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Commons Chamber

Volume 79: debated on Friday 24 May 1985

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House Of Commons

Friday 24 May 1985

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Bills Presented

Reform

Mr. Tony Benn, supported by Mr. Tony Banks, Mrs. Margaret Beckett, Mr. Gerald Bermingham, Mr. Bob Clay, Mr. Martin Flannery, Mr. Eric S. Heffer, Miss Joan Maynard, Mr. Bill Michie, Mr. Dave Nellist, Mr. Dennis Skinner, and Mr. Gavin Strang. presented a Bill to extend and entrench the democratic rights of the electors of the United Kingdom, through their representatives in the House of Commons, over all legislation, all foreign and defence policy, all treaty-making and all executive powers that do not at present derive from statute, to abolish the House of Lords, to reduce the duration of a Parliament, to repeal the Official Secrets Act, and for purposes connected therewith: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 5 July and to be printed. [Bill 152.]

Medical Act 1983 (Amendment)

Mr. Nigel Spearing, supported by Dr. Brian Mawhinney and Dr. M. S. Miller, presented a Bill to amend section 36 of the Medical Act 1983 to enable the Professional Conduct Committee of the General Medical Council to exercise greater discretion in respect of conduct which they judge cannot be regarded as acceptable professional conduct: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 7 June and to be printed. [Bill 153.]

Confectionery Industry

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

9.35 am

My first Adjournment debate since the general election is the subject of some elation because I have been applying to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, more on than off, for eight months. At long last my persistence has had success. On a sunny day such as this, what better subject to choose for debate than the United Kingdom confectionery industry—the subject of all my applications.

In view of the importance of our confectionery industry, it is amazing that this is the first debate, so far as I can find, on the subject since at least the second world war. Yet after Scotch whisky, confectionery is the second most important export in value to the food and drink sector.

I shall spell out what I mean by confectionery so that my hon. Friends do not misunderstand me. I interpret it as the collective name for sweetmeats and confections. It has enjoyed a long and distinguished part in our history. In 1545 Raynold referred to
"ambre, muske, frankincense, Gallia muscata and confectionnere."
In 1769, Mrs. Raffald, the apogee of Georgian England. remarked in her "English Housekeeper":
"The receipts for the confectionery are such as I daily sell in my own shop."
We have moved to an era in which the art of the confectioner is no longer confined to a course of sweetmeats at dinner, delicious as After Eights are, not just then, but at any time of day.

It may be appropriate for me to place my constituents in the context of this great industry. The city of York saw the innovative rise of several industries during the last 20 to 30 years of the 18th century, including comb making, toy manufacturing, horn making, a glass works and a wholesale drug trade, all of which have now unfortunately disappeared. However, the town is now a world leader in confectionery.

Two family concerns are now giants in the confectionery industry. In 1725 Mary Tuke opened a grocer's shop which in 1752 passed to her nephew William, the Quaker philanthropist. In 1785 he was joined in the business by his son Henry, and from then on they manufactured cocoa and chocolate behind their Castlegate shop. Those were the modest beginnings of a business which in 1862 transferred to Henry Rowntree.

The confectionery trade of Terry and Sons started in St. Helen's square in 1767 in the firm of Bayldon and Berry. By 1851 Terry employed 127 staff. Rowntree employed 100 workers in 1879 and saw rapid expansion. By 1894 it employed 893 workers, and 15 years later 4,066. On a smaller scale M. A. Craven and Son and the York Confectionery Company Ltd. were also prospering.

Today, York is a thriving and elegant city. Confectionery is the major industry with the world headquarters of Rowntree Mackintosh, whose sales last year passed the £1,000 million mark for the first time. It is the home base of both Terry and Craven.

Since this is the first debate on this important subject since the second world war—several years before I wasborn—perhaps it would be appropriate to mention the state of the industry. Last year, the consumer value of home trade chocolate and sugar confectionery was about £2·4 billion, or 8 per cent. of consumer expenditure on food. Sales of chocolate confectionery continue to improve, with the achievement last year of another production record of almost 428,000 tonnes, beating the previous records established in 1982 and 1983. Home trade despatches of sugar confectionery in 1984 were 251,465 tonnes. That is an improvement on previous years, but is still 20 per cent. below the 1978 level—an important date, as I shall explain in a few moments—and 25 per cent. below the 1973 level.

In 1984, Britain exported more than 60,000 tonnes of chocolate confectionery, which is about the same as in 1978–79. Exports have been fairly static for the past seven years, and I shall examine why that is in a moment. Last year, almost 70,000 tonnes of sugar confectionery were exported, which is the highest for five years, but still well below the exports achieved in 1973 and 1979. I shall invite the House to consider which world leader enjoys sugar confectionery in moments of crisis. The principal export markets for British confectionery are Ireland, the United States of America, Saudi Arabia, West Germany and Canada.

After those few words of good cheer, I must mention some important political matters that are the reason for today's debate. Perhaps the most important matter is the tariff barriers which are a burden on the export achievements of British confectionery. There are three dimensions to that: duty, quotas and artificial labelling regulations.

The United States, like EC countries and many others, operates a protected sugar market. In January, in response to anxiety about the quantities of sugar being imported in mixes with other ingredients, President Reagan took action under section 22 of the Agricultural Adjustment Act 1933 and signed a proclamation imposing quotas on goods under three tariff headings. They included sweetened cocoa powder and some edible preparations such as pancake mixes. In March this year, the President, acting under the same legislation, signed a letter ordering the United States International Trade Commission to investigate other tariff headings with a view to recommending whether quotas or extra duties should be imposed on them to protect the sugar regime. They include chocolate and sugar confectionery products and confectionery coatings, although my latest information is that retail packages will be excluded from the investigation.

The Americans have been complaining for some time that EC policy on citrus fruits discriminates against their exports. The dispute has been referred to GATT, but since the alleged discrimination has not been removed the Americans are considering retaliatory action on several tariff items, including sweetened chocolate and confectionery. This is extremely important to the House, because recommendations on the matter will be made to President Reagan by 30 May, and a decision will be taken within 28 days.

The confectionery industry rightly takes a grave view of those developments. Although exports, helped by the strong dollar, have increased in recent years, they cannot pose a serious threat to the vast American sugar market. Although the President may be under pressure from the strong sugar and citrus fruit lobbies, it is difficult to escape the impression that he is also responding to those who

advocate more protectionism to help the American trade deficit. The British Government and the EC Commission have been made aware of the position and have undertaken to do all that they can to prevent action by the American authorities. I ask my hon. Friend for an assurance that everything possible is being done to ensure that no retaliatory action affects the $41 million export market to the United States—our No. 1 market.

Japan places extremely high duties on confectionery—35 per cent. on sugar confectionery and 20 per cent. on chocolate—but it pays only between 5 per cent. and 10 per cent. on its exports to the United Kingdom. It also has complex and protective packaging legislation. For example, if After Eights are exported to Japan, they must be in white envelopes, because the Japanese say that
"optical brightening agents cannot be in contact with food."
If that sounds like double Dutch to my hon. Friend the Minister, I am afraid that she is in for even more. Nothing is formally published, and often the only way is to send goods and see whether they are accepted or rejected. Imported products have limited access to distribution outlets in Japan. It would be helpful if the Japanese Government would issue administrative guidance to their retail trade in general, encouraging them to buy and sell imported products.

If Britain is to receive as many Japanese cars as appear to be flooding the country, there must be some reciprocal treatment. The time for pleasant words over a glass of sake, or whatever my hon. Friend enjoys with the Japanese ambassador, are over. She should wield a fairly big stick and say that we are tired of Japan's false barriers. For example, Japan does not allow the emulsifier YN to be used in confectionery. Almost alone in the world, Japan uses a special glucose, and will not allow glucose in more than 28 parts per million of sulphur dioxide. That increases the costs of United Kingdom exporters by about 20 per cent. The Japanese are extremely fussy about emulsifiers, colours and wrapping materials. I am sure that the Department of Trade and Industry could occasionally discover that the rear axle of a Japanese car is not exactly the right size, and might consider taking action if the Japanese pursue their policy.

But the far east is not only Japan. Korea has 3,000 pages of complex ingredient and package rules of which there is no English translation. Therefore, British companies are often exporting in the dark. Fox recently had its products rejected. Taiwan claims that it has reduced its import duty, but it is still 70 per cent. It is a high trade surplus country.

South Africa will not accept standard United Kingdom weights, such as 8 oz, which is popular here with families. It will accept only 100 g, 200 g, and 300 g packages.

Unfortunately, problems also exist in the EC, and I draw my hon. Friend's attention to its newest member—Greece. Since 1981, the commercial margin allowed to importers and wholesalers combined has been limited to 10 per cent. Much hard work had gone into trying to persuade Greece to expand the margin, but so far to little avail. Although Greece has been a member of the EC for some time, it has still not abolished a regulatory tax, which is as high as 65 per cent. on some products. Importers of confectionery are not allowed to make more than 10 per cent. profit on chocolate confectionery and therefore cannot trade profitably. Greece does not allow food colouring, so all the chocolate exported there is white, and different coloured wrappers must be used to show different flavours.

The usual chocolate sold by Cadbury in the United Kingdom would be considered imitation chocolate in Belgium and the Netherlands, because it does not contain the required amount of cocoa solids. The West Germans say that a minimum of 25 per cent. cocoa solids should be used before a product can be called chocolate.

Therefore, perhaps with some of the delicious products from the British market, my hon. Friend the Minister will sit down with her EC opposite numbers and iron out those bureaucratic problems. There is a large bureaucracy to be overcome, which confectionery traders concerned with claiming refunds and monetary compensation amounts from the intervention board find especially burdensome. The simplest requirements are found in non-European sophisticated countries such as the United States and Australia.

The documents for the Common Market are not common to all member states. The proposal for a Council directive on chocolate and confectionery manufacture consists of no fewer than 32 pages. Let us remember that Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg speech consisted of only 232 words, and the Ten Commandments of 309. This mass of EC rules and regulations is turning our confectioney executives into fruit and nut cases. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to simplify procedures and work towards a really common market.

My second major theme concerns the dumping of non-EC confectionery. This is difficult to quantify, but it is definitely on the increase. Half the problem is in terminology. I am not referring to high price products—quite the contrary. Three to four years ago, non-EC confectionery accounted for a mere 2 per cent. of the market. Now it accounts for 10 per cent. of the market. Such confectionery originates in states where there is cheap labour, in South America—Argentina and Brazil—in South Africa and Eastern Europe—Czechoslovakia—although less so since there have been notably higher costs. My hon. Friend might like to have some dumped confectionery—

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not perambulate while he is making a speech.

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I simply wanted my hon. Friend to see some dumped chocolate in due course, and I hope that she will take great care in future and draw the attention of her civil servants to he difficulties concerning the ingredients. These countries are dumping because they are after hard currency. There will come a time when my hon. Friend the Minister will be seduced into buying these materials for her family simply because of the low unit costs. At that stage, we shall be pricing confectionery workers out of employment.

What values and quantities of imported gums, jellies and pastilles, particularly orange and lemon slices, are coming in from these non-EC countries? I know the popularity of the jelly bean in President Reagan's household, but we have an even better quality product on this side of the Atlantic. If he visits York, I shall be delighted to show him a sample.

My third theme is VAT. Confectionery should be treated as a food and zero rated. This would bring VAT rules on confectionery into line with those in other EC states. In 1973, confectionery was zero rated and the volume of trade rose by 10 per cent. In 1979, the tax was reimposed and doubled. However, in Belgium there is a tax of only 6 per cent., and in West Germany one of only 7 per cent., although all foods incur it.

My hon. Friend may, in the considered way in which I know that she looks at these matters, say that we cannot differentiate between one category of food and another. If she does, I shall refer her to Indian confectionery sold here, which has been both manufactured here and imported here. This is zero rated and is made by companies such as the Royal Sweets and Bombay Halva Company in west London. Where is the logic behind the Indian community saying that its confectionery is food and has to be zero rated while ours is not? The confectionery made in my constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley) is also food, and we should like it to be zero rated. We have the precedent and the experience, and sales and employment would increase with zero rating.

The confectionery industry is in favour of nutritional labelling, but does not want a complicated system. It wants one that gives energy, fat, carbohydrate, protein and fibre contents.

It does not want a row with the EC over this. The ingredients labelling is on most products now, but in the EC labelling regulations differ between countries. In Canada there is labelling in French and in English. The COMA report on diet and cardiovascular disease suggests that high fat consumption is an important contributing factor to heart disease and proposes that food containing more than 10 per cent. fat, or which makes a significant contribution to fat in the diet, should be labelled with its fat content.

The confectionery industry is disappointed by my hon. Friend's stated intention that the Government will introduce legislation to require all such products to he labelled with their fat content. Insufficient account has been taken of possible retaliatory measures that legislation might provoke among the United Kingdom's trading partners in the EC. I have no objection to the introduction of a voluntary nutritional statement on food labels. and I am sure that the confectionery industry is actively working to promote this.

My next theme is unit pricing. The EC Commission has issued a draft directive that will require food to be labelled with the price per pound or kilo at point of sale. The confectionery industry is strongly opposed to this measure, which it believes will be costly to implement and meaningless to the consumer and may reduce the choice of available products. I should not like to add to the mass of material with which already civil servants, Customs and Excise and the confectioners themselves have to deal. Therefore, I welcome the report of the Select Committee of the other place which explicitly concurred with the following statement made by the Consumers in the European Community Group:
"We have reservations about universal unit pricing. The cost of unit pricing has to be studied in terms of the benefits …Therefore, we would prefer unit pricing to proceed selectively by product and not as the Commission proposes by the establishment of the principle with a negative list of exemptions."
Although I see only one Labour Member present, I was horrified to learn of the Labour party's plan to tax sugar, as stated by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), its Front Bench spokesman on social services. I am delighted that yesterday my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Treasury, advised in a parliamentary reply that the Conservative party had no such plans. In 1608 and 1635, a book of rates referred to duties on sugar. It seems that James I may have the dubious honour of being the first to tax the product. I would not suggest that, as he was also James VI of Scotland, he should have returned there. We should remember that the duty on British sugar was first repealed on 1 May 1874, reintroduced by the Finance Act 1901, and survived until 1962.

The hon. Member has mentioned both my party and Scotland. I am deeply concerned about the possibility of a tax on sugar, as one of the most important industries in my constituency is that of cane sugar refining.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will speak to his hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West. Our sugar beet and refining industries are an ancillary aspect of the United Kingdom confectionery trade. The hon. Gentleman has better sense on this occasion than his Front Bench. I need hardly remind the House that a tax on sugar, one of the main ingredients of confectionery, would have serious consequences, and I invite my hon. Friend to confirm the Government's position.

Companies in England and Wales have no protection from hoaxes, as money is not involved. We all recall with horror the case last year involving animal rights liberation groups. Even if such people are found, they cannot be prosecuted. The Government should take early action in this matter. Co-ordination between the police, the Home Office, the industry and the consumer protection officers is needed. I realise that this is not the departmental responsibility of my hon. Friend, but as the threat occurred in this industry I hope that she will have consultations with her colleagues and ensure that this is regarded as a matter of priority. There is protection in Scotland and we need it to be extended south of the border.

A tax is also threatened on oil and fats. No British Minister can give an assurance on this unless the veto is used in the national interest, and then we would be unable to negotiate. Two regulations are involved. The first is regulation 262/79, which makes butter available at reduced prices from intervention stores for use, for example, in pastry products, sugar confectionery and the like. The second is regulation 1932/81, which makes butter available at reduced prices from the open market. This is not just a matter of EC bureaucracy. The main benefit to consumers is to pensioners. It is they who most enjoy fudge and other forms of oil and fat confectionery and we should be careful not to impose unnecessary tax burdens on that section of the population.

Her Majesty's Customs and Excise and the intervention board for agricultural produce administer the schemes. Among the things that they must ensure is that butter is not used in real chocolate as defined by the EC chocolate directive or in sugar confectionery. It may be used in real chocolate or in cakes, biscuits and ice cream. It may also be used in imitation chocolate and in sugar confectionery. The broad brush approach of the administration in Brussels would be to aid the dairy fat content of all composite foods covered by regulation 3033/80. The cost of the extension would be small but the benefits to companies and administrators would be large, but let us ensure that there is no tax on oils and fats.

The fifth report of the Select Committee on Agriculture on 25 April recommended that the Ministry should press for the confectionery industry to have direct access to Brussels. Commission decisions are made on the basis of advice from relatively junior civil servants of each country. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will regard that recommendation as a helpful way to support her staff and diplomats.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary, who was here earlier, has passed on to the Whips Office—if not, I shall do so later—information about some of the problems with non-EC confectionery and the good British products with which my pockets are bulging, and I end with Arthur Marshall's splendid parody of John Betjeman:
"There's nougat at the Hendersons, the Hopes have got some fudge,
And Pam has popped the pralines in the tool-bag of her Rudge.
Voluptuous and tarmac-borne, she free-wheels through East Cheam,
My caramelly angel girl, My luscious sweet-meat dream."
I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to reply.

10.2 am

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) for allowing me to take part in this debate—the first for many years on an industry that is vitally important to this country. My hon. Friend will be aware, from his past connections with the city of Norwich, that the Rowntree Mackintosh factory is a major employer and a backbone of industry in the area, employing about 1,350 people. Everyone has seen the advertisements for Yorkie bars. The factory in my constituency produces about 22,000 tonnes of Yorkie bars per annum to keep lorry drivers going, so it is clearly vital to our communications system. I had the pleasure of visiting that factory recently and I know that what I saw there is common to confectionery factories in other parts of the country. It is a highly efficient industry, which has moved with the times and takes advantage of all the new technology to keep itself extremely competitive.

I wish to make two brief but vital points. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for York has rightly said, the industry needs a free and competitive market. My hon. Friend rightly described the barriers erected against our exports. We always tend to play the game with regard to tariffs and barriers but it seems that our competitors do not do so. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take seriously the need for competition to be fair and open for all countries so that our manufacturers can compete properly and fairly.

Secondly, the confectionery industry relies heavily on imports of raw materials. We need political and price stability in the exporting countries so that our manufacturers can plan their strategy, production and pricing with some certainty and without having their plans upset by political turmoil or price instability in the countries producing raw materials such as cocoa, mint and sugar which are essential to our industry but which cannot be grown in this country.

I have already mentioned the 1,350 employees in the industry in my constituency. I also make a plea for all the small shopkeepers selling confectionery throughout the land. They need a thriving confectionery industry for the stability of their small businesses. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take on board the need for fair and open competition for all aspects of the confectionery industry.

10.6 am

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mrs. Peggy Fenner)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) for raising this important subject. It is certainly time that the confectionery industry was debated in the House.

Confectionery sales in the United Kingdom amount to about £2·5 billion and about 8 per cent. of consumer expenditure. The United Kingdom has one of the highest levels of confectionery consumption in the world, which is doubtless a tribute to the production and marketing skills of our confectionery industry. There can be no doubt, therefore, that the industry makes an important contribution to our economy, to employment and, I suggest, to our quality of life. For my grandchildren, this will be the most important contribution that I shall make to any debate in my entire career.

Any major industry operating in difficult and highly competitive conditions in the world economy faces a number of problems. In the short time available, I shall do my best to deal with those mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for York and for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley) as well as with a couple of other important issues.

First, as my hon. Friend the Member for York has said, our confectionery industry, especially the chocolate sector, has cause for a good deal of satisfaction. Recent company reports show increased sales and profits by leading manufacturers. In 1984, the United Kingdom confectionery market as a whole continued to grow for the fourth successive year. A further increase of 4 per cent. by volume took the market to new record levels in both tonnage and value. It was especially gratifying to note that sugar confectionery showed a modest increase after several years of decline.

In referring to the industry's strong and profitable performance, I should perhaps take the opportunity to comment on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for York about value added tax. I appreciate the industry's concern that its products, together with ice cream, crisps and various other items, have historically attracted VAT while food generally has been exempt. I also appreciate the desire for parity of treatment for similar products.

I understand, however, that Customs and Excise has studied the example of Indian sweetmeats to which my hon. Friend referred and is satisfied that the products in question are essentially different from traditional confectionery. They are brought out at births, deaths and funerals and, when I visit the Sikh temple in my constituency, they are offered as hospitality and a welcome to worship. As VAT is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, however, further representations should be made to him.

As one would expect with a sophisticated market such as confectionery, there is a two-way trade with other countries. I am glad to say, however, that our exports of confectionery substantially exceed imports and in 1984 increased by over 7 per cent. over the previous year. Indeed, the volume of confectionery exports as a proportion of total production is now double that for the food manufacturing industry generally. I hope that the industry will continue still further to increase its export performance, in co-operation with Food From Britain and its export arm, the British Food Export Council. The enlargement of the European Community to include Spain and Portugal should provide another promising area as tariff barriers begin to be abolished.

On the question of tariff and other trade barriers, I should like first to refer to the current developments in the United States to which my hon. Friend the Member for York referred. I was glad to note that the ban imposed in January on the import of a range of products which included sweetened cocoa powder has now been modified to permit imports in retail packages. Nevertheless, the United States international trade commission is currently investigating the possibility of introducing restraints on a broader range of sugar-containing products. That could certainly have an adverse effect on the United Kingdom's confectionery exports. The Government naturally view those developments with concern and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, during his recent visit to Washington, made clear to the United States authorities the strength of our objections to such restrictions. The European Commission has also raised the issue in the GATT. I certainly hope that the United States authorities will be dissuaded from introducing further restrictions on trade in this sector.

In Japan, to which my hon. Friend also referred, there remain serious tariff barriers. There has been some improvement in the case of chocolate confectionery. In 1983, following persistent pressure by the Government and a commendable initiative taken by the Chocolate, Cocoa and Confectionery Alliance, the tariff rate was reduced from 32 per cent. to 20 per cent. Unfortunately, a corresponding reduction was not made for sugar confectionery, the sector which offers the greatest export potential. The Japanese tariff on sugar confectionery remains at the unacceptably high level of 35 per cent. We will continue to make representations to the Japanese Government about the matter whenever opportunities arise.

The Department of Trade and Industry is aware of many of these problems and is seeking to have them removed. We will certainly discuss with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry whether there is anything more that we can do in this respect. The situation highlights the dangers of protectionism. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley) that the EC should be a true common market. On EC procedures, I assure my hon. Friend that we support moves to create a more genuinely common market in that respect.

I suppose that the problem raised by my hon. Friend the Member for York in relation to third country imports of low-priced chocolate into the Community presents the inverse of tariff barriers. The European Commission has responsibility, on behalf of member states, for action on anti-dumping issues, although the Department of Trade and Industry maintains an anti-dumping unit which is always willing to advise and help in the preparation of anti-dumping cases.

While dealing with questions of international trade, I should like to refer briefly to the negotiations that have been held under the auspices of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development for a fourth international cocoa agreement. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South stressed the importance of stability in the markets for raw materials. The present agreement — the third — has not proved successful, because it sought to defend price levels that proved totally unrealistic, partly as a result of the rise in the value of the dollar, on which the agreement price is based.

Our objective, and that of our Community partners, is to ensure that any successor agreement aims to secure price stabilisation based on market realities and through the mechanism of sensible and adjustable defence prices. On that basis we shall continue to participate constructively. Perhaps I could take this opportunity to place on record the Government's appreciation of the support that they have received in negotiations from the confectionery industry and the cocoa trade.

I am very conscious of the concern in the confectionery industry about the recommendations of the report of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy and the action that the Government will take to implement those recommendations. The report did not single out particular foods and the Government have no intention of doing so either. What COMA recommended was a reduction in the consumption of fat and particularly saturated fatty acids. Our aim in implementing the recommendations is to ensure that consumers have the necessary information to enable them to follow the COMA advice. The wide-ranging labelling provisions that we envisage will enable consumers to identify the important sources of fat in the diet and thus to select an eating pattern that is both healthy and palatable.

My hon. Friend was worried about the effect of the COMA proposals on our partners in Europe. They might be regarded as a potential barrier to intra-Community trade. That is not what they are intended to be. They represent our response to a serious public health problem in the United Kingdom.

Although this was not among the COMA recommendations, the Government have also proposed guidelines for those who wish voluntarily to adopt full nutritional labelling, including energy, proteins and carbohydrates as well as fats.

My hon. Friend was concerned about proposals for taxes on fats and on sugar. I confirm that we remain opposed to any tax on oils and fats, as that would have a damaging effect on the food industry, consumers and third country suppliers. We are equally opposed to the recent misguided suggestion of a tax on sugar.

I am glad to note that at least one Opposition Member agrees with us about that.

My hon. Friend referred to the regrettable activities of the so-called Animal Liberation Front. I can appreciate the concern of the confectionery industry and indeed of food manufacturers and distributors generally over the problem. I cannot deplore too strongly the irresponsible and malicious acts carried out in the name of that body. Nevertheless, I am advised that the Food Act 1984 should provide adequate protection for companies whose products have been subject to malicious tampering. If, however, my hon. Friend is aware of any specific respect in which he feels the Act does not adequately meet the problem, I hope that he will send me details and I will consider the matter.

My hon. Friend referred to unit pricing. The Government are opposed to the Commission's proposal to extend unit pricing to foodstuffs. We believe that it would give little useful information to consumers and would place unnecessary burdens on food manufacturers and distributors. We consider that a sensible system of standardisation of package sizes would be a far more satisfactory, and far cheaper, means of helping consumers to make value-for-money comparisons.

My hon. Friend was concerned about direct access. If he has any special problems, I hope that he will write to me. The normal access of the industry to the Commission is through CAOBISCO, the European trade body that has close and frequent contact with the Commission.

At racing pace and given a little injury time, I hope that I have answered most if not all the points raised in an interesting and useful debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York on his persistence on this matter, which concerns the great city that he represents in the House and which has a particular interest in the industry. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South shares that interest.

I conclude by congratulating the confectionery industry on its achievements in the past few years in an environment that has not always been wholly favourable, and I assure it and the House of our concern to ensure a propitious climate for its continued success.

Alcohol Abuse

10.20 am

I should like to say first of all that I am not a prohibitionist. In this place, it would be difficult to work up support for such a policy.

I raise this Adjournment debate so that the Under-Secretary of State can answer certain questions concerning alcohol abuse and its treatment. I recognise that its treatment extends beyond his Department, so I should be grateful to him if he passed on some of my observations and questions to his colleagues.

In the light of the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs on the misuse of drugs, which was published yesterday, there may be those who are of the opinion that my time would be better employed discussing hard drug abuse. Drug abuse is a most serious social problem in Britain today. The Select Committee's report states that cocaine has become the "drug of choice" in America, and is becoming increasingly popular in Britain. It states further:
"We fear that unless immediate and effective action is taken Britain and Europe stand to inherit the American drug problem in less than five years. We see this as the most serious peacetime threat to our national well-being."
I readily acknowledge that drug abuse is a major social problem, but I emphasise that alcohol misuse or abuse is equally serious. For millions of British people the choice of drug is alcohol. For example, it has been estimated that in any one week over 75 per cent. of men and 50 per cent. of women will drink alcohol. Taken over a 12-month period, 50 per cent. of the population will consume alcoholic beverages. Adult consumption in the United Kingdom almost doubled between 1950 and 1980. During that period the price of drinks in real terms has more than halved. Since 1980 there has been a slight fall in consumption. I believe that that decline is due to the economic recession and fiscal policy, with the 1981 Budget increase in the price of drinks, for example.

It has been estimated by the Scottish Home and Health Department that Scots spend about £3·5 million daily on alcoholic drinks, which represents 7·5 per cent. of consumer spending. I am not criticising my fellow Scots because United Kingdom consumer spending on alcohol in 1984 equalled some £14,319 million, which is about 7·5 per cent. of all consumer expenditure. I believe that in Scotland, as well as elsewhere in the United Kingdom, alcohol is a significant element in everyday life, particularly in recreational and leisure activities. I am seeking moderation in alcohol consumption. We need a more active commitment from the Government to an alcohol health education programme.

In an excellent report called "Health education in the prevention of alcohol-related problems", produced by the Scottish Health Education Co-ordinating Committee, the authors said on alcohol consumption:
"Alcohol is used as a stimulant, a tranquilliser, a celebrant, a medicine, a social lubricant, a religious symbol, and as an indicator of the transition from work to play. The functions of its use are so diverse that at times they are contradictory. Our expectations about the value and effects of alcohol influence our behaviour to a far greater extent than do the mood-altering properties of the drug…Discussion about alcohol and the problems associated with its use provoke a diversity, and often a conflict, of opinions. This is never more so than when strategies for prevention of abuse are being considered."
While I am sure that the Minister has read that excellent report, I ask him to advise his officials to read it. The British Medical Journal said in its review of the report:
"The past 10 years have seen a plethora of reports on alcohol, but most have been concerned with describing the problems associated with alcohol rather than a plan for overcoming item. The only report that came close to matching this present Scottish report in the scope of its suggestions was the suppressed report by the Government's think tank (Central Policy Review Staff). The flimsy Department of Health and Social Security document Prevention and Health: Drinking Sensibly, which could be seen as the Government substitute for the suppressed report, was much stronger on platitudes than suggestions."
I believe that a similar examination should be conducted south of the border with a subsequent report, I hope of similar quality, to the Scottish report. I hope that the Minister will confirm that such an exercise will take place in England and Wales in the near future. I am sure that the Minister will agree that alcohol abuse is not peculiar to Scotland. That form of drug abuse continues on its widening and destructive path throughout the whole of the United Kingdom.

I should like to refer to the economic costs and benefits of alcohol. A report of a British Medical Association conference, which I believe the Minister addressed, said:
"The Government refused to take the strong measures needed to curb alcohol abuse because it was afraid of offending the drinks industry, said Mr. Derek Rutherford, Director of the institute of Alcohol Studies. Ministers were defending the commercial interests of the drinks industry in the same way that they have defended the tobacco firms."
The Minister may wish to respond to that allegation.

It is certainly true that the state derives enormous positive benefits from alcohol. The production, market-ing, distribution and selling of alcoholic beverages provides employment for more than 750,000 people. United Kingdom excise duties and value added tax obtained from the sale of alcohol in the financial year 1983–84 will exceed £5,200 million, which is one third of the cost of running the National Health Service.

This morning we have heard about exports of confectionery. The value of alcohol exports exceeds £900 million a year and there is a pronounced positive balance of trade with other nations. However, the economic costs of alcohol are formidable. Those costs relate to lost production and absenteeism and the cost to the social and medical services of treating those suffering from alcohol abuse. It has been variously estimated that these costs amount to about £1·2 billion. There are other costs, of which alcohol-related crime and fire are two, but there are still others which are extremely difficult to quantify.

Given the fact that alcohol is the drug of choice of millions of people, it is not surprising that the use of alcohol presents so many problems to the individual, his or her family, the community, the police, the health services and the Government. The Government have a major role to play. The type and extent of the problems will vary, but they involve problems with the law, including drunkenness, drinking and driving, criminal damage, theft, assault and homicide, social problems including aggression, domestic violence, child neglect and abuse, domestic accidents, absenteeism and road traffic accidents; and medical problems including alcoholic poisoning, drug overdose, acute gastritis, acute trauma, head injuries, parasuicide, epilepsy and amnesia.

Although there is no universal definition of the number of alcoholics in Britain, the estimates vary widely between 400,000 and 800,000. In my area of Scotland, the lower Clyde, hundreds of persons have been proceeded against for the offences of being drunk and incapable and of habitual drunkenness. In an answer given to me by the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland — the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram) — in column 411 of the Official Report of 21 May 1985 I was informed that in 1984 in the district court in Inverclyde 797 people were proceeded against. In Strathclyde the figure was 3,456 and in Scotland as a whole it was 6,500. I am anxious to emphasise that this is not just a Scottish problem. It is a British problem, because the figures for England and Wales are equally high. An answer given in the other place showed that, in 1982, there were 107,326 findings of guilt for offences of drunkenness in England and Wales. This is a massive problem which involves a great deal of police and court time.

The same answer given in the other place provides grimmer statistics on the numbers of death from cirrhosis of the liver between 1979 and 1983. There is a remarkable consistency in the numbers of recorded deaths from this illness. In 1979, 2,676 people died in the United Kingdom as a result of cirrhosis of the liver. In 1983, the figure was 2,679. In Scotland the rates are even higher.

About one road death in five— about 1,200 a year— occurs in accidents where at least one person has consumed an amount of alcohol over the legal limit. Between 1968 and 1980 convictions for drunken driving in Scotland increased, although the numbers have declined since then. The Scottish conviction rate for drunken driving is far higher than the rates in England and Wales. In 1981, the rate per 100,000 of the population was 123 for England and Wales, whereas for Scotland it was 217. Conviction rates are, of course, determined by both police activity and the amount of alcohol consumed.

Many other costs are borne by the drinkers, their families, the community and the state. For example, statistics on days lost due to alcohol-induced sickness have been estimated at between 8 million and 15 million days a year. In some industries, this is known as the Friday afternoon-Monday morning problem.

There is clear evidence of the role of alcohol abuse in family problems. One third of all divorce petitions cite alcohol as a contributory factor. One third of child abuse cases have been linked to the regular heavy drinking of one or both parents.

I have sought to highlight some of the problems surrounding the British choice of drug. The Government have a major role to play in containing these and other problems. This Government and earlier Administrations have left far too much of the burden on the hard-pressed local authorities and voluntary associations. I criticise not just this Government but Governments during the past 20 years. The voluntary associations do a fine job with inadequate resources.

I should like to ask the Under-Secretary of State a few questions, some of which he may be able to answer during this debate. When can the House expect a joint statement by the DHSS and the Home Office on their policy on public drunkenness?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security
(Mr. John Patten)

Shortly.

That is the type of answer I like—beautifully succinct. I hasten to say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I shall not take too many interventions.

Is there any likelihood in the near future of the Government's policy on designated places being changed? I hope that the Under-Secretary of State feels able to contain himself on that question. The Government's policy is clearly set out in a letter of 1 March 1985 which I received from the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland with responsibility for health and social work—the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. MacKay). I have the hon. Gentleman's permission to quote his letter. He said:
"Thank you for your letter … about the possibility of setting up a designated place at Greenock, to which the police could take persons found drunk as an alternative to charging them."
There is no danger of the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow falling into that category, despite the fact that, occasionally, he likes a glass of malt whisky, especially at the end of a fine meal. He believes that a malt whisky is far superior to a continental liqueur. The Under-Secretary of State continued:
"After the coming into force of section 5 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980, my Department issued guidelines on designated places in April 1982 … the initiative in setting up such a place is in the first instance for local authorities and voluntary bodies. The Secretary of State is prepared to offer advice and guidance on the setting up of designated places and is at present making use of his power to assist voluntary bodies under section 10 of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 to pay grant for the setting up and running of Albyn House, Aberdeen"—
I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State has heard of Albyn house—
"but before considering a scheme for Greenock … the Secretary of State … would need to establish that there was in being a group capable of sponsoring and running the project and that arrangements had been or were being made to involve, and obtain the support of, all the agencies who would be referring people to a designated place … Grants to local voluntary bodies"—
and I shall be questioning the Minister about such grants—
"are normally time-limited (the standard period being three years) and we would also need to establish that if a designated place were to be set up … in Greenock … there should be reasonable prospects of its continuing after the end of the grant period."
I have quoted extensively from that document because it encapsulates the Government's thinking on designated places, certainly north of the border.

Designated places play an important role in dealing with drunkenness offenders. We have only one such place in Scotland, Albyn house, in Aberdeen, which was opened as recently as March 1984, but already it has been a conspicuous success. Within 12 months of opening, Albyn house and its staff have gained the confidence and support of the local police, doctors, social workers, members of the legal profession and, most important, of the clients. The chief constable of Grampian, Mr. Lynn, recently said:
"The principal effect in so far as Grampian Police are concerned is that arrest procedure and the accompanying administrative process, both time-consuming, are now almost non-existent. A second important feature is that the maximum supervision of drunks in police cells is not always practicable and is a matter of concern, whereas constant attention can be provided by the staff of Albyn House. Grampian Police benefits from Albyn House, as Officers, if only in a relatively small way, are less hindered in performing the more important aspects of their statutory functions, which is surely in the public interest."
The chief constable raised an important point concerning the custody of those suffering from drunkenness, for it is a regrettable fact that too many have died while in police custody, death having been brought about in some instances by vomiting leading to asphyxiation. It is a real problem and the chief constable hit on an important point in that context.

Having discussed the issue of designated places with Mr. Drew Watson, director of the Inverclyde Council on Alcoholism, senior police officers — including Chief Superintendent Barry Shaw, the most senior police officer in my constituency—and social workers and doctors, it is patently evident to me that we require a designated place in Greenock and Port Glasgow. I appreciate that the Minister has no responsibility for that, but I trust that he will bring it to the attention of his Scottish colleagues. I say with regret that we need one in Greenock, but many more are needed throughout the United Kingdom. Is there any likelihood of the Government taking up more of the financial burden? For example, is there any chance of an extension of the grant period from three to, say, 10 years? Grampian region will have serious problems concerning Albyn house once the three-year period is up.

Designated places can tackle only a small area of alcohol abuse and hence much more needs to be done. In the time remaining to me, I can outline only some of the areas where the Government can do much more to tackle the social evil of alcohol abuse. Close and continuing co-operation between the Government, local authorities, health and social services, employers and trade unions is vital for the containment, and I hope prevention, of alcohol abuse.

What are the Government's plans for the development and extension of health education programmes? Such programmes concerning alcohol abuse must be brought into schools. There is far too much alcohol abuse among teenagers, both north and south of the border. It is a real problem. Indeed, it is more serious in some respects than solvent abuse and certain other forms of drug-taking. Do the Government believe that such educational programmes should be organised by local authorities and voluntary organisations, or do they believe that the Government have a more comprehensive role to play? What Government-sponsored research is being undertaken in the vital sphere of health education?

I appreciate, as I come to fiscal policy, that the Minister may not be able to answer for the Government on many of the points that I raise. The Scottish report to which I referred contains the argument that an increase in excise duty reduces the average per capita consumption of alcohol and, in particular, the consumption of the heaviest drinkers. In terms of fiscal policy, what is the Minister's response to the observation that the Government should, as a positive health measure, regularly increase the duty on alcoholic beverages in line with the retail price index or, better still, add an extra 3 to 5 per cent. each time an increase is made?

The authors of that report argue that recent evidence supports their point of view. They mean by that that in the 1981 Budget the excise duty on alcoholic beverages was increased dramatically and that that decision, in tandem with price increases introduced by the breweries, meant that for the first time for several decades, the price of alcoholic drinks increased by much more than the overall rise in the retail price index.

Between 1978 and 1981, the RPI of alcoholic drinks increased by 61 per cent., whereas the RPI of all products increased by 52 per cent., and personal disposable income rose by 55 per cent. In other words, drinks were more expensive to buy. In 1981–82, for the first time for 30 years, the per capita consumption of alcohol in Britain declined, from 10·4 to 9·3 litres of pure alcohol per adult. That decline was accompanied by a 10 per cent. reduction in convictions for drunkenness and an 8 per cent. decline in convictions for drunken driving. Clearly, that was more than coincidental.

There are other areas in which the Government could play a more decisive role. For example, are Home Office Ministers satisfied with the education and training that police officers receive in dealing with alcohol problems and their prevention? Is education concerning alcohol problems a prominent feature of police training programmes? If not, why not?

I appreciate that the Minister has no responsibility for police training, but do social workers receive any trairing in the detection and prevention of alcohol abuse? That is important, given that alcohol abuse features so largely in, for instance, child abuse cases. Are social workers equipped to tackle alcohol problems, or are they simply encouraged to pass on those problems to the local special alcohol unit?

I appeal to the Government to encourage more actively the development of joint employee policies on alcohol abuse. In a growing number of companies, members of senior management and trade union representatives negotiate alcohol recovery programmes which have as their objective the early identification of alcohol-related problems. Many companies have adopted that policy and found that it reduces the incidence of alcohol-induced inefficiency, gives health and sport to employees and their families and discourages the felt need to lie, conceal or deny the existence of a problem. As a major employer of labour, the Government could exercise a considerable influence throughout the country.

I know that this is nothing to do with the Minister, but is there an alcoholic recovery programme for hon. Members and employees of this House and the other place? It is some time since we had a drunken Parliament. The Scottish Parliament which sat in Glasgow on 1 October 1662 had only one sober Member on its first sitting day. The Minister ought not to hold that against us when we demand a Scottish Parliament.

The nation needs a public health policy on alcohol abuse. There is a staggering growth in alcohol-related problems and we must ask whether the Government are doing enough and whether their policies are likely to contain or reduce this social disease. I believe that much more could be done.

10.50 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security
(Mr. John Patten)

The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) has given the subject of this debate a good airing and I have listened carefully to him. We do not always get time to debate this matter in full. I am grateful to him for the style and content of his speech.

The hon. Gentleman was extremely courteous to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in allowing her to encroach on his time. I must reply rather briefly so that I do not go into the time of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan). I shall speak rather fast and try to be succinct, along the lines of my intervention in the hon. Gentleman's speech.

The hon. Gentleman asked many questions on matters which are not my ministerial responsibility. I shall try to reply across ministerial boundaries. It is not very helpful to say that a matter is one for my right hon. Friend for this or my hon. Friend for that, although it is a rather good defensive line when the temperature is raised. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that alcohol and certain drugs can be benificial in tightly controlled circumstances. For example, heroin is still used for the relief of pain. It is important that, while being rightly worried about the threat of heroin and cocaine abuse, we do not forget other substances such as alcohol, tobacco or solvents, the abuse of which can also cause mayhem. My Department is keen not to fall into that trap.

I cannot speak with authority about Scotland, so I shall have to seek advice from my colleagues in the Scottish Office. I shall also ask for advice from colleagues in the Home Office and the Department of Transport to compose the omnibus letter that I shall have to write to the hon. Gentleman.

The Government are determined to do as much as possible to mitigate the effects of heroin and cocaine coming into the country. That is why, in 1984, we spent an extra £19 million on the police force, why every police force has a regional drugs squad, why we spent an additonal £10·5 million in 1984 on customs activity against heroin and cocaine, why we put an extra 160 officers in the drugs squad —there is now a cocaine squad — why we mounted a £2 million educational publicity campaign and why we have customs and intelligence officers in countries such as Holland, Pakistan and India in an attempt to cut off the lines of supply.

At a recent meeting, I talked to Ministers and other people from countries such as Pakistan, Taiwan, Bolivia and Mexico where drugs are grown, refined and exported, to stress to them, eyeball to eyeball, how strongly British people feel about their export of drugs. The World Health Organisation must get on faster with its programme of drug education.

I shall not refer to the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that there should be advice available in this place about alcohol. That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the usual channels. It is not water into which I shall put my toe as I fear that it would be badly burnt. I am sure that the whole House agrees that alcohol is not bad unless it is abused. Indeed, some medical advice suggests that small amounts of alcohol taken regularly can be beneficial for some people in certain circumstances. I am told that the odd glass of wine taken daily is good for men with heart problems. Other medical authorities maintain that four or five glasses a day is bad for everything from the liver to the brain and back again, never mind work patterns.

Moderation should be encouraged. The hon. Gentleman quoted the British Medical Journal or a speech by a member of the British Medical Association. Our document entitled "Drinking Sensibly", which has been widely welcomed, does not give flimsy advice. Indeed, its advice is good and straightforward — be sensible, be moderate. The problem is getting that message across. The hon. Gentleman gave us statistics covering everything from days of absence from work to road accidents. We all know what the problem is and the answer — do not abuse alcohol. That is why health education is so important and why the Health Education Council in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and its equivalent body in Scotland are so active. That is why a new body called Alcohol Concern is being funded at such a high level. It brought together all of the voluntary bodies of substance—one or two chose not to join—in an attempt to deal with the problem nationally. We sometimes give substantial funds to local projects.

The problem of alcohol abuse must be worked out by each individual in the world in which he lives—his family, his place of work and so on. While we can prime the pump and fund national bodies concerned with health education, in the end the necessary services are best provided at local level. We can prime the pump and fund national bodies for a while—three years appears to be the norm—but thereafter it is better dealt with locally.

I pledged that I would not speak beyond 11 o'clock. The hon. Gentleman may not have appreciated the integrated nature of the Government's approach to alcohol abuse. If so, that is my fault for not having put it across more clearly. I shall try to put right that misapprehension in the very long letter — that is both a threat and a promise—that I shall write to him in a few weeks.

Foreign And Commonwealth Office Vote

11.1 am

While I have neither eyes to see nor ears to hear what happens behind the Bar of the House or in the Box, I understand that a number of the Minister's advisers will be present today. As I shall be present for further Adjournment debates this morning in my capacity as parliamentary private secretary, when I shall have no voice to speak. I take this opportunity to thank the advisers for giving up this official public holiday for the Civil Service in honour of the Queen's birthday in order to assist the House in its proceedings.

In 1979 my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Pym), the then shadow Foreign Secretary, declared that the underlying theme of Conservative foreign policy was the safeguading not only of our own freedom but that of the whole free world. Every free country has a shared interest in the freedom of every other country, and we in Britain should look forward from this island in that spirit and with that faith.

A remarkable series of events have witnessed the British Government speaking and acting clearly in favour of British and Western interests since then. There was a peaceful and democratic settlement on Zimbabwe after 15 years of deadlock and abortive negotiations. The rebuffed Argentine aggression reminded a doubting world of the conviction of a democratic country in safeguarding not only its own freedom but that of the whole free world. There has been a strengthening of our defences and a new emphasis on the protection of human rights during this year's visit to Poland by the Foreign Secretary and the negotiations about the future of Hong Kong — all of which are hallmarks in a period of our foreign policy that reflects an essential guarantee of a strong and decisive projection of Britain abroad.

Today I test the means by which such a projection is achieved—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Vote, and the financing of the diplomatic service, the BBC overseas service and the British Council in particular. Of course, resources are scarce in any spending Department. Of course, politics is the business of organising priorities. Allocation must be achieved in the interest of the public good so that the broad policy that I have outlined can best be effected.

A classic vehicle through which that policy can be effected is a flourishing BBC overseas service. It is respected for its quality, accuracy and impartiality, and it enhances Britain's image abroad. We live in one of the few societies in the world where a genuine, accurate, impartial and truthful service is one of the best selling points for a country. Three words sum up a uniquely British idea—accurate, impartial and truthful. They are the best possible ambassadors for British diplomacy. That is a remarkable fact.

The unique world reputation held by the BBC external broadcasting service must be strongly supported. Ways and means are urgently needed to improve audibility and to bring about modernisation. The emphasis on audibility is all the more important when our competitors are boosting transmissions. Let us consider one example—the lifeline that the BBC external service is providing to the Afghan refugees. Between October and December 1984, a survey was conducted in the north-west frontier province of Pakistan where Pashto is the principal language spoken. Interviews were carried out among two separate samples of 600 adults each, one representing the adult urban population of the north-west frontier province, the other representing the Afghan refugees settled in the various camps of the province. According to latest population estimates, the total urban population of the north-west frontier province is close to 2 million, of whom about 1 million are adults. The Afghan refugee population of Pakistan is officially estimated at almost 3 million, and in the area covered by the survey there are 1·3 million refugees, of whom about half are adults.

The BBC Pashto service, which broadcasts for four hours a week, was inaugurated in August 1981. The survey provided the first opportunity to assess its impact among two distinct populations. Among Pakistanis, most people understand Urdu. Previous research in Pakistan, most recently in 1982, has shown a large, well-established audience for the BBC in Urdu in the north-west frontier province. In terms of their exposure to the BBC, the Pashto speakers of Pakistan are very different. Although many of them understand the Iranian Farsi language, the introduction of the Pashto service represented the first occasion on which the BBC had spoken to them in a language that the majority could understand.

It is interesting that both communities use radio as their main source of news. However, the resemblance stops there. Among Pakistanis, radio is closely challenged by television, with newspapers rather further behind. Among Afghans, television is almost wholly unavailable, and the low level of literacy results in little usage of newspapers. The radio is overwhelmingly dominant among the formal media and word of mouth is the only other news source, especially for women.

The regular radio audience figures are astonishingly high— 64 per cent. for Afghans and 61 per cent. for Pakistanis. Just over half the Afghan refugees listen to the BBC in Pashto. There are regular Pashto audiences among men of 88 per cent. for the BBC, 50 per cent. for Iranian radio and 40 per cent. for Voice of America.

Anyone who has visited the area will know that those transmissions are vital lifelines. It is for that reason that more Afghans listen to the BBC external service than to Voice of America, All-India Radio, Deutsche Welle and Radio Moscow combined. Yet, regrettably, that is all too uncommon a picture worldwide.

In the House on 22 November my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary said about external services:
"the BBC, too, has had to face some increase in costs. I do not believe that it would be right to meet that increase in full. As in the case of the British Council, I shall be looking for savings of about 1 per cent. in its total expenditure."—[Official Report, 22 November 1984; Vol. 68, c. 429.]
The reduction of £1 million to £2 million envisaged this. year will be the ninth cut in the working revenue of the external services for 10 years.

The cuts of 1982 ended the Spanish for Europe, the Italian and the Maltese services. French for Europe and the Brasilian service were halved. During the Falklands war that same year, the two nations in Europe least sympathetic to Britain because of their historical ties were Spain and Italy.

The grant to the transcription service that supplies recorded programmes for rebroadcasting to more than 100 countries was reduced by £300,000, and the number of programme hours from 500 to 350 per annum. The Government agreed, and this was welcomed, to fund the BBC programme of capital expenditure starting in 1981–82 of £102 million, to be spent during the following nine years. That included new transmitters in Hong Kong and the Seychelles and the replacement of United Kingdom transmitters, some of which were installed during the second world war. The willingness of the Government to build costly transmitters contrasts with the cutting of the number of services going out on them, which seems to lead to an inefficient use of capital.

It is true that in this year the BBC will receive an additional £700,000. That corresponds to the difference between the 3 per cent. cash limit for pay last year and the actual settlement of 4·8 per cent., similar to that of the Civil Service. The indicated cut of £1·2 million with which the external services will have to cope this year corresponds to improvements in conditions of employment that the corporation as a whole is having to make to remain competitive within its employment market.

Even if the present savings are found, they cause much greater problems in prospect for future years. In the next three years the external services could be facing a deficit of some 10 per cent. of its operating costs. That could be met only by a major reduction in broadcasting. A now crucial change in the way that the BBC's external services are funded was recommended at the end of last year. A plan was brought forward for money to be made available to the external services from the Government for exactly the same length of time, and at exactly the same point in time, as the licence fee settlement for the rest of the BBC. I support that plan.

Funds for the external services, which are part of the Foreign Office Vote, are currently granted for just one year, and that has led to a series of annual cost crises as successive Governments have tried to trim public expenditure. But the inquiry has accepted the BBC's contention that a move away from the one-year financial straitjacket for the external services' operating expenditure would facilitate more effective and efficient forward planning. The report also recommends that capital underspending of up to 10 per cent. — because of unforeseen delays in transmitter replacement projects, for example — can in future be carried over from one financial year to the next.

I hope that at this stage in the Public Expenditure Survey Committee round, my hon. Friend the Minister will press the Treasury to reflect on the increased costs and the effect of the depreciation of sterling. I also hope that he will consider how greatly the external services might benefit from the protection against depreciation that is customarily enjoyed by the Foreign Office. I further hope that he will agree that any further savings in total expenditure would militate against Britain's interests overseas and would be, to use Lord Carrington's words,
"totally counterproductive and the money saved trivial compared to the amount of damage done."
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will urge the Treasury to recognise that international broadcasting is a growth business. Voice of America has been given a $1·2 billion expansion plan. France has just had an austerity budget, and its foreign relations expenditure was reduced all round, with the exception of one item — external broadcasting. The money for that was increased from 296 million francs to 335 million francs.

The Japanese are expanding their overseas radio services as well, and the Soviet Union has expanded its output and dominates the airwaves in terms of hours broadcast: 2,200 hours a week as opposed to the BBC's 720 hours a week. But above all, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will see the strength of the moral argument that we have a duty to support the BBC's overseas service. It is a moral duty when something that is so small a burden on a rich country can provide such a massive service to the people of the world, and has substantial invisible exports. We need moral recognition that, despite the millions invested in Radio Moscow and Voice of America, the BBC has the most respected independent status, and its impartial voice is an essential means of sharing our interest in the freedom of every other country.

No one who has ever seen the extensive use made of British Council libraries around the world would hesitate to acknowledge that here is an institution central to Britain's role in overseas representation. The council has become a focus for a wide range of cultural activities. Meanwhile the council's emphasis on English language teaching is vital not just to thousands but millions worldwide.

In response to the Berrill report, The Times wrote:
"Britain's values have been formed by centuries of international traffic in culture and information. If Britain ceases to attach high importance to continuing participation in this traffic, loses faith in the contribution she makes to it, and fails to respond to the demand which her excellence generates abroad, her own cultural bloodstream will become that much poorer, her self-respect that much lower, and in the long run her international influence that much smaller."
That is why many of us regret that the opportunities will be missed now that the British Council has announced a programme of closures and cuts to meet the additional savings of £1·1 million required by the Government.

The opening of a new British Council office in Shanghai has been postponed. The Council's Oporto office will close, as will one English language teaching institute in Venezuela. A post will be withdrawn from Qatar. Funds to send books overseas and for academic and youth exchanges will be reduced. The balance will come from cuts in the council's computerisation and capital programmes.

The savings demanded by the Government are in addition to £800,000 already required for 1985–86 to meet the cash limit imposed on the council. The latest cuts bring the reduction in the British Council's budget to almost 22 per cent. in real terms since 1979, and many posts have been lost. Ten regional offices have been closed in Britain and representation has been withdrawn from Afghanistan, Argentina, Iran, Malta, Mauritius and Costa Rica. Although some of those withdrawals were involuntary, they contributed to the necessary savings, and prevented closure elsewhere. Further cuts will inevitably mean reducing activity and closing more overseas offices. Moreover, the British Council will find it more difficult to respond to the new opportunities for Britain overseas or to take advantage of any improvement in political relations with South America or the middle east. Equally, the council will not be able to open an office in Brunei where other countries have recognised the scope for educational consultancies.

I agree with those who argue that the council should constantly look to increase revenue. But that activity is not a substitute for regular Government income. It tends to increase activity in the country in which it is earned, but not to create a surplus for easy transfer elsewhere. Of £26·2 million earned in 1985–86 in teaching English, holding British examinations, and selling services, about £1·5 million is extra to the cost of doing the activity in the first place.

The council has found some venture capital — in addition to private sponsorship for the arts totalling £700,000—and has received income from the University of Cambridge local examinations syndicate for English language institutes in Malaysia and Japan. So far £25,000 firm has been raised and another £25,000 is hoped for towards the costs of opening an office in Brunei, which has regrettably had to be postponed. The council has also initiated a scheme for attracting and placing overseas students that is paid for by our universities and polytechnics. It obtains payment for services where possible.

All of that helps, but these are not sources or funds on which to plan a long-term strategy. Again, I hope that the Minister will urge the Treasury during this PESC round to recognise that the British Council is already lean and efficient. I have recently seen the vital role it plays in Ethiopia, where English is still a secondary teaching language. Britain has the sixth largest economy in the world, and arguably the five larger economies combined make less of a cultural impact than we do. English language, theatre, literature and poetry, joined now, not least, by British rock music, dominate the world.

Our cultural heritage is totally out of proportion to our economic power. Our publishing industry is totally out of proportion to the size of our population. The British Council is a crucial vehicle in promoting those strengths, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be party to building from strength in the coming years.

I have never doubted that within the diplomatic service there is room for innovation and change, and that such changes should be clearly reflected in any PESC round. That applies not least with regard to commercial representation. The old days, when the Foreign Office provided an essentially political service and when its role was to create an atmosphere or a climate of trade, have now passed. The weakness of the British marketing effort became all too apparent. Overkill set in. The Foreign Office looked at everything with a far stronger commercial perception until Iran. Now a middle course has been struck, yet it is still very hard to persuade the new intake that it is better to be first secretary (commercial) than first secretary (chancery) in a major city.

The strongly political work of our mandarins overrides any glory there may be in commercial success. The job now is to spot opportunities and open doors. But the quality and experience of those vested with this responsibility is mixed and, I believe, rightly subject to assessment. That is no less true of our system of Government support for our export interests.

Let hon. Members consider a cricketing analogy. Whereas the French Government regard commercial assistance as a method of winning the game, and the Japanese put in six sides to field to ensure that the odds are stacked in their favour, British commercial practice is for the private sector to sit down in its PEP, BOTB, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department of Trade and Industry pavilions arguing at length about the rules of the game. Then when all else fails, it is too often the case that it is the poor commercial attaché abroad, the proverbial twelfth man, who is blamed. The need for a review of commercial assistance is considerable

The Foreign Office will always embrace a web of international power threads, and spheres of influence. Nations will strive to safeguard their security and promote their interests. Those are the fundamental areas in which the diplomatic service must work. A delicate balance of power will be struck and the mandarins of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to manoeuvre men of outstanding intellectual ability around a defined world of diplomatic posts while doggedly implementing the perceived wisdom of the day for what constitutes British interests.

Some might say that the FCO will remain the world's greatest expert on every political system bar its own. I dispute that view but there is room for greater integration with other Government Departments, not least with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Commensurate with this assessment is the need to sustain a Vote strong enough to support commercial and political roles abroad. Constant paring of the diplomatic service will do as much damage to the morale and effectiveness of its resilient and outstanding staff as anything else.

Today British interests are constantly changing. We seek to achieve a peaceful and stable world, enriched by the very fragile fruits of democracy in which free trade and commercial objectives can flourish. Our greatest tool is our influence — difficult to define and difficult to measure; the ideal target for the Treasury hatchetman. Yet if we as Conservatives are to promote not only our own freedom but that of the free world we must seek a financial provision that is strong enough to support the Foreign Office. I am strongly of the conviction that that view is widely shared on both sides of the House.

At this point I should like very much to give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) who is the chairman of the Conservative foreign and commonwealth affairs back bench committee. My right hon. Friend hopes to speak for about 10 minutes and deal specifically with the diplomatic wing upon which I touched but upon which he will elaborate much more lucidly than I have been able to do in the short time available to me.

11.20 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan) on having initiated this debate. I am extremely grateful to him for enabling me to say a few words specifically about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as opposed to the important question that he has touched upon—the external services of the British Council.

We have one of the hardest working and most effective diplomatic services in the world. That is not simply my opinion. It is the opinion of other diplomatic services, of which I have seen a great deal, and of other Governments. As my hon. Friend has rightly pointed out, the continued effectiveness of the organs which fall under the responsibility of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary is vital for freedom and prosperity.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has already been run down far enough. In the interests of the United Kingdom, that process should stop. The FCO accounts for 1·1 per cent. of the total number of civil servants and for 0·9 per cent. of the total cost of the Civil Service, so it cannot be said that the members of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are more expensive per head than other civil servants. In 1984 the total number of staff in the FCO both at home and overseas was 6,722. FCO staff in the United Kingdom who are responsible for liaison with all our posts overseas amount to just a little more than the headquarters staff of Marks and Spencer and to half the total staff of Brent borough council. The trends in the diplomatic service have been steadily downwards.

As my right hon. and learned Friend said on 22 May in answer to a question, since 1979 the number of diplomatic staff has declined by over 17 per cent. The overall reduction, not just of diplomatic staff, since 1979 has been more than 14 per cent.—a very big fall. The trend in the FCO compared with the Civil Service as a whole is different. In the 1970s, under the Labour Government, Civil Service numbers as a whole increased by more than 50,000, while the FCO numbers continued to fall, as they have fallen in almost every year since 1969.

In view of this fall in numbers one would expect to find that the workload had diminished, but the opposite has been the case. The workload has gone up, for reasons that are outside our control. In 1965, the number of independent countries in the world was 124. The number is now 164. In 1968 the number of British visitors abroad was about 5 million a year. In 1983 it was 20 million a year. When they travel, many British visitors meet problems and expect consular help. Hon. Members know that when British visitors do not get the consular help they expect they hear about it, sometimes in very indignant terms. That is a burden which cannot be diminished. Indeed, it will continue to increase.

What about the trends in cost? The total FCO vote is tiny — £583 million. It may sound a great deal, but compared with the costs of other Departments it is very small indeed. It includes the British Council, the BBC external services and subscriptions to international organisations from which we cannot escape if we are members of those organisations. Properly speaking, the cost of the diplomatic service is just over half that amount. In the five years after 1978 the cut in spending in constant prices, was 9·4 per cent. For decades the FCO has had a system of self-inspection, a quality of work control system which other Departments do not have.

Another important point in recent years has concerned overseas risen costs, a point mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East. The Government have given some assurances about overseas risen costs in relation to the FCO Vote in general, but I do not regard those assurances as having gone far enough. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will press for a better and more satisfactory arrangement about overseas risen costs. When he winds up the debate, I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will say something on that subject.

If one looks at the hours worked in the FCO, one finds a system which I regard as totally unsatisfactory. In the front line Departments it is perfectly routine for officers to be working from 8.30 in the morning to 8.30 in the evening. I wonder whether Ministers have had an assessment made of the hours worked by the ordinary desk officer. I am not referring to the head of department or to the assistant head of department, who would undoubtedly work longer hours. My information is that it is normal for the desk officer to work those hours, with perhaps an hour off for lunch. That is not good in the interests of the country, and it is not fair to the officers concerned. Furthermore, it is bad for the effectiveness of our diplomatic service if officers regularly work such hours. In a crisis they work much longer hours than that. They do not complain, because they are devoted public servants. They regard their work as important, as indeed it is. It is also very interesting work. However, they are working hours which I regard as greatly excessive.

Hon. Members may ask why something is not done to cut the workload. Why do we not cut out our activities abroad? Why do we not cut many of the overseas posts? There are a number of limiting factors. One is that we are a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. That position is in question in the United Nations. If we want to remain a permanent member of the Security Council, we must be careful about the extent to which our posts overseas should be reduced. If we cut our representation in whole areas of the world, our position as a permanent member of the Security Council will increasingly come into question. Membership of the European Community has imposed an enormous extra burden upon the personnel of the FCO. The newspapers are full of the stories of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and other Ministers working through the night for several days in succession to reach an agreement — or often not reaching an agreement. However, they do not mention that his staff are not working the same hours as he is. When the meeting is over and the Minister goes home, his staff sit at their desks and write up the minutes. They do not get any sleep, while the Minister gets only a few hours sleep.

My hon. Friend mentioned commercial work, which is extremely important for our business and exports, as is consular work. There is no scope sensibly to reduce the efforts that we are putting into them. Throughout the world other countries see us as fulfilling a much more important world role in defence of freedom than we see ourselves as fulfilling. The House does not understand how important our world role is seen to be by other countries. It would be a great mistake for freedom, prosperity and solidarity with our friends throughout the world if we were further to cut the FCO.

I hope that my hon. Friend can give us some assurance that there will be no further cuts in addition to those which have already been announced, and assurances about risen costs. I am sure that he understands that it is not only my hon. Friend and I who feel strongly about the matter, but Many Conservative Members.

11.30 am

):

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan) on his success in the ballot. He has chosen a most suitable subject for debate, especially after his recent visit to five African countries. I thank him for his remarks about the civil servants who have given up their official holiday today to be in the Box.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) mentioned the long hours worked by civil servants in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The fact that they are present in the Box today is an instance of that. Last week, the administration in the FCO carried out a survey about long hours, and it is now examining the results. I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks. My right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend both have a wealth of knowledge and experience of the FCO in particular, and foreign affairs in general. I share their view of the importance of all aspects of Britain's overseas policy.

I am interested in the tributes that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend paid to various aspects of our overseas work and to the FCO. They will agree that it has long been the custom to knock the Foreign Office for extravagance. Queen Victoria said:
"Her Majesty is much opposed to any increase of Embassies, indeed her Majesty thinks that the time for Ambassadors and their pretensions is past."
Such a view existed not only in the 19th century. It was reflected more recently, if less succinctly, in the 1977 report of the think tank, and the book "With Respect, Ambassador" by Simon Jenkins and Ann Sloman, which was published earlier this year. There is a tide in the affairs of men, and from the speeches this morning it appears that the tide is turning. I note the view of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs in July 1984 that
"the squeeze on diplomatic service manpower has probably gone far enough and additional significant reductions would only be made at the cost of expecting a reduced level of quality of service."
There is a clear feeling that Britain needs a well executed international policy, that we should maintain our international profile, play our full part in the western Alliance, and continue to participate actively in international efforts to tackle world problems. I endorse what my hon. Friend said about the overall importance of our overseas effort, our diplomatic service, the British Broadcasting Corportion external services and the British Council in fulfilling that purpose. I remind my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend that the FCO's financial provision must be seen in the context of the Government's economic policy and the need to maintain tight control of Government expenditure. It must be in line with the Government's long-term endeavour to reduce public spending as a percentage of gross domestic product.

As my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend know, the British Council receives a basic contribution from the two wings of the FCO, which amounts to £72 million. The Overseas Development Agency contributes a further £12 million for special activities. I pay tribute to the British Council for the major role that it plays in promoting understanding and appreciation of Britain overseas through cultural educational and technical co-operation. I congratulate it on its 50th anniversary, which it celebrates this year. Its record on English language teaching overseas has been outstanding. Last year it amounted to 500,000 hours, which is a slight increase on previous years. In 1984–85, 23,400 people came to Britain with British Council help, and there were 6·3 million book issues.

The resources of the British Council have declined in real terms in recent years. However, in the present financial year the British Council will receive from grant-in-aid about £6 million more than the original figure for this year. Moreover, the council is able to offset the substantial part of that decline by raising more revenue overseas. Its overseas receipts, much of which come from English language teaching, have risen substantially in recent years. I wish the council well in that regard.

I was particularly impressed by the English language teaching programme when I visited Spain recently. Although my hon. Friend referred to the fact that some British Council posts have had to close recently, there has been a spread of British institutes — as it were, subordinate posts of the council — throughout Spain, which are dedicated to teaching English. That is a good and natural development, because as Spain gets ready to join the European Community, many Spaniards will hope to learn English as their second language for use within the Community. That is the other side of the coin.

It is true that staff in the United Kingdom have been reduced from 1,884 to 1,593 during the past seven years. However, since 1982–83 there has been a gradual increase in locally engaged staff overseas. Overall, the future of the British Council looks bright.

I note my hon. Friend's words about the unique world reputation of the external services. It is fair and right to say that a recent poll showed them to be the most popular of all international world broadcasting services. Their grants-in-aid under Vote 3 are £91 million for the current year. There is also £18 million for the 1985–86 in Vote 1 for relay stations run by the FCO.

My hon. Friend referred to various cuts in specific services, which have taken place in recent years. However, there are 727·5 broadcasting hours overall per week in 36 languages, compared with 716 in 1982. The prescription committee at the Foreign Office is charged with regularly looking at the division of these hours between countries where broadcasts are most needed. If a service is cut, it is generally because it has been replaced by a new service, or by more hours in another country where it is judged to be more needed.

My hon. Friend referred to the Pashto service, which was started in 1981 with one and three quarter hours per week. Since then it has been doubled to nearly four hours. Similarly, the services in Nepali, Tamil and Turkish have been substantially increased in recent years. During the six years up to 1985–86, the BBC external services received an increase in real terms in its grants in aid of about 33 per cent.

My hon. Friend referred to the Perry report, which looks to the future. It sees where some economies can be made in the administration of the BBC external services, and it recommends that grants for external services should be determined at the same time and for the same period as the BBC licence fee. That is being considered. and a decision will depend on an acceptable arrangement among the Treasury, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the BBC.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South played a major part in getting the audibility programme under way. In 1981, £100 million was agreed for the programme. Work on the new relay station in Hong Kong was started in 1984, a year earlier than planned. We hope that the planning process at Orfordness for the new United Kingdom relay station can be brought to a speedy and satisfactory conclusion, and that it will have an important effect on increasing audibility, especially to Russia and to Eastern Europe. It goes without saying that I hope that the BBC will continue to be a source of unbiased news arid comment, especially for those countries where freedom is denied. I am sure that the BBC is aware of its duty.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East about commercial work. The resources devoted to it amount to about 32 per cent. of our front line manpower deployed overseas. That is the largest slice of any of the diplomatic service functions, and the main effort is concentrated on export promotion. We work closely with the British Overseas Trade Board, and it has been estimated by independent consultants that the BOTB's export intelligence service leads to £1 billion worth of additional exports a year. About 80 per cent. of its market information and export intelligence is received from diplomatic service posts, and that service reaches more than 20,000 exporters.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the need for flexibility. We are aware that our commercial work overseas is never likely to be perfect. We try constantly to listen to criticism and constructive advice, and consider how, as overseas markets develop, we can improve our service within the restraints of the resources available.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South was generous in his tributes to the hard work done at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at home and abroad. I agree with some of the statistics that he produced. Since 1979, manpower in the diplomatic wing has been reduced by nearly 10 per cent. Yet the number of British business men visiting our posts abroad has increased by 20 per cent., the consular case load has increased by 40 per cent., and market information inquiries have also increased by 40 per cent. We maintain diplomatic and consular relations with 161 countries. My right hon. Friend said that we do so with one half of the staff of Brent council. My acquaintance with Brent council is not as great as his, but I am content to say that our total staff is about the same as the average British borough council.

Recently, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, due to the work of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, has pulled off some remarkable achievements, especially in Hong Kong and Gibraltar.

My hon. Friend also mentioned overseas risen costs. He will be pleased to know that we have reached an agreement with the Treasury on the interpretation of the formula in Command 9367, which gives the Foreign and Commonwealth Office a reasonably secure basis for planning the use of the resources that Ministers allocate to it. As a recent memorandum sent to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs states, full account will be taken of movements in overseas prices when the FCO's expenditure provisions are set.

At the beginning of my speech, I said that the tide was turning in the affairs of the Foreign Office. I would not say, to complete the quotation, that, if taken at the flood, this will lead on to fortune. Given the necessary restraints on public expenditure, the favourable tide now running for the British Council and the diplomatic wing will not lead to fortune in the material sense. But these and other related activities will prosper by increasing interest at home and extending British influence abroad. Those who work for us abroad will have great pleasure in reading the comments of my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend, and I fully share their congratulations to members of the service on their hard work and achievements, often in difficult conditions.

Refugees (Hong Kong)

11.45 am

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about the conditions in closed camps in Hong Kong and the policy that led to them.

One hesitates to talk about records in the House, because no doubt something similar has happened in the dim and distant past, but it must be unprecedented to have had three Adjournment debates on the same subject within about 14 days. It is also worth noting that those debates were raised by representatives of all the major parties. That must show the deep concern of hon. Members about the closed camp policy in Hong Kong.

I pay tribute to the hon. Members who raised the matter. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) did so in the context of problems suffered by the relatives of his constituents. Last week, the hon. Member for Ynys Mon (Mr. Best) raised broader aspects of the problem, presumably wearing his hat as the respected chairman of the British Committee for Refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) has also taken a great interest in the subject and spoken about it on the Floor of the House. The hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) is here today, and will no doubt wish to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, later.

I wish to discuss the specific British policy that led to the closed camps and the conditions inside the camps. If my tone is sharper than we have heard in previous debates on the subject, that is because the impressions that I gained when I visited the camps are with me still. With other hon. Members, I visited Hong Kong last year to assess for myself the problems relating to the future of the territory. During my stay, I visited Chi Ma Wan closed camp. I should tell the House that that visit left an indelible and powerful impression on me — an impression of some anger and shame. I was deeply shocked by the conditions in the closed camps.

As one who speaks Chinese, who has served in the forces in the far east and has a fair knowledge of conditions there, I am aware of general living conditions in poor countries such as Vietnam. However, despite that, I left Hong Kong appalled by the way in which the people in the closed camps were being treated, and ashamed that I, as a British Member of Parliament, was the person ultimately responsible for it.

I shall have some harsh words to say about conditions in the camps and about the policy that created and sustains them. I say at the outset, however, that the responsibility rests not with the Government of Hong Kong, but with the British Government. I have many reservations about the closed camp policy instituted by the Hong Kong Government, but I understand why they instituted it. I am also fully aware that the people of Hong Kong, as was clearly shown in the recent legislative council debate, believe that the closed camp policy was right and should continue. It is easy for us, living in the United Kingdom where the population density is 230 per sq km, to call for the camps to be abolished. If one lived in Hong Kong, where the density is more than 20 times higher — an average of 4,972 per sq km — one would see things differently.

Hon. Members may not know what an average of 4,972 people per sq km looks like, so let me give them a graphic illustration. Assume that this Chamber, together with the Public and Press Galleries was in Hong Kong's most crowded district, Sham Shui Po. It would then be the home for more than 70 people. Put another way, rather more than a tenth of the number of hon. Members who find it so uncomfortable to crowd into this Chamber to listen to an hour's Budget speech would make this same space the place they use to make their whole daily lives.

Given that level of overcrowding, it is scarcely surprising that Hong Kong does not feel able to offer refuge for all who come to its shores as a first point of asylum and it is scarcely remarkable that it had to institute a closed camp policy and, in the absence of international assistance, on a greater scale than we have seen, now wishes to see that policy continue.

It may be that the closed camps were a necessary temporary, emergency measure to start with, but we have allowed them to become permanent institutions. That is confirmed by the answer given to me by a Minister last Wednesday. It reveals that the population of the closed camps, now about 6,000, has remained static for six consecutive years and, at the present level of off-take, will still exist in 10 years'. For many in the camps, there is no hope of immediate release. The closed camps have become for them—and for us, if we were honest about it—not a temporary stopgap, but a permanent or semipermanent fact of the tragedy of the Vietnamese refugees.

That is a disgrace and one for which the primary responsibility rests on the British Government, not the Hong Kong Government. It is the British Government who, far from showing the lead in taking refugees, have taken fewer than any other nation participating in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' resettlement programme. In 1984, we took only 17 refugees, one twentieth of those taken by the United States, one twelth of those taken by the Australians and one quarter of those taken by the Canadians. In 1983, Britain took on 2·4 per cent of resettled refugees, compared with 49 per cent. taken by the United States, 21 per cent. taken by Australia and 5 per cent.—more than double ours—taken by Sweden. Overall to date, the United States has taken 20 times as many Vietnamese refugees than Britain, France has taken five times as many, Australia has taken nearly four times as many, Canada has taken nearly three times as many, and even West Germany has taken more than we have. Why is it that Britain, which has most responsibility in this matter, has carried least of the burden?

Britain's refusal to shoulder the burden is now undermining the rest of the UNHCR programme. The United States Government said in evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee:
"Absent of an effort to substantially increase the U.K. offtake from Hong Kong, the U.S. Government is unlikely to review its current policies and practice regarding acceptance of these refugees above the levels currently projected".
The Australian Government similarly stated in evidence to the Select Committee that they regard it as "essential" to share internationally the burden of resettling the refugees from Hong Kong, and that in view of this and the policies of the United States, it would seem that a renewed commitment by the United Kingdom to resettlement of Indo-Chinese refugees from Hong Kong would be a precondition for any co-ordinated international effort to address the Hong Kong situation.

Mr. Poul Hartling, United Nations Commissioner, has recently called on Britain to
"take an initiative that would encourage other countries to take more."
The Select Committee on Home Affairs has made a similar plea and we, to use the words of the hon. Member for Ynys Môn,
"eagerly await the Government response"—[Official Report, 14 May 1984; Vol. 79, c. 299.]
Let there be no doubt that that response is long overdue. The Government's disgraceful tardiness in this matter has caused the sense of permanent incarceration, of hopelessness and despair which exists in the camps.

In that sense, the Government are also responsible for the problems which have occurred in the camps themselves. The Minister upbraided me for describing the situation in the camps as a "disgrace" on Wednesday. But I stick to that word and I hope to give it substance in this debate.

In fact, the term "closed camps" is little more than a slick euphemism. The camps are made up of tin huts, surrounded by high barbed wire reminiscent of a prisoner of war camp—it was that impression which struck me most powerfully and moved me most when I visited them. They are guarded day and night. They are administered, not by social workers, but by the prison service of the Hong Kong Government. Refugees do not have the right to go out without a pass; they are subject to being searched; their mail is censored; none of the refugees in these "closed camps" have any rights to recourse under British or Hong Kong law; they cannot take any question of ill-treatment or abuse to any court for a hearing. For those who are in any way disruptive, a punishment of up to 28 days' solitary confinement can be imposed on people who came to us as refugees fleeing from oppression.

It is quite untrue, as some have claimed, that the inmates of the closed camps are ill-fed and poorly housed. Their basic needs are reasonably well catered for; indeed, their physical conditions may be marginally better than some of Hong Kong's squatter population. But they are crowded together in cramped conditions, they are without their freedom, and many of them are without hope Some have been in the camps for more than four years, many are desperate and a few are understandably furious at having ended up incarcerated in Hong Kong after having paid fortunes and after having seen some of their relatives and friends pay with their lives to escape from the tyranny in Vietnam.

The boat people are at the end of their tether. It is reported that there have been a number of suicides. During Christmas 1981, a violent riot broke out in one camp. In the spring of 1982 in another camp, refugees from North and South Vietnam fought each other in what a respected local paper described as "bloody battles".

The refugees on Hei Ling Chau began a hunger strike in July 1984 to remind the world of their existence—a representative from the UNHCR and of the Hong Kong Government went to the camp to persuade them to end their strke. They did so only after 200 of them had been hospitalised. That was a cry of despair and impotence to the rest of the world. But it did not even interest the media or the organisations formerly so ready to organise solidarity campaigns for the boat people.

Mrs. Elsie Elliott, CBE, a Hong Kong councillor and widely respected in Hong Kong as an authentic voice in local affairs, especially on human rights, has told roe that she has evidence that drug abuse has gone up in the camps by over 500 per cent. in two years. I will read the House a letter that I recently received from Mrs. Elliott, describing those conditions:
"In late February, I interviewed about ten refugees who knew something of both open and closed camps, they themselves being in an open camp. I was introduced to them by a Government servant who wishes not to be named. He arranged a meeting place and an interpreter. There I learned about the increasing drug problem, the demoralisation of the young people, and the air of hopelessness.
At another meeting with European teachers from an open camp, I learned that the whole system is kept intact by a policy of intimidation. Any teacher or other outside worker at the camp is sacked if he/she makes a complaint. One of them was sacked for mentioning that the science laboratory in the school was only a showpiece for visitors, never used. I have asked him to write to you with any information he may have.
A few days ago, a Vietnamese who was recently resettled in Australia wrote imploring me to try to help the people in the camps, as any measures against drug abuse are weak and ineffective. He said that drug traffickers from outside were not being cracked down on, and the inmates take drugs, gamble and fight out of utter frustration.
On a TV interview a few days ago, Dr. Karl Stumpf, who is engaged on resettling refugees, did not deny my allegations when questioned about them. He did say that the Vietnamese are not more prone to crime than others, but being detained was frustrating. He also made the remarkable statement that the people in the camps here 'have to suffer' in an effort to stop other refugees coming.
I also met with a group of Catholic missionaries. They deplored the lack of human rights and said they would get wide support for the campaign to find a way to release the refugees".
In a report submitted to a meeting of Governments in 1984, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees clearly referred to the Hong Kong closed camps when he said:
"while it will thus be seen that there may be situations both with regard to individual asylum-seekers and to large scale influx, in which measures of detention may be justified, this is not the case were asylum-seekers are detained with the sole object of discouraging further arrivals. It has become evident that in certain countries the refugees are frequently confined in prison or under prison-like conditions for prolonged periods of time in accordance with a policy of so-called humane deterrence. Needless to say, practices of this kind—given their underlying motivation—are at variance with the principles of international protection".
The present United Nations High Commissioner, Mr. Poul Harding, visited the newly opened Bowring closed camp a week or so ago. Despite the fact that conditions in Bowring are immeasurably better than in the older camps, the high commissioner still described them as offending human dignity.

Things are not getting better in the closed camps—Mrs. Elliot tells me that she thinks that they are getting worse. She quotes as an example the case of a 15-year-old boy who was put in solitary confinement for no more than answering back a camp official. She tells me that she has brought this incident — with others alleging sexual harassment, drug abuse and violence—to the attention of the Hong Kong authorities. She has been asked to supply independent evidence, but this she cannot do for fear of exposing the inmates. As she puts it:
"They are really terrified and there is always the threat that they are not going to get rehabilitated if they do not behave in the way they are told".
Surely, in the light of what has happened, there is now enough evidence to investigate these allegations more thoroughly than seems to have been done so far.

The real issue is one of morality. How do the Government justify putting people whose only crime is that they have escaped from oppression into what is effectively a prison? Whatever the excesses of the Vietnamese Government in oppressing their people and causing them to risk their lives to reach Hong Kong, is it not a disgrace on this Government and, indeed, on us as Members of Parliament that we should permit people who have no rights, who have been persecuted and who have turned to us for protection to suffer the indignities which are the daily lot of those in the closed camps of Hong Kong?

What do the Government intend to do about this stain on Britain's standing as a compassionate and civilised nation?

First, what do the Government intend to do about the resettlement? Will the Minister announce today that Britain will carry her share of the burden of resettling the refugees? Will he undertake the task of relaunching the UNHCR initiative with a commitment from Britain which will stimulate other nations to continue their programmes, so that those in the camps can have some hope for the future and we who are responsible for them can look forward to the day when closed camps are a thing of the past and a burden that we no longer have to carry on our consciences?

Secondly, what do the Government intend to do about the present conditions in the camps? The British Refugee Council recommends that if the policy has to continue sweeping reforms should be made. Husbands and wives separated by the closed camp policy should no longer be forced to live apart, those single men at present segregated in the special closed camps should be reintegrated, administration of the camps should be handed over to a more appropriate body than the correctional services department, which is the Hong Kong prison service, and the refugees should be given a far greater role in the running of services.

The British Refugee Council also recommends that voluntary agency involvement in the camps should be reviewed and non-evangelical agencies offered a greater role and that normal and expeditious use of postal services and adequate educational and training facilities should be provided. Those are sensible if minimal suggestions which in most cases are supported by the Select Committee. Will the Minister put them into practice?

Let there be no doubt that the fact of the closed camps and the conditions that have been allowed to prevail within them are the responsibility of the House and especially of the Government. It is an indictment of all of us that such conditions have been allowed to exist in our name for so long. What are the Government going to do about it?

12.4 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) for allowing me to take part in this debate. I join the hon. Gentleman and the Select Committee in expressing the hope that the closed camps will be closed down as soon as possible. I accept the general thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument, but he will forgive me if I do not put the case in exactly the same terms.

We should remember, first, that we are not talking about immigrants — a subject which we debated yesterday—who have chosen of their own volition to leave their homelands. We are talking about people who have abandoned their possessions and fled their homes and countries because of the conditions there, often with no idea what has happened to the relatives they left behind. Many of these people simply got into boats to sail wherever wind and tide took them to escape the conditions in which they were living. All that they ask is that which we take for granted—freedom to be educated, to seek work and to find housing and freedom of speech and of worship.

The closed camp problem must be seen in context. In the past 10 years, 100,000 Vietnamese refugees have arrived in Hong Kong. Not one has been turned away. I visited Hong Kong when the problem first arose a few years ago. The procedure was as follows: the refugees were initially accommodated at the waterside; they were then taken to transit camps in Hong Kong, whence in due course they were settled abroad — in the United Kingdom, continental Europe, North America and south-east Asia, some 14,300 of them being accepted by Hong Kong itself.

Three years ago, the outflow reduced almost to a trickle although the inflow continued. There are still 11,200 refugees in Hong Kong. Let us not underestimate the heavy burden this has placed on the Hong Kong Government and people. Since 1979, the Hong Kong Government have spent 475 million Hong Kong dollars on running the centres and feeding the refugees, in addition to the sums contributed by voluntary agencies and the United Nations. Moreover, all this has taken place in a country in which, as the hon. Member for Yeovil graphically described, the population density can scarcely be imagined by people here.

We must also remember the point of view of the Hong Kong people. They see refugees from mainland China with whom they have family and cultural links being sent back, while the Vietnamese refugees are accepted without reserve. That is the situation in which the closed camps were established. The hon. Gentleman suggested that this happened six years ago, but I believe that it was only three years ago. The purpose was quite openly to deter the number of refugees coming into Hong Kong, and that has been the effect. The number of refugees coming in has declined sharply. The fact that some continue to arrive in Hong Kong knowing full well that they will have to live in closed camps in the conditions described by the hon. Member for Yeovil illustrates the repressive nature of the regime from which they have fled.

The closed camps are not ideal. Although they are not prisons, they are tantamount to prisons to the extent that entrance and exit is severely controlled and there are necessarily regulations within a closed community of that kind. I do not dispute the hon. Gentleman's quotations from the United Nations High Commissioner, but I believe that Mr. Hartling also made some complimentary remarks. Having visited the camps, he said that what he found was encouraging and that he appreciated the difficult circumstances in which the camps had to operate.

About half the refugees, of course, are in open camps where conditions are also far from ideal. They are described as transit camps because that was their original purpose. I must declare a personal interest. My son has just spent nine months working in one of those camps with the refugees. He saw the overcrowded conditions in which the refugees have to live. The refugees have no privacy. The children are bitten by rats as they sleep. Disease is inevitably transmitted. That is the best that can be done in the difficult circumstances existing in what was intended to be a transit centre.

For my son, we are not just talking about 11,000 refugees; we are talking about real people with names. We are talking about Nguyen Van Vinh and his son Nguyen Ba Vie, who have been in the camp since 1980. They have little prospect of being able to join the rest of their family in the United States. We are talking about people like Nguyen Van Luy, a 17-year-old who has been there for three years, unable to join a brother in Belgium.

I could cite many other cases. They suggest the only answer to the problem, which is resettlement. Shutting down the camps while taking no other action would not solve the problem. It would exacerbate it.

The United Kingdom has a good record in accepting refugees. I do not think it is entirely fair for the hon. Member for Yeovil to make comparisons with other countries without drawing attention to the different conditions in other countries in terms of the density of population, the availability of housing and so on.

I vividly recall the problems that arose when the previous wave of refugees arrived here. I was working closely with the then Home Secretary, Lord Whitelaw. We sought the co-operation of the local authorities in finding accommodation for the refugees.

A number of other countries have given strong indications that they are prepared to help to solve this international problem. However, they look to us. The United Kingdom has a special relationship with Hong Kong, and we must give the lead. If we agree to accept some of the refugees, other countries will follow.

One can draw a comparison with immigrants who wish voluntarily to leave their own country and come here. To whom have we the greater obligation—the immigrants, or the refugees who have nowhere else to go and face an uncertain future in the conditions that the hon. Gentleman has described?

The Government are considering the report of the Select Committee. I congratulate the Select Committee on the manner in which it reviewed the problem and put forward its proposals. Clearly one cannot expect an immediate response, but I hope that the relevant Government Departments are considering the recommendations closely and will take firm action. That is what we owe to the Government and the people of Hong Kong. That is what we owe to people such as Nguyen Van Vinh, Nguyen Ba Vie and Nguyen Van Luy in both the closed and the open camps in Hong Kong.

12.15 pm

There is no doubt about the importance of the whole problem of Vietnamese refugees, or about the difficulties that we face in connection with the need since the middle of 1982 to maintain closed camps in Hong Kong. I quite agree with the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) about the importance of these issues. I congratulate him on raising the matter in this debate. As he said, this is the third debate on the subject in three weeks. That shows how much strength of feeling there is in the House about the matter.

It is clear that the hon. Gentleman has a heart—and I hope that he will agree that we all have a heart. I hope that the hon. Gentleman also has a head. I feel that on this occasion he has allowed his heart to dominate his head to some extent. I do not deny for a moment that conditions in the closed camps are unsatisfactory. I have said on several occasions that the situation is unsatisfactory and we want to end it as soon as possible. However, we must see the issue against the reality of the background not only of Hong Kong's problems—which are major, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged — but of the United Kingdom's problems. To a considerable extent, the Select Committee acknowledged and investigated those problems.

I also welcomed the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims). My hon. Friend, too, spoke with strong feeling and on a personal basis. The fact that his son has worked in one of the camps adds weight to what he had to say.

The matter must be seen against the background of the Select Committee's report. The Government are studying the report with great care. The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to reply to those recommendations in an Adjournment debate—although he expressed the hope that I might. The Government are considering the recommendations with the greatest care and intend to reply as soon as possible. We are fully aware that it is a matter of urgency. I cannot therefore reply directly to the hon. Gentleman's challenge to say what the Government's reaction is to the report. However, I can pick up many of the points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

It would be wrong to examine the issue of the closed camps in Hong Kong without considering their root cause. Clearly, the problem derives from conditions in Vietnam, which are clearly totally and utterly oppressive. Vietnam has the third largest army in the world. It occupies another country—Cambodia. It has a terrible record on human rights; thousands of people are kept in re-education camps without charge or trial for years on end. Over a million refugees have left the country since 1975, and in the past year no fewer than 25,000 Vietnamese have fled by boat to various parts of the world. Those figures are a massive condemnation of what is happening in Vietnam today. That flow of refugees will stop only when that country adopts a more civilised policy towards human beings who live there. With the rest of the international community, we shall do what we can to persuade Vietnamese to improve their human rights policy.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Yeovil and my hon. Friend paid tribute to Hong Kong's achievements in this field. Hong Kong has given temporary asylum to over 100,000 refugees since 1975. In 1979, at the height of the crisis, over 68,000 boat people arrived in Hong Kong. None have been turned away. At his press conference in Hong Kong on 14 May, the United Nations High Commissioner, Mr. Hartling, said:
"We are very grateful to Hong Kong—to the authorities, the Government here and to the people because Hong Kong has given asylum and never, never refused to give asylum to refugees coming here and never forced them back against their will, and treated them well, but of course, they would like as we would like to see a solution—a durable solution, for these refugees." The Government certainly share Mr. Hartling's views.
The closed camps are one of the sad aspects of the Indo-Chinese refugee problem. In an ideal world, there would be no refugee camps, closed or open. As I said in my evidence to the Select Committee on 4 February and reiterated in the debate on 14 May, the position of having 5,600 refugees in closed camps and an equal number in open camps is such that no Minister can say that it is satisfactory or desirable. It is most certainly not. Refugee situations are certainly not ideal. How can they be? There is no perfect solution. However, we must be realistic. I ask the House to try to understand the Hong Kong Government's position on the matter, and to see the position within the special geographical and political circumstances of the territory.

Moreover, I must ask the hon. Gentleman to take into account another factor, which I believe is of importance. Other countries in the region, for example Thailand and the Philippines, have, reluctantly, found it necessary to run restricted camps of the same kind as the camps that we described in Hong Kong as closed camps in which, in the same way, the inhabitants are, regrettably, not free to move as they wish, and not free to work. Therefore, we must acknowledge that other countries are faced with a similar problem. Hong Kong is not the only country that has to grapple with it.

What are the reasons for the closed camps? Doubts have been expressed as to whether Hong Kong was justified in introducing the closed camp policy. There is no doubt in my mind about that because the figures speak for themselves. In July 1982, the month when the policy was introduced, arrivals reached their highest level for three years. Resettlement possibilities were diminishing sharply. The Hong Kong Government were faced with the prospect of the numbers in the camps rising to unmanageable levels, as they had done in 1979.

It is important to understand why that was particularly alarming for Hong Kong. The hon. Gentleman fully understands it, but I should like to repeat the reason. Hong Kong is one of the most crowded places in the world. It has a population of over 5 million in a territory of only 400 square miles, much of it barren hillside and rocky islets. Its population density is 20 times that of the United Kingdom. It has acute problems resulting from the large influx of immigrants from China in recent years. It continues to absorb large numbers of legal immigrants from China—27,700 in 1984. Illegal immigrants from China, however, are repatriated, although they often have family and cultural ties with the people of Hong Kong. That is an important point for the people of Hong Kong.

That is the context in which the people of Hong Kong see the Vietnamese problem. They therefore find it difficult to accept that the Vietnamese should be given what they regard as special treatment by being allowed to remain in the territory while awaiting resettlement. The closed camp policy was therefore introduced, and has been maintained with the full support of the people of Hong Kong. They felt that that was the only way to try to discourage the Vietnamese from setting out for Hong Kong.

The strength of Hong Kong feeling on the issue was demonstrated in the Adjournment debate of the Hong Kong Legislative Council on 15 May, as the hon. Gentleman may have noticed. A member of the council, Mrs. Selina Chow, said:
"The closed camp policy …came into force in July 1982 … Our treatment of Vietnamese refugees at the time was not in line with either policies of our other Asian countries, most of which had been operating closed camps … In the face of the only realistic options open to Hong Kong at the time regarding Vietnamese refugees, i.e. repatriation, refusal to land and the closed camps, the last was certainly the least inhumane". Those are the comments of a very distinguished member of the Legislative Council.
The question is whether that policy has worked. Doubts have been expressed about that. We must look at the figures. In 1981, before the start of the policy, Hong Kong arrivals increased by 25 per cent. over the 1980 levels, whereas those for the region as a whole increased by only 5 per cent. In 1982, Hong Kong arrivals went down by only 7 per cent. compared with the regional decline of 41 per cent. However, in 1983, after the closed camps policy had been introduced, and by which time it was fully implemented, Hong Kong arrivals were 53 per cent. less than those for 1982 compared with a regional decline of 36 per cent. In 1984 the Hong Kong decrease was 39 per cent., and that for the region only 11 per cent. That is clear evidence that the deterrent is working. It is the only deterrent available.

What is the future of that policy? It is an important matter. I stress that we regard it as a temporary measure. It is our objective to see those closed camps terminated as soon as possible. However, the fact is that there are factors outside Her Majesty's or the Hong Kong Government's control, which must ultimately dictate how long the closed camps will need to remain in being—the rate of arrivals from Vietnam and the rate of departures to countries of resettlement, which were two issues raised by the hon. Gentleman.

I refer to departures. It is true that closed camp policy would not have been necessary if the resettlement prospects for refugees in Hong Kong had not deteriorated so much in 1981 and 1982. I fully acknowledge that many other countries, such as Canada, the United States and Australia, have taken a considerable number of refugees. We are extremely grateful for that. Here in Britain we have taken over 12,000 from Hong Kong and Hong Kong has itself absorbed over 14,000 Indo-Chinese refugees. Since mid-1982, when the closed camps were introduced, 4,600 members of those camps have been resettled. However, many more resettlement places will have to be provided if homes are to be found for all the refugees who are still in Hong Kong and other places of first asylum. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Poul Hartling, will be coming to London on 5 June, and both I and my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, will be meeting him to discuss Hong Kong's problems. Resettlement will obviously be one of the subjects that we shall talk about.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst said, Britain's record must be aknowledged. We do not have a long historic connection with the Indo-Chinese region, yet we have taken nearly 20,000 refugees over the past six years. The hon. Member for Yeovil will have read the Select Committee's report, which shows the many difficulties that we have had in helping those refugees settle in this country. That factor must be taken fully into account. Yet, despite all that, we have taken just under 20,000, we continue to take some of the boat people, and have taken 12,000 from Hong Kong.

With regard to conditions in the camps, I shall look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman said. Because I shall not be able to answer every point that he raised, I shall make sure that I write a note to him with further comments on some of the specific conditions. I understand people's concern that refugees should not be confined to camps. However, I must say that Her Majesty's Government and the Hong Kong Government attach great importance to ensuring that refugees are adequately cared for within the camps. Mr. Hartling said that he did not like the idea of closed camps, but that inside the Bowring camp, he
"found the circumstances, the conditions, very encouraging." He compared the situation of the children at the Bowring camp with that of some of the refugees in other countries, who he said were starving, sick and destitute and had tears in their eyes. His conclusion was that the Hong Kong authorities and the voluntary agencies, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, were doing a very good job, for which he was very grateful. That was also my reaction when I visited the Chi Ma Wan camp in 1983.
On 15 May, Mr. Alan Lee, a Member of the Legislative Council, said:
"Just recently I went back to the Vietnamese refugee camps and I can say with a clear conscience that the treatment these Vietnamese refugees are getting in Hong Kong is better than a lot of people living in Hong Kong who are genuine Hong Kong residents."

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I should like to comment on some of his other points.

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says about overcrowding. I have seen the conditions for myself. The overall numbers of refugees are continuing to come down, albeit slowly. We want the pace to speed up. Overcrowding is beginning to be reduced. I ask the hon. Gentleman to compare such overcrowding in Hong Kong not with European standards but with Hong Kong standards. Some of the comments I have seen are a little unfair on the Hong Kong authorities. There has been an easing of the pressure, although the position is still not satisfactory.

We took careful account of the views expressed by the British Refugee Council. We have tried to do our best to implement some of its recommendations. We shall continue to listen carefully to any other representations, including those by the hon. Member for Yeovil, to ascertain whether we can improve and ease the conditions. That is certainly the priority of the Hong Kong Government. We have done a great deal in education and training—these aspects are improving all the time—to help people resettle in other countries. We certainly value the efforts of voluntary bodies.

I shall make a point of commenting later on the hon. Gentleman's views on the use of drugs in closed camps, because the remarks made were very wide of the mark. I shall give the hon. Gentleman a fuller comment on that.

I thank the hon. Member for Yeovil for raising this issue. I wish to re-emphasise that we do not want to maintain these camps any longer than absolutely necessary. We look forward to replying shortly to the Select Committee's report. It is a matter of priority for the Government to work towards a durable solution to this problem.

St Luke's Hospice, Basildon

12.30 pm

There can be few hon. Members who have not at some time during their lives known someone who has died from cancer. It might have been a friend, a relative or a loved one. We know that cancer shows no respect for age or circumstances. It affects the young and old alike, the poor and the wealthy. When it strikes, the consequences can be devastating, not just for the person afflicted, but for those trying to give support.

The word "cancer" has such connotations that some people are even reluctant to use it. The very thought of it or the eventual diagnosis can strike terror in the hearts of the bravest people when they feel ill. I understand such reactions, for, while many people say that they do not fear death, I do not number among them.

Fortunately, as medical science advances, the treatment of cancer patients improves all the time. More lives are saved, but the treatment of cancer still occupies much of the time and resources of a substantial section of the medical profession. Despite the billions of pounds poured into research by Governments, the World Health Organisation and drug companies, cancer is still the second most common cause of premature death in developed countries.

I do not intend to go into the difficulties of clinical research, interpretation of clinical trial results, alternative medicine claims or the priorities governing treatment and new methods of prevention. These deserve an entire debate. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will say something about the Government's position in trying to find a cure for this disease, about the further plans that the Government might have and about the breakthroughs, if any, that have been achieved.

I wish to confine most of my remarks to the case of terminally ill patients, and especially to a project started in my constituency of Basildon—St. Luke's hospice. The three alternatives for the terminally ill are to remain at home, to enter an acute ward in a hospital or, if there is one in the area, to enter a hospice. Nowadays, the cancer care group operates in the home as a team involving the family, the GP, district nurse, social worker, therapist, health adviser and a religious figure such as a priest or chaplain. However, the strains placed on a family and the patient during the illness may lead to the breakdown of a family.

The deceased should be able to leave the fondest of memories behind. The range of emotions exhibited by cancer patients may leave nothing but discord, which is a sorry state in which to leave a family. Self-imposed isolation from the family, fear of dying, anger at other people's perceived interference, frustration at the dependence needed on others or depressed indifference may separately or together shatter a family, to say nothing of creating more pain for the patient.

It is difficult to express in words the heartbreak that is felt when people see their loved ones deteriorate before their eyes, sometimes within a short time and sometimes in a humiliating manner.

An acute ward in a hospital is an alternative. The modern cancer team in a hospital is well trained to care for the terminal patient. But on a busy acute ward, the amount of personal attention that can be given to each patient is bound to be limited. The number of consultants with knowledge of the use of drugs to avoid pain, rather than of drugs which temporarily alleviate pain, is limited, this being a highly specialised area.

Privacy is also difficult to find in many hospitals. Most people prefer to spend their last days nestled in the family circle, rather than in a hospital, no matter how efficient, kind and understanding the staff around them.

The hospice movement grew out of dissatisfaction with the standard of hospital care provided for the terminally ill. In the intervening years, the standard has improved enormously. Nevertheless, the hospice movement offers a halfway house between the immense difficulties of caring for a terminally ill patient at home and the efficient, but less personal, care provided by many hospitals.

Hospices provide the buildings and teams for the specialist care of the terminally ill. Hon. Members are aware of the immense sums required to build and maintain a separate specialist institution. Indeed, 82 hon. Members have the privilege of having hospices in their constituencies. They will be aware of the great assistance that these teams can give. St. Luke's hospice will be directed towards the laudable aim of controlling pain. The staff will have special training to enable them to do that.

Hon. Members will be aware that there is more to pain than physical pain. Although the hospice movement has pioneered the use of drugs with the minimum side effects to control pain, far more is involved. The knowledge of death through cancer brings fear with it—fear of pain, loss of self-control, sanity, dignity and independence, and fear of death itself.

Hospices not only stop pain, but have the trained staff to help with the spiritual and emotional needs which are evident at that time. It has been shown that emotional difficulties, especially of the kind generated in the family circle, create pain. The assistance given in this area adds a complementary dimension to the use of drugs, radio therapy, nerve blocks and so on. By removing the emotional pain, it is sometimes possible to reduce the amount of physical treatment that is needed. The patient can thus lead a fuller existence by being awake and alert in the last few weeks.

Hospice staff try to create an atmosphere in which the patient and the family can express their fears and hopes, sort out practical and emotional problems and use their time together for mutual benefit. Hospice support of families is vital. The guidance and counselling of an experienced team can be effective enough to ensure that patients spend their last few days in the companionship of their families.

As late as 1979, it was estimated that 28 per cent. of cancer patients died in severe pain. There is no need for that. We possess the knowledge to enable people to retain a high quality of life to the bitter end, and St. Luke's will help to perform that function in Basildon.

The project, inspired by a hard-working committee and, in particular, the Cox family, has resulted in children, women and men from all walks of life, and from different circumstances, joining together with the one selfless and compassionate aim of building a hospice, not as a memorial to the dead, but to help the living.

I am extremely fortunate to represent a constituency with such good community spirit and where blatant acts of generosity are evident, even though it is not an especially wealthy part of Essex. Nevertheless, the hurdles are enormous. Nearly £500,000 will have to be raised during three years. Basildon development corporation has allowed the freehold of the site at Fobbing Farm to be bought for the lowest figure that the district valuer would accept. It has tried to help as much as possible. The design team of architects, surveyor and engineer have offered their services at reduced rates. but the building will present a problem.

The cost includes an estimated £58,597 of VAT. If that tax could be lifted, the organising committee would be enormously relieved. I realise that this is not the Minister's responsibility, but will he have a word with the relevant Minister to see whether anything can be done? I am pleased that the building has a chance of being accepted for grade II listed status, which would give some relief from VAT and other advantages, although it would render the building subject to certain building controls.

The advantages to the National Health Service of a hospice are extensive. A significant number of beds in acute wards are saved and. by acting as community teams, hospices enable people to stay at home or in the hospice and give them help to enable them to face their last days with dignity and courage. Hospices are an impressive addition to health care. The quality and care is unquestioned, and the standards that they have set are high and compassionate. Good terminal care is a challenge to all with responsibility for the dying.

When Dame Cicely Saunders established St. Christopher's hospice in south London in the 1960s, it was in in-patient unit where patients could be cared for during the final weeks of their lives. Recently, however, hospice activity has been concentrated on supporting patients in the home. The in-patient unit is regarded as providing back-up support and, where necessary, intensive nursing care.

Hospices' main achievement in pain control has been the demonstration of the benefits of administering analgesics regularly before the patient's manifest need for them arises. The in-patient unit, the home care service and the symptom control team contribute to the work of a hospice. There were only 12 in-patient units in the United Kingdom in the mid-1960s. Their number has grown to nearly 70. There are also about 90 home care services and 11 symptom control teams. I am pleased to learn that other hospice facilities are being planned.

Patients in the terminal stages of cancer are often told that nothing more can be done. That is seldom true with advanced cancer. An interested and sympathetic doctor using a small number of well-established drugs can relieve pain in most cases. No cancer patient should be allowed to die suffering. Pain can be relieved entirely in the majority of cases and controlled satisfactorily in the rest. Terminal care should begin when any attempt to cure the disease is deemed inappropriate and all professional skills must be devoted to the relief of physical, emotional, social and spiritual distress.

No doubt the film about Bob Champion and his remarkable determination to beat the disease, and eventually to go on to win the Grand National, will inspire many fellow sufferers. His story provides a moving account of his emotional battles and has a fairy story ending. However, not everyone can be a Bob Champion, so hospices are essential.

I said earlier that a substantial amount of money was needed to finance the project. My constituents have set about their task in an enthusiastic, enterprising and original fashion. A few weeks ago, I was privileged to be present at a major fund-raising event in our town centre in aid of St. Luke's hospice. People bought bricks for £1 each to build the hospice and then formed a human chain to move them to the site where it will be built. The spirit of people was wonderful and the dedication service that evening was a joyous occasion.

I am proud to give whatever assistance I can to St. Luke's. It will be built with the minimum financial assistance that the Government might feel able to give, and fundamentally from the generosity and belief of the people of Basildon.

I am not really asking the Government for financial assistance. However, if the Minister has any suggestions about how the money can be raised, we would obviously be delighted to hear them. If he knows of any European fund to which we might be eligible to apply, that would be helpful. If there is anyone listening to the debate, or who hears about the project, who might be able to give us physical, financial or practical assistance, we would be delighted.

Whatever difficulties the organisers of the project face, everyone is determined that the hospice will be built quickly, inspired as they all are by the words of Dame Cecily Saunders:
"You matter to the last moment of life, and we will do all we can, not only to help you to die peacefully but to live until you die."

12.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security
(Mr. John Patten)

It was entirely characteristic of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) to end with that very moving quotation from Dame Cecily who did so much to get the hospice movement going in the 1960s. It has been an inspiration to all those involved — whether in the residential sphere or in the increasing area of activity concerned with helping people in their homes and counselling those who look after them.

My hon. Friend's speech was also characteristically lucid, and certainly very moving in parts. His interest in health affairs is already noted in the House. He has been the first to criticise—heartily supported by me—some of the scandalous suggestions and slander against the National Health Service in his area from the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) —who is not in his place today—and the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman). They have done a great deal to lower morale in that area, and by knocking the service they have caused great upset among the staff. I advise those who gratuitously look for publicity for cheap political ends to pick their targets with rather more sensitivity than that shown by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, as I shall tell him the next time that I speak from the Dispatch Box, and as, indeed, I have told him before.

My hon. Friend appreciates that a number of his points do not fall within my ministerial capacity. For example, the question of VAT on charities is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. I know that it is a useful defence for Ministers to say that certain matters are not for them but their right hon. Friends, but I shall not say that about the EC. I think that I can give my hon. Friend some advice, even though it is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary.

The two EC funds that we considered as possibly able to provide help for the project do not, alas, appear to be applicable. Therefore, subject to any further advice from the European Parliament, I do not think that anything can be done there.

In the brief time available, I shall try to reply to the important points that have been raised. I shall do so on three levels. First, I shall comment on hospices, and the hospice movement nationally. Secondly, I shall try to answer some of the important questions that my hon. Friend asked about cancer. Thirdly, I shall say something about Basildon. My word, what spirit there seems to be in Basildon! What effort is being made by the local people! They have not gone cap in hand to anyone, but are determined to do everything themselves. I have some experience of that in my area of Oxford, where a hospice has been similarly helped and where similar spirit has been shown.

Those organising the appeal—the Cox family, and Mrs. Cox in particular, as well as all those who have given money and who have formed a human chain to shift bricks and so on—have demonstrated the strength of voluntary giving in this country, which links prople of all political parties at all times. Such giving existed before the NHS came into being and it has carried on since then. It is a compliment to Basildon that it should have approached the issue in that way.

I should not like to give hon. Members the impression that the NHS does not wish to take care of the terminally ill. Much of the initiative has come in the past from local voluntary groups. Indeed, in the health and social services, such groups have often proved to be the seed corn from which much bigger statutory services have developed. Although we welcome that process, we have been conscious from time to time that services have developed in an unplanned way. Whether funds are raised for a hospice, for a body scanner or for any of the other items that we learn about with such pleasure in the press, consideration must be given to the proper national planning and provision of health services. That is why I welcome the growing spirit of co-operation that has been seen in Basildon and in the country as a whole between the voluntary sector and local health authorities in order to ensure that the right services are provided at the right time with the money that has been raised. I am very pleased to see that going on in Basildon in just the right way.

We believe that adequate terminal care should be provided by every health authority. It can be provided in several different ways, but we would encourage every health authority to enter into a constructive partnership, where possible, in order to achieve that end. We certainly do not say that good terminal care should be available only in hospices.

I must return to a theme that has come up from time to time in our Adjournment debates when we have kept each other company at all times of the day and night. I refer to the feeling among some hon. Members that large hospitals cannot give sensitive care either in maternity wards or in wards for the terminally ill. I do not believe that that is so. Maternity wards in large hospitals can be homely and agreeable places that have devoted staff encouraging mothers-to-be. It would be inappropriate, to put it mildly, to suggest that our nurses, doctors and ancillary workers, who play such an important role in our NHS hospitals, cannot give the care and attention that the dying deserve. They often do so, and I am happy to say that many people write in to thank those involved.

We welcome the co-operation given by the hospice movement. We want to encourage it and to see it grow and develop in partnership with the NHS. But my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Health and I are convinced that with good guidelines and good staff training there is no reason why that same quality of care and attention cannot be given even in our largest, perhaps 1,000-bed, hospitals.

My hon. Friend alluded to support for cancer research. Alas, I am not able to report any further great developments on that front, but I remind my hon. Friend that the DHSS and the Department of Education and Science allocate substantial funds to the Medical Research Council, which in turn allocates an equally substantial amount directly for cancer research. The Medical Research Council is spending about £19 million on cancer research this year, the largest allocation of its funds to any area of research. Therefore, more money is going from the MRC, drawing upon the funds of the Department of Health and Social Security and the Department of Education and Science, to this area of research than to any other area.

The voluntary sector has a role to play in cancer research, a role which I do not wish to underestimate. This is another very good example of how the voluntary sector can support and supplement the health services. About half of the expenditure upon cancer research comes from non-Exchequer funds. The Imperial Cancer Research Fund and the Cancer Research Campaign are major contributors. They have provided £4 million and £19 million respectively for the research budget, a formidable amount of money. Our experience is shared with other western countries and with the United States where these problems are being tackled head on.

On the particular problems of services for the terminally ill in Basildon and Thurrock, the North-East Thames regional health authority shares our view about local NHS services for the terminally ill. In its strategic plan it says that every district health authority should establish medical and nursing staff training for the care of the dying. That is critical. The NHS has a formidable job to do here. It also says that it should set up, either independently or in collaboration with an adjacent district, a home care service which operates outside the hospital or hospice with a pain relief clinic. I have visited such clinics and know about the extraordinary work that is done there. It also proposes that small in-patient facilities should be allocated, either hospital-based from the acute sector or using the services of a voluntary hospice.

I welcome these proposals. It is clear that what is being done for those who, alas, are terminally ill will increasingly be done in the community. This does not mean that it will be a cheaper option. In staffing terms, it may be considerably more expensive. As my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon said with such crispness, the majority of those who are terminally ill would prefer, wherever possible to be in their own homes with their families. But their families need support from nursing staff, social workers and others to deal with the problems which sometimes arise during the last few weeks —resentment, fear and all the other emotions which my hon. Friend so clearly described. By the better training of hospital staff and the better development of community-based services we shall mount a much more concerted twin-pronged attack.

I am glad that in Basildon and Thurrock the health authority is actively looking at ways to improve its care of the terminally ill. For this purpose it has set up a working party. I understand that at its June meeting the authority will be considering a report from the working party. I have not seen the report, but I understand that it makes a number of recommendations about the development of these services. I am advised that it says something about encouraging voluntary activities and closer links with the hospice movement. I hope that June will be an important month in, the development of these services in the Basildon and Thurrock area.

We acknowledge the major role played in the past by the hospice movement and the role that it will continue to play in the care of the terminally ill. We recognise that the NHS also has an important role to play in the planning of these services. We never want voluntary effort and funds to go astray, to be spent in an unnecessary or inappropriate way or to be wasted because of a lack of planning.

The boot is on both feet. The health authority must ensure that it is open to voluntary organisations, and must give them a role. Equally, voluntary organisations must ensure that they do not go off at a tangent. They must let health authorities know what they are doing and they must co-operate. In the past there have been criticisms of health authorities for not taking voluntary organisations into account. That must stop. If any hon. Member has a complaint about that, he should let us know because health authorities have a positive duty to take into account voluntary organisations' fund-raising activities in planning future developments. Nevertheless, it is for the authorities to decide how services should be provided.

Clearly. things are moving fast in Basildon. There is good co-operation between volunteers and the local health authority. I hope that it will not be long before the long-awaited plans come to fruition.

Homelessness (Young People)

1 pm

I am very glad to have had parliamentary time allocated to me for this important debate. My concern to secure the debate derived from the ever more disturbing evidence of homelessness among young people in Manchester; from my work as a trustee of the Disabilities Study Unit which, under the leadership of Duncan Guthrie, has worked so hard to focus attention on this grave and growing problem; from my knowledge of its consequences for some of the most vulnerable young people as a trustee of Crisis at Christmas; and from the powerful submissions to right hon. and hon. Members of this House from such widely respected organisations as Shelter, CHAR and MIND.

As the House rises for the Whitsun recess — and families unite for a holiday weekend together—it is not inappropriate that we should be debating this major social problem here today. The Government stand accused of giving the problem of the young homeless—or, as they are known in other countries, "street children" and "street youth" — scant attention and of showing little understanding of the human suffering involved. As the House knows, the Government have not entirely overlooked the problem. They recently introduced new rules for board and lodging payments, which are expressly designed to make it more difficult, not to say impossible, for young people to move into areas where they believe that employment may be available to them. First, they were advised to get on their bikes and look for work. Now they are punished for doing so.

SHADES, an excellent youth advisory project deeply involved in seeking to assist homeless young people in Manchester, see and work to help young people from my own constituency. With an increasing number of other youngsters they end up in the inner city, homeless because there is simply no suitable housing provision for them in their own localities. Some make their way to London and. when the lure of the bright lights fades and they have to face the harsh realities of the London streets, the lucky ones make their way to Centrepoint, which works, with all too limited resources, in the centre of Soho, providing emergency night shelter facilities as well as hostel accommodation and a small number of flats. The less lucky ones arrive at the accepted meeting places of the young homeless; in cafes and bars and at street corners where, in the company of other young people in the same predicament, they often take the first steps to drug dependency, crime of all sorts, including prostitution, both male and female, as rent boys and rent girls, and the general despair of homelessness.

The plight of the youngsters is now made worse by having to move from area to area to retain benefit. Unable to return to any particular area for six months, they are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) has said, almost driven into crime and prostitution. In this International Year of Youth, they become even more vulnerable to abuse. Young people who are handicapped, either physically or mentally, are the most vulnerable of all.

If anyone sees this as alarmist, they should reflect on the trial of Dennis Nilsen with its grim revelation of multiple murder. Even when the problem was less serious than it is today, Nilsen admitted he had no difficulty in picking up 22 young men where street youth congregate in London. They were lured to his flat and he murdered 15 of them. His young victims were unemployed, mostly homeless or at best living in squats and only too pleased at the prospect of a bed for the night. Recollection of the horror of that case, among others, must inform our judgment of the Government's decision to make it more difficult, not easier, for the young homeless to obtain safe lodgings.

Turning again to my own city, I am very strongly advised from Manchester—this is the view of the city's officers most directly concerned with their implementation — that the new regulations on board and lodging ceilings must be urgently reversed. One consequence of the regulations is that they will make young people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation homeless, and will therefore put them in the highest priority group on the rehousing list. This will put extra pressure on the local authority and have knock-on effects for other applicants.

Let me quote from the advice I have received from

Manchester:
"The impact in some places will be horrific. Young single homeless people may well be competing with other priority groups, for example, the elderly and medical priority cases, for a limited supply of small-sized dwellings…An ironic consequence of Manchester's humane and positive attitude could be to make the situation worse by making the city a centre to which young people will flock. At the same time, there is the danger of a backlash from other people on the rehousing list against the young people who are victims of the Government's new regulations."
All informed opinion believes that the Government are contributing further to the housing crisis and, because of the vulnerable age group on which they are picking, they could rapidly create major social tensions as well. The whole proposal is badly thought out. The levels of benefit are inadequate. They provide £55 for full board or £70 for hostels in Manchester, yet research carried out as long ago as June 1983 showed that £80 was a realistic figure for Greater Manchester. The Social Security Advisory Committee has admitted that the charges now payable are likely to create
"a class of rootless young people unable to find accommodation in one place, unable to find a job, and obliged by benefit rules to move around the country constantly."
This is a case where the Government are returning to pre-Victorian values. The proposals are a re-enactment of the old poor law which allowed parishes to send "sturdy beggars" on their way. It is not the way that any Government should treat our young people.

Last October, in reply to a parliamentary question that I put to the Secretary of State for the Environment, he informed me that there was no information available on the numbers of homeless adolescents and young people in London and the other major conurbations. I was given a similar reply by the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. Figures are still unavailable, and I must now press the Government to obtain them. It must be a very mistaken sense of economy that leaves the statutory and voluntary sectors with no figures from which to work. Of course, all who work in the area know—as I was told by Shelter yesterday—that the numbers are increasing, especially among youngsters, boys and girls alike, under 16 years of age. More and more of them sleep rough in the streets.

In a further parliamentary question, I asked whether the DHSS would support a study being mounted jointly by the Disabilities Study Unit and European Research on Consumer Affairs to collect information on the voluntary organisations concerned with "street children" and "street youth" in the countries of the European Economic Community. The aim was to learn more about their objectives, their modus operandi and their sources of funding. In reply, I was told that an application would be considered on its merits. But when Duncan Guthrie, as director of the Disabilities Study Unit, submitted a proposal to the DHSS he was told:
"This Department's responsibilities in the area of homelessness are concerned with special care and support needs rather than homelessness per se".
This could only have meant that the DHSS was not prepared to take steps to cure the disease, only to treat some of the symptoms. I am glad to say that the Disabilities Study Unit has now been able to raise funds, partly from voluntary grant-making bodies and partly from the EC, and that this important study can now be put in hand. Sadly, however, a great deal of time has been spent in seeking financial support which could otherwise have gone into constructive research.

I must ask the Minister whether he agrees that the present piecemeal approach to the problem of homelessness among young people is hampering other valuable work in this sector? The DHSS, the Department of Education and Science, the Department of the Environment, the Home Office and local authorities are all involved in different, but not very clearly differentiated, aspects of the problem.

The voluntary organisations are often at a loss to know which Government Department they should contact. They are often at a loss, too, to understand what the Government are expecting of the voluntary sector and in what areas Government, both central and local, are likely to provide a grant-in-aid.

Again, there are reports of important differences of opinion between the DHSS and the Department of the Environment. What exactly are the differences, and to what extent do they concern the new regulations? As the Minister must know, the Minister responsible for home affairs and the environment in the Scottish Office, speaking to the Shelter conference on young people's housing needs in Edinburgh on 26 October 1984, made a statement on homelessness in Scotland which many in the voluntary sector would like to see endorsed by the Department of the Environment Minister. Will the Minister, in replying to the debate, endorse his Scottish colleague's statement?

There are some other specific questions that I must put to the Minister. First, can he tell me what evidence, if any, has been given to adjudication officers on how to determine whether someone under 26 claiming a board and lodging allowance is so disabled that it is unreasonable to expect him to be in accommodation other than as a boarder? Secondly, will he look very urgently at the effect of the new board and lodging regulations on disabled claimants?

In Shelter's experience, much difficulty has been caused by the way that DHSS offices have sent out notices to claimants informing them that their benefit will be reduced unless they can show that they fit into an exceptional category, without the Department having any adequate information to make such an assessment. To put the onus on, for example, people who are mentally, ill to show that they fit into an exceptional category is clearly highly unsatisfactory. I am sure that the Minister will agree with me on that.

Such people may not understand that they fall into the category of "mentally ill or disordered persons". Even if they do understand, they are likely to be reluctant to provide the DHSS with detailed evidence to prove the case. The implementation of the regulations raises important questions of privacy of information which I should like the Minister to address himself to when he replies.

MIND and CHAR have said in a joint statement:
"Government policies on hoard and lodging charges are creating even worse homelessness among single people, including those with mental health problems."
They also state—and I hope that the Minister will share my concern about their findings:
"Many people are forced to live in appallingly overcrowded conditions, often with poor sanitation, and certainly with little support or help if they have additional disabilities."
In other words, handicap piles on handicap for the young disabled people concerned.

A third specific question concerns the initiative of the Children's Society to make contact with the parents of the children of youngsters who have left home and to whom the society gives temporary shelter. The Minister will be familiar with this and will know that there are legal difficulties. The initiative puts the Children's Society in what has been called
"a grey area of the law"
and I shall be grateful if the Minister will both comment on the initiative and say whether the Government have any plans to change the law to protect the society which, as he knows, wants to be helpful to both child and parent. How does he react to what has been achieved, and is there any possibility of state funding for this and other initiatives? I regard it as a bold and innovative action by a well-respected and responsible voluntary organisation.

The House is, of course, aware of the United Nations projected convention on the rights of the child. Since 1979, a working party has, at the request of the United Nations General Assembly, been drafting a text for the convention. The United Kingdom's contribution has been minimal and this country is not among those which have submitted either amendments or addenda for the working party's final meetings. The answer may be that the Departments concerned are already fully satisfied with the text as drafted. Is that so?

The Government's attitude to the convention contrasts sharply with that of the voluntary sector concerned with homeless youth. In Strasbourg recently, voluntary workers from this country drafted with members of the European Parliament a motion which, in less than 24 hours, had been accepted for tabling in the European Parliament and was subsequently debated there.

It is now 10 years since the DHSS published the report of the working party on homeless young people set up in the wake of that frightening television documentary, "Johnnie, Go Home!" What has happened in those 10 years? The number of homeless children and young people has increased dramatically and is still increasing. The Government should now set up an independent working party to look again at the position of homeless youth in our large cities. I hope that they will be pressed to do so from both sides of the House. Even the briefest look at Times square in New York shows what can happen when too little is done too late.

The time has come to call together in a working party all the voluntary organisations with an interest in the young homeless, and that working party should be enabled to use the best tools of scientific research to look at the problem, its causes and ways in which it can be solved.

The problem can be solved. To govern is to choose and the problem is basically one of priorities and resources. If nothing is done and if the DHSS continues to penalise young people for growing up — for that is what it amounts to when they are forced on to the streets because they are young, out of work and looking for independence—we could soon find ourselves in deeper crisis.

As I have said, this is the International Year of Youth and 1987 is the International Year of the Homeless. What preparations are the Government making for 1987? What plans are there to reduce the cruelty of homelessness among young people? This debate gives the Government an opportunity to show that they appreciate the increasingly widespread concern about the young homeless. I implore the Minister at least to give them some hope. What hope can he offer to the "street children" and "street youth" in Britain today?

1.16 pm

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) has raised the subject of homelessness among young people. In doing so, he drew on his extensive background of personal knowledge and commitment and made a substantial case. This is a matter of public concern and it is right that the House should have the opportunity to review the present position.

I will begin by considering the situation in Manchester, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned in his speech I was interested to read the report of the director of housing entitled, "Strategy for housing single people in need", and I believe that that report has been adopted by the council. I was interested to see the proposals now coming forward from Manchester to try to deal with homelessness. At this stage, there is a problem about the cost of the submissions put forward. We have made it clear to the council that we have no objection to what it proposes to provide. It is simply a matter of the cost of the particular propositions before us. I believe that the strategy adopted by the council is correct.

It is interesting to note that on the general needs index Manchester did not score at all on the homelessness indicator in 1984–85 and scored only 0·5 on the weighted homelessness indicator for the current year out of a total weighted GNI score of 499. That may indicate that the problems of homelessness in Manchester are less severe than in other parts of the country.

I was also interested to see that the housing corporation in Manchester provided housing associations in the area with £665,000 last year for hostels, mainly for the single homeless, and that in the current year £654,000 is being made available for further hostel provision, with an additional £800,000 for hostels for the young homeless. It seems, therefore, that a substantial attack is being made on the problems of homelessness in Manchester.

Towards the end of his speech, the right hon. Gentleman made some interesting comments about the need for more research into the causes of homelessness. I believe that something is happening in our society causing people to leave home in greater numbers than before. This may be to do with the incidence of marital breakdown, or there may be other reasons. Certainly, we need greater insight into the causes of homelessness as well as to find better solutions.

The right hon. Gentleman also touched on what he described as the piecemeal approach of Government to the single homeless. He knows as well as I do, if not better, that Government Departments are based on services. They provide for education, social services, transport, health, and so on, and at any given time an individual member of the public may be looking to a number of Departments for help. As the right hon. Gentleman said, if the single homeless have drug problems that is a matter for the Home Office. If they are on supplementary benefit or if they are ill, it is a matter for the DHSS. Their housing needs are the concern of the Department of the Environment.

The right hon. Gentleman may have been implying that Government Departments should be rearranged so that there was for example, a Department for the single homeless, a Department for the elderly, and a Department for the disabled. That would create some difficult administrative problems as each Department tried to provide services for its client group in isolation, when the services required by all the client groups — such as hospitals or a supplementary benefit system—might be identical. I think that it would be better to retain the present system, with better co-ordination, than to appoint Ministers for individual client groups. I know that this is a sensitive subject, because the right hon. Gentleman has been the Minister with responsibilities for the disabled and appreciates better than anyone else the problems of trying to deal with a single client group within Whitehall or local government.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly said that the homelessness statistics that we collect from local authorities do not include any age breakdown. We are currently talking to the local authority associations about the possibility of including such a breakdown, so that we would know how many young people there were among the homeless. We may well wish to return to that point when our research project on how authorities record their statistics on activity under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 has been completed. The project is due to start later in the year.

At the moment information on homelessness among young people is patchy. However, I would not deny that the evidence from all sides — advice agencies, local authorities, supplementary benefit figures and one's own constituency advice bureau — suggests a substantial increase in homelessness among young people and a disproportionate representation of ethnic minority groups. Given the importance of the home in providing a background of security in people's lives, and given the serious and lasting effects that homelessness can have on people's development, especially when those effects are felt at a young and impressionable age, that is certainly a situation that the Government are concerned about and are anxious to improve.

There are many reasons why a young person may become homeless. Often a combination of factors are involved. The decision to leave the parental home will not always be the result of some crisis or problems; moving away from parents and setting up independently is after all very much a part of growing up. But likewise so is learning to be realistic, and it is only reasonable to expect young people to take account of the availability of accommodation before deciding to leave home.

There are occasions when it is difficult or impossible for young people to remain in the parental home, and local authorities need carefully to consider such special circumstances when dealing with homeless young people. Research published by my Department in 1981 as "Single and Homeless" identified a number of important factors contributing to homelessness among young people. When asked why they had left their last settled base, 29 per cent. of those under 30 gave family break-up or marital dispute as a reason, and this was a particularly important explanation in the under-20 age group, in which the figure was 43 per cent. Disputes with parents accounted for 22 per cent. of those under 30. Other important reasons related to employment—nearly 20 per cent.—or entry to or discharge from an institution—12 per cent.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the new supplementary benefit board and lodging regulations that came into effect at the end of April. They have aroused widespread concern, especially the aspects that affect young people aged under 26. The right hon. Gentleman asked me a number of questions about adjudicators that would fall more appropriately to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. I shall ask my right hon. Friend to write to the right hon. Gentleman.

In a lengthy debate on 2 April, my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security explained the changes involved and the reasons for them. At the end of the debate, the House approved the changes. I do not wish to cover all the ground again now. The important point is that the DHSS is carefully monitoring the effects of the changes and Ministers are prepared to consider whether further changes should be made in the light of experience. I know that Shelter, CHAR and other voluntary bodies concerned with homelessness are also monitoring the position from the point of view of homelessness. My Deptartment will keep in close touch with the DHSS as experience of the new regime grows.

On the practical side, I commend what the voluntary bodies are doing. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned some in his speech. I commend what some local authorities are doing to inform existing supplementary benefit claimants in board and lodging of the effects of the new regulations, the accommodation options open to them and their rights under the 1977 Act. One must be clear that authorities that have a minimum duty under the Act to provide "advice and appropriate assistance" to homeless people should not interpret that simply as giving lists of bed and breakfast establishments with charges that are above the new ceilings for board and lodging payments. That would not count as appropriate advice or assistance.

With regard to investment in housing, the right hon. Gentleman knows that difficult decisions on priorities have to be made, in terms of what we can make available. However, on the homelessness factor, we already take into account in the capital allocations to local authorities and in the allocations to the Housing Corporation, the incidence of homelessness in a particular area. We are reviewing with the local authorities the possibility of altering the weighting—currently 10 per cent.—or the form of the homelessness indicator so that it reflects needs more fairly. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have also asked authorities to concentrate their available resources on those in the greatest housing need and, of course, that must include the homeless. Then it is up to the local authorities to decide how to use the resources that are available.

We have tried to help with the hostels initiative, which I hope the right hon. Gentleman knows about. That involved a major expansion in the provision by housing associations of small modern hostels, often providing care and support. Since May 1979 some 11,000 places have been approved. Young homeless people will certainly be among those who have benefited. Under the housing association grant arrangements, associations that provide accommodation in hostels, other forms of shared housing, and self-contained dwellings for renting are supported by my Department with capital and, when necessary, revenue finance.

We are sending a circular to local authorities next month advising them how to introduce better housing management measures, which will reduce the number of empty dwellings. It is a scandal that so many local authority dwellings remain empty while the numbers of homeless people increase. On 1 April 1984 more than 25,000 dwellings had been empty for over a year. We must have another blitz on that figure if we are to make progress with the numbers of homeless people.

We are also looking at several other initiatives. Perhaps more should be done to encourage people to transfer out of under-occupied houses to the smaller homes that might suit them better. Perhaps the Government or local authorities should take further steps to encourage householders to take in lodgers, either directly or through special local agencies. We are looking at several initiatives to encourage the private rented sector at this stage to see what might be done to get private resources into housing.

With regard to preventing the existing housing stock from deteriorating, we recently published a Green Paper on improvement grants. Last week my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met some voluntary bodies concerned with homelessness including the Shelter Housing Aid Centre and CHAR. As a result, we are having another look at our policy on homelessness to see whether fresh initiatives might be introduced to tackle the problem mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman.

We reviewed the 1977 Act three years ago and decided against any extension. However, we monitor the position through the statistics that we collect and the information that comes in from a range of sources. I hope that local authorities will interpret sensitively their obligations under the Act. They can treat as vulnerable some of the young people about whom I know the right hon. Gentleman is concerned—those who are at risk of financial or sexual abuse. The Department's code of guidance encourages authorities to secure accommodation wherever possible for those groups of young people. I welcome the fact that some authorities at least feel able to do that or even more.

I know that I have not answered all the questions asked by the right hon. Gentleman, but I shall write to him. However, I hope that I have said enough to make it clear to him that we are seriously concerned about the increase in homelessness, particularly among young people. At the discussion last week the voluntary bodies made a number of useful points. We are taking a fresh look at this problem and are looking at a range of measures which I hope will relieve the situation described by the right hon. Gentleman.

Leasehold And Tenanted Properties

1.30 pm

I welcome the opportunity to raise a matter which I consider to be of considerable national importance. It is both timely and a happy coincidence that this is a housing matter. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will not feel that he is overworked this afternoon, but at least the two debates to which he is replying follow each other.

This debate is prompted by my growing anxiety over many years about the deteriorating fabric of dwellings and the liability that we shall be storing up for occupiers and taxpayers if we fail to devote the resources and attention that are required. It is appropriate, therefore, for me to ask the House to consider the whole issue of the maintenance and repair of leasehold and tenanted properties. Although I recognise that the problems of disrepair are not isolated in the private sector but apply also in the public sector, in the latter case the Government have done a great deal to assist local authorities' abilities to maintain the fabric of those dwellings. Substantial new efforts are needed in the private sector where the problems are greatest.

I am especially concerned about the leasehold and privated tenanted sector where the neglect of mansion blocks, the squalor of tenement flats and the impoverished conditions of their occupants are most marked.

I am fortunate to represent a beautiful rural constituency. I recognise that some of the problems to which I refer are most prevalent in our cities, but the conditions of leasehold and tenanted properties are current throughout the country and many of the problems to which I refer will be found in agricultural dwellings and smaller blocks of leasehold properties in towns and provinces and not just in the major cities. This is a matter of great national interest.

The problem was clearly brought to the attention of the public through the 1981 English house condition survey which revealed that, of a national total of 18 million dwellings, more than 3 million were in serious disrepair, unfit for habitation or lacked basic amenities. The worst conditions are in the private sector, especially the private rented sector where one in six dwellings are unfit for habitation, amounting to 370,000 dwellings.

An unquantifiable number of leasehold dwellings have become rundown, but the evidence is there to see in our city mansion blocks where, over the years, the deteriorating fabric and structure of those dwellings has not been assisted by a combination of a lack of private resources and the anomalies and artificialities of our property law. These properties are often occupied by old people, those on low incomes and those least able to help themselves.

We know that the number of very elderly people will rise significantly during the remaining years of this century. The quality of their housing stock will, therefore, become a more costly and pressing problem. We cannot afford to wait for that responsibility to arise. We must tackle it over a period of years, and we must start now. We know also that the worst living conditions are suffered in the oldest properties. Of the 1 million dwellings that are categorised as unfit for habitation, 88 per cent. were built before 1919. The average cost of repairs per dwelling is more than £7,000 — a sum far in excess of owners' resources or their ability to raise through earnings and savings.

Few people in the very poorest housing stock can finance the necessary remedial work from savings. Even with grants or loans, a substantial sum must still be found. Curiously, a number of surveys, including the English house condition survey and the first report of the inquiry into British housing, chaired by the Duke of Edinburgh, have found that many owners are not alert to the need to carry out essential repairs and many make no complaint about living in the poorest housing conditions.

While some people become inured to the appalling housing conditions that they suffer, that should not be interpreted as meaning that the problem is more imagined than real, for many have no experience or hope of anything better, and for every resident who is content, there are a multitude who are not.

There is also the pressing and contentious issue of what to do about the increasingly dilapidated mansion blocks throughout the country, and particularly in London, where lessees and tenants have limited ability, even if they had the incentive, to maintain and repair the structure, common parts and fabric of these aging buildings.

Most mansion blocks were built at the turn of the century and are now badly in need of repair. Successive Rent Acts forced landlords away from letting and into selling long leases. Service charges used to be small, but the quadrupling of oil prices and the cost of repairs to lifts, roofs and common parts sent them soaring in the 1970s and they are now a considerable outgoing to most lessees and tenants, particularly in urban areas.

The problem is that neither lessees nor freeholders have the incentive to maintain these properties, partly because of our curious leasehold system, which gives the lessee an inadequate interest in the building as a whole, and because it has been easier and more profitable for many freeholders to exploit lessees, asset-strip what they can and sell before any legal obligation is placed on them.

Complaints about faceless offshore companies trading in the freeholds of blocks of flats with a complete disregard for the wishes or interests of lessees or tenants have abounded for years. Despite the welcome improvements in the rights and protection of residents in the Housing Act 1980, thousands of them are still vulnerable to the worst practices, and in the meantime prudent and necessary repair and maintenance work is left undone.

The consequences of that neglect will be a massive social and financial problem in the years ahead as increasing numbers of blocks become literally uninhabitable, even though the lessees may ostensibly own long leases on flats or tenants believe that they enjoy security of tenure.

However, the problems for lessees and tenants go beyond the structural conditions of the building. The Federation of Private Residents Associations in its submission to the Government committee that was set up to look into the management of blocks, complained about poor workmanship on repairs, inadequate accounting, lack of control over management fees, dishonesty, abuse of reserve funds, managing agents being elusive or in collusion with landlords and landlords disappearing or even thieving the reserve funds. The federation has called for tenants to be protected by setting up housing courts to hear disputes and by strengthening the powers of local council tenancy regulation officers. Its proposals deserve serious consideration by the Government.

Who is looking into these problems, which are not new but which have become more apparent in recent years with the coming together of the deterioration of properties built nearly a century ago, the steep rise in the cost of maintenance and the problems of people being unable to afford the high cost of reparation works?

I am pleased to say that the Government and a number of outside bodies have taken these problems seriously. Though more should be done, I pay tribute to the housing policies of the Government, which have been imaginative and radical. The Under-Secretary. who has been associated with the housing policies of the Administration for the last four years, has made an incisive, outstanding and sensitive contribution to the alleviation of the serious social problems to which I am calling attention.

From the Housing Act 1980, which extended new rights to tenants, to the Green Paper on a new approach to home improvements, from the partnership projects between the public and private sectors which the Government have encouraged to record expenditure on home improvement grants in the past six years, from the assistance readily provided to occupiers of defective housing to promotion and sponsorship of the voluntary housing movement, the Government have demonstrated that they care about people's housing conditions and are not prepared to sit back and ignore the plight of those who want to improve their lot.

I should like to draw attention to the inquiries on the Government committee on the management of mansion blocks—the Nugee committee—which comprises several eminent people who are responding to the Government's wish that there should be objective consideration of these problems and recommendations on how to tackle some of the worst practices in the private rented and private leasehold sectors.

I should like also to pay some respect to the forthcoming final report of the inquiry into British housing. The first report was a useful contribution to the discussion of these issues. I understand that the final report might be out in July. It is worthy of serious attention. I hope that Ministers will consider the recommendations of those important inquiries sympathetically and constructively. Failure to do so will have bitter social and political consequences. A substantial number of people live in such properties. They all have a vote, but, quite apart from that, we should take seriously their housing conditions and worries about maintenance costs.

Is a new English house condition survey being prepared? It is an important assessment of progress in, or the problems of, maintaining and improving the housing stock. Governments are sometimes too defensive and dismissive of the survey and I hope that the present Government will not be. A package of measures are necessary if we are to deal with the problems of leasehold and tenanted properties. The problems fall broadly into two categories—financial and legislative.

As for financial measures, we should consider Government expenditure on housing. Provision this year remains just over £3 billion, of which more than half is allocated for the housing investment programmes of local authorities. That is a significant budget, but I cannot avoid the implication of my remarks, which is that tackling these problems will require more resources or a diversion of planned resources. Doing that would have beneficial employment consequences.

I was unhappy about the changing of the rule about the amount of capital receipts which local authorities are allowed to spend on improvements and other matters. I am aware of the immediate economic constraints within which the Government must operate, but I hope that it will be possible to review the rule, because it has significant employment and housing implications.

Expenditure such as I have mentioned would be a good investment. Just as I said in last year's debate on the autumn statement, I regret the cut in this year's housing budget to pay for an increase of the same size in the social security programme. There is an almost exact transfer of resources from the capital side to the current side of the expenditure programme. That might alleviate immediate personal difficulty, but it will do nothing to add to the infrastructure and the quality of housing.

Home improvement grants are important. The Government have a creditable record on providing them, but they were right to review the system to provide greater continuity, simplicity and fairness in supply. This month's Green Paper on a new approach to home improvements offers means-tested automatic grants for unfit houses and discretionary loans for others in exchange for an equity in the property. It is a useful discussion document, and I agree with the proposal on mandatory grants.

However, as my hon. Friend knows, I have misgivings about equity loans, as they run counter to Conservative party policy of promoting whole personal ownership, would be costly and time-consuming to administer, and would not be popular with either householders or local authorities. They would be even less workable or in demand for leasehold or tenanted properties where the landlord has to consent to a percentage charge being taken on his interest.

The standard of improvement work also needs to be raised. The Director General of Fair Trading found in 1983 that there had been almost 27,000 complaints in one year about home improvement work. Local authorities should exercise tighter control over standards of work financed by them and should institute lists of recommended contractors.

There need to be changes in the Rent Acts. As far back as 1981, the Select Committee on the Environment concluded:
"policies designed to give landlords an incentive to improve their properties inside the existing legislative framework will only have a limited effect on the longer-term quality of the private rented stock. Only if rents rise substantially…is it likely that in the long term significant quantities of improved stock will be retained in this sector."
Two changes are called for. First, there should be an end to the phasing of registered rent increases. Rates of inflation are now much lower than in 1975, when phasing was introduced in the Housing Rents and Subsidies Act. Registered rents, based on a notional rent without regard to scarcity value, are still preferentially low and there is no longer a good case for continuing to phase increases.

While the security of tenure and registered rent regime for existing protected tenants should continue, future lettings should be free from those restrictions. The quantity of vacant property available and the high demand for private rentals are a terrible reflection on existing law. It is surely time to introduce legislation to end the Rent Acts regime for future tenancies while ensuring that that is not made retrospective to end existing tenancies, or used as a benchmark for hiking up fair rents.

There is a case for instituting freehold buy-outs for leaseholders. The best way to upgrade the structural repair of mansion blocks is to give the residents the incentive, interest and control to make it worth their while. If the Rent Acts are abandoned for future tenancies, there will be less reason for the present leasehold system, and people will either rent or own the properties in which they live.

As a first step, leaseholders should have a pre-emption right in law to enable them to have first refusal on the transfer of the freehold or head lease on the whole building. Such is the enormity of the problems to which I referred earlier that lessees should probably have the right to buy the freeholds of their mansion blocks, thereby assuming the control of and financial interest in improving the fabric of the building.

I know that the Government are reluctant to go that far, but the principle was breached with the leasehold enfranchisement legislation, and in other spheres the Government have recognised the benefits of housing co-operatives. Why not, then, respond more radically to the wishes and interests of the tens of thousands of people who want to assume full ownership of the properties in which they live, and thereby extend the life of those properties? It would mean the end for the many charlatans who have ripped off lessees for too long and have prejudicially affected tenants over the years while remaining anonymous and well-heeled themselves.

I hope that the Government will recognise on which side the political butter is spread and take action to stamp out the smart operators. It is a national problem that needs tackling by central Government. I hope that the measures that I have proposed will be taken on board by the Government and, in due course, will provide the basis on which there can be a genuine upgrading and a welcome improvement in the standard of our tenanted and leasehold properties.

1.49 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) has made a wide-ranging and reflective speech on housing. It is a compliment rather than a discourtesy if I say that in the 11 minutes left to me there is no way in which I can address myself to all the important issues that he raised.

Of course the Government are working on fresh initiatives on housing. My hon. Friend mentioned, in particular, the private rented sector. As I think he knows, we have carried out a review to see whether we can build on the initiatives that he referred to. We want to promote a healthier private rented sector and to see an improvement in the general state of repair of the privately rented stock. If the private rented sector is to make a proper contribution towards meeting housing needs, the landlords must be both willing and able to put more accommodation on the market and to keep what they have in a good state of repair.

I cannot say today what the outcome of our review is likely to be. The area is complex, and requires a lot of thought and consideration. However, the ideas developed by my hon. Friend will be fed into the decision-making process, and we shall pay close attention to his views. Next month, we hope to announce a fresh housing initiative to help those who live on the difficult-to-let estates — the local authority estates that are under-utilised and that have become almost impossible for some local authorities to cope with. We are certainly developing radical policies to tackle housing problems.

I shall deal briefly with the English house condition survey. My hon. Friend asked whether a new survey was being prepared, and what the Government's reaction to it would be. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction announced on 9 May that a new survey would go ahead in 1986. The preparatory work is already in hand, and the new survey will use a larger sample than its predecessors. The Government are in no way dismissive of the findings of such surveys. They are a valuable guide to the state of the nation's assets. My hon. Friend mentioned the Green Paper on home improvement policy. The results of the 1981 survey provided the starting point for the initiatives in that document.

My hon. Friend also mentioned that he represented a beautiful rural seat. I represent the other side of the political coin—an urban constituency that no one in his right mind would consider beautiful. However, it has many mansion blocks. Indeed, as I am acquiring a lease in a mansion block in my constituency, my ears pricked up when he reminded me of some of the problems that I might face. He was right to say that the problems of repair and maintenance, especially for the older mansion blocks, are becoming very real. Some are just due to the sheer age of the blocks. Many of the traditional mansion blocks in inner London date from Edwardian times or even earlier. Blocks of that age are, by their very nature, expensive to run, and the maintenance of the structure and the renewal of essential services, such as central heating and lifts, can place an enormous burden on those who have to pay for the work.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the break-up of blocks of flats formally let to rack-renting tenants, and the sale of the individual flats on long leases, which became such a feature of the property market in the 1960s in London and elsewhere. That, in turn, has brought other problems in its wake. But there are also well-built and well-managed blocks of flats where problems have, happily, not arisen. There is no a priori reason why they should, but we must recognise that as time goes on, the block may become more expensive to run, there will be a need to renew essential services, and the leases — typically 99-year leases—will have less unexpired time to run.

There is a whole variety of arrangements for dealing with the management of the block. Sometimes the landlord retains responsibility. In some cases management companies have been formed with no direct interest in the property, and in other cases the residents have formed their own management company. Problems have tended to arise not because of the form of the management arrangements, but because of the way that the original leases were drawn up, so that it is not clear who is responsible for what; or because particular covenants are no longer enforceable; or because on assignment of the lease, the chain of obligations has been inadvertently broken.

My hon. Friend rightly mentioned some landlords who are unscrupulous in their attitude to residents, or to the reserve funds and who do not care about the upkeep of their properties. I have great sympathy with residents who find themselves in such circumstances, and I deplore the activities of such landlords. That brings me to the Nugee committee that my hon. Friend mentioned.

In 1982, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors set up a working party under Mr. J. N. C. James to identify the nature and extent of problems for landlords and tenants in the management of blocks of flats and to make recommendations as to codes of good practice and other steps which might be adopted in the interests of both landlords and tenants. The working party included nominations from the British Property Federation, the Federation of Private Residents Associations, the Law Society and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, although the members sat in their own right.

The publication of that report in 1983 was a step forward, which we very much welcomed. Some of its wide-ranging series of recommendations included giving tenants greater powers to help them to identify the name and address of their landlords; the appointment and role of managing agents; deficiencies in leases and the use of standard and model clauses; service charges, including insurance; and the creation and protection of sinking and reserve funds. Some of these were matters for the parties involved— for example, the working up of an agreed code of practice for the management of blocks—but others would involve legislation.

Before the Government could decide whether it would be right to alter the statutory relationship of landlords and tenants we needed more evidence, which is why we set up the Nugee committee in 1984.

My hon. Friend has drawn attention to the work of the committee and it has commanded much attention elsewhere. The committee invited evidence from people who had experienced problems and over 3,000 replies were received covering the whole range of issues, including the repair and maintenance of common parts of blocks and the level of service charges. A number of local authorities, the Federation of Private Residents Associations and other bodies have also submitted detailed evidence, much of which was documented. A number of residents associations in my constituency have also written to the committee. As a result of the mass of evidence that the committee has received, we shall have a much clearer picture than ever before of the nature, scale and incidence of problems that exist in this sector. The Government are very much looking forward to receiving the report which will be available later in the year. I shall ensure that a copy of the report is sent to my hon. Friend when it is published. We shall consider very carefully any recommendations for change that it makes.

My hon. Friend also referred to the Duke of Edinburgh's committee which I understand is to report towards the end of July. Having looked at the initial report, which was published in January, I think that it will be a radical report suggesting wide-ranging changes and that it will make many criticisms of Governments of both parties. I am sure that it will be the forum for a wide-ranging debate on housing policy. The Department will pay very close attention to its recommendations.

My hon. Friend referred to proposals put forward for a housing court to hear disputes in housing matters. We have given careful consideration to the representations received about that matter. We believe that the wide and complex issues raised can best be carried forward in the context of the full and systematic review of civil justice which my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor announced on 10 February.

I turn to improvement grants, which my hon. Friend mentioned towards the end of his remarks. I welcomed what he had to say about our policy on home improvements. I noted his reservations about the proposal for equity loans that are contained in the Green Paper. As it is a Green Paper, we are very much open to suggestions about ways in which it can be improved or altered. Equity loans are a way to improve property, while saving grants for those who are living in homes that are below the fitness standard. As the Green Paper points out, grants are an outright gift. Therefore it is proper that they should be restricted to circumstances where such a generous form of help is really needed to get bad property improved.

My hon. Friend referred to the review of the home improvement policy. I welcomed what he said about mandatory grants as an element in our housing policy.

Perhaps I could write to my hon. Friend about some of the problems that he mentioned — for example, the problems facing elderly residents in blocks of flats—either tenants or those with long leases — and the problems that have arisen over the repair of common parts of blocks of fiats. Perhaps I could also write to him about strata freeholds which have aroused interest in this country and might provide a way forward for dealing with some of the problems faced by those who hold long leases.

In conclusion, I hope that my hon. Friend's speech will receive a far wider audience than it has commanded this afternoon. He touched on nearly all the housing matters, into which my Department is looking, or on which it has legislated. He touched on some of the options that remain open to us in the remaining years of this Parliament, which we are actively examining. He dealt knowledgeably and sensitively with the problems of those in mansion blocks. When we receive the report of the Nugee committee, the Government hope to announce any initiative that may be needed to improve matters.

It has been a worthwhile debate, and I commend my hon. Friend for his perceptive speech, which one would have expected from an hon. Member who was for so long a parliamentary private secretary to the Minister for Housing and Construction.

Social Security Act 1975

2 pm

I wish to raise the issue of the implementation or non-implementation of section 152(4) of the Social Security Act 1975. Before I deal in detail with the matter, I wish to make it clear that it is a pleasure to be sparring with the Under-Secretary of State on this issue. The last time that we met in the Chamber we were dealing with matters further afield—human rights in Turkey. I hope that his response to this debate will be a little more fruitful than his response on that occasion.

At first sight the matter may seem to be highly technical, but it is not merely a technical matter, because it relates to the national insurance contributions of many hundreds of people. Section 152(4) relates primarily to contributions that are paid by individual employees, but not then paid on by their employer to the Department of Health and Social Security. It relates to the means by which the Department can seek redress against those employers. It may be helpful if I sketch in the background.

The Social Security Act introduced a system under which the collection of national insurance was passed to the Inland Revenue under the PAYE system. Before 1975, everyone had a card which had to be stamped. Since then only the self-employed and non-employed have had such cards. Under the Act, responsibility for deducting and paying national insurance for employees was put squarely on the shoulders of the employer. If the contributions were either not deducted or not remitted because of negligence by the employer, he could be prosecuted.

Obviously, problems arise if a business has no assets. Ordinarily, the owners of the business would be liable, but the position of limited companies excludes that possibility. As non-payment of contributions can lead to a prosecution through the criminal or civil courts, section 152(4) allows for criminal prosecution of a limited company followed by civil proceedings against negligent directors.

In November 1984, Ministers made it clear that they wished to remove this provision from the Act. What is more, even before its removal has passed through the House, they have ceased to apply that section. I shall return to that point because it is important, but I shall deal first with the reasons which Ministers have advanced, and which doubtless will be advanced again this afternoon, for the repeal of that part of the Act.

The reasons are openly stated in the information that was sent out by Ministers to individual local offices of the DHSS. The reasons were twofold. The first was that other revenue collection departments did not have the facility of prosecution under this section and they wished to bring the DHSS into line with other departments. Secondly, they feared that the threat of action under the section would be a disincentive to directors striving to save their companies or to people willing to become directors of companies.

Those two reasons are unsound. Although other Departments do not enjoy those special powers, other measures are available to them, such as extensive powers to enter and search premises and seize records, which the DHSS does not possess. Those powers are much more daunting to directors of businesses in financial trouble. Indeed, many more staff are employed by Departments in those areas than were employed by the DHSS in following up action under section 152(4). Therefore, to have any effective counter to the possibility of deliberate negligence by employers in forwarding their employees' contributions, and to have any effective weapon, such power should rest with the DHSS, in the absence of the draconian powers granted to other Departments.

Another point that must be made about the disincentive to become directors is that action can be taken by the DHSS only when deductions made from employees' wages are not remitted with the appropriate employers' contributions, or where no deductions were made when they should have been. The latter case is extremely rare, except with regard to directors' liability to contributions. However, the fact that some employers deduct money from their employees' wages and then do not pass it on to the DHSS acts not just against the DHSS but against the employees. Furthermore, the DHSS can act only against negligent directors—those who were aware, or could reasonably be expected to have been aware, of the offence.

It should be remembered that, although section 152(4) may dissuade some from becoming directors, its removal allows directors to deduct contributions from their employees' wages and pocket the money by way of increased remuneration, knowing that they cannot be touched under social security law. A responsible director would not wish or intend to act in such a way. The argument that the threat of social security law prevents or discourages such people from becoming directors is nonsense. If they act within the law, take money from their employees and pay it to the DHSS in the proper, lawful manner, they have nothing to fear from the section. The two arguments that the Government have advanced, and which they will doubtless advance again today in favour of the removal of the section are groundless.

I should make some further points. First, and most important, the withholding of deductions must be regarded as theft or fraud or both, whether from the point of view of the DHSS or, more important, from the point of view of the employee. The deductions are a personal contribution credited to a personal account where details of contributions are recorded and used for calculating the individual's benefit position, including his pension rights. Therefore, if an employer does not pass on money contributed by himself and the employee, it acts to the detriment of the employee's pension record in the national insurance system.

Secondly, the general trend of DHSS policy towards companies and large contributions is becoming increasingly lenient, while individual directors and claimants alike are harshly treated. The priorities that the DHSS seems to attach to chasing the small fry while letting the big fry go loose, are wrong. Since April 1983, the authority to write off large amounts of arrears in any individual case can be given without reference outside the local office of the DHSS. Therefore, the decision can be taken locally by local managers.

Thirdly, while it is true that most cases of section 152(4) action arise in cases of liquidated companies, they are the most difficult to deal with because of the time lapse involved in getting to see records. In future, with this part of the legislation gone, directors will have plenty of time to distribute the assets of the company knowing that they may not be touched, and may even be in a position to blackmail the DHSS into writing off arrears with the threat of putting the company into liquidation. It will be much more difficult when this power is no longer on the statute book, to ensure that the DHSS can follow up money that is owed to it by employers under the national insurance system.

Recently, some figures were reported to me. Will the Minister tell me whether they are correct? They show that over the past year about £1 million was collected due to section 152(4) action taken by the DHSS. In addition, at the time that the DHSS officers were told by the Minister to stop taking action, the solicitors' office had a backlog of cases worth some £4 million.

The decision by Ministers to remove this power from the statute book was bad enough, but even worse has been the fact that since they made the announcement of their intention to stop this power, Ministers have been instructing the DHSS to stop taking action under section 152(4). That is presumptive of the decision that might be taken by the House of Commons on the future of the legislation. The removal of that section of the Social Security Act is only now being considered in the Committee on the Insolvency Bill. It is also strange that a Government who constantly advise the populace to maintain and uphold the law have unilaterally, without legislative backing, taken a decision to stop taking action that they are advised to take by the law in particular cases.

Only a few days ago the Prime Minister spoke in the House about local authorities that found themselves in an extremely difficult position because of legislation passed by this Government. The Prime Minister berated them for failing to observe the law to the letter. It is strange and ironic that in those circumstances, in this social security legislation concerning individual contributions to national insurance, the Government have seen fit to take unilateral action not to implement the law.

A clear instruction has been given by Ministers to local DHSS offices. The instruction from the DHSS to its local offices states baldly:
"When the decision was announced LOs were told to stop proceedings on current cases immediately and it will now be necessary to inform Courts, liquidators, receivers and directors."
Yet section 152(4) of the 1975 Act is still on the statute book. The law still stands and the Government have a duty to implement it, but they are deliberately and openly failing to do so. It will be interesting to hear what justification the Minister has to offer for the Government's failure to uphold the law.

The next time the Prime Minister stands at the Dispatch Box telling us that the law is sacrosanct and must be obeyed, she should consider the way in which Ministers at the DHSS are behaving. She might also consider the way in which the DHSS spends enormous amounts of time, effort and resources chasing small individual claimants suspected of defrauding the system in some way. Any fraud is inexcusable, but the extravagance of the DHSS in pursing the small malefactor stands in strange contrast with the way in which it is not just failing to pursue the big fish — the large contributors who, as employers, fail to pass on the contributions of individuals—but in so doing is abrogating legislation passed by the House and still on the statute book.

I shall listen with great interest to the Minister's attempts to justify the actions of the DHSS.

2.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security
(Mr. Ray Whitney)

As this is the last debate in this series before we enter our all too short Whitsun recess, I should normally, on the last day of term, approach it full of good will and charity. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), however, referred to previous exchanges between us on the subject of human rights in Turkey and I must tell him that his comments on the impact of ceasing to implement section 152(4) of the Social Security Act 1975 were even more misguided than his comments on human rights in Turkey. There are three issues at stake but, sadly, the hon. Gentleman seems not to have understood any of them.

First, there is the need to protect the workers and their national insurance payments. Secondly, there is the absolute need for the DHSS to take all proper steps to ensure that contributions due under the national insurance system are paid and collected. There is also a third duty and responsibility on the Government which the Opposition entirely fail to appreciate. It is to bring about the conditions in which businesses can go on creating more and more jobs in our economy. In the past two years, no fewer than 613,000 more jobs have been created. We intend to go on improving the situation so that businesses can continue to create jobs. That was one of the most remarkable lacunae in the hon. Gentleman's speech today.

The history of the matter—not surprisingly, given the fact that it has been raised by an Opposition Member—dates back many years, to the situation that obtained in 1928. The National Health Insurance Act 1928 was introduced at a time when employees would lose their benefit rights and suffer financial hardship if their employer failed to stamp their cards despite having made the necessary deductions from wages.

In consequence of that intolerable situation, section 18 of that Act was introduced as a deterrent to such employers. They would know that they might become personally liable for outstanding debts if the contributions were not paid at the right time.

The provisions survived in the National Insurance (Contributions) Regulations 1948. In 1949, however, an important change was made, that restored the position of workers in such firms. Regulation 21 of the National Insurance (Contributions) Amendment (No. 2) Provisional Regulations of 1949 provided for unpaid contributions in respect of employees to be deemed as paid when the employee himself was in no way at fault for their non-payment and recovery of the contributions from the employer was not possible or was likely to be delayed.

The first essential point, therefore, was guaranteed as far back as 1949. Whatever may go wrong with the company or the employers, and however the directors may fail to meet their responsibilities, the rights of the worker are protected by that regulation of 1949. However, the effect of the 1928 legislation making action possible against employers remained on the statute book, eventually re-appearing as section 152(4) of the Social Security Act 1975. It came under careful scrutiny during the proceedings of the Cork committee on insolvency law and practice, whose report concentrated the mind of the Government upon the whole subject of insolvency practice and provoked many strong and well-founded representations about the effect of the application of section 152(4) in cases involving insolvent companies.

It became clear that the original justification based upon the interest of the worker disappeared with the impact of the regulation made in 1949. Given that no discretion was allowed under the law, action was taken indiscriminately under section 152(4) against the directors, regardless of the effort or finance that they had put into a company in an attempt to keep it viable. The section did not require the Department to prove the directors' culpability in running the company's affairs and therefore was clearly contrary to natural justice. Even more seriously, its use discouragedcompany doctors" from stepping in to help companies in trouble, for fear that they might become personally liable for any outstanding national insurance debts.

The use of the section led to the premature winding-up of companies by directors who were rightly apprehensive that if they failed to save the company their own personal assets would be put at risk. In other words, what began as a well-meaning provision, and had ceased to be really necessary, came to work against the interests of workers themselves. Directors were under heavy pressure not to persevere with their efforts to save a company. The section added to the discouraging prospects of anyone contemplating setting up his own firm.

Therefore, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services called for a review of the operation of section 152(4) and came to the conclusion that, as soon as the parliamentary opportunity arose, he would endeavour to have that section repealed.

Apart from the factors that I have outlined, which are powerful in themselves, it was clear that, in terms of recovery of national insurance contributions, the Department of Health and Social Security was out of line with other revenue departments — the Inland Revenue and the department responsible for VAT. The DHSS was the only one that had the special powers contained in section 152(4), which was particularly incongruous because the other revenue departments were frequently pursuing much larger debts than the DHSS, but did not have the same powers to do so. Particularly important was the disincentive effect that it had, which my right hon. Friend quite properly took into consideration.

There is another point that the hon. Gentleman did not mention; perhaps he is not aware of it. Recently, the Inland Revenue introduced provisions that will allow it to pursue companies that fail to pay their monthly pay-as-you-earn and national insurance contribution liability within a very short period of their due date without having to visit the employer to quantify arrears. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that the Inland Revenue has that power. Now there is no requirement for such a visit. There is no doubt that those provisions will prevent large debts accruing and ensure that employers keep up to date with their payments. That reinforces all our other powerful reasons for seeking to repeal section 152(4) in that, by definition, the new arrangements will prevent the accrual of large debts.

I emphasise that the real need for the repeal is that we must intensify our efforts to regenerate the spirit of entrepreneurism in Britain, precisely because we need those jobs. I understand the reluctance of Opposition parties to adopt that approach. The results of their efforts over the years are what we are living with today. The clear disincentive under which directors in particular labour was definitely harmful and deleterious.

The hon. Gentleman made a good deal of play of the fact that we had not yet completed the repeal of section 152(4). However, under the legislation that is now on the statute book, the Secretary of State is not obliged to take action, and the problem that the hon. Gentleman sought to pose does not arise. The hon. Gentleman suggested a figure of £4 million. My information is that the figure is about half that. However, we are talking not about a total waiving of the liabilities but about a removal of the special privileges—the incongruous position that section 152(4) gave to the DHSS in the recovery of those liabilities. The decision to change was taken on the basis that the employee was already well protected, and had been since 1949. There is an urgent need to ensure that citizens are encouraged to set up companies and to rescue companies that are in trouble. It is in all our interests that that degree of enterprise is encouraged and that the Government should continue to do all that they can to lighten the burden and remove the obstacles to such enterprise. The repeal of section 152(4) is a good example of the positive spirit of job creation in which the Government are approaching this matter.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Cystic Fibrosis (Prescription Charges)

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

2.30 pm

I am grateful for my good fortune in drawing this debate in the ballot, especially as I understand that I nearly did not. I am asking the Government to say, five and a half years after I last asked them—they did not say this the last time—that the time has now come to add the disease of cystic fibrosis to the list of medical conditions from which its unfortunate sufferers are exempt from the need to pay prescription charges in the years between 16 and 65 when they again qualify for exemption.

I declare a substantial personal interest and a far less substantial interest. I have a 16-year-old daughter who suffers from cystic fibrosis. I would therefore receive the benefit of any financial relief that the Government may give in this matter for as long after the age of 16 as my daughter is dependent on me. Since she is blossoming, it may be that my financial gain will be exceedingly modest.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security
(Mr. John Patten)

I am glad to hear that she is blossoming.

I thank my hon. Friend.

I should like to pay tribute to the Cystic Fibrosis Research Trust — the organisation that represents sufferers of cystic fibrosis and their parents. Adorned by the patronage of Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra, the Honourable Mrs. Angus Ogilvie, the charity is dedicated to raising money to fund medical and scientific research projects—there are currently more than 50—in hospitals and universities all over the country into cystic fibrosis, its causes, treatments and, I hope, one day its cure. The trust is dedicated also to providing comfort, education and morale-boosting support to those whose sufferings may be greater than their children's — the parents—for cystic fibrosis, being a genetic disease, is inherited by the children from their parents, who usually have no idea that they are carriers of the recessive gene. The charity is an example of how much wonderful work can be done for the disabled without state aid.

Cystic fibrosis is a condition in which mucus glands secret abnormal amounts of mucus. This principally affects two areas of the body. First, the digestive system is affected by the mucus clogging up the flow of digestive enzymes, the pancreas does not function properly, or sometimes not at all, proteins and fats are not properly digested, and the child does not flourish. The treatment for that malfunction is for the child to follow an expensive, high-protein diet and to swallow several capsules—my own daughter needs 10— of powdered pig's pancreas with every meal. That more or less does the work that the human pancreas would have done had it been working properly.

Secondly, the lungs are affected. The abnormally thick mucus builds up in the bronchial tubes and tends to seal in bacterial and viral infections which, if not shifted, cause progressive deterioration, leading to lung failure and death. The treatment is usually in the form of physiotherapy for 20 minutes at least twice a day. The trust knows of one case where 12 hours a day is spent using physiotherapy and other cases where young students spend a major part of their school or college holidays getting their lungs cleared to go back to study when term starts. In addition, the disease requires the sufferers to take antibiotics and often the use of such artificial aids as decoagulating atomisers and mist tents at night.

It is obvious that the burden of care and extra responsibility falling on parents to keep their cystic children alive and enjoying as near a normal life as possible is considerable and that to relieve many of them of the additional worry of ever-inflating regular prescription payments, even if reduced by the season ticket facility, would be a highly desirable aim which hon. Members on both sides of the House would support.

If cystic fibrosis is not diagnosed and treated early, it is a killer. A generation ago it usually killed children in the first year of their lives. Now, as a result of work done by doctors, scientists, nurses and parents, with the help and guidance of the Cystic Fibrosis Research Trust, three-quarters of the children reach adulthood in reasonably good health. There is, therefore, even more need now for the medication to be made available on prescription than when I last asked the Government to do so.

It is believed that one in 20 of the population is a carrier of the recessive gene, that there is one in 625 chances of carriers marrying and a one in four chance of two carriers producing a cystic fibrosis child. There are known to be between 5,500 and 6,000 sufferers from cystic fibrosis in the United Kingdom, of whom 1,200 are adults, a number which, happily, increases by about 200 a year moving into adulthood.

What would be the likely cost of exempting cystic fibrosis sufferers from the cost of prescriptions? When I spoke five years ago on this subject, the pre-payment season ticket for prescriptions, the season ticket which reduces the cost over a period, was £4.50 for six months and £8 for 12 months. For what was then thought to be a total of 1,000 adults, the cost to the Government would have been £8,000 a year.

That was all I was asking for then, but the Government said no. Now the season ticket is £11 for four months and £30.50 for 12, so with, say, as many as 1,500 adults, the cost, if everyone claimed, would be £1,500 multiplied by £3050, which is £45,750, still peanuts in a spending budget of many thousands of millions of pounds.

Once it is conceded—as the Minister will, I am sure, concede—that the cost of this concession would not be great, the case for it becomes particularly strong. I am not asking the Government to change the rules for granting exemption so as to accommodate cystic fibrosis, but merely to apply the existing rules. The rules are that the condition shall be a permanent and clearly identifiable condition, requiring continual medication, in most cases by replacement therapy.

As it cannot be denied that cystic fibrosis is permanent, that it is clearly identifiable, that it requires continuous medication and that it involves replacement therapy, one is left wondering why it was not put on the list, together with diabetes, Addison's disease, epilepsy and illnesses of the thyroid, pituitary and adrenaline glands, in 1968. The answer must be that in the 1960s it was difficult to diagnose the disease. Few doctors knew anything about it. There was then insufficient knowledge of the disease, and when the exemption list was drawn up few children were surviving past 16 years of age. In short, there was no demand for the measure.

Why, then, was it not added to the list subsequently? My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), now the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, gave the answer when, as Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, he replied to my debate in October 1979. He explained that any decision had to be by agreement with the medical profession, and went on:
"Speaking as a layman I have a great deal of sympathy with the call to add cystic fibrosis to the list, and I would hope that the medical profession, if it were asked, would agree that it seems to satisfy the normal criteria for inclusion…
What I have had to ponder over is whether I should ask the doctors to add cystic fibrosis to the list and I have seriously considered doing so, as I personally think that if as many CF patients had survived to adulthood when the list was origir ally drawn up, that condition might well have been included."
We were grateful for my hon. Friend's sympathy and hope that it has been transmitted to his successor. It will be a good start if it has.

My hon. Friend the Member for Acton continued:
"If one advanced the boundary a little further to include cystic fibrosis, one would also in justice have to conduct a more general review of the whole scheme, and probably put in those who have phenylketonuria or coeliac disease. Therefore, one has to take a slightly broader view of the exemptions than my hon. Friend would like… If I seek to add this condition to the list, can I really defend not going further? Should not I consider whether the list of exempt conditions is the best way of helping the chronic sick, and is it right to go on trying to improve the list as my hon. Friend would wish in a rather piecemeal way, instead of seeking an alternative, within the resource constraints imposed by our present financial circumstances, to help more of the chronic sick?"
The question "Should the boundaries be advanced?" arises, but, as cystic fibrosis is the commonest inherited disease, making the concession for other worthy diseases would hardly break the bank. Besides, one hopes that the restricted list of drugs which my hon. Friend the Minister is helping to introduce will be added to as deserving drugs which fulfil the Government criteria of being necessary and not otherwise clinically available present themselves, so the process of adding to lists is not an unheard of breach of principle which the Government do not indulge in.

My hon. Friend the Member for Acton continued:
"If I have decided to make no approach to the representatives es of the medical profession at present it is because I feel that we must first see whether it is possible to work out some fairer way within our present financial constraints to help all the chronic sick with the costs of the drugs they need than this present method of listing specified medical conditions."
That was a kind and well-motivated intention. My answer must be that the Government have had five and a half years in which to work out
"some fairer way within our present financial constraints to help all the chronically sick with the costs of the drugs they need"
and have not been able to do so. I do not blame them for that; it might not be possible. No better way has been found. My hon. Friend the Member for Acton continued:
"If we conclude that there is no better way than the present, I will return again to the request of my hon. Friend that we should consider, with the representatives of the medical profession, whether the list is fully up to date and whether there is a case for adding cystic fibrosis to it and perhaps some other similar conditions."—[Official Report, 25 October 1979; Vol. 972, c. 688–91.]
The situation has got worse and the hardship grows. The Cystic Fibrosis Research Trust, thousands of parents, senior paediatric consultants from all over the country and many of my parliamentary colleagues whose names I listed on 25 October 1979 are asking the Government to make this change after consultation with the medical profession. Will my hon. Friend now return to this matter, as promised by his predecessor, and show once again that Conservative Government care by granting this request?

2.45 pm

One of the most comprehensive cases that I have ever heard in the House has just been presented by the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). I hope that this time he will be successful.

I remind the Minister of the history of this matter. When Kenneth Robinson reintroduced prescription charges in the 1960s, the Government undertook to exempt acute illnesses. That has proved impossible because of the problem of identifying them precisely. Even Parkinson's disease is not exempted. I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman's case should be considered entirely on its merits and not turned down on the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument. He has made the case for a single drug, and it should be possible for cystic fibrosis to be listed. That would still give a total of only nine on the list. Because, in five years' time, I may raise a similar issue on an Adjournment debate, that is no reason why the hon. and learned Gentleman's case should be put out of court now.

With the growth of the application of chemotherapy to a number of diseases where previously drugs were not available, and as we can precisely identify a drug used, if the patient cannot be exempted will the Minister consider exempting the drug? The dispensing chemist would have permission to exempt a script for that drug. If such a new approach could be discussed with the British Medical Association, that would solve many problems in addition to that so effectively raised by the hon. Gentleman.

2.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security
(Mr. John Patten)

I agree with the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) about the effectiveness of the speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). In recent months I have become used to being exposed to lengthy sessions of his forensic debating style and eloquence. Anyone who sat in the Chamber during our debates on fluoridation will remember that.

Characteristically again today, my hon. and learned Friend, with his usual clarity and force and his knowledge based on experience as someone with a 16-year-old daughter with cystic fibrosis, has made a case for having those who suffer from that disease exempted from prescription charges. He reminded the House about his speech on 25 October 1979, which I have read with great care, and the undertakings given by the then Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young)—that veteran of Adjournment debates.

I want to go over the history of our attitude towards those suffering from this and similar conditions, and then to answer my hon. and learned Friend's specific questions. When prescription charges were reintroduced in 1968 by the Labour Government, a list of specified medical conditions was drawn up as a means of exempting some of the chronically sick. Such a scheme could operate only with the full co-operation of general medical practitioners. Their representatives made it clear that they could agree to exemption only for readily identifiable medical conditions that called automatically for continuous life-long medication—in most cases replacement therapy.

My hon. and learned Friend believes—and the hon. Member for Brent, South supported him—that a caring Government should update that list and add a number of other conditions. That the Government care is self-evident because we are treating so many more patients in the NHS, both in hospitals and in general practice. We are employing many more nurses and midwives who do excellent work that is much appreciated by us all. We are employing many more doctors and spending more money. I mentioned money last, but it is by no means the least important factor. It is probably one of the most important factors because of the possible cost of extending the list.

I can appreciate the profession's insistence that only conditions about whose diagnosis, lifelong character and need for medication there can be no doubt should be included. I think that that is common ground. The hon. Member for Brent, South made the important point that medical science is advancing so quickly that diseases often have be reassessed, and there are earlier and better diagnoses.

A doctor would not wish to enter into a debate with a patient about whether his condition was severe or permanent enough to attract exemption. Yet such arguments would be inevitable if ill-defined or complex diseases were added to the list or conditions were added that were so variable in their prognosis or treatment that exemption would not always be justified. The doctor would have to make, and defend, difficult judgments between two patients at different stages of the same disease, and that could put at risk the important relationship between doctor and patient: a relationship where we tread rather delicately and tend to leave as much as possible, quite properly, to the medical profession's ethical views.

Cystic fibrosis was not included in the exempt list drawn up in 1968, but it has been looked at again since then. Indeed, the list was kept under review — to use that classic Civil Service and, alas, ministerial terminology. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton knows, it was last discussed with representatives of the medical profession as long ago as 1976, when cystic fibrosis was one of the conditions considered. But the General Medical Services Committee, representing the medical profession, did not at that stage come to an agreement over the addition of any conditions to the list.

Had sufferers in the run-up to 1968 enjoyed the life expectancy that they now enjoy, the illness might have been included. I am the first to admit that that is a very strong possibility. My hon. and learned Friend spoke very calmly but movingly about the problems from which many of those with cystic fibrosis and those who care for them suffer. The thought of 12 hours of physiotherapy is indeed daunting. But thanks to the advances made in treating and caring for such people, it is estimated that there are well over 1,000 young people with cystic fibrosis who are aged over 16, which is the age of my hon. and learned Friend's daughter.

Because his parents came to see me, I know of one undergraduate aged 18 who has cystic fibrosis, and who is going up to Exeter college, Oxford, next autumn to read mathematics. I understnd the problems facing his parents and other young sufferers who go to college. I do not need to describe the condition, as my hon. and learned Friend has described it all too well. It is, to put it mildly, understandable that the condition should cause great distress to those who suffer from it and to their parents, relatives and friends who strive to help them for the very long hours that are sometimes necessary.

We all want to do what we can to help, but the case for free prescriptions for that group of people must be seen, I am afraid, within the wider context of the whole range of services provided by the NHS, the resources availabe, and the resources that exist to improve those services. I am well on the way to accepting my hon. and learned Friend's point that cystic fibrosis deserves very strong consideration. Alas, however, I am not at all convinced of the argument that it could be considered in isolation.

Before my hon. and learned Friend cross-questions me on that point, I should like to explain my reasons. However, I can see that my hon. and learned Friend is anxious for me to give way now, so I give way to him.

Will my hon. Friend at least give an undertaking to refer this issue to the medical authorities that last considered it in 1976? It was last given consideration by the medical profession an appallingly long time ago.

I shall consider that point and directly answer it when I answer my hon. and learned Friend's main question at about 2.59 pm.

To exempt the cost of treating about 1,000 patients with cystic fibrosis would be relatively small, but there are many other groups of people who understandably believe that they too should be included in the list. One could argue that it is obvious that certain other conditions should be included, but it is not quite as easy as that. There are people who are suffering from Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, coeliac disease, schizophrenia, glaucoma and Crohn's disease—happily a disease which is not suffered by very many people. Hypertension and disease of the heart are also conditions that last for a long time and are on the increase in this country. That applies to cancer, too, despite all the research efforts.

I am not trying to muddy the waters. I am only trying to point out to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton and the hon. Member for Brent, South that there is a whole host of conditions for which a very good case could be made. That is where the rub comes. [Interruption.] I shall not criticise the hon. Member for Brent, South for shouting at me from a sedentary position after I allowed him to intervene earlier, but that is uncharacteristic of him.

That is not the end of the list of illnesses for which requests for free prescriptions are made; I could give more. If the list were extended, it would, in fairness, have to be extended substantially beyond cystic fibrosis. That is where the rub comes. That is where the cost comes. We shall have to examine again the cost of a significant extension of the list.

I defend the Government against any charge that theirs is an uncaring approach. We are concerned to ensure that nobody should be deterred from obtaining the necessary medication, whatever the illness. To the best of my knowledge, nobody is deterred from getting the necessary medication because of his or her illness. There are wide-ranging exemptions. Seventy-two per cent. of all prescriptions dispensed — rather than 72 per cent. of people receiving prescriptions—are free of charge. In recent years that number has increased. There are also pre-payment certificate arrangements to which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton referred. The wide-ranging exemption from prescription charges, affecting 72 per cent. of all prescriptions, as well as the pre-payment arrangements mean that less than one quarter of all prescription items attract a charge when they are dispensed. Only 22 per cent. of all prescription charges are met by those who need prescriptions.

I must remind the House of the arrangements for the exemption of those on low incomes which can be claimed by anybody over the age of 16. This is a very important provision in both this and similar contexts. Even if somebody is not exempt on medical, financial or age grounds, the purpose of a pre-payment certificate can lead to considerable savings where frequent medication is required.

In conclusion, I wish to answer the questions asked by my hon. and learned Friend in his speech and when he intervened a few moments ago. I deal first with his second question—the reference of these issues to the medical profession. The co-operation and agreement of the medical profession will be needed to make this work, but the impetus for the reconsideration of this policy will have to come from within my Department, not from an independent medical body. I have not tried to hide behind a medical screen and to place the responsibility upon the medical profession. I have been honest with the House and have said that there are wide financial and policy implications.

Secondly, my hon. and learned Friend asked whether the Government would consider this matter further. He may not have noticed that on 11 March 1985 my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services said that he would reconsider this issue. He gave that undertaking following his statement to the House on 11 March about National Health Service charges when he answered a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims). That re-examination is taking place within my Department, and we hope that it will be completed before the end of this year.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock, pursuant to the resolution of the House of 16 May.