Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House, at its rising on Thursday 5th April, do adjourn until Wednesday 18th April and, at its rising on Friday 4th May, do adjourn till Tuesday 8th May.—[Mr. Greg Knight.]
§ Mr. John Biffen (Shropshire, North)
I strongly support the motion and wish to speak to a task that I should like to consign to the Treasury Bench during those few valuable days. It relates to local authority finance. As a result of recent weeks, the House still has ringing in its ears the unfairnesses of the rating system. That unfairness is undoubtedly true. However, the system was accepted— albeit uneasily—by generations of politicians and was paid for, with anger and resignation, by succeeding generations of ratepayers. Its longevity can be measured by the fact that it originated from Elizabethan days.
My request is simple and in that context. It is the desire that the inequities and injustices of the community charge shall not become perpetuated through time by weary resignation on the part of either the electorate or Parliament. I do not think that the electorate will be disposed to accept it with weary resignation.
Whatever the virtues of the community charge—I believe that they are substantial —none the less, I limit my remarks to saying that they are vitiated by a lack of regard for the principle of the ability to pay. The community charge needs to be reconsidered, judged by that canon. It needs to be reconsidered in respect of the abatements made and the effectiveness of the transitional arrangements for those who have a sharply enhanced commitment. Finally, it needs a reconsideration that will set aside the flat-rate principle and relate the charge to a graduated system under which the higher the income, the more will be paid.
Those principles should be embodied in a review to be undertaken by the Government. That review should be undertaken speedily. Hence, it is relevant to the Easter recess. Above all, that review should be undertaken in a spirit of calm and reasoned judgment, and that is why an argument addressed to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House is so relevant.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
It is a privilege to be called to speak in the Easter Adjournment debate because for many people Easter symbolises hope. The Secretary of State for Employment made a statement earlier about training and could not give an immediate answer when asked why his statement would not apply to Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Office seems to be in orbit somewhere outside the House.
You will be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, that some weeks ago I asked the Leader of the House whether the Government would oppose the private Member's Bill that was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross), which sought to restore the right of this Chamber, after 18 years of limbo, to legislate for Northern Ireland by primary legislation in this House rather than by the obscene Order in Council, which does not allow us to examine legislation. On that occasion, the response was that we should have to wait till Friday. When 244 Friday came, what we had suspected would happen did happen. The Whips objected and the private Member's Bill did not make any progress.
Today, therefore, I ask that the Easter period brings hope for Northern Ireland on two levels. The first relates to security. Last week in London the President of Czechoslovakia revealed something about the trade in Semtex from Libya to terrorist organisations. Last weekend the people in Ballymena and Castlederg again suffered carnage. I therefore make the plea that the security forces in Northern Ireland should be given the same latitude as was manifested last summer when they contained a planned terrorist campaign that would have brought mayhem to the Province, and that they be given a more active role.
In making that plea, I ask that hon. Members who sometimes join the media in expressing more concern for the perpetrators of violence than for its victims give some consideration to the members of the security services in Northern Ireland and to the civilians of Northern Ireland who have been such victims.
I shall never forget the impression that was made on me during my by-election campaign when I met a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary who had been mutilated in a bomb explosion in County Tyrone, yet years afterwards there was a serenity in his being that challenged me. That is reflected in all the people of Northern Ireland—those in the security services and civilians—who have turned tragedy into triumph as they have manifested courage and forgiveness.
Secondly, I draw the attention of the House again to the decision of the Supreme Court in Dublin. We in this House were led to believe that the Anglo-Irish Agreement had been honourably worked out by two Governments who understood the issues. We in the Unionist party had never been under any misapprehension about the use of language. We were told in the House that for the first time the status of Northern Ireland was guaranteed. However, if one looks back to the Sunningdale conference of 1974, one can read the two declarations: first, thatthe Irish Government fully accepted and solemnly declared that there could be no change in the status of Northern Ireland until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland desired a change in that status.Beside that is the declaration:The British Government solemnly declared that it was, and would remain, their policy to support the wishes of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland. The present status of Northern Ireland is that it is part of the United Kingdom.
In the Dail on that occasion, the former Taoiseach said:The Government were well aware that differences exist in the constitutional law of the Republic of Ireland and of the United Kingdom as to the status of Northern Ireland but they considered that it would not be helpful to debate those constitutional differences.
The Taoiseach then referred tothe de facto status of Northern Irelandwithin the constitution of the Republic of Ireland.
When the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed at Hillsborough, we were assured that the status of Northern Ireland was accepted, but there is no definition of that status in article 1. I remind the House that two agreements were signed on that occasion. Despite the number of times that this has been emphasised, I am amazed by the extent to which the general public and Members of Parliament have missed that fact. I repeat that two agreements were signed. One was signed by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 245 and by the An Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland. That was the British agreement. The Republic of Ireland agreement was signed by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and by the An Taoiseach of Ireland. That difference was accepted by our Government.
We know that the then Cabinet Secretary, Robert Armstrong, confessed in Australia that in more than one place he had developed a habit of being economical with the truth. Churchill may have used other English language to describe it when he spoke of terminological inexactitudes. There is no excuse now for the Government, the House or the nation to be in any ambiguity about the correct position. In the Supreme Court we had it spelt out abundantly clearly. The wiliness of Dr. FitzGerald who saw the agreement as an aspiration has now been exposed. The Supreme Court made it abundantly plain that the agreement has legal force and is a constitutional imperative.
I appreciate that we are asked to keep our speeches concise and that others wish to speak in this Adjournment debate. I shall close by referring to an article in the Irish Times on 26 March. We were reminded thatFianna Fail's first policy objective is the reunification of Ireland. Fine Gael's subtitle is 'The United Ireland Party'… something more than a desired 'aspiration'… This State has no idle, vague ambition to exercise authority over Northern Ireland. It is legally obliged to seek to give effect to that authority to which it lays claim.
In the Viewpoint column of the Belfast Evening Telegraph on Monday evening, we were reminded:It is not the Unionists who put the obstacle of the constitutional claim in place in 1937.The solemn international agreement of 1925 was unilaterally set aside by the Fianna Fail Government, under de Valera, who introduced that new constitution.
We plead with the House and the Government to give Northern Ireland its proper place within the Kingdom, remove any constitutional ambiguity and govern us as part of the Kingdom.
§ Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak briefly in this debate. I am between meetings of the New Building Sub-Committee of the Services Committee, in which I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House has a particular interest.
I wish to make a plea to my right hon. and learned Friend on a different subject. Will he have the earliest and most earnest discussions with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on a subject which is exercising the minds of people throughout the country—the community charge, or poll tax? I speak as a long-standing and consistent opponent of the legislation. Without any recrimination, I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to reconsider the tax.
It has been said frequently and with accuracy that the introduction of any new tax is a difficult process. That is certainly the case with the community charge. What matters to our constituents who have to pay the tax is the amount that they are called on to pay. I believe that the tax is fundamentally unsound and unfair, in that it is a 246 flat-rate and regressive tax, but even those problems could be overcome if the amount that people were asked to pay was much smaller.
I have asked my right hon. and learned Friend in business questions and on other occasions to think again about the cost of education. If the cost of education, or even just teachers' salaries, were removed from local government and given to central Government, the poll tax or community charge would be reduced dramatically. Instead of paying about £330, my constituents would pay about £200 less, or perhaps an even lower sum.
I could adduce many arguments in favour of taking education out of the community charge, but I shall restrict myself to a few because I wish to be brief, and to take no more than about three minutes. The Government have rightly made education more of a national concern. We have the national curriculum and the possibility of schools opting out. It is conceivable, but not likely, that within the decade a considerable number of schools will no longer be under the jurisdiction of local authorities.
For the foreseeable future, we shall have a declining young population. Therefore, increasingly those who pay the poll tax or community charge will not benefit directly from education in the way that they benefit from other local authority services. Logic and equity both point in one direction: we should remove the burden of education from local government and give it to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
None of us in the House is completely stupid, so we know that education must be paid for. However, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has many opportunities of raising revenue, as we have been reminded during the past week. If education were removed from the responsibility of local authorities, it would have a dramatic effect. It would have a dramatic political effect on the Government, which I would welcome. I am sure that hon. Members from all parties who are worried, as I am, about the bills that people will have to pay would welcome anything that would reduce the bills significantly.
It is no good the Government tinkering at the edge or providing extra money here and there. It has been calculated that, if the Government gave another £3 billion to £4 billion between this year and next, the present level could be maintained. That would be wholly unacceptable. Therefore, let us deal with the matter and grasp this nettle. Will my right hon. and learned Friend take my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on one side this very night and urge upon her the course that I recommend?
§ Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)
I wish to raise another important matter—the procedure for appointing the next Archbishop of Canterbury. I do so because the matter is urgent. The archbishop must have notified the Government before the announcement was made on Sunday. Therefore, the procedure for selecting his successor must be well under way. If we allow the matter to rest until the day after the Easter recess, it might be generally assumed that there was no other way to proceed than by procedure that has been used hitherto.
The House will know that the normal procedure is that the Crown Appointments Commission puts forward two names and the Prime Minister chooses between them. There is no opportunity for the Church as a whole to be consulted on the matter. As the Church of England is not 247 a democratic body, it does not have a ballot to elect its archbishop, so members of the Church of England have no formal say whatever in the choice of the person who is to lead them.
Even though the Church of England is a state Church—I shall come to that later— the House of Commons has no right to say anything about the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Yesterday, I asked Mr. Speaker whether it would be in order to ask the Prime Minister about the appointment of the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Mr. Speaker said that it was out of order for a Member of Parliament to ask the Prime Minister to answer on matters relating to the royal prerogative. Without going into detail, Mr. Speaker's ruling probably went further than he meant it to. Going to war and signing treaties are done under the prerogative, but we are allowed to question the Prime Minister on those matters. The Clerks may have to issue a statement clarifying the ruling, as President Reagan experienced from time to time during his time at the White House.
Mr. Speaker must have been saying that the Prime Minister is not accountable to Parliament for the advice that she gives to the sovereign on the matter. Therefore, the Archbishop of Canterbury will be appointed by a little commission called the Crown Appointments Commission, the chairman of which is appointed by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister will make a choice between two candidates, if present procedure is followed. That is how the successor to Dr. Runcie will be appointed.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is not simply a bishop in the Church in England; he is widely recognised as the head of the Anglican community worldwide. Through the Lambeth conference and in other ways, he has spiritual responsibilities that go well beyond, thank God, the political control of the Prime Minister of the day, who exercises neither spiritual nor worldwide responsibilities. We should ask ourselves whether the time has come when we should make a further amendment in procedures that have changed over many centuries to allow the Church to decide who it wishes to be its new archbishop.
§ Sir Anthony Meyer (Clwyd, North-West)
Is the right hon. Gentleman sure that he is right in saying that the Prime Minister must choose between two names submitted to her? Does she not also have a right to name yet another person?
§ Mr. Benn
The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do how such things work: what is a practice becomes a custom, and then becomes custom and practice. I do not believe that any Prime Minister would reject both names and go for a third. Although the theoretical power of the Prime Minister over the Church, which is exercised by the royal prerogative, is absolute, as is the theoretical power of Parliament over Church Measures and the power of the Crown to reject all our legislation, that does not happen. One can reasonably assume that, unless the procedure is altered, the Church will put forward, through the commission, two names, and from them the Prime Minister will make a choice.
Yesterday, I tabled an early-day motion that I hope will attract wide support, because it is not related in any way to the present Prime Minister. I would, and will, feel exactly the same when my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) exercises similar responsibilities during his first, second, third and fourth Administrations. 248 This time round, the Church should insist upon a slightly new procedure so that the Crown Appointments Commission puts forward one name only.
As the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer) has already said, it is true that, in theory. it is open to the Prime Minister to reject the one name and ask for more or to choose someone else. If the Church said that it had thought carefully about its role in relation to the state and decided to put forward one name, the second part of my early-day motion asks for the Prime Minister to convey that name, without comment or change, to the Crown for the formal approval required.
The change I am proposing is modest. When Lord Callaghan was Prime Minister of the Government of which I was a member, he introduced the procedure under which two names were put forward. The unfettered discretion once exercised by Prime Ministers was limited by that new custom and practice. Anyone familiar with Victorian politics will know that Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Disraeli had an ecclesiastical secretary, and that the excitement about who would be given certain appointments was widely shared and a matter of speculation. Such decisions were entirely in the hands of the then Prime Minister, but all that has changed.
In recent years, I am glad to say, there has been a steady loosening of the control of Parliament and the state over the Church of England. I shall not go into the detail, but when Henry VIII nationalised the Church of England because he was not prepared for a foreign potentate to take more than half his state's revenues, it marked the beginning of a rigid enforcement. In 1662 the Great Ejectment took place, when the dissenters were thrown out of their parishes. In 1662, the Rev. William Benn was ejected from the parish of Dorchester under the Five Mile Act. Whether or not he is my ancestor in physical terms, he certainly is in spiritual and dissenting terms.
The House will know that, in the 19th century, it was not possible for a Catholic to serve in Parliament—it is still not possible for a Catholic priest to serve. It was not possible for a Jew to serve in Parliament. One of the men I most admire, Charles Bradlaugh, the Member for Northampton, was kept out on the ground that he was an atheist. The House will know that he turned up, would not take the oath and was thrown out. He was re-elected, came back, would not take the oath and was thrown out again. When he came back the third time he said, "All right, I'll take the oath if that's what you want." But he was told, "You can't, you are an atheist," and he was thrown out again. That is how atheists got into the House. I always solemnly affirm, rather than swear, in memory of Charles Bradlaugh.
The parliamentary procedure has changed, and in recent years, with the establishment of the Synod, the Church has had far greater self government. We had the recent example of the Clergy (Ordination) Measure when the House wisely decided not to have a confrontation with the Church on the ordination of divorced persons. It therefore reversed a decision that had been taken at 3.30 am in July because it knew that, if it pushed its luck too far, the Church of England would seek disestablishment.
I am, of course, a disestablishmentarian, and have been for some time. Now is not the occasion to go into that matter, because my proposal could be contained within the traditions of steady separation that have developed between Church and state. I believe that the establishment 249 of the Church is a much bigger and livelier issue than the House might appreciate. The troubles that have occurred with the blasphemy laws concerning the writings of Salman Rushdie have, in part, derived from the fact that Muslims in Britain ask why they should be a second-class denomination. When a Christian commits an act of blasphemy, he can be punished in the courts, but a Muslim who blasphemes against his faith cannot. The question of blasphemy, a burning issue in some of our cities and worldwide, is inextricably bound up with the continuation of establishment.
I believe that my view is widely shared in the House. I do not know whether a majority hold that view, but from private conversations I know that people in many parties believe that the Prime Minister of the day, whoever he or she may be, is not the right person to choose, even from the limited choice between two candidates, the head of the Anglican community worldwide. I was brought up to believe in that view, which I hold strongly.
I believe that the time will come when the House will want to make a change, and I know that within the Church there is a growing movement in favour of disestablishment. I believe that the role of a bishop and of a Prime Minister are wholly different. I was brought up on the Old Testament, where the conflict was between the kings and the prophets—the kings exercised the power and the prophets preached righteousness. I doubt whether the Bible story would have been quite the same if the kings had appointed the prophets, but that is what we continue to do under the practice of an established Church.
I hope that the House will support my early-day motion, so that those in the Church who are anxious about present arrangements realise that there is an alternative open to them now, within the existing law. They can put forward one name only and decline to put forward two names. By doing so, the Prime Minister would have the difficult decision of rejecting the Church nomination and seeking to appoint someone else. As the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West has already said, in law she is entitled to do that, but I do not believe that the Prime Minister would be ready to take such a decision.
I hope that I have not abused the debate on the Easter Adjournment, as I believe this is one of the few occasions when a wholly powerless House of Commons can seek to influence events by argument. The right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen), fresh from his triumphs on the desert island—a very good programme—has advocated his argument on the poll tax. We have heard the arguments about Northern Ireland. Since the House has lost all its power to Crown prerogatives, to Brussels and elsewhere, it is now primarily the place where arguments can be put forward. I have advanced my argument in the hope that the House will listen and, above all, that those in the Church will gain the confidence to demand the right to choose their own leader.
§ Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)
I offer my wholehearted support for the motion.
Today, I wish to raise a subject which I mentioned during business questions last week and hoped to introduce in a private Member's motion tabled last Friday, but it was not reached: the report of the Department of 250 Trade and Industry inspectors into the House of Fraser takeover. In doing so, I shall refer to the City of London, and I therefore wish to declare my part-time employment with a large firm of accountants there. It is shown in the Register of Members' Interests, but I wish to add that I speak for absolutely no one but myself, as I have always done in the House.
Like my hon. Friends the Members for East Lindsey (Sir P. Tapsell), for Croydon, South (Sir W. Clark), for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Warren), for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) and many other Conservative Members, I feel that, in his noticeably succinct statement of 7 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry failed to explore with sufficient thoroughness all the ramifications of a report which was disturbing in its evidence and damning in its conclusions, the publication of which was long delayed and which has been at the centre of a bitter and long-running public controversy. From the brevity of his statement and what he said in reply to questions, it seems that my right hon. Friend is persuaded that his scope for action is limited.
He said that, as regards misleading the Office of Fair Trading and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, the legislative stable door has been shut by the Companies Act 1989. However, that is insufficient reason for failing to allow the House a full debate at the earliest opportunity, because too many questions arising from that detailed and highly critical report remain unanswered.
Many hon. Members have expressed their frustration that what the DTI inspectors described as the Fayeds' deceit and lies has not been met with their immediate disqualification as directors or, at the very least, with a bar from directorships of other United Kingdom companies or by the Bank of England's withdrawal of authorised banking status for Harrods bank.
I do not intend to take up the time of the House in this short debate by rehearsing those arguments. Instead, I wish to impress on my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House the fact that the House will also want to know more about the manner in which the DTI behaved over the House of Fraser affair and why, in taking character references on the Fayeds, such reliance was placed on the word of individuals and companies, whose vested interest in the Fayeds' success was plain to see. To ask the Fayeds' own merchant bank advisers, who were to receive an advisory fee of well over £3 million in respect of the House of Fraser take-over, whether they knew of any criticism of the Fayeds was like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.
Those and other questions about the screening of the offeror company and the decision not to refer the bid to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission should be debated by the House at an early opportunity. I do not believe that the Easter Adjournment should be postponed for that purpose, but I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will find time shortly after the recess to enable the House to debate the inspectors' report.
If that debate is not held soon, two otherwise avoidable difficulties may arise. First, the failure to examine the DTI's performance in this sorry episode will make it difficult for that Department to retain the respect it normally deserves. I have no doubts about the excellence of the DTI's contribution to government generally, but the lapses which have occurred over the House of Fraser, as well as Barlow Clowes and the sale of Rover to British 251 Aerospace, need to be explained thoroughly if the DTI, and the regulatory process of which it is a central part, are not to fall into disrepute.
Secondly, the perception that British regulatory standards are beyond question matters crucially to the City of London when it is facing increasing competition from other centres of financial services elsewhere in Europe. The House will be aware of the keen competition between Paris and London for the location of the proposed European bank for reconstruction and development, and of the rapid advances in information technology on the Paris bourse, as that stock exchange seeks to attract business in securities trading which would otherwise be done on the London market.
This is not the time to repeat the arguments for or against the City's big bang, but it is clear that the move to dual capacity, and the need for firms in the City to have a large capital base, have generated a new breed of large financial services groups which lead the way in stockbroking and market making. Changes have also occurred in international banking and bond markets, whereby the leading players in London have increasingly become the huge Japanese and American banks, none of which holds an obvious traditional loyalty to London. Therefore, if our regulatory standards fall into disrepute, much of the financial services business now carried out in London could easily move elsewhere.
To look at the recent downward trend on our surplus invisibles, which I mentioned in the discussion on the autumn statement last November, and at the risk of a recession this year, to which I alluded in the debate on the Queen's Speech during the same month, is to remind oneself that the City of London will need to retain all the worthwhile and profitable business it can find. With that objective in mind, I think that the House would serve the City well if it looked critically at the House of Fraser report soon and demonstrated that lessons can be learned which will reinforce our regulatory standards, and not allow them to become a laughing stock.
§ 6.6 pm
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
I am grateful for this opportunity to speak briefly about four issues which concern my constituents, and to argue that it would be helpful to have a shorter Easter recess so that the issues can be discussed more fully.
First, like the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) and the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack), I firmly press on the Government the need to look again at the community charge, or poll tax. I say that not just because it takes little or no account of my constituents' ability to pay it, but because of the philosophy behind it, that local government expenditure is excessive and should be cut. That view seems to be totally rejected by the vast majority of my constituents who know only too well that they need the services provided by local government and do not accept that there is waste.
I was appalled when, at Prime Minister's Question Time, the hon. Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) said that the party was over and local government should cut expenditure. I know from my experience of representing other parts of Stockport that the authority has insufficient resources to meet the needs of my constituents in education, social services and public health, or to protect them adequately.
252 Therefore, the philosophy of the poll tax, to encourage people to vote for low-spending authorities, seems totally wrong. If the Government were talking about providing value for money, I should be perfectly happy, but value for money does not necessarily mean that money is not spent. Often, spending less means poor quality services. My constituents want good quality education and public health, and effective social services.
The calculations for the poll tax took little account of local communities' needs. I, and fellow Members representing the Tameside part of my constituency, have repeatedly pressed on Ministers the case for better treatment for Tameside when allocating resources.
Secondly, when creating the Denton and Reddish parliamentary constituency, the Boundary Commissioners argued strongly that the one factor which unified my constituency was the Tame valley, which is often referred to in the constituency as the Reddish vale. It does not unify the constituency particularly well in human terms, because people live on either side of it, and crossing from one side to the other for meetings and political activities is often difficult.
Reddish vale is a long open space in my constituency. Some years ago, it was threatened by the possibility that, when Greater Manchester was wound up, the land would have to be sold off. We were grateful to Ministers who allowed the land to be passed to Tameside and Stockport local authorities, to be protected as open space. My constituents are now alarmed by a planning application to turn one side of the valley into a ski slope. They are particularly concerned that someone can come along and put in an application without owning the land in total disregard of the needs of the people in the area. My constituents can do nothing except campaign, protest and try to oppose the planning application.
They are upset because there have been repeated attempts to develop one of the few remaining open spaces, an area where people can go to enjoy fresh air within the constituency. They want to find some way in which the area can be permanently protected as open space. Land can sometimes be sold to the National Trust to obtain such protection, but it causes my constituents grave concern that, time after time, they have to mount campaigns to defend Reddish vale. I merely ask the Government to consider ways in which they could defend it.
Thirdly, I wish to refer to war loans. The Chancellor of the Exchequer made great play in the Budget statement that he wished to encourage a nation of savers. It is high time that the Government considered the problem that faces the many who became savers to help the Government and invested in war loan. I have in mind especially a Mrs. Charlesworth, who is one of my constituents. She is one of about a third of a million who have war loan.
I ask the Government to tell us when they will find some way of allowing savers to redeem their war stock. I realise that the process is complicated and that it goes back a long way, but at a time when the Government claim that they want to encourage savers and wish to pay off part of the national debt, they should be able to find a device that will make it possible for those who want to get rid of their war loan to do so and to recover a sensible amount, rather than the poor returns that they can obtain if they sell their stock on to others.
I understand that the Government do not want to inject money into the economy at present, so it may be extremely difficult to do what I am urging now. As, however, so 253 many of the provisions set out in the Budget will take effect next year or the year after, it seems that it should be possible for the Government to make an announcement now that, over a period, they will seek ways in which war loan can be redeemed.
Finally, I ask the Government what is happening about nuclear missiles around our shores. Many hon. Members and many others outside this place were pleased when it was announced that international treaties had been signed, with the result that cruise missiles were to go from Molesworth and Greenham Common. Much concern is being caused because it seems that cruise missiles are returning to our shores. I understand that, recently, at least one American submarine was in Portsmouth, and was clearly carrying cruise missiles. It seems that discussions are taking place with a view to cruise missiles being based at Holy Loch. It is possible that they will be on American surface ships that come into Plymouth.
I understand the argument that is advanced by Conservative Members—that, with the changes that are taking place in eastern Europe, we should not rush into an involvement in disarmament until we know what will really happen, and that that will not be possible until a few years have passed. At a time when we might have the opportunity to reduce world tension and to make further progress with the disarmament process, it seems foolish for western nations to be rearming.
Before we adjourn for the Easter recess, there should be a clear statement from the Government on whether it is their policy to encourage the United States to base cruise-launched missiles on submarines and American surface ships which use British ports. It seemed from answers that I received last week from the Secretary of State for Defence that the Government were admitting that that policy was under active discussion. It appears that American ships are carrying cruise-launched missiles and that talks are taking place on whether the American facility at Holy Loch will be converted so that missiles can be serviced in that area.
I hope that, before we adjourn for the Easter recess, it will be possible for the Government to make a statement on whether it is their expectation that sea-launched cruise missiles will be around our shores. Is it right that, instead of having to worry about cruise missiles emerging from Molesworth and Greenham Common on to land, we shall now have to worry about their deployment in the seas around us?
I hope that there will be an opportunity for the Government to make a statement about war loan. I hope also that they will be able to give me an assurance that they are seeking ways of protecting areas such as Reddish vale. Finally, I hope that the Government will produce an alternative to the poll tax.
§ Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down)
I urge that the House should not adjourn for the Easter recess because of the deplorable security situation in Northern Ireland. During the past week we have heard, seen or read about further terrorist activities in the Province. Hundreds of homes were destroyed or damaged in Castlederg and in Ballymena when the IRA planted bombs outside the local police station. It is said that one bomb in a car contained 254 about 1,000 1b of explosives. While people in England and Scotland are fighting in debates about poll tax, we in Northern Ireland are fighting for our lives in the face of an evil and callous campaign waged by Republican terrorists. After 20 years of death, mutilation and destruction, all the decent people of Ulster remain steadfast. They will not capitulate to the IRA as a result of Republican murders or atrocities.
The morale of the people of Northern Ireland has been sorely tested by the Government's failure to maintain a relentless onslaught against the terrorists. As the Irish Republic has been the scene of terrorist activity over the years, it would be natural to assume that the Dublin Government would be unequivocal in their support of the forces of law and order operating in Northern Ireland, but logic does not seem to apply to the island of Ireland.
The people of Northern Ireland desire nothing but the friendliest of relations with the people of the Irish Republic. Both peoples share the island of Ireland and, despite the recent legal and political setbacks, I should like one day to see a rapprochement between the people of the two parts of Ireland, with one part consulting the other as a matter of friendly routine. It is surely in the interests of the Irish Republic that it should ensure that it has nothing but the best relations with Northern Ireland.
There is another reason why, I believe, the House should not adjourn for the Easter recess. It, too, affects Northern Ireland. On 13 March, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced that the Government had decided to end the electricity tariff subsidy arrangement for the Province. Instead of making a statement in the House and being available for questions from hon. Members on both sides, the right hon. Gentleman made his statement by means of a written answer. Instead of consulting in advance the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, he gave the decision which had been arrived at by the Government in a written answer in response to a question from one of his hon. Friends. The right hon. Gentleman's answer was available to us on a Thursday evening when the matter could not be raised in the House. The decision that he announced was to take effect on 1 April, which is only a few days away. In my opinion, the decision is scandalous.
The Secretary of State revealed the real reason for his action when he stated:It is clear, moreover, that the privatisation of the electricity supply industry in England and Wales and the decision to privatise NIE also have made the link less appropriate."—[Official Report, 13 March 1990; Vol. 169, c. 140.]The right hon. Gentleman was referring to the linking of Northern Ireland electricity prices with the highest tariff in England, not the lowest and not the average. That linkage, which was established in 1981, meant a considerable reduction in the price of electricity in Ulster. In his written answer on 13 March, the right hon. Gentleman forecast that Northern Ireland electricity charges would increase by about 8 per cent. on average for 1990–91.
There is no guarantee that prices will not soar—at a time when electricity prices in southern Scotland are likely to be kept down to a reasonable level. The increase will place an intolerable burden on domestic users in the Province who already have to endure the highest cost of living in the United Kingdom. I have formed the opinion that the Northern Ireland Office is indifferent to the plight of the Ulster people. An increase would be a harsh blow 255 not only to domestic users but to industrial consumers in the Province. We must remember that our factories are fighting against all the odds to compete not only with English firms but with those in the European Community as a whole.
On 5 March 1981, the Prime Minister visited Belfast to deal with the crisis created by high electricity charges. She announced that the Government had accepted that the difference in electricity prices between Northern Ireland and England constituted an unreasonable burden on the Northern Ireland community and that electricity tariffs in Northern Ireland should be brought into line with England and "kept there". I emphasise the words "kept there". Nine years later, that assurance has been abandoned by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Let me give some figures for the year ending 31 March which show the contrast between Northern Ireland and the south of Scotland. In Northern Ireland, the standing charge is £41.60 per annum for the current year and the price of electricity is 6.39p per kW. In the south of Scotland, the standing charge is £29.88 and the price per kW is 5.83p. That gap will widen as a result of the deplorable decision, announced by the furtive means of a written answer, by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
I appeal to my right hon. and learned Friend the deputy Prime Minister to examine these issues, which affect the very being of the people of Northern Ireland, and to urge the Secretary of State to review the position.
§ Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)
I wish to draw the House back to the issue of the poll tax. The Government are likely to need time to examine the impact of the poll tax and to amend the arrangements in a number of ways. First, I should make it clear that I accept that the case for replacing the rates is well supported and that rates provided a rather rough justice, aggravated by the reduction in the rate support grant. But the poll tax provides no justice at all.
The Government must address a number of factors as a matter of urgency if we are to achieve even an approximation to justice. First, it is extraordinary that people whose incomes are too low to make them liable to contribute to the central Government Exchequer should nevertheless be forced to pay taxes to their local authority, and there is considerable resentment about that. As the poll tax is basically a flat rate tax and the 20 per cent. rule means that everyone has to pay it, by definition, it falls disproportionately heavily on those with low incomes.
The poll tax is also an incompetent tax. It is inefficient to collect; the mechanism whereby it is to be collected is shambolic and extremely expensive. The facts on that subject may be of interest, and I checked them this afternoon. In Scotland, 2,000 additional local authority staff have had to be recruited to collect the poll tax and the cost of collection has added £50 million a year to the local authority bill. That absurd impost in collection charges alone will have to be borne by poll tax payers.
The tax entails an extremely cumbersome and complicated system of rebates which are allocated in an ad hoc manner. Some people will get a rebate because they happen to have a certain disease, whereas others who would regard themselves as equally ill or even more ill do not qualify. The application of that system is inconsistent.
256 The default rate will be higher and the speed of collection slower than was the case with rates. Again, I made a point of checking my facts. In Scotland. 400.000 people now face summary warrants, which means that they have paid nothing at all this year. A further 450,000 people are substantially in arrears. The uncollected amount represents 20 per cent. of the total, or £240 million—five days before the end of the financial year. The local authorities estimate that 6 per cent. of the total will never be collected. That means £60 million that they will not secure.
Let us extrapolate from that figure what the position is likely to be in England and Wales in a year's time: 5 million people will have paid nothing whatever towards the poll tax in England and Wales this time next year and a further 4.5 million will be substantially in arrears. In all, nearly 10 million people will have paid nothing at all or will not have paid anything like their full contribution, in many cases because they do not have the money and do not know how they can pay.
We in Scotland remain incredulous that the Secretary of State did not realise that the relief introduced in last week's Budget would be regarded as unfair if equivalent relief were not applied retrospectively to Scotland, which has already suffered the poll tax for a year. I do not need to rehearse that argument but I must emphasise that I believe that it has damaged the Union—the relationship between Scotland and England and between Parliament and the Scottish Office. It has thrown those matters into stark and sharp relief. The irony is that we are talking about a relatively small number of people and about a small amount of money. The Secretary of State for Scotland has now allocated £4 million, but most people believe that he will not need a fraction of that. I am advised that a very small number of people will qualify and that they are likely to receive less than 50p a week. That means that many people will not bother to claim. Would you claim 50p a week in relief, Madam Deputy Speaker, if you had £16,000 in the bank? It is hardly worth the bother. It is not the sum that the people resent, however; it is the principle that was wrong. Ironically, the Government got themselves in an enormous mess over a tiny amount of money because they forgot that Scotland is a year ahead and that people in Scotland therefore view matters somewhat differently.
There is anger throughout the United Kingdom about the introduction of transitional relief. Ministers stated categorically at the Conservative party conference, which was shown live on television, that anyone paying more than £3 a week more than they would pay under the rates system would secure relief. In fact, people will get relief only if the notional amount that the Government said their local authority would levy is £3 a week more than they would pay in rates. The amount that is actually levied does not come into the calculation. It is no good the Government arguing that local authorities are overspending. For the average person who must foot the bill, that failure is a monstrous injustice. The Government are not delivering what Ministers said was on offer, and that has caused considerable resentment.
The only way that the Government will get off the hook is by converting the poll tax in due course to a local income tax and transferring its administration to the Inland Revenue. That would be simple, just, progressive and fair. The arguments advanced by Conservative Members—and, if the truth be known, the underlying argument 257 behind the Labour party's roof tax—suggest that all those who recognise that the poll tax is unworkable are gravitating towards a local income tax as the only way forward. To the local authorities, that has the additional advantage of buoyancy. It provides some of the continuity of revenue that it requires.
The Government cannot rumble on with this unjust tax, which falls so unfairly. It is high time that it was looked at. This should certainly be done before the recess. I do not think that the Government can assume, as the Prime Minister said, that this time next year the tax will be popular or that the grievances will have disappeared. In this regard, we in Scotland are a year ahead of England and Wales. I am frequently asked by journalists outside the House, "Does it settle down?" All that I can say is that, a year on, the complications in Scotland are greater than those in England and Wales. The anomalies are multiplying by the day. The injustice becomes more and more apparent. The total uselessness of the tax, its unfairness and inefficiency, and the fact that it cannot all be collected bring it home to anybody who is involved that it must go—and the sooner the better.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
I want to raise three—perhaps three and a half— subjects that the House ought to debate before it rises for the Easter recess. The first is not unadjacent to the subject that was raised by the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce). Many of my constituents tell me that they accept the principle of the community charge but have strong reservations about its implementation and are particularly critical about the amounts that have been levied.
I do no want to go into detail; I will make just two brief points about the matter. First, increasing numbers of constituents will be interested in local government spending and local government efficiency—that is coming across very clearly—but also, by definition, increasing numbers of constituents will be interested in the grant system and the way in which the grant is worked out.
The House may recall that last Wednesday, in the Budget debate, I bowled the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) what may at the time have seemed a remarkably soft ball, which, none the less, had a point behind it. I asked the right hon. and learned Gentleman whether the Labour party was vehemently opposed to a local income tax. My reason for putting the point to him was that the party of the hon. Member for Gordon—the SLD—supports the introduction of a local income tax, as do several of my constituents who are opposed to, or critical of, the community charge. Indeed, one or two of my hon. Friends support the idea of a local income tax. I therefore wondered why the Labour party, which must now have quite high ambitions, was against a local income tax.
I suspect that the reason—this is the point that I put to the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East—is that a local income tax would bear very heavily, and almost exclusively, on working families. I urge my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and my hon. Friends to record that that is a major defect of the device of a local income tax.
258 I want to refer to an aspect of industry and an aspect of trade that may be linked. My hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder) may be aware that the shirt-making company Van Heusen, which is located in my constituency, in Taunton, and in the constituency of the Secretary of State for Defence, in Bridgwater, has announced that it will close its operations in those two towns and will relocate—partly to Derbyshire and partly to Northern Ireland. What is the loss of Taunton and Bridgwater is Northern Ireland's gain, and I do not begrudge my hon. Friend that. I understand that one of the reasons that Van Heusen has given is that regional incentives are available in Northern Ireland. That is something that we have to reckon with, although I must place it on the record that this Government have rolled back regional incentives considerably.
The related matter of the balance of payments did not emerge during the Budget debate, but it is something to which we should be directing attention. The figures suggest that the major deterioration over the past few years is in Britain's deficit with West Germany and with the Netherlands and Denmark, which, in currency and financial terms, are closely linked to West Germany.
It may come as something of a surprise to hon. Members—indeed, we should welcome it—that our deficit with France has not greatly deteriorated. In 1986 it was £1,159 million; by 1989, while the general deficit had deteriorated remarkably, the deficit with France was £1,323 million. In the case of Italy—we know, of course, that Italy is always a strong competitor—there was a deterioration from £1,209 million in 1986 to £2,071 million in 1989. With Spain, which is becoming an important participant on the trading scene in Europe, we had a surplus of £115 million in 1986, and in 1989 that surplus had gone up to £366 million. That is quite a success story, and in the cases of France and Italy the situation is not disastrous—indeed, quite containable.
Over the past three years, the real deterioration has occurred in our trade with West Germany. In 1986, the deficit was £5.5 billion, whereas in 1989 it was nearly £9 billion. That is in addition to the rapid deterioration in the case of the Netherlands and in the case of Denmark. I commend to my right hon. and learned Friend and to Ministers in the Departments concerned with the economy a study of the reason for the development of the deterioration in respect of those countries.
What is it that British industry lacks in competition to Germany? Some days ago, Opposition Members were shouting about the pound having fallen to DM 2.71. That may help us in our export-import competition with West Germany, but this matter deserves consideration before the House rises for the Easter recess.
An aspect of the last main subject to which I want to refer was debated in an Adjournment debate on 21 February initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson). I refer to the plight that faces rural post offices and village shops. I am sure that this is a matter in which my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) will be interested. The situation has been exacerbated by the business rates revision and revaluation and the community charge—but especially the business rates.
I have strongly supported the policy of the Government on this matter: the uniform business rate was necessary and desirable, and in my opinion the revaluation was long overdue— there should have been revaluations in 1978 and 259 in 1983—but this affects rural post offices and village shops, and the Government and the Conservative party must think very carefully about how to proceed.
There is no doubt that the matter concerns a number of people in the more remote rural areas —in my constituency, Exmoor, the Brendon hills and the Black Down hills—but there are even more extensive remote areas in the constituencies of many of my hon. Friends —places such as Devon, Cornwall and north Yorkshire.
Older people who have lived all their lives in those areas want to stay there in retirement. We must consider how they will be served when the shops and village post offices have possibly closed down. We might, for example, consider how we can encourage people who have retired from industry with a pension, and who have other occupations, to keep a village shop going. This applies to the post office that serves me and my family.
In these areas, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a living simply from running a village shop or post office. No doubt these shops will be helped by transitional arrangements and by the phasing of the business valuation, and no doubt they have a right to appeal— a right that they should certainly use. I think that the rather broad-brush revaluations that have taken place have not taken account of what I might describe as the scarcity factor—the fact that not many people want to take over post offices or village shops in remote areas. That might bring temporary relief.
Finally, I come to my half-subject. Letters are beginning to roll in on dog licences and dog registration. I am well aware of the practical arguments and objections to a dog registration scheme. Taunton, has recently appointed one dog warden, but what can one do with so many dogs? One sensible proposal, which I hope will be considered, is to let local authorities keep the proceeds from the fines that they exact from people who break the law. That may go against the general principle operating with penalties and fines for justice, but it would give local authorities, which are responsible, the incentive to appoint dog wardens to pursue those who allow their dogs to stray, often to the severe inconvenience and danger of people and with the resultant increase in filth in the neighbourhood. If this were done, local authorities could choose how to pursue the scheme and how many dog wardens to appoint. That would help to meet the substantial lobbying which hon. Members will meet in the coming weeks from those who want a full-blown dog registration system, about which I have strong reservations.
Those are the subjects that the House should discuss before we rise for the Easter recess.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
The terrible tragedy in South Africa yesterday, the killing of eight protestors and the injuring of hundreds more, took place 30 years and five days after the Sharpeville massacre and is rightly a matter of deep concern to the House. It could be argued that the South African Government have moved to a more flexible position, albeit in a limited way, but the police and security forces in South Africa appear to be out of control and politically sympathetic to the ultra-right parties who have opposed what the South African Government have done recently—the freeing of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the African National Congress.
260 Therefore, I hope that the British Government will make the strongest possible representations to the South African authorities over what occurred yesterday. Moreover, I hope that Conservative Members will agree that this is not the time to remove sanctions. They should not be removed until negotiations between the South African Government and the ANC are well under way.
Understandably, hon. Members on both sides of the House have advanced arguments about the poll tax. The Leader of the House has a cheek to ask for a declaration of loyalty from the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) when some of the Prime Minister's admirers and supporters—my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) asks where they are, but I am sure that they are around somewhere, even if they are not too keen to show their loyalty at the moment—might argue that he himself has not shown undue support for the Prime Minister. When he was sacked as Foreign Secretary, his actions did not show undue loyalty to the Prime Minister.
The Government would have been in one crisis fewer today if they had taken the advice of the right hon. Member for Henley. I well remember that on Second Reading of the Local Government Finance Bill in 1987 the right hon. Gentleman said that when he was Secretaryof State for the Environment the poll tax was considered at his request—I see some Conservative Members nodding in agreement—and he recommended to the Cabinet that it was not on.
§ Mr. Winnick
I am pleased that some Conservative Members had the courage to do so. They have been proved right.
In the 1979 Parliament I was a member of the Select Committee on the Environment which had a Conservative majority. After looking at all the alternatives to the rating system, it came to the conclusion that the poll tax should be rejected. The hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) may have been in favour of the poll tax, but if so he was the only Conservative Member who was. However, I do not want to embarrass him tonight. He may have changed his mind.
§ Mr. Winnick
I hope that the Leader of the House has noted that.
Another senior Conservative Member who warned against the poll tax was the former leader of the party and Prime Minister—the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath). On Second Reading, he completely rejected the poll tax. He warned that it would thereafter be referred to as the Tory tax. The people of Mid-Staffordshire have taken that on board. They know that it is the Tory tax. It is certainly not the only reason, but it is one reason why my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mrs. Heal) has a 9,449 majority.
In saying a few words about housing, it would be appropriate to mention my late colleague, Allan Roberts, who, sadly, died last week. Allan never hid his political views before he became active in public life. He was deeply political for, as far as I know, almost all his life, at least from the age of 16 onwards. He was dedicated to 261 campaigning for adequate housing for all our citizens. I remember a speech that he made at a Labour party conference before he became a Member of Parliament when he said that it was nonsense to divide the community between council tenants and those who owned their own homes. He said that we should try to provide decent housing for all our citizens. Before coming here, Allan was the chairman of Manchester council's housing committee. He will be much missed by the parliamentary Labour party and certainly by his constituents. He was a much-liked and very able Member who served his constituents well. It is tragic that Allan Roberts died in his mid-40s.
We are faced with an appalling housing crisis. The latest figures that I have show a reduction of some 83 per cent.—I emphasise that figure—in public sector starts since the Government took office. In my borough no council dwellings have been built since 1979. What does that mean to the people who simply cannot afford a mortgage; those people who, even in better times of low interest rates and even when they are in employment, do not have sufficient income to take out a mortgage? When they come to my surgeries—many write to me on housing matters—I say that the Government do not expect them to ask for council houses but to obtain a mortgage, and they laugh. They are in no position to do so. I accept that the majority of people will be able to purchase their own home. Why not? I am all in favour of it. But there will always be a sizable minority who, because of their income, must rely on rented accommodation. It is precisely those people who are faced with many problems as a result of the Government's deliberate policy of making it almost impossible for local authorities to build.
Ministers gloat about the number of council houses that have been sold off. They believe that that is the right policy. But if it is right for council tenants to buy the dwellings in which they live—the Tories would say it was almost a human right—what about private tenants? Why should not they have the same right? Of course, the Conservative Government have been totally inconsistent.
If the Government pursue a policy of selling off council dwellings, is it not important that local authorities should have the means to replace the houses that have been sold off? We have always argued that people would not want to buy flats. Someone living in a multi-storey block of flats will not go to the housing office and say, "Give me an application form to buy." It is houses that are sold off, and inevitably it is the better houses.
We should be concerned not only about people who are desperate for housing but about families who live in multi-storey blocks. In my borough many couples with two children live in them and they have to wait for some considerable time to be rehoused because the local authority does not have enough houses to be able to offer them alternative accommodation. People with no children or only one child stand no chance at all. Is that right? Why should people with two children have to wait so long to be rehoused and people with no children stand no chance at all?
The Government have argued that housing associations can do the job if local authorities no longer do so. Figures show that there has been a sharp reduction in the number of dwellings built by housing associations. Since 1978 there 262 has been a 40 per cent. reduction. Everyone knows the Government's views on local authority housing—they wish to undermine and destabilise it in every way. Therefore, why do they not encourage housing associations by every possible means? Instead there has been a 40 per cent. reduction and large rent increases.
There is no evidence to show that all the Government's talk about a revival in the privately rented sector has come to fruition. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and his predecessor have often told us that the private sector can do the job. We have had the Housing Acts. I have tried to obtain information on the private sector in parliamentary questions. All the evidence shows that the revival has not taken place. Where there has been an increase, in the main it has been for people who have the means to buy their own homes and it has been of no assistance to the people about whom I have been talking.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
Has my hon. Friend noticed that perversely there have been some more properties available for rent, but they are properties that were previously owner-occupied and the owner-occupier has been forced to surrender them back to the building society, or they belong to an estate agent who cannot shift them? Is it not perverse that, by squeezing the owner-occupied end of the market, the Government have managed to flush out more dwellings on to the market for rent, but for the wrong reasons?
§ Mr. Winnick
My hon. Friend is right. Some of my constituents are in dire straits. They have not been able to keep up their mortgage payments and repossession has been the only course of action. That is tragic, and the Government must bear some responsibility, because it has arisen due to their high interest rate policy.
Council rents have been substantially increased. The retail prices index has increased by about 110 per cent. since the Government came to office, but council rents have gone up by 223 per cent. and housing benefit has been drastically reduced.
I am deply concerned about the cases of some constituents who have written to me about their rents. I shall give two examples because it is all very well to talk in general terms about the drastic reduction in housing benefit, but what does it mean in practice? One of my constituents, a widow who is 74 years old, has a total income of £61.81 a week. That is not a high income. I do not think that any hon. Member would want to have to live on that. Some Conservative Members may consider it to be a suitable sum for a night out with the family. Out of that income, my constituent pays £18 a week in rent.
I wrote to the local authority to confirm that those figures were correct, and to the Secretary of State for Social Security, and he gave me the usual answer. The replies are always the same—sentence after sentence, justifying their policies.
Local authorities no longer have discretion over housing benefit—in ordinary layman's terms, over rebates —as that discretion was taken away in 1988.
I could give many examples, but I shall give only one more. Another constituent—a pensioner—has an income of £54.51 a week, and pays £10 a week in rent. How can Conservative Members defend or justify that? Can they imagine what it must be like trying to make ends meet, to pay for food and essential items, and to have a few pence left to go out for a drink, or to go to the club even if they 263 do not drink? Out of that income he has to pay £10 in rent not because of a wicked local authority, but as a direct result of Government policy substantially to reduce housing benefit. There can be no possible justification for that policy.
That is one reason why the Government are so deeply unpopular. Other reasons are the poll tax and the National Health Service. Those are some reasons why an ever-increasing number of people throughout the country—not just in Scotland or northern Britain, but throughout the country, and not least the west midlands—recognise that Ministers are out of touch, callous and indifferent to the plight of the people about whom we are so deeply concerned. Conservative Members have been fortunate. They have had an easy run in the last three general elections. They would be foolish to think that that luck will hold for the next general election.
§ Mr. David Amess (Basildon)
I wish to raise three constituency matters.
First, residents in Langdon Hills, in my constituency, are concerned about the plan to build a new Tesco superstore there. Likewise, residents in Vange are concerned about the new Sainsbury superstore which may be built there. Both areas are new developments. Residents bought their homes out of hard-earned income. They did not expect for one minute that proposals to develop those two stores would be put forward. The stores are both excellent, but they are unwelcome in Langdon Hills and Vange. There are other parts of the constituency which are more suitable for those developments.
While on the subject of planning, may I say that there has also been a proposal to build a shopping complex in the Pitsea Mount area and residents are concerned that they will lose parking facilities for Pitsea market and for Pitsea station. Residents accept that there is a case for some development, but there must be no loss of car parking facilities.
The second issue is the extraordinary proposal by the Eastern Bus Company to run a bus route through a residential area where roads are unsuitable for buses. I do not know where that proposal has come from. The residents have expressed no wish to open up the area to a bus route. I have asked the manager of the Eastern Bus Company to address a local public meeting to put the case.
If the local authority refuses planning permission, and those planning issues go to the Secretary of State for the Environment, I must kindly warn him, through the Leader of the House, that I intend to make a nuisance of myself until the Department of the Environment heeds the wishes of my constituents.
My third point concerns education. Until May last year we had a hung county council in Essex, and it was that hung council that decided to reorganise sixth forms in Basildon and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). Those proposals have now been developed by the Conservative-controlled county council, and there has been some local consternation about their clarity. While we are fortunate in having excellent schools in Basildon—my constituency contains seven excellent secondary schools—there is some concern about exactly who wishes to deprive all our schools of sixth forms.
264 There is a proposal to establish a sixth-form college at Basildon college, which I believe will be successful. The excellent Chalvedon school has made representations to Essex county council and to Education Ministers, and, as a result of its objections being overlooked, it has become the first school in Essex to apply for grant-maintained status. It is balloting parents next week: thus the first school in Essex to have grant-maintained status could be in my constituency. I hope that the Department of Education and Science and Essex county council will be even-handed in their judgment of what local parents may wish to achieve.
I have never heard such nonsense talked about the community charge as I have heard tonight. I support the charge, which I believe is fair and accountable. If anyone is entitled to an opinion, it is the current ratepayers in Basildon, who last year had the highest rates increase in the country, at 52.7 per cent. That was a disgrace: there are no special circumstances in Basildon to make such a rate increase necessary. It is scandalous. The unified business rate in Basildon is excellent news: business rate bills have been cut by 20 per cent., and local businesses are rejoicing at the Government's proposals. I am appalled to learn that Basildon district council is now £154 per head—194 per cent. above the standard spending assessment. It is the No. 1 overspender in the country, and for the past two years it has embarked upon a disgraceful spending expedition. It spent £18 million on a new civic centre for which it did not have the money—the only civic centre in the country that does not contain a council chamber. In future, the councillors will meet on the stage of the Towngate theatre next door. That theatre cost £12 million. Although it did not have a penny to build it, three weeks ago the local socialist council met and decided to pump an extra £600,000 into the theatre to prevent it from going into liquidation. It is all very well for Opposition Members to say that the community charge is not a good idea, but they have not put forward a sensible alternative.
I do not wish to deny Opposition Members their hour of glory and victory; it would be most inept for Conservative Members to be churlish as the Opposition rejoice in the election of their new Member. However, ask the House to consider how, over the next two years. the Opposition can get away without having any policies on any issue. The Conservative party must unite to ensure that the British public are given the opportunity to examine the Opposition's policies closely. The community charge will eventually be seen as fair and accountable.
Basildon has set the scandalous charge of £478. The authority recently released a video that was supposed to celebrate the 40 glorious years of Basildon; instead, it turned out to be a party political broadcast on behalf of the Labour party. I have it on good authority that if elderly people watch the video late at night it gives them nightmares. A community charge of £478 is a disgrace, and I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House will ask the Secretary of State for the Environment to cap the charge in Basildon.
§ 7.5 pm
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
I am glad that the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) is sticking by the poll tax—or community charge, as he wants to call it. His defence of it reminded me of the boy standing on the burning deck. I am afraid that the flames of the poll tax 265 will consume him in Basildon, as it will consume many of his hon. Friends. The House would lose an admirable champion of ponies, but, as he knows, even in Basildon, ponies do not have the vote.
I ask the Leader of the House for a debate before the Easter recess on African elephants and the Hong Kong ivory stocks. It will not come as a surprise to him that I am raising the issue again, as it is urgent. I have tabled a large number of questions on today's Order Paper related to the Hong Kong ivory stock. I believe that the Government have been grossly misled by the Hong Kong authorities about the level of legal ivory stocks currently held in Hong Kong. In turn, the Government accepted those assurances, failed to check the facts and inadvertently misled the House about the true position. The result is a scandal that further threatens the African elephant population.
When I first began asking questions about this topic last year, when I got the hint that the Government would enter a reservation on Hong Kong's behalf, I was told by Ministers— because they had been told by the Hong Kong authorities—that there were 670 tonnes of legally acquired ivory in Hong Kong. I said that much of that was poached ivory, but that was pooh-poohed by Ministers at the Dispatch Box. However, it is now clear that the Hong Kong authorities lied to the Government—or that they were so inefficient about knowing which of the ivory was legal and which was illegal that their word is hardly worth believing any more.
The Hong Kong authorities said at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species conference last October that there were 670 tonnes of ivory, and that 7 per cent. of it—47 tonnes—had no CITES documents. At the conference, the Hong Kong authorities said:We know the extent of our stocks because they are subject to strict control.
That was not true then and it is not true now; we now know the truth. Recent answers to my parliamentary questions have revealed that, rather than there being 670 tonnes of legal ivory, there are only 356 tonnes with CITES certification. The Hong Kong authorities now say that 116 tonnes are without CITES documentation: in other words, they do not know where the hell that ivory came from. Yet the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in a reply to me on 8 March that, although the Hong Kong authorities could not provide a breakdown of the places of origin of that 116 tonnes without certification, there was no evidence that any of it had been illegally acquired.
If there is no CITES documentation to accompany the 116 tonnes, how can anyone say with any assurance that it has not been illegally acquired? Ministers should not come to the Dispatch Box without first checking the facts. They have had plenty of warnings from me, and from other organisations concerned with African elephants, and with animal welfare generally.
If we add up the tonnage—not the original 670 tonnes, but the 356 tonnes and the 116 tonnes without certification—we are still 200 tonnes short of the 670 tonnes originally quoted. We are talking about only 472 tonnes. What has happened to that 200 tonnes of ivory that the Hong Kong authorities said was on the island in June last year which Ministers said was legally acquired, but which has now mysteriously disappeared? I believe that much of that illegal ivory has been smuggled into China, South Korea 266 and Taiwan. The Government know that a shipment of 12,000 ivory name seals was recently confiscated by Japanese customs. The belief is that that shipment originated in Hong Kong.
By entering that reservation, the Government have allowed ivory to be traded on the world market and have given the ivory trade a massive boost. What is even worse is that poached ivory—ivory is still being poached—will be laundered on the world market. It will come in behind the camouflage of the legal ivory trade that the Government have allowed Hong Kong to maintain for the next six months.
A few weeks ago I asked the Minister for Overseas Development whether she believed that the Hong Kong reservation would have an impact on elephant conservation schemes in Africa. Her reply was that no effect whatsoever was expected. However, Dr. Richard Leakey, the director of wildlife and conservation management services in Kenya, has reported that, sadly, there has been an upsurge in poaching in Kenya and that many African elephants have died directly because of the reservation entered by the British Government. That is also true in Tanzania and Malawi.
I warned the Government when they were contemplating the reservation that the result would be that elephants would be slaughtered. The Foreign Secretary dismissed it as a ludicrous suggestion. That is in Hansard. He was wrong and I was right. Usually in politics it gives one satisfaction to say, "I told you so." I assure the deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the House that it gives me no satisfaction on this occasion to say, "I told you so." I am not interested in making cheap political capital out of the issue. All that I am interested in is getting some fast political action out of the Government, now that they realise what a tragic error they made.
I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman shares my concern. We have had words about it in this place and outside. However, I urge him to get the Prime Minister immediately to withdraw the Hong Kong reservation. All the ivory stocks in Hong Kong, legal and illegal, should be destroyed. Legitimate traders would have to be compensated, as would the ivory carvers. But many shifty crooks and nasty people are involved in the worldwide trade in ivory. We should waste no tears on them, just as we waste no tears on drug barons.
I ask the Government carefully to consider the evidence that has been put before them— not by me but by the international organisations—to review their decision and immediately to withdraw the reservation.
The Government must provide far more support for those African Governments who are desperately trying to preserve their remaining elephant stocks. We need massively to step up our aid to them. President Arap Moi has been congratulated in the House more than once on destroying the large stocks of ivory that have been seized from poachers. Kenya can ill afford to see that money going up in smoke, but, as a matter of principle, President Moi said that the ivory must be destroyed.
Those of us who exercise our liberal consciences in this country—rightly so, and that is exactly what I am doing —should be prepared to say that the British taxpayer should put up the money to compensate countries such as Kenya for the finance that they have forgone by burning that ivory. I am sure that many British taxpayers would support such a stand. Kenya, and other African countries, desperately need our support. They need Land Rovers, 267 wardens and arms. Many of the poachers are armed not with bows and arrows but with high-powered rifles and machine guns and they slaughter elephants indiscriminately.
The Government made a tragic error of both fact and judgment in respect of that reservation. They must realise their mistake and withdraw the reservation before many more of those wonderful African elephants are slaughtered as a result of their decision.
§ Sir Anthony Meyer (Clwyd, North-West)
I join in the tribute paid by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) to Allan Roberts, whose great talents will be very much missed in the House.
I do not believe that the House should rise for the Easter recess without its attention having been drawn once more to the continuing tragedy along the north Wales coast arising from the collapse of the sea wall at Towyn on 26 February and the overtopping of the sea defences at Rhyl and also at Ffynnongroew, where the affected residents have had their cause so effectively championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan).
To give the House a picture of what happened, I cannot do better than quote from the report by the chairman of Clwyd social services committee, Councillor Malcolm King. It says:Apart from the violent gale, the morning of Monday 26th February, 1990, started out like any other day for people in Towyn and Kinmel Bay. By lunch time houses were ruined, family pets dead and children separated from their parents.Under the force of unusually high tides whipped up by gale force winds a 200 metre section of the sea wall collapsed allowing the sea to pour through the streets. Within minutes many homes were under 5 ft of sea water with many people, often elderly, frantically trying to make their way to safety with water up to their chins struggling to avoid being swept under.At 10.30 am the biggest peace time evacuation in Britain swung into action with RAF Search and Rescue helicopters and RNLI inshore rescue boats being used to evacuate the predominantly elderly population from 2,000 houses over about four square miles of flooded land.Over 5,000 people were evacuated, most of them initially to a variety of emergency rest centres. Two primary schools were badly flooded and whilst parents were being taken to one emergency centre pupils had to be taken to another. Most were reunited the same day, but one seven year old boy was separated from his parents for nearly three days.
I might add at this point that there is unanimous praise for the work of the rescue services —fire, police and ambulance—and of that of the county and district officers at all levels. However, what was thrown into sharp relief was the inadequacy of the evacuation routes in an area where speculative building has manifestly outstripped the availability of many essential services. Councillor King's report continues:Nearly a month on, 500 people are still in temporary holiday camp accommodation which will have to be vacated before the Easter holiday and a further 150 people are in residential care with little or no prospect of returning to their devastated homes for months. Most of the fully insured have been found temporary accommodation in guest houses or caravans spread along the North Wales coast. Others are staying with relatives. Many, including the elderly, or families with young children, have tried returning to their homes and are camping out in them while the extensive structural and clearing up work goes on around them.
While the sea wall has been repaired and most services are now functioning, serious and widespread damage remains. Because of the time taken to rebuild such a large 268 section of wall, especially during gales and high tides, most of the houses and bungalows were under sea water for five or six days. The main sewerage pumps broke down early on so that most homes were contaminated with raw sewage. Trees, plants, shrubs and grass have died off over a wide area.
Most bungalows, of which there are many in the area, have had all their contents destroyed by sea water and sewage. Some homes have been written off with extensive structural damage. Most are having their floorboards, plaster and joists ripped out, having been severely contaminated. Many homes in the area have been or are in the process of being gutted.
In common with other disasters, a range of emotional reactions is becoming ever more apparent. Many people have had literally all their possessions destroyed. Much can be replaced, although the accumulated memories of a lifetime, such as letters from a sweetheart who died in the war and old family photos, can never be replaced. There is a widespread feeling of insecurity and a fear of it happening again. Feelings range from anger and frustration to despair and resignation.
Estimates at the moment suggest that 30 to 40 per cent. of the homes have no contents insurance and that possibly 10 to 15 per cent. have no home insurance. With premiums higher than average and incomes lower than average—many people in the area are on pensions or are receiving benefit—the figure of 40 per cent. without contents insurance tallies with the British Insurance Brokers Association's figure of 20 per cent. as the national average without contents insurance.
With probably 1,500 people seriously under-insured, it is estimated that between £6 million and £9 million will be needed to refurbish their homes. The Welsh Office has donated £150,000 to the appeal fund, which we understand is unique for a disaster where no loss of life occurred. The EEC has donated £200,000. Community care grants issued by the DSS are still being restricted to those on income support. Taking into account the Welsh Office and EEC contributions, local government grants and fund raising so far, the appeal fund is not likely to bring in more than £650,000.
Nothing can be done to replace personal possessions lost for ever. We should at least be able to replace those things that can be replaced. With a likely shortfall of £4 million to £7 million in funds needed to get people back into their homes, it seems likely that almost 1,000 people will, in effect, become permanent refugees.
The report by the chairman of the social services committee in no way overstates the position, and it does not deal with the continuous anxiety about whether the repaired sea wall will withstand another such battering. I am of course grateful to the Government for their contribution of £150,000 and I recognise that it is unprecedented for such a grant to be made where there has been no loss of life. But the scale of the Government's response is tragically inadequate to the needs, and the moneys available in the mayor's fund are pitifully small.
People who have lost every stick of furniture and all their kitchen equipment—washing machines and so on —are being given an immediate payment of £200 or £250, with a promise that there may be as much again or perhaps twice as much fairly soon. Honestly, what is the use of that? What will £250 or even £500 buy nowadays? Should they buy second-hand cookers? With a few hundred people looking for them, it will not be long before the price of 269 those goes through the roof. Indeed, it may not be long before people find themselves buying back cookers which they had thrown out as being unsafe.
There must be an appeal for funds, but public interest is already waning; other, more glamorous causes excite their sympathy. The chances of raising even a quarter of the money needed to meet minimum needs are negligible, and I have not even mentioned the huge fall in the value of their houses, which are now virtually unsaleable.
As I wander around the stricken area—I spend most of my weekends doing that—I see people camping bleakly in caravans on the roads in front of their still uninhabitable houses, or paying a daytime visit to inspect the evidence of continuing deterioration and decay before returning to the provisional accommodation which they will have to call home for many months to come.
The whole economy of the area, which is totally dependent on the holiday trade, has been crippled, at least for the coming year, so it will not be able to contribute effectively to its own recovery. The mood of the people is turning from one of fortitude and philosophy to one of sullen despair. They feel abandoned, hopeless and bitter. I cannot blame them. I am deeply ashamed that we should rise for the Easter recess having done so little to bring them comfort.
§ Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)
The whole House will feel sympathy with the hon. Member for Clywd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer) and his constituents.
Before coming to the main issue that I wish to raise, I take this opportunity to mention a huge gas explosion that occurred in my constituency this morning. One house was demolished and 10 others were seriously damaged. I offer sympathy to the person who was injured and the relatives and to all those whose homes were damaged. At the same time, I thank the emergency services, including the ambulance men and women, who, as usual, did a superb job. It must have been a traumatic experience for all concerned, and I hope that the injured person will make a speedy recovery.
I wish primarily to raise the major constituency matter of the crisis in my local health authority. My district health authority is faced with a deficit of £1.2 million. The crisis was brought to a head today with the resignation of the district general manager, Mr. Brian Jackson. I understand from a bland press release that there was a meeting between the chair, Mr. Templeton, and the vice-chair, Mr. George, and that Mr. Jackson agreed to go by the end of the week, even though his contract has another two years to run. Apparently he has been paid compensation and has gone "by mutual agreement", according to the press release.
In the past, I have not always been in favour of the attitudes and actions of the district general manager, Mr. Jackson. Indeed, I have opposed many of the cuts over which he has presided. But recently Brian Jackson has been extremely critical of the regional health authority's policy concerning the problems that he has faced in respect of the £1.2 million deficit. He is on record as having said that more cuts would harm the service to patients.
To appreciate the crisis, we must look back at events a few years ago in Calderdale. In 1986–87, £300,000 was cut 270 from the budget. More than 100 beds covering various services had already gone by that time. In September 1987, the district general manager highlighted the fact that cuts totalling another £500,000 would have to be made, and a programme of action was produced.
By late 1987 it was thought that two principles on which the district health authority had operated would be untenable, set against the need to cash-limit. Those two principles had been that there would be no compulsory redundancies and that everything possible would be done to avoid patient services being harmed. I argue that by that time they already had been harmed.
It was agreed then that it would be impossible to make further cuts without harming patient services, but a number of measures went ahead. A sad measure was the decision to close ward H at Halifax general hospital. That was a specially adapted ward with a skilled and committed staff caring for older people with treatable psychiatric disorders. The patients and staff involved were dispersed and that specialty went. Fielden hospital, a small hospital for mentally handicapped children, closed in December 1987, and there was a curb on recruitment of staff.
Despite all that, the deficit rose to £664,000. In August 1988 a package of cost reductions was discussed and a "damage limitation" approach was attempted. Ward 6, a long stay ward for elderly people in Northowram hospital, was closed and the people were dispersed to other wards. The industrial therapy unit—the only provision in the area for people, mainly men, to learn and practise skills; it was essentially for people with learning difficulties—was closed.
Wards 13 and 14 at Halifax general hospital were closed, reducing the number of general surgical and gynaecological beds, particularly day case beds. The overall reduction in gynaecology beds has led to an increase in the waiting list. At one stage the cervical cytology call scheme had to be slowed down because there were insufficient beds for women requiring further investigation.
They were savage cuts which hurt people, particularly women. The number of maternity beds was reduced, reductions in nurse training were approved, and various planned appointments and developments were postponed or cancelled.
That brings me to 1989, by which time even more measures were needed to meet the deficit. It was clearly stated at that time by the district general manager that obvious savings had long since been achieved, that there was nothing left to trim, and that any additional reductions would mean direct cuts in services. It was clearly said that there was no scope to close wards without damage being caused, so a closure strategy was thought to be ill advised.
Nevertheless, a closure strategy had to be discussed, and we went through a series of exercises in which the district health authority drew up what it called an acute bed strategy. That included closing three wards, one of them a children's ward, closing a whole occupational therapy department and many other damaging cuts.
As a result of huge pressure from consultants, from staff, from the community, from the community health council and from the two local Members of Parliament —myself and the Conservative hon. Member for Calder Valley (Mr. Thompson), who both visited the Secretary of 271 State for Health—the district health authority decided to look again at the package of cuts. It decided to reprieve the children's ward from closure.
The Under-Secretary of State for Health promised to come to Halifax before any more cuts were approved. The authority went back to the drawing board and came up with a new package. A couple of weeks ago, the package was approved by all members of the district health authority. I am bitterly disappointed and disgusted because, having been warned that cuts would seriously harm patients, the district health authority still went ahead. With two or three notable and honourable exceptions, the district health authority voted for the package of cuts.
The new package still includes the closure of the three wards and the closure of the occupational health department, and it also includes a miserly reduction in prescriptions. No prescriptions are to be given to day patients including emergency cases who may, for example, go to the eye ward. At one time they would have been given eye-drops or ointment to take away, but they will now have to go to their own general practitioner for the prescription. In-patients will have only seven-day prescriptions, which will save £150,000.
The cuts will involve an almost total end to infertility treatment and to many health services for women. All funding to the well woman centre has been stopped and it will have difficulty in surviving. The Minister should honour his commitment and visit Halifax before the cuts go ahead. Unfortunately, the district health authority saw fit to ignore that commitment and some of the cuts have been implemented already. I contacted the Minister today. I asked him to come to Halifax immediately and to ignore the fact that the regional health authority might not pass on the community health council's opposition to the cuts. If it does that through a technicality, the Minister might slide out of visiting us, although he promised to do so.
With the resignation of Brian Jackson, a district health authority manager who, in the past, has not worried too much about making cuts, we are in a serious position. If Brian Jackson does not believe that he can go ahead with the cuts, and if he cannot justify them to the people of Calderdale, we are in a crisis. The Minister must come to see for himself the results of the damaging cuts and of the serious underfunding over the years. He needs to talk to nursing staff and to the 60 nurses who trained last year, over half of whom were not offered a job and the rest of whom are on part-time or temporary contracts. He should come to talk to the nurses, to the sisters, to the gynaecologists and to the consultants who say that people will die if the cuts go ahead. Surely, if the Minister comes to Halifax and talks to the people, those cuts will not go ahead.
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)
The deputy Prime Minister has heard some interesting suggestions, and I hope that he will consider them all, especially that of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who mentioned the Archbishop of Canterbury. The appointment of the archbishop is one of the few matters in this House on which Mr. Jacques Delors does not make the decision, so it should be considered carefully.
I want to mention three points. First, can we delay our recess so the Government can explain why it is now more 272 difficult than ever to obtain specific information on issues of importance to this country through parliamentary questions? I have been shocked in the past few days about specific changes of policy, which are all recorded in papers I have here. One example is trade with the EEC, which is a matter on which hon. Members ask questions from time to time. I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what was the latest balance of trade with the EEC—and we always have a balance of trade with it. We have seen the ups and the downs, so we believe that it is an important matter.
I tabled a question and I found that, on 19 March, it had unfortunately been transferred to the Treasury, which is most unusual. When the Treasury dealt with the question, it simply referred me to a table called table Al2 of the monthly review of external trade statistics. That table did not give the answers, because it dealt only with visible trade and not with the question that I had asked.
I also asked specific questions on figures published in The Daily Telegraph about an astonishing growth in our deficit in capital payments with the EEC. Again, I was referred by the Treasury to page 39 of the 1989 edition of "United Kingdom Balance of Payments" and was told that a copy was in the Library. I found some difficulty in obtaining it from the Library. I read page 39 and I challenge my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House, who is cleverer than I should ever hope to be: if he can read that page and obtain any helpful information from it, I should be surprised. When the country is facing up to important changes, it is important that information should be made available to us. If it is not, there is a danger that hon. Members will suspect that there is a conspiracy to keep information from them and from the public.
Secondly, I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend will agree that it is vital that, before Britain makes a decision on the exchange rate mechanism, we should have not a debate or a discussion, but a brief White Paper from the Government explaining to the people of Britain what the Government believe will be achieved in positive and negative terms. I have a deep feeling that the general view taken by the established clever people is that the exchange rate mechanism is a good thing; the same happened with membership of the EEC.
I can remember the days when we were told that British cars would go right across Europe, that jobs would increase and pensions would soar. There was a feeling of hope and optimism that, if we joined the club, we should gain all the great advantages of membership of that club. I find it worrying that, whenever Ministers are asked about such issues, we seem to have no information. We hear some of the Euro-fanatics say that ERM is good because it is European and many others say that it will bring more stability, lower interest rates and better trade.
I believe that all the evidence points in almost exactly the opposite direction. I hope that the Government accept that joining the exchange rate mechanism of the European monetary system is a big step, and is important to the powers of the House of Commons and to the Government. It would be terrible if we simply slipped into the proposal without the Government explaining to the people of Britain or to the House of Commons what might be achieved by such a measure. It would be unfortunate if, at a time when things in the economy seemed to be becoming a bit difficult, we were to join the ERM simply in the hope that it would make things better. 273 Thirdly, will the Government give some attention to the fact that agriculture in this country and in the rest of Europe is doing great damage to the environment and, most importantly, to the Third world? I have always been depressed to sit here week after week and year after year hearing how new policies in the farm plan are changing the whole agricultural scene. We hear that, for that reason, we shall bring production and consumption more into balance. We have heard all the proposals. We have had restrictions of production through quotas, stabilisers, transfers and everything under the sun, but the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food must be aware that in 1990, although we spent a fortune on eliminating virtually all the surpluses, we are spending £9 billion simply on dumping and destroying food.
Apart from the fact that it is a shameful misuse of public funds, it is terrible to do this to the Third world. It is the people there who suffer the poverty, the hunger and the agony and who have to change their countries most. So long as we are spending this vast sum—I believe that it will be an ever-increasing sum under current policies—simply on dumping food at crazily low prices, we are not being fair to the world and certainly not to the people of the Third world.
I hope that the time will come when issues such as this will be faced and we will not just indulge in "kidology", as we seem to, week after week and year after year. Perhaps the most depressing thing in the House of Commons is to hear the Ministers of Agriculture announce that, because of new measures and new initiatives, problems will be resolved. I believe that, at the end of the day, we need a simple acceptance that there is no way in which the common agricultural policy can be reformed and the problems that we are inflicting on the world solved unless we scrap the CAP and adopt something wholly different and a great deal more in the public interest.
If the Government will give thought to the provision of information on these three issues, I am sure that I can join with the whole House in wishing the Leader of the House and deputy Prime Minister a very happy and healthy Easter break, in which he enjoys sunshine and all the things that go with the good life that he certainly deserves.
§ Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)
A casual visitor to this palace, starting at St. Stephen's entrance and walking through the building, would notice that it resembles a superb art gallery; that there are many examples of brilliant workmanship, including the statues in the Central Lobby and the Members Lobby, as well as great paintings, good cartoons and many prints of different kinds. But any casual visitor would also notice that one thing is missing: there is not a single photograph.
The Leader of the House is trying to intimate to me that there is an odd print or two somewhere but, as I develop my speech, he will realise that the absence of photographs, particularly as we have just reached the 150th year of photography, is very puzzling. Many other Parliaments and institutions contain photographs of historical record, but in this Parliament we have missed great opportunities to display photographs.
I shall be meeting one of the Treasury Ministers, the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder), to discuss 274 with him the Central Office of Information and its destruction of many photographs. There has been a ridiculous shredding of pictures that could be of historical importance. I was speaking to an official about pictures in Ministers' offices and I challenged him on the point that there were no photographs from the central bank of pictures. The official said that I was completely wrong, because there are 12 photographs, all of Dartmoor. That said it all to me. It is really ludicrous that, in all the big offices from which Ministers operate, there are only 12 photographs.
My main plea tonight—I have corresponded regularly with the deputy Prime Minister on the matter—concerns still photographs and the fact that they cannot be taken in the Chamber. We are surrounded at the moment by eight television cameras, which during the day are beaming live into millions of homes. I understand that, during Prime Minister's questions, at least 7 million people tune in. Yet one cannot take a simple still photograph in this place. I just cannot understand that. I have pleaded in letters to the deputy Prime Minister and tabled early-day motions, but so far we ain't made 'alf an inch of progress. However, I am hoping that, having been given this opportunity to speak to the deputy Prime Minister directly, I may get some satisfaction.
One of the silly things about it—this will surprise many hon. Members—is that there is no way that one can raise the subject of photography except on the Adjournment of the House, because, according to the explanation that I was given, there is no ministerial responsibility. So, while we want photographs, there is no opportunity to ask for them except on an occasion such as this, and I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to make these few remarks.
I was a Member of the European Parliament, and still photography was allowed, as one of my former colleagues, the PPS to the deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), knows. It did not cause any problems at all. There were television cameras, but not on the same scale as here. It was possible, for example, to request a photograph for a local paper while a Member was speaking. I would not have been likely to do so, but it was possible. There were photographs of the founding fathers of the European Community. I am not advocating this, but photographers could walk freely in the chamber of the European Parliament.
§ Mr. Boyes
My hon. Friend says that he is worried about that, but if he will let me develop the subject a little further, he will find that I have a much more practical solution. Hon. Members make speeches here but, surprisingly, every Member loves to have his or her photograph in a newspaper. We all know that it is better to have a very small photograph in a newspaper than a whole page of text. Here is an opportunity for all of us —even my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow, whom I greatly respect, and who is not too sure about the situation.
How can we solve the problem of people walking around? The problem here is the same as the problem that arose over snooker, when it was essential that there be no intrusion or noise by photographers. They invented a screen system and the pictures of snooker are taken from 275 behind the screen, so the game is not affected in any way. Except for Leicas, cameras make a noise, especially with the whirring of motor drives, but all that can be cut out. So all that would be needed would be two or three locations in the Galleries of this place where still photographers could operate.
At the moment, pictures are being taken from the television screen and we are told that they will get better. On the first occasion that we had television cameras in this place, every newspaper looked at the pictures and, to say the least, found them pathetic, and they are not much better now. As long as pictures are not very good, they will not be published in the newspapers.
The other problem with television is the restriction of the shape of the screen. Taking pictures from television will never result in the interesting pictures that the newspapers ought to be publishing. The newspapers have tremendously improved the techniques for displaying photographs. The Independent led the way and the other papers followed, but we are not taking advantage of that situation.
Photographs can be taken from the Galleries on the official opening of Parliament and that has been allowed for many years. But I understand—I hope that the deputy Prime Minister will clarify the situation in winding up—that there is a move now to stop even that. What kind of world do we live in when every hon. Member in this Chamber prays for a photograph in a newspaper, yet photographs cannot be taken on the most important occasion in Parliament's life—the official opening, when the programme for Parliament is set out in this Chamber?
I have been carrying out a project: I have taken photographs of about 100 Members in the building or in its surrounds, but the restrictions are extremely severe even for a Member of Parliament. I am repeating a project carried out by a Conservative Member, Sir Benjamin Stone, in the last century. According to his biography, he worked under terrible conditions. He had to ask a plethora of people where he could take photograhs.
I work under similar conditions. I have consulted Mr. Speaker, the Serjeant at Arms, the security people and police inspectors, yet the restrictions on taking photographs make photography difficult, even for a Member. In some locations, photographs may be taken before half past 9 in the norning, but if it is after half past 9, one cannot take pictures. Around 12 o'clock, one may take photographs for half an hour on the Terrace, but by 1 o'clock perhaps one cannot.
The silliest restriction is that pictures may not be taken in the Chamber. My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow might say that he did not want his picture taken, but I cannot even take a photograph in the Chamber when it is empty. There cannot be a dafter restriction; 7 million people can watch proceedings televised by eight cameras, yet I am not allowed to take a picture of an empty Chamber.
§ Mr. Boyes
That is an important philosophical question. It is beyond the realms of photography, and I will have a long discussion with my hon. Friend about it afterwards.
My hon. Friend, who may be an expert on these matters, knows that we could have a committee or some 276 other way of controlling still photography. We do not seem to have much control over what is happening with television. The experiment started just with people's heads and torsos being shown, but now there are wider angle shots. I am in favour of that. I want the people whom I represent in the north-east, who get little opportunity to come to London, to see what Parliament is like—the good and the bad. We have an obligation to allow our constituents to see what is happening. Television may use wide-angle cameras, but let us have still photographs as well. That is all I ask.
I know that the deputy Prime Minister is sympathetic. I am not saying that he is supportive, but he has written me sympathetic letters on the matter. Perhaps the reactionaries on the Select Committee on Televising the Proceedings of the House, of which he is Chairman, are holding matters back, but I ask for some common sense. If people are enjoying the televised proceedings, let us have still photographs, taken by professionals from behind screens. Everyone in Parliament would benefit.
§ Mr. David Porter (Waveney)
A few minutes ago the House heard a moving account from my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer) of the Towyn tragedy. It illustrates what I want to say. With winter behind us, I hope, I do not think that the House should adjourn for Easter without considering the coasts of Britain and without giving thanks in some cases. By the coasts, I mean the whole United Kingdom sea defence, coastal defence, coast protection and flood protection. Whatever name we give it, it is often all that stands between thousands of people, acres of land and millions of pounds' worth of property and total, irreversible oblivion under the sea.
When I say that we should give thanks, I mean that East Anglia should give thanks because the damage done to Towyn on 27 February, and to other parts of Britain in January and February, was not visited on East Anglia to the same degree, although it was bad enough. That was only because the wind was blowing in a particular direction. Had there been a different wind direction, half East Anglia would have gone. What I referred to in my first speech in the House in June 1987 would have come nearer. Then I said that unless we addressed the problem, the seaside resort of Birmingham would be a reality by the middle of the next century. As a sea-loving nation, we have to temper that love with respect and at times with fear.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed), in a magnificent Adjournment speech only last Wednesday, spoke knowledgeably about the urgency of the problem and the need for a national solution. He pointed out that responsibility is shared by 240 different authorities and that 10 new regional coastal groups have not yet met. He cited 10 major Acts stretching over the last 120 years. He spoke of the spectre of global warming leading to rising sea levels and changing weather patterns, with no certainty of the amounts and levels involved. He credited the diverse and many research projects under way at universities and at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. He estimated the costs to threatened land and property at £75 billion. He could not begin to estimate the amount of human life under threat. He stressed the need for more research into all aspects. He summarised the 277 needs as co-ordination, research, urgent action and cash. He identified the overwhelming need for a single, responsible body to co-ordinate what is happening.
I support my hon. Friend's call and reinforce it. He recognised in that debate the major works in East Anglia which followed the disastrous floods in 1953. Not only is that work nearing the end of its life expectancy, but it was never total work. If we improve a piece of sea wall here, or put a new groyne in there, the effect is apparent further down the coast.
It is absurd that we do not have a national body in action on the job. The National Rivers Authority has general supervision of sea defences. Why is it not expanded and beefed up to do the job? The sea recognises no local authority boundaries. The wind does not give a toss whether it is an NRA-supervised scheme or a MAFF-approved scheme. The tide sweeps all before it—house, field and human being.
In my constituency there is a tiny settlement called Easton Bavents. It was once bigger but for some years about 12 ft a year have been sliding off the sand cliffs into the North sea. The rate advanced during the recent winter. At the weekend, when I last saw it, the cliff edge was as close to the nearest occupied dwelling as I am to the Front Bench on this side of the House. A modest scheme could be carried out, using blocks rather than a whole sea wall. I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to forward to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food my plea that, once the scheme hits his desk, it will be considered in hours, not months, as is normal. If it is not, Easton Bavents will not exist this time next year. If Easton Bavents goes, half of Southwold will go as well, and probably most of Reydon and all the surrounding farmland and marshland. Indeed, it was only luck in the wind direction recently which stopped the collapse of the weak north wall of Southwold harbour.
I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to use his best endeavours to ensure that there are no further delays in the Southwold harbour scheme, particularly as the other half of the harbour is the boundary of his constituency. We cannot go on relying on mild winters and luck. Corton cliffs, Lowestoft north and south beaches, Covehithe and Kessingland—in fact, the whole of the coastline of Waveney—are as much at risk as the rest of Suffolk and all of Norfolk.
It is not a problem for the local councils alone to tackle and fund, they must remain the first line of defence and proposal, but sea defence is a national issue which needs a national approach; hence my request for a one-stop, buck-stop agency.
Having said that, I readily acknowledge the progress that has been made. We had the announcement that £161 million will be spent on coastal defence over the next three years. East Anglia will get the lion's share of that money. That is very necessary and welcome, too, although some estimates are that £5 billion would not begin to touch the problem. The maximum grant to local authorities will be raised from 70 per cent. to 75 per cent. Again, that is very necessary and welcome, but I wonder whether the 25 per cent. which remains as a local function is still out of proportion when we are talking about telephone number size amounts in sea defence spending.
278 We need to consider a new dimension in coast protection. Are the groynes and the hard engineering, Victorian type sea walls the answer? Are there not other answers? Is there not a need for a national agency to consider the construction of ramps under the sea, further out, not to control the sea but to enable us to live with it? We might have management control of sea and land erosion by a soft engineering approach. Is not that what we want?
Erosion in one area leaves a build-up somewhere else. We need to stabilise natural beaches and to build submerged barriers, to change the rhythm of the waves. We need to take a strategic view. I do not claim that this phrase is original, but we need a national management agency for Britain's coasts to ascertain what should be saveable and what is saveable. Only a national view will do.
§ Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)
The motion proposes that we should have a break at Easter and for the spring May day bank holiday. As a life-long trade unionist, I shall not object to that.
It is a long time since the Adjournment of the House was considered against a political background as extraordinary as the present one. It must be a long time since a Government have looked forward to a recess with such relish and relief as this Government. They must be revelling in the prospect of having a few days when they do not have to come to the House to answer for the poll tax, the Health Service and the numerous other issues that have been raised. I imagine that the Prime Minister must be tremendously relieved that for a couple of Tuesdays and Thursdays she does not have to come here in front of 7 million people, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes), to put up performances such as her recent ones—
§ Mr. Grocott
I shall come to the little matter of winning in a moment.
We have known for a long time the opinion poll figures about the Government's collapsing authority and this weekend's figures show the Government being 18, 23, 27 or 28 per cent. behind us, with the gap increasing. It will be intriguing to see how the Government, and especially the Prime Minister, cope with electoral defeat. The Government and the Prime Minister have had a charmed life for so long, but the test comes when one is behind in the polls. Anyone can lead a political party when things are going well. The test is coming, and we shall have to see how the Government and the Prime Minister stand up to it.
I do not expect the House to take too much notice of opinion polls because we all know that they come and go. I prefer the real polls, such as the one that was held last Thursday in Mid-Staffordshire. I enormously enjoyed the three weeks' campaign there. I have no hesitation whatsoever in saying that an outstanding Member of Parliament has been introduced to the House. I have worked closely with her. I must also record the deeply sour and churlish way in which the Government prevented the admission to the House of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mrs. Heal) until late this afternoon. 279 That shows what bad losers they can be. My hon. Friend was required to wait around for two and a half hours until she could be introduced.
However, the sourness of the loser cannot detract from the significance of the victory. Like my hon. Friends, I like episodes such as this and we shall relish it. It would be difficult to overstate the significance of the by-election. I know that Conservative Members love hearing quoted pieces from that good newspaper, The Guardian, which reported:The Mid-Staffordshire byelection was an unqualified triumph for Labour, one of the greatest in the whole of the party's history …The vital statistics of Labour's success can be swiftly summarised. This was the biggest swing in their favour in any byelection since March 1935 …The turnout was high, not far short of general election proportions … the increase in Labour support, by far the best of the post-war years".I could go on—
§ Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)
Having sat through the debate since quarter past five—I appreciate the pressure on time, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I am in the House as proof positive that there is life after a by-election. What I have just been listening to is precisely what was said throughout the length and breadth of Britain after the defeat of the Conservative party in the Ryedale by-election at which a 16,000 Conservative majority was overturned. I am glad to say that the Conservative party now has a majority of nearly 10,000.
§ Mr. Grocott
The hon. Gentleman must draw whatever consolation he can during his remaining time in the House. That applies also to one or two of his hon. Friends. Conservative Members should be clear about the fact that, after the Mid-Staffordshire by-election, no seat is safe.
The only persistent theme that the Conservative party managed to string together in the by-election campaign was its constant criticism of the style of the Labour party's campaign. I am not churlish or sour and I am quite prepared to say in this public place that I have no criticisms whatsoever of the way in which the Conservative party conducted its campaign. I hope that the Conservatives have many more campaigns similar to it. We hope and expect that there will be many similar results.
§ Mr. David Nicholson
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not the convention that Front-Bench speakers should attempt to reply to the debate?
§ Mr. Grocott
I shall not disappoint the hon. Gentleman. A recurring theme in the by-election—and in today's debate, wide-ranging though it has been—has been the poll tax. I do not doubt for a moment that the poll tax was one of the factors that led to our tremendous success, but I should like to say a few words about why it was considered so important by so many people. Surprisingly, that issue did not recur simply because people have to pay more. Characteristic of the views that were expressed by many of the people on whose doors I knocked during the campaign was that, of the few people who will not be worse off as a result of the poll tax, many could see the manifest injustice of that system and were not prepared to vote for it. That may be difficult for many Conservative Members to understand, but it is undoubtedly true. 280 Implicit in all that is the fact that many people object to the style and methods of the Government who introduced the poll tax.
I was amused to hear the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) complain that the Labour party is not spelling out its alternatives in enough detail. I refer him to the Conservative manifesto of 1987, which had a total of six lines on local government finance. I do not know what our next manifesto will be like, but I am sure that we shall be able to manage more than six lines on local government finance and to be a little more incisive and profound than stating simply:We will legislate in the first Session of the new Parliament to abolish the unfair domestic rating system and replace rates with a fairer Community Charge.That is not the most detailed analysis of local government finance that I have ever seen.
Like many of my hon. Friends, many Conservative Members have metioned the poll tax in this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) referred to the crucial fact that it is not related to the needs of local areas. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) also emphasised the injustice of the poll tax. Like other hon. Members, I associate myself with the tribute paid to Allan Roberts by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North. I know that it is echoed by many hon. Members.
The Mid-Staffordshire by-election was not only about the poll tax. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) referred to another issue repeatedly raised in the by-election—the Health Service. We were criticised many times during the by-election, and sometimes we were criticised for our candidate's campaign slogan, which was, "Vote for what you value." Many Conservatives and the brighter intellectual members of the press told us that that was not good enough and that "Vote for what you value" did not mean anything. It may not mean much to Conservative Members or to some newspaper correspondents, but it certainly meant a lot to the people of Mid-Staffordshire. They knew what they were voting for and what they valued. Conservative Members need not take my word for this—they can look at the ITN exit poll —but one of the things that the people of Mid-Staffordshire valued was the principle upon which the Health Service was founded. They also valued the principles behind the welfare state. They valued a Government who know the meaning of words such as "tolerance" and who believe in a fair system of taxation. They valued a Government who would listen when people criticised. They supported our values and rejected the values of Thatcherism. I use the word "Thatcherism" advisedly. I do not simply use the name of the Prime Minister but refer to the set of values with which she is associated.
In the next few months or even the next year pressure may be brought to bear on the Prime Minister and some moving statement may come from Downing street that she thinks it right to start spending more time with her family. That may be the reason for her going, but it is not a sufficient commentary on her terms of office or the way in which this experiment on our people should be closed. Everyone who has been associated with the Government—every Minister and every hon. Member who has gone through the Lobby for the Government—is accountable for what has been done in their name. It cannot be put down entirely to the Prime Minister; she 281 cannot be held solely culpable. Those who have been associated with the Government cannot simply make a sacrifice of her and wipe the slate clean. The people of Mid-Staffordshire did not accept that and nor will the people of the rest of the country.
It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the by-election. It is increasingly fashionable for people to believe that our electoral system is not the best in the world. I am an unashamed supporter of the first-past-the-post system. I hope that it will long remain. One of its many benefits which is so often overlooked is that it provides for the priceless safety valve of by-elections. Many of the alternatives put forward do not offer a sensible way in which by-elections could take place. We all know about historic by-elections that have taken place over the years. No doubt the Mid-Staffordshire by-election will be rated as historic. If that safety valve and the capacity of people to respond in a particular area at a particular time to the built-up frustrations of the country—which is what happened in Mid-Staffordshire—did not exist we would lose something precious in our electoral system.
In replying to the debate, it would be churlish of me not to mention that some Conservative Members who have spoken find the poll tax a particularly objectionable form of taxation. My neighbour the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) has spelt out his views plainly enough on that. Speeches to that effect were made by other Conservative Members. But still the Government are not listening, and still the Government will tinker.
It would also be churlish of me not to mention specific issues raised by several of my hon. Friends who have now left the Chamber. One such issue was that raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who made a characteristically persuasive case for removing one area of patronage—the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury—from the hands of the Prime Minister. But my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), as ever, put forward an overwhelming and persuasive case, which was listened to by every hon. Member in the Chamber. Again, he is a person whom I would much rather have on my side than against me. If any cause in the world is looking for a champion, it could do worse than get hold of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West.
I return to the main theme of my speech, which is the state of politics in Britain as we head for the Easter Adjournment. You will understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the enthusiasm of Labour Members for current political events. We understand the wholehearted desire of the Government to remove themselves from detailed scrutiny and examination, albeit for the short Easter Adjournment. However, they can dodge and weave from this crisis to that, but they must face the local elections in May and they will have other electoral tests to surmount. They may struggle on for another year, 18 months or two years, but sooner or later they must face a test greater than that of Mid-Staffordshire—the test of the whole country. For Labour Members, the sooner that test comes, the better.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Sir Geoffrey Howe)
I begin by joining several hon. Members who have spoken in reaffirming our sadness at the death of the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts). In an equally uncontentious fashion, I extend congratulations to the new hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mrs. Heal). There was no sourness or obstructiveness in the way in which her admission to the House was arranged. The same has happened on other occasions. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) intervened to say that he arrived at a much later hour in the afternoon after his equally important victory at Ashfield. It is important to remember that just as opinion poll figures come and go, so, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) said, do by-election victors. As I recollect, the majority at Ashfield was 21,000. It was swept away in an astonishing recount at an early hour in the morning. But Ashfield is not now a Conservative seat. Nor will Mid-Staffordshire be a Labour seat when the next election comes.
We are more than ready to abide by the advice of the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) that we are accountable to the nation. We shall, indeed, account for our record when the time comes. We shall do so with success, as we have done three times already.
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe
No. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, he is an inveterate interrupter. I have only 15 minutes to reply.
The community charge featured in the speeches of Conservative and Opposition Members. The hon. Members for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) made sweeping and dismissive speeches about it and I shall say no more about them. However, I wish to respond to what the hon. Member for Walsall, North said about South Africa. He was right to draw attention to the tragic events at Sebokeng on Monday. We condemn violence from whatever source. Those events underline the urgent need for parties in South Africa to begin direct talks as soon as possible.
As well as talking about sea-launched cruise missiles and urban ski-slopes, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish referred to the position of war loans. I have to offer him the familiar reply on that. Were the Government to respond to his plea, the bulk of the money would simply provide windfall gains for those who purchased the stock after it had already fallen sharply in price. It would cost a great deal and set an unmanageable precedent.
The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) also spoke about the community charge. He was good enough at least to acknowledge forcefully the overwhelming case against the rating system. He commended a local income tax, which would be a most insensitive vehicle to manage. It has been dismissed for that reason.
My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) made some important points about planning and education. He also gave a robust defence of the principles and practice of the community charge. My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) also made some interesting observations about it. He spoke about a dog registration system, which is not something for which I 283 have great enthusiasm. It would cost about £20 million and would give rise to more complications than the collection of vehicle excise duty for rather smaller returns.
My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) offered observations on the community charge from their great experience. I am delighted to welcome my right hon. Friend back from his desert island. Sadly, he does not come back to his antique home of Oswestry, which sounds much more distinguished than Shropshire, North.
My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South, who has apologised for his absence, offered the simple proposition of transferring the costs of education from local to central Government. I say simple because it would be accompanied by arithmetical changes that would make it quite valueless as a transaction. It would erode the effectiveness of local government education and would transfer a burden of some £15 billion from the ratepayer to the Exchequer. That seems a somewhat extravagant claim even for my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South and even with the alleged labour burden of £3 billion. It is simply a book-keeping transaction unrelated to the matter.
I have some sympathy with the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North about the need to bring calm and reasoned judgment to bear in a speedy fashion or, in the words of the American Supreme Court, to approach the matter with "all deliberate speed". My right hon. Friend drew attention to the need to consider the ability to pay. When my right hon. Friend and I sat alongside each other in the Treasury some years ago even his brightest ideas, as well as mine, had to stand the test of affordability. The most compassionate approach that my right hon. Friend commends would still need to be tested against how much could be afforded from the central Exchequer.
The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) gave us a fascinating insight into the questions that arise out of the prospective appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury and the movement towards increasing self-government for the Anglican Church. It was marvellous to behold that radical revolutionary looking back gently on the 450 years of progress in the right direction. He paid tribute to his heroes, Benn and Bradlaugh, who were figures of some distinction. The right hon. Gentleman spoke like an antique churchman as he offered us phrases such as, "I was brought up to believe this" and, "The time will come". His speech was an insight into the reverential, ecclesiastical style that has increasingly come to characterise the right hon. Gentleman. He emphasises that the Labour party is now becoming an extremely broad church.
I was interested in the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle).
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe
Forgive me, but not even for my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle referred to his anxieties about the reaction of my right hon. Friends to the report on the House of Fraser case. I understand his argument and he is not alone in making it, but, fortunately, that case has many unique features. In 284 many respects the law and practice has altered since that case surfaced. I doubt whether it will ever be repeated, and we should be careful not to draw too many conclusions from it.
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) returned with characteristic vigour to the case that he makes effectively and continually on behalf of the African elephant and the part played by the Hong Kong ivory stock in the matter. The issues involved must be balanced carefully against each other. The Hong Kong Government are in the process of enacting legislation to ensure that the CITES ban is enforced when our reservation is withdrawn on 18 July this year. The legislative process is on schedule, but, in the meantime, the Hong Kong Government will continue to enforce strict licensing and monitoring arrangements to prevent any illegal trading in ivory. The 116 tonnes of ivory without documentation to which the hon. Gentleman referred will not be allowed to be exported.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer), in what has already been described as a moving intervention, described the continued hardship faced by his constituents following the tragic events on the coastline of his constituency. He was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Porter), who drew attention to the extent to which such events should be regarded as a national issue and who called for a different approach to their management. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made an important speech about this not long ago. I know that one of the answers to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West lies in the uneasy balance between insured and non-insured risks and, to that extent, there must be a limit to what the Exchequer can do. My hon. Friends' speeches underline the need for me to draw my right hon. Friends' attention to the need to examine on a more general basis the way in which we respond to such tragedies.
The hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) rehearsed on the Floor of the House a conversation that we have had on a number of occasions on his photographic lust, which I share with him to some extent. The arrangements now made provide for what are known in the jargon of the trade as "freeze frames" from the eight television cameras to be made available. In one way or another, one or other of those cameras is, at this very moment, taking a sequence of potentially freezable frames of him and his elegant posture. We must leave the matter at that for now, but no doubt the hon. Gentleman will not leave it there and we shall hear about it again.
The hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) drew attention to a tragedy that occurred in her constituency today and the House sympathises with her in that respect. Obviously I cannot respond now to her general case about the Health Service, save to remind her that all considerations of the availability of resources for her constituency or mine must take into account the fact that there has been a 39 per cent. increase in real terms in the total resources going to the NHS. The torrent of demand always rises inexorably ahead of those resources, but somehow we must devise methods to balance both sides of the equation and that will always be difficult.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) characteristically offered me three or four provocative questions before he wished me a happy holiday—I reciprocate that wish to him. I agree with my 285 hon. Friend about the elusive quality of Treasury answers to some statistical questions. I have had some difficulty understanding them when affirming them myself and we must try to do better. As to membership of the exchange rate mechanism, when the time comes the case will be made plainly; of that I have no doubt.
My hon Friend's general question, to which he returns frequently, related to the damaging impact of the common agricultural policy. My hon. Friend is right to direct attention to the continually damaging impact of surplus agricultural production generated by artificial means. It is not just the CAP that does that; the United States and Japan create massive surpluses. If my hon. Friend looks at the OECD recommendations in relation to the producer-subsidy equivalent, he will note that Japan is a more extravagant subsidiser of agricultural protectionism than other countries. We do not embark upon such things out of sheer folly, but it is a course that does not commend itself to someone who has had the good fortune to represent the Gorbals and Southend. To others who represent constituencies with a slightly larger agricultural component the health of the countryside is important. It is extremely difficult to find methods of sustaining it, but let my hon Friend sustain the onslaught of criticism. The real question, however, is to work out how on earth one tackles the problem.
§ Sir Geoffrey Howe
That is part of it, but it is not the complete answer. I cannot indulge in a complete solution now.
My hon. Friends the Members for Southend, East and for Taunton also drew attention to the trade gap. In all the shifting statistics about the impact of membership of the Community on our trading performance the most important thing is the extent to which our industrial performance, inside or outside the Community, still falls short of what we would like. There has been a dramatic improvement, but we still suffer from widespread deficiencies in our trading performance compared with other major performers around the world. Our world 286 market penetration is one half or a third of that of France or Germany. We must do better—we are doing better and we shall continue to do so.
The hon. Members for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder) raised four issues. The hon. Member for North Down asked about electricity pricing. No subsidy has been necessary since 1986 and it appeared to my right hon. Friend inappropriate to tie the price of a public utility, Northern Ireland Electricity, to that of the privatised industry on the mainland. I believe that that is a reasonable case. The first point of the hon. Member for Belfast, South provokes the unsurprising answer from me that my right hon. Friend is ready and willing at any time to talk to him and his colleagues about procedures for handling legislation and to consider any constructive proposals. The hon. Gentleman's penultimate point related to the impact of the McGimpsey case on the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The constitutionality of that agreement has been upheld in the Irish courts. The status of Northern Ireland in international law is clear: it is part of the United Kingdom. In article 1 of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, both Governments affirmed that the status of Northern Ireland would not be changed unless a majority of people living there wished it.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, recently said in a debate, willingness to contemplate change carries with it de facto recognition of the position from which change might occur. The declaration on status in the Anglo-Irish Agreement is simply aligned with reality, which is that the status of Northern Ireland is British.
I echo the entirely justified concentration of the hon. Members for Belfast, South and for North Down on the recent vicious attacks by terrorists in Ballymena and Castlederg. Once again, we reaffirm that such attacks will not deflect the Government or the security forces from their absolute resolve to defeat terrorism from whichever side of the Northern Ireland community it comes. That is the position of the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House, at its rising on Thursday 5th April, do adjourn until Wednesday 18th April and, at its rising on Friday 4th May, do adjourn till Tuesday 8th May.