Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House, at its rising on Thursday 27th May, do adjourn until Monday 7th June —[Mr. Wood.]
§ Sir Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)
I always think that this is a useful debate, and I speak in it with great regularity. I see that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has a wry smile on his face; he probably knows what is coming.
I spoke in the Easter Adjournment debate on I April and mentioned two subjects, one of which was the Criminal Justice Act 1991. I am delighted that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has taken some action. He has shown that he has listened to what people are saying. As my right hon. and learned Friend knows because he has been in politics a long time, there are times when one simply cannot win. Some people are saying not that my right hon. and learned Friend listened to what they were saying, but that the Government have done a U-turn.
The second subject that I mentioned on 1 April I shall raise again today, as I promised on that occasion that I would continue to speak about it until something was done: the vexed question of the South Trafford community hospital. When he replied on 1 April, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that he understood that I was going to see the Secretary of State for Health. I saw her on 21 April, and made my views known to her. I asked her if she would intercede and stress to the North Western regional health authority how essential that project was.
It is a facility for which we have waited for many years. I should like to draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to an article in the Sale & Altrincham Messenger on 7 May. it was headlined: "Future health looks bleak says Labour", and said:The outlook for future hospital care in Trafford is 'bleak and unsatisfactory' according to Broadheath Ward Labour Party. At a recent meeting, Trafford Community Health Council representative Ray Holden said a new community hospital for the south of the borough was still a dream.The sad thing is that Broadheath Labour party is like its big brothers and sisters in the Labour party, and thrives on doom and gloom. It does not greet any good news with joy.
§ Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)
On the topic of gloom and doom, perhaps the hon. Gentleman would care to tell me what good news the Conservative party has brought to Tyneside in the last week.
§ Sir Fergus Montgomery
The hon. Gentleman knows that I come from Tyneside, and of course I am sorry about what is happening there. He also knows as well as I do that what is bad news on the Tyne is very good news indeed in Barrow. Unfortunately, the tender from the yard on Tyneside was not as low as the one from Barrow. I hope very much that something will be done, because I have a great admiration for that shipyarad, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Now, with his permission, I will continue.
It would be very good news if we got a community hospital in our area. Strangely enough, on 7 May I had a letter from somebody who signed his or herself "K. Riley", without saying whether it was Mr. or Mrs. When I wrote a letter to the address at the top of the paper, it was 162 returned to me marked "Not known at this address". The thing that caused me great concern was that K. Riley wrote as follows:I am writing to Virginia Bottomley to tell her that we do not want, or need, 'a New Community hospital'—we have already got a perfectly satisfactory one, plus St. Anne's, which is under-used and could quite easily house more elderly people.I really despair of people like that, who simply do not understand the problems in our area.
Of course, Altrincham general hospital has provided excellent care over many years. In 1978, I had my gall bladder removed there. It is an excellent hospital, and certainly I could not have had better care. But we also have to face the fact that there are several disadvantages at that site, particularly the difficulty of providing care for elderly people. The health authority in Trafford has stated:The layout of the wards and the availability of rehabilitation services is not conducive to modern medical practice and can be remedied by a new building. Car parking for visitors and staff is very difficult at Altrincham General Hospital particularly on market days. There is no room for expansion and it is planned that in the new Community Hospital facilities currently inappropriately provided at Sale & Brooklands and St. Anne's Hospital would all be moved on to this site. A much improved environment with all the back up facilities would be available in purpose built accommodation. Additionally, the running costs would be much lower than in a new building than the existing one which would enable rationalisation of items such as having only one boilerhouse rather than the present three for the three separate hospitals. This would release much needed monies for reinvestment in providing healthcare services for Trafford.I hope that my right hon. Friend will tell the Secretary of State for Health to ignore the solitary complaint from the mysterious K. Riley, who could not even give the correct address. A new community hospital would be popular in my constituency and would provide a much-needed facility. I reiterate what I said in the debate on 1 April, on capital schemes since 1980, that Trafford is the only district in the whole of the north-west that has not had a large capital project.
The second issue that I want to touch on briefly is affordable housing, which I raised in an Adjournment debate on 26 April. Housing associations throughout the country are concerned by the proposed cuts in grant rates. Housing associations are now the main providers of new homes for people with low incomes. If the Government provision of 72 per cent. of capital cost of new housing association funds drops to 55 per cent. in the period 1995–96, 1 fear that it will create tremendous problems, because the poorest members of society who are now being housed in the newest social housing will find themselves in a poverty trap. The rents will be so high that they will be dependent upon benefit, and it will not be worth their while to take jobs. I wonder whether that is the sort of society that we want to encourage.
I am also concerned about elderly people who have been thrifty during their working lives, because, under the rules, with capital of between £3,000 and £16,000, a notional amount of interest is assumed at the rate of £1 per week for every £250 capital. I wish that somebody would give me that sort of interest on my savings. It is ridiculously high, and a disincentive to saving.
I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend could say whether the Department of the Environment has reached any decision yet on housing association grant rates. I do 163 not want people to be penalised because they want to work; and I certainly do not want the elderly to be penalised for their thrift.
That brings me to my final point. Like every other hon. Member, I have been inundated during the past week by letters from elderly people who are terrified because they have been told that they cannot collect their pensions and benefits from post offices and sub-post offices. They believe that they will be forced to use what is called automatic credit transfer to receive their pensions.
I understand that the Department of Social Security has run a pilot scheme to encourage pensioners to use ACT to have their pensions paid directly into a bank or building society account. That has caused enormous problems. Under the scheme, 24,000 people soon to collect their pensions for the first time have been sent letters advising them of collection arrangements. The first 8,000 letters point out the advantages of using a bank or building society but include the option of using a post office. Another 8,000 give advice only about banks and building societies; those interested in post offices have to send away for further information. The final 8,000 give no option besides direct payments into bank or building society accounts.
This is just not good enough. I have always believed that this Government believe in choice. If people want to use ACT, so be it—it is more secure and a more reliable means of payment—but we must bear in mind the elderly people who do not have bank or building society accounts.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the fears that they are expressing? They like to go to their post office or sub-post office every week to collect their pensions. In letter after letter, they stress the kindness that they receive from people in sub-post offices, who keep an eye on them. If a regular face does not appear one week, no doubt someone in the post office will do something about it. The human touch is missing from automatic credit transfer.
I ask my right hon. Friend to make it crystal clear that people still have the choice, thereby allaying the anxieties of many elderly people who are confused and worried about how they will collect their pensions. I hope that he will make the Secretary of State for Social Security aware that the emphasis in the pilot scheme on automatic credit transfer was too great and that not enough importance was attached to post offices.
Before we adjourn for the spring recess, I hope that my right hon. Friend will give me satisfactory answers on these three issues.
§ Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)
I wish to raise two distinct topics, which could perhaps be woven together under the theme of law and order. The first is the case of Nurse Beverly Allitt and the killings at Grantham hospital. I listened carefully to the Prime Minister at Question Time, but I do not think that what he said went to the heart of the anxieties that ordinary parents must be feeling.
For parents of small children it is frightening to think' that the latter might have their lives endangered in a children's ward of a hospital. If there is one place they might expect their children to be safe, it would be there. The Prime Minister focused on the legal aspects of the case at the expense of parents' real fears. Both times, when questioned by the Leader of the Opposition, he referred to 164 what Sir Cecil Clothier wanted. What is important, however, is what parents want. As they read the press reports, they must be wanting reassurance, and they can only get that from a public inquiry that is not accountable to the regional health authority.
Many of the parents involved in the case and many other parents who have seen the media coverage of the case must be asking how someone with a history of mental instability came to be hired as a children's nurse—the more so given that she had attended the casualty department of the same hospital for physical injuries arising from that mental instability. Why was she hired? Did it have anything to do with the desperate shortage of paediatric nurses? Why was action not taken earlier, when it was evident that a series of babies were either dying or being hurt by unknown causes?
To focus on the legalistic and technical aspects while ignoring parents' real fears does not do the matter justice. The parents whose babies died—indeed, every parent of a small child—will not be satisfied until the Government announces a full public inquiry. I am glad to have had the opportunity to raise the matter this afternoon.
The second issue strictly concerns my constituency—the problem of prostitution in the Stamford Hill area. It is difficult to raise the issue of prostitution in a Chamber where more than 600 hon. Members are male, because for most of them prostitution is either a trivial issue or a Joke—
§ Ms Abbott
That is right.
But thousands of people who live in residential areas, whether in parts of Hackney, south London, Manchester or Liverpool, are seriously affected by the problem of prostitution and the consequent problems of streetwalking and pimps. In the parts of London with which I am familiar, the problem is reaching epidemic proportions.
The problems are complex. Almost any woman can be harassed. It could be a woman walking along the street, going to or from her home. In my area of Stamford Hill, even women taking children to school at 9 o'clock in the morning are propositioned. It is a serious harassment—[interruption.] It is a serious problem—
§ Ms Abbott
My hon. Friend is right. The problem causes not just embarrassment, but fear. I know that that is a joke to Conservative Members, but it is not a joke for women or for Labour Members. Ordinary women taking their children to school are propositioned by men—[Interruption.] I know that it is a difficult issue to raise, especially if one is a woman in a largely male-dominated Chamber. I insist on being allowed to discuss the matter this afternoon, because that is what my constituents want.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
This is indeed a very serious subject, and I am sure that the majority of hon. Members present this afternoon will take it seriously. My hon. Friend is raising an important issue about kerb crawling and harassment of women by men looking for prostitutes. Does she think that the legalisation of brothels might be one way to deal with the problem? I ask that question in a general and genuine sense of an inquiry.
§ Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)
The hon. Lady is making some party political points. Does she recall that, during the last Parliament, our former Conservative colleague Mr. Shelton tried to introduce a Bill to deal with the problem, but it was talked out by the hon. Lady's colleague, the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone)?
§ Ms Abbott
I remember that, and it is one reason why I have taken the trouble to raise the matter this afternoon. I hope that hon. Members on both sides will listen to my remarks about what is a very serious problem that faces people not just in my constituency but in many others.
The first problem caused by prostitution is the harassment of women going about their business, not just in the evening but during the day.
The other problem caused by prostitution is that people can be woken by noise and commotion in the middle of the night. There are areas in my constituency where five or six prostitutes gather on street corners—and these are not necessarily the most rundown parts, but residential areas. People are woken at 2 and 3 am to see groups of prostitutes on the corner of their street. People wake up in the morning to find litter left by prostitutes in pursuance of their business.
In one of the main thoroughfares for streetwalkers in my constituency, there is a block of sheltered accommodation. Old people there get up in the morning to find that, because prostitutes have been carrying out their business in the hallways and doorways, they are littered with syringes and used condoms. It is easy to turn that into a joke, but it is not a joke. Old people who are upset and alarmed by that come to see me.
There are also the serious problems attendant on prostitution—of crime, violence, drugs and the pimps who hang around and are parasitical upon the trade. Therefore, prostitution is not trivial. It brings with it the problems of harassment, violence, crime and drugs for the local community.
I stress that, although I am talking about prostitution, the men who frequent prostitutes, the kerb crawlers and customers, are just as culpable as the prostitutes. I would not pursue any line of argument that focused only on the girls, and women—and boys in some cases—and excluded their customers. We must also focus on the kerb crawlers and the men who frequent the prostitutes.
A few years ago, at a meeting with the Home Secretary, I suggested that the Metropolitan police should do what has been done for some time in places outside London, and write to men who are frequently found kerb crawling. At that point, the Home Secretary rejected the idea, but the Metropolitan police have now taken it up and it has had the effect of embarrassing some of the men, many of them—it goes without saying, but I shall say it none the less—respectable married men who are found kerb crawling and looking for girls.
It is also important to say that part of the rising tide of prostitution has to do with economic pressures which many working-class women face. Men, being men, like to 166 fantasise about what turns women to prostitution. I, being a women, want to stress that it is economic necessity that turns most women to prostitution. No one would seek to earn a living in that way, subject as prostitutes are, every day of their working lives, to threats of violence, abuse and physical harassment, if they were not forced to do so by economic necessity.
Many girls have gone down the road of prostitution in order to supplement their social security and to feed their children, only to find themselves trapped by the violence of their pimps or by a drug habit that has been deliberately induced in them. In addition to thinking about the problems of local residents, we should think about the lives that some of those women lead and in which they are trapped.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) talked about possible remedies. A range of remedies exists for the House to consider. The police should have more resources in order to clear the streets and deal with the prostitutes. There might well be a case for changing the law. For example, Birmingham city council has explored the possibility of toleration zones with almost semi-legalised prostitution. There is also the possibility of toughening up the law on kerb crawling.
I do not seek this afternoon to put any particular proposal before the House, I simply say that street-walking is not a trivial issue. It is a serious matter for residents in areas affected by prostitution and the Members of Parliament who represent them. We should think of all who are suffering—the residents and the girls who are trapped in prostitution. I should like the House before too long to debate the issue and to arrive at some serious legislative proposals. As a result, I hope that at least the Stamford Hill area of Hackney, North and Stoke Newington will become a prostitute-free zone.
§ 4.3 pm
§ Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)
I am sure that anyone who listened to that powerful plea from the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) would warmly agree. She must not fall into the error of supposing that Conservative Members take a different line. She mentioned an important subject and did so passionately and eloquently, and I echo almost everything that she said. I sincerely hope that her area is soon a prostitute-free zone.
My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) touched on a popular topic, which I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will note is felt to be important by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It would be quite wrong for elderly people to feel obliged to receive their pensions through automatic credit transfer, but the threat that that would pose to sub-post offices, and to rural sub-post offices in particular, is even more important. That is not the main subject of my remarks, but I want my right hon. Friend to know that my hon. Friend was speaking for many hon. Members in all parts of the House.
I shall briefly touch on two subjects—the first is international and the second more national. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will hardly be surprised that, once again, I want briefly to mention Bosnia. I appeal to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to discuss with our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister whether this country should take more of an 167 initiative. I say that not in a critical spirit but because the conflicting and uncertain sounds from across the Atlantic have been confusing to many people.
This country is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council—a role which makes this country a great power, although we are often far too nervous and diffident about admitting it. Our membership of the Security Council and of the Group of Seven and our pivotal position within Europe, which I hope will be strengthened by the end of this week, all make this country a great power. At a time when other countries are diffident about taking an initiative, perhaps because of internal problems or their leaders' lack of experience, we can exercise leadership and I regret that during the past two years we have been a little diffident about doing so. Frankly, I believe that if the calls that I and others made in the autumn of 1991 had been heeded, much bloodshed might have been avoided and many tragic events might never have taken place.
Be that as it may, the killing goes on and the problem is still acute. I urge my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to ask the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary after this debate whether Great Britain can summon a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the five permanent members of the Security Council in London—there is a conflict about what might or might not have been proposed for New York on Friday—to discuss Bosnia and the Balkan question.
As I promised, I was brief on that subject and I shall now concentrate on a national matter that concerns me and many other hon. Members on both sides of the House. I was prompted to take part in this debate—I am grateful to you for calling me, Madam Speaker—because during Prime Minister's Question Time my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Hendry) referred to the Banham commission and its first recommendations for local government reform and reorganisation in Derbyshire.
The preferred solution of Sir John Banham and his commission—that the county should be divided into two maxi-district councils—has not caused delight among Members of Parliament and councillors representing Derbyshire. There has been so much upheaval in local government in recent years and so many financial and other changes, for goodness' sake let us be cautious, let us not embark on a great scheme of reforms, particularly in the teeth of local opposition.
My district council of South Staffordshire has been watching with nervous apprehension as Banham has concluded his deliberations in Derbyshire. We are on the list to be looked at in November and rumours have been circulating which have now been confirmed. The district councils in Staffordshire, certainly my own, would very much like to be unitary authorities. I strongly support my district council's wish to be a unitary authority. If existing district councils were able to become unitary authorities or if there were a strong local desire to amalgamate with a neighbour to become a local authority, and if such moves made local government more directly accountable to the people—fine. I should not oppose that and my district' council would be overjoyed.
I believe—obviously I am biased—that my council's record of prudence and good management is excellent. We have the lowest council tax in Staffordshire, just as we had the lowest community charge, yet we have good services. My council's record earns it the right to unitary status. If 168 the Government do not regard that as a possibility, we do not want to be tampered with. We want our boundaries to remain as they are and we want the county boundaries to remain as they are.
If unitary status cannot be conferred on authorities the size of South Staffordshire, let us keep the status quo. Let us keep the county boundaries and the district boundaries. By all means let us consider specific functions, and let us reapportion them to some degree and give greater control to districts, but let us not be driven into amalgamation with districts with which we do not have a great deal in common and with which we do not want to be amalgamated. That is a strongly felt view.
From conversation, I know that that view is strongly felt not only in Staffordshire, but in the House and in the country generally because we have been through many changes. We do not want to go through more which will result in an even remoter system of local government. The great argument for unitary authorities was that there would be not only greater accountability, but less remoteness because the county tier would be removed. That argument is transformed and put on its head if we are to have enormously large district councils.
Such a change would be wasteful in a variety of ways. It would be wasteful of buildings. When South Staffordshire came into being in the early 1970s following the first great round—"great" may not be the right word—of local government reform in 1972, a new council headquarters was created which had to be enlarged when the community charge was introduced. If we had a maxi-district and if we were linked with two or three of the neighbouring authorities, many of which had done similar things, we should not be able to maintain all the council headquarters. It is not sufficient to say that the buildings could be sold for commercial use, because they are not always fit for such use and there is not always a demand for such buildings.
I tell my right hon. Friend with great feeling that such an amalgamation would also be wasteful of people. It would be wasteful of the elected councillors. There would not be so many of them and there would be fewer councillors representing more people, so there would be greater remoteness. A blow would be struck at the ideal of local service which is so important a motivating force in local government.
It is important to realise that there would also be a severe blow to the motivation, morale and career prospects of many excellent local government officers and officials who have come to identify themselves closely with the district in which they work. For instance, it would not be possible to have three chief planning officers, or three chief executives. Men and women of great experience and dedication would be thrown on the scrap heap, at a time when we should not be adding to the sum total of human misery in that way.
For every possible reason, the direction in which Banham appears to be setting out is, I suggest, unacceptable to vast numbers of people throughout the country. I should like my right hon. Friend, if I may put it in this crude way, to pull the plug on Banham. If it is not possible to work towards the unitary district authorities that I want, for goodness' sake let us pull the plug on Banham. All the wasteful expenditure that Banham would involve would thereby be avoided. In addition, all the disappointment that would be felt throughout the country 169 would be avoided. Furthermore, we should avoid turning this place into a cockpit where local issues, deeply felt, were bitterly argued over, to little productive gain.
I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this unusual type of debate that we have several times a year. It is a valuable part of our parliamentary process. My right hon. Friend always has an extremely difficult task in summing up the speeches at the end of the debate, but I hope that he will at least be able to allude to what I have said and that he will pass on to his ministeral colleagues how deeply I feel on these matters.
§ Mr. Nigel Jones (Cheltenham)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) on what he has just said. He reflected many of my views on the local government commission, but he went a little further than I would when he said that the Leader of the House should suggest to the Prime Minister that he ought to pull the plug on Banham. Nevertheless, what he said about the additional load on individual councillors and the increased remoteness of local government after Banham are issues which ought to be taken on board. I hope that the Leader of the House will respond to them.
I rise for the first tiime in an Adjournment debate to raise two issues connected with our security services. As the Leader of the House knows, last Thursday during business questions I asked whether we could have a debate before the recess on our security services, in the wake of the wide allegations made recently about so-called bugging.
The first issue relates to the continuing spate of allegations in the media, linking our security services with the bugging of private individuals. The second issue, which it is about time the House addressed, is the continuing ban on membership of trade unions at Government communications headquarters in my constituency.
The time has come for a clear Government statement on our security services, including GCHQ. Many talented people who work in the security services feel aggrieved that they are not permitted to answer the allegations of bugging published in national newspapers. Last week's knee-jerk response by the Home Secretary was insufficient either to set the record straight or to give support to those in the security services.
I spoke at the weekend to many people who work at GCHQ, when Cheltenham had another of its famous marches. The town has become notorious for its marches in recent months. We had a march against the Government's proposals to close the coal mines. In January, we had our annual march against the continuing ban on trade union membership at GCHQ. There has also been a series of marches in Cheltenham, and elsewhere in the county of Gloucestershire, against the Government's proposals to cap the county council and force cuts in education, policing and other services.
Those who work at GCHQ feel that the Government are perhaps happy to let the bugging stories run in the media because they divert attention away from the Government's economic and policy difficulties. I do not intend to comment on that, but it is time that the Government made a statement to set the record straight. I cannot understand the Government's reluctance to allow 170 a full and detailed debate to clear the air on the bugging allegations. The allegations go beyond the remit of GCHQ, and its workers want the record put straight because they do not do that kind of thing. It is up to the Government to decide whether they want an inquiry into where the bugging is happening, who is doing it and why it is being published in newspapers. I do not deny newspaper proprietors the right to sell their newspapers, but it must be wrong for those who cannot answer back to be implicated and besmirched in this way.
Workers at GCHQ expect answers from the Government because newspaper stories about leaks from the security services are harming the reputation of staff. The staff have had to suffer much at the hands of the Government and a debate would give the Government a chance to recognise their professionalism, skill and dedication.
In a debate in 1984, my predecessor, Sir Charles Irving, said:I assure the House that it would be difficult to find a more noble, loyal, hardworking and sincere group than the 8,000 employeesatGCHQ. They seek only the opportunities to continue with their valuable services in peace and security."—[Official Report, 27 February 1984; Vol. 55, c. 42–43.]Apart from there now being far fewer than 8,000 employees at GCHQ, that statement remains true today.
A debate on GCHQ gives the House a chance to review and, I hope, condemn the ban on trade unions that the Government imposed almost 10 years ago. In January, I had the privilege to march with trade unionists through Cheltenham against the ban. The march has, unfortunately, been an annual feature of the Cheltenham social calendar since 1984 and it will continue to be so until GCHQ employees are given back the right to join a trade union.
I remind the House that 14 people were sacked for the sole reason that they refused to give up their union membership. They were not dangerous left wingers, communists or entryists but decent, hard-working Gloucestershire people. One of them, Clive Lloyd, has carried on the fight as a Liberal Democrat councillor in Cheltenham. The biggest threat to national security comes not from GCHQ trade unionists but from the incompetence, arrogance and stupidity of the Government, who have so damaged the reputation of this country.
As the so-called bugging scandals are now in the public domain, it is vital that the Government come clean. It is no good waiting for the publication of a Bill some time later this year, as the Leader of the House promised at business questions last Thursday. GCHQ staff deserve backing from the Government. They have been attacked by the Government through the union ban and they are being attacked in the national newspapers. Their professionalism is now being called into question by the press and the Government must come clean on the rumours.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
I make no apology for taking this opportunity before we break for the spring recess of raising matters about which my constituents feel quite strongly—not local issues that I have raised previously in such debates but national issues. It is the sense of lack of competence and of lack of sense of 171 direction at the heart of government, which I believe was the main cause of the losses in the county council elections recently. In Somerset, these were not local issues.
I mention elements of competence and lack of direction. Of course, there are qualifications to lack of direction. There is no point in having plenty of direction in government if one is going in the wrong direction and I praise the Government's capacity to listen, conciliate and, as we have seen in recent days, retreat where necessary. That is all right, but it would be better—I shall give some examples—if we did not get into such difficulties in the first place.
Underlying much of that malaise are aspects of legislation that this Parliament has inherited from the previous Parliament. Fairly innocuous pieces of legislation that went through the House without much party controversy, such as the Food Safety Act 1990 and the Environmental Protection Act 1990, are now producing a horror of regulations that are affecting businesses, charities, village halls and individuals all over the country.
I know that Ministers are aware of these matters and are anxious to tackle them in the proposed legislation for the next Session, but the horror of damage being inflicted on businesses and individuals continues to cause great resentment and difficulty in rural and urban areas.
Before I give some of the other examples that have come to the fore in recent weeks, perhaps I ought to say that I greatly sympathise with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in coping with a press, especially a Conservative press, that I do not think any Conservative Prime Minister has had to cope with since the days of Stanley Baldwin, who had to cope with the Beaverbrook and Rothermere-owned press.
I cannot think of a time in my fairly lengthy experience in working for the Conservative party and being interested and active in politics when a Conservative Prime Minister has had to cope with such bitter opposition from the editors of The Times, The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph, not only in their leader columns but in the articles that they commission for their newspapers. I think of the rather obsessed tirades from Lord Rees-Mogg and the contribution—not in one of those newspapers—a few days ago from Sir John Nott, a former Member of the House whose main achievement in recent years has been to earn a salary which would make the average chairman of a water or electricity company green with envy.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I hope he realises that he is not succeeding in pulling the heart strings of Labour Members. It is quite clear that Conservative Members "don't like it up 'em" when they get it from the press. Is he aware that this is the sort of hostile press that not only a Labour Government but a Labour opposition has to put up with? Has he ever shown us any sympathy when we have been subjected to these regular tirades or does he expect us to show him sympathy?
§ Mr. Nicholson
I have always admired and enjoyed the sense of humour of the hon. Gentleman, but I am certainly not looking to him for sympathy and I do not expect my party to look to the Labour party for sympathy. [Interruption.] I am making a statement of fact about 172 what we have experienced in recent weeks and it has not helped my right hon. and hon. Friends in administering some considerably difficult issues.
At the heart of the discontent of those four editors, with very different backgrounds, experiences, beliefs, prejudices and ability to be conciliated, has been the Bill to implement the Maastricht treaty which I hope we will give a Third Reading in the House on Thursday.
There is considerable resentment among Conservative Members at the hysterical opposition to the Bill, not only in the House but outside in the press, which has had a considerable effect on people in our constituencies and was certainly one factor in the recent elections.
Once the Bill is through Parliament, we will have more, better and more easily available information about the treaty. I appreciate the conventions that have hitherto prevented us from allowing that information to go to every household. I also think that my right hon. Friends should not take the consistent voting of hon. Members for that Bill and treaty to imply agreement or assent to the rather rhetorical and exaggerated expectations about European union that exist in certain European countries. I have no time for the concept of a European union. [Interruption.] A European commonwealth—[Interruption.]
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
Order. I remind the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and all others present that repetitive seated interventions are not part of the traditions of the House.
§ Mr. Nicholson
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The term "commonwealth" is, I believe, understood in this country. I believe that the concept of European commonwealth would be supported by most strands of opinion on these matters. A union implies something that many Conservative Members—who have consistently supported the Bill as a means of ratifying a treaty that reconciles conflicting elements—could not accept. Navigating that treaty and the Bill through Parliament has been difficult for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his colleagues, and that task has not been helped by the attitudes adopted by parts of the press.
One of the prime issues that has caused considerable discontent in recent weeks, especially among elderly people, is the imposition of VAT on fuel. Many of us accept that we need that measure for revenue and environmental reasons, but we also need—and I impress this upon my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who was a skilled and able Secretary of State for Social Security—to protect those elderly people who do not necessarily qualify for income support. That VAT imposition has caused great fear among people who depend on satisfactory heating and they will need to be reassured, and reassured speedily.
§ Mr. William Powell (Corby)
Does my hon. Friend recognise that the only conceivable way in which the ambition that he has identified could even be approached is if there were an increase in the old-age pension which entirely compensated all old-age pensioners for the VAT increase, which will be approximately £1 per week in the first year and £2 per week in the second year? As my right hon. Friends have ruled that out, and are only prepared to operate through the social security system, is it not clear that the only conceivable way in which the objective set out 173 by my hon. Friend can be met is for the Government to withdraw the VAT proposal and introduce other means of raising the revenue?
§ Mr. Nicholson
My hon. Friend was in a minority when he dissented from that measure, and I shall leave him to make his own speech. He and other hon. Members are as concerned as I am, however, to protect the elderly who are above the poverty level. We must try to find some means of doing that.
Another issue of equal concern to elderly people that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) is the threat to sub-post offices as a result of possible measures for which the Department of Social Security may be responsible. I regret that so many people have been scared into believing that they will lose the ability to have their pensions paid into post offices. Whether that scare has arisen through the incompetence of the Department of Social Security or the malignity of a certain union within the post office, I know not. I impress upon my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that I hope that tomorrow's debate on the sub-post offices and the speech from the Secretary of State for Social Security will lay those fears to rest. That is vital because this matter is causing very great concern. Those fears should be met.
I mentioned that there are concerns about the way that legislation—sometimes some years after it has passed through the House—impacts on people, businesses, charities and others. I recall that at the start of each day's proceedings we have a phrase that we should be "godly and quietly governed". I cannot speak for the first of those epithets, but there is great pressure from constituencies that we should be quietly governed, that there should be less interference and tinkering with institutions and systems that, on the whole, work well. I hope that my hon. Friends agree that the malaise shown in the recent county elections makes any proposal to privatise the Post Office in this Parliament a dead duck.
We also have anxiety about the railways, and next week we shall have an opportunity to debate the remaining stages of the Railways Bill. There is concern lest we shall not be able to sustain in this country a railway system that serves passengers, maintains decent fares, transfers freight to the railways from the roads and takes advantage of the benefits that will come from the opening of the channel tunnel. I speak of the cause for which our late hon. Friend Robert Adley spent much of his life. He worked hard and with great expertise for that cause. We shall have his example and work before us when we debate and vote on the subject next week.
In a point of order after Question Time today, the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Tyler) spoke of IACS, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's new system for administering subsidy from Europe. I regret that the hon. Gentleman is not in his place to pursue the matter because in recent weeks farmers in my constituency, and particularly on Exmoor, encountered considerable difficulty and conflicting advice. The Minister issued advice that did not appear to percolate through to local and regional offices of the Ministry.
The new system may look all right on paper to Ministers and civil servants in Whitehall, but it does not seem to have been prepared and co-ordinated sufficiently 174 well to enable those involved to cope with it within the short time available. The forms had to be in by 15 May. Farmers are not bureaucrats. They are not skilled in filling in vast numbers of forms. They feel resentful about what happened. I hope that we learn from our mistakes, some of which can cause immense concern.
There has been a tremendous welling of concern in recent times about law and order and an awareness, particularly among magistrates and police who must administer the system, that the Criminal Justice Act 1991 has not been working as it was intended. I pay great tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary for listening to those calls. He has received advice which has enabled him to act in this legislative Session to deal with some of the worst problems that have arisen.
While I pay tribute to the Home Secretary for that, it is a shame that we did not have that move a few weeks earlier, when it might have been of help to our people as they went into the county elections. After all, counties control police authorities and are deeply concerned with the whole issue of law and order. Our people felt, as they went into those elections, that they were fighting with one hand tied behind their backs, bearing in mind the considerable problems that were being faced over law and order matters.
On a similar matter, the Secretary of State for Education issued a statement on tests which, though welcome, was only half a loaf or a curate's egg. He has accepted the representations that he received from an enormous number of reasonable people. I refer not to militants and protesters but to Conservative teachers, governors and parents. They all said that the tests were far too complex and bureaucratic. He has accepted that view for next year, but I am baffled as to why he cannot accept it for this year.
I hope that my right hon. Friend, whom I admire and wish success in the difficult task in hand, will forgive me—he is more learned than I—if I wonder whether he had in mind a few lines from "Macbeth" as he decided not to withdraw the tests for this year. The language is lurid, but "Macbeth" is a lurid play. The lines that my right hon. Friend may have had in mind are spoken by Macbeth:I am in bloodStepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o'er.I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will learn from the considerable experience that we, the Back Benchers, have had in recent months in respect of those tests and listen to what we and others in the education system tell him.
I am sorry for raising so many matters. However, the problems that we have faced in our constituencies and in the recent contests are not simply recession-related or related to the Maastricht debate. They are related to a range of matters, many of which from legislation that the House has passed and from the interpretation placed on that legislation. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is responsible for the Government's legislative programme and I hope that he will consider the prayer that we shall indeed be godly, but also more quietly, governed in future.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
The speech of the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) was extraordinary. Opposition Members listened to him 175 attentively. However, it is not blood that the Government are steeped in—it is deep doo-doo, and the Secretary of State for Education typifies that most.
The hon. Member for Taunton began by complaining about the treatment that the Government are receiving from Tory newspapers. He then listed a series of very good reasons why those newspapers should be attacking a Conservative Government. He mentioned VAT on heating and lighting, pensioners being paid through bank accounts, privatisation of the Post Office and of the railways and testing in schools. Those things have been inflicted on the country not by newspaper editors, but the Government.
It was amazing that the hon. Member for Taunton could attack his Government. I would like to know how many of those issues he supported in the Lobby. He should be more careful in the future before voting for policies of that kind which, quite frankly, fully justify the attacks that the newspapers are now mounting on this incompetent Conservative Government. Indeed, the Goverment are beginning to resemble "Eldorado"—rotten actors, lousy scripts and no popularity. Let us hope that the Government quickly go the way that "Eldorado" is shortly to go.
I had not intended to say all that, but I was carried away by the cri de cour of the hon. Member for Taunton as a Conservative Member suffering so badly under the incompetence of his party's Government. The hon. Gentleman now knows how the rest of us feel.
I want to refer to a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott)—the problems of prostitution in the area that she represents. Similar problems are experienced in other residential areas of London. My point is related to what my hon. Friend said. I want to consider the supply and use of illegal substances which, in future, I will refer to as drugs. Although nicotine and alcohol are very potent drugs, when we use the term "drugs" we more or less know that we mean the use of illegal substances.
The criminal activity surrounding the supply and use of drugs is closely linked to prostitution. It tends to be conducted in the same areas of London. King's Cross is perhaps the most notorious area for both in the capital city at the moment although there are few other parts of London not affected in some way by both problems.
The first thing that we must accept is that those problems will not go away. We cannot police prostitution off the streets and, likewise, we shall not police the use of drugs off the streets. That is impossible. I do not say that as son-re kind of child of the sixties. I have never had an inclination to use drugs, I have never used them, and unless a very tempting offer comes along, I have no intention of doing so in future. However, I will not necessarily criticise those who have.
When I heard Commander John Grieve of New Scotland yard speaking to the Association of Chief Police Officers recently, I realised that he was saying something which many people who are given the impossible task of trying to deal with prostitution and drugs supply are saying to us as Members of Parliament involved in legislation. He was saying, "What are we going to do about this? These matters cannot simply be policed off the streets."
Commander Grieve said that we should consider whether it was time to consider a form of limited licensing for the suppliers and users of drugs. He did not say that we 176 should legalise. He said, "Let us just look at that," but he was immediately denounced by large numbers of so-called opinion formers in this House and elsewhere.
What Commander Grieve was saying as a senior Metropolitan police officer is something that many senior police officers are saying in London and elsewhere in the country. We must listen to what people like Commander Grieve are saying and look at the matter impartially, without the knee-jerk political reaction that tends to follow such statements.
Shortly after Commander Grieve's statement, the Prime Minister was asked what he thought about it. He said, "No, we will have nothing to do with this. It is a matter of controlling demand and that is what we are going to do." That was rather hypocritical as the Government are cutting the budgets for drug education in schools. They are also cutting the money that drug rehabilitation centres receive from central Government. It is a bit much to start talking about reducing demand by increasing education when the amount of money dedicated to education and rehabilitation programmes is being reduced.
§ Ms Abbott
Does my hon. Friend agree that the drugs trade, like prostitution, is a private vice with public ramifications? One of the public by-products of the burgeoning drugs trade in London is the number of shootings connected with the drugs trade. There has been a very steep rise in the number of shootings in public places and clubs in London in the past 18 months and they are almost entirely connected with the drugs trade, particularly crack cocaine.
§ Mr. Banks
I accept that and I want to refer to it in my short contribution. The criminal activity surrounding the supply of illegal substances causes us the greatest concern.
As I have said, I am not here to advocate the legalisation of certain drugs, but I advocate that we should at least be prepared to consider that without bolting for cover because we feel that the subject is too delicate and controversial to raise in this House. As soon as we reach the point when we cannot raise such issues in the House of Commons, we are in real trouble in terms of reaching considered opinions within our democratic processes.
I am most concerned about cannabis, which is the substance which is most usually used. I have never used it, but I am informed that cannabis is non-addictive. It has a tendency to calm users—in contrast with alcohol which, when taken to excess, leads to very aggressive behaviour. Much of the recent rural violence has been associated with over-consumption of alcohol.
If we consider the matter from a health point of view, we should consider legalising cannabis and declaring alcohol and nicotine illegal. Alcohol is involved in many health problems and in violence. As for nicotine, 110,000 people per year die from smoking-related diseases. I have heard of no one who has died from a disease related to the use of cannabis.
§ Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)
Some years ago, I introduced a ten-minute Bill on compulsory drug testing in schools. While my hon. Friend is concerned about cannabis, I was concerned about crack from America. Crack is killing people, particularly schoolchildren. Will my hon. Friend consider that?
§ Mr. Banks
Yes, I tend to agree with my hon. Friend about the problems which are moving from the United States to this country, particularly in relation to crack. I remember raising the issue with the then Home Secretary—the present Foreign Secretary—when he had not even heard of the substance.
We have not taken the problem seriously on this side of the Atlantic until fairly recently. One could almost argue that the American market has reached saturation point and suppliers are looking to the European market, particularly the market here, to continue their trade. We must control the dealers who are responsible for the criminal violence associated with supply. Where there is a demand, there will always be someone prepared to supply.
One of the other arguments that we should examine with regard to possible legislation is that if we legalised certain drugs we would be in a better position to control the supply. It is true that some people who start on soft drugs end up as hopeless addicts taking the hardest drugs. Equally, it can be argued that someone who starts with a small dry sherry may end up as a hopeless alcoholic drinking methylated spirits. Although that happens in some cases, mostly it does not, so we should not be too frightened by that argument.
My hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) referred to the violence surrounding the supply of drugs. That concerns us in parts of the capital city. There is a demand, so there will be a supply. While the demand is for an illegal substance, control over supply is something that we can only look to the police to deal with, so we are back where we started. The police are already saying that they cannot deal with the problem; they do not have the resources and, indeed, they will never have sufficient resources to deal with it.
To sum up, the Government should be prepared to examine carefully the case for legalising certain categories of drugs, take the best evidence and allow us to consider the matter quietly. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House want to deal with the violence associated with drug supply and the health problems associated with drug use, and I am sure that we can take out all party political dogma from the subject and look at it as people who, in the end, are responsible for the legislation that is passed through the Houses of Parliament. If we were examining the case for legislation, we could be talking about eliminating the violence surrounding the supply.
Legalisation could ensure the quality of the supply. A number of deaths have been reported recently in the King's Cross area. It is suspected that they were all drug users taking contaminated drugs. Because drug taking is illegal, people cannot go to the police and complain that what they bought in good faith turned out to be baking powder or something worse. That is precisely what is happening in the supply and demand area at present.
Legalisation could lead to greater regulation and control. It would also give us a greater opportunity to educate our young people about the use of drugs and other illegal substances. I simply suggest that perhaps the Government should consider setting up a royal commission to examine the whole subject. It could be looked at dispassionately, away from the knee-jerk political reactions which unfortunately followed the sensible and reasonable statement by Commander Grieve at the ACPO conference recently.
§ Mr. William Powell (Corby)
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) does a great service to the House by raising the question of the impact of drugs on our culture and society today, just as the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) did in her remarks about prostitution. I strongly support the wise words that have been uttered today and on previous occasions by my namesake the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell).
Frankly, the most alarming aspect of the drugs problem is the way in which it is reaching more of our youngsters in schools and elsewhere. There is not the slightest doubt, as the chief constable of West Yorkshire said only last week, that so much of the explosion of crime among youngsters at present appears to be drug-related. Certainly, that is confirmed to me by police officers to whom I have talked. The fact of the matter is that we are losing the war against drugs. We must do much more to ensure that more people, especially young people, are not destroyed by these wicked instruments.
Adjournment debates such as this always raise a wide variety of matters—they are among some of the most interesting debates held in the House. At present, my postbag is swollen by two specific issues. One is the question of the threat to sub-post offices. I entirely support what has been said by my hon. Friends the Members for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery), for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) and for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson).
Frankly, it is incredible that the Government have got themselves into this absurd position. The heads of those who were responsible for drafting the extremely maladroit letters—to put the matter mildly—should be presented on a plate. It is one of the most serious political misjudgments, and a matter that my right hon. Friends must do much more to correct at once. These things did not happen when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was responsible for the Department which seems to be at fault in this case.
I was amused by what my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South said about local government reorganisation in Staffordshire. Northamptonshire county council is unloved. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold), who used to be a member of that county council, knows that it was unloved even when he served on it.
My constituents, whether they live in east Northamptonshire or Corby, are anxious to have a unitary authority that is close to the grass roots—much closer to them than the Northamptonshire county council. If the Local Government Commission proposes what it appears to have proposed in Derbyshire, I am afraid that this will all come to grief. My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South was entirely right to raise the matter.
I have a great deal of sympathy with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton said. I merely say to him that the other matter that is swelling my postbag at present relates to the issue of value added tax on fuel. I have thought hard about this matter. I simply have to say that it has been a colossal misjudgment by the Government. It would be greatly to the credit of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House if they withdrew the VAT proposal and came forward, even at this late stage, with alternative revenue-raising proposals.
179 This matter has caused immense resentment in the country. The number of letters that I have received from my constituents—and, indeed, the constituents of all hon. and right hon. Members—far exceeds anything with regard to the business about the mines last autumn. I have no doubt that this matter will continue to run. The only satisfactory way of dealing with it is to withdraw the proposal and come forward with another proposal before the Third Reading and Royal Assent.
§ Mr. David Hanson (Delyn)
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's arguments. Does he extend the argument to value added tax on telephone bills, fridges, cookers and other items which pensioners and many other people in our society need to survive and make a decent life for themselves? Surely the whole thrust of the Government's argument is that VAT is a good tax and income tax is a bad tax. Labour Members take the absolutely opposite view.
§ Mr. Powell
That is not the thrust of the Government's policy at all. I stand by the settlement that was made 20 years ago. Deliberately, the Government and my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath)—this has since been reaffirmed by all Prime Ministers—decided that those items that impact most on the budgets of the poorer people in our society should be exempt from VAT. Obviously, fuel and power are absolutely essential. I have always made it perfectly clear to my constituents that I would not in any way support the extension of VAT, and I was delighted to vote with the Labour party last week when the matter came forward.
§ Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)
Did my hon. Friend note that the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), like those on his Front Bench, gave no commitment whatever to reverse this measure?
§ Mr. Powell
My hon. Friend makes his point, and I shall make mine. Undoubtedly people will take note of exactly what has been said.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House would be extremely surprised if 1 did not use this opportunity to say a little more about war crimes in Bosnia. It is not the first time—nor, indeed, will it be the last time—that I shall raise the matter. With each of these Adjournment debates, there has been further encouraging progress towards the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal to deal with the outrageous criminal activities that have been taking place—I stress, on all sides—throughout Yugoslavia.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations, under his mandate in resolution 808, reported to the Security Council with a draft constitution for such an ad hoc tribunal on 3 May. That was extremely welcome, not least because he had obviously consulted widely among the members of the Security Council and the member states of the United Nations. So he was able to produce, not a document containing a series of options, as some of us had feared, which could be used as an excuse for further delay in the establishment of such a tribunal, but a specific and detailed constitution which could certainly form the basis for discussion and, I hope, an early resolution and decision of the Security Council.
I hope that the British Government will give enthusiastic suport to the work which has been done by the Secretary-General's office. I hope that the Government will take the lead in ensuring that the ad hoc tribunal is established as quickly as possible.
180 We all know that serious breaches of international law have occurred in Yugoslavia for some time. Those breaches include breaches of the Geneva conventions of 12 August 1949 for the protection of victims of war; breaches of the Hague convention with respect to the laws and customs of war on land and the regulations annexed thereto on 18 October 1907; breaches of the convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide of 9 December 1948; and breaches of the charter of the international military tribunal of 8 August 1945. Each of those six important aspects of international criminal law has been infringed again and again. The Secretary-General made that plain in his report under resolution 808.
It is not sufficient merely to establish the ad hoc tribunal. We have made a great deal of progress on that, and I am glad to say that the British Government have given much support to the process. However, it is necessary for us to ensure that, having established such a tribunal—when the United Nations Security Council makes that final move—it can operate successfully and earn the respect of the international community for the manner in which it fulfils the responsibilities entrusted to it by the international community under the authority of the Security Council.
I stress to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House the point that I made the last time that I raised the matter with him. Preliminary action needs to be taken in establishing the special prosecutor's office. We must ensure that the necessary resources are available to the special prosecutor by way of police and legal assistance. The special prosecutor must have an adequate budget agreed by the members of the United Nations and approved by the Secretary-General. The office must have the physical facilities for the special prosecutor to carry out the work. It must be possible to interview witnesses, many of whom are today refugees from the terrible conflict found in southern Austria, southern Hungary and Slovenia.
The equivalent of a magistrate's jurisdiction must be established, so that charges can be properly laid against those whom it is alleged have committed war crimes. I identify three categories of person whom the special prosecutor must investigate. The first are the policy and decision-makers—the senior Government officials and senior military commanders. The second are field commanders, both military and civilian, who commanded the forces which carried out the violations, or persons who could have prevented violations from being committed by forces under their command. The third are the individual perpetrators who carried out acts of murder, torture, rape and other crimes. All those people should be investigated.
The world must respect warrants issued by that first chamber—we may call it a magistrates court or an indicting chamber. We must make it clear that, if any person who is the subject of such a warrant travels outside Yugoslavia, the world community will be prepared to arrest them and hand them over to the ad hoc tribunal for trial.
Then we must ensure that the trial takes place. It will be a lengthy process. It will not be possible to try huge numbers of people, but it will certainly be possible to try some. I stress to my right hon. Friend that the reason why all this matters is that, in the horror of what is taking place in Yugoslavia, the world community must stand up and identify what is right and what is wrong in terms of behaviour towards other human beings.
181 When there is murder, rape and torture, we must stand up and say, "This is wrong." We may not be able to put it right this afternoon or this evening, but we shall certainly do all that we possibly can to ensure that those who are responsible are brought to an acceptable form of justice—if not this month, next month, next year or whenever.
One of the most effective ways in which we can bring the behaviour in Yugoslavia to a halt is to serve notice that it will not be tolerated by an international community, and that the international community will establish the necessary mechanisms to bring to justice those who are responsible.
I have raised the subject of war crimes again and again with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, as he well knows. From time to time, he has been kind enough to pass on my remarks to my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. I am particularly grateful to my right hon. Friend because the last time that I raised the matter, I mentioned a letter that I had written to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and I swiftly received a most encouraging and effective response from the Prime Minister.
I want my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to urge our right hon. Friends to take the lead on behalf of Great Britain and ensure that what is established is an effective voice for the world community but also a practical voice in bringing about what the world community most earnestly wishes to ensure—that those who are wrongdoers and those who have committed the most wicked crimes are brought to justice in this world, as in the next.
§ 5.6 pm
§ Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)
I wish to speak on three matters. I shall not reiterate what the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) said about pensions and benefits being paid in post offices. I hope that the Leader of the House took into consideration what he said. Fears have been expressed by many pensioners throughout the country, and especially by the 250 members of the Pencoed old-age pensioners association, who sent me a petition and a letter today expressing their fears.
Hundreds in my constituency have written pleading that the Government should reassess the position. I know that two or three other hon. Members have already referred to the matter, but I must emphasise it on behalf of my constituents. I hope that the Leader of the House will take the message back to the appropriate Minister so that action can be taken.
The second matter that I wish to raise is escalating crime. The Glamorgan Gazette published in my constituency last weekend contained yet again a front-page article referring to the escalation of crime in my constituency. Most alarmingly, it said that in the Ogmore valley—an area that was built around the collieries—most shops in small villages were burgled or had their windows smashed, not once or twice in two or three years, but every other week.
Years ago in districts such as Ogmore, the majority of children cut their teeth on a lump of coal and miners were almost the only breadwinners in the valley. They were responsible for their actions and those of their children, 182 and were respected in the community. That community was no different from the one in which I was brought up in the Rhondda.
Where I lived, the front door was always open and the door into the passage was always closed to stop the draught. The only thing that we stopped from outside was the draught; we never stopped our neighbours coming in. Now, in an area that is no different from Ogmore which I represent, residents normally have to unbolt a number of doors before friends and neighbours can come in. That happens not only in Ogmore in my valley, but elsewhere.
Over the past 14 years, crime in our society has escalated, not only among young people but among middle-aged people, because so many people without work are looking for money in communities that have traditionally had a great respect for the elderly and neighbours. My home is no more than five minutes' walk from Bridgend central police authority, which trains police for Mid Glamorgan and most of south Wales.
Crime has escalated in the valleys, in areas that are only 13 miles from that police centre. Crime has escalated elsewhere; on a Saturday night, the centre of Bridgend has become a no-go area for the residents and those who visit the cafeterias after 10 pm. It is high time that the Government took more drastic action to try to remedy the escalation in crime.
Cannot more funding be made available to enable police to go back on the beat, so that we have more police on the streets and fewer in cars? My constituency has a typically close community of friendly, caring people, where families and friends nurture the community spirit. That spirit is being lost in our villages and towns, and there is no control over the escalation of crime.
My agent, Councillor Mrs. Muriel Williams, lives in Nantymoel. She has been a magistrate for 30 years—she knows that crime is escalating in her town, as she can see the evidence from the front window of her home on the main road, and as a magistrate. Only 20 yards from her home is a closed police station, which used to serve the top of the valley but is now to be converted into a home.
Why is it necessary for police stations to close throughout our valley communities? Why cannot we have the same policing levels that we had years ago, so that we could frighten criminals and help curb the escalation of crime? I am sure that, if the Government put their mind to it, they could achieve that goal and stop the elderly from being frightened. It is a crying shame that, when people reach the age of 65 or 70, they are afraid to go out of their homes, which they have to lock and secure. In the community that I represent, people are afraid to open the door and face escalating crime.
Another issue close to my heart and, I am sure, to that of the Leader of the House, is Sunday trading. After last Friday, a number of people are probably sick and tired of hearing about Sunday trading, but it is important to raise the subject, as it is a matter of grave concern. The Leader of the House has often told me frankly that it is the responsibility of local authorities to ensure that the law according to the Shops Act 1950 is upheld.
Last Friday, the Minister promised that the subject would be considered in the autumn, and that we could probably expect legislation next year or perhaps the year after. Meanwhile, lawbreakers, whoever they are—greedy grocers, or people who support the Conservative party through various funding arrangements—can continue. It is high time that the Government acted to ensure that such 183 people are taken to court. The Government should enforce the Shops Act. It is no good placing the responsibility on local authorities, which have few funds to finance the numerous prosecutions that should take place.
I am sure that the Leader of the House wants to ensure that law and order are upheld in this country. I mentioned the crime wave in my constituency, and the position is the same throughout the country. Some people may ask, if B and Q can commit a crime and get away with millions of pounds, why should not a burglar smash a window in the street in Nantymoel and take away a video? The law should be upheld for the big companies that break the law and pocket millions of pounds, which probably come from the profits of small shopkeepers who are forced to close their businesses. Some of them have been forced out of business by crimes committed by the big retailers which open on Sundays and take most of their trade.
I could continue at length, Madam Deputy Speaker. You were in the Chair last Friday—you kept awake most of the time and maintained much interest in the issue. You mastered the complex subject of voting at the end of the debate admirably. It took some of us the whole week to understand what the procedure would be, and I was grateful for your ruling last Friday.
I spent 12 months preparing a complicated Bill on Sunday trading and presented it in the hope of establishing which of the three options hon. Members wanted—total deregulation as proposed by the Government, partial deregulation as proposed by the Shopping Hours Reform Council or the proposals in my Bill.
The vote was taken and the result was 127 to 13—a majority of 114 hon. Members in the House on a Friday in support of my Shops (Amendment) Bill. When the Report stage was completed at 29 minutes past 2, a motion was made to the effect that the Third Reading should be agreed to on the basis of the vote that had taken place only minutes before. However, that was rejected, so the Bill is still in limbo.
We are discussing whether we should adjourn for the Whitsun recess on Thursday 27 May. It is not possible for the Leader of the House, bearing in mind his responsibility for arranging, not only the spring Adjournment, but also the business of the House, to ensure that Thursday 27 May is not a holiday, but the day on which the House can perhaps resolve this issue? Cannot the full debate be held on 27 May, so that we can look at the Report stage of the Bill that I presented on Friday, consideration of which was adjourned? We could then resolve some of the issues involved well before Christmas, and avoid yet another escalation of illegal Sunday Christmas trading.
I have before me a letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), whose Bill was treated in a similar fashion by the Government. I also have protests from my hon. Friends the Members for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) and for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr.. Fisher), whose Bills were treated similarly.
The Bill concerning disabled people presented by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris)—to which I referred in a point of order to you, Madam Deputy Speaker—has not yet been debated. The care given to the matter by my right hon. Friend and by numerous other hon. Members should have been recognised by the Leader of the House and the Government. Time should be made available for that Bill to be discussed, as it should for my Bill.
184 It is noticeable that the Government select Bills that they want private Members to put to the House on a Friday. They will pass those Bills if they want legislation introduced by private Members, and they will give them their blessing so that they are introduced.
You said, Madam Deputy Speaker, that we should go to the Procedure Committee to try to get a different system organised. The Chair should, and does, protect the interests of private Members, and protection of this interest is long overdue. Everything is done by ballot. If one is lucky on the day of the draw and is first, second or third, one gets the opportunity to introduce a Bill.
When my Bill was drawn out after the last election, I thought that at last my luck had changed—not on Littlewoods pools; I do not want a cheque from them—but because I had drawn No. 3 in the ballot, out of 20, to introduce a private Member's Bill. I was also to be given the princely sum of £200 to assist me in obtaining legal advice to promote the Bill. I thought that it was wonderful.
Twelve months later, I found that the Government were not prepared to listen to reasoned argument. An early-day motion in my name, signed by 258 right hon. and hon. Members, asked the House to pass my Bill last Friday. Despite that, the Government rejected the idea and suggested that we should have legislation in some months' time—perhaps 12 months' or two years' time. It is high time that the Government gave the matter further consideration.
§ Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)
My hon. Friend is making an important speech. He referred to my Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. As he said, the provisions and purposes of that Bill have been discussed on the Floor of the House for seven hours without a vote. The Bill was blocked in the first place by an hon. Member, who lost his seat at the last election, who said that he would not talk it out, and who then proceeded to do so. He made a personal statement of apology to the Speaker and to the House of Commons.
My hon. Friend may wish to know that many right hon. and hon. Members opposite support my Bill; they are among its sponsors; and they are saying that the Bill has been treated "discreditably" in the proceedings that we have had so far.
I back the appeal that my hon. Friend is making to the Leader of the House. This is a House of Commons matter par excellence. I do hope that the right hon. Gentleman will look very carefully at what my hon. Friend has said and is saying, and reassure those who think that there is a pattern to the tactics in obstructing Bills that the Government do not want to see enacted.
§ Mr. Powell
I am very grateful for the comments of my right hon. Friend.
I will conclude now, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I know that a number of other hon. Members are waiting to be called in the debate.
An article in The Guardian on 10 May is headed:Major plans fast law on Sunday trading".There is an opportunity here to have a fast law on Sunday trading. I tried everything. I asked who wanted to serve on the Committee. I made alterations between Second Reading and Report stage, when we conceded four major issues. The DIY stores, garden centres, extension of the size of the shop—all were agreed in Committee, together with 28 other liberalisation actions on Sunday trading. I 185 thought that would induce the Government to say that that was sufficient and to take the Bill on board, so that we could have a decent law on Sunday trading.
It is high time that the Government took action, and that they remembered that private Members' Bills and activities within the House should be honoured by the Executive.
§ Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)
I do not believe that we should adjourn for the spring recess without considering the impact of the proposed high-speed rail link across the borough of Gravesham. The House will recall that we are now in a six months' consultation period and that the clock has been ticking since April. There are certain points that I wish to bring to the attention of the House.
The high-speed rail link runs alongside the A2 and therefore past the homes of some 5,000 householders in my constituency. It is proposed to tunnel beneath Pepper Hill, to what effect on the residents we just do not know. That is why I called in March for a geological survey to assess noise and vibration, if any, and the prospects of damage during the construction period to the properties situated above.
I have been glad to note the appointment of two consultancies: Sir William Halcrow and Partners and Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick and Partners, both of which have geophysical experts on their professional teams. I hope that they will get on with the job, that they will do their soil and chalk testing and that they will carry out an investigation of the presence or otherwise of dene-holes beneath the houses in the area.
But they must make haste. Local people, with the technical support of Gravesham borough council, need to see the results of the survey as soon as possible, because it is only with the survey that they can compare the tunnel route—with the advantages that it brings of low-level running in cuttings alongside the A2—with the alternative route, which involves a wide curve around Pepper Hill through open countryside. The plans for this route have been done only in outline, but they show the route to be at a considerable elevation, which would be detrimental both to Northfleet and to Istead Rise, the nearby village to the south. We certainly need precise details on the alternative route that may be proposed.
I hope that my right hon. Friends will encourage Union Railways to hasten its assessment of putting passing loops into the Ebbsfleet valley. That would allow a realignment at the A227 Wrotham road crossing, which could be at a far lower level and might even pass beneath the carriageway of the road. We also need a careful assessment of the environmental impact on the historic parish of Cobham. I wonder why such wide cuttings are necessary in the plans, and why they cannot be narrow, walled cuttings.
During the period of consultation, I hope that much other work will be done, not least to give careful consideration to the matter of compensation. Homes at Scalers Hill and Henhurst would be severely blighted if the railway were constructed, and the hundreds of residents of Pepper Hill are in jeopardy until the certainty of the plans is established.
186 My constituency is adversely affected by the high-speed rail link. It relies on the Government to ensure adequate environmental protection and compensation. People in Kent are not just apprehensive; they are also looking for opportunities that the railway might bring for jobs and new industries. That is why I wish Blue Circle Industries godspeed with its Kent Thameside project to tie in its landholdings with a potential international station. It has the strong support of Gravesham and Dartford borough councils, and its plans complement the exciting proposals that the Government introduced for the east Thames corridor.
Hon. Members will understand that we of north-west Kent are all under great pressure and are vulnerable to potentially great changes. It will be reassuring for local people to know that the House and the Government understand their anxieties and are sympathetic to their proposals.
My hon. Friends the Members for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) and for Corby (Mr. Powell) have clearly articulated the fears of their constituents, of mine and of most hon. Members about the scares surrounding the sub-post offices. Those fears, principally the fears of the sub-postmasters, have put the issue on the public agenda, and it should be looked at fair and square in an attempt, not to scare the most vulnerable people—pensioners and other beneficiaries of social security—but to understand the two distinct elements of the problem.
First, there are problems for the Department of Social Security which pays the benefits. Then there is the future of Post Office Counters and of sub-post offices throughout the country. We need to understand these two different, but intertwined, aspects to learn how to safeguard the future.
§ Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)
Does my hon. Friend accept that it is not just a question of wanting to cherish the post offices and sub-post offices in our constituencies —that it is also a pragmatic question of paying out benefits and pensions? Thirty-five per cent. of those who receive benefits do not have bank or building society accounts, so they rely on post offices to distribute the money. We will therefore seek to defend and protect those post offices whenever we can.
§ Mr. Arnold
I know that my hon. Friend and many other colleagues do their utmost to defend our sub-post offices. His point is extremely valid.
Let us look first at the problem for the Department of Social Security. It spends £200 million paying out benefits, almost all of them across post office counters. That pays for the administration of more than 1 billion pieces of paper a year. That is phenomenally expensive, and it is worth reflecting that the £200 million would be immensely valuable if most of it could be paid directly to the beneficiaries.
Given my previous employment in the travellers cheque industry I can understand that a system involving 1 billion vouchers is wide open to fraud, which is not only a waste of taxpayers' money but consumes vast amounts of money that could be used in other ways. What on earth is the Department to do about the problem of costs and of fraud? It is looking at a system that has already been partly introduced on a voluntary basis: automated credit transfer 187 to the bank or building society accounts of beneficiaries. To do that effectively, the Department has to find out what beneficiaries will and will not accept.
Much of the problem has arisen in recent weeks because of market testing. A number of new pensioners were offered several options for payment. A small number of them were not given the written option of having the money paid by order book through Post Office Counters. The market testing was carried out to determine the reaction of the beneficiaries. We all know what that reaction was—there has been an extraordinary row, clearly expressing the wish of beneficiaries to have the option of receiving their benefits through vouchers payable at sub-post offices.
It was perfectly proper for the Department to carry out the market testing, and no doubt Ministers will learn the lessons from it, as was intended in the first place. We cannot get away from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink)—that about 35 per cent. of pensioners and social security beneficiaries do not have bank or building society accounts. They have no means of receiving benefit besides receiving it in cash across the counter at sub-post offices.
The lesson to be learned from this episode is that beneficiaries must continue to be given the choice of how to be paid. I have no doubt that, due to increasing familiarity with bank and building society accounts, there will be a steady swing towards credit transfer and away from the payment by voucher. By common agreement in the House—particularly among Conservative Members, who represent most of the rural and suburban areas of the country—we understand the need for post office counters, both Crown and sub. The House should think about how to find a secure and valuable future for a terrific asset—the sub-post offices of this country.
It is inevitable that the number of vouchers will decrease as pensioners increasingly opt for automatic transfer of benefits to their bank or building society accounts. It will be a gradual change, but it will happen. As I said, I used to work in the travellers cheques industry and I was worried about my future because I thought that the travellers cheque—a paper voucher—was illogical and bound to be phased out. However, the current worldwide travellers cheque market is worth more than $40 billion. It may be illogical, but people want travellers cheques.
The same applies to pensions and social security benefits. Vouchers may be illogical in these days of electronic banking, but people want the security of their order books and vouchers that they can cash. However, post offices should be under no illusion—it is a wasting asset. We should be looking for new sources of business that would give the sub-post offices a viable future. The clearing banks are reducing their enormous branch networks, so that might be one opportunity. In my constituency, Barclays bank has closed its smaller branches at Northfleet and Meopham. That is being repeated throughout the country. Therefore, there is an opportunity for sub-post offices to go into encashment and across-the-counter services for our financial institutions.
I direct the attention of the House to a particularly interesting phenomenon—telephone banking. It is best exemplified by First Direct, a subsidiary of Midland Bank. Although it operates a telephone banking service, it still needs counters. That would be an obvious area of opportunity for sub-post offices. It would provide the 188 counter service to complement the electronic banking service available over the telephone and through computer links.
§ Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North)
Perhaps the first thing that the Leader of the House might consider is introducing a Bill to limit the length of time that hon. Members can speak in debates such as this. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) should not be able to drift in and out of the Chamber as and when it suits him and then take up the time of the House with a long speech.
§ Mr. Arnold
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman's remarks are a slur. You can testify that I have been here throughout the debate.
§ Mr. Etherington
I shall not take back what I said about the length of time the hon. Gentleman spoke. I shall try to be brief, although I want to cover a number of issues.
Five hon. Members have already referred to the imposition of value added tax on fuel. I want to talk not about the effect of that on pensioners and other poor people, but about the effect that it will have on charities. They have already received one body blow because of the effect that the Finance Bill will have on their investments. In recent years, the Government have made charities an important aspect of society by hiving off many activities to them. If some of the charities go under, it would be the last fragmentation of society as we know it, especially for the old. As more than half the charities deal with old people, they will lose out through VAT on heating bills and in many other ways. The Government should think about that. I hope that we can debate the issue more fully and not deal just with the financial aspects.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have referred to law and order. One of the problems is the relationship between the police and the public. I am surprised to be able to stand here and say that I have spoken to the recently retired commander of the region in which I live, to the current commander and to the Police Federation and have found them as one: they are all concerned about the lack of confidence and trust that the public have in the police. I am not saying what has brought that about, but if we are to prevent crime and, indeed, correct the effects of crime, the public must be able to have confidence in the police and be prepared to work with them, rather than viewing them as an alien force to be treated with suspicion.
There is also the continuing scandal that, after 14 years of Conservative administration, an increasing number of people still suffer from low pay. Perhaps the Leader of the House will consider the deleterious effect of that on the economy at a time when stringent efforts are being made to improve it.
One of the main problems that I come across in my constituency is that of housing. For many years, my constituency had a wonderful public housing record. However, the council has lost more than one third of its housing stock, so families who need housing or rehousing find themselves in difficulty because there is a diminishing housing stock. The Government need to think hard about 189 that, because the housing position is probably worse than at any time in the past 20 years. It is no good the Prime Minister saying, "We are providing the homeless with new cardboard boxes"—we need something definite and effective.
There is also the problem of an aging population—and that, too, is not being dealt with properly. As time goes on, there will be more and more old people and they will be living longer. There is no sign of a concerted effort to try to alleviate the problems before they fully arise. I am thinking of preventive medicine rather than running repairs, which unfortunately is the way the national health service now operates.
The next problem relates to the future education of our children. The Government wax eloquent about the benefits of grant-maintained schools, but they have never fully explained to the House what effect that policy has on local authorities which have to deal with children with special needs. That problem must be dealt with urgently.
Like everyone else, I am pleased that the recession appears to be coming to an end, but there still remains the problem of unemployment. We could spend many weeks debating that subject in this House, because even during the relatively prosperous late 1980s unemployment was still rising. Within that increasing unemployment, there are horrendous regional variations. We are told that currently male unemployment is 14.1 per cent.—that has led to many screams from prosperous areas—but in my constituency male unemployment has stood at more than 21 per cent. for the past 15 years.
No one in the Government has said how, at the end of the recession and with the increasing prosperity that we all hope to achieve, we can get rid of the regional variations. Until something is done about that, there will be a self-perpetuating system of deprivation in certain areas. The country will never be united under those circumstances.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) did not please me too much with the length of his speech, but he pleased me with the efforts that he is making to get rid of one of the biggest scandals in Britain: the Government's continuing failure to deal with large firms which break the law on Sunday trading. Whatever people's views on my hon. Friend's Bill, at least he is trying to deal with the problem—which is more than the Government are doing.
There have been years and years of law breaking by those firms, with no prospect of that being put right in the foreseeable future. I cannot help but think that, if those companies were not pouring vast sums of money into Conservative party coffers, the Government might take a different attitude. If a trade union or a Labour council was breaking the law, the Government would act within minutes, never mind years. It is a disgrace, and something must be done about it.
I have greatly admired the Government's stance during recent talks on whaling. They have done what I believe the majority of people in this country wanted them to do, which is to act in a humane and responsible manner. However, it would be better if the Government were to allow hon. Members to decide properly, and without obstruction, whether they want to put an end once and for all to the barbaric so-called sport of hunting. Any country 190 which hunts down animals in the way Britain does can never expect to have the respect of the rest of the world as a decent and good nation. The same applies to the unnecessary vivisection which continues in Britain.
I have not tried to deal with the items on my list in order of merit, and I have missed out one or two to save time, but I come now to the last one and I declare a personal interest. Having waited for more than a year for a hernia to be put right, I cannot help but wonder about those who are suffering more pain and serious injury than I am and who might have had to wait a similar length of time.
Recently I noted that the Northern regional health authority was vociferous about how it had cut waiting lists of those waiting for more than a year and for more than two years, but in the past 12 months the overall waiting list of hospitals in the northern region has risen by 10.3 per cent. At that rate, we can expect them to double in the next seven years. Instead of spending so much time on public relations exercises and putting out glossy brochures explaining how good hospital trusts are, if some of that money had been spent trying to put people right I am sure that everyone concerned would feel much happier.
That brings me to my conclusion. I have not spoken for so long as some hon. Members and I have tried to say what little I had to say in as succinct a manner as possible. As I said at the outset, I hope that the Government will consider introducing legislation to ensure that no one speaks for longer than 10 minutes in the House at any time, thus giving everyone else a chance.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for letting me catch your eye. I want to concentrate briefly on one issue. I want to draw the attention of the Leader of the House and his colleagues to the IACS fiasco—the integrated administration and control system. For those hon. Members who do not have farmers in their constituency, I have in my hand the sort of material that has landed on the kitchen table of farmers all over the country. That is the wodge of material that they now have to wade through to qualify for important support.
The so-called integrated administration and control system has become an essential component for a large majority of British farmers to enable them to obtain area aid and arable, beef and suckler cow support. As the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) has already said, there is widespread dismay at the way in which, as usual, the British version seems to be worse than that of any other EC member state.
The Library made a simple analysis for me of the sort of forms and explanatory booklets that were provided for farmers in other states. I take two examples. Denmark had an eight-page explanatory booklet, a four-page form and a four-page additional advice leaflet. France, which we sometimes think is very bureaucratic, had an eight-page explanatory booklet and a four-page form.
In Scotland, I am given to understand, not only was the documentation available earlier than it was in England and Wales, but the booklet of explanation was shorter. There is a persistent rumour that the difference between England and Wales on the one hand and Scotland on the other is that the Minister himself insisted on simplifying the explanatory booklet for England and Wales, with the result that it was issued several weeks late to farmers and 191 it was several pages longer. As a result, farmers in England and Wales were faced with an extraordinary booklet 79 pages long and 12-plus pages of forms. A new verb has been added to the English language—to gunmen Farmers feel that they have been gummered by the bureaucracy.
The problem has been made a great deal worse by the tight timetable that farmers have had to meet to complete the forms. The deadline was last Saturday, 15 May. In the run-up to that deadline and over the weekend, quite rightly agricultural correspondents on the national newspapers drew attention to what was happening. The Daily Telegraph said:MAFF + IACS + CAP spell DISASTER".The well-known and respected member of the political profession as well as of the journalistic profession, Mr. Bill Deedes, referred toMr. Gummer's 11b sleeping pill".The Guardian said:EC paperwork send farmers to the edge of sensibility".An interesting article based on some notes that were supplied to The Daily Telegraph was headed:Never trust those rude farmers, officials are told".That concerned instructions to Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food officials for dealing with some of the farmers in our constituencies. Perhaps most significant of all was the diary of a farmer's wife in The Sunday Telegraph, headed:My sleepless nights over forms of torture".Farmers all over the country have been faced with such appalling difficulties.
In the farming press, the comments have been even more earthy and it would not be appropriate to quote some of them here. However, I shall quote one or two of the most respectable. For example, Farming News said:Will Europe sleep while Britain fills in form?Farmers' Weekly said:Now comes map muck-up in the IACS saga".Best of all, Farmers' Weekly said:Caught napping from mapping".The farmers themselves—some of us have had much correspondence with them—are outraged by the extent to which the demands for information have come at such a busy time of the year. I quote from a letter, typical of many, from a farmer in my constituency. It states:Our forms were received on 8th April for completion by May 15th, (5½ weeks). We then had to apply for the 'Arable Area Payments' Explanatory Booklet' (44 pages), and get to grips with 'CAP Reform in the Beef Sector' (24 pages), so that the options could be assessed within the context of the IACS booklet (79 pages); ie, the maze and then the minefield. We attended NFU advice meeting for 2½ hours. We queued for maps, (costing £130), for 6 hours in Exeter, (a round trip of 100 miles). We found the maps incomplete (still costing £18.50 each); old versions with the measurements and grid reference numbers but the survey 40 years out of date; new versions resurveyed but giving no measurements or grid references. We had to have fields measured on one map where hedges had been removed nearly 40 years ago; we had to have one new map measured where the re-survey had created different boundaries. Finally when we had done our best we queued for three hours in Launceston for MAFF to check and advise on our completed efforts.We have actually incurred the loss of a full working week at a most hectic time in the farming year, in an effort to piece together the information required from ill-conceived and ill-prepared material.I am then obliged to listen to the arrogance and self-righteous conceit of our farm minister, who imputes that problems arising are the farmers' fault, and that they will be heavily penalised for any mistakes that occur".My constituent concludes: 192Farming has become a computer-game, floundering in a quagmire of new strictures and technologically derived directives, and I just hope that IACS does not prove to be the ultimate virus of lunacy totally to undermine, (rather than under-pin), the CAP.That is typical of, but rather more articulate than, many of the letters that I am sure Conservative Members have been receiving from their farming constituents.
Hon. Members may say and Ministers may attempt to excuse the situation by saying that there was plenty of warning. But I was promised from the Dispatch Box on 25 March that the documentation would be in the hands of farmers on 2 April—the actual date was given—so that they would have more than six weeks to meet the deadline of 15 May. In fact, a sizeable number received their documentation 10 or 14 days after that date, breaking that promise, so they had fewer than six weeks to assemble information and obtain the supporting material, especially accurate maps from Ordnance Survey.
Moreover, there were major mistakes and misprints in some of the documents, so it had to go back for checking. Despite months of warning, Ordnance Survey—an executive agency, after all—was caught totally unprepared. Increased staff at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, a huge waste of effort and a huge diversion of precious time have been achieved, at huge cost, by the Minister.
Conscious of the likelihood that there would be some late submissions—with all this muddle, there were bound to be honest mistakes by those completing the forms—hon. Members from other parties and I asked the Minister for some leniency and, crucially, for an independent appeals system. Those who had made genuine mistakes or who, because of the late arrival of forms, had been unable to make accurate submissions in time were entitled to some consideration. At Question Time on 29 April, the Minister dismissed that suggestion out of hand. In those circumstances, it is right that we should seek the support of the ombudsman, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, with a view to having the role of MAFF and Ordnance Survey investigated.
I do not propose to deal at great length with the latest insult that has been added to this injury, as I raised the matter with Madam Speaker this afternoon. The fact that the Minister refused yesterday to give me figures in answer to a parliamentary question, despite being prepared to allow them to be given to outside bodies and the media, is outrageous and demonstrates contempt for the House. Specific figures were quoted in "Farming Today" this morning.
It seems that, in England alone, up to one quarter—certainly one fifth—of all eligible farmers have submitted completed forms on time. Who can blame them, given the shambles that the Minister has allowed to develop? Yesterday's Western Morning News, under the headline "Farmers Could Lose Grants", made the point that the very livelihood of many farmers may be at stake as a result of this maladministration. The National Farmers Union chairman in my county has drawn attention to the ridiculous fact that one of his fields features in 44 separate boxes in the documentation. That complexity makes it extremely difficult for farmers to complete forms on time.
As we approach the Adjournment for the spring recess, many farmers all over the country are under a threatening cloud. They face not just difficulty, confusion and expenditure of time, but real loss. It is a penalty that could 193 do great damage to their business at a time when they are coming out of the worst recession that the industry has known since the 1930s.
I hope that the Leader of the House will take account of the fact that this is an expensive and oppressive shambles. I hope that he will encourage his ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to apologise not just to the farming community but also to the House for the way in which this system has been handled. They should demonstrate real remorse and proper recognition of the problems that have been caused. I hope that the Leader of the House will insist that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food comes forward before the spring recess with a statement that he is prepared to set up an independent appeals system.
§ 6.3 pm
§ Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)
This House should not adjourn without debating education, which is one of the most important subjects with which politicians have to deal. Education is the means by which individuals succeed, and the means by which we shall succeed as a nation. If we get it right, we shall resolve all our problems of wealth creation, the care of pensioners and the provision of a better health service; if we do not get it right, we shall never be able to make proper provision in those areas.
The most important part of education is the primary sector. That is where the three essential lessons are learned of disciplines, skills and enthusiasm for education, yet it is at that level that funding is most scarce. I want to draw attention to the discrepancy, in this regard, between the primary sector and the secondary sector.
The Select Committee on Education has chosen this subject for a major inquiry, which is to commence quite soon. I hope that that inquiry will be a means of directing the attention of the House to this subject.
The Leader of the House, who is listening very carefully to my remarks, is an Essex Member of Parliament, so I shall refer to the funding split between primary education and secondary education in Essex, which has quite simply got it wrong. The local management of schools formula, by which funds are distributed between those sectors, is wrong. The age-weighted pupil unit in the secondary sector is quite generous, but at the expense of the age-weighted pupil unit in the primary sector.
Statistics produced by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, which are available in the Library, show that, during the last year whose figures I have analysed, Essex paid about £80 a year below the comparable shire county average for each primary pupil. In my constituency, that means about £20,000 a year per primary school. Thus, we have vertical integration—mixed-year group teaching, the mixing of nine-year-olds with 10-year-olds—which cannot be effective.
I want Essex—indeed, I want the nation—to look at the funding disparity between primary education and secondary education, so that we may get the balance right. It is at the primary level that the essential lessons are learned.
§ 6.6 pm
§ Mr. David Hanson (Delyn)
The remarks I should like to make would take much longer than the four minutes that remain for this debate.
I wish to focus on an issue that gives rise to great concern in my constituency—local government reorganisation in Wales. On 1 March, the Secretary of State for Wales made proposals which, because they are fundamentally flawed, must be drawn to the attention of the House before it goes into recess on 27 May. The proposals are flawed in many respects, but I should like to deal with four problems.
First, what is proposed continues the Government's privatisation plans. which represent dogma of the highest order and ought to be resisted by people in my constituency. Secondly, the proposals will result in reduced representation in the new authorities. A major gap is the complete absence of plans for a Welsh assembly. The Welsh Office spends £6,000 million a year, and an army of quangos runs Wales. So much for democratic accountability. Those bodies are accountable entirely to three Ministers, who put forward their views without any reference to the people of Wales, who elected 27 Labour Members of Parliament on 9 April last year.
In my constituency, the most pressing question is boundaries. Delyn borough council, in conjunction with Alyn and Deeside district council, advanced consensus proposals for a merger of the two authorities. The Alyn and Deeside council is Labour-controlled, whereas the Delyn council is not. Despite that fact, one of my abiding memories is of the leaders of the two councils shaking hands and agreeing that the best thing for my constituency was a consensus authority.
Despite the agreement among councillors in the area, the Secretary of State has proposed a new Flintshire authority and a new Denbighshire authority, which would be responsible for half of the area of the current Delyn borough council. This has provoked a response—letters, representations, petitions—such as I have not had previously since my election to this House.
The communities of Whitford, Gwernaffield, Gwernymynydd, Halkyn, Mostyn, Llanasa, Nercwys, Cilcain, Nannerch, Yscefiog and Caerwys have all said very clearly that they wish to be part of the Flintshire authority. It is a matter of history, of geography, of just belonging, but, most of all, of the delivery of services. The main towns of Flint, Holywell and Mold in my constituency will be divorced from the rural hinterland that surrounds them. A whole list of services, such as libraries, schools, housing, leisure centres and transport will be in one authority. The 16,000 people who will be in the proposed Denbighshire authority will be divorced from their libraries, their transport, their leisure services and their community housing.
Denbighshire will be a 71,000 authority if the 16,000 people whom I wish to see in Flintshire are put into it. I urge the Secretary of State for Wales to take on board the strong feelings of my community for self-determination, and I urge that the 16,000 residents in my constituency who look to Flintshire and to the towns of Flint, Holywell and Mold for their public services get them. Before the recess begins, I urge the Secretary of State, in preparing his local government Bill, which will be introduced after the 195 recess, to do so on the basis of the wishes of my local community. I urge him to include a Welsh Assembly and fair representation—a basic good deal for my constituents.
§ Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)
My hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) has made a powerful and able contribution to the debate, as have other members of the parliamentary Labour party. I thank them for their contribution. The parliamentary Labour party believes that the House should not adjourn until the industrial crisis facing Tyneside has been discussed here. So that such a discussion is better informed, I shall place on the record some points about the helicopter carrier and about the events that led up to the decision on the contract.
Swan Hunter and Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. submitted bids for the landing platform helicopter vessel last autumn. Swan Hunter's bid was for a purpose-built warship; VSEL's bid was for what was essentially a merchant vessel with a flat top which would be built at Govan and would go to Barrow-in-Furness for armaments to be added and for outfitting. Contrary to popular belief, there was not much difference in price between the two initial submissions. As I understand it, Swan Hunter's bid was about £174 million and VSEL's bid was £165 million, leaving a difference between the two of about £9 million. That sum would have been more than covered by the difference in costs to the Ministry of Defence of supervising the Govan-VSEL bid in the different yards. I accept that that would not have been an insuperable obstacle. My point is that last autumn the two bids were similar.
From then on, the Ministry of Defence entered clarification discussions with Swan Hunter and with VSEL to talk about the designs and especially to talk about additional equipment and changes that it required to be made. The crucial point is that it was the Ministry of Defence that required additional changes to the vessel. Swan Hunter is a management buy-out company; it has no large financial reserves. Additional equipment going into the vessel means an addition to the price. On the reasonable and logical assumption that VSEL was being asked to make the same changes, it would know the cost of those changes and would know within reason how that movement would be reflected in Swan Hunter's price.
Unlike Swan Hunter, VSEL has massive financial resources, which have been built up on the profits of the Trident submarine contract. That contract is essentially a cost-plus contract which has left VSEL with a large financial surplus. As well as adding £12.5 million to the contract to raise the standard of weapons systems from the initial bid, the Ministry of Defence altered the specifications for the carrier to require a further £13 million of work to be added to the original Swan Hunter bid. That, with other positive and negative adjustments, took Swan Hunter's price to between £195 million and £200 million.
It is important to emphasise that that price reflects the real cost of changes demanded by the Ministry of Defence. It does not reflect any new adjustments of profitability on the contract, as alleged in the local press by another Member of Parliament. The Sunday Sun, the local Sunday newspaper on Tynesicle, carried the story under the headline: 196A bid too far by debt-hit Swan's Cash crisis forced yard to jack up offer says MP".That is not true. At no time, as I understand it, did the Ministry of Defence suggest to Swan Hunter that the cost of making the changes and additions that the Ministry required should be borne by the company. Nor was it suggested that the company's costs were unreasonable.
As a result of the size of the order and of the relative weakness of Swan Hunter's financial base, the company has been talking to other major British companies with defence industry interests with a view to a closer association. There is obvious logic to that and I was not, and still am not, opposed to that.
I now understand that the talks have been going on for far longer than I realised, certainly since the latter half of last year. The Ministry of Defence was not only aware of the talks, but apparently took the view that the LPH order would be placed at Swan Hunter only if the company was taken over by a major defence industry contractor, almost certainly GEC. My personal view is that a lot of good could have come to Tyneside from a GEC takeover of Swan Hunter, going beyond the narrow question of the LPH order.
It is important for the House to know, however, that the pressure on the directors of Swan Hunter was ultimately not commercially driven, but came directly from the Ministry of Defence. As the final bids for the LPH were submitted on 22 April this year, the Swan Hunter bid moved from about £200 million, give or take £5 million. A more pessimistic view was taken collectively of the overheads that had to be applied to the bid, moving the price up to the £210 million figure that is already in the public domain. That last-minute change was the result of a pessimistic view about other work coming into the yard to cover some of the overheads before work started on the LPH. The Ministry of Defence did not ask for the last item to be revised downwards.
VSEL was in a different commercial position and could take a different view of the charging of overheads. VSEL would know that with Swan Hunter running out of work, the directors had no alternative but to carry the bulk of the overhead costs on the LPH contract. With the Trident programme still in progress at Barrow-in-Furness, no such problem faced the directors of VSEL. The £50 million price difference that the Ministry of Defence is ruthlessly briefing as the real gap in price between the Swan Hunter and VSEL bids means that the VSEL price must have stayed at its original £165 million or thereabouts.
I believe that I heard the Secretary of State for Defence mention £160 million on BBC radio last Thursday. In other words, the additional work that the Ministry required Swan Hunter to do and which had to be paid for in the Swan Hunter contract has been absorbed into the VSEL contract, underpinned by the company's enormous profits on Trident. Clearly the Ministry of Defence would know all those facts.
In the number of different warring factions that make up the Ministry, there are those—essentially in the Royal Navy—who believe in amphibiosity and the helicopter carrier. Others would prefer the amphibious programme to be delayed, if not actually scrapped. Such issues justify the Labour party in its call for a defence review. Conservative Defence Ministers scoff at the call for a defence review. What is not so well known is that the Ministry is carrying out such a review on the quiet. A group of senior officials and one politician in the 197 Department—a gang of four—meet under the nomenclature of the "internal study group", which in effect is conducting a secret defence review. It is especially considering strategic questions such as the amphibious programme and surplus capacity in the warship-building industry.
No doubt it is also considering the logical consequences of its ordering programme on capacity, and even which shipyards will close and which will stay open. It has always been the case that the Ministry of Defence could reduce shipbuilding capacity by delaying warship orders. The Public Accounts Committee has pointed that out and has called for a better working relationship between the Ministry's strategic decision-makers and the industry so that the industry can have more certainty in its forward planning.
The House will remember that the original fight for the LPH related to keeping it in the programme. It seems clearer now than it did then that powerful forces were at work within the Ministry of Defence to delay or scrap the amphibious programme and permanently to take out what they regarded as surplus capacity in the shipbuilding industry. The first move towards taking out surplus capacity was to starve the industry of work and to close the most vulnerable yard. Because of its work load, that yard was Swan Hunter. The successful fight put up by the work force and management of Swan Hunter for the order, and the present position in Yugoslavia, made an overwhelming case for amphibiosity and the helicopter carrier.
The Royal Navy wants and needs the helicopter carrier in its programme. The industry's opponents decided to achieve the same objective of removing capacity, but in a different way by arranging the contract so that it was open to VSEL to hold its price while leaving Swan Hunter with no option but to have its price pushed up by additional requests for add-ons. The price gap was made inevitable and gave the Government an excuse to look surprised and aghast at the price difference and close Swan Hunter.
Whatever else those tendering arrangements may be called, they can hardly be called fair competition. The final decision, as I understand it, was taken last Monday by a small number of Cabinet Ministers, including the Secretary of State for Defence, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the President of the Board of Trade and the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has told the House that the Government brought the helicopter carrier forward so that Swan Hunter could bid for it. If that is so, it is remarkable that the Government took the decision on price and compliance without pausing to look behind the two bids: how they were constructed and how the price difference had come about.
The awful truth probably is that there were those in the Ministry of Defence and higher up in Government who never had any intention of letting Swan Hunter win the contract and that the construction of the bids was designed to ensure that Swan Hunter did not win it. The fact that the Ministry of Defence is now briefing to the effect that the Government wanted to save Swan Hunter but could not do so because of the price and that this price increase is all the fault of the company's management adds fuel to the suspicion. The fact that the management of VSEL are 198 this afternoon trying to get the three frigates towed out of Swan Hunter and round to Barrow is yet more cause for suspicion.
I do not believe that there is a shipyard worker in the country who will set foot on Swan Hunter's frigates in these circumstances. The work force at Swan Hunter is working normally and intends to finish the frigates on Tyneside on time and to the highest standard. The Ministry of Defence should let it do so.
I welcome today's call for an inquiry. That call has come from the Defence Select Committee. I understand that the inquiry is to be conducted by the Comptroller and Auditor General. I can think of nobody better fitted to conduct the inquiry.
Among the matters that the inquiry could consider, and indeed should consider, is the question of how the two tenders were evaluated. The inquiry could consider whether both bids deal with detailed questions of compliance. It could also consider the dialogue between the Ministry of Defence and both contractors about price, whether both bids were for a ship to be built to Royal Navy standards and, if not, whether British services personnel are, in effect, being sent into combat in a customised cargo vessel.
The inquiry should also consider the level of merchant shipbuilding subsidy available to Kvaerner Govan and whether it was indirectly applied to the LPH contract. Most important of all, the inquiry should reach conclusions about the level of subsidy in the VSEL bid and about competition policy.
The inquiry will, however, undoubtedly confirm the following brutal truths. Only Governments procure warships. Therefore, by holding back the programme, Governments can close warship yards. Ultimately, the issue is about political decision making. The Ministry of Defence's secret defence review being conducted by the internal study group has decided permanently to end warship building on Tyneside. Last week it got its way. The management and work force of Swan Hunter are being punished for having done everything that the Conservative party asked them to do, post privatisation.
The effects are devastating for Tyneside. The collapse of Swan Hunter will bring other companies down with it. Sustained high levels of unemployment will cost the taxpayer more in lost revenue and in benefit payments than the cost of the contract. Most damaging of all, the Prime Minister has deprived Tyneside of its work and its future and has done so in a peculiarly cruel and malevolent way.
The hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter), with whom I do not usually agree, is right to give credit for the decision to the Prime Minister. He did so in last Tuesday's edition of the Evening Chronicle. In its early edition, the Evening Chronicle reported:Mr. Trotter was giving much of the credit for the 20,000 tonne vessel order to Mr. Major himself.For once, the Evening Chronicle is right and it has provided the epitaph for the destruction of Tyneside's industrial base: the Prime Minister deserves most of the credit.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)
During the past three hours there have been times when I thought we were having a re-run of the debate that took place about a week 199 ago on VAT on fuel and that we were anticipating two debates that are due to take place tomorrow on the defence industries and on sub-post offices, in connection with automated credit transfers. I hope that I shall be forgiven if I do not attempt a re-run of last week's ministerial speeches and do not anticipate speeches that will be made in tomorrow's debates.
I want, however, to say something about the two issues that have featured in many of the speeches that have been made today: first, the need to provide appropriate help, particularly to pensioners, in respect of VAT on fuel and, secondly, sub-post offices.
It is important for me to underline the clear undertakings that were given about the Government's intention to provide extra help to poorer pensioners and others on low incomes, on the basis of details that will be given in the autumn statement when they have been carefully worked through. It is important also to underline, in view of comments made by my hon. Friends, that the increases in the income support thresholds and rates do not help only those on income support. The structure of the system leads to help feeding through to other income-related benefits—to housing benefit and council tax benefit in particular.
That leads to far more people being assisted than just those on income support. It is estimated that about 8 million people will benefit from increases in the income support rates. I hope that my hon. Friends will note that point, which was emphasised in last week's debate. My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General commented on the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) and adverted to the point that I have just made.
Sub-post offices have been mentioned by almost every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate. The issue was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery), for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack), for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), and for Corby, for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and by the hon. Members for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) and for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington).
I hope that I have not missed out any hon. Member who referred to sub-post offices. I hope that they were all present at Prime Minister's Question Time today when my right hon. Friend clearly reiterated the comments of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Technology on Friday, when he underlined the fact that we are committed to the maintenance of a viable network of post offices.
My right hon. Friend went on to say that pensioners will continue to be able to receive their pensions from the post office. He repeated something else that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Technology said in Friday's Adjournment debate on the subject: that it is not Government policy to remove the right of pensioners to receive their pensions from the post office. Those are clear statements of the Government's position. They will no doubt be more extensively covered in tomorrow's debate. They should, however, go a long way towards reassuring my hon. Friends.
I intend now to turn, though perhaps not as fully as he would like, to what was said by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown)—I suspect at least as much in his capacity as the Member of Parliament of a north-eastern constituency, which is much affected by the difficulties to which he referred, as in his capacity as an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. He will know that I 200 cannot, and do not, accept some of the suggestions that he made about the motivation and actions of those involved in this very difficult decision.
I have no doubt that much more will be said in tomorrow's debate, but my understanding is absolutely clear: VSEL won the competition by a substantial margin —tens of millions of pounds—and against that background it would have been unfair to it, to the Royal Navy and to the taxpayer to award the contract elsewhere. Its bid fully met the specification against which both companies tendered, and that must be taken into account.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East knows that I had a long and close connection—although, in some respects, not as long as I should have liked—with the north-east and shipbuilding on Wearside as a Trade and Industry Minister four or five years ago. I need no lessons in the problems that the area experiences or, indeed, in the feelings to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I spent a year doing my level best to preserve shipbuilding on Wearside, but, to my great regret, I was unsuccessful.
I understand the feelings that have been articulated this afternoon, but I do not think that any good purpose is served by suggesting that there has been a conspiracy or that my right hon. and hon. Friends have acted with less than integrity and good will in their approach to this difficult decision. I hope that some recognition will be given, as I am sure it will be in tomorrow's debate, to the measures that were announced almost immediately to seek to build new economic opportunities in the area, such as those that are operating so successfully in the north-east, the flagship of which is the Nissan factory, which is almost within sight of the former shipyards on the Wear and is a symbol of the new opportunities in the north-east.
I hope that it is clear that I say that not in a bland way, but having recognised the concerns and the background to which the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East referred. However, he does neither his constituents nor the House any service by talking in quite the terms that he did about the difficult decision that had to be made.
My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale referred to his meeting with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health about Trafford community hospital, but he told me little about its contents. I must therefore respond with some caution. I hope that it will prove possible to reflect the concerns that he expressed, but I am not sure that I should endorse his request to ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to ignore the mysterious K. Riley. However, as it appears that nobody can trace K. Riley, it seems likely that my right hon. Friend will have to ignore him or her, as my hon. Friend wishes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale also mentioned affordable housing. The cost reductions achieved through lower interest rates and competitive prices in recent years have made possible a reduction in average grant rates, without any significant impact on the affordability of the rents implied by those grant rates. He will know that the Government have expressed the objective of increasing the proportion of private finance in new schemes still further by reducing grant rates in 1994–95 and 1995–96, and before final decisions on grant rates for 1994–95 are taken a full assessment will be made of the likely impact on rents and housing associations' ability to raise private finance.
201 The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who evidently has been unable to return for my speech, made a number of comments about the inquiry into the tragic episodes that arose from the crimes of which Beverly Allitt was recently convicted. I should repeat what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said earlier this afternoon in response to the suggestion that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is not taking her responsibilities seriously in the inquiry that has been established.
The terms of reference of the Clothier inquiry are so wide-ranging that it would take too much time if I were to attempt to read them. They cover the inquiry into the circumstances that led to the deaths of the children and the need to consider the speed and appropriateness of the clinical and managerial response; to examine the appointment procedures, systems of assessment and supervision in the relevant bodies; to review the recommendations of the regional fact-finding inquiry into paediatric services at the hospital; and to consider such other matters relating to the incidents as the public interest may require.
Sir Cecil Clothier—a person of considerable experience and distinction in this area—will be joined by Miss Anne MacDonald, director of quality at the Royal Manchester children's hospital and a distinguished paediatric nurse, and Professor David Shaw, emeritus professor of clinical neurology at the university of Newcastle upon Tyne. It is a considerable inquiry and, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said this afternoon, it is right to respond to Sir Cecil's own view that people will be more willing to speak freely to his inquiry than to a public inquiry and that his is the most appropriate way of proceeding.
The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington referred to the problems of prostitution. I hope that it was clear to her from hon. Members' reactions that no hon. Member was dismissing or making light of her concerns, as at some points in her speech she suggested. Indeed, the Government are keen to tighten the law on kerb crawling and will seek a suitable legislative opportunity to try to reintroduce legislation following the failure of the Sexual Offences Bill in 1990, which was moved by the former Member for Streatham. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) observed, it was talked out by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone).
I shall not be able to say a great deal about Sunday trading, but the hon. Member for Ogmore suggested that difficulties with private Member's Bills are confined to Bills about which the Government are not enthusiastic. The procedures for dealing with private Member's Bills are well known and well established, and Opposition Members cause at least as much difficulty with such business as Conservative Members.
Of course it is open to the Procedure Committee, if it wishes, to reconsider those procedures and for the House to adjust them, if it wishes, but some of the remarks that were made by the hon Member for Ogmore were a bit over the top. The same applies to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East, who attributed bad motives or behaviour to Ministers in their approach to what has been a reasonably straightforward matter.
202 As that is one of the particularly important subjects that was raised in the debate, and in view of the suggestions of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East about lengthy delay, I remind him of the speech, which he must have heard, that was made last Friday by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, in which he said:The Government intend to introduce a Bill early in the next Session. I can confirm that we intend, well before the summer recess, to publish a Bill with the major choices in it, together with a commentary describing that those major choices would do in practice and how they would be enforced." [Official Report, 14 May 1993; Vol. 224, c. 1070.]It remains my view that that is the sensible and responsible way for the Government to proceed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South, apart from touching on one of the issues that I have already mentioned, suggested an initiative that he felt the Government should take in respect of Bosnia, which I shall bring to the attention of right hon. and hon. Friends.
My hon. Friend made a number of less than flattering comments about the proposals of the Banham local government commission, and I am sure that he will understand if I respond somewhat cautiously, but one of the merits of the way in which the commission was set up and is now operating is that it was given terms of reference that allowed it to consider local circumstances and to take account of local concerns. My hon. Friend clearly does not like what has emerged so far. He has expressed, with some vigour and enthusiasm, some local concerns and I am sure that the commission and my right hon. and hon. Friends who will have to take decisions on these matters in due course, will have heard and listened to what he said.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) followed up a question he asked me last week about the security services. I cannot give him the guarantee of a debate, any more than I could last Thursday, although I would not be as dismissive as he was of the vigorous remarks of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. However, since one of the hon. Member's concerns was apparently that GCHQ staff could not answer back and that that generated the need for a debate, I would make the point that they would not be able to answer back in a debate either. At best, he might be able to answer back on their behalf, and he has been doing that fairly effectively in the House.
Perhaps this is a slightly lower key way of making the point that my right hon. and learned Friend Home Secretary has made on a number of occasions, but the Government are satisfied that GCHQ has not been involved in the surveillance of the royal family.
I have managed to touch on one or two of the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton. There was a moment in his speech when I was not sure whether his focus was the newspapers or the Government. Perhaps I might assume that it was the newspapers and not the Government and move hastily on to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) —who once attacked me for not getting round to his speech, and I shall do so by only a fraction this afternoon. He was concerned about the legalisation, or at least with considering the legalisation—
§ It is being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question necessary to dispose of proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 22(Periodic Adjournments).
§ The House divided: Ayes 158, Noes 39.204
|Division No. 274]||[6.41 pm|
|Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)||Evans, Roger (Monmouth)|
|Allason, Rupert (Torbay)||Evennett, David|
|Amess, David||Faber, David|
|Arbuthnot, James||Fabricant, Michael|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Fenner, Dame Peggy|
|Ashby, David||Fishburn, Dudley|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Forman, Nigel|
|Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)||Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)|
|Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)||Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)||Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)|
|Batiste, Spencer||Freeman, Roger|
|Beresford, Sir Paul||French, Douglas|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Gallie, Phil|
|Blackburn, Dr John G.||Gardiner, Sir George|
|Bonsor, Sir Nicholas||Garnier, Edward|
|Booth, Hartley||Gillan, Cheryl|
|Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)||Gorman, Mrs Teresa|
|Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia||Gorst, John|
|Bowis, John||Grant, Sir Anthony (Cambs SW)|
|Brandreth, Gyles||Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)|
|Brazier, Julian||Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)|
|Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)||Hague, William|
|Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)||Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)|
|Burt, Alistair||Hannam, Sir John|
|Butcher, John||Hawkins, Nick|
|Butterfill, John||Hawksley, Warren|
|Carrington, Matthew||Hayes, Jerry|
|Channon, Rt Hon Paul||Heald, Oliver|
|Chapman, Sydney||Heathcoat-Amory, David|
|Clappison, James||Hicks, Robert|
|Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey||Hill, James (Southampton Test)|
|Coe, Sebastian||Horam, John|
|Congdon, David||Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)|
|Coombs, Simon (Swindon)||Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)|
|Cope, Rt Hon Sir John||Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)|
|Cormack, Patrick||Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)|
|Davies, Quentin (Stamford)||Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)|
|Davis, David (Boothferry)||Hunter, Andrew|
|Day, Stephen||Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine|
|Deva, Nirj Joseph||Kirkhope, Timothy|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Knapman, Roger|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)|
|Dover, Den||Knight, Greg (Derby N)|
|Duncan, Alan||Kynoch, George (Kincardine)|
|Dykes, Hugh||Legg, Barry|
|Elletson, Harold||Lennox-Boyd, Mark|
|Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)||Lidington, David|
|Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)||Lightbown, David|
|Luff, Peter||Sproat, Iain|
|Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas||Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Maclean, David||Steen, Anthony|
|McLoughlin, Patrick||Steinberg, Gerry|
|Maitland, Lady Olga||Stern, Michael|
|Mans, Keith||Streeter, Gary|
|Martin, David (Portsmouth S)||Sweeney, Walter|
|Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)||Sykes, John|
|Merchant, Piers||Taylor, Ian (Esher)|
|Milligan, Stephen||Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)|
|Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)||Thomason, Roy|
|Monro, Sir Hector||Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)|
|Montgomery, Sir Fergus||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|Neubert, Sir Michael||Thurnham, Peter|
|Newton, Rt Hon Tony||Trend, Michael|
|Nicholls, Patrick||Trotter, Neville|
|Nicholson, David (Taunton)||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|O'Hara, Edward||Viggers, Peter|
|Oppenheim, Phillip||Walker, Bill (N Tayside)|
|Page, Richard||Waller, Gary|
|Porter, David (Waveney)||Waterson, Nigel|
|Powell, William (Corby)||Watts, John|
|Richards, Rod||Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Riddick, Graham||Whittingdale, John|
|Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Ryder, Rt Hon Richard||Wilkinson, John|
|Shaw, David (Dover)||Willetts, David|
|Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)||Wolfson, Mark|
|Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)||Wood, Timothy|
|Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Spencer, Sir Derek||Mr. Irvine Patrick and|
|Spink, Dr Robert||Mr. Andrew MacKay.|
|Adams, Mrs Irene||Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn)|
|Allen, Graham||Loyden, Eddie|
|Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy||Lynne, Ms Liz|
|Ashton, Joe||McAllion, John|
|Barnes, Harry||Madden, Max|
|Beith, Rt Hon A. J.||Mahon, Alice|
|Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)||Marshall, David (Shettleston)|
|Callaghan, Jim||Meale, Alan|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute)|
|Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry)||Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)|
|Cryer, Bob||Olner, William|
|Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)||Powell, Ray (Ogmore)|
|Dafis, Cynog||Salmond, Alex|
|Donohoe, Brian H.||Skinner, Dennis|
|Dowd, Jim||Steel. Rt Hon Sir David|
|Eastham, Ken||Wareing, Robert N|
|Flynn, Paul||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Hill, Keith (Streatham)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Howarth, George (Knowsley N)||Mr. Paul Tyler and|
|Illsley, Eric||Mr. Nigel Jones.|
|Johnston, Sir Russell|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
That this House, at its rising on Thursday 27th May, do adjourn until Monday 7th June.