Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House at its rising on Friday 13th April do adjourn till Wednesday 25th April, and at its rising on Friday 4th May do adjourn till Tuesday 8th May, and that the House shall not adjourn on Friday 13th April until Mr. Speaker shall have reported the Royal Assent to any Acts which have been agreed upon by both Houses.—[Mr. David Hunt.]
§ 10 pm
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
There is concern over the continued erosion of civil liberties and I think that this is a matter that should be raised before we go into the Easter recess. We have of course, had, notification of the Bill which is to be debated next Wednesday for the abolition of elections for the metropolitan county councils. Perhaps the Leader of the House will explain to us why the Committee stage of that Bill cannot be taken on the Floor of the House.
There have been other matters too, such as the ban on trade unions at GCHQ and, more recently—no doubt this will be raised by other hon. Members—the way in which the police are stopping miners from travelling from one part of the country to another. That is a very important matter which should be dealt with on the Floor of the House.
I also await an answer from the Home Secretary about the matters raised last week under Standing Order No. 10, about miners who were arrested and asked pointed questions, such as how they had voted at the last general election and how they voted in internal elections of the National Union of Mineworkers. In answer to a question of mine on Tuesday, the Minister said that he was awaiting a report from the chief constable of Nottinghamshire. We shall have to see the reply to those questions.
The matter that I particularly want to raise this evening, which certainly concerns civil liberties, is section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911. As I understand it, I am not allowed to raise a particular case because that case has yet to go before the courts again. I will not attempt to do so. It should be said, however, that much concern has already been expressed about this case and, when the appeal has been dealt with, I trust that the Attorney-General will make a statement to the House on how that case was handled from the start.
Before the House rises for the Easter recess and agrees to the motion which is before us, we should have some opportunity of a debate or at least a statement next week on the implications of section 2 of the Official Secrets Act. The attitude now adopted by the Government to section 2 is quite different from that which was taken when Ministers were in opposition.
In June 1978, a year before the Conservative party won the election, there was a debate on the Official Secrets Act, which hon. Members will probably recall. It is interesting to note that the debate was held in Opposition time. It was opened by the present Attorney-General, who was then shadow Attorney-General and legal adviser to the Shadow Cabinet. The right hon. and learned Gentleman who initiated the debate was very critical indeed of section 2.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman said, referring to the 1911 Act:Clearly, there was no real understanding in the House of the enormous scope covered by section 2.1210 He talked about the measure passing through the House one Friday afternoon in 1911 and said that the Conservative Opposition accepted thatSection 2 of the Act is outdated and far too widely drawn.He urged that a new official information Act should take its place and argued that the criminal law should be usedonly to prevent information the disclosure of which would really be against the public interest.He promised that new legislation would be introduced once his party formed an Administration.
Another contributor to the debate was the present Home Secretary. He said:The damage that a law of this kind creates"—that is, section 2—cannot be gauged by the number of prosecutions that are brought …the law as it stands faces the press with an ever-present implied threat and helps to perpetuate the all-pervading atmosphere of secrecy that has for far too long pervaded British government.In other words, that section of the Act is simply indefensible, yet it is still there. Why is that?The right hon. and learned Gentleman answered his own question by saying that the Government—the then Labour Government—have not had the courage to fight and overcome the strenuous rearguard action mounted in … Whitehall.It would be good if the right hon. and learned Gentleman, the present Home Secretary, were to repeat the words which he used when he concluded his speech from the Opposition Benches in 1978. He said:For us, the best protection of the citizen is a free Press and a free parliament. As it stands, the Official Secrets Act is an obstacle to both and should be repealed."— [Official Report, 15 June 1978; Vol. 951, c. 1257–1275.]When the matter has been raised by my right hon. and hon. Friends, the Prime Minister has stated that the Government have no intention—this is how I understand it—of doing anything about section 2. All the right hon. and hon. Members from the Conservative Benches who spoke in the 1978 debate were of the same vein and the same persuasion as the present Attorney-General and the present Home Secretary.
We are all aware of the catch-all provisions of section 2. No piece of official information, classified or not, can be disclosed to any unauthorised person. The section is convenient for Ministers, as they can decide who should do the leaking to the press. There has been no lack of leaks under this Government; Ministers leak frequently. I suppose that it can be argued that leaking takes place under every Government, but there seem to have been more leaks from Ministers in this Administration than from many previous ones. However, someone has been sentenced to six months' imprisonment for doing what Ministers do all the time by passing on information to the press. We have what can only be described as a form of Government news management. Ministers decide from the Prime Minister downwards what should be leaked to the press and what should not.
Until this year it was the custom to learn most about the Budget from the Sunday newspapers before the Chancellor delivered his Budget statement. No one received six months' imprisonment for leaking that information. We recognise, as the Conservative party did when it was in Opposition, that section 2 is, to use the word of the present Home Secretary, "indefensible". Section 2 should go and we should have a freedom of information Act.
The case which I am not allowed to go into because it is sub judice provides the background to the present controversy over section 2. Perhaps the case has served 1211 one useful purpose. It has undoubtedly ensured that the controversy over section 2 will start all over again. Before that case, not much concern was expressed in the House even from the Opposition Benches. Now it has become very much a matter of public controversy and there is pressure for section 2 to be repealed because it is an infringement of individual liberties and of many people's rights. I suppose it can be argued that the case I am referring to has served that purpose.
The Leader of the House should bear in mind what was said in the debate in June 1978 by his colleagues who were then on the Opposition Benches. He should recognise that there is mounting concern outside the House that there should be a change in the law. It is indefensible that section 2 should remain in force, although it seems that the Government wish the Act to stay as it is. I hope that, before the House rises for the Easter recess, there will be a statement by the Attorney-General or by the Home Secretary on what action is to be taken on section 2 of the Official Secrets Act. Once Sarah Tisdall's case is no longer sub judice, I hope that the way in which it was dealt with will be the basis of a statement by the Attorney-General.
§ Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn Hatfield)
Before the House rises for the Easter recess it should consider the role of the Government in relation to legislation on moral issues, especially those affecting young people. Often the initiative for matters of such great concern to our citizens is left for private Members' Bills, as with the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981, with which I was closely associated in the last Parliament. The same approach appears to be continuing, as is evidenced by the Video Recordings Bill which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Mr. Bright), and of which I am proud to be a sponsor.
That Bill is intended to safeguard the public against being unwillingly exposed to video cassettes of a violent or horrific nature, often portraying scenes of sexual sadism. It is a recognition that it is wrong to inflict these matters on anyone who may find them offensive. The current legislation on indecent displays has particular implications for young people, who can express full judgment only with maturity. It is a further recognition that support for parents, as they, too, seek to protect their children, is a matter which should be of prime importance to the House. But people in the United Kingdom understandably look to the Government to give a lead in such matters. The vast majority expect there to be a moral dimension to the ordering of the affairs of state.
Admittedly, certain views have been expressed in some minority quarters about interference with freedom and about the implications of introducing censorship, the latter hardly without precedent in this country. Indeed, for many years the signature of my namesake, Mr. Stephen Murphy, was seen to flit across cinema screens throughout the land before every film was shown, providing an authoratitive guide to its content via the certificate.
I have long made clear my adherence to the concept of freedom, in particular that of the individual. Once again it should be emphasised that there is freedom from as well as freedom to, and the word "responsibility" can never be divorced from freedom, thus giving a basis for Government action.
1212 I have also long advocated a recognition of the concept of common sense. The vast majority of the people whom we seek to represent will know full well what they believe constitutes a so-called video nasty, an indecent display or whatever. It is an assessment that must be given full backing in Government action.
Although private Members' Bills have had certain marked successes in tackling moral issues, I urge the Government, before the Easter recess, to start to deal with certain outstanding problems without further delay. Two more very evident and serious ones exist, those of underage sexual relations and glue sniffing, which I and many hon. Members have brought to the attention of the House on previous occasions, and regretfully there are many others such as pornography and drug abuse that need firmer measures. Again, I and many hon. Members have raised these issues in the past.
The House should have at its heart, and as its watchword, protection — especially protection of children from unnecessary and potentially harmful violence, obscenity and the like. To provide that protection, which is so evidently needed from many rapidly-growing and increasingly widespread evils, the country should be able to look to the Government for a direct response. The House should emphatically give its support to such actions on behalf of our constituents. who will overwhelmingly endorse such moral fortitude.
§ Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)
As we contemplate the House adjourning for the Easter recess, it is appropriate to remind ourselves and the electorate that Ministers and their staffs and, for that matter, Members of Parliament, are not going on holiday. For the Northern Ireland Office, Easter marks the beginning of a period of stocktaking and planning for its year, which begins about mid-June. That is when the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland comes to Parliament to seek authority to govern Northern Ireland for yet another year, and to suggest how he can improve on the methods of governing in the preceding twelve months.
I fear that this year the Northern Ireland Office is in real danger of running out of steam, because for some months it has been what one can only call obsessed with the body known as the Dublin Forum. It has been hypnotised to the extent that its members, staffing a Department of her Majesty's Government, are incapable of maintaining the degree of momentum or forward thinking that is essential for the functioning of any Department of State.
What can be the Department's justification for freezing in its tracks? Surely the staff know from experience that nothing useful can be expected from an external body based in a foreign independent state. I am glad to recognise it as such because that is its claim, and all honour to it. However, nothing by way of suggestions for the better internal government of the United Kingdom can come from a body that has declared as its aim the dismembering of the United Kingdom.
Does the Northern Ireland Office not realise that its political paralysis makes it even more vulnerable to those who allege that Northern Ireland is a failed entity? We have suffered enough from the Secretary of State's misguided assertion that he can make no improvement in the mechanism of governing Northern Ireland unless there is widespread support for each and every move. It is worth 1213 considering how much less effective the Leader of the House could be in his management of our business affairs if he subscribed to such a doctrine in this place.
Is it seriously imagined that, by waiting for pronouncements from foreign parts, widespread support or acceptance is more likely to be obtained? Far from it—it is far more likely that the Nationalist minority in Ulster will simply be used as latter-day Sudeten Germans and become pawns of power-hungry southern politicians. While this farce is being played out, the murder campaign is being permitted and even encouraged to continue. Necessary measures are refused in the belief that some cobbled-together solution will end the violence. I have often demonstrated that no fanciful institution or structure will stop the slaughter.
In case the House questions my judgment or objectivity, I call in aid an Irish Republic police officer who is reported in The Irish Times of 4 April 1984 as telling a conference of Garda officers the plain truth. He said:'Those who claim that a political solution to the problems of Northern Ireland will bring an end to violence on this island are living in a dreamland. Such a solution, if it brings about a united Ireland, will not stop the violence — it will simply displace it. The IRA and the INLA will direct their full attention to the destruction of our fledgling democracy — a project which they have already begun.'These men have one cause and one cause only — to establish their own dictatorship on this island. It is with this in mind that we should be planning our strategy for their defeat. We need to look at our security strategy as a long-term one rather than as a temporary or emergency measure.Political parties in Dublin know very well the truth of that statement. They know that, even if the Government and Parliament were to deprive the Ulster people of their right of self-determination — the right to withhold consent to Irish unity—the IRA and its allies would promptly widen the scope of their campaign of murder. For political ends, Dublin politicians will not publicly admit that truth. In the words of that Garda representative, there is a grim warning, but there is also a clear signal which the Government would do well to heed. The Government would do particularly well to heed his words:It is with this in mind that we should be planning our strategy for their defeat.The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has said in the House that he is in no doubt about what that strategy should be—a clear recognition that there will not be a united Ireland in the foreseeable future. Once that is clearly understood, the foundations will have been laid for a period of stability, which will deprive terrorists of their feeding ground.
The second prong of our strategy must be to improve the quality of government in Northern Ireland through many of the ways open to this Government. Parliament, to which Northern Ireland Ministers are answerable, has a duty to advise them to stop looking over their shoulders and to get on with the task of governing my part of the United Kingdom.
I have never believed that this House would deprive of their rights those who are represented here. On the eve of Easter, I want the Government to give a reassurance that there will be no question of the Government plunging into yet another ill-fated initiative of the type they had resolved five years ago to desist from. I seek a reasonable assurance 1214 that the Government will hold to that cause through all the razzamatazz and the deluge of propaganda in the coming weeks.
§ Mr. Tim Eggar (Enfield, North)
I draw to the attention of the House a matter that should be discussed before the recess. It came to my attention within the past 48 hours, by the courtesy, I suspect, of a member of the GLC staff. Two days ago, I received in the post copies of internal staff notices that had been prepared by the director of the GLC mechanical and electrical engineering division, Mr. D. J. Payne. The particular document that interests me was headed "Anti-Abolition" which was apparently sent out on 16 March to members of that department. In brief, the document refers to a letter sent out by the director-general of the GLC to all staff employees asking them to collect signatures against the introduction of the GLC paving Bill into the House. I believe that that letter from the director-general using, as it does, GLC paper and taking up GLC staff time is bad enough, but Mr. Payne, plainly taking his cue from the director-general, in his departmental notice goes rather further. It starts by referring to the director-general's letter and states:The main purpose of this note is therefore to encourage staff to support the petition"—that is, the Bill petition—by obtaining signatures and by offering your services in any other way possible either"—these are the key words—during normal working hours or in the evenings or at weekends. So far as working days are concerned, line managers will give sympathetic consideration to the release of their staff from normal duties and, indeed, I hope that line managers will themselves be amongst the volunteers.Such a note to paid public servants is unacceptable, for three reasons. First, it has long been accepted that Government employees should perform a completely nonpolitical role at work, and it is considered right that they should be subject to strict rules about their political involvement outside working hours.
The notice instructs GLC employees to take part in politics at work, paid for by London ratepayers. That is unacceptable. Secondly, the note is unacceptable because it offends against an important tradition of public life—that the use of public funds should and can be accounted for.
In this note employees are urged to take paid time to collect signatures. There is no maximum amount of time laid down under the terms of the note. In other words, if an employee wanted to take three weeks off to collect signatures there is nothing in the note to restrict it, nor is there any requirement to account for the way in which the time off has been spent. There is no need even to produce a number of signatures which have been collected during working hours. The note is unacceptable on the grounds of public accountability.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he has just said that the note refers to paid time off? Or does it refer to paid leave? There is a big difference between the two.
I had been given notice that the hon. Gentleman was going to raise this matter, and I took the opportunity to find out more about it. As I understand it—no doubt he will correct me if I am wrong—is not the purpose of the note to prevent staff from believing that they can take paid 1215 time off; and that, if they were going to take any time off, it should be within their paid leave entitlement? There is a distinction.
§ Mr. Eggar
The hon. Gentleman is ingenious and doubtless well-briefed by the many political hacks who work for him in the GLC. That is not what the note says. Let me read it again, since he clearly was not paying attention. It says:The main purpose of this note is therefore to encourage staff to support the petition by obtaining signatures and by offering your services in any other way possible, either during normal working hours or in the evenings or at weekends. So far as working days are concerned, line managers will give sympathetic consideration to the release of their staff from normal duties".It is clear that paid time off is being contemplated.
The hon. Gentleman has been tipped off, presumably as a result of a telephone inquiry made by the press this afternoon direct to the GLC press department. It is my understanding that the powers that be at the GLC and its press department are appalled by the fact that this document has been leaked and made available not just to me but to other Members of Parliament, because the GLC realises the damage that this type of thing can do.
I can only hope that Mr. Payne did not realise the implications of his action and that neither the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) nor any other Labour Member or member of the Labour GLC administration has given any instructions of that kind. I hope, too, that Maurice Stonefrost, the director-general, for whom I have great personal respect, was unaware of the note until it was brought to his attention by the press department today. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) has done himself and his party no service by raising the point that he did.
The third reason why I believe that the note is so insidious is that there is the implication that a member of staff of that department will be judged by the way in which he reacts to the director's request to collect signatures both in his own time at weekends and during paid working hours. How will a member of staff feel who looks to the director and line management for future promotion and job opportunities when he knows that the amount of time that he spends collecting signatures will be known by them? In other words, there is pressure on individual members of staff who may be apolitical, Conservative or whatever, to go out and collect signatures on what is undoubtedly a political matter. That is extraordinarily worrying and a clear continuation of the politicisation of staff at county hall.
Lest it be thought that Mr. Payne suffered a temporary aberration on 16 March, I shall refer to just one of the many other documents that I have from that department. Departmental circular 30/83, circulated in December, refers to a campaign newsletter made available to all council employees. The newsletter encouraged staff members to write to their local newspapers. Mr. Payne then refers to a staff code which apparently makes it clear that no county hall employee may take part in activities such as writing to newspapers. He advises staff members in his department to disregard that staff code provision. He states:I wish to make it clear that staff are permitted to write to the papers in support of the campaign against GLC abolition"—those words are underlined—but the Staff Code requirement remains in force so far as any other matters are concerned.1216 The message is clear. A member of the GLC staff is allowed to write to local newspapers opposing the abolition of the GLC but not in favour of abolition because the director has not lifted the constraints of the staff code in any other respect.
Whatever one's political view of the rights or wrongs of abolition, instructions of that kind to public servants are utterly unacceptable and should be condemned as much by Labour Members as by Conservative Members. I very much hope that when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House winds up the debate he will say what the Government intend to do about this gross breach of normal standards by the GLC director concerned and what action the Government believe can be taken.
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
I wish to return to an issue which I raised with the Leader of the House during our debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill. At that time I spent a considerable time trying, as unemotionally as possible, to explain the sequence of events that led the Opposition to feel—we still do, and even more so—that it is imperative that the Prime Minister should make a statement on the events surrounding the Oman contract and the alleged possible conflict of interest involved.
I do not want to go through the detail of events, but I wish to remind the House of the injunction that Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister, laid on his Ministers, and which has been the guiding set of rules for the conduct of Ministers ever since. The right hon. Lady has said that she is happy with that set of rules, and feels that they do not need revising.
In the opening paragraph of his explanation of the notes, Winston Churchill said:It is a principle of public life that Ministers must so order their affairs that no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their private interests and their public duties". —[Official Report, 25 February 1952; Vol. 496, c. 702.]He said that not only should it not arise but that it should not even appear to arise. On that basis alone, the events up to the present day require the statement for which I am asking.
The allegation is that if the Prime Minister was aware of her son's interest in the Oman contract at the time when she was in Oman negotiating with the Oman Administration, she allowed such a conflict of interest to arise. If she was unaware, all she had to do—and all she has to do now—was to say so.
During Prime Minister's Question Time today, my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) asked the Prime Minister to state categorically — "Yes" or "No"—whether she knew of her son's interest while she was in Oman. Instead of answering "Yes" or "No", as over the last three months, all we got was a flood of evasive words.
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that a major development took place in the House today? If we look closely at the right hon. Lady's answer, we see that she was effectively blocking the possibility of answering any more questions about aspects of that contract. It was a deliberate ploy to prevent this House from exercising its rights to question her.
When over the coming weeks my hon. Friends go to the Table Office to table their questions, they will hear repeated reference to the answer given today to my hon.
1217 Friend the Member for Fife, Central. It was a deliberate blocking answer which was read by the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box, and it is a disgrace.
§ Mr. Williams
In fact, it is not the only such episode, and this is why concern has mounted on this side of the House. We had a similar performance with a blocking answer given in a recent Sunday Times article, and I drew attention to that in the Consolidated Fund Bill debate.
On 1 April, in The Mail on Sunday—carefully selected, I assume, because it could be relied on to write the story as required—three pages were devoted to this episode. There was an interview with Mark Thatcher, on the front page and the two centre pages. In the course of this interview, it was said, in relation to the contract:Beneath the surface there were hints that his mother was aware of this"——that is, of his interest——all along. About this he is angriest of all. Nothing can blot out his rage.Now, if Mark Thatcher felt—as perhaps he does—the anger which was mentioned in that article, one would expect that in the 56 paragraphs that make up the front page and the two centre pages of The Mail on Sunday he would have taken the chance and have vented his anger —which he has every right to do—to deny categorically that his mother was aware of his interest. In fact, one can read all three pages, and nowhere, at any stage, does he make the denial that would end the whole story. Just as the Prime Minister has evaded and dodged and flatly refused to answer the basic, simple question, so did he.
On the allegation that made him angriest of all we had a smokescreen, we had indignation, we had wrath, but we had no denial. And, as I have said, we had no denial from the Prime Minister at Question Time today.
Yet, in the next paragraph of the interview, Mark Thatcher said:It has been 12 weeks … Twelve bloody weeks.He could have ended that speculation. He had the opportunity there, three pages of opportunity. His mother could have ended the speculation 12 weeks ago and avoided all the anguish and all the worry. It really seems strange that, in this exclusive interview, triggered, it seemed, by his sense of anger and outrage, he overlooked the need to deny the basic charge that is laid against him and his mother in relation to that particular contract.
If the 12 weeks have been as bloody for Mark Thatcher as he says, perhaps his mother owed it to him to give today at the Dispatch Box the categorical answer for which my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) asked. She, again, only has to say that she was utterly unaware of his involvement and the issue would be dead as far as we are concerned — and it would probably make life a lot easier for her son as well.
In the Hong Kong Standard dated 17 March there was a series of articles relating to Mark Thatcher's business interests in which there was a quotation from an interview with him in the Ming Pao Weekly—obviously a very widely read journal—in December 1983. I draw my hon. Friend's attention to these words:Mrs. Thatcher's son said his relation with his mother was very close and whatever he did his mother would always give him full support.And this is the critical part: 1218Virtually everything, including his commercial ventures, would be discussed between mother and son, according to the article.So we understand, on the basis of this interview, that the probability is that there was an awareness on the part of the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister still refuses to answer straight questions from us. We cannot be blamed if, having asked perfectly straightforward questions to which we get non-answers, evasive answers or blocking answers, we conclude that the right hon. Lady has something to conceal. Failure to speak clashes with that basic injunction in the Churchill guidelines that it is a principle of public life that no conflict appears to arise. The evasion is making the appearance stronger in our minds and in the public mind, and the longer she refuses to rebut the allegation that she was aware of his involvement, the greater the suspicion will be.
This House has been put into an unprecedented quandary because, unlike the situation of the generality of Ministers, under the Churchill guidelines the Prime Minister is the final arbiter as to what is and is not within those guidelines, which say:in any case of doubt the Prime Minister of the day must be the final judge, and Ministers should submit any such case to him for his direction".—[Official Report, 25 February 1952; Vol. 496, c. 702.]But no provision exists for the situation where the Prime Minister is the Minister against whom the allegation of a clash of interests is being made. There is no provision for anyone other than the Prime Minister to be judge in her own case. No provision exists for us or for anyone else adequately to probe what really happened.
If the right hon. Lady refuses to answer the simple question, "Did she know?", may we be told by the Leader of the House where we, the elected representatives of the people, go next? How do we deal with the situation? There is no procedure for dealing with it while the Prime Minister chooses to stand at the Dispatch Box and say in answer to written questions, "I have nothing further to add" when, clearly, there is something important further to add. It is yes or no—as simple as that—one or the other; either she was or she was not aware.
Because of the stubborn blocking by the Prime Minister, we must now consider whether the rules on ministerial conduct should be revised, for she has highlighted, and continues to highlight, a great flaw in the structure of the rules. Parliament has a duty to face this issue. A special committee of the House should be established to look into the relevance of, and the need to up-date, the rules on the conduct of Ministers, a committee with the ability to call specialist constitutional experts to ensure that we can up-date the rules and so make sure that no Minister, and no Prime Minister, can place himself or herself above the rules.
We are constantly lectured by the Prime Minister about other people having to obey rules. It seems that rules exist for everybody except the Prime Minister. It is bad for politics and for the institution of Parliament if niggling doubts are allowed to linger. It is no good the Government and the Conservative press attacking Opposition Members for asking what it is their right and duty to ask. It is certainly not the duty of the Opposition to enter into a conspiracy to pretend that there is no issue and no problem. We will not pretend that a problem does not exist, and Conservative Members will not be able much longer to pretend that a problem does not exist.
1219 The question that we are asking is not unreasonable. It is justified under Churchill's criteria. I repeat: Did the Prime Minister know about her son's involvement in the potential Oman contract when she was in Oman, as all evidence, all logic, suggests that she probably did? She owes it to him, to herself, to Parliament and to the integrity of the rules governing the conduct of Ministers to say whether she did or did not know. She cannot continue arrogantly to brush aside this critical issue. The more she prevaricates, the more she dodges, the more she fuels suspicion and the more she damages the image of public life. For that reason, we want and expect to have a statement from the Prime Minister before the House goes into recess.
§ Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)
If I may move to a more topical burning issue, I was hoping that before the House adjourned for the Easter recess we would know the fate of the Elgin marbles. It is some five months since the Greek Government's request for their return was received. We all know what the reply would have been in the unlikely event of the Leader of the Opposition being Prime Minister. He said—not here but in Athens, after what The Times described as a prolonged taverna dinner —that a British Labour Government would give them back. Whether that was in pursuit of cultural unity or to further the cause of international Socialism he did not make plain at the time. I suspect that his attitude would have been completely different had the request come from a Greek military Government.
It is certainly in complete contrast to the reply given by a predecessor of his, the then Harold Wilson, when, as Prime Minister in 1965 he told the House that he did not propose to introduce legislation to require the trustees of the British Museum to return the marbles, thus repeating the view of a predecessor of his, Clement Attlee, who told the House the very same thing in 1941, and, apparently, a predecessor of his, Ramsay Macdonald when approached by Harold Nicholson on the occasion of the centenary of the birth of Lord Byron in 1924. That is one, and only one, consistency with past Labour leaders which I ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to repeat in his reply tonight.
Although the current debate should not, in my view, be concerned with how the Parthenon marbles came to be in the British Museum, inevitably it is. It would be right to remind ourselves that but for Lord Elgin there would be no Parthenon marbles today. He saved them from an uncertain fate at the hands of stone robbers, lime burners, curio hunters, religious iconoclasts, and, more recently, Athens smog. He acquired them legally. He paid for them and exported them with the full consent of the legal Ottoman Government. Contrary to what the Greek Ministry of Culture and Education would have us believe in a recent leaflet published in the name of its committee for the return of the Acropolis marbles, none of them was lost at sea during the shipment to Britain.
As the House will recall, in 1816, following a Select Committee report, the House of Commons voted by 82 to 30 to purchase the marbles from Lord Elgin for the sum of £35,000, which is half the price that he paid for them and they have been carefully preserved in the British Museum ever since, inspiring the reintroduction of classical architecture to Victorian Britain, playing an international role in the understanding and appreciation of 1220 antiquity, and revolutionising the fine and decorative arts in an unparalleled way, all of which the Greek Government would do well to acknowledge in their request for their return.
There is nothing here of which we as a nation should feel guilty in any way. There appear to be certain misunderstandings about the exact nature of the request from the Greek Government. At the UNESCO world conference on cultural policies in Mexico in 1982. which was attended by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) when he was the Minister for the Arts, the recommendation submitted by Greece which was adopted by the conference said:Considering that the removal of the so-called Elgin marbles from their place in the Parthenon had disfigured a unique monument which is a symbol of eternal significance for the Greek people and for the whole world, considering it right and just that those marbles should be returned to Greece, the country in which they were created, for reincorporation in the architectural structure of which they formed part, recommends that Member States view the return of the parthenon marbles as an instance of application of the principle that elements abstracted from national monuments should be returned to those monuments".The understanding from that resolution is surely that the marbles would be re-integrated into the parthenon, in situ. Miss Melina Mercouri herself confirmed:it is now time for the Acropolis Marbles to return to their natural environment under the blue sky of Attica".That is not what the Greek Government have in mind. These important sculptures would be transferred from one of the pre-eminent museums of the world — an internationally acknowledged source of knowledge and inspiration which is open seven days a week, free of charge, and attracts more than 3 million visitors a year —to a museum which has yet to be built, in a country where tour operators complain that the opening of museums and historical sites is becoming more and more unpredictable and where many tourists are disappointed by not being able to see the relics that they travel there to see.
Moreover, to accede to that request would set a precedent that was wholly unacceptable. There might be demands for the Mona Lisa to be returned to Italy, the impressionists to France, the Venus de Milo and the winged victory to Greece, the bronze horses of St. Mark's to Turkey or perhaps Greece, and the Rosetta stone and perhaps Queen Nefertiti to Egypt. Whole museums might be emptied of their most valued exhibits and we would see an end to the unity of European culture.
The request is unacceptable for that reason alone, but it is also not credible. Why do the Greek Government not seek the return of all the other Parthenon marbles from the nine museums in six countries between which they are divided — France, Germany, Denmark, Vatican City, Italy and Austria — as well as those in the British Museum?
There is the strongest possible case for Europe's cultural heritage remaining where all Europeans have easy access to it, and for the great international collections such as that in the British Museum remaining where they are. That view was supported by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe as recently as last October.
We should not be wholly negative in our reply to the Greek Government. Our response to the present ambitious and comprehensive 15-year programme to conserve and restore the principal monuments on the Acropolis has been nothing but helpful. When I went to the British Museum yesterday I learned that it has supplied a number of plaster 1221 and fibre-glass casts of sculptures, including one of the caryatids from the Erechtheion, to replace originals which are now in the Athens museum.
After the rhetoric has died down, there is no reason why the Greeks should not apply their own precedents and replace the Elgin marbles with replicas, taken from the originals, which should remain in the British Museum. That is a civilised solution which Pericles himself would have approved.
§ Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)
I am sometimes disturbed when I listen to Conservative Members, who are more worried about marbles than the rights and freedoms of their constituents. I am not exaggerating when I say that there is a need for the House to abandon any idea of an Easter recess as the fabric of society as we know it is being torn apart. Right hon. and hon. Members should stop and ponder on the disruption that is occurring throughout the country.
For the past three weeks the majority of miners have been on strike to keep their industry and to protect their jobs and the right to work. What more loyal British subjects can there be than the British miner, whether in peace or war? On 1 September last year, only seven months ago, tragedy struck the industry when Ian MacGregor was appointed the chairman of the National Coal Board, with the approval of No. 10. Some of us experienced his massive butchery in the steel industry, from which he threw thousands of people out of work. We spelt out the dangers when he was appointed. We forecast what would happen. The Prime Minister was well aware of what would happen in the mining industry as a result of his appointment. I must admit that I thought that it would take much longer than seven months to create the present conflict. He must have been spurred on by the grocer's daughter and the size of the police force, as the police complement his and the Government's attitude to the miners, especially because they caused the Conservatives' defeat in 1974.
We should consider what has happened in the five years of Conservative rule to miners, steel workers, local government workers, railwaymen, shop workers, civil servants—the list is endless. Only then do we realise how tolerant, passive and mediocre the Trades Union Congress has been with this brutal and blatant bludgeoning of its reasonable and lawful protection. It is time that it made a stand to protect what little is left. I warn that the bastions of the trade union movement are under the severest attack from the most ruthless 72-year-old American Scot that ever God put breath into, if indeed it was God who put breath into him. He accuses Arthur Scargill of engineering a political strike.
Last night Mr. MacGregor attended a meeting of the Welsh parliamentary group. I asked whether he thought his was a political appointment, and he refused to reply. We all know that his transfer from the British Steel Corporation to the NCB was a blatantly political act by this mistress of Machiavellian political chicanery. He has written an article in The Standard tonight in an attempt to defend his seven months of management. The article refers to conflict and deception. I recommend it to the House.
By what blatant hypocrisy does Mr. MacGregor conclude that the out-of-work steel workers—there are 1222 thousands all over the country because of him—do not remember what happened to their industry? Is it any wonder that the spokesman for the steel union cringes at the signs of conflict when, under the MacGregor axe, he watched his union crumble to insignificance? All of that has happened because of MacGregor, and if, as he told us last night, his remit from No. 10 is to make the coal industry profitable, to provide cheaper coal for industry, why is it that 122 pits are not producing an ounce of coal and have not been producing an ounce of coal for the past three weeks?
Why is it that there is total conflict in the industry? Is this carrying out the remit that Mr. MacGregor was given from 10 Downing Street? Is this carrying out a remit which has cost the taxpayer £1.5 million by way of compensation to Mr. MacGregor's company for the loss of his services? Or was his remit really to smash the miners, to smash the National Union of Mineworkers, to smash Scargill, as he had smashed Bill Sirs? That would be nearer the truth than that which he has led us to believe, because there is nothing to substantiate the idea of any initiative by the Government to cut industry's energy charges. Indeed, the Government have deliberately increased industry's energy costs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) opened the debate by highlighting the frightening policing in parts of this country and the erosion of freedom. I intend to make a few further points on this. This morning, at the invitation of the president and vice-president of the miners of south Wales, I travelled to Margam to witness the conflict there between police and pickets. I saw action taken by the police which one would expect to see only in a country under a dictatorship, where freedom and democracy had been removed years before. I saw young lads handled like cattle to be slaughtered. I saw 30 arrests made, some selected at random for no just or reasonable cause. I shall not go into the details, because most of those arrested are still subject to further police and court action.
However, I can assure the House that the actions of the police were in no way similar to those that I have witnessed or experienced at any other picket line. I wonder what instructions were given by the Home Secretary when he recently met chief constables. I have been told, not once, but many times, that people travelling to work to go about their normal business have been stopped and ordered out of their cars for no apparent reason other than that the police have decided to stop and question them.
We were told only yesterday of the attitude of the police to the peace-loving women of Greenham common. This country is rapidly becoming a police state, where the miner, the railway worker, the shopworker and the civil servant, together with all other trade unionists, will have no rights left, where the housewife and the citizen will have no freedom and where the police will be feared rather than respected.
I ask the House, therefore, in the name of justice, democracy and individual freedom to resolve these matters before we adjourn for any recess.
§ 11.8 pm
§ Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)
Different issues at this time concern different Members of the House to different degrees. I accept that the hon. Members for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) are concerned about the question of police powers. My hon. 1223 Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), and, apparently, the Leader of the Opposition, are concerned about the loss of certain marbles.
A matter which causes me some concern, however, is much nearer home and affects the lives of those whom I am honoured to represent in this place. Derby, as I am sure the House knows, is one of Britain's principal railway cities and we are set, we are told, to get a new railway station — that is, unless current plans are changed. British Rail apparently intends to demolish the existing station at Derby and to construct a new building at a cost of some £3.5 million. The new station, we are told, will be a showpiece for the city of Derby.
Those of us who have seen an artist's impression of what the new station will look like are more of the opinion that it is going to look like a supermarket, totally out of place in, and unworthy of, its setting in the middle of a conservation area. In Derby a strong and worthy campaign has been waged to save the present station, with its imposing facade over 1,000 ft long, designed by Charles Trubshaw and completed in 1892, although parts of the station go back to an earlier date.
The cost of repair and rehabilitation of the station—it is accepted that it needs some repair—would cost much less than the estimated replacement cost of £3.5 million. Those who support the retention of the existing station are not a handful of crank objectors but number the "Country Life" magazine. I shall quote briefly from an article which appeared in the edition of 18 September 1983 which was written by Marcus Binney and entitled "Crunch Time at Derby." The article states:There are good reasons to be angry about Derby Station. Angry, first, with British Rail for determining to press ahead with demolition and rebuilding even though no detailed study has been made of the cost and practicality of repairing the existing station, … though more recently the highly successful Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust has offered to take on and refurbish all surplus parts of the station and find tenants for them. Angry, secondly, with the Department of the environment for steadfastly refusing to list the station which still vividly reflects the growth and work of one of the great Victorian railway companies. Angry, thirdly, with Derby City Council for granting permission to demolish the focal point of the Railway Conservation Area it designated in March, 1980.I agree with every word of that article.
An objection has been raised also by the Derby Civic Society. In September 1983 a representative of the society, Peter Billson said:Our Society have had a long fight for this significant area in the City, from way back in early 1978. Through our endeavours we succeeded in effecting the retention and rehabilitation of the Railway Houses and the Brunswick Inn rehabilitation … the creation of the Railway Conservation Area, the Listing of the Railway Houses and the Midland Hotel. We are convinced that the Station building should be rehabilitatied and conserved as a vital and central element of this Conservation Area.Thirdly, a renowned and respected architect who has knowledge of this issue commented in 1982:The station building is possibly a more complex problem. My view is that although it is an amalgam of building over a 50 year period last century, nevertheless that does not invalidate an argument for retention and rehabilitation. Derby desperately needs an improved station; but demolition and replacement is not the only answer. Quite apart from historical grounds and the strong contribution to the street scene by the existing building; there is also a very good argument that alterations and rehabilitation would be more economical. British Rail ought to have looked at this but their architects conceded to me that they had never had a brief to do so, only to produce a new station.I agree also with every word of that commentary.
1224 Sadly, British Rail's narrowmindedness appears to have found a companion in the judgment, which I regard as a judgment of error, of the Department of the Environment. In November 1983 in a letter to me it was stated:My Department has considered a number of requests to spot list the station since British Rail's proposals for it were first mooted. As … the Derby Civic Society has already been told a special inspection of the area was carried out by my Department's professional Inspectorate of Historic Buildings in June, 1980. Their conclusion then, which was endorsed by Ministers, was that the station did not merit listing.The Derby Evening Telegraph, which often has its finger on the hub of an issue, commented on 16 August:It is a pity then that British Rail planners cannot see how a rejuvenated station along similar lines to the railway cottages would be of great benefit to us all rather than the modern monolith they are proposing.Many of us in Derby sympathise and agree with that comment. I accept that Derby's history did not begin with the coming of the railway, but during the 19th century Derby became a far more important industrial centre because of the presence of the Midland railway companies. By 1801 its population was in excess of 11,000. Within the following 40 years it had trebled. Derby was the sort of town that attracted the early railway pioneers.
At one stage prior to 1844 Derby was served by three separate railway companies. It could easily have ended up with three stations, as some cities did, but that was not the case. The Midland Railway, one of the first great railway companies, was formed in 1844 by an amalgamation of the three railway companies. The amalgamation was a wise move which produced a network of 180 miles of track. Derby itself was served by this one station. The station, designed by Charles Trubshaw, expresses the confidence in and affluence of the Midland Railway. It is an irreplaceable monument in a city if not virtually created by railways then certainly buoyed along by railways during the latter part of the last century.
I accept that the railway station is in a poor state. It is amazing how, after years of neglect of the station, British Rail is claiming that it wishes to have a showpiece station in Derby. It is a pity that in earlier years British Rail did not take a similar view and expend moderate sums of money on the station to keep it in a decent condition.
Before we adjourn for the Easter recess I hope there is a change of heart not only by British Rail but by the Department of the Environment. If British Rail does not change its plans to demolish the station I hope that those in the Department who are responsible for taking decisions will think again and decide to spotlist this building which could be a greater credit to the city of Derby.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
We ought to debate quite a number of things before the Easter recess because there are always matters that need to be debated. One of the things that should have been debated today of all days, after what occurred at Prime Minister's Question Time, was the action of a former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins). Surely he should have presented himself here tonight and used this opportunity to explain precisely what the game was all about in 1976 when he was signing the authorisation for sub-machine guns for the police and not even telling the Prime Minister at the time.
1225 We all know that the right hon. Gentleman had a lot of things on his mind then. He was in the process of getting involved in that superstructure that is now busily collapsing — the Common Market. He was looking forward to getting that big fat pension that he got out of the Common Market or, more strictly, out of the British taxpayers. While he was engaged in that activity, looking after his after-life, he signed the authorisation to give submachine guns to the police but never told the then Prime Minister about it. We have heard about the Prime Minister's defaults in an excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), but the action of the right hon. Member for Hillhead takes some beating.
There is another thing about the right hon. Member that people should understand. At that time and for many years he was talked about in the media and in clever newspaper articles as the great libertarian of his day; he was the man who brought forth all the wonderful liberalising measures in the House of Commons. How he loved to stroke that Dispatch Box; he was never away from it. Then when he came back as an SDP Member he wanted this place on the Bench. Is this the man who is supposed to have signed a document authorising the provision of sub-machine guns for the police—the right hon. Member for Hillhead, the exposed Home Secretary? Never. He should have come here tonight. It may be that it escaped his notice that there was a three-hour debate today starting after ten o'clock. Of course it is not a decent hour for somebody who is living on claret. I do not know when one drinks it, but I assume that it is the claret hour. He had a duty to come here. That is one of the things that should have been debated, albeit for a short time.
We should have debated, as we did on another occasion, so I shall not at this late hour, the international banking system. I have been reading about it today and it looks as though it is rearing its ugly head again. I see that they cobbled together a little deal at the weekend for Argentina—$500 million. What did they do? To save the banks—not Argentina—they went along to Brazil, which is the biggest debtor in the world and said, "Look here" —this is America talking, with some help from Her Majesty's Government—"if we give you, Brazil, a bit of money, and give you Mexico, a bit of money, will you take part in a consortium to lend over $500 million to Argentina, because it is due to break the IMF deadline at the weekend?" Lloyds Bank came in at the last minute and chucked in a few coppers. Did it do it to save the Argentines? No, to save themselves, so that the Argentines and the British, and the rest, those that create the wealth, can be bailed out.
That is one of the reasons why the interest rates went up again today in the United States. They are having one hell of a job to hang on until the election. That is twice in the past few weeks that they have pushed interest rates up, and with a $184 billion deficit. We shall hear more about that, but I shall not talk about it tonight because there will be other opportunities.
I shall refer briefly to one or two things in the coal mining industry, and it would be wrong of me not to do so. In the past three weeks, we have clamoured for a debate on the coal mining dispute, and the police activity associated with it.
§ Mr. Skinner
I cannot answer for them. I have been trying to tell the Front Bench of the Labour party about the Common Market — I think that I am succeeding. I thought that it was a folly to start trotting out these statements. In coded language, it is true that we have "shifted our ground" on the Common Market, just at the moment when it is shuddering to a halt. I had to do a bit of talking in other places to make sure that the Front Bench understands that at this moment, when the British people are changing.
In the poll that the LBC held the other night, some 70 per cent. said they were against the Common Market, and that is just the people with telephones — what about those who do not have them? That issue is an important one, and one about which my Front Bench is beginning to learn. On the other issue, they will have to wait. For what it is worth, I have been telling them within the confines of the parliamentary Labour party for the past three weeks——
§ Mr. Skinner
I was not sent here to keep my mouth shut, but to speak my mind, and to speak on behalf of my class. I do not have to take into account what some people do when they say, "Ah, but it is too sensitive. This is a very difficult thing, there is a yes and a no to it. If one looks at it from one angle or the other, it is difficult and we cannot sell it in a nice cosy package." Politics is not about that and neither is life. It is not about finding a cosy way out but about having to make up one's mind about the issues that present themselves, and on each day that passes, uncomfortable decisions have to be made
On the decisions about the miners, our side should be backing them up to the hilt. Those miners in Nottinghamshire should be joining the 80 per cent. that are out on strike, fighting for the right to work, even though——
§ Mr. Skinner
The message will be clear next week. There has been a bit of jiggery—pokery between the Front-Benchers and the Speaker—I do not know to what extent Mr. Speaker has had his elbow nudged. There should have been a debate before now. It might have been unnecessary for hon. Members to refer to this subject tonight, although I do not doubt that some of us would have done so anyway.
Reference has been made to Mr. MacGregor, who has written in The Standard. He had the gall to talk about the 1227 "cruel deceit" practised by the National Union of Mineworkers. If anybody is guilty of cruel deceit and lying, it is Mr. MacGregor. He has a long record of lying, not only in this country but about the company he ran in America. He lied about the fact that there was no hit list of pit closures.
§ Mr. Skinner
I did not want to deal with him on this occasion. Mr. MacGregor said that the NCB did not have a hit list. He lied, as did his predecessor, Siddall. We now all know that there is a hit list. They lied about the Cortonwood closure. At a Yorkshire pit that they closed — my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West knows more about this matter than I do, because it occurred just a hop, step and a jump from where he lives —they said "Go on. Get to Cortonwood. How old are you, Jack? Fifty years old? All right, there are at least five years life at Cortonwood." Within a few weeks, the liar MacGregor, along with others in the NCB in Yorkshire, closed Cortonwood. That was a deliberately provocative act. People should understand that that was one of the reasons why the NUM introduced the closure notices. Mr. MacGregor lied about Cortonwood being a receiving pit for at least five years. Mr. MacGregor lied also about the effects of the overtime ban. That ban had not been operating for more than a few weeks when Mr. MacGregor went on the media claiming that the overtime ban was saving the NCB money. Some people say, "Maybe he did not lie. Maybe he was naive. Maybe he was thick." I do not believe that. He was telling the British establishment through the press and television, "We need to stop these miners earning overtime. It is crippling the NCB." He told a fairy story, saying that the measure was saving money. He said, "It can go on forever for all I care."
By the turn of the new year, the NCB accountants were proving to the Government that the board would need much more money to survive. Only a few weeks ago, an order was brought before the House calling for about £200 million to balance the books—half was needed because the overtime ban was crippling the NCB's accounts.
North Derbyshire appeared to be about to have a £20 million profit until the overtime ban was imposed. At the end of the financial year, the area was due to suffer a £20 million loss. That is lying on a large scale to frighten the miners into not fighting for their jobs. Mr. MacGregor should be dispatched back to Amax Inc. to pick up the pieces he left over there. He was talked about as a great financial whiz-kid when he ran that giant American company. He was brought over here to smash the steel industry, and subsequently he started into the coal industry on the basis that he had some special talents.
The Financial Times of 29 March 1983, writing of Mr. MacGregor's wonderful exercise at Amax, stated:Amax is now in full scale retreat. The company reported a net loss of $390m for 1982. …Analysts who treated him with adulatory respect during the good years now grumble that he expanded too fast and diversified too far. He is also criticised for the shortcomings of his successors, who for the most part were put in place by his regime.That is the man who has been sent to smash the coal industry. What a wonderful record he has.
The NCB is lying about coal stocks. Many power stations do not have more than two or three weeks of coal.
1228 If the railwaymen and transport workers combine effectively as they did in 1972 and 1974, the coal will run out in at those power stations ere long.
Mr. MacGregor will leave a trail of destruction when he leaves the NCB. He is just in it for short-term gains, the glory and the one and a half million quid he will no doubt shove into his back pocket when he gets back to America. Handing over that money was nothing but one of those great tax fiddles which were operating across the Irish sea when Mr. De Lorean received similar sums of money on a different occasion.
When the Notts miners voted as they did today—I do not run away from it, some of them are my constituents, because I am not cushioned in a Yorkshire coalfield, where all the miners are on strike—I could have buried my head and thought, "Some are striking and some are not." I believe that the Notts miners will regret their action if it lasts for too long. We cannot be sure, because some Nottinghamshire pits are lined up for closure by Mr. MacGregor, backed by the Government. Although the NCB has tried to hide the fact it is ready to shut them, some of the people in the Notts area know the names—Pye Hill 1, Pye Hill 2, and Moorgreen with one or two more to follow. [Interruption.] Someone said, "Nearly worked out." I suppose Conservative Members are nearly worked out running about having their arms twisted signing that motion on behalf of the Prime Minister. The Whips have raced after 270-odd Conservative Members. It has been an appalling spectacle as they tried to get 270-odd names on a motion saying that the Prime Minister has nothing to fear about Oman. It is interesting——
§ Mr. Skinner
I expect the hon. Gentleman signed it among the 270-odd, and the Prime Minister talks about a national ballot for the miners. Despite all the arm twisting, the Whips do not have more than 70 per cent. of the Tory Members of Parliament to back the Prime Minister. At least we can claim that 80 per cent. of the miners are out on strike.
§ Mr. Soames
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
With his great knowledge of mining will he tell us why the miners are not to be afforded the opportunity to express, as one body, their views on whether they should be on strike? Why are they not being allowed to have a national ballot?
§ Mr. Skinner
For the simple reason that the national executive, including members from Nottingham, met a month ago and agreed unanimously to take that course of action.
The Tories have a cheek to talk about ballots. This is the same Government who have been to the Leader of the House to bring before the House next week a Bill to abolish elections, not just in London but for several million people in the metropolitan areas. They have the cheek to say that they are worried about ballots when they are abolishing people's freedom to go to the polling booth and cast a vote in favour of someone they want to represent them on the local authority. Perhaps they should have had a ballot on GCHQ. They should have had a ballot on whether Mr. MacGregor should get £1.5 million, or on whether the chairman of the Tory party should receive an 1229 extra £5,000 a year of taxpayers' money to carry out a tin-pot job on behalf of the Prime Minister—that is £100 a week of taxpayers' money. Where did they find that money? We keep hearing from the Dispatch Box that they do not have money, but they found it for him, although he does not have to do any extra work for it.
The Government constantly talk about law and order and say that we are short of policemen to stop the increasing crime rate. We heard today that robberies have increased by 50 per cent. since the Government came to power. Yet the Government can find 10,000 policemen immediately to sent to the midlands, and can pay them £85 a day for the nightshift alone. They can find plenty of money when they want to curb the freedom of people who are fighting for their right to work. That is why I have written to Derbyshire county council asking why my constituents—miners and everyone else—should have to pay this massive bill for allowing the police to come to the midlands. I hope that the council will not pay the bill.
Many of my constituents, and people from Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, are saying that the police are carrying out a political act when they try to curb the freedom of NUM members. There were reports today of some policemen in plain clothes wearing NUM badges acting like the Gestapo, listening to the conversations of pickets and then instructing snatch squads to pick them out. At Shirebrook in my constituency the police tried to bus through a handful of miners, not to turn coal but just to take part in strike-breaking. They got together a few miners, not outside the pit gates but further away, put blankets over their heads, shoved them on the bus and then took them through the picket line. That is strike-breaking. About 1,800 men work at that pit——
§ Mr. Ray Powell
Is my hon. Friend also aware that the phones of some striking miners have been tapped—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"]—to find out what action the miners are taking? Has he received information from miners in his area about this phone-tapping of pickets?
§ Mr. Skinner
There is no question but that phone-tapping occurs in every major industrial dispute. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) recalls what happened at Stocksbridge, where it was proved that a phone had been tapped during a strike to save the steel industry from MacGregor's butchery.
At Shirebrook the police gathered together about a dozen miners and bussed them through the picket line, not to turn coal but just so that the police can say to the coal board, "We are helping to drive a thin wedge through." In other words, they are strike-breaking. That is a political act by the police force. Not only are the Government happy for that to happen, but they are guiding the police along the way.
I was on the Bolsover picket line at 12.15 pm on Friday 30 March— [HON. MEMBERS: "Secondary picketing."] Yes, secondary picketing, and I was proud to take part in it. At 12.15 pm one young Bolsover lad shouted, "Scab," to another one in the yard. He was arrested, despite protests from me and everyone else, by the Derbyshire constabulary —not not policemen from outside. I suppose that he will have to pay the penalty—at 23 years of age — for calling someone a scab. It is a sorry state of affairs when people cannot use words like that when they 1230 feel so strongly about someone who has crossed the picket line. The Leader of the House may laugh, but I was there. I saw it all and heard it all and I have put down everything that I saw.
I remember another incident a few years ago when the Labour Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), went to address a Police Federation do. The police were angry with him. It was an industrial argument and they did not like what he was doing about one thing and another. Members of the Police Federation, which I suppose might loosely be described as a trade union, decided without any let or hindrance—no one to stop them at the Dartford tunnel or on the county borders of Yorkshire, Derbyshire or Nottinghamshire—to stand outside that big meeting just like pickets and they nearly smashed his car in. That was on television for millions to see, but there were no charges of breach of the peace for those people. The police could get off scot free, and when they act on the Prime Minister's instructions as part of her political army—she is treating this battle as though she were fighting the Argentines—they can get away with murder.
I had a report from NUM headquarters today saying that the police have now placed road blocks on all major roads leading out of Yorkshire, stopping miners leaving the county, that the police are informing miners that their car insurance is not valid for passengers travelling to picket, and that magistrates are beginning to state as a condition of bail that miners must agree to picket only their own place of work. Those conditions of bail are now being superseded by instructions not to visit any places or premises other than their own place of work or any other premises associated with the coal industry, and not to picket at any time any premises or place of business or industry.
All that is supposed to be in the name of freedom. If those conditions had been announced in Poland when Lech Walesa was organising the massive campaign there, what would the Tory press have said? What did the Tories say when similar incindents took place? More than 500 pickets have already been arrested just fighting for the right to work. That is the hyprocisy of the Tory Government. They were elected in 1983 on arguments about freedom.
§ Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)
Does the hon. Gentleman admit that if he were an elected member of the Polish Assembly he would not have the right to speak as he is now speaking?
§ Mr. Skinner
The way this country is going, they will stop it here as well if they get half a chance. I am quite serious about that, given the developments that I have seen in the past few years and the way in which the Government have been curbing civil liberties. The freedom to work has been taken away from between 4 million and 5 million people, depending which set of statistics one takes. In large areas of Derbyshire, most of Nottinghamshire and parts of Yorkshire, the freedom to travel has been taken away. Now people cannot even use the word that so aptly describes those who cross picket lines, so the Government are now putting a bar on the freedom of speech. All that has happened in the space of a few weeks.
It is said that every cloud has a silver lining. At least this strike will have shown the British nation—those who want to listen, not that lot on the Tory Benches—just how fast the Government have moved in taking away freedoms from the British people.
1231 The Government have not done it for everybody—for people such as Eddie Shah. He has the freedom to break the law and to get away with it. He has not filed his accounts, not only for 1983 but for 1982 and 1979. On three occasions Eddie Shah has broken the law by not complying with section 1 of the Companies Act and sending in the accounts of the Messenger Newspaper Group Ltd. He happens to be a friend of the Prime Minister. They had a tete-a-tete just after the Blackpool conference, when I suppose together they conspired to bring about further limitation on picketing at the Warrington works later that year. There is freedom for Eddie Shah to break the law, but in this dispute the miners are treated like aliens in their own country.
§ Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)
The House will understand if I feel that the next few minutes will be like after the Lord Mayor's show. I bow to the eloquence — even violence — of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), but in many ways I am glad that he is over the border in another county.
Tonight I wish to speak for Nottinghamshire, and I am grateful to all the citizens there. They are a most sensible people, and perhaps they are also grateful that the hon. Member for Bolsover is over the border in another county.
Last month my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services issued a document to health authorities about a scrutiny programme on ambulance services. It so happens that the service in Nottinghamshire had already taken on board much of the substance of that investigation. The concern that I draw to the attention of the House is that somehow the suggestion in the Minister's letter would diminish the quality of the service and provide what the local press described as a "two-tier system" of ambulance service—a kind of first and second-class service—with the primary purpose of saving money.
The local press rightly drew attention to that concern. That is its right and proper function, because it was feared that saving money might, possibly by diminishing that service, bring distress and danger to the citizens of Nottinghamshire. Six cases have been reported to the press, whose content was most disturbing. I shall not trouble the House with the details, but, by putting two and two together and making five, it was suggested that the new system must be to blame.
Happily, my Nottinghamshire colleagues took the opportunity of the spotlight that the press had switched on to look into the matter. While in no way diminishing the seriousness of the cases that have been reported, it was against the background of the totality of the service provided that, with a clear conscience, we felt able to pay tribute to all the staff of the county's ambulance service.
The Nottingham service has a staff of 400, who each and every day of the year respond to about 120 accident and emergency calls. Each and every day they carry out about 1,700 non-emergency passenger journeys. The former function is a cover awaiting call at any time, day or night, responding to 999 calls. We were in the main station when that telephone rang, and two minutes elapsed between the first ring and the report of an ambulance leaving the nearest station. Within eight minutes the radio had confirmed that it had arrived at the scene of the accident, somewhere in the county some 15 miles from 1232 where we were. That service was the fully equipped ambulance, the traditional white vehicle with flashing blue lights, and everything necessary.
There is a second service—not a second-class, but a different, service — which is much more a careful management planning application, and much of that work is on 48 hours' notice. It has a sophisticated computer planning programme. I was amused when the officer put together the day's route for one of the vehicles, because I wondered why it was necessary to go to the second place of decimals for the time that it would take for the vehicle to complete its journey. That somewhat freak situation aside, it really was a most sophisticated planning function for what most lay people would describe as a busing service and not an ambulance service in the commonly accepted sense.
What was interesting about that service — and for most of us who visited that station it was new and arose, quite rightly, out of the concern that we had seen reported in the press—was that for much less than half of the total expenditure of the ambulance service, that non-emergency service was making virtually 90 per cent. of the journeys.
What we saw, therefore, was a sensible approach to specialisation, providing the right kind of vehicle for the right task, and the right and properly trained staff for the duties they were called upon to carry out. We saw an attempt, not yet perfect by any means, but a genuine attempt, to use the resources available in the most effective way and in a way which I would not hesitate to recommend to other authorities which are only now in receipt of the DHSS document. It seemed to me—and I believe that my colleagues would agree—that the willingness of the officers and staff to take criticism and look objectively at what they were doing was highly commendable. The way in which the staff in Nottingham responded deserves the commendation of the House, and that is why I bring it to the attention of the House tonight.
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
I wish to intervene during this debate tonight to raise two things briefly and one thing principally.
One of the points that I wish to raise briefly is that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I believe that it is wrong for us on the Opposition benches to claim a monopoly of concern over the loss of civil rights that is taking place in the coalfields. I find it very difficult to understand why it is that hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House have not begun to express similar concern, because throughout the country there are many Conservatives who are ill at ease, and hon. Gentlemen know it.
It is like the old argument about the bomb. I have always found it difficult to understand how it is possible for every Conservative Member of this House to be a multilateralist. It must be that Conservative pressures are exerted upon them in their constituency parties that prevent the liberal thinking which many hon. Members on this side of the House adopt, and which I certainly do.
I hope that hon. Gentlemen will surface over these coming weeks and express concern to the Government. If they are unwilling to do it on the Floor of the House, let us hope that they will do it in private to their own Ministers, because something is going on which causes us 1233 concern. It has been mentioned repeatedly over the last few days and it begs answers from the Government. Yet we have a stone wall of silence.
§ Dr. Michael Clark (Rochford)
Could I ask the hon. Gentleman whether he considers that part of the civil rights of this country is the right to pass freely through the gates of one's place of work? And does he not agree that there are many Labour people in the country, and perhaps many Labour Members of the House, who consider that the denial of that liberty in Yorkshire is a denial of civil rights?
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
A person who approaches a picket line makes a choice. What he does is up to him. The hon. Gentleman will find that enshrined in every piece of legislation and in all guidance given by the TUC. It is his right to choose. If he chooses not to cross the picket line, that is his decision and it is not an invasion of his freedom. He is exercising his freedom, and he is aware of what he is doing if he crosses the picket line.
Different perceptions exist between Labour and Conservative Members on many issues, and that brings me to the second matter that I wish to raise, that of Oman. [Interruption.] This matter will not die a death. It will persist and be raised repeatedly until we get the answers. It will not go away. When, one day, the Prime Minister comes to the Dispatch Box and makes a statement, it will end, but not before.
We have different perceptions of what constitutes acceptable conduct by Ministers of the Crown. Many people, both inside and outside the House, believe that, even if the Prime Minister knew of her son's interest, and even if she had raised the question of Cementation during those negotiations, that would constitute acceptable conduct. They are entitled to hold that view though they cannot understand why Labour Members and others in the House are expressing reservations about that form of activity.
They do not understand that there is a different perception by other hon. Members of the act of discussing a contract when it could be seen that her son was a beneficiary in terms of being in receipt of a commission. They are unwilling to accept that two different perceptions exist and that, while we in the House are divided on the issue, people in the country are equally divided on whether what happened was acceptable conduct.
We are trying to establish the truth. We are not asking Conservative Members to accept our terms and our perception of what is acceptable conduct. We are simply saying that we have a right to know the truth, and then let the country decide in its own way what it believes is right and proper.
Even in my family there are different perceptions. I have relatives who believe that what happened was perfectly acceptable. I do not believe that. However, I do not challenge their judgment and they do not challenge mine. But we are all equally entitled to know the truth, and that is what this debate is about. That is why we do not intend to let go.
I come to the main point that I wish to raise, and I raise it with a heavy heart because I have sought every possible way of not having to raise it tonight. It relates to Cementation and to certain aspects of Messrs. Cementation International Limited's arrangements with respect to export guarantee support for cover on the 1234 contract to build the university in Oman. Later I shall refer to seven telephone calls that I made today to Cementation to try to avoid the need for me to raise the matter tonight. I did not wish to come to the House to discuss it, and Cementation was told clearly that I had investigated every other possible means of raising the issue and that this was the only option left open to me.
In relation to these arrangements for export credit guarantee support and cover for the contract, I have until tonight made no public statements. When I have been pressed—because journalists have known of my interest in the subject—I have said that I was not willing to make a public statement because I felt that to do so would not be in the public interest and that it would be unfair to Cementation.
I was approached by a number of journalists and other persons who referred me to what they believed to be the case. These are allegations. They are not founded on anything more than hearsay. It is on that basis that I have to bring them to the House. It is on that basis that I sought not to bring them to the House. The allegations are not proven. They were that Cementation had involved itself in irregularities in relation to the export credit guarantee cover which it sought on various sub-contracted parts of the contract to build the university.
When I was first approached I wrote to the Committee of Public Accounts and asked it, in so far as the accounting officer of the ECGD reports to that Committee, whether it would be willing to approach the ECGD on behalf of the taxpayer to ask it to carry out an investigation into the allegations that had been made to me. In my letter to the Chairman of the PAC on 8 March I said:During the course of the last few weeks I have been able to discuss the matter of Cementation's Export Credit Guarantees Department cover with a number of people and during the course of one particular conversation statements were made which I feel compelled to raise before the Public Accounts Committee. I am informed by sources close to Cementation that every effort was made to maximise the value of that part of the contract covered by ECGD.That is a perfectly acceptable activity.It is alleged that Cementation's cover as provided by ECGD was the subject of a number of conditions and assurances given to the Department on domestic British content to the Contract and that these conditions have been deliberately broken in a number of respects. Contracts are alleged to have been passed abroad in respect of work that was the subject of the condition that it should be carried out at home here in the United Kingdom.That would also take into account the arrangement for European work to be included under the general heading of British ECGD cover because there is some arrangement whereby European work can be included under our general heading of cover.
I raised that matter with the PAC. I clearly cannot comment on the Committee's deliberations because I should probably be in contempt, but I can say that it was the Committee's decision not to proceed with my complaint. I then wrote to the Comptroller and Auditor General referring to discussions that had taken place during the course of the Committee where clearly he was in attendance. I asked him whether he would be willing to carry out inquiries into my complaint.
In his reply of 29 March the Comptroller and Auditor General said:In brief, on the E.C.G.D., I have a statutory obligation to undertake a financial and regularity audit, which culminates in my giving a published audit opinion on the accounts: a statutory right to undertake an investigation into the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which it has used its resources in 1235 discharging its functions and a power to report to the House of Commons on the results of my audit and investigations. The effect of section 9 of the National Audit Act of 1982, was to give me the power to report separately from the accounts, but the power to report remains confined to reports of the House of Commons. Section 1(2) of that Act made me an officer of the House: and section 1(3) specifies that I should take into account any proposals made by the P.A.C. in determining whether to carry out any examination.I then miss a paragraph and the letter goes on:It follows that I can not undertake an inquiry dealing with the points which you have raised and report the results to you as an individual member of the House. Particularly in the light of the 1982 Act I do not think I could reasonably disregard the Public Accounts Committee's reaction to your request, go ahead with a special investigation with the points you have raised and report the results to the House of Commons. What I can say, however, is that we shall take account of the points you have made in our continuing monitoring of the E.C.G. In addition may I suggest that if you wish to pursue the particular queries raised in P.A.C. 135 your best course would be to express these as precisely as possible and address them direct to the accounting officer of the E.C.G. Jack Gill?That was the route that I intended to take. None of this matter had been made public. It had all been dealt with confidentially. I had not made any public statements that might have embarrassed the company, any hon. Member or any Committee. It was all under wraps.
I then took advice about whether I could approach the Export Credits Guarantee Department. Before I discuss that point, I shall quote from another document in my possession. Yesterday, giving some support of the information that I had received about irregularities, an article by Paul Foot appeared in the Daily Mirror under the heading:Flakt or Fiction? How a juicy slice of the Oman contract went to Sweden".He said:A slice of the Oman University contract, which was won by Cementation in a burst of patriotism by the firm's consultant Mark Thatcher, and his mother,…has gone to a Swedish company.This has annoyed at least one British company which tendered for the contract…Mr. George Fennell, managing director of Unicoils of Sussex, complained in a letter to"——In order to avoid mentioning the hon. Member to whom he wrote, I shall skip part of the letter. The hon. Member had visited the factory. According to Mr. Foot, Mr. Fennell reminded the hon. Member of his visit and complained:that a £300,000 contract for air conditioning in the Oman University buildings had been awarded to the Swedish company, Flakt. He said he believed in free trade, but this was a special case of the Prime Minister promoting British business.Whatever—the hon. Member concerned——wrote back has entirely satisfied Mr. Fennell. 'This was private between us,' he said. 'I have nothing to say about it.' The contract clearly causes some confusion at Cementation. When I first asked about it, a spokeswoman told me: 'Flakt is a Belgian company and this is part of the percentage of the contract we were allowed to put with EEC companies.' When I protested that Flakt was in fact a Swedish company, and pointed out that Sweden is not a member of the EEC, the spokeswoman said: 'Our contract is with Flakt Products, of Staines, Middlesex.' Mr. Gordon Ruxton, a director of Flakt, told me: 'The air conditioning units will not be made in Britain. They will be made at our factory in Stockholm.'My complaints have been general, but Mr. Paul Foot identifies what he believes to be a specific complaint. It is also alleged that a tile contract was given to a Turkish company—Turkey is not in the Common Market either—and that an aluminium window contract for which two British companies bid and were legitimately undercut by an Italian company within the Common Market has 1236 been given to an Omani contractor. These are all allegations, and I would have preferred not to have had to bring them before the House.
It is believed by some that all those contracts are the subject of ECGD support.
The allegations may be scurrilous. They may be totally unfounded. Equally, it may be that they are true. That is why I have had to talk about them tonight. I believe that the House needs to know—and that some way should be found of telling the public—what happened.
I rang Cementation at lunchtime today and asked to speak to the chairman, Mr. Grundy. I rang him on three occasions and was informed that he could not speak to me. I then rang Mr. James Poole, the external relations spokesman to whom I had been referred, on two occasions. Subsequently, during the course of three further telephone conservations, I was able to talk to him. I put it to him that I wanted to send a letter to ECGD but in transmission of that letter, even though I was a Member of Parliament, I might well be transmitting a libel.
To avoid having to raise the matter on the Floor of the House, I wanted a simple assurance from Cementation that, in the transmission of that document, I would not be subject to expensive litigation that I can call ill afford. Mr. James Poole consulted Cementation International Ltd. I was able to speak to him some hours later and he said that consideration had been give to my request and that Cementation was unwilling to give me such an undertaking. I argued firmly that if Cementation gave me that undertaking on the one document that I sent to the Chairman of the Committee on Public Accounts, I would make no public statements and would not reveal its contents to any person or journalist anywhere, apart from in private. I said that I would not make any statement about that correspondence to anyone apart from people in ECGD. I also gave an undertaking that, in the event of the allegations being found to be scurrilous, I would not repeat them and that I would refer to the matter only if the allegations were founded on truth. It was clear in my conversation with Mr. James Poole that I was giving Cementation every opportunity to allow me to deal with the matter privately so that nobody would know about it. I was refused the undertaking. In the final conversation I explained that I had no option but to use privilege and raise the matter as I have this evening.
I may have made a rather long-winded speech, but I must put these matters on the record. I hope that the media do not dramatise what I have said. I have tried to put it in a reasonable and sensible way. I do not know whether there is truth in the allegations, but they were referred to me as a Member of Parliament. The only thing that I could have done, other than raise it as I have, was visit Cementation and make a statement about the allegations. However, I was also informed, based on legal advice, that even doing that I might commit a libel, so limited are our powers as Members of Parliament.
I could have tabled questions on documents that I had sent to Ministers. The problem with that is that most questions on Cementation are now blocked. They were firmly blocked in the Prime Minister's reply this afternoon to my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton). In many ways, she is responsible for what is happening this evening. Every attempt by right hon. and hon. Members now to table questions on Cementation is no longer dealt with in the Table Office. It might come as a surprise to hon. Members to learn that any question about 1237 the contract for the university in Oman, Cementation or declaration of interest is automatically referred to the Chief Clerk. That is the measure of the attempt by Downing street, Bernard Ingham, the Prime Minister, Ministers, the Conservative party, and the British Establishment——
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
I shall give way at my discretion. Would you point out, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that is the normal procedure of the House? Every attempt has been made by people in power to ensure that the full truth is not known.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
No, on the contrary. The hon. Gentleman should have listened to what I said. The Clerks are under instruction. They have to comply with the rules of the House in the laying of questions. If questions are blocked, the Clerks are not allowed to lay those questions. Those questions are blocked. What this means is that, as the blocking mechanism is used by Ministers in relation to this particular matter, increasingly Members will have to use the Floor to raise their queries. That is what we will do. Whenever questions are blocked, we will raise them on the Floor, whether it be direct to the Departments concerned, whether it be to the Leader of the House, or whether it be to the Prime Minister.
Having sat on two Committees—the Committee on Public Accounts, where it is very difficult to raise this matter, and five meetings of the Committee on Members' Interests — I believe that we have reached the stage where it is very difficult to get an objective judgment from a Committee where there are clearly political considerations, and that we are coming to a point where it may well be that Parliament is not competent to deal with this matter.
I may be dissenting from the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) in that respect, in the sense that he believes that a special Committee of the House could be set up. I am sure that he would even have reservations about that. It may be necessary to go even further and to have a full commission of inquiry into what happened, because the people——
§ Mr. Williams
I do not think that there is any dissension between my hon. Friend and myself. The Committee that I was considering was purely in relation to the adequacy of the rules of guidance. My hon. Friend is referring to a commission of inquiry into the actual incident. I would agree with him that, since we cannot get the answers on the Floor of the House, and since we cannot get the answers through questions, it may well be that the route that he suggests is the one that we will have to press for on the actual Oman incident.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
My right hon. Friend, when talking about rules of guidance, is obviously referring to 1238 the Cabinet memorandum on Ministers and their requirement to declare or divest themselves of interests, the problem whereby the Prime Minister has overall control of the judgment of whether people are complying, and the fact that in this case there is a conflict between her function and her own position as the Minister about whom the complaints are being made. To that extent, therefore, this is a matter that could be dealt with internally by the House.
As regards the actual issue of what happened in Oman, however, it may well be that we now need a commission of inquiry to be set up, because the truth will come out in the end. We are not going to let go. When I hear hon. Gentlemen on the Government Benches growl, as they do each time these questions are asked, I tell them that they can keep on growling because, until we get the answers, the House will not be satisfied. Nor will the people in the country be satisfied. In the end it may well become an even greater issue, because outside the House journalists who six or 10 weeks ago were indifferent to what happened are now taking an interest. The fact that there are British journalists scurrying around the middle east and Hong Kong, that major media programmes are carrying out their own investigations, and that there are many Fleet Street journalists now involved in investigating this affair stems solely from the fact that the Prime Minister has sought to delay in replying to the House. If she had been forthcoming 10 weeks ago, those journalists would not now today be involved in their activities.
The longer it goes on, the more those journalists are going to get involved. I can tell by the number of people who call me and to whom I refuse to give statements because of my particular position as a member of the two Committees to which I was making representations. They are pressing more and more, all the time. If people in the country at large believe that the matter is dead and that Parliament does not appear to be responding in so far as it is dead, they make a mistake. The change that we have noticed over the past few months is that increasingly Conservative Members are privately expressing reservations. It is well known also that when my motion was tabled and the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) tabled his counter motion, the first 200 signatories went on his motion with great ease. After that, the Whips had to press many Conservative Members to sign the motion. Many of them objected most strongly, for they felt that they were being intimidated by their Whips and by Ministers to sign a motion when they did not want to do so. They felt that they were being required to sign what was in effect an oath of loyalty to the Prime Minister.
We cannot run Parliament on that basis, and we should not set out to do so. It is about time that Conservative Members demanded of the Prime Minister that she was forthcoming and made a statement so that the public could feel assured that the office of Prime Minister and the integrity of that office was being fully protected, because at present questions are being asked about that.
§ Mr. Humfrey Malins (Croydon, North-West)
Before the House rises for the Easter recess it would be helpful if it considered the level of crime, which is a severe and increasing problem, and some of the measures that could be taken to reduce it. This not a subject that lends itself to a short debate, nor is it a controversial subject, because there are views on both sides of the House which are 1239 extremely helpful. It is a non-party political subject. We all have a common interest in securing a reduction in the levels of crime. There is no monopoly of wisdom on either side of the House.
The figures are alarming. In 1972 there were 1.5 million recorded offences, and by 1982 the figure had risen to over 3 million. At the same time the clear-up rate was falling. It fell from 46 per cent. in 1972 to 37 per cent. in 1982. As crime increases the clear-up figures tend to fall.
When we read the press, we gain the impression that crimes of violence are the most common form of offences. That is because those crimes reach the press. The crime that has taken off over the past few years is that of burglary. There were about 500,000 burglaries in 1979, and that figure increased to about 800,000 in 1982. It is a figure that is increasing all the time and it is the offence that causes most fear to those living in south London. One of the saddest features is that in 1983 nearly a half of all the arrests in Britain were of young people under 21 years of age, and one-fifth of all arrests involved youngsters under the age of 16.
What can we do to help reduce the level of crime? Successive Governments, over 20 or 30 years, have not achieved a great deal. We can begin by setting a good example ourselves in our behaviour inside and outside the House. We can encourage—we should do so—public awareness of the problems of crime. We must spend more time trying to harness community co-operation in getting crime reduced. The growth of the neighbourhood watch scheme over the past few years, especially in London, has helped to reduce crime. Groups of residents in streets band together and keep an eye on one another's houses while their neighbours are away on holiday. They appoint a spokesman to keep in touch with the local police station. They are generally vigilant and they go in for the property marking scheme. This is an example of the public becoming involved. Where the neighbourhood watch schemes have operated, nearly 70 in the metropolitan area, crime, especially burglary, has fallen considerably.
The victim support scheme is another major way in which the public are involved. There are about 30 such schemes in the metropolitan area and they encourage members of the public to become involved in helping out. The purpose is to harness community co-operation.
The Home Office should begin the great debate on new ideas to help reduce crime. Does the Home Office spend enough time thinking about ideas? Its budget is enormous, but how much of it does it spend on publicity drives to try to make people aware of the problem? The amount is an infinitesimal part of the budget. Why does the Home Office not carry out an advertising campaign on television to try to drive the country into having a crime-free day? It is part of making the public aware of the problem and of the need to co-operate.
The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis produced an encouraging report recently. He dwelt on the neighbourhood watch scheme and the victim support scheme. He also mentioned police actually in force. There are too few policemen in the metropolitan area. Though the number rose last year by 750, in 1982 the authorised establishment of the police was similar to what it had been in 1972. During a 10-year period, when the number of crimes went up enormously, the number of police in force rose only slightly.
One good thing is that last year 100 officers were transferred from the traffic department to real operational 1240 duties and the Commissioner has plans next year to transfer 100 more. If he could extend that to abolishing traffic wardens and devoting some of that money towards more police, he would get more support from the public.
Crime should be rooted out when people are young. That brings me back to what can be done in the schools. Is enough being done there? I am sorry to go back to an old theme, but I regret greatly that corporal punishment is not regularly used in all our schools. Notwithstanding what the European Court says, the use of corporal punishment in schools would help considerably. I think that we should ignore the European Court occasionally when it suits us. Teachers should be trained to teach children to have greater respect for the law. We should spend more time encouraging parents to be responsible for their children's crimes. Parents can be summoned to courts, but the summons is often ineffective. Parents can be fined, but many courts do not bother to go through this process.
Again, there might be changes in the courts system. Many motoring offences should be taken away from the courts. I attend court sometimes because of my job. In one court a man who has been caught speeding or who is appearing on a careless driving charge is fined £80; in the court next door someone who has committed a crime of violence is fined £30. There is not uniformity of sentencing. The motorist comes off badly.
Short, sharp deterrent sentences for first offenders rather than waiting until someone has committed several offences would be a good thing. By short sentences I mean a matter of days. It is cheaper to send someone into custody for a few days or a weekend than for months. When new prisons are built, we should concentrate on building constructive prisons like Coldingly prion in Surrey, which is an industrial prison. Not only has it a re-offending rate which is lower than that of many other prisons, but it actually makes a profit, because people are put to work. That is much better for the prisoner, and it is also better for the country in terms of money saved.
I have mentioned the need to put extra police in force, particularly in London. Many people in south London and in my constituency in North West Croydon fear that there are not enough policemen on the beat. The numbers on the beat have not increased dramatically in the last few years. How do we raise the money, because it all costs money? I sometimes think that lawyers make too much money out of the legal aid system. Perhaps I am at fault as one of them. In 1979 we were spending £55 million on the legal aid scheme in magistrates' courts and Crown courts. It is odd to think that in 1984 the projected figure is more than £130 million. That has almost tripled. In my experience, I do not think that many courts make detailed inquiries into the means of defendants before they grant legal aid. Far too few contribution orders are made by courts against legally aided persons.
That is not to say that we should not have a good legal aid system—of course we should. We have one of the best in the world, but legal aid is often granted too readily and not enough contribution orders are made. If we could raise money through the legal aid system, as we could if it were tidied up, we would have more money to put into the real way to keep crime down—more policemen on the beat.
I have made a few suggestions, and I draw this matter to the attention of the House to point out that over the next four years, if the crime rate goes up at the same rate at 1241 which it has gone up over the past four years, we shall face even more major problems. The House is full of men of energy, vision and ability, and if much of that energy was spent on constructive thought on how to reduce the level of crime, the House would, in the long term, be doing a great service to the country.
§ Mr. Bob Clay (Sunderland, North)
I shall return to the problem of civil liberties. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has referred to the police activity in connection with the miners' dispute, and having a large number of members of the National Union of Mineworkers in my constituency, I shall also refer to the dispute.
Some hon. Members may feel that the only causes for complaint—although they are substantial and horrifying enough—about the abuse of civil liberties and police power, are taking place in the Nottinghamshire and midlands coalfields. Constituents of mine on the Durham coalfield have been horrified in the past few weeks. They are people who have no previous record of such an industrial dispute, who were not involved in the 1972 or the 1974 strikes and are not politically active. They have been horrified, when they went out to carry out what they saw as their necessary duty in the strike, to find that they were being threatened, that they could not cross the border into Northumberland, that they were being questioned—"Where are you going, where have come from, how long are you going to be there?" — and told not to come back.
There have been many incidences in Durham, such as that of car insurance, but what I find most horrifying is that it is alleged that coach operators have been told by the police that not only would their drivers run the risk of being charged if they drove miners to picketing duties, but that the police could make life difficult in the long term for coach operators who hired coaches to the NUM.
That is frightening, but I have to say that it is alleged because the coach operators concerned are so convinced by that suggestion of intimidation that they are not prepared to give their names and those of their companies. That is what is going on in Durham and Northumberland. It is not just Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire in the midlands. My constituents say to me that if this is the cradle of our democracy and where, at the end of the day, our civil liberties are preserved, why is it that the House of Commons is tolerating this massive abuse of police power and erosion of civil liberties?
On Wednesday, I travelled to the Greenham common United States air force base, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), and what I saw before I got to that base was strikingly reminiscent of what I had seen on the roads of Nottinghamshire the previous week. A police road block was placed a mile from the base. The only reason why I and my right hon. Friend were allowed to proceed down a public highway in broad daylight was that we showed our identification as Members of Parliament. What an extraordinary state of affairs. There was no security implication. There were no launchers outside the base and no security operation was occurring. The only conceivable purpose of those police road blocks was to prevent ordinary citizens who wished to observe or join in a protest from visiting the gates of the base.
1242 Not only are miners stopped from passing from one part of the country to another and condemned to internal exile county by county, but peaceful peace protesters are to be prevented from moving towards those places where they wish to make their protest.
§ Mr. Clay
As the hon. Gentleman is producing the type of intolerant comment with which we have become familiar whenever the matter has been raised in the House in the past few weeks, I refer to the exchange that occurred when my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) mentioned Poland. Conservative Members should reflect on one point. My hon. Friend referred to the rise of the free trade union, Solidarity, the activities in the shipyards of Gdansk and Stettin, led by men such as Lech Walensa. A sarcastic comment came from a Conservative Member to the effect that there was not a free Parliament over there and that people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover could not in that Parliament make speeches similiar to that which he made tonight.
It is worth remembering—I am the last person to apologise for the Stalinist traditions of the Polish Communist party—that there was a ferment in Polish society at the time of the rise of that free trade union movement. If hon. Members had watched television closely at that time they would have seen film of Communist party branches holding—admittedly, for a brief period — free elections. People who had been delegates to the Parliament and to the Communist party congress for many years were removed after a free vote and replaced by other people. For a brief period, there were democratic debates within that society and that Parliament. On reflection, it is interesting that those dissident elements—those new, pro-Solidarity elements — went to that Communist party congress and the Parliament to speak up for free trade unions were heard with more tolerance and more respect as they made out their case for civil liberties by the old guard of the Communist party than many Conservative party Members have shown in recent weeks to Opposition Members.
If Conservative Members do not believe me, they should check the films. Those people were heard in silence and with respect. That no longer happens. All that has died. It has been crushed and the iron fist has come down again. It is interesting that that Government managed to show more tolerance and restraint than many Conservative Members have been doing as Opposition Members raised matters that we think are crucial to democracy on our society.
§ Mr. Clay
I shall not give way. I wish to be brief. The hon. Gentleman has had one go already.
On arriving at the Greenham common air base on Wednesday, we discovered the conspiracy hatched up by the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Transport, Berkshire county council and the police last year. I presume that all hon. Members have read the minute about which one of my hon. Friends spoke earlier in the week. The documents state, "What shall we do about these peace protesters? We shall devise a road widening scheme?" It is an ingenious use of public money for a monetarist Government to devise a road-widening scheme specifically for the purpose of clearing away peace protesters. It 1243 was not reported in the media, but that road-widening scheme will go on for a long tune, because there is a great deal of common land around the base and the women will camp on that common land.
Fencing around the area which goes on and on is preventing access by our citizens to common land. I wonder whether that is legal. II reminds me of the history of earlier troubles and developments in society. It is ironic that it is not the first time that people have moves in and started fencing off common land without so much as a "by your leave". That is now going on around Greenham common to prevent peaceful protesters from getting anywhere near the base.
The peace protesters can move from the common land, where they will now have to camp, to the main road in front of the base, where they have a legal right to be, but to do it—I do not know how far the fencing is, but it had gone a long way by Wednesday lunchtime—they will have to run about two miles down the road to get back to the gate of the base. What an appalling state of affairs. It has nothing to do with security, official secrets or anything else; it is just that the Government are no longer prepared to tolerate what is symbolic of the most peaceful protest that has been carried out consistently in this country for years.
Gentle, pacifist women who have offered no violence throughout their protest outside the base are cleared away because they are an embarrassment to the Government, and for another reason—while they are there, they see things. They see, as one of my hon. Friend's and I did three weeks ago, an enormous United States air force transport vehicle come out of the base and smash straight into two private cars. If the women had not been there they would not have seen that. When similar vehicles come out with cruise missiles, if the drivers are as competent as those two Americans, the women would not be able to say, "God help us when they come out with the cruise missiles."
§ Mr. Clay
As my hon. Friend says, they were probably on drugs. To drive out and write off two cars—the axles were broken and the cars were down on the road—is some achievement when one has just left the base. The explanation my hon. Friend offered might be correct. If that had happened this week it may not have been seen because the police are trying to ensure that no one can go near the base.
What else have the police done to try to clear away the women? They had a policy of trying to put as many of those women in gaol as possible under any pretext. A woman who has been arrested for obstruction, for example, can go to No. 1 court at Newbury magistrates' court and ask for bail or time to pay a fine. When asked for her address she can say, "Greenham common women's peace camp." The magistrate will refuse to accept that address and send her to prison for 14 or 28 days. In court No. 2 next door, a woman can appear on an identical charge and give Greenham common women's peace camp as the address and have it accepted.
Every 14 days, Mrs. Jane Dennett receives her war widow's pension from the Ministry of Defence addressed to Mrs. Jane Dennett at Greenham common women's peace camp, but when she went to Newbury magistrates' 1244 court and gave that address, the magistrates sent her to Holloway for 28 days because she refused to give any other address.
Another lady who appeared before the court was told that Greenham common women's peace camp was not an acceptable address, so she said, "But I live there." The magistrate said that she must provide other addresses, so she gave him three others. Then the magistrate said, "But you have already told me that you live at Greenham common peace camp. I cannot accept these other addresses because I know that you will not be there if we require to re-arrest you," so he sent her to gaol as well. [Interruption.] Let us have it on the record that Conservative Members are saying, "Quite right; Let us have more of it."
All that is being done to try to disguise from the public what is going on inside an American base over which the British have no control. The women see the yellow, green and black alerts when American officers who live in the surrounding villages come screaming into the base at 5 am. All the Americans on the base go down the bunkers, and the game continues until eventually we have either won the war, or we are all dead, or both. Then the black flag goes up. The RAF troops and the Ministry of Defence police stand outside during this nuclear war and ask, "What the hell are we meant to be doing here?" The Government want to get rid of the women so that they cannot see those games.
I began by referring to the miners' dispute, and I said that I observed in Nottinghamshire the same sort of road blocks as I observed being organised by the police in Berkshire this week. It disturbs me that, wherever we turn these days, we see the elimination of protest, attacks on protesters and intolerance towards dissent. Conservative Members are cheering it on. It frightens me more than anything that I have seen in my limited life has frightened me—[HON. MEMBERS:"Good."] Conservative Members say, "Good." It will be good for them, will it not, when Members of Parliament who disagree with them are frightened as well? That is what we are moving towards, and the sooner that the mass of working people and peaceful protesters recognise it, the sooner we shall save ourselves from the authoritarian state towards which they are taking us.
§ The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)
I start with a highly personal confession. This is exactly the second anniversary of my becoming Leader of the House—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] That is the only birthday cheer that I shall get. I am always encouraged by the fate of Leaders of the House, especially after two years in the post.
One of my more pleasing duties is to answer these Adjournment debates, because they have a charming divorce between content and reality.
The content is whether we should adjourn for a mere 10 days or so for an Easter break, and no one seriously contests that proposition. However, anyone listening casually to this debate would have thought that there were 1,001 reasons why this merciful release should not be conferred upon us. The truth is that these debates are the occasion when hon. Members properly assert the deep significance which they attach to issues which are 1245 important now and which will be important when we return from the Easter holiday. That is a good reason for their being debated on the Floor of the House now.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) was kind enough to give me notice of the points that he would raise about the fortunes of the Province during the next few weeks. I am sure that the fortunes of the Province will never pass unnoted so long as he guides the fortunes of the Official Unionist party. Despite his anxieties that Northern Ireland might be regarded by some as a failed entity, I certainly do not believe that such a view would be widely entertained in this House. The Province has asserted with determination and conviction its resolution to remain within the United Kingdom.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the All Ireland Forum report, which we expect in the next few days or weeks. Clearly, that report will be of proper concern to the United Kingdom, albeit it will come from an independent foreign state, to use the right hon. Gentleman's words, because we are bound together by geography, economy, a common history and much else. I assure him, however, that he should not go back at Easter feeling unduly apprehensive about the affairs of the Province. I certainly do not believe that there is any prospect of some ill-fated initiative. Indeed, I believe that a good precept for United Kingdom politicians to bear in mind in respect of the Province would be Talleyrand's injunction "Pas trop de zele." A policy of quiescence is perhaps the most helpful and I hope that the Government's actions will commend themselves.
In dealing with the various points raised I am racing against the clock, so I apologise for the necessarily disjointed way in which I refer to their contributions, but I shall try to comment on the issues in the order in which they were raised.
The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) expressed anxiety about the Official Secrets Act, especially section 2. I note what he said and I am sure that he is right that we shall be returning to the matter as a proper subject of public debate in the coming months. I do not believe that Conservatives feel quite the anxiety that the hon. Gentleman entertains, but we shall no doubt be able to explore that further.
§ Mr. Biffen
Yes, well, times change and, more particularly, people change as they change positions. There is nothing extraordinary or novel about that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Murphy) properly drew attention to the protective role of the state in what may broadly be described as Home Office issues. He referred especially to the welfare of the young in terms of under-age sexual relations and glue-sniffing. I am sure that those matters, too, will reasonably detain us as the months go by.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar), looking ahead no further than next week, referred to the arguments preceding what he described as the GLC paving Bill. The exchanges between my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) displayed some of the racy controversy that will no doubt characterise the passage of that legislation and I was immensely grateful for the stout support that my hon. 1246 Friend was prepared to confer upon the Government with regard to this important piece of local government legislation.
The right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) and the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) raised the subject of what one may describe in shorthand terms as the Oman contract. Obviously, I do not agree with the general tenor of their remarks. Nevertheless, the right hon. Gentleman raised a valid point about the changing circumstances in which the rules of ministerial conduct have to be interpreted. Perhaps in less dramatic circumstances that topic might be addressed with a degree of constructive detachment. The general points made today, however, were designed to cast considerable doubt on the propriety with which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister proceeded, and I must rebut them emphatically and totally. My right hon. Friend has answered many questions on the matter. The point at issue is not her preparedness to answer questions, but rather that the answers were deemed unsatisfactory by her would-be detractors.
The hon. Member for Workington asked about the export credits guarantee scheme. He explained the circumstances that persuaded him to withhold this matter from the House until this evening. I take note of what he said and shall refer it at once to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) asked about the future of the Elgin marbles. I have here far more authoritative words than I could ever construe, and I had better read them. The Government are still considering the reply to the Greek Government's request for the return of the Elgin marbles. A response is likely to be made shortly, but the Government's general position on the return of cultural objects has already been made clear, most recently by my noble Friend the Minister for the Arts in a debate on a proposal to amend the powers of the British museum to enable it to return such objects. That took place in another place last October. It would be inappropriate for me to comment further in advance of the Government's formal reply to the Greek Government's request. That is why I prefer to make my own speeches.
The hon. Members for Ogmore (Mr. Powell), for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay) touched on the present coal strike. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Ogmore is no longer with us. It does not help this dispute, including the civil liberties aspect — which I know genuinely exercises Opposition Members—to say that Britain is rapidly becoming a police state. That is simply a travesty of what is happening. It will not help this situation, given that once it is all over the conflicting parties must learn to live together again. Every word spoken in this Chamber should have regard to that situation, which will have to proceed after a settlement.
The hon. Member for Bolsover embellished his contribution with references to the role of the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins) in the 1976 sub-machine gun issue. We have rumbled the Al Capone of social democracy. I have no doubt that the House will have opportunities to return to this topic at some stage after Easter.
In no sense do I wish to be dismissive of this serious situation. What I said earlier this afternoon was quite intended. In broad circumstances it is, I believe, proper for 1247 the House to discuss these matters that are of great issue to the nation's economy. I understand that the civil liberties aspects are entertained by many Opposition Members, although I stoutly disagree with their interpretation of events.
My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) struck a chord with his appeal about Derby station. Oswestry was the citadel and heartland of the Cambrian railway. Therefore, only railway men can appreciate the deep emotions released in another railway man at the prospect of the abolition of that station, which is of such historic significance. I wish my hon. Friend well in his campaign. I am glad that he has Country Life on his side. It is a slight embellishment and novelty to our controversy to find that prayed in aid. I shall see that the Department of the Environment is alerted to the virtues of my hon. Friend's case.
I shall see that the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) about the ambulance service are referred to the relevant Government Department.
My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins) made a short but very persuasive speech about the problems of crime and raised the issue of the uniformity of sentences and the possibility of weekend sentences. These again are points which I believe will be with the House after our Easter break, and certainly they touch on matters of widespread public concern.
I have talked myself through the time. This is the first time that this debate has taken place at a late stage in the evening rather than in the early afternoon, but I would say that, although we may have lost a little in numbers, we have lost absolutely nothing in quality.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House at its rising on Friday 13th April do adjourn till Wednesday 25th April, and at its rising on Friday 4th May do adjourn till Tuesday 8th May, and that the House shall not adjourn on Friday 13th April until Mr. Speaker shall have reported the Royal Assent to any Acts which have been agreed upon by both Houses.