Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland) (by private notice) : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what assessment he has made of the environmental impact of the leak of 50,000 gallons of drilling mud from Shell's North Cormorant platform 100 miles north east of Shetland?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) : I understand from inquiries made by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland that about 1,140 barrels of oil- based drilling mud were accidentally discharged into the sea yesterday afternoon from the North Cormorant oil and gas production platform. The accident occurred during transfer of the mud from a supply vessel to a holding tank on board the platform. It is believed that there was a mechanical failure in a drainage pipe from one of the holding tanks which led to the leakage of mud about 100 m below the surface of the sea.
The drilling mud contained about 60 per cent. of refined oil. It is expected that the released mud has fallen to the sea bed close to the installation. The spilled mud contained about 680 barrels of oil. The tanks on board the platform were emptied yesterday afternoon, immediately following discovery of the leakage. No further spillage has occurred.
The information received as a result of inquiries indicated that the effect on the environment is minimal. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Energy and I will be seeking a report on the source and impact of the spillage from the responsible authorities and the operators as soon as possible. Furthermore, we have asked Shell to report to us immediately if there is any evidence at all of any adverse environmental impact.
Mr. Wallace : I am grateful to the Minister for his detailed reply. I am sure that he will reassure the House that if Shell report, any sightings of adverse environmental impact immediate action will be taken. Does he agree that, given the present sensitivity about pollution, not least from oil-related installations, merely to look at incidents individually is to miss the whole point that further consideration should be given to an overall examination of the environmental implications of North sea oil developments?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : The answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question is yes. In answer to the second part, I should make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that in the wake of the Alaska episode my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Energy asked for an update on how we deal with oil spillages in United Kingdom continental waters. That process is already under way, and if improvements are needed they will be made. Exercises on a considerable scale take place annually and are carried out by the marine pollution control unit of the Department of Transport. The last major one was on 4 July last year, and a smaller exercise was carried out in Humberside on 7 March.
Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (Kincardine and Deeside) : First, will my hon. Friend confirm that Shell acts very responsibly in relation to matters such as pollution, and indeed safety and other matters? Will he assure the House that he is getting all possible co-operation from the
Column 740company, as I am sure he is? Secondly, will he confirm that, if a major pollution problem should arise, there are adequate resources in the area to deal with it, as evidenced by the fact that companies in Aberdeen have been called upon to assist in clearing up pollution in Alaska?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : With regard to my right hon. Friend's first point, I have had a meeting with a representative from Shell, and I agree with what my right hon. Friend said. The other matter will certainly be followed up with the relevant Departments and we shall do everything in our power to ensure inter-departmental co-operation to effect this very important purpose.
Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North) : The Minister is being characteristically vague about who is to provide this very important information. When he refers to responsible authorities in the company, does he mean that the Government will be relying almost entirely on the company for further information? Ought he not to be insisting that all Government resources be commanded immediately to inspect the area, continue to monitor and to take positive action with urgency to prevent the pollution having any effect on the marine environment?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : We received information from Shell in the first instance, but I assure the hon. Member that we will check monitoring and that wider surveys are carried out by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries scientists in this matter. It is the responsibility of the operator--in this case Shell--to monitor the oil content of discharges of mud or cuttings around each platform under the powers exercised by the Secretary of State for Energy.
Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North) : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is impossible to eliminate either human or mechanical accidents in any sphere whatsoever and that therefore, as long as we extract oil from the sea and transport it in ships, there will be a risk? The important thing is that we have the resources available to deal with the possible results of that risk. It would seem certain that we do in this case.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : We want to reduce risk to an absolute minimum and do everything humanly possible to achieve that purpose. As for safety issues generally, which my hon. Friend touched on indirectly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy is responsible. As my hon. Friend knows, Lord Cullen is now conducting the Piper Alpha public inquiry and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has made it clear that if he makes any recommendations for improvement of the safety regime they will be adopted.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : Following the point made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), does not the Minister consider that there is a difficulty in that all the information that he has given us today has come from the company? When will the independent investigation take place? Does he not consider that there is a real difficulty in that we do not have a system of regulation in the North sea ; we have in effect a system of self-regulation?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Preliminary investigations indicated that isolation of the mud storage tank on the platform failed and that involved the valve and cement plug, we believe, allowing the mud to discharge into the sea
Column 741through one of the platform legs about 100 m below sea level. The mud contained approximately 680 barrels of oil out of 1,140 barrels and this sank to the sea bed. There is no visible sign of a slick on the surface. Admittedly, conditions are not particularly good, but I can give the hon. Member the assurance that there will be monitoring as necessary by the appropriate authorities.
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight) : Can my hon. Friend reassure the House that in the review dependence on dispersants will be looked into very carefully, as much of that technology comes from the oil companies which manufacture the dispersants and there are serious misgivings that that means of dealing with a major oil spill will fail, as it has failed in Alaska?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Energy has asked for an update on how to deal with oil spillages so as to get the most up-to-date advanced technical and technological information to enable us to deal with these matters appropriately in all circumstances.
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian) : Will the Minister stop muttering platitudes about monitoring and updates and acknowledge that it is fairly common practice for unwanted material to find its way over the sides of oil rigs? Is there not an urgent need for effective action by Government Departments to control this practice?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Strong penalties exist. If it is shown, for example, that a discharge is due to want of reasonable care, the operator is liable to penalties under the Prevention of Oil Pollution Act 1986 of up to £50,000 on summary conviction or an unlimited amount or imprisonment on indictment. If the hon. Gentleman has evidence of misdeeds in the sea outside his constituency he should report them as appropriate.
Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden) : I note what the Minister has said, and I recognise that there is no surface slick and that the mud has sunk to the sea bed within the 500 m exclusion zone, but surely he accepts that any unintended discharge of as much as 50,000 United States gallons of oil-based mud--even if it is of low toxicity--is a matter for genuine concern, and that the House and the country would expect monitoring to be very tight and extended. The Minister referred to the circumstances of the discharge. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that the supply vessel, the Edda Fram, started pumping into the storage tank at 1130 hrs yesterday and it was only at 1500 hours, a considerable time later, that someone noticed that the contents of the storage tank were dropping and not rising. That suggests that at least there was something wrong with the surveillance system. In effect, they were pumping through an empty discharge drain straight into the sea for three to four hours before those operating the system became aware that something was wrong. Does not that suggest that there was something wrong with the inspection system and that there is food for thought for the Department?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton: Yes. The hon. Gentleman touches on a relevant point. It was at 11.30 am that the supply vessel commenced pumping and it was at 3 pm that those responsible became concerned that stocks were not building up as expected, exactly as the hon. Gentleman has said. It is important that we should find out exactly why the isolation system failed. Shell is making immediate inquiries and both the Scottish Office and the Department of Energy expect to be kept closely informed. I agree with the points that the hon. Gentleman made.
responsibility? Of course, the Prime Minister is quite right in saying that she is not responsible for prosecutions. But is she not head of the Civil Service? Therefore, are not questions about the behaviour not only of the most senior civil servants but her own intimate personal civil servants, working for her, like Mr. Charles Powell, matters for the Prime Minister?
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is about the contempt in which the House is being held by the Secretary of State for Transport. I understand that at this very moment he is making an announcement at the Department of Transport about the Carlisle-Settle railway line. I welcome the decision to keep the line open, under the control of British Rail, which proves to be a defeat for British Rail who wanted to close the line, and a defeat for the Government, who wanted to privatise it. If we look at Hansard, we see that announcements about the Carlisle-Settle line have been made on the Floor of the House and hon. Members could question the Minister on them. Will you, Mr. Speaker, adjourn the House and bring the Minister from his press conference to the Despatch Box to answer the questions that many of us would like to put to him?
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The matter is worse than has been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) because there appears to have been a deliberate conspiracy to avoid accountability to the House.
The question on page 3084 of today's Order Paper for written answer was handed in only yesterday. I understand that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) issued a statement this morning commenting on the reply to that question. That suggests that some information has been circulated exclusively among Conservative Members about a matter which has been the subject of several debates and more than 30 petitions from all parts of the United Kingdom and from hon. Members on both sides of the House.
When the Secretary of State for Transport said last year that he was minded to close the line, he made a statement to the House following Transport Questions. He deliberately picked out two questions which he could refer to at the end of Question Time through the usual arrangement. This railway is of great interest to many people and many hon. Members have referred to it in oral and written questions. It is monstrously outrageous that we should be denied the right to question the arrangements which the Secretary of State has entered into. I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, deprecate such a shoddy conspiracy by the Government.
Today is an Opposition day and it could well be--although I have no knowledge of this--that arrangements have been discussed through the usual channels about this matter to protect the day's business.
Mr. Snape : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Having listened to the exchanges, and bearing in mind your ruling, it seems that two points arise directly. First, the Secretary of State for Transport held a press conference that was scheduled to start at 3.30 pm. Perhaps you can look into this, Mr. Speaker. Is it not unprecedented, that the Secretary of State is so punch-drunk that he is too terrified to come to the House to announce good news, let alone bad news?
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. This morning the Select Committee on Procedure held a press conference at 11 o'clock and precisely this abuse of the House was raised in justification of those who seek to frustrate our procedures. If you were to rule that this practice was improper, Ministers would act accordingly and change their practices. When we were asked at the press conference to justify what has been happening, this type of example was raised. The matter is in your hands, Mr. Speaker, and you can resolve it.
Mr. Speaker : It is not in my hands. The House is aware that I am not responsible for organising the business. However, it may well be that an Opposition day is not considered to be an appropriate day to make a statement. I frequently receive representations from hon. Members who complain about not being called because a statement was made on a day when the Opposition had chosen the subject for debate. It is a question of balance. I do not organise the business.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that you would agree that one of the roles of the House of Commons, certainly a role of the Opposition, is to identify where abuse and misconduct have occurred and to raise such matters on the Floor of the House. Yesterday I raised a question with the Attorney-General. I do not question your decision, Mr. Speaker, because you must decide these matters. However, yesterday, with regard to his role in the Westland affair, you said that the Attorney-General should not reply because it was not relevant to the question on the Order Paper. As you know, Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister gave a very evasive reply.
If we know that there was deception, lying and dishonesty over the Westland affair, certainly by Mr. Ingham and Mr. Powell, how can we raise the issue on the Floor of the House? When such deception, dishonesty and outright lies occurred in January 1986 over the Westland affair, why are we silenced and not allowed to raise the matter?
Column 745and is very experienced, that if he looks at yesterday's Hansard his question had no relevance to the main question on the Order Paper.
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) : Further to those points of order, Mr. Speaker. The two points of order relate to each other. You must have gathered by now the profound frustration that is beginning to be felt in the House at the way in which Ministers feel able to ignore the normal conventions and responsibilities. My hon. Friends the Members for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) and for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) have just outlined one matter which, on previous occasions, has led you to say that Ministers should make statements in the House rather than outside. However, your advice is continually ignored. In that respect, Mr. Speaker, what do you intend to do to assert the rights of the House?
That matter relates to the first point of order that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). When does the House have the right to investigate and question the Executive? That power can be operated only if Ministers are not allowed to stand at the Dispatch Box and blatantly say that a matter is not their responsibility when clearly it is. As protector of the rights of the House of Commons, Mr. Speaker, how do you intend in future to ensure that where officials of the Prime Minister, the Head of the Civil Service, have created a major constitutional abuse, the House has the right of interrogation that the Prime Minister and her Ministers are attempting to deny it?
Mr. Speaker : I am surprised that the deputy shadow Leader of the House should put a question in those terms to the Chair. He knows perfectly well that it is not the role of the Chair to organise the business. Furthermore, he is part of the management, through the usual channels of the House. Today is a Supply day and he could have chosen that topic for debate had he wished. It is for the Opposition to choose the subject for debate--he has those opportunities. I am not responsible for what is said from the Dispatch Box, provided that it is in order.
I have deprecated more than enough the fact that statements are made outside the House. I should always prefer statements to be made in the House before they are made to the press, but, equally, the right hon. Gentleman
Column 746should bear in mind that that is likely to impinge on Opposition time. That would undoubtedly have been the case today if there had been a statement. These are not matters for me but for the management of the House.
Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Some of us in the Chamber this afternoon are hoping to listen to the debate on pensions. I am becoming concerned that the Labour party intends to continue making bogus points of order until 10 pm in order to disguise its appalling record on that subject when in government and to disguise the weakness of its policies today. I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, will put a stop to all this nonsense and let us get on with the debate.
Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As one of the privileges of the House is that we can attend and vote safely, will you use your good offices to ensure that hon. Members who are hurrying from Norman Shaw and crossing Palace Yard do not suffer the fate that almost befell me of being mowed down by a Government car speeding in through the narrow entrances, a matter which I raised with the relevant Minister at the Department of the Environment last night? When the Division bell goes, one accepts that Ministers and Government cars have to come in, but someone should tell them about speed limits because there is a serious danger to hon. Members and the staff of the House who could well be injured by motor cars whose drivers do not know how to drive and who appear to be in an unnecessary hurry.
That European Community Document No. 4092/89 relating to pesticide residues be referred to a Standing Committee on European Community Documents-- [Mr. Heathcoat-Amory.]
That the draft Building Societies (Money Transmission Services) Order 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Heathcoat-Amory.]
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require Government departments and other public bodies to include in the production of statistics relating to the gross domestic product and other accounts a calculation of the unremunerated contribution of women ; and to include this calculation in the gross national product.
The Bill requires the Government to quantify the unremunerated work of women and to include that quantification in the gross national product. In order to explain the need for the Bill and the gross injustices that it will redress, I shall put before the House facts about the economy that women--particularly the poorest women--have been wanting to give right hon. and hon. Members for many a day.
When I was 16 my parents sent me to secretarial college to learn shorthand, typewriting, bookkeeping and business studies. All over the walls of that building, in large letters, was the slogan "Time is money". Although that time is money is an accepted and obvious economic fact, everywhere in society women's time is squandered as if it were worthless. Today few shops will even say whether goods will be delivered in the morning or the afternoon. The same is true when equipment needs repairing and of meter readings and gas, electric and telephone connections or disconnections. Women's waiting time is expected to be at everyone's disposal.
The daily queues at supermarket checkouts grow on Saturday when women, many of whom have been out to waged work all week, have to plough through their housework on their so-called day off. Of course, those time-wasting queues lower staff costs. Clearly time is money--but it seems that it is women's time that ensures that other people, especially the captains of commerce and industry, make money.
Much of the work that women do is unremunerated and never enters the GNP, as that quantifies only goods and services exchanged for money. However, that unremunerated work, while it is not counted, is certainly counted on. The Government, in closing hospitals and many institutions that provided health care and other services, claim that they will be replaced by community care. However, it is not the community in general that does the caring but women who shoulder the extra burden of time-consuming, back- breaking and emotionally exhausting work for which the Government are refusing to pay. That shift from waged to unwaged caring is not quantified in official statistics, so no one knows just how much money women are saving the Government by picking up the pieces of the shattered welfare state. Again, women's unpaid work is counted upon but not counted. Most women in waged jobs find themselves at the bottom of the pyramid. They are particularly exploited when they take on part-time work in order to have time for family responsibilities. Even those few women who secure well-paid jobs find that, once they become mothers, their lives too are shaped by the task of bringing up their children--the future labour force--and of caring for others whose work is considered more important than almost everything that women do, whether the women are professionals, cardboard box makers, or are fully occupied at home.
Column 748The work of women that is included in the GNP is based on a pedestal of unremunerated, uncounted work. Imagine how much work and responsibility falls on the women in the families of British Rail employees who in a recent accident inquiry revealed that they work a 12-hour day, seven days a week. There is not much chance of those men helping with the housework ; all the burden falls on their wives. It is almost always women who care for those who are ill or who have disabilities. As so-called farmers' wives, they tend kitchen gardens and livestock. They are market traders, shop attendants and bookkeepers in family businesses. They are often secretaries, typists and hostesses, as well as being wives and a status symbol for their professional husbands. It is women who ensure that the flowers are on the church altar and that schools have parent-teacher associations as well as volunteers to make up for education cuts by running jumble sales, mixing paints and coaching young readers.
Women visit ailing relatives and neighbours, especially when meals-on- wheels no longer roll up. Women work overtime to shield families and whole communities from the effects of racism and racist immigration controls, class prejudice, polluted food, water and air, and the economic, physical and emotional devastation of unemployment. None of this skilled, time- consuming life-giving but unwaged work of women is counted in the GNP.
The fact that women are statistically invisible as producers and service providers means that some economists have the cheek to label as marginal these workers without whose vital work society would grind to a halt. The failure to count women's unremunerated work in the gross national product results in a distorted picture of the economy and leads to faulty economic planning, which does not meet the needs of working people. The very same work enters national statistics when performed by those who are paid for their work, such as nannies, nurses, bookkeepers, housekeepers, agricultural workers, physiotherapists, chauffeurs, chefs, interior decorators--the list is almost endless. Endless too are the damaging effects of the monetary and statistical invisibility of the work of housewives. The fact that this work is unwaged and uncounted devalues women's waged work, too. The many organisational, technical and other practical skills that women develop as housewives gain them little in the waged labour market. One exception to that involves the National Union of Teachers, which was my union for many years. The NUT gained one year's increment for every three years that women spent at home with their own children. This was recognition for some of the work of mothers who return to teaching. However, most of the time the housework women do either full or part-time--before they go to work work in the morning, after they return home at night and at weekends--is not considered work. Only when this unwaged work of women is officially quantified by widening the compass of the GNP will we even begin to know how much time and skill goes into the economy and the production of specific commodities.
I therefore present this Bill, which requires Government Departments and other public bodies to include in the statistics relating to the gross domestic product and other accounts the quantification of the unremunerated work of women--in both the formal and informal sectors of the economy--and to include that calculation in the gross national product.
Column 749There is growing international awareness of the need for recognition of the totality of women's contribution to the economy. According to the United Nations, women carry out two thirds of the world's work for 10 per cent. of the income, and own only 1 per cent. of the assets. In July 1985, the United Kingdom Government were represented at the United Nations world conference in Nairobi, Kenya and agreed "Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women", the final document of the Decade for Women. Paragraph 120--amended by delegates from Sierra Leone, Jordan and Uganda, along the lines put forward by the international wages for housework campaign--committed Governments to include women's unremunerated work in the GNP. The following November, paragraph 120 was singled out as one of the most important decisions of the Decade for Women and ratified by the United Nations General Assembly. My Bill would implement that decision.
Despite their enormous contribution, women are undervalued because so much of their work is unvalued and economically invisible. That has enabled the Government to get away with cutting maternity grants and freezing child benefit--the only money which many women can call their own. Adding up this work makes the unanswerable case that these benefits are rights for work done, not charities.
Economic invisibility keeps older women dependent on their husband's goodwill because, despite a lifetime of serving family and community, there are no pension contributions for unwaged housework. Many a divorced wife lives to see her ex-husband retire from the position which she helped him to obtain on a good pension, while her income is reduced to a bare minimum. The economic invisibility of most women's work has allowed the Government to inch nearer to workfare--the American version of the workhouse--which forces claimants into dead-end jobs to earn their entitlement to income support.
Ms. Gordon : Counting women's work would prove that every mother is a working mother and that some of them have two or even three jobs. Counting women's work would make women count by making clear that every woman, whether or not she does waged work, is nevertheless a working woman.
Perhaps the most unjust policy that economic invisibility has permitted is the poll tax, which is levelled at women who have no income. Despite women's enormous contribution, the Government are demanding more. These women will become institutionalised and further dependent on the goodwill of the wage earner. They will be institutionalised into an inferior, vulnerable and archaic position which will invite domestic violence. Women on income support, including mothers, will have 20 per cent. of the poll tax deducted from the household's survival money.
When all the work that women do is finally made visible in the GNP and other official statistics, no one will be able to continue to ignore the extent of dependence of the mighty institutions of the state, industry, commerce and every social organisation throughout the United Kingdom on women's voluntary and involuntary unwaged work.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms. Mildred Gordon, Mr. Tony Banks, Mr. John Battle, Mr. Tony Benn, Mr. Jimmy Dunnachie, Mr. Eric S. Heffer, Mr. John Hughes, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Ms. Marjorie Mowlam, Ms. Joyce Quin, Mr. Dennis Skinner and Mr. Nigel Spearing.
Ms. Mildred Gordon accordingly presented a Bill to require Government departments and other public bodies to include in the production of statistics relating to the gross domestic product and other accounts a calculation of the unremunerated contribution of women ; and to include this calculation in the gross national product : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 14 April and to be printed. [Bill 114.]
Uprating of Pensions and Other Benefits
Mr. Speaker : We now come to the first Opposition motion, on the uprating of pensions and other benefits. I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. Given that we are starting rather later than I had hoped, I ask Front-Bench spokesmen and Back Benchers to make short contributions.
That this House notes that this week pensions and other benefits are increased by 5.9 per cent. at a time when prices are rising by 7.9 per cent. and earnings by 9 per cent. ; further notes that if the pension had been uprated since 1979 in line with earnings, under the formula introduced by the Labour Government, a married couple would this week be receiving an additional £17.55 p ; records its deep concern at the plight of over half a million pensioners and other claimants who this week do not receive a single penny in uprating ; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to extend the full uprating to all pensioners and claimants.
I read daily that preparations are under way to commemorate in May the 10th anniversary of the Prime Minister's election, when she will exceed the time limit that Mr. Gorbachev has thought it prudent to impose as a maximum period for which any elected official can hold senior office in the Soviet Union--a prudent measure to prevent the abuse of power.
Six weeks later, on 13 June, we shall celebrate another 10th anniversary. On that date in 1979, the then Secretary of State for Social Security, who has now been translated to another place, announced to the House that pensions would no longer rise in line with earnings but would be pegged only to prices. That is not quite how he put it. He said that that was the minimum that the Government would do to the pension. If the right hon. Gentleman had been mean with the money, he was generous with the promises. He said : "I should like to make it clear, however, that it remains the Government's firm intention that pensioners and other long-term beneficiaries can confidently look forward to sharing in the increased standards of living of the country as a whole." [Official Report, 13 June 1979 ; Vol. 968, c.439.]
Mr. Cook : My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) characteristically commits the Government to rigorous scrutiny. I hope that he will forgive my saying that I am sure that the then Secretary of State meant every word he said. The sad thing is that the Government of which he was a member did not keep a single word of that pledge. Not once in the past decade have pensioners on the basic pension shared in the increased standards of living of the country as a whole. Every year under this Government they have been short-changed.
I wish to be scrupulously fair : it is not the case that pensioners have had no share in the increased living standards of the country. That would be unfair ; they have been given a 2 per cent. share. That is the precise amount by which the basic pension has gone up in real terms under this Government, while over the same period average earnings have gone up by 24 per cent.
Column 752I heard the Minister for Social Security interviewed on the radio on Sunday, when he entertained me by saying that he was looking forward to this debate with relish in order to contrast the record of his Government with the record of the last Labour Government. There certainly is a contrast. In 10 years this Government have increased the basic pension by 2 per cent. ; in five years the last Labour Government increased the basic pension by 20 per cent. in real terms. If that is the contrast the Minister relishes, I give him 10 out of 10 for bravado but one out of 10 for prudence.
Of course, the Secretary of State and the Minister have a well-worn alibi. I have not the slightest doubt that they have been rehearsing it all morning at the Department in front of the mirror to make it sound more convincing. The alibi runs thus : the basic pension does not matter all that much ; what matters is the growth in pensioners' total income.
What makes that alibi so breathtaking, so bald that it would take away the breath of any honest jury, is that it rests on a system which this Government inherited from the last Labour Government. On 13 December the Under-Secretary of State, in a reply to a parliamentary question from me, confirmed that the largest single contribution to the growth in real incomes of pensioners was from the state earnings-related pension, designed by the last Labour Government, which has provided two fifths of the increase for which the Government claim credit. The irony is, of course, that the Government have spent the last four years doing the best they can to undermine SERPS and to make sure it does not make the same contribution in the next decade.
It is possible to measure how much the pensioner has been short-changed over the past decade by supposing that the statement made 10 years ago had not been made and that the pension had been uprated in line with earnings, as it would have been under the formula inherited from Labour. A married couple would this week have been receiving £17.55 more than they will get in their pension book this Friday. That is big money. It is very big money to those living on a pension. Yesterday I unveiled what a pensioner might get in a shopping basket for that money. It included a fresh chicken for a Sunday roast ; half a dozen oranges, a source of fresh fruit ; a packet of tea bags ; a jar of instant coffee--even that is now a luxury to many pensioners ; a pair of tights ; a couple of bars of soap ; a cheap brand of talcum powder ; two stamps towards the TV licence. The really depressing feature about every item on that list is that nothing there is not likely to disappear within a week in a household of two. Without that extra income, all those items disappear from the weekly budget of that couple.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) rose --
The result is that that couple is left with a constant conjuring trick to make ends meet. This was perfectly expressed with complete understatement by Age Concern, Scotland, which said :
"Age Concern Scotland staff know of one elderly man who budgets by buying one big item every week. One week the big item is the washing up liquid, the next week toilet rolls. A loss of a couple of pounds per week for someone with this kind of budget is drastic."