr. Green heard, on very good authority, that a report was written on the dog Major, soon after it left Mr. Green's care, suggesting that the dog was difficult and hostile and ought to be put down. Apparently, no blame was attributed to Mr. Green for that state of affairs.

The Isle of Wight dog-handler pressed hard upon the prison service to be permitted to take over the dog, as he was an experienced man with dogs, having recently been trained specifically as a prison dog-handler. He fought against the suggestion that the dog should be put down. It was not put down, and he eventually took it over. That at least suggests that the dog was difficult and had been causing problems.

I should explain that Mr. Green's new wife's father had died just before Mr. Green's remarriage, and that Mr. Green's new mother-in-law, who cannot drive and is not in the best of health, was wholly reliant upon her daughter, Mr. Green's new wife, to help in the small business that she had in Preston market. Mr. Green's father, of 72 years, was alone in Preston and had recently been seriously ill in hospital for some six weeks.

For the above reasons, among others, he had, at the time of the application to come off dog-handling, applied for a transfer to a prison nearer Preston—because of the distance involved in travelling, his new wife not being very keen on large dogs and so on, let alone the family reasons to which I have referred.

Mr. Green was not expecting preferential treatment. He offered to pay any expenses involved in such a move, as opposed to a move at public expense, which, I gather, is the usual procedure. So, on the second occasion, he offered to arrange a move at his own expense, even though he was not expecting the move to take place quickly.

In November 1979 he was taken off dog-handling and therefore returned to ordinary disciplinary duties, which involved his working a normal day. He was reasonably content to await the offer of a move in due course. In December 1979 he was offered a move to London at public expense or to Maidstone at his own expense and was told that he had to decide between these two options as soon as possible. He refused.

I apologise for delaying the House, but I should like to quote from the letter which Mr. Green wrote to me, in which he laid out the problem as he saw it. Although I have sought to explain the case in as careful detail as I can, I believe that quoting Mr. Green's letter will help the Minister to understand the strength of feeling of my constituent in this difficult matter, as it affects him. He says:
"In the first place, I applied to go on dogs because as far as I was concerned the Prison Service was my chosen career and I was a dedicated officer and, to me, going on dogs was a 'step up'. I was transferred from Maidstone to Risley without any argument on my part despite having been settled, with my young son, in Maidstone for three years.
I agree that training specialised officers is expensive, however, I should like to point out that part of the expense involved goes towards training the dog. In my case, Major was posted to Albany, to another officer, and there was no discontinuation of Major's services to the prison. Also, Major's new officer was due to go on an eight week course for a new dog (his own having died or been injured) so causing the service to save money on the dog course and also on any overtime that would have occurred by other officers who would have had to have covered for him while he was absent. However, my domestic situation changed and I tried living in Preston while still on dogs to see if it was at all possible to combine the two."
I have mentioned Mr. Green's wife's fear of dogs, and I have spoken of his wife's young child, who was of a boisterous nature and who did not realise the potential danger of the dog. I am sure that I do not have to talk at length about the problems that we have seen recently with dogs that have turned on and savaged young children. It may be only a small number of children who are savaged, and it may not involve many prison dogs, police dogs or trained dogs, but it is a fact that many mothers fear that happening. My own wife feels much the same way.

I have already referred to the health and the stress problems of having to commute between Risley and Preston and the problems that that caused, both financially and in relation to the dog.

Mr. Green continues:
"I never really wanted to come off dogs because I enjoyed the work but it was impossible to continue on dogs for the above reasons. I still wished to continue in the Prison Service so I applied for a position at Preston or surrounding area, reverting to discipline duties. When I put in for a transfer from Risley to Preston, I was quite prepared to wait my turn until a discipline position became available. In no way did I expect preferential treatment."
I emphasise what I said earlier.

Mr. Green quotes from the letter that he received from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, which said:
"Officers also know that they will be expected to await the appointment of a replacement before reversion can take place."
Mr. Green continues:
"In all honesty, I was never told of this ruling concerning awaiting a replacement, and was assured that my position on dogs at Risley 'would be covered.' When my transfer came through to go to London or Maidstone"—
to which I referred earlier——
"I appealed and was refused. I felt it was impossible to go to either, because:(a) having only been re-married for a few weeks, I did not wish to leave my new wife and family so soon;(b) it was impossible for my wife to accompany me due to the fact that she had binding commitments in Preston to fulfil."
As I have mentioned, that was due to her mother's ill health, and the necessity of running the business after her father's recent death, and his father's ill health, which necessitated hospitalisation. He continues:
"(c) I did not wish to be parted from my children"—
that was the young child of his new marriage, by his second wife, and his son of some 10 or 11 years of age——
"at a time when we were all getting used to living with each other in a family atmosphere which both children had been denied up till then. Also, we had just got the children settled in new schools and we did not want them to be disrupted yet again (the elder child (mine)"—
the elder boy—
"having been in five different schools in five years)."
I suggest that those are sentiments to which anyone in the House could subscribe if he had been through the tragedy of the break-up of a marriage, and facing the serious need to ensure that the children—who always suffer greatest in circumstances such as these—should have their futures protected, particularly at such a young age—2 or 3, and 10 or 11. Surely that is something which all of us would recognise and support. I would define that as being arguably one of the best possible reasons for a sympathetic consideration of this man's case.

Not being an unreasonable man, Mr. Green goes on to say:
"My wife and I did give great and careful thought to the matter of me moving either to London or Maidstone by myself so continuing my career in the service, but we really felt that our private lives and those of our children deserved some consideration at the critical stage they were in at that time. I could see no alternative but to resign from the service, even though I considered this as a last resort. I had to do something that was alien to me simply because of the circumstances I found myself in. I honestly believe that no one had better reasons for wanting to be in the North West area than myself, which I was prepared to do at my own expense."
I cannot emphasise this point enough. On two particular occasions, in order to be seen to be reasonable and helpful, Mr. Green offered to take these options at his own expense, even allowing for the fact that he did not expect preferential treatment.

Mr. Green goes on to say:
"The prison service has already trained me as a discipline officer and if I was allowed to resume my duties, the money already spent on me would not be wasted."
I am sure that many hon. Members, on both sides of the House, heard yesterday, during the debate on the prison service, of the pressures upon prisons at all levels—the staff, the prisoners, those administering them, and those responsible for them. It seems to be amazingly shortsighted that an officer who is so keen and so dedicated to the job has found himself in this position wholly and absolutely against his will.

Mr. Green goes on to say:
"I could take up my duties without the Prison Service having to incur any further training expense on my behalf. In view of the present desperate shortage of prison officers, and new recruits, it would seem prudent to allow me to resume my duties, so fulfilling two causes…the use of an already trained and dedicated officer, and my own cause, in that I am eager to resume service in my chosen career, which, I must stress again, I never wanted to leave in the first place."
Mr. Green goes on to refer to a letter—to which I shall refer shortly—which was sent to me as his Member of Parliament. He says:
"it was stated that I was being posted to London because they were so short-staffed there. However, about three weeks after I resigned I was told that officers at Risley were offered Wymott"—
a prison near Leyland, adjacent to Preston—
"at public expense. The Home Office must have been aware of the reorganisation at the time I applied for the North West and I cannot understand why I was not offered Wymott at my own expense, which would have answered two problems in one fell swoop.
Since joining the Prison Service, I have always given 100 per cent. of myself. I believe I have a good record. I have never argued about any of my past postings or detached duties."
My constituent's letter shows his concern about what happened to him. When he was presented with these difficult options he appealed to the governor, the Home Office, the Prison Officers Association and to the welfare section—to no avail. As he says, he had no alternative but to resign from the service, much against his will.

My constituent was told before leaving by the then chief prison officer at Risley, Mr. O'Rourke, that he was very sorry to see Mr. Green going and that he would be prepared to give Mr. Green an excellent reference for any job for which he might apply. I am not wholly familiar with the prison service, but I imagine that the chief prison officer is equivalent to a regimental sergeant major, if I may draw that analogy. I was only a part-time soldier, but I know, had I been a professional soldier, that if the RSM had said to me when I left that he would give me a reference I should have regarded that as the highest accolade that I could have within the ambit of my regiment or battalion. I am sure that my hon. Friends recognise that when a chief prison officer is prepared to offer such a reference it is a demonstration of how highly my constituent is thought of, at least by the chief prison officer.

Only three weeks after leaving the prison service my constituent was told by a friend, still at Risley, that prison officers were being transferred to Wymott at public expense. One must bear in mind that on two separate occasions Mr. Green had offered to move at private expense—out of his own pocket—rather than incur public expenditure. Not unnaturally, when hearing this Mr. Green re-applied for a post as a prison officer, and/or a trade officer and as a civilian bricklayer at Wymott. He was not even granted an interview.

In September 1980, Mr. Green went to the jobcentre where he noticed that there was a prison service recruitment drive. He was again refused consideration. This is a man who had been a prison officer, done the job, and been harshly treated, as I maintain that he has, and I am sure that hon. Members, on hearing about the case, will agree. Having done all this, he decided, as a last resort, to come to his Member of Parliament.

I thank my hon. Friend for his sedentary support. I took up the case and wrote to the Home Office, which, at my instigation, granted Mr. Green another interview in April 1981. I was subsequently told that he would not be re-employed because of his unsatisfactory performance and cruelty to his dog.

I shall quote from the letters that I have received because the case does bear repeating. It will take me some time to work through my complicated file—I hope that the House will bear with me just a moment. While I am looking for the letter that I wish to quote I shall add that it is difficult for an hon. Member faced with a problem put to him by a constituent to judge in the early stages of the case whether his constituent is trying to pull the wool over his eyes. I am sure that many of my colleagues occasionally find that a case has been going from one hon. Member to another. I must emphasise how strongly I was impressed by my constituent, his complaint and the manner in which he laid the complaint before me. I support him strongly in the applications that he is making.

In a letter written on 21 January 1981 the Under-Secretary of State says:
"I should also add that when Mr. Green applied to rejoin the prison service in February of last year the usual inquiries were made of his former Governor as to his suitability for reemployment. As a result it became apparent that although his reports had been generally satisfactory… there was a considerable cause for concern."
That does not seem to tie in with what the chief prison officer had to say. The Under-Secretary continued:
"Indeed the deterioration had been such that his local management had been compelled to take Mr. Green's dog away from him because of his neglect of the animal."
My constituent tells me that that is absolutely not true. He says that it bears no relation to what he experienced.

When I passed that letter to Mr. Green he was extremely angry. He took exception to the suggestion that he had been cruel to his dog. I took the matter up with the Home Office again and received a further reply on 27 February which states:
"Notwithstanding any impression that Mr. Green gained about the value of his work when he left the Prison Service"—
that again differs from what the governor said—
"it is a matter of record that local management do not support his request for re-employment."
Earlier the letter states:
"the dog was taken away from him and removed to civilian kennels."
My constituent emphasises strongly that the dog was put in civilian kennels, but that he put it there when he went on a week's leave. He picked it up at the end of that week's leave. The dog was never taken away from him. He took the dog to the kennels and made the necessary arrangements. That clashes with what the Home Office tells me.

I am trying to follow my hon. Friend's most interesting story. Did not the first letter from the Minister say that the conduct of my hon. Friend's constituent was generally satisfactory? Will my hon. Friend elaborate on that, because the letter seems inconsistent?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have received a number of letters from the Home Office which seem to express different opinions in terms of the original statement that my constituent's performance was generally unsatisfactory. I pointed out that the chief prison officer was prepared to go out on a limb to support my constituent's position to the extent of offering him a reference for any job for which he might apply. That appears to be acknowledged in the second letter. It acknowledges at least that there is a difference of opinion between the governor and the chief officer about my constituent's performance. There is a difference and I hope that the Minister will explain it.

I am impressed by the manner in which my constituent has put his case to me. He has said that he is prepared for the case to be taken to the highest possible level. I ask hon. Members to consider that. Not every day of the week is a man who has a grievance prepared to allow the full spotlight of public attention to be put upon his case in the national media and the House of Commons. He is prepared for his name to be bandied around. I should think twice about that unless I were absolutely certain that my case was right. That is a sign of how strongly my constituent feels.

I concur with what my hon. Friend has said. Does he agree that it is regrettable that such cases have to come under the full spotlight? Is it not regrettable that one sometimes has to represent an individual by raising his problems in the House?

I am grateful for that comment. It is difficult to raise a constituent's personal grievance on the Floor of the House. Occasionally that has to be done and that is right, but one must think carefully before doing it. One cannot do it lightly. I am sure that there will be some difference of opinion between my hon. and learned Friend the Minister and me on the merits of the case. I can speak only as I find. I am impressed by my constituent. He and his wife have come to see me on numerous occasions at my constituency surgery. I am impressed by that and because he is prepared to take his case to the highest possible place so that his grievances might be rectified. That indicates to me how strongly he feels and how committed he is to seeing his name cleared and getting his job back.

At no time before Mr. Green came to see me as his Member of Parliament had he been informed of any blot on his record, been given the chance to know what was held against him or been allowed to challenge it.

I had to find out the reasons for the apparent refusal of the Home Office to take him back. That in itself is slightly worrying. I am not sure of the procedure in such circumstances. I look forward to hearing my hon. and learned Friend's reply.

Mr. Green was not sacked. He was not forced out in the sense that he was told he was unsatisfactory and asked to go. I hope that hon. Members will accept that he had the best possible reasons for refusing to move to London or Maidstone—a sick mother-in-law, a sick father, a new wife and two young children. If those are not the best reasons for refusing a move, I do not know what are. He was put in the position where he had to resign because he would not go to the other end of the country.

I wonder if it is normal practice that someone put in this position should not be allowed to know the reasons for his not being re-employed when he was led to believe by the chief prison officer and colleagues that he was doing a good job. This was a man dedicated to the job he had taken up three or four years previously. He enjoyed the job. Allowing for the difficulties that arose with the dog and his new family—he had no trouble with the dog—I would be interested to know my hon. and learned Friend's views about the propriety of not allowing him to know why he was not readmitted to the service, particularly when the Home Office was prepared to tell me the reasons.

There is clearly some element of privilege attached to the records of individuals. I accept that there must be qualified privilege in some respects in relation to references for jobs. Surely, however, the Minister agrees that my constituent was at least led to believe, by the comments of his friends at Risley and the chief prison officer that he had done the job pretty well. The chief prison officer almost went so far as to say that he was sorry to see him go and that a reference would be given.

I believe that this is important. My constituent feels deeply that he has a justified grievance against the Home Office on the basis that he was not allowed to continue to do the job he wanted to do and that he was harshly treated over his domestic situation, especially as he was willing to pay the necessary expenses on two occasions to take the dog Major to the Isle of Wight. I cannot emphasise strongly enough how keenly I feel that commitment. The normal procedure is for payment to be made at public expense. On two occasions, my constituent made the offer out of his own pocket either to take the dog to the Isle of Wight or to make the move to any nearby prison. He never wanted to leave the service to which he remains dedicated.

Until he came to see me, my constituent had not been able to ascertain any reasons for his continued rejection. Following my intervention, the allegation of cruelty to his dog was serviced. My constituent wishes to make it crystal clear that these allegations are untrue and that he resents strongly the imputation on his character. I would suggest that for the reasons I have enunciated my constituent has a real case that must be answered by my hon. and learned Friend. My constituent wants his job back. If that is not possible, for reasons that will have to satisfy me, I would contend that natural justice, if nothing else, dictates at least that his integrity and good faith should remain unimpaired.

I regret that I was unable to hear the opening sentences of my hon. Friend's speech. Can he inform the House where Major now is?

I assume that my hon. Friend is referring to the dog rather than to my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Mr. Major). I understand that the dog Major is at present in the Isle of Wight. When my constituent came off dog-handling at Risley, the dog was taken over by a newly trained dog handler at Albany prison in the Isle of Wight, where I understand the dog is now being looked after.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) missed my early remarks. With permission, I shall refresh the memory of the House. My constituent informs me, on the best authority, that when the dog left his care, a report was prepared which has perhaps gone to the establishment division of the Home Office. The report would indicate that the dog had been a difficult and perhaps hostile dog, that my constituent had been skilful in being able to maintain the dog in difficult circumstances but that, because of the difficulties, the dog should be put down. It is a credit to the new handler, an experienced animal handler, although not particularly experienced in prison dog handling, that he persuaded the prison service to allow him to take over the dog so that he could study the dog's difficulties, help it along and bring it back into the fold of dog handling.

My constituent has an extremely good case. I hope that I have been able to lay out that case to the best of my ability as I see it. I strongly support my constituent in his plea. He would like his job back. With the pressures that exist on the prison service, a man of his trained ability should not be thrown overboard when he could be reemployed by the service. If, however, he cannot have his job back, the least that can be done in the interests of natural justice is that his name should be cleared of any imputation of cruelty to the dog. This is what particularly upset him. It should be removed completely from the record.

I hope that my remarks will be well received by the Minister and that he will be able to say that my constituent has a case. In that way, some of the wrongs that have been done to him can perhaps be righted.

4.58 pm

I shall not detain the House for long. When I heard that my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) intended to use this Adjournment debate on behalf of one of his constituents, I felt compelled to come and listen. I think this a worthy cause, although I know none of the details and nothing of Mr. Arthur Green. My many years as a magistrate have taught me to be cautious and not to prejudge an issue.

As hon. Members know, every story has two sides. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North is a sensible Member. Because he feels so deeply that there has been an injustice done in respect of his constituent, it is right that other hon. Members should not only hear his contribution—I congratulate him on his delivery—but give him some support if they feel that his case is strong and sensible.

I cannot claim to be an expert on dogs apart from the fact that I used to breed great danes and judge them in the show ring. I also ran an animal boarding establishment that catered for police dogs. As a magistrate, I have served as a prison visitor. I therefore feel qualified to make a modest and brief contribution. Everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North says has led me to believe——

I do not wish my hon. Friend to mislead the House. I am grateful to him for the remarks that he has made but, much as I would wish it, I am not yet a right hon. Member.

It shone crystal clear through the speech of my hon. Friend that there was a love between Mr. Arthur Green and his dog. In the early part of his speech, we heard that there was a difficulty with Mr. Green's second wife, to such an extent that the dog could not stay at home. She had a fear of dogs. One appreciates that, because many people are afraid of large animals. There is no blame attached. However, having heard my hon. Friend's speech, it is inconceivable that there was the alleged cruelty towards the dog Major by Mr. Green. Everything that I have heard this afternoon leads me to believe that there was a tremendous bond of love between the dog and the dog handler.

Notwithstanding that, we must be cautious. I shall be interested to hear the reply of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office. I have not attended a debate since I have been a Member of Parliament where an hon. Member has felt strongly enough to come into the Chamber and fight against what he believes to be an injustice to one of his constituents.

We heard in yesterday's debate about the deplorable state of Britain's prisons, with overcrowding and insanitary, vile conditions. I do not need to repeat anything that was said in that debate. We should ask the prison service to reconsider not only the reinstatement of Mr. Green to the service for which he was trained, but whether he should be given a sensible acknowledgement so that his name may be cleared. I know my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North well. If he was not convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was an element of injustice or some root cause behind the prison service's conduct—although he may have been misguided in some elements—he would not have made a plea on behalf of his constituent. I shall be interested to hear the reply of the Minister of State.

5.3 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) for bringing to the Floor of the House the question of an individual, his employment and his right to redress if he has been dismissed abruptly. However, I do not wish to anticipate the Minister's reply. The situation is serious or my hon. Friend would not have brought it here. I have been stirred by the fact that he has. I feel that it is a great tribute to democracy in Britain.

I have an interest in prisons and prison officers. For many years I have been interested in prison education and in trying to achieve access to education for all those in custody. I have been told many times that we are dependent upon prison officers and what they can be asked to do. We must have a sufficient number of prison officers if prisoners are to be escorted to classes for the purpose of being educated, so the loss of one officer could weaken the position even more.

I have visited many prisons—training prisons, women's prisons, men's prisons——

Order. I must remind the hon. Gentleman that the subject is the decision of the Home Secretary in respect of Mr. Green. We must stick to that and not get on to the general principles.

I was not going to stray from the subject, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, the loss of one prison officer weakens the establishment of officers throughout the service and weakens the ability of the prison service to provide education for prisoners in all its establishments. One must concede that, and I draw the House's attention to the need to do something about the position.

I could not stand by and see any possible loss, whether Mr. Green has been dismissed or not. We do not know what the position will be until after the Minister has spoken, but the chance is that we may lose a prison officer and therefore further weaken the prison education service, which is in an unsatisfactory state. The effect of not having prison education on the scale required is to throw prisoners together to discuss the one thing that they have in common—crime. Prisons become universities of crime. The possible loss of such an individual furthers the situation.

I wish to hang my protest upon that. It furthers a situation in which many courses for prisoners and young people in prisons are more restricted. The House must be concerned about that. In this brief intervention, I ask the Minister to be concerned about the establishment and number of prison officers, and the effect of what my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North has said upon the prison education service and therefore upon the morale of prisoners——

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman has now reached the general subject of morale in prisons, the shortage of prison officers and overcrowding in prisons and asks the Minister to reply to that. I submit, on a point of order, that that is not relevant to this Adjournment debate. I also submit that the speech of the previous speaker, the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Dickens) was not relevant, in that he said he knew no details of the case and nothing of Mr. Green. It seems quite wrong that a limited constituency case—a personal grievance that has been raised by an hon. Member in the House—should be exploited in order to abuse the procedure of the House. In my view, it is an attempt to prevent a debate coming on about the plight of the unemployed.

I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to ensure that any further contribution to the debate deals specifically with the very limited point originally raised by the hon. Gentleman—the reappointment of Mr. A. G. Green as a prison officer.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is it not the case that if the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Dickens) had been out of order, you would not have allowed him to make it?

The Chair is concerned that every speech that is made shall be in order. All the speeches that have been made today have been in order, or I should have ruled them out of order. I have told the hon. Gentleman now making his speech that he cannot discuss the general principles of education in prisons. He must confine himself to the particular case.

Of course, I accept your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was interested to hear that intervention. I am in no sense seeking to extend the debate unnecessarily. I had a broadly similar case in my constituency. All hon. Members have prisoners in their constituencies who are affected by this type of case. I simply sought to point out that if the establishment at one prison is weakened by the loss of a single prison officer, that will have a broad effect on the whole service. That is the reason for my concern.

5.10 pm

I wish to intervene briefly because my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) has drawn to my attention the case of Mr. Green. My hon. Friend sought my advice because I am a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs and have relevant experience of the prison service and what happens within it.

I do not wish to detain the House too long, but some points should be raised in connection with Mr. Green. I understand that he first served as a prison dog handler in July 1978 and continued in that service until December 1979. I should like to draw the attention of the House to the fact that before Mr. Green could serve as a dog handler he had to be carefully selected to see whether he had the right aptitude to undertake that duty and whether he was a suitable and fit person to have charge of an expensive animal—a specially acquired dog—for use in the type of duties that have to be undertaken in the prison service.

It may help the House to know that there are about 250 dogs in the prison service. They are expensive to acquire and train. Mr. Green would have undergone the training courses and the examination necessary to determine whether he could perform that duty and whether he would be able to serve in the different prison establishments. Therefore, I am concerned that if Mr. Green is removed from that duty in the prison service, the expense of training and preparing him for it will be a charge on the taxpayer and a denial of Mr. Green's career structure.

In today's modern prison service, the establishment division of the prison department attempts to create a sensible and realistic career structure for prison officers. A man like Mr. Green would have been invited to perform that duty and he might have expected to stay as a prison dog handler for at least the duration of the dog's life. If a trained dog handler is separated from his trained dog, the two essential elements that are expensive to obtain are lost. The dog does not easily adapt to a new handler, although that can be done with additional resources and expense. However, Mr. Green possessed the aptitude to perform that duty. Therefore, an explanation should be given to the House, which is the sovereign body in such matters, as to why his service had to be terminated and why he cannot resume his duties as a dog handler.

I realise that this is a complicated case and my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) has been extremely kind in taking an interest in it. As my hon. Friend said, I went to him because he is an expert in such matters and I am not. Perhaps I did not make myself absolutely clear. Although my constituent was a dog handler for 18 months or so, he had to come off dog handling because his wife disliked the dog. I understand from Mr. Green that he did not dislike being a dog handler—after all, he had been picked and trained to do that—but that there were special domestic pressures which provoked him to make his move. That is the cause of my concern. If Mr. Green were to be re-employed by the Home Office, he would be given normal disciplinary duties, in the training for which a great deal of money will have been invested.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

The background to the case is interesting, because dogs are generally quartered separately from prison officers, their families and homes. However, in this case, the prison officer will have been selected for duty because of his dedication and length of service. It is most unfortunate that the training and skills that Mr. Green acquired are no longer available to the prison service, particularly when there are staff shortages in the prison services and when overtime is being worked because of the limited number of people who wish to undertake such difficult duties. Given the training that Mr. Green will have enjoyed he should be capable of being re-employed.

Mr. Green would be a suitable candidate for employment in several prison service establishments. He could probably be considered for an open prison or for a prison in his immediate home area. Indeed, there are several possible prisons, such as the remand prison at Preston. I am sure that the Minister will agree that there are some vacancies at prison officer grade, and Mr. Green may be eligible for such a position. Given the expenditure of taxpayers' money, Mr. Green's case should be carefully reviewed.

The Minister is always fair in such matters, and I hope that he will find it possible to review the case with the care and courtesy for which he is known to see whether Mr. Green can be found a place within the prison service.

5.18 pm

There are probably not many sovereign legislatures in the world where individual cases receive as much attention as they do in this House. It is a great tribute to our system of legislation that we can raise important individual cases in this way. However, the debate raises slightly broader issues, with which I have had to cope over the past seven years when dealing with individual cases in my constituency.

Existing employment regulations often do not deal properly and capably with individual cases because the individual concerned feels aggrieved if his job application is not granted, and if an employment opportunity is no longer available. In the private sector the individual can move and find another position and so perhaps the damage is not as great as it might otherwise be. However, in the public sector things are quite different. That is why this case should be treated carefully and why those responsible for employment in the public sector should give special consideration to the employment of those within that sector, particularly in areas such as that which I represent, which is strongly associated with the Ministry of Defence and where there are few opportunities for employment outside that sphere.

Mr. Green's employer was the prison service. There are other employment opportunities within the prison service for individuals such as Mr. Green, and also employment opportunities in the area in which he previously worked.

I have represented my constituency for seven years. The Ministry of Defence provides the overwhelming majority of employment opportunities. Should an individual not gain the job that he seeks within the MOD, it is difficult for him to challenge the lack of employment opportunity and obtain satisfaction. The facts revealed by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) are relevant to the cases that I have handled.

One constituent told me that his application for employment by an MOD establishment had been refused, but the reasons for refusal had not been made available to him. The problems of security pose real problems for the individual——

Order. The Minister cannot reply on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. We are dealing with the case of an individual employed by the prison service, and the Minister responsible is here to reply to that. The hon. Gentleman should stick to the subject.

I am sorry if my remarks did not appear to be directly related to Mr. Green's case. Mr. Green could not obtain satisfaction other than through the House of Commons and the good offices of his Member of Parliament, who has so willingly taken up his case. In the cases about which I have been consulted, it has not been possible for the individuals to gain satisfaction other than by taking up the matter through me. On occasions I have had to obtain a statement from the appropriate Minister showing why the individual had not been eligible for employment.

Can the Minister give any guidance on the matter? The Home Office, as well as the MOD, is involved in matters of security. It must be difficult to state the reasons for non-employment or a refusal to grant a certain job. Should there be some other way open, perhaps a tribunal, to individuals who cannot obtain satisfaction? It is peculiar that individuals need to go to their Members of Parliament and the relevant Ministers to obtain satisfaction.

I hope that our brief debate will enable the Minister to give some guidance on that point. That would be helpful to us when dealing with cases like that of Mr. Green.

5.22 pm

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) for raising this matter this afternoon, and for giving me the opportunity to explain the decision of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary not to reinstate Mr. Green, who is a former prison officer. I am also grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Dickens), Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) and Gosport (Mr. Viggers) for their contributions to the debate.

It is an important function of this legislature that there should always be time for the individual cases of our constituents, where an injustice is perceived—rightly or wrongly—to be aired and debated. It should be an occasion upon which the responsible Minister is required to come before the House and explain what has been done on behalf of the Executive. The time that we have spent on the debate today has vindicated that important principle.

The facts are that Mr. Green joined the prison service in December 1975. After training he was posted to Maidstone prison. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North said that Mr. Green appeared to have settled there quite happily, and reports have shown that he settled into his duties reasonably well. In January 1978 he applied to become a dog-handler and, following an interview, was selected for training in those specialist duties. He completed the initial training course and was subsequently posted to Risley remand centre in August 1978 as a dog-handler. In September 1979 he applied to revert to discipline duties—that is, he wished to cease his work as a dog-handler and return to the important work carried out by discipline officers on the landings within the prison. At the same time he asked for a transfer to either Wymott or Preston prisons.

The grounds for his application were that he had an elderly father living alone in Preston, that his fiancée lived with her mother in the same area and that it was too far to travel daily from Preston to Risley. I have no reason to doubt what my hon. Friend said in amplification of those grounds—the family reasons that he outlined, including the fact that Mr. Green's wife had to help in the family business. I do not contest what my hon. Friend said about Mr. Green offering to pay the cost of removals. The application was not supported either by local management or by the staff welfare section.

I do not doubt that my hon. Friend was right to say that, subsequently, Mr. Green learnt that other prison officers had been appointed to Wymott and Preston, at public expense. The issue has nothing to do with whether the officer pays for his removal expenses or whether they are paid for at public expense. It is a long-standing practice in the prison service that if a person who is trained in specialist duties, such as a dog-handler, wishes to revert to ordinary duties, he is required to return to his former establishment or another establishment of the Department's choice. That is the practice. It is referred to in a notice to staff, serial number 54/1978, which is promulgated to all prison department establishments and is known to prison staff generally.

The relevant paragraph states:
"It must first be emphasised that because of the cost of specialist training, all such training is provided on the strict understanding that an applicant accepts an obligation to serve in the specialist grade at whichever establishment he may he required. Because of the limited number of specialist posts availble it is not always possible to offer a successful candidate a choice of posting, but every endeavour will be made to take account of previously expressed wishes and circumstances. Reversion to discipline duties will not normally be allowed without good reason. An officer wishing to revert to discipline duties will be expected to await the appointment of a replacement and may have to accept a liability for transfer to another establishment of the Department's choice."

I have a copy of the document from which the Minister quoted. It says "allowed without good reason". Does my hon. and learned Friend accept that the substantial reasons that I enunciated—family, new marriage, children's education, sickness of both father and mother-in-law, a recent death and the difficulties with the dog phobia of the new wife—are good reasons? Does he accept that my constituent never expected preferential treatment at any time? He was reasonably content to stay at Risley on ordinary discipline duties until a transfer could be effected. In those circumstances, while I recognise my hon. and learned Friend's reasons for emphasising the paragraph, I should have thought that there were reasons as good as could be found anywhere for being reasonable towards my constituent.

If a prison officer's wife does not like dogs and does not want her husband to have anything to do with dogs, I accept that that is a good reason for a prison officer not wishing to continue to handle dogs. However, that is not the point. As my hon. Friend has fairly said on many occasions, and has just repeated, Mr. Green did not want preferential treatment. I shall explain why it was not possible to allow him to transfer either to Wymott or Preston prisons.

One can understand the reasons for the rule that is promulgated in the notice to staff. It is expensive to train people for specialist duties and therefore those people are expected to carry out those duties. If for good reason—I do not quarrel with Mr. Green's reason—they want to give up those duties, the notice says that they must expect to have an obligation to serve at another establishment of the Department's choice in some other capacity, whether as a discipline officer or not.

At the time, there was a long list of officers already waiting for transfer to the Preston area. Some of the officers on the list were serving at Risley, where Mr. Green was. Accordingly, Mr. Green was told that, on reverting to discipline duties, he would have to return either to his former establishment, which was Maidstone, or to a prison in the London area, because there were vacancies in the London area. He was given that option. Of course, he could have elected to remain at Risley as a dog-handler, has he wished to do so, and await his turn in the queue for a transfer to the Preston area.

The policy was not to give Mr. Green preferential treatment in the form of an immediate transfer to Wymott or Preston by allowing him to go to the head of the queue that already existed of officers who had registered applications for such a transfer. He was told that he could either wait at Risley as a dog-handler or go to Maidstone or to London. It is important to emphasise that, contrary to what was said in error by my hon. Friends the members for Ealing, North and Paddington, Mr. Green's employment was not terminated. He was not dismissed. He resigned in circumstances which I shall now describe.

Mr. Green gave notice on 17 December of his intention to resign, and he resigned from the service on 29 December 1979. As was pointed out to my hon. Friend in correspondence with my noble Friend the Under-Secretary, between Mr. Green's application for transfer and the date of his resignation his attitude towards his duties deteriorated remarkably and culminated in his dog being taken away. Mr. Green had said that since his marriage he could not take the dog home because it did not suit his new family. He requested that it should be placed in the prison kennels, and that was done. However, instead of visiting the dog and maintaining regular contact with it until another dog-handler was found, he failed to attend to the dog as he should have done. On occasion, the intervals between his visits were in excess of two days, and his senior officer noted that the dog's performance began to deteriorate.

Mr. Green had been informed why the dog had been taken away from him, and he was given the reasons on or before 4 December 1979. Subsequently, arrangements were made for the dog to be transferred to a new handler on the Isle of Wight.

Three months after Mr. Green resigned, he requested reinstatement. I shall describe in a moment the steps that were taken following that request. However, as my hon. Friend referred to correspondence with my noble Friend the Under-Secretary, I shall quote the relevant parts of the correspondence, particularly the letters from my noble Friend.

My noble Friend said in a letter dated 21 November:
"In accordance with general Civil Service policy, it is not the practice to give specific reasons for rejecting a candidate but I can assure you that Mr. Green's application for reinstatement was carefully considered. I think, however, it may help if I explain briefly the circumstances leading to his resignation.
In 1978 Mr. Green successfully applied for appointment as a dog-handler and was transferred at public expense from Maidstone to Risley. A considerable amount of money is spent on the training of specialist officers and reversion to normal duties is not normally allowed without good reason. Officers also know that they will be expected to await the appointment of a replacement before reversion takes place. In view of the short time he had served at Risley and in fairness to a number of officers who were on the waiting list for transfer to that area many of whom had been waiting a long time, Mr. Green was told that if he wished to revert he would be required to transfer back to Maidstone at his own expense or, because of the shortage of officers in the London prisons, to the London area at public expense.
He chose to resign. I have looked into his case again because of your interest but I am afraid that I can find no grounds for changing the decision."
That letter referred to the fact that, following Mr. Green's application for reinstatement three months after he had resigned, he was told that his application was unsuccessful. It is a Civil Service rule that is consistently applied in the prison service that a civil servant who resigns his appointment has no automatic right to be reemployed. Much turns on whether there are suitable vacancies and on how his previous service was viewed. However, the overriding requirement is that the applicant must always match up with current standards of recruitment. In Mr. Green's case the views of local management were sought. The governor and chief officer submitted reports, but as they were unfavourable, it was decided not to reinstate Mr. Green.

My hon. Friend has been most diligent, as I would expect, on his constituent's behalf, and has written numerous letters to my noble Friend. Following representations made by my hon. Friend on behalf of Mr. Green, and a meeting which took place with my noble Friend on 16 March, it was decided that Mr. Green should be given the opportunity to state his case before one of the prison officers' selection boards, which are the permanent prison officer recruiting panels. In his speech my hon. Friend did not refer to that board or to his constituent's appearance before it.

I may not have made it clear, but I referred to that. Both I and my constituent understood that he would be given the chance to explain some of the problems to which I referred in my speech. He said to me afterwards that it was a formal board and that he did not have a chance to go into the problems in detail.

If I missed the reference, I am sorry. I correct at once what I have just said. The meeting took place. However, one of the board's tasks is to ensure that officers or the candidates fit to be prison officers fit the current recruiting standards. The board consists of a governor, a chief prison officer and a higher executive officer. The board was constituted in that way on that occasion. I understand that none of its members was personally acquainted with Mr. Green.

Mr. Green was duly interviewed by such a board last April. I understand that he was given a full opportunity to present his case. I have seen the report submitted by the chairman of that board. My noble Friend referred to it in a letter that he wrote. Notwithstanding Mr. Green's previous training and service, the board concluded that Mr. Green was not up to the standard, judged against present criteria. It is a consistently applied rule not to give reasons why a candidate for appointment to a Civil Service post is not selected.

Although I cannot take up in any detail the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport about whether there should not be a tribunal before which a complaint of non-success in an application for a job can be aired and presumably adjudicated upon, there must be formidable objections to any such suggestion.

Will my hon. and learned Friend expand briefly on the reasons why the applicant is not told the reasons for his non-selection for appointment?

I can think of one immediate rule that would be as applicable to an application for a job outside the Civil Service as to a job inside the Civil Service. That is that many—I should have thought all—applicants are invited to submit references. The confidentiality of references is absolutely crucial to their value.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North that I have seen that report and considered it carefully. It appears from that that Mr. Green had a full and fair hearing and that his interview was different from a mere formal appearance.

At this stage I should refer to the remainder of the correspondence because my noble Friend the Under-Secretary wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North again on 21 January 1981. He said:
"The points made by Mr. Green have been noted, but I must say that his version of events differs from the information on our files. In particular, he states that he was unaware of the rules governing reversions to discipline duties, but these were only promulgated in April 1978, just prior to his attendance at the dog-handlers' training course and it is usual for such notices to be drawn to the attention of staff. I enclose a copy…I should also add that when Mr. Green applied to rejoin the prison service in February of last year, the usual inquiries were made of his former governor as to his suitability for re-employment. As a result it became apparent that although his reports had been generally satisfactory, his performance during the latter period had deteriorated to such an extent that there was considerable cause for concern. Indeed the deterioration had been such that his local management had been compelled to take Mr. Green's dog away from him because of his neglect of the animal. It is for this reason that Mr. Green has not been accepted back into the service and I am satisfied that no other decision was possible."
My noble Friend concluded:
"I am sorry that I cannot be more helpful."
Following that there was further correspondence. On 31 March my noble Friend wrote to my hon. Friend and said that he promised that he would write about Mr. Green's unsuccessful application to join the prison service. He said:
"There is presently a moratorium on the recruitment of prison officers. However, I have given Mr. Green's case careful thought and I think it would be right to arrange for him to be interviewed by one of the prison officer selection boards, which will independently measure his suitability for re-employment against the high standards which are now required for entry into the service. This means that he will have the opportunity of a personal hearing. We will set in hand the necessary arrangements for this. If Mr. Green is declared successful, then as soon as recruitment starts again, a post will be found for him on the understanding that its location would be subject to the overall needs of the service, but this means that his posting would not necessarily be in the Preston area; his views in this respect would, however, be taken into account. I must make it clear that if Mr. Green is unsuccessful, then I will not interfere with the decision."
I believe that that is a fair offer—although an exceptional one—of a submission of that case to the board. My noble Friend wrote again on 13 August and said:
"I have read the report submitted by the chairman of the selection board following Mr. Green's interview on 22 April and I am satisfied that he was given every opportunity to express his point of view. It is clear from the report that the circumstances surrounding his reversion to discipline duties and his subsequent resignation were among the subjects discussed. Perhaps it would be helpful if I explain that the Civil Service Commission has overall authority for the recruitment of civil servants and Departments recruit staff on delegated authority. In cases of reemployment of former civil servants, the commission insists that the candidate must be acceptable by current standards of recruitment. The commission insists on that. Contrary to any view which Mr. Green has formed either from talks with the chief officer or impressions gained from the selection board, the Department's view, with which I am bound to say that I agree, is that he simply does not measure up to the high standards which are currently required for entry into the service."
I thought it right, as my hon. Friend had referred to the correspondence, that the full correspondence from my noble Friend the Under-Secretary who has the responsibility for administering the prison service should be placed before the House for the sake of completeness.

The prison service has reached its manpower ceiling for 1981–82. Recruitment, therefore, has been mainly confined to cover wastage. It follows that competition for prison officer posts is fierce. Only the best candidates are being allowed into the service. That should benefit the service in the longer term. In short, while Mr. Green was acceptable when he was first recruited in 1975, standards are higher in 1981 and it was found that he did not measure up to present standards.

It is an unhappy feature of that episode that some conflict about the facts is apparent. My hon. Friend has fairly and with the utmost diligence put Mr. Green's version of the facts before the House. I have put before the House the facts as they were reported to my noble Friend. I have also referred to the report of the independent board. I have also seen a document that refers to the fact that Mr. Green was told on or before 4 December the reason why his dog had been taken from him. The view was that the dog had been neglected.

I am able to say no more than that, but although there was this unhappy conflict about some of the facts, that conflict did not play an overriding part in these affairs. That may be seen from the fact that Mr. Green's application for reinstatement was submitted to a recruitment board established in the normal way, comprising a governor, a chief prison officer and a higher executive officer who were not acquainted with Mr. Green. The crucial question was whether he measured up to the high standards that are required today.

There is a great inconsistency in my hon. and learned Friend's reply, particularly in the evidence of the unsuitability of Mr. Arthur Green. We have been told that he was suitable to go on a waiting list for another prison, and offered a transfer to Maidstone or London. The governor of the prison where he originally served was obviously of the opinion that he measured up to the requirements of the service, and I presume that the board that sat in judgment received reports from that governor.

It is perhaps unfortunate that for family reasons Mr. Green did not feel able to accept the offer of a post at Maidstone or London. I can only point to the fact that after three months, when he applied for reinstatement, arrangements were subsequently made in April this year for him to appear before the board. I have notified the House on the outcome of that application.

While I greatly admire the persistence with which my hon. Friend has put his constituent's case and argued it with my noble Friend the Under-Secretary, I am afraid that I can see no grounds upon which the Home Secretary could be advised to reverse the decision that has been taken.

Unemployment And Social Security Benefits

Before I call the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett), it may be helpful to the House if I indicate that Mr. Speaker has accepted the hon. Gentleman's application to initiate a second Adjournment debate. The subject is the effect of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's proposals upon the recipients of unemployment and short-term social security benefits.

5.53 pm

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for this opportunity to raise the issue that you have just outlined. 1 apologise to the Minister for Social Security and the Under-Secretary of State for the fact that they have had to break other engagements to be here to answer the questions that I shall put. I am sorry that they were unable to persuade Treasury Ministers to be present to answer those questions.

It would have been much better had the Secretary of State for Social Services come to the House to comment on the effects of the Chancellor's statement on the groups with which we are concerned. That would have given hon. Members on both sides of the House the opportunity to ask questions and to clear up many of the issues that have been left extremely clouded.

From my reading of the morning newspapers, it appears that in several areas they have got the Chancellor's statement wrong. It is therefore important that this uncertainty should be cleared up at the earliest opportunity.

I start with a general comment about what the Chancellor said yesterday. His message was that we were turning the corner, that the problems were being resolved—albeit slowly—and that things would improve. Against that background, he said that the Government would reduce benefits to the worst-off in society by 2 per cent. It is amazing that he should say that. In other words, the sick, the unemployed and most of those on supplementary benefit will lose a week's money at the very time when we are turning the corner.

Let us recall what the Chancellor said when, according to him, things were most difficult. In his Budget Statement last year, he said:
"Again, any civilised society should provide a safety net below which a poor person's standard of living should not fall. We can all debate what is the proper level. Should it be a relative level or, as Beveridge had contemplated, an absolute level, which seeks to meet the basic needs of a person and his family? These are difficult questions. The answers are not made any easier by the fact that the supplementary benefit scheme covers so many varied circumstances, with more than 3 million beneficiaries at any one time, ranging from the old and infirm to healthy young people capable of work. But clearly no action we take should be at the expense of the really weak and needy."—[Official Report, 26 March 1980; Vol. 981, c. 1458–9.]
That is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said when he claimed that the problems were greatest. Are we no longer a civilised society, as he now feels that the weakest must bear the cuts?

What about the comments of the then Secretary of State for Social Services? When justifying cuts in other benefits, he made it absolutely clear:
"The Government are determined to maintain the safety net for the poorest people and accordingly the scale rates of short-term supplementary benefit will be fully price protected".—[Official Report, 27 March 1980; Vol. 981, c. 1659.]
What has changed? The Chancellor says that we are supposed to be turning the corner. Why have the Government chosen to hit the least well-off? That fundamental question must be answered.

I understand that other hon. Members wish to participate in the debate. I therefore hope that the Minister will clearly state what has happened to these beneficiaries. I think he will confirm that pensioners will lose 2 per cent. for a year—in other words, a week's benefit—but that it will be made good in 12 months' time from then on. I think he will also confirm that there will be no back pay for the missing 2 per cent.

Perhaps he will also confirm that unemployment benefit will be cut by 2 per cent. this year and that that will continue. The unemployed who are also on social security will also experience a 2 per cent. cut this year, which will continue.

What about unemployed people on short-time supplementary benefit, such as people with families? If a man has registered for work but his unemployment benefit has run out, he will never be able to get on the long-term rate. Benefit for that group will be cut for this and continuing years by 2 per cent. Yet again, they will lose a week's money for each year they continue to be on supplementary benefit.

The next group consists of people on short-term supplementary benefit, particularly one-parent families, who must wait for a year before getting on the long-term rate. Will the Minister confirm that for this and future years they will lose a week's benefit?

What about people other than pensioners on long-term supplementary benefit? I understand that that group will lose the 2 per cent. for this and future years. That group will also be penalised a week's income this year and in future years.

If that is correct, the statement that appeared inThe Guardian today about the 9 million people who, although subject to this year's cut will escape future cuts, is wrong. Will pensioners be the only group to be protected in the future, or will it also include people below pension age who are on the long-term supplementary benefit rate? That was the impression that people got from the Chancellor's statement but, as I understand it, that is not what is being done. The Government are now putting forward proposals for three rates of supplementary benefit—one for pensioners; another at a long-term rate for those people below pension rate, but a lower rate than the pension rate; and a short-term rate. In other words, for everyone but pensioners on supplementary benefit, there is a week's cut this year, which will be perpetuated.

There was no indication in the Chancellor's statement of what would happen to the 5 per cent. cut in unemployment and sickness benefits. We were told once that when those benefits came into taxation the cuts would possibly be restored. I know that that was not much of a promise but it should be spelt out whether the cuts will be restored.

We must then look at what has happened to those people who are unemployed. The first cut in their benefit came when the Government decided to reduce the earnings-related supplement from 15 per cent. to 10 per cent. The second cut, which will come into effect in January next year, is the abolition of the earnings-related benefit. The unemployed are at least £11 a week worse off for the first 30 weeks of their unemployment.

The Government assumed that they would tax unemployment and sickness benefits and abate them by 5 per cent. They accepted that that was a crude measure and that it would be ideal to tax the benefits. They readily admitted that many of the people who had to depend for 12 months on unemployment, sickness or invalidity benefits were close to the tax threshold anyway, so the 5 per cent. by which they were being penalised amounted to more than if they had been taxed. That was supposed to be a temporary measure but as yet we have had no indication whether the 5 per cent. will be restored.

In addition, this year the Government got the figures wrong. The uprating in November was at least 2 per cent. less than was necessary. We cannot blame anyone for making that sort of mistake. It is a crazy system that expects the Secretary of State for Social Services to predict the inflation rate six or seven months ahead. I was always taught firmly that if a person made a mistake he should try to put it right at the first opportunity. Not this Government. They got the inflation rate wrong to the extent of one week's benefit in 12 months for each of the groups of claimants. Instead of trying to put the mistake right straightaway, they said that they would not put it right for 12 months and then only for some groups and not for those in the greatest need.

We should be clear about what is at stake. Almost all beneficiaries are losing one week's benefit—in other words, the amount that is required in many cases to pay the new television licence fee, or to meet a fuel bill or the cost of a major household item. We are not talking about small amounts. For most of those people in need one week's benefit is a substantial amount.

The unemployed will go on losing because, as a result of the way in which this legislation has been worked out, they will lose this year and next year. The Chancellor says that the number of unemployed people will increase. Not only will the number increase, but the length of time that individuals are unemployed is steadily increasing. I assure the Minister that it is not pleasent being made unemployed in any circumstances. If a person is unemployed for a week or a fortnight and gets back into work, it is a disaster that he can get over, but if the unemployment goes on and on, it begins to bite.

Part of the cruelty of the present system is that it does not allow the unemployed to get from the short-term supplementary benefit rate to the long-term rate. Why do we have two rates? The idea is that the short-term rate is for a short period, and it accepts that when a person comes on to benefit he may have some reserves of clothing and household items and can defer replacing them for a certain length of time. It is eventually accepted that he will need extra income to start to replace some of those major items.

People who have been receiving supplementary benefits for 12 months qualify for the long-term rate, but not the unemployed, who are left to go on and on on the short-term rate—a rate that is designed never to give enough to replace capital items. Those people not only lost a week's income this time round but they will be left a week's income short for each succeeding year.

I wonder how often the Minister talks to people receiving benefits. I talk to many of my constituents and I receive many letters from them. I am conscious when I go into their houses that there are now many people living in abject poverty and finding it almost impossible to make ends meet. They have had a week's money taken away from them this year—by accident, but it has happened—and now they will lose that week's money this year and each succeeding year.

A lady to whom I spoke the other day at my advice bureau said that by the time she had met her bills—her mortgage and other commitments—she had nothing left to live on and nothing with which to buy the food. She had a choice of either breaking a commitment that she had entered into before her husband had died or going short of food.

Another letter that I received yesterday stated:
"It is impossible to make ends meet."
My constituent set out a careful budget showing that she was at least £5 a week short. Another constituent wrote to me saying:
"I can see no way out. All I wanted to do was to give my children a good chance in life. With no job and no prospects of one, what can I do? The only hope for my family would be if I were run over by a bus."
That is from a person with young children who wanted to give them a good start in life, yet he can see no way out of the net of debts steadily closing in around him.

Fairly frequently I do the shopping for my family and I go round one of the supermarkets because it is the quickest way. It always hits me very hard that by the time I have filled up my trolley, I know that I have spent as much as many people have to live on for a whole week. I also see people who have a few tins huddled together in a corner of their trolley, who are struggling week after week just to keep body and soul together on the present benefits.

Another constituent wrote to me saying:
"I am scared to go to the supermarket because I can afford so little."
That is fairly typical. She continued:
"I have to buy at the corner shop. I live on tick. I know it is a dear way to do it but I cannot get off tick."
In other words, she has no reserves to get in front. The Chancellor should have realised that people such as those would be penalised as a result of his measures.

I know and accept that benefits have to be paid for, and I do not expect anything for nothing. However, the Government are not only telling people in work that they must pay for the benefits, but they are now telling people out of work and on social security that they will have to pay for the benefits. That is appalling. Are not people who earn average and above average salaries prepared to contribute a little extra in taxes or in national insurance to pay for decent levels of benefits for the poorest in our society? If most of those who have above average earnings saw the poverty that exists, they would part with extra money without too many complaints.

The Chancellor's statement left many questions unanswered. It seems odd to be making some predictions about what will happen to benefits in November 1982 without completing the picture. If we are talking about public expenditure, we should be discussing the whole of it or claiming that predictions cannot be made too far into the future.

What will happen to child benefit next year? It is a major item and the decision that is taken on it might make all the difference to most of the other measures that we are discussing. If the Government were to announce that they intended to double child benefit, I should stop complaining about many of the shortfalls for families with children. Sadly, we know that the Government will not double child benefit. However, I hope that there will be a significant increase. Child benefit is part of the equation and it matters very much to families living in poverty.

It is amazing that we can calculate the level of unemployment benefit from next November onwards for the second half of the year, but we cannot calculate child benefit over that period. Perhaps the Government want to keep something nice for their spring Budget. I hope that they will offer a generous increase in child benefit in the spring. It is clear that it is needed.

The Chancellor's announcements included no statement on the family income supplement, which is a crucial benefit for those who are in work.

What is the level of uprating to be next November? The last six upratings have all been wrong. Sometimes they have been too low and sometimes they have been too high. They have not often been too high. The level of uprating that the Government predict for next November will be crucial. Having made a mistake and erred on the low side on this occasion, I hope that they will ensure that any errors in November will be on the plus side.

In Committee we are busily discussing the new housing measures. What level of rebates will be set for them, especially for those on social security?

The Chancellor failed to answer so many questions. I hope that the Minister for Social Security will make clear which groups will have the 2 per cent. put back on. Will it be pensioners on supplementary benefit or all those below pensionable age in receipt of supplementary benefit except those on short-term supplementary benefit?

I welcome the opportunity to raise these issues now. I hope that the Minister will find time to answer some of my questions. I am sure that many more hon. Members will want to raise the same issues and I trust that they will have an opportunity to do so before the Minister replies. Will you confirm, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we are entitled to discuss this subject until 7 o'clock, when it will be interrupted for Private Business? If that Private Business folds up before 10 o'clock, I understand that we can return to this debate. If the Private Business continues until 10 o'clock, I understand that it will be possible to continue from 10 o'clock to half past 10 on this subject if sufficient Members seek to catch your eye.

:On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you be kind enough to clarify what the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) said at the end of his remarks? If the Private Business folds up before 10 o'clock, and this Adjournment debate continues until 10 o'clock, can the debate continue until half-past ten?

This debate can continue after the Private Business until 10 o'clock, when the Question, That this House do now adjourn will be disposed of. That having been done, the debate may then continue until half-past 10 on the same subject.

6.15 pm

Despite the havoc that this sudden Adjournment debate has played with my diary today, it is nevertheless a debate that I welcome. It gives me an early opportunity to put the record straight. Despite the rhetoric of the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett), the Government have already done much to implement what the Conservative Party promised to do in its election manifesto. The manifesto stated that a Conservative Government would do what they could to simplify the system and bring more effective help to those in greatest need. We shall continue on the course that we have set.

The main fabric of the social security system remains as it was in May 1979. We have made some changes, but, taken as a whole, it is probably more effective in bringing help to those who need it.

I shall give some examples. We have reformed the supplementary benefit system by chanelling more help to those in greatest need and by establishing clear statutory rights to benefit. More help is going to lone parents who do some work, to families with young chidren and to families that have gained from the halving of the qualifying period for the higher rate of benefit from two years to one year. More recently, we have extended the higher rate to all unemployed persons over 60 years of age who are within the qualifying period.

Secondly, we have legislated to make maternity grant non-contributory, thus helping young mothers and others without a contribution record. Thirdly, we have published proposals for improving the industrial injuries scheme by concentrating on the more severely disabled. Fourthly, we have removed the invalidity trap for young people on noncontributory invalidity benefit. Fifthly, we have put the Christmas bonus on a regular statutory basis. Sixthly, we have kept our pledge to maintain the value of the retirement pension and other similar benefits for widows and the disabled. About three-fifths of social security expenditure is on these benefits.

Lastly, a number of other benefits have risen faster than price increases since the Government took office. For example, the family income supplement, the mobility allowance and one-parent benefit have increased substantially more than the increase in prices. In his announcement yesterday my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer maintained the forward movement of the social security programme without interruption. His statement did not introduce any changes in benefit provision and it preserves the process of uprating by price increases. Given that it is a predominant component in public expenditure, it might be that the Government should be congratulated on not impairing a vital social programme.

The Opposition will not be able to find much to criticise when they look elsewhere in our programme. We are continuing the previous provision for expansion of hospital and community health services. We are allowing them resources to enable them to expand at the previously planned rates. The pressure of current economic constraints is being met by a consistent strategy, as in social security, of increasing charges and contributions for those who can afford them and fully maintaining the exemptions for those who cannot. The constraints are not being met by a reduction in services.

The main burden of the hon. Gentleman's argument was shortfall. He seemed to base his main attack on that, for want of anything better. The Chancellor was explicit yesterday and the position is clear. There will be no abatement of benefits in the November 1982 uprating. The Chancellor will announce in the ordinary way the forecast of price inflation between November 1981 and November 1982 at the time of the spring Budget. He has said clearly that all benefits will then be uprated in line with that forecast.

There was some abatement of short-term benefits at the November 1980 uprating, and a fine fuss the Opposition made about it. I should have thought that they would welcome a clear commitment by the Government that that would not happen again next year. No such luck. Instead, we had an exaggerated and disproportionate concentration on this year's shortfall.

As the Chancellor of the Exchequer made clear, the movement of prices over the past year is likely to turn out as being about 2 per cent. higher than was forecast at the previous Budget. The final figure will not be known until later this month when we have the RPI figure for November. However, we can assume that there will be a gap of the order of 2 per cent., as the Government Actuary has been instructed to do, and as can be seen from his report that was published today. That means that the uprating that has just occurred will have fallen short of the movement in prices. The argument is whether the shortfall will be made good at the next uprating in November 1982.

The Government are pledged to maintain the value of the main long-term benefits, notably pensions, over the life of this Parliament. We accept, as the Chancellor made clear, that it means that the shortfall should be made good by adding back the 2 per cent. in November 1982 on top of the other increase that is guaranteed at that time. That applies to the benefits on which many people rely permanently for their income. Presumably there is no quarrel with the Government's proper concern to give those benefits special protection. For example, retired widows and war pensioners will have the value of their benefits fully maintained. No less than 60 per cent. of all benefit expenditure will be embraced in that guarantee. If there have to be priorities in these matters——

Am I wrong in thinking that in the debates on the 1980 Budget we committed ourselves to protecting the value of short-term benefits? As I recall, we said that we were determined to continue protecting the value of short-term supplementary benefit at that time. Is that wrong?

The Government's pledge and commitment was to the long-term benefit, as I have just described to the House. Therefore, if there must be priorities—in the present economic constraint, priorities are the name of the game—there is surely no dispute that these are the people who should have their benefits fully protected. I should like to know whether the Opposition would have done that differently.

Before my hon. Friend leaves that point, he said a moment ago that our pledge was to maintain the rate of long-term benefits. Does that assurance include long-term supplementary allowances as well as long-term supplementary pensions?

Just tell us what it does not apply to and then it will be clear.

If the hon. Gentleman would like a list, I will give the House the benefits covered by the pledge: retirement pensions, both contributory and noncontributory; widows' pensions, including widowed mothers' allowance and widows' allowance; industrial death benefit, paid as a widow's or widower's pension; war disablement pension and war widows' pension; industrial disablement pensions; attendance allowance; invalid care allowance; invalidity benefits; non-contributory invalidity benefit; unemployability supplement and supplementary pension. Those are the benefits that are covered by the Government's pledges.

I must finish what I have to say and give other hon. Members an opportunity to raise matters. The hon. Gentleman has already had his chance.

The Chancellor has also had to make it clear that there are benefits that are not covered by the Government's pledge and that will not have the shortfall made good. Those concerned receive a minority of the total social security expenditure—about 40 per cent. Many of them are in and out of benefit in a short period and the loss for them is not significant. In many cases it is merely a matter of one or two weeks. Restoring the value in November 1982 would not mean anything for the many who had gone on and off the books before then.

A decision of that kind is not palatable and I shall not pretend that it is. However, against the whole of our record of maintaining benefits through a period of economic difficulty unparalleled since the war, it ill-behoves the Opposition to pretend that this is a major inroad. Social security expenditure is approaching £30,000 million a year. It will increase by £2,500 million in 1982–83 as a result of the decisions announced yesterday. The amount missing as a result of the shortfall in a minority of benefits will be £65 million in 1982–83, as against the £2,500 million that is being added on.

It is pointless to speculate or to make detailed calculations about the effects of the shortfall in individual instances. We have not had the final RPI figures and we do not know what the forecast of price inflation will he at the time of the Budget. Final decisions about the rates of the benefits affected will not occur until then.

Not all benefit increases are calculated to match the rate of inflation to the precise penny—there has to be rounding off. Mobility allowance and FIS, for example, have been increased by Government well ahead of the rate of inflation already. If hon. Members are interested in figures, I can give them. The retail price index has increased since the Conservative Administration took office in May 1979 by 42·2 per cent. Against that, we have increased the family income supplement and, taking as an example a married couple with two children, it has risen by 73·91 per cent. We have increased the one-parent family benefit by 65 per cent. and the mobility allowance by 65 per cent. Those benefits are well ahead of the rate of inflation, and if they have to meet the 2 per cent. shortfall they will still remain well ahead of inflation.

For supplementary beneficiaries, the rate of benefit depends on family size and the ages of children. Even with shortfall, many families with young children will still be keeping ahead of the rate of inflation, because of the changes we have made in the children's supplementary benefit rates. Child benefit, which has been mentioned, is usually fixed at a rounded figure, but how it can be worked out cannot be determined until the final decisions and judgments are made by the Chancellor at Budget time. Until then, all argument about the precise effects on particular people can only be speculation.

The Minister referred to increasing mobility allowance, and I must accept that. It has happened. But will he tell the House how many people who were receiving mobility allowance in May 1979, when the present Government took office, have since been disqualified?

People are disqualified from receiving mobility allowance only if the medical conditions that originally entitled them to it no longer prevail—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Most certainly. Last November that allowance was increased to £16·50 a week. When the Government took office it was £10 per week. That is a substantial increase by any yardstick. When the mobility allowance was first introduced, an application rate of about 1,200 a month was expected. Applications are now running at about double that figure, and the take-up is enormous. That is a measure of the Government's success in helping people in that area of disability.

The Opposition let their speculation and imaginations run not, but I ask them what they would have done—no doubt the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) will tell us in due course—faced with the difficult choices that the Government have had to take. We consider that our decisions have been balanced and responsible, and that the main fabric of the benefit system is untouched. The Opposition's record is not beyond reproach when they have found themselves in difficulties. What about the Christmas bonus that the Opposition withdrew in 1975 and 1976? We have maintained it every year we have been in office and, moreover, enshrined it in statute so that it is now permanent.

Talking of enshrining things in statute, if there are to be three classes of beneficiaries as a result of the Chancellor's measures—the long-term allowance recipients, the long-term supplementary benefit pensioners and the short-term benefit pensioners—will the Minister confirm that that will have to be dealt with by legislation?

There will be three rates, but I doubt whether it will be necessary to deal with them by legislation.

I was asking the Opposition what they would do, faced with similar circumstances.

We would not be facing them. We do not have the most incompetent Chancellor of the century.

What about the biggest social security swindle of all time—the missing £500 million in the 1976 uprating, when the Labour Government altered the rules to reduce the uprating by that amount? They deliberately created shortfall.

If we were to emulate that shining example of fairness, that £500 million in 1976 would today require us to deny those people £925 million—nearly £1 billion. Today we are talking about £65 million in the context of a £2,500 million increase. How can Opposition Members come to this House and shed crocodile tears? Where choices have to be made, the choice must be clear. Maintaining long-term support for pensioners and others is our overriding priority. Bearing in mind the difficulties that many of those in work are having to face, and the contributions and taxes of those upon whom this entire edifice depends, the level of benefit that we are maintaining, even where shortfall is not made good, and backing with the promise of a full uprating without abatement next year, what we are doing is not ungenerous in comparison with what has been happening previously under a Labour Government.

I hope that Opposition Members will join me in thanking my hon. Friend for coming to the House at such short notice and answering this debate. We are very grateful to him. He has said that child benefit is not something on which he can commit himself fully now. However, has he taken on board the importance of ensuring—particularly where poor families are concerned—that the uprating in child benefit, when the time comes, is to the full amount and that no shortfall will be kept there?

I am aware of the anxiety of many of my hon. Friends on this matter. I shall make sure that the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor is drawn to the remarks made on this matter during the debate, although it is not for me to prejudge the judgment that will have to be made by my right hon. and learned Friend at the time of his Budget, as my hon. Friends will understand.

So far from dismantling the social security scheme, as we sometimes hear Opposition Members accusing us of doing, it is one of the present Government's achievements that we have managed to interfere very little with the basic structure of the benefit. On any reasonable view, we have kept the essential structure of benefit intact. This has been and remains a firm and consistent plank in the Government's strategy. That same consistency necessarily demands that, as contributory benefits rise or as claims on them increase, so national insurance contributions must also rise. It makes no sense whatever to proclaim a belief in the contributory principle and in the same breath to complain about higher contributions.

A key feature of the national insurance scheme is that it is funded on a pay-as-you-go basis, so today's benefits are paid for overwhelmingly by the contributions of the people who have work and who are paying to get benefit rights themselves and by their employers. Of course, this means periodic rises in contributions. Anything else would be a dismantling of the national insurance scheme.

The contribution increases that my right hon. and learned Friend announced yesterday are in themselves wholly consistent with our strategy. We have held the employers' contributions steady. We have shifted the main burden resulting from higher benefit claims away from the general taxpayer and on to the contributor, and we have even managed to give a modest stimulus to small businesses by holding down the increase in the class 2 contributions for self-employed people.

Therefore, I make no apologies for what the Government have done or for what the Chancellor announced yesterday. Given the present economic situation, the Government have more than honoured their pledge and have struggled hard to maintain the benefits of those in greatest need. I have given to the House the list of the people who will not be affected by the shortfall that I have just mentioned, and in the other cases I have shown how already, in most cases, the benefits people receive have outstripped the rate of inflation since we came to office. We have done that despite Britain's present difficulties.

However, it must remain our determination to restore the economy of Britain, first and foremost. All levels of public expenditure, all demands upon business and the taxpayer, must ensure that we restore British industry's competitive position, because until we do that we shall not earn the money that we want to pay to people in our society who need help.

6.40 pm

I am not surprised by the tone of the Minister's speech, but I find it particularly disturbing. He did not say that his are the first Government for half a century to cut and abolish social security benefits. Their record on these matters is outrageous and deplorable. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that we shall pull our punches tonight and not criticise him because of his speech, he has another think coming. I shall remind him of all his Government"s actions.

The Government are the only Government for 50 years to stretch the year to 54 weeks for pensioners—they have changed the timetable of the seasons. The Cabinet in its generosity has abolished, for example, the earnings-related supplement to many benefits, including unemployment and maternity benefit.

No, I shall not.

The only benefit that the Government have given to the people has been to make them unemployed and then to cut the benefits on which the unemployed depend.

Last year the Government introduced social security legislation which abolished the right to go to social security offices and obtain exceptional needs payments. As a consequence, when people go to local social security offices to claim those payments they are given a leaflet that tells them that they may not be entitled to the money and that they had better reconsider their claim. Those are the rights to which the Minister referred.

The other magnificent benefit that the Minister has given the poor is a 5 per cent. cut in unemployment and invalidity benefits and in a whole host of other benefits which have so magnanimously been given to the poor. At the same time as giving wonderful tax concessions to the rich the Government have been cutting the living standards of the poor. The Labour Party will throw that fact back in their faces every time that the Government come to the Chamber and say how marvellous they are in providing social benefits.

We are faced not only with the cuts, the abolition of benefits and the extension of the year, but with yesterday's failure by the Government to come clean about what they are doing. They pretend that somehow those people will next year be uprated and recover the 2 per cent. The papers in the Vote Office show that that is not what the Government intend. There will be a 40 per cent. cut—I assume that is in the value of the social security benefits, and not in the number of people claiming social benefits. Millions of people may have their benefits cut by 2 per cent. in real terms because the Government will not restore the shortfall this year. Why on earth did not Ministers have the decency to be honest and say that at the Dispatch Box yesterday? They were not prepared to say that because they knew that it would bring contempt and odium from the public—and rightly.

If the Government's record is deplorable, their reputation next October and November will be equally so. The miserable Government pittances of millions of people who are dependent entirely on short-term social security benefits will be cut. One of the reasons why the Government say that they must cut social security benefits is that they cost so much. Let us examine why.

The Government Actuary's report contains the only Forecast of unemployment that the Government are prepared to make. Treasury Ministers and the Prime Minister will not tell us what unemployment will be in the next 12 months. We think that we know, but the Government Actuary, who is instructed politically, knows the trend. Page 2 of the report shows that the average level of totally unemployed people, excluding school leavers, in 1982–83 will be 2,900,000. In additiion, 225,000 school leavers and adult students will be unemployed. That calculation is made on political assumptions that the Government are forcing the Government Actuary to make to calculate national insurance contributions.

Bleating about the size of the social security budget is nonsense. The Government have increased unemployment. They have driven millions of people onto the dole. We shall not let them get away from that.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has introduced the bitter tone that we have come to expect of him in such debates. Can he answer two questions, since he is so concerned with morality? First, what was his reaction to the unprecedented cut in social services by the Labour Party in 1976? Secondly, what qualifications would he make to his attitude in 1979 during the Health Service strike when he stood outside hospitals refusing to allow doctors to enter?

My attitude to the actions of the last Labour Government is well known to the hon. Gentleman. That is why he asks the question. I thought that the cuts in public expenditure by the last Labour Goverment were disgraceful. I am consistent. That is why I am attacking the Government for doing the same and for actions that are far worse.

The Government have not only cut social security benefits—they have made a £700 million cut in housing subsidies this year. In my constituency, thousands of people are living in extremely miserable conditions because three quarters of the public expenditure cuts fall on housing.

National insurance and supplementary benefits are now too low for people to live on. One of the problems is that people receiving benefits have to do the rounds. They have to go to the local social security office to claim supplementary benefit if they are not entitled to any form of national insurance benefit. They have to obtain dribs and drabs from wherever they can, including charity, to make up their weekly income.

The character of the Government's attack on pensioners and people receiving short-term supplementary benefits can be judged not only by their failure to increase the benefits by the 2 per cent. shortfall this November, but by the facts that they have ignored the rise in prices which pensioners have to pay.

The Minister was wrong to use the retail price index to calculate those increases. The Government have their own special indexes—the one and two persons pensioner household price indexes. The increase in prices for pensioners has been much more substantial than the increase in the retail price index. The real standard of living of pensioners, notwithstanding the restoration of the shortfall for pensioners next November, will be further eroded. The reality of their spending power and the price rises that they have to meet is not reflected in the retail price index.

I ask the Minister one specific question. How much money will the Government save by not replacing the shortfall in the long-term benefits now rather than later? It is well known—I do not say this in any spirit of rancour—that there are people receiving benefits now who will not be claiming benefit in November 1982 either because they are not eligible or because they have died. I want to know from the Minister how much the Government will save by failing to uprate the benefits now.

Another question that has to be raised with the Government is future legislation. It is known that there will be a Bill that seeks to represent the increased national insurance contributions. The question that arises is whether hon. Members will see any legislation that gives effect to the three rates of supplementary benefit. It is the opinion not only of Opposition Members but of the people we have consulted since yesterday that legislation would need to be laid before the House to give effect to those three rates of benefit. Hon. Members want to know whether there will now be a Social Security (No. 3) Bill. We wish to develop our arguments on those matters as quickly as possible and to alert people to the damage that the Government are wreaking on social security beneficiaries over the next few months.

I want to give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to be completely fair, as I know he would wish. The hon. Gentleman deprecated what the previous Labour Administration had done. I share that deprecation. Will he accept that the shortfall in 1976, if translated into current prices, would be £925 million compared with the shortfall of £65 million over a total increase of £2,500 million that we are now talking about? Is he not aware that prior to the 1981 uprating, the only three previous occasions since 1948 when a pension uprating did not fully compensate for price increases were under Labour Administrations in 1951, in 1969 and April 1975? I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman deprecates the actions of the previous Labour Administration. Where does his loyalty to the Labour Party lie? Does he deprecate the actions of all previous Labour Administrations?

The hon. Gentleman has no doubt been given those figures. My reaction to any cuts in social security benefits in real terms, under whatever Government, is to deprecate those cuts. The hon. Gentleman cannot come to the House like the Minister and say that one wrong is as good as another. If he deprecates what Labour Governments have done in the past he must also deprecate what his Minister is now doing. I should like to know in which Lobby the hon. Gentleman will be voting when the Social Security and Housing Benefits Bill comes out of Committee, and also in which Lobby he will be voting when a Social Security (No. 2) Bill comes on to the Floor of the House for Second Reading. If the hon. Gentleman feels that people should be protected against the ravages of inflation, he will presumably agree that his Government have broken their pledges on the matter. I recall the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin), at the Government Dispatch Box and again in Committee, boasting time after time that the Government had price protected supplementary benefits. We are now seeing the breaking of that pledge. I want to give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to say whether he agrees with the breaking of that pledge and with the abandonment of Government policy. The people we are discussing are the poorest in Society——

There seems to be some strange agreement across the Floor of the House concerning the record of previous Labour Governments. The hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Best) went back as far as 1951 in dredging up history. I should like to ask the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend whether they agree that there was an increase in real terms of 20 per cent. for the elderly under the previous Labour Government. At no stage were cuts in social security benefit introduced, as has happened under this Government. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree and will not join in accusations made against the Labour Government.

I shall not be diverted by anyone on this matter. I deprecate cuts in public spending no matter by whom they are introduced. I deplore all shortfalls in benefit that are not made up. That is why I criticise the Government tonight. Opposition Members have been right to ask the Minister to come to the House to justify himself in the face of what is a terrible attack on the living standards of ordinary people. Opposition Members will continue to attack the Government for what they have done and to explain that they can get out of the hole they have dug for themselves by making the only cut that we favour— to cut the dole queues. We favour getting people back to work so that they can pay their tax and national insurance contributions to the Exchequer and bring about a cut in the social security budget. If the Minister wanted to suggest to his Cabinet colleagues a positive step towards cutting the social security budget he could start by advocating reflationary policies to get people off the books of the social security offices and out of the dole queues.

That is a relevant policy. We wish to see further cuts in public expenditure in defence and other areas in order to make way for better social provision for our people. The cuts in social security benefits introduced by Conservative Governments alone in the last 50 years—the Conservatives have been the only party in Government that has abolished benefits—must be criticised. We are here in the House tonight to pin that label on the Government.

6.58 pm

If the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Race) had been only a selected candidate in his constituency, he would have been disowned by his party and his leader this afternoon during Prime Minister's questions but no doubt he is an endorsed candidate——

In that case, he may face trouble.

The issue we are discussing is important and merits more than the speech made by the hon. Member for Wood Green, which sounded like rabble-rousing outside a hospital gate. The contribution of the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) was the sort of speech that could have been made by a Conservative Member or a member of any other party. He is concerned about the millions of people affected by the Chancellor of the Exchequer's statement yesterday, some of whom are getting full protection and some of whom are not.

It may be some time before I can develop my theme on that, but I wish to put one point to the hon. Member for Wood Green. What level of pay settlements does he wish to operate during the forthcoming year? If it is 4 per cent. rather than 10 per cent., that in effect raises the standard of living of people on short-term benefits by 3 per cent. for the year—which is nothing to laugh at, as the hon. Gentleman is doing—but a serious point. If inflation runs at 20 per cent. during the year it means a reduction of about 10 per cent.——

It being Seven o'clock, and there being private business set down by THE CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS, under Standing Order No. 7 (Time for taking private business), further Proceeding stood postponed.

Humberside Bill Lords (By Order)

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.