§ Motion made, and Question proposed,
§ That this House, at its rising on Thursday 31st March, do adjourn until Tuesday 12th April and, at its rising on Friday 29th April, do adjourn until Tuesday 3rd May.—[Mr. Patnick.]
§ 4.8 pm
§ Mr. John Biffen (Shropshire, North)
The exchanges earlier this afternoon emphasised the interest of the House in Community affairs, and doubtless that interest is shown particularly in the context of the negotiations in Brussels involving my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary concerning voting within the enlarged Community. My right hon. Friend has my warmest and most full-hearted support for his stand and for the objectives that he seeks to secure. I believe that he takes the support and aspirations of all Conservative Members, not least because his successful vindication of his negotiation tactics has a real impact on our electoral fortunes in the European elections.
I wish to use this occasion to reinforce my support for my right hon. Friend, and to consider the form that that support should take. I believe that the case has not been argued in this country, partly because the Opposition have opted out of this debate.
§ Mr. Biffen
My hon. Friend—if I may use that fraternal term in these narrow circumstances—is quite right: he and our friend the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) show a continuing and spirited interest in the subject. Nevertheless, in a party that purports to provide the next Government, we have seen total abdication in regard to this issue.
That is extraordinary. We know that the House's relationship with the European Community derives through the Council of Ministers: all the structures are related in that fashion. Indeed, the terms of the treaty could not make any other arrangement possible. We as parliamentarians therefore have a real interest in the future pattern, size and voting conventions of the Council of Ministers.
Some—my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) is a good, robust example—have seen the issue in terms of national interest: they feel that possessing and exercising that vote in certain restrained circumstances enabled us to pursue a national interest that would not otherwise have been available. I accept that that is a fact. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield regards me as being decidedly at the "wimp" end of the Tory party; let me, however, suggest another reason why we should be so wholehearted in our support for the Foreign Secretary, and so anxious that he should maintain the position that he has adopted hitherto.
Our experience of the Community shows us that it is now generating an enormous amount of legislation. I cannot believe that that serves the purpose of the Community's supporters; all too often, it resembles a parody, generating endless aspirations to bring about uniformity across Europe, when it should be content with partnership. Within that structure there is a possibility of check and balance, in the sense that qualified voting of a certain character provides at least some check on the volume of legislation.
1031 I very much agree with the Prime Minister that the issues now at slake are long-term issues. If enlargement is confirmed, I believe that it will generate more legislation rather than less; the check on the legislative cascade must therefore be kept as tight as possible. That is what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary seeks by means of the voting formula for which he has asked.
I consider this a matter of the utmost seriousness, which should engage the measured judgment of the Labour party no less than ours. I do not believe that the quality of the Community is improved by its becoming a bureaucrats' paradise, with the conversion of the powerful initiatives in the Commission's hands into an application of Community law on an unbelievably detailed scale, and an attempt to pursue uniformity to a degree that is wholly unnecessary for the ambitions of a wider Europe—the wider Europe represented by the current negotiations, which will be further fulfilled with the membership of Poland, the Czech and Slovak republics and Hungary.
I suspect that, as we move towards that position and have to reconsider the institutions of the Community, we shall begin to wonder whether it would not be much better in the long run to move items from the present Community structure to that of the intergovernmental conference. That is the structure that will enable a sensible repossession of national law-making and national sensitivities, and that is the true devolution that is inherent and, I believe, will eventually become inevitable if the Community can adjust to its wider membership ambitions.
I am delighted to see the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) in his place. He has been a welcome and innovative advocate of seeking to what extent we can repatriate the common agricultural policy. The hon. Gentleman is setting out on a long pilgrim's path, on which I will happily join him, so long as that is not too embarrassing for him in his constituency. We have been trying to reform the common agricultural policy from day one. It is only within the context of moving towards a more radical proposition that we begin to see at once why my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is trying to hold a line—a line which has great potential for the future beneficial development of the Community.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
I am comforted by the right hon. Gentleman's encouragement, as I have great respect for his views. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the repatriation of the CAP—subsidiarity—could be extremely dangerous for this country in some areas'? For example, if subsidiarity meant a raising of standards and the equivalent raising of costs in areas such as animal welfare, Britain and its farmers would be penalised, while subsidiarity would reduce standards in other member states.
§ Mr. Biffen
The hon. Gentleman is already showing welcome recognition of the stony path that he is treading. He will face precisely that sort of difficulty. Any aspect of the European Community which has been conducted on the basis of idealism will also have been conducted on the basis of hard bargaining, often in powerfully contested situations. The hon. Gentleman is therefore right to say that we shall not achieve repatriation on the cheap. That is why it is far better for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to hold the line now, rather than thinking that we can haul it back during renegotiations in 1996 or thereafter.
1032 We send our good wishes to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in his effort to hold the line, as he has been doing nobly and valiantly during the past week. However, let us be under no misapprehension about the dangers of a bureaucratic Europe. Why do some countries fear a bureaucratic Europe more than others? The answer is in the issue of law enforcement.
Law enforcement reflects the traditions and character of individual countries. There is a different standard of law enforcement in Nordic countries and in Mediterranean countries. It is not just a battle for narrow British interests that is at stake, although, in deference to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), I accept that British interests are never narrow. What is at stake is not just a purely national argument.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is arguing on a European plane, not merely for a British position within a European dimension, and I hope that he will be encouraged by remarks such as mine because he is fighting a battle which is worth—
§ Mr. Biffen
It is worth having a battle if we can debate with the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). We could detach him for the purpose of the European elections and take him around as an example of the ghost of Labour yesterday. He is now the sole relic within the Labour party prepared to question any Community institution, and he is found sitting with his hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer).
§ Mr. Biffen
No, thank you—I have paid all my compliments to my hon. Friend.
We are appealing to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to speak for Europe.
§ Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)
I have an interest to declare, but not a financial one, in the two issues that I want to raise in this debate. Together with the hon. Member for Shipley (Sir M. Fox), I am joint honorary parliamentary adviser to the Royal British Legion. Both issues are of deep concern to the Legion and should be debated in the House before the Easter recess. At the very least, there should be an oral ministerial statement about each of them before 31 March.
The first issue affects war pensions and war widows' pensions and is thus a highly sensitive one for the ex-service community. I refer to the Government's proposals to legislate to amend the Service Pensions Order to exclude from entitlement many people now qualified for war pensions and war widows' pensions. Widows of ex-service men now eligible for war widows' pensions would no longer be entitled to their pensions under the amendments that the Government propose.
Let me give the House an example of the kind of case that will be affected by the Government's proposals to change the law. A service man who suffered extreme cruelty—indeed, who was tortured—as a prisoner of the Japanese in the second world war emerged with a smoking-related lung disease from which he died. He became a heavy smoker, having previously been a non-smoker, to alleviate the chronic stress caused by what 1033 are described as his "horrifying experiences" as a prisoner of war; medical evidence was available to show that, in his case, smoking was directly attributable to the inhuman treatment meted out to him by the Japanese.
Like everyone else at that time, he was unaware that smoking could prove harmful. In fact, it was then very widely considered to have a beneficial effect as a tranquilliser and morale booster for service personnel on stressful active service.
No matter how conclusive the evidence of a direct link between an ex-service man's death and his resort to heavy smoking to deal with chronic stress on active service, his wife will have no entitlement to a war widow's pension if the Service Pensions Order is amended as now proposed by the Government.
Yet there are already some 60 cases in which war pension appeal tribunals have awarded widows' pensions where smoking, related to chronic stress during war service, was accepted as the cause of an ex-service man's death. This must be a very serious issue, more especially since many other cases are pending, and it is clearly one deserving of at least an oral ministerial statement before we rise for the Easter recess.
What is resented by the ex-service community almost as much as the intention of the change in the law the Government propose is the hole-in-the-corner way in which it is being attempted. No statement has yet been volunteered to this House. The only information we have so far received came in a written parliamentary reply to two questions that I tabled to the Secretary of State for Social Security. The reply said that the decision to smoke or drink was a personal one. It went on to say that the proposed change in the law follows a recent decision in the High Court andwould ensure that the legislation reflects the policy intention"—[Official Report, 3 February 1994; Vol. 236, c. 840–41.]What that means, of course, is that the High Court had found that the existing law does not mean what the Government thought it meant and that Ministers now intend to reverse the court's decision to avoid paying war pensions and war widows' pensions to some very needful people. If that is allowed to happen, the independent status of war pensions appeal tribunals will be seriously undermined, and that, too, is worthy of an urgent debate in this House.
Smoking dependency in consequence of active service has long been accepted in other countries as a cause of severe respiratory conditions, notably by the Australian Government after a High Court ruling there some years ago. They did not appeal against the decision of the High Court; they honoured its decision. Of that, Ministers here say not a word, just as they ignore the fact that it was only comparatively recently that smoking became recognised as a health hazard. But as recently as the mid-1970s, smoking was considered both safe and socially acceptable.
Billions of cigarettes were issued free of charge to service personnel on active service, and they were also available to them at heavily subsidised prices in the NAAFI. I myself was actively encouraged to smoke as the recipient of 200 free issue cigarettes a week while on active service in the middle east in the post-war years. As late as 1975, there were instances of consignments of cigarettes 1034 from HM Customs being distributed to RAF personnel serving overseas and of cut-price cigarettes being sold in NAAFI establishments.
Another very disturbing feature of the Government's proposals to change the law is that the amended legislation will be applied retrospectively. I ask the Leader of the House to take special note of that point. In the case of any improvement in existing legislation, as he knows, the Government always refuse to make it retrospective; but when, as in this case, the Government's intention is to cease helping war pensioners and war widows, they do so retrospectively and without time limits.
As the reply to my parliamentary questions made clear, the Government's proposals stem from a recent High Court judgment in which their attempts to stop the award of a war widow's pension to the widow of a former far eastern prisoner of war were unsuccessful. The High Court upheld the war widow's entitlement which a tribunal had allowed because her husband's death from cancer was due to smoking related to service factors. The Government are understood now to be planning to seek leave to appeal to the High Court against other recent successful appeals by the widows of ex-service men where smoking was accepted as a factor of service. I know there are those on both sides of the House who will regard that as not only wrong but disgraceful.
The only circumstances in which the Government are prepared now to recognise smoking as a factor of service is when an individual became so mentally disturbed as a result of service that he was incapable of making a rational decision whether to smoke or not. But any war pensioner who is 80 per cent. mentally disabled and incapable of looking after himself is entitled to constant attendance allowance, thus ensuring that, in the event of his death from whatever cause, his widow will automatically receive a war widow's pension. Such cases are, in my experience as a former Minister with responsibility for war pensions, very rare indeed.
I hope very much that the Leader of the House will recognise the widespread concern to which the Government's proposals to change the Service Pensions Order give rise; that they will not repeat the now notorious mistake made in relation to noise-induced deafness for war pension purposes; and that we will now be given the opportunity of an early debate to persuade them to relent before it is too late. Not to do so would demean the House and cause deep distress to those who have one of the most compelling claims on our attention.
The second issue I want to raise can be dealt with much more briefly, since its importance is already being actively discussed by right hon. and hon. Members. There is an all-party early-day motion on the Order Paper about it in my name, which says:That this House, mindful of the increasing needs of the United Kingdom's ageing ex-Service population and the many problems of younger members of the ex-Service community, in direct consequence of Options for Change, considers that there is now a pressing need for a Sub-Department of Ex-Service Affairs within an existing Ministry and with a designated Minister to be responsible, as the only fundamental and long-term solution for the care and welfare of ex-Service people and their dependants; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government now to respond positively to The Royal British Legion's urgent call for a sub-department to be established.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton
I am very interested in the right hon. Gentleman's remarks. The views that he is expressing are entirely cross-party, and he will receive 1035 considerable support from both sides of the House. Will he please state the number of his early-day motion and the level of support that he has received for it? I am sure that, like myself as the Member for Macclesfield, most other hon. Members have had many representations from British Legion organisations. Naturally, those have been passed on, with endorsement, to the appropriate Minister in the Ministry of Defence.
§ Mr. Morris
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has worked long and hard to help the ex-service community, more particularly war widows. My early-day motion is No. 60, and it now has 172 signatories. It has been subscribed to not just by right hon. and hon. Members in both major parties but by members of all parties.
As of now, bits and pieces of responsibility for helping ex-service men and women and their dependants are scattered all over Whitehall. The Government act on the assumption that the Minister at the Department of Social Security who is responsible for war pensions is the right point of contact for the ex-service organisations; but the problems of their members go much wider than the Department of Social Security and, as we all know, in many circumstances the right hand of government rarely seems to know what the left hand is doing. In fact, there are times when the right hand seems not to know that there is a left hand.
In simple terms, what the Royal British Legion and other organisations that speak for the ex-service community want the Government to institute is a "single-door" policy that will provide ease of access to all Departments of State with which they now have to deal. They want not a new Secretary of State, but a co-ordinating Minister who, in my view, would not only make life easier for ex-service men and women and their dependants but save their organisations and the Government both time and money.
As war-disabled men and women and their dependants grow older—as the hon. Member for Macclesfied (Mr. Winterton) knows so well, the majority are now over retirement age—their needs multiply and their problems are compounded by avoidable delay. It must now be obvious to the Government that my early-day motion has not only comprehensive all-party support but, prospectively, majority support in this House. It deserves to be debated, and soon. I look forward to a positive response to both of the important issues that I have raised in this debate.
§ Mr. David Porter (Waveney)
The right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) has raised important issues that affect pensioners. I should like to go a little further.
With a new financial and tax year about to begin, and with a coming summer of wartime memories for so many of our older citizens who lived through that period, we have perhaps even more reason in this debate to remember the debt of gratitude that we owe to retired constituents. The oft-quoted saying that the health of our society can be judged by the way we treat our elderly is still very apt. Whatever hon. Members think about how elderly people are treated, we can all agree that some common fears of the elderly need to be addressed.
Clearly, many of them fear the prospect of not having enough money. Those who are just above income support 1036 level, those who perhaps had no opportunity to build up extra pensions or were prevented by war service from getting into personal pension schemes and those who have saved a little feel particularly vulnerable. Pensioner bonds, granny bonds, special rates for the elderly, and the fact that the home energy efficiency scheme and assistance with VAT on fuel have now been extended to all pensioners are all a great help, but for many the perception remains that they will or may run out of money.
Many people are told that pensioners do much better in Ireland, France or Germany. We can point out how difficult it is to make straight comparisons between pensioners in different countries, and we must ask questions about those countries compared with our own. Is the state pension normally a pensioner's only form of income? What health care entitlements and local social services do pensioners enjoy? What other social security benefits do they receive? What is the spending power of their income? Is the pension earnings-related or flat-rate? Is there provision for adult dependants? What is the qualifying age for receipt of an old age pension? On all those comparisons, British pensioners come out fairly well. At a time of rising life expectancy and health expectation, when the number of retired people is growing throughout Europe, we should take some pride in that fact, yet many still believe, or choose to believe, that they are the paupers of Europe.
The Government approach, rightly, has three strands—to increase the basic state pension in line with prices, to encourage private provision on top of it, and to focus extra help on the pensioners who need it most. Yet there is still often resentment on the part of many pensioners, and some go so far as to feel betrayed by today's society. To some extent that is a generational feeling, but it is fuelled by an understandable anger when they see people getting away with actions such as defrauding the social security system, attacking and robbing pensioners, and expecting and demanding everything, as so many people do.
We spend ever more on health care to satisfy the demands and expectations that we all have. We all want to live longer and better. We spend more on help with housing, with taxes and with residential care. That is all part of the system that we have built up over 40 years. People spend more, young and old alike, and they have ever more material possessions. Yet no matter how much we put into the system, it will never be enough. Medical inflation, advances in technology and public demand will always outstrip the taxpayer's ability to pay, so we are right to bite the bullet of some difficult dilemmas.
Questioning a common retirement age and fighting social security fraud are just two of the modest steps that we have taken so far. Even the Labour party is now saying, although not yet very loudly, that it may not necessarily be committed to raising pensions in line with prices or earnings every year. We have all come to realise that, if our gigantic health and social security budget is to be financed entirely out of taxes from business and from individuals in work, we are in effect taxing employment, and before long something will break under the increasing strain.
Any thinking about how to help the poorest pensioners in a more sustainable way is to be welcomed, and should be given proper public debate. If we all devote a little time to thinking that through in our constituencies in the short Easter recess, our time will have been well spent.
Pensioners have other fears, too. Both in our cities and in the rural areas, many fear loneliness and isolation. Scoff though many do at "back to basics" and basic family 1037 values, the fact remains that when grandparents were acknowledged as an integral part of families and communities in a less mobile, more rooted society, older people's fears were not so great as they are now.
Pensioners also fear immobility caused by lack of physical health, which is why hip replacements are now so popular. Today's hip replacements are often second or third replacements, because the previous replacement has been worn out.
Pensioners also have fears about transport. To be fair, most local authorities, and local organisations and voluntary groups such as DIAL, Help the Aged, Age Concern and so on, do incredibly effective work in combating that fear. There is also new bus technology, and attention is being focused on accessibility. All that needs encouraging. I suggest to my right hon. Friends in government that tax-friendly encouragement is the most effective method.
There is also a fear of lawlessness and of disrespect for law and order generally. The fear of walking the streets and the feeling that one is not safe in one's own home are real enough, even if they are not always borne out by the crime figures. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill will help, but for many people I fear that the decision of the House against capital punishment will not help.
Focusing the Government's policy attention on families, on the difficulties of older people in getting work, and on any age discrimination will also help, if it translates into positive action. We have a tremendous natural resource in our older people. Why do we not use it more for the benefit of everyone?
Older people share our fear of being strangled in red tape and bureaucracy. The deregulation initiative will help there, even if it is only like a finger in the dyke trying to hold back the North sea. People will welcome any reduction in health service bureaucracy and waste, including the abolition of some of the health authorities. However, they do not welcome that if it is done badly, as in my area, where Waveney is being split off from Great Yarmouth and we are being lumped in with Suffolk. Older people fear that they will not be able to use the local hospital, the James Paget hospital, because it is just over the border in Norfolk. Again, it was a well-intentioned move by the Government but it has backfired because they ignored local fears.
Many older people are fearful of what we seem to be doing—Front Benchers of all parties stand accused of this—in giving away our sovereignty for an unproved, often unwanted, European ideal which sees us as the losers almost every time while the Germans and others, whom many, of these older people gave the best years of their youth to fight, seem to be the winners almost every time. For many, that is galling beyond belief.
In case my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench are inclined to dismiss the power of the elderly as well as their fears, I would point out that they need to be carried with us. I quote from a Help the Aged document, "Speaking Up For Our Age", published last November for the European year of older people and solidarity between generations:For the record, the vote of the over 65s in the 1992 General Election split 49 per cent. Conservative, 31 per cent. Labour and 13 per cent. Liberal Democrat. On the evidence of specific manifesto pledges to older people, this is not the way one would have expected self-interested older people to vote. One must 1038 conclude that older voters are not self-interested.That is fair enough, but they are a powerful group. Let us recognise their fears and carry more of them with us as we move forward.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
I was tempted to rip up my speech, follow the line of the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) and look at some of the problems facing the European Community, but that can wait for another day. There are more urgent questions. Similarly, I was tempted to discuss the issues affecting many of the residents of the south-west now, this week.You, Madam Deputy Speaker, no doubt have had your postbag filled with letters from those whose water bills have gone up yet again by 12 per cent. and look to double by the end of the century, having already doubled.
However, I decided that at this juncture there is an issue which does not often receive a hearing in the House but which deserves our attention. As it happens, it links with the concern that a number of hon. Members have already expressed about the fears and anxieties of the elderly, but not exclusively so.
It may surprise hon. Members to hear that it is 30 years since I became a member of a police authority. Hon. Members may think that I was precocious or enjoyed a misspent youth, but I was particularly concerned with rural policing and having then become a member of the Devon and Cornwall police authority for some years and done other things, I have continued to take a considerable interest in policing in rural areas. It would be helpful if hon. Members had an opportunity to discuss these issues rather more often, but at least I can take the opportunity today to touch on some of those with which many of us are concerned.
There has been a rising tide of crime throughout the country, but it has been particularly evident in some areas which previously we thought were immune from it—notably the rural areas. Many rural communities feel that the Government have abandoned them in recent years. They feel that their problems have been ignored and that, instead, Ministers have come up with headline-grabbing stunts, hoping for short-term political advantage. From my youth in a small village in the west country, I am reminded that the most effective form of deterrence is the presence of a constable living in such a village.
We had in the village a policeman by the name of PC MacPherson who moved round at a fairly steady pace because, although he had a bicycle, he did not often ride it because his spaniel could not keep up. The key point to us of the generation who might be concerned about such matters was that one never knew where he was not. The effective presence of the police constable and of his wife, a member of the Women's Institute, his children at the local school—he was also a member of the cricket club—meant that every part of the community had an immediate relationship with the guardian of law and order. That has long since gone, and initiatives by some far-sighted chief constables—notably John Alderson whom you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I remember as a most effective chief constable in Devon and Cornwall—have, sadly, turned the clock back only a little way.
In the past few weeks I have not only talked to our present chief constable and to many other police officers about this; I have spoken to magistrates, probation officers, neighbourhood watch organisers and even a prison 1039 governor. These people, who know what they are talking about when it comes to preserving the peace and ensuring law and order, are the people who feel that "solutions" are being imposed on them. They feel that they are not being given an effective opportunity to contribute to the analysis of the problems. They are not being told what is happening, and they have only a minimal chance to influence the course of events.
Analysis of the figures shows that there are more crimes per head in rural police force areas than in urban ones, while rural police forces are undermanned and underfunded. To take just one example, in my own police division of North Cornwall we have experienced in the past 15 years—roughly the lifetime of the Government—a doubling of recorded crime, with a drop in the proportion cleared up. Yet during that period the Home Secretary has permitted only a 9 per cent. increase in the establishment of officers.
Police areas which are more than 50 per cent. rural have averaged a rise in establishment of only 92 officers between 1982 and 1992, while in the most urban—with 25 per cent. or less of rural parishes—the rise in the number of officers has averaged some 300. That is not as a result of the crime figures, which point in the opposite direction: the threat of crime in rural communities is higher. With fewer police per head and those police spreading their work over much wider areas, people living in rural areas are evidently more at risk.
I have some more figures. In your area and mine, Madam Deputy Speaker—Devon and Cornwall—we have one policeman for every 516 people. In Hampshire, the proportion is even worse, with one per 522 people. Compare that with Merseyside, where it is one per 306 people, and with metropolitan London, where it is one per 258 people.
Moreover, the logistics is more difficult in a scattered rural area and it is harder for the police to get around at speed. The present restrictions on petrol and on the use of cars must be lifted. The effects of the budgetary constraints are patently absurd. Avon and Somerset police authority has had to limit its squad cars to 35 miles travel in one shift. What they do in a sudden emergency, I hate to think. There is thus a vicious circle: scattered population, less easy to police effectively, fewer officers, reduced mobility, less effective policing. It is a major cause of the increase in crime in the more rural areas of Great Britain.
I give two other examples, Gloucestershire and Cambridgeshire, both required to protect important people. In the case of Gloucestershire it is the royal family; in Cambridgeshire it is the Prime Minister. Yet Gloucestershire receives no compensation for the resources which have to be diverted to that task, and Cambridgeshire actually loses 2 per cent. of its manpower permanently for the protection of the Prime Minister, without any compensation. The Prime Minister's police area, Cambridgeshire, is a good example of the problems that rural areas face. It has one officer for every 540 people, fewer officers per head than any other force, while having the third highest rise in recorded offences—almost 80 per cent.—since 1989.
People in Nottinghamshire are more likely to be victims of crime than in any other part of the country. Rural areas such as Avon and Somerset have seen crime increase by 75 per cent. in the lifetime of the Government. People in Humberside are among the most likely in Britain to be the 1040 victims of violent crime; yet when their chief constable asked for 13 more police officers—a modest request—to tackle the crime rate, he was given none.
The Home Secretary continues to fudge the true test of his commitment to more effective policing of rural areas by refusing time and again to increase the number of officers to that which the chief constables accept as operationally required. The figures show that the rural forces have been left behind in terms of meeting their operational requirements.
On the Home Office formula, the Hampshire force should be increased by a further 223 officers. Last year, not unreasonably, the chief constable, using the Home Office figures, asked for an additional 200 officers. How many did he receive? Zero.
At the Christchurch by-election we Liberal Democrats were castigated for our profligacy in daring to suggest that the Dorset chief constable should receive 97 additional officers because he had identified them as necessary to his operational requirements, to meet the needs of the Dorset community. Later last year, the Home Secretary wrote:we simply cannot approve every request for more officers which is madeby chief constables, andit is of paramount importance that we maintain controls on public expenditure.How much was the threatened increase in public expenditure? What was the huge amount that was threatened? According to the Conservative party research department, it was some £55 million—an interesting figure, as it is precisely equivalent to £1 per head of population in the United Kingdom. I wonder how many people would think that that was a price worth paying.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
I have been following the hon. Gentleman's contrast between the problem in rural areas and the problem in urban areas. I am sure that he will agree that the absolute levels of crime are higher in urban areas. I imagine that he is not suggesting a shift of policing from the urban to the rural areas. He has just stated his spending demands. His party has made spending demands for education, social security, health and many other areas. Has he squared all that with the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)?
§ Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)
Will the hon. Gentleman treat the House to the conclusions that he has drawn from his consideration of policing in Northumbria?
§ Mr. Tyler
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, although it has put me off the tack. I was demonstrating that the cost of prevention is smaller than the cost of building all the prisons and other institutions that the Home Secretary seeks to impose on Britain.
The conclusion in Northumbria—I have the figures here—is that the rural areas show a dramatic increase in all types of crime. While I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) that historically the urban areas have high levels of crime in real terms, we are fast catching up, as he will know from his own 1041 constituency. That is also true of the rural areas of Northumbria. There is no longer any great divide between urban and rural areas.
§ Mr. Tyler
No, I will not give way again. Some hon. Members will have seen recently that the problem of drugs and drug-related crime has come to the rural areas, where 10 years ago drugs simply were not a factor. I accept that other hon. Members may not have had that experience, but those of us who have followed the police authorities' work over the years have to accept that serious crime is no longer confined to the urban areas but has spread to all parts of the community.
The Government pulled a rather gimmicky answer to rural crime out of the hat at their party conference—the idea of bringing back parish constables on the 18th-century model—and I do not deny that there may be some virtues in that scheme. However, it would be a disaster if the idea were used as an excuse for keeping the regular forces below the required establishment and struggling to make ends meet. It would be even more of a disaster if it were used as a cut-price alibi for not investing properly in rural policing.
In many parts of the country—other hon. Members will have the same experience—we have an excellent tradition of voluntary support given to the regulars by the special constables. It would be most unfortunate if the new gimmick were used as an excuse to divert attention from the good special constabulary from which we have benefited in all parts of rural Britain and, indeed, in urban areas. With their proper training and their dedication under oath, they have given a great service to the community and should continue to do so. In some parts of rural Britain, policing simply would not be effective without special constables. Again, I can instance rural parts of Hampshire, where the use of conspicuous patrol cars has substantially reduced the rate of burglaries. What is so special about that is that it relies on the special constables who are an integral part of the scheme.
I know that some theorists believe that all the problems will be solved by simply locking up or threatening to lock up more people, but the practical experience of people involved in policing throughout the country is that the theorists are sorely mistaken. There is no such simple magic-wand answer. People are afraid of crime and of the fear of crime. The answer to that is more bobbies on the beat deterring criminals as well as renewing confidence in the community. That is not a simple solution either, as the Audit Commission has made clear, and it is not the whole answer. Yet trying to operate well below the establishment that the chief constable knows to be necessary clearly reduces the effectiveness of every department of every police force.
Between 1982 and 1992 the crime rate rose twice as fast in the most rural forces as in the city areas. That is a simple fact which I draw to the attention of Conservative Members, especially the hon. Member for Taunton. I know that he shares my concern. Meanwhile, the officer-public ratio is 30 per cent. worse in rural areas despite the difference in convenience in terms of policing logistics.
1042 There is also a problem on the fringe of some city areas. The constabulary often has to pull out of rural areas for specific events or big problems in the town centre. The Bitten division of the Hampshire constabulary is controlled from central Southampton, so the outlying rural areas around Hedge End and West End have seen officers sucked into central Southampton to deal with specific problems. At those times, the chief constable has little room for manoeuvre if incidents occur in the more rural areas. If the shortfalls are not corrected, the trend towards less crime prevention, a lower clear-up rate and ineffective crime deterrence will accelerate.
Crime and fear of crime in the countryside are a serious problem not only for the elderly, to whom the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Porter) referred, but for all of us. It deserves realistic resources, not just rhetoric. It may have been a shock to some Conservative Members to read the public opinion poll this week which showed that the Conservative party was no longer believed to have effective policies on crime. That is a direct result of some of the problems that have occurred in the more rural areas and the failure of the Home Office to provide the resources that we need.
On one side, we have the forces of dogma, myth and ideology drawn from the ranks of the theorists. On the other side are the forces of professionalism and practicality drawn from the ranks of the police, some of the Home Office advisers and those who understand what is happening in the rural areas. It is no surprise to find that the more realistic former Home Secretaries such as Lord Whitelaw are in our camp.
So where does that leave the present incumbent? Anyone who has ever admired that extraordinary architectural edifice the Home Office will know that it is a badly designed ivory tower. I hope that, during the Easter recess, the Home Secretary will come down from his tower. I hope that he will have time, if there is an Easter recess after this debate, to hear for himself from people in the countryside who are trying to cope with the rising tide of crime.
§ Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)
I want to take the opportunity of this Easter Adjournment debate to thank my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for his firm stand in Brussels on the allocation of votes in the matter of the enlargement of the European Union. Other have done so and I know that others will also do so in the debates that follow this one. I wish him well when he defends Britain's best interests again on Tuesday and holds firmly to his position, as he has stated he has every intention of doing.
This is a vital issue and the pressures to weaken—placed on him by the European Commission, France, Germany, other of our community partners and the Foreign Office—will be so great that he will need not only his good judgment but the knowledge that he has the support of most hon. Members, Labour as well as Conservative. He has the support not only of those of us who were sceptical about the Maastricht treaty and the assurances that it was not a step on the road to the federal super-state—which only the Euro-fanatics and the Liberal Democrats want—but of a considerable body of his supporters and admirers who voted for the Maastricht treaty believing that it would not lead to a supranational European federal state. 1043 Those people were reassured daily that the powers of the Westminster Parliament would not be further undermined by concessions on the veto or on qualified majority voting. Those Conservative Members who trooped loyally through the Lobby in support of the Maastricht treaty knew very well that the overwhelming majority of people who sent them to Westminster had no wish to see Parliament's powers further surrendered to an unelected bureaucracy in Brussels, or even to a European Parliament, over which we in Britain have no control and only very little influence.
I know that my right hon. Friends the Leader of the House and the Foreign Secretary agree that theprinciple is, and will remain, a simple one. Where we can work together as Europeans, we do so; where we cannot work together, for lack of agreement or where there is no need to do so, we are free to go our own way."—[Official Report, 30 March 1993; Vol. 222, c 170.]I know that my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Leader of the House will acknowledge thatno United Kingdom Government of any political colour would agree to matters that we would regard as being of great consequence or which had a significant effect on our national interest being decided by qualified majority voting."—[Official Report, 4 May 1993; Vol. 224, c. 144.]I know that my right hon. Friend would give that commitment on behalf of the Government.
I know, too, that my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Leader of the House will agree thatthe Maastricht treaty marked the point at which, for the first time, we began to reverse the centralising trend, and moved decision-taking back towards the member state in matters where Community law need not, and should not apply.I know, too, that that my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Leader of the House would want qualified majority voting on foreign policy issues to be permittedonly if all member states agreed by unanimity in advance. That is a double lock".—[Official Report, 19 December 1991; Vol. 201, c. 489.]On such issuesit simply would not be appropriate or suitable, and we would not agree to it. The circumstances in which qualified majority voting can be used are set out in the treaty. There is no suggestion that it should be applied".—[Official Report, 19 November 1993; Vol. 233, c. 119.]It was not suggested that it should be applied to foreign policy issues. I know that my right hon. Friends will agree to those statements because they are the statements that they themselves and others of my right hon. and hon. Friends the Ministers have made. They are only some of the assurances given to the House by my right hon. Friends as we debated those vital matters in recent months.
I respectfully remind my right hon. Friends in the Government of what they have said and of the assurances that they have repeatedly given to this House, because do not believe for one moment that they will want to eat their words. They will not want to go back on them or to betray their intention to resist further moves to weaken Parliament's sovereignty.
When my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary goes into battle on Tuesday, he needs to know that, in honouring the Government's assurances—that there will be no extension of majority voting to other matters or weakening of the extent to which we have already accepted majority voting—he will have the support not only of the Conservative sceptics but the Conservatives who followed him nightly into the Maastricht Lobby. He may also have 1044 the support of much of the Labour party. He will certainly have the support of the overwhelming majority of people who sent us to this place.
§ 5.4 pm
§ Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)
I want to raise the subject of coach safety and seat belts. I expect that all hon. Members can recall the accidents last year involving coaches and the sad loss of life that followed. At that time, statements were made by Ministers and the Department of Transport. They commented on coach safety rules in this country and in Europe. I am sure that many hon. Members will remember the calls made at the time for much tighter controls on safety regulations and, in particular, for the compulsory fitting and wearing of seat belts.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House tabled early-day motions on the subject—it in no way became a political issue. The early-day motions—one of which was signed by more than 60 Members, including myself—referred to the injuries that occur each year in the United Kingdom. Some 4,000 passengers in coaches suffer injuries following collisions. Dangers face young children when they use minibuses or school transport.
Passengers were seriously injured in those road and coach accidents, although, thankfully, they were not killed. An interesting report published by the Consumers Association showed that 12 per cent. of coach deaths could have been avoided if the people involved in those tragedies had been wearing seat belts. I and other hon. Members, including yourself, Madam Deputy Speaker, can doubtless recall our long discussions in years gone by on the compulsory wearing of seat belts in motor cars. There was great opposition to that, but I do not think that anyone would now dispute that the fact that car drivers and passengers are required to wear seat belts has saved a great many lives.
I raise the subject because we are approaching the spring and summer, when hundreds, possibly thousands, of coaches will come on to our roads, many from European countries. They will carry many thousands of passengers each week. A few months ago, following the tragic coach accidents to which I referred, we heard from the Department of Transport, but, since then, we have heard very little about coach safety or about seat belts. I am not saying that nothing is being done, but I should like to know, as would other hon. Members, exactly what is being done.
A constituent of mine was very badly injured in a coach accident and, two years later, is still critically ill. His family have left me in no doubt that he firmly believes that, if he had been wearing a seat belt in the coach, his injuries could have been prevented.
I have done some research, following my constituent's sad experiences. Two special types of seat belt could be used. First, there is a seat belt that is similar to the type that are used in aircraft, with which we are all familiar. Secondly, there is a seat belt that is similar to the type that are used in motor cars. However, I am told that each type of belt presents its own problems.
The type of belt that we are used to wearing when we travel in aircraft—one receives instructions to ensure that seat belts are fastened—would not be suitable in a coach because, sadly, most of the injuries that passengers suffer in coach accidents are to the spine or the head. That often results in brain damage.
1045 The problem with the other type of belt, similar to the type that are used in motor cars, is the fitting of such a belt to an anchor point in the coach, because the present flooring of modern coaches is not strong enough for that anchor point to be installed. I, other Members and the general public would like to know the Government's thinking on that issue, because it leads to another problem. It would add substantially to the weight of coaches to fit the flooring to which that type of belt could be anchored.
In the past few days, I have asked a number of questions about bridge safety. I am told that there are weight restrictions on about 60 bridges in the United Kingdom. I will not go into detail, but coaches in Europe are heavier than coaches generally in the United Kingdom and, as a result of the age and structure of many bridges in this country, certain coaches, because of their weight, are not allowed to use those bridges. Therefore, the anchor point for what is generally suggested by experts—the car-type seat belt—would place additional weight on the coach, which in turn would not allow them to use certain bridges in many parts of the country.
I realise that hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to take part in this short debate so I will only make two more points. The first is about cost. We are aware that substantial costs will be involved. It would be interesting to hear from the Department of Transport, which is responsible for those proposals for improving coach safety and seat belt regulations, who will help to pay the costs. Will it be the Government? Will it be local authorities?
I refer to local authorities especially with regard to school transport, because I understand that there are special problems with school transport. For example, would each youngster travelling in a minibus or school coach be required to wear a seat belt? That, I am told, could result in considerable expenditure. Having said that, I do not think that anyone disputes the urgent necessity for that issue to be considered in detail.
I conclude, largely echoing my opening comments, that last year there were tragic accidents, both for adults and, sadly, for a group of young people, in minibuses. I am sure that we all want progress in that area, but we have had no statement for a considerable time. Indeed, we have had no debate in the House on that issue. I do not expect the Leader of the House to be able to reply to my comments today, but I feel that I have a right to make them.
I hope that, in the near future, a Minister from the Department of Transport will make a detailed statement on coach safety and seat belt regulations. Members of the House, many organisations who are involved with consumer affairs or car manufacture and, I am sure, the general public would like to hear a statement from the Government about their thinking on those issues.
§ Mr. David Amess (Basildon)
Before the House adjourns for the Easter recess, I wish to make four brief points.
The first point concerns hospital radio. I have the honour to be the unpaid parliamentary spokesman for hospital radio broadcasting. Hospital radio has been trying to obtain its own frequency for a long time. As hon. Members know, it is the largest voluntary organisation in the country without paid workers.
1046 Recently, the Radio Authority issued a consultative document entitled "The future use of 105–108 MHz." Comments on that document have to reach the Radio Authority by 22 April. All hon. Members have been written to on that subject and I am delighted to say that there has been a large response. It is a crucial opportunity for hospital radio to secure its own frequency. I hope that hon. Members will encourage Major-General Baldwin, chief executive of the Radio Authority, to choose option C. That offers a new network lattice of services. It is vital to hospital radio for radio stations to be allowed up to 10 km on FM.
The second point that I wish to raise is the Fenchurch Street line. It must now be about two years since I and other Essex colleagues made a disastrous journey on the Fenchurch Street line with the present chairman of British Rail. His manner and his response to hon. Members on that occasion was little short of a disgrace. Since that time, I and others have felt strongly that the Fenchurch Street line should be privatised. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be able to tell me when the announcement will be made about the privatisation of the Fenchurch Street line.
It is a great discourtesy to all hon. Members affected by the line—I have three railway stations in my constituency: Pitsea, Basildon and Laindon—that we were given no notice that Fenchurch Street station would be closed for seven weeks in the summer for engineering work. It seems to be a coincidence that the closure would take place in July, when the House will be in recess. No hon. Members were written to; no meeting was sought.
I happen to have to hand a customer newsletter, in which I am told:We know this work will cause severe disruption for many of our customers, and we have looked at other options.Severe disruption? The railway station will be closed for seven weeks. Some of my constituents have been told, "Take your holidays." I do not know how employers will judge their employees if they go on holiday for seven weeks.
All hon. Members who favour the privatisation of the Fenchurch Street line well understand that heavy engineering work has to be conducted, but we do not understand the cavalier attitude of British Rail and its great discourtesy in not consulting Members of Parliament about the difficulties that will confront their constituents in those seven weeks. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will convey my anger, and that of other Essex Members of Parliament, to the chairman of British Rail.
My third point concerns Essex county council. I and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House have the tragedy of sharing the consequences of the incompetence of the rotten, socialist Essex county council. The county council is a love affair between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats. They are disastrously engaging in power sharing. There is no area in which we have felt their wrath as much as in education.
I had the privilege of participating in an Adjournment debate with my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale), who touched on the matter of Hockerill comprehensive boarding school. Forty children from my constituency attend that school. The school wishes to become grant-maintained, but wicked Essex county council proposes to phase out the existing 1047 boarding subsidy without giving transitional support, for which there is a precedent, if the grant-maintained application is successful.
Wonderful Barstable school in my constituency is a grant-maintained school. There are a number of outstanding insurance claims which were incurred when the school was under Essex county council. The council is now wickedly passing the buck to the grant-maintained school.
Chowdhary school in my constituency is a wonderful school, which is attended by 107 pupils. It offers a unique type of education which many parents in my constituency very much believe suits their children. Again, Essex county council—Labour and the Liberal Democrats together—is considering closing this school. Yet the chairman of the governors, who stood as a Liberal Democrat candidate against one of my Conservative county councillors—I am pleased to say that he was defeated—is campaigning to save the school, although it is Essex county council, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats working together, which wants to close the school. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will reflect on that.
Wonderful Lee Chapel South primary school in my constituency has now suffered the removal of the lollipop lady. Parents are. rightly outraged at this, which is a matter for Essex county council and the police. This Monday, I acted as the lollipop man. If I have time in future, I shall join other parents protesting outside the school and asking that the lollipop person be restored.
My fourth point concerns sex selection. Last February, I introduced a ten-minute Bill which would have prohibited sex selection. A number of feminist Members of Parliament opposed the Bill and it was defeated by 18 votes. If we are to believe newspaper comments, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) has said—I do not know whether he was quoted accurately—that he is not in favour of sex selection.
This morning, I took part in a television programme, which was the first opportunity for me to debate the matter with the owner of the grubby little sex selection clinic in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst). The owner of the clinic had the gall to say that the people who use his services sign a piece of paper agreeing that, if the wrong implantation is made, they will not be allowed an abortion. Emotively, a number of people who were receiving the treatment were present with him in the television studio.
What the clinic owner does not tell the people who are receiving the treatment is that it costs £650 on the first occasion, another £450 on the second occasion and more on subsequent occasions. This is the worst kind of commercialism. I believe that the overwhelming majority of people are against the principle of purchasing the sex of one's child. Above all, the nonsense of the practice is that the clinic itself claims only a 50 per cent. success rate. Is the man mad? There is a 50 per cent. chance of having a boy or girl, regardless.
I hope that every child, regardless of sex, is loved. The overwhelming majority of people, when they experience the joy of a new life, are not bothered about the sex of the child as long as it is healthy. I very much hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will reflect carefully on my correspondence with Department of Health Ministers on the subject and on the response given to me after my ten-minute Bill.
1048 I was told by hon. Members that I should not have had the arrogance to introduce the Bill, but that I should have waited for the report from the committee considering the matter. I have waited. The committee reported that it certainly would not license the practice in its own clinics. When the managers of the British Medical Association said that they were in favour of the practice, their members came out against it. The Labour party spokesman on health, the hon. Member for Brightside, is against it. The BMA is against it and the committee is against it. What do my Government intend to do?
§ Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)
On 15 December 1993, after long deliberations, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach of the Irish Republic, Mr. Reynolds, signed the Downing street declaration. They predicted that it was the basis on which the two Governments would be able to initiate a peace process. Mr. Reynolds went further when he declared that he would not sign the document unless he had confidence that it would achieve acceptance by the IRA and deliver a cessation of violence by Christmas.
The great suspicion among the Unionist community, based on years of experience, is that anything to which the Republic puts its hand in respect of Northern Ireland is frequently devious and intended to undermine. That is a sad and unfortunate reality, which is not always recognised on this side of the Irish sea. Yet for us to have decided summarily to reject the declaration would without doubt have been judged harshly in the House. It would have been claimed that we had thwarted the opportunity to provide the IRA with the means to move from violence to democracy.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, I make it clear that neither I nor the party that I represent has even the slightest obligation to let the IRA off the hook, but we recognise our responsibility to 90 per cent. or thereabouts of our community who have a real desire for peace. That community, of course, has for the past 25 years made it clear that it cannot be peace at any price. The Government must be no less resolute, assiduous and honourable on that point.
If the declaration had succeeded, that would have been fine. Ulster Unionists, unlike another Unionist party, do not require the community to be kept in fear and trepidation to provide it with a raison d'être. Scaremongering to build up European election credibility is hardly going to save Ulster. What was necessary was that Ulster Unionists should carefully monitor the process, ensuring that what had been agreed was not given a new interpretation to accommodate those who were able to bring violence into the equation. After 25 years, we knew the IRA well enough to believe that the declaration would self-destruct under the pressure that it would bring to bear.
There is a major aspect of the declaration to which Ulster Unionists take serious exception, which is the totally unjustified assumption that, some day, the people of Northern Ireland will inevitably wish to become part of a united Ireland. The assumption is fundamentally incorrect, both now and for the foreseeable future. That is not Ulster Unionist intransigence, but the freely expressed will of the people of Northern Ireland. It is not a sectarian issue as those who glibly cite demographic trends would wish us to believe. Right across the community, there is a large 1049 majority who, whatever they may presently consider to be Northern Ireland's shortcomings, have no aspiration to achieve a united Ireland. There is no popular demand for Dublin rule.
Despite its fears and past betrayals, the Unionist community would do nothing to frustrate the Government in their efforts to bring violence to an end, but the harsh reality is that the Downing street declaration has been rejected by Gerry Adams and his Irish Republican Army. We warned that that was so in early January, again when Adams went to the United States, and at the time of the Sinn Fein conference. Do we need to say it again? It does not matter now whether the declaration was a good idea. It was killed off by the Provos before the end of last December.
So where do we go from here? Absolutely nothing has emanated from the Provisional IRA to suggest that it is war weary. It still has more than 100 tonnes of Gadaffi weaponry in hides, mainly in the Irish Republic. While that is so and the Government permit the command and control structure of the organisation to remain intact, cannon fodder will always be available among the misguided youth. That harsh fact must be addressed.
Bluntly, there is no future in pandering to the IRA. We have all taken political risks in trying to point it down the road to political sanity, but without success. We cannot afford to waste the lives that have been snuffed out and the bodies and minds that it has broken. Nor can we offer any further sacrifice to its madness in the hope that those evil people will be redeemed.
So where else can we look for support in the battle against the men of violence? Anyone who took part in the 1992 Brookes-Mayhew process will remember the negative contribution of the Irish Republic's delegation, and will have reached the conclusion that there is virtually no scope for any Government from the Republic to enter serious negotiations with Ulster Unionists. They are constrained by their inability to live with the political reality of the 1990s and to move out of the myths of the past.
While there is no doubt that the men from Leinster house talk a good game and that those in the present coalition see themselves as being the strongest Government in the history of the state, one has only to recall what happened to Albert Reynolds at the Fianna Fail annual conference last year. When he was seen to question the worth of the so-called "Adams-Hume initiative", the backwoodsmen of his party rallied against him and we had a demonstration of the power of hard and implacable republicanism. Whether Albert Reynolds has the ability to differentiate between one part of his anatomy and another, he can recognise his Achilles heel.
Perhaps that is the reason for Dublin's inability to cope with the political reality of what Ulster Unionism means. There appears to be a belief, even among the more enlightened elements such as one might associate with Mr. Spring's Irish Labour party, that it is necessary continually to appeal for Unionists to talk. One never quite knows whether that is intended to create an aura of goodwill for Great British consumption or an impression that the Unionists are impeding progress. In 1992, Ulster Unionists did everything in their power to get the Dublin Government to talk and found that they had nothing to say.
1050 Even when we went to Dublin and tried to deal with issues that we thought may have been on their agenda, the Dublin team proved to be politically impotent. For example, Ulster Unionists tabled an outline for a Bill of Rights. That detailed document was promptly ignored by the Irish. We later tabled a paper that addressed in practical terms the possible grounds on which a north-south relationship could be developed. The Irish delegation did not even want to discuss that, either. On the advice of his Department for Foreign Affairs, whose officials hated every minute which they had to spend outside their comfortable little world of Iveagh house in St. Stephens green, Mr. Reynolds could do nothing other than rush his team back home and bring the process to an abrupt end.
Mr. Reynold's only reason for closing the door on those talks in which we had invested so much time and effort was that he felt that he should have a conference under the aegis of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. I challenge anyone to examine the subject matter and importance of that conference to see whether any issue discussed was so significant that it merited the deliberate destruction by the Irish of the 1992 talks process.
It is time for the Government and, equally important, Her Majesty's official Opposition, to send a clear signal to the Irish that they are both openly committed to the democratic process in Northern Ireland and that, while it would be a welcome bonus to have the genuine friendship of a neighbouring country, it cannot be constructed on the basis of megaphone diplomacy or the variable activity that often articulates co-operation but seldom produces the goods.
For example, the Government of the Irish Republic have had more than eight years since the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement to sort out their extradition procedures, but have singularly failed to do so. They knew of the flaws in legislation that they introduced several years ago but failed to do anything about it at the time. Now we are told that the problem has been resolved but that resolution is yet to be implemented. I stress that there will be no satisfactory extradition while the Irish constitution continues to incorporate the irredentist territorial claim enshrined in articles 2 and 3-mark my words well.
The idea that, by constantly whittling at our democratic rights, the IRA, the Irish Republic or anyone else will pare aware the resolve of the people of Northern Ireland to determine their own future is a folly. Ulster Unionists are not in the business of violence; we are neither half-hearted Unionists nor half-Unionists like the Democratic Unionist party, which toys with the idea of some sort of Ulster independence but which weakens Ulster's case by hollow rhetoric. By tradition and through the ballot box, we will maintain the British tradition of accountable democracy. I urge the House not to cast aside lightly that honourable objective.
The adage adopted in the 1992 talks that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" defines a foolish and elusive objective, as it sacrifices things that may be worth while now in favour of some utopia at the end of the rainbow. It asks, "How long is a piece of string?", and only a fool would hazard a guess. It is linked to that other cliché about three-stranded talks, which is another good way to create a vacuum rather than make progress.
Strand one is about the internal administration of Northern Ireland—that accountable democracy to which I 1051 referred earlier. It cannot be delayed to suit the mercurial disposition of outsiders. It is wrong to condemn Northern Ireland to a state of limbo. Let us get on with it.
Strand two 'was about relationships between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, but that was where we found a total lack of reality. The Republic adopted the attitude, "We must talk first about what we nationalists want and, if we can agree that, we might—just might—talk about what Unionists want." In effect, that simply means talking about one thing: more. It is open-ended and destructive. Ulster Unionists have talked, can talk and will talk to anyone operating within the normal democratic process, but we might reasonably ask for some indication that there is a serious agenda, not just an intention to increase the aggravation.
Strand three is about the relationship between the two sovereign Governments. As the Prime Minister has been known to say in this House, that is not a matter for me. Ulster Unionists cannot dictate to whom Her Majesty's Government will talk. We can, however, caution that nothing can be agreed which would ignore the rights of the people of Northern Ireland. Only once democratic principles prevail and Governments meet their obligations to eradicate terrorism can we hope to make progress. Ulster Unionists will certainly not be found wanting.
§ Mr. Michael Bates (Langbaurgh)
I believe that the House should not adjourn for Easter until it has discussed a matter of vital importance to my constituents. For this Parliament, which believes in free speech and in freedom of association, there can be few more repugnant sights than institutionalised apartheid. That is why we—rightly—took stringent measures against South Africa, where people were not prepared to play sports with other people because of the colour of their skin or because of their background. We repudiated that idea absolutely.
Yet it is with regret that I must report to the House that a system of apartheid is alive and well and living in Cleveland, where there is discrimination not on the ground of the colour of someone's skin but because of the colour of a person's school tie.
Macmillan city technology college serves the area of Middlesbrough and it has brought opportunity to many in that area. Its football team, reported the Darlington and Stockton Times this week, is about to win the Middlesbrough cup—without playing a single game. That is because it is the only team playing in the competition; no other school was prepared to play football with the CTC team—not because of any argument, not because of incapacity, not because there were no football teams, but simply because this is a city technology college. So the LEA schools have refused to take part in sports with it.
This is the worst sort of apartheid, because it plays politics with children. Those who took this decision are not the children or the football teams: these children probably live next door to each other. The fault lies with the sports teachers, the head teachers, the unions, the local education authorities, all of whom are backing this system of apartheid.
At one point we were told that the apartheid had stopped. On 21 May 1991, my predecessor, Richard Holt—a doughty fighter for my constituency if ever there was one—took up the issue in the Chamber, saying:When my hon. Friend"—referring to the Minister for Sport— 1052leaves the Chamber, will he pick up a telephone and ring the chairman of the Sports Council and tell him that he will not pay one penny piece to Cleveland county council until my constituent, Mr. J.G. Campbell, and his son are treated fairly? The boy, who is a captain of the Middlesbrough football schools XI, has been denied the opportunity to continue to represent his home town and possibly to go on to greater things in football because the mean, vindictive and spiteful Cleveland county council will not recognise the Macmillan city technology college for the excellent place that it is."—[Official Report, 21 May 1991; Vol. 191, c. 772]Sadly, Richard Holt died soon afterwards, but in the ensuing by-election the issue was very much to the fore. Quite rightly, the parents of the children concerned and the press expressed their worries about the discrimination against a schoolboy whose only sin was that he wanted to play football for his town but was not allowed to.
Miraculously, during the by-election, there was a change of heart in the Labour party—perhaps it found the heat a little too much to bear. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), the then education spokesman of the Labour party, arrived in the constituency in November 1991 to declare that he condemned this type of activity and discrimination. As a result, Cleveland county council apparently experienced a Damascus road conversion and the city technology college was allowed to join the Middlesbrough schools football association. The discrimination was supposed to end there, and the council took all the credit in the press for this change of mind. It claimed to have backed down on humanitarian grounds.
On 21 November 1991 my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Mr. Devlin), who takes a close interest in this matter, tabled an early-day motion in these terms:This House notes with considerable satisfaction the decision by Cleveland schools sports council to reverse its mean and vindictive ban on participation in county sport by Macmillan college, Middlesbrough; further notes that this will enable the school to take on its neighbours in competitive sport and will enable talented youngsters to play sport for their town; further notes that this change of heart has only come about because of the embarrassment of the national Labour party in the Langbaurgh by election when they had previously regarded the matter with indifference, in spite of a Langbaurgh child being banned from playing for Middlesbrough; regrets that the school sports council made their recent decision only after great pressure from parents, the local press and hon. Members of this House; and further regrets that Richard Holt is not still alive to see this end to victimisation take place.Unfortunately, it has not ended, as the press reports have made clear. The CTC is allowed to be part of the schools football association, but the unions, the head teachers and the governors are preventing the football teams from taking part in competitive sport with the children from Macmillan.
The Secretary of State for Education condemned Cleveland in the House for condoning this type of discrimination. That sparked immediate outrage and denials that any discrimination was going on. The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) felt moved to action, in the form of early-day motion 808, tabled on 10 March, just a week ago. It condemns the Secretary of State for Education for daring to suggest that a disgraceful form of educational apartheid exists in Cleveland. Little did the hon. Gentleman know that the policy continues, and that the people who are losing out are the children.
What sort of prejudices must be growing in the minds of the children in these schools? What will they grow up thinking when they find that they cannot play football with a CTC just because it is a CTC? It is all very strange. These people will have to answer for themselves.
1053 There is, however, something that we can do in this House. The Labour education spokesman—or perhaps today the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) on her behalf—can join me, as her predecessor did, in condemning this discrimination against young people. That is not to say that we cannot debate education policy in this House: that is only right and proper. We can debate CTCs, grant-maintained schools and so on, but the place to debate them is on the political field, not on the football field. The sooner that message is rammed home among the people blocking this sort of sporting activity in Cleveland, the better for everyone.
The strangest thing of all is that the chairman of Cleveland county local education authority committee, Councillor Legg, claims that he was not aware of the system of apartheid or that games could not be played by LEA schools against Macmillan CTC. He did say, however, that it was understandable that a team should not play another team, even though they both belonged to the same association, simply because of the colour of a school tie.
It is even more ironic that Cleveland county council's headed paper states that Cleveland county council is an equal opportunities employer. There are equal opportunities policies coming out of their ears, but what about equal opportunities for children who want to play football? Those children are not at a private school, but at a state school. Their parents are not council tax payers in a distant part of the country; they are council tax payers in Cleveland and they deserve equality. Cleveland county council should be ashamed of itself for daring to endorse that discrimination and prejudice against Macmillan city technology college.
We also need to bear in mind the legality of one school refusing to play football with another, not on the ground that it is not affiliated to a football association such as the Middlesborough Schools Football Association or the English Football Association but simply because it is a CTC. If one English FA-affiliated school refuses to play another, surely that casts doubt on the relevance of that association. If it cannot ensure free competition and fair play between its members, what is the point of having it? What can the football associations do about it?
There are some clear challenges here. The first is to Cleveland county council—the equal opportunities employer—to practise a bit of equal opportunity in relation to Macmillan city technology college. The second challenge is to the Labour party to confirm that it still condemns such discrimination on the sports field. Labour Members may, if they wish, continue to argue and debate the policy in this place, but they should condemn using children as political pawns.
There is a challenge to the English Schools Football Association. What can it do if one member refuses to take part in sport with another? Surely that raises a question which needs to be answered.
Above all, our thoughts should go out not just to the pupils and teachers of Macmillan city technology college who want to play sport and who are not prejudiced against other schools; they should also go out to the children at schools in my constituency and others in Cleveland county council who want to play football irrespective of people's background, the colour of their skin or the colour of their 1054 tie. Those children want to play sport because sport is a good thing. It should not matter where people are from, what their background is or where they go to school. Democracy should be found on the sports fields of England.
§ Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)
That was one of the least convincing speeches I have ever heard from a party synonymous with selection, protection and isolation. I wonder just how many private schools play football with local schools. I spent my youth travelling around the wilds of Lincolnshire looking for other grammar schools to play against because the local secondary modern schools, which were also local authority schools, were not deemed fit to play.
§ Mr. Worthington
No. It is traditional to mention the speech of the previous speaker.
I should like to use this valuable debate to ask the Leader of the House to find time before the Easter Adjournment to take notice of early-day motion 653, which has already attracted 187 signatures. It concerns the Government's closure after 1996 of the Commonwealth Institute. I ask the Leader of the House and the Government to reconsider.
This is exactly the wrong time to send out a message that the Commonwealth does not matter. In a world where there is too much racism and ethnic cleansing in many places, it is the wrong time for the Government to withdraw from an important Commonwealth institution—the Commonwealth Institute.
We should be building up the Commonwealth and its symbolism of multi-racialism. It is a largely democratic institution in 50 countries. One of the major divisive influences on the Commonwealth during the Thatcher years—South Africa—is changing. We hope that, after successful elections in South Africa on 27 April, the new South African Government will want to apply to join the Commonwealth, as Namibia did a few years ago.
I find it difficult to understand why so many of us who support the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association are not agitated by the Government's proposal to close the Commonwealth Institute in 1996. There has been a firm commitment and statement by the Government that they will withdraw the funding of £2.6 million—equivalent to expenditure on a secondary school—in 1996.
Closing down the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington will also close the Commonwealth Institute in Scotland and the regional centre in Bradford.
The Government expect that private funds will be forthcoming after the privatisation of the Commonwealth Institute, but Lord Armstrong, who they commissioned to carry out a review of the Commonwealth Institute, concluded:I can see no reason to suppose that a private sector body could be found to take on the work of the Institute as it now is and in its present building without a Government grant".The Government are showing a lack of commitment to multiracial values. It is a pity that, after what was probably the most positive Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting for years in Cyprus last year, where the right words were said about the Commonwealth, the Government should be planning to withdraw.
1055 I am not suggesting that the Commonwealth Institute is perfect. In recent years, there has been a lack of impact, but to some extent that is due to the Government, as the grant to the Common wealth Institute has been inadequate and has been cut in real terms over the years.
The building itself is a major problem, the extent of which depends on what one reads—sometimes the Government say that it requires the expenditure of £8 million to £10 million, sometimes they say £3 million. However, there is a problem about the building, to which I shall return later.
There is also a problem about why solely the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has to fund the Commonwealth Institute. A huge amount of its work involves supporting education—in particular, the national curriculum.
There is a case for other countries to contribute to the work of the Commonwealth Institute. It is strange that there are no concrete links between the Commonwealth Institute and the Commonwealth Secretariat. Such links would seem logical, but the Government are in the driving seat. They should be looking at how the Commonwealth Institute has developed. Two of its trustees are the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Education. The Government are represented on the board of management of the Commonwealth Institute and should have made sure that such problems did not arise.
Simply to step in and point a gun at the head of the institute is wrong. It would be wrong, particularly in Africa, given the difficulties that that continent is experiencing, for the Government to send out a message of withdrawal from the ideals of the Commonwealth. Most people would agree that we need that symbol of hope, of multiracial working together, stimulating good governance, trying to achieve a peaceful world in which the 50 countries of the Commonwealth can demonstrate that they can positively work together.
What is perhaps most difficult to understand about the Government's position is that the building in Kensington is a listed building. It is a building of some distinction but has been allowed to decay. It has to be restored and cannot be allowed simply. to close down. Money will have to be spent by the Government to restore it; but to what purpose? What alternative use do the Government have in mind for the building? In view of its location, it is difficult to see what planning permission Kensington and Chelsea council would approve. The area is probably the centre for museums in this country, and the local Conservative council would probably not allow it to be used for any purpose other than the present one. The local Conservative council recently condemned the Government for what they were doing.
In his report, Lord Armstrong said:It seems that outright closure cannot be regarded as likely to generate any significant savings on public expenditure in the short term: perhaps even the reverse.Instead of the Government working with the trustees and the board of management of the institute to make it a fully effective organisation, the proposal is to close it—the institute should be a beacon of light to the world—for no savings whatever.
§ Mr. Alfred Morris
Does my hon. Friend agree that the United Kingdom's bid to host the Commonwealth games in Manchester in 2002 makes the issue all the more sensitive?
§ Mr. Worthington
I do. I know my right hon. Friend's interest in this matter. The Government are sending the wrong message on all kinds of dimensions, and this is one of them. It is difficult for Manchester to carry the conviction of the whole nation when the Government are pulling the plug on its bid. In effect, the Government are saying that they are not interested in the Commonwealth any more.
The Commonwealth Institute celebrated its centenary last year. It has gone through various changes during those 100 years. Every Government have said that they could afford first the Imperial Institute and then the Commonwealth Institute, but the present Government have said that it has no priority. I cannot see the financial savings, because the building has to be restored. I can see a major loss of the institute's functions occurring, but this seems an inept move politically by the Government, because primary legislation is needed to close it.
The institute cannot just be closed, because, under the terms of the trust deed from the Ilchester estate, the building and land are on a 999-year lease and can be used only for that purpose. Why are the Government seeking to do that, because I am sure that there will be significant rebellion in the House against it? I cannot think that the legislation would have much chance of getting through the House of Lords, because there are prominent defenders of the Commonwealth and the institute there.
Before the Government get a bloody nose through attempting to close the Commonwealth Institute, they should see sense and withdraw their closure proposal and start working with the board of management of the institute in order to give an effective message of hope for the Commonwealth and this country.
§ 6.5 pm
§ Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)
It will not surprise you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to know that, before we rise for the Easter recess, I believe that the House should think again about the high-speed rail link as it passes through Kent, but particularly as it passes through my constituency in the borough of Gravesham, which has been afflicted by a multiplicity of routes during the five and a half years in which the matter has been under consideration.
You will recall, Madam Deputy Speaker, the statement in January by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, when he said that he had decided to omit Pepper hill, in my constituency, and Ashford from the safeguarding of the route. At that time, he was treated with considerable derision, particularly from Opposition Members, for making those omissions to the route. He could easily have said, with great courage and strength, "I have decided. That is it. This is the route from St. Pancras to the channel tunnel." But he did not, and we may well ask why. My right hon. Friend had the courage to refuse the proposal of Union Railways to tunnel beneath the houses of residents at Pepper hill. He instructed Union Railways to engineer up alternatives, particularly the route under the A2, at my request.
The route that was announced to the House last year skirted the entire southern edge of the urban area of Gravesham—Gravesend and Northfleet—all along the A2, but suddenly and inexplicably crossed the A2 and passed beneath the houses of the Pepper hill housing estate, which is on the far corner of Northfleet. It was totally unnecessary to bring misery to the lives of the residents. It was quite 1057 clear to those residents and to me that Union Railways' claim at that time—that people living above its tunnel would neither hear nor feel the trains passing beneath—was unbelievable. It does not seem credible that a tunnel with high-speed trains passing through it, at a depth at its most shallow point of only 17 ft, would not have an effect on the residents concerned. Union Railways was adamant.
I called for a geological survey to be done immediately, which Union Railways would clearly need in due course with such a proposal. It took Union Railways three months to say yes. It took it a further two months to get started. That is five months gone in a six-month consultation period. That was why my right hon. Friends the Ministers quite rightly extended the consultation period in Gravesham to the end of 1993 so that the views of the residents of Gravesham, the borough council and myself could be given.
I am not a scientist. A geological survey could be produced with every manner of statistics, bar graphs and goodness knows what else, and I would not know what conclusions to draw. For that reason, I asked Gravesham borough council to retain specialists who could draw conclusions and state authoritatively, drawing on the data from the survey, to what extent, if any, the residents would feel vibration and to what extent there might be subsidence. Those consultants came up with proof that there would be vibration, subsidence and noise.
We laymen might say, "Surprise, surprise," but here was scientific proof, which I conveyed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. I argued that it was entirely unreasonable to tunnel beneath those people's houses when an alternative should be investigated. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend's courage in saying, "No, I will not determine the route. Union Railways must go out and try to engineer an alternative."
Union Railways has now done that, and it has called the new route the 227. It involves the railway line continuing westward in its cutting, past Northfleet and beneath the A2, then passing into the Ebbsfleet valley slightly beyond the electricity substation. At last, Union Railways has done what seemed perfectly logical in the first place. It has presented my right hon. Friend with that option, which was revealed to my constituents only last week at an exhibition in Northfleet.
Since then, I have spoken to a number of Northfleet residents, particularly those living in Pepper hill. I was led to believe that they support the route, which would avoid tunnelling under their houses. My campaign for the route has the strong backing of the A2 rail action group—a voluntary group of local residents, led by Mrs. Celia Jones, who have put their case forcefully, democratically and steadily over many months.
I fully expect Gravesham borough council to give similar bipartisan support. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will draw the strong views of those involved to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. It is after the determination of the route that the preparations of our MEP, Ben Patterson, will come into force—that is, his efforts to establish the extent of the European Commission's support, in the form of funds for environmental protection in connection with the great transport infrastructure projects of Europe. I believe that, 1058 even if the high-speed rail link is necessary for the transport infrastructure of this country and Europe, it should not be introduced at the expense of the environment of residents all along the route.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for paying close heed to the welfare of my constituents in Pepper hill. We look forward to a positive result from his decision to make an exception and hope that our MEP will succeed in harnessing the funds and the initiative of the European Commission for the support of my constituents' environmental protection.
§ Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West)
I believe that the House should not adjourn for the Easter recess without discussing the serious abuses of human rights in the Punjab, and, in particular, the deplorable phenomenon of enforced and involuntary disappearances. The subject is especially relevant this week, because of the visit of the Indian Prime Minister.
I am sure that no hon. Member would argue for the encouragement or support of terrorism. The activities of groups around the world who try to advance their cause by means of intimidation, rape and murder are abhorrent and should be condemned. We should also acknowledge the importance of the relationship between this country and India. There is a long-standing political relationship and a developing trade relationship. We hope that those links were strengthened during the Indian Prime Minister's visit. It is also important to stress that India is a democracy—not the commonest constitutional form in that part of the world.
Even if we take all those factors into account, however, the activities of the Indian security forces in the Punjab cannot be excused. That is clearly of concern to many citizens of this country with families in the Punjab, but it goes much wider than that, especially as a result of a campaign by Amnesty International, which has drawn the problems to the attention of many other people here.
The most recent Amnesty International report, published in December last year, put it very well:However provocative, the grave abuses committed by armed separatist groups can never justify the security forces resorting to arbitrary detentions, torture, extrajudicial executions or 'disappearances'.I commend that report, and Amnesty International's continued interest in the area. Regrettably, its work has been frustrated considerably over the years by the Indian Government—who have refused access to the area—as have attempts to secure visits by other teams of independent observers, both from this country and from international sources.
Despite those frustrations, Amnesty International has managed to compile reports of torture and disappearances in the Punjab. Last year's report stresses that, each year, scores of people disappear in the Punjab from among the many thousands of political prisoners detained by the state. Some are detained under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act—TADA—regulations. Official sources say that several thousand more are held without trial under preventative detention laws in force in the Punjab.
The report goes on to describe the manner of the arrests. Usually, no explanation of the reason for an arrest is given and arrests are often not registered at the local police station. One can imagine the concern that that causes to relatives. Victims are often abducted by police in plain 1059 clothes travelling in cars without number plates. When attempts are made to follow them up, many are found to have disappeared.
The report says:State complicity in such practices is evidenced from a clear pattern of official cover-up. This involves officials routinely ignoring numerous letters … Cables from relatives to government officials reporting a 'disappearance' … go unanswered. Officials even go to the extent of giving contradictory statements. In court, police persist in denying that 'disappeared' persons were ever arrested … or simply claim that the victim 'escaped'.The position was summed up by India Today on 15 October 1992:Many of the cases of killing of militants as reported to the police, and dutifully carried by the newspapers are plain disinformation … The police have acted beyond the pale of the law time and again, and often in the most blatantly callous fashion. The police have devised many ways of keeping the judiciary off their back. One of them is proclaiming that a militant has escaped. He can then be kept in custody, for an unlimited period to extract information by whatever means.Let me make it clear that it is to the credit of Indian society that officials—judicial officers—will sometimes expose wrongdoing, and the press will report it. It should be stressed that India is not a totalitarian state, although it may be acting as a repressive state.
§ Mr. Jacques Arnold
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the residents of the Punjab require the proper maintenance of law and order, and the proper control of extortion rackets and the like? It is even more necessary for the Indian Government to deal with their police force and army, so that corruption of this kind can be stamped out.
§ Mr. Spellar
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I thought that I had made clear the opposition of all hon. Members to terrorist activities, which he has just reaffirmed. I shall come to the Indian Government's failure to deal with abuses and excesses in the security forces. That, too, is an issue that unites hon. Members in all parties.
It is all the more regrettable that, rather than following up abuses when they are revealed, the Indian Government threaten journalists, lawyers and others who expose those abuses. Furthermore—as the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) rightly pointed out—concern is expressed about the responsibility of the Punjab police not only for actions in Punjab but for actions elsewhere in India involving disappearances and even shootings.
There is also widespread concern at the operation of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act. There is an absence of fundamental legal safeguards for detainees. Under the legislation, police can often claim that those who have disappeared have "escaped from custody." An even more worrying section refers toany action taken, whether by act or by speech or through any other media … which questions, disrupts or is intended to disrupt, whether directly or indirectly, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India; or which is intended to bring about or supports any claim … for the cession of any part of India or the secession of any part of India".That attacks not just terrorism but the right of free speech and political opinion. TADA has allowed detention for investigation for up to one year without charge.
We have seen the way in which that legislation has been used in repression of the press during the recent raid on the Aj Di Awaz newspaper and the arrest of its staff. That has been the subject of questions in the House and, I hope, of representations by Ministers to the Indian Ministers when they were here recently.
1060 A case that has caused considerable concern in the House and has been raised by several hon. Members is that of Harjit Singh. He is featured prominently in Amnesty International advertisements and is related to one of my constituents. I also took an interest in his case because he worked for the electricity authority in India. In a previous incarnation, I was an official of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union.
In April 1992, Harjit Singh was standing at a bus stop waiting to go to work at the state electricity board. He was surrounded by police who began jostling him. He was then dragged away. He has "not been seen since". The police firmly denied his existence and then said that he was killed in an incident with armed militants. They refused to produce his body. His father and other relatives claim to have seen him in prison, but say that he has since been moved on. That has put enormous strain on the family and is creating enormous pressures. In many ways, he has become a symbol of many who have disappeared in the Punjab. It is fair to say that the authorities have been obstructive, to say the least.
There is a reluctance to investigate or take action against those responsible. The hon. Member for Gravesham mentioned that, and it has been of concern in not just this case but many others. It was suggested that those who had perpetrated human rights violations should have legal action taken against them, but the director general of police said that it would "demoralise" the police force. The Chief Minister said that the Punjab police would not be "screened and cleaned up", as it would hamper "anti-terrorist operations."
That is not good enough. As I said at the outset, the entire Sikh community in this country is concerned, and we should be concerned, at that abuse. Whatever our views or whatever their views about the constitutional status of the Punjab, we cannot accept that breakdown of law and order. I hope that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have conveyed the concerns that have been expressed in the House to the Indian Prime Minister and his colleagues during their visit. We also hope that the pressure will continue to restore proper standards and bring peace to the troubled land of the Punjab.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
My hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) raised an important subject and I feel almost reluctant to move away from the problems of the Punjab and the weighty problems of national sovereignty to talk about a subject that is of no great moment in that respect. However, it is a subject that gets right up my nose and, I suspect, up the noses of many Londoners—the current state of London's roads.
An enormous amount of frustration is building up among Londoners as they see the chaos with which we are daily presented as we try to move painfully around the capital city. I am not necessarily a great devotee of a roads lobby, but the alternative of using public transport is not up to scratch, either. The buses are affected by all the other vehicles on the roads and, at times, the London underground system, rather like the roads, is approaching a state of near-chaos and collapse.
At times, it seems almost as if every road in London is being dug up, while every Thames bridge is being worked on. I know that that is an exaggeration, but it is the sort of 1061 exaggeration from which I seem to suffer as I make my journeys on public transport or as I drive into the House each day. The impression one gets is that there is chaos all around us. There is no co-ordination and no one in charge. There is no one to get hold of and brutalise in order to expiate the enormous anger that builds up as one tries to go about one's lawful business.
It is not just the sheer frustration of sitting in a traffic jam surrounded by traffic cones, all of which seem to grin. I do not know why it is, but they seem to take on a life form of their own. In fact, we have become the world's largest exporter of traffic cones. We must be making an awful lot because I should have thought that we would be importing them, given the number that seem to infest our roads. What really gets one is that there is no warning about the traffic jam in which one suddenly finds oneself. It could perhaps have been avoided if one had been given an opportunity to re-route. One is not given that sort of chance. A road that one might have gone down in the morning has sometimes been dug up by the time one comes back in the evening. It is very frustrating.
There is little, if any, evidence of any common sense or planning being applied to those works. I accept that many of them are essential because they represent infrastructure investment. However, many seem to be, if not unnecessary, certainly carried out extremely tardily. Traffic lights are not rephased, and temporary traffic management schemes are not even considered or seem to have been devised by half-mad aliens from space. It seems that maximum inconvenience to Londoners is the objective.
I am assuming that it is not Martians who are responsible for what is going on in London.
§ Mr. Banks
I should like to see that estimable gentleman spending a little more time concentrating on the problems of moving around London. I do not think that he is the only one responsible. I am ready to point the finger at any Tory because I blame the Tories for most things, including the state of the weather. However, I do not think that they are the only villains in this case.
Who are the villains? Essentially it is the public utilities—electricity, water, telecommunications companies and, at times, London Transport. The main villain seems to be the television cable companies. All those bodies have the legal right to break open the streets. Also, the work of private developers sometimes manages to spill over on to the public highway, inconveniencing those who are trying to use streets.
Those public utilities not only have a statutory right to break up the road but seem to take a perverse delight in doing it one at a time on the same stretch of road. The road is dug up, it is filled in and then someone else digs it up again. It does not make any sense and, as I have said, it causes great frustration.
The work on the roads seems to conform to the normal working pattern of the day. In other words, it starts at about 8.30 or 9 o'clock and continues until about 5.30, when everyone goes home. I do not believe that people should have to work unsocial hours, but many people are ready to work on a shift system. We should have more night-working on major road repairs and there should be 1062 weekend work as well. Plenty of people are ready to do overtime, but none of the statutory undertakings seems ready to pay it. [Interruption.] I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) as he seems to be beside himself with enthusiasm to join in.
§ Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)
Has anybody asked my hon. Friend whether those road works were outside his own house at midnight?
§ Mr. Banks
I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point, because obviously such works cannot be undertaken in residential areas. He will recall, however, that emergency repairs to a collapsed sewer in Parliament square were conducted at a time convenient to right hon. and hon. Members. The utilities know to get a move on when they will be inconveniencing Members of Parliament, but there is no concern for the poor perishers who live in my constituency. The utilities can dig up roads in the east end, walk away and leave them for a few weeks. When they come back, the holes will be full of litter, but that prevents it from blowing around. But if works affect Members of Parliament, they must get on with them straight away. That seems to smack of double standards.
We have all commented on the enormous profits that privatised companies are making, so there is no economic excuse for their not completing works on London's roads as quickly, efficiently and effectively as possible. They are not short of a bob or two when it comes to shelling out for extra overtime. They minimise their costs on street works and maximise the inconvenience to Londoners.
I hoped that the Government would have included in legislation the recommendations of the Horne report, which was welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It was felt that the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 would have made some improvements. Far from it—the situation in London seems to have gone from bad to worse. I know that I am getting a little aerated, but I have been waiting for this opportunity. I keep thinking, "I am going to write to my Member of Parliament about this," but then I realise that I am my Member of Parliament. So I am raising this matter not only on my behalf but on behalf of my constituents and many Londoners.
Anyone who uses a taxi only has to scratch slightly to hear the complaints of taxi drivers, who often seem to question the parentage of Ministers, especially Transport Ministers. Naturally, I always stoutly defend Conservative Ministers. Despite the welcome that it received from hon. Members, the 1991 Act has serious defects—primarily, local authorities no longer have responsibility for carrying out street works on behalf of the utilities. The new Act gives utilities responsibility for works under the terms of a nationally agreed set of specifications.
I shall quote from the British Road Federation, which is unusual for me but it is in line with the advice that I have received from my borough council, the London Boroughs Association and the Association of London Authorities. Everyone seems to agree: only action is missing to deal with the problems. The British Road Federation says:The legislation has been broadly welcomed and few expected there to be an overnight transformation.That is an understatement, but we certainly did not expect it to get worse overnight. The federation continues:Information about the daily activities of utilities is still very limited. This causes significant problems for local authorities if they are to achieve the inspection levels required in the regulations without incurring excessive abortive costs. The inspection fee is inadequate to fulfil the duties indicated by the 1063 Act and highway authorities are experiencing a real increase in costs. There is also concern that the standards of reinstatement set may not be sufficient.It can say that again. Good metalled roads are broken up by contractors on behalf of public utilities, only to be repaired in a slipshod fashion. Within a few days or weeks, they are reduced to potholed patchwork quilts. Such is the state of London's roads today.
The British Road Federation continues:The co-ordination of street works needs to be improved. The duty to co-ordinate rests with highway authorities"—local authorities. It says:utilities have to endeavour to co-operate but it is not a duty.I tell the Leader of the House that they do not endeavour much when it comes to informing local authorities, because it is not a duty. We have a permissive, lax system, and unless a requirement is imposed on the utilities, they will not take any notice but will laugh at us.
The federation says:In many instances it is impractical to co-ordinate all the small scale works being undertaken. This is because the notice period for minor works is too short.That may be so, but the delays caused by minor works certainly are not too short. The federation continues:Co-ordination, therefore, is only happening on major works, where there is a minimum of one month's notice. The major area of concern is the belief that the implementation of the Act is adding to local authorities expenditure.That is what all the local authorities and associations in London and, I suspect, throughout the country, whatever their political complexion, are saying. The public utilities simply cannot be trusted. The Act is not working as we intended.
We must address the problem, which is giving rise to enormous frustration and anger not only in me but among Londoners. I ask the Leader of the House and his colleagues to initiate an urgent investigation into the impact of the legislation and to seek ways to deal with the problems that we are experiencing on London's roads.
§ Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford)
I rise to ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House whether it would be possible to ensure that we do not break for the Easter recess until my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has made a statement on the important issue of the road building programme and on the problem facing my constituency—the proposed new motorway from the M25 to Chelmsford.
I remember sitting in the House soon after I was elected in 1987 and listening to a statement from the then Secretary of State for Transport on the White Paper "Roads for Prosperity". I thought that it did not affect my constituency or any of the surrounding constituencies in mid-Essex, but to my amazement I discovered that it recommended the construction of a new motorway from the M25 to Chelmsford.
Few people—commuters and those in industry and commerce—would dispute the need to have good road and rail communications throughout the country, especially in the southern and mid-Essex areas, offering access into the hinterland of East Anglia, to the ports at Harwich and Felixstowe and up into Norfolk and Suffolk. That is particularly true with the arrival of the single market and the opening later this year of the channel tunnel. Business, industry and commerce must be able to maximise their opportunities to flourish and to take advantage of improving economic conditions.
1064 It seems to my constituents and me, however, and to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles)—and even, I suspect, to those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton)—quite criminal that a new motorway could be constructed from the M25 through the green belt and the small villages and rural areas of Essex, passing through Highwood in my constituency, on to Writtle in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree and back to the Al2 south of Chelmsford at Margarreting. That is virgin, agricultural and rural green belt land.
What puzzles our constituents is that nobody ever asked for this road. We do not want it. It is unloved and unnecessary and there are other ways to improve the existing road network into East Anglia. I cannot find many people in south and mid-Essex who are in favour of the road. All the local authorities reject the need for a new motorway. Certainly, my right hon. and hon. Friends with constituencies in the area reject it.
The excellent work done by the "Stop the M12" association has highlighted the anger, disgust and antipathy of local residents towards a new road through that part of Essex. The campaign that has been waged almost ever since the proposal first became known has been successful in that it has been able to sustain itself for a long time and to continue lobbying without splitting into splinter groups and to bring it home to the Secretary of State for Transport and other Ministers at the Department that nobody wants this unloved road.
Ultimately, we do not know whether the campaign has been successful because no decisions have been made or announced, but we shall continue to campaign and lobby until we hear from my right hon. Friend that the road is to be killed off and that the proposal will never see the light of day. I stress that the sooner that the announcement can be made the better, because it would remove the fears of our constituents and the potential blight of properties along the proposed route.
There is a problem as to what the route might be. Three suggestions have been pencilled or sketched in from the M25 to Chelmsford. For the past 18 months consultants have been trying to determine whether any of the three routes should be used or whether the existing Al2 should be upgraded. We do not yet have the consultants' report or the results of the public inquiry to go on. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is anxious to save on public expenditure. Some months ago, I suggested to Ministers at the Department of Transport that one way of cutting public expenditure and saving waste would be to stop examining the routes and abandon the proposal altogether, but they have not done that, so we must now wait for the report and the decision of the Department of Transport.
I urge my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to draw to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport the concern and desire to have an announcement, if at all humanly possible, before the Easter recess so that our constituents can have peace of mind and so that we can ensure that this hare-brained, unloved and unwanted scheme is killed off once and for all.
§ Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)
The Evening Standard of Wednesday 16 March carried the headline, "Victory for Right to Smack". I believe that that 1065 is a tragedy for thousands of children. To a great extent, I blame the stupidity of Justice Wilson, who rejected a bid by Sutton borough council to outlaw smacking even with parental permission. It is an interesting dichotomy—who decides and what degree—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)
Order. The hon. Gentleman really should not criticise a member of the judiciary—he can do so only on a substantive motion. Will he please bear that in mind?
§ Mr. Boyes
My apologies, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
An important group—the Physical Punishment of Children pressure group—claimed that the decision to permit smacking went against Government policy, undertakings made by the Government and the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Will the Leader of the House and his Cabinet colleagues look into the matter?
Let us imagine the serious consequences of the decision for social services departments. I was an assistant director of social services for Durham county council and I am well aware of the organisational and cash implications of such a decision. I make it clear that child minders and other carers should not, in any circumstances, smack, slap or shake children. We should not abuse our children in any way. I have managed to bring up two children—both of whom are now more than 30 years old—without finding it necessary to smack, slap or shake them.
Sutton council refused to register Mrs. Davis as an official child minder because she refused to sign an undertaking not to use corporal punishment, which tells us a great deal. Recently there have been a number of tragedies involving children: three children died in Peterlee and there was the famous case of Maria Calwell.
I deal now with schoolteachers. It is crazy that an unqualified child minder is able to smack a child but a qualified schoolteacher in county Durham, for example—my education authority—could and would be dismissed if he or she smacked a child. I believe that that is right and that the other course of action is wrong.
§ Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)
My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes), given his experience before coming to the House, speaks with great authority on the topic of child abuse. He is also correct to draw our attention to the anomalies which the recent judgment creates. I am sure that the House will have to return to this matter.
If, in their drive to amalgamate Departments, the Government decide to amalgamate the Department of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and the Department of Transport, the Leader of the House will be able to pass the job of replying to debates of this sort to the new joint Secretary of State, because almost all the matters that have been raised in our three-hour debate relate either to foreign affairs or to transport.
The right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) was joined by the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) in praising the Foreign Secretary for the leadership qualities that he is displaying, especially when standing up to the shortcomings of the European Union. The right hon. Gentleman was good enough to list 1066 his criticisms of the European Union and to offer helpful advice to the parliamentary Labour party on how we should be probing European institutions. It is a debating device of long standing that those who wish to criticise the stance of their own party challenge the opposing party for not making the same criticisms effectively enough. The right hon. Gentleman gave the game away a little when he felt it necessary to make special mention of a point on which he agreed with the Prime Minister.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Moms), not only rightly but movingly, drew the House's attention to the plight of people in receipt of war pensions and war widows' pensions who will be affected by the Government's proposed changes. I hope that the Leader of the House, who is very knowledgeable on the subject, will be able to say something to set at rest the minds of those who are currently in receipt of such pensions, particularly those who were unfortunately tortured in captivity during the second world war. Those who managed to survive the cruel circumstances of far eastern prison camps, in particular, and who are now of pensionable age deserve to be at the forefront of the House's consideration. My right hon. Friend was quite right to refer to their plight, and I hope that the Leader of the House will say something to meet his concern.
My right hon. Friend also raised the question of our having a Minister in the Ministry of Defence to deal specifically with veterans' affairs and to co-ordinate the work of various Departments. This matter has been dealt with on previous occasions and is certainly worthy of consideration.
The hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Porter) called for help for the elderly. He outlined some of the problems that such people face and some of the things that the Government are doing to help. The assistance that pensioners are being given to enable them to carry the extra burden represented by VAT on fuel bills, while welcome as far as it goes, is not adequate compensation. The average pensioner household will still be £1 a week short. That may not sound like a lot of money, but it is a great deal for pensioners on small and relatively fixed incomes.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies had a look at the changes in the distribution of the tax burden for the period 1985–95 and found that the very wealthiest were better off but that everybody else was paying more, largely as a result of the shift from direct taxation to indirect taxation. Those with family responsibilities and the very poor were particularly hard hit. The poorest decile and the second poorest, into which most pensioners fall, were also hit particularly hard.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) drew attention—slightly implausibly, I thought—to the Government's record on crime. He failed to make any proper analysis of the growth of crime or to offer any genuine means of dealing with it, apart from his call for more police on the beat. Many of us think that the rather woolly liberalism that the hon. Gentleman seems to represent has contributed to the problem rather than provided a solution to it. [Interruption.] Well, that is my view.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) struck a seasonal note as we move towards the holiday period. He raised the important question of coach safety and seat belts. If it is true that 12 per cent. of deaths 1067 resulting from coach accidents could be prevented through the use of seat belts, such devices will have to be fitted, and funds will have to be provided for the purpose.
Time does not allow me to deal adequately with all the matters raised crisply—as always on these occasions—by the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr.Amess). The hon. Gentleman, as he often does, denounced Essex county council for being a rotten socialist body, citing in evidence of socialist repression the removal of the lollipop lady. That does not seem to me such a dreadful act of socialist tyranny. Certainly foreign countries have provided more ferocious examples in the past. Characteristically, the hon. Gentleman offered to do the job himself. Given the fact that his seat is a marginal one, although he has held on to it so far, and given the Government's current lack of popularity, I understand why he should be looking around. I wish him well in his future career, for which he is adequately qualified.
The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) restated his case on events in Northern Ireland. I do not feel qualified to make a full and comprehensive response. However, I can say that we all listened with respect and understanding.
That is more than I can say for the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Bates), who drew a parallel between the revolting apartheid regime in South Africa and the refusal of some schools in Cleveland to play football with a team from a city technology college. I hope that hon. Members will understand when I say that the two issues are not the same—not in proportion, and not even in theme. After all, city technology colleges were intended to be divisive, and the hon. Gentleman should not be surprised if those who attend other academic institutions are resentful. That is clearly what is happening in Cleveland.
Drawing a parallel between apartheid and the question whether schools play football with each other is a wrongful statement of the case, but it is also particularly rich when it comes from: Langbaurgh. Like the hon. Gentleman, I remember the Langbaurgh by-election. I went down to help my friend Ashok Kumar, who won the by-election but, unfortunately, did not retain the seat at the general election. Those of us who took part in that by-election know that racism did raise its ugly head and that certain people encouraged it. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman invites me to join him in condemnation. I am happy to do so. I condemn racism, I condemn those who incite it, and I condemn those who benefit from it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) presented an impressive defence of the Commonwealth Institute. He was right to ask whether the Government have thought this issue through. Closure of the institute—this is what the Government seem to be moving towards—could cost rather than save public money. It seems to me that that would be a ridiculous state of affairs.
The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) added to the speech that he made in the debate when we last discussed an Adjournment motion by telling us of a concession that he had received from the Department of Transport.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) returned to the question of foreign affairs with a very powerful speech in defence of human rights in the Punjab. He was quite right to put his speech in the context of our relationship with India, with which we have historic connections and very friendly ties and commercial 1068 arrangements. He cited the Amnesty International report and condemned the disappearance of militants. It was very interesting to hear him make that point. However, he balanced his comments with references to the Indian judiciary and press and to the role that they can play in restoring government of a type that we should like to see—democratic rather than authoritarian.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) spoke for all of us who have to travel to this building when he referred to the frustration involved in getting through the traffic in London. Who is in charge? Who plans the various works? It is clear that the lack of an overall authority is disrupting the city. I know that the Lord President thinks himself fortunate that my hon. Friend defends Ministers when, travelling in cabs, he explains these matters to enraged taxi drivers. I am sure that he is a powerful advocate.
The hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), having read the document "Roads to Prosperity", hoped that it would not apply to his own constituency. He called for peace of mind for the next general election. I expect that the Lord President will be able to give him some assurance.
I should like the Lord President to provide me with some peace of mind in respect of the Swan Hunter shipyard in my constituency. It is in dire circumstances. It is in the hands of receivers and could close, with the loss of all jobs. Some 2,000 direct employees and 2,000 people indirectly employed have already gone. There are only 600 manual workers left, but it is possible that at least their jobs can be saved if the Ministry of Defence commits a medium-sized order now. There is such an order in prospect, and it would certainly be the most welcome news for Tyneside if an announcement were to be made before we adjourned for the Easter recess.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)
I was put in mind, during the speech of the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie—[Interruption.] I am sorry if I am mispronouncing part of the name of the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I shall avoid referring to it and stick simply to "Clydebank".
§ Mr. Newton
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that was accidental.
The reference to the Commonwealth Institute put me in mind of the fact that, only yesterday, I spent a very pleasant hour with a large number of parliamentarians who are here under the banner of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
My task was to talk about the job of being Leader of the House. I ventured into most of the details, such as the business statement, the occasional difficulties of having to stand in for the Prime Minister at Question Time, the business of planning the legislative programme and all the rest, but I did not venture into trying to explain the arcane mysteries of the occasional debates in which the Leader of the House, having proposed that the House should have a holiday, sits here for three hours listening to hon. Members expressing, apparently with great passion, their desire not to have a holiday until a certain matter has been discussed.
1069 The Leader of the House then watches the shiver of apprehension that goes around the Chamber when anyone suggests that he might accept those blandishments and withdraw his motion. Indeed, a distinct frisson passed over the face of the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) when he heard an hon. Member say, "If we have a recess" rather than, "before we have a recess." I noted that carefully.
Many subjects were raised during the debate. Manifestly, I shall not have time to respond to them all. Where I am not able to respond fully, I shall ensure that the attention of my appropriate right hon. Friends is drawn to what has been said, and they will reply in other ways, as may be appropriate.
I am especially conscious of that difficulty because several Essex issues have been raised both by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), with whom I share some concerns, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess), who mentioned some educational problems that are of concern in my constituency, too. To my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford I merely say delicately that I understand why he raised those matters, and that I have no doubt that many of my constituents in the Chelmsford part of my constituency would have wished to echo what he said—and also some of the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon on education and other matters.
Let me now, in as good order as I can, deal with the speeches in the order in which they were made. I fully understand the reasons for the speeches by my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) and the importance that they attach to expressing their backing for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I am sure that he, and indeed all of us, are grateful for that. However, I hope that they will understand that, after the exchanges during Prime Minister's questions and the remarks that I made during business questions both this week and last week, and as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is in the midst of the negotiations, there is not a great deal that I can now add to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have already said.
The right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), in his capacity as parliamentary adviser to the Royal British Legion, raised two points, one about the recent changes in the war pensions scheme concerning deaths caused by smoking-related diseases or by alcohol-related diseases—it is perhaps important that that should be registered. Some of the same things could be said about alcohol. The right hon. Gentleman's second argument was about the legion's wish to have what he described as a sub-department of ex-service affairs.
On the right hon. Gentleman's first point, I must emphasise that the legislation has been changed to ensure that the law reflects the long-standing policy of successive Governments that smoking should be regarded as attributable to service only where a disabling mental condition, itself attributable to service, renders an individual incapable of exercising personal choice.
The Government made some changes in consultation on the detail of the proposals, and I acknowledge that there is scope for some argument about how precisely the aim is 1070 best achieved. However, I believe that people in general would accept that no service man was ever required to smoke, and I do not believe that any Government ever intended to compensate for the effects of a habit such as smoking, in the way that at one time I thought that the right hon. Gentleman suggested—although I accept that that was probably not what he intended to do.
As for a sub-department of ex-service affairs, the right hon. Gentleman will know of the Government's general view that it is right for important services connected with people who have been in the armed forces to be a significant matter for every Government Department, and taken into account in the policies of every Department. We believe that that is best achieved within each Department rather than through the kind of co-ordinating system that the right hon. Gentleman implicitly suggested.
The right hon. Gentleman will recognise a development with which I am glad to say I had something to do when I was Secretary of State for Social Security. In my judgment at least, the creation of the War Pensions Agency has materially improved the effectiveness of one vital part of the services that we provide for ex-service people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Porter) made an impressive speech about the problems and interests of retired people. I cannot possibly comment on the very many subjects that he raised, but I shall ensure that what he said is studied with care.
The same goes for the speech of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), about rural policing, about which I could make one or two comments. I shall, of course, bring the speech to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, observing wryly in passing, however, that I now understand why the hon. Gentleman did not respond when he was asked to tell the House what had happened to crime in Northumbria—because that would not fit in with his speech. I understand that crime in Northumbria fell by 2 per cent. in the 12 months to June 1993—[Interruption.] Crime fell in Northumbria as a whole. As I have been reminded, there is a joint force.
The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), with characteristic courtesy—I am sorry that I was not able to be in the Chamber while he was speaking—said that he did not expect me to be able to answer all his questions, but hoped that they would be answered in some other form at a later stage. I shall do my best to ensure that that happens.
I have already made some comments about the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and I hope that he will forgive me if in the circumstances, especially as there will be further debate on railway matters later tonight, I do not at this stage attempt to respond to everything that he said. I take on board what he said, and note especially what he said about hospital radio—a matter in which I also have a significant interest.
The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) made some significant comments that I took to represent the position of his party and not merely his personal position on matters in Northern Ireland. I hope that he will have been reassured by the fact that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister met the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) on Tuesday and assured him that nothing done or said by the IRA and its apologists would deflect the Government from our chosen course, and that the Government would continue to pursue a lasting political settlement through the three-stranded talks process.
1071 My hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh made some comments that struck me forcefully, and I had much sympathy with them. The hon. Member for Clydebank—and that other place that I find difficult to pronounce—made some comments about the Commonwealth Institute, which I shall pass on, as I shall the remarks about the high-speed link.
Lastly, I come to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks)—I nearly always almost miss him. We all understand his frustration about street works in various places. Things sound even worse in his constituency than they are in mine. Perhaps he should change his Member of Parliament—
It 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).
§ Question agreed to.
That this House, at its rising on Thursday 31st March, do adjourn until Tuesday 12th April and, at its rising on Friday 29th April, do adjourn until Tuesday 3rd May.