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Mr. Nicholson : 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.
Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South) : I have a feeling of de ja 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 1p 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
Column 303poor 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 be 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
Column 304of 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 was 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--
Column 305one 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.
Column 306What 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
Column 307appalling 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 be so inhumane as the Government have been in the past year.
Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South) : 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
Column 308different 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
Column 309it 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
Column 310need 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.
Column 311The 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 be 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.
Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield) : 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
Column 312doorsteps, 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--
"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.
Column 313I 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
Column 314on 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.
Mr. Haynes : 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.
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
Column 315that 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.