|Previous Section||Home Page|
Mr. Cook : 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.
Column 259Three 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.
Mr. Heffer : 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 came up behind me, passed me in serried ranks and then opened up and charged those young students.
Column 260I 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.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : 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.
Mr. Speaker : 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.
Mr. Dobson : 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 responsibility 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
Column 261to 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.
Mr. Speaker : 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.
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I reinforce what was said by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer)? 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.
Mr. Speaker : 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.
Mr. Robert Boscawen (Somerton and Frome) : 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
Column 262Leader 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
Column 263living. 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
Column 264and 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.
Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South) : 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?
The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. Nicholas Scott) : The Minister was drawing precisely from the OPCS report. Ifthe right hon. Member for Stoke-on- Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) reads the first report, he will see that they were the words used by the authors of that report.
Mr. Ashley : 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
Column 265State 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.
Mr. Scott : 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.
Mr. Ashley : 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.
Column 266I 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. 5.1 pm
Mr. Graham Bright (Luton, South) : 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
Column 267dropping 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,
Column 268colleges 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.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) : 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.
Column 269I 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
Column 270who 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.
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (Norfolk, South-West) : 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
Column 271unnecessary 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
Column 272the 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
Column 273suggests 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 Benn (Chesterfield) : 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.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd) : 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