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Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): I am pleased to follow the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), but I found his opening remarks about the mining industry rather disappointing. If he looks at the historical record, he will see no evidence to support his remarks. However, his overall contribution was interesting.
The Gracious Speech was less ambitious in comparison with previous years; nevertheless, it takes us in the same old economic and social direction. It is an approach that has caused a great deal of suffering for a substantial minority of our citizens and it has severely restricted the manufacturing capacity and competitiveness of British industry.
The warning in the Gracious Speech that there is likely to be a further reduction in the share of national income going to the public sector signals another assault not only on the minimal welfare state, but this time on the workplace. Established working practices are now under attack. Those include the 40-hour week, rising real wages, paid holiday leave and employers' contribution to pension funds. The assault arises because the Government's analysis of the problem facing the United Kingdom economy is seriously flawed. It is clear that the blame for the United Kingdom's ills is being put at the door of the welfare state and the burden that it places on employers and the state budget. That is patent nonsense. The growing cost of unemployment and the ill health that results from unemployment is a cost that is directly attributable to economic mismanagement over the past 15 years.
The complete surrender to the concept of the unfettered market has released forces that can destabilise entire social systems. We are already experiencing the impact of that negative side in the United Kingdom-- growing poverty, high unemployment, increasing crime and drug abuse.
Column 654Markets can help direct resources and maximise their use, but if the mitigating influences are dropped, the worst effects can win over the best. By driving down wages and terms and conditions in industry, the Government are unwittingly creating the conditions for the United Kingdom's industrial demise.
The United Kingdom can hope to compete only at the higher-value end of the market; we cannot compete at the lower-value end of the market with the newly industrialised countries. If we are to equip our industries so that they can compete, we need an industrial strategy to ensure that we are keeping our lead in the industries in respect of which we have an advantage. We must also strengthen and encourage the industries in respect of which we are weak. That means more spending, not less, on supply-side factors such as research and development, education and training.
A major problem is that the markets are now global in their character. Bringing the forces that have been released back into a framework will not be easy, but it can be achieved. Many new industrial countries have a competitive advantage precisely because they can exploit their labour markets outrageously by paying poor wages and avoiding spending on social provision.
The way forward is to improve living standards for all, not to worsen them. Therefore, in exchange for the western world keeping its markets open to the new industrial countries, they should be called on to agree and recognise trade unions and collective bargaining as part of a social package of rights for working people. That could be extended to include an environmental code to protect the world against further pollution. Without that, it is inevitable that the world will divide into trading blocks. Protectionism will be inevitable. America's drift down that road can already be detected. Those were part of the conclusions of the participants in a seminar at the International Labour Organisation headquarters in Geneva a fortnight ago. The participants included the World bank and the International Monetary Fund. Is not it ironic that the one thing that the Conservative party likes to hate most--the social chapter--is a concept that could save European manufacturing industry?
When the Minister replies to the debate, perhaps he will tell us whether he would agree to a social and environmental clause being added to the constitution of the World Trade Organisation. That would create a world trade policeman and the effect would be to increase the quality of life of people in the new industrial countries. It would also protect the environment and stimulate further world growth.
Without those measures to mitigate the worst effects of the market and to create a new global code of world trading practices, it is unlikely that we shall increase permanent jobs in the European Community. However, as the hon. and learned Member for Burton said, we can be sure that we shall experience more of the already creeping economic and social decay.
I want to consider the United Kingdom in relation to jobs. Most of the jobs created between September 1993 and September 1994 were, according to a Trades Union Congress report, white collar, insecure and low paid. The report was based on Department of Employment figures, which showed that 130,000 new temporary jobs had been created, but over the same period 26,000 permanent jobs had been lost. The latest research on pay undertaken by
Column 655the Library for my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn) reveals that 10 million workers in the United Kingdom are living on earnings that are less than the European Community decency threshold.
Clearly, we need a more positive response from the Government than that which is contained in the Queen's Speech. They must recognise that job security and full employment, to which they claim they are now committed, go hand in hand; and perhaps the Minister can tell us later whether the Government still accept the commitment made by the previous Secretary of State for Employment when he visited the TUC. The Government must do three things. First, public sector-led investment must be increased. At the moment, investment is 20 per cent. below its peak in 1989 before the recession. It is well below that of our major competitors. Secondly, greater investment in research and development is called for. Again, we spend less on research and development than our major competitors.
Finally, there should be an end to the unfair discrimination against the public sector. In that respect, the Government could make a start by freeing the Post Office from the straitjacket of the external financing limit. That would allow the Post Office to compete on an even footing with other commercialised but publicly owned postal services such as the French, German and Swedish services. According to what the Post Office management told the Trade and Industry Select Committee, no other successful Post Office in the world has divided its post and parcel services from its counter services, as was proposed by the President of the Board of Trade. The Post Office can remain public and profitable.
We must be clear that the gas Bill proposed in the Queen's Speech is not about creating conditions for cheaper gas prices; it is about making a national private monopoly into a series of smaller monopolies. It is really about sharing out the spoils. That point was made clear by the announcement that gas prices are to rise by 3 per cent. while the management has awarded itself fat increases. That is one of the things which people find obscene about Tory Britain. It would have made more sense and been more helpful if the Government had declared their intention not to increase VAT on domestic fuel from 8 per cent. to 17.5 per cent. in 1995 and if they had announced a planned extension of the gas transportation network to rural areas of the UK, to end the existing situation of haves and have-nots.
My constituency is partly rural and many of my villages, such as Stainborough, Wortley, Greenmoor, Crow Edge and Dunford Bridge, have no natural gas supply. That must also be the case in many other rural constituencies. Many of my constituents must pay 30 per cent. more for liquefied gas than users of natural gas, or they must buy more expensive smokeless fuel. The inclusion of VAT means that they are paying more tax per unit of energy used than people on natural gas. That inequality in the access to domestic energy should not be tolerated in a modern industrial society. When the Minister replies, I hope that he can tell us whether there are plans afoot to deal with that situation of haves and have-nots in respect of people living in urban areas as opposed to those in rural areas.
Column 656In the energy economy, large amounts of gas are now being burnt to generate electricity. According to The Financial Times Coal UK there is currently 7,380 MW on stream and another 6,380 MW under construction. Another 3,300 MW are planned before 1995. That capacity, together with the 6,500 MW that have been given section 36 approval, means that by 1999-2000, we shall be burning the gas equivalent of 55 million tonnes of coal. That is an inefficient way of using gas. I do not believe that any hon. Member believes that we can continue to use it at that rate without it impacting on prices and, ultimately, on British competitiveness.
At the same time, a great amount of coal has been locked into the ground by colliery closures. As my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings) said, mining communities continue to suffer from the effects of the unwarranted colliery closure programme. When referring on Monday to unemployment rates in mining communities, the President of the Board of Trade used the travel-to-work statistics. He should have considered a recent report, which shows that male unemployment in some mining villages is as high as 60 per cent. That occurs because mining is generally a rural occupation and unemployment tends to be in pockets.
Villages such as Woolley in my constituency seem to have been forgotten since the colliery was shut. The community hall has closed down, and so have the school and the last shop. The causeway that links the village with Darton and crosses British Coal property needs resurfacing, and the derelict land that British Coal owns around the village needs cleaning up.
Dust from substantial coal stocks still on the stocking ground is a nuisance. Life for the mainly elderly residents worsens day by day. My representations to British Coal and to the Minister for Energy and Industry and requests for assistance have met rebuffs. The regeneration package of £200 million for areas affected by pit closures was clearly insufficient, and more needs to be made available. The Government have failed miners and mining communities. Another regrettable omission from the Gracious Speech was a proposal to replace the outrageous regulation that currently prescribes chronic bronchitis and emphysema as industrial diseases in relation to deep coal mining. Of the 43,827 claims received by September 1994, there have been only 4,469 awards. Some 13,995 cases were rejected on X-ray evidence, and another 18,658 failed the so-called forced expiration value test--the FEV 1 test. That is a disgrace and it needs to be dealt with immediately. I hope that the Minister will impress on his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security the need to tackle that outrageous regulation. Even if a miner is diagnosed as suffering from that terrible debilitating disease, he cannot claim compensation from British Coal's pneumoconiosis scheme. That is despite the fact that, in order to succeed with a disablement assessment, he must show X-ray evidence of simple pneumoconiosis. The Minister for Energy and Industry will not widen the scope of the current scheme. No doubt the Treasury has a hand in that, fearing that the effects of such a move might influence the attitude of would-be buyers into the coal-mining industry. That is a disgraceful decision. It means that men who have made an enormous contribution to the United Kingdom economy, most of whom are elderly, have now
Column 657to prepare for long, drawn-out court battles to try to win compensation at a time of life when they could do without such worries.
The Gracious Speech offers the people only more of the same, and they have had a bellyful. It exposes a Government who have run out of ideas and a Government who have no vision. The sooner they make way for a Labour Administration, the better will be the fortunes of the British people.
Opposition Members ask us to
"regret that the Gracious Speech excludes positive measures to remove the fear of unemployment".
It goes on to suggest that we
"tackle the unacceptable and clumsy reforms of the NHS and to cease treating education as a business rather than a service". I wish to demonstrate that that premise is false, and why that is so, especially in respect of education and unemployment.
One has only to look at page 3 of the Gracious Speech to see that the Government intend to deal with unemployment in very straightforward terms. The Gracious Speech states:
"My Government will continue to promote enterprise, to improve the working of the labour market, and to strengthen the supply performance of the economy. They will bring forward legislation to promote increased competition in the gas industry and to reform the agricultural tenancy laws in England and Wales. A Bill will be introduced to create a Jobseeker's Allowance, reforming benefits for unemployed people and giving them better help into work." If that does not deal with those issues straight on, I do not know what does.
People in my constituency, which is both rural and urban, will be delighted to see reform of the agricultural tenancy laws as it will stop the leakage of people away from farms and will open farms to increased tenant farming. At present, landlords and farmers who are keeping their own land in hand are inhibited from providing land for tenants because they consider that the tenant and his successors will, in effect, be able to hold on to the land in perpetuity. The new tenancy laws and the more businesslike arrangements to be introduced in the agricultural tenancy Bill will provide greater flexibility and therefore better chances for young people, which had previously been denied them.
The employment picture in my constituency is extremely good. The Library figures for the past few years show that unemployment has gone down consistently and at a pretty good rate since July 1986. Unemployment in my constituency--which, as I have said, covers rural and urban areas and about a quarter of the area of Leicestershire--was 2,524 in July 1986. By October 1993, it had fallen to 2,070, and in October 1994 it was 1,863. There have been decreases of 26.2 per cent. since July 1986 and 12.1 per cent. from September to October this year. That evidence demonstrates inaccuracy of the implications of the amendment.
Harborough has the lowest unemployment in the midlands and the 10th lowest unemployment in England. I venture to suggest that my constituency is not much
Column 658different from many others represented by Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Members. We have lower unemployment because business men and women do not allow themselves to be interfered with by local or national Government unless it is strictly necessary.
My local authority works hand in hand with the business community. Indeed, Harborough district council recently produced an admirable brochure advertising the good sense of doing business in Harborough. The cover states that Harborough is
"the right place for your business".
The figures demonstrate that Harborough is the right place to do business. The brochure proudly points out that
"The area is renowned for its engineering, shoe, hosiery and graphics sectors. Nevertheless the industrial base is very broad indeed. Market Harborough accommodates the head offices of HP Foods and Golden Wonder as well as manufacturing industry such as Tungstone Batteries, Crosby Valves and Harboro Rubber.
The area is rapidly becoming the `hub' location for many major UK concerns . . . There are approximately half a million working people within the `travel to work' area around the district, a great recruitment advantage."
There are good schools and good universities in Leicester. I refer to Leicester university and De Montfort university at Loughborough, which is just outside my constituency. All those factors persuade business people at home and abroad to set up business in Harborough and thus to provide employment in the east midlands. Those figures and facts demonstrate to the Henley centre for forecasting that Harborough is one of the top 25 local authority areas in respect of future economic prospects. If local authorities in other parts of the country, including those saddled with Labour and Labour-Liberal Democrat authorities, would follow the policies of the Government and of Harborough district council, things would be a lot better in those areas as well. The Labour party wants to introduce the social chapter and the minimum wage, and increase Government intervention, all of which would be deleterious to the economic strength of my constituency and others like it.
Business men in my constituency tell me that their order books are filling up in both the long and the short term. Only a couple of years ago, they wondered whether they would have any work to do in six months' time, or even in one month; now they are crying out for additional labour. The local papers are full of job vacancies, and businesses are finding it difficult to fill those vacancies with people of the right calibre and with the right skills. My constituents are beginning to reinvest their profits in their businesses.
As I have said, the local picture looks extremely good and is likely to improve further. That picture, however, is not confined to my area; it is replicated throughout the country, as people would discover if they could be bothered to look. We are now enjoying vigorous, sustainable export-led economic growth as a result of effective, comprehensive Government economic policy.
In the third quarter of 1994, British gross domestic product increased by 4.2 per cent. year on year--faster, I believe, than was predicted even by independent City analysts. Manufacturing output rose by 5 per cent. in the three months to September 1994 against the same period last year, and over that time industrial output rose by 5.9 per cent. In October 1994, retail sales were 3.1 per cent. up on the previous year; in the third quarter of this year, company profits rose by 5.6 per cent.--up 18 per cent. on
Column 659last year. Both the IMF and the OECD expect Britain to be the fastest growing of the major European Union countries, and at least equal with France in 1985.
Where in that evidence is the basis for the amendment tabled by the Leader of the Opposition? It does not exist. Let us examine the national employment figures, which reflect those in my constituency. Unemployment fell by 45,000 in October, and has fallen by 450,000 since December 1992. The stock of vacancies at job centres has risen for 12 consecutive months, with well over 200,000 new vacancies being notified every month and probably twice as many available from other sources. That reflects the good news in my region.
We are also seeing the benefits of low inflation. Inflation is firmly under control, with underlying inflation remaining at 2 per cent. in October for the second month running. If that is not good news, I do not know what is. Interest rates, at 5.75 per cent., are at their lowest since the 1970s, and their reduction from 15 per cent. in December 1992 means £13.75 billion a year off industry's annual interest rate bill. That is just what my local business men want, and what business men want throughout the country. The reduction also takes £150 off monthly payments on the average £33,000 mortgage. That is what my home-owning constituents want, along with those who hope to own a home. I trust that the Opposition will come to realise that, no matter how dismal the picture that they want to see, the facts tell a different story.
On top of that--
Mr. Garnier: We are singing from the same song sheet for once, and there is no harm in that. We must not keep these matters to ourselves: we must let the world know that the Government are doing a superb job, and that our party is leading the economic revival in this country and, indeed, in Europe. I look forward to a strong and helpful Budget from my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor on 29 November, which will continue that trend.
The picture that I am painting, both locally and nationally, is of sustainable improvement. The Leader of the Opposition and his colleagues, however, not only complain about the dismal unemployment picture--looking, as they do, through the wrong end of the telescope--but complain that we treat education
"as a business rather than a service".
On the contrary, the three grant-maintained schools in my constituency are leading the way in education. Moreover, they are not in the leafy suburbs of Leicester, such as Oadby, or the well-off parts of my constituency such as Market Harborough; nor are they in the rural villages. They are in the poorest parts of the constituency, in Wigston and south Wigston, where the so-called working class that the Labour party wishes to keep in poverty are crying out for the schools to change from state-dominated high schools to schools that they can run themselves. Indeed, they have elected to allow their own governors to run them for the benefit of their children.
Column 660I visited South Wigston high school yet again last week. It has recently installed a new workshop containing computer-aided manufacturing and computer-assisted design equipment, which is providing children aged between 10 and 14 with the latest technology-- technology that is not only interesting for them to see and use, but highly relevant to the needs of the local economy and to their own needs as future employees in science, technology, engineering or manufacturing. That would not have been possible under local authority domination, but it is possible now that the school has been freed from that yoke and become grant maintained. Opposition Members often say that the grant-maintained system is no more than a massive bribe to encourage perfectly good local education authority-run schools to move into the independent sector, and that once the so-called bribe money has run out the schools will be in trouble. South Wigston high school has been grant maintained for some time; not only has it kept up its teacher numbers, but a long queue of parents are waiting to send their children to it. It has seen its neighbouring LEA schools having to cut teacher numbers and make other cuts, not because the Government have starved the education system of money but because the LEA is incompetent and cannot manage its affairs sensibly.
The Opposition amendment complains that the Government should "cease treating education as a business rather than a service". My constituents send their children to a grant-maintained school precisely because they are fed up with the way in which the LEA fails to provide a service because it is not conducting its affairs in a business-like way. There is nothing wrong with a state-funded business providing a service if it does so sensibly, but that LEA has gaily lost £6 million in the past year without even knowing where it has gone. The director of education has had to take early retirement owing to ill health.
Mr. Clappison: Does my hon. Friend's constituency resemble mine, in Hertfordshire, where many children in low-income families are choosing to enjoy the benefits of an independent education through the assisted places scheme? Will his constituents, like mine, wonder how the abolition of that scheme would enable them to receive a service, as the Opposition would have it? How would they feel if they were told that they could not have the opportunity to choose for their children?
Mr. Garnier: As always, my hon. Friend makes his point eloquently and forcefully. I cannot add usefully to what he has said, but he has backed up my argument and destroyed the argument that apparently underpins the amendment.
I have taken enough of the House's time to make the few points that I wanted to make about unemployment and education--
I trust that Conservative Members will demonstrate with renewed vigour that the Government's policies on employment and education are succeeding, and that the Opposition's ideas--such as they are--are vacuous and devoid of content. Nothing that we heard from the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) suggested
Column 661that he had applied his mind to anything of an economic nature this afternoon, let alone during the time in which he has held the post of shadow Chancellor. I trust that he will continue to hold that post for many years.
Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North): I am pleased to be called in the debate. I was unlucky in the debate on Monday, which was my first choice. I was offered only five minutes, so I thought that it might be better to try again and I am grateful that I have been successful.
I start by mentioning the several measures that I welcome. I welcome the proposal to set up an independent criminal cases review authority. That is long overdue. It has been obvious for many years that there is a gap in the criminal justice system, which as a result has failed to address the problems of fairly obvious miscarriages of justice such as the cases of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, among others.
That measure is timely, coming as it does when we are threatened with the implications of reduced legal aid, which is a potential minefield for further injustice if people decide that they cannot afford legal advice and try to do things themselves.
I am pleased that, as befits a body of this nature, the review authority will be free of the courts and the Government. I look forward with interest to the debate on this measure when it comes before the House, and I hope that it will also be free of any influence from the police. I do not say that as an anti-police or a pro-police speaker, but one must recognise that many of the famous cases of injustice in recent years have involved the police either failing to disclose evidence to the defence or, on occasion, tampering with evidence.
There has been maladministration within the police force, and it is incumbent on the Government to ensure that the review authority has its own investigative body which is independent of the police. If they cannot go that far, they should at least say that when there is any question of police probity in a case of an alleged miscarriage of justice, some independent system will be introduced.
I am also pleased to see that powers are to be introduced to curb dangerous mental patients. That issue has caused great public concern at a time when society is grappling with the Government's policy on care in the community which has replaced institutions and, on occasion, hospital places. The problem of dangerous mental patients has been exacerbated by the failures of the care in the community programme.
I sincerely hope that there will be some improvements. Care in the community is an excellent concept, but if it is not properly administrated- -to date it has not been--or properly resourced, I fear that it will become debased and that the public will lose confidence in the concept, which would be a tragedy.
There is a proposal to abolish the regional health authorities. I do not feel strongly one way or the other on that, because I have had little to do with them. However, if the Government intend to abolish local health authorities and, in particular, the Sunderland health authority, I will welcome that with open arms.
Column 662I also welcome the monitoring of national health service trusts. That is not being done effectively at the moment through the purchaser-provider system. I give an example of something that has caused me great concern, which I am pleased to bring to the attention of the House.
Recently, a number of people in my constituency were collecting signatures on petitions against the Sunderland health authority's proposal to get rid of 400 hospital beds. During their endeavours, I saw four people who worked for the two hospital trusts, Priority Healthcare Wearside NHS Trust and City Hospitals Sunderland NHS Trust--the names are nearly always a mouthful; more words than deeds, in many respects--saying that they would like to sign the petition but they did not dare do so because there could be repercussions and recriminations with their employers. That is scandalous.
Those people are not just employees of the hospital trusts; they are also citizens living in the area who are affected by whatever happens within the health service in their region, and in a democracy, they should be free to air their views. In the health service reforms, we are seeing the systematic gagging of employees. I hope that the more liberal-minded Conservative Members will support any argument against such activity. That is long overdue.
When I raised the matter with the chairmen of the Sunderland health authority and the Sunderland health commission, they both agreed that that should not happen, that it was immoral. I then asked what they intended to do about it, but they both said that it was nothing to do with them; it was a matter for the hospital trusts.
I may have a simplistic view of a market, but I always thought that, in a market, the buyer could control the seller. I should have thought that, if a buyer told a seller that he did not like what he was doing, and that if matters were not put right he would cease purchasing from him, he could carry out that threat. Therefore, I was not too convinced by what those two gentlemen had to say. The fault within the NHS at the moment is the lack of democratic accountability. I hope that the Government's proposals will do something about that. It may be that the organisation would be better off run by civil servants rather than Government-appointed quangos. We may find in the long run that that is more democratic--something that I hope Conservative Members will consider.
I welcome the legislation for the Channel tunnel rail link. Like many hon. Members, I recently travelled from London to Paris on the new train. It was a wonderful experience but, paradoxically, from Waterloo to the Channel tunnel I felt as if were on a suburban branch line, but once the train hit the tunnel and from there on to Paris, one is talking about modern latter- day travel.
I recall three years ago when I was in France that the link between Paris and Calais was under construction. The French have done wonders to complete it so quickly, and it is disappointing to find that there was not the same enthusiasm and support from the Government for the line on this side.
One reason I look forward to that legislation is that, if we have a decent link between the capital and the Channel tunnel, we will also have better links between the regions, the capital and the tunnel. I should like more freight to go by rail--the potential is there. That would coincide with the views of the recent Royal Commission report on pollution and transport, which was not particularly in favour of road transport.
Column 663It is interesting that a country similar to ours--at least, it was before unification, but it has changed somewhat now- -the former West Germany, sends 35 per cent. of its freight by rail, whereas we send 7 per cent--one fifth of what Germany sends by rail. If we tried to match the figures in Germany, we would have a much better life, a better environment and a little more relaxation for our citizens. I was interested to read about the agricultural tenancies legislation, at present in embryo. It is interesting, but a word of warning. If the Government want it to be worth while, they may have to forget their paranoia about deregulation. Landlords always have more power than the tenant. That applies throughout Britain. It always has, and it has been exacerbated since 1979 by the Government's legislation.
Landlords will ensure that there is only enough land for tenancies to allow them to get a good price. There could be certain problems with that. If anyone doubts that, they should consider office tenancies. We are led to believe that there is plenty of office accommodation, but anyone who tries to negotiate an unjust lease with a landlord may be told to stuff it. I hope that that is not unparliamentary language. Other landlords will have exactly the same type of contract.
It is clear that a cartel is being operated. Rent officers point to clauses that allow rent increases but not to clauses that permit decreases. The market seems not to work in that respect. I hope that that will not be the result of the proposed agricultural tenancy Bill.
I welcome the Bill that will establish environment agencies, not least because I represent part of an area in which there has been great concern about the possibility of polluted drinking water because of the presence of mine water. It would be a good thing to bring all the relevant organisations under one umbrella.
The Bill is to be welcomed also because a recent report suggested that the United Kingdom does not come out too well when it comes to environmental conditions and protection of the environment. Our performance does not compare well with that of some of our European colleagues or competitors within the European Union.
Organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth do not have a political agenda in the sense of politics as we understand the term in this place. They say that, unless the Government tackle industry in an appropriate manner, their efforts to protect the environment will be meaningless. There is a widespread view that sometimes there is laxity when it comes to tackling industry, which is still the greatest polluter in the United Kingdom.
Domestic violence has always been a problem. To introduce worthwhile legislation would require--I do not say this flippantly--the wisdom of Solomon. Nevertheless, I am glad that the Government recognise that there is a problem. We cannot begin to solve a problem unless we recognise that one exists.
I am unhappy about the proposed Bill that will bear on evidence in civil courts. It is proposed, it seems, to allow hearsay evidence. Earlier in the century, Lord Justice Birkenhead said succinctly that, in civil cases, the burden of proof was not beyond reasonable doubt, as it was in criminal cases, but somewhat lighter, in as much as it was based on the balance of probability.
Column 664Surely hearsay evidence is the last thing that is wanted when the test is the balance of probability. I hope that the Government will think extremely carefully about that before they introduce their Bill. The admittance of hearsay evidence would have many ramifications and could lead to abuses as great as those that have flowed from the Child Support Agency. It could be unpopular with everyone, while benefiting no one.
We are told in the Gracious Speech that the Government intend to introduce a Bill
"to tackle discrimination against disabled people."
It is interesting that the Government said that the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), would cost £17 billion. Not everyone agreed with that assessment, but that was the Government's view. The Government say that the cost of their Bill will be £17 million. They claim that it will cost only one tenth of 1 per cent. of the expenditure that my hon. Friend's Bill would have entailed. I do not accept that we can have an equivalent Bill that is reasonable and acceptable at a thousandth of the cost. The proposal is scandalous.
The way in which the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood was dealt with was a disgrace. It was a blight on the House, and an even greater blight on the Government. A Minister had to admit that he had been somewhat economical with the truth. A Conservative Member was rebuked by Madam Speaker for misleading the House. I hope that those involved will never forget that scandalous state of affairs.
One of the worst proposals in the Gracious Speech--it has not attracted much publicity, but it seems that there has been a softening-up operation for about 18 months to two years--is the equalisation of the state pension age. The position of women will be worsened, while men will have the same retirement age. That, of course, is equality. The dictionary is specific when it comes to describing the concept.
I would have liked to see--I think that my view is reflected by many milllions of our people--a common retirement age of 60 years. I think that people would have been prepared to pay for that. That common age of retirement would be popular. It might help people to live longer lives. It would create job opportunities for the young unemployed, who often have families to support. If a long-term view had been taken instead of the short-sighted expediency for which the Government are noted it might have been found economically beneficial to have that common retirement age in terms of public expenditure. The Government could, at no real cost, have equalised retirement age at 62.5 years. Surely that is not asking too much. That equalisation would have benefited one section of the population while disbenefiting another, but there would have been a tangible result. The present proposals constitute a retrograde step. They amount to deprivation in the name of equality. The object is to save money. There is no concept of justice, equality or even decency. There is to be a moral breach of contract between the Government and their citizens. I understand that women of about 45 years of age will be worse off. They have been paying national insurance contributions since they became employed. They will get a raw deal. If the same conditions were being offered by a private company, I am sure that they would not be acceptable to the Government or to the population generally.
Column 665The activities of the private pensions industry are scandalous, and will cost the taxpayer billions of pounds. A tremendous amount of public money has already been used to subsidise the industry and to try to get people to opt out of state earnings-related pension schemes, and in some instances occuptional pension schemes. If the Government are so concerned about the national insurance fund and future liabilities, and if they want to give people additional pensions, why do they not bring forward legislation to make occupational pensions compulsory upon employers?
I challenge Conservative Members to rise--I am willing to let them intervene--to state that they have opted out of the parliamentary scheme to go into a private pension scheme. I wait with interest. It seems that none of them has done so. That says it all.
Some people have reached retirement age and have then decided to go abroad to join their sons, daughters or other relations. They may have paid their various contributions for 40, 45 or 50 years. They find that, when they go to live abroad, their pensions are frozen at the level that applied when they reached retirement age. That is scandalous. Any private company who tried to renege on a pension arrangement in that way would rightly be condemned, and would soon be out of business. It seems that the relationship between our citizens and the Government does not matter. There should be trust, but there is not. Instead, there is exploitation.
The retired people to whom I am referring do not live in the United Kingdom and do not have the benefits or disbenefits that flow from that, although they have the disbenefit of frozen pensions. At the same time, they are still allowed to vote in our elections. Even some Conservative Members may perceive that there is a paradox. I hope that they will speak to their Front-Bench colleagues or the Government Whips to ascertain whether something can be done to bring the scandal of frozen pensions to an end. It is a terrible injustice and an indictment of our country.
There is no mention of housing in the Gracious Speech, but in the various different debates many hon. Members have mentioned the problem of social housing in this country. We do not have much trouble with people who are fortunate enough to buy their own homes, although it has to be said that the stock of private housing is deteriorating in quality and there will be a problem in the not too distant future.
It would be wrong to say that we have a housing crisis, although there are increasing numbers of homeless people and homes considered unfit for habitation. I recently happened to read an interesting article by Patrick Minford--I know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer knows him, because Professor Minford is one of his advisers. That article revealed two important facts, the first of which is that, since 1988, private sector rented housing has increased by 11 per cent.
As the Government's deregulation of rents has meant that, in general, private rented housing is about twice as expensive as equivalent council housing, with housing associations somewhere in between, one would have expected the increase in private sector rented housing to lead to more subsidy being paid for housing. We know that, as the private sector is getting more, the public sector