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Orders Of The Day

Volume 28: debated on Thursday 29 July 1982

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Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.— [Mr. Thompson.]

Cornwall (Housing)

8.32 pm

I have tried to raise the problem of housing in Cornwall on one or two occasions, unsuccessfully. However, I never thought that the possibility would arise when I could explore every avenue of the county's housing problems for a full 12 hours. When I realised that I had 12 hours in which to speak, I was tempted to bring a list of all my constituents who are awaiting a house and read them out so as to use the time available.

My county is recognised as an attractive part of the country but there are aspects of life in Cornwall that are not as attractive as some may envisage. Possibly in the next few weeks one may see more of my parliamentary colleagues in my county than in the House. Many people visit Cornwall in the summer, but sometimes the image of the county that they bring back is not a realistic appraisal. On a nice sunny day with the surf rolling in at Perranporth, or a similar resort, the county is most attractive. Even the humblest dwelling looks attractive in those circumstances. But there are the Januarys when the seas rage and the winds blow and tragedies such as the one last Christmas occur. Those dwellings may not be so magnificent in such circumstances.

The desire of individuals to secure an exclusive home of reasonable size should by now have been achieved by our society. There is a combination of circumstances in my county. I do not believe that that reasonable demand has been achieved and now the position is deteriorating. People in Cornwall earn the lowest average wage in England. A small percentage of houses is owned by the local authorities. Cornwall has the special problem of summer lets and second homes and a remarkable and inexplicable number of people are drifting towards the county. I suspect that it may have something to do with the next few weeks, as people see the county and believe that it would be a marvellous place in which to live. Those factors have added up to an unacceptable position. I hope that the Minister can respond to my questions.

I shall give a few examples of cases brought to my attention. I have not asked my constituents whether I may reveal their names in public, so I must refer to Mr. G, Mr. H or Mr. Q. For all that, the cases are valid and if the Minister wishes to check them, he may examine the correspondence. Mrs. G has three children aged 11, 10 and 9, two of whom have been in district council care for at least a year. Correspondence with the director of the local social services department reveals that if the family could be rehoused they could be reunited. Mrs. G has waited for at least a year.

Mrs. C lives in a three-bedroomed house. One bedroom is only a boxroom. In that house there are four adults, two teenagers and a two-year-old child, who lives with her mother in the boxroom. Mrs. C has been on the waiting list for three and a half years.

Mrs. P lives in a two-bedroomed flat with a kitchen and bathroom—it is not a bad flat. She lives there with two adult daughters and with Mr. and Mrs. T and their baby. Mr. T works on night shift and Mrs. T is expecting another child. That family has been on the waiting list for many months.

Another constituent lives in a house with her mother, father, brother, sister, niece and her seven-year-old child. The child sleeps in a cot in the boxroom with her mother. The mother says that the cot is now smaller than the child, but it cannot be replaced because there is no room for a bed.

Mr. and Mrs. B have a pleasant two-bedroomed maisonette. They wish to transfer to a one-bedroomed property. One would have expected the local authority to welcome that. One may ask what is wrong with the two-bedroomed flat. There are 45 steps from the flat to the street. Mrs. B is elderly, is losing mobility and is becoming a prisoner.

There are worse cases. Mrs. M had a stroke in November 1980. She has recovered a little and can move around her kitchen with the use of an aluminium frame. She lives in a first-floor flat and the only way in which she can get from there to the ground floor is for her husband to help her. The only way that she can get down the steps is for her husband to catch hold of the back of the wheelchair and play "bumps" as it goes down the steps to the street. The lady is in receipt of attendance allowance, which gives one an idea of her condition. Both she and her husband are over 70 years of age.

Another case that I know of is of a young woman who lives in a boxroom—I seem to have more boxrooms in my constituency than anything else—with her 12-month-old child. In the same house live her parents, her sisters, 17 and 12, and her brother of 16. I did not have the courage to tell her when she visited me that, knowing the housing problems in my county, she had no chance of being rehoused. If one were the housing officer with all those other cases to deal with, one could appreciate why her problem does not warrant priority.

The worst case of all that has recently been brought to my attention is of a young man who was paralysed in a motor accident in January of this year. He is as fit as he is likely to be. He is in a local hospital, and there he will stay until the local authority can find him a property in which to live. His wife and children live with relatives, and the hospital says that until suitable accommodation is provided, it is unreasonable and unrealistic for the wife to take on the not inconsiderable problems of having to deal with a husband who is paralysed from the neck down.

To be fair, the council is doing all that it can and I have promised that the family will be given priority consideration. However, he has been in the hospital for some weeks and there is not yet a house selected for the family and there is no start on the modifications that will be necessary for any home that they have. I could go on and on with examples, but as other hon. Members wish to speak I shall not give any more examples of individual cases.

As for the young couples who marry and believe that a responsible way to bring up a family is to obtain their own home before starting a family—there are many such people in my constituency and I suspect that they are not unique in believing that—they will die of old age and childless if they are hoping for council property in my constituency. I wish to run through why this ludicrous position has arisen. It is complicated and I suspect that some of the problems are, if not unique, fairly special, to my part of the world.

If someone is faced with inadequate housing, the most obvious thing to do is to try to solve one's own problem. That is what most people do—they buy a house, take on a mortgage. I do not know whether the Minister has ever seen it, but some time ago I commissioned a pamphlet to be produced by the Low Pay Research Unit called "Low Pay and Unemployment in Cornwall". This evening, I shall refer only to the low-paid. The figures in the pamphlet are for 1980, but the ratios have not changed significantly. They show that for full-time working men over the age of 21, in April 1980 the average weekly wage in the United Kingdom was £124·50. In my county it was £98·80. If we look at it in another way, which may be better because the statistics are slightly out of date, in 1979 the average wage in Cornwall was 79·7 per cent. of the Great Britain average. In 1980, it was 79·4 per cent. I do not make anything of that miniscule change, as I suspect that the figure is similar for this year. At that time 29·6 per cent. of the full-time employed males in my county earned less than the top line wage of £75 a week. The average for Great Britain was 16 per cent.

It is a simple fact of the economy of my county—where I was born and brought up; some even say that I sound as though I come from Cornwall—that if a male in my constituency who is willing to do a good day's work and is fit and able could find a job with a top line of £85 a week, he would consider himself very fortunate. If such a job were advertised and a place were appointed where people had a queue for that job, there would be a queue of mammoth proportions. The sum of £85 a week represents £4,500 a year. We talk about solving the problem for ourselves. Could one manage on £4,500 a year and pay a mortgage of £12,000 or £13,000? I confess that I should not like to carry such a mortgage if I were on £4,500 a year. However, it is not unknown. Some people have managed it.

I come to the irony of the situation. In many parts of the country, house prices are related to local average wages. Tragically, that is not so in my county. I have no statistics, but I suspect that, ignoring London, the average prices in my county are at least the national average. The prices at which properties exchange hands in some of the coastal areas are beyond belief. Even inland, where local people are increasingly forced to live, prices for properties are at least the same as the average prices throughout the United Kingdom.

The reason for all this is the population drift. In the last decade, Cornwall has seen a population growth of 12·1 per cent. That is slightly higher than it was in the preceding decade. Let me repeat that figure: 12·1 per cent. population growth in a decade. It is the fifth highest figure for any county in England, and the other four contain new towns. However, there has been no attempt to organise that growth. Indeed, some people in our county occasionally approach the media in an attempt to put people off coming to live in Cornwall. It is quite remarkable to have such a population growth in a decade, and that decade follows the 1960s when the percentage, although lower, was much the same.

People are buying their way into the county. They do not get council houses. Indeed, I cannot get them for my own constituents. People buy their way into Cornwall, and that is what is holding up house prices. So, for many people, solving one's own problem is simply not on. It is a fantasy that some hope for, work for, and strive for, but I fear that it is something that they will not attain.

We must dismiss that method. What about the private rented sector? Let us explore that next. The statistics here look slightly more encouraging, in that 15 per cent. of houses in Cornwall are used for private rent, while the national figure is 13·2 per cent. So perhaps things are better in this respect. However, the private rented sector is rapidly declining, as any Member of Parliament from any part of the country will know. I suspect that the basic raw figure is slightly misleading when it comes to my county, because it has an unusual proportion of tied properties. The most obvious tied property of course is the agricultural cottage, but there are a number of occupations in my county that have tied properties.

To be fair to the Government, I believe that the Government's shorthold tenancy reform will make a useful contribution here. However, they have made a mistake in not making rent review compulsory. There are many reasons for that. The truth is that it will not be greatly used, and it is not being greatly used. I suspect that as long as the Labour Party threatens, if it comes to power, to destroy the legislation and put all shorthold tenancies on a permanent basis, it will not reap its full advantage.

I am not certain that the legislation will even be that much good in my county. The real nub of the whole problem in my county is that for those who have property to rent there is a viable alternative and that is to rent the property by the week during the summer. Some are sold for second homes, but renting the property by the week during the summer is good business. The money comes in cash and Cornwall has a fairly understandable attitude towards paying tax. On the whole, it is not that sure that it is part of England anyway and so it has a fairly tolerant attitude towards the tax that one should pay in such circumstances. The money comes in, some of it gets lost and one can repossess the property every year.

Summer lets are a bigger problem in my county than are second homes. The reason for that is obvious—it is one of geography. Someone who wants a second home wants to get there. I know from my weekly experience that the distance from here to my front door is over 300 miles. Somewhere 300 miles away is not a credible proposition for a weekend visit. There are second homes, but they are not the problem in my part of the world that they are in North Wales and South Devon. The effect of second homes and summer lets is the same but there is a difference between the two.

The national dwelling and housing survey that was recently carried out showed that Cornwall had 18,800 vacant dwellings out of a total housing stock of 171,500. Eleven per cent. of the housing stock in Cornwall is empty. The figure for the English shires is 4·5 per cent. The highest outside Cornwall and England is the Isle of Wight at 8·1 per cent. There may be some political significance in such statistics. More remarkable than that is the figure for Dyfed, in Wales, of 10·7 per cent. and for Powys in Wales, of 10·8 per cent. Both those figures are lower than that for my county. Only Gwynedd, which has rightly received much publicity, where the figure is 14·5 per cent., has more vacant dwellings in that context than my county.

We need legislation for this problem. It could be justified by the social effects within the communities, where the problem has become a disease. If the Minister comes to my county, I can take him to areas where over one-third of the houses are now used for summer lets or for second homes. There is no more effective way of destroying a community. There is nobody there in January so the chapel and the shops close and the dentist and the doctor go away because they cannot make a living in just a few months of the year. Some villages make most forlorn sights in January. They are like disorganised Butlin holiday camps. If I found somebody in one village in my constituency in January, Portloe, I would be kind to him because one would have to assume that he was lost, because there are so few people who still live there.

It is my fundamental belief that the use of properties for summer lets or for second homes—I admit that the latter is slightly more difficult—should be made subject to change of use planning permission. I see no logic in the position defended by successive Governments that if one wants to change a house to a shop one must go to the local authority for planning permission to do so, but if one wants to change a house to the commercial purpose of letting it by the week during the summer, apparently no planning permission is required. It is to rub salt into the wound to see such properties given domestic rate relief. That is beyond belief for those who live in the villages, who have to deal with the problem and see its effect on other communities.

Such legislation need not be national. It needs to be legislation that an authority can use if it wishes. I remember discussing the problem once with my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) and he explained to me that summer lets and second homes in his fair city were not the first problem that came to mind when discussing housing difficulties. We know that that is so, but that does not mean that the problem is not massive in many areas.

I have gone through two options and I now return to the proposition that the council solve the housing problem. A survey suggested that 31·2 per cent. of the British housing stock was owned by local authorities. That is not quite one-third. The figure for Cornwall is 18·6 per cent. However, in reality, the figure is lower than that because it ignores the 11 per cent. of houses standing empty. However, of the houses lived in, in the normal sense of the word, 18·6 per cent. are owned by local authorities. The figure appears to be almost the lowest figures in the United Kingdom. The only counties with lower figures that I could find were Dorset, Sussex and Surrey. At least two of those counties are prosperous enough to enable people to solve the problem largely for themselves. They certainly have a standard of living that people in my county would not dare even to dream of.

There is nowhere to go other than to the local authority and so the pressures mount up until they are enormous. I have talked to all the district councils in my county. Perhaps the problem is best illustrated by the use that is being made of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act. The figures that I shall give ignore council transfers, because no real change has taken place. However, 75 per cent. of the houses let by the Restormel authority in the past 12 months have been let to people under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act.

At 50 per cent., Caradon is about the norm for the county and North Cornwall has the best record, because one-quarter of its lets come under that Act. Often, the councils have no accommodation. I sometimes hear hon. Members talking about hard-to-let council houses. There is no such thing in my area. When people have been through such sagas they will accept a house on top of a cliff, in the middle of a moor or anywhere. There is no such thing as a hard-to-let council house. The councils have no accommodation, and therefore resort to temporary accommodation.

In Carrick, nine families live in Trennick house, a fine old mansion with big rooms. There is a family in each room. A similar situation can be found at Penryn. The council has hired 40 caravans on a local site and other people are accommodated in bread and breakfast establishments. That is just not good enough. Indeed, matters are becoming worse. Sixty families live in temporary and often hopelessly inadequate accommodation in a small district authority such as Carrick. Indeed, it has a population of only 50,000. Kerrier has 24 families in a similar situation. Restormel has as many families in difficulties and also has caravan arrangements. Caradon is in a slightly better situation, with 15 or 17 families in temporary accommodation.

I have nothing against caravans. Indeed, I was brought up on a caravan site. My father owned one. Before someone else points it out, I should mention that the caravan site that I referred to in connection with Carrick council is owned by my brother. It is a small world in Cornwall and my brother seems happier with the situation than some people. However, I have no financial interest. Nevertheless, caravans can make a useful contribution towards housing. From years of experience, I know that they are not the place in which to bring up families. They can be useful for young married couples and perhaps, even, on the odd occasion, for couples with very young babies. However, once the children are aged 2 or 3 and begin to run around, caravans are just not the answer.

I have spoken to every housing department in my county. Penwith believes that it is holding its own. The rest believe that the position is becoming worse, and Carrick, Restormel and Kerrier believe that it is rapidly becoming worse. Some of them were a little embarrassed to point out that the position exists despite probably the most ruthless application of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 that exists in England. Anyone who does not qualify is declared to be intentionally homeless, and has to solve his own problems. One in four of the applications made in Cornwall under the Act is rejected as intentional homelessness. Nationally, the figure is nearer one in 25.

We look to the housing investment programme as the sourse of finance to solve the problems. Will the Minister explain why housing investment programmes on a per head basis in my county provide £27·50 a year while in the United Kingdom the average is £37·50 a year and in London for reasons that are totally beyond me the figure is £82 a year? If Cornwall were merely brought up to the United Kingdom average it would mean investment of an extra £3,750,000. Why does not Cornwall deserve average treatment? I defy the Minister to challenge the problem that I have outlined.

All the authorities in my area accept that the best way of using money is a mammoth building programme of accommodation suitable for the elderly. Cornwall has a problem with elderly people that will probably increase. One has only to do a little canvassing—we all do that and perhaps we are moving into a canvassing period—to see the ludicrous under-occupancy that exists on many council estates. If more suitable accommodation were offered many people would willingly transfer homes. A substantial and sustained campaign of building such properties is required to make better use of the family homes that we have. That does not mean that we can afford to forget repairs.

I have often had the opportunity to discuss mining areas in previous Sessions. They may look attractive on an August day with the sun shining, but they are not all that they seem. On most criteria—whether the houses have baths and so on—the local housing position is 50 per cent. worse than the national average. One of the odd things about a rural area is that a slum looks more attractive in the middle of a field than with more slums around it. A slum is a slum, an inadequate house is an inadequate house, and a house without a bathroom is a house without a bathroom regardless of whether it happens to be in an urban or rural area.

The Minister may be surprised that I have used only the first 30 minutes of my 12 hours and have not mentioned council house sales. I do not believe that they make much difference in the medium term, and I do not want the Minister to spend a great deal of time arguing that case. On the whole, I welcome council house sales and look forward to the day of a mammoth property-owning democracy. I do not believe that the legislation is bad for many areas. It has been passed and it is too late to do anything about it. In some cases, council houses are in seaside areas, villages, and along small creeks and it is madness to sell them. I would be the first to oppose the allocation of further land to build more council properties in such areas. That is a minor part of the problem that I wish to bring to the Minister's attention. Council house sales, whether one is for or against them, are not the main cause of the problem that exists in Cornwall. I hope that I have outlined the seriousness of the problem.

Will the Government seriously consider legislation to restrict summer lets and second homes? My county is not the only one to press for help. An article in a London evening newspaper complains of properties being let by the week in the borough of Westminster. That came as a surprise. There is hope that something may be done to solve the problem, because London receives special attention. Cormwall however is, a long way away. Can we look forward to increased investment in the housing to at least the national average?

In many rural areas in percentage terms the lack of housing is worse than in urban areas. I note the tremendous depopulation of this great city, but that must at least help the local authorities in numbers of houses, even though the quality may not be that high. My area does not even have the number of houses to solve the basic shelter problems, and in many instances the houses are inadequate.

I hope that the Minister will consider the problem of summer lets and second homes. Basic housing cannot be provided with 10,000 vacant properties. If only we had the average investment per head given to local authority housing, an extra £3,750,000 would come to my county. Can the Minister explain why that does not happen?

9.6 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) not only on having a debate on housing in Cornwall, but on having the first debate on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill.

The hon. Gentleman gave us a tour d'horizon of the conditions in Cormwall behind the glossy posters advertising sunshine on the beach. It is a matter about which he feels deeply, and his case was cogent and well documented.

I am not unaware of the problems. I have shared with the hon. Gentleman dicussion on the dereliction after generations of tin mining. In the wake are problems of unemployment and wage rates and their consequences for the population's ability to sustain adequate housing. The main issue is Cornwall's relationship to other parts of the country in regard to housing.

In April 1981 the total dwelling stock was 174,000, compared with the 1971 census estimate of 146,000, which is a growth of 19 per cent. The hon. Gentleman rightly laid stress on the fact that its growth factor is perhaps Cornwall's most outstanding feature, among its many unique attributes. It brings with it not only a straight numerical problem but one of social structure by age. That factor has shown a substantial growth compared with the housing stock.

In the decade 1971 to 1981 the usually resident population increased by 12 per cent. from 373,500 to 418,500. Much of the growth provided smaller than average household sizes. The total number of private households increased by almost 18 per cent., or 154,000 units.

My figures can be updated if they are wrong. Of the total number of dwellings about 16·9 per cent. are owned by the local authorities compared with 27 per cent. nationally. That is where the hon. Gentleman started his major theme of the problem of local housing in his area of Cornwall compared with national characteristics.

It is shown from the HIP returns that 3·3 per cent. of the total stock is unfit, 7·6 per cent. lacks basic amenities and 7·7 per cent. needs major repair. In total, almost 19 per cent. of the housing stock is in some state of disrepair. I gather that the figure in Penwith is almost one-third. That area has some of the oldest stock in Cornwall.

The vacancy rate in 1981 was approximately 4½ per cent., which is a low figure. However, in addition there is the problem of second homes and holiday lets. I think that hon. Members will recognise that the problem to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn our attention is not confined to Cornwall. He was right to say that the intensity of the second home problem is not at its most obvious in Cornwall. The second home problem is greater in England and Wales, and to some extent in Scotland.

The hon. Gentleman asked for legislation as a means of dealing with the matter. There are many different ways in which some of the county authorities have sought to deal with it. In certain structure plans proposals have been made for relating new builds to local employment conditions. Others have related them to the number of those who work in a given area, and so on. There are many different thoughts about that problem. Local authorities regard second homes as a matter that should be related to structure planning.

Complex issues are raised, such as the citizen's right to own a property and to do with it what he or she would like, and whether we are limiting the choice that is available to any person to buy property anywhere he likes. Some factors require careful consideration. One area that suffers from this problem is the English Lake District. Its special planning board structure plan is before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for consideration. Such matters are being actively considered, so I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman what the result of that consideration will be. However, I accept that in Cornwall there is plenty of evidence that that problem is compounding the general housing problem, to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

I re-emphasise the fact that in my county summer lets is a bigger problem than second homes. That is not true of the Lake District or of parts of North Wales. I know of some of the difficulties with second homes. I recognise that it would not be easy to change the law. There is no problem with regard to the commercial letting of property by the week, the fortnight or the month. What the Minister said about freedom to do with property what we like is not true. If one owns a property in Cornwall and wants to open a fish and chip shop, one has to move heaven and earth before one gets permission to do that. I do not see the difference between using a property in a picturesque area such as Mevagissey for a fish and chip shop and using it to let by the week for tourists. I do not see why that problem cannot be dealt with.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. We are discussing categories that are available under planning law for a change of use. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that we are talking about a dwelling either being used primarily for domestic use or primarily for commercial use. The fact that other persons will be living domestically in the dwelling does not necessarily involve a change of use. The dwelling is still a dwelling or a residence and has people living in it. As the change of use order stands at the moment, it does not provide for the distinction that the hon. Gentleman would wish. I note his views. He is not alone in voicing them. It is a different matter from that of the ownership of a second dwelling.

The hon. Gentleman laid a fair amount of stress on the peculiarity of the need problem in Cornwall. He quoted from the national dwelling and housing survey. It showed that about 3·2 per cent. of households in Cornwall were overcrowded as compared with 3·7 per cent. in other shire counties. Those figures do not show a great difference. The survey showed that 1 per cent. of households in Cornwall were sharing a dwelling as compared with 1·5 per cent. of other counties. I do not for one minute wish to reduce the importance that the hon. Gentleman attaches to the overall condition of the cases that he has raised. Each of them showed a real need and problem that must be solved. Nevertheless, it is not entirely fair to assume that Cornwall is so different on some of those measurements from other shire counties.

Nevertheless, Cornwall hs a substantial growth in that sector of the population that requires special housing provision—the elderly. In terms of net migration into the county, a substantial proportion of people in the structure plan period, 1976–91, will be at or near retirement age. That is one of the reasons why the structure plan provides for about 40,000 new dwellings in that period.

I shall now deal with what should be the housing response to the needs that the hon. Gentleman has so clearly demonstrated. There are real problems. We should first examine home improvements as a method of ensuring that the housing stock is brought up to a satisfactory level. The hon. Gentleman stressed repair and renewal of the housing stock in Cornwall. It is a significant problem. Too often, we tend to think of repair and renewal as an urban or, indeed, an inner-city problem. That is not true of Cornwall. The problem is seen at its most acute in rural housing, where there has been a long history of neglect. The Government attach great importance to the process of home improvement. We have introduced many measures, both legislative and financial, to encourage this expansion. The hon. Gentleman will know that the 1980 Act has introduced flexibility into the system and has made grant available to many more people, including those on low incomes, the elderly, the disabled and tenants and in both the public and the private sector. In his Budget Statement, my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor announced provision for 90 per cent. grant and the subsequent additional allocations to local authorities have given a considerable boost to the campaign for home improvement.

The hon. Gentleman questioned fundamentally the basis of HIPs and whether Cornwall was being treated fairly in so far as it does not receive the average allocation per head of population. With respect, I do not believe that the mere mathematics of allocation per head of population is a fair way of making the assessment. It is intended that HIP allocations are based on an objective analysis of housing need, the number of houses in disrepair or, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the number of houses without bathrooms. The pressure to which authorities are subjected in terms of numbers of units is taken into account when arriving at the HIP allocation. It is not simply a matter of numbers and averages.

We try to tailor to the need. That is why the levels of home improvement allocations in Cornwall differ. Widely differing bids have been made for the various districts within the hon. Gentleman's constituency. His own authority, Carrick, got all that it asked for, and all the others were given allocations sufficient to meet the mandatory claims that they estimated would be made upon them, and more. The hon. Gentleman might say that they have not got nearly enough, but in respect of the allocations that was the case. Clearly in some areas demand has been underestimated. However, we have advised all local authorities that where the demand for grants in some areas is lower than had been previously estimated when they made their bids we shall want to reallocate the surplus funds to authorities in whose areas the demand is running in excess of available funds. We shall do this in September and the hon. Member may be assured that we shall look very carefully and sympathetically at the situation in Carrick and in all the other Cornish authorities, but I am sure that the hon. Member will understand that I cannot at this stage say how these matters will work out. In the meantime, we are pleased that some councils are making full use of their capital receipts for home improvement grants and of the tolerance arrangements that are available to them.

It is important to understand that the allocations made are in no sense a measure of the problems that the authorities have to face. In many cases, the allocation was simply a topping up of the provision that local authorities had already made in their budget for improvement grants. While £18,000 for Carrick seems absurdly low when compared with the £342,000 allocated to Caradon, it should be seen against the original provision of nearly £1 million made by Carrick compared with just over £300,000 by Caradon.

I shall not burden the hon. Gentleman or the House with further detailed comparisons. The message must be that many local authorities were already doing a great deal and Carrick was certainly one of these.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the matter of homelessness. I certainly agree that homelessness is a significant problem in Cornwall. As the hon. Member explained, the problem is exacerbated in part by the attractiveness of Cornwall as a holiday resort. There is no doubt that Cornwall "imports"—I use the word advisedly—homelessness. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is a problem that becomes particularly critical when winter lets are no longer available.

I pursued that point during my telephone conversations. On the whole, housing officers express the view that more than 80 per cent. of those qualifying for help under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act are what Cornish people would describe as local. What a Cornishman describes as "local" perhaps reveals a not desperately tolerant attitude to the "foreigners" from Devon and beyond.

Therefore, although there is an element of truth in what the Minister says, I think that that aspect of the problem is sometimes exaggerated. I therefore ask the Minister to check the figures so as not to be misled.

I shall certainly ensure that those figures are checked because it is important to make the distinction and to see whether pressure of summer lettings and so on results in people being displaced or whether there is an indigenous homelessness problem, irrespective of the pressure placed on the housing stock in Cornwall by holidaymakers.

The hon. Gentleman and local authorities must accept that the responsibility for meeting local housing needs and helping homeless people must rest with the locally elected housing authorities. Their duties have been laid down in the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. Thus, all who are homeless are entitled to some kind of help from local authorities, including accommodation for those in greatest need. The Government have recently concluded a review of the operations of the Act in England and Wales and have decided from this that the Act should not be amended but that we shall be reviewing the code of guidance to which local authorities must have regard.

A debate of this kind provides information and opinion to which we must give serious consideration. I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.

I am satisfied that the concern expressed about the operations of some aspects of the Act have largely been met by the measures recently outlined in my right hon. Friend's announcement of the conclusion of the review on 13 May. I should add that we shall certainly continue to monitor the operations of the Act.

As regards the need for building new houses, the hon. Gentleman rightly referred to local authorities' housing programmes. Clearly, to build new houses for rent would be a most important prospect if it could be achieved. I do not dispute that for Cornwall this must always be a considerable element of its housing investment programme. However, I think it is equally important for local authorities to take a fundamental look at the role they have to play in housing provision. They have got to look beyond the needs of those who want to rent, to those who want to buy and could afford to do so, given the wide range of low-cost home ownership for which we have been campaigning.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's anxiety about the average wage rates in relation to mortgage commitments, but he will recognise that on the average wage of £75 or £90 to which he referred this could still provide, given the terms available either through local authorities or building societies, mortgage cover for the ownership of low-cost houses. It is in that respect that I commend to the hon. Gentleman the recent booklet issued by the South-West regional office of the Department which attractively lays out the range of possibilities for low-cost home ownership.

Housing problems will not be solved by the use of public sector money alone. This is an area where private sector finance and the ability and willingness of the house building industry to provide low-cost housing must move hand in hand.

The local authority's role is now much wider than one of simply providing houses for rent. More and more it must look for partnership deals with the private sector, to the release of land for the provision of low-cost starter homes and also for low-cost home ownership for the elderly, particularly where houses are under-occupied or are too large and too expensive to run.

This is already happening in Cornwall. Carrick has already provided houses for sale in Falmouth and there are more in the pipeline. It has provided land for self-build groups, as has North Cornwall, which has also made land available for local builders. I have no doubt that much more could be done. The South-West regional office has recently concluded a round of discussions with a number of authorities in its region and representatives of the house building industry to consider jointly and in detail the range of partnership deals that can be struck.

During the forthcoming HIP discussions the Department will be discussing with Cornish authorities just how much more they can become involved in these initiatives. It may be that we shall be able to arrange discussions with them and builders later this year. Indeed, North Cornwall has figured in the first round of discussions, and I can say that I was pleased with the reasonable and forthcoming attitude taken by the officers and members of North Cornwall council on this type of problem. That is an encouragingn indication, and is one we hope to build on.

What is important here is the way in which local authorities manage their resources, both physical and financial. The role of capital receipts in local authority financial management is crucial. We can see this clearly from the level of allocations Cornish authorities received in 1981–82 measured against the capital receipts that were then available. Caradon's allocation was £2·1 million, with capital receipts of over £0·5 million. Carrick's allocation was £1·4 million, with capital receipts of £0·9 million. Kerrier's allocation was £1·6 million, with capital receipts of nearly £0·9 million. North Cornwall's allocation was £1·3 million, with capital receipts of nearly £0·9 million. Penwith's allocation was £1·7 million, with capital receipts over £0·5 million. Restormel's allocation was £1·6 million, with capital receipts over £1 million. In total, therefore, Cornwall authorities were able to enhance their allocations by £5 million.

That is a significant prospect that I trust wilt be built on by local authorities in Cornwall and in the hon. Gentleman's constituency to generate additional funds for the purposes mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

Severe housing problems and pressures on housing department staff exist in Cornwall. House lets and holiday businesses cause specific problems, but they also bring substantial revenue to Cornwall. More specific answers are required and I shall ensure that my colleague responds in writing. We must grapple with the issues that the hon. Member raised so cogently.

Overseas Development Budget (Population Programmes)

9.30 pm

Part of the charm of the House of Commons is that one has the most unlikely bedfellows in debates. I now ask the House to raise its eyes from Cornwall's housing problems to the importance of population programmes in the overseas development budget. When listening to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon), I realised that perhaps the two subjects were not far divorced. He mentioned the problems caused by the increase in population growth and age distribution in Cornwall. Both will crop up in this debate.

I must restate the terrifying context in which any debate on population policy takes place. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) refers to that whenever he speaks about the Brandt report. He highlights the problem as one of the factors in the pressing state of emergency facing the world when dealing with development and economic reorganisation for the rest of the century.

In 1900 the world's population was just over two billion. Whether one is a creationist or an evolutionist, by 1975 the figure had doubled to four billion. The experts agree that it is inevitable that between 1975 and 2000 the world's population will have increased by a further two billion. That means that in the last 25 years of the century the world's population will have increased by an amount equal to the total population 80 years ago. That is inevitable because of the age distribution in the developing world. One of the most terrifying statistics is that 50 per cent. of the population of the developing countries is under 15 years of age. Even if all the people born had simple replacement families of two children per couple, by the year 2000 the world population would top six billion.

Whenever people talk of such statistics the danger is that the figures become like telephone numbers. I should like to put the statistics on a more human level so that we understand what they mean. The World Bank produced figures two years ago predicting the population for the biggest cities in the world by the year 2000. The World Bank suggests that the population of the largest city in the world, Mexico, will have increased from 12 million to 32 million. That is an increase of 20 million in the population of one city in 20 years. Put another way, in the year 2000 the population of Mexico City will be the same as the population of Spain today. It surely does not require much imagination to envisage the social, political and infrastructural problems that such growth will impose on such cities. Mexico City is the largest, but there are many other cities in a similar position.

One of the stark facts about the list of the 10 largest cities in the world is that in the year 2000 the smallest of those 10 will be larger than the largest of those 10 today. It does not require much imagination to envisage the strains and the social, economic and human resource problems that growth will impose. It is not possible to provide for the proper infrastructure, even by the standards which prevail in those countries today, to meet that growth in population. I believe it is a major problem on which anyone interested in the future stability of the world must spend some time concentrating.

Even worse than the simple question of numbers is the thought of the effect of that increase in population on the world's resources. If in the last 25 years of this century the world's population is to increase by 50 per cent. we shall have to increase the world's production of food by 50 per cent. merely to have the same distribution of food resources that we have today. We know now that 800 million people in the world do not have a minimum standard of nutrition. Merely in order to maintain the same average food consumption per head, we will have to increase world food production by 50 per cent. in the last 25 years of the century.

If it is true of food, it is true of all the other resources that extra human beings will demand. As the years go by, the call in the developing world for a more equitable distribution of the world's resources will, to put it at its mildest, not reduce. It is far more likely that it will increase. The demands on extra resources, and the extra demands on finite resources, will be acute. Nowhere is the principle of mutuality of interests, which was set out by the Brandt commission, more clearly visible, nowhere can we see our own interests more clearly aligned alongside the interests of citizens of the developing world, than when we examine the effect of the world's population on the distribution of resources.

I began my speech by emphasising that the population problem is a world problem, and that it is not isolated in particular countries. I suggested that we should look at the problem in the context of the overseas development budget because it is clearly in the developing world that the largest numbers and the greatest problems exist. The fastest growth rate of population exists in the developing world. Empirical evidence has shown convincingly that there is a close link between the level of development and the rate of increase of a country's population. There is a circular link, as in all interesting questions, between population growth and development. It is impossible to say whether the decline in population causes the improvement in development or whether the improvement in development causes the decline in population. What we do know is that they go together.

In initiating the debate and in concentrating the attention of the House for a few minutes on the importance of population programmes in the overseas development budget, my principal thesis is that if we can make progress on bringing the world's population growth under control we shall also be making progress in promoting the development of the poorest countries. That is an essential part of our political priorities both in promoting the development of our economy as part of the world's economy and as part of underwriting the stability of the world's political systems in which this country, as a great trading nation, has a vital vested interest.

There cannot be any other programme in the overseas development budget which is more cost-effective than the resources that we commit to population policy. India has a population of 680 million and the Indian Government have a budget commitment to their population programme of £60 million. That may sound quite a lot of money, but it is chickenfeed compared with the benefits that come from an effective population policy. Surely there is no comparison between the cost of saving an unwanted birth and the cost of maintaining an unwanted child. That is what the argument on cost and population policy is all about. It is a supremely cost-effective way of promoting the development of some of the poorest countries.

When thinking about the population policy it is important that we should not see it as a Malthusian attempt to restrict family growth, to deny family rights and to divide a constant cake between a small number. That is the opposite of what I consider to be an effective and sensitive population policy.

A successful population policy must be sensitive to the wishes and rights of individuals as human beings. We must not say to individuals "You cannot have a larger family than two or three children". We must say "If you have a family of two or three children, the benefits that will accrue to you are as follows …". In other words, the policy must be positive and not negative. The policy must not suggest that the rich countries are saying to the poorer countries "Restrain your populations and then there will be more to go round for us all."

We must argue positively that a benefit will accrue to those in the poorer countries and to other citizens on this planet if the population policy is successful. We must concentrate on the real benefits to the individual as a private citizen and to his family.

The benefits are real. One of the greatest benefits that come from an effective and sensitive population policy is the enhancement of the status of women. In a society where the woman cannot control how many children she has because she does not have access to family planning facilities, there is a terrible tendency that she will become the woman of the Victorian caricature who is concerned only with housekeeping and bringing up a family. She will have no rights outside the home and no role in society as a whole. If she has the opportunity to make a choice about how many children she wants in her family, the likelihood is that she will be able to choose whether she wants to spend more of her life as a more general member of society. We must present the women of the world with that choice because it is part of their rights as human beings that they should have the choice, and because it is in the interests of the rest of us that that choice should exist.

Some of us had lunch yesterday with the man who is responsible for running the Indian Government's population programme. He defined his objective in a phrase which I thought was telling. He said that the objective is an informed change of behavioural patterns. It is not an imposed policy. It is an attempt to inform people of the opportunities if they pursue a different course. That is the aspiration of those who want to see a positive population policy. That is not only my view. It was a view endorsed by the Brandt Commission when it said:
"We believe that development policies should include a national population programme aiming at an appropriate balance between population and resources, making family planning services freely available and integrated with other measures to promote welfare and social change."
The view was also endorsed by a conference of parliamentarians that was attended, among others, by my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Information Technology. They called on Governments to take deliberate steps to promote and strengthen the integration of population programmes in all development activities. The view was also accepted by this Government in that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour), when he was Lord Privy Seal, said that he intended to launch a new programme for drinking water and sanitation. He said:
"We shall do more to promote better use of energy … We shall expand our activities in agricultural research. We shall contribute more to international population programmes. These four areas deserve special attention. Much can be achieved by relatively small amounts of public money and they will especially help the poorer countries."—[Official Report, 24 July 1981; Vol. 9, c. 730–31.]
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development, who is to reply, in a foreword to a booklet produced by the Overseas Development Administration reporting on population and drawing together its information on population, said
"It must be clear to everybody that the problems arising from the increasing population of the world will be among the most pressing, not only for governments but for the people themselves for as far ahead as we can see."
The Ottawa summit last year, which was attended by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Ronald Reagan, also endorsed that view. President Mitterand, Mr. Trudeau and Chancellor Schmidt were also present. That group was not what one might describe as the annual general meeting of the aid lobby. Paragraph 20 of the communiqué stated:
"We are deeply concerned about the implications of world population growth. Many developing countries are taking action to deal with that problem, in ways sensitive to human values and dignity, and to develop human resources, including technical and managerial capabilities. We recognise the importance of these issues and will place greater emphasis on international efforts in these areas."
So there is an international consensus. As I was compiling that list of those who agreed with my view, my scepticism got the better of me. I wondered if whether all those international leaders were in favour, was there a hitch somewhere? However, I believe that that high powered endorsement is right. I now wish to discuss our performance against the yardstick that has been set in those statements. I unreservedly welcome part of our recent record such as the increased resources made available this year to the United Nations fund for population activities and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, both of which are multilateral agencies.

I am pleased to say that the argument as to whether we should give aid through multilateral or bilateral channels did not obscure the valuable work that those multilateral agencies do. Both their budgets have been increased since last year—the IPPF to a record level and the UNFPA back towards the level it held at the end of the 1970s.

I also warmly welcome the extra £0·25 million allocation made earlier this year to the world fertility survey, another mulilateral agency. That money is well directed.

I also welcome the fact that in my right hon. Friend's foreword, to which I have alluded, he gave a firm undertaking when he said:
"I have instructed that a population component should wherever possible be incorporated in new development projects financed by ODA."
That is an important commitment by the Minister in charge of the ODA budget to the practical application of an overall population policy.

Those of us who are interested in the issue have become anxious over the past few months about the scale of resources in the ODA budget committed to population programmes. I know that my right hon. Friend has not committed the Government to a specific target and that he sees the aim as desirable, but not monitored against a specific target by the Department. But unless he can explain why the figures have emerged, the situation causes us anxiety. In 1980 we spent 1 per cent. of our budget on population programmes but the figure has now fallen to 0·6 per cent., according to Lord Skelmersdale in a debate in the other place, although the figures in the speech are unclear and my interpretation is open to correction. It may, in part, be due to underspending on the programmes in Orissa and Egypt.

As a member of the Select Committee on Transport I have been party to fairly acute criticisms of the Department of Transport for underspending its roadbuilding budget. The same reasons may apply to the ODA budget. But we should put in an element to allow for underspending.

My right hon. Friend's record shows a clear and welcome commitment to the issues that I have raised. But in the recent figures from the ODA there is uncertainty about whether it is putting into practical effect the priorities that he has set. I hope that he will respond to the anxiety. I do not expect replies today. Indeed, my right hon. Friend cannot reply positively from the Dispatch Box without having given the matter thought.

Two ideas came out of the lunch with the Indian population people. The first is a long-term suggestion so that we do not get into the underspending position that I suspect we have got into recently. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he is thinking about the major population projects that will come into the development budget when the Orissa and Egypt projects are exhausted? I suspect that the Indian authorities have not done much work on the matter. One certain way to avoid underspending is to ensure that plans for the next project are ready before the previous project is exhausted. I hope that work is being done so that when the time comes we shall not be told that the plans were not properly prepared.

My second suggestion is on a short-term programme. If my right hon. Friend has a little to spare in his budget, it may beneift not only developing countries but this country in the short term. When we asked the Indian authorities how they would use a relatively limited amount of money that would be available quickly, they said that there was a machine called a laproscope. I had not heard of it before, but I have since talked to a Harley Street gynaecologist who has had some experience of it in India. The machines are already in use in India. They are an effective and relatively cheap means of simplifying the sterilisation of women. They cost about £2,000 each, and each machine is capable of 2,000 operations a year. About £400,000 would enable 400,000 sterilisations to be performed each year for three years.

I make this point in seriousness, because it is an important one. Often, when I talk about the developing world as a trading partner for this country, I am asked what it is that the developing world can buy that we can make at the right price for it to be able to afford. This kind of machinery is something that I am told is not available in India. If it is not available in India, it is not likely to be available in any developing country. Therefore, it is something that they need to import from the West. The machinery is made here and uses the up-to-date, "whiz-kid" technology my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Information Technology promotes. It is the kind of developing industry that we need to provide jobs, and at the same time it plays a vitally important role in the recipient country, in this case India.

The world has a vital common interest in pursuing an effective population programme. It is the most cost-effective development that we can make. I welcome the commitment shown by Her Majesty's Government, which I share. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to re-enforce what has become a slightly wavering commitment. I hope also that one or other of the two proposals that I have made will be examined and accepted as a means of underlining that commitment, not only to the principle, but to the practical steps to put it into effect.

9.57 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Dorrell) not only on his choice of subject, which I put in for myself, but on having the great good fortune of being selected for the second debate. This is one of those rare parliamentary opportunities when other right hon. and hon. Members can share in the good fortune of one of their colleagues. I am grateful to the hon. Member for ensuring that the debate has come on at this reasonably convenient time and not, as it might have been, at four or five o'clock in the morning. We have all had that experience, and it is sometimes off-putting, particularly if one has to sit through many other debates before getting to one's own subject.

The hon. Member for Loughborough and I, together with three of our parliamentary colleagues, went to India last year as guests of the India Family Planning Association and the Bangladesh Family Planning Association, sponsored by the International Planned Parenthood Federation. We were there to study population policy and birth control facilities in those two vast countries, which have vast populations and vast population problems. I came back feeling slightly pessimistic. Although there was a great deal of effort by national Governments, State governments, local governments, the medical profession, voluntary organisations and so on in helping to ensure that there were appropriate population policies, one felt, when one saw the dimensions of the problem, whether in the urban slums of Bombay, Calcutta and Bangalore or the rural areas outside Bangalore or Dacca in Bangladesh, that all the time they were running as hard as they could and were yet going backwards, in spite of all their efforts.

I do not wish to follow the hon. Member for Loughborough's statistics about the general world population programme which, although well known to those who take an interest in these things, are still not well enough known in countries such as Britain, or in many other parts of the world, particularly in countries which give large amounts of aid overseas, as we do. I wish to refer briefly to the India experience because one can broadly generalise from that. In terms of population, India is the second largest country in the world. It is the world's largest democracy and its experience will often be vital in determining whether the world population will continue to expand at the frightening rate that it has recently achieved.

The census last year in India shows that the population was rather more than had been thought—just over 680 million. We were told yesterday at lunch by the experts from Orissa that by the end of the century the population of India would rise from roughly 680 million to 950 million, and that at some time in the first half of the twenty-first century, it would stabilise at 1·3 billion. Those figures sound frightening, but what is even more frightening is that the figures are based on certain assumptions. Those assumptions are that all the targets—for fertility, mother and child health care, provision of health facilities, clinics, and so on, where people get birth control supplies and have sterilisation—are met and have the desired effect. With the best will in the world, those targets will not necessarily be met, so they will not necessarily have the desired effect. So the figures that I have given for the population of India in the year 2000, and by the year 2030 and 2040, will be underestimates.

If that is the experience of India, where the central Government and the State Governments are doing their best to tackle the problem, helped by the aid from the Minister's Department in places like Orissa, the prospect for the world as a whole is bleak. Many countries are not putting the same effort into population policies nor are we as a Government playing such a part in giving aid and concentrating it on matters such as family planning.

Several of us went recently to the offices of the World Fertility Survey in London, which is funded partly by the Minister's own Department. I was astonished by the preliminary results of what is unquestionably the largest social survey undertaken in human history. In dozens of countries, hundreds of thousands of women were asked detailed questions in various languages, with appropriate quality testing, and so on.

I shall read two summaries of the results under two headings. A number of headings are of interest—age at marriage, fertility, breast feeding, family planning, fertility intentions, socio-economic differentials and policy implications. I shall refer briefly to two. The first is fertility. I quote from the document which is a summary of the conclusions of this vast world survey:
"Current fertility levels far exceed those required to attain moderate population growth; fertility would have to be sustained at the 'replacement' level of 2·2 to 2·5 births per woman for up to 60 years before annual births and deaths would come into balance."
"Current fertility levels are highest in Africa ranging between 6 children per woman in Sudan"—
that is the lowest in Africa—
"to 8 in Kenya."
That is the highest in Africa. In fact, it is the highest in the world.
"Current fertility is only slightly lower in the Middle East and most countries in Asia, and is lowest in Latin America".
Those findings are quite frightening.

Even more astonishing, in my view, are the survey's findings about fertility intentions:
"Nearly half of the current married fecund women said they wanted to cease childbearing."
That is to be welcomed, but
"The average desired family size was high: over four children for most countries in Asia and Latin America, but over six children in most Arab countries and seven in Africa".
That is astonishing, because it means that, in addition to providing appropriate population policies through aid budgets, and so on, and family planning facilities, contraceptive facilities, and so on, we still have the problem in the poor countries that the desired family size on the part of most women in the child-bearing ages is far higher than the replacement rate that is necessary to achieve some stability in the world population at around perhaps 8 billion to 10 billion compared with today's 4·4 billion, by the end of the next century.

However, there are some encouraging features in the finding on fertility intentions. Less than half the women who want no more children are using contraceptives and that shows a large unmet need for family planning services throughout the world. As has been pointed out, in many developing countries the birth rate would fall sharply if all unwanted births could be prevented. Those are the statistics and I shall not labour them.

What are the consequences if we cannot achieve more effective action, particularly in the developing countries, than we have done so far to limit the rate at which the population is increasing? It will be a century or more before we can even think in terms of bringing down the world's population. It is bound to continue growing in the meantime.

The Brandt report made it clear that there could be many adverse consequences. The hon. Member for Loughborough pointed out some of those. People need food to eat, water to drink, land to live and grow food on, transport, roads, education, housing, basic medical facilities, and they need, as we in Britain know to our cost, jobs.

Every birth beyond the replacement rate lowers the average living standards of the people already in the world. The days are past when, as perhaps in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, we could look forward to extra children because they would add to national output, increase the gross national product and so on. Children born beyond the replacement rate are making matters worse. Of course, they cannot help that, nor can their parents, but we must try to do something about it. The adverse consequences of the population problem will not necessarily be confined to the Third world. They will affect every person living in Britain and, indeed, in every rich industrial country in the world.

As Brandt pointed out in his report, it is in our interests to take action to prevent matters from getting worse. That is why the work of the Overseas Development Administration is so important.

Another reason why it is important for us to tackle the population problem, particularly through the aid budget as the Minister is trying to do, is that a rich country such as Britain can give increasing amounts of aid 10 the developing world only if it has the tacit support, or at least the neutrality, of the British people. If there is a strong move against overseas aid, the minority who believe passionately that it is one of the areas in which we must expand our assistance, will have a harder job.

If, in the next 20 years, people see more and more of our aid going to countries the populations of which are increasing, not to increase average living standards of the existing population in that country but merely to stave off disaster and, if possible, to preserve present living standards for a larger number of people, there may come about on the part of some British people and those of other rich countries which give aid, a revulsion against giving that aid on the ground that it is being wasted. Of course, it will not be wasted, but it will not serve the purpose that many of us have been preaching in Britain for the past decade or more.

Where does that leave the Government and the ODA? The ODA started doing a good job, but, in looking to the future, we must consider three parts of that job. First, the ODA funds various international bodies such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the United Nations fund for population activities. The hon. Member for Loughborough pointed out that amounts to those bodies were increased earlier this year.

We know from those bodies that the organisations that respond to requests throughout the world for facilities for family planning and advice on population policy cannot cope with the demand. Their budgets do not allow them to meet all the demands in the Third world for those facilities. They could do with more money. It is not only Britain that should give more money. We are one of many donors. Nevertheless, this is one aspect of the ODA's operations in which we should hope for a rising amount of money each year, even perhaps within an unchanging aid budget. However, like many hon. Members, I would argue strongly that we should have an increased aid budget each year, over and above the rate of inflation. Even if the aid budget were, unfortuntely, to remain at its present cash level, a case could be made for increasing the small proportion that goes to such eminent and worthwhile international institutions.

The Department could respond to requests from developing countries for advice and assistance—as in the case of Orissa, in India—on population policy, mother and child health care, clinic building, and the provision of contraceptive facilities and so on. All those things are good, but the Minister's instruction or directive—I am not sure what it is called—that there should be a population component in all aid projects represents an important step forward.

Some of us are a little worried that the Minister's enthusiasm—or at least his recognition of the problem's importance—may not be entirely shared by his officials. After all, the Department is quite big. There are projects all over the world and new ones come up all the time. With no disrespect to anyone, people have their own ideas. Even when one is dealing with others in the Third world, it is a sensitive subject. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me on that point.

I turn to the third area in which the ODA and, in particular, the Minister can help. It does not involve money—although that is important in the first-two cases that I mentioned—as much as international conferences and gatherings. The ODA has done a good job. I am not so sure about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, of which the ODA is a part. At the preliminary meeting of Foreign Ministers last year, before the Cancun summit, I asked one of them whether population policy would be on the agenda at Cancun. I received a rather dusty answer, to the effect that, although that might be a good idea, the agenda was more or less fixed and one must have regard to the sensitivities of other countries.

I was pleasantly surprised to see in the summary issued after Cancun by President Portillo of Mexico and Premier Trudeau of Canada that there was a distinct reference to the importance of population policy. It certainly took me by surprise and I imagine that it also took Ministers at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office by surprise, although it may not have taken the right hon. Gentleman by surprise. As the hon. Member for Loughborough pointed out, since then there has at other international conferences always been a small reference to the need for appropriate population policies. It is a major achievement of the past year that the subject is now at last on the agenda at major international conferences on the world economic situation, the North-South dialogue, the Brandt report and so on.

To have the problem acknowledged is an important first step. I hope that the fact that it is being acknowledged and that the subject will recur will give the Minister more power, when arguing, in particular, with his colleagues in the Treasury to obtain more money, under the headings that I have mentioned, to deal with a problem that will adversely affect us in the not too distant future. I hope that the Minister will give us an assurance that he will do his best to fight for an increased share of the budget and an increased total cash level for population programmes under the various headings. I also hope that he will do his best to ensure that even if officials in his Department have mixed feelings about some of the implications involved, they will buckle down to the task as good civil servants and follow the firm directive that I believe he has already given them.

10.14 pm

I was talking recently to a visiting elected representative from an African country. He was a huge man and most encouraging to talk to because he laughed at everything one said. I thought that I should be more serious, so I said "I suppose the main problems in your country must be population growth and the need to increase food production." He said "Oh no, we do not worry about population. We can produce as much food as we want." I was surprised by his reply and continued the discussion in a rather desultory manner and realised that my remarks were falling on somewhat sterile ground. I changed tack and asked him whether he was married. He said "Yes." I asked whether he had any children and he said "Yes." I said "How many children have you?" He said "Thirty-six, I do love the little ones."

What he said emphasised two points: first, the continuing lack of understanding of the problems of population growth that exists in many developing countries, in some cases among the more educated sections of the people; and, secondly, that education about family planning is just as necessary for men as it is for women.

After the excellent speeches that have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Dorrell) and the hon. Member for Waltham Forest (Mr. Deakins), I shall not take much time. I find the forecast for population growth almost beyond imagination. A depressing picture has been painted. I am glad that the subject of population aid programmes has been raised again. I believe that the world is only beginning to scratch the surface of the problem with which it is faced.

It is not unfair to say that it takes an effort of will for the House to look beyond the end of a Parliament. Sometimes it is rather an effort of will to look beyond the end of a year, and, unfairly sometimes, it is said that the Whips Office finds it difficult to look beyond the end of a week. I have long felt that population growth is the biggest threat to the future of our children, grandchildren and all later generations. It is a pity that many well-meaning but misguided unilateral nuclear disarmers do not expend more of their energy on the far greater threat to the world posed by population growth. One can say the same about some of the more unrealistic conservationists. It will be the sheer numbers of people that will pose the greatest threat to the future of the environment.

The statistics are fearsome and almost beyond comprehension. My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough and the hon. Member for Waltham Forest referred to the world picture. In spite of the current slight drop in the fertility rate, the world population will double within 40 years. There will be 700 million more workers by the end of the century. The population of China is increasing annually by 11·1 million people, Egypt's by 1·1 million, India's by 14·3 million and Kenya's by 590,000. Kenya has the fastest population growth rate in the world and it is estimated that the population will double during the next 18 years. Almost every African country now has a population of which more than 50 per cent. ia aged under 21.

The problems of providing food, housing, education and jobs for the vast numbers of people who will flood the Third world are mind-boggling, but if they are not solved there will be constant famine, disease and hardship, which will create social and political reactions which can lead only too easily to war or internal strife. If we care about the future, we have a duty to do all that we can to limit population growth.

It is encouraging that, out of 143 countries with populations of more than 250,000, 86 support the provision of family planning services and 35 of those countries have the reduction of the rate of population growth as their objective. Support for family planning services is still growing, but international population organisations continue to report that the need for funds for family planning is in excess of resources. We must ask ourselves, as we are a trading nation with many investments in Third world countries, whether we should give more help, whether existing help is properly directed or whether more money in our aid programme should be directed to population control.

My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough drew attention to the fact that the Government regard population programmes as worthy of special attention. The additional £250,000 allocated to the World Fertility Survey is welcome. However, it is important that a proportion of the aid programme should be spent on population control. The allocation has fallen consistently from 1978 until 1981, so that today it is almost at the 1974 level. That is contrary to the Government's intentions. Perhaps my right hon. Friend can tell the House whether that is true. If so, why is it happening?

My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough and the hon. Member for Waltham Forest asked questions that I shall not repeat. My hon. Friend stole my quote from the Brandt report. Are we playing our part in helping developing countries to achieve an appropriate balance between population and resources? Has our support been increased as much as it should be? I support the hon. Member for Waltham Forest, who asked for more money from the Treasury. I am not sure that we are living up to our duty, but I hope that my right hon. Friend can reassure me.

10.23 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Dorrell) both on his initiative in asking for the debate and on his good fortune in being chosen to speak so early in the evening. I also wish to congratulate him on his speech. It is rare for me to agree with almost every word of a speech from the Conservative Benches, but on this occasion I agreed with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that it will not embarrass him too much, because his support for the Government has become rather lukewarm, but on this occasion he has my warm support.

I too had the good fortune to meet the delegation from Orissa. I emphasise one point that the hon. Gentleman put to the Minister. I was much impressed by the account that the delegation gave of the work taking place in Orissa, particularly the work funded by the Government. It is a source of great satisfaction, if not pride, to the Government that the money that is being given to the Government of India for the project in Orissa has been put to such good and practical use.

I should like to add my plea to the Minister on a suggestion that was made by the hon. Member for Loughborough. The delegation said that, if money could be provided for it to purchase laporoscopes, it would enable it to expedite the programme of family planning in Orissa, particularly the districts with which we are associated. That extra equipment would be of immense value to the programme. Like the hon. Gentleman, I do not expect the Minister to reply to that suggestion when he answers the debate, but I hope that he will give us an undertaking that he will consider a request for that equipment if it comes from the Government of India.

10.26 pm

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Dorrell) for raising this important subject. He, like other Members who have spoken an the debate, is a member of the British Parliamentary Group on Population and Development. I am most grateful to him and his colleagues in the group for focusing attention on this important subject. Since I have been Minister, that group has made a big impression on me and has brought to my attention the details that I should have known but did not. For that I am truly grateful.

I hope that my hon. Friend and the other members of the group are in no doubt as to the importance that the Government attach to population activities within the aid programme. That importance has been increased by the work of the parliamentary group. I do not dissent from most of the remarks that have been made in the debate. I cannot necessarily agree off the cuff with all the igures that were given fbecause they need checking. I would not say that they were all right. I did not disagree with many of the themes in hon. Members' speeches.

My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough referred to my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Information Technology going to the Colombo conference on population control. After that, and before I became Minister, I had a long conversation with him about that at a Commonwealth parliamentary conference where that subject was discussed. He told me that one of the conclusions of the conference was that the higher the standard of living in a developing country, the lower the birth rate. That is probably accepted doctrine. Our aid programme as a whole has as a top priority the raising of the standard of living in the developing world. That in itself contributes towards a lower birth rate. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough said, national leadership is required in the countries that we are trying to help because without such leadership such a programme does not take off, however much one might try at local and national levels.

Our concern with the need to take population issues into account in the aid programme started in a modest way about 20 years ago. Since then, our efforts have grown until in 1980 we provided more than £7·5 million in aid funds to this sector. We hope that that will grow to about £11·3 million in the current year. I shall explain the reasons for that jump in a moment.

My hon. Friend talked about population figures. I think that he said that the population of the world today was 4·4 billion. It is interesting to look at the natural population growth rate: an average of about 3 per cent. in Africa, about 2·5 per cent. in Asia, 0·2 per cent. in Northern Europe and Western Europe, and 0·7 per cent. in North America and Japan. Within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries it is about 0·5 per cent. That illustrates the problem that the world faces.

The hon. Member for Waltham Forest (Mr. Deakins) quoted some figures, which I think were for family sizes and do not necessarily match the figures that I have just given. He also mentioned international conferences, and in particular was pleased to see the mention of this subject in the Cancun communiqué. I cannot remember whether it was on the agenda. I tried in various ways to get it put on, but, as I remember, the agenda was fixed by Mexico and Austria, and we did not have the final say on what was discussed.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about feelings within the Overseas Development Administration and whether population was taken into account in planning our aid. I think that it is. People probably vary in their enthusiasm for it. Some people may have a religious feeling about it. Broadly speaking, everybody tries, but we cannot do it on all occasions. In an answer that the hon. Gentleman will receive tomorrow I deal with Zimbabwe, a case in point where we cannot do it at this stage. I shall have a word with the hon. Gentleman afterwards and tell him why.

Before I review our performance in more detail, I should like to explain that we do not have a sectoral allocation for aid to population activities. We do not say that our aid budget is £1,000 million and that 1 per cent. or 2 per cent. will go to population activities. There is no pocket of funds within the aid programme labelled "Population", nor any target for population aid. That is how the budget framework is worked out.

The aid that we give in this sector encompasses a broad range of activities and is represented in all the major types of assistance that we give. The largest proportion of our population aid is given in the form of contributions to the multilateral organisations operating in the population field. Last September, at the United Nations conference on the least developed countries, I was able to announce increases in the contributions that we intended to give to these agencies, to £5 million in 1981–82 and £6 million in 1982–83. I hope that the House will agree that that will be money very well spent.

From within those sums we have now pledged £2·4 million in 1982–83 to the United Nations fund for population activities, which works with Governments to develop and run population programmes; £2·4 million in 1982–83 to the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which works at the grass roots level providing family planning services through its affiliated family planning associations; £950,000 in 1982–83 to the World Health Organisation's special programme on human reproduction, which is concerned with world-wide research into safe and acceptable methods of contraception; and £250,000 in 1982–83 to the World Fertility Survey.

The second largest type of activity that we support is our bilateral programmes and projects. They are agreed on a Government-to-Government basis. Our spending in this sector depends on requests from recipient countries and the speed at which prospects are implemented. We are sometimes held up, not so much through lack of co-operation from the country concerned but because of the inability to get on quite as fast as we can in Britain because of administrative problems. Because of that, spending in that important part of the programme can be variable.

For example, here I refer to a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough and other hon. Members made—spending on bilateral projects fell from £1·54 million in 1980 to £1 million in 1981. That was to some extent responsible for the overall decline in the proportion of aid going to population activities from 1 per cent. in 1980 to 0·6 per cent. in 1981. This was not through any lack of interest on our part but simply because of unavoidable delays in implementation of our two largest bilateral projects in Orissa State and Minya, in Egypt.

My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Davis) mentioned the sterilisation machinery. I would rather not reply on that sensitive subject now. One must remember the unhappy example of India some years ago. If a project is put to us, we will always examine it, but we must be diplomatic.

We expect the bilateral projects to be more than made up in 1982, when we will have continued spending on the two large projects that I mentioned and on new projects in Kenya and Pakistan. We are not halting, as the hon. Member for Waltham Forest said. We have two other projects. If all goes well, we expect to spend more than £4 million on bilateral projects this year. I hope that that will go some way to satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough.

In addition to these large-scale activities, we fund several smaller but no less important schemes. In the past year we have continued to work with voluntary agencies under the joint funding scheme. Population is a development sector in which much can be and, in some countries, is being achieved by non-governmental organisations. We recognise that. Population projects under the joint funding scheme receive 100 per cent. support rather than the 50 per cent. that is usually applied in other sectors. It sounds odd to be paying 100 per cent. to a joint funded scheme—one would have thought that it would have been 50–50—but, in view of the importance of the subject, we still call it joint funded as we work together on it, although we provide 100 per cent. of the funding.

We have continued our support for the overseas section of the Centre for Population Studies at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and at the David Owen Centre for Population Growth Studies at University college, Cardiff. Perhaps I should point out to those who are not acquainted with the subject that that centre has nothing to do with the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen).

Those two organisations provide valuable training in demography and population dynamics and population studies with special emphasis on population and development. We have also continued spending on population research. Under it, we support a wide range of programmes of practical relevance to developing countries.

I hope that the activities that I have outlined will give the House a clear indication of the important place of population programmes in the aid programme. However, we must not lose sight of the role of the developing countries in this sector. Much has been achieved since 1974, which, with the convening of the world population conference in Bucharest was a milestone in the international community's consideration of population issues.

In the early 1970s the world's population was growing at an alarmingly high and increasing rate. If something had not been done, disaster in terms of human misery and over-exploitation of the earth's resources would be a good deal closer than many believe it is today. The slackening in the rate of global population growth at the end of the 1970s represented an achievement for developed countries, international aid agencies and non-governmental organisations working in the population sector. Most of all, however, it was an achievement for those developing countries which saw the threat that increasing populations presented to their economic and social development and the pressure that more people would put on already over stretched education, health and social services, and then included national population programmes in their development policies.

What, then, is the challenge for the 1980s?

To use a common cliché, we certainly cannot afford to be complacent. I think that everyone will agree with that. During the course of this debate thousands of children will be born, mostly to mothers in developing countries. Ten per cent. of these babies will die before their first birthday. The actions that the world community takes between now and the end of the century will determine whether the year 2000 will herald another period of rapid population growth.

We must encourage and help those countries that have already recognised that population components need to be taken into account when designing and implementing general development plans to translate their policy statements into effective programmes and to devote sufficient resources to them. We must continue to educate and encourage those countries that have not yet accepted the need for population policies—there are, I am pleased to say, relatively few in the developing world—and we must make an effort to understand the reasons for their reluctance, whether they be political, cultural or religious.

Ultimately, the responsibility for population growth must lie with national Governments. Developed countries and the international community can help, but their assistance is worthless without the political leadership, moral and financial commitment of the countries concerned.

In this debate, we have focused on the levels of spending within the aid programme on population activities alone. However, in order to reduce the global population growth rate it is necessary to create in the developing world a social framework that is conducive to fertility regulation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison), in his very interesting speech, asked whether we were playing our part as a nation. I think that we are. It is up to all the nations of the world—the developed and the developing—to play their parts, but I think that this country is doing a good job and I hope that it will be even better as the years go on. This means helping the developing countries relieve poverty and raise living standards. It means reducing infant mortality rates so that parents can be sure that their children will survive. It means educating people to understand the advantages of family planning and to be able to make informed decisions on how many children they want and how to space them. It means improving the status of women. It means improving the quality and quantity of managerial manpower in the developing world to ensure that population programmes are well run. Those are aims that run throughout the aid programme and are not simply limited to the work that we do in the population sector.

Higher Education

10.44 pm

I have pleasure in introducing this debate. Some hon. Members may know that I am interested in education, but I do not profess to be a specialist in the subject. However, in order to speak on the subject one does not need to be such a specialist. One must first be a caring constituency Member. Another qualification is that I am a father with two sons and a wife who is a teacher and who was a mature student. In my constituency I have several units of higher education. Finally, I believe that I have the privilege of being the only Member of Parliament to be awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree by the Open University.

My anxiety concerns the future not only of education but of the nation. Conservative Members constantly refer to the seed-corn of the nation, particularly when talking about small businesses, and how that appears to be neglected and not given a fair crack of the whip. If we are to talk about seed-corn and the need to nourish it we must apply those arguments to education and opportunity. If we do not, children, teachers and administrators will be seriously affected.

During the debate my hon. Friends and I will be asking several questions. I am delighted to see that the Under-Secretary of State is in the Chamber. I know that he follows these matters closely and that he has left a good first impression of his care and concern for the future welfare and well-being of the Open University.

I begin with the events of July 1981 when a substantial shock was given to the higher education world by the decisions of the University Grants Committee and the advice, guidance or instructions—whichever word one prefers—that it gave to a range of universities. They were immediately plunged, as one or two people were moved to say, into devolving a strategy for survival. Many people in the higher education world saw the announcements in that light.

The impact of the announcements on Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Bath and York universities was light compared with the effect on the universities of Salford, Keele, Bradford and Stirling. Some of those universities were docked by more than 30 per cent. of the money they had previously assumed and could have used. Phrases such as "We are bleeding to death" were used. Bristol university, which the Minister will know better than I, was requested to cut its budget by 15 per cent. Translated into logistics that meant that to maintain an adequate staff to student ratio the university was being invited to operate with a cut of 5 per cent. in the student body.

Those are the realities of higher education and the impact of Government policies. The Minister is familiar with the collective views of the Committee of Vice-chancellors and Principals, because in November last year Albert Sloman, its chairman, wrote a letter to the Minister which is now a matter of record. On behalf of the vice-chancellors he wrote:
"We believe the Government's current policy towards the universities to be profoundly mistaken and highly damaging. It is a policy which will seriously impair the quality of the work of our universities and jeopardise the very distinctive contribution which they make within our system of higher education. It is a policy which will involve the loss of some 10,000 places for new home students in each of the next two or three years, the very years when the number of qualified school leavers reaches its peak, there is a reduction in opportunity for young people willing and able to go to university of something like one in seven. It is a policy which, in our view, is likely to save little or no money in the short run since the savings on recurrent grants have to be set off against the cost of compensating staff for dismissal. If so, the damage to the standards both of university teaching and research, in some cases irreparable, and the sharp reduction in opportunity to those born in 1963 or after will, in terms of public expenditure, have been all for nothing."
The Minister will be able to set the same facts in a different context which is not so sensational, but the writer of the letter is no slouch. He tries to moderate his language and makes a case which is designed, not to inflame, but to impress.

The vice-chancellors recognised that not only would there be 20,000 fewer students in the universities as a direct result of Government policies but that there would be 4,000 or 5,000 redundancies in universities staff.

The letter continues:
"We are, in comparison with our industrial competitors, a sadly under-educated and under-trained society … These are the reasons why we consider the Government's long-term policy for our universities to be fundamentally wrong."
Mr. Sloman is entitled to make his assessment of the consequences of Government policy, just as the Government are entitled to put in motion a policy which they believe carries out their economic and education policies.

We want to consider the impact of those policies, not merely in July 1982 but in July 1983 and July 1984. The cuts in cash and in other terms must have satisfied some end, but for the life of me I cannot understand how they make sense. We do not think that they make sense in the national interest. They do not make sense in terms of saving money when one considers the cost of redundancies. They do not make sense in terms of research and maintaining our high standards of education.

Education is now expenditure-led. Finance, not the quality of education, is now the dominating factor. A cash limits policy is now being operated. That reverses the policy operated in the Robbins era of 10 or 12 years ago when one could see a secure climate in which higher education could be planned and when there were long-range policies. They have been replaced by a year-by-year expenditure consideration. How should universities tackle planning in a period of unpredictable budget reductions? The Minister will be unable to tell us what financial picture will face the universities this time next year or the year after that. I am sure that he recognises that at this level of education it is necessary for there to be some certainty about the income that will be provided. It is clear that planning has been abandoned. When that happens, we degenerate into resource deployment or withdrawal.

One of the chief qualities of academic leadership is the recognition and encouragement of the qualities in others. The key to that is an ability to react quickly to changing circumstances, new opportunities and new ideas and to be able to think fast on one's feet. The university world has learnt to cultivate those traits and they are certainly needed now.

The funding of the Open University is somewhat different from the funding of traditional universities. Over the past two years the Government have seen fit to interfere with the OU's funding; and that has been observed with dismay by the OU's council. The OU has not escaped the economies and the Government's strictures. I pay tribute to the valiant efforts of the staff at all levels. They are determined that the university shall survive. They are dedicated people. Many of them have worked for the OU for many years and they have seen a life's work put at risk.

The character of the Open University is unique. It is called "Open" because it is open to all. In 1972 the percentage of the student body in skilled trades, manual work, commerce and transport was 16·1 per cent. By 1981 it had risen to 23·3 per cent. Those engaged in shop and personal services increased from 4·4 per cent. to 6·3 per cent. The percentage of studying from their homes was 11 per cent. and it increased to 16·7 per cent. Those whose vocation was in education reduced from 30·2 per cent. to 16·4 per cent.

The Open University has often been called the university of the second chance. The first chance passes many people by because they are in the Services, engaged in bringing up a family, involved in a family business or looking after their career. Many of them are studying before they even begin their day's work. Many of them are snatching an hour or two during the day's work. When I obtained my degree, someone asked me "How did you study?" I replied "I did my studying on the Victoria line". I spent about 40 minutes twice a day travelling up and down the Victoria line. At the end of a week I was able to study for about six or seven hours. That is the sort of device that OU students cheerfully apply to make up their education.

There is a great difference in support for the Open University student and the normal university student. No question can be raised about a difference in the quality of the awards. The Open University awards are comparable at least in academic excellence and acceptability to the awards made in other universities. The cost of study at the Open University for a one-year course, when I took it in 1971–72, was £20. That increased to £120 a year in 1981. That increase is due partly to inflation and partly to Government policies.

To obtain a degree of six credits, the total cost to the student in 1982 will be £1,273. The 1981 figure was £1,107. That is an annual increase of 15 per cent. When one takes reimbursements into account, the cost of obtaining a degree has been increased by 22 per cent. Conservative Members argue that, if something is worth obtaining, it is worth studying and paying for and that, after all, the students get the benefit of a degree that may give them a better job or more satisfaction. But the lot of the Open University student, who is always studying part-time, is difficult.

Recently the Open University undertook a survey; and I shall inform the House of some of the observations. Of the students who were asked whether they found difficulty in paying fees, 50 per cent. said that either it was quite difficult or a severe hardship. Of the students who replied in that way, 56 per cent. were women and 44 per cent. were men. Significantly, among the lower income groups hardship as a factor in their thinking was related to income. Of those whose income was less than £5,000 a year, 74 per cent. said that to continue studying at the present level of fees was a hardship. Of those who earned between £5,000 and £8,000 a year, 60 per cent. said that it was a hardship; and of those with an income of £8,000 or over, only 38 per cent. said that it was a hardship.

The Minister should take on board another significant fact, which is that there is evidence that many more courses offered this year are being declined by potential students. Can the Minister answer the following questions? When can he tell the House about his expectations of Open University fees for 1983? Can he provide an early assurance that, if any fee increase is imposed, the rate of increase will be no greater than inflation? Helpful responses would be of great value not only to the university but to the students.

The survey also showed that only 30 per cent. of the students obtained help with their tuition fees from local authorities. That means that 70 per cent. of students receive no assistance. For summer school fees, 58 per cent. receive some outside help, but 42 per cent. receive no assistance. In other words, 42 per cent. get no assistance towards an annual cost of £200 or £300 a year. It is significant, in this political debate, that the percentage of students who had assistance towards their summer school was 76 per cent. in 1978, in 1980 it was 65 per cent., and in 1981 it was down to 58 per cent.

Another significant factor is that 18 per cent. of the people in the survey said that they would decline to take on courses of which one element was a summer school, because the cost of the summer school would be a material factor. The Minister, who is a caring Minister in this respect, ought to take fully on board whether we are now, by fiscal measures, distorting the true concept of the Open University.

Before my hon. Friend moves off that point, will he draw the Minister's attention to the fact that there is a great discrepancy between the practices of different local education authorities in supporting students with assistance for their fees? There is a particular discrepancy between Conservative-controlled local authorities, such as Bromley, which do not give any assistance to students in their locality, and bodies, such as the Inner London Education Authority, which do. Could the Minister not do something about this and talk to his friends in his party?

I am sure that the Minister is aware not only that there are discrepancies but that, by and large, the picture presented by my hon. Friend is correct. I am not familiar with the political complexion of the councils that are generous, except that we know that as a general rule, when it comes to the question of education expenditure and discretionary grants, it is sad but true that the grant money that local authorities, even when they wish to be generous, have made available to them by the Governments and the rate support policy is becoming less and less.

I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House will be wanting to pay some attention to the level of grants. The Minister must defend the cut in the maintenance grant given to students through their course. The figures that I have show that in 1962 the maintenance grant was £335 in London, and in 1982 it is £1,900. However, if the £335 were uprated for inflation, the £1,900 should be £2,095.

Students in 1982 are having to study with £195 less than students in 1962. Elsewhere than London the figure was £320 in 1962 and in 1982 it is £1,595, when it ought to be £2,000. Students outside London are having to survive on a grant which in cash terms is £405 less. Can the Minister confirm those figures, because they are his figures, which he gave in answer to a written question a little time ago?

If the Minister does not wish to answer in cash terms, would he confirm another point? Taking 1979–80 as 100 per cent., when the grant was £1,245, by 1981–82 it had declined to 96 per cent. and in 1982–83 it has declined to 90 per cent. Over a period of three years—since the change in Government—students have had a reduction to only 90 per cent. of the grant of three years ago. There is the effect of inflation, but there is also the effect of Government policy.

The Minister must be aware of the devastating effect on education as a whole, and on non-mandatory students in particular, of the decline in the moneys available for discretionary awards. The Minister will also know of the HMI's report on discretionary grants. An HMI report on the effects on the education service in England of local authority expenditure policies for the financial year 1980–81 said, under the heading "Discretionary Grants":
"Just under half of the authorities are showing a decrease in expenditure on discretionary grants. Six authorities have increased expenditure, three from the lower level baseline group. In the remainder, funding is unchanged. Economies are made in different ways".
It then goes on to list the ways in which economies are made.

The NUS has provided information about discretionary grants, and says:
"Cutbacks in local authority finance have affected all services but discretionary award budgets have proved to be particularly vulnerable".
Bedfordshire county council has just decided not to award any discretionary grants for students in 1982–83. Birmingham city council is about to make huge cuts in its provision. This comes after several years of decline, during which Ministers have made few attempts to assess the extent of provision or to propose any remedies. I hope that the Minister will comment on this situation, and tell us what he does to assist local authorities which want to provide discretionary grants but which cannot do so because the money is not available.

In higher education there is a knock-on effect. The students who are frozen out of universities are told to take a course at a polytechnic or college. The students who had intended to take a course at the polytechnic or college and find their places taken by the university students, are told to study part-time and become a semi-skilled worker. So it goes on. In the end, the only significant statistic is the number of people who would be in some form of adult education but who are now in the dole queue.

Recently we have seen staggering figures of the impact of Government policies on university courses. I am told that 250 university courses have been dropped in arts and sciences this year—at Salford 20 courses, at Aston 10 courses, and at Bradford 20 courses.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mr. Race) will be interested to know about maintenance grants at Tottenham Polytechnic. The grant is £1,595, of which £940 is allocated for accommodation and meals, but at Tottenham accommodation and meals cost £1,320. So a consideralbe part of the grant is eaten up in that way.

It is ludicrous that the Government have increased grants by only 4 per cent. It means that students with parents on the average national wage will get £65 less from the Government, but the parents will pay £125 more towards the grant. Since 1978, grants have increased by 39 per cent., while the retail price index has gone up by 51 per cent.

The Secretary of State has given local education authorities their marching orders. In the wake of the latest savage cuts in Government support, he has washed his hands of the agony that he and his colleagues have imposed on hard-working councillors and worried parents by telling them how to do the impossible.

In reply to a planted question issued yesterday, the Secretary of State said:
"It will be for local authorities themselves to determine the balance of their expenditure between services, taking account of Government policies. I look to them to do their utmost to contain their pay and other costs and to manage their resources efficiently. I hope that they will then be able, without compulsory redundancies among teachers on any large scale, to avoid any substantial worsening in the present pupil-teacher ratio as the school population declines; to maintain the provision of books; to meet the growing demand from 16 to 19-year-olds; and to contract higher education in an orderly way."—[Official Report, 28 July 1982; Vol. 28, c. 506.]
That is to treat local government with contempt. It is a recipe for continuing and escalating educational disillusion and despair. It will fuel the view among educationists, students and a growing proportion of the electorate, that the Government have relegated the education of our future generations way down on their list of priorities. I invite the Minister to refute that charge.

11.16 pm

I shall not delay the House for more than a few minutes at this late hour. In those few minutes I should like to emphasise the arguments that have been put forward so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham).

I want to concentrate entirely on student grants, the main item that we are discussing in the debate. The low level of student grants and the cuts have a serious impact on the students and their families, on the universities, on the polytechnics and the various colleges, and on the economy.

Although there is little doubt that the cuts imposed in recent years have enormously worsened the level of student grants, we on the Opposition Benches cannot be smug. The sad fact is that student grants started at far too low a level. That is the key point. My hon. Friend talks about a 10 per cent. reduction since 1962. If one took the statistics at three or four yearly intervals over that period, one would, sad to say, find similar reductions in student grants.

Clearly, the level of student grants is too low, and that has been worsened by the astounding 4 per cent. offer for the current year. Although the statistics of recent years show a 10 per cent. reduction in students' real standard of living, the effect of that 4 per cent. figure—I am sure that the Under-Secretary would agree—is that at the end of this period the effective reduction in the standard of living of the great mass of students will be about 20 per cent.

However badly the past Labour Government treated the student population, there is no doubt that matters have been made worse by the present Government. The result is that students do not devote themselves to their courses but try desperately to find an odd bit of work here or there. I mean "try", because these days they may occasionally be exploited, but in the main the work just is not there. That real problem affects the whole nature of the student body.

The impact on the students is substantial. Numerous instances can be cited in which the performance of students has suffered because of the pressure of their continually having to think about meeting the cost of living. Students just cannot operate. Many of us speak from experience, although conditions formerly were much better than they are now. A student cannot work effectively under such conditions.

There is ample evidence that many students give up their courses purely because of such pressure. It is not only the student but often his family who suffers. The National Union of Students has said that some of the parental contributions are fictitious. That may be true for a few students. However, on the whole it is not that the contribution is fictitious but that most parents have to scrape the bottom of the barrel and make enormous sacrifices to keep their children at college. The problems have been greatly increased by that 4 per cent.

That is the general problem. There is a worse aspect. My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton mentioned discretionary grants. I shall not discuss the Open University, as my hon. Friend is far more expert than I on that subject. However, there is a general problem with discretionary grants. I am sure that my hon. Friends will agree that there should be no such thing as discretionary grants. Once a student has the qualifications, and is accepted for any course, most of my hon. Friends and I believe that he should be entitled to a full grant to pursue it.

Perhaps I might read an extract from a letter that was sent to the Open University. It states:

"I would very much like to see the end of the discretionary grants, with all part-time degree courses receiving mandatory grants which is the case, as you know, if students are on full-time courses. Full-time students are a far greater cost to the country since they require maintenance as well as the payment of fees".
My hon. Friend might be interested to know that that letter was written by the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson).

The Under-Secretary no doubt displays wisdom from time to time. Many Opposition Members believe that there should be no such thing as a discretionary grant and that a student who qualifies should have a grant to meet the cost of the course and of his maintenance. Often, many unemployed people—both young and old—would willingly take up full-time education if it were not for the fact that no money would be made available to them. The problem is now worse because of the extremely high level of unemployment.

There is no doubt that the number of discretionary grants has fallen steadily. The National Union of Students has also provided me with a paper. I do not believe everything that the NUS tells me, but it cites several authorities, including Bedfordshire, in which the number of discretionary grants has fallen by about 40 per cent. in the past three years. As has been suggested, the damage has been much greater in Tory-controlled authorities than in Labour-controlled authorities.

The number of discretionary grants awarded by many local authorities has fallen by about 40 per cent. That has had a devastating effect on many courses. The peculiar thing is that the Government claim frequently that they believe in revitalising the economy by providing all the new management techniques and the scientific know-how required. Many of the courses—diplomas in management techniques, and so on—depend upon discretionary grants. The Government are sabotaging their own case. The only courses that do not rely on discretionary grants are the first degree and HND full-time courses.

The Government are undermining their policy by reducing the number of discretionary grants for courses that are necessary for the revitalisation of the economy. The Government cannot pass the buck and say that the reduction is being made by the local authorities. One of the worst features of the Government's policy is that they get the local authorities to do their dirty work. The Government may say that the actual reduction in grants has been a tiny percentage only—no doubt the Under-Secretary will tell us later—but they are squeezing the pips out of the local authorities and the discretionary grants are vanishing overnight.

That is a position that cannot be allowed to continue. One of the greatest indictments of all Governments—Labour and Tory alike—in post-war years is that the proportion of children from broadly working-class families who attend university has been falling over many years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton said, the number of students and the level of training is less than that of most of our world-wide industrial competitors. We cannot allow our industrial competitors to be better trained than we are.

Equality of education is a fiction because there is no money available to allow the majority of people in the community to benefit from higher education. Whatever previous Governments may have done, the present Government have a responsibility to increase substantially student grants and make them more widely available, if they believe in educational equality and the revitalisation of the economy.

11.28 pm

If the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) can contain himself, he will find that in the House we are counted by number, as in the good book, and not necessarily by subject. I hope that the hon. Member for Cambridge, like the other fellows of All Souls here tonight on the Government Benches, will give me the courtesy of a hearing.

We are having this debate because we think that it is crucial that the public should appreciate the Government's forcible restructuring of education. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) and Cannock (Mr. Roberts) who have spoken with characteristic clarity and passion. My wife is a graduate of the Open University and whenever my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton speaks about discretionary grants and of those who have come to higher education late in life the House hears the authentic voice of experience which counts for more than the glib clichés that so often distort our debates.

The background to the debate is simple. It is of a cut in student numbers and in expenditure on higher education between 1981–82 and 1984–85. As the Under-Secretary came late in the day to the Department and sits at the right hand of the Secretary of State, he should tell us whether he can with equanimity contemplate the figures that I am discussing. Let me give him a few.

Although expenditure on higher education overall will rise in cash terms from £2·75 billion in 1981–82 to £3·1 billion in 1984–85, in fact it represents a drop in resources of about 10 per cent. in real terms. The number of teaching posts in the sector as a whole will be reduced by over 10,000, or one is six of the overall total of people teaching in higher education. By 1984–85 there will be at least 30,000 fewer undergraduate and postgraduate students than in the academic year that we have just completed. The annual undergraduate intake will have been reduced by 18,000. The projection for universities such as Salford is that they should be taking in two years' time one-third fewer students than they are at present; and still they are asked to be viable institutions. They are not told that they must adjust the unit of result and take more students with the same level of academic staff; they are told that there must be an absolute reduction in both numbers and expenditure.

Most crucially, if we are considering opportunities for students, the position is that the age participation ratio will have fallen from 12·9 per cent. to just over 11 per cent. One in eight students will be excluded who would have been included in higher education in this academic year but for the cuts.

The Secretary of State was in the Cabinet when the then Government introduced the framework for expansion White Paper a decade ago. It stated that we should realise the constraints on public expenditure but looked forward to an age participation ratio of 22 per cent. by 1981. We cannot say that that was in the mad days of Barber and the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath). The then Secretary of State for Education and Science was none other than the present Prime Minister, although I have heard her say on television and in other places that the document was never meant to be a framework for expansion. But that is what it said.

Although we do not have a White Paper so courageously entitled, we now have a framework for contraction, and it is that that we are discussing. As I have tried to show, the contraction will strike savagely at the prospects of many young people who have believed throughout their formative years that at the point of entry into higher education they would have the necessary currency and qualifications. To frustrate them at that point is one of the cruellest contricks of any post-war Government.

The number of 18-year-olds will peak in 1983–84. It has been rising by about 3 per cent. a year. Even in the 1990s the figure will be only 5 per cent. less than in the peak year, yet we are saying that there will be fewer opportunities and places and less money. That is not a policy that we want any humane or enlightened Government in this country to adopt.

That is the point. If we were complacently contemplating our record in education and reskilling the vast majority of our young population so that they were better fitted for the complexities of the world of the 1980s and 1990s, perhaps there would be philosophical justification for entering into that argument. I fail to see it. Our record in many of those significant areas is worse than that of our predominant European and North American competitors.

There will be fewer university students. There will be fewer polytechnic students. In the last academic year there were 5,000 fewer university places. What happened? Anticipating the trend that was imposed on them by the Government, students went to the polytechnics. In many cases the application levels for the polytechnics rose above the level of places, even at the projections for last year. In some cases there was a disproportionate effect on the universities. However, I do not believe that that will happen in the coming year.

There is now a body called the national advisory body, presided over by Mr. Christopher Ball of Keble college and the Under-Secretary of State. They are now saying not that there will be a worsening of the staff-student ratio or a diminution of the unit of resource but that in absolute overall terms they want fewer places, fewer courses and fewer institutions in the public sector of higher education, beyond the decimation that has already been visited on the universities.

Mr. Christopher Ball is a candid man. He says more and is more open than Ministers. At the CLEA conference a couple of weeks ago he said:
"While some of the retrenchment can, no doubt, be achieved in some institutions by further reducing unit costs, a substantial part of it must be met by a reduction in the provision (by amputation, that is, rather than by further slow starvation), and—in some cases—this may mean the total withdrawal of pool funds from a number of institutions. It would be easy to share out the 10 per cent. cuts equally to all".
It is easy for him to say that. It is not so easy when one is at the receiving end. He stated further:
"you wouldn't need a NAB to do that: it could be done across the desk in the DES.
NAB is intended to—and it intends to—discriminate: that is, it will try to locate and define the 90 per cent. (or so) of the LAHE provision which is most valuable and recommend its preservation and protection at the expense of the remaining 10 per cent."
The projections were being invited from the various institutions. He went on to say:
"we seriously expect to propose cuts of 100 per cent. in some cases."
Therefore, we are contemplating not merely an overall fall in the number of university students but the depression downwards throughout the system through missed opportunities of people who will take their opportunities at other levels, thereby displacing others who will get fewer opportunities, while at the bottom there will be no opportunities.

In the public sector cuts are contemplated over and beyond what the public sector has already suffered. The public sector is not as adequate a publicist of misery as are the universities and the vice-chancellors. Now it will face at the minimum 10 per cent. cuts and the wholesale closure of some institutions. The Government are contemplating cuts, which will reduce the opportunities for a generation of potential student.

I say in all seriousness to the Under-Secretary precisely where that impact falls. It falls in all cases on the marginal students. Those of us who have discussed those questions with the new vice-chancellor of Salford university, Professor John Ashworth, are impressed with the case that he has made. Salford university is threatened with 44 per cent. cuts by the UGC. In such an institution a student may come forward with less than brilliant A-levels. However, he may come out of an institution such as Salford university with a good degree, good job prospects and wider horizons in life.

When the UGC went on its peregrinations that factor was not taken into account. Those considerations mattered less to the UGC than did the centres of excellence, given the traditional loyalities of the present members of the UGC.

Is not the trouble that those considerations were taken into account, but the formula that the UGC worked out to make the cut included the A-level grades of undergraduates? The result was exactly as my hon. Friend describes. The university that succeeds in lifting someone with three E grade A-levels to a first-class honours degree gets chopped, but the university that succeeds in lifting someone with three A grade A-levels to a first-class honours degree gets enhanced funding. There cannot be any sense in that.

My hon. Friend is correct. The concept that the UGC failed to grasp and which the Government, in their willingness to instruct the committee at that stage, omitted was what I call the concept of added value in higher education. There is added value in taking the student with three E grade A-levels and making of him more than might have been expected at the point of intake.

It is easy to turn Old Etonians into fellows of All Souls. Without disrespect to the Under-Secretary, we all know that such people arrive at university with certain advantages, which will be honed and polished while they are there. It is a different matter to enhance the value of the educational experience that the student at the margin receives.

It is because the institutions in the public sector and the university sector that were attempting to do that were disproportionately hammered by the UGC that I have lost all confidence in the committee, and I think that that is a widely held view among the Opposition.

The Under-Secretary said recentlty that the Government did not propose to instruct the UGC but would let it continue to go along its own way. That sits ill with the letter that the Secretary of State sent to the UGC a week or so ago. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price), who is Chairman of the Select Committee on Education, Science and the Arts, has been involved in a frank and comradely dialogue with the chairman of the UGC for some months, and he may be able to tell us whether he regards the Secretary of State's communication as amounting to an instruction. As Private Eye would say, I think we should be told. We ought to know whether the UGC is to be allowed to continue to perpetrate the sort of errors that have marred its performance over the past year or whether there will be a measure of instruction.

As the Under-Secretary chairs the national advisory board, we ought to know how he proposes in that role—in loco Parkes, as it were—to avert in the public sector the errors that the UGC has committed.

The questions raised by my hon. Friends relate not so much to the overall cuts in student numbers, ferocious as those have been, as to the position of the individual student. We have to consider that impact. There is another sort of marginal student, in addition to the one to which I referred earlier.

A marginal student may get a place; he gets the currency that buys higher education, even when the rate of exchange is constantly being shifted against him by the Government, but finds that the number of discretionary grants by local authorities has been shaved, almost to zero in the case of some part-time courses.

A student may find that, in addition to all the other difficulties and disadvantages, the parental contribution is now such that he is receiving less from his LEA and his parents are being asked to provide more, at a time when costs have continued to rise, because of inflation and other reasons.

I am glad that the Secretary of State has returned at this stage, because he has been asked about the student grant. He makes frequent appearances, which are eagerly awaited, before the Select Committee, when he tells us in his jovial way that, while more may not necessarily mean worse, fewer probably means better, and he makes other similar statements. When the right hon. Gentleman was asked about the student grant and whether we were now discussing the students' position and their hardships in terms of public expenditure considerations or the welfare of the students, he said in April that it was possible that the students would suffer substantial real hardship and that it was not easy to find a part-time job. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has discovered that. He also said that the students should try
"part-time earnings … or loans or stinting or a combination of these three".
The Secretary of State must be cured of that Chatterton complex. Starving in garrets is not much of an answer to give to the student population in the immediate future. We have not done a service to the students by telling them that their increase should be of the order of 4 per cent., wildly out of line with the fees that they have to pay, the costs of residence, tuition and so on, and way behind the allocations that even this Government have made in their recalculation of such matters as supplementary benefit. How can it be right to tell students, in the position that they are in, that the increase that they receive will be only of that order and so far out of line with the other calculations that have been made?

I do not believe that the Government retain any credit or credibility with the student body as a whole as a result of the way in which they have operated. Indeed, for a party that at least flirted with the idea that the means test and the parental contribution might be abolished, their main achievement has been to bring the parents of a further 20,000 students into the category of making the parental contribution. We all know of the shortfall, which may be 50 per cent. or 60 per cent. or more, in the paying over of that contribution by parents.

I want to end as I began, by referring to the White Paper "A Framework for Expansion". In the next few years we should be looking at expansion, asking ourselves not how we can keep people out of the universities, polytechnics and colleges but how we can encourage more and different people to come in, taking different routes, moving at different paces; how we can encourage them to do that during the period of their schooling; how we might pay them the kind of educational maintenance allowances from the age of 16 to 18 that will encourage them to stay on at school and be part of a wider intake into higher education in the future. We should be examining every possible way of increasing the age participation ratio, not diminishing it.

Therefore, I end by asking the Under-Secretary two or three questions. I am sorry that I have to put them to him, because I know that he is not responsible for these policies. In such distinguished company I would not talk about organ grinders and monkeys, but we should not be talking to the first violin when the conductor is here.

We all know what happens when a composer conducts his own piece.

The Secretary of State should be replying to the debate, because these are his policies. He will be mute throughout, and the Under-Secretary will have to reply. That is their problem.

My first question is this. The Secretary of State said in the presence of his hon. Friend that the Robbins principle was being reassessed; he recently told the Select Committee that it was not dead but sleeping. How is it being reassessed? What form of access to higher education shall we offer the student body beyond the years 1983–84? What lessons are we learning from the wholesale fiasco of the allocation of the finances in the university sector and most probably, in the public sector in the past two years? Is there now to be instruction to the UGC or is there not? Is there to be reform of the UGC or is there not? Are we to have public debate on and public criteria for the way in which the finances are given out? That is the essence of the debate—the role of the institution and the catastrophic impact it has had on the universities and student numbers in the past two years.

What would the Under-Secretary of State say to two categories of student? First, what would he say to the qualified student without a place who worked hard to get the necessary qualification at the age of 18 and who now finds the door slammed in his face? Secondly, what would he say to the student who has achieved a place but finds that he has inadequate means of support—other than the wise advice that he could try stinting—to go through the process of higher education? It is all very far from the world of All Souls—I do not mean that in any abusive sense.

Those of us who were the first generation in our families to go into the world of higher education believe that we have a definite responsibility. The Secretary of State took a rather different route from most Opposition Members. If he thinks about it for a moment, he will realise that that is true.

We need an effort of understanding and comprehension of the problems that are now being faced by people who are being shut out of the possibilities and potentialities of higher education who would have expected it, post Robbins, at any time in the last generation.

11.51 pm

I sincerely apologise to the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) for not being here for the whole of his speech. I thank the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) for introducing the debate although, as he will understand, I do not agree with all that he said. It is a key issue, yet one of the most neglected subjects in all our debates. We all owe the hon. Member for Edmonton a considerable debt for raising the subject.

I should like to emphasise an aspect that has not been touched on—unless the hon. Member for Derby, North did so while I was briefly out of the Chamber. It is often forgotten that in higher education—I do not mean just universities, but all institutes of higher learning—we are providing, for admittedly a minority of people, the opportunity to acquire the love of learning for its own sake.

I become worried when some of my right hon. and hon. Members talk about higher education as though it is merely a provision for technical expertise. It is much more than that. That attitude makes it difficult to explain why we invest the sums we do in higher eduucation. We invest in brains and people for the future, and potentialities unknown.

I should like to draw attention to the report of the Overseas Students Trust, in which I was involved, and to the problem of overseas students. As the Member of Parliament for Cambridge I obviously have much to do with matters pertaining to students and grants. The House should be reminded that the Overseas Students Trust is financed entirely by business. Although it is not at all an academic organisation, it has come to the clear conclusion that Britain needs a real policy on overseas students.

The decision to charge full fees in 1980 was right but perhaps rather excessive.

I am trying to make a serious point. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is not aware that before 1980, £150 million of British taxpayers' money was being spent indiscriminately on a series of grants for overseas students. That is not a decision that I could seriously have supported.

I spent 18 months on this, and what I and the Overseas Students Trust are suggesting is a policy that does not go to that extreme but tries to provide a serious policy for overseas students that will benefit not only developing countries but our own institutions and which the British taxpayer could support. That is exactly what the trust's report seeks to do.

Certain priorities and recommendations are set out in chapter 7 of the report. I add to them my personal view that we should concentrate, although not exclusively, on three categories: first, Commonwealth students; secondly, postgraduate and research students; and, thirdly, certain exceptions such as Cyprus and North America. Cyprus has no university of its own, so first degree courses should be made available here, and the North American connection, although it is often ignored, is a very strong link between this country and North America.

As I have emphasised before, the subject of overseas students involves certain unquantifiable factors. The value is not only to the students who come here from abroad but to our own students. Exposure to and understanding and knowledge of other cultures and experiences provides considerable additional value for our own students. That is unquantifiable, but I know from my own experience how important it is. The element of friendship and understanding, too, is unquantifiable but it is a matter of profound importance.

I agree with the hon. Member for Edmonton that higher education should not be considered in isolation. One of the great dangers is talking about universities and higher education generally as though it were a completely separate issue when, in fact, it is part of a much wider problem. I am increasingly worried that in the House and in the general debate about education we fail to understand that the present situation is unparalleled in that all the assumptions of the 1944 Act, which were quite right at the time, and many of the assumptions on which we have operated since then, are no longer really relevant to the society in which we now live—a society in which it will be very unusual for a person to remain in the same profession or specialty for the whole of his or her adult working life. That being so, we must surely review very carefully our understanding of what education really means.

I entirely agree about the need not simply to modernise but constantly to revise perceptions in education so that they serve the generation being educated.

I must disagree, however, with the hon. Gentleman's view that the 1944 Act did not involve eternal verities. Sections 41 to 43 of that Act provided for the supplementation of education, not on the basis of people having had some form of education before but for all who wanted it. All that has subsequently been absent is the availability of resources to allow people effectively to undertake it. Those resources are now being cut still further. Why does not the hon. Gentleman simply ask for more money instead of dodging piously round the subject as he seems to be doing?

When the Labour Government were in office, the total education budget was less than £8 billion. This year it is nearly £14 billion. That is an increase of more than 50 per cent. One cannot seriously argue that that is a cut.

It is not a massive cut. The hon. Gentleman knows that I am not trying to make a party political speech. This is a deeply serious subject. I am simply saying that I agree with the hon. Member for Edmonton on discretionary grants. If we are to regard education as a life-long process in which retraining and re-education will be crucial, we must look very hard and seriously at some of the fundamental assumptions that dominate the education Acts.

I should hate this subject to become part of the political game. It is much too serious and important for that. I emphasise that the love of learning for its own sake, particularly by those who want to come from overseas, should never be lost sight of. If we do, we lose sight of the real glory of higher education.

12 midnight

I refer to the Overseas Students Trust report. It is a good report, but not particularly brave or radical. Its authors clearly cast it in sheer terror at what would happen if they asked for anything approaching what they really wanted. Therefore, it is drawn in modest terms.

This is an area where the Government must act. It is as much the responsibility of the Department of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs as it is of the Department of Education and Science. By chopping £10 million from Malaysia we have certainly lost £200 million or £300 million worth of exports. I am sure that in historical terms the decision in May and June 1979 will be seen as the most lunatic decision in their own self-interest of any British Government since the Second World War. Another case that has been argued is that £2 million will enable us to make a "Euro-concession" for Cyprus.

When the Government changed to what they call full cost fees for overseas students the universities asked whether they could admit the students at marginal cost. The Government replied that the Treasury allowed them to only look at the full cost and that marginal cost was irrelevant. Two years later the Government produce a report halving the home student fee with the justification that they want to pitch that fee below the marginal cost of taking extra students. One year the Government say that marginal costs are irrelevant, but two years later say that they are important.

It will be instructive to see whether the Department of Education and Science has the slightest idea of the marginal cost. In March the Public Accounts took evidence from Sir James Hamilton and Dr. Edward Parkes. Sir James Hamilton was asked to state the marginal cost of a student at a university. After some "humming" and "umming" by Sir James, the Chairman of the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Barnett), said to him:
"So you are taking the marginal cost at around £2,000?"
Sir James Hamilton replied:
"That is my estimate."
So, the permanent secretary at the Department of Education and Science thinks that the marginal cost of a student in our universities is £2,000.

The Chairman of the Committee then set to work on Dr. Parkes. He said:
"But if you are teaching extra students in the same building with the same number of lecturers. I cannot see where you get a £2,000 marginal cost."
Dr. Parkes said:
"My figure is related to your assumption that if the situation was as you described it the marginal costs would be very small".
According to Dr. Parkes the marginal cost is almost nothing, and according to Sir James Hamilton it is £2,000 a year. That is an illustration of the Department with which we must deal.

In that context I should like to consider the letter from the Secretary of State to Dr. Parkes. It is written by a Department which believes that marginal costs are £2,000 to the chairman of the UGC, who thinks that marginal costs are almost zero. I do not know whether we are discussing a dialogue of the deaf, but the document is worth examining. It reads:
"Dear Dr. Parkes, When I visited the Committee with Mr. Waldegrave on 29 April I said that I hoped to let you have shortly a letter which would offer some guidance about the Government's view".
The letter then offers four-and-a-half pages of guidance in closely typed A4.

If the Department is to change the whole concept of its relationship with the UGC and offer guidance it cannot continue to answer questions by saying "This is a matter for the UGC." It cannot have it both ways. If the UGC is in charge, the Department must leave the UGC to do the job. If the UGC is to be given severe guidance, the Department must take responsibility.

I recently asked the Under-Secretary whether it could be of interest to the Department if it heard that a university was to make itself bankrupt. The answer was that that was a matter not for the Department but for the UGC. That might have been all right under the arm's-length policy operated before 14 July 1982, but after that date and the issue of the letter, such an answer should not have been made. I hope that the Minister will instruct his functionaries, such as are here and such as are asleep in their beds, that they should not issue such answers.

I return to the letter, some of which is superb "Nineteen Eighty Four—speak." Praising the UGC, it says:
"In planning for the lower level of funding proposed the Committee have rightly tried to strike a balance between protecting scholarship across the whole range of university subjects, and seeking to enhance the contribution which the universities make to commerce and industry and the production of wealth."
If one tried to say that in any university one would be greeted with hollow laughs. The cuts make neither objective possible. Try this for size. The letter continues:
"It is essential that the universities should maintain and develop the capacity to respond positively and speedily in terms both of structure and staffing to changing national needs."
What on earth does that mean? Universities have no money except for ongoing, historic expenditure. They have to reduce staff and yet the staff that they would desperately like to keep go, on redundancy terms recently announced by the Government, while the staff that they would like to go dig in and stay. The idea of trying positively and speedily to respond to changing national needs is just a joke. The Minister should ensure that his staff does not write such sentences. The letter continues:
"I endorse the reference in your letter to universities of 20 May to the vitality of the universities of being able to initiate and sustain new developments in teaching and research."
We all endorse that. We would love to initiate new developments in teaching and research. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) endorses that. The letter does not explain how it is remotely possible to do that given the present level of funding.

The letter refers to the biotechnology initiative that has taken place involving the UGC. A Select Committee report has been issued today on biotechnology and due respect is paid to the recent initiative. Four universities have received comparatively generous sums and 12 have received tiny one-research-assistant type sums. That has been done in a commendable effort to save research places in biotechnology.

I shall refer to another part of the letter. I am not blaming the Under-Secretary of State, but he should read these letters before he allows his Secretary of State to sign them. The next part is headed "Staffing". The paragraph states:
"Concern that the limited opportunities for recruitment of staff will deny the universities a sufficient supply of young able people to ensure the continuing vitality of teaching and research is widely shared."
By whom? Does the Minister share that concern? If he does, what is he going to do? If he is honest about the level of resources that has been made available by the Government, will he stop being hypocritical and say that he shares the concern? He cannot have it both ways. The paragraph continues:
"I hope that the Committee will give particular attention to the present situation and to what might be done to secure improvements and will give me their views in due course."
Having read that sentence I am sure that the committee would say "Thank you very much, Sir Keith. We have considered this and we need some more money. That is the only way in which we can secure improvements."

The crunch comes at the end of the letter under the heading "The longer term". This is where the letter becomes extremely heavy and a new policy is introduced. It states:
"In this connection you will be aware that I have both privately to you and the Committee and publicly before select committees expressed the view that it might be appropriate for Ministers to take more responsibility that they have hitherto for determining priorities affecting the broad character of the allocation of resources to the universities."
Fair enough; if that is the policy, that is the policy. The paragraph continues:
"The Committee are of course uniquely placed to assess and advise on the needs and capacities of universities both in relation to education and to the research base. But the main thrust of policy for the universities must take due account of policy for higher education as a whole, and of national social and economic policies; and at this level there will be some strategic decisions for which it would be appropriate for Ministers to take explicit responsibility and answer to Parliament."
If that is the new policy, and if Ministers are to take some explicit decisions and the UGC no longer has the responsibility of assessing how much money the universities need and reporting to the Minister, the whole relationship has changed. It is a different relationship and it means a committee of the Department of Education and Science.

The Minister must recognise that, in the letters, he has changed the relationship that has existed since 1919 between the Department and the UGC. It was clear in 1979 that the UGC said to the Government "We cannot finance the universities within the total that you have allowed us." It is well known that the entire committee was close to resignation. That might have been the more honest course, which would have allowed the Department to run the universities directly, as it has pleaded in evidence to the Select Committee that it wishes to do. It wished a broad steer, and this letter is the nearest thing to a broad steer that we have.

The letters were issued to the press, but they should have formed a statement to Parliament about the changed relationship between the Department and the universities. The historic role of the UGC has been to assess how much the universities need, to tell the Department and then to distribute the money. The Minister is now saying that the role is different. It is not to assess how much money the universities need but to assess how much they need within the Government's social and economic policies. Need is now defined in the Government's and not the UGC's terms.

The second thing that the Minister said as a result of the letter is that it is no longer up to the UGC to decide certain priorities. The Department is taking over the exercise of some responsibilities. If that is so—the Minister can contradict me if I am wrong—it is a change of policy of such overwhelming importance that it should not have been announced in two letters to Mr. Ball and Dr. Parkes but should have been announced in Parliament. I hope that the Minister will now make that statement.

12.17 am

Tonight we have the opportunity to debate not only the Government's policy but the policy for higher education that they should pursue. The destructive tactics that the Government have employed to cut resources in higher education have done nothing for hundreds of thousands of working class youngsters who do not have access to higher education and who will not have access to it in future because the Government have no idea about future changes in policy that would open such opportunities to them.

In asking what policy the Government should follow on higher education, some principles suggest themselves. The first is one that the Government have abandoned—the old and good Robbins principle that places should be provided for those who need or wish them. The second principle that is of fundamental importance is that the system of higher and further education should attempt to increase the competence of those who perform many different jobs, both for the public good and for their private gain.

Thirdly and the most important objective of all, the access to higher and further education should be opened out to provide channels to individuals who have not gone through the normal method of acquisition of educational assets—in other words, those young people who have not obtained the requisite numbers of O and A-levels to enter higher and further education establishments as now conceived.

Fourthly, there should be a policy of increasing and improving the real level of the student grant to the students in further and higher education, particularly full-time students. The grant has been at a pitiful level ever since the 1960s and has declined in real terms over the past few years.

Lastly, in relation to what my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) has just said, we should open out and democratise the whole system of planning in higher and further education to make it accountable to Parliament. We should end the farce of the UGC allegedly planning for the universities, and particularly for that part of the higher education sector that it is supposed to be responsible for. Everyone knows that it does not set the real policies, which are established on the ground floor in a particular university or institution, and it does not control the level of resources that are allocated to it by the Government. That opening out and democratising of the planning of the higher education system is long overdue.

Those principles are the cardinal ones that the Government ought to follow and are not because they have different priorities. Those priorities are summed up in the one phrase that they are interested only in restricting the numbers of students in higher education on the ground that educational expenditure must be controlled. There has been, in the speeches of the Secretary of State and other Ministers in his Department, no justification on educational grounds for the policies that they have pursued.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) made great play in his speech to the House on 18 November last year of the way in which the Government are pursuing a policy that implies that more means worse. He was right to say that, because it is true. The Government should be ashamed of themselves for pursuing that policy.

That attack on the higher education sector is an attack on a number of key principles. It is an attack on the Robbins principle, which has been destroyed by the Government's action in chopping 20,000 places from the higher education sector over a period of three years. Secondly, it is an attack on the principle of equal opportunities for different classes and sorts of people. In particular, it is an attack on the provision for working-class people and an attack on the provision for women.

The third principle that is under attack from the Government is that of the educational funding provided by the local authorities. This point has been lost so far in our debates on higher and further education. The attack on local authority spending implies an attack on the provision in schools, but it also implies an attack on the level of provision in polytechnics and further education, and in the provision of mandatory and discretionary grants for students in the straightforward higher education sector.

Let us examine what local education authorities have been forced to do, or what they have chosen to do, because of the Government's policy. First, they have been forced to be extremely tight on their definitions of the courses and individuals eligible for mandatory grants. Constituents come to see me at this time of year to complain that their local education authorities have not given them a mandatory grant—sometimes for the second or third year running—when they feel that they are entitled to one. One of the consequences of the attack on local authority spending is that local education authorities are forced to make pernicious judgments on individuals which are wholly unjustifiable.

Let me give an example which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James), who has now left the Chamber. It concerns Cypriots. These people have been resident in this country for some time, but many education authorities do not regard them as ordinarily resident, especially if they entered the United Kingdom in 1974, after the invasion of Cyprus, and have not been accorded the formal status of refugees. Many education authorities say that they are not ordinarily resident, and therefore they are not eligible for mandatory awards.

Another way in which local education authorities are forced to restrict the access of individuals to higher and further education is by defining the courses that can be undertaken by individuals over a certain age who wish to take a course which is eligible only for a discretionary grant. A number of local education authorities say, for example, that people over the age of 25 who are resident in their area can obtain discretionary grants only if they propose to undertake a course which is a straightforward course leading to a first degree in a university. Other courses at a polytechnic or further education college to change the level of training that a person has—to become, for example, a medical secretary—would involve a discretionary grant given by a local authority, and if that person is over the age of 25 the grant is often not given because discretionary grants are available only for courses in a university for a first degree.

The third way in which local education authorities have been forced to cut back because of the attitude of this Government and the Ministers at the Department of Education and Science is in funding to polytechnics. My education authority, the London borough of Haringey, works in conjunction with two other local education authorities, Enfield and Barnet, to fund the Middlesex polytechnic, where many cuts in services and jobs have been made. There have been cuts in services as a result of the polytechnic sacking a great many employees, cuts in services to students because of restrictions on purchases in the libraries, and also cuts in the courses. That is because the Labour-controlled borough of Haringey, which has protected its education spending, has not managed to persuade the Conservative-controlled boroughs of Enfield and Barnet to do anything other than comply with the Government's request, and cut education spending.

Thanks to the Ministers on the Front Bench tonight, the Middlesex polytechnic has had to cut drastically its services to students in the past and will have to do so in the future. That is a disgrace, because the Middlesex polytechnic and others like it provide an important service for people who are facing their second chance to obtain qualifications to better their lives and broaden their experience later than is normal in higher education and, on many occasions, working from a low academic base.

It is precisely those people—the young unemployed searching for an educational opportunity, the black people who are often discriminated against in the education system anyway and who look to education to better their chances, and women who wish to enter the labour market and who are discriminated against in the present education system, as we are all aware—who are being denied access to higher and further education by the Government in a way that no other Government since the war have done.

That completely undermines the Government's argument that they are putting forward a new education policy in higher education. They are not. They are simply cheese-paring and cutting and making local education authorities follow the dictates of the mafia in the Department of Education and Science. That means hardship for individuals and for local authorities and a reduction in the real level of provision in our society.

When we talk about the higher education sector, it is important to say that we are not simply interested in protecting institutions from the effects of public spending cuts; we are also interested in protecting individuals and groups of people in our society. Such cuts reduce an individual's self-esteem, future earning potential and competence to deal with a job or the bureaucracies that rule one's life. It also reduces a student's purchasing power.

To reduce the purchasing power of a student is deplorable because that purchasing power is low enough already. It certainly was when I was a student, and it is now. The real cuts that have been imposed are a disgrace, especially for those in the middle income brackets where the parental contribution is important but is often not made.

When I was at university many of my friends in that position did not get their parental contribution, either in whole or in part. I am sure that that is even more true today, given the decline in our economic performance, the rise in unemployment, and the cuts in real incomes that have affected many people over the past few years. To cut the real level of the student grant is a disgrace.

The education objectives of the Government are, first, to destroy educational opportunities for many and to protect them for the few. They are not really concerned about the level of educational qualifications and competence for a large group of people in society, only in perpetuating the performance of an elite. They are also interested in imposing, for the first time since 1944, a cash-led rather than a demand-driven system of higher education. They are picking on students and on education institutions because they believe that they will not fight back in a principled way on such issues.

The Government have, to some extent, been surprised by the way in which the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of United Kingdom Universities, the polytechnics and the students organisations have fought back. I assure the Minister that that fight will continue. We have an obligation to criticise the Government's actions and to point towards future Labour Party policy in this area. The principles that I expressed at the beginning of my speech are plain for all to see. Given the different state of our society—a point alluded to by the hon. Member for Cambridge—we now have an opportunity to alter access to our system of further and higher education and to make it less dependent on academic qualifications and on traditional methods of reaching university. We should restructure further and higher education along those lines.

We shall not see any such restructuring or positive action from a Government who have cut provision, who have failed to produce any reforms, and who have undermined the living standards of students. The Government's policies, attacked so forcefully by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham), have been shown up by the debate. I hope that our education institutions and students will take careful note of what has been said and will draw their own conclusions from what has been said tonight.

12.37 am

I apologise for not being in the Chamber at the beginning of the debate. I had planned to speak in debate No. 17 on overseas students, which will probably not now take place before dawn. I am therefore taking this opportunity to debate that subject.

Among the Conservative Party's commendable policies when it took office was a policy to cut Government expenditure. Every Department had to make its contribution to the savings, with the exception of favoured areas such as defence, the police and so on. When it came to the turn of education to make its contribution it was decided to cut down on the money spent in support of overseas students. However that decision may seem now, if it had been carried out carefully and in a discriminatory manner, it would not have been entirely unreasonable.

Between 1970 and 1978 the number of overseas students increased by 150 per cent. Their composition showed that there had been no selection. Many thousands of Iranian students were subsidised although they did not need such help. The money could have been spent more effectively on many of our Commonwealth students who are not only worthy of higher education, but certainly need the money. Carefully selected savings might have been justified, but, instead, the Government imposed full-cost fees, accompanied by the withdrawal of grants to institutions for all overseas students. At the time the alleged saving was about £100 million, or £170 million at 1982 prices. We could debate all night whether that actual saving was made. Whatever the national savings the cost in terms of foreign relations and trade has been horrifying.

In the past 20 years no action has embittered relations with our friends abroad as much as this. As the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) said, one has only to go to Malaya to discover what they feel and what action they have taken. They have been so offended that they are turning their trade away from us. Cyprus, which depended on this country for its university education, is deeply hurt. Hong Kong, which I know well, is undoubtedly offended by what has happened. There has been a sharp fall in the number of Hong Kong students seeking education here. They are now going to other countries, and that tendency will accelerate over the years if we do not do something.

I give credit to the Under-Secretary and the Government for recognising that a great blunder has been made. They have realised that, whatever we decide to do, we cannot just return to the status quo. Before a new policy is decided upon, a tremendous amount of thought must be given to which national groups might benefit the most, which we want to subsidise, and benefit our trade and foreign relations. Such matters must be studied. There is a vast amount of work to be done.

In this regard we are incredibly lucky to have had the report of the Overseas Students Trust. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) on the work that he put into it. For the Government to have been served up with that massive document is a wonderful start to the production of a new policy. I welcome the report as a basis, not just for an immediate policy but an enduring one, for overseas students' fees that subsequent Governments can continue and develop.

I like the report's recommendation that students from British dependent territories should pay the home level of fees, thus removing the anomaly by which a student from Hong Kong or the Falkland Islands can be asked to pay up to 12 times as much for a course as a student from the European Economic Community. The Overseas Students Trust views the problem as multidimensional, and I welcome that attitude. The problem falls to be dealt with by three Departments—Education, the Foreign Office and Trade. I believe that it is more a foreign affairs problem than anything else. I understand that the joint committee studying the problem is led by the Foreign Office. I am glad to hear that, because that is from where the lead should come.

The multidimensional aspect of the problem does not only affect British trade, industry and diplomacy but the amount of money spent by foreign students on British goods, the academic stimulus that they engender and the international dimension that they add to life in British universities.

In its study the Overseas Students Trust stated:
"Dependent territories surely have the strongest claim of all to preferential status since British political control implies reciprocal obligations towards their inhabitants … for the inhabitants of the dependencies the rate of fee charged to their students is as much a question of rights, status and obligations as of expense."
I underline that in respect of Hong Kong.

"It seems possible that some cost-sharing arrangement can be worked out with the wealthier dependent territories if any preferential treatment were to be accorded them."
I believe that it is possible to come to an agreement with the Hong Kong Government by which they subscribe towards the cost of a scheme which should consist of students from Hong Kong or the dependent territories being regarded as British students for the purpose of fees.

I am broadly in strong agreement with what the hon. Gentleman says. How can anyone disagree with the benevolent views expressed by the trust? But if the provision for youngsters from the dependent territories was as successful as the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) would wish, and the British taxpayer had to fund it to the tune of £150 million a year, would his attitude to its efficacy and desirability change?

I do not avoid the question by calling it hypothetical. But even if the Government could not see their way to spend any more money over the next one, two or three years, we still want to get a new policy under way and get our priorities right. Something can be done, but until one knows the financial position one cannot say exactly what.

Again I underline the fact that there are Governments such as that of Hong Kong who so much value the facility that they would be willing to contribute. That should be investigated. The Prime Minister is about to visit China and Hong Kong. I do not doubt for a minute that she will meet requests on this subject from everyone whom she meets in Hong Kong.

The early-day motion on student fees has been signed by no fewer than 150 right hon. and hon. Members from all parts of the House. That shows that any steps that the Government wish to take will have the support of both sides of the House.

On 9 June my right hon. Friend the Secretary, of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs told the House that the Government welcomed the Overseas Students Trust report and would further study the suggestions. I urge the Government to ensure that the process is completed as soon as possible.

12.47 am

We should all be grateful to the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) for giving us the chance to debate higher education. It is not a privilege that we have had recently.

Some of the most eloquent speakers whom we have had the privilege to hear have contributed to the debate, although we did not hear the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) who is perhaps the most eloquent after- the leader of his party. But, curiously enough, the message was encapsulated in a smaller space, although with less eloquence, in the third word uttered by my daughter. The first was "cat", the second was "badger", as she had a toy badger that she liked, and the third was "more". I suspect that that is an early word of many children.

I started to make a note of the items for which we were asked for further major expenditure, but I ran out of space. We have been asked to make all discretionary awards mandatory, to fund part-timers, to replace the cuts and presumably restore the real increases in recurrent grant, to make a great expansion in adult education, presumably going back to the old system, and to allow for increases in the funding of overseas student fees. To be conservative, that would cost about £1 billion. To make such demands is the privilege of any Opposition I believe that all Oppositions behave in that way. However, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bedwellty because in the past he has been honest enough to say that it would be beyond reason to say that the cuts would be restored by an incoming Labour Government.

I was disappointed that the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Race) did not expand on that point. Behind the phrases "democratisation", "open access" and so on there was a theory of higher education that could be offered as an alternative. If it had been, it would have added an extra dimension to the debate, but instead he said that he wanted more resources for every worthy objective.

I should like to help the Minister and also disabuse the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James). On the basis of the 1979 Labour Government White Paper on expenditure, compared with the actual expenditure now and taking into account exactly the same conditions of falling pupil rolls and so on, the Labour Government would have been spending, in real terms, at 1980 prices, £974 million on education more than the Government are spending. By 1982 prices it would have been £1,403 million. If the Minister has difficulty in finding funds, all he has to do is to prevail upon his hon. Friends to change monetarist policies, and the money is there.

I do not want to so enrage the hon. Gentleman that he makes an eloquent speech in an intervention. I think that I would bet my last dollar on this. If the Labour Government under their then leader, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), had been returned at the last election, with the team of the right hon. Members for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey), and Heywood and Royton (Mr. Barnett) they would have been more formidable than their successors. There might have been a change to the plans in the White Paper when the Labour Government where faced with the reality confronting the Western world.

The Government have faced up to a number of difficult decisions on priorities. The origins lie far back, in the last Social Democratic Government of 1969, when the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Williams) made her famous 13 points, which she made as challenges to the higher education system. They were not taken up. As the former vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge said, in the fact that the university system did not respond intelligently to those points lies many of the subsequent troubles.

Some specific points have been made. This has been such a wide-ranging debate on higher education that I am sure to miss out some. I hope that hon. Members will accept my assurance that we shall go through all the speeches carefully and take up the points that have been made.

The hon. Member for Edmonton referred to the Open University. I join with him in his tribute. The Open University has had some protection. When I have visited it, I have not heard so many complaints as the hon. Gentleman has reported. The move of BBC facilities there has been completed. There is a remarkable collection of capital facilities, unequalled anywhere in the world. It is impressive to see the stream of visitors from overseas.

If money were unlimited, one would like to do something for those part-time students, as for the many other part-time students in the system, not only at the Open University but the 350,000 others throughout the higher education system who are on short courses and part-time courses. However, we are up against severe resource restraints.

The hon. Gentleman reminded us of the Robbins principle. He asked whether the Government had abandoned it. It is not so much that the Government have abandoned it as that the Robbins assumption of 2½ per cent. real growth in the British economy, on the basis of which the report was written, has abandoned the Government. As a wise economist, Lord Robbins knew that there were resource implications in all that he said and he made assumptions about what resources would be available. Unfortunately, those resources have not been available.

Why does the hon. Gentleman, of all people, propose that resource restraints in higher education have to be accepted, constant and taken for granted when such assumptions are not made in other areas of Government expenditure, such as the police?

There are large areas of public expenditure that are protected and where spending is being increased. One major such area is the training of young people, to which £1,000 million is to be devoted through the youth training scheme next year. If the most expensive part of the post-16 education system—the universities and higher education—makes some contribution to the establishment of that major training programme, that is not something of which to be ashamed.

The current age participation rate of 12·9 per cent. is comparably the highest in history, though that cannot disguise the fact that Government plans imply, as the overriding resource restraints force them to imply, a diminution. However, it would be fair to acknowledge that within resource restraints that have already been applied the local authority sector has shown that it must have contained considerable under-used resources.

I pay tribute to much of the work of the Middlesex Polytechnic, which I have visited. It has achieved outstanding quality in its microelectronics work, but in some areas it has higher unit costs than comparable institutions. I do not single it out for that, because, of course, there must be some institutions that are above the average. However, we have had to ask the local authority sector and polytechnics to stretch their resources, and they have done so and have shown that there was room to take in a considerable number of extra students. They have done that and I do not hear complaints that standards are under pressure.

In the universities, the alternative view was taken, which was that the unit of resource was so stretched already that we had to ask for a limitation of numbers, because otherwise the unit of resource would be stretched to such a point that research, the other great output of universities, would come under serious pressure.

The hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) made an eloquent speech and drew attention to one of the relative failures of the British education system since the war when he pointed out that working-class participation in higher education has not increased as we all hoped that it would. The problem lies further back than the higher education system, because the proportion of working-class children presenting themselves for entry is pro rata with the numbers who get in. The task is to persuade them to stay on. There is something in the schools that is not working. Perhaps the simplest answer would be to pay education maintenance awards—another few hundred million pounds—but it is not fair to blame higher education for not having drawn in more working-class children. It is to do with the schools system and much more complicated cultural phenomena.

The hon. Member for Edmonton asked some specific questions about the Open University. I cannot assure him that the announcement of the fees will be made any earlier than it was last year. It will be made in the early autumn, after the Government's general public expenditure survey exercise has been completed. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any guarantee yet about fee levels, but in terms of recurrent grant the Open University has been among the better treated universities.

My prime concern, and the main subject of this debate, is the effect of Government policies on students. There is a vast student body already beginning to wonder whether to carry on under the present terms and the increase, which we hope will be minimal. We say that it should not be above the level of inflation. If it is, in effect the Minister's decisions will diminish the number of people who can continue Open University courses.

The hon. Gentleman is right: there is a narrow judgment to make between pressure on resources and the point where there is a serious effect on students. I pay tribute to those who, like the hon. Gentleman, have the dedication to finish those courses. The level of commitment is very high.

I also pay tribute to the new vice-chancellor, with his advisers and colleagues, for the direction in which he is taking the Open University in terms of short courses and continuing education in technical subjects. This is an exciting development, with industry coming in and in many cases jointly developing courses. This is entirely sensible and is of great interest for the future.

Many hon. Members have talked about the level of student grants. No one denies that the settlement for 1982–83 puts further pressure on students who are not rolling in money even if their parents contribute or even if they are on full grant. But the position is not as catastrophic as some describe it. I take the percentage terms, because the figures that I gave in the answer that the hon. Member for Edmonton quoted were on what has now turned out, I am happy to say, to be a slightly pessimistic inflation projection for this autumn. The projection was 10 per cent., and the figure looks like being of the order of 8·5 per cent., in which case the drop in the real value over the past 10 years will be 4·7 per cent. That is a serious drop, but it is not a catastrophe. For the London-based students the position is rather the reverse.

The National Union of Students and Opposition Members always take not 10 years ago but 20 years ago. Of course, at the end of a long period of Conservative Government the position was the best that it has ever been, and that is why 1962 is always taken. But I do not think that anyone said in 1972 that there was a catastrophe, and I do not think there will be catastrophe next year either.

To talk about percentages is meaningless. Four per cent. of £1,500 is £60; 17 per cent. of a judge's salary of £40,000 is £6,800. That is what we are talking about.

I accept the point, but the point that I was trying to make, led down the path of percentages by the hon. Member for Edmonton, was that the situation was not all that different from what it was 10 years ago, and it was not catastrophe then.

All of us would have liked to be able to find the resources for this matter, as for many others, and in particular for raising the parental contribution threshold, which I think would have been the first priority for additional resources, but the outcome is not the catastrophe that it is sometimes described. The hon. Member for Wood Green fairly said that the students most under pressure were likely to be those in the lower to middle group, whose parents will not be able to contribute. That is among the highest priorities for the future.

We are getting a little tired of the constant repetition of the theme that the situation is not a catastrophe. That is little comfort to people who are subject to the fact that over recent years there has been a continuing, and now increasing, divergence between the real value of the income they can expect from various sources as students in higher education and the retail price index. They are getting poorer annually. At what point will the hon. Gentleman start to recognise the disincentive effect on students of becoming poorer?

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman makes the case best in terms of disincentive effects. With the other half of his argument he is pointing out that a greater number of applicants than ever are coming forward. I am not sure that he can have both legs of that argument, at least not in close juxtaposition with, perhaps, some time in between.

The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) took us briefly into the territory of the new National Advisory Body. I have often noticed that his reactions to it are rather hostile. I hope that he will ask the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price), to take him out to lunch to persuade him into a slightly less hostile attitude. Perhaps Front Bench spokesmen must be asked to pay on such occasions. The Select Committee has understood the purpose that lies behind the body. I understand that the right hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) whose earlier work formed a substantial foundation of the NAB, also sympathises with it. It is not designed to produce cuts. It is designed to produce a more coherent strategy. If, as we all hope, resources are increased once again, it will come into its own as a body that will ensure that increased resources are spent wisely, just as I hope that it will be able to limit damage in a period of retrenchment.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. When a body that is not designed to produce cuts produces cuts, what do we call that? Design failure?

It has been quite easy to make the hon. Member for Bedwellty laugh. It is always nice to see a man happy in his work. The hon. Member for Derby, North did not make a profound point. I do not think that he would have contributed a point of that level when we were discussing these matters in Yale last year.

It is a perfectly clear distinction to say that there is a body that is meant to apply, select and discriminate in the best use of resources, which is separate from the decisions about the totals. There is a resource function and there is a separate policy function that says what overall resources are available. Whether one is expanding or diminishing, I should have thought that a sensible mechanism for resource allocation is a part of good government.

I fully admit that the Select Committee has welcomed the National Advisory Body as a slightly more coherent way of doing a rather catastrophic job. Is the hon. Gentleman implying that because it is not designed to make cuts, the Government are adhering to the policy—which has existed for some time—of even handedness between the universities and the public sector in any cuts that are made.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government's policy has been one of even-handedness. I hope that if we can align the UGC and the NAB together with the voluntary colleges—either in direct communication with the Department or aligned with the NAB—they ought to move away from a broad and crude formula to the application of resources where they are best needed. That may be across the whole higher education sector. As the hon. Gentleman knows, that may be some way in the future.

Perhaps now is the time to relieve the hon. Member for Lewisham, West of his fears. I am not sure whether they were fears or hopes of a major policy change, as represented by the 14 July letter. The matter was discussed at great length in the Select Committee. No profound change of policy is involved. As many hon. Members have regretted, we are now beyond the framework for the working of the UGC that was inherent in the adoption of Robbins. The UGC has not operated in a vacuum since 1963. It has been working within a broad framework that has been politically accepted first by the then Conservative Government and secondly by the Labour Government, who gave broad guidelines.

Previously, in the 1950s, there had been various occasions such as the development of the great "three sisters" of technology, when Ministers gave a clear spearhead to the system. The idea that, because of lack of resources and because we have moved into a different world, Robbins is no longer wholly relevant does not mean that the development of a new framework, which will be very much a co-operative venture—the letter offers some guidance but also seeks the UGC's opinions on important matters, so it must be a two-way operation—introduces into the university world anything wholly new.

Some areas will remain wholly with the UGC and the peer group judgments between institutions. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that that is right. As I believe I said when the Select Committee last discussed this, we are moving slowly and exploring here.

On many occasions in the past, under both Labour and Conservative Governments, the UGC has felt it to be its duty to tell the Government of the day that the global sum being offered was simply not enough and it felt that it had the right to make that argument. The final paragraph of the July 14 letter, referring to social and economic priorities, seems to suggest that the UGC no longer has that right or duty but must simply take the global sum as it stands and not argue with the Government about it. Can the Minister give any reassurances on that?

I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the ultimate sovereignty of Parliament over, say, the overall size of the university system has never been in doubt. When the chairman of the UGC, Dr. Parkes, came to the Select Committee he said that of course the Government were within their rights to decide on a university system of whatever size they chose and could persuade their colleagues in the House to vote for, but they could not ask for the impossible and if they did, the UGC had a duty to point that out. The memorable phrase "disorder and diseconomy" resulted from the UGC's response to what it regarded as too rapid a cut.

I envisage exactly the same kind of role for the NAB and we have negotiated that this should be so. The chairman of the NAB will go to the Secretary of State if he feels that he is being asked to do something inherently self-contradictory or impossible.

I do not believe, however, that the UGC historically or the NAB now should set itself up as a rival to Parliament in determining the overall amount of national resources to be put into the system. The distinction between policy, which this House must arrogate to itself, and resource allocation and rational professional judgments is clear, and I think that hon. Members who pretend that it is not are doing so only for the purposes of debate.

No doubt I have missed out some of the specific points raised in relation to universities and polytechnics, but we shall read Hansard carefully and try to pick up any that I have missed.

We should, of course, like to provide more resources for discretionary grants. The fact that behaviour differs from one authority to another is in the nature of the animal because the awards are discretionary. In fact, we have done rather better in terms of the intention than we may have been given credit for. From 1980–81 to 1982–83 the amount of money allocated to local authorities for discretionary awards has increased by rather more than the rate of inflation. I recognise that local authorities are under great pressure in other respects and may not have chosen to spend the money on discretionary awards, but that is in the nature of devolved government.

Does the Minister accept that in areas such as Gateshead where a youth unemployment rate of more than 50 per cent. has arisen there will naturally be great pressure on discretionary grants, which will simply not be available?

Of course, the pressure is natural, but the intention is that the resources should be there. Many authorities are showing others what can be done in proving that it is possible to maintain a decent level of discretionary awards.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) and Howden (Sir P. Bryan) for raising the separate and very important subject of overseas students which we might well not have reached if we had stuck to the original schedule.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge outlined his priorities. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Howden welcomed the Overseas Students Trust report, as I do. It lays down the possibility of an enduring policy. There was an inherent instability in the old open-ended subsidy system, which was recognised by the Labour Government because they started to tinker with quotas, although they were not successful. They recognised that the 300 per cent. increase in the numbers between 1969 and 1979 was an open-ended commitment that the British taxpayer could not for ever pay for.

I accept my hon. Friend's criticism that it would have been better to have had policy guidelines laid down before the changes. The Overseas Students Trust's attempt to lay out a new policy framework was right. My hon. Friend is also right to say that, although the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is in the lead, specific contributions from other Departments need to be recognised in the decision-taking system that we set up.

The Department of Education and Science has a specific interest in bringing in first-rate students to this country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge said, it is of value to our students and university life to have the best international students here. We must match that interest with our resources.

There is also a trade interest that we should like other Departments to recognise. There are various Foreign and Commonwealth Office interests, in which they must take the lead. My hon. Friends outlined their priorities. We are now in the consultation period. We shall respond seriously and quickly. The inter-departmental official machinery was set up in advance of the report so that we shall not waste time and Ministers have been meeting to discuss the matter. I must warn my hon. Friends that resources are strained, but as the Overseas Students Trust said, considerable improvements can be made by the reallocation of existing resources.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge for his work on that report and in producing in a short time a major work that will be definitive in this area for many years to come.

Have the Government conducted a study on how much money will be gained as a result of their new policy on student grants compared with the amount of income the country is losing as a result of the Malaysian policy, stimulated by the Government, of prohibiting British investment?

The right hon. Gentleman will have read the previous publication of the Overseas Students Trust and will have studied the detailed work of Mark Blang on this point. It shows that it is much more difficult to prove a simple monetary gain than one might think. It is another case of an area of policy and clear priority into which we are putting money at the rate of £50 million or £60 million this year and where an exaggeration of claims does not help good policy-making.

We have covered a wide area. I have no doubt missed out some of the nuggets and contributions of hon. Members. I shall endeavour to reply to them by letter. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edmonton for giving us an opportunity to canter around this territory again before our summer holidays.

Health Care (Inner London)

1.19 am

For many years people have been paying lip service to the need for more effort to be put into primary health care services, but very little has been done about the matter. That might be because we have put too much emphasis on hospitals. Health authorities have tended to be more concerned about buildings and influenced by the weight of medical opinion that has, on the whole, tended to concentrate on hospital services.

The Acheson report stated that there was a need for urgent action. The report was published in May 1981, since when there has been not a glimmer of response from the Government. The Government have not commented on their intentions. The main purpose of the debate is to find out the Government's response to the many sensible suggestions in the report about primary health services in inner London.

The report is not radical. All it says is that it is about time that inner London caught up with the rest of the country. It makes a modest proposal and I am surprised that Ministers have not expressed their views on it.

Inner London's problems are difficult. The British Medical Journal of 30 May 1981 states:
"Britain's inner cities have some of the worst social and medical problems combined with some of the poorest primary care services … Many of inner London's difficulties are ones about which the National Health Service can do nothing. Compared with the average for England and Wales inner London has more poorer people, more elderly people, more people living alone, more foreigners and immigrants, more single-parent families, more homes lacking basic amenities, generally poorer environmental conditions, and greater population mobility. All of these factors are known to be associated with greater morbidity and mortality, and it is not surprising that, as the Royal College of General Practioners' report has shown, there are more of such problems as tuberculosis, abortion, admission for mental disorder, and suicide."
I agree that the problems are not of the Health Service's making, but it has to cope with some of the problems. Cuts in acute hospital services and local authority cuts have resulted in a diminution of social services for the elderly and have made matters worse. Increases in unemployment are related to an increase in the number of people suffering from depression.

This is not the time to go into the Black report in detail, but it demonstrated a striking
"lack of improvement and in some respects deterioration, of the health experience of the unskilled and semi-skilled manual classes (class V and IV), relative to class 1 throughout the 1960s and the early 1970s … a class gradient can be observed for most causes of death being particularly steep in cases of diseases of the respiratory system."
In other words, the unskilled and manual working classes in inner London suffer particularly in health terms.

General practitioners have a key role in primary health care. Most primary health care services are inter-related, but it is worth examining the pattern of primary health care in inner London. GPs in inner London are older than they are in other parts of the country. In inner London about 18 per cent. of general practitioners are aged over 65 years compared with about 6 per cent. in England and Wales. The 1979 figures tell us that there were 52 GPs in London over the age of 70, five over 85 and one over 90. It is difficult to believe that doctors of that age are able to cope with the pressures that are inevitably imposed upon general practitioners in inner London.

The second feature of general practice in inner London is the unsatisfactory premises from which many GPs work. It is interesting that the King's fund, in combination with the medical architectural research union, has developed an experimental programme of adapting existing and unsatisfactory GP premises to show what can be done by using the buildings that are available rather than taking the view that the problem can be solved only by providing new buildings.

It has been suggested that general practitioners in London should play a much greater role in paediatric screening, which would be desirable in seeking to prevent the present mortality rates. However, it is obvious that many GPs, because of their inadequate premises and for other reasons, could not cope with that rather ambitious screening programme.

Another feature of general practitioner services in inner London is the balance between those who work in health centres, those who work in group practices and those who work entirely on their own. The statistics produced in the Acheson report show that in London a larger proportion of GPs do not work in group practices compared with elsewhere. In inner London, 59 per cent. of all GPs do not work in group practices compared with only 28 per cent. in England and Wales. In my constituency, which was covered by the Merton, Sutton and Wandsworth area health authority, which has been replaced by the new district health authorities, the figures show that about 56 per cent. of GPs are not in group practice. That AHA covered both inner London in Wandsworth and the outer London areas of Sutton and Merton.

There is a fairly large proportion of GPs in inner London who have rather small lists. The Acheson report reveals that 17 per cent. of all doctors in inner London had lists of under 1,500 compared with only 7 per cent. in England and Wales. That poses problems when an elderly doctor wants to retire and a younger GP is wanted to take over the practice. A small list cannot sustain an adequate livelihood unless the GP wants to spend a large proportion of his time in private practice, which many of us consider to be utterly undesirable.

It seems that the family practitioner committees should exercise a greater level of responsibility in these matters. There should be a greater degree of manpower planning exercised by the committees to ensure that when GPs retire and cease to practise they are replaced by those who can provide the basis for a satisfactory GP service. The committees should take upon themselves greater responsibility in considering the type of premises from which GPs operate. It would not be a bad thing if the committees were to set up minimum standards and use their influence to ensure adherence to them.

It is an interesting footnote, but I understand that recently the Department of Industry made available £2·5 million to enable GPs to develop computer systems, presumably for their medical records. Many GPs operate from premises and in conditions that are so backward that it is almost laughable to suggest that they might take advantage of the Department's gesture. They need the money spent on much more basic aspects of their operations than the more sophisticated area of computer systems.

It is extraordinary that, at a time of high unemployment, there is a serious shortage of both community nurses and health visitors. The reasons for it are interesting and worth developing. I suggest that too few people are trained in those skills. There are difficulties in operating in inner London. Motor cars are required and many nurses find that, with the wages that they receive, they cannot afford to run one. It would be worth one's while to consider whether they should be provided with motor cars for their work by the health authorities to which they are responsible. There is a disturbingly large turnover of community nurses and health visitors in inner London, presumably because they prefer to go to the less pressurised parts of Britain where working conditions are more congenial. If too few community nurses and health visitors are being trained, it may be worth while to consider financing their training nationally rather than leaving it to the hard-pressed area health authorities.

It is generally agreed that it would be desirable for community nurses and health visitors to have better links with GPs. One model that has been tried in some parts of Britain—indeed, even in some London practices—is that a group practice of GPs should have integrated with it a team of a community nurse, a health visitor and possibly one or two social workers seconded from the local authority. The difficulty with such an approach, although it has much to commend it, is that too many GPs in London operate single practices and they could not cope with such attachments. It would be easier if they were attached to a group practice. It also means that a GP must have an approach to his practice that would make it easy for him to co-operate fully with his support team. Many GPs would not take easily to operating in that way. That has implications for the way in which general practitioners are trained and their attitudes towards working in inner cities.

The report has an interesting table showing the rates of attachment of nurses as recorded by GPs in 1974. In inner London, 25 per cent. of all GPs had nurses attached to the practice, whereas in England and Wales the figure was 68 per cent. There is a clear need for inner London GPs to catch up with the practice in the rest of Britain. However, there are difficulties because of the number of single practices in inner London, the fact that many practices are small, that many GPs are elderly, and that perhaps their attitudes are such that they do not wish to move in that direction.

However, I suggest that the way in which those services—community nurses and health visitors—operate could benefit from a review. Such a review, which should go beyond the Acheson report, might come up with conclusions that would be beneficial to the way in which those primary care services are operated. It is not satisfactory now and the fact that there is a shortage of people may cause one to reflect that one should improve the service.

Inner London, with an increasing proportion of elderly people, is precisely the area where primary services have a major part to play. Improvements in those services would have a large impact on the elderly population in inner London. There are more isolated elderly people in inner London than anywhere else. Because of housing difficulties, their children must move away and the elderly, through their isolation, are much more dependent both on local authority social services and on primary care services so that they can continue to live in their own homes and be kept out of institutions.

Any of us who meet elderly people in our inner London constituencies will know how difficult it is for many of them. Time and again we are approached by elderly people or their children, who beg us to do something about their housing difficulties so that they can live closer together, and the elderly will not be so dependent on these services. All too often this is not possible because of the housing crisis in inner London and we are left with elderly people who are dependent on the services. Any improvement in these services would quickly pay dividends.

If we review these primary services, we find what has been called a planning vacuum in London. The difficulty lies in the structure of the regional health authorities. I have for long believed that there should be a regional health authority covering inner London because this would make it easier to plan services for areas similar to each other. The RMAs have cut London into four cake-like segments, where they are under the pressure of increasing population in the green belt and the outer London suburbs, and have to balance the pressure on their resources between those areas and the deprived inner London areas. This makes it difficult for the RHAs to allocate resources in the most useful manner.

Having a planning body, a RHA covering the whole of inner London could be of benefit only to the health service in London. I have been arguing this for years, but no one has responded to the need. However, I wonder whether there is not some way in which we can have, on a permanent basis, a way of planning services to help the disadvantaged inner London area. I appreciate the difficulties, as there would be an overlap of authorities, and the RHAs could conflict with the planning needs of inner London, but there must be some way in which the RHAs can get together and go in for more planning. Presumably this would involve a district level integration of some of these responsibilities so that some of the primary care services can be better planned. I do not know how far one can take this plan, but there is some possibility that improved services would result.

One of the conclusions that one comes to about this is that, although some of the proposals would cost money, many of them are relatively inexpensive. Therefore, the Government's view that no more money can be spent on the Health Service, and that there should be further cuts in London, does not provide a good enough excuse for not doing something about the proposals in the Acheson report.

I hope that the Minister will take this to heart. We need some will and determination. The people of inner London are disadvantaged and could do with better health care. The real need for development is in the primary health care services. We have the right to ask for a positive response from the Minister and positive action to improve the health care for the many people in inner London who need it greatly.

1.38 am

I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs), who has so ably introduced this subject. In doing so, I utter a warning to the House and to the Government. One could represent, as I have, a London constituency for about 10 years, which is referred to in the Acheson report as an inner London constituency, without realising the extent of the problems that affect general and family practice in many parts of inner London.

The problems have to be looked for, but they are there and they can be horrendous. There are two basic reasons for the failure of family practice in inner London. The first is that in the last century London had a proportionally greater concentration of population than it has even today. Therefore, it was an ideal place for the construction of large teaching hospitals. About a dozen were built because there were plenty of bodies available on which the trainee doctors could practise. They gave excellent technical service, given the conditions of the art at that time, and as a result people in inner London developed the habit of going to the teaching hospitals instead of to their family doctors. That started the rot—if I may put it that way. It has continued, to a greater or lesser extent, to the present day. It may be because Lewisham has never had a teaching hospital that we have escaped many of the problems with which the Acheson report deals. We have deficiencies and problems which there will be time enough to debate on another occasion, but I particularly want to focus on those with which the Acheson report deals.

The second reason is that a number of less than worthy general practitioners realised that the inadequacies of the family practitioner service in inner London provides an excellent structure on which to fashion a parasitic growth, which meant the minimum commitment to the National Health Service and the maximum commitment to private practice. Most of the inner London areas, of course, lie only a short distance from that lucrative field of private medical practice—the centre of London and the West End.

Those two factors have led to a continuing reliance by people in inner London on the big teaching hospitals' out-patients' department. The tradition has built up over many years that if something happens to a person, he goes to the out-patients' department. The technical assistance provided there is excellent, but there is an absence of continuing care, which is probably the single most basic principle of family practitioner service.

The general practitioners whom I have described spend the minimum amount of money on their surgeries. Some surgeries are very poor. I described one some years ago as being like a ganger's hut underneath the railway arches, and I was not exaggerating. These doctors are keen on building up their own income, and as a general rule they therefore do not wish to combine with partners in a group practice. As my hon. Friend said, there is a high concentration of general practitioners working on their own.

These general practitioners work with minimum lists. If a GP has a patient list of 1,000 patients, he qualifies for the basic allowances of NHS practice. Having done that and ensured a fall-back income for himself, he then feels free, with a minimum commitment to the NHS, to indulge in his proclivities to get income from the private sector. That has a serious effect, because the Medical Practices Committee, which has the job of recommending the number of doctors for the country generally, tries to get one GP to about 2,500 patients. On that criterion, the inner London areas are substantially over-doctored. Therefore there is a tendency to steer aspiring doctors away, thus making the problem infinitely worse.

These general practitioners not only expend their efforts on the minimum number of patients, but they devote the minimum time to that minimum number of patients. There are many examples of GPs who live nowhere near their premises, who hold surgeries for one and a half hours in the morning and one and a half hours in the evening, and disappear in between times. If one wants to contact the GP, a telephone call will probably put one in touch with the deputising services. I do not want to enter into a lengthy debate this evening on the value of deputising services. They may well be technically good, and the doctors may be good, but they cannot provide the continuous attention which is the basic hallmark of general practice.

There is the maximum disincentive to introduce a young doctor into such a set-up. If an elderly doctor with 1,000 patients dies, no young doctor is particularly anxious to take over such a list because he would have to exist in relative poverty for several years while he built it up to 2,500 in order to earn a decent National Health Service income.

The whole position leads to the vicious practice of notional retirement, whereby those general practitioners who before the age of 65 have devoted their efforts to a proper list of 2,000 to 2,500 patients, retire at 65 and, because nobody wants to take over their practice, return to work the next day, drawing their pensions with a patient list of 1,000 and the basic Health Service allowances. As has been said, there are many elderly general practitioners in inner London.

All the problems of a weak practitioner service are compounded by the fact that the stable inner London population is often deprived, with a substantial proportion of low income earners, elderly frail people, single parent families and so on. Such a population is also to a large extent mobile and rootless. Young people move in to study and then move out, without a great deal of money to live on, as the Minister might have heard had he listened to his colleague answering the previous debate. Tourists drift in and out. Commuters arrive and leave daily. A large immigrant population may, until recently, not have appreciated the standards of medical care that could be achieved in Britain. In addition, there are the homeless and rootless—not to mince words, the tramps.

The solution to all that is an early retirement scheme for such elderly general practitioners. There should not be too much discretion as to how those schemes are applied. There must be more sensitivity from the Medical Practices Committee to assess the position in a particular area. Where it finds that the number of doctors is based entirely on minimal lists, fresh general practitioners should be introduced.

There will have to be some financial enouragement for young doctors and there must be good premises. We must work towards a group practice of doctors, combined with the build-up of team work with not only doctors but other health care professions. As in other parts of the country that means the provision of good health centres. To achieve that, one would have to co-operate with local authorities. It must be made much more difficult for general practitioners to settle for short lists.

Sometimes the point is made that such problems will persist because it is not possible to encourage general practitioners to live in the somewhat dreary and deprived inner city areas to do their work. That is not a real problem for general practitioners because there is always a reasonable residential area within 15 minutes' night-time motoring which makes attending emergency cases possible. That might require a moderate level of assistance with mortgage interest rates because such residential areas might be expensive.

The problem might be more serious for people such as district nurses, health visitors and, particularly, midwives, who have a large emergency element in their practice and who therefore have to live near their patients. The salaries of health visitors and district nurses are not as high as those of doctors. They do not have the same facility to live some distance from places of work and to commute. Therefore, the Government should face those serious recruitment problems.

The Acheson report is excellent. It gives evidence of very hard work on the part of those who produced it. It is clear that careful thought has been given to the problems that I have alluded to generally. It shows a willingness to propound shrewd solutions to many of the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South and I have mentioned. I wish that such a tool had been waiting for me to use for the problems of general practitioners in inner city areas when I moved to the Department in 1976. The report is a magnificent tool for solving the problems.

The Government have had the report for 15 months. The working party reported in May 1981. As my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South said, no decision has yet been reached on the report. Indeed, the Government have not even decided to reject it. In the report, there is ominous mention of the need for extra public expenditure. On the other hand, the Government have not decided to accept it in part or in whole. There has been a complete silence about it. People in London are becoming concerned. Indeed, their representatives, such as ourselves, are becoming concerned. The GLC, health authorities and the medical profession are all becoming concerned.

I hope that the Minister will tell us what the Government have been doing about the report since receiving it 15 months ago. Why has there been such indecisiveness? After all, the Department was keyed up to accept such a report at least as late as 3 May 1979. I should have thought that the Government would have improved their ability to handle such a report in the three years or more since that date. Admittedly, there has been a change of Minister this year. That must have imposed a modest delay, but that is not a proper excuse.

Between May 1981 and March 1982—the date that the hon. Member for Reading, South (Dr. Vaughan) ceased to be Minister for Health and moved on to other things—the Minister could have reached a decision. What has been going on? I hope that the Under-Secretary will enlighten us. Why has no decision been reached? I hope that he will say that the Minister has decided to accept the Acheson report and that the Government intend to proceed with it. Even if the Minister accepts the report tonight, it cannot be implemented overnight. It will probably take a tremendous amount of time to persuade the British Medical Association to accept, on behalf of its members, several of the report's proposals. They will affect not only general practitioners in the inner city area but general practitioners throughout the country. Therefore, the negotiations will be important.

Until the Government say that they accept the report in principle, the policies cannot be implemented. In the meantime, apart from odd shifts and devices and short-term expedients the situation in relation to general practice is deteriorating all the time. The problems are not becoming easier, and they tend to become worse. Will the Under-Secretary put at rest the fears of hon. Members, the Health Service, the medical profession and local authorities by saying that the Government accept the Acheson report?

1.54 am

I join the right hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moyle) in congratulating his hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs) on introducing this subject. The right hon. Member is right when he says that he wished that he had a report similar to Acheson available to him. He was kind enough when Minister of State, to visit my area, and we found all the elements contained in the report.

I have complained about the problems for many years. I began in 1965 by inviting the then Minister of Health—Kenneth Robinson—to visit my area. We trod the same path that the right hon. Member for Lewisham, East trod so recently. The Minister saw the deterioration in the area and was asked what he would do about it. In 1969 the Secretary of State for Social Services—Dick Crossman—visited the area in question and we went over the same ground and heard the same stories. He went away. Then the hon. Member for Reading, South (Dr. Vaughan), the then Minister for Health, visited the area. We went to the same places, talked to the same people and saw the same things. Nothing happened. I am now waiting to introduce myself to the new Minister for Health and take him to my area. We shall see the things that Acheson has put together in one document.

I do not accept that these are new problems. I am delighted to see that everything has been put together in the report. Over the years we have raised these problems with everybody in the Department for Health and Social Services who must have been aware of them. I cannot accept that we had to wait for Acheson to draw all the facts together. My complaint is that while everybody has known about the problems little has been done.

I know what the right hon. Gentleman is going to say. I will be paying a tribute to him, but I wanted to draw attention to the special problems of the environment in inner London as Acheson does. Those factors are not accepted in other parts of the country. People look at London and regard it as the place where the streets are paved with gold. We cannot even make our provincial colleagues accept that there are distressed areas in inner London. We had a number of rows about "RAWP-ing" with the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals). He would not understand that when he was talking about "RAWP-ing"—taking money from London and giving it to other areas—he was causing destitution in those inner London areas. That was one of the ways in which we suffered so badly.

My area is 90 per cent. municipalised. There are a large number of high-rise flats. An elderly person who goes into hospital in any other part of the country goes home to a nice little house with a garden in which he can recuperate. He can be taken out of hospital, allowed home, and be attended by nurses. That cannot be done in my area. People cannot climb four or five storeys to recuperate with ulcerated legs. They have to stay in hospital. People say that health services in inner London are expensive, and that the acute beds have to be closed because they are not really needed.

I have never been able to get across to the various Ministers for Health that many of our hospitals are what are known as "GP hospitals". People have to remain in hospital because their living accommodation does not allow them to recuperate at home.

My constituency is covered by the statistics for the City and East London. Table 7 shows that 57 per cent. of GPs in the area are born outside the United Kingdom. Over the page the report shows that we have the largest average list size, even though we have the poorest GP service.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to surgery premises. The area has the worst possible premises. He will recall that I took him to see the ganger's hut under the bridge. A lady holding a baby was standing in the rain outside the hut which had barbed wire on top of it. I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman; he took action. The doctors were moved into the health centre. The facts of rain and the sick lady standing outside with her baby conspired to highlight the situation. But the right hon. Gentleman's predecessors knew of the hut and did not take action.

To some extent the report soft pedals about the condition of premises. In my area GPs operate from premises that are merely shop fronts. The right hon. Gentleman saw me advise my constituents outside one surgery to wait in the betting shop next door, where there was a carpet, warmth and music, until it opened. Sick people were leaning on the wall outside waiting for the surgery to open. The report should have made the position clearer, although it may have been trying to be friendly to the GPs. The problem has been in exposing the truth.

People also have to be sick at the permitted hours which are posted on the wall. If people are sick outside those hours they must ring the famous number, 802 6622. It is called a deputising service, but it is a moonlighting service.

The tables in the report show that 98 per cent. of the doctors in the area are permitted to moonlight. They are in their surgeries only for the permitted hours and then they are away. Few live locally. The table on page 34 shows that only 5 per cent. live on the premises of their surgeries, 27 per cent. live elsewhere in the same borough, 30 per cent. in adjoining boroughs, 24 per cent. in the next-but-one borough and 30 per cent. further afield. The people in my constituency are not getting a GP service.

They turn not to the teaching but to the ordinary cottage hospitals. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that we had a row about closing a cottage hospital. There were two other closures, so that with two more, only St. Bartholomew's would be left. It was argued that, because there was a deficit each year on the district health authority of about £1 million, one could save £1 million by closing a hospital. Every year there was a deficit of £1 million, so we closed a hospital to save money. However, the money was not saved as St. Bartholomew's hospital was causing the drain on the area. For as long as we fund that hospital from the district we will always have that deficit. I always argued that the hospitals should not be closed because once one did that, one took away from the people of the area their one chance of having proper treatment.

I appeared once before a family practitioner committee. I do not know how many hon. Members have done so on behalf of a constituent. One has to do so to understand the extraordinary procedure. One cannot speak at such a committee. One has to act as a dummy for one's client. Therefore, one hears what is going on and whispers in the client's ear. One speaks through one's client. In my committee the GP about whom the complaint was made was angry because he did not understand the procedure. He complained to the chairman that I was advising his patient. The chairman had to explain that that was the role that I had to play. I could not talk to the chairman directly. I had to advise the client. That is absurd and should be cleared up.

That problem comes about because so few people have been at a family practitioner committee and presented a case on behalf of a constituent who has complained about a GP. Therefore, I hope that that point will be considered.

Acheson comments that it is up to the FPCs to show a greater interest in the conditions of the GPs and their premises. That is not done. The committees have not inspected the premises, otherwise they would have found the gangers' hut under the bridge, with barbed wire.

As the Minister knows, I have raised the subject of community nursing many times. Every one of the strategic plans of the area health authority in my area is based on the assumption that we have adequate primary health care. Having made that assumption, other assumptions are made, such as that there are too many beds or that one does not need this or that service because the primary health care service is there. However, there is no evidence that we have ever had it.

Paragraph 6.4 of Acheson refers to health visitors. I intervened in a debate when we discussed nurses, midwives and health visitors recently. I drew attention to the fact that there were insufficient health visitors. Paragraph 6.4 refers to the average vacancy rates. The rates are high in my area. The report states:
"Average vacancy rates for health visitors were higher in inner London than elsewhere".
That is a stark comment. Other assumptions are based on the assumption that an area has enough health visitors. In my small district of Shoreditch, we are five short. Yet that is where the old people in my constituency are concentrated and it is the area with the highest sickness rate. They are stuck in high-rise flats and there is a greater need for health visitors. We have had five vacancies for years, but the structure plans assume that everything is all right.

The Government must study the Acheson report and what they know about the situation. There is much talk about preventive work among the elderly, but no such work is done. I argue with those involved, because no one wants to admit the truth.

When we discussed the quality of GPs, we finally persuaded Bart's to set up a chair of general practice. I think that it was the first in the country and it works well. Many undergraduates study general practice in the district and we must try to emulate that work in other parts of inner London.

The Acheson report refers to the services run by the boroughs. That reference takes only two pages of the enormous report, but if the London boroughs do not carry out their social work—meals on wheels, joint financing and so—everything else comes to a halt. And in my costituency it has come to a halt.

The right hon. Member for Lewisham, East will remember that I took him to visit a lady in my constituency who was confined to a wheelchair. I fought desperately to get a ramp provided outside her flat. Unfortunately, she died before a ramp was provided. The local authority was unable to help. I do not criticise that authority, because if it does not have the money it cannot do the work. Governments are to blame. They know that local authorities do not have the resources; and the two pages of comments in the Acheson report presuppose that everything is all right.

I tell my local authority that there is no shame in an authority being unable to do the work. If it is starved of resources, it should say so and make sure that everyone knows. Governments believe that the authorities can do the work. The Hackney director of social services puts the best face on the situation that she can. She is a hard worker and does her best, but that is nowhere near good enough.

Everyone is prepared to accept the director's assurances that she can provide the home helps, but home help services are being cut. Those who had home helps for three days now have them for only two, those who had home helps for two days now have them for only one, and those who were visited one day a week now get no help at all. No new home helps are being taken on and it is a desperate situation, but because the best face is put on the difficulties, the information fails to get across and Governments go on as if everything was all right.

The Acheson report does a good job, because it brings together the information that some of us, including most Governments, have known for a long time. There is no justification in the Government having waited 15 months wihout calling a meeting with anyone to discuss the report and to decide whether it is true or false. They should have done that before coming to the House to discuss their proposed response to the report.

I hope that the Minister will say, not in broad terms, what he thinks of Acheson. We think that it is first class. What will he do? I have highlighted for him the fact that he must produce more money in Hackney, for example, if we are to get anywhere near solving our problems. The situation is desperate. I have been accused in the past of exaggerating, but when people come to my area they see that I am not exaggerating. The situation is chaotic. We must get the Government to do something about Acheson and make sure that they begin to implement it. I hope that Ministers will come to the inner London areas to see what is happening and then ensure that we receive the resources to do something about it.

2.15 am

We should be very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs) for raising the whole matter of the Acheson report. He is carrying out a task that the Government should have carried out long ago. They have failed, disastrously, to live up to the expectations that they expressed originally on 20 December 1979, when the chairman of the London Health Planning Consortium wrote to Professor Acheson after setting up the primary health care study group. He explained that everyone was very clear about the problems, but they were not likely to disappear for a long time.

"The Consortium therefore hopes that the Group will give particular thought to measures which could achieve change within a short timescale—say, five years. The Minister of State for Health"—
then the hon. Member for Reading, South (Dr. Vaughan)—
"fully supports this view and will await with considerable interest your report.
The Consortium does not itself have any executive powers. Its role is to advise its parent bodies … Nonetheless, the commitment of Ministers and the Department to the work of the Consortium, and particularly this Study, will ensure that your report is given urgent and serious consideration."
One can hardly get away from the plain English in which those views were expressed. But, in case there should have been any doubt, the introduction to the report made clear that the study group realised that the difficulties needed to be dealt with urgently. It said:
"There has been a continuing reduction in the number of acute hospital beds and many accident and emergency … departments in the inner city have closed in recent years. Between 1976 and 1978, 22 casualty departments closed, 5 of which were in inner London … Between 1977 and 1979 the number of acute hospital beds in inner London fell by almost 1,000 … At the same time, the effects of the recession are leading to contraction of the social services financed by local authorities … the publication of the London Advisory Group's report on acute hospital services … has reinforced the need for urgent action. The Group recommended that the number of acute beds in London should be reduced by 15%—4,000 beds—during the 1980s".
So the study group was well aware of the scale of the problem and the need for immediate action, but it was also well aware that the Government's view is that if possible there should be no extra expenditure. It therefore said:
"where possible … the financial implications were kept to a minimum."
The report is a classic indictment of the failure of inner city health care. But the real failure has been that of the present Government, because although they have here a clear blueprint for action they have done absolutely nothing. They have not discussed the report in the House, they have not made the slightest attempt to act on any of its recommendations and they have not even begun to discuss some of those recommendations that could have been implemented without any extra resources. When I asked the Minister about some of the report's recommendations, it did not matter what the subject of the initial question was; the answers were a series of "Noes".

I asked the Secretary of State whether he would
"issue guidance to district health authorities to establish primary health care planning teams?"—[Official Report, 30 June 1982; Vol. 26, c. 326–27.]
The Minister for Health replied that it was a matter for the health authorities themselves. Will the Secretary of State issue guidance to health authorities to facilitate co-operation with local authorities in the provision for joint premises for social and health workers? No. Guidance to health authorities is contained in circular etcetera, etcetera. I asked whether there would be any decision about community nurses. I received an extremely dusty answer, although the report makes it clear that it is not simply the problem of GPs or community nursing and the associated services that make the position in inner London so disastrous.

The present Government asked for the report and they made it quite clear that they intended that there should be urgent action. When they received the report, not only did they do absolutely nothing, they were not even prepared to discuss the summary that Professor Acheson and his team had made. He had spelt out what we must do.

Hon. Members have talked about the problem in inner London boroughs. Acheson said that if we were to change any of the real problems we must find positive incentives to encourage health professionals to work in better conditions. He said that the inner London boroughs had far more single-handed and far more old GPs than any other area of the country. He said that their premises were substantially inadequate and that few had simple facilities such as lavatories or areas where patients could wait in decent conditions. He said that simple and basic facilities were absent from far too many general practice areas.

Therefore, Acheson said that several things should be done. He said that the incentives for the creation of group practices should be improved and that the small lists, with their concomitant problems, should be discontinued. He said that more rapid change should be stimulated through the retirement of elderly GPs. He said that we should improve the opportunities for GPs who are trained in modern forms of practice to work in the inner city. Of the community nursing services, he said that there was a vicious circle of excessive case loads and poor recruitment. He said that several matters should be considered urgently.

Acheson also suggested that we must have minimum standards for GPs' premises and that we must try to persuade the independent contractors to improve their premises while they remain independent of the NHS. He said that there must be effective inspection, that we must no longer leave it to the old boy system of people saying, "Yes it is all right. We will see whether we can arrange some type of loan that will assist you in the long term, but we will not insist that the improvement is done urgently."

We must involve health and local authorities in assisting with the provision of premises. That could be done with considerable effect. It is in providing good health centres with several GPs working together and supporting health professionals that we can have an immediate effect on general practice, both in inner cities and in the rest of Britain.

Acheson also said that we should improve staffing levels and the conditions of work for community nurses. Hon. Members have pointed out that there is a rapid turnover in community nurses in the inner city area. One does not have to be brilliant to work out why. They work in appalling conditions, they do not receive the back up that they should and they are frequently faced with insuperable problems in keeping up a level of patient care that they regard as the minimum.

Acheson says that if we are to do anything about this we should look at the practical means of support. Recently I took a delegation of nurses to talk to the Chancellor. In this instance, they happened to be district nurses concerned about the economics of running their own cars and thus supporting the Health Service. Acheson says that if we were prepared to consider buying cars for nurses in inner cities we might get over one of the practical problems—the fact that on their rates of pay many of them cannot afford to buy their first car and find it a great hardship when they are required to do so.

Exactly what do the Government intend to do about the practical things? If nurses in the inner city are at risk and if that can be dealt with by providing them with two-way radios, why have not the Government told us that they intend to do that without delay? They have been prepared to allow the most extraordinary things to happen in relation to citizens' band radio. They should at least be prepared to find the very small capital outlay needed to give quite effective protection to nurses working in areas where they are at considerable risk.

Over and above that, Acheson spelt out in considerable detail where the services were falling down. He said that there was little co-ordination, that GPs needed to have a continuing interest in their patients, that they needed access to information and to good services within the hospital and that they needed to be positively encouraged.

We know how high the cost is to the National Health Service if GPs do not function effectively. In inner city areas, if people cannot find a good GP or if they ring one of the shop premises that have been described and are told to ring another number for the deputising service, they do no such thing—they simply go to the accident and emergency department of the nearest large teaching hospital and use its services in quite the wrong way to obtain what is in effect a GP service. That is not only expensive of resources but exactly the opposite of good primary care and it places an increasing burden on the accident and emergency services of the large general hospitals.

We know what we should be doing. We know that we should be finding resources to encourage GPs to improve the quality of their workplaces and the patient care that they provide. We know that we should be encouraging elderly GPs to retire and finding ways to help nurses in the inner city to remain in their jobs, to learn about the area and to be protected in their work.

We know nothing, however, of how the Government justify their extraordinarily casual, laissez-faire attitude to a report that they asked for and said was urgently needed. Yet they have refused to discuss the report, let alone act upon it. There is the occasional rumour, of course—that seems to be the way in which a great deal of the Government's health policy is made—to the effect that some action will be taken. For example, there was a suggestion that the Minister of State might consider inspecting a few general practice premises in the future. That is so embarrassingly superficial as to be disgraceful. It is no use setting up an inspection service if nothing is done to deal with the other major problems of primary care in inner London. It is no use saying that GPs will be encouraged to put their money into improving their practices if nothing is done about the fact that too many of them work in single-handed practices and too many of them are old and infirm themselves. Positive incentives must be given to elderly GPs to retire. There must be positive incentives for GPs to improve their practices and to go into group practices where, at long last, the patients will get the standard of health care that they need and which in the 1980s should be available to them as of right. We should not have to say to the Government that they asked for the report, they have got it, and ask them what they are going to do about it. We should be discussing how we can most usefully utilise existing resources to provide a high level of primary health care.

I am sorry that the Minister of State is not here tonight. He bears considerable responsibility for the inaction on the Acheson report. It is an indictment of the Government that they have lamentably failed to do anything about the real problems set out in the report or the obvious means of redeeming the situation that Acheson regards as urgent.

I hope that the Minister will tell his ministerial colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Security that it will be regarded as a disgrace by the House of Commons and by the population of inner London if too many general practices are allowed to continue in their existing squalor. There are too many inadequate premises and too many nurses working at personal risk and in great difficulty. Ministers must do something about it now, having failed disastrously to do so in the past.

Having told his colleagues that, I hope that the Minister will return at the beginning of the next Session with the news that the Department is acting on the report because it regards it as an extremely intelligent and helpful plan which must be put into operation.

2.33 am

I add to what the hon. Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) said by expressing the Minister for Health's apologies for his not being present. He has had some trouble with his voice and, although my voice might be less satisfactory to have at the Dispatch Box, it can, I hope, be more clearly heard than would my hon. and learned Friend had he been here.

I genuinely join in the congratulations expressed by Opposition hon. Members to the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs) on having raised this important subject, and to all hon. Members on the constructive, albeit at times critical, way in which they have spoken on it.

It would be possible for me to spend several minutes in saying how relatively satisfactory in some respects the national developments in primary health care have been in the past few years. We are debating the situation in inner London and in other inner city areas—although tonight's debate has concentrated on inner London—against a background of encouraging development, in broad national terms, in primary health care. I want that, at least, to be recognised. I shall not labour the point because I do not want to sound complacent.

I recognise that against that reasonable national background there is cause for concern about the position in inner London and in some other inner city areas where the pattern has conspicuously failed to follow the general pattern of improvement over the past 20 years or so. It was partly in response to that, as hon. Members are aware, that the Acheson study group was established at the end of 1979 with a remit to identify the problems of organising and delivering primary health care in inner London and to recommend what actions might be taken to overcome them.

The study group identified four main problems. The first is the disproportionate number of elderly GPs—the hon. Lady and almost every hon. Member stressed this point—often with small lists of patients, working alone under demanding conditions. The Harding report, to which there has been less reference, which was published at the same time as Acheson, argued that it was vital for primary health care services to be provided on a comprehensive and co-ordinated basis and urged that team working should be promoted wherever possible.

There was an overlap between the two reports. In endorsing that approach the Acheson report highlighted the fact that the pattern of general practice in inner London was an obstacle to effective team working. That relates to much of what the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) said.

Secondly, some practice premises fall badly short of the standards that one might expect from a doctor's surgery in the 1980s. Thirdly—and this has been emphasised by hon. Members—health authorities have experienced difficuties in recruiting and training sufficient community nurses to meet inner London's needs. Fourthly, there was evidence that some patients had difficulty in communicating with their doctors or in gaining access to primary health care services. Again, hon. Members have rightly focused on that problem.

The report recognises that despite the problems there is a great deal of energy, commitment and caring among primary health care professionals. In inner London as elsewhere they are providing health services and doing the best that they can for their patients. I do not want hon. Members to believe that the picture is wholly gloomy and black, but I recognise the serious problems described tonight.

Most of the criticism has been directed at the Government not making a detailed response to the Acheson report.

I shall come to that in a minute.

The report, published in May 1981, contains 115 recommendations covering a wide range of interests, by no means all of which are directed at central Government. The Harding report contains a further 50 recommendations, many of which overlap the Acheson report. Many of the recommendations in both reports are aimed at the authorities directly responsible for the provision of services—the health authorities, the local authorities, family practitioner committees and education bodies. The then Minister for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, South (Dr. Vaughan), asked all the authorities to consider the reports as a basis for action. He sought comments from them and others. A large number of comments have been received, and the Government are considering them carefully and hope to make concrete proposals in the relatively near future.

The House should recognise that it is not easy to respond quickly to 165 recommendations, many directed at bodies other than central Government, many requiring substantial consultation with professional interests. I resist the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moyle) that the Government have not even decided to reject the report, as if we have given no sign of our general approach. It is clear that the Government have accepted the broad thrust of the Acheson report and the need to put as many of its proposals as practical into operation, bearing in mind the need for consultation.

What does the Minister base that thought on? What evidence is there that the Government accept the report?

In May 1981 the Government wrote to all the authorities concerned recommending the report to them as a basis for action. We have had a series of informal discussions with the General Medical Services Committee, concentrating on many of the recommendations from the Acheson report. We have moved on to formal discussions with it on particular proposals. There have been discussions with regional nursing officers, concentrating on staffing levels for community nurses and arrangements for funding their training. That is something to which my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State attaches especial importance and particular urgency. Earlier this year we wrote to the local authority associations on recommendations within the report falling to them and we are currently awaiting their response.

If a judgment is to be made in the not too distant future, the joker in the pack is that the Secretary of State for the Environment has already said that Hackney will lose a substantial sum next year. That means that an impoverished service will be worse off. How does the hon. Gentleman propose to get over that?

My hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Health has made it clear on a number of occasions recently that it is not possible at present to draw specific deductions about the precise consequences for personal social services of expenditure decisions which have not yet been taken in relation to the PESC exercise, which will continue in the latter part of the year. To draw specific conclusions of the sort that have been drawn in some quarters in the past few weeks is to go further than the facts allow or justify.

When Labour Members ask "What have the Government been doing?", the answer is that which I have presented to the House. An extensive range of consultation, both formal and informal, has been taking place with a view to putting the Government in a position that will enable an announcement to be made in the reasonably near future that will not be virtually meaningless—for example, "We accept the report". If the Harding report is included, there are over 150 detailed recommendations. As they are not all related to central Government, a statement of general acceptance would not mean very much. We wish to announce a specific and detailed package of proposals that is based on consultation.

I want to try to achieve the maximum amount of agreement on this issue. Is it fair to say that the Minister is telling us that the Government have accepted the Acheson report in principle? Is he making an official announcement to that effect, and that subject to consultation the Government intend to proceed towards applying the report? That is what I am beginning to understand from what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Is that a fair summary?

I shall not take up and endorse the words that the right hon. Gentleman is attempting to put into my mouth. However, it is in my judgment clear from what I have said, and from what has happened over the past 15 months, that the Government accept the broad thrust of the Acheson report and the need to examine in detail its recommendations with a view to bringing about practical improvements that are directed at the problems that the hon. Lady and right hon. and hon. Members have identified.

I am not able to go further than that tonight, but I hope that I have said enough to make it clear that the Government have not rejected the report. We are endeavouring to work towards the announcement within the reasonably near future of measures directed to the problems and, as far as possible, to the solutions that are recommended in the Acheson report. It will not be possible for the Government to accept and act upon every one of the 150 or more recommendations, if we include the Harding report.

I hope that it will be possible for my hon. and learned Friend to be in a position before much longer, on the basis of the continuing consultations with professional interests—the right hon. Member for Lewisham, East recognises the need to talk at length with the BMA and other interests—to make positive and specific proposals that are based upon the Government's consideration of the Acheson report. I recognise that that is not as much as Labour Members would like me to say, but I hope that it is a clear indication of the Government's wish to make a positive response as soon as possible to what has been said tonight and to the Acheson report.

Department Of Energy (Privatisation Policy)

2.44 am

From the end of the Second World War until May 1979, we had in Britain a broad consensus on the need for a mixed economy, but in May 1979 we saw the advent of a Government who are displaying the grossest hostility, prejudice and malice to the public sector.

The nationalised industries fall into two main groups. There are industries where private ownership and capitalism failed, such as the railways and the coal mines which were losing money but which it was felt necessary to keep in the national interest. After the Second World War they were brought into public ownership. That applied more recently to firms such as Rolls-Royce and ICL. The building of the "Atlantic Conveyor" would not have been possible in Britain, because there would have been no shipbuilding industry had it not been taken into public ownership.

The second type of industry is natural monopolies. In the days of trams, it would have been absurd for several tram companies to lay tram lines down the same road or to have half a dozen gas or electricity companies digging up the pavements to lay their lines. It was thought that the monopoly positions should not be abused but that they should be opened up to democratic control.

But this Government, rather like a group of vandals, are setting out systematically to strip the assets of the public sector to obtain quick, one-off gains. They are skimming the cream off the public sector to enable them to have some room in the Budget for tax cuts for the rich. They have already sold assets worth £1,800 million in British Aerospace, the National Freight Company, Cable and Wireless, ICL, Ferranti, Fairey Aviation and several other companies. The Government's philosophy is that those companies which are losing money but which are essential will be kept in the public sector, but that profitable industries will be sold to their friends in the City.

We know that most businesses have profitable and non-profitable parts and that the profitable parts help to balance the books. In the newspaper industry, for example, The Guardian loses money but the Manchester Evening News makes money, so one can help the other. British Rail does not make a profit, but there is no railway system in the world that does. The subsidy to the Deutsche Bundesbahn is much larger than that to British Rail. But even British Rail has profitable parts, which are being sold, such as the hotels, the Hoverspeed service and now the Sealink ferries.

No one in the House would say that public services are not efficient or that they cannot be well run. Recently in the House we paid tribute to the professionalism, efficiency, good organisation and morale of publicly owned and financed services. I refer to the Royal Marines, the Royal Navy, the Guards battalions and the paratroop battalions in the Falklands campaign. That operation was left, not to private enterprise, but to public services not run by the profit motive. I hope that no one will say that it is not possible for public services to be efficient.

What we are seeing, and the issue to which I wish to draw particular attention, is the worst vandalism of all, the selling off of 51 per cent. of the British National Oil Corporation. I regard this as a scandalous rip-off of the British taxpayer. North Sea oil is the best bit of economic good news that this country has had, perhaps the only bit, since the war. At one time we debated what we would do with the benefits from North Sea oil, how we would use it and where the money would be invested. We do not have those debates now because the money is being wasted on financing the dole queues. Oil is a great national asset.

The land is also a great national asset. I believe that at one time the Liberals had a song which said that God gave the land to the people. Perhaps he did, but some rather nefarious people have got their hands on it in the interim. However, British Oil was under national control. If 51 per cent. of Britoil is sold, this will undermine public control of this important resource, and it will be handed over to private speculators. Assets of immense, long-term economic and financial value which otherwise would have accrued to the nation will go, and there will be yet another opportunity for speculators to make gains.

I hope that nobody will sneer and laugh at that suggestion. We should remember what happened with Amersham International, which was the last episode of this kind of thing. Rothschild handled the operation of selling the shares. They were sold again the following day at about 32 per cent. more than the original price. That was a grotesque swindle of the taxpayer by speculators. One has to use the word "speculators", because why would these people buy these shares unless they thought that they would make a quick profit? Here we are talking about Britoil, which is not a small operation like Amersham International. We are talking about billions of pounds and it would be a major scandal and a disgrace if the same thing happened.

Why are the Government so intent on selling off this great national asset? No one would say that BNOC is inefficient. Neither the Government nor the Minister would claim that. The Secretary of State for Energy, when introducing the Government's plans, made no such criticism. He said:
"BNOC is one of the newest of the public corporations, and its spirit of enterprise has not yet been stifled by the bureaucratic embrace".—[Official Report, 19 January 1982; Vol. 16, c. 177.]
In other words, he meant no criticism of its efficiency.

Already, BNOC is the third largest producer in the North Sea, after Shell and BP. Its adventurous and enterprising programme will mean that its shares are bound to rise. It is very profitable. In 1981, its pre-tax profits were £439 million, and they are bound to rise. It is the sale of BNOC's own production, not its sale of other operators' oil, that makes the profit. That is the part that is to be sold off, and that is the scandalous and disgraceful part of this operation.

The Government will sell off this asset at less than its real value. We now have a world-wide glut of oil and prices are coming down. In March, BNOC cut its price by $4 a barrel. This asset should be kept in national ownership. If the price drops too far, the oil should be kept below the sea for future generations. If we have the sale now, there will be rich pickings for speculators. I hope that Conservative Members will not sneer about that, because it has often happened in the past. In the case of British Aerospace, the shares were sold for 150p a share, and as soon as they reached the Stock Exchange they traded at 171p a share. The speculative gain there was 14 per cent. The Government sold 50 per cent. of Cable and Wireless. The shares were sold at 168p, and when they reached the Stock Exchange they traded at 203p. The speculative gain there was 21 per cent. In the recent scandal of Amersham, the gain was 32 per cent. In that case, there was a loss to the public purse of £23 million. Now the same thing will happen again, but on a gigantic scale.

I know of no other country which takes this attitude to its oil resources. Norway takes exactly the opposite view. Norwegian Statoil has a minimum stake of 51 per cent in all concessions, rising to 85 per cent. Petrocan in Canada, Petrobras in Brazil, Hispanoil in Spain, Deminex in West Germany, all take a similar view. Only Tory Britain wants to sell off a national resource of this nature.

The efficiencey of BNOC is not in question. It is a major source of income for the future. However, that is to be completely disregarded by this dogmatic and doctrinaire Government, with their mania for handing over profitable public assets for private speculation and exploitation. There will be huge benefits from the North Sea, but they will go to a privileged few, and not to the nation.

British Gas has to sell its oil interests in the North Sea and Wytch Farm in Dorset. It also has to lose its right of first purchase on gas discovered in the North Sea, and that is likely to put up the price of gas. The Government even wanted it to sell off all the gas showrooms. I hope that trade union pressure, mainly from the General and Municipal Workers Union—one of whose members, the Opposition Chief Whip, I see listening to this debate—has brought sanity into the argument, and that we shall hear no more of that madcap scheme.

We know, too, that British Airways, British Transport Docks, parts of British Steel, and British Leyland, if they are made profitable by State enterprise and State money, will all be sold off. We know that British Telecom, the profitable side of what we once called the Post Office, is also too tempting and juicy a target to miss. It is considered to be an ideal candidate for that ugly word and ugly concept "privatisation". One effect of that will be a switch from British to foreign suppliers, meaning more imports and a greater loss of jobs in this country.

The British Labour movement believes in a substantial public sector because the majority of our people would have no chance of decent housing, education, pensions or health care if they were left to private profit. Only the privileged few would have a decent service. Therefore, they must be provided by the public sector and by the community mobilising its intelligence, which is a little more than the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) is doing tonight. I am surprised that he is letting himself down.

The Conservative Party, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is the party of State education.

I am pleased to hear that. However, if such matters were left to private profit instead of the community, there would be no chance of the ordinary person in Britain getting any decent services. That is why we want an efficient and substantial public sector.

The Government are trying to turn back the clock. They plan to hand back to their friends and supporters in the City many industries that have long been in the public sector. Yet the aim of private capital, I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees, is not the public good or the public benefit. The aim of private capital is the greatest possible private profit, to which the public good would be ruthlessly sacrificed.

I must tell the hon. Gentleman and the Government that we are bitterly opposed, to this selling off of our North Sea assets. They will be taken back into public ownership on terms under which the speculators will get their fingers burnt. We intend to return the inheritance of North Sea oil to its rightful owners—the British nation and its people.

3.2 am

After some bitter experiences in Committee on the Oil and Gas (Enterprise) Bill I can say that the Government's proposals are more extensive and infamous than the Amersham International scandal. The Minister will recall that at the Easter debate on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill he had the distressing experience of being at the receiving end of Labour Members' comments with regard to that.

The Minister was obviously subject to some criticism and attack on that matter.

The House will recall that I recently presented a Bill about the disposal of public assets. Its purpose was to ensure that before any shares in a publicly owned industry are disposed of by the Government they shall lay before Parliament all the commercial calculations on which the judgments regarding price, method of disposal and timing of sales are based, and for connected purposes.

No one can deny that the Government were subject to acute embarrassment. They will have the stigma of Amersham International for ever on their record—[Interruption.] I do not know whether the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) is having an attack of malaria. He has been mumbling away since the debate commenced. If he wishes to intervene, or if he needs attention, we shall try to help him.

I return to the point that the object of my Bill was to prevent any recurrence of the infamous Amersham International share bonanza. That is what it proved to be. I shall dot the I's and cross the t's of what has been said about city sharks and speculators. Overnight they made a killing of about £27 million. I remember a Tory Member saying that he had purchased some shares for two of his children, because it would not have been right to purchase them for himself. I asked the hon. Gentleman whether his children still had the shares, but no answer was forthcoming.

The shares turned over rapidly, because they were a good commercial proposition. That hon. Gentleman and his family took part in that kill. In fairness, it should be said that it was the merchant bankers that undervalued the shares. That was fortunate for some, but unfortunate for taxpayers. Last Wednesday, there was a splendid article in The Times, entitled
"Why selling off is a sell-out for the poor."
In the atomic energy debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. Rowlands) predicted, and to some extent proclaimed, that this sort of thing would happen over the radiochemical factories. We were proved to be right. We warned the Government of what would happen, because we knew their crude methods. The Bank of England should have made the evaluation. That would have been more sensible and in the interest of parliamentary accountability. Again, the Oil and Gas (Enterprise) Bill gives the Minister discretion to dispose of shares. He does not need to come to the House and that is to abuse ministerial responsibility. There should be more accountability to the House on such matters.

The shares were offered at a very modest price. Tory Ministers made it plain that it would help to encourage the spread of small shareholdings. In all, 65,000 successful applications were made. Only four months later, the number of shareholders in the company had fallen to 8,601 and nearly two-thirds of the company is now held in lots of more than £250,000. The small boys and ordinary people cannot now use their redundancy pay—the only thing that they have got out of the Government—to make a small investment for their futures. The dear old lady who wanted to have a gamble instead of buying Granny Bonds has not got any shares. It is right to have a gamble in that way. People are free to choose.

On average, lots of £250,000 are held and that leaves less than 9 per cent. of the shares in Amersham International in holdings smaller than £12,000. It is pretty obvious that the policy of privatisation is another abysmal failure. The classic example is that there is to be more of this sort of thing on an even greater scale. BNOC and British Telecom will each be another sale of the century. There will still be an ideological and philosophical conflict between the Opposition and the Government.

The Minister and I have had a great deal to do with each other over energy and coal-mining. He has taken a realistic view of our energy problems. Energy is not a product that can be wasted. It must be taken seriously. Our North Sea gas reserves at the current rate of usage are not expected to last much beyond the year 2000. If more reserves are discovered, strict depletion controls will be essential. The British Gas Corporation can ensure that by controlling production levels. Three-quarters of our current energy production is owned by multinational companies. I give the Under-Secretary the facts. If he does not understand them, he must ask the Minister to explain them to him later.

The Government must realise that if they do not control multinational companies the multinationals will control them. There has been an exodus of capital abroad and towns have closed down overnight when multinationals have moved to a more profitable market. The Government do not understand that there must be a licensing system to control multinational companies. Now that they are moving into the energy industry there must be a greater degree of vigilance and control to ensure that they stay in the country until the Government have the sense to get a return on or for the grants that have been made to the multinational companies.

The Opposition have always argued, and will continue to argue, that a fully integrated, publicly owned, gas industry is in the interests of consumers and workers. We are opposed to the removal of the corporation's rights to retail gas appliances and the proposed sale of showrooms to private enterprise.

If the Government succeed in carrying out their proposals, the Opposition make it plain that those rights will be restored by the next Labour Government. We have said that about oil and we shall say it about any other assets that are hived off to private enterprise. Private enterprise is motivated by self-preservation and quick and greater profits. It is the great gulf that divides the Opposition from the Government.

we hear corny remarks from Ministers to the effect that their aim is a private, property-owning democracy. When a Labour Government are returned to office they will maximise on orders for goods and services in the North Sea. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) rightly made great play of the fact that North Sea oil is the greatest jewel in the country's crown. It will continue to be if we conserve it and use it wisely. The Minister must acknowledge that we are still foolishly supplying oil which we shall need in 20 years' time to power stations, although we have 300 years of coal reserves in our coal fields.—[Interruption.]—I am not arguing about the price.

I said that oil was not being used at base power station load. I was not talking of the price.

It is sensible and rational to have a national energy planning policy, and most advanced industrialised nations, such as Japan, are considering one. The Governments of those countries give great energy subsidies. They realise that energy conservation is imperative.

With known technology and at current rates of depletion, the United Kingdom is likely to become a net importer of oil some lime in the next 10 years. The Government should apply strict depletion controls to prolong the life of reserves well into the next century. We should aim to restrict the use of oil by the premium use of conversion from oil to coal and bulk steam-raising in industry. We need more effective grants. As a result of persuasion from the Opposition, the Government have made a minor contribution. Nurseries are being encouraged to change to the fuels that I mentioned. I am sure that a Labour Government will put more money into research and development of satisfactory substitutes, particularly for use in transport, which consumes high quality oil.

It is essential to have a strong and healthy British national oil corporation that can play a major role in developing to the full our North Sea oil resources in the interests of the nation. The Labour Government established BNOC and gave it the power to operate as a fully fledged and prosperous State-owned company. But this Government have removed many of its powers. I shall never be convinced that the free market mechanism, which appears to be the Government's only regulator, will supply the fuel needs of the British and European economies. The Government should review the situation. We need a nationally co-ordinated energy policy, instead of the recent betrayal of the British taxpayer.

3.18 am

Having just been drafted in from the picket with my nurses beside the Pankhurst statue, I shall attempt to make one or two observations on the public sector nationalised industries and energy privatisation.

The Government wish to pursue privatisation in all sectors. We strongly disagree with that, principle. The problems with the nationalised industries and the principle of them go back further than the past two or three years. We have not faced the problems of how to deal with the great public sector. We disagree with the Government fundamentally because they seek to solve those problems by selling off the most profitable assets of public sector industries, when the problems facing them require us to look more directly at the role that we ask them to play in our economy.

The Government capitalise on the difficulties of the public sector industries by saying that because they are starved of capital, they must bring in private capital or sell assets to reduce their borrowing requirements. That is the Government's approach to the nationalised industries. They made it clear in their manifesto that they intended to roll back the frontiers of the public industries. What they meant was selling the profitable sectors. The only people who are prepared to buy anything or introduce private capital are those who are prepared to make a profit. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) referred to areas where profitable advances are being made. It was suggested that hon. Members had been able to secure some advantage through those deals. I can think of one or two examples. I think that the individual about whom my hon. Friend was talking obtained a capital advantage on local authority housing loans at one stage of his life.

Public sector industries inevitably have been starved of adequate capital. For a considerable period they have been denied sufficient capital. The most evident example, although the Government argue that it is the same with every industry, is British Rail. It has suffered for a long time from the denial of sufficient capital. It is incumbent upon us to ask ourselves what is the role of public sector industries and how we are to deal with them in meeting their tremendous demands on capital, while recognising their powerful role in our economy.

If one looks at the Government's record in the past three years, one sees that their approach has been to concentrate their attention on the privatisation of the profitable parts. That is for obvious reasons. It is intended for those interested in a quick kill—selling the assets, organising their sale or acquiring interest in them. There is the example of BP's shares. Governments are attracted to the acquisition of capital by selling assets. We have to recognise that it becomes an attraction to the Treasury and other Departments to acquire funds in that way.

The Government's arguments appear to be, first, to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement They have not reduced the proportion so far—it has increased since they came to power. Presumably that is because of what the Government are paying out in unemployment pay. Therefore, they have not achieved that target.

Secondly, the Government argue about increased efficiency in the nationalised industries and say that, by bringing in private capital, efficiency will be increased. That has yet to be proved. I shall give an example, again of British Rail. When the Government set up the Monopolies and Mergers Commission inquiry into British Rail that was an example of them setting the MMC loose on the public sector. They prefer doing that to the public than the private sector. The MMC conducted an inquiry into the southern region of British Rail. We are conscious of the arguments on labour practices, especially about flexible rostering. We heard of that disastrous affair, involving the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen. It was made clear by the MMC that, even if one achieves reasonable labour productivity, one cannot achieve proper efficiency without an adequate investment programme. The only reason why we spend so much time talking about labour practices, without looking at investment, is that we shut our eyes to the contribution of capital and investment to productivity and efficiency. The MMC report concluded that British Rail was starved of investment.

If the Government had been prepared to increase investment in concerns such as British Rail they might have been able to achieve greater efficiency than could be gained by applying pressure on flexible rostering. Those are arguments on the transport industry, but they are relevant to other sectors, though less so in energy and mining, where there has been greater productivity. However, in defence of British Rail, it must be said that reports comparing railways in Europe show that British Rail has a pretty good productivity record, which has not been given sufficient recognition.

One criticism of the Government's approach to the public sector is that it is not entirely consistent. The limits placed on the financing of public industries have been conditioned by the share held by the Treasury in those industries. It is usually said that if the Government have more than a 50 per cent. share of an industry it comes under the control of the Treasury.

The only public sector industry to which that rule did not apply was British Petroleum, but that was because of a special agreement, arranged by a senior civil servant, not a politician, in the early 1920s, that the Government would not interfere with BP, even though the State at one stage held more than 50 per cent. of the shares.

In addition, in airways and aerospace the argument was advanced that the protection of the public interest was involved and the rules of the Treasury, which have been such a blight on our nationalised industries, do not apply. The Government have not been consistent in their approach to nationalised industries.

Another example of the inconsistent approach is the mortgage and leasing arrangements of various nationalised industries. The Government told British Rail that it had to sell its hotels. The argument was that if BR could not raise enough money it should sell its assets. It could be argued that those assets could have been much more profitable if sufficient investment had been provided and the long-term advantage of the industry had been taken into account.

British Rail's hotels, some of the finest in the country, are starved of capital. An easy way to raise capital would be to take out mortgages on the buildings. That is the usual way which the hotel industry finances its capital requirements, but the Treasury said that it would not allow mortgages to be taken out on British Rail hotels.

However, the whole financing of Sealink, the nationalised shipping company, is done through mortgage and leasing arrangements. I concede that that did not start two years ago, but if the Government are interested in exploiting the advantage of the assets they should not sell them at knock-down prices when the market is depressed. Less money will be obtained, because the hotels are undercapitalised and profit returns have been bad in the past few years, reflecting the poor investment. The advantages of those assets have gone to waste because of lack of capital. If the Government had wanted to exploit the assets, all that they had to do was to allow the hotels to borrow on mortgages. Again we come up against the old problem of the public sector borrowing requirement and Treasury control, with the public sector being crucial to monetary controls and monetary policy.

It is clear that the Government were concerned not to develop the assets to their full potential but to sell them off to advantage other people. The financial advisers to the hotel business saw that it was to the hotels' disadvantage to sell off at that stage and at that price, but they were overruled by a British Railways Board that the Government were forcing to sell off its assets because it did not have sufficient capital.

I come from the shipping industry. The result of starving British Rail's Sealink of adequate capital resources is that the ships in Sealink's fleet—in which there are strikes going on around the country—have been allowed to grow old. In another two years 75 per cent. of the Sealink fleet will be over 16 years old. Only 25 per cent. of the fleet of its competitor, Townsend, will be 16 years old. When people travel on the State-owned ships they see that they reflect an investment pattern of 10 or 20 years ago, and they clearly prefer a shipping system in which there has been better investment and which has modern equipment.

The argument is not simply that the private sector does it better. All the innovations in shipping, the new types of ships, were introduced by British Rail and the other nationalised industries. The first interest in hovercraft came from nationalised industries. In both innovation and efficiency, when it had the capital, Sealink was on a par with, if not better than, its competitors. That is on the record.

We have allowed Sealink to stagnate, denying it the capital. Such actions have contributed to the problems faced by many public sector industries, with a Government who wish to be rid of them. The Government are ideologically pleased to sell them off and roll back the public sector. If they sell off the profitable parts of the public sector, is the role of the State simply to be the ambulance, to take up those parts that make a loss, those parts that cannot make a profit, and make the taxpayer pay for all those areas that are to become a social service? Is there not a role for cross-subsidisation?

We see what the Government's policy means in rural areas, where there are no buses because they have decided to license private people to go into the profitable areas—

Order. I am reluctant to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, especially as I know that he has been drafted to reply to the debate on behalf of the Opposition, but the subject is the policy of the Department of Energy towards the privatisation of nationalised industries. I am not certain that the Minister will be able to reply to a number of the hon. Gentleman's comments.

I should have stayed on a picket line. I take your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I am sure that the Minister recognises the principle. One of the fortunate aspects of the energy side of the subject is the tremendous amount of resources available. If I am arguing that there is a lack of finance in other areas of the public sector, it could be argued that at least the very profitable areas are much more attractive for raising capital, if the Government are prepared to release them from Treasury control. We are not prepared to do that, or in this sense limit them on the external financing limits. There are arguments about British Telecom and energy. In this one area of energy it is simply an ideological commitment, because here there are certainly considerable assets, although the mines in some areas may not be as profitable as in others. I do not know enough about the mines to enter that debate, but surely the Government will not be selling off the unprofitable parts of the mines.

Simply selling off the profitable sectors, which is more evident on the energy side, where there is not as much cross-subsidisation as necessary, requires the Government in their broader approach to the nationalised industries to ask themselves about the cross-subsidisation of a number of public sector industries. The Government are arguing about prices as between gas and electricity and between gas and oil, and they impose what is really an energy tax on the gas industry. That is certainly how it is regarded by those concerned. If that is indeed the case, it could be argued that it does not matter whether the Government raise the money through extra tax on the gas industry or use the money to finance less profitable industries that perform a public service. These are important questions about our great nationalised industries and we must address ourselves to them.

I have not commented on the more unsavoury aspects relating to private gain and the various other points made by some of my hon. Friends, but it is as clear in energy as it is elsewhere that the Government's approach to public sector industries leaves much to be desired. The industry's problems did not begin two years ago, but they have been made vastly more difficult by the Government's approach, which is motivated by what the Minister would no doubt say is a purely ideological desire to reduce the frontiers of the public sector but which, as the evidence shows, will in fact bring great profit and advantage to those fortunate enough to be able to acquire the assets.

The Minister should know that, despite all the controversy that we have had, the Labour Party's position is clear. Those people will not gain by their actions. We shall use the power of Government to roll back the areas of advantage and incentive to private greed given by the Government. I hope that anyone who has bought or is thinking of buying into this or any other nationalised industry in this way will watch carefully this year's Labour Party conference. A formula will be laid down on this and the party will be committed. If there was previously any doubt about the Labour Party's attitude to reacquiring these State industries, it should be borne in mind that the Labour Party now takes a very much firmer attitude. We do not believe that taxpayers' assets should be exploited in this way and we shall take all measures available in Parliament to correct it.

3.36 pm

First, I thank the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) for enabling us to discuss a matter of great importance not only to those with energy interests, as the debate has made clear.

I should have loved to trespass on the time of the House by responding to the many interesting comments of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). Unlike much of the earlier part of the debate, the hon. Gentleman's speech sought to face some of the really tough questions underlying what for all of us are the difficult industrial social and economic problems of the nationalised sector in all its guises. At times, I share the hon. Gentleman's difficulty in understanding the Jesuitical and esoteric nature of what is or is not a public sector enterpise in Treasury terms. I am sure that he will be conscious of the difficulties in which some of us find ourselves in that respect.

I should have loved, too, to go into detail on the transport aspect, but I should clearly be straying beyond the remit of the debate. Nevertheless, I take the point that these matters go beyond any one sector, although the debate itself concerns the energy industries.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind my saying that, as the power of Government must come from the ballot box, I trust that those whom he sought to attract to the Labour Party conference will give it their full attention. Indeed, I hope that the whole nation will do so. The balloting consequences can only be a source of gain to the Conservative Party.

The hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Cunliffe) also contributed to the debate. I appreciate, of course, that some hon. Members are unable to participate in our debates in public, but it was a privilege, as always on these occasions, to have the presence of the Opposition Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Cocks), who at all hours of the night provides a constant series of delightful sedentary interruptions, and I know that his activites would be a great deal more verbal if the opportunity to contribute were available to him.

Large parts of the earlier contributions started from the astonishing supposition that only the Opposition were entitled to the privilege of having something known as a philosophy, however archaic and ineffective in practice and history, and that there was no rationale of any kind behind the Government's policies in this or other areas.

I note that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East remembered both the words of the Conservative Party manifesto and the fact that there is a philosophy underlying it. It is worth debating philosophy. I hope that those who respect democratic debate do not assume that there is a murky and unfortunate language attached to the motives and attitudes of some of those who, in Government, argue aggressively the philosophy that underlies their decisions.

As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East rightly said, the Government's actions are backed by a philosophic commitment to free enterprise with the sincere belief that competition in the market place will better allocate and use the resources of a nation than decisions taken through a centralised State monopoly. Knowing our philosophy and our commitment to it, it would be surprising if we had not embarked on a programme of denationalisation.

Three essential questions lie behind our actions. First, does a nationalised rather than a private sector corporation best serve the nation? Secondly, does a nationalised or a private sector corporation better serve the consumer? Thirdly, does such a corporation better serve the employees of that industry? I shall deal with each of those questions before dealing with the specific points that have been raised.

The answer to the first question is clear to all who do not allow hope to triumph over the experience of the past 40 or more years. The figures—we have had sterile figures from both sides of the argument—are legion, so I shall touch on just two to refresh memories. In my ministerial responsibilities I have tried to help and succour nationalised industry structures. Two figures should be tucked in the back of hon. Members' minds as a backcloth. Since 1945, the accumulated subsidies in capital write-offs of our nationalised industry sector are now more than £8,000 million. Secondly, since 1972 the average rate of return of all the nationalised industries has never been significantly above zero. From 1970 to 1980, the post-subsidy returns have dropped from less than 0·75 per cent. to minus 1 per cent.

We all know that we are dealing with a massive amount of capital, whatever the debate about the needs for new capital. In 1980, £94 billion of capital was employed. I understand the definition that others may have of social good and value as opposed to rates of return on the capital that is employed. We are dealing with the return to the nation in terms of capital and efficiency.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East talked of industry's failure to serve the nation as being essentially the result of a lack of capital. I speak in generalities as I know that he has a special interest in a couple of industries. There is failure—this is the philosophical argument that should be debated—because monopolies by definition cannot allocate resources as efficiently as competition in the market place.

I know that Ronald Butt is not a popular commentator with all hon. Members, but recently he wrote what I thought was a rather interesting article in The Times. He wrote of monopoly, private or public:
"Monopoly is a condition which cannot fail to be exploited by human greed, sloth, fear and self protection".
All who are genuinely concerned with how we better serve our country as opposed to other aspects of the debate understand the dilemmas that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East fairly referred to.

I am staggered by the suggestion that we have consumer satisfaction with our nationalised industries. In common with all hon. Members, I hold weekly surgeries. I have done so for eight or nine years. Most hon. Members have a healthy letter bag and have been politically conscious, whether from political door-knocking or from public surveys, of the attitude of the public to the nationalised industries. I take no pleasure from that. The reality is that I do not have consumers coming to my surgeries to complain about the nature of Sainsbury's or the choice and service they have in the purchase of food products in the United Kingdom. Nor do they complain about the service they receive from Marks and Spencer. [Interruption.] Those who come in late to these debates no doubt want to interrupt from a sedentary position and deny the generality of the statistical evidence that comes from survey after survey. It is sad, but it is a reality. I do not seek to encourage complaints against the nationalised industries. I refer to the reality of the way in which the consumer is served. Monopoly is, for me, monopoly. I stress the word "monopoly" because it is the enemy of consumer choice.

The British Gas Corporation never had a monopoly. A right was built into the previous order to sell to a private supplier direct. That power was never used. That must be stressed. It is, therefore, not necessary.

It is not my desire to discriminate against any public corporation. It would be wrong for me to draw excessive attention to the nature, or pattern, of complaints drawn up by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission—not by my Department—and the abuse of its monopoly position by a corporation. I do not seek to continue the debate in that area because it is our job to remove the aspect of monopoly power that affects consumer choice. I repeat, monopoly is the enemy of consumer choice.

The third, legitimate point is one that the Opposition should heed. Does a monopoly corporation serve the employee in terms of jobs and investment? I again refer to the article by Mr. Butt. He said:
"It is the public not the private sector that is riven by disputes; where the worker is least happy; where industries are most often in decline; where services most conspicuously fail to satisfy the public; and where workers' resistance to change intensifies decline and inhibits investment."

If the State had not put public money into firms such as Ferranti, Fairey Aviation, British Leyland and British Shipbuilders, the workers would not have had any jobs.

I cannot accept that proposition in arguing my present philosophy. I am not referring to the reality of decisions taken at any particular time. I am arguing philosophically about the nature of what, in the long term, produces successful employment for employees.

Let us suppose that we had lost the key debate yesterday and that all the banks were to be nationalised. Let us consider the number of jobs involved in industries which have been nationalised since the war. There is a genuine dilemma about long-term jobs provided through a single, centralised corporation which seeks to serve the consumer.

The question of capital has been mentioned. In the House on Monday I referred to capital investment in coal as opposed to investment in the North Sea oil industry. The distinction is extraordinary. The coal industry is a massive energy industry. More money has been invested in it than was envisaged in "Plan for Coal", and we welcome that. More than £3 billion has been invested, but investment in the North Sea through the private sector amounts to about £26 billion. There is a dilemma in how best to serve the employee as well as the consumer.

The Minister says that he is discussing the topic philosophically. I am not sure what that means. It seems that he is discussing it vaguely and in a woolly fashion. He is not dealing with detail. Will he address himself to my argument—that the industries which have been nationalised since the war, such as Rolls-Royce, have failed in private hands? They collapsed under private ownership. Can the Minister name industries which operated well under private ownership?

I shall be delighted to do so. I was about to be less woolly and more practical and discuss the British National Oil Corporation which, by anybody's definition, was not exactly unsuccessful. It is peculiar that when a Conservative attempts to argue philosophically that is regarded as woolly, peculiar and strange and when someone argues about something as archaic as Socialism it is thought to be practical and pragmatic.

The hon. Members for Newham, North-East and Leigh (Mr. Cunliffe) asked some specific questions. The hon. Member for Newham, North-East, with a lack of detailed knowledge, talked about the loss of public control through the sale of Britoil shares to the nation. As the hon. Member knows, although he may not say it in public, that will not happen. Controls, as opposed to ownership, are unchanged in terms of the nation by the Government's action in the Oil and Gas (Enterprise) Act. That always philosophically confuses Socialists.

Using rather lurid language, the hon. Gentleman talked about the scandalous nature of our BNOC privatisation plan. I remind the House of the objectives behind privatisation. I acknowledge the legitimate argument from the Opposition Front Bench about our desire to reduce the size of the public sector. We think that no activity should be owned and controlled by the State unless there are positive and specific reasons for it. That is not a denial of some good aspects of State ownership, but no such reasons exist for the State ownership of oil exploration and production. The successful development of the North Sea is the aim and achievement of the private sector. Enterprise, competition and initiative are cental to industrial success. Privatisation is in the best interests of BNOC.

Britoil must be free to develop its potential without the constraints of the public sector. Britoil will be free to develop on its own initiative. The Government still aim to carry out the sale of 51 per cent. of the shares in Britoil before the end of the year, subject to market conditions. It is impossible to foresee what market conditions, including the oil market, will be later this year. No one can sensibly make a final judgment at this stage.

The hon. Gentleman called in aid the right hon. Member for Bristol, South, who has an important GMWU interest in the gas showrooms' debate. The Government said that they were determined to take action, following the criticism in the report of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, to encourage competition in the domestic gas appliances market to break the dominance of the British Gas Corporation. We considered it essential that any action should be accompanied by measures to maintain existing standards of safety. This will require legislative measures and, therefore, there must be a delay before the Government can proceed. Delay will allow consideration of how to proceed. The Government will examine seriously and carefully any constructive proposals that may be offered, provided that they meet the Government's objective of breaking the monopoly and ensuring effective competition.

I can recall a company called Comet in the area that I represent pressing hard for gas showrooms to be sold off because more British products could be sold thereafter. If anyone enters a Comet showroom he will see more foreign products—including gas appliances—than in most other outlets. I have no doubt that that is at the expense of British manufacturing companies. This is what lies behind the unions' fears.

I take the hon. Gentleman's argument seriously. There will be detailed and lengthy consultations on the British manufacturing factor.

The hon. Members for Leigh and Newham, North-East raised again the Amersham International sale. Their language was almost as lurid as that used on that infamous, or famous, day in March. I thought that we had an exhaustive debate on 16 March. I said that within the context of their commitment to privatisation the Government approached the share sale with four key objectives—to preserve the firm as an independent company, to maintain the sense of commitment of the staff, an excellent staff which has been a key factor in the firm's success, to ensure as wide a spread as possible of share ownership among the general public and the company's employees, and to achieve a good return for the Exchequer. As we said at the time, maximising the proceeds to the Exchequer was not the sole consideration. We took into account other considerations which were shared by the employees and, I thought, by Opposition Members. Taken as a whole, the objectives were successfully achieved.

The hon. Member for Leigh is usually lucid and learned in coal debates, but he caused us to be rather confused about gas supply. There was terrifying confusion between ownership and controls—for example, depletion controls and licensing controls. These controls will be unchanged by the Oil and Gas (Enterprise) Act. They will not be impacted by that measure. I accept what the hon. Gentleman said about the key importance of controls in the long term. I think that he is arguing for stricter application of the controls, which is a different matter from what we have been debating tonight.

The hon. Gentleman talked about a shortage of supply. That situation has not been changed by Government action. I submit that that action might create better opportunities. We are dependent for more than 25 per cent. of our gas supplies this year from across the median line. That is a much larger percentage than in consequence of a shortage of supply. The Government believe that their action in breaking the monopsony will encourage corporations to develop and produce gas from which the nation will benefit, because additional exploration and development will create new jobs and offset our clear shortage of gas.

The Government's approach throughout this debate and their period in office has been to return as much business to the private sector as possible. Some notable successes have already been achieved with British Aerospace, Cable and Wireless, the National Freight Corporation and, in my Department, Amersham International. We have plans for the privatisation of other companies. The House knows that my right hon. Friend has steered successfully the Oil and Gas (Enterprise) Bill to the Royal Assent and we are pressing on with our plans for returning the exploration and production businesses of BNOC to the private sector, where they belong. We now have powers to dispose of the British Gas Corporation's offshore oil assets. Where possible, we have removed any statutory monopoly—for example, the liberalisation of the telecommunications network—and we plan to remove restrictions on the private generation of electricity.

It is remarkable that in the 30 or 50 years in which Britain has had nationalised industries the trend has been towards ever more public ownership, despite the nationalised industries' evident failure to satisfy the public. We are proud of the fact that the trend is now reversed, the climate changed and that competition again has a chance.

Social Security Payments

4.1 am

I wish, even at this late hour, to speak about the increasing delays suffered by my constituents who claim social security. The delays are becoming worse and are causing confusion, distress and misery to my constituents and, I suspect, to those of many other hon. Members.

Let me make it clear from the beginning that I am not criticising or attacking the staff at social security offices. On the contrary, with the Government's cuts, the staff are as much the victims as are the claimants. I have always had courteous and efficient service from local managers, and I am aware that counter and clerical staff struggle conscientiously to provide a decent service. The blame for the present crisis lies squarely with the Government, who refuse to provide the staff needed to deal with the rising tide of poverty that they have created.

That charge is borne out by the figures that I received recently in answer to Parliamentary Questions. I have been told that in Kennington, from March 1979 until March 1982, the number of supplementary benefit cases—apart from pensioners—increased from 3,702 to 6,232, whereas the staff increased only from 61 to 82. At the Brixton office, there was an even larger increase from 2,780 to 6,562, while the staff was increased only from 131 to 160. There was a doubling of those forced to claim supplementary benefit while the staff to cope with that increase has risen by only one-quarter. During the same period, contributory benefit claims fell, largely because, when there are fewer people in work, fewer are sick and claim contributory benefit. Supplementary benefit claims involve much more work than contributory benefit claims. It is different work. There is no doubt that there has been a massive cut in staff resources in relation to need.

I wish to give some examples of how the staff cuts affect ordinary people in London.

I can give some examples from my surgery. A man of 87 was ill, and because of his condition needed new sheets and underwear often. In April 1981 he applied for a grant to buy these things. He heard nothing further, and because of his age and condition he found it difficult to chase the matter up. A local councillor tried to help but was not able to achieve any result until, in March of this year, the social security office discovered what had gone wrong and gave a grant of £108. By that time, a year after the original request, the man had got into rent arrears because he had had to buy these items out of his living allowance. He died last month, so the last months of his life were overshadowed by this long delay.

There is another example, about which the Minister may be aware because I have written to him about it, but it is an important one. A man who is a part-time music teacher, and as such obliged to claim supplementary benefit during school holidays, found that, because of excessive delays by the office in dealing with his claims for the Easter and summer holiday period, he got into arrears.

The man's landlords took him to court to evict him. Eventually the payment for the rent came through, but in the meantime he had been taken to court and had had to pay £51 court costs. I intervened with the local manager at the regional level to try to get the costs paid, but it was only when I wrote to the Minister that it was agreed that an ex gratia payment should be made to him.

On 11 June I received a letter from the Minister, but the man has not yet been reimbursed for the court costs and at the end of July he is still awaiting payment for his claim for the Easter holiday period. That delay continues even though there has been ministerial intervention. It makes one wonder just how many other cases there are.

There have always been cases of delay and there always will be, even in the best regulated and staffed institutions. The point that I am trying to put across is that there is a consistent pattern of a growing backlog of all claimants, and that a situation that was not particularly good three years ago is now getting very much worse.

Another case in an office in my constituency is that the rent increases of April of this year have still not been processed for the local authority tenants who are also on supplementary benefit. The specific case that I am thinking of resulted in a pensioner getting back pay of £3·18 a week for the time since 5 April. Clearly, that represents a considerable amount in the budget of a pensioner who has no other resources.

The local citizens advice bureaux report the same pattern. I quote the views of the Streatham advice bureau, which deals with part of my constituency.

"Over the past year or so there has been a substantial increase in the number of queries dealt with by the Bureau in connection with … benefit … claims. This has coincided with a marked deterioration in the time taken by the DHSS to process claims and queries, making it increasingly more difficult and time-consuming for advice workers to resolve claimants' problems. This situation is exacerbated by the increasing general inaccessibility of the DHSS. All too often, a local officer cannot be contacted at all by telephone by us or by the claimant because the lines are permanently engaged … letters can remain unanswered for months. Sometimes, where benefit has not arrived when due, the claimant is told by the DHSS that the quickest way of obtaining information regarding benefit is to call in person at the local office. This usually entails waiting 2–3 hours in a packed waiting room".
The Clapham CAB, which is in my constituency and serves a large part of it, reports 28 cases that just one of the workers has of problems awaiting action by the DHSS.

Let me give the bare details of a few cases. A Giro went astray in January 1982. The client tried repeatedly to get recovery up to July 1982, and then came to the CAB for help. Another involved a single payment claimed in April 1981. It was still outstanding in February 1982. In a third case, a claim was lodged in February 1982, and benefit was stopped in March 1982 because of a query about resources. The claimant wrote six letters, one of which was sent by recorded delivery, but no money was paid between March and June. No replies were received to the letters.

So there is a consistent pattern. The Government are deluding themselves if they think that they are saving money by this strategem of understaffing the offices. Inefficiency and waste of resources are the result of the delays, and other agencies have to step in and make payments from public funds. The welfare rights officer of the local social services department tells me that
"the introduction of a new legal framework to the Supplementary Benefit scheme in November 1980 was supposed to simplify the scheme, and … alleviate some of the previous problems".
Since then, she says,
"the standard of service from DHSS officers has been uneven—with different … officers appearing to be near breaking point at different times. However, the same problems persist: on a day to day basis, the problems are long delays in getting through on the telephone, delays in appointments, delays to letters, delays in payments.
In Social Services, we experience this in a direct way in terms of clients coming to us and needing help to sort out a delay, or indeed, with vulnerable families coming to us who have no money left to buy even food for their children. This is reflected in the payments we make under the Child Care Act 1980 (Section One). I have looked at some recent Section One statistics to discern the recent trends".
She then gives a sample of what she found.
"In May/June 1982, … 106 payments recorded to date, of which 46 had been made because of a delay in payment to a family on Supplementary Benefit. Six (6) of these involved a Child Benefit delay;"—
which, of course, is not the local office, but
"forty (40) were Supplementary Benefit delays".
So there is a serious and a growing problem.

We spend much time in the House discussing whether the social security regulations are too complicated. I see from Monday's debate that it took the Minister over an hour to explain the new housing benefits. We also discuss whether the benefits are adequate. We are in danger of assuming that people who have entitlement get those entitlements promptly—or even at all. Increasingly, that is not happening. Even if people manage to work out their rights, and even if they qualify for a benefit which we on these Benches believe is now a matter of bare subsidence levels, they still have to wait for many poverty-stricken weeks, or possibly months, for those small benefits. Pensioners and families who are already struggling with the problems of unemployment, soaring fuel costs and housing shortage, have to cope with this delay as well.

The Government, by refusing to provide sufficient staff, are penalising and pauperising those who, by every definition, are already the weakest members of our society. The supplementary benefits system is intended to be a safety net to catch those who need help, but one that is so slow to operate that it might as well be lying on the ground will not break anyone's fall.

The sad irony is that this administrative poverty trap is catching people in an area which is supposed to receive the full benefit of the Government's inner city programme. I am not saying for a moment that the problems of Brixton will be solved simply by sending out giros on time, but it would help. It would not only ensure that people could eat regularly and clothe their children, but it might also help to reduce the resentment of public officials that has so often been noticed in such areas.

There is a Minister from the Department of Health and Social Services on the Lambeth Partnership Committee, although not the Minister who is with us tonight. That committee is supposed to co-ordinate the various Government Departments and the local authority's response to the problems of the inner city. Over a year ago the Partnership Committee agreed that there should be a special sub-committee to tackle the issue of income maintenance—the technical jargon for how people keep body and soul together from week to week. That sub-committee has never met because the DHSS has never been able to agree on its terms of reference. Of all the DHSS delays in Lambeth that we are considering tonight, that is the least excusable.

Government staffing cuts, coinciding with cuts in the value of benefit and the introduction of new and complicated regulations, are creating thousands of hidden but desperate tragedies and crises among pensioners and families, particularly single parent families, in Lambeth. I hope that the Minister will take urgent action to alleviate the unnecessary hardship that exists just two miles from the House, and, as I said at the beginning, I suspect in many other constituencies as well.

4.16 pm

When I answered a parliamentary question tabled by the hon. Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley) on 12 July in which he asked me for fairly extensive reports on the manpower position in his local Department of Health and Social Services offices, I wondered if he would make some use of it. We virtually had to hire a special van to deliver the volume of information that we provided instead of send mg it through the post. Some use of that information is clearly apparent from his speech today.

I recognise both the sincerity and vigour with which the hon. Gentleman has put the problems that he finds in his constituency. I do not want to give the impression that I dismiss the problems to which he has drawn attention or that I do anything other than recognise that this is not an easy time in many DHSS offices, especially those dealing with supplementary benefit claims against the background of the rise in the number of such claimants in recent years.

It is not appropriate to discuss the reasons for that rise, but it exists and it has undoubtedly created many problems in our local offices.

Many of the schemes that we operate, including the supplementary benefit scheme, have undergone a transition. To some extent, the new supplementary benefit scheme that was introduced in 1980 is still experiencing a settling down period. In addition, we have recently introduced new procedures and payment methods for those in receipt of both sickness benefit and supplementary benefit. Again, that creates some difficulties.

Another point that I must make regarding current problems may be less comforting to the hon. Gentleman and he may less readily accept it. In his constituency, as in others within the Greater London council area, we have also had to cope over the past few months with additional difficulty arising from considerable confusion and extra work on claimants' rates bills, supplementary rate demands and refunds following the frequently changing position over London Transport costs. Again, the circumstances it would be wrong to enter into a political slanging match about who is to blame for that. However, within London that has undoubtedly created significant difficulties of a kind that, frankly, the DHSS could not readily have planned for and which have contributed to the problems on which the hon. Gentleman has touched.

We are at a traditionally difficult time of year for DHSS offices, because they are in the throes of an uprating in preparation for the new rates passed by the House a week or two ago, and payable from November. Alongside that routine exercise for November are the partial start for the new housing benefit scheme and other, lesser, changes in the supplementary benefit scheme.

Another seasonal problem is the annual influx of claims from school leavers and students. Within the next 12 months we shall have to transfer the remainder of suitable cases on to housing benefit and also cope with the implications of the new statutory sick pay scheme on the national insurance side. I have repeated what I said at the outset because I do not want to minimise the task that faces staff in local offices or the problems that are faced by them and sometimes by claimants such as the unemployed and single parents. Those problems are undoubtedly sometimes considerable.

I particularly welcomed some of what the hon. Gentleman said because neither he nor I, as I said in an earlier debate, would want to paint an unduly gloomy picture. I welcome his remarks about the efforts that staff loyally and conscientiously make to deal with claimants' problems in such circumstances. I sometimes think that it is a pity that more appreciation is not expressed about the number of cases that are dealt with properly and well. In a year, the system deals with huge numbers of people and claims. The hon. Gentleman rightly acknowledged that it is often easy to pick out the cases that do not work well and to convey the impression that that is the norm.

In my judgment, at least, the norm is that the system works surprisingly well in meeting the needs of claimants despite the number of cases. The staff work hard and well to do the best that they can for those whom they are trying to serve. I emphasise that my colleagues in the Department very much appreciate these efforts. They are also appreciated by hon. Members. Since becoming a Minister some four or five months ago, I have been particularly encouraged by the number of hon. Members who have come up to me in the corridors of the House and told me what a good service they get as Members of Parliament through their contacts with their local offices. I place that on record because the hard and loyal work done by the staff and managers in our offices and the service that they provide to claimants, together with the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman outlined, is an important part of the picture.

After giving that broad background I shall turn to the complementing system operated in the Department to ensure that the staffing arrangements are matched, to the best of our ability, with the work load. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is one of those who labours under the impression that we do not have a system that is designed to set the staffing levels and to provide local office managers with the resources to handle that heavy work load and that takes into account all the factors that have been described.

The complementing system, by which we decide on the complements of staff issued to each DHSS region, starts by assessing the number of staff we need nationally to do the work on hand. We add to that in respect of the work we expect to have to handle within the next complementing period. Those estimates are based on the proposed legislative and procedural changes that we plan to introduce and also, importantly, on forecasts of changes in the "load"—the size of our clientele and the number of claims. In making those forecasts we take account of changes in unemployment levels, population size and distribution, and other factors that are likely to influence the amount of work that we have to do.

We have to bear in mind the fact that not all our work is evenly spread thoughout the year. Like many other businesses we have peaks and troughs and we need to provide some flexibility to cope with them. We need a margin of safety to cope with the unexpected, such as a strike or an epidemic. All those factors are taken into account in the provision of manpower. Most is provided in terms of permanent posts, though, in order to give the necessary flexibility for the peaks and the unexpected, some is provided by way of a reserve which is expressed in terms of "man years" rather than permanent posts. The reserve is usually used to employ casual staff or to enable permanent staff to work overtime. I want to emphasise that it is a vital part of the resources that we have allocated to meet the demands of the work to be done, and we make every effort to utilise this reserve element to the full.

Part of the problem in the offices in the constituency of the hon. Member for Lambeth, Central, about which I have been able to make more detailed inquiries, is that the trade union side is opposed to, and in many offices in his constituency is virtually preventing, the use of overtime and casual staff to meet the peaks of demand that we have at present. I do not want to embark on an attack on the trade union side, but that attitude does not help against the background of a system that has to be partly based on the use of temporary measures such as casual staff and overtime to meet inevitable peaks and troughs. It makes it difficult for the best complementing system to cope entirely with the difficulties which face his offices at the present.

We are negotiating to overcome the problem about the use of casual staff and overtime. It is an important part of the problem facing the offices which the hon. Member for Lambeth, Central has discussed this evening.

The hon. Member has suggested that the staff whom we provide cannot keep up with the increases in the work because their numbers are not keeping pace with the rise in claims. The system I have described in broad terms is a sophisticated one which does not simply tie staff numbers to claims in a strict relationship. To a degree it is misleading to relate figures of claims to staff as he did by quoting the parliamentary answer that I gave him earlier in the year.

The complementing system takes account of increasing claims, but it also attends to many other factors, such as the different amounts of work generated by different types of claims, the changes in procedures and policies, and to the forecast changes in loads—their size, type and duration. It also checks and adjusts staffing levels at frequent intervals to ensure that the right staffing provision is being made—in other words, how closely actual experience matches the forecast. The system provides a national complement of staff which is shared out between the regions. Local and regional managers are responsible for allocating and adjusting staff numbers at the local level in the light of local circumstances.

I shall specifically ask the appropriate regional office to look at the hon. Member's area and to consider whether there is anything that it can do to provide additional help to mitigate the long waiting times to which he has referred—and which I have noticed from the reports made to me—for people to be seen in some of the local offices when they are making supplementary benefit claims.

I should like to look at some of the cases that the hon. Member has mentioned if he will provide me with further details. There is a case that I remember corresponding with him about and at which I looked closely. I was pleased that we were able to agree an ex gratia payment to his music teacher constituent. I already have details of that case and I shall look at it again to see why the ex gratia payment has not yet been made. I shall institute urgent inquiries to resolve the matter quickly. If the hon. Gentleman wishes me to look at other cases, and lets me have details, I shall do so.

I am not sure whether in recent years the Department has adequately explained the complementing system to the public or even to its staff. As I said in a recent parliamentary answer to the hon. Gentleman and earlier in the year to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), we are preparing a guide to the complementing system which I hope will make it readily understandable to the public. We intend to place it in the Library, and I shall arrange for a copy to be sent to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that we can make it more widely available to the staff throughout the country so that the sophisticated and complicated system is more fully explained and can be better judged by those who are part of it and those who are affected by it.

I recognise that what I have said will not completely remove the hon. Gentleman's anxieties. I am not saying that there are no difficulties. I hope that he will feel that I have replied constructively. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for having raised the matter even at this hour. It has given me an opportunity to say something about our complementing system, to pay tribute to the staff and managers in our local offices for the job that they are doing and to assure the hon. Gentleman that we have the difficulties very much in mind and are keen to do everything practicable to assist.

Bradford (Industrial Assistance)

4.31 am

In the past six weeks in Bradford about 1,500 redundancies have been declared in three major engineering enterprises.

Bradford has depended heavily on the textile industry, which has suffered badly from contraction. The number of employees in the industry has fallen remarkably. It is an old industry and some people argued that that was only to be expected. But in recent weeks the malaise has spread in a big way to the engineering industry.

GEC (Large Machines) Ltd. has declared 576 redundancies. Rank Wharfedale, which makes loudspeakers, has closed completely this month, with the loss of 350 jobs. International Harvester, a multinational company making tractors, has announced a closure with the loss of 510 jobs. At its peak the company employed 2,100 people in Bradford. Its tractors were extremely useful to the developing world, and those countries will now be starved of the means to produce more from their soil.

Those three engineering closures follow a major closure of Thorn Consumer Electronics not long ago, with a loss of about 2,000 jobs. The main activity was television manufacture. Only a few years before closure that firm had employed 4,000 people, which was reduced gradually to 2,000, and then there was closure.

Phrases, understandably, have been bandied about Bradford in the past two or three weeks to the effect that it is likely to become an industrial desert. The situation could not be more alarming. There has been the colossal contraction in textile manufacturing followed by the savage body blows in engineering. The local newspaper, the Telegraph & Argus, when it heard of the closure of International Harvester, stated that that was the third 10 inch nail to be driven into the city's coffin within weeks.

A public house licensee said that his sales acted as a barometer of the prosperity of Bradford. His lunchtime trade had gone down eight-fold in the past few years. That showed the amount of money available for purchases. As one goes about Bradford, one sees that there is less money than there once was for the purchase of all sorts of consumer goods.

The CBI, referring to Yorkshire and Humberside, said recently, in contradiction of Government claims to the contrary, that the regional economy showed no improvement and that there was evidence of trading conditions worsening for some companies. The Bradford chamber of commerce president also said recently that for every big firm closing down in the city, 20 smaller ones were going out of business. It is clear that Bradford is no exception within the general rule that family companies in Britain are going down in their thousands.

I do not know what the Government's estimate is of the contraction in the industrial base in Britain since 1979. I think that it is running at about one-fifth. One wonders whether contraction at such speed is ever recoverable. It is certainly not likely to be recovered in the short term.

The unemployment register in the Bradford, Shipley and Bingley employment area shows that 26,000 are unemployed. Between June and July the number of unemployed youngsters in that area jumped by 772. Adult unemployment rose by 407. When one considers that school leavers have yet to come on the market and that the International Harvester closure does not take effect until October, one sees how depressing those figures are. Unfortunately, they are typical. In the University and Little Horton wards in my constituency, as early as April 1981 unemployment was over 20 per cent. The figures for wool textiles in West Yorkshire show that since 1975, output has fallen by 27 per cent. The work force in West Yorkshire in wool textiles and clothing has fallen from 240,0000 in 1961 to 85,00 in 1981. That haemorrhage continues.

The picture is bleak. One does not want to sound too depressing, but it is better to tell the truth than to conceal the reality of what is happening. No one source is responsible for everything that has occurred. There are various contributory factors, including inefficient management, inadequate capital, resistance to change by work forces, overmanning and restrictive practices. It is fair to the Government to point out that there has been an underlying downward tendency for years under successive Governments.

However, this Government decided on a kill or cure approach. I did not believe at the outset that most of British industry was in a condition to be submerged in an ice-cold economic bath for a prolonged period. The past three years have shown that British industry cannot stand such a prolonged immersion. Some parts were too sickly to withstand such a treatment. Far from curing, the treatment is killing, as is clear in Bradford.

Had the Government expected that the results of their policy would be so meagre after three years they would not have embarked on it. I think that they believed that a few months of their policy would start to produce an upturn and that the distasteful medicine would have to be administered for only about six months before monetarism began to produce improvements. After three years, the Government have reduced the rate of inflation to a little below the level that they inherited, but when one sees what is happening to British industry and unemployment it is impossible to say that there have been any major benefits from the Government's policy, However, it has caused considerable harm.

The Government have vastly accelerated underlying adverse trends in the economy. Nationally we have 3·2 million unemployed; 28 applicants chasing every vacancy; manufacturing output 15 per cent. down since 1979 and, in the second quarter of this year, the underlying trend of unemployment rising at 30,000 monthly. Profits remain very low for most companies and, according to the National Federation of Building Trades Employers, there is for the industry:
"no sign at the present time of a tangible recovery."
Something must be done to give hope to people and to reverse, or at least stem, the unemployment trend. The Government's policy offers no hope. The unemployment projections are upwards.

There are dangers in what is happening. We see a growing alienation and a deepening of the polarisation in society. If we are to avoid a breakdown in society as we know it, the Government must stop firms going to the wall and stop the horrifying and relentless climb in unemployment.

What should be done? There is no shortage of suggestions. It is sometimes said that Oppositions are good only at screaming about bad news and never make constructive suggestions at least to ameliorate the patient's illness. Therefore, I should like to mention a number of actions that the Government might take—it is by no means an exhaustive list—to ameliorate the situation in places such as Bradford. They cannot alter the situation overnight, but they could give hope and we could see an improvement within a reasonably short period.

I agree with those who say that the Government should move to lower interest rates, that they should abolish the national insurance surcharge, that they should now seriously consider a reduction in the male pension age, that they should examine job-sharing, with a phased withdrawal from jobs by the over-60s pending a reduction in the retirement age, and that there should be substantial increases in capital investment in the public and private sectors, with some assistance from the Government.

I know the arguments about throwing money at problems and the argument that if one causes massive inflation one creates more unemployment and causes more damage. But I agree with all those, including many of those who have hitherto supported the Conservative Government, who say that the economy now needs a stimulus from the Government and that they should not be mesmerised by the principles on which they have so far managed the economy. I believe that privately many Conservative Members would dearly love the Government to give such a stimulus.

There should be a financial inducement to youngsters to stay on at school after the age of 16, since it is among young people in particular that unemployment is so high. We release far too many ill-equipped young people on to the labour market. We should follow the Continental example of seeking to achieve a better education for them before they go onto the labour market.

Women suffer particularly badly in the present climate. We could create perhaps 100,000 jobs for women in the social services—for example, as home helps—at a cost of not much more than £300 million.

Most important of all, since 15 per cent. of our unemployed are construction workers, we should increase public investment in construction, infrastructure and housing schemes of all kinds. There is the opportunity here to employ many semi-skilled and unskilled workers as well as skilled workers. For the money spent we could employ considerable numbers. The economy generally would benefit from more people earning money, and the country would look a better place than it does today environmentally.

There are schemes, such as the proposal to pay a £70-a-week grant for a year to every employer taking on an additional adult worker who has been unemployed for over six months, with the proviso that the jobs would have to be extra and not replacement jobs. It has been estimated that the net cost of such a scheme would be £500 million, and that the scheme alone could generate a quarter of a million jobs.

One could expand the community enterprise programme. One could expand systems for small businesses. They are absolutely crucial as there is little sign of expansion from large businesses. One could set up a Cabinet industrial policy committee, chaired by the Prime Minister and supported by an advisory committee of industrialists and leading economic Ministers to produce a dynamic strategy for reviving the economy. One could revitalise the British technology group to provide equity capital for large scale, high-risk projects in partnership with private industry. One could even return to the concept of a Minister with responsibilities for science—a position that was once filled by the present Lord Chancellor—not just as a name but with power to give priority to scientific innovation and development. There is room for better credit schemes and we could have far better training systems.

There is a suggested scheme whereby one tells employers that a percentage of income should be applied to training schemes for apprentices, for new and existing employees, and that if an employer spends more than that percentage, the Government will pay the balance but that if less is spent, the employer must pay tax equal to the amount by which he has underspent. The effects of such a scheme should be investigated. There may be snags to it but at least it would induce employers to put a high priority on training their employees.

Those are among the steps that the Government could take. If they did all of that together, they could be said to be throwing money at the problem. Curiously, many schemes do not involve such a heavy expenditure as one might think, as one is taking people out of the dole queue. As was pointed out in this week's debate on unemployment, it costs about £5,000 a year in public money to have one person unemployed. There are ways in which the Government could restructure this economic approach to make a real attack on unemployment, to give people hope and to start building Britain's economy so that it is competitive, healthy and expanding.

At the moment, one can see only more contraction of the economy. Members of Parliament for Bradford do not hear people talk optimistically about the city's industrial future. With the Government in the south, there is no confidence that they even understand the growing devastation in the north. That has worrying implications for the social fabric in the long term.

I know that many other city areas have serious problems. Although I belong to one party I appeal, on behalf of all Members of Parliament for Bradford and the people of Bradford, to the Government to do something. I am not just saying "Do something"—that is easy—I have given some idea of what can be done. I am sure that the Government have schemes in hand that have not been put into practice. They could act on them if they had the will to do so and realised the seriousness of the problem.

I see no possibility of an improvement in the situation in my area in the next year or two if the Government continue in the way that they are doing. I see only further damage, further closures, further redundancies, further contractions, more people on the dole and more youngsters with nothing to do. It is absolutely terrifying. I hope that the Minister will be able to say something to cheer up the people in that city.

4.55 am

I in no way underestimate the seriousness of the situation in Bradford and I sympathise with all those who have been or are about to be made redundant and with their families.

I suspect, as the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) said, that the contraction is a good deal faster in Bradford than in the United Kingdom as a whole. This graphically illustrates some of the structural, technological and market—including international market—changes that our own and all advanced economies face.

The hon. and learned Gentleman very fairly pointed out some of the factors that had led to the present situation in companies and industries in his area. He said that when the Government came to power British industry was too sickly to withstand the policies that we have pursued. I believe that he is half right in that. It is always dangerous to generalise about British industry as a whole, but for a number of reasons much of British industry had not been in a competitive state for a considerable period and it was too sickly to withstand the gales of international recession that have occurred since 1979. The problems with which we have had to deal include all the factors that the hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned, but especially the uncompetitive nature of so much of British industry compared with more successful companies and countries overseas at a time of world recession, caused in large part by the oil crisis, and of very fast-moving technological change.

The examples that the hon. and learned Gentleman gave of companies that have recently got into difficulties and of industries such as the wool textile industry illustrate the international nature of the problem for many of these companies and the fact that so often at present lack of orders is a feature of international markets and the companies' traditional export markets as much as of the domestic market. The problem is no longer really because of the overvaluation of the pound last year—as was then argued, although I shall not go into that argument—but because all too often the orders are not there in international markets.

The industries that the hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned in the first part of his speech illustrate my point. He referred to the problems of the wool textile industry. As he rightly recognised, there has been a decline in employment in the industry as a whole for many years. He gave figures from 1961 until the present. There has been a steady decline. Again, as the hon. and learned Gentleman will know, that was caused by international factors and by technological change and change in the demand for individual products as much as by anything else.

The Government appreciate the seriousness of the problems that have faced and continue to face the textile and clothing industries. We have debated this frequently in the House and we are doing all that we can in the framework of our domestic economic policies and international obligations to create the right environment in the longer term for an efficient economy in which the industry can compete.

In particular, the hon. and learned Gentleman will know of all the efforts that have been made in relation to the multi-fibre arrangement. This industry has the greatest battery of protection available to any industry. We believe that the Community mandate for the negotiation of the bilateral agreement on the framework of the renewed MFA gives us the possibility of renewed restraints on the supplying countries a good deal tougher than those which at present exist. I shall not enter into a long debate on the textile industry, but this is an attempt to give some temporary protection to an industry that is going through substantial change.

Of the individual companies involved, the hon. and learned Gentleman referred first to the redundancies at GEC (Large Machines) Ltd., at Thornbury. He will know, as the company made clear, that those redundancies were due to the worsening demand for its electric motors. The Government are naturally concerned about those who lost their jobs, and the services of the Manpower Services Commission have been made available. The decision to reduce the work force was, as it had to be, for the judgment of the company in the light of the management's assessment of the market.

The company considered the total closure of the site, but retained 350 jobs at Thornbury because it was aware of the employment problem in that area. The company talked to officials in my Department and I understand that the decision is irreversible. It was taken in the full knowledge of current Government assistance schemes, but the market no longer existed for that product.

Rank Wharfedale, and the closure of its factory in Idle, is a graphic illustration of these problems. I regret the demise of such a long established and well-known manufacturer, and I have sympathy for those who have lost their jobs. Unfortunately, Rank Wharfedale had been making losses for some time. The recession and the changes in the audio market resulted in a sharp drop in sales. The company had been working a two or three day week and at only 25 per cent. of capacity for some months. This was partly responsible for the substantial loss of £3·75 million incurred by the industrial division in 1981. The change in world markets for that product is significant.

The world market for audio equipment has suffered a decline since the peak levels attained in 1979–80. That is due to the world decline in economic activity and to increased competition for consumers' discretionary expenditure represented, for example, by video cassette recorders, sales of which have rapidly expanded in the United Kingdom. There is a much greater concentration in that area of consumer expenditure than on the products manufactured by Rank Wharfedale. Moreover, there is the increased, highly efficient and advanced competition from Far East countries.

Selective financial assistance under section 7 of the Industry Act 1972 is available to any parties interested in taking over any of the company's assests and restoring some employment. My Department is open to discussions on that possibility with anyone who is interested. The worrying aspect of the situation is that it is again international and modern trends that have brought about a complete change in the market.

The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to the closure of the International Harvester plant at Idle. Hon. Members will be aware of the continuing depression of agricultural machinery and tractor markets in nearly all countries. International Harvester is an international company. We know that other international companies in the same sphere have also faced an extremely difficult time.

The world depression is a significant factor in this respect. Tractor manufacturers in the United Kingdom, including International Harvester, have traditionally sold a high percentage of their output overseas. The factors contributing to the world depression show no signs of alleviation. The hon. and learned Gentleman must accept that we can do nothing substantially to alter the orders from other countries for those products. No general improvement in demand is forecast for the near future—although in certain areas such as the United Kingdom a small growth may take place this year—and consequently all manufacturers in the industry are operating substantially below capacity. Naturally, manufacturers are looking for ways of rationalising their operations.

The world-wide lack of demand has meant curtailing production by short-time working, which has resulted in redundancies. The decision announced last Friday by International Harvester to close the tractor component factory led to 500 job losses.

Only in March the American parent group took the exceptional step of temporarily halting all tractor production in the United States at its Illinois plant in an effort to rationalise. The Department's ability to influence international markets and the operational pattern of international companies is relatively limited. I listened carefully to everything suggested tonight, but there was nothing that could affect the position of Rank Wharfedale or of International Harvester. Officials in my Department are in close touch with International Harvester and have been made aware by the company of the group's deep difficulties and the impact that that has on its United Kingdom operations.

A number of alternatives to closing the Bradford factory have been carefully considered by the company, but unfortunately it is not possible to avoid the decision to close. We hope that the company can maintain its important manufacturing base in Britain. The full range of Government financial incentives is available to help with capital or development projects.

I shall now consider what can be done and examine the hon. and learned Gentleman's prescription. We have recently had both a debate and a statement about assisted area status, so it is not necessary to go over the Government's regional policy or the changes made to bring assisted areas down from covering 44 per cent. of the working population to 27 per cent. The main objective is to ensure that regional aid is concentrated on the areas of greatest need. The evidence, such as it is, indicates that that is the most effective way of carrying out regional policy.

Bradford is to retain intermediate area status. Like the other areas which will continue to be assisted after 31 July, that status will be enhanced because the coverage of assisted areas generally is to be reduced. That means that places with a form of assisted area status will be better placed in terms of regional policy. That is especially so in Bradford, since Bradford will be the only assisted travel-to-work area in West Yorkshire.

The July level of unemployment is 15·3 per cent. That compares with a development area rate for June of 16 per cent. We have to take a number of other factors into account when assessing the status of a travel-to-work area. There is no evidence of a necessity to change Bradford's status. But from 1 August, Bradford will be relatively well placed.

The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to the loss of jobs in the pipeline and to International Harvester in particular. I recognise that there will be a change in the percentage, but it is difficult to conclude from any projection that a change in assisted status should be made. We must look for evidence of permanent structural change relative to other parts of the country. Our pledge remains, if there is clear evidence of permanent structural change relative to other areas. We shall consider any individual travel-to-work area in which it is clear, for whatever reason, that that is about to happen. There is not that evidence at present.

No, I shall not give way. In fairness to other hon. Members who have been sitting up all night, I shall concentrate on the debate. Intermediate area status is not the only benefit that has been given to the city. By virtue of its status as a programme area under the Inner Urban Areas Act 1978, Bradford has been recognised as having serious inner city problems and so qualifies for help under the urban programme towards the cost of projects aimed at regenerating its inner area. Slightly less than £4 million has been allocated in 1982–83 for that programme.

Bradford has also been given powers under the Inner Urban Areas Act to enable it to participate more effectively in the economic development of its area. It is one of the areas from which applications for the new urban development grant, aimed at stimulating economic regeneration in urban areas, have been invited by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. As for advance factories and the programme of the English Industrial Estates Corporation, the EIEC currently has 11 factory units available for occupation in Bradford, ranging from 500 to 2,700 sq ft. These are relevant to small businesses, to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred. The EIEC plans also to build 45,000 sq ft of advance factory floor space suitable for use by high technology industries. This will form part of a development programme in Bradford for which the Government have allocated £5·2 million to April 1986, including £1·1 million in 1982–83.

Bradford is an intermediate area in regional aid terms and will remain so when many other areas lose their assisted area status in two days' time. This means that selective financial assistance under section 7 of the Industry Act 1972 is available to companies which are locating or expanding in Bradford. For example, Microvitec, a manufacturer of television terminals, has been given help that is expected to result in the creation by the company of over 400 jobs by the end of the year. This is only one of many examples. Since May 1979, 67 offers of section 7 selective financial assistance have been made to firms in the area, worth in all £4·3 million. This assistance is expected to help the creation of nearly 2,500 new jobs and the safeguarding of a further 4,000.

This is one illustration of the way in which we attempt to have policies that will assist in the structural change in a local economy, which is so clearly required in the Bradford area. But beyond this regional assistance there is the European regional development fund and the European Investment Bank facilities, which come with intermediate area status and will still be available to Bradford.

Beyond the regional assistance, firms in Bradford have benefited from the national schemes. There are many Department of Employment schemes which it would not be right for me to mention because I do not have departmental responsibilities in that area. However, since May 1979 there have been 39 offers of assistance under section 8 of the Industry Act. That is national selective assistance as distinct from the section 7 regional selective assistance. That is valued at £0·7 million for projects worth £4·7 million in the Bradford area. To the end of last year 15 firms in the Bradford travel-to-work area applied for product and process development scheme assistance, resulting in offers totalling £214,000 being made. Four firms were offered microprocessor application project assistance valued at £272,000, and 30 applications have been received under the MAPCON scheme.

I give these figures because they illustrate the importance of assisting firms to move into the new high technologies and because there is still a great lack of awareness among industries of the potential availability of assistance under these schemes. That is sometimes because there has been so much concentration on the regionally oriented development grants and schemes that national schemes have been overlooked. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will do all that he can to bring those schemes to the attention of companies in the area.

The hon. and learned Gentleman also talked about the importance of small firms. He will know that the Government have introduced a wide battery of schemes, including the pilot loan guarantee scheme and the business start-up scheme. I accept—

The hon. Gentleman is not up to date. In 1981 many more small firms started up than went into liquidation.

I have been describing the background and I am trying to deal constructively with the problems of Bradford.

I accept that, when larger international companies get into such difficulties, it has an impact on small firms. However, the encouragement that the Government are giving for the expansion of small firms and the start-up of businesses is an important ingredient in the creation of a wider, different and more modern economic base. The concentration of measures in that area will, over some time—there is bound to be a transitional period while structural changes take place—make a substantial difference.

I examined carefully what the hon. and learned Gentleman and his party mean by small firms policies. It is significant that all that they are saying is that the Government are on the right track but that they wish to have more.

I turn to the hon. and learned Gentleman's prescriptions for what should be done. The most striking thing was the emphasis that he placed on the need for lower interest rates and lower inflation. I entirely agree with that, and the vast majority of firms regard it as the key priority. The reason why we do not hear much now about the impact of inflation on businesses is that it has reduced substantially and the reason why industry is not giving sc much attention to interest rates is that it agrees with the Government's policy.

The hon. and learned Gentleman called for lower interest rates and lower inflation and then advanced an enormous list of measures that would have precisely the reverse effect, because they would all require greatly increased Government spending and a much higher public sector borrowing requirement. That would undoubtedly mean a sharp and immediate increase in interest rates and an upward spiralling of inflation.

The hon. and learned Gentleman talked about the need to abolish the national insurance surcharge. He will know that, as from next month, the 1½ per cent. reduction for this year will come into operation, which will make a substantial difference to the cash flows of companies. But to ask now for a complete abolition would have required more than £2 billion that could come only from higher taxation—which would have an effect on the consumer market—or through higher Government borrowing, which would have the immediate effect of increasing interest rates again.

The hon. and learned Gentleman called for a reduction in the male pensionable age. He will know of the larger programmes on the job release scheme that go some way to meet that for which he asked, especially as they are linked with replacement by someone from the unemployment register. But to call for a reduction now would also require large increases in Government expenditure—from memory, the figure is £2½ billion—that would come on top of what he has already asked for on the national insurance surcharge.

I thought that I had made it clear that I was saying that all the measures that I had suggested did not have to be brought in simultaneously. I suggested that the Government looked at them, brought in some of them, and some of them were not all that expensive in net terms as they take people off the unemployment register. I am not suggesting that the Government can do everything at once—no Government have ever been able to do that.

That is fair, but the hon. and learned Gentleman tried to have it both ways by suggesting that we should continue to aim for lower interest rates, and then gave a list that gave the impression that these were the things that he would like to see done quickly. He included the abolition of national insurance surcharge and the reduction in the male pension age. I have just explained how extremely expensive these would be

One of the hon. and learned Gentleman's other points was about a job-sharing scheme. He will know of the announcement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment made on the scheme that he is introducing and which, if it succeeds, will have the effect that the hon. and learned Gentleman describes of not having any net increase in Government expenditure.

The hon. and learned Gentleman called for a substantial increase in the capital programme. That gives the impression that he would like to see a substantial increase across a wide range soon. He again ignored the fact that in a number of parts of the nationalised industries there has been a substantial increase in capital expenditure programmes in real terms this year. It is easy to go on demanding more and more, but it is a question of getting the priorities right and balancing the amount of extra expenditure that can be incurred on the capital programmes. I should like to see more on capital rather than on current. That is the importance, therefore, of all that we are trying to do to contain current expenditure in central Government. It is a question of balancing this against the other economic objectives that he has already shown that he shares.

The hon. and learned Gentleman called for a further Government stimulus to the economy through capital programmes and in other ways. He should reflect that during the period 1970–80 there was substantial stimulus from Governments in one way or another, especially through an increase in the money supply that was injected into the economy. The net effect of that was that we saw little real increase in production, much higher inflation and a great decrease in our competitiveness. All these things should give the hon. and learned Gentleman pause to think that the programmes that the Government are now pursuing to improve the competitiveness of British industry are the correct ones.

The hon. and learned Gentleman called for a financial inducement for youngsters to stay on beyond 16 and he will know of the extra expenditure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science has introduced for this year to assist in that. He will know of the new training initiative on which considerable sums of additional public expenditure are being spent.

So often, one of the problems of recent years has been that the starting levels of young people's wages have been too high for employers to employ them. The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to the Continent in this regard, which is relevant. That is the significance of the young workers scheme, which has been in existence for almost half a year now, and which has had a substantial take-up.

The hon. and learned Gentleman called for the expansion of the community enterprise programme, and went on, calling for the expansion of more and more, and much of what we are already doing. He has to take into account that the major priority of getting the inflation rate down is still the key one that British industry wants us to pursue.

Finally, the hon. and learned Gentleman called for a dynamic and powerful economic strategy. Those are fine words, but when one actually looked at his list of measures, so many were the tried and failed policies of the Labour Government to whom he gave his support. He talked about greater expenditure for the British technology group. He should look at the record of the National Enterprise Board during his years in Government. The economic strategy committee that he suggested reminded me of the old Department of Economic Affairs in 1965 which produced a great blueprint that was not followed.

Many of the prescriptions that the hon. and learned Gentleman called for are either more and more of the same, or much higher Government spending on more of the failed Government strategies of the past.

I listened carefully to what the hon. and learned Gentleman said, but I did not think that there was much in it that bit on the problem that I began with—the problem that the three factors to which he referred, international competition, technological change and change in markets, are the factors that have caused the loss in jobs.

I hope that I have demonstrated that the Government are very aware of and concerned about the industrial situation in Bradford and understand what is happening there, but the combination of nationally available policies towards industry and Bradford's status as an intermediate area means that a whole battery of measures is available to encourage industrial development there. I accept that it will take time, but I believe that the strategies that we are pursuing are the right way to bring about that industrial restructuring.

Health And Safety At Work

5.25 am

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on health and safety at work, especially as nurses are demonstrating outside Parliament, until we shut up shop, for a decent living wage and the recognition of their contribution, not only to industrial health but to the general health of the country.

Is my hon. Friend aware that nurses from the Hull general hospital have been demonstrating outside the Palace of Westminster throughout the night, and their demonstration will continue until 5 o'clock? I am delighted to see representatives of those nurses sitting in the Strangers Gallery observing our proceedings on the important issue of health and safety at work. The essential background to that issue is the nursing services that are provided by nurses such as those from the Hull general hospital.

My right hon. Friend is quite right. It is regrettable that nurses and other health workers are being forced by this heartless Government into taking that action to demonstrate their value to the community.

I want to know what the Government are doing about health and safety at work. The Government have never given time to this important subject. The only occasion on which it was discussed was in an Adjournment debate that I initiated several months ago. Of course, the Government are prepared to devote hours and hours of parliamentary time to attacking the unions. We have had two major Bills legally to enslave them and attack their funds. However, the Minister will know that in most years more days are lost through industrial injury than through strike action. Nevertheless, the Government have done nothing to improve legislation on industrial injury, to which I shall come in a moment.

Let me give some figures. In 1976, 15 million days were lost through industrial injury in estimated days of certificated incapacity. That figure did not include, for example, people who suffer from pneumoconiosis, byssinosis, or occupational deafness, and people who are out of work for more than six months who claim industrial disablement benefit. Therefore, the people who are injured at work over a long term are not included in the figure of 15 million. The figure for days lost through industrial disputes was 3,284,000. In 1977, 15·7 million days were lost in certificated incapacity, and 10,142,000 in industrial disputes. In 1979, in the winter of discontent, 29 million days were lost in industrial disputes, and 13·1 million days through certificated incapacity. The Library could not provide me with the figure for 1980 of estimated days of certificated incapacity, but 11,964,000 days were lost in industrial disputes. My guess is that more days will be lost through certificated incapacity. That does not include people who are off work for the odd day or two because of minor injury.

Therefore, it is fair to say that each year the number of days lost through industrial injury far exceeds the number of days lost through strike action. Nevertheless, the Government are cutting back expenditure on the Health and Safety Commission. That means, of course, that stiff are also facing the squeeze.

Criticisms can be made of the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive. The administration is cumbersome, and, in some cases, it has been ineffective. It has been reorganised once against the wishes of the factory inspectorate and a re-reorganisation is currently being considered by the administration which runs the executive and which administers rather than inspects.

Signs of the cumbersome nature of the administration have already been brought to Parliament's attention, but, nothing has been done. With regard to warrants, a key area of the expression of the power of inspectors, the executive has issued general warrants for inspectors, contrary to section 19(2) and (3) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 which specifically provides:
"Every appointment of a person as an inspector under this section shall be made by an instrument in writing specifying which of the powers conferred on inspectors by the relevant statutory provisions are to be exercisable by the person appointed".
That means that any inspector can grant exemptions in a specific area where there are powers and regulations to do so. For example, an agriculture inspector can grant exemptions from a mines and quarries regulation. That has been accepted in evidence to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. The evidence in the report of February 1980 states that
"in theory any inspector could grant an exemption. In practice we have administrative arrangements that certain people can grant exemptions for certain things."
I should like to remind the Minister that the Act laid down requirements that the executive and the commission do not have the right to flout Parliament. Where Parliament says that an inspector's warrant shall state the specific powers, that should be carried out.

On 25 March 1980, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments drew Parliament's attention to the fact that
"The Committee learn from the Department of Energy's Explanatory Memorandum … that such instruments of appointment do not specify or distinguish powers of the kind purportedly granted by Article 15 of each of these Regulations, and that only 'administrative arrangements' govern the exercise of such powers."
Therefore, the Committee concluded that the application of the powers in such a way was ultra vires. That is important because it reflects the way that administrative convenience is put before the specific operation of the legislation. That is reflected in other areas of activity.

There is extreme tardiness in producing proposals for legislation. On the question of lifting heavy weights, for example, in September 1976 the chairman promised me that guide notes for inspectors about the lifting of heavy weights would be produced by Christmas 1976 and a statutory instrument by 1977. That was five years ago.

I have promoted two Ten-Minute Bills to place a limit on weights lifted manually. For example, in agriculture the limit is 180 lbs and in textiles it is 120 lbs for adult males. There is no differentiation according to the age or fitness of those adult males. In addition, it inhibits a person's right to claim industrial injury benefit in the courts if he is faced by a statutory instrument which lays down a weight limit that is as high as the agriculture weight limit. That means that a person who works in agriculture and who injures his back is inhibited in that way.

Nothing has been done since 1977. There has been an impasse on the commission between the TUC and the CBI. There have been two working parties, and the second working party has produced a consultative document at long last within the past few weeks. That begins by saying:
"The number of accidents associated with manual lifting and handling has been a matter of concern to responsible bodies for a period of many years."
They are dead right. It has been a matter of concern for many years. The Health and Safety Commission and the Minister have been significantly lethargic about bringing something before Parliament to remedy the matter.

I quote again:
"There has been a dramatic increase in the past twenty years of reported injuries from manual handling in premises subject to the Factories Act 1961 from 40,000 to more than 70,000 per year. Hence the necessity for a new approach to manual handling."
On the commission's own figures a significant proportion of the 350,000 back injuries could have been avoided if the guides and regulations had been introduced several years ago. The consultative document is good and the proposals have much merit. I merely complain that it has taken far too long to bring them forward. The commission has reached an impasse. Because of the commission's construction, a consensus is always sought. That is not the best way of legislating to prevent industrial injuries.

Therefore, the Minister should consider something that existed prior to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. Where there is an impasse, an independent chairman should be appointed to institute an inquiry and to make recommendations to the Minister independently of the Health and Safety Commission. As a result of such facilities, the woodworking regulations 1970 were introduced, which had previously been the subject of delay. Such a system was proposed during debate on the Health and Safety at Work etc. Bill 1974, but the amendment was rejected. The value of the machinery has been demonstrated. It might well have been a means of resolving the handling of heavy weights.

Slowness and indifference can cause difficulties, as can confused codes of practice that are not clearly linked to statutory requirements. When connected with asbestos, slowness and indifference turn into a crime. In 1975 and 1976 the former Member for Sowerby, Mr. Madden, took up the cause of asbestosis victims at Acre Mill, Hebden Bridge. It was owned by a firm called Cape Asbestos and became, for a while, renowned throughout the country. At the time, there was slipshod supervision on the part of the Factory Inspectorate and Max Madden obtained an investigation by the Ombudsman. As a result, the then Secretary of State for Employment, now the Leader of the Opposition, established an advisory committee on asbestos, which was chaired by the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission.

The committee reported in November 1979. There were two earlier reports on thermal and acoustic insulation and the measurement and monitoring of asbestos in the air. In all, 41 recommendations were made. The General and Municipal Workers Union said that the report was not stringent enough, but it made 41 recommendations and if they had been implemented a significant step would at least have been taken along the road towards combating the dangers of asbestos. Before the Minister answered my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), I asked the Library how the 41 recommendations made in 1979 had fared. The reply was as follows:
"Your enquiry about the report of the Advisory Committee on Asbestos of 1979 has come to me for reply.
As you noted, 41 recommendations were made. I have spoken to that section of the Health and Safety Executive which deals with hazardous materials and they tell me that none of these has yet been formally implemented. However, a great deal of work has been carried out leading, it is hoped, to eventual implementation. Ultimately, of course, ministerial sanction will be required for this to be done. Negotiations simultaneously on two draft EEC directives seemed to have introduced some delay into the process."
I emphasise those last few words.

No doubt documents will be circulated and there will be many meetings about the wording of the regulations and whether one country will be satisfied with the views of another. Meanwhile, the toll of injury goes on month by month. It is astounding that over two years after the publication of a report by a serious committee, who examined the matter for three years, not one of the 41 recommendations has been formally implemented. Preparatory work has been done, but that does not affect the people who go into the factories every morning, or give them the rights that they should have.

It is almost unbelievable that anybody should allow EEC procrastination to prevent regulations from being implemented. Good God, we have a Parliament; we do not have to stand around and wait for the EEC to make up its mind. We could introduce regulations and change them if the EEC ones were better. I do not know whether that idea seems revolutionary now that we are in the Common Market, but I should have thought that it showed a certain amount of common sense and would have benefited those people who go into the factories every morning and want to see some improvement in their lives.

I do not often praise the media, but we are indebted to Yorkshire Television, John Willis the producer and the workers who made the programme "Alice, the fight for life". We are indebted to the late Alice Jefferson who contracted mesotheliomas—cancer of the lungs—from asbestos contact 30 years ago. She is not somebody we could have helped by the new regulations.

The debate and the television programme are a valedictory acknowledgement of Alice Jefferson's guts in fighting the disease that ended her life after working for nine months in an asbestos factory. It took Yorkshire Television to make a programme and produce the information that made people say "Look out, asbestos is a dangerous material. What happens to our bodies when they come into contact with this material?" It was not the Government, the employment medical advisory service or any other part of the Government machinery that provided the information. The General and Municipal Workers Union has been nagging away at the problem for a long time, but it took an important television programme to bring it to public notice.

A number of interesting points were made in the programme and I am grateful to the producer for sending me a transcript. Turner and Newall was quoted as saying before the programme that this year:
"Much of the steam has gone out of the anti-asbestos lobby and there is not that much concern in the United Kingdom."
Another asbestos boss in the same year said:
"Now that the health scare is over profits should rise again."
There was no reason why Turner and Newall should not rest content. The Government were attacking trade unions, like the General and Municipal Workers Union, which were arguing for better compensation terms and working conditions, proper scrutiny, and proper licensing for laggers to cut out the cowboys who, according to the Prime Minister, are the free enterprise entrepreneurs who make a profit out of death and injury. That is a pretty rich reward for the £40,000 that Turner and Newall has contributed in the past three years to the Conservative Party.

British Belting and Asbestos at Cleckheaton gave the Conservative Party £11,500. It is interesting to refect upon how it treated a Labour Party representative. While I was a Minister at the Department of Industry I opened a mill at Morley which had been converted from an old woollen mill. The mayor of Leeds went round at the same time and said that it would be a good idea for a representative of the Labour Government to visit British Belting and Asbestos at Cleckheaton because it had had only a Tory around previously and the workers would like to see a Government representative. My private office got in touch with the firm. It knew that I had raised questions about asbestos when I was on the Back Benches. It did not lay out the carpet but said that I would be accepted only if I undertook not to criticise the factory. I rejected the condition and the visit never took place.

Turner and Newall has an annual turnover of over £600 million. On the Yorkshire Television programme it stood convicted of withholding evidence from the Simpson inquiry, the major inquiry that took place between 1976 and 1979. Four pages were removed which showed that it had breached the law. The supposedly safe Fortex process breaches even the existing legal limits which are not all that stringent.

The programme made it clear that Turner's claim in 1978 that
"deaths from lung cancer do not differ significantly from the national average"
was untrue. The lung cancer rate at that time among the workers was almost twice the national average and rising. Turners had failed to tell the workers of the dangers of working with asbestos. We are talking of white and not blue asbestos.

Workers were interviewed on the programme and asked whether they knew of the dangers. They made it clear that Turners had not informed them of the dangers, although the firm claims that it provided the information.

A worker stated:
"We've all got to go sometime. It's just that I know I'm going to go sooner than I should be going. I'm not afraid of it. But the knowledge is there, that you're going to go before your time, through no fault of your own. I feel very bitter about it because, if they'd told me of the dangers, I wouldn't be in the position I'm in. Really and truly, they should have told me. They knew."
That is taken from a programme broadcast in 1974, and it is about a man who died in 1973. The same problem is rearing its head again. Workers have a right to know about the conditions in their factory.

Recommendation 28 of the 41 recommendations of the asbestos committee is that there should be a medical scheme with the following features:
"employers legally required to inform the organisation of anyone currently in or entering employment where precautionary measures have to be taken regularly to ensure compliance with the asbestos regulations and to provide facilities for him to be medically examined".
The recommendation enshrines the concept of the right to know.

Questions were raised in 1973 and 1974 and nothing has been done. It is scandalous that workers do not have a statutory right to know what is happening.

Eternet, near Cambridge, was also mentioned in the programme. That and other firms were shown to be ignorant or deceitful, or both.

Turner and Newall is a regular contributor to the Tory Party, paying £40,000 over three years, yet when Alice Jefferson sought compensation it offered only £13,600. That generous employer forced her to crawl to Leeds Crown court to get the decent sum of £36,000. She was so ill that she had to be helped in and out of court. Turner and Newall treats its workers with contempt.

On the programme a doctor from the West Riding claimed that malignant diseases of the chest were in epidemic proportions. The programme also pointed out that:
"By 1969 the British government felt it essential to introduce new regulations. But in fixing so-called 'safe' dust levels they took absolutely no account of the cancer-risks, even though research shows cancer can be sparked off by relatively small quantities of asbestos. The same year—1969—the asbestos companies predicted that the mesothelioma cancer rate has reached the crest of a wave, which will decline in the next decade.
In fact, a decade later mesothelioma cancer deaths had more than trebled, rising by 330 per cent. The 1969 regulations are still operative without change today.

Dr. Selikoff of the New York hospital that specialises in cancer research related to asbestos said:
"laggers I think in Britain have been followed by us for about the last 20 years. Their experience has been extraordinary. For example, men who were 30 or 35 years from onset of their work, about 40 per cent. of them die of one or other form of cancer—mesotheliomas, that is a cancer of the lining of the chest, the lining of the abdomen, lung cancer, cancer of the oesophagus, the stomach, the colon, the rectum, cancer of the mouth, the tongue, the larynx, the kidney, we followed 17,800 laggers from 1967 through 1976, there were 2,271 deaths among them instead of the 1,660 we expected, given their ages in 1967.
Of these—1 out of every 5 men died from lung cancer. It was simply a disaster."
When the workers die, their relatives often have difficulty getting compensation. Doctors sometimes fail to put "asbestosis" on the death certificate and workers are kept in ignorance of the true dangers. The 1979 inquiry was also kept in ignorance of the true dangers.

Turners claimed, for example, to the asbestos inquiry that of 48 cases of mesothelioma
"none of these could be described as cases of slight exposure."
Margaret Chrimes worked there as a telephonist. Emma Marshall was the firm's office cleaner. They both died of the asbestos cancer mesothelioma.

Turners told the asbestos inquiry in 1977 that the prevalence of asbestos disease in its British factories was no more than one in 300, yet Dr. Geoffrey Morris, then the company's chief medical officer and former lecturer in public health at Bristol university, was within a few months of concluding that the definite or strongly suspected cases of asbestosis at Turners biggest factory in Rochdale, far from being one in 300, was more than one in four.

I shall consider some of the recommendations of the 1979 committee. Recommendation 23 states:
"The requirement to provide protective clothing and respiratory protective equipment should be explicitly stated in the regulations and extended to include any workers whose person or personal clothing is liable to be significantly contaminated with asbestos dust."
I remember in 1978 or 1979 that laggers at the Isle of Grain power station had to go on strike to get protective clothing. The workers caused a nuisance simply because they wanted protective clothing.

Recommendation 34 states:
"When the government's monitoring programme on asbestos in the general atmosphere is complete, the data should be assessed by the appropriate public bodies in the light of the medical evidence to determine whether any general limit on asbestos concentration in non-occupational environments is needed."
Recommendation 36 states:
"Raw asbestos fibre and other loads liable to give rise to asbestos dust should be transported in such a way as to prevent the escape of asbestos dust."
Recommendation 35 states:
"A new legal obligation should be introduced so that by 1 December 1980 no raw asbestos may be imported to the UK unless it is shipped in totally enclosed metal-clad non-ventilated ISO general purpose freight containers."
Recommendation 40 states:
"All the existing legislation, regulations, codes of practice and guidance notes relating to asbestos should be brought together in one publication."
Recommendation 41 states:
"Relevant legislation should be examined with a view to reducing the statutory limitations on the disclosure of information relating to asbestos."
Recommendation 38 states:
"If experience shows that voluntary compliance with the present labelling scheme for consumer products containing asbestos is inadequate, it should be made obligatory by appropriate regulations."
Those are good and useful suggestions which should have been implemented. However, according to the Minister in his reply to my right hon. Friend the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South the committee
"reported in 1979, making far-reaching recommendations for new controls which the Government intend to implement alongside the two directives on asbestos currently under discussion".—[Official Report, 27 July 1982; Vol 28, c. 453.]
That has yet to be carried out. The Government must have information about the dangers from the Ministry of Defence, because it is heavily involved in repair and maintenance and the commissioning of new ships that make extensive use of asbestos in soundproofing and insulation.

The 1979 report is by no means perfect. It needs to be strengthened and there needs to be more medical supervision of workers, but the Government increased the fees for the employment medical advisory service examination by 540 per cent. in 1979 and a further 247 per cent. in 1981. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments reported on 14 April 1981:
"It seems to the Committee that a consequence of allowing `appointed doctors' to carry out the work of employment medical advisers will be further to increase the costs of the Health and Safety Executive and this will lead to an erosion of the Employment Medical Advisory Service. That possibility was confirmed in evidence given to the Committee."
The very organisation that can provide a service in this area is being eroded by the Government and the increase in fees will not induce employers to use the EMAS services.

If the Minister says that an appointed doctor can be used, I say that company doctors do not shine as examples of objective assessors of the dangers of asbestos. The EMAS is being eroded, but we can ask what advice it has given the Minister about asbestos. The service has a duty under section 55 of the 1974 Act to keep the Minister adequately advised about safeguarding and improving the health of employed persons.

Should not EMAS hold its own inquiry into Yorkshire Television's findings? Will the Minister tell us when the 41 recommendations are to be implemented? We do not want to be told that it will be at some vague date in the future when the EEC discussions are completed. Why does the Minister refuse to supplement the 1979 report? Is it simply callous indifference or inertia?

It is not enough to argue that all the cases contracted the disease after contact with asbestos some time ago. It was stated in the YTV programme:
"So even in modern conditions, working at Turners could be dangerous. Donald Robinson has worked in several departments, but mainly in Fortex."
—that is the new, less dangerous process, according to Turners.
"He thought that in modern times working at Turners was quite safe. Last year Donald, who is married with four children, was told he had the asbestos cancer mesothelioma. Donald Robinson is aged 39."
It is a modern, contemporary, current danger. That is why it is important that the 1979 report should be supplemented with an inquiry into the YTV findings. Because the Minister has refused a formal inquiry, the General and Municipal Workers Union has announced that it will hold its own inquiry. That should not be necessary. The Government should institute the inquiry as a matter of urgency.

The Government also ought to tell us how many improvement and prohibition notices have been issued over the past two years. Has the factory inspectorate been diligent in that? Will the Government increase the fines, which are pathetic? In 1980, 18 informations were laid and 16 convictions were obtained, resulting in an average fine of £244. In 1979 there were 12 informations, seven convictions and an average fine of £54.

The evidence collected by Yorkshire Television shows that more Alices may well be at risk today. The young men and women working with asbestos today may be the Alices of tomorrow, in 20 or 30 years. We have a duty as a nation to check every possible fact and provide every possible safeguard to prevent those sad words of the late Alice Jefferson from ever coming true again and ensure that such a tragedy never happens again because of the dangers of asbestos. She said in the programme, when she was told that she was going to die:
"I says 'How long have I got then?, and she says 'Three to six months' and when you think that and that it's just the result of working, you know, for a paid wage, for a job that we didn't think was dangerous; it never entered your head it was dangerous. Makes me feel right bitter, because I know I'm 47'".
That is a quotation from a moving documentary about people whose lives have been and are being prejudiced. This country loses more lives each year through asbestos, according to the General and Municipal Workers Union, than we lost in the Falklands crisis. The Government poured massive resources into dealing with the Falklands crisis. They should pour massive resources into putting into effect the 41 recommendations, into getting EMAS to sift the evidence, and setting up a new inquiry, so that we can claim that we are free from the dangers of asbestos. If there is no freedom from the dangers of asbestos as long as it is present, we must have a major initiative now, urgently, to substitute other materials for it so that we can eradicate the danger once and for all. If we do that we shall be remembering Alice Jefferson for having made a massive contribution, together with all the other people who contributed to the programme, to getting rid of a grave danger.

6.3 am

I am glad to join my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) in this debate about health and safety at work. He illustrated, particularly at the beginning of his speech, his considerable expertise in the matter of health and safety. I well recall the positive contribution that he made at the time of the passage of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act.

At the beginning of his speech my hon. Friend quoted figures and made criticisms, quite properly, of the lack of cutting edge of the Health and Safety Executive and the problems facing health and safety inspectors. Although I am less expert than my hon. Friend, I have discovered that the inspectors are overworked, because their numbers have been reduced. They are now expected to cover a far bigger area, which means that they can make only a cursory check instead of a more thorough check. This cut by the Government affects many people.

My hon. Friend principally highlighted the whole question of the dangers of asbestosis and all the problems associated with the asbestos industry. I did not see the television film to which he referred and to which there has been much reference in the newspapers—"Alice—A Fight for Life"—but I can tell him that cases like Alice's are multiplied all over the country. She did a great service in allowing her tragedy to be exposed to the public. Families of victims watched that programme and relived the nightmare of seeing one of their loved ones die of the same disease. There are families like that in my constituency of Barking.

Cape Asbestos used to have a factory in my constituency, and still has an office there. The company moved some years ago to Hebden Bridge—the constituency of my old friend and colleague, Max Madden, who did such a good job in taking the case to the Ombudsman. It is a commonly held saying in Barking even today, although it is a long time since Cape left, that almost everyone in the town knows someone or knows someone who is related to somebody who suffered from asbestosis. It has only to be mentioned in the town and everyone remembers the tragedies of those days. It is still with us.

Since I have been the Member of Parliament for Barking, I have been in contact with many families who have asbestos victims who have had to ask for my help to get compensation from their employers, whether it be Cape or other firms that use asbestos. I have also been involved in fights with the Department of Health and Social Security about industrial injury benefit. There is so little information about asbestosis that the process is incomprehensible to the ordinary person. I find it extremely difficult to follow an industrial injury benefit case and to make some sense out of it when it is connected with asbestosis.

I shall refer to a tragic case that I was recently involved with. A gentleman who, quite naturally, was extremely emotional because his wife was suffering from asbestosis, came to see me. He did not expect her to live more than a few months. She did not know that she had the disease. She knew that there was something wrong with her breathing and was in great discomfort all the time. The hospital had told him that she must never know that they believed that she had asbestosis because the strain of knowing would make her worse and accelerate her death.

The gentleman needed to apply for benefit on her behalf but she could not sign the form. With the help of the DHSS, I helped the gentleman to fill the form in and he signed it for her. That is unusual, but the Department accepted it. We then came to a great obstacle. The Department was prepared to accept that the form could be filled in on her behalf because she was not to know about it, but it had to send two DHSS doctors to examine her, whereupon, of course, she would know that there was something seriously wrong with her. It so happened that we never got to that stage because she died. Matters like that which hassle families and people's loved ones should be eliminated as much as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley talked a great deal about that advisory committee on asbestos. He referred to several of the important recommendations that it made in its last report in 1979. He rightly said that they have not been implemented and that the 1969 regulations are the ones that stand. The 1969 regulations give workers a one in 10 chance of dying of an asbestos-related disease because of the level of fibres in the air to which workers can be exposed. One of the committee's recommendations was that the number of fibres in the air to which workers could be exposed should be reduced. That might have quickly prevented some deaths.

There have been other important proposals which have not been implemented. As my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley said, there were then two EEC directives. He was right to point out that the whole matter has got bogged down. The Health and Safety Executive does not seem to have got its final report recommendations implemented and the EEC directives do not seem to have come into effect. I gather that they are bogged down because the differences between the various European standards have to be resolved first. Apparently, as we have not been able to do that we cannot implement the directives.

Further consultation is taking place. As the Minister knows, in March 1981 the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities produced a report on the directives about asbestos and strongly supported the measures contained in them. I do not know whether the report has been debated in the House of Lords, but certainly nothing has been done about it.

So the story continues and so, year by year, the reports on the health hazards of asbestos grow. In March this year The British Journal of Industrial Medicine published a report on the findings of B. K. Wignall of St. George's hospital and A.J. Fox of the City University showing that women workers exposed to asbestos may run a higher than normal risk of developing cancer of the ovary. A survey of 500 women who worked in a Nottingham gas mask factory during the Second World War putting asbestos filters into masks showed that by 1978 five had died of cancer of the ovary when statistically fewer than three deaths would have been expected.

This was a real surprise, so the two researchers went deeper into the matter. They studied the data, traced a number of the workers who were still around and examined old factory records. They found that not all of the 500 workers had actually been exposed to asbestos as some had simply been stitching on masks and had not been in contact with the asbestos, but the five deaths had been among the group of women actually handling the asbestos. Here, then, is perhaps another fatal disease to be added to the long list of illnesses caused by asbestos.

People living in Whiting Avenue in my constituency had a terrible shock three or four years ago when one of them, digging fairly deeply in his garden, discovered a vein of blue asbestos. he was absolutely horrified as neither he nor anyone else in the street had realised that the whole estate was built on top of a store of asbestos left behind by Cape Asbestos. I do not say that it had been deliberately concealed, but it had been buried. The council had then acquired the property and built an estate on it unaware of the presence of the asbestos. As a result, the council and the residents were in considerable difficulty for a long time until the asbestos could be safely covered up and in many cases removed.

I emphasise especially the problem of disposal. What does one do with the asbestos waste when one has taken it out? What will happen to the domestic asbestos waste that is now appearing all over the country as a result of the film about asbestos shown by Yorkshire Television which has rightly shocked and angered people into finding out how much asbestos is in their homes and chucking it out. People are tearing down panels and throwing the asbestos into the dustbin and local environmental health officers are at their wits end to know how to dispose of it because it is dangerous. I hope that the Minister will be able to give councils some advice on what should be done before this goes much further.

Where will all this end? Are we to continue to live with this terrible threat hanging over so many of our people? Are members of the next generation to be allowed to suffer and die in the same tragic way as this generation? If we do not grasp the nettle now, we never shall, and another generation of workers will be exposed to the risk.

An early-day motion now on the Order Paper calls for the setting up of a Select Committee on asbestos. I strongly support the proposal, but we should not have to wait for the findings of a Select Committee. Why are there strikes by workers in asbestos factories? They are generated by the shock and horror of workers who saw the film and who are more frightened than they were. Why are environmental health authorities and departments now inundated with inquiries, many of which they cannot reply to? It should not be necessary for those things to happen. We need action from the Government now to enforce proper protection and safety standards.

I am glad to see in one of the papers that will be on the bookstalls today—I refer to Friday, and not the parliamentary day of Thursday—that the Society for the Prevention of Asbestosis and Industrial Diseases is pointing out the risks of white asbestos. SPAID is run by Mrs. Nancy Tate, who is an old friend of mine. I pay tribute to the tremendous work she has done in exposing the dangers of asbestos. She illustrates the risks of white, as distinct from blue, asbestos which has largely been ignored and which has damaged the lungs of between 17 and 20 per cent. of the people at Turner and Newall's works.

I also pay tribute, as did my hon. Friend, to the General and Municipal Workers Union which, in the same newspaper, announces that it is to hold a special inquiry. I am sure that that will be done extremely thoroughly and that the result will be well worth seeing.

Welcome though all those initiatives are, this matter is not the responsibility of those organisations. It is for the Government to provide adequate protection, advice and information for people who work with these dangerous materials. The Government should be grasping this fearsome problem and positively responding to the genuine and loud public outcry. I hope that the Minister's reply will help people to understand why the Government have been so inactive.

6.18 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) and the hon. Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) on raising this important topic. I hope that my remarks will be a useful contribution to the debate.

The hon. Member for Keighley referred to nurses' pay. The Government's record on nurses' pay compares favourably with that of the Labour Government and it does not lie in the hon. Gentleman's mouth to criticise the Government for party political reasons. He knows perfectly well that the offer of 7½ pe cent. for nurses compares favourably with the settlements for the Armed Forces, the civil servants and teachers. He knows that the total amount of money spent on the Health Service has risen in real terms by 5 per cent. since 1979. He knows that to give way to the 12 per cent. pay claim would cost an additional £400 million and that that would mean less money available for buildings, patient care and services to patients. The real subject of the debate is health and safety at work. The hon. Member for Keighley said that the Government had not provided time to debate the matter. The Opposition can choose the topic for debate on Supply days. Not long ago we spent a considerable time debating asbestos when we considered two European directives.

The Government's duty is to be ever-vigilant and to do all that they can to improve health and safety at work. The number of accidents at work has fallen in each year since 1976. From the statistics one must conclude that the Health and Safety Executive has done a good job in improving safety and health in factories. The hon. Gentleman compared the number of days lost through industrial injury with the number of days lost through industrial action. I cannot accept that the fact that fewer days are lost through strikes than through industrial injury is an excuse for failing to bring sanity to our legal framework for industrial relations. That cannot be used as an excuse for failing to protect individuals from the abuse of industrial power. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should use a serious occasion to make such a trivial point.

The hon. Member for Keighley said that the Government had cut back on the work of the Health and Safety Commission. It was inevitable that economies would be made when we came to power in 1979. Compared with other parts of the Department of Employment, the executive has been fairly well protected from the cuts.

The subject of general warrants is a hobby horse of the hon. Gentleman, but he cannot identify any adverse effects of the power to issue general warrants. He says that an agriculture inspector could grant an exemption in relation to mines and quarries. That is interesting, but the hon. Gentleman does not live in the real world because no agriculture inspector has issued such an exemption and there is no intention that he should.

The hon. Gentleman was most ungracious about heavy weights. I should have thought that he would congratulate the Health and Safety Commission on publishing a consultative document on an involved and difficult problem. The hon. Gentleman argued that perhaps consensus was not the best way, but that was not the thinking of the Committee which considered the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. The thinking behind that Act was that consensus was a great thing to win so that changes acceptable to both sides of industry could be made.

The problem of asbestos is the really important issue. The hon. Gentleman said that the Health and Safety Executive had delayed dealing with the risk of asbestos. First, he talked as if the 1969 asbestos regulations did not exist. He talked as if no legislation was in force. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The hon. Gentleman said that nothing was being done in furtherance of the recommendations made by the Simpson committee. He then corrected himself and said that nothing was being done formally. He was right to add "formally". For example, the Simpson committee recommended a tightening-up of control limits for white asbestos. We do not have legislation requiring one fibre per cubic centimetre, but inspections by the Factory Inspectorate reveal that that is the standard that is being achieved throughout British industry. It is not good enough to talk about no legislation having been passed to implement the proposals of the Simpson committee. The realistic step is to examine the steps that have been taken to diminish the risks.

People are frightened when they are told of the consequences of inaction years ago. It can take 20 or 30 years from the first exposure to the first symptoms appearing. We should be ever vigilant in examining new evidence and assessing whether new risks have been revealed, but it should not be imagined that no progress has been made during 20 or 30 years.

Mention has been made of a public inquiry. I responded to a question recently by saying that I did not intend to set up an inquiry. I must give my reasons for saying that, and I think that they are easy to understand. One of the recommendations of the advisory committee on asbestos was that the advisory committee on toxic substances should review control measures as further information became available. The Health and Safety Executive is able to keep abreast of new research and literature and has experts on its staff. If they are doing their work properly, they can advise the Government on new measures which might be necessary as a result of the products of new research.

I can promise the hon. Gentleman that the HSE will look most carefully into all that was said during the two programmes on Yorkshire Television. It has already taken steps to try to ascertain whether the programme makers have in their hands any evidence that is not already at the disposal of the HSE.

My personal view is that the setting up of an inquiry could delay action. Action is necessary now and action will be taken. On 22 October 1981 the House debated two European directives. I made it plain that our negotiating position in the Community was based on the recommendations of the Simpson committee. I said that we believed that harmonisation would be a great prize and that it was wrong that some countries should have controls more lax than ourselves and thereby enjoy a competitive advantage. I think that many hon. Members recognised the force of that argument.

We were working in Europe to try to persuade other member States to adopt the high standards that we wish to see appertaining in Britain. However, there has been a great deal of delay. It was for that reason that on 20 July the Health and Safety Commission, unaware that on that very night the first of the Yorkshire TV programmes would be shown, decided that some further action should be taken in advance of agreement in Europe. That decision was embodied in a letter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has already replied to the commission saying how much he welcomes the course that it decided to take.

The commission decided that proposals for revised regulations on the licensing of work with asbestos insulation and coating would be brought forward as soon as possible. Hon. Members will know that there is already a code of practice on the subject, in response to an advisory committee report, so it is wrong to say that no action was taken on the report. Furthermore, regulations will be brought forward and will introduce some important prohibitions. There will be a prohibition on the spraying of asbestos, which is acknowledged to be one of the most risky uses. There will be a prohibition on the use of asbestos materials in insulation and there will be a statutory prohibition on the marketing and use of crocidolite. Hon. Members will remember that there has been a voluntary ban on crocidolite since 1970.

At its mext meeting, the commission will consider whether further action should be taken on exposure limits. Hon. Members will recall that the advisory committee on asbestos proposed that the present limit of two fibres per cubic centimetre in the case of chrysotile—white asbestos—should be reduced to one fibre per cubic centimetre, but firms, almost without exception, operate under the one fibre limit so we shall be embodying in legislation that which is already observed.

Some people cry "Ban the lot. Do not use asbestos any more." They call for the use of substitutes. I remind hon. Members that a substitute providing the unique qualities of asbestos might be equally dangerous. I must also remind hon. Members that asbestos has safety uses. One must remember when one talks about the danger to those involved with asbestos at their work that they may be manufacturing something that will save lives, whether it is fire protection material or brake linings. One cannot ignore the social consequences. There are 18,500 people employed in the asbestos industry and they do not wish the industry to close. The Health and Safety Commission, which includes representatives of the TUC, does not believe that such a drastic step could be justified.

The hon. Member for Keighley spoilt his speech by leaving the important point of the debate and indulging in a contemptable attack linking asbestos with a so-called attack on the unions. It may be what we have come to expect of the hon. Gentleman, but I hope that tonight people will believe that we have been debating a matter of the utmost gravity and have not been indulging in filth. I do not challenge the hon. Gentleman's sincerity, but he must not be surprised if others wonder how sincere he is when he mixes up the terrible suffering of people from asbestosis and cancer with a debate about contributions to the Tory Party. I resent it greatly that he should have thought fit to waste the House's time pushing out such filth. He should be thoroughly ashamed of himself.

The hon. Member then went on to raise another and different matter. The hon. Member may grin, but let him take some punishment himself for a change, instead of uttering disgusting slanders. Let him remember that very often he wastes the time of the House, as he did when he had the impudence to say that a Committee in which he was involved, and members of EMAS who were there, had come to the firm conclusion that their work would be depreciated and interfered with as a result of the increase in fees. I and the hon. Member remember clearly our debates on this subject not long ago. Again it was one of his hobby horses—he alone said that.

I am sure that the Minister regards it as disgusting that Turner and Newell paid more to the Conservative Party than it gave to one of its former employees. He will agree that that is not the sort of priority that he would support. The Minister seems obsessed with attacking me, but all that I did was to quote the report agreed by the Committee, which has the right to make that report. I did not elaborate or say that the Committee had misrepresented the position, I simply quoted evidence that was given to the Committee.

The hon. Member is being a little ingenuous, as he was the moving force in the Committee.

The hon. Gentleman went on to deal with the question of fines and quoted the average fines for offences. It is perhaps more relevant to quote the maximum. Magistrates' courts can impose fines of up to £1,000 in the case of summary trial, and the case can be tried on indictment and if that happens, the fine is unlimited. That hardly proves that there are no adequate powers in the hands of the courts. It may be said that it is different if the courts are not using their powers to the extent to which they could.

The hon. Member for Barking (Miss Richardson), in a restrained speech that was all the more impressive for it, highlighted again and again the terrible tragedies that have resulted from the manufacture and use of asbestos. Nobody denies that, and it is important that we should make all the progress that we can to see that nobody working in the industry is exposed to an unacceptable risk.

The advisory committee on asbestos recommended that the number of fibres should be reduced. That is already happening as a result of the vigilance of our inspectors. The hon. Lady raised an important point about hazardous waste. We accept the recommendation of the Gregson committee and are setting up an inspectorate of hazardous waste, which will be there for the specific purpose of advising local authorities as to how they should deal with this difficult problem.

The hon. Lady said that she would like to see the setting up of a Select Committee. That is not for me, but if it were the wish of the House, the Health and Safety Executive would co-operate in every way to help the work of that Committee.

Would it be appropriate to say that the Select Committee on Employment, which has just reported on the commission, has said that at an early date it would be looking at the importance of the Health and Safety legislation, and this will be done early in the new Session?

I am grateful to the hon. Member for reminding me of that. It seemed rather strange that hon. Members in an early-day motion should be calling for the setting up of a Select Committee to deal with this matter, when one would have thought that the appropriate Committee was the Employment Committee.

However, that is not a matter for me. What is a matter for me is that I should make it abundantly plain that whatever body of the House decides to investigate these matters, it will have every possible form of help from the Department. I hope that in the light of my remarks, hon. Members will go away a little happier, aware that action is being taken, and conscious of the reasons why decisions were not taken to impose prohibitions—because it was then hoped that there would be harmonisation and a swift passage of the two European directives.

Civil Defence

6.39 am

May I say at once that I very much regret having cost my hon. and learned Friend some seven hours' sleep, but knowing his active and fertile mind, I am sure that he has put the seven hours to good use. Perhaps during the next Session we shall see the fruits of those seven hours—maybe in more civil defence legislation. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) and Harrogate (Mr. Banks) for indicating their intention to participate in this important debate.

It is now almost two years since my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made his statement on civil defence to the House. He said that the
"Government consider that an expanded civil defence programme is both prudent and necessary to achieve an appropriate balance in our defence capability."—[Official Report, 7 August 1980; Vol. 990, c. 790.]
The statement continued by announcing various improvements in the civil defence network. The report stressed that much civil defence work should be done at local level, and that the Government proposed to double the amount of money available for that purpose. My right hon. Friend said that he recognised that many county and regional councils at present lacked resources to plan for community involvement in civil defence below district level, but that the Government would make more money available for this purpose. All in all, the total additional cost of the immediate measures that were announced over the three years commencing August 1980 amounted to about £45 million, but despite the good intentions, the situation had not improved to any marked extent.

Civil defence is important in the context of conventional war—and it is worth remembering that all the 140 wars that have been fought since the end of the Second World War were conventional. Civil defence is important in the context of natural disaster, but in the context of nuclear war civil defence is not important; it becomes critical. No one wishes the onset of war, natural catastrophe or disaster, but wishing is not enough. In our daily lives, we insure against disaster and accident. Equally, it is necessary for the Government in the larger context to adopt a similar insurance policy, and part of that insurance policy is civil defence.

However, the situation takes on overtones of tragedy when one realises that not all the funds available have been taken up by local authorities, since it is apparent that some civic leaders and local councils evidently still believe that magic wands exist, and that by declaring nuclear-free zones they will, in some miraculous way, defy the basic elements of wind and fire. Those latter-day Canutes believe that words will defy the bomb. Theirs is the classic posture of the ostrich with its head buried firmly in the sand—and the word "buried" may have more than passing significance.

Perhaps I may refer here to the exercise Hard Rock and its postponement. I served as a local councillor on four authorities over a period of 21 years. I believed that there was a clear relationship between local authorities and central Government. I am appalled to think that certain Labour-controlled local authorities have decided to adopt a policy of non-co-operation with the Government on this exercise—so much so that the exercise has been postponed. That is disgraceful. Local authorities have only themselves to blame if Government take unto themselves more powers, not only in civil defence but in other respects. Those civic leaders should remember that Japan was also a nuclear-free zone. That certainly did not save it from the full horror of nuclear war. That horror was intensified for the Japanese by their lack of understanding and preparedness for the new style conflict that burst about them.

Civil defence is not a substitute for peace. There can be no substitute for peace. However, there is action that the State should take. After almost 40 years, the United Kingdom level of preparedness is not much greater than that of the Japanese in 1945. A major five-point programme of civil protection is now required.

First, that programme should encompass voluntary recruitment and training—a voluntary programme that includes the Territorial Army, the Red Cross and the other voluntary organisations that do so much in time of crisis. We should introduce training that ensures that the nation has a substantial number of its people prepared, able to lead, take the appropriate action and with the right equipment.

Secondly, a statutory requirement should be laid on local authorities clearly to identify those buildings that may be used by the civil population in time of war—for example, the tunnels, the basements, the underground car parks and even the old factory air raid shelters that still exist. Within my constituency of Rugby the General Electric Co. has a large underground air raid shelter for use in time of emergency.

Thirdly, we should amend building byelaws so that any new building over a certain size should have a basement that may be used as a shelter. That provision is now new. It has existed in Switzerland and elsewhere for many years. What is good enough for the Swiss is surely good enough for the British.

Fourthly, adequate food stocks and medical supplies should be held to ensure survival. Those stocks should be held on a county or borough basis, not regionally or nationally. One must expect some considerable difficulty in moving foodstuffs and other stocks about the country following the onset of war.

Fifthly, and above all, we should seek to educate our people, not by means of a discredited pamphlet but by providing much more detail and guidance. That guidance should be sensible and credible and seen to be of positive assistance in time of crisis. All education is important, but this form of education could be literally a matter of life or death. It should seek to combat what I describe as the doctrine of despair. For example, Nagasaki and Hiroshima are now, and have been for years, prosperous cities. They have recovered from the attack, just as Dresden and Hamburg did.

The reasons for the doctrine of despair are not hard to find. In order actively to promote the effectiveness of the nuclear deterrent, a deterrent that has been responsible for 40 years of peace in Europe, it was necessary to underline the appalling and devastating effectiveness of nuclear war. We have all surely lost count of the number of times that we have been told that the survivors would envy the dead, and yet there is a direct analogy that can be drawn between our mental state now and that which existed in 1939.

In 1939 it was seriously argued, and, more to the point, believed, that the bomber would always get through. The population was convinced that aerial bombardment would level cities and destroy populations with great loss of life. There will be those hon. Members who will say with justification that there is no similarity between conventional bombing and nuclear attack. Those that hold that view should try telling that to those who were lucky enough to survive the firestorms that raged in Dresden, Berlin and Hamburg and the survivors of the massive Tokyo fire raids. What the allied bombers did in Germany and Japan is what we believed would have happened in the United Kingdom in 1939. The saving difference was that the technology in 1939 was simply not equal to that which existed in 1945.

Let me develop that theme. Despite the general and accepted belief that war would result in the destruction of our cities and the death of substantial numbers, the Government did not abdicate their responsibilities; far from it. We developed a massive programme of civil defence called, in the jargon of the time, "Air Raid Precautions". It embraced wardens, home guard, ambulance and fire services—all closely integrated and designed to give the civil population the maximum possible protection against the attack to come. Those precautions were taken to a much greater extent in Germany, and it was that fact that enabled so many to survive the massive allied raids in 1944 and 1945. The great catastrophies occurred where precautions had not been taken, for example in Dresden and Tokyo.

It is the first duty of the State to protect its citizens. It is, therefore, the clear duty of Government to ensure the protection and survival of the maximum number of British people compatible with resources available. I do not seek to equate conventional and nuclear war. Their only point of similarity is the horror and frightfulness of war. Indeed, perhaps to find a true comparison with the effect and aftermath of nuclear war one has to go back 600 years to the time of the Black Death that ravaged Europe and destroyed so many of the population. Again, it is fair to remember that, in time, Europe recovered.

The technology of destruction has always existed, but matching it has been a will to survive and the need and duty to protect one's own people. That will needs to be rekindled and the British people expect the Government to give the lead. It is the character of our race that, when faced by challenge, it is accepted. The Falklands are perhaps a recent and good example of that. There, we did not count the cost, but recognised a clear duty, and that duty was discharged. Hon. Members have a duty to protect their fellow citizens. We should not abdicate that trust or responsibility.

It is noteworthy that nations ranging from the Soviet Union and China to Switzerland and Scandinavia have all made preparations to protect their civil populations. The entire Soviet civil defence programme is in the control of the USSR Council of Ministers, led by a Colonel General A. T. Altunim. In the republics, the organisation of civil defence comes under the chairman of the republic's ministerial Government. Heads of schools, institutions and industry as well as of farms are designated as local defence chiefs. Workers councils combine forces with the Young Communist League to form command brigades and groups to educate and motivate public awareness in all matter pertaining to civil defence and war survival.

Soviet industry has also taken precautions designed to protect a high proportion of its machine tools. Soviet literature describes industrial civil defence exercises and anticipates a survival rate as high as 80 per cent. However, there is considerably more to the story of Soviet civil defence. There is compulsory civil defence instruction for all, including children. It has much civil defence literature, films, talks, exhibitions and broadcasts which, incidentally, take place throughout the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact countries. It maintains links with the armed forces. It has huge stockpiles of food and large amounts of gas masks, protective clothing and radiation meters available. A vast complex of underground shelters has been constructed for many of the population.

Compare that level of preparedness with what exists within the United Kingdom. Our civil defence is but a pale shadow of what is thought necessary in eastern Europe and elsewhere. As part of the Labour Government's economy drive in 1968 the 340,000 strong civil defence corps and auxiliary fire service were disbanded. Their equipment was sold, dumped or left mouldering in warehouses. Even the civil defence literature disappeared from shelves and bookshops.

There are many reasons for our lack of preparedness. They range from genuine and honest attempts to use scarce resources in what are considered to be more fruitful areas to deliberate attempts by subversive groups to discredit and undermine the nation's will to survive. We should build home defence, not from the top down with all the conventional apparatus of State, regions and counties, but from the bottom up, using parishes in country districts and the block or ward system in towns and cities. They should be the basic building blocks for home defence.

It has been accepted that there can be no major evacuation from the cities. Reception areas have not been designated and no preparations have been made to receive the flood tide of humanity pouring from the cities. People will have to sit tight, but they will do that only if they know that there is a local organisation that can assist and organise in town, city or country. Each grouping must be identified and responsibility contained in that area. Use should be made of the enormous number of volunteers that exist. There is substantial interest shown in this subject. We should be capitalising now on volunteers' enthusiasm. Government should channel that enthusiasm and interest into a positive organisation that is based on the small community, and the small communities should produce their own leaders.

I know that money is short and that the disaster may never happen. There are many people, both inside and outside the House, who will say that it is all a waste of time and effort. But the worst might happen, and if it does may God help a defenceless civil population who are more defenceless now than in 1939.

My hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State is sympathetic to the principle of civil defence. However, he must operate within the severe financial constraints imposed by the Treasury. It is important to remember that our economy is in some difficulty and that the availability of money is genuinely tight. Despite that, two years ago more funds were found, and for the first time since 1968, thanks to the Minister, civil defence is being taken seriously by Government. I and people who think as I do are grateful to him for his efforts. I do not doubt that my hon. and learned Friend will do everything possible to provide the leadership and, if necessary, the legislation for civil defence and a real measure of protection for the civil population.

6.59 am

We have come through the watches of the night. Dawn has broken and London is stirring, and we have now come to discuss probably the most important subject that has echoed in the Chamber since we started the debates on the Consolidated Fund. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. Pawsey) on his informative and valuable contribution.

Almost two years ago to the day my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made a very important statement. He brought civil defence out of mothballs and gave it credence, which it had not had for many years. He recognised that there were variations in the civil defence arrangements in different parts of the country. He took important and valuable initiatives to encourage local authorities to update civil defence arrangements with Government cash grants. It is with a deep sense of regret that we learn that many local authorities have failed to respond to the grant initiatives. Nine have totally failed to do anything; others have made only a limited response; but yet others have taken action.

It is highly regrettable that only £620,000 of the original £3·3 million made available to build and improve wartime headquarters and other civil defence measures was taken up in 1981–82 by local authorities. The proportion of the further sum of £3·3 million taken up by local authorities for planning and training is, unfortunately, not identifiable. But it means that many opportunities and jobs have been lost and considerable delay has been occasioned in implementing new civil defence measures.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced recently the postponement of exercise "Hard Rock" which was designed to test local authorities' emergency planning skills. The exercise has foundered due to lack of interest. Only 34 out of 54 authorities agreed to take part and seven of those on the basis only of limited participation. I believe that my right hon. Friend was right to postpone the exercise.

The North Yorkshire county council was the only authority in its region to comply with the requirements of the exercise. I praise the authority for its civil defence work. The Harrogate borough council has also taken civil defence initiatives and made decisions to move the present headquarters to more satisfactory premises under the assistance scheme.

The House is familiar with the grave necessity for adequate civil defence capabilities in peace and war. I wish to refer particularly to the role of civil defence as a means of safety in conventional warfare. Before any war became more serious, if it did so, there would be a period of conventional warfare. A lesson that we learnt in the last world war must ring true when we are considering the necessity for civil defence in a conventional situation. It is one of the foundation stones on which national security is built. A defence policy is useless when that which is being defended could be in a state of chaos. Deterrence is of limited credibility when a nation has taken insufficient steps to defend its civilian population.

In this light, and in view of the fact that, with the substantial Government grants now available, the actual burden of costs that falls upon a local authority in maintaining civil defence requirements is minimal compared with that authority's total budget, it can only be on ideological grounds that those authorities oppose the progress of civil defence or are in wanton ignorance of its importance.

In doing so, they are abdicating the responsibility they have in playing a part in the security of the civilian population. My right hon. Friend said in York recently that he is urgently considering with the Secretary of State for Scotland the amendment to the planning regulations made under the Civil Defence Act 1948. In consideration of the limitations of this Act, which only obliges the local authority to plan for an emergency without making any other provision, I urge him to make the statutory obligation that I believe we all regard as necessary. If much of the vital responsibility for civil defence is to remain devolved in local hands, the authorities concerned will have to be obedient to a higher standard of preparation. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will introduce measures to that effect as soon as possible.

On the occasion of my right hon. Friend's statement in 1980, I put forward the idea that we should have a commissioner for civil defence and that he would have an inspectorate to ensure that local authorities met the standards required of them. I cannot help feeling that that would have been wise then, and I feel that it should have been implemented now. I hope that he will give consideration to this idea.

Many good things have happened in civil defence since the statement in 1980. There has been the start of the main programme for communication, and for modernisation of the warning and monitoring organisation, and the increase in allowances for the Royal Observer Corps. It was doubled immediately after the review and has been raised a further 17 per cent. since. That has brought the strength of the Royal Observer Corps up to its full complement. The new headquarters at Oxford were opened by my hon. and learned Friend the Minister. That was a significant development. We had the refurbishment of the Green Goddesses, which was a necessary and a good thing to do.

But I believe that we need to have better information available for the public to refer to the sort of measures that they may wish to take or that they can be advised they should take to make advance preparation. I am not happy with "Protect and Survive". I hope very much that that publication can be quickly got out of the way and that we can get down to some sensible literature. We have the increase in residential accommodation in home defence college and some 20 extra places for training have been found by the addition to buildings there. This is a valuable step. I hope that, if necessary, if we require additional training places, which can be found in existing buildings, perhaps through the use of universities during the vacation and so on, we can have particular training courses.

I was very pleased when I heard that Sir Leslie Mavor was appointed as the co-ordinator of voluntary help, but I believe that this takes us to the area of volunteers, which needs particular attention. There are many young people who do not have jobs. Here is an opportunity, possibly in conjuction with the Manpower Services Commission, to bring young people in as trainees in civil defence who can be part of the corps of people who will instil enthusiasm in local people in the local area to join up into a community volunteers' corps. We have to come to terms with the fact that volunteers will have to be organised in a special way. In this respect we need to have a full survey of existing buildings to find out what accommodation is available that could be used. It is the jobs that are available for young people in this area that I think should be made available.

We have, of course, always to remember the existing voluntary organisations. They, I think, have a most valuable and important part to play. They can be co-ordinated within the whole scene through local authorities setting up the right organisation.

Finally, I should like to say something about the film which appeared on BBC1 on Monday evening, called "Armageddon". It showed the effects of a 1 megaton bomb dropped on St Paul's and vividly portrayed the fire, the blast, the devastation and the loss of life.

If any potential enemy were to drop such a bomb on St. Paul's to devastate the whole of inner London, it would be the most ridiculous and stupid act, because they would be trying to win over a heap of ashes in the centre of the capital. The object of any aggressor is to take over a country and to retain its structure and its fine historic buildings. Why, for heaven's sake, would an enemy even consider dropping a bomb on the centre of London and destroying everything that they would need to bring the country together again after the war?

Let us never forget that the same pictures could be applied to Moscow. It is the balance of nuclear power which ensures our survival. I wish that the film could be shown in the Soviet Union so that people there could appreciate what nuclear weapons can do.

I have visited Hiroshima, which is now a thriving modern city. Anyone who saw the television film may find it difficult to believe that although the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was smaller—12½ or 20 kilotons, I think —the city bears no scars. I read a hand-written report of a witness of the bombing of Hiroshima. That person walked through the ruins and gave a vivid description of what happened. The city has risen again.

It would be possible to portray on film an Exocet missile sinking one of our warships and that could be trumped up as an excuse for not having any warships. The people who watched that film could be alarmed by it and it purported to make civil defence appear to be out of the question, but it has an important part to play, particularly in dealing with those on the fringe areas. The film did not point out that if they had civil defence they would survive.

My hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State has his heart in civil defence. He is battling against a lack of funds. Those funds must be found and I believe that he is doing everything that he can to bring about a credible civil defence in this country. I applaud his work.

7.12 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. Pawsey) on his extremely interesting and well-researched speech which I much enjoyed. I also heartily agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) that this is probably the most important of the debates on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

The issue is crucial to the survival of this country and it should be taken extremely seriously. I am more than a little concerned that the only hon. Members who were interested enough to indicate that they wished to speak on the subject were Conservative Members.

It calls into question the attitude of Opposition Members and what they see as their responsibility to their constituents.

Civil defence has long been the poor relation of our defence forces. I am pleased that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State is doing all that he can to bring it to prominence. Civil defence was mothballed by a previous Administration and was left there for too long. The matter was not thought through properly at that time. if it had been, we would have appreciated the importance of maintaining an effective method of looking after the civilian population, particularly as it is essential that our front-line forces should have peace of mind when doing battle on our behalf in distant lands.

Those taking part in the conflict in the South Atlantic were able to apply their minds and their entire being much more readily to their task because they were not worried about what was happening to their families at home. If they had been doing battle in Eastern Europe and the civilian population had been under threat of a dreadful nuclear attack, their minds would have been divided between worry for their families at home and what they had to do to attack and defeat the enemy. That it too often forgotten. In any human relationship the man expects to protect and look after his family, and if he is away doing his duty on behalf of his Queen and country other people have to step in and take care of them on his behalf. We must turn our attention in much more detail to looking after the civilian population, and in particular the families of Service people here at home.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby spoke of the need to follow the Swiss in providing adequate shelters in buildings at home. That is important, but the method of construction of buildings in Switzerland is different from the method here. The Swiss have to build deeper foundations, owing to the inclement weather, particularly in the winter. As they are in the centre of the continent, the temperatures drop to a much lower level. Having to build their foundations much deeper, they can take advantage of the opportunity to build underground shelters without adding so much to the cost of construction. Because of our more temperate climate, we do not have to dig our foundations so deep, and there is not the same incentive to put in underground shelters.

The Government must consider this matter, because it is essential that there be adequate cover. One of the biggest areas of complaint is the inadequacy of provision for private individuals. We hear time and time again of various groups that wish us to have no civil defence whatsoever, because they believe that the man in the street will have no provision made for him at all. That is a sad state of affairs, the responsibility for which belongs to all Governments since the 1939–45 war. Immediately after that war a number of buildings in the City of London were designed to incorporate nuclear shelters in their underground car parks. That practice was quite common in the 1950s, but it seems to have died out. There are undoubtedly opportunities available, and the Government should be turning their attention in that direction.

I turn to the attitude of local authorities generally. Far too many are, with one excuse or another, ducking out of their responsibilities, particularly in some of the large conurbations. The Greater London Council's attitude is particularly deplorable in this regard. I understand that it now proposes to throw open to public inspection in the near future the shelter provided for the administration of civil defence covering my constituency. This is really an attempt to undermine the entire concept of civil defence. I deplore it. I see no reason why the public should not know that provision is made for them in the event of an emergency. However it is foolish to draw people's attention to specific locations for the simple reason that only a few days ago those who are intent upon destroying the State brought barbaric havoc to Hyde Park and Regents Park, right in the centre of London.

Why should we draw attention to the precise location of potential safeguards, inadequate though they may be, that have been provided for the protection of the civilian population so that everyone would know exactly where to hit if they want to destroy the population? It is entirely wrong and typical of those who are at present in charge of the GLC at County Hall.

Even if there is no question of an atomic attack, there is no doubt that civil defence would be required for other possible emergencies. The recent discharge of chemical fumes in Northern Italy is a case in point. Considerable damage was done to the health of the local population. That could have been substantially averted if a full-scale civil defence system had been available. The floods in the West Country of some years ago are another example of where civil defence administration is essential. There is a need for some such organisation, regardless of the potentialities of war.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby mentioned plague and what happened in the Middle Ages. That is another type of natural disaster that can take place without a war and in preparation for which we should make provision for the civilian population. To fail to do so is to utterly ignore a politician's responsibilities to his constituents. I urge the Government to increase expenditure on such provision.

Because local authorities are letting the community down in civil defence matters, the Government should take two courses of action. In the short term, they must look towards a 100 per cent. grant for civil defence expenditure. That does not necessarily entail increased total expenditure. It would be possible to make an appropriate reduction in the rate support grant. It is too essential a matter to be left to the option of local politicians. In times of stringent economies, they cannot be expected to expend their 25 per cent. contribution even on this important matter. We cannot afford to leave the issue to chance.

Ultimately, the Government should consider whether civil defence should be put on a separate basis. I would much prefer that it should follow the same basis as the Territorial Army. I should like the system to be worked out on the basis of the county and through the deputy lieutenants committees, which help with the recruitment of personnel for the TA, and to take over that responsibility. A substantial volume of help and support is available through that source. There are already many people on the deputy lieutenants' roll who would be only too pleased to take on the responsibility for organising civil defence on a local level.

It is, of course, vital that the crucial members of the team include the chief executives of the local authorities concerned, the borough engineers, the health officials, and so on. Nevertheless, I believe that control of this must be taken out of the hands of the locally elected politicians because this is essentially a Government responsibility, and, unless the Government face up to it, the general population will suffer and we shall be neglecting our duty.

I therefore urge the Government to take this matter most seriously.

7.25 am

It is the function of debates on the Consolidated Fund Bill to permit Members to raise subjects of particular interest to them or to their constituents and to draw attention to particular matters so that the Government may take on board these important considerations. It follows from that that it is desirable that as many hon. Members as possible should be able to speak in the debates.

Therefore, if I reply at this stage in what may seem an abbreviated or even cursory way, that is not to suggest that I regard my hon. Friends' speeches as deserving no more than that. I shall study carefully what they have said and I hope that they will allow me to reply in writing to some of the points that they have made. I wish to reply in that way simply to allow more Members to take part in the debates.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. Pawsey) on choosing this subject, as it is one of great importance to the safety of this country. He said that the first duty of the State is to protect its citizens. Although we acknowledge this in the case of defence and believe it right to maintain adequate defence services, Armed Services and so on, I often think that we do not give the same importance to the provision of a sensible level of civil defence.

That is why I believe that it was extremely important that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made the statement in August 1980 that civil defence was to be revived after the long Cinderella years and outlined steps for the provision, within the level of risk of war that was then and is now perceived, for a sensible and reasonable level of civil defence. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby said, it is an insurance policy.

We organise our provision for civil defence on the basis that the local authorities shall be the agents of central Government. Central Government authorises a measure of expenditure and relies upon local authorities to take up the expenditure thus authorised and to protect the citizens within their own areas. I am sorry to say, however, that my hon. Friend is quite right to say that not all the funds have been taken up. It is not widely known that 75 per cent. reimbursement is available for money spent by local authorities on civil defence.

This has led the Government to decide, reluctantly, to postpone exercise Hard Rock because the level of planning for which local authorities were responsible has been so very patchy. As has been pointed out, some 20 local authorities out of 54 declined to take part in the exercise. We therefore believe that specific duties must be imposed upon local authorities in addition to the duty to plan for the matters set out in the regulations. That was the reason for the postponement and for my right hon. Friend's statement.

It is significant that the participants in the debate have all come from the Conservative Benches. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby has a long record of involvement in civil defence. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) was involved in producing an influential pamphlet when the Conservative Party was in Opposition called "Britain's Home Defence Gamble". My hon. Friend the Minister for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) has a long and distinguished record of service in the Territorial Army. That is symptomatic of the attitude of the Conservative Party towards this important matter. The provision of a reasonable civil defence is an important duty.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby spoke of the need for shelter. It is important that local authorities should undertake a survey of the existing available accommodation that could be of use for shelter in the event of hostilities. It is a matter of deep regret that that survey has proceeded at such a slow pace.

Why is it that those countries dedicated to neutrality—the Swiss and the Swedes—none the less attach great importance to the provision of civil defence. They do not regard it as a warlike posture on their part. On the contrary, they do not contribute to membership of the NATO alliance. They have not contributed to the maintenance of peace to the extent that this country has done for the past 35 years. Incidentally, I believe that we have kept the peace for 35 years because we have maintained our position in NATO and the nuclear and conventional deterrents. Those countries can, therefore, afford more for civil defence.

Those who say that civil defence is a fraud on the public—and that is widely said by those opposed to civil defence—must explain why the Swedes, the Swiss and other neutrals attach such importance to it and do so much more than we do.

Two of my hon. Friends referred to a programme recently shown on BBC television called "QED—A Guide to Armageddon". That programme did a service in drawing attention to the horrors of war. War is always horrific. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby said that Dresden and Hamburg were horrific. One can always point to any episode in modern war to show that war is horrific. Therefore, the question is not how horrific is war, or nuclear war, but how we may best avoid it.

If it was right to have drawn, for example, snippets from films taken immediately after the fire storms in Dresden and Hamburg and shown scenes no less horrific than those in the programme on Armageddon, we must ask what is the best way of avoiding such horrors. It is not simply a matter of investigating what would happen if there is a nuclear war. Nuclear war is extremely remote and that is the view of planners in NATO and the experts. Provided this country and the Alliance maintains its deterrent posture, any war is extremely unlikely and nuclear war the least likely. As one of my hon. Friends said, conventional war is much more likely.

However, we must take account of the risk. It is an outside risk, but we have to accept that war may come. How could any Government face their own conscience, let alone the people of the country, if knowing that something could be done and that millions of lives could be saved—for example, from fall-out—they failed to take the simple precautions that could save those lives or failed to encourage local authorities to plan along those lines? That is what the Government's civil defence programme is about. To pretend that it is a fraud is a monstrous deceit upon the country.

I shall write to my hon. Friends about the issues that they have raised. I am grateful to them. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate spoke about the North Yorkshire county council. He is right; it has done well. It has spent £50,000 on wartime headquarters work and £63,000 additional expenditure has been allocated to civil defence. It has taken its obligations seriously. I am grateful to that authority and many others for what they have done and are doing.

I was interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South said about shelter accommodation and the need for people to be available to help in civil emergencies. Let us not suppose that those recruited for work in civil defence would be used only if there was an attack on the country. What about the aeroplane that comes down in an urban area or the nuclear accident at a power station? What about the enormous casualties that can follow an unexpected civil accident? To shut one's eyes to such possibilities is extremely irresponsible.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby for following up his long record of concern for civil defence. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate for continuing to draw our attention to such important matters. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South who has a long record of service in a voluntary capacity of helping in the event of trouble.

Opposition Members have not taken part in the debate and that is a sad reflection on their attitude to the topic. I shall write to my hon. Friends in detail about their contributions, upon which I shall reflect. I hope that it is abundantly clear that the Government take the provision of civil defence extremely seriously. We are heartened by the support shown today.

British Telecommunications

7.37 am

I am grateful to the Minister and other hon. Members who curtailed their remarks to allow me to debate British Telecommuncations. I shall also curtail my remarks. I had hoped for a more relaxed debate, but at least I now have the opportunity before the recess to ask some serious questions about the Government's proposals, which it was not possible to do when the Minister made his statement about the future of British Telecommunications the other day.

I hope that the debate will continue throughout the recess so that we are more clear about the Government's intentions. My right hon. and hon. Friends are not in favour of unnecessary or unjustified changes in the boundaries between the public and private sectors. Therefore, when the Government propose to denationalise one of the major State industries we immediately ask why? Who will benefit? What is the basis of the change? Unless the change can be justified by improvement in services to the customer and unless it is of benefit to the customer and the country, we do not want to know about the proposal.

The way in which the Government are acting makes one sceptical about their objectives and motivation. The speed with which the Government are moving from liberalisation to denationalisation is almost breath-taking. We accept that the industry is moving with enormous speed and that it is, probably more than any other, pushing us all into the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century. However, we must ask why the Government are moving with such incredible speed after already having introduced Mercury, moving onwards from liberalisation and adding valuable features to the network.

We have major doubts about the timing that the Government are proposing to adopt for denationalising the telecommunications corporation. The process will straddle the next general election. I fear for the future of this core industry if it is to become the political football that the steel industry became as a result of the debate of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The Government will seek to put their legislation through the House before the general election but will not sell shares in the denationalised corporation until after the election. There is the danger that BT will become a political football, and the course that the Government are proposing will make that danger all the greater. One wonders whether that is the Government's intention. Are they seeking to make the issue of denationalisation a major general election issue? That may interest the doctrinaire denizens of the Opposition and Government Benches, but it will not interest the majority of those working in the industry or the customers. I hope that the Government will think again about the timing that they are proposing and will try to ensure that the future of telecommunications does not become a political football.

There are some major commercial and philosophical arguments over the Government's proposals. They are proposing to remove BT from the stranglehold of Government control and to bring it into the market place. Is that what will be achieved by the action that the Government are proposing? My right hon. and hon. Friends and I are not opposed to bringing the industry, or any other industry, into the world of competition to try to ensure that market forces operate to make it as efficient and competitive as we possibly can both internationally and in the domestic economy. But is that possible with this industry? Is it possible to have true competition and a real market for telecommunications services?

There is no doubt that the liberalisation measures that have been introduced have provided the pressure of market forces and there have been some welcome results flowing from that, but can there be real competition on the main network? How much of the central telecommunications network will be subject to competition? Is the Minister saying that there will be 50 per cent. of the network under BT's control and that 50 per cent. will be under someone else's control? Are there to be three operators of the network so that there is real competition?

Is it not really the case that the market for telecommunications services, whether BT is in the private sector or the public sector, will be dominated by BT? If that is so we shall have a monopoly; and, if that is in the private sector, how is it to be regulated? The Government's answer is that they intend to set up a director of telecommunications rather like the Director General of Fair Trading.

Will the Government's proposals bring British Telecom out of the frying pan of Government control into the fire of quango control? A new quango is being established by a Government who are opposed to them? Will the control that that body must exercise because of the company's monopoly be any better than having British Telecom as a public sector organisation controlled by the Government? Who will control its prices and access to the market and who will determine how uneconomic services, if they must be provided, should be paid for? Must BT pay for them or will companies such as Mercury, which will plug into the BT network, pay for them through the licence fee? Who will decide what Mercury must pay for access to the network? If a regulatory body is to monitor and control those matters, it will be the alternative to market forces. According to the Government's philosophy, it will arbitrate. Why is it better to have a regulatory body operating in lieu of the market than to have the Government controlling BT as they do today?

Individuals cannot invest money in BT if it is a limited company in the same way as one would invest in ICI or any other company quoted on the Stock Exchange. If BT controls 80 per cent. of the market and is the dominant supplier of telecommunications services—if it is a monopoly—how can the investor judge the return on his investment? Who will determine the dividends? Might it not be cheaper and better to do what the Government should do anyway—to distinguish between capital expenditure and current expenditure, so that the PSBR is not a mish-mash of money spent on day-to-day Government services and capital investment in long-term projects? Would it not be cheaper for the Government to raise capital in the gilts market, as they do at the moment, and invest that in British Telecom? Would that not be better than going through the rigmarole of denationalising BT to obtain the same amount of money at a higher price on the stock market? I hope that the Minister will address himself to those questions during the next few months.

Why do we need a new regulatory body? Why cannot the Office of Fair Trading do the job? In my view, with liberalisation, there is already a need for a regulatory body. It is wrong that Ministers should blow the whistle on such matters. It may lead to embarrassment for Ministers, so an independent body should take over the job. The Government have been using the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to monitor the nationalised industries. Why not use the commission?

Another major issue on which the Government must answer some questions and recognise the dangers is the future of the telecommunications equipment industry. If the industry is to be internationally competitive, it must have a large enough home market to be able to sell abroad. If the market is to be split up, damaged and opened by the Government action, it could be that our telecommunications equipment manufacturers will be put at a disadvantage when compared to the American and other suppliers abroad, who have much larger domestic markets than our industry has to supply.

The Government have to keep a clear eye on the future of the market and ensure that our telecommunications equipment manufacturers are not in the position where they are beaten hands down by overseas suppliers in years ahead because of the market being broken up here. The Government have to look hard at the number of telecommunication manufacturers that we have and decide whether the present structure, which has partly arisen out of the cosy relationship that existed between the Post Office and its suppliers in the past, is the right one for the future.

We are moving into a period of exciting, new and dramatic developments. We have direct broadcasting by satellite and the whole prospect of cable being laid for television and other services, which raises major questions about how our telecommunications are to be provided. The Government have to demonstrate in the actions that they are proposing that they will safeguard the interests of the industry and those that work in it, safeguard the interests of the consumers who use the telecommunications service and ensure that the competition that they are suggesting will not be bogus competition, and BT will not be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire with these new arrangements.

7.52 am

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) and I have been on standby all night to express our complete opposition to the Government proposals. We, too, are interested to hear the answers to the questions posed by the hon. Member for Thornaby (Mr. Wrigglesworth). Unlike the hon. Member, however, we do not support the creation of another quango regulatory body outside Government.

My one question to the Government is this: how can it be in the interests of telecommunication to distribute its profits by way of dividend rather than plough those profits back into the development and improvement of telecommunications?

7.53 am

I thank the hon. Member for Thornaby (Mr. Wrigglesworth) for raising this subject. It is a touchstone of the Government's attitude to public monopoly and to the requirements of the British telecommunications industry and BT, in particular, that we should look at this issue.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the character of the regulatory body and to what extent we shall have a hybrid monopoly within the network. We have decided to create a new regulatory body for the regulation of telecommunications which will probably be called the Office of Telecommunications. It will be modelled on the Office of Fair Trading.

The head of the new body will be the director of telecommunications and will have powers and duties on the telecom market similar to those of the Director General of Fair Trading. It would not be appropriate to leave the task of regulating telecommunications with the Office of Fair Trading, since the present activities of that body would be swamped.

The importance of telecommunications also demands the creation of a new body that is properly answerable to Parliament. In a ideal world there would be no need to regulate telecommunications as the best regulation comes from market forces.

However, we must be realistic and accept that—in the near future, at least—BT will have perhaps 95 per cent. of the United Kingdom telecommunications market. As with any dominant interest, there will have to be controls to protect both the customer and the competitor, and the director of telecommunications will be responsible for monitoring the compliance of all licensees, not just BT. It is likely that it will be the major concern of the director that he will investigate anti-competitive practices throughout the telecommunications market. He will also take over the duties of POUNC in the investigation of consumer complaints.

British Telecom will remain a dominant force in telecommunications, although competition with BT will continue to grow. We have already seen the beneficial effects of the implied threat of project Mercury on some of BT's business activities. The Office of Telecommunications will prevent abuse of the monopoly power of the organisation. Furthermore, we propose to give opportunities to all BT's employees to become more involved in the business through employee shareholdings, and management will be freed from the present Government restrictions on borrowing, and hence on investment. I am confident that the response by BT to our proposals represents a considerable challenge, that it will be a major change in motivation and efficiency, and will lead to a better allocation of resources. The new challenge will be met in a way which should give real benefits to all.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of specific questions. He asked whether we would have true competition. I am sure that he is aware that the process of introducing true competition has been proceeding apace—certainly in connecting a variety of devices to the network. We are also introducing project Mercury, which, as I said earlier, is starting to have a tangible effect on the behaviour of BT. Changes are taking place in its provision for business users. Those changes can only be welcomed. So there is competition at the edge of the network and in the supply of devices to the network. Within the network, we shall have to find our way as we go along, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that today is not the day to try to say what the proportion will be. That will be decided by a number of forces, as BT becomes privatised.

The hon. Gentleman made the assertion that we should guard against unjustified change. Pressures for change in some cases have little to do with the relationship with Government or with the method by which BT is controlled. The pressure comes from the technology changes themselves. There is such a huge sea of change now in the variety and impact of information technology in telecommunications—which, in turn, affects the need for funds, which will be growing at a massive rate during the next few years—that we have little choice but to free BT from the current restrictions on it in the PSBR.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether there would he a benefit to consumers—and, indeed, to the country and employees. We were encouraged by the announcement made by the Telecommunications Users Association on the day that my right hon. Friend came to this Dispatch Box with his White Paper. That association saw immense benefit for telecommunications users in this country, and went so far as to say it saw much healthier trends arising from this in the pricing of BT services and its charges to the customer.

I thank the Minister for giving way. Would he describe as one of the beneficial changes the relatively higher increases in charges to the consumer accruing from recent changes?

The consumer will benefit because the style of management within BT will benefit from a new attitude. The people who will be attracted into the upper levels of BT's directorate will be used to operating in competitive environments for the benefit of consumers in driving prices down.

We are aware that BT has had to undergo many changes in recent years, but we must not forget that it was once a Civil Service department. There have been changes in the way it has attacked its business plans in its current role. Whereas BT has behaved in a somewhat predatory manner—I know that Sir George Jefferson will call me to task for saying that—it may have had the less healthy aspects of a monopoly, albeit a public monopoly. We now wish to see the other side of a business-like approach, an increase in efficiency. Therefore, we are delighted to see Sir George setting himself the target of a 25 per cent. increase in efficiency within BT over the next three years. That is an issue that will continue regardless of BT's ownership. We wish to accelerate that trend.

Mr. Richard Page
(Hertfordshire, South-West)