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Mr. Baker : Our proposals on top-up loans will not deter children from the lower, disadvantaged socio-economic groups from going into higher education. Where there are loan schemes in the rest of the world, and in Europe, in particular, not only do those countries spend less than we do on student support, but a much higher proportion of youngsters from lower socio-economic groups go into higher education. We have managed to
Column 276combine the highest expenditure on higher education in Europe--compared with our gross national product--with the lowest uptake by youngsters. The loan scheme is an attempt to increase access, and I am sure that it will succeed.
Mr. Yeo : Does my right hon. Friend agree that since graduates generally enjoy above-average incomes it is entirely fair that they should contribute directly to part of the cost of their higher education, especially as there will be protection for graduates on below-average incomes?
Mr. Baker : In annex D of the White Paper we calculate that the benefit to students from investing in higher education brings a return of about 25 per cent. Most graduates earn well above average earnings and virtually no new graduates are unemployed. If a new graduate is unemployed, it is by choice.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : Does the Secretary of State accept that one of the most worrying aspects of the scheme is the effect that it will have on medical students? Will the Minister tell us whether there have been any representations from the banks or building societies about their willingness to run the scheme?
Mr. Baker : Since the publication of the White Paper, we have had constructive meetings with the banks, building societies and other financial institutions to consider the details of the scheme and to find out how best it can be administered. I hope that those meetings will lead to a fruitful conclusion.
Mr. Rhodes James : Will my right hon. Friend emphasise that the White Paper is only a consultation paper on which comments are invited by 1 February? Will he suggest to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that the House might be involved in that process and have a debate next month in Government time? With all Christmas benevolence, will my right hon. Friend follow the sage advice of Sir Winston Churchill on a similar occasion and take the paper upstairs and cut its dirty throat?
Mr. Baker : I said earlier that we had received 3,600 representations ; we have now had 3,601. I am aware of my hon. Friend's views. I should be happy to have a debate, but I do not determine the timetable of the House. I am sure that my hon. Friend's recommendation will have been heard. We have had support from many parts of the education world, including the university town that my hon. Friend represents. Many people feel that it is right that students, who benefit enormously from higher education, should make some contribution towards their maintenance while at college.
Mr. Fatchett : Will the Secretary of State confirm that the proposed loan scheme will cost the taxpayer more than £600 million by the end of the century without opening up access to higher education? Will he also confirm that to increase grants by the rate of inflation over the same period would cost less than one third of the cost of introducing the proposed top-up loan scheme? Why do the
Column 277Government intend to introduce a scheme which will push students further into debt, while not adding one extra student to higher education?
Mr. Baker : The hon. Gentleman confirms the point that I have always made. The proposal is not meant to cut the amount of money spent on higher education but to increase it. I do not believe that it will reduce access because it will provide many students with a certainty of income that they do not have now. Also, it will provide at least 50,000 students who do not qualify for grants access to top-up loans.
Mrs. Rumbold : Appraisal of teachers is currently being piloted in six local education authorities, with special funding through education support grant. We plan to make regulations in autumn next year requiring all LEAs to introduce appraisal for all their teachers over three or four years.
Mr. Bellingham : Does the Minister agree that, contrary to what is being put out by some of the teachers' unions, the key to the proposals is not to get rid of bad teachers but to help them? Is she aware that the overwhelming majority of Norfolk teachers to whom I have spoken broadly welcome the proposals because they see them as a crucial ingredient in raising education standards?
Mrs. Rumbold : My hon. Friend is right. The local authorities already have proper dismissal procedures should they wish to follow them. Appraisal is a different animal. It is designed to assist teachers and to allow them to appraise their own activities within the classroom and rethink them if necessary.
11. Ms. Ruddock : To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science what recent discussions he has regarding the establishment of a city technology college on the site of the Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham boys and girl schools in Deptford.
Mr. Butcher : None, but the governors have sought technical advice from my officials on matters relating to various options for the schools' future. I understand that they are currently consulting parents about these options.
Ms. Ruddock : Does the Minister not agree, however, that the consultation process that was concluded last week was unfair, in that it promoted the CTC option at the expense of all others at a time when Lewisham council is still in the process of working out its own education policies, as required by the Department? Will he support the parents who are asking for an extension of the consultation period?
Mr. Butcher : The consultation process is a matter for the Government and the parents. We are prepared to trust parents to exercise their democratic rights. It is entirely a matter for the parents as a whole to come to a decision, which we will then consider.
Mr. John Hunt : Is my hon. Friend aware that I have served as a member of this governing body for more than 30 years and that at a meeting of the inner London education authority this very afternoon it is threatening to remove me and the only other Conservative governor simply because we had the temerity to support the CTC proposal? Will my hon. Friend please condemn this attempt at intimidation and recognise that it is an attempt to brainwash and gerrymander the governing body?
Mr. Butcher : I hope that Opposition Members will also condemn some of the things that have been happening at ILEA's behest, apart from the proposed sacking of my hon. Friend from the governing body. As I said earlier, we trust the democratically arrived at views of the parents. They can come to their own conclusion about the treatment meted out to my hon. Friend.
The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher) : This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today. This evening I hope to have an audience of Her Majesty the Queen.
Mr. Winnick : Is it not entirely unacceptable to public opinion that a convicted criminal--a known associate of criminals--should have had his shotgun licence given back to him by the judicial authorities? Bearing in mind the tragic events that took place yesterday in Coventry--I pay full tribute to the bravery of the police officers involved--is it not absolutely essential that the controls on shotguns should be far tighter than is provided for in the pending legislation?
The Prime Minister : On the hon. Gentleman's first point, he will know that that is a decision of the courts, taken under the Firearms Act 1968. The new Act, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, contains much tougher controls, but it does not come into force until next year.
As for the hon. Gentleman's point about Coventry, I am sure that we all wish quietly to thank the police for their bravery and courage in the face of great danger and for the way in which they constantly strive and succeed in protecting the citizens of this country.
The Prime Minister : I would offer them this advice : during the lifetime of this Government, expenditure on social security has gone up from £17 billion to £50 billion. That is a remarkable record. We have also tried to target help on those who need it most. If that remarkable record of economic growth and increased help to social security claimants is to continue, I hope that we shall get as much support as possible this evening.
Mr. McKay : As private nursing homes and private homes for the aged are rate-free at the discretion of the local authority, as 95 per cent. of the people who live in those homes receive social security payments and as the homes are inspected twice a year, should not the books also be inspected by the Department of Social Security, since it provides the largest share of the money?
The Prime Minister : That would be taking on a very considerable obligation which I do not think is necessary. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has very much faith in the integrity of those homes. If he has any complaint against any particular home, perhaps he will let the appropriate authority know the facts instead of condemning them all.
Mr. Gale : Further to her earlier answer, will my right hon. Friend find time to discuss with our right hon. Friend the Home Secretary the need to introduce legislation to prohibit entirely the issuing of firearms licences to convicted criminals?
The Prime Minister : It would be best to get the Act that we passed in the previous Session fully into operation first, as it tightens the criteria for the issue of a shotgun certificate. The police will be able to refuse the licence if the applicant does not have a good reason to have a shotgun and they will have to be satisfied that the applicant will not be a danger to public safety. Shotgun owners will be required to keep their shotguns securely to minimise the risk of theft, and all shotguns will have to be registered separately on the certificate. That is a very considerable advance on the present legislation and we should bring it into operation first.
Mr. Kinnock : Why does the Prime Minister think that in the six months after April this year, rent arrears in Tory Sutton increased by 40 per cent., in Tory Barnet by 43 per cent. and in Tory Enfield by 63 per cent.?
The Prime Minister : The increases in rent arrears are a matter for concern, but the Department of the Environment and the Audit Commission have stressed the need for better control by local authorities. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned some local authorities, but nearly 50 per cent. of the increased rent arrears are concentrated in just 20 Labour authorities.
Mr. Kinnock : The reports of very great increases in rent arrears come from authorities under every form of political control--Labour, Tory and hung. Is not the huge increase in arrears a direct consequence of the £650 million cut in housing benefits which took place this year? Does the Prime Minister understand that it will get even worse next year when transitional protection runs out and when rents inevitably increase as a consequence of interest rate rises? Will the Prime Minister now reverse the housing benefit cuts or does she want mass evictions in Britain?
Column 280households. That means that every two households contribute towards keeping a third household. I assume that he is well aware that the total cost of housing benefit in 1988-89 is only 2 per cent. lower than in the previous year. That cannot explain a 40 per cent. increase in rent arrears. Local authorities must get round and collect the rent arrears. Those who cannot afford to pay rent still have their rent paid through housing benefit.
Mr. Kinnock : The Prime Minister is deliberately evading the fact that she has withdrawn resources from local authorities and she has robbed some of the poorest families in the country by taking away housing benefit. She, who lives in rent-free accommodation, should not lecture others on the subject.
The Prime Minister : As I said, the poorest have their housing paid for-- [Interruption.] The poorest have their rents met 100 per cent. and their rates met to 80 per cent. together with an average payment to meet the rest of the rates. The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that nearly half the rent arrears are concentrated in 20 Labour authorities, that the Audit Commission stressed the need for better control by local authorities and that most of the rent arrears arise because there are insufficient regular collections of rent.
Mr. Marland : It is reported in today's newspapers that 77 countries have come to the aid of the Armenian earthquake victims. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the largest cash contributions have come from individual citizens of this country? Does not that underline what a generous and warm- hearted society we have, and will she refute Opposition Members' allegations that we have become selfish and greedy?
The Prime Minister : Yes, the response of this country has been extremely generous, both publicly and privately. There have been 10 flights to the Soviet Union specifically for relief in Armenia, and some of the people who went there, whom we congratulate on their valiant efforts, have returned and told us of the true extent of the devastation. The rescue phase is nearly over and reconstruction will follow, with which obviously we will be willing to help. We thank all those volunteers who offered their good services and raised money. I should like to say that we also thank very much the Soviet ambassador to this country, who has made every effort to see that our help gets to where it is most needed. I should have thought that Opposition Members would also want us to do that.
Mr. Battle : Will the Prime Minister assure the House that none of Britain's 3,500 hostels, many of which are specifically for homeless people, will be closed as a result of benefit changes? Or will she tell 50,000 homeless young people who will sleep out in the streets of Britain this Christmas that there will be no room at the hostel?
The Prime Minister : No. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, there is still room in London, for example not only at Centrepoint but at hostels which are specially run for those people. There are special arrangements for paying amounts from social security at Centrepoint, but not at others because there never have been. There are still places available at those hostels.
Mr. Quentin Davies : In contemplating another year of gratifying economic expansion, will my right hon. Friend agree that a most important feature of the encouraging confidence that exists is the unprecedented rate of new business start-ups?
The Prime Minister : Yes, it has been an economically very successful year ; unemployment has fallen and the number of jobs has increased. New businesses are starting at the rate of 1,000 a week. Thank goodness we do not have a Socialist Government.
Mr. Grant : Is the Prime Minister aware that the Commission for Racial Equality is unable to prosecute all bona fide cases of racial discrimination because of a lack of funding from her Government? As a result, black and ethnic minority people are denied their legal rights of protection from racial discrimination. Does she agree that this is disgraceful, and will she confirm that her Government support the prosecution of racists under the Race Relations Act 1976? Will she confirm that she will provide enough funds for the commission to do its job?
The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman is aware that prosecution is a matter not for me but the Crown prosecuting authorities. Spending on legal aid has risen more rapidly than most other expenditure in this country.
Mr. Andrew MacKay : Will my right hon. Friend consider setting up a constitutional conference on electoral reform, or does she share my view that those who are now advocating proportional representation merely illustrate their perceived inability to be elected?
Mr. Flannery : Does the Prime Minister realise that cuts in housing benefit have sent large numbers of old people to citizens advice bureaux? Due to the operation of the community programme, the activities of such bureaux, especially in my area, have been cut. They do not have enough people to service the needs of old people, many of whom are breaking down in front of the staff of citizens advice bureaux. Will she kindly do something, or will she be seen to be Scrooge, without the last redeeming chapter?
The Prime Minister : No. In 1979, housing benefit cost £1.5 billion. We now spend £5 billion. About 6 million households have housing benefit. [Interruption.] I never know whether Opposition Members will say that the country is so rich that it is spending too much on consumer goods or will complain that no one has any money.
Sir John Stokes : In view of the difficulties that appear to have arisen between the West German Government and British forces in Germany, will my right hon. Friend confirm that our forces are in Germany to defend our NATO allies, the West, and, of course, Germany? We look to the German Government to behave in a more friendly fashion as an old ally.
The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend is perfectly correct. Our presence in Germany is to defend the Federal Republic, our allies and ourselves. He is aware that several people were killed in the Remscheid accident. The Federal German Government asked all armed forces stationed in the Federal Republic of Germany not to hold any social events or to play music until after the funerals of those killed in the accident. When the host country asked for that for a short period, it seemed reasonable to try to conform with its wishes. We did so.
The Prime Minister : Never mind. We did so. That was right. Instructions to comply with that request until after the memorial service on Thursday 15 December were issued to British forces. We accorded the highest sensitivity to those who suffered as a result of that grievous accident.
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