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Mr. Moore : Family credit is not just for those on very low wages, and thousands of people have not yet realised the high levels of income that they can have and still get family credit. The level depends on the number of children in the family and their ages. For example, a family with three children aged three, eight and 11 could be taking home up to £141 a week and still be eligible for family credit, and if the children were all teenagers the amount could be over £170 a week ; both those amounts are net pay after tax and national insurance deductions.
One of the main objectives of the major advertising campaign which has just begun is to ensure that people are more aware of the high levels of income at which family credit is payable and how it applies to their families.
Mr. Bowis : My right hon. Friend's answer highlights the fact that many people do not realise that they qualify for family credit. What is the current take-up in terms of expenditure, and, given my right hon. Friend's answer about the advertising campaign, can he reassure me that if there is a much greater take-up in the future, the speed with which settlements will be made will be at least as good as now, if not better?
Mr. Moore : My hon. Friend confirms the point identified in the research--people's failure to understand that they are eligible--which we are trying to address in the advertising campaign. In answer to his specific questions, the expenditure take-up is running at 65 per cent. at the moment. In regard to the clearance times, when we introduced family credit, we set up a target of 18 working days. I am happy to tell my hon. Friend and the House that in March the department averaged 17.1 days in clearance time of which only five days involved departmental work and the rest was incurred when we had to receive information from employers.
Mr. Frank Field : Now that the Government have launched the advertising campaign, which I welcome, will the Secretary of State tell the House what level of take-up of benefit the Government will consider satisfactory?
Mr. Moore : I shall continue to pursue as hard, as fast and as carefully as I can all those who are eligible. After one year we have reached 65 per cent. of the approximate expenditure, a very sizeable achievement, as the hon.
Column 12Gentleman knows. While I thank him for his generosity in welcoming our campaign, I prefer to aim for a sizeable increase in take-up and I am not prepared to put a precise figure on the advertising campaign at present. I know that the hon. Gentleman will delight in joining me in welcoming the more than doubling in expenditure on families on low incomes in comparison with FIS.
Mr. David Nicholson : As my right hon. Friend has made clear, family credit is an excellent benefit in that it is well targeted. However, is he aware of the strong pressure on both sides of the House for its take-up to be increased? Could an improvement be made by simplifying the application form?
Mr. Moore : We have just been through a process of simplifying the form. The new form is shorter and is not difficult to fill out. The research that has been done--it has been placed in the Library at the request of the Opposition--shows that the length of the form was never seen as a key problem in take-up. I think that my hon. Friend will agree, when he looks at the new form which was published last week, that it is a considerable improvement on the earlier one.
53. Mr. Simon Hughes : To ask the right hon. Member for Selby, as representing the Church Commissioners, what assistance the Church of England gives to its ministers in obtaining housing when they retire and are obliged to vacate their tied accommodation.
Mr. Michael Alison (Second Church Estates Commissioner, Representing Church Commissioners) : The retirement housing scheme administered by the pensions board and largely funded by the Church Commissioners enables all retired clergy, assistant staff and their widows to obtain suitable retirement housing. This can either be by way of an equity sharing mortgage or by renting a property, both on advantageous terms. Full details of the scheme are set out in the pamphlet issued by the pensions board entitled "Retirement Housing", a copy of which I am arranging to be placed in the Library.
Mr. Hughes : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his reassuring answer. Can he clarify and confirm that spouses of retired clergy can enjoy henceforth security of accommodation for the remainder of their lifetimes?
Mr. Alison : Yes, I can confirm that. The widows of deceased clergymen who are in houses provided by the pensions board can stay in them and may be eligible for extra financial help. There are some 4,200 clergy widows receiving general assistance from the Church Commissioners at present.
Mr. Frank Field : Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Church's record towards retired clergy is rather good but what is poor is the amount that we pay clergy when they are working? What plans does he have to improve that?
Column 13in recent years. Also, the factor of help in kind which could be worth an extra £4,000 or £5,000 a year in respect of housing help and so on is not an inconsiderable sum.
Mr. Alison : This is not directly a matter for the Church Commissioners whose principal responsibilities relate to the financial support of serving and retired clergy. However, the General Synod's board for social responsibility has published valuable information packs on drugs and alcohol. If my hon. Friend wishes, I shall arrange for the packs to be sent to him. Individual clergy at parish level have access to the information through their diocesan organisations.
Mr. Rathbone : I welcome that answer and I accept my right hon. Friend's offer to send me the information packs. However, is there no way in which the Church Commissioners can increase the training of clergy so that they can make a greater contribution to the prevention of drug misuse by closer liaison with parents, teachers and social services and through their Church activities?
Mr. Alison : There is no shortage of the necessary funding for such training. My hon. Friend's point is that there needs to be the greatest possible motivation by local parochial clergy. I shall take note of his point. It is up to the diocese to promote such special interests and the availability of useful information is one way in which the motivation can be stimulated.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : In the light of the strong connection between the Children's Society and the Church of England, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is impressing on the Government the need to accept their amendments in the Lords.
Mr. Alison : The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is a renowned spokesman for the people. I am glad to say that the Church of England is the largest and most representative body of voluntary subscribers to an institution in this country. We would vie with the hon. Gentleman in claiming to be fully representative of the people.
Mr. Alison : The number of Easter communicants each year is gathered from parish returns by the central board of finance of the Church of England, not by the Church Commissioners. The downward trend in Easter communicants from about 1.7 million in 1980 to about 1.5
Column 14million in 1986 contrasts with the upward trend in weekly communicants on a normal Sunday from 699,000 to 716,000 over the same period.
Mr. Marshall : Would not the trend be more favourable if certain leaders of the Church, such as the Bishop of Durham, did not use Easter as an occasion to declare spiritual UDI? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the leaders of the Church should confirm the faithful in our faith rather than sow the seeds of doubt?
Mr. Alison : I gladly remind my hon. Friend of the upward trend in weekly communicants. The main line to observe is that taken by the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose clear and forceful exposition of the fundamental truths and doctrine of the bodily resurrection of Christ was a prominent feature of his sermon on Easter Sunday.
Mr. Cormack : Would it not be helpful if my right hon. Friend took aside the Bishop of Durham, told him that he is likely to go down in history as the Salman Rushdie of the Church of England, and advised him to stick to politics rather than religion?
Mr. Alison : I think that it is. The existence of a leaven of believers in the most fundamental and relevant of all human truths affects and benefits a lump of secular and civilised society, although it may not have a direct connection with it.
56. Mr. Harry Greenway : To ask the right hon. Member for Selby, as representing the Church Commissioners, how much money was raised from sales of goods in cathedrals and churches in each of the last three years ; what account the commissioners take of these finances ; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Alison : The commissioners do not hold statistics of the amounts raised from the sale of goods in cathedrals and churches. In so far as income from this source forms part of cathedrals' overall income, the commissioners take account of it when they make grants on a selective basis towards the pay of cathedral staff.
Mr. Greenway : Is it not a fact that many shops, churches and cathedrals open for long hours but would like to be able to sell a wider range of goods than they are currently permitted by the Sunday trading laws? Will my right hon. Friend impress on shopkeepers that they should observe a national compromise like everyone else and not open for four hours on any Sunday?
Mr. Alison : The laws governing Sunday trading apply to cathedrals and churches in the same way as they do to other bodies. It is in the nature of the Church establishment that it should observe not only the letter but the spirit of the law. I take note of my hon. Friend's point.
Mr. Thurnham : Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Church Commissioners are increasing their investment in retail businesses? Will he ask them whether they intend to take advantage of the offer to purchase the House of Fraser--whose owner said, "Only God can take it from me."?
Mr. Kirkhope : Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be wrong for some of our greater and finer churches and cathedrals to be turned too much into places of commercial activity? Many people are already, to some extent, put off going to them by this activity when they wish to worship privately.
Mr. Alison : I take my hon. Friend's point. However, I hope that he will bear in mind that there is a genuine and legitimate tourist interest-- not least from overseas visitors--in the heritage of our churches and cathedrals. It is up to the day-to-day management of the churches, by responsible parochial church councils or cathedral staff, to ensure that the proper balance is struck between those who wish to sightsee and those who wish to worship.
57. Mr. Janner : To ask the Lord President of the Council whether he will post a notice in all cafeterias and restaurants open to hon. Members, giving advice on the health implications of various foods available.
Mr. Janner : Does the right hon. Gentleman think that he ought to advise colleagues about whether the Government think it is reasonable, right and safe to eat, for example, eggs, mayonnaise, chicken meat or apples, or to drink water? As most of us are against by-elections--although we are prepared to make some exceptions--does the right hon. Gentleman not consider that, having failed to advise the country competently on what foods are safe, he at least ought to advise Members of Parliament?
Mr. Wakeham : I do not accept a single word of that. As my previous replies on this subject have shown, the Refreshment Department places great emphasis on making available food and menus of good quality, which provide a nutritious and balanced diet. However, there is a point where the Department's responsibilities end and the individual's good sense must prevail.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Does my right hon. Friend accept that we are much heartened by his response? Will he continue to bear in mind that this is not a kindergarten, but a place for responsible adults who are quite capable of looking after their own health?
Column 16allowed the Catering Sub-Committee to consider for 18 months how to introduce healthy food and then to come up with a decision to employ consultants who, we are told, are not suitable to do this work. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the person who was going to do the consultative work had a degree in hotel and catering management, was a state registered dietician and, what is more, co- ordinated the textbook on GCSE nutrition? Why cannot we have a proper, healthy eating policy in the palace of Westminster?
Mr. Wakeham : As the hon. Lady knows, the Catering Sub-Committee retains the services of a qualified nutritional and dietary expert. The Sub -Committee put forward a proposal and I understand the hon. Lady's disappointment. However, the Services Committee is entirely free to accept, change or reject any resolution from its Sub-Committee. There would be little point in it reconsidering such resolutions if it were not able to do so.
Mr. Wakeham : I have received only one such representation since Monday 6 February, the date on which the restrictions came into effect. The representation was in the form of a parliamentary question from the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies).
Mr. Thurnham : Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that the crush in the Table Office is much eased after tea time? Will he consider allowing those research assistants who have Library passes to enter the Table Office after about half past four?
Mr. Wakeham : The rules on access to the Table Office were agreed by the House as part of its endorsement of the Services Committee's recommendation in its second report of the Session 1987-88. Any modification to those rules would first be a matter for the Accommodation and Administration Sub-Committee. As my hon. Friend may be aware, the rules which were agreed by the House prohibit Members' staff using the Table Office after 2 pm, Mondays to Thursdays. However, during those times, Members' staff may deposit questions and notices of motion in a box which has been installed outside the Table Office and which is regularly cleared.
Mr. Knox : To ask the Lord President of the Council if he will take steps to ensure that the standard of accommodation and fittings to be provided for Members and staff of the House in phases 1 and 2 of the Bridge street development will be at least equivalent to that which has been provided for Ministers and their civil servants in the recently completed Richmond terrace development.
Mr. Wakeham : I am fully aware of the need to ensure that the accommodation and fittings in the Bridge street development are provided to a standard sufficient to meet the needs of right hon. and hon. Members and others who will be using them. Immediate responsibility for the
Column 17achievement of these standards lies with the New Buildings sub-committee of the Services Committee, which I am sure is aware of the need to protect and promote the interests of the House.
Mr. Knox : Can my right hon. Friend guarantee that as much money will be spent on the accommodation of Members of Parliament as has been spent on Ministers' and civil servants' accommodation in Richmond house?
Mr. Wakeham : I am sure that my hon. Friend is thinking of the restored eighteenth century rooms fronting Richmond terrace. A decision was quite properly taken to restore and refurbish these rooms in a way that was appropriate to their age and artistic distinction. The other accommodation in Richmond house is equipped from standard Civil Service ranges, and , as I have said, the standard of furnishings and fittings for Members in phase 1 of the new buildings is already being looked at.
60. Mr. Harry Greenway : To ask the Lord President of the Council whether he has any plans to arrange for the establishment of permanently constructed reception and dining areas on the Terrace of the House of Commons ; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Greenway : Can my right hon. Friend tell us more about the facility that was unveiled last week? How much did it cost ; how many will it accommodate and for what principal functions ; and when does he expect it to be in general use?
Mr. Wakeham : I can tell my hon. Friend some of the information that he requires. The total cost is not expected to exceed £150,000 ; 75 per cent. of that will come from the Refreshment Department's trading fund account and the remainder from the parliamentary works account. It is planned as a viable project that will not only pay its own costs but is expected to contribute to the general running costs of the Refreshment Department. It will operate from Easter until Christmas each year.
Mr. McLoughlin : I welcome my right hon. Friend's answer, but does he accept that the first priority should be to provide a reception area at the Norman Porch, so that when constituents come down they do not have to stand in the rain to wait to see the place to which they should have access?
Mr. Wakeham : There is a question later on the Order Paper on that subject. Certain proposals are being discussed by the authorities in this House and in another place. We hope to make some progress shortly.
Mr. Wakeham : As Chairman of the Select Committee that is currently considering the televising of our proceedings, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on such matters before the recommendations of the Committee are known.
Mr. Allen : Is the Lord President aware that in the United States members of Congress have access to a sound link and to closed-circuit television? Will he at least consider incorporating such a proposal for the consideration of the House in the forthcoming report?
Mr. Wakeham : The hon. Gentleman will have to wait for our report. I am sure that a number of hon. Members feel that colleagues already spend too little time in the Chamber and would strongly oppose any further move that would worsen that situation.
62. Mr. Skinner : To ask the Lord President of the Council if he has any further statement to make with regard to providing improved facilities for visitors to the Houses of Parliament ; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Wakeham : The Accommodation and Administration Sub-Committee has submitted specific proposals to the Administration Committee of the other place, where it is generally recognised that there is a need to improve the arrangements for visitors at the Norman Porch. Those proposals are, I understand, receiving sympathetic consideration.
Mr. Skinner : Why does it take so long to resolve this problem? For donkey's years questions have been asked in the House about improving facilities for visitors coming to this place, yet when somebody decides to build a boudoir with Liberace-type candelabra on the Terrace for the top people, the necessary money can be found at the drop of a hat. If we cannot get the other matter resolved would it not be a good idea to allow visitors to occupy that place?
Mr. Wakeham : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the problems in dealing with this are not just concerned with money, because there is also the question of security. Some steps have been taken but, unfortunately, discussions are still going on and at this stage I am not in a position to say anything further.
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