Skip to main content

Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 268: debated on Tuesday 12 December 1995

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Social Security

State Pension


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what recent representations he has received about the state pension. [3566]

I recently met representatives of Age Concern and Pensioners' Voice. On both occasions we had a useful discussion that covered matters relating to the state pension.

I can well imagine. Is it not a fact that whereas in the 1970s the state pension amounted to one third of average earnings, it now amounts to one quarter? In view of the widespread poverty that undoubtedly exists among so many pensioners, why will those who are on income support not receive one penny of cold weather allowance simply because the freezing weather lasted less than seven days and seven nights? Does not that show how farcical the scheme is? Many pensioners continue to live in cold conditions, which Ministers would not like to do for one minute.

The hon. Gentleman has argued for the earnings link to be restored, and he has argued today for massive increases in spending. It would cost £10.1 billion to restore the earnings link. If he wants to impose on the working man further taxes of £8.58 a week, he should ask himself whether he should have been one of the honest men who voted against tax cuts last week.

Does my hon. Friend accept that occupational pensions have raised the income of pensioners tremendously over the past 15 years? What would be the impact of imposing a charge on pensions, as the French Government do?

My hon. Friend is right. Two thirds of people retiring now have occupational pensions. Britain has £500 billion of assets—more than the rest of Europe put together—in occupational pension schemes. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) should ask himself whether this Government have enabled pensioners to enjoy a far better deal than they ever did under Labour, when there was 27 per cent. inflation and not even the Christmas bonus was paid.

As one of the 10 Members of Parliament who did vote against a reduction in income tax, I believe that it is possible to find £10 billion for pensioners. The Government are spending nearly £30 billion on keeping people idle, and if that changed there would be more money for pensioners. The Government have had £120 billion from North sea tax receipts and £80 billion from privatised utilities. There is plenty of money in the country. The truth is that pensioners have been robbed blind by the Government, and it is time that the Government were kicked out.

The hon. Gentleman's figures are wrong—as usual. This country now has £16,000 billion-worth of assets invested overseas, thanks to the Government and their policies. The hon. Gentleman should have a word with his Front Benchers and tell them that he wants to see taxes rise, as do most Opposition Members. He is one of the honest men.

Benefit Reform


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what incentives to work will be included in his reforms of the unemployment benefits. [3567]

The key theme of our reforms is helping people back to work. Measures include the jobseeker's allowance, the back to work bonus and the scheme known as employment on trial, which will be extended to enable up to 200,000 people a year to try unfamiliar work without the fear of losing benefit if they give it up after a reasonable trial. We have a number of other measures.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the greatest incentive to work is a low level of tax, and that those who are seeking an incentive to work should compare the reality of a tax system in which one in four pay only 20 per cent. with the mindless mirage of the promise of a 10 per cent. tax rate, accompanied by massive increases in expenditure?

The nation and the House remain confused about how the sums produced by the Opposition would add up. The Government's employment measures have seen United Kingdom unemployment fall by 710,000 since its peak. That is a record of which most other countries in Europe would be proud, and it has much to do with our fiscal measures and our control of tax and public expenditure.

Does the Minister approve of situations in which supporters of the Government can boast that they pay their workers less than £1 an hour? Is that fair on the workers, and is it fair on the subsidising taxpayer?

I do not think that any of us condone poor pay. The Government believe that a job is better than no job, and that those who pay properly get a proper response from their employees. We do not want to see artificial barriers created, such as the minimum wage, that prevent people from coming into jobs. That is the sort of sensible package that most of my colleagues support.

More important than tax cuts, does my hon. Friend agree that the most important incentive to work is a plentiful supply of new jobs? As the market mechanism will not supply all the new jobs in any economic system, including the mixed capitalist system, it is the Government's job to stimulate the economy to provide new jobs. Will my hon. Friend introduce the reforms in a caring way to ensure that the vast majority of people who are not unemployed through their own fault are not penalised?

My hon. Friend speaks a great deal of truth. The Government have ensured that there are very few barriers to people coming into employment, and we have used the benefit system and in-work benefits to increase the number of people in work. For example, some 300,000 people have moved from income support into work, and have obtained family credit. The mixture of controlling taxes and public expenditure and of preventing barriers to work distinguishes the Government from the Opposition, and distinguishes our economy from those of so many of our partners in Europe.

As the Government and the Front Bench of the Labour party are committed to some sort of workfare, will the Minister tell the House whether he honestly feels that it is acceptable to starve people into submission by withdrawing their benefits? Surely it would be better to create proper jobs and proper training.

I do not think that we are signing up to workfare or starving anybody into work. The Government want an economy that will encourage the creation of jobs. Despite the hon. Lady's frequent protestations and her demands for increased public expenditure, I recall very few job-creation measures coming from her or her colleagues.

Housing Benefit Fraud


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what measures he is taking in respect of housing benefit fraud; and if he will make a statement. [3568]

As I said in my recent social security statement, I am stepping up the fight against housing benefit fraud. In particular, from next summer, I am setting up a central computer register to make it possible to cross-check people claiming from more than one local authority. I am strengthening the financial incentives for local authorities to crack down on fraud and I am introducing challenge funding to encourage them to develop innovative ways of tackling fraud.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his determination to combat fraud, the savings that he has made in his budget for housing and his efforts to direct money to those in greatest need. Will he contrast his policies with those of the Opposition, who have opposed all benefit reform and refuse to make any savings? Does he agree that taxes would have to rise to meet the bill run up by their policies?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will recall how, during the social security statement, the official spokesman for the Labour party condemned and opposed every single measure that we proposed to reform social security, including the housing benefit measures. That means that a Labour Government, if ever there were one, would need to meet extra expenditure of more than £1 billion from higher taxes. The Opposition, by and large, have not been honest enough to admit that, unlike the honest 10, one of whom, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), has declared that he recognises that a Labour Government would have to put up taxes, which is true.

Why should anyone take the Government seriously in their supposed crackdown on fraud? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that some time ago I asked him a question about the number of officers in his Department who had been reprimanded, sacked or prosecuted for fraud? Does he recall that he told me that such information could not be gathered without undue cost to the taxpayer? Why, therefore, when The Sunday Times asked his Department for that information, could it be provided within four hours? He told The Sunday Times that about 200 officers were involved in fraud, but why should we believe that answer when I am informed that in one London office alone 79 staff have been reprimanded, sacked or prosecuted for fraud? If he was serious about fraud, he would know those figures immediately.

I certainly regret it if any information was made available to the press but not to the hon. Gentleman. I will certainly look into that.

We obviously take fraud immensely seriously. As I have often said before, the hon. Gentleman is probably the only member of the Opposition who takes it seriously, and probably the only one who, at the end of the Budget, wanted to vote for tax cuts, whereas the rest of them all wanted to vote for higher taxes—10 of them brought themselves to do so. Unless we are prepared to crack down on fraud, as we have, and therefore save considerable sums of money to the taxpayer, we must either reduce benefits to those in genuine need or put up taxes. We take the matter extremely seriously.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his decision to introduce a new central register for housing benefit, which will stop people claiming benefit from more than one local authority. Does he agree that it will help to tighten the social security housing package?

Yes. We believe that the introduction of the register could be an important measure to enable local authorities, which handle and administer housing benefit, and often have different and incompatible computer systems, to consult the central register and to cross-check whether anyone is claiming housing benefit in more than one local authority and whether there is any inconsistency with the central record, for example, of income support claims. That should help local authorities to improve greatly their savings in respect of fraud, which I am glad to say they have already doubled as a result of the measures that we have taken so far.

The Labour party obviously supports actions that combat benefit fraud, but it is a little surprising that it has taken the Government so long to act. Of equal concern, however, is the Government's planned cuts in housing benefit to people under 25. Did the Minister read the excellent speeches given at Centrepoint last week, which highlighted the plight of homeless young people? Does he not recognise that the increase in the non-dependent addition, and the limit on housing benefit, will force many more young people on to the streets or into multiple-occupation houses, with the consequent danger to their health as well as their physical and moral safety? Will he not therefore immediately scrap that plan and accept what the Princess of Wales said when she described the appalling dangers and vulnerability of young people who have been forced out on to the streets because of changes in housing benefit?

The hon. Gentleman said that it is obvious that Labour Front Benchers supported action against fraud, but anyone who has heard them sneer at, deride and describe as purely notional any measures to combat fraud would know that they do not support action against it. Anyone who heard the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) say that the Labour party had for too long been associated with freeloaders would agree that Labour has been too slow to get round to the need to attack fraud.

I deprecate the attempt of the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) to bring the royal family into party political debate. He entirely misrepresents what was said. He equally misrepresents the policy change that we are introducing, which will limit benefits to those on income support aged under 25 to the average for shared accommodation in an area. We shall thereby end the absurdity of someone out of work being able to afford better accommodation than those in work. I am surprised that the Labour party wants that situation to continue.

Identity Cards


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what plans he has to choose pilot areas for the introduction of the new cards for social security claimants. [3570]

The Benefits Agency is working closely with Post Office Counters Ltd. on the implementation of the new system of benefit payment. Consultations with groups representing customers are also under way. I expect to take a decision on pilot areas once the private sector service provider is selected early next year.

As the Isle of Wight Liberal Democrat-controlled council has repeatedly called for the early introduction of identity cards and has recently scrapped the direct payment of housing benefit to good landlords, which has given rise to unconfirmed reports of an increase in the fraudulent encashment of cheques, will my hon. Friend consider introducing new cards for social security claimants to the Isle of Wight as a pilot study? After all, its boundaries are finite and I think that I can promise him that he would have the support of the entire community and that the pilot study would lead to a thoroughgoing success.

No one fights harder for the interests of the Isle of Wight than my hon. Friend.


I shall consider early next year the benefits paid on the Isle of Wight when considering pilot areas. The new benefit payment card is one of several measures to deal with instruments of payment fraud. These measures are succeeding and the new card will save about £150 million a year when fully implemented.

Will the Minister guarantee that it will not be possible for smart cards for social security claimants to be used as general-purpose identity cards? Will he confirm that he, unlike the Home Secretary, has a regard for civil liberties and that he and his colleagues at the Department of Social Security would not agree to the concentration of large amounts of personal information about individuals in a form dangerously convenient to politicians and officials of an authoritarian bent?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the cards are designed for those who wish to receive their payments through the Post Office. It will be a much more cost-effective, efficient and safer way of providing funds to them. If individuals wish to use the cards to assert their identity, that will be entirely up to them. That is freedom of choice. There is nothing illiberal in the proposed measure.

My hon. Friend has referred to the role of Post Office Counters and the use of the cards. Will he confirm that the private finance initiative will extend and improve services? Will he consider the possibility of using the cards in sub-post offices?

Yes, my hon. Friend makes an important point. The cards will be used in sub-post offices. The private finance initiative will give us a system that, in many ways, will be far better than the present one, not least in combating fraud. The new system will provide the customer with immediate information and improvements in his or her benefit should that be required.

Deduction Of Earnings Orders


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement about the imposition of deduction of earnings orders by the Child Support Agency. [3572]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security
(Mr. Andrew Mitchell)

Such orders are imposed only when all other efforts to obtain maintenance payment have failed.

Does the Minister recognise that that is a superficial approach to deduction of earnings orders? Does he understand that in many instances the orders are imposed when there is still considerable disagreement and that they have a devastating effect on the families concerned? Is he aware that quite often the agency's figures are found to be wrong? Will he comment on reports that the agency is proposing to introduce DEOs for clients when they have not returned their forms for assessment, even after as short a period as two weeks? Will that not give rise to considerable injustice and have a devastating effect on many families' finances?

The hon. Gentleman, who has taken a considerable interest in a number of technical aspects of the Child Support Agency, misunderstands the way in which deduction of earnings orders are used. They are imposed as a last resort to secure payments to the parent with the child or children. They are very effective in achieving that and are lifted if the absent parent complies and co-operates. The hon. Gentleman should recognise, therefore, that they are a most important mechanism within the power of the CSA to enforce maintenance payments so that they get through to the mother, the parent with care and the children involved.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the distress caused to my constituent, Mr. Andrew Collier, whose employers were openly contacted by the CSA about his fathering a child, long after he had had a vasectomy? Will my hon. Friend ask the CSA to take off its clodhoppers and urgently review its procedures?

I am aware of the case to which my hon. Friend refers. He is right to say that, where a mistake is made, his constituent is entitled to a full apology from the CSA, and my understanding is that such an apology has already been given.

Will the Minister comment on the annual report of the chief child support officer—an independent officer—and in particular his finding that complete accuracy of the maintenance assessment is achieved only in 29 per cent. of cases? What proposals does he have to improve accuracy quickly and significantly, and therefore to improve public confidence in the workings of the CSA?

The hon. Gentleman is right to make it clear that we are determined to improve the accuracy of the agency. The Secretary of State has set demanding targets for accuracy this year of 75 per cent. of all cases. We reached 71 per cent. accuracy last month, which is a very steep increase on the figures for last year. I think that the hon. Gentleman will want to join me in making the point that this year the agency is increasing its accuracy significantly, but it still has a long way to go.

Personal Pensions


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what proposals he has to improve the flexibility of personal pensions in retirement. [3575]

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what proposals he has to improve the flexibility of personal pensions in retirement. [3581]

We will introduce age-related rebates for personal pension holders who have contracted out of the state earnings-related pension scheme, which will make such pensions attractive across a broader age range.

Personal pension holders will also be allowed to draw an income from their fund each year and defer buying an annuity until a time of their choosing up to age 75. In addition, unmarried personal pension holders will no longer have to buy annuities that make allowance for a widow's pension.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that one of the greatest threats posed to the viability of personal pensions would be the guaranteed minimum pension, as proposed by the Labour party?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Opposition's proposals would not only undermine personal pensions but would impose a further tax. Sooner or later, the Labour party really must come to terms with the fact that all its policies involve increasing taxes, and that is what the honest men showed the other night.

Has my hon. Friend seen the June 1995 economic outlook of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development? Is he aware that it concluded that the United Kingdom is the only country with a sustainable and affordable pensions policy? Does he agree that that is due to the fact that the Government have given encouragement to the pensions industry to provide such policies?

Yes, the OECD study confirms that the UK will be the only country with a sustainable state pension scheme in the next century. That is a tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in reforming pensions in the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom also has more assets in pension funds than the rest of the European Union put together, and we now have 8 million personal pension holders.

Will the Minister confirm that the total cost to the national insurance fund of low earners opting out of SERPS into personal pensions has been more than £4.3 billion? Is not it true that many of the people on low incomes with personal pensions will now receive an even lower pension than they would have done under SERPS once insurance companies have taken their cuts, fees and charges? How can the Minister justify the typical Tory incompetence that has wasted taxpayers' money and cut pensions all in one go?

We have had taxation; now we have nationalisation. The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should nationalise schemes that have provided security for 8 million personal pension holders and have put this country in a better position than any other country in Europe.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is absurd for Opposition Members to talk of a national insurance fund? There has never been such a fund; the money is spent as soon as it comes in. Would we not do better to follow the example of countries such as Chile, which set up a fully funded pension system as long ago as 1981? Pensions in Chile are now 50 per cent. higher and other benefits nearly 100 per cent. higher than they would otherwise have been, and Chilean workers can choose between 18 different pension management funds, thus securing finance for their old age in a way that will not be possible in any western country apart from Britain.

My hon. Friend is right. Funded pensions have a part to play in providing for pensioners in Britain. In this country, however, we have private funded provision, of which I think my hon. Friend might approve. Only Opposition Members believe that every solution must involve nationalised state endeavour.

Incomes Gap


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what estimate he has made of the gap between the richest 5 per cent. and the poorest 5 per cent. of the population in the United Kingdom. [3576]

The vast majority of people are better off as a result of the Government's policies. Average income, which is up for all family types, rose by mor than a third between 1979 and 1992.

I am not sure where the Minister obtains his figures. Would he care to comment on the fact that, statistically, it is accepted that the gap between the richest and the poorest is now wider than it has been at any time since records began, and that the gap has grown faster in Britain than in any other industrial country? Would he care to comment specifically on the fact that the number of people officially living in poverty has trebled since the Tories came to power in 1979, and now include one child in every four? How would the Minister respond to the Rowntree commission's damning conclusion that the combined effect of the Government's tax and benefit policies has simply served to make the rich richer by turning the poor into paupers?

The hon. Gentleman should know that the easiest way of helping people out of poverty is to get them back into work. Why, therefore, does he not hail the Government's success in knocking 750,000 off the unemployment total? Why does he not tell the House that unemployment in his constituency has fallen by 12 per cent. in the past year? If he believes in increasing benefits, why did he not join the honest 10 the other night and vote for an increase in taxation—as he said he would on the radio—rather than remaining a member of the Mandelson muzzled majority?

Is it not inevitable that, after years of socialism and penal taxation policies, the gap between the rich and the poor should increase? Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that every income group is better off now than in 1979? Will he also confirm that the Rowntree inquiry, cited by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson), excluded benefits in kind, thus invalidating its study?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He emphasises a point that I made earlier about the importance of getting people back into work. He might well also have mentioned the significant improvements in family credit, which have made a great deal of difference to 600,000 low-paid families on work benefits.

Does the Minister not recognise that from 8 January the very poorest people in the country will be the 13,000 seeking asylum—in many cases, legitimately and genuinely—who will be deprived of any benefit? Does he accept that, when his officials appeared before the Select Committee on Social Security last week and were asked, "How are these people to live? How are they to feed their children?", they gave no substantive answer? Will the Minister now give an answer? Are those people to starve? How are they to live?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Social Security Advisory Committee is considering the plans put to it by the Government. He will have read the Home Secretary's outstanding speech in the House yesterday, which dealt with those points, and will know that only 4 per cent. of the people seeking asylum are ultimately found to be genuine. The Government have a duty to deal with that point. The Bill that received its Second Reading yesterday ensures that Britain remains a safe haven, as it has always been, and not a soft touch.

Benefit Expenditure


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the total annual spending on benefits for long-term sick and disabled people and their carers; and what was the equivalent figure in 1978–79. [3577]

In 1978–79, under a previous Government, the nation spent £2 billion on benefits for long-term sick and disabled people and their carers. This year, we expect to spend more than £20 billion. That represents an increase of more than 280 per cent.

Do not those figures demonstrate that, by targeting help where it is most needed and by cutting unnecessary spending, it has been possible for this Conservative Government to target help on the most vulnerable people in society—in this case, long-term sick and disabled people? Does he agree that, if one wishes to extend benefits to a wider band of people, one should be prepared to say how one would pay for that, something that the Labour party, with the exception of 10 hon. Members, is not prepared to do?

Yes, my hon. Friend has got it absolutely right. The way in which we have looked after the economy over the years has enabled us not only to honour our commitments to long-term sick and disabled people but to increase the range of benefits offered. It was this Government who brought into effect in 1992 the disability living allowance, which has so far brought some 460,000 people, who would not previously have qualified for support from the state, into some sort of benefit support. Only a Government who manage the economy properly can afford to take such care of long-term sick and disabled people.

We welcome the increase in money spent on the care of long-term sick and disabled people, but how much has been spent for and on carers? Will the Minister recognise that many of them have never looked for it, but that some of them require more financial help, especially if they are young women with no husband looking after disabled children, or spinsters looking after elderly parents?

Some years back, the Government significantly increased the invalid care allowance's coverage to married women. It is one of the fastest-growing benefits. Yesterday, I had a meeting with Francine Bates of the Carers National Association to discuss caring matters. Over the years, the Government have maintained substantial support for carers. We consider that matter constantly to find out whether we can make any further improvements. We welcome and value the care that families provide for the people whom they look after. Over the years, we have been able to expand our provision for them. We keep the matter under constant review.

Following the excellent supplementary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), does my hon. Friend the Minister accept that carers are the unsung heroes of our society? They take the major burdens in respect of people who have been put out into the community. Does he accept that the encouragement that we give them in respect of payments or in fiscal terms is minimal and that, if we need to do anything further to our social security system, it is to recognise the voluntary carer's vital and growing role?

We recognise that role. The amount of care that we have provided through invalid care allowance has grown substantially. The Government expanded its coverage to a great extent. We value and welcome families' role in looking after people who need care. As I said to the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), we keep that matter firmly under control but, in a variety of ways over the years, we have expanded that provision, and we meet regularly with people who support and encourage other carers.

Child Support Agency


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what further representations he has received in respect of abolishing the Child Support Agency. [3578]

Representations from the Liberal Democrats and other irresponsible groups seeking the abolition of the CSA are far outweighed by those from parents with care seeking stronger agency action in arranging and collecting maintenance due.

I thank the Minister for that answer. All hon. Members on both sides of the House are hearing about distressing cases of people who are willing to make a contribution to their families, who are invariably in second families, and who are simply unable financially to make such a contribution. If the Minister is not prepared to abolish this Act because it is too inflexible, recognising the importance of the principle of parents making contributions to their families, will he consider those people who want to help but financially cannot, and who are being put into personal bankruptcy or perpetual debt as a result of the inflexible implementation of the Act?

Obviously, I shall look at any case that the hon. Gentleman brings to me. What he said today ignores the changes that Parliament made earlier this year. He will know that the Government have brought in a 30 per cent. limit, which means that no absent parent can pay more than 30 per cent. of his net income in current maintenance. Parliament has made changes, and there are further changes to come. There will be 90 technical changes to the work done by the child support computer in January and 10 days ago, we took 64 regulations through the House of Commons. Those changes will ensure that the Child Support Agency delivers the sort of service that absent parents and parents with care have a right to expect.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in order to ensure that the maximum amount of money goes to parents who are living alone with children, we must do all that we can to continue improving the credibility of the CSA? We can do without the irresponsible ideas of the Liberal Democrats and the irresponsible comments from those on the Labour Front Bench who have suggested that they would not rule out the abolition of the CSA. Is it not time that those hon. Members supported the all-party consensus on CSA policy, and that we continue to support the CSA?

I do not believe everything that I read in the Observer, and I am sure that the Labour Front-Bench team will remain true to the principles of the Child Support Act 1991. The CSA is improving significantly. Last year, it collected six times more in maintenance payments than in the previous year, and this year it has collected 100 per cent. more in maintenance support. The CSA is tracing absent parents, and it is making certain that its performance is improving in a whole range of areas. That is what the figures showed last month, and I have every confidence that they will continue to show that in the months to come.

Disabled People (Poverty)


To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security when he next expects to meet the Disablement Income Group to discuss the problem of poverty among disabled persons. [3579]

I regularly meet groups representing disabled people. I plan to meet the director of the Disablement Income Group on 17 January.

When the Minister next meets the Disablement Income Group, will he seek to explain why poverty among disabled people will increase savagely when the new incapacity allowance comes into operation in April while, at the same time, income tax has been reduced for the better-off?

Probably one of the points that I shall raise with the director of the Disablement Income Group will be the 280 per cent. rise in the amount that we have been able to spend on benefits for the long-term sick and disabled since 1979. A further point might be to compare and contrast the range of benefits provided by this Government with those provided by the previous Government, which would show a substantial increase in income for those people. Also, in four crucial areas—the disability living allowance, the disability working allowance, the independent living fund and Motability costs, on which we now spend £3.5 billion—we could not make a comparison with the previous Government because those benefits did not exist.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 has been a giant step forward in the interests of disabled people and comes on top of a threefold increase in benefits? Does he further agree that those who have opposed the Act have done nothing more than play politics with people's lives?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely fair point. Now that the Act has been passed, it is important for all parties to seek to ensure that its implementation is successful. Even those who have previously opposed the Act cannot have anything to gain by obstructing its workings. It is one of the most significant advances for disabled people ever. The Act will certainly fulfil its objective if all those who have the interests of disabled people at heart come together and work for its success.

Is not one means of tackling poverty among disabled people enabling them to gain access to jobs? Although such access should begin to be provided under the Government's Act, why cannot we have a disability rights commission to ensure that it becomes a reality?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, there are different views about what is needed to ensure that the Disability Discrimination Act works properly. We have taken the view that we do not need a commission in this particular case. There will be plenty of opportunity to enforce the provisions of the Act. I ask those who share the hon. Gentleman's view about a commission to recognise that the Act has been passed and to work with us to ensure that it is a success. There are significant advances to be made in enabling access to work for disabled people. If we move away from the arguments of yesterday towards the provisions of tomorrow for disabled people, we shall continue to make a real advance in their progress, which is what they deserve and what the nation needs to ensure that we use their skills for all our mutual benefit.

Prime Minister


Q 1.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 December. [3596]

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Does the Prime Minister share the widespread concern about the release to the press by the chairman of the Conservative party of the text of the Lord Chancellor's speech, which the Lord Chancellor himself had no intention of delivering? Is not it about time that the Prime Minister condemned the action of the chairman of the Conservative party and made a public apology to the Lord Chancellor, to which he is entitled?

If the hon. Gentleman knew the Lord Chancellor, he would not have asked such a silly question. The hon. Gentleman is mis-stating the Lord Chancellor's view and the events.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 December. [3597]

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the national health service is treating 1 million extra patients a year as a result of the Government's courage in introducing their NHS reforms? That being so, does my right hon. Friend agree with the comments made by the Labour party think tank that Labour policy on the NHS is dominated by sectional trade union interest and is neither thorough nor well informed—a perfect description of new Labour?

My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that the national health service is treating 1 million more patients, and of course treating them better, with a wider range of services, and more speedily than ever before. I am aware of the Fabian pamphlet, though I have not yet had the opportunity to read it. Perhaps I shall enjoy doing so in due course. The conclusion that I draw from it is clear. Views inside the health service and about the health service have moved on. The Opposition's views have not moved and are out of date and unsuitable for a modern health service.

Will the Prime Minister accept what Ministers have been denying for months—that the public subsidy paid to a privatised railway is set to rise dramatically after privatisation? What is the latest official estimate?

If the right hon. Gentleman tables a detailed question, I shall give him the estimate. I can tell him something else now—that rail privatisation will produce a better service for all passengers and, if he waits for the new franchise decisions, he will begin to see that for himself. He has been trying to smear privatisation when every previous privatisation has produced a better service for the customer. He will find out that that will be the case with British Rail as well.

The right hon. Gentleman can tell that to the customers of Yorkshire Water.

I am not trying to smear. I am simply asking for information. Even if the right hon. Gentleman cannot give me the exact figure, will he accept that the subsidy is set to rise?

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman that what is rising is investment in the railways and the standards of service to the passengers. As the right hon. Gentleman neglects to mention each time, the operating services are already offering a range of new services and responding to customers more quickly, and new information services are being provided. That is a sign of a better service under privatisation than we ever knew under nationalisation.

I do not see why, as Prime Minister, the right hon. Gentleman cannot answer a straight question about privatisation. If he will not answer it, we shall continue to expose the costs and the chaos of the system. The railway network should not be used as a plaything for bankers and speculators. [Interruption.] No. It should be run not for bankers and speculators, but for British business and the British people.

Now we know the soundbite that we were working up to; it was not worth waiting for. If the right hon. Gentleman is as keen as we are on a modern railway service, he had better explain from where, under his plans, the finance to produce it would come. Will he spend more? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] Yes, they say. So by how much will taxes go up? Time after time, the right hon. Gentleman pretends that there can be more investment in the public service without higher taxes and a better service without higher expenditure. He pretends that he is a moderniser, but when it comes to trusting the private sector, he is as old Labour as any of his colleagues.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 December. [3598]

Is my right hon. Friend aware that my constituents are outraged that they are still threatened with the possibility of water cuts by Yorkshire Water in the new year? The problem is that some of the managers of Yorkshire Water still think that they are running a nationalised industry in which customers do not count. [Interruption.]

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the circumstances in which the Government would allow drought orders sanctioning water cuts are almost unimaginable?

I can tell my hon. Friend that Yorkshire Water plans to invest £2.5 billion over the next 10 years and more than £200 million this year for its customers' benefit. That is a substantial increase on anything that we have seen in the past. I agree with my hon. Friend that the Government will sanction rota cuts only if no other option is available. We have made it clear to Yorkshire Water that it should use every possible step, as it is seeking to do, to make rota cuts unnecessary. If, over the years, there had been proper management of the nationalised industry, the under-investment might not have occurred.

May I renew my request to the Prime Minister to take a personal interest in the plight of my constituent Ms Louise Stack, the mother of four young children, who applied 11 months ago to transfer from a prison in Spain to complete her sentence in this country? Will the Prime Minister now promise me that he will raise the matter when he meets the Spanish Prime Minister this weekend?

I will certainly examine the papers again before Madrid, but I had better do that before I give the hon. Gentleman a commitment. I undertake to study the papers again, and I will let the hon. Gentleman know what action I propose to take.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 December. [3599]

After the tragedy at a school in north Westminster on Friday, does my right hon. Friend agree that the letter written by the small son of Philip Lawrence to Santa Claus was one of the saddest and most moving letters ever written by a child? Will he assure me that the Government will do everything that they can to learn lessons from the tragedy in an attempt to ensure that it is never repeated?

I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in sending sympathy to the family and friends of Mr. Lawrence after that dreadful event. The Government are considering what more can be done. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has been consulting the Association of Chief Police Officers about whether harsher penalties and further police powers are necessary to deal with the problem of knives. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will be able to announce the outcome of those discussions and, perhaps, new proposals in due course. In parallel with that, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment is talking to teachers' representatives about a range of issues covering the safety of staff and pupils in our schools.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 December. [3600]

Does the Prime Minister agree with the pensioners of Rochdale that the £10 Christmas bonus that they have just received is an absolute insult? If the bonus had risen in line with inflation, it would now be worth £68. Does the Prime Minister realise that £10 buys a small frozen turkey and a box of Christmas crackers—hardly a recipe for Christmas cheer?

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady and her colleagues took that view when they cancelled the Christmas bonus—the only occasion that that has ever happened.

I welcome the fact that, at his recent meeting in Italy, the Prime Minister raised the issue of European worries about a single currency. Will he be pursuing those points at Madrid?

Yes. I shall be pursuing a number of the points that I raised in the last European Council meeting about the problems that might occur were a single currency to proceed with a small minority of countries in it and a larger majority of countries outside it. I believe that that raises a whole range of issues which have not yet been properly considered, and I shall be seeking further consideration of those points at Madrid this weekend.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 December. [3601]

It has been estimated that, even allowing for the Budget settlement, schools could be £40 per pupil worse off next year. Despite an increase in the school rolls of about 116,000 children, the National Union of Teachers has estimated that there will be 9,200 fewer teachers this term. Does the Prime Minister think that that is clever?

I notice that the hon. Gentleman was not one of the 10 Labour Members who voted to increase taxation and to increase expenditure. He wants increased expenditure without admitting that it would lead to increased taxation. We have made an extra £878 billion available for schools—an increase of about 5 per cent. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that that is above the level of increased costs and is an increase in real resources.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in sending sympathy to the millions of people in France who have been affected by the strikes? Is he aware that every Labour Member of the European Parliament has signed a resolution backing the strikers, thereby proving that Labour is still the strikers' friend?

It is certainly true that the Members of the European Parliament did that.

I believe that the deputy leader of the Labour party just muttered, "Well, what do you know about it?" I hope that he knows that the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour Members of Parliament, never mind Members of the European Parliament, has also sent a message of support to the French strikers. I will quote from it.

"The Struggle going on in France is one of critical importance to working people throughout Europe",
wrote the group secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour Members of Parliament. He went on:

"Capitalism demands that we now dismantle employment rights, welfare benefits and the network of public services built up after years of struggle."
That is real Labour.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 December. [3602]

May I thank the Prime Minister for his great kindness last night to members of Chelsea's 1954–55 championship team? May I remind him that during the last war, thousands of civilians were killed in the blitz and that it is appropriate in this anniversary year that there should be a suitable memorial to commemorate those civilian dead? Will he give his support to the moves in the east end to build a suitable memorial to the civilian dead?

First, let me thank the hon. Gentleman for a very enjoyable occasion with some guests last evening. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I would not wish to do harm to an old friend. Let me assure the House that when we discussed football, the hon. Gentleman played on the left wing and I played on the right.

On the hon. Gentleman's substantive point, I willingly join him in paying tribute to those Londoners, east Londoners perhaps above all, who endured the blitz. I will invite my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage to consider the hon. Gentleman's proposal and advise further. The hon. Gentleman, I hope, will be aware that an application could be made to the national heritage memorial fund for consideration for lottery funding. That process is independent of the Government, but the idea that the hon. Gentleman suggests is certainly one that the fund could be prepared to entertain.