HC Deb 01 March 1990 vol 168 cc389-401 3.32 pm
Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

May I ask the Leader of the House to state the business for next week?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

The business for next week will be as follows: MONDAY 5 MARCH—Remaining stages of the Aviation and Maritime Security Bill.

Motion on the Pneumoconiosis Etc. (Workers' Compensation) (Payment of Claims) (Amendment) Regulations

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at seven o'clock.

TUESDAY 6 MARCH—Opposition Day (10th Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion entitled "The Balance of Payments Deficit, High Interest Rates and the Impact on Industry".

Motion on the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 (Continuance) Order

WEDNESDAY 7 MARCH—Debate on the first report Session 1989–90 of the Select Committee on Members' Interests (HC 135).

THURSDAY 8 MARCH—Second Reading of the Food Safety Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 9 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY I2 MARCH—Until about seven o'clock motion on the Northern Ireland (Emergency and Prevention of Terrorism Provisions) (Continuance) Order.

Afterwards, motion on the Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order.

Motion on the Licensing (Northern Ireland) Order which is a consolidation measure.

Mr. Grocott

Can the Leader of the House tell us when the motion will be put down for the debate on the report of the Select Committee on Members' Interests? It is an important issue and we need to know about it early.

Once again, the Government are raising the important issue of putting up prescription charges by means of a written parliamentary answer. That is totally unacceptable and we want the Secretary of State in the House to explain once again why the Government are putting this tax on people's sickness.

Is not it high time that we had a debate in the House to discuss the issues being debated outside the House by the people in the real world, in particular the Prime Minister's arrogance and incompetence on the poll tax, which she showed once again this afternoon? When can we have a debate on the poll tax? At least by resigning the 18 councillors in West Oxfordshire showed more guts than the Cabinet. Is not it time that we had the Prime Minister here to talk about the poll tax? It is her poll tax and she should be here to account for it. Is not it also high time that she came here to discuss other issues, particularly mortgage rates?

As the Prime Minister has spoken in debate in the House on only three occasions since the general election —from her performances, we can understand her reluctance to appear more frequently—is not it high time that she came to the House? This is her Government and these are her policies and she should be here to be accountable for them.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

One of the matters that has been most striking to public opinion generally is that the Leader of the Opposition has made no significant major speech in public since last October. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gives an account of herself and the Government's policies, and very effectively too, twice a week at Question Time to hon. Members on both sides of the House. If the Opposition wished to debate the community charge, they could have selected it for their debate next week.

The proposed increases in prescription charges are modest and they are being announced in the same way as they were last year and on at least two previous occasions. The regulations that have been laid today could give rise to a debate if that were desired. It is important to emphasise that those who are least well off should be effectively protected. More than 75 per cent. of prescription items are dispensed free of charge

I recognise that next Wednesday's debate on Members' interests is an important matter. I have already undertaken wide-ranging discussions about the form of the motion and I intend to table the appropriate motion on Monday.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

Following the splitting by the Government of the old Department of Health and Social Security, has my right hon. and learned Friend come to any conclusions to put before the House about the future of the Select Committee on Social Services, which monitors for the House more than half the Government's expenditure?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I have come to no conclusion in support of any departure from the present arrangements. My hon. Friend will understand that the existing Select Committee structure has been functioning for some time. I have received no representations, certainly from the Opposition, about any change in the present structure.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

As there has not been a debate in the Scottish Grand Committee so far this Session, here or in Edinburgh, as the Leader of the House will be aware, when might we expect such a debate? If he is looking for a subject matter, I understand that my right hon. and hon. Friends and, I suspect, the Scottish National party will happily discuss local government finance, even if, understandably, some other parties in the House are not so keen to do so.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman may not know that some weeks ago the Government offered the prospect of a meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee in Edinburgh this month, in two or three weeks' time. The Government specifically suggested local government finance as a topic for discussion there, but, not surprisingly, the official Opposition thought that that was not a suitable subject for debate, as the last thing that they want to discuss is the roof tax in Scotland.

Sir Hal Miller (Bromsgrove)

In view of the constant attacks from the Opposition and in the press on the 24 million people who hold car driving licences, quite apart from the 1 million people employed in the motor industry, will my right hon. and learned Friend give us time for a debate so that we can set out what the motor industry is doing to meet the claims of the environment, how it intends to carry that work forward and how those engaged in business use their cars for business purposes?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend has a long and expert acquaintance with that subject and is right to bring it to the attention of the House. I cannot offer him the prospect of an immediate debate, but I shall certainly bear it in mind.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

May I reinforce the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) for a debate in Government time on the poll tax? The Leader of the House has only 32 days to withdraw that hated scheme.

To my knowledge, no political party has ever lost 18 councillors through resignations, but if the right hon. and learned Gentleman thinks that last night's events in Oxfordshire were just a little local difficulty, he will find that when the 1 million non-payers in Scotland are reinforced in four and a half weeks' time by 10 million non-payers in England and Wales, the skids really will be under the Government.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm to discuss the community charge does not seem to be reflected in the choice of debate made by the business managers of the Labour party. That is how he could most easily achieve his objective. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear a little while ago, the central cause of the concern expressed in Oxfordshire last night was the high level of community charge levied by Labour-controlled Oxfordshire county council.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

As in reply to a written question from me yesterday my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that the Secretary of State for the Environment is responsible for monitoring the cost to local authorities of all new or extended duties placed on them by Acts of Parliament, statutory instruments and departmental circulars, would my right hon. and learned Friend be good enough to arrange for the Secretary of State to give the House next week a detailed list of the extra costs resulting from Acts of Parliament, statutory instruments and circulars, as the level of rate support grant for the coming year was fixed by the Government as long ago as July 1989?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I do not think that I could arrange for that performance to take place as quickly as that. The answer could most readily be derived from tabling appropriate questions or writing letters to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State tries to watch these matters very closely.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider his reply about the Prime Minister speaking in a debate about the poll tax? She often says how much the Government are doing for disabled people, but recently some hon. Members, including myself, have been inundated with letters from severely disabled people who are very upset because they are losing relief for essential adaptations to the home. As they cannot move around, they are prisoners in their homes. In addition, they are paying extra poll tax. Will the Prime Minister please participate in a debate on the poll tax?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I understand the importance to certain people of the points raised by the right hon. Gentleman, but I repeat the point that I made earlier: the Prime Minister, perhaps more than any other Head of Government, gives an account of herself; she answers questions twice a week from the Dispatch Box on a wide range of matters, including many on the community charge.

Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend promise an early debate on the latest report from the Select Committee on transport? Many of my constituents share the perplexity of members of that Committee about the negative attitude of the Department of Transport to planning the improved road and rail links that will be essential if the Channel tunnel project is not to be an economic disaster.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I understand the importance that my hon. Friend attaches to that topic; indeed, he has raised it with me on these occasions more than once. I shall bring it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Does the Leader of the House accept that it is time for a major debate on the state of the fishing industry? Does he understand that this week the EC Commissioner has rejected the Government proposal for restriction of effort in the North sea, leaving the Government's proposals in total disarray? Would not a debate help by allowing hon. Members to explain to the Government why a package of assistance to catchers, merchants and processing workers is essential if we are to steer that vital industry out of its present crisis?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I shall certainly bring the hon. Gentleman's point to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I can assure the hon. Gentleman of our understanding that the fishing industry is facing a difficult year. The Secretary of State for Scotland is considering carefully a document that the Scottish Fishermen's Federation left with him recently.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

It is now two and a half months since the House debated war crimes and voted in favour of the principle of legislation. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that a Bill will be introduced in the current Session of Parliament?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As I have told my hon. Friend on more than one occasion, the House expressed a clear view in favour of war crimes legislation and the Government are considering the form that legislation might take, in the light of the views expressed in both Houses. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will be able to make an announcement shortly.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the deeply serious effects on Manchester's schools of the Education Secretary's capital expenditure policy? Even repairs that have been started cannot be completed and old and poor school buildings in some of the most deprived parts of the city cannot now be improved. Is he aware that next year Manchester will receive barely one tenth of what is needed and that the standard assessment could cost us more than 1,000 teachers? Can we have a statement next week about the effects of these policies on Manchester and on other hard-pressed local education authorities?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to raise specific questions about educational spending in Manchester, he should seek an opportunity of putting them to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the Government have authorised substantial expenditure on the education service and are seeking to spread it around the country as fairly as they can.

Sir Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)

Has my right hon. Friend seen the British Rail publication entitled, "International rail services for the United Kingdom" and is he aware of the great disappointment of the North of England Regional Consortium which feels that the document does nothing very much for the north of England and that the necessary infrastructure and passengers services may not be in place in time to help the north of England when we have the Channel tunnel and the single European market? Can we please have a debate on that issue, as it is of vital importance to the north of England?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I understand the importance of that issue not only for the north of England, although I have seen the position well set out in the document entitled, "The Case for the North". My hon. Friend will understand that responsibility for that matter rests not with the Secretary of State but with British Rail, which is keeping its plans under review in the light of the matters mentioned by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Allen Mckay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the serious disquiet and unrest among the majority of people in Britain about Government policies including the poll tax, mortgage rates, student loans, the exchange rate, the ambulance dispute and everything that affects life in Britain? Is not it time that we heard the majority of people who are saying to the Prime Minister and the Government, "Get out"? Let us test that in the House and in the country.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The Government are entirely happy for their reputation and record to be tested in the House as it has been already throughout this Parliament. The hon. Gentleman must understand, for example, that the ambulance dispute has been settled and we must now hope that people will return to work on the terms agreed, and the Education (Student Loans) Bill has been passed in the other place as well as in this House. No doubt the central concern of people is the level of inflation, which is why interest rates are high and will need to remain high until that is brought under control, as it undoubtedly will be.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

Does my right hon. and learnd Friend recall that for a long time various Opposition Members have been calling for a debate on central America? Those calls seem to have disappeared in the past two days, perhaps as a result of the free and democratic elections on Sunday. Would not it be a good idea to have a debate shortly so that we can congratulate the winner of the presidential election and also the people of Nicaragua on throwing out the Left-wing Marxist Government, who were very much friends of Labour Members?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I find it easier to agree with the observations of the undecorated MacKay than the decorated McKay of the two who have just spoken. I agree with my hon. Friend that the result of the Nicaraguan elections entirely vindicates the position adopted by this Government and that we should congratulate the newly elected President of Nicaragua on her success.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I shall gladly enter the list in defence of the Sandinistas any clay on which the Leader of the House wants to have an election. Sandino lives! I wear my badge with pride.

I want to ask the Leader of the House a question about elephant ivory for the simple reason that he gave me an assurance that all the Hong Kong ivory stock was legally acquired. Is he aware that I have now had a letter from the director of the Agriculture and Fisheries Department in Hong Kong which makes it clear that only 474 tonnes out of the 670 tonnes carries CITES certificates? In other words, about 200 tonnes of that elephant ivory was obtained illegally. Will he arrange for an urgent statement by the Foreign Office and an early debate so that we can discuss the discrepancies in the answer given from the Dispatch Box?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman is nothing if not tenancious in his pursuit of this cause. As I said last week—and perhaps the week before and the week before that—if he has any evidence on the matter, let him produce it for the Government and the appropriate authorities, who will investigate it.

I noted the hon. Gentleman's proud badge brandishing. He is renowned as one of the most tenancious defenders of lost causes, and long may he remain so.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

Is not there an inconsistency in that the Government and the House support and cheer the advance of democracy in eastern European countries, for which we have no constitutional responsibility, and yet deny it in Hong Kong, where we have constitutional responsibility? Is not it, therefore, important for the Government urgently, before we publish the Bill that is expected to come before the House, to give us a statement on why people in Hong Kong should be denied democracy or why they are unsuitable for democracy?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Few issues have been more frequently and more fully discussed in the House than the issue raised by my hon. Friend. The background was set out most fully in a letter from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary which was sent to all parliamentary colleagues as recently as 9 February.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

The Leader of the House will be aware of the enormous damage done to many parts of England, Scotland and Wales by the recent gales and hurricanes. Is he aware of the devastating effect on the fishing industry in Northern Ireland, especially on the ports of Ardglass and Kilkeel in my constituency and on Portavogie in the neighbouring constituency? Since early December, three months ago, those fleets have not had a catch worth talking about. In addition, the Department of Social Security introduced new regulations on 10 December preventing the fishermen from claiming adequate supplementary benefits. Will he ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, as a matter of urgency, to make a statement to the House so that the grave financial hardship of those fishermen and their families can be dealt with?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The House is, of course, aware of the widespread adverse impact of recent storms and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has taken this opportunity of bringing to the attention of the House the concerns of his constituents in particular and of Northern Ireland generally. I cannot offer the prospect of an early debate on the matter, but I shall bring his special concern to the direct attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that in discussions with our hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities on the subject of transitional relief for the community charge in certain areas, especially centres of tourism, there has been identified what is now known as the Torbay anomaly? About half a dozen resorts have been penalised through the SSA because of the very low Government funding for, and recognition of, the very high standards those resorts provide for visitors both from this country and from overseas. Is my right hon. and learned Friend prepared to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), who raised the issue a few moments ago, and to have the Minister come to the House next week to try to thrash out a new arrangement for transitional relief for community chargepayers in those places?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I cannot undertake a response precisely along the lines that my hon. Friend requests. No doubt he is more familiar with the details of the Torbay anomaly than I am. But I shall certainly bring the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

The Leader of the House announced that on Monday we shall debate a proposal to renew the regulations covered by the Pneumoconiosis Etc. (Workers Compensation) Act. That Act also covers sufferers from byssinosis, which is a disease prevalent among textile workers. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that a simple renewal of the regulations will not be enough to meet the complaints of many hundreds of textile workers, including 300 in my constituency, who have not been able to claim because the regulations are so tightly drawn? Is there any possibility of discussing the regulations properly so that they can be amended when they come before the House?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, the debate on the regulations will not give the House an opportunity to amend them. The regulations apply to people disabled by diseases such as pneumoconiosis. I am afraid that I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman how far that range extends. The regulations to be debated on Monday are intended to increase the amount paid under the relevant Act, although, again, I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman how widely that increase will extend. Given the hon. Gentleman's substantial parliamentary ingenuity, he should be able to find an opportunity to raise the matter during the debate.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

The Attorney-General has taken the unusual course this afternoon of publishing a statement on prosecutions arising out of the unpublished House of Fraser report by means of written answer to a question tabled late last night. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman therefore think that it might be appropriate—next week or any other week—to have a formal statement made by a Minister in the House, as there are a multitude of questions on this issue that must be answered at some time?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General will be answering questions in the House on Monday week and I shall draw my hon. Friend's question to his attention.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

Will the Leader of the House consider arranging for a debate, at the earliest possible moment that is suitable to the Government and the Opposition, on the abolition of hare coursing? Is he aware of the growing opposition to this practice? The polls have shown that the overwhelming majority of people oppose it, as do a growing number of hon. Members, including many Conservative Members. Is not it time that the Government gave us another opportunity—given the long period of time that has elapsed—to have a debate on the matter and to reach a decision? It is a vile and evil practice and Sir Thomas More, who is commemorated by a plaque in the House, said in his "Utopia" that it ought to be abolished. It was being opposed as long ago as that.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

If that view has been expressed for as long as that, I do not feel overwhelmed by the case for reaching a conclusion about it next week. More seriously, I know of the hon. Gentleman's long interest in this topic. He introduced a private Member's Bill on it many years ago. It is something which it would be appropriate to raise on the Adjournment or in a similar way.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Is my right hon and learned Friend aware that since the subject was raised at business questions last week, a further 20 hon. Members have indicated their support for the transfer of educational expenditure? Will he take that point on board and arrange for a debate on the earliest possible occasion?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend will remember that since the matter was raised last week, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has answered questions about it at least once. I come back to the central point that must face anyone who advocates the transfer of such burdens. If a burden is transferred from one place to another, that burden is not avoided. One must reflect carefully on the way in which it is done.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

As one who has been taught to be thankful for small mercies, may I thank the Leader of the House for the extended time for the first two Northern Ireland orders to be debated on Monday week? Following the useful East-West debate last Thursday, does he hope in the near future to come to the House with means to provide funds for the emerging democratic parties in eastern Europe?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As one who has learned to be thankful for thanks, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his appreciation of the arrangements that we have made for Monday week. The specific point that he raised was referred to in the debate on East-West matters. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is considering the matter carefully.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke)

Further to the excellent question of my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay), can my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that we shall have a debate on the excellent election results in Nicaragua as soon as possible? In her message to the new President, did the Prime Minister point out that this will not be the last time that a good woman beats a cocky socialist who thought that he was ahead in the opinion polls?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right to encourage people to draw that conclusion from the encouraging result in Nicaragua.

Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leith)

The Leader of the House knows that many people in Britain are worried about the sinister activities of Colin Wallace and Oleg Gordievsky, but what about Nonna Longden? Not so long ago Mrs. Longden was arrested in my office. She was there illegally and shortly afterwards the contents of my House of Commons locker were removed. I can tell the House that Mrs. Longden was not an innocent——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must ask for a debate or a statement, or something of that kind.

Mr. Brown

Mrs. Longden worked for Defence Systems, which has links with MI5 and MI6. Rupert Murdoch's minions paid £45,000 to bribe her to commit perjury and to concoct a smear story for the News of the World. Therefore, can we have a wide-ranging debate on the security aspects—[Laughter] it is a serious matter—of the state and about the threats and intimidation that hon. Members experience? It is an important matter.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am afraid that I am not as well acquainted as the hon. Gentleman with the details of that lady's activities. The one answer that I can give with confidence to his question is, "Not next week".

Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time in the near future for a debate on sea defences and flooding matters? I have been in touch with our local SCOPAC—the standing conference on projects associated with the coastline—which comprises 13 local authorities that have got together to ensure that sea defence matters are dealt with in an acceptable, unified way. In the three years that I have been in the House, we have never discussed flood relief and sea defences. As the subject has so many interdepartmental implications should not we have a national, unified approach to it so that all the money that the Government have voted for the problem will be properly used?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Again, I cannot offer a promise of an early debate on that topic, but I assure my hon. Friend that his point is well worth making. The adequacy of sea defences is most often considered after they have proved to be inadequate in one place or another. I shall bring my hon. Friend's point to the attention of several of my right hon. Friends who are concerned with the matter and they will reflect on it.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Has the Leader of the House yet discussed with the Chairman of the Catering Sub-Committee the wage levels in the Refreshment Department of the House of Commons?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As I have said on more than one occasion, and as you know well, Mr. Speaker, the House of Commons Commission has a statutory obligation to keep the pay and conditions of its permanent staff, not only in the Refreshment Department, in line with those in the Civil Service. That obligation is fulfilled in respect of all permanent staff of the House, including those in the Refreshment Department.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

I should like to ask my right hon. and learned Friend a question in connection with the business for next Tuesday. I have received information from the Conservative group on Lancashire county council that our community charge could be £16 less if the county had not chosen to top up its coffers; a further £20 less if the county council would face up to issues relating to the running of its old people's homes, and a further £3.50 less if it addressed matters relating to secondary education. To that end, and because the Opposition have chosen not to debate the community charge next Tuesday, will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that such information could be obtained by my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities and printed in the record so that we can all learn the facts?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend is extremely assiduous in raising the activities of Lancashire county council in the House. As a result of his skill in doing so yet again this afternoon, the facts that he has reported will be recorded in the Official Report.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman may recall that at last week's business questions I made a plea for a statement to be made by the Secretary of State for Social Security on the consequences of the High Court judgment on the social fund? That judgment, along with the recent Appeal Court judgment in the case of McKiernon v. the Secretary of State for Social Security, has profound implications for many claimants. If a statement cannot be made on those two cases, could a copy of the advice that is to be sent from the chief adjudication officer to local adjudication officers also be sent to me and could another copy be placed in the Library?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I cannot answer that specific question this afternoon. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security will be in the House to answer questions on Monday. He may or may not be confronted with that question then.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

If, as he has said on two or three occasions, the right hon. and learned Gentleman really believes that the trouble with the poll tax is the high rates set by Labour councils in Oxford and elsewhere, why does not he have a debate about it next week?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Because Opposition Members seem to be expressing a great deal more concern about it than do my hon. Friends—and they have Opposition supply days on which they can choose to debate the subject whenever they please.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

In view of the large and justified protests about the poll tax all over the country, and not least in Conservative constituencies, is it possible to have a debate and a free vote on the poll tax because undoubtedly in any free vote the poll tax would be overwhelmingly rejected by the House as it would by the Cabinet if it had a secret vote? Would the Secretary of State for Wales, for example, vote in favour of the poll tax in a secret vote in the Cabinet?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman must have forgotten that the community charge has been the subject of many debates in the House in the last couple of years and that it is on the statute book as a result of those debates. I repeat that it remains open to the Opposition to choose a date for the discussion of that topic whenever they please.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Why will not the Leader of the House reconsider his decision to have a debate about the new disease, the galloping poll tax? Why will he not give his hon. Friends who are complaining about the poll tax a chance? Is he aware that in Derbyshire the rates have increased by 24.9 per cent. as a result of the standard spending assessment because the Government did not take into account inflation at 8 per cent., but used the figure of only 4 per cent., and because they did not take into account the police rent allowance or the massive loan debt from the 15 per cent. interest rates? Those are the reasons why the assessments are so low. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman will not have a debate, we shall have to consider a censure motion on the poll tax.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I shall consider no such thing. The most important factor that has emerged from the hon. Gentleman's contribution is his anxiety at the high rate of community charge that is being imposed by the Labour council under which he suffers.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

As a trustee for the Campaign for Homeless and Rootless People, known as CHAR, may I ask when we will have a debate on homelessness and the needs of organisations such as CHAR which look after homeless people? Meanwhile, would the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who is a humane man from similar origins to mine, be good enough to come across the river one evening, before or after a debate, to cardboard city at Waterloo, where I spent part of last night? He could then see the need for such a debate, and the anguish, hardship and destitution in which hundreds of people live so very near to the Palace of Westminster.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, the Government and hon. Members from both sides of the House are concerned about homelessness and wider issues affecting the inner cities. He will know that the spending on the Government's action for cities initiative will increase from just under £3.5 billion in the last financial year to about £4 billion in the next financial year. That is a measure of our concern about this subject.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Could we have a debate next week about election law and expenditure? We could then discuss the way in which the Prime Minister abuses taxpayers' money by mounting circus operations in, for example, Bradford, to try to prop up receding Tory fortunes by creative accounting of inner cities money, when the Government have refused financial assistance to the textile industry, which is in great difficulties because of the privatised water charge increases. The local education authority is in crisis because it has been denied necessary capital expenditure, while the city technology college is being built with taxpayers' money and is costing more than the total amount received for capital expenditure in the current year by the other 300 schools in the area. Is not it time to discuss this abuse of taxpayers' money and to make the Prime Minister more accountable for it, so that it can be charged against election expenditure?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

If the hon. Gentleman is as impressed as he appears to be by the way in which my right hon. Friend draws attention to the successes of Conservatives in the city of Bradford, so much the better.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Is the Leader of the House aware that yesterday was the closing date for the consultation period organised by the Department of Transport on the document, "Traffic in London" and the four traffic assessment studies? In that short period since 14 December, thousands of people have written in objecting to any road building in London and have instead requested that resources be put into improving public transport. Will he arrange for the Secretary of State for Transport to come to the House soon and say that all the road-building schemes proposed in the assessment studies have been cancelled and the resources put instead into improving public transport and making London a clean and safe place to live, not a building site for motorway contractors and a city suffering from the pollution that will follow as more cars are attracted to the city?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My right hon. Friend and the Government are concerned to secure effective arrangements for transportation in inner London, Greater London and the City of London. He is therefore seeking, in consultation with those concerned, to achieve and maintain a balanced policy. The one characteristic of the hon. Gentleman's intervention is that it appears to be wholly unbalanced.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)

In view of the Prime Minister's statement in West Yorkshire yesterday about the extra spending that will take place on the inner city programme, does the Leader of the House agree that we should have a statement next week from the Prime Minister to follow up the points that she made in Bradford? We can then extract from her what will happen about housing in the inner cities particularly, and the urban and rural areas in general. Can we have a statement about how much of the money allocated for inner cities is designed to provide affordable houses in the inner cities, as well as the urban and rural areas?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The House will be glad that my right hon. Friend's statement yesterday on this topic has commanded such wide attention. The increases in expenditure, which I have just described, are giving rise to a massive growth in investment in new factories, roads, offices and housing in inner cities. In the two years since the Government launched the inner cities initiative, unemployment in inner cities has fallen by one third.

Mr. Keith Raffan (Delyn)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the Labour party had the opportunity to choose the community charge as the subject for debate at the next meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee on Wednesday 14 March but chose not to do so? Does he think that that might have had anything to do with Labour's alternative community charge or, rather, its lack of one'?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I think that it was due to the point that was helpfully made by my hon. Friend as well, no doubt, as to the great skill with which the Secretary of State for Wales and those who support him in the Principality are governing the Principality.

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