HC Deb 19 December 1988 vol 144 cc71-110

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House at its rising on Thursday 22nd December do adjourn until Tuesday 10th January.—[Mr. Wakeham.]

7 pm

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Before we divide on the motion—and I remind my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that, with the late Sir Peter Mills, I once divided the House to urge its Members to stay longer at work—

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

I assure my hon. Friend that Sir Peter Mills is not dead.

Sir Peter Emery

He is still very much with us, I am glad to say. He is a past Member of Parliament. I did not refer to him by his constituency because he no longer has a constituency, but he and I divided the House on this motion some time ago.

I want to discuss four matters relating to eggs. First, however, I wish to put to my right hon. Friend a point concerning procedure. Today we have a good deal of private Members' time. We have this debate, allowing hon. Members to raise particular matters, and afterwards we have the Consolidated Fund Bill debate. Traditionally, in the Consolidated Fund Bill debate Back Benchers may raise any constituency matter that they wish to be brought to the attention of Ministers. There are two, three or sometimes four such debates each year, giving Back Benchers a specific opportunity to raise such matters.

Because of the way in which the Government have arranged today's business, the Consolidated Fund Bill debate may not be reached until 10 pm. Four hours today, but on an ordinary day it would have been six hours, of time in which Back Benchers might normally expect to be able to make constituency points have been taken away. The Government may reply that there are precedents: indeed, since 1982 I am afraid that it has been the exception rather than the rule for the Consolidated Fund Bill debate to start in prime time, at 3.30 or 4.30 pm, after Question Time or statements. The Government are depriving Back Benchers of rare and much-wanted time for debate. Many Back Benchers do not wish the debate to start at 10 pm.

It is true that we have allowed for a limitation on the debate so that instead of running to any hour it must finish at 9 am, but I think that the Government should consider beginning it at the start of business and letting it run its course. Back-Bench time is slim enough as it is, and it should not be eaten away, even for the convenience of the Front Bench. Perhaps the Front Bench is considering the majority of hon. Members: if the debate had begun at the start of today's business perhaps we would not have been able to adjourn for the Christmas recess until Friday, rather than Thursday. Regardless of what is convenient for the majority, however, the Leader of the House has a responsibility to the minority, who have the right to make constituency points at prime time and with full time for the Consolidated Fund Bill. I hope that my right hon. Friend and the two Front Benches will consider that in due course.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. May I add that today we have had three and a half hours of private Members' motions, and an hour and a half has been taken up with ministerial statements?

Sir Peter Emery

That reinforces my point.

As the House will know, I have been massively concerned with the egg problem ever since it began. I very much welcomed the statement today by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. He made his statement on behalf of the Government as both Minister of Agriculture and Minister of Food, and did so extremely well. Nevertheless, a number of questions could not be put to him. Because of limited time, I was not called. I hope, therefore, that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will consider my comments, or ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to do so.

First, will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House do what he can to hasten the consideration of the Select Committee? The Government have decided that they do not wish to hold an inquiry, and I am pleased that they are placing the responsibility with a Select Committee, which I consider is an appropriate way of conducting an inquiry. Haste is needed, however. Whether we like it or not, there is still considerable concern.

My right hon. Friend the Minister said today that there was a very slight chance of contracting salmonella from eggs, and that the level of salmonella in breeding and laying flocks was very low. Against that we have the reports by The Guardian and the BBC, quoting statements by Professor Lacey which seem to represent only his personal view.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) the ex-Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, has not withdrawn the statement that she made on television. Those who saw her on television know that her remarks were made off the cuff, and they certainly did not fit in with the statement by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture this afternoon that he and the Health Ministers agreed all statements on salmonella and eggs. There was certainly no agreement on the statement made by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South. That she has not withdrawn that statement when she is palpably incorrect is a tragedy—a tragedy that has created a problem on which we are having to spend a vast amount of taxpayers' money.

One of my hon. Friends asked whether a precedent was being set. I do not believe that it is. I hope very much that what caused the tragedy was the statement by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South, and we do not expect Ministers' statements to cause such problems in future. There is, of course, every reason for the Government to take the financial action that they are having to take.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

My hon. Friend is, I am sure, aware that Professor Lacey has a long record of attacking the battery hen industry and is simply using the current problem to promote his own ideas. Does my hon. Friend agree that the advertising, which, in my constituency, has annoyed egg producers as much as the problem itself, needs urgently to be rethought? If we are to encourage people to eat eggs it is essential to produce a short, sharp, simple message, not a full-page advertisement that is very verbose and boring. Does my hon. Friend agree that a simple phrase is needed that will both encourage people to eat eggs and play on the British public's sympathy for animal welfare? Would not the slogan "Save a hen—eat an egg" be much more useful than long advertisements?

Sir Peter Emery

I am not one for sloganising on the Floor of the House. However, I accept what my hon. Friend has said. The advertising campaign has not had the terse, direct impact that most advertising campaigns set out to achieve. I was a Minister during the coal crisis. We hit on a simple slogan. It was SOS, or "Switch Off Something". By jove, that made people save electricity.

May I ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House also to consider the problems that the secondary and tertiary industries involved in egg production are now facing. Their problems were not mentioned in the Government statement. A number of major companies in Devon and Dorset are supplying day-old chicks—in some cases 3 million a year. Nothing is to be done for them, but the whole of their business has been put at risk. Bankruptcy faces them, just as it faces the egg producer. Similarly, those who supply feed to egg producers have suffered considerable cuts in their business. It is wrong that they should be left out in the cold. I ask my right hon. Friend to refer this matter to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Will my right hon. Friend also consider what is to happen after the four-week period? The statement applies to four weeks only. I hope that the problem will be solved in four weeks. Every hon. Member will be delighted if it is, but it is unlikely that it will be. The Government must consider, therefore, what they intend to do if the situation is still critical after that period.

What is even more important than all the matters that I have so far raised is the long-term future of egg production. The Minister said that salmonella in breeding and laying flocks is very low. However, some flocks have undoubtedly been affected by salmonella for some time. The Minister should therefore consider what should be done about the affected flocks. Would it not be much better to cull entirely the affected flocks rather than to reduce production by 10 per cent. overall, which would mean that flocks that are not infected with salmonella are also culled? It would be much better to attack directly the main problem. It may not be possible to do so at short notice, but I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will approach the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and ask him to take positive action.

Only when the public are sure that both the long-term and the short-term problems have been solved will their confidence in eggs be restored. Only then will the cheapest and best form of consuming protein—the consumption of hens' eggs—be acceptable to the country at large. That is what everybody wants and we ought to be working towards that end. We shall achieve it only if we deal with the long-term as well as the short-term problems.

I hope that other hon. Members will support my views and that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be able to reassure us. If he can do so, I shall not need to divide the House.

7.14 pm
Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

There is, of course, scant prospect of debating time for any of the issues that will be raised with the Leader of the House this evening, but there are two issues about which there should most certainly be oral ministerial statements before the House rises on Thursday.

I refer, first, to the Department of Social Security's proposal to scrap board and lodging payments for people who live in hostels run by voluntary organisations. It is a proposal that would have a catastrophic effect on thousands of disabled people and, among others, women and children who have fled from violence and now live in hostels run by voluntary organisations such as MENCAP, MIND and Women's Aid.

The Government's proposal, which has angered Members of Parliament of all parties, including the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) who has such a distinguished record of service in this field, is to substitute income support and housing benefit for the board and lodging payments now made to the residents of these hostels. If the proposal goes through, many residents will lose nearly £30 a week, and no one between 16 and 60 will have enough money to pay the current hostel charge of £70 a week. In consequence, 1,750 of the hostels will close at a stroke and most of the people who live in them will have nowhere to go. Many will have to join the growing ranks of the pavement poor whose living conditions on the streets of some of our major cities, as I know well as a trustee of Crisis at Christmas, are a total disgrace to this country.

In addition to the human devastation that the closures will cause, the Government's so-called "community care" programme for people with special needs, which is already in tatters, will be further exposed as a cruel sham.

The proposal is bitterly condemned by more than a score of Britain's most widely-respected and best-known voluntary organisations. It is self-defeating as well as inhumane, since ultimately many of its victims will find themselves in hospitals and other institutions at far higher cost to the taxpayer than that of the board and lodging payments they now receive.

I call most urgently on the Secretary of State for Social Security to relieve the anxieties of thousands of the most needful people in Britain today by withdrawing this odious proposal forthwith and I hope that, if the Leader of the House cannot offer us any assurance about it tonight, there will be a ministerial statement before the House raises for the recess.

The second issue on which I seek a ministerial statement before Thursday concerns the problems and needs of disabled people more generally. This Government came to power with a promise to "single out" disabled people for special help, but even people with the most severe disabilities now complain that instead they have been singled out for special hardship. More than half of all recipients of the severe disablement allowance, for which a claimant has to be over 80 per cent. disabled, have been forced on to means-tested benefits and are living on the breadline.

According to the Disability Alliance which represents over 100 voluntary organisations of and for disabled people, there were more than 1 million disabled losers from the social security cuts inflicted on 11 April. Yet £1.9 million went in tax cuts to the richest 1 per cent. of taxpayers in this year's Budget alone.

The Government now have the results of two major new surveys of Britain's disabled population from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys. The first, published in September, shows that there are now 6.2 million disabled adults in great Britain, which is double the figure given in the OPCS's previous survey on the prevalence of disability in 1971.

The second new survey, on the financial circumstances of Britain's disabled population, published in November, shows that most of them live in preventable poverty. More than 4 million disabled people find it hard to make ends meet. Now that the Government know the number and needs of disabled people, there is no excuse for ministerial inaction and, as a first step, they must urgently reverse the cuts inflicted on 11 April.

The right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), then Minister responsible for disabled people and now Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said in March 1987 that the OPCS's findings, when they were published, would … provide the evidence for a comprehensive review of benefits for long-term sick and disabled people. Honouring that pledge will involve higher spending and the right hon. Gentleman is now in the best possible Cabinet seat to tell the Prime Minister that the Government cannot help double the number of people on which current policies are based without spending more money.

The OPCS's previous survey in 1971, commissioned by a Labour Government, led to the introduction of the attendance allowance, the mobility allowance, the invalid care allowance and the non-contributory invalidity pension; to the indexing of benefits to the higher of the annual increases in prices and earnings; and to the earnings-related supplement to invalidity pensions. There were unprecedented increases in cash benefits and services for disabled people and that is our credential for demanding action now on the OPCS's reports.

Again, the Government have received from the Social Security Advisory Committee the important recent report entitled "Benefits for Disabled People: A Strategy for Change" which also deserves an urgent and positive ministerial response. Every opinion survey shows that the public want more help to be given. The resources are available. Only distorted priorities stand in the way of helping the poorest disabled people to live fuller and more fulfilling lives.

Local authorities face an even more critical challenge than the Government arising from the OPCS's reports. As of now, they have identified only 1.25 million of the disabled people who are entitled to services under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act which provides for home helps, home adaptations, telephones for the housebound and a wide range of other help. The vast majority of the 6.2 million people now shown by the OPCS to be disabled are entitled to help under the Act, but they will not get it unless the Government make more money available to councils. Council leaders of all political persuasions tell me and the Government that they now have to choose not only which of their discretionary powers to use under the Act, but even which of their legal duties to fulfil. They are also deeply concerned about the scandalous delay, more than two years after its enactment, in giving full effect to the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986 which my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke), with help from among others the then Minister for Health, piloted to the statute book with such humane concern.

Council leaders complained, even before the OPCS's survey on prevalence was published in September, about being turned into lawbreakers in regard to the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act. Yet we know that they are discharging their legal duties to only one fifth of the disabled people in need of services. While claiming to have increased benefits, the Government repeatedly have cut back the cash benefits for which we legislated. The link with earnings was scrapped at a cost of £14.40 a week to pensioner couples among whom the elderly disabled often suffer most hardship. They have to endure the double handicap of disability and deprivation.

Other major benefits we introduced were savaged by last April's cuts. Ministers may point to the mobility allowance as an example of a benefit increase under the present Government, but that allowance has gone up in excess of inflation due to my decision, as the then Minister, to link the mobility allowance to rises in motoring costs.

It really is intolerable that we still have had no oral statement to the House as to the Government's reaction to the two reports from the OPCS or to the Social Security Advisory Committee's report. Urgency is essential in the view of every major organisation of and for disabled people. I hope that the Leader of the House will give them some seasonal cheer tonight when he replies to the debate.

7.26 pm
Sir Barney Hayhoe (Brentford and Isleworth)

I shall not take up the comments of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) about disability and the action that the Government have taken except his specific reference to me about the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986. He will recall that I made it clear on many occasions during the passage of that Bill that the various provisions would not be implemented until the Government found the necessary resources. It was understood by the sponsors of the Bill that there would be no immediate implementation of its important provisions. I certainly join him in hoping that those provisions which still need to be implemented will be implemented at the earliest moment that the Government feel able to devote the necessary resources and when local government, which is very involved in the matter, can join them in that decision.

The dominant theme of Christmastide is peace on earth. I warmly congratulate all those responsible for making this Christmas more hopeful for genuine lasting peace than anyone could have dared hope 12 months ago, and particularly for the recent developments in and around the centre of Christendom—Jerusalem. Particular congratulations should be directed to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on their speedy and constructive response to Mr. Arafat's recent speech to the United Nations in Geneva. I imagine that all hon. Members will pray that that process will now continue so that peace can come to that troubled part of the world.

I wish to make four brief points, two on national issues and two on issues of local concern. First, I very much regret that child benefit is not included in tomorrow's uprating order for social security benefits. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and others will appreciate that our parliamentary procedures prevent a specific vote tomorrow on child benefit. I am sorry that the House should break for the Christmas recess without a clear opportunity being given to those hon. Members like myself who believe that child benefit should have been uprated to express their belief in the Division Lobbies if necessary. Without entering detailed arguments, I recall that child benefit replaced child tax allowances.

I could imagine the reaction in the House and the country if in his Budget speech this year the Chancellor had said, "I am raising the single person's allowance, I am raising the married man's allowance, I am raising the age allowance, but for the second year running I am leaving child tax allowance unchanged." All hell would have broken loose, and rightly so. I urge the Government to examine the matter again and to carry out fully the pledge in our manifesto at the last election which I understood to mean that this benefit would not be left withering on the vine but would be uprated at least to take account of the rise in the cost of living.

My second subject is also linked with Christmas, when spending and domestic demand tend to rise. Already there are signs that higher interest rates are reducing demand, as the Chancellor intended. I hope that higher interest rates will also encourage savings—the other side of that coin that must always be remembered. I wish that the Government would find ways of discouraging the aggressive marketing of credit, especially to young people, and, at the same time, give a boost and impetus to savings in addition to the rise in interest rates.

I appreciate that housing-linked borrowing is the main factor in the increase in domestic credit, but the aggressive selling of credit cards, high street credit and loans fosters a mood of spend, spend, spend when what the nation requires now is a philosophy of save, save, save. Surely Treasury Ministers and officials can devise ways of achieving the latter. I am not seeking a return to physical controls on credit, or anything like that, but surely the Treasury can devise ways of encouraging responsible attitudes and discouraging the aggressive marketing of money.

Thirdly, many of my constituents are deeply unhappy that Parliament should rise for its Christmas recess while the most unwelcome and potentially damaging proposal to construct a major new road through Chiswick, along the route of the railway line from Kew bridge to Barnes, Putney and Clapham, remains on the table. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) and his constituents are as horrified and vehemently opposed to that proposal as am I and my constituents.

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

And in Wandsworth.

Sir Barney Hayhoe

I am delighted to receive the hon. Gentleman's support.

The plan was floated some years ago and was decisively rejected. It should never have seen the light of day again, and the sooner it is sunk without trace and utterly abandoned the better.

My final point—you will appreciate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am being brief because I know that many other hon. Members want to participate in the debate—involves my local hospital, the West Middlesex University hospital. It serves the local community with dedication and distinction, and its staff, at all levels, deserve thanks and praise. However, many of its buildings are old, decrepit and decayed. Plans to build a new, modern and efficient hospital have been under consideration for far too long. Two years ago the then Minister for Health promised early, final and formal approval of phase one of the rebuilding plans. However, departmental and Treasury approvals are still awaited.

My constituents and the hospital staff will be greatly disappointed if Parliament adjourns and Ministers leave Whitehall to celebrate Christmas without the rebuilding work being given the go-ahead. I send seasonal greetings to the Ministers and officials involved, but I hope that in wishing them well for the new year one of their early actions will be to give approval to phase one of the rebuilding plans. Such a decision will be warmly welcomed by the local community and will boost morale at our local hospital.

7.34 pm
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

I have risen rather early in the debate because, in fairness to the Leader of the House, he should have an opportunity to find out the answers to some of the questions I wish to ask and points I wish to raise.

Earlier today the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made a statement about what he called measures to assist the egg industry. That gave away the Government's approach. It was not a statement to clarify the scale of the threat posed to consumers by salmonella in eggs nor about measures to make eggs safer to eat but about assisting the egg industry.

The Government's response to the increasing incidence of salmonella poisoning as a result of eating eggs is a story that ranges from buck-passing to positive lunacy by way of confusion and conflict. As a result of all that the Government have and have not done, the previously wholesome egg now carries a Government health warning. Thousands of traditional ways of using and eating eggs are apparently no longer safe. The Prime Minister talks about Victorian values but, even in pre-Victorian Britain, it was safe to eat eggs in ways that are no longer safe, at least if Jane Austen is to be believed. In "Emma", published in 1815, Mr. Woodhouse says: An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome.

It was not unwholesome in 1815 but we are told by the chief medical officer that now, towards the end of the 20th century, it is unwholesome. That shows how far the decline in the standards of the industry has gone.

We want to know how it has come about. How long has the problem been building up? I must put questions to the Leader of the House to which we have as yet received no answers. When was the Department of Health first aware of the scale of salmonella poisoning from eggs which led the chief medical officer to issue his warning on 26 August? When was the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food aware of the facts that led to the chief medical officer issuing that warning? Was the Ministry aware of the facts when it decided to stop funding the work on salmonella at the Institute of Food Research in Bristol? If so, why did it announce those cuts in funding in November? Did it think that the research was not necessary? Does the Ministry —a collection of incompetents—think it knows it all? If it does know it all, why has it come to the House today with a scheme that provides £17 million compensation for egg producers but does nothing to reduce salmonella in eggs? The eggs destroyed will not necessarily all be infected and the chickens to be gassed will not necessarily be from infected stocks.

The Minister said: The scheme will enable up to 4 million hens—roughly equivalent to 10 per cent. of the laying flock—to be culled under the supervision of the Agriculture Departments. Culling usually means that one identifies and gets rid of the weak and the diseased of those parts of the stock from which one does not want to breed. The Government have not proposed a cull in that sense. They are proposing what might be described as the random destruction of 10 million hens. It will do nothing to get rid of salmonella in eggs or chickens. The Minister's statement simply said that £17 million of Government money will be spent but the eggs being sold will be just as infected as they are now and the breeding chickens will be just as contaminated with salmonella as those alive now. That is preposterous. If £17 million of public money is to be spent, it should be directed at ensuring that people can buy eggs that are safe and sound.

Perhaps the most important remark made by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was in response to a direct question from my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes). The Minister said, from the evidence available to me, it is not the case that most egg production is infected. That is a flat contradiction of the statement made by the former Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), who said: Most of the egg production in this country is infected with salmonella.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is time that the Government stated clearly that poultry and eggs from Northern Ireland have never been associated with salmonella? We are suffering badly because of the foolishness that failed to expose that, and caused the problem in the first place.

Mr. Dobson

If what the hon. Gentleman says is correct—and I have no reason to doubt it—the Government are obliged to make it clear that eggs from Northern Ireland are not contaminated. That would be only fair to egg producers in Northern Ireland and, more important, egg consumers throughout the rest of the country.

Is the statement made by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South that most of the egg production is infected correct, or is that by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, that most of the egg production is not affected correct? If the Minister is right, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South must have been wrong. Either one was right and the other was wrong. There is no way of fudging it.

If the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South was wrong, why was her statement not corrected until today? On Monday 5 December, the Secretary of State for Health answered a private notice question but never once said that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South was wrong. On Tuesday 13 December, the Prime Minister, no less, was asked about salmonella and eggs, but did not say that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South was wrong. On 15 December, in response to a specific question asked by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister passed up the opportunity to correct the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South by saying that she was wrong.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South has resigned, which was the honourable thing to do. Did she do so because she was wrong? We still have not received an answer to that question. Clearly, her remarks led to a massive drop in egg consumption, but if she was right, why did she have to resign? If she was telling the truth and egg consumption fell, that was not her fault. If she was wrong, why was she not corrected by the Secretary of State for Health, who had an opportunity to do so in the House, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who also had an opportunity to do so in the House, or the Prime Minister, on the innumerable occasions when she had the opportunity to put the record straight? God knows, the Prime Minister is not usually reluctant to correct people; indeed, it might be described as her forte. She took no steps to suggest that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South was wrong.

No one knows what the truth is. Was the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food telling the truth today about the scale of the infection? Given her failure to say so, presumably the Prime Minister does not agree. It would appear that until now she has agreed with the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South. Two weeks ago, my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) asked the Prime Minister to take scientific advice to put the record straight. He asked when it would be done, whether the Prime Minister proposed to adjudicate between the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and when the Government would clear up the discrepancy between the two Departments. Many hon. Members are beginning to think that once the former Under-Secretary of State for Health resigned, she was used as a resignation fire-break, to ensure that the buck stopped short of her boss or bosses. If the former Under-Secretary was wrong, they were wrong, because they have not corrected her. If she was right, they were negligent, not only in the short-term regarding the crisis that followed the remarks of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South, but for a longer period by allowing this epidemic to reach a stage at which the chief medical officer has had to advise people not to eat eggs in the way that they have traditionally done for centuries.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Will my hon. Friend take into account that this has affected not only the poultry industry but manufacturing concerns that have not been mentioned by the Government? In my constituency, a firm that manufactures poultry equipment has not received an order for a fortnight, thereby putting jobs in jeopardy. The Government, with typical concern for the farming industry, have turned a blind eye to this important issue.

Mr. Dobson

The reduction in egg consumption has had a massive knock-on effect. The problem is that this is entirely typical of the Government's short-term approach. They have proposed reductions in research into salmonella to cut public spending. They would have spent far less on research than the £on that they are paying in compensation to egg producers. It is entirely typical of the Government's short-term approach to everything, especially safety. Instead of investing to ensure that things are safe, the Government want to save money on every budget. What happened? The public rumbled what was wrong. It is not only the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South who led to the reduction in egg consumption; people had noticed the subdued efforts of the Department of Health to draw attention to what was wrong. Already suspicious people noted what the former Under-Secretary said rather more spectacularly than the press statements of the Department of Health and took the matter seriously.

The Government owe it to the people of this country, including egg producers, to set the record straight and to rid chicken flocks and eggs of salmonella. The Government are doing nothing to achieve that, but are spending £17 million on a random destruction of chickens and eggs that has nothing to do with salmonella but everything to do with compensation. Until we receive specific answers to the questions that I have asked and, more important, until the people of this country are satisfied by straight, well-informed answers from the Government, egg consumption will not return to the levels that prevailed before.

Why should people buy eggs when they are being advised by the most senior medical officer that certain aspects of egg consumption are dangerous? The Government owe it to the people of this country, egg producers and the House to give some specific answers before Christmas and put the record straight. The record may be put straight if some of the other Ministers—who are far more involved and have had more protracted responsibility for this matter than the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South—resign. Until that happens, no one will trust anything that any of them says. They have been covering up and have been unwilling to say that the former Under-Secretary was wrong. If they thought that she was wrong, they should have said it in good time, and perhaps the crisis would not have arisen. If they thought that she was right, they have been negligent, and by continuing in this way have extended their negligence. We need answers before the House rises for Christmas. If we do not get answers, the Government will have to talk about further compensation to egg producers, because people will not consume eggs at the previous level until they are satisfied that they are safe.

7.49 pm
Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

There are many good reasons why the House should not rise on Thursday. Hon. Members have heard some, but I propose to add another.

On occasions such as this, I normally attempt to interest the Government in paying war service credit to overseas Civil Service pensioners—a credit of which they have hitherto been deprived. At last, the Government recently decided to pay pensioners their due entitlement. It will mean the expenditure of about £6 million, and it will benefit about 6,000 former Colonial Service officers now in retirement—including, I am obliged to say, myself. Therefore, I record our gratitude to the Government and to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who I believe was partially responsible for that gesture. It is a matter of justice to people who deserve to have justice done to them after the service that they provided for the British people over the past half century.

The issue that justifies my saying that the House should not rise for the Christmas recess concerns the appalling damage that is being done to British interests by the isolation of the United Kingdom Parliament from the European Parliament. We seem to operate in two watertight containers. There is almost no proper liaison between the two Parliaments. One consequence of that is the British people's apathy towards the European Parliament.

Today's news of the result of the Hampshire, Central Euro by-election, recording a poll of only 14 per cent. of the population, shows how uninterested British people are in European affairs, despite all the efforts of national political parties, with all that they have to gain by interesting voters in a particular by-election. It illustrates also a new danger that faces us as we move towards 1992 and the operation of the Single European Act.

The reasons for that apathy can be shown in several ways. One dates back to the time when the House mistakenly voted—I admit that I was one who voted for them—for direct elections to the European Parliament. The result was to deprive individual Members of any knowledge of or experience in the European Parliament and the European dimension of British politics. We returned about 81 British Members to the European Parliament, none of whom, apart from three Northern Ireland exceptions, was a Member of this Parliament or had any direct connection with it or with British parliamentary elections. Apathy is due also to the hostility and blind prejudice of a minority of politicians in this country, especially those in the Labour party, towards the European Parliament. The European Parliament has immense, increasing power over our livelihoods and destinies in Britain. Another reason for apathy is Government inaction in attempting to cure the problem.

I am glad that my right hon. Friend is present, because this matter concerns him. We have made too few attempts to make Members of the European Parliament welcome in this place. They are treated like members of the public, having to queue up to come in and not being allowed to use the facilities that should be extended to Members of not merely another Parliament but a Parliament that is supposed to subsume within it all the affairs and interests of this country. We treat them abominably, and we should do something about it.

We deprive ourselves of much parliamentary talent, knowledge and experience by sending our Members to serve on the Council of Europe and on the Western European Union, where, no doubt, they learn a great deal. They may be of some benefit in debates in this House when they return. I am talking about a Council of Europe that is more or less a talking shop. We have no direct representation in the European Parliament, which has so much power over this country. The Single European Act has changed matters. It is no longer possible for any member of a national party to pretend that we are not affected by decisions of the European Parliament. The problems of liaison, connections, joint consultation and negotiations have become urgent, and we must tackle them. They are primarily a House of Commons matter.

We must compare what has been done in this House with what has been done in the other place. We have one Committee, the Select Committee on European Legislation, led, at the moment, by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), who is an excellent Chairman. However, the Committee only scrutinises the legislation and other documents that come to us from the European Parliament, and assesses their relative importance. That is all it does. It is just one Committee of a few hon. Members, and it receives little attention in this place. The House of Lords has a Committee with a much broader brief on the affairs of the European Community. It has six sub-committees which, judging by their membership, are pretty high-powered. Most of that Committee's members are experienced, qualified persons who know a great deal about the European Community and the problems that are common to us both.

We must examine our arrangements and future liaisons. For that purpose, we need an all-party approach. I do not just mean that all hon. Members should be involved in the arrangements; I mean that each political party in the House should consider how to get closer to our colleagues in the European Parliament to discuss how our party objectives can be strengthened and made more realisable. We need joint parliamentary and party committees in the sense in which we have Select Committees and party committees in the House. We need joint Committees with Members of the European Parliament representing British constituencies. They should meet regularly on fixed dates both here and in Brussels. They should examine, with proper back-up and research staff, matters that will ultimately be dealt with in the European Parliament, especially matters affecting the internal market.

At present, we do nothing to prepare ourselves for the great onslaught, in a parliamentary sense, from Europe. We need Joint Committees of Members of this House and of British Members of the European Parliament so that they can meet to consider those problems and to offer advice to the House, and to the parties within it, on how to tackle those matters and any questions that arise. Such Committees could report back to us both directly, through publications and through subsequent debates.

This matter has been wholly ignored until now. That is not the fault only of the Opposition, who are determined to ignore Europe and the Community, and it is not the fault only of the Government, who must provide the initiative. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) is not keen on the European Community, but he is keen on British interests and the improvement of Britain's prospects in every forum in the world. Joint Committees would give us a chance, and a duty, to take the opportunities in Europe to our advantage. We cannot afford to behave as though the Community does not exist or as though we shall come out of Europe. Some hon. Members argue that we shall eventually come out of Europe. Nevertheless, they are wrong to think that we can ignore Europe completely.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

My hon. Friend knows far more about these matters than I do. Can he give one example of a way in which the European Parliament affects his or my constituents, given the powers that it has?

Mr. Stanbrook

That misunderstanding is shared by many of our colleagues. The European Parliament has a different perspective on the problems of this country. Under the Single European Act, the whole country will be affected by decisions taken in Strasbourg or Brussels, because this country's economy is strongly affected by the decisions of the European Parliament, which has control over the budget and over economic policies. My hon. Friend demonstrates that he would rather that it had not, or that he believes that such control does not exist. It does exist, and it has existed for many years. It is getting stronger and it is time that we recognised that and made the best of our connections with the European Parliament.

8.4 pm

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

When I heard the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) talk about the European Parliament and elections to it, I was tempted to use the opportunity to talk about direct elections by means of proportional representation, but I resisted the temptation on this occasion. No doubt the House will be grateful for that.

The issue that I want to raise relates to the provision throughout the country of Post Office counter services, and especially the provision of sub-post offices and community post offices. I also want to talk about the decision by Post Office Counters to regrade many Crown post offices to the level of sub-post office, which will affect many constituencies and which has had a particular effect in my own constituency in recent weeks. I should welcome some time to discuss that before the Christmas recess. We await a response from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to the report from the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

It would be helpful to debate the matter because many hon. Members have had the experience of approaching the Post Office with particular queries and being told that, as the Post Office has to operate within the parameters set down by the Government, the argument is not with the Post Office but with the Government. When one takes the argument to the Minister, one is told that such matters are daily operational matters with which the Post Office must deal. I should therefore welcome an opportunity fully to air these matters, which are of serious concern to many of my constituents.

Over the past 18 months, community post offices have developed. Many of us believed that that development was being used to disguise the fact that part-time sub-post office facilities were being introduced, with a consequent reduction in salary for sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses and reduced opening times. Another effect was to reduce the market value of existing sub-post offices. The Post Office has argued that a reduction in hours has been necessary to ensure the continuation of post offices in particular communities and that must be a matter of concern to the communities involved.

It is important to continue to monitor the impact of these changes to ensure that the Post Office is fulfilling its statutory social obligation to preserve a comprehensive network of post offices throughout the country, especially in remote rural areas where post office facilities are a necessary strand in the fabric of rural life. Post offices in such areas fulfil not only a service function, but an important social function. Many people are concerned that, although the Post Office has been trying to ensure the continuation of such a network, the Department of Social Security has sought actively to woo customers away from sub-post offices by encouraging them to use banking facilities, such as direct credit, for their benefits, especially pensions and child benefit. Much needs to be done to persuade people that it is in their interests to keep the service provided by local post offices and that if they do not use that service, they may lose it.

Another worrying aspect of the exercise has been the so-called consultation process. I have received one letter from a community council in my constituency which says: to call such exercises consultation is a sham. We still fear further reductions and withdrawal of services, which could seriously damage local communities. It is widely felt that, far from being consultation, it is merely passing on information. It would be interesting to know in how many cases the consultative process has led to significant changes in the original proposals, rather than tinkering with matters such as an hour here or changing from a Thursday to a Wednesday there. Has the process ever helped to retain an existing service?

People also fear the regrading of Crown post offices. I draw attention to the word regrading. In practice, that means the downgrading of Crown post offices to sub-post offices. In its submission to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, Post Office Counters said that it intended to downgrade 750 Crown post offices in the near future. The Monopolies and Mergers Commission advocated that it should go further than that. The fear about what will happen not only to the service but to jobs has led to the recent industrial action. Such industrial action is understandable, although I cannot readily see that it advances the argument for trying to keep the present status of Crown post offices.

No doubt the problem of Crown post offices has been experienced by many hon. Members in their own constituencies. In my own constituency, the Crown post office at Stromness in Orkney is under threat. Stromness does not have a large population but it has a distinctive character and serves a wide hinterland. As the Post Office generally accepted in its discussions with the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, local communities see the change in status as being an attack on the status of the town itself. The question of public service arises. Stromness post office is purpose-built and centrally situated, so people found it strange that the Post Office should argue that one reason for moving it would be to find a position where it might benefit more people. There is no location in the town that local people consider to be an improvement on the present site.

The Post Office has argued: the proposals do not involve office closures nor do they involve any reduction in the full range of facilities we offer to our customers. Few people believe that one gets something for nothing, so few people believe that there can be a change in status that involves cutting costs and yet enables the wide range of services to continue to exist.

I have been assured that the wide range of services will continue to exist. To the extent that that means that on day one of the operation of the downgraded system services will be the same as on the previous day, I accept that, but many people are worried about what the level of service will be one year or five years hence. What will the change mean in terms of employee training? No doubt some sub-postmasters will incorporate their sub-post office within their shop, and some people fear that if that happens the quality of training and the service provided by staff will suffer. If someone behind the counter is selling ironmongery products at one moment and dealing with driving licence applications the next, he will not necessarily provide the same quality of service as the person who has been purpose trained to provide post office services.

There is also the fear that, once a post office has been downgraded to sub-post office status, it will be much easier to change hours, cut services or go part-time at some later date. It is important to take a stand at this stage to try to ensure the continuation of the full range of services that a Crown post office can provide.

I sought reassurances from the local area manager that if Stromness were downgraded it would still be providing the same level of service as the Crown post office in Kirkwall, five years from now. He replied that he could not guarantee any services in perpetuity but said: By way of assurance, there is no precedent for clients reducing the size of the network used; as I said, they and We want more business and the tendency is for increases in outlets. What I can say is that no service will cease because of the regrading exercise.

However, it was apparent from the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report that the Home Office insists on Crown office facilities alone being used for the issue of British visitors' passports. That conflicts with the assurances given about guaranteeing the service The report also said that another reason for maintaining the Crown post offices was to ensure the security of location. That is a pertinent argument, as it is feared that security of location would be lost if the post office were downgraded.

What it boils down to is that many people feel that the Post Office is no longer providing a service as such but is having to focus its operations on a profit and loss account. Increasingly the concept of public service—to which many Post Office employees have given much of their lives—is being lost. In 21 paragraphs of conclusions and recommendations in the section of the MMC report concerning the activity of the Crown post offices there is only one mention of the customer. Sadly, the needs of customers are constantly overlooked.

Let me conclude with a positive observation. The Post Office repeatedly tells us that it is carrying out its operations in an increasingly competitive climate. Section 58 of the British Telecommunications Act 1981 sets a limit on what the Post Office may and may not do at its various places of operation. It appears, however, that the statutory restrictions on the business that the Post Office can transact mean that in this increasingly competitive market the Post Office is trying to act with one arm tied behind its back. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has suggested in the past that he will do something about that at some stage, but as yet nothing has been forthcoming. It would be welcome if the Secretary of State could announce before Christmas that he proposes to relax restrictions on the Post Office so that Post Office Counters can make better use of its space and sites—many of them prime sites—to expand its activities so that it can operate in a more commercially competitive manner.

Finally, what can the Post Office do to assist in the implementation of the poll tax? I accept that it is rare for Opposition Members to suggest ways of helping with the collection of the poll tax but we accept that, once the tax is law, we should obey the law and we feel that we should seek ways of making it work to the advantage of another service. Using the network of sub-post offices, with computers linked into a terminal at the local authority headquarters, we could provide an on-the-spot facility for people to pay their poll tax by regular instalments. That. service could be on hand for the payers of the community charge. It would also provide a new source of revenue for the Post Office. It has been suggested that the Post Office has not been as enthusiastic and quick as it might have. been in picking up that possible extra source of business. I hope that—in the early months of the new year, if not before Christmas—the Post Office will consider that proposition, which would enable it to underpin its existing network of services which many of us—especially those who represent rural areas—look forward to its providing for many years to come.

8.15 pm
Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Before my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) leaves the Chamber, let me say this to him. He mentioned the Government's concession on overseas pensioners. It should not go unrecorded that he played a major part in achieving that concession. Several of my constituents have written to me to say what a great part he played in this matter, and I pay tribute to him now.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) talked about the Post Office, and I intend to follow him briefly on that matter. All of us who know and respect the Post Office and know what vital work it does for our people are disturbed by the state of its industrial relations recently. I do not attribute a reason to that. In my own town of Melton Mowbray, there have been three extremely damaging disputes in the Post Office this year, one of which was the national strike. Not long ago no mail was delivered in Melton Mowbray for two and a half weeks.

I have no intention of apportioning blame in this matter. I have suggested to the chairman of the Post Office, Sir Bryan Nicholson, that he ask ACAS or the Industrial Society to undertake a proper impartial investigation of industrial relations in the Post Office. We need to know why the difficulties exist and how they can be properly and effectively addressed so that we do not have more industrial disputes which are ruinous to business. If Sir Bryan Nicholson does not reply soon, I shall have to press Ministers, because we cannot allow this disruption to continue.

The second matter that I want to raise with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House concerns the complete mess into which the Government have got themselves over the provisions in the Education Reform Act dealing with school visits and trips. I am extremely disturbed by the number of head teachers and other teachers in my constituency who have discussed with me the proposals for charging. I also received a worrying letter from the director of education of Leicestershire county council. Teachers have suggested that, because of the prohibition—with which I suspect most of us would agree in the abstract and which was introduced for a good reason following a court judgment—school swimming trips will have to be stopped at rural schools and museum trips and so on will be increasingly difficult to arrange.

When I wrote to the Secretary of State, I received a disappointing reply from a junior Minister, and as a result I have written back. I implore my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to ask the Secretary of State to discuss the matter immediately with the organisations representing teachers—especially head teachers, as they are the most worried. Rural schools cannot give up educational and other important trips simply because one person refuses on principle to pay a charge and because the schools have no money to finance them. Head teachers have made it plain to me that they will not hold trips if people exercise their right not to pay; they will not put a child in that embarrassing position. The Government have got themselves into a muddle, and the sooner they get it sorted out, the better. The new regulations do not come into force until 1 April, so there is still time.

Rural maternity units are immensely important. Leicestershire health authority, in an extreme lack of wisdom, wants to close all the rural maternity units there, including two in my constituency. Trent region has already closed too many and is well in the lead of an extremely unhappy league table of regional health authorities closing rural maternity units. Leicestershire wants to close them in Melton Mowbray and Oakham, in my constituency. I went into all this in an Adjournment debate on 9 November which was answered by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), who was then Under-Secretary of State. Neither I nor my constituents were happy with her reply.

Rural maternity units are absolutely essential for women who live in rural areas. They do not want to travel 30 or 40 miles on foggy or snowy roads to have their babies in large units in general hospitals in large towns. It is not that they have anything against large towns or hospitals, which are good, but they regard their rural maternity units as personal, local and friendly. They want to see the Government stick up for them and not agree to proposals to close them. I must warn my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), the new Under-Secretary, that I shall nag him as much as I nagged his predecessor until he reprieves those two units.

What is happening and when will the ombudsman report on Barlow Clowes? I read carefully, as I am sure most hon. Members did, the report prepared by Sir Godfray Le Quesne. I did not agree with the view of the Department of Trade and Industry that that report cleared the Government. It did not. The Department of Trade and Industry has much to answer for regarding the handling of the matter. I hope that my right hon. Friend will ensure that, as soon as the ombudsman's report is available, it is brought before the House and decisions are made. The handling of the matter does the Government little credit and I still believe that they have a duty to pay compensation. I shall watch this matter closely and press my right hon. Friend for early action.

My final point refers to a matter which I have raised several times at business questions and which involves all hon. Members. We all have the honour and duty of showing our constituents round the House. Let it be remembered that this is their Parliament, not ours. We are here as trustees for them and on their behalf. They have every right to see their Parliament appropriately. It is of great regret to me and hon. Members on both sides that our constituents have to queue in the rain, cold and snow for a considerable time to get into the House of Lords through the necessary security arrangements.

When my right hon. Friend first came to the House there were no such arrangements. People walked in. We know that those days have gone and, alas, will never return, and that there must be security arrangements. But it is absolutely unreasonable for elderly people and children to have to stand for long periods to get into their Parliament. If the House of Lords is making difficulties about this, and if the heritage bodies say that we cannot have awnings because they are too ugly—we have them for the state opening—please let us reverse the line of route and start it in Westminster Hall so that people can stand where it is dry rather than outside in the rain and snow. I know that my right hon. Friend is involved in this and is having discussions with the House of Lords. I urge him to get this sorted out and to think if the British people who want to see their Parliament and not get soaking wet while doing so.

8.23 pm
Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

On behalf of my constituents who travel much further than many on the mainland for visits to the Palace of Westminster, I entirely support the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham). We all welcome the good sense of his suggestion and look forward to its implementation for the benefit of our constituents.

I am grateful for this opportunity to bring to the attention of the House before the Christmas recess the concern of all of us in Northern Ireland who care about Harland and Wolff and the continuance of this great and internationally acclaimed modern shipyard. Elected representatives of the constitutional parties, trade unionists, cross-community church leaders, management and workers, together with the captains of Northern Ireland industry, as represented by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, all seek a secure future for the Belfast shipyard.

Past Government investment, skilful management, and co-operation by trade union representatives and workers have transformed Harland and Wolff into a high-tech yard, the products of which, together with those of Shorts, demonstrate throughout the world the skills and enterprise of the engineering work force in Northern Ireland.

We are concerned about and almost demoralised by the mishandling of the privatisation exercise of Northern Ireland companies which the Government seek to transfer to the private sector. The uncertainty of the past 12 months must be removed. Business confidence is being eroded by the negative approach to privatisation of Ministers, Government spokesmen and the Department of Economic Development in Northern Ireland.

There is a feeling of outrage and anger at the disgraceful handling of privatisation in Northern Ireland when comparisons are made with the successful transfer of companies from the public to the private sector elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We have witnessed elsewhere the building of companies to provide them with a sound financial structure to ease their transition into the private sector, whereas in Northern Ireland there has been almost a destructive campaign of denigration from official sources which has damaged early prospects of a transfer of Harland and Wolff to the private sector. Despite that, the company board has supported privatisation, provided that it is carried out on a sound basis.

Government action to date has not been helpful. The company is excluded from tendering for new Ministry of Defence work until it is privatised and it has been blocked from securing any new merchant orders. More than $550 million of new work has been turned away. That included the Ultimate Dream—a concept which had wide cross-party support in the House for the largest, most innovative cruise liner in the world—and a £10 million order for a dredger that could have led to orders for a series of such vessels. All those new ships would have resulted in Harland and Wolff placing orders with 1,200 companies in the United Kingdom to the value of more than £200 million. The United Kingdom marine equipment and engineering industries as well as Belfast shipyard are losers. Is that obstruction and are the obstacles placed before Harland and Wolff calculated to assist closure or encourage privatisation?

Shipbuilding in Belfast plays a major role in the Northern Ireland economy as a whole. Demoralisation is widespread among the 3,500 employees at the yard, among the thousands employed in 680 small businesses in Northern Ireland which supply goods and services to the shipyard and among the workers' families. Business confidence has been seriously eroded and evidence of a more constructive, positive approach by Ministers and officials in the days ahead is required in order successfully to transfer Harland and Wolff to the private sector.

The threat to Shorts of a potential breakup of that company after its transfer to the private sector is not being ruled out by the Government's financial advisers. That is causing enormous unease about the future of aircraft manufacturing in Belfast. Predators interested in only one segment of the Shorts' business could, alongside the existing threat to shipbuilding jobs, create an industrial wasteland in east Belfast. The last thing we need on top of our other difficulties is discontent in another wide section of the community. More large-scale unemployment could cause further instability in a society already suffering deep social strains.

I urge Ministers to be more careful in their stewardship of Northern Ireland and to demonstrate positive action, by which I mean commitment to that part of the United Kingdom and its industries. There is a perception, which I hope will shortly be disproved, that too often appointment to the Northern Ireland Office is but a phase in an hon. Members political career. When Ministers arid civil servants appear to speak negatively against our major industries, we are left to wonder who is working for and on behalf of Northern Ireland. People in Northern Ireland should not be forced to conclude that some Ministers are more interested in self-promotion than advancing causes such as privatisation in a sensible, responsible and positive way.

There has been no word of resistance from the management—of the companies concerned and the proposed management-employee buy-out of the shipyards should be explored constructively. The Government can show good will, good faith and intention successfully to transfer Harland and Wolff, Belfast to the private sector by permitting the company to tender for new contracts, including Ministry of Defence work, by resolving the issue of performance guarantees, and by spelling out whether, after privatisation, intervention funding or additional funding will be part of the financial package offered.

The Government should accept the preferred way forward of the management, who wish to embark on the Ultimate Dream project, and allow the company to build its future workload around this prestigious project. Management and workers deserve financial support to protect existing jobs and training opportunities for our young people. Job losses in manufacturing industry in Northern Ireland are difficult to replace. We all welcome the recent achievements in job creation, although we are conscious that those new jobs barely match demand from school leavers.

Our shipyard will be saved if the Government have the will to find a way forward with the workers and management. We trust that that good will will be forthcoming and that a satisfactory solution will be quickly found which will have the support of all hon. Members.

I hope that, even before the House adjourns, a statement will be made by the Government which will usher in a bright new year for all those who depend for employment on Harland and Wolff shipyard, Belfast.

8.32 pm
Mr. Douglas French (Gloucester)

I believe that the House should not go into the Christmas recess before tackling an important and growing threat to road safety. While I applaud the campaign run by the Department of Transport in relation to drink driving, so far it has neglected to turn its attention to the growing menace of the dangerous use of car telephones. More and more one sees drivers driving along holding the receiver of a car telephone with one hand, while the other hand is on the steering wheel. That is a dangerous practice which needs to be curbed. If the car is equipped with an automatic gear change, it can, of course, be controlled reasonably with one hand until such time as it is necessary to steer round a corner, when it becomes more dangerous. If, however, the car has a manual gear change, a phone in one hand and a gearstick in the other leaves the driver with no hand on the steering wheel.

Some phones are equipped with a dialling facility in the handset. Some drivers will rest the handset on the lower quarter of the steering wheel and dial the digits for the number while simultaneously steering the wheel, which is another dangerous practice that needs to be curbed.

Other phones have a dialling facility on a separate console, possibly fixed near the radio or somewhere near the gear lever. Perhaps the handset does not have to be lifted to dial the number but the result is that the driver's eyes are taken off the road.

The problems, therefore, with car telephones are that, first, the driver holds the handset in one hand and steers the wheel with the other; secondly, a call is dialled in such a way as to take the driver's eyes off the road; thirdly, bad visibility is caused when the handset is held in the hand, because vision is restricted on that side of the car; fourthly, there is general distraction and lack of concentration.

I would not wish for one moment to seek to curtail the use of car telephones in any major respect. I believe that they are now widely accepted as a great advantage in business; in fact, some businesses depend very much on their use. Also, they are often an asset for personal communication, although I would draw the line at those who insist on receiving and making calls during theatre performances.

The House should urgently enact measures to ensure that car telephones are used more safely. So far, there have been comparatively few accidents which it could be said to be directly attributable to the careless use of car phones. However, the growth of their use shows that it will only be a matter of time before they are a significant ingredient in more and more accidents. In 1985, 31,500 car telephones were in use in the United Kingdom. By January 1988, that had risen to 210,000, and by August there were 300,000 car telephones. It is forecast that there will be half a million car telephones by the end of next year and five million in the year 2000. That shows how important it is that they should be used carefully and that the risk to road safety is a growing one.

All that the highway code says on the subject is: Do not use a hand-held microphone or telephone handset while your vehicle is moving—except in an emergency". But the highway code is, of course, only advisory. It places on drivers the responsibility to have proper control of their vehicles at all times—but no more than that. That section of the highway code is neither adequate nor sufficiently specific. People are not heeding it, perhaps because they are not reading it.

Careless use of car telephones could also give rise, under section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1972 to offences of driving without due care and attention. In some circumstances a charge may be brought under this section, but that has always been regarded as a sweep-up provision, where it was difficult to be more precise about the exact nature of the offence being committed. I believe, however, that it is possible to be more precise about the way in which car telephones should be used. Enforcement would be difficult. Effective enforcement involves being able to monitor and stop motorists when they are using them carelessly. In those cases where no accident results, enforcement is difficult.

Some people would argue that such an attempt to restrict the way in which car telephones are used would amount to an attack on individual freedom. Those arguments were widely deployed in the House when we considered the compulsory wearing of seat belts. Some people would also be ready to argue that restrictions on the way car telephones are used would lead to attempts, for example, subsequently to stop people smoking at the same time as driving a car. That would take matters much too far. An alternative approach is to look at the instruments themselves to see the way in which they are designed and fitted. That route would present the best solution.

All car telephones should be equipped with a remote microphone and a remote loudspeaker. Many systems already have such equipment, which ensures that it is unnecessary to hold the receiver in the hand while speaking. Some people argue that extraneous noise levels, especially when driving on the motorway, make it extremely difficult to use such telephones effectively. However, contrary evidence suggests that the latest equipment with high-quality microphones and remote loudspeakers would allow motorway driving and telephoning to be combined comparatively easily.

Should car telephones be compulsorily fitted with voice-activated dialling? The technology already exists, but there are many disadvantages. It is said that voice-activated dialling is unreliable and that it may require reprogramming if a different driver is using the equipment or a call is made by a passenger. Voice-activated dialling is also very expensive. A less expensive way in which to achieve a similar result would be to permit only pre-programmed single or double-digit short-call dialling while the car is moving.

Another change would be to ensure that the dialling apparatus is always positioned on top of the fascia at windscreen level. Therefore, in so far as the driver's eyes must be averted from the road when dialling even a short-call number, his eyes would remain in the line of vision of the windscreen and other road users. Such changes in the design and fitting of equipment—I stress equipment, rather than the way in which it is used—would limit the scope for a driver to cause danger while using a telephone when the vehicle is in motion. The problem does not arise when a telephone is used by a passenger or when the vehicle is stationary. Although a driver may be able to stop to make a call, he cannot readily stop when the time comes to receive one. Most drivers, however, do neither.

I believe that such changes are urgent, and they would enhance road safety. I hope that the Leader of the House will consider my suggestions seriously.

8.42 pm
Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

I wish to discuss the holding of remand prisoners in either police cells or magistrates court cells because it is a continuing problem that, sadly, never seems to be resolved. The system started as long ago as 1980 when the then Home Secretary, now Lord Whitelaw, introduced it. He said then that it was temporary, yet eight years later, not only is it still operating, but the numbers involved have increased enormously. People are now moved for greater distances to be kept in police or magistrates court cells.

Over the years, many excuses have been given for keeping people in such cells, but I find it hard to accept many of them. It is important to discuss this matter tonight because the conditions under which men and women are being kept are an utter disgrace. If the Government still allow the system to continue eight years after it was introduced, I find it hard to accept why they have refused to improve the conditions under which people are kept.

I shall quote some figures to give the Leader of the House an idea of the problem. In 1982, when records were being kept, 42 people were in police cells or magistrates court cells in England and Wales. In a reply that I received today from the Home Office I am informed that, on the latest available figures, at 31 October 1988, 1,531 prisoners, most of whom were on remand, were being held in police cells. Therefore, in eight years, the numbers of people held in such cells has increased from 42 to more than 1,500. They are held in many parts of the country, no matter where they are due to appear in court. One of my constituents appeared in a London court and was then moved to police cells in Northampton. When his relatives went to see him, the police told them it was inconvenient.

I received a letter dated 12 December from the wife of a man who is being held now at Bow road police station in London. She says: He has been on remand for eight weeks in various police stations and prisons throughout London and as far as Grimsby in the north. Yet that man must appear at a London court.

We all know that remand prisoners who are held in prison have certain rights under the prison rules, yet those rights do not extend to anyone being held in a police cell or in a magistrates court cell. In prison, if one is dissatisfied about the conditions under which one is kept, one can complain to the number one governor, the wing governor or the boards of visitors. One has a statutory right to complain about the conditions under which one is kept, but if one is kept in police cells or in magistrates court cells, the only person to whom one can complain is the officer in charge or a member of the lay visitors. If one complains, however, the answer is "Sorry. There is very little we can do. We don't have the proper facilities to hold you here for a long time."

Let us consider the conditions of such prisoners. Invariably there is a lack of space, and often the only means of keeping one's possessions is in plastic bags. The cells are often impossible to keep properly clean and there is often no clean bedding. Someone who is held in a police cell or in a magistrates court cell may suffer from an infectious disease. That person may be moved or released, but the next person who is allocated the cell will be sleeping in the same bedding.

The heating and ventilation in many such cells is non-existent. Often the meals are poor; and there is no provision for those with special diets. The facilities for medical treatment are poor; people often have to wait a long time before they see a doctor. We are aware that, sadly, people suffering from mental illness are put in such cells, yet we know from all the available records that they should not be kept under such conditions.

Opportunities for exercise are often lacking. Wandsworth prison is in my constituency and I often receive complaints about the lack of exercise, but at least those facilities exist. In many police stations or magistrates courts, there are no facilities for people to exercise, however short that exercise time may be.

Washing facilities are an utter disgrace and often there is no privacy. A report dated 24 November, which was presented to the Wandsworth police consultative committee, of which I am a member, recorded what was reported to the committee by lay visitors: Lay Visitors are currently attempting to effect improvements in arrangements for female remand prisoners and also to ensure that remand prisoners can enjoy some privacy when making use of washing facilities … This has already led to at least one complaint from a female remand prisoner as regards the lack of privacy in the presence of male police officers. This problem is compounded because the wash basin at the Lavender Hill Police Station (the only washing facility available) is not enclosed. Such lack of privacy would be bad enough for many men, who would say they were entitled to privacy when taking a shower or bath—if such things were available. We all know how our wives and daughters would feel if, sad to say, they found themselves in these conditions.

All this has been happening for a long time. Senior police officers have often told me that these people should not be in police cells. The police do not have the facilities to keep remand prisoners for a long time, or the experience to do the job. Police staff who are allocated to look after remand prisoners take up time that could be used for other work.

I am delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department on the Treasury Bench; this subject, I hope, greatly concerns the Home Office. The sad thing about the number of people who are still held in police stations or magistrates courts on remand is that space is available in prisons up and down the country. I shall not go into detail this evening, but the Under-Secretary knows that that is a fact. Many held in police cells ultimately receive no custodial sentence. We must bear in mind the fact that, when Lord Whitelaw introduced the system in 1980, he made it clear that it was temporary. My plea is that courts should show far more concern about the number of people whom they place in custody on remand—there does not seem to be great concern now. The Home Secretary and the Home Office must stop this practice. It could be stopped, and many people involved in penal matters in the country believe that the time to stop it is now. Eight years is long enough: what was supposed to be a temporary provision must now be ended. I hope that, in the near future—even before Christmas—we shall hear a statement from the Government that the system will at long last be ended.

8.53 pm
Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

Before the House rises for Christmas it should consider three matters concerned with love—that which makes the world go round.

The first is hospital radio. I am the voluntary spokesman for the National Association of Hospital Broadcasting Organisations. On 14 February next year there will be an "I love hospital radio broadcasting" day. There will be a lobby of the House, whose members will ask my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to zero-rate VAT on hospital radio broadcasting equipment—in other words, to treat our charity in the same way as talking newspapers for the blind. This would mean only a small amount of money to the Treasury but a great deal to all the enthusiastic volunteers in the association. Ours is the largest registered charity with no paid officers in the United Kingdom. Every penny goes into the service. There are 330 stations in the United Kingdom, many serving more than one hospital.

Many hon. Members will realise that much of the equipment being used in hospital for radio broadcasting is breaking down, so it is important that the Home Office look favourably on our application for a broadcast frequency allocation for hospital radio—a single frequency. That would help considerably with the costs that we incur for radio headsets.

My second point about love has to do with the erection of memorials in cemeteries. Many people would ask why we should bother about them, as so many believe in cremation, but I think that many people are concerned about the quality and type of memorials that are permitted in cemeteries.

The Local Authorities Cemeteries Order 1977 empowers a burial authority, in general a local council, to grant the right to put up a tombstone or other memorial, subject to such conditions as it thinks proper. Paragraph 3 of the same order gives authorities a general power of management to do all such things as they consider necessary or desirable for the proper management, regulation and control of a cemetery. So local authorities can make such rules as they wish about the size and appearance of gravestones. There are no general guidelines in the form of byelaws.

Many constituents are worried from time to time about what they see as unreasonable rules and regulations laid down by local churches or local authorities, which do not show enough compassion in allowing different types of memorials. I know of one family who live in an east end constituency who have spent about two years trying to come to an agreement with their local authority about the sort of memorial that they are permitted to erect.

My final point about love concerns the "I love Basildon" campaign. It was launched earlier this year and it will continue throughout 1989. There have been many critics of the finest new town in the country, which is rapidly becoming the finest town of any kind. The campaign is all about telling people that we are building a fine town and that we want to keep it that way. It deals with litter, graffiti and vandalism. It even teaches dogs to read signs saying that they will be fined £100 should they foul the footpaths.

On a serious note, many hon. Members will be appalled at the amount of litter that is dumped on our streets and at the graffiti that spoils our environment. If any hon. Member can tell me why this is happening, I should be glad to know. From time to time in the House we mention the problems of litter, graffiti and vandalism but then they are forgotten. I am delighted that the Government, led by the Prime Minister earlier this year, are doing all that they can to help the "Keep Britain Tidy" campaign. We are doing our bit in Basildon. Badges and car stickers saying "I love Basildon" have been produced and all sorts of competitions are being held in the town to make people more aware of their environment. I am especially delighted that the schools in the town are entering into the spirit of the campaign, but it is not just young people who are responsible for dumping litter. Time after time when one is stuck on the motorway one sees people winding down their car windows and chucking out tin cans or cigarette ends. Who do they think will pick up that rubbish? Some people may consider that a frivolous point, but I believe it to be important.

There is no finer way of demonstrating our love for our country than by taking more care of and treating our environment with more respect than we do now.

9 pm

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

As the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) talked about love, I was reminded of the epigram of Oscar Wilde: art an illusion, love a myth, and religion a fashionable substitute for belief. I was under the impression that in the modern world love is something that occurs only in soap operas, not in people's real lives. But apparently things are different in Basildon.

It would be a mistake for the House to rise before it had a chance to discuss a report published last week by the Department of Trade and Industry entitled "Summer International plc, formerly Sumrie Clothes plc". It relates to a two-year investigation into the affairs of Mr. Michael Hepker. The report is by Sir Michael Kerry, QC and Keith Carmichael. In effect, the report calls Mr. Hepker a liar and a cheat. It suggests that he was involved in concert parties in relation to share ownership and that he committed a number of offences under the Companies Act 1985. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is in the House of Lords, but one of his junior Ministers should come here and tell us why the Department has said that Mr. Hepker will not be prosecuted. From where does his immunity stem?

The report states: In a number of respects we have been given evidence and explanations of events which have, to say the least of it, strained our credulity…We have considered reporting to the Court Mr. M. Z. Hepker's failure to provide satisfactory answers to many of our questions. It said that there is "strong" evidence of breaches of sections 324 and 198 of the Companies Act by Mr. Hepker in that he did not disclose his interest in shares held by Le Chevalerique and Anglo-European in the company Sumrie Clothes. The report also said that there was evidence of a concert party.

A Minister should come to the House and explain not only why there was no prosecution but why the inspectors made it clear in their report that Ministers at the Department stopped them carrying out their investigation and prevented them from taking it to a proper conclusion. As long ago as 29 July 1987, the inspectors recommended to the Department that the Secretary of State should make an order under section 445 of the 1985 Act that the shares held by Le Chevalerique should be subject to restrictions under part XV of the Companies Act. That means that the shares could not he sold and that no voting rights would attach to them until their ownership had been cleared up. The inspectors recommended that because they believed that Mr. Hepker was prevaricating and not telling them the truth. Amazingly, the Department did not back the inspectors but said, on 19 August 1987, that it would not recommend making such an order because of the likely effect on the company and its employees.

I do not believe that that was the reason why the Department refused to carry out the wishes of the inspectors. It turned down the inspectors' request, first, because of the political embarrassment that it knew that nuisances and investigators like me would cause. I was the one who forced the Department to publish the report after a series of parliamentary questions. The two inspectors have made it clear privately that they do not understand why the report was not published for six months or why the Department refused to allow them to continue their inquiries.

I have been on the inside of the affair from start to finish. I know that the Department has decided that it does not wish to pursue its inquiries to their ultimate conclusion. The inspectors write: We have since that date"—_ that is, 19 August 1987— followed up a number of outstanding leads but are now convinced that under the terms of our appointment there is nothing more which can usefully be achieved. Accordingly we have brought our investigation to a close.

Civil servants and Ministers at the Department of Trade and Industry have discovered that it would cost between £160 and £180 an hour to employ someone to pursue their inquiries. Apparently, although the Government are flush with money. they cannot afford that sum to catch City fraudsters. They can afford that money to catch people who defraud the Department of Social Security and to do almost anything else, but, when it comes to someone whom their own inspectors make it clear is a criminal, they are not prepared to pursue the matter.

As long ago as 15 August 1985, I wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer under confidential cover, as follows: Dear Nigel, For the reasons which will be obvious from letters one to five, I do not think that Mr. Michael Hepker is a fit person to run a public company. I ended that letter: I am slightly puzzled as to why it is that Mr. Hepker is able to break so many of the laws of England and the rules of the Stock Exchange too. Perhaps you could let me know where his immunity comes from. Three years on, I believe that it is now time for a Minister to come to the House with that report in his hands and say where Mr. Hepker's immunity comes from.

The Department of Trade and Industry has also been told about a company called Meldoak which involves Mr. Hepker. I wrote to the Attorney-General on 15 August, 17 August, 22 August and 3 September 1985 and on 19 January 1986, with copies to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In that case, according to the allegations, all the company's money, £650,000, was stolen by Mr. Hepker.

The south Wales police carried out an investigation and found that there was a prima facie case to answer. The Director of Public Prosecutions saw the papers and found that there was a prima facie case to answer, but he then said that, as the bank account of that United Kingdom company was held in the Isle of Man, the criminal offence had been committed in the Isle of Man and the papers would be passed there. A Minister should come to the House and tell us what help the United Kingdom authorities are giving to the Isle of Man fraud squad. It is traditionally known that the Isle of Man fraud squad is virtually non-existent and that the British police help them in such difficult circumstances. We should be told what the state of play is in this case when there is a prima facie case to answer. Why is there no prosecution?

In 1985—I believe in playing politics long—I wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about a case called Supasave in which it was alleged that £1.5 million had been taken by Mr. Hepker. The liquidator who was investigating the offence is still doing so and has no intention of letting the matter go. It was a complicated matter, but, because I am a reasonable man and realised how complicated the money merry-go-round was, I drew a diagram for the Chancellor of the Exchequer so that he could see what was happening as the money moved around the companies. I have in my hand a copy of the original diagram. A Minister should come and tell us what progress has been made in prosecuting Mr. Hepker in that case.

On 2 August 1985, I wrote to Price Waterhouse about some of the affairs of Sumrie Clothes. Some of them have been discussed in the report, but the inspectors say that they were not pertinent to their inquiries. I drew attention to six major affairs where there was prima facie evidence of breaches of the Companies Act 1985. Price Waterhouse has never replied to my letter. I sent a copy of my letter to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. A Minister should come here and tell us the state of play on those six allegations.

The matter simply will not go away. I understand that recently Mr. Michael Hepker was kept under continuous surveillance. I am not going to say who was keeping him under surveillance, but a copy of the report that I have found its way into the hands of Private Eye. On Wednesday there will be more revelations about Mr. Michael Hepker which will involve him, the report, Supasave, Meldoak and the breaches of the Companies Act 1985 which I reported to Price Waterhouse. It will also involve other public figures.

I have arranged to meet the editor of Private Eye tomorrow to ask him if he will allow me to send this copy of the report to the Department of Trade and Industry. Will the Leader of the House help me? There is no point in my trying to persuade the editor to let me produce the report and give it to the Department of Trade and Industry if Ministers deal with the affair in the way that they dealt with the report produced by the Government's inspectors, the Meldoak case, Supasave and the six facts that I referred to Price Waterhouse. If the Leader of the House will tell me that if I can persuade the editor of Private Eye to send this valuable document to the Department of Trade and Industry the Department will act on it, I will do that in the public interest.

9.10 pm
Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

' What I would like to know is, what action do the Government intend to take following the article in The Observer on 13 November entitled CND men: We sprang spy Blake"? In that article two former CND activists, Pat Pottle and Michael Randle, are quoted as admitting that they organised the escape from prison in 1966 of the Soviet spy and MI6 traitor, George Blake. Blake had been sentenced to a record 42 years imprisonment by the Lord Chief Justice five years previously in 1961. Many believe that the 42 years represented the number of British agents for whose deaths Blake was responsible.

George Blake seriously undermined the work of Britain's and our allies' security services. He was and remains to this day one of Britain's most notorious traitors. That any British citizens should want to help that man to escape from prison is surprising; that any British citizens would want to admit that they had organised his escape is astonishing, unless they intended to cash in on their activities by publishing a book.

Not only does The Observer quote Pat Pottle saying "We did it", but he is quoted as saying: We are proud of what we did. If it is true, that must represent the most appallingly treacherous behaviour. It is unlikely that the two individuals to whom I have referred were simply embarked on a publicity stunt because their names had been implicated previously in the affair by Montgomery Hyde in his biography of Blake in 1987 and The Sunday Times has subsequently picked up the story. It is only now, however, that those two individuals have admitted their part in the affair.

The Attorney-General's office has confirmed that a prosecution is not precluded simply because the events occurred 22 years ago. This matter cannot be ignored. If it is, it will give the green light to other criminals to keep their heads down for a number of years and then to try to cash in many years later by publishing a book. An early-day motion signed by 80 of my hon. Friends will appear on tomorrow's Order Paper urging the Government to initiate legal proceedings on the matter. I understand that a prosecution could be forthcoming for contravention of section 39 of the Prison Act 1952 which relates to assisting escape from Her Majesty's prisons.

The participation of two former CND activists in such apparently treacherous activities would tend to give credence to the suspicions held by many of us that some individuals involved in CND are not necessarily arguing their case from a wholly patriotic and British standpoint.

It is particularly interesting that Michael Randle is a lecturer at the school of peace studies at Bradford university. I do not for a moment imagine that the university knew about Mr. Randle's earlier prison-related activities and expertise when he was first employed. However, it raises the interesting point as to how much influence CND has at the Bradford university school of peace studies. Whether peace studies are a suitable subject for academic study and research is an interesting question in itself. I do not intend pursuing that argument now, although Baroness Cox and Professor Scruton have argued forcefully in their book "Peace Studies: A Critical Survey" that peace studies are not a genuine educational discipline.

I question whether the university's school of peace studies approaches its academic work in a wholly objective manner, whether it is deserving of Government funding through the University Grants Committee, or whether—as some of us suspect—it is little more than a production line of anti-Government political propaganda. The peace school is rather good at getting itself into national newspapers. I dug out references to it in the national media in 1987, using the textline facility to which all right hon. and hon. Members have access. It certainly makes interesting reading. April 1987: A study published yesterday by Bradford University's school of peace studies has claimed that over 600 neutron bombs are stored in the US, and a similar number of weapons soon to be deployed in Europe may be easily converted into neutron weapons. May 1987: A report published yesterday by Bradford University's school of peace studies claims that cancellation of the Trident missile could save £11.6 billion. June 1987: A report drawn up by the Bradford University school of peace studies alleges that 22 accidents involving nuclear weapons in or around the UK have been concealed by the military authorities. It is interesting to note the objective justification for that claim: The school's report, admitting that it relied on inference and deduction rather than on hard facts, justifies that by citing the Government's own policy of secrecy and the frequency of accidents involving nuclear weapons elsewhere. I feel sure that all right hon. and hon. Members will agree that that is a very academic way of approaching the subject!

An August 1987 item reported: A report published today by Bradford University's school of peace studies has accused the British Government of collaborating with the US to delay or obstruct the Geneva committee on disarmament. And so they go on. There are a number of references of that kind, but nowhere does one read anything about the Soviet Union—that is, not until November 1987: Bradford University's school of peace studies has concluded that the Warsaw Pact may not have overall conventional weapon supremacy. They have concluded that, allowing for the high quality of western equipment, there is a rough parity.

So now we know!

I do not suggest that everything produced by the school lacks intellectual rigour or is politically one-sided—although I understand how someone could reach that conclusion. However, it strikes me as incredible that such a school, based at one of Britain's major universities, has practically nothing to say to the press or in its own publications about the threat posed by the Soviet Union's massive armed forces and those of the Eastern bloc countries. There is little mention of the Soviet Union's numerical superiority of troops, tanks, artillery and aircraft.

More importantly, no mention is made of the nature of the Soviet system, the absence of any legal opposition in that country, the long-cherished Communist ambition of world domination—

Mr. Cryer

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Riddick

I am under pressure of time, so I shall not do so, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.

The school makes no mention either of the fact that Soviet leaders have been responsible for the deaths of millions of their own citizens, that Russia has taken over so much of Europe by force, and that that Communist country ruthlessly smashed by invasion opposition in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland—in effect, and Afghanistan. In other words, the school says nothing to explain why the West, including Britain, feels that it is necessary to possess nuclear weapons as a deterrent to the Soviet Union's expansionist ambitions.

One looks in vain to the school's prospectus and to its publicationsfor evidence of any balance in its approach. Its publications include titles such as, "As Lambs to the Slaughter: The Facts about Nuclear War," and "Defence Without The Bomb". That was produced by the alternative defence commission set up by the peace school in conjunction with the Lansbury House Trust. By its own admission it is a unilateralist body. The prospectus tells us: This is a major initiative concerned with the development of proposals for alternatives to British defence policies which currently rely in whole or in part on nuclear weapons. Of course, the individuals involved were unilateralists.

The senior lecturer in peace studies at the school has been heard to say that much of the intake of students has come as a result of courses being advertised in "Sanity", CND's magazine. But it was Professor O'Connell, formerly professor of peace studies, who let the cat out of the bag when he told a conference back in 1985: The Bradford school of peace studies is not an activist enterprise; it serves instead to provide activists with the academic resources which they need. Yes, indeed; that is exactly what many of us thought. I should like to know what the Government are doing funding this bogus centre of academic study.

Mr. Cryer

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us whether, when he began to organise this attack on Bradford university, he approached any Bradford Members for their comments, or whether he submitted any of his comments to any member of the peace studies department for comment? That would at least have been fair.

Mr. Riddick

No, I did not. The issue has come up very recently. Michael Randle, the ex-CND activist, has only recently admitted to having sprung Blake. In the past, however, both Baroness Cox and Professor Scruton carried out detailed examinations of what goes on in the peace studies school. The school itself was not very forthcoming in providing information when it realised that it was under attack.

Bradford university's school of peace studies seems to be a mouthpiece of one-sided unilateralist arguments funded by the taxpayer. The taxpayer should no longer have to bear that burden.

9.22 pm
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

I last had the misfortune to follow the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) when he was making a very inept defence of the Economic League. On that occasion he was attempting, in a very amateurish fashion, to defend the indefensible; tonight he has attempted to make an equally ill-researched attack on the Bradford peace studies department.

If the hon. Gentleman knew anything about the department and its work, he would know that it enjoys a national and international reputation among a wide range of individuals for objectivity and independence of view. I suggest that, before he engages in another attack on the department, he attends one of its series of seminars or pays a visit to the department itself, where its members will he only too pleased to inform him about international and national relationships. I certainly hope that, before he launches another such amateurish attack on the department, he will obtain some information about its work.

I wish briefly to draw to the House's attention some matters that Bradford Members have experienced great difficulty in bringing to the House. I refer, of course, to the actions and policies of Bradford's Conservative council. It is only 14 weeks ago that the Conservatives secured political control of the city of Bradford, and it is only nine weeks ago that, at its first full meeting, Bradford council embarked upon a massive cuts package, secured by the mayor's casting vote. We still await the High Court's verdict on whether its action was lawful.

We know that the Conservatives in Bradford have no mandate whatever for the policies upon which they have embarked. There was no election manifesto commitment to the people of Bradford to embark on these policies. No Conservative candidate who has advocated cuts has been elected in any election in Bradford. There is no popular support from the people of Bradford for the cuts package that the Conservatives, under the Conservative leader, Councillor Pickles, have inflicted upon us in recent weeks.

In my view, it is quite wrong that the House of Commons should be prevented from debating these matters and from having them drawn to its attention. The education cuts amount to more than £3 million in the current year, and schools throughout Bradford are very worried about their impact. Head teachers have warned us that they may result in classes having to be increased to 60 children. We have been warned that children may be sent home.

We have also been told that desperately needed repairs are likely to be deferred for years, perhaps indefinitely. Only recently we were told that £18 million needs to be spent upon urgent repairs in Bradford. In the midst of all this, we have heard recently that Bradford is to be the site of a city technology college, sponsored by the Dixon group. We understand that £8 million of taxpayers' money is to be provided to build the CTC.

Mr. Stanley Kalms, the chairman of the Dixon group, who was good enough to meet me recently, confessed that he was anxious to build a CTC in the north. It seemed clear to me from my conversation with him that he was desperate to build a CTC anywhere in the north. It was equally clear that his knowledge of Bradford was just as poor as that of the hon. Member for Colne Valley. He knew nothing about the close relationship that schools in Bradford have had for many years with local business and industry. He certainly knew nothing about the great disappointment that many of my constituents felt when it was announced that the CTC was to be sited on Newby square, which has been used for housing for many years and which, until the middle of October, the local community believed was to be the site of new family-sized housing at low rent and at low cost.

There has been outrage in Bradford at the prospect of a CTC being built on Newby square. People believe that it will do great damage to existing schools, particularly the existing upper schools. It is feared that the CTC will undermine the viability of existing sixth forms. Many upper schools fear that many people in Bradford will regard them as ghetto schools where the less able children who cannot gain a place in the CTC have to go.

If Mr. Kalms has £1 million to spend, I urge him to spend it on the existing schools in Bradford. We know that the science laboratories of 11 middle schools are either too small or even unsafe. That would be a very good way for Mr. Kalms to spend his £1 million.

Mr. Cryer

Does my hon. Friend accept that I wrote to Mr. Kalms and suggested that he should spend some of the money on retaining the remedial teachers whom Bradford, under the Tories, is sacking at the end of this year? They are helping brain-damaged children to learn to read, which is very important. However, Mr. Kalms felt unable to help this very important though rather obscure side of education. Instead, he wants to spend the money of shareholders in the Dixon group on an advertising sign on a college that is to be paid for largely by Bradford ratepayers.

Mr. Madden

That would be another very good way in which available money from Dixon's, or taxpayers' money, could be spent.

I have also asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science for a ballot. Ballots are very popular with Ministers. We seem to be having ballots about everything, yet I have not received a reply, after weeks of the Minister considering my proposals for a ballot, as to whether there should be a CTC in Bradford. The people of Bradford should be allowed to decide how £8 million of their money should be spent. Do they want a CTC or do they want the available funds spent on improving existing schools?

In Bradford, school meal charges were increased to 80p on 7 November. That was an increase of almost 100 per cent. for parents of the youngest children. The number paying for school meals has fallen very sharply. At its peak, 10,000 children who used to pay for school meals were no longer taking them. The latest figure remains very high, at 8,900. I urge Councillor Pickles and the Bradford Conservative council to scrap the school meal price increase, which has done great damage and has resulted in large numbers of children not getting what was their only daily hot meal.

In an open letter Professor Ruth Lister of the department of applied social studies at the university of Bradford, following a meeting with Councillor Pickles, wrote: Secondly, I raise the question of the impact of the increase in school meal prices. As you know, it is only children whose families claim income support who now qualify for free school meals. It is officially estimated that about 8,000 children lost the right to free school meals in Bradford this April. For them, in particular, the price increase has been a bitter blow. The family credit is supposed to provide compensation. However, there will be many families who are either not entitled to family credit (including many widows and invalidity pensioners) or not claiming their entitlement nationally, take-up is running at only 30 per cent. of those eligible. Even for those who are in receipt of family credit the compensation does not meet the cost of a school meal in Bradford for it is currently based on an average school meal price of about 65p. While you have dismissed the difference as 'a few pence' in the local press, those 'few pence' can make a lot of difference to a mother struggling to make ends meet, especially if she has more than one child at school. I know that from my own experience. One of my constituents is a widow who is 14p above income support entitlement and now has to pay £20 a week for school meals for her five children.

The benefit advice shops in Bradford, Shipley and Keighley are now to close on Friday. We had been warned originally that the closure was likely to take place in March or even as late as April, but it is now to take place on Friday. Even at this late stage, I urge Bradford city council to keep the shops open, so that people who desperately need advice and assistance can receive help on the range of benefits and the other issues that they have taken to the advice shops. Some 60,000 people have made inquiries at those shops in the past three years.

Professor Ruth Lister also writes: First, as you know, we are very unhappy about the likely consequences of the closure of the Benefit Shops. I argued tht the suggestion that the Council wished to avoid a duplication of services indicated a misunderstanding of the nature and significance of the kind of work done by the Benefit Shops. The Lord Chancellor himself, in a recent interview, acknowledged that welfare benefits call for a specialised type of information and advice and that they can raise important legal questions. Specialist agencies such as the Benefit Shops therefore play an important role for which the Department of Social Security and the general voluntary sector cannot provide an adequate substitute. The DSS cannot provide independent advice or help with appeals. That is our experience in Bradford. There are only five Asian-speaking staff in the local DSS offices and there are no Asian-speaking claimant advisers in the unemployment offices. There is only a handful of interpreters and no literature is available from the DSS in any language but English. Therefore, the 28 benefit application forms and advice notes in English are not available in any of the Asian languages. That is important for Bradford.

I urge the Government to persuade Bradford council to keep the shops open, at least until I and other Bradford Members, together with a delegation from Bradford, have attended a meeting to discuss the implications of the closure and to urge that, if the shops are to close, contingency plans be made to appoint extra trained and qualified staff.

There are many other matters to which I could refer. For example, I could have mentioned the closure of the Centrepoint teleshopping lifeline and the way in which millions of pounds have suddenly been found to build private homes on the Lower Grange estate, when only weeks ago we were told that it was impossible for the council to find £300,000 to build new council homes on that estate. Other matters include the refusal of Bradford council, under its new Conservative leadership, to contribute rate money to relieve disasters around the world, including Bangladesh.

The policies and actions of Bradford Conservative council, in the 14 short weeks in which it has been in power, have created outrage and anger, despair and desolation. The churches, the voluntary sector and those who care about children, the elderly and the poor know that the council's policies are making the problems of the poor much worse. The Tories have been able to secure their policies by the casting vote of the mayor. They intend to keep the mayoralty next year: the people of Bradford will have no opportunity to elect new councillors because there will be no elections. Decent Tories in Bradford and elsewhere are worried and deeply disturbed by the impact of these policies, especially on the poor in Bradford. They know that what Councillor Pickles and his small group of political ideologues are doing is wrong. Ministers must know that it is wrong.

It is high time that Ministers intervened and, albeit privately and quietly, persuaded Bradford council to turn back. That is what I hope will happen as a result of the debate. If it is not forced to turn back, the misery that it is heaping on my constituents and others throughout the district will grow deeper, as will cynicism about the lack of democracy in Bradford.

9.38 pm
Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Time is short, but I ask the Minister to consider two urgent questions. First, will he consider the facilities for Iranian business men coming to the United Kingdom? That may seem a strange request, but the Minister will be aware of the huge new market which will provide jobs in Britain from purchases in Iran. Any Government official coming from Iran comes on a service passport. He has to go to a British embassy somewhere and has to wait for a long time. The information then has to go to the Home Office and come back. That can involve long, depressing and humiliating waits.

Almost every other country in Europe has adopted different arrangements. Countries outside the EEC have changed their arrangements because of the unique opportunity. In Germany, Switzerland and Italy no visas are required. In Spain and France no visas are required for service passports. There is an opportunity to make money and to create business. In four new towns Germany has had an opportunity to provide power and sewerage systems and Italy has been involved in four major petrochemical stations. Urgent consideration must be given to the opportunity that we offer people to come here from Iran.

Secondly, I ask the Minister to consider the possibility of a half-hour or hour debate on the egg industry to answer some simple questions. If the Government knew in August, as they said they did, that a serious problem was affecting the health of people and that it was not sensible for them to eat raw eggs, why were there not advertisements in the press and why was not attention drawn to the code of conduct? It would be a tragedy if the Government were regarded as having a two-sided policy for agriculture and the consumer.

9.40 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Wakeham)

This has been an interesting debate and perhaps has covered more subjects than usual. I shall do my best to reply to as many questions as I can.

We have had a busy start to the 1988–89 Session and already the House has given seven Bills a Second Reading. I have no doubt that in the new year we shall be equally busy with further good measures. In the meantime, the dates for the Christmas recess proposed in the motion are generally acceptable, and I commend them to the House.

I wish you, Mr. Speaker, hon. Members, the Officers and staff of the House who serve us a pleasant Christmas and new year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) made some criticism of the fact that the timing of this debate has prevented the Consolidated Fund Bill from starting until 10 o'clock. I recognise his concern, but if we had not spent this afternoon debating the motion we would have had to sit on Friday. When arranging the business for this week, the Government tried to reach a solution acceptable to the House, which I believe we did. My hon. Friend was right to refer to the rights of the minority, which are important, but the majority have rights and it is my task to achieve the most acceptable balance. I shall try not to do the same next time—indeed, I will try not to do the same at any time—but I cannot give an absolute guarantee that it will not happen again in the future. I recognise that it is a shortcoming in the way in which we arrange our affairs if we reduce the amount of time available for Back Benchers.

Understandably, there has been some discussion about eggs and I appreciate the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton. I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the specific points made by my hon. Friend and the important concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), but it is important to put some of the views in their proper context.

The output of the egg industry is worth about £500 million per annum at the farm gate. It provides employment for at least 15,000 people and, in normal circumstances, costs the taxpayer little in support. Unfortunately, there is a problem at present, as the Government and industry accept. The number of outbreaks of food poisoning linked to eggs has increased this year, but the problem must be kept in perspective. The number of reported cases of food poisoning from salmonella linked to eggs is small compared with the huge number of eggs eaten each week—200 million, or about 30 million a day.

When it became clear in the summer that there was a problem, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, together with the Department of Health, immediately started talks with the industry to tackle the problem and to take action at every point in the food production chain. Among other things, that led to the publication of a code of practice. Codes of practice are only a start. The Government are continuing to work on several other matters, including the stringent monitoring of animal protein for animal feed.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food stopped funding research at Bristol because, after an extensive review, it was decided that the research had reached a successful conclusion and the project was ready for industrial support. I repeat that the Government have been taking several actions over a period to tackle the problem of salmonella.

Mr. Dobson

The Ministry thought that the industry was going to support the research but it has not. As a result of the recent crisis it will not be able to support it.

Mr. Wakeham

If the hon. Gentleman heard me correctly, I did not necessarily say that the poultry industry was ready for industrial support, as such. That is the information that I have had, and I believe it to be correct. However, there is an immediate short-term problem. Uncertainty has caused a sharp decline in egg sales. That has caused acute political and financial difficulties for the industry. In such wholly exceptional circumstances, the Government have decided to introduce two short-term measures, as announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food this afternoon.

The reduction of the egg laying flock will enable short-term supply and demand to be brought back into better balance. Clearly, it is hoped that measures will be taken quickly to restore order to the egg market, in the interests of the consumer and everybody else in that important sector of the food industry.

Mr. Cryer

Will the right hon. Gentleman advise the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that a section of manufacturing industry has been affected? Twenty-eight jobs in a small firm in my constituency are at stake. That firm has not had an order for two weeks, whereas, in the normal course of events, it would have had seven. Because that firm is as affected as much as anybody else, it deserves consideration as part of the compensation scheme.

Mr. Wakeham

Reference has been made to that point, and I have specifically referred it to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Sir Peter Emery

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Wakeham

I shall not give way. I shall continue my remarks, as I have many other subjects to deal with.

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) raised social security matters. The prime reason for the proposed changes in hostel arrangements is to achieve more sensible arrangements for hostel dwellers within the reformed income support scheme. It is anomalous to have a special scheme for only 25,000 claimants, many of whom live in ordinary houses in the community. However, the Government are anxious to ensure that the reform of payments to hostels should not jeopardise the future of hostels. That is why, on 21 October, we announced that the change should be deferred until after next April to allow more time to consider the effects on hostel finances.

On the right hon. Gentleman's second point, the Social Security Ministers made clear the need to wait until all the results of the OPCS investigations are available in July 1989 before deciding whether any changes in benefits are required for disabled people. From what the right hon. Gentleman had to say, one would not have thought that Government spending on the disabled had increased by about 90 per cent. since this Government have been in office.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Sir B. Hayhoe) raised four questions, with which I shall deal quickly. First, he raised the matter of child benefit. He was wrong in what he said because child benefit is included in the order and will be relevant to the debate tomorrow. The arrangements for the debate were approved by a motion in the House on Friday. I recognise his concern about credit, but he also recognised that, although he may be concerned about other methods of credit, housing finance and mortgage commitments are the major factor. The rise in interest rates has already had some effect because it has slowed down mortgage commitments and increased saving.

My right hon. Friend raised two other matters of constituency interest. I remember my days as a candidate in Putney—a long time ago—and the questions which my right hon. Friend raised about the road project are familiar to me. I can say only that there will be a public inquiry, at which his views and those of his constituents will be heard and taken into account. On the West Middlesex University hospital, an approval in principle submission is currently under consideration and a decision will be announced as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) raised two matters. First, he was kind enough to speak about pensions for the Overseas Civil Service and I am grateful to him for what he said. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham) that my hon. Friend must take much of the credit for that because he persisted in the matter for a long time. In the end, justice was done.

My hon. Friend also raised the matter of access to this place for Members of the European Parliament. I recognise that matters are not as they should be but, on the general question, I can make progress only with the general agreement of the House that such proposals are the right way forward. I am afraid that a number of hon. Members—a few Conservative Members as well as Opposition Members—are unhappy with the proposals about access. I have done my best and I should like to see better arrangements. Like my hon. Friend, I deplore the low turnout in the election in Hampshire, Central. Of the 14 per cent. who voted, two of the voters were my wife and I. That did not make a substantial difference to the turnout.

I must tell my hon. Friend that I hear few complaints from Members of the European Parliament about access to the Government and to Ministers. I believe that they feel that they receive a fair hearing from Ministers and that they are able to put to them the points in which they are interested.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) raised the question of Crown post offices and sub-post offices, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton. The Post Office is currently considering the Monopolies and Mergers Commission's report into the activities of Post Office Counters Ltd. The Government will publish the Post Office's response to the report when consideration has been completed, and I understand that that will be soon. With my hon. Friend I regret that industrial action has been taken by counter staff, especially as it has been in advance of the Post Office's response to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission's report. My hon. Friend is right to say that good industrial relations in the Post Office are of vital importance.

I shall now deal with the matter of school visits. The restrictions on charges do not prevent a local education authority or a school from seeking voluntary contributions for the benefit of the school or in support of any school activity. If activities are worthwhile, surely parents are willing to contribute to the cost. Local education authorities and schools will have discretion, as before, to help in hardship cases.

I shall now deal with the matter of Barlow Clowes. The parliamentary ombudsman's inquiries are at an early stage. It is a complicated case and, at present, the time scale for the inquiry is not known. The Department of Trade and Industry is, of course, co-operating fully.

I understand my hon. Friend's impatience about the queues outside the public entrance to the House of Commons. As he knows, this matter is being considered urgently by the Administration and Accommodation Sub-Committee, and I hope that we shall make progress on it early in the new year.

The hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) asked about the future of Harland and Wolff and of Shorts. The Government are aware of the concern about the future ownership of Harland and Wolff, but public ownership has not provided security of employment. The company will survive only if it is competitive, and that is best achieved by applying the disciplines of the private sector. Those are the main reasons why we have decided to privatise Harland and Wolff.

Interest in acquiring the company continues to be shown by two private sector buyers and the possibility of a management-employee buy-out is also being discussed. We regret that we were unable to reach agreement with Mr. Tikkoo over his acquisition of the company and the building of the Ultimate Dream cruise liner. Details of the negotiations must of course remain confidential to the interested parties.

The Government believe that the early return of Shorts to the private sector offers the best prospect for its future. A substantial number of companies have expressed interest and any proposal which would establish the company on a sound financial basis in the private sector would be carefully considered by the Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. French) referred to the possible dangers of car telephones. I am pleased to be able to tell him that no further legislation is necessary to deal with the problem. Under the Road Traffic Act 1972, drivers are liable for prosecution for driving without undue care and attention. I understand that the use of hands-off equipment is recommended by the Department of Transport and that when the highway code is rewritten to take account of the North report next year that recommendation will be included.

The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) raised the important question of remand prisoners kept in police cells. I have a feeling that he raised that matter some months ago, hut it is an important subject and he is right to come back to it. He cited the figure for 31 October. Some time before that the problem was even worse. At one time, more than 2,000 prisoners were kept in police cells while on remand. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that there has been a substantial fall in the number, and the Government have been tackling the problem with great urgency. I had the figure checked while the hon. Gentleman was speaking and I am informed that today the figure is down to 440, which is a substantial improvement. It is expected to fall still further before Christmas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) raised three questions of love, as he put it, and they were all interesting in their way. The first concerned the imposition of VAT on hospital broadcasting equipment. I guess that most of us have taken part in hospital broadcasts, and I share my hon. Friend's admiration For the volunteers who spend much of their time providing entertainment and information for those in hospital. It is difficult, however, to pick out one worthy cause from a host of worthwhile causes. General relief would be very expensive and—although this argument may not appeal to my hon. Friend—contrary to the arrangements laid down by the European Community.

I agree with my hon. Friend about litter and the environment. He is absolutely right to stress the importance of all local initiatives. Preventing litter is one way in which individual citizens can actively improve their environment, and we should all seek to encourage that.

The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) asked questions which I cannot answer, but I shall refer his comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) raised important matters, but prosecutions are for the Attorney-General, not for me. I shall certainly refer his remarks to my right hon. and learned Friend.

The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) gave his analysis of the position in Bradford. He sounded alarmist and seemed to ignore many of the relevant factors concerned with education.

It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. SPEAKER put the Question pursuant to Standing Order No. 22 (Periodic adjournments).

Question agreed to.

Resolved, That this House at its rising on Thursday 22nd December, do adjourn until Tuesday 10th January.