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Commons Chamber

Volume 124: debated on Friday 18 December 1987

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House Of Commons

Friday 18 December 1987

the House met at half-past Nine o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Petition

Rating Reform

9.35 am

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to present a petition on behalf of my constituents in Greenock and Port Glasgow and other persons. The petition protests against the proposed implementation of the community charge, or, as it is known in Scotland, the poll tax, which is considered unfair, unjust and inequitable in my constituency and elsewhere in Scotland.

The tax will infringe the civil liberties of the people whom I represent. Moreover, it has no support in Scotland other than within the ranks of the Scottish minority party—the Conservative party. The petition states:

"Wherefore your petitioners pray that your Honourable House repeal the Abolition of Domestic Rates Etc. (Scotland) Act.

To lie upon the Table.

Armed Forces (Pensions)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— (Mr. David Hunt).

9.36 am

During national emergencies we rely completely on the dedication and self-sacrifice of our armed forces. Politicians are quick to praise the efforts of those who protect us at those times, particularly the professionals who provide the back bone for the reserve and conscript forces. It is therefore only right and proper that in their time of need we should do our best to help them, and now is one of those times.

Retired service men and their widows are suffering considerable financial hardship as a result of serious anomalies in the armed forces pension scheme, and those who have been retired the longest, and are therefore the oldest, have the smallest pensions. These inequities are due mainly to a system of block dates fom which the improvement becomes effective and also the impact of a temporary pay restraint policy that reduces permanently the pensions of those service men and their widows who are unfortunate enough to retire at that time.

Because service men have little choice over their dates of retirement, their pensions are calculated on a code system which covers a period from 1 April to 31 March in the following year and is designed to ensure that they receive the same rates of pension for equal rank and length of service, irrespective of their actual retiremant date in that particular code year. However, if there is a period of temporary pay restraint during the code year, the system can work fairly only if pay is maintained at a realistic level.

The Armed Forces Pay Review Body is allowed to recommend full rates of pay for the job, which are then deemed to be payments for pension purposes. That system of deeming was first used by Members of Parliament in 1976 to protect their pensions from the effects of the 1976–77 incomes policy. It was not until the 1978 code that Her Majesty's Government allowed it to be used by the armed forces, and consequently those who retired during 1976–77 code years are receiving substantially lower pensions than those of equal rank and length of service who retired before or after that date.

For example, the pension payable from 1 April 1987 to a major who retired retired under the 1977 code is £7,624, compared with £10,145 for a major who retired two years earlier. Similarly, a lieutenant-colonel who retired in 1977 receives a pension that is nearly £1,000 a year less than that received by a major who retired two years before. Such inequities also affect a widow's entitlement under the forces family pension, as she receives a proportion of her husband's pension. However, there is an even greater anomaly in widows' pensions: if her husband retired before 31 March 1973, she receives only a one-third compared to a one-half rate after that date.

A further serious anomaly is the treatment of officers who retired before 1960, whose pensions are based on a standard rate for maximum permissable reckonable service according to rank, and not on actual service. As service before the age of 21 does not count for pension purposes anyway, and because the majority served for longer periods than the reckonable maximum, it is common to find that an officer retiring in the years between 1945 and 1960 loses up to eight years of actual service in the calculation of his pension.

Again, that affects widows' pensions. To make matters worse, all those widows are only on the one-third rate. For example, the widow of a major who retired in 1956 receives a forces pension of £1,996 a year, compared to the half-rate pension of £3,586 for the widow of a major who retired with 22 years' reckonable service in 1987.

There are further serious inequities affecting widows. The widow of a post-retirement marriage prior to 6 April 1978 does not receive a forces family pension. Yet, through his act of service, the service man "buys" an entitlement for his widow to receive a pension, irrespective of the date of his marriage. Since, by their very nature, the contributions can never be refunded, service widows' pension rights must always remain "bought".

Then there is the position of the older war widows whose husbands retired before 31 March 1973, and who are therefore not entitled to the Ministry of Defence attributable forces family pension, which is paid with no minimum service qualification required from the husband, at a rate for each rank, and is equal to 90 per cent. of the husband's full career pension. Yet what actually matters is that those women's husbands died for their country, not when they died.

That has caused an enormous gap between the financial treatment of older war widows and that of those whose husbands retired after 31 March 1973. They all receive state war widows' pension, which for the war widow of a private soldier aged over 70 is currently £3,244, and for the war widow of a major is £3,341. However, in addition, the war widow of, for example, a private soldier killed in the Falklands receives from the MOD an attributable forces family pension of £3,117, and the war widow of a major receives £8,703 a year. However, the war widow of a service man killed in the second world war, or in Korea, receives a forces family pension from the MoD only if her husband served for long enough to earn a pension. The majority did not.

There are many other anomalies. For example, on a second bereavement a widow who was receiving a forces family pension from her first husband can have her pension restored only subject to a means test. Because of the rule about post-retirement widows' pensions, that poses a real moral dilemma, and puts the widow who wishes to remarry a service man who is already retired in the position of having to decide whether it is worth marrying him and risking the loss of her forces family pension, rather than simply living with him. That cannot be right.

Moreover, because of Her Majesty's Government's refusal to allow "deeming" during a period of pay restraint, the date of retirement for service men has become a lottery. Those who retired during the first half of 1984 are particularly hard hit. This will create further bitterness, and the policy can only lead to future manning problems.

All those anomalies have been represented many times over the past 10 years to Ministers, but the Government have maintained that they cannot afford the cost of correcting them, as such correction would also have to apply throughout the public sector. However, service men, because of the conditions under which they serve, are in a special category among public servants. The code system used for calculating their pensions is unique and they are denied the averaging system used by all other public sector schemes, which avoids the worst effects of pay restraint on pensions. No other public-sector group is subject to the age restriction of service before 21 not counting for pension provision, and they all base pensions on actual service.

Service men's widows, especially war widows, are certainly in a special category.

All our major NATO allies treat their service men's widows more fairly than we do, with a minimum pension of one half and no restrictions on the date of marriage or retirement. The Government maintain that it is a "principle" that improvements to pension schemes cannot be made retrospective, but we are dealing with working rules and practices that should be kept under review, and updated as necessary.

In 1983, the Officers Pension Society's chairman, Admiral Sir Peter White, wrote to the Prime Minister:
"A Serviceman, when he joins, accepts that he may be required to give his life for his Country and on occasion he has to do just that. Therefore we believe we are different; we believe the public accepts that we are different, and we believe that recent events in the Falklands underline that view point."
In reply, the Prime Minister wrote on 30 November 1983:
"I respect the Officers Pension Society's view that Servicemen are, for the reasons given in your letter, in a special category among public servants."
The Officers Pension Society is continuing its campaign. The General Secretary, Major General L. W. A. Gingell, and the Assistant General Secretary, Group Captain F. Vincent, now maintain that the pattern of service life is different, involving
"Frequent moves causing difficulties of owning property, educating children, and establishing 'roots' … Frequent separations (e.g. Falklands, Northern Ireland, Belize, seagoing duty) causing family hardship and problems … Service wives find it difficult to obtain employment … Servicemen have to respond 'at the drop of a hat' to orders. There is no Trade Union … Servicemen are expected to work 24 hours a day when called on. There is no overtime pay for unsocial hours … Servicemen are expected to put their trust in the Government to protect their interests. There is no Court of Appeal … It is expected that they will give 'good and faithful military service' to the Government. They have no right to strike."
All those factors amount to the fact that service men and service women are in a different category from the remainder of the Civil Service. Arguments in the past have relied on the fact that civil servants are trying to protect the Government from having to pay out additional funds. I think that that view is wrong. We cannot possibly believe that service men are in the same category as all other civil servants.

It is particularly hard on widows of service personnel who have married after completing their service. Service men have been discouraged from marrying early. Before the last war, serving officers were not allowed marriage allowances until they were 30 years old, and since the war that has been reviewed only to 25. Married officers required accommodation, and had children to educate; they were therefore discouraged from marrying early, and many accordingly married after completing their service. Their wives are completely abandoned by the state if they retired before 1973. That is wrong, when they were holding off from marrying on behalf of the state.

The advertising for service personnel that we promote tries to encourage the belief that, by giving their working lives to the protection of the state, service men in return will be looked after by the state. I feel that they are being particularly badly let down. We say to them, "Avoid the rat race — come and do something much more worthwhile. Look after your country, and we shall look after you." But we are really saying, "You must watch us as employers. If you do not, you are likely to be shortchanged." That is neither fair nor reasonable. We now have an opportunity to put these matters right.

The matters to which I have referred apply to all ranks in the services. The Officers Pension Society watches carefully what happens to other retired service personnel. The effects in the period 1976–77 and, I am sad to say, in 1984–85 leave much to be desired. For example, a major who retired in 1975 would now be drawing a pension of £10,145 a year. However, if he retired in 1976 he would now be drawing only £8,472 a year, and if he had retired in 1977 he would be drawing £7,624. It is not until 1978 that the figure starts to go up again, rising to £8,768. A major who retired in 1986 would not be as well off as one who retired in 1975, because he would be drawing £9,928. That is an unfortunate situation, and, as I have said, other ranks suffer just as badly.

In that respect we should not allow ourselves to indulge in the luxury of saying that, because we have managed to get away with that, we do not have to correct it. Service personnel have a right to look to the Government to make the correction. A sergeant who retired in 1975 would now be receiving a pension of £3,986, whereas one who retired in 1977 would be receiving only £3,147.

The problem is summed up extremely well by Wing Commander, Hurst W.E.B. who has retired from the Royal Air Force and now lives in Suffolk. In February of this year he wrote:
"I am particularly unfortunate in that I completed my full term of service at the age of 55 on 31 May 1973 and would normally have retired on that date but, at that time the RAF was short of engineers and called for qualified officers to serve for an additional three years (making my total service just short of 42 years). I was pleased to do this as the Royal Air Force was my life. I had complete trust in my employer and it never occurred to me that I might be financially penalised by 'staying on' but I estimate that my volunteering to extend my service to help the RAF has cost me about £10,000, (less tax)."
That is deplorable. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to correct it as a matter of honour.

9.52 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) on selecting this topic for debate, and I welcome the opportunity to say a few words. I wish to speak particularly about the situation affecting widows and war widows. I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that the wives of service men are pretty unique individuals. They are very like the wives of Members of Parliament. They are called upon to be constantly moved around. They have upsets to their domestic situation. They have enormous pressures on their families during their husbands' service careers. All of that calls for individuals of a particular type who can stand up to the problems. In addition to that they live with the constant knowledge that their husbands may be called upon any day to sacrifice their lives for their country.

Before the Falklands war few of us expected that we would be sending a task force to the south Atlantic. I remember vividly what one young marine from 45 Commando said to me. The Commando had sailed but the marines were still back at their base at Condor because they had been away on a course. He was terribly upset. The signal came in saying that they were to join the Commando at Ascension and the young marine was delighted. At a dinner we were holding on behalf of the marines, he turned to me and said, "We'll show them what we get paid for." By Jove, he did. He won a Military Cross. However, what is important is that he lived. Many of his colleagues did not. On a recent visit to the Falklands I photographed the war graves and sent the photographs back to the members of 45 Commando and the dependants of those who had been killed.

I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that war widows in that war were looked after much better than war widows of the second world war. The war widows of the second world war are now getting rather old, and I believe that the time has come for the nation to say that those ladies should be well looked after. We are enjoying freedom, democracy and the rule of law today because their husbands sacrificed their lives.

I should also like to deal with those widows who married when their husbands had completed their military service. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South explained why the services prefer young officers to be unmarried. One understands why. However, one can only say that it seems rather odd that we encourage young men not to marry and that, when they complete their service, as many of them do at an early age of between 45 and 55, and then marry, their widows do not enjoy the same pension rights as they would heve enjoyed if they had married even during the last years of their service. That anomaly should be put right.

In those circumstances, and in the short time available to me, I make a plea on behalf of those widows. There are many things I could say, because I believe that the nation owes its service men, not least those who regularly go on active service in Northern Ireland and other parts of the world, an enormous debt. It carries on for 365 days of the year, every year. It is because of that that we should look after the widows and ensure that they are never left feeling badly treated or short-changed by a nation that did not understand or, worse still, probably did not care. I believe that the Government, with their fine record of caring, particularly for the way in which they have treated the armed forces and improved pay and conditions, should look at what we can do for the widows, because that would be appreciated and understood throughout the country.

9.56 am

My interest in this important debate rises from my four years as Conservative party vice-chairman for women. Like my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) and Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) I speak on behalf of the widows. My constituency has a high number of service widows and the unfairnesses of the present system are brought to my notice almost daily.

I pay tribute, on behalf of the Officers Pensions Society, to my hon. Friend the Minister. It has unstinting praise for him, not necessarily for this readiness to unlock the purse strings but for his quick understanding which I suggested to the society was in part derived from his substantive financial background.

I ask the Minister to think about three things and I shall start with the future widows of current service men. The Green Paper on the reform of social security in June 1985 and the White Paper published in December 1985, speaking of pensions and women, said that changes in the national insurance widows benefit scheme should be seen against
"the background of the greater involvement of women in the work force."
As previous speakers have said, there are intolerable difficulties for the modern woman in keeping her career going when marrying into the services. I ask the Minister to bear in mind the future widows and perhaps leave some legacy within his Department when he moves on and up so that their rights will be fully looked after.

I want to put on record the great difficulty faced by post-retirement marriages when a service man dies. I know how difficult it is for the Government to pick that up because of the supposed knock-on effect. I endorse what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South when he said that the services are different.

I want to put on record a particularly poignant case. Mrs. Phillott of Tavistock married her husband after he took early retirement at Government request. He joined the Army when he was 13 and made it his life. His pride in his medals was superb. He left the Army in February 1959, not on completion of his service, which would have been November 1964. The discharge certificate states that the reason for his discharge was a reduction in the establishment. Had he served to his proper retirement age his widow — he was married and had two children—would now be receiving a pension.

Most importantly, I beg the Minister to look carefully at the case of older war widows and to help them. Deprived of their husband, perhaps after a short service during war years, they are elderly and poor. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North in asking whether we cannot do better in a time of rapidly increasing prosperity under this Government. There are huge gaps between the Falklands war widows, older war widows and all service pensioners. Their case is most urgent and, as they are getting older, it is one that we must hasten to put right. I beg the Minister to help them.

10 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) on securing this important Adjournment debate and on the eloquent and persuasive way in which he and my hon. Friends the Members for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) and Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) have argued the case for improving the position of those who retired from the armed forces in previous years—and their widows—who do not receive pensions at the levels that are now current. I am sure that we all recognise the value of the service that they have given their country. I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North said in respect of the service men and women whom he knows.

I should pay tribute to the various organisations which have so courteously and clearly made representations to the Secretary of State for Defence. They include the Officers Pension Society, the Royal British Legion, the War Widows Association and the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association.

I shall address the points that my hon. Friends have raised in a moment, but first I shall set out the background against which they should be considered. In dealing with service pensions we should recognise that there are two separate sets of provision under which benefits may be paid to ex-service men and their dependents. On the one hand there is a war pensions scheme, which is administered by the Department of Health and Social Security. It provides benefits specifically in cases when a member of the armed forces is injured or dies as a result of his service. On the other hand, there is the armed forces' own pension scheme, which is administered by the Ministry of Defence. It is the provisions of that scheme, for which I am responsible, that are under discussion today.

The armed forces pension scheme is an occupational one. It is therefore broadly similar to other public service pension schemes, although there are a number of features that are designed to reflect the somewhat difficult characteristics of service in the armed forces and the relatively short careers that apply to many. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South referred to those difficult characteristics and to the different nature of life in the armed forces compared with other parts of public service or civilian life. Those features are in addition to the special provision for the greater physical risks that may arise, which are provided for by the war pension scheme.

Pensions must be paid for. In this particular case there is no capital cash fund from which the costs are met. It is not like a funded pension scheme. There are no direct contributions and benefits are paid for, as they arise, from money allocated to the defence Vote each year. In that regard, it is a pay-as-you-go scheme.

I do not wish to imply, however, that service personnel are completely insulated from the cost of providing for their pensions. When setting armed forces' pay a deduction is met of about 10 per cent. — it obviously depends on the grade of service being provided—which represents the service men's pension contribution. Service men and women — officers and other ranks — are contributing to their future pension.

As with an occupational pension scheme, that for the armed forces is therefore managed in accordance with the same principles that apply to other schemes. There are two important and allied points; first, entitlements under the scheme are for any individual, and through him his dependants, derived from the rules of the scheme that are in force at the date of his retirement. Secondly, when rules are changed, those changes are not given retrospective effect. It must be obvious to my hon. Friends that, if occupational pension schemes always had to make retrospective changes, improvements would be less frequent. It is a matter of resources. The House may wish to know that the cost of the armed forces' pension scheme in the current year—1987–88—is estimated to be £1,050 million, and that comes out of the defence Vote. That figure will rise significantly over the next 10 years.

The detailed rules of the armed forces pension scheme are inevitably complex, but I should remind the House of the main features of the scheme as they stand today. They provide for a pension, which is paid immediately on retirement, for officers who have given 16 years or more of reckonable service; a pension, which is paid immediately on retirement, for other ranks who have given 22 years or more of reckonable service; deferred pensions, which are payable from the age of 60, for those who served for shorter periods, and that is subject to a minimum of five years; pensions for widows and dependent children; immediate pensions for those who are invalided from service on account of injury or ill health, which is subject to a minimum of five years' service; enhanced benefits where that injury or ill health is attributed to service in the forces, with no minimum qualifying period of service; and enhanced benefits for widows and dependent children for those whose death is attributed to service.

All those pensions are index-linked. Long service and invalidity pensions are calculated from representative rates of pay for each rank and on length of service given. For a full career, which is based on retirement at age 55, the pension is equivalent to half the corresponding rate of pay, with, in addition, a tax-free lump sum of three times the annual rate of pension awarded.

Many service men have to retire early, so the early rate of pensions paid for shorter periods of service is enhanced to be better than strictly proportional to the service given. That is to compensate for the short career, which may be all that is available. As I have already said, service men can retire on pension by about the age of 40—after 22 years' service, having entered the armed forces at the age of 18.

I have already said that lump sums are paid on retirement at the end of a full career. They are also paid on a similar basis where pensions are awarded for shorter periods of service, and where invaliding occurs, and additional lump sums are paid where injury or death is attributed to service.

Those, briefly, are the main benefits that are available today. However, as with other pension schemes, there have been developments over the years that have gradually introduced changes and improvements in what is provided, which have created anomalies. Among those have been, in 1960, the introduction of scales for officers linked to length of service instead of standard rates for service of at least a minimum length; in 1972, a substantial revision following the introduction of the military salary, and introducing a direct link with representative rates of pay; in 1973, to improve the benefits available for injury and for widows; in 1975, to introduce deferred pensions for short periods of service; and, in 1978, to introduce pensions for the widows of post-retirement marriages.

Against that background I shall briefly address the key points that have been raised. Many of them are associated with improvements that have been made in the past and would involve retrospection. A number of them arose from developments that were not particularly associated with the armed forces, but which formed part of general improvement of pension provision in public service schemes. For those in particular, a departure from the normal concept of non-retrospection would require corresponding action throughout the public service.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South referred to the pensions trough for those who retired in certain years—the mid-1970s—and who now receive a pension less than those who retired immediately before or after them. It is acknowledged that those who retired in the period of pay retraint policies receive less by way of pension than colleagues with the same qualification of rank and service who retired earlier or later. However, they received the awards to which they were entitiled under the circumstances that applied at the time of their retirement. The variation in pensions is a result, on the one hand, of increases in basic pension awards due to index-linking, which continued to operate in full during the period of restraint on pay—there was a comparatively high rate of inflation at the time, so increases were significant—and on the other, for those who retired subsequently, the improvements in pay that followed restraint.

When the Government took office in 1979 the position was carefully examined to see whether it was practical to take special action to overcome the effects of pay restraint on pensions, which applied widely across the public sector. Various solutions were considered but no satisfactory arrangement could be found.

Cost was one factor—in 1979 it was estimated to be as much as £100 million. It has been suggested that the subsequent improvement in the economic situation should make it possible to overcome that. However, demands on public expenditure remain very heavy and all claims for additional expenditure, whether large or small, must be judged on the basis of priorities. The Government remain of the view that the use of still scarce resources to resolve the trough situation could not be justified.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South also referred to the anomalies between those widows who receive the one-third rate pension as opposed to the one-half rate pension. In 1973 the proportion of a man's pension that would be paid to his widow was increased. For men who left the armed forces before 1 April 1973 the proportion was one third. For those who retired subsequently the proportion was increased to one half, but this applied only to that part of their service from 1 April 1973. They did, however, have the option of making direct contributions to qualify previous service for the one-half rate. To have provided the same option to men who had already left the service would have involved retrospection, with the associated additional cost to be met by the Government. Similar arrangements applied in other public service schemes.

My hon. Friend referred to the particular case of officers who retired under the code in force before 1960. At that time retirement pay was not linked to the length of service given, other than that a minimum period from the age of 21 was necessary to qualify for the standard rate. Therefore, officers served a standard length of service. When a revised structure was introduced in 1960, with scales of retired pay linked to years of service—that was a distinct and sensible improvement — the change was not made retrospective. That was in accordance with the practice at the time and the normal practice since then of not making improvements and enhancements in the occupational pension schemes retrospective. The same was true of the improvements that were made to the provisions for pensions for other ranks in the years following world war 2.

My hon. Friends have raised the question of post-retirement marriages. The Ministry of Defence, as a good employer, pays a widow's pension without any direct contribution being made by the husband. However, that does not mean that the pension is automatically earned by service. Until April 1978 the Department, in common with those responsible for all other public service schemes, considered it right to restrict the payment of a widow's pension to those who had shared at least some part of their husband's career. From 6 April 1978, again in common with other public service schemes, the armed forces have also provided for widow's pensions where marriage takes place after retirement. The pension is proportional to that earned by the husband from that date only.

We sense my hon. Friend's concern about this matter and know that his reputation with the Officers Pension Society and the other societies is extremely good. In view of the anomalies I wonder whether my hon. Friend would undertake to consider the possibility of setting up an inquiry to determine whether some special arrangements should be made to help widows and those who have suffered so much from the trough, which has not affected other civil servants who have the benefit of choosing the best 12 months out of the 36-month period prior to retirement for pension purposes.

Concern has been expressed about the war widows, especially the elderly widows. My hon. Friend is aware that that is a matter for the Department of Health and Social Security as it administers and pays the war widows' scheme. We pay a separate and additional war widows' pension for service since 1973.

I assure my hon. Friend that I shall draw this debate to the attention of my hon. and noble Friend the Minister at the Department of Health and Social Security. I shall have further meetings with him to discuss this matter—it is not a matter primarily for me, but I shall continue those discussions.

My hon. Friend asks for an inquiry to consider the anomalies created. We are all aware of the facts and an inquiry is not needed to elucidate them. The Ministry and the societies are also aware of those facts. However, I assure my hon. Friend that I shall continue discussions not only with the Officers Pension Society but with the four organisations that I have mentioned to consider what improvements can be made. I cannot hold out any hope of improvements in terms of resources, but in terms of procedures, discovery of the facts and a better understanding of the anomalies, I assure my hon. Friends that I shall give all the strength at my command and all the time that I have available to pursue the points that they have raised.

Southern Africa

10.14 am

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss southern Africa and, more specifically, the question of the Government's approach to the problems of that region.

Let us make no mistake about it: South Africa has for many years operated a system of government that must be abhorrent to anyone who claims to espouse the causes of democracy, justice and equality. It is a regime that operates a system based on racial division and is prepared to act with unspeakable barbarity to maintain the rule of the white minority over the black majority. Moreover, in its desperation to perpetuate itself, that regime is prepared to violate almost every aspect of human rights and all conventions regarding national sovereignty and integrity in southern Africa. Therefore, we are talking about the fate of a whole continent and the lives and liberty of many millions of black people.

The facts are well known throughout the world. There is widespread national agreement, especially among black countries, that the regime must be brought to an end. As I discovered at the recent international conference at Arusha in Tanzania, the whole world is now saying, "Yes, apartheid must go." However, our Government, the supposed upholder of world democracy and freedom, say, "No, apartheid must stay."

Whenever the international community demands action to bring the system to an end, the British Government, to their shame, say no. They even collaborate with the dictators in Pretoria. The Minister must explain why that is so. Why are the Government increasingly isolated? The Government have it within their power to bring apartheid to an end. Why are they sitting back and doing nothing, while black men, women and children are being murdered, imprisoned and tortured in South Africa, Namibia and the front-line states?

Why are the Government refusing to join the international call to stop the apartheid executions? Worse than that, the Government seek to brand those 44 black people awaiting execution as terrorists and refuse to recognise the real terrorists of southern Africa — the Botha regime, its military forces and its surrogate military forces in Angola and Mozambique.

Let us put the record straight. The African National Congress is not a band of terrorist thugs. It is an organisation that represents the majority of black opinion in South Africa. It has existed for 75 years with the objective of freeing that country from the disgraceful system of apartheid. The ANC has conducted itself with great wisdom and dignity and throughout its existence its leaders have been men and women of the highest calibre and insight. Only when all other means of advance had been exhausted was the decision taken to engage in an armed struggle. Negotiations, argument and reason over half a century had failed. It became clear in 1961 that force could only be met with force. Those engaged in fighting the military might of South Africa are truly freedom fighters, and it is for the crime of trying to liberate their black brothers and sisters that many of them have now been sentenced to death.

As I said before, 44 people on death row are now awaiting death by hanging. They are guilty of no crime, other than that of fighting for their freedom and liberation from racism in its most extreme form—apartheid. The Government's position is scandalous. They have refused to intervene with the South African Government, to demand clemency from the racist regime. Perhaps because the Prime Minister herself is in favour of hanging, the Government have not taken this straightforward and humanitarian step.

At the United Nations Security Council on the day after Govan Mbeki's release, Great Britain refused to join a call by the Council for clemency for a young South African under sentence of death that very day. It should be noted that the United States of America voted for such clemency. Clearly, our Government are not prepared to join the United States in this matter, unlike their performance in other matters. The people of Great Britain and the world need to know why the Government are prepared to stand idly by and not lift a finger to save the people who are awaiting death by hanging.

If the Government are not prepared to intervene we need to know why. The Minister must tell us why today. Is it perhaps because of the colour of skin of those people? The Government have made representations to the Soviet Union about the plight of its dissidents. They have made representations on behalf of Polish people and others in eastern bloc countries. They have a lot to say to Mr. Gorbachev about human rights, but they say nothing to Mr. Botha about the black people whom he is consistently murdering in South Africa and southern Africa. We demand that the Government make similar representations to save the lives of black people for a change. I look forward to the Minister's reply about that.

I turn now to the release of political prisoners. Govan Mbeki was recently released. Agents of the Pretoria regime in this House hailed that as a sign of Pretoria's willingness to negotiate and of the fact that it was prepared to reform apartheid. The truth is far removed from that. I can do no better than to quote a press release from the African National Congress in this regard. It is dated 12 December, and says:
"The African National Congress vehemently condemns the restrictions that the apartheid regime in South Africa imposed today on Govan Mbeki. These restrictions, imposed under the present state of emergency, confine him to Port Elizabeth. This latest action by the Government, coming after the banning of a rally in Cape Town last month, which was to have been addressed by Mr. Mbeki, is evidence that the regime is now indirectly placing conditions on his release, which is contradictory to what the world was made to believe.
This also demonstrates the fact that the Government are not prepared to allow the chosen and accepted leaders of our people to address and speak to them freely without any hindrance or harassment from the racist authorities, thus giving the lie to Government claims that it is prepared for dialogue or any kind of negotiations whatsoever.
It is ridiculous for the Botha regime to claim that Govan Mbeki, or his actions since he was released, will affect the release of those leaders still in prison or the lifting of the current state of emergency. The responsibility of the continued incarceration of the others and the state of emergency, is that of the regime."
This is the reality surrounding Govan Mbeki's release. After 24 years in gaol he is still in prison, unable to speak freely. The only difference is that his prison is larger. The British Government have said nothing about the restrictions placed on him since his release. Let the Minister speak clearly today on that matter.

What about the other prisoners who, for more than 20 years, have been incarcerated in such prisons as Robben Island — Wilton Wkwayi, Andrew Mlangini, Elias Motsoaledi, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaka, Walter Sisulu and, of course, Nelson Mandela? We know that the Prime Minister has called for his release, but that is nothing special. Everyone calls for his release. Pop stars write songs about Nelson Mandela; it is trendy to call for his release. People print T-shirts about him. Even Chief Buthelezi, a mortal enemy of the ANC, calls for his release. So the Prime Minister's call is nothing special, and she knows it. She needs to do rather more than make a call before she can gain the respect of the House, the country and the international community.

While on the subject of Chief Buthelezi, I want to mention some of the actions of that gentleman, who appears to be a friend of the Prime Minister. She has quoted him in the House in support of her case against sanctions. Of course, he is against sanctions because, in his lust for power, he believes that, by collaborating with the Botha regime, he will reach the position in which he will reign in a Bantustan in which blacks, liberal whites, Indians and coloureds would live under his control. Sanctions are against his interest, and that is why the Prime Minister and he are at one on this issue. I must warn the Prime Minister, however, that she is in bad company. Buthelezi and his party have been responsible for some of the most outrageous attacks on ordinary people in South Africa—

What about the policemen? Who is murdering them?

A recent report in the Financial Times on 22 November 1987 concerns the so-called factional fighting in the Natal provincial capital of Pietermaritzburg — in particular in the Edendale valley—in which 150 blacks have been killed in recent months. Buthelezi rejects the accusations by social and church workers, and I—[Interruption.]

Order. If hon. Members disagree with arguments, the usual way to rebut them is through the dialogue of debate, rather than in unseemly shouting across the Chamber. I hope that we shall have less of it.

I want to quote from the article in the Financial Times. It states that Buthelezi

"rejected accusations by social and church workers, as well as the UDF and Cosatu, that the main perpetrators of the violence are Inkatha-linked 'warriors'. But their names crop up time and time again in a stack of sworn affidavits produced in a Pietermartitzburg court this month. The affidavits, from victims of violence, not only cite individual 'warlords', they also complain of tacit police connivance with the conservative `vigilantes'. The accusations are similar to those now being brought to light in a separate court case in Cape Town. This concerns the destruction of the Crossroads squatter camp 15 months ago. Photographic and videotape evidence has been used to show police standing by or actively assisting Crossroads vigilante witdoeke as they tore down shacks and assaulted defenders of their makeshift homes …
Few of the inhabitants of the Edendale townships probably appreciate the deeper political significance of the fighting now destroying their lives and property. It could almost certainly be stopped by determined police action. The fact that fighting continues indicates that what is happening in Edendale is part of a much wider strategy aimed at weakening the ANC."
South Africa is clearly attempting to control all the sovereign front-line states in the region. Its objectives in doing so include that regional states refuse to permit liberation movements to operate from their territories and take steps to prevent them from operating clandestinely; that they do not develop strong economic or, more particularly, military ties with Socialist countries; that they maintain, and even deepen, their economic links with South Africa and refrain from supporting calls for sanctions against South Africa; and that they moderate their criticisms of apartheid.

To achieve those objectives, South Africa has created a number of surrogate forces which regularly enter those sovereign states illegally and kidnap, maim, rape and murder their citizens. I refer in particular to the Reconnaisance Commanders, UNITA — under the leadership of the infamous Dr. Jonas "Judas" Savimbi in Angola — the Mozambique National Resistance and Renamo in Mozambique, the LLA — the Lesotho Liberation Army — and so on. The actions of those forces have catastrophic results for the economies of the front-line states. In Mozambique alone, during a two-year period, more than 140 villages, 840 schools, 900 rural shops and 200 public health installations were destroyed. Transport networks were also bombed and destroyed. The total cost of the MN R destruction has been conservatively estimated at $3·8 billion.

Aggression and destabilisation policies by the apartheid regime in South Africa have been directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of 140,000 children under the age of five in Angola and Mozambique during the year 1986–87 alone, according to UNICEF, and for the deaths of at least 100,000 other people in Mozambique alone in the 11 years to September 1986. South Africa has been responsible for making 4·5 million people in Mozambique dependent on food aid to avoid starvation. It has deprived 2 million Mozambicans of access to health care and 315,000 school students of access to education. The loss of the economies of the nine South African Development Coordination Conference states amounts to $2,000 million annually, with accumulative damage estimated at about $18·7 million up to 1986.

The South African Government and their agents are responsible for the assassination of President Samora Machel in Mozambique on 19–20 October 1986. They are also responsible for attemps on the lives of Prime Minister Mugabe—

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman has produced one of the grossest calumnies of any country that I have ever heard in this Chamber. He has just said something that we know to be absolutely untrue, and he should withdraw it immediately.

Order. The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) has not said anything that is a matter for the Chair. However, I wish to repeat a statement that has been made so often from the Chair, namely, that in referring to people outside the House, hon. Members should have regard to the fact that they cannot defend themselves. Hon. Members should therefore exercise restraint in their expressions.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Tim Eggar)

I would not normally interrupt the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) in such a debate, but I would be grateful if he could substantiate his very serious allegation about the death of President Machel.

There is evidence that a false beacon was placed in South Africa, so that the pilots of the aeroplane carrying President Machel back to Mozambique were lured into a mountain.

I have. A commission of inquiry was set up, composed of officials from Mozambique, the Soviet Union and South Africa. It was supposed to investigate the tragedy, but the South African officials withdrew during the investigation and refused to co-operate further with the commission. I believe that to be clear evidence that the South African Government were directly involved in the killing of President Machel.

In addition to assassination attempts on key political figures in the front-line states, the South African Government have taken a number of other specific actions. One of the most outrageous aspects of their total disregard of international conventions and national sovereignty occurred in November, when President Botha and members of his Cabinet, concerned about the battering that their surrogate forces were encountering in Angola, decided to pay them a morale-boosting visit. It has since become known that that was not the first time that they had done so. What did the British Government do about that? Where was their condemnation of that blatant breach of international conventions? Were they silent because it involved black countries? Do they think that they are all the same and that it does not matter if a white dictator wants to stride across the borders, encouraging the maiming and murdering of black people? Perhaps the Government do not feel compelled to speak about freedom and democracy for those countries.

Where is the British Government's condemnation of the increasingly regular practice of kidnapping people in the front-line states who speak against the Botha regime? This Government's standards have slipped. Even the Tory Government of 1963 were prepared to exercise international pressure about such issues. When Dr. Kenneth Abrahams was kidnapped in Botswana, illegally transported to South Africa and put on trial, the then British Conservative Government put diplomatic pressure on the South African regime to such an extent that Dr. Abrahams was eventually released and returned to Botswana. That is not the case nowadays. Instead, this Conservative Government stay silent about kidnapping.

What have the Government said about the kidnapping of Abraham Ishmail by South African agents in Swaziland, which is a sovereign state, on 15 December 1986, and who is now being brought to trial in South Africa? What protests has the Under-Secretary made? In what way has he worked within the international community for Abraham Ishmail's release? If, as I suspect, the answer is nothing, will the Minister today undertake to make representations to Pretoria for his release? I want a specific reply to that question.

It is claimed that the Government have a policy to assist the front-line states with aid so that they can fight the war of economic aggression that has been launched by South Africa. The Government talk about aid to the front-line states and to the SADCC countries. The anti-apartheid movement has estimated that present aid to front-line states is only 57 per cent. of the value of the aid, at its 1979 value, when the Government took office. Therefore, there has been a reduction of about 43 per cent. in the actual aid given to those front-line states since 1979. A massive programme of aid is required. Those figures show the tremendous burden that is placed on the front-line states and on other countries by South African aggression. The Government must change their policy and give more. They must stop giving such mean-minded and miserable amounts of aid to those countries and ensure that a proper amount of finance is given to them in the form of aid.

Sanctions are a major issue. I believe, as do the Labour party, black people in Britain, black people throughout the world and leaders of all black countries, that sanctions are the only way forward. The Eminent Persons Group—eminent people drawn from all over the world—made a report to the Bahamas conference of Commonweath Heads of Government. That report was accepted by those Commonwealth Heads of Government. On behalf of the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister signed a joint declaration at the end of the conference to support sanctions. However, she has since refused to implement those sanctions, and that remains her position today.

In fact, despite all the evidence showing that the imposition of sanctions is beginning to hurt South Africa, the Government have made a total about-face and do not now support sanctions. Indeed, during the past few months the South African business economy has gone on the offensive towards Britain. We have seen, for instance, the opening of an office in London by the South African coal industry to ensure that propaganda is pumped into the British economy so that more British business people will invest in South African coal and other industries.

Sanctions are the only way forward and must be applied for several reasons. One is the internal situation in South Africa. Huge numbers of black people have been massacred in towns all over South Africa by the South African police and defence forces. We have seen the brutalisation of black people by the vigilante squads and the so-called "Kitzconstabels". They are often criminals who, after only four or five weeks training, can enter the townships to harass and brutalise black people. After only four weeks training, those people have the same status as police officers in that country. Practically anyone in a uniform can seize and detain a person for 30 days. There have been examples of the railway police and the army arresting people and detaining them for 30 days.

Although there have been gross violations of democracy in South Africa, and South Africa has illegally occupied Namibia, where at least 100,000 South African troops are stationed so that there can be cross-border raids into Angola, the British Government have vetoed action to implement United Nations resolution 435, which condemns South Africa's illegal occupation of Namibia and tries to force that country out.

Therefore, there are several reasons why sanctions are the only way forward, not least because the black people of South Africa have stated that they are prepared to accept that further sacrifice to ensure their freedom. In the face of all those facts, and the attitude of the international community, I ask the Government to denounce the Botha regime, that fascist and racist regime in South Africa, and to denounce the cross-border raids into Angola, Mozambique, Botswana, Lesotho, Zimbabwe arid other countries. I ask the Government to demand that the racist regime in Pretoria unconditionally releases the political prisoners who are held in its camps and that it removes the death penalty from those people, especially the "Sharpeville Six" who are currently awaiting the death sentence.

It is time that the Government got their act together. I pledge, as does the Labour party, to carry on the struggle uncompromisingly until we force the Government into the 1980s and force them to take action that is aimed at freeing black South Africans so that a Government will be elected in South Africa who will be non-racist, non-sexist and democratic.

10.45 am

One appreciates the reasons why the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) feels strongly about this subject. Indeed, many hon. Members feel the same and we had a debate on it only the other week.

I should like to comment on some of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. As his hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Mr. Caborn) knows, I was in Southern Africa only a few weeks ago. We should not over-emphasise the influence that we, outside, tend to think that sanctions will have on the South African Government and on white public opinion in South Africa, nor fool ourselves that it is necessarily a one-way trade. There was great internal pressure for the United States to apply sanctions and to disinvest. That was done. United States companies had about 400 subsidiaries in South Africa, but that figure is now less than 200. Those companies have now sold out their major holdings. Indeed, some British companies have also done so — Barclays bank is the outstanding example. However, the result is that the United States now has little influence in South Africa. South Africans do not need to worry any more about the United States. That country has fired its big gun, but South Africa has survived.

My view is that we shall see apartheid disappear in all its forms. However, it will take a lot longer and I anticipate a long struggle ahead. I considered that last year's idea that if the African National Congress put its Spear of the Nation fighters into South Africa, that tenet, combined with sanctions, would result in the immediate crumbling of the South African state, was a mirage, and so it has proved. The view of South Africa now is—

Will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House why, after 75 years of trying to fight for freedom in South Africa, the African National Congress turned to arms 25 years ago? He is not informing the House about any alternative. The United Nations, the EEC, the Commonwealth and all international organisations, except this Government, support mandatory economic sanctions, or sanctions of some form. Will the hon. Gentleman briefly explain the alternatives to the House?

Order. I hope the House will bear in mind that hon. Members would like to hear the Minister before the debate reaches its conclusion at about 11 o'clock.

I should like to answer that point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There is a case for putting pressure through economic sanctions but it must be combined with other things and one must continue to talk to all the people involved. In the end there must be dialogue and people must talk to one another. If one pushes any one of the parties into a corner, be it Inkatha, led by Buthelezi, the ANC, which Inkatha regards as an Xhosa organisation, or the whites, especially the Afrikaaners, one will not reach a settlement, one will achieve only ongoing bloodshed. I shall conclude as I wanted to speak only briefly and wish to give my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State the chance to make the Government's point.

10.48 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Tim Eggar)

The hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) finished his speech by requesting that the Government should get their act together. I listened to the mixture of prejudice and waffle that he came out with, and feel that he should reflect on his priorities. It does the cause that he purports to further no good to come forward with such an extreme, badly researched set of arguments. It does the reputation of the House no good either.

It is a mistake to try to look at the problems of South Africa in isolation. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the problems of South Africa affect southern Africa as a whole. At the heart of the problems of southern Africa is the system of separate development known as apartheid. Despite what the hon. Gentleman said, the Government's policy towards apartheid is absolutely plain. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Vancouver, apartheid is a repulsive and detestable system. The Government wish to see it ended and wish to see it ended soon.

The hon. Gentleman is not alone in objecting to racial discrimination. I do not know whether, as he claimed in a recent debate, he is
"entitled to speak on behalf of black people in the United Kingdom and in the rest of the world".—[Official Report, 13 November 1987; Vol. 122, c. 739.]
I find that assertion rather extraordinary coming from the hon. Member who had the worst personal result and the greatest swing against him of any Labour candidate in the last general election. The Government speak for the people of this country when we call for justice for black and white in South Africa, and for a peaceful end to apartheid.

In his long speech, the hon. Gentleman raised a number of specific questions and I shall seek to answer them. He referred to 44 people awaiting execution in South Africa. It is entirely typical of his superficial approach that he has not done his homework here. In the case of the Sharpeville six, the German ambassador in Pretoria called on the South African Government's deputy foreign minister on 4 December and appealed on behalf of all the member states of the European Community for clemency for those people. The European Community is currently considering other cases.

Our policy is clear. We are prepared to join appeals on humanitarian grounds where the case is clearly political and there are extenuating circumstances or grounds to doubt the fairness of the legal process. Each case is considered carefully on its own merits and we use exactly the same grounds for our decisions making in respect of South Africa as we do in respect of other parts of the world.

The hon. Gentleman referred to our refusal to appeal for clemency in the case of Mr. Lapunta. That has been referred to by the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker), but we considered that case and concluded that it was a criminal case and not a political offence. On those grounds, applying the same criteria as we apply to other countries, we were not prepared to make representations.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the release of Mr. Mbeki. We have called many times for the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners and we welcomed wholeheartedly the release of Mr. Mbeki. In our view, it is entirely right that he should have been set free, but we regret the South African Government's decision to impose a restriction order on Mr. Mbeki.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of remarks about Chief Buthelezi. Many black leaders inside South Africa, including Chief Buthelezi, and the United Democratic Front, support the concept of peaceful change. In this regard, we very much regret the loss of life in the violence in Natal, as we regret the loss of life elsewhere in South Africa.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of accusations about the death of President Machel of Mozambique. The hon. Gentleman is rather ahead of the view taken by the Mozambique Government of that incident.

It is, of course, easy for the hon. Gentleman and others to call for justice to be done, but it is far less easy to achieve justice, especially in as complex a situation as exists in South Africa and between South Africa and its neighbouring states. It is easy to take refuge, as the hon. Gentleman did, in sloganising and unwarranted simplification, but no one should labour under the misapprehension that fundamental change in South Africa will come about easily or quickly. South Africa is not Rhodesia. It is not a "colonial" problem. Change has been a lamentably slow process. Indeed, it is unacceptably slow, but the pernicious and wicked doctrine of apartheid that grew up in South Africa is nevertheless being eroded. There are some changes for the better.

Nor is it enough to bewail the plight of black South Africans or rest content with describing the effects of South African Government policy on neighbouring states. The Government have always recognised that fine words are not enough. We need to persuade the South African Government that change cannot be avoided, that it is not in the long-term interest of white South Africans to avoid change and that it is in their interests to grasp the opportunity to make changes now.

To portray South Africa as a tragedy with an inevitable and unavoidable outcome is both easy and irresponsible. Peaceful change is still possible, but the warning lights are now well in sight. If fundamental changes are not made soon by the South African Government, they will in due course be forced upon them. The alternative to peaceful change is, eventually, violent change.

There are limits to what outsiders can do to help. Only those who, like the hon. Member for Tottenham, have not studied the situation closely could think otherwise. The reality of South African economic power must also be acknowledged. In economic terms alone, the problems of South Africa are the problems of southern Africa.

There is a more general and longer-term prudential limit to what we can do in South Africa. It would not be in the interests of those in South Africa who oppose apartheid and who look to a future in which it has been ended to inherit an economic wasteland. This is increasingly recognised by leading opponents of the South African Government. Additionally, it would not, in our view, be right or effective to bring short-term economic misery to black South Africans in the forlorn hope that such international pressures would force the South African Government to make fundamental changes.

This last point brings me to the contentious matter of sanctions. Many Labour Members believe that punitive sanctions against South Africa would force the South Africans to carry out those changes in which all of us in this House believe. We respect the view of those who hold to this view, but we do not agree with them. Indeed, we would hold that the implementation by some countries of punitive economic sanctions against South Africa has been ineffective. Some would say that it had been counterproductive.

There is a great deal of evidence that attitudes in South Africa towards genuine negotiations have not become more pliant since recent events. They have hardened. The result of the whites-only election in South Africa on 6 May produced a pronounced shift to the Right. This has done nothing to assist those in South Africa who want to see early, fundamental but peaceful change. The Government, however, believe that firm political signals as well as advocacy are required.

We have been scrupulous in implementing all the restrictive measures to which we have agreed, whether in the Commonwealth, the Twelve or the United Nations Security Council. Such signals are meant to alert the South Africans to the need for change. They are not meant to destroy the South African economy. Such a goal is no part of our policy.

The key to peaceful change in southern Africa lies with the countries of the region. For our part, we are dedicated to advancing the cause of change. We must all accept that peaceful change will not come easily. But a solution to the problems of South Africa will directly contribute to increased stability and prosperity in southern Africa as a whole. It is our firm intention to use every opportunity to facilitate and encourage change. Our policy is designed to cope with the long haul, and I assure the House that we have the commitment to carry it through.

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER interrupted proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 11 (Friday sittings).

Retail Prices Index (Error)

11 am

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Government's proposals to make extra payments to social security claimants following the recent discovery of the error in the retail prices index.

The House will know that the effect of the error has been to understate the annual inflation rate on average by about one tenth of 1 per cent. in most months since February 1986. As a result, the rates of retirement pension and other long-term benefits should, in general, have been 5p higher than they are this year and lop higher than the rates that will come into effect next April. Several benefits, including child benefit, are unaffected.

The House will know that we have already made it clear that the Exchequer will not benefit from the effects of the error on social security expenditure. In line with this principle, we intend to make special payments to the following social security recipients: retirement pensioners, supplementary pensioners, those receiving widows benefits, industrial injuries benefits, war pensions, invalid care allowance, invalidity benefit, mobility allowance, attendance allowance and severe disablement allowance. This will be followed by action to correct benefit rates for all recipients at the April 1989 uprating.

The payments will be at a flat rate of £8— slightly more than the standard £7·85 loss — to retirement pensioners, and, in line with their actual loss, £5 for mobility allowance recipients. We have arranged with the Post Office that payments will be made from the first week of February for those paid by order book. Action will be taken by the Department's local and central offices to ensure that those paid by other means — for example, through credit transfer—will also receive their money at that time.

There are a few severely disabled war and industrially injured pensioners who will lose significantly more than £8. Because this affects a comparatively small group it will be possible to make special arrangements to ensure that they are given extra compensation. Inevitably, this will take more time, but payments will be made as soon as is practicable. I also propose to pay an additional amount to those who retire or become widowed between the time the special payments are made and April 1989. These special payments will be made on an ex gratia basis, and parliamentary approval will be sought in a Supplementary Estimate. Pending that approval, urgent expenditure will be met by repayable advances from the Contingencies Fund.

Overall we estimate that, as a result of the error, £109 million will have been underspent. The arrangements that I have described will cost rather more than £100 million. To fulfil our commitment that there should be no gain to the Exchequer, the remainder will be allocated to suitable charities.

My hon. Friend the Paymaster General is making it known today by written answer that no extra statutory payments will be made to pensioners of public service occupational schemes administered by central Government. The savings to the Exchequer arising from this decision will be added to the sum available for disbursement to charities as a result of the underspend on social security benefits and will bring it to between £10 and £15 million. We shall ensure that charities and benevolent associations active in support of retired public servants will be among those with an opportunity to benefit from this arrangement.

The House will recognise that, with nearly a billion social security payments a year, it would be a disproportionately complex and time-consuming operation to seek to calculate and pay exactly what each individual has lost. I feel confident that the House would wish to see this mistake corrected in a way that combined as far as possible speed of payment and fairness. I believe that our plans provide a sensible and effective way of doing this.

As I have just purchased my first computer, may I begin by saying that I find it encouraging to learn that the Civil Service also makes errors with its programming.

Although the House may accept in a season of good will that such errors occur, it is extraordinary that it required a year and a half before such an error was uncovered, and remarkable that in such an important indicator as the RPI an error could remain unchecked and undetected for a year and a half, which included two uprating statements by the Department. I press the Minister for an assurance that there will be regular checks of the RPI in future, especially before uprating statements are made to the House on the basis of that indicator.

I turn to those who are being compensated as a result of the error and begin with the Minister's reference to public service pensioners. He said that the Government will compensate long-term claimants of benefit, but not short-term claimants. I presume that that is because long-term claimants are stable and can be identified and are the same people. By definition, public service pensioners are also long-term claimants of pensions and are the same people. There can be no justification for the distinction that the Minister has made between state pensioners and public service pensioners, other than the Government's distaste for civil servants.

Arrangements are being made for short-term benefit claimants. I remind the Minister that those claimants also have a benefit, which is also operated by reference to the RPI under statutory arrangements. Claimants of unemployment benefit face the same costs in purchasing bread and paying for heat as do claimants of state pensions. In October, 1·6 million unemployed claimants had been unemployed since last April. Were they to benefit from the same arrangement for compensation as pensioners, at least half that payment would go to people who have suffered because of the miscalculation, and at least half those receiving it would be people who had been unemployed for a year.

I press the Minister for a statement about the Government's future intentions. The statement tells us what the Minister intends to do to make good the past effect of the error. What does he intend to do to make good its future effect? I press the hon. Gentleman in particular for an assurance that next year's uprating statement will be calculated as though the correct level of benefit had been paid on the basis of the correct level of the RPI. I put it to him that any other assumption that uprates the current level of benefit that has been reduced by the error will leave the Treasury permanently better off and the claimants permanently worse off.

I turn to those claimants who are not covered by the statutory undertaking to increase their benefit by reference to the RPI, especially the 4·9 million claimants of supplementary benefit who are not pensioners. I remind the Minister that this group contains many who are long-term claimants, including single parents and carers for the disabled, who will have been in receipt of benefit throughout the period affected by the error. Their benefit is uprated by reference to the Rossi index, under informal arrangements. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the effect of the error in the computer programme has an even greater impact on the Rossi index than on the RPI index, and that these are the people who are frequently taken through the courts and prosecuted on any occasion on which they themselves succeed in obtaining £8 extra in payment by error? A Government who are as punctilious as this Government in reclawing the benefit that people have been overpaid, owe it to those claimants to be just as punctilious in compensating them when they have been underpaid.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment made a statement which clearly set out the background to how the error occurred. He gave an undertaking that the retail prices index computer programme was being reviewed by the head of the Government's statistical service to ensure that the error could not happen in the future.

As I said in my statement, my hon. Friend the Paymaster General is making known in a written answer this morning the position of public service pensioners, pointing out in particular:
"The rates of pension received by retired public servants vary very widely according to their length of service and final salary when in employment. Flat rate compensation for the index error would be inappropriate. Precise compensation would have administrative costs out of proportion to the sums concerned."
I believe that that is right. I want to reflect that point in what I shall say about the number of detailed points put to me by the hon. Gentleman.

The Government have no legal obligation to come to the House today to announce our intention to make these payments. I believe, however, that we have a moral obligation in this matter. That is why we are announcing that £109 million will be available. If we were to compensate every individual who has lost any amount, however trivial, as a result of this error, the administrative costs would be out of all proportion to the benefit gained.

The Rossi index will be affected in the same way as the RPI. It will be corrected in April 1989. Of course, from April 1989 the uprating will be made on precisely the basis that the hon. Gentleman suggested.

Order. The House knows that this is a private Member's day and I hope that, in the next 20 minutes, I shall be able to call those hon. Members who have been rising in their places. I propose to give precedence to those who did not catch my eye last Monday.

May I say to my hon. Friend that I believe that in all parts of the House the speed and candour with which he has dealt with this embarrassing problem will be very well appreciated? May I also say that I believe that the settlement that he has made is the best that he can do in the circumstances and will be appreciated by the recipients? On public sector pensions, may I also remind my hon. Friend that, in 1974, I made the point that we were creating a privileged elite of public sector pensioners in giving them full uprating with the cost of living? Under 5 per cent. of private sector occupational schemes are able to do the same.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening remarks. I believe that it was right to deal with this matter quickly, clearly and as fairly as we could, consistent with the speed of the operation. The House will have noted my hon. Friend's second point.

Will the Minister accept that the only warm reception that will be forthcoming for the statement is bound to be from the charities for the needy and aged, which will welcome £10 million to £15 million unexpectedly coming their way because of the Minister's argument about the administrative cost of paying out money to public service pensioners? Will he be frank with the House and tell us what has been the cost to public expenditure of rectifying this error? What steps have been taken in the Department to ensure that it does not recur? Does he accept that many of us continue to believe that the RPI is not the right yardstick by which to judge payments to pensioners, bearing in mind their cost of living requirements?

That is a more general point. The Government are pledged to protect pensioners from inflation, and the RPI seems to be an entirely appropriate index to use in those circumstances. The administrative cost of making these payments will be somewhat in excess of £5 million. That is what even this broad brush approach will cost. The more precisely we target repayments to actual loss, the greater are the administrative costs. I hope that charities will not be alone in benefiting from the social security money and the money for public service pensioners. I hope that those who receive payments will benefit. The Government have no legal obligation, but I accept that they have a moral obligation.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend on the speed of the operation. Many pensioners have been to see me to tell me that they remember not getting the Christmas bonus from the Labour party when it was in government. Will bereaved pensioners be able to claim what would have been due to their deceased spouses? Could such payments be arranged?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I suppose that I was naive enough, bearing in mind my Christian name and the time of year, to think, on my way here, that the House would welcome the fact that the Government had come forward with these proposals. If Opposition Members want to get into an argument on party political matters and how they treated retirement pensioners and others, I must ask them to cast their minds back to 1976, when they took £1 billion out of pensions by changing the basis for forecasting. As we have come to the House with these proposals as quickly as possible, there are some details that must be incorporated, and I shall bear my hon. Friend's question in mind.

I declare an interest as the son of a war widow and as a war pensioner myself, although I am not one of the severely wounded people to whom the Minister referred. What are the special arrangements that the Minister has in mind for them? Most of that group are likely to be very old, so how will they be informed of what the Minister has in mind?

Records are kept in the Department or in local offices, so it will be possible to analyse each case individually, as they are a comparatively small group. It is inevitable that that will take longer, but they will be entitled to a payment of £8 in any case. We shall try to establish their losses by the summer and send out individual Giro payments to those concerned.

Is my hon. Friend aware that, although the error was regrettable, the fact that it has been detected and rectified in this manner will do much to restore the confidence in the system, which was lost during the incumbency of the previous Administration? In a year when we have experienced so many disasters, such as King's Cross and Zeebrugge, does my hon. Friend agree that the lump sum is an ideal opportunity to set up a national disaster fund?

That raises wider questions. My judgment is that, as the benefit that would otherwise flow to the Exchequer arises from the underpayment of social security benefits or public service pensions, it would be more appropriate to see, as far as possible, that the charities that benefit from the money serve the needs of those groups.

As my hon. Friend's Department spends approximately £47 billion, it is quite remarkable, and to the great credit of civil servants, that they discovered their error at all. I welcome my hon. Friend's statement. It is sensitive and welcome. Does he agree that what the leader of the Liberal party said was quite remarkable? If he successfully proposed a pensioners' index, pensioners would lose.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I hope that hon. Members will play a part in alerting beneficiaries to the payments. We shall publicise the payments by advertising them in the press and publicity material in local offices and elsewhere, but we should all play our part.

I thank the Minister for his statement. How many claimants will not get the increase although they suffer the same increase in prices as other claimants? I am sure that the House would be happy to have the figures to the nearest million. As the unemployed do not gain from the statement, would it be right for them to conclude that the payment of their benefit is not safe in the Government's hands?

I do not think that that is a fair point. I admit that this is a broad brush attempt to ensure that money that has fallen to the Government is redistributed quickly to those who have suffered. Trying to identify unemployment beneficiaries, many of whom go on and off benefit, and many of whom will have lost quite trivial amounts, would incur a disproportionate administrative cost. If the hon. Gentleman wants more detailed statistical information after the recess, I shall do my best to answer a question that he tables.

I am grateful to the Minister for making his statement. He referred to payments being made at a flat rate. May we assume that people who have multiple benefits, such as mobility, attendance and invalid care allowances, will get a payment for each, not just one payment? In those circumstances, the sums are not trivial. What the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) said is pertinent. If a husband or wife has died, the loss could be significant.

Anybody who is entitled to a payment in the first week in February will receive this flat rate sum. Payment will be paid in respect of any deceased spouse if there is entitlement for that week. If beneficiaries have a number of books of entitlement, they will be entitled to a flat rate payment for each book.

My hon. Friend and his Department deserve every congratulation on making this statement on the last day before the Christmas recess. Does not the fact that the Government, without any legal duty, but with a moral duty, have made the statement vindicate the point that we have made time and again—that we shall honour our pledge to keep the old-age pension in line with inflation?

That is exactly right. We are honouring what is a clear moral obligation in a way that combines speed with fairness. I hope that the whole House will recognise that.

Given that the error caused unnecessary hardship and will cost an additional £5 million in administrative costs which would otherwise be available to alleviate poverty, will the Minister tell the House whether the error was made by a civil servant, a private consultant or a private contractor, and what disciplinary or other action will be taken as a result?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the detailed statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, who explained the background to this. The administrative costs will be taken from the contingency reserve.

Can the Minister explain to the House how the money will be allocated through charities? We already have the haemophiliacs and the EEC surplus working. Will Mrs. Thatcher—

Will the Prime Minister dress up as Mother Christmas? How will the Government decide which charities will receive how much?

As I said in reply to an earlier question, I hope that it will be possible to develop a scheme to ensure that charities will help to direct this money to meet the needs of those who have either social security or public service pension connections. We are taking advice from the Charities Aid Foundation, which has considerable expertise about appropriate charities. Again, it may be possible when the House returns to answer a more detailed question on that point.

The trust that pensioners and others have in the state and its agencies will have been somewhat shaken by the news of this error. If the sums to be paid are so small, why must it take so long to make the payments? Of the £100 million, what proportion will go to citizens so deprived in Scotland?

The money will be distributed in exactly the same way to those receiving retirement pensions and the other benefits to which I referred. Individuals will be treated on a flat rate, and pensioners will be compensated for rather more than the actual loss that they have suffered. That will be broadly true of other beneficiaries, too. We shall tackle the smaller group in particular. Whereas I can well understand a certain shaking of confidence as a result of the original error being discovered, I hope that the steps announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment to ensure that this cannot happen again will have done something to restore confidence. Above all, I hope that what I have said today and the way in which we have come to the House and announced the arrangements will restore confidence completely.

It is just not true to say that the other day a statement was made covering the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis) about the circumstances in which the error was found. Nowhere in the statement of last Monday is that explanation to be found, and I have the statement in my hand. Will the Minister tell us on what day the error was found, in what circumstances, and by whom?

The error was made within the Civil Service. If the House would appreciate some background, I shall provide it as briefly as I can. In 1983 it was decided to computerise the Department's compilation of the RPI to avoid a great deal of manual and clerical effort and to improve and make the process more accurate. In June 1985 it was decided to modify part of the software system to speed up the process. It was undertaken in-house, and the new procedures began to be used in February 1986. In writing the modified programme a mistake was made. Insufficient computer space was made available for calculating the price changes for certain items. As a result, the price changes were recorded as whole numbers only and the decimal places were not carried forward. Without going into inordinate length—

If the hon. Gentleman will be patient for a moment, I can tell him. It will be easy for the House to understand how the cumulative effect of that built up until we reached the annual inflation rate for this year, which continued to be underestimated by 0·1 per cent. I understand that the error was discovered and reported to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, who is responsible for this matter, late in the week prior to his coming to the House to make his statement.

How many unemployed people are being denied what would have been theirs by right had there not been a computer error? Will this be a convention for the future should there be further errors in the Ministry's computer? In handing out other people's money to charities, are the Government not salving their conscience for short-changing teachers, hospital workers and other public servants? Outside the House, would that not be described as crooked?

I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman's lack of generosity of spirit. I have sought to explain clearly and, I hope, patiently, why the administrative costs of seeking to reimburse everybody for any sum that they had lost, however trivial, would have led to wholly disproportionate administrative expenditure. We have come forward to make quick, generous, flat-rate payments to long-term beneficiaries, to make other arrangements for those who suffered disproportionately large losses and to ensure that no benefit flows to the Exchequer as a result of this mistake, by making money available to charities to meet the needs of those involved.

I should like to congratulate the Minister on discovering this error, but I cannot do so because I have pointed this out to Ministers in correspondence on behalf of some of my constituents since I have been elected. I understand that even before that, mistakes in the RPI were being pointed out by civil servant pensioners and that no notice was taken. Is the Minister saying that those who have campaigned for many months, and perhaps years, will receive nothing? Is this not ideally a matter that should be subject to an investigation by the PAC?

Mr. Scott: That is certainly not a question for me to decide. There are two points here. The first is whether the RPI is being calculated accurately. An error has been discovered and, as my right hon. Friend said, the head of the Government's statistical service will review this to seek to ensure that it cannot happen again. I understand that some people complain about the basis of calculating the RPI. That is a second and entirely separate matter from whether the RPI has been calculated accurately at a particular time.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government do not take into account the costs of administration and of the detailed work necessary for prosecutions against people who make false claims for supplementary benefits? Will he confirm that this is the last possible day on which he could make this statement, so the Government have left it to the last possible moment? Will he confirm also that this matter has been outstanding for 21 months, yet the Government have failed to make remedial payments in time for Christmas? Many people on low incomes will face a miserable Christmas because of the Scrooge-like attitude of the Government. Instead of handing the money over to Lady Bountiful charities, why did the Minister not think of using the extra £9 million to extend television concessionary licences to more pensioners, many of whom will not be able to watch television this Christmas because they cannot afford the licence fee?

I was surprised at the attitude of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing), but I am not in the slightest surprised at the hon. Gentleman's attitude to the timing of the statement, and I suggest that he consults his side of the usual channels.

As the matter of the technical base of the mistake has arisen, will the Minister confirm that the affect of the error would have been precisely balanced out if the programme had been arranged to round up the first decimal point, rather than round it down? Might that not be a lesson for the Government in future, so that the advantage might be given to the claimant instead of being claimed by the Treasury?

It was not a rounding error. It was a mistake in the original programming. My hon. Friend will have heard the hon. Gentleman's point.

Britoil

11.30 am

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. At various times during the last few days, hon. Members have asked for a statement on the position of Britoil and the Government's golden share. The Government have replied that no full takeover bid has been made for Britoil. Since the announcement of a full takeover bid by BP, will the Government make a statement on that issue. The Chancellor gave a commitment—

Order. The hon. Gentleman has asked for a statement. I am sure that his request will have been heard. This is private Members' time. I cannot answer the question he has asked the Government, so it is not a matter of order.

No. I have had no request for a statement. The hon. Gentleman has made his point and I am sure that it will have been heard.

No. It is not a point of order. The hon. Gentleman is seeking to elucidate information from the Government. That is not a question of order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will the Leader of the House briefly respond to the request for a statement?

I have heard the point of order. I know nothing of the details, but I shall certainly pursue the matter. Perhaps it can be best dealt with through the usual channels

No. The hon. Gentleman has heard the answer. The best course would be for him to have a discussion wih the Leader of the House.

Order. This is unfair on a private Members' day. The hon. Gentleman would be equally aggrieved if that happened to him. I ask him to see the Leader of the House.

We now return to the Adjournment debates. Will the hon. Members concerned divide the time between them until 12.30 pm? They will each have slightly less than half an hour.

Vietnamese Refugees

Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

11.32 am

The Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong have been described as the forgotten people. They have not been on our television screen since the original news film about the boat people, but they are not forgotten by the House. It is right that we should be debating their plight in the Christmas Adjournment debate today. Hon. Members who have visited Hong Kong have seen the appalling conditions in which the refugees are living, and I shall not dwell on those today. Suffice it to say that living in confinement, in cramped conditions, with no privacy is not, and no one would represent it as being, a long-term solution to the unhappy situation of the refugees.

The British Government's efforts to alleviate the problem have been strenuous, but we must sustain and redouble our efforts. We have accepted nearly 20,000 Indo-Chinese refugees since 1975, and about 13,000 refugees from Hong Kong. That is the third highest number of refugees from Hong Kong in any country. This year, the Government have decided to accept for settlement 468 further named individuals, who are close relatives of those already here, and they will be resettled at the rate of about 20 a month over two years.

In addition, we are continuing to try to persuade other countries to follow suit. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will be able to tell the House something about our success in doing so. I know that talks have been held with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and that talks have been held in Vietnam about the settlement there of those who wish to return. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to tell the House something about their progress.

The serious refugee position in Hong Kong has recently become worse. There are now 9,331 refugees in Hong Kong awaiting resettlement and 3,119 refugees have arrived this year. This represents a 54 per cent. increase over the same period last year. By contrast, a total of 2,105 refugees have been resettled this year, which represents a 44 per cent. decrease in resettlement compared with the same period last year. The refugee population in Hong Kong has gone up from just over 8,000 at the beginning of the year to 9,387 now.

Since the introduction of the Hong Kong closed centre policy, 47 boats have opted to continue their journey from Hong Kong after arrival, with provisions of rations and other essential items—three of them this year. About 11,000 of the 13,000 refugees reaching Hong Kong since the closed camps were introduced have elected to stay, preferring them to the alternatives of going on to Taiwan, the Philippines, or perhaps to a totally unknown destination.

Although, on the scale of human suffering, the Vietnamese refugee problem in Hong Kong is not of the same horrific size as the tragedy of the millions of Afghan refugees, which the House debated last week, it is a serious and intractable problem for the Government and the people of Hong Kong and, needless to say, it is a matter of life and death to the Vietnamese people involved. The arrival of the refugees has compounded the difficulties posed by illegal immigration from China into Hong Kong. There have been about 630,000 legal and illegal immigrants from China in the past 10 years. That is a 12 per cent. addition to the local population. In addition since 1975, there has been a constant flow of refugees from Vietnam at a completely unpredictable rate. In the first seven months of 1979 no fewer than 66,000 arrived. Since then there have been varying numbers every year. There have been more than 3,000 already this year, an increase of more than a half over the same period last year.

The rate of resettlement has been falling. There has been a 44 per cent. drop this year. Last year a special offer was made by the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries, but they now feel that Thailand and Malaysia, which have more Vietnamese refugees than Hong Kong, should take priority in their resettlement policies. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the Hong Kong Government to predict the rate of resettlement. There are only five ongoing resettlement programmes—the United States of America, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and Britain—all with stricter criteria in force than previously. The Australians, the Canadians and the Americans have made plain their view that the international responsibility is now primarily British. There are other programmes, but they are limited to accepting refugees for family reunion, and for families rescued by ships at sea flying the flags of, or owned by, traditional maritime countries. The problem is getting worse.

Hong Kong, which has a land area of only 1,000 sq km, three quarters of it barren hillside, has a population of at least 5·5 million, with a density of more than 5,000 per sq km compared with about 230 people per sq km here, and 22 in the United States of America.

The record of Hong Kong, faced with this serious problem and threat to the stability of its already crowded population, has been quite remarkable. All arrivals by boat from Vietnam have been given asylum, although some ships have been given help to continue their journey if they have opted to do so.

The House is aware that in 1982, the Hong Kong Government adopted the closed centre policy, which it has described as a humane deterrent. Refugees are housed in closed centres awaiting resettlement, and are given basic facilities and necessities, but conditions are grossly overcrowded. People are told about the policy when they arrive, and given assistance to move on to other destinations if they so wish. Hong Kong has also provided a place of new settlement as well as temporary asylum, and has accepted the permanent resettlement of about 14,500 Indo-Chinese refugees since 1975.

Following the British Government's decision in 1985, the Hong Kong Government have accepted more refugees. The criteria which the Hong Kong Government apply are that refugees should be long-stayers in Hong Kong, that is to say that they have been in Hong Kong since before July 1982; secondly, that they should be ethnic Chinese; thirdly, that they should be financially independent; and fourthly, that they should not meet the resettlement criteria of other resettlement countries. Those are strict criteria, and perhaps a relaxation of the first and last of them might be an acceptable way of allowing more resettlement cases at a rate that the Hong Kong Government feel could be accommodated by the colony.

The people and authorities of Hong Kong have given temporary asylum to over 110,000 Vietnamese since 1975. Throughout that period, the voluntary agencies have been doing the most essential and distinguished work. I know that the House will wish to pay tribute to the dedicated individuals who carry out that work.

The efforts have been remarkable. Not one refugee has been turned away. Hong Kong is the only place in south-east Asia to introduce a policy of local resettlement, an extremely courageous thing to do, given the difficulties of illegal immigrants from China, with which it already has to cope. It is the only place of first asylum in the region to contribute financially towards the cost of its refugees. Since 1979, the cost to the Hong Kong Government of looking after the Vietnamese refugees has been over US ․86 million. The voluntary agencies in Hong Kong have spent about US$10 million, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to whom this country is a substantial contributor, has spent about US$40 million. The current cost of caring for refugees is over US$20 million a year, of which the Hong Kong Government is contributing three quarters, the UNHCR about US$4·5 million and the voluntary agencies about US$1 million. By contrast, in the other countries of first asylum in the region, the Governments insist that the UNHCR meets the full cost.

The problem is part of the wider difficulty posed by the many millions of people fleeing from cruel and repressive Communist regimes in several parts of the world. We in this country have accepted a large number of refugees for resettlement. I think that the whole House will accept that, because of our constitutional relationship with Hong Kong, we have the unique duty to take the lead in accepting refugees for resettlement here as part of the overall programme. I believe that an important gesture would be for Her Majesty's Government to accept some long-stay refugees with no family links here, and who do not therefore fall within the family reunion principles. I hope that that will be emulated by other countries.

Integral to the solution is persuading other countries, as well as Australia, Canada and the United States, to share in the solution to the problem. Many people, of whom I am one, believe that Hong Kong has never had a fair share of the resettlement places on offer. I know that the UNHCR gives priority to the resettlement of refugees from Hong Kong and has asked many Governments to help. First and foremost must be those in the region—Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and perhaps Japan. They have accepted for temporary asylum some 35,000 boat refugees from Vietnam at the moment, which is up by over 1,000 this year, but given the substantial land areas, particularly in the Malaysian, Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos, there must be a case for their accepting refugees for permanent resettlement. Of course, there are difficulties—delicate ethnic balances, precedence for other refugee groups, and so on — but those countries must contribute to the solution. They will have to do so eventually, and they should do so now.

The Hong Kong Government's decision to introduce the closed centre policy probably had the effect of reducing the number of refugees leaving Vietnam for Hong Kong, although the numbers were already declining. The decision highlights a dilemma. If a country has a Government who are oppressive and cruel, as in Vietnam and, of course, in Afghanistan at the moment, where over half the population are refugees, can the international community assimilate everybody who wishes to move across international frontiers for a better life? The answer to that question is no.

On the other hand, there are people who clearly fulfil specific refugee criteria, and for whom it is our duty to find places of permanent resettlement. That problem, which is facing the Hong Kong Government in an acute form, is one that we in this country share with them.

The causes of the problem lie in Vietnam and are beyond our control — they are religious harassment, compulsory military service, political education camps, in which people sometimes spend many years, shortage of food and consequent malnutrition. People who manage to escape from the country and risk their lives and those of their families in open boats deserve every sympathy. The early refugees were all genuine — people in danger of their lives or their liberty because of their religion, political beliefs or race. Subsequently, emigration was no doubt stimulated by accounts of better conditions. It is not helpful to anybody to suggest to the millions of people living in Vietnam that all they have to do is to go somewhere else for a better life. It is not a practical proposition. The only possible course is a steady policy of erosion of the number of genuine refugees awaiting resettlement. At the moment, sadly, we are going backwards rather than forwards.

The British Government have said that this country's willingness to take further refugees from Hong Kong will be decided in the light of the willingness of other resettlement countries to respond to Hong Kong's need, and in the light of all the other circumstances at the time. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to tell us what has been the outcome of the Government's pressure on other countries to take more refugees from Hong Kong and of the conversations with Vietnam.

I hope that my hon. Friend will spell out to the House how our own willingness to accept refugees for settlement is evolving. One of the constraints is the capacity of the voluntary agencies, primarily the Ockenden Venture and Refugee Action, in accommodating refugees. They do a distinguished job, and I hope that my hon. Friend will reassure the House that they will continue to enjoy the necessary financial support from the Government for doing so.

The Government have said that the principal determinant for the rate of resettlement in the United Kingdom is the availability of accommodation for refugees. I need hardly remind my hon. Friend and the House of the number of empty houses, particularly outside the south-east. I hope that my hon. Friend will elaborate on the current availability of suitable accommodation.

The need to alleviate the plight of the Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong is compelling and urgent. The means are available and I hope that my hon. Friend can tell us that the will is undiminished.

11.45

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad) for the humane way in which he has introduced this subject. I am sure that we all echo the tribute that he has paid to the Hong Kong Government for the way in which they have tackled the problem and to the charities that have done so much to alleviate suffering.

A few weeks ago I had an opportunity to visit again a closed centre in Hong Kong where some 1,676 people were detained in an area about the size of the Holland Park comprehensive school. The staff who looked after them were clearly humane, and relations between the staff and the inmates were remarkably good. The inmates' health was good and there seemed to be less crime than one might expect to find in an English village of comparable size. On the other hand, the overcrowding is becoming much worse. When I was there 12 months before, there were double bunks, and this year triple bunks were being introduced. The average length of stay in the camps is now three and a half years and some of the children approaching school age have never set foot outside the camps. That cannot be right.

Like my hon. Friend, I recognise that we are in a cleft stick. If we open the camps in Hong Kong, and if the West accepts many more Vietnamese boat people for resettlement, the number of people setting out from Vietnam will almost certainly increase. In the summer we saw a major increase in the number of refugees trying to come to Hong Kong because of the mistaken belief that in Washington the Secretary of State had announced a relaxation of American policy, allowing in more immigrants.

What can we do? I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury. We must try to persuade other countries in south-east Asia, and in the Philippines, in particular, to accept some of the refugees from overcrowded Hong Kong until such time as the harsh regime in Vietnam softens its stance sufficiently to allow those people living in the camps to return.

11.48 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Tim Eggar)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. Goodlad) for giving the House an opportunity to consider this very important issue. I welcome the opportunity to put the Government's view on record and to explain what we are doing to resolve this tragic problem. I shall do my best in the limited time available to answer some of the points that have been raised. If there are any outstanding matters that I cannot cover, I will write to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury and to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Gooodhart).

Since 1975 a vast number of people have left Indo-China. The reason is very simple. They have fled the Communist oppression. More than 1·5 million people have left their homes to seek sanctuary overseas and more than 1 million of them are Vietnamese. More than 35,000 Vietnamese await resettlement in refugee camps in the region and some 9,400 are in Hong Kong. That is a human tragedy of appalling proportions and one which only international action can resolve. I should state that the only comparable refugee problem is that of the Afghan refugees trying to escape from Communist oppression.

In July 1979 it was a British initiative that led to a conference in Geneva designed to tackle the worsening crisis of the boat people. It was agreed that group refugee status would be conferred on those leaving Indo-China by boat. That was an important step forward. Asylum would be offered by those countries where boat people first arrived to allow time to arrange resettlement in third countries. For years that British-initiated system worked well, taking the south-east Asian region as a whole. The rate of resettlement declined after 1980, but until recently it had more than kept pace with the declining rate of arrivals. The change came this year.

While the pace of resettlement continued to decline, the rate of arrivals increased. Many are accepted as refugees in places of first asylum, but then not by other countries for resettlement. That is often because their motivation for leaving Vietnam is perceived—with some justification, I must say — to be economic rather than political. However, the implications of those people for the places of first asylum are obvious. The places of first asylum bear an increasingly heavy burden.

Hong Kong is only too aware of that. From 1979 until this year the number of Vietnamese refugees in camps in Hong Kong fell. However, the numbers are again on the increase. My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury quoted the figures, which tell their own story. That trend extends wider than Hong Kong. It is a regional problem that demands an international solution.

We hear much of the suffering caused by natural disasters. What is shocking about the refugee problem is that it is entirely man-made. It is important to make it absolutely clear—as both my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury and for Beckenham did—that the root cause of the refugee problem in Indo-China lies in Hanoi. It lies in the repressive policies of a Government who maintain the fourth largest army in the world while continuing to devote their scarce resources to the military occupation of Cambodia and yet lamentably fail to provide a decent life for their own people. That is a sad commentary on Communist priorities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury drew attention to the efforts of successive British Governments to resettle Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong. He referred to some of the figures, and I believe that they deserve to be repeated. Since 1975, we have accepted some 20,000 Indo-Chinese refugees, and nearly 13,000 of them were Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong. That is a substantial commitment which reflects our special responsibilities for the territory. It is an honourable record, especially when we take into account the pressures that we also face to settle immigrants from other parts of the world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury referred to the resettlement offer that we made in 1985. Further to that, in May this year, as he also noted, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced that we would accept a further 468 Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong with relatives in this country. So far this year, 150 refugees have been resettled under this programme. The pace at which it is being implemented will facilitate the reception of the refugees by the voluntary agencies and their absorption into the community. We are also making a financial commitment to the upkeep of the refugees in Hong Kong through contributions to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and to a voluntary agency working in the camps. I associate the Government with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury about the major role placed by voluntary agencies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury asked about the availability of suitable accommodation in this country. The resettlement of refugees in Britain is primarily a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but my understanding is that in one way or another the reception of refugees puts considerable demands on local resources. We judge that a gradual flow of around 20 people a month is to be most easily handled. The voluntary agencies here at home have an important role to play, and the Government ensure that they receive adequate financial support.

I should also pay tribute to the contribution of the Hong Kong Government. My hon. Friend has noted Hong Kong's particular generosity in offering local resettlement. I believe that that is a significant and praiseworthy contribution by a small and overcrowded territory. However, I note that my hon. Friend has suggested some relaxation of the criteria applied, and, of course, I shall draw that to the attention of the Hong Kong Government.

The contribution of Hong Kong does not end there. My hon. Friend has also noted the generous financial contribution made by the Hong Kong Government, and their readiness to accept every refugee who seeks help. That is a humanitarian record of which the Hong Kong Government can be justly proud.

I said that an international commitment was required. My hon. Friend asked about the progress that we have made in urging other Governments to accept refugees from Hong Kong. We keep in close touch with all the Governments who in the past have taken refugees from Hong Kong, and we are deeply grateful for the contribution that they have made. We are now urging them vigorously to follow our recent initiative, and agree to accept more refugees. We also work closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and my hon. Friend is quite right in saying that he gives priority to the resettlement of refugees from Hong Kong. He is in contact with many Governments who seek his advice w hen allocating their refugees resettlement quotas.

Our diplomatic campaign for further resettlement places for refugees from Hong Kong is a major priority for us, but let no one underestimate the difficulties. Some replies give us cause for encouragement: some additional places have been offered as a result of our representations. Often, however, the response is disappointing. I have already said that some resettlement countries now apply more restrictive criteria when considering Vietnamese for resettlement. Yet those refugees have all been accepted in good faith, and without distinction, by places of first asylum on the basis of the consensus reached at the 1979 Geneva conference.

We acknowledge with gratitude the contributions that the resettlement countries have already made, but I assure the House that we shall be redoubling our efforts to persuade them to show even greater generosity in the future. As I said earlier, we consider that our latest decision to accept a further 468 Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong with family ties here represents a significant continuing commitment to Hong Kong, given the immigration pressures that we face from elsewhere.

While I deeply sympathise with Hong Kong's problems, and with the plight of the refugees themselves, I have to say that at this stage our resettlement commitments have been extended as far as possible. I do not think that at present we can announce any further moves.

Both my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury and for Beckenham have referred to the possibility of permanent resettlement for Vietnamese refugees in the south-east Asia region. We have considered the idea carefully in the past, and have also taken informal soundings of the Governments who might be involved. I have to say that that has led us to conclude that no country in the region would be receptive to the idea of accommodating large numbers of refugees from Hong Kong.

When my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced a new intake of Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong, he made it clear that we do not consider resettlement alone to be the answer to the territory's refugee problems. As I said, the key lies with Vietnam. We shall keep up our support for the orderly departure programme, which offers one mechanism to reduce the pressure for illegal departures. We are pleased that that programme has started again to allow departures to Britain. So far this year, 162 Vietnamese have arrived in Britain under the programme.

My hon. Friend referred to those who wish to return to Vietnam with the consent of the authorities there. I understand that a handful of refugees in Hong Kong have elected to return to Vietnam, and have been accepted back by the authorities, but the number is very small.

There can be no doubt that the long-term solution to the problem is the creation of acceptable conditions for the return to Vietnam of those who have left for essentially economic reasons. Our view is increasingly shared by other Governments. We are in contact with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. We are in contact with the main resettlement countries. There is now active international discussion of the possibility of returning to Vietnam under suitable safeguards—I should stress that—those who do not meet the criteria of refugees. At the same time we have intensified our bilateral contacts with the Vietnamese authorities.

So far, those approaches have not borne fruit. I regret that we have found no new willingness on the part of the Vietnamese authorities to accept back those who have left, other than on a very limited case-by-case basis. It will be difficult to reach acceptable and agreed arrangements covering those who do not meet the criteria of refugees. I can assure the House that there can be no question of returning them to a punitive reception in Vietnam. We cannot expect quick results, but I believe that international perceptions are changing in a way which will over time facilitate that development. We shall continue to play an active part, in full recognition of our special responsibility for Hong Kong.

I hope that this debate has enabled the House to understand in rather greater detail the problem of Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong and the efforts that we are making to resolve it. I have explained the main aspects of our policy but the most important thing is that over the longer term we must seek a lasting international solution to the Indo-Chinese refugee problem as a whole. We are under no illusion that progress here will be quick or easy. It is linked to the pace of international discussions, and it needs a change of heart in Hanoi itself, but we must all recognise the need for a durable solution to a continuing human tragedy. It is an objective that we shall continue to pursue with determination.

National Health Service (London)

12.1 pm

This debate on the crisis in London's Health Service comes at an important time. For understandable reasons the debate is shorter than it might have been, and that is regrettable.

Earlier this week we had a statement from the Government on health spending in Britain and how they are planning to increase it to cope with the present crisis. Many of us were sceptical when the statement was made and, having had a couple of days to look at the details and the figures and do calculations for our own areas, I can reveal that the amount allocated for the four Thames regions—if all the money was spent in London alone—would meet only half the needs of the crisis. In fact, the four Thames regions cover far more than Greater London.

Because of the background to the debate, it is worth putting on record the fact that the levels of health spending in this country, despite all the best efforts of the Government in their huge propaganda machine, are woefully inadequate when compared to any other industrial country that is seeking to run a proper Health Service. The figure for this country of total health spending per capita is $161, compared to $232 in Australia, $220 in West Germany and $141 in Japan. Therefore, only Japan comes lower than the level in this country. One can make many more comparisons which will always show that health spending in Britain is significantly lower than in any other comparable country.

There are three early-day motions on the Order Paper today concerning London's health emergency. All three are in the names of the London group of Labour Members, all of whom have signed them. The first
"deplores the closure of 590 acute beds in inner London and a total of 1,000 hospital acute beds across London since May 1987, and the crisis of funding imposed by cash limits on London's health service which will result in increased suffering and hardship for Londoner".
It calls for more money for London. However, that money has not been forthcoming.

The second motion, which is in many ways just as important, deals with the loss of rate support grant to London local authorities, which has undermined the quality and level of service of community care and social services that local authorities provide. The motion reflects the real nature of the Government's policies for London. It calls on Her Majesty's Government to restore the loss of £4·4 billion in rate support grant and to make a further £35 million available to allow district health authorities to avoid further cuts in health facilities. There is a close correlation between the two.

The third of our emergency motions deals with staffing in London. There is a crisis in Health Service staffing in London because of low pay, privatisation and a loss of morale. That is a measure of the low regard that the Government have for Health Service staff in London. We are calling on the Government to make substantial improvements in the 5·5 per cent. offer for London weighting and to fund the Thames region sufficiently to enable it to pay any new offer to health authority staff.

Those of us who have been involved with the Health Service for a long time—for many years I was a full-time official of the National Union of Public Employees, and I am sponsored by it in the House—know full well that the consequence of the Government's not funding health authority pay awards is that it creates a false division between Health Service staff and the needs of patients, when in reality they are very much the same. We resent the way in which these divisions have been brought about.

The crisis that we face is that, despite the money that the Government announced this week, which is inadequate, we are facing an immediate series of cuts in London over the Christmas period. Camberwell health authority is closing 110 beds at King's College hospital for two weeks; Wandsworth health authority is closing nine wards for two weeks—the number of beds in each ward varies; Islington health authority is closing the Royal Northern hospital, which is located in my constituency, and moving patients to the Whittington hospital from 18 December until 4 January. Additionally, there is an attempt to close the hospital altogether.

Merton and Sutton health authority is closing eight wards for two weeks, one of which will be permanently closed thereafter; Brent health authority is closing six wards for an unspecified period. Again, there is concern that those wards will not reopen. Barnet health authority, in which the Prime Minister's constituency lies, is closing Victoria maternity hospital because of nurse shortages. It is £1 million overspent and the Victoria maternity hospital will be closed indefinitely pending consultation on its permanent closure. That is an activity that we have seen increasingly within the Health Service.

Since the beginning of this year the number of beds lost in London health authorities is staggering. I shall not quote every example, but Brent health authority has lost 50 beds, Harrow 32, Hillingdon 75, Paddington 92, Bromley 58, West Lambeth 137, Hampstead 112, and Haringey 127. Haringey health authority no longer has any acute services within the borough. There has been a process of cut and closure in every hospital in the borough of Haringey. The nearest emergency services are at the North Middlesex hospital, which lies just inside the borough of Enfield.

On 26 November, the day that the House was last debating the crisis in the Health Service, the London Evening Standard reproduced an excellent report from London Health Emergency. It outlined a few of the problems. Bloomsbury health authority has a budget of £137 million and has not overspent. That has been achieved by the authority saving £1·3 million by freezing vacancies and other such matters. Hammersmith and Queen C'harlotte's, which has a budget of £46 million, is overspent by £700,000. The main cause of that is the underfunding of pay awards and the need to upgrade kitchens and dining rooms. Greenwich, which has a budget of £65 million, is overspent by £250,000, and even to achieve that figure it had to introduce savings of £750,000. In effect, the cut is £1 million on a budget of only £65 million. That is an enormous cut in one year.

In the current year we have lost almost 1,000 beds. That must be considered against the background of what has happened in the Health Service in London since 1979. The Minister is always keen to quote the state of the Health Service under the last Labour Government, but we must consider the success of the Conservative Government in providing for the health needs of the people of London. In 1979 there were 64,736 National Health Service beds in National Health Service hospitals in London. The great achievement of the Government has been to reduce that figure to 52,708.

If anyone were to consider the cuts that have taken place in the past eight years in particular health authorities he would be astounded. Let us take one or two at random. The City and Hackney district health authority had 1,990 beds; it now has 1,686. Waltham Forest district health authority had 3,311 beds, and that number has been reduced to 2,407. Barnet district health authority had 2,841 beds and that number has been reduced to 2,324. In my authority—the figures are available only from 1982 because of Health Service restructuring—the number of beds has gone down from 1,177 to 866. It is one of only three authorities in London which have fewer than 1,000 beds available for their populations. Those figures are a measure of the disaster that faces the Health Service in London.

The Minister has spoken of the problems of Health Service spending in London, but there are a number of confusing aspects. London is covered by the four Thames regions—there is no London health authority. I believe that it would be better if there were such an authority, because I am fed up with the idea of inner-London health spending always being compared with spending in outer-suburban areas. I have absolutely no wish to see the home counties suffering health cuts, but I believe that the way in which the RAWP formula has been operated by the Government has resulted in the biggest cuts taking place in some of the Thames regions.

In fact, the sub-regional RAWP movements have resulted in a permanent process of cuts, closure and decline in every inner-London health authority. Although we do not want cuts anywhere else, we ask the Government to recognise that there are enormous health needs within London. We are not indulging in special pleading for London at the expense of other parts of the country: we are seeking a cash increase that will help the people of London. It is important that that is on the record.

In the years between 1982–83 and 1985–86, the North East Thames health authority, which covers my constituency, has lost 0·9 per cent. in real terms in capital revenue allocations. It has also suffered as a result of the sub-regional RAWP figures.

It is also important to consider the regional var: ations in hospital costs for in-patients. The costs in London are considerably higher than those in any other part of the country. That is why London weighting is available for staff and why we ask the Government to take proper account of the increased costs in London. Building costs, land costs and transport costs are all higher in London. The efficiency of any service—the ambulance service, or anything else—is markedly less in London because of the continuous, inevitable congestion.

Let us consider the costs for hospitals with more than 300 beds. In the North West Thames regional health authority, the cost per patient per day is £108·97. The equivalent figure for the Oxford authority is £99·72, arid for the West Midlands, regional health authority it is £95·86. The average in England is £99·63. The costs for acute beds in those regions are as follows. The cost in the North West Thames health authority is £81·80. The cost in the west midlands is slightly higher than average and the average for the whole of England is £79·79. It is important that the Government should take account of those figures.

When the Minister made his statement this week, he said that, as a result of the total increased allocation for extra services in the Thames regions, the North West Thames health authority would receive £4·7 million, North East Thames health authority £6 million, South East Thames health authority £5·3 million and South West Thames health authority £4·3 million. We should compare those figures with the needs identified in our early-day motion, which require £38,257,000. That sum is needed to avoid the immediate acute crisis that faces the London Health Service. That is a measure of how far we have still to go, and of how little we have achieved so far.

There is a serious staff crisis in the London Health Service. There have been large numbers of job losses because of a process of privatisation and of deliberately keeping vacancies in the Health Service. Anyone who visits a London hospital from year to year can see how bad the situation is becoming. One sees the generally scruffy appearance of the entrance areas to so many hospitals. People have to wait a long time. One comes across cases of double bedding—or hot bedding, as it is called—whereby patients are shuffled from bed to bed at enormous speed. In some hospitals people are treated in the corridor.

A case was reported recently in a well written article by a constituent of mine in The Guardian. My constituent's son broke an arm. She would be the first to admit that she is a relatively comfortably off person, in that she has access to a car. When she took her son to the local Whittington hospital she found that he could not be admitted even though the X-rays were done there, so he had to be taken to the Edgware hospital, to which she was able to drive him, and after a four-hour wait he was admitted. Others, who are not so lucky, have to rely on ambulance services, which are so overstretched that they cannot meet these demands.

I wish to give some figures about the Paddington health authority — an inner-city authority. There has been a long-term plan of reduction of facilities at St. Mary's W2 hospital, which has now finally been closed. There have been reductions in service at St. Charles's hospital, and everything has been centralised in St. Mary's on the Praed street site. The effect of that is to make travelling more difficult for everyone and to create a large, impersonal hospital. The privatisation of the staff there has resulted, at St. Mary's in Praed street, in 60 catering jobs and 280 domestic jobs being lost, and the privatisation at St. Charles's hospital has resulted in the loss of 170 domestics. Bringing in the company Mediclean has resulted in a different atmosphere, which is hostile to the needs and aspirations of staff, and in considerable difficulties for union organisation and representations.

Before I allow the Minister time to reply, I want to draw his attention to one or two other matters. I shall deal first with the London ambulance service, which was the subject of a lengthy debate following the passage of the Consolidated Fund Bill, during which we were able to show that the service is finding it increasingly difficult to meet the needs of the people of London—especially for emergencies. On the night of the King's Cross fire, about 40 ambulances were unavailable for service. I would be the first to praise the heroism of the police, station, fire and ambulance staff, but it is not good enough to shed crocodile tears in the House about the needs of the London emergency ambulance service if, at the same time, funding is not provided so that the ambulances can do the job properly. Many people are fed up with Ministers going around hospitals after disasters like ghouls, when they are not prepared to pay the money that is needed to avoid such accidents in future.

The problems of the service are compounded by a general shortage of staff and controllers, which in turn leads to enormous stress among the staff. Ambulance staff are not particularly well paid. Anyone who has watched them at work will realise the terrifying stress of trying to drive an emergency patient through London's traffic, knowing full well that there is another emergency after that—and another after that—with the attendant fears that one might arrive too late because of the traffic and the shortage of ambulances in the first place. That must be understood.

The unions concerned, NUPE and COHSE and others, produced a report on ambulance stress.

In 1980 the London ambulance service covered a total of 9,101,000 miles. That has been reduced by 1987 to 8,238,000. In every area fewer emergency ambulances are available, even though they are working efficiently and hard. Emergency ambulance miles covered have kept up, but at the expense of non-emergency services and by increasing the use of hired cars, minicabs and volunteer drivers, which is an unacceptable way of doing things.

Islington health authority is in an inner-city area and is facing a long-term cut in health standards. The Friern Barnet psychiatric hospital is to close and its patients will be forced into the community. The social services department is worried that it will be unable to meet the needs of those people, in the same way as Camden and Haringey are also unable to meet them. The Royal Northern hospital is closing temporarily over Christmas and will close permanently soon after that. The Southwood hospital is also to close.

People in my constituency are greatly worried that the Health Service is becoming increasingly unable to cope with the needs of patients. Indeed, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) the lack of funding for the elderly assessment centre at Bart's hospital is causing great concern, and we look forward to an announcement from the Minister that he will support that venture.

Health is much more than a series of statistics, although that is the only way in which one can present it in the House. Health means the knowledge that the Health Service is available for all those who need it, at the time that they need it. In London, that is increasingly no longer the case. Waiting lists become longer and longer, small hospitals are closed and large hospitals are closing wards and operating theatres. There is great concern among the staff, who either leave or continue to work in such appalling conditions that we wonder why they stay in the employment of the health authority.

The announcement this week of some increase in funding shows how scared the Government are over the increasing protests about the level of health spending. They have been frightened by publicity and by letters from leading doctors. They now realise that every family knows that there is something badly wrong with our hospitals, wherever they may be throughout the land. We need a large increase in Health Service spending in London, and we need it very quickly, to stave off the crisis that we are facing this Christmas.

However, it must go further than that. Barbara Young, the spokesperson for the hospital managers, has said that any money often comes too late to stave off ward closures. The Minister could do us a good turn today by announcing that he is prepared to alleviate the crisis in London by giving the Health Service the money that it needs, now.

12.22 pm

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), who put a powerful case. He drew attention to problems that are well known, but unfortunately he did not suggest the solutions. When tackling the problems of the Health Service, we must take a long-term view as to where the money can be found. We cannot constantly print it, as the previous Labour Government did, to meet demand, and to reallocate the money from other areas is always a controversial issue.

A long-term solution must be found, but where the short-term emergency in London is concerned, the hon. Gentleman was unfortunate in that his debate has come just after a statement that has gone some considerable way towards meeting it. Indeed, the existence of the emergency is not denied by my hon. Friend the Minister for Health.

Outsiders—I speak for myself, as I am an outsider to the Health Service—meet experts in the Health Service who can generally put an absolutely convincing case for what needs to be done, backed by figures and arguments that leave one in no doubt of the justice of their case. However, the next expert one meets will probably say the exact opposite. We are then left in doubt about what action to recommend.

I want to make one recommendation that is especially relevant to London. We are handicapped by the regional structure in making long-term plans. I am not suggesting that we should embark on yet another reorganisation, and I certainly do not suggest that we should set up a health ILEA. However, I noted the hon. Gentleman's comments about organisation in London, and there is a serious element of truth in his statement that we are unable to plan for London as a whole. The Department should undertake a review of the major London hospitals, especially the teaching hospitals and the great specialist institutions. It should be recognised that they are of service to the whole country and, in some cases, to the world. They are not merely of service to the region in which they happen to be located.

I feel that decisions have been taken about those major institutions based simply on the regions in which they are located, and not in the best interests of London as a whole. That problem cannot be tackled except by the Department. I put forward that problem for my hon. Friend's consideration and hope that, in due course, a satisfactory solution will emerge.

12.25 pm

I shall, necessarily, have to reply briefly and shall not attempt to pick up all of the points made by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir B. Rhys Williams), partly because, as the hon. Member for Islington, North has acknowledged, some of his comments on the London ambulance service have been the subject of recent debate and discussion in the House. However, I should like to comment on some of the major points made by the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend.

I observe gently and in no spirit of aggression that part of the hon. Gentleman's speech complained about what he called privatisation, but what I call competitive tendering in relation to certain support services in London hospitals. Given that on our estimate competitive tendering has saved about £100 million throughout the country, money which has been left in the Health Service and has therefore been available for spending on patient care services, all the problems that the hon. Gentleman has discussed would be £100 million worse if we had not pursued those competitive tendering policies.

Well, if we are to argue about who is using statistics contentiously, I may have one or two comebacks against the hon. Gentleman.

I think I shall quote statistics because I noticed that, when referring to the additional sums that I announced on Wednesday for health authorities throughout the country for the current year, 1987–88, and for next year, 1988–89, the hon. Gentleman selectively picked only one element in the increased funding for the current year for the Thames regional health authorities. In doing so, the hon. Gentleman virtually halved the amounts that they will actually receive. I should like to put on record the fact that for 1987–88 what I announced on Wednesday means an additional £11·4 million for the North West Thames regional health authority, £9·6 million for the North East Thames regional health authority and £7 million for the South West Thames reginal health authority.

I acknowledge that part of that money—sizeable only in relation to South East Thames — is related to the storm damage that occurred in what has become known as the hurricane of last month. Nevertheless, even allowing for that, those are substantial sums. The hon. Gentleman left out of his own statistics the fact that they include significant sums in recognition of the acute pressures that AIDS has placed on some of the Thames regional health authorities, especially the North West Thames regional health authority, which covers the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington. Within the totals that I have already given, from Wednesday North West Thames has received an additional £6 million for AIDS, North East Thames £2·5 million and South East Thames £1·5 million.

I should make the point that those are immediate additions to the money that is available for regional health authorities for 1987–88. I should like briefly to remind the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend that for next year, 1988–89, the four Thames regional health authorities will receive respectively an additional £68 million for North West Thames, £62 million for North East Thames, £51 million for South East Thames and £40 million for South West Thames. No doubt we could argue almost for ever about whether those sums are precisely right, but they ate substantial additional sums for those Thames regional health authorities.

I refer to the comments of the hon. Member for Islington about hospital beds in London and the RAWP process. As a Member concerned with North East Essex regional health authority, I am conscious that there are different perspectives on such matters. Indeed, for the first 10 years that I was a Member for Parliament for part of Essex, my constituents complained endlessly and, in my view, understandably, that despite the fact that the population was steadily moving out of London into Essex and, for that matter, into Kent, Hertfordshire and the other counties that surround London, Health Service money continued to be spent in London and on maintaining beds in London. The population, often, in my case, from east and north London, that had moved out to Essex was not getting the provision that it deserved.

Again, there is plenty of scope for argument about the pace and scale of change, but there is no serious room for argument that, against a background in which the population is moving fom within London to outside London, there must necessarily be consequences for the pattern of health service provision—

It is showing signs of stabilising. That, in turn, will be taken into account in our policies as they develop. We are reviewing the so-called RAWP formula. Among the matters which we are examining is whether social deprivation, which affects all constituencies, is weighted sufficiently. As I observed in the House the other day, for every group of Members that says to me that urban deprivation is not sufficiently recognised, there is another that says that rapid growth of population is not sufficiently recognised—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
(Dr. Brian Mawhinney)

Hear, hear.

There is a sizeable chunk of new hospital there. Perhaps for Hansard purposes, I should make it clear that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) is the subject of these interventions.

We shall take account of all these factors—including "rural scatter", as it is described in Cornwall. We shall, of course, take account of legitimate concerns.

The comments of the hon. Member for Islington, North on some aspects of hospital activity over the Christmas period, especially the Royal Northern hospital, were pretty misleading. It is well known that, apart from anything else, many patients do not care to go into hospital over Christmas and that there is a drop in the demand for elective surgery. Many people, if offered an operation over the Christmas period, would say that they would rather wait.

The Royal Northern hospital will close over Christmas, but as part of the health authority's normal reduction in service over that period rather than because of any effort to save cash. This year, for the first time and on medical advice, the health authority is concentrating in-patient services at the Whittington hospital — where my appendix was taken out some 13 or 14 years ago —rather than maintaining a reduced service at both hospitals. Out-patient services will continue to be provided at the royal northern during that period.

The hon. Member for Islington, North did slightly less than justice to his cause, in his comments on the closure of the Royal Northern, without acknowledging that the background to a consideration of that hospital's future is that fact that building has just started at the Whittington on a £16 million new development. It is proposed that all acute services will be transferred to the Whittington following the completion in 1991 of phase one of the redevelopment of the hospital, which started only last month.

I accept that there may always be arguments about what the total number of beds should be, but it is not reasonable to refer to proposals for closure of an old hospital without recognising that a great new hospital is being developed close by, which inescapably means considering the pattern of services.

The hon. Member for Islington, North and my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington referred to the planning of London health services. I have some sympathy with the view—which I think was highlighted by the report of the King Edward's hospital fund for London, which was published about a year ago after a get-together of the 12 inner-London health authority chairmen—that there is a need for further work to be done. We have set up a working party with the four regional health authorities and representatives of the inner London chairmen's group to examine the issues that have been raised. I take note of the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Islington, North and my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington. We expect to receive a report shortly, which we shall of course consider carefully.

I have rattled along a little, but I hope that I have commented on the important points raised by the hon. Member for Islington, North and my hon. Friend for Kensington.

Northern Ireland Schools

12.33 pm

On this the last day that the House will sit in 1987, it is salutary to look back on what has happened in the last 12 months. I shall confine my remarks to Northern Ireland, and I think with sorrow of all those who have been murdered or maimed by terrorists in the last 12 months. I make no distinction between the types of terrorists, and I certainly make no distinction between the victims on the basis of religion.

In the past 48 hours we have had to contemplate a mindless atrocity in Londonderry, when randomly placed bombs caused death, grief, destruction and injury to many, including children. The Enniskillen atrocity gained international headlines. It made a massive impact which aroused the anger of Protestants and Catholics throughout Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, particularly among the younger generation.

I do not want the marvellous spirit of good will to be dissipated, but that is all too easy in the heartrending situation in Northern Ireland. We must therefore call a halt to the present political stalemate, which generates despair, uncertainty and hatred.

As we look back today on the events of 1987, we must consider what can be achieved in the new year. No doubt there will be atrocities, death and destruction—all that the terrorists have to offer—but we should counter that with sensible proposals. The new year must be accepted as a year of challenge by us all. We should see what each of us can do to overcome the divisions in our community. Each of us should attempt to bridge the cruel divisions between Protestant and Catholic. Politicians must give a lead in that regard.

For many years I have fought against the religious apartheid that exists in our education system. It divides people in their formative years when they should be learning together, playing together, laughing together and, I suppose, but only occasionally, crying together. It is unbelievable that children are divided even at kindergarten. If they are sent to separate schools, it is inevitable that children at one school will regard as alien children of a different religion in another school. Such division is indefensible and infringes the inherent rights of the child.

So far I have not succeeded in ending that unnatural division, but I shall continue to advocate integration. I have also argued that teacher training colleges — the state college at Stranmillis and the Catholic colleges of St. Mary and St. Joseph — should be amalgamated and placed under the aegis of the university. The opposition won the day when I suggested that. The opportunity to bring teachers within a non-sectarian university atmosphere was missed.

The Minister who is to reply to the debate has proposed that Protestant and Catholic teachers spend part of their training in schools of the other tradition. It is a sensible proposal, and I cannot understand how anybody could object to it. It is only a modest step, but it could herald a new approach to the educational division in Northern Ireland. Once trainee teacher exchanges took root, the people involved might not want the process to stop at that, and we may yet witness the dismantling of the religious divide in education.

In the meantime, how else can we foster good community relations in schools? Schools which accept children of a religion which is not the majority religion should be encouraged and given financial incentives. Lagan college was established in 1981 with 28 pupils. It now has about 500, an equal number of whom are Protestant and Roman Catholic. I thank the Minister for the support that he has given that integrated school. Others have been established or are being established. Some are primary schools, and I believe that there are two secondary schools.

What else have the Government done? I should like to give an example of a major blunder. The Rudolf Steiner school in my constituency at Holywood prides itself of providing education for children of any or no religious denomination. The school was naturally appalled—as I was — to hear how it was described in a recent Government publication cumbersomely entitled:
"Religious Equality of Opportunity and Employment—Guide to Effective Practice".
In that publication, which was produced, not by the Department of Education, but by the Department of Economic Development, the school was described as a Protestant school. When the school protested, and I protested on its behalf, we were told that it had to be labelled as either Roman Catholic or Protestant. Thus—this is the reasoning behind the decision of the Department of Economic Development—a prospective employer can tell when an applicant for a job is Protestant or Roman Catholic.

The document was issued to about 40,000 employers. I protested to the Minister at the Department of Economic Development, and in reply he said:
"systems need to be put in place to identify the perceived religious affiliation (not the actual belief) of job applicants and of existing employees … the school would under the present system be reclassified as 'Not Known' when the list is revised and updated."
What bureaucratic nonsense. The religious affiliations of the school are well known. It is non-denominational, and I would have thought it simple for the Government to denote the school in their publication as "nondenominational". To do otherwise is to repudiate the tremendous effort made by the Rudolf Steiner school and its staff to make all its pupils aware of and sympathetic to others in the world, regardless of colour, creed or race. I demand that the Department of Economic Development send out a correction forthwith to all those who received the original misleading and damaging document.

I know that the Minister has committed himself to a vigorous programme for reconciliation within the present school system, and I praise him for his efforts to stimulate conserted action, but I shall leave it to him in his reply to set out the Department's strategy for community relations in schools. All the initiatives to bring about reconciliation must be designed to encourage pupils to realise that they live in a land which has a long, rich and varied history — which, despite religious and political differences, they all have much in common.

I do not merely desire better community relations to stop there. I see Northern Ireland in the context of the United Kingdom, which, despite the occasional political crisis on the mainland, can be regarded as a nation of great toleration. I mentioned that in a debate only a short time ago. I would not limit the initiative to the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland schoolchildren must be faced with the fact that they are all young Europeans. It is in that context that we must bring them to face the realities in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

Many centuries ago, there was a famous school of learning at Bangor in my constituency. It welcomed students from all over Europe, and 1,300 years ago it was destroyed by the barbaric hordes who had already pulled the blanket of darkness over the rest of Europe. Students came to Bangor to learn there what they could not learn elsewhere in Europe.

Northern Ireland has always had a good education system. I was interested to read in the press that the Minister, on a visit to the famous Ulster folk and transport museum at Cultra in my constituency, saw a notice issued in November 1863 headed, "General Lesson", hanging in a reconstructed school house. I understand that the Minister commended the message and asked that it go out to all teachers. It is worth quoting, and I shall quote just two parts of it. I remind the House that "General Lesson" was issued in November 1863 and hung in all school houses in Ireland. It said:
"Christians should endeavour, as the Apostle Paul commands them, to live peaceably with all men, … even with those of a different religious persuasion.
Our saviour Christ, commanded his Disciples to love one another. He taught them to love even their enemies, to bless those that cursed them, and to pray for those who persecuted them. He himself prayed for his murderers."
That declaration has a relevant message for today. Does it not remind us of the fine words used by Mr. Gordon Wilson immediately after the Enniskillen atrocity, when his daughter and others were slaughtered, when he said that he forgave her murderers? Not all of us can aspire to such Christlike forgiveness. None the less, we must all strive to bring people together in Northern Ireland and to show that we can live together. If we cannot do that, the alternative is what the IRA says, that we die together. The message from the House, from all Unionists and Ulster politicians, must be that we should all live together.

There is no point in overlooking the sectarian slaughter. There is no advantage in trying to avoid mentioning the sectarian hatred that manifests itself from time to time. Divisions exist. We must do our best to heal the wounds that are there. The future belongs to the young people of Northern Ireland. Better community relations in schools in Northern Ireland will mean a better future for Northern Ireland. We all have a part to play, not least the Ulster politicians. Everyone, young and old, can help to bring the community together. It is an enormous task.

Northern Ireland is not the only part of the world where there are religious and political divisions in one form or another. In certain instances, those divisions are far worse than in Northern Ireland. Bad as the situation is, thank God the position there has not reached the level in the Lebanon and Sri Lanka. However, let us see what steps we can take to achieve consensus as far as it is humanly practicable. Let us also strive towards establishing some form of government in the Province that has the support of all reasonable and decent people in the community. By our example in 1988 and in the years thereafter we can encourage better community relations, not only among the young, but among all the people of Northern Ireland.

12.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
(Dr. Brian Mawhinney)

The hon. Member for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder) has done the House a great service by allowing us to have a short debate on this important subject. I thank him for the kind personal comments that he made about me in my role as Education Minister.

The hon. Gentleman properly set the importance of this subject against the background of terrorist activity and killing, which we have seen for too many years in the Province, and which reflects the extreme edge of the divisions that characterise Northern Ireland society.

The hon. Gentleman referred to 1988 as the year of challenge. I wish that I had thought of that phrase. He will forgive me if I use it on other occasions after today. The challenge is the effort that the Government and everyone in the community must make to seek to improve community relations in Northern Ireland and to bring about greater harmony and reconciliation. No one should underestimate the difficulties or suppose that there are easy solutions.

I assure the House that the Government are fully committed to the task of improving community relations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has emphasised his intention of being directly and personally involved in helping to tackle Northern Ireland's community relations problems. For my part, as the Minister responsible for the newly established central community relations unit, and for the Department of Education, which has the major statutory role in Northern Ireland for community relations, I have emphasised my personal commitment to encouraging and supporting efforts directed at improving those relations, which fundamentally influence the quality of life in the Province. I make that commitment clear again today.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the segregated system of education in Northern Ireland, under which Roman Catholic and Protestant children are educated in separate schools; not, I must add—and as the hon. Gentleman well knows—by legal requirement, but in practice. He mentioned the unfortunate omission of the Rudolf Steiner school from the Department of Economic Development publication. I say "omission", because it was in the publication, but in an inappropriate category and I regret that. I note the representations that the hon. Gentleman quite properly made on behalf of his constituents. I am happ to confirm to him today that Rudolf Steiner is a nondenominational school, and I accept his point and join him in stressing that that is part of the strength of that school.

I know that many people believe that the segregation that characterises Northern Ireland society and which starts in our schools could be ended if young people in Northern Ireland could be educated together and could meet during their school days and thereby understand each other better. I have much sympathy with that view. I also accept the sense of frustration experienced by some people who believe that faster progress could be made in setting up integrated schools.

I recently met representatives of the two major sponsoring bodies for integrated education in Northern Ireland, and I fully understand their aspirations. I assured them of my personal interest in their work and of the Government's willingness to give sympathetic consideration to proposals for integrated schools which can demonstrate viability and achieve appropriate educational standards.

It is Government policy that integrated education should be encouraged where there is local support for it. Fundamentally, parents have a statutory right to have children educated in accordance with their wishes, with the proviso that that must be compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and avoid unreasonable public expenditure. On the other hand, there can be no question of forcing integration on parents. However, where parents collectively indicate their desire for integrated education and have demonstrated that the demand is sufficient to justify the creation of a new grant-aided school, the Government have taken a generous line in providing support. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall continue that generosity of spirit, which is the necessary precursor of generous financial support. I note in passing the hon. Gentleman's interesting suggestion that financial incentives might have some part to play in seeking to move people together in schooling.

The best evidence for that is the growing number of integrated schools that have been established, of which three have now been recognised for grant aid— Lagan college, Hazelwood primary school and the Forge primary School. As the hon. Gentleman said, other proposals are under consideration and he will know that recently I met representatives of the governors of Hazelwood college. We agreed together that I would consider their application for grant-aid status in the first half of next year.

The proposals in the Education Reform Bill include an extension of parental choice of schools and of parental influence in the management of schools. I have already announced my policy in Northern Ireland on extending parental choice and my intention to introduce proposals for legislation in support of that policy. In terms of parental influence, the consultative paper for Northern Ireland that I expect to produce early next year, will include consideration of the parental choice and influence aspects of the Education Reform Bill against the background of our present divided educational system.

None the less, despite Government support and the enthusiasm of parents, the integrated education movement will touch only a small percentage of the school population. Even an increase on a scale undreamed of by the most ambitious advocate would leave the vast majority of this and succeeding generations in separate schools. That being the case, I have given the highest priority to supporting those measures that will encourage and provide support for contact and joint activities undertaken by schools and youth organisations on each side of the sectarian divide.

Central to the steady improvement of community relations is my Department's education for mutual understanding programme, which I have determined shall be a major priority in Northern Ireland schools, colleges and youth clubs. To complement that programme I recently initiated the cross-community contact scheme to encourage new contact programmes between schools, colleges and youth groups across the religious divide, and I have allocated £250,000 for each of the next three years to fund the new programme.

My aim is that an ever-increasing number of Protestant and Catholic children should have the opportunity to meet and co-operate in curricular and extracurricular activities. I am pleased to say that those programmes, and the funding for them, are in addition to the existing range of community relations activities organised by the education and library boards and by the Northern Ireland Council for Educational Development.

The activities that have arisen from those initiatives take many forms, depending on local circumstances, but the fundamental characteristic of them all is that young people from across the religious divide agree on a common goal and come together on a regular basis to plan a common approach, to share the work in progress, to enjoy each other's company and to establish friendship. The ready response of Northern Ireland's teachers to community relations initiatives is particularly heartening. Clearly, they accept community relations as a part of their responsibility, and I can assure them that their efforts will receive all the support that f can give, through our education system, to the work of co-operation and reconciliation.

To assist teachers in these difficult and often—alas—uncharted areas, I asked the Northern Ireland Council for Educational Development to give priority to the preparation and publication of a guideline on education for mutual understanding for teachers at primary and secondary levels, which will be published next year. In addition, all the members of the inspectorate have a responsibility to support and evaluate communiity relations projects throughout the education system. Recently I have had four inspectors deployed more directly on community relations work. They will spend an increasing amount of their time in promoting education for mutual understanding in schools and colleges. Already they have initiated a major development in primary schools.

I noted in particular the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the teacher training colleges. While he will not expect me this morning to go into debates that have been held in the past, and to review decisions that have already been made, I am very grateful to him for his support for the initiative that I announced recently. Much of the responsibility will rest on the assessment by teachers of the circumstances that exist in individual schools, and how they can best be exploited in support of community relations programmes.

As I have said, this is difficult territory, which requires a clear understanding of the objectives and an ability to translate them into a practical programme. Much effort has already gone into in-service training programmes, and that continues to be given priority. There is a need, however, for teachers in intitial training to be brought into contact — I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about this — and I have therefore recently asked the two colleges to produce a joint policy statement on education for mutual understanding, so that their student teachers will share a common comprehensive programme.

I should like to see Protestant and Catholic student teachers being brought together at their initial training stage, and then following up that cross-community contact by arranging some of their teaching practice in schools with a religious background different from their own. I want to see them grasp the nettle of encouraging Protestant teachers to learn some of the ethos of maintained schools, and to allow Roman Catholic teachers to gain some experience of what it is like in controlled schools. By their initial teacher training, young students should be provided with the practical reality of learning alongside those who may differ religiously and politically from themselves. If we can achieve that, we shall help to generate better community understanding and go some way towards helping to create a society in which the "them and us" syndrome is dispelled.

In addition to all those projects, I have recently enhanced the support given to the various voluntary bodies which are active in, and committed to, improving community relations in schools. Additional funds have been given to both the Corrymeela and the Columbanus communities, and to the joint work of the Protestant Council of Churches and the Catholic Irish Commission for Justice and Peace.

All too often good relationships between the two communities in Northern Ireland depend upon avoiding any issue that might be regarded as divisive. I believe that we should seek those areas of common ground that serve to bring our two communities together. We need to concentrate our minds on what we have in common, not always on those things that divide us. I believe that the voluntary bodies that have received support can help in that regard.

Alongside the improving educational standards and increasing parental choice and influence, nothing is more important in our schools than helping to promote community understanding and tolerance. That is our agenda for 1988, or, as the hon. Member for North Down said, it is our challenge. I can tell him and the House that I intend to pursue it vigorously. We owe that to ourselves and, even more, we owe it to our children.

I wish to end by quoting from the "General Lesson". I am intrigued and gratified that the paragraph that I have chosen to quote, and will quote again for emphasis, is that which the hon. Member for North Down has already read into the record. If it was true of our schools over 100 years ago, how much more true is it now that Christians should endeavour
"to live peaceably together with all men … . even with those of a different religious persuasion."?
Northern Ireland is a religious country with a signficant majority of people to whom their Christian faith is very important. I have quoted the challenge of the Apostle Paul. It is the challenge of common decency, and it is the challenge of 1988. I can assure the hon. Member for North Down that we aim to rise to that challenge and would be grateful for his help in seeking so to do.

I wish the hon. Member for North Down, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker and other hon. Members in the House the compliments of the season.

Poverty (Bradford)

1.1 pm

By any yardstick, Bradford is revealed as a city of past prosperity and present poverty. Deprivation and disadvantage are acute and, in many ways, are becoming more serious. Any reduction in unemployment is always welcome. However, in Bradford unemployment represents a deep social and economic scar. Men and women who want to work and know that they could help in doing the important work that needs to be done in Bradford are denied their right to work. There are more than 25,000 men and women without work. That represents 12 in every 100 people of working age. A total of 21 in every 100 16 to 19-year-olds —nearly 4,000 of our youngsters—are unemployed.

In Bradford, West, my constituency, unemployment is the highest in the city, at nearly 17 per cent. In University ward, also part of my constituency, unemployment rises to 29 per cent. and youth unemployment soars to 70 per cent. That is undoubtedly a reflection of the many difficulties that black and Asian youngsters have in securing employment.

Bradford council has published an important review of the link between poverty, health and disadvantage. An earlier report said:
"Poverty is no longer confined to individuals and small pockets in the district. It is affecting whole communities, and affecting them selectively … Parts of the District are becoming virtually 'poverty zones' with few working people, low incomes and many dependants while other parts are remaining relatively prosperous."
Many people are existing in unrelieved, grinding poverty. They now represent a sullen and hostile subculture that is largely becoming alienated from the rest of the community. Bradford is facing a housing crisis. The city's director of housing in a letter to me this month commented on the Government's latest housing proposals. He said:
"I am deeply concerned at the possible implications for housing in Bradford."
There are some 2,700 houses in multiple occupation —homes for 20,000 people. Most are in disrepair and lack fire safety measures and amenities and most do not have planning approval. There are 7,600 people on the council waiting list and since 1968 some 8,000 council homes have been sold. Some 33,000 homes are defective. Bradford has the highest rate of overcrowding in west Yorkshire and there are more than 1,500 homeless people. There are nearly 34,000 housing benefit claimants in the private sector and 25,700 in the public sector, which represents about one third of all households in the city. In a report to the council last month, the director of housing said:
"Our problems have been and will continue to be depressed incomes and depressed house prices arising from the depressed economy."
Some 118 schools were built before 1914, which represents 40 per cent. of all schools in the city. In almost half of the district's schools, 30 per cent. of the pupils are entitled to free school meals. In 23 schools more than 60 per cent. of their pupils take free school meals. The council estimates that next April 6,000 children in the city will lose the discretionary free school meal that they have hitherto been taking.

The infant mortality rate in Bradford is twice the national average. There are 30,000 children under the age of five years but only 500 public nursery places.

Bradford is known as low-pay city and west Yorkshire suffers from being the lowest paid region in Britain. Men and women in full-time employment in Bradford receive appallingly low wages. More than half of all full-time women workers and three quarters of part-time women workers are low paid. Nationally, two thirds of all low-paid workers are women. Some 5·5 million adult women —one quarter of the work force—are earning less than the decency threshold. They will be expected to pay the same poll tax as someone who may be earning more in a month than they earn in a year.

The poll tax—the Tory tax—will have a devastating effect on Bradford. It has been estimated that, if it had to be paid this year, the poll tax would mean that everyone over 18 years of age in Bradford would have to pay £238. More than 209,000 citizens in Bradford would lose as a result of the poll tax, and 113,000 of those—41 per cent. — will be paying an extra £100 in poll tax compared with their current rates payments.

In the inner-city wards, which are represented by my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, North (Mr. Wall) and Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), who are here today, 90 per cent. of the constituents would lose under the poll tax; 65 per cent would be losing more than £100. In University ward, to which I referred earlier, 94 per cent. of my constituents would be losing under the poll tax and 82 per cent. would be losing more than £100.

The number of people over the age of 85 years in Bradford is estimated to be due to increase by 28 per cent. in the next 10 years. The number of elderly of ethnic minority origin will increase nearly fivefold over the same period. Yet in October the chair of Bradford social services committee wrote to the Secretary of State for Social Services about Bradford's 49 per cent. reduction in block allocation. Councillor John Godward said that there was continuing serious concern about the inadequate level of the capital allocation being made for Bradford, and that it was enduring serious social problems, especially in the care of the very elderly.

Last month Bradford launched a campaign against the cold and distributed up to 10,000 easy-to-read thermometers to vulnerable elderly people, along with help packs that could save lives in emergencies. Yet this week, an Energy Minister, who no doubt glides from comfortable centrally heated home to well heated lavish office and to this place by chauffeur-driven car, had the effrontery to tell me in reply to a parliamentary question that the average increase in a pensioner's expenditure to meet next year's electricity price increase would be no more than 30p or 35p per week.

This week, information was revealed about the expenditure figures for the social fund. That fund is in two parts, grants and loans, and replaces the existing single payments scheme. Unlike the present system of grants, new loans must be repaid by those receiving them through their weekly benefits. The expenditure figures show that there will be a shift of resources from areas such as Bradford to the more prosperous areas in the south-east and East Anglia. That is a dramatic and substantal shift.

In recent years the poor people of Bradford have depended to a great extent upon single payments. However, changes in the regulations have led to a substantial reduction in the number of payments made. In 1985–86 48,000 payments were made, but this year just 5,000 have been made. I have received figures showing the amount of resources received from the Government for single payments covering the three Bradford DHSS offices. Those figures show that, between 1984–87, more than £10 million was paid by the Government to meet claims for single payments at those offices—£4 million to the Bradford, east office, £2·7 million to the Bradford, south office, and £3·7 million to the Bradford, west office.

However, it is clear from the social fund figures published this week that, although expenditure for 1986–87 amounted to more than £3 million, the expenditure for the current year has been savagely reduced to £500,000. Indeed, we are aware that the allocated social fund expenditure for 1988–89 will be £1·7 million. Therefore, when all the figures are swept away and the statistics put to one side it means that some of the poorest people in Bradford, many struggling to bring up families, will face acute hardship and will be robbed of about £2 million.

Therefore, our hard-pressed local economy, with depressed demand for goods and services, shops closing down because of lack of business, firms going bankrupt and new businesses finding it extremely difficult to start off, will lose almost £2 million that would otherwise have been spent by the poor people directly in the city to help themselves and the business community.

I was recently informed by the Bradford citizens advice bureau that there had been two recent cases when the DHSS had refused a lump sum urgent needs payment to buy a cooker on the grounds that the claimants could buy hot food with their personal allowances. I was so concerned about that that I tabled a written question and the Minister who is to reply to today's debate replied:
"The Department's staff are instructed to advise claimants of refusal of a single payment for a cooker by the issue of a special form (Form BO3D). This gives a general explanation of the reasons for refusal, explains the right of appeal to an independent tribunal and refers to the Citizens' Advice Bureau and the local law centre as sources of help and advice in appealing. It also offers a more detailed explanation of the decision if the claimant requests it."—[Official Report, 14 December 1987; Vol. 124, c. 403–4.]
There are many problems involved in such an approach. One of them is that, because of the enormous pressure of work faced by the Bradford citizens advice bureau, it has had to reduce its opening hours from 30 to 20 a week. The manager of the unit, Shirley Ginever, in a recent letter to me — copied to the chief executive of Bradford council—was extremely concerned about this and desperately anxious to try to increase resources to enable more staff to devote more time to the problems of the poor, who are facing acute hardship in our city. She said:
"I would add that the Debt Counselling Unit of the bureau is also under great strain. In anticipation of the increase in demands particularly regarding housing debt, after April 1988, we are trying to raise funds to open a housing debtline telephone consultancy service for statutory and voluntary agencies and the public to use".
I say to the Minister, who, in parliamentary replies, freely advises people facing difficulties to go to citizens advice bureaux, that he should ensure that sufficient resources are provided for the citizens advice bureaux in Bradford and in other cities throughout the country to enable them to deliver their advice.

On 15 January, at Bradford university, a conference is being organised, entitled, "A Hole in the Safety Net?—Responses to the Social Fund". The conference material states:
"In April 1988 the second part of the social fund will come into operation, replacing supplementary benefits single payments with a discretionary system of primarily repayable loans. Its introduction, along with other recent and current changes in social security benefits, represents a dramatic contraction of the rights and living standards of claimants".
That is absolutely right, and it is right that the conference should be concerned.

One of the nastier aspects of the Social Security Act 1986, which comes into force next April, will mean that claimants who are refused their applications for cookers and other urgent personal needs will have no right of appeal. The existing right is inadequate. When I passed on to Shirley Ginever of the CAB the Minister's reply about two claimants who had experienced refusal, she made the point — rightly — that the current waiting period for appeals is seven months. That is to be contrasted with the position after next April, when the right of appeal will be swept completely away.

There will be a series of reviews, but what point is there in administrative review when every DHSS office in Bradford and the rest of the country will be cash-limited? They will allocate less and less money on a monthly basis, and the social fund manager will be held responsible for ensuring that the allocation that each office receives is not overspent. What purpose is there in reviews being made to line management of DHSS offices—even if they were to find in favour of the claimant— when the social fund manager will say, "Hold on a minute—the money is nearly overspent for this month. We cannot grant this application from a claimant who has been refused."

We are now beginning to see the full implications of the Social Security Act 1986, which was passed well before the last general election. The Government did not want the public to see the true implications that that nasty measure would have for them. In Bradford and many other cities, it will mean that people suffering from acute hardship—men and women struggling to bring up families—will not be living, they will merely be existing. Their needs will not be met, because the Government have directed that far less money shall be spent than was the case in the past. That is a public scandal, which will do grievous damage to my hard-pressed, poor city of Bradford.

1.19 pm

I endorse everything that has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden). The Low Pay Unit has produced figures for unemployment, which is the basic source of poverty in this country, showing that in November the official rate in Bradford, South was 10·4 per cent., slightly less than in September. However, the official figures understate the true level of unemployment because they relate only to those in receipt of unemployment benefit. Those who are unemployed and looking for work, but who cannot claim benefit, are excluded from the total.

Since 1979 the Government have made 22 changes in the way in which the official figures are collected, and the independent unemployment unit calculated that the true level in Bradford, South—calculated on the same basis as in earlier years—is now 6,123, or 12·5 per cent., with much greater pockets of unemployment. Many people in Bradford this Christmas will have as a background debts to either the gas or electricity boards. Some pensioners who cannot afford a television licence and do not qualify for a concession will be without even the cheer of television over Christmas.

The Government's economic and social policies make the prospect for the poor worse, not better. I call on the Government to provide proper long-term jobs and to abandon their Social Security Bill, which will result in further cuts and an even gloomier prospect for the poor of Bradford and elsewhere.

1.21 pm

The city of Bradford has many fine buildings and is surrounded by magnificent scenery, but inside its boundaries and within the travel-to-work area there is enormous poverty. Bradford is part of the West Yorkshire region, which has the lowest pay levels of any of the nine industrial regions in Britain. The average wage in Yorkshire and Humberside is £193 a week, almost £70 a week less than the average for the south-east. Families in the south-east spend on goods and services an average of £60 a week more than do families in the Bradford area.

In the Bradford intermediate area — the travel-to-work area — which includes Shipley, Bingley, Pudsey, Cleckheaton, and across to Kirklees, unemployment now runs at more than 30,000, despite the recent small reduction. That is 3 per cent. above the national average. One in six of the unemployed are under 20, and 40 per cent. have been unemployed for more than one year. One third of the population of Bradford receive some form of state benefit, and 60,000 are on supplementary benefit. In July 1986, only 30 per cent. of Bradford school leavers found a job, and fewer than 10 per cent. of Asian children found one.

Through the use of the multiplier, over a three-year period the Government have forced Bradford ratepayers to pay £110 each in rates because Bradford was not allowed the full entitlement of grant. It is a human issue, because it deals with people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) referred to local citizens advice bureaux. Last year's report stated:
"However, the largest increase in volume of work is that which has passed through the debt counselling unit—an unbelievable 40,718 inquiries. It was said last year that the enormous stresses and practical difficulties of trying to exist on a low-fixed income continue to underpin many of the problems brought to us, which increasingly have a debt angle. The large number of restrictive changes introduced in the benefits system over the last year … have undoubtedly accelerated this trend, making it nigh on impossible for those on benefit to make ends meet without any supplementary income; as the possibilities to increase claimants' income decrease, so the need for debt work grows more and more common. This is not to say that it is no longer possible to increase benefit take up. A survey of callers to the bureau in one week this year showed that a massive 76 per cent. were reliant on benefits; 50 per cent. of all callers were reliant on Supplementary Benefit."
That is a sign of the enormous human suffering in Bradford.

During my maiden speech I commented that the Government could talk about popular people's capitalism but it was a hollow joke for tens and tens of thousands of people living in misery and poverty. They have a fin tradition of work, and all that they ask for is the right to use their abilities to work and to bring up their families with some decency.

1.24 pm

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

The House will appreciate that it will be difficult for me to do justice to this subject in the six minutes that are left to me. However, I should like to say that, in common with other cities, Bradford is benefiting from the Government's economic policies, which have brought industrial production to its highest level ever. Since 1980, manufacturing productivity has grown faster in this country than in any of the other major countries of the industrialised world.

The benefits have been felt in Bradford. The latest figures, those for November 1987, show that unemployment is the Bradford travel-to-work area is 25,000—that is a fall of 5,000, or 16·6 per cent., over the year before. That compares well with the decline in unemployment in the country as a whole, which has been about 17·6 per cent. over the same period. Measured in terms of employees, employment and the unemployed, the unemployment rate in Bradford is only 1 per cent. higher than the comparable national figure.

None the less, the Government recognise that there are particular difficulties in Bradford and a need for employment initiatives in that city. Currently, 4,680 people in Bradford participate in the community programme. Under the employment allowance scheme, 1,885 people are benefiting in the Bradford area. Since the scheme was started in 1983, a cumulative total of 6,000 people have been placed by the scheme.

The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) referred to housing. I am sure he will be aware that substantial allocations are being made available to Bradford for housing purposes. The initial housing investment programme allocation for 1987–88 was £12·9 million. This has been supplemented by additional allocations amounting to £190,000 for housing defects and £80,000 for a project to combat homelessness. Additional housing resources have also been made available through the Government's Estate Action team. In 1986–87, an additional £1·5 million was made available to Bradford through estate action — the largest allocation for any authority in Yorkshire and Humberside and as much as 3 per cent. of the resources available nationally.

I know that the hon. Gentleman referred to the housing difficulties, but I should point out that Bradford council did not make full use of its main housing allocation in 1986–87. Every other authority in Yorkshire and Humberside supplemented its housing allocation with expenditure financed by capital receipts in 1986–87; Bradford did not. Some authorities doubled their allocations by using receipts. That does not reflect a high priority for housing investment in Bradford by the city council.

The hon. Gentleman referred also to the ending of free school meals for certain categories of claimants. He will know that under the family credit system, which, by the way, is backed by an extra £220 million expenditure from the Government over and above what is spent on family income supplement, free school meals will no longer be available. However, the amount of money that is being put into the family credit scheme to compensate for the loss of free school meals is higher than the average payment that people will have to make for school meals. There will be more children in families receiving family credit than the present total who receive free school meals under both the family income supplement and the discretionary schemes.

The hon. Gentleman made considerable play about the social fund. I should point out to him that the amounts paid in single payments this year up to November, in the three Bradford offices amount to £1·1 million over roughly a seven-month period. The amount of money that will be made available for the social fund for the coming year is £1·8 million, which is broadly in line with current expenditure on single payments.

The hon. Gentleman is worried about the effect on the local economy of the decline from the peak numbers of single payments in previous years. I remind him that £200 million extra is being put into the income support scheme, over and above supplementary benefit; £200 million is being put into the income support scheme for transitional protection; and more than £200 million extra is going into the family credit scheme. Therefore, if the hon. Gentleman is doing calculations of the effects on the local economy, he will want to bear those points in mind.

The hon. Gentleman is concerned about how the allocation for the social fund has been made. He will be aware that there are substantial regional variations in the sums paid out in single payments, and those variations cannot be explained by reference to any obvious indicators of need. If we had allocated the social fund budgets to individual local offices, simply on the pattern of past single payment expenditure, we would have perpetuated these inequalities. We were concerned to distribute the money more fairly in future than had been the case in the past.

That is why the allocation has been based on the past pattern of single payments and with some consideration to the underlying needs of the area, as measured by the caseload of people claiming supplementary benefit. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned to see that in greater detail, he will no doubt be aware that there is a note in the Library which explains very carefully how that allocation has been made.

Although there will not be a formal appeals procedure unde the social fund, it is our intention that there should be a review procedure. The first part of that review procedure involves the claimant in contacting the local office and asking for a review. On contacting the local office, the claimant will be invited to an interview withthe social fund officer, who will have the opportunity to explain his decision to the claimant. The claimant will have the opportunity to make his or her case to the social fund officer and to be accompanied by an adviser on that occasion. If the claimant is still not satisfied with a negative decision, the case can be referred to a line manager in the office and, above that, to a social fund inspector. The work of the social fund inspector will be overseen, as the hon. Gentleman knows, by the social fund commissioner.

When this matter was considered in another place, Lord Denning, contrasting those arrangements with some of the arrangements in the past, said:
"I have had experience of all these appeals up to the appeal tribunal. They have even come as far as my court. The machinery is far too elaborate, too long, too costly, with too many insurance commissioners and the like. It is all very well to have that elaborate structure in the pursuit of justice, but if it is too elaborate, it ought to be replaced by simpler machinery."
Lord Denning went on to say:
"I see this new proposal … as being simple, fair and just machinery." —[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 July 1986; Vol. 479, c. 426.]

Oceanography

1.31 pm

I appreciate the opportunity offered by the debate to draw the attention of the House and particularly of my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for civil science policy and the research councils to the excellent and frequently pioneering work undertaken at the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences Deacon laboratory in my constituency, where, for almost half a century, a group of distinguished, committed scientists have studied the oceans.

The oceans cover seven tenths of the earth's surface. They modify our climate, offer numerous tapped and untapped resources and regulate the cycling of natural and man-made materials. Britain is a maritime nation. As it is an island, the oceans surrounding our country have played a major part in our history. We have depended on the seas for trade, defence, fishing and, more recently, offshore oil and gas. We have also used the seas for recreation and frequently as a way of disposing of industrial and domestic wastes.

The Institute of Oceanographic Sciences Deacon laboratory, which I have the privilege of representing, is among the foremost laboratories specialising in the study of the seas and deep oceans. This year, the European Year of the Environment, the institute was renamed the Deacon laboratory after Dr. George Deacon, the first director of the National Institute of Oceanography. He remained director for 22 years, during which time the institute became a world leader in the subject. The institute's work is based on the fundamental studies of the physics, biology and geology of the marine environment. Many scientific discoveries, technological developments and advances in instrumentation have been initiated there.

The ISDL is part of the marine sciences directorate of the Natural Environment Research Council. The NERC receives a grant in aid from the science budget. Funds are allocated from the science budget to the research councils on the advice of the Advisory Board for the Research Councils. Internal funding allocations within the research council are a matter for the council itself.

In recent years, there have been fundamental changes in NERC, with the organisation being streamlined and reorganised in line with Government policy. They have introduced many long overdue reforms. There has been more selectivity in research areas, increased emphasis on commercially viable projects and greater co-operation between industry and science. All these are important to the maintenance of a healthy scientific community.

Earlier this year, the distinguished Chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, Lord Sherfield, visited the institute. In its first report, his Committee called on the Government to promote science as a means of achieving economic recovery. The Government responded to the report in July this year in a paper entitled "Civil Research and Development". Although it is made clear in the document that the Government do not intend to fund applied research, which is the responsibility of industry, there is a clear recognition by the Government of the need for public funding of more basic research for the generation of highly trained manpower, to underpin industry's needs and to provide social benefits in health and the environment.

The report states:
"Advances in science and technology and the early exploitation of those advances are essential to national success."
It continues:
"Public expenditure on science and technology serves various objectives: the advancement of knowledge, support for policy formalation and implementation, improvement of technology, improvement of health and the environment, support for procurement decisions and support for statutory duties. Government support for basic science and enabling technology, particularly in the universities, is intended to lead to the development of knowledge and the acquisition of skills; these have a major impact on the United Kingdom's economy and position in world markets. The Government agrees that it should be a major national priority to focus the effort of the scientific community and industry on increasing the economic effectiveness of our national investment in science and technology. The challenge is to target scientific and technological resources without constraining individual creativity and to co-ordinate related parallel R and D programmes without divorcing them from the individual objectives they are meant to serve."
Government action is already seeing clear signs of success. We have witnessed an increased awareness of the marketable aspects for research within the scientific community. The universities and polytechnics have made dramatic progress in working closely with industry. In my area, the university of Surrey works closely with local industry generating more than any other university from private sources, having recently opened its own research park. Within the NERC, duplication and waste have been reduced, resulting in greater economic efficiency.

Many would argue, however, that now is the time for a reappraisal of the financial assistance for basic research in the natural sciences. Only this week in the New Scientist there is a leader headed "Bring back real science". The editorial argues:
"It is impossible for every researcher to work on subjects that offer short-term economic benefits. Someone has to do the research that will one day turn into technology. This country's poor record of innovation does not mean that Britain should shut up shop on science. If anything, industry deserves the chop. After all, it is industry that has failed to build on past successes in science. Why clobber research done for its own sake?"
Although there is clearly an important part for the private sector, it is important to re-evaluate the part of Government in funding basic research in the natural sciences.

I should like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to consider some of the major developments that have been pioneered by the institute. Over the past 20 years, a major achievement has been the development of the Gloria deep ocean survey device. In 1986, the institute was awarded the Queen's award for technological achievement for the development, construction and operation of this long-range, side-scan sonar system. Gloria was developed at the IOS to meet the needs of research scientists, but it proved to have considerable commercial potential. It is a unique facility to provide sound pictures of the ocean floor extremely quickly and relatively cheaply. It maps the sea floor geologically to find areas of potential commercial exploitation. It is currently under contract in the United States to scan the 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

It took Gloria 102 days to map the 200-mile EEZ off the Pacific coast. More than 200 new isolated mountains were discovered, including five volcanoes bigger than Mount St. Helens. A canyon hundreds of miles long was found that carries sediment west from Monterey bay. Vast ripples in the sediment off Oregon and Alaska showed for the first time how currents from land combine to change the sea bed.

The economic implications of this remarkable development are numerous. Apart from identifying resources in the sea bed, the survey, by highlighting mountainous areas, can give guidance for cable-laying companies. An underwater cable costs $1 million to mend. In the Pacific, fishing is a major source of revenue. By locating isolated sea mounts, it is possible to make predictors for the fishing industry. With a growing number of exclusive economic zones being declared, many states, especially small islands in the Pacific, will have increased the area of their national sovereignty 100-fold or more. Even large states such as the Untied States and Indonesia have doubled their area. By acquiring such vast new territories, coastal states are inevitably concerned to see what resources lie there and how they can be exploited. For many, such resources offer a vital means of boosting their national economy, ensuring supplies of strategic minerals or improving their fisheries.

The success of the United States survey with the Gloria technique led to inquiries from many other countries about surveys of their EEZs using the same technique. The institute established an agreement with Marconi Underwater Systems Limited by which it transfers the technology. Early next year, the British oceanographic vessel Charles Darwin, which is owned and operated by the NERC, will carry out Gloria surveys in Indonesian waters for one month. Other engineering initiatives include Tobi, the towed sonar vehicle, PUPPI, the pop-up pori pressure instrument, DOBS, the digital ocean bottom seismograph, and Fido, the deep ocean particle sampler and counter. The institute is splendid not only at developing these new initiatives—it also finds splendid names for them.

There are vast economic returns to be gained from exploring and exploiting the world's sub-sea resources. In January 1986, the Department of Trade and Industry launched a resources from the sea programe. It has been estimated that vast potential markets worth more than £160 billion are available to United Kingdom firms which explore and exploit the world's sub-sea resources. It is important that British industry seizes the enormous commercial opportunities available from developing advanced marine systems and equipment for exploration and exploitation of the oceans.

If the United Kingdom could capture between 5 and 10 per cent. of the world market, it would be a significant wealth and job-creating sector, possibly up to the present size of the British motor vehicle and component industry.

Another area where previously fundamental work has shown a strong commercial application is wave research. Wave data collected during the past 25 years have been invaluable for the construction of offshore structures. Engineers who design oil platforms must be sure that their creations will survive the worst waves. Forecasts for 50 years in advance are needed and estimates have to be extremely reliable. An under-estimation of the highest wave results in damage—whereas an over-estimation of merely 1 m can add more than £1 million to the cost of the platform. As with Gloria, research which was initially regarded as non-commercial has proved extremely beneficial and productive in the private sector.

Among other important projects for the future are those on climatology, which could have a powerful influence on the spread of famine in Third-world countries, the study of pollutants and the implications of dumping waste at sea and the effects on the oceans of burning fossil fuels. All those subjects have long-term social and environmental effects on civilisation as we know it.

These have been difficult times for the institute, as available financial resources have been constrained and staff numbers are falling. The cruise programme, for example, had to be seriously constrained. As the NERC has faced reduced funding, resources have been transferred to the universities and polytechnics. The NERC and the marine science and technology directorate have made every effort to restructure their organisations.

Establishments have been encouraged to seek compensatory income from commissioned work. Financial constraints have been faced by the IOS as a result of a major decline in income from commissioned research. Rising scientific costs associated with the growing sophistication of science mean that the budget is unable to pay for what it used to buy. We must also consider the implications of the new pay structure negotiated by the unions with the Treasury, which has resulted in significant and, for them, welcome pay increases for scientific grades, which are well above the current level of inflation. My hon. Friend the Minister will be well aware of the distinction between level funding and level value, as he drew attention to it clearly in 1985 in a debate on Government policy for science.

There is concern at the institute that long-term planning is deeply influenced by its inevitable dependence on Government and NERC grants. Increasingly it tends to be limited to essential research for commercial projects. Recruitment constraints have caused difficulty in the pursuit of some commercial contracts and the number of overall projects being turned down because of financial problems is on the increase.

The institute has made every effort to restructure and to streamline the facility as much as possible. However, I have had representations from constituents who are deeply worried about the future. The eminent director of the institute, Sir Anthony Laughton, recently said:
"Our ability to pursue long-term goals has been deeply compromised. It is hard to see how the achievements of the past can be repeated. All of which creates tremendous difficulties in motivating and retaining our highly skilled scientists."
My hon. Friend will appreciate that, as I am in regular contact with many constituents who work at this distinguished institute, I wish to take this opportunity to pass on their anxieties.

Another particular matter which has frequently been raised with me is the concern that oceanography will be too easily linked with astronomy and nuclear physics. In a recent letter, a group of constituents who work at the institute stated:
"Nuclear physics and astronomy are both regarded as areas of 'big' science whose level of funding is at least three times that of oceanography and furthermore neither of them has as great a commercial and practical impact on the nation's economic well being as oceanography. The implication of the report seems to be that government spending should be cut in each of these three areas; we at IOSDL view this possibility with grave disquiet."
I can do no more than take this opportunity to highlight the excellence of the work undertaken at the institute and my pride at representing this dedicated and talented group of individuals. I want to pass on to my hon. Friend the real commitment that has been shown by all the members of the staff to reorganise and streamline and to work with the private sector. Inevitably, at a time of turbulence and change there are effects on morale. There is an anxiety that the force of recent strictures on science will lead to too short-term a view of science funding. I am passing on the view of my constituents that long-term science must be given the priority that it needs.

Finally, I can do no better than quote my hon. Friend's conclusion in his debate two and a half years ago. Having rightly pointed out the concern about the balance of our national investment in defence rather than in civil science, he said:
"I urge the Government to think again about their policy for science. The central theme of much of their thinking, quite rightly, is to seek to improve the translation of scientific ideas into profitable business. I do not seek to criticise this emphasis, but I do not believe that it makes resources irrelevant—whether the total quantum of resources or the pattern of its distribution."—[Official Report, 14 June 1985; Vol. 80, c. 1170.]

1.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science
(Mr. Robert Jackson)

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) on raising this important subject. She made an excellent speech and gave such a good survey of the subject that I scarcely need to speak.

Oceanography is vital for any nation with a coastline, particularly for Britain with its long history of maritine activity. The debate is timely because this week two important events should ensure that British oceanography and the wider topic of marine science has a strong and vibrant future. On Monday 14 December the Natural Environment Research Council published its new strategy for marine sciences, and earlier today my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the terms of reference and the membership of the co-ordinating committee for marine science and technology which is to be chaired by Sir John Mason.

The National Environment Research Council document, "The Challenge — NERC Strategy for Marine Science" shows clearly how Britain is benefiting from the results of marine research and development in past years. It emphasises Britain's dependence on knowledge about the sea for her defence and her economic and social well-being. My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West drew attention to a number of those developments. She mentioned Gloria, the splendidly named long-range sonar device for mapping the ocean floor, which can map an area the size of Wales in a single day. As my hon. Friend said, it has obtained an important contract from the United States to map the United States exclusive economic zone.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the importance of wave and current research for North sea oil platforms. It has been estimated that such research has saved about £1 billion in the development of North sea oil, whereas the cost of wave research has been only about £500,000. That demonstrates the tremendous leverage that such research can produce.

My hon. Friend did not mention flood prediction and its importance in the construction of the Thames barrier, so vital for the protection of people in London. There has also been progress in understanding climate and the way in which the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide, thus helping to balance the so-called greenhouse effect. Britain has also played a key role in analysing the cycle through which nature moves in terms of its influence on the climate, through the NERC ocean flux study led from the Plymouth marine laboratory. The Government are well aware of that progress and consider that Britain is well served by the marine research community, and look forward to its substantial contributions continuing.

The NERC strategy is designed to maintain British marine science and technology alongside the rest of the world leaders by undertaking a balanced programme of basic and strategic research. I give my hon. Friend that assurance. That research will be undertaken at universities and polytechnics and at the council's own laboratories, including the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences Deacon laboratory in my hon. Friend's constituency — she referred to the dedication and commitment of the staff there.

The core of the NERC research programme comprises five major projects, which address subjects that offer great promise of yielding substantial benefit in the late 1990s and in the early years of the next century. Those five projects are the North sea project, the biogeochemical ocean flux study, the fine resolution Antarctic model, the unmanned autonomous submersibles development and the world ocean circulation experiment. I look forward to seeing the acronyms that spring from those projects. A common theme of those five projects is the need to predict the movements of the oceans, as they affect such matters as wind, waves, tides — for ports — storm surges for protection against flooding, and mineral resources under the sea.

A major factor in selecting those five core projects is the continuing exponential growth in computing power, which increases by a factor of 10 every five years and offers a prospect of novel forms of ocean prediction by the end of the century, touching such things as water quality in coastal waters and large-scale currents and life in the sea, some of which control climatic change. The five projects on which the council decided to focus its strategy address problems that have to be solved before operational forecasting systems can be designed to achieve potential benefits. In future, NERC will devote a large fraction of its resources to the five core projects identified in its strategy.

In addition to the core projects, the NERC strategy includes a broad programme of additional strategic research to be carried out at the NERC laboratories. Those will be carried out as science budget funds, and commissioned work from various Government Departments, permit. To achieve its research strategy, NERC maintains a wide panoply of facilities including four major marine laboratories, two of which are devoted to oceanography — one is the institute in my hon. Friend's constituency. It maintains a fleet of research ships and a national pool of equipment for use at sea providing data, remote sensing and computing services.

My hon. Friend referred to resources, which are of central importance. I agreed with her analysis. She quoted back at me some words of mine in an earlier debate. It is plain that we must maintain a basic and strategic research capability. It is also plain that, to maintain our position, public funds must be invested in long-term, basic and strategic research. On the other hand, we must recognize that opportunities for high quality research have also grown since 1979. I have shown the way in which that has happened. They have been growing at a much greater rate than the funds that are available. The more science we have, the more science we can do, and the more it will cost.

However, there is a limit to what can be afforded and the research councils must consider their priorities within the totals made available. It is essential for high priority work to be funded at a satisfactory level. That is crucial. It cannot be achieved if we adopt a policy of simply spreading the available resources, whatever they may be, over too many projects. We must realise that Britain is not the only country that is undertaking research in this and other areas, so our plans must also take into account work that is being done elsewhere. In suitable cases, we must work for collaboration or co-ordination on an international basis as the best way to proceed. It seems to me that the NERC strategy for marine science, which it has adopted as an independent research council, is an excellent example of all those points. It is a consideration of priorities that take into account national needs and work that is being carried out elsewhere. The council should be congratulated on those most important recent initiatives.

So far, I have been talking about the work of the NERC, but the Science and Engineering Research Council—which has the equally unattractive acronym of SERC—is also involved in the technology of exploiting the oceans' resources. Some years ago it set up a marine science and technology directorate to focus its activities on this area. The directorate has now transferred to the private sector, although SERC still provides support for academic research grants. Other Government Departments have specific interests in research in that area, too, some commissioning work from NERC on the basis of their judgment of their needs. My hon. Friend referred to some of the implications of that for the Deacon institute. I noted what she said with sympathy. I take on board the points that she made about that commissioned research.

With that diversity of interests at stake in oceanography, it is important to have a national strategy to achieve the right balance between basic and applied research. My hon. Friend's speech addressed that theme. The key to that is the co-ordinating committee for marine science and technology, the membership of which was announced earlier today. It will report to the Government through the Secretary of State for Education and Science and will be supported by a secretariat within NERC.

That is only a part of the Government's overall strategy for scientific research and development. It includes obtaining and disseminating accurate information through the annual review of Government-funded R and D and, very importantly, the new co-ordinating arrangements announced by the Government in July this year, of which an important component is the establishment of the Advisory Committee for Science and Technology — another acronym, ACOST. In the past Britain's national research and development effort has perhaps been too much dispersed, a little too fragmented. Now at last machinery is in place which we hope can achieve better coherence and co-ordination.

Returning to oceanography, I am confident that Britain can continue to rely on the basic and strategic research community in that area to provide the necessary underpinning of the country's requirements right into the next decade. My hon. Friend deserves our appreciation for raising this important matter on the Floor of the House. I think we can join in wishing the research community well, especially her constituents at the Deacon laboratory.

Coal Board Housing

1.58 pm

Hon. Members will be aware of the concerns that I have raised about British Coal housing in recent times. The debate gives me a chance to pay tribute to hon. Members on both sides of the House, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes), for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse), and on the Conservative Benches I see the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart), who I hope will be able to contribute to the debate.

I should like to outline a little of the background to this subject. Since the 1970s British Coal has dispensed with over 68,000 of its 80,000 houses in the coalfield communities. Most of those houses have been sold to the tenants, local authorities and housing associations. However, some have been sold to what can only be described as bad housing directorates, property and land speculators. That has caused terrible turmoil for the tenants living in those houses. Almost a year ago to the day, auctions took place in the Connaught and Hilton hotels in London, where whole communities were auctioned off and houses sold without the knowledge of the tenants. Indeed, some properties went to Spanish and Greek purchasers, and that cannot be satisfactory.

Some of the sadness is revealed in the fact that more than 90 per cent. of the tenants remaining in those houses are over retirement age. Indeed, 90 per cent. are over retirement age in the county that I represent. A recent document published by the Nottinghamshire Federation of Coal Tenants describes in detail some cases in my area which highlight the plight of the tenants as a result of the privatisation of their properties. I commend that document to the Minister.

Some of the tenants involved include Mr. Bob Stoddard, who left the industry in 1977. He was a miner for 30 years and had to leave the industry on health grounds. May and Ted Gelsthorpe are in their 80s and have lived in their Coal Board house for more than 56 years. Mr. Stan Bruce, who is 83, has lived in his present home for 64 years. Mary Penfold is in her late 60s and has lived in her home since 1926. Arthur Wilton is in his 80s and was a miner for 52 years. None of those people want a mortgage or to buy their own homes, even if they could find a mortgage broker who would raise or offer them money. They do not want the insecurity in old age that that would offer.

It is a sad fact that British Coal has dispensed with its responsibilities to the tenants in my constituency in Nottinghamshire. Some 11,500 houses have been sold in the past few years, with the remaining 2,000 or so ready to be sold to another company. My concern in raising the matter today is that a deal is under way between British Coal and an organisation called the Lancaster housing association. That is a fine sounding name. However, I want to explain in this short debate today that the name of that organisation does not exactly match the amount of responsibility that the association will have to accept for those elderly tenants in the near future.

I have examined some of the documents relating to that association, and I commend them to the Minister. The last registered accounts for the organisation were registered with the Registrar of Friendly Societies as long ago as 1982. The association's board members have no expertise in housing management. The board of directors includes a retired stockbroker as chairman, a baker and a catering manager. One wonders whether it also includes a candlestick maker and a butcher.

The association is so small that it is currently based on someone's home. At present it manages only 27 properties. I spoke to the director, and he admitted openly that it is a very small association. It is not an association that one would at first glance consider suitable to take on 1,860 houses occupied by elderly tenants. It does not employ any staff. It relies completely on volunteers. That may be all very well in respect of 27 units, but it is not satisfactory for nearly 2,000. Nor is the association registered with the Housing Corporation which is the national body that lays down the regulations and guidelines to monitor organisations to ensure that standards are adhered to.

As I pointed out, I have already spoken to Mr. Henshaw, who admitted that it is a very small outfit. He also admitted that the main source of repayment of the £9 million-plus offered for the properties is the sale with vacant possession of the properties. I can well imagine that Mr. Henshaw, with his stockbroking abilities, has the expertise to gain the best possible price for the properties and thereby pay back the money, but it is an enormous sum, and an enormous number of properties will have to be taken off the rented market for that to be achieved.

Mr. Henshaw also admits that he has, to a large extent, been used as a pawn by British Coal against the consortium of housing associations that have established themselves, according to the proper standards and guidelines, to look after the tenants. Worse still, British Coal has negotiated a very good deal for itself, in two respects. First, it has managed to persuade the friendly society to take on board all the employees of British Coal currently looking after the properties, which means that it will have no problems over redundancies and so forth. Secondly—this is of serious concern to me, and to other hon. Members in the area—it has added a clause to the contract of sale, stating that it will not be under any obligation to repair any subsidence damage that has occurred prior to the date of sale.

I have a Bill down for debate on 12 February about subsidence damage, which is prevalent in Nottinghamshire — especially in north Nottinghamshire. In my constituency a school and a hospital have closed, and thousands of houses have been damaged, because of subsidence. It is inconceivable that serious subsidence damage will not have occurred in any of 1,860 homes. British Coal has not been honest with its broker or with the organisation. Moreover, the deal will seriously harm the future security of the elderly tenants. Given the large amount of money involved in repayment, they will be unlikely to obtain the expensive repairs necessitated by subsidence damage.

That is not the only respect in which British Coal has not been entirely honest in its dealings. The consortium of housing associations is made up of a good many organisations, including the East Midlands housing association, the Northern Counties housing association, the Leicester housing association, the Nottinghamshire community housing association and others. They have the backing of all the local authorities, and, indeed, of the Nottinghamshire Federation of Coal Board Tenants, which has been striving for security for the tenants. The consortium has repeatedly been refused permission by British Coal to become deeply and sincerely involved in finding a financial solution. I have a letter that makes it plain that it was willing to negotiate upwards its offer of £7 million. I should like the Minister to look at that.

Finally, let me put to the Minister some questions to which I should like detailed replies. Will the Minister give an assurance that British Coal will sell houses only to organisations and associations which have the financial strength and reserves to meet fully any future contingencies, and which can fulfil their obligations and responsibilities as a landlord? It should be borne in mind that, in the Nottinghamshire area, over 2,000 properties are involved. Will he also give an assurance that any new landlord would manage and maintain the properties in accordance with the standards laid down by the National Federation of Housing Associations for housing management in a document published this year?

Will the Minister instruct British Coal to resume its negotiations with the consortium of housing associations, which is prepared to negotiate at a higher figure than has already been suggested? Will the Minister intervene in the current negotiations between British Coal and the Lancaster housing association? The aim of that would be to investigate and establish whether the Lancaster housing association, which currently manages only 27 houses, has the capacity and the resources to fulfil its landlord obligations and responsibilities to the 1,400 tenants whose homes are subject to the first part of the bid that I have mentioned. Does the Minister agree that it would he an advantage to sell the remaining British Coal houses to local landlords with proven track records, rather than to remote organisations which are not familiar with the area or the people?

Will the Minister instruct British Coal to reduce the asking price of the 1,830 properties from its current £9·5 million to a sum within the reach of the consortium that will allow it to go ahead and purchase the properties, thus bringing peace of mind and security to the thousands of British Coal tenants within the Nottinghamshire area? Alternatively, will he make representations to his hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning to provide direct financial assistance to the consortium so that it can purchase the properties?

Will the Minister make representations to the Minister for Housing and Planning for money to be made available to local authorities to enable them to reinstate the properties which are subject to the Housing Defects Act 1984 and which have been purchased after the cut-off date? That should include properties purchased by local authorities and sitting tenants. Will the Minister ensure that he investigates the contract clause inserted by British Coal, which I mentioned earlier, which denies any responsibility for subsidence damage that may occur in any of the properties concerned?

This is a serious subject, and I have already said that I hope that the hon. Member for Sherwood will participate briefly. I also see in the Chamber my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford, who I know has serious concerns in this matter. I hope that he can also participate.

Over 3,500 elderly ex-miners or miners' widows live in those properties in Nottinghamshire. They do not want or need a mortgage. They need security in their old age. They need to be looked after. It is the responsibility of British Coal to look after them. Those people were promised that during the time they worked and slaved in the industry. Now British Coal is seeking to get rid of its responsibility and cast them aside. I ask the Minister to talk seriously to British Coal in order to provide a solution that will offer security to those people in their old age. The Minister should offer them a future and reopen the negotiations with the consortium.

2.12 pm

I thank the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) for allowing me the time to speak in his Adjournment debate. We may be poles apart in our political philosophy but we are united today behind the Nottinghamshire Federation of Coal Tenants. The hon. Member for Mansfield has outlined, in a short time, what has happened. I can tell you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that if the debate ran for three hours there would still be hon. Members queuing up to tell the House about the difficulties and tragedies that have befallen the tenants of British Coal.

It is supposed to be the season of good will to all. However, British Coal's housing policy makes Scrooge look like a philanthropist. Tonight I am the guest at a pensioners' Christmas party. They are constituents who have given their lives to the coal industry. What sort of a party will it be when they hear that British Coal is preparing to sell their homes to a rooky housing association from London, whose credentials are very suspect?

Let me ask the Minister; how can the Lancaster housing association, with only 27 houses, have the expertise to manage 1,800 homes 150 miles away in Nottinghamshire? How can it afford £9·4 million, when the experts say that the offering price of a socially acceptable landlord would be £6·5 million? The only way that it can make it pay is by asset-stripping. We have not experienced this sort of problem in Nottinghamshire before and, having read the book, "Pits and Mortar", we are more determined than ever not to allow it.

The past chairman of British Coal, Sir Ian MacGregor, had his critics, but his word was his bond. I am sorry to say that that is no longer the case at Hobart house. North Nottinghamshire Members of Parliament were given a promise that they would be consulted before any deal was done, yet to date no invitation has arrived on our desks. However, we have been informed that an agreement has been reached.

I ask the Minister to use what powers he has to postpone this proposed deal and to allow the housing consortium, which has the blessing of the Housing Corporation — in other words, this Government — and the local district councils, with whom they have worked for many years, to resume negotiations. Both organisations are prepared to give a grant of £1 million to bring this about.

As a result of British Coal's dismissive attitude towards the housing consortium personnel, Roy Lynk, the president of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, is prepared to take the chair if and when negotiations start. I want to hear a statement from the Minister that will enable the elderly people who have given their working lives to the coal industry to have a happy Christmas and a worry-free future. The way that British Coal has treated my constituents and their Members of Parliament is nothing short of a disgrace. In the light of this experience I should like to send a message to Mr. John Walsh, who wishes to become the next president of the NUM: do not bother; British Coal deserves Scargill.

2.17 pm

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) for allowing me the opportunity to express my concern, as I have on previous occasions, about this matter.

The nothing short of callous attitude of British Coal over the sale of these houses should be highlighted and the Minister should take action.

In Castleford travel-to-work area and the Wakefield metropolitan district, houses have been sold off to new owners in London, 200 miles away, of whom the tenants are not aware. Within days, ownership was transferred.

In the Townville estate in Castleford, an ex-miner, who has no possibility of purchasing his property, after a lifetime in the industry, has been cast aside and left at the mercy of those landlords. The landlords have not bothered to repair the houses but, rather kindly, they have provided a few tools and a bit of material and told the tenants on the estate to get cracking.

There is a serious problem in this matter with regard to the Housing Defects Act 1984. On that same housing estate, the Wates-type houses are defective. Some 70 ex-miners bought houses on that estate, which consists of 400 properties. Now, because the houses are defective, they are not an attractive proposition on the market and because the new tenants of the rest of the houses are neglecting those houses — many of which are now empty and boarded up — the properties that the ex-miners purchased are worthless. The council cannot act in accordance with the 1984 Act because the value of the properties is far less than the amount it would take to repair them.

In Wakefield metropolitan district area, there are 800 British Coal houses left to sell. Will the Minister have discussions with his hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning to enable the local authorities to use some of their assets, gained through the sale of council houses, to purchase those properties rather than allow them to be purchased by racketeer landlords? As a result of those discussions, will some assistance be offered to the housing associations that are interested in those houses?

The current tenants are retired miners — many of them elderly—who, when they retired, did not enjoy the attractive redundancy payments that have been enjoyed by miners for the past two or three years. They are in a hopeless situation and are living more or less in squalor. British Coal and the Government have an obligation to those people. I hope that the Minister will do all in his power to persuade the Minister for Housing and Planning to assist local authorities such as Wakefield to purchase the remaining British Coal houses.

British Coal gave itself a three-year period in which to dispose of its housing stock. It has 10 months left and it is hell-bent on getting shot of those houses and selling them to whoever it can. In some areas it appears that some people are moving in to buy those properties in the hope of making conditions so difficult for the tenants that they will move out as quickly as they can. Therefore, the buyer has got prime building land and, despite the value of the properties, has not paid the true price for that land.

2.21 pm

I begin by paying tribute not only to the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) who raised this matter, and to the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse), but to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) who has also spoken today. The House will be aware that my hon. Friend has, for many weeks, worked tirelessly to ensure that there is a satisfactory outcome of this matter for his constituents. In answer to the hon. Member for Mansfield—given the shortage of time available to me, my answer must necessarily he brief — I have to say straight away that the sale of British Coal houses is a matter for both the ethical and commercial judgment of British Coal.

For some weeks my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood and Labour Members have made me aware of their understandable concern to secure the future wellbeing of those who are presently British Coal's tenants. This short debate has served to underline their concern.

I have spoken to Sir Kenneth Couzens, deputy chairman of British Coal, to ensure that the concerns of parliamentary colleagues are known to him. He has given me his assurance that the British Coal Corporation is making every effort to ensure that in this case, as with the disposal of all its properties, the sale is made to a responsible landlord.

Furthermore, Sir Kenneth Couzens has written to a number of hon. Members with interests in Nottinghamshire in the following terms:
"the Lancaster Housing Association, which is a registered charity and member of the national federation of housing associations, has now agreed to buy 1,821 Nottinghamshire houses at prices reflecting current market values. They have told our Area Office that they intend to establish a local office to manage these properties and will continue to offer houses to sitting tenants, with the possibility of 100 per cent. mortgages. They have also said they would welcome meetings with the tenants' associations and discussions on how to deal with repairs and general management."
As the hon. Member for Mansfield said, British Coal has sold 76,000 of its houses since 1976, which represent about 85 per cent. of its original total stock. Seventy per cent. of them have been bought at half the market value by sitting tenants and, to answer the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford, 20 per cent. have been bought by local authorities.

I understand that the organisation to which British Coal intends to sell the 1,800 houses which are the subject of today's debate has satisfied British Coal as to its financial support. That organisation has been registered as a charity for 20 years. It is listed with the Registrar of Friendly Societies, to whom it is obliged to submit annual reports and accounts, and it is a long-standing member of the Federation of Housing Associations. The hon. Member for Mansfield commented on the way in which the accounts had been registered. The Registrar of Friendly Societies has confirmed that the association has regularly returned its accounts, which are up to date.

The hon. Members who have raised this matter are wholly within their rights to do so, but they too must concede that British Coal has a public duty—it is the recipient of large sums of public money—to achieve at least a fair market price for its houses. An independent valuation carried out in the past few weeks by a firm of local surveyors estimated the value of the houses in question at slightly more than the sum that British Coal seemed likely to achieve. Every opportunity has been given to the alternative bidder to increase his offer, and he chose not to do so.

If I may refresh the Minister's memory, the negotiations were to take place, and the person speaking for British Coal said, "Unless you put on £9·5 million, you are wasting your time." So the consortium had to leave, because it did not have £9·5 million. The letter saying that British Coal would negotiate if asked is on record.

There have been many allegations about who wants to offer how much and who does not. However, this is a negotiation entered into freely between British Coal and various people who have made various offers. All I can tell my hon. Friend is that no revised offer above the original £7·3 million made by the alternative bidder has been received by British Coal.

I went a fortnight ago to British Coal and asked if it would see the housing consortium yet again. I was told, "No, Sir, we do not want to see it ever again."

My hon. Friend has put that statement on record, but negotiations require one side to come forward with an alternative offer. I must repeat to my hon. Friend that offers made to him are not offers made to British Coal. I have received a categorical assurance that no revised offer above the £7·3 million has been received by British Coal. This is a free country, and it would be perfectly open to organisations to make such an offer, but I repeat, for the third time, that no such offer has been received.

I beg to differ from the Minister. Once again, he is being misled by British Coal. There seems to be a problem between British Coal in Nottinghamshire and the Housing Corporation. I have a letter, dated 7 December, which states that British Coal is prepared to continue negotiations with the consortium after 4 December. I shall pass on that letter to the Minister. There is a problem. The consortium is willing to bid, and I beg the Minister at least to stall the sale until we can get back on stream.

The hon. Gentleman has made his point. Others have heard other allegations and suggestions that have been made about offers that might be floating around. In a negotiation procedure that has gone on for many months, it is up to someone who wishes to bid up on an offer to come forward, and not to run around to the hon. Member for Mansfield or to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood saying that he might or might not be coming forward.

It is a straightforward matter: in a negotiation, one puts forward another offer, if one wishes to. No alternative offer has been made. In these circumstances, British Coal is clear that it is right to settle for the higher offer. When the transaction has taken place, tenants will continue to be fully protected under the landlord and tenant and fair rent legislation.

It was absolutely appropriate for hon. Members to raise the matter and I hope that, in the short time that was available to me, I have answered their points satisfactorily.

It being half past Two o'clock, the Motion on the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Cystic Fibrosis Sufferers

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

2.30 pm

In 1968, the Labour Government reintroduced prescription charges, but undertook to exempt as many of the chronically sick as could be readily identified. With the co-operation of the medical profession, a list of exempted illnesses was drawn up. The rules laid down were that such illnesses should be a permanent condition, and be clearly identifiable and require continual medication, in most cases by replacement therapy. There was, of course, exemption for children up to the age of 16 and for pensioners over 65.

There can be little doubt that had cystic fibrosis been considered in 1968 it would have been placed on the list of exempted illnesses. It was not considered, for the simple reason that in 1968 very few children with cystic fibrosis lived past the age of 16—that was the tragedy. Since then, the miracles of modern science have ensured that most cystic fibrosis sufferers, if diagnosed early, live well past the age of 16 and, it is hoped, live life with normal expectancy.

It is therefore in fairness to and concern for those afflicted that I raise the subject today. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that a Conservative Government, who have shown more practical concern for the sick in our society than any Government in this nation's history, should soften their hitherto hard heart on this issue and add cystic fibrosis to the list of prescription-exempted illnesses. In that way, sufferers between the ages of 16 and 65 will be relieved of the additional problems of having to find the money to pay for their prescriptions.

This is the third time that I have raised this matter in Adjournment debates—I did so first in 1979 and again in 1985. The last time that I raised the matter I declared a general interest as an unofficial, unpaid parliamentary adviser to the Cystic Fibrosis Research Trust, which position I believe I still enjoy. I also declared a personal financial interest because I have a daughter—now aged 19½, but 16 in 1985 — who sadly suffers from cystic fibrosis. As she was and is a student, I would have benefited in the foreseeable future from the addition of cystic fibrosis to the list of exemptions. Unhappily, my daughter has since contracted diabetes — as almost 12 per cent. of cystic fibrosis sufferers do — and she is therefore eligible for free prescription charges because of that affliction. I now no longer have a personal financial interest to declare in accordance with the rules of the House.

Cystic fibrosis is a condition in which mucous glands secrete abnormal amounts of mucous. Two areas of the body are affected. The first is the digestive system, because the mucous clogs and restricts the flow of digestive enzymes and the pancreas does not function properly or does not function at all. Proteins and fats are not properly digested and the child does not flourish. The necessary treatment for that malfunction is an expensive, high-protein diet and a large quantity, in capsule and concentrated form, of powdered pigs' pancreas with every meal. My daughter used to take up to 10 capsules with each meal. They do the work that the human pancreas is unable to do.

The second area is the lungs. Abnormally thick mucous builds up in the bronchial tubes and seals in bacteria and viral infection, which if not cleared causes progressive deterioration leading to lung failure and often, alas, to death.

Treatment requires physiotherapy for about 20 minutes at least twice a day. Indeed, in some cases as long as 12 hours a day must be spent in physiotherapy. Intensive courses are necessary to clear the lungs of such children during school holidays to get them fit again for the start of the school term. In addition, the illness requires sufferers to take antibiotics, to use decoagulating atomisers and sometimes to sleep in mist tents at night.

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic illness that children inherit from their parents, who usually do not have the faintest idea that they are carriers of the gene and that they have a one in four chance of producing cystic fibrosis in their children. One in 20 of the population carry the defective gene and there is a one in 625 chance of carriers marrying. There are thought to be 5,600 sufferers today in the United Kingdom. That number increases at the rate of between 200 and 300 per year. There are 2,400 sufferers over the age of 16, and it is they who are covered by this debate.

When my daughter was born, cystic fibrosis usually killed children in the first year of their lives. Now, as a result of the wonderful work done by doctors, scientists, nurses and parents, most cystic fibrosis children reach adulthood in reasonably good health. Therefore, there is even more need for the medication to be made available on prescription than when I last asked the Government to do so two and a half years ago.

I should like to pay tribute to the Cystic Fibrosis Research Trust, which is the organisation representing sufferers of cystic fibrosis and their parents. That charity, which celebrates its silver jubilee in 1989, is adorned by the patronage of Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra, the Hon. Mrs. Angus Ogilvy, and is dedicated to raising money to fund medical and scientific research projects into the causes, treatment and, hopefully, the cure of cystic fibrosis. There are currently about 45 projects in hospitals and universities all over the country.

The trust provides education, comfort and morale-boosting support to those whose suffering may, in some cases, be even greater than that of their cystic fibrosis children—the parents. With the trust's help, we are now close to discovering the faulty gene, which is why a cure may soon be possible. That was unthought of when I addressed the House on earlier occasions. The Cystic Fibrosis Research Trust is an outstanding example of how excellent work can be done to relieve disability without state aid.

The burden of care and responsibility falling upon parents, who sometimes have more than one cystic fibrosis child, to keep their children alive and enable them to enjoy as near normality in their lives as possible, is great. To relieve such parents and their children as they grow into adulthood of the additional worry of having to meet the relentless cost of prescription charges, even with the considerable help of the season ticket formula, which has been reduced to the present £35 per year, must be a highly desirable aim, which I am sure will claim the support of all hon. Members.

What would that cost? The Association of Cystic Fibrosis Adults estimates that about 800 adults pay prescription charges, at a total cost of about £51,000 a year. Therefore, the amount involved is peanuts and would be unlikely to cause the Chancellor one sleepless night. There can he positively no objection to the relief of that prescription charge on the grounds of cost.

Why, then, have the Government been so reluctant to help at least until now? When my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) was Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security he gave some insight into the problem when he responded to my debate in October 1979.

He explained that the medical profession had to agree any decision. He said:
"Speaking as a layman I have a great deal of sympathy with the call to add cystic fibrosis to the list, and I would hope that the medical profession, if it were asked, would agree that it seems to satisfy the normal criteria for inclusion …
What I have had to ponder over is whether I should ask the doctors to add cystic fibrosis to the list and I have seriously considered doing so, as I personally think that if as many CF patients had survived to adulthood when the list was originally drawn up, that condition might well have been included."
My hon. Friend went on to explain why he would not immediately take the step for which I was asking. He said:
"If one advanced the boundary a little further to include cystic fibrosis, one would also in justice have to conduct a more general review of the whole scheme, and probably put in those who have phenylketonuria or coeliac disease. Therefore, one has to take a slightly broader view of the exemptions than my hon. Friend would like … If I seek to add this condition to the list, can I really defend not going further? Should not I consider whether the list of exempt conditions is the best way of helping the chronic sick, and is it right to go on trying to improve the list as my hon. Friend would wish in a rather piecemeal way, instead of seeking an alternative, within the resource constraints imposed by our present financial circumstances, to help more of the chronic sick?"
I agree. If we can help everybody, there is no point in worrying about helping a few.

My hon. Friend said:
"If I have decided to make no approach to the representatives of the medical profession at present it is because I feel that we must first see whether it is possible to work out some fairer way within our present financial constraints to help all the chronic sick with the costs of drugs they need than this present method of listing specified medical conditions."
But, said my hon. Friend—here a glimmer of light was offered to me—
"If we conclude that there is no better way than the present, I will return again to the request of my hon. Friend that we should consider, with the representatives of the medical profession, whether the list is fully up to date and whether there is a case for adding cystic fibrosis to it and perhaps some other similar conditions."—[Official Report, 25 October 1979; Vol. 972, c.688–91.]
I went away happy, or as happy as it was reasonably possible to be in the circumstances. If the Government could not see their way clear to helping everyone, they would look again to see whether cystic fibrosis sufferers at least could be further helped. Nothing happened. Did the Department conclude that there was "no better way than the present"? Did the Department return to consider cystic fibrosis? Did the representatives of the medical profession say no?

I raised the matter again on 24 May 1985 on the Adjournment. This time my hon. Friend and adversary was the new Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten). He was most sympathetic, and said:
"We all want to do what we can to help, but the case for free prescriptions for that group of people must be seen, I am afraid, within the wider context of the whole range of services provided by the NHS, the resources available, and the resources that exist to improve those services. I am well on the way to accepting my hon. and learned Friend's point that cystic fibrosis deserves very strong consideration. Alas, however, I am not at all convinced of the argument that it could be considered in isolation."
Yes, we had been over that ground. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton had told us that he would find out whether everyone could be helped and, if not, would look again at the case for cystic fibrosis sufferers.

Had that happened? Apparently not. My hon. Friend the new Under-Secretary of State explained that the list was kept under review and added:
"it was last discussed with representatives of the medical profession as long ago as 1976, when cystic fibrosis was one of the conditions considered. But the General Medical Services Committee, representing the medical profession, did not at that stage come to an agreement over the addition of any conditions to the list."—[Official Report, 24 May 1985; Vol. 79, c. 1328–29.]
That was 1976—nothing had happened after my debate in October 1979. I had wasted my breath, and so had my hon. Friend the Minister.

I asked for the matter to be reconsidered, and I was told by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon of the answer given by the Secretary of State on 11 March 1985, stating that the case for cystic fibrosis exemption would be looked at again, that the reexamination was taking place in the Department at that very time and that it was hoped that it would be completed before the end of the year. Was it? With what result?

Presumably, the answer was, "No, we cannot help everyone with a permanent illness because it would be too costly." Incidentally, how much would it cost? Presumably the answer was, "No, we cannot give special exemption to cystic fibrosis sufferers because that would be unfair to others." By now, the case for exempting cystic fibrosis sufferers must be as well known as it is undoubtedly compelling.

I shall briefly restate the case. Cystic fibrosis would have been on the exemption list if it had been considered in 1968. Ministers have agreed to that. Cystic fibrosis meets all the criteria for exemption. Ministers have agreed to that. The amount of money that it would cost the Government to extend the list to cover cystic fibrosis would be negligible. Ministers have agreed to that. There is no rule which states that smaller groups cannot be helped until the entire larger group can be helped, but the list of cases where the Government have helped to the extent that they are able is getting quite long.

We have exempted, for example, some old-age pensioners from having to pay the television licence fee if they live in warden-controlled accommodation. We have added to the list of drugs that doctors can prescribe on the NHS as the case for their inclusion has become more compelling. I could go on.

The case for adding cystic fibrosis to the list of exemptions gets stronger every year as the splendid doctors and researchers who, with the help of parents and the Cystic Fibrosis Research Trust, care for children with cystic fibrosis, bring them to adulthood and give them the prospect of a longer and normal life. They face the additional burden of a prescription charge which others in like circumstances simply do not have to pay.

As this is the very last debate before Christmas, and as the Minister who is to reply is my Member of Parliament, my friend and my much admired colleague who has done so much to relieve the plight of the sick since she has assumed her present office, I am more confident than ever before that my plea will not fall on deaf ears.

I wish you, Mr. Speaker, my hon. Friend, the servants of this great House of Commons and all my colleagues on both sides of the House a very happy Christmas and a healthier new year.

2.48 pm

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for allowing me to butt into 30 seconds of her time. I should like to say a few words of support for what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) has said.

I am fortunate in that I have no personal connection with anyone who suffers from cystic fibrosis although a small number of my constituents do. Apart from that, I have no interest to declare in the matter.

There is an extremely good case for extending the exemption to cystic fibrosis sufferers and I should like to re-emphasise the three main reasons. First, there is a genuine anomaly here, which has been caused since 1968, and purely on medical advance. Secondly, the cost to the Treasury of the Government doing something to alleviate the problem is extremely small—some £51,000 in a year. Thirdly, although it is difficult to make judgments in these matters, I think that there have been some exemptions in various areas of social policy which, if one took a hard look, one could say were less deserving than this in some ways.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton has stated the strong case for exemption being extended to cystic fibrosis sufferers lucidly and eloquently. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for allowing me a few moments and I hope that she will give strong and urgent consideration to the excellent case advanced by my hon. and learned Friend.

2.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security
(Mrs. Edwina Currie)

First, I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) on his success in the ballot and welcome the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman) for my hon. and learned Friend in this debate.

Today we have an opportunity once again to raise the question of exemption from prescription charges for suffers of cystic fibrosis, as my hon. and learned Friend did in 1979 and 1985. I am following in honoured footsteps as I attempt to answer him, but I doubt whether I have any better news for him than had my predecessors, despite his kind personal remarks, which I appreciate.

My hon. and learned Friend rehearsed well the nature of cystic fibrosis, its causes as far as they are known and the daily difficulties facing any sufferer from the condition and family concerned.

About 250 affected children are born every year. About 70 per cent. survive until the age of 16, about half to the age of 30 and a few are now in their 40s. That leaves us at present with about 3,200 children and 2,400 adults in the United Kingdom. The commonest occurrence now appears in Scotland and the incidence of live births of cystic fibrosis children seems to be decreasing from about four per 10,000 live births in 1977 to 2·9 in 1984, which is the latest figure that I have.

My hon. and learned Friend drew attention to the increasingly successful treatments now available and I join him in paying tribute to the Cystic Fibrosis Research Trust. It is a model of its kind, uniting and assisting victims and their families, offering authoritative and well founded information and initiating research of the most productive nature. I understand that there is now an Association of Cystic Fibrosis Adults under its aegis, which was established earlier this year.

Between my hon. and learned Friend, my hon. Friend and me there is no need to rehearse the history of how it comes about that diabetics get free prescriptions, but cystic fibrosis sufferers do not. This is a new Parliament, so it may help other hon. Members if I set out the background of the discussions nearly 20 years ago when the then Labour Government discovered for the second time in their history that they could not manage without prescription charges. Indeed, in all the 40 years of the NHS, scripts have been free only for brief periods, first at the beginning and then in the mid-1960s.

When prescription charges were reintroduced in 1968, a list of specified medical conditions was drawn up as a means of exempting some of the chronically sick. We were told that such a scheme could operate only with the full co-operation of general medical practitioners. Their representatives made it clear that they could agree to exemptions only for readily identifiable medical conditions that called automatically for continuous, lifelong medication and, in most cases, for replacement therapy.

The comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten) still stands. He said:
"A doctor would not wish to enter into a debate with a patient about whether his condition was severe or permanent enough to attract exemption. Yet such arguments would be inevitable if ill-defined or complex diseases were added to the list or conditions were added that were so variable in their prognosis or treatment that exemption would not always be justified. The doctor would have to make, and defend, difficult judgments between two patients at different stages of the same disease, and that could put at risk the important relationship between doctor and patient: a relationship where we tread rather delicately and tend to leave as much as possible, quite properly, to the medical profession's ethical views."—[Official Report, 24 May 1985; Vol. 79, c. 1330.]
On that occasion my hon. Friend reported that a review was under way, which was announced on 11 March 1985, and that review was concluded in 1986. I read the paper submitted to the Minister of State at the time and it took into account the large number of conditions which are no longer killers and which require lifetime medication. I suffer from one of them, asthma, and I shall depend on drug therapy for the rest of my life.

There is also a question of those with short-term terminal illness—the House will recall that the question was raised at the Conservative party conference some little while back — where an extensive range of expensive drugs may be needed, albeit for palliative treatment. As medical science advances the list will undoubtedly grow.

I agree entirely with my hon. and learned Friend that had children with cystic fibrosis been surviving beyond the age of 18 in large numbers 20 years ago, that disease would undoubtedly have been on the list in the first place.

Do either of the examples that my hon. Friend gave us involve replacement therapy, which is one of the fundamental conditions that is required, and which applies to cystic fibrosis?

If my hon. and learned Friend will listen to the points that I have to make, he may feel that we would no longer rely heavily on some of the points which were made 20 years ago to make our case.

I agree that, had survival been possible, this disease would probably have been on the list, but it was not put on the list. Two reviews since then have both concluded that no revision of the list should be made for cystic fibrosis or anything else. I know how deeply that will disappoint my hon. and learned Friend and his supporters, and I share his feelings, but having looked into the matter with some care, I come to the conclusion that my predecessors were not wrong.

The basis for exemptions for prescriptions is arbitrary and does not reflect current medical thinking. Nor does it parallel exemptions from dental charges, nor the rules for vouchers for spectacles, which are different again. I shall not begin to attempt to defend the rules and exemptions that we have now, but the principle to which we think it is wise to cling is that no one should be denied treatment or drugs on financial grounds. If a person or his family cannot pay, the prescription is free. That applies to all receivers of supplementary benefit or family income settlement, and indeed some others on low incomes. As a result, some three quarters of all prescriptions are issued free. After the social security reforms in April, those "passports" will continue, but we expect around twice as many families to qualify for family credit as for family income supplement than is the case at present. Therefore, the proportion of exempt subscriptions will probably increase.

We go a little further in this country and we encourage those on long-term medication to purchase pre-payment certificates. The charge for them is £35 a year, or 67p a week, or £12·50 for four months, which represents a significant saving for anyone requiring multiple prescriptions. The procedure for obtaining those exemption certificates at the moment is slow and fiddly. The Cheshire family practitioner committee has been telling me about its pioneering scheme for making the certificates available directly at pharmacists' premises. I have asked officials to look into the matter and advise whether we should change regulations for the whole country in that way. It would certainly help patients and be administratively simpler.

Of course, we do not expect people to pay the full cost of their drugs, except those for very mild conditions, which we took off the NHS list two years ago. The state recognises its responsibility in that important way. The flat rate charge of £2·40 covers, on average, only 45 per cent. of the cost of a typical prescription. In 1986, the latest year for which detailed figures are available, 322 million prescription items were dispensed in England, which is 22 million more than in 1980. We expect the figure to rise to 334 million this year. Of those, 246 million—that is, 76 per cent.—are exempt and 15 million—that is, 4·9 per cent.—are covered by pre-payment certificates, so there is almost certainly more scope for pre-payment certificates to be purchased.

It follows that only 60 million out of 322 million, or around 18 per cent., attract the charge at the time of dispensing. In 1968, when charges were reintroduced, only about 42 per cent. were dispensed free of charge. The total cost in 1986–87 of drugs in the Health Service was £1·8 billion, and that included dispensing costs. The charges raised £145 million or 8 per cent. I think that that will help to answer some of the questions that were put to me by my hon. and learned Friend.

My hon. and learned Friend who, as he says, is my constituent, is also a very dear friend. When I first arrived in the House in 1983, he offered me friendship and kindness, for which I shall be eternally grateful. My heart goes out to him and his family as he speaks of his personal experience of cystic fibrosis. Perhaps we are all lucky to be living in this country. My family in America suffered catastrophic financial consequences from the severe diabetes of my aunt whose needs rapidly outran all insurance cover. It took years to pay off all the medical bills.

Most of the other care and treatment that my hon. and learned Friend mentioned — the diagnosis, the physiotherapy, the support of the GP, the consultants, any necessary hospital treatment, and so on — are all provided without assessment or payment in this country. Indeed, over 92 per cent. of the cost of health care for all of us is provided by the state in Britain, and that is the highest proportion in the free world.

Perhaps I can comfort my hon. and learned Friend by saying that we all hope that in the years to come cystic fibrosis will be brought under control, as diabetes, epilepsy and asthma now largely have been, so that sufferers can lead normal lives, take their place as workers and taxpayers and look forward to old age. If the report in The Times of 30 November 1987 is anything to go by, I understand that
"Scientists at Celltech, the British biotechnology company have identified a naturally occurring enzyme which will be I he basis of a new drug to help sufferers of the condition."
The enzyme is called human gastric lipase, and if all goes well, the product will be generally available by 1994. However, we are some way off at present.

I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will permit me to offer him and his family, you, dear Mr. Speaker, and all those here who are still listening, the compliments of the season and a very happy new year.

Before I adjourn the House, I should echo the remarks of the Under-Secretary of State and wish all hon. Members and the staff of the House, who serve us so faithfully and well, a very happy Christmas.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock, till Monday 11 January 1988, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 8 December.