Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House at its rising on Friday 24th May do adjourn until Monday 3rd June, and the House shall not adjourn on Friday 24th May until Mr. Speaker shall have reported the Royal Assent to any Acts which have been agreed upon by both Houses.—[Mr. Durant.]
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)
The Leader of the House will probably already be aware that in the elections that took place yesterday in Northern Ireland—despite the difficulties encountered by many electors in casting a lawful vote, which were the subject of an exchange between myself and the Prime Minister some hours ago which I believe was heard by the right hon. Gentleman —the Ulster Unionist party scored a significant success that confirms the outcome or verdict of the 1983 general election as reflected in the composition of the House.
You might wonder, Mr. Speaker, why an event that is naturally the cause of such satisfaction to my right hon. and hon. Friends by whom I hope shortly to be joined upon this Bench—at any rate, after today—should be relevant to the motion before the House. The point relates directly to the business that needs to come before the House in the next two months, before and after the recess, and to which the Government will need to give attention shortly, including during the recess.
It was declared to be the object of the Ulster Unionist party, when it sought election in 1983, to see an end put to the system that is colloquially known as direct rule and under which the constitutional arrangements in that Province are tentatively renewed from year to year by the annual renewal of the Northern Ireland Act 1974. There are two principal aspects to direct rule, as that falls to be considered by such annual renewal. One is the manner in which the law in that Province is made by the Secretary of State and by the authority of the House, which might be colloquially summed up as government by Order in Council.
The second aspect is the absence from the Province of local government in the ordinary sense of the term as it is without question enjoyed and required by the inhabitants of the rest of the United Kingdom. It was to the second of those deficiencies that the attention of the electorate in Northern Ireland was directed in yesterday's election, because, so far as the Ulster Unionist party was concerned, it was a local government election about local government We declared to the electorate that we were seeking their vote as evidence of their demand and right to enjoy in Northern Ireland democratic elected local government as it is enjoyed, and covering the same circumstances that it covers, in the rest of the United Kingdom.
It is that request and petition—that is the appropriate language to be used by those who approach this House —that we are able to renew, and do renew, as a result of the outcome of the test of public opinion that has just taken place.
The annual occasion for the renewal of the 1974 Act falls in June or early July. The actual date has, I believe, varied from one year to another. However, it would be in our view inconceivable that once again, for the twelfth time, this annual lease should be renewed without any indication that in the subsequent 12 months, and early in those 12 months, it was the intention of the Government 524 to seek the necessary authority from this House—in so far as it is necessary—to deal with the two glaring deficiencies summed up under the title of direct rule.
That is not something that can suddenly or lightly be enterprised or taken into account. It is no indiscretion to say that we have been aware in recent months that the Secretary of State and his advisers, as well as the authorities of the House, have been directing their attention to the modalities by which these two grievances could be removed, Northern Ireland could have its laws made by this House in the same way as the rest of the kingdom, and its inhabitants could enjoy the advantages of responsible elected local government wherever they live. However, if that process has been slowed down or held up, as I believe it may have been, to await the outcome of yesterday's elections, there is every reason why it should now go full steam ahead. If there is to be a renewal in the conventional repetitive terms again in 1985, what is required is that it should be accompanied by a clear indication by the Government that they are taking steps, and seek renewal only on the basis that they are taking steps, to remove those two stigmata of direct rule from that part of the United Kingdom.
That is something which is not only desirable and necessary — as I believe no hon. Member would be disposed to dispute—on its own merits. I do not think that any hon. Member of the House would seriously argue the case that a part of the kingdom should be legislated for in a different way from the part that he himself represents. Nor do I think that any hon. Member could say that the benefits of local government that his constituents enjoy ought to be withheld from the constituents of any other hon. Member. It is not just a matter of equity and the common implications of membership of the Union which is symbolised and realised by the existence of this House; it is also directly related to stability and confidence in the Province.
The new Secretary of State—I hope that I do not need to apologise for using the word new, as we all find that we learn slowly and painfully in Northern Ireland—has been devoting his attention, not unnaturally, as he is duty bound, to anything which would assist the undoubted growth of confidence and stability which has been observed in the Province in the past six months. In Northern Ireland, it is not only the words of the Government but also the actions of the Government which are evaluated, and it is for this reason that we sometimes find it evidence of incomplete understanding that Ministers should repeat and rehearse what are called statutory guarantees, when Northern Ireland is indeed an integral part of the United Kingdom.
In this matter, as in others, deeds speak louder than words. The deed which I ask the Leader of the House to bring, once again, to the attention of the Secretary of State and the Cabinet is the temporary and provisional nature of the arrangements for the government of Northern Ireland which have subsisted since 1973 and which have been renewed only on an annual basis. One may ask what would be the conclusion drawn by an ill-wisher of the Union—someone who not only hoped but believed that it might somehow be part of the Government's intention that the Union should be dissolved. What would be such a person's interpretation if he saw that the Government's acts were to insist on keeping that Province on an annual lease—a 525 provisional arrangement, annually renewed—as if there were to be some new and drastically different dispensation still to arise during the 12 months ahead?
I have to say—I think not for the first time, but I can now do so with new authority and emphasis — that nothing could repress such a view more effectively than to see that the Government at last were proceeding to give Northern Ireland constitutional normality in the two outstanding respects in which its constitutional arrangements are at present abnormal. That would mean our no longer having the annual proceeding which reminds everyone in Northern Ireland of the temporary basis upon which the link between that Province and the United Kingdom subsists.
Incidentally, we should no longer have the quasi-farce of the time of the House being taken up in duplicating, in the form of Orders in Council, legislation which has already passed this House in the form of a Bill. No longer would hon. Members representing the Province be denied the opportunity of participating fully in the process of legislating, to which they are, as Members of Parliament, called. No longer would the inhabitants of the Province have the just grievance that they do not have local representation and local responsibility for administration wherever they live.
I do not believe that these matters are unfamiliar to the Leader of the House. For many years he has followed with interest and close attention and, some of us usually felt, with real sympathy, the agony of that part of the United Kingdom. He will have shared, therefore, our sense of growing relief at the increasing stability and confidence which has come to that Province in recent months. I feel sure, therefore, that my plea will not fall on deaf ears when I ask him and his Cabinet colleagues to direct their attention to this matter with urgency and not to wait until they are overtaken by the immediate necessity of the annual renewal of an Act which ought no longer to be necessary and which ought to be removed from the statute book.
§ Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon)
I hope that the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) will allow me completely to change the topic from a matter which clearly concerns him greatly, to one of equal concern to me. The announcement yesterday of 4,800 redundancies in British Rail Engineering Ltd. has confirmed the worst fears of my constituents — that the Swindon railway works will close.
Before the House rises for the Whitsun recess, this matter should be considered by the Government, on whose behalf I hope the Leader of the House will listen carefully to what I have to say. The matter seriously and severely affects 2,300 of my constituents who work for BREL. They have given outstanding service in a willing spirit of co-operation and in an atmosphere of excellent industrial relations. This closure could raise male unemployment in Swindon and surrounding areas by nearly 50 per cent., releasing a pool of highly skilled men into a local economy that has only limited need for those skills. Many of the men who will lose their jobs have little or no chance of finding another on account of their age.
The rumours that the Swindon works might close have been circulating for many years, and the desire of BREL management to wind down its Swindon operations has been known since the 1960s, along with the decision to 526 concentrate only on repairs and refurbishment instead of new build. Recent investment in modernised rolling stock built at other works has been good for the railway, good for Britain, but a disaster for Swindon as the new trains do not need as much repair as their predecessors. Similarly, the programme of asbestos removal is coming to an end.
During the past few months, therefore, I have urged BREL, British Rail and the Government to keep the Swindon works alive by increased export activity and new projects. I have asked them to examine very critically the arguments put forward for closure and stressed to them the high standards maintained by the Swindon work force. I have been joined in this effort by people from all sectors of the Swindon community and from all parties working in co-operation. Several months ago, it looked as if we might have won a reprieve from closure. Yesterday, sadly, it was confirmed that this is not true.
This is the 150th year of the Great Western railway and the vision of Brunel, which created Swindon as a railway town. In the anniversary celebrations scheduled for this summer I had hoped to be able to wish the Swindon railway works another proud 150 years. The badges and stickers are already printed in readiness for the celebrations. They say, "GWR 1835–1985." It now looks rather like a tombstone—born 1835, died 1985. The loss of the Swindon works will be mourned in a very real sense by every man, woman and child in the town.
However, it is more productive now, rather than just indulging in eulogy and obituary writing, to talk about the future. Swindon has become a phenomenal growth area in the past two decades, as a result of the town actively recruiting new industries. A vast wealth of new jobs have been created in all sectors of the economy, leaving the town no longer wholly dependent on the railway. That diversification will to some extent cushion the blow of the loss of the works. Yesterday, I spoke to the town's industrial adviser, who said that he knew of manufacturing and engineering concerns in Swindon which were already prepared to employ some of the men from the railway works. However, no matter how healthy the economy in Swindon is, we shall need help to weather the crisis, as will the 700 workers in Glasgow, and other workers throughout the country who will receive redundancy notices during the next two years. In Swindon the problem is not so much the lack of jobs as the lack of jobs to match the skills of the people in the railway works.
I am heartened to see that British Rail is creating Swindon Holdings, a new enterprise board, to find jobs for these people. However, the level of investment must be substantially higher, if that effort is to succeed. It should be coupled with additional support for job creation and small business start-up schemes through existing organisations, such as the Swindon Enterprise Trust.
I have also asked employment Ministers for a mobile job centre to be available to give individual workers practical advice on job opportunities, the enterprise allowance scheme, and how to use redundancy money as capital to start a small business. I have asked that the redundancy payments be as generous as possible, with the preservation of full pension rights, and that they meet the standards set in offers to other nationalised industry workers this year. For those who do not want to take redundancy or another job, I have asked transport Ministers to ensure that a worker who wishes it is offered redeployment either to another works or another part of 527 British Rail. British Rail Engineering Ltd. has said that it hopes to be able to place a substantial number of the Swindon work-force in another job, and I fervently hope that that is the case.
Furthermore, I have asked the Government to consider any available opportunity for a private buy-out of the Swindon works as a going concern. A company from across the Atlantic or elsewhere in the world may welcome the opportunity to get in under the European Community tariff barrier and to branch out into new projects, which only an independent company which is of fighting weight can undertake profitably. There are still untapped export opportunities as various Third-world countries upgrade their rail system.
Earlier today I met the United States Secretary of Transportation, Elizabeth Dole, at Westminster. We discussed, among other matters, the proposed closure of the Swindon railway works. I must explore every possible way of protecting the jobs of this skilled and committed work force. I was therefore grateful for the opportunity to bring Swindon's plight to the attention of somebody who may be able to offer advice and help in the rescue operation. She promised to help in any way that she could.
Provided an independent works were allowed to tender competitively and on an equal basis with BREL, it could be a profitable concern, and continue to provide many jobs. The Great Western railway survived for 112 years as a private company until nationalisation in 1947. I might add that nationalisation led to the largest job losses ever in the Swindon works. A private buy-out may sound overoptimistic, but while I admit that it is a long shot, we must not discount any possibility which might save 2,300 jobs. It is equally important to try to save the exceptional pool of talents and skills present in the Swindon workshops.
The unemployment problem in many areas is largely caused by a training gap. Employers often cannot find workers with specialist skills. It is wrong to assume that the training gap is merely another way of saying that there are not enough computer programmers. Skill shortages also exist in the more traditional occupations. For example, in some parts of the country there is a shortage of qualified welders. It would be best, therefore, if the vast skill resources at Swindon could be kept together and preserved. I have asked the Government at least to keep the forge and the spring shop at Swindon, both of which are essential to BREL's future. Furthermore, the greatest care must be taken to ensure that the work force has access to every available retraining opportunity, which will enable as many as possible to find skilled jobs in growth industries. If this programme of enterprise promotion, training and job counselling is followed, I have no doubt that Swindon and the railway workers can survive this crisis in time.
However, the Swindon railway works means more than the jobs and livelihoods of 2,300 families. The works central to the town's history, heritage and identity. Even the borough crest contains a railway engine. For everyone working in BREL in Swindon today, there are at last five former railwaymen, either retired or made redundant in past years and now in other areas of work. However, they are all railwaymen first, last and always, even if they have been working in another trade for 20 years or more.
Many thousands more are wives, mothers and children, and the Great Western heritage is also in their blood. The 528 young upwardly mobile office workers and professionals who earned Swindon a mention in the YAP handbook are the sons and daughters of railwaymen. Indeed, everyone in Swindon is in some sense a child of the railways, either in fact or only in spirit, because if there had been no railway works, Swindon would still be a small insignificant market town on the top of a hill, and not the high-tech success story of today.
It is important that we preserve a railway presence in the town. I am glad that British Rail western region has moved its headquarters to Swindon, but it would be sad if all that remained of this proud history were administrative offices and a railway museum.
Even if it is not possible to retain the works as a whole functioning unit, BR should at least ensure that the most historic workshop buildings are preserved. Listed building status is not inconsistent with their potential use as small industrial or commercial units or offices. That way, future generations of Swindonians would be reminded of their past, while they build the Swindon of the future.
Both the heritage of a town and the way of life of 2,300 families hang in the balance. The matter should be given urgent consideration by the House. Although I have outlined what I believe to be a good damage limitation programme, it cannot be beyond the wit or will of all those involved to devise a means to save these jobs and to maintain the works as a centre of engineering excellence. However, time will be of the essence, and we must make an immediate start.
§ Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)
Like the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs), I wish this matter to be debated as fully as possible. Some of his remarks will strike a responsive chord in Swindon and the House. He implied that railwaymen regard themselves as railwaymen throughout their lives, no matter what job they may have to do. Certainly, I worked in the railway industry until I was elected to the House in 1974. I shall always regard myself first and foremost as a railwayman. I am, indeed, the son of a railwayman.
This is a sad day for all who care about the railways and the future of this once great industry. Only a few years ago it would have been unthinkable to imagine a British Rail without Swindon. There has been a workshop there since 1843. Despite the ravages of time, the changes in our economic outlook and policies, and the Governments who have come and gone since then, Swindon's railway connections have remained. Yet earlier today we heard that after all that time Swindon is doomed.
Although the hon. Gentleman quite properly said that now is not necessarily the time to live in the past, it would be churlish not to pay tribute to the men and women who, over 150 years, made British Railways—I use its old title to describe all the former railway companies, in particular, Great Western railway—as great as it is.
The Government's reasons for the closure of the Swindon works and the running down of British Rail Engineering Ltd. are nonsensical. There is no doubt that modern rolling stock gives greater reliability and that the productivity of those who work within BREL, including those in Swindon, has increased dramatically in recent years. But to trot that out as an excuse for a further rundown in BREL's capacity is specious nonsense and an avoidance of responsibility by Ministers.
529 New rolling stock and locomotives are nothing new in British Rail. The process of redevelopment and re-equipment has been taking place since the second world war. The 1955 modernisation plan forecast wholesale changes in British Rail. Many changes came to pass, but they did not require a wholesale reduction in the staff of BREL. Before this Government, the future of the Swindon works was never in doubt. Manpower requirements at Swindon have varied over the years—
§ Mr. Snape
I shall take the grin off the hon. Gentleman's face. This is no laughing matter. We are talking about his constituency. In the lifetime of the Labour Government there was no threat to the survival of Swindon works. I stand by that because it is true. If the hon. Gentleman has a shred of evidence to show that that is not true, he should produce it. Of course there is none.
Over the years, modernisation plans have come and gone, but they have never prejudiced or menaced the future of the railway workshops, such as those in Swindon. The Government's argument is that new rolling stock needs less maintenance and that the rate of productivity means that capacity for carriage repair and maintenance work, such as that carried out in Swindon, is redundant.
I wonder how many Ministers travel by rail. Certainly the Prime Minister does not. Transport Ministers always say that they have given British Rail all the investment that it has requested, that their desks are clear and that there are no more investment projects before them. That is true, as far as it goes; but an enormous part of the railway system is being neglected by British Rail management. It desperately needs modern rolling stock. British Rail employs some of the oldest and most decrepit rolling stock in service anywhere in the Western world.
British Rail managers, for reasons best known to themselves, concentrate only on those services that they call inter-city—an appalling misnomer, because many services that connect cities are not classed as inter-city. Last Friday I travelled on the 15.25 train from Leeds to Stalybridge. It is part of the service between Hull and Liverpool, which are two cities, yet the service is not part of British Rail's inter-city network. The rolling stock was the filthiest and most clapped-out that it has been my misfortune to travel on for many years.
§ Mr. Snape
I understand what the hon. Gentleman means. I occasionally visit north Wales, although I have not been to his constituency for some years. I am sure he will agree that the rolling stock on those lines needs not refurbishment, but complete replacement. Yet, because the management of British Rail believes that those lines lose money, they are not part of the inter-city network about which it boasts. Those lines are lumped together in the clapped-out mass known as other provincial services. The management intends to run those trains, which are already clapped-out and a positive disincentive to rail travel, into the ground and then to withdraw the services because there will be nothing to replace them.
That is one reason why the engineering capacity of the British Rail workshops has been run down in recent years. We have a crazy transport policy, and British Rail 530 management connives in the running down of services that it considers do not make a profit and, therefore, in its eyes, have no long-term future.
Ever since the Government took office, alternatives to the rundown of BREL, including the closure of Swindon and the other closures that were forecast in today's statement, have been available. Indeed, they were published by BREL. In 1980, British Rail produced a rail plan projection, which forecast that, by the end of 1984, BREL would employ 43,000 people. At the time, it employed 36,700 people. The management of BREL, was forecasting expansion, not contraction.
I must ask the hon. Member for Swindon: was there no modern rolling stock around in 1981? I have already said that 10 years after the war, somewhat belatedly, the first modernisation plan was published. We have had 30 years of modernisation and replacement, yet only four short years ago BREL management forecast an expansion in engineering capacity. What has gone wrong since then is that the Government and the present management of British Rail have connived in running down the industry.
§ Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)
Does my hon. Friend agree that, after the trauma of the closure of Horwich—my hon. Friend will be aware that 1 started my career there—it was rumoured that Swindon would be the next in line? Despite the need to replace rolling stock, can one not draw the conclusion that, if closures continue in this way, BREL will disappear? Instead of expansion, there will be contraction, and it will the end of BREL as we know it.
§ Mr. Snape
My hon. Friend is right to remind us of the fate of the Horwich works. At the time, railwaymen were told, "Provided that you accept this closure, that should be the end of it." That has been the story at BREL and on British Rail's operational side for many years. No one believes management any more. It is no wonder that morale in the industry is at rock bottom. No one believes Ministers, or the management, when they talk about the future. They have been assured time after time, "Accept this one last closure and, although fewer people will be employed in the industry, they will at least be properly paid and will have a future." It has never been true, and it is not true now.
The decisions that affect the livelihoods of those at Swindon and elsewhere have been taken on an ad hoc, almost day-to-day, basis. That is one reason why BREL, is in its present state. Another reason, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) implied, is that it is the Government's intention to privatise anything that they can get their hands on to make a bob or two for the Treasury. Those of us who are interested in such matters are in no doubt that privatisation is intended for British Rail Engineering Ltd. However, before privatisation, it is necessary to get the constituents of the hon. Member for Swindon out of the way and on the dole.
British Rail Engineering Ltd. intends to slim clown—to use its favourite euphemism — to about 16,000 employees before it is privatised some time in the next two or three years. If the hon. Gentleman's constituents are being sacrificed to that ideological goal, that is being done regardless of whether there is any alternative employment for them.
§ Mr. Coombs
The hon. Gentleman has been carping at me for so long that there are now more points than I 531 could possibly answer in one intervention. When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport with responsibility for railways and I travelled by train to Swindon to see the railway works 18 months ago, we were clearly told that the fear of closure had been over the railway works for the past 20 years, under Governments of both political parties. The hon. Gentleman spoke of the rundown of the numbers of people as opposed to the planned expansion, but that expansion was planned because repair work was expected to increase. Instead, the number of new build operations has increased, there has been less repair work and, therefore, the number required in the repair works, such as Swindon, has been reduced. Normally, the hon. Gentleman is better informed than this. I hope he will accept that what I say is true and not continue to suggest that the threat of closure has occurred only in the past two years.
§ Mr. Snape
The hon. Gentleman is mistaken. The last major closure at Swindon was in 1962, when the old carriage and wagon capacity was closed. That was in the immediate aftermath of Dr. Beeching's report, and a Conservative Government were in power at the time. Unlike the hon. Member for Swindon, I do not wish to make a political point about the 1960s, but only 5,000 were left at the Swindon workshops after that closure in 1962.
The hon. Member for Swindon will accept that I have been to Swindon on many occasions over the years. The last time was about a year ago. For many years there have been fears in various parts of the workshops at Swindon about the future. Jobs change and, as the railways evolve, things are done differently. It has been necessary for people to be redeployed and in some cases made redundant. However, I repeat that never during the period of the last Labour Government was the continuance of Swindon as a railway centre in any doubt.
I also repeat that one of the things that has precipitated the latest crisis at Swindon is the decision by the British Railways Board not to carry on with the asbestos removal programme for its older diesel multiple units because it says that it can manage without them after 1986. That is directly contrary to what it was saying two years ago.
I can illustrate why morale has justifiably plummeted within BREL. Earlier, I referred to the rail plan projection that forecast 43,000 people working within BREL. In 1982, another rail plan forecast that by the end of 1986 27,000 people would be working in the industry. that is a dramatic fall by any stretch of the imagination, and it shows that the Government have changed their policies, although never their philosophy, and decided to run down BR's capacity enormously.
Looking at British Rail's freight side, is it any wonder that places such as Swindon, Glasgow and Horwich are under direct threat? There is virtually no rail freight any more because BR's wagon load fleet—the hon. Member for Swindon looks at the sky. I shall give him the figures.
§ Mr. Snape
It has nothing to do with the miners' strike. The British Railways Board took the decision to phase out its unbraked wagon fleet about five years ago. It decided not to replace those vehicles with modern air brake vehicles, because it decided to get out of the wagon-load business and to concentrate only on train mode traffic. Therefore, it introduced the speed link wagon flow system. That means that if one wishes to send a wagonload of traffic from Swindon to Glasgow, for example, BR will say, "Thanks very much. Ring your local road haulier. We do not want to carry it."
§ Mr. Snape
We do not expect any common sense from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King).
That is the reason why not only is there no freight and Swindon is closing but juggernaut lorries infest the length and breadth of the land. That is the result of deliberate policy.
It is not only the Swindon works, serious and tragic though its position is, but other works that are directly threatened. Since the early 1960s, Scotland has lost no fewer than four of its five main workshops and thousands of skilled engineers have gone to the wall and lost their jobs. The one works left, Springburn, has its closure almost guaranteed because of the small number of staff left after the latest announcement. It is an appalling tragedy that an industry in which Britain used to set an example for the rest of the world is being virtually closed.
I know that the management of BR appears to be interested only in expense-account bottoms on Pullman seats, but most people would prefer a greater proportion of freight to be carried by rail for both environmental and social reasons. If we had a system of finance that properly compared the two different modes of transport, perhaps even Tory Members would see the common sense of the approach that I have tried to outline.
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport spoke earlier about exports, and here BREL has a good record. It has many contracts for railway equipment in various parts of the world. However, anybody who knows anything about exports will be the first to say that it is difficult to maintain one's export market and to bid for contracts overseas if, at the same time, one is running down home market capacity.
The Under-Secretary was asked whether he thought that the French or the Japanese would ever buy railway equipment from us. Neither of those countries ever buys anything from us, but for many years Britain has been in the forefront of railway contracts to the developing world. However, we are now being asked why, if our railway industry is not good enough to produce equipment for the home market, it is good enough for export. The announcement by BR's chairman that it is considering buying many of the 1,500 locomotives that will be required between now and the early part of the next century from the United States, does not endear him to the BREL work force. Nor does it augur well for the future of the railway workshops and the railway industry at large.
Even at this late stage, I hope that we have not passed the point at which it is no longer possible to say that BREL has a future. I fear that, under this Government, BREL 533 does not have a future. The short-sighted policies that the Government are carrying through will mean the demise of BREL.
For all the riches of the British silicon valley, which stretches down the M4 motorway and includes Swindon, few of the skilled men and women at BREL will qualify for jobs in those new industries because of the enormous change in technology. I do not think that the electorate of Swindon will forgive the hon. Member for Swindon. I hope that the Tory party, which has brought BREL to the brink of penury, will pay the electoral consequences soon rather than later.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)
Order. I remind the House that the debate is limited to three hours. If there is reasonable brevity, every hon. Member should have the opportunity to contribute.
§ Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)
I believe that the House should not rise for the Whitsun recess without considering the serious consequences of the strikes by schoolchildren. There have been demonstrations in various parts of the country —two two of them extremely large. The aim of the strikes is to destroy the youth training scheme—a scheme that is fundamental to the future of the very children who were asked to demonstrate against it.
The most recent strike was organised under the banner of the School Students Action Committee. It was set up by the Young Socialists at their annual conference at Easter, and it is supported by the Youth Trade Union Rights Campaign. Both are Labour party groups. The central organisation was carried out by the Youth Trade Union Rights Campaign from its office in Labour party headquarters in Walworth road. It provided pupils throughout the country with 20,000 leaflets, published at Labour party headquarters, presumably with Labour party money. The Daily Telegraph suggests that the Labour party has provided that group with funds of about £4,000. That has not been denied—
§ Mr. Greenway
That is significant. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to tell us how much more. That could be important to the discussion.
§ Mr. Nellist
I am prepared to intervene in the hon. Gentleman's speech, but I hope to make a speech myself. During the past four years the support given by the national executive committee of the Labour party and various trade unions, such as the National Union of Public Employees, to the campaign to win decent conditions for young workers on Government training schemes has exceeded £4,000, because it has involved subventions to organised lobbies of this House three years ago and in February, as well as conferences in Manchester and other parts of the country.
§ Mr. Greenway
I am talking about the strikes by schoolchildren. Although the hon. Gentleman broadened his remarks, I presume that a great deal of the money that he mentioned funded the organisation of those strikes. If the funds exceeded £4,000, that only helps to underline the serious nature of what the Labour party is doing.
The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) are joint presidents 534 of the Youth Trade Union Rights Campaign, and I understand that each of them contributes £40 a week to its funds. They are obviously heavily committed to its cause. I understand that Militant has a keen interest in it.
§ Mr. Greenway
That is £40 between them. But what is a few pounds? It is the principle that is important. The country will recognise that substantial sums of money are being used to stir up unrest among children at school. They are being stirred up by people who are not schoolchildren, but who are in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.
On Merseyside, the strike of 4,000 schoolchildren took the form of a march to a rally addressed by the hon. Member for Broadgreen. It is a serious matter when Labour members of the Liverpool education committee vote unanimously to legalise truancy by guaranteeing the children immunity from victimisation.
I suppose that that means that if headmasters or teachers sought to bring the children back to reason, to talk to their parents about the silly action that they have taken in absenting themselves from their valuable studies for their future, or to punish them in any way, the Labour members of the Liverpool education committee—and they are in the majority — would ensure that they were not punished.
Hampstead school in London became heavily involved in the strike, and 4,500 pupils joined in the march. The car windows of two teachers were smashed and windows in the school were broken. After that exhibition, Paul Lennox — the chairman of Hampstead and Highgate Labour party Young Socialists—congratulated the Hampstead children on beingabout the best organised in London in making the strike a success.The Socialist Workers party was also involved. It issued a leaflet to the school on the very next day, headedSchool kids fight back against YTS slave labour.It stated:The School kids strike was really one in the eye for Thatcher and her slave labour scheme. The panic it created amongst the headmistress and the school authorities shows our potential power.That is militant speaking, is it not? It continues:However, a one day strike will not defeat the Tories and all the crap they throw at us. To do this we need organisation in local schools to discuss how to build our own futures.To attempt to subvert schoolchildren in that way is not only deplorable but dangerous, both to the children and to the future of our country. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science should come to the House and assure us that the matter will be dealt with and that such organisations will be kept away from schools.
I am not suggesting that there should not be free debate and argument in schools about everything that is going on, including the YTS. Of course there should. But for people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond to manipulate children — that is what they are doing — is disgraceful, unforgiveable and a serious abuse of both education and democracy. Anyone who says that it is not obviously does not have any intention of giving the children the right to their own opinion—something that they are demanding from this House for themselves.
In some places the strikes were organised to such a pitch that some pupils were observed following pre-arranged signals. Young people are being manipulated by outsiders. I hope that by speaking strongly the Labour party will 535 disown and throw out such groups. It has been suggested that the Labour party did not know what was going on inside its headquarters. That is questionable, but if it is true, it shows the total incompetence of the Labour party and its complete unfitness for government.
I want to compare the recent school strikes with those in 1972, which I remember well because I was then the deputy headmaster of a comprehensive school in King's Cross, which had 1,100 boys—[Interruption]. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) will have his chance to speak. I hope that he is not supporting Militant in its exploitation of children, but I should not be surprised if he were.
§ Mr. Greenway
I shall not give way. I think that the hon. Gentleman will be seeking to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
In 1972, an organisation called the National Union of School Students was started at Rutherford comprehensive school in Marylebone road. It is a small comprehensive with about 700 boys. That organisation was started on the pretext that children were being forced to wear uniforms. The group organised a strike designed to end the wearing of school uniform and also to end the use of the cane. In a short time the use of the cane will be optional. It is significant that the recent strikes in Liverpool and Hampstead had as part of their aims an increase in the school uniform grant. Times have obviously changed.
In 1972, as I saw with my own eyes, groups of schoolchildren marched from one school to another over a period of three or four days calling children out on strike. The children got into a serious state of riot, and the more they took to rioting, the more serious and frightening the situation became.
Those behind the recent strikes of schoolchildren were attempting to unleash something that they could not control, a process that could be damaging to the nation, the children and our whole way of life—indeed, to our very democracy and our ability now to be debating the matter in the House. Such activity is outrageous and should be ended forthwith.
The aims of the national Union of School Students, the School Students Action Committee and the Youth Trade Union Rights Campaign are anarchistic, as are their publications. the House should not go into recess until we have examined the serious state of affairs resulting from this exploitation of children. That is why I have raised the matter.
Mr. Bruce Milian (Glasgow, Govan)
I shall not comment on the subject that was raised by the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). In other circumstances I would have dealt with the issues raised by other hon. Members, particularly that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) about the crisis affecting British Rail workshops, and the effect on the workshops in Glasgow, where there will be job losses of more than 1,000 and where the viability of the remaining workshop must seriously be in question.
We have been warning the Secretary of State for Scotland for several months of the impending crisis. I regret that there has not been the slightest sign of his doing 536 anything to try to avert the redundancies and, in particular, to protect the situation in Glasgow. However, that is on a par with the general neglect of the Government of the whole of the railway industry and in their attitude towards redundancies on the railways and in manufacturing industry more generally.
I wish to raise another subject of importance on which it is urgent to have a response from the Government before the House rises for the Whitsun recess. I hope that the Leader of the House is, to some extent at least, briefed on the matter, because yesterday I gave notice to the Scottish Office of my intention to raise it, when I drew attention to the fact that the Department of Health and Social Security was also involved.
The issue that I raise is a scandal involving the exploitation of housing benefit by slum landlords in Glasgow and elsewhere in the west of Scotland; and, for all I know, the abuse may be occurring in other parts of the country. It has been exposed in Glasgow this week by the Evening Times in a series of articles. I pay tribute to that newspaper and to the two journalists involved, Mike Hildrey and Jim Morrison, who have acted in the best traditions of investigative journalism. By their exposure of abuses of the housing benefit system in Glasgow by slum landlords they have performed an extremely useful public service.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall) and I have been much involved in the matter in recent days, although I accept that the problem concerns hon. Members who represent other constituencies. I shall give two examples of what is happening, both of them from my constituency.
One case concerns a house which I have seen in recent days. The living conditions there are absolutely abominable. It is a tradgedy and disgrace that any family, much less a family with four young children, including a baby, should be living in such conditions. The name of my constituent is Mr Hamilton, who lives in Vicarsfield street in Govan.
For that deplorable property — in my opinion, accommodation that is completely unfit for human habitation — Mr. Hamilton is paying the landlords, Norman Properties (Glasgow) Limited—I shall come to that company in more detail shortly—£120 a month rent for a room and kitchen, to which must be added charges for rates and other matters. There is no kitchen, no proper bathroom and no hot water. The whole place is in an absolutely deplorable condition, yet Norman Properties is charging Mr. Hamilton that amount of rent.
Another case, also outlined by the Evening Times, is in an area of my constituency that I know well. Equally deplorable conditions apply. A single young person living in the house is being charged a staggering £196 a month, exclusive of rates, common charges and building insurance. As I say, the conditions in that property —I accept that the same can be said of properties in other constituencies—are deplorable.
This involves the exploitation of tenants who are, in most cases, disadvantaged for one reason or another. In any event, nobody should be allowed to live in such conditions, much less at rents of that magnitude. The rents in the cases to which I have referred, and in many others, for properties owned by this company are 10, 15 or 20 times higher than what would be fair rents under the fair rents system. 537 The whole position becomes obscene when we learn that the two directors of Norman Properties, Mr. and Mrs. Solomons, live in an area of Florida which is inhabited largely by millionaires. They are living in tremendous style off the backs of tenants, constituents of mine, and others in Glasgow, who are living in the most appalling conditions.
The company is supervised and run in Glasgow by their son, who also lives in considerable style in Glasgow, also on the basis of exploiting tenants living in absolutely abominable conditions. I find it difficult to speak calmly about the loathsome behaviour of the people running this dreadful company, and a number of other companies are involved in this racket.
The racket involves the rents being paid out of the public purse, for we are dealing with people who are unemployed and on supplementary benefit. The rents are being paid by the Government, by the DHSS, through the agency of the district council, which now administers housing benefits following changes made in recent years. These changes, which were pushed through in utter chaos by the Government, put the responsibility for these matters on to district councils, away from the DHSS.
I shall describe the way in which the system works. The DHSS certifies that the tenants, being on supplementary benefit, are entitled to housing benefit. The certificates go to the district council and the money for these exorbitant and extortionate rents are paid by the district council. All of the money for the rents in these cases is refunded to the district council by the DHSS.
Under this system, neither the DHSS nor the district council checks the properties to see whether they are habitable. Nor does anybody check to see whether the rents being charged bear any relation to the condition of the property. The DHSS hands over responsibility to the district council, after paying to the company to which I have referred — and other firms which are in on the same racket—eight, 10 or 12 weeks' rent in advance. That is paid to the landlords before the tenants move in.
There would be proper safeguards in an ideal world. The housing benefit regulations contain provisions to reduce rents if they are excessive and the Rent Act enables a tenant to apply to a fair rent tribunal. These safeguards have not worked. The provisions covering high rents should be enforced by the district council. The housing benefit chaos caused by the Government is linked to the financial penalties imposed on a district council if it tries to enforce housing benefit provisions. Enforcement adds to administrative costs, only some of which are refunded by the Government.
Many tenants live in fear and are harassed and intimidated by their landlords. The typical tenants are unemployed and receive supplementary or other benefits. Some are not secure tenants, but are tenants under a variety of arrangements and dodges designed to escape the security of tenure provisions of the Rent Acts. These tenants have rental agreements running for six months or 12 months at a time. This all means that they face the maximum psychological pressure. The tenants know that if they make waves their landlords may attempt to evict them. For those reasons, the district council has found it difficult to apply the excessive rent provisions. If the council applies those provisions, tenants might be placed in an even worse position and might be evicted.
Norman Properties and other companies like it behave in an uncompassionate and cruel way towards their 538 tenants. There is no question of dealing with tenants as ordinary human beings. They take the maximum amount of money from the taxpayer and do not give a damn for the tenants living in their properties.
The tenants can apply for a fair rent under the legislation, but, because of their fear of intimidation and harassment, it is unrealistic to expect them to take the initiative. There is no financial incentive for them to do so, because the rent has not been paid by them. It has been paid out of the public purse. Typically, the landlord asks for the rent to be paid direct to him, so the money does not even go through the tenant. The district council pays the rent direct to the landlord—another twist in the system exploited by the landlord. Landlords often send notices saying that the tenants are in arrears in paying their rent. I believe, from the evidence presented to me, that many of those notices are fraudulent and dishonest.
Another irony of the system is that if one of these unfortunate people happens to get a job he no longer has a home because an ordinary wage is not sufficient to pay the rents that are demanded, and paid out of the public purse. In some cases, people are too frightened to obtain employment. I have seen evidence that the landlord to whom I am referring in this case offers houses at lower rents to working people than to the unemployed, but even for those who work the rents are still exorbitant.
I am in favour of both the district council and the DHSS operating the existing laws rigorously. This is beginning to happen, but a change in the law in Scotland is needed to enable local authorities on their own initiative to go through the fair rents procedure. In England, section 68 of the Rent Act 1977 allows a local authority to step in to reduce a rent—not, however, to increase it. In Scotland a local authority has no locus in the matter, and this is another reason why it is reluctant to act.
The response of the landlords--loathsome creatures that they are—to the Evening Times articles has been to try to brazen things out. The response of the DHSS has been extraordinary. When asked why the DHSS should pay large sums of money to landlords in these cases, a senior DHSS official in Scotland made this remarkable statement:Value for money is of no interest to us.I trust that that view does not reflect official Government view.
I am glad that Glasgow district council has taken action. An all-party motion was passed today by the council condemning what has been happening and asking for the loophole in the Rent Acts to be closed. The district council has decided that it will not pay any more rent to Norman Properties. The council will have to take certain legal action and encourage tenants to go through the fair rents system if it is to maintain its attitude. The district council needs the co-operation of the DHSS, and this is where the Government come in. It is no use the district council saying, "We shall not pay these extortionate rents any more," if the DHSS keeps paying deposits or making other payments, thereby allowing exorbitant sums to be taken from the tenants—or, more accurately, from the public purse.
The district council has said that it will ensure that tenants are not put at risk because of any action that they have taken. Some of the abuses of the system were drawn to the Government's attention in the evidence given by the district council in July 1984 to the Housing Benefits Review Board.
539 I am glad that the police have been involved in this matter. A raid has been made on the premises and some documents have been taken away. So far as I am aware, no charges have been laid, but there is certainly evidence in some of the documents that I have seen of fraudulent practices affecting my constituents. I hope that the full force of the law will be brought down on these miserable landlords.
The Government's response has been the most extraordinary part of this case. Today, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland with responsibility for housing matters — the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram) — made a complacent and insensitive statement. I am sorry that he is not in his place to hear what I have to say about him. He played down the issue, saying that he did not think there was a substantial problem. He said that the action of the DHSS was a matter not for him but for other Ministers and that he did not have any interest in it. He said that he did not have any evidence that there were widespread abuses. I understand that today the Evening Times has called that passing the buck. It is the most extraordinary example of that practice that I have seen. We are talking about public money. The Government are always asking us to save money. Local authorities and everyone else are lectured about that.
The money comes from the Department of Health and Social Security. Large sums of money are involved. No public purpose is being served. The money is lining the pockets of unscrupulous landlords. The Government must make a pledge to amend the Rent Acts. It would need only a simple one-clause Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Shettleston and I do not intend to let the matter rest. If the Government will not introduce legislation, we shall see that a Bill is introduced and put into effect. If the Government can introduce emergency legislation on rates, they can introduce a simple one-clause Bill on this matter. It could go through the House quickly, with unanimous all-party support. It would not take up much of the House's time. What I have described is a scandal. I hope that the Government will take urgent action to deal with it.
§ Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)
The House should not adjourn for the spring recess until we have debated the state of the nation in its religious, moral and political aspects. We are debating on Ascension day, one of the great Christian festivals.
Recently, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who holds that office with such charm and distinction, was asked how we should commemorate the ending of the last war 40 years ago. He replied, rightly and properly, that we might do it in the same way as we celebrated VE day—"by going to church." I hope that we shall do that in St. Margaret's, perhaps in the late summer when the ending of the terrible war in the far east will be remembered.
The Government are doing the right things politically and economically, but they do not always claim moral authority for what they do. Inflation is evil and immoral. It is a form of theft by the Government from the citizens. It is a form of dishonesty at the highest level. However, our opponents claim that Government policy is wrong. They wish us, once again, to reflate, with all the ghastly consequences that we have so often seen. The Government 540 are correct to resist calls for reflation. We must wait for unemployment to fall—hard though that is—as it surely will fall, but we must not ruin our chances of recovery or make all our sacrifices of no avail by printing money once again.
I am disappointed that the Government sometimes appear as economists, calculators and supporters of laissez faire, when we are all aware that they are spending billions of pounds on public works and state benefits. Despite their rhetoric, the Government have not reduced taxation or public expenditure by very much. We are still protecting the poor, as Archbishop Laud and the Earl of Strafford did in the 17th century. We are not harsh Whigs, as our opponents claim, only looking after our own.
The people who complain now are from the well-heeled middle class. Our support comes more and more from the working class. There is no alternative to present Government policies if we are to catch the richer nations which are leaving us far behind. In no other way can we produce the wealth to pay for our welfare services.
The Government have at least two chances to show that they have a moral interest. One is by not allowing the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill, introduced by the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), to lapse. I know that there are difficulties and precedents to overcome, but Government support would give a great signal to Christians everywhere in the kingdom that the Government are on their side.
The second opportunity is in the new arrangements for Sunday trading. I am not a supporter of the Lord's Day Observance Society. I am a cavalier, not a roundhead. I believe that the Sunday trading laws, with all their anomalies, need amending, but I do not want a continental Sunday in England. To me, the main point of Sunday is for all Christians in this land to go to church to worship God. Anything that stands in the way of that should be resisted by the Government.
Market forces are all very well. I believe generally in the good sense of market forces, but Christian forces should also be taken into account by the Government. Many of our social problems—the increase in crimes of violence, rape, drug-taking, and so on—stem from the lack of a religious and moral lead. The huge numbers of divorces and broken homes stem in part from a lack of sexual morality. The Government try to deal with some of those problems with the means that they have at their disposal. We heard some of those means proposed this afternoon by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. The Government's efforts would be much more effective if there were a-moral claim behind their actions.
Like others, I was greatly relieved by the recent impressive and moving service in Westminster abbey. The sermon of the Archbishop of Canterbury was right for the occasion. It is right and essential that from time to time we have public ceremonies. They bring us together as a nation and show us and people throughout the world what type of people we are.
The Government are also under attack for their defence policies by a small but noisy minority. One would have thought that the years of peace under NATO would have quietened those critics. In his sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that it was right to resist Nazi aggression by force, yet CND supporters and others are not prepared to stand up to Soviet aggression. They press their views on the majority with a self-righteousness that I find displeasing. From time to time they use violence, as do the 541 women at Greenham common. They make an absurd differentiation between nuclear and conventional war; but conventional war is also horrible, as those of us who experienced it can testify.
§ Mr. Stokes
I shall not give way. We have little time for the debate and we have been asked to make short speeches. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman served in the war.
I am sorry that we have not been given an opportunity before the recess to debate relations between church and state. At a time of moral chaos and confusion it is important that church and state should speak with one voice. Despite most people's generally increasing prosperity—apart from areas of unemployment—there is increasing crime, violence, lawlessness, broken homes, divorce, one-parent families and a lowering of standards of honesty and decency. Those matters cannot be dealt with by the Government and police forces alone. The Government must proclaim a moral standard. Leadership in those matters is required at every level. In particular, there must be leadership and a good example for the young to follow. Such leadership is being given by countless parish priests and by many people involved in voluntary bodies, but the bishops and the higher clergy seem strangely silent on those matters.
I know that it is easier to point to the state of affairs in central America, South Africa or other faraway places than it is to attempt to rebuke sin at home. That is what the bishops should be doing. They should be pointing the way to salvation through Christ and his church.
§ Mr. Stokes
I shall not give way. I have almost reached the end of my speech and the hon. Gentleman may himself be called.
Several new bishops are about to be appointed. It is devoutly to be hoped that they will be men of faith and courage, able to give a lead to the mass of the people who are now being brought up in a largely heathen society.
Another matter that will come before us soon is the review of social security benefits that is being undertaken by the Government. We are enjoined in scripture to look after the fatherless and the widows; but that does not mean that, for instance, the father of a family should not seek to provide for his wife and children. The state, in seeking to provide a safety net for the sick, the old, the infirm and those who cannot obtain work, must not weaken the personal responsibility of the head of the family.
Too often the so-called one-parent family, which costs the state so much, is the result of selfishness or self-indulgence by one or both parents. I hope that the bishops and the higher clergy will not rush to condemn the Government's new proposals for the social services. They should consider the Pope's stern words recently on all these matters in Holland.
If the Government's new proposals about social benefits are wise and in accordance with Christian principles, as I believe they will be, surely the Government should not apologise for them, but proclaim them for their moral soundness.
§ Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)
I regret the failure of the House to debate before the Whitsun recess 542 the erosion of political values and the decline of pluralism in politics. I am glad to be able to link what I want to say with the Home Secretary's quotation earlier from Oliver Wendell Holmes about the need to permit and encourage views opposite to one's own. I welcome that, not least because it makes a change from the equally valid quotation from Voltaire on the same subject which we tend to bandy about.
Although hon. Members of both Conservative and Labour persuasions assent to the acceptance aid even encouragement of values different from their own, the reality of what they do is different. The Conservatives as a party have made almost an industry of the exposure of what they believe to be illegitimate public expenditure.
The Conservative Centre for Policy Studies has recently published two booklets. "The New Corruption" seeks to identify what is happening in Labour-controlled councils where people who are employed by one authority are members of other authorities. I have much sympathy for councillors who have the problem of finding employers willing to allow their employees to have time off to serve on local authorities. The Conservative party implies that that is almost illegitimate.
The other pamphlet is called "Quangos Just Grow—political bodies in voluntary clothing". The self-same endeavour to draw out antipathy to what is happening in Labour-controlled local authorities was copied in Yorkshire by a leading member of the Conservative party, Lucille Campey, who produced a regional version of the list in the pamphlet. Unfortunately for her and he-- cause, the list included voluntary groups so patently beneficial to the community that the document was undermined. I pay tribute to the other Conservatives who, at a meeting of the Yorkshire regional Conservative party, criticised the document. It is interesting that the author herself was defeated by a Liberal at the recent county council election.
When matters are raised in this way Labour councils retaliate and assert that they are only doing for their class what the Conservatives have done for their supporters. Therefore, they intensify the exclusivity of their policy The paradox of the two approaches is that each provokes the other. Exposure of what is referred to as the new corruption breeds retaliation. Both sides are culpable in the diminution and erosion of political values. The result is deteriorating and dangerous political circumstances in which subservience to an exclusive partisan philosophy is necessary for grant aid from central or local government, We ought not to think about the House going into recess, even for a short period, until it has debated certain issues that are fundamental to our democratic values.
The recent sad case of the National Council for Civil Liberties is a vivid example of what is happening. In one sense I am glad that it happened so publicly, because I hope it will be a warning that will be heeded elsewhere. I am not optimistic, particularly when I read in a letter to The Guardian from the professor of politics at Leeds university a defence of the view that, once a majority within an organisation has taken a legitimate decision, the minority must accept it. It is precisely because of the danger of the tyranny of the majority that a body such as the NCCL is needed. For instance, many ethnic minorities have experienced to their cost over the years the crucial difficulty of obtaining civil rights for themselves within a majority community.
The dangers of the misuse of power are immense, In my own local authority, the Labour controlling group 543 trundles out Labour representative after Labour representative to open community facilities officially. At times it seems that only the repainting of a room is required for it to be opened officially by another representative of the controlling party who will cut a tape or make a speech. That is happening even when opposition members of the council have been involved with a project in their own community for many years. Even in such cases Labour members with less involvement carry out the official duties. I believe that is deliberate and that it is done for a purpose.
In Leeds, as elsewhere, partisan literature is produced and distributed at public expense, with a stream of photographs, articles and other material promoting only one party. That is being deliberately extended with individual newsletters for separate party constituencies. It is as if the people who have control over the use of resources in an authority are frightened of genuine debate and need instead to use public money illegitimately as a substitute for argument.
The Conservatives, of course, are not blameless. They are catching up fast. For instance, a leaflet produced recently by Cardiff city council is conveniently in bright blue. That is the first time that has happened. The document carries a message making essentially political points about finance, although it has been paid for by the rates.
The usual Conservative response is to control, constrict or abolish that with which it disagrees. That began with the ending of school milk in 1971, and continued with the Housing Finance Act 1972, the control of local authority rents in 1972, the removal of many water authorities from democratic accountability in 1974, and the removal of health powers, including ambulances, from local government in 1974. More recently we have had increasing direction of health authorities from the centre and the rate-capping of authorities that the Government believe are spending illegitimately. The latest action is the current effort to abolish the metropolitan county councils and the GLC.
The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was, as usual, clear and absolutely honest when he was quoted in The Guardian on 16 May:The Labour party is the party of division. In its present form it represents a threat to the democratic values and institutions on which our parliamentary system is based. The GLC is typical of this new modem, divisive version of socialism. It must be defeated. So we shall abolish the GLC.I reject that view and regard it as exceptionally dangerous to our whole democratic process. If a political movement cannot win support for its view at the appropriate level, it is illegitimate to use Big Brother to enforce its opinion. All of us in politics need to enhance political debate, and that involves encouraging the expression of contrary views.
For five years before I came to this House, I had the honour to be the general secretary of the Bradford Metopolitan Council for Voluntary Service. They were five fascinating years. It was a tremendous experience and highly educational. It did more for me, I suspect, than my 20 years in politics before that. Working under a Conservative-controlled council, then a Labour-controlled council, and latterly under a balanced council, I found that the voluntary sector was able to innovate. It became more aware of what it could do, it showed resilience under the 544 severe pressures of high unemployment and declining industry, and, above all, it learned how to be involved properly and democratically in the political process of the city.
I believe it is no accident that within the latest urban programme submissions from local authorities to the Government, the highest proportion of voluntary sector schemes come from two balanced councils—the London borough of Brent and Bradford city council. However, I do not believe that all are bad or badly motivated in other parties. On either side of the political divide there are people whose commitment is genuine, and that is why I raise these matters on the Adjournment today.
I believe that the Leader of the House is committed to pluralism in politics. We have a very fair response from him at business questions. I believe that he wishes to do his best to raise the standard of debate on serious issues inside and outside this House. I hope that, by raising matters in this way, and saying that I do not believe we should start the recess before debating them, I shall secure some favourable comments from the Leader of the House later in the debate.
An entrenched Labour supporter, Professor Bernard Crick, has written on the same problems with great force. In The Observer of 21 April 1985, he wrote about the local government powers that are to be taken if the current legislation goes through. He said:I honestly say that I could fear my own party as much as the Thatcherites if she gets her way on this. There are great dangers in riding so roughly over constitutional conventions.I agree with something that Professor Crick wrote on another occasion—that political values will always be keenly fought. There is little possibility of achieving a consensus on those values, but within our parliamentary democracy we must have a consensus on procedures. Unless we distinguish between those two objectives, I fear that our whole democratic process and political debate will decline so far that it may well become impossible to retrieve it, and we shall have strife across an ever-widening political divide. For that reason, I believe that the House should not adjourn in the way that is proposed.
§ 7.3 pm
§ Mr. Keith Best (Ynys Mon)
On occasions such as this, when all of us ask the Leader of the House not to allow us to go into recess—but would be universally horrified if he said that he would not — there is an opportunity for us to deliver all those speeches that, frustratingly, we have not been able to deliver in former debates because we have been squeezed out, or for whatever other reason. I shall leave the House to determine for itself on which occasion I might have delivered this one.
Perhaps we should not go into recess at a time of such great political uncertainty. The actions of some politicians would be more understandable if they had taken place in March rather than in May, unless, unknown to me, hares have changed their habits.
Is not political philosophy sound? The Labour party has stood on its head over the sale of council houses, and I greatly welcome that, but it seems it is more successful than Paul Daniels in making policies disappear. Indeed, rather than forming a party called Centre Forward, perhaps it should form a party known as Goalee Group, because it is so used to scoring its own.
545 The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has now regurgitated the philosophy of nationalisation of land, which many of us thought had been buried years ago. According to the newspapers today, when he was asked what the attitude of the Labour party would be to his proposal, he said that it would be like meeting an old friend whom one thought was dead.
The problems to which I have referred are not to be found exclusively on the Opposition Benches. On the Conservative Benches is a new group which is highly critical of Government economic policies. At the same time, Ministers are telling us that all is well.
Perhaps this week's Economist, which has on the front page the caption "The voteless boom", may have got it almost right. It has an uncanny knack of noting the perceptions of people and translating them into words. We shall have growth of about 4 per cent. this year—the fastest since 1973 — when the International Monetary Fund forecasts that growth in the United States and Japan is decelerating, and stagnant in Germany at just over 2 per cent. In Britain, investment in manufacturing is increasing, yet there is a danger that the judgment of The Economist may be right when it states:At bottom, though, voters are unimpressed by the Government's economic record, and for one big reason. Unemployment is still rising.I speak with some passion on that matter, because I have the privilege of representing a constituency which suffers from 23 per cent. unemployment. We know that many demographic features have resulted in an increase in unemployment — the baby boom of the 1960s, the number of part-time women workers, and several other factors which I shall not go into in detail because that is not the gravamen of my speech.
It is right to remember also that employment is increasing, and perhaps we do not hear enough about that. Yet the canker of unemployment remains. It is important that all of us — particularly people in the country —should remember that the old belief that if the country is doing well the people are necessarily better off and happier, is no longer true. Undoubtedly some people are, especially those in work and those who are still obtaining wage settlements in excess of the rate of inflation. But that serves only to create greater division between the employed and the unemployed. That is why the forthcoming review of tax and benefits is so important.
A major service of simplification and integration could be achieved through a tax credit system—a reform for the future which was heralded many years ago. Yet we see only one form of benefit, child benefit, which was meant to be the start of a series of benefits in moving towards the concept of an integrated tax credit system. I hope that the Government will grasp that nettle. I hope that our present Chancellor of the Exchequer will go down in history as a great reforming Chancellor, with a vision of the future as to where benefits and tax should be integrated to the advantage of people as a whole.
Modern technology is at present another source of unemployment. Whatever it may provide by way of greater employment in the future, at present it is seen as destroying jobs, yet we must embrace it if we are to move forward. There was a welcome announcement yesterday that inventors in academic and Government laboratories are no longer obliged to give the British Technology Group first refusal in the exploitation of their ideas. They can now negotiate exploitation through their university or through 546 their own endeavours. That is a welcome step forward, although I believe that in the United Kingdom we still have not got absolutely right the empathy and relationship between academic research and commercial exploitation which is so successful in the United States. Therefore, we need to move forward on that point as well.
Without undermining our economy through massive expenditure leading to raging inflation, there has to be a duty on Government to use every endeavour to encourage greater employment. However, that is not exclusively a Government responsibility. There is a responsibility on those in work, and particularly their union representatives, to ensure that we do not lose competitiveness by increasing unit labour costs. Wages are still increasing in real terms. Those who seek to force through high wage claims in excess of the rate of inflation are entrenching unemployment for others.
There are two ways in which the Government can help to increase employment without risking greater inflation. The first is to reduce the cost to the employer. The Budget was a welcome acknowledgment that that is a good way of trying to increase the number of people who are employed. The cuts in employers' national insurance contributions announced in the Budget are a great help, but that could have been done far more imaginatively. Measures such as greater cuts in or total exemption from the costs of employing people in areas of high employment such as Anglesey and other parts of Wales, and also for young people under 20, could have directed the assistance to where it was most needed. That is what is needed now to ensure that we do not have unemployment black spots. There are several of those, regrettably, which lead to great misery and frustration, and an increasing sense of despair among our people. I should like to see a reduction in the costs to the employer on both a geographical and sectoral basis.
The other way to try to overcome unemployment is to help the growth of small businesses. The Government have tried many schemes. I pay tribute to those attempts. I hope that I am allowed to refer to the Principality, from which I come. It is good to see the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) in his place. He will know what I am talking about. Wales is the land of small businesses. In 1982, 83 per cent. of manufacturing local units in Wales employed fewer than 200 people, a total of 31 per cent. of the Welsh population. Some 6,000 new small businesses were started in Wales between 1980 and 1983. The Small Firms Information Centre has been dealing with constantly increasing levels of inquiries, from 6,500 in 1978 to 16,500 in 1984.
My concern is whether such small businesses have sufficiently easy access to funds for setting up, investment and expansion. The United Kingdom has fewer Government agencies than elsewhere to aid the development of small businesses. I welcome the establishment of the Welsh Development Agency's venture capital fund, which now stands at £5.5 million. I congratulate the chief executive of the WDA, Mr. David Waterstone.
Let us look at where that finance is likely to go. The criteria for lending are a minimum of £50,000 and a maximum of £500,000, on a strictly commercial basis. The fund will aim to lend to less risky projects that are available and want to generate capital gains, and not income. The security requirements are strictly commercial. Normally, the fund will prefer existing companies 547 looking for project financing and require accounts going back as much as two to three years. I do not complain about a Government fund having to be careful where it puts its money. Nevertheless, that does not answer the problem of where the small business that wants to raise £15,000 or £20,000 is-to obtain money in a way that it can afford.
The loan guarantee scheme was another attempt to ensure that money could come to small businesses. It was set up on the Government's initiative with a view to promoting the initiatives from the public to start their own businesses. However, I hope that I am not regarded as unduly critical when I say that the loan guarantee scheme has done far more to help the banks than those who might get the money. It has given the banks the guarantee rather than the people who might wish to have access to the money. In general, the clearing banks that have become part of the scheme would have lent the money to the same projects in any event. They have simply been made more willing to do so as a result of the scheme because of the extra security that the scheme provides.
I suspect that every hon. Member could go around his constituency and find bank managers who, sadly, are not sufficiently trained in matters of commercial judgment to be able to make such a judgment properly when somebody comes along to ask for finance for a new venture. In rural areas one sees bank managers who are far too ready to lend money on the security of land. Now farmers are confronted with the problem of being heavily mortgaged, then they are suddenly confronted by cuts in milk quotas and so on. Bank managers have been prepared to lend money, but on safe security rather than to ventures that may have desperate need of money to be set up and to employ people.
I make no complaint about that, because it is not the bank's own money. It is the bank's investors' money. Those who leave their money in the bank would not be satisfied if they thought that the bank was making increasingly risky investments in companies. However, that does not alter the fact that that is not a ready source of available finance for small businesses.
Government grants are available. They are multifarious, and they are welcome, but we have seen moratoriums on Government grants, which make it difficult for people to rely on them. The frustration about that is manifest in many areas.
We have plenty of access to expertise from the management point of view. There is the Welsh Development Agency in Wales. We have an economic development unit and a business agent in Anglesey. All are prepared to go out and give the benefit of their experience in business, to help small businesses in planning their marketing technique and such matters. However, those people cannot offer money on terms that small businesses can afford. Effectively, the only way in which a small business can have access to finance is on strictly commercial terms with a bank, and that is very difficult.
In order to overcome that problem, we need either a Government fund offering small loans to small businesses on favourable terms — I would not favour that route because it is a Socialist route, which would build up many difficulties—or we need to shift the whole emphasis away from trying to give tax concessions to companies, to giving them to those who wish to invest their money in 548 them. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) has tabled a new clause to the Finance Bill, which is along those lines. It would enable small and medium-sized companies to issue tax-free bonds. The business expansion scheme adopted that concept. However, much more can and needs to be done to ensure that we can go down that route.
It is unfair for us to expect institutions that are dealing with other people's money to take risks in lending finance to small businesses. It is not unfair — indeed, it is necessary — to shift that risky burden to the investor himself. If one give fiscal incentives to the investor, the investor will respond, as the recent dramatic increase in the over-the-counter market has shown only too well. We must make it clear, however, that we are concerned about economic policy, not for its own sake, but purely as a means to achieve the happiness and unity of our people. We must make it clear that we are focusing our attention on that.
Politicians and people alike are aware of the need for a new vision of society for the 1990s and the turn of the century. That vision must be of a contented and not a divided society. That is why we must concentrate on the problem of unemployment. With a little more imagination and inventiveness I believe that we can provide that vision —but time is very short.
§ Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)
I hope that the House will not adjourn for the Whitsun recess without considering the collapse of the Insurance Corporation of Ireland, and especially its London operations, which will have great consequences for all of us unless we address ourselves to what can be done to tighten the regulations governing the City in this respect.
The whole House will agree that the London market is a major insurance centre and that anything that happens in it is thus of great importance. Provisions for supervision and regulation have greatly increased in recent years, and the Department of Trade and Industry has been charged to investigate whether there are sufficient solvency margins. The powers have evolved and expanded through various Acts of Parliament. The Insurance Companies (Amendment) Act 1973 gave the Department its present wide powers of intervention and the Companies Act made it compulsory for companies to be authorised by the Department and for management to be in the hands of fit and proper people. In addition, regulations were introduced providing that all authorised insurers must submit detailed annual reports to the Department. I am pleased to say that virtually all those developments have been consolidated in the Insurance Companies Act 1982 and in the 1981 regulations, so the basic framework is in place.
The question that needs to be answered by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is whether the 85 people in that section of the Department can deal adequately with 850 authorised insurers and the extremely detailed returns submitted, some of which run to 100 pages or more. How can all those submissions be adequately investigated by so few staff?
In the EEC, solvency regulations are largely left to the insurance licensing authorities of individual member states. Each member state then looks at the companies 549 which have their head offices in that country, but it is also necessary to consider the activities of branch offices and whether the reserve ratio is satisfactory.
That is the background to the collapse of the Insurance Corporation of Ireland. The corporation has branch offices in London, Bristol and Manchester and, I believe—the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) will correct me if I am wrong — two offices in Northern Ireland. My greatest concern is about the London operation, which accounted for 70 per cent. of the corporation's worldwide network, including Europe, the United States and Ireland. The corporation's United Kingdom business made losses of between 25 million and 125 million Irish punts and perhaps much more, but some suggest that the losses may be as high as £500 million sterling, and even people who take a conservative view believe that the losses are at least £150 million.
How did such a collapse occur? The corporation gave the London office immense powers over the way in which it conducted business in an area in which there had long been a great deal of overcapacity — the reinsurance market. As a result of that overcapacity, very low rates had been quoted. The established companies in that area, however, were seeking to stabilise the rates and to achieve a more sensible relationship between the rates and the returns likely to accrue rather than constantly cutting rates to get business at any cost. That is the jungle into which the Insurance Corporation of Ireland—a small, perhaps rather naive, company—plunged and took on business that other companies were not prepared to take on and at rates which one commentator described as suicidal. As a result of that madness, it ran into its present troubles.
Although the Insurance Corporation of Ireland is a small company in United Kingdom terms, it is the only indigenous Irish company engaged in reinsurance. Why it allowed its London management to make such disastrous decisions, I do not know, but it certainly led the corporation into severe difficulties.
When the Irish authorities examined the figures submitted to them in July 1984, they realised that something was wrong because there was insufficient provision in the 1983 accounts to meet outstanding claims on the corporation's Irish business. The authorities were extremely worried and began to inquire into the London branch activites. The management offered assurances that all would be well, saying that there were difficulties but that measures were being taken to put things in order, and the parent company—the Allied Irish Bank—said that it was committing itself to 23 million Irish punts to cover the shortfall and to bring the corporation back to solvency.
In November 1984, the Irish authorities expressed concern about the thirteen fold increase in underwriting losses which had occurred in three years as a result of the London branch's activities. At that time the DTI was asked what the situation was. It is obvious that during that period the Department must have received the June figures. According to the Irish press, even when asked in November 1984 what was happening, particularly in London, the Department gave the all clear and said that the operations were fine. In fairness to the Department, it denied that it had said this, but it certainly felt that the company could carry on.
It is now a matter of record that the company collapsed. Consequently, I hope that the questions that I shall ask will be answered by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Is it true that there will be an inquiry into this 550 company, particularly into its United Kingdom operations which caused the losses that occurred? Will such an inquiry be undertaken by the DTI? If so, what will be its terms of reference? Will its findings be published? Does the DTI consider that there are any gaps in the disclosure requirements for insurers with head offices in the United Kingdom or those which have branch offices in this country? Does the DTI consider that further powers, over and above those which exist in current legislation, are required to enforce its statutory supervisory functions? It is obvious that something was lacking in this case.
This matter is of particular concern as more and more insurers are setting up operations in the United Kingdom. It is therefore essential to know what is happening so that investors and employees can be kept informed. It is immensely important that the DTI should obtain all the data which are necessary to judge the operation of these companies.
Are the present disclosure requirements adequate? Changes are occurring in the market. It is vital to look at the reinsurance market, where the Irish company's troubles arose, because other companies have experienced difficulty due to competition and cuts in the rates that are charged.
The London market is a major international insurance centre. We must ensure that our house is put in order if that is what is required. We require more information in order to do so, because we have a responsibility to ensure that any insurer who operates in this country fulfils the strictest possible criteria so that we can prevent a collapse similar to that which occurred in the Insurance Corporation of Ireland. We require such information not to restore confidence in the industry, but to ensure that it is monitored and that such a collapse cannot occur again. I therefore hope that we shall be given the information that I have requested.
§ Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)
Earlier, the Chair made a plea for short speeches, and that is advice which I intend to take.
The House should not adjourn for the Whitsuntide recess until we have discussed the problems caused by gipsies—if I used the proper noun, I would say the problems caused by itinerants—who take up residence on land without the owner's permission.
This is a nationally recurring problem which warrants action because of the nuisance which is caused, because of the criminal damage which often takes place and because of the acts of dishonesty committed by many itinerants, such as theft, burglary and offences involving motor vehicles. These offences are committed by people who pay neither rates nor taxes but who can make life a misery for those who do.
This problem affects businesses as well as house owners. A short time ago I received a letter from Derby Glass Windows, which states:This letter concerns the premises we have on the Derby Trading Estate, Stores Road, Derby, with the re-appearance of the 'gypsies' onto this site.We are experiencing totally unhygienic conditions here, with the land around our factory being used as toilet areas with human excreta all over the place. In addition, considerable damage is being done to vehicles left parked on our property, i.e. broken-off radio aerials, windscreen wipers stolen and petrol syphoned out, so much so, that these vehicles are having to be removed each night to other premises within our organization.551As you will appreciate we have had this problem in this area on and off over the past twelve months and taking into account the amount of rates that we pay to the city, we feel that something must be done immediately to alleviate this situation.Some time after that, the Derby Evening Telegraph reported:Scavenging itinerants have brought traffic chaos to Derby's Raynesway tip",and it went on to say:police had to be called to the tip after complaints from irate members of the public. The tip had to be closed until order was restored and the traffic jam the itinerants had created could be cleared".These problems are by no means peculiar to the city of Derby, and we are entitled to ask what can be done to alleviate them.
Some people would argue that it would help if a district could obtain a designation under existing legislation. I accept that it would help to some extent, but at the end of the day we must realise that the current law is not satisfactory and that further action is needed.
As a result of a well-known case in which a man named Fagan broke into a famous bedroom, there was a review of the law of trespass of residential property. However, what I feel is needed—I think that the House would accept this—is a review of the law of trespass generally in order to prevent people from setting up mobile homes at will on another person's land and causing unnecessary nuisance, annoyance and disturbance.
The problem in Derby is currently not quite as bad as it has been in the past, but it recurs month after month, year after year without any general improvement. Action is needed to tackle the problem. I hope that the Leader of the House will agree to draw my remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State for the Environment before we rise for the Whitsun recess.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
Order. Four hon. Members are still seeking to catch my eye and I understand that the first Front Bench speaker intends to reply to the debate at about 8 o'clock. The arithmetic is obvious, and I hope that hon. Members will play fair.
§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
I shall try to be brief, but the subject I wish to raise is important and I hope that the Leader of the House will draw it to the attention of the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister. This issue, which has recently featured in the news, is the problems faced by the Tamil people in Sri Lanka and the British Government's relationship with Sri Lanka.
I am sure that hon. Members will have seen today's report in The Guardian that 10 Tamils were killed in a backlash to a massacre. The Times also reported:Tamils massacred in ferry attack".Such stories have emerged almost daily from Sri Lanka over the past few months.
It is important to raise this subject, because the Prime Minister recently visited Sri Lanka. It is interesting to contrast her attitude towards the denial of human rights in Sri Lanka with the attitude of the Foreign Secretary during his visit to Poland. The Foreign Secretary visited the grave of Father Popieluszko and waxed lyrical about the need for improvements in the human rights record of the Polish Government. In her visit to Sri Lanka, the Prime Minister 552 refused to meet the human rights activists. She refused to meet those who are trying to draw attention to the denials of justice there and made no mention of the fact that a Catholic priest, Father Bastian, was gunned down on 6 January.
The crisis dates back to the summer of 1983, when there were enormous riots in Colombo and other cities in Sri Lanka and thousands were killed. The chauvinist-inspired riots were promoted by the army, the police and the security forces. However, the origins of the crisis date back further still. The British Government, or past British Governments, have had a role to play. Sri Lanka is a former colony. British companies made a great deal of money out of the Ceylon tea trade and other trades with that country, and on independence in 1948 a defence treaty was signed with the country. Successive British administrations in that country, I believe, deliberately divided the Sinhalese and Tamil people. That division has been exploited ever since, to the benefit of the current Government of Sri Lanka.
The reporting of events has often been limited. In 1958, massive violence throughout Sri Lanka was largely unreported in the Western press. The language question has been a major factor in Sri Lankan politics. There is now no official language, but there are incredible discrepancies in the use of the languages. For example, 99 per cent. of the army speak Sinhalese, yet soldiers are sent into Tamil areas allegedly to control the situation.
In a series of contitutional changes forced through the Sri Lankan Parliament, the Government have removed the civic rights of Mrs. Bandaranaike, the former Prime Minister. A referendum was carried out to extend the life of the Government. A Prevention of Terrorism Act, passed by Parliament, has damaged civil rights in the country. Although many people have been killed by the security forces during the present crisis, until 1984 there were no proper inquiries or post mortems after those deaths.
Perhaps more significantly, the constitutional amendments put through Parliament by the current Government have introduced the sixth amendment to the constitution, which demands that allegiance be sworn to the unity of the Sri Lankan state. The main opposition party representing Tamil people, the Tamil United Liberation Front, could not sign that allegiance because its party's policy had become one of supporting separatism. In such a disturbed situation, it is a serious matter that the largest party representing the Tamil minority is not even allowed to be represented in Parliament. The British Government have -had a hand in that. They have had a role to play.
My hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) and the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) recently visited Sri Lanka. An interview with my hon. Friend in the Tamil Times on April 1985 noted that the purpose of the visit was to investigate allegations of human rights violations. My hon. Friend was asked:What is the situation in this regard?He replied:As our report will make it clear, there is evidence of substantial violations of human rights in Sri Lanka. First of all, the Tamil people are being forced out of their homes by the government from the Prohibited Zone area and they have been turned into refugees in their own country. They are living in churches, temples, schools and garages. According to the government itself, there are about 100,000 refugees and that clearly is a conservative estimate. We were informed that Tamils are leaving at a rate of a thousand every day by boat to South India. There has been a complete dislocation of the fishing industry on which the coastal people largely depend. The 553 Prohibited Zone includes thickly populated areas and it has brought about unimaginable hardship and disruption to the life of the Tamil community.In addition, my hon. Friend described how the Jaffna peninsula in the north of the country had become a security zone. There have been other reports of other violations of human rights in Sri Lanka from the International Commission of Jurists and from Amnesty International.
I visited Sri Lanka in April 1984. I was there for a week and met representatives of the Government, of the Opposition parties and, of the trade unions in Colombo. I also went to Kandy, to Trincomalee on the north-east coast and to Jaffna, where I experienced for the first time what the curfew and the presence of the army mean to the people.
The Government appeared to be entirely cynical about the round table talks which they were supposed to be having with opposition groups about a new constitution. The Government were quite prepared for the oppression by the army in Jaffna, and the killing of so many people, to continue. Naturally, the response of the Tamil people and parties is to call for the development of an Eelam state.
There is an international aspect. Trincomalee was a major harbour during the second world war, and could be one again. The United States Government give considerable support to the Government of Sri Lanka. A "Voice of America" radio station is being constructed there. According to a report in The Observer on 4 April, a special task force of police commandos at the disposal of the Sri Lankan Government have been trained by ex-SAS people from this country. The United Kingdom continues to give aid. The Prime Minister attended the opening of the Victoria dam and pledged further aid for the country. There is a military training arrangement and British Government support for police training in this country.
In an interview on the BBC overseas service, the Prime Minister said:Democracy should not be given to those who wish to impose their will by force … but work with minorities who seek to work democratically.The Government of Sri Lanka are not working democratically. They are oppressing and isolating the Tamil minority. The British Prime Minister appears to be incapable of understanding that.
On his return from Delhi, Mr. David Lange, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, said that there would have to be an international task force of some sort to maintain peace and order in Sri Lanka.
The British Government should respond to certain basic requests. First, the arms deals must end. The training arrangements must end. Support for the Sri Lankan Government must be discontinued. Secondly, the aid programme must be reconsidered. Aid is clearly being used—as a propaganda weapon as much as anything else—to prop up the Sri Lankan Government.
Thirdly, an enormous number of refugees have left Sri Lanka for India and other places, and a large number of Tamil people in London and other cities in this country have been allowed temporary and exceptional leave to remain here. Those people are at permanent risk. They are dangling on the end of a string. The British Government should recognise that those Tamils who have expressed a fear of returning are genuinely afraid of the consequence of returning to Sri Lanka and look to the British Government for permission to remain here permanently.
554 A Tamil woman whom I have known for some time spoke to me recently. She asked me not to reveal her name because of the possible repercussions. She told me that, in her family village, eight male members of her family were burnt alive during a recent raid by the army during which 38 other people were also killed, while the remaining villagers took refuge in the one remaining temple. The other temple had been burnt down during a previous army raid.
The issue is serious and important. The British Government, if they seriously support the call for human rights, and they are seriously interested in violations of human rights in other countries, can and should do something immediately to help the refugees from Sri Lanka and cease supporting a Government who use as a major propaganda weapon the approval that they have obtained from the British Government.
§ Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)
I do not think that Parliament should go on holiday until I have had a chance to reply to the what the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) said two hours ago about the action on April 25 by 250,000 school students against mass industrial conscription by the Government onto the youth training scheme.
We heard an amazing speech from the hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes). He should be renamed the Tory Member for Stonehenge, East, given the progressive nature of his views. He talked about the so-called violence—
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell
If the Boundary Commission hears you, that is what it might call his constituency.
§ Mr. Nellist
I do not need any interruptions from you, sunshine.
The hon. Member talked about the so-called violence of Greenham peace women. The Leader of the House might have noticed early-day motion 702 concerning the Waffen FCS of Tory students at Warwick university who have recently produced a song book, with the official logo of the Conservative party on the cover, which calls for the murder of the Greenham peace women. I should like the Leader of the House to comment on whether he thinks that gives the Tory party an acceptable modern image.
The hon. Member for Ealing, North, who is not with us at the moment, correctly said that the strike by school students was called—
§ Mr. Nellist
All right, I can see.
The hon. Gentleman said that the strike was called at the Labour party Young Socialists conference at Easter by 200 school students. It was backed by the Youth Trade Union Rights Campaign of which I am the honorary president. The hon. Gentleman said that I gave a certain amount of money to that campaign. He is absolutely right. I have given it £20 a month since I came to Parliament: two years ago. I also give the Labour party £20 a month and my constituency party £80 a month. I give the Labour party Young Socialists £20 a month and I gave the families of striking miners £30 a week during the strike. I came here to live on ordinary workers' wages, unlike the millionaires and near-millionaires who occupy Conservative Benches.
§ Mr. Nellist
The hon. Member for Ealing, North also mentioned leaflets that were issued in parts of London and which he said came from the Socialist Workers party. He tried to besmirch the Labour party Young Socialist-backed Youth Trade Union Rights Campaign on account of the content of those leaflets. The 25 April strike was not anti-school, anti-teacher or anti-parent. It opposed YTS conscription and the Government who have destroyed the hopes of a generation of school leavers, 500,000 of whom have not worked since they left school under the Tory Government. It is an insult to 15 and 16-year-olds to portray YTS as a passport to jobs.
§ Mr. Nellist
If the hon. Gentleman had been in all evening I should have given way, but time is short. In 1974, 5 per cent. of 16-year-olds not in full-time education were unemployed. That figure rose to 23 per cent. last year, and another 45 per cent. were on YTS. That means that 68 per cent. of 16-year-old school leavers are without a proper job. The majority of the increase has occurred during the past six years.
When Tory Members talk about school leavers being given lessons in politics, they should bear it in mind that the first lesson is given by the Tory Government, who refuse to guarantee them a right to a job when they leave school. The second lesson is coming up, with the so-called Fowler reviews. If YTS is so wonderful, why are the Government proposing to deny 237,000 16 and 17-year-olds the right to supplementary benefit and to conscript them onto that scheme? They are being conscripted onto a scheme which pays £26 a week. If that allowance had been increased in line with inflation or earnings during the past six years, it would have been £40 a week. The Government have robbed people on YTS of £14 a week.
The hon. Member for Ealing, North made allegations of truancy. It was not truancy on 25 April. It was organised, disciplined and responsible political protest. Where was the hon. Gentleman's protest in 1981 when every schoolchild in the country was given a day off school for the royal wedding? What damage did that do to their education? Not one Tory Member protested about every schoolchild having a day off when Charles and Diana got married in 1981. It is a bit ironic that headmasters complained about a half-day strike in England and Wales as disruptive of education and then handed out 10 or 20 times that denial of education by suspending children from school as punishment.
The Youth Trade Union Rights Campaign supported school students in a half-day strike by 15 and 16-year-olds. They are this year's school leavers. The strike was not aimed at 11 and 12-year-olds. Come the summer, 300,000 or 400,000 youngsters who have left school will not find one Tory or Liberal Member of Parliament worrying about the fact that they are permanently out of school, permanently out of education and permanently on the dole.
The strike was in support of Labour party policy established at last year's party conference by the Youth Trade Union Rights Campaign for a minimum allowance 556 of £55 a week on YTS, the right to join a trade union, a safe scheme fully covered by health and safety legislation and the right to a job at the end of the scheme. There will be a growing desire among those youngsters for a right to decide. If the Tories say that they are only to be chucked on the scrap heap of unemployment at 16, I shall maintain that they are old enough to have the vote. There will then be 2.7 million other voices joining those who are rising up against the Government.
It is far better for Labour Members, trade unionists, parents and others to support a half-day strike by young people and to draw them into the Labour trade union movement in opposition to the Government's plans for mass unemployment than to condemn that generation of school students to glue sniffing, heroin addiction or a repetition of the riots of 1981. That is what lies ahead of the kids leaving school this year and it is engendered by the demoralisation and despair of mass unemployment. The responsible action of those youngsters of 25 April brought them into the orbit of the Labour trade union movement.
I issue a warning to the Leader of the House and Tory Members. If the Government do not withdraw their plans for mass conscription onto YTS, come the autumn, two things are likely to happen. First, the protest by school students is likely to be four times the 250,000 who came out in April. Secondly, I have argued for three years that trade unions should ensure that YTS is not a scheme of exploitation of youngsters and that they have decent rates of pay, the right to join unions and to be safe. If, however, the Government introduce mass conscription for two years, my voice will be added to those who say that trade unions should boycott the scheme and ensure that it is brought down. That is responsible political progress against the Government which avoids the despair of drug addiction, suicides and a repetition of the riots of 1981. It deserves the support of every Labour Member.
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)
I should like my right hon. Friend to reconsider his proposals for the spring adjournment, because an important matter faces the Government in the context of the European Economic Community. I know that my right hon. Friend is well aware of it and I shall be most interested to receive his response.
My right hon. Friend will know that the committee which rejoices in the name "Ad Hoc Committee for Institutional Affairs", but which is more colloquially known as the Dooge committee, has drawn up a report which is to be considered by the European Council at its meeting next month. The report contains some important recommendations for the reorganisation of the institutional affairs of the EEC. It is based on an assumption that the fault or problem of the lack of what is called progress in the EEC is caused not by lack of political will but by lack of institutional arrangements. I do not want to digress into that argument, but if we work on the assumpiton that the problem of the EEC is institutional—I do not—it will be most important for the Government to take up a position on the matter as early as possible and in as organised a way as possible. I like to think that that will be done with the support of the House. That is why I want the House to have an opportunity to discuss it. I cannot go into any detail in the time available, but I should like to highlight two principal matters.
557 The first concerns what are called the principles of voting and covers the vexed question of majority voting as against the unanimity or veto principle in the EEC. It is interesting to read the Dooge committee report as opposed to reports of it. Page 25 says:The majority of the Committee favour the adoption of the new general principle that decisons must be taken by a qualified or simple majority. Unanimity will still be required in certain exceptional cases, which will have to be distinctly fewer in number in relation to the present Treaties, the list of such cases being restrictive.That is an intriguing example of Eurospeak, which contains a germ of a problem. In some circles there is a wish to move towards majority voting, with the possibility of a veto in exceptional cases.
More important, under the title of "The method" on page 33, the Dooge committee proposes that a conference of Government representatives of the member states should be convened in the near future. That proposal will face my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when she goes to Milan. The conference will be asked to negotiate a draft European union treaty based, among other things, on what is known as the Spinelli draft treaty and the Dooge document. The conclusion of the recommendation states:The very decision of the Heads of State or of Government to convene such a Conference would have great symbolic value and would represent the initial act of European Union.I hope that my right hon. Friends the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister will think long, hard and carefully whether to accept the terms of reference of the suggested conference in the terms in which it is put in the Dooge committee report, and to go to such a conference, which will involve a pre-commitment to the idea that we need to progress to the so-called European union. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will respond to those questions this evening.
§ 8 pm
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
The term normally applied to debates on these occasions is "wide-ranging", but the speech of the hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes) dwarfed our proceedings. In the space of six minutes he managed to cover bishops, defence, embryos, Sunday trading, the economy, the social security review system, lawlessness, violence and morality. It was an exercise in flexibility, if not in profundity. I was saddened for him when I heard his description of the moral chaos and evil society to which he sees our country reduced under the Administration that he supports.
The hon. Gentleman was guilty of a slight understatement when he said that he was sorry that the Government had not reduced taxation much. Reality hardly bears out his comment because taxation, far from being reduced, has increased by £21 billion a year since the Government came to office. The financial chaos produced by the Government is such that one must earn more than £18,000 a year to reap any benefit under their tax cuts. Despite cuts in every other area, they felt able to give £3,000 million a year to the top 5 per cent. income earners. I have no intention of pursuing all the remaining points made by the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Best) also made an intriguing contribution. He said that investment in the United Kingdom was increasing, but he overlooked the fact that since 1979 it has fallen by 41 per cent., or £3,100 million. It has subsequently recovered a pathetic 7 or 8 per 558 cent., but it is still one third below its 1979 level. The hon. Gentleman said that employment is increasing, but male employment continues to fall. Any increase in jobs, as has been revealed by the current edition of Lloyds Bank Bulletin, is in part-time jobs, most of which are for women. Although one is glad to see those opportunities, we are seeing a poor trade-off of part-time jobs being created and full-time jobs disappearing.
I understand why the hon. Gentleman is not eager to return to his constituency and why he would prefer it if we incarcerated him in the House. During the past 12 months unemployment has increased by 9.4 per cent:. in his constituency under the Government whom he supports, and it has increased by 16 per cent. since June 1983. Unemployment stands at 22 per cent. in Holyhead. The hon. Gentleman said that Wales had become a land of small businesses, which used not to be true. That is true now because the Tory Government have killed off the larger businesses. According to the latest edition of the National Westminster Bank Review, 30 per cent. of manufacturing employment has disappeared since 1979.
The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) made an intervention which purported to be in defence of education. It was a bit ripe coming from a supporter of a Government who have done more than any other to destroy public education, force teachers into direct action, which is not their natural instinct, massively downgrade teachers' pay relativities, drive the best teachers from the profession, and leave state schools short of books, while receiving £12,000 million a year in oil revenues from the North sea.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Millan) revealed a singularly disturbing position relating to the exploitation of our desperate housing shortage. He highlighted the consequences of the Government's failure to sustain a building programme. The result is that people are thrown into the hands of parasites, such as the Solomons, who sound utterly evil. I hope that they will evenutally get their just desserts. However, that is the reality of the market-place economy. It is exactly the sort of morality that the Government seek to encourage in the economy and which the hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge deplored. We expect the Scottish Office to introduce legislation to ensure that the same protections are available in Scotland through local authorities as are already available in England and Wales.
I shall take the advice of the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), who said that we all learn slowly and painfully in Northern Ireland. I admit that I do not claim great expertise in that area, and I shall leave it to the Leader of the House to deal with the right hon. Gentleman's points, most of which were directed at the Government.
We had two speeches about today's announcement of the cuts in British Rail. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) apologised to the Leader of the House, because he could not be present for the wind-up. He is presenting medals at a cup final of the unemployed in Birmingham. He and the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) highlighted the tragic position created by the announcement, not only in Swindon, but in Glasgow. As the hon. Gentleman suggested. it is poetically sad that on this, the 150th anniversary of the Great Western railway, we witness effectively the closure of the railway town of Swindon. As a youngster from south Wales travelling through Swindon to London and looking 559 at the great yards there, I always saw it as the symbol of railways in the United Kingdom. The House must make it clear to British Rail that we find it utterly unacceptable for it to place orders for 1,500 locomotives overseas. We cannot accept that. It is no good saying that foreign countries have the know-how. As my hon. Friend said, if we do not start to develop the know-how, we shall never get an opportunity in the export markets, to which British Rail Engineering Ltd. is supposedly looking.
It seems strange that, having built the railways of the world, we must now go abroad to buy a few locomotives. We were the workshop of the world, but now we have had our first deficit on manufacturing trade since the Napoleonic revolution. In 1980, the Government inherited a surplus of El billion of non-oil visible trade, which in the space of four years they managed to turn into a deficit of £l1 billion. I hope that the Government will ensure that whatever help can be given is given to Swindon and Glasgow.
As my hon. Friend intimated, the position is in contrast to the forecasts of BREL as recently as 1981, and is an indictment of our low level of economic activity, against expectations, caused by the Government's policy of continuous dęflation.
This has been a fascinating debate. I apologise to those of my hon. Friends whose speeches I have not been able to mention, but I must now give the Leader of the House an opportunity to answer everyone.
§ 8.9 pm
§ The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)
I agree with the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) that this has been a wide-ranging debate. Therefore, I hope that he will allow me to comment on his speech indirectly through the medium of the speeches made by Back-Bench Members.
I begin with the first contribution to the debate, from my right hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), about the Northern Ireland Act 1974, the means whereby it is renewed annually and his desire that the Province should be allowed to return to constitutional normality, thus enabling its laws to be made by the House in the same way as laws for the other parts of the Union are made, and that it should possess responsible local government. I have no doubt that, in that context, he would wish us to consider the fact that the Province is now fully represented in the House. Those who have been privileged to come here to represent the Province have done so with such attention and zeal that it gives the most effective demonstration to other hon. Members of the true desire of those from the Province to have the full and unblemished status of members of the Union. I shall communicate his observations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
The right hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Milian) mentioned a problem that affected his con-stituency, although I suspect that it goes rather wider. It would not surprise me if, in due course, we discovered that the practice was happening outside west central Scotland. He said that the problem was given effective exposure by the investigative techniques of the Evening Times He aired the problem most effectively, albeit to a somewhat thin House. None the less, no one could but be seized of the social issues implicit in what is happening. It would 560 not be appropriate for me to comment on the details, not least because I have been advised that there may be legal proceedings against the company at the heart of the reports, but I understand exactly the points that he made and his anxiety that there should be legislation on the matter. I shall ensure that his comments are reported to my ministerial colleagues in the Scottish Office.
I very much appreciated the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes). Of course, they excite some hilarity, but every time that someone has something worthwhile to say in the House, it almost certainly excites a reaction. If it is just one more example of the consensual porridge, it passes undigested and unnoticed.
I could pick out several points that my hon. Friend raised, but perhaps he will allow me to confine myself to his concern about powerful forces in society—one could call them the moral forces in society—and about the limited extent to which they can be conditioned by Government or by the police. He is right in that context to point to the tremendous potential power that could be effected by the churches. I was interested to hear him emphasise the fact that the church at parish level was proving much more effective in giving leadership in such matters than was the church at episcopal level. I shall not enter into that highly dangerous controversy, but I shall say this. When one considers the importance of the church in influencing social affairs, I think, among others, of Bishop Temple, whose ability to impart social influence was matched by the extent to which he secured respect in spiritual matters. That is a healthy reminder in the context.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) and the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) mentioned the proposed closures and redundancies affecting British Rail Engineering Ltd. at Swindon and possibly elsewhere. My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon made an effective and moving speech and mentioned the serious constituency interest that is involved. His speech was the more impressive because it mentioned a future in which there was a diversification away from the existing dependence on railways, as well as a proper recognition of the part that the railways have played hitherto.
The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East said that he could not be here for the conclusion of the debate, and I have a note from him to that effect. I am not in a small-minded mood this evening, but he could have confirmed without doubt that he would make the journey by rail. However, he chose not to do so. I say that because there was much discussion about the extent to which we all use the railways.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) and the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) formed a charming partnership, from contrasting positions, in talking about the school strikes and the role of Militant Tendency in promoting them.
§ Mr. Biffen
The hon. Gentleman's sparring partner explained to me that he cannot be here, and I am sure that we all charitably understand why.
In the absence of my hon. Friend, may I say that I believe he overdoes his anxieties on this problem. I do not look across at Militant Tendency and see its representatives as the Jesuits of Socialism, who say, "Give me the 561 child and I will give you the man." However, they become a little carried away about their role in the political scene as the leaders of those children's crusades. As I listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East, my unease was somewhat reinforced. I am one of his greatest fans, and I hope that he will long be here as the acceptable face of Militant Tendency. There is a studied avoidance of subtlety in his comments that I find very encouraging.
The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) made a charming and philosophical speech about the importance of pluralism in politics and the problems of dealing with minorities. For a party which believes that it is liberating itself from a minority status, that shows a certain lack of self-confidence. However, I leave that to one side. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that one of the most difficult tasks in the House is balancing our procedures so that minority interests believe that they have legitimate representation. I hope that he will be encouraged by the fact that we shall soon present Standing Orders on Opposition time.
I should tell the hon. Gentleman that the most hard-done-by minority in the House of Commons are Government Back-Bench Members—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."' If I cannot play to my own gallery on this occasion, when can I? I make that observation because it is a factor that is overlooked when we try to construct a balance that enables the good conduct of our procedures.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Best) made a powerful speech about unemployment and the importance of measures to secure its reduction, not least in his constituency. He explained why he cannot be with us now. His arguments were beguiling, although I was not all that convinced that we should have as much regional differentiation in fiscal matters as he advocated. However, his approach to the problem was constructive, and it enabled him to make in this debate a speech that I am sure he would have made otherwise in an economic debate. He invited us to guess in which debate the speech would have been made if he had not used this useful opportunity for Back-Bench Members.
The hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) was worried about the insurance industry. As a good Socialist, he talked about the Insurance Corporation of Ireland rather than about Lloyd's. That point was made by one of my hon. Friends earlier this afternoon, but all aspects of the problem and of our position as a nation 562 harbouring a successful service sector turn upon there being confidence, which occasionally has to be restored by Government involvement. The hon. Gentleman is inviting that, and I shall see that his remarks are put to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) raised the problems of itinerants. I cannot think of any topic more likely to release a flood of letters should one have that particular problem in one's constituency. I speak from recent experience, and I can understand why my hon. Friend has sought this occasion to raise this topic. However, I am anxious not to say anything that means that I shall be the recipient of another dose of correspondence on this matter, but I shall see that my luckless colleague the Secretary of State for the Environment is appraised of the point raised by my hon. Friend.
The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) has explained that he cannot be here. I make no complaint, because he is not here to interrupt me. He made a moving speech outlining the tragedies between the communities that have befallen Sri Lanka. I shall see that his speech is drawn to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) drew the attention of the House not only to the content of the Dooge committee report, but to the fact that the very modalities may imply commitments that are not perceived in the House. I am pleased that he has drawn my attention to that point, and I shall see that it becomes the possession of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary.
Perhaps it is appropriate that I should conclude with the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire because it demonstrates the characteristics of these debates. They stretch from perhaps the most mundane, albeit important. constituency interests to the wider international affairs that are at the heart of our proceedings. If the motion is passed, we shall have the chance to go away and have a break of 10 days or so and come back to that fragile period of June and July when all the really hardened parliamentarians look forward to blood sports at their most gory.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved,That this House at its rising on Friday 24th May do adjourn until Monday 3rd June, and the House shall not adjourn on Friday 24th May until Mr. Speaker shall have reported the Royal Assent to any Acts which have been agreed upon by both Houses.