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Engagements

Volume 131: debated on Thursday 14 April 1988

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Q1.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 14 April.

This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House I shall have further meetings later today.

How can the Prime Minister, in all conscience, sleep easily in her bed at night when she knows that thousands of poor, the elderly and the handicapped have lost as much as £20 per week as a result of the vicious changes in housing benefit legislation?

Because on the whole our reforms have targeted help on the disabled and on low-income families, particularly those who have low pay. There have been changes in housing benefit, as the hon. Lady is aware, with a capital limit of some £6,000. Even so, the amount spent on housing benefit by the people will still be more in real terms than in 1979. We shall still be in the position where every two households have not only to keep themselves but have to contribute to keeping every third household.

Is it not a true description of the function of the Prime Minister not to do the job of departmental Ministers but so to guide Government policy that the financial and economic strains in it lead to the greatest possible wealth creation, which the departmental Ministers can then distribute?

I would not leave all the wealth creation for departmental Ministers to distribute. We would not get wealth creation unless people were able to keep a bigger proportion of their earnings. That is the engine of wealth creation. It is the reason why we have a higher standard of living than ever before. It is the reason why now departmental Ministers, especially those involved with social security, are spending a bigger proportion on social security than ever before and a bigger proportion of the national income.

Does the Prime Minister now agree that the flat-rate poll tax should be replaced by a system which is more closely related to people's ability to pay?

The community charge takes into account people's ability to pay.—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman of course will be aware that those on income support receive an average payment to pay the 20 per cent. which they would otherwise have to pay out of their income. Above that, there is a rebate from 80 per cent. Taking those two things together, it means between 7 and 8 million people do not pay the full community charge because of rebates.

I have given the right hon. Gentleman a much better answer than that.

For once, the Prime Minister could give a much better answer, which would be of interest to me and to my hon. Friends, and I am sure to her mates, too.

May I make three quick points just to try to get it across to the right hon. Gentleman. The first one is this. In England the community charge meets only a quarter of local authority expenditure. Between 7 million and 8 million people will not have to pay the community charge in full, because of rebates or extra income support. Finally, 10 per cent. of households with the highest income will pay 15 times as much towards the cost of local services as the 10 per cent. of households with the lowest incomes.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the widespread interest in this House and in the country in the meeting which she had yesterday with Mother Teresa of Calcutta? After meeting this very remarkable woman, does she agree with Mother Teresa's assertion that the poorest nations on earth are those that substitute the violence of abortion on demand for love and practical help? Will my right hon. Friend therefore ensure that the amended Bill before the House at the moment, which had a substantial majority on Second Reading and which has passed its Committee stage after reasonable debate and amendment, will have a fair run, and will not be baulked, and that the nation, where we have a majority on this issue, will not be baulked either?

As my right hon. Friend is aware, every person in this House has the greatest respect and affection for Mother Teresa and for the work that she does. Even though we might disagree with her on one or two things, we still admire and respect her views. My right hon. Friend is very persuasive, but he knows the position with regard to private Members' time. The Government do not give time for private Members' Bills. Private Members are able to take advantage of every procedure with regard to Committees, which is known to them in full.

Q2.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 14 April.

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

What message does the Prime Minister have for more than 3,000 school children in Barnsley who have lost their entitlement to free school meals as a result of her Government's means-test mentality, which has brought about the recent social security reforms?

This is taken into account in the cash benefits which are available. However much the hon. Gentleman may try to denigrate them, the economic policy of this Government has led to higher payments on social security, at a time of falling unemployment, than ever before. They are levels that the Labour party could not have dreamt of: £46 billion, including £2 billion extra, an amount which means that working people—the working family—have to pay an average of £64 a week to keep social security going now; £32 a week to keep the National Health Service going, and a further £25 a week to keep education going.

Q3.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 14 April.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when Governments of the past declared war on poverty, poverty always won because of a declining economy and a benefit system that was highly complicated and full of anomalies? Having put the economy right, will my right hon. Friend press on with the difficult but essential task of re-establishing the original aims of the welfare state, which were self-help where possible and accurate targeting of benefits for those who could not help themselves?

Yes, Sir. Public services can flourish only if we have a flourishing private sector. The private sector creates the necessary wealth to run the social services and to raise the standard of living. We should congratulate all working people on the excellent way in which they are responding and creating that wealth, and on the excellent way in which, after the reforms, it is targeted on those in greatest need—in other words, the disabled and families with children, particularly those on low incomes.

Q4.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 14 April.

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

What advice does the Prime Minister give to the many sensible councils of all party political persuasions which have been hit by the proposed restrictions on barter deals? Some are run by the Conservative party. Carrick district council, for example, has plans for Truro city hall, and Restormel borough council has plans for St. Austell centre. Both are low-spending councils.

We have had to make changes in the capital position of councils because, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, too much creative accounting was going on and getting round some of the existing rules. That is why we had to take steps to change the position.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the great benefits of the social security changes which have just been introduced is that they discourage young people from choosing to escape the authority of their parents by leaving home and living on social security benefits and not genuinely seeking work?

As my hon. Friend is aware, social security is meant for those who need help because they genuinely cannot find work, are sick, or are too old to work. We know some parents who have been worried that their young people have left home and gone on to the dole to have a flat when the parents felt that the young people could take a job.

Q5.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 14 April.

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

Is the Prime Minister aware of the great concern felt by industry, commerce, trade unions, academics and other important groups on Tayside about any possible threatened closure of Dundee university dental school? It cannot make economic sense to spend millions of pounds on a new building elsewhere—[Interruption.]—and to threaten an existing efficient organisation and, consequently, Dundee dental hospital, as well as to impair the whole future of the university. [Interruption.] Will she lend her help to those groups on Tayside who are trying to save those important assets for the region?

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to let me have notice of the question that he intended to ask. Otherwise, I could not have heard what it was. The working party of the University Grants Committee—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Gentleman may be allowed to hear my reply as he asked a specific question. The working party of the UGC has recommended, among the measures, the withdrawal of the funding of the dental school at Dundee university. It is for the UGC to decide whether to accept and implement the working party's recommendation. However, the committee has consulted the universities, professional bodies and the Government Departments concerned so that all the implications for local dental services can be taken into account before a decision is reached. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy.

Despite the firm and clear assurances at the recent European Council meeting, the Brussels arrangements announced yesterday are that £225 million is to be spent every week this year on dumping and destroying food surpluses. Will the Prime Minister be willing to put up a fight in view of this breach of promise and this scandalous abuse of public money, which does massive damage to the Third world and which is an insult to every poor person in Europe?

My hon. Friend asks a complicated question, which could take a long time to answer. As he knows, surpluses and selling them off also damage the Third world as they affect agricultural economies. That is why we tried to do two things in the last Council meeting. We tried to reduce the increase in agricultural production—in some cases, by the price mechanism—and tried at the same time to write off the surpluses that are at present in store, as we hoped, that that would reduce the amount in store. We want to dispose of the surpluses as quickly as possible, preferably by 1992. When we get there, I am sure that my hon. Friend will approve of the policy decisions that we have taken.

Q6.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 14 April.

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

In this week, of all weeks, when so many people have been made poorer, when the poorest have been made even poorer still, how can the Prime Minister justify spending £300 per head on a business man's breakfast to launch the campaign for the inner cities?

I do not agree with the premise behind the hon. Gentleman's question. This week, in cash terms, there will be 5 million gainers from the social security reforms, 2 million people will not face a change in cash terms and there will be a decrease for less than 1 million people. As I stated earlier, we are doing as much as we can to help the inner cities. What the hon. Gentleman is really complaining about is that we are succeeding in presenting our policy properly.