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Commons Chamber

Volume 86: debated on Monday 11 November 1985

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House Of Commons

Monday 11 November 1985

The House met at half-past Two o-clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Private Business

Hon. Members may have noticed on the Order Paper two small but significant misprints in the two Provisional Order Bills: in the text of the titles of the two Bills, the words "Peterhead" and "Lothian" have been transposed.

I invite the Minister to move the presentation of the two Bills in the corrected form.

Lothian Region (Edinurgh Western Relief Road)

presented a Bill to confirm a Provisional Order under section 8 of the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act 1936, relating to Lothian Region (Edinburgh Western Relief Road); And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be considered upon Tuesday 19 November and to be printed. [Bill 8.]

Peterhead Harbours (South Bay Development)

presented a Bill to confirm a Provisional Order under section 8 of the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act 1936, relating to Peterhead Harbours (South Bay Development); And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be considered upon Tuesday 19 November and to be printed. [Bill 7.]

Oral Answers To Questions

Transport

Concessionary Fares

1.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the criteria he intends to use in exercising his power under the Transport Act 1985 with regard to the granting of exemptions from certain requirements in relation to arrangements for concessionary travel schemes and with regard to the form, content and manner of service of certain notices in connection with such schemes; and if he will make a statement.

My right hon. Friend will be laying regulations before the House shortly dealing with the reimbursement of operators for providing transport concessions. His criteria in making the regulations, and in considering applications made under them, will be to safeguard the proper interests of operators and authorities.

May I have an assurance that free travel passes for elderly, blind and disabled people will continue in the Greater London area after the abolition of the GLC in April 1986? May I further be assured that they will continue, and be fully operational, as of now, starting at 9 am? Will my hon. Friend repudiate the wicked lies that have been put about at public expense by the GLC for nearly three years that travel passes will be abolished after the abolition of the GLC?

Concessionary fares in London are currently a matter of GLC policy executed by LRT. After April, either the boroughs will get together and organise their own scheme applying to all boroughs uniformly, or there will be the operation of the fall-back scheme if there is no agreement. That scheme provides statutory provisions which come into play at broadly the existing level of benefit administered by LRT, but billed to the boroughs. I can, therefore, give my hon. Friend the assurance that he is seeking. Indeed, I am very angry, as must be many hon. Members, at the way in which thousands of pensioners have been needlessly worried as the result of a political campaign that they would lose their concessions. Pensioners have been used in the worst sense of that word.

It has taken us a long time to force that concession out of the Government—[Interruption.]—who could have put the mind of pensioners at ease much earlier. At what levels will boroughs be able to charge pensioners for the administration of schemes? That will cost pensioners money, will it not?

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question about pensioners' minds being set at rest is that if he and some of his colleagues had not flagrantly misled them, their minds would not have been in any state of unease, especially in view of assurances that were given during the passage of the Bill through the House, when the position was made absolutely clear.

Further to my hon. Friend's reply to the main question and his comments about words of reassurance to pensioners having been given on previous occasions, despite suggestions to the contrary, may I nevertheless ask him to say why it was not possible to go as far in the West Midlands metropolitan area as apparently it has been possible to go in the GLC area? Is he aware that similar assurances would be welcomed by the people of the west midlands?

That is entirely a matter for the locally-elected voices, through the PTA, in the west midlands. It is up to them to decide how they wish to spend their resources.

What level of charges does the Minister expect will be levied? Will he intervene in the west midlands and explain to the people there why they should have a second-class service?

There is no reason why people in the west midlands should have a second-class service as a result of the proposals in what is now the Act. The expenditure levels permitted for PTAs are intended to allow for the continuation of concessionary fare schemes at existing levels of provision. The campaign led by some Opposition Members to frighten pensioners into assuming that those resources would not be available has been disgraceful.

I repudiate the Minister's hysterical response, because he must be aware that we have never said that concessionary fares would disappear completely. We have said, as has been pointed out by hon. Members already, that the concessionary fares that our constituents enjoy are seriously at risk as a result of the Government's legislation. Will my constituents in Greater Manchester still enjoy the same level of financial support towards their concessionary rail and bus travel as the constituents of the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway)?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there will be sufficient resources for the PTAs to provide the same level of support as in the past. Whether they choose to do so is a matter for them to decide, and not for the Government to dictate.

M25

2.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what assessment he has made of the long-term benefits of the M25 circular motorway around London.

The M25 will provide a more convenient, quicker and safer route round London for through traffic. It will give easier access to ports and airports on motorway class roads, and will relieve communities in London and the south-east of through traffic, noise and congestion. It will yield substantial economic benefits.

Apart from the benefit to millions of M25 users, is my right hon. Friend aware, if a one-day traffic count is anything to go by, that Uxbridge road, Hampton Hill, which is now bypassed by the M25, has already seen a 10 to 15 per cent. drop in volume of traffic since 1983? How much will the roads in Greater London be relieved of heavy lorry traffic?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support, and I can confirm that a recent traffic count in the area that he mentioned showed a reduction of 14 per cent. of total traffic because of the completion of the M25 to the west and south of London. Our estimate is that the M25 will reduce lorry mileage in London by between 20 and 25 per cent.

Is the Secretary of State aware that parts of the M25 near my constituency of Thurrock are still unlit and that this may be dangerous and cause accidents? Is he also aware that providing cable ducting in the course of motorway construction makes it easier and cheaper to provide lighting? Has that cable ducting been provided throughout the M25? If not, will the Secretary of State make sure that it is provided in the construction of the last part of the M25 and other motorways?

Parts of the M5 through my constituency are not lit. The criteria for lighting motorways are whether it adds to safety to do so and whether it is worth the large extra cost. I cannot tell the hon. Lady that I have noticed whether ducting has been installed in the sections to which she referred, and I shall write to let her know. We do not intend to light all motorways, only those parts where lighting increases safety.

I welcome the benefits of the M25, but is my right hon. Friend aware that there are dangers if the motorway becomes used as a race track? Is he further aware that when using it at any time of the week I find myself the only person doing 70 mph, while many cars are doing well over 100? At the very least, will my right hon. Friend speak to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about enforcement and putting up signs that read "70 mph", rather than have just a black bar across them?

I share my right hon. Friend's concern about excessive speeds on all motorways, not just the M25. My hon. Friend the Minister will be engaging in a debate on this subject soon, so that she can go into it in greater detail. We are in constant touch with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about enforcement, and we are busy considering what to do to alleviate the mounting pressures and concerns that my right hon. Friend has expressed.

London Regional Transport

3.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if, when he next meets the chairman of London Regional Transport, he will raise the subject of the progress being made by London Regional Transport towards achieving the objectives set by the Government in 1984.

London Regional Transport's excellent progress towards achieving the Government objectives is regularly discussed whenever I meet the chairman. LRT is well on course to achieve all the targets we have set it. In particular, it is forecasting a sustained reduction in real unit costs of at least the target figure of 2·5 per cent. a year and the earlier achievement of its target to halve revenue support. Fares continue to keep broadly in line with inflation.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the good news that he has just given. What further steps is LRT considering to improve efficiency and, therefore, to reduce costs to London's travellers and ratepayers? Bearing in mind the many moving services of remembrance throughout London yesterday, when the Secretary of State next meets the chairman will he discuss with him the possibility of LRT buses coming to a halt during the two minutes' silence, as that might set a trend for other road users?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. LRT has embarked on a major programme of cost-cutting investment, including a new Underground ticketing system, new sources of power supply and increasing use of one-person operation on buses and Underground trains. It is pursuing a vigorous programme of putting bus services out to tender, which on current evidence provides the opportunity of savings of up to 20 per cent. As to my hon. Friend's other suggestion, I agree about the moving nature of yesterday's events at 11 o'clock, and I shall certainly bring what he has said to the attention of the chairman of LRT.

Is it the Government's policy to cut the wages of London bus drivers in the outer areas? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is a risk of that happening with the contractors of LRT and with LRT itself? If it is not the Government's policy, will he make sure that those contracting for such routes keep to London wages, and that LRT does the same?

The hon. Gentleman knows that these are matters for the management of LRT to work out in consultation with the unions. It is odd to hear him griping at the possibility of less subsidy, possibly even cheaper bus fares, through greater efficiency, but how that is achieved is for negotiation.

None the less, does my right hon. Friend agree that the achievements that he has just detailed have been in the face of campaigns in relation to excessive fare increases which did not take place and in relation to alleged station closures which also did not occur? Will he underline that this is the sort of thing that we in London must put up with?

I shall never forget the nonsense talked during the passage of the London Regional Transport Bill—[HON. MEMBERS: "By the right hon. Gentleman."]—about station closures, a 25 per cent. increase in fares and the ending of concessionary bus passes. The Opposition did not believe that it was possible to achieve the efficiency improvements that LRT has already achieved. That really showed up the Opposition, particularly the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), as wholly ill-informed and ill-briefed.

The right hon. Gentleman has waxed so eloquent about the objectives that he has set that it almost seemed as though he was leading us to the promised land. However, is not the reality one of continuing job losses and an outrageous proposal to cut the wages of some bus men by £40 a week, or 30 per cent.? Would not the right hon. Gentleman do much better to call in LRT and tell it to reverse his costly decentralisation proposals as a far better way of saving money and becoming more efficient?

I first welcome the hon. Gentleman back to transport issues. He had that responsibility in a previous incarnation. We look forward to many attempts at educating him in the coming years. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be careful of other occupations that he undertakes, because we do not want to lose him prematurely.

It seems that the hon. Gentleman does not know a promised land when he sees one. LRTs extraordinary performance improvement not only shows how well managed London's transport is, but how extraordinarily badly managed it was under the GLC.

Road Maintenance

4.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he will make a statement on the level of local authority expenditure on road maintenance.

Provision for local authority expenditure on road maintenance in 1985–86 is £972 million, 15 per cent. more than the level of provision two years earlier. I expect authorities to spend that sum. I shall be announcing the provision for 1986–87 very shortly, at the time of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's autumn statement.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Government on the increase in spending, but do they realise that rural and local roads are, in many cases, more important than motorways to those of us in the backwoods? Will the Government continue to spend more on providing easy access to the motorways for those of us who currently do not have that advantage?

I understand my hon. Friend's concern, but regret that I cannot give him the answer that he seeks. I am very well aware that the geography of the south-west means that the relatively few lines of road communication are vital for its economic health. We are increasing the number of those road lines by constructing an entirely new road, the north Devon link. As hon. Members know, we are doing everything that we can to relieve the main bottleneck of the A30.

What is the Minister's response to last July's report of the National Audit Office suggesting that the backlog of motorway maintenance will take seven years to complete, that spending on trunk roads maintenance is less then half of what is needed, and that additional investment now will produce savings in future?

I should be delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will tell him tomorrow, but it is not my job to do so. There has been a 15 per cent. increase during the past few years. If that had been combined with all local and highway authorities producing the efficiency that they are now achieving with our programme, there would have been an even greater benefit.

We have great scope for achieving better value for money from road maintenance. The Audit Commission is just beginning a major study in that very area. I very much welcome that, because we can then achieve even better value for money.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the substructure of rural roads has been allowed to break up as a result of the illegal target system imposed by the Government on local authorities and an inadequate level of TPP? Therefore, will it not require more than a 15 per cent. increase to bring the roads back to their proper condition? It is the destruction of the substructure, rather than damage to the surface, that must be repaired now, and 15 per cent. will not do the job.

I am sure my hon. Friend will remember that the Select Committee on Transport recommended a 10 per cent. increase in real terms in provision. As I said, that matter will be dealt with tomorrow.

I am very well aware that it is important to make the sort of provision that will deter further deterioration. That is exactly what we have done by producing the code of good practice for local authorities, and we shall continue to encourage them to do the very things that my hon. Friend has requested.

The Secretary of State is a disaster, although the Minister of State is all right—[HON. MEMBERS: "Sexist".]—The Secretary of State has plenty to say here, so why does he not open his mouth during Cabinet meetings at No. 10 and obtain money for road maintenance?

Is the Minister aware that police and local authority reports state that bad road maintenance contributes more than anything else to road accidents?

The hon. Gentleman is not being his customary self. My right hon. Friend is an excellent Secretary of State.

I cannot, for the reasons that I have already given, answer the hon. Gentleman's question. He has not drawn the right conclusion. If all drivers kept within the speed limits and observed what was happening on the roads, rather than thinking of other matters, there would be fewer accidents.

We shall continue to put forward the necessary resources for necessary road maintenance. I have every confidence that that will happen.

Inter-City Services

5.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if, when he next meets the chairman of British Rail, he will raise with him the performance of British Rail's inter-city travel.

The day-to-day performance of the inter-city sector is a matter for the railways board.

Nevertheless, I hope that the Minister cares about British Rail's inter-city performance. Is he aware that under British Rail's 1986 inter-city timetable trains will generally take longer to reach their destination, stop at more intermediate stations and that there will be less choice for travellers? Is he further aware that inter-city trains are overcrowded and that, more often than not, buffet and restaurant facilities are not available? Does he agree that that is unsatisfactory? Will he take up the matter urgently with the chairman of British Rail?

We certainly care about the level of service on inter-city trains. The hon. Gentleman complains about inter-city trains stopping at intermediate stations. I hope that he observes the contradiction in his remarks, because the additional stops provide an additional service for members of the public who want to travel on inter-city services.

British Rail is examining the possibilities of more private sector activity in the provision of buffet services. I have no doubt that that will lead to the improvements for which the hon. Gentleman is looking. I congratulate him on his appointment to the Front Bench as Opposition spokesman for health.

When my hon. Friend next meets the chairman of British Rail to discuss inter-city services, will he take up the possibility of cyclists continuing to be able to take their cycles on inter-city trains, since that facility is threatened? Will he also suggest that buffets should be open from the time that a train departs, not 30 minutes later after card playing has ended?

The problem of cycles on inter-city trains is one of space for accommodation. I shall write to my hon. Friend further about that. I shall draw the attention of the chairman of BR to my hon. Friend's words about the opening and closing of buffet services.

Is the Minister aware that the chairman of British Rail has categorically refused to give cheap early-day travel to passengers travelling from Stoke on Trent, even though he gives that facility to passengers from Manchester and Stockport on the same line? Does he agree that that is extraordinary discrimination by the chairman of British Rail, and will he take up the matter with him?

I shall draw the chairman's attention to what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I am sure that it is not British Rail's intention to discriminate against his constituents.

Will my hon. Friend raise with the chairman of British Rail the question of punctuality, particularly the punctuality of trains at intermediate stations rather than termini? I am sure that he will discover that the punctuality at such stations is very bad indeed.

One of the objectives set for British Rail by the Secretary of State was a reliable, attractive and punctual service. British Rail recognises that it still has some way to go. Since the remodelling of Crewe station there has been some improvement on the west coast main line. I recognise that my hon. Friend's campaign on behalf of his constituents is desirable. I shall draw the chairman's attention to what he said about timekeeping at intermediate stations.

Does the Minister accept that inter-city punctuality tables—at least, the latest ones—are the worst for almost 20 years, that despite what he has just said the timekeeping of trains from Euston on the west coast main line is deplorable, that morale in the railway industry is at rock bottom and that, thanks to the stewardship of the Secretary of State, the right hon. Gentleman has proved himself unfit to take down engine numbers let alone undertake responsibility for a once great industry?

I so much regret the fact that the hon. Gentleman turns up at every Question Time, no matter what the questions are about, and carps about British Rail instead of praising it for what it has achieved. It runs more trains at over 100 miles an hour than any other railway system in the world. As for timekeeping, the hon. Gentleman is quite wrong when he says that it is the worst ever. There has been a significant improvement in recent months.

Dial-A-Ride Services

6.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what arrangements are being made to ensure the continuation of dial-a-ride services for the disabled in London following the abolition of the Greater London council.

We have secured powers in the Transport Act 1985 to enable London Regional Transport to make grants for the provision of dial-a-ride services. A specific allocation of £5 million will be made for this purpose within my right hon. Friend's overall grant to London Regional Transport.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, which provides a necessary reassurance after our many anxieties. As background to these anxieties, which are felt all over London, including Harrow, can she say, on the scale of bad politics, that which she regrets the most—the Government's unwise decision to abolish the GLC, which we set up in the first place, or Dave Wetzel's irresponsible use of these anxieties to create scare stories?

I do not agree with my hon. Friend's first proposition. The second obviously stands. There was no doubt whatever in my mind that it was right to provide for the most severely disabled people by continuing dial-a-ride services, and I am delighted that they will have the professional backing of London Regional Transport to help them become even more efficient.

Is the Minister aware that she has effectively frozen the level of funding at a point which means that dial-a-ride will be unable to expand after the abolition of the GLC, and that this cannot be good for disabled people in London? I have a letter here from the Prime Minister in which she says that she will ensure, through the Department of Transport, that both dial-a-ride and the taxicard service will be preserved. Will the Minister give an assurance from the Dispatch Box now that the GLC's taxicard service for people with those disabilities will also be retained after the abolition of the GLC?

I can assure the House that the £5 million put forward for the dial-a-ride service is sufficient to maintain the service in 1986–87, and with this the London borough's working party has agreed fully. It will be up to dial-a-ride, with the help of LRT, to achieve the better efficiency that will allow expansion of the system.

The taxicard service has been costing ratepayers around £5 million. It is a service where the boroughs, following the GLC, have power to grant-aid the service of concessionary fares. It is in the Transport Act 1985. It will be up to boroughs, which are now discussing it, to do so. All councils are being sounded out and will report back to their co-ordinating committee on 27 November. It is, however, blatantly unfair of the GLC to come up at this stage with proposals that will double the cost to the London ratepayers of a scheme which would not be right and one which would not help all those people whom we wish to help. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that this high-cost scheme, which his GLC is setting up, is meant to provoke anxiety and to be an embarrassment to the boroughs. I hope that everyone recognises it for what it is worth.

A1 (Safety)

7.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on safety on the A1.

Overall, the A1 continues to have an accident rate below the national average. The recently revised national road programme contains 10 major schemes designed to improve the safety of the road still further. These are in addition to five major schemes completed since 1979 and a continuing programme of smaller, but nonetheless important, local improvements.

My hon. Friend will recall telling me in earlier correspondence that the A1 has a good safety record. Since then, however, there have been a number of serious accidents, including the death of an entire family in a cross-over accident. Does she agree that the A1 is dangerous and that it lulls motorists into a false sense of security? It is not as safe as a motorway, with its long stretches without a central safety barrier or hard shoulder, with cross-over points and poor sight lines obscuring slow-moving traffic. Will she commit the Government to a full-scale programme of improving road safety on the A1, and particularly to extending safety barriers?

I am fully committed to improving road safety, not merely on the A1, but on all roads. This year I have instituted a review of all safety fencing, which may be of assistance to the A1. Furthermore, it does not matter on what road one drives, or what the road conditions are, because much of road safety is in the hands of drivers. Nothing that the House may try to persuade me to do or that the Government do will change the fact that at present 65 per cent. of accidents are caused by driver error only.

Would not safety on the A1 be substantially improved if there were a switch to rail? However, before that development takes place, and in the light of anxiety throughout the country about the standards of British Rail, may we have a full inquiry——

National Roads Programme

8.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he last met representatives of the Confederation of British Industry to discuss the national roads programme.

When, in future, my right hon. Friend meets the CBI, will he concentrate on the differences between his programme and that which the CBI proposes in "Fabric of the Nation"? Will he explain why there is such an enormous discrepancy between its proposal and his programme?

There are no great differences between our forward programme and "Fabric of the Nation II", which the CBI has proposed. In most cases where they are not the same, either we are studying a new scheme to meet the CBI's requirements, or we think that the schemes that we have adjacent to its demands are meeting the need in a different way. There are few schemes that do not fall into one or other category.

Are the Government prepared to listen to the strictures of—is it Sir Anthony Beckett?—on the Government's failure to invest in the infrastructure?

I do not quite know who Sir Anthony Beckett can be. [Interruption.] That may be the hon. Gentleman's stage name. I addressed the CBI last Friday, and would be delighted to send the hon. Gentleman a copy of my speech so that he can comprehend fully the extent to which we are meeting the nation's needs for a modern road system.

Motorway Safety

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received regarding motorway safety following the accident on the M6 on 21 October; and if he will make a statement.

I have received some 1,000 letters from members of the public, and 33 from hon. Members. Although motorways remain our safest roads, there is still scope for improvements in driver behaviour. As the House knows, I am looking particularly at every aspect of the safety and speed of vehicles on motorways, especially coaches. I shall announce our conclusions on this as soon as possible.

Will my hon. Friend tell the House the most helpful things that drivers could do to prevent accidents on motorways?

If drivers would slow down and keep a safe distance behind the vehicle in front—that means an even longer distance at night and in bad weather—there would be far fewer accidents.

Does the Minister agree that speeding and bad driving on motorways are often encouraged by the lack of a police presence? Will she consult her right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to make certain that motor vehicles manned by the police are on motorways to ensure that the laws are obeyed?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am already doing so, and I am having further meetings about enforcement. If people drive safely only when they see a car with stripes down the side and a blue lamp on top, we shall still have accidents that are avoidable. It behoves every driver to improve his driving and his lane discipline. I hope that this awful series of crashes will bring home to people how much they have to do to avert such terrible tragedies.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not a bit of a record that we have reached only question No. 9?

Attorney-General

City Fraud

60.

asked the Attorney-General whether he has discussed the question of City fraud with the Director of Public Prosecutions; and if he will make a statement.

Yes. I frequently meet the Director of Public Prosecutions and senior members of his staff to discuss the work of his Department. The scope of these discussions includes the handling of fraud investigations generally, as well as individual cases of particular difficulty or importance.

Does the Solicitor-General recall that several months ago the Attorney-General said to a Tory Member of Parliament that he found the level of City fraud unacceptable? Since then we have had revelations about people connected with Johnson Matthey, and we now know that Peter Cameron-Webb and his associates who ran the PCW syndicate at Lloyds managed to get away with £70 million and are now living a life of luxury on the other side of the Atlantic. Why is it that the Attorney-General and the DPP seem to have one law for bankers and city financiers and another one under which, when he is called upon to nod through the Cyprus war trials, he can give the go-ahead? When Clive Ponting's case was brought before him, the Attorney-General gave the go-ahead. Is it not high time that the law of the land applied equally to everybody, financiers included?

I do not doubt that the Attorney-General expressed the view that fraud was at an unacceptable level, because any fraud is unacceptable. The law is the same for bankers, accountants, for rich and poor. The difficulty that the Attorney-General and the Director of Public Prosecutions have to face is that in some cases it is harder to acquire evidence in a form that is admissible in an English court of law. The hon. Gentleman will agree that it is desirable to have a prosecution case properly founded upon admissible evidence before proceedings are begun.

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree tht the practice of peremptory challenges in City fraud cases is being used to constitute juries which have greater difficulty in understanding the facts than they should have?

As my hon. Friend will recall, peremptory challenges were brought down from seven to three. This is not a wholly simple question. The use of the peremptory challenge has increased recently, and it is desirable to look into it. When we have the Crown Prosecution Service in being, that will be a proper means of looking at it.

Middlesex Crown Court Buildings

61.

asked the Attorney-General when he expects the old Middlesex Crown Court buildings to be reopened as a court; and if he will make a statement about the fine art contents of the building.

The work now in progess is expected to be completed by the end of 1987 and the court will re-open thereafter. While the work is in hand, the fine art collection proviously housed in the Guildhall has been removed, partly to the Kenwood museum and partly to a Clerkenwell repository.

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that there are two great Gainsboroughs there which ought to be on public view and perhaps should remain permanently at Kenwood?

The Gainsboroughs are not in the court building at present. They are elsewhere, as I have indicated. It is not for me to say where they ought to stay: that is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. Kenwood is a very nice place.

Police Officers (Prosecution)

62.

asked the Attorney-General when he next intends to meet the Director of Public Prosecutions to discuss arrangements for the prosecution of police officers.

The Attorney-General has frequent meetings with the Director of Public Prosecutions, at which he discusses individual cases of any nature as well as aspects of prosecuting policy.

Is the police officer who shot Mrs. Groce to be prosecuted, and if not, why not?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, a report is being prepared into that tragic occurance by the assistant chief constable of West Yorkshire. The steps to be taken thereafter will naturally depend upon the content of that report, among other things.

Is my hon. and learned Friend satisfied that when files are referred by local police authorities to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions those files are dealt with in the office at arm's length and not by individuals who are known to the alleged miscreants? Will my hon. and learned Friend make inquiries in a particular matter to which I have drawn his attention and satisfy himself that that matter was dealt with at arm's length, and write to me about it?

The answer to my hon. Friend's second question is yes.

With regard to my hon. Friend's first question, I am certain that the director wishes to ensure that any investigation carried out in his Department takes place without any handicap whatever. I shall draw his attention to my hon. Friend's question.

May I wish the Attorney-General a speedy recovery.

Is the Solicitor-General satisfied with progress concerning the staffing of prosecutions generally? Is he aware of the deep and widespread concern about the salaries and career structure of the new prosecution service, which are not felt by the profession to be anywhere near the assurances that were given in the course of the proceedings on the Bill? Will he, before it is too late, go back to the Treasury to obtain the sort of salaries and career structure with which to start an independent prosecution service that is worthy of the name and able to attract first-class people?

I am most grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his good wishes to the Attorney-General, as I am sure the Attorney-General will be.

I agree that we all want an independent prosecution service, which will operate upon terms and conditions that will attract, retain and motivate people of the high quality that are needed. I note the expressions of anxiety to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred. I shall be seeing the trade union group again tomorrow.

Drug Smuggling

63.

asked the Attorney-General what criteria the Director of Public Prosecutions uses in determining whether to initiate prosecutions relating to alleged drug smuggling offences; and if he will make a statement.

The Director of Public Prosecutions takes the decision whether to prosecute in relation to drug offences on the basis of the general criteria for prosecution issued by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General in February 1983, a copy of which is in the Library of the House of Commons. No special considerations apply, although the director regards any such offence as one of gravity.

Will the Solicitor-General tell us to what extent the criteria have been applied to the allegations in the Daily Mail of 24 August, which alleged that a high-ranking member of the Government was involved in cocaine smuggling? Can the Solicitor-General confirm or deny those allegations and put them to rest?

The Daily Mail was invited by the police to make available any evidence that might substantiate the story to which the hon. Gentleman refers. It was unable to do so. Neither I nor the director are aware of any evidence whatever that would substantiate the story.

Is the Solicitor-General aware that many hon. Members of this House, and certainly many members of the public, are very disturbed at the workings of the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions? Frequently, good and proper evidence is put forward, but charges are abandoned, and lesser charges are brought. That disturbs the public, it disturbs people such as myself, and it certainly disturbs observers at the trials. Will the Solicitor-General, when he next talks to the DPP, ask him either to get his house in order or to resign?

I shall talk to the Director of Public Prosecutions at a quarter to four this afternoon, but I shall not put to him the suggestion that my hon. Friend has just made. My hon. Friend's question was rather long on generalities but singularly short on particulars. If he has any particular case in mind, I shall look at it very carefully.

May I ask the Solicitor-General a sensible supplementary question? In relation to drug offences, what is the procedure for deciding whether the Director of Public Prosecutions or the solicitor for Customs and Excise takes the decision whether to prosecute?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the director has power to call in any case that appears to be of considerable difficulty or gravity, just as any prosecuting authority has the power to refer such a case to the director. That will apply in the category of cases to which the hon. Gentleman refers. There may be cases in which drugs are involved, where statutory requirements oblige the director to take the decision himself, but the general position is as I have described it.

Overseas Development

Africa (Emergency Aid)

69.

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what is his latest estimate of likely United Kingdom official emergency aid to countries in Africa in the current financial year.

The Government expect to spend about £80 million on emergency aid for Africa in the current financial year through bilateral and European Community channels.

In view of the scale and speed of the Government's response to the emergencies in many African countries, which unfortunately has not been emulated by many other countries, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government's response has in no way jeopardised the long-term and continuing development aid programmes from the Government to other countries?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I confirm that we have not had to cut country allocations to achieve the substantial amounts of emergency aid that we have achieved.

Has not the effect of the diversion of funds into the emergency programme been to the detriment of specific long-term aid projects within individual countries' programmes, particularly help to agriculture, without which there will be many more claims for emergency aid in future?

As I have just told my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman), we have not had to cut country allocations to achieve that emergency relief.

Will my right hon. Friend see what more he can do to use the resources of the Royal Air Force in distributing aid?

I am grateful for what the RAF has done in Ethiopia. If similar occasions arise, I have no doubt that the RAF will respond with its customary generosity.

70.

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Britain's contribution to Third world famine via chapter 9 of the European Community budget and the Lomé convention.

The European Community has made very substantial contributions towards famine relief in Africa in food aid and other emergency measures over last year and this. The British share over the past financial year and this one is likely to be around £77 million.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the United Kingdom, as a significant contributor to the Community budget, through the European instruments, gives infinitely more in famine relief to the Third world than many of its critics would acknowledge?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The European Community is a large giver of food aid. We play a full share in what it gives.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that at the recent conference of the Lomé convention in the north of Scotland, which, if I am not mistaken, he addressed, great emphasis was placed on development in addition to immediate food aid? Does he accept the urgency of a long-term development policy, which means that people are not eating their own seed corn?

The conference at Inverness was judged by everybody who attended it to be a great success. We are grateful to the people of Scotland, especially Inverness, for their welcome. The hon. Gentleman is right. There appears to be nobody on the Opposition Front Bench to make the point today; there is no Opposition spokesman here. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the need for long-term development aid.

Contingency Fund (Aid Budget)

71.

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what was the amount outstanding in the Contingency Fund for the aid budget at the latest available date; and if he will make a statement.

As is normal at this stage in the financial year, a relatively small amount remains unallocated.

Given the immense demands that have rightly been made on the Contingency Fund this year, by how much does the Minister expect to be able to top up the fund before the end of the year?

The Contingency Fund and our other resources will be sufficient to deal with all the needs that arise in this financial year.

Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that he has done everything possible to ensure that tomorrow's statement from the Chancellor brings satisfactory news on the Contingency Fund and the main fund?

I advise my hon. Friend to await tomorrow afternoon's autumn statement from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

Ethiopia

72.

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Her Majesty's Government's policy concerning aid and relief in Ethiopia in the light of the enforced mass resettlement of distressed people.

We are continuing to provide relief aid to Ethiopia for humanitarian reasons, but we do not support or assist the Ethiopian Government's policy on resettlement.

Is it not intolerable that, when so many have been so generous and the Government have been so helpful, the Ethiopian dictatorship should callously worsen the suffering of the people of Ethiopia? What action is proposed?

The question of aid to Ethiopia is extremely difficult. We have concentrated on meeting the humanitarian needs in Ethiopia, which are great. However, there is no doubt that the political context in Ethiopia makes the provision of long-term development aid extremely difficult.

Does the Minister realise that it is difficult for many people inside and outside the House to reconcile his remarks about development or food aid with the Government's recent decision to press the European Community—unfortunately with success—to cut the food aid budget? Much though we may wish to help development projects, we also want to see food aid sensibly used.

The key matter is the sensible use of food aid. We believe that there is enough food aid available in the Community's aid programme to provide conventional food aid and the emergency reserves that are needed for famine relief.

Africa (Agriculture)

73.

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what representations he has received from the all-party group on overseas aid concerning United Kingdom assistance to agriculture in Africa.

75.

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Her Majesty's Government's policy on aid to Africa in the light of the report of the all-party group on overseas development on that subject, a copy of which has been sent to him.

The group has sent me a copy of its report, which I am examining. Between 1979 and 1983, the proportion of all British bilateral aid to sub-Saharan Africa used for agriculture and related activities increased from 27 to 33 per cent. We are looking at ways to give more support to agriculture in Africa, with an emphasis on manpower assistance, training and research, and on the necessary policy reforms in African countries.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only way that we shall avert famine in Africa is to help African farmers better to feed the people of that continent? Does not the all-party report on assisting agriculture in Africa demonstrate that there is a need to allocate further resources to agriculture there, and would not one way of doing this be to transfer part of the aid and trade budget, which supports British exporters, to the budget of the Department of Trade and Industry?

No, Sir, because the aid and trade budget is based, among other things, on developmental criteria. Therefore, it should be part of the aid programme. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to develop agriculture in Africa. We are always open to proposals from African countries to assist their agricultural activities.

Does the Minister agree that the aid and trade provision, which gives capital-intensive money to developments such as power stations in Khartoum, is light years away from the real need, which the report rightly highlights as being the need to give basic indigenous agriculture a chance to prosper?

No, Sir. I accept that agricultural aid is of the greatest importance, but it is also important to help the economies of developing countries in other ways and not confine our aid solely to agriculture. The aid and trade provision is valuable in doing that.

In thanking my right hon. Friend for the help that he gave to the all-party group in producing its report, may I ask him whether he accepts that now is the key time to work with African Governments to improve their agricultural position, since many of them have changed their policy initiatives? Can he reassure us that this has been taken into consideration in the ODA budget, which will be revealed in tomorrow's statement by the Chancellor?

All those factors are taken into consideration when forming the public expenditure projections. I agree with my hon. Friend that this is a good time to discuss agricultural policy. I invariably make a point of discussing matters such as pricing policy, which is extremely important, when I meet my opposite numbers in the developing countries.

If the Minister is so concerned about agricultural policy, especially in Africa, why did the Queen's Speech refer only to the relief of famine and not to its prevention? Will the Minister now affirm that the Government intend to direct their policies towards the prevention of famine as well as to its relief?

I am happy to make that affirmation. I am only sorry that the Opposition Front Bench has not been represented in our discussions today.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In 35 minutes we reached only nine transport questions out of 59. If you have any influence over this, may I beg you to see whether we cannot get on a little faster in future?

I can, of course, have an influence by calling fewer Back Benchers. Frequently, the trouble with Question Time is that long supplementary questions lead to long answers.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) asked a question about an accident that occurred in my constituency, on which I am awaiting a statement and on which I have strong views——

I am very sorry, but I cannot help the hon. Lady. With the best will in the world, I cannot call every hon. Member who wishes to speak on every subject.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Another hon. Member was called, yet I am the hon. Member concerned. I believe that I had a right to be called.

I am very sorry. I will try to do better for the hon. Lady in the future.

Suspension Of A Member

3.31 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise a matter of which I have given you notice. You will know that in Friday's debate on the Loyal Address the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) made an extremely lengthy speech. He prefaced that speech by levelling the gravest possible charge against my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He said:

"The Chancellor of the Exchequer is perverting the course of justice."—[Official Report, 8 November 1985; Vol. 86, c. 256.]
On the face of it, that is a very grave accusation. It is difficult to think of any graver accusation that could be made against a Privy Councillor and a member of the Government.

The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch did not refer to the Chancellor again. In the course of his extremely long speech he made absolutely no attempt to justify that gravest of allegations against a right hon. Member. Is it not a gross abuse of this House for an hon. Member to come to this place and not even seek to substantiate such a grave allegation? Is it not right, therefore, that the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch, who is in his place, should have this opportunity to make a statement, to apologise and to withdraw what he said?

Order. A point of order has been put to me and I think that I should deal with it at once.

I was not in the Chair when the statement in question was made, but I have read the speech of the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore), and in particular the allegation to which the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) has referred.

This was a serious reflection on the conduct of the Chancellor, and, as the House knows, it is our rule that one Member should not cast such a reflection on another unless the debate is based on a substantive motion dealing directly with the conduct complained of. In making this allegation in the debate on the Loyal Address, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch breached that rule of order.

I am sure that the House would not wish a personal allegation of that kind, touching the honour of an hon. Member, to remain on the record. I therefore ask the hon. Member concerned to withdraw the comment.

I appreciate the concern of the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) about the difficulties that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is in—[Interruption.]—and I appreciate your concern over this matter, Mr. Speaker. You will know that there has been an exchange of letters today between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and myself.

When I was sent to this House, my constituents expected me to call Ministers to account, and to do so without fear or favour. What has happened in this case is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made a grave, constitutional error and I believe that the right course would be for the Prime Minister this afternoon to call for his resignation. [Interruption.]

Order. Is the hon. Member saying, in effect, that he is repeating the allegation that he made on Friday?

I should like to take the easy way out—the coward's way—and withdraw, but, with great regret, I cannot do that. The public outside expect the truth and, with even greater regret, I repeat the allegation.

If the hon. Member will not withdraw that allegation, I shall be forced to name him. I give him one further chance: will the hon. Member withdraw that allegation?

In that case, I name Mr. Brian Sedgemore.

Motion made, and Question put, That Mr. Brian Sedgemore be suspended from the service of the House.—[Mr. Biffen.]

The House proceeded to a Division

(seated and covered): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the comments that you made a few moments ago about the conduct of hon. Members in the House, would not it be in order to require the Minister of State, Home Office to come and make an apology to the House in the light of what he said the other day about hon. Members abusing their position in dealing with immigration problems?

(seated and covered): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I cannot accept that there is no connection between the two cases. You said in your ruling that it was against the rules of the House for one hon. Member to call into question the integrity of another. That is exactly what the Minister of State, Home Office did. If you are to be consistent, you must surely deal with his breach in the same way as you are dealing with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney. South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore).

The hon. Lady will know that I received a letter about the allegations made by the Minister of State, Home Office, questioning whether they were a breach of privilege. I am naming the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) because he refused to obey my request to withdraw his statement.

The House having divided: Ayes 204, Noes 45.

Division No. 1]

[3.36 pm

AYES

Adley, RobertBellingham, Henry
Alison, Rt Hon MichaelBest, Keith
Ancram, MichaelBiffen, Rt Hon John
Archer, Rt Hon PeterBiggs-Davison, Sir John
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H.Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E)Boscawen, Hon Robert
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Vall'y)Bottomley, Mrs Virginia
Baldry, TonyBowden, Gerald (Dulwich)
Beaumont-Dark, AnthonyBrandon-Bravo, Martin
Beith, A. J.Brittan, Rt Hon Leon

Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)Latham, Michael
Browne, JohnLawler, Geoffrey
Bruce, MalcolmLawson, Rt Hon Nigel
Bruinvels, PeterLeigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Bryan, Sir PaulLennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A.Lester, Jim
Buck, Sir AntonyLilley, Peter
Burt, AlistairLloyd, Peter, (Fareham)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)Lyell, Nicholas
Cartwright, JohnMcCrindle, Robert
Chalker, Mrs LyndaMacGregor, Rt Hon John
Channon, Rt Hon PaulMacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)
Chapman, SydneyMcNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)McQuarrie, Albert
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)Madel, David
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.)Major, John
Colvin, MichaelMarshall, Michael (Arundel)
Coombs, SimonMates, Michael
Cope, JohnMather, Carol
Cormack, PatrickMaude, Hon Francis
Couchman, JamesMawhinney, Dr Brian
Cranborne, ViscountMaxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Currie, Mrs EdwinaMayhew, Sir Patrick
Dickens, GeoffreyMeyer, Sir Anthony
Dicks, TerryMiller, Hal (B'grove)
Dormand, JackMitchell, David (Hants NW)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Dover, DenMonro, Sir Hector
du Cann, Rt Hon Sir EdwardMontgomery, Sir Fergus
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.Moore, John
Durant, TonyMorris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Dykes, HughMoynihan, Hon C.
Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)Mudd, David
Eggar, TimMurphy, Christopher
Emery, Sir PeterNeale, Gerrard
Evennett, DavidNelson, Anthony
Favell, AnthonyNeubert, Michael
Fletcher, AlexanderNewton, Tony
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)Norris, Steven
Foster, DerekOnslow, Cranley
Fowler, Rt Hon NormanOttaway, Richard
Fox, MarcusOwen, Rt Hon Dr David
Franks, CecilPage, Sir John (Harrow W)
Freeman, RogerPage, Richard (Herts SW)
Freud, ClementPatten, Christopher (Bath)
Gow, IanPawsey, James
Greenway, HarryPenhaligon, David
Gummer, Rt Hon John SPortillo, Michael
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)
Hannam, JohnProctor, K. Harvey
Harris, DavidPym, Rt Hon Francis
Harrison, Rt Hon WalterRadice, Giles
Haselhurst, AlanRaison, Rt Hon Timothy
Hattersley, Rt Hon RoyRees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover)
Hayward, RobertRhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Heath, Rt Hon EdwardRidley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Hind, KennethRoe, Mrs Marion
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)Rossi, Sir Hugh
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)Rowe, Andrew
Hordern, Sir PeterRowlands, Ted
Howard, MichaelRyder, Richard
Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)Sackville, Hon Thomas
Howell, Ralph (Norfolk N)Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Jenkin, Rt Hon PatrickShore, Rt Hon Peter
Jessel, TobySilvester, Fred
Johnson Smith, Sir GeoffreySmith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Johnston, Sir RussellSmith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E)
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Jones, Robert (W Herts)Soames, Hon Nicholas
Joseph, Rt Hon Sir KeithSpeed, Keith
Kaufman, Rt Hon GeraldSquire, Robin
Kellett-Bowman, Mrs ElaineStanley, John
Kennedy, CharlesSteel, Rt Hon David
King, Roger (B'ham N'field)Stewart, Ian (Hertf'dshire N)
Kinnock, Rt Hon NeilStokes, John
Kirkwood, ArchyStradling Thomas, Sir John
Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)Tapsell, Sir Peter
Lang, IanTaylor, John (Solihull)

Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)Walker, Bill (T'side N)
Tebbit, Rt Hon NormanWaller, Gary
Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M.Ward, John
Thompson, Donald (Calder V)Wardle, C, (Bexhill)
Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)Watts, John
Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)Whitney, Raymond
Thurnham, PeterWilkinson, John
Townend, John (Bridlington)Williams, Rt Hon A.
Twinn, Dr IanYoung, Sir George (Acton)
Vaughan, Sir GerardYounger, Rt Hon George
Viggers, Peter
Wakeham, Rt Hon JohnTellers for the Ayes:
Waldegrave, Hon WilliamMr. Tristan Garel-Jones and
Walden, GeorgeMr. Tim Sainsbury.

NOES

Ashley, Rt Hon JackMillan, Rt Hon Bruce
Benn, TonyO'Brien, William
Bidwell, SydneyPark, George
Boyes, RolandPavitt, Laurie
Caborn, RichardPendry, Tom
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)Pike, Peter
Campbell-Savours, DalePowell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Clarke, ThomasRichardson, Ms Jo
Clwyd, Mrs AnnRoberts, Allan (Bootle)
Cohen, HarryRoberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Cox, Thomas (Tooting)Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Dixon, DonaldRowlands, Ted
Eadie, AlexShort, Ms Clare (Ladywood)
Eastham, KenShort, Mrs R. (W'hampt'n NE)
Edwards, Bob (W'h'mpt'n SE)Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'bury)
Flannery, MartinSoley, Clive
Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)
Harman, Ms HarrietThomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Haynes, FrankWareing, Robert
Heffer, Eric S.Winnick, David
Lewis, Terence (Worsley)
Marek, Dr JohnTellers for the Noes:
Marshall, David (Shettleston)Mr. Dennis Skinner and
Maynard, Miss JoanMr. Tony Banks.
Mikardo, Ian

Question accordingly agreed to.

I direct the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch to withdraw from the House.

The hon. Member withdrew accordingly.

Statutory Instruments, &C

By leave of the House, I shall put together the Questions on the seven motions relating to draft statutory instruments.

Ordered,

That the draft Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Ivory Coast) Order 1985 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Canada) Order 1985 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Finland) Order 1985 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Soviet Union) Order 1985 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Norway) Order 1985 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the Forestry (Modification of Felling Restrictions) Regulations 1985 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Summer Time Order 1985 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.—[Mr. Maude.]

Ten Minutes Rule

3.50 pm

Before we proceed to the next business, I wish to make a short statement.

I remind hon. Members that the resolution limiting speeches to 10 minutes between 6 pm and 8 pm and 7 pm and 9 pm lapsed at the end of the last Session. I therefore have no authority to impose a limit until a new resolution has been passed. However, many hon. Members have signified their wish to take part in the debate that is to follow. I appeal to them—to all who are called—to limit themselves to 10 minutes throughout the day so that as many as possible can take part. I also appeal to the Front Benches to observe due restraint.

Orders Of The Day

Debate On The Address

[FOURTH DAY]

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [6 November]

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:

Most Gracious Sovereign,

We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament— [Sir Reginald Eyre].

Question again proposed.

Social Security And Education

3.51 pm

The immediate context of the debate on social security is that in two weeks' time we will be uprating social security benefits. That will add another £2 billion to spending on social security. It will bring total spending on social security to well over £40 billion a year—almost a third of all public expenditure.

Uprating pensions and other linked long-term benefits by 7 per cent. will raise the single person's pension by £2·50 a week and the married couple's pension by £4 a week. That will mean that between November 1978 and November 1985 pensions will have gone up by over 96 per cent.—some 10 percentage points ahead of the rise in prices. Thus we have more than fulfilled our pledge to protect the value of the retirement pension, and that is a pledge that we stand by as firmly today.

This month's uprating means that since 1979 this Government have increased the social security budget by 30 per cent. in real terms. Some of that increase has been due to unemployment. I make no apology for the fact that we have given that substantial support to those in need of it, but it is important to recognise that the major part of that real increase in spending is due to real increases in the value of benefits, and in particular to the increased number of pensioners. Since 1979 the total number of pensioners has increased by over 750,000. The result is that we are now paying higher value pensions to more pensioners than ever before in history.

This Government have done even more. We have more than doubled the mobility allowance and taken it out of tax. We have abolished the invalidity trap and taken war widows' pensions out of tax. We have cut national insurance contributions for the lower paid. Therefore, let us be clear. The debate is about the policy of a Government, who, by any measure, have already committed vast resources to social security and, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer's statement tomorrow will show, are planning to maintain that commitment.

There is a further fundamental point. Since 1979 we have also cut inflation to a fraction of the 27 per cent. peak that it reached in the mid-1970s. It is now below 6 per cent., and falling. The reduction of inflation is of crucial importance to all those on low incomes and to pensioners in particular.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) tends to have a short memory on this matter, but when we look back to 1976, when inflation was running at 20 per cent., and more for a whole year on end, we see that it was the hon. Gentleman who, according to The Times, was shouted down at a pensions rally. The report stated:
"Old age pensioners shouted down Mr. Meacher, Under-Secretary of State at the DHSS yesterday as he tried to explain the Government's record on pensions".
In fact, those pensioners had learnt from bitter experience a fact that we should all face—that one cannot separate economic policy from social policy. High spending and the high inflation that follows will always undermine a Government's social objectives, however worthy they may be. Inflation is a social evil as well as an economic one. It attacks the poor hardest and destroys the security of the pensioners first. It must therefore be a first social priority to drive inflation down and to keep it down. We must never return to the days of hyper inflation of the mid-1970s.

There is another aspect of the debate that goes beyond comparisons of past performance, and that is the case for reform for the future. The fact is that the present system cannot be sustained. Social security has become a creaking structure in danger of collapse, and parts of the system are simply indefensible.

We cannot defend a system whose rules are frequently contradictory and which can leave so many people trapped in a position where it is not worth saving, not worth bothering to earn more and where a man can actually lose money when he takes a job. We cannot defend a system that is so complex that it creates major difficulties, both for those who operate the system and for those whom it is supposed to help.

We cannot defend a system that fails to deliver adequate support to many of those who are in the greatest need. For example, the evidence accumulated during the course of the social security review pointed to a clear need to provide help to working families on low incomes, which the present system fails to meet. We cannot defend a system that makes promises for the future that are clearly beyond the capacity of this generation to command and of the next to fulfil.

Presented with those challenges, it is simply no good to proclaim that every existing benefit must be preserved, or to come out with a stream of worthless promises to raise public spending more and more. The question is not whether social security should be reformed but how it should be reformed. That is a challenge from which no party can stand aside.

That is why the Government have carried out their review of social security with the aim—for the first time since the 1940s—of looking at social security overall rather than in a piecemeal way. In developing our approach, we believe that the system should meet three main objectives.

First, social security must be capable of meeting genuine need. That means rather more than constructing an adequate income support scheme to replace supplementary benefit. It means recognising that needs change. In particular, it means today recognising that one of the groups which are by any definition in most need are low-income families with children—not just those where the head of the family is unemployed, but where the head of the family is in work. It is for that reason that we have set out proposals for a family premium with income support.

Although I very much appreciate my right hon. Friend's sterling work and his sympathetic attitude towards the least well off in our community, I must ask whether he accepts the grave anxiety among women that child benefit may not continue to be paid direct to them? Many women, not only those in the lowest income group, have child benefit as their only source of independent income. If that is to be frozen, they will be very annoyed.

Indeed, I thought that my hon. Friend would go on to make a further point about how child benefit is paid. I cannot pre-empt the uprating statement that I shall make on child benefit, but clearly the whole intent of the Green Paper and the policy that we have set out is to continue child benefit as a basic support that is paid to women, but also to do something more.

I think my hon. Friend accepts that it is no good relying only on child benefit. The problem that has been highlighted in our inquiry into social security is that a whole range of low-income families with children need additional support. Family income supplement is not reaching those children. That is why I believe that although FIS rightly sought to tackle the issue and at the time was undoubtedly a major step forward, it suffers now from a number of defects, not least that it has not adequately tackled either the unemployment or the poverty trap. Our view is that it cannot be justified to have a system where a man can be worse off in work than out of work, or where his take home pay may actually fall even though his nominal pay rises. Our proposals for family credit—using net income—seek to tackle that problem and to bring increased help to some of our poorest families.

We welcome the Secretary of State's statement that the working poor will be given substantial help. I should like to question the right hon. Gentleman about what he means by substantial and extra help. May we have a guarantee that when one takes account of the loss of family income supplement, the cuts in housing benefit and the freezing of child benefit, the new family credit will amount to more than the loss of income on those three fronts?

The purpose is to bring extra help to low-income families in work. We shall set out the objectives and the tables in the White Paper. By introducing family credit we mean extra support, not less support, in that area.

Is it not also important to bear in mind the Government's avowed intention to reduce the income tax burden on the poor? Are not many people in receipt of family income supplement paying tax?

The whole House will share the aspiration to raise tax thresholds. We all agree that many people on low incomes who are paying tax now should be taken out of tax. That is the Government's aim. I am sure that there is widespread support throughout the country for that.

Poor families will not be reassured by the statement that more money will be available globally. People want a commitment that individually they will be better off. Will the right hon. Gentleman give that clear commitment?

I have tried to answer that precise point. These issues will be set out in the White Paper. Like everyone else, the hon. Gentleman, even with his expertise, will have to wait until the White Paper is published.

Our second objective is that the social security system must be simpler to understand and easier to administer. I do not see how anyone can be happy with a supplementary benefit organisation which requires almost 40,000 staff to administer, but which, through absolutely no fault of the staff, is not always able to provide the service which is needed.

I do not see how anyone can be happy with a system under which all the main income-related benefits—supplementary benefit, housing benefit and family income supplement—use different measures of income and capital. I do not see how anyone can be happy with a system where local offices simply lack the modern aids which are necessary to provide a modern service.

It is for all these reasons that we are proposing the reform of supplementary benefit, the introduction of a common basis for our systems of income support, housing benefit and family support, and that we are now embarking on the biggest computerisation programme in Europe so that offices will not depend on manual records in the same time-wasting and inefficient way as they do now.

DHSS staff are experiencing difficulty throughout the country. Will the Secretary of State comment on articles which appeared in the press last week about the confidential Ernst and Whinney report, which apparently advises that 10,000 extra civil servants will be needed to administer the complex new schemes which the right hon. Gentleman intends to introduce?

We are examining the staff implications of the new proposals. A reduction in DHSS permanent staff is expected, and we are examining the temporary, transitional implications. I do not advise the hon. Gentleman to rely on reports about that matter. A newspaper report should not be relied upon for an accurate opinion.

Our third objective is that the social security system must be consistent with the Government's overall objectives for the economy. The scope for sustaining social security provision depends on the performance of the economy and the creation of wealth. Equally, it means that social security itself should not place barriers in the way of economic development—barriers such as high national insurance rates, which can discourage jobs, or restrictions on pensions which can prevent job mobility.

The Government's proposals for the reform of social security are set out with those objectives in mind. Clearly the final proposals will be set out in the Government's White Paper shortly.

In the next weeks. At this stage, there are two major points to make. The first, is on the current problems we face, and the second is on future policy. The first point is this. Inevitably, there must be a limit to the resources that any Government can devote to social security. The lesson of that is that resources cannot be wasted—that can only mean areas of undoubted need getting less. However difficult the problems may be, we must ensure that resources are properly directed at those who need them.

That is why we are seeking the control of board and lodging spending. Spending in this area has risen from around £200 million a year at the end of 1982 to £600 million a year by the end of 1984. For ordinary board and lodging it rose from £166 million to £380 million in those two years. There was evidence of abuse—both by landlords and claimants—and young people were being drawn into accommodation which they could not afford to pay for if they were in work. Our aim has been to ensure that proper help goes to those with a genuine need to be in board and lodging, while excluding those who do not.

One part of the regulations was called into question by a High Court judgment at the end of July, and as a result we have appealed to the Court of Appeal. The question of what to do in the interim obviously arises. There is a prospect of prolonged uncertainty, because, whatever the outcome in the Court of Appeal, it will be open to either side to consider an appeal to the House of Lords. So if we do nothing there is the risk of confusion—while at the same time calling into question the increase in benefit payable later this month to people in residential and nursing homes. That is an effect that no one wants.

So, for all the reasons that I set out in my statement at the end of last month, I am laying fresh regulations today which the House will have the opportunity of debating very shortly. They meet the Government's immediate objectives, while at the same time responding to the Joint Committee's concerns.

The revised regulations establish the framework of board and lodging areas, time limits and financial limits, without providing for any of the powers questioned in the High Court. They provide for the time limits to be reintroduced for new claimants as soon as regulations are made, but they will not be applied to existing boarders on benefit until 28 July 1986, coinciding with next year's general uprating of benefits. The regulations also give statutory backing to the increase in the limits for residential care and nursing homes due to come into effect on 25 November.

A number of other provisions enable us to deal with difficult cases. I am taking powers to exempt from the time limits claimants who would otherwise suffer exceptional hardship. I am also taking discretionary powers to help in individual cases of genuine hardship. This will mainly help people in residential and nursing homes who before last April were meeting their own charges, but are unable to carry on doing so and are now entitled to supplementary benefit.

The House will have a very early opportunity of debating these regulations, but there is a further important point that I should make on action which is clearly now necessary to combat the emerging evidence of fraud in this area. The House will recall that a special investigation earlier this year in Euston showed that about half of those claiming to be residents in particular hotels were no longer there—about 600 cases out of 1,200. Following that, I asked for other checks to be carried out in all regions. They are not fully completed. When they are, I shall make the full results available to the House during, I hope, December.

Nevertheless, it is clear already that there is similar evidence of abuse in other parts of the country. The evidence that we have from other parts of London, parts of Manchester and Edinburgh, and from towns like Southend, show that an appreciable proportion of claimants were found not to be resident at the hotel named on their claim form. One address which had been given for 24 claimants proved on investigation to have not a single claimant in residence.

Such examples of abuse involve not only claimants but the proprietors of accommodation. This cannot be totally prevented by the passing of regulations alone, although the size of the abuse can be reduced. Clearly, what is needed is a further effort to reduce fraud and abuse, and I intend, therefore, to increase the scale of our effort in this area. I hope that, whatever else we may disagree on, there will be agreement that fraud, whether committed by claimants or landlords, or both in co-operation, should be combated as effectively as possible. I give notice now that this will be our intention in the coming months.

Before the right hon. Gentleman makes these serious allegations, will he confirm that the overwhelming majority of the 600 in the Euston area had committed no fraud whatsoever, but had simply moved to a different bed-and-breakfast establishment and were not claiming any more funds than they had received previously? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the reasons for this not being known are DHSS bureaucracy and the fact that claimants would lose three weeks' benefit if they made it clear that they had moved? If there has been fraud in as many cases as that, why is it that only 10 have been prosecuted?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is wrong on his first point. There is no evidence of the kind that he has suggested to show that people have simply moved to another address. The fact is that 1,170 claims were examined, covering 30 hotels, and that in 55 per cent. of the cases the claimants were found not to he resident at the hotel stated on their claim form, in spite of the fact that they had the two-weekly returns to the office to confirm where they were staying.

In addition to the evidence from Euston, we now have evidence from Earls Court, from Edinburgh, from Notting Hill and from Southend. If the hon. Gentleman says that it is simply the same problem and that there is really nothing to worry about, I wonder how he explains a situation where, at one address purporting to accommodate 24 claimants, not one was found to be there.

The hon. Gentleman will have heard what I said about increasing the efforts in this area. One of the results of that will unquestionably be that we will have to put more emphasis on prosecution than we did in the past. On that matter, the hon. Gentleman is pushing at an open door.

I and my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security have looked at this evidence carefully, although it is not yet complete. When it is, we will certainly put it to the House. On all the evidence that we have, however, I must advise the House that there is a serious problem, and it is right that the Government should take action against it. I cannot defend a situation in which the social security system is being defrauded, because that will only mean losses for those who need help.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how many prosecutions have ensued from this investigation, and thus, I hope, deny what has been said from the Opposition Benches?

My hon. Friend is right. A small number of prosecutions have taken place. That is one of the reasons why I am announcing to the House that more staff will be employed in this area, with the intention of bringing more cases forward for prosecution.

May I follow up the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Howell)? If there is indeed a hotel which is said to have 24 claimants, and if not one of those claimants is living at that hotel, what is preventing their immediate prosecution? Secondly, are we certain that the 24 claimants are not still falsely receiving taxpayers' money?

On the latter point, we are not. On the first point, the whole issue of prosecution in that case is under consideration. It is literally at this moment being considered by the authorities. In those circumstances, I cannot go further than to indicate to the House that what the Government and the DHSS have discovered is a problem that should be tackled firmly, not only in terms of investigation, but with follow-up action. I am sure that my hon. Friends, with their experience, will believe that to be right.

I should like to go on. I shall keep the House informed about the position.

No, I have given way twice to the hon. Member in this debate.

The second thing that I would like to raise——

I have given way several times. I should like to continue, but nevertheless I give way.

I do not know whether my right hon. Friend realises how strong is the feeling on this side of the House and, I am sure, on the Opposition Benches too. My right hon. Friend has given no adequate explanation of why there have not been more prosecutions. How much money does he think is involved in this?

My information is that there have been 30 prosecutions so far. What I am announcing to the House is that we will commit more resources and more staff to the pursuit, not only of investigation, but of prosecution in such cases. That is the whole purpose of the follow-up action that we are taking as a result of this investigation.

The Government are determined to take action to combat this fraud in the social security system. That is what we have been battling to do. That is why I have put the proposals and the position frankly to the House.

No, I shall not give way.

The second major area is pensions. Whatever disagreements there may be about whether SERPS should be replaced or restricted, I believe that there is now a widespread acceptance that it cannot be left unchanged. What is clear is that between now and 2035 the number of pensioners will grow by something like 4 million—while the number of contributors will increase only slightly. In other words, in the pay-as-you-go scheme which is SERPS the ratio of contributors to pensioners will worsen. There will be proportionately fewer contributors to pay the bill that we are handing down to future generations.

We believe that those issues must be faced now. A nation should have the courage to look ahead. If the best estimates available to us lead us to question whether we will be able to afford the promises that we are making, we have a duty to re-examine the position. It would be an abdication of responsibility to hand down obligations to our children which we believe they cannot fulfil.

It is not just a question of absolute costs—important as they may be. It is also a question of priorities. The number of pensioners will increase—that we know. That increased population of pensioners will need many other services, such as health and personal social services, which we cannot necessarily fully foresee at this stage. What we can, however, ensure is that we do not pre-empt the resources of the state and unduly limit the flexibility of future Governments to carry out the policies that they judge necessary.

The further point to make about pensions is that, although SERPS has dominated the headlines, that ignores the important changes that are to take place in occupational and personal pensions. At present nearly half of the work force is without cover by an occupational scheme of any kind. Around 11 million are in schemes, but more than 9 million are not. What is clear is that that position has remained more or less the same for the past 20 years. It covers not only the years of the so-called "pensions blight" up to the Social Security Pensions Act 1975 but the years since that legislation. In neither of those periods has any significant change in the position been achieved.

It is a central aim of the Government's policy that that position should be improved. We want to see more people with their own pension and a growth in the pension-owning democracy alongside the home-owning democracy that we are already creating. That is not just an aspiration of the Government. It is also the wish of the public, as shown by the Gallup opinion poll commissioned for the review. The public want the security and independence that occupational and personal pensions can provide, and our aim is to meet those aspirations. In any policy to achieve that, there are a number of essential elements.

First, we must seek to give the public new options. We aim to develop, not only personal pensions, but industry-wide schemes in industries where occupational coverage is low. We want a generally simpler regime for occupational schemes. For the man in a scheme who wants to do more for himself, but does not want to go as far as a personal pension, we will give a right to pay additional voluntary contributions. The Green Paper proposal to give everyone a right to pay AVCs has been universally welcomed.

Secondly, we will enable new providers to offer pensions. Our aim should be to give more choice and encourage more competition. Banks, unit trusts and building societies will be able to become pension providers. What they have in common is a particular expertise in serving the needs of individual customers. I want to see them helping more of their existing customers to plan for their retirement, and placing at the disposal of new customers their proven knowledge and skills.

Thirdly, we must ensure that people have access to new and better information. We have already acted to promote this by our new disclosure requirements, which come into effect next year. People have a right to know where they stand in relation to their pension rights. I want to bring about a situation where more people understand fully the value of those pension rights.

Those changes will come on top of the important improvements in the Social Security Act 1985, which protect early leavers, confer new rights to transfer values, and give people more information about their schemes. Those changes will go down as some of the most important improvements made to occupational schemes. Although I am bound to observe that in the months leading up to those changes there was less than enthusiasm from some of the established pension interests, now that the legislation is in place there is common ground that the Government were right to act in this way and that the lack of protection for early leavers was indefensible.

We will consider carefully the points put to us in the consultation on the Green Paper—on pensions and the other issues raised. I make no apology for that. It is right for the Government to consult the public on these issues. In addition, the time has now come for decisions and actions. Good government means facing not only the problems of today, but finding solutions to them. Good government means looking ahead and establishing the kind of system that we want for the future. That is what the country wants, and that is what the Social Security Bill will do.

4.24 pm

This year was to be the year of the biggest review of the welfare state since Beveridge. It is the view of many that it is turning into the biggest fiasco of this Parliament. What was billed as the biggest review for half a century did not even get a mention in the Prime Minister's speech to the Tory party conference this year, and was granted precisely a single inexplicit line in the Queen's Speech. It is inexplicit because, as the Secretary of State made clear today, the Government, two years after the reviews were inaugurated and one year after they reported, still do not know what the Bill will contain. The White Paper is still only half-written, although it is months overdue. Four drafts have already had to be torn up.

On 26 October, and again today, the Secretary of State said

"Our aim must be again to listen to what people are saying … We must work that much harder and make sure that at every step we carry the great bulk of common-sense opinion with us."
If the Secretary of State had meant that, he would have withdrawn the entire package.

There is no precedent in modern times for a Government proposing a programme of reform which unites such utterly disparate sections of opinion in such a consensus of hostility. Anyone who can manufacture a coalition ranging from the Confederation of British Industry to the Church of England, women's institutes to the Law Society, the welfare lobby to the pensions industry and the Trades Union Congress to large sections of the Conservative party is either a master tactician or a master bungler. Not many people would designate the Secretary of State a master tactician. From the 7,000 responses to the Green Paper's proposals, no fewer than 98 per cent. were critical or hostile. It is only fair to say that the Secretary of State has his enthusiastic, admiring supporters. From an examination of those responses it is clear that they are confined to the Institute of Directors and the Monday Club.

The Labour party is in favour of reform and improvement of the welfare state, but the Government's Green Paper package is not primarily about reform. It is about cuts. SERPS is not being reformed but either abolished or emasculated. Housing benefit is not being reformed, except marginally, but cut by the huge sum of £500 million on top of the £200 million last year. Supplementary benefit is not being reformed, except peripherally, but cut by £180 million. Child benefit is not being reformed, even marginally or peripherally, but cut by £175 million this year, and, if it is frozen, even more next year.

The whole exercise was flawed from the start. One cannot have genuine reform if one begins with a nil cost estimate. One ends up by redistributing poverty among different groups of the poor. One cannot reach independent objective conclusions if one stacks the review committee with Tory placemen and placewomen. One cannot effect coherent reform if one fails to look at social security and taxation as a whole. One cannot expect people to take the charade of the review exercise seriously if one concludes that SERPS should be abolished when the proposal to abolish it was not even considered by the pensions council team.

One cannot expect much credibility to attach to the idea of a review because wide-ranging changes in widows' benefits are proposed when there was no review of widows' benefits. On the other hand, there is a deafening silence on benefits for the 16 to 19-year-old age group, when a whole review was devoted to benefits for children and young people. To cap it all, the Government cannot do all those things and then regale themselves with the spirit of Beveridge. The Fowler reviews have done about as much for social security as the captain of the Titanic did for navigation.

I listened carefully to the Secretary of State and I found he failed to answer four fundamental questions about the Government's intentions. By far the most important—he skated over it again today—is the future of SERPS. There is virtually unanimous agreement everywhere, even on the Government Back Benches, that, in the words of the Government's own social security advisory committee report 1985, paragraph 7(3):

"Providing pensions at a level comparable to SERPS will cost the economy as much as SERPS even if that cost is shifted from the public to the private sector. A substantial reduction in total future costs can be obtained only by reducing benefits for future pensioners."
Certainly everyone bar the Secretary of State recognises that a compulsory 4 per cent. contribution to private schemes would be nowhere near enough to compensate for SERPS. Indeed, for the low paid with intermittent work records it would barely be sufficient to cover even administrative costs and, if the Secretary of State carries out his original plan, the result will be a huge increase in poverty in old age, which SERPS is now on the brink of eradicating.

It is ironic that what the Government's vindictiveness over the abolition of the GLC did for the reputation of Ken Livingstone the Secretary of State has now done for the reputation of SERPS. By seeking to destroy it he has proved how good it is. It is revealed as far more efficient than the private sector, and its administrative costs of 1·5 per cent. of contributions compare with 18 per cent. for private schemes.

It offers a fully transferable pension with assured benefits at low cost for a large section of the population which the private sector would find it impossible to pension properly. I refer, of course, to the low paid, to those with fluctuating or intermittent earnings and to frequent job changers. There is one other point that must be made clear. Should the near deafening chorus of hostility to the abolition of SERPS force the Government to bow to the inevitable, as I suspect it will, relief at the preservation of SERPS would be premature, indeed wrong, if the Government then resorted to major modifications of the scheme. It cannot be emphasised too often or too vehemently that there is no justification whatever for any such emasculation of the scheme.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the proposals contained in the Green Paper for the reform of SERPS show that there will be no saving to the Treasury in the first 10 years; that we are talking about long-term reforms; and that that indicates that the Government are concerned about getting the scheme right in the long run and are not concerned to save money in the short run?

I never suggested that in this case the Government were saving money in the short run. There is no justification for changes in the long run either, because no alternative to SERPS could provide pensions for the people I have mentioned at anything like the low costs of SERPS.

The costs of the scheme were fully recognised at the outset 10 years ago, and even the Tory Reform Group acknowledged that in its response to the Green Paper proposals. The Tory Reform Group says:

"The Green Paper's references to emerging costs seem to imply that the full cost of SERPS was not known in 1975. However, Edward Johnstone, the Government actuary and a member of the pension review team, has made it clear that this is not so."
It is unworthy of the Secretary of State to cast doubt on the judgment and capabilities of a senior and distinguished civil servant, purely for his own political reasons. The same Tory Reform Group paper condemns the Green Paper for—and I quote the group's words again—
"its rather dubious statistical arguments".
That is to say, costs are shown in current prices when what really matters, as we all know, is their trend GDP and the dependency ratio.

The only way the Government have managed to convey the impression that SERPS is not affordable—and the Secretary of State did this again today—is by cheating in the presentation of economic forecasts. The Secretary of State for Social Services wants to show that SERPS is not viable and projects an economic growth rate for the next 50 years of only 1·5 per cent. a year. The Chancellor of the Exchequer wants us to believe—and no doubt particularly tomorrow—that the British economy has achieved a sustained revival and projects 3 per cent. a year. Both cannot be right, and both may indeed be wrong. The most reliable estimate is probably the one given by the CBI, and I quote from its response to the Green Paper:
"Even if the economy grew more slowly in the coming decades than the 2·25 per cent. per year performance averaged in the last three to four decades, the proportion of national income taken by state pensions would not rise."
In a footnote the CBI says:

"Indeed, national insurance contribution rates would fall significantly if the basic state pensions were indexed to price inflation as on current rules rather than increases in earnings."
That tells a totally different story from the one put out by the Secretary of State. It firmly gives the lie to the statement made by the Secretary of State in a speech about a week ago on 5 November when he said—and he repeated the same words today:

"There is widespread recognition that the emerging costs of SERPS should be reduced."
The truth is exactly the reverse. I am glad to see that the Secretary of State is nodding. There is a growing recognition that the costs of SERPS, which have always been fully known, need not be reduced. No argument can justify what the Secretary of State said today.

I concur completely with the hon. Gentleman in his criticism of the way in which the Secretary of State has handled this issue. Perhaps I could ask the hon. Gentleman a question about his own position. Suppose, as appears to be the case, that the Secretary of State moves away from outright abolition without trying to maintain political consensus, and towards some form of restructuring which may carry the pensions industry with it. If the hon. Gentleman were in a position to do something about that in future, would he return directly to what would by then be the former system of SERPS, even though the industry by then would have shifted its position from the hostility which it rightly shows towards the Government at the moment?

I welcome that question and I want to make it clear that in two years' time when we are in a position to do something about this we shall reintroduce SERPS, either in the same form or in some improved form. There is the issue of existing pensioners. I know that Tory Back Benchers are not particularly concerned about the 10 million pensioners who at present do not have the advantage of the accrual under SERPS. We are concerned about that. The hon. Gentleman was good enough to put the question. Is his position the one outlined recently by Lord Banks on behalf of the Liberals, which is that the alliance apparently stands for the abolition of SERPS?

May I plead with my hon. Friend to keep a more open mind on what the next Government might do? Is there not something morally wrong in asking future generations to pay a level of contribution towards our pensions that we are not prepared currently to pay for existing pensioners? Given that position, is not there a trade-off, which the Government refuse to make, to reform SERPs in such a way that we pay higher pensions to existing pensioners, rather than planning for the year 2000 onwards?

I do not believe that my hon. Friend is right in suggesting that the two concepts are mutually exclusive. I was making the point, in answer to the previous intervention, that the position of existing pensioners—who have not had the advantage, because they retired too early, of the annual accruals under SERPS—should be safeguarded. That depends, of course, on the state of the economy—in particular, the reduction of unemployment and greater economic growth. Pensioners should have an increasing stake in that growth. That was, indeed, the position of the Tory Government in 1980, as stated by the then Secretary of State. The reality has turned out to be very different. But I do not believe that that argument, which I support, is a reason for underplaying in any way the enormous benefits provided by SERPS, and I still stand, on behalf of my party, behind SERPS as the best scheme that our pensioners have ever had.

It is high time that the Government recognised three facts about pensions. First, pensions are about providing a decent standard of living in old age for everyone; they are not about satisfying the fantasies of the Prime Minister about making everyone his own capitalist. Secondly, if the Germans and the French are capable of affording pensions of 62 or 70 per cent. of average earnings, we can do a great deal better than the miserable 29 per cent. which is all we are achieving at present. Thirdly, a broad measure of political agreement and stability is vital for pension planning. The handling of the Green Paper proposals on pensions provides an object lesson on how such things should not be done.

The second fundamental question that the Secretary of State has still not answered relates to what changes he is proposing to make in the social fund in view of the unparalleled barrage of hostility that the matter has run into. He did not mention it today. Perhaps he would like to intervene as I go along. It has widely and correctly been seen as reintroducing the hated relieving officer of the old Victorian poor law. The indignity of asking for discretionary payments and being labelled as a bad manager will discourage many in real need from claiming, especially the elderly, who will be deprived of heating grants as their protection against hypothermia.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the funds available for essential heating, clothing and furniture needs will be cut by no less than 60 per cent., from £260 million this year to only £100 million a year, if the social fund is introduced? In other words, the whole exercise is not about reform; it is about huge cuts.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the comment made by the Social Security Advisory Committee in paragraph 3.42 of its report? It says:

"We are in sympathy with the general thrust of these suggestions. We think they form a logical development of the present system and will simplify its operations".

I am indeed aware of that, and I hope that the hon. Lady is aware that the report goes on to say:

"It cannot work if the income support rates and premiums are not set at an adequate level."
It then goes on to say:
"The social fund goes too far in making all payments discretionary. The proposal that some payments should be by the recoverable loan is interesting but we think it has a limited role unless basic benefit rates are increased. There should be discretion to make all payments as grants where the circumstances warrant it. The need for an external appeal mechanism will remain."
I hope that next time the hon. Lady will read the whole passage.

Will the Secretary of State now accept that there must be an independent appeal against the arbitrary decisions of officials if claimants are not to turn in increasing numbers to Members of Parliament and the High Court? Will he now acknowledge that the principle of recoverable loans deducted from benefit will reduce the income of claimants below subsistence and plunge them into a downward spiral of ever-increasing debt? Will he now recognise that the introducion of means-tested and recoverable funeral payments is almost universally condemned because it will expose the recently bereaved to distressing and harrowing interrogations?

The social fund is a callous and damaging proposal. The Society of Civil and Public Servants and the Association of Directors of Social Services have made it clear that they will not co-operate in its introduction, and for that reason it is difficult to see how it could ever work. As the Secretary of State is now getting into the habit of withdrawing ill-considered proposals such as the board and lodging regulations, which have been withdrawn twice, and perhaps the proposals for SERPS, he should now drop the social fund, which is widely seen to be a half-baked shambles.

The third central issue that the Secretary of State has failed to clarify is the future of housing benefit, where his proposed cuts of £500 million are now widely seen as manifestly unfair. In particular, the proposed combined take-up for rent and rates is clearly unfair on owner-occupiers, especially pensioners who pay only rates and will therefore face substantial losses. The proposed 70 per cent. rate of withdrawal is far too steep and will greatly worsen the poverty trap. How can the Secretary of State possibly justify what leaked DHSS figures show—a fivefold increase in families on the breadline facing marginal tax rates of over 80 per cent.?

The proposal that all claimants, even those with incomes below the income support level, below the state poverty line, will be required to pay 20 per cent. of their rates will once again force millions of people below the poverty line.

The iniquitous proposal to withdraw mortgage interest tax relief for the first six months on the dole from families on low incomes, struggling to buy a house, can only lead to DHSS-created evictions and homelessness.

There are three straight questions that the Secretary of State needs to answer on housing benefit, which he has so far notably evaded. How can it be fair and right to deprive pensioners and widows of housing benefit because their husbands were thrifty enough in their lifetime to save to provide a small occupational pension? When will the Government learn the lesson of the 1982–83 fiasco, when the housing benefit was first introduced, which makes it abundantly clear that local authorities will need far more time than the April 1987 timetable allows to implement the considerable changes proposed in the Green Paper?

Above all, when will the Secretary of State face the truth—that the increase in expenditure on housing benefit, which he is so impatient to cut, has not been caused by any over-generosity in the scheme? It has been caused by increased rents and soaring unemployment, and by the transfer of supplementary benefit cases from the DHSS. If he nods, as he seems to be doing, why does he not make changes in the scheme? Why must he impose it on poor people who have no defence? If the Secretary of State cannot or will not answer those questions, he should not be surprised that the housing benefit cuts are seen as illogical, mean and unfair.

Is it not a fact that 4 million recipients of housing benefit are not even entitled to supplementary benefit, and that many of them are actually paying tax? Should not the state, whenever possible, encourage people to pay their own housing costs, look after their own children, provide for their own old age and pay for their own funeral?

I presume that the hon. Gentleman means that tax reliefs, which are given without regard to need, should be ended so that there could be more money to provide for those in need who are not getting the assistance they need. If that is his argument, I agree with it.

The fourth area that is in such a mess in the Green Paper concerns family benefits. The Government are proposing either to freeze child benefit or yet again uprate it by much less than the rate of inflation. The Labour party is totally opposed to that. We believe that child benefit should be significantly increased. We are also strongly opposed to the way in which it is envisaged that the new family credit will operate, which is hopelessly flawed. It is likely that the take-up rate will be even lower than the family income supplement take-up rate—which was only 50 per cent. because of the need to produce 13 weekly payslips instead of five—because the award period is being reduced from 12 months to six, and because the employer will be involved. We also object to the Government's proposals because deducting family credit from tax and national insurance contributions will encourage employers to pay lower wages, although no doubt that is precisely the Government's intention.

We also object to the proposal because the abolition of the local authorities' discretionary power to provide free meals and the ending of free welfare food to low income families who are not on income support will mean average losses of over £2 a week for about one third of a million families, where poverty and poor nutrition are already rife. Most of all, we object to it because payment through the pay packet transfers family benefit from the woman to the man. In measured tones, the Social Security Advisory Committee report states:
"it is retrograde to divert resources out of the hands of the person most closely concerned with providing for children's needs."
I can put it more bluntly than that. It is totally wrong to claw back money from mothers that is rightly theirs. I hope that I have the support of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), who has already left the Chamber. I hope that women's organisations throughout the country will make their demands felt. That has to be changed.

The overall impression left by the overwhelming mass of responses to the Green Paper is of a botched muddle and a complete loss of direction. It is a series of proposals without any coherence remaining and with more and more inconsistencies and problems exposed, commanding ever-growing public hostility and masquerading simply as a cloak for old-fashioned Tory cuts. It has no political mandate whatever, since not only was there no word about it in the Tory election manifesto but Ministers are strenuously showing every sign of their anxiety to rush the proposals through so that the electorate will not have an opportunity to vote on them in the next election.

There is no group closely associated with the implementation of the proposals that wants them. The employers reject the extra administrative burden imposed on them by family credit and personal portable pensions, which contradicts the Government's policy of so-called "lifting the burden." DHSS staff have made it clear that they will not co-operate with the more extreme and punitive elements of the package and the directors of social services are not willing to be drawn into an exercise that is deliberately designed to increase deprivation. Local authorities have made it clear that they are adamantly opposed to being forced, yet again, into an over-hasty timetable that will produce another monumental fiasco like that of two years ago.

Morale in the Civil Service has plummeted to an all-time low over the Green Paper. That is perhaps the most far-reaching and serious consequence of the whole episode. One has to ask how the Secretary of State can perpetrate two appalling gaffes over the board and lodging regulations and produce a Green Paper that is greeted with almost universal hostility and ridicule and is riddled throughout with inconsistencies, revealing how little the basic problems have been thought through. The answer is that there is a bunker mentality prevailing at the Elephant and Castle. Top civil servants who do not share Ministers' political prejudices have been sidelined—

I shall write to the Secretary of State to provide clear evidence to substantiate what I am saying.

What the hon. Gentleman has just said is totally without foundation. It is untrue and an even bigger load of nonsense than most of his speech so far.

The right hon. Gentleman is talking through his teeth. He is talking falsely and untruly. I cannot use the word "lie", but I would if I were able to, because he is grossly misleading the House. I know perfectly well what I am talking about and so do the civil servants in the Box and those from the Department who are listening to the debate. Advice to Ministers is being tailored increasingly to what it is known Ministers want to hear.

At least one senior civil servant with a distinguished record according to the highest traditions of independent public service has simply been shut out by the Secretary of State. It is because the full range of independent and objective advice no longer reaches Ministers, and because Ministers have undermined the integrity of their Department by politically abusing the channels of communication, that blunder after blunder is being committed, as we can all see.

That is not the way to run a great Department of State. That is why the Secretary of State cannot evade personal responsibility for the way in which he has devalued the Civil Service and sapped the morale of those whom he should be leading. If the right hon. Gentleman had any honour in him, he would know that the only honourable course for him after the fiasco of the Green Paper's near universal dismissal would be to withdraw those rejected documents and resign.

4.56 pm

The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), in his exaggerated attack upon my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his suggestion that there is no mandate for the legislation, which was outlined in the Queen's Speech, on the social security review, seems to suggest that he is concerned that that legislation will receive a wider welcome in the country when it is judged at the next general election. That is what will happen. If it was the bad piece of legislation that he tries to suggest it is, he would welcome the fact that the review will be legislation by the next general election. Judging by his speech, there is not a good word to be said for it, so one would assume that it would bring votes to his party. He knows that my right hon. Friend has had the courage to grasp a nettle to which he continually refers. The hon. Gentleman says that he will do something about it, but never spells it out in detail. He is concerned that the review and the legislation will be accepted by the country for what it is—a real attempt to review and improve the present system of social security.

There is much in the Queen's Speech about which I am delighted. When I look at the speech I recognise that many of the policies were spelt out in great measure in the Conservative manifesto in 1983. I have to say to my right hon. Friend and the Government that there is one measure that was not in the manifesto. That measure relates to the Bill to remove statutory restrictions on shop hours. I do not understand how that Bill has managed to find its way into party politics. When, like many other hon. Members, I attended a Remembrance day service in my constituency yesterday, I found myself wondering what Remembrance day will be like once that Bill had become legislation, if that happened. I found myself wondering what will replace the quiet towns and villages of our country with the processions of ex-service men and women going to their various churches to attend Remembrance day services when the shops are open and the streets are full of traffic and the clamour of people. When that happens, if it does, something will have gone out of the Remembrance day that all of us can remember—a special dignity will have been taken from it. I shall regret that considerably.

May I be of some assistance to my hon. Friend? We do not have laws in Scotland which prohibit trading on Sundays. However, the Remembrance Sunday services that I attended in my constituency were not blighted by the law in Scotland, which does not require people to close their shops on Sundays.