Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House, at its rising on Thursday 26th May, do adjourn until Tuesday 14th June.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]
§ 4.5 pm
§ Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)
On 29 April, the hon. Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam), much to his honour, initiated a debate on the motion:That, in the opinion of this House, Her Majesty's Ministers should provide sufficient time on the floor of the House before 27th May 1994 to allow all remaining stages of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill to be completed, and that sufficient time be provided before the end of the Session for the consideration of any Amendments to the Bill which may be made by the House of Lords."—[Official Report, 29 April 1994; Vol. 242, c. 497.]The motion was approved by the House, entirely without dissent, and merited not only a quick and positive oral ministerial response, but also ungrudging implementation by the Government. Yet the will of the House, as expressed by the motion, is still being ignored, some will say contemptuously ignored, even as we debate the rising of the House for the Spring Adjournment. Indeed, much apart from respecting the will of this House, the Government made clear, both on 6 and 20 May, their determination to wreck the Bill by fair means or foul, and plumbed new depths of parliamentary skulduggery last Friday.
The whole country saw then what the Prime Minister's recent promise of "less confrontation, more decency" means in practice. He made that promise in an address to Scottish Conservatives in Inverness when paying tribute to the memory of our late and deeply mourned colleague, John Smith, the weekend before last.
But never was there a more blatant act of indecency than was witnessed in this House on the day of John's funeral last Friday, when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) said, the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People, having already had to apologise, in a personal statement to the House, for his conduct in the debates on the Bill on 6 May, "cynically talked out" a measure whose only purpose is to give full citizenship to Britain's 6.5 million disabled people.
§ Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)
Will not the right hon. Gentleman confirm that when the Labour Government and their Labour predecessors were in office that kind of parliamentary activity in respect of private Members' Bills was normal practice? Does he deny that Labour Governments have ever acted against private Members' Bills in that manner?
§ Mr. Morris
The answer to that question was given by his hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) when he moved the motion to which I referred. On 29 April, he pointed out that under the last Labour Government a great many Bills to which the Government were not especially friendly were allowed to proceed to the statute book. In the particular case of my own Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Bill, it reached the statute book in 1970, in spite of initial opposition from Ministers.
Quite definitely, the balance has been tilted very heavily against the private Member over recent years. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Exeter for detailing so thoroughly the change there has been in ministerial attitudes to private Members' Bills over recent years. A great many Bills now are Government Bills masquerading as private Members' Bills. Indeed, I am sure that it would be helpful to the 347 House if, in parentheses after the short title of a Bill, the letter G could appear to indicate that the Bill is one drafted by the Government, if that is the case. There has been a marked change in the treatment of private Members' Bills on the Floor of the House and we need very urgently, I believe, a constructive report about this from the Select Committee on Procedure. I rejoice that it is looking at the procedure for private Members' Bills, and I am totally certain that it will make helpful proposals to this House.
The House will understand—
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that any and every disablement group in the whole of the United Kingdom may write to the Chairman of that Committee and ask to be heard by that Committee? It does not necessarily follow that they will be heard, but their letters will be treated as evidence by that Committee when it considers these matters. Every group involved in this matter in the United Kingdom is now free to make representations to Parliament.
§ Mr. Morris
The Select Committee on Procedure has been extremely kind. It has already written to many people to ask if they have evidence to offer members of the Committee. I have no doubt whatever that it will make it clear that information is welcomed not only from both sides of this House but from anyone living anywhere with an interest in private Members' legislation who has constructive proposals for it to consider.
The House will understand my strong feelings, as the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill's author, about the disgraceful way in which it has been treated by the Government over the past two and a half years. When I first brought the Bill to the House in December 1991, the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People said that his attitude to it was one of "benevolent neutrality". Last Friday, his behaviour in talking it out was seen by disabled people everywhere—I quote one of their leaders—as an act of "malevolent hostility" to the Bill.
If the Leader of the House is still in any doubt about the feelings of disabled people in regard to what happened last Friday, he should speak to the editor of the Evening Echo in Chester Hall lane, Basildon, about a reader's letter sent to him by Denise Smith of Rayleigh in Essex last weekend. Denise broke her neck in a car accident. She states that her self-esteem plunged last Friday to "an all-time low" and that she was left feeling that an apology was being demanded "for my very existence". Her letter continues:The Minister has now made it blatantly clear that anyone with a disability is well and truly second-class and cannot expect to be treated as a person who could, given the chance, be a useful member of society.That eloquent comment from Denise Smith of Essex is highly representative of the mass of letters that I have received since last Friday.
When the Bill commenced its Report stage on 6 May, the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People was asked whether he or his Department had beenin any way involved in the drafting of any of the amendments or the new clause tabled by the hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam…for Bristol, North-West…and for Bury St. Edmunds".[Official Report, 6 May 1994; Vol. 242, c. 991.]The right hon. Gentleman replied that he had playedNo part whatever in the drafting of any of the amendments and, to the best of my knowledge, nobody in my Department has been involved in the drafting of any of the amendments in this 348 area.We now know that what the right hon. Gentleman said then was untrue, but we did not find out the whole truth until I tabled a parliamentary question for priority reply on 18 May asking:on what date the Minister for Disabled People authorised his Department to instruct Parliamentary Counsel on the drafting of the amendments tabled to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill by five hon. Members on 3 May.In total refutation of what he had told the House at column 991 on 6 May, the Minister's reply to my question stated:On the 20 April 1994 I authorised my officials to instruct Parliamentary Counsel to draft amendments.It was that parliamentary reply that proved conclusively that the Minister's response to an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), at column 991 on 6 May, had very seriously misled the House and that now the Prime Minister was also involved, since, in a letter of 5 April to my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice), the Prime Minister wrote:It is clearly of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate information to the House. If they knowingly fail to do this, then they should relinquish their positions.In the reply given to my parliamentary question of 18 May, the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People made it pikestaff plain that, 16 days before, he told the House on 6 May that he had "no part" in the drafting of the 80 wrecking amendments and thatnobody in my Department had been involved in the drafting of any of the amendments",he had, in fact, authorised his departmental officialsto instruct Parliamentary Counsel to draft amendments.In his personal statement of apology to the House on 9 May, the Minister regretted, in the understatement of the century, that he had not made "a fuller explanation" earlier of his Department's role in drafting the 80 amendments tabled by the five hon. Members. He could, of course, have given us all the facts about his Department's role in the debate on the motion of the hon. Member for Exeter on 29 April, on which he spoke at considerable length and on which I now ask for action before the House rises for the Spring recess. That the Minister did not take the opportunity given by that debate on 29 April—nine days after he had instructed his officials, in effect, to wreck the Bill—is a source of deep and enduring concern to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House and in all parties.
It really is totally essential that we should have a full ministerial statement of the Government's attitude to the motion of the hon. Member for Exeter. The Leader of the House must know that the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill has the backing of a clear parliamentary majority and an even more emphatic majority of the British people, including all disabled people; that it has already been approved at all stages in the House of Lords; and that, but for the wrecking tactics used against the Bill, it would be now be awaiting Royal Assent. The Government can no longer be allowed to pretend that they are right and everyone else is wrong. It was Oscar Wilde who said, among friends, after the disappointing first night of one of his plays:The play was a great success, but the audience a failure.This is the Government's position in relation to the public reaction to their obstruction of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. Their task now is to join with all of us, in all parts of both Houses of Parliament, who want urgently to try to restore some faith among disabled people in political 349 decency and parliamentary democracy. Nothing could achieve that more quickly, or more surely, than a statement today from the Leader of the House accepting the call of the hon. Member for Exeter on the Government for the parliamentary time needed to enact the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill in this Session of Parliament.
§ Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)
I am sorely tempted to follow the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), not least because I was somewhat caught up in the events of last Friday. I intend to speak on a very different subject, but I will say that I believe that he made a powerful speech. He has been a doughty campaigner for the disabled for longer than I have been in the House, which is 24 years. I regret the manner in which the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill has been dealt with, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House knows.
My right hon. Friend will not be surprised to know that I intend to talk about the Balkans. My right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) said this afternoon that he thought that it was a scandal that the House would not sit on Friday or on 13 June because several important domestic subjects—we have just heard about one of them—would not be debated. It is greatly to be regretted that we are not taking the opportunity of using one of those days for debating what is, by any standards, one of the greatest international crises since the war—arguably the greatest and the one fraught with the most danger.
§ Mr. Cormack
The hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great respect, says from a sedentary position that Vietnam was worse. I am not sure that he is right; certainly in terms of the European continent he is not right. However, I will not be diverted by the hon. Gentleman because I want to make one or two—I hope—important points.
I emphasise the fact—again, this will come as no surprise to my right hon. Friend—that I strongly deprecate the fact that the House has not been given the opportunity more often to debate the crisis in the former Yugoslavia and, in particular, the terrible events in Bosnia. Throughout the whole of this long, tragic saga, we have hardly had an opportunity to debate the issue exclusively. We had a brief, three-hour debate introduced by the Liberal Democrats on a Supply day. If my memory serves me correctly, we have had one debate on the Balkans in Government time. We have had one or two foreign affairs debates in which it has been germane to mention the matter, but the House has not focused its attention as much as it should have done.
When the House neglects to debate these matters, it marginalises itself, because what is happening in the Balkans is of enormous significance to us all. I do not want to go over that point again because I have taken every possible opportunity to speak on the subject. I have spoken about the atrocities and about the mistakes made by leaders in this country and elsewhere in tackling the matter. I regret the prevarication and the wrong signals which have repeatedly been given to the aggressors. My right hon. Friend knows all that.
Although I am, indeed, criticising my right hon. Friend for not giving us the time for a debate, I thank him for his unfailing courtesy and I thank my right hon. Friend the 350 Foreign Secretary who, on many occasions, has received the officers of the all-party Bosnia group to discuss the matter. Although we have not always come away happy with the outcome of our discussions, my right hon. Friend has made himself available most generously; for that, at least, we are grateful.
Let me come to my two main points. I refer the House to a meeting that took place within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster yesterday. Sadly, it was not well attended by hon. Members; one understands the many competing demands on our time. Yesterday, we had a visit from a remarkable body—the Serbs Citizens Council.
During all the debate on the situation in Bosnia, there has been a regrettable tendency for people to talk as if the war was a simple civil war, which it manifestly is not, and to ignore the fact that it started very much as aggression from another country against a sovereign state which we have recognised. There has been a regrettable tendency too to talk about the warring factions. That is an insulting term because one of them is in fact the legitimately recognised Government of a sovereign state. In all parts of the House and the country, there has also been a tendency to claim —I am certainly not singling out the Government for blame here—that we are dealing with the Serbs, the Muslims and the Croats.
When Sarajevo hosted the winter Olympics a little over 10 years ago, the city was held out as an example of—I do not like the phrase because I think it clumsy—multi-ethnic co-operation. People lived side by side in harmony. They intermarried. They respected each other. They worked together. All that—or, rather, a lot of that—has been literally blown asunder in the past two and a half years. I corrected myself there because all of it has not been blown asunder: the fact remains that the Government of Bosnia, whom we recognise, are still a Government composed of Muslims, Croats and Serbs.
The members of the Serbs Citizens Council who came to see us yesterday emphasised that fact. They made some important points which should be put on the record. They referred to the Assembly of Citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina of Serbian nationality which was held on 27 March this year, in which more than 500 delegates from all parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina took part. They said that the assembly provided a platform for the opinions of the estimated 200,000 Serbs residing in the free territory—the territory still controlled by the Bosnian Government. They made the point that the war criminal Karadzic—and they called him that—represented no more than 40 per cent. of the Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
I could recite the facts and figures. If I did so, the House would no doubt be interested but it would perhaps also be unduly detained. Let me make one point above all others. The two people who were speaking for the council yesterday were Mr. Goran Simic, who is a poet and essayist, one of the founders of PEN in Bosnia and the president of the Cultural Association of Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and a lady, Nada Salimovic, who is the president of the Centre for Peace in Sarajevo.
We were much moved by what those two visitors had to say. In particular, the lady turned to us and said, "I am a Serb but I do not think of myself just in those terms. I am a citizen of Bosnia. I am married to a Muslim. Our children have been brought up to respect different points of view and different cultures. We are part of European civilisation." And they are.
351 It is to the lasting discredit of us all that European civilisation has been torn asunder in that land over the past two and a half years, and it is to the lasting discredit of us all that we have not been able more effectively to deal with the situation. I do not belong to the "something must be done" school because I think I can claim that I warned the House about the war before it even started. I initiated the first debate at 3.20 am in early December 1991—some five months before the Bosnian war erupted—urging that we should put in air and naval patrols to deter the Serb aggression in Croatia and to protect Dubrovnik. I still believe that, had we been resolute at that time, up to 250,000 lives could have been saved and the 3 million people in Europe who are refugees would not be refugees.
Throughout the Bosnian conflict, I—and members of all parties—have consistently advocated a tougher and more resolute approach. Approximately 60 hon. Members have signed an early-day motion stating that, in the wake of Gorazde, the rest of the safe havens must be safe. It also draws attention to the fact that we proved in Sarajevo that, if one not only talks tough but acts tough, one gets results. Ultimately, we should be prepared not to put in masses of ground troops but to allow the Bosnian Government to defend themselves and give them air cover in so doing.
What is morally wrong can never be politically right. It is immoral that, when we recognise a sovereign state, we do not go to its aid or give it the means to defend itself or allow it the means to acquire the necessary weapons—it is not as if we are being asked to hand over the weapons personally. There is no point in saying that there is an embargo across Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia does not exist, and we recognise its component parts as sovereign states.
According to what we were told at yesterday's meeting with the Serbs, it appears that there is a very large number of people—I have no way of confirming or challenging the figures—of Serbian background and nationality in Bosnia who think of themselves as Bosnians first and Serbs second and who wish to defeat fascism and to see a victory for democracy. It is essential that we recognise that fact. It would be utterly scandalous if, without debate—or even with debate, for that matter—we allowed the Bosnian Government to be browbeaten into a settlement that recognises and rewards ethnic cleansing and the changing of boundaries by force. The message that that would send not only to Europe—one has to think of the many fragile situations in eastern and central Europe and the former Soviet Union—but beyond about the impotence of the so-called new world order would be dire indeed. I urge my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to relay these points to my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister; I regret that I am unable to do so in the course of a proper debate on Bosnia and the Balkans.
With the strong support of my fellow officers in the all-party group, I have often suggested that a summit meeting be held for the leaders of the four permanent members of the Security Council involved. President Yeltsin made the same suggestion, but after we had made ours; perhaps he read our press releases. I have raised this issue in questions on the Floor of the House and in letters to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister who has generously agreed to meet the officers of the all-party group shortly after the House returns from the recess. I am extremely grateful for that, but events are not standing still.
352 I should like to think that, in the fortnight during which the House is not sitting, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will discuss with Presidents Yeltsin, Mitterrand and Clinton the convening of a conference on the Balkans. Such a conference would make President Milosevic—who is the arch-villain—aware that he and his warlords, Mladic and Karadzic, will not be allowed to get away with murder, to keep their brutally gotten gains or to succeed in ethnic cleansing. Perhaps only a meeting at that level and of that importance can impress on the world that—for all that we have made mistakes—we are determined in that at least.
I do not know how many hon. Members have seen the film, "Schindler's List". I saw it during the Easter recess. I was much moved by it; I am sure that anyone who saw it must have been. When I came out of the cinema with my 22-year-old son, who is at university, who was also very moved by it, he said to me, "What you are talking about in Bosnia is very similar"—and it is. Even as we commemorate 50 years after D-day—I say "comme-morate"—and 49 years after we celebrated a victory over fascism, deeds are being done in our own continent that are as despicable as those marked in that film.
Let no one be in any doubt. Appeasement plunged the world into catastrophe in the 1930s; appeasement can plunge the world into even greater catastrophe in the 1990s, as we approach the end of the millennium.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
There is much in what the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) said—he said it very eloquently—with which I agree. The hon. Gentleman will know that, as some of my colleagues will remember, at various times when statements have been made to the House, I have indicated my view that we should not give in to appeasement, that we should be very much aware of the terrible crimes that have been committed in the former Yugoslavia, and especially in Bosnia, and that ethnic cleansing is totally unacceptable.
I remember Michael Foot's last speech—I believe that it was literally his last speech in the House—in which, in the most moving way, he described his horror at what the Serbians were doing. There was no doubt in his mind that it was the Serbian warlords, first and foremost, who were responsible for what is happening in Bosnia.
I can understand the Leader of the House giving the explanation that he did about the House coming back a day later after the Whitsun recess. I have no quarrel with that. However, I am not very happy about the way in which we seem to be drifting increasingly into longer and longer recesses. I know that the Leader of the House, although he did not actually deny that we were having longer recesses than previously, said that there was not much difference. However, it appears to be the case that, two years ago, in 1992, for example, we broke up in the middle of July—certainly a week earlier, if not more than that.
§ Mr. Winnick
I see that the right hon. Gentleman agrees with me. It will be interesting to notice the date that we break up for the summer recess this year.
Sometimes we have to explain to people outside this place the difference between holidays and recesses—that a recess is not necessarily a holiday. When I am holding my surgeries in July and August—I know that the same applies 353 to other hon. Members; I am not praising myself in any way—I do not necessarily feel that I am on holiday. I do take a summer holiday, and it is wise to do so, but a distinction needs to be drawn.
I am not one of those who believe that it is useful to have longer and longer breaks from the House. One of the virtues of our parliamentary democracy is that ours is a full-time Parliament. "Full-time" obviously does not mean that we do not have recesses, which are necessary and perhaps needed for many reasons, but we should not drift into a situation where it is accepted, for example, that we break up in the middle of July and come back in the second or third week, or perhaps the last week, of October. We should be very careful about this.
Governments of all parties very often have good reason, especially when they are in difficulty, for not wanting the House to sit. For all the reasons with which we are very familiar, this is especially so in the case of the current Government, as will undoubtedly be demonstrated in the results of the European election of 9 June.
§ Mr. Newton
Although I do not wish to suggest other than that the hon. Gentleman is making his point in an extremely reasonable way or that his manner is uncharacteristic, I should point out that the very early July date to which he has referred had something to do with the disturbance in the programme that resulted from the Danish referendum of that year. A good deal of pressure is put on me to implement—in shorthand terms—the recommendations of the Jopling report. One of those recommendations is precisely what the hon. Gentleman is resisting.
§ Mr. Winnick
I note and appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I am not by any means in favour of all Jopling's recommendations. The suggested morning sittings, however, would at least be some sort of compensation. As I have said, this ought to remain a full-time Parliament.
I agree with the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) about the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, in respect of which the Government have acted very shabbily. Perhaps the majority of those in the country at large did not notice that the Bill was being debated. Conservative Members may believe me or not, as they wish, when I say that there is a strong feeling that disabled people have been treated shabbily. I am pleased about this feeling. It is felt—quite correctly—that Parliament too has been treated in a shabby way.
Bearing in mind everything that my right hon. Friend has said about the measure that was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Dr. Berry), I should point out that at no stage did the Government then say that they would oppose it. On 11 March, for example, no one voted against the Bill. The Prime Minister said that the matter would be considered carefully in Committee. In the course of the four Committee sittings no Government amendments were put forward. If the measure is wrong, for all the reasons that the Government have put forward, surely Ministers should have used the opportunity of the Committee stage to have it amended. What happened afterwards? On Report, 80 amendments—all of them wrecking devices prepared by the Government and drafted by parliamentary counsel—were tabled.
354 This is a disgraceful way to treat Parliament, and it is certainly a disgraceful way to treat 6.5 million disabled people. Just as groups have needed legislation to deal with discrimination on grounds of race, sex, or whatever else, so it is accepted that we need laws to protect the interests of the disabled. The sooner we have such legislation the better.
§ Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the House of Commons would be much improved if, as he has suggested, we were to spend more time debating crucial national, regional and policy issues and to accept much less legislation of poor quality from any Executive, of whatever colour? No Executive should interfere with private Members' legislation that has cleared the hurdles of Committee stage and so on.
§ Mr. Winnick
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, especially on his last point. The Leader of the House will no doubt have noted his hon. Friend's remarks.
My main reason for intervening in this debate is to express concern about employment and related matters. I have read in the press that the Government are considering making an attempt to tighten up proposals for the jobless. Apparently, the unemployed will have to show not only that they are actively seeking work but also that other measures are being taken.
Undoubtedly, the impression being given is that people rather like being unemployed. Nothing could be further from the truth. I cannot over-emphasise the fact that the vast majority of the unemployed are desperately eager to find work. I accept that a few people here and there, for various reasons, do not want to work—that they adopt the same attitude as a number of rich people. Where vacancies occur, people sometimes start to queue in the middle of the night. They are anxious to be interviewed so that they may lose their current status, with all the associated problems.
These people—many of them with families—live on the very lowest incomes. They want to be in the same position as individuals like ourselves—able to earn a living. They also want the pride of being involved in work. Any impression to the contrary, such as the Government at times seem to want to give, is based on fantasy. From a propaganda point of view, it may be useful to try to explain away the very high level of unemployment, but, as my hon. Friends, from experience in their constituencies, know only too well, the unemployed are eager to find work.
We have been celebrating many 50th anniversaries. Today is the 50th anniversary of the wartime White Paper on employment. That document, which was produced by the coalition Government of the day, created feelings of great hope. Members of the forces and civilians were given the expectation that, when the war ended—as it did a year later—there would be no return to the misery of the 1920s and the 1930s.
People were led to believe that, when the war against fascism was finished, when the fascist enemy had been destroyed—hopefully, once and for all—they would be able to earn a living and bring up their families properly. The hope was that they would not have to live anywhere near the poverty levels experienced by their parents and grandparents. It is a matter of deep regret that the unemployment figures in Britain remain so high.
However, we should be concerned not only about the number of people who are unemployed, but also about the way in which some employers are clearly exploiting the 355 situation by offering very low wages. I pay tribute to the Low Pay Unit, which does an excellent job. It recently conducted a survey in the black country, which includes my constituency, and found that 70 per cent. of vacancies dealt with by jobcentres and elsewhere carried wages of less than £4 an hour, and that in 25 per cent. of cases the figure was less than £3 an hour.
How would any of us like to be earning that kind of money? How can a person live on such wages? Even if the wife is in work—and women are likely to be earning not all that much—how can parents bring up their children free from poverty and deprivation?
Employers are exploiting the unemployment situation, knowing full well that what I have said is true. People are so keen to stop being jobless that they are prepared to accept what is on offer. There is no doubt that such employers have been encouraged by the Government through the abolition of the wages councils, the constant emphasis on deregulation, and so on. The blame for inflation is put entirely on high wages. This produces a climate of opinion in which employers can offer wages at the levels I have mentioned.
§ Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)
I am following my hon. Friend's case with interest. Does he agree that we should be concerned not only with the high levels of unemployment but also with how joblessness affects individuals, families and communities? It appears that there is almost an acceptance of the current levels of unemployment. Individuals, families and communities are being destroyed. I am thinking in particular of young people, many of whom, in their twenties or thirties, have not worked since leaving school. Let us consider all the problems that will arise for such young people thinking about marriage.
§ Mr. Winnick
My hon. Friend is right. One cannot be complacent about the situation in my area—far from it —and my hon. Friend's area has been damaged far more than mine. It has been devastated by unemployment and all that goes with it. I noted that one or two Conservative Members were not listening to my hon. Friend. As he said, the fact that over 50 or 60 per cent. of school leavers know that they have no chance of getting a job, and that that will apply to their siblings because there will be no jobs for years on end, should shame us all, and especially the Government.
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)
I share the hon. Gentleman's acute distress about the large number of people who want to work but cannot find work. However, he implies that there should be a minimum wage below which work should not be advertised. What does he regard as an appropriate minimum, and what effect would it have on job opportunities?
§ Mr. Winnick
I will not give a figure, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman listens to what I am about to say. He would not wish to work for the sort of wages that I have mentioned: he would not dream of doing so. I do not want to personalise the matter, but if he has children, the last thing he would want when they grow up—if they are not already grown up—would be for them to be in such a situation.
356 We must remember that we are dealing with our fellow citizens. We can argue about whether there should be a minimum wage and what it should be, but we should be concerned not only about high unemployment but about the absolute poverty wages on which so many people are forced to live. No Conservative Member inside or outside the Chamber would dream for a moment of trying to live on such wages.
Conservative Members earn the same parliamentary salary, of course, as Opposition Members, but as far as I am aware they have at least one other source of income. That is within the rules, and no one says that it should not be so, but I am dealing with people who, if they can get work, are being offered the sort of wages that I have outlined. It is interesting to note that the survey I mentioned said that one third of the jobs advertised were part-time and, of course, such jobs carry fewer rights.
The matter on which I wish to conclude my speech also relates to employment. I am concerned about the way in which an increasing number of employers are ceasing to recognise trade unions. Establishments that for years, and without any controversy, recognised unions have decided that they will no longer do so. That certainly applies in the print industry and in many other industries. Undoubtedly that means less protection for employees. Take-it-or-leave-it union-free contracts include conditions that people are reluctant to sign, but if they do not sign such contracts, they know the alternative. But so do the employers: hence the offer of such contracts.
I am pleased that yesterday's one-day BBC strike was successful, although Conservative Members may not take that view. Although the BBC has not, fortunately, ceased to recognise unions—and I hope that it never does—it believed that it could offer all kinds of conditions to employees, who would simply take them and lump them. Yesterday's strike showed that those in the BBC are rightly willing to fight for what they believe to be their rights. I hope that management will come to a sensible conclusion and negotiate with the unions.
For the reasons that I have outlined, the job market is poor. People in work are having their protection and rights constantly undermined, and that is clearly being actively encouraged by the Government. We shall certainly return to this topic after the Whitsun recess, because Labour Members think that these issues are important, and we will raise them at every possible opportunity.
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)
My constituency is currently enjoying a remarkable improvement in its health services, with new build in both its major acute hospitals, and considerable reorganisation and improvement in its priority care hospitals. The vast majority of its schools are thoroughly enjoying the much greater freedom given to heads to plan and organise their work and their capital expenditure. In general, morale in Mid-Kent is high.
The subject of my speech may seem trivial in comparison, but there are two or three areas in which the shoe pinches, and I should like to bring them to my right hon. Friend's attention. The first of them is the ridiculous situation that is being allowed to continue—indeed, to worsen—of the differential between duty on drink in the UK and that across the channel. That is nonsense, and it is doing Kent a great deal of harm.
357 Between 1990 and 1994, the duty on beer in this country increased by 20 per cent. As one might expect, the volume being drunk has declined by 10 per cent. Pubs are closing at the rate of roughly 1,000 a year, or 5 per cent. of the total. If that continues, what will happen to the Prime Minister's dream of keeping alive Britain's traditions, such as warm beer?
To my great disappointment, the Treasury has recently yet again made clear that it is happy, because its take from the duty has increased. I suggest that the increase will be short-term if the goose that lays the golden eggs is allowed to be strangled. I wonder whether the Treasury's accounting on this matter is far too narrow. If pubs continue to close, jobs in the affected areas will decline, and tax income will disappear. The VAT on food sales will decline.
Kent is unquestionably suffering: jobs and businesses are at risk. Some 15.3 per cent. of the take-home beer market is now being satisfied by beer bought on the other side of the channel. It is wholly ridiculous that a Kentish brewer should be forced to set up special outlets in France, where his beer is now handled by French workers. He has done that simply to survive, but those jobs could perfectly well come to Kent.
The issue applies more widely. Crime is being widely stimulated. Technically speaking, it may not be a crime for people to cross the channel up to four times a day to buy what is theoretically a personal allowance of liquor, but we know perfectly well that it is being put on articulated lorries and carried all over the UK. That is bad for the morale, and the morals, of the country as a whole.
It is all very well for Customs and Excise to boast that last year it intercepted 30,000 litres of beer in Birmingham and Manchester and confiscated them. But, as we all know, Customs and Excise catches only a tiny percentage of what is improperly brought in, whether it be drugs or, as in this case, liquor. We are in danger of precipitating a further rapid decline in the British beer trade, the Kentish economy and the standards of morality throughout the country. I hope that the House will not adjourn until we have had a chance to discuss that matter.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will not be surprised to hear me return to what is regarded as the parochial issue of the channel tunnel rail link. One of the sad aspects of this place is that, if a project is large enough and lasts long enough, those who discuss it inevitably sound extremely boring, because everyone has heard it before.
However, I must raise the matter and say with great sorrow that my right hon. Friend the Minister responsible for the railways has disappointed Kent in the past few days. A delegation led by Christopher Jackson, Member of the European Parliament, and put together under the auspices of Maidstone borough council, went to see the European Commissioner for the Environment, which was a perfectly proper step to take.
Before the delegation went, my right hon. Friend wrote to Commissioner Paleokrassas to say that it might be helpful for him to know that that meeting with the Member of the European Parliament and "action groups"—it was actually a delegation led by an elected local authority—was out of order. My right hon. Friend gave the Commissioner a series of reasons why he regarded it as improper for the European Commission to take an interest in that matter.
358 All along, my right hon. Friend the Minister had led us to believe that his objection to the Boxley long tunnel was on grounds of cost. So, if a properly constituted delegation goes to see the European Commissioner to discuss the availability of European funds, it is wholly improper that my right hon. Friend should attempt to shipwreck that delegation before it even started out.
I once received a letter from my right hon. Friend saying that, on environmental grounds, the Boxley long tunnel was preferable, and was being turned down only on the ground of cost. The issue has unanimous local support. The county council, all the district councils, all the conservation bodies, all the parish councils and all the action groups are unanimous on that matter.
I am disappointed, and have written to my right hon. Friend the Minister to seek an assurance that, when the hybrid Bill on the channel tunnel rail link is presented to the House, it will be drafted in a way that will allow the Committee to consider that major alteration in the route. I have a nasty feeling that an attempt will be made to define the terms in which the line is drawn in a way that will exclude that possibility. If so, I and all my friends in Kent will regard that as a gross betrayal of Kent. My right hon. Friend has frequently said that it would be for the Committee to decide, and I hope that he will give me that assurance.
We now know that it is almost certain that trains on the new line will run at 186 miles an hour. For a long time, the Department of Transport has been telling us all that the intention was that, in the early days, trains would run at 140 miles an hour, but that, if improvements in signalling and rolling stock were made later, the speed might rise, but not for a considerable time. We now discover that trains will almost certainly run at 186 miles an hour ab initio.
What is important about that is that it is yet a further example of the greater wisdom of the so-called "amateurs" in my constituency and other parts of Kent, who knew all along that that would almost certainly be the case. I am extremely worried that slippery half-truths are coming out of the Department of Transport.
On a more cheerful note on transport, the Piggyback Consortium has just published an admirable report that suggests that some 400,000 lorry movements a year could be taken off Britain's roads if the relatively small capital works that would be needed to enable piggyback transport to be carried on British railway tracks were carried out. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is interested in that matter, so I hope that he will give it further support. It would be good for us to debate it.
Two events occurred in the House yesterday. First, the chairman of the Association of Directors of Social Services spoke to a Back-Bench Committee in this place. She reiterated the long-established fact that the association supports direct payment to disabled people, to enable those who choose to do so, and are regarded as capable of doing so, to buy in their domiciliary care at their own hand. Secondly, it was announced that 16, 17 and 18-year-olds would be given a voucher to enable them to choose where to spend the money which the Exchequer gives them.
How can the Government any longer resist the case for giving sophisticated, intelligent, disabled people a similar right to choose how to spend their entitlement to public funds at their own hand, directly to employ their own domiciliary staff? It is nonsense to suggest that a 16-year-old makes better use of choosing how to spend 359 public money than somebody who may have broken his or her back but has kept all his or her intelligence and capacity to manage.
Before we adjourn, we should debate the role that volunteering can play in the life of this nation, if only we would think big rather than relentlessly small. We should provide an opportunity for every young person who wants to, do so to contribute as a volunteer. Nothing would do more to enhance the self-respect of young people, especially those who are unemployed or who, for whatever reason, have had a poor school record. Nothing would give them a better chance to get a reference; take ownership, in a small way, of a part of this society; learn how to work with others; and learn how some other people live. We must revisit that issue.
We must also make it easier for benefit recipients to volunteer. The recent statement on the number of hours that can be worked as a volunteer before putting benefit at risk was disappointing. It was far too discretionary, and did not meet the earlier commitment that the Government would make it much easier for people who want to give back to society in a voluntary capacity the opportunity to do so without losing their benefit.
The chief reason why older people do not volunteer has been shown to be that nobody asks them. The Government could encourage much greater participation of the rapidly growing proportion of our population who have either left employment at the age of 50 or 50-plus, or gone into part-time employment at that age, to contribute to society their skills, experience and knowledge. I know that the Prime Minister is interested in that matter, and that the new Home Office initiative has still to get under way, but the scale of that initiative is pathetically small, and we can and must do better.
§ 5.9 pm
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
I do not think that we should pass the motion and adjourn on its terms until we have heard an explanation—and perhaps an apology—from the Lord President of the Council for the conduct of one Member of the House. I refer to the Secretary of State for Health. The Lord President will perhaps refer also to two other recent events—the apology by the Minister of State, Department of Social Security and the apology that was made just a few moments ago, although that will not be a part of this debate.
I take no joy in drawing the right hon. Gentleman's attention and that of the House to what I believe to be another clearly inaccurate statement, made this time by a member of the Cabinet. I hope that the matter will be cleared up before the House goes into recess. Perhaps the Lord President can suggest how the manifest inaccuracy which appears in column 415 of the Official Report of 28 April can be amended satisfactorily.
In a debate about the national health service in London, the Secretary of State for Health referred to the London ambulance service in her second speech of the day. The House will know that I have participated in no fewer than seven Adjournment debates on the subject and have tabled one private notice question—which would have been totally unnecessary if the service were all right. The right hon. Lady tried to explain why she would not give way during her speech. She said: 360I have had frequent lengthy discussions with the hon. Gentleman, not least on the Thames and on other occasions. I have learnt from experience that if he wishes to make his point, it is wise to let him make it in his own speech if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker."—[Official Report, 28 April 1994; Vol. 242, c. 415.]The right hon. Lady would not give way to me. Alas, I have not had frequent or lengthy discussions with her, for the simple reason that I have not had any discussions with her at all, other than the incident on the Thames to which she referred and to which I shall come in a minute.
In fact, I could not understand what the right hon. Lady said at the time because she did not say it very loudly. However, I looked at Hansard the next day and read those words. I wrote to the Secretary of State on 29 April, and asked her:
either withdraw your statement that we have had 'frequent lengthy discussions', or jog my memory by stating when and where they took place.I would be grateful for full replies to these two matters"—I also raised an ambulance matter—I raise by a personally signed letter.Unfortunately, that personally signed letter did not arrive for some time. A couple of days ago, I reminded the Secretary of State that a reply was due. However, I did not receive a letter from the right hon. Lady; I received a letter yesterday from her Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. It referred to the matters about which I complained in only one short paragraph:I am sure that the references, which were made during the recent Opposition Day Debate, were meant to reflect the continuing interest you have shown in the LAS over recent months, which has been very much appreciated.I think that it may have been appreciated because I have been talking to officials of South West Thames regional health authority, whose members the right hon. Lady appoints. But that is all that was said.
If people are to be allowed to say that they had frequent lengthy discussions which did not occur and justify their claims by saying, "We knew you were concerned about it", what will happen to standards in public life? That is the sum total of the written replies that I received from the Secretary of State. I think that hon. Members and anyone else would say that that is not good enough. It is an attempt to evade our rights as representatives of the people who send us to this place. What could be less contentious in party terms than the ambulance service?
I felt obliged to raise the matter during this debate. I think that it may be even more serious than I have outlined. Not only did the right hon. Lady speak about events which had not happened; she also suggested that we had had a conversation on the River Thames. I will tell the House about that conversation.
I wrote three letters to the right hon. Lady and her Ministers in September 1992, prior to the collapse of the ambulance service, warning her about the situation. But I did not receive a reply from her. Being of a charitable turn of mind, I thought that perhaps, under instruction—we know that these things happen—she might not have seen my letters.
During a social event which had nothing to do with politics or our offices I saw to it that the right hon. Lady received an envelope from me. We met briefly afterwards and talked about the social event—which, again, had nothing to do with politics or the health service. It was not a discussion; I merely wanted to make sure that the right hon. Lady received a warning in September 1992 before 361 the ambulance service collapsed, because I thought that she might do something about it. That is the purport of her second reference.
There can be only one explanation—a charitable one —for the sequence of events. It was suggested to me by someone who, when I outlined what had occurred, said, "She must have felt that she had discussions with you because of all the trouble that there has been about the London ambulance service." A long overdue payment of £14 million above budget has been made to the London ambulance service. Perhaps the right hon. Lady had terrible trouble with the Treasury because of my Adjournment debates. I do not know. It may be that that is what she had in mind when she made those references. That is my charitable interpretation.
Surely we must maintain standards in the House. Members of the public are already worried about certain matters which I will not go into now. Two recent unfortunate incidents have been raised today already. Ministers must be very certain that what they say—even off the cuff—is accurate. If it is drawn to their attention that their remarks are inaccurate, they should not weave, duck and dive as I am afraid the right hon. Lady has done. When I gave her the opportunity to make amends for what she had said—perhaps not as pointedly as I should have —that opportunity was not taken.
I have a good maxim: one hates the sin and loves the sinner. Unless we take a stand on matters such as these, authoritarianism will grow. On certain occasions we have to say, "I will take it thus far, but no further". We have now reached that point.
The Secretary of State for Health is not known for her feeling in the House. She frequently relies on copious notes and she does not always give way as one hopes a Minister of the Crown wishing to serve the public and their representatives will do. I think that the Secretary of State, who is knowingly most unpopular, might become a very popular person if she returned to her primary function as the Member of Parliament for Surrey, South-West.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
The two opening speakers in the debate—the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) and my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) —raised difficult issues about which there are strong feelings in the country and in the House. They were absolutely right to speak as they did.
It will be a source of some comfort to my hon. Friends and some irritation to Opposition Members to be reminded that this Parliament has nearly three years to run. I think that it is appropriate for the House to delay rising in order to debate some of the themes and practical policies that the Government might pursue both immediately and in the second half of this Parliament.
Since I spoke in the equivalent debate a year ago—my right hon. Friend will recall that speech—much has changed for the better in respect of the real world in Britain, and the actual policies, as opposed to the rumoured policies, being pursued by the Government. The divisive and enervating Maastricht debates are over, although there are some—particularly in the press and to a lesser extent here—who want to continue them.
Economic recovery is gathering pace by the month, and with it, unemployment is falling. Over the past six months, 362 unemployment has fallen nationally by more than 130,000 to 9.5 per cent; in the south-west region, it has fallen by nearly 12,000 to 8.5 per cent. and in my constituency it has fallen by nearly 100 to 7.7 per cent.. We welcome those trends and hope that they will continue.
The legislative framework is now in place for the deregulation of many of the bureaucratic burdens that have built up on business over the past few years. We must monitor it to ensure that it is the bath water and not the baby that is thrown out. I welcome the initiatives announced yesterday by my right hon. Friends the President of the Board of Trade and the Secretary of State for Employment and, particularly in view of the speech by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), I hope more effort will be targeted to help those who have been unemployed for a long period. I hope, through my membership of the Select Committee on Employment, to play a part in developing that.
Most important, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill marks a comprehensive, relevant and generally popular move forward on numerous issues of crime, public order and civil liberty. It has been pointed out by the Police Federation that the present Home Secretary is the first to challenge the liberal establishment at the Home Office. That is welcome on the Conservative Benches and in the country.
All those measures are evidence of a Prime Minister and a Government who listen to the country—and not least to hon. Members—and take action, although to read the accounts in some of the newspapers, one would hardly guess it.
For the immediate future, I want to impress on my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House the need for early action to deal with the very great burdens and the anger and concern being imposed by the Child Support Agency. A meeting in my constituency last Friday was attended by about 70 people who were suffering from the exactions of the CSA. I accept that when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was Secretary of State, there was very little recognition of the problems as the Bill passed through Parliament, but we now need early and urgent action.
We also need an early statement on the Government's decision following the Bloomfield report on the dental profession. There has been long irritation about what is happening to the dental profession and dentistry.
While I have the opportunity, I should like to impress on the Leader of the House the need for legislation next year to implement the Government's commitments on national parks. I am glad to see in her place my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning) who has tried to pioneer that this Session. I hope that we will have Government legislation on both those commitments and to implement the reform of agricultural landlord and tenant legislation for which we have long been pressing.
Let me set out some of the objectives that we must pursue. Continuing economic recovery and the continuing battle against crime must jointly take top priority. Practically every family in the country is concerned about one or the other, and often both. We must not tolerate without good reason any obstacles to that progress.
While I congratulate the Home Secretary on burying most of the Sheehy report on the police—if there were time, one might reflect on whose fingerprints were on that report before it was buried—the criteria I have set are those 363 against which we must judge the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill which is yet to be considered in detail on the Floor of the House.
Secondly, there is the objective of lower taxation. We must continue to explain that no responsible Government could continue borrowing at the recent rate while the economy was clearly coming out of recession, and that the alternative to tax increases, however regrettable, was deep cuts in public services that our constituents, including their grandparents and children, all value.
We must also keep in the foreground the objective of fiscal equity—that tax burdens should fall and tax reliefs be made in proportion to income. People on middle incomes —by that I mean anything up to the fairly large figure of £30,000 a year—have a legitimate complaint which should be recognised as we are able to reduce taxes.
The third objective, which was the theme of my speech a year ago and the theme of much that I have been saying since, is the continuing need for the legislation that we pass in the House to avoid change for its own sake and set out clearly particular cases for change and the need for improvements.
I have already referred to Sir Patrick Sheehy, but no reference to this policy of consolidation would be complete without a reference to his administrative twin, Sir John Banham. On the Banham issue, which I shall explain is relevant to the European dimension, I can only remind the House that neither of the Opposition parties wants to simplify local government; they want to get rid of one tier so that they can erect a new tier of regional government with powers of taxation, and to that end they want to abolish the counties.
It would be ironic and, indeed, bizarre if one as intelligent, historically minded and traditionalist as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment swept away 1,000 years of history to enable the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) to set up his regional socialist satraps.
§ Mr. David Hanson (Delyn)
I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman said. He and I have spent many weeks serving on the Committee considering the Local Government (Wales) Bill, in which he voted to sweep away the county councils in Wales. How does he square that argument?
§ Mr. Nicholson
Wales is a country with a very different history and geography from England, and what we have been sweeping away in Wales are the new structures that were set up some 20 years ago. I have never had any dissent from the sweeping away of the counties of Avon, Humberside and Cleveland that were set up in England 20 years ago. I have paid considerable attention to the need to ensure a degree of consistency in my policy towards English local government and what I have been supporting and voting for in the Local Government (Wales) Committee.
The European point is this: I understand that it is the ambition of both Opposition parties—and a Labour Member explained it to me—to centralise upwards in Europe and to devolve downwards to regional tiers so that, eventually—and they accept that it will take some time —the United Kingdom Government and this Parliament will wither away. The suggestion is that the House would 364 meet two or three times a year for ceremonial purposes. When I put that point to one of my hon. Friends from Somerset he reminded me that that was the ambition of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who would not even allow the House to meet two or three times a year. The House should recall that as we go into recess.
§ Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)
This is a fascinating explanation of Labour party policy, presumably obtained from the hon. Gentleman's own party's headquarters in Smith square. To whom is he attributing this explanation of Labour party policy?
§ Mr. Nicholson
It is not from Smith square; it was based on more than one conversation with people in the political domain. I am glad to hear from the hon. Gentleman that he is as embarrassed as other Opposition Members might be at the suggestion. I am sure it is the logical conclusion of many of the measures to which the Labour party are committed.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)
Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot intervene on an intervention.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. It is also wrong for one hon. Member to try to answer on behalf of another hon. Member.
§ Mr. Nicholson
In view of my hon. Friend's point and your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall leave the matter there. However, I was glad to hear the assurance given by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East. I made it clear that I was talking about a gradual and long-term process. This House should be aware of the processes supported by both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. However, the Liberal Democrats—who have no representative here today—are rather more open and less coy than the Labour party about their attraction to those processes.
The usual cautionary phrase used when administrative upheaval is proposed is, "If it ain't broke, don't mend it." I remain convinced that that is an essential watchphrase, which has often been applied to the Post Office—that much valued and greatly improved service. There is now unanimity that some changes need to be made in its organisation. I especially welcome those proposed last week by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, first, for Post Office Counters to strengthen the role 365 of sub-post offices—which are so vital to rural and semi-rural areas—and, secondly, to provide greater commercial freedom for the Royal Mail.
Whether that extension of commercial freedom, which I think all parties accept, and the interests of fair competition require a measure of privatisation is something that we must consider during the consultation period. I am extremely grateful that my right hon. Friend has provided time for consultation on these complex matters. The fair competition point is valid, which is why I know that there is support for a measure of privatisation. However, we also need to guarantee—not just for a few years, but indefinitely—the commitments on the uniform tariff and the retention and, indeed, improvement of the present collection and delivery service.
On the question of privatised utilities generally, there are one or two tasks that the Government and Parliament should undertake during the second half of this Parliament. Obviously, one of those tasks is to promote vigorously the undoubted successes of privatisation, especially in telecommunications and gas, and even the vast investment now being undertaken in the water industry. I shall have more to say about water later. At the same time, we need to consider some of the difficulties that have arisen, for example, the power of the regulators and the failed diversifications in certain utilities, which was highlighted recently in The Sunday Times.
While all Conservative Members accept that considerable benefits will come from the introduction of competition into the gas industry, there is concern in the south-west at the possible burdening of our constituents with transport costs. I am assured that the benefits from competition will greatly outweigh the transportation costs. We will have to examine that closely. My hon. Friends in the south-west would find the general principle of geographical discrimination unacceptable if, as has been suggested, perhaps in a rather alarmist way, in the Western Morning News, it were to apply to postal, electricity or telephone charges.
There are other, rather more significant, issues relating to the privatised utilities that will not go away—for example, whether the privatised coal industry is being treated fairly in relation to electricity supply. As a Member representing a constituency in the south-west, I am sometimes asked why my constituents and I are interested in the coal industry. I suspect that one reason is that the south-west traditionally has been dependent on agriculture. It is also surrounded by fish and therefore also dependent on the fishing industry, as my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe) well knows. Therefore, there is a fellow feeling with those in the coal industry that this country should not only exploit its skills, professionalism and hard work; it should be able to exploit its natural resources.
Something that is very much of concern in the south-west is the charging system for water. Is it right and justifiable that our constituents in Devon and Cornwall, and my constituents in the extreme west of my constituency, should pay the total cost of clearing up the beaches along the whole south-western peninsula? I am sorry to tell my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that those issues will not go away. Indeed, my hon. Friends and I will return to them again and again.
The country is now facing the European elections. Whatever the speculation in certain section of the press, the Conservative party is united on the programme spelt out by 366 Margaret Daly, the Member of the European Parliament for Somerset and West Dorset, and other candidates, which is to keep Britain's veto in Europe, to support a Europe that does less and does it better, to work constantly for a level playing field in Europe, to ensure proper enforcement of EC laws across Europe, to protect Britain's budget rebate and to fight fraud in Europe.
Conservative Members are united behind all those matters, and in many of them our views are in sharp distinction to those of Opposition Members. It would be perverse if, as a way of protesting against certain measures from national Government, people were to elect large numbers of Liberal Democrat or Labour MEPs whose views on European issues are light years away from the views of the bulk of their constituents. That would be regrettable and I hope that the country will recoil from that possibility.
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
The House should not adjourn because matters relating to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill remain outstanding. I want to raise two aspects of the Bill that have not been referred to during the debates over recent weeks. The first is a statement by the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People, which appears in Hansard on 29 April. I intend to read that statement twice because I want to draw the attention of the House to the ambiguity of what he said and show why disablement groups may have been misled. I shall read the same words on each occasion.
The Minister said:As I said, there is an established handling procedure and, however strongly any of us may feel about the issue, we cannot deviate from it. That is not to say that the Government are not listening with care and sympathy to those who are actively campaigning for the Bill and properly using every opportunity to ensure that it reaches the statute book and that the thinking behind it is widely understood in the country outside.That is my first reading of those words. I shall now re-read exactly the same words:As I said, there is an established handling procedure and, however strongly any of us may feel about the issue, we cannot deviate from it. That is not to say that the Government are not listening with care and sympathy to those who are actively campaigning for the Bill and properly using every opportunity to ensure that it reaches the statute book and that the thinking behind it is widely understood in the country outside.There is a distinction between the way in which I read those words the first and then the second time. In the first, the Government are interpreted as using every opportunity to ensure that the Bill reaches the statute book, with the thinking behind it widely understood in the country. On the second reading, the interpretation is that the people outside are taking those actions.
I put it to the Leader of the House that the first interpretation was the one that was accepted by the disablement groups and that led them to believe that the Bill would be supported by the Government as late as 29 April this year. That was nine days after, according to the Minister's reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), he had authorised his officials to instruct parliamentary counsel to draft amendments on 20 April 1994. He authorised the drafting of the amendments on 20 April, yet on 29 April he told Parliament, in the words that I first used, that the Government supported the legislation, obviously subject to some amendment. It is in that that much of the misunderstanding has arisen.
367 If one goes on to quote other remarks made the Minister in the debate, they seem to confirm only the first interpretation that I put on the words, because at the end he said:The Government are determined to continue with that progress, and we are determined also to look at the provisions of the Bill and to see what common ground can be established between the Government and the Bill's sponsors…We will come to Report next week with an attitude which firmly reflects and reinforces the commitments made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and we will pursue the remaining stages of the Bill in that spirit. We will return to the issue next Friday, and the Government will continue to study and reflect on the comments which undoubtedly will be made in those discussions and, in due course, we will make clear to the House our conclusions about the further consideration of the matters."—[Official Report, 29 April 1994; Vol. 242, c. 514–16.]That was nine days after the instruction was given to Parliamentary Counsel to draft those wrecking amendments.
My second point relates to the ruling of Madam Speaker on 11 May. Madam Speaker made a ruling on the Floor of the House, using the same language as she used in a letter to me. So in the light of that, I feel that, in so far as Madam Speaker said that she was breaking from orthodoxy on those matters and was prepared to rule on the Floor, I am at liberty to quote only those parts of her correspondence with me to which she referred on the Floor. She places emphasis on one particular word. The letter reads:In the light of developments since I received your letter, as a result of which the House is in possession of the facts and has received an apology, I have concluded that I would not be justified in myself granting precedence for this matter's further con sideration."—"myself ' being Madam Speaker.
What Madam Speaker is therefore saying to me—I must make it clear to the House that, on principle, I have not discussed that ruling with Madam Speaker or had any contact with her office, and that I can speak quite freely, as I am uncompromised by any discussion—and to the House is that she was not in a position to grant the motion precedence. However, in the letter, she goes on to say:My decision in no way reflects your right"—my right—to seek ways to pursue this matter yourself.She is saying that I can pursue the matter. There are only a few ways open to me to do that in terms of bringing a motion. Either I win a ballot—I have never won one of those ballots, or perhaps I did, in 1985—or I would have to convince my political party, which, in the circumstan-ces, would be improper, that it should table the motion on a Supply day. I believe that, technically, it could. The problem with that is that the moment a political party is seen to be tabling a motion of that nature, it politicises a matter that should be dealt with on a cross-party basis. I think that it is impossible for the Labour party to table such a motion, because it has implications for procedure in the future when those matters arise, as they will, no doubt, again and again.
If my political party cannot table a motion, and I cannot table a motion, and Madam Speaker is unprepared to give the matter precedence, the only remaining person in a position to table such a motion is the Leader of the House. I believe that there is a responsibility on him to table that motion, and I shall explain why.
I was astonished, as I said at the time, by Madam Speaker's ruling. What I did not say at the time, however, 368 was that I understood it. In my view, there was a reason why it was made. I am not challenging it in any way. I am seeking to set out for the House why I think that that decision was taken. Many hon. Members had not thought through the implications of me bringing my complaint for contempt. If Madam Speaker had ruled that the motion be given precedence, and because the Government cannot vote against the Speaker, the Government, including Ministers and the payroll vote, would have had to go into the Lobby upholding the decision of Madam Speaker to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee. My view is that that would have been impossible to do. Ministers could not have gone into the Lobby upholding the recommendation to the House, based on the Speaker giving precedence to the motion to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee, because, in effect, the Government would have been undermining the very credibility of one of their Ministers.
That brings me to an interesting consideration. If the payroll vote—I do not use the word pejoratively—and Ministers cannot vote against a motion that is given precedence to go to the Privileges Committee, where a Minister is involved, because it undermines the credibility of Ministers, the Privileges Committee system no longer works. It means that the Speaker will always have to rule in the way that she did on that occasion. The Speaker has no option.
I can see by the facial expression of the Leader of the House that, perhaps, I am not making it as clear as I should. I am arguing that if the motion had been given precedence by Madam Speaker, he and his colleagues would have had to have gone into the Lobby upholding the motion to refet the matter to the Privileges Committee. That would have been an untenable position for a Minister. I do not think that it is possible to do that. Therefore, there must be another way of dealing with the matter. My view is that, in indicating support for that motion, they would be saying to the Minister that he would have to resign.
I am arguing that, had Madam Speaker given the motion precedence, knowing that Ministers would have had to have gone into the Lobby in support of referring the matter to the Privileges Committee, she would effectively have been securing the resignation of the Minister involved. I do not think that the Speaker of the House of Commons should be placed in that position. That is what would have happened if she had ruled, or announced privately to the Government that she intended to rule, in favour of the motion being given precedence. I believe that the Minister involved would not have survived another hour in post. He would have had to have gone, because the inevitable consequence would have been that the Leader of the House would have had to have gone into the Lobby to support the matter being referred to the Privileges Committee, and thus undermined the credibility of the Minister.
An important principle is involved here. If we cannot bring contempt complaints against Ministers because the Speaker is placed in an invidious position, the procedure must be changed.
Another matter is involved, which will inevitably come before the House in the coming months—the Scott inquiry. I am not talking about this same Scott, but the other Scott inquiry. There again, the issue is the deliberate misleading of the House of Commons. I do not think that I am being silly in saying that some of us are following those proceedings with great interest. If it can be proved during the inquiry that Ministers have deliberately misled the 369 House, the issue of contempt will arise again. If a complaint is made, will Madam Speaker be placed in exactly the same position as before—a position in which, if she rules that the matter be given precedence, knowing that Ministers of the Crown will have to support her in the Division Lobby, she is in effect sacking those Ministers before they have even been given the right to be heard?
That is what worries me about the whole procedure. I do not know whether I have explained the matter clearly enough; I know that many hon. Members find it complicated, but I have reflected on it long and hard following the ruling to which I have referred.
I believe—in a nutshell—that the Speaker of the House of Commons should not be compromised in the way that I have described. When the Procedure Committee examines the issues, it may well want to consider what might have happened if Madam Speaker had ruled that the motion should be given precedence. I do not believe that, if that procedure had been followed through, the motion would ever have reached the Floor of the House: the Minister would have resigned as soon as the Speaker had notified the Government Whips of her decision.
I merely ask that the matter be considered. I know that it will not be considered before our short recess, but I hope that the House authorities will note what I have said.
§ Sir Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)
Debates such as this raise many lively issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) spoke of the problems of Bosnia. I do not think that anyone would dispute the fact that a terrible tragedy is going on there, but there is also a terrible problem in Rwanda: I believe that more people have been killed there in the past month than in the entire Bosnian campaign. The tragedy of Bosnia is being repeated in other parts of the world.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) referred to the Child Support Agency, a subject that I raised just before Easter, and I agree with everything that he said. It is no good for the Government to carry on as though everything were all right; what began as a good idea has now become a minefield. Many of us have encountered cases in which former partners who divorced amicably have been set against each other as a result of the agency's actions. I am also displeased by its inefficiency: it seems to take an interminable time to reply to representations made not only by constituents but by Members of Parliament.
§ Mr. David Nicholson
Does my hon. Friend agree that the longer the difficulties that he mentions are allowed to fester, the more the legitimate objectives of the agency and of the Child Support Act 1991 will be undermined?
§ Sir Fergus Montgomery
I entirely agree. One of the points that concern me is that, although the intention of the Act was to catch wayward fathers who contributed nothing to their ex-wives and children, the only people who come to me for advice are those who are already paying their dues and are now being asked to pay a great deal more than they can afford. I have not yet encountered a case in which a wayward father has been brought to book and made to meet his responsibilities.
I take part in debates such as this quite often because they give hon. Members a chance to talk about anything they choose and to draw attention to matters that they 370 consider important and worthy of debate before the House breaks for a recess. Today I want to raise an issue that I have raised before. I make no apology for raising it again, because no one seems to have taken much notice of anything that I said previously. Accordingly, I shall continue to press the point.
I wish to discuss affordable housing, which I consider enormously important. I must first declare an interest as my wife chairs a housing association and is also a member of the Housing Corporation. I stress, however, that she did not write my speech: the responsibility is entirely mine.
More and more housing association tenants are caught in what I believe is known as the poverty trap. I fear that we are creating a growth in the dependency culture, which cannot be a good thing. We should encourage people to be independent. Of course we have great responsibilities in relation to the disabled, the elderly and the sick, whom we must help as much as we possibly can, but young people should be encouraged to go out to work and to help themselves rather than sitting back in the belief that the state should provide for them.
I find it depressing that people who try to help themselves by taking low-paid jobs often find that they are worse off than those on benefit. It makes no sense for people to be better off if they do not work than if they go out and look for employment. I also wonder about children who are brought up in such an environment: seeing that their parents are better off staying at home cannot be very good for their future. We must try to change that.
Housing associations are now the main providers of new rented accommodation. Not so long ago, the Select Committee on the Environment conducted a thorough study of the problem and we debated its report in the House earlier this year. The Committee warned of serious consequences if the housing association grant rate fell below 67 per cent. It has now fallen to 62 per cent., and those involved in housing fear that the Government have set themselves the objective of a 55 per cent. rate in 1995–96. If there is any reduction in the grant, the number of tenants dependent on housing benefit is likely to increase and more and more tenants will be caught in the poverty trap.
The National Federation of Housing Associations has just published a valuable document which should be compulsory reading for anyone interested or involved in housing. It makes a number of points, some of them very compelling. It states, for instance, that if we move away from the system of "bricks and mortar subsidy" towards a system of targeting support for individuals, the cost of housing benefit will increase substantially. Because housing association grant is a capital grant paid towards the commencement of a project, and because the housing benefit bill accrues over the years, the comparison of direct savings and costs is difficult to quantify. However, I do not believe that such a change of policy will achieve any saving in public expenditure.
The report also points out that lower grant rates lead to a growth in benefit dependency and work disincentive. The federation has proved that the proportion of working households among new tenants fell from 32 per cent. in 1989–90 to 25 per cent. in the first half of 1993–94. No doubt that is partly due to the disincentives involved in being in work and paying high housing association rents. The federation forecasts that if an average 55 per cent. grant rate is introduced in 1995–96 working households taking up the new housing association tenancies will be 371 much worse off than they were in 1993. It forecasts that their rents will be 34 per cent. higher and that they will have to earn £220 a week to escape the poverty trap. That compares with £180 in 1993. The disincentive to work is therefore £40 a week greater. It forecasts that those people will be eligible for 41 per cent. more housing benefit and that the percentage of them paying rents that the National Federation of Housing Associations defines as unaffordable will increase from 73 per cent. to 83 per cent.
I have enormous regard for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and Construction because he knows more about housing than any other right hon. or hon. Member and he cares deeply about the plight of the homeless and of people who have to live in rented property. In March 1993 he said thatthe poverty trap is a ditch rather than a cliff. It is perfectly possible to clamber out the other side, or indeed to leap the ditch at one bound if a reasonably well-paid job can be found.Evidence from the National Federation of Housing Associations shows that the poverty trap is not a ditch but a pit from which it is impossible to leap.
With a national average grant rate of 55 per cent., it is expected that between 1993 and 1996 the trend for working households will worsen. The federation's booklet suggests that rents will increase by 34 per cent. and that people will need to earn a further £40 a week to escape the poverty trap, as against £180 in 1993. It also states that the percentage of income spent on rent will increase from 29.4 per cent. to 33.1 per cent. and that, for the 83 per cent. of those paying rents which are unaffordable according to the NFHA's affordability criteria, housing benefit costs per working household will increase by 41 per cent. There will be a further decline in the percentage of working households among new tenants. All of that shows the growing disincentives to work which result from significant rent increases and their interface with the welfare benefit system. That is a serious problem.
Housing is essential to the national well-being. The construction industry should be given a boost. Too many construction workers are unemployed. If we could get them back to work, not only would more new houses become available for people who are desperately anxious to be rehoused, but people would be taken off the unemployment register and put back into productive work, which would benefit the Exchequer. We would spend less on unemployment benefit and the tax revenue generated would go to the Exchequer. It would also be an enormous help in the fight against homelessness.
I have said it before, but I say it again: I become depressed when in certain parts of London I see so many people sleeping rough. I know that some choose that way of life, but some are homeless because they have nowhere else to go. The problem exists in every other capital city in the world. Nevertheless, it should strike at people's social consciences. I hope that, if more affordable houses are built for rent, we shall see a notable drop in homelessness in this country.
I urge the Government to ensure that the Housing Corporation is given adequate funds to continue with the main task of providing affordable housing for people in need. Before we rise for the spring recess, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will assure me on that point.
§ 6.3 pm
§ Mr. David Hanson (Delyn)
I was interested to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) because there is much on which we agree. Many more homes for rent should be built and local authorities should be given the opportunity to be a leading force in getting people back to work, creating jobs and providing a socially useful function. I hope that the Leader of the House will take on board some of those comments, even though we may disagree on some of the issues that were raised.
The debate has been wide ranging and interesting topics have been raised. The topic that I want to raise is not debated often in the House, but I hope that it will be of interest and that it will stimulate a response from the Lord President.
I was particularly keen to hear the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) and of my right hon Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) on the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, with which I agreed.
Perhaps the most amazing speech this afternoon, which caused me great enjoyment, was made by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), whose wide-ranging speech provided another example of a Conservative Member stacking up alibis for the day when he has to face the general election. As the hon. Gentleman has a majority of just 3,300, I can understand why he spent so much time shoring up his rear in preparation for that inevitable general election.
The issue of solvent and volatile substance abuse was last raised in the House on 20 December 1988 by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Sir P. Fry). I raise the issue today because I understand that the Lord President is chairing a committee of Ministers investigating drug misuse generally and ways in which the Government can respond. On 5 May, the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd), stated that the central drugs co-ordination unit had two major tasks:
first, to ensure that departmental policies are planned, developed and implemented in England with a clear strategic framework and, secondly, to take the lead in devising an effective basis for local co-ordination of action to tackle the drugs problem."—[Official Report, 5 May 1994; Vol. 242, c. 934]This issue is not often raised in the House, but it affects every constituency in this country and it should be discussed today because there will be few other occasions on which to do so.
The problem is widespread. In 1991, the last year for which figures are available from St. George's hospital and medical school in London, there were 122 deaths in the United Kingdom from solvent and volatile substance abuse, compared with only two in 1971. Since 1971, 1,237 people have died from such abuse. On average, the number of deaths has risen by 5.5 per cent. per year. Since 1985, there has not been one year in which fewer than 100 people have died as a result of solvent and volatile substance abuse.
Since the hon. Member for Wellingborough last addressed this topic in the House, an estimated 600 further deaths have occurred in the UK as a result of solvent and volatile substance abuse. Every week, there are many instances of such deaths in hon. Members' constituencies. Only this week, I read press reports of a 15-year-old boy from Congleton who suffered a massive heart attack following the inhalation of a cocktail of lethal solvents and 373 volatile substances. A 14-year-old Glasgow boy was found unconscious in the town centre following abuse of volatile substances. Efforts to revive him failed and he died shortly afterwards. In Crawley last week, a teenage girl suffered a massive heart attack after inhaling hairspray—one of the products that people do not generally associate with solvent and volatile substance abuse.
In constituencies throughout the UK people are inhaling and using a range of products to achieve their kicks. Those products are readily available in shops and other outlets. It is well-known that glues are used, but Tipp-Ex, felt tip pens, lighter fuel, hairspray and all aerosols which use butane gas are being abused by young people. That is why it is important that the Government should deal positively with the problem in the committee that the Lord President is chairing. I appreciate why it has been set up and I hope that it will act positively to tackle solvent and volatile substance abuse because the death toll will continue to rise from the 122 deaths last year unless action is taken.
The problem of solvent and volatile substance abuse is affecting children as young as eight or nine, who are in primary schools, and the bulk of the 122 deaths in 1991 —the latest year for which we have statistics—were of young people in their teenage years. Of those 122 deaths, 38 per cent. were of people identified as first-time users. That means that the first time they abused a substance it resulted in their death. That makes even more urgent the need for the Government to tackle the problem before the Spring Adjournment, and to address it during the deliberations of the Committee that the Leader of the House is to chair.
One worrying aspect is the fact that many people, and even many hon. Members listening to the debate, do not recognise that the problem exists. I want to bring it before the House before the Adjournment so as to inform the House that the problem exists. We could go back to any of our homes tonight and find in the garage, the bathroom, the kitchen and the living room 50 or 60 products which can be abused, and which are being abused right now by young people somewhere.
In 1991, 33 per cent. of the deaths were attributed to the inhalation of cigarette lighter fuel, which is commonly available over the counter in many shops. Glue, which is also commonly available, claimed 11 per cent. of the victims, and Tipp-Ex thinner, which many of us still have in our offices, claimed a further 10 per cent. Such products are readily available, and it is important that when the Leader of the House and the committee are considering those matters they address the issues in a positive manner. Before my time is up I wish to raise a couple of points which I hope that the committee—and, in due course, the House—will consider.
First, a strong Government strategy is needed. I welcome the Government's policies and proposals, and the publicity campaign on solvent and volatile substance abuse that they have undertaken in the past couple of years. One of the commonest complaints that I have heard, both as a Member of Parliament and as someone who worked in the field before being elected to the House, was the tragic statement made to me by many parents after their child had died: "If only I had known what the symptoms were; if only I had known that those products could be abused, I might have been able to do something to help." I hope that the ministerial committee will take seriously the issue of parental awareness.
374 Secondly, one of the main reasons why young people are drawn into solvent and volatile substance abuse is peer group pressure. It is hard to resist when one's friends and colleagues ask one to do something. In our time we have probably all had a cigarette behind the bike sheds. It is hard to resist the pressures. With solvent and volatile substance abuse, however, when some people are forcing and encouraging others to take part in such activities, the difference is that people can die from their first opportunity to abuse.
I therefore wish to impress on the Minister the need for a skills-based programme in schools to ensure that people understand what the products are and why they should not abuse them. That would give them the self-confidence and skills to resist peer group pressure, and to understand and resist solvent and volatile substance abuse, which can often lead to further drug abuse.
Retailers, too, should be considered. All the products that I have mentioned can be bought in any shop in London, in any village or, indeed, anywhere in this country. Deaths are occurring in every part of the United Kingdom. We need a strong programme of retailer education so that the existing legislation—the Intoxicating Substances (Supply) Act 1985, which was introduced by the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter)—is enforced by retailers and so that they know which products are likely to be abused and should not be sold to people under 18 who may possibly abuse them.
We also need to ensure that the statutory services—the police, the youth services, general practitioners and the many people at the interface with young people liable to volatile substance abuse—know about the causes, the symptoms and the remedies, so as to help ensure that young people do not get involved in the first place.
I raise the matter because, although I know that the Lord President would not allow that to happen, it is tempting for a ministerial committee investigating drug abuse to concentrate on heroin, crack, cannabis and so on, and on the important problem of co-ordination. However, I remind the Minister that solvent and volatile substance abuse is killing more people in the United Kingdom today than all those other forms of drug abuse put together. It is a major problem, and the Government must deal with it.
In conclusion, I ask the Lord President a couple of questions. Will the committee be able to consider what action the Government will take to ensure that the problem of solvent and volatile substance abuse is central to their overall strategy for the prevention of drug misuse? Many different Departments are now involved. The Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Health and the Home Office all have a finger in the pie. Those Departments are all doing their own thing, but there is a lack of co-ordination on solvent and volatile substance abuse. I hope that the ministerial committee will be able to overcome that. Perhaps responsibility could be given to Ministers for such aspects as retailer training and the training of professionals, and for ensuring that schools are aware of the issues. If there is no ministerial accountability and responsibility, the issue will get lost within the wider problem of drug abuse, and within the general committee work.
This may be a strange thing for an Opposition Member to say, but I welcome what the Government have done so far. I hope that before the House rises, and certainly when the committee is examining the issue, the Minister will not forget that this week, somewhere in Britain, two or three 375 people will die as a result of solvent and volatile substance abuse. The problem needs to be tackled as part of an overall co-ordinated strategy. It needs money, ministerial accountability and involvement, and I am sure that the Minister will provide that. Today is not the time to try to score party political points, but before we rise for the recess I want to ensure that the Minister knows that, although the matter has not been raised in the House since 1988, it is still important. I hope that what I have said today will at least help to form the agenda for the meetings that the Minister will hold in the forthcoming weeks and months.
§ Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)
You will not be surprised, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to hear that I intend to raise the issue of the channel tunnel rail link before we rise for the Spring Adjournment, because the issue must be addressed. First, I express my thanks and those of my constituents to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The House will recall that, in January, he announced the route of the channel tunnel rail link from London St. Pancras to Cheriton, near the tunnel mouth. However, my right hon. Friend made exceptions for Pepper Hill and Ashford.
We all know that in the House we like to make great decisive announcements. The Secretary of State could well have said, "Here is my decision from St. Pancras to the tunnel. Here is the route, and everybody else will have to live with it, because the project is so important." However, my right hon. Friend had the courage to say instead, "No, I do not accept the case at two points on the route. I shall take the flak for not having made a final decision, and I shall instruct Union Railways, the subsidiary of British Rail, to examine those points again."
Union Railways did that, under the guidance of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport, and the process was carried through to success. Union Railways came up with a solution that has been accepted with delight and gratitude by local residents.
I now look forward to an early decision on the intermediate international station on the high-speed rail link. I shall state the case for Ebbsfleet as the international domestic station. It is ideally sited to serve eastern England and the counties to the south and east of London, which are so well served by the M25. Such a station would draw off the traffic that would otherwise go to central London for passengers to meet the high-speed trains to the continent.
If the station were placed at Ebbsfleet, it would also assist and serve the developing area of the east Thames corridor, for which the Government have expressed such enthusiasm. For my constituents at Northfleet and Gravesend, the proposal for Ebbsfleet station would bring thousands of jobs related to the development, in light industry, in the distributive trades and—this is my particular enthusiasm—those associated with a European conference and exhibition centre to be located near Northfleet. Such a development would also bring new roads to the area, such as a Northfleet bypass and links to the A2, and new developments, notably the proposed Bluewater park.
It will not surprise my hon. Friends that, because of the severe impact of the channel tunnel rail link on my constituency, I still have some other concerns. The plans as 376 announced trap five properties between the line of the channel tunnel rail link and the A2—four properties at Longview, off the Henhurst road, Cobham, and The Lodge at Scalers Hill, Cobham. The lives of those constituents will be made increasingly intolerable as the channel tunnel rail link is constructed and then operated, and will be affected by the intensification of traffic on the A2, which is likely to be widened towards their properties.
The Department of Transport, quite logically, has responsibility for both the channel tunnel rail link and the A2, but it has passed the buck to Union Railways. The response of Union Railways to my representations on behalf of my constituents in those five households and to the pleas of the residents is deafening silence. That is not good enough. We want action now, either by voluntary purchase or by final compensation, to put my constituents out of their misery. I hope that we shall see a response to that.
There remains a major environmental challenge to my constituency. The plan proposes to cut through Ashenbank wood—a piece of ancient woodland and a site of special scientific interest—and Cobham park, which is a heritage site laid out by Repton. Concerns have been expressed about those plans by a wide range of environmental organisations and notably Cobham Hall Heritage Trust, the National Trust, the Countryside Commission, the Woodlands Trust and the Kent Trust for Nature Conservation. Concerns have also been expressed by Cobham parish council, Gravesham borough council and Kent county council. Those have been especially effectively expressed by the borough and county councillor for Cobham parish, Frank Gibson.
An imaginative assessment of the environmental impact and costed alternative proposals has been drawn up by Dr. Nigel Haig, a member of Cobham parish council. That is being reviewed at my request by engineers and consultants of Gravesham council. I ask my right hon. Friends at the Department of Transport to instruct Union Railways to engineer definitive alternative proposals for consideration. As those all involve modifications of vertical alignments, it would not breach the safeguarding arrangements already announced.
The Member of the European Parliament for West Kent, Mr. Ben Patterson, has already drawn the matter to the attention of the European Commissioner for environmental matters, Mr. Paleokrassas. A member of the Commissioner's cabinet has already been to Gravesham to see the problems for himself and to report back. If we can have a clear, environmentally preferable alternative worked out in detail, we should be able to harness financial contributions from the European Community and elsewhere for those improvements at that environmentally sensitive site.
I should also like to raise another issue that the House should consider before we rise for the Spring recess. We should look at the cumbersome working of the law courts in helping people to recover debt. I should like to bring to the attention of the House a particular case that has arisen in my constituency.
It concerns a constituent trying to enforce a small debt on which judgment was found in her favour. She managed separately to identify the defendant's goods stored in a warehouse. Through the legal process, she reissued the previous warrant on 6 August 1992 and the court bailiff 377 went to the storage warehouse and took walking possession of the goods. That apparently means that the goods cannot be released to the defendant.
As a layman, I would have assumed that the goods would have been used to repay my constituent for the debts that had been properly identified in court, but not a bit of it. The defendant appealed on 18 August against the warrant. It was therefore suspended. My constituent appealed. The appeal was heard 17 days later, on Friday 4 September. The warrant, not surprisingly, was effectively renewed and costs were granted in her favour. So she faxed the court asking for a direction on the disposal of the goods which she had previously identified.
Apparently, a fax is inadmissible in court and, by that time, it was too late on a Friday afternoon to do anything about it, given the times within which courts work. So she had to hand-deliver the request on the following Monday, 7 September. That hand-delivered request in turn was mislaid by the court. In the meantime, the walking possession had lapsed on 4 September, the previous Friday. It could only be renewed by a bailiff responding to a court instruction, in turn responding to a request by the plaintiff.
Three days were lost because, in a Dickensian manner, a fax was inadmissible. Further delay ensued, because the request was lost. Yet another delay would have ensued because bailiffs take time to react to instructions. In the meantime, taking advantage of that courthouse charade, the defendant whipped along to the warehouse on Wednesday 9 September, collected his goods and has since disappeared.
After all that rigmarole, time and expense, my constituent is left back at square one, empty-handed. All she has had is an apology that her request for a direction of disposal was mislaid by the court, and a bland statement refusing to accept that her position had been prejudiced by the actions of the court. That is not justice: it is cumbersome, Dickensian farce. Where is the redress for my constituent? The House should look again at the practical reality of the administration of justice.
§ Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West)
Before the House goes into recess, we ought to consider two serious matters which cause not only inconvenience, but serious injustice, to many citizens throughout the country, and which proposals from Ministers ought to address.
The first matter is one to which I referred earlier during business questions: wheel-clamping on private land. It is quite scandalous that it is now nearly a year—in fact, the year will be up during the recess—since the closing date for submissions to the Government's consultation document on wheel-clamping. Everyone recognises that it is not a simple and easy problem to deal with, but it will not get any easier or more simple if we wait another year. The Home Office ought to be bringing in firm proposals to deal with the menace.
Every week, we still hear examples of outrages being committed by cowboy clampers. Only last week in Birmingham, a gentleman had to go down to the hospital where his wife was seriously ill after having had a relapse. He parked on some double yellow lines and put a note on his windscreen saying in which ward he was visiting his wife. He came out to drive home to tell his children that 378 their mother was dying, and found that he had been wheel-clamped. The staff at the hospital had to have a whip round to get the wheel-clamp removed.
In the centre of Birmingham, there is a notorious site opposite the Digbeth bus station, which is deliberately left open and, if anybody parks there for more than two minutes, the clampers are out and charging their fines. It is simply entrapment. Again, that is the sort of abuse that ought to be dealt with. The Home Office, in a good document on private wheel-clamping, recognised many of the problems, but, unfortunately, has still not come up with a solution. The matter should not wait any longer, and once the year has passed, it should come up with urgent solutions.
The issue which has already been aired two or three times in the debate, and which concerns nearly all hon. Members and their constituents, is that of the Child Support Agency. Before we go into recess, the Secretary of State for Social Security should come to the House with substantial proposals for a major overhaul, or for the abolition, of the Child Support Agency. The rising tide of public protest against the agency has continued unabated.
I have my suspicions that the Minister was hoping that the protest would die down, and that he would have been able to continue with the agency. He may also have hoped that the proposals put forward by some, that it is really an argument between men and women, would begin to win the day. I always thought that that was a fallacious argument, since, at most of the meetings that I have attended, as I am sure is the case with the meetings to which other hon. Members have already referred, about 40 to 50 per cent. of the audience have been women who are finding that their relationships and lives have been disrupted. It was therefore fallacious to try to make out that it was a straightforward argument between the sexes. That argument has not taken off.
We are finding that enormous problems are being caused to many families by the Child Support Agency. One problem is the administration, which has already been referred to. I have had letters this week—the middle of May—referring to my correspondence at the end of March. I have also received letters saying that I would get a reply within 10 days; that seems to be the new reply. We await the result of that with interest. All hon. Members have found inordinate delays. It is difficult for us to make progress on constituency cases when we face such delays, especially when constituents have arrears building up all the time.
Not only we but our constituents face such delays, which they find frustrating to the point of unreasonableness. They get neither timely nor sensible replies from the CSA about their problems. As we have all found, when we get replies, the CSA gives a long recitation of Government policy and says little that answers our specific questions about the problems of an individual case. In the past few weeks, there has been a slight improvement, perhaps as a response to criticisms in the Chamber. Too often we do not get detailed replies to the problems that we have raised.
§ Mr. Gordon McMaster (Paisley, South)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the manner in which he has conducted his campaign on the Child Support Agency for so long. What does he think of a letter that I received last week from the manager of the Child Support Agency in Falkirk? The manager said that he refused to answer 379 detailed questions that I had submitted to him on behalf of a constituent in my role as a Member of Parliament, because of the rules of confidentiality.
§ Mr. Spellar
Perhaps that official needs to go on a training course, although not at one of the luxury hotels at which too many courses have been held.
It is enormously unfortunate that many of the agencies seem to take a cavalier attitude to Members of Parliament, and do not seem to have a full understanding of our role in these matters. That is not a partisan comment; many Conservative Members have experienced similar difficulties in getting straightforward and courteous replies from the agencies. I am sure that that point is being taken on board, and I hope that we shall start to get an improvement in the service that we are being offered.
Even if we could improve the administration, and even if the replies started to come through faster, only the superficial part of the problem would have been dealt with. The core of the problem is the way in which the agency has been set up under the Child Support Act 1991.
That outrages not only those who are directly affected and their families, but many other citizens who read about the CSA. They perceive the fundamental unfairness of the way in which the system operates. What no one can understand is how the CSA has been able to overturn settlements that have been agreed between the parties and ratified by the courts. They count for nothing when the CSA measures them against its criteria.
People who make sensible settlements in the light of the existing law find that that counts for nothing and is being torn up. People have often transferred property; I know that there are arguments about whether they have transferred the debt as well and how that debt is being met by the public purse. However, many people transferred not only property, but all the debts in a final settlement, as advised by their solicitors and financial advisers, according to the law of the time. They then find that the settlement is being torn up. That puts enormous pressure on their families, and creates enormous tension, as one can imagine, between previous partners.
People also find that little of the benefit goes to the children. As has been mentioned a number of times in the House, 90 per cent. of the money goes not to the children but to the Treasury. The letters CSA do not stand for Child Support Agency, but for Chancellor Support Agency.
Of course the guardians of the public purse have a legitimate interest in the matter; everyone understands that. However, the serious burden that is falling on individuals means that there is effectively a tax on divorce and separation, which has been introduced heavily and without the transitional arrangements that have attended other taxes. As we changed from the rates to the poll tax, and then to the council tax, there were transitional arrangements to ensure that the burden did not fall too heavily and precipitately on individuals. There are no such transitional arrangements here.
Indeed, because of the delays in the operations of the Child Support Agency, almost by definition individuals are building up substantial debts. As one can imagine, that is worrying and frightening for people who have been prudent, and have never put themselves into debt before. They now find that, if they are paying off one debt to the CSA, they are concerned about whether they will be able 380 to pay their mortgage and whether their second family will be made homeless. Those are real and frightening concerns for people who have never before been in such a position. Those concerns should and could have been taken account of if the Government had only listened to others.
The Government should have listened, for example, to the Opposition spokesperson, my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Miss Lestor), when the CSA was first considered. They should have listened to the Select Committee on Social Security, which took the trouble to produce a special interim report when the Child Support Act was going through Parliament so that the CSA could be considered before the Act was passed. The Committee suggested that the key problem would be retrospection.
The Select Committee interim report drew attention to the experience in Australia. The Australians carefully ensured that their legislation was prospective rather than retrospective. It is no surprise that the Australian legislation has not caused the uproar and widespread public concern that have occurred in this country.
Other features of the Australian legislation should also commend themselves to Ministers, and they would do well to introduce them in the House. I refer especially to the possibility of an independent appeal, so that people could understand that they were being dealt with fairly. It is the fundamental unfairness of the legislation that is undoubtedly causing many of the difficulties and the widespread public uproar that has attended the CSA and that has already been referred to by a number of hon. Members in this debate.
For all those reasons, it is most unfortunate that the House is going into recess before we have been presented with proposals which would start to take us back to a sensible, balanced approach to child support, and which would bring relief to many of the families who are now fearful of what the future will bring. Many of them see no hope, and no way in which to get out of their problems.
I shall not dwell on the cases of those who have committed suicide. I am sure that we all realise that there are often a multitude of reasons in such unfortunate cases. However, we must consider those who have left their jobs and those who are saying to their employers, "When the next round of redundancies comes, please include me in, because in that way I can get out of this fearful trap into which I have been forced."
We shall not be able fully to enjoy our recess knowing that tens of thousands of our constituents and fellow citizens face the future with fear and trepidation because of the activities of the Child Support Agency.
§ Mr. David Amess (Basildon)
Before the House adjourns for the spring recess I shall make four brief points, but before doing so I shall comment on the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson). I particularly enjoyed his remarks about Europe in his wide-ranging speech. I agree with every word that he uttered.
If one reads the manifestos of the Conservative party and the two socialist parties—Labour and Alliance—one has no doubt whatever that both want to sell this country out. They want to remove power from this House, and they want a united states of Europe, with one Government. They should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. If the British people read the Conservative party manifesto, I hope that 381 they will agree with our patriotic beliefs. I very much hope that Lionel Stanbrook, our excellent candidate, will be elected in our Essex constituency.
The points that I shall raise are the points that raised during the Easter Adjournment motion debate. Sadly, they have not been resolved. I am delighted that the one point which has been resolved—I know that hon. Members will be interested in this—relates to the National Association of Hospital Broadcasting Organisations. In the previous debate, I said that the Radio Authority was considering the different bands and how they should be grouped, and I hoped that Mr. Baldwin would choose option 3. I am delighted that option 3 was chosen yesterday; that gives hospital radio broadcasting the opportunity to have its own frequency.
My first point relates to the Commission for the New Towns. I pay a warm tribute to the Commission for the New Towns—the former Development Corporation, the chairman and all the officers. They have done a magnificent job in building Basildon up to the magnificent place that it is today. As the commission withdraws from my constituency over the next 18 months, it is especially important that it bears in mind community assets.
The House well knows that Basildon has the finest shopping centre, certainly in the country and possibly in the world. However, we need to complete the roofing of the remaining part of the shopping centre. It is essential that the commission reaches agreement with the local authority and the Department of the Environment.
The transfer of housing could not take place for many years, because of our previous rotten socialist council. There have been problems with transfers because contractors have, frankly, not fulfilled their original arrangements, and my constituents have been greatly inconvenienced. That must certainly be put right.
My second point—I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) will be interested in this—relates to the Fenchurch street railway line. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) has mentioned his railway line on a number of occasions. It is well known that the Fenchurch street line offers a disappointing service to our constituents. I support the privatisation of that line.
I am trying to secure a separate debate on the issue, but I have been unlucky in the ballot so far. Time is running out, as British Rail has dropped a bombshell on my constituents and the constituents of my right hon. Friend: the Fenchurch street station will close in July for seven weeks. It has been suggested that our constituents should go on holiday for seven weeks, but that is a little dramatic. In the future, they will have to use the tube from Barking or be transferred to the Liverpool street line.
I and other Essex Members who are affected by this service need to know what British Rail intends to do during the seven weeks while the important engineering works are being carried out.
§ Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)
Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever the merits of Basildon, there is no doubt that the train service is not yet one of them? If these vital works are to go on, it is essential that some compensation should be paid to our constituents for the great inconvenience that they will suffer during the seven weeks that the station is closed.
§ Mr. Amess
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. Over the past few years, I have found that, when the House is not sitting, some enormous body seems to allow individual Members of Parliament to respond to the chaos that breaks out. My right hon. Friend is entirely right.
My next point relates to United Artists cabling in my constituency. We all know that there is a lot of rubbish on television from time to time, except when politicians are seen. The idea of cabling was to offer a wider choice. My constituents had no idea whatever that the face of Basildon would be scarred by something that looks like an enormous python. It behoves United Artists to return the pavements of Basildon to their original excellent state. We have a wonderful Conservative council in Basildon; United Artists must put the pavements right.
My final point relates to sex selection. The Human Embryology and Fertilisation Authority has decided not to allow sex selection to be authorised in its clinics. One of the owners of the dirty filthy clinic in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) decided that he wanted to choose the sex of his own child, and it turned out to be the wrong gender. That shows that the process used in the clinic does not work. It behoves Parliament to take firm action on this matter, and to make the sex selection technique unlawful.
§ Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)
I shall not explore the matter of the wrong gender with the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess). However, let me be the first to congratulate him on having scored a notable triumph in this debate: he persuaded the right hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), a former Secretary of State for Transport, to intervene in his speech to admit to the shortcomings of the transport infrastructure which serves the constituency of Basildon.
The hon. Member for Basildon confidently condemned the "two socialist parties" for selling out Britain. I am not sure which two socialist parties he was referring to—perhaps he could write to me about that later. Despite the terrible sell-out which he condemned, he was only able to "hope" to hold the European seat in which his constituency is situated. On the old boundaries, I see that the Conservative party enjoyed a majority of 9,500 in what many people believe was a good year for the Labour party. I accept that the boundaries have changed, and perhaps that is the only reason why the hon. Gentleman can only hope to retain the seat.
A number of important matters have been raised in this debate. The debate was started by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), who is a long-standing champion of people with disabilities. He criticised—he is not the only person to do so—the Government's attitude to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. I strongly endorse what he said.
My right hon. Friend said that parliamentary counsel had drafted amendments which were intended not for the Committee but for the Floor of the House. The amendments were intended not to improve the Bill in Committee but to delay the Bill on Report, so that it could never come into law. That is bad enough; it is not the way in which we should proceed in the House.
Initially, Ministers denied that civil servants had been instructed to assist with the subterfuge, and Government Back Benchers denied that they had been helped by civil 383 servants. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) raised an important new point. He referred to Hansard and the phrase which suggested that the Government wereproperly using every opportunity to ensure that it"—the Bill—reaches the statute book."—[Official Report, 29 April 1994; Vol. 242, c. 514.]If the phrase was intended to be interpreted in that way, it would have involved misleading the House further, because it is perfectly clear to everyone who has followed the issue that the Government did not want the Bill on the statute book, or at least not in the form in which it was presented to the House.
If the Government have concerns about the public expenditure aspect of a Bill, or about the extra burden that could be placed on the private sector, it is right that they should express them in Committee and table amendments in Committee to deal with them. It cannot be right to proceed by subterfuge, which is what they have effectively done in this instance. It looks very much as if they have done the same with other private Members' Bills.
I have twice called for a full debate on the principles involved in this matter, and I ask the Leader of the House again tonight to consider holding such a debate on the Floor of the House, so that we can, I hope, reach a conclusion that will enhance the House's reputation and ensure that we do not have to proceed by subterfuge.
I agree with the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack), in relation to the sad and disgraceful state of affairs in the former Yugoslavia, that what is morally wrong can never be politically right. I think that his remarks found an echo in every part of the House, as did those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe when he spoke about the rights of people with disabilities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) managed very easily to follow the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South. We all condemn ethnic cleansing and the horrors of warfare in Yugoslavia and in Rwanda.
My hon. Friend also mentioned some procedural matters that are currently under discussion. There is, of course, a willingness in all, or in many, parts of the House to debate the Jopling report and to proceed, I hope, by consensus to implement those parts of it which find favour with the House.
Clearly, the way in which Members of Parliament are expected to work has changed over the years. If we are not here, it is usually not because we are on holiday, but because we have to deal with constituency business and participate in the wider affairs of the nation, not only those parts of the nation's business which are reflected in this debating Chamber.
In debating the Jopling report, we have to get right the balance between the rights of the governing party and those of the Opposition and, separately, that between the interests of the Executive and the House of Commons. I am sure that it is possible to do so and to make progress on the report.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) drew the House's attention to a peculiar dispute, which is not of his making, in which he is engaged with the Secretary of State for Health. The Secretary of State said something incorrect about my hon. Friend. The simple way 384 to deal with the problem is for her to correct the record. I make this simple plea to the Leader of the House: will he get in touch with his right hon. Friend and ask her to set the record straight before the matter acquires a disproportionate significance?
The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery), with whom I pair when we are allowed to pair—and with whom I do not pair when we are not allowed to pair—mentioned the dependency culture that is developing in Alderley Edge. It is clearly a sign of the times that a dependency culture is developing there, and it should be a matter of concern for the whole House. He pleaded for affordable housing, and those who know Alderley Edge will of course be sympathetic to that plea.
My hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) made a powerful contribution to our debate, drawing on his experience as a former director of RE-SOLV, the society for the prevention of solvent abuse. I was not aware that there are three deaths a week from solvent abuse, and my hon. Friend was right to draw this important matter to our attention.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) continued the two campaigns for which he is rapidly becoming nationally famous. The first, against wheel-clamping cowboys, continues apace, and the second centres on the Child Support Agency. I am sure that his remarks on the latter topic will command support from members of all parties. I have twice asked the Leader of the House at business questions to find time for a debate on the CSA. Many of the concerns raised about its operation are not raised in a political partisan way, and they require a response.
Incidentally, my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. McMaster) intervened to draw attention to the way in which officials, especially agency officials, are using confidentiality as an excuse to avoid dealing with the inquiries made by Members of Parliament—inquiries often made on behalf of the very person whose confidentiality is supposedly being protected.
If a constituent has asked his Member of Parliament to take up his case, it follows that he has asked his Member of Parliament to represent his interests, and that includes dealing with confidential matters. If a constituent says that his Member of Parliament can have access to confidential information, the Member of Parliament should certainly be provided with it. If he is not, he cannot do his job properly.
I conclude by returning to what my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North said. He said that all Members of Parliament, especially those in the Opposition parties, could draw on constituency experience when talking about unemployment. Swan Hunter shipyard in Newcastle is still in receivership, and time is running out for it. The Government could save the yard—a smaller, leaner and more efficient operation, but still employing 1,000 people —if they committed the Sir Bedivere warship order to Swan Hunter, and by the stated time of June or July.
If the Lord President wants to send me off happy for the recess, will he draw the plight of the yard to the Prime Minister's attention and secure a decision, preferably one in our favour? It is a matter of life and death for Swan Hunter.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)
I acknowledge the last remarks of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown). It is my ambition, as ever, to send everyone off happy for the Whitsun recess, but I suspect that such a feat is beyond my powers. Indeed, I had some difficulty this afternoon in persuading a number of people that it was desirable to add a day to the Whitsun recess because of the Euro-elections. That is perhaps a good illustration of the difficulties involved in pleasing all the people—or all Members of Parliament—all the time.
This is not a complaint but, with eight minutes to go, I have the usual breathless task of attempting to deal with the problems of the entire world. Inevitably, I shall not be able to do so, so I had better make it clear at the outset that, if I am unable to respond to all hon. Members' comments, they will be passed on to the quarters to which they were sometimes directed and will be taken note of by my colleagues, just as I have taken note of them as they have been made.
Two refrains have echoed throughout the debate. The first concerns the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, which was mentioned first by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) and later in various ways by a number of other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours).
I think that the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe used the word "skulduggery" in relation to what happened on Friday. If the word were really apt—I do not think it is—it would presumably also have to be applied to the actions of, I think, members of his own party who blocked a Bill which was important for the Scottish inshore fishing industry, and which had beneficial fishing and environmental implications, and the fairly wide-ranging Sale and Supply of Goods Bill, which was important to consumers across the country. I simply make those points. I do not think that his word was appropriate and I think that what I have just said should be acknowledged.
That said, I really do not think that I am in a position now, any more than I was at business questions earlier, to add significantly to a number of points that I made on earlier occasions about the various matters that were mentioned this afternoon, although I should like to refer to what the hon. Member for Workington said.
The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe acknowledged that my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, was inquiring into the procedures applying to private Members' Bills, and my right hon. Friend has specifically assured me during the debate that he would very much welcome suggestions that Members care to put to him in writing of such improvements as they feel could be made.
I think that that is the right way now to approach the matter, along with the Government's firm and repeated intention to consult widely on a range of proposals in five important fields relating to disabled people, as a way of making constructive, workable progress now, which is what everyone on both sides of the House wants. That is what we should now concentrate on.
In answer to the hon. Member for Workington's remarks about Madam Speaker's ruling on the privilege issue, I am obviously not in a position to interpret—nor indeed should I attempt to interpret—what was in Madam 386 Speaker's mind, although I have no reason whatever to suppose that it was considerations of the type that the hon. Gentleman suggested.
The clear impression that I have—I think that I had better place this on the record, even at the risk of interpreting Madam Speaker's position—is that she regarded the Minister of State's clear-cut personal statement with an unreserved apology to the House as bringing that specific aspect to an appropriate end. It remains my view that the House should now accept my right hon. Friend's apology in the clear-cut way in which it was given and in the spirit in which it was given. No doubt the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, who was here during the hon. Gentleman's remarks, will consider what he said about the privilege issue, as no doubt will Madam Speaker.
The second refrain that has echoed through speeches from both sides of the House was the issue of the Child Support Agency, which came up in the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) and for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery)—no debate of this type would be complete without my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale—and of the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar).
They know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and others have repeatedly said that they are continuing to keep the operation of that agency under review. It is easy to dismiss those as simply routine words, but I believe them accurately to reflect the spirit in which Ministers are approaching those matters, and I am sure that they will bear in mind the various arguments that my hon. Friends and others have made in the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack), who courteously apologised to me for the fact that he would have to be out of the Chamber for a while, made, in his usual courteous and considered way, his appeal for a debate on Bosnia, and emphasised his continuing views of the importance of that. I continue to take note of what he says, as I always seek to do.
The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) made several important arguments, on which I would quite like to have spent a little time, including some remarks about employment. It is worth placing on record, however, the fact that, in the year to March, the Employment Service placed more than 1.5 million unemployed people in jobs, including the better part of 500,000 who had been out of work for six months or more, and more than 50,000 people with disabilities. Therefore, the notion that the situation is not improving, and that the Government are not putting great effort into it, would be far-fetched indeed.
There is perhaps a further echo—I have just heard it repeated slightly by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and it also came from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe)—about the channel tunnel rail link. I was grateful for some of the things that they said, and less grateful for others. I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent that I have spoken to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, who has just come into the Chamber, who is extremely puzzled about some of his observations, but has undertaken to study them with care.
The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) made some observations about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, which, I have to say, appeared to me to have the flavour of looking at a molehill 387 through a magnifying glass. I hope that I am not diminishing what he said in those ways, but, however one looks at a molehill, it remains a molehill.
§ Mr. Newton
I will bring the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend. As he acknowledged, he has already had some comments from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health, but I will certainly ensure that my right hon. Friend reconsiders carefully what she said, because I manifestly accept that he believes it to be a significant and important point and continues to regard it as a matter of anxiety.
§ Mr. Newton
I acknowledge that.
I do not think, Madam Speaker, that I shall have time to comment on the other speeches. However, I acknowledge the courteous and thoughtful way in which the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) referred to my responsibilities in the field of drug abuse and the importance of the solvent aspect, which I will consider with care.
With that, I hope that the House will yield to my blandishments and agree that, at its rising on Thursday 26 May, it adjourns until Tuesday 14 June.
§ It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question necessary to dispose of proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 22 (Periodic Adjournments).
§ The House divided: Ayes 216, Noes 53.388
|Division No. 259]||[7.05 pm|
|Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)||Butterfill, John|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)|
|Alexander, Richard||Carrington, Matthew|
|Allason, Rupert (Torbay)||Carttiss, Michael|
|Amess, David||Cash, William|
|Ancram, Michael||Chapman, Sydney|
|Arbuthnot, James||Clappison, James|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)|
|Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)||Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey|
|Ashby, David||Colvin, Michael|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Congdon, David|
|Atkins, Robert||Coombs, Simon (Swindon)|
|Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)||Cope, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)||Cormack, Patrick|
|Baldry, Tony||Couchman, James|
|Banks, Matthew (Southport)||Cran, James|
|Banks, Robert (Harrogate)||Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)|
|Bellingham, Henry||Davies, Quentin (Stamford)|
|Bendall, Vivian||Davis, David (Boothferry)|
|Beresford, Sir Paul||Day, Stephen|
|Blackburn, Dr John G.||Deva, Nirj Joseph|
|Bonsor, Sir Nicholas||Devlin, Tim|
|Booth, Hartley||Dicks, Terry|
|Boswell, Tim||Dorrell, Stephen|
|Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)||Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James|
|Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia||Dover, Den|
|Bowis, John||Duncan, Alan|
|Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes||Duncan-Smith, Iain|
|Brandreth, Gyles||Dykes, Hugh|
|Brazier, Julian||Elletson, Harold|
|Bright, Graham||Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter|
|Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)||Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)|
|Browning, Mrs. Angela||Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)|
|Burns, Simon||Faber, David|
|Burt, Alistair||Fabricant, Michael|
|Butler, Peter||Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas|
|Fenner, Dame Peggy||Martin, David (Portsmouth S)|
|Fishburn, Dudley||Mates, Michael|
|Forth, Eric||Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian|
|Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)||Merchant, Piers|
|Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)||Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)|
|Freeman, Rt Hon Roger||Mitchell, Sir David (Hants NW)|
|French, Douglas||Montgomery, Sir Fergus|
|Gale, Roger||Moss, Malcolm|
|Gallie, Phil||Neubert, Sir Michael|
|Gardiner, Sir George||Newton, Rt Hon Tony|
|Garnier, Edward||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Gill, Christopher||Nicholson, David (Taunton)|
|Gillan, Cheryl||Norris, Steve|
|Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles||Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley|
|Gorman, Mrs Teresa||Oppenheim, Phillip|
|Gorst, John||Page, Richard|
|Grant, Sir A. (Cambs SW)||Patnick, Irvine|
|Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)||Patten, Rt Hon John|
|Greenway, John (Ryedale)||Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)||Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth|
|Hague, William||Portillo, Rt Hon Michael|
|Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie||Redwood, Rt Hon John|
|Hanley, Jeremy||Richards, Rod|
|Hannam, Sir John||Riddick, Graham|
|Harris, David||Robathan, Andrew|
|Haselhurst, Alan||Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn|
|Hawkins, Nick||Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)|
|Hawksley, Warren||Robinson, Mark (Somerton)|
|Hayes, Jerry||Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent)|
|Heald, Oliver||Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela|
|Heathcoat-Amory, David||Shaw, David (Dover)|
|Hendry, Charles||Sims, Roger|
|Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence L.||Soames, Nicholas|
|Hill, James (Southampton Test)||Speed, Sir Keith|
|Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham)||Spencer, Sir Derek|
|Horam, John||Spink, Dr Robert|
|Howarth, Alan (Straf'rd-on-A)||Spring, Richard|
|Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)||Sproat, Iain|
|Hunter, Andrew||Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)|
|Jack, Michael||Stephen, Michael|
|Jackson, Robert (Wantage)||Stewart, Allan|
|Jenkin, Bernard||Sweeney, Walter|
|Jessel, Toby||Sykes, John|
|Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey||Taylor, Ian (Esher)|
|Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)||Taylor, John M. (Solihull)|
|Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr)||Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)|
|Key, Robert||Thomason, Roy|
|Kilfedder, Sir James||Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)|
|King, Rt Hon Tom||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|Kirkhope, Timothy||Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)|
|Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)||Tracey, Richard|
|Knight, Greg (Derby N)||Trend, Michael|
|Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)||Trotter, Neville|
|Kynoch, George (Kincardine)||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Lang, Rt Hon Ian||Viggers, Peter|
|Lawrence, Sir Ivan||Walden, George|
|Legg, Barry||Walker, Bill (N Tayside)|
|Leigh, Edward||Waller, Gary|
|Lidington, David||Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)|
|Lightbown, David||Waterson, Nigel|
|Lilley, Rt Hon Peter||Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Lloyd, Rt Hon Peter (Fareham)||Whitney, Ray|
|Lord, Michael||Whittingdale, John|
|Luff, Peter||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas||Wilkinson, John|
|Maclean, David||Wilshire, David|
|McLoughlin, Patrick||Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)|
|Maitland, Lady Olga||Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)|
|Malone, Gerald||Wolfson, Mark|
|Mans, Keith||Wood, Timothy|
|Marlow, Tony||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Marshall, John (Hendon S)||Mr. Andrew MacKay and|
|Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)||Mr. Derek Conway.|
|Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)||Beith, Rt Hon A. J.|
|Allen, Graham||Bermingham, Gerald|
|Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)||Boateng, Paul|
|Bayley, Hugh||Caborn, Richard|
|Campbell-Savours, D. N.||Martlew, Eric|
|Chisholm, Malcolm||Meale, Alan|
|Coffey, Ann||Michie, Bill (Sheffield Hoeley)|
|Cohen, Harry||Morley, Elliot|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Morris, Rt Hon A. (Wy'nshawe)|
|Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)||Mullin, Chris|
|Eagle, Ms Angela||Pickthall, Colin|
|Flynn, Paul||Powell, Ray (Ogmore)|
|Foster, Don (Bath)||Rendel, David|
|Garrett, John||Simpson, Alan|
|George, Bruce||Spearing, Nigel|
|Hanson, David||Spellar, John|
|Hill, Keith (Streatham)||Steel, Rt Hon Sir David|
|Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)|
|Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Janner, Greville||Tyler, Paul|
|Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)||Wardell, Gareth (Gower)|
|Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn)||Wareing, Robert N|
|Kilfoyle, Peter||Winnick, David|
|Lewis, Terry||Wise, Audrey|
|Loyden, Eddie||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Macdonald, Calum||Mr. Harry Barnes and|
|McFall, John||Mr. Dennis Skinner.|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
That this House, at its rising on Thursday 26th May, do adjourn until Tuesday 14th June.