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Volume 132: debated on Thursday 28 April 1988

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To ask The Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 28 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 be having further meetings later today.

If The Prime Minister agrees with the words of the Minister replying to yesterday's debate to the effect that the Government were making only "modest adjustments", and not major concessions, will she recognise the case of a constituent of mine? She is 79-years-old, living in a private old people's home, with a pension of £41·71 a week. She has been trying to sell her house, valued at £7,500, for 17 months but is unable to do so. She is not helped by yesterday's decision. Will The Prime Minister accept that more problems were created than were solved yesterday? What is that old lady going to do, and what are the Government going to do about it?

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, it has been my experience that when hon. Members raise personal cases in the House, which used virtually never to be done at Question Time, there is very rarely or never a full statement of the facts. The cases must be taken up with the Minister concerned.

With regard to the announcement yesterday, bearing in mind that the amount spent on housing benefit was £5,200 million, and the amount at the end of yesterday was £5,300 million, I think that, a "modest adjustment", but effective to deal with the problems, is indeed a proper description of what took place.

Has my right hon. Friend had time today to read the pamphlet, "The Crisis in Religious Education", expressing grave concern at the trend towards multi-faith education in our schools? Will she reaffirm her Government's commitment to the teaching of Christianity to all the children in our schools?

As my hon. Friend is aware, in the Education Act 1944 religious education was made compulsory and the syllabus was to be determined by a committee drawn up locally. Most of us believe, and I think it is borne out by the debates of that time, that the reference there to religious education was predominantly but not exclusively, to the scriptures of the Bible, and are somewhat concerned that that has not altogether been carried out. I understand that there will be a debate in another place and that those views may be very well ventilated.

In answer to a parliamentary question yesterday The Prime Minister told the House that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was what she called the lead Minister on exchange rates. Can she please tell us who is the lead Minister on benefit rates at the moment?

As I said in the reply to that question, our policies are policies of the Government as a whole, and very successful they are.

I am sorry that The Prime Minister cannot tell us who is the lead Minister on benefit rates, because I read in the Daily Mail this morning that The Prime Minister alone was responsible for the U-turn yesterday, and I wanted to give full credit where it was due. As The Prime Minister appears to have some responsibility in these matters, and as the savings on housing benefit were to have been £640 million, before the £100 million announcement yesterday, could she tell us who will now lose that £540 million? Will they not be people who until this month were considered too poor to pay any rates and who now, regardless of their ability to pay, are having to pay 20 per cent. of their rates?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for congratulating the entire Government on successful economic policies—so successful that we have the best social security policies that any Government have ever had. Everyone benefits—even Opposition Members have benefited during the lifetime of this Government.

Does The Prime Minister not yet understand, when she goes on about the matters to which she has just referred and the £46 billion, that the people who are losing are not concerned about the £46 billion that the right hon. Lady is spending on others, but are concerned about the £4, £6 and £10 a week that she is taking away from them? If things are so good, why are they so bad?

What the right hon. Gentleman cannot understand is that things are good and he knows full well that they are good, because the economy is run extremely well and the total amount spent on social security and on health, as well as on things such as provision for Members of Parliament, far exceeds anything previously achieved.

Has my right hon. Friend received the thanks of Mr. Fletcher, an unemployed labourer from Middlesbrough, who has obtained a job as a printer following the advice that my right hon. Friend gave him when he threw his applications that had been rejected at her, to go to the Manpower Services Commission? Despite the attitude of the trade unions, will my right hon. Friend give similar advice to the thousands of unemployed workers in the north of England, to join the adult training scheme?

The House will remember that Mr. Fletcher tackled me personally before television cameras on a visit that I made to Teesside, saying that he had put in about 1,000 applications for jobs and had not got one. I advised him to go and get training with the Manpower Services Commission. He was very sceptical, but he was a very wise man—he took my advice and he found that it got him a job.

Is The Prime Minister aware that a few moments ago the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland tried to tell me that what I had heard her say on Tuesday at Prime Minister's Question Time, when she expressed concern about The Prime Minister and Government of the Irish Republic, was identical to what the Foreign Secretary said at the weekend? Is that what she expected me to interpret her as having said?

Both of my right hon. Friends and I are concerned that the Anglo-Irish Agreement not only continues but is seen to work. A vital part of the Anglo-Irish Agreement is the recognition by the Republic that the rights of the people in Northern Ireland would not be changed without the consent of the majority. It is an important part of the agreement, and the Republic accepted it. No doubt whatsoever should be cast upon it. That is the purpose of the various emphases placed upon that agreement and of the several comments that have been made by my right hon. Friends and me on the speeches of the Taoiseach.


To ask The Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 28 April.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the confirmation by NATO Defence Ministers at their meeting in Brussels of the essential, continuing role of nuclear weapons in our defence and the need to keep them up to date? Against the background of the scale of Soviet forces and their activity, does my right hon. Friend agree that Britain must play her full part in that?

Yes, the NATO Defence Ministers have had a very successful meeting. A communiqué will be placed in the House shortly. The Ministers have agreed on guidance about the modernisation of those nuclear weapons. That full guidance, of course, is not published. The important thing is that the Ministers have agreed on the way ahead. It is important because the Soviet Union continues to modernise all her nuclear weapons other than those affected by the INF agreement, and we do the same. It is vital that the nuclear deterrent is kept modern and up to date and that our entire defence, including other nuclear weapons, is modernised and kept effective.


To ask The Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 28 April.

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

Would The Prime Minister like to confirm the press notice from the Department of Health and Social Security this morning, which indicated that the unit that will administer the scheme announced by the Secretary of State for Social Services yesterday will not be in place until 1 July? Will she advise the various claimants what they will do until then? Will she also confirm that the changes announced yesterday will not alleviate the problems of two invalidity benefit recipients, Dorothy and Kenneth Ellis, who have also written to The Prime Minister, and who as a direct result of her decision to discontinue housing benefit supplement from 1 April will now be required to pay £6 a week extra for prescriptions?

In winding up the debate last night my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and the Disabled made it quite clear that the unit will be in the DHSS and outlined the provisions that will he made in the meantime for our constituents.

May I thank The Prime Minister most warmly on behalf of state pensioners in my constituency who have saved all their working lives on modest wages and are delighted with the statement made by the Secretary of State yesterday?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I believe that those modest changes were right and have caused a great deal of pleasure.


To ask The Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 28 April.

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

What does The Prime Minister have to say to a young man in my constituency who is unemployed, married and has three small children? He was on an income of £68·50 a week plus child benefit. He is now on an income of £69·45—an increase less than the rate of inflation. He is especially concerned about the change to the social fund, as he benefited from several single payments during the last year. Is it right to describe him and his family as gainers, when in fact they have lost in the annual uprating, they have lost in the uprating of child benefit and they will lose heavily over the setting up of the social fund?

The hon. Gentleman must take up a detailed case with the special unit in the DHSS. It is a highly detailed case—[Interruption.] The other case was nothing to do with social security. The hon. Gentleman must take up this highly detailed case with the special unit that is to be set up, as I am sure he will. It is not possible to deal with it in this way. Sometimes there have been changes in housing benefit, many of them covered by the transitional protection announced yesterday. Frequently other changes in income support or family credit or changes with regard to the increased disability benefits are not mentioned by hon. Members, but are very relevant. Other matters have also to be taken into account, such as the previous local authority discretionary scheme. I hope that I have said enough to make it clear that it is not possible to deal with the case in this way.


To ask The Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 28 April.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Liberal-controlled Chelmsford borough council has increased its share of the rates this year by a staggering 36 per cent., while last year, when a general election was in the offing, it cut them by 13 per cent. Is she aware that Marconi in Chelmsford is faced with a rates bill of almost £6,000 more a week as a result? Does she agree that the sooner the business rate and the community charge are introduced, the sooner such highway robbery will be stopped and genuine help given to hard-pressed businesses and individuals alike?

I agree with my hon. Friend and I hope that the people of Chelmsford will draw the appropriate conclusions from those vivid figures. Certainly, once we have the new community charge and unified business rate in place it will be very much easier for people to judge the actions of their local authority against the actions of others. The whole of the new finance system is geared to ensuring that the same level of service, delivered at the same standard of efficiency, should result in the same community charge all over England—and separately all over Scotland—so that people can judge the efficiency and effectiveness of their local authority.


To ask The Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 28 April.

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

Will The Prime Minister take time today to look afresh at the problems facing Members of Parliament arising from the lack of secretarial provision, particularly if many hon. Members, like myself, have to answer literally thousands of letters of protest about the Government's proposals? I have received hundreds of letters on social security, 2,000 on the poll tax, and many on health and transport cuts. In the interests of democracy and speedy replies to our constituents, will The Prime Minister give us more assistance for secretarial work or, better still, more palatable legislation?

No. Members of Parliament have never been better off, either for salary or secretarial assistance, than they are now. The hon. Gentleman has plenty of assistance to enable him to deal efficiently with his correspondence.