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Volume 130: debated on Thursday 31 March 1988

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To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 31 March.

In addition to my duties in the House I shall be having further meetings later today, including one with the President of Cyprus.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the chief superintendent of the police in Wolverhampton and the 250 police officers in the west midlands on their brave and successful initiative with Wolves earlier this week? Does she accept that we must continue to detect and punish the violent football offenders who are determined to wreck football matches and ruin the game for genuine football fans?

I think that the police in all parts of the country are to be congratulated on their determined efforts to tackle football hooliganism and to track down those responsible for this terrible offence that is doing so much damage to football. With good co-operation between the police, the Football Association and the clubs a good deal has already been achieved, but I agree with my hon. Friend that there is still a long way to go.

Is the Prime Minister aware that from tomorrow, when her changes in housing benefit and rate relief come into effect, an old lady on a basic pension will, because of the 20 per cent. rule, have to pay £2 a week instead of getting £500 rate relief per annum? An 87-yearold war widow with a small occupational pension will have her housing benefit reduced by £17·87 a week. A couple in work with a joint income of £82 a week will lose £16·50 in help with their rent and rates. This is an historic day. It is the first Maundy Thursday in history when, instead of giving money to the poor, rulers are taking money from the poor.

First, more is being given to the poor, as the right hon. Gentleman knows—a great deal more. Indeed, expenditure on social security has gone up from £16 billion to £46 billion—an enormous increase. It will go up a further £2 billion next year. That means—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."]— I am answering the question and I insist on doing so in my own way. The average family will be paying £64 a week to finance social security. Yes, we have had structural changes. Yes, they were meant to re-target the money spent so that disabled people, families with children and those in low-paid work are better off. In cash terms transitional protection of income support means that 97 per cent. of sick and disabled people, 92 per cent. of couples with children, 89 per cent. of single parents and 87 per cent. of pensioners get more or the same.

The Prime Minister is making the same stupid mistake as she made with the National Health Service figures. First, does she not realise that there is no transitional arrangement for housing benefit and for the loss of rates relief, so that is utterly irrelevant? Secondly, the Prime Minister can play the numbers game as much as she likes. There are 9 million people in poverty in Britain now. In 1979 there were 6 million people who were reckoned to be in poverty. The right hon. Lady can talk about targeting as much as she likes, but does she not realise that if the targets missed include war widows, if the targets missed include people who are desperately sick, if the targets missed include hundreds of thousands of poor people, her targets are rubbish?

What the right hon. Gentleman is saying is that we can never have a restructuring of social security if anyone loses. It is an absolutely ridiculous thing to say. He totally ignores the enormous increases —[Interruption.] We deliberately re-targeted. I dealt with housing benefit last week. Yes, we deliberately did have changes. There is no blunder in the figures. The fact is that 97 per cent. of the sick and disabled, 92 per cent. of couples with children, 89 per cent. of single parents and 87 per cent. of pensioners are getting more or the same. As for war widows, they have more to thank this Government for than any previous Government. It was this Government who totally and utterly relieved war widows' pensions of tax, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to say that once again.

Is the Prime Minister not aware that in order to get those figures she has had to lump together gainers and those who are reckoned to be neither gainers nor losers? The Minister who compiled those figures had to go to the Select Committee yesterday and admit that those who are reckoned to be neither gainers nor losers are already losers because, as he put it, their benefits were frozen in 1987. Does the Prime Minister not recognise that £650 million is being taken away from housing benefit and that 700,000 people will lose everything? They are people who have put a few bob away to tide them through their old age. The right hon. Lady is cutting them off without a penny.

Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise that expenditure that has increased from £16 billion to £46 billion, and that is going up by a further £2 billion, is, even on his arithmetic, an enormous increase?

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the miners at the Gedling colliery in my constituency on the figures that were announced earlier this week, which show that productivity over the last year has increased by nearly 25 per cent.? Does she agree that increased productivity and greater competitiveness offer the best guarantee for the long-term interests of the industry, not only in Gedling and Nottinghamshire, but throughout the British mining industry?

Yes. I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the miners on the excellent increase in productivity. I join him also in making it clear that there is a very good future for those who work in the mining industry when they produce coal at competitive prices and give a very good return on the massive amount of investment that this Government have ploughed into the mining industry. Many congratulations.

Will the Government rethink their appallingly short-sighted response to the report on AIDS and drug misuse in view of the fact that in Edinburgh 50 per cent. of those on injectable drugs now have the HIV AIDS virus, that this is by far the most likely route into the heterosexual community, and that unless money is spent in Edinburgh and in the country as a whole to control drug misuse we shall run a very serious risk of AIDS spreading into the community as a whole?

I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman. He is very well aware of the large amount of money that has been spent on warning people about the dangers of the behaviour that they assume. We have tried to get over to them an excellent educational policy, and we have tried to make available very good extra facilities. A large amount of money has been put into extra research. I think that we have got the balance about right.

When my right hon. Friend goes to church over Easter, will she see whether the collection is to go to the fabric fund? If it is, will she reflect, as she puts her contribution in the plate, that 15 per cent. is going to her next-door neighbour? Will she therefore have discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to see whether VAT can be removed from repairs to listed buildings, especially churches?

The Easter collection normally goes, as my hon. Friend, I think, knows well, to the clergy in the diocese, and I hope that it will continue to do so. I realise that my hon. Friend knew all that and only twisted the question the other way to make his point. The matter has been considered many times, and I do not think that there will be any change in the decision already made.


To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 31 March.

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

As the Prime Minister is so dismissive of the views of the Citizens Advice Bureau, does she share the views of the member of her own party who said yesterday that pensioners with modest savings could lose up to £10 per week in housing benefit as a result of the changes coming into effect shortly? Will she give the House a straight answer?

It was a matter of policy that housing benefit should be cut off where people have £6,000 in capital in addition to the ownership of their house, which many of them also have. It was a matter of policy that those people should not be entitled to housing benefit. Every two households in this country support not only themselves but a third household and there really is a limit to the amount that we can have in housing benefit. Again, we think that we have got it right and that people without capital should not be forced to pay housing benefit to those with sums over £6,000.

When my right hon. Friend comes to reply to the letter sent to her by Amnesty International, apparently on behalf of three terrorists—mercifully now dead—will she point out that it is the organisation to which those terrorists belonged that has been in massive breach of all decent standards relating to human rights? Will she further point out that an inquest is to be carried out before a jury in Gibraltar and that the inquiry for which Amnesty International has asked is a stunt without status?

I agree with almost every word that my hon. Friend used in putting his question so ably. I hope that Amnesty has some concern for more than 2,000 people murdered by the IRA since 1969. There will be an inquest in Gibraltar and that is the proper occasion for the matters in question to be examined.


To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 31 March.

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

At a moment of weakness on the Cross, Jesus said:

"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
Why, by the time we come back after Easter, will the Government have forsaken the poor of this country?

As I said, the Government do not find resources; the people do. The people are already paying £46 billion to state social security, and it is going up by a further £2 billion. The average family will then be paying £64 a week to social security. That is a very considerable amount. It is not the Government, but the people who find resources.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 31 March.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that recent tragic events in Northern Ireland reinforce, if any reinforcement were necessary, the vital importance of the Army supporting the civil power there? Does she further agree that if the "Troops Out" movement, which is supported by many Opposition Members, were to be successful, it would place many innocent lives in Northern Ireland in jeopardy?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and there can be no question of withdrawing our troops while the security situation remains as it is and the IRA continues to murder and maim indiscriminately. I think my hon. Friend will agree that we have every reason to be grateful to the Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary for the considerable restraint and courage with which they carry out their duty.

Would the Prime Minister care to explain why she has chosen to meddle again in Scottish education and impose a major unwarranted and unwanted change —the opting out of schools? Would she care to explain why she intended to choose the dishonest and disreputable method of announcing the change through a planted amendment to the School Boards (Scotland) Bill?

The right hon. Gentleman is aware that the system of governing schools in Scotland is quite different from that which obtains in England. He is aware that there is a Bill before the House which has received a First Reading and will soon receive a Second Reading. It will establish school boards in Scotland. That is the initial step which must be taken. There will be no addition, and nor could there be, under the Long Title, to make opting out a possibility during passage of the Bill.[Interruption.] We obviously take a totally different view. Our purpose is to increase choice in education, whereas the attitude on the other side of the House is that that is the education that Socialists want and the people must take it or leave it.


To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 31 March.

Will my right hon. Friend recall, especially this Easter time, Mr. Terry Waite and Mr. John McCarthy, who are captive in Beirut? Will she note the deep concern that is felt on both sides of the House for those two good men and all other innocent political hostages? Can she reassure the House and the families of those men that everything possible is being done to secure their release which does not put further innocent lives at risk?

Yes, we are very much aware of those two people and of all those who have been taken hostage. My hon. Friend is aware of the policy that we pursue. We will make representations on their behalf and follow up every lead to try to see that they are in reasonable health and are kept in reasonable circumstances. We will not pay ransom, because to do so would only mean that more hostages are taken. We do not forget these people and are well aware, particularly during public holidays, of the great strain that their families are under.