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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 175: debated on Monday 2 July 1990

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Social Security

Earnings Disregard


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he has any plans to increase the disregard on earnings before income support is reduced.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security
(Mrs. Gillian Shephard)

We keep the level of the earnings disregards under review. The Government are committed to monitoring them, but we have no plans for change at present.

I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. Would she consider regarding as disregard the cost that a lone parent bears for child care if she decides to go back into the work force? Does my hon. Friend appreciate that many women who are left to be supported by the state because their menfolk have deserted them would like to go back to work? However, if they lose £1 for every £1 that they earn after the first £15, the incentive for them to be self-supporting is reduced. I know that my hon. Friend would not want to punish such women and I am sure that she would like to give them more of a helping hand.

I thank my hon. Friend, and in preparation for her question this afternoon I read her ten-minute Bill that, in part, dealt with that matter. My hon. Friend is right to say that many lone parents want to work, and about one third of family credit participants are lone parents.

The Government have built into the social security system several disregards and incentives especially for lone parents. For example, £15 of their earnings is disregarded in income support, they get the same adult credit in family credit as a couple and, from October, lone parents will have a £25 disregard in housing benefit. The major thrust of Government policy is to ensure that lone parents, 95 per cent. of whom are women, get adequate and proper maintenance from absent fathers.

If we are moving into the season of pre-election largesse—whether as suggested in the Minister's answer to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) or in the report in today's The Guardian—will the hon. Lady take into account the plight of my constituent Mr. Stewart, about whom she wrote to me last month and who came to see me at the weekend? Mr. Stewart has had no increase in his income since April 1988, when the Government removed his special payments; he is having to pay increased electricity charges, and he is having to pay 20 per cent. of his poll tax. Is there no limit to the extent to which the Government are prepared to inflict real hardship and misery on some of our poorest pensioners?

Transitional protection was introduced to help those who might lose out under the 1988 social security reforms. A small number of people are still covered by transitional protection and the overwhelming majority of them received an increase this April.

The hon. Gentleman will know that I cannot comment on an individual case. I am glad that he pointed out that I have already replied to him.

Claimants (Residential Backgrounds)


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if there are any limitations as to the residental background of recipients of attendance and other allowances; and if he will make a statement.

Attendance allowance is payable to people who live in independent residential care homes. It stops after four weeks for those living in other residential homes if the care costs are met from public funds. Limitations for other allowances vary.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that many elderly people who are of sound mind find it difficult and irksome to live with the confused elderly and those who are deeply ill?

The hon. Gentleman speaks for himself. He is somewhat confused and always has been.

Will my hon. Friend consider introducing changes to the allowance system so that people who are on attendance allowance can live not in nursing homes or in institutions but, for example, in private accommodation, where they could pay their way with the allowance?

Yes. I understand that my hon. Friend has a constituency case. He has quite properly written about it to the local office manager, who will be replying soon. Some quite complicated calculations have to be made to see whether people would be better off if they moved into private accommodation from residential homes of one sort or another. Individual judgments will have to be made. Within the private residential sector, there is a wide range of types of property and provision.

National Insurance


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many standard rate tax payers would be affected by the removal of upper earnings limit for national insurance contributions.

If the upper earnings limit for employees' national insurance contributions were removed it is estimated that about 3·3 million people would pay more contributions, of whom about 2·1 million would be standard rate taxpayers. If the corresponding upper profits limit for self-employed people were also removed, it is estimated that about another half a million people would pay more contributions, of whom about 200,000 would be standard rate taxpayers.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that illuminating reply and I hope that it will be well covered by the media, because these are the Labour party's policies. As we have taken a great deal of time and trouble to remove Labour's tax on jobs—the national insurance surcharge—will we also look at the employers' national insurance contribution, which is running at roughly double the amount that it was in the days of the Government led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath)?

My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to the figures that I have given. I note what he suggested about the employers' contribution, but there is no upper earnings limit on it, and because of the way in which the national insurance system works and the direct relationship between the contribution paid by employees and the benefits subsequently received, I am not sure that the arguments are on all fours.

When an individual pays both national insurance contributions and tax, to ensure that when he becomes unemployed or sick, the state gives him assistance, how can there be any justification for reducing or taking away unemployment benefit? There is speculation about that in the press. Will it also be mentioned in the Tory manifesto, because the people want to know the truth? If unemployment benefit is to be taken away, how long will it be before pensions are undermined and perhaps taken away by the Government?

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman used the word "speculation". As far as I can see, the press reports to which he referred rest on one pamphlet from one body, the Adam Smith Institute. That is not a Government plan and there is no basis for the hon. Gentleman's suggestion.

Is not it true that, since the Conservative party came to power, most people who pay national insurance have saved over £3 a week on it, but under the Opposition's glorious plan, the people whom the Opposition laud as those whom they want to encourage—those earning between £15,000 and £20,000 a year—will pay £9 a week more? They would not pay that in national insurance; the fraud is that they would pay it in increased taxes. How does that encourage people to work?

The answer is that that does not encourage people to work and that it runs exactly contrary to what we have sought to do in reducing national insurance contributions for many, with the aim of encouraging employers to provide jobs and encouraging people to do them.

If the Secretary of State is so concerned about the extra tax on higher rate taxpayers, how does he explain why the Government have increased, for instance, national insurance contributions, which are a tax, by no less than 14 per cent. for those on average or low incomes?

In view of his earlier answer, is the Secretary of State—or is it only the Prime Minister—in favour of the latest crackpot, right-wing daftness of privatising the dole, but still making people pay national insurance contributions so that they are forced to pay twice for the same benefit? If people have paid national insurance contributions, are not they contractually entitled to benefit? If something in the private sector that had been fully paid for were taken away, would not he, or even the Prime Minister, call that stealing?

It is perhaps understandable, in view of the events of recent weeks, that the hon. Gentleman should go to such lengths to divert attention from the main point. He referred to higher rate taxpayers. The point is that Labour's plans, as is clear, and is clearer still from my answer, involve higher contributions from many basic rate taxpayers. That is the point that the Opposition have been seeking to disguise because they do not want to let on how many people will have to pay much more to finance the hon. Gentleman's ambition.

Personal Pensions


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what estimate he has as to the number of people who have now joined a personal pension scheme.


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many people are taking out personal pensions; and if he will make a statement.

Just over 4 million people have so far taken out a personal pension.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the most encouraging aspect of that figure is that it represents people in all age groups who have provided for their retirement? Does he further agree that it is absolutely disgraceful that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) should seek to penalise those 4 million people—or probably 10 million people, when one takes their families into consideration? Is not this what the Labour party is all about—muddled thinking, total misrepresentation and, worst of all, patronising people? In other words, we know best.

To borrow a recently expressed phrase, that is an example of the Opposition's crackpot, left-wing culture—

What is important about the Government's pension provision is that people now have a choice between remaining in the state earnings-related pension scheme, taking out a private pension and belonging to an occupational pension scheme. The Opposition have made it clear, through the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), that they are totally against that choice and independence in pension provision—

Order. The questions that were asked were in order, and if they were not I should rule them out of order.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) is muddled, as this is not Prime Minister's Question Time? We are asking specific questions on specific matters. Does she agree that, to use the words of the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), the Opposition intend to steal private pensions from people?

The hon. Member for Oldham, West has already made clear his party's intentions for personal pensions. Fortunately, the Government intend to continue the policy of choice within pension provision between SERPS, a personal pension and an occupational pension scheme. Clearly, the Opposition wish to threaten that choice.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is not it an abuse of the House that Question Time is used in regard to Opposition policies, which we shall certainly defend and promote when we have a chance? Is not the purpose of Question Time to hold Government policies to account?

This is not Prime Minister's Question Time and these are not open questions. It is the function of questions on the Floor of the Chamber to expound on policies, and that is what we are here to do.

To return to the question, does not the Minister feel a sense of guilt that she is aiding and abetting what is becoming the fraud of the century now that 4 million people have been bribed by dodgy advertising into taking out pensions? Does not she recognise that they are not pensions—they are risky savings schemes that are about as personal as a can of baked beans? When will the Government respond to the independent voices that are saying that more than 1 million people have been defrauded by such schemes and that most of their future benefits and pensions have already been eaten up by commission charges, administrative costs and the profits of the pension companies? Can it be possible that the Government are about to replicate that calamity by abolishing the dole? Will they give us a categorical denial, other than the arguments that have been presented today, and tell us that it is a product of midsummer madness by the loony right and that none of the Ministers will have any part in that crazy scheme to abolish the dole?

I was under the impression, although much noise was being made by Opposition Members, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave absolute assurances about the Adam Smith Institute pamphlet. The hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) repeated the comments made by the hon. Member for Oldham, West to try to scaremonger and to terrify perfectly normal, ordinary people who wish to take advantage of the excellent pension choices that have been made available by the Government. It is a disgrace.

Community Care Grants


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what was the budget for community care grants in the latest financial year for which figures are available.

Community care grants are essential to integrate people back into the community. How will cuts in grant affect that integration? How will the grants enable people to obtain suitable housing in order to allow them to return to the community? What is the Minister's view about the role of housing providers? Will they be an essential partner in community care schemes and planning or merely an afterthought?

The budget for community care grant has not been cut but increased for the current year. I hope that as we develop our policies for care in the community, which we aim to introduce in 1991, there will be increased co-operation between social services departments, which will be involved increasingly in the provision of community care, and local housing departments so that proper arrangements can be made for those leaving institutions.

My right hon. Friend will know that community care grants are available only to those on income support. Many who would benefit from them receive invalidity benefit or other benefit and are therefore disqualified. Will he sympathetically consider extending the grants to other members of the community who would benefit from them?

I shall consider my hon. Friend's suggestion. There are administrative advantages in limiting community care grants to those who are on income support, and there are resource implications, but I have noted my hon. Friend's point.

If the social fund is so successful, why are so many disabled people now trapped in the jaws of loan sharks? Would not it much reduce dependence on community care grants if the Government quickly accepted the social security commissioners' decision, which was reported last week, in the important test case for severe disability premium of Simon Crompton, of Greater Manchester, which is estimated to benefit 30,000 other disabled people? What action is the Minister taking to identify them?

We are considering the implications of that judgment. The fact that loans under the social fund are interest free is likely to remove people from rather than hand them over to the loan sharks.

Pensioners (Income)


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security by how much pensioners' total incomes have risen (a) since 1979 and (b) between 1974 to 1979.

I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that while pensioners' total net incomes rose by only 3 per cent. in real terms between 1974 and 1979, they rose on average by more than that in each year between 1979 and 1987. In total, they rose by over 31 per cent. in real terms in this Government's first eight years of office.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. As it is fashionable to quote the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) today, I am sure that she is aware of his comments in the Chamber on 30 January, when he said that the important consideration is the increase in pensioners' average income over the course of a Government. If my calculations are correct, we have done six times as well as the previous Labour Government. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that a strong and proper pensions policy depends on two pillars—first, the strength of the economy, which enables us to pay proper state pensions and, secondly, a healthy economy giving a proper return on pensioners' savings? On both counts we outperform the poor performance of the previous Labour Government and the poor promises of a would-be Labour Government.

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is clear that the successful economic policies pursued by the Government have enabled us to spend £55 billion a year in real terms on social security and spending on pensioners and the elderly to increase by a quarter. To pursue anti-inflationary policies is particularly important for pensioners.

I accept the accuracy of the Government's figures although, of course, they have not yet been checked by the Select Committee. Will the hon. Lady confirm that for the poorest pensioners the most important thing to look for is a real increase in national insurance benefits? Will she confirm that, under the Labour Government, pensions for that group rose by 20 per cent. and under this Government they are yet to rise by 3 per cent?

The incomes of the poorest pensioners increased by 19 per cent. in that same period. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the numbers in the lowest quintile decreased from 38 to 24 per cent.

Is not it important to look carefully at the differences in income and support between the younger pensioners and other older pensioners, aged over 75? Have not younger pensioners in particular done extremely well with regard not only to income but to home ownership and personal and occupational pensions? Is not it necessary to look carefully at the incomes and the support given to older pensioners who have not done so well with regard to home ownership and occupational pensions?

My hon. Friend is right. Seventy per cent. of recently retired pensioners have occupational pensions, half own their own homes and 85 per cent. have income from savings. The Government have taken action to help the older, poorer pensioners through the package of measures announced last October, which helped 2.6 million individuals.

No one seeks to deny the important improvements in the standards of living that pensioners with occupational pensions and savings have enjoyed over the past few years. Does the hon. Lady accept, however, that it is a great mistake for Government policy to be predicated on the basis of gross public expenditure increases or average pensioners' incomes? Does she further accept that, over the past year, the erosion in pensioners' standards of living because of the difference between the retail prices index and earnings levels has been a constant source of concern for poor pensioners? If the package of measures last October was so successful, why will not the hon. Lady repeat it this October?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman implicitly accepts that the October package was a success. Its aim was to target help towards older and poorer pensioners. I am sure that those who are responsible for dealing with those matters will listen to the hon. Gentleman's points when he asks for them to be considered next October.

Is my hon. Friend really telling the House and the country that pensioners' living standards have risen faster in each of the past 11 years of the Conservative Government than in the six years of the previous Labour Government?

Perhaps the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) would like to think about the fact that, by comparing five years and 11 years, one gets rather different outcomes. This is another attempt by the Government to manipulate and misuse the agenda of the House. I hope that you will reconsider your earlier ruling, Mr. Speaker, or any democratic procedure for holding the Government accountable will break down. I put it to the Minister—I am sure that she knows this to be true—that, according to the Library, 20 per cent. of pensioners rely entirely on state benefits. The Government have cut state pensions by £13.20 for a single pensioner and £20.70 for a couple. Labour takes great pride in the improvement in many pensioners' incomes due to the introduction of SERPS, which the Government have now cut, resulting in a reduction in the incomes of future pensioners. Labour is proud of the improvements for some but is worried about those who are finding life increasingly hard, many of whom are women. The poorest pensioners are women, and the Government are doing nothing for them.

The average income of pensioners who receive all their income from state benefits has increased by over 27 per cent. during the life of this Government. If the hon. Lady and her hon. Friends go on threatening and scaremongering about the choice, independence and diversity that the Government have introduced into pensions, they will live to rue the day.

Income Support


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the amount within an income support payment which is imputed to cover the 20 per cent. liability for poll tax; and if he will make a statement.

On average, income support beneficiaries receive the equivalent of 20 per cent. of a community charge of £340.

As the average poll tax is £100 higher than was envisaged when the Government introduced the £1.30 payment per person on income support to cover that notional 20 per cent., why have not the Government increased the figure to 20 per cent. of the actual average poll tax? In Tory-controlled Windsor and Maidenhead, for example, the poll tax is £449 and 20 per cent. of that is £1.72; the odd 40p may not mean much to a Minister on nearly £1,000 a week, but to someone on income support it means a loaf of bread.

The level of community charge varies from place to place. The amount that people have to pay reflects the decisions of their local council, and there is an element of that in respect of income support. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept the figure that I gave in my original answer. The weighted average amount included in income support payments across Great Britain is equivalent to 20 per cent. of what has turned out to be the average community charge across Great Britain after allowing for transitional relief.

Is it not a fact that all people on income support receive the full maximum 80 per cent. rebate on their community charge? Do not those on income support also benefit from transitional relief, which cost the Government £350 million in England alone and which benefits 7.5 million people? Does not that show that we are the Government who care for the disadvantaged?

I can confirm that those on income support pay only 20 per cent. of their community charge—the other 80 per cent. is met directly—and that many income support beneficiaries will have benefited from the transitional relief scheme.

Is the Secretary of State aware that in my constituency of Workington, and throughout the north-west, there is a disturbing incidence of young people leaving home because of changes in social security legislation and also because their parents will not help out with payment of the poll tax? Was it really the Government's intention to drive young people out of their family homes? If it was not, will they reconsider the legislative provisions which are having that effect?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have made a number of changes in the way in which the benefit rules operate, in an endeavour—I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security for the work that she has done in this regard—to ensure that the rules, which are sensible, work as well as we should like them to. I ask the hon. Gentleman to recall the history of social security and young people, especially under the old board and lodging regime. The attempt to solve the problems by social security means has aggravated rather than diminished them.

To revert to my right hon. Friend's original answer, does he agree that his reference to the Government's taking into account an average community charge of £340 underlines the sheer cruelty and lack of concern for the poorest people implicit in the attempt—shortly to be frustrated, I hope—by Bristol city council and Avon county council to levy a community charge of £493?

I agree with my hon. Friend that the core of such problems as are faced not only by those on benefit but by many others whose incomes may be quite modest reflects the irresponsible decisions of many councils throughout the country.



To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what further measures his Department is planning to take to reduce the problems of the homeless.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning announced a substantial package of measures on Friday 22 June to deal with this problem. We believe that this is the best way to tackle the issue, rather than through benefit changes.

Is the Minister prepared to concede that the Government's legislation, especially in relation to the withdrawal or reduction of social security benefits for young people and the imposition of the poll tax, compounded by their refusal to allow local authorities to build houses for rent, have created the appalling homelessness which exists in Great Britain today? Does she agree that renting a few church halls will not solve the problem?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the problem of homelessness spans a number of Government Departments and a number of countries throughout the world. He referred specifically to young people, however, and I remind him that there is no need for any 16 or 17-year-olds to be without an income. They can have a job, remain in education or take a YTS place. We have made a number of administrative changes and we raised the benefit level last July to help that particular group. I fully accept that there were some problems with the interaction between the Department of Social Security and the operation of youth training schemes, but we have done everything possible to put that right. It is surely better for young people to start their adult lives in school, in a job or in training rather than trying to live on benefit.

Has my hon. Friend noticed that young people who sleep rough almost always seem to come from the indigenous population and rarely from the immigrant population, who always seem to find somewhere to live? How can that be so? Would not it be unreasonable to provide expensive council house accommodation and flats for young people who merely leave home when others have to save, often for years, to find the accommodation that suits them?

I have already stated in reply to an earlier question that the Government believe that the best possible start for young people is to take training places, of which there are plenty—even a surplus—available and if possible to live at home. There are special benefit arrangements for those who have to live away from home.

Does the Minister not understand the difference between the roofless and the homeless? While the announcement of a recent package of measures involving opening up a few chuch halls put a roof over some young people's heads, those measures do nothing to solve the underlying problem that thousands of teenagers are being driven out of their homes by the conditions created by the Government, not least through the stealing of YTS allowances and the general cut in benefits?

I totally rebut the hon. Member's accusations. If larger numbers of young people are leaving home than in previous years, that is also a matter of concern for their parents.



To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security when he expects to announce proposals resulting from his review of the maintenance system; and if he will make a statement.

We are pressing ahead with the review of maintenance, which is wide ranging, and are examining all areas of the current system to see where reform is required. We hope to make proposals later this year. Meanwhile, there are measures in the present Social Security Bill which address some of the problems that lone parents have experienced with the current system. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, has recently announced proposals to reinforce payment arrangements.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and I wish him well with the proposals that he is bringing forward. They are long overdue.

I shall ask a real question. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Government's first effort in that direction—the enforcement of payment through attachment of earnings—is merely a pathetic re-statement of existing law? Why is there nothing about the real issues such as the level of awards, which in general is far too low? What incentive is there for mothers to claim maintenance if the Department of Social Security simply claws it back in reduced income support? Do not the proposals have all the makings of yet another Tory ramp of reducing public expenditure instead of giving extra help to those in real need?

I really think that the hon. Gentleman might tone down some of the overheated language that he so persistently uses. First, the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, involve legislation and thus can scarcely be simply a re-statement of existing law—[Interruption.] Having asked three questions, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to answer them.

Secondly, as we announced to the House earlier this year, we have already taken action to strengthen the way in which maintenance is assessed and the amount that is expected under the current DSS rules.

Thirdly, the advantage to lone parents is that their position is much better if they are getting maintenance, especially when they enter work, than if they are wholly dependent on DSS benefits.

Will my right hon. Friend consider the position of single mothers bringing up children on their own without any assistance from the fathers, particularly when the fathers are known? Does he agree that it would be appropriate to ask those mothers to make applications to the courts for maintenance so that the fathers face up to their duty to support their children rather than leaving the whole burden to the taxpayer?

Yes, and indeed we do. Lone mothers in those circumstances can face a number of practical problems. We are seeking to address those problems in the Social Security Bill—for example, by legislating to make it possible for the Department's own maintenance orders to be transferred to claimants when they leave income support, and by taking powers to enforce a claimant's own maintenance order if it falls into arrears.

Retirement Age


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what are his current plans for introducing a common retirement age for men and women in relation to the state pension.

The Government's position remains as described in the response, published in April, to the report of the Select Committee in another place.

Now that we are beginning to see signs of the Government's programme for the coming year and what the Prime Minister would like in their manifesto for the next election, and as the Prime Minister will be 65 this autumn, may we at last have a clear commitment from the Government to a common retirement age for women and men?

I have referred to our response to the Select Committee in another place, and I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will have read it. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government are committed to the principle of equal treatment, but there are a range of difficult, complex practical issues and I really cannot give the hon. Gentleman the off-the-cuff undertaking that he seeks.

The Arts

Museums And Galleries (Charges)


To ask the Minister for the Arts what recent representations he has received calling for access to all public museums and galleries to young people under 18 years to be without charge.

In recent months, I have received a number of letters concerning admission charges in the national nuseums and galleries which I sponsor. Those institutions which levy an admission charge allow free or concessionary entry to all pre-booked school parties and students. The decision whether to introduce admission charges is, of course, a matter for the trustees and directors of individual institutions.

Is the Minister aware that about 15 per cent. of all museums and galleries in London charge more than £2 for young people's admission and that fewer than 5 per cent. have free admission? Will he state that it is the Government's view that, wherever possible, it should be a museum's or gallery's policy that young people should be admitted free of charge as part of their general education?

The decision whether admission charges should be imposed is for the trustees, but if national museums and galleries were to impose charges—about five in the London area have decided to do so—in most, if not all, cases there would be concessionary rates for children. That means that most children would be admitted at half price. There are any number of examples of free admission for school parties. That is an important principle to pursue.

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for all museums and public galleries in this country to hold exhibitions for people under the age of 18 on the history of Labour Governments since 1900, all of which have ended in disaster, especially for those least able to defend themselves?

My hon. Friend has introduced an interesting idea, although I am not sure how many members of the public would bother to go to such an exhibition—we should have to wait and see. It must be stressed that, when admission charges are imposed, it is important for the public to see a clear benefit to the customer. For example, the science museum has free admission on certain days and is open on more bank holidays than before.

Does the Minister accept that the first step to widening access and encouraging children to go to our great national galleries is for those galleries to be in good condition? Does he support the plan of the Arts Council chairman, Mr. Peter Palumbo, to restore the fabric of our theatres, museums and galleries by the end of the century? Does he accept Mr. Palumbo's point that the problem—indeed, the crisis—has been caused by the Government's neglect over the past 10 years? Will he at long last accept what I have been urging him to do for the past three and a half years and have a national audit of all museums, galleries and other cultural buildings so that we know how big is the legacy of debt that the Government are leaving to the country?

I look forward to dealing more fully with some of those issues in the debate on Wednesday, when shall answer some of the hon. Gentleman's nonsensical points. Since 1979, the overall real resources of the national museums and galleries have increased by no less than 40 per cent. and for building and maintenance by 50 per cent. In September I announced that £180 million would be made available for the fabric of our national institutions. That is very much in line with the view expressed by Mr. Palumbo that we should get our institutions and their fabric in good shape.

Will my right hon. Friend take a leaf out of the French book in relation to the treatment of museums and galleries and ensure free admission for large families and men or women mutilated in wars?

I am sure that the leaders of the institutions in Britain will acknowledge the point made by my hon. Friend, but it is for them to decide what should be done. Some British institutions, unlike the majority of French institutions, do not charge at all.



To ask the Minister for the Arts whether it is his intention to vary the Arts Council's responsibility for photography.

No, but I expect the council to review its support for photography as part of its development of a national strategy for the arts.

I welcome the Government's plans for devolution, especially that aspect which permits regional art association photography offices to work closely with the national officer. That will enable all the officers to formulate a coherent national policy for the further development of photography, especially in the context of funding for regional galleries, but does the Minister accept that carrying out those plans will require adequate funding and support from the Minister?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. There has been a 10 per cent. increase this year over last year in overall resources for the Arts Council to give to photography. I am sure that that will play a part in helping to strengthen photography in Britain.

I cannot let this occasion pass without congratulating the hon. Gentleman on his achievement in producing the book, "People in Parliament", and I congratulate him the more strongly inasmuch as I am one of the people who feature in the book. I also congratulate him on his leading part in organising the remarkably good exhibition of photographs by hon. Members—an exhibition which shows that there are many hidden talents in the House.



To ask the Minister for the Arts whether he will make a statement on the public display of paintings.

I have been much impressed by the recent expansion of the range of paintings on display in London, including the new Courtauld Institute galleries and the generous loan of the Berggruen collection to the national gallery. There are, of course, many other developments outside London.

My right hon. Friend's answer reveals that the position not just in London but in the provinces is very good. Will he redouble his efforts to ensure by the use of loan paintings and the reserve collection that people who do not live in London can see the excellent pictures available in the metropolis?

My hon. Friend is, of course, right. A special exhibition and travelling unit advises on such matters at the Museum and Galleries Commission. There are now more loans available throughout the country and more objets d'art are outside the cellars and on display, but there is still a long way to go. As for London, I noted the other day that the chairman of the national gallery, Lord Rothschild, said that he believed that London is now the paintings capital of the world. In view of the remarkable developments of the last few years, I am sure that he is right.

May I draw the attention of the Minister and of the Opposition spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), to the resumption of the exhibition of paintings and art by Members of both Houses? The exhibition opens officially tomorrow morning, but the works are already displayed in all their glory. There are some fine exhibits on show and admission is free. After a two-year gap, there are some splendid contributions this year. Modesty prevents my saying any more.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing to the attention of the House and the outside world once again the hidden talents available in the Chamber.

Building Refurbishments


To ask the Minister for the Arts what programme of refurbishment of buildings within the responsibility of the Office of Arts and Libraries has been established.

I am allocating £180 million over the next three years towards the building programmes of the national museums and galleries which I sponsor. The current year's allocation of £57 million represents a 75 per cent. real terms increase over 1979–80.

Will my right hon. Friend also confirm that the private sector has played a major role in refurbishing and repairing our museum buildings? Will he congratulate those responsible for the major refurbishment work on the facade of the Victoria and Albert museum which is turning out splendidly and rising phoenix-like from its scaffolding? Will he also—

I agree with my hon. Friend about the remarkable contribution of the private sector to the refurbishment of national galleries, including the V and A. By contrast, £5 million of extra private sector money has been made available for the British museum by the Japanese to help open the Japanese galleries. There are several other examples. Most notably, Lord Wolfson has joined the Government in a joint funding exercise to help with the improvement of the national galleries in our country.

While I am pleased with the reaction of so many of the people with responsibility for some of our public buildings and the arts aspects of them, does the Minister agree that we need long-term funding for many buildings which have fallen into disrepair? That funding is urgently required, not just for the next year or two, but for the next decade or two.

I take the right hon. Gentleman's point seriously. That is why I made a speech in York last September about longer-term funding for the fabric of our national institutions, particularly the national museums and galleries. It is for that reason that, with the co-operation of my colleagues in the Government, I decided to allocate £180 million for that purpose for the next three years. I have given an undertaking that it is the Government's task, job and duty to ensure that the fabric of those institutions in particular will be in good shape for the next decade.

Civil Service

Retired Civil Servants (Appointments)


To ask the Minister for the Civil Service whether he has any plans to revise the rules governing the appointment of retired civil servants to senior positions in companies with whose subject area they have dealt during their public service careers.

The rules are kept under review and were last revised in 1989. I have no present plans to revise them again.

Does the Minister agree that those rules, which preclude civil servants from taking senior board appointments in companies within two years of their retirement, are an important safeguard against civil servants being suspected, perhaps wrongly, of being influenced while in office by the hope of such appointments? Is not it strange that civil servants are in that position when the Ministers whom they advise, and who frequently neglect their advice, are not subject to similar restrictions and former Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry or for Energy can take appointments in the industries that they have privatised?

The position for civil servants is as the hon. Gentleman describes. Of course, it is possible for their appointments to outside jobs to be delayed for up to a maximum of two years. It is not a rule that such appointments are delayed for two years. They can be delayed for up to a maximum of two years. Those rules have been in force for a long time. I am not directly answerable for the actions of Ministers, except for my own actions. However, the position is clear. I agree with the view expressed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and that expressed by Lord Wilson in 1968, that it should be up to the good sense and discretion of Ministers when they retire. Clearly, they will care deeply about their public reputation. Their talents and abilities, along with those of civil servants, should be available to the nation and the private sector should be allowed to benefit from them.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that anxiety about this matter is not confined to the other side of the House and that, in particular, civil servants who have received considerable salaries and pensions must be careful about their relationship with the private sector after they retire from the public sector where they received confidential and important information?

I fully acknowledge what my hon. Friend says. I am responsible for propriety, and I am most anxious to ensure that we continue with the highest possible standards. Under the rules, applications are sent to the advisory committee on business appointments and to the head of the home civil service when lower grades are involved. My hon. Friend might like to know that conditions were imposed upon more civil servants who were going to outside jobs in 1989–51 per cent.—than in 1988, when the comparable figure was 34 per cent., and in 1987, when it was 26 per cent. That is a sign that the issue is being treated seriously.

Trade Unions


To ask the Minister for the Civil Service when he last met representatives of the civil service trade unions; and whether he discussed conditions of service.

I meet the civil service unions from time to time to discuss a range of matters.

When the Minister next meets the civil service unions, will he take the opportunity to dissociate himself and the Government from the report in The Guardian today of the thoughts of the right-wing Tory No Turning Back group for a pay-as-you-like or pay-whatyou-like tax system? Is not this a typical, desperate last attempt by the Conservative party to flag up its growing unpopularity in the opinion polls?

Order. The hon. Gentleman's supplementary question should relate to the conditions of service of civil service trade unions.

Does the right hon. Gentleman not understand that the bash-the-taxman idea behind the scheme is deeply offensive to civil servants and will do nothing but lower morale among Treasury civil servants who are collecting taxes on our behalf?

I cannot see the direct connection between the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question and the civil service. The production of new thinking and new ideas from all parts of the Conservative party is a sign of how alive the party is and how much it is looking forward to serving the country in the 1990s.

Has my right hon. Friend had time to discuss with the civil service trade unions the concern that they feel about Treasury report No. 2435, which recommends the downgrading of the pay and structure of a number of security officers and investigating officers in the sensitive area of physical security of Ministry of Defence buildings and of positive vetting? Does my right hon. Friend agree that a report which appears to seek to reduce by as much as £2,400 a year the pay of the 350 or so officers who work in this sensitive area is sending the wrong signal to the IRA and others and that there should be careful reconsideration of those misguided proposals?

That is a matter which should be drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friends, and I shall do that. I note what my hon. Friend has to say.

The Minister can no longer hope for preferment from a discredited Prime Minister and it would do all civil servants a power of good if he stated that the possibility reported in the newspapers of a bash-the-taxman policy in the next Conservative manifesto would be resisted by him. Civil servants at the Inland Revenue are professionals who take a pride in their work and the last thing that they want is a bash-the-taxman policy in the next Tory manifesto. Will the right hon. Gentleman do his best to ensure that it does not appear?

When the historians come to judge the 1980s and early 1990s, I believe that they will praise my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for her remarkable leadership. They will realise how alive the Conservative party was in the 1990s and how much its members were looking forward to serving the country in the future, compared with the sterile members and policies of the Labour party.



To ask the Minister for the Civil Service what assessment he has made of the effect on the quality of public sector services of the establishment of agencies.

Improved service is one of the most important benchmarks by which the success of the next steps initiative will be judged. Results from the early agencies are promising.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the quality of service promoted in the next steps programme is wholly consistent with the Government's drive to improve the quality of life in the areas affected by these services for those who work in them and, equally important, for the customers?

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. One of the main objectives of the next steps programme and the reforms is to ensure that the service provided to the public by the civil service is strengthened still further and that the quality of the service is even better. As we look to the 1990s, that is our clear priority. Evidence is coming in already that the agencies, ranging from Companies House to the laboratory of the Government chemist, and including HMSO and many other organisations, are providing an improving service and that high priority is given to the customer.

Does the Minister accept that computerisation of the benefit system has caused great problems for the staff and that, far from staff reductions, the 23 managers of the system agree that staffing levels should be increased? Current problems include giros not being paid on time, specialist benefits not being dealt with and money from the social fund, designed to make crisis payments for cookers and the like, not being paid out on time.

That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services and the hon. Lady will be aware that my right hon. Friend is paying great attention to the way in which we can improve the services through that system. An agency is to be established next year which will strengthen still further the prospects for a better service.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only the conditions for those who consume the agencies' services but the terms and conditions of the employees have been improved? Will my right hon. Friend give every consideration to the Paymaster General's office in my constituency where the management would greatly welcome an early move in to the private sector?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We must, of course, draw a distinction between agencies remaining under the control of Secretaries of State and privatisation. There is increasing enthusiasm on the part of the staff in those agencies—hence their success stories. The potential for staff terms to be improved is considerable as a result of more flexible pay, individual performance bonuses and, in some cases, group performance bonuses.

Civil Service (Conditions Of Employment)


To ask the Minister for the Civil Service when he next expects to meet the civil service trade unions to discuss changes to the civil service conditions of employment.

I refer the hon. Member to the reply that I gave earlier to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher).

The next time the right hon. Gentleman sees the civil service trade union leaders, will he tell them that to get rid of the double standards regarding civil servants and Ministers taking jobs in outside industries top civil servants will be stopped from taking such jobs? That is the best around the problem and would be appreciated by the millions outside this place. A ban on such appointments should not apply for two years only, and Cabinet Ministers should be treated in the same way. It would also not be a bad idea if every Member of Parliament had one job, and one job only. The moonlighting should be stopped.

We are talking about people who have retired from the civil service or retired Ministers. The hon. Gentleman does not do justice to the fact that many of them have talents to offer the country. Just as many Labour ex-Ministers—[Interruption.] I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman agrees, but Lord Glenamara, Lord Robens, Lord Marsh and many others, whose talents were available, have served in the private and public sector. So long as propriety is maintained—that is the rule with the civil service—those talents should be available to the private sector.