Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen) : While I welcome greatly what my right hon. Friend has told the House and appreciate all the extra money that he has announced--we all recognise and welcome that the sum is £143 million per day for benefit--I am greatly disappointed that he has not found it possible to uprate child benefit. I appreciate that it is a universal benefit, but it is paid directly to the mother, and that is an important aspect. During the next six months, will my right hon. Friend look carefully at the take-up of family credit, to see whether he can raise that figure to as near as that for child benefit as possible? I shall reserve my judgment about opposing him until I see how he gets on.
Mr. Newton : I take some comfort at least from the last part of what my hon. Friend said. I assure her, as I have assured the House several times, that everything possible will be done to increase the number of people who take up family credit. The improvements that I have announced this afternoon will assist in that process.
Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South) : Why has the Secretary of State ignored the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee, which said that if child benefit was not raised, the Government's efforts to encourage single mothers back into the paid labour market would not succeed, and that the freezing of the benefit at the 1987 level would increase women's dependency on means-tested benefits and continue to trap them within the poverty limit?
Mr. Newton : I have not ignored anything, on this or any other front, that the Social Security Advisory Committee has said. I simply take a different judgment, certainly at the moment, about the right way to achieve the objective to which it also attaches importance.
Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West) : Does my right hon. Friend accept that many Conservative Members find it offensive that people on the salaries of Members of Parliament and other similar salaries are still receiving child benefit, and that we would prefer to see that money used to help people who are less well off? People who are not sharing their income fully with their wives and children should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Most people will welcome my right hon. Friend's statement that the people most in need will be helped most.
Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that this is the third consecutive year that child benefit has not been increased? If, in 1991, in the run-in to a general election, he thinks that he can use child benefit for an election bribe, he will find that millions of mothers simply will not forgive the Government for the treatment that they have had over child benefit in the past three years. On a completely different issue, as some of the changes that the Secretary of State has introduced arise from the introduction of the social security changes in April 1988, will he look at another anomaly introduced by those changes? The Government increased the age limit for qualification for a widow's pension from 40 to 45. Many widows who receive widowed mother's allowance will go off that allowance before they are aged 45. Therefore, they will go from the widowed mother's allowance one day to nothing the following day. Will the Secretary of State look at this vexed question?
Mr. Newton : The hon. Gentleman will know that we have acted already to deal with one aspect of the changes in widows' pensions which was widely regarded as anomalous. I shall examine with care what he has said, but I cannot give him any undertaking. As for child benefit, I have no plans to do anything other than what I have faithfully done this year, which is to review the matter in the light of the circumstances and the other things that I wish to do. That is what I shall continue to do.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Speaker : Order. I must have regard to subsequent business. I shall endeavour to call hon. Members who have been rising in their places, but I ask for brief questions and not repetition of questions which have already been asked and answered.
Mrs. Maureen Hicks (Wolverhampton, North-East) : I welcome the generous benefits that have been outlined, but I have to say to my right hon. Friend that I think that there is an inconsistency and a principle at stake in excluding yet again an uprating of child benefit. I remained silent during the previous two occasions on which we discussed the subject, but I have reached the point where I am conscious of those who do not apply for family credit, despite our wonderful efforts to encourage take-up, and of constituents who are not eligible for family credit. I hope that all the comments that my right hon. Friend has heard this afternoon will demonstrate clearly to him that there is a need to say honestly and openly that there is a clear-sighted policy for the future. The Government have always been recognised as being clear sighted, but we are now in danger of having muddle. We have a universal benefit that has not been upgraded and at the same time we have family credit. All that we are saying is that we look to my right hon. Friend in future to offer a clear policy.
Mr. Newton : I respect what hon. Friend has said and the reasons why she said it. I merely say that I think that it would be accepted on both sides of the House that under a Government of any colour it would be virtually inconceivable that child benefit could be set at levels that would give family credit families the same amount that they get from family credit. Wherever the line is drawn,
Column 870there will be a need, in my judgment, for a benefit of that sort. I think that it is right to concentrate on making it as effective as we can.
Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) : Does the Secretary of State not realise that for the 10th year running the Government have failed to link old-age pensions to rising levels of incomes? Next year the Government will save about £5,000 million from failing to uprate the old-age pension, and that is enough to cover the package that has been announced today, the top tax cuts for the rich and this month's trade deficit, all on the backs of Britain's pensioners.
Mr. Newton : Over the 10 years during which the Government have presided, the range of our policies as a whole have increased pensioners' average net incomes far faster than under the previous Government. In recent months--indeed, during this very month and in parts of the package that I have announced--we have given additional help on a substantial scale to those who have not yet benefited from occupational pension schemes, for example.
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight) : In view of the demographic slump, my right hon. Friend's announcement on helping lone parents back into work will be widely welcomed. Can he tell me when he will be able to announce a decision on a local increment for income support for families, with young children, that have a metered water supply?
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) : May I urge the Secretary of State to launch an urgent investigation into the difficulties of elderly people and their relatives who are finding great difficulty in paying the difference between DSS benefit and private home fees? Will he instruct his Department to collect information about elderly people who are being evicted from private homes because they cannot afford to pay the fees? In that context, will he persuade councils, such as Bradford council, not to close council homes, whose places will be needed desperately for elderly people who cannot afford the fees of private homes or are evicted from private homes because they cannot pay the fees?
Mr. Newton : The hon. Gentleman will be aware that payments from social security in that respect have risen from only about £10 million in 1979 to more than£1 billion this year, and I have announced further increases today. The hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that payments have never been set at levels that cover all the costs in all the homes. However, they do cover the majority of homes, and I think that that cover will be improved by what I have announced today. That is certainly the position that I expect next year.
We all know that the system has not proved to be an entirely satisfactory way of providing help, which is why, following the report of Sir Roy Griffiths on community care, the Government have changed to a different way of dealing with those needs. Meanwhile, I repeat that what I announced this afternoon will give significant further help to many tens, indeed hundreds, of thousands of elderly people.
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East) : I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a welcome and thoughtful package. I am glad that he did not delay bringing in the planned £100 million package for the disabled. He has done a fair job in his dealings with the Treasury, but we shall be looking for further benefits for the disabled when he introduces his White Paper.
Will my right hon. Friend remind Opposition Members that universal child benefit accounts for about half of the total family package? Does he feel that he now has the balance right between targeted and universal benefits?
Mr. Newton : In an area where I appreciate so many of the difficulties and the needs, I should always be reluctant to claim that we have everything absolutely right. However, as a result of what I have said this afternoon the balance of the social security system will be improved, and not least in relation to the disabled, in whom my hon. Friend rightly takes such an interest. I hope that we have paved the way for further improvements.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Preston (Mrs. Wise) and for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) and all those who campaigned for attendance allowance for the parents of disabled children under the age of two? Is he aware that his statement will be profoundly disagreeable to millions of pensioners and that he must therefore return to the 1980 link between the old-age pension and earnings? That would give pensioners an increase of at least £8 more per week than he has announced today. Does he realise that they bitterly resent the way in which they have been robbed by this Government during the past decade?
Mr. Newton : Obviously, I reject the suggestion in the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question. I beg leave to doubt whether pensioners generally would feel that way about proposals that steer additional help to so many of them, especially when taken alongside the increases this month in the pensioner premiums for the over-75s and for disabled pensioners.
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that as most people rightly believe that benefits should be targeted towards those most in need, they will widely welcome his statement today? Is he further aware that they will think him right not to increase child benefit further, but instead to use the money on more urgent priorities?
Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East) : Last week, the Home Secretary boasted that police pay had increased by 50 per cent. above the rate of inflation since 1979. This afternoon, the Secretary of State has yet again shackled pensioners to increases of no more than the rate of inflation and he has frozen child benefit for the third year running. Is he saying that in the real world, when choices have to be made, the Government choose to boost police pay at the expense of pensioners and mothers with families?
Column 872risen not by 50 per cent., but has doubled. With the introduction of family credit alone, we have pretty well doubled the amount spent on low-income families in work.
Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) : Will the Minister answer the question asked earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on- Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) about the widening of the likely recipients of mobility allowance to include those with the disabilities of hearing and sight loss? Will he take that even further and bring in mental handicap, too? I am sure that he is aware that many people feel that the system is grossly unfair and that an extension that does not include mental handicap is only half a job.
Mr. Newton : I am aware of the arguments that took place both in this place and another place during the passage of the social security legislation earlier this year. When I considered the matters I concluded that there was a clear-cut and relatively straightforward way of helping the deaf-blind. The other problem to which the hon. Gentleman referred is somewhat more complicated, but we shall consider it in the course of the review to which I referred.
Mr. John Fraser (Norwood) : Does the Secretary of State recognise that most single working parents are women, and therefore not in receipt of average male earnings, and that in inner-city areas many single working parents face massive poll tax payments next year, massive rises in housing costs and high child care costs? The effect of freezing child benefit is simply yet another disincentive to women to stay at work or return to it.
Mr. Newton : Many single lone parents such as those to which the hon. Gentleman referred receive income support or family credit. As I made clear in my statement, the measures announced this afternoon will be helpful to many lone parents. Part of the aim of the family credit further take-up campaign is to ensure that it becomes even more helpful to many lone parents.
Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : Does the Secretary of State accept that on top of the poll tax and the cruel removal of all benefit from 16 and 17-year-olds, freezing child benefit confirms the Tories' growing reputation as the anti-family party? At the other end of the age scale is a matter of particular concern in my constituency about which I seek general elucidation. The Secretary of State gave the impression of generosity when he announced a £10 increase in income support for elderly people in residential homes. Will he confirm that the increase will be only £10--less than the rate of inflation? Does he accept that that will increase pressure on the proprietors of such homes who at present maintain people at a rate that does not cover costs and will lead to people being removed from homes when they have nowhere else to go? Does he accept that the Government's parsimonious policies are simply building up problems for the future?
Mr. Newton : I have already made extensive comments on that matter in response to an earlier question. The percentage increase represented by the £10 increase varies because of the wide variation in the existing limits. In the case of residential care homes for the elderly, which have
Column 873given rise to special anxiety in recent months, it represents an increase from £140 to £150, which cannot be dismissed as the hon. Gentleman sought to do.
It is perverse of the Secretary of State to claim as a virtue the additional money being laid out by his Department this year given that his Government's policies have forced so many people into poverty in the past 10 years. Is it true that unprocessed social fund applications at departmental offices are carried over into the next year's budget rather than being taken out of the budget for the year in which the application was made, even if it shows a surplus? If so, it is grotesquely unfair and the Secretary of State must do something about it.
Mr. Newton : The mechanism of the social fund involves having regard to the priority of a particular range of claims. In the next few months I shall consider how best we can set the allocations and divisions between local offices and between different purposes of the social fund in the light of our continued monitoring.
Mr. Robin Cook : May I press the Secretary of State to say something about the cases of income support and transitional protection about which I asked him? He will be aware that not only have those people had their benefit frozen for three years, but some face a further freeze of another three or four years. Some of the most harrowing letters that I receive-- and, I suspect, that he must receive--are from those caught in that trap. Whatever one's view about freezing benefits--and vigorous views have been expressed by hon. Members on both sides--there cannot be a case for freezing a means-tested benefit which is supposed to reflect costs. Will the Secretary of State ascertain whether such people could qualify for an uprating of their benefit?
Mr. Newton : It is important that we should all recognise that just under 90 per cent. of those on income support will receive an increase in this uprating. Of the remaining 10 or 12 per cent., about half will receive a partial uprating. The need for transitional protection arose from our wish to protect people during what we thought was, overall, a sensible change in the social security system. People were inescapably involved in moving from the old system to one that, as my statement has shown, is better able to target money quickly and effectively on those in need. The hon. Gentleman also knows that steps have been taken to uprate transitional protection in some of the most difficult cases--those who previously had large amounts of domestic assistance or payments in respect of respite care.
Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have you received a report of the events last night, which meant that consideration of the Children Bill was not completed because of the activities of hon. Members from mining areas, as Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen have admitted? It is an important measure which has been supported by both sides of the Committee. It represents thousands of hours of work by responsible children's organisations. It now appears that it will be lost because of the activities of certain Opposition Members.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Skinner : It is unfortunate that the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) did not stay to hear the debate last night. If he had, he would have heard an honest-to-goodness debate about the Government forcing pre-school playgroups to pay for licensing and inspection. Several Tory, Labour and Liberal Members--no mining Member of Parliament whatever-- took part in the debate. There were 400 Government amendments. The Government's troops, including the hon. Gentleman, went home to bed with the result that the Children Bill was lost because the Government spokesmen pulled up the stumps.
Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you confirm, because it is not clearly understood outside the House, that any measure before the House must pass through all its stages, with amendments passed by both Houses, before it becomes law and that any Bill that does not do so by the time that Parliament prorogues falls? Are you aware that, as a result of what happened last night, there is a real danger that this Bill could suffer that fate? The Bill has had all-party support and its implementation is anxiously awaited by many caring organisations. Do you agree that if that were to happen it would not only be deplorable but would inflict great damage on the reputation of Parliament, which I know that you are anxious to guard?
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Unlike anyone else, you, Sir, have the privilege of reading what happened. The way in which Hansard is published means that anyone who hears this exchange will not have read what happened. It is important that we are allowed to put the record straight. It is not good enough for part-time Tory Members-- [Interruption.] --who are so dedicated to the legislation that they sneak off home as soon as the three-liner is concluded to attack the Opposition when the Government's incompetence in drafting their legislation led to 400 amendments which had to be dealt with in 12 hours, or at the rate of 40 per hour, or one every two minutes. As we stayed to discuss them, we do not accept the hon. Gentleman's criticism.
Mr. Speaker : Order. These are not matters of order, although they may be matters of disagreement across the House. [Interruption.] Order. I have already said that what the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) has said is absolutely right, in procedural terms. What happened last night was in order, although it may have been unfortunate.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) : I was here at1.50 am, and raised the matter with Mr. Deputy Speaker at the time. What happened last night was that a Division was forced by the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Doncaster, North (Mr. Welsh), in which no hon. Member voted with the Noes. It was clear that the intention was to force Divisions on numerous later amendments on which there is no disagreement, to keep the House here throughout today, if necessary, and lose today's business.
The hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) said last night : "when other reasonable hon. Members representing mining areas feel it necessary to demonstrate as they have done ".
"As they have done" : the Opposition Front-Bench spokeman admitted that that was what was going on. The Opposition, having reached an agreement with the Government on a Bill that is not contentious--for there is general agreement that child abuse must be dealt with as quickly as possible-- welshed on that agreement. They cannot control a small minority of mavericks. Is it not time that the House ruled on whether Divisions should take place when there is no disagreement and no hon. Member votes with the Noes, merely to obstruct a Bill for other purposes?
Column 876After many hours of debate with hon. Members on both sides of the House, I was able to do so, and the amendment was passed unopposed on Report. Now we see that it is about to be lost. In such circumstances, is it in order for hon. Members on both sides of the House to approach the Leader of the House to seek a guillotine on the business as soon as possible?
We could have got that Bill last night. Both sides of the House wanted it, but the Government Chief Whip came to the Chair and said, "I am going to move the closure," so the Government did it. They all wanted to go to bed, that was the trouble.
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Sir Geoffrey Howe) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. One feature is, I think, central to the whole discussion. The Children Bill commands widespread support throughout the House. It is a good Bill, widely commended, and last night--I was here and the shadow Leader of the House was not--the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman left us in no doubt about his anxiety to see it passed. [Interruption.]
expectation--settled and firm on both sides--was that it would be finished by a reasonable hour. That progress, however, was not made. As one of my hon. Friends has pointed out, a Division took place in which no Opposition Member voted, and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman expressed his regret that progress had been impeded for the reasons already given. In those circumstances, there was no prospect of progress being made along the lines previously foreshadowed. My right hon. and learned Friend the Chief Whip therefore prudently said, "Let us draw stumps tonight and see whether we can make a better attempt at it on a future occasion."
The proof of the pudding may be, to a significant extent, in the eating of today's business. Let us see whether we can make sensible headway with that, as foreshadowed through the usual channels. Then we may be able to return to the other matter coolly, and fulfil what the people of this country expect--the enactment of the Children Bill, containing many Government amendments in response to the debate that has taken place.
Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As a means of helping today's business and safeguarding the rights of Parliament--about which I am sure the Leader of the House is very concerned--may I ask you, Sir, how it can possibly be in order for the House to consider tonight the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 (Amendment) Order 1989, which repeals, on the interim advice of the European Court, sections of a law passed by Parliament only last year which was stated by the Minister introducing the Bill to be essential if British fishing quotas were to be preserved for British fishermen?
Let me make two points. The order relates solely to the nationality provisions of vessel ownership and qualified persons. Is that not sub judice? There are two other cases involving both nationality and company domicile and residence, on which the United Kingdom Government are required to provide their final submissions by 9 and 15 November. Those cases are Nos. 221 and 213 of 1989, and are known as the Crown v. Factor Tame Ltd. and Others, initiated by Spanish fishermen. If we lost that case, another order revoking another section will be required, taking up more parliamentary time, and if we win the order itself will be revoked.
The second argument is whether it might be irrelevant and time-wasting to have a debate at all tonight. In case No. 213--before the European Court-- the House of Lords, in its judicial capacity, is seeking the advice of the European Court on whether British courts, and not the British Parliament, have the right to suspend or revoke laws passed by Parliament at the request of the European Court. Surely it is silly to waste our time at a late hour, when in a short time the divisional courts in Britain may have the power to act in that legislative capacity and do the job for us. As the final date for submissions of evidence is 9 November, we have not long to wait. I hope that you will agree, Mr. Speaker, that the constitutional issues and rights of Parliament that are involved are important and fundamental, and that, in the circumstances, to discuss the order tonight would make nonsense of parliamentary procedures.
The draft order states for all to see that copies of the judgment can be obtained from the Treasury Solicitor, and not from the House of Commons. It seems wrong to me that Members of Parliament are apparently denied even the ready availability of papers that they require to do their work. I hope that you agree, Mr. Speaker, that this is an important issue and one that matters to Parliament, whatever we are doing.
As to whether tonight's debate would be affected by the sub judice rule, I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that that rule does not apply during the consideration of delegated legislation, or to proceedings of the European Court. As to the hon. Gentleman's other points about the provisional nature of what the House is being asked to do tonight, that is really a matter for debate, not a point of order for me. As to the availability of copies of the interim judgment of the court, copies of the judgment are available to the general public from the Treasury Solicitor, but I am informed that a copy was deposited in the House together
Column 878with the draft order, and that copies for the use of Members are now available in the Vote Office. As to whether the debate proceeds, that is not a matter for me, but I am sure that, in the light of what the Leader of the House has just said, he will consider it.
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) : Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I thank you for the helpful ruling that you have just given, and I think we are very encouraged by the fact that you feel that there is ground for sympathy with the point of view put by the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor).
As the Leader of the House is present, may I make a suggestion in good will, as one who is not directly involved in the issue? I have consulted my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman), who will be dealing with it for the Opposition. He assures me that he has met fishing interests from England, Scotland and Wales, all of whom are affected by the issue.
In addition, other hon. Members are as deeply concerned as the hon. Member for Southend, East about the constitutional aspects of the problem. Yet we are to have a debate of only an hour and a half. There is no way in which either side of the issue can be justifiably and fairly aired in an hour and a half. Therefore, I appeal to the Leader of the House to withdraw it this evening and bring it back, even if it has to be late at night. I am sure that hon. Members who are involved in constitutional issues will be willing to stay and debate it if a proper debate could be arranged.
Mr. Speaker : Order. No, please. I am on my feet. The deputy shadow Leader of the House has put a suggestion to the Leader of the House. I am sure that these matters can be discussed through the usual channels, but they are not a matter of order for the Chair.
Mr. Shepherd : There is a genuine constitutional worry here. My understanding and concern--this is why I seek your guidance--is that the supremacy of Parliament meant that the most recent legislation gainsays legislation made prior to it. In this instance, the Merchant Shipping Act was passed last year, the European Communities Act was passed in the 1970s and the Single European Act was passed some years ago. By what authority, therefore, is a piece of legislation that we have passed as recently as last year being questioned or countered by authorities beyond this territory, under preceding legislation that has since been gainsaid by our last legislative expression on the matter? That is my point of order.
Mr. Speaker : That, sympathetic though I am with it, is not a point of order for the Chair. These matters have to be put to Ministers who are dealing with this particular order. It is not a matter for me.
Statutory Instruments, &c.