HC Deb 19 April 1973 vol 855 cc743-58

3.45 p.m.

Mr. Ray Carter (Birmingham, Northfield)

Having listened to the Chancellor, the Financial Secretary and the Minister of State this morning dealing with matters associated with VAT and its introduction, and having seen the complacent way in which they dealt with these matters, it is perhaps too much to expect a positive response from one of those very Ministers this afternoon. I am seeking to question the way in which VAT has been introduced, the campaign that accompanied it and the supervision or the supposed supervision that is being conducted as VAT comes into full operation.

There is an appalling amount of confusion outside and no more timely reminder of that could have been possible than the article in The Times yesterday by Penny Symon, who has followed VAT closely since before its introduction, during its introduction and up until the present time. She starts her article off by saying: Two weeks after the introduction of value-added tax, many items which the Government said would be reduced in price—all of them listed in its official advertisement—have not come down at all. She goes on to say that on 2nd April, the first full shopping day after the introduction of VAT, she checked 130 items listed in the Government's advertising campaign that should have come down in price. She noted their prices and then went back to check them two weeks later. She found that 80 had come down and 50 had not. She goes on to itemise the various shops, trades, establishments and so forth and the various items of consumer expenditure where no reduction in price has occurred. In view of all the other criticisms from consumer organisations, trading organisations, the Press and so on that have arisen during the introduction of VAT about the way it has been introduced and about the way in which shopkeepers and many other businesses have failed to respond to the need to reduce prices, it raises the whole question whether the Government were ever serious about their intention fully to supervise the introduction of the tax and properly to acquaint the public with the full nature and scope of it.

My view is that they were never serious. In last year's debates on the Finance Bill both on the floor of the House and upstairs in Committee Ministers were urged time and time again to take action then, a year before the introduction of the tax, to ensure that the public and traders, business and comerce, were fully acquainted not only with the substance of VAT but with the way it was to be introduced and the way in which prices would change. They stoutly resisted our arguments at that time and it was only the counter-inflation legislation, the freeze and all that went with it which compelled them to take action. But that is only a few weeks ago. As a result, the campaign has been very much a question of too little and too late.

First, most of the powers that the Government took in the Counter-Inflation Act were devolved upon local authority weights and measures departments. If the Government were ever serious about monitoring prices during the changeover to VAT, the biggest change in our tax system since the Napoleonic wars, when income tax was introduced, a thoroughgoing vetting and supervisory body would have been established. Weights and measures departments were entirely inadequate for that function.

My city of Birmingham, the largest local authority in the country apart from London, made it clear to the Government that it could not, in a city with a million inhabitants and thousands of retail outlets, monitor prices effectively in a way that played fair by the consumer. The Government did not respond by offering help. The local authority would have had to take on many more staff to supervise the changeover, and without such help could not do the necessary job. In the first few days of the changeover, 600 calls a day were going to the weights and measures department, and the officers could not cope. As a consequence of the inability properly to monitor price changes, unjustified prices increases have occurred and have been unchallenged.

I have already raised with the Minister the question of the publicity campaign. On 11th April he kindly replied to my points, which principally concerned the regional Press. Although there are about 1,700 regional newspapers, only 37 carried any advertising about VAT and the changes in price levels. In his reply to my inquiry why only the national Press had been used, the hon. Gentleman said: I am sure you will appreciate that funds for national advertising are not unlimited. Therefore, the choice of newspapers always has to be based on the required coverage, the target size, and the available funds. In that short sentence we obtain some idea of precisely what importance the Government place on proper advertising down to the grass roots. The Chancellor talked about a massive tax change but then he says that only a limited amount of money will be spent on informing the public of the nature of the change. It is not good enough.

In Birmingham the local Press plays an important part in the life of the community. During the introduction of VAT many people have been completely uninformed because of the inadequacy of the Government's advertising campaign. I remind the House of the important part that one local newspaper plays in the life of the community. The Evening Mail has a circulation approaching 400,000 and a daily readership approaching 1 million. Two-thirds of its readers live in Birmingham itself, and there it is read by more people each day than any other newspaper. It gets into 80 per cent. of all households in the city. It also gets into 55 per cent. of households in Solihull and Sutton Cold-field, an area adjoining the city. About one-third of the Evening Mail's housewife readers see no other daily newspaper. Ninety per cent. of advertising relating to retail outlets—that is, where to buy, what, and how much it will cost—goes to the daily and weekly local Press in the city.

I am sure that that picture is mirrored throughout the country. It is appalling that throughout the campaign the local Press, which is read in a way that the national Press is not, has been left out of the advertising campaign.

I turn to the abuses that have arisen during the introduction of VAT, due in part to the Government's failure to carry out a thorough publicity campaign to acquaint the people with the full scope and nature of VAT. SET, together with purchase tax, has been removed. The Minister and his parliamentary colleagues, from the Prime Minister down, said when they were in Opposition that they would scrap SET. They said that it was an iniquitous tax, which put up prices, including food prices. They promised that with the abolition of SET prices would automatically go down.

But all the evidence I have, and all the evidence that the Press has acquired, is that the service industries, which were the principal bearers of SET, have raised their charges by the full amount of the standard rate of VAT and have not passed on to the public the saving in SET. What inquiries is the Minister making about that? What is the law? What can the Government do to ensure that the service industries pass on to the public the SET that they will not now be paying? On that point alone there is a case for an immediate inquiry.

Those concerned should be told that retrospective action will be taken if it is discovered after three months or even longer that certain industries, trades or professions have not passed on the SET saving.

One of the principal areas of controversy is catering. Even in the catering establishments in the House there are notices telling us that VAT is being levied at the standard rate. I assume that there was an SET component in the previous prices, yet there is no reduction for that.

Probably the bulk of complaints from the public on the changeover to VAT have come from people who obtain most of their food from catering establishments and who discover that the full 10 per cent. has been imposed. Many establishments are not differentiating between food consumed on the premises and food taken away. Food that is taken away should escape VAT altogether, but many establishments are telling their customers that the necessary administrative procedures to separate the two would be far too expensive, and they are levelling the full 10 per cent. on all their sales.

In many hotels and catering establishments the 10 per cent. is being added to bills inclusive of service charges. Is that within the law? I do not think that it is.

In normal retail business, where a ½p is the result of a 10 per cent. increase, the price is rounded up in almost every case to the full 1p. When we talk of ½p we are talking about 1.2 old pennies, so that is a sizeable figure.

There have been many complaints about contracts made become VAT was introduced. On contracts I made before the introduction of VAT the organisations from which I am purchasing goods or services have told me that I must now pay the full 10 per cent. VAT. Estate agents and solicitors are making the same claim. But here again SET was imposed before, and there should be a reduction on that score alone.

Many people who ordered goods before the introduction of VAT are being told that although they may have placed the order for furniture, jewellery and so on a year ago, and may even have paid most of the cost, they will now be subjected to a 10 per cent. extra charge.

What is the legal position? It is not nearly as clear as the Minister was making out this morning. It is far more complex than that, and some clear guide should now be given. Illogicality has even crept in to VAT. We were promised that VAT was to be a clean tax and one that would get rid of all the stupidities and illogicalities that then applied, but already people are complaining about the zero-rating of children's clothing.

Constituents write to me and, "My child is bigger than the average child; why should not she"—or he—"be able to get clothing which is zero-rated?" There seems to be an appalling muddle. The parents of a larger-than-average child are penalised because they have to pay the full adult rate of tax.

There is continual bemusing of the public by some firms who have absolutely no intention, it seems, of carrying out their proper function of informing the consuming public of precisely what VAT does and the effect which it has upon the goods which they sell. For example, during the Counter-Inflation Bill I raised the fact that Dixons Photographic Ltd. had a campaign before the introduction of VAT, saying "Buy now and beat VAT." I raised that matter in the House and in Committee. As a result, those advertising materials were removed from the windows of Dixons shops and from the pages of newspapers.

Dixons are now advertising that people should buy now and save because of re- ductions due to VAT. What good does that do? Is it educational to treat consumers in that way? I have no doubt that when the Minister replies he will ask me to give individual cases. I could do that. Indeed, the cases which I have already raised with him are of a general and wide-ranging nature.

There is widespread abuse, particularly in the service industries where SET is not being rebated. The 1 per cent. increase in the cost of living that the Chancellor forecast many months ago has now been shot through the roof. I should not be surprised if a 2 per cent. or 3 per cent. increase was the net result of the introduction of VAT. The real problem about the introduction of VAT is that it occurred at a time when the public was punch-drunk from two years of battering by inflation. With the kind of publicity and educational campaigns that the Government have put out over the past three or four weeks, the public are unable, after two years of prices sky-rocketing, to differentiate between what is a price rise due to VAT and what is a quite normal price increase.

The Government should have realised that VAT would have an explosive effect on prices. In fact, price rises started not weeks before VAT was to be introduced, but last year. The Government should have gone to the schools, to the local authorities and to the trades. Even the trades are as much bemused by the introduction of VAT as are consumers. I do not put the blame on the trade for the confusion. The blame lies clearly with the Government.

It seems from a report in the Sunday Mirror that even the Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs is becoming worried. We read that a number of notices have been issued. To whom were these notices issued? How many were there? Have any general notices been sent out to particular sectors of the economy? More important than a notice sent to a launderette or a betting shop is a general notice sent to a trade or business in which abuse is evident.

I want the Financial Secretary to assure the House and the public that the Government will use all the powers available to ensure that, in the coming weeks, the public are not fleeced in the way they obviously have been in the past fortnight. The public are fed up with inflation and the Government's handling of VAT has merely fed the flames. But I believe that, in spite of VAT, if the Government are serious in their apparent determination to protect the interests of the consumers, there is time for them, in the few weeks which remain to them in the introductory period of VAT, to inform the public that they will protect the interests of the consumers and will issue clear and specific directions to the trades concerned, and indeed, the whole range of industry, particularly those industries upon which selective employment tax was imposed.

The Government must show the public that they intend to take action, if necessary through the courts, to ensure that prices are increased to a justifiable level and no more. The consumers at least deserve that, and the Government should play their part at a highly inflationary time by ensuring that no undue and unnecessary profits and unjustifiable price increases are made during the introduction of VAT.

4.7 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Davidson (Accrington)

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Carter) has done a great public service by drawing attention to the complacency with which the Government have treated complaint after complaint about the inconsistencies, anomalies, unfairnesses and unjustified price rises which have occurred since the introduction of value added tax. The Government should not think that this is just a party political point. The Daily Express, which tends to go out of its way to try to find something good to say about the Government, headlined its story on the day after the introduction of VAT, VAT Blunders its Way In". The Daily Mirror a little more strident, called the day, "Muddle Monday". The report said: Britain had its first real taste of VAT yesterday—and the result was one big bellyache. There were grumbles all round—particularly from people who found that food in canteens and snack-bars cost more. Customers blamed retailers. And baffled retailers blamed the Government for the problems created by the new tax. The Financial Secretary ought to come to Accrington Market with me. The people there certainly blame the Government, because they find it very difficult to sort out the complexities of VAT. One of the reasons for this, of course, is that they have not been properly informed. The Daily Mail said: In just one week VAT has caused chaos, driven some shopkeepers from business, made others ill and angered housewives who think they are being ' diddled '. Top of the wives' complaints list are corner sweet shops, hairdressers, launderettes and restaurants. That is a formidable list.

The Financial Times, as one would expect, was a little more restrained. It said: Public perplexed by new prices in first full day of VAT". The Daily Telegraph, which caters for a slightly different market, said: Ten per cent. on lunches gives many first taste of VAT The Minister should know that these complaints do not come only from this side of the House: they are widespread, and all the papers cannot be wrong.

Even today at Question Time a whole variety of anomalies were highlighted. They were anomalies to which the Minister himself could not feel indifferent, for he is not a man who is indifferent to the plight of the disabled. Why on earth should cars for the disabled be subject to VAT? Why should kidney machines be subject to VAT? The Minister's answers to these questions were totally unsatisfactory, and I do not accuse him or the Government of being insensitive or indifferent to the plight of the disabled.

Over and over again the newspapers have highlighted almost farcical instances of VAT appearing to be a fantasy tax. Betting is zero rated and yet there have been many complaints about VAT being put on entrance fees into bingo halls. My hon. Friend today has drawn attention to the experience of many of us in restaurants where invariably a full 10 per cent. is added to the bill.

I was in the House when the Conservatives were in opposition and over and over again they became almost hysterical about SET. They said that it was the most iniquitous tax ever, solely responsible for the rise in the cost of living. They told the public that if they backed the Conservatives and got rid of SET, prices would come down. Prices have not come down. Indeed, they have gone up.

Ministers should at least investigate and not treat lightly the fact that the service industries, which spent a good deal of money complaining about and publicising the unfairness of SET, have apparently ignored the dropping of SET and have increased prices with the introduction of VAT. I am not surprised by the Government's complacent attitude to this problem.

The Prime Minister set the tone when he appeared to be totally indifferent to the worst trade figures to be recorded in the country's history. He said that the trade figures should not be judged by one month, but I remember that just before the election, when in one month there was a deficit of £30 million—positive sunshine judged against the current figures—the present Prime Minister said that those trade figures for one month demonstrated that almost the next day there would be devaluation, a grotesque distortion of the facts. Today, he indifferently brushed aside the worst trade figures in our history. It may be that I have strayed slightly from the subject of VAT.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu)

Order. The hon. Member will realise that he is encroaching upon the time allowed to his hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. John Smith), if he prolongs his speech further.

Mr. Davidson

I would not dream of doing that. Neither would I want to take any time away from the Minister. I have highlighted some of the anomalies of the system and the total complacency, indifference or ignorance—or possibly all three—exhibited by the Government. I hope that the Minister will show that he is not quite so complacent as he seems.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Terence Higgins)

Neither the Government nor myself are in any way complacent about the need to supervise the changeover from SET and purchase tax to VAT, or the need fully to inform the public about what is going on. I have taken a close personal interest in the whole of this process, which began a considerable time ago because of the period we allowed for consultation in introducing the tax.

I do not accept, without being complacent, what I can only describe as the grossly exaggerated criticisms which have been put forward by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Carter). Perhaps I may say a word or two about the remarks of the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson). He relied heavily on newspaper headlines the day after the change-over and in the following week. If he will go below the headlines and see to what extent they were really justified by hard news he will find a somewhat different picture. One paper relied almost entirely upon statements made by the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay). I once had the pleasure of speaking on the opposite street corner from the right hon. Gentleman during a General Election. I must say that I thought that I was rather more in touch than he with what was happening in that street market.

None the less, in justification of its headline a national newspaper relied almost entirely upon remarks attributed to the right hon. Gentleman. Although it is news if that kind of impression can be created, it is now generally accepted that, by and large—of course there are exceptions—the change-over has gone reasonably smoothly. It is, as the hon. Member for Northfield said, a major change in our tax system.

In his speech on the Opposition motion last December to defer the introduction of VAT my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said: But what is absolutely essential is that before next April the man in the street should know how the change will affect him. The Government will, therefore, be taking steps to ensure that the general public fully understand how the abolition of purchase tax and SET and the introduction of VAT will affect their daily purchases of goods and services. This we have done. My right hon. Friend went on to say that he had no doubt that we would have the full support of the retailing organisations and the overwhelming majority of retailers. This we have had.

He also said that we would take steps to ensure that: following the change-over to VAT the benefits of tax reductions are passed on in lower prices to the consumer and that prices are not increased by more than is strictly warranted after making full allowance for the abolition of SET and purchase tax."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th December 1972; Vol. 847, c. 1128–9.] This is what we have been doing and are doing. The hon. Member also referred to an article in The Times. In that context it is important to appreciate that some retailers anticipated the changeover and reduced their prices before 1st April. I do not think anyone would complain of that. But one still needs to look at the overall picture, taking the entire period, and it is right that people should do that in comparing prices.

The hon. Member for Northfield criticised the timing of the Government's advertising campaign and said that it should have started earlier because of the need to counter misleading advertisements urging people to buy goods the price of which would come down when the tax was introduced. The hon. Gentleman has raised the point before and I recall giving a specific answer to it. Such advertisements were very few in number, and we did not believe that they were creating a significant distortion.

Both the standard rate of VAT and the final coverage of the tax were integral parts of my right hon. Friend's overall Budget judgment, and had to be considered in that context. That being so, it is clear that it would not have been reasonable to begin the publicity campaign before those fundamental facts were known. However, we brought forward the date of the Budget to the earliest date since 1900, recognising that traders needed adequate notice before the changeover took place.

The hon. Gentleman would not have expected the Government to launch a full publicity campaign before the facts about the standard rate and the coverage were known and then to follow it up with another campaign saying that some of the figures provisionally expected turned out to have been changed in the Budget. That would have caused great confusion and wasted a great deal of public money.

The hon. Gentleman has failed to take sufficient account of the considerable nongovernmental publicity devoted to VAT in the Press and on radio and television. That has been important. All the media have fulfilled an important function in that respect.

The hon. Gentleman spoke as though the Government's campaign was taking place in a vacuum and that it had arrived suddenly and unheralded, three weeks before the change-over, with no Press or television coverage before it. However, that will not bear examination. There have been many articles in the Press in the past two years explaining VAT in layman's terms. I have written some of them. Since last December when the Consumers' Association, in an excellent and well-balanced article in the magazine Which? set out the changes, there has been a positive spate of features in the Press explaining how the tax changes were likely to operate. In the four months from December 1972 to March 1973 in the national Press alone there were at least 25 articles explaining what prices were likely to go up and what were likely to come down. The Daily Mirror guide on 24th January gave examples on a provisional basis and readers were urged to cut it out and use it when they went shopping. All this spontaneous publicity must be taken fully into account.

The Government's publicity campaign opened on Tuesday 13th March and is still going on. We thought it best to concentrate our main efforts into the three weeks before the changeover and shortly after the introduction of VAT, when it was expected to have the greatest impact. It has had a great impact. There has been an extensive campaign in the Press and on television, and we have given in the guide to shoppers examples of a wide range of key goods and services showing how prices should change. Research has shown that this information was what most people wanted—a detailed guide of the changes. We have given that guide and it has been widely welcomed.

We have also given guidance on specific questions of interest; for example, the one which the hon. Gentleman mentioned about purchases which straddled the date of the change-over, where such considerations as when a job is completed and what amounts have been paid are relevant. There were a number of other matters which we knew from experience to be those which the public in general regarded as the most important. Two sets of advertisements have been devoted to answering those specific questions.

I turn to the point which the hon. Gentleman raised with regard to the Weights and Measures Inspectorate. There is no reason to think that the inspectors have not had adequate facilities to carry out what we regard as a very important task. Returns that we have had so far show that the inspectors are coping well. We have asked them to give it priority over other work during the transitional period. We hope that it will not be necessary, pending the assumption by the Price Commission of responsibility for price control in phase 2 of the counter-inflation policy, for them to continue to give this the same priority as they do at the moment. But they have been giving it great priority. We believe that in this respect the operation has been successful and effective. I will come to more details on that later.

First, I want to comment on the points made by the hon. Gentleman regarding advertising in local newspapers. He criticised the use of the media in the Government's VAT publicity campaign. Indeed, in Committee on the Finance Bill on 10th April he said: the lower-income groups … are unable to question sufficiently intelligently the way the changeover has taken place and the new prices that are being charged simply because they have not been informed through their local newspapers.'—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th April 1973; Vol. 854, c. 1192.] I readily appreciate that some people in these groups do not read the Financial Times, The Times, The Guardian or the Daily Telegraph, but we had a massive publicity campaign in the national Press. In addition, we had a campaign on television where they will have seen the official advertisements informing them that the VAT guide could be obtained through post offices.

It would obviously have been impossible, given that there are restraints on public expenditure, for us to advertise in every newspaper in the country. The Government's policy, which is consistent with the general policy on publicity of successive Governments, has been to select newspapers for an advertising campaign which will provide the most economic return for money spent. Our objective for the VAT campaign was to achieve maximum coverage of the adult population with sufficient frequency of what I believe is termed in the jargon "opportunities to see". On that basis, the strategy was to use both national daily and Sunday newspapers, together with selected provincial newspapers, where the coverage of the nationals is weaker in a particular region. By this means we believe we covered 95 per cent. of the adult population in the country, which is almost the effective maximum percentage.

Inevitably in this kind of circumstance some newspapers believe that the argument for including them is as good as that for others which were selected. But we must draw the line somewhere, and our decisions were taken in the light of the best available research and experience. I do not think it can be contested that the coverage of the VAT campaign has been extremely wide.

Similarly, we did not merely rely on newspaper advertising; we relied on television advertising and the leaflets which have been available in post offices. Five million copies of the VAT leaflet were available for distribution through 24,000 Crown and sub-post offices throughout the country beginning on Monday, 26th March. There has since been a reprint which was available in good time, and the hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that over 5½ million copies have now been distributed to the general public. That being so, his charge that the Government have not been enthusiastic and efficient in carrying out this publicity campaign does not stand analysis.

I turn now to the supervision of the changeover from SET and purchase tax to VAT. As I said in Committee on the Finance Bill on 10th April, without being complacent about it, the change-over has gone remarkably smoothly. Inevitably, with such a massive change-over it was to be expected that there would be some problems, but the situation in no way resembles the shambles that the hon. Gentleman described and which I believe exists only in the minds of the Opposition. Reports coming in indicate strongly that the great majority of shopkeepers have been anxious to do the right thing by the public and have made price changes in the correct and fair way.

The change has been particularly far-reaching. Many of the complications of the price changes stem not from VAT but from the anomalies in the taxes which it replaces. This is inevitable if we are to get away from the previous system to a more rational basis.

Mr. Carter rose—

Mr. Higgins

I hesitate to give way. The hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. John Smith) has come in specially this evening to have the last debate and I have a duty, if I catch Mr. Deputy Speaker's eye, to reply to him. We are almost up to the last minute if the hon. Gentleman is to have time.

The Government have had extensive consultations with the trade interests concerned, and leading retailers and service industries have been asked to let us know precisely how they are passing on their SET savings. Returns are still coming in, but the trade, particularly the food industry, seems to have welcomed the opportunity to augment its normal promotional campaigns by special SET price reductions. The hon. Gentleman may have seen some advertisements directed to that point.

The hon. Gentleman has previously claimed that the Government were not serious in their policy for policing the change-over. This is nonsense. The facts speak for themselves. The Weights and Measures Inspectorate, acting in collaboration with the prices units of the Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, have the responsibility for investigating complaints about price adjustments associated with the introduction of VAT. We are getting regular reports from the inspectors about the number of complaints received and the action taken on them. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade and Consumer Affairs told the House last Monday, during the week following the introduction of VAT inspectors received approximately 11,000 complaints about incorrect adjustments of prices and charges on non-food goods and services. There were a further 10,000 complaints concerning the food sector.

It becomes clear from that that, on the one hand, the public made use of the machinery which we provided and that, on the other, as there are more than 600,000 retailers and service outlets, the number of complaints received is very small in relation to the total number of transactions.

The reports we have had also indicate the success of the weights and measures inspectors in securing price reductions without the need to resort to the enforcement procedures provided under the Counter-Inflation Act. Many inquiries proved to be based on a misunderstanding of what the retailer is permitted to do, or could easily be explained without the need for detailed investigation. Of the complaints investigated, the officers concerned have reported that in some 4,000 cases shopkeepers have agreed to reduce prices. That, again, is a figure that is not without significance.

There have been a small number of cases in which the inspectors have reported that they consider prices too high but they have not yet been able to get shopkeepers to reduce them. If they are unsuccessful, the Government stand ready, if necessary, to authorise the issue of a notice under Section 12 of the Counter-Inflation Act restricting the price to a figure which is judged to be fair. The first notices have already been issued and any trader who was the subject of a notice and did not comply with it would render himself liable to prosecution. We do not want to use the powers of enforcement any more than is required, but we shall not hesitate to use them in a case where such action seems to be necessary.

I have listened carefully to what the hon. Members for Northfield and Accring-ton have said. Without being complacent, I believe that we can reasonably claim that the publicity campaign has been cost-effective and is continuing to achieve its objective, and that the policing of the change-over has worked reasonably satisfactorily. One of the great advantages of our parliamentary system is that hon. Members can write to me with specific queries, and I am very happy personally to go into any questions they raise. In that way hon. Members have a direct link with Ministers and are able to know what is going on. At the same time, I rely heavily on reports that come in from all over the country. Those reports and my general impression justify the answers I have given to the hon. Member for North-field.