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Mr. Burt : My hon. Friend poses the right question. We have to date received no idea from the hon. Member for Garscadden of how any proposed disregard might be paid for. As my hon. Friend will know, a disregard of £15 a
Column 12week would cost the Exchequer about £450 million a year. So before we take serious note of what Opposition Members say, the idea needs to be properly costed.
Dr. Spink : Can my hon. Friend confirm that 205,000 cases have been assessed so far, and that in 60 per cent. of them, an absent father was paying absolutely no maintenance for the upbringing of his children ? Will he further confirm that 28,000 of those cases related to feckless fathers who had disappeared off the face of the earth, leaving no address with the children's mother ; and that in 96 per cent. of cases the children had been left behind on state benefits ? Finally, will he confirm that the absent fathers in question were generally enjoying a better life style than the children they had left behind ?
Mr. Burt : My hon. Friend's figures are correct. The point is that much press attention has been paid to certain cases, which have tended to obscure the good work being done by the CSA--which, as my hon. Friend rightly says, is in the main directed towards those who previously did not pay maintenance. We have a record of finding those who, under the former system, would have been able to disappear, not paying the mothers of their children anything and leaving the full burden on the taxpayer.
The agency needs to be seen for some of the good work that it does, as well as needing to face up to some of the difficulties, which I believe it is responsible enough to face up to.
Mr. Llwyd : To return to the original question : if the Minister is right, and there is some reckoning of ability to pay in the system, why did the chief executive of the CSA tell the Social Services Select Committee on 2 November 1993--and I quote
Mr. Burt : She was entirely right. The formula laid down by the House sets out the amounts that people have to pay, and it is based on a percentage of people's earnings. It does not leave discretion in the hands of the agency. That was precisely the point of the changes introduced by the Child Support Act, based on the recognition that a wholly discretionary system had in the past all too often failed the mother of the child and left her with too little money. What the chief executive said was thus entirely consistent with the law.
Mr. Lilley : Last year,‡ I published "The Growth of Social Security", which showed that spending on social security was set to increase in real terms by 3.3 per cent. a year up to the end of the century. Since then, I have taken steps to curb this growth so that the benefits system does not outstrip the nation's ability to pay for it.
Column 13Members believe that the inexorable growth in his budget is one of the greatest problems facing the Government and the economy today. Will he ensure that vulnerable people are not penalised by his policies, but that we continue to bring the growth in the Department's budget strictly under control ?
Mr. Lilley : Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The purpose of our review is to improve the system, to guarantee the position of those who are most in need, and to make sure that the social security system does not outstrip the nation's ability to pay for it.
Mr. Lilley : In response to the request from the hon. Gentleman, I will certainly be giving the Select Committee figures showing how the figures that I gave last year for the growth of social security spending are modified by the changes that we have announced since. These are not of course cuts ; there will be continued growth in social security spending. Still, this is a move in the right direction, and I am glad to say that the figures will show some moderation in the expected growth.
17. Mr. Shersby : To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what assessment he has made of the criteria used by the Child Support Agency for assessing contributions ; and what proposals he has for reviewing the current arrangements.
Mr. Burt : I have said on many occasions that the Government are keeping the child support scheme under close review, and that is still the case. We shall continue to listen to representations from all sources, but we have no specific plans for changes at this stage.
Mr. Shersby : Is my hon. Friend aware that many fathers find it difficult to understand or accept that clean-break settlements already entered into are not fully taken into account by the Child Support Agency ? Is he further aware that many young fathers are troubled because the full cost of contributing to their pension schemes is not properly taken into account and nor is the cost of travelling to work, which is substantial-- certainly in my part of the world ?
Mr. Burt : My hon. Friend makes his points well. We are aware of people's concerns on specific parts of the formula. Each of my hon. Friend's points was answered last year by the Select Committee, which explained that it was difficult to take everything into account in the formula without running the risk of going back to the former system in which priority of payment for the child was low. None the less, I listen carefully to my hon. Friend's points, as do the Government. The commitment to keep the scheme under careful review should also apply to the matters that my hon. Friend has mentioned.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. William Waldegrave) : On 23 June, together with the Israeli Minister for Science, I launched the United Kingdom-Israel Science and Technology Research Fund for joint strategic research projects, for which the UK and Israeli Governments have each made available a sum of £300,000 over a period of three years. These resources are to be matched by another £300,000 from philanthropic sources over the same period.
Mr. Merchant : I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his steps to increase scientific co-operation between Britain and Israel. That is especially appropriate as the peace process gathers strength. May I encourage him to look at ways of extending the present programme beyond its initial three years ?
Mr. Waldegrave : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome. The scheme will benefit British and Israeli science and many will benefit from the work. The initial calls for proposals were issued today. We had better see how the scheme goes before we extend it beyond three years, but I have every hope that a good start will be made and that co-operation will develop.
Mr. Gunnell : Can the Chancellor of the Duchy assure me that the areas of mutual interest do not include any aspect of armaments, nuclear or non-nuclear ? Can he also assure me that the recent change in the Government's position on the sale of armaments to Israel will not affect that issue as far as scientific co-operation is concerned ?
Mr. Batiste : I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his efforts in this important initiative. Can he confirm that private sector funding for the scheme has already been made available ? Will he also confirm that the initiative, which comes at the end of the arms embargo on Israel, is an important signal to British industry and to academia that this is the right time to enter into new business, trading, research and scientific links with Israel to our mutual benefit ?
Mr. Waldegrave : I should like to pay tribute to the contributors from private philanthropic funds who have joined the two Governments in this. The Hanadiv, the famous Rothschild Foundation, has contributed money, as have others. I think that other hon. Members believe that the stance taken by the current Israeli Government is brave and should be supported. As those who follow these matters know, Mr. Shulamit Aloni, the Israeli Minister of Science, has taken an honourable role in seeking to build bridges in the middle east.
Mr. Enright : Is not the Secretary of State aware that the continual privatisation and quangoisation of the civil service has reduced it from being the envy of the world to being something like a south American banana republic ? Does not he realise that in some of the semi-public bodies dishonesty is ticking away like a time bomb and that it is about time he did something about it ?
Mr. Waldegrave : The hon. Gentleman is talking rubbish. The reforms to the British civil service that are being carried through maintain the quality of service but also develop new and much more flexible ways of getting value for money for the taxpayer. That is why people are coming here from all over the world, including the United States, to consult us about taking forward similar reforms.
Sir Nicholas Bonsor : Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the civil service code expressly prohibits civil servants from taking part in surveys that reflect their attitudes or opinions of political and policy matters ? Is not it right that those rules have been in existence for successive Administrations and that they are essential to maintain the integrity and independence of the civil servant ?
Mr. Meacher : But is it surprising that morale in the civil service has now slumped to an all-time low when, for example, only in the past few weeks, it has been reported that there is to be a political crackdown on the Home Office research unit because its research findings do not square with the prejudices of the Home Secretary ; when 10,000 jobs are likely to be lost by the administrative transfer of the job seeker's allowance from one Department to another ; when consultants are brought in at a cost of £500 million to the taxpayer, because Ministers no longer trust their civil servants ; and when senior civil servants are now expected to compromise their neutrality by advising on the political network to rebut criticism, for example, of the Government's Green Paper on homelessness ? Are not those the real and shameful reasons why the right hon. Gentleman will not allow a survey of morale and attitudes in the civil service ? Is not he making an absolutely farce of his role as Minister for open government ?
Mr. Waldegrave : As on the occasion when he brandished a leaked letter demonstrating the superior confidentiality of the public sector, the hon. Gentleman seems to me to have demonstrated in what he said exactly why the rules, which were originally set out by a Labour Government, are wise, because he would not have the good sense not to exploit any results for party political purposes, thereby putting the civil service right in the middle of the political firing line. He is the exact embodiment of why we are right to stick to the rules that were laid down originally by a Labour Government.
Mr. Matthew Taylor : Does the Minister nevertheless agree that fundamental changes are taking place in the role of civil servants and the role of appointed bodies in the way in which the Administration is now run in this country ? Is not it time for a commission of some sort to be set up to look at the relationship between those areas and Ministers, the political nature of that relationship and its accountability to the House ?
Mr. Waldegrave : I do not think that we need another quango to do that. The Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee is looking at those matters. It is no secret ; we have announced that the Government are about to publish a White Paper that will cover some of the same issues. The House and the Government can deal with the matter without setting up new commissions.
Mr. Davis : I certainly join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to that industry. He referred to its success abroad, but on our doorstep we have an even bigger symbol of that success--the channel tunnel, which is the largest civil engineering project this century. The lion's share of the work was won by the British construction industry. It is because of the success of that industry that we have one of the Foresight panels on construction, with three members of the institute that he mentioned on it.
Dr. Moonie : Can-- [Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear.] Can the Minister confirm that it is not the role of the science budget to cover up for deficiencies in spending in the Department of Trade and Industry ? Will he confirm, as the Secretary of State did a few weeks ago, that peer review will remain the sole criterion for allocation of resources within the research councils ?
Mr. Davis : In light of the rather desultory cheering from the Benches behind the hon. Gentleman, I am surprised that he is keen on peer review. The answer to his question is certainly yes. The Department of Trade and Industry is changing its emphasis from the generation of new ideas to the exploitation of technology and technology transfer, which is as it should be.
Mr. Riddick : Does my hon. Friend agree that as a result of this Government's employment legislation over the past 15 years, trade unions behave in a far less irresponsible way than they did in the dark days of the 1970s ? Does he agree that if trade unions could be awarded charter marks, neither the National Union of Teachers, with its disgraceful boycott of school tests, nor the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, which is holding passengers to ransom with its wholly unreasonable demands, would stand a cat's chance in hell of being awarded a charter mark ?
Mr. Davis : My hon. Friend makes his point in his own inimitable way and I do not quarrel with it. Although one hears all the time criticisms from the Opposition about shortfalls here and there, one never hears criticisms from them of the RMT, NUT or any other of their trade union sponsors that mess up the interests of the public and undermine the country's economic interests. That is the best indicator of their commitment to public reform.
Mr. Skinner : Is it nothing short of disgraceful that 250 Tory Members of Parliament criticise signalmen and others who are fighting for an average wage when many Tory Members have four, five or six jobs moonlighting ? They are not satisfied with their £31,000 a year, but prop up tin-pot charter marks and pay Railtrack's boss £120,000 a year for a three-day week. That is nothing short of contemptible.
Mr. Davis : One can see the sponsorship of the National Union of Mineworkers standing there. The truth is that the RMT is behaving in an irresponsible manner and holding the public to ransom. We never hear criticism of that union--be it from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) or the ever-absent hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair).
Mr. Waldegrave : Publication of comparative information is of immense value to those seeking to raise standards in their public service organisation, such as schools and colleges. I much welcome the recent publication of tables on the performance of hospitals and ambulance authorities. I am sure that the national health service will respond in a positive way to that important development.
Mrs. Lait : Does my right hon. Friend agree that all hospitals will respond to that information and improve standards ? Does he further agree with a leader that appeared in The Guardian last week, which called the publication of those tables a milestone and commented that both main Opposition parties had made fools of themselves ?
Column 18West (Mr. Meacher), I do read The Guardian . I not only read the leader to which my hon. Friend referred but one published the week before, which predicted the Opposition's response :
"Predictably, MPs from both main Opposition parties (as well as the BMA) are lining up to make fools of themselves."
As my hon. Friend rightly said, they did make fools of themselves.
Mrs. Anne Campbell : Is not it ironic that a hospital that received a five-star rating for its waiting list last week has as one of its patients Mrs. Megan Thompson, one of my constituents, who was told that she had to wait until 1999 before she could even get on a waiting list ? Does not that imply cheating somewhere ?
Mr. Waldegrave : As usual, such cases need to be looked at extremely closely. If it turns out that that case is as the hon. Lady said, something has gone seriously wrong. As the hon. Lady rightly said, the hospital in question has an extremely good performance record. It is most ironical that, as always, even the hon. Lady--who often knows better--is doing what The Guardian rightly described as seeking to stop patients having important information that they have a democratic right to know. Why does the hon. Lady do that ?
Mr. Mans : Does my right hon. Friend agree that publishing league tables for hospitals and other services is not about finding winners and losers, but about bringing everyone's standards up to the best standards in that particular service ?
Mr. Waldegrave : My hon. Friend is right. There are many examples that I could cite. Last Friday The Oxford Times said that the health authority's immediate response was to take action to improve the standards in the league tables which, in one or two respects, were not good enough. That is the right response. Information must be published and action taken to put right cases, such as that mentioned by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), where standards are inadequate.
Mr. David Davis : Some 39 charters have been published under the citizens charter. New charters covering further and higher education in Northern Ireland and London Buses will be published later this year. We revised three of the existing charters in the past month, and we plan to revise six more by the end of September.
Mr. Llwyd : Given the current position in the farming industry throughout the United Kingdom, particularly Wales, where many tens of thousands of farmers have their premiums and support payments paid nine and 10 months late, will the Minister agree to have a word with his right hon. and hon. Friends in other Departments to see whether there is a case for a farmers charter ?
Mr. Davis : I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's interest in the subject. He will find that the agriculture department of the Welsh Office is to publish a charter statement later this year. That statement will include subjects such as the
Column 19administrative turn round on applications for grants and the handling of those grants. I think that that should meet the hon. Gentleman's worries.
Mr. Rowe : Does my hon. Friend agree that the majority of work on charters is done behind the scenes ? Does he agree that the raising of standards is often achieved by boards meeting to ensure that they comply with the charters ? Will he commend the Kent fire brigade and Kent police for winning charter marks and for their tremendous efforts in trying to persuade other public services to do the same ?
Mr. Davis : I commend my hon. Friend for securing his question earlier than it appears on the Order Paper. He is absolutely right : the people who make the charters work are the public servants who deliver the public service in this country today. He is fortunate in that Kent has at least six charter mark winners who do a good job, not only in improving their own public service, but in running a charter network that enables other people to copy best practice and devise best practices for their own parts of the public service. Kent is an extremely good example for the rest of the country.
Mr. Winnick : There should be a new charter mark for particular excellence given to the Bishop of Birmingham for his excellent remarks yesterday about the way in which the health service is being constantly undermined. Would not it be appropriate for the Minister in charge of charters to write to the Bishop of Birmingham to congratulate him on the manner in which he stood up for, and spoke in defence of, the health service which, as he said, is being constantly undermined by the Government ?
Mr. Davis : I should be delighted to hear from the said bishop about what he has to say to the 1 million extra patients who have been treated in the health service since the reforms. I should also like to hear what he has to say to the 40,000 people who were waiting more than two years for an operation before the reforms. That figure is now down to fewer than a few hundred. I should be interested to hear what the bishop has to say about that.
Mr. David Davis : There has been great interest in the tables on the performance of schools and colleges, with more than 1 million copies distributed each year. Parents, pupils and employers value the information and the informed choices that it enables them to make. Patients of the NHS will quickly find the new tables on hospital and ambulance performance similarly useful.
Those who use or pay for public services are entitled to know the performance of those services. Under the citizens charter, more and better information about the performance of public services in being provided, to make them directly accountable to the people who pay for them.
Lady Olga Maitland : Is my hon. Friend aware of the Financial Times leader which welcomed the league tables and said that they were a spur to a better service and discipline ? The Financial Times also stated that the Labour party had no policy on comparisons for customers.
Mr. Davis : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. So far today, the Financial Times and The Guardian have spoken on our behalf, but I suspect that I should lead with the views of the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), who has said :
"parents should have as much information as possible . . . parents should know how well their kids are doing . . . the kids should be properly assessed".
At some point in the future, the hon. Gentleman will have to back that up with some detail--a feature which has been eminently missing in the past few weeks.
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