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House of Commons

Thursday 22 December 1988

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Vietnamese Refugees (Hong Kong)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. John M. Taylor.]

9.34 am

Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham) : We meet this morning in the shadow of an appalling air disaster that has shocked us all. Perhaps 300 people have been killed. In the 13 years since the fall of Saigon, an estimated 300,000 people have been killed or drowned trying to flee from Vietnam. A sudden disaster captures our imagination and compassion but a long-term human tragedy produces indifference and neglect. Therefore, it is appropriate that we should begin our Christmas Adjournment debates by discussing the plight of some of the most unfortunate people for whom the House bears ultimate responsibility--the Vietnamese boat people who are currently sheltering in Hong Kong.

Earlier this year, the Hong Kong Government, for whom we are ultimately responsible, changed the rules for those boat people trying to escape from the appalling conditions in their own country. There was some relaxation in the conditions under which boat people who had arrived in Hong Kong before midnight on 16 June this year were held. In the past, thousands of those detainees were kept in small, closed camps, some of which I have visited. The camps are clean and the detainees are surprisingly healthy. There is less crime than in an average English village. Children are taught to read and write and paid work is available to many of the inmates. There is also a total lack of privacy and freedom. For years, large families have been expected to live in a space no larger than a dining room table--or the Table on which the Dispatch Boxes rest. Families do not have floor space for themselves. They are often stacked in three tiers of bunks so that three families are literally living on top of each other.

Until 16 June this year, detainees were allowed out only to go to hospital. That meant that some children of school age had never been outside the camp site, which comprised one or two acres. Six months ago we relaxed the rules for the people already in the detention camps. The gates were at least partially opened but, at the same time, we imposed new, even stricter rules for boat people who had arrived after the deadline. Those who arrived after the deadline would not be looked on as prima facie refugees unless they could show that they had fled from fear of individual persecution because of their political or religious belief. The others would be regarded as unwelcome economic migrants. We seem to have signed an agreement with the Vietnamese authorities which covers the repatriation to Vietnam of those so -called unwelcome economic migrants.

I know many of the men and women who devised and administer that policy and they are humane and

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honourable people. The staff of the camps that I visited seemed to be kindly and are clearly on good terms with the detainees. The civil servants responsible for the camps seemed to be sympathetic individuals. I know some of the members of the refugee committee of the Hong Kong Legislative Council. They are kind and caring people who are caught in an impossible situation. Those who have known the Foreign Secretary, who bears the final responsibility for this, for many years know that there is not a cruel or wicked bone in his body. The House will know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who will reply to the debate is one of the kindest and most generous of men. Yet the policy that we have devised is shameful. I am ashamed of it, and in years to come historians will judge that we should be ashamed of our handling of this human tragedy.

A few weeks ago the press was full of stories about the findings of a commission that investigated allegations that Harold Macmillan and others were responsible for callously repatriating thousands of white Russians and Yugoslavs in 1945. That repatriation turned out to be a tragedy which later provoked recrimination, but our policy of repatriating the Vietnamese has provoked hardly a murmur of protest. To some extent, our consciences have been salved by the reluctance of the Vietnamese authorities to take back anyone who does not volunteer to return.

Of course, there are good reasons why any sensible person wants to discourage the flow of people from Vietnam. Hong Kong has one of the highest population densities in the world. It should not be asked to take in tens of thousands of additional refugees from Vietnam. Yet the potential flow is enormous. In the first half of 1979, boat people were arriving in Hong Kong at the rate of 10,000 a month, and there is no doubt that hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam would be prepared to undergo the hardships and risks of a boat trip to Hong Kong if they thought that it would lead to a quick resettlement in the west.

The problem for Hong Kong has been increased by the fact that many of the countries that took large numbers of Vietnamese refugees have begun to show compassion fatigue. Some countries have obsorbed very large numbers. In the 13 years since the fall of Saigon, America has taken nearly 1 million, and they are beginning to make an important contribution to American life at all levels. Three other countries--Canada, Australia, and France--have each taken more than 100,000 Vietnamese refugees. Britain has taken more than 20,000, mostly from Hong Kong, and I pay tribute to the many charities and individuals who have helped the Vietnamese refugees to settle into the mainstream of British life.

But there is an increased reluctance among the main receiver countries to keep their doors open. When the Hong Kong refugee rules were changed in June, there was a hope that potential host countries would respond to the new tougher entry rules by offering to take many more of the 16,000 people who already had prima facie status and were established in the camps. That does not seem to have happened. The Hong Kong authorities reckon that during the next 12 months only 2, 500 camp inmates will be offered resettlement. The authorities in Hong Kong and many refugee organisations believe that if we took another 2,000 refugees other countries would open their gates and the old refugee problem would be solved. I do not believe that that will happen. Although our present quota of 29 refugees a month is pathetically low--if my hon. Friend the Minister

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could announce an increase, I should be the first to cheer--the solution to the problem is not resettlement in the west. A publicised transfer of families from Hong Kong to Britain could start the rush again.

Should we acquiesce in the proposed policy of repatriating most of the 10,000 boat people who have arrived in Hong Kong since June, and should we repatriate the bulk of those who will continue to try to reach Hong Kong? At present, pushing the boat people back to Vietnam is as repulsive as handing back to the East German authorities anyone who manages to get over the Berlin wall. There is the problem of punishment. Earlier this month, a notable television programme entitled "Boat People go Home", which was part of the ITV "This Week" series, showed that ordinary people who are caught trying to leave Vietnam are subjected to interrogation, re-education and sometimes imprisonment for up to 12 years.

The Vietnamese Government may change their policy. Perhaps perestroika will come to Vietnam, I gather that the Vietnamese phrase for perestroika is "doi moi". Perhaps the crushing burden of taxation in a country where the average income barely exceeds £2 a week will be reduced. Perhaps there will be a sensible agricultural pricing system and perhaps runaway inflation will be checked. Perhaps the Vietnamese authorities will relax their political grip and will not penalise any returning boat people. But the good sense and good faith of the Vietnamese Government must be tested much more strenuously before it is safe to think about repatriation.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give a pledge that no one will be repatriated to Vietnam against his will. I ask him to give that pledge not only for next year but for the lifetime of this Parliament. I also ask for an assurance that no pressure will be put on boat people in Hong Kong to volunteer to return.

If the West is suffering from terminal compassion fatigue, if Hong Kong is too crowded and if repatriation is unacceptable, what should we do? The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees favours refugee resettlement in the general area from which the refugees come. That is a sensible policy. There is space in parts of the Philippines and in Borneo, and there are many other underpopulated areas of south-east Asia where, if there was the political will, the boat people could be resettled temporarily for, say, five years while we see whether the Vietnamese Government become more tolerant and more tolerable. Of course, neither the Indonesian Government nor the Government of the Philippines will welcome penniless refugees in large numbers and give them land and a permanent home. It would be much more acceptable if an international consortium agreed to take a temporary lease on camp sites in the Philippines and Borneo and guaranteed that no financial burden would fall on the host country. Hong Kong should not be asked to pay more than a small part of the cost of any temporary relocation of refugees in the area. I note that when the rules were changed in June, the influential Far East Economic Review acidly noted that support for mismanaged local banks was costing Hong Kong taxpayers more than the £15 million a year spent on refugee support. We should be major contributors to any regional temporary relocation project.

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There is considerable all-party support for an increase in our aid budget, and if one is made I should give high priority to more help for refugees. Help should also be given by Taiwan, the administration of which is wealthy enough to play a major role in regional aid. Above all, help should be given by Japan--its business did well out of the Vietnam war--which has made no worthwhile contribution to solving the refugee problem.

I note that an international conference that will be concerned mainly with the Vietnamese refugee problem will meet next year. We must try to achieve multilateral support for temporary local resettlement and should be prepared to play a part with financial and administrative support. At Christmas time, we should hold out hope to these wretched people and not threaten to send them back against their will. I cannot support a policy based on detention and repatriation of brave people who have already suffered so much. 9.51 am

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst) : I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart) on securing this Adjournment debate and am grateful to him for allowing me to make a brief contribution on a topic in which I have taken an interest for many years.

We are discussing some of the original boat people who went to Hong Kong 10 or more years ago, and we remember the wave of sympathy for them in this country. Most of them have been resettled in different parts of the world, a number of them here. Several thousand have remained in Hong Kong for up to 10 years and their position is hopeless ; they have tried to resettle in different parts of the world without success. We are taking 20 people a month, but they must already have a family connection in Britain. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider opening our doors a little wider and to persuade the Home Office to allow a few more refugees to come here, albeit at a gentle pace. If we were prepared to take a few more refugees, perhaps we could persuade other countries to do the same. As the country ultimately responsible for Hong Kong, others look to us to take the lead. I hope that special consideration will be given, not to the recent economic refugees but the original political refugees.

The status of those individuals apart, we have a moral obligation to the people and Government of Hong Kong. It is one of the most densely populated areas of the world, yet without quest the Hong Kong people took in the refugees ; not a single one has been turned away. The assumption was that Hong Kong would be a staging post and that the refugees would be moved on. Hong Kong took the refugees despite the fact that many families there have friends and relatives in mainland China who would like to go to Hong Kong but are not allowed to do so. With open arms, the Hong Kong people accepted the refugees, but Hong Kong is still having to bear the burden, expense and sheer discomfort of having to cope with them. Other considerations apart, we have a strong obligation to the people and Government of Hong Kong to ease the burden that they have shouldered for so long.

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9.54 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Timothy Eggar) : Almost a year ago to the day, in the Christmas Adjournment debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Sir P. Goodhart) and I discussed the plight of the Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong. Today's debate provides a further timely opportunity for the House to review the important developments of the past 12 months. I am most grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham and for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) for their continuing and constructive interest in this extremely sensitive subject.

For reasons of which hon. Members are well aware, the problem of the boat people is extraordinarily complex. It is tied to the wider problems of the region and is a difficult and sensitive issue. I assure my hon. Friends that we and the Government of Hong Kong are very concerned about it and attach high priority to solving it. It may be helpful briefly to summarise the developments of the past 12 months and the steps that we and the Hong Kong authorities have taken to deal with them. As the House will be aware, there has been a sharp and dramatic increase in the number of boat people arriving in Hong Kong since mid-1987. Between mid-1987 and mid-1988, the boat people population in Hong Kong rose from 8,000 to more than 25,000. In the first half of 1988 alone, there were more than 9,000 arrivals--three times more than in 1987, four times more than 1986, and eight times more than 1985.

In addition to that massive numerical increase, it became increasingly clear that there had been a change in the background and motivation of those arriving in Hong Kong. The overwhelming majority of recent arrivals were farmers and fishermen from north Vietnam. They were seeking a better life in the West and not leaving to escape political and religious persecution, so they could not meet the internationally accepted criteria for refugee status. Such people stood little or no chance of being resettled in the West--resettlement countries understandably choose to give priority to genuine refugees from other parts of the world--and their arrival in Hong Kong almost overwhelmed the already stretched reception facilities in the territory. It also made it more difficult for genuine refugees in Hong Kong to find resettlement places elsewhere. The major resettlement countries began to question the wisdom of resettlement programmes that appeared only to stimulate ever greater numbers of departures from Vietnam.

By June this year, it had become clear that the burden on Hong Kong had become intolerable and that things could not go on as they were. It was no longer fair or realistic to pretend that all those who arrived in Hong Kong by boat had the prospect of automatic resettlement in the West, however, long that might take. It would have been a cruel deception to offer those who plainly did not qualify as refugees the prospect of a future that did not and could not exist ; nor could a civilised Government leave such people to the mercy of the sea.

Against that background and with our support, the Hong Kong Government introduced a new policy on 16 June. From that date all new arrivals were to be screened to distinguish genuine refugees from the rest. The screening procedures are in accordance with established international criteria and have been fully endorsed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

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UNHCR officials are able to monitor screening and give advice and assistance when appropriate. The procedures are, and are seen to be, fair and objective.

I assure the House that the Hong Kong authorities are proceeding with screening carefully and thoroughly. Results so far have identified 38 genuine refugees--slightly less than 10 per cent. of those screened so far. The rest have been screened out as failing to meet the relevant international criteria. Those screened in--those accepted as genuine refugees--are accommodated in camps to await resettlement. Those screened out are given a temporary base in Hong Kong until suitable arrangements can be made for their future. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham repeated his thoughtful suggestions about providing temporary relocation elsewhere in the region. We have considered his proposals carefully and taken soundings on the practicality of the idea of what one may loosely call a "haven" for Vietnamese refugees elsewhere in the region. All our research leads us to conclude that no country in the area would be receptive to the idea of accommodating large numbers of refugees from Hong Kong. It would amount to the creation within that country's territory of what, in practice, would be an isolation centre for stateless persons. We do not think such an approach would be acceptable. We have always believed that other long-term solutions must be sought. It is for that reason that the Hong Kong Government introduced their new policy earlier this year.

My hon. Friends have expressed concern about the conditions in the camps in Hong Kong. That is understandable, but we should not forget that the Hong Kong Government have had to accommodate 25,000 boat people, including over 17,000 new arrivals in the past year. The Hong Kong Government attach great importance, as we do, to ensuring that conditions in the camps are as good as possible in the difficult circumstances. They have paid close attention to the safety aspects and to the provision of adequate food and medical facilities. This has been, and still is, as my hon. Friends have recognised, a major strain on the territory's resources. But the authorities have coped magnificently. I am sure that the House will join me in paying tribute to the Hong Kong authorities for the efforts that they have made.

In parallel with the introduction of screening, the Hong Kong Government announced that the closed centres for those with refugee status would be liberalised. As the House knows, that process is already underway. The new screening policy has made this possible, because it is no longer necessary to have restrictive conditions in the refugee camps as a deterrent to further departures from Vietnam. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will run a new open camp for all those in Hong Kong with refugee status. It is currently under construction. In the meantime, the refugees have access to outside employment and increased educational training facilities. The Government welcome the role that the UNHCR is playing in Hong Kong. On 3 October, we announced that we would be making a contribution of £1 million to UNHCR's operations in the territory.

Since September the flow of arrivals in Hong Kong has diminished significantly. That is encouraging. It shows that the message of the new screening policy is getting across in Vietnam, which was intended. It also suggests that the Vietnamese authorities have been playing their part in taking effective measures to bring the outflow of

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people to an end. We are far from complacent because the autumn and winter months are traditionally the period of relatively few new arrivals. We are therefore monitoring the situation closely. Those who do not meet the criteria for refugee status cannot be permanently accommodated in the small and overcrowded territory of Hong Kong--I think that everyone recognises that. It would not be right either to contemplate the indefinite detention of such people and their children. Their future can lie only in their own country. It must therefore be right to seek satisfactory arrangements, in consultation with the Vietnamese authorities, for their return, without fear of punishment or persecution of any kind.

It is with that objective that we have held two rounds of talks with the Vietnamese authorities about the future of those boat peoplle who do not qualify as refugees. We have insisted on--and, I am delighted to say, obtained--assurances from the Vietnamese that all returnees will be treated humanely and will not be punished. We have also secured the agreement of the Vietnamese that the UNHCR should monitor the observance of those undertakings and the reintegration of the returnees into Vietnam. These are important developments which I am sure will command a general welcome. They provide the basis for a viable future for those for whom no other realistic option exists. Several hundred boat people in Hong Kong have already expressed a wish to return to Vietnam. The UNHCR is taking charge of the practical arrangements for that. I am pleased to confirm to the House that a memorandum of understanding between the UNHCR and the Vietnamese authorities was signed on 13 December. It represents a significant step forward. We have indeed come a long way. Until recently, the Vietnamese authorities would have been resolutely opposed to the signing of such a document. It is a result of our diplomatic efforts, the impact of Hong Kong's new screening policy, and the patient and exemplary work of the UNHCR that such a memorandum has been made possible. The memorandum clearly provides for the monitoring by the UNHCR of the arrangements for the return and reintegration of the individuals concerned. It provides also for financial assistance to help them to pick up the threads of their former life.

We hope and believe that the success of these arrangements will, over time, serve to encourage other non-refugees in Hong Kong to opt voluntarily to return. We hope that they will make that choice as it becomes clear that they will not be subject to punishment in Vietnam and as the inevitable logic of their situation sinks in. We are convinced that a solution on these lines is both realistic and humane : realistic because there is no practicable alternative, and humane because it is conditional on there being no ill-treatment of those who go back.

In response to a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, I assure him that we would not repatriate a single boat person to Vietnam if we were not satisfied that such people would be properly treated on their return and would not be punished. We shall be in close consultation with the UNHCR to make sure that the terms of the memorandum that has been agreed with the authorities in Vietnam is adhered to extremely closely.

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Sir Philip Goodhart : Will my hon. Friend go a step further and say that, while the monitoring takes place next year, no Vietnamese boat people will be sent back against their will?

Mr. Eggar : We are not talking about compulsion at this stage. We envisage a gradual return by people on a voluntary basis. It is critical that the monitoring process is successful and that people are reintegrated. It is also critical that the news that the Vietnamese authorities are abiding by the letter and spirit of the memorandum signed by the UNHCR seeps back to Hong Kong so that those who have not been given refugee status can feel confident that they will receive a proper welcome when they return to Vietnam and that they will not be persecuted.

My hon. Friends mentioned the resettlement of the boat people in Hong Kong who do not enjoy refugee status. It is critical that those people find homes in the major resettlement countries as soon as possible. In the meantime, as I have already said, the camps in which they are being accommodated are being opened up and a new camp is being constructed.

There are now more than 15,000 Vietnamese in Hong Kong who are recognised as refugees. Following the change in policy introduced on 16 June, they represent what is essentially a residual problem. Of the more recent arrivals, few seem likely to meet the established international criteria to be considered as refugees. I have already given the House the figures for the screening so far.

We have played a major part over the years in resettling Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong, despite the heavy immigration pressures that we face from many other sources. We are deeply grateful to other Governments who are continuing to make their contribution by resettling substantial numbers from Hong Kong. We believe that the time has come for a major international effort to tackle the residual problem. I am able to announce to the House that we are prepared, in principle, to contribute to that effort by taking a further 1,000 Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong over two to three years, provided that other resettlement countries are prepared to contribute commensurately. The 1,000 would include relatives of Vietnamese already here and others with the potential quickly to become self-sufficient in the United Kingdom. They would also include some of those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst who have been in the camps for a long time and have not yet been accepted elsewhere.

We shall do everything possible to ensure that additional refugees are resettled in a way that does not add to the considerable pressure on housing resources in certain urban areas in Britain. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary will be considering with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and others how rehousing problems can be avoided.

We shall enter into immediate consultations with the other resettlement Governments and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. We shall make it clear that there must be a genuine international effort. We shall look to other Governments to state clearly their readiness to match what we intend to do by accepting substantial additional numbers of Vietnamese refugees from Hong Kong. We hope that the other resettlement countries will respond generously, as they have in the past, Depending on the response that we receive, and on achieving a

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solution to the problem of pressure on housing resources in certain areas, we shall be ready to go ahead with our new plans.

I reassure the House that we shall continue to devote all our efforts, in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and in Hong Kong, to tackling all aspects of this complex and tragic problem. In doing so, we shall continue to work closely with the Hong Kong authorities, the UNHCR and the international community. We need a national and international response to the problem.

We are far from complacent about what has been achieved so far and we do not underestimate the difficulties that remain to be resolved for the genuine refugees and those who cannot be accepted as refugees.

This short debate has been useful in giving the House an opportunity to make its views known and I am delighted to have been able to make my announcement. I assure hon. Members that we will continue to listen carefully to the concerns of the House and to those in Hong Kong and elsewhere in this difficult and sensitive area.

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10.16 am

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : I have on many occasions raised the immense difficulties and indeed misery suffered by pensioners on low incomes during the winter months. The acute problems arise basically because they have insufficient income to heat their accommodation adequately. On countless occasions Labour Members have also raised in the House and elsewhere the hardship of other low-income households which face similar difficulties with winter fuel bills. We believe much more should be done to increase the income of the low paid and ease the lot of the unemployed. Any gain achieved by today's pensioners will benefit future generations of retired people--at least, I hope so. The Opposition have learnt to be suspicious of the Government. Ministers are keen to promote the myth that pensioners are now so much better off that they require less assistance from the state and less help with their fuel bills.

If my private Member's Bill had become law last year--I was the first in the ballot at the beginning of 1987--pensioners would have had extra financial resources because they would not have had to pay the full television licence fee. They would have had a free licence if my Bill had become law or, if it had been amended, which I was prepared to accept, they would have paid £5, £10 or £20 per year instead of the full sum.

What about the Government's view that pensioners are so much better off? According to the latest information available to the Library, one third of pensioners in Britain live on or below the income support level. Imagine what it must be like to live below the income support level. Such people include those who do not claim income support although they are eligible and those who are denied such support because of their modest--by today's standards--lifetime savings.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : Is my hon. Friend aware that many pensioners who live at such a low standard because of their incomes are so severely and dangerously undernourished that it causes their early death?

Mr. Winnick : My hon. Friend is right and I shall refer to that aspect later.

Another one third of pensioners live just above income support level, with incomes of between 100 and 140 per cent. of that level. Therefore, virtually two thirds of the pensioners--millions of retired citizens--live in poverty or near poverty. None of us would wish to lead such a life and one can well understand the immense difficulties that so many of them face, especially during the winter months, in trying to keep their homes adequately heated.

Winter, of course, presents the greatest problem with heating bills, especially for those on low incomes. Fuel bills inevitably take a greater proportion of a low income. That is especially so for pensioners, in their 70s or older, who often are housebound during the winter months or have increasing difficulty in getting out during the coldest weather.

We know that under this Government pensions have been increased only in line with inflation. Over the past nine years, gas prices, especially, have been increased deliberately as a result of Government policy. They have increased by more than the rate of inflation. That

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obviously presents great difficulties for those on low incomes. If pensions had been increased in line with earnings in recent years--after a year or so in office the Government decided to break the link with earnings--the married couple's pension from April 1989 would have been £87.45--£17.65 more than they will receive. A single pensioner would have received from next April £54.75-- £11.15 more than he or she will receive.

If pensioners were to receive next April the sums that I have mentioned instead of those that they will actually receive, the extra money would be of considerable help in paying fuel bills and they would be better able adequately to heat their accommodation. The elderly are most at risk during the winter months. The risks for them are greater than for any other section of the community. We know of the dangers to the elderly of hypothermia. Many experts believe that the official figures represent a substantial understatement of the true number of those who die from hypothermia during the winter. It seems that some doctors take the view that to place the word "hypothermia" on a death certificate is rather like stamping it with the word "neglect", and accordingly are reluctant to do so. Where hypothermia was recorded as the cause of death in 1986 in England and Wales, 83 per cent. of the deceased were over the age of 65 years.

Cold-related deaths are far greater in number than the figures for hypothermia alone. There is some evidence that the percentage of the elderly who die during the winter months in Britain is higher than that in other advanced countries. The following questions must be asked. Are we taking less care of the elderly than do many other European countries? Is insufficient income the reason for the problem? Is there a lack of co- ordinated action, especially for the elderly who are most at risk? Those are worrying matters and should certainly preoccupy the House.

I am sure that everyone accepts that better and more effective insulation is extremely important. I pay tribute to Neighbourhood Energy Action, which has done a first-class job in many localities carrying out draught-proofing and insulation. I understand that such work has been done in about 350,000 homes. One wishes that such organisations had far greater financial resources at their disposal to carry out many other similar activities.

I agree that there is much more to be done to improve insulation and draughtproofing, but, first and foremost, there must be extra income provided for pensioners during the winter months. That is vital for elderly people on small incomes. The Minister, with whom I have no personal quarrel, will explain the Government's line on this issue, which he knows is entirely unsatisfactory to Opposition Members. He will say that provision is made for help with fuel bills during cold spells. He will refer to severe weather payments, which are increasingly seen, and not only by Labour Members, as a farce. Even newspapers that support the Tory cause- - The Sunday Times, for example--have exposed effectively the number of pensioners who are in the greatest danger during cold spells. That was done during the last cold spell at the beginning of 1987. Attention was drawn to the fact that no extra payment was made available to those at risk.

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For the severe weather payment to be triggered, there have to be seven consecutive days during which the average temperature has to fall to freezing point. The 63 weather stations are involved. That is the latest position after the recent changes ; changes are made literally every year. Even when those conditions have been met, only pensioners who receive income support can apply for the payment. Moreover, they must have less than £500 of capital. The pensioner has to apply for the payment, and if all the conditions are met he or she will receive the princely sum of £5. I wonder how far £5 goes towards heating a home during a spell of freezing weather. We believe that the payments are a farce. They are inadequate and are nowhere near the amounts that should be available during cold spells.

Heating additions were abolished this year in the change from supplementary benefit to income support, and I have no doubt that the Minister will say that the additions have been replaced by various elements that make up income support. Heating additions, however, as a separate item in a pensioner's income, had the important function of showing clearly the amount that was being provided for heating alone. Such additions could be adjusted quickly if fuel prices increased.

On 8 November, west midlands Labour Members took to Downing street petitions that had been signed by thousands of pensioners calling for an extra £5 a week during the winter months, to be paid especially to pensioners in need. We did not have the pleasure, if that is the right expression, of seeing the Prime Minister at Downing street. The door was open for a few moments. We saw the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary, who courteously took the petitions. We have not heard anything further. None of us had the slightest illusion ; we knew that the Government would not respond. We did not expect them to do so. Unfortunately, the Government do not show much interest in these problems.

We are about to adjourn for Christmas, and it is fortunate that large numbers of families and individuals have enough money to be able to enjoy the festivities. They will be able adequately to heat their accommodation. A minority may fall into debt, but for many it will be a Christmas without acute financial worry. However, other people in the community--the poorest and others whom I would describe as living at near poverty level, including two thirds of all pensioners as well as some of working age, such as the unemployed and low paid--will find Christmas a difficult period during which to keep warm. They will find it difficult enough to obtain the financial resources for the ordinary necessities of life, let alone any extra money for the holiday.

As I have said before, one of the House's responsibilities is to spotlight those of our fellow citizens who are in acute financial difficulties. Even if we were talking about a small minority, it would be our duty to spotlight their problems. But we are talking about millions of people and millions of pensioners who are in such financial difficulties.

It is a scandal that so many retired people, many of whom served in the war and helped to ensure that the country survived, face a bleak retirement. It is bleak, because they do not have sufficient income. Their state retirement pension is too low, they have not been able to save during their working life and their occupational pension, if they have one, is very small. I have received

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letters from ex-service men who ask what the sacrifice was for and whether they served only to be punished in retirement. The Government should have a guilty conscience about the way in which such pensioners are treated.

The Government have been generous to the richest and most prosperous. They were even more generous in this year's Budget. They have shown no reluctance to give to those who need it least, and the rich and the most prosperous should be grateful to the Government. As on other occasions, Opposition Members ask today why the Government cannot be as generous to those in great financial difficulties through no fault of their own.

10.33 am

Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield) : First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) for applying for the debate and I congratulate him on his success in the ballot. However, I pay tribute to him most of all because of his activities on behalf of senior citizens in Britain. He has campaigned steadfastly for them on a range of issues for many years. It is a great pleasure and honour to support him once again in his endeavours on behalf of our elderly population.

The scale of the problem facing the elderly population can be seen in the recent figures that show how many pensioners there are in the nation. About 18.5 per cent. of the population of Britain is of pensionable age--over 10 million people are pensioners. In the next 40 years, the number of people aged 85 and over is expected to increase by about 80 per cent. An idea of what that means can be obtained if one examines the most recent census figures, which were published on 13 June 1987. One sees that there were 6.876 million women over 60 years of age. That averages out, on my calculations, at 10,578 women over 60 per parliamentary constituency.

There are 5,320,000 women and 3,494,000 men over 65, which works out at 13,560 pensioners per constituency. There are more than 6 million pensioners over the age of 70 which works out at 9,333 per constituency. There are 3.766 million pensioners over the age of 75, which is 5,809 per parliamentary constituency. That gives us some idea of the scale of concern that should be shown by all hon. Members.

I find it shameful that only five hon. Members are present, of whom three hold Government office. The Government have been lucky with the figures. The figures that I have quoted were published in June 1987, and we are lucky because they will remain constant for the next few years. The reason for that is the low birth rate in the 1920s, during the depression, which was caused, again, by Government economic policy. The other factor was that more than 1 million men died in the first world war, fighting to safeguard the nation's interests. That is why we are not faced with an even more horrific problem. What has the Government's response been? The Opposition are worried by the Government's actions. They have removed the link with earnings or inflation--whichever was higher--which guaranteed pensioners a decent pension in old age. Let us consider the figures. A single person's pension is £41.15, whereas if the previous link had been retained it would be £50.94. The pension for a married couple is £65.90, whereas it should be £81.55. That is one of the disgraceful changes made since this Government came to office.

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Another problem involves cold weather payments and the changes made to such payments under the Social Security Act 1988. The Government have retained the cold weather payment at the miserly amount of £5. That is inadequate, given the cost of fuel. The Government have also inflicted another extraordinarily harsh action on our senior citizens. I represent a coal mining area in which many pensioners are either the widows of coal miners or retired coal miners and they face severe difficulties. Many years ago, it was agreed in the industry that miners would give up a portion of their fuel allowance, which was given as part of their wages throughout the year. Out of their 12 loads of coal a year, two were put into a reserve, which supplied much-needed fuel to pensioners and to the widows of miners. That gift should not fall within the Government's prerogative. It was a gift from working people in the industry to those in need who were, for one reason or another, outside the industry. Through the changes in the supplementary benefit regulations, the Government have inflicted a system that treats that gift from people in work as earnings. As a result, a miner's widow in my constituency who receives winter fuel from the reserve has deductions made from her supplementary benefit. Those deductions accumulate because of the earnings band in which she falls, with the result that her "free" fuel actually costs her money. That is disgraceful.

I have shown that many of the Government's policies do not favour the elderly population. Without a shadow of a doubt, the Minister--like his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when confronted with these questions-- will read out a set of facts and figures to show how well off pensioners are, but pensioners do not believe that they are well off, in my constituency or in any other. Many elderly people come to talk to me and they all tell me how badly off they are. The full extent of the problem is evident from the disastrous circumstances of the winter months. During the coming months, thousands of pensioners will die of cold or of illnesses related to it. This winter, at least 750,000--perhaps even 1 million-- pensioners will be at risk. Yet the Government have taken no concerted action to try to reverse that dangerous state of affairs. I should like the Minister to take some positive action today, because there is not much time. I do not expect him to announce that the Government will give free television licences to pensioners, having recognised that televisions are an important means of communication, which pensioners should have in their homes. I do not expect him to announce an enormous increase in pensions. It would be silly even to ask him to do that. Instead, I want him to say that before he and the Prime Minister go on their holidays he will send telexes to all the relevant Government agencies in the Department of Health and the Department of Social Security telling them to be aware of, and be ready to meet, the needs of pensioners during the holiday. I want him to urge the Prime Minister to make a statement before Christmas telling people that they should be aware of pensioners' needs. In that way, pensioners might at least have some comfort and people might be reminded that Christmas is a time of good will, and act accordingly during the holiday period.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North for allowing me to speak, and I urge the Minister to act in the best interests of our senior citizens.

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10.43 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lloyd) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall, North (MrWinnick) on his good fortune in being drawn second in the ballot for this series of Adjournment debates and I congratulate the hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) on his initiative in joining in. I take issue with both hon. Members over their suggestion that pensioners have fared less well and been treated less fairly under this Government than under the Labour Government. The hon. Gentlemen confined their criticism largely to matters related to pensioners' ability to meet fuel costs during the winter, but the issues that they raised go far wider. It is simply not true that the Government have failed to understand or meet the needs of pensioners. Contrary to the suggestion of the hon. Member for Walsall, North, the average pensioner is better off, and help with fuel costs for those on the lowest incomes is substantially greater, than when the Labour party was in power.

The hon. Member for Mansfield cited statistics that he claimed showed how pensioners were worse off. He should compare those figures with the figures for 1979. The number of pensioners in the lowest 20 per cent. of incomes has fallen substantially. The average pensioner income as a proportion of the average wage fell under the Labour Government, but rose under this Government.

We have honoured our pledge--it was a pledge made before the election and not a change made afterwards--to protect the value of the basic state pension against inflation, despite the fact that 1 million new pensioners have come on to the scene since 1979. The basic pension provides a secure foundation for income in retirement, but more important to pensioners as a group is the value of their total income. During our first seven years in office, pensioners' average total net income has risen by 23 per cent. in real terms--much faster than it did under the Labour Government. Average income from savings--an important element and one of which we are very proud because it suggests the success of our policies and the progress of the economy--has risen by 64 per cent., and average income from occupational pensions has risen by 56 per cent.

The latest figures show that 80 per cent. of pensioners have a source of income other than state benefits, and 85 per cent. of recently retired pensioner couples have such a source of income. That reflects the growth in occupational pensions and savings, thanks to economic growth and the control of inflation. For retired people living on fixed incomes, nothing is worse than runaway inflation, which eats away remorselessly at the value of savings which it may have taken the whole of a working life to accumulate.

Under this Government, £23 billion is to go this year on benefits for the elderly--the basic pension, income support, the state earnings-related pension and the old graduated pension. That is virtually half of all social security spending, which is by far the biggest item of Government expenditure and has increased by one third since 1979. Under this Government, expenditure on benefits for the elderly has increased by 24 per cent. above the rate of inflation. We recognise, however, that some pensioners have not shared fully in the increased prosperity of the past eight years or so. The hon. Member for Walsall, North knows

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that I cannot, I am afraid, make a new announcement today, but I remind him that on 24 November my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced an extra £200 million for the poorest

pensioners--those on income support. Under those arrangements 2.6 million elderly pensioners will gain. There are new premiums for pensioners aged 75 and over, for those aged 80 and over and for disabled people over 60. That will mean an extra £2.50 a week next winter for single pensioners and an extra £3.50 for couples, over and above the increases announced for next April.

Mr. Meale : The Government seem to be giving with one hand and taking away with the other. The Government gave guarantees that people of pensionable age would lose only £2.50 under the new housing benefit regulations, yet many millions of pensioners have lost considerable sums, and even the premiums announced go only a tiny part of the way to replacing what is being taken away from pensioners.

Mr. Lloyd : Some pensioners have lost, but the point about the changes is that sums of money are redirected to those who need it most. As we did when considering these reforms, the hon. Gentleman should think about the poorer pensioners. The new arrangements for housing benefits mean that those on income support will have 100 per cent. of their rents paid. That was not the case previously, because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, there were about six different tapers and many ways of calculating housing benefit which were unfair between pensioners on the same income. This time, we have ensured that those with the lowest incomes receive the fullest help, and that the help is greater for those with higher rents. The changes have achieved exactly what we intended. If the hon. Gentleman is interested in the lowest paid of the pensioners, he should be interested, too, in the help that we are giving. Those who have lost have, by definition, been those above the lowest limits.

Mr. Winnick : Not much above the lower limits.

Mr. Lloyd : They certainly have been above the lowest limits. The point of the exercise is to direct help to where it is most needed. Hon. Members will, I am sure, be aware that extra help to those pensioners who receive income support is targeted, in recognition of the extra needs which pensioners have, through the pensioner premiums. I should stress--as the hon. Member for Mansfield did not--that the £417 million that we paid last year in the form of heating additions was all put into the pot when the income support rates and the additional premiums were determined. That £417 million was far greater in real terms than the amount spent by the Labour Government on heating allowances and additions for the elderly. It represents a real increase in care in terms of heating.

These basic benefit rates are designed to provide sufficient money to enable pensioners to pay for their heating costs during a normal winter. We have, however, as last year, provided for additional help to be given to pensioners on income support at times when the weather is especially cold. The new arrangements for making payments under the social fund cold weather payment regulations bring forward and extend a scheme which was operated successfully under supplementary benefit last year, and was not matched by any scheme run by the

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Labour Government. This new assistance to those on lowest incomes is directed to those whose heating bills will be higher because of the cold weather in their areas.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North asked what the £5 would mean. It will mean that pensioners will receive £5, which is equivalent to nearly half of the average heating fuel costs of a family--not just of a single pensioner or of a small household, but of the average household. It is a significant addition when compared with fuel prices.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North mentioned huge increases in gas prices. In fact, the increase, when compared with the rate of inflation during the past five years, is a negative one. During that period, gas prices have not risen faster than inflation. I accept that, since 1979, they have risen by about 2.4 per cent., which is about the increase in the basic pension, but it is far below the increase in pensioner incomes of which I spoke earlier.

The new rules link entitlement to receipt of the income support pensioner premium--this is the improvement--thereby allowing men and women aged 60 to 64 to qualify for help for the first time. We have deliberately kept the new arrangements as simple as possible so that the rules are easy for people to understand and for our local offices to operate.

Mr. Meale : I said that £5 was paltry for a specific reason. We have already had a substantial increase in electricity prices and, undoubtedly, there will be further increases prior to the privatisation of the industry. Is the Minister serious in saying that £5 is generous? Many people of pensionable age in my constituency rely on coal and coke products to keep warm. Pensioners in my constituency are faced with debt or death. We want the Minister to accept that £5 a week is insufficient during the winter months.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker) : Order. An intervention should be short at any time, but especially when debates are time-capped.

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