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Commons Chamber

Volume 21: debated on Tuesday 30 March 1982

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House Of Commons

Tuesday 30 March 1982

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions


School Leavers


asked the Secretary of State for Employment how many people who have left school since 1979 are now unemployed.

The precise information is not available, but at 14 January there were 386,920 people registered as unemployed in the United Kingdom who were under 19 years of age.

Does the Secretary of State agree that among those unemployed school leavers are a large number who have never had the opportunity of training? Does he also agree that they may reach the age of 19, and therefore be too old, before the new training initiative comes into force? Has he any proposals to help those young people, especially the physically handicapped who constitute the largest proportion of those unemployed?

I find it difficult to believe that such people have not even had the opportunity of entering a YOP scheme. I share the hon. Gentleman's anxiety that youngsters should receive better industrial and vocational training—that is the purpose of the youth training scheme. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to create for people opportunities that should have been created in the past—perhaps because the previous Government did not have enough money to do anything about it.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that although some 70 per cent. of handicapped school leavers are unemployed, the Manpower Services Commission in London has just turned down the only project advanced for setting up a workshop for disabled school leavers? Will he look into the matter and ask the MSC to reverse that decision?

I was not aware that the MSC had done that. I shall certainly look into the matter and write to my hon. Friend to tell him what the MSC gives me as its reason for doing that. Clearly, this is a time when we should do all that we can to protect those least able to protect themselves.

Does the Secretary of State agree with what the present Home Secretary said in February 1978—when there were 39,000 unemployed school leavers, compared with 139,000 now—that unemployment among school leavers was a major contributory factor to the increase in juvenile crime? Does that apply today?

I should like to consider more closely what my right hon. Friend said, rather than take it from the hon. Gentleman, who does not set it in context. I do not doubt that the devil makes evil work for idle hands, but I also remember that in the soft early 1960s it was suggested that juvenile crime increased because people were too well off. I suspect that original sin has at least as much to do with the problem as do economic circumstances.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the unemployment figures highlight the importance of the Government's new training initiative and the need for the final scheme to be on the broadest and most imaginative scale possible?

Yes, I hope that it will be on the broadest and most imaginative scale possible, so long as it is practical, deals with all the 16-year-olds, to whom I have given a guarantee, as well as the 17-year-olds, and is within the restraint of £1 billion per year expenditure.

Market Harborough


asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on employment prospects in the Market Harborough area.

Future job prospects in Market Harborough, and elsewhere, will depend on the development of a soundly based economy, which means, among other things, bringing down inflation and continuing to improve productivity and competitiveness. That is the only way to create the new and secure jobs that we all want to see in Market Harborough and throughout the country.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his reply, and I am glad that unemployment in the Market Harborough area declined again last month, but is he aware of the drift of jobs and companies towards the nearby enterprise zone of Corby? Will he bear in mind the possibility, as is happening in other parts of the country, that enterprise zones may attract old-established companies away from their existing sites?

Corby is facing a particularly difficult unemployment problem as a result of the closure of the steelworks. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that it was necessary for the Government to do everything possible to help. I believe that enterprise zones there and elsewhere will attract new industry. My hon. Friend is right to point out that what is happening in Market Harborough gives us room for cautious optimism, as the unemployment rate there has reduced in the last quarter compared with a year ago.

Is the Minister aware that there is no optimism whatever in the county of Leicestershire, where it has been a catastrophic week, with redundancies at British Aerospace and Metal Box, and wicked decision and indecision by the Secretary of State for the Environment on the Belvoir mines? Will he consult the right hon. Gentleman to see what can be done to bring back employment to what will otherwise become an area of ghost towns?

I think that the statement made by my hon. Friend was very welcome. With regard to the situation in Leicestershire, it is true that there have been redundancies at British Aerospace. How British Aerospace distributes its work between different factories is a matter for the corporation, but in the country as a whole Ministry of Defence work given to British Aerospace has increased steadily in the past three or four years.

Does the Minister recognise that today's statement will be received with hollow laughter in Market Harborough in view of the announcement in the past week of the loss of 1,600 jobs in Leicestershire? When will he realise and inform his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that it is the Government's economic policy that is driving firms to make redundancies, not any lack of efficiency in the Leicestershire firms which have announced those 1,600 redudancies?

I am sure that it will not have escaped the notice of the people that the remedy suggested by the Labour Party in its alternative strategy is precisely the recipe that the Labout Government put into effect in 1974 and 1976, which doubled unemployment and brought the IMF on to the scene.

Women (Unemployment)


asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will list the number of women registered as unemployed for the last month for which figures are available; and what was the figure for 12 months previously.

At 11 March 1982 the provisional number of women registered as unemployed in the United Kingdom was 842,504. The corresponding figure for March 1981 was 701,544.

Bearing in mind that those unemployment figures exclude large numbers of women who are not eligible to be included in them and that the new method of compiling figures from October will exclude other women who are not receiving benefits, will the Minister estimate how many women will in future be excluded from the unemployment register? What arrangements is he making to include them when the unemployment figures are announced so that we have a real assessment of the level of unemployment?

It is difficult to give an accurate estimate, but I would judge that in the last category about 10,000 who are at present registered at jobcentres as seeking work will not henceforth register at unemployment benefit offices because they will not be entitled to unemployment benefit. We shall certainly try to estimate the numbers and to relate them regularly to the unemployment figures.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as many women are employed in textiles and in other industries which are suffering particularly from the world recession, emphasis should be placed on training women in the new technology, and schools should encourage girls to take up such opportunities?

I agree with my hon. Friend that women in manufacturing industry have probably suffered disproportionately because they have been concentrated in the lower-skilled work. Taking the economy as a whole, however, women—many of whom are engaged in the service industries—have done rather better than men. Nevertheless, I take my hon. Friend's point that the need for training and retraining is essential, and we are pursuing that policy.

Textile And Clothing Industries


asked the Secretary of State for Employment what has been the percentage change in the level of employment in the textile and clothing industries over the past six months.

Between June 1981 and December 1981 the numbers of employees in employment in Great Britain in the textile and clothing industries decreased by 1·6 per cent.

When my hon. and learned Friend considers the plight of the textile and clothing industries—I remind my hon. and learned Friend and my hon. Friend the Minister of State in relation to his reply to the last question that women in the industry are not unskilled or lower skilled, but are highly skilled—will he give attention to the problems of the textile machinery industry and particularly to the position of Ernest Scragg and Sons Ltd., which produces some of the most modern high technology draw texturising machinery in the world and exports 95 per cent. of its production to markets throughout the world but which is now in the hands of the receiver? What assistance is he prepared to give that company, and what advice can he offer me to pass on to the employees threatened with redundancy?

I was, of course, very sorry to hear that the receiver had been called in by Stone Platt Industries Ltd., and I know that a number of redundancies have already been announced, but it must not be assumed that all employees of Stone Platt will lose their jobs. That will depend upon the success of the receiver in selling off various parts of the company. What I have said also applies to Ernest Scragg, which is a part of Stone Platt Industries. My hon. Friend's question would have been more properly directed to the Department of Industry, but I shall pass on all that he has said and it will be noted.

Does the Minister agree that workers in the textile industry are probably the best example of moderation in industrial relations, wage restraint and good productivity, and that they have been very poorly rewarded for practising the virtues continually extolled by Ministers?

As I said to the House not long ago, the textile industry has been facing problems not just for the past few years. It has been contracting for very many years. Hon. Members should address their minds to whether the industry would have been in any better shape if its workers had demanded wages of the level demanded, for instance, by car workers in the Midlands. My bet is that it would have been in far worse shape.

Will the Minister take time to consider some of the suggestions made in yesterday's debate on textiles and to consult his colleagues in the Department of Industry so that instead of writing off the industry, as the Government seem to have done, we may have some new initiatives in training, marketing and exporting to help the industry to reinvigorate itself?

I shall, of course, give great attention to what was said yesterday. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that the Government have written off the textile industry. No industry in this country is given greater protection. The hon. Gentleman knows that the Government took a tough line in the multi-fibre arrangement negotiations. We wanted quotas to be based on actual 1980 imports and not on 1982 quotas, but we were not successful in sustaining that negotiating stance.

Unemployment Statistics


asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the most recent unemployment figures.


asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement on the latest unemployment figures.

Unemployment fell this month by over 52,000—the largest fall for the month of March since the current series of figures began in 1948. Following the slowing in the underlying rate of increase in recent months and the fall in inflation, prices and interest rates, there are some grounds for hope that the increase in our competitiveness has begun to arrest the growth in unemployment.

Does the Minister agree that the fall of 52,000 and the drop to below 3 million have been produced by doctoring the figures and persuading about 30,000 men over 60 to go on to long-term supplementary benefit on the basis that they are then removed from the unemployment figures? Instead of twisting the figures, will the Secretary of State devote his energy to creating the real jobs that were promised in the Government's massive advertising campaign in 1979? When do the Government expect unemployment to fall to the level that they inherited from the Labour Government in 1979?

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question is "No". The answer to his second question is that Governments do not create jobs. Customers create jobs when they buy goods. When customers come forward to buy the goods offered by British industry, British industry will have an increasing number of jobs to offer, but not before.

Is the Secretary of State satisfied with the current level of unemployment in the construction industry of 25 per cent. in England, Scotland and Wales and 47–5 per cent. in Northern Ireland? Will the right hon. Gentleman get on his bike and bring his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment—the Minister for Merseyside—to Liverpool, where unemployment stands at 45 per cent., to examine the state of the industry there?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his original wit. I assure him that I am not happy about the level of unemployment in the construction industry. We have helped to reduce interest rates, although this is not understood by the Leader of the Opposition, to assist particularly the house building section of the construction industry. When other aspects of Government and local government expenditure, especially wages in local government, are better under control, there will be improved prospects for new construction work in local government services.

Has my right hon. Friend studied recently the OECD unemployment statistics? Will he confirm that over the last three months the rise in unemployment in this country has been markedly and indeed dramatically lower than in almost every other OECD country? To what does he attribute this development? Does he agree that it would be helpful occasionally if, while not denying our problems, people were made more aware of the extent to which other countries are suffering simultaneously?

My hon. Friend is right. The increase in unemployment in a number of other OECD countries is very much greater than in Great Britain. The reason, I suspect, is that our economy is becoming more competitive than theirs. Some countries—especially those that are pursuing Socialist policies—are finding their currency flat on the floor, their interest rates roaring up and their rate of inflation much higher than ours.

Is the Secretary of State not concerned about the major growth in long-term unemployment in this country? Is he not also concerned that his present handling of manpower services may result in the TUC commissioners on the Manpower Services Commission reappraising their participation in these services?

Of course I am concerned about the growth in long-term unemployment. It is part of the longterm problems that previous Governments did not successfully tackle. The consequence is inevitable. On the issue of the MSC and the trade union commissioners, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not believe every piece of tittle-tattle that he reads in the newspapers. I, for my part, hope that the TUC commissioners will remain, alongside the CBI commissioners and the others, within the MSC. It would be extraordinary, at a time when the Government have made available more money than ever before to the Manpower Services Commission to implement, in particular, the new training initiative, about which there is virtually unanimous agreement, for anyone to suggest that any part will walk out of the commission.

Is my right hon. Friend able to explain why the Opposition are so displeased that unemployment Ls falling? Is he aware that his hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Information Technology is visiting my constituency today to inspect one of the largest computerised traffic control systems to be exported by Plessey Controls Ltd. to South America? Does this not show that if one gets out and gets export orders, and that if one produces the right goods at the right time and the right price, one can succeed?

My hon. Friend is right. That is the way to save jobs. It is extraordinary that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Varley) should have referred to a fall of 52,000 in the level of unemployment as a tiny number. I wonder what he would have said if it had gone up by 52,000. Would that have been a tiny increase?

How long does the Secretary of State expect registered unemployment to stay below the 3 million mark?

I think probably for a month or two until young school leavers come on to the register. That is the time, as every year, when we expect an increase in unemployment. The right hon. Gentleman will obviously take great delight in seeing an increase in the number of people out of work, but he should not laugh too much about it. It is clear that the underlying rate of increase is slowing. The right hon. Gentleman might have to laugh on the other side of his face before the general election.

No one is laughing about this matter. We on the Opposition Benches are taking it seriously. Will the right hon. Gentleman admit that the White Paper on public expenditure published at the time of the Budget contains a Government forecast that registered unemployment will stay well above the 3 million mark for the rest of this year at least? Is that not shameful?

As the right hon. Gentleman will recollect from his days in the Cabinet, such figures are most certainly not a forecast. The right hon. Gentleman will also recollect that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made the point that provided inflation continues on its downward path—the signs are very good—provided that interest rates continue on their downward path, which means better control of Government expenditure—that is being achieved—provided there is increasing productivity, which is also being achieved, and provided that there is resonableness in wage demands, the prospects will be much better than the line in the White Paper to which the right hon. Gentleman refers.

Manpower Services Commission (Adminstrative Bodies)


asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will ensure that representatives of Church and other voluntary orgarisations are included in the Manpower Services Commission administrative bodies.

Voluntary organisations, including the Churches, are already represented on most of the commission's advisory bodies. I will ensure that this continues to be the case.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his helpful reply. Is he aware of the increasing and welcome involvement of local churches and voluntary organisations in youth and training employment schemes? Is he aware that, whereas local authorities are represented on the area MSC boards, the Churches and voluntary organisations do not necessarily have places? Will he try to ensure that these are provided?

I am very much aware of the role that voluntary organisations, including the Churches, play in the Manpower Services Commission's special programmes. In the community enterprise programme, 30 per cent. of places are provided by voluntary organisations, and in the youth opportunities programme the figure is 10 per cent. Each of the 29 special programme area boards has a representative of voluntary organisations. At the present time, six of these members and three chairmen are from the Churches.

Is the Minister not aware that, in south London, representatives of community organisations, who already serve on MSC committees, are becoming increasingly frustrated and angry about the manner in which their views are ignored by officials who arbitrarily redefine what is meant by community benefit. I give two examples? First, the Lambeth Tiles project in my constituency, which the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) has mentioned, would have employed physically and mentally disabled people. Secondly, the Elephant Jobs project has for eight years been employing people. If closed, as the MSC proposes, 142 youngsters in south London will be out of work. Will the hon. Gentleman investigate these matters?

The hon. Gentleman will have heard what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about the Lambeth Tiles project. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall keep him informed on the matter. The Elephant Jobs project is a matter of whether the scheme fits within the rules of the community enterprise programme.



asked the Secretary of State for Employment what initiatives he has in mind which will promote jobs in the Preston travel-to-work area.

Jobs in Preston and elsewhere depend upon the ability of producers to meet the needs of customers. The Government will continue their successful policy of reducing inflation and encouraging increased productivity towards that objective.

As the customers in Preston in the instance that I have in mind are homeless people, will the Minister arrange for one of his "oppos" in the Department of the Environment to bring building trade workers and building materials together in Preston to produce much-needed houses?

The hon. Gentleman should have addressed that question originally to the Department of the Environment and he will no doubt now do so.

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that Preston, with its motorway and rail connections, is well placed to benefit to an even greater extent when the recession ends than it is now doing? Does he agree that the development of the dock site, originally planned by the Conservative-controlled council in Preston, will go a long way towards providing new jobs and new hope to people who would otherwise not have a chance?

Yes. I take my hon. Friend's point. The positive emphasis that he puts on the prospects for Preston is the right kind of psychological and practical impression that one should convey to give people hope for the future. It also tends to increase job opportunities.

Youth Training Scheme


asked the Secretary of State for Employment what representations he has received regarding his proposals for a new youth training scheme; and what general response he has made to those representations.

We have received a significant and widespread response to our training proposals, which has generally been welcoming. I have been very happy to learn of such support.

Is my hon. Friend satisfied that the timetable for this excellent scheme can and will be met by the MSC? Will he keep a close watch on progress in that regard?

I appreciate that the aims and goals of the MSC are ambitious. I am satisfied at this stage that it will be able to achieve the time scale of 300,000 to 350,000 places by September of next year. I assure my hon. Friend that I shall keep a close watch on the matter.

Does the Minister agree that the task group has shown a marked disdain for the Scrooge-like £15 a week? Will the Minister permit and encourage an employers' exercise of topping-up the £15 to a much less insulting figure?

The hon. Gentleman is obviously aware of facts that I am not aware of. The task group has not yet come forward with its proposals. We shall view them as they come forward, but at this stage it would be wrong for me to answer a hypothetical question.

The important point is that per 16-year-old trainee per week we shall be spending £53 a week—and that is for the whole year—as opposed to just under £40 on the youth opportunities programme.

Has the Minister had time to consider the information that I have sent to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment about youth training centres established in Liverpool and elsewhere by the Workers' Revolutionary Party? Is he aware that Miss Vanessa Redgrave has launched an appeal for £100,000 following the opening of the latest of these centres in Nottingham?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall make certain that no money goes to the Workers' Revolutionary Party.

In responding to this representation, will my hon. Friend emphasise that the proposed weekly allowance of £15 per young person is only about a quarter of the total resources being made available for each young person, and that the remainder represents a commitment to the training of young people that is far in excess of anything achieved either by the Labour Government or by any of our industrial competitors in the EEC?

I could not agree more with what my hon. Friend says. The Government are doing for the unemployed school leaver what successive Governments have failed to do—providing a proper training scheme at the rate of £53 per trainee per week. That is a substantial advance.

National Community Service


asked the Secretary of State for Employment what representations he has received pressing for the introduction of a form of national community service; and if he will make a statement.

We have received several representations about national community service. The details of the new youth training scheme are currently being considered by the Manpower Services Commission, and the commission will take account of the contribution that service in the community can make.

While thanking my right hon. Friend for that reply, may I ask whether he is aware that there is a growing body of opinion in the House and in the country that favours a form of national community service? Does he agree that such a form of service should be compulsory, should apply to men and women and should allow a choice between military and community service? Does my hon. Friend agree that it should be not a training scheme but an opportunity for young people to serve the community and become adult and responsible citizens?

I cannot support my hon. Friend's contention that a compulsory scheme of communiry service is appropriate or desirable. However, a community element in any training scheme that we propose in the future is important and will feature as such a part. My hon. Friend will no doubt agree that industrially relevant education and training that is equipping youngsters for work in factories, offices or businesses, is making a big, overall contribution to the community benefit.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that while community service can play an important part in arrangements made for the 16 to 18-year-olds it is still important that the overall emphasis should be laid on training towards an industrial society?

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. It is crucial both for the consumer and for the producer that relevant skills should be imparted to youngsters, particularly when they are in their formative years.

Is not the notion of a compulsory community service scheme simply an echo of the bankrupt economic policies that the Government have perpetrated on the country because they do not know what else to do with young people? When will the Government produce a change in their policy to bring the level of unemployrneni down to the level that they inherited from the Labour Government, and create the real jobs that they promised in their fraudulent general election campaign in 1979?

The hon. Gentleman misheard my answer—we are not backing any scheme for compulsory training. With regard to the hon. Gentleman's phoney indignation about unemployment, he was in the House when the Labour Government opened the gusher of unemployment by letting it go up to 1½ million, and should know that it will be a great deal more difficult to turn off the gusher than it was to start it.

West Midlands


asked the Secretary of State for Employment what action he intends to take to reduce the high levels of unemployment in the West Midlands.

The Government's policies are aimed at developing a soundly based economy, which means, among other things, bringing down inflation. As this is achieved and productivity continues to improve, British firms will become more competitive. This is the only way to create new and secure jobs, not only in the West Midlands but throughout the country.

I had hoped that the Minister would have some definite proposals to ease the problems of the West Midlands. Is he aware that the unemployment among building and construction workers generally is three and a half times what it was in 1979? Does he accept that one of the quickest ways of injecting jobs, which will combat inflation, is to do something about that figure?

The hon. Lady asked whether the Government have any proposals. The Government have policies that are succeeding. The hon. Lady knows of the fall in unemployment. In each of the last eight months vacancies in the West Midlands have been higher than they were a year previously. That should give hope to all those in the West Midlands. I hardly need remind the hon. Lady that the policies espoused by her party do not have the slightest relevance to the problems that we are now facing, and if they were to be put into effect they would no doubt lead to a worse catastrophe than that which hit this country in 1976.

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that people on the shop floor in the West Midlands are far more realistic in these matters than the hon. Lady, who is always moaning? These workers know very well that as their firms become more efficient and attract more customers, so unemployment will come down.

My hon. Friend is right. One has only to see the massive export orders that have recently been won to realise the gains that have come from improved competitiveness. It is through that that industry will recover in the West Midlands.

Is the Minister aware that the increase in unemployment from 5 per cent. when the Government took office to over 15 per cent. in the West Midlands now is an appalling indictment of Government policies? Is he also aware of the great personal suffering caused to countless families in the region as a result of the Government's policies?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman used equally strong language against his own Government when unemployment doubled between 1974 and 1976.

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that in Coventry the new enterprise allowance scheme has been a great success? In its first month of operation over 114 redundant workers applied to the scheme, over half of whom were rapidly processed and approved? Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the scheme offers the best chance of liberating people from the dole queue and giving them a new start in life in their new venture?

My hon. Friend is right when he says that the new enterprise scheme has received a warm welcome, and rightly so. It is proper that people who are prepared to set out on their own should be given some help when they do so.

South-West Assisted Area


asked the Secretary of State for Employment what is the current level of unemployment for the South-West assisted area; what was the corresponding figure in March 1980; and if he will make a statement.

At 11 March 1982 the provisional number of people registered as unemployed in assisted areas in the South-West region was 59,351 compared with 34,770 in March 1980.

Future job prospects in this area, as elsewhere, will depend largely on continuing improvement in the country's economic performance. Our special employment and training measures continue to protect those hardest hit by the recession, and the Government's policy of focusing regional assistance specifically on areas in greatest need, such as Cornwall and parts of Devon, is of general benefit to the South-West.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the South-West assisted area is essentially non-industrial in character and therefore more dependent on the level of public investment than most? Therefore, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a strong case, notwithstanding the Chancellor's recent announcement, for further assistance, particularly for the building and construction industry? Is he aware that this is especially the case since 90 per cent. of those contracts to the public sector go straight into the private sector, which means that there should be no worry on doctrinaire grounds on this point?

I take note of my hon. Friend's penetrating and analytical point. I remind him that, apart from the good news in the Budget, which he himself noted, nearly £30 million worth of Government assistance has gone to the South-West over the past three years, and that about 90 Government factory units have been completed in an attempt to redress the balance in the direction of manufacturing.

Is it not a fact that there has been a calculated neglect of the South-West by this Government over a long period, and do not the figures show that? Is it not also a fact that Government policy is to deprive the South-West of real work in an effort to keep wages low? Will the Minister take account of the lobby that was made of this Parliament by construction workers, and yesterday by the group of eight, calling for a massive injection of capital goods into the South-West?

I can only assume that the hon. Gentleman composed his question before he heard the reply that I gave my hon. Friend, which showed that an enormous amount of Government expenditure is going into the South-West.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that this Government have done more for the South-West than the Labour Government ever did? Does he also accept that there are parts of the South-West and Devon where there is 13 or 15 per cent. unemployment—much more than in parts of assisted areas? Does he realise the strong feeling that exists because work is siphoned away from those areas into assisted areas? What can he do to assist certain parts of my constituency, which have 15 per cent. unemployment?

I know that my hon. Friend is clearly taking a close interest in the assisted area problem because of the high unemployment in his constituency. He should pursue the matter, as I am sure he has done in the past, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry, who is responsible for assisted areas.

Industrial Tribunals


asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will consider seeking to consolidate the statutory and other provisions relating to industrial tribunals.

The regulations relating to industrial tribunal procedures were consolidated some 18 months ago. My right hon. Friend has no plans at present for any further consolidation.

Does the Minister accept that the present industrial tribunal system does not provide adequate protection for employed people? Does he know that 74 per cent. of all claims for unfair dismissal compensation fail, and that at a time when most people who are unfairly dismissed do not bring claims because to do so would be a passport to permanent unemployment?

The fact that 27·7 per cent. of applications succeed does not mean that justice is not being done. About two-thirds of the total number of complaints are withdrawn or settled at the conciliation stage. It shows that ACAS is doing a good job and that the burden on the tribunals is being relieved.

Is the hon. and learned Gentleman aware that the statement that he has just made springs directly from the tightening of the tribunal regulations, which were deliberately designed by the Government to make it more difficult for people who are unfairly dismissed to obtain compensation from the tribunal?

I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman for a moment. There were 35,747 applications last year, and the 27·7 per cent. success rate is not out of line with what one would expect, bearing in mind the large number of cases that were settled.

Wages Councils


asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement as to the extent to which the United Kingdom's membership of the International Labour Organisation might restrict the Government's rights to propose to amend or abolish wages councils.

The United Kingdom's ratification of International Labour Convention No. 26 requires the Government to maintain minimum wage-fixing machinery in trades or parts of trades in which no arrangements exist for the regulation of wages by collective agreement or otherwise, and in which wages are exceptionally low; but partiular wages councils can be changed or abolished where appropriate under the provisions of the Wages Councils Act 1979.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the wages councils' regulations are making a mockery of the Government's attempts to create jobs for school leavers under the young workers schemes? As the ILO presumably has an interest in reducing unemployment, will the Government consider approaching that organisation to see whether it will agree to take 18-year-olds and under out of the jurisdiction of the wages councils? If not, will the Government take unilateral action and turn a Nelsonian blind eye?

I have no intention of trying to make myself heard over barracking from the Opposition.

Order. The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) must stop shouting all the time. I do not believe that anyone should have to fight to be heard in this House.

As I was saying, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that excessive wages among youngsters or among older workers put people out of work —

The right hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. Walker) may not understand that, but the Ford Motor Company, in cutting the prices of its products, understands it well enough. I shall certainly consider what my hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Townend) said, and I am seriously studying how we can best avoid wages councils putting youngsters out of work and preventing others from coming into work. I notice that, in the light of representations made by employers, and perhaps in the light of the letter written by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, some wages councils have recently changed their provisional recommendations.

Prime Minister



asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 30 March.

I have been asked to reply.

My right hon. Friend is attending a meeting of the. European Council in Brussels.

In the light of yesterday's debate on Trident, will my right hon. Friend take time today to consider the need for this country to maintain adequate surface forces? In particular, in view of what is happening in the South Atlantic, will he say that Her Majesty's Government realise the benefits and value of HMS "Endurance", and tell us what steps the Government now propose to take, in view of the value of that ship, either to replace her or to keep her in service?

Certainly the Government accept the value of HMS "Endurance". In answer to my hon. Friend's other question, after all the changes that have been made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, the Royal Navy will remain one of the largest and best equipped navies in the world, apart from those of the two super Powers.

Does the Home Secretary realise that many of us deplore the continued failure by the Prime Minister to accept the link between rising crime in London and the inner cities and the Government's economic policies, but that on the other hand we also deplore the kind of remarks that were made yesterday by Mr. Ken Livingstone, when he attacked the new Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis before that gentleman has even got his feet under the desk at Scotland Yard? [HON. MEMBERS: "Too long".] Does he accept that the new commissioner should be given a fair run and that he should be given the support of the people at large—

Order. Hon. Members should be able to put their questions succinctly and to come to a conclusion.

May I remind the House that the new commissioner was a London bobby on the beat in the London borough of Islington?

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I and many other Ministers have always said, unemployment is a factor, but it is not the only factor, and it is certainly no excuse for the increase in crime. I find Mr. Livingstone's remarks about the new commissioner most deplorable and exceptionable in every way. The new commissioner has been appointed and will take office in October. He has an excellent record as a police officer in this country and in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman is right. He was a considerable figure in London's police force before he went to Northern Ireland and has been a bobby on the beat. I deeply resent Mr. Livingstone's implications.

Will my right hon. Friend draw to the Prime Minister's attention the speech made yesterday by the Governor of the Bank of England, and the CBI report, which both show that our economy is picking up? Does he agree that we should cheer and not jeer about that news, which proves that our policies are working and that it would be folly to change them?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I, too, find it extraordinary that Opposition Members jeer rather than cheer at good news.

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us when the Prime Minister said that she accepted the connection between the rate of unemployment and the crime rate, as he said that all Ministers had done so? Will he take account of the fact that a few minutes before he began to answer these questions the Secretary of State for Employment acknowledged that unemployment was soon likely again to be over 3 million and that a major contributory factor would be the number of young people coming on the register? What effects does the right hon. Gentleman believe that that fact will have this summer in Toxteth, Brixton and in many other places? [HON.MEMBERS:"Disgraceful"].

I find the right hon. Gentleman's last question highly deplorable. I should have thought that every hon. Member would wish to see peace on our streets and no more riots of any sort this summer. For the right hon. Gentleman to suggest that riots might occur is highly irresponsible.

I repeat that the Prime Minister, I and other Ministers have always made it clear that unemployment is a factor. But many other factors play a part in the problems of crime. There are many other difficulties and a great many other factors, for which every hon. Member has a responsibility. The right hon. Gentleman knows that very well.

If the right hon. Gentleman finds anything deplorable in what I have said, why does he not go away and do his duty by again reading the Scarman report, which justifies up to the hilt everything that I have said?

I simply find it deplorable that the right hon. Gentleman should suggest that there is any excuse whatever for crime or riots on our streets.

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that he knows perfectly well that there is a connection between mass unemployment, particularly among young people, and the riots, which is what the Scarman report said? Does he not accept that the Government should wake up and do their duty to prevent mass unemployment?

The right hon. Gentleman knows very well that the Government have taken many very important steps, following the Scarman report. Such steps will continue to be taken. But nothing that Lord Scarman or anybody else says can excuse violence or riots on our streets. The right hon. Gentleman knows that very well.

In view of the importance to the Highland economy, will my right hon. Friend do everything within his power to make a suitable power contract available to an operator for the Invergordon smelter?

That matter is being considered by my right hon. Friends. I have nothing further to say at this stage.


asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 30 March.

I have been asked to reply. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

On behalf of the Prime Minister and the Government, will the right hon. Gentleman admit to the disgraceful folly of selling five battleships to Argentina, which are now being used against us in our British protectorate in the Falkland Islands?

During a week in which my right hon. Friend successfully routed his critics and confirmed his authority as Home Secretary, may I ask whether he had time to notice the application of stop and search powers by certain pickets at the Massey Ferguson factory? Can he explain why, when stop and search powers are exercised unlawfully by pickets they are supported by certain Labour Members, whereas the proposition that the police should have stop and search powers, approved by the House, is opposed by them?

What explanation do the Government have for the failure of their law and order policies?

The hon. Gentleman and many others on the Opposition Benches who now propose that there should be more bobbies on the beat should realise that they removed them in the first place.


asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 30 March.

I have been asked to reply.

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in recent years we have had great difficulty in controlling costs on civil engineering contracts, such as those for the Isle of Grain power station and the Humber bridge? Will the Government reconsider their decision to go ahead with the new British Library? Will my right hon. Friend comment on the views of the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) that the likely total cost will be £600 million?

It was decided to go ahead with that major project because it was the most cost-effective way to preserve the priceless heritage of books and manuscripts that the library holds. I understand that only the first phase has so far been attempted at a cost of £88 million at current prices. The timing and cost of future phases will be considered, but the estimate is totally out of accord with what the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) said.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there are now many hundreds of thousands of young people under 25 who have been out of work for over 12 months? Is he further aware of the simmering anger and despair of the large number of young people who regard the society created by his Government as one of no hope and no future? What is he prepared to do about that?

I find it extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman should imply that the Government have created the situation. The unemployment problems that we face, particularly for our young people, have been growing for many years. The Government have taken many steps to alleviate them. We should all welcome that fact.

Will my right hon. Friend ask the Prime Minister, both as Prime Minister and a London Member, to reflect upon the disgraceful waste of ratepayers' money by the Greater London Council in trying to explain the muddle over London Transport? Will she consider whether there is any useful service now performed by the Greater London Council?

I agree with my hon. Friend that the behaviour of the leader of the Greater London Council is quite extraordinary in any democratic society. I hope that it will be widely condemned on both sides of the House.

Will the Home Secretary, in his dual capacity today, look into the fact that constituents of mine have written to the police and had no answer? Is he aware that they have written to me as their Member of Parliament; that I have written to the police and had no answer? Is he further aware that I have telephoned and had no answer, that I raised the matter in the House last night, and have now received a telephone message without details from the police at Scotland Yard, who do not even know the number of their own police station? As this is a case of people complaining of racial harassment, where racial murders have been committed, will he look into this and see why the police—who are now larger in numbers than they have ever been, with a better organisation and with every facility—cannot answer a Member of Parliament's letter, or do not want to, whereas the Prime Minister can? Will he have a word with me? If he will not I shall cause a disturbance here—[Interruption.]—to draw attention to the fact that the ratepayers, who pay those police, cannot get proper treatment. It is no good the Home Secretary—[Interruption.]

The hon. Gentleman has asked me if I will look into those matters. The answer to that is 'Yes". He has asked me if I will talk to him about those matters. "Yes," but not under the threat of duress by his causing a disturbance.

I shall take the hon. Gentleman's point of order after I have heard the hon. Member for Keighley.

In view of the highly unsatisfactory nature of the Secretary of State's reply to question 14, I give notice that I reserve the right to raise this matter on the Adjournment, in view of the very strong expressions of dissent from the Labour Benches.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that the Home Secretary has been here long enough to know that if I say I shall cause a disturbance in the House, that has nothing to do with him; it is to do with Mr Speaker.

Not for the first time, the hon Gentleman is quite correct. The Home Secretary cart look. after his own affairs.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply given by the Home Secretary to my question, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible opportunity.

South Georgia (Falkland Islands Dependencies)

3.31 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to repeat a statement on South Georgia, which my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has made in another place.

As I told the House on 23 March, a group of Argentines, employed by a commercial contractor, Mr. Davidoff, an Argentine citizen, landed at Leith harbour on South Georgia on 19 March from an Argentine naval transport vessel. Mr. Davidoff had been informed in advance of the need to seek the necessary permission from the British authorities at Grytviken to land and to carry out this salvage work. He conveyed to the British embassy in Buenos Aires his intention to begin work in South Georgia but gave no indication that he would not follow the normal immigration procedures.

When the party arrived at Leith, it did not seek the required documentation, and when requested by the base commander to proceed to Grytviken in order to do so, it failed to comply. Mr. Davidoff s commercial contract is straightforward. However, it does not absolve him or his employees from complying with the normal immigration procedures. Subsequently, the majority of the Argentine party and the Argentine ship departed, but about a dozen men remained on shore.

We therefore made it clear to the Argentine Government that we regarded them as being present illegally on British territory, and sought their co-operation in arranging for their departure, pointing out, however, that their position could be regularised if they were to seek the necessary authorization. Meanwhile, HMS "Endurance" was ordered to proceed to the area to be available to assist as necessary. She has been standing by since 24 March.

On 25 March, an Argentine vessel delivered further equipment to the group ashore. The Argentine Foreign Minister has said that the Argentine party in South Georgia will be given the full protection of the Argentine Government. Argentine warships are in the area.

The situation which has thus arisen, while not of our seeking, is potentially dangerous. We have no doubts about British sovereignty over this Falkland Islands dependency as over the Falklands themselves.

We remain of the view that the unathorised presence of Argentine citizens in British territory is not acceptable. We have no wish to stand in the way of a normal commercial salvage contract, but the position of those carrying it out must be properly authorised.

Further escalation of this dispute is in no one's interest. In those circumstances, it is clearly right to pursue a diplomatic solution of the problem. This we are doing. I hope that the Argentine Government will take the same view. Meanwhile, the question of security in the Falklands area is being reviewed, although the House will understand that I prefer to say nothing in public about our precautionary measures. I can, however, inform the House that HMS "Endurance" will remain on station as long as is necessary.

A week has passed since the Minister of State made his first remarks about the problem. I think that his feeble statement this afternoon will lead many, even on this side of the House, to agree for once with The Daily Telegraphthat Her Majesty's Government's conduct in this affair appears to be both foolish and spineless. We can all agree that a diplomatic settlement of this dipute is needed. It raises severe problems for the Antarctic treaty, which is, I think, due for renewal next year. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will say something about that.

I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree, as his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence said yesterday, that diplomacy is unlikely to succeed unless there is an effective deterrent against unilateral action by the other party. There is no doubt that the dispute has revealed that the Government's defence priorities are mistaken. The Government have crippled the Royal Navy for the sake of the Trident programme. The result is that the recent events have found the Government with their trousers down in the South Atlantic. It is not surprising that the Argentine Government have been tempted by the target that they have provided.

We welcome the U-turn on the presence of HMS "Endurance", but the hon. Gentleman must be aware that that clapped out ice-breaker is no match for the five or six warships, armed with Exocet missiles, which the Argentine Government are reported to be sending towards the area.

I can understand that the hon. Gentleman may prefer to say nothing about other measures, but perhaps that is because he has nothing to say. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the Government have been responsible for a grave dereliction of duty in putting themselves in a position where they are totally incapable of making any response to a threat which has been mounted for the past three weeks.

It is difficult to understand what the right hon. Gentleman would like us to do. On the one hand, he says that it is right to seek a diplomatic solution—which is precisely what we are trying to do—and, on the other, he seems, in a veiled way, to suggest that we should take some other action. I hope and believe that the House wishes the Government to do whatever they can through diplomatic channels to achieve a peaceful settlement of the problem. As I have said, in the meantime we are reviewing the security situation. It is necessary to do that, and HMS "Endurance" will remain in the area for as long as is necessary.

The hon. Gentleman has missed the point. The Government have consistently argued that negotiations on such matters cannot succeed unless carried out from a position of strength. The Government have left Britain in a position of extreme weakness as a direct result of their defence priorities. That is why we face a damaging humiliation in a situation that the Government should never have allowed to arise.

Despite the right hon. Gentleman's wealth of experience, his remarks do not particularly help the situation. We are trying to seek a diplomatic solution to the problem. That is the desire of all those who seek peace in the area. It is right that we should do that. However, as I said last week, it is the British Government's duty to support and defend the islanders to the best of their ability. Nevertheless, it is surely preferable that we should do our utmost to seek a diplomatic solution, and we are trying to do that.

Is it not satisfactory that the impudence of the Argentine Government is matched only by that of the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) whose policy was to reduce the Royal Navy and that has led to this state of affairs? Would it not be a good idea if, besides sending massive shipments of grain to Russia, the Argentine concentrated on putting its own house in order and did not indulge in these foreign adventures?

My hon. Friend knows something of the problem, and all concerned would agree that it would be sensible not to take provocative action. We should take action that is designed to bring about a peaceful resolution of the problem.

Is it the Government's view that public opinion in this country would support, if necessary, the use of force to maintain British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands and the dependencies?

I should firmly point out that we claim and have sovereignty over the area and there is no shadow of doubt that, if it comes to the point, it will be our duty to defend and support the islanders to the best of our ability. However, our objective is to seek every diplomatic method possible to obtain a peaceful solution.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this comic opera would never have taken place but for the Government's continual assertion that we have sovereignty over the Falkland Islands and that nothing will happen as long as the islanders wish to remain British, while at the same time they have forced them into dependence on the Argentine for access to the outside world and have threatened to withdraw and will withdraw the only Royal Navy ship in the area?

My hon. Friend implied that there might be some contingency plans afoot. About time! Will he give an assurance that he will make a statement on the subject next week?

As my hon. Friend will have noted, we are reviewing the security situation and HMS "Endurance" will remain on station for as long as necessary. That is the Government's firm decision. My hon. Friend referred to the communications agreement, signed in 1971. However, to suggest that it was forced upon the islanders is unfair, because they gain certain advantages from co-operation. Therefore, it is unfair to say that the agreement was forced on them. They want the best possible communications with the outside world.

Order. I hope that questions and answers will be brief. I shall allow them to continue until 4 o'clock, when another statement will be made.

Is not one of the lessons of this affair that any sign of weakness by the British Government, such as the lease-back proposal and the threat to the future of HMS "Endurance", will be exploited by the Argentinians? Is not the Falkland Islanders' right to self-determination at stake?

I shall take advantage of the hon. Gentleman's question to repeat that the islanders' wishes are paramount. There should be no change in the situation without the consent of the islanders or that of the British Parliament.

My hon. Friend keeps repeating that we shall stay in the area and help the islanders to the "best of our ability". The trouble is that we have not got the ability. HMS "Endurance" is better than nothing, but in the circumstances it is not enough. What else do the Government propose to do?

I know of my hon. Friend's long-standing interest in the subject, but I am sure that he will understand that it would be wrong for me to comment in detail on the security review that we are undertaking. For all our sakes and, above all, for the sake of the islanders, it is most important that we should seek a peaceful diplomatic solution to the problem in South Georgia.

Is the Minister aware that his positive response to the mood of the House last week and his quiet determination to maintain and defend British interests in the whole of the South Atlantic should be appreciated by the House? This is what we would expect from the grandson of Admiral Luce, who played an effective part in an earlier battle of the Falkland Islands.

Before some enthusiast outside the House suggests that we should "nuke" the beggars, is it not ludicrous that the sheer incompetence and mismanagement of an Argentinian scrap dealer of dubious probity should now lead to confrontation between two navies that ought to be co-operating? Is that not providing unwise enthusiasts in the Argentine with an opportunity to attempt to divert attention away from their problems? Will the Minister confirm that the British forces available to the Government are by no means as weak as some may assume?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his personal remarks. However, he should not assume that I shall follow exactly what my grandfather did in 1914.

Once again, I reassure the House that we have a duty to the islanders and shall defend them to the best of our ability. We are merely asking Mr. Davidoff and his men to seek the proper authority from those in Grytviken to proceed with the sub-contract.

Will my hon. Friend reassure the House that in seeking a diplomatic solution he is taking the initiative, and that, if there were a need for other measures, he would act with speed and determination?

The whole House will be interested in the precedent that the Government have created by asking a country to help in removing its illegal immigrants who are on British territory. Is the precedent to be extended? Will China, Pakistan and India be similarly asked to help?

Does not my hon. Friend realise that last week there was great concern in the House when he made his statement, because he made it clear that the men were conveyed by a ship belonging to the Argentinian Navy? I hope that my hon. Friend will bear in mind that the Argentine Government must have known that the men were going to the Falkland Islands. We have given undertakings to the people of the Falkland Islands—a British colony—and, while doing everything possible to settle the dispute by diplomatic means, we must take measures to ensure that any follow-up by force by the Argentine to that possible probing operation does not succeed. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to Early-Day Motion 368, which clearly expresses the feelings of many Conservative Members.

The Government and the House noted that the landing of a number of men on 19 March was undertaken with the use of an Argentine naval vessel. Of course, that caused us concern, and it continues to cause us concern, but that does not detract from the fact that it is important to work as hard as we can for a diplomatic solution.

Now that the Secretary of State for Defence has received an object lesson in the irreplaceable value of a visible naval presence, will the Minister convey to his right hon. Friend the fact that a much more compelling deployment than HMS "Endurance" will be required if the Falkland Islands problem is to subside? Does the Minister agree that that type of requirement, together with support, makes nonsense of the defence cuts in surface ships over the past year and shows how misconceived are the Government's present defence priorities?

I know of the hon. Gentleman's keen interest in defence. I have already stated that we are undertaking a security review and that we shall defend the islands if necessary. I still express the hope that this will not be necessary.

Is it still the Government's intention to scrap HMS "Endurance" when the present emergency is over?

I have undertaken, and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has undertaken, that HMS "Endurance" will remain on station for as long as is necessary. Its future will be examined in the light of a general security review that we are undertaking for the Falklands area.

Why is not our possession of a vastly expensive independent nuclear deterrent deterring the Argentinians?

I am Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and not the Secretary of State for Defence.

Disregarding the quaint expression of jingoism from the Opposition Front Bench, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he is aware that many of us believe that it is better that the precautionary measures for the maintenance of British sovereignty and the protection of British subjects should be effective rather than that they should be publicised? Will my hon. Friend confirm that the foreign flag that was raised on British territory in South Georgia flies there no longer?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening remark. I can confirm that the foreign flag did go up for a short time, but it has been taken down.

I welcome what my hon. Friend the Minister has said about the Government's intention to defend and support to the best of their ability the legitimate interests of the Falkland Islands and their dependencies. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the ability that is available will be maintained and that he will have regard not merely to the incident concerning a scrap dealer and who stamped his passport but to the wider British interests in oil and gas, fishing and the strategic advantages of that part of the world?

I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that we shall take all those factors into account. However, the dispute over the future of the islands remains. It would be in everyone's interests if it could be resolved, but, at the end of the day, if it is necessary we shall defend the islanders to the best of our ability.

I support the Government's attempts to solve the problem by diplomatic means, which is clearly the best and most sensible way of approaching the problem, but is the Minister aware that there have been other recent occasions when the Argentinians, when beset by internal troubles, have tried the same type of tactical diversion? Is the Minister aware that on a very recent occasion, of which I have full knowledge, Britain assembled ships which had been stationed in the Caribbean, Gibraltar and in the Mediterranean, and stood then about 400 miles off the Falklands in support of HMS "Endurance", and that when this fact became known, without fuss and publicity, a diplomatic solution followed? While I do not press the Minister on what is happening today, I trust that it is the same sort of action.

I am certain that the House and the Government listened with great respect to what the right hon. Gentleman said. The Government note what he has said.

While appreciating that my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs wishes to deal with the matter through diplomatic channels, and not wishing to compromise him on the methods being used, could not my hon. Friend be a little more positive rather than saying that the Government will use their best endeavours to achieve a solution in this matter to the comfort of our interests throughout the world?

As I said in my statement, we cannot underestimate the dangers of the present situation. It is important to do what we can to achieve a sensible resolution of the problem in South Georgia. We have the wider interests of the islanders very much at stake and very much in mind. I can assure my hon. Friend that we shall live up to the assurances that I gave earlier.

Is my hon. Friend aware that, while we support his diplomatic efforts and do not want a Anguilla type operation—as some Members on the Opposition Front Bench seem to want—it must be made clear to Argentina and to the world that on British territory the British view will prevail?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As a result of the statement, I hope our position is absolutely clear.

While I accept what the Secretary of State has said about the United Kingdom having sovereignty and wanting to look after the interests of the people of the Falkland Islands, would it not be better, when there are so few people involved, to implement part of the British Nationality Act to give the Falkland islanders who are still on the islands the right of British nationality and let the Argentine Government see that the territory is still definitely a British possession?

My hon. Friend has expressed that view before. There are 1,800 islanders. Of those, 1,400 have the right of abode in Britain. Last year my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave an assurance that we would consider all the other cases sympathetically if necessary. I do not believe that what my hon. Friend has suggested is the right way to approach the matter. It is in everyone's interests to find a peaceful resolution to the problem. That is the British Government's responsibility, but we have a duty to the islanders to defend and support their interests.

Are we not making heavy weather of this matter? Would not the sensible answer be for the Royal Marines to round up these 12 "Steptoes", put them on a boat and pack them off whence they came? Would not any country do that?

I hope that my hon. Friend will pause and reflect on the position in the area and on our responsibility to the islands as much as anything else. Every move that we make must be carefully judged. Our objective must be a peaceful resolution of the problem.

I remind my hon. Friend that it ill behoves the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) to accuse the Government of being spineless. The Labour Party was in office when the Falkland islands were occupied by a party of Argentians and it did nothing. That occurred on the island of Southern Thule. I assure my hon. Friend that any firm action that the Government take will be fully supported by Conservative Members. Will he reconsider the long-term future replacement of HMS "Endurance" in the South Atlantic?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. On the question of the future of HMS "Endurance", I have already made it plain in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed) that HMS "Endurance" will remain on station for as long as is necessary, but that we are undertaking a general security review of the Falklands area. We shall take into account in the review the point about the long-term future of HMS "Endurance".

Is it not clear from the exchanges to which we have listened that the Government accept that the landing of the men in South Georgia was a deliberate provocation by the Argentinian Government—for what purpose I do not know—and that it took place because the Government have not taken the sensible precaution of assembling adequate naval forces in the area as the Labour Government did in a similar situation? Will the Government learn from this experience that they must exercise more influence on the shape and deployment of our Armed Forces than they are doing at present? This is the first price that we are paying for a dreadful error in priorities in the Goverment's defence policy.

It is easy for the right hon. Gentleman to preach to us about how we can avoid disputes. We are doing our best to resolve the problem. We have a duty to the islanders, and I have repeated that time and again. I do not think that it helps to try to make comparisons between what previous Governments have done and what this Government have done. We are in a serious situation, and we are trying to resolve it peacefully.

Death Grant

4.2 pm

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement about the death grant.

As the House is aware, some 14 years have elapsed since the death grant was last increased. Whilst never designed to cover the full costs of a funeral, the grant has now declined to such a low level in relation to those costs that anxiety is being caused to poor families by this ever widening gap. At the same time, social conditions have improved to such an extent in comparison with those that prevailed in the 1930s and gave rise to the concept of a death grant, that this grant is no longer of the same importance to the large majority of families as it once was.

The Government's prime concern is to devise a scheme that will ensure that the grant is increased to a level sufficient to provide a real contribution to funeral costs for those families in greatest need of such help. One solution would be to make a universal increase in the death grant. However, such an increase could not be-made to a level worth while to those in need without diverting additional considerable resources to those with no real need; and there are more pressing purposes to which we wish to devote such resources, it they were available. Although these considerations have occupied us for some months, it has not been possible to find an easy solution, especially as we have been anxious to avoid means-testing people at the time of bereavement.

An alternative to a universal increase is to abolish the existing contributory death grant and to put in its place a non-contributory funeral grant of a substantial sum but of limited availability. The determining factors for entitlement to a new funeral grant would be the size of the estate left by the deceased and the current receipt by the person responsible for his funeral of one of a specified group of social security benefits. Fewer people would benefit, but the size of the funeral grant could be increased substantially and help brought to those most in need.

We have decided, however, that before reaching any final decision on this fundamental change in the nature of the grant we should set out the problems, what seems to us to be the most practical way of overcoming them, and invite comments. Accordingly, we have published today a consultative document explaining the alternatives in futher detail to see whether they command public support as representing a more effective use of present resources than the existing arrangements. We hope that our ideas will be carefully considered by the many organisations and individuals who will be receiving copies of the document, and we look forward to their views.

I shall give the Minister a chance to tell the House what the Government intend to do about the death grant. His statement contains no figures and provides no details of the options that are set out in the consultative document. Will he confirm that there is no intention to provide any new money either by the national insurance fund or by the Consolidated Fund? Does he accept that the three options that are mentioned in the consultative document would benefit only 65,000 to 125,000 persons compared with the 630,000 who receive some type of death grant under the present system? Does he agree that all the options set out in the consultative document will involve the means testing of the deceased spouse or of the person responsible for the funeral bill, and that it is intended to ask questions about other close relatives and their resources?

Why is the capital sum of £1,500, which is mentioned in the consultative document, considerably less than the capital sum which is used for supplementary benefit purposes? Has the hon. Gentleman considered the design of the application form to ensure that it will not be a major deterrent to those applying for what will be a meagre grant that will be means-tested in the 1980 style and made available to only 10 to 20 per cent. of existing beneficiaries? Assuming that any one of the three options set out in the consultative document ever gets on the statute book, do the Government have any intention of regularly uprating the new system? Lastly, on what date will the consultation process end and when is it intended to bring firm proposals before the House?

The note of indignation in the hon. Gentleman's voice would have been rather more impressive if the previous Labour Government had sought to tackle this problem. All that we had from them was a series of statements to the effect that there were higher priorities or that there were no resources available. At least we are making a real attempt to bring forward a viable scheme to help those in greatest need.

There are three possible ways in which we can assist those in greatest need. The larger the amount of the grant the fewer people we shall be able to assist. That is because we are subject to restraint in resources. However, there will be marginal administrative savings as a result of the lesser number of claims to be handled. We hope in some of the options to use some of those savings to increase the benefit and make more money available to those who are in need.

The consultation document will be widely available. The speed with which we can implement any of the changes that are suggested in it will depend on the nature of the public's reaction to the proposals that are set out in the document. Legislation will be required and it will be necessary to find time in the legislative programme.

If a person dies and leaves a free estate of £1,500 or more—we exclude from that the value of the house in which he and his family lived and the value of the contents—the assumption will be made that there is sufficient money in the family to pay for the funeral of the person who has died. The figure of £1,500 has no relation to the supplementary benefit capital cut-off level, and it is roughly four to five times the cost of an average funeral. If the value of the estate is below £1,500 and is not sufficient in those terms, and if the person who is responsible for the burial is receiving one of a number of social security benefits or, for one of the options, is receiving rent rebate or an allowance, that person will be assisted by a funeral grant. That will range from anything between £150 to £250 depending upon the number who are admitted into the scheme.

Order. I hope that we shall have quick questions and answers. I shall allow questions to run until half past four—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh".] Order. It is difficult for me to tell whether that is a cry of dismay or an indication that the House wants to spend longer on this topic. I shall see how questions and answers go, but half past four is in my mind.

Since people have paid contributions towards the death grant, does the Minister agree that the Government would not allow an insurance company to get away with such a swindle? May we take the Minister's assurance about the issuing of a consultative document and the hint that legislative time may not be available to mean that nothing will be done about the grant?

It is precisely because the option suggested would take away contributory rights that we want the widest possible consultation. It will depend entirely on the reaction of the British people whether we follow that proposal. On the right hon. Gentleman's reference to contributions, the actuarial assessment is that 2p per week is roughly the part of the national insurance contribution of an employee that goes towards paying the current grant of £30. That is useless to families without money and a waste of time to families who have money.

I welcome my hon. Friend's statement because, for some people, the present grant is not nearly enough and should be bigger. For many people, it is no longer as necessary because they have made their own arrangements. First, will my hon. Friend assure us that there will be no question of any form of means test at the delicate point of bereavement? Secondly, will he confirm that elderly people, presently entirely excluded from the scheme, or who qualify for only a very small grant, will be eligible under the new arrangements? Finally, will he—

I assure my hon. Friend that we were determined not to put forward any proposals that would require means testing at the time of the bereavement. The options envisaged that people applying for a funeral grant would make a simple declaration that they were already receiving one of many social security benefits. That is not means testing, but automatic passporting on a simple declaration made. As for the old people, who have no entitlement today to death grant, by changing the basis to a non-contributory benefit, we shall, of course, be bringing them within the ambit and scope of the new arrangements.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government have been considering this issue for at least 18 months and that it was considered by the Cabinet on at least two occasions? Does he realise that there will be considerable contempt in Britain for a Government who have run away from taking a decision? He is now putting forward three proposals for consultation. They are all totally unacceptable.

We have considered the matter for many months and have done something. The previous Administration did not even bother to consider it and did nothing at all. I do not know how many times it has been before the Cabinet because I am not a member of that august body.

Will not my hon. Friend agree that the first priority must be to extend this grant to those who, at the moment, are too old to qualify for it? We need not hang about on that aspect. Secondly, would it not be a great deal fairer and much more humane if there was an automatic right to a funeral grant? That grant could be recovered by his Department from the estate of the deceased person if it was justified.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I know of his interest in those who have never contributed to the scheme and, therefore, do not now have a death grant, because of their age. We shall certainly consider this aspect to see whether it is possible to introduce interim help before the present scheme, if acceptable to the public, is brought into effect. On the remainder of my hon. Friend's question, again we will have to consider that. I am not able to give an immediate answer.

While the House welcomes the consultative document, will the Minister tell the House the timetable for payment? Will he also tell the people who are in desperate need and worrying about realistic help—with the high cost of dying—when they may expect to get this payment?

That depends entirely on the reaction that we get to this consultative document. If it is generally welcomed and is not subjected to the sort of carping or party political points that it has been subjected to this afternoon, the Government will be greatly encouraged to bring the matter forward as quickly as possible.

It would be a matter for legislation and there is no vehicle in this parliamentary Session for dealing with the matter. I cannot help the hon. Gentleman beyond that. However, once we introduce legislation, if everyone is agreed, I can get through the House quickly, as he well knows.

Does the Minister accept that his attempts to play down the importance of this matter—he said that the death grant was no longer an important subject—is to misunderstand the whole situation? Is he not also aware that there has been constant consultation throughout the country, over many years? He will remember the 1 million signatures handed to his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister some time ago, as a result of that consultation and the consultations we had with his predecessors. Therefore, will he accept that the package proposed in his consultative document—his broadsheet—will be totally unacceptable to all the organisations involved in arguing for the death grant? Nothing short of a flat rate increase, as suggested by the all-party pensioners group and others, will suffice.

It would be a pity if the hon. Gentleman anticipated answers given by voluntary organisations and other interested bodies outside before they had had an opportunity to study these proposals. I refer him to the research document "Families, Funerals and Finances", which showed that 93 per cent. of families had no difficulty raising money to pay for funerals. If we had a flat increase to perhaps £200 per death, it would increase public expenditure by about £115 million.

If the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave me an extra £115 million to play with, I would find far better uses for it than to pay people who do not need the £200 for a funeral grant. I would refer to the invalidity trap, the 5 per cent. abatement on unemployment benefit and the 5 per cent. abatement on invalidity benefit. I would far rather spend money on these and other things than give very rich people £200 when someone in their family dies.

Will my hon. Friend accept, that he is mistaken in supposing that this is not a matter of interest to a great many people in a low income area such as I represent? Will he further accept that the old, who are currently excluded, will be greatly relieved to know that they are to be considered in future. Will he give careful consideration before narrowing this matter to the sort of people I represent?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her remarks. Of course, I am aware that this matter is of great interest outside the House. Therefore, we dealt with the matter by way of a consultative document, so that we could receive views of the sort she has given before reaching a final decision.

Surely the Minister is aware that all these options have been known to the Government and voluntary organisations for some time. The organisations have expressed the view that they want a flat rate increase, with the very elderly included. Surely the Minister will agree that this could be achieved by a simple amendment or new clause to the Finance Bill. Will he not agree to that sort of change now?

First, I do not accept the assumption that these options have been worked out and were known to all organisations, as the hon. Gentleman said. In any case, I have already dealt with the financial consequences of a flat rate increase. If it were of a substantial sort, the cost would be significant. I have other uses for that sort of money.

Mr. W. Benyon