Does the Leader of the House agree that the report in The Times today of a switch from student grants to loans is totally unacceptable? Does he realise that under the American system a quarter of the civil servants on Capitol Hill had not repaid their loans within 20 years? Does he not think that it would be far better to increase student grants by 20 per cent in order to keep pace with inflation?
No, Sir. Our manifesto last year was perfectly clear. We said that we were reviewing student grants and considering a way of supplementing grants with loans. We shall publish our proposals when the review is complete. I understand that that will be about the middle of the year.
Has my right hon. Friend had time to note reports that Derbyshire county council has forced Chesterfield school to alter its 400-year-old Latin motto to something considered more relevant? Does he intend to persuade the Royal Air Force to update its motto, per ardua ad astra, or to approach the College of Heralds over such outdatted mottos as "Ich dien" or "honi soit qui mal y pense" and replace them with what is considered more appropriate, namely, "Derbyshire supports nuclear-free zones"? Will my right hon. Friend try to stop that sort of cultural vandalism?
I certainly appreciate my hon. Friend's concerns about such reports. Sadly, he will know that we have reached the point where nothing done by Derbyshire county council can cause us much surprise. I can certainly reassure my hon. Friend that our proposals for the reform of local government finance and the introduction of the community charge will help. Indeed, they have already had an effect. A recent issue of the New Statesman said:
The shameful point for municipal socialists is that it has taken Tory legislation to force them into examining their councils' record as a service provider".
In view of the fact that the Government have passed a series of pieces of legislation to try to stop local authorities from using their taxpayers' money to put out what is considered to be political propaganda, what possible justification can there be for the Scottish Office spending £2.5 million on sending out a misleading political pamphlet concerning the poll tax to every household in Scotland? The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the legislation in England and Wales is not complete and, therefore, the Scottish legislation may be changed, and that the rebate scheme has not yet been published.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland acted totally within the rules in publishing information regarding an Act of Parliament in Scotland. It would be better if the hon. Gentleman read that document and understood it rather than made misleading remarks such as those that he has just made.
Mr. John M. Taylor:
Will my right hon. Friend take note of the fact that Tuesday's announcement about British Aerospace and the Rover Group has gone down well in the west midlands, not least with some of the striking Land Rover workers? Does that not represent a first-class opportunity for their shop stewards to re-ballot them about going back to work and being the second best paid car workers in the country?
My hon. Friend makes his point very well, but it is not for me to add anything to what was said by my right hon. and learned Friend in his statement on Tuesday.
Does the Leader of the House accept that, whatever claims the Government might have for the benefits in England of its policy of privatising cleaning and catering operations in the Health Service, those are singularly inappropriate policies to foist upon island health boards? What advice would he give to the health boards in my constituency if they were faced with an attractive and artifically low tender from an outside company, yet feared that by breaking up a loyal and efficient in-house team they might be held over a financial barrel the next time tenders arose?
The hon. Gentleman does not make his case at all well. The purpose of using private contractors and going out to tender is to see whether there is a more efficient way of doing the job. Sometimes it will be proved that private enterprise can do it better, and sometimes the job can be done better in-house. In England and Wales the Health Service has saved about £100 million a year, which has gone into further patient care, and that could be emulated in Scotland.
Will my right hon. Friend take time today to consider the extent of public concern about the number of bogus public officials who are gaining access to private property and depriving elderly people of their life savings and other possessions? Will he invite the Prime Minister to initiate an inquiry into the matter with a view to adopting a common identity card for all public officials, representatives of Government bodies, local authorities, and public utilities?
I understand my hon Friend's concern about the risks that old people face when they let others into their homes. I share his view that pensioners and others should ask to see proper identity cards when officials try to enter their homes. I am not sure what advantages standardisation would offer, but I shall certainly refer the point to my right hand Friend the Home Secretary.
In view of the justifiable concern of the Leader of the House, perhaps he will see that a special provision is built into the Local Government Finance Bill, which is now going through the House, to require identification for the poll tax snoopers who will come in. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, as a result of the changes that come into effect next month in social security entitlements, 700,000 pensioner households in Britain will lose housing benefit to which they are currently entitled? Can he tell us what justification he can offer for punishing the prudent in such a way?
The right hon. Gentleman should present his case in a much more balanced way. There are 70,000 families caught in a trap, which means that for every pound they earn they are worse off, because they lose more money in benefit forgone and in tax paid. The new benefit structures will put a stop to that. The vast majority of those receiving income-related benefits, that is about 88 per cent., will see an improvement in cash terms this April, or no change in their position. Under the new scheme, working families with a low income will receive £200 million in net extra resources as a result of the change. That view is more balanced than that of the right hon. Gentleman.
I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has picked out the wrong answer. I was talking about pensioner households. He might be aware that the loss to pensioner households under housing beneift changes is 85p for every extra pound that they will get in one way or another. I am interested to know whether the right hon. Gentleman can tell us what he would say to a pensioner couple who come into his surgery and who receive the national insurance old-age pension and, say, £10 to £15 extra from an occupational pension and have lifetime savings of around £6,000 a year — [Interruption.] Lifetime savings of £6,000. When pensioners who come to the surgeries of Conservative Members are getting pensions on the basic rate, a small occupational pension, and have lifetime savings of around £6,000, what does the Gentleman say to them when they say, "Mr. Wakeham, why am I losing my housing benefit?" What is his reassurance to them, when the Government are imposing such a fine on their thrift?
I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman does when people come to his surgery. The first thing I do is to check on what they are entitled to and see that they get it. That is very important. The second thing I would do is explain to them that at present one household in three is getting housing benefit. I do not believe that the rest of the country should be paying that amount of housing benefit to one household in three. [Interruption.] Therefore, I believe that the Government are entirely right to redistribute the income so that it is more fairly spent on those in greatest need. That is what our proposals do.
Redistribution is all very well, but how does the right hon. Gentleman justify taking away from those who are near poor—indeed, not very well off in any circumstances—in order to lift those who are very poor by just a marginal amount? What kind of reassurance is that for those who in a lifetime of work have shown their prudence, have some small savings and are now being penalised?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a mistake in thinking that we are taking things away. What we are doing is dealing with taxpayers' money, taken from the taxpayers, and we are redistributing it so that those in society who are worst off get more. I am surprised that there is not more support from the Labour party for that.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will continue to seek opportunities to relocate Government offices outside London and the south-east, consistent always with costs on the one hand and efficiency on the other? I am sure he knows that London weighting costs taxpayers £147 million a year and office costs for the 93 buildings that the Government use in London cost taxpayers £287 million. That is a not inconsiderable sum of money which could be saved.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We made a commitment in 1979 to send 5,900 Civil Service posts out of London to the regions, and that objective has been largely met. Our policy is to site any new Government work in the regions as far as possible, and my hon. Friend gave some reasons for that. He may be interested to know that four out of five civil servants already work outside Greater London.
The Minister, in his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton), advised Opposition Members to read the booklet on the poll tax issued by the Government today. Is he aware that, although the booklet was issued to the Scottish press and the media at the press conference at 11 o'clock this morning in Edinburgh, it was only posted to hon. Members today? We have not yet received it and are unable to read it, as the Minister suggested. Does he think it right that hon. Members have not had a chance to question the content and legitimacy of the booklet before it was circulated to the Scottish press?
Has my right hon. Friend noted that not a one Opposition Member in the questions put to him today has made any reference to the NATO meeting that has just taken place? Will he also note that as a result of the very considerable skill of our Prime Minister and the Government, we have taken a lead in matters affecting NATO and, furthermore, that as a result of the meeting our respect in the world has been enhanced?
My right hon. Friend went to the NATO summit meeting to discuss with our allies the way to ensure continuing sound defence for the countries of the Alliance. That is the first duty of any Government: the defence of the country and the preservation of peace. I believe that it was a successful meeting. My right hon. Friend has not yet returned, and the appropriate document will be available in due course in the usual way.
The Prime Minister claims to be very happy with the NATO summit. Presumably that means air-launched cruise missiles, sea-launched cruise missiles, battlefield nuclear missiles and many more nuclear missiles based in this country. That massive rearmament programme was never put to the electorate at the last election, yet the Prime Minister must have known that that was what she was planning. Why did she not put it at the last election? Did she not have the courage?