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Commons Chamber

Volume 115: debated on Tuesday 28 April 1987

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House Of Commons

Tuesday 28 April 1987

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Private Business

London Regional Transport Bill (By Order)

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered upon Thursday.

Oral Answers To Questions

Education And Science

Schools (Accommodation Standards)


asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will undertake a review of unpublished reports of visits made by Her Majesty's inspectors to determine what recent trends are shown in the numbers and proportions of lessons seen where poor or unsuitable accommodation was considered to be restricting the quality of work; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. Bob Dunn)

In their national survey reports Her Majesty's inspectors draw on evidence from all types of inspection, including those which do not result in published reports or have not yet done so. All such survey reports have commented on the state of accommodation of schools or colleges. Undoubtedly, future reports will do the same.

Why is the Minister so coy about publishing these reports, which are bound to show that teachers are coping remarkably well in appallingly deteriorating conditions? Is he aware that in Leeds there are a number of schools where teachers must double up because they cannot occupy accommodation? I know of one school in west Leeds, Christchurch primary school, where a temporary classroom which has been there since the war cannot be occupied during the winter because it cannot he heated. The report should be published.

I am somewhat mystified by the approach of the Liberal party in the House on this matter. There are many different types of inspections. Only some of those are intended to lead to the publication of reports. Those that are intended for publication are always published. The House must congratulate the Government on taking the decision in the early part of 1983 to publish the reports of Her Majesty's inspectors of schools.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his point about the Government making Her Majesty's inspectors' reports available. Has he seen the recent report which suggests that in inner London, while the majority of lessons were well provided for with small classes and excellent resources, the majority of science teaching lessons were regarded as unsatisfactory or very unsatisfactory? It is the quality of the teachers that counts.

My hon. Friend is quite right in what she says. Undoubtedly the usefulness of the inspectors' reports is that they can be a lever for the improvement of quality of teachers and that which is taught, and I recognise and welcome that.

Has the Minister had a chance to study the recently published report by Her Majesty's inspectors on education in Sheffield following a two-year investigation? It highlights much outstanding work. Some of that, notably in my own constituency, is carried out in the type of accommodation which other less impressive local educational authorities have long since left behind. What conclusion does he draw from that?

The conclusion that I draw from the publication of that report, the recent report on the London borough of Brent, and many other reports which have gone through our Department in recent years is that it is essential to inform people of the state, quality and levels of school activity in the communities in which they live.

Does my hon. Friend not have some difficulty in understanding the concern of the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) about overcrowding, bearing in mind that the alliance plans to restrict the charitable status of independent schools will drive a great many people who presently educate their children in the independent sector back into the state sector? Would that not increase the sort of overcrowding about which the hon. Gentleman is crying crocodile tears?

It is worth placing on the record the fact that all the Opposition parties are committed to doing tremendous damage to, or the destruction of, the independent sector.

Does the Minister not accept that there is overwhelming evidence from the reports of Her Majesty's inspectors of the steady deterioration of school buildings and of the major problems with which teachers are faced in having to work in inadequate conditions? However good the teacher and pupils, if we have buildings where the roof leaks and the windows are unsatisfactory it is extremely difficult to give one's best. What will the Government do about the problems in places such as Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford, with regard to the lack of funds for school buildings?

I share the concern expressed by the inspectorate and others, who have made clear their point of view about the poor physical state of many school buildings. However, that is not a new event. It springs from the gradual effects of neglect over the past 20 years. I remind the House that the problem in the London borough of Brent had nothing to do with the quality of school buildings; it was the quality of management and the quality of teaching.

General Certificate Of Secondary Education


asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what recent representations he has received about the funding of the GCSE examinations; and if he will make a statement.

In the past three months we have received 150 representations about the funding of the GCSE examinations.

The Government have made substantial provision for the successful launch of the GCSE. We look to local education authorities to direct that provision in support of GCSE work in their schools.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that a sum of over £250,000 is being provided by the Government for GCSE examinations in Bolton—a sum fully in line with others being provided elsewhere for schools? Will he look into the provision of top-up sums for Bolton council to ensure that sufficient funds are available in total?

I am happy to confirm what my hon. Friend has said. Last year the Government provided a total of £112,900 for GCSE expenditure in Bolton. This year the Government are providing for expenditure of £60,700, through education support grants for books and equipment. We have also provided £95,000-worth of expenditure for training Bolton's GCSE teachers. I undertake to continue to review top-up expenditure.

The Secretary of State keeps on telling us that there is adequate funding for GCSE, but everywhere we hear—from parents, teachers and local education authorities—that there is a desperate situation in the making with too little—[Interruption.]

We hear that there is a desperate situation in the making, with too little funding being provided too late and beginning to blight the future of 600,000 children. To resolve this matter, will the Secretary of State take action similar to that which he took in the face of public concern about Brent, by calling for an HMI report to be produced urgently to look into GCSE funding in, say, 100 representative schools across the country?

I have no need to do that. Her Majesty's Inspectorate judges that these courses have got off to a satisfactory start and that pupils are generally enthusiastic about their GCSE lessons. HMI has said that on average there are sufficient material resources in schools at this stage.

How much additional money are the Government providing in the current year for GCSE, and how much does that work out per child in the fourth or fifth year on average? Can the Government take action to ensure that the local education authorities do not purloin any of this money for other purposes? Will he ask them to provide an assurance that they are spending that money for the purpose for which it was intended?

This year the Government's plans provides for the spending of £100 million of GCSE non-teaching costs—that is, for books, equipment, materials and ancillary staff. We shall continue to monitor carefully the resources that local education authorities target to their schools in support of GCSE activities.

Is it not the case that only £25 million is being hypothecated for the GCSE examination? Is not the real truth that head teachers and parents alike recognise that the GCSE examination is under-funded and under-prepared and that there are far too many reports coming in of inadequate supplies of books, equipment and material, as well as shortages of teachers and lack of training? Is it not the case that if we are to rescue this examination from being a damaging failure the Secretary of State must take immediate action?

This examination and its funding are the best endowed of any examination in recent history. We will, of course, continue to monitor the direction of funds by local education authorities to the funding of GCSE activities, but that, of course, is a matter for them.

City Technology Colleges


asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what features of grammar school education he envisages the new city technology colleges adopting; and if he will make a statement.

My intention is that city technology colleges should develop new ways of improving the quality of education in a number of urban areas drawing on examples of existing good practice in maintained and independent secondary schools, including grammar schools.

Having always admired the work and dedication of staff at all our grammar schools, may I say how much I am encouraged by the news that Leicester is likely to receive a city technology college. I urge my right hon. Friend to give the go-ahead for that college as quickly as possible, as I know how much the students will benefit by the type of system that my right hon. Friend so ably presented to the House. It will certainly encourage all our young children to get on and develop.

I am glad that my hon. Friend is pressing me for a city technology college in Leicester. I very much hope that it will be possible to find sponsors for one—certainly it might be possible to find sponsors elsewhere in the east midlands. I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome such a college, as it will increase the choice for parents, which is presently limited, for free education from 11 to 18.

Order. The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) is seizing his opportunity.

The hon. and learned Member is very grateful for his opportunity to ask the Minister whether he thinks that Leicester, along with other cities, would be much better served if it had adequate educational resources. That would ensure that we have enough nursery schools, enough facilities for our primary and secondary schools and proper education for older people instead of being starved of resources, the means for which have been cut by this awful Government.

The only opportunities that the hon. and learned Gentleman can seize are those created for him by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels). The resources available for city technology colleges are not at the expense of local education authorities' expenditure. The money that has been provided for CTCs is extra money. Therefore, the local education authorities will not lose money through the establishment of such schools.

Would my right hon. Friend care to say that the new CTCs, like grammar schools, will be places of excellence, hard work, discipline and respect for teachers and the opportunities that they present—especially in my constituency, where planning permission has already been granted by the Labour-controlled authority for a CTC 0on Teesside?

Yes, I have been very glad to hear that my hon. Friend's local authority is prepared to provide a site for a CTC in Langburgh. I think that that decision shows the authority's foresight. At least one local company is prepared to come forward—I suspect others will do so—to provide the private funding. I am sure that, as a result of that CTC, the quality of education and the choice available to the parents in my hon. Friend's constituency will be enormously increased.

But surely the Secretary of State must now know how damaging and divisive the city technology colleges will be. He has been told that by every major organisation and every reputable expert in the education world. Indeed, recently the director general of the CBI, John Banham, called the city technology colleges an "irrelevancy". What has the Minister to say about that? What has he to say about the more interesting experiments conducted on the Boston pattern to achieve a better relationship with industry, not a divisive one?

Many companies have come forward to support the CTCs.—[HON. MEMBERS: "Name them."] I shall shortly he in a position to announce a third CTC. I assure the Opposition that sponsorship for others has been pledged and, in the course of time, we shall be announcing further CTCs.

On the question of starving resources, I remind the Opposition that I do not agree that the CTCs will drain off the teachers. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) should appreciate that the numbers for teacher training this year have shown a dramatic increase. Overall there has been an increase of 14 per cent. in applications for later this year. There has been a 42 per cent. increase for mathematics teacher training, 80 per cent. for physics teachers and about 92 per cent. for craft design technology teachers. That shows that many young people want to go into the teaching profession.

Does not the opposition to this concept indicate the cultural divide between us, because we on the Government side are looking for choice and variety and all the Opposition parties want just one option—the local authority? Is my right hon. Friend aware that in some authorities commercial and planning pressures are being placed upon those who would help this system? I find that utterly disgraceful.

My hon. Friend is right. Those who oppose the principle of city technology colleges do so because they want to maintain the monopoly of the local education authority. We want to provide choice and variety—significant and real choice for parents. The city technology colleges that we have launched point the way to many other types of schools that we have in mind for after the election.

School Closures


asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a statement on the current criteria and practice relating to the closure of schools in rural areas.

My right hon. Friend considers all proposals for the closure of schools on their merits, but he would expect local authorities and voluntary bodies, in formulating their proposals, to take account of the general principle set out in the White Paper "Better Schools" concerning the size of thresholds at which schools of different types can economically deliver a satisfactory curriculum. They must also take account of the wider considerations, including the distances to be travelled to alternative schools in the event of closure and of the age of the children making those journeys.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he realise that there is a great deal of discontent about, and indeed outright opposition to, the closure of many small rural primary schools? Does he further realise that many of these schools have built for themselves sound reputations with generations of children and that they are a social focus of village life? Will the Minister take it on board that there needs to be a flexible examination of each case, because at present, particularly in Suffolk, there is a great deal of opposition and discontent about these closures?

As the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) knows, I have the responsibility for meeting hon. Members from all parts of the House who bring deputations from the communities that they represent about proposals for school closures and amalgamations. The strength of feeling in urban and rural communities is not lost upon me. Under the law, the task to which we have to respond is to consider individual proposals on their merits. I can gladly give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that we do just that.

In view of the great importance of the village schools that are under threat, can my hon. Friend assure the House that he will treat these as special cases? Moreover, in future will he make arrangements to ensure that no closure will be permitted without specific ministerial consent?

Yes, Sir. There has to be ministerial consent to any proposal in any event, and I have to recognise the degree of support that rural schools may command in local communities. However, we have to consider the educational and financial arguments for closure, as well as the arguments that closures may affect the local community.

Is the Minister aware that in Cornwall over 100 rural schools face closure under present Government criteria? Does he not agree that it would make more sense to change those criteria so that the wider community in the villages is taken into account in deciding the future of those small rural schools?

The hon. Gentleman may care to spend some time reading our draft circular entitled "Providing for Quality". That circular talks about the desirable minimum sizes of different types of school. It was never intended for that minimum size level to be interpreted as narrowly prescriptive. The circular makes it clear that a true assessment of the viability of an individual school must take account not only of its size but of the ethos of the school, the quality, balance and expertise of its teachers and, of course, its non-teacher support, as well as links with neighbouring schools and the community.

In secondary education, is it not a fact that comprehensive schools in rural areas, such as Ongar comprehensive school in my constituency, can survive on an entirely different basis of form entry than that which applies to schools in urban areas? As the alternative can frequently be extensive bussing of children from these rural areas, will my hon. Friend give some consideration to altering the basis upon which closures of rural schools are agreed or disagreed?

I am happy to take that on board. I remind my hon. Friends that our policy allows each set of proposals to be made on its merits. The policies of the Opposition parties would require closure, the elimination of any form of variety and a move to an 11 to 16 comprehensive system with tertiary colleges at their head. We draw back from any embrace of such a restrictive policy.

Does the Under-Secretary recognise that I gained the distinct impression, after a meeting with the parents of children of the South Brent primary school in Devon, that they would like to see that 110-year-old school closed and a new one provided? Will he ensure that the local authority gets adequate financial assistance to enable it to provide that new school?

On these matters and on all other matters relating to the South Hams constituency, I advise the hon. Gentleman to see my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen).

Schools (Governing Bodies)


asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science when he expects to publish proposals for the transfer of greater financial responsibilities to the governing bodies of schools; and if he will make a statement.

I intend to bring forward legislation in the next Parliament to give all secondary and bigger primary schools control over their own budgets.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the excellent article by the chief master of King Edward's school, Birmingham, in The Times this morning, which pointed out that independent schools for many years have benefited from the sort of governing body that my right hon. Friend is now proposing for state schools? Does he agree that state schools have nothing to fear from a system that has benefited independent schools, while at the same time enabled them to retain the benefit of good local authority management?

Yes, Sir. Good schools have nothing to fear from delegation. In fact, delegation will give schools the power to get things done. The article in The Times this morning points the way forward. Where this is already happening in local authorities, head teachers and deputy heads are finding an enormous improvement in the quality of management of the school. I see no reason why, in the course of the next five years, every secondary school and all the large primary schools should not have control of their own budgets — and by that I mean the total amount of money.

Should the Secretary of State be in a position to influence these matters after the coming election, will he assure the House that before he tinkers with budgetary control he will give a guarantee from the Dispatch Box that every school will have sufficient resources to carry out its responsibilities to our children?

I certainly give that assurance. The hon. Gentleman must appreciate that I have increased education expenditure this year by 19 per cent., which is the largest increase from one year to another. My hon. Friends might well have an early opportunity to put our education policy to a wider test.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that at the same time as he provides greater financial decentralisation for schools, there will still be an important role for local education authorities to provide educational back-up to schools, particularly weak ones, in most parts of the country?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. Local education authorities have the duty of managing the system of education at the local level. They have responsibilities and will continue to have them — for example, for the provision of the school premises, for the salaries of school staff, which delegation schemes have recognised, for special training, for in-service training and generally to help those schools that are not so well managed. I agree with that.

What is the average level of discounts offered by educational suppliers to local education authorities for the bulk purchase of books and materials? What discussions has the right hon. Gentleman had with educational suppliers as to whether those discounts would be available to individual schools if they were responsible themselves for purchase and payment? Could he also tell us what discussions he has had about the extra pay that might be necessary for head teachers to carry out these extra responsibilities and what extra staff schools will need if they are to have this purchasing and budgetary responsibility?

I deplore the Opposition's negative approach to this proposal. There are 21 education authorities already experimenting along these lines, and where they have been implemented delegation schemes have invariably saved money at a local level. It would be up to the local headmaster, the deputy head and the governing body to make their own decisions about where they purchase, from whom they purchase and all the other matters concerning the running of the school.

Student Grants (Parental Contributions)


asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what guidance his Department offers as to the level of parental contributions expected from studens awarded maintenance grants.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. George Walden)

Parental contributions are assessed in accordance with the mandatory awards regulations. The scale of contributions is published early in the previous academic year and information about parental contributions is included in guidance which is published annually and is freely available.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. However, does he agree that the booklet of guidance to which he referred defines the grant as the sum needed for the basic maintenance requirement of a student? Neither he nor our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have disputed the evidence given by officials to the Select Committee that the total grant is now insufficient to meet the needs of a student. Surely it is misleading to imply that if parents are assessed for a contribution, that contribution together with such grant as is paid would be sufficient to meet a student's needs. Is that not unfair, both to the student and to the parent? Will my hon. Friend ensure that the next issue of the booklet of guidance makes the position much clearer?

The Government have never claimed that the amount provided in grants is sufficient to meet all student needs. We have claimed on a number of occasions, quite rightly, that it must represent a balance between those needs and what the taxpayer can reasonably be called upon to pay for. My hon. Friend makes a fair point. The booklet is revised every year, and the wording is being re-examined.

As the Minister has admitted that the total level of grant is not sufficient to meet a student's needs, from where does a student with poor parents get the rest of the money?

The hon. Gentleman is clearly not very familiar with the grant system—

—because pupils with poor parents are the pupils who have the highest level of grant. Whether or not pupils have poor parents, they are able to use their spare time in holidays to earn other income. If we believed that the present system was fully satisfactory we would not be carrying out a review, the purpose of which is to improve the position of all students.

Since my hon. Friend last answered questions in the House, has there been any greater clarity attained or confusion reduced among the so-called alliance parties on the matter of student loans?

I am now perfectly clear about the alliance's position. There are two policies. The first policy is that of the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), who is in favour of loans. The second policy is that of a more abstract entity that is known as the alliance, which claims to be against student loans. I should like to take this opportunity to commend the position of the right hon. Member for Devonport, who has a habit of reminding people of the importance of probity in politics. I am sure that the whole House will join me in commending the stand that he is taking on principle and not retracting the speech that he made on 14 February 1986 in favour of student loans.

Teachers (Pay And Conditions)


asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science when he expects to appoint members of the interim advisory committee on teachers' pay and conditions; and if he will make a statement.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that it was the divisions between the teacher unions and the outdated majority voting system that killed stone dead the Burnham committee on teachers' pay and conditions? Will he accept that there is an urgent need for a post-interim advisory committee on teachers' pay and conditions to he set up as soon as possible and that it will have to he different from the previous Burnham committee, for example, in not having a majority voting system?

I have made it clear that the proposals that the Government have put forward are of an interim nature. We want to find a permanent machinery for the determination of teachers' pay and conditions. The proposals that I have seen, which are tentative so far, are in fact a revamped Burnham. The president of the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association, Mr. Frank Groarke said in his address to the conference at Easter that some unions use the Burnham committee as a recruiting tent rather than as a negotiating body. I am not prepared to go back to a revamped Burnham. I want to find a way forward to determine a permanent machinery for the determination of teachers' pay and conditions, because I can assure the House that neither I nor any holder of my office wants to be the determiner of teachers' pay and conditions.

Does the right hon. Gentleman remember that, in response to a question from me last Thursday, the Prime Minister said that the Government would

"use the coming years to secure a new negotiating arrangement"?—[Official Report, 23 April 1987; Vol. 114, c. 790.]
The two major unions, which represent the vast majority of teachers, met because of that answer and were outraged at what the Prime Minister had said. I do not know whether the Prime Minister tells the right hon. Gentleman, but she must have received a joint letter from those two unions today, in which they say that if she will discuss—[Interruption.]

I am asking a question Mr. Speaker. Does the right hon. Gentleman know that the Prime Minister has received a letter today in which those two unions make it clear that if she will agree to negotiate properly about next year's wage arrangements they will see her, but they want a promise first, and that is the only way in which our children can have an uninterrupted education?

I am aware that a letter has been sent to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asking for a meeting between Mr Jarvis and Mr. Smithies and my right hon. Friend. I can see no reason why my right hon. Friend should see those two union leaders, because six weeks ago I invited them to see me and they declined to do so. Those are the only two union leaders who have not seen me. The other four union leaders have discussed with me the draft order before the House, which I understand might be debated quite soon. The other two leaders have refused to come in and make their views known. I have made it clear that I do not want to be the determiner of teachers' pay and conditions. All interested parties will find it difficult readily to agree on a permanent machinery, but there must be no going back to the form of negotiations under Burnham.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the interim committee, as its name suggests, is of temporary duration and that its maximum life will be until 1990? Will he further confirm that the committee is designed to provide a breathing space between the demise of the Burnham committee and the introduction of new negotiating machinery? Will he repeat to the House his invitation to union leaders to meet him to discuss new machinery for negotiating teachers' pay and conditions? Will he confirm that two and a half years is a long time and that that period should be reduced?

There is no reason why the interim advisory committee should continue to operate until 1990. I wish to confirm that to the House. Later this year I want to meet the teachers unions, the local education authorities, churches and parent-teacher associations to try to find a permanent machinery. There are many models, ranging from a joint negotiating committee to a review body. Suggestions have been made that specific recognition should be given to the position of heads and deputy heads.

The Secretary of State has constantly asserted the importance of an interim measure. Does he agree that consent is an important element in all educational processes? Why did he not set up a tribunal of mutally acceptable persons to determine the interim procedure for negotiations? Would that not have produced a better atmosphere and been the most responsible thing for him to do?

I did something rather better. I brought a Bill to the House, which was debated in this House, and in the House of Lords, without any guillotine or restriction on debate. All proposals were put forward during debates on that measure. As to the negotiating rights that are being claimed at the moment, one of the unions which is most strident in claiming those rights, the NAS/UWT, has for the past year sat on the sidelines and refused to take a constructive part in the negotiations, which were suspended, and organised disruptions while the negotiations were continuing.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that there is a world of difference between the appalling image of the teaching profession that is put across by the Easter conferences, or some of them, and the reality of the many good and moderate teachers who are doing good work in classrooms in Norwich and up and down the country? Will my right hon. Friend describe the ways in which he will help to restore the confidence of those good teachers in the way ahead in these negotiations and talks?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. At the Easter conferences we saw on our television screens a parade of militants. The majority of teachers are dedicated people. They are rightly held in high regard by the community. What we saw over the Easter weekend was a meeting of union activists. The disruption and chaos that are talked of should not be exaggerated. Before Easter, about 1 per cent. of schools were disrupted. Although that is small, it is unacceptable, because any disruption is unacceptable. Disruption is unjustified. Teachers will receive an increase of 16 per cent. this year and at the end of May will have substantial back-pay increases of several hundred pounds in their pay packets.

Is it not the case that in their letter to the Prime Minister today the teacher unions offered a way out of the present impasse and showed the way to peace in our schools? They made it clear that if the Government were prepared to agree to the restoration of negotiating rights for the 1988 pay round they would call off their action. Will the Secretary of State tell the House that either he or the Prime Minister will immediately arrange a meeting with the unions to discuss their constructive new initiative?

Six weeks ago I invited the leaders of the two unions to see me, but they decided not to come in. I saw the leaders of the other unions and they expressed their views about the new negotiating machinery. I reiterate that I am willing later this year to meet the teacher unions and the local education authorities, which, I understand, are sending me proposals, because I wish to reconfirm that in no way do I or the holder of my office wish to be the determineor of teachers' pay and conditions. We need a new permanent machinery, but so far the proposals that have been put to me are nothing more than a revamped Burnham.

Contrary to the bluster and histrionics of the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) and the teacher union conferences, will my right hon. Friend confirm that his moderate approach is the best way to obtain peace again in our schools, which will be supported by the vast majority of moderate and sensible teachers, provided that there is a real commitment to the restoration of negotiating rights as soon as possible?

I confirm that fewer than I per cent. of the profession are likely to disrupt schools this week. That is deplorable in view of the settlement that has been made. I confirm, as I said earlier, that we must find a more permanent machinery. That will be difficult in view of the different opinions of the various union leaders, but I shall persevere and try.

Does the Secretary of State realise that, almost certainly, he has within his hands the power to end this disruption if he will stop mouthing words and take action—[Interruption.]

—almost any action to begin to restore to teachers their rights to negotiate pay and conditions? Does he not realise that if he will not do that many in the country will draw the conclusion that he is cynically and deliberately playing into the hands of the militants for votes, scarificing peace in our schools for Tory advantage in the ballot box.

The hon. Gentleman could not have heard me. I have invited these two union leaders to come in and they have declined to do so. I want to find a permanent machinery as soon as possible, but the hon. Gentleman should not disguise from himself the great difficulty when the different unions have different interests and different views on what such machinery should be.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the NUT in Leicestershire has called for the reinstatement of the teacher who was sent to prison for dangerous drug offences? Does that not display an attitude to teachers' conditions which no responsible parent would share?

I read a report of that and I find that request quite deplorable. Those who have been convicted of dealing in drugs should not in future be allowed to be in charge of children.

General Certificate Of Secondary Education


asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will make a further statement on the progress of the GCSE examination.

Last September some 600,000 pupils started courses which will lead to the first GCSE examinations in the summer of 1988. These courses have got off to a satisfactory start. The vast majority of teachers are committed to making a success of the new examination and the majority of lessons are deemed to be of an adequate quality and standard.

How can the Minister stand before the House and give such a complacent reply, which is so obviously at variance with the views of the majority of people in education, who believe that there has been insufficient preparation for the GCSE and that insufficient resources are available for the examination? How does he equate the £100 per student figure which the Secretary of State claims is the figure, with Lancashire county council's figure, which is nearer £30?

Opposition Members ought to behave better than that. Continually to run down a major and successful change in the examination structure of this country simply will not do.

Prime Minister


asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 28 April.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Will my right hon. Friend find time to come to Wolverhampton and explain that strict control of immigration is essential to any improvement in race relations? Will she stress that the number of people coming to this country for settlement from the New Commonwealth and Pakistan has dropped from 34,000 in 1980 to 22,500 in 1986? Will she, further, allow the Opposition parties the opportunity to explain how their proposed repeal of the present system of immigration control, and its relaxation, is likely to improve race relations?

I agree with my hon. Friend that the numbers coming to this country through immigration have dropped. It is our intention to remain firm on immigration control. I agree with my hon. Friend that we should question the Opposition about their proposals to repeal the Immigration Act 1971 and the British Nationality Act 1981, which are the heart of our immigration control.

Will the Prime Minister tell us whether she is actively opposed to any increase in the rate of VAT or any extension in its scope?

There is no way in which a Government of any political colour can say that they will never increase either value added tax or income tax. It was a Labour Government who extended the standard rate of VAT to petrol and snack foods. In November 1974 that Government put a new value added tax of 25 per cent. on petrol, and later extended the higher 25 per cent. rate to television sets, radios, electric domestic appliances, cameras, jewellery, boats and caravans. There is no way in which a responsible Government can say that there will be no increase whatsoever in any particular tax.

I did not ask the Prime Minister to make guesses. I asked her whether she is opposed to an increase in the rate of value added tax, yes or no? Is she opposed to an extension in the base of VAT? Does the Prime Minister accept that as she said in 1979 that the Government had no intention of raising VAT and then increased it by 87 per cent., the people of this country are rightly concerned when she dodges in the way that she does?

I call the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the entire record on value added tax. — [Interruption.]

VAT was introduced at the standard rate of 10 per cent. The zero rate covered food, fuel, new housing, public transport, young children's clothing, and so on. On 1 April 1974 the Labour Government extended the base of VAT to petrol and snack foods. Just before the next election they cut the standard rate to 8 per cent. Following that election they raised the rate to 25 per cent. on petrol. Following that, they raised the rate to 25 per cent. on television sets, radios, electric domestic appliances, cameras, jewellery, boats and caravans.

The right hon. Gentleman is trying to distract attention from his party's colossal public expenditure, and it was the Labour Government who put up value added tax.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the bogus election propoganda—[Interruption.]

Order. There is so much noise that I cannot hear whether the question is in order. I hope that it is.

Is the Prime Minister aware of the bogus manifesto on the Conservative—

Is my right hon. Friend not aware, too, that the Labour party has put forward this manifesto as it has no policies of its own?

We are used to smears and scares from the party in opposition. May I give the House an example? During the last election campaign the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said that if the Tories were allowed to win the election they would within five years put an end to the National Health Service—[Interruption.]

Since 1978 expenditure on the National Health Service has increased from £7·5 billion to nearly £20 billion this year, an increase of 31 per cent. after allowing for inflation. We have had the VAT scare before, when it has been alleged that we were going to put VAT on food. I gave an undertaking in 1984 that we would not put VAT on food. It was the party that is now in opposition that did that.

Will the Prime Minister agree that there can be no cover-up of treason and that the secret services cannot be allowed to operate as a state within a state? Would it not be healthier if, instead of spending time and effort trying to stuff various cats back into their bags, the Government were to make a frank statement to the House and set up a new inquiry into the operation of the secret services?

As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, I have no ministerial responsibility for events before this Government came to office. There is nothing that I can add to the statement made by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Sir J. Callaghan) in 1977, and Lord Wilson associated himself at that time with that statement. I believe that there was a Lib/Lab pact at the time, too.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if only half the promises of the Labour party were implemented there would be not only a massive increase in VAT but a massive increase in the standard rate of income tax?

I agree totally with my hon. Friend. The fact is that we are the party that reduces taxation, and the Opposition are the party that increases public expenditure and votes against the reduction of income tax.


asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 28 April.

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

Is the Prime Minister aware that when Lazard Brothers was advising Westland at the time of the takeover, a closely associated Swiss bank, Fils Dreyfus, took part in an illegal concert party to buy Westland shares? Is she further aware that that conspiracy to achieve her policy objectives looks even worse when one considers that her former Defence Secretary, Sir John Nott, is chairman of Lazards, and that one of her advisers, Mr. Gordon Reece, is a public relations adviser with that bank? In view of the nasty smell arising from that, does the Prime Minister agree that a Companies Act investigation should be set in motion urgently?

The hon. Gentleman knows that a decision was taken not to do that because there was insufficient evidence at the appropriate time. If the hon. Gentleman has any evidence, which, I suspect, he does not, perhaps he will give it to the proper authorities.


asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 28 April.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children holds its annual general meeting tomorrow? Will she join me in paying tribute to that organisation for the important and sensitive work that it undertakes on behalf of children? Furthermore, will she approach our right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and give him every support and encouragement in introducing new ways to enable abused children to give evidence without added trauma?

I gladly join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the NSPCC, which many hon. Members on both sides of the House have supported for many years. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will issue a paper next month on the use of video and other evidence to enable children better to give evidence about what happened in their case.

Has the Prime Minister had an opportunity to read yesterday's edition of The Independent and the serious allegations that are contained therein? Can she give the House an explanation of why the Government are trying to cover up those matters rather than trying to investigate them, as they should do? Does the Prime Minister not realise that—

I am trying carefully to do that, Mr. Speaker. Does the Prime Minister not realise that she is giving the country the impression that the Government regard themselves as the beneficiaries of past MI5 mistakes?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware, in spite of his attempt to get round it, that I have no ministerial responsibility for things that happened before I came to office. He will also be aware that there was a statement in the House that those events had been inquired into at the time, and that the previous Prime Minister, Lord Wilson associated himself at that time with the statement. He will be further aware that I have been the first to make statements on specific security matters when I have thought it proper to do so.


asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 28 April.

Will my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents and the many other people who live around the Severn estuary by saying that, at least as far as she is concerned, the substantial risks that are posed to the environment, industry, ports and public health from the threat of the Severn barrage will be overridden only if there is a clear and overwhelming national need for such a barrage?

The studies of the barrage by the Severn Tidal Power Group are supported by the Central Electricity Generating Board and the Department of Energy. Those studies include environmental and regional issues and they will be discussed with all interested parties. Any future decision on the barrage will include consideration of all the relevant factors, including those two important factors.

The Prime Minister is undoubtedly aware of the turbulence and unease in the Province of Northern Ireland due to the increased terrorist activity of the Provisional IRA. She will now also be aware of the conclusions of the security conference that was held in Stormont castle last night. What new measures does she intend to introduce to combat the increased activity of the terrorists in the Province?

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would and probably did join yesterday in condemning the vile and cowardly acts that took place against Lord Justice and Lady Gibson and other members of the security forces. I have been in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and will continue to be in touch with him later this week. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that we do not make statements about extra security measures.

State Security

3.31 pm

I have a brief statement to make, which may be helpful to the House.

It might be helpful if I expand on the ruling that I gave last night in response to a point of order from the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) about the extent to which issues connected with the publication of a book by Mr. Peter Wright are at present sub judice.

What may not now be discussed are the Attorney-General's decisions to bring proceedings against certain British newspapers and the action of the newspapers in publishing what they did. The content of the newspaper articles and the information they reveal are not sub judice, and hon. Members may continue to refer to those matters in debate and at Question Time.

In this context there is a further point to be made clear to the House. There are today no new developments by way of further details from Mr. Wright's book which would allow me to consider the exercise of my discretionary power to grant an emergency debate under Standing Order No. 20. I am bound by the requirement in that Standing Order as to the time by which applications must be made, and such an application was made yesterday. Hon. Members are familiar with the many opportunities open to them as individuals, as well as to the official Opposition and the other Opposition parties, to raise matters of their choice. We have an example of an Opposition Day today. It is important that hon. Members should pursue their wish to raise these matters with Ministers through the opportunities made available to them, and not seek to debate them with me through thinly disguised points of order when I am in no position to help.

3.32 pm

On a point of order arising from your statement, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday morning I tabled an early-day motion calling on the Prime Minister to stop hiding behind the statements of 1977 and to deal with the new revelations of Mr. Peter Wright. That motion was accepted in the Table Office and, accordingly, in the afternoon was released to the press.

At about 6 o'clock you were informed that the Attorney-General had taken new proceedings against The Independent and other newspapers and accordingly you ruled that my motion had become sub judice. I have absolutely no quarrel with that ruling. However, the motion is open for members of the public and, indeed, hon. Members to read in this morning's newspapers. The one place they cannot read it is on the Order Paper of the House of Commons. Is that not symptomatic of what is happening to us during all these discussions? There can be widespread discussion in editorials and articles in newspapers, but the one place we cannot adequately discuss the matter is here in the House.

Is it open to you, Mr. Speaker, as our Speaker, to put it to the Government that continued recourse to the courts is hindering us in one of our most fundamental duties, which is the protection of the very democracy that we are here to represent?

The right hon. Gentleman gave me notice that he would raise this matter. It is correct that he tabled a motion yesterday morning. At that time no action had been taken by the Law Officers regarding the newspaper article on the alleged events of 1977 relating to intelligence matters. The motion was in order, so was sent to the printers. However, later in the day action was announced by the Law Officers and, as the House knows, I ruled that that brought the sub judice rule into play. This meant that the right hon. Gentleman's motion could no longer go ahead. He was so informed, but I understand that it was not until today that the relevant message reached him. It will, of course, be open to the right hon. Gentleman to decide, after any court proceedings are concluded, whether he wishes to renew that motion in its original or some other form.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The whole House, naturally, will accept your ruling and indeed applaud the way in which you have been good enough to set out in the form of a statement the thoughts that guide you and the way in which you intend to conduct affairs.

Could I refer to part of that statement—notably the following short sentence:
"What may not now be discussed are the Attorney-General's decisions to bring proceedings against certain British newspapers and the action of the newspapers in publishing what they did"
and address myself to what I believe to be a point of order which is fundamental to the conduct of order in this House.

First, while everyone can see the validity of what we consider to be the sub judice rule, because it ensures that not even proceedings in this House can influence the conduct of a case before the courts, when it is also the case that every newspaper in the world outside Britain, and indeed English language newspapers some editions of which are published in Britain, can to their heart's content refer to and examine the issues thrown up by the case in point, I wonder whether there is a case for a reappraisal of the traditions of the House in order to establish exactly where our boundaries of the sub judice rule are drawn in this age of very easy international communication, an age for which it is possible that — in some respects — our proceedings are not properly equipped.

Secondly, can I also put the point to you, Mr. Speaker, that it certainly is the case, as the right hon. Gentleman the leader of the Liberal party earlier said, that security is indivisible and that security and its requirements must command the general support of hon. Members on all sides of the House, elected as they are by the people of this country. There is, however, a profound question when an issue relates to security and has remained outside the public domain, and when an issue has received such breadth of coverage as to give the impression that it is the Government's political interests that are being safeguarded rather than the interests of security.

I raise these matters because they are fundamental to the relationship between this democratic House and a democratic and free press and the conduct of Government in our country. I would certainly be more than prepared to ask you to reflect further, and to have time to reflect, upon the issues raised in this particular case, since the last thing that any democrat could want is the creation of a precedent in this case that would effectively blanket out free expression in this country in the way that the Government so clearly want.

The Leader of the Opposition has raised a point of order with me and I must say to him and to the whole House that I am bound by the sub judice rule as it is operated in this House. If the House wishes to the resolutions on sub judice, it is open to it to raise that matter with the Select Committee on Procedure and no doubt this important matter will receive fresh consideration. But it might be for the advantage of the House if I were to set out the sub judice rule as referred to in "Erskine May" on page 429. It is this:

"matters awaiting or under adjudication in all courts exercising a criminal jurisdiction … should not be referred to (a) in any motion (including a motion for leave to bring in a Bill), or (b) in debate, or (c) in any question to a Minister including a supplementary question:"
The case brought by the Attorney-General is of a criminal character and it was set in motion by the Attorney-General's application yesterday. I am bound by that rule.

As you know, Mr. Speaker, I am seeking to move Standing Order No. 20 today in a way that does not either breach the sub judice rule or breach the rule that new material is required for urgency to be attracted to the motion. I have listened very carefully to your ruling, Mr. Speaker, but it relates to action by the Government against The Independent, and the general ruling about Standing Order No. 20 is that there should be new material. Accordingly, in the light of the Prime Minister's statement today that she would make no statement, I have sought to base my Standing Order No. 20 on that fact. The allegations that have been made and that are now in the public domain and noted in the pages of Hansard—I placed them there yesterday—are very serious in character—

I can help the right hon. Gentleman. I have received from the right hon. Gentleman an application under Standing Order No. 20 which is in different terms from the application that he made yesterday. I am quite prepared to hear it, but is the right hon. Gentleman seeking to make it now? If he is, I will hear it.

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 20 for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the refusal of the Prime Minister to answer a question about the new situation in relation to statements made by a former MI5 officer that he and others attempted to subvert an elected Government".
This application arises directly from the Prime Minister's refusal to make a statement about those allegations, which are now in the public domain and are quoted in yesterday's Hansard, about illegal acts by the security services, and, therefore, that information was not available yesterday. Secondly, this does not relate to the court case against—[Interruption.]the—

Order. A submission is being made to me. I cannot hear it — [Interruption.] I call for order on both sides of the House.

This does not relate to the court case. Indeed, the application goes to the root of the matter, that an MI5 officer has stated that he and other MI5 officers attempted to subvert Her Majesty's Government in 1974. Today the Prime Minister made a most remarkable statement that the Law Officers have no responsibility for enforcing the law where breaches occurred before they came into office. That is an unprecedented statement for a Prime Minister to make.

Since the allegations relate to members of all three parties, to my right hon. Friends who, along with me, sat in Government, to others, including the leader of the alliance party, who was then in that Government—and indeed some of the allegations relate to the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), who was the Leader of the Conservative Government—it is not a party but a constitutional matter. Given its constitutional importance and its obvious urgency, I submit that this is a matter that is uniquely appropriate for Standing Order No. 20 application and that it would be quite wrong to ask Members who raise this matter to seek a remedy through the use of Supply days.

Finally, Mr. Speaker, I appeal to you most earnestly to use your discretion under our Standing Order, to allow a hearing of these grave allegations of subversion and sedition against an elected Government, which the Prime Minister herself has an obligation to undertake, arising from her office and the oath that she has taken as a Privy Councillor.

It is on that constitutional and House of Commons basis, Mr. Speaker, that I ask you, now—or later, if you want to give it further consideration—to afford this matter the urgency that it deserves and not to push it off to what may be the party interest of those parties that have access to Supply days.

The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that he believes should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the refusal of the Prime Minister to answer a question about the new situation in relation to statements mady by a former MI5 officer that he and others attempted to subvert an elected Government".
I have listened with great attention to what the right hon. Gentleman said, but I regret that I do not consider that the matter that he has raised is appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 20. I cannot therefore, submit his application to the House.

In your ruling on the sub judice aspect of this matter, Mr. Speaker, you quoted from "Erskine May". I notice that you quoted the second half of the sentence. The first half of that sentence says:

"Subject to the discretion of the Chair".
Therefore, I put it to you that you have some discretion according to "Erskine May" as to whether these matters should be taken as sub judice in the House. It is on that basis that I raise my point of order.

We are informed that the sub judice ruling relates to a contempt by The Independent and others about proceedings brought by the Attorney-General against TheObserver and The Guardian which will be heard in the House of Lords in June. The proceedings will be before the Law Lords. The question is: do the proceedings in the Lords deserve the protection of sub judice? Could the Law Lords truly be influenced in their judgment by public debate on these matters? Of course, your ruling would preclude debate in this Chamber—[Interruption.]

This point of order is utterly legitimate and genuine. Hon. Gentlemen would do well to listen and learn.

I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that whereas there is good reason to believe that juries can be influenced and that, therefore, sub judice considerations should determine what Parliament can be free to debate, there is equally good reason to believe that judges and Law Lords could never be influenced by public debate. This case was made during the judgment in the Attorney-General v Times Newspapers Ltd in 1974. That judgment followed upon publication of an article by The Sunday Times. The noble Lord Reid said:
"But I must add to prevent misunderstanding that comment where a case is under appeal is a very different matter. For one thing it is scarcely possible to imagine a case where comment could influence judges in the Court of Appeal or noble and learned Lords in this House. And it would be wrong and contrary to existing practice to limit proper criticism of judgments already given but under appeal."
I put it to you Mr. Speaker, that the Law Lords clearly do not need or require the protection of sub judice. It is their case that they would not be influenced by wider debate. Therefore, in considering these matters, if you made your judgment on the basis that the Law Lords need protection when they examine these matters in June or July, I put it to you that you might care to reconsider the matter because they themselves clearly do not subscribe to that view. If they are correct, it would not be necessary for you to apply the sub judice rule to our proceedings on these matters.

May I deal one at a time on this matter? I read comment to this effect in a newspaper this morning so I have had an opportunity to look into the matter in great depth, which I have done. The sub judice rule is a self-denying ordinance made by the House to avoid the appearance of the Legislature seeking to influence the courts. Whether they would be influenced is a different matter. I must say to the House and to the hon. Gentleman that I have already explained the large area that remains open to debate, unaffected by the new case. I am not prepared to allow references to this case itself.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker, arising out of your statement and the points on Standing Orders which were made by Opposition Members. What the House has been treated to this afternoon is not just an abuse but a series of bogus and mischievous points from Opposition Members. Will you be good enough, Mr. Speaker, to advise them that what is wrong is not the rules and conventions of the House but the way in which they seek to table mischievous motions and raise mischievous, misleading and irresponsible points during Question Time? If they were to exercise a self-denying ordinance, no problem would arise.

Order. In the interests of the Opposition day debate, in which there is a great demand to speak, I shall take all points of order at once.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. My point of order will be brief, and it springs from the fact that the answers given so far have caused a great deal of confusion among us. I want to try to get at the realities. I know that you are bound by what has happened but, having said that, surely it is obvious—at least, it is to me in probably a simplistic way — that contempt of the House is anything that brings the House into contempt. When the entire world can discuss a matter and the House cannot, I think that the rest of the world has a right to be contemptuous of the House. Therefore, I am seeking some way in which a cause of intense and massive public concern can be dealt with in the House, and I am concerned that outside the House millions of people will think, rightly or wrongly, that a device has been used to prevent the House discussing something which is of public concern.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have often said that you wish to protect the rights of Back-Bench Members. Many Back-Benchers may want to take part in the important debate on housing, which affects people, and not listen to bogus points of order about an issue which was dealt with fully by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Sir J. Callaghan) many years ago. We all know that the only person who has successfully destabilised the Labour party has been the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn).

Further to that point of order, Sir. It is quite clear that the Government consider that considerations of confidentiality are more important than any examination of attempts to subvert a previous Administration. The Prime Minister is being somewhat disingenuous in saying that she can do nothing about examining these matters.

Is it not the case, however, that criminal events in the historic past can certainly be raised and enquired into by the Law Officers of any subsequent Government? And is it also not the case that if the Prime Minister really wanted to clear the air about this matter and look at the many misdemeanours of MI5 over the last few years she could establish a Royal Commission perfectly easily to examine all these issues, including the attempt to subvert a previous Government?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would it not have been in order for the Opposition, any time until early this morning, to have altered the business? If the Opposition Front Bench was so concerned to have this matter debated publicly, its spokesmen could have done so within the confines of sub judice laws if they were skilful enough at debating and oratory in the House. The fact that the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen have failed to do shows clearly that they do not want the subject debated.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. What concerns me are your own words. It is quite right that "Erskine May" has the sub judice rule in it to dissuade the Administration from undue influence on the courts of this country. But there are two points here. First, "Erskine May" is not part of the Standing Orders of the House; it never has been and never will be. Secondly, although the sub judice rule is part of the resolutions of the House, I do not believe that it was ever intended to prevent the House from debating something which was more important than the role for which it was implemented.

In other words, why are we now prevented from debating a problem where someone has made serious allegations concerning the high crime of treason on the basis that a case has been brought under section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, which bears a much lower penalty in a lower court? That is the difficulty in which the House finds itself, and it is the high crime of treason allegedly perpetrated by the security services to which the House wishes to address itself, but has been prevented from doing so by the actions of the Executive.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that in these circumstances hon. Members should try to help. If I may, I have got a helpful suggestion. The events that are referred to happened many years ago at the time of a Labour Government. They concerned a Labour Prime Minister. Some 10 years ago, another Labour Prime Minister made a full statement to the House saying what the circumstances were, and the whole matter was then cleared. It seems now that allegations are being made about the security services. The possibility is that the security services behaved improperly, but I would put it to you also, Mr. Speaker, that it is quite possible that the security services behaved properly and that the noble lord, Lord Wilson had some questions that should be answered. I would be grateful—

Order. The hon. Gentleman said he was going to be helpful. I do not think that is very helpful.

In fairness to the noble Lord, Mr. Speaker, can you advise the House as to whether there is any organisation or institution within the House which the noble Lord Wilson could address to clear his name?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Prime Minister said that she had no responsibility because these events took place before she took office. That is not in dispute, yet in November 1979 the Prime Minister made a statement about Blunt. If she was willing to make a statement about Blunt and his treachery, and events that certainly occurred before she became Prime Minister, what possible excuse can there be for denying us a statement about the allegations that have been made? I put this point to you Mr. Speaker, because it is the essence of this debate.

We live in a parliamentary democracy. Everyone who comes here is apparently committed to the maintenance of our democracy. Allegations have been made, that not one or two but 30 officials in the security service during the 1970s were deeply involved in treachery and subversion. It may be that the allegations are just lies. It may be that Mr. Wright is not telling the truth, but, if Mr. Wright is telling the truth, if these allegations have a great deal of substance about them, how is it that the House of Commons can be denied the opportunity of any debate on the flimsy grounds that the events happened to occur before the Government took office? Are we going to be in a position that we cannot have a debate unless it is in Opposition time?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is perfectly clear to every hon. Member that you are not responsible for the failure of the Prime Minister to answer perfectly legitimate — indeed, more than legitimate — questions of major importance affecting the government of this country. If I am right, and if I am interpreting correctly your ruling, delivered some half an hour ago, Mr. Speaker, what you did deny to the Prime Minister was the possibility of her failure to answer such questions on the ground that it would be a breach of the sub judice rule. You told us clearly that the content of the newspaper articles, the information that they reveal, are not sub judice and Members can question them and they can be the subject of debate.

I remind the House that this is an Opposition day. I am prepared to take all these points of order and deal with them together, but we should have regard to our colleagues. I cannot help hon. Members much further.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not clear that at least the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has little confidence in the veracity of Mr. Peter Wright's writings? No fewer than four months have now passed since the hon. Gentleman made his false and malicious accusations in the House under the cloak of parliamentary privilege, against Sir Stephen Hastings and myself, and he still has not found the guts to repeat them outside the House.

The hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) would not be here but for his grandad.[Interruption.]

I do not know whether that was something I should or should not have heard.

Further to that point of order. Mr. Speaker.

One of the features of the British constitution and the compilation of "Erskine May" is that, because we do not have a written constitution, the game has always been—to put it in crude terms—made up as we go along. I would remind you, Mr. Speaker—I am sure that you have looked at the evidence — that on numerous occasions when matters of sub judice have been brought before the House there have been somewhat different interpretations, according to the matter in question.

For instance, if you, Mr. Speaker, were to study the remarks made in 1971 in relation to the Industrial Relations Bill going through at that time and the sub judice aspect relating to Lord Donaldson, who was to be in charge of the industrial relations court, you would see that variations upon the sub judice ruling were made by the Chair.

I would also remind you, Mr. Speaker, that that flexibility was apparent when the Clay Cross question was brought before the courts over a period of more than 12 months—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh"].. Oh, yes. However, because the Clay Cross issue was about working men and women, somehow or other the House of Commons was able, over that period of more than 12 months, to discuss—albeit with the so-called sub judice ruling appertaining—all the matters affecting the Clay Cross issue.

During the miners' strike the same thing applied. During that year-long strike several injunctions were issued and matters were brought before the courts, but I would suggest that that did not restrain many people in this House from speaking on that issue at great length. You yourself, Mr. Speaker, understood that matter. Recently the same applied to the Liverpool surcharge. I believe that it is within the recollection of most people in the House that, even though that matter went before the High Court and the Law Lords, there was never any attempt at any time by you, Mr. Speaker, or even by Tory spokesmen and women, to suggest that nobody should talk about the Liverpool issue.

What I am saying is that this flexibility has allowed the House of Commons to discuss many subjects when it has wanted to. I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that this whole issue should be looked at again. It is a matter of prime importance. That flexibility that has applied thoughout our constitution should apply in this case.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are you aware, Mr. Speaker, that Conservative Members would like to show solidarity with the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)? It must be of some concern to the House, as a corporate entity, if the security services have been seeking to undermine and destabilise the Labour party or Her Majesty's Opposition. Bearing that in mind, and as the Leader of the Opposition is doing such a splendid job of destabilising and undermining the Labour party, should we not have an inquiry as to whether he is an MI5 agent?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am not a lawyer, so I cannot argue on constitutional points, but it does seem to me that what my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said has a great deal of validity. Certainly in my relatively short period in the House it seems to me that there is one set of rules that apply to the Labour side and another set that apply to the Tory side. Quite honestly, I think that that is extremely unfair. You, Mr. Speaker, should accept a valid argument.

For a period of a year there were members of my constituency—miners—who were in front of the courts for no crime—they were acquitted. However, time after time, day after day, Ministers and Tory Members condemned them and discussed the issues in the House when those men were in front of the courts. If there is one rule for the Conservatives what about a rule for us? I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to look very closely at what happened during the miners' strike. Then you must accept the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You, Mr. Speaker, have reminded us that you are bound by the rules and Standing Orders of the House in these matters. However, over a number of years, many of us have heard the Opposition raise many points of order concerning the sub judice rule, which they claim has prevented them from debating important matters before the House. If those points of order were anything other than bogus one would have expected requests to have been made to amend the Standing Orders of the House, to produce a rule that would be more amenable to what the House regards as important.

Can you tell us, Mr. Speaker, whether you have received any requests from the Opposition for a review of our Standing Orders on the question of sub judice? Could you also, Mr. Speaker, cast some important light on the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when she said that these matters arose before she assumed responsibility? What is the role of the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Sir J. Callaghan) in these matters? Is his consent required for any review of the papers during his Prime Ministership? Has he given such consent?

Order. I said that I would only take four more points of order, but I will take the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire.

I am the fourth. On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Following the point of order made by my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) the Opposition, if they wish to pursue this, are not only free, but would be advised to take the matter up initially with the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Sir J. Callaghan) the Father of the House. They might be well advised to do so in the confidential atmosphere of the Tea Room, where they may well find that they will obtain much more information and advice.

If you, Mr. Speaker, give the Opposition that advice, they can then go to another place in this building and seek out another player in this drama, Lord Wilson, who played a major part. The Opposition can then satisfy themselves as to the factual background of this matter before coming to the House and trying your patience and trying as they have, to abuse order in the House.

I think that we must now move on. I believe that I can deal with all these matters.

First of all, I am bound by the rules of the House. the sub judice rule is a resolution of the House and I have no—

I have no discretion other than the one I have already mentioned. May I say to the House, and to those who say that there are those outside who will not understand, that I am in no sense seeking to stifle this discussion. That is not the Chair's function. The House has the remedy in its hands. In my statement earlier this afternoon I said that there are many opportunities for hon. Members to raise this issue and remain in order. There was an opportunity to do so today and there are other opportunities — private Members' motions, or in Opposition time, if that arises, or at Question Time—within my ruling. I am in no sense seeking to stifle this debate.

Order. That is a matter for the Government. The questions that have been raised with me are matters of order and I can rule only on matters of order.

Further to that point of order. Mr. Speaker. I doubt whether I shall ever address the House again, but may I just say that the discussion that I have heard has brought the House into such disrepute that, after 17 years as a Member, I trust that your successor, Mr. Speaker, never has to rule that we are not able to discuss a matter of such importance in such circumstances.

Order. I have specifically not ruled that we may not discuss this matter. I have ruled on how it may be discussed.

Pension Trusts

4.9 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to define the duties of trustees of occupational pension schemes; to require the Occupational Pensions Board to issue guidelines for the conduct of such trustees; to give further protection to the rights of early leavers; to require employers to make minimum contributions for pension provision as deferred remuneration; and for related purposes.
I dealt with these points in an Adjournment debate on 19 March, but as is the practice, unfortunately, with such debates, the conclusions were somewhat nebulous. However, we have a matter here which is of sufficient importance to justify our proceeding by way of legislation.

The reasons why I consider that such a Bill is particularly needed now may be summarised as follows: the changes in the tax treatment of pension funds in last year's Budget and in this year's Budget, particularly the tax treatment of apparent surpluses; the reforms in the law which offer great new opportunities for employees and employers to accumulate capital to provide for retirement in different ways; the spate of recent takeovers and company amalgamations, in which pension funds are often conspicuously involved; and the very rapid growth in the value of the assets of the funds held in trust, coupled with the fall in current inflation and inflationary expectations. All those things are creating a new context for pension fund managers or, as I prefer to call them, pension fund trustees.

Obviously, in seeking to introduce a Bill on this subject, I am aiming particularly at the trustees of final salary schemes, because in the case of money-purchase schemes the obligations of the trustees are much simpler and there is not so much controversy about them. I have often wondered why the term "defined benefit" schemes is used by professionals in describing final salary schemes, because it seems to me that the benefits are not precisely defined either as at the date of retirement or after the retirement of the beneficiaries. I also dislike the final salary principle, because the final salary schemes tend to favour long stayers and high flyers at the expense of the early leavers and the humbler members. Pension funds should treat all the beneficiaries with equal fairness.

I mentioned the treatment of the beneficiaries at the date of retirement or after retirement. I should like to draw the attention of the House to a parliamentary answer that I received yesterday from the Department of Health and Social Security. Unfortunately, the figures are available only up to 1983, but I understand that of about 2,000 schemes only about 2 per cent. had then decided fully to uprate the benefits that they were paying to people who were already in retirement in accordance with the retail prices index. That is to say, while the funds had been rising at least in line with inflation—and in some cases rising very much more rapidly than inflation—the trustees did not think it necessary to give justice to the beneficiaries already in retirement.

As I said, those were the figures available up to 1983. Even if I have misinterpreted them, I think that we can certainly say that the great majority of occupational pension schemes in the private sector — but not, of course, in the public sector, where this aspect is totally protected—have not looked after those in retirement so as to maintain their purchasing power in accordance with the change in the value of money. This is one of the things that the House ought to bring home to the trustees—that it is indeed their responsibility.

Just now we are in the process of considering the return to the sponsoring employers of sometimes very substantial funds which are deemed to be in surplus in the hands of occupational pension fund trustees. I consider that the trustees are justified in returning money to the sponsoring employers only when all the other possible options have been exhausted. At present that is certainly by no means clear to the trustees of these schemes.

My second suggestion is that we should require the Occupational Pensions Board to issue guidelines about the conduct of such trustees. It should be clear to the trustees that they are acting, not for the sponsoring employers, but for the beneficiaries. That is where their duties lie, just as if they were trustees of any other settlement. The duties of trustees should be clearly set out in writing, if only to enable the trustees to resist improper pressures from sponsoring employers or other interested parties.

Thirdly, I suggest that we should give further protection to the rights of early leavers. This is a very long-standing campaign of mine. I made my maiden speech on the subject nearly 20 years ago. It is a disgrace to the private sector occupational pensions movement—and certainly a serious criticism—that it has not adopted this practice long ago in the interests of elementary justice and good employment practice.

This is, of course, a very technical matter, but if hon. Members are interested I believe that a satisfactory recommendation was made in the amendment that I proposed to the Finance Bill under new clause 34 on 17 July last year. I shall not weary the House by reading again the suggestion that I made at that time, except to say that it was drawn up with the help of some of the most prominent people in the actuarial profession.

Next, I should like to require employers to make minimum contributions for pension provision as deferred remuneration. That is because it needs to be made clear that a pension fund set up in the private sector is not some kind of frill, or a special privilege, or bonus for employees, but that a pension is a matter of entitlement resulting from their service in the course of their careers. Ideally, I should like employers' contributions to be specified at at least 10 per cent. Anything lower than that is unlikely to produce the sort of pension that most people would regard as reasonable continuity of spending power into retirement after a full career of service.

I understand that in the public sector the cost of providing the two-thirds schemes is between 17·5 and 20 per cent. on top of current remuneration. Of course, one cannot put this burden on employers in the private sector until we have had the wholesale reform of national insurance, which obviously has to come very soon. In the meantime, the employers' contribution to the occupational pension scheme should be recognised as deferred pay. Making this payment is a practice that cannot be discontinued or adjusted from time to time simply because of the size of the fund that has accumulated from previous years, or the chances of the way in which the trustees have invested the fund. The employers' contribution should be at a rate determined as part of the contract of employment and should be quite unrelated to the amount of the fund that has accumulated at any particular time.

I have asked the leave of the House to add certain measures as related purposes in the conclusion of my Bill. I should like to mention three. We should increase the margin that it is permissible for trustees to hold on top of their currently foreseeable obligations. I suggest that that margin should be raised to 10 per cent. from the current 5 per cent. I remember from our discussions in Standing Committee when this proposal was introduced that it was said that the 5 per cent. margin could be interpreted on a quite liberal basis. Nevertheless, the exceptional wealth of some of the occupational pension funds at the present time may be transitional and I feel it is therefore unfair to oblige them to run down their funds when more difficult times may lie ahead.

We should make private sector occupational pension schemes fully unisex, and should do that by the adoption of suitable provisions in respect of the entitlement of surviving spouses. The House had an interesting debate on this subject yesterday when we considered the pension provisions for the widow of one of our former Speakers. The public consensus is that pension schemes should give strictly unisex treatment. There is no reason why that should not be possible.

Finally, I should like to specify a limit to self-investment by the trustees of occupational pension schemes to a maximum of 1 per cent. in the sponsoring employer's shares. That is one of the recommendations that I included in the Bill that I introduced by leave of the House as long ago as 1969. I think that it is also one of the recommendations which the House would have found helpful if it had adopted it at that time. Unusually, in view of the great technicality of this subject, I have not invited any other hon. Member to join me in preparing and presenting the Bill. I should like, however, to take this opportunity to say that I believe my Bill is supported by many right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir Brandon Rhys Williams.

Pension Trusts

Sir Brandon Rhys Williams accordingly presented a Bill to define the duties of trustees of occupational pension schemes; to require the Occupational Pensions Board to issue guidelines for the conduct of such trustees; to give further protection to the rights of early leavers; to require employers to make minimum contributions for pension provision as deferred remuneration; and for related purposes. And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 8 May and to be printed. [Bill 142.]

Opposition Day



Before I call the Front Bench Spokesman I advise the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.20 pm

I beg to move,

That this House believes that every household should be able to occupy a dwelling of the size, type, standard and location suitable to its needs, free from nuisance, harassment, racial discrimination or arbitrary eviction, and should have a free choice of tenure, freehold, leasehold or other, without prejudicing its mobility or its right to financial aid, equality under the law, or status; and strongly condemns Her Majesty's Government for its failure to provide for the housing needs of the nation over the past eight years.
I thought you were about to ask for brief speeches, Mr. Speaker, and I was about to say that I have not the slightest intention of curtailing my remarks, notwithstanding that we have lost a little time. I understand the needs and wishes of hon. Members, but this debate is important. Hon. Members on the Back Benches and the Front Benches ought to be entitled to make speeches on this vital issue of "Housing: A major cause for concern".

My first protest is that last Thursday, when the Leader of the House read out the title of the debate as "Housing: A major cause for concern", that was the title the Opposition wanted. We resent deeply the archaic, juvenile, stupid, bureaucratic rules of this House that prevent the Opposition from having their own title on their own motion. I understand that that is something we have to live with, but we deeply resent the fact that we are not allowed to have our own titles on our own motions. I say that to the Minister because I understand the point raised in the Government's amendment.

The first part of the motion is:
"That this House believes that every household should be able to occupy a dwelling of the size, type, standard and location suitable to its needs, free from nuisance, harassment, racial discrimination or arbitrary eviction, and should have a free choice of tenure, freehold, leasehold or other, without prejudicing its mobility or its right to financial aid, equality under the law, or status".
So far in the motion I can take with me the Association of County Councils which, if one talks about power structures, I understand is hung; the Association of District Councils, which is under Conservative control; the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, which is under Labour control; the Association of Municipal Engineers; CHAR, which is the Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless; the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities; the Housing Centre Trust; the Institute of Housing; the Institution of Environmental Health Officers; the National Federation of Housing Associations; the National House-Building Council; the National Housing and Town Planning Council; the Royal Institute of British Architects; the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors; the Royal Town Planning Institute; and Shelter. These organisations, which are clearly not Labour party organisations, subscribe to every word of that part of the motion I have just read out. Together they form the National Housing Forum which has housing representatives from across the political and professional spectrum.

I will put the aims of the National Housing Forum on the record because I think they are important. Its aims are to make the case for increased public awareness of our growing housing difficulties, to secure more widespread support by politicians of all parties for an increased emphasis on housing, and to ensure that greater human and financial resources are committed to ending the misery brought about by bad conditions and housing shortages. On behalf of the Labour party I endorse those aims and I invite the Minister to do the same.

In a short debate of three hours or thereabouts, I do not propose to recite another description of the problems that have been catalogued in a mountain of reports sent to hon. Members in recent years. We should look at the causes, resources and possible prescriptions. A major cause for concern is the lack of a national strategic housing policy. New initiatives, welcome as many of them are, operate only at the margin of the problem.

We have to recognise that housing has a significant impact upon the health of people and their families. We must accept that, without decent housing, the social ills of family break-up, vandalism and crime, racial prejudice and discrimination, loneliness, and physical and mental illness are all multiplied and magnified. We have to accept that it is a major economic and social responsibility of each generation to build, repair, maintain and improve the nation's homes so that unfair burdens are not passed from one generation to another. That leaves aside the creation of jobs and the development of skills and technologies involved in the task.

If one accepts those self-evident truths, it should greatly concern us that in many areas people face problems of severe housing shortage and unsatisfactory housing conditions. Homelessness is on the increase. The number of homes for rent has declined by Government fiat in the past few years. The quality of the stock, notwithstanding bursts of improvement, has declined so that every home must now last more than 1,000 years. That is a quite ludicrous proposition.

In absolute terms, the largest number of homes in serious disrepair are owner-occupied, many of them occupied by elderly people. The highest percentage of housing that is either unfit or in serious disrepair—31 per cent.—is in the private rented sector. Frankly, with its record, that is hardly surprising. We are all aware that not only is around £23 billion required to bring public sector council housing stock up to scratch, but the Audit Commission tells us that we fall behind on repairs by £900 million per year. It gets worse each year, notwithstanding the considerable sums that are spent.

I do not propose to give way. I want to speak on behalf of my hon. Friends without interruption. I do not want to crowd out any Back Bencher because of the time that has just been wasted on the points of order.

Those are some of the factors that have led to the obscenity, to take one example, of the bed-and-breakfast hostels and hotels. Does it make sense for taxpayers to fork out £300 million to keep 160,000 families in bed-and-breakfast hostels and hotels? Examples of this kind of waste are known by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I can cite the example of the Harrow millionaire mentioned in the Sunday Mirror who rakes in nearly £7,000 per week for cockroach-infested hotel rooms in London or the Edinburgh landlord who pulls in £45 per week for each of 20 beds and slices of bread in a house, as shown in a recent Channel 4 series on young homeless. These examples can he found up and down the country; I have given one from London and one from Edinburgh.

I have already said that I do not propose to give way.

The Government do not appear interested in how the money is spent. Both the Department of the Environment and the Department of Health and Social Security refuse to check the quality of rooms or breakfasts, or to answer parliamentary questions about the waste and abuse in hon. Members' constituencies. The payment of two housing benefits for one bedsit is not unknown in the murky underworld created by housing shortages.

The money involved is a vital public resource that is simply going to waste. Taxpayers and ratepayers cannot understand why this is allowed to happen. I will not accept that there are administrative or financial barriers that prevent this money from being switched to the Housing Corporation and local authorities, thus putting these landlords out of business. None of these landlords would he approved by Parliament under the assured tenancy provisions. They feed off the homeless and the taxpayer. We can stop them, and we should stop them.

I make no apology for saying that my hon. Friends and I consider it our duty to put those characters out of business. They should not be allowed to exploit the homeless and the financial allowances granted to them by the taxpayer any longer than we can avoid.

Although housing demands extra resources, we have to be extremely vigorous about the use of existing resources. No one must ever advance the case for extra resources without pointing out that we have to be careful how the money is to be spent. By way of example, I quote the two modest reports from the Audit Commission last year, on management and repairs in the public sector. They showed clearly how improvements could be made. While not everyone may agree with every proposal, it is to the credit of many local authorities that they are seeking to learn from and implement the recommendations in these reports. It is extremely irritating to tenants everywhere that, when so much needs to be done and when we know that we are falling behind in our repairs and our remodernisation programme, five or six — one of my hon. Friends quoted more—inspectors are looking at a problem but nobody ever does the job.

I invite Ministers to go to one authority, Dudley. I do not know whether the Minister has been there. It is close to my area, and I have been there a couple of times in the past few years. He would then see how real, effective decentralisation and the new rapid multi-skill repair squads are giving greater satisfaction to the tenants. They are cutting the frustration and it is clear that they are saving nine by doing a stitch in time. That is an example that many other local authorities should follow. I pay tribute to what is happening in Dudley. A large proportion of landlords have taken it to heart to try to implement better procedures to give satisfaction to tenants and, in my experience, the tenants greatly welcome that.

Although we require a national commitment, we do not want a national "same everywhere" solution to the housing problem, because there is not one. Anybody who stands up and says there is, is doing a disservice to the homeless. There has to be balance and variety in housing, or there is no choice.

Just before I came to the House for Prime Minister's Question Time I was on the telephone to one of my constituents. She is in serious trouble and cannot sell her home. It has been on the market for over 12 months. It is one of those refurbished maisonettes that we find in many of our cities. My constituent explained that six of her neighbours have been unable to sell their properties and have handed the keys in to the building society and gone elsewhere. They found it impossible. They did not wish to buy at the time, or to buy the property that they did, but they did not foresee the massive problems they have had in selling the property now that they want to move. Clearly, they had no choice. There must be genuine choice in housing. I have put that to the Minister throughout my remarks and over the past couple of years and my hon. Friends have also made the point. People should not be forced to rent or to buy because of particular circumstances of Government policy. That has been the case in many areas in the past few years.

The national shortage of rented housing could be met by large-scale construction of single tenure council estates, using factory methods of building, coupled with lots of tower blocks and economies of scale. That would be a disaster and show we have learned nothing from the past. The Labour party rejects that approach. It was a system foisted upon local councils first by the post-war Conservative Government and later by Labour Governments. Thousands, if not millions, of today's tenants are, as a consequence, trapped in defective housing, which is badly planned and, for many of the local authorities, impossible to maintain. Those homes are less than 30 years old. The debt charges have not yet been paid on those homes. It would be impossible to correct many of them structurally, so they will have to come down. That has to be taken on board as a national policy and not left to individual local authorities because they simply cannot cope with the size of the financial commitment that would be involved.

Some councils could and should build new family housing for rent, without any subsidy whatsoever. It is actually cheaper than subsidising the private sector. The chairman of housing in Gateshead made that clear to the Minister recently. Other local authorities want partnership with financial institutions and instead of putting barriers in their way the Government should positively encourage that.

I know that the Minister made an announcement in February and that since then there has been some legislation. However, the institutions are not queueing up to say that that is the greatest thing since sliced bread or that it allows them to go into partnership. The bureaucratic rules that have been imposed by the Civil Service at the behest of Ministers, or the other way round, will not allow the scheme to operate in the way that it should and in the way that we would wish.

Some local authorities are just plain old-fashioned. They just want to use the money they have obtained from selling homes and land to replace and build homes for the elderly and refurbish their existing stock. However, the money is locked in the bank. Nobody can make a case, on either side of the House, for such a crazy policy. Nobody believes that it makes any sense that that money is not available to put hack into housing, whether in refurbishment or new build. It does not make any sense.

In the same way as the public sector, in its traditional form, is not the only way forward, I invite the Minister to confirm—this is important—that he does not see the only way forward as being the private sector. He either agrees with balance, variety and choice or he does not. One cannot have it both ways. One cannot suggest that there is a single solution by saying that there will be only the private sector and that everything will be done to stamp out any aspect of the public sector. I do not make that claim from my side of the argument and I do not think that the Minister should continue to make it from his side.

I invite the Minister to study the plans by COPEC, the second largest landlord in Birmingham, to build and rent family housing using institutional funding such as British workers' pension funds. That is better put into British homes than American hotels and fancy paintings. It uses institutional funding with the required rate of return and with rents set at fair rent levels.


That imaginative scheme has been organised to build and rent family housing using institutional funding with the required rate of return, and rents set at no higher than fair rent level. The concept is simple. I cannot go into all the details, but it is based on the idea that the voluntary sector exists to provide homes to rent and not necessarily to build up a property portfolio. It rests on some equity surrender or withdrawal at some point during the period of the loan to ensure the required rate of return to the building society or pension fund. With a rolling programme of development and acquisition over the loan period, normal voids occur at no less than three times the rate required for the equity withdrawal. Therefore, there is no problem in respect of security of tenure. As ever, it was made in Birmingham. It is a good idea and the imaginative scheme of COPEC deserves all our support. I certainly hope that the Minister will look at the scheme. I know that the Housing Corporation supports it and that it finds favour with the institutions as well.

Earlier this year I wrote to the Minister, following the claim in the public expenditure White Paper that there is generally speaking an adequate supply of housing overall in Britain. I pointed out, using everybody else's figures, not Labour party figures, that we appear to be about 1 million homes short rather than having 500,000 too many. I wrote to the Minister and told him that I had not taken account of the high rise blocks or the defective housing, much of which will have to be demolished or replaced, and I did not take account of the view of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which is that we need about 2·5 per cent. —nearly 500,000 homes—empty at any one time to facilitate mobility. The professional view is that without that, the system will not work.

After disputing the figures, which, incidentally, were repeated by the National Housing Forum in its note to party political leaders at the end of March, the Minister went on to remind me that most people want to own their own home. I wrote to the Minister about total numbers of homes for people, irrespective of whether they are owned or rented. Unfortunately, the Minister picked up only one aspect. What he asserts is correct for the majority of people, but people want to decide for themselves when they want to buy.

We now know of people being forced into purchases prematurely. The building societies are worried about that. The Minister's attention has been drawn by the building societies to the fact that we have the largest sector of young home owners anywhere in the advanced western world. They see some pluses in that but they also see some minuses. One has only to look at the high repossession rate, especially among the younger sector of the population. If there is a shortage, there is no choice. It is plain and simple.

The Nationwide building society has said that prices for first-time buyers are outstripping rises in pay and that people are being forced to buy smaller and smaller homes. Hon. Members must know from their constituents that those homes are not easy to sell. A show house which is empty or has specially built furniture designed to create the illusion of more space, can look great. Those houses might be all right for Tom Thumb people, but not for ordinary people. [An hon. Member: "Shortisin."] I plead guilty to shortism. Builders are being forced to build smaller dwellings.

People go to their Members of Parliament or local councillors and say: "Look, I bought this home in good faith. Now I can't sell it. What are you going to do about it?" We have to explain that this is the result of free market housing and that this Government over the past eight years have deliberately created a shortage of rental housing. Thousands of people are trapped in homes that they are finding it extremely difficult to dispose of.

Only yesterday, the south-east director of Wimpey claimed that, due to the demand on new housing estates, he was tickling up the price of new houses, in some cases daily. My constituents have told me that they have difficulty keeping up with price rises every week, but prices being tickled up daily is news to me. The director of Wimpey was reported in the London Daily News as having said that that is the case. House price inflation in the south-east on this scale is in nobody's interests. It is not in the interests of owners or buyers, especially first-time buyers.

I find it difficult to understand why some Ministers have said that some people want to remain tenants. Some people remain tenants because they cannot afford to buy a home, but some people genuinely want to remain tenants. They resent being forced into what they consider to be not very good quality housing; they would prefer to remain tenants. Tenants cannot see why rent structures are organised so that they have no share in the capital growth of the property, and they end up buying the homes for the landlords. That is the present rent structure in the public and private sectors.

This issue ought to be tackled because many good things would come from such changes, such as flexible leases. That is not the only scheme which could be implemented. Tenants must feel that the rent they pay is not wasted money. Tenants often say, "I have boughs this house two or three times over with my rent," but neither the property nor the capital growth accrues to them. People do not necessarily want to buy houses, but they do not want to feel that the rent is wasted money. Some changes which could improve the tenants' satisfaction are to increase the stock of rented housing and to provide better maintenance and above all, to assist in breaking the polarisation between tenants and owners, which has concerned hon. Members and our late colleague, Tony Crosland, in the 1977 housing policy review. We have never taken on board that concern as seriously as he intended.

Some authorities, Labour and Conservative, have experimented, but at the margin of the present law. Parliament should assist by introducing these changes. No one course of action will solve the problem; many ideas could be implemented to give new rights to tenants and to convince them that money paid in rent is not money down the drain.

We all know, because of the debates on pensions and the aged—we have just had a ten-minute Bill relating to the Occupational Pensions Board—that the aged population is changing and will do so in the first part of the next century, which will lead to a much higher proportion of elderly people. We have to adjust our housing policy to take account of this. A Conservative Member has said to me, "It is all these divorces causing more homeless and household formation growth," but no one says that we should change the law and stop people divorcing, or force people to live together as they used to have to do.

It is not a red herring; it is dragged out by hon. Members from time to time. Changes in one aspect of policy must take account of changes in other aspects of policy. This applies to the age profile of the population. The elderly are not a single group who can be dealt with by a single solution. We know from reports produced in the past few years, particularly the inquiry into British housing, that there is an urgent and massive demand for sheltered housing for the elderly, for those who both rent and buy, at realistic figures, not at the figures which are deliberately inflated by property developers.

Mixed investment could come about with a national policy—not a national direction—to take account of the change in population age. Mixed public and private investment would lead to the release of a substantial number of dwellings for renting and buying by families and the younger generation, thereby enabling the nation to make much better use of its existing housing stock. We all know of the grossly inefficient use of our existing housing stock.

Nobody would advocate, as some councils have come close to doing, forcibly removing people due to under-occupation. I say "forcibly" because there are no alternatives; the choice is not there. A national policy could create new investment. This country is awash with money—I do not accept that we do not have the money.

I will not give way. I am coming to a conclusion. [Interruption.] It is no good hon. Members yelling at me from a sedentary position. I have clearly said that I will not give way again. I have always freely given way in other housing debates—perhaps too often—but, because of what happened earlier, I do not propose to give way. We have nothing to be defensive about. If hon. Members have listened to me, they would appreciate that that is the case.

As the National Housing Forum has made clear, we have never had answers to the three main questions posed by Mr. Crosland in 1977. Those questions are: how much housing is needed and how could the available resources best be used to get it; how much would people pay for their housing; and what are the wider social implications of how housing is organised? The National Housing Forum is right to remind us of the need for answers, because in finding them we might help our homeless fellow citizens and those who are badly housed. If we do not address the matter as a major cause for national concern, with a national assessment of what is required, most of the post-war gains in housing standards, the physical condition and reduction in shortages, will be thrown away by this generation. We are not prepared to see that happen. We are prepared to address the wider issue of housing policy. The Government, after eight years in office, have yet to show the concern for the young. I invite the Minister to rubbish the motion, if he can.

4.48 pm

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:

'that as many households as possible should have the opportunity to benefit from owning their own home and that for those who are unable to buy or who do not wish to do so there should be a real choice of rented housing both in terms of type and location of dwelling and of landlord; and congratulates Her Majesty's Government for pursuing policies which give people not only the housing they need, but also the housing they want.'.
Apart from a purple patch at the beginning and a deep purple patch in the last sentences, that was an extremely interesting speech, with many good points. There is considerable agreement about many of those points.

It is not patronising at all. It is right that when one agrees with someone, one should say so. I would be delighted if I could ever say that I agreed with the hon. Member.

I welcome many of the things that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said, but I do not think that he can have read our amendment. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) said on more than one occasion, the hon. Gentleman need only look at the amendment to see that the Government are striving for just the balanced approach that he wants, although we may not agree on matters of detail. It is a pity that he has not done so.

I welcome the opportunity for another debate on housing. It is certainly right that housing should be high on the national agenda and I am delighted to see that it is. One reason for that is that over the past eight years the Government have helped to put it there. We have had some remarkable achievements in housing, particularly in owner-occupation, in the past, and, with the important reforms that we are proposing in the public and private rented sector, will have more in the future.

If the hon. Gentleman, to whom I have given way on more occasions than I have had hot dinners, will forgive me, I intend to pursue the same policy towards Opposition Members as the hon. Member for Perry Barr pursued towards my hon. Friends.

The motion talks of housing needs. There are legitimate housing needs, which we recognise, but I am concerned about a number of other so-called housing needs. First, I am concerned about claims that there is a need for more council and rented housing when 113,000 council houses and flats are standing empty. I am concerned about claims that there is a need for more money for repairs and maintenance of council stock when 20 authorities in England have over £100 million of rent owing to them. That is exactly the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) attempted to raise earlier.

I am just getting going. I shall give way later.

Thirdly, I am concerned that the Opposition still see a need for more council housing when all that that would do is to increase the grip of the local authority monopoly on rented housing. The hon. Member for Perry Barr is feeling his way towards more mixed solutions, and I welcome that, but, alas, that approach is not shared by many of his right hon. and hon. Friends.

Fourthly, I am deeply concerned that Britain has allowed a situation to emerge where 540,000 privately owned flats and houses are empty which could he used to house people in need. If only Opposition parties would join us in searching for solutions to that issue we would be some way down the road to cracking the housing problem.

Is my hon. Friend aware that in Leicester, contrary to what has been said, there are nearly 1,000 empty council houses? Is he further aware that about 24,000 council houses have not been repaired? Is it not a double standard for the Labour party to say that there is a great housing problem when it is the Labour-controlled authorities which do not give a damn about what is happening to council tenants in their areas?

Just as the hon. Member for Perry Barr was right to draw attention to the generally good housing record of a Labour authority called Dudley, so it is right for my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) to bring home to the House Leicester's lamentable housing record. It is one of the worst housing authorities in the country.

The essence of the Government's housing policy, as it has been developed in recent years and will be developed further, is choice. We have encouraged home ownership for the majority who want it and now we want to provide, for the first time in decades, a real choice in rented housing for these people whose needs are not met by home ownership, who cannot afford it, or who simply do not want it. That is what we intend to do. That is exactly what the hon. Member for Perry Barr asked for. However, we do not intend to do that just by council housing; nor do we intend to do it just by mixed developments with housing associations, important though both those areas are. We intend to move much further.

The hon. Member for Perry Barr is halfway to the position that we intend to reach. He is in the position now that the Labour party was in in 1979 over the right to buy and owner-occupation. One can see how much things have changed when owner-occupation is lauded and praised in Labour party political broadcasts, and I welcome that. The landscape of housing in Britain has changed over owner-occupation in the past eight years and we shall see the same change in rented housing in the immediate future.

Choice is no empty slogan. Those who can choose their housing take it for granted, but those who cannot are stuck with problems that can pervade their whole lives. We have come a long way since 1979. At the beginning the right to buy was dismissed and opposed by most Opposition Members. It is now an established fact of our housing. The battle over the right to buy has been won, game, set and match. It is the consensus, except, of course, among the alliance who are not wholly in favour of the right to buy under all circumstances. Alliance Members wish to give a little local discretion to councils to have it here and not there. [Interruption.] We do not know what they are up to in extremist, loony Liberal Tower Hamlets. [Interruption.] I will break my self-denying ordinance not to give way to Opposition Members if an hon. Member wants to force me to give way over Tower Hamlets.

I could see how reluctant the hon. Gentleman was. I was simply saying from a sedentary position that we know exactly what is happening in Tower Hamlets. It is a mixture of inefficiency, incompetence, some mind-blowing decisions on homelessness which verge on racialism, and five, six or seven chief executives.

It is indeed a remarkable local authority. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for setting the record straight.

Most local authorities are now operating the right to buy fairly and efficiently, including most Labour authorities. They know that it is what their tenants—their customers—want. I do not know what the hon. Member for Perry Barr thinks, but I think that we should talk less about tenants and more about customers. That is how we should regard people who rent in the public sector.

Most local authorities are operating the right to buy fairly and well and I pay tribute to them, but a handful of authorities are not doing so. The performance of a handful of authorities on the right to buy is lamentable. Tenants are being discouraged from applying and when they do apply cases are delayed interminably. I do not know whether the cause is incompetence or some sort of sullen rearguard foot-dragging by councillors in those particular constituencies, but we are monitoring the situation closely from month to month. We know where the matter is deteriorating, and it is not just in Leicester, but in Camden, Islington, Lewisham and Sheffield.

If the hon. Gentleman is lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will he able to make his point later.

There is foot-dragging in Sheffield and in loony Liberal, extremist Tower Hamlets there are also considerable delays in processing right-to-buy applications.

The Government have powers to intervene and we shall not hesitate to use them unless the performance of those local authorities improves soon. We may need new legislation to protect the rights given to tenants by the House.

My deepest wish is that we should not have to discuss this issue. The fault lies among a few Labour councils and I make it clear that I recognise that most local authorities of all political colours are operating the system fairly and well. It is the few who are bringing discredit on the many.

Mr. Robin Squire