Before I call the Secretary of State, I should like to make an appeal for brief speeches. There were several lengthy speeches last night which sadly caused a number of hon. Members distress as they were unable to be called. I hope that that will not happen today.
Any Government who are spending, as we will be from next April, nearly £1 billion a week, or £52 billion a year, on social security welcome the opportunity to discuss the subject in the Queen's Speech. That amount of money is a measure of our commitment. It is a measure of the commitment that we make as a Government to the old, the frail and the disadvantaged.
No Government in history have been able to match that pattern of expenditure. These are vast sums, but many people rightly judge that spending alone is not enough to create a viable social security policy. A sense of purpose and direction is equally essential. Indiscriminate largesse may make it easy to bask in a warm glow of self-righteousness, but it is a poor excuse for policy. Equally poor policy is the Socialist pursuit of egalitarian philosophy at the expense of trying to help people in need.
The purpose of this Government when approaching social security policy is, and will remain, to find ways in which to help and protect the weak and vulnerable, while encouraging those who can help themselves. In our pursuit of those aims, we must be realistic. We must take full account of the world of the late 1980s in which we live, not the world dominated by memories of the 1930s or the myths of the 1940s.
Before looking at some of the key areas to see how we can pursue our objectives, I shall stress what we will not be doing. We will not engage in empty rhetoric and bogus promises. In no subject is that easier for an irresponsible Opposition than in social security. They create false hopes and expectations that are never satisfied. As anyone with experience in government knows, commitments must be backed by sound economic performance. In social security there is no point in promising the earth if one can deliver only the International Monetary Fund. Therefore, I make no apology—
The Government have had no need to go cap in hand to the IMF.
I make no apology for stressing that sound finances and a strong economy are the conditions for a successful social security policy. Welfare without wealth is simply not possible. There are many contrasts between our success and Labour's failures. The Labour party failed, not in its desire to help—I acknowledge that—but in its ability to help because of its economic failure when in office.
Beyond the massive sums given in social security, facilities are now provided to enable people to receive help without interest. The hon. Gentleman may wish to be reminded of the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman's views on the previous single payments system:
The single payments system was a pretty dire and ghastly one which, until it was abolished, attracted massive criticism right across the poverty lobby.
Those are not my words, but those of the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook).
I was trying to contrast the Opposition's failure with what is happening now. The income of those on average earnings, with young children, through tax allowances and child benefit, has been higher in real terms throughout our period in office than it was under the previous Labour Government. There was one exception to that, and that was during their last month in office before the 1979 general election.
There is another contrast in the debates on the Christmas bonus. Our Government have made it a statutory payment, which contrasts with the Opposition's inability, because of economic failure, to pay the bonus in 1975 and 1976.
I shall look briefly at the way in which our economic success and clear social security objectives have enabled us to carry out our policies. All of us know that it is nonsense to pretend that all families with children are in a similar position and require equal help from the state. That is why, within the Government's £10 billion overall expenditure on families, I am again this year focusing extra help on 1·6 million families, with 3 million children. I shall not weary the House with all the data, but hon. Members will remember the debate on the uprating statement when I illustrated the large percentage increments accruing to those families. I gave an example of a family with a child under 11 years of age, where the increase was 9·3 per cent.
I was also able to take into account, not only my expenditure programme within the Government, but the changes in earnings and taxation. I know that the House may want to be reminded of the contrast in the real take-home pay of a married man, on average earnings, with two children. Since 1978–79 the take-home pay has increased by 27 per cent. in real terms. That should be compared with the five miserable Socialist years, when the take-home pay of a similar couple increased by only 1 per cent. Although most of the extra help has been given to families receiving income support, a considerable amount has been directed to families receiving family credit. I remind the House of how generous and effective family credit can be.
I shall come to that in a minute. Labour Front-Bench spokesmen should not snigger, but should concern themselves with the interests of those of their constituents who are in low-paid employment.
A couple with two children aged 11 and 14 years—these will not be palatable facts for Labour Members—receiving gross earnings of £135, at present receive £14·70 under the family credit scheme. In April, under the changes announced in the uprating statement, that will increase to £20·73.
Another illustration from the uprating statement is germane to this discussion. A lone parent, with one child under five years, receiving a gross income as low as £75 a week can at present receive £25 under family credit. That will increase to £30 next spring.
I agree with the comments in the uprating statement that we are not reaching target. Family credit is a new benefit that has been in operation for only six months. The number of applications and successful awards is increasing fast, and a new publicity campaign is in the pipeline. It has been in operation for too short a period to make a proper assessment, other than to recognise the serious nature of the family credit system and its obvious attractions.
I remind the House of another good feature of the first six months of the scheme. Expenditure on family credit—despite the fact that take-up is just under 40 per cent., which is not what we had hoped for at this stage—is already running at £400 million a year, which is double the rate of expenditure on family income supplement.
If the Secretary of State is laying such stress on family credit, will he take account of the parallel cuts in housing benefit and free school meals to those same families? Has he seen the report of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, which commented that the increase in family credit was in part an illusion? The result of its survey showed that half the families with children were worse off after the cuts in housing benefit, and nearly everybody was worse off when account was taken of the loss of free school meals.
I am surprised at how attracted the hon. Gentleman is to so frequently quoting from partial surveys. The partial survey from which he quotes was taken by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux in the first month following the introduction of a completely new social security system. Not only that, but it was based on a selective sample of those who had not been satisfied with the arrangements that had been made at local benefit offices. Such a sample is not worth quoting.
I accept that take-up is not satisfactory, and I hope that all hon. Members will want to improve it. I recognise that the House is not completely in accord with the decision that I took, but the majority of people in this country think that it was right. They believe that it is better to try to help those who are genuinely in need in a substantial way than to give a small amount of help to everyone. The Labour party has reached a peculiar position in modern social security policy. It has been pushed by its egalitarianism into championing the better-off and lambasting the Government for directing extra help to the poor.
Our record on helping disabled people illustrates again our commitment to directing resources to where they are needed. I acknowledge that the last Labour Government increased expenditure on disabled people by 26 per cent. in real terms, but our stronger economy has enabled us to increase it by a massive 90 per cent. in real terms, from £1·8 billion in 1979 to £7·3 billion this year.
I was going to come to that point. We obviously are looking to the details in the survey by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. Unlike the survey established by the Labour Government, the OPCS survey does not limit the way of identifying disablement, so it gives us greater informaton. It is clear that there has been no change in the numbers, but better know ledge is coming from these surveys. We want first to examine the surveys.
I am delighted, as is the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), at what we have been able to do because of the huge increase. The right hon. Gentleman asked about numbers, and I shall illustrate two critical ones. We have been able to extend the coverage of invalidity benefit from 6,000 people in 1979 to 1,130,000 today. We have been able to increase the coverage of mobility allowance from 95,000 people in 1979 to 530,000 today. That illustrates the extent to which we have sought to enhance benefits for the disabled and to increase coverage.
The Secretary of State is throwing many figures around. I have some serious cases in my constituency of people who have applied for benefit. I have reason to believe that the Department of Social Security is telling the doctors who examine those people—[Interruption.] I have not finished yet. The Department is sending doctors into homes to examine those people to make sure that when the report is made they do not get the benefit that they should receive. It is high time that the Secretary of State got on his feet, walked around his constituency and stepped over some of these doorsteps to see how people are suffering under this Administration.
I have never doubted the sincerity of the hon. Gentleman, whom I have known for many years, but I doubt his ability to reconcile the facts that I have put before the House with the comments that he has just made. Hon. Members on both sides of the House should welcome the enormous increase in the numbers covered by disability benefits. I started my comments by acknowledging the Labour party's improvements and by sympathising with Labour Members because their economic failure had not enabled them to extend these benefits as much as my Government have done.
I have talked about targeting extra resources to those who need them. I am equally anxious, as are all hon. Members, to ensure that money does not go to those who do not need it. There is considerable evidence that a minority—I stress "a minority"—who claim unemployment benefit do not make strenuous efforts to find work. The 1988 London labour market report by the Department of Employment showed that more than 25 per cent. had not looked for work in a week, and that half had not bothered to look for work in the previous month. The 1987 labour force survey showed that as many as 730,000 people were not actively seeking work, despite the more than 700,000 unfilled vacancies in a typical month, many of which do not need specific training.
I have given way frequently, and I have many other points to make.
Clearly, that is an abuse of the system. It is grossly unfair to those in work who are paying contributions to provide the benefit and to those who are genuine and energetic, as most are, in their search for work.
As the hon. Gentleman will understand, there will be other opportunities to speak.
I shall shortly bring before the House a social security Bill that will include provision to ensure that those claiming unemployment benefit take active steps to find work. I am sure that that measure will be widely welcomed.
I want to consider the position of millions of our citizens who are pensioners. Let me make clear some things that need to be stated only because of the Opposition's scaremongering tactics. We will not means-test the basic state pension. We will continue to protect it against erosion from inflation. We will safeguard the entitlement to a state pension which a lifetime of contributions creates. That is, and always has been, the position. To imply anything else is cruelly to deceive and frighten millions of pensioners.
The unelectability of the Labour party is illustrated by the idiotic remarks from below the Gangway. We need no lectures from the Opposition about our record on pensions. It is an extremely unwise tactic for them to adopt because they can be nailed by the facts. I intend to ensure that the facts of our relative records are made clear. [Interruption.] The facts are clearly unpalatable to the Opposition.
First, under the Labour Government, pensioners' total income—[Interruption.] I am not surprised to see the shadow Leader of the House leaving the Chamber. Under the Labour Government, pensioners' total income rose by a pathetic 0·6 per cent. per year—a total of 3 per cent. in the whole of Labour's period of office. We have equalled that total on average every year since we have been in office. Secondly, the average total income of pensioners has risen by 23 per cent. since 1979—twice as fast as for the population as a whole.
Thirdly, the average gross income of a pensioner—[Interruption.] There is plenty of time to bring out the unpalatable facts about the appalling record of this miserable Opposition when in government. The average gross income of a pensioner as a percentage of adult manual earnings was 55 per cent. in 1974. By 1979, it had declined to 53 per cent. By 1986, it had come back up, not just to 55 per cent., but to 60 per cent. That is quite a contrast.
Savings, too, are vital to the elderly as the reward for thrift. That is why elderly people are so vulnerable to inflation. They will never forget the Parliament under which inflation averaged 15 per cent. a year for five years so that income from savings fell by 3 per cent. per year. That is to be compared with an increase of 7 per cent. per year in the past nine years—a staggering 64 per cent. in all.
Looking at the pensioners of our country, I have great difficulty recognising the poverty-stricken stereotype that Labour Members love to portray, because it is simply not borne out by the facts. In 1979, 38 per cent. of pensioners were in the bottom fifth of national income distribution. Happily, the proportion has now fallen to 24 per cent. Everyone should welcome that crucial and major change in such a relatively short period.
We have always recognised that some pensioners do not fit the picture of rising prosperity that has transformed the lives of so many others. The House will be aware of the group to which I refer. They are the older pensioners—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) will be patient, however difficult that may be for a Socialist, he will hear the facts. I refer to the older pensioners and the disabled who have little or no other income than their basic state pension. Many will have had their working lives disrupted by war and their savings battered by the rampant inflation of the 1970s. The present income support scheme already provides extra help for pensioners through the pensioner and higher pensioner premiums, currently worth £l0·65 and £13·05 per week for single pensioners and larger sums for couples.
However, for some time we have been considering additional ways of helping that group of pensioners. I am delighted to tell the House that, as a result of that work, we have decided on the best way to channel significant extra resources to that group. Without the success of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and a successful economy, I should not be able to make this statement today.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Some of my constituents are down here today, trying to lobby hon. Members. They are not being allowed to come anywhere near the House, and when I went out to try to meet some of them I was informed by a young policeman, "Get over there on the right hand side." [Interruption.] Unlike many Conservative Members, I have been here for a long time. I have always known that the constituents of all hon. Members have the right to come to the House, go through Westminster Hall perhaps, and on to the Central Lobby to lobby their Member of Parliament. That is not being allowed to happen at the moment and people are not getting near the House of Commons. This is one further attack on the liberties of our people, and it must stop. Our constituents have a right to come here.
Yes, I was. I have just been out there. It has been made clear to us that several thousand students—and students are being hammered by the Government by the change in the student grant system and its replacement by loans—will not get into this building. Even those with a letter from a Member of Parliament are not being allowed into the building. If they had come from the City of London, they would no doubt have been allowed in at the drop of a hat.
I want you, Mr. Speaker, to investigate whether instructions have been given by the Tory Government and their lackeys here today because they do not want to meet students who would give them an earhole bashing about the introduction of student loans. Were instructions sent out to stop those students?
Some students are saying loud and clear that Tory Members are refusing to go out and meet them, so one can draw the conclusion that they are so embarrassed by the Government's proposals that they are stopping students coming into this building.
Order. Surely it would be better to get on with this debate. I shall take the point of order from the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), because he gave me notice in the Chair.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I had intended to raise this point of order when the Secretary of State for Social Security had sat down, but in view of the points of order that have been raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller), I want to ask you to order an investigation.
Shortly before 3.30 pm I saw, from my office on the fourth floor of the Norman Shaw North building, a range of mounted policemen opposite an approximately equal number of students on the road. The mounted policemen charged those students on two occasions and, from my position, it appeared that the amount of force that was being used was out of proportion to whatever crime had theoretically been committed. I know that processions are not permitted in the precincts of the House, or near it, while the House is sitting. However, I am not convinced that the action taken on this occasion was concomitant with the rights of people to come to the House. I ask you to carry out an investigation.
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. The traffic jams around the Palace of Westminster stretch for at least 3 miles. I know that because it has taken me an hour and a half to come from south London. Students are blocking Westminster bridge at the moment by sitting on it. They are obstructing the passage of hon. Members to the House and preventing hon. Members from getting here so that we may speak to them. May I ask you to have a word with the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police when the demonstration is over, to discover the facts about the obstruction caused to hon. Members?
I am well aware that a large number of students are involved: I understand that there are several thousand. Equally I am aware that some of them have staged a sit-down and that that is causing a degree of confusion. I am not responsible for what goes on in the streets, other than the streets in the vicinity of the Palace of Westminster, but the hon. Member for Newham. South (Mr. Spearing) has raised an important point. I shall certainly look into it, and I shall be receiving reports.
I shall go back a fraction, because what I have to say has considerable relevance to a large number of pensioners. As I said, for some time we have been looking for additional ways of helping a specific group of pensioners. I am delighted to tell the House that, as a result of that work, we have been able to decide on the best way to channel significant extra resources to this group.
I am pleased to be able to tell the House that, subject to the necessary consultative procedures, we intend to introduce into the income support scheme a new and enhanced structure of pensioner premiums with effect from October next year. The new pattern of premiums will result in extra help, carefully focused on three groups—pensioners over 75 on income support, disabled pensioners over 60 on income support, and poorer pensioners in those groups whose income is at present just above the qualifying level for income support and who will get extra help through housing benefit.
Let me take each of the groups in turn. Before doing that, however, let me make a general point, which may be helpful. I recognise the complexity of what I am about to announce. There will, of course, be time to discuss these matters further when the necessary regulations are brought before the House.
First, to help the over-75s, I propose to introduce a completely new premium, for those aged between 75 and 79. It will be worth an extra £2·50 for single pensioners and an extra £3·50 for a couple. That will, of course, be above the rates of pensioner premium announced for next April. The measure will raise the income support premium available to those aged between 75 and 79 to £13·70 a week for single people, and £20·55 for couples. In addition, there will be an improved premium for the over-80s. This will enhance the existing higher pensioner premium, which currently goes to some 550,000 pensioners. The over-80s premium will also be increased by £2·50 a week for a single person and by £3·50 for a pensioner couple. That means that a single pensioner over the age of 80 on income support will receive a premium of £16·20, rising to £23 for a married couple.
Secondly, I propose to enhance the disabled pensioner premium for those over 60 by £2·50 for single people and £3·50 for couples. The House will know that at the moment all disabled pensioners over 60 receive the higher pensioner premium. I propose that they should continue to receive the highest rate of premium at the same level as the over-80s. I estimate that the first two changes will result in around 940,000 pensioners on income support receiving increases of £2·50 or £3·50 a week. What is more, those increases will be on top of the increases in income support that I recently announced, with effect from next April. Taken together, all the changes will give most of these pensioners an increase of around 10 per cent. in their benefit, and in some cases even more.
I am coming to that point, but I confirm that these are additional resources above and beyond all that I have announced.
These proposals benefit not only the poorest pensioners, but those whose incomes currently place them just over the qualifying level for income support by raising the income level at which pensioners can obtain help for housing costs. As a result of the new structure of premiums, a further 1,030,000 poorer pensioners will receive additional help through housing benefit. In all, more than 2·5 million pensioners and their spouses will receive significant increases, at a total additional cost of some £100 million in 1989–90 and £200 million for a full year. That will be met from the reserve within existing planning totals. It is all new money for pensioners.
These changes are in addition to those already announced in my uprating statement, and work on the uprating statement is already well in hand. I propose, subject to consultation with local authorities and to the passage of the necessary regulations, to introduce these changes in October 1989. This will enable my benefit officers and local authorities to give pensioners this extra help before the onset of next winter. These elderly and disabled pensioners can look forward to two upratings next year—one in the spring and the other in the autumn.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this dramatic announcement of additional assistance for pensioners will be widely welcomed? Allowing for the rate of inflation, which is under half the average when the Labour party was in office, it means that pensioners, whether receiving universal benefit or targeted benefit, have never been better off than now.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has a great interest in this subject.
For most of those involved the increase will be automatic. They will not need to make any new claim or fill in any form. Some of my hon. Friends will be concerned about whether pensioners will claim the benefits to which they are entitled, so I propose to mount a publicity campaign to tell pensioners about the new arrangements that will come in next October. As part of that campaign we shall be writing to all pensioners over 75 whose address we hold, to explain the changes.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that for some time I have been concerned about those immediately above income support level? Some of us represent constituencies where there are large numbers of such people. Can he clarify the details of the income support qualifications for those individuals, or will they be provided in papers at some later date? This is excellent news.
I am aware of the need of hon. Members for additional details, and hon. Members on both sides will be pleased with the assistance that I shall seek to give them. Apart from this speech, details will be available immediately in the Vote Office and, with permission, I shall arrange for details to be printed in the Official Report.
As my right hon. Friend knows, I have commented on these matters recently. Today's announcement will be warmly welcomed by all who are concerned with these matters. Can he give some indication of the total annual cost of these substantial improvements?
I believe that I said it was nearly £200 million.
The package of measures that I have just announced will bring extra help to more than 2·5 million of our least well-off pensioners. It will do so by directing almost £200 million to those who genuinely need it. I am confident that it will be warmly welcomed by the House and by the British people. But the new measures must be seen against the background of the steady increases in the living standards of pensioners as a whole. The new measures will tackle something which I thought was a tenet of the Labour party: they will give most help to those who need it most. That is one of our key objectives for social security, and we intend to see it through.
Extra help for pensioners—the Government's proposals
It is proposed that income support paid to pensioners will be restructured from October 1989. There will be new premiums for pensioners 75 and over, 80 and over and disabled pensioners. These will provide an extra £2·50 a week for single pensioners and an extra £3·50 a week for couples. This will be over and above the increases already announced for the April uprating. The same increase will apply to the housing benefit rates so that pensioners slightly above income support levels will also benefit through extra help with rent and rates or community charge.
|New structure of income support premiums from October 1989||Announced rates from April 1989|
|Single £||Couple1£||Single £||Couple1 £|
|Disabled 60 and over||16·20||23·00||13·70||19·50|
|1 The couples rate applies if either member is over 75 or 80, or is disabled.|
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have just returned from witnessing the peaceful demonstration by students outside the House. The House should have an urgent statement from the Home Secretary about the unnecessary violence that has been used against those students and the unnecessary brutality to women students, with four or five policemen needed to drag one woman across the road. When officials of the National Union of Students were trying to get the crowd to move back, the police horses were moved in without warning. Two Tory voters came up to me, introduced themselves, and said that they had seen such events in Fascist countries but had not believed that they could happen in a country such as Britain. The Home Secretary should be asked to come to the House to make a statement on the tactics that were chosen for this demonstration. It is outrageous.
I do not know whether the hon. Lady was here a moment ago when another hon. Member raised that point with me, in relation to events outside Norman Shaw, North. I have already said that I shall send for a report on the matter.
The Secretary of State made two important announcements. The first was that we will have a Bill on social security that will be fashioned further to restrict entitlement to unemployment benefit and social security for those who are unemployed by tackling the availability for work test. I note the Secretary of State's assent that that is his intention. That Bill will build on a precedent that occurred in the previous Session, when a similar Bill was devised to remove benefit from another group of unemployed claimants—16 and 17-year-olds—all of whom have lost benefit since the beginning of the summer recess.
Those young people lost benefit because of a pledge that was given to the House when we debated the Bill, that there would he a YTS place for every 16 and 17-year-old who lost benefit. On Second Reading, in Committee and on Report we warned the Secretary of State that that guarantee would not be met. I regret to inform the House that we were correct. The Government have admitted that we were correct by conceding that on 9 November more than 13,000 16 and 17-year-olds who were looking for YTS places had not been provided with them.
There is a cruel dimension to those figures in relation to the north-south divide. Most of the teenagers who are looking for places but cannot find them live in constituencies represented by Labour Members in the north-west, the north-east, central Scotland and south Wales—areas of high unemployment. Teenagers must suffer further discrimination because they come from areas of social deprivation.
Half the 13,000–6,600—are in Scotland. One of them, a teenage girl in Edinburgh known to me, has just lost her bridging allowance, which ran for eight weeks from the end of her entitlement to benefit on 12 September. In those eight weeks she turned up and sought interviews for eight YTS places, and on each occasion found that they had been filled. Despite those desperate and serious attempts to find a place, 10 days ago she lost all entitlement to any income support and for the past 10 days has had no cash for food or fuel—that is in one of the coldest periods that we have had this year—and she is now left completely destitute. That girl had seriously looked for work, but the Government could not provide her either with work or with a traineeship. Against that background, I can promise the Secretary of State that if he brings forward a Bill designed to inflict that same humiliation and hardship on larger numbers, the Opposition will resist it entirely.
The Secretary of State also made another major statement in relation to those at the other end of the age spectrum—pensioners. We are, of course, aware of the genesis of his statement. Curiously, the figures and the new measures that he announced today were omitted from the uprating statement only three weeks ago. It is rather surprising that, given this extra £200 million from the back pocket and all this additional largesse to pensioners, the Secretary of State could not find a couple of minutes in the uprating statement to include any reference to it.
We know that the origins of today's statement do not rest with the uprating exercise in the Department. The origins of today's statement can he traced to the lucubrations of the Chancellor before the Sunday lobby a couple of weeks ago.
The hon. Gentleman and I have known each other for some time. He will expect me to say this carefully. I have been working on a package of measures for poorer pensioners for a considerable time. I repeat that. Knowing the right hon. Gentleman as well as I do, I do not imagine that he would like to continue ignoring that fact.
I assure the Secretary of State that I would not deny what he says. I am sure that he has been working on a package. I am sure that it featured in his discussions with the Chief Secretary. What was interesting was that that did not feature in his uprating statement to the House, from which we can only conclude that at the time that he was having his discussions with the Chief Secretary he was unable to persuade him quite so effectively as the Chancellor was able to persuade him on the Sunday morning when he woke up and read the Sunday papers.
The Chancellor's observations are the backdrop to the statement that we have just heard because what the Chancellor spelt out was that the Government regard poverty among pensioners as the problem of a minority.
A tiny minority. With characteristic fairness, my right hon. Friend does not go quite the whole way. The Chancellor described it as a tiny minority. He was perhaps unwise enough to make that observation immediately before the weather turned colder, when large numbers of pensioners will be driven to distraction trying to make ends meet in order to pay their heating bills, many of whom will fail. As a country, we have a death rate that increases by 20 per cent. in the winter months compared with the rest of the year. Other countries with much colder climates, such as Sweden, nevertheless manage to do much better and see an increase in their death rate of only 6 per cent. in the winter.
The explanation is simple. It is hard cash. Pensioners in Britain spend less on heating than other groups in Britain. Those in work spend more on heating. Pensioners spend less on heating not because they need it less—they need it more—but because they can afford it less.
The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) understands that point. I would, in parenthesies, congratulate the Secretary of State. One effect of the recent ministerial changes is that he has the consolation that he no longer has ministerial responsibility for the hon. Lady. But the hon. Lady diverted us the other week by inviting pensioners to go to bed in a woolly nightcap because—on this matter the hon. Lady speaks with authority—one can lose a lot of heat through one's head. While her advice may be entertaining to us, to pensioners it is deeply insulting. It suggests that the rest of us can go to warm, well-heated bedrooms, but it is good enough for them to go to bed with tea cosies on their heads.
Who are the tiny minority who have a problem making ends meet and paying their heating bills? The week after the Chancellor's briefing, the Prime Minister put her own gloss on that minority, which I notice was picked up in the Secretary of State's targeting of his benefit. The Prime Minister said that only 18 per cent. of pensioners are on income support, from which I presume we are to conclude that they are the tiny minority who have difficulty making ends meet. They are overwhelmingly the group targeted in the statement that we have just heard. The Prime Minister was wise to say "only" 18 per cent., because we know that 27 per cent. of pensioners are eligible for income support.
The fact that 1 million pensioners would rather live below the breadline than submit to a means test is one reason why we in the Labour party do not accept that it is possible to end poverty in old age by a means-tested benefit. There will always be many pensioners who will put their pride before their purses.
One could argue that 20 per cent. is a minority, although it is not tiny. However, another 30 per cent. are only 40 per cent. or less in income terms above the breadline of income support. I presume that we are to conclude that they have no difficulty making ends meet. That must be the logic of the Chancellor's and the Prime Minister's observations. If we add in that 30 per cent. to the 27 per cent., we are not talking about a minority, far less a tiny minority—it is a clear majority. So presumably that 30 per cent. has no difficulty in making ends meet.
What is the income of those people? It is up to £20 to £30 higher than the income support levels. That figure exaggerates the extent to which they are better off than those on the breadline. That group of pensioners—the 3 million who, as the Secretary of State observed, are not among the worst off—are the true victims of the means test. They are always on the wrong side of the means test. They were the victims of the cuts in housing benefit. They are the people who lost 85p for every £1 by which they were above that income support level. I must tell the House, in case hon. Members have failed to notice, that the entire relaxation and relief held out to that group by the announcement that we have just heard is that those people are now entitled to an increase in their housing benefit by a grand total of £1·95 a week, compared with the cuts of £12, £15 and £20 a week that my hon. Friends and I have seen among our constituents.
Those people were also the victims of the increases in health charges. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who drew my attention to a constituent of his who visited him. She is a widow, with an income of £69 a week, who has just had to pay £8·75 for her most recent visit to the dentist. Those people are also the victims of new charges in the Health Service. Those 3 million will have to pay £10 the next time they go to the optometrist to have their eyes tested.
I notice that the Chief Secretary, when he addressed the Select Committee yesterday, described means testing as "a benevolent principle". The right hon. Gentleman should try to express that benevolent principle to the 3 million people who find constantly that the means test deprives them of help, although they are precisely the people who have taken the Government at their word. They have been prudent and provided for their old age but, as a result of that prudence and provision, they are no better off.
The House knows that I am not the greatest advocate of selectivity in some of those benefits, but is the hon. Gentleman really saying that the Labour party would abolish all forms of supplementary pension?
Of course the Labour party is not saying any such thing, nor was there anything in my remarks to suggest that. There always have been, and there always will be, means-tested benefits in any welfare system. What we object to is the way in which the Government are consistently failing to use universal benefits to provide a decent floor on which to top up those means-tested benefits. One can see the way in which the Government have failed to do that by looking at what has happened to the state pension.
The Secretary of State had some fun with one of my hon. Friends, accusing him of using selective statistics. Nothing that the Opposition have done can compare with the selectivity of the statistics that the Secretary of State provided on pensioners' income. He is responsible for the state pension. Between 1974 and 1979, the real value of the state pension increased by 20 per cent. In the nine years of this Government's period of office, it has increased by merely 2 per cent.
The reason why it has shown such a small increase over the past nine years is that one of the very first acts of this Government was to smash the link between the pension and the rise in earnings. If that link had been maintained, single pensioners would now be £11 a week better off and married pensioners would be £18 a week better off. Compare and contrast that with the £2·50 that has just been announced for special categories of old-age pensioners. Compare also the £200 million that the Secretary of State has just announced with the £5,000 million that the Government saved by smashing the link with earnings. The Government have taken £5,000 million away and now invite us to thank them for giving back £200 million.
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that it would be Labour party policy at the next election to restore the link, or, as happened in 1976, will the link be restored only when it can be done in such a way that eight months' inflation can be taken out of the calculation?
The Government have uprated the pension in precisely the same way as the Labour Government did when they introduced the link in 1977. The hon. Gentleman's question was fair. It is not something that I or any of my hon. Friends have tried to conceal. It appears that we have failied, but we have tried to get it across to every pensioner in the land that we would restore the link with earnings. That will be one of our major planks at the next election, and it is a plank with which we shall beat the Secretary of State about both ears.
I should like to make progress with my speech, so I shall not give way.
One of the reasons why we believe that it is not possible to end poverty in old age by means testing alone is that, inevitably with such means testing comes a stigma. Universal benefits go to everybody as citizens, and they can be worn as a badge of citizenship. Means-tested benefits go only to the poor, so they are a label of poverty.
Sometimes the Department of Social Security appears to go out of its way to rub in and stigmatise that poverty. I have a copy of form AG1, which pensioners and others who wish help with prescriptions on grounds of low income have to complete. It runs to 15 pages and has 18 separate parts. The most interesting feature about the document is that the income test for free prescriptions is the same as that for assistance to visit a relative in prison. The Department of Social Security, presumably to consolidate prices and the cost of the document, has provided a common form for applications for help with free prescriptions or with travel to visit a relative in prison.
If one wishes to apply for help, one of the first things that one finds on page 1 is the advice:
Claim now if you think you or your partner will need things like NHS prescriptions … or are going to visit someone in prison.
Confronted with that, thousands of pensioners in Britain will close up the form then and there and refuse to apply rather than submit to such a stigmatised test. That is why this is so important. If we are to end the poverty of those in old age, while allowing them to retain their dignity, it is vital, in addition to looking at means-tested benefits, to provide a decent universal flat-rate state pension.
We approach the Government's commitment to means-tested benefits with some jaundice because we have had an opportunity over the past year to observe what happens to means-tested benefits under this Administration. We notice that they have a tendency to become even meaner. This debate comes at the start of a new parliamentary year, but halfway through the social security year. It is a convenient point at which to take stock of the changes that we have seen—particularly those in April. This debate is doubly convenient because the reply will be given by the architect of those changes.
The then Secretary of State for Social Services, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), will recall his constant promise that his reform of the social security system was the biggest for 40 years and that it had to stand the test of the next 40 years. Over the past couple of months I have often wondered what thoughts are passing through the right hon. Gentleman's mind as he notes the observations of his right hon. and hon. Friends, who appear to consider that his reforms have not stood the test of the first year.
The Chancellor, in expansive form, suggests that the social security system needs major restructuring—so major that it will require a programme of re-education of Government Back Benchers. The Secretary of State for Social Security and his hon. Friend the Minister told the House that he did not make any secret of his belief that child benefit is not an effective way of helping the poor. That is perfectly true. I accept that the right hon. Gentleman has never made any secret of his distaste for child benefit. I am happy to assure him that I for one never believed the stories that he was fighting hard to uprate child benefit.
The difficulty is that the Secretary of State never shared his little secret before polling day. The author of the Conservative manifesto's comment on child benefit was not the Secretary of State for Social Security but his right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield. His manifesto commitment was:
Child benefit will continue to be paid as now, and direct to the mother.
The comma is important. We have it on the Chancellor of the Exchequer's authority that he is not able to go back on the manifesto because of the comma. When asked who was responsible for inserting the comma, the Chancellor replied:
I don't know—not me.
Today, we have the author of the comma. The Secretary of State for Employment must be rueful that his most enduring legacy to his successor is a comma, without which his colleagues would not wait another 40 hours, never mind 40 years, before attacking the structure of child benefit.
The unfortunate feature of all this is that child benefit is the one thing that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield got right. In his White Paper before the reforms, he presented the view:
Child benefit is … simple, straightforward, well understood and preferred as it is. The case for changing it has not been made out.
The question that I ask at this early point, so that the right hon. Gentleman may have an opportunity to reflect on it before replying, is whether he stands by that quotation; or has he, too, been the subject of a re-education programme and does he now accept the case made by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security that child benefit should be frozen until death?
I turn from the assurance of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield to that of his successor, which has proved to be equally flexible. I remind the Secretary of State for Social Security that when the changes were debated in April, he promised the House that 88 per cent. of claimants would be no worse off. Two weeks ago, the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux survey showed that four out of five claimants seeking help had lost money. The NACAB reported also that the elderly fared significantly worse.
Surely it is not beyond the hon. Gentleman's logic or understanding that a person going to a citizens' advice bureau for guidance on social security benefits will probably be complaining about a reduction. Therefore, to find that 20 per cent. of such people are better off is a good rather than a bad thought.
I am glad that I let the hon. Gentleman intervene. He made precisely the point that I anticipated he would. If he bothers to refer to the NACAB survey—and it is obvious from his intervention and from the Secretary of State's response that neither of them has—he will find that it also anticipates his comment:
It is an over-simplification to say that it is the casualties of the system who are seen by bureaux are unrepresentative. The numbers involved, the nature of the enquiries, the similarities with other research findings and the nature of the Citizens' Advice Bureaux Service—a generalist information, advice and advocacy service—all suggest that the circumstances identified will occur with sufficient frequency … to warrant the Government giving them serious attention.
I concede that such an observation may not be spot on and that it may not be the case that 80 per cent. of claimants are worse off; nevertheless, Ministers now know the figures. They promised the House that they would monitor the effects of the changes. Let them now come forward with the results of that monitoring. Let them say whether their figures are nearer the Government's claim that 88 per cent. of claimants are no worse off or nearer the NACAB claim that 20 per cent. are no worse off but that everybody else is worse off. Let us have the results of the Government's monitoring.
I do not accept the Government's suggestion that we should ignore the NACAB report because, as the Minister expressed it, it is old news. It is a snapshot of what occurred in April and May. I am puzzled as to why the Secretary of State should think that the situation has improved since then. On the contrary, for many individuals it has grown worse. There are, for example, all the claimants who lost transitional protection.
I refer to the case of Mr. and Mrs. Summers of Warley. They are both in their fifties, they are in receipt of supplementary benefit and they are ill. They receive extra allowances for diet, heating, laundry and other additions on account of their illness. They made the mistake of marrying. It is instructive to see what has happened to them, under the party of the family, because they did so. Their marriage triggered a fresh assessment of their social security claims. As a result, they lost their entitlement to transitional protection, and with that all their extra allowances for heating, diet and laundry to which they were previously entitled. In a letter to me, Mr. Summers points out that, as a result of the introduction of the social fund, he had to borrow money to buy furniture when he married. The couple are now in debt. He writes:
We have been forced to go into debt and are now in a position where we can't make the repayments. We are in a terrible state and in deep trouble. We feel suicidal.
Mr. and Mrs. Summers—who are now in a terrible state, in deep trouble and feeling suicidal—idiotically and perversely figure among the 88 per cent. whom the Government claim are no worse off. Patently they are worse off. Patently, any candid monitoring of the system is bound to admit that the Government's figure was wrong and that since April the situation has, far from improving, deteriorated.
There is one other area to which I shall refer before concluding, because it is one that we cannot ignore in any review of the year behind and the year ahead. I refer to those who last April were in receipt of housing benefit and the cuts that they have experienced. So great is their hardship and so severe their effects—which the Government failed to anticipate and about which they failed sufficiently to educate their Back Benchers in advance—that the Government were compelled to introduce an emergency scheme on transitional protection. It is highly relevant to all the fashionable chatter about targeting because transitional protection was targeted on only 350,000 of the worst cases. That is against the background of over 5 million people who lost housing benefit—and 350,000 out of 5 million is pinpoint targeting indeed.
It is constructive to note how the Government have succeeded with this precisely targeted benefit. The answer is, as so often, that they are missing most of the targets. Six months after the scheme was introduced, only 125,000 people are in receipt of transitional protection—one third of the original estimate. Two thirds of the original estimate are being missed out and are losing their transitional protection.
I make another prediction. During the next parliamentary Session, that figure of 125,000 will go down sharply. It will go down next April because the Government have announced what they are pleased to call an erosion factor. Next April there will be an erosion factor of £2, and it will be applied to everybody who is on transitional protection for housing benefit. The average amount that is being paid out in transitional protection is only £4. In other words, the average amount that is being received in transitional protection will be halved during the year and a large proportion of the 125,000 will be removed from protection altogether.
As a result of the housing benefit changes, a single parent with dependent children has lost £16 a week. She applied for transitional protection and was granted the grand total of 98p per week. That left her £15·98 worse off per week as a result of the housing benefit changes. How will she be affected by what happens next April—by the erosion factor of £2 that my hon. Friend mentioned? Where is her protection?
I am very sorry to say that I can cap my hon. Friend's tale. I share with the House the case of a widow, Mrs. Jean Turner of Skelmersdale. Her weekly income comes entirely from her widowed mother's allowance and child benefit, giving her a weekly income of £76. last April her housing costs increased by £7 a week. At the same time she lost the entitlement to free school meals, leaving her with additional expenditure of £7 a week. She is £14 worse off, although her weekly income is only £76.
Three weeks ago, Mrs. Turner at last received from the transitional protection unit notification of her entitlement to transitional protection. She has been awarded transitional protection amounting to 1p a week. That is the entire amount that she has been offered in transitional help so that she may adjust to a budget that has collapsed by £14 a week. She is also, in real terms, £100 a year worse off because of the freezing of child benefit. Furthermore, she does not benefit from the increase in family credit because, as a widowed mother looking after two young children and not employed, she is not eligible for family credit. That is another reason why we do not believe that this Government's targeting will relieve poverty.
That brings me to the final absurdity of all. We have a Government who are determined to means-test welfare benefits but who are insisting—in Scotland this Session and in England during the next Session—on introducing a new, flat-rate universal tax: the community charge. That provides us with a sharp contrast between this Government's attitude to benefit and their policy on taxes.
The Government pursue targeting when it comes to taxes, but they stand targeting on its head. One third of the money that was given away in the Budget in tax cuts went to the top one hundredth of the population. That is very precise targeting, but it is the exact reverse of targeting to help those who are most in need. It is pure cant to be told by Conservative Members that they are worried about universal benefits because they go to the better-off. The Government have poured fountains of cash into the laps of the better-off, much of it siphoned out of the pockets and the purses of the most needy and vulnerable people.
I end with an illustration of the reality of life for one of the Secretary of State's targets. A letter was sent to me by a Manchester charity. It enclosed a letter from the manager of a local DHSS office which is seeking the charity's help to assist a claimant. The claimant is single and was in receipt of income support of £26 a week. After paying his rent and rates, his fuel charges and his direct compulsory contributions to fuel arrears, he was left with £8·66 a week for food and other living expenses. That man is sick with chronic psoriasis. He has reached a crisis in his life, because his cooker has been condemned as dangerous by the local gas supplier. In order to get a new cooker to heat his food, he applied to the DHSS for a loan. He was refused a loan on the basis, advanced by the manager, that he did not think that the man could manage the repayments out of his £8·66 a week. To be fair to the manager—and to his credit—he then sent a begging letter to charities in Manchester to find out whether any of them could help this sick, unemployed man to obtain a cooker so that he could eat hot food this winter. His case is the true face of means testing under the Secretary of State.
In the year ahead, we shall lose no opportunity of reminding the Government of the true face of means testing and of contrasting it with their open-handed generosity to the rich.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for again detaining the House, but following my last intervention I left the House to try to find my Liverpool constituents. I understood that they were coming down to London in three buses. I was unable to find them, so I walked across Westminster bridge. The road was blocked off. As I was walking over it, mounted police carne up behind me, passed me in serried ranks and then opened up and charged those young students.
I do not know where we are going to; I thought that our people had the right to come here and talk to us. I do not know whether I would have agreed with all that they said, but that is not the point. They have not been allowed to come here. In the old days, we allowed our constituents to come into Parliament a few at a time—probably in even bigger numbers than on this occasion. I am absolutely horrified by what I have seen this afternoon. I do not believe in the use of violence against young students, even if some of them may have been irrational. It is very bad when this sort of thing is allowed to happen.
The rights of the House of Commons are involved; so are our constituents' rights. They have the right to come here at any time to see us. That right is being stopped, so we are now involved.
I understand that you are to look into the matter, Mr. Speaker. I hope that you will also look into the policing that has been used today.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. If people were trying to lobby Members of Parliament, some of whom would have been my constituents, and were met with brutality by the police—allegations have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), who witnessed what has happened today—is not that a crucial point for the House of Commons to consider? We have always said that constituents have a right to come to this place. The Home Secretary—not tomorrow, not on Monday, but today—should be requested to make a statement to the House. If our constituents are prevented from coming here and are faced with brutality from the police, even this Government have a responsibility to report to the House. The Home Secretary should make a statement today, and as quickly as possible.
I have looked into those matters which are within my direct responsibility and I am satisfied that all is in order in the immediate precincts of the House. I am not responsible, as the Speaker, for what takes place either on Westminster bridge or on Lambeth bridge. That is a matter for the Home Secretary. If questions about that matter are in the minds of hon. Members, they should direct them to him.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We recognise that the police have a dilemma. We have passed Sessional Orders intended to make it possible for hon. Members to come and go without let or hindrance, and also intended to ensure that our constituents can reach us without let or hindrance. Having passed those Orders, we must bear some responsibiliity when the police attempt to carry them out by obstructing passage across the bridges.
This may not be directly within your purview, Mr. Speaker, but I believe that it would be proper for the Home Secretary or one of his Ministers to come to the House and tell us what is going on. Over the past few years it has become increasingly clear that the police see their function as not to facilitate the passage of those who wish to lobby us but to place more and more obstructions in their way. Although a number of Conservative Members laughed when some of my hon. Friends reported what was happening, I feel that it is crucial to us that the Central Lobby should be a place to which all who behave peaceably should have access, and we have an obligation to try to bring that about.
I hope, Mr. Speaker, that if you are not able to say anything about what the police are doing, you will bring to bear your influence as preserver of the rights of hon. Members and those whom they represent. I hope that you will be able to get a Home Office Minister to come and tell us what is going—on and, if necessary, bearing in mind the views of the House, to give instructions as police authority for the metropolis for the implementation of rather more sensible policies.
Order. I am not in complete knowledge of exactly what is happening because it is not my responsibility, but I understand that a good many students are involved, and—as an hon. Member has said—a number of them are sitting on Westminster bridge. That makes access to the House difficult. I have heard what the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) has said, however, and I am sure that it has been noted by the Government Front Bench. In so far as I have any influence, I shall report back.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I reinforce what was said by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller)? Hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned to learn that students who have written asking to come and see them to raise genuine constituency matters have not been able to do so today. Surely that is a matter of privilege and one that should be investigated by you, Sir. Similarly, the Leader of the House or the Home Secretary should be asked to come to the House this afternoon and make a statement about the disgraceful events that have occurred both inside and outside the precincts of the House.
Order. Let me say to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who was called to speak yesterday, that I hope that he will not, by seeking to intervene in this manner, delay his colleagues who wish to speak today.
If the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) was not here earlier, let me explain to him that the regulations allow access to the Central Lobby if it is obtained in an orderly fashion. It is not considered fair for hon. Members to go out and fetch their constituents and, as it were, jump the queue, because that causes trouble among others in the queue whose Members of Parliament may not be present at the time. However, I have noted what the hon. Gentleman has said about this matter.
I do not wish to add to what has been said on the points of order. However, as one who crossed Westminster bridge not long ago, despite the quiet, calming words of the shadow Leader of the House—the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson)—some of us have another point of view which we would be prepared to express.
I am honoured and grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me to speak so early in the day. As you know, it is a long time since I have been able to speak in the House owing to the extraordinary way in which we run our affairs. I have to admit that it is probably my own fault. One of the last occasions on which I spoke was late at night, and it happened to be on a social security Bill. It was a long and tedious contribution. As I was bringing it to an end, a charming young Whip put in front of me a piece of paper on which was written, "Please keep going as long as you possibly can." So I had to rumble on.
Mr. Speaker Thomas was not amused. He pulled me up and told me that I was on his blacklist and was unlikely to be called again in a hurry. That lasted for 10 years. It was a long sentence. If I learned any lesson from all that, it was that hon. Members should think twice before complying meekly with the charming words of a Whip.
I did not intend to go into too much detail on the subject of social security, because I know the complexities of it—and much has changed since I last spoke on it. However, I am entirely behind the focusing of extra benefits on those in substantial need, and I believe that the House and the people are behind it, too. What I deplore is the way in which the Opposition seek to hide their past. What is worse, they do not come forward with any new thinking on how to solve the difficult problem of focusing benefit on those who need it without the means test, which they clearly dislike for historical reasons. If they came forward with sensible proposals for getting round that. we should listen to them, but they do not.
There is another thing that I deplore. Every time income support—or supplementary benefit, as it used to be called—is increased, the number on the so-called "official poverty line" is also increased. The Leader of the Opposition used the words "official poverty line" in his response to the Queen's Speech, and I think that he used the word "official" advisedly—because he knew that he was talking nonsense when he said that there were 3 million on the official poverty line.
The leader of the so-called party below, the hon. Member for—[HON. MEMBERS: "Yeovil."]—the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), made one of the silliest speeches that I have ever heard on a Queen's Speech. He said that there were 9 million on the poverty line. The reverse of what I said earlier is also true. If the real-terms amount of supplementary benefit were reduced, the numbers on the poverty line would be cut. Would the Opposition cheer that? Did they cheer it in 1977 when they cut supplementary benefit by 7 per cent. in real terms by sleight of hand?
What was worse was that for several days the Labour Government tried to pretend that they had not cut that benefit. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment knows very well, we had to wring it out of them that by moving the goal posts—in a way too complicated to explain now—they cut benefits. At a time when inflation was running at 23 per cent., they cut benefits back to 15 per cent.
The hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) talked about the smashing of links, referring to Labour's plans to tie pensions to average earnings. Labout smashed the link between pensions and earnings or inflation. Furthermore, Labour smashed the link between pensions and the cost of living. The result in 1977 was a cut in real terms of 7 per cent. The Labour party asks us to contrast what the Government have done with its open-handed generosity, but we have only to consider Labour's record to find the truth. The record is all that we have to go on. It is our only guide to the future. Labour's record on pensioners, the poor, the sick and the needy between 1974 and 1979 was appalling.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is introducing a restrained and sensible Bill to put the Security Service within a statutory framework. I deplore the fact that the Opposition—I am afraid that some of my hon. Friends do it too—use every opportunity to spotlight the problems, shortcomings and treacheries that have gone on in the Security Service during the past 40 years. They do not spotlight the security that has been gained for the British people.
We are far safer for having such a service of able and dedicated men. They are the first line of defence for ordinary and innocent people. Two innocent people were killed in Northern Ireland last night; more could be killed but for the work of the Security Service.
Nothing would be worse than to place supervision of the Security Service in the hands of the House, whether it be a Select Committee or a Committee of permanent Privy Councillors. Ten years in the business management side of the House have taught me that hon. Members, and especially distinguished senior ones not in government, are under enormous pressures from all quarters. They are not the people to supervise such an important service, which is the first line of security for ordinary people. The pressures on them make them not the right animals. It is crucial that the people who watch over the service and the rights of individuals who feel that they have been treated wrongly by it should be impartial and outside the political battle. That is what the Bill proposes.
Among the greatest changes that have taken place during the years when I have not been able to speak in the House, and one which is working on everybody's sub-conscious, is the lessening of tension between the major power blocs—the West and behind the iron curtain. No doubt decisions that have been taken during the past few years have been aided and abetted by Britain's attitude towards maintaining the strength of NATO. The military strength of NATO has been vital for the improvement in security for people in the West and behind the iron curtain. I am proud to have been part of an Administration which maintained our defences and modernised the independent deterrent. Above all, it has maintained strong relations with the United States to ensure that they play their full part in the European theatre.
It was a brave decision to bring cruise missiles to Britain, but that was the turning point in the strengthening of NATO and the change of feeling behind the iron curtain. We should not allow ourselves, or our constituents, to be complacent. The sparks of freedom are now glowing in country after country from the Baltic to the Black sea but if those sparks glow too hot and break out into a conflagration, as they might, we must be careful to show no weakness. There might be a return to dreadful authoritarian rule if Mr. Gorbachev's administration and experiment is overthrown as a result of problems within that circle.
We have learnt how Britain and other Western countries can be lulled into complacency. The first thing that people want to do is turn swords into ploughshares and spend more on the good things of life, such as health, welfare and housing, all of which we want for our people. Nevertheless, I am sure that the Conservative Government's attention will stay firmly fixed on the need, for the time being, to remain strong, resolute and determined. We must not give the impression that we are weak and can be pushed over. We must be quite sure that the changes behind the iron curtain are there for all time before we can really believe that we have come to the end of the cold war.
I disagree with practically every point on social security made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Boscawen). He spoke particular nonsense about the previous Labour Government's record on disablement. Having said that. I think that I speak for many hon. Members on both sides of the House when I warmly welcome him back to a speaking role in the Chamber. I hope that it will not be too long before he fully resumes making his controversial speeches. It is always a pleasure to hear him.
The absence of any reference to disabled people in the Queen's Speech was an absolute disgrace. When we think of their problems it is inexcusable for the Government to neglect the relative decline in disabled people's living standards. It is true that today we were offered a crumb of comfort by the Secretary of State when he mentioned a pensioner premium which would be of some assistance to a small number of disabled people. However, that is a crumb and no more. It cannot be made into a figleaf to disguise the Government's failure to help a significant number of disabled people.
The survey by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys established that there are now 6 million disabled people in Great Britain. The Minister of State emphasised that many
would not regard themselves as disabled or in need of special help for services or cash benefits".
How did he know?
I read the report as carefully as the Minister, and I accuse him of being selective. The report also explained that some of the people whom he thought were not deserving of special help were people who have difficulty reading newspaper print or following conversations when there is a background noise, and who cannot walk 200 yards without stopping or suffering severe discomfort. Those are people with severe problems and the Minister is utterly wrong to try to dismiss them.
The speech of the Secretary of State was even more disturbing. He claimed that expenditure on benefits for disabled people had risen by 90 per cent. in real terms in 1979. The Minister of State made the same speech at his press conference. The Minister and the Secretary of State omitted to mention that most of that increase was due to the rise in the number of disabled people and in the number claiming benefit. Those are the real reasons for the increase in expenditure. It is not true that the income of disabled people has risen substantially. The Secretary of State tried to excuse himself by saying that the incomes of those receiving disability benefits and allowances had risen. They have, but they represent only a small proportion of the 6 million disabled people in Britain.
The Minister is wrong merely to suggest that we should be pleased that more people are claiming benefits. Of course, we are pleased about more claims, but the fact remains that many disabled people are very badly off. Even worse than that, as a result of the April cuts, 1 million disabled people are now worse off. The withering of the transitional protection is adding to the poverty and disillusionment of many disabled people.
There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that there are more disabled people now than there were 10 years ago when the Labour Government were in office. We commissioned a survey which identified the extent of disability much more accurately than the limited survey done by the Labour Government. Under our Government, more and more people have come forward to claim the benefits to which they are entitled. The right hon. Gentleman should be pleased about that and congratulate the Government on their achievement.
I am delighted that the 6 million people have been identified, because we have been pressing for their identification. It is significant that the Minister does not deny that many more people are now claiming benefits. Therefore, I assume that the Minister is prepared to concede—this is my basic point—that the incomes of disabled people have not increased substantially. If he wishes to intervene again to dispute that, I am willing to give way to him. Disabled people have not shared in the prosperity of the country. It is significant that the Minister is not accepting my challenge to intervene again.
The majority of disabled people are pensioners. The Minister, in his press release on the OPCS survey, said that the
income of disabled and other pensioners is much the same.
That was factually accurate while distorting the truth. Oh, yes. I will explain that. The survey revealed—I hope that the Minister read it as carefully as I did—that once the extra costs of disability are taken into account, the income left for normal living is appreciably less. At 1985 prices it was £83·70 per week for a couple compared with £93·70 for non-disabled people. That is a £10 difference at that income level, which is enormous and has tremendous implications for disabled people.
Disabled pensioners have a hard time because of their disability and old age and have less to live on, but non-pensioner disabled people fare worse compared with able-bodied people. Only 31 per cent. of them work. The average income for a couple, after allowing for disability costs, was £91·70 compared with £136·50 for non-disabled people. That is a difference of £44·80. Therefore, disabled people receive only two thirds of the income of able-bodied people.
Job opportunities and the cost of disability form the crux of the problem for the disabled. The OPCS survey established that costs vary, rising to almost £20 per week for the most severely disabled people. I am sure that the Minister will take my words into account. We must have a comprehensive disability costs allowance which breaks the link between disability and hardship.
I should like the Minister to explain what provision he is making for mentally handicapped people. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health said recently:
Care in the community is really happening.
That is not borne out by the experience of thousands of mentally handicapped people and their families. There has been a decrease of 15,000 in the number of NHS residential patients in the past 10 years but the concomitant, the necessary community care provision, is not being made. Mentally handicapped people are being shuffled on to their families, thereby imposing appalling burdens on their parents, some of whom are very old. The Government spend £6 million on community care, but it is estimated that informal carers save the Government about £7 billion a year. What a way to save money! They are doing it by exploiting the families of mentally handicapped people, by placing burdens on relatives and by robbing mentally handicapped people of services.
MENCAP has given me a few significant facts about mentally handicapped people. The Taunton and district society for the mentally handicapped undertook a survey in April 1988 of the needs of families in the community. It found 55 mentally handicapped adults living with a lone carer aged over 75 years, 75 mentally handicapped adults living with a lone carer over the age of 65 years and 35·5 per cent.—over one third—of adults with a mental handicap living with carers over pensionable age.
It is time that disabled people received a better deal and a proper income. It is time to provide them with job opportunities, time to outlaw unjustified discrimination and time that the Government stopped talking and acted on behalf of all disabled people.
I am grateful for the opportunity to express my support for the contents of the Gracious Speech. I welcome the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State of additional assistance for pensioners. I am certain that it will be welcomed warmly by pensioners in my constituency. Mr. Speaker has asked for short speeches, so I shall stick to that and deal with the employment aspect of today's debate.
The Government are firmly committed to policies to defeat inflation, promote enterprise and sustain growth in output and, especially, employment. The Government's achievements in reducing unemployment and creating the employment training programme are significant because they occurred against a background of steady expansion in the labour force and in the percentage of women returning to work. We have rightly aimed at removing artificial barriers and improving our training programmes.
It is important to recognise how the employment and training initiatives, and the reforms in company law foreshadowed in the Gracious Speech will affect the structure of our economy, which, traditionally, has been dominated by large firms. In the 1960s and 1970s, we encouraged the formation of large firms. We still have more multinational companies than any other EEC country, and about 50 per cent. of our output comes from 100 companies. I am pleased that that process of concentration is over.
The manufacturing share of the 100 largest companies has been falling since 1984. The average share in national employment of the five largest firms in all sectors has been dropping for a decade. Large companies are shedding jobs, and have been doing so steadily for the past few years. Small companies, in which I have a special interest, and medium-sized ones, are creating jobs. At last the Government and people in the community have recognised that small companies are not second-rate. They are important to our economy and have created an enormous number of jobs since 1979.
The number of self-employed people has risen by over 800,000 and management buy-outs have reached record levels. I want that process to continue. It requires the removal of artificial barriers to the employment of women and young people, which is enshrined in current legislation. It also requires an acceptance inside and outside the House that entrepreneurs are not born with the necessary skills. One does not become an entrepreneur overnight because one owns a business. One must know how to manufacture and sell a product, but those skills cannot suddenly be combined overnight.
More publicity should be given to business enterprise programmes and the more advanced private enterprise and management extension programmes that are run by the Training Agency for the Department of Employment. There is certainly a strong case for making admission to the enterprise allowance scheme dependent on receiving training. I should like hon. Members to consider that scheme in the coming year, because it has helped thousands of people to set up their own business. I am concerned that too many people fail. I know that when one sows seeds some grow but others wither away, but too many people fail. We should consider conditional training to ensure that people are equipped with entrepreneurial skills to manage their own business.
A successful small business man who is capable of providing new employment must have multi-disciplinary skills. I cannot emphasise that enough, and as I started my business I understand what it means. It is no use being only a salesman; one must be an accountant and a personnel manager, must understand production and maintenance and be able to turn one's hand to plumbing and electronics. We have failed to produce the multiple-skill discipline, but the Japanese, Germans and Americans have all done so.
Improving our successful training programmes will help to meet industry's demands for skilled manpower. We must not forget that that is more important to small firms than large ones, which carry out their own training. As long as the Government's purchasing and research-and-development contracts are given overwhelmingly to large companies, small ones will not be able to offer comparable training or benefit fairly from existing programmes.
The Ministry of Defence has gone a long way towards breaking down that barrier by providing benefits to small companies, but I should like to underline American experience, which is interesting. It suggests that small firms generate 24 times as many innovations per dollar spent as large companies. There is much to be learned from that experience, and we should provide many incentives, including tax incentives, for companies to demerge. In Silicon valley, small and medium-sized companies are motivating research and development, and I am sure that we could also go down that path.
New jobs are being created by small and medium-sized firms and among the self-employed. Our training programmes, and even our education system, must reflect that. We must get the message across in our schools, colleges and, above all, polytechnics, which seem deafer than ever to the needs of business. I am certain that polytechnics should be doing what they were originally set up to do—to train managers and other people, especially engineers, to go into industry.
Training is the key if we are to continue to press forward with creating employment and generating more than 1,000 new businesses every week. I should like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to continue on the right track and not believe that we have reached our goal. We can reduce unemployment with the aid of small businesses, but only if we train small business men and people with multiple skill disciplines to work in those small industries.
Coming from Northern Ireland, I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate on the Loyal Address. It is a pity that many of my constituents and others throughout the Province cannot see the recommendations that have been made for the future government of the kingdom. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Boscawen) said, last evening two more people perished at the hands of terrorists, and I welcome his reference to that. My hon. Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) heard last evening that two of his constituents who were murdered by Republican terrorists were members of the Roman Catholic faith.
The right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) appealed for employment for the disabled and welcomed the nod of approval given by the Secretary of State for Employment. I make a plea to Government Departments to set a standard. During a recent visit to a local health board, I asked whether the board employed its quota of disabled people and it confessed that it did not. Departments throughout the nation should set a standard and give to the disabled the employment for which they are qualified.
In her speech on Tuesday, as reported in column 19 of Hansard, the Prime Minister quoted figures which she said proved that pensioners were better off than they were 10 years ago. Many of my constituents are pensioners. Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of pensioner constituents. A quarter of the electorate are pensioners. I have been puzzled by the Prime Minister's figures, which were repeated today by the Secretary of State, that 24 per cent. of pensioners are in the bottom one fifth of national income, compared with 38 per cent. 10 years ago. Perhaps a Minister will tell us where the figures come from.
Since the Prime Minister's speech, I have been doing my best to discover them, and have called upon the Library for assistance. On a practical level, I am aware that pensioners are struggling to make ends meet as we enter the winter months. The number of pensioners has risen by almost 10 per cent. in the past decade, so the number of pensioners on low incomes remains roughly the same now. Is the Prime Minister saying that it is progress to stand still?
The Prime Minister said that domestic electricity costs 8·1 per cent. less in real terms than it did five years ago. According to Age Concern, the far higher costs of fuel in Northern Ireland and the recent changes in the social security system mean that there still are pensioners who cannot afford to heat their homes.
I welcome the elaboration of the announcement about the proposed Bill on social security. I trust that it will be used to clear up some of the anomalies and penalties in the last Social Security Act. The most serious of those was the change in housing benefit, which has been dubbed, rightly, an attack on thrift. It forces those with capital above £8,000 to lose some or all of their housing benefit. This measure has affected 2·7 million pensioners, and 1 million households have lost all entitlement to housing benefit.
We were reminded earlier in the debate that high interest rates would remain for some time. Calculations of the tariff imposed on pensioners who no longer benefit from housing benefit because they have capital of about £8,000 range from 13 per cent. on the capital invested to 20·8 per cent. I understand that the Civil Service has told the Social Services Committee that Departments had to face certain challenges and dilemmas. Pensioners, and perhaps hon. Members, would welcome guidance on whether claimants will be considered for a return of 20·8 per cent., as that might help to reduce some of their losses.
The Social Services Committee, in paragraph 24 of its report "Public Expenditure on the Social Services", recommended that
the Department monitor extremely carefully the consequences of the changes in housing benefit entitlement and that research is commissioned on their effect, if any, on pensioners' willingness to save.
The honest acknowledgement that there will be pressure on pensioners to spend money runs counter to the Chancellor's guidance that we should not spend, especially on luxuries. There seems to be conflict between two Departments.
I should like the Government to place more emphasis on providing the staff and resources to administer the new social security system, rather than simply cracking down on fraud. There is a place for tackling fraud. There are those who are robbing the nation as well as defrauding people who are entitled to more benefits. Although fraud is a problem, the vast majority of claims are genuine. Staff in social security offices are suffering from stress and experiencing an increasing number of attacks and abuse from frustrated clients. A recent survey by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux found that there was much confusion among people about their benefits. I appreciate, of course, that it is possible to bandy figures about, but we cannot get away from reality. The position is made worse by staff shortages in DSS offices and lack of communication.
I agree with the thrust of the debate: that we cannot help the less well-off if we do not encourage the creation of wealth. I referred earlier to the "attack on thrift" and, following the speech by the hon. Member for Luton, South (Mr. Bright) on behalf of small businesses, I should like to raise another example of the problem—the unilateral decision to close to traffic Donegal pass—a thoroughway in my constituency—to protect a police station from terrorist attack. I shall give way to no one in my support for the security forces in Northern Ireland in their campaign against terrorism. None the less, it is amazing that, three years after the signing of an agreement to bring us peace, stability and reconciliation and 20 years after the beginning of the terrorist onslaught, a station and a people who have carried on courageously and firmly throughout all previous attacks have been penalised without deep consultation.
It has long been the IRA's aim to make Ulster economically unviable. In order to do that the IRA destroys businesses and jobs, which in turn feed the community's frustration and anger. Next week I shall be putting to the Department of the Environment the case of the small shopkeepers and traders in the Donegal pass area whose livelihoods have been cut off by that action. In one small business, eight people are liable to lose their jobs.
I appreciate the need of the security forces for protection, but it would be far better to enhance security in the area by fortifying the police station at both front and rear and increasing the police and UDR presence on the streets. Tragically, I must tell the House that there is more than a suspicion among folk in the area that an attempt is being made to run down the Donegal pass area. Botanic avenue, leading on from Great Victoria street, has been a vibrant area of commerce and small business for a number of years, despite car parking and other difficulties. Those traders feel that an attack is being made on them and that in the space of 20 years the area will have been so devalued as to allow a new station to be erected on the sites of properties bought at low prices. I mention this because it reflects the worries of a community that has sought to carry on despite terrorism. In a debate dealing with both social security and employment, it is important that we face issues of that kind.
Finally, if we wish to provide job opportunities, there must be something wrong with a Department in Northern Ireland which seems to be making it difficult for Harland and Wolff to go private in order to gain orders. If that does not happen, there will be unemployment and enormous consequential costs in terms of public expenditure. One would have expected far more positive promotion of Harland and Wolff and Shorts in the pre-privatisation period.
I am glad to have this opportunity to comment on the proposals in the Gracious Speech and in particular to welcome today's announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security about the extra resources to be made available for the poorest and oldest pensioners, for disabled pensioners and perhaps especially for those just above the income support level. Many of us have experience of that problem area, and the announcement will be especially welcome in south-west Norfolk.
I wish to direct my remarks today to the proposal to improve and rationalise the law governing the care and protection of children. There is no doubt that that proposal will be most welcome throughout the House, all the professional disciplines concerned with the care and protection of children and, not least, the parents and families.
The case for reform is undisputed and was compellingly made in the White Paper on the law of child care and family services issued nearly two years ago. While it must be accepted that responsibilities for child care, which span various Government and local government departments, are not always concerned with crises, the fact that there are no fewer than 32 Acts covering child care law is not just unnecessary but might even be described as extravagant. More seriously, it means that the law can be confusing and inconsistent at the very moment when its application to protect the vulnerable needs to be at its most accurate.
Reform is also needed to reflect the profound changes in social attitude and in social work and health practice that have taken place in the 20 years since the 1969 Act and at an accelerated pace in the past 10 years. First, there has been a substantial reduction in the number of children in care, not all of which is explained by demographic change. Ten years ago there were 100,000 children in care—today there are about 60,000. More attention is paid by social service departments today to supporting families in crisis in their own homes. There is less short-term residential care but there is more day care and more work by voluntary organisations, some of which have been in the forefront of work with children in difficulty.
In the past 10 years, social service departments have changed the pattern of provision for children in trouble. They have fewer residential facilities but provide a range of remedies, of which residential care is one, but certainly not the only or automatic remedy. The concomitant of that, however, is that the residential facilities provided, whether by statutory or voluntary agencies, are used for the most difficult and at times the most extreme cases.
I make those points because the proposals in the Gracious Speech will no doubt be applied to the whole broad area of child care law—hence the need for overall clarification of the aforesaid 32 Acts and the need to take into account changes in professional practice. Uppermost in the public mind, however, will be the need to prevent a repetition of the events in Cleveland and of cases such as those of Jasmine Beckford, Kimberley Carlisle and Tyra Henry. Difficult though it may be to achieve, that will be the expectation of the man in the street.
The perceived need for urgent change may well mean that the changes proposed will not include the massive structural alterations necessary to create a family court system, strong though the arguments are for the establishment of such a system. The Magistrates Association, for example, has for years favoured the establishment of a unified family court so that the family work of the present High Court and county courts, the domestic proceedings of the magistrates court and also care proceedings could be dealt with by a unified court. The Association of Directors of Social Services and the Association of County Councils also argue strongly for the creation of a unified court to deal with child and family matters. Such a system is clearly desirable in the longer term and is undoubtedly in the interests of children and families.
Even more desirable and, indeed, essential is the introduction of a legal framework which will support the professionals and balance the rights of parents and the interests of children within a timescale that will prove to the public that the Government treat these matters with the utmost seriousness. If the establishment of family courts means delay in achieving that, the reform of remedies must come first and the reform of structures second.
Some of the proposals in the White Paper, had they been in force already, would certainly have prevented some of the problems that occurred in Cleveland. The use made of place of safety orders, the grounds on which applications were made and what subsequently happened to the children and their families was strongly criticised in the Butler-Sloss report. In some cases, applications were granted when children were already in a place of safety—in hospital. On some occasions, the magistrates concerned failed to make proper inquiries, to notify the justices' clerk or even to keep records.
The proposal in the White Paper for an emergency protection order initially lasting eight days with a possible extension to 15 days would be a more satisfactory means of protecting children in an emergency. It is also more satisfactory that application should be made to a juvenile court rather than to a magistrate sitting alone. As the law stands, there is a lack of clarity about the right of access by parents and of medical examination of children subject to place of safety orders. Parents should have reasonable access to their chidlren and their consent should be sought for all but urgent medical treatment. That aspect, too, requires clarification.
The report on the Kimberley Carlisle case suggested the need for a child assessment order. The man in the street must be incredulous to find that no such power exists and that there is no way of requiring a child to be produced for medical examination without giving authority for his or her removal from home. Evidence of the need for reform is overwhelming, it is accepted on all sides and it is certainly regarded by the public as long overdue.
What is also needed—and what, to some extent, has already been produced in the DHSS guidelines "Working Together" issued last July—is an insistence by Government, local government, managers and the public that professionals working in the field clearly understand that the child and the family must come first, especially in urgent cases of suspected physical or sexual abuse. The child and the family must come first, not professional differences or professional wounded dignities. In the words of the Butler-Sloss inquiry:
it is essential that whenever one agency becomes concerned that a child may be at risk they share that information with other agencies.
In my county, where these proposals will be welcome, we learned that lesson in the 1970s from the all too well publicised case of Stephen Merrs. Since then, there has been good co-operation between social services, the police, health authorities, the probation and education services and the efficient area review committee to monitor progress. The social services department takes the lead in updating other agencies and in acting as key workers in reported cases of suspected abuse—which, significantly, have risen from 206 in 1980 to 963 in 1987. However, there is never room for complacency. Cases can be missed and they can be misjudged.
What was so tragic about Cleveland was that there, too, co-operation between agencies had been good. The area review committee had been replaced, just before the crisis broke, with a joint child abuse committee, but in the relevant months the working parties of that committee consistently failed to agree to implement their own guidelines on sexual abuse. The police and social services held opposing views and there was a rift between the medical views of the paediatricians and the senior police surgeon.
I do not believe that professionals working in such a delicate and difficult area—which of necessity requires firm guidelines that will withstand the strain of crises—can afford the luxury of professional disagreement to the extent that it affects professional practice. The proposal in "Working Together" for area child protection committees suggests that there should be a standardised working practice throughout the country, and that is welcome. However, magistrates and justices' clerks should be included in consultation, working together and training for all of that area of work.
Legal reforms are essential. The law should not create reefs or hurdles that make it more difficult for parents to understand their rights and for professionals to do their job. It must be simplified, clarified and brought up to date to reflect modern society and modern professional practice. Side by side with that legal reform must be a recognition by professionals that in that respect the protection of the vulnerable—those professionals form a seamless garment. That is clearly understood by many, indeed most, of those working in the field, although where people are concerned errors will happen again and again. The public will not understand and certainly will not forgive errors that come from professional separatism and feuding.
The legislation needs to help and support the professionals who, in turn, must help, support and protect those vulnerable families and children who depend on them.
Mr. Tony Senn:
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I know that other hon. Members have raised points of order about the students who have come to the House today. I have just been to St. Thomas's hospital and been informed that 20 injured persons have been sent to casualty. I asked St. Thomas's to ring Westminster hospital, and I understand that a further seven people have been admitted to casualty there. That means that 27 of our constituents, who have come here quite properly to see their Members of Parliament, have suffered because of police action, which was witnessed by many hon. Members, including myself. Horses have been used, with the traditional method of lines of police opening up to allow the horses through, and buses have been used like a line of tanks. It is a disgrace.
I raise this matter because every year we send an instruction—a social order—to the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis telling him to keep the streets open. We do not instruct him to batter and bash people who come here for the traditional purpose of approaching their Members of Parliament on matters of concern to them. I do not know whether the Home Secretary intends to make a statement, but I do know that the debate cannot properly proceed if the House does not take cognisance of what has happened on Westminster bridge, which is within sight of the House. Some action should be taken to summon the Commissioner to explain police conduct during the past few hours.
Order. There is little that I can add to what Mr. Speaker said in response to earlier points of order. As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, Mr. Speaker is responsible for the precincts of the House and those immediately outside, and he has ensured that they are clear.
The right hon. Gentleman is raising matters that concern institutions that are not the responsibility of Mr. Speaker. However, it is my understanding that Mr. Speaker has asked for a report from the police on what is happening outside his responsibility. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, such matters are the responsibility of the police and, ultimately, the Home Secretary.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to delay the House, but I have been talking to some of the young students outside. They have letters from their Members of Parliament saying that they can enter the House and speak to them. On their way to the House—they had not even reached the bridge; they were simply walking along the Embankment—they were directed elsewhere. They produced their letters and said that they were going to see their Members of Parliament. They were actually told that if they continued they would be arrested. I do not know where we are going. There should be a statement from a Minister so that we can raise these matters with him.
I do not intend to comment on the very important points raised by the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mrs. Shephard). I want to take this opportunity to express my great concern, and that of many others, about the growing skills shortage. The problem has been developing for a number of years. The sheer complacency of the Government about such a serious matter is most alarming. No one could possibly pretend that there is a shortage of people available for real training. Unemployment levels in many parts of Britain, including my constituency, are still disgracefully high. A Government who manage to produce both a record level of unemployment and a dramatic shortage of skilled workers demonstrate a rare degree of incompetence.
The problem affects industries at many levels. For example, the Engineering Council is constantly reminding the House and the Government about the inadequate number of graduate engineers coming out of universities and polytechnics each year. The Trade and Industry Select Committee has just completed a long and detailed inquiry on information technology. Witness after witness told us of the difficulties facing companies trying to find skilled people. We were given an estimate of up to 30,000 unfilled vacancies in data processing.
Manufacturing, Science and Finance, a major union in the industry, said that the shortage of skilled people was the major factor inhibiting the information technology industry in the United Kingdom. Other evidence showed that the annual demand for graduates in that industry is currently 5,900, rising to 8,200 within the next five years. On present trends, there is apparently no possibility that the number of people coming out of universities and polytechnics will meet that demand.
How have the Government reacted to that? They go to the EEC and tell our Community partners that they are opposed to any increase in expenditure on the COMM ETT programme. Many hon. Members know that the COMM ETT scheme sponsors and develops close links between industry and higher education establishments in technology training. The Commission says that the present budget of £48 million a year is totally inadequate. The Government consider that to be far from inadequate and want to reduce that amount. That is how they react to the serious shortages of graduates leaving higher education with degrees in engineering subjects.
We have to set all that against the fact that in Britain the number of young people in higher education, as a percentage, is far smaller than in all other industrial countries. In the 20 to 24-year-old age group, 20 per cent. are in higher education in Britain, compared with 56 per cent. in the United States of America, 42 per cent. in Canada, 39 per cent. in Sweden and 24 per cent. in South Korea, which is now developing into a major competitor in many industries. How can we go on like this? Surely no one can claim that freezing student grants and introducing repayable loans will help us in that respect.
Skills shortages occur in many industries, but I shall refer only to two or three further examples, because of the time factor. Local authorities are worried about the shortage of environmental health officers and trading standards officers—people who have a vital role in protecting the public and who are the key people in consumer protection. There are hundreds of unfilled vacancies for such posts. The number of people leaving universities and polytechnics with environmental health qualifications is less than half the number needed annually. The problem is becoming significantly worse each year.
Local authorities say that the problem is that there are not enough training places at universities and polytechnics. I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State responsible for higher education. He said that that was not the problem; that some courses had been under-subscribed; and he then washed his hands of the matter. Yet somebody should be concerned about it. Public health is being put at risk, and somebody in the Government should be worried about that.
In the other skills shortage about which I shall talk, there is no question of courses being under-subscribed they are not. Yet the Government have decided to cut the number or places at veterinary schools by about 10 per cent., although the number of applicants is far in excess of the places available. People with good qualifications are not accepted on courses, but the Government are cutting the number of places available.
Many people think of vets as amiable chaps who look after cats, dogs and parrots, but in fact their vital role is to protect the public against diseased and infected meat and dairy products. Someone should be worried about that. The Government react by cutting the facilities for training new vets. Some of their Lordships must be concerned about that, in view of the serious outbreak of food poisoning in the other place not long ago. Incidents of food poisoning are increasing notably year by year, so it is precisely the wrong time to run short of environmental health officers, trading standards officers and vets. I see no sign that the Government are worried about that.
I shall now move from tragedy to farce and comment on the employment training scheme. There is serious doubt about how much real training will be involved in the so-called training scheme. One reason why we doubt the commitment of the Government—I am glad to see that the Secretary of State for Employment is here—is that they have abolished most of the industrial training boards and their own Training Commission. How seriously are they committed to training? Who will monitor the level of training that takes place on the so-called employment training scheme?
I shall quote a few sentences from papers that have been put out in my area by three of the managing agencies that exist to operate the scheme on behalf of the Government. It would be unfair to name them, as they presumably all operate on the same lines. The papers are issued to the public—or to their clients, as they call them. One paper says:
This is work you can request during your normal visits and which is covered by the set charge of £1 a week. Social visits—Chatting, sitting with the elderly or the infirm
The people who will be engaged on these operations are described as trainees—I emphasise that word. Another scheme offers light repairs to trousers, skirts and curtains and a bit of gardening. What kind of training is that supposed to be? That has nothing to do with training. It is undermining the social services. It is providing a home help service on the basis of cheap labour. No one can pretend that 18 or 19-year-olds, however splendid and caring they may be, can provide a proper substitute for the dedicated, mature women who are the backbone of the home help service.
The hon. Gentleman must understand the history of the programme. The community programme has provided community services of the kind to which he has referred for a number of years, but the community programme did not provide training in addition. The situation arose—which I am sure the hon. Gentleman deplores—where people provided a service for the community, but did not receive training to enable them to find jobs. We are trying to consolidate some of the community services and to give people training so that they can fill the vacancies that are available now. The hon. Gentleman should consider the matter more carefully if he has a serious interest in reducing unemployment.
I entirely understand the point that the Secretary of State has made. I am aware that the employment training scheme has taken over from the community programme. However, at least the community programme did not pretend to be a training scheme. I cannot see that the activities that I have described have anything to do with training. The employment training scheme is a form of cheap labour to undermine the social services. I can see no other explanation for it.
There is no shortage of opportunities for putting young people into proper training schemes. People are desperately needed in the skills that I have already mentioned. During their time on the employment training scheme, our young people will be running errands and doing a bit of gardening. They will not be trained to fill the 30,000 vacancies in data processing, for example. Will they be trained to go into the innumerable unfilled vacancies in a variety of important skills? They will not. It is nonsense to pretend that the scheme has anything to do with skill training. If the Government are seriously concerned about training, they should enable people to take real apprenticeships and to join training schemes that will equip them with the skills that industry so desperately needs. The present scheme is no substitute.
Without that crucial training for skill, this country will go naked into the single European market. If, as a nation, we do not have the skills to match our competitors, both inside and outside the Community, we shall be eaten alive inside 10 years.
There is one sector of our vibrant economy in which employment is falling. Opposition Members may jeer about that decrease or, in their paradoxical way, even cheer about it. It is in the great service industries of the City of London. There are a number of reasons for the fall in the number of City jobs, not all of them bad. For example, in the Government bond markets, where there were far too many players, substantial numbers have been laid off, precisely because the supply of their lifeblood—Government debt—has itself been stopped. There is no more Government debt—only repayment—and I imagine that gilt dealers are the only people in the City of London who may be hoping for a revival in the Labour party's fortunes.
A number of people in the investment, banking and financial services industries have also been laid off, in part because of over-expansion prior to big bang, in part because the security markets are dull, and in part because of the welcome competition that has been introduced into the City by the Government, which has cut prices and therefore forced cuts in costs. At the same time, the City is faced with the ever-increasing costs associated with the implementation of the Financial Services Act 1986.
As announced in the Gracious Speech, we are now to have a Companies Bill. That Bill will have the chance to increase employment not just in the City, but, far more important, throughout the entrepreneurial business community, which has provided almost all the net new jobs in Britain.
The Companies Bill will need to do several things. First, it will need to simplify company accounts. Millions of people are now new shareholders who have been brought into the capitalist fold. The old, unreadable company accounts, behind which the accountant could hide in a camouflage that only he could understand, are incomprehensible to them and need to be simplified. Company accounts must be improved, within tighter parameters. They must be made more easily comprehensible, with certain factors, such as the value of the assets of a company being made more clear. That will be notably tame when it comes to valuing "goodwill", as we ever more develop the service industries. Goodwill is the difference in value between a company's assets and the price that another is prepared to pay for them.
Thousands of new companies have been created each year under this Conservative Administration, creating more jobs than ever. Yet they have to spend too much time and money wrestling with the red tape required in the public accounts that they need to produce every year, under a system that is at least 50 years out of date.
The second area with which the Companies Bill will have to deal, if it is to increase employment, as many of us hope it will, is mergers and acquisition policy, both national and international. I trust that nothing in the Companies Bill will make takeovers more difficult, more murky or more prone to Government interference, except solely on the ground of competition. Takeovers, national or international, increase prosperity and investment; most important of all, they increase jobs. The creation of jobs of the right kind stems directly from the market for takeovers.
If the Companies Bill does nothing else, it must allow more openness than we have had in the past. It must ensure that in the process of a takeover wrongdoers are spotted earlier and are stopped with a heavier hand than in the past. Like company accounts, takeovers, mergers and acquisitions should be made more straightforward and easier.
I hope that the Government will not introduce into the Bill anything that smacks of protectionism or xenophobia. This country thrives on having its markets open to the world—its financial markets as well as its industrial markets. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment knows, that freedom increases prosperity and the number of modern productive jobs. Britain thrives in overseas markets. After Japan, we are the largest creditor nation in the world, with a high and growing net overseas investment. The fact that in America and Europe tens of thousands of people wake up in the morning and go to work for a British company increases the wealth and employment in this country. It is no accident that countries with the highest investment overseas, such as Japan and Switzerland, have the lowest unemployment within their own boundaries.
The new self-confidence of British industry has encouraged it to fight for, and capture, some of the most famous commercial names in the world; nor have big companies alone led the massive investment of British wealth overseas for the benefit of the British people. Overseas takeovers by British industry represent millions of pounds and thousands of companies, and guarantee prosperity, jobs and income in the British home market.
All that is done through the City of London. It is imperative that the City should remain unencumbered with nationalist measures, and that it should be free to act on the instructions of British industry anywhere in the world. Of course, that means we must maintain a two-way street; and the more bustle there is on that street the better. It means that British companies must be free to purchase and invest abroad and that foreign companies must be able to do the same, and receive a welcome when they invest in Britain. Nothing is more economically illiterate or politically unsound than to bemoan each and every act of foreign investment or takeover. Such acts should be welcomed as acts of confidence in Britain. They should be welcomed by all who seek to further our prosperity and to increase the employment opportunities available to our people.
Ownership is becoming ever more fluid, and it is becoming a less important factor in international wealth creation. A few months ago I was on the north slope of Alaska, from which the United States gets most of its domestic oil. The major oil company there is BP. But no manager on those oilfields felt that he was working for a Limey company. Indeed, he would have been wrong to think so, as at least 30 per cent. of BP is owned by people outside the United Kingdom.
The ownership of new global corporations is becoming ever more diffuse and muddled, and it is rapidly changing. That is a good thing, and only the most old-fashioned would bemoan it. The Government would do a great disservice to our wealth creators and job creators, to the City of London and to industry, if they were tempted to tip into the Companies Bill any measure restricting this move to greater globalism, or any barrier to Britain's industrial investment in the world and the world's investment in Britain.
Recently we have seen a credit-driven consumer boom. In the past couple of weeks I have received an unsolicited letter from a credit company offering me a plastic card which would solve all my earthly problems, an unsolicited letter from my bank offering me a large loan, and a letter from my building society offering to give me 90 per cent. of the difference between the valuation of my house and the rest of the outstanding mortgage. The covering letter was lyrical in stating that if I wanted a new car, a holiday in the sun or a conservatory, I was not to delay—the money was ready and waiting for me. I am certain that other hon. Members have had similar letters, and in every tabloid newspaper the public is offered credit.
As a result, we have had a big increase in demand. The Government have finished with monetarism and do not worry too much about the money supply, but demand has come up against capacity restraints. Because of deficient investment in past years, British industry has become debilitated and enfeebled, so cannot cope with the extra demand; and because of the lack of training as soon as the economy picks up, we run into skills shortages.
Manufacturing production has just returned to its 1973 level, but the British public are now buying 25 per cent. more manufactures than in 1973, so we are importing electronic goods, household appliances, motor cars and clothing and much else. That has led to a horrendous trade deficit and to a balance of payments crisis.
However, a part of that demand has gone into the domestic economy, which has led to a growth in employment and is welcome, but I wonder how much extra employment there has been. Some Government statements are exaggerated and it is difficult to get a clear picture. On 2 November, the Select Committee had as a witness Mr. Bernard Casey, who is a research fellow at the Policy Studies Institute. He said:
The statistics have been mucked around with very badly and it is difficult, much more difficult, to know what is going on and that is a great problem.
Britain counts unemployment differently from other countries. We count the number of people in receipt of benefit, whereas they count the number of people seeking work. Benefit figures bear little relation to the number of people looking for jobs. To be unregistered unemployed is as distressing as to be registered unemployed.
One of the changes since the previous Gracious Speech is that all 16 and 17-year-olds have been eliminated from the figures altogether because they are no longer eligible for benefit. Again, one would imagine that the drop in unemployment would be reflected in the extra number of people employed, but there does not seem to be much connection between the two. The number of people in employment has not increased as much as the decline in the number of claimants.
Full-time employment in manufacturing continues to decline, but there has been a growth in part-time employment. A large number of these part-time jobs are taken by full-time workers who take a second job, so are counted twice. Because only part-time work is available, many people do two or three part-time jobs, so we get double and treble counting. The picture is murky. Further evidence is that the number of vacancies has not increased. It is difficult to get at the facts because we are not necessarily comparing like with like as a result of the changes in the way in which statistics are compiled.
Ten years ago we had 90,000 people who had been unemployed for two years or more. Now there are seven times that. The number of people unemployed for over five years continues to increase, even according to the benefit figures. If the Secretary of State disputes that, he can give us the figures when he replies, but they are my figures. What is the future for the unemployed?
The trade deficit is unsustainable in the long term, so the Chancellor of the Exchequer is now squeezing the economy. Some of us can remember the days of stop-go, after which we had North sea oil which solved that problem. But the revenues from the oil have been wasted, and we are returning to a classic stop. Billions of pounds will be taken out of consumption if the Chancellor's measures work. If we are to end our overseas deficit, the growth is likely to slow to a rate which will be inconsistent with a growth in employment.
The Chancellor's weapon is increasing interest rates, but I cannot think of a cruder, blunter weapon than that. That is supposed to bear down on inflation, but it is more likely to bear down on investment. Borrowing may not be stopped because people will be encouraged to borrow more because the prices of their houses are rising so fast. Lenders, who are receiving higher interest rates and find larger payments going into their accounts, may spend that extra income, so we may get the worst of all possible worlds and the measure may be highly counterproductive. If interest rates push up the exchange rate higher that it would be otherwise—that is already happening—it will hit British exports and will not help us with our balance of payments deficit.
It is prudent, therefore, to expect that unemployment will remain static at about 2·5 million or 3·5 million, depending on the definition of the unemployed. The Government take that view and have taken it into account in their public expenditure forecasts. We have the so-called British economic miracle and so-called overheating, while about 3 million people remain unemployed because of the past lack of investment and training.
The Government's method of approaching long-term unemployment is employment training, which I fear is going off at half cock. The Secretary of State knows that the job training scheme, the previous programme which was similar, was a complete flop, but the Government have not learnt the lessons of that failure or rectified it. Employment training is grossly underfunded arid is an inadequate response to skills shortages and the plight of the long-term unemployed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. Crowther) pointed out, the quality of training is also suspect. During the six-month courses, only two days a week are directed to training and the other three are for so-called work experience. The Government invest £17·50 a week in each trainee. What private training organisation would offer to train anybody for that sum?
There is a derisory supplement on top of benefit of £10 a week or £5 a week after removing travel allowances. Those who move from the community programme will see major cuts in the allowance that they receive. I cannot understand why the Secretary of State will not allow employers of the trainees on their three days' work experience to top up the allowance. Under YTS, an employer may top up the allowance, but under ET, he may not. It would not cost the Government a penny. It is perverse not to allow employers to top up. Work experience means doing what an employer tells one to do for three days a week, and if the employer wants to give a top-up I should have thought that the Government would have allowed it.
When the Select Committee on Employment interviewed representatives of the Training Commission, they suggested four reasons why the previous programme failed. First, there had to be realistic targets in the form of numbers. Secondly, there had to be adequate financial incentives. Thirdly, the programme had to be sold better to employers. Fourthly, and importantly, the Government had to win the co-operation of the partners necessary to deliver the programme. Those partners are employers, local authorities, voluntary organisations and trade unions.
The Government did not take that lesson on board and have not gained that co-operation. They have not obtained agreement. The programmes can be run only on the basis of voluntary co-operation and consensus. It is all very well for the Government to have a majority in the House and to push through measures here, but that does not solve the problem outside the House, where they must deal with the trade unions and obtain their co-operation. One of the main lessons that the Government must learn is that the trade unions are not the enemy within. If any of the programmes are to work, the trade unions must be regarded as an essential partner.
Recently I have been obliged to follow in the footsteps of the Secretry of State around various foreign parts. In Boston, Massachusetts, and in Sweden we spoke to the same people as he did. In each place that we visited in Sweden, the people said, "I have brought you some more people from England. You will remember that nice Mr. Fowler. Here are some of his parliamentary colleagues." The Secretary of State will agree that none of those countries regards the trade unions as enemies. In Boston, Sweden and Germany the unions are considered valuable and essential partners. The Government have got it wrong, and the schemes will not work until they change their attitude and work with the unions.
The new programme appears to be flopping because it is not attracting enough people. The target is 600,000, with 300,000 at any given time. The Secretary of State will tell us how many people are on the programme, but 1 doubt whether the figure is even 100,000. If I am right, that represents less than one third of the target. The programme will flop because the Government did not learn the lessons.
I wish to be constructive, so I shall give the Secretary of State some suggestions. When he announced the scheme, I suggested that he should double the allowance. That modest idea would cost £180 million. My second suggestion is that he should give a job guarantee to everyone who goes on the programme. Sweden had a temporary jobs programme. It is no longer necessary, because it has little unemployment. The figure of 1·8 per cent. is largely made up of people who cannot speak Swedish or who are severely disabled. But when it had what it considered to be serious unemployment, at 3·5 per cent., it had a temporary jobs programme in which local authorities and employers were given a subsidy to employ additional workers. In the previous Parliament, the Select Committee published a report advocating job guarantees for the long-term unemployed on that basis. We could start that type of programme for those who have been unemployed for two years or more, which would involve 600,000 people.
There is work enough to be done. One need only consider the state of our housing, house repairs and social services to know how much work there is to be done. I was told that the Secretary of State was impressed by what he saw in Sweden. I urge him to adopt a similar programme. If we gave a subsidy to the private employer to take on additional workers, it would mean that, instead of paying benefit to the unemployed person to do nothing, we would pay that money to the employer to take on an additional worker at the proper rate for the job.
If the hon. Gentleman agrees that we should encourage everyone to take up some form of training, would that not force people who take unemployment benefit for doing nothing to accept that training or lose their benefit?
I am not sure who is supposed to be taking benefit but doing nothing. The programme should be voluntary. The unemployed want to work; they want proper jobs. I do not believe that the majority of the unemployed are scroungers who do not want to work, and there is no evidence to suggest it. Instead of adopting a heavy tone, it would be far better to introduce a voluntary scheme and try to win people's co-operation.
It is a crazy idea to abolish the Training Commission, which used to be the Manpower Services Commission. The Government have been trying to undermine the MSC for some time. The MSC was meant to be an independent organisation—at some distance from the Government—of partners in the labour market. But increasingly the Government gave the orders for the MSC and turned it into a tool, or handmaiden, of Government. A year ago, they ended the balanced structure of the MSC by swamping it with an extra six employers' representatives. They were already planning the White Paper, which I understand will be published in a few weeks' time, in which the entire nature of the organisation would be changed. The Government pounced with glee on the TUC decision on employment training. That vote was the cue to abolish the MSC, not the cause. We shall wish to scrutinise that White Paper.
On Monday and Tuesday next week, I have been invited, with the chairmen of employment committees of other national Parliaments by the Commission in Brussels to attend a seminar to discuss the social dimension of the single market. I suspect that they will ask me for the official British view, so I must get it right. I have done some research and I have discovered a speech by the Secretary of State. He will tell me whether I should use his words in Brussels. On 7 November he said:
There is an understandable concern that the creation of the single market in 1992 could open the door to a flood of new labour market regulations. Let me make the Government's position on this absolutely clear.
Where would politicians be without that phrase?
We believe more regulation is the wrong approach … we do not welcome—and we will resist—a formal, legalistic, regulated system of worker participation; of rights for workers; and of regulation of part-time work and similar measures.
For good measure, let me quote a question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson). It says:
To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will make it his policy to convene a national conference involving representatives of Government, business and trade unions in order to discuss and evolve a national strategy for the social dimension of the single European market."—[Official Report, 14 November 1988; Vol. 140, c. 407.]
The blunt monosyllabic reply was no.
When I am asked what is the British attitude to the social dimension, I shall say that the Government do not believe in it; they do not want it; they are against the social dimension.
I hate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's fun, but when he visits Brussels for a couple of days he will take with him the employment figures and he will point out that more jobs have been created in Britain since 1983 than in the rest of the EC and it is the reduction of unemployment and the creation of new jobs that we regard as the real social dimension.
The Secretary of State has just confirmed what I said—that he does not believe in what is called the social dimension. I shall take the employment figures if I can obtain accurate ones. There is some difficulty in that.
I shall have to say that, if I understand the Queen's Speech aright, the Government are about to take away workers' rights in small companies. We shall have a sort of two-tier labour market, with some rights in large companies but none in small companies. The Secretary of State will remove the protection for young workers—the most vulnerable. Presumably, there will be Bills to encourage small boys to go up chimneys. I suppose that is one of the Victorian values.
The Government are going backwards. Their policy is perverse, misguided and misconceived. The Secretary of State should be bringing forward plans for child care, about which we have heard nothing. There should be real programmes for training. Employment training does not affect the 90 per cent. of people who have employment. He should have a policy of co-operation with the work force instead of whittling away what few rights they have.
Like many other hon. Members, I welcome the news, which will be gladly received by so many of our pensioners, that we are to see an improvement in the means-tested benefits that are coming forward. As we have often said, improvements in our economy allow us to help those most in need. It should be underlined that it is not just that people who are over 75 have not had the benefit of Serps; unfortunately, they had a Labour Government who destroyed their savings. Those who thought that they had been thrifty enough to ensure that they would be well looked after in their old age saw their savings being whittled away.
I want to talk in particular about employment. There has been a real change in the climate over the past few years. I have regular meetings with DSS managers in my constituency, and I ask them about the market. It has been excellent to see unemployment in my constituency virtually halved over the past two years.
Seven, eight or nine years ago many Tories were reluctant to talk about reductions in employment. They basically said that in future manufacturing industry would not be able to increase employment. I was one of those few foolish people who said that unemployment would come down, and indeed it is doing so. I welcome that.
Despite the excellent figures, we should all constantly remind ourselves that there are still far too many people unemployed. We still have an enormous task to ensure that those who are still on the unemployment register, or who are becoming unemployed because of changes in work practices, will quickly be put back in to work.
I welcome the changes in YTS. We are twisting arms a little, but sometimes that is a sensible way of ensuring that people leaving school will not sit on the social security register and expect not to continue their training or obtain work. As Opposition Members have said, if somebody is to lose his YTS benefit, he must have had a genuine offer of work. It is not good enough for the Government simply to promise people a YTS place. If they cannot fulfil that promise, people should not lose their benefit. I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider that carefully and ensure that people who have not had the opportunity of youth training do not lose benefit.
I welcome the tightening up of the test for work. The long-term unemployed can in time begin to justify the fact that they are no longer looking for work. I ran an employment agency for 12 years. It is important to understand that people need to have their morale boosted, and need to be wound up again to go out and find work. It is not that such people are lazy, but that while several years earlier they may have made valiant efforts to find work, they just stop looking. That is why the Government were right to set up job clubs and so on, to help such people.
The enterprise allowance scheme has been excellent in encouraging people who have always assumed that they must look to others to find employment for them, to create their own employment. That has been one of the Government's great successes and one that we cannot emphasise too much.
The restart programme is also excellent. It helps people, through the medium of job clubs or employment training schemes, to feel that the Government are trying to give them the boost and help that they need. The message coming from south Dorset, from Weymouth and from that area is that the employment training schemes are working. We must congratulate the companies and the civil servants who are making the scheme work well.
As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, good quality training is essential, but we must ensure that there is a market, with sufficient training places, so that people can choose the type of training that they want. It is no good Opposition Members drawing attention to all the vacancies within the computer industry. We need people with the right educational background in the first place in those jobs. Semi-literate people with learning difficulties will welcome fairly simple jobs and simple training. After all, a large number of people on our unemployment registers require simple training to get them back into simple work. That is useful and helpful. Opposition Members are wrong to suggest that we are undermining the social services fabric of Britain by training people to help the elderly and the social services.
I welcome all that we are doing. We should be concentrating on getting people back to work. A job start bonus might be a good idea. We know that people find it difficult to return to work, to make that jump from dependency on benefit, particularly if they have children and receive housing and other benefits. It is too easy for people to fall into the black economy, and even to become involved in benefit fraud.
I have often said that it would be sensible for the Government to use sincere and easy methods to discover whether people are working. I ran an employment agency in Yorkshire for 12 years. For the first eight years, neither the DHSS, as it was, nor the Department of Employment inquired whether there was any fraud among people who had registered for work with me, who were working on a temporary basis, and were also registered for benefit. All our workers were signed on. We informed the tax office that those people worked for us, but the information was not available to the people at the social security office—or at least, they did not seem to look at it—and it was not available to the unemployment benefit office.
One gentleman was caught because he was doing three jobs and receiving benefit. He decided that someone with whom he had been working had probably shopped him, so he decided to shop that person. After seven years, for the first time, the Department sent someone to our employment office to ask for a list of all those who were working for us. We replied, "Of course, we can give you a list. We are happy to do so." We supplied the list, and it turned out that over 30 per cent. of the people who were drawing wages from my company, who were paying taxes and national insurance, were defrauding the social security system.
I ran the company for another five years, but, after we volunteered to the social security and unemployment benefit offices that we were happy to provide them with any information that they required, not once did those responsible come back and check whether others were defrauding the system. In the present climate, when we need more people to work and to be on training schemes, it is important to ensure that those who are in genuine need receive their benefit, but that we catch those who are ripping off the system.
I welcome the fact that we shall get away from the silly and archaic rules whereby young people and women are not allowed to work in a normal, sensible way like the rest of us. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment knows Chelmsford well. When I was a youngster, I used to get up fairly early in the morning and sort papers before the paper-boys went out. My normal evening job was to deliver groceries, and my Saturday job was to sell records at Bond's store—I am sure that my right hon. Friend remembers that well. In the summer, when I did not have to go to school, I worked at the County Cleaners during the day, and in the evening shift I worked at the laundry next door, doing the sheets for Butlin's. I am sure that that experience did me no harm and that I should benefit from returning to such a working environment these days, with the lazy life that I lead as a Member of Parliament.
I was probably breaking all the laws under the sun, but it does no harm to young people when they have the opportunity to go out, particularly during the holidays, to learn about what real work or manual labour are all about. Those who are doing training schemes and who want to go on and do extra work should be allowed to do so.
The only sour note of my speech—I say this advisedly, with one of the junior Ministers present—is that we heard nothing about the dock labour scheme in the Queen's Speech. I am sure that a proposal will be made in the near future to get rid of that one anomaly in our employment law.
The hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce) made one valid point with which all Opposition Members will agree, and we hope that the Secretary of State will take it on board. It was about youngsters aged 16 or 17 who do not have the opportunity to go on a training scheme, and who should not be deprived of their sole source of income. That is happening up and down the country—for example, in the city that I have the honour to represent, together with the Secretary of State for Employment, Birmingham. However, the right hon. Gentleman does not like the word "Birmingham" to be attached to the title of his constituency. If schemes are available, that is fine, but we know that hundreds or thousands—the number is indeterminate—are deprived of their benefit income when they have not had the opportunity to participate in a scheme, which is unfair.
Today's theme is social security, but I should like to refer also to other aspects of the Queen's Speech. The result of one narrow aspect of the Government's social security policy is that mothers in my constituency are deprived of a total of £20,000 a week as a result of the freezing of child benefit in 1988–89 and the failure to uprate it properly in 1985. The mothers of 20,000 children in my constituency are now deprived of more than £20,000 a week, and little of it will come back by way of family credit—that is not the intention. I suspect that, if more than one quarter came back, the Government's budget would be thrown into confusion.
It would be churlish not to congratulate the Chancellor of the Exchequer on finding a little money for the pensioners. The credit does not seem to lie with the Secretary of State for Social Security. However, in the west midlands, particularly Birmingham, pensioners are bitter about a potential threat to their concessionary bus passes as a result of the Department of the Environment's policy. That crucial point is not touched on in the Queen's Speech.
The Secretary of State for Social Security today made great play of statistics. Some are valid, but the vast majority of our constituents do not believe the Government when they tell them that they are much better off. Is it any wonder that, in the midst of what by any stretch of the imagination is a retail boom for those who are doing all right, one shop in my constituency that has constant queues of customers, often on the pavement and round the corner, specialises in selling yesterday's bread? That is no criticism of the shop or the product—the shop is conforming to health standards—but let us face the facts. It has already been said that far fewer elderly people die of hypothermia in the colder European countries such as Scandinavia and Germany than in this country. I have never seen any examples of a retail boom in the European countries that are our economic competitors in shops that specialise in selling yesterday's bread. What an indictment of 10 years of Thatcherism.
A week ago I received a letter from one of my constituents, an elderly gentleman in his 70s. Last December I assisted him, as any other hon. Member would, by making inquiries and obtaining supplementary benefit for him and his wife of 41p a week. He had been trying to get more money for ages. He said that he would be eternally grateful for that 41p a week. The couple had already been to the DHSS and had been turned down. Mr. Payne says:
since April 1988 all this has ended.
I am 77 years of age and my wife is 74. We own our 2 up and 3 clown house in Kingstanding and as it is 55 years old it requires quite a lot of maintenance such as pointing of the outside walls and the renewal of the cast iron guttering and rain pipes.
Our total income is £68·80 per week … and we have £843 savings in a Building Society, which we are saving for funeral expenses.
As I have said, you got us Supplementary Benefit of 41p, and we did not pay General Rates, but of course since April 1988 we have lost the Supplementary, and we are now paying £3·28 General Rates per week and £2·55 Water Rates per week. Also my wife's late mother suffered from glaucoma, and lost her sight so that can be an added worry, in having to find the money for a regular sight test.
This contradicts some of the points made by my hon. Friends, but Mr. Payne also says that, like many people, he does not like the means test, but:
May I add that I am not afraid of any means test as considering the number of forms I have filled in for the DHSS/Rates/Tax Office etc., I am sure most of my personal affairs are on various computers already.
It may be that he and his wife will, because of their ages, benefit from today's announcement, and that will be fine. However, they will not get back the money they have already forfeited, because losing their 41p supplementary benefit cost them a fortune in general and water rates. Judging from today's comments by the Secretary of State, they will he worse off in October 1989 than they are today. That is a measure of the extra £200 million that the Chancellor has made available.
The Queen's Speech referred to a strengthening of the National Health Service. That comes from the same Government who managed to turn a £1 billion pay increase for nurses into an utter fiasco. We are told that nurses should stop complaining and shut up because they have been given a 17 per cent. pay increase. However, all right hon. and hon. Members know that average percentage figures can be grossly misleading.
In the west midlands region, 42 per cent. of ward sisters received a 4 per cent. increase; 33 per cent. of staff nurses received 4 per cent.; 47 per cent. of state enrolled nurses have been given 4 per cent.; and 90 per cent. of auxiliaries also received 4 per cent. Last week I visited the intensive care unit of Birmingham children's hospital together with my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) and for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis). We were given the example of six grade C enrolled nurses receiving pay increases of 7·1 per cent. and three grade D state enrolled nurses receiving 28·4 per cent. The average for that group of nine people is 14·2 per cent., but two thirds of them received only a 7·1 per cent. increase. That proves how grossly misleading averages can be. It is part of the reason why nurses are so damned angry.
The intensive care unit of Birmingham children's hospital is a sensitive issue. Last winter journalists were queuing outside its doors and the staff there are reluctant to talk to the media because they know that anything they say can be twisted out of all proportion. The Central Birmingham health authority managers have told the press and all the world that 50 per cent. of the unit's 49 staff are receiving pay increases of between £2,100 and £3,100. What about the other 50 per cent? Averages can be misleading.
Last week my two hon. Friends and I met 13 of the unit's staff. I hasten to add, for the benefit of the Fleet street scumbags, that we met those nurses when they were off duty, in their own time. I say that because two weeks ago the Fleet street mongrels were at the hospital only to look for information that could be used to attack the nurses there. Those nurses, including several in membership of the Royal College of Nursing, tried working to the grades allocated by the Government. Five sisters, six staff nurses and two enrolled nurses gave us example after example of the differences between them. I shall not detail them all because to do so might be unfair. However, of the 12 sisters in the unit, five have been placed in grade F and seven in grade G.
Two of the nursing sisters were of the same age, had the same skills, received the same training, and were in the same job. They are also members of the same team, because there are only six beds in the unit and the nursing staff operate as a team looking after a maximum of two patients. The only difference between them is six months' service as nursing sisters. They have both served for several years as nurses, but one has been a sister six months longer than the other. On that basis, one was graded F and the other G. Prior to the change, sisters on the top rate had a salary of £12,000. Now a grade F sister receives £12,500, which is an increase of only 4·2 per cent., while one graded G receives £13,925, which i s a rise of almost £2,000, or 16 per cent.
Working to grade in that intensive care unit will not work. Other health authorities in the west midlands region are telephoning members of the intensive care unit's 49 staff offering higher grades if they will move authorities. They are headhunting. This time last year, one hon. Member after another representing west midlands constituencies pressed for emergency debates under Standing Order No. 20 because children needing urgent operations were being turned away. That was when only three of the intensive care unit's beds were being used and there was surplus capacity. We were told that there were not enough nurses and that the Government were doing something about the situation.
It is true that extra training has begun, but what will happen now with all the discontent about the dividing of salaries and splitting of grades, and with other health authorities headhunting? The situation is absolutely crazy. Nursing staff are leaving the unit because, although they want to work there, they also want to be nurses—and can serve adjoining health authorities equally well for an extra £2,000 per year. An increase of that sort is not to be sniffed at, because, like the rest of the population, they have mortgages to pay. It is grossly unfair to put them in that situation.
It is even more unfair that, when those nurses tried working for a couple of days to the Government's allocated grades, they were pilloried by their own management, resulting in headlines such as
Action hits child heart operations",
Admissions halted as nurses work to rule".
The Press even telephoned some nurses and asked, "When you work to grade, will there be pickets?" That is the kind of pressure that those nurses were under.
The fact remains that not one patient in Birmingham children's hospital failed to receive an operation as a result of the nurses there working to grade for two days. That is contrary to what was said by management—they told lies. At all times, all six beds in the intensive care unit were occupied, and the unit could not have accommodated another child from the operating theatre, so no further operations could have taken place anyway. Every bed in the unit was already occupied. It was grossly unfair to put around stories that, because nurses were working to grades allocated by the Government and dividing their responsibilities, they caused young children to miss vital operations. That is not true.
The situation appears even more obscene when one recalls that a year ago parents of children desperately needing operations at Birmingham children's hospital attempted to make the courts order the Government to use their resources in ensuring operations for their children. By and large, the courts threw out those applications, saying, "It is nothing to do with us—we don't want to know." Today, Ministers of the Crown, aided and abetted by management, are actively encouraging health authorities to take nurses to court. That is obscene when one remembers that, a year ago, parents could not get any redress in the courts, but now Ministers are telling health authorities that they should take their nurses to court for breaking their contracts. That is a sad state of affairs. I hope that Ministers will in their quieter moments reflect on why it is that, having paid an extra £1 billion into the Health Service, which I do not deny, they have created the fiasco that they have.
I turn to two aspects of the Prime Minister's speech on Tuesday—the one that she made in this House, not that read out by Her Majesty the Queen in another place. In the first few minutes of her speech, the Prime Minister clearly showed that she had no idea what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition meant when he attacked the Government for their centralisation and dictatorship. She did not have a clue what he was on about. That worries me, because the Prime Minister's shallowness is a danger to us all.
She is extremely shallow. Her response to my right hon. Friend's remarks shows that to be true. It is because she has been surrounded by yes-men over the years.
One has only to look at the Prime Minister's rebuttal in columns 20 and 21 of Hansard. If hon. Members want to defend the Prime Minister, that is fine, but to make everybody a shareholder and a home owner is not freedom when shareholders and home owners are not allowed to read books published overseas about their own country. It is not freedom to take less tax if at the same time the burden of taxation is shifted from the well-off to the less well-off—as will happen with the poll tax. It is not freedom for parents to have choice over education and then to prevent them and their children from seeing the history of their own country on television simply because some of the participants, dead or alive, are now non-persons. It is not freedom either to talk—as the Prime Minister did—about giving people independence and then to remove the right of a public interest defence from those people of independent mind who put loyalty to the state above loyalty to the Government, who might not always be telling the truth in order to avoid political embarrassment.
The shallowness of the Prime Minister's simple equation is, "You've got shares, so you're free". It is not like that. People are asking many questions about the nature of the society in which they live and why certain avenues of dissent are closed to them—the very points that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition put to the Prime Minister. These are serious issues, but the Prime Minister treated them in a shallow way. She ignored these points—not, unfortunately, at her peril but at ours. We, as Members of Parliament, and our constituents will suffer from this approach to Government.
My second point concerning the Prime Minister relates to her use of terrorism for scoring party political points. She does it all the time. The Prime Minister, her family and her colleagues, as well as some of my colleagues, have been and are now under terrorist threat. I, like every other hon. Member, bear the Prime Minister no personal ill will, but that does not prevent me from legitimately criticising the way in which she seeks to use terrorism for party political purposes.
It was not a Labour Government who, when it was convenient, put a terrorist on a plane in the early 1970s to get her out of this country so that the Government did not have to face the consequences. That was a Government in which the Prime Minister was a member of the Cabinet. It was not a Labour Government who knowingly allowed the killer of a police officer to leave this country and go free. That was done by this Government. Yet the Prime Minister never misses an opportunity to taunt and to taint Her Majesty's loyal Opposition by saying that they are soft on or, by implication, support terrorism. She tops the league when it comes to people rushing to get into black, especially when there is a camera about. That is usually after some of her own laws have failed, whether they concern acts of terrorism or shipping safety.
The Prime Minister said to us on Tuesday, as she has said before, that if hon. Members do not vote for her Bill they do not share the Government's determination to fight terrorism. She is seeking to obtain a crude party political advantage when we should combine as a nation to fight terrorism. We have heard today that in the early hours of this morning there was another tragedy in County Tyrone when an elderly man and his grand-daughter were killed. Those murders would not have been prevented by the Prime Minister's laws against terrorism, but they might have been prevented if there were more bobbies on the beat. That tragedy occurred a few days after the Chief Constable in Northern Ireland said that there are to be fewer policemen on the beat in Northern Ireland because money is short. That is the reality of fighting terrorism. The Prime Minister should not seek to make cheap party political points about terrorism.
In 1943, the Prime Minister, as she was perfectly entitled to do, went to Oxford. If I were in her shoes, I should be slow to condemn and smear Labour supporters who voluntarily donned military or Land Army uniforms or factory overalls before they were required to do so in order to fight Hitler. Many of them lied about their age so that they could get into that fight. Those people now question the validity of the Prime Minister's methods and laws to fight terrorism. They see, year after year, that the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974—which I admit I have never voted against—does not stop terrorism. They deeply resent their loyalty and patriotism being called into question by this Prime Minister. She knows that she is in no position to do it and she should stop it.
Before I comment on the Gracious Speech, I want to make a few observations about the latter comments of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). When he reads his comments, I hope that he will regret having made some of them. He referred to the shallowness of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I think that he meant to use a different word. He may disagree with my right hon. Friend about many political issues. I respect him for having disagreed with his own party on previous occasions about a number of issues. He knows how to stick to his guns and to put forward his own point of view. However, his comments about my right hon. Friend—her shallowness and, both specifically and by innuendo, the proposals for Northern Ireland—were utterly reprehensible and in the cold light of day they will be seen to be indefensible. There may be a difference of opinion, but some of the hon. Gentleman's comments were utterly unacceptable to most hon. Members.
I pay tribute—it may seem a little late, but for personal reasons I wish to do so— to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) for having moved the motion on the Loyal Address. For a period I served as his parliamentary private secretary. He displayed in the Chamber on Tuesday the wit, charm and good humour that he displayed to me as his PPS and to his civil servants in all the Departments in which he served, which he so wittily identified during his speech.
The hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) made a series of accusations about the unemployment statistics. They are well-used accusations. However, in a debate on the economic situation in 1987, my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) challenged the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East
(Mr. Prescott). He asked:
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the Shadow Chancellor's statement that, if the Labour party came to power, it would make no change in the way in which unemployment statistics are collated?
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East replied:
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me a chance to make that absolutely clear. We have made clear that our job contribution will be on the registered figures. We have no desire to change them."—[Official Report, 19 March 1987; Vol. 112, c. 1072.]
Will Opposition Members therefore please stop whingeing about the re-calculation of the figures? All their leading spokesmen have confirmed that the Opposition do not intend to change the basis of the calculation.
The Gracious Speech refers to employment in simple terms. It says:
A Bill will be introduced to remove unnecessary obstacles to employment, particularly in relation to women and young people, and to alter training arrangements."?
I understand that one of the proposals relates to practices connected with discrimination against women: I hope so. In what I believe to be a quotation from a press release, the
Financial Times says:
The anti-bias requirements of the Sex Discrimination Act 1967 will override all other legislation."?
Many of my constituents hope that that will apply to, for example, pensions for those employed in education. At present, if a male head teacher dies, his wife—if she survives him—is entitled to half the pension. If a female head teacher dies, her husband is not entitled to any pension unless a substantial extra contribution is made.
I cannot understand why, in this day and age, when both individuals could potentially have made equal contributions throughout their time in the profession—whether as ordinary teachers, heads of department or head teachers—a female head teacher should be asked, as one of my constituents has been, to pay more than £5,000 extra so that her husband can receive what she would receive if her husband died. That is utterly illogical and I hope that one of the Government's intentions is to remedy it, although I have a sneaking suspicion that it is not.
I welcome the announcements made this afternoon about improvements in pension arrangements. I was fortunate enough to be able to intervene in the speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on this subject. I have expressed concern previously about people marginally above the income support and supplementary benefit levels who are being penalised in many different ways. We do not know the full details yet, but my right hon. Friend's recognition of the problem is a clear indication of its existence. I hope that the House also welcomes this announcement, and that it shows the Government's intention. I am, however, disappointed that so few Opposition Members have even had the grace to welcome the substantial extra payments made not only to those people but to the most elderly pensioners.
The hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), if I heard him aright—unfortunately he is not here now, but we can check Hansard—said categorically that, immediately on the return of a Labour Government, he would reintroduce the earnings link. The hon. Gentleman accepted that that would cost £5·5 billion. If that is so—the figure was his—we have started early in this Parliament. In the last Parliament the Opposition did not start making promises until 18 months or two years before the general election, but this afternoon we have had promises not only from the hon. Member for Livingston but from the hon. Member for Newham, North-East, who proposed that we put another £180 million into employment training.
That, of course, was a contribution from the Back Benches. But I presume that the £5·5 billion mentioned by the hon. Member for Livingston would take precedence over the £2 billion for the NHS, the extra money for the nurses pleaded for by the hon. Member for Perry Barr and the extra money for overseas aid, rate support grant, transport infrastructure, heating allowances, housing and child benefit or television licences. If the Labour party is to make such promises so early in the Parliament, surely we can reasonably expect some prioritisation. We need to know whether those commitments will all be included in the first Budget or will be introduced at later stages.
It is dishonest for each Labour spokesman to make policy on his feet and to promise huge sums of money in this fashion. After all, £5·5 billion is 2·5 times the tax cuts that the Government introduced in the last Budget. The hon. Members for Livingston and Newham, North-East must find the money from somewhere, and they ought to have the courage to say where it will come from.
I said that I wanted to deal primarily with employment, availability tests and employment training. The taxes and prices index issued by the Department and introduced by the present Government is, I feel, unnecessary. While it may show what someone needs to maintain his income of the previous year, it should surely be argued that people should be paid in terms of their productivity and their contribution to the company concerned—and what the company can therefore afford. That is measured by neither the taxes and prices index nor the retail prices index. If, as many of my collegues argue—rightly, in my view—wages and salaries should be paid on the basis of what a company can afford, the taxes and prices index performs no useful task and should be done away with.
We already have fairly rigorous employment availability tests, but I support further progress in ensuring that only those who are genuinely unemployed and seeking work receive benefit. A fair number of people are not now in that position. The Government estimate 3 per cent. unemployment as full employment: rather higher than the previous estimate, and if the south and west are anything to go by, the figure may be even higher. But any employer in the west country will say that he is having difficulty in recruiting trainees of all ages, regardless of salary or the nature of the jobs involved.
Astoundingly, Avon and Somerset police have recently had to increase the minimum age at which they are willing to recruit because they cannot get people into the police force, yet the unemployment figure in Bristol is certainly nowhere near 3 per cent. It is substantially higher in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) than in mine. But there is no suggestion that all those who are supposed to be available for work are so available.
It is true that in Bristol there are problems of recruitment in certain sectors of industry. That is not for the want of unemployed people applying for the jobs. As in the south of England, there is a mismatch between the skills of the unemployed and those that the employers are seeking. That is another indictment of the Government's failed training schemes. Bristol employers are looking for highly trained staff. The Government's employment training projects teach people to type, clean or fill supermarket shelves, which is not what is required in Bristol's hi-tech industries. The problem is not that no one is looking for work.
I was going to come on to that point. I do not agree with the hon. Lady about whose responsibility it is.
We are putting large sums into employment training. There may be some criticisms of the scheme. Before I came to the House I was a personnel manager and worked with a series of Government schemes under both the present Government and a Labour Government. Government-sponsored training schemes have for the most part improved, but I am worried about the amount of money that they spend on employment training as such. Training is the responsibility of companies, not of the Government.
I was disappointed to hear the hon. Member for Newham, North-East repeatedly say what the Government could do. One of the problems is that for decades, with the exception of some large companies, companies have not generally perceived the need for apprenticeships or training schemes. British management's attitude has for many decades been that, once somebody is 21, he is trained for life. There has been no attempt to train employees to a higher standard.
The hon. Gentleman said that he supports availability testing and a strengthening of it. In September, one of my constituents had his benefit stopped because, when asked what wage he sought, he replied £80 a week. I do not think that £80 a week is unreasonable, even in a low wage area such as Burnley. Does the hon. Gentleman support that withdrawal of benefit? Perhaps I can avoid being accused of not putting the case in perspective by saying that that man is now in work, although his appeal has still to be heard. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that benefit should be stopped in such circumstances?
I am willing to consider the case, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister is, but I cannot comment as I have so few details. Nor is it for me to make such a decision. I could cite cases that arose in the 1970s and ask the hon. Gentleman to tell me what he thinks, but he would be right to say that he could not comment.
We must encourage management to train more. When management has identified skills shortages, it ought to cast around within the company to see whether it is possible to train existing employees with basic skills to improve the quality of the work force. Such training should be done at the company's expense. Management should not expect the state to train people. Such an expectation gets it nowhere. The average foreman on the shop floor in German industry is expected to have attained a high academic standard and to be a problem-solver. British managers never expect that. Management does not train people to that standard, so why should they perform such functions? There must be a change of attitude in British management. Without it, we will be left behind.
The hon. Gentleman is describing exactly what happened before 1979, when firms trained their own personnel. The hon. Gentleman may disagree, but I was an industrial relations manager with what is now British Coal. We worked seven years ahead with apprenticeships and the training scheme and expected to lose people to other industries but also to gain them. People moved between the coal, steel, engineering and glass industries which used to be in my constituency. What has happened since 1979?
I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about training, but even in 1979 it was nowhere near adequate. Like him, I was responsible for a training school. We must consider what we turned out. I had long discussions about changing apprenticeship schemes with trade union officials, but they regarded schemes as immutable and sacrosanct. When we talked about introducing some form of technician grade so that people could be trained to the same level as a French or German person with similar academic qualifications, the trade unions said no way.
We must train people under 21, but we must also train them after they are 21. Unfortunately, the majority of industries have not trained people after they are 21. That makes a dramatic contribution to today's skills shortages. Employers are quite prepared to go outside the company and to pay more to get the necessary skills, but they are unwilling to consider paying an existing employee to be trained. That is a failing of British management. Industry has the profits necessary to afford such training. Indeed, I hope that even in unprofitable circumstances training will continue. It is all too easy to cut training during a period of relative recession.
There are a few other matters on which I had hoped to speak, but I have taken some of the House's time and I do not think that it would be fair to speak for much longer. The proposals in the Gracious Speech are worth while. Long-term employment will continue to grow and unemployment will continue to fall, despite what Opposition Members say. I support my right hon. Friend's proposals which are to be brought forward this year.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward), as he has always shown a deep interest in training. The House is always better informed after listening to him on employment and training matters.
The hon. Gentleman issued a challenge to Opposition Members and said that we were unwilling to welcome the Secretary of State's announcement about additional help for older pensioners. I am perfectly prepared to welcome it. It is not a significant step in terms of the money involved and much more needs to be done, but it would be churlish not to recognise that older pensioners are most in need and that their plight is recognised by the Secretary of State's announcement.
I tried to read the Queen's Speech from the point of view of a pensioner. I wanted to see whether pensioners can derive any hope of improved income in the next 12 months as a result of the proposed measures. Experts now predict that inflation will run at 7 per cent. for the foreseeable future. The proposed privatisation of water and electricity will lead to the expectation that charges for those utilities will rise. It is also widely expected that council rents will increase as a result of the Government's proposals for changing housing and local government finance. My overall impression is that pensioners will face higher charges.
In view of the farcical imposition of charges for dental and eye tests for retired people, pensioners are right to be worried about the drift of the Government's thinking. We must also remember the effect of the changes that were made to housing benefit in the spring as a result of the Social Security Act 1986. I had the dubious honour of serving on the Standing Committee which considered that Bill. Those of us on that Standing Committee warned the then Secretary of State for Social Services about the problems that are now emerging and being raised by my constituents in my surgeries, and no doubt in those of other hon. Members. If anything, the problems have occurred more quickly than I expected.
Pensioners look forward with no enthusiasm to the imminent imposition of a minimum 20 per cent. contribution towards poll tax and water rates in Scotland. The Secretary of State's announcement about the increase of £200 million for pensioners says much about the Government's agenda for the future evolution of the social security system. Taken together with the other changes that I mentioned, there is now a real worry that the Government are deliberately and unashamedly moving away from the universal welfare state that the country has enjoyed since the days of Beveridge. There may be an argument about that, and I am prepared to join in it. A successful and forceful argument can be made for maintaining and improving universal benefits.
It is unacceptable for the Government, by stealth, to dismantle major pillars of the welfare state that we have enjoyed to date. There is a worry that they are doing so. A system that moves towards selectivity would inevitably cost more. The Government know that it costs £3·20 to administer £100-worth of housing benefit and only £1·40 to pay 100-worth of pensions. The Government are right to try to reduce administrative costs, but moving towards selectivity will cost substantially more in the future.
The Secretary of State mentioned the rate of take-up of benefits. We know from historical figures that housing benefit has a take-up rate of only 77 per cent. The take-up rate for the recently introduced family credit system is only about 40 per cent. I heard what the Secretary of State said about introducing campaigns to increase the level) of take-up, and I support that move because it is necessary. However, it will never serve senior citizens as well as they would be served by a system based more on universal payment of welfare. Savings are inevitably penalised when a selective system is used. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Kingswood was worried about that. Like him, I shall be looking carefully at the detail of the announcement made earlier to see whether people who are marginally above the income support level will derive any substantial benefit from the changes. I suspect that they will not, because that is a difficult end to achieve administratively.
If one is arguing about a selective system versus a universal system, one cannot avoid bringing into the equation the fact that there are very many universal tax breaks. Tax allowances, by definition, are universal. For example, there is the famous mortgage interest tax relief and other allowances. One cannot argue for a selective benefit system and then accept, willy-nilly, universal tax allowances. There should be an open and fair-minded discussion about the evolution of the Government's thinking on social security. I used to study these matters carefully, and I am again responsible for dealing with social security for the Social and Liberal Democratic party. I shall be looking carefully at all the pointers in future to see whether the Government are, by default, bringing about sea changes in the running of the social security system.
There is great difficulty with the statistics that bedevil the whole argument. I receive a clandestine copy of the Members' brief produced by Conservative Central Office. There is a mole there, but I will not tell the House who it is. The brief contains statements such as:
Pensioners have benefited from an economy revitalised by Conservative policies: Since 1979 the Conservatives have increased spending on the elderly by 27 per cent. in real terms.
That statement is phrased in a way that can be defended statistically. However, it is equally true that since November 1978 the increase in the value of the pensions in relation to prices has been 1·4 per cent. That is not a massive increase. The brief goes on:
Fully 50 per cent. of the current social security budget now goes on spending on the elderly.
That is also statistically true, but most of that expenditure is covered by the cost of contributory benefits paid for by the national insurance contribution scheme.
Among other things, the brief says:
This Government has more than maintained the real value of the state retirement pension.
Again, taken at face value, that statement is also true. However, in November 1978, the value of pensions was 20·4 per cent. of gross male earnings. In April 1989, assuming a rise in inflation of about 7 per cent., that 20·4 per cent. will fall to 16·2 per cent. of gross male earnings.
It is interesting that we are now using different indices for costs and for pension upratings. A 5·9 per cent. uprating is due to take effect in April next year. As I have said, prices are, however, now expected to rise by about 7 per cent. in that time and average earnings will increase by 9·25 per cent. There are different ways of looking at the statistics and if we bandy them about we must bandy them about with great care if we are to cast any real light on what is actually happening.
According to Age Concern, by April 1989, assuming inflation rises by about 7 per cent. between now and April next year, a single pensioner will be £10 per week worse off because of the delinking in 1982 of pensions from prices or earnings, whichever was the greater.
Like the hon. Member for Kingswood, I do not think that it is sensible to argue that it is possible to spend immediately £5·5 billion to bring that link back on stream. It would waste resources and drive a coach and horses through the rest of the economy. We do have to remember that we must create wealth in order to redistribute it. However, the hon. Member for Kingswood must accept that the continuous erosion in the level of pension increases compared with the level of earnings increases means that, year after year, pensioners are falling further behind the general wealth enjoyed by the community.
The hon. Gentleman is making some interesting points. Does he acknowledge that the previous Labour Government, who had a policy of increasing pensions in line with prices or earnings, whichever was the greater, broke that pledge in 1976 and 1978? Was not the Liberal party involved in the Lib-Lab pact in 1978?
I was not in short trousers in 1978 but what I recall may help the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) who, like many of his colleagues, does not understand the issue. Whatever the shortcomings of the previous Labour Government, which I would not wish to cloud, during that Government's period in office, the basic pension increased by 20 per cent. in real terms. That is the pension received by the majority of pensioners and that is most important to the poorest pensioners. Under this Government, it has increased by 2 per cent. in eight years. That is a shocking and disgraceful record.
I feel like the piggy in the middle of this argument. The last Labour Government had nothing to do with me, nor have the Government's present proposals. I am trying to pick my way sensibly and rationally through this minefield as best I can.
Average figures used in the statistics mask the poverty of the lower 60 per cent. of pensioners, especially those over 75 years of age. Age Concern and the other pressure groups and agencies have demonstrated the extent of that poverty to the satisfaction of any objective person.
I should like to say a word or two about another group of disadvantaged people in the social security system. This is familiar territory for me because I raised the matter in the Standing Committee that dealt with the Social Security Act 1986. In discussions about those who have lost as a result of the social security changes made in April, one group has received little publicity but deserves attention and support—widows aged under 45. They have been treated scandalously by the Government. During debates on the Social Security Act 1986 the Government said that no existing widow would lose the benefit she is currently receiving. Most of those affected are widows who lost their husbands before 11 April 1988, but whose widow's allowance ran out after that time. Most of them thought that they would be dealt with under the old rules, but I discovered to my horror—I fully understand why they are most upset—that the cut-off date was October 1987. This change has left many widows distressed and they have experienced a substantial loss in expected income. According to Government estimates, 14,000 widows are affected.
The raising of the age limit and the abolition of the personal extension to widowed mother's allowance means that thousands of widows aged between 40 and 55 are experiencing severe hardship. I cannot accept that Ministers believe that the sums saved can justify the anxiety that has been caused. Transitional payments have been offered to other categories in the social security system, so I ask the Minister to review this matter and to consider restoring widows, lost income.
Ministers previously promised to review the widow's payment of £1,000. The level of the payment was set in 1985, prior to its implementation in April 1988. Where is the review? Is it being carried out now, and is there not a strong case for increasing the payment?
The Gracious Speech missed an opportunity to help elderly people. In 1986, the then Secretary of State was warned that the proposed changes would cause much hardship. I welcome the additional £200 million for older and disabled pensioners who are experiencing the worst hardship, but I wish that the Government would listen more to what pensioners are telling hon. Members at their clinics. That group of people, not a minority, desperately need help. I have looked in vain for help in the legislation promulgated in the Gracious Speech.
I shall not follow the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on the interesting subject of pensions, although I shall refer to it later. In 1979, the hon. Gentleman was 33 years old, so heaven knows what he was doing posturing in short trousers.
In view of what the hon. Gentleman has just said about widows, I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) said yesterday about early-day motion 1237 of the previous Session:
That this House recognises the unfair treatment of the war widows and widows of Servicemen who retired before 31st March 1973".
It also dealt with other categories of widows. I hope that in this Session there will be some amelioration of their plight.
I welcome the reference in the Gracious Speech to housing and home improvement grants. I especially welcome the report—which I hope is reliable—in The Times of Monday last. The headline reads:
Low-cost homes to help villagers left behind by the boom.
The report suggests that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and my noble Friend the Minister for Housing, Environment and Countryside are proposing measures to assist the building of 40,000 homes in rural areas to help young villagers priced out of their communities by soaring property costs. The report says:
It is understood that ministers will impose restrictions on the future sale of the low-cost homes to keep them available for local people.
If the report accurately reflects the Government's intentions, I shall welcome them vigorously. I do not want to develop the subject, because I have spoken on it before. It was the subject of my maiden speech a year ago, and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may have noticed an article written by me in The House Magazine this week which deals substantially with it. I am extremely grateful to the editors of the The House Magazine for giving me that opportunity.
I should like to make a further preliminary point that is appropriate in view of the regrettable remarks of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) about the Prime Minister and terrorism. I welcome the passage in the Gracious Speech dealing with Northern Ireland and strongly support the proposed measures. Conservative Members welcome the remarks made yesterday by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) about Northern Ireland and terrorism. We welcome the support that he gave to those measures. I think I am right in saying that he is the only leader of an Opposition party outside Northern Ireland to support those measures, and Conservative Members are grateful for that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) had the courage yesterday to make a controversial speech on Northern Ireland. I should like to place on record the fact that we need to consider and discuss measures, such as those that he proposed, of last resort—I emphasise that they would be measures of last resort—as a counter to the unholy alliance that exists in pubs, clubs and drawing rooms of defeatists and secret Republicans who are bent on scuttle. Scuttle, as the Prime Minister told me during Prime Minister's Question Time three weeks ago, would be grievously detrimental to the lives of thousands of people in Northern Ireland. It would grievously threaten the unity and morale of this kingdom.
While keeping under consideration the rather drastic proposals suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington, we must continue to batten down the hatches and soldier on, resolving that scuttle is unthinkable. We owe that to the people of Northern Ireland, the families of service men and policemen who have been killed and maimed, and, not least, to the memory of our former colleague, who was my friend and mentor for over 20 years and who died in hospital in my constituency, Sir John Biggs-Davison.
I entirely support and understand the economic policy set out in the Gracious Speech and the indication of prudence regarding reductions in taxation. The 1988 Budget has, however, created certain expectations about tax reductions, especially among those on or around average earnings who did not benefit substantially from the budgetary measures as a whole.
I refer my hon. Friends to a written answer that I obtained on 20 October 1988, at column 989 of Hansard. It shows where we stand now compared with the past 25 years. All Conservative Members recognise, and our opponents do not deny, the substantial gains that have been made in reducing taxation in recent years. I asked the Treasury for the proportion of gross income represented by the amount of income tax and employees' national insurance contributions payable on certain incomes at certain dates. For a married couple on average earnings the deduction was 26 per cent. in 1988–89, which was an improvement on 1983–84, when the deduction was 29·6 per cent. It was still slightly worse than the position in the last year of the Government led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), when it was 25·6 per cent., and it was much more than the figure in the last year of the so-called 13 years, 1963–64, when it was 17·6 per cent.
The pattern repeated itself in the figures for incomes of half average earnings—17·9 per cent. in 1988–89, which was down from 20·1 per cent. in 1983–84, marginally up on 1973–74, when it was 16·2 per cent. and substantially up on 1963–64, when it was only 7·6 per cent. Absolute living standards at both levels have improved considerably over that period. The figures show the objectives that we need to pursue in this and subsequent Sessions.
I want to speak about pensions, but I do not wish to pull two ways at once. I have pressed for continued pressure to reduce taxation. All Conservative Members would want to do what they can for our pensioners, especially those in greatest need. Economic success will enable us to do that. Economic success has accompanied our policies, at least since 1982, and, despite our various concerns, I believe that it will continue to do so.
I greatly welcome today's announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and I do not think that he could have improved his timing. My mailbag in recent weeks has revealed the considerable worries among pensioners about a number of matters, including the introduction of eye test charges for pensioners or retired people. Several of my hon. Friends and I tried to avert that measure and were narrowly unsuccessful. Certain other factors have contributed to people's worries.
I should like to quote from a typical letter from an old lady about her plight, which she sets out reasonably. She says that she paid extra in graduated contributions and in working an extra year and that she felt that she had been penalised for what she did to better herself. She said:
in the main we are a generation which has given far more than it has taken and has considered self-reliance and duty to the community at large before any thought of what we can get for ourselves … I am a life-long Conservative and have given a lot of time for working for the party in younger days".
She goes on to describe how she is disturbed about what is happening. I am sure that she will welcome, as I do on
her behalf, the measures announced today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. They will be valuable and helpful, and we want to build on them.
Before knowing that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was to make an announcement, I asked the Library to chase up for me a reference in a weekend newspaper. The Library provided me with the figures on gross weekly incomes of households whose head had retired. Those figures from the 1986 family expenditure survey showed that nearly 30 per cent. of such households had incomes of less than £60 a week and that almost 20 per cent.—bringing the total to half the number of households—had incomes of between £60 and £80 a week. I would not consider such people wealthy. Ministers must be careful when talking about wealthy pensioners when proposing measures.
I, too, have the document that was leaked to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire. I do not know whether the same mole sent it to me as sent it to him. If any Opposition Members wish to argue about the figures, no doubt Ministers will respond, but I believe that they have been carefully researched. Between 1979 and 1986, pensioners' average incomes from savings rose by more than 7 per cent. a year in real terms. We must take account also of the income that pensioners have from other sources, including occupational pensions. Pensioners' average real incomes increased by 23 per cent. between 1979 and 1986, compared with 3 per cent. under Labour.
I take the point made by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire. Most of the figures that show a happy state of affairs reflect proportional increases. I have spoken of the plight of many pensioners. My constituency and other West Country constituencies include a number of such people, who worked as farm labourers, or worked in retail industry, in public services or in public administration. In the 1950s and 1960s, those people did not work in what passed for the higher paid manufacturing industry, which has since suffered substantial job losses.
I am glad to see my hon. Friend, whose constituency is not a million miles from mine, nodding in agreement. One needs only an elementary sense of logic to deduce that, if the proportionate improvement has been significant over the past seven years, and if there are still aspects of privation, the position when the Conservatives came to power must have been squalid. We have had a small interchange across the Floor of the Chamber about what the Labour Government achieved, or did not achieve. I shall relate it for the benefit of the House. In 1975 and 1976, Labour withheld the Christmas bonus. The Labour Government failed dismally——
We have all listened with great care to the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Does he agree that the great divide between rich and poor in society has also occurred among pensioners, and that by giving average figures he ignores the plight of the millions who rely on basic pensions? Under the Labour Government, the basic pension increased by 20 per cent. in real terms. Under the Conservatives it has increased by only 2·1 per cent.
As for the timing, it is disingenuous to suggest that today's announcement is anything other than what will be known in the future as "Nigel's embarrassment bonus", stemming not from any desire to please pensioners or to achieve justice, but from the need to save the Treasury embarrassment. Had it been part of any plan or act of compassion, we should have heard about it three weeks ago in the uprating statement.
That was quite a lengthy intervention. I am sure that the respective Front Benches can thrash out the figures. I believe that those given by the hon. Gentleman have been challenged. If anyone wishes to challenge those that I have given, I shall be happy to hear from him.
I conclude by referring to a subject that is dealt with in considerably more detail than usual in the Gracious Speech—international relations, especially East-West relations. I believe that the various other measures and policies that the Government intend to pursue will be beggared by far by the great issue of East-West relations and the magnificent opportunity that awaits us and the people of eastern Europe. I shall not enlarge on the subject, but I commend to the House the wise words of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Boscawen), my next-door neighbour and former Whip, who was speaking, I believe, for the first time in 15 years in the House. My hon. Friend created the note on which I end my contribution to this year's debate on the Gracious Speech.
I have a feeling of kid vu today, as I recall that when the Government were under pressure from both sides of the House about their cuts in housing benefit, they produced out of the hat the so-called £2·50 rule with transitional protection. We were told that no one would be more than £2·50 a week worse off, and we were challenged to welcome that change and not to be churlish about it. As time has gone on, however, the transitional protection has turned out to be rather less than that. For some people it amounted to 1 p per week. For one constituent of mine it was just 98p and for another it was 44p per week. I will welcome today's statement by the Secretary of State only if it turns out to mean exactly what he says it does. If it turns out to be a case, to use his own words, of empty rhetoric and bogus promises—as the £2·50 promise in April was—we shall point out that it is the Government who make bogus promises and when under pressure appear to produce money which they claim not to have in the first place.
I wish to devote the main part of my speech to the effect of social security changes on the welfare state. It has been suggested today that substantial changes may be occurring in the basic nature of the universal welfare state. That is absolutely true. The Government are changing the nature of the welfare state not by stealth but by direct attack, and they are targeting not the needs of poor people but the poor people themselves. The Government are picking off poor people and denying them the right to support under the welfare state.
The Secretary of State made the astonishing claim that nearly seven months was not long enough to assess the changes in the social security system introduced in April, and that we should have to see how it settled down. I disagree entirely. In south Bristol, we have carried out a survey of the impact of the changes on people in that area in the last six and a half months. The hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) said that unemployment was higher in Bristol, South than in Kingswood. The number of claimants is also much higher. As a city, Bristol has 31,000 claimant families, and more than 15,000 of them live in south Bristol. The benefit office covering my constituency is the largest in Bristol and the second largest in the south-west.
We took a leaf out of the book of the Secretary of State for Education and Science and decided to judge the DHSS on the targets that it had set for itself. The Department's criteria were that benefit should be targeted on those in greatest need, that the system should be simplified both administratively and for claimants, and that it should provide particular assistance for priority groups. Those were to he the central criteria of the social security system, and we decided to assess cases in south Bristol on the basis of those criteria.
I will give just a few examples of what has happened to the target groups in south Bristol under the Government's alleged policy. I begin with the caveat that I do not intend to read out all 15,000 cases. I will give just a few examples, which I hope the House will accept as representative, not because all the other cases are not fascinating and give the lie to the Government's position but because other hon. Members wish to speak in the debate.
The first example is that of an old-age pensioner couple, both of whom are registered handicapped. Their joint income as assessed by the DHSS was £97·30 a week, including occupational pension, which put them over the eligibility level for family credit. There were changes in the 20 per cent. payment for rates and rents and the removal of housing benefit for that so-called target group. Following those changes in April, they were £10·95 a week worse off—or, annually, their benefit was cut by £569·40.
My next example is of a single person, under the age of 25, working part-time. Because of changes in housing benefit, she was £14·52 a week worse off—an annual cut in benefit of £634·40. If people had pay rises of that amount, they would be grateful, yet some people have been subjected to cuts of that size.
Another of the so-called target groups is the single parent. I know a single parent with two dependants over the age of 18, one of whom is mentally handicapped. That family is now £281 a year worse off. All those people are in the so-called target groups. It must be an amazingly inefficient target system that misses every group that it claims to target.
There is the case of a divorced woman who works part time and is a home owner. She has tried to satisfy all the criteria, but because of the changes in housing benefit she will be £16 a week worse off. She heard about the transitional protection and applied for it. She was awarded 98p a week, leaving her £15·02 a week worse off, or £832 a year.
It is timely today to give an example of a student, given the problems of the students who tried to lobby Members of Parliament today to put forward their case about the attack on grants. The changes in housing benefit make an average student more than £300 a year worse off, despite the fact that students live on tiny incomes.
We considered only 30 cases of the many that arose in the target group and tried to work out how much the Government had clawed back from them. I am talking about money that this target group had before April, but did not have after the changes. From just 30 cases, the Government clawed back £8,900 a year. By far the most frequent and significant loss of income has occurred because of housing benefit changes and the requirement to pay 20 per cent. of rates and 100 per cent. of water rates, even for those on full benefit. In Bristol, South, on average, every claimant family is losing between £4 and £5 a week after deducting the so-called transitional protection payment.
The Government are stealing money from south Bristol. We asked claimants to tell us what they felt about the Government's actions. I shall cite just two examples. The first is of an old-age pensioner, living on her own, who had her purse stolen. She had no money and there wars a week to go before her next pension payment. She went to the local DHSS office and asked for a grant. She was told that it was not an emergency and therefore did not come under the community care grant, but it offered her a loan. That lady had a total income of £44 a week, which must cover all her expenditure. In the end, she accepted the loan but was worried sick about how she would manage. That sort of hardship is how good the Government's targeting has proved to be.
My second example is of a single mother with five children. The youngest is seven and suffers from epilepsy. The mother applied for a grant for floor covering for the child's bedroom, but was told that it was not essential, even though there was danger to the child. The DHSS offered her a loan. Her total disposable income for a family of six—to include food, electricity and clothing, but excluding rent and rates—was £44·02 a week. The loan had to be repaid at £4·02 a week, and the last payment is due on 19 December.
Unfortunately, the family cooker broke down because it was archaic and needed repair. The mother asked the DHSS for a community care grant, but it said that a cooker was not essential and that the family should eat salads and sandwiches. It said that the criteria for what was essential had been changed. It would not give her a loan because it said that, having deducted the first loan from her benefit, she did not have sufficient to live on. It asked her to return on 19 December when the loan for the floor covering had been paid and would then consider a loan for the cooker. It expected that family to live on salads and sandwiches until that time.
Not only does the youngest child suffer from epilepsy, but he is hyperactive. Because of the type of food that the family were forced to eat, the child's health deteriorated. Surely that family was in the target group. How can anybody say anything other than that it is obscene for people to lose the basic rights to which they are entitled while this Government say time and again that the nation is wealthy and that they are creating even greater wealth?
The individual experience is most important, but we decided to widen the survey to protect ourselves against allegations of being selective. We contacted every advice agency in Bristol. During the time of the survey, those agencies had had contact with about 10,000 claimants— one third of the claimants in Bristol. They could not find one claimant family who had gained. It could be argued that gainers would not go to an advice agency and say, "I don't want the extra money," but the fact is that a third of the claimants in Bristol were worse off, and those are the ones that we know about.
We then asked the organisations—I am happy to supply a list of them to any hon. Member who wants to see it—the magic four questions about the Government's claims. We asked first whether there had been more gainers or losers. According to all the advice agencies, there had been more losers. They had seen only people who had lost and, allowing for statistical error, they estimated that 88 per cent. of all those in receipt of benefit were worse off as a result of the changes.
The second question was whether the system of applying for benefits had become simpler for the claimants. Every agency said that it had become more difficult. The third question was whether the agencies thought that benefits were better targeted, and 100 per cent. of the agencies said that they were not. The fourth question, which is pertinent to the Secretary of State's announcement today about more advertising, was whether the Government's publicity had been effective in maximising the potential take-up of new benefits. Every agency said that the publicity had not been effective.
The overwhelming conclusion is that there has been an absolute failure in the system of welfare benefits, by the Government's criteria, let alone by anyone else's criteria. The agencies said that people needed to have an incredibly high reading age and had to be able to use complex language to fight their way through the forms—and had to have a few hours to spare. That is the opposite of what we were told when the Social Security Bill of 1988 was in Committee.
Which groups have benefited from the changes? It is not the young, who have been dropped out of the benefit system by the changes. It is not the pensioners, unless there is something magic about today's announcement, because they have not gained. Women, especially single parents, have not gained. Single parents comprise the vast majority of the claimant population and they have not gained, because of the freezing of child benefit, the changes in housing benefit and the abolition of free school meals and milk.
The ethnic minorities, including the black members of our community, have not gained from the changes. There are intimidating new questions on the form asking about years of residence, which frighten many people who believe that the Government are gathering information for more pernicious immigration legislation, for use in an identity card system or for policing the black community. Many of the forms are not translated into mother tongue languages to let people know about the benefits for which they can apply.
Families with children, the most sacred of all the target groups according to the Government, have not gained. I defy any hon. Member to keep an 11-year-old child on £11 a week, which is all the Government allow. My son will be 11 in January and, although I am not particularly extravagant, it costs a lot more than £11 a week to feed and clothe him. The disabled, who face particular problems, have not gained. What has happened in Bristol, South? The Government have reduced spending there by removing the single payments system, and they have reduced our budgets by two thirds. Comparing the community care grants with the old single payments system, the money available to claimants in south Bristol has been reduced by 72 per cent. I do not care what statistics Ministers produce, and I do not care how the figures compare with what the Labour Government did or did not do in 1979. I am concerned about what is happening now to the people whom I represent. I am concerned about whether they are better or worse off compared to last year. The answer is that their position has not improved at all.
The Government have changed the social security system fundamentally. They have said that the social fund will replace the welfare state. They no longer have the idea of giving help to those in need. Rather than basing the social security system on need, they seek to turn the social security offices into a form of high street bank, which does not recognise people's needs but only their ability to pay back loans. They do not decide to give an emergency grant to a woman who needs a cooker. Instead, they ask whether she can afford a loan. That is a dramatic change in the social security system.
There have also been changes in housing benefit. In Bristol, £5·7 million has been cut from housing benefit as a result of the changes in April 1988. I do not know how the Government can have the audacity to tell us that they are finding ways to protect the weak and the vulnerable and that we should see the social security changes as a measure of their commitment to all. The Secretary of State said earlier that there was a sense of purpose and direction in the new social security legislation.
We interpret the legislation differently and believe that the Government's measurement of commitment to all is nil, because the poor will be assessed not on need but on ability to pay, and that the social security system is not viable as a welfare state system. The sense of purpose and direction is clear. The Government believe that people should live on charity and have no right to basic support through the state. The system does not help those in need even on the Government's own criteria, let alone on ours as Socialists.
It is a joke for the Government to say that they are finding ways to protect the weak and vulnerable. Why have we seen such massive cuts in the benefits directed at those most in need and such a huge growth in the activity of charities, so that people must go cap in hand to them, since the Government came to power?
The Government are not satisfied with changing the regulations and ethos of the social security system. They seek cuts in the number of staff employed in the social security system, and the result is that people's claims are not processed. Yesterday the social security office that covers south Bristol closed for the day. The telephone lines were disconnected and the doors were locked by management, who said that staff would have no chance to process the applications they already had unless they stopped claimants coming through the doors; there were simply not enough of them to do the work. The Government have cut staff so that they cannot do the work, they have changed the priorities of the system, and they deny people their basic rights. That is nothing to be proud of.
The Gracious Speech does not give us a review, it does not tell us how the Government might correct the appalling mistakes they have made, and it does not commit them to a universal welfare state. But they do say that they will seek to amend further the social security legislation. The Government have revealed their hand. Despite the crocodile tears about people in need and poverty, they seek to ensure that those people do not receive the benefits to which they are entitled on the basis of need, but that they have to beg for them. If people are not prepared to do that, they will not receive benefits. That is not a social security system but a system of tyranny. It blames the poor for their circumstances, which are a direct result of the Government's economic policies.
I am not prepared to congratulate the Government on that record. They should be ashamed of it. I cannot believe that the Labour party, even at its worst, would he so inhumane as the Government have been in the past year.
Some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) touched me, because I have some similar cases in my constituency. Nevertheless, the economic motor has to be there before any benefits can be given out. However good our intentions, if we cannot raise the money, we cannot give it out, and this Government have been uniquely successful in raising money before they set about giving out benefits.
Coming from Cleveland, as I do, I wish to refer to the section in the Gracious Speech which announces:
A Bill will be introduced to improve and rationalise the law governing the care and protection of children.
In my view, such a measure is long overdue. Any reform of the law relating to children must start with a clear statement that children have a right to be cared for and brought up by their parents and that parents have the right and responsibility to look after their children. I believe that children should be looked after by one or other parent and removed only in the most exceptional circumstances.
In any Bill, I should therefore seek to ensure that those exceptional circumstances were set out in the most clear and unequivocal way. I suggest that they should include circumstances in which one or other parent has physically or sexually abused the child or in which a parent has failed to fulfil his obligations to feed, clothe, educate, or discipline a child and administer to his needs. They should also include circumstances in which a parent has been negligent towards the child's safety.
All that has already been set out definitively in the European convention on human rights, and in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child of 1959, principle 7 of which states:
the best interests of the child shall be the guiding principle of those responsible for his education and guidance; that responsibility lies in the first place with his parents.
Principle 9, which should also be incorporated in English law, states:
a child shall be protected against all forms of cruelty, neglect and exploitation by his parents.
There should be some kind of general statement at the beginning of the Bill that sets out the relative position of the child and his parents along the lines of those great declarations. Otherwise, the rights and responsibilities involved are not enforceable in English law.
I welcome the Bill published earlier today. It clarifies 32 pieces of legislation over the years which have led to immense confusion among lawyers and the public. The fact that conflicting jurisdictions have been exercised by different courts simultaneously has led to parents and children being torn several ways following a single incident of matrimonial discord.
Last summer something happened that generated great interest throughout the nation in the rights of children and parents. The thing started in June 1987—unfortunately, the month when I became Member of Parliament for Stockton, South. I am talking, of course, of the Cleveland child abuse crisis, as it was called at first. It then became a controversy and then, happily, the subject of an inquiry. Subsequently, the Cleveland child abuse report was published by Lord Justice Butler-Sloss.
When the inquiry was concluded, the matter was sent back to Cleveland county council, which set up a working party that reported in August 1988. The report contains several pages of recommendations. The Conservative party was represented on the working party. Conservative county councillors took part in all the sessions and considered carefully whether they should issue a minority report at the end of the process. They did not do so, because in the end they agreed with the recommendations. In particular, they agreed with the recommendations that appear on the blue pages.
Recommendation 22.5 relates to Mr. Michael Bishop, the director of social services. It states:
Whilst recognising the outstanding individual caring qualities of the county director of social services, we feel that our inquiries into the implications of the Butler-Sloss report have revealed what we consider to be major management deficiencies in the social services department, such as to warrant a recommendation to the county council that the social services committee consider the matter further for positive action.
Recommendation 22.6 referred to Mrs. Sue Richardson, the Cleveland child abuse co-ordinator:
We have carefully considered the part played by Mrs. Sue Richardson in the crisis last year and the criticisms of her made in the Butler-Sloss report. We are firmly of the opinion that she should not be employed in social work by the local authority and the social services committee are recommended to act on this recommendation.
Recommendation 22.7 of the report was in respect of the chief constable of Cleveland, Mr. Christopher Payne:
Whilst recognising that the chief constable had no strict constitutional duty to overcome these problems, we nevertheless regret that in practice he did not see fit to try and resolve the problems with appropriate haste, and we wish to draw these concerns to the attention of the police authority.
What happened following the issue of the working party report in August? Unfortunately, the county council backed down. It was on the brink of carrying out all the recommendations, but it failed on three counts. I have to ask whether that was due to political pressure in the background or the threat of a strike by the local authority unions. Whichever is the case, the social services committee failed to implement the recommendations.
We have to point the finger of blame at the Cleveland social services committee. It was responsible for the employment of all the individuals in the case, apart from the two doctors. It should have called in the officers earlier and asked them certain pertinent questions. It should have detected the sudden surge in place of safety orders and care applications being made by the county council social services department. On all those counts, it failed. It is now considering recommendations that it employ a deputy director of social services with specific duties relating to child care. Why did it not employ such a deputy before? Some hon. Members will say that it did not think of it, but when the Conservatives left control of the county council it was policy to have such a deputy specifically in charge of child care services. The Labour group chose not to adopt that policy.
I fear that one difficulty has been that Cleveland social services committee is chaired by an old and blind man who has attracted certain sympathy, even though he is plainly not up to his job, and his committee has failed to fulfil its obligations. Cleveland would have had that deputy and should have acted faster, and I am afraid that it is at the Labour party's door that I have to lay the blame for some of the things that happened.
What has been the response of the majority Labour group on the council? First, it called in Viewpoint Productions Ltd., public relations consultants, which issued a self-congratulatory piece in the local paper from the public relations officer who said how well managed the whole crisis was. Unfortunately, the crisis is not over. There are still steps to be taken and there are two legally aided cases against the doctors and the social services department which will come before the High Court in due course. I am a trustee of the Cleveland Families Trust, which has consulted a solicitor; we expect to issue proceedings in two more cases shortly to follow the case of B on which proceedings have already been issued. I warn the social services department that it will soon find itself facing further cases, probably those of C and A.
I am pleased that Cleveland will not now turn out to be the heart-breaking disaster that it was once envisaged to be. The Bill lifts our eyes from personalities to principles and shows the principles of child care law to be in a mess. The Bill recommends several changes, lays down general principles for the courts, reproduces the law in a much more manageable form and introduces the new emergency protection order of eight days only which is to be renewed only once. I note with satisfaction that this new EPO will be challengeable after three days.
The Bill envisages a statutory role for the police in investigating child abuse with a 72-hour care order. I note with satisfaction the new working guidelines to social services departments over the summer which state clearly that the police and social services should set up joint teams to investigate these matters. The Bill further specifically sets out provisions designed to cut delays and introduces the new ideas that any delay will be to the detriment of the child, unless proven otherwise.
In the Gracious Speech, Her Majesty said:
A Bill will be introduced to improve and rationalise the law governing the care and protection of children.
The Bill does that to a great extent, but it does not go far enough. Lord Justice Butler-Sloss called for an office of child protection to have the following responsibilities: first, the scrutiny of local authorities' applications for care orders to ensure that prima facie grounds are well founded; secondly, power to call for additional investigation or reports; thirdly, power to invite a local authority to reconsider the bringing of care proceedings; and, fourthly, the administration of guardian ad litem panels. The office should also be able to determine parties to proceedings.
Parents should be parties whenever their children are involved in any form of court proceeding. All those functions could be placed under the jurisdiction of a multi-layered family court. It is insufficient to remove the more obvious shortcomings of present arrangements. We need a fundamental change in court methods. The lack of that provision is the only major flaw in the Bill and the only area where the Government have failed to fulfil the promise of the Gracious Speech.
The format of family courts has been widely debated and most key features are agreed. Most of the proposals would lead to major savings in legal aid and other costs borne by taxpayers. I shall not bore the House by reading out the enormous list of names of organisations interested in family courts which have lent their support to the family courts campaign. The Secretary of State will know that the list is considerable, and it includes several widely respected organisations.
In 1980, New Zealand introduced such a system and the Finer committee reported on the desirability of such a system in this country in 1974–14 years ago. Perhaps that was ill-timed because there were two major reorganisations under way: one in local government and the other in the Health Service. Now that those organisations and the fabric of social provision have settled down perhaps the time has come to provide a much fairer family court system. The present system is inappropriately adversarial, and proceedings in one court can be spun out pending proceedings in another.
The Finer committee report laid down six criteria for such a court: that it should have the power of impartial adjudication; a unified structure; the best possible conciliation service; a professionally trained social work staff to assist it; a close working relationship with social services departments; and that it should gain confidence and provide convenience. I am at one with the Association of Directors of Social Services on that, although I may have fallen out with my local department.
We should have one court and it should have an integrated, unified jurisdiction over all matters of family stress, including guardianship and custody disputes, juvenile delinquents, maintenance, matrimonial property, domestic assaults, child neglect, cruelty, adoption and affiliation. It could do everything that Lord Justice Butler-Sloss called for, provided that a character like the reporter in Scottish child panels was involved at the bottom of the pyramid to test the strength of the social services' case at the outset. A family court would also have power to make people parties, which would mop up the criticisms sometimes made about interested people, such as grandparents, who are at present excluded from making applications to the court.
We should strengthen the court by making it a judges' court. Social services departments like dealing with magistrates. The Bristol study, which was undertaken some years ago, showed that no magistrate ever refused a place of safety order application and that some of these applications could be made for up to 28 days and then renewed for a further 28. That was criminal. When people have to deal with judges they are asked searching questions. Judges deal with all the arrangements, particularly access, which caused great anxiety to parents in Cleveland. Judges have great experience and real powers to back up their decisions and orders. They like to see again a case they deal with, and they try not to, and in most cases do not, allow cases to be lost in the system.
When I raised this matter in a memo to the Lord Chancellor this summer, I was told that there were still disagreements on form. I hope that they can be resolved before the Bill comes to the House so that we can add a family court system into what is already an excellent Bill.
The other power which family courts need is a medical power—not just an adjunct to an emergency protection order, such as is suggested in the Bill, but a simple investigative power—so that somebody could receive an order, without any implication of child abuse in the first instance, but merely on suspicion, to enable or force a child to be taken to a doctor for a medical examination. That was an additional power for social workers suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley), now the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, in her Ten-minute Bill which I was proud to support.
Perhaps we should consider the system of ex parte and inter partes applications to judges that we have for property. In the same way as we have a Mareva injunction, perhaps injunctions in the family court should proceed with social services departments having to give undertakings in damages should they prove to be wrong.
We should also urgently set up an inquiry into the national extent of child abuse. One problem that bedevilled the debate on Cleveland was the many people coming on the scene shouting different odds, such as one in three, one in 10 and 0·4 per cent. We heard the American figures of 1 million cases of all types of abuse seen annually, 58 per cent. of which involved neglect and 25 to 40 per cent. of which involved physical abuse. That margin of inexactitudes in relation to 1 million cases boggles the mind. But the figure for sexual abuse, at 2 per cent., was precise.
This Session we have the opportunity to change a good Bill into a great one that will safeguard our children for a century or more. We should recall the great Lord Shaftesbury and his interest in children in the last century, and not he daunted by the scale of our task. There are sad and sickening cases of child abuse. There are peculiar and sadistic adults. There are children whose childhood is a degrading and lamentable shame. Children are murdered with shocking regularity. We must do all that we can to improve the law to protect those children in the future. Unfortunately, the law has suffered from neglect. We must not fall short in our effort nor fail in our endeavour.
The county that I represent has thrown down a challenge. I hope that the Government will rise to meet that challenge.
I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin), but some of us have been in the Chamber all day trying to speak in the debate. At the beginning of the day Mr. Speaker appealed for brief speeches so that everyone would have an opportunity to speak. The hon. Gentleman has not been here for a long time, yet he took 22 minutes to make his speech. That is not fair.
I am sick of hearing Conservative Members spouting statistics about pensioners. During the speech of the Secretary of State for Social Security I asked whether, like me, he had crossed the doorsteps of many elderly and disabled people. As he did not respond, I take it that he has not done so. If an elderly or disabled person has a problem, I make it a priority to go to him. I do not expect him to come to me.
The Secretary of State for Employment used to be responsible for pensions when he was Secretary of State for Social Services. I doubt whether he has crossed many doorsteps, except at election time when looking for votes. I bet that he has not crossed doorsteps to examine the problems that people have at home, to discuss them privately, to get all the facts and to discover how those people are being robbed by the Government.
I know why the Secretary of State cannot cross many doorsteps. For many weeks my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) and I served on the Comittee that considered what is now the Employment Act 1988, but the Secretary of State did not attend very often. His reason was not the need to cross doorsteps in his constituency to visit people with problems. He was travelling the world, including Sweden and America. Instead of attending a Committee that was discussing the Bill, he was going all over the place.
I must praise the Under-Secretary of State for Employment, who worked hard on that Committee. He is not here now, but I hope that the Secretary of State will pass on my comments. At one sitting the hon. Gentleman had a terrible cold and should have been in bed, but because the Secretary of State was in Sweden he had to stay on the job. My hon. Friend will remember that the hon. Gentleman dried up completely and could not get another word out. Doing my duty as a Whip in the Committee, I gave him a glass of water so that he could continue his speech. Opposition Members can be very kind. All the wicked things are done by Conservative Members. I wish to refer to some of those wicked things as they relate to the Gracious Speech.
While I am talking about Her Majesty, may I mention something that attracted my attention when I attended the House of Lords to listen to the Gracious Speech. Her Majesty looked so regal and beautiful sitting on the Throne. I regularly have visitors down here from my consituency and take them on the two-hour trip through the House of Commons and the House of Lords, but they can never see the Throne because there is a filthy old cover on it. That Chair is beautiful, and I make a special request that that filthy cover be thrown away and replaced by a new cover—preferably a plastic one so that people can see through it, because that beautiful Chair is worth seeing.
When my constituents ask me what the Throne is like I cannot answer, because I see it only when Her Majesty is sitting on it, and she blocks my view. I hope that that message will be heard. The very nice gentleman who is sitting in the Serjeant-at-Arms's Chair has probably taken note of what I said, as have you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Clerk at the Table—
No, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I have got it in.
The Gracious Speech stated:
My Government will maintain a substantial aid programme, designed to alleviate poverty and to promote sustainable economic and social progress in developing countries.
I have underlined the words,
My Government will maintain a substantial aid programme designed to alleviate poverty
and left it at that. That lot on the Conservative Benches have created poverty, and there is a lot of it in my constituency. I get around my constituency and I see it with my own eyes. Some of the things that the Government are doing, particularly to the elderly and the disabled, make me want to weep.
I visited a disabled person on Sunday morning. I make all my visits on Sunday, because that is the only time that I have to make them. [Interruption.] I sometimes go to church too. I went to the remembrance service and I marched in the cold weather. I carry out my responsibilities, but nearly every Sunday, except when I am on holiday of course, I can make my visits.
Last Sunday I visited an elderly gentleman in his eighties in a wheelchair, who had a leg amputated a few years ago. His health has deteriorated and his wife can hardly do anything for him because of her age and the state of her health. That gentleman applied for an attendance allowance and he was rejected. It is disgusting the way that such matters are being looked at. Unless the Secretary of State for Social Security can prove that I am wrong—this is an accusation that I have made before—I still believe in my innner self that those medical visitors who go into people's homes are ready to reject any claim even before they cross the threshold. The real pressure is on, from the top of the Department all the way down, not to spend too much money. All the suffering goes on. I see it with my own eyes.
Her Majesty also said that her Government will take further action on crime. You have been here, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a lot longer than I have. I came here almost 10 years ago. Since the day when the Conservative Government came into power they have spent billions of pounds on the police force. They have increased its manpower. The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-East (Mr. Lightbown) is agreeing with me. He may not agree with me in a moment, but he will if he is honest.
The Government have substantially increased policemen's earnings. They have put billions of pounds into new modern equipment so that the police can do their job, yet the crime figures have rocketed. If those statistics were from here, they would lift the roof off. When asked to provide money for other purposes the Prime Minister says, "It is all taxpayers' money." Taxpayers' money was provided for the police, and it is still being provided, yet crime is still increasing. I am seizing this opportunity to make that point again, as Labour Members do regularly, because in the Gracious Speech Her Majesty referred to bringing down crime.
I want to deal with another point that annoys me a little. It is to do with women's rights. I remember women's rights—equality of the sexes—being put on the statute book in 1970 by my former right hon. Friend Mrs. Castle. I also remember some of the comments that were made by the Secretary of State for Employment about women's rights. He says many things, but one is that women can go and work in the pits. He does not know what he is talking about. I did 35 years in the pits. The right hon. Gentleman does not have a clue. I bet that he has never been down one. I know that the present occupant of the Serjeant at Arms' Chair knows all about the pits. I have taken him down one and he knows what it is really all about. I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, know what pit work is all about, because you have visited pits, in particular as part of your responsibilities during the previous Socialist Administration. But the right hon. Gentleman does not have a clue. He should visit a pit to see what it is like.
I want to make two points out of many that I could make about not having women in the pits. First, I worked on the coal face for 20 years and on many occasions rain poured on to us out of the strata, and we wore nothing but boots. How can anyone take a woman into such an environment? My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) introduced a ten-minute Bill about page three in The Sun. I understand her feelings and those of other female Members about that kind of thing, but to take a woman on the coal face when that kind of thing is happening is ridiculous.
I remember occasions when we were working in the pouring rain in our boots and the manager, the overman in charge of the district and the deputy, came down to tell us that some visitors were coming and ask us to cover up because the vicar's wife was in the group. The Secretary of State expects women to work in such conditions.
Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman something else that he does not know. In the House of Commons, or in his home—I do not know whether he lives in his constituency as I do—after he uses the toilet he can pull the chain and that is it, the toilet is flushed and everything is finished. No one can do that in a pit.
My hon. Friend is correct. I had a No. 10 shovel, not a No. 8, which is as big as a table top. The Secretary of State does not understand that. I agree that there should be equality between the sexes, but there are certain circumstances where that cannot happen. When the Secretary of State says that females should be allowed underground, he is talking not about the pit top but underground. I have never heard anything so stupid in all my life. When my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and I are in the Committee on the next Employment Bill, I hope that the Secretary of State will be there, because he will get a clobbering, particularly on that issue.
Unlike the right hon. Gentleman, I never take that hon. Lady's name in vain.
The sale of the electricity industry is also mentioned in the Gracious Speech. It is related to the industry that I came from, because 80 per cent. of its production is for the electricity industry. The Government's plans to privatise will have an effect on the mining industry. They have been telling the coal mining industry that it must break even and then go into profit. As a result, there have been further pit closures and fewer jobs. British Coal is now doing another review of pit closures, so we shall be in a right mess when the electricity industry is privatised.
A problem will be created. While the Government have been telling the industry that it must break even, the industry has been selling off the houses that it owns. In the Nottinghamshire area there are only 138 left. For two years we have been visiting Hobart house and British Coal's area offices to try to get a fair deal for the people in those properties, because a load of spivs and financial whiz kids will try to buy them. If we had not stepped in, British Coal would have sold them to those people by auction.
British Coal made a mistake, and because of the representations that we made it withdrew. Now, with 138 houses left, British Coal has gone out to tender, without any consultation or negotiation with the Nottinghamshire Members of Parliament, which is shocking. I hope that that will be taken up with British Coal. Last Monday morning, we had a meeting attended by local councillors, four Members of Parliament and people living in the properties. We had hoped to try to sort something out. British Coal was invited but came nowhere near the meeting. It was frightened to death. It knew what it would get if it attended. British Coal should come off that one.
I should like to refer to local government and democracy. This afternoon I was invited by Yorkshire Television to be interviewed on the matter. The Government—[Interruption.] I want the Secretary of State to listen without speaking to my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West. He will have the opportunity to do so from the Dispatch Box.
I want the Secretary of State to realise that many people in my constituency, and probably in his constituency, believe that the Government are destroying democracy, particularly in local government. I remember, before 1979, when the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) picked up the Mace and swung it round his head. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Brown), he did not have to pay for it, although he probably did not damage it. When the right hon. Gentleman was in opposition he said, "When we Tories get into power there will be less central control." But there is more control now than there was then; the Government have gone in the other direction and destroyed democracy in local government. They tell those in local government what to do. They have shackled them and put chains around them. They have fastened them down and told them that they can do only what the Government say they can do.
I served in local government for 16 years before I came to the House, in high places in the county council. Long before I became a member of any local authority, those people always had the right to determine the destiny of the district that they represented, with proper representation for the people in that community. We had problems at the time with council house rents. I remember the Housing Finance Bill of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). It was terrible. It told local authorities exactly what they had to do.
Here we go again, because the Government will tell local authorities that they cannot transfer money from the rates fund to the housing revenue account. That is total interference. It has always been a right of local authorities to do what they want on behalf of the people, as the people have the opportunity to kick out councillors if their actions are not satisfactory, in the same way as the present Government will be kicked out the next time there is a general election, because of all the bad things that are going on.
I make my final point. I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are looking at your watch, and I am looking at mine. It is now five minutes past 9 o'clock.
I see that, according to the clock, my watch is one minute fast.
I listened to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and although there are two more contributions to come, I believe that his must be the best speech of the day. I thoroughly enjoyed it and hung on to every word. He really put the case for the Opposition, as to our feelings about the Gracious Speech. I enjoyed every moment of my hon. Friend's contribution and had to tell him so immediately afterwards. I look forward to hearing more speeches of that kind from my hon. Friend.
It is a pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes), one I have not had before. The hon. Gentleman chided the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) for speaking for 22 minutes, but then went on to address the House for longer than that—although I did enjoy listening to him.
I was pulling the hon. Gentleman's leg. I have only a few minutes, and so I shall confine myself to making brief points.
The most tantilising sentence in the Gracious Speech is right at the end:
Other measures will be laid before you.
I suppose that all right hon. and hon. Members have candidates for "other measures". I would like to see among any miscellaneous legislation a measure to right a wrong perpetrated by this House over the registration of common land.
I cite a case in my constituency, which I am sure other right hon. and hon. Members can do. I refer to a house and a garden that was designated, wrongly and inaccurately, as common land, and there is no means of redress uncler current law. I hope that a simple Bill can be introduced with all-party agreement giving justice to all who are suffering in that way.
I should also like a measure to the introduced meeting the widespread problem of people moving around the country in convoys—hippies—and causing a lot of trouble to those on whose land they squat and park their vehicles. It is true that, under the Public Order Act 1986, it is possible for the police to take action with reasonable safeguards, if more than 12 vehicles are parked in such a way. That number is far too high. I could cite examples from my own constituency, where a number of hippies arid people following such a life style have camped on private land, causing its owners no end of trouble. The problem should be re-examined.
I draw attention also to the way in which social security payments are made to such people in contravention, I believe, of the clear rules concerning availability for work—the test that a person who receives social security payments must be available for and ready to take up employment. I do not understand how people who move around the country, perhaps following pop festivals during the summer, can meet that test. Again, I can cite examples of constituents who entered training schemes at their own expense having been denied benefit, or whose benefit was stopped because they failed the test of availability for work. However, hippies who go round the country from pop festival to pop festival are paid. What is more, and probably quite rightly, the Department has a team of officers who go around and pay them. I understand the reasons for that. It cuts down on fraud, but it is expensive. When pop festivals are held in my constituency during the summer, three officers travel to Penzance. Their expenses, on top of their salaries, amount to £362, simply to pay the hippies who participate in pop festivals. That is wrong.
I do not want to penalise those who follow that life style, but the rules that apply to everyone else—rules about the standard of vehicles, or the payment of benefit, or law and order and noise levels—should also apply to these people. I ask Her Majesty's Government to look at that point. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security is here. I hope he will look into that issue because it is causing widespread concern throught southern England.
The Secretary of State for Social Security began the debate by unwrapping a package of significant pew measures for elderly and disabled pensioners, which all hon. Members welcome. We realise that it was generated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer's briefing gaffe, but, whatever its genesis or provenance, we still welcome it. However, the Secretary of State ought to put his package into perspective. It is important that he is offering an additional £200 million to pensioners, but he should recognise that, because of the break of the link with earnings, this Government are robbing pensioners this year and every year of over £5,000 million.
It is important that some of the most needy pensioners will receive an additional £2 a week, but it is also important that the Secretary of State should recognise that, because of the state earnings-related pension scheme, the average pensioner today receives an additional £25 a week on top of the basic pension. The Secretary of State was so anxious to lambast the record of the last Labour Government that it is ironic that he failed to see, apparently, that the reason why pensioners are now considerably better off is solely because of the state earnings-related pension scheme and the minimum private pension guarantee that it involves. That was a Labour Government measure. The Secretary of State failed to acknowledge that his predecessor tried to abolish that measure. Furthermore, this Secretary of State intends to wind it down.
This Government are responsible only for the basic pension. Under a Labour Government, it increased during a five-year period by 20 per cent. During the last nine years, under a Tory Government, it has increased by only slightly over 2 per cent. The increase is welcome, but the Government's record must be put into perspective.
As is always the case, these debates are wide-ranging and it would be wrong if I were to take up too much time by referring to previous speeches. However, I wish to refer to some of the speeches that were made by my hon. Friends. My hon. Friends made important points which I hope will be taken on board.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) referred to the inadequate help that is given, even with the latest measures, to the disabled—in particular to help them back to work, which is what they want most of all. He drew attention to the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys' figures that are now accepted as showing that the number of disabled people is about twice as great as the Government previously recognised.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) made a telling speech pointing out the personal and individual effects of the benefit cuts—which we talk about so glibly in the House but which impact so harshly on individuals in particular—and quoted from a benefits survey in her constituency.
I also noted the strictures on training of my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. Crowther) and the recommendations of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) which I hope the Secretary of State will take on board. He suggested that allowances for employment training could be doubled for as little as £180 million. That would make a considerable difference to attitudes to the scheme. He also brought up the question of a jobs guarantee, which has also been mooted recently.
I shall not try to encompass all that was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). I should like, however, to take up a point that he made about the nurses' regradings, which was very much along the lines of my own thinking. The Government need to answer this question, but they have not yet done so: how can working to grade be considered industrial action? If working to grade disrupts activity on the ward, that simply demonstrates how wrong the grading originally was. If working to grade is industrial action according to section I of the Employment Act 1988, that surely demonstrates precisely how draconian the legislation is.
My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) dealt with social security issues, and I shall now deal with employment issues—and in particular with the employment Bill, portrayed in the Queen's Speech as a further step in the deregulation of the labour market. In my view, it is much more accurately seen as a concentration of power in the hands of the employer, and a further de-protection—if I may use an ugly word for an ugly process—of employment conditions for most, or at least many of the most vulnerable sections of the labour market. We must wait to see the details of the Bill, but it is already clear that employers will find it considerably easier to sack people, while workers will find it considerably harder to fight for what remains of their rights at work.
The Government claim that they wish to increase employment opportunities for women and young people, and they therefore propose to end restrictions on the type of work that women can undertake—particularly in such industries as pottery, lead manufacture and mining. There is no doubt that a handful of women will as a result gain jobs hitherto denied them. I am sure that we shall be treated to an endless series of pictures of coal-black women in pit helmets standing outside colliery gates, no doubt with British Coal shares in their hands. Nevertheless, we must ask what are the realities behind such photo opportunities. How can the Government seriously lay claim to extending equal opportunities for women when they have systematically chipped away at all the protections against exploitation that have been built up for them over the past century?
Perhaps I take a rather different view from my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) about allowing women to go down the mines. Allowing them to go down the mines is one thing, but the same Government rescinded the fair wages resolution that provided a minimum floor for women's pay, cut back the scope of the wages councils that protected women, exposed them to longer working hours in manufacturing and greatly extended the qualifying conditions for employment rights. All those measures hit women, particularly part-time workers, most of whom are women.
The Secretary of State said last Friday—I am sure that he is glad to know that we are avid readers of what he says—at the Cambridge university Conservative association, breathing the rhetoric of gender fairness:
The Government is fully committed to the principle of equal opportunities and the elimination of all forms of unfair discrimination.
What world is the Secretary of State living in? According to the recent European Commission report, "Child Care and Equality of Opportunity", Britain, after nearly a decade of 'Tory government, is the only EEC state that provides no full statutory maternity leave and no parental leave at all. Indeed, the Government have repeatedly blocked EEC directives to that end. For working mothers, Britain has publicly funded services for fewer than 2 per cent. of children under three and for fewer than 1 per cent. of children at primary school. What sort of assistance is that for mothers who want to go hack to work? Services are 20 times that level in Denmark.
The United Kingdom is the only EEC state in which employment protection has been reduced in respect of maternity. If the Secretary of State is really anxious about equal opportunities for women at work, it is bizarre that he should start and finish by sending women down the mines and into heavy industry.
The hon. Gentleman is getting a little confused. At one stage he said that he supported the idea and now he has come out against it. That is not an unfamiliar position for him to take, but may we have a clear statement on whether he is, in principle, in favour or not in favour?
I am certainly not against it, but it is absurd that the only thing that the Government can claim in respect of improving opportunities for women is the fact that they are enabling women to go down the mines and to work in heavy industry.
It seems eccentric, to say the least, that the Secretary of State should spend a great deal of time and money emphasising this point to employers who need to retain women workers—he said it again a few weeks ago—when the Government have removed the right to return to work after pregnancy for women who work in small companies and when they have chosen to tax workplace creches on the same basis as company cars, as if they were a perk. What sense does that make?
Another major feature of the proposed Bill is the removal of what the Government like to call unnecessary and outdated restrictions on the hours of work of young people. I submit that the truth is the opposite. Such restrictions are as vital today—probably more so—to protect young workers in today's laissez-faire economic climate as they were in the Victorian laissez-faire economic climate. Every further year of this Administration makes those restrictions more important.
Young people, by virtue of their inexperience and their under-representation in trade unions, are especially vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers, by whom they are regarded as an opportunity to acquire cheap labour for the most difficult and dangerous jobs. If any hon. Member has any doubt about that, I remind the House that the accident rate for young workers on the youth training scheme and in employment has more than doubled during the past four years to a level which well exceeds the adult accident rate in some of Britain's most dangerous industries such as shipbuilding. Against such a background, to reduce even further protective legislation for young workers is doctrinaire and irresponsible.
The Government's other justification for the measure is that young people's job opportunities are being curtailed by the present legislation. There was a time when the Government would provide evidence before they made allegations such as that, but, with a third election victory and a majority of 100, they do not bother any more. There is no evidence in the consultative document to support that and the Secretary of State has produced nothing to back it up.
The research referred to by the Low Pay Unit points to the opposite conclusion, which is that the removal of the wages councils in 1986, which protected people under the age of 21, has worsened the pay and conditions of young people. However, there is no evidence of any improvement in job opportunities for them. The only opportunities that will be opened for young workers by the removal of the protective legislation are greater opportunities for them to be exploited.
No employment Bill under this Government would be complete without some further assault on individual employment rights. The Secretary of State has not let us down on this occasion. The Bill is an invitation to employers to hire and fire at will. In one swoop, most of the remaining protections for workers, particularly in small firms, will be swept away. We are being taken back to the forelock-tugging era when keeping a job depended on the boss's whim. The Government's approach to an individual's employment rights has all the sensitivity of a salami slicer. When they first took office, the Government raised the qualifying period for unfair dismissal claims to one year. Then they raised it to two years for employees in firms with fewer than 20 staff. In 1985 they raised it to two years for all employees. They are now saying that no worker without at least two years' continuous employment with one employer can even ask for a statement of the reasons for dismissal.
The same process of erosion is now being applied to whether one can obtain a written statement from one's employer about grievance and disciplinary procedures. The answer, wrapped up in the convoluted qualifications of the Government's constantly changing regulations, is that if one works for a small firm—half Britain's work force now does so—one is not entitled to an explanation.
I do not know why the Government do not come clean and admit that they believe that employers should have the power to hire and fire whomever they like whenever they like, with hardly anything to stop them.
The same pattern of making it harder for a worker to obtain redress is now being applied to industrial tribunals, where the deterrents are almost punitive. It seems from the Queen's Speech that large deposits may have to be paid before a claim can proceed and that the chairman of the industrial tribunal alone can decide whether a deposit is necessary. That deposit is now to be £150, which is six times the previous level of £25. That previous level was rejected because it would not bite on applicants with a weak case. However, who now decides whether the case is weak? The answer is none other than the chairman, who is an appointee of the Secretary of State, who acts alone and without a trade union representative.
All that illustrates two principles which are becoming increasingly characteristic of the Government's approach. First, they are complicating the rules to make it as difficult as possible for people to obtain their basic rights. That applies to social security as much as to employment rights. They hope that claimants will become lost in a maze of complexity. The second principle is their use of administrative mechanisms to secure a politically loaded result.
It is not only the proposed Bill that shows up those two devices so clearly but, even more so, the code of practice on industrial action ballots which the Government promulgated two weeks ago. It is a highly complicated and lengthy draft of over 100 paragraphs. Unions will have to follow more than 20 stages set out in the code before industrial action can be endorsed. Failure to observe any of the stages could result in employers taking test cases to challenge the conduct of the ballot.
When the Government do not want rights to be exercised they expose people to a highly complicated obstacle course involving a legal minefield. They are trying to pile up insurmountable hurdles to block choice by artificial rules. The code suggests that industrial action should not be taken unless there is a substantial majority or a turnout in secret balloting of at least 70 per cent.
I was about to come to that point, and I suspect that many hon. Members were thinking of it.
The Government forced trade unions to hold secret ballots, but the trade unions have been winning far too high a proportion of them. The most telling fact in the recent ACAS annual report was that 90 per cent. of the industrial action ballots that unions have been forced to hold resulted in favour of the trade unions, which is why the Government want to move the goal posts.
That is exactly what they did regarding the closed shop ballot under the Trade Union Act 1984. Trade unions were obliged to meet what the Government thought were safely impossible thresholds of obtaining a yes vote—80 per cent. of those eligible to vote or 85 per cent. of those voting. Almost every vote surmounted that artificially high threshold. What did the Prime Minister do? In these matters, the Secretary of State is an agent or a sort of papal nuncio. The Prime Minister decided to cancel the vote and abolish the closed shop altogether. We might call it the David Owen of industrial ballots—"If you cannot win the game, pick up the ball and walk off the field."
If the Government want people to exercise their rights, they bend the rules shamelessly in the other direction. When the Prime Minister wants council tenants to agree to sell their council housing estates to private landlords, she counts those who abstain as being in favour. We thus had the infamous Torbay result a week ago in which three out of five tenants voted, but only about 15 per cent. were in favour of a sale. As the 42 per cent. who did not vote were counted as being in favour, a proposal that had the support of precisely one in seven was passed. There is a case to be made for this indiarubber democracy. It works in many ways and we will be looking for the Prime Minister's support at the next election when all those who abstain will be counted as being in favour of a change of Government.
There is a further item in the Gracious Speech to improve training arrangements. It must be correct because a Government that abolished the grant levy system for training of those in work, cut three quarters of the industrial training boards, axed one third of the skill centres and reduced the number of engineering apprenticeships to an all-time low can only improve.
The one thing that the Government will not do is the one thing that cries out to be done—improve the manifest failings and deficiencies of the employment training scheme. The Government still have taken no action. Given that the number of participants is being doubled while the budget is not being increased by a single penny, the scheme is still grossly underfunded, which means that the training provided must be of poor quality. Participants are still locked in benefit-level poverty. Because top-up is prevented, because it is a social security scheme, ET reduces incentives and introduces social security means testing into the world of training and employment.
Worst of all is the fact that the creeping compulsion surrounding the restart interviews is now reinforced by the switch in the social security Bill from the availability for work test for the unemployed to the criterion of actively seeking work. It is clear that the Government are making ET compulsory, not by formally designating the scheme but by forcing unemployed people on to ET projects, however unsuitable they are and however bad or inappropriate the training may be, on pain of being completely deprived of benefit.
It is not difficult to see why the Government are resorting to compulsion. ET is faring badly because it is a deeply flawed scheme. Two weeks ago, Newcastle city council, which is probably the biggest sole council managing agency, had 43 out of 8,100 places filled. In mid-November, Birmingham city council had 283 out of 3,000 places taken.
The failure of ET to get anywhere near its targets is not the least bit surprising, in view of the dubious activities of the training agencies. At Vernon Training Ltd., one of the agents, a YTS trainee who doubles as a handyman, was used to supervise ET trainees. At Cobalt UK Ltd., security guards are supplied on ET. No training is involved, but the work is for up to 60 hours a week. Sight and Sound, another training agent, sent a joiner to Capricorn Kitchens to work as a joiner—no training, because the person already had the skills needed; it was simply cheap labour. At Barnsley, we found a driver sent from restart to work on the scheme as a driver—again, simply cheap labour. YTS trainees at Merseyside youth training were left unsupervised for days at a time while supervisors were used as placement finders. At Chesterfield, a man sent to a building firm was told to buy his own tools. That is not exactly a high quality training scheme. Also, at Chesterfield, a man sent by Age Concern to work in an old people's home found that there were no facilities for training him. No attempt was made to train him in any aspect of dealing with the old.
The reference in the Gracious Speech to improving training arrangements is not about providing high quality training, which the unemployed desperately need. It is about providing cheap labour and getting people off the dole registers at any price. The new draft code on ballots is not about improving industrial relations but is about trying to hobble the unions with the maximum legal technicalities. Removing restrictions on employment for women and young people is not about extending work opportunities but is about reducing the resistance of those people to exploitation by some unscrupulous employers. Eroding individual employment rights is not about deregulation of the labour market but is about consolidating the power of the employer to hire and fire at will with minimum worker redress.
The two outstanding issues at work that cry out for attention—democracy in the workplace and stronger health and safety provisions—are not even given a mention. The proposed social security Bill is not a Bill to make the future safe for employees but is a Bill to make the workplace and work force safer for employers, and that is why we reject it.
The most extraordinary omission from the speech of the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) was that at no stage did he mention the progress made in reducing unemployment. That is a most revealing omission from a speech which rambled over a whole range of other areas.
First, I should congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Boscawen) on his speech. We were together in opposition and I remember his speeches on social security and pensions at that time. I look forward to more of the same in the coming months. I thank the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) for his kind words about my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and his conduct of the Employment Bill. My hon. Friend looks forward to doing the same again this Session.
Other impressive speeches came from my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin), for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) and for Norfolk, South-West (Mrs. Shephard). My hon. Friends the Members for Kensington (Mr. Fishburn), for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce) and for Kingswood (Mr. Haywood), as well as the hon. Members for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) and for Rotherham (Mr. Crowther), raised one of the major themes of this debate—employment and training. As my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Mr. Bright) said, there is no question but that the employment position in this country has substantially improved. Unemployment has come down and the number of new jobs created has increased substantially. In particular, the position of the long-term unemployed—people who have been out of work for more than a year—has improved.
The House will want to know about new figures that I have published today. These show that in the quarter to October long-term unemployment has fallen by about 60,000. Over the past 12 months, long-term unemployment has fallen by 280,000, and the total of long-term unemployed has been reduced to 886,000. That means that in the past two years long-term unemployment has fallen by nearly 450,000. Those figures contain substantial hope for the long-term unemployed. Long-term unemployment is now falling faster than unemployment generally. Young people have benefited in particular. The number of long-term unemployed people aged 18 to 24 is about half what it was in October 1986.
There are other encouraging signs. For instance, I can tell the hon. Member for Newham, North-East that the number of people unemployed for five years or more is also falling. The figures show that the long-term unemployed are sharing in the steady fall in unemployment. That is encouraging, but it is clear that there is potential for both long-term unemployment and unemployment generally to fall still further. One of the most significant features of the present situation is the continuing high level of vacancies in the economy. For example, there are 250,000 unfilled vacancies in jobcentres, but that figure is only part of the picture. Earlier this year, we commissioned independent research which confirmed that for every jobcentre vacancy there are another two in the economy generally. In other words, we estimate that there are now more than 700,000 unfilled vacancies throughout the country. The distribution of these vacancies obviously varies, but the general position remains that there is a high level of vacancies now available.
We have carried out a special survey in London. It shows that in London there are about 150,000 vacancies, although there are still 265,000 people registered as unemployed. Obviously some of those jobs require skills—require training—but the significant feature is that about 50,000 of the jobs are ready to go into without special training and generally the wages being offered are up to what the unemployed people expect.
The reasons for this improvement are clear. By a whole range of indicators, the British economy is doing dramatically better than it was 10 or 15 years ago. It is not just that we have had a period of sustained growth. It is also that productivity of our industry is up, the increase in unit labour costs in manufacturing has been much slower than for years past, and industrial relations have dramatically improved. We have tackled a number of the most important barriers to jobs—barriers that stood in the way of employment growth.
On the question of industrial relations, we have moved from a position where 13 million working days were lost each year during the 1970s to one where the number of strikes is lower that at any time since 1940. One of the major reasons for that improvement has been the four Acts of Parliament passed by this Government to reform industrial relations.
Of course, not all the improvement can be put down to the reform of the law alone, but equally, without those changes in the law, we would have made substantially less progress. This Government have, step by step, reformed the law on industrial relations, which the public wanted reformed but which the last Labour Government and the one before that were afraid to touch.
The issue of inflation has been raised during the debate. Only yesterday my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he would take all the measures necessary to reduce inflation. We must put the matter in context. Even the current inflation figure of just over 6 per cent. would have been regarded as an overwhelming success by the last Labour Government. If they had achieved that during their term of office, they would have set it first among their achievements.
In fact, what happened? Between 1974 and 1979, inflation averaged more than 15 per cent. For 13 months in 1975 and 1976, inflation never fell below 20 per cent. At its peak, Labour's inflation rate reached the banana republic level of almost 27 per cent. That was the record of the Government of which the hon. Member for Oldham, West was a member and which the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) so loyally supported. It is one further reason why we are not prepared to take lectures on social justice from the Labour party.
There was no social justice in old people being brought to their knees by the financial incompetence of the last Labour Government. There was no social justice in a Government who were the prisoners of the worst prejudices of the most outdated trade unions in the Western world. There was no social justice in the inflation that Labour inflicted on this country. There was no social justice in the Government of the hon. Member for Oldham, West, who cancelled the Christmas bonus twice and fiddled the uprating system and saved more than £1 billion at the expense of social security recipients throughout the country.
I have given the House the average over that period because I thought that was the sensible thing to do.
This Government have understood a connection that the Labour Government never recognised—that the basis of any social policy worthy of that name must be a sound economic policy. This Government have pursued economic policies that have produced steady growth and a balanced budget, which have made possible substantial increases in spending on social programmes such as health and social security. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security could make his important announcement this afternoon. The package of measures that he announced—[Interruption.] It is interesting that Opposition Members shout and laugh, but the package of measures that my right hon. Friend announced will bring additional help to more than 2·5 million of our least well-off pensioners. The Government are proud to be doing that.
We shall direct almost £200 million to those who genuinely need help. The new measures will tackle something that most people want tackled. They will help those who most need help. It must be right to give help to those who do not have the benefit of an occupational pension or the state earnings-related pension. They have been cruelly affected by the disastrous inflationary policies of the last Labour Government. They had to live through that.
The hon. Member for Oldham, West talked about the state earnings-related pension scheme and missed out entirely the improvements made by occupational pension schemes. He does not recognise that there has been a massive increase in occupational pension cover—literally in the past few months. Some 500,000 personal pensions have been sold, and money purchase schemes have also expanded greatly. That will bring substantial benefit to pensioners of the future.
I shall now deal with the points made by the hon. Member for Livingston. I realise that he is unable to be in the Chamber now. We have reaffirmed our manifesto commitment to child benefit. It will continue in the same form and structure as now and it will be paid directly to the mother. We have always made that clear. I remind the hon. Member for Oldham, West, before he challenges me about uprating, that in 1975, when he was in the Department of Health and Social Security, his Secretary of State, Mrs. Barbara Castle, made it clear that she was opposed to the automatic indexation of child benefit. The hon. Gentleman knows that that was her position and the position of a range of Labour Ministers—doubtless including the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Member for Livingston asked about the youth training scheme. There are now 120,000 youth training scheme places available in Britain, of which 13,000 are available in Scotland. However, I am prepared to consider the individual case that the hon. Gentleman raised. I must make it clear that 16 to 18-year-olds have been given a choice. They can remain in education or take a job and they have the guarantee of the youth training scheme. At present, 120,000 YTS places are available throughout the country.
The hon. Member for Livingston then referred to the new Employment Bill. I must make it clear that we shall continue to pursue policies to remove barriers to the operation of the labour market and to the creation of jobs. As was announced in the Gracious Speech, I shall introduce a Bill shortly to amend the law on employment. One of the prime purposes of the Bill will be to remove outdated statutory restrictions on women's employment and to amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 to override potentially discriminatory requirements in earlier legislation.
I emphasise again that the Government are firmly committed to the promotion of equal opportunities. Without the contribution of women, now and in the future, many industries and services would clearly be in serious difficulty. There is a higher proportion of women active in the labour force in this country than in any other country in the European Community except Denmark. Women have filled a high proportion of the new jobs created over the past five years. Many have taken advantage of the more flexible working pattern.
The hon. Member for Ashfield expressed concern about women working in mines. At present, the law operates quite irrationally and inconsistently to prevent women from taking certain jobs. For example, women who are surveyors, engineers or geologists cannot work in the mining industry if they have to go below ground regularly or for significant periods. That is the background. Those jobs are simply closed to women at present. There is no health or safety reason for that, and it contradicts the principle of equal opportunities. There is no question of forcing anyone to work underground. That is a matter of individual choice. Under existing law, that choice is simply not available to women. It is not a matter for cheap jokes. It is simply an anti-discriminatory measure. When the hon. Member for Ashfield has had the opportunity of considering the proposals, I feel sure that he will support them.
The Bill will also remove many existing restrictions on young people's employment, particularly their hours of work. At present the employment of young people is governed by a mass of complex legislation, involving seven main statutes and a large number of statutory instruments, mostly dating back to the 19th century. The legislation is inconsistent because it applies only to factories, mines, quarries and shops, not to other sectors of employment.
To achieve our social justice involves not just spending money or getting the best value for that money, but recognising the different challenges and doing something about them. Every opinion poll tells us that the challenge that the British public regard as most serious is that of unemployment. It was for that reason that the Government introduced the proposals for the employment training programme for longer-term unemployed people who, by any definition, are a group who need and deserve help.
Our objective is to train unemployed people so that they have the skills often necessary to fill jobs. What was the reaction of the TUC and the Labour party? Both voted to boycott it. I am glad that the TUC may be having second thoughts, but what about the Labour party? Faced with the challenge of unemployment and the opportunity of doing something about it, the Labour party voted to hinder, not help, employment training. With the exception of the Leader of the Opposition at Bournemouth, scarcely a Labour Front-Bench spokesman has been prepared even to support in principle a programme for training the long-term unemployed. We are not prepared to take lectures from the Labour party on the social challenges facing us. The hon. Member for Oldham, West has shown a complete failure of leadership. He did not say yes or no, but tried to catch the way the tide was flowing. We would have had much more respect for him had he made his position clear and supported trade union leaders who were trying to light for co-operation with employment training.
The Labour party has turned its back on the unemployed and the long-term unemployed. That is not the only issue. When the prospect of new jobs in Dundee came up, the Labour Front Bench retreated into collective silence. They knew that what the Transport and General Workers Union was doing was wrong and that jobs would be lost in Dundee, but they feared to offend a trade union leader who wielded over 1 million block votes. No one can possibly benefit from that policy.
Far from the scheme and programme getting off to a bad start, almost 90,000 are already in training under the programme. That is in the first 10 weeks and despite the opposition of the Labour party and the TUC. We now have about 170 training agents and 1,100 training managers who decided to take part in employment training. The six organisations which have withdrawn from it are all Labour-controlled local authorities, and they must be set aside from the 50 local authorities which are continuing to operate as training managers and the 170 local authorities which continue to operate as training agents.
During the election campaign, we were attacked on the basis that once the election was over unemployment would increase; but since the election, unemployment has decreased by 700,000. Since the election, long-term unemployment has decreased by 300,000. Since the election, the rate of unemployment has fallen faster in Britain than in any other major industrialised country. Since the election, unemployment has decreased not just in London and the south-east, but throughout the country. Under this Government, as many new jobs have been created during the past five years as in the other European Community countries combined. That is the true story of the fall of unemployment, and that is the record of this Conservative Government.