Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you received a request from the President of the Board of Trade to make a statement to the House about policy on the future ownership and control of the regional electricity companies? Bearing in mind the fact that he accepted in the House that some important questions remain to be answered in that area of policy, and also the public interest, as well as the interests of consumers and employees in regional electricity companies, should not the President of the Board of Trade make such an important statement of policy in the House, rather than simply issuing a press release from his Department?
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you received any request from the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) to make a personal statement about the shambles in the House of Commons last night, on the basis that a leaked exchange of notes between Liberal Members of Parliament is not sufficient explanation for what occurred?
Madam Speaker: I have not had any note from the hon. and learned Member, but I was in the Chair last night, and I very much resent the suggestion that there was a shambles in the House. There is never a shambles when I am in the Chair, and the hon. Gentleman should be very careful.
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. During the Christmas recess, the Prime Minister made an unwarranted and unexpected attack on Wales and on my own party. During each Prime Minister's Question Time since then, I have tried to catch your eye so that I could put our viewpoint on that matter to the Prime Minister and elicit clarification from him. If it is impossible for members of my party to question the Prime Minister on the Floor of this House for two months, how on earth will democracy work as far as Wales is
Column 798concerned? Is not that another argument for us to have our own Parliament, as this one cannot deliver us democracy?
Madam Speaker: I am not certain whether any members of the hon. Gentleman's party have tabled questions to the Prime Minister, but I will check on that. If the hon. Gentleman not only looks at the Order Paper but reads it, he will realise that the opportunities to call any of them--or, indeed, any Opposition Member--during the past few weeks have been very limited, simply because of the way in which the Order Paper is laid out.
In addition to those hon. Members who have a question down, I seek to call those who have not yet asked the Prime Minister a question during this Session. Of course, I have the hon. Gentleman in mind, and will do my best to ensure that he is able to put his question to the Prime Minister as soon as possible. He will understand the limitations on the Chair during Prime Minister's Question Time.
Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I learn from this morning's The Independent that the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) made a particular decision about the entry of the Al-Fayed brothers, and was subsequently asked to reconsider it by the Home Secretary. Is that a matter for the Committee of Privileges?
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Are you aware that, as we meet at this time, Mr. Gianfranco Fini, leader of the Italian fascists, is being greeted in the House by Conservative Members --the Mr. Fini about whom early-day motion 429 has been tabled, signed by 112 hon. Members, condemning his fascism, his anti-semitism and his connection with Mussolini? Is it in order, in the anniversary year of the defeat of fascism, for hon. Members to invite Mr. Mussolini's political descendant to visit the House?
Madam Speaker: It is up to individual Members to issue invitations to outsiders to address private meetings in the House. Some people, of course, may find such invitations unpalatable and even offensive, but it would be invidious for me, as Speaker, to be set up as an arbiter of who can and who cannot be invited into the House. It is for Members individually to take the responsibility upon themselves, and to think very carefully before they issue their invitations.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for persons bound by covenants of a tenancy to be released from such covenants on the assignment of the tenancy, and to make other provision with respect to rights and liabilities arising under such covenants; to restrict in certain circumstances the operation of rights of re-entry, forfeiture and disclaimer; and for connected purposes.
I am pleased to propose a Bill about contractual liability on a day such as today, St. Valentine's day, when, traditionally, many couples take their first step towards a marriage contract. I hope that such couples have a long and happy life together, but if, by mischance, they should find that they are not suited, they can break off their engagement without fear of being confronted by a court action for a breach of promise. That law was abolished 25 years ago. It had long outlived its purpose and imposed an unjust burden, and I applaud its passing.
Reflecting on that welcome reform, I propose a Bill today that is long overdue in righting an acknowledged injustice peculiar to this country, whereby landlords can pursue tenants many, many years after they have ceased trading for subsequent arrears of rent after the lease has been assigned, known by lawyers as "privity of contract". The smooth working of the commercial property market requires good relations between landlords, who provide their capital, and tenants, who trade on their skills. I am sure that most landlords dislike enforcing that unjust law, which has caused distress and genuine hardship to many thousands of former tenants caught in its obscure and iniquitous trap.
Long after retirement, a shopkeeper--or even, after his death, his family-- can be confronted with exorbitant demands for arrears of rent owing to the failure of a subsequent tenant. The original tenant can be pursued 20 or more years after assigning a lease, perhaps three or four tenants later. The landlord is under no obligation to mitigate the losses, so confronting former tenants with potential financial ruin.
I have had an especially distressing constituency case of that type, affecting a widow who, long after the lease was assigned, was confronted with punitive demands, not only for long arrears of rent, but for service charges and dilapidations. I am sure that many other right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have had similar constituency cases, affecting both large and small businesses.
Recently, a writ for £150,000 was served on the former tenant of a shop in the Arndale centre in Manchester. The landlord did not even have the courtesy to write to the former tenant before slapping down a court writ for 18 months of rent arrears, long after the original lease had been assigned.
In Nottingham recently, a landlord deliberately took no action to re-let two adjacent vacant properties in a prime site. The two former tenants were forced to the point of personal bankruptcy before the landlord agreed to re -let his properties. One of the former tenants was forced to sell his home. Those shops could easily have been re-let by the landlord without loss, had he acted reasonably.
Column 800I am aware of a landlord in London who conspired with a weak tenant who was on the point of bankruptcy to sign a renewed lease on a doubled rent. As soon as the tenant became bankrupt, the landlord forced the former tenant to pay the double rent. That scam is made legal only through the iniquity of the privity of contract law. In 1988, the Law Commission reported on privity of contract, and concluded that it was intrinsically unfair that anyone should bear burdens under a contract from which they derived no benefit and over which they had no control. Consequently, the commission recommended a wholesale reform of the current law. Five years later, in March 1993, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor announced that there was a strong case for reform of privity for new leases, and that a new nine months' notice of liability provision would be introduced so that landlords would be under a statutory duty to serve notice on any former tenant from whom they wished to claim.
My Bill introduces those necessary reforms. It abolishes privity of contract for new leases after the first assignment of the lease. Therefore, the original tenant would be liable only until after the first assignee had reassigned the lease. The Bill also introduces the nine months' notice provision, which requires nine months' notice of the date on which a debt has become due, and applies to both existing and future leases. That keeps former tenants informed about their obligation and helps protect individuals or companies against unforeseen and unaffordable costs.
Some concern had been raised by the British Property Federation that, as currently drafted, my Bill might put investment at risk and undermine confidence in the property market. To avoid that, the Bill may need to be amended so that landlords can agree with potential tenants the circumstances under which an assignment of that lease will be permitted.
I accept that criticism, and would not resist an appropriate amendment to the Bill, should it reach Committee stage. I understand that an agreement has been reached between the British Property Federation, acting for landlords, and the British Retail Consortium, acting for tenants, on an amendment to section 19(1) of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1927, which would ameliorate that concern. I further understand that there is agreement on additional benefits to tenants in new clauses to stop bad practice in existing leases. Such amendments would not only remove landlords' fears but would significantly improve the position of tenants beyond that contemplated in the Bill.
My Bill has support from all sides of the property industry, including not only the British Property Federation and the British Retail Consortium but the British Chambers of Commerce; the Forum of Private Business; the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors; the Property Managers Association; and the British Council of Shopping Centres. It also has cross-party support within the House. Britain is known as a nation of shopkeepers, so it seems appropriate that, on this day, Britain's quarter of a million shopkeepers should present you, Madam Speaker, with a Valentine wish that my Bill be given an unopposed First Reading by the House. Question put and agreed to.
Column 801Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Peter Thurnham, Dame Peggy Fenner, Mr. John McFall, Mr. John Fraser, Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, Sir Gerard Vaughan, Mr. A.J. Beith, Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones, Mr. Paul Boateng, Mr. Patrick Nicholls, Mr. Richard Page, and Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown.
Mr. Peter Thurnham accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for persons bound by covenants of a tenancy to be released from such covenants on the assignment of the tenancy, and to make other provision with respect to rights and liabilities arising under such covenants; to restrict in certain circumstances the operation of rights of re-entry, forfeiture and disclaimer; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 21 April, and to be printed. [Bill 50.]
Madam Speaker: I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. I must also advise hon. Members that, between the hours of 7 and 9 pm this evening, speeches must be limited to 10 minutes.
That this House condemns the damage done to the country's social fabric and economy by the rapid growth of poverty in United Kingdom society; deplores Government policies which have failed the long-term unemployed, seen the number of families living on less than half national average income treble and deprived many of an opportunity to contribute to and share in national prosperity; and calls for immediate concerted action to tackle the causes of poverty and unemployment including a major welfare-to-work programme, a national childcare strategy and action to improve education and skills. Last Thursday, as many hon. Members will remember, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister whether it was the aim of the Government to redress inequality. The answer was a simple and unadorned yes. That agreement, that common ground should be our starting point this afternoon.
The Prime Minister went on, rather more controversially, to say that, in his view, the right way to combat poverty was
"by ensuring that chances and opportunities are greater so inequality falls; that is the right way and that is what the Government are doing."-- [ Official Report , 9 February 1995; Vol. 254, c. 453.]
The House will not be surprised to hear that I quarrel with that judgment. Put plainly, I do not believe that there is evidence, and certainly no convincing argument, that present policies are controlling or even limiting the growth of inequality. More seriously, and more disappointingly, there is little or no evidence that the Government are trying to do so.
There will be much talk during the debate--and rightly so--about the Rowntree report that was produced last week. Indeed, that was the cause and the basis of the exchange between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. It is right that a good deal of attention should be paid to the report because its publication is a public service. It puts the harsh profile of growing problems of poverty in sharp relief.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): Could the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Rowntree foundation report was drafted by John Hills, a Labour activist who worked on the Fabian Society tax review before the last election?
Mr. Dewar: The hon. Lady should remember that, whoever wrote the draft, the report was unanimously approved by, for example, Mr. Howard Davies of the CBI, by a very prominent Conservative who is a member of the Baring banking family, and by the deputy chairman of British Telecom. To suggest that it is a put-up job or a Labour conspiracy reflects no credit on the hon. Lady's
Column 803intelligence, and I suspect that it reflects even less credit on the central office briefing that she was probably clutching.
Mr. Dewar: No. Let me make it clear that I shall take some points of information as the debate proceeds, but that I am anxious to make progress and to establish my first point. The report gives perspective and clarity, and the picture that emerges from its findings is of a disunited kingdom. Every right hon. and hon. Member should take that seriously.
I understand that, in the past few minutes, the Prime Minister has been dealing with these problems with the attitude of a latter-day Pangloss. Of course he is right that there are families and pensioners who are doing well. That is almost by definition a picture of the divided community. There are people on the right side of the divide in the arithmetic who are flourishing, and nobody complains about that.
The trouble is that, while pensioner incomes on average are rising, 1.6 million are existing on income support. While many families are comfortably off, others--one of the most vulnerable groups in society: perhaps with several children and a low wage--are living just above the income support level and in real difficulty.
What clearly emerges from the report is that income inequality is greater now than at any time since the second world war, and that, since the Government came to power, the lowest income groups--perhaps as many as 15 million people--have been deprived of any share in increasing national wealth. Rowntree found that, even after excluding the self-employed--and that is of some significance--incomes of the bottom 10 per cent. of the population, after housing costs, were 9 per cent. lower than they were in 1979. Since 1977, the proportion of the population living on less than half the national average income has trebled.
Mr. Dewar: I will come to that point. I can always rely on the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) to feed me a line; he is one of the best stooges in the House from the Labour party's point of view. I think that he can comprehend the fact that in Tory Britain more than 10 million people are now dependant upon income support, which is more than double the number when the hon. Gentleman's friends came to power.
A family on income support comprising a husband, a wife and two children is living on about one third of the national average wage. That leaves very little room for comfort. I do not argue that the meek should inherit the earth, but I do not believe that they should be cut off without a penny.
Column 804minimum wage or, alternatively, extra burdens for business. Is he prepared to pledge those proposals on behalf of his party?
The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald) obviously dislikes the Rowntree report. I can understand that; it is inconvenient and no doubt embarrassing. However, the charges in the report are wholly corroborated by other evidence. As the hon. Gentleman takes these matters seriously, I know that he will recall the report of the Institute for Fiscal Studies entitled "For Richer and For Poorer", which deals with income distribution between 1961 and 1991. It hammers the same case, and it comes to the same conclusions.
For a local case study with which the hon. Member is probably not familiar, he should go to Her Majesty's Stationery Office and ask for a copy of "Poor and Paying for it: the price of living on a low income", which is an exhaustive examination of the privileges--or really the penalties--of living in poverty in Scotland. It was produced by the Scottish Consumer Council, all of whose members I think have been appointed by the Secretary of State for Scotland and are therefore not likely to be interested in deliberately doing him in for political reasons. I think that the case is almost overwhelming.
Mr. Peter Ainsworth (Surrey, East): I fear that the hon. Gentleman is putting forward a bogus argument based on a report which is substantially founded on dubious facts. Does he accept that the Social Services Select Committee has reported that those on income support are 15 per cent. better off now than they were in 1979? Does he further accept that all social services payments and payments for health, education and other public spending originate from enterprise and initiative, and that his party's policies will spoil our country's ability to meet the payments that our people want and need?
Mr. Dewar: The hon. Gentleman has taken his time to make a rather familiar point. I am anxious to help him. I recognise that he believes that the Rowntree report is prejudiced and fraudulent--he has said that in pretty clear terms. I will be interested to hear whether the Secretary of State for Social Security accepts that the basis of that body's work is flawed in that way.
I invite the hon. Gentleman to consult another authority. If he looks in Hansard of 2 February 1995, he will see a written answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). He asks for the percentage change in real incomes of the top 20 per cent. of families with children and the bottom 20 per cent. between 1979 and 1991-92, the latest date for which figures are available.
After housing costs, according to the Department of Social Security and the Minister who speaks for it, the bottom 20 per cent. have seen their incomes fall by 12 per cent. in real terms; while the incomes of the top 20 per cent. have increased by 49 per cent. A division is clearly opening up, as those two groups were already advantaged on the one hand and disadvantaged on the other.
Column 805It may be interesting to argue what we should do about that, or even to what extent Government can control those matters, but to say that it is not happening is to fly in the face of common sense and evidence, at every level and from every source. It makes the hon. Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth) look a little silly. A defence has been mounted, and I will turn to that point. The Prime Minister, for example--after all, he is only echoing the views of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, and could he do better--said that the Government are a victim of their own generosity. Because they raise benefits, they create poverty and move the poverty line. But, unfortunately, if one looks at what happened--because in recent years the Government have tied the level of benefits to the retail prices index--one will see that a gap has opened up between them and earnings, which have tended to increase more quickly, and that is one of the reasons for that phenomenon.
It has been urged on other occasions that we should not take into account the figures for the bottom 10 per cent., because they are inaccurate. I remember an interesting debate sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin) in which the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), an Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, presented with the irrefutable evidence about the deterioration in the prospects of the bottom 10 per cent., said, "Well, you can't really believe these figures, because they are full of the self-employed--100,000 farmers, 40,000 taxi drivers, 12,500 qualified accountants, who are returning nil or negative incomes as a clever piece of tax management." If that is happening, it is a very eloquent comment on our tax system.
In any event, the Rowntree figures, and the Government's figures in the parliamentary answer, do not talk about the very bottom 10 per cent., but about 20 per cent. at the bottom and 20 per cent. at the top--40 per cent. of the population. I submit--I do not think that any statistician would argue with me--that they give a fair account of what is happening in Britain today.
I remind the House of the figures I gave a moment ago from the Rowntree report. It excluded the self-employed--that doubtful category that might give rise to misunderstanding--and still found that the bottom 10 per cent. is down 9 per cent. after housing costs since 1979.
I believe that it is beyond argument that the gap is widening. The Government, of course, say that they are still trying to do something about it. After all, they have a proven track record of failure in many fields, and they may indeed be doing their best. One of the most damaging aspects is the impact of Government policy itself. To quote the Rowntree report:
"Discretionary tax changes shifted the burden of taxation from higher to lower and middle income groups."
Column 806That can be illustrated in a welter of facts and figures with which many hon. Members are familiar.
Too many people in the Cabinet, perhaps even the Secretary of State for Social Security, are still thirled to the Thatcher legacy, and still believe in the trickle-down theory: help the poor by making the rich richer. I have heard that, and no doubt will hear it again in the course of the debate.
I do not believe that that is any longer an area of legitimate dispute. It has been destroyed by the experience of the past 15 years, by observable fact, by the situation that we see around us in our constituencies. The bottom is getting detached. We now see cynicism and alienation to a dangerous extent in our communities.
The hon. Gentleman criticised the Government a moment ago for not linking benefits to earnings rather than prices; he then passed on very quickly. Will he give a commitment that the Labour party would link benefits to earnings rather than prices--yes or no?
Mr. Dewar: I have explained our position-- [Interruption.] I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not listen to me. I shall say it again for his benefit: we have always protested against the unbreakable glass ceiling that has been imposed by the Government. We have also made it clear that we do not think that it is right that, over a lengthy period, those on benefits should be excluded from rising national wealth. As a prudent Opposition, who make promises only when we know that we can deliver, we have made it absolutely clear that we will halt that decline and try to reverse it when circumstances allow. [Interruption.] As I am always urged to be responsible and prudent, I find the kind of jackass noises coming from Conservative Members brave but ill advised.
Let me make it clear to the House. The concern that I have expressed is widely shared. I am sure that hon. Members--I suspect that they have read The Sunday Telegraph --will have seen the report this weekend, which, if correct, suggests that the senior civil service shares our concern about the growth in poverty and division in our communities. It is reported that Sir Robin Butler brought together permanent secretaries from eight departments to discuss the problems that arise when policies designed to increase choice destroy it for those who are already disadvantaged. They cited bus deregulation, the mobility problems when services are run down in peripheral schemes and a housing policy that forces people into benefit dependency; they also considered the problems of single parents. In those instances, they felt that what the Government were doing was incompatible with the interests of the poorer sections of the community.
I have not seen the document, but it appears at least to constitute a direct challenge to the Prime Minister's claim that opportunity is opening up for those who are currently in travail. If it does not constitute such a challenge, I suggest to the Secretary of State that the best way in
Column 807which to remove that presumption is to publish the note that we are told is circulating in Whitehall, so that we can all judge. The Butler discussions, as reported, point to another key fact that we must keep in mind. This is not simply an argument about cash; deprivation has a much wider remit than that. It affects education: the ambitions of many children with real ability are being stifled and ended. It affects employment, and the prospects of low-paid people to whom choice is not open.
Unemployed people are subject to the deadening round of benefit dependency, relieved only by problems related to the "actively seeking work" test.
If hon. Members examine any one of those areas of social policy, they will realise that the chances in life of many people--probably many people in Conservative constituencies, but certainly many in my constituency--are being destroyed. For many--some may think this a rather over-dramatic statement, but I consider it entirely justified--life itself is literally being cut short.
I do not know how many hon. Members watched last night's BBC "Panorama" programme. It concentrated on a peripheral housing scheme in west Glasgow-- the Drumchapel scheme. I happen to know that area very well, because I represent it; so I watched the programme with considerable interest and concern. I accept that concentration on a single aspect of an area does not always give a complete picture. Drumchapel is a community with problems, but it has strengths as well: its strengths lie in its people--people who too often, and in so many ways, are obstructed rather than assisted by the system.
The facts are familiar. Most Members of Parliament recognise the link between deprivation and health. Perhaps those facts have become too familiar, and have lost the ability to shock; it should not be so.
As I have said, the television programme dealt with a housing scheme in a deprived area of my constituency. Literally a hundred yards away is Bearsden, a leafy suburb whose economic circumstances are very different. Between 1981 and 1991, male mortality between the ages of 15 and 46 rose by 9 per cent. in Drumchapel; in Bearsden, it fell by 14 per cent. It was a case not of both rates improving, or of one improving faster than the other: the mortality rate in Bearsden improved, while it deteriorated in Drumchapel.
Young men in Drumchapel are twice as likely to die as those living in an affluent and leafy suburb. They are 75 per cent. more at risk during major surgery. This may not be a pleasant subject, but it is a fact that, for a person living in a poor area such as Drumchapel who requires a bowel operation, the chances of developing complications and dying are 50 per cent. higher than those of a person living in the neighbouring affluent area.
The position is not academic. In an area such as Drumchapel, a man's life expectancy can be as much as 10 years shorter than in the neighbouring area, while a woman's can be seven years shorter. I make no apology for saying that these are people whom I know and with
Column 808whom I deal; constituents of yours, whom you too will know, Madam Speaker; and people with whom many of my hon. Friends work. Mr. Gyles Brandreth (City of Chester) rose --
Mr. Hartley Booth (Finchley) rose --
Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton) rose --
Mr. Duncan rose --
Mr. Brandreth: The hon. Gentleman has spent 22 minutes telling us that he deplores poverty. I deplore it, too: I think that we agree on that. We also agree, I hope, that we want increased growth and a better standard of living for all our citizens. The motion speaks of a "programme", a "childcare strategy" and
"action to improve education and skills".
Can the hon. Gentleman flesh that out? Can he tell us when he will introduce the programme, what it would cost and how he believes that it will improve the state that he currently deplores?
Mr. Dewar: I am genuinely glad that the hon. Gentleman rose, because the fact that he accepts the tenor and accuracy of my remarks--"We all agree," he said--is a refreshing contrast to almost every point of information that has been made in the debate. On occasions, he must feel a rather lonely man on the Conservative Benches. I will come to his question in a minute. I can answer the first part very simply. We will do it when we are in government, which probably is not going to be so very far away.
Several hon. Members rose --