The Economy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:39 pm on 23rd November 1994.

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Photo of Bill Etherington Bill Etherington , Sunderland North 7:39 pm, 23rd November 1994

I am pleased to be called in the debate. I was unlucky in the debate on Monday, which was my first choice. I was offered only five minutes, so I thought that it might be better to try again and I am grateful that I have been successful.

I start by mentioning the several measures that I welcome. I welcome the proposal to set up an independent criminal cases review authority. That is long overdue. It has been obvious for many years that there is a gap in the criminal justice system, which as a result has failed to address the problems of fairly obvious miscarriages of justice such as the cases of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, among others.

That measure is timely, coming as it does when we are threatened with the implications of reduced legal aid, which is a potential minefield for further injustice if people decide that they cannot afford legal advice and try to do things themselves.

I am pleased that, as befits a body of this nature, the review authority will be free of the courts and the Government. I look forward with interest to the debate on this measure when it comes before the House, and I hope that it will also be free of any influence from the police. I do not say that as an anti-police or a pro-police speaker, but one must recognise that many of the famous cases of injustice in recent years have involved the police either failing to disclose evidence to the defence or, on occasion, tampering with evidence.

There has been maladministration within the police force, and it is incumbent on the Government to ensure that the review authority has its own investigative body which is independent of the police. If they cannot go that far, they should at least say that when there is any question of police probity in a case of an alleged miscarriage of justice, some independent system will be introduced.

I am also pleased to see that powers are to be introduced to curb dangerous mental patients. That issue has caused great public concern at a time when society is grappling with the Government's policy on care in the community which has replaced institutions and, on occasion, hospital places. The problem of dangerous mental patients has been exacerbated by the failures of the care in the community programme.

I sincerely hope that there will be some improvements. Care in the community is an excellent concept, but if it is not properly administrated—to date it has not been—or properly resourced, I fear that it will become debased and that the public will lose confidence in the concept, which would be a tragedy.

There is a proposal to abolish the regional health authorities. I do not feel strongly one way or the other on that, because I have had little to do with them. However, if the Government intend to abolish local health authorities and, in particular, the Sunderland health authority, I will welcome that with open arms.

I also welcome the monitoring of national health service trusts. That is not being done effectively at the moment through the purchaser-provider system. I give an example of something that has caused me great concern, which I am pleased to bring to the attention of the House.

Recently, a number of people in my constituency were collecting signatures on petitions against the Sunderland health authority's proposal to get rid of 400 hospital beds. During their endeavours, I saw four people who worked for the two hospital trusts, Priority Healthcare Wearside NHS Trust and City Hospitals Sunderland NHS Trust—the names are nearly always a mouthful; more words than deeds, in many respects—saying that they would like to sign the petition but they did not dare do so because there , could be repercussions and recriminations with their employers. That is scandalous.

Those people are not just employees of the hospital trusts; they are also citizens living in the area who are affected by whatever happens within the health service in their region, and in a democracy, they should be free to air their views. In the health service reforms, we are seeing the systematic gagging of employees. I hope that the more liberal-minded Conservative Members will support any argument against such activity. That is long overdue.

When I raised the matter with the chairmen of the Sunderland health authority and the Sunderland health commission, they both agreed that that should not happen, that it was immoral. I then asked what they intended to do about it, but they both said that it was nothing to do with them; it was a matter for the hospital trusts.

I may have a simplistic view of a market, but I always thought that, in a market, the buyer could control the seller. I should have thought that, if a buyer told a seller that he did not like what he was doing, and that if matters were not put right he would cease purchasing from him, he could carry out that threat. Therefore, I was not too convinced by what those two gentlemen had to say.

The fault within the NHS at the moment is the lack of democratic accountability. I hope that the Government's proposals will do something about that. It may be that the organisation would be better off run by civil servants rather than Government-appointed quangos. We may find in the long run that that is more democratic—something that I hope Conservative Members will consider.

I welcome the legislation for the Channel tunnel rail link. Like many hon. Members, I recently travelled from London to Paris on the new train. It was a wonderful experience but, paradoxically, from Waterloo to the Channel tunnel I felt as if were on a suburban branch line, but once the train hit the tunnel and from there on to Paris, one is talking about modern latter-day travel.

I recall three years ago when I was in France that the link between Paris and Calais was under construction. The French have done wonders to complete it so quickly, and it is disappointing to find that there was not the same enthusiasm and support from the Government for the line on this side.

One reason I look forward to that legislation is that, if we have a decent link between the capital and the Channel tunnel, we will also have better links between the regions, the capital and the tunnel. I should like more freight to go by rail—the potential is there. That would coincide with the views of the recent Royal Commission report on pollution and transport, which was not particularly in favour of road transport.

It is interesting that a country similar to ours—at least, it was before unification, but it has changed somewhat now—the former West Germany, sends 35 per cent. of its freight by rail, whereas we send 7 per cent-one fifth of what Germany sends by rail. If we tried to match the figures in Germany, we would have a much better life, a better environment and a little more relaxation for our citizens.

I was interested to read about the agricultural tenancies legislation, at present in embryo. It is interesting, but a word of warning. If the Government want it to be worth while, they may have to forget their paranoia about deregulation. Landlords always have more power than the tenant. That applies throughout Britain. It always has, and it has been exacerbated since 1979 by the Government's legislation.

Landlords will ensure that there is only enough land for tenancies to allow them to get a good price. There could be certain problems with that. If anyone doubts that, they should consider office tenancies. We are led to believe that there is plenty of office accommodation, but anyone who tries to negotiate an unjust lease with a landlord may be told to stuff it. I hope that that is not unparliamentary language. Other landlords will have exactly the same type of contract.

It is clear that a cartel is being operated. Rent offic:ers point to clauses that allow rent increases but not to clauses that permit decreases. The market seems not to work in that respect. I hope that that will not be the result of the proposed agricultural tenancy Bill.

I welcome the Bill that will establish environment agencies, not least because I represent part of an area in which there has been great concern about the possibility of polluted drinking water because of the presence of mine water. It would be a good thing to bring all the relevant organisations under one umbrella.

The Bill is to be welcomed also because a recent report suggested that the United Kingdom does not come out too well when it comes to environmental conditions and protection of the environment. Our performance does not compare well with that of some of our European colleagues or competitors within the European Union.

Organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth do not have a political agenda in the sense of politics as we understand the term in this place. They say that, unless the Government tackle industry in an appropriate manner, their efforts to protect the environment will be meaningless. There is a widespread view that sometimes there is laxity when it comes to tackling industry, which is still the greatest polluter in the United Kingdom.

Domestic violence has always been a problem. To introduce worthwhile legislation would require—I do not say this flippantly—the wisdom of Solomon. Nevertheless, I am glad that the Government recognise that there is a problem. We cannot begin to solve a problem unless we recognise that one exists.

I am unhappy about the proposed Bill that will bear on evidence in civil courts. It is proposed, it seems, to allow hearsay evidence. Earlier in the century, Lord Justice Birkenhead said succinctly that, in civil cases, the burden of proof was not beyond reasonable doubt, as it was in criminal cases, but somewhat lighter, in as much as it was based on the balance of probability.

Surely hearsay evidence is the last thing that is wanted when the test is the balance of probability. I hope that the Government will think extremely carefully about that before they introduce their Bill. The admittance of hearsay evidence would have many ramifications and could lead to abuses as great as those that have flowed from the Child Support Agency. It could be unpopular with everyone, while benefiting no one.

We are told in the Gracious Speech that the Government intend to introduce a Bill to tackle discrimination against disabled people. It is interesting that the Government said that the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), would cost £17 billion. Not everyone agreed with that assessment, but that was the Government's view. The Government say that the cost of their Bill will be £17 million. They claim that it will cost only one tenth of 1 per cent. of the expenditure that my hon. Friend's Bill would have entailed. I do not accept that we can have an equivalent Bill that is reasonable and acceptable at a thousandth of the cost. The proposal is scandalous.

The way in which the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood was dealt with was a disgrace. It was a blight on the House, and an even greater blight on the Government. A Minister had to admit that he had been somewhat economical with the truth. A Conservative Member was rebuked by Madam Speaker for misleading the House. I hope that those involved will never forget that scandalous state of affairs.

One of the worst proposals in the Gracious Speech—it has not attracted much publicity, but it seems that there has been a softening-up operation for about 18 months to two years—is the equalisation of the state pension age. The position of women will be worsened, while men will have the same retirement age. That, of course, is equality. The dictionary is specific when it comes to describing the concept.

I would have liked to see—I think that my view is reflected by many milllions of our people—a common retirement age of 60 years. I think that people would have been prepared to pay for that. That common age of retirement would be popular. It might help people to live longer lives. It would create job opportunities for the young unemployed, who often have families to support. If a long-term view had been taken instead of the short-sighted expediency for which the Government are noted it might have been found economically beneficial to have that common retirement age in terms of public expenditure.

The Government could, at no real cost, have equalised retirement age at 62.5 years. Surely that is not asking too much. That equalisation would have benefited one section of the population while disbenefiting another, but there would have been a tangible result. The present proposals constitute a retrograde step. They amount to deprivation in the name of equality. The object is to save money. There is no concept of justice, equality or even decency.

There is to be a moral breach of contract between the Government and their citizens. I understand that women of about 45 years of age will be worse off. They have been paying national insurance contributions since they became employed. They will get a raw deal. If the same conditions were being offered by a private company, I am sure that they would not be acceptable to the Government or to the population generally.

The activities of the private pensions industry are scandalous, and will cost the taxpayer billions of pounds. A tremendous amount of public money has already been used to subsidise the industry and to try to get people to opt out of state earnings-related pension schemes, and in some instances occuptional pension schemes. If the Government are so concerned about the national insurance fund and future liabilities, and if they want to give people additional pensions, why do they not bring forward legislation to make occupational pensions compulsory upon employers?

I challenge Conservative Members to rise—I am willing to let them intervene—to state that they have opted out of the parliamentary scheme to go into a private pension scheme. I wait with interest. It seems that none of them has done so. That says it all.

Some people have reached retirement age and have then decided to go abroad to join their sons, daughters or other relations. They may have paid their various contributions for 40, 45 or 50 years. They find that, when they go to live abroad, their pensions are frozen at the level that applied when they reached retirement age. That is scandalous. Any private company who tried to renege on a pension arrangement in that way would rightly be condemned, and would soon be out of business. It seems that the relationship between our citizens and the Government does not matter. There should be trust, but there is not. Instead, there is exploitation.

The retired people to whom I am referring do not live in the United Kingdom and do not have the benefits or disbenefits that flow from that, although they have the disbenefit of frozen pensions. At the same time, they are still allowed to vote in our elections. Even some Conservative Members may perceive that there is a paradox. I hope that they will speak to their Front-Bench colleagues or the Government Whips to ascertain whether something can be done to bring the scandal of frozen pensions to an end. It is a terrible injustice and an indictment of our country.

There is no mention of housing in the Gracious Speech, but in the various different debates many hon. Members have mentioned the problem of social housing in this country. We do not have much trouble with people who are fortunate enough to buy their own homes, although it has to be said that the stock of private housing is deteriorating in quality and there will be a problem in the not too distant future.

It would be wrong to say that we have a housing crisis, although there are increasing numbers of homeless people and homes considered unfit for habitation. I recently happened to read an interesting article by Patrick Minford—I know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer knows him, because Professor Minford is one of his advisers. That article revealed two important facts, the first of which is that, since 1988, private sector rented housing has increased by 11 per cent.

As the Government's deregulation of rents has meant that, in general, private rented housing is about twice as expensive as equivalent council housing, with housing associations somewhere in between, one would have expected the increase in private sector rented housing to lead to more subsidy being paid for housing. We know that, as the private sector is getting more, the public sector is getting less. That must be so, because, according to Professor Minford, since 1979 subsidies for tenanted housing have fallen by 9 per cent. What an indictment.

I hope that, at some time in the future, when introducing a housing Bill, the Government will not try to tell us that they cannot afford to pay housing benefit. They brought the change about. They decided to transfer subsidy from the dwelling to the tenant, and now we are seeing the results, with high private rents having a , debilitating effect on the resources available—and heaven knows, those are few enough.

Every Queen's Speech that the Government have produced has shown that they are good at going back to policies with a proven record of utter failure. Bus deregulation is one example, and another is the obsession with trying to transfer tenancies into the private sector. The only time that we have had a good house building programme it was within the public sector, and we shall not get back to that position until the Government change their views.

Anyone who reads any history on the subject will find that, before the big house-building programmes of the 1920s and 1930s, which were carried on until 10 or 15 years ago, the private landlord was detested, because he provided substandard housing at outrageous prices. That is why we went in for public sector housing. That was a success, so, as one might expect, the Government decided to abandon it.

I tell the Minister that, unless something is done about the accommodation problem, the Government are sitting on a social time bomb. Less and less housing is being built and things are getting worse, yet the Government are not interested enough to suggest anything in the Gracious Speech to help alleviate the problem.

Finally, perhaps the worst, most spiteful and mean-spirited legislation that the Government propose is the persecution of the unemployed that is being introduced under the euphemism of the job seeker's allowance. I should be interested to know what the connotations of that term are. If we require people to be classed as "job seekers", there should be some jobs for them to seek. That does not seem unreasonable, and I do not think that anyone would disagree. People are being trained, often not very well, for jobs that do not exist.

That is not quite the worst thing. The meanest and most despicable aspect is the fact that, although Government economic policies have created unemployment, the Government now seek to shift the blame on to the people whom they have made unemployed. That is totally immoral, and I have no doubt that, as time goes by, people will become increasingly aware of it.

All that is happening at a time when employees' national insurance contributions have never been higher. Already, employees have to subsidise their own common law damages claims against employers, and then have to refund to the national insurance fund anything they have had in benefits—benefits for which they have already paid in their contributions. That is an absolute scandal, chicanery of the worst sort.

Now we find that unemployment payments have virtually been cut by 50 per cent. overnight, from 12 months' entitlement to six months. What a deplorable breach of faith. It should not be allowed in any so-called civilised society. However, I was pleased to notice that that cut will not be made until 1996, and by my reckoning we may be rid of this deplorable Government by then.

I am pleased that there is to be no denationalisation of the Post Office, but I warn my hon. Friends and any Conservative Members who may share my views about that to beware. People such as the President of the Board of Trade are never wrong; they always think that it is other people's fault when they cannot get their own way. Make no mistake about it; the Government will come back to the Post Office in some form or another.

We must be vigilant and wary. The idea has not gone away; we have simply had a stay of execution, as we did with the coal industry. About the coal industry too, apparently, the President of the Board of Trade was right and everybody else was wrong.

I had some sympathy with the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) when he explained to the House on Monday how he had been ill used by the press and the other media. I share his concerns, although I am talking not about the facts of the case but about the way in which they were presented. However, I should have more sympathy for the hon. Gentleman and other Conservative Members who feel that they have been treated in the same way if they would press the Government at least to make a start and introduce a statutory right of reply. That does not seem unreasonable.

Individuals with no resources who have been attacked unfairly, unjustly, incorrectly and "unfactually" by the media should have a right of reply. So if the Government want to do something about the media, that is an idea for them to consider. It would also be better if we had an independent statutory press or media complaints council, if not both. Self-regulation seems to be all right for the City and for the media, but it is not considered satisfactory for the trade unions or for local authorities. Surely people must realise that that is inconsistent and deceitful.

The Government have had a rough ride from the media over the past two years, but I should have a little more sympathy for them if they had shown any sympathy when others were similarly attacked. We hear Conservative Members saying that it is deplorable how the royal family, the Prime Minister and certain other people are attacked by the media, but they did not say that it was deplorable when Arthur Scargill was being attacked by the Daily Mirror and the "The Cook Report". That was all right, apparently, but it is not all right now. There should be more consistency and more honour in dealing with such matters. I sometimes think that the Government are frightened to attack the media, whether because of the money involved or for some other reason.

The hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) has left the Chamber now, but I must refer to what he said about the demise of the coal mining industry. That affected me directly, because the last colliery in County Durham was in Wearmouth, in my constituency, but it has recently been closed, to everyone's regret.

It is totally unjustified to blame Arthur Scargill or the National Union of Mineworkers for the demise of the coal industry. There is no proof, and if that is some people's opinion, it is not borne out by the known facts. The people to blame are Lord Wakeham and Lord Parkinson, with their deregulation of the electricity supply and distribution industry, and the President of the Board of Trade for refusing to take cognisance of the most important parts of the Select Committee's report on the subject. They are the people to blame. The Conservative Government closed collieries, not the NUM or Arthur Scargill. I speak as a Member who is sponsored by the NUM, and I often wonder who sponsors the people who condemn the NUM—I will find out.

I was a little disappointed by the Chancellor's response to my intervention earlier this afternoon. I asked why, if the economy was doing as well as we were being led to believe, he needed to punish the less well-off and the , vulnerable in society by the increase in VAT on fuel.

I appreciate that I am not allowed to say that the Chancellor is a liar in the House, but he told me something which I have never heard from any economic source whatsoever. He stated that the poorest in our society were being more than adequately compensated for the increase in VAT. That is what he said, and it will be in Hansard tomorrow. There is not an economist in this country that I have read who comes to the same conclusion. Apparently, it is only the Chancellor who has the information. He should pass it on to all of the learned bodies. I did appreciate the right hon. and learned Gentleman giving way, but I am afraid that his answer was totally unsatisfactory.