HC Deb 11 January 1977 vol 923 cc1271-342

Order for Second Reading read.

4.3 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. E. S. Bishop)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

I have not selected either of the reasoned amendments on the Order Paper.

Mr. Bishop

The Bill is intended to provide a sound financial framework for the new Covent Garden Market at Nine Elms. As hon. Members know, this is the largest and most important wholesale horticultural market in the country. It is run by the Covent Garden Market Authority, which is a single-purpose body with no other source of income than from the market and its associated office block.

The Authority was established by the Covent Garden Market Act 1961 to take over the old Covent Garden Market from private ownership and to improve or replace it in the Covent Garden area. Rebuilding the market on its original site was shown later to be impracticable and the Authority obtained powers under the Covent Garden Market Act 1966 to move the market to Nine Elms.

Major construction work was deferred in 1966 under the Government economic restrictions at that time, and major building work was not started until 1971. The final capital cost is estimated at about £43 million. About £10 million of this will be provided from the grants which have been available under the Agriculture and Horticulture Act 1964 for the modernisation or rebuilding of wholesale horticultural markets of national importance. The balance is funded by long-term loans at normal rates of interest from the National Loans Fund.

In 1970 the then Government sanctioned the principle of initial sub-economic rents, in order to ensure a successful move and to give traders an opportunity to settle in. Rents were finally agreed between the traders and the Authority on this basis. These included provision for services and were fixed for six years from November 1974—when trading started at the new market—with an increase of 10 per cent. after the third year.

The unforeseen effects of inflation on the cost of construction and loan interest rates, and on the costs of providing services, led to accumulating loan charges and a deficit in the year ending October 1975 of £3.9 million, with little prospect of early improvement. In December 1975, the Authority officially informed my right hon. Friend's predecessor of its doubts of meeting its financial duty to break even.

We considered closely what action we should take. As I have said, this is the largest wholesale horticultural market in the United Kingdom, with about 250 traders. It supplies not only London and the Home Counties but is the first point of distribution for much of the country. It provides a wide range of produce and fulfils a national price-setting rôle, helping to stabilise prices. Its closure or disposal for other purposes would result in wide disruption of the distribution of horticultural production to consumers and would deprive many of our horticultural producers of an important channel of distribution. Its disposal for continued use as a market under the control of some other body would not wipe out the debt which has already been incurred.

Mr. Reginald Eyre (Birmingham, Hall Green)

The hon. Gentleman knows that there is very strong feeling in Birmingham, where there is a similar problem over the wholesale horticultural market, which also serves a great part of the country. It would help hon. Members on both sides of the House in considering the Bill if the Minister would give an assurance that he will meet a deputation from Birmingham to discuss the problem there, and if he will assure us that there will be treatment to deal with the Birmingham problem comparable with that set out in the Bill.

Mr. Bishop

I believe that a deputation from Birmingham has been received. I seem to remember that happening in my early days in the Ministry.

Strong representations have been made by the hon. Gentleman and some of my hon. Friends about Birmingham and other local authority markets. I submit that there is a difference. First, the Covent Garden Market is entirely supported by Government aid or revenues from traders and those who rent in the area. In addition, there has been a substantial grant—paid to the maximum, I believe, for Birmingham and Manchester, within the powers of the Ministry—and the local authority markets have access to other funds to which the Covent Garden Market does not have access. There are the rate funds, and the rate support grant also makes a contribution to local authorities, which can decide the priorities of their own spending. I am not unaware of the problems facing some of our local authority markets, and I am not unsympathetic.

Mr. Eyre

I am grateful for the consideration the Minister is giving. All that I ask him to do is to receive a deputation. It would help us in forming our attitude to the Bill if the hon. Gentleman would receive a further deputation to discuss those details.

Mr. Bishop

I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman has a chance to take part in the debate he will be able to put a case which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will consider before winding up the debate.

There was, in addition, a more important consideration. The Authority's borrowing powers are limited by the 1966 Act to £45 million, which could be reached in a little over a year. Therefore, it is a matter of urgency. Primary legislation would be needed to increase that limit. The financial reconstruction proposed in the Bill will not involve any increase in public expenditure, although repayment of some debts will be delayed or forgone. However, we see no practical alternative to what we propose. We are merely facing the realities, as I am sure all hon. Members will realise.

I should like to turn now to the more important provisions of the Bill. Clause 1 will reduce the debt liabilities of the Authority by writing off £13 million and by suspending a maximum of £25 million. This should leave an initial active debt of some £6 million or £7 million on normal National Loans Fund terms.

First, there is the write-off. This is justified by the unique circumstances of the Authority. Its position differs from that of local authorities in a number of important respects. I have pointed out its single-purpose nature. But there is a further important factor. The net return to the Authority from the sale of the market in the old Covent Garden site was—partially due to the historic nature of some of the buildings there—relatively small. But the social benefits to the whole community in relieving this important central area of the serious congestion from which it suffered for so long are very considerable and far outweigh the net benefit to the Authority's finances.

I turn now to loans to be suspended. These are not, of course, written off but no interest is chargeable on them and they do not have to be repaid while they are suspended. When they are revived, the loans will bear interest in accordance with their original conditions and will be repaid as specified at the time of revival.

The Bill makes no provision for further suspension of debt once the reconstruction has taken place. This applies also to revived loans which cannot be resuspended. Nor can other loans which were left active after the first and only suspension be suspended at a later date.

Clause 2 provides my right hon. Friend with power to direct the Authority, after consultation with it, to dispose of assets if this will promote the proper exercise of the Authority's powers or duties. In seeking this power my right hon. Friend is in no way implying any lack of confidence in the Authority's will to seek to dispose of such assets if it appears to it to be proper to do so. It has always acted in respect of its assets in a highly responsible way. But we are seeking here to provide for unforeseen eventualities when this power could be used to support the Authority in the public interest.

Clause 3 amends certain provisions of the Covent Garden Market Act 1961. The most significant of these concern the powers of direction over the Authority's financial affairs. They arise from the reduction of liabilities effected by Clause 1.

The most important is in subsection (2), which requires the approval of the Treasury and prior consultation with the Authority. This retains the provision of Section 37 of the 1961 Act in that the Authority is required at least to break even, taking one year with another, but it adds a duty to achieve further financial targets as set by the Minister and provides power for the Minister to direct the Authority to use its powers to achieve financial objectives. I should stress that no extension of the Authority's powers is proposed.

I have dealt so far with those elements of a sound financial framework which require legislation. They are concerned primarily with the reconstruction of the Authority's finances and represent the taxpayers' contribution through the Exchequer. The aim of the measures proposed is to leave the Authority with a manageable debt.

However, other elements are involved. The market traders and users must also contribute to putting the market on a sounder financial basis. I know that those concerned are running on fine margins, but it is not unreasonable to expect income from the use of the market initially at least to cover the running costs of the market and to contribute increasingly in the longer term to the cost of the capital assets. An additional contribution of something over £500,000 a year at today's prices is called for.

Negotiations between the Authority and the interests concerned have already begun on ways of providing the increased revenues. I hope that there will be early agreement, but if necessary my right hon. Friend may have to use his powers of direction to ensure a proper contribution from traders and users.

Having made their contributions, both taxpayers and traders have the right to expect the market to be run economically and efficiently. I know that the chairman and members of the Authority—people who have a proven record of running concerns efficiently—have been giving much thought to this.

They have to take into account the fact that the nature of the Authority's task is changing. For the past few years they have been concerned with the planning and building of a new market and the move, without disrupting trade, of the country's biggest horticultural market to a completely new site. I believe that they performed that task singularly well. I also believe that they can perform equally well their new task—the efficient run- ning of an established market. The Authority is considering with great care how to ensure this, and it will work on this matter in close co-operation with market traders and other users, as well as with my own Department.

To sum up, this Bill is the statutory part of a package designed to put Covent Garden Market on a continuing viable basis.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

Does the Minister agree that the task of the Authority would be made more viable if permission were given to develop some of its spare land and some of its excellent sites? Will he do something to put some ginger behind the GLC so that these matters can be agreed and permission can be given?

Mr. Bishop

I am aware of the assets to which the hon. Gentleman refers. There are a number of assets within the control of the Authority within the area of the market itself, including the market tower. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the future use of the Authority's assets will be taken into acocunt by the Authority and the Goverment. My right hon. Friend will have the opportunity of consulting on these and other matters.

It is right that the taxpayer rather than the traders should meet those costs attributable to the unique circumstances of the market but that the traders should meet the costs of running the market, including, as soon as it is practicable, a proper contribution to its capital costs. Although no one can forecast with accuracy the pattern of horticultural distribution for a long period ahead and although changes are coming about all the time, an efficient and viable wholesale market at Covent Garden will be a key element for as far as can be foreseen. I believe that the Bill will help to bring that about.

4.18 p.m.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland)

We are grateful to the Minister of State for introducing the Bill, but we feel that his opening remarks have been extraordinarily brief. Clearly, this is a complicated and important Bill. I am disappointed that he has not touched on a good many parts of the affairs of the Covent Garden Market Authority.

We do not oppose the Bill. We concede that over the years a measure of this sort has become necessary. However, although we feel that it is a necessary measure we are not unnaturally disturbed that the Authority's finances have reached such a state as to make essential the financial provisions that are contained within the Bill.

I hope that those remarks will not be taken in any way as implying criticism of the Authority. On looking back at the events that have assailed it and the move of the market from the old site to the Nine Elms site, I do not see how it could have avoided this situation. That applies to the entire extent of the situation in which it finds itself.

I hope that the Minister agrees with those remarks and that when the Parliamentary Secretary replies to the debate he will agree that the reasons that have led to the introduction of the Bill do not reflect in any way a record of incompetence or neglect on the part of the Authority. It is right that the House should put those comments on the record at this stage.

On the face of it, it appears that we are either writing off or suspending a great deal of money, namely, £38 million. Over the past few years I think that the Authority has been lucky to have had as chairman two such distinguished and capable figures as Sir Henry Hardman and Sir Samuel Goldman to look after its affairs and to supervise the move of the market from the old site to the new. The two chairmen were saddled with a nightmare situation that was not basically of their own making.

As for the way in which the Authority has been run and organised, it is as well to put on record that there have been a few criticisms of the Authority. Some of the tenants believe that the Authority is somewhat overstaffed. I am in no position to confirm or deny those allegations. I have see no definite evidence that the Authority is overstaffed, but at a time when the whole financial structure of the Authority is being built it is important that when tenants have reservations about the way in which the Authority conducts its affairs the Government should do their best to settle expressions of disquiet.

The 14th annual report of the Authority underlines the fact that administra- tive costs are running at a rate of £129,000 per year and that the estate's revenue account shows a figure for salaries, pensions, and other contributions of a further £244,000. In the last month or so the Minister has declined to answer specific questions on staffing put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells). The Authority's operations in the market were also questioned, and the Minister suggested that the Authority might provide some figures on staffing.

I am sure that the Minister can give us a little more help on these matters, because I understand that the staff inspection and evaluation branch of the Civil Service Department has recently carried out a survey of the staffing at the market and in the Authority. I hope that the Minister will refer to that survey. This is a golden opportunity to confirm or confound the tenants' claims about over-staffing.

I labour this point because it is important at this stage that as may as possible of the reservations held within the market can be dealt with. I hope that the Minister will be able to say that the Civil Service Department's report shows that staffing in the Authority is not overgenerous. I know that the Authority is taking steps to deal with the staffing situation. I gather that it intends to install automatic toll gates at the entrances to the market, which will reduce the number of staff.

I turn to the current problems of the market, and the Minister dealt with some of these matters in his speech. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that many problems have been caused almost entirely by circumstances outside the Authority's control. What has caused more trouble than almost anything else stems from the decision to schedule certain buildings within the old Covent Garden Market as listed buildings. In 1973 many of the buildings within the area of 6½ acres were listed.

This is not the place or the time to argue the merits of that decision. The decision was taken after a great public outcry, but it is not unfair to point out that the property owned by the Authority in the old market which it has sold, according to the 14th report, for £9.1 million would have been worth about £20 million, judging by a recent estimate, if the buildings within the market had not been listed. When those who are keen on conservation get to work and cause buildings to be listed, it can be an expensive operation for the public purse.

I hope that my remarks will not be construed as an attack on conservationists or on conservation policies. Indeed, coming from the Lake District I regard myself as a conservationist, but it is true to say that if those buildings had not been listed the Authority would have been £10 million better off and the financial crisis would have been considerably lessened.

The second major problem which has assailed the Authority since the new market was thought up in the early 1960s stemmed from the immense increase in building costs. The Minister said that £43 million had been spent on developing the new market at Nine Elms. I understand from the Authority that in 1964 the estimated cost of carrying out this work was about £31 million. As a result of increased building costs, the Authority has found itself saddled with extra costs to the tune of £12 million. This has led to the great indebtedness on the part of the Authority that leads us to consider this Bill today. These factors have caused the Authority to run into debt to the tune of over £20 million.

Matters have been made considerably worse since the concept of the new market was first born by the pause to which the Minister referred—a situation that led to a three-year delay in starting work. The market would have been open at a very much earlier date if it had not been for the restraint on public expenditure imposed by the Labour Government in 1966. Indeed, the delay meant that no further work, apart from minor operations, could be done until 1969. If that delay had been avoided, the massive cost increase to which I referred could have been partly avoided and the Authority would have been in much easier financial straits than it is today.

Furthermore, the Authority has been assailed by the tremendous increase in interest rates in the same period. The Authority has already drawn attention to the increased burden of interest charges which it has had to bear.

I recently asked the Authority how much it was paying in extra interest charges. It estimates that the rate of interest on these loans has gone up by about 3 per cent. during recent years. According to the figures in the 14th report of the Authority for 1974–75, interest charges for that year were £3.3 million on loans amounting to about £32 million. That is an interest rate of about 10 per cent. The Authority originally based its calculations on an interest rate of about 7 per cent. Therefore, rising interest rates are costing the Authority about £1 million a year. The Authority has been put in a difficult position as a result of events over which it has had little control.

The Authority faces an added difficulty to which the Minister referred. I am sure that the Authority was right in attempting to move all trade from the old market into the new because it would have been catastrophic if a rump had been left behind in the old market. Therefore, low rents had to be offered to traders initially as an inducement for them to move to the new market, and that has added to the Authority's problems.

I have frequently referred throughout my speech to the Authority's latest statement of accounts, but that statement only goes up to 30th September 1975. Yet in January 1977 we are discussing a Bill to deal with the Covent Garden Market Authority's current financial problems. That puts the House in a difficult position. We are trying to deal with a current financial situation on the basis of 16-month-old figures.

However, I notice in the 14th report that the Authority must send a statement of financial affairs to the Minister. I recently asked the Authority for a copy of that statement, but it refused me because it felt that the statement was the Minister's property and that it would not be right to release it to me. I do not complain about that, but hon. Members will be put in an intolerable position in Committee if up-to-date figures giving the current situation of the Authority are not made available. It will be impossible for us to do our work unless the exact positon is made known.

There is an easy way out of this problem and it would be helpful if the Parliamentary Secretary could help us find it. I understand from the Authority that the latest annual figures up to 30th September 1976—only four months ago—have been audited and are now awaiting printing before being sent to the Minister, according to the statutory duty of the Authority. It would therefore be of the greatest assistance to both sides of the House if the Minister could make the draft accounts available.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

The hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) has referred to the Committee stage of the Bill. He may have noticed a motion on the Order Paper in the names of some of my hon. Friends and myself referring to this matter. Would he comment on the relative merits of the Bill being considered by a Standing Committee or a Select Committee.

Mr. Jopling

I saw the motion on the Order Paper. I am not absolutely sure about the advantages of a Select Committee over the normal Standing Committee. I do not see any merit in it, but if the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) speaks later, I shall listen to him with great care.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will ensure that an up-to-date account of the Authority's financial situation will be made available. The Authority is currently running an annual deficit of £4 million, of which interest charges for 1976 must be about £3.5 million. Interest charges for the previous year were £3.2 million and they will have to be financed, so I do not think that I have made an unfair estimate. On 30th September 1975, the total amount owed to the National Loans Fund was about £32 million. It is clear that something must be done. This Bill is the Government's response and it is one with which the Opposition agree.

Although the Government are taking certain steps, there are measures which the Authority and market tenants can take to help themselves. I hope that the Authority will let the market towers soon. I understand that there is a possibility that a tenant will be found shortly and that it is likely to be a Government body. That would cause a considerable improvement in the Authority's current finances.

I also understand that the part of the building which is already let brings in about £200,000 a year. When the rest is let, that should add another £800,000 a year, giving a return of over £1 million. The Minister of State hardly referred to this point at all and that is a pity because the sooner the towers are let, the sooner the finances of the Authority—particularly its current account—will be improved.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

Is that not a good reason for appointing a Select Committee that could find out which Government Department will bail out the Authority by renting additional space?

Mr. Jopling

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us about the letting of the market towers. I hope that the Ministry of Agriculture is not thinking of moving in staff. There are enough of them already and I am sure that they have enough space.

There is another method by which the Authority can help itself if given a chance to do so. The Authority has shown that it is anxious to develop three spare pieces of land, one on the riverside and two others within the market complex. I am told that a rough estimate would put the value of these pieces of land at about £1 million. There may be some people in the market who do not feel that this is a significant sum, but I believe that an extra £1 million for the Authority would be a tremendous shelp at this difficult time. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg), who will be winding up the debate for the Opposition, will have a great deal to say about the disposal and development of these pieces of land.

I say only that from the record it appears that Wandsworth Borough Council has not been particularly helpful in this matter. I hope that the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) will be taken on board by the Minister of State and that he will get together with the Secretary of State for the Environment to try to stir the council and to get it to be a little more helpful.

I think that the tenants ought to be asked to do something as well. The Minister is asking them to contribute an extra £500,000 to finance the running costs of the market. I have talked to representatives of the tenants and I understand their reluctance to pay this extra money. They are being squeezed like everybody else in private business because of the activities of the Government, but a document sent to me by the Authority says: The provision of some extra £0.5 million per annum is necessary to enable the Authority to break-even with an active capital of approximately £7 million immediately after reconstruction. The whole of this active capital will be serviced by the income from Market Towers and the extra revenue will in effect be needed to enable the market to cover its running costs. Even with this extra revenue the market (as distinct from Market Towers) will be making no real contribution towards the capital invested in its facilities. The implication of that document is that the extra £500,000 is necessary for the running of the market rather than for the servicing of capital, and it is not unreasonable for the Government to ask for a contribution from the tenants. If the statement from the Authority is true —and I have no reason to suppose that it is not—it is hard to argue against the raising of an extra £500,000, but there are two questions that I should like to ask the Minister about the contributions to be made by tenants.

I understand that there is a strong possibility that the £500,000 will be raised through a sales tax. If so, will this mean that the traders will be given a full statutory right to collect that levy from buyers, in the same way that other traders collect VAT from the people with whom they do business? The Minister will know that much of the business in the market is conducted on a commission basis and a sales tax would cause a number of difficulties.

Has the Minister fully considered the title of the Covent Garden Market Act 1966? It assures traders that they will be enabled to compete on fair and equal terms with other persons carrying on in Greater London the business of selling horticultural products by wholesale. It would be helpful if the Parliamentary Secretary could comment on this matter, because it would be wrong for the traders in Covent Garden to be put at a disadvantage compared with traders carrying on similar business in other parts of London. Have the Government taken the powers in Clause 3(2) in order to give themselves stronger powers to see that the £500,000 is raised in the way they have proposed?

The principal feature of the Bill is its proposal to write off £13 million of the Authority's loans. I shall be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary will confirm that £13 million is the accrued deficit of the last three full years and most of the current year up to the time that the money will become available.

In the past two years, for only one of which we have seen the accounts, there has been a deficit of about £4 million a year. In the previous year, up to the end of 1974, the deficit was £2½ million. That leaves a possible deficit of £2½ million for this year to total £13 million.

If this is the way in which the Government have arrived at the figure of £13 million, I do not argue with it. It is not an unreasonable way of deciding how much of the debt should be written off immediately.

The second part of Clause 1 deals with the suspension of a further £20 million of debt. I understand that the effect on the Treasury of these two measures will be to cost it about £4 million a year in loss of interest and amortisation.

I do not understand—the Minister did not refer to them—the provisions of Clause 1(4). They say that the suspended debt need not, except to the extent to which it has become repayable, be included in the accounts or shown in the statement of accounts. This seems to be a curiously ostrich-like provision. I am sure that I shall take my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone with me when I say that there seems to be little point in including this provision. The Minister of State said that this sum was not being written off and that this was the reason it was being excluded from the accounts. That does not make sense.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Gavin Strang)

It might be helpful if I intervene now to prevent other hon. Members from making too much of a meal of this point. There is no intention not to refer to this matter in the accounts. This is more of a technical accounting provision. It will be referred to, perhaps in the form of a note. There is no question of not making reference to the suspended debt in each report.

Mr. Jopling

I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for answering me at this stage. I would prefer it to be the other way round. I would rather see the figure put into the account with a note at the bottom saying that it is suspended and for the time being no interest is payable on that part of the loan.

I do not want to speak on it at length this afternoon because it is principally a Committee matter. I do not know whether there is any difficulty in putting the figure into the accounts. The advice I have had is that the inclusion of the suspended figure in the accounts would not necessarily mean that the depreciation charges would be higher. That is not a good point. We shall want to refer to this matter in Committee.

I should like to know in greater detail the Government's long-term plans for the future of the suspended £25 million. The Minister of State referred to the eventual repayment of that part of the loan. It would be as well to have it laid firmly on the line whether the Government's intention is to forget about it or whether they feel there must be action by the Authority to lift the suspension and repay that part of the loan. It would be helpful to us all to know the Government's attitude.

The Opposition support the Bill and believe it to be necessary. We hope that the new Covent Garden Market at Nine Elms will build on the good start it has already made. The market is of huge importance to London and the South of England. It is also of importance to the entire country because to a large extent it sets the tone of the market and handles certain produce which is distributed nationally.

The market is modern and efficient. It is virtually fully occupied. From the figures available to us, it seems that turnover is increasing—although the figures are somewhat out of date. The speed of the transactions is far greater than it used to be. It is surely a good thing that a large, efficient market should be established in place of the old Covent Garden Market, which suffered from appalling traffic congestion.

For the visitor, the new market is a very impressive spectacle. In the summer of 1975, with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition I visited the market and saw the efficient way in which it operated. Let us hope that the Bill will enable the prosperity of the market to grow so that all consumers will benefit from fresher fruit and vegetables being brought to them more efficiently. I hope that my hon. Friends will give the Bill a fair wind and that we shall soon see its effect in helping the operation of this great market.

4.55 p.m.

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

It is abundantly clear to me that the Minister and the Government intend to railroad the Bill through by 7 o'clock tonight. A Second Reading speech of 15 minutes' length is not good enough on a Bill which authorises the expenditure of £38 million of taxpayers' money. We sometimes spend hours debating matters which involve the expenditure of much smaller sums. Yesterday, after Question Time, we spent about 45 minutes discussing expenditure of £1 million on the Meriden Motor Cycle Co-operative. That was not even on the Second Reading of a Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister did himself less than justice. It is clear that the Government will not get their Bill by 7 o'clock. They do not deserve to; they do not deserve to get the Bill at all. I have heard nothing from my hon. Friend that convinces me that I should support the Bill.

I do not intend to debate at length the problems in Birmingham because I should be ruled out of order. Nevertheless, the amendments which I tabled during the recess are valid. The Minister said that Covent Garden is a national market serving areas wider than London. I make exactly the same point about Birmingham, as did the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre) in his intervention.

I wish to expand on one or two matters raised by the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling). Here we are in January 1977 debating the Bill. Normally accounts are published and made available to the House in the February following the financial year to which they relate. In a few weeks' time we shall have before us the up-to-date accounts. I see no reason why the Government should try to push the Bill through its Second Reading on the basis of out-of-date information when, within a few weeks, up-to-date information will be available.

Bearing in mind the content of the Bill, I am deeply suspicious that we have not been given the substance of the up-to-date accounts or, alternatively, that the Government have not delayed the Second Reading until after publication of the accounts. What do the accounts contain that so terrifies the Government that they want to be in a position when the accounts are published to say that a Bill is going through the House that will clear up the mess?

The accounts for the past two or three years—particularly the latest accounts—tell a sorry tale. The Authority knew that it was heading for serious financial trouble and that the statutory limitations on the finance that was available would be reached. Clearly those limits have been reached in the accounts for the year which we have not seen. On page 21 of the latest accounts it is made clear that serious doubts exist whether the Authority will be able to fulfil its statutory duty to break even, taking one year with another. Reference was made to a report that, by implication, the Minister must have had.

On page 26 of the latest accounts to which the Minister in his speech did not have time to allude is an item "contingent liabilities". It contains two sentences to the effect that the market has received claims from the traders, relating to the transfer of the market from the old Covent Garden site to the new site, for which the market has no legal liability. If we had the latest accounts, we should know the figure for that item—it may be £10,000, £100,000 or £1 million, we do not know. The House is entitled to this information. It ill becomes the Government to treat the House with such contempt on this matter. It is not a party political matter. It is a straightforward issue.

The Opposition will clearly not vote against the Bill. They were supporting further increases in public expenditure this afternoon. We are talking about £38 million of taxpayers' money. My constituents in Birmingham and the constituents of my hon. Friends with Manchester constituencies will have to fork out money for the Covent Garden Market Authority in addition to finding money for the markets in their own constituencies which are in severe financial difficulties. I hope that the Minister, when he replies, will give us some information on the matters referred to in Schedule 10 of the accounts.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, in his intervention—which I did not fully understand—explained Clause 1(4). As it stands, reading the subsection and the sentence in the Explanatory Memorandum, it appears to me as a non-lawyer that the obligation to repay this £25 million debt and the interest that accrues does not need to be shown in the Authority's report each year.

Before I vote for the Bill I would like some examples, whether in the private or the public sector, of accounting techniques being used so that debts are suspended, interest is not payable on the suspended debts and, furthermore, the whole caboodle is not shown in the annual reports. I would like examples of a nationalised industry or a public corporation which has the power to hide these debts away from the public and from people who are interested in them, so that only those in the know—civil servants and others in the trade or in the industry—know about them.

It is taxpayers' money which is involved, not a private consortium. I want another example from the private sector where this system operates. Where in the Companies Acts or Finance Acts has power been given to private companies to hide away debts and liabilities until such time as someone decides to pay something off? This smacks of an Orwellian "newspeak" technique. We are twisting the meaning of words by this technique which the Parliamentary Secretary did not adequately explain in his intervention.

When we go a little deeper into the background of this Authority we find, as was said by the hon. Member for Westmorland, that this problem would not have arisen if the buildings had not been listed. Approximately £10 million could have been taken off the cost. I accept that the hon. Member for Westmorland said what he did with the best of intentions as a conservationist, but the boot is on the other foot. It ought not to be the case that private developers can make their plans and buy their land and erect buildings on the basis that they will buy and sell other properties on the free market without any account being taken of conservation policy. My hon. Friend used the argument of traffic control, but I can think of other places in the country where £13 million could be spent to ease traffic control.

In this case I consider that the Authority has been a property developer. It ill becomes it to make forward plans on the basis of what could be obtained on the open market without taking account of any conservation policy, the need to retain old buildings and to keep communities together. The Authority ought not to make the plans on the basis of taking what it can get. We have reached the point where the Authority has been a property developer. There are several indications in the latest report that the Authority experienced some difficulty because it obtained a few properties and was not able to sell them in time or had bought them and was unable to let them in time.

I looked into the background of a few members of the Authority and noticed that they had left the Services during the past 14 or 15 years. One of the members was Sir Alex Samuels. I am not knocking Sir Alex. He has obviously done a lot of good work on the Authority but he has been one of the foremost property speculators in this country, as well as being a member of the British Waterways Board which is rising fast in the league of property speculators. Members of the Authority have done a bit of work in the docks area, closed down wharves and put a few dockers out of work in the reaches of the Thames by Tower Bridge. Clearly the Authority has been led over the past 14 or 15 years by such men as Sir Alex Samuels.

We do not have to look far behind the figures in the accounts to see that the Authority has been involved in property speculation. This is probably why the Authority had its fingers burned and why the money of taxpayers, including those in my constituency, is being used to bail them out. I do not think that this is justified. It ill becomes people from the private sector who get on to public boards to bring in their seedy little policies and taint and discredit public sector authorities such as the Covent Garden Market Authority with the techniques of private immorality which have been involved in property speculation in the past 10 to 15 years, thus sullying the good name of the public sector and of public enterprise.

This brings into question the way in which we appoint people to the boards of these authorities. Since we do not have the latest report we do not know whether there have been any changes in the composition of the Covent Garden Market Authority. The Minister has made no mention of any proposed changes on the board. It may be that the contents of the latest report will mean that there will have to be a clean sweep of everyone on the Authority. The Minister may have to appoint a few new people to get out of any trouble in which he may find himself when the Bill goes into Standing Committee. It may be that there are a few surprises round the corner for members of the Authority. I should add that Sir Alex Samuels left the Authority in 1974.

I shall make only a few remarks about Birmingham. The Minister said, in answer to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, that the aid given to Birmingham was given in the terms of legislation, and therefore, by implication, that the Government's hands were tied. But their hands are also tied over the Covent Garden Market Authority. That is why we are discussing this Bill which is meant to give greater powers to dish out money from public funds.

Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Does the hon. Member agree that the tone of the reply given by the Minister in answer to that intervention—namely that he semed to be reluctant to accept a deputation from Birmingham —has caused him as much disappointment as it has me? Since the earlier deputation with which the hon. Member was involved this whole Bill has come into being. The Bill did not exist when that deputation was seen. Surely the situation has changed. I hope that the hon. Member will join me in requesting a new deputation.

Mr. Rooker

I am coming to that point. Birmingham City Council sent a deputation to see the former Minister of Agriculture in May 1975. I remember the deputation well. I was at the meeting in the Minister's conference room. In June 1975 an innovation occurred in this country, namely, the referendum on the Common Market issue. It was clearly implied across the conference table that if the public did not vote "Yes" in that referendum Birmingham would lose Common Market grants for its markets. This was used as pro-Common Market propaganda in Birmingham, something which I and many of my hon. Friends resented.

The question of the Nine Elms site was raised at this meeting, almost two years ago. It was raised not by a politician but by the general manager of the Birmingham Markets Department, Mr. Colin Mitchell. I clearly remember what he said and Mr. Mitchell has refreshed my memory and the memories of other hon. Members who represent the city. He has refreshed my memory about what he said at the meeting by sending a memorandum.

At the meeting, he pointed out the similarities between the Birmingham and Covent Garden market problems. He suggested that it would not be long before a Government were asked to write-off these large, outstanding Covent Garden market debts, which the trade could never hope to clear off by normal rent payments. However, the Minister at the meeting said that we were not there to discuss that matter and in any case it would not arise.

Since then, we have pursued the question of the Birmingham situation, always on an all-party basis. About a year ago, there was an Adjournment debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham Northfield (Mr. Carter) and replied to by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. We did not get any further. But all the time I have had a mental note to watch out for the Covent Garden Market Bill.

When the Bill was put down for First Reading last November, I telephoned the general manager of the Birmingham Market Department and told him "I do not know what is in the Bill, but any Bill entitled Covent Garden Market (Financial Provisions) Bill" has to be something to do with writing off debts, as was forecast would happen at our meeting with the Minister". I then sent a copy of the Bill to Birmingham and the authorities there have clearly indicated that it does for the Covent Garden market what we asked should be done for the Birmingham market.

The similarities between the two situations are apparent. Much of the food coming into the country has its first point of call at Covent Garden. But an increasing amount of it has its first call at the new Birmingham market because in some cases it is even more convenient to get to. Now that the A45 has been improved, the ports of East Anglia can be used because road transport from there can reach Birmingham easily along the motorways.

I visited the market in October. It is now fully open on its new site. The increased international traffic was pointed out to me. Indeed, traders are coming to it from as far afield as Scotland. I do not want to exaggerate the advantages of the Birmingham market, however. In considering my own amendment to the motion for Second Reading, I had no idea of the amendment that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester) has put down. I have had no consultations with him about it. I do not seek to set Birmingham against London or vice versa. I simply do not see why Birmingham should not have the same sort of help. It is no good my hon. Friend saying that Birmingham has another source of income through the rates. We have gone to the rates to the tune of £500,000 this year for the market. Next year, the figure will be about the same, but it may be more the year after.

Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South)

Would it be true to say that the Birmingham market is a municipal market?

Mr. Rooker

It is a municipal market. It was constructed by the city. There are many municipal markets in the country. Birmingham takes great pride in the market. Birmingham has always been a forerunner in municipal enterprise. I see nothing to criticise in the market being municipally owned. But it does not serve Birmingham alone. It serves London, Manchester, Sheffield, parts of Scotland and the Welsh coast. Yet the only resource to which the market can go—that extra kitty referred to by the Minister—is the Birmingham ratepayer. It cannot go the West Midlands County Council. It cannot even go to neighbouring towns such as Wolverhampton and ask their ratepayers for a contribution to a market from which their residents benefit daily. It cannot go to Wales or to Scotland, which are also benefiting, for money. Birmingham can go only to the Government for help with the market. Our problems are the same as those of the Covent Garden market—escalation in building costs and the rate of inflation, which was fuelled by the last Government. Birmingham had a great advantage compared with London. It was able to do something that London was unable to do for various reasons—it built the new market exactly on the site of the old one. The planning and the length of time involved in ensuring that the traders were not thrown out while work went on delayed construction, and that is why the costs vastly increased. But the site was the best possible because of access by road and rail.

Mr. Spearing

Is the market in Birmingham served other than by road?

Mr. Rooker

Yes. It is served by both road and rail. It is in the city centre, almost next to a railway station, and the motorways go right into the centre. It is a brand-new market, one of the largest in Europe, and it cost £11 million.

However, I wish to conclude because many of my hon. Friends wish to speak. I hope that they will not be railroaded by the Government's wish to get the Second Reading by 7 o'clock.

I have received a letter from the general manager saying that in the opinion of the Birmingham market's committee—the elected representatives of Birmingham—it would be grossly unfair to single out Nine Elms for special treatment. The letter goes on: It would be inequitable for Nine Elms to have a large proportion of capital debt written off and interest rates fragmented at the expense of the Taxpayers whilst Birmingham Ratepayers would find themselves doubly penalised, firstly by having to subsidise the Birmingham Markets from Rates…and at the same time meeting part of the £38 million in tax which is required for this Bill, or part of the £4 million a year that this Bill is supposed to cost the Treasury. I hope that the Minister will not poohpooh the idea that the Bill is doing what two years ago we said that it would do. I ask him to reconsider the Birmingham problem—indeed, the problem which is also faced by other markets in the coun- try which do not serve only the immediate area in which they are situated. It is not as though our large cities have their kitties full to the brim of money and are spending money unwisely.

The fact is that without these other markets, largely municipally-owned, the food distribution system of the country would break down. Parts of the country could well survive without the Covent Garden market, but not without the municipal markets which in many cases have been reconstructed in the last 10 years with the aid made available by previous Governments. The whole situation of the markets in our large cities needs looking at again.

It is no good my hon. Friend saying "We have gone to the limit of our powers". That is what all Governments say. The House of Commons is here to give governments powers, although I have seen many cases in which Governments have simply taken powers. Today, I ask the Minister to ask the House for further powers so that he can give more aid to these large city markets, which would obviate the need for their ratepayers to be doubly taxed.

I am not saying that the Covent Garden Market Authority should not have the aid proposed in the Bill, but if my simple requests are not met and my simple questions are not adequately answered, I shall be forced into the position of having to——

Mr. Bishop

We shall ensure that the maximum amount of information is available to the House and to the Standing Committee when the Bill progresses. I would add, for the benefit of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) as well as of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Bar (Mr. Rooker), that there has never been any reluctance by the Ministry to consider any representations from Birmingham or elsewhere. I have met a deputation from Birmingham on this matter, as has my right hon. Friend. We are still open to representations. We have not closed our minds. My possibly commendable brevity in opening was in recognition that many hon. Members wished to take part in the debate and that time was limited.

Mr. Rooker

My hon. Friend will not expect me to believe that he speaks with a great and deep sincerity with regard to the last point that he made. Ministers come to this House—I dare say the same occurs with the Conservatives—and take up nearly all the time on important orders or important Second Readings and deliberately crowd out Back Benchers. It is their deliberate intention to crowd out Bank Benchers.

The deliberate intention today was not to give the House enough substance to go on, so that any hon. Member who had not done any background work would pick up nothing of substance in the Minister's speech. That would enable the Government to railroad the Bill through the House before 7 o'clock, as they intended, so that they can get through the next business without too much difficulty.

As I was saying before my hon. Friend intervened, representations are all right. We keep having them. But we have had Questions and debates in this House and we are not getting anywhere. Therefore, unless something positive is said before this debate concludes I shall be forced, as any Back Bencher is, to use the only weapon that he has, and that is to seek to divide the House.

5.21 p.m.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

I should declare an interest as one who both buys and sells in Covent Garden Market and also as Master-Elect of the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers that has among its members some of the leading fruit-growers and traders in the country.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) is on the Opposition Front Bench because it is my contention that all Covent Garden Bills, from the time of Sir Christopher Soames up to today, have got everything wrong. It has nothing whatever to do with the Minister of Agriculture. From the brevity and inadequacy of the Minister's speech, that is quite clear. It is entirely to do with the Greater London Council.

Old Covent Garden had to be moved because of the desires of the old LCC. Sir Christopher Soames got it wrong. I was proud to be sitting on the Back Bench—where the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) who is still a member of the GLC is sitting now —and to tell Sir Christopher Soames all those years ago that he got it wrong.

The Covent Garden move was entirely to do with London traffic on the one hand and pilfering on the other. That is a dirty word. All the members of the unions concerned hold up their hands and say "Oh no, none of our members ever knocked off a box of oranges." But with the move from Covent Garden to Nine Elms great improvements came to the industry.

Both the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) were right to point out the improved efficiency that the new market has brought. They were both absolutely right in congratulating both Sir Henry Hardman, the past Chairman of the Covent Garden Market Authority, the reigning chairman and their staff for their ability and enthusiasm during the move.

The Minister was right when he said that this is the legislative tip of the iceberg. What affects the trade, both growers and people in the market, is the bit of the iceberg that is deep down underneath. All this talk that we have had today about the £½ million to be raised yearly from the market is the sunken bit of the iceberg. As the Minister said, it is a package deal.

The people who work and operate in the market are extremely concerned about what is going on. We are all aware that the present Minister of Agriculture is an extremely astute negotiator. We wish he was more astute in Brussels and a bit less astute when dealing with his fellow countrymen in Nine Elms. If he tries to out-smart them, which may be the case, it will have disastrous repercussions because the Government must bear in mind that in the main the firms in Covent Garden Market at Nine Elms are the same firms trading in Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester and all the great markets of this country. They are trading in Spitalfields and the Western International Market, one within the City of London and the other not far outside the GLC area.

If the market traders get disgruntled at what goes on, and feel that the charges being put upon them are unfair, those firms will move their business away from Nine Elms and that splendid new market will suddenly fall flat on its face. The only two sectors left if this disaster were to occur would be first, the flower market which is highly successful and profitable. My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland said the market was virtually fully occupied. That applies to the flower market but it does not quite apply to the main part of the market. There are a number of vacancies there although I cannot give a figure of percentage occupancy.

Mr. Jopling

The figure I used was based on the information I had from the Authority which suggested that only 3 per cent. of the space was unoccupied.

Mr. Wells

I accept that percentage figure, but there are many large stall holders who are taking up more space than they really need. There is a masked un-occupancy. That must be realised. A large number of national firms feel that they have a duty—it is a very loyal industry—to support the Authority to the hilt. If the Authority in its turn does not support the traders then the traders will withdraw that support.

The second sector of the market that must be examined is the Grower-Wholesaler sector which merely gets a covered roof and drives its trucks in. It also has a telephone booth. The facilities offered to this sector are minimal.

I agree that these traders are not paying high rents for the facilities that they get but the facilities are not great. In recent months they have felt aggrieved by the demand put upon them that they should employ more porters who are the unionised part of the labour force because they felt that they had entered into an agreement whereby each Grower-Wholesaler employed one man when they first went in. They are now being asked to employ more without getting any greater facilities or services. They feel that this is due to the backing down of some of the larger firms as well as this lack of full occupancy.

That is a truer measure of the lack of full occupancy. These are the two viable Covent Garden sectors. If the Authority goes sour on the traders the rest of the market could as well and they could go elsewhere.

A visit to Spitalfields Market will show the excellent service that can be given by the City authority. Admittedly it suffers from the hugger-mugger transport situation suffered in the old Covent Garden but Spitalfields Market is of its sort highly efficient and the rents are very much less in real terms than those that are being extracted from the traders at Nine Elms.

I would also refer to the conditions of work. For a principal in the business, or a man who is free to fix his own hours of work, the conditions are comparatively good. He can come early and go early. He does not need to do his shopping and his other daily business there. Because of the efficiency of the market, he can get through his day's work a great deal quicker than he used to be able to do in the old market.

But, supporting every principal in a business, there is a host of secretaries, clerks and telephonists who are expected to arrive quite early in the morning and then keep conventional office hours. It is unfortunate that there is not a single Lady Member present in the Chamber. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) would have agreed about the importance to a secretary, for example, of a place to get her hair done, a place to buy her cosmetics, and a place where she could buy a beefsteak for her boy friend's dinner. Female staff require all sorts of day-to-day facilities.

The giggle name for the new market is "Colditz". That is just what it is like. There are one or two traders on the bridges owning shops which perform an extremely important service in providing such facilities as they can for the staff employed in the market. But the fact remains that this Colditz-like atmosphere is one of the gloomiest features and it making it very difficult for traders in the market to hire and retain staff of good quality. I am not speaking of the professionals on the floor but of the ancillary staff needed behind the scenes to maintain a successful operation.

It is imperative that the market tenants should be given a fair deal, and not merely in the raising of the £½ million, because the Authority must look again at the disposal of some of its assets with a view to getting other trades within the compound. I know that the market Authority is doing all that it can in disposing of the railway arches and so on where they are suitable. But, here again, we come up against the GLC, or possibly it is the Wandsworth Borough Council. The planning authority has been notably unhelpful, just as the GLC was over the old site. Again without wanting to drag in personalities, it must be said that some of the arch conservationists of the GLC have now married and pushed off to the countryside, ceasing to be members of the GLC. Some of the best-known conservationists, who mucked up this whole project, have now vanished to Northamptonshire and will not be seen in London again. This is a deplorable state of affairs, because one or two people have caused tremendous financial hardship to a great market authority.

I want to come back to the Wandsworth point, because I am sure that the local Member will have his own contribution to make about it. I am not trying to depict members of the Wandsworth Council as villains. However, they do not understand the problems of the people working in the market, and this is a point that I seek to put to them through this House and via their local Member.

Planning permission must be given for modest shopping facilities to make working conditions tolerable for the people within the Colditz wall. This must be a duty of the local authority, and it should see to it. Then the riverside site could be of immense value in terms of cash and other amenities. There could be a pub, and the site could be developed in a way which would be both financially profitable and pleasant for the people living there. However, the local authority has decreed that it shall be an open space. There are plenty of pleasant open spaces in that part of London. It is not deprived of open spaces. If that little strip of land could be developed as a riverside shopping area, with a pub and a small open space, it would be helpful. It is imperative that the local authority look sympathetically at attempts by the Authority to improve conditions for those who work there.

Mr. Spearing

In fact, I am not a member of the GLC, although at one time I was a member of its planning committee. The hon. Gentleman referred to the riverside strip. Does he not agree that orginally it was envisaged that craft from the Port of London could unload here and even that coastal vessels from the Netherlands could come straight to this wharf? Would not that have been an advantage, had it been put in, and would not it be a good idea to maintain it as a safeguarded future possibility?

Mr. Wells

The hon. Member for Newham, South and I share a common interest in the inland waterways movement. I very much deplored the attack which was mounted earlier on a member of the British Waterways Board, and it was my intention to come to that gentleman's defence later in my remarks. But it is not practicable that that should be a riverside site for loading and offloading today. The size of vessel is different today. Everything is containerised. It is far more important not to lose sight of the rail element. When we thought that we were to get a Channel Tunnel, this was of great importance. Even so, the possibility of a rail link should still be maintained. However, I do not want to be side-tracked into that. As far as possible, I wish to restrict my remarks to the Bill.

A most important feature which must be emphasised is the success of the Authority in reducing pilfering. It is one of the Authority's great success stories. In the old days the wags used to say that they stole boxes of oranges. Now they steal a palletful. I know that one or two palletfuls have been stolen, but, by and large, the Authority and its staff have done a very good job in this respect, and they are to be congratulated.

As I said earlier, I have been opposed to the attitude of successive Governments to Covent Garden. Quite the most disgraceful feature of the previous Labour Prime Minister's last Government came in the July 1966 cuts when the right hon. Gentleman had the impertinence to lump in the new Covent Garden with municipal swimming baths and suchlike amenity and frivolity measures. This was a matter of great national economic importance, and, had the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) not set it back by three years at that time, we should not be in the difficulty that we are in today.

If the Covent Garden Market Authority is to be allowed to expand its assets as widely as possible, it is important that it should look at the possibility of expanding into other commodities. It has the space available, and there are other trades within the food sector which are definitely interested in having new and up-to-date facilities.

Mr. Ernest G. Perry

The hon. Gentleman has touched on a most important aspect of this matter. Would he include Smithfield, Billingsgate, Spitalfields and the Borough markets? There is plenty of room at Covent Garden to embrace all those markets.

Mr. Wells

There is plenty of room to embrace them, but I remind the hon. Gentleman of what I said earlier about the City Corporation running extremely efficient markets at a very much lower price. If market traders were forced to move from the City markets to Nine Elms, the cost of our food would increase quite sharply. I am not suggesting that there should be any compulsory move. It was necessary that there should be a compulsory move from the old Covent Garden site to Nine Elms, and that is why the Authority was saddled with the high capital cost of the buildings which it had to buy in order to move the market lock, stock and barrel. But there is this possibility of getting in other trades.

The Birmingham contingent—if one can refer in that way to hon. Members from Birmingham who have intervened with the point of view of that city—are sitting on a mixed market, and if their mixed market is in financial difficulties it must be for other reasons. I know it would be out of order to spend too much time discussing Birmingham, but I hope that the Minister will see the deputation which wants to visit him, because clearly the Birmingham taxpayers are being asked to subsidise the London market and as ratepayers they are asked to subsidise their own local markets as well. It is worth drawing the attention of hon. Members to the contrast between the efficiently run City of London markets and the less efficient running of some municipal markets elsewhere.

The market towers have been discussed at considerable length, and the Authority has done an extremely good job in negotiating leases at appropriate prices. It has not given way and has not in any way panicked, and it is to be congratulated on that. It is also important, when one congratulates the Authority on the one hand for getting a good price for some assets, to bear in mind the need to maintain subsidised rents in other aspects, such as those in shopping facilities, and to take other measures to make the market complex more attractive to other traders.

I want to consider some of the details of the £½ million package. We are in some difficulty here because we have not got the package in front of us. The Minister was very brief in opening the debate. There are all sorts of rumours flying around and I do not see how we can discuss this matter in Standing Committee. A conventional Standing Committee on this Bill will be a comparatively laughable matter, because it will not be able to go into the complexities of the package deal. I would be very attracted to a Select Committee in lieu of a Standing Committee. If this is not possible, it would be helpful if the Parliamentary Secretary gave some guidance to the House about the way in which Parliament can examine and share with the Department the responsibility for seeing how the £½ million is to be raised. We would not be realists if we did not appreciate fully that if the Government are to write off this very large sum of money there must be a quid pro quo and the trade must find a large sum.

The people in the trade are extremely worried about rumours of a sales tax. My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland was right to point out the defects of a sales tax if it is to be levied on commission sales. Is it to be levied on goods going through the gates, or on goods handled in those offices? If it is levied on all goods handled by the offices of firms which have stands in the market, these firms will withdraw and trade from Spitalfields, Birmingham, or Western International or some other point. The Government must tread very delicately when dealing with a sales tax.

The question has also been raised about tolls on goods going in and out of the premises. When the market started, there were to be no tolls at all. Then a modest charge was imposed for driving a car or a lorry into the market, and this is now creeping up. My hon. Friend touched on the concept of an automatic toll gate to save administrative costs, but we all want to know a great deal more about the negotiations. I understand that the National Farmers' Union is not averse to playing its part provided that the market tenants play their part. Also, what about people importing from overseas? If British produce is to be penalised, it is essential that imported produce should carry a burden also.

We all talk about burdens but the point is that in the end it is the British housewife who pays. For this reason many British housewives would much rather buy their goods in the small, scruffy Maidstone market, for example, than in the smart, slick new market at Nine Elms. An example of this is that my daughter-in-law, who is a constituent of the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Perry), buys nearly all her vegetables from a street market around the corner. She asked the street trader where he bought his produce and he told her that he went to Maidstone and got it there. If we get too clever in building up extra taxes on the traders, it will be the housewife, and no one else, who pays at the end of the day. I believe that the housewife must be the final arbiter, because she is both the consumer and the taxpayer.

The market Authority has done an extremely good job, but the tenants have passed a resolution opposing their part of the £1½ million. However, they are perfectly reasonable people and I am sure that they will come around if a reasonable package is presented to them. It is the essence of the matter that the Minister should be seen to be reasonable. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said the Minister was trying to railroad this Bill through the House. It would be far more frightening if the Minister tried to railroad it through the market, because then he would come unstuck.

I hope that we shall have an opportunity to discuss this matter again at a later date, and not in the conventional Standing Committee because that would be absolutely useless. It is imperative that the position should be far more fully understood because this is only the tip of the iceberg, which is so far hidden under the water.

5.48 p.m.

Mr. Frank Hatton (Manchester, Moss Side)

In a leading article in the Estates Times on Friday, 10th December, a comment was made about this Bill: The bill is an admission that early optimism that the market could be immediately self-financing was unfounded. It's principal objective is to restructure the new market's finances and leave them at a level which the market 'should reasonably be able to support'. It has been drawn up to take account of the 'exceptional circumstances' which arose because of resiting of the market, such as high interest rates and escalating building costs. I want to refer to the question of exceptional circumstances in relation to other areas of the country, in particular my own city of Manchester. In Manchester there is very strong resentment among members of the city council, and in particular those members who are also members of the markets committee and are responsible for the abattoir in Manchester. They resent the fact that citizens should be called upon in terms of taxation to assist exceptional circumstances in London and at the same time be asked to provide out of their own rateable resources for the annual deficits of their own undertakings, particularly the Manchester abattoir.

Reference has been made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) to the situation in Birmingham. Requests have been made to the Minister to receive a deputation from the city. As far as Manchester is concerned, deputations have been seen by the Minister, and what we are concerned about now is some positive action. I shall not be satisfied about supporting this Bill this evening until I get some assurance that the Government, who have a responsibility for distribution of our foodstuffs, recognise the responsible rôle played by municipal undertakings outside the London area in the provision of food supplies.

It is proposed this afternoon to wipe out part of the debt incurred by the Covent Garden Market Authority and to freeze most of the remainder. I accept that the debt is insurmountable. However, when that sort of thing is proposed, Manchester Members can be excused from feeling that there is one law for London and another for the North-West.

As recently as November my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary met a deputation from Manchester which consisted of the chairman and the deputy chairman of the markets committee, the director of markets and the chairman of the finance committee. The deputation was supported by hon. Members representing Manchester constituencies. The subject of the deputation was the Manchester abattoir, and the Minister conceded that because of the changes that have occurred in the slaughtering industry since the abattoir was first planned, Manchester's claims for assistance deserved special consideration.

While he did not accept that the situations affecting Covent Garden and Manchester were exactly parallel, he conceded that there was a similarity between the plights facing the authorities responsible for the administration of the two projects. I therefore suggest that we are entitled to hear from the Minister today that the Government are prepared to give the same sort of consideration to the problems of the Manchester abattoir as they have given to the problems of the Covent Garden market.

The abattoir was designed and planned about 20 years ago in full consultation with the Ministry of Agriculture. Since then exceptional circumstances have cut the input into the abattoir. Those circumstances are the Irish Free Trade Agreement which was signed in 1966 and the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1972 which removed the requirement on local authorities to ensure that there was adequate slaughtering provision in their areas. The Act also removed many of the controls that local authorities had over the establishment of private abattoirs. At that time Manchester MPs were extremely concerned at the possible effect of the legislation on the Manchester abattoir, but the Government of the day enacted the Bill just the same and that made matters very much worse.

A further blow has now been delivered. The sum of £20 million is being set aside for the development of the slaughtering industry in this country. Since local authorities are not now required to provide abattoirs, it is unlikely that any great proportion of this money will go to the public sector. Instead, almost all of it will be used to subsidise private enterprise which will compete with abattoirs such as that at Manchester.

These problems can be dealt with only by the wiping out of the debt which had been incurred by Manchester abattoir. Ever since it was opened the city council has attempted to improve its financial standing. However, during its period of operation, operating costs have risen by 125 per cent. while income has increased by 216 per cent. The problem is that the abattoir operates at only 43 per cent. capacity and it has an annual deficit of £400,000. That is the amount that the city has to find, on top of financing its social services, education and housing. If the Government are to support the new Covent Garden market, I believe they should also remove the debt which hangs over Manchester abattoir.

We are expecting some positive results from the deputation and I shall await with interest what the Minister says in winding up the debate. Unless I have an assurance that some assistance will be given to Manchester to deal with the deficit on the abattoir I shall be unable to support the Government in the vote tonight.

Mr. Wells

I wanted to ask the hon. Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Hatton) a question before he sat down. Will he tell the House what Manchester abattoir, which deals with meat, has to do with Covent Garden market which is situated at Nine Elms and handles only horticultural produce? He is not comparing like with like. If he were dealing with, say, Birmingham market, which deals with fruit and vegetables, I could understand his point.

5.58 p.m.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

Perhaps I may deal with the point that was raised by the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells). I used to be an agricultural auctioneer selling cattle. I have been into many abattoirs. I have every sympathy with the plea by the hon. Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Hatton) because I have yet to discover a public abattoir which is paying its way, unless it is a very old one. The new ones cost a great deal of money to establish and I guess that they are all losing substantial sums. The plea that the hon. Member made on behalf of Manchester could doubtless be made for other parts of the country where new abattoirs have been built in recent years.

I could make such a plea for my own constituency. We need a new abattoir. The present situation is a disgrace. There are at present two private abattoirs, one in the centre of the town, and there are times when blood runs down the street. We are unlikely to get a new abattoir, however, because the local authority simply does not have the necessary finance. The cost of construction is extremely high. That is a good reason why State aid must be given not only to abattoirs, but to the subject of this debate—Covent Garden. The Government must help the Covent Garden Market Authority through this Bill.

About two years ago I received deputations from the horticultural section of the National Farmers Union regarding the site at Covent Garden. Tenants were worried about the charges imposed by way of tolls. They pointed out that the Covent Garden Market Authority was £30 million in debt and that the situation was getting worse. The hon. Member for Maidstone, whose knowledge of this subject is far greater than mine, has already expressed the fear that, if greatly increased charges have to be made to meet this terrific debt, tenants will withdraw and go to other markets which have been mentioned—Spitalfields, Brentford and elsewhere.

The Government must consider carefully the question of the £500,000. Many Covent Garden tenants are near pulling out point now. If they have to face additional costs, some will pull out and the whole scheme will come unstuck. That would be a great pity, because it has many advantages.

I welcome the fact that we did not have the complete redevelopment of the old Covent Garden site. As a conservationist, I think that was one of our better decisions. However, it put the Authority in great difficulty, because it was expecting to realise about £20 million from the sale or redevelopment of parts of the old site.

But there have been benefits in other directions. People have been able to move back into the area because they can afford the rents. They would certainly not have been able to afford the rents which would have been asked had there been a complete redevelopment with new buildings. if that had happened, we would have had blocks of offices and goodness knows what standing empty, and people who had traded in that area for generations would have been forced out.

This point was brought home to me vividly during the recess when I was looking at small industrial premises. An old Army fort in my constituency has been converted into small industrial units which have been let at 30p per foot. They are fully occupied. They have provided the opportunity for small manufacturers to get off the ground, as it were. However, new industrial premises are standing empty because the rents demanded are over £1 per foot and small business men cannot afford such rents. Therefore, the fact that we have been able to convert the old Covent Garden buildings into realistically priced units has been a boon. I am glad that has happened, although it has worked against the new Covent Garden Market Authority.

At the moment the new Covent Garden is not connected to the rail network, although the railway line passes through the middle of it. Recently I visted Southampton docks. I found to my delight that 70 per cent. of the container traffic from Southampton goes by rail. I also discovered that the South African fruit trade would be containerised some time this year. It seems commensense that that containerised traffic should go by rail from Southampton direct to Covent Garden. That may be beyond the remit of this Bill, but the Minister has some power over the Authority. If, as I hope, the Bill goes through, I trust that pressure will be put on the Authority to ensure that a rail link is put in so that there is a direct link with the fruit trade from South Africa via Southampton. It seems commonsense to do that.

If the additional costs are to be imposed some will undoubtedly fall back on the growers. I accept that in the end it is the housewife who pays, but growers in the United Kingdom—there are many in my constituency—have had a rough time during the last three or four years. I think that point is generally accepted. I do not think that the Ministry of Agriculture has been over-generous to our horticulturists, who have fared badly compared with their European counterparts and with those in Southern Ireland.

Growers in the South and in my constituency want this rail link with Southampton. I had a plea from the local branch of the NFU in my constituency about that matter only two years ago. If growers have further costs put upon them for sending goods into Covent Garden, it will be a retrograde step. Many have managed to stay in business only by the skin of their teeth. Many have put new investment into glass houses and modern techniques. The price of heating oil has hit them particularly hard. If they are to suffer further charges for sending goods to Covent Garden, it will be a further blow to them.

I welcome the Bill. I sympathise with the pleas which have been made regarding Birmingham. I think that State aid must be provided for the establishment of new and big markets. I do not know of any new cattle market which has been built in the last few years which has managed to pay its way. Huge rentals fall on auctioneers. I know of a number of cattle markets which are not paying their way. Indeed, I know of one which went bust. Therefore, the State must play some rôle. It did so in the hotel industry five or six years ago. I think that the State must consult the local authorities, because the abattoirs in many parts of the country are in a disgraceful state. We must get our standards up. When new markets have to be built, there should be a joint deal between the State and the local authorities.

6.7 p.m.

Mr. Fred Silvester (Manchester, Withington)

My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells) asked what the Manchester abattoir had to do with the Bill. I propose to tell him. It is one of those features which will affect the votes of some hon. Members on this Bill. The abattoir deals with meat and Covent Garden does not—at least not yet. However, I notice that it is making a bid in that respect. The Manchester abattoir and Covent Garden are nevertheless on all fours in the sense that we have encouraged, persuaded, and allowed local authorities to take on a regional rôle in the provision of markets and we have left them holding the baby.

I do not propose to go through all the details. The hon. Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Hatton) has already done that. I want to put a simple proposition to the House about the Manchester abattoir—a proposition which has been made about Birmingham and which will no doubt be made about other parts of the country.

The Manchester abattoir was constructed in about 1961. It now has an outstanding debt of £3.8 million. The abattoir was built in circumstances which were governed by the Government of the day. It was the subject of consultation with the Government, and the throughput has been governed by Government policies, by international agreements in 1966, and subsequently. The running of that abattoir or market is governed in many ways by factors outside our control.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) referred to the debt burden on Covent Garden. Exactly the same provisions apply to Manchester. The Manchester abattoir finances its debt in a different way, but rolling forward the debt year after year it is also picking up higher interest rates as it goes along. Comments made about Covent Garden today can be duplicated for the Manchester abattoir. Indeed, I am sure that many of the same points can be made about Birmingham and other markets.

The Bill is no doubt admirable and meets a need which has to be met. But, because it is Covent Garden, because it gets national attention, because it is part of the heritage and has an association with Nell Gwynne, and so on, it gets more consideration than other parts of the country. The time has come to say that will not do any more.

The Manchester abattoir has not had a grant at any stage of its provision, so far as I can make out, whereas Covent Garden has already had grants under Section 10 of the 1954 Act. We are therefore talking about circumstances about which we are paralysed to do anything and we can only come to the House to try to get some relief. This Bill seems as good an opportunity as we are likely to get to express that view.

The people who run the abattoir have cut the annual operating losses over the past 10 years. Ten years ago the losses were 25 per cent. of the operating costs and now they make a surplus on operating costs of 9 per cent. But the debt charges will continue to drag them down and there is nothing that we can do about it. The taxpayers of Manchester have to pay £400,000 a year—more than is spent on nursery schools, mental health and services for the blind. Cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield have an accumulation of problems but in this case £400,000 is going down the chute with no return to the citizens and we are simply left with the cost.

The situation must change. The Minister met a deputation recently but nothing has happened. I have no doubt—and I am looking for signs to the contrary—that the Minister has nothing in mind. There is no indication of relief for the citizens of Birmingham and Manchester but we will not continue in this way.

I have no doubt that Covent Garden will get the money, and that is a good thing. But if the Minister of Agriculture happened to overlook the River Mersey instead of the River Thames, would not Manchester have received more attention? If we are honest we shall find that the answer is "Yes". This has happened many times before. It has happened far too often. Now it is time that policies were changed.

6.13 p.m.

Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South)

Covent Garden is important to people like myself who have been interested in the problem since it was first raised in the early 1960s. I agree with the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester) that consideration should be given to other local authorities handling markets and abattoirs. We cannot treat Covent Garden as a separate entity, because all the markets are bound together.

I was the deputy leader of the old Battersea Borough Council when the first town planning application was made to build at Nine Elms by the relevant Covent Garden committee. The committee selected that site after surveying a number of other possibilities. It decided on Nine Elms because of the number of disused railway lines in Battersea. They were a great sore at that time and Battersea Council had not been able to obtain the land for housing development. We welcomed the proposal with open arms. The committee suggested that there should be a linking railhead for Covent Garden market which would bring produce from all parts of the South. Even in those days containerisation was discussed and it was believed that Nine Elms would be the fulcrum for the distribution of agricultural produce.

I have visited Covent Garden Market on a number of occasions. I pass it daily and I have been interested in it from the beginning from the point of view of the retailers who buy their produce there. I have regular contact with retailers in my constituency. Two of the country's best known retailers live there—Jack May and George May—who shift 1,000 tons of potatoes a week in Battersea. I am struck by the size of the place and by the little use made of the space. A case could be made for the extension of Covent Garden Market to include other markets in London. Covent Garden Market is underused. I agree with the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells) when he talks about the atmosphere of Nine Elms and the way in which it is organised. But I am worried about whether the same amount of trade is retained.

Mr. Wells

There has been a substantial year-by-year increase in trade.

Mr. Perry

I am pleased about that. It seemed to me that not as much business was taking place as before.

A case could be made out for an extension of Covent Garden Market to take in other products such as fish and meat. It could become a paying proposition for those who operate at Covent Garden, the taxpayer and the housewife.

We welcome the Covent Garden scheme in Battersea. My right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) has also been interested in the problem and I recall that he was concerned about the dozens of disused railway lines, and we both welcomed the scheme, which will fill up the space.

The hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) made an attack on the borough of Wandsworth when he said that it should get on with town planning. The hon. Member for Maidstone mentioned the railway arches. Although they are on Covent Garden ground, I believe that they are still the responsibility of British Rail. British Rail is responsible for the lack of use of those arches. A case could be made against British Rail for not letting the space under the arches.

Mr. Wells

I understand that the arches are let en bloc to the market authority. I understand that the market authority would like to get on with subleases as fast as it can but there are problems, not only with the arches.

Mr. Perry

I am very glad to have the hon. Gentleman's confirmation and assistance.

However, it seems that the London borough of Wandsworth has been taking some stick tonight for not developing this area. As an ex-member of the council of the London borough of Wandsworth and, prior to that, of Battersea for 37 years, I must point out that the London borough of Wandsworth is at present trying to develop the whole area surrounding Covent Garden Market. Various schemes have been put forward. There was to be a large comprehensive school there and other developments. However, with the present shortage of money and protracted negotiations with different people, Wandsworth has not been able to proceed with the schemes that it would like.

It is a little unfair to attack Wandsworth because of the desolate condition of this part of Battersea. It is desolate because it is disused railway land and because a lot of industry has gone elsewhere. For example, alongside the area there was the biggest depot in south London of the Gas, Light and Coke Company—now the Gas Corporation. With the advent of natural gas, provision of gas from that area was stopped.

The whole of that part of Battersea, now in Wandsworth, is lying desolate. It is not being used. I have no doubt that this is one of the problems with which the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) will deal on Friday when talking about urban areas. The desolate areas left behind by industry that has moved are one of the problems of inner London, and Covent Garden Market is right in the middle of them.

I go along with the hon. Member for Maidstone in what he said about the lack of facilities for the staff at Covent Garden Market and how the immediate shopping area is to some extent desolate and not very inviting to visit. I take his point that the market, in conjunction with the London borough of Wandsworth, should expedite town planning permis- sion for some sort of shopping development, and even on entertainment lines. There is plenty of room all around the market in Nine Elms for the building of a large sports arena, which would put some life into this part of south London.

The only thing that I am worried about is that after all the grandiose schemes about which I was told in the early 1960s I have to be present today to support a Bill to provide taxpayers' money to get Covent Garden Market out of the red. I would much rather that matters had come to fruition as I was told in 1961 that they would. I was told that it would be a wonderful affair that would pay for itself and that no public money would be required. Today, about 15 years later, I am asked to vote to provide another £25 million for something that was to be a money spinner.

To my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North and myself Covent Garden Market has been a pet for many years. This day is not happy for us. We have seen something that we thought would pay for itself coming to us for £25 million of public money to wipe out debts, or to have money pumped into it.

We like Covent Garden Market where it is, but we want to see it extended. I am sure that arrangements can be made. Valuable city property can be realised and millions of pounds can be obtained from the City of London, which is one of the most efficient authorities in Britain. I hope that some agreement will be reached for extension of the market so that it can be more efficient and in a better area, and that development can occur all around it.

6.24 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

At the end of the motion for the Second Reading of the Bill there is a motion standing in my name and the names of some of my hon. Friends urging that, should the Bill get a Second Reading, it be referred to a Select Committee. One of the names on the list is that of the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Price). That is incorrect. The name should be that of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price).

Despite the speeches so far, there is a degree of unanimity among virtually all hon. Members in the Chamber that because of the move, which was generally agreed to be necessary, there must be some financial recompense to the Authority. I think that even my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) would agree with that. The point is how much more London should get than other markets in comparable positions and whether public money has been wisely expended. Indeed, will a Bill of this sort do the trick anyway? I do not think that my hon. Friend the Minister of State addressed himself properly to those questions.

The main factor that we must realise is that markets—and, perhaps, abattoirs —are in competition with each other. One cannot recoup the costs involved merely by raising prices, because in that case the enterprise goes out of business altogether. That is a major point in the debate.

The hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells) mentioned the Western International Market. That is a new market, too, operated by the London borough of Hounslow. It is not far from London Airport. It may well be that if that market had not been developed, some of the trade would have gone to Covent Garden. As I understand it, considerable quantities of horticultural produce, mostly of relatively high price, come by air freight these days—perhaps more than we realise—so Covent Garden is competing with a near neighbour that is certainly in an expanding trade, as well as with other markets, Spitalfields and so on, which are closer at hand.

It was always realised that there would be an element of risk in moving Covent Garden Market because, as we all realised, one cannot just take up a very complex, centuries old organism—which was not under a single authority or ownership because many of the market traders had their own premises in Covent Garden—in one part of London and dump it down on the other side of the river expecting it to be perfect from scratch. There was always an element of doubt whether it would "take", almost in the sense of transplanting a plant. I understand that the traders had to be persuaded.

The Greater London Council has been castigated. I shall not say that the GLC is a perfect authority, but the principles were agreed by both parties. The differences arose about what was to happen to the property that was left. As an unrepentant conservationist, I am very glad that we have not had wholesale redevelopment of the area, which would have been largely in the hands of property developers and largely not to the benefit of London as a whole. There may be differences of view about that. However, it is right that the House has agreed that, because that did not happen, we have to be asked to vote more money than otherwise, and we can rest on that.

However, when the traders were persuaded to go to this site they were told that it would be much better. They were told not only that there would be a lack of congestion—there is no congestion now—but that they would have river access for bulk traffic from the Port of London, and perhaps short sea trades from the Continent, and a railhead as well. They were told all that, and that was mentioned in an article in the Economist in 1974. Neither has happened. One question that must be answered—I do not think that it will be answered in this debate, because my hon. Friend the Minister probably does not have the information—is why both of those facilities have not been provided. Certainly the Covent Garden Market Authority wanted the railhead. That has been mentioned in the debate.

Let me deal with the river point. The hon. Member for Maidstone said that it was not "on". I have yet to learn why it is alleged to be not on. A considerable quantity of fruit and vegetables will come from the Port of London, being brought up through London on craft and unloaded on that wharfside which was reserved for the purpose, and it may be possible for lorries to come through and pick up the bulk quantities after sampling in the market itself. It has never been explained why that has not happened. Craft might even come direct from the Continent, as they used to do, and go up stream with fairly heavy consignments.

My main point about the facilities relates to the railhead. Had more traffic gone through Covent Garden—even larger tonnages than hon. Members have mentioned—the amount that the House will be asked to vote would be somewhat reduced and the permanence and therefore success of the market would have been greater. That has not been possible. I have been interested in this because I was a member of the GLC planning committee. When the project was approved, we thought that there would be a railhead at Nine Elms, but British Rail withdrew, although the rails and platforms were on the site. The Nine Elms yard, where the railhead should be, was part of the old goods yard. The rails were there, and the signal boxes and the connection with the main line, yet British Rail would not go ahead.

I have had consistent correspondence with British Rail on this matter. It now says that to reinstate a single line and put one shed there would cost either £500,000 for a simple scheme of £2¼ million for a sophisticated one. I believe that the Authority wishes to apply under Section 18 of the Railways Act 1974 for some if not all of this money. This is astonishing. One public authority is dealing with another which had the tracks and the platforms. There was talk about the Channel Tunnel making it non-viable but I simply do not believe that this proposal was not on.

We are helped with evidence from the unlikely source of the Sunday Times. At the moment, a good deal of traffic goes by British Rail to Hither Green, whence it is transported to Covent Garden.

According to the Sunday Times Business Section of 3rd October 1976, an enterprising gentleman hired from British Rail a siding at Stewarts Lane, Battersea, which is much nearer Nine Elms, unloaded railway wagons there and took their contents to the market. He was reported to be doing very well.

I asked British Rail whether it had any comment about that. I had a reply today from the freight manager. He said that only two or three wagons a week go into that siding, which the Sunday Times had said was so old that it almost had to be unearthed from the debris. If British Rail can put two or three wagons into that siding, why can it not do the same in the siding on the site itself? We need much more explanation about this; British Rail has not explained it to my satisfaction.

A good deal of traffic comes from Portugal and Spain, but instead of arranging for that to come into London, to the Covent Garden terminal, British Rail, with a firm called Transfesa, has built a distribution depot at Paddock Wood. Therefore, having emerged from the ferry boats at Dover, these rail wagons terminate at Paddock Wood, where the goods are transferred to road. Once again, British Rail seems to have lost out.

But it is not only transport and access which are of public concern; there is also public expenditure itself. Articles in The Economist on 29th August and 30th November 1974 warned the public that the market would make a loss.

More important, the Public Accounts Committee in its third report of 1971–72 took evidence from the then permanent secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and from Sir Henry Hardman as to the losses then being incurred. They said that in due course economic rents would be charged. The hope was that the costs would be recouped from the throughput of the market. But it is clear from this debate, if not from the Minister's speech, that that is not possible. If the rents or the tolls are put up beyond the level which is economic or which the stallholders say is economic, the market disappears. I presume that there is no obligation on anyone who has taken space there to remain there.

So the Government and the House are on the horns of a dilemma. This certainly applies to London Members, because they have not been entirely satisfied by some of the features of the process of transfer from Covent Garden to Nine Elms or with the position over the railhead and the river wharves. The House is being asked to vote a large sum for this one project, about which I can understand Birmingham and Manchester Members having doubts, without being able to go into the matter thoroughly. The Minister's speech made it plain that he did not want to give too much away.

I therefore suggest that the procedure of an ordinary Standing Committee will not take the debate much further. The only way in which we can prise information from Ministers in that event is through probing amendments. They will pass pieces of paper to officials, who will no doubt pass pieces of paper to the officials of the Market Authority. That is how interrogation will take place and hon. Members will satisfy themselves that the money being voted will be spent to the best advantage.

I cannot see that such a procedure would be in the best interests of this House, of safeguarding public expenditure or—just as important—of the Authority, the stallholders and the London public who depend on them.

Mr. Wells

Is not the weakness of an ordinary Standing Committee simply the fact that hon. Members would not be able to ascertain anything they really wanted to know and that all we could do would be to go through the four clauses and the amendments? Because of the rules of order, a Standing Committee would be a perfectly useless exercise.

Mr. Spearing

I am grateful to the hon. Member for showing how difficult this procedure would be. I believe and hope that a Select Committee would not take long on this matter. Hon. Members often protest at what they regard as the charade of a Standing Committee. I do not think that those procedures are always as worthless as they appear—there are many side-effects—but if we are to have a Select Committee on a Public Bill, it is on this sort of Bill that we should have it.

I cannot support a Bill which votes this large sum without these questions at least being asked. I am not saying that the money should not be spent: in a very difficult situation, perhaps it should be. But every hon. Member has an obligation to make sure and to find out.

I am not asking for a change in our procedure. This procedure already exists under Standing Order No. 40. I understand that some time ago it was normal for Bills to go to Select Committees anyway. There is a great deal of talk about the need to question the Executive about its proposals. This is an ideal opportunity.

Mr. Costain

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Bill which first embodied these proposals was designated a Hybrid Bill and that we had a special procedure to deal with it? I sat on the Committee which examined the Bill.

Mr. Spearing

I am grateful for that information about a time when I was not in the House, but I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that hybridity arose because of the effect on private property in the market itself.

The proper questions could be asked under the procedure that I suggest, but not in a Standing Committee. The hon. Gentleman adds further point to my argument.

Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)

My hon. Friend has mentioned the response that he received from British Rail about the proposed railhead, which apparently is not forthcoming. Has the new Chairman of British Rail seen the request for information about a railhead in the market area?

Mr. Spearing

The last chairman was confronted with this matter personally. I believe that the present chairman knows of my correspondence. I spent a morning with the freight manager of British Rail on the site, and he gave me his reasons why it was not possible. In fairness to him, there are arguments about demurrage, storage, new wagons and many other factors. But they do not convince me.

The Select Committee is the most appropriate method. This is not a party issue and not a manifesto issue, but a matter of concern both nationally and locally. It is a matter of good government and of looking after public moneys in the proper way.

The Public Accounts Committee has already looked at the matter and said that it was not satisfied. But the Public Accounts Committee can only look at funds that have already been spent, things that have already happened and about which nothing can be done. It is only at a time such as now that we have the opportunity for a Select Committee to go into the public expenditure involved before a matter is agreed. I hope, particularly in view of the information that has not been made available in the debate, that the Minister will agree to the motion, or at least take it seriously.

I hope that the Opposition will fulfil the traditional and proper rôle of any Opposition looking at any Executive and that they will not make a party issue of this matter. Both parties have been in office and in the majority at County Hall at times when the issue has been debated. Both parties have agreed in principle. This is a matter of good government and the proper expenditure of public money.

6.41 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)

This debate is unfamiliar ground for me to plough. I am in rural company with so many agriculturists. I always thought that even in a constituency like Hampstead there must be glass houses somewhere. Certainly all my constituents are consumers of agricultural products and therefore I welcome the opportunity of participating in this debate.

The debate has been interesting more because of what has not been said than for the content of some speeches, to which I shall refer later.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) asked a number of questions. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will do his best to answer them, because, unlike the Minister of State, he will have plenty of time available to get through all the points. There is no need to add the customary phrase and ask the hon. Gentleman to write if he does not have time to reply. The House will give him time if he will give the answers.

Among the questions that need replies are those on the Authority's staffing and the allegations that it is overstaffed. The Authority has said that it might be able to make savings amounting to £50,000. From my own observations of the work of the Authority, I can see no obvious signs of overstaffing, but a Civil Service staff review body has visited the Authority and I hope that the Minister, who has received its views, will give us some glimpses of the suggestions that have been made. Without that, it would be difficult for us to judge adequately whether there has been any overstaffing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland also pointed out that we are working from the 1974–75 report of the Authority and that there is a need for the House to see the figures up to the end of September 1976. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will amplify what the Minister of State said in an intervention —that the Government will do their best to make up-to-date financial information available. I am not sure how this can be done, but the House expects such information to be available to the Committee that will look into the Bill, whether it is an ordinary Standing Committee or a Select Committee. It would be intoler- able if any Committee had to operate on out-of-date financial information.

The House also wants to know much more about the proposed letting of the rest of the market towers. It would be helpful if the Minister could say, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland, which Government Department will take the premises and when the rent roll will rise to the total figure that he mentioned.

The Minister made a strange statement. He said that the Market Authority's proposal to raise £500,000 from traders might, in the absence of agreement, be subject to Government direction. Will the Government introduce statutory powers in order to collect a sales tax? What did the Minister of State mean by that cryptic intervention? We need that information before deciding how the £500,000 ought to be raised.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) made an interesting speech. He attacked the Minister of State because he felt that Birmingham was being unfairly treated. He mentioned the EEC referendum. He claimed it had been said that Birmingham would suffer if Britain did not get into the Common Market. But most of the major United Kingdom markets have received a grant of up to one-third of the cost of eligible facilities under the Agriculture and Horticulture Act 1964. In addition, Birminghame received an EEC grant that was not available to Covent Garden Market because that project was too far advanced when the United Kingdom entered the EEC. It was unfair of the hon. Member for Perry Barr not to mention that money had been paid to Birmingham.

Mr. Rooker

I did not intend to mislead the House. I thought that the message would get across that, because there was a "Yes" vote in the referendum, Birmingham received £1½ million of EEC money. But because of the increased cost of the Birmingham market over original estimates—due to increases in building costs, the rate of inflation and interest rates caused largely because Birmingham rebuilt on the site of the existing market—ratepayers had to find £6½ million. The grant from the Government and the Common Market was £4½ million, but the market has now cost £11 million. We cannot charge economic rents to traders because they would not go into the market if we did, and there was a sort of lock-out in reverse when the market opened. The market has had to be subsidised from the rates. We came to the Government for extra help because the Agriculture and Horticulture Act provides an extra £5 million that has never been used. We asked for part or all of that money.

Mr. Finsberg

It was helpful to get on record that Birmingham has received £1½ million more than Covent Garden market.

I took careful note of what the hon. Member for Perry Barr said when he went on to attack Sir Alex Samuels, whom he described as one of the foremost property speculators. I have obtained a copy of his entry in "Who's Who" and I find it interesting. He was a member of the Covent Garden Market Authority. I suppose that might qualify him as one of the foremost property speculators. He is a Knight, a CBE, a JP, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a member of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and a part-time member of the British Waterways Board.

But then I begin to wonder. He was educated at elementary school and was a member of Shoreditch Borough Council from 1945 to 1961. As I recollect, Shore-ditch Borough Council did not have many Conservative members. Sir Alex was chairman of the London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee from 1946 to 1961. He was appointed by a Labour Minister and there is nothing in that job to suggest that he is one of the foremost property speculators. He was a member of the Special Inquiry into London Traffic Congestion, the Working Party for Car Parking and the Special Survey Committee on the use of parking meters. Most property speculators do not like parking meters outside their properties.

Sir Alex was also a member of the London Travel Committee, the Operations Group of the Transport Co-ordinating Council for London, deputy chairman of the National Road Safety Advisory Council, vice-president of the London Accident Prevention Council, a member of the Departmental Committee on Road Safety and adviser to the Minister of Transport on London traffic management and on road traffic.

Sir Alex was highly qualified to do all these jobs because he was once a taxi driver, but I see nothing in them to suggest that he is one of the foremost property speculators. Perhaps the hon. Member for Perry Barr was referring to Sir Harold Samuel. If not, I am fascinated to know what qualifications Sir Alex has for being regarded as one of the foremost property speculators.

Mr. Rooker

I have also looked at the entry in "Who's Who" and it is not all accurate. One would not expect it to be, because of Sir Alex's age. For instance, Sir Alex is not now a member of the British Waterways Board or the Covent Garden Market Authority. There is no information about his job or any directorships of property companies. Companies House has all the records. The entries in "Who's Who" are written by the people concerned. They put in what they want to put in and leave out what they want to leave out. The records at Companies House are full of the goings on of various property companies who have made some nice rip-offs along the Thames.

Mr. Finsberg

I note what the hon. Gentleman said about things being left out and I remember the £1½ million which Birmingham has received from the Common Market.

My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells) speaks with great authority and sincerity on this matter and he said in 1965 about the Covent Garden Market Bill: We on this side of the House view this as a great scheme for the benefit of horticulture and the consumer and as of inestimable benefit to central London."—[Official Report, 24th March 1965; Vol. 709, c. 675.] I am sure that time has not made him change his mind although problems have certainly arisen since that time. My hon. Friend put his sentiments wisely and I take this opportunity to wish him, as the next master of his company, the traditional toast that he and it shall flourish root and branch.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Hatton) said that there was one law for London and another for the rest of the country. It might be happier for London if that were true in all respects, but the present situation on the rate support grant and the proposed filching of £3¾ million from the Thames Water Authority show that this is not so. London does badly.

The hon. Member for Moss Side went into great detail about abattoirs as did two other hon. Members. I make only a passing reference to them, although I could go into detail as my late father worked in Smithfield Market for more than 20 years so I know a bit about the blunt red end of meat. However, the abattoirs of Manchester do not seem all that relevant to this debate.

I understand the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester) and it is no part of my speech to deny it. The Minister must take that responsibility. However, the House should recall that there were important differences of circumstances at Covent Garden and those in Birmingham, Manchester and other places where markets have been rebuilt.

In general, the sites of old markets belonging to local authorities had long since been written off; that was not the case in Covent Garden. The total value of these sites, which were usually in city centres and therefore of high value, could be offset against the cost of a new market. As a result, quite a few new sites were acquired at a net nil cost, but this did not happen in Covent Garden for the variety of reasons already mentioned. It is not necessarily correct to say that there is an all-fours comparison between the municipal markets at Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere and the Covent Garden market.

I do not think that the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Perry) was serious when he suggested the creation of a vast food empire with Billingsgate and Smithfield markets being moved to Nine Elms. It is an interesting flight of fancy, but I do not believe that he would wish it to happen.

The hon. Member did not convince me when he spoke about Wandsworth Borough Council and the planning delays. I am sure that they would not have happened with the old metropolitan borough of Battersea under his wise leadership or that of the late Sir Norman Pritchard. The leadership of Wandsworth Borough Council is rather different. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's testimony to the efficiency of the City of London Corporation and we shall look for his support if any attempt is made to incorpate the efficient City into the profligate GLC.

The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) referred to the delays and muddle by British Rail over the railheads and the hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) asked whether this matter had been brought to the attention of the new Chairman of British Rail. There are a number of responsibilities of British Rail and its rail freight which ought to be considered by the new chairman very quickly.

Last week, the majority of hon. Members probably received two glossy documents about rail freight. They were sent in expensive white envelopes to our home addresses at the first-class postage rate of 181½p, compared with the second-class rate of 14p. Two postage stamps had been laboriously stuck on every envelope instead of passing them through a franking machine.

I should find it easier to believe that there was efficiency in rail freight if its mail room was brought up-to-date and if the chairman did not let his signature go out over a document which was distributed in such a slipshod and clumsy manner. I hope that we shall see some action as a result of what the hon. Member for St. Helens has said about the efficiency of rail freight.

The hon. Member for Newham, South also spoke about his suggestion of a Select Committee to consider the Bill. We have no objection in principle; a Select Committee was set up recently to look at the Army Bill and some helpful recommendations were produced as a result. We can see no objection to the establishment of a Select Committee, but it is for the House to decide whether to adopt such a procedures.

The debate has shown that there has been great benefit to the country in general as a result of the development of the market on its new site, particularly when one recalls the jungle which existed there before.

My involvement with Covent Garden extends back for more than 10 years when I had responsibility as leader of Camden Council, which covered a fair part of the area of Covent Garden. At that time I saw the problems on the ground and, like my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland, I bitterly resented the delay in the commencement of the scheme brought about by the public expenditure cuts which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone rightly said, did not differentiate between various kinds of expenditure.

Certain matters need clarification. One overriding point needs to be put to the Minister. Does he think that in five, 10 or 15 years' time we shall have a Covent Garden (Financial Provisions) (No. 2) Bill, or does he think that the measure we are being asked to pass tonight will put matters reasonably right?

I join in the tribute paid to the Authority, which has done a first-class job. I include in that tribute in addition to the three chairmen of the Authority, the chief executive and the staff, who have served the Authority extremely well. The Authority has been well managed in the interests of its traders, its consumers and its taxpayers.

I have noted some of the advantages of the new market. There have been substantial savings in the waiting time of delivery vehicles, which have benefited the senders. There have been substantial savings in the waiting time of collection vehicles, which have benefited the buyers. There has been a reduction of wastage and pilferage due to better handling, storage conditions and security, which have benefited all sections of the trade.

There has been a net reduction in traders' operating costs, mainly because of reduced labour costs, but also allowing for investment in mechanical handling and storage equipment, which benefits traders. It is estimated that the total benefit represented by those savings may amount to between £2½ million and £3 million a year. Because of that, it is right to pay tribute to what the Authority has done.

The Authority could have had more assistance from the Government in planning matters, to which passing reference has been made. Worries were expressed in the 1965 and 1968 debates in the House about planning controls on this site. The Authority felt frustrated on three areas—the riverside site of about two acres, part of the entrance area, another two acres, and the eastern triangle, which is four acres.

On the riverside strip of two acres, there was much discussion with Wandsworth Borough Council before an application was put in to that council in September 1974 for permission for a development. As a result, the Authority felt great disappointment when it received a refusal from Wandsworth for that scheme in February 1975. The Authority—here I do not acquit the Covent Garden Market Authority of some delay—did not appeal to the Secretary of State until September 1975, but it asked for an early inquiry. The inquiry was finally fixed for September 1976, after delaying tactics by the Wandsworth Borough Council. There was an eight-day hearing and thereafter the hearing was deferred for more noise-level measurements.

I understand that it is expected that the inquiry will resume in March this year, and I hope that a decision will be taken fairly swiftly. I hope also that the Minister will impress upon his colleague in the Department of the Environment that a swift decision is needed and that it would be wrong to expect another 12 months to go by before that decision is given.

I said that in the earlier debates reference had been made to planning problems. In 1968 the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) referred to this. He is no longer here but, as I propose to make a complimentary remark, I am sure he will acquit me of not telling him that I intended to refer to him. He said: I regret to some extent that it has not been possible to find a little more land for new housing in the fringe of the area".—[Official Report, 9th May 1968; Vol. 764, c. 703.] In one of the schemes I am discussing the Authority included extra housing. It is apparent, therefore, that the Authority took careful note of what the right hon. Gentleman put to the House on that occasion.

It was thought that the second site by the entrance might be useful for a retail outlet. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone, in his graphic description of Colditz, pointed the way to this. There are few shopping facilities for those who work in the market and those workers welcomed the idea floated by the Market Authority of a retail outlet which would be profitable to the Authority and help to reduce its burden. Interest was expressed by two national firms in putting up supermarkets. Wandsworth again indicated strong objection.

The hon. Member for Battersea, South knows the area very well. One reason advanced by Wandsworth for its objection was that that proposal would harm established shops at Clapham Junction. I only wish that Hansard could report the look on the face of the hon. Member for Battersea, South. He agrees with me that a more nonsensical reason could not have been given. But that reason was given and it is as invalid now as it was then.

Rather than get itself involved in vet another hassle with Wandsworth, the Authority decided to have another think about it instead of going to appeal. I am not sure that I acquit the Authority on that. I think that it should have gone to appeal straight away.

In October 1976 a commercial organisation thought that it might be able to carry out a cash-and-carry warehouse development with a small amount of extra industry. The officials of Wandsworth Council seemed to be interested in the idea, but no formal view has yet been expressed back from the council to the Authority.

I hope that the hon. Member for Battersea, South will acquit my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and me from being too hard on Wandsworth. I know the hon. Gentleman fairly well, and I imagine that his language might have been even more salty than mine to some of the officers of Wandsworth Council and their political masters. The hon. Gentleman will be glad to learn that the third site, the eastern triangle, is in not Wandsworth but Lambeth. I am told that there is soon to be an application for its development.

These three sites could have produced for the Authority extra capital from a sale and lease-back operation, or extra revenue if they had been let as sites for supermarkets. The Authority would have had the rent and perhaps a percentage of the profits as extra income. Because of the frustrations imposed on the Authority by the local authorities, this has not yet happened. I hope that the Secretary of State will use his not incon- siderable influence to get swift decisions. If necessary, I hope that he will call in any further planning appeals and give a quick answer—not let matters drift on and on as they have in the past.

Many issues have been raised. My hon. and right hon. Friends and I see no reason to refuse a Second Reading to the Bill, but the questions put by hon. Members on both sides of the House must be answered. It must be left to the House to judge whether the Bill, having received a Second Reading, should go to a Select Committee or to a normal Committee of the House.

7.9 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Gavin Strang)

I start by assuring the House that the Government regard this Bill as an important measure. It is certainly important for the whole of the horticultural industry. We are talking about vast sums of money.

I assure hon. Members that there is no question of the Government regarding this as a relatively trivial case. The interest that has been shown so far in the debate fully reflects the importance of the Bill. No Minister of any political complexion could be happy about having to bring forward a Bill of this nature, asking Parliament to agree to the writing-off of a substantial amount of money and to the suspension of a further maximum figure.

A series of decisions and events going back 16 years, if not longer, has led to the present state of affairs. When I looked at the history of this proposal it seemed that the most convenient starting point was the December 1960 debate to which the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells) referred. I regret that I have to admit that I have not read the whole of that debate. I read the opening speech by Mr. Soames, as he then was, and the Opposition Front Bench speech. I undertake, before the Bill goes into Committee, to read the speech of the hon. Member for Maidstone.

In 1960 the Government had before them the Runciman Report. The Labour Opposition opposed the Government's proposals, perhaps for reasons rather different from those advanced by the hon. Member for Maidstone. They believed that the Government should have adopted a more radical solution and set up a Greater London market authority, taking over all the markets rather than only Covent Garden. I do not want to rehearse these arguments. I have been encouraged by the fact that today the Opposition Front Bench speakers have not sought to make trivial party capital out of this matter. In so far as Governments have made mistakes, the blame is to be laid at the door of Governments of both parties over the years.

The 1960 Bill became the 1961 Act, setting up the Covent Garden Market Authority. Subsequently it became clear that the right decision—I think there is broad agreement on this—was to rebuild the market not on the original site, as envisaged, but elsewhere. It is fair to say that every hon. Member who has referred to this has agreed that there has been a considerable benefit to London as a result of the decision to move from the old site. This benefit is not reflected in the accounts of the Authority. It is also fair to say that there has been a great deal of discussion about the financial implications of the move, particularly about the decision by the Conservative Government to list the buildings.

I acknowledge that the Labour Government in July 1966 postponed the building. I was a little amused by the reference the hon. Member for Maidstone made to the then Labour Government having the impertinence to link this project with a cut-back on swimming pools. I remember the July 1966 measures very well, not because I was a Member of this House. I can remember the resentment I felt and the speeches I made in my general management committee. At that time these measures were naturally seen by Labour supporters as a regrettable set-back. I can assure the hon. Member that there were other things than the cut-back on swimming pools that concerned the Labour Party. There was the cut in the housing programme and the re-introduction of prescription charges.

Mr. Wells

The point that offended the horticultural industry was that the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) literally coupled the Covent Garden Market Authority with the swimming pool cut-back. They were juxtapositioned. The right hon. Gentleman dealt with housing and the other great issues and then pulled down this great horticultural project to the level of municipal frivolities.

Mr. Strang

I am grateful to the hon. Member for that clarification. I was not doing him justice.

It is true that the listing of the buildings reduced the site value. While I cannot accept many of the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker)—certainly not the implied criticism of the Market Authority—what he said about the listing of the buildings and the implications of that for site value was reasonable. There cannot be any argument about that.

Whatever the history, the Government of the day have to face up to current financial realities. This is the nub of the whole argument. This is what the Bill is about. It is not simply a question of the importance of this market to the horticultural industry, although that is undoubtedly of central importance, as all hon. Members have recognised. Looked at in crude financial terms and in terms of public interest—not in relation to horticulture but in relation to public finances—hon. Members must be persuaded that the action being taken by the Government is fully justified.

Mr. Jim Craigen (Glasgow, Maryhill)

My hon. Friend has referred to the public interest and points have been made to him about the position in Birmingham and Manchester. I realise that he does not have responsibility for Scottish affairs —he has enough to do—but he is no doubt aware of the difficulties being experienced by the district council market department in Glasgow. In the public interest what consultation has there been between the Scottish Office and his Department about the implications of the Bill? I am anxious about the Bill's effects on the present situation in Glasgow. A wider view must be taken.

Mr. Strang

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Other hon. Friends and at least one Opposition Member have raised similar arguments in relation to Manchester and Birmingham. Perhaps I can touch on his reference to Glasgow, although it is not within my responsibility, when I come to those points.

The alternative to Government intervention would be the bankruptcy of the Authority, which would not be in the public interest, let alone the interest of the horticultural industry. Bankruptcy would mean that the only income obtained by the National Loans Fund from these loans would be the income realised from the disposal of assets.

The total value of the assets is probably equivalent to the value of market towers. In other words, the market is only suitable for a market. There is no other use to which it could be put. It would involve enormous demolition costs. The site is not a plum site for development for other purposes.

Mr. Ernest G. Perry

Is my hon. Friend really saying that the site at Nine Elms is not suitable for any purpose other than a market? Surely he does not mean that.

Mr. Strang

There is no question of my meaning that. The point I was making was that there are sites in other parts of London which, if they were completely cleared, would be worth a lot more than this site. It is important to be frank about this. If the Government did not intervene in this way, the public purse would be worse off. Under the Bill the Government will get repayments from the Authority. The alternative would be the complete demise of the market as a result of the intolerable financial debts that it has accumulated.

I turn now to the points made by my hon. Friends about other cities, and this follows well from what I have said about the financial position. It may not be popular to say so, but the fact is that the Covent Garden Market Authority is the Government's responsibility in a way in which the other markets are not—that is irrefutable. But that does not mean that the Government are unsympathetic about the problems of the other cities.

The Government have complete responsibility for the building of the new Covent Garden Market—it was done on the initiative and the authority of the Government. The Government are, as it were, the only paymasters. We are therefore talking of a situation which is fundamentally and in principle different from the position of those markets built on the initiative—in many cases, the commendable initiative—of municipal authorities.

We are actively considering the position with regard to Manchester. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Moss Side (Mr. Hatton) and the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester) were in an impressive deputation from the local authority, and they are due for a reply. But they know that this is a very difficult issue. It is always difficult to get money out of a Government—even more so at the moment. I hope that they will be willing to give us time. We shall give a reply as soon as we can. But we recognise their deep concern and the burden which this situation places upon the people of Manchester.

There is a similar situation with the Birmingham market. I shall not reiterate the arguments which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr heard in the Adjournment debate a year ago. He knows that the Government have supported the Birmingham market in a number of ways. But it must be admitted that as taxpayers the citizens of Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow are having to accept responsibility for the Covent Garden market in addition to accepting as ratepayers financial responsibility for their own markets. I accept that, and there is no point in denying the validity of the statement. But I assure hon. Members that the question of the Glasgow market is also of great concern and that Ministers in the Scottish Office are deeply conscious of it. All these problems, difficult as they are, are being considered sympathetically by the Government.

Mr. Tom Litterick (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

This is a matter of great importance to hon. Members from Birmingham. My hon. Friend has said that the Government will consider sympathetically the situation in Birmingham and other cities which are shouldering a difficult burden because of this kind of development. Could not he be more emphatic and promising? There is a woeful inconsistency in what is being done by the Government in the Bill. That inconsistency will be recognised by constituents in Birmingham and elsewhere. Cannot my hon. Friend be more promising and hopeful?

Mr. Strang

I have tried to explain that I do not see any inconsistency in the fundamental sense that the Covent Garden Market Authority is the responsibility solely of the central Government.

Mr. Litterick

Our constituents do.

Mr. Strang

Of course I acknowledge the enormity of this issue for the ratepayers of Birmingham, but I cannot go further than what I have said.

Hon. Members have suggested the possibility of a deputation. Deputations have invariably been received by the Government. I am not trying to undermine the importance of this matter when I assure my hon. Friend that we recognise the strength of feeling that he and others share about it. I think that it is quite consistent to tackle the problems of the Covent Garden Market, but we recognise that it focuses attention again on problems which are shared by the Covent Garden Market Authority and the municipalities of Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow.

I take the point about the need for more financial information. We are anxious to give hon. Members as much financial information as possible. It is no secret that the Covent Garden Market Authority is running into more and more debt and that the latest accounts, which we are trying to get out as quickly as possible, will not change the situation.

As far as the suspended loan is concerned, I tried to explain earlier that the Bill provides for a particular way of arithmetically presenting the accounts. This is truly an accounting technicality. I give the assurance that there is no question of trying to conceal the suspended loan. The reason for suspending the loan rather than writing off the total sum is that we envisage, if it is at all possible, the Authority paying back the suspended loan, and that part or all of it will be returned. I assure the House that reference to the suspended loan will be prominent in the annual report of the Authority. The Bill gives Ministers power to instruct the Authority, if it were otherwise minded, to write prominently into the accounts that it has a suspended loan hanging over it.

Hon. Members spoke of the planning aspects, but I do not think that they would expect me to comment on decisions which are within the jurisdiction of the local planning authority. No one likes to see land which should be developed standing derelict or awaiting development. But my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Perry) was fair. I am sure that we all in our constituencies, particularly in urban areas, recognise the difficult problems and decisions which have to be taken by the planning authorities, but we all hope that this land can be developed in the community's interest and in the financial interest of the authorities as soon as possible.

The question of a railhead for the Covent Garden market was also raised. The Authority and British Rail are still considering it. It is still a possibility, but the project has to be practical and viable. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) was fair in acknowledging that there are two sides to the argument as to whether the project is as practicable and viable as might have seemed earlier.

The question of the raising of the £500,000 also arose. The hon. Member for Maidstone has great experience and knowledge of these matters. This is not the first time I have had the privilege of listening to his detailed knowledge and views. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South is also knowledgeable about the working of the Covent Garden market, and he put forward some interesting proposals—radical, but none the less important nor any the worse for that—for the improved utilisation of the Authority's assets. But, as both hon. Members will recognise, these are matters for the Authority.

The Government's job is to see that we have a competent Authority which knows its job. When it comes to the running of the market, the development of the land, the maximum use of the assets, and the overall efficiency of the operation, it is important that the Government should not get too involved in the nitty-gritty of management decisions.

An important point that hon. Gentlemen have been concerned about is the means whereby we shall raise the additional £500,000. This again is a decision best taken by those on the spot. The Government have said that they want the additional £500,000 from the Authority. That is fair and reasonable in the circumstances, and no one has opposed it. We have to recognise that asking for this additional money means that by and large it will have to come out of the pockets of the users and the traders.

There are a number of ways in which this money could be raised but surely it is right that the decisions should be taken by the people on the spot in consultation with the Government. That is surely in the interests of the trade unions and the various representative bodies as well as the people with an interest in the Authority.

Mr. Finsberg

Would the hon. Gentleman amplify the comment of the Minister of State that, failing an agreement, the Government would have to give a directive? What exactly was meant by that phrase?

Mr. Strang

The phrase is fairly self-explanatory. Obviously, the Government will not anticipate failure on the part of the Authority, or failure on the part of the whole enterprise, including the users, to raise this additional money. But, naturally, if we are left in a situation where we are not getting the income we need, it may be that as a last resort the Government will have to use their powers to compel the Authority to take steps to raise the additional money. That is obviously something which is implicit in the legislation.

Mr. Wells

Does the Minister mean that the Government would force the traders in the market, one way or another, to cough up the £500,000? I can tell him categorically that if this were done by force the traders would undoubtedly move their business elsewhere and the whole enterprise would fail. Therefore, coercion will not work.

Mr. Strang

I am not saying that the Government will coerce the traders. But when the Government say that they want another £500,000 a year they mean that. If the Authority comes back and says "I am sorry, we cannot raise the money" that creates a completely new situation and the Government are not bound by any undertakings envisaged in this legislation. That is perfectly reasonable.

I have been talking about matters that I believe are best left to the competence of the Authority. I am glad that hon. Gentlemen, including hon. Gentlemen on the Conservative Front Bench, paid tribute to the record of the Authority in recent years. I have had the pleasure and privilege of meeting members of the Authority and I believe that the com- ments which have been made about the current chairman, the previous chairman, and the record of the Authority are fully justified.

I would refer to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South in relation to his motion calling for the Bill's referral to a Select Committee rather than a Standing Committee. I can understand the consideration that leads my hon. Friend and other hon. Members to take the view that in this particular situation there is a case for a Select Committee investigation as opposed to a Standing Committee.

We all appreciate the differences between a Standing Committee and a Select Committee and the powers that a Select Committee has to enable it to look more fully into an issue and take evidence and discuss a matter. As someone who believes strongly in the importance of Parliament and in its role in scrutinising the Executive and controlling and monitoring the use of public money, I think it right and proper that the Government should give serious consideration to any suggestion from any hon. Member aimed at improving the efficacy of Parliament in scrutinising the actions of the Executive.

I am glad to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the Government are considering the proposition that he has advanced today. My hon. Friend would not expect me to be able to accept his motion. After all, this is a matter that has only arisen within the last few days. It is not my hon. Friend's fault. But it is a fact that the Government have not had an opportunity to consider his request for a Select Committee.

When I say that the Government are undertaking to consider this matter, naturally that is on the assumption that my hon. Friend will be prepared to withdraw his motion. What I mean is that the Government will consider two possibilities: first, the possibility that my hon. Friend wishes—that a Select Committee should take the place of the Standing Committee; I might say that if the Government were to agree to that, it would only be on the basis that it would not delay the passage of the Bill. There are important financial reasons why the Bill should get on to the statute book as soon as possible.

There is also an alternative possibility which would be for the Standing Committee to go ahead but for the Government to agree to the setting up of a Select Committee perhaps to cover a wider question than simply the Covent Garden Authority. It could perhaps cover the issue of market authorities in the London area and throughout the country generally. On the basis of that assurance I hope that my hon. Friend will be prepared to withdraw his motion to enable the Government to consider sympathetically the arguments that he has put forward. In so doing we shall consult my hon. Friend as well as the Opposition.

Mr. Spearing

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. I appreciate that because the House was reassembling it was not possible to put my Motion on the Order Paper earlier, although under Standing Order No. 40 it could be moved without notice at all. It would be better to deal with the Bill by means of a Select Committee because if things went wrong and the £500,000 could not be raised and things got far worse, a Government other than the present Government might have to come back to the House yet again. Those hon. Members who considered the matter would then be under criticism not only in Standing Committee but subsequently. I hope that the Minister will take this into consideration and think carefully about the consequences of not going ahead with a Select Committee.

Mr. Strang

Certainly the Government will give consideration to the points that my hon. Friend has made. I cannot give any commitment whatever this evening, but I can assure him that we shall consider the matter promptly and expeditiously, and will do our best to find a way of meeting his wishes.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

I ought to remind the Minister that if no motion is passed, such as that which appears on the Order Paper, the Bill automatically goes to a Standing Committee.

Mr. Strang

That is correct, Mr. Deputy Speaker. But nothing I have said in any way contradicted that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I thought that the Minister was saying that he would consider the proposal by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). I apologise if I have made a mistake.

Mr. Strang

The point I am making is that although the passage of the Second Reading motion means that the Bill automatically goes to a Standing Committee, that does not preclude the subsequent setting up of a Select Committee should the House so wish.

Mr. Finsberg

This is an important issue and the House should try to get it clear. As I understand the situation, the Minister has said, without commitment, that the Government will consider the point made by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). It is clear from Standing Orders that if the Second Reading is agreed to, the process of setting up a Standing Committee comes into being and nothing that the Minister does can prevent that. If the hon. Member for Newham, South does not move his motion, the House will have no opportunity of getting a Select Committee on the Bill unless the Minister can give us his undertaking that the Government will not move to set up a Standing Committee until they have come to their decision. If they then decide to set up a Select Committee, they will require a business motion that the Standing Committee does not have to meet. Without that assurance, all that the Minister has said is valueless.

Mr. Strang

I had assumed that every hon. Member with any interest in the subsequent motion on the Order Paper was aware of Standing Orders. But plainly that is not the case. It is a fact of life that if we give a Bill a Second Reading a Standing Committee normally is appointed. Subsequently, however, this House can pass any motion that it wishes changing that decision and setting up a Select Committee. In this event, that can be done along one or other of the lines that I have suggested.

Mr. Spearing

I apologise for intervening yet again, but this is an important procedural matter. In wanting to get this Bill through, I am sure that my hon. Friend does not wish there to be both a Standing Committee and subsequently a Select Committee. If he will now say that the Government's proposal would be to substitute by a business motion a Select Committee instead of the normal Standing Committee to which this Bill would be committed, I shall not move my motion. Unless he can give that undertaking, however, I am bound to move it at the conclusion of this debate, assuming that the Bill receives a Second Reading.

Mr. Strang

I shall explain what the Government are undertaking to do. Naturally we want the Bill to be given a Second Reading. It is equally clear that we cannot accept my hon. Friend's motion, because we have not had adequate time to consider its implications. But I give the undertaking that, if the House gives the Bill a Second Reading and if my hon. Friend agrees to withdraw his motion, we shall consider the appointment of a Select Committee. The Select Committee may be as my hon. Friend wishes—I understand that he wishes the Select Committee to be on the Bill. But, if the Government cannot agree to that, there is an alternative, which would be for a Select Committee in addition to the Standing Committee.I appreciate fully that what my hon. Friend wants is for the Bill to be referred to a Select Committee——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It may help the House if I explain that it does not depend on the hon. Member for Newham, South moving his motion. It is open to any hon. Member to move that the Bill go to a Select Committee. If the Second Reading were carried and the Bill went automatically to a Standing Committee, it would be open to the Government to move that the Standing Committee be discharged and to set up something in its place.

Mr. Strang

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for making that absolutely clear to all hon. Members.

Perhaps I may conclude by stressing that the Government are anxious to meet the legitimate arguments advanced by hon. Members, and I have no wish to reiterate them. However, the hon. Member for Hampstead made a very fair point when he asked whether this was the end of the matter and pointed out that there had been several pieces of legislation in relation to the Covent Garden Market Authority. He expressed the fear that we might be back again next year or in two years with another piece of legislation.

In putting forward this measure the Government believe firmly that if it is enacted it will provide a basis for the success of the market. The market has been operating only for a little under three years. We believe that we have given every consideration to this. There is no argument about the importance of the market. There is no argument that the Government must intervene. If we do not, the market will collapse for financial reasons. The Bill provides a framework within which the authority can make a success of this very important market.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).