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Mr. Jackson : Since the publication of the White Paper on top-up loans for students we have received about 4,700 letters, including 63 petitions. Of those, about 350 have been received since publication of the Education (Student Loans) Bill.
Mr. Janner : Does the Minister not understand from the reception that his proposals have received that the system of top-up loans is universally recognised as unfair and unwarranted? Does he accept what students at Leicester polytechnic told me this morning--that combined with the removal of housing and social security benefits during vacations, many students will be left worse off than people on the dole? Should students not have the means to have the peace of mind to study?
Column 191recognise that. We had a substantial majority for the Bill on Second Reading and I am pleased to report that we are making good progress in Committee.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Does my hon. Friend not consider it wholly misleading for a students' union to write to inform hon. Members that the majority of students are against these proposals? When one looks at the table attached to that communication, one sees that only 6 per cent. are against these proposals and that 94 per cent. did not respond in the survey from Edinburgh students' union.
misunderstanding. As we make progress with the legislation, our proposals will be better understood and widely welcomed.
The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher) : This morning, I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today, including one with Mr. Shevardnadze, the Soviet Foreign Minister.
Sir Michael Shaw : On this, her last Question Time of the 1980s, will my right hon. Friend reflect on the great progress that has been made during the past 10 years in the well-being of our country and in the new competitive spirit of all our industries? Furthermore, will she reflect on the dramatic and helpful changes that are being made in the rest of the world? Will she look forward and seek to -- [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. During this decade, we have created more jobs than ever before in this country, we have higher living standards than ever before, better social services than ever before, a wider spread of ownership than ever before and a higher standard of respect in the world than we have had for many a long year. In the next decade, we look to extend educational opportunity, to increase the training that is available to young people and to take a leading part in the single European market. With our staunch defence and our belief in the market economy, I hope and believe that we shall be able to give extensive help to the countries in eastern Europe that are seeking what we have taken for granted for so long.
Mr. Kinnock : When 600,000 people working in the Health Service are already covered by pay review arrangements, why will the Prime Minister not consider extending a pay review body to the 22,000 ambulance staff?
Mr. Kinnock : Why will not the Prime Minister acknowledge the fact that, if she allowed the dispute to go to arbitration, she could bring it to a speedy and enduring resolution, which would ensure that ambulance staffs never went through this experience again? Or is it the case, as millions in this country now believe, that the Prime Minister does not want a resolution to the dispute?
The Prime Minister : As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, there are some militant ambulance men who want to withdraw the emergency service across the country to force through their pay claim. Moreover, from Friday 15 December, most emergency crews in London have refused to respond to urgent calls through the 999 service and have invited calls direct from the public, with which they cannot deal properly. The right hon. Gentleman knows that quite generous offers have now been made to ambulance men varying from 9 to 16.3 per cent. depending on where they work and on the extent of their medical training. That increase is backdated to 1 April, and there are now arrears waiting for ambulance men to pick them up varying from £653 to £1,290. I hope that they will consider that that is a reasonable offer and that they will wish to return to work, as we should like them to do.
Mr. Kinnock : The Prime Minister speaks of ambulance men. Has she not heard that the Association of Professional Ambulance Personnel--the kind of organisation that she likes--has turned down her pay offer by a majority of five to one? Does not the Prime Minister get the message from that? If she does not, I do, millions of people in the country do and members of her own party do. The message is that urging from the Prime Minister will not resolve the dispute ; arbitration will.
The Prime Minister : Those particular ambulance men voted on a day when the trade union official of the main ambulance union suggested that there might be another offer on the table. As the right hon. Gentleman knows there has been a final offer. There are many people in this country who think that an offer ranging from 9 to 16.3 per cent. with considerable lump sums waiting to be picked up, is reasonable. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to join me in asking the ambulance men to return to work and, in particular, to have the truce over Christmas that was offered to them.
Mr. Michael Marshall : Will my right hon. Friend find time today to welcome the activities of those in British industry who are taking part in the economic integration of the two Germanys? Does she agree that such stability is the best way to stop people voting with their feet? Will she assure the House that the Government will continue to look at opportunities for English language training, know-how agreements and cultural and political exchanges that may further the process?
Column 193support the setting up of a genuine democracy with plural parties and we shall do all that we can to encourage that. We always do all that we can to encourage the teaching of English language. The British Council is very active in that regard and its services are greatly in demand. Within the existing arrangements--within the framework of the Warsaw pact and NATO, the four-power agreement on Berlin and the Helsinki agreement--we shall do everything that we can to see that democracy comes to East Germany.
Mr. Ashdown : Does the Prime Minister realise that, on the issue of Hong Kong, she now faces a moral test of her premiership as great as that which she faced over the Falkland Islands? Does she realise that the long- term stability of Hong Kong and the honour of this country now rest on her finding the courage to face down the bigots on her own Back Benches and to ignore the moral bankruptcy and opportunism of the Labour party?
The Prime Minister : If the right hon. Gentleman would calm down a little, he would realise that we most certainly have a duty to those Crown servants in Hong Kong who have enabled us, and will enable us, to carry out British administration right up to 1997. We also have a duty to do everything that we can to keep the prosperity of Hong Kong going right up to 1997. That will mean making special arrangements for some people who are keen to keep that prosperity going. There are two groups of people. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will make a statement tomorrow about the arrangements that we propose to make for them.
Mr. Tracey : In the 1990s, will my right hon. Friend hold out the prospect to the British people of continuing her consistent policies upwards instead of the continual U-turns which seem these days to characterise the Labour Opposition?
The Prime Minister : The policies that have done so consistently well during the 1980s will continue throughout the 1990s, adding to wider opportunity, wider ownership, better training and all the things that we-- [Interruption.]
Several Hon. Members rose
Dr. Owen : Will the Prime Minister make it clear to Mr. Shevardnadze that it does not lie with the Soviet Union to put any veto on a free decision of the people of West Germany and of East Germany to unify if they so determine?
The Prime Minister : I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the undertakings that have been made, for example, the Helsinki Final Act, which was signed by 35 nations and which states that there should be no violations of borders that can be changed only by peaceful agreement ; the four-power arrangement in Berlin and the two alliances are the background against which any other changes must take place.
Column 194dinner by banning fresh turkeys. Will my right hon. Friend disregard this gobbledegook and ensure that we have fresh turkeys on the menus next Christmas?
Mr. McCartney : Does the Prime Minister accept that the reality of the last decade under her leadership has been a doubling in homelessness? What does she say to the fact that this Christmas 120, 000 homeless men, women and children will have no room at the inn under her Government?
The Prime Minister : I do not necessarily accept the hon. Gentleman's figures. There are more than 21,000 hostel bed spaces in London, including over 3,000 emergency and direct access beds, of which sometimes 200 are vacant at night. They are not all taken up. We have provided another extra 21,000 hostel bed spaces in the rest of England since 1981 and we have allocated £250 million during the next two years for more provision for those who are homeless. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, there are now 2 million more houses in Great Britain than there were 10 years ago.
Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the ombudsman has refused to release his report to the House until 3.30 pm and that many Members want to read it before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry makes his statement? As soon as Question Time ends, can my right hon. Friend find time to ask her right hon. Friend to seek your permission, Mr. Speaker, to delay the statement until 7 o'clock so that hon. Members can have time to read the report before my right hon. Friend makes his statement?
The Prime Minister : The time of the production of the report is a matter for the ombudsman and the other matter may be for Mr. Speaker to decide. My recollection, subject to your guidance, Mr. Speaker, is that there is a private notice question before the statement on Barlow Clowes.
Mr. Bradley : As a pensioner, the Prime Minister will be aware that one of her achievements of the past 10 years has been to cut the real value of pensions to elderly people. In this season of good will, would it not be a good idea to announce today a substantial increase in retirement pensions so that all our elderly people can enjoy a happier and healthier 1990?
The Prime Minister : No. The value of pensions to elderly people has not been cut. The promise to protect pensions against price increases has been honoured and, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, in October we announced that old and needy pensioner couples could receive an extra £3.50 a week in addition to their pensions.
Column 195The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that this autumn we abolished the earnings rule for pensioners, at a cost of about £375 million, and we have also given a good deal of extra help to the disabled and to war widows. That is a good record. The hon. Gentleman will remember that the Labour Government could not honour the inflation-proofing of pensions and that they cancelled the Christmas bonus twice.
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