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Column 409international terrorists in the way they are conducting themselves on the streets of Panama City. They have infringed the terms of the Panama canal treaty and the United Nations charter, and we all know that that is so.
Another argument that the United States has used is that General Noriega is a drug runner. If that is true, the United States has known about it for a long time, so how come there was a time when General Noriega was flavour of the month? It was, of course, because the United States felt that he was someone whom the United States could manipulate in the interests of American foreign policy in Central America, but that has not worked. He suddenly stopped being flavour of the month and became public enemy number one. One cannot be convinced by United States arguments of that type.
We know exactly what all this is about. It is about the United States trying to maintain its influence in the canal zone. Even I admit that it cannot renege on the Carter-Torrijos treaty of 1977, which Reaganites bitterly opposed. The US wants to install a puppet Government in Panama so that the Americans can stay in the Panama canal zone after 1999, by the end of which, under the 1977 treaty, they are due to quit. The Leader of House knows that the Panama canal zone is not just a depot for the US--it is part of the integrated command structure of US forces and the headquarters of southern command. I am not anti-US--
Mr. Banks : I am no more anti-US because I bitterly criticise President Bush's aggressive actions than I am anti-British because I bitterly criticise the Government's domestic and foreign policies. I resent any imputation that I am anti-American.
I am most upset and angry at the Government's craven stance. Once again, they are acting as apologists for US agression. We used to have an independent foreign policy, but now we rush to defend US policy for the price of a presidential telephone call. There has been no prior consideration of what is going on in Panama. The Americans are being dragged into a war and we have supported them. There has been no consultation with our European Community partners. Once again, we have acted like a spineless jelly. This is a shameful day for the United States and for the British Government.
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) : Much as I would like to pursue the crucial and urgent subject which the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) introduced, he will realise that the framework of the debate does not allow me to do that and raise another matter which I think should be considered before the House rises for the Christmas recess.
The subject that I wish to mention could scarcely be further away from that raised by the hon. Gentleman. I refer to the special problem of women who have been widowed and who are contemplating remarriage, or women who have remarried and, by remarrying, have sacrificed the pension from their first husband's employer. When a woman remarries, she is deemed to be the wife of her second husband and the pension from her first
Column 410husband is effectively forfeited. I submit my case in the context of widows of service men because they have a special case. Until the second world war, officers in particular were discouraged from marrying until they were 30. No marriage allowance or accommodation was provided for them if they married before that age. That condition prevailed until 1960, when an officer was discouraged from marrying until he was 25, and was penalised if he did so. If the widow--I shall make up a hypothetical example--of a squadron leader decided to remarry, let us say, a retired naval commander, she would have to face the fact that she would forfeit her pension as the widow of a squadron leader. That is not particularly unusual because of the rather unusual pattern of marriage to which I have referred. Moreover, many service men retire rather younger than people in civilian life.
If a woman marries a retired service man, she knows that, on the death of her second husband, which is not too unusual because second husbands are often considerably older than their wives, she can apply for her first pension, which has lapsed, to be reinstated. Until 1988, the rule was that the pension that she was eligible to receive from the first husband
"may be restored at the discretion of the Defence Council if there are compassionate grounds for doing so or if the second marriage comes to an end, or she ceases to live with the man as his wife." Until 1988, women had to undergo a means, or needs, test. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), who was then Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, for establishing a more helpful form of words. In a letter to me last week, my noble Friend the Earl of Arran set out the current form of words concerning the restoration of the first pension when a woman is widowed for a second time. The words now used are :
"There is however discretion to restore the Service widows' pension previously received when a subsequent marriage comes to an end. This discretion is exercised where a widow is financially worse off on second widowhood without the pension of her former Service husband than she was on first widowhood with that pension."
A woman who is contemplating a second marriage still has to step into the dark knowing that, should she be bereaved again, the restoration of her first pension will be subject to a means test. She would of course receive no pension from her second husband's employer if she married a man who was already retired.
Although these arrangements are better than those before 1988, they are still unsatisfactory. If a woman contemplates remarriage, she still does not know what will happen if she is left a widow again. That causes deep anxiety and prevents many women from remarrying. I know for a fact from constituency work that many women are deterred from remarrying because they do not know what will happen if they are widowed a second time.
The Officers Pension Society, which advises many widows in such circumstances, has to tell them, because of the uncertainty, that they can get round the problem by living with the men they would like to marry. I know of one case, which I hasten to add is not a constituency case, of an extremely respectable and elderly couple who went away for a weekend and came back telling their friends that they had remarried. They had done nothing of the
Column 411sort, but were trying to maintain a veneer of respectability. In fact, they were living together as man and wife but were unmarried. The arrangements that I have described cause great distress to the people involved. The House should recognise that it is a sensitive issue. I ask that the widow of a service man who marries a second time and is then bereaved again should have the first pension restored automatically as of right. There is no other way in which to eliminate the means test or to avoid the present situation which prevents her from marrying a second time.
Perhaps I may be permitted to speak from personal experience. I believe that such a change is in the public interest and something with which the House should be concerned. Widows should be encouraged to remarry. My mother, having been widowed for many years, remarried at the age of 74, and the last five years of her life were as happy as any. We should shape rules that encourage remarriage.
I ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House to assure me that he will ask the Government to reconsider this matter to see whether the rules can be shaped to encourage remarriage and to eliminate the fears that are experienced under the present arrangements.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) has referred to United States' action in Panama. The Leader of the House is a former Foreign Secretary. I do not know whether, like me, he had hoped that we had come to the end of the time when the super-powers intervened in the affairs of other countries using arms.
Only a few weeks ago, the Soviet Union apologised for what it did in Czechoslovakia in August 1968. I welcome that. Indeed, I took part in the debate in the House on that invasion, in late August 1968. The United States' action in Panama takes us back to such action. It believes that it has the right to intervene using armed force. I take the opposite point of view. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West, I do not think that there is any justification in international law for what the United States did. I would be the last person to defend or justify the regime in Panama. Of course it was rotten to the core and the dictator was an outright gangster, but the same applies unfortunately in many countries in the world. No one, I imagine, would argue that the Soviet Union should intervene in Romania.
The Unied States could have taken the matter to the United Nations Security Council. If we believe in international law and the principles of the United Nations, that is what the United States should have done. But of course it refused to do so. I find it difficult to believe that the United States Administration cannot live with the idea that there is a dictator in Panama. What about the bloody tyranny which existed in Chile after the 1973 coup? Far from helping the democratic forces, the United States gave Pinochet and his colleagues every encouragement. What about El Salvador, where only a few weeks ago six priests and two others were murdered by death squads that were undoubtedly linked to the pro-United States authorities?
Column 412I find it alarming, and I believe that Britain finds it humiliating, that once again the Prime Minister has supported the United States. We are told that President Bush telephoned her after the invasion. No doubt President Bush knew full well that the Prime Minister would give her approval. He expected it and he received it. How much better it would be if the United Kingdom Government could be relied upon to take a different view and condemn international aggression. The right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) in the exchanges this afternoon said that the United States had been wrong about Suez. I believe that the United States was absolutely right then and is very wrong now. I do not know what will happen in Panama. I do not know whether there will be renewed fighting, but one thing is absolutely certain. The Opposition totally condemn what has occurred, just as we condemned and would condemn again military intervention in neighbouring countries by the Soviet Union. I am also concerned about the present situation in Romania. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field), who is not in his place, mentioned it, but I believe that Opposition Members have more right to discuss Romania because we are against the abuse of human rights in all countries. I am not aware that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight made any protest against the murder of the six priests in El Salvador or against abuses of human rights in western countries. I am deeply concerned by what is happening in Rromania. Undoubtedly, the reports of what has occurred are genuine and hundreds of people have been executed as a result of the demonstrations there.
On the motion for the spring Adjournment on 22 May, I referred to the massive demonstrations that were taking place in China. I praised the Chinese students who were demanding more civil liberties in that country. Like everyone else, I deeply regret what tragically happened the following month.
I believe that we should give a warning to those in Romania who are responsible for ordering the bloodshed and carrying out those criminal orders. Shooting down men, women and children is a crime against humanity, and those responsible should be told that they will be held to account by the Romanian people.
People in Romania can probably see on their television screens the welcome changes that are taking place in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic. Understandably, they ask why they should have to live under an odious tyranny, and why they should not have the same rights as those in other Communist countries. I understand and sympathise with the people of Romania. I am not surprised by the way in which the regime has reacted. Clearly, the dictator of Romania is a psychopath and most of his close family are involved in the regime. Nevertheless, we should make it perfectly clear that those who are carrying out those crimes will be held to account.
However bloodstained the tyranny in Romania, no one has suggested that the Soviet Union--which is rather different from the Soviet Union of 1968-- should intervene in Romania. If the Soviet Union rightly does not intervene in Romania because it has no right to do so, why should the United States intervene in Panama?
My final point relates to problems at home. I am sure that a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends will agree that it will be a bleak Christmas for millions of our fellow citizens who are on or near the poverty line. It will not be
Column 413a very pleasant Christmas for those on income support and pensioners in the west midlands and elsewhere who cannot afford to heat their homes because they do not have sufficient cash. I urge the Leader of the House to make inquiries about the cold weather payment--a payment to those on income support only when the temperature falls below freezing point for five successive days. It is quite wrong that it should have to reach that level before the poorest pensioners in our community receive any help. So many people on low wages and benefits will not be looking forward to Christmas. So much of their poverty and hardship arises directly out of Tory Government policy.
Mr. John Ward (Poole) : The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) will forgive me if I do not follow his line of reasoning, as I wish to refer to the fishing industry--a subject we discussed earlier today.
The House has heard the statement by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about the unrealistic quotas set by the EC for fish catches. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the increase in quotas for the United Kingdom that he has been able to negotiate in Brussels.
While the EC has decided to use the quota system to protect fish stocks, I still have reservations about it. I doubt whether it is an effective way to protect stocks because, when a fish is netted and landed, it inevitably dies and our fishermen are throwing back the fish that they are trying to preserve for future generations. My right hon. Friend has done a very good job in Brussels for the United Kingdom fishing industry, but there will be a knock-on effect on inshore fishing. Before we depart for Christmas, the House should consider what can be done to help our coastal fishing industry. There are three reasons why I believe that the sea fisheries districts' area of control should be extended from the present three miles to six miles for three reasons. First, inshore fishing stocks could be more effectively managed. Secondly, modern inshore fishing vessels are faster and more seaworthy than they were, and the inshore fishery is effectively extended to six miles already. Thirdly, sea fisheries committees could effectively police the area with their present resources, as they already act as MAFF's agents. I consider that to be a sensible move, which should be in place before the common fisheries policy review in 1992, yet the Ministry seems reluctant to tell us why that extension cannot be made.
Another area of great concern to inshore fishermen is the spread of aggregate dredging. That is happening particularly around the Isle of Wight, and it directly affects some of my constituents. With greater resistence to onshore recovery of aggregate for environmental reasons, the pressure for further licences for aggregate dredging is increasing. It has been suggested to me that urgent action is needed on three issues.
First, consultation with the fishing industry should take place at the earliest opportunity and not after the dredging companies have spent large sums of money on surveys and exploration, at which stage they are probably less willing to reach a compromise. Secondly, agreement must be reached in advance between the fishing and aggregate industries on an equitable division of the sea bed. Thirdly,
Column 414a full survey of fishery resources should automatically be carried out before any extraction licence is granted, to ensure that valuable breeding and spawning grounds are not destroyed or important commercial fisheries disrupted. Such surveys should be paid for by the dredging industry. It may also be necessary to restrict aggregate recovery to certain times of the year, so as to avoid interfering with spawning fish and nursery stocks.
Sewage and pollution are becoming of increasing concern to sea fisheries committees around the coast, particularly with the introduction of the European Community's molluscan and shellfish regulations. I understand that each application to discharge is considered in isolation, and it is doubtful whether any authority has a true picture of the total discharge in a given area. If that is so, I hope that the National Rivers Authority will remedy it with all speed.
Contamination of shellfish by sewage discharge can be caused by bacteria, heavy metals or changes to the water quality and sea bed. Of those, bacterial contamination is the most likely source of infection. It can be dealt with by a variety of means, which all add to the cost of the product. At present, that cost falls directly on the fishing industry and not on those who cause the pollution. The principle of the polluter paying could be applied.
By reducing the discharge of untreated or semi-treated sewage into the sea, we should bring into production other areas where at present contamination is too high to be treated. I have long believed that all discharges of raw or semi-treated sewage around our coasts should be banned, and although much has been said about the use of long outfalls and the improvement to our beaches that they bring, fishermen regard that as simply shifting the problem to another site. We need much care and consultation to ensure that the outfall does not discharge into a valuable fishing area, particularly where shellfish beds are in the vicinity.
In the southern sea fisheries area, which includes my constituency of Poole, some 80 per cent. of shellfish are exported, and with the introduction of the new EC regulations, it is essential that water quality in designated harvest areas is maintained. This requirement should be placed on the new water authorities.
I hope that responsibility for monitoring the molluscan and shellfish regulations will be placed on one Department ; shared responsibility is rarely effective, and it should not be assumed that local environmental health officers, who do a very good job, will be able to carry out that new work. They are already asked to do too much with the resources they have, and they have neither the staff nor the equipment to take on that large additional task.
We hear much in the House about the deep-sea fishing industry. It is right that the Government should do all they can to ensure its long-term future, but it is equally important that the inshore fishing industry, which is a vital source of income to many of my constituents, is given the continuing support it needs to maintain its valuable contribution to the economy.
I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House will pass on my comments about the inshore fishing industry to our friends at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, because they are matters that should certainly be considered before the Christmas recess.
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Dr. Dafydd Elis Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) : I echo what hon Members have said about the international position, particularly in Romania. I am certain that the former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who will reply to the debate, will be able to tell us about the position of the United Kingdom Government and any joint European Community action that may be contemplated or taken. Clearly, it is a subject on which the common foreign policy approach could be adopted.
I echo what hon. Members have said about the Health Service, and particularly the industrial dispute in the ambulance service. It is a matter of great concern to hon. Members that it is continuing. Although some health authorities have passed resolutions asking for the dispute to be referred to arbitration--I refer especially to Clwyd health authority, which borders and provides a service to my constituency--the Government are still not prepared to allow it to be resolved through the normal channels. As that point has been made by other hon. Members, I hope that the Leader of the House will respond to it when he replies to the debate.
I look forward to returning to my home areas of Snowdonia national park, and I wish to reflect on the community that I represent, particularly its economic base, and on the crisis facing upland farming.
This year, we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of national parks, and recently the Secretary of State for the Environment addressed a major conference on the topic. The boundaries of Snowdonia national park and my constituency are more or less conterminous. The Leader of the House has visited the area a number of times and we should like to see him again soon. The objective of the national park is the maintenance of the environment of the area and the encouragement of access to it. We welcome many people, including many hon. Members, who enjoy their recreation in the national park.
It is increasingly being emphasised that we must consider the economic well -being of the population of the national park because of their distinctive contribution to the structure of the landscape and the community. The national parks in Wales and England--there are none in Scotland yet--are not wilderness areas or natural parks such as those in the United States and other European countries. They have an indigenous population, not just flora and fauna. A cultural ecology is just as important as an environmental ecology for the future of the parks.
I refer specifically to the income of hill farmers in the national parks, particularly in Snowdonia. Hill livestock compensatory allowances are currently being considered by the Government. As a result of an agreement reached at the Council of Agriculture Ministers on 21 November, a limit has been placed on the European Community's contribution to HLCAs.
Hon. Members familiar with agriculture will know that the European Community pays 25 per cent. of the total cost and the member state Government pays the remainder. From 1991, the full EC contribution will be limited to the first 6,060 ecu, which is about £4,200 per farm. The next tranche will halve the contribution of the EC to HLCAs above the equivalent of £8,500 per farm.
That agreement is better than the original proposals, but it will still have a damaging effect on the income of
Column 416many hill farmers. A farmer who has 50 suckler cows and 2,000 ewes will lose £2,500. As I shall emphasise, the income of many hill farmers is marginal, to say the least.
Under those proposals, a total of 2,200 farms in Wales will lose, and the rural economy will lose about £2.5 million. We are therefore talking about a loss of income for an industry that maintains the community structure and landscape of our national parks.
The farming unions that are active in Wales--the National Farmers Union and the Farmers Union of Wales--have put strong cases to Ministers with responsibilities for agriculture at the Welsh Office and to those at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I know that my Scottish colleagues in the Scottish National party and in other parties would want me to say that they have made strong representations to Ministers at the Scottish Office.
The hill livestock compensatory allowances rates are being reviewed. It is essential that there is an early announcement on those rates because they have not been changed since 1986 and have consequently fallen badly behind the rate of inflation. Breeding ewe prices in the markets in Wales have recently been an average of 30 per cent. lower than in autumn 1988. For those reasons it is important that the Government look to their economic contribution to the well-being of agriculture.
The Government have been saying--it was mentioned in the Autumn Statement-- that they are making substantial savings on the common agricultural policy. Those savings average £155 million a year. Set against that saving, what is the £5 million that we are asking to be injected into hill farming? That figure is for hill farmers throughout the United Kingdom, so I am not being parochial or nationalistic. However, it is particularly important in Wales because 80 per cent. of agricultural land is in less- favoured areas. We are talking about some 14,500 farmers who received hill livestock compensatory allowances last year and who depend on them as part of their income.
Within the present maximum allowable payment per hectare of £71, there is scope to increase HLCA payments, but so far the Government have not seen fit to do so. I hope that the Leader of the House will convey my views to the Secretary of State for Wales--who is familiar with the issues--and to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
We are not talking about rich farmers. The myth that often circulates among the urban yuppie class is that farmers--whether they own their own farms or are tenants--have substantial assets. But their assets are useless to them unless they dispose of them. A recent study of the incomes of hill farmers by the agricultural economics department at University college, Aberystwyth, which I was pleased to visit recently, showed that in Wales 15,000 small family farms under 200 acres were surviving on virtual subsistence returns.
The dairy farmers involved had a net income of £389 a year and hill and upland farmers had an income of £108 a year in each of the two years covered by the survey. Half the farms recorded negative net farm incomes. That is not just clever accountancy by the farmers concerned but a realistic assessment by the agricultural economics department of the state of the industry and the level of incomes. The farmers' crisis has been made worse by high interest rates, as a result of Government policy, and because of the relative decline in the value of sterling which has meant
Column 417that the green pound has been significantly overvalued. For sheepmeat, the green pound rate is some 90 per cent. above the market exchange rate. That again undermines farmers.
The importance of agriculture is that it provides a framework for community life in the countryside. I am a tenant--not a tenant farmer--of half a house on an old hill-farming estate that has maintained the pattern of life in the village and countryside. The National Trust is a major landowner in the upland areas of my constituency. It has established conservation and agricultural policies that are designed to maintain the landscape and community life.
For us in the countryside, agriculture is the backbone of the community. In the Welsh language--the language of most of those communities--the description of the countryside is "cefn gwlad", which means the backbone of the country. For those reasons I put the case for hill livestock compensatory allowances to be increased and for the Government to take their responsibility towards hill farming seriously. After all, the farming community is taking its responsibility seriously. On conservation, the farming community is increasingly making its contribution to the distinctive landscape of the park, to reinvesting and maintaining the structure of the farming industry and farm buildings and to maintaining the shape of the landscape.
That can be secured for the future by adequate return of income, whether from the lower output now being demanded or a transfer away from the emphasis on production, maintaining income by conservation grants, by practices benevolent to the countryside or more organic farming. Farmers are adaptable and subtle people and they welcome those changes, but they expect to be assured that they can attain a decent level of income. They look to the Government, the Minister in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and to the Leader of the House to listen to their message.
Mr. John Bowis (Battersea) : Several hon. Members on both sides of the House have rightly referred to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Because of the speed at which foreign affairs have been moving in the past few months, weeks and days, it is important to ask the Leader of the House to assure us that the continuing movement in foreign affairs is monitored and, where appropriate, action taken. If necessary the House should be recalled if the security of the nation or the European Community appears to be at risk.
Several hon. Members on both sides of the House have referred to Romania. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is not in his place, but I should preface my remarks by saying that Conservative Members also raise matters of human rights wherever they may be and in whatever country, whether West, East, Communist or capitalist, and they will continue to do so. It is wrong for the hon. Gentleman to cast aspersions on Conservative Members by saying that they would not do so if it were a capitalist country. I was in Sri Lanka recently and raised matters of human rights with the President and I will continue to do so wherever I go in the world.
Column 418Therefore, it is permissible for Conservative Members such as myself to refer to the horrors of recent events in Romania. It is one of the most tragic episodes in post-war European history, certainly in my lifetime, to see a European country engaged in the slaughter of its own people. Not so many years ago, that country was seen as a gateway to the West for Communist eastern and central Europe. Now, under the same leader, it has gone downhill helter-skelter into tyranny. It is sad to see President Ceausescu standing for ever in the patheon of tyrants alongside Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. It is also ironic that, around the world, mass slaughter and terror are often carried out not by the tsars and shahs of the past, but by those who claim to be the people's representatives and the people's Governments. We see that in Romania, China, and Cambodia. However, even in this their blackest hour there is still hope for the people of Romania. That hope is based on the realities of what we have seen throughout our continent in recent months. However long it takes, ultimately tyranny cannot and will not last.
In my lifetime I have seen tyrannies in eastern and central Europe rise and then begin to crumble and fall. As a schoolboy I remember visiting the Czech-Austrian border and being impressed by the stark watchtowers and barbed wire. I came back and wrote poems about them in my English lessons. I heard on the radio about the Soviet invasion of Hungary and about the tanks rolling into Budapest. I also remember the Prague spring and the hopes that were raised and then dashed in the Dubcek period. However, one now sees, in those same countries, people's rights having their way and people's hopes coming to fruition, perhaps led by what has been achieved in Poland through Solidarity. I declare an interest as I have the headquarters of Solidarity with Solidarity in my constituency. I have seen that brave nation overcoming Communism with the help of its Church. We now see Poland's need for food and know-how. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House will also bear in mind the need to help with political organisation. Ultimately, a democracy cannot rest on trade union power alone ; it must have many parties, and Poland requires assistance to allow the emerging parties to develop.
East Germany is also moving towards democracy and progress. A year ago I was with some hon. Members in Leipzig and East Berlin. It is incredible to consider how we looked at that psychological and physical wall and wondered how it could ever be destroyed. After only a year, that wall is no more.
A year ago Mr. Honecker, the late not much lamented leader of East Germany, went to Moscow trying to get the line right. Half the leadership of East Germany that he left behind tried to tell us that Moscow was catching up with East Germany and that Honecker had gone to Moscow to tell the Russians how East Germany had done it. The other half of the leadership, much more realistically, said that there had to be changes but that they would take time. They said that the economy needed time to develop. They believed that, if the wall was opened quickly, business men and professionals would leave. They said that we should be patient. But the East Germans found the courage to allow people to leave first through the back door and then through the front door and they have found that walls can be torn down without the country collapsing.
When we consider the events in East Germany, the Soviet Union, Poland and Czechoslovakia, we must be
Column 419careful. It is all very well for changes to occur within countries and it is fine for regimes to fall and for new democracies to be created. However, if borders are threatened, there may be instability which could lead to danger. I hope very much that the Baltic states will one day be free. As we encourage them towards that freedom, we must play it slow and careful. The same applies when we consider the German borders and those further south. In Romania, Romanians are destroying Romanians, but they are also destroying the Hungarian minority, so there are pressures on Hungary to become involved and border problems may become apparent.
Yugoslavia is user-friendly to people in this country. British people go there on holiday because they feel safe and comfortable. As Communism begins to collapse in Yugoslavia, however, the country is beginning to fragment and there are potential dangers in that. Within Yugoslavia, the Serbs comprise 40 per cent. of the population. The Serbs are a fine people but they must be reminded that they must encourage other minorities in Yugoslavia to their rights and freedom too.
The Slovenes are considering seceding from Yugoslavia. The Croatians are worried about Serbian demonstrations and the Bosnians are worried about the activities of the Serbian secret police. The Macedonians are worried about Serbian settlers. That is all happening against a background of inflation running at between 1,200 per cent. and 1,600 per cent. per year. Indeed, about 5,000 homes in Zagreb do not have electricity, not because of a power strike or because people have been cut off but because they cannot pay their bills. That situation breeds instability.
Alongside this I refer to Kosovo and to the Albanian people within that part of Yugoslavia. I raise this issue particularly on behalf of constituents of Albanian extraction who are concerned about the fate of their fellow Albanians in Yugoslavia and within Kosovo in particular. Incidentally, I am sure that all hon. Members will be aware that Mother Theresa is a famous Yugoslav Albanian. The fate of nearly 1.7 million Albanians in Yugoslavia is uncertain because there are Serbian troops, aircraft and helicopters throughout Kosovo. People are being arrested for minor infringements of the constitution. If someone says that Kosovo should secede, that is considered an anti-revolutionary act and the person could go to prison for 12 years or more. That is an example of tyranny within a user-friendly Communist state and we must be aware of it. We must also beware of the dangers of Yugoslavia breaking up. If it breaks up into small states, there will be instability in that part of Europe. We must persuade the Serbian leaders in Yugoslavia to find peaceful solutions to their problems.
have been describing the decline and collapse of Communism in Europe. That was inevitable and it is right and good. As Will Rogers said :
"Communism is like prohibition--it's a good idea, but it won't work."
As we move into a new decade, there is great hope and optimism for the future of Europe as east, west, north, and south are all coming together. At the same time, we must be vigilant. There is hope, but there is also sorrow. The sorrow is evident in Romania. The hope is in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and, perhaps most importantly, in the Soviet Union.
During the Christmas recess I urge my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House to urge his right
Column 420hon. and hon. Friends at the Foreign Office who are dealing with our foreign policy, and also our European counterparts, to bring pressure to bear on the developing democracies in east and central Europe to ensure that there is real justice for all the people and that border issues are played carefully and slowly.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) and I wholeheartedly agree with the majority of his comments. It is right that during such a Christmas Adjournment debate we should consider events in other parts of the world. The pace of those events is very pressing. They are important and have a wide-ranging effect on our relationships with the new emerging democracies in Europe and elsewhere. The hon. Gentleman's speech was well- argued and wide-ranging.
I want to bring the House back briefly to a more domestic, but none the less important issue--the changes in the employment benefit rules as they particularly affect part-time workers. I make no apologies for referring to such a technical change in the regulations because, although the change may appear insignificant, it has a dramatic financial effect on a great number of people. The House should not adjourn for Christmas until more consideration has been given to the effect of those changes in the next few weeks.
The changes in the unemployment rules to which I will refer specifically were introduced in the Social Security (Unemployment, Sickness and Invalidity Benefit) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 1989. The House may be aware that those regulations were laid before the house on 17 November and took effect on 10 December, under the Social Security Act 1989. They were debated in Standing Committee under the negative procedure on 13 December and were criticised by the Committee at some length.
The regulations introduce several changes. Regulation 2(a) prevents people from receiving unemployment benefit in any week in which they earn more than the lower earnings limit, which is currently £43. Before those changes, as the House will be aware, people could claim unemployment benefit for any day in which their earnings did not exceed £2. That meant that people could earn some money--considerable money in some cases-- a few days of the week and then claim benefit for the remaining days in which earnings were less than £2.
Regulation 2(a) is a small bureaucratic change, and it did not sound as though it would make too much of a difference for too many people, but it is a fundamental change in the way in which national insurance contributory benefits, which include unemployment benefit, will operate in the future. The fundamental change really means that, in future, unemployment benefit will be means-tested. We all know that there is a contributions test for eligibility for unemployment benefit and that one must be available for work, but, when the regulations come into effect, there will be a third additional requirement. If a part-time worker now earns more than £43 in any given week, he or she will be denied unemployment benefit. That is a far-reaching change to the principle of unemployment benefit as Beveridge saw it
Column 421and as it has operated in the past 40 years. It is a serious erosion of people's entitlement to benefit and it has extensive implications.
The Department of Social Security estimates that 30,000 people will be affected by the changes in any given week and that perhaps as many as 500,000 people could lose one or more week's benefit in any given year as a result of the changes.
I want to register the strongest possible complaint about the method by which the changes are made. These far-reaching changes were visited on employers and employees alike, out of the blue and over a short time. I accept that the Government had signalled their intention to make changes in that respect when the Social Security Bill was considered in Committee in February, but there was no indication of exactly how they would be given effect. We were given two or three weeks in which to respond before the regulations were implemented.
It is unreasonable to make such changes in such a short time, without extensive consultation with employers and employees' organisations. The Government's justification is that anyone earning £43 a week pays national insurance. In their bureaucratic, simple-minded way, they argue that it is wrong to treat people earning £43 a week as employed for national insurance contribution purposes and consider them to be unemployed for unemployment benefit eligibility purposes in the same week.
The Social Security Advisory Committee, the Government's own adviser in these matters, was not at all impressed by that argument. It took the view, with which I wholeheartedly agree, that £43 a week is far too low a sum on which to base the threshold for the new eligibility for unemployment benefit. The committee agreed that there was some merit in using the principle. I accept that there is an argument for establishing such a principle, but the level is scandalously low. It is a substantial deterrent to part-time work, and the Confederation of British Industry has made lengthy representations to the Government to that effect. The Government's policy is that they are seeking to encourage people to go back into part- time work, often as a step on the ladder back to full-time employment for those who have been unemployed for many months or years. It is a retrograde step to produce an additional disincentive to part-time work.
The Low Pay Unit said that someone who turns down a part-time job because of the new changes may not only lose one week's benefit in the future but may be judged to be rendering himself voluntarily unemployed. In that case, he would stand to lose up to six months' unemployment benefit. That is a serious new problem to arise out of the changes.
I hope that the Leader of the House will listen carefully to the urgent plea from not only me but other Members, and the SSAC, for a full-scale review of unemployment benefit. The Government, in their note on the SSAC report, said that they were making the changes on a transitional basis. I hope that that transitional process does not last too long after the Christmas recess. The effects are dramatic. Taken together with the other changes being made in the actively seeking work test that is now being applied to unemployment benefit, the measures are being undertaken far too fast with very little thought being given to their long-term effects on people.
Column 422Cynics will argue that this is the 30th change to the method of calculating the number of those who are actively seeking work and claiming benefit--the 30th administrative change in the method of counting the unemployed in a way that will substantially reduce the headline monthly totals of jobless people.
I refer to two constituency cases to demonstrate the effects of the changes. The change in the £43 weekly earnings rule will have a serious effect on the textile industry in towns such as Hawick, Jedburgh and Kelso. Knitwear manufacturers have entered into an agreement with trade unions whereby workers work an eight-day fortnight. They do that deliberately so that part-time workers--casual workers who work four days one week and four days the next--can claim benefit totalling about £11.57 a fortnight. Summarily and out of the blue, the regulations will deprive part-time workers who are already suffering financial hardships.
The knitwear industry is going through a difficult period in any case. The combination of fashion changes, increases in the price of raw materials, and fluctuations in interest rates have led to short-time working being the norm in hosiery mills in my constituency. In a town such as Hawick, for example, where there are about 3,000 part-timers, principally women, almost three quarters of workers will be caught.
At a stroke, more than 2,000 part-time workers--women--in my constituency will lose nearly £12 a week as a result of the change. The employers can do nothing about that.
The effect on inshore fishermen in Scotland and in other parts of the United Kingdom will be dramatic. If a vessel is laid up through bad weather or technical failure for the whole of the benefit week except for one day, and on that day the skipper decides to go out to sea, he risks prejudicing unemployment claims for all the days on which his vessel was laid up. That could amount to about £56.10 a week for a married share fisherman.
All these changes have come out of the blue, and the effect on the fishing industry will be severe. The Leader of the House knows that quotas and total allowable catches are restricting fishing opportunities for the inshore fleet and are causing great problems. Using the two examples of share fishermen in ports such as Eyemouth and textile workers in towns such as Hawick, it can clearly be seen that the regulations should be withdrawn pending a review. They are mean-minded, cruelly timed and wholly unjustified. Many part-time workers already experience hardship.
In the past, unemployment benefits have played an important part in supplementing meagre wages for part-time workers. These changes are a disincentive to work and a further unjustified attack on the living standards of the low-paid. Scrooge is certainly alive and well this Christmas, and living in the Department of Social Security. 7.39 pm