|Previous Section||Home Page|
Mr. Newton : Perhaps I should have observed to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) that one thing at least is absolutely clear : there will be only one party--the Conservative party-- fighting the European elections on the basis of a British interest manifesto.
Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South) : May I thank the Leader of the House for his prompt action in answer to my business question last week ? May I say how pleased I am that it is being turned into legislation next Monday, and how surprised I am that the hon. Members for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) do not consider it important to have constructive receivership ?
Will the Leader of the House also turn his attention to the shortage of donated organs ? Many people are waiting an incredibly long time for kidney and other transplants. Will he speak to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to see whether legislation can be introduced--I am confident that it would have a good measure of support across the House-- for changing the system to an opt-out system instead of an opt-in system ? There would be far more organs available for transplant and that would bring great savings to the health service and would considerably ease the lot of many sufferers throughout the country.
Mr. Newton : The hon. Gentleman knows that his second and main point has been a matter of long-running debate against a background of strenuous efforts to increase the amount of organ donation. I am not sure whether I shall need to communicate with my right hon. Friend ; with a bit of luck the hon. Gentleman may be able to do it himself when she is here to answer questions next Tuesday. The first part of the hon. Member's question was characteristically generous and I am glad that we have been able to move fast. I hope that his further remarks this afternoon, alongside those of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown), mean we shall get universal speedy co-operation on Monday.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) : Will the Leader of the House ask his hon. Friends at the Department of Health to make a statement next week on the failure of the regional health authorities to provide basic information in response to questions from right hon. and hon. Members ? The Mersey regional health authority pumps out dozens of press releases each week, but I cannot get a response to basic letter inquiring about cuts in physiotherapy in the Countess of Chester hospital which serves my constituency.
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) : I acknowledge the urgent need for the British Transport police legislation, but does the Leader of the House agree that the fact that we have to have it is indicative of the fact that proper scrutiny is not given to Bills that pass through the House ?
Secondly and most urgently, will the right hon. Gentleman make available today the contents of the Bill, or at least the long title, so that those of us who take an interest in the matter and would like to ensure that the Bill is improved and watertight this time will have an opportunity to study its contents and, if need be, table amendments ? I see a problem here. If it is available before tomorrow, hon. Members will not have an opportunity to read it, understand it, take advice from people such as the Police Federation and table amendments in time. Can it be made available today ?
Mr. Newton : I will do anything that I can to help the hon. Gentleman, but I cannot make the Bill available today, not least because notice of it was not given. Although I understand the hon. Gentleman's points, he is among many to have pressed for urgent action to deal with a problem that needs to be dealt with by 1 April. That involves my moving speedily ; that can cause difficulties. We will do everything to overcome them, and I hope that he will co-operate in helping us to do so.
Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich) : The Leader of the House will have heard the response of the Prime Minister in answer to my question on the failings of the London ambulance service. In that response, the Prime Minister alluded to actions that are being taken to remedy the situation. As the situation has worsened since the Secretary of State took some action, will the Leader of the House find time next week for the Secretary of State to come to the House to explain why her measures have failed, and what further action she will take to ensure that the London ambulance service meets the patients charter standards ?
Mr. Newton : My understanding of the current performance is that an ambulance responds within 14 minutes 65 per cent. of the time, which compares with only 48 per cent. in September 1992. We have every intention of making further progress towards the patients charter standard of 95 per cent.
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your help and protection. Earlier we had questions about the British Transport police Bill. There is no guarantee that the Bill will be available in time for hon. Members to table written amendments. Can you give us some help, and assure us that it will be possible for manuscript amendments to be dealt with on Monday so that the Bill can be made watertight and improved if necessary ?
Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I want to put the record straight following something that I said yesterday, when I accused the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) of never having served on Standing Committees. He shouted across to me that I was a liar. I did not bring that to your attention at the time, because he is feeling rather sensitive about things at the moment and I did not want to cause him problems. As a result of the hon. Member's comment, I went to the Library and made one or two inquiries. I understand that, last year, the hon. Gentleman did serve on a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments which had one sitting, which he attended. Therefore, I should like to withdraw what I said yesterday. What I should have said was that he practically never attends Standing Committees.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : It is true that I do not serve on Select Committees, because I believe that they are all part of the sloppy consensus in this palace of varieties. As for Standing Committees, you, Madam Speaker, and others, will know that I served on the Committee of a housing finance Bill, which lasted the longest number of hours in Parliament, and on many other Committees. The hon. Gentleman's research is still wrong, because just before the election in 1992, I sat on the Committee considering the coal Bill as well.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House, at its rising on Thursday 31st March, do adjourn until Tuesday 12th April and, at its rising on Friday 29th April, do adjourn until Tuesday 3rd May.-- [Mr. Patnick.]
Mr. John Biffen (Shropshire, North) : The exchanges earlier this afternoon emphasised the interest of the House in Community affairs, and doubtless that interest is shown particularly in the context of the negotiations in Brussels involving my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary concerning voting within the enlarged Community. My right hon. Friend has my warmest and most full-hearted support for his stand and for the objectives that he seeks to secure. I believe that he takes the support and aspirations of all Conservative Members, not least because his successful vindication of his negotiation tactics has a real impact on our electoral fortunes in the European elections.
I wish to use this occasion to reinforce my support for my right hon. Friend, and to consider the form that that support should take. I believe that the case has not been argued in this country, partly because the Opposition have opted out of this debate.
Mr. Biffen : My hon. Friend--if I may use that fraternal term in these narrow circumstances--is quite right : he and our friend the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) show a continuing and spirited interest in the subject. Nevertheless, in a party that purports to provide the next Government, we have seen total abdication in regard to this issue.
That is extraordinary. We know that the House's relationship with the European Community derives through the Council of Ministers : all the structures are related in that fashion. Indeed, the terms of the treaty could not make any other arrangement possible. We as parliamentarians therefore have a real interest in the future pattern, size and voting conventions of the Council of Ministers. Some--my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) is a good, robust example--have seen the issue in terms of national interest : they feel that possessing and exercising that vote in certain restrained circumstances enabled us to pursue a national interest that would not otherwise have been available. I accept that that is a fact. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield regards me as being decidedly at the "wimp" end of the Tory party ; let me, however, suggest another reason why we should be so wholehearted in our support for the Foreign Secretary, and so anxious that he should maintain the position that he has adopted hitherto.
Our experience of the Community shows us that it is now generating an enormous amount of legislation. I cannot believe that that serves the purpose of the Community's supporters ; all too often, it resembles a parody, generating endless aspirations to bring about uniformity across Europe, when it should be content with partnership. Within that structure there is a possibility of check and balance, in the sense that qualified voting of a certain character provides at least some check on the volume of legislation.
Column 1031I very much agree with the Prime Minister that the issues now at stake are long-term issues. If enlargement is confirmed, I believe that it will generate more legislation rather than less ; the check on the legislative cascade must therefore be kept as tight as possible. That is what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary seeks by means of the voting formula for which he has asked. I consider this a matter of the utmost seriousness, which should engage the measured judgment of the Labour party no less than ours. I do not believe that the quality of the Community is improved by its becoming a bureaucrats' paradise, with the conversion of the powerful initiatives in the Commission's hands into an application of Community law on an unbelievably detailed scale, and an attempt to pursue uniformity to a degree that is wholly unnecessary for the ambitions of a wider Europe--the wider Europe represented by the current negotiations, which will be further fulfilled with the membership of Poland, the Czech and Slovak republics and Hungary. I suspect that, as we move towards that position and have to reconsider the institutions of the Community, we shall begin to wonder whether it would not be much better in the long run to move items from the present Community structure to that of the intergovernmental conference. That is the structure that will enable a sensible repossession of national law-making and national sensitivities, and that is the true devolution that is inherent and, I believe, will eventually become inevitable if the Community can adjust to its wider membership ambitions.
I am delighted to see the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) in his place. He has been a welcome and innovative advocate of seeking to what extent we can repatriate the common agricultural policy. The hon. Gentleman is setting out on a long pilgrim's path, on which I will happily join him, so long as that is not too embarrassing for him in his constituency. We have been trying to reform the common agricultural policy from day one. It is only within the context of moving towards a more radical proposition that we begin to see at once why my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is trying to hold a line--a line which has great potential for the future beneficial development of the Community.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) : I am comforted by the right hon. Gentleman's encouragement, as I have great respect for his views. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the repatriation of the CAP--subsidiarity-- could be extremely dangerous for this country in some areas ? For example, if subsidiarity meant a raising of standards and the equivalent raising of costs in areas such as animal welfare, Britain and its farmers would be penalised, while subsidiarity would reduce standards in other member states.
Mr. Biffen : The hon. Gentleman is already showing welcome recognition of the stony path that he is treading. He will face precisely that sort of difficulty. Any aspect of the European Community which has been conducted on the basis of idealism will also have been conducted on the basis of hard bargaining, often in powerfully contested situations. The hon. Gentleman is therefore right to say that we shall not achieve repatriation on the cheap. That is why it is far better for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to hold the line now, rather than thinking that we can haul it back during renegotiations in 1996 or thereafter.
Column 1032We send our good wishes to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in his effort to hold the line, as he has been doing nobly and valiantly during the past week. However, let us be under no misapprehension about the dangers of a bureaucratic Europe. Why do some countries fear a bureaucratic Europe more than others ? The answer is in the issue of law enforcement.
Law enforcement reflects the traditions and character of individual countries. There is a different standard of law enforcement in Nordic countries and in Mediterranean countries. It is not just a battle for narrow British interests that is at stake, although, in deference to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), I accept that British interests are never narrow. What is at stake is not just a purely national argument.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is arguing on a European plane, not merely for a British position within a European dimension, and I hope that he will be encouraged by remarks such as mine because he is fighting a battle which is worth
Mr. Biffen : It is worth having a battle if we can debate with the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). We could detach him for the purpose of the European elections and take him around as an example of the ghost of Labour yesterday. He is now the sole relic within the Labour party prepared to question any Community institution, and he is found sitting with his hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer).
We are appealing to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to speak for Europe.
Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe) : I have an interest to declare, but not a financial one, in the two issues that I want to raise in this debate. Together with the hon. Member for Shipley (Sir M. Fox), I am joint honorary parliamentary adviser to the Royal British Legion. Both issues are of deep concern to the Legion and should be debated in the House before the Easter recess. At the very least, there should be an oral ministerial statement about each of them before 31 March.
The first issue affects war pensions and war widows' pensions and is thus a highly sensitive one for the ex-service community. I refer to the Government's proposals to legislate to amend the Service Pensions Order to exclude from entitlement many people now qualified for war pensions and war widows' pensions. Widows of ex-service men now eligible for war widows' pensions would no longer be entitled to their pensions under the amendments that the Government propose. Let me give the House an example of the kind of case that will be affected by the Government's proposals to change the law. A service man who suffered extreme cruelty--indeed, who was tortured-- as a prisoner of the Japanese in the second world war emerged with a smoking-related lung disease from which he died. He became a heavy smoker, having previously been a non-smoker, to alleviate the chronic stress caused by what
Column 1033are described as his "horrifying experiences" as a prisoner of war ; medical evidence was available to show that, in his case, smoking was directly attributable to the inhuman treatment meted out to him by the Japanese.
Like everyone else at that time, he was unaware that smoking could prove harmful. In fact, it was then very widely considered to have a beneficial effect as a tranquilliser and morale booster for service personnel on stressful active service.
No matter how conclusive the evidence of a direct link between an ex- service man's death and his resort to heavy smoking to deal with chronic stress on active service, his wife will have no entitlement to a war widow's pension if the Service Pensions Order is amended as now proposed by the Government.
Yet there are already some 60 cases in which war pension appeal tribunals have awarded widows' pensions where smoking, related to chronic stress during war service, was accepted as the cause of an ex-service man's death. This must be a very serious issue, more especially since many other cases are pending, and it is clearly one deserving of at least an oral ministerial statement before we rise for the Easter recess.
What is resented by the ex-service community almost as much as the intention of the change in the law the Government propose is the hole-in- the-corner way in which it is being attempted. No statement has yet been volunteered to this House. The only information we have so far received came in a written parliamentary reply to two questions that I tabled to the Secretary of State for Social Security. The reply said that the decision to smoke or drink was a personal one. It went on to say that the proposed change in the law follows a recent decision in the High Court and
"would ensure that the legislation reflects the policy intention."--[ Official Report , 3 February 1994 ; Vol. 236, c. 840 - 41 .]
What that means, of course, is that the High Court had found that the existing law does not mean what the Government thought it meant and that Ministers now intend to reverse the court's decision to avoid paying war pensions and war widows' pensions to some very needful people. If that is allowed to happen, the independent status of war pensions appeal tribunals will be seriously undermined, and that, too, is worthy of an urgent debate in this House.
Smoking dependency in consequence of active service has long been accepted in other countries as a cause of severe respiratory conditions, notably by the Australian Government after a High Court ruling there some years ago. They did not appeal against the decision of the High Court ; they honoured its decision. Of that, Ministers here say not a word, just as they ignore the fact that it was only comparatively recently that smoking became recognised as a health hazard. But as recently as the mid-1970s, smoking was considered both safe and socially acceptable.
Billions of cigarettes were issued free of charge to service personnel on active service, and they were also available to them at heavily subsidised prices in the NAAFI. I myself was actively encouraged to smoke as the recipient of 200 free issue cigarettes a week while on active service in the middle east in the post-war years. As late as 1975, there were instances of consignments of cigarettes
Column 1034from HM Customs being distributed to RAF personnel serving overseas and of cut-price cigarettes being sold in NAAFI establishments. Another very disturbing feature of the Government's proposals to change the law is that the amended legislation will be applied retrospectively. I ask the Leader of the House to take special note of that point. In the case of any improvement in existing legislation, as he knows, the Government always refuse to make it retrospective ; but when, as in this case, the Government's intention is to cease helping war pensioners and war widows, they do so retrospectively and without time limits.
As the reply to my parliamentary questions made clear, the Government's proposals stem from a recent High Court judgment in which their attempts to stop the award of a war widow's pension to the widow of a former far eastern prisoner of war were unsuccessful. The High Court upheld the war widow's entitlement which a tribunal had allowed because her husband's death from cancer was due to smoking related to service factors. The Government are understood now to be planning to seek leave to appeal to the High Court against other recent successful appeals by the widows of ex- service men where smoking was accepted as a factor of service. I know there are those on both sides of the House who will regard that as not only wrong but disgraceful.
The only circumstances in which the Government are prepared now to recognise smoking as a factor of service is when an individual became so mentally disturbed as a result of service that he was incapable of making a rational decision whether to smoke or not. But any war pensioner who is 80 per cent. mentally disabled and incapable of looking after himself is entitled to constant attendance allowance, thus ensuring that, in the event of his death from whatever cause, his widow will automatically receive a war widow's pension. Such cases are, in my experience as a former Minister with responsibility for war pensions, very rare indeed.
I hope very much that the Leader of the House will recognise the widespread concern to which the Government's proposals to change the Service Pensions Order give rise ; that they will not repeat the now notorious mistake made in relation to noise-induced deafness for war pension purposes ; and that we will now be given the opportunity of an early debate to persuade them to relent before it is too late. Not to do so would demean the House and cause deep distress to those who have one of the most compelling claims on our attention.
The second issue I want to raise can be dealt with much more briefly, since its importance is already being actively discussed by right hon. and hon. Members. There is an all-party early-day motion on the Order Paper about it in my name, which says :
"That this House, mindful of the increasing needs of the United Kingdom's ageing ex-Service population and the many problems of younger members of the ex-Service community, in direct consequence of Options for Change, considers that there is now a pressing need for a Sub-Department of Ex- Service Affairs within an existing Ministry and with a designated Minister to be responsible, as the only fundamental and long-term solution for the care and welfare of ex-Service people and their dependants ; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government now to respond positively to The Royal British Legion's urgent call for a sub-department to be established."
Column 1035considerable support from both sides of the House. Will he please state the number of his early-day motion and the level of support that he has received for it ? I am sure that, like myself as the Member for Macclesfield, most other hon. Members have had many representations from British Legion organisations. Naturally, those have been passed on, with endorsement, to the appropriate Minister in the Ministry of Defence.
Mr. Morris : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has worked long and hard to help the ex-service community, more particularly war widows. My early-day motion is No. 60, and it now has 172 signatories. It has been subscribed to not just by right hon. and hon. Members in both major parties but by members of all parties. As of now, bits and pieces of responsibility for helping ex-service men and women and their dependants are scattered all over Whitehall. The Government act on the assumption that the Minister at the Department of Social Security who is responsible for war pensions is the right point of contact for the ex-service organisations ; but the problems of their members go much wider than the Department of Social Security and, as we all know, in many circumstances the right hand of government rarely seems to know what the left hand is doing. In fact, there are times when the right hand seems not to know that there is a left hand.
In simple terms, what the Royal British Legion and other organisations that speak for the ex-service community want the Government to institute is a "single-door" policy that will provide ease of access to all Departments of State with which they now have to deal. They want not a new Secretary of State, but a co-ordinating Minister who, in my view, would not only make life easier for ex-service men and women and their dependants but save their organisations and the Government both time and money.
As war-disabled men and women and their dependants grow older--as the hon. Member for Macclesfied (Mr. Winterton) knows so well, the majority are now over retirement age--their needs multiply and their problems are compounded by avoidable delay. It must now be obvious to the Government that my early- day motion has not only comprehensive all-party support but, prospectively, majority support in this House. It deserves to be debated, and soon. I look forward to a positive response to both of the important issues that I have raised in this debate.
With a new financial and tax year about to begin, and with a coming summer of wartime memories for so many of our older citizens who lived through that period, we have perhaps even more reason in this debate to remember the debt of gratitude that we owe to retired constituents. The oft-quoted saying that the health of our society can be judged by the way we treat our elderly is still very apt. Whatever hon. Members think about how elderly people are treated, we can all agree that some common fears of the elderly need to be addressed.
Clearly, many of them fear the prospect of not having enough money. Those who are just above income support
Column 1036level, those who perhaps had no opportunity to build up extra pensions or were prevented by war service from getting into personal pension schemes and those who have saved a little feel particularly vulnerable. Pensioner bonds, granny bonds, special rates for the elderly, and the fact that the home energy efficiency scheme and assistance with VAT on fuel have now been extended to all pensioners are all a great help, but for many the perception remains that they will or may run out of money.
Many people are told that pensioners do much better in Ireland, France or Germany. We can point out how difficult it is to make straight comparisons between pensioners in different countries, and we must ask questions about those countries compared with our own. Is the state pension normally a pensioner's only form of income ? What health care entitlements and local social services do pensioners enjoy ? What other social security benefits do they receive ? What is the spending power of their income ? Is the pension earnings-related or flat-rate ? Is there provision for adult dependants ? What is the qualifying age for receipt of an old age pension ? On all those comparisons, British pensioners come out fairly well. At a time of rising life expectancy and health expectation, when the number of retired people is growing throughout Europe, we should take some pride in that fact, yet many still believe, or choose to believe, that they are the paupers of Europe.
The Government approach, rightly, has three strands--to increase the basic state pension in line with prices, to encourage private provision on top of it, and to focus extra help on the pensioners who need it most. Yet there is still often resentment on the part of many pensioners, and some go so far as to feel betrayed by today's society. To some extent that is a generational feeling, but it is fuelled by an understandable anger when they see people getting away with actions such as defrauding the social security system, attacking and robbing pensioners, and expecting and demanding everything, as so many people do.
We spend ever more on health care to satisfy the demands and expectations that we all have. We all want to live longer and better. We spend more on help with housing, with taxes and with residential care. That is all part of the system that we have built up over 40 years. People spend more, young and old alike, and they have ever more material possessions. Yet no matter how much we put into the system, it will never be enough. Medical inflation, advances in technology and public demand will always outstrip the taxpayer's ability to pay, so we are right to bite the bullet of some difficult dilemmas.
Questioning a common retirement age and fighting social security fraud are just two of the modest steps that we have taken so far. Even the Labour party is now saying, although not yet very loudly, that it may not necessarily be committed to raising pensions in line with prices or earnings every year. We have all come to realise that, if our gigantic health and social security budget is to be financed entirely out of taxes from business and from individuals in work, we are in effect taxing employment, and before long something will break under the increasing strain.
Any thinking about how to help the poorest pensioners in a more sustainable way is to be welcomed, and should be given proper public debate. If we all devote a little time to thinking that through in our constituencies in the short Easter recess, our time will have been well spent.
Pensioners have other fears, too. Both in our cities and in the rural areas, many fear loneliness and isolation. Scoff though many do at "back to basics" and basic family
Column 1037values, the fact remains that when grandparents were acknowledged as an integral part of families and communities in a less mobile, more rooted society, older people's fears were not so great as they are now.
Pensioners also fear immobility caused by lack of physical health, which is why hip replacements are now so popular. Today's hip replacements are often second or third replacements, because the previous replacement has been worn out.
Pensioners also have fears about transport. To be fair, most local authorities, and local organisations and voluntary groups such as DIAL, Help the Aged, Age Concern and so on, do incredibly effective work in combating that fear. There is also new bus technology, and attention is being focused on accessibility. All that needs encouraging. I suggest to my right hon. Friends in government that tax-friendly encouragement is the most effective method.
There is also a fear of lawlessness and of disrespect for law and order generally. The fear of walking the streets and the feeling that one is not safe in one's own home are real enough, even if they are not always borne out by the crime figures. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill will help, but for many people I fear that the decision of the House against capital punishment will not help. Focusing the Government's policy attention on families, on the difficulties of older people in getting work, and on any age discrimination will also help, if it translates into positive action. We have a tremendous natural resource in our older people. Why do we not use it more for the benefit of everyone ?
Older people share our fear of being strangled in red tape and bureaucracy. The deregulation initiative will help there, even if it is only like a finger in the dyke trying to hold back the North sea. People will welcome any reduction in health service bureaucracy and waste, including the abolition of some of the health authorities. However, they do not welcome that if it is done badly, as in my area, where Waveney is being split off from Great Yarmouth and we are being lumped in with Suffolk. Older people fear that they will not be able to use the local hospital, the James Paget hospital, because it is just over the border in Norfolk. Again, it was a well-intentioned move by the Government but it has backfired because they ignored local fears.
Many older people are fearful of what we seem to be doing--Front Benchers of all parties stand accused of this--in giving away our sovereignty for an unproved, often unwanted, European ideal which sees us as the losers almost every time while the Germans and others, whom many, of these older people gave the best years of their youth to fight, seem to be the winners almost every time. For many, that is galling beyond belief.
In case my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench are inclined to dismiss the power of the elderly as well as their fears, I would point out that they need to be carried with us. I quote from a Help the Aged document, "Speaking Up For Our Age", published last November for the European year of older people and solidarity between generations :
"For the record, the vote of the over 65s in the 1992 General Election split 49 per cent. Conservative, 31 per cent. Labour and 13 per cent. Liberal Democrat. On the evidence of specific manifesto pledges to older people, this is not the way one would have expected self-interested older people to vote. One must
Column 1038conclude that older voters are not self- interested."
That is fair enough, but they are a powerful group. Let us recognise their fears and carry more of them with us as we move forward.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) : I was tempted to rip up my speech, follow the line of the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) and look at some of the problems facing the European Community, but that can wait for another day. There are more urgent questions. Similarly, I was tempted to discuss the issues affecting many of the residents of the south- west now, this week.You, Madam Deputy Speaker, no doubt have had your postbag filled with letters from those whose water bills have gone up yet again by 12 per cent. and look to double by the end of the century, having already doubled.
However, I decided that at this juncture there is an issue which does not often receive a hearing in the House but which deserves our attention. As it happens, it links with the concern that a number of hon. Members have already expressed about the fears and anxieties of the elderly, but not exclusively so.
It may surprise hon. Members to hear that it is 30 years since I became a member of a police authority. Hon. Members may think that I was precocious or enjoyed a misspent youth, but I was particularly concerned with rural policing and having then become a member of the Devon and Cornwall police authority for some years and done other things, I have continued to take a considerable interest in policing in rural areas. It would be helpful if hon. Members had an opportunity to discuss these issues rather more often, but at least I can take the opportunity today to touch on some of those with which many of us are concerned.
There has been a rising tide of crime throughout the country, but it has been particularly evident in some areas which previously we thought were immune from it--notably the rural areas. Many rural communities feel that the Government have abandoned them in recent years. They feel that their problems have been ignored and that, instead, Ministers have come up with headline-grabbing stunts, hoping for short-term political advantage. From my youth in a small village in the west country, I am reminded that the most effective form of deterrence is the presence of a constable living in such a village. We had in the village a policeman by the name of PC MacPherson who moved round at a fairly steady pace because, although he had a bicycle, he did not often ride it because his spaniel could not keep up. The key point to us of the generation who might be concerned about such matters was that one never knew where he was not. The effective presence of the police constable and of his wife, a member of the Women's Institute, his children at the local school--he was also a member of the cricket club- -meant that every part of the community had an immediate relationship with the guardian of law and order. That has long since gone, and initiatives by some far-sighted chief constables--notably John Alderson whom you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I remember as a most effective chief constable in Devon and Cornwall--have, sadly, turned the clock back only a little way. In the past few weeks I have not only talked to our present chief constable and to many other police officers about this ; I have spoken to magistrates, probation officers, neighbourhood watch organisers and even a prison
Column 1039governor. These people, who know what they are talking about when it comes to preserving the peace and ensuring law and order, are the people who feel that "solutions" are being imposed on them. They feel that they are not being given an effective opportunity to contribute to the analysis of the problems. They are not being told what is happening, and they have only a minimal chance to influence the course of events.
Analysis of the figures shows that there are more crimes per head in rural police force areas than in urban ones, while rural police forces are undermanned and under-funded. To take just one example, in my own police division of North Cornwall we have experienced in the past 15 years-- roughly the lifetime of the Government--a doubling of recorded crime, with a drop in the proportion cleared up. Yet during that period the Home Secretary has permitted only a 9 per cent. increase in the establishment of officers.
Police areas which are more than 50 per cent. rural have averaged a rise in establishment of only 92 officers between 1982 and 1992, while in the most urban--with 25 per cent. or less of rural parishes--the rise in the number of officers has averaged some 300. That is not as a result of the crime figures, which point in the opposite direction : the threat of crime in rural communities is higher. With fewer police per head and those police spreading their work over much wider areas, people living in rural areas are evidently more at risk.
I have some more figures. In your area and mine, Madam Deputy Speaker-- Devon and Cornwall--we have one policeman for every 516 people. In Hampshire, the proportion is even worse, with one per 522 people. Compare that with Merseyside, where it is one per 306 people, and with metropolitan London, where it is one per 258 people. Moreover, the logistics is more difficult in a scattered rural area and it is harder for the police to get around at speed. The present restrictions on petrol and on the use of cars must be lifted. The effects of the budgetary constraints are patently absurd. Avon and Somerset police authority has had to limit its squad cars to 35 miles travel in one shift. What they do in a sudden emergency, I hate to think. There is thus a vicious circle : scattered population, less easy to police effectively, fewer officers, reduced mobility, less effective policing. It is a major cause of the increase in crime in the more rural areas of Great Britain.
I give two other examples, Gloucestershire and Cambridgeshire, both required to protect important people. In the case of Gloucestershire it is the royal family ; in Cambridgeshire it is the Prime Minister. Yet Gloucestershire receives no compensation for the resources which have to be diverted to that task, and Cambridgeshire actually loses 2 per cent. of its manpower permanently for the protection of the Prime Minister, without any compensation. The Prime Minister's police area, Cambridgeshire, is a good example of the problems that rural areas face. It has one officer for every 540 people, fewer officers per head than any other force, while having the third highest rise in recorded offences--almost 80 per cent.--since 1989.
People in Nottinghamshire are more likely to be victims of crime than in any other part of the country. Rural areas such as Avon and Somerset have seen crime increase by 75 per cent. in the lifetime of the Government. People in Humberside are among the most likely in Britain to be the
Column 1040victims of violent crime ; yet when their chief constable asked for 13 more police officers--a modest request--to tackle the crime rate, he was given none.
The Home Secretary continues to fudge the true test of his commitment to more effective policing of rural areas by refusing time and again to increase the number of officers to that which the chief constables accept as operationally required. The figures show that the rural forces have been left behind in terms of meeting their operational requirements.
On the Home Office formula, the Hampshire force should be increased by a further 223 officers. Last year, not unreasonably, the chief constable, using the Home Office figures, asked for an additional 200 officers. How many did he receive ? Zero.
At the Christchurch by-election we Liberal Democrats were castigated for our profligacy in daring to suggest that the Dorset chief constable should receive 97 additional officers because he had identified them as necessary to his operational requirements, to meet the needs of the Dorset community. Later last year, the Home Secretary wrote :
"we simply cannot approve every request for more officers which is made"
by chief constables, and
"it is of paramount importance that we maintain controls on public expenditure."
How much was the threatened increase in public expenditure ? What was the huge amount that was threatened ? According to the Conservative party research department, it was some £55 million--an interesting figure, as it is precisely equivalent to £1 per head of population in the United Kingdom. I wonder how many people would think that that was a price worth paying.