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Mr. Newton : Perhaps for good and understandable reasons, the hon. Gentleman is taking us rather wide of the subject of the Child Support Agency. I would certainly hope that, in line with much that has happened in recent years, and referring back to the question about the Benefits Agency, there will be a continuing improvement in the advice and assistance that the Department, along with many other organsiations, is able to offer claimants.
Mr. Knox : Is my right hon. Friend aware how warmly the decision to resume the index-rating of child benefit has been received? Will he accept my congratulations on winning that battle with the Treasury?
Mr. Newton : That is probably as friendly an exchange as I have had with my hon. Friend in the better part of eight or nine years, mostly as Minister responsible for social security. Perhaps I should congratulate him on being so nice to me.
Mrs. Margaret Ewing : Will the Secretary of State be responding to a report, which came out today from the Family Policy Studies Centre, showing that larger families in the United Kingdom benefit least from Government assistance in rearing their children? It would be helpful if he could place the report in the Library.
Mr. Newton : I shall consider whether to place it in the Library when I have established more about the precise status of the report. It is worth noticing that the only country in Europe where the average family size is not less than two is Eire, so comparisons that rest heavily upon child benefit for larger families apply only to a small minority. What we hear less about is that, for example, if the French regime for child benefit, in which there is no payment for the first child, were in force, 40 per cent. of those who receive child benefit in this country would not get it.
Mr. Favell : As my right hon. Friend knows, the increase in child benefit will be a help to the poorest families. However, one thing concerns me. The number of illegitimate births to women who have never been married seems to be rising. In Manchester last year, 49 per cent. of all births were illegitimate. Have the Government any plans to educate young women at school about the difficulties that they will face? I do not think that people appreciate the problems of bringing up a child alone.
Column 13learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science ; I have not yet gone into the workings of the education system. Let me pick up one point, however. My hon. Friend said that the increase in child benefit would help the poorest families. That is true of our child benefit increase, but not of the increase proposed in the shadow Budget by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher).
13. Mr. Tony Banks : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how much has been spent in London social security offices on facilities for clients during the latest period for which figures are available.
Miss Widdecombe : In the financial year 1989-90, £1.5 million was spent on capital refurbishment projects at 13 offices in the London area. Expenditure in 1990-91 is estimated at £5 million at a further 31 offices. A breakdown of expenditure between customer and staff areas is not available from information held centrally.
Mr. Banks : But a breakdown is precisely what I wanted. I am not arguing about the amount of capital expenditure on London offices ; I want to know what is being done to stop supplementary benefit claimants being treated so shabbily in those offices.
Is the Minister aware that the new office at Stratford was clearly designed for no clients to come in at all? Nothing much has been provided in the way of chairs, and it is impossible for those going there, who may have to wait for hours, to obtain a hot drink. When will the Minister start arranging for such people to be treated like decent human beings rather than like dirt?
Miss Widdecombe : As he visited the Wood Grange Park office in February, the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the unfortunate circumstances that prevail. He will also know that one of the problems has been an increase in the number of Somali refugees who are applying for benefit. I share his concern that conditions in the offices should be adequate : that is why we have spent some £40 million on improving offices throughout Great Britain. Every effort is being made to resolve the problems in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.
The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Tim Renton) : I regularly visit arts venues throughout the country, including the Battersea arts centre, in my hon. Friend's constituency. With permission, I shall arrange for a list of those that I have visited so far this year to be published in the Official Report.
Mr. Bowis : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, when it comes to the arts, there are really two Londons? There is the London of the centres of international and national excellence in and around the west end and the world of the Londoner's arts. As my right hon. Friend rightly pointed out, this includes, among many other excellent venues, the
Column 14Battersea arts centre. Those centres depend for their funding partly on the borough, partly on the Arts Council and partly on the London borough grant scheme.
Has my right hon. Friend seen the reports in this week's Stage and Television Today, which quotes, among others, the National Campaign for the Arts stating :
"Vote Labour And Arts Will Suffer"?
That is because Labour councillors involved in the London borough grant scheme and in the boroughs have withdrawn their support for the arts in London. Will my right hon. Friend do everything possible to restore that support, and perhaps consider whether the grant scheme is the best way forward?
Mr. Renton : I agree that London is a vibrant centre for the arts outside the west end. Some 160 clients in London receive revenue support from the regional arts association, and many of them are not west-end based.
I also agree with my hon. Friend's analysis of the diverse funding for the arts in London. It is extraordinary that the shadow Arts Minister is not with us today, given that virulent criticism in the Stage --
"Vote Labour And Arts Will Suffer".
The paper is not normally a supporter of the Conservative party. I can only suppose that, after all those months of preaching Labour support for the arts, the shadow Arts Minister has taken fright today--that he has not dared to face the music, and has gone off to read "The Wreck of the Hesperus" by himself.
Dr. Marek : The Minister is very unfair. The shadow Minister for the Arts has been held up. A note of apology will no doubt come to the Minister in due course. He wanted to be here, but he could not get here in time. I hope the Minister will accept that explanation.
Mr. Renton : I thank the hon. Gentleman for saying that. No apology had reached me. If something like that which appeared last week in the Stage had been written about me, I do not know whether I should have turned up today.
Miss Emma Nicholson : When the Minister visits arts venues, either inside or outside London, will he please press, especially on venue managers, the needs of the disabled? Does he know that the only dignified night out that a disabled person can have at an arts venue is to sit at home in front of the television set?
Mr. Renton : I agree with my hon. Friend. I thank her and congratulate her on all the work that she has done by means of the ADAPT programme to help to improve access for the disabled and the deaf to arts venues. Arts companies throughout the country are becoming more and more aware of the issue. When I recently visited the new West Yorkshire playhouse in Leeds I was delighted to see how far it had gone towards making access to both theatres available to the disabled. That trend ought to be continued.
Following is the information :
Arts venues visited by the Minister for the Arts since January 1991 (outside the west end) Date ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ 6 January |Sadler's Wells Theatre 14 January |Tate Gallery 17 January |Science Museum 23 January |Queen Elizabeth Hall 24 January |Barbican 29 January |British Library |Old Vic 31 January |Battersea Arts Centre |Royal Albert Hall |Young Vic 7 February |Victoria and Albert Museum |Royal Festival Hall 12 February |National Maritime Museum 15 February |Apollo Theatre, Oxford 21 February |West Yorkshire Playhouse |Museum of Film, Photography and Television, | Bradford |Alhambra, Bradford 26 February |Southlands Arts Centre |Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith 27 February |Arts Theatre, Cambridge |Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 28 February |Royal College of Music 7 March |Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham 8 March |Symphony Hall, Birmingham 12 March |Greenwich Theatre 14 March |Horniman Museum |Sir John Soane Museum 18 March |Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond 19 March |Ashmolean Museum, Oxford |Old Fire Station Arts Centre, Oxford 20 March |Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn 25 March |Imperial War Museum 9 April |The Waterfront, Norwich |Lyric Studio Theatre, Hammersmith
Mr. Banks : The Minister is being remarkably complacent, in view of the question he was asked by the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis). Is he aware of the chaotic situation that the London borough grant scheme is in? That scheme was set up to fund voluntary bodies after the destruction of the Greater London council by the Conservative Government, but it has been hindered by Conservative councillors who are looking for cuts. If that happens, arts in all the London boroughs will be decimated. What is the Minister doing about the London borough grant scheme? What consultations has he had with the Department of the Environment, where the responsibility rests? If he does not do something, he will have an appalling mess on his hands. Is he prepared to wash his hands, just like Pontius Pilate?
Mr. Renton : The hon. Gentleman's analysis is wrong. There is a Labour-Liberal majority on the London borough grant scheme. Labour councillors are pushing their arts company clients off the edge of the table, one after the other, in order to spend the money available on projects that they think have more popular political support. That was at the heart of the criticism last week in the Stage. That is why so many people in London are totally losing faith with Labour councillors. The shadow Minister for the Arts has preached, but he cannot deliver Labour councillors.
Mr. Jessell : As London is highly successful as the arts capital of the world, as millions of people come here to see our arts and heritage, as their spending generates a huge amount of income and employment, and, therefore, tax returns to the Government, and as a strong centre helps the edges, ought not we to continue to build on our strength?
Mr. Renton : I fully agree with my hon. Friend. As he is a well- noted pianist, I hope that he will continue to give recitals throughout the summer which will encourage the arts in, and attract attention to his constituency. London is a very successful centre for the arts. It is only right that successes should be remembered. For example, the reopening of the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican three weeks ago was very much due to the enhancement fund recently set up by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chief Secretary.
Mr. Renton : I very much hope that a solution can be found to the company's financial difficulties. The Arts Council makes decisions relating to the funding of individual arts bodies. I understand that recent discussions between the council and the company have been constructive and moderately encouraging.
Mr. Hughes : I am grateful to the Minister for what may give some hope to London City Ballet. Does he accept that over 13 years the ballet company has built up a reputation as one of the leading classical ballet companies in the country, that it tours to about 26 venues, that attendances are over 80 per cent., that it has a leading educational programme and that its closure and disappearance this summer would be a grave blow not just to London but to ballet and the arts countrywide? Will he personally take an interest in the matter so as to ensure that London City Ballet survives and is funded properly?
Mr. Renton : I saw the chairman of London City Ballet last week and had a long discussion with him. I agree with many of the comments that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has made about the artistic work of the company. I saw its "Cinderella" production at Sadler's Wells just before Christmas, and it was very good indeed, However, the hon. Gentleman, as a fair man, knows the difficulties. He knows that the Arts Council's budget for dance, including ballet, is fully committed. It is a strange notion that the support of a group of successful business men who, by their own endeavours, have funded the London City Ballet for the past 13 years, while the company was being built up, should automatically be replaced by Government support. It is rather difficult to accept that the Government should automatically pick up the bill when that group, for its own reasons, decides to withdraw funding. London City Ballet received a touring grant of £100,000 last year. This year, in view of the slightly smaller number of touring weeks, the grant will be £89, 000.
Column 17London Members of Parliament there is serious bias over the provision of grants for honourable causes. I want aid to be provided for particularly honourable causes in our boroughs.
Mr. Renton : The decision as to who is aided under the London borough grant scheme is one for the scheme's board, on which there is a Labour-Liberal majority. I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to do everything possible to ensure that the LBG's budget allocation this year is decided quickly and that it is as large as possible. Within those parameters, the Secretary of State for the Environment recommended total grants of more than £30 million. At present, councillors are talking about a somewhat lower level. That is what lies at the heart of the difficulties concerning arts clients. I repeat that it is Labour councillors who, one after another, are jettisoning their arts clients.
The Minister of State, Privy Council Office (Mr. Tim Renton) : There are now 45 women in the civil service at under-secretary level and above ; 10 years ago there were 31. A programme of action to achieve equality of opportunity for women in the civil service has been in place since 1984.
Mrs. Currie : I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply and congratulate him on the 50 per cent. increase in the number of women at the higher levels of the civil service. I do not want to carp, but does my right hon. Friend agree that, in a world in which more than 50 per cent. of the electorate are women, and in which nearly half of the work force are women, it is time to increase the number of capable women who reach the higher levels of the civil service to something approaching the proportions that they achieve at the lower levels?
Mr. Renton : I agree with my hon. Friend. One of my overall responsibilities as a civil service Minister is to see that the aim that has been voiced by my hon. Friend is realised. I hope that it will be some comfort to her to hear that the proportion of women younger than 45 in the top three grades is higher than the proportion of men in that age group, and that there is a higher proportion of women in grades 5 to 7. The latter figure is up considerably on that of six years ago. That gives me reason to believe that in the years immediately ahead there will be a higher proportion of women in absolutely top positions.
Dr. Marek : Does the Minister realise that there is no shortage of talent among women in Britain and that simply saying that he is led to believe that things might get better is not good enough? Can I invite him to set a target to make sure that at least 40 per cent. of all civil service posts, especially those between grades 5 and 7 and grades
Column 184 and above, will be filled by women within five years? If the Minister sets himself that target, he will earn the congratulations of the whole House.
Mr. Renton : I have only to look at the Benches around and behind me to realise that there is no shortage of talent among women in Britain. Setting a target would not be a realistic approach. It would be far better to make sure that the top posts go to those with the greatest ability, no matter what sex or ethnic origin. My office is certainly dedicated to that aim and we shall do our utmost to achieve it.
Sir Dudley Smith : While there is no room for complacency on matters of equality, will my right hon. Friend confirm that our record throughout public service and industry bears up very well in comparison with other countries in the European Community?
41. Mr. Dalyell : To ask the Minister for the Civil Service what advice has been given by the occupational health service to civil servants required to visit the Gulf region in the course of their official duties.
Mr. Renton : No general advice has been issued. The occupational health service gives advice accompanied by appropriate briefing and leaflets to all civil servants travelling abroad as and when required.
Mr. Dalyell : Would it be unduly alarmist to suggest that civil servants, service men and the local population, who are subject to hydrogen sulphide and mixtures of chlorine and hydrocarbons, risk cancer or leukaemia? In those circumstances, will the Minister undertake to look at the statements of Professor Nicholas Wright of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, which suggest that no research is being done along those lines? Should not the Government find out the effects of unprecedented oil fires on human health?
Mr. Renton : I know of no specific evidence that the hon. Gentleman could adduce to back up the remarks that he has just made. However, the booklet, "Keeping healthy overseas", which is issued by the civil service occupational health service to all civil servants travelling abroad, gives some specific advice. When I was working in the private sector and travelled abroad a great deal for my employers, I was never issued with any such booklet.
Mr. Renton : We advise managers in Departments and agencies to encourage staff with an alcohol or drug abuse problem to seek appropriate counselling or treatment. This may involve giving them the opportunity of talking to a welfare officer or occupational health service staff. They can then be advised on how to seek help for their specific needs.
Column 19Mr. Rathbone : I welcome the concern for those personal problems and urge on my right hon. Friend the need to establish points of contact outside the civil service for people who may have those problems because of the reticence that many feel in seeking help within the civil service.
Mr. Renton : I accept my hon. Friend's wise suggestions and I shall pass them forward to the civil servants in my office. I should point out that in January 1988 we issued a policy guidance note which was followed up by a pamphlet called "Misuse of drugs : training framework" for personnel managers. We have tried to give personnel managers sensible advice. I shall certainly ensure that my hon. Friend's points are considered.
Column 20someone undertakes that counselling or the treatment recommended by the counsellors, is that fact wiped off his or her personal record?
Mr. Renton : The hon. Gentleman will realise that it is not possible to be specific in advance as to whether the action taken in individual cases should be only counselling or could also involve something much more serious. If it was a case of the possession of, or trading in, illicit drugs on a Department's premises, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that counselling would not be sufficient and counsellors would have to take a more serious view of such illegal action.
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