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13. Mr. Corbyn : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will list the social fund payments by (a) grants and (b) loans for the current year in London and the comparative expenditure for the last full year of single payments.
Mr. Corbyn : It is good of the Minister to tell us that the information is in the Library. Will he kindly explain it to those people who could formerly have received direct payments for furniture and cooking facilities in their new flats and now either cannot get them or can get only loans, which they must repay out of their benefit? Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to confirm that, through this change in the system, he has cut the money available for very poor people on moving into new flats? Will he announce proposals to end the iniquitous loan system, convert the loans into grants and return to the
Column 636system of statutory grants payable to all people, rather than leaving payments to the discretion of local social security offices?
Mr. Scott : No. I believe that the social fund is working well, flexibly and fairly, and providing help in a number of ways that were not possible under the old single payments scheme. About 1.6 million interest- free loans and more than 318,000 community care grants have been made since the scheme began. The system was judged by the Social Services Select Committee to be good and, indeed, imaginative.
Mr. Dykes : As there are still too many stories of hard-pressed officials in offices all over the place acting oppressively, rather as they used to in the 1920s and 1930s, is the Minister satisfied that the new system is being operated properly and humanely to the benefit of claimants?
Mr. Scott : I certainly believe that it is. The staff in our social security offices have welcomed the discretion available to them in operating the social fund rather than being trapped by the precise nature of regulations under the old single payments scheme.
Mr. Scott : We continually monitor the working of the social fund. Since the scheme began, more than 1.5 million loans and more than 300,000 non-repayable grants have been awarded at a total cost of over £300 million to the end of December 1989.
The pattern of demands has varied between offices and some have experienced greater pressure on their budgets. We recently made available a further £3 million for the current financial year for offices facing the heaviest pressure, and 106 offices have received additional allocations.
Mrs. Ewing : Does the Minister accept that there is still concern that the social fund is operating according to financial criteria rather than the needs of the individuals concerned? In view of the comments today, will he review the need for single payments for those with the most severe financial problems and in any case review the six-month time bar for reapplication?
Mr. Scott : The provision of the extra £3 million shows that we are monitoring the position carefully. We have also commissioned the social policy research unit at York university to monitor the workings of the social fund to see whether it is achieving its aims. We look forward to receiving that unit's report in due course.
76. Mr. John Marshall : To ask the right hon. Member for Selby, representing the Church Commissioners, if he will make a statement about the impact on the commissioners' income of the trend in the number of candidates for ordination.
Column 637There is no clear trend in ordinations sufficient to suggest any significant change in the balance of the commissioners' expenditure in future years. The 1988 figure for male ordinations was the highest since 1971, while the relatively low figure expected for 1990 is likly to be partly balanced by the increased number of women entering the ministry.
Mr. Marshall : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the number of people seeking ordination is less than the number of people about to retire? Does he agree that as the balancing factor is the number of women entering the ministry, it is high time that they were able to become fully frocked priests or priestesses?
Mr. Alison : My hon. Friend seeks to draw me on a matter which is still, so to speak, sub judice in the General Synod of the Church of England--whether women should be fully ordained into the priesthood. That has not yet been determined. I therefore take note of my hon. Friend's point without comment.
Mr. Field : The hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) asked a question welcoming the advent of women priests. Given that on most occasions Opposition Members do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, may we register cross-party agreement on this point?
Mr. Alison : I take note of the hon. Gentleman's point--perhaps I should call him my honourable brother, to vary the theme--about the cross- party support for the ordination of women. Nevertheless, the matter remains to be decided in the General Synod and the final vote must await the next General Synod elections. The next General Synod will have the final and definitive say on this matter.
Mr. Alison : I hope very much that, subject to the approval of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House, the Clergy Ordination Measure will return to Parliament probably in the week beginning 12 February.
77. Mr. Skinner : To ask the right hon. Member for Selby, representing the Church Commissioners, whether he will make a further statement on the subject of the subsidence payments for Bolsover parish church ; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Alison : I understand that the terms on which the British Coal corporation will make an ex-gratia payment have now been settled and the way is clear for the corporation to pay over that money to the parish. The fact that British Coal decided to make an ex-gratia payment technically ruled out the Church Commissioners having any jurisdiction in the matter, but British Coal still wanted
Column 638an undertaking that the Church Commissioners would not make a claim against British Coal under the Coal-Mining (Subsidence) Act 1957, and we have willingly given that undertaking.
Mr. Skinner : Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that when I first took up the case in the House, I did so on behalf of Bolsover parish church because it was without a vicar? British Coal refused to acknowledge the subsidence under any circumstances. As we have had limited success, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that British Coal, which is sometimes laggardly in making such payments, gets on with the job so that the new vicar can receive the money?
Mr. Alison : I shall happily send a dual message from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and from myself, as I represent Selby, to British Coal telling it to get cracking on the payment. I have no doubt that the new incumbent at the parish church of St. Mary and St. Laurence, Bolsover will wish to contemplate adding the name St. Dennis to the church's title.
Mr. Leigh : As the Church Commissioners are to be relieved of the burden of dealing with subsidence to Bolsover parish church, may I urge on my right hon. Friend that consideration should be given to helping the members of the Russian Orthodox Church who have been
Mr. Haynes : Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Church Commissioners have caved in? They should have fought for what the parish church in Bolsover deserved. I have been past that beautiful little parish church many times. The way in which the Church Commissioners have caved in will not help our constituents whose domestic property has been destroyed by the coal industry. The people are not getting a fair deal and the Church Commissioners should be ashamed of themselves.
Mr. Alison : Having listened to the hon. Gentleman's comments about Bolsover parish church and his admission that he has been past it several times, I am not sure whether his regular passing by has not been the cause of the subsidence.
78. Mr. Harry Greenway : To ask the right hon. Member for Selby, representing the Church Commissioners, what contribution the Church Commissioners have made to the work of the Archbishop of Canterbury's office ; and if he will make a statement.
Column 639advisory group on urban areas--"Living Faith in the City"--is a great deal more constructive and less hysterical than Opposition Members and the previous report entitled "Faith in the City"? The new report states that the Government are trying to target aid to those who need it most and are succeeding. Will my right hon. Friend commend those who produced the report, but ask them to go a little further and make some of the Church Commissioners' assets of £2.3 billion available to those who suffer from poverty?
Mr. Alison : Like my hon. Friend, I welcome the new version of "Faith in the City", called "Living Faith in the City". I am very glad that it pays proper credit to the Government's considerable work in improving conditions in inner cities. The weakness in the report is its failure to make sufficient comment on the modest level of giving by parish churchgoers and church members in the Church of England. Barely £2 a week on average comes from church folk in the Church of England--scarcely more than they spend on their weekly newspapers. Until the Church of England gives a lead to its own members, it must be circumspect in urging too much expenditure on the Government.
Mr. Simon Hughes : Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that those of us who are authors of the report also said that the tale of the inner city is still a tale of two cities and that there must be a fundamental transfer of resources by the Government as well as by the Church from the rich to the poor? Will the right hon. Gentleman communicate that message to the Church Commissioners and ensure that they communicate it to the Government?
Mr. Alison : It is precisely because of the reference to the transfer of resources--I speak as a churchman who puts money in the parish plate every week--that it seems to lie ill on the Church of England to be too vigorous in its request for expenditure by the Government on the inner cities. The contribution from church members to the Church's own resources is extremely modest--£2 a week on average, which is probably less than 2 per cent. of personal disposable income--and nothing vigorous is said about that in the report.
Mr. Leigh : I wonder whether my right hon. Friend will consider asking the Church Commissioners to make representations to the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury to help the community of the Russian cathedral in exile, who have been evicted from the parish church that they have occupied for 30 years? Their church has been turned into offices. Is there no way in which, somewhere in the Anglican community, a church can be found for those people? It is not good enough that Archdeacon Derek Hayward, the secretary of the diocese, says that the Church has no duty to find an alternative. Is that a Christian attitude?
Mr. Alison : I have great sympathy with the campaign that my hon. Friend is waging on behalf of the Russian Orthodox Church in London. As he knows, responsibility for the redundancy of the church from which they have been evicted is not directly for the Church Commissioners. If the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church would like to write either to myself or the Church Commissioners
Column 640seeking help in securing further premises elsewhere in the Church of England, we shall certainly do what we can to help, but it must be without commitment until we have seen full details of their needs.
79. Mr. Harry Greenway : To ask the Lord President of the Council what was the cost of taking down the refreshment facilities on the terrace of the House ; on what date this work was undertaken ; when those facilities will be re-erected ; and if he will make a statement.
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Sir Geoffrey Howe) : The marquee was dismantled earlier thiyear and will be re-erected during the Easter recess. The total cost of that work, including storage charges, will be about £13,500.
Mr. Greenway : Has my right hon. and learned Friend heard of the grand old Duke of York, who marched his men to the top of the hill and marched them down again? Why are the authorities spending £13,000 on taking down the refreshment tent on the terrace and then putting it up again, when that money could be well used for many other purposes in the House? Perhaps the money could be spent on improving cooking facilities for the staff who produce food for the cafeterias, and improving the food in the Members' cafeteria itself, which is pretty awful.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I do not accept the rather sweeping judgment in my hon. Friend's last half-sentence, although I agree that there are always better potential uses for money if we did not need to use it for something else first. If the marquee were to remain permanently, we would need planning approval from the city council and approval from the Royal Fine Art Commission. The Accommodation and Administration Sub-Committee has frequently thought about that. There is no leave to have the marquee there at present. The Services Committee has asked the House authorities to investigate the feasibility of keeping the marquee up from Christmas this year until Easter 1991, when the new parliamentary building will be available. However, that will still require appropriate permission from other authorities.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : Why was not permission requested? Is it not appalling that £13,000 is being wasted when we all know that the staff in the Members' Dining Room are grossly underpaid, many of them taking home little more than £100 a week? Is it not true that hon. Members would be perfectly prepared to pay more for their lunches and dinners if they knew that the staff in the Members' Dining Room would be paid properly? Should not something be done about it?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : Again, the hon. Gentleman presents one aspect of the question with characteristic enthusiasm. Of course, there are legitimate questions to be asked about the organisation and terms of employment and rewards of those working in the Refreshment Department. The marquee must be maintained and refurbished in any event. It might well have cost more to do that on site than to dismantle it and have it done properly elsewhere. It might have been subjected to greater wear and tear. This work is costing £13,000, which is a
Column 641modest proportion of the total cost of the marquee, and had to be done anyway. The hon. Gentleman's questions certainly deserve and should be receiving continual consideration by the Catering Sub-Committee and others.
Mr. Rathbone : Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the improvement in the standards of catering in the House have not been matched exactly by an improvement in the facilities on the terrace? When the marquee is re-erected, could we avoid a return to the pink monstrosity that has existed for the past year, and have instead a straightforward marquee which is simpler, nicer and less expensive to take down and re-erect?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I cannot undertake to achieve that transformation at the speed that my hon. Friend has requested. It must be accepted that the current design, although widely admired by some, is not universally popular--but it is likely to return in the year ahead.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : There is little that I can add to the reply that I gave the hon. Gentleman during business questions on 25 January, when he raised this issue in the context of early-day motion 379.
Mr. Corbyn : Will the Leader of the House examine seriously the question of visitors' access to the building? Is he aware that much of the building is given over to corporate entertainment, while members of the public who want to meet hon. Members or listen to debates have to queue outside in the rain and are denied access to refreshment facilities unless accompanied by an hon. Member? For those with disabilities, it is a nightmare just trying to enter the building, never mind getting around it.
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman introduce changes to ensure that public access for the disabled, which is required in public buildings throughout the country, applies to this building and to ensure that the public are no longer subject to the humiliation of queuing in the rain to meet hon. Members or to listen to debates? Will he make this a genuinely public open building, so that people can see what goes on in their names and what they are paying for?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : There is no lack of good will in respect of those legitimate points. Regarding access to the line of route, the hon. Gentleman will know that proposals have been agreed to provide shelter for those awaiting admittance at the Norman Porch and to double the screening facilities to speed up access there. He will know also that consideration has been given to the improvement of access for the disabled, but there are very real limitations on what can be done in a building of this size.
There is a strong case for improving the catering facilities available to visitors, as well as to hon. Members. However, it is unlikely that any significant change can be made until the extra catering accommodation becomes available in phase 1 of the new buildings.
Column 642members of the public who come to look round the Palace of Westminster? They start the line of route at the Norman Porch entrance and have to wait outside in the wind and rain. We have been continually fobbed off by the House of Lords authorities as to why an awning cannot be provided. There should be a permanent awning. Will my right hon. and learned Friend give an undertaking that our constituents will not have to wait outside in the wind and rain, as that seems quite unreasonable?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I have already told the House what is happening. Proposals have finally been agreed for the provision of shelter for those awaiting admission at the Norman Porch and to speed up the means of access there. However, the completion of those facilities cannot be undertaken immediately, although it is hoped that they will be ready by late spring.
Dr. Cunningham : Is the Leader of the House aware that there is no better evidence of this building's inadequacy to fulfil the needs of a modern legislature than the long queues of constituents waiting to gain access? Often, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) said, these people have to wait in appalling conditions. Almost daily, people who may have travelled for many hours have to queue, without access to toilet facilities or even to a cup of tea. Is it not time we had a thorough review of the use of all the facilities in this building? If such a review is not taking place already, will the Leader of the House consider putting one on the agenda for the next meeting of the House of Commons Commission?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I am delighted to have such widely expressed support for this insight into the inadequacy of the conditions in this building. Having acknowledged that fact, however, one must say that the most overwhelming inadequacy is the sheer limitation of the size of the site in the centre of a very crowded capital city. Work is taking place on the new buildings on the other side of the road, but phase 1 of that contract is not due for completion for some time yet. I am ready to join hon. Members on both sides of the House in support of as wide-ranging a review as would make sense, granted the limitations of time and space.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The hon. Gentleman appreciates as well as anyone that Ministers are fully accountable to Parliament. I shall consider with interest any recommendations arising from the Procedure Committee's forthcoming inquiry into questions for oral and written answer which would make Question Time more effective.
Mr. Allen : The Lord President had 14 days in which to think of that scintillating and witty reply. Would he care to examine whether the period of 14 days could be reduced, or completely abolished, so that Members might be able to ask questions of the day on the day? If that is too radical a suggestion, will he look at the length of notice that Members have to give and perhaps reduce it to two
Column 643days so that those Ministers who at present cannot brief themselves might be briefed and so that Members on both sides might ask questions that are topical and relevant?
Sir Geoffrey Howe : I cannot comment on the relevance of the questions asked by the hon. Gentleman, or even on their topicality. However, I can say that, as he knows very well, the problem arises largely from the number of
Column 644questions being tabled in a range of different ways. The problem of managing that would make it very difficult to take on board the particular new ideas that the hon. Gentleman has in mind. Happily, the whole topic is being considered by the Procedure Committee, which will now derive the benefit of the wisdom and input of the hon. Member himself.
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