This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. I also called on Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and presented her with a gift from the Cabinet to mark her 90th year. In addition to my duties in the House, I will be having further meetings later today. This evening I hope to have an audience of Her Majesty the Queen.
Would the Prime Minister say why, when he came to the House last week to announce the waiver of the exceptionally severe weather payment seven-day condition, he gave no inkling that it was to last 24 hours and that within four days, his Minister for Social Security and Disabled People would announce that things were to go back to where they are now. The "now you see it, now you don't" approach cannot be the way to look after those who are so heavily dependent upon that payment.
If there is doubt about that point, let me seek to remove it beyond peradventure at the moment. As I said last week, given the exceptionally severe weather, we wanted to ensure that vulnerable groups would take appropriate steps to keep warm so we waived the seven-day qualifying period. Given the continuation of severe weather since then, we shall once again be waiving the seven-day period. Of course, we shall continue to monitor the situation carefully and if the cold weather continues we shall take similar measures.
While my right hon. Friend was enjoying his much publicised breakfast at the weekend, the people of Lithuania were voting in a referendum. Does he agree that the desire for independence by the Lithuanians, as expressed in the result of that referendum, should be heeded by the Soviet Union?
I sympathise very much with my hon. Friend's point. I would like to see the Soviet authorities negotiate with the elected representatives of the Baltic authorities about their aspirations. That is a point I hope to be able to put to President Gorbachev when I meet him next month.
I think that everyone shares the concern about bankruptcies and unemployment. We also share the considerable degree of pleasure at the growth that there has been in recent years, at the growth in the number of businesses—which, even last year, was running at more than 1,000 a week—and at the prospects that will continue to exist for this country as we increasingly drive inflation downwards.
Does the Prime Minister understand that he has taken many of those new businesses—and longer-established businesses—straight into slump with his policies? Why will he not now cut interest rates, use a more sensible system of managing demand and try to stop the slump now, before the damage gets even worse and goes on for even longer?
The right hon. Gentleman should know that the generalised slogans that he uses simply will not do. Let me quote to him what even The Guardian said of the alternatives:
As for the Opposition parties, their call for interest rate cuts with no accompanying recognition of the economic realities is politically opportunistic and economically naive.
I agree with The Guardian.
May I put it to the Prime Minister that, this very week, factory gate prices are up, unemployment will be up and bankruptcies are up? Is that what he intends to continue to do? If so, I put it to him that his policies are hurting just about everyone and working for just about no one.
I think that the right hon. Gentleman will find that our policies are working. I believe that that will become increasingly apparent. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the rise in output prices. I must say that I think that that is a suspect figure. In any event, the January figure may well reflect the delayed and continued impact of the autumn increase in oil prices. Throughout this year, the right hon. Gentleman will see a continuing fall in the rise of inflation.
Although at this moment it may seem bizarre to imagine that there could be advantages in transferring from road to rail, will my right hon. Friend confirm that, in better times, when the Department of Transport appraises capital projects it allows for both freight and passenger savings on roads?
In so far as I could hear the first part of my hon. Friend's question, I believe that I agree with him. British Rail has a substantial investment level at present; indeed, it is the highest level for 30 years. As the former chairman said not long ago:
the investment programme is about the maximum rate we can physically manage.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, on a number of occasions I have expressed my concern and outlined the action that we are taking to deal with the position of young people who are sleeping rough. My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning set out some policies some time ago and explained that a considerable amount of resources would be devoted to implementing them. One of the problems that is recognised and acknowledged by the voluntary groups—if not, perhaps, by every hon. Member—is that some of those who sleep rough have every option to go into shelters but frequently do not exercise it.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of press reports which speculate that the public sector borrowing requirement for 1991–92 will be £9 billion? Does he agree that during the forthcoming 12 months it is important that the Government apply the same discipline to themselves as companies in the private sector are having to apply, and that Government spending should take into account prevailing economic conditions, not pretend that they do not exist?
Does the Prime Minister recall one of his early votes in the House of Commons on 20 December 1979, when he voted to break the link between pensions and earnings? Does he realise that as a result of that, pensioners have not enjoyed increases in their standard of living through general improvements and that they are now worse off by £22 a week for a married couple and £13 a week for a single pensioner? Does he realise that if those links had not been broken, people would have had sufficient money to pay for fuel, make sure that they had enough to eat and put on warm clothing and so combat the cold weather? Does not the Prime Minister realise that against that background, the announcement that he has made today of the extra £1 heating allowance is extremely miserly?
The hon. Gentleman is being very selective in the figures that he quotes. If he cares to examine the degree of net disposable income among all sectors of the community, including the elderly, he will find that it has risen substantially throughout the past decade.
Given that our nation likes a modest flutter as much as it likes a traditional Happy Eater breakfast, does my right hon. Friend care to give some encouragement today to those of us who favour the concept of a national lottery designed to provide additional resources for sports, the arts and museums?