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Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham): Could we have a debate next week on the central administration of local education authorities and the need for those administrations to reduce their spending in line with the money that grant-maintained schools take with them to local decision making? During that debate, we could raise the case of Kent, where parents have voted overwhelmingly for 88 schools to become grant-maintained. However, Kent county council, which is run by the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, has failed proportionately to reduce its spending on central administration. Despite a 2 per cent. increase in Government grant to Kent county council, that has led for the first time to school budgets being cut by 1 per cent.
Column 486to those made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) appear, subject to your ruling, Madam Speaker, to be fairly directly relevant to Wednesday's debate.
Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East): I understand that the Government are at present compiling a short list of applications for the European Union urban fund, and that they plan to exclude from the list any city with objective 2 status. As that would have considerable implications for my constituency, which has the highest unemployment in the east midlands, and for the city of Nottingham, which has failed in its bid for single regeneration budget money, could we have a debate next week or at least at some time before the short list of applications is finalised?
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): May I again ask the Leader of the House for a debate on the takeover bid involving Northern Electric, in respect of the possible insider dealing that goes on at the moment, and on the Swiss banking company that is now buying shares in Yorkshire Electricity? There seems to be something really funny going on. Let us have a debate and have the matter out in the open.
Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): Could there be a statement next week about the escape of a prisoner, James Moore, from Everthorpe prison? I understand that his escape was noticed only when his wife rang up to ask for him. He was otherwise engaged: he was certainly not tied up.
Mr. Newton: I am left in some difficulty in finding a suitable answer to that. I do not think that I can match the hon. Gentleman's question and shall have to fall back on the fact that, as he well knows, there are a number of inquiries going on into recent events in various prisons.
Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke): Is it possible to have a debate or at least a statement on the revelations following the Channel 4 "Dispatches" programme last night about sewage discharges into our environment and especially into our seas? It was revealed that in certain samples viral content was 2,000 times higher than the present safety level. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the issue is urgent, particularly for coastal areas that depend not just on fishing for shellfish but on tourism? There is obviously a failure by the privatised water companies to tackle that serious problem.
over-simplification. Those problems have certainly not arisen since privatisation. Some of the problems that sometimes cause difficulty in the House
Column 487arise from high expenditure in seeking to tackle such problems. The hon. Gentleman certainly need not doubt the Government's determination to tackle them.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate on early-day motion 473, on the politics of gender? [ That this House agrees with the Archdeacon of York that `Political correctness is verbal fascism and when it is applied to matters religious it is as much destructive of the values and ideas of the faith as it is of the sensitivities of the believer'; regrets that feminists have never understood that `Man' comes directly from the Latin `manus', meaning hand, indicating that man is the only species that can manipulate or manufacture, and that Man means in effect an animal that can use its hands and has nothing whatsoever to do with the contemporary and contrived politics of gender. ] Such a debate would give the House an opportunity to examine Opposition proposals for a devolved Scottish Parliament that would contain 50 per cent. women. We could also examine how that could be arranged and whether it is intended that it should also apply to the proposed English regional assemblies. Could my right hon. Friend consider timing the debate to coincide with commemorating the 20th anniversary of the election of a woman as leader of a political party in this country, so as to recognise that only the Conservative party has had a woman leader? In view of last year's events in the Labour party, it seems that this is the only party in which it is possible for a woman to rise to the top.
Mr. Newton: My hon. Friend welded together a number of interesting, ingenious and attractive suggestions for debate. Perhaps they might be linked with an earlier request for a debate arising from the article in The Spectator . Of course I shall bear that very much in mind.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Would it be possible for a statement to be made early next week on the way in which Ministers leave the Cabinet and, after a very short period, go into the private sector-- often joining companies such as Rothschild, which was involved in a privatisation that was the responsibility of a Department of which the ex- Minister was head at the time?
Does not the right hon. Gentleman recognise that what has happened recently just reinforces the belief in the country about sleaze and how ex-Tory Ministers do very well when they leave Cabinet? A statement is absolutely necessary--indeed, many of us would like legislation to deal with that issue.
Mr. Newton: The hon. Gentleman makes the sort of point that I must simply accept has become familiar from him. He will not for a moment expect me to accept the thrust of what he said. The Government have set up a wide- ranging commission--Lord Nolan's committee--to which the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) gave evidence yesterday. I am content to leave that committee to examine those matters.
Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth): The Leader of the House may recall that, in the recent debate on selection, I drew attention to the fact that the Government hold 321 of the 651 seats in the House, yet they command 10 of the 18 votes that we possess in the Council of Europe. Does the right hon. Gentleman continue to regard that as
Column 488fair? What steps will he take to ensure that not only the British delegation but our colleagues from other countries recognise that Britain acts in a responsible manner in apportioning seats on that deputation and others?
Mr. Newton: When the hon. Gentleman raised the matter before, I told him that I would bring it to the attention of those responsible for making the relevant appointments. I shall check up on the position and get in touch with him.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): May I join my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) in urging my right hon. Friend to arrange a debate on education? The large amount of education legislation that we have taken through the House has always been vigorously opposed by the Opposition. I, for one, am glad to note that it is now part of Labour party policy. If we were to have a debate, perhaps Labour Members would go just that one step further and welcome grant-maintained schools.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East): There are currently two Bills before the House dealing with discrimination against disabled people. It is generally known that the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill will apply to 6.5 million people--one in every 10. May we have a statement on how wide the application of the Government's Bill will be, as we were not told that during its Second Reading? Will it apply to one in 10, one in 100, one in 1,000 or one in a million--if that person happens to be lucky?
Is not the advertisement referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) misleading in its claim that the Government's Bill applies to education, when almost no local education authority could operate such a measure? We should be told of the numbers of people in education to whom the Bill will apply. My Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill would apply to everyone in education.
Mr. Newton: The Government's Bill was debated extensively on Tuesday. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman spoke extensively in that debate. I see no reason to doubt that the proposals in the Bill, which cover a wide range of services and facilities for disabled people, will benefit large numbers of people. I have no doubt that my right hon. and hon. Friends who are responsible for the Bill, and who are sitting on the Front Bench at the moment, will have heard and heeded the hon. Gentleman's request.
Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Will the Leader of the House have a word with the Foreign Secretary, to ask whether we could have an early statement on the serious situation that is arising in former Yugoslavia, as a result of the statement by the Croatian President Tudjman that he wishes the United Nations forces to leave Croatian territory by the end of March? Will not that cause a serious crisis, which, potentially, could lead to a conflagration between the Serbs and the Croats over Krajina? Is not that a serious problem? Will the
Column 489Government make it clear at the earliest opportunity that we are doing all we can to stop such a withdrawal of UN forces?
Mr. Newton: The hon. Gentleman will no doubt have noted that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be here to answer questions on Wednesday next, and that may give him an opportunity to raise those points.
Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): Given the point of order that I raised on Tuesday after Prime Minister's questions, the subsequent letter to the Prime Minister seeking clarification of his remarks, and his comment this afternoon that he wants the highest standards in public life, will a statement be made to correct the misrepresentations about my children that were made in the House by the Prime Minister during Prime Minister's questions last Tuesday?
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have informed the hon. Member concerned--the hon. Member for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes)--about this point of order. During business questions, the hon. Gentleman made direct and serious allegations that Labour Members had financial interests that did not appear in the Register of Members' Interests. Will you invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw those remarks? If he is not willing to withdraw them and to apologise to Labour Members, will you instruct him to report any evidence that he has to the Registrar of Members' Interests?
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. During Agriculture questions, you will have heard the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food complain that I had not notified him when I raised a point of order with you last Thursday. I have listened on a number of occasions when you have made it clear to the House that, when hon. Members are referred to in debate or in points of order, they should be notified in advance. On that particular occasion, the hon. Member whom I referred to was the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland). I rang up that hon. Member and informed him that I would refer to him. I have written to the Editor of Hansard to point out that mistake, but I hope that you will accept my explanation to you.
Madam Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman. When hon. Members make speeches or comments in the House, it is incumbent upon them to go to the Hansard office afterwards just to check what they have said. Indeed, the Editor of Hansard normally invites hon. Members to do that. That should be an established practice so that any errors can be corrected. It is no good making complaints in exchanges across the Floor of the House unless hon. Members have been to the Hansard office to ensure that corrections have been made.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Will you reflect on the way in which you decide to call hon. Members during Agriculture questions? When we have Scottish questions, you often use your discretion and do not call one hon. Member on one side of the Chamber, then another on the other side. Sometimes in Agriculture questions, not enough Labour Members stand, and you then tend to move on. Bearing in mind the fact that sometimes Conservative Members are standing at those times, will you perhaps consider the way in which you call hon. Members in Agriculture questions, so that you might follow the precedent that you have already set in Scottish questions?
Madam Speaker: Of course, I shall consider what the hon. Gentleman has asked me to do, but I have total discretion, as I know that he appreciates. I must also take into account whether a question has been explored sufficiently. That is also uppermost in my mind, to ensure that we do not go on with one question simply because
Column 491hon. Members are keen, frustration is showing on their faces, and they think that they should be called to put a supplementary question. I must keep it in mind whether a question has been explored and debated sufficiently across the Floor of the House.
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You were clearly twice placed in considerable difficulty during Prime Minister's questions. I think that that situation arose in part because of the difficulty that hon. Members have in asking specific questions of the Prime Minister due to his narrow responsibilities and the danger of his transferring questions. Nevertheless, I wonder whether you might invite the Procedure Committee, I presume, to consider ways in which hon. Members could successfully table questions of a closed nature to the Prime Minister and thus, we would hope, avoid some of the difficulties that arise from the numerous open questions. Would you reflect on that and perhaps ask the advice of the appropriate Committee, which could investigate ways to enable us to put more specific questions to him in the hope that we would receive more specific answers, which might also help the general order of the House?
Madam Speaker: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's sympathy for the difficulties that I sometimes have, but it is my understanding that the Procedure Committee is already considering the matter. However, I shall pursue it.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wonder whether you are prepared to comment on the incident that occurred between you and my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell- Savours). He referred to the view held by some people that Lord Archer was involved with criminal activities. In view of the fact that the Nolan committee
Column 492has been set up to examine, among other things, the idea held by some people out there that some Members of Parliament are involved in such activities and taking money for various causes when they should not be doing so, why, when my hon. Friend refers to someone in another place, is he pulled up? He is merely voicing the views expressed by people outside about some Members of this House and some in another place. I do not know why people are so sensitive--the Nolan committee has been set up to examine those very views.
Madam Speaker: Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. The House entrusted me with its Standing Orders and the precedents that I have to follow. I refer him, and the House for that matter, to page 379 of "Erskine May", which states:
"Unless the discussion is based upon a substantive motion, drawn in proper terms . . . reflections must not be cast in debate upon the conduct of . . . Members of either House of Parliament".
I was entrusted to carry out the procedures, which is why I had to take the action that I took. I try to give hon. Members a bit of a cooling-off period and time to reflect, but the bottom line is that I have then to carry out the procedures entrusted to me by the House.
Mr. Chris Mullin, supported by Mr. Alan Williams, Mr. Matthew Taylor, Sir Andrew Bowden, Mr. Tony Banks, Mr. Nigel Jones, Sir Richard Body, Mr. Eric Martlew, Mr. Robin Corbett, Mr. Harry Greenway and Mr. Austin Mitchell, presented a Bill to prohibit the export of calves where, after such export, they are to be kept in conditions which would be unlawful in Great Britain: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 10 February, and to be printed. [Bill 39.]
That this House notes with concern the proposed withdrawal of help with mortgage interest payments during the first nine months on income support for any applicant obtaining a mortgage after 1st October 1995 and the reduction in such assistance for existing borrowers who in future are forced to apply for state help; and, recognising that these changes will result in a very significant additional cost for home owners, lead to repossessions which are already running at an unacceptably high level and further depress the housing market, calls on Her Majesty's Government to withdraw these proposals, which will cause real difficulties for both lenders and borrowers.
As its title makes clear, the motion deals with the support given to people drawing income support and with help with mortgage interest payments. It might seem a rather technical and obscure matter to do with the fine print. Indeed, it is ultimately likely to result in regulations that will be passed in a quiet corner of the Committee Corridor at the fag end of a parliamentary day. That should not happen, and we are determined that it will not, because the proposals raise significant issues.
Mortgage interest support is no small issue in itself. Of course, it has increased greatly in recent years, and that was one of the foundations on which the Secretary of State for Social Security made his case for change.
Mr. Dewar: I regret having given way because I was about to deal with that very point. This time, the hon. Lady is correct. Mortgage interest support has risen from, as the hon. Lady says, £31 million in 1979 to just over £1 billion in current terms. It involves about 550,000 claimants. I will not give way to the hon. Lady again in case she stands up to say that it involves 548,000 people. I offer her that gratuitous fact, which she can dream about tonight.
The anger and the drive in the Department appears to be based on that rise in support. The increase has largely been in the latter part of the period and it is of course, as everyone in the House recognises, almost entirely the result of two factors. One reason is the recession--the Government are not in a very good position to complain about the management of the recession--and the second reason is the very large increase in owner- occupation.
The Secretary of State managed to sound as though he was complaining about the latter factor. In the Department of Social Security press release, which announced the change, he said: "In recent years the pattern of owner occupation has changed out of all recognition",
Column 494as though that were something to deplore. In fact, the Government, quite rightly, have been encouraging people to buy their own homes when it makes sense for them and they are in a position to do so. I certainly make no complaint about the fact that there are more owner-occupiers. I take from it the logic that that increase will put greater pressure on the scheme that we are discussing.
My worry is that the changes being brought forward are likely to introduce an element of instability which will be quite serious to many people in the country. I do not want to insult the House by running over the proposals in any detail, but in the briefest possible way, I remind hon. Members that if a person takes out a new mortgage after 1 October 1995 and--unfortunately-- has to apply for help, he will find that he is in a help-free zone for nine months. Existing borrowers who have to apply in future for help with mortgage interest will get no help for two months and 50 per cent. for four months, compared with the present limitation of, simply, 16 weeks at 50 per cent. There is the comparatively minor matter, with which I have no objection, that the cap on mortgages is being reduced for this purpose from £125,000 to £100,000.
The impact of the changes will be considerable. Existing borrowers will find that if they were to move on to income support and apply for help, they would be losing through this disqualification the equivalent of two months' support, or for someone on an average mortgage, about £350. For new mortgages, the nine-month freeze would be worth about £1,250. Those amounts are not academic but substantial sums that will be sadly missed, especially by people who are in a marginal situation and who are struggling to maintain their position as home owners.
Problems will be created. To be fair--I make no bones about it--the Government have offered a solution. That solution is that the private insurance market will be able to cover the gap and offer the service. The thrust of that and the most significant difficulty with it is that if the scheme is as comprehensive as, I understand, the right hon. Gentleman wishes it to be, it will place a significant burden on almost every home owner in the country.
Insurance is a commercial business and, as the Government have conceded, it costs about £7 to cover every £100 of mortgage payments currently. Realistically, it looks like adding another £200 or £300 a year to the cost of maintaining one's house.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman indicated dissent .
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman rose --
Column 495The changes will be--
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman rose --
Anyway, at £7 per £100, I do not think that there is--
Realistically, it looks like an extra £200 or £300 a year on the cost of home ownership. It will be little consolation to know that there is a small addition to that, which I mention only in passing, of the new 2.5 per cent. insurance tax which will apply to such premiums.
We must consider whether that burden will be shouldered cheerfully. The issue must be seen in context. Not only do home owners face the prospect of the additional insurance costs if they take the Secretary of State's advice, but, from April, their MIRAS--mortgage income relief at source-- will be reduced to 15p. The Council of Mortgage Lenders, whose arithmetic is probably better than mine, reckons that someone with an average mortgage will see the cost of home ownership rise by just over 10 per cent.
The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lilley): If the hon. Gentleman is criticising the reduction in mortgage interest relief at source introduced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will he also criticise the Opposition housing spokesman, who proposes the abolition of mortgage interest relief, as I will happily demonstrate in my speech?
Mr. Dewar: In that case, it might have been useful if the Secretary of State had waited to make his point in his speech. If we are talking about MIRAS--as apparently we are--when the Secretary of State replies, will he explain what he thought of the manifesto promise that MIRAS would be maintained at present levels when it has
Column 496now been reduced twice by the Government, and is now at 15 per cent? That does not seem to be a ground on which the Secretary of State should choose to do battle.
No doubt the defence will be that individuals can make their own choice and some will opt out from the additional burden. We must ask whether the proposal can be comprehensive. I will deal with that point reasonably briefly. Many groups of people are unlikely to be covered by the private insurance market. For the evidence for that, I rely on the briefing that was sent to hon. Members by the Association of British Insurers which, naturally, wants to sell insurance. That is the point of its activities. It will be extremely difficult to offer cover to many important groups.
For example, pensioners are not in the frame. Some categories, notably the retired, who are claiming income support because of a permanent shortfall--
Mr. Dewar: I was about to come to that point. I read the documents that the Government issue and I want to obtain more information. The people to whom I have referred cannot be covered by insurance. Therefore, they must be covered by some form of exemption. The phrase used is that they will be "protected". However, it is clear from the Government amendment that pensioners on income support
"will continue to have their mortgage interest paid".
The Secretary of State has given this matter much thought--as was clear from the speed with which he approached the Dispatch Box--so perhaps he will explain on what basis that will be paid. Will it be paid at the standard rate? Will there be a restriction in the first 16 weeks, as previously, or will all the mortgage interest be paid? It would be extremely helpful if the Secretary of State could clarify those points.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: Three and a half minutes ago, the hon. Gentleman assumed that insurance premiums would remain the same even though many more people would take them out. According to the normal principle of insurance, the wider the coverage, the more likely it is that premiums will fall.