|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 547which were opened only in 1974? Admittedly they were built for children, but they could well be improved and adapted, because far fewer patients now use the service.
I am anxious to put patients first--they are the only ones who matter--but the parents must also be satisfied because they have a close and continuing interest in the future of those whom they still regard as their children although they are, in fact, adults. I hope that the Secretary of State will not rush to make a decision until all the facts have been thoroughly explored.
Would Lord Fraser of Carmyllie be prepared to meet a deputation of parents or friends of Woodlands? I discussed the matter last Friday with some of the parents as I do not believe that Members of Parliament can adequately articulate their fears and concerns. We are dealing with a very vulnerable group of people whose parents are naturally anxious about the future. Would the Secretary of State or Lord Fraser of Carmyllie be willing to meet such a deputation? I am happy to report that three other hon. Members who share this "common resource"--the hon. Members for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson), for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) and for Kincardine and Deeside--agree that the proposition is worth pursuing.
Mr. Kynoch: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy but point out that Woodlands hospital is in my constituency. He has accepted that there are some successful examples of community care in Grampian. Does he also accept that the people whom we are unfortunately having to put into a purpose-built, highly modern building, which may be at the Ross clinic on the Royal Cornhill site, or where the Grampian health board has proposed, require hospital treatment? Does he further accept that, however sad it may seem, the relatives of those poor unfortunate people will more than likely find it very difficult to stand back from the situation and take a purely rational view?
Mr. Hughes: There is no doubt that there is no real alternative to in-patient care for those patients. Certainly the parents are emotionally involved, but I believe that they are capable of standing back and taking a rational view. If they could see the Secretary of State, they would put the case strongly, because, as I have said to them and as they all understand, we cannot allow the situation to last for months. We must arrive at a decision.
The problem about the new £3.5 million proposal that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is that it has been made almost as an afterthought. After three months of discussion in the statutory consultation period and some months of discussion beforehand, we were suddenly presented with that proposal. That is not the way to plan the health service. I agree with the secretary of the Grampian health board at least to the extent that having consultation after a de facto decision, rather than discussing the future planning of the health service, is not the right way to go about things. I shall be pleased if a real rational discussion about the future of the health service comes out of the debate, even if nothing else does. I should have liked to mention, even if only in passing, a great injustice in my constituency concerning the ex gratia payment by the Department of Employment to
Column 548redundant trawlermen. However, I can see the light in your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I shall not transgress against your good nature. I simply hope that if I apply for an Adjournment debate on the subject, you will use your good offices with Madam Speaker to ensure that I get it.
I believe strongly in the health service. We must have the first and the best class of treatment. I do not believe that the Queen's Speech provides that; it is deficient in many respects for my constituents, who are short of employment and who badly need housing and decent education. Regrettably, the Queen's Speech fails the nation, as the Conservative Government have failed it over the past 15 years. I look forward to a Queen's Speech that will redress the wrongs that have been done over the preceding decade and a half, or however long it might turn out to be.
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): In the short time available, I shall concentrate on a health care issue which needs widespread public debate, and on which we need answers from the Government. In recent years, there has been a dramatic reduction in national health service continuing care beds. Parallel with that development there has been massive growth in the number of long-term beds in private residential care homes.
For years, since the early 1980s, that trend has taken place with little if any public debate. Tory-appointed health service managers, acting by stealth and helped by the Government's cash restrictions, are closing down wholesale the beds for people with long-term illnesses. That means not only the elderly but anybody who needs a long-stay bed.
However, the situation was given a good public hearing when the health service ombudsman concluded earlier this year that the Leeds general infirmary had failed
"to provide long term NHS care for a brain-damaged patient". That patient had been in hospital for 20 months and needed full-time nursing care. That fact was never in dispute; what was in dispute was where the care should be given and who should pay for it.
Similar arguments and discussions have been taking place in every part of the country, and are the subject of intense debate in my constituency of Halifax, where the Tory-appointed managers have decided to close a purpose- built hospital--Northowram hospital, where I worked for nine years. It now has only 261 beds, because the rationalisation programme is already taking place, and it cares for the elderly and mentally ill, offering excellent treatment. We are not talking about an old Victorian geriatric hospital. Northowram hospital offers excellent rehabilitation and reorientation programmes, and respite care for elderly, sick and mentally ill people, which gives carers a much-needed rest. It also has a number of continuing care beds for people who need them.
The Independent recently published a good compassionate article supporting someone whose husband was at that time in Northowram, although sadly he has now died. Clifford Smith desperately needed full-time nursing care, 24 hours a day. His 80-year-old wife, now his widow, agreed to the publicity because she did not want the hospital that had cared so well for her husband to close, and she was frightened of what might happen if it did.
Column 549In his judgment on the Leeds case, the ombudsman quoted the Department of Health's guidance on discharge, specifically that part of it which says:
"No NHS patient should be placed in a private nursing or residential care home against his/her wishes if that means that he/she or a relative will be personally responsible for the home's charges."
I followed up that decision by asking the Prime Minister directly in the House if that guidance still applied. Would he give a guarantee that people would retain the right to a free national health service bed? The Prime Minister's reply was quite specific. He said:
"I can certainly give the hon. Lady that guarantee: the right to national health service care free at the point of delivery is an integral part of the Government's policy, and will remain so."--[ Official Report , 14 July 1994; Vol. 246, c. 1167.]
We also remember the Prime Minister's speech to his party's national conference when he talked about his own frail, elderly father and said that he would never do anything to harm such a patient. He should be reminded of what is now happening to many people.
We know that in practice, because of the massive bed closure programme over the past few years, many elderly sick and chronically sick people have been bullied out of their free national health service beds. A recent statistic from the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts shows us that the number of beds for the elderly and mentally ill in the national health service fell from 73,000 in 1990 to 59,600 in March 1993. Over the same period, the number of beds in private nursing homes rose from 89,600 to 144,000. That is a massive shift of elderly people and chronically sick people out of the national health service into the private health care sector, where they or their relatives are means-tested. In most cases, they have to find the money.
This privatisation had been happening quickly enough, but seemingly not quickly enough for the Government. When the ombudsman blew the whistle on this inhumane treatment of the elderly and the chronically sick, the Secretary of State for Health decided to do something. On August 12, she issued new draft guidance to health authorities which was aimed, ostensibly, at clarifying the responsibility for long-term care. It was an underhand way to introduce new guidelines as Parliament was in recess and the consultation period ended before Parliament came back. We can only conclude that the Secretary of State wanted to avoid the debate--but she will not be able to avoid it.
The new draft guidance, if implemented, will take away the right of a vulnerable group to have treatment on the national health service. It says that only patients with
"complex or multiple health-care needs"
"continuing and specialist medical or nursing supervision" will have the right to long-term nursing care free of charge. The significant majority of people who need continuing care in a nursing home are expected to have their needs met through the social services.
We all know how patchy the social services provision is. We also know that, if the shift takes place, this group of people will no longer be entitled to a free national health service, but will be subject to a means test. Such patients may be discharged to a private nursing home against their will and they or their relatives will have to pick up the bill. That is the truth, because we do not have
Column 550massive, comprehensive packages of health care in the community and those that we do have are not free. That is a complete betrayal of elderly people.
Many thousands of elderly people will lose their life savings and their homes because the draft guidelines introduce strict demarcation lines between what is medical and what is social. All that we get from the Secretary of State are the usual lengthy diatribes, which we had today, about how many more people are being treated on the NHS. She blathers on like a clockwork parrot and some of us are getting pretty sick of it. She has reneged on the principle of the national health service providing for medical and nursing needs from birth to death, and she has done so quite openly.
When the Select Committee on Health recently questioned the Secretary of State on the subject, she said that it was necessary to reissue the guidance because of the ombudsman's comments about the Leeds case. Later in the same evidence session, she refused to say, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise), whether under the new guidance the patient in the Leeds case would have been entitled to national health service care. She said:
"I do not feel sufficiently intimately aware of the individual case."
We have had a major change in policy based on a case of which the Secretary of State admitted in a public meeting she was ignorant. The elderly and the long-term ill have no friends in this Government. The Secretary of State can only regurgitate as many statistics as she can think of at the moment. The elderly and the long-term sick are absolutely right to be frightened of her.
Anyone who saw the "Panorama" programme the other week and who saw people speaking out about their fears knows that it is not a question of the Labour party making them frightened. It is everything to do with what the Secretary of State is doing. She talks about community care which for many people does not exist. She should listen to elderly people, she should listen to the pensioners. I give her a warning: if she does not start listening, their voices will be raised to such a crescendo that even the present Secretary of State, who is blind to any opinion but her own, will be forced to listen. 9.9 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury): I am pleased to be able to follow the hon. Members for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes). I wholeheartedly welcome two measures in the Gracious Speech, which state that the Government
"will bring forward legislation to make further improvements to the management of the National Health Service; and to provide for people with a serious mental disorder discharged from hospital to be cared for under supervision."--[ Official Report , 16 November 1994; Vol. 250, c. 6.]
I am sorry that I have been unable to attend the whole of the debate, but in the little time that I have been present I have heard some monstrously political statements about the national health service which, since the reforms that we introduced in 1991--the introduction of national health service trusts and fundholding GPs--has gone from strength to strength. I noticed that both main Opposition parties--certainly the Labour party-- wanted to abolish
Column 551NHS trusts and fundholding GPs, which have so much benefited the care of health service patients in this country.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I was not even speaking from a brief, actually. The hon. Gentleman, who interrupted from a sedentary position, should look before he speaks. I was not even speaking from a brief. I have some notes prepared, but I do not even need them because the Government's record on the national health service is so good and I happen to have one or two facts in my head about their achievements in that respect.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am more than happy to lay it down to keep the hon. Gentleman happy and I am perfectly happy to speak without the brief because, as I have already said, I have the facts in my head. The main party of Her Majesty's Opposition want to abolish NHS trusts and fundholding GPs, which is absolutely disgraceful, considering the benefits that they have brought to the health service patients of this country.
There are now some 419 NHS trusts. My own NHS trust, the East Gloucestershire national health service trust, was introduced in April 1991 and has brought continuous benefits to the patients in my constituency in Gloucestershire ever since it was introduced. It has been able to bring about more refurbishment to the local hospitals and it has been able to treat patients in a more sympathetic way than ever the NHS was able to do before its introduction.
The result is that 92 per cent. of patients in Gloucestershire are now treated within six months. That is a significant performance. Also, as a result of the trust, nobody has to wait more than nine months for treatments for hip replacement, unlike the position in some neighbouring authorities where people have to wait considerably longer.
On the national scene, the performance is even more impressive. Some 98 per cent. of all NHS patients are now treated within one year. Waiting lists beyond two years have all but been abolished-- [Interruption.] I hear sedentary interventions from Opposition Members. I remember the bad old days when Labour was in control in the 1970s. One was admitted to hospital merely as a number. One was lucky if one's appointment to see the specialist was not cancelled and, even if it was not cancelled, one probably had to wait some considerable length of time to see the specialist. Having seen the specialist, one then had to wait many months, if not years, for treatment.
With the introduction of the patients charter, patients are no longer mere numbers within the NHS; they are customers-- [Interruption.] Opposition Members may laugh, but my constituents, whom I meet in their hundreds throughout the year, welcome the care and dedicated
Column 552treatment that they receive from NHS nurses and doctors. How much better the service is now, compared with its performance in the 1970s when you were in charge of it--
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I would never credit you with being in charge of the NHS, Madam Deputy Speaker. I pay due deference to the Chair. Labour Members were in charge of the service, however, and what a chaotic shambles it was in those days.
To enter into a more serious political debate, it is fair to say that the NHS has never been better than it is nowadays. It has never had more money spent on it. We shall be spending £32 billion on it this year. That spending will be second only to expenditure within the social services budget. It is much to the Government's credit that expenditure on the service has increased from £8.5 billion in 1979, when the Conservatives regained power, to its present level.The money now being directed to the NHS will be better and more wisely spent than ever before.
There have been many critical speeches from Opposition Members about bureaucracy in the service. Yet one of the Bills described in the Gracious Speech is designed to abolish regional health authorities. That will surely reduce bureaucracy in the service, yet Opposition Members criticise what we are trying to do. We are reducing bureaucracy in the health service and providing better and better patient care by increasing the resources available for front-line treatment by doctors and nurses.
There is reference in the Gracious Speech to a Bill which will enable the long-term mentally sick to be cared for properly. I feel that I must mention the sad case of one of my constituents who was working in the East Devon NHS trust in the Edith Morgan mental health unit. A patient who had recently been discharged from the unit came back and killed her by stabbing her with a knife. On behalf of my constituents generally, I express my deep sympathy in regard to that case.
I welcome the Bill that the Government intend to introduce. I believe that it will come forward as a result of some of the representations that I made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. The Bill will enable the long-term mentally sick to be safely discharged into the community under long-term care-- [Interruption.] Instead of making sedentary remarks, Opposition Members should warmly welcome the proposed Bill. I hope that they will support it as it makes its passage through the House-- [Interruption.] I understand that time is pressing and that the Front-Bench speeches are due to be made--
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I understand that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I also understand that it is a fundamental principle that when a Member has the floor he is entitled to conclude his speech. If you will be very kind, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall rapidly conclude my remarks. Contrary to all the scaremongering of Opposition Members, the health service is providing better care. Patients are spending less time in hospital, scientific advances are being made every day within the service, there are better practices and better treatments, and better
Column 553drugs are being applied. Those advances have all been brought about because the Government have provided the resources and stewardship that the NHS needs.
Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden): My only comment on the contribution of the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton -Brown) is that he would pass any loyalty test likely to be put to him by the Government Whips. He does not need to worry about his rating in that respect.
When considering the Queen's Speech, it will not surprise Ministers if I begin by referring to a sin of omission. There is nothing in the Queen's Speech about the Child Support Agency or its reform. May I say very briefly and sparely--there should be. We are seeing a disaster on a scale that none of us anticipated back in 1991. It is a disaster in respect of which our worst fears are being constantly outdistanced by reality as it emerges.
We received the report of the chief child officer the other week and I want to refer to only one bare set of statistics. Of a sample of 1,188 maintenance assessments examined by the chief child officer, he could certify as correct only 157. Some 545 were incorrect and in 486 the file was so incomplete that it was impossible to decide whether the cases were correct or incorrect.
I do not want to be vindictive, but I wonder how the civil servants' concept of performance-related pay would deal with such a situation. That is perhaps now academic as there have been changes at the top of the CSA. However, that point underlines the immense scale of the crisis.
I can think of no social policy initiative under this or any other Government that has produced so much anger and bitterness. Enormous damage has been done to individuals who have been caught in the system's inflexible cage. However, they are not the only casualties. Other casualties have been confidence in the law and, to some extent, the reputation of Parliament itself.
The figures are consistently obscure. It is difficult to discover exactly what is happening. My best guess from what I can discover is that we are now seeing a withdrawal of consent on a scale that is making a mockery of the aspirations and objectives of the system and bringing it into disrepute.
I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill). He said that, once in a while, there is a policy that must come to an abrupt halt. As Ministers know, I want to preserve the principle, but I agree with the hon. Member for Test that we must get away from the present position. That is why the silence in the Queen's Speech in respect of the CSA is so worrying and such a concern to all hon. Members.
Mr. Dewar: I do not know why the hon. Gentleman is shouting, "Rubbish." For a long time, Ministers have sheltered behind the coming Select Committee report. It is no longer coming; it has arrived. I must say that it has sadly disappointed expectations in the country and, I suspect, in the House. It has done that for a good reason--the determined and disciplined voting by the Conservative
Column 554members of the Select Committee, who ruthlessly stripped out a series of key proposals in the Chairman's original draft report. I cannot go through the Select Committee report in detail. However, let me remind the House that there was in the draft report a recommendation for an independent review procedure to allow departures from the normal financial formula if circumstanced justified that. A disregard was suggested that would make the system rather more child centred and do something to make it measure up to the advertisements for it in its early days. Both those suggestions were filleted.
The proposals that 100 per cent. of pension contributions should be taken into account--which would increase the protected income--were binned by Conservative Members voting in a block. The Tories criticise the block vote, but I must say with some sorrow that they use it cynically when the situation demands. I believe that that exercise did no service to the standing and reputation of the Select Committee system, leaving aside the narrow matter of the merits of the issue.
Mr. Thurnham: As a member of that Select Committee, I ask the hon. Gentleman to make it clear whether he is speaking for official Labour party policy. Maintenance disregards would have cost about £300 million, according to the central estimate. The hon. Gentleman is talking about being cynical. Is he being cynical or is it official Labour party policy to support the £300 million cost of maintenance disregards?
Mr. Dewar: We have made it clear that we are in favour of the principle of a disregard. I have put that on the record during many debates in the House, so I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman sounded quite so peeved.
I was saying that we had witnessed an unpleasant exercise and that common justice demands urgent action. It is no good the Under-Secretary--the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt)--honourably going around like a man with a burden of sorrow, because that is little consolation to those who are caught in the turmoil and distress of the system. It is important that the Secretary of State makes it clear that there will be action on this matter and that reforming legislation will be introduced this Session. We are entitled to have that point clarified today and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will do so.
Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman should go further, when the time comes, than the watered-down Select Committee report recommends. It may mean one or two hon. Members--for example, the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw)-- being left hanging out to dry, but Labour Members would regard that as a public service. I shall not bang on about that point, but the right hon. Gentleman should deal with it and give the assurances that I have requested.
Another matter that is directly within the right hon. Gentleman's remit and competence is the compensation package for VAT on domestic fuel. Its impact has been considerable and there is no doubt that the increase from 8 per cent. to 17.5 per cent., from which, apparently, there is to be no escape, will inflict serious fiscal damage. I was looking at a recent report--hon. Members will be familiar with it--commissioned by the Disablement Income Group, which considered a series of cases where the principal person involved had severe problems,
Column 555usually physical. It discovered that the added tax burden per week, after taking into account the compensation package, increased the bill from just under £1 to £3.22 in that range of cases.
The Chancellor said last year--I should like the Secretary of State's comments on this--that his intention was to award the same weekly cash increases again in April 1995, taking help overall to £1 per week for all single pensioners and £1.40 per week for all pensioner couples. The trouble is that the majority of people listening to those words will not recognise the small print in the footnotes. They will be looking for 50p and 70p, depending on whether they are single pensioners or pensioner couples, over and above the uprating that is due in April. They will be astonished to find that the additional payment will be 25p and 30p respectively.
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I had already informed him that I wished to intervene when he spoke about pensioners. Perhaps I could put before the House the case of a pensioner today--unfortunately, my mother--who is 76 years of age. She went to hospital at 10 o'clock this morning for some pre- tests for a kidney operation that she is having on Thursday. She was not seen by a doctor until 6 o'clock this evening. When my sister saw her at 3.30 pm, she was still sitting in the same waiting room at Monklands general hospital in which she had been left at 10 o'clock this morning. She had received only a bowl of soup as sustenance all day long. Is that not exactly the sort of treatment pensioners are getting, both with VAT and from the health service?
Mr. Dewar: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know from my earlier brief conversation with him how distressed he is about this matter. Any family faced with that position would be upset. Obviously, I cannot comment on what went wrong, although something clearly did. It is perhaps a salutary reminder to everyone in the House that we can talk theoretically and statistically, but often human situations lead to great distress and tragedy. I hope that they will be put right in the period ahead, but I do not think that they will be if the present policies continue. I can only say to my hon. Friend that I hope that he will follow up the matter, as I am sure he will, on behalf of his mother and with the help of her Member of Parliament.
I want to return to the point I made about the single pensioner's £1 and ask for the Secretary of State's confirmation that it is made up of last year's 50p and 25p--this is a lovely euphemism--feeding through in the uprating figure. In other words, the 25p is hidden in the 2.2 per cent. by which we understand that pensions will be uprated this year. The only additional cash in hand above the uprating will be 25p for a single pensioner and 30p for a pensioner couple. Does not the Secretary of State recognise that that will be widely seen as sleight of hand bordering on a confidence trick, and that it will leave many pensioners fearful and angry as they face mounting fuel bills?
We know that some Conservative Members are prepared to vote against the April increase in VAT. Two Scottish Conservative Members have already signalled their intention to vote against it if they are given the opportunity to do so. However, it would be useful if the Secretary of State could deal with the fact that there will be astonishment and some anger among pensioners in
Column 556every part of the country when the arithmetic which I have just described becomes more widely known, and certainly when they receive the end product in their hands.
I remind the Secretary of State--I must do so in shorthand--of the problems in the private pensions sector that have arisen from the high-pressure techniques used to sell pensions. They have done great harm to confidence in the system and have produced many blameless, innocent and badly hurt casualties. All of us will remember the KPMG survey: the 9 per cent. of 735 files in which there was decisive and substantial evidence of compliance. None of us can quantify the scale of the problem. We recognise that the Securities and Investments Board is attempting to pick up the pieces.
I remind the Secretary of State--it is important to do so--that many of the problems can be fairly traced back to the irresponsibility of the Government. I am thinking of the uninhibited--that is a nice euphemism-- advertising campaign that cost £1.2 million in 1986 and the 2 per cent. premium put on to the contracting-out payment. There was a general lack of any critical atmosphere or of any suggestion that some people might benefit from taking out a personal pension but that many would not. That is what created this difficulty for so many people.
I should make it clear that I do not want to undermine the private pensions sector. I recognise that there is a constituency for its product. However, it does not include people at the bottom end of the income scale, many of whom put the contracting-out payment and nothing more into a private pension. The tragedy is that many of them will find themselves, as anyone in the industry will confirm, with no significant cover. I am afraid that they are living under an illusion. They are left in limbo and they will be bitter and disillusioned at the end.
Although there was nothing in the Queen's Speech on private pensions, the Secretary of State owes it to the House to look toughly at what is happening and to try to build confidence, a sense of direction and perhaps social purpose back into the private pension sector. That sense of direction has been lacking because of Government policy in recent years, which led to an inflationary boom in buying when the circumstances did not justify it.
We have had a night of quoting the Secretary of State's speeches. I want to remind him that he spoke in Spain recently. In a snappy piece of copywriting from the Department, the headline of a press release was:
"Private pensions are the way forward, Peter Lilley tells the Spanish."
They must have been fascinated by, and grateful for, the right hon. Gentleman's message. It does not suggest to me that he has learnt all the lessons. I commend that to him for his attention.
I ask the Secretary of State to consider housing benefit for a moment. The matter was raised by the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham). He suggested regional rent capping as one way of cutting the housing benefit bill. The bill has undoubtedly risen a great deal, but to be fair to the Secretary of State, one of his departmental documents, "The Growth of Social Security", specifically recognised that the increase was linked to the Government's rent policy.
To clear the air and to help us in the debate, will the Secretary of State end for all time the rather unpleasant implication of the words of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, which seemed to suggest that the Government
Column 557were contemplating hitting people held to be under-occupying properties simply because they have one or two bedrooms too many? In particular, the Chief Secretary instanced council house tenants. The Secretary of State will know that council house tenants who are "under- occupying", according to Government space standards, represent only 28 per cent.--not 50 per cent., as the Chief Secretary suggested--of public sector tenants on housing benefit. Of that 28 per cent., 79 per cent. are over retirement age.
If we go down this route, therefore, we shall target, typically, a widow left on her own, her family grown up, living on in the family home. The clear threat that has been implied in what the Chief Secretary said, both in radio interviews and subsequently in correspondence with me, is that these people will be left with a choice of moving out of the family home or paying a financial penalty in the form of reduced housing benefit help. That would be wholly unacceptable to the House and I hope that the Minister can end the argument today by making it clear that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is on a trip of his own and does not speak for the Government on this matter.
I welcome the pensions Bill. Of course it is right to move on to the Goode agenda. The House, however, will be familiar with the fact that it contains matters of contention. There is, for instance, the vision of the regulator as a long stop--to use the phrase that the Secretary of State once unfortunately chose. I agree strongly with the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill), who said that the regulator's fees ought to be met by the Government, not the industry. Unfortunately, he argued the case in terms of saving the industry money. I would argue it in terms of the need for the regulator to command public confidence in his independence. It is important that he is seen to be operating at arm's length from the industry, scrutinising, monitoring and using his powers. He will not be able to establish that position if he is seen as having the industry as his paymaster.
There are other matters of contention, too--the appointment of trustees, surpluses and contribution holidays, to name but three. I am upset by the fact that the Government have rejected important safeguards recommended by Goode. Then there is the future--or lack of it, if the Secretary of State has his way--of the guaranteed minimum pension.
Can the right hon. Gentleman deny or confirm that the pensions Bill will start its journey through Parliament in another place? If that is in the Government's mind, I should be very sorry. I speak for the whole Opposition when I say that.
I also welcome the disability Bill. It is not so much a tribute to Ministers--that has been suggested--as a tribute to the crass insensitivity with which the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill was blocked, and to the Government's desperate need to head off another private Member's Bill tackling the same problem. Of course I will welcome such a Bill--if it is strong and comprehensive, and if it deals with education and transport, two subjects that were neglected in the discussion document. I will also welcome it if it sets up not just an advisory body at the heart of the process--that could be swept aside--but a body worth its space. It must
Column 558be a body that can innovate, which can use the courts in test cases to establish its position and to push out the frontiers. We shall be looking for that kind of strength and that sense of purpose before we turn a qualified welcome for the fact that there is a Bill at all into a warm welcome for its provisions.
I gather that the Minister of State is to be in charge. I read in one of the disability newspapers an interesting interview with him. It was run under the heading "A Just William". That was rather better copywriting than the Department managed in the previous quotation I used. In any case, a lady from the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People was quoted as saying that the Minister of State "took his jacket off and I felt it was like talking to my younger brother".
I can only assume that the Minister has been on a charm offensive--I enter the caveat that I do not know the worth of the tribute as I have never met the younger brother. All I would say is that the test will be what is in the Bill.
We give no welcome at all to the job seeker's allowance. It is an attack on the contributory principle. At a stroke, the rights and entitlements to benefit of people with a full contributions record will be reduced from 12 to six months. Some 90,000 people will be left after six months with no entitlement to benefit at all. Perhaps even worse, 190,000 people will be driven on to means-tested benefits. There can be no welcome for a Bill with those consequences, in the House or the country as a whole.
I do, however, recognise that there is bumping along behind it a raft of small measures designed to encourage people to re-enter the labour market, of which the back-to-work bonus is the most substantial. I am glad that the Government are now giving some attention to that aspect. We have been urging it on them for a very long time. I have always believed, and made it clear, that the social security system should not just be a grudging safety net but should be a way of building in opportunity and providing hope for those out of work.
We will judge those measures, and what the Budget adds to them, on their merits. I have no ambition to make a grandstand finish to my speech. I am very conscious of the fact that there should be quality, not quantity. That is fashionable at the moment. I hope that it is not sinister that the Secretary of State for Social Security is the leader of a pack, if not the pack. He has a Minister of State, three Under-Secretaries, a clutch of Parliamentary Private
Secretaries--almost beyond count. I hope that, at the end of the day, what they do adds up to something rather better than what they have managed in the past.
I am, of course, a well-known optimist in these matters, but on the Government's record it is difficult to be optimistic. I hope, however, that my optimism will be justified tonight and that we will get an assurance on CSA reform, some comments on the way in which the compensation for VAT will be dealt with this year, some assurances on the control and regulation of the private pension sector, a slap on the wrist for the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the removal of all worries on the private pension score. I await with interest what the Secretary of State has to say.