HC Deb 17 December 1997 vol 303 cc249-90

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Betts.]

9.34 am
Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

I am a member of the British delegation to the Council of Europe and the rapporteur of its social, health and family affairs committee, which is preparing a report on the dangers of asbestos to workers and to the environment. That is why I raise the matter on this motion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) has been active in the House on the issue of asbestos: he recently secured a debate on the subject. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), has been supportive, and in June this year, Lord Howie introduced a debate on asbestos in the other place. I welcome the interest shown by Parliament in this issue since the election.

Medical reports show the serious effects that are suffered by people who have worked with asbestos. Sadly, it causes a large number of deaths. The Construction Safety Campaign estimates that about 3,500 people die every year as a result of working with asbestos. People are deeply concerned: they have a fear of contact with asbestos when it is exposed in housing estates, schools, hospitals and offices. Those concerns are voiced in many other countries.

The Council of Europe is the largest political assembly in Europe, with 40 member states. Although the western European members have expressed their deep concern, the newer members from eastern Europe are sadly only now learning of the dangers of working with asbestos and the effects that it has on the environment. There is clear evidence that the safeguards that we and many other countries have are not always applied in the new member states of the Council of Europe.

The United Kingdom, especially with a Labour Government, can show by its record the leadership that should be followed by all member states of the Council Europe over this highly dangerous material. Materials containing asbestos, particularly building materials, have been imported into this country from eastern European countries. The criticism and complaint that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone and I have is that those materials are often poorly labelled. They are often much cheaper than products that are made in this country, and there is no clear indication that they contain asbestos. The Council of Europe report calls for all materials to be properly labelled.

Those of us who want a complete ban on such material have been greatly helped by the French Government, who have imposed a complete ban on asbestos in France. Many other European countries, especially in Scandinavia, have also been very supportive. Some countries, of which Canada is one, are campaigning hard to ensure that no proper restrictions are placed on the use of asbestos. At a meeting that I attended in Strasbourg, some representatives of those countries told me that the type of asbestos now in use is no longer dangerous if properly used. That did not impress me; nor does it impress medical experts or the Health and Safety Executive.

We seek a complete ban on any materials that contain asbestos. There are substitutes, for which there is a market, and they are not expensive to produce. Some British companies use alternatives, and I welcome their action and support. I would welcome the Government's full support for the Council of Europe recommendations. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be able to say that, as legislation tightens on the use of asbestos in Europe, unscrupulous companies and individuals will not be allowed to export it to third-world countries which would not be fully aware of the enormous dangers that asbestos poses to people and the environment.

Asbestos and its uses, its removal from buildings and the protection that must be provided for people who work with it, are well known, but there are still reports of abuses. That is why many of us, in this country and in many others, have called for the material to be banned. That view is supported by many organisations, overwhelmingly by medical opinion, and by many trade unions.

I pay tribute to my trade union, the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, and also to the GMB Union. I am delighted that all unions support the action we seek. I look to the Government to strengthen legislation on action against those who put workers and communities at risk. Plainly, there are such people in this country.

In January, we take over the presidency of the European Union. The European Parliament supports the work on asbestos that is being carried out by the Council of Europe. They are two different political organisations, but they interrelate on that work. I look to our Government and Prime Minister to place this country in the forefront in seeking action, and to lead the campaign in Europe against asbestos. A successful conclusion to that campaign could be one of the major achievements of our presidency, and it would be warmly welcomed by all those who value the health and safety of working people and our environment.

9.43 am
Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) for the detailed and dedicated work that he has described. My constituents are much more sympathetic to his cause than to the cause of banning beef on the bone, about which they are deeply outraged.

I pay tribute to many people in my constituency for their enormous effort in promoting plans to create a new community hospital in Farnham for the 21st century. For some years, there has been deep uncertainty and unhappiness about Farnham hospital's appropriate role. As in many parts of the country, in my area there has been major investment in district general hospitals, in Guildford and Frimley. There are now magnificent state-of-the-art hospitals providing care for which people would previously have had to travel to London. However, they left a question mark over the role and nature of community hospitals. As general practitioners provide ever-rising standards of care, how should the purpose of such hospitals be identified?

Farnham hospital used to have 150 beds. It was unrealistic to fight many of the changes because we knew that fashions in modern medicine require centres of excellence to serve large populations. A year ago, there were plans for a new hospital, but they did not come to fruition.

After much uncertainty, and even the suggestion that it should be a bedless hospital, I am delighted to report that, following the combination of the two local health authorities, the local trust, the community health council and action teams worked together in a constructive, enlightened and productive manner to formulate proposals which mean that there may be a new 40-bed hospital at Farnham, a new health centre to incorporate local GPs, all of whom are fiercely independent but were working in totally inadequate, cramped accommodation.

There will be a new nursing home for the elderly and mentally infirm, a facility for which there is a growing need. There will also be a large range of out-patient, day hospital and diagnostic services. Above all, a mix of rehabilitation, extended care and stroke care will be provided at the new community hospital, although that is subject to further discussions by the health authorities and those most directly involved. Such facilities are a model for constructive and open discussion.

Farnham hospital lies between North and Mid-Hampshire health authority and West Surrey health authority, and has faced particular difficulties. Over the years, local people have been keen to support the changes at Frimley. They had to accept the loss of Cambridge military hospital at Aldershot, and it is now Farnham's turn to resolve the outstanding uncertainty. I hope that the community health council will support the proposals when they are formally published for the three-month consultation period, so that action for a clear future can be resolved.

It is easy tospeak about health authorities, trusts and community health councils behaving adversely, furtively and incompetently—the negative stories always outweigh the good ones—but in this instance I pay warm tribute to the community health council, to Nicholas Buchanan, to Dr. Shipp at the health forum, and to the hospital action team which is chaired by the local curate. Rather than being destructive, irresponsible and scaremongering, they have been determined to secure the outcome that they most wish. My neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), is also to have a new 24-bed community hospital at Fleet.

There are some outstanding issues. First, the new trust by which Farnham hospital will be managed seeks a new chairman. I hope that the merger of the trusts, which is currently the subject of consultation, will be approved, thus putting mental health services alongside community services.

In the context of the appointment of that chairman, I must voice the deep concern that has been expressed by many hon. Members over the reprehensible way in which the new Government have been handling health authority appointments. I have repeatedly asked the Secretary of State for Health for clarification, and have repeatedly raised with him the insult and offence that have been caused to people who for many years served the health service with great dedication and commitment. Sometimes they were not informed and did not know that they were not to be reappointed, until their successors telephoned them.

Ann Galbraith, a Newcastle trust chairman, represented the health service on the citizens charter panel. She did not know that she was not to be reappointed until her successor telephoned her. That is totally unacceptable. Angela Sealey, the chairman of North and Mid Hampshire health authority, who took forward the changes in Hampshire and incorporated the services from the Cambridge military hospital, has also not been reappointed.

Helen Gardiner, the chairman of Surrey ambulance service, came to an extremely troubled service that was suffering from a great deal of unrest and low morale, and turned it around. The service is now investing in the future, but she, too, has not been reappointed. There is deep alarm in both Frimley and Guildford that two exceptional chairmen—Alison Kinloch and Colston Herbert—may suffer from the same vengeful approach unless their colleagues raise the matter urgently.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East)

What a disgrace.

Mrs. Bottomley

I believe that it is a disgrace. When I was Secretary of State for Health, I was responsible for the appointment of Helene Hayman, Margaret Jay, Baroness Dean, Julia Neuberger and Baroness Thomas, because I was determined that people of all political parties, or of none, who were committed to the service should be appointed. They should be treated courteously; no one would think it right to be dismissed without proper thanks, appreciation or courtesy.

I ask the Leader of the House to ensure that, when making appointments in future, we rely on people of high public standing and calibre. My local trust will be difficult to manage: it contains six hospitals and is incorporating new services; and major redevelopments are in progress, such as the collaborations with GPs and social services. My anxiety is that, if we cannot treat those we appoint in a more civilised fashion, in future people of high calibre will not come forward to be involved in that vital public service.

The second concern I wish to express is about money. Last week's White Paper on the health service did not address resources. We suppose that the fundamental review will be on the Government's decision on whether pensioners are to pay prescription charges, and whether to introduce other measures that have been threatened. The sums simply do not add up: over the past 18 years, the average real-terms increase in health service funding has been 3 per cent., but the Labour Government are looking at half that rate of increase over two years.

The Government claim that they have put more money into the health service, but they do so by running two years together. That does not disguise the fact that, each year, Governments put in more than was put in under the previous plan, which is business as usual; but it is not business as usual to have a mid-year cash injection. That may look good this year, but I can guarantee that the only result, next year and the year after, is that the health service will expect further injections. I fear that the Government may rue the day they made that decision. More serious is the lack of long-term resources to meet people's rising expectations, and to deliver the quality of care they should be able to expect.

In respect of my local community trust, there is deep concern about the vindictive settlement in the rate support grant for Surrey, which has had millions of pounds wiped away. I ask the Leader of the House to use her good offices to ensure that her colleagues receive delegations, because one aspect of what is becoming an increasingly high-handed and arrogant Government is Ministers' refusal to see delegations, except apparently by video conferencing. [Interruption.]

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) chuckles, but I assure him that, when I was a junior Environment Minister, I would not turn away delegations from anywhere in the country. The same was true when I was at the Department of Health. If Members of Parliament wanted to see a Minister, they were able to do so; they were not fobbed off by being told that they had to go to local government bodies or that the meeting would have to be video conferenced.

One of the obligations of being a Minister is to receive delegations, and I hope that the Leader of the House—especially in the context of an appalling settlement for Surrey, which is leading to extremely invidious choices having to be addressed—will ensure that delegations can see the Minister concerned and put their case.

There are some outstanding reservations about the Farnham proposals, which may be exacerbated by the outcome of the rate support grant settlement. The whole question of the 40 beds depends on a reduction in length of stay, an increase in bed occupancy and the development of intermediate care, which, in turn, closely depends on the availability of social services support, working in conjunction with community nurses and local GPs. The doubts that have been expressed about the preliminary proposals will be developed further if no satisfaction is obtained about the rate support grant.

Last week, the new White Paper on health was published. When one is looking to the future of the health service, one looks for a health service, not just an illness service—geared to improving health and preventing disease. A service focused on the individual patient, responding to their needs, listening to the public and influenced by their choices. An innovative service, evidence-based at every level and driven forward by education and training. An efficient service, which provides value for the taxpayers' money and offers individual choice. A service with a long-term view, working for the future, conditioned by the marathon rather than the sprint. A public service with a strong ethical foundation, funded mainly from taxation, accountable to the people and providing services for all. Those words could easily have been found in the White Paper, but they did not appear there; nor did they appear in the White Paper I published a year ago, "A Service With Ambition", although they could have done. They are, in fact, words that I wrote two and a half years ago in speech entitled "The New NHS: Continuity and Change".

That only goes to show that the White Paper, instead of the dire predictions that Labour Members made when in opposition, is hauling up the white flag for the health service reforms. I am pleased that the Government endorse the purchaser-provider division. I welcome their emphasis on clinical effectiveness, but they will have to do more to invest in research and take forward the Culyer proposals if that is to carry any credibility. A telephone service staffed by nurses is a good idea, but it will not solve the problems of the health service—many GPs' out-of-hours arrangements already include such a facility. Making internet access available is a perfectly sensible, evolutionary idea, but it will not solve much, either.

Apart from the lack of resources and the expectations that will be seen in next year's public sector pay round, the interesting aspect of the White Paper is that the Government have bounced GPs into compulsorily becoming budget holders. I regard that as an amusing irony: had the previous Government forced the pace on GPs becoming budget holders, there might have been something of an outcry.

There is concern about how the groups of GPs will work together, as GPs tend to be individualistic. It will be important that the arrangements are not excessively bureaucratic, and that the light touch of GP fundholding, which could support innovation swiftly, is not undermined.

I believe that the evolutionary approach being taken by the Government will fit very well with the plans under way for the future of Farnham's community hospital for the 21st century. I wish it well, and commend it to the House.

10 am

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

I shall be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I want first, to urge the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to conclude his investigation into the alleged perjury of Jonathan Aitken as quickly as possible; and secondly, to say a few words about the law relating to perjury.

Perjury is a very serious offence. In 1995, 193 people in England and Wales were convicted of perjury, of whom 94 were given immediate custodial sentences. The law prescribes that seven years is the maximum prison sentence for someone convicted of perjury, although the longest term imposed since 1979 is five years. The average sentence is just under four months.

What sort of people are convicted of perjury? There are those who lie to protect their reputations. For example, a magistrate ordered his wife to act like "a dumb blonde"— I am quoting a newspaper report—to protect his reputation after a car accident. He was sentenced to 15 months and his wife to nine months for perjury.

Earlier this year, a doctor failed to give life-saving treatment to a man with severe diabetes. He was convicted of lying at the inquest, and was gaoled for 12 months. In a recent case, a woman lied at a murder trial, which later collapsed. She was convicted of lying on oath, and was gaoled for 30 months. Only two months ago, at Knightsbridge crown court, Eddie Ashby, the right-hand man to Terry Venables, the former England soccer coach, was branded as a blatant perjurer, and was gaoled for four months.

If a person lies on oath in court, the penalties are very severe. It is an incontestable and irrefutable fact that the former Cabinet Minister, the former Minister for Defence Procurement—

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hesitate to intervene, but it is possible that charges may be laid against the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury. It is extremely difficult to see how he could reasonably expect a fair trial if the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) continues with the sort of allegations he is making.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

The sub judice rule does not apply unless charges have been laid. The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) is responsible for what he is saying.

Mr. Hogg

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There needs to be some discretion. I agree that, strictly speaking, the sub judice rules do not apply, but, as I understand it, inquiries are afoot in the Metropolitan police. That raises the possibility that criminal charges are being contemplated. It would be very unfortunate if any trial were to be invalidated by anything that the hon. Member for Pendle might think fit to say under the cloak of privilege.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On many, many occasions over the years, Madam Speaker has advised us that hon. Members have to take responsibility for what they say in this Chamber. However, I ask you to imagine how it would seem to the outside world if an hon. Member used parliamentary privilege to pass a criminal conviction on someone what has not even been charged. Frankly, it does not do much for the reputation of this House or—not that this matters in the slightest—the reputation of the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice).

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of what the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) have said, does it mean that the Tory party and Tory Members will make no reference to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar), either today or any other day?

My recollection is that the Tories have, times without number, previously attacked Labour supporters who have been charged. Indeed, they did so last night over the hon. Member for Govan. The Tories want to be able to attack Labour Members, but, when a Labour Member attacks an ex-Tory Member, it is a different kettle of fish. Let us have fair play in this place.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has not given the Chair the opportunity to ensure that fairness applies. We are governed by the sub judice rules of this House, and they have not been breached.

Mr. Prentice

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not wish or intend to behave irresponsibly.

The Jonathan Aitken libel action collapsed in June. It is now coming up to Christmas. I asked how much time had been spent by the Commissioner investigating the case, and was told last month that it was the equivalent of 39 man days. I do not want the investigation to drag on indefinitely. There is irrefutable proof in court transcripts that Jonathan Aitken lied under oath.

Jonathan Aitken was a Cabinet Minister. At one time, he was Minister for Defence Procurement. He was one of only two Members of Parliament in recent times to resign from the Privy Council. He brought the libel action against The Guardianand Granada Television. The "World in Action" documentary, "Jonathan of Arabia", detailed his history of arms dealing, and the fact that he was sponging off very rich Arabs.

The story is set out comprehensively in a book entitled, "The Liar", written by three journalists from The Guardian,Luke Harding, David Leigh and David Pallister. What upsets me about the whole case is that, when Jonathan Aitken went to court, he said that he was defending his reputation. He said that he would use the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play … to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism. To do that, Jonathan Aitken resigned from the Cabinet and as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He persuaded the then Prime Minister and many of his Conservative colleagues that he was a truthful individual. Against that background, had he won his libel action, he would have been awarded exemplary damages. I hate to think how much The Guardianand Granada Television would have had to pay out—probably hundreds of thousands of pounds.

In essence, the story is very simple. I will not rehearse it, other than to cite a few salient facts. When Jonathan Aitken was Minister for Defence Procurement, he stayed at the Ritz hotel in Paris, where he met Sayed Ayas, the business manager of Prince Mohammed, the son of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. The Guardian asked the simple question: "What was he doing there?" Correspondence started, innocently enough, between Peter Preston of The Guardian and Jonathan Aitken.

The contradictions in that correspondence began to show. For reasons that are known only to Jonathan Aitken, he alleged that the bill to settle the account at the Ritz hotel was paid by his wife Lolicia and not by Said Ayas. However, she was in Switzerland. In the libel action in June, irrefutable evidence was produced. The British Airways counterfoils for the journey of Lolicia and Jonathan Aitken's daughter Victoria from the United Kingdom to Switzerland proved that there was no possibility whatever of his wife dashing across to Paris to pay the bill.

That is the story. Jonathan Aitken lied on oath, like the magistrate who was sent to prison for 15 months, the friend of Terry Venables who was sent to prison for four months, and all the others that I have mentioned. They are all in it together. They are liars.

I take a simple view about these things. I am at one with Lord Denning, who said all those years ago: Be ye never so high, the law is above you. I hope that the police are going to pass the papers to the Crown Prosecution Service just as soon as may be, so that the Aitken affair can finally be settled.

10.10 am
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

The noble Lord Denning is a good and compassionate man. He is also one of the greatest jurists that this country has produced. He would not have approved of what we have heard from the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). Jonathan Aitken is an old friend of mine. We all know that he has brought disrepute on himself and we deeply regret that fact, but we should not use the privilege of Parliament to stamp on the grave of a man who was once a distinguished Member. I deeply regret what I have heard.

I turn to another, although not wholly unrelated, matter: the way in which we treat Members of Parliament against whom allegations of serious misconduct have been made. I am glad that the Leader of the House is in her place, because I should like her to consider my suggestions.

The points that I want to raise relate to the procedures of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. What I say is against the background of the findings against Mr. Neil Hamilton, the former Member for Tatton, and the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing). The procedures that we have in place do not sufficiently protect hon. Members against whom serious allegations have been made.

We need to be clear that a finding of serious misconduct against an hon. Member has the most serious consequences for that Member. Mr. Neil Hamilton lost his seat. His reputation has been wholly destroyed, and I imagine that he will find it extremely difficult to secure worthwhile employment in this country. In the case of the hon. Member for West Derby, the consequences were less grave, but his reputation has been seriously tarnished.

Those consequences were predictable and foreseeable. Because of that, it is important that the procedures that we put in place are sufficient to give hon. Members proper protection. Indeed, they should comply with the rules of natural justice. May I suggest in broad terms the nature of the procedures that we should put in place?

I think that it is clear that we should have a two-stage process: an inquiry with a right of appeal. As to the inquiry, I am content that we should proceed by way of a commissioner. That is a matter for the House, and I do not object to that, although I say in parenthesis that it would be a good thing if he were to sit with more than one other—preferably, it would be a panel of three. However, the rules of natural justice are not being complied with. May I summarise what the rules should be?

It is important that every hon. Member should know the nature of the charge that has been made against him or her. It is important, too, that the Member should have ample opportunity to defend himself or herself. Hon. Members should be represented by counsel, if that is their wish. The evidence against them should be given on oath. The evidence should be tested by cross-examination on behalf of the hon. Member—by counsel, for example—and the hon. Member should have the opportunity, through counsel, to make representations to the commissioner at the initial stage.

Those basic elements should exist, and, with the greatest respect to the House, to the Select Committee and to the commissioner, they did not exist in the case of Neil Hamilton.

I also believe that there should be a proper right of appeal, and that it should involve a rehearing, if necessary, of evidence. That did not happen in the case of Neil Hamilton; nor did it happen in the case of the hon. Member for West Derby. The latter asked to be heard by the Select Committee, I believe twice, and it denied him that request. In the case of Neil Hamilton, evidence was not given on oath before the Select Committee. Indeed, in effect, there was no evidence. Therefore, in respect of both men, there was no appeal.

Standing back, I can understand why hon. Members on both sides of the House might say to me, "You are putting an enormous infrastructure in place. Is it worth it?" I make two observations on that.

First, I ask for no more than the protection that is afforded to a person who appears before a magistrates court charged with a speeding offence. Every element that I have described applies to a person who is tried before a magistrates court for speeding. Evidence is given on oath, he knows the charges, there is the chance to cross-examine, he makes representations by counsel, and he can go to the Crown court for a complete rehearing. We are denying hon. Members the privileges, rights and protections that we give to the simplest citizen who is charged with the slightest offence.

We need to tackle the problem, because the injustice is great. I should like us fundamentally to change the procedures. I have already discussed briefly the principles that should apply at the initial stage—that is, in front of the commissioner. The House can work through the detail, and there will doubtless be various other models, but the principles are clear. However, I have come to the conclusion that the Select Committee cannot be the appellant body. There are several reasons for that.

Once we accept that there needs to be a rehearing, including the taking of evidence, we have to ask ourselves: has the Committee the time to do it? The answer is probably no. Almost every member of the Select Committee will know the person who is appealing to that body.

Moreover, most of us have been members of Select Committees, and we all bring to them our own prejudices and biases; we should not, but we do. Furthermore, in a place such as this, there are pressures of a private type—private chats in the Lobby, and the pressures that we all understand. Those should not play any part in what is a judicial process, yet they do. Therefore, I do not believe that the Select Committee can provide the sort of judicial solution—the judicial appeal—that hon. Members are entitled to expect. So what do we do?

Again, I do not want to say that I have a clear final view, but I have two suggestions. We can go down one of two roads. We can set up a specific committee that reports to the Select Committee and is composed of judicial figures—a panel of three or five persons who hold or have held high judicial office. In almost every case, the Select Committee would accept that report. Alternatively, it would have to give some jolly good reasons for not doing so. That committee of judicial figures would hear the evidence, listen to the submissions and constitute an appeal.

The alternative is to set up an ad hoc committee of senior Members of this House, and perhaps of another place, chaired by a former or current Law Lord, which would perform the same function and report to the House. There might be other models—I do not wish to be dogmatic-but I am certain that we must create a structure that accords with the principles of natural justice and gives hon. Members the feeling that they can with confidence entrust their good name and reputation to the procedures that we have established.

Let us be clear about one thing: Members are destroyed by what happens at the moment, and we should not allow it to continue. I therefore ask the House to give urgent consideration to the my suggestions.

10.19 am
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) spoke about the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis), who is sitting next to me, is a member. Over the years, there have been various Committees with various titles doing the same job—unsatisfactorily, in my view.

To some extent, I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman about the nature of Select Committees. By and large, they can and usually do reflect the political set-up in the House. When the House is evenly divided, as was almost the case in the last Parliament, many votes were six to five or five to four. Even in the most recent case, notwithstanding the great difference in the political make-up of the House, there were still divisions along what could be construed as party political lines.

I have never warmed to the idea of Select Committees. I do not accept the notion that we can all get together and be one happy family. When the chips are down and we have to deal with an important issue, hon. Members can bet their bottom dollar that the vote will separate along party lines. Frankly, matters affecting a Member's livelihood should be dealt with by an outside body.

The right hon. and learned Member suggested a committee of the great and the good. There was such a committee not too long ago—my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) used to sit on it, but he left because it would not meet in public. It is now time that these committees' functions were passed to an outside body, because in-house investigations—whether by Parliament, the stock exchange or the police—all end in disrepute. The sooner we take our investigations outside the House, the better.

The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing). The fact is that my hon. Friend did not appear before the Committee and was not questioned by anyone. Someone said that that was a mistake, but that is what happened.

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Member for West Derby made two requests to the Chairman to appear before the Committee to state his case, but those requests were denied.

Mr. Skinner

I heard someone say that that could have been a mistake, but my hon. Friend did not get a fair crack of the whip. I was present when he made his personal statement, and was astonished to learn that he did not have the opportunity to appear before the Committee. The sooner such matters are dealt with elsewhere, the better.

I want to speak about the plight of the coal industry and unemployment in areas where the pits have closed. We had a mini-debate a few weeks ago, but only a few hon. Members were able to speak. In the past few weeks, the Prime Minister and one or two others members of the Cabinet have tried to cobble together some kind of energy policy, bit by bit, but that is not satisfactory.

The industry is now very small compared to what it used to be. There are now a little more than 20 pits, producing under 50 million tonnes of coal a year. That pales into insignificance when compared with what we produced when I worked down the mines, when production was more than 200 million tonnes a year. The industry is now very small, but we must try to save what is left.

First, I must emphasise again that gas reserves are finite, and very small in relation to coal reserves. It is crazy to use gas in power stations when it could be saved for domestic use. I appeal to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to pass on the message that the control and use of gas should be part of any comprehensive energy policy.

Secondly, we have to deal with opencast mining. I heard Richard Budge complaining, whining and whingeing here the other week that he needed to cut the production of deep-mined coal because he could not sell enough to power stations. There was an element of truth in that, but he has the solution in his own hands. Of the 48 million or 49 million tonnes produced last year, 32 million came from deep mines, and about 16 million tonnes came from opencast mining. Richard Budge is responsible for that opencast production. If he wants to save the pits and the miners' jobs, all he has to do is stop opencasting, provide the necessary coal to the power stations, and thereby save the pits.

Once we have decided to use gas reserves in such a way that they will last for many years, the second message for my right hon. Friend to pass on is that we must change the planning controls—mineral planning guidance 3—in order to stop opencast developments in the old coalfield areas and at the same time preserve the jobs at the remaining 23 pits.

Thirdly, there has been much talk about beef and the fact that people on the continent are not doing the right thing by Britain. When I hear European experts talking about British beef, it gets up my nose. At the same time, the French are sending their electricity here, but we should not allow that to happen. Now is the time to act—just tell them. A comprehensive energy policy means curtailing the amount of electricity that is imported into this country from French nuclear power stations.

Fourthly, we are still giving massive subsidies to nuclear power stations. I hope that my right hon. Friend will deal with that.

Fifthly, we are importing coal. We have the cheapest deep-mined coal in Europe—not in the world, because some slave labour economies such as Colombia and one or two others are cheaper. Polish, German, Spanish and Australian coal receives huge subsidies and some of it is coming on to our markets, affecting our jobs. Another element of any comprehensive energy policy would be the restriction of such imports.

I know that that will get up the nose of some people in the Common Market, but that does not worry me at all. I do not believe that the Common Market is going to be of any significant help to us. The halcyon days of the Common Market are over—yes, there was growth in the immediate post-war period, but there would have been growth, anyway.

Some people give the impression that, in order to live decently, we need to be subject to the Common Market's bidding, but that is nonsense. Let us put our cards on the table: if we want a comprehensive energy policy to save jobs in the coalfields, we are going to have to offend some of our so-called friends in the Common Market.

Having got that off my chest, I should like now, just briefly, to deal with the problems in the coalfield caused by the pit closures. I do not want to spend too much time attacking the previous Deputy Prime Minister and the rest of them, but those problems are a fact. There is no longer a single pit in my constituency, and there are absolutely none in Derbyshire, principally because of what happened in the past 18 years.

Unemployment in some pit villages—I ain't kidding—is over 30 per cent. In a few cases, it is over 40 per cent. It is true that not all those people are on unemployment benefit—as ex-miners, many of them get money from the Department of Energy under the agreements made when they were made redundant—but those unemployment rates are the truth of the matter.

The task force that has been set up, at my bidding, by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will have to think of the matter not as one of spreading the jam thinly over a massive area of Britain but as one of picking several little projects—target areas—in parts of the coalfields where unemployment is so high, and concentrating on producing a plan to reduce unemployment in the areas that have been hardest hit.

By and large, every pit was connected to rail. So we had 1,500 men going down a hole in the ground, and a railway line. The coal went down the railway line, and that was the sum total of the infrastructure. Now we have vast open spaces.

At Shirebrook, in my area, there are thousands of cleared acres that used to be mines, but now, apart from someone providing some work in the old pithead baths, there is only one chocolate factory. Why? Because there are no proper roads from pit villages. Anyone setting up a business in those areas, in many cases, would have to trundle through colliery estates to get to a motorway six or seven miles away. So there will have to be some infrastructure development to develop new forms of employment in areas of high unemployment.

If we can get that task force working in the manner that I have described—tightly targeted on areas where unemployment is so high—we can set an example, and repeat that example in other parts of Britain.

We should try something new to find employment for the disabled, too. Remploy factories are spread across Britain. A few years ago, when they closed one in the constituency next to mine, people came from all parts of Britain to march. Some people—50-odd of them—were in wheelchairs. Marchers came from Northern Ireland, from Newcastle and from all parts of Britain that have Remploy factories. It was a sight to see, because those people—many of whom were seriously disabled—were fighting for their jobs.

Such factories are a good idea, and we should be exploiting them. There is all this talk about welfare to work, so let us look at the matter from the work angle. I ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to pass on a message to Cabinet members, when they have a few minutes: if they want to get disabled people into work—if they really mean it, if welfare to work is real—let us have a lot more Remploy factories, across Britain.

Unemployment will be a problem for the rest of this Parliament. I hear all the talk about big ideas, but, if we are to ensure that we resolve many of the problems at the end of five years, we will have to get people back into work. One of the chief accomplishments of our 1945 Government—when we had a massive majority of 196—was that we managed to build. We built a health service, a welfare state and houses for every local authority. We also rebuilt Britain, almost from the ashes.

How did we do it? We certainly did not have any money, because the country was skint after the second world war. It was done, first, through political will, and, secondly, by the fact that everyone had a job. Everyone was pulling their weight and paying taxes and national insurance. Today, we still have an army—if the figures were counted correctly—of well over 3 million unemployed. Employment is the key to solving most of the problems we face today.

I hope that my right hon. Friend has taken down all those points in fine detail, so that they can be passed to the respective Cabinet members, and we can deal with the issues of developing an energy policy and getting rid of mass unemployment.

10.34 am
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me a chance to speak in this debate, and also for the clarification that you gave me when I was sworn in, that I would not be required to make a second maiden speech—sparing me the embarrassment of having to praise my predecessor, who was me.

The points that I should like to make to the Leader of the House relate specifically to the experiences that I have had in fighting two elections this year, and in facing a court case and election petitions. The issues may seem trivial, but, after I have expressed my concerns, anyone who has stood in an election will realise that there are some very serious problems with the current election system.

We must ensure that we preserve the bedrock of our democracy. To do so, voters will have to be sure that our way of running elections is fair, sensible and practical. The public must have confidence that we have such a system. Unfortunately, this year's experience for me and the voters of Winchester suggests that we do not. I ask the Leader of the House to assure me that she will recommend to those in the relevant Departments that they should conduct a fundamental examination of some of the issues that I will raise.

The first issue is that of rogue candidates. I am pleased that the Government seem already to be taking the issue very seriously. Hon. Members from both sides of the House—even Madam Speaker herself—have faced that problem, which was particularly acute in Winchester. In the general election, we had the interference of a candidate who stood as a "Liberal Democrat—Top choice for Parliament". He secured 640 votes, whereas I won by only two votes. All hon. Members will realise that that candidate's interference caused mayhem, and that the subsequent Winchester by-election can be attributed largely to him.

I know that Ministers are examining the matter of the labelling of individual candidates. It is essential that the process moves speedily—so that such candidates cannot stand in a misleading form in the European elections, and certainly not in the next general election.

The specific point that I should like to raise, however, deals with an initial inability to object to the nomination of such candidates. In Winchester, when that "Liberal Democrat—Top choice for Parliament" candidate submitted his nomination, we were told that we had only two hours to object to it. That meant that—literally in two hours—my wife, agents and I had to dash round trying to track down the 10 individuals who had nominated him. Imagine my horror when I discovered, after we tracked down five of them, that my posters were up in the gardens of three of their homes, expressing their desire to vote for me.

We went into those people's houses, spoke to them and asked, "Why have you nominated someone else for this election?" They expressed their concern, and an immediate desire to undo their nomination of entirely the wrong person. We were able to persuade them to visit the returning officer, and marched them in to do so. With an hour left to object, those people were prepared to swear affidavits in front of the returning officer, saying that they had been completely tricked into signing the wrong candidate's nomination paper; that they wished to undo that; and that they wished to support the candidate whose posters were up in their gardens.

I was horrified to realise that the returning officer had absolutely no power to refuse the nomination, and that those people had to live with nominating a candidate whom they did not wish to nominate. I should like that situation to be examined, because returning officers have to have greater powers to query nomination papers when individuals say clearly that they were tricked into signing them.

I also believe that we have to examine the time available to object to questionable nominations. It was very difficult to dash round Winchester, trying to track down the nominating individuals. Two hours is simply not sufficient to complete the process properly. In addition, 24 hours is not enough time for the courts to listen to the various arguments relating to the description of candidates. The matter needs urgent attention.

My concerns then moved on to the way in which the election in Winchester was run—the count itself. There certainly seemed to be grave difficulties in dealing with two elections on one day. There were problems for the polling staff in each of the polling stations. The count was the longest in history, with the result not finally declared until 6 pm the following Friday. That was stressful for the candidates, the clerks and everyone involved.

The reasons were connected with the problem of having two elections on the same day and individuals putting ballot papers into several boxes, which at times were overflowing. Frankly, the system could not cope with the number of people who wanted to vote on two extremely long ballot forms at the same time. If we are to continue to have dual elections, we must re-examine how they are managed and run.

The position went from bad to worse. Within half an hour of my being declared the winner, there were rumours that an election petition would be brought against me. I wish to draw to the attention of the Leader of the House my concerns about the way in which election petitions operate. I shall spare the House the intricacies of the system. If "Mastermind" were still running, it would be my specialist subject. However, the House needs to know that the way in which election petitions operate is extremely unfair to Members and petitioners. The time scale involved needs examining.

It seems to be fundamentally wrong that I was able to be sworn in, take my seat, make a maiden speech and act as the constituency Member with the uncertainty of an election petition hanging over me for almost six months. It does not seem proper than any hon. Member should have to be put in that position.

I understand that other countries deal with such disputes much more effectively. In the French general election, a similar petition was brought on similar grounds, but the matter was resolved within 48 hours—before anyone had taken the seat. The process here takes a wholly inappropriate length of time, and the uncertainty hanging over me and the individual who took that action against me was unacceptable.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that he should not have taken his seat until the matter had been resolved?

Mr. Oaten

If there had been a quicker process by which election petitions could be dealt with, and it was clear to hon. Members who had petitions against them that the matter would be resolved within a week or even 48 hours, I certainly would not have taken my seat. When I found out that the petition was pending against me, I had doubts about taking my seat, and even considered resigning to try to bring the matter to a head more quickly. It may interest the House to know that an hon. Member cannot resign until 21 days after a general election—as I discovered when I looked into that option.

The law needs clarification in respect of the way in which election petitions operate. At the time, there were major concerns among lawyers on both sides who were desperately trying to interpret the law. I urge the Leader of the House to consider the points that I have raised.

One aspect of the petition against me was the basis on which it was brought. It revolved around the fact that the ballot papers had not been franked, and that, if they had been franked, it might have changed the result.

Why do we frank ballot papers in the first place? I understood that it was to ensure that no fraud or corruption could take place. However, it was assumed in the petition drawn up against me and the subsequent court cases that, although papers had not been franked, fraud and corruption had not taken place, and they were allowed to be included and to change the result.

We need to review how we judge unfranked papers and the system of perforation. Why do we do it? Is it a foolproof system? Hon. Members may be amused or alarmed to hear that, after all the publicity about the franking of election papers, during the re-run in Winchester one of the perforation stamping machines broke down, and the presiding officer in the village hall had to raid the kitchen for some forks which were then used to make the official mark on the ballot papers. It is a farce, and it needs urgent review.

We also need to look at the way in which we use the electoral roll in elections. The re-run in Winchester took place some 18 months after people had originally completed their forms to be included on the electoral roll. As a result, a large number of people in the constituency felt disfranchised. They could not vote in the election, although some had lived in the area for almost two years.

People who had completed new forms for inclusion on the roll in October were extremely confused by the fact that they had no right to vote in the by-election in November. Surely it cannot be beyond technology to have a rolling register that would be more up to date. After all, we collect the council tax pretty quickly. Individuals certainly do not have to wait two years before having to pay. Why cannot our electoral roll be updated along the same lines? It would seem a simple thing to do, and it would help to reduce the number of people who, feeling disfranchised, then try to vote illegally.

Another cause of disfranchisement is the time scale for applications of postal and proxy votes. People often complain about the short notice given for applying for postal votes—often about a week after an election is called. That does not give people enough time to organise postal votes. Again, I call on the Leader of the House to look at the current deadlines for organising postal and proxy votes.

My final concern is personation at polling stations. Hon. Members may be aware that, in Winchester, there were two proven cases of personation, although I believe that there were many more. There were probably personations in every constituency. Only when the majority is just two votes do such matters become critical and come to light. The implications were that individuals went to cast votes when they had no legal entitlement to do so.

I am concerned that polling clerks have no powers to refuse individuals the right to vote. In Winchester, a polling clerk recognised someone who requested a ballot paper in someone else's name. However, that polling clerk had no power to prevent that individual from voting.

It leads to the ridiculous situation where, for example, I could walk into the Prime Minister's constituency, say that I was the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), and vote as the right hon. Member for Sedgefield if he had not already done so. It is my understanding that the presiding officer or clerk would have no power to prevent me from doing that, if I continued to insist that I was the right hon. Member for Sedgefield and wanted to vote. I urge the Leader of the House to look at that aspect of electoral law.

In conclusion, it is now time to look at the fundamental matters of rogue candidates; the power to challenge nominations; whether we should include perforations on ballot papers, and, if we do, their ability to change their results; the possibility of having a rolling electoral roll; the timing and speeding up of election petitions; the working practices of joint elections; and the problem of personation. The Government need to review all those issues.

I am grateful to the people of Winchester that the story had a happy ending for me. Nevertheless, I remain committed to the principle that we need to look at the entire election process. My personal experience suggests that it is not as robust and healthy as it needs to be for the future of our democracy.

10.47 am
Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

After the speech by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), I should like to change the subject altogether. My concern is the compensation regulations that apply to individuals, home owners and businesses affected by major infrastructure schemes—particularly major road schemes.

I raise the issue at this historic moment because nearing completion through the heart of my constituency is one of the most expensive, and certainly one of the most complicated, urban motorway schemes in the country, which was initiated by the previous Government with the best intentions.

As a result, I embarked, like the hon. Member for Winchester—although circumstances were different—on an extremely rapid learning curve. Given that the scheme goes through a highly congested urban area, many hundreds of businesses and properties were affected. My constituents who were affected very quickly realised that the regulations are outdated and anomalous, and that they leave those concerned with a deep sense of injustice.

Why are the regulations outdated? In the main, the regulations that cover compensation and other relevant matters concerning road schemes were established during the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s. As far as I can gather, the most recent such regulations were made in 1973. So review of regulations that directly affect individuals is long overdue—if for no other reason than the fact that the gap between the regulations being made and today is more than 20 years. Circumstances have changed considerably over that time.

The fact that the regulations are outdated is not the most important point that I want to make in this regard. Why are the regulations anomalous? I shall give one or two examples from the experiences of my constituents over the past three and a half years.

The road scheme to which I have referred is coming to a conclusion, but the first phase of it began almost four years ago. We are not talking about amending a road junction or some relatively minor scheme that may take a few weeks or a few months. We are talking about a scheme that was decided by the Government and which affects the lives of individuals and businesses over at least four years. Of course, when the road is finished, the contractors will pick up the mess and take their tools and plans away, and that will be the end of it as far as they are concerned. It is certainly not the end of it for those who have been affected.

If a business or a home owner is directly affected by the scheme, the authorities have a duty to submit a compulsory purchase order. That in itself is a complicated process—although in my experience, it can be relatively simple. It is when one comes to consider either compulsory or discretionary purchase, which is available to the authorities, that one begins to see the problems that individuals and particularly businesses experience. For example, under the regulations, there is no provision for any compensation for loss of business, even if the business is directly or indirectly affected by such a road scheme. A number of examples illustrate that point.

Imagine that a family—mother, father and grandparents beforehand—have been in business for generations when along come the Government and say, "We wish to build a road through this area, and it will affect your business directly. We have provision for compulsory purchase of your property and, subject to certain procedures, that may work out reasonably successfully. You may want to wind up the business, but you could be relocated, which is a difficult process."

There is no provision whatever for loss of business. It does not matter whether compulsory or discretionary purchase orders are used: there is no right under the regulations to business or trade, even though a business may have been trading for generations. That is extremely serious, and certainly an injustice with which the House ought to be concerned.

Many businesses in my constituency have had to employ professional people to act on their behalf, which is right and proper, although, when they look into possible compensation, they are told bluntly and starkly that it does not matter what effect the road scheme has had, because there is no provision in compensation regulations for loss of business. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service, will take particular note of that, and ensure that the relevant Ministers are made aware of it.

What happens if one is a householder whose house is not directly in the line of the proposed road? If it is within 100 m of the centre of the proposed road, one may apply for what is called discretionary blight. But my goodness, one has to jump through some very important hoops before one gets anywhere near receiving compensation under that provision. I shall give the House just two examples to underline that.

If one applies for discretionary blight, one has to satisfy what are called the McCarthy rules. If we think back to the early 1950s, we could draw some perverse comparisons. I will not detain the House with details of how the McCarthy rules came to be. I shall simply refer to two aspects of them.

The first is the principle of prior knowledge. What does that mean? If someone bought a property in the prior knowledge that the road was to be built, they would have no right to compensation. What do we mean by prior knowledge? In the case of my constituency, it meant from the day that the Department of Transport drew a red pencil line on the map. So, if someone bought a property within 100 m of that line after the public inquiry, and so on, they would have no right to compensation under discretionary blight provisions, because they had prior knowledge.

What is not available at that time—nor can it be—is information on the array of side road orders, amendments to plans, closures of roads during construction, and so on. People sometimes have to wait years before details of the scheme become available.

In the case of the road in my constituency, the line was put on the map in 1986, but it was not until early 1990 that details became available. During that time, people may have bought properties. They will not receive compensation because they had prior knowledge—although they had no prior knowledge whatever of the road closures and the direct effect on their property. Therefore, they receive no compensation.

I recognise that we have to have rules and regulations to govern the important issue of compensation. However, it is unacceptable that a line can be drawn on a map and, years later—in this case, five or six years later—details of the road and the effect it will have on the side roads are still not available. People whose homes are affected receive no compensation, because they are deemed to have prior knowledge. They had some prior knowledge, but they did not have the detailed prior knowledge that would have enabled them to make a proper judgment.

Even people who are able to show that they meet the McCarthy rules on discretionary blight face the problem of market value. The district valuer in Stoke-on-Trent has often told me that it is his job to determine market value having no regard for the fact that a road is to be built. With the best will in the world, the system does not work like that, because, the moment that a road scheme is identified—even only in general terms—the value of the neighbouring properties goes down. It does not matter how well intentioned the district valuer is, because he cannot manufacture an artificial market value, and he would be wrong to do so.

The reality is that people who claim discretionary blight—like scores of my constituents—go through the hoops set up by the McCarthy rules; the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions accepts the blight notice and the need to pay compensation, but, when the district valuer sets the market valuation, people are appalled that the value of the property that they have lived in for years is reduced by half. I have personal experience of that happening to my constituents.

The district valuer says in answer to representations that he has set the current market value, and he can do no other. That is a serious anomaly, so I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take notice of those stark examples of how outdated the regulations are. They leave people—who, through no fault of their own, have their properties and businesses jeopardised by major infrastructure schemes—with a real sense of injustice. An urgent and detailed examination of the working of the regulations is long overdue. We should modernise them, and remove the chronic injustices they cause.

11.3 am

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

Before the House adjourns for the Christmas recess, I wish to make several brief points, but, before doing so I shall first touch on the speech of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), to whose remarks Opposition Members listened carefully. He has a right to be pleased by his election victory. No doubt the Liberal council in Winchester will put in order some of the difficulties that he articulated. My election in Southend, West was less than satisfactory in certain respects. The campaign started with the Liberal candidate sending me a postcard saying that the Liberals did not want any part in a Punch and Judy show. However, for the four weeks of the campaign, we had a big Punch and Judy show from them.

My result was declared at about 6 am in the midst of a farcical situation. Everyone was very tired because they had been separating the county ballot papers from the general election ballot papers. I was asked if I would allow my vote to be reduced by 120 so that everyone could go home. I said that I was being asked to behave like a gentleman and we all shook hands, but one of the other parties made a fuss and wanted to go through the ballot papers. I could have been difficult and asked for a further count—I probably would have got even more votes. I understand that the hon. Member for Winchester feels hard done by, but he is not alone in experiencing difficulties at counts.

The first matter that I wish to raise is the Kyoto conference. I am very pro-American, but I am a little sick of being lectured from across the Atlantic. The conference was farcical. The European Union commitment was to reduce emissions by 8 per cent. on the 1990 level by 2010. It is crazy that the Americans, the most powerful nation in the world, will not agree to that target. The underdeveloped countries, which are in the majority, also have not agreed any targets. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) mentioned energy policy, but the situation becomes even more farcical when we realise that the Government are adopting a higher target than the European Union has agreed. Yesterday, I visited the Dunton emissions plant for the celebration of its 40th anniversary, and I know that the Minister also hoped to be present. At that meeting, the chairman of Ford worldwide expressed his concern about the issue of emissions, and we should listen carefully to what he had to say about the consequences for the United Kingdom.

My second point is about vitamin B6. I knew very little about the subject until constituents started to write to me, but some 3 million people use that product and it gives comfort to any number of sufferers, although I shall not dwell on that point. The way that the issue has been handled since July is extraordinary. Unfortunately, we read most Government announcements in the newspapers these days. I am sure that the Minister will say that he will not take any lectures from the Conservative party—although we have a new Government and new Labour is walking on water so they will not wish to refer to what happened in the past. I understand that six hon. Members have made representations to the relevant Minister. Has there has been any movement on vitamin B6, because several of my constituents are upset about it?

My third point concerns the Palace theatre in Westcliff. There is a legitimate debate about the funding of the arts and not all my constituents would agree that the arts should take priority over health and education. However, given that it is generally accepted that a certain proportion of the national cake goes to the arts, my constituents want a fair share of the money from the Eastern area arts board. The present situation is unfair. At the moment, the Palace theatre in Westcliff—a magnificent theatre—gets £45,000; Watford gets £204,500; Colchester gets £230,000; and Ipswich gets £322,750. I recently met the chief executive and other representatives of the board and I told them that the share for the Palace theatre was ridiculous. Southend council is the second biggest net contributor to the board, but it gets a poor allocation of resources. It was clear that the chief executive was softening me up so that next year we would get nothing. That is not satisfactory. The Minister for Arts knows how strongly I feel on this issue, and I intend to take every opportunity to make sure that the wonderful theatre in Westcliff receives a fair share of the moneys available.

The next matter to which I wish to refer is Cyprus. Together with other hon. Members, I had the opportunity this year to visit Cyprus, where I first visited Famagusta. We are broadly speaking in agreement in the House that the situation in Cyprus is a tragedy. I understand that the Deputy Prime Minister said at the Labour party conference that we were into new territory, and that he and the Prime Minister took Cyprus very seriously and would ensure that something was done.

The meeting between President Clerides and Mr. Denktash was unsatisfactory. President Clerides's view was that the Greek Cypriots were committed to a just and long-lasting solution in a bizonal, bicommunal federation accepted by both sides in 1977 and 1979 in high-level agreements, while the solution preserves the integrity of Cyprus as one sovereign and one international personality. To achieve a just and long-lasting solution, the Greek Cypriots believe that the security aspects should be addressed and that a satisfactory solution to the problem of the displaced should be found, while human rights and basic freedoms are safeguarded in accordance with the acquis communautaire and other international instruments of human rights.

During my two visits, I saw that there was a great fear among the Greek Cypriots about the intentions of the Turkish Government. It is so easy to forget about the situation in Cyprus. The UK is one of the three guarantors and, as a Christmas present, the House should unite in an effort to ensure that Cyprus is united.

The final point I wish to raise is the very serious matter of suicide. A huge number of people in this country commit suicide. Every day of the week, one will read in the newspapers that someone has committed suicide. Many of us who travel on the tube find that it is disrupted and we all curse and blind, until we find that someone has thrown himself on the track. The same is true of British Rail. We can think of the recent suicides of children who have been bullied at school. So many people under different circumstances commit suicide.

In my time in this House, Jocelyn Cadbury—a former Member for Birmingham, Northfield—and then John Heddle have committed suicide. Two of the Members who have taken part in today's debate-the hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg)—were present when we had an all-night sitting on gun law. Because the hon. Member for Bolsover legitimately used the procedures of this House, we stayed in our places rather than constantly dividing. I was next to John Heddle during that all-night sitting and I felt that I got to know him far better than I had done before. I was horrified when he committed suicide a few days later. We have also had the recent, tragic case of Gordon McMaster.

Last year's figures showed that we had the lowest number of suicides this century, but many people in our constituencies are so disturbed and upset that they may be considering suicide. I represent the 31st out of 659 constituencies in terms of the number of constituents who are senior citizens. Many will be spending Christmas on their own, and I simply make a plea. When we enter the millennium, rather than 3,500 people in this country committing suicide each year—with the tragedy that that brings to our lives—it would be a mark of this country's value and civilisation if there were a drastic reduction in the number of suicides. In the milk of human kindness, I hope that all hon. Members—I know that they will—will ensure that all their constituents get help and support not only over Christmas, but in the years that lie ahead.

11.14 am
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

First, I apologise for the fact that I was not in the Chamber for the earlier speeches and for the fact that I am unable to stay for the rest of the debate, because I am serving on the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill Committee, to which I must return.

Owing to the pressure of numbers contributing to the debate on the report of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, neither of those who dissented from the Committee's report was able to be heard. Therefore, I want to take this opportunity to bring to the House my concerns about the way in which self-regulation is operating—or, as I would contend, failing to operate—in this important area. It is an important area because if we cannot regulate ourselves in a way that commands confidence, both in the House and among the public at large, we certainly cannot aspire to regulate others.

I believe that the report into the investigation of Neil Hamilton was a travesty—a travesty of natural justice, and the result of a deplorable shambles. It is urgent that we put together proper procedures in the House so we never have that sort of a shambles again. There was general agreement among Members of all parties that evening during the debate that the procedures were inadequate.

First, let mesay that I do not criticise the thoroughness with which Sir Gordon Downey carried out his investigation; it would be quite wrong to do so. The report involved the detailed amassing of highly complex evidence, and reports that there was a falling out between Sir Gordon Downey and the Committee are very much exaggerated. I pay tribute to the report that he produced. Nor am I necessarily convinced that Mr. Hamilton was innocent of the main charge—taking cash in brown envelopes for questions from Mohammed Al Fayed. My disquiet over the report has nothing to do with any view that Mr. Hamilton might be innocent. It is straightfor-wardly that I do not believe I can make a judgment as to whether he was innocent or guilty on the basis of the procedures that were adopted.

It is disturbing that the House, which should set an example of justice and fair dealing, was presented with a report against which Mr. Hamilton—or anybody else in such a situation; this is not special pleading for Mr. Hamilton—had no appeal. It is a basic tenet of British justice that there can be an appeal against a guilty verdict. We assume the verdict was guilty because it was indicative of the shambles which occurred that no two members of the Committee were able to agree on what the report was telling the House.

The Chairman said that Sir Gordon's findings stood, which meant that the verdict was guilty; but the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) told the House that there was no clear verdict, so it was not proven, which was also my understanding of our conclusion. That is why we removed one set of words, saying that we endorsed the findings, and substituted another, saying that we could find no practical way of adding to or subtracting from them. The House was entitled to a clear statement of what we had found, rather than several confused versions from different members of the Committee.

Throughout our proceeding, we were bedevilled by the fact that there were no clear, agreed procedures. I had never before sat on a Committee in which we made up our procedures as we went along, but that is exactly what happened. We could not agree on what our remit was or what our procedures should be. We ended by reducing justice to the decision of a single inquisitor, against which there was no effective appeal.

It was farcical that, when Mr. Hamilton appeared before us and talked at us—I cannot think of any other way of expressing it—for nearly two and a half hours, we were not allowed to ask any questions. If we thought that he had contradicted himself or that something was unclear, we could not ask about it; we had to sit there in silence and absorb the onslaught—that is what it was—for two and a half hours. That is profoundly unsatisfactory. At the end, I was none the wiser. I had heard a great deal that had raised an awful lot of questions in my mind, but, because I could not ask questions, I was neither wiser nor better informed.

We could not examine the main witnesses against Mr. Hamilton. Mr. Al Fayed was not called before the Committee, and we could not examine those who said that they had been involved in the dispatch of the money, so we had no basis on which to assess a report that had been challenged. That was our real problem, because there were no serious challenges to the facts in all the other reports before us; there were pleas in mitigation, writings to the Committee to apologise and drawings of our attention to other matters, but there was no real challenge to facts. On the occasion when there was an extremely serious challenge to facts we did not have the procedures to deal with it.

We examined Sir Gordon Downey's huge and extremely thorough report and we knew that it would take a very long time, involve a great deal of complexity, and demand resources that we possibly did not have, to re-examine the questions from scratch. The answer to that was not to shrug our shoulders and have done with it, but to come back to the House and say that we were stuck and needed a clear remit and guidance on how we should proceed.

We have to decide whether the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges is an appellate body. Should it hear appeals against the Commissioner's findings? If not, who is to hear such appeals; or are we seriously suggesting that we should create in the House a situation, unique in this country, in which a finding can blight someone's career prospects, and even preclude membership of the House, but no appeal is possible? Surely that must be unacceptable.

We have to decide what appeal there should be. Should it be heard by the Committee or by some other body? Should practising lawyers be involved? What should we do? Is the Committee simply a sentencing and administrative body, or is it an investigative body that determines guilt and innocence? Those questions, incredibly, have not been sorted out. We carried out investigations—if that is the right word—into the conduct of Members of Parliament, without an answer to the basic question: what is the purpose of the Committee?

The purpose of the Committee determines very much what its composition should be. I regret the fact that it has been downgraded in composition. A Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, sitting in judgment on Members of Parliament, and occasionally quite senior ones, should itself be a senior Committee. I regret the fact that the Leader of the House does not chair it. The Committee's predecessor was chaired by the then Leader of the House, and back in the mists of time it was chaired by the Prime Minister. That gave the Committee real gravitas, which I believe is now lacking.

I do not want to criticise new Members, as those who serve on the Committee are extremely diligent and intelligent, and spend a lot of time examining the evidence, but they lack one huge dimension: experience. Experience counts in such investigations, as it helps one to understand what a Member of Parliament could or could not be expected to know. One needs to have served in the House before one can reach such judgments. The composition of the Committee is all wrong.

We need to ask ourselves whether legal representation should be allowed. In highly complex investigations of the sort that went on in the Hamilton case, we should consider seriously whether we should allow cross-examination of witnesses. It is worth pointing out that in this case Mr. Hamilton was not allowed to cross-examine the witnesses against him, even in front of Sir Gordon Downey, never mind in front of the Committee. That seems to me to be another affront to justice, and even to natural justice.

I do not say that there are easy answers. I am not standing here sanctimoniously saying that we should have had it all sorted out, although we should have had a lot more sorted out than we did; but the solution that the Committee should have arrived at was to say honestly to the House that, within our current remit, against procedures of which we were not even certain, we really needed clearer instructions before we could proceed. As it is, we have left a man—who may be guilty; I do not presume innocence—with no clear verdict and no right of appeal. That should bring us deep shame.

It is urgently necessary that the House address itself to what it expects the Committee to do, what composition it should have, and how we are to resolve the situation. It will be fine as long as we carry on having simple cases, but the next time that we get one of the complexity of the Hamilton case, we will be back in exactly the same situation if we have not sorted out our procedures.

I resigned from the Committee because I could not go on wading against a sea of uncertain procedures, with no clear remit, making things up as we went along and, in the end, having to subscribe to a report that, I believe, brought shame on us, not because we had not made honest efforts but because we had not been able to sort out the mess. It ill behoves any Select Committee to return a shambles to the House.

Of course I understand the convention by which both Government and Opposition accept reports from Select Committees, especially when they concern standards and privileges and the regulation of our own conduct; but on this occasion I believe that they should not have accepted the report: it should have been sent back to the Committee for reconsideration. It was accepted, however, and the damage is done; whether justly or unjustly, we will never know, because there is no appeal. We must get this sorted out for the future. If we cannot regulate ourselves we have absolutely no right to aspire to regulate anybody else.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. If everyone who wishes to catch my eye is to succeed in doing so, brevity is essential. I call Mr. Andrew Love.

11.28 am
Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for not informing you earlier that I wanted to contribute to this debate.

After what we might call the wide-ranging contribution from the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), I am sorry that I did not bring along a few more of my constituency issues; but I crave the indulgence of the House for a moment as I echo and support what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) said.

I, too, have a major road scheme in my constituency. It is an extension to the north circular road which cuts in two a small shopping centre. I was approached by some of the traders in that shopping centre and I investigated the situation. I discovered that traders have no right in law to passing trade. It does not matter if they have had regular customers for years and can prove it; they have no right in law. In any scheme of that nature, where car-borne customers are cut off, traders have no recourse to compensation.

I want to reinforce and support the idea that this issue should be examined. Road schemes, especially in urban areas, by their very nature have an impact on the local community and local traders. It is incumbent on us to look closely at what we can do to mitigate the effects while the scheme is being undertaken.

This morning's debate gives me an opportunity to raise the issue of the future of the building societies movement. In the light of earlier contributions, perhaps I should declare an interest—it is not and does not have to be in the Register of Members' Interests—in that I am the chairman of the all-party building societies group in the House.

The thrust of my remarks is that building societies are under threat and that much of the strength of the financial services sector in this country will be undermined if they disappear. Some people will express concern that I should view their future in such stark terms because, after all, the Nationwide successfully fought off an attempt to undermine its mutual status and the Government recently raised the threshold required in any ballot to demutualise, recognising the situation. Both are true and I welcome them.

My concern relates to the failure of the Building Societies Act 1997—it was passed under the previous Government—to provide any safeguard for societies against the activities of carpetbaggers or the impact that that is having on building societies and whether, as a result, their mutuality will be perceived as a hindrance to their future success. Before considering that, I shall talk about the value that mutual organisations bring to the financial services sector.

The consumer benefits from access to the services and products provided by mutual organisations. In other words, building societies offer choice to the consumer and they are popular. Although the remaining societies have only about 25 per cent. of the mortgage market, over the past three months they have lent more to their customers than all the banks combined. Survey after survey confirms that building societies have come top in customer service and friendliness. They provide diversity in their different structures and different objectives. For example, mutuals are able to take a longer-term perspective as they are not driven by the need continually boost to their share prices or to maximise dividends to shareholders.

Many societies are regionally or even locally based which brings them closer to their customers. Many play a significant role in their local communities. I am sure that hon. Members up and down the country would echo that. Building societies provide stability in the market—not for them the false attractions of property speculation or secondary banking. As a result, no savings have been lost in building societies this century. They are truly prudential organisations.

Most importantly, building societies provide competition to the banks and other institutions in the financial services sector. That is because mutual organisations do not have to pay dividends to external shareholders. As a result, building societies have a margin advantage that allows them to offer cheaper mortgages, or savings accounts which, on average, pay more. Most societies have decided to combine the two. That was most graphically illustrated by the announcement yesterday that the Nationwide was pledged not to raise its main mortgage rate in response to last month's base rate increase. That has opened up a record 0.6 per cent. gap with its main demutualised rivals. The Nationwide has also reaffirmed its pledge to maintain, and even to increase, its savings rate. That will maintain the significant margin advantage that currently exists between the mutual and non-mutual sectors.

In a recent survey, the Consumers Association compared a range of core products—savings accounts, tax exempt special savings accounts, mortgages and overdrafts—and found that consumers would have been nearly £1,600 better off over five years with a building society than with a bank. Without that competitive restraint in the market, it is likely that the banks would widen the margins between their mortgage and savings rates. That has already been shown in research carried out by the Consumers Association.

The building societies sector has been undergoing rapid change in the past few years and that has culminated in the conversion of five of the largest societies this year. However, that still leaves 70 societies with assets in excess of £130 billion. The recent windfall gains to members have created a climate that threatens the very mutuality of those remaining societies.

In that context, I again congratulate the Nationwide on the magnificent campaign that it fought earlier this year. A group of five so-called "members for conversion" stood for election solely on a ticket of demutualisation, in the teeth of opposition from the board, the staff and, as it turned out, the members of the society. At the height of that campaign about 25,000 accounts were being opened daily, swamping the society and making it difficult, if not impossible, to carry out its ordinary business for its main customers. As a result—this is according to the society's management—the level of service it provided fell below an acceptable level.

The Nationwide came through that with flying colours and, fortunately, its members voted in favour of their long-term interests rather than for short-term gain. I do not conclude that that spells the end of the carpetbaggers. I should like to think that that would be so, but I find it difficult. There is growing evidence that others are coming forward to take up the challenge to demutualise.

Although the next annual general meeting of the Nationwide does not take place until April, it is already clear from public statements that at least nine candidates, some who have stood previously and some new candidates, are committed to "members for conversion" and will be standing for election, regardless of the overwhelming result earlier this year.

It is clear that societies, which have to survive in a cut-throat, competitive market, simply cannot continue to be diverted from their core business activities to defend their mutual status. If the attacks continue, even if unsuccessful, societies are likely to be faced with the unpalatable choice of continuing to defend their position against increasing odds or accepting that it would be better for the business and for their other stakeholders to convert on their own terms. That would reduce the number of societies below the level that would make that sector sustainable and would, inevitably, lead to its elimination from the financial services market.

I shall now turn to an argument put most cogently by Professor David Llewellyn of Loughborough university. He said that there is a systemic interest in maintaining mutuality, not because it is somehow an inherently superior form of ownership, but because there is a need for a mixed ownership structure in the financial services sector. If that is accepted, mutuality becomes a public policy issue, and Government, and especially Parliament, must take an interest in ensuring that the consumer does not lose out from continued conversions. How can that be done?

The Minister has already shown the way by raising the threshold for conversion to 50 per cent. It must be right that fundamental decisions about the future of building societies should require at least that level of support before demutualisation can happen. After all, converted societies can be taken over only if 75 per cent. of shareholders vote to confirm such action.

For large mutual societies, the number of people required to nominate candidates for election should be raised above the current maximum of 50. As recent events have shown, that maximum can easily be exploited by a small band of eccentric or dissident individuals. Let us compare what happens in building societies with what happens in general elections, on which the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) commented earlier. A Member of the House must be nominated by 10 electors in an average constituency of 67,000. That is one for every 6,700. The Nationwide, the largest mutual society, has 7 million members; the Bradford and Bingley, the second largest, 2.2 million. For the Nationwide, one nomination per 140,000 members is needed; for the Bradford and Bingley, one per 44,000. Nominations should be based on a percentage of the total membership, with an absolute maximum written into the legislation.

Membership of societies could be restricted to people with an interest in its activities, not abused by those interested only in asset-stripping the society for their own benefit. To gain ownership rights in a society, applicants should be members for a minimum period of, say, one, two or three years. That would return societies to their original ideal of requiring new customers to save with them before gaining membership or its benefits.

Is it reasonable to ask societies to go through the disruption and uncertainty inherent in the campaigns being mounted by members for conversion and other like-minded groups? They can stand every year with impunity and little financial outlay, yet the cost to societies of mounting a reasonable defence, and from the disruption of normal business, is enormous. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the framework of regulation should provide stability and ensure that societies cannot be held to ransom by small and unrepresentative groups with no commitment to the objectives of the mutual organisations of which they are members.

Building societies have been with us for more than 200 years and have more than 100 years of expertise in the savings and mortgage markets. If they and their expertise are not to be undermined, action is necessary to deal with the difficulties and disruption that they face.

11.43 am
Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

In the interests of brevity, I shall not repeat the globetrotting account of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). I shall limit myself to the problems of West Sussex, which includes my constituency, and consider the Government's effect on it. There is a growing feeling that we are being victimised to the benefit of new Labour's friends in the northern metropolitan boroughs and, in particular, those with distinctly old Labour profligate spending habits.

First, I shall discuss last week's shocking announcement by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions that West Sussex is to be singled out. An additional 12,800 homes are to be built in our county by 2011, on top of the 37,900 already agreed in the county structure plan. It is ironic that while the Government were talking up their credentials on greenhouse gases, the Secretary of State was busy putting another nail in the coffin of the West Sussex green belt, a most un-environmentally friendly gesture from an apparently environmentally friendly Deputy Prime Minister.

Earlier this year, an independent panel concluded that there was no case for increasing the housing allocation figures for West Sussex. It was an independent panel, and a fair and square decision. The Secretary of State was represented on the panel and made no objection then. Now, in a fit of pique, he has decided to kick over the table, take home his toys and object. The inquiry recognised that West Sussex had few brown-field sites left on which to allocate additional housing. It recognised that large parts of the county are taken up by the downs, which are dominated by areas of outstanding natural beauty. It recognised that West Sussex lacked the infrastructure, especially roads, to deal with the extra pressures that a further 30,000 people would bring as a result of the extra allocation of houses, let alone the effects of extra traffic on the CO2 emissions with which the Kyoto conference was so taken up.

The inquiry, with its independent judgment, also recognised the impact that the additional houses would have on the delicate balance between jobs and homes, especially in my densely populated patch of West Sussex on the coastal strip, where unemployment is already well above average. We are certainly not enjoying the image of the cosy south that is often portrayed. The extra homes allocation is the equivalent of adding a new Basingstoke to our county. West Sussex is in danger of becoming a massive semi-rural suburbia circling the downs.

The decision met widespread opposition. The county council and the three leaders of the political parties on it were united in their opposition and have called for a judicial review, which I support. The decision is opposed by the seven Conservative Members in West Sussex. It was also opposed by the Council for the Protection of Rural England, whose press release stated: The draft West Sussex Structure Plan had been agreed by a careful analysis of housing and environmental needs in the county. It stood as a beacon of a more common sense approach to planning new housing development and its housebuilding levels, significantly below those set out in Government planning guidance, received independent official support … The new Government has made an appalling start to meeting the challenge of providing new homes in ways that renew our towns instead of concreting the countryside. This decision is both undemocratic and environmentally damaging. What is the point of giving local authorities flexibility in planning future housebuilding levels if politicians simply reinstate their own inflexible figures? The Sussex Wildlife Trust stated: This makes a mockery of the enormous amount of work done to establish a sustainable level of housing development in West Sussex. More houses would cause ongoing environmental damage … This 'Environmental capacity' argument was accepted by the independent inspector at the Examination in Public … The news is a severe blow against local democracy. The EIP process appears to have been a waste of time and resources. The month of eloquent discussion and the winning of the argument count for nothing against an ill-judged government direction. Those are environmentally independent commentators on this shambolic decision. Only the House-Builders Federation has said anything supportive about the Secretary of State's decision. That speaks for itself.

We are being forced to have the extra houses despite the fact that the basis of the house building allocation figures is being called into question. Dubious, trend-based household projections are too inflexible. We want figures based on housing need, not projected demand. If some Labour councillors in the north of England got their act together on renting out empty council houses that lie idle for months at a time, and used the brown-field sites in their cities better, we would not have these problems foisted upon us in the south of England.

The decision is an attack on local democracy, particularly against Conservative West Sussex county council. A plank of the policy on which it was elected was protecting the strategic green gaps, which are all too few, especially along the coastal strip.

It is difficult to see how the people of West Sussex have derived any benefit from the Government. Instead, we appear to be the major victims of a series of often dogmatic and ill-thought-out measures which disadvantage my constituents more than most. What have the Government got against Sussex? It started at the beginning of the Session with the abolition of the assisted places scheme. We have many fine schools in Sussex which have benefited many pupils from less well-off backgrounds, but that opportunity will now be lost.

The Budget in July included the abolition of tax relief for pensioner medical insurance policies. As I have mentioned time and again, Worthing has the highest proportion of pensioners in the country. It is no surprise, therefore, to learn that we have the highest proportion of pensioners with such medical insurance policies. We also have one of worst problems in the country in terms of waiting lists for treatment at our local hospitals. Given that more than 100,000 of those policies have already not been renewed, the impact on my part of West Sussex will be dramatic.

Recently, we have had the latest complete horlicks on beef, which affects many Sussex farmer—I will leave it to my colleagues to go into detail about that. Most recently, the proposals for the individual savings account are shambolic and will work particularly to the detriment of the older, prudent savers nearing retirement, of whom there are many in Sussex and in my constituency. Those proposals threaten to be a breach of trust and harsh retrospective tax legislation. They are seriously flawed and I hope that the Government will take full account of the many voices of opposition expressed in what I hope will be a genuine consultation process.

Finally, let us consider the council finance allocations, which were announced just the other day. The extra £16 million allocated to West Sussex will not even cover the inflation element. It will not cover the extra pupil spend in West Sussex and the extra costs that will be associated with the development of special educational needs as proposed in the Green Paper. That allocation will not cover the £3.4 million hole that has been knocked in the West Sussex pension scheme because of the pension tax announced in the July Budget. That allocation is equivalent to another backdoor tax, which is likely to be imposed to the detriment of my constituents because council tax bills are set to increase by between 10 and 12 per cent. Again, that is the result of standard spending assessment changes that favour Labour's northern friends.

Many other things have not helped West Sussex. You will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for believing that the Government have something Sussexist about them. My constituents are increasingly of the belief that they are to be the unwitting victims of new Labour's designs on the retired and other disabled, the environment-loving, prudent-saving, beef-eating and beef-producing, council-tax-paying, pension-fund-owning and interest-rate-sensitive folk of middle England, who just happen to live in one of the most beautiful corners of this kingdom.

11.52 am
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

I shall be brief because I know that the House also wants to hear the hon. Member for Belfast South (Rev. Martin Smyth), should he catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I had intended to raise two matters in some detail. The first relates to the concerns expressed by former prisoners of war about the continuing failure of the Government to meet their justifiable request that their salary deductions, taken from them during the war, should be restored to them. I hope to return to that matter on another occasion.

On occasions such as this there is a certain element of ritual. We are apparently arguing seriously that we do not want the House of Commons to rise for Christmas until it has debated particular subjects. Normally, if hon. Members thought that there was any risk that they might not get away in time for Christmas, they would not be seen in the Chamber for this debate. There is, however, a subject that I think should be debated, and time should be made available for it on Monday or Tuesday of next week.

I am sure that I am not alone when I say that I would gladly give up the opportunity to spend more time with my family to come to the House to debate something that desperately needs to be discussed—the order implementing the beef on the bone ban.

That order automatically came into effect last night, but we have not even debated it. Its consequences for the rural community, and that far beyond it, could scarcely be more extreme. Last week, I went to my local market at Newton Abbott; at the weekend, I spoke to farmers; and I was present at a National Farmers Union rally that was held in the Grand Committee Room 48 hours ago. On each occasion, I met people who are concerned not only that their income might go down, but that their entire way of life will be devastated. Those people are looking into the abyss, and see that they might lose not just their business, farms, homes and the rest, but the way of life that they and their fathers before them have always followed. And why? It is due, latterly, to the implementation of a ban that was not even necessary. It would have been quite possible to give the public a warning so that they could make up their minds, but the Government chose not to do that. There may be reasons—ones which I might find incomprehensible—why the Government, when faced with the option to issue an warning, decided to impose a ban. Surely such a ban, whose impact is so crucial and critical, is something which we should have the opportunity to debate.

That ban is bad law, because, as one butcher asked recently, "How am I supposed to tell the precise age of an oxtail?" It is not good enough for the Government simply to say," It matters not. We have carried out our parliamentary duty. We have laid the order and we do not need to debate it." That is not the right and proper way to proceed.

I was unable to be present at a rally that took place in Exeter, which had been organised by the NFU, because I was committed to speak at a rally in the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) attended, as did my wife, on my part, and she reported back to me. She told me that she had seen people, some of whom we have known all our lives, who were in a state of distress the like of which I have never witnessed. The new ban is the straw that will break the camel's back.

I find it simply incredible that we, on our salaries, can go off soon and enjoy Christmas with our families, when we know that all we have to face is the judgment of our electorate every five years—with the exception of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), who has had to face it more often than some of us. Those poor farmers are facing a judgment, the results of which could be terminal, and that should be debated in the House.

11.55 am
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I am grateful for the opportunity to make a contribution. I understand the argument about the restrictions on meat and I know that the concerns expressed would be echoed by many in Northern Ireland.

I should like to consider an old problem, the workings of the Child Support Agency. We have already heard today how different legislation passed by the House is not always thought out carefully and that establishing the CSA is one such example. We all agreed that something needed to be done, but, as a result, problems have arisen with the administration of it.

A constituent of mine provided for the family, but then things began to go wrong. Unfortunately, it would appear that the CSA is prepared to listen more to the mother than to the father. It is investigating that man without investigating the mother's statements.

Such problems are coupled with others that I have discovered. For example, when the Benefits Agency says that a child is receiving benefit, the CSA has no alternative but to accept that that individual is a child. That happened in one case despite the fact that the CSA was advised on more than two occasions that the child had left school, although the mother claimed that he was still attending. When documentary evidence was presented to the CSA, it did not follow it through. I have written constantly to the CSA office in Belfast about that case, and it has finally agreed to re-examine it. Surely greater care should be taken in providing child benefit to children who are past the age of normal school education and are not in further education.

I appreciatedthe contribution from the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), because it is necessary for the House to tackle the problem of personation at elections. It was thought that it occurred only in Northern Ireland, but we were all aware that it has taken place in England, Scotland and Wales. It is nearly time for the House to provide foolproof identity documentation, rather than leaving it to the presiding officer to make a challenge that cannot be followed through there and then.

As for bad legislation, we had devastating riots in Londonderry last week. I understand that business leaders and the great and the good in the Churches now say that those who organise parades or demonstrations should be responsible for the damage. I ask the House not to go down that road, because it would be a charter for the rioter.

If there are those who are prepared to riot and destroy property, the organisers of that activity and those perpetrating it should be held responsible in law, rather than those who have a legitimate right to parade, protest or demonstrate. If we went down the other road and allowed a rioters' charter, we would be failing our people in our democratic structures.

11.59 am
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I begin by paying a very real tribute to the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) for their admirably succinct speeches, in which they both made powerful points.

In my winding-up speech, I shall try to refer to all the hon. Members who have spoken, but I must first point out that it was a couple of nights ago that we had the formal vote on whether we should rise for the recess on Monday. I rather regret the change in the procedures of the House that prevents a vote at the end of this debate, because it would have been good to register a protest.

I object to the fact that we are rising on Monday, not because I mind being here but because it has come about as a result of the Government's inept management of their timetable. We were brought back from the long recess much later than we normally are and now we are bringing all Members—and, more important, all the members of staff who serve us so well and so selflessly—back on Monday for just one day.

I warned the Leader of the House that I would raise the point, so I am not being discourteous. It is a pity that we should go to all that trouble and expense merely because the Government could not get their legislative act together more effectively. I tabled a question to the right hon. Lady asking what estimate she had made of the costs that will be incurred as a result of the decision that the House should sit for a single day. I also asked whether the figure included an estimate for travel expenses for Members.

I was asked to delete the second part of my question, because a colleague had already asked it. I readily agreed. However, the answer to my question referred only to that second part, saying that it was not possible to provide a realistic estimate of travel costs for one day's travel to and from Westminster. That is nonsense. We need to know what the total cost will be.

I say this in a gentle spirit, because I do not want to spoil the season of good will, but I hope that the Government will get their act together better next year and that we shall move towards a more strictly defined parliamentary year. That would benefit all Members and those who serve us.

The problem is not that Members wish to be on holiday early; many of us will have to abandon the Christmas visits that we like to make to places such as residential homes, prisons and hospitals. This year, many of us will not be able to do what we would like to do in that regard.

The debate began with a plea, in a powerful speech by the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), for the banning of asbestos in all its forms and ended with a plea for the abandonment of the ban on beef on the bone. I hope that the comments of the hon. Member for Tooting, based on much investigation and experience and on his work in the Council of Europe, which is greatly appreciated, will be taken to heart by his colleagues on the Front Bench.

As for beef, I hope that, during the season of Christmas when, I trust, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will have a happy time with his family and some pleasant meals, he will reflect on the enormous damage that he has done by his precipitate action and panic measure.

Every Member who decides to smoke sees a warning on the cigarette packet when he or she buys one. We know that there is a risk. I recently tabled a question relating to the 120,000 people who died from smoking-related illness in 1995. The risk associated with beef on the bone announced in the House a fortnight ago is infinitesimal. We are not even sure there is a risk—yet, as a letter to one of the papers said yesterday, we have reached the ultimate nanny state in which our meat is to be cut up for us. That is nonsense and the damage that is being inflicted by not allowing people to choose is out of all proportion to the risk. A great industry is being put in severe jeopardy.

My first reaction on hearing the announcement of the ban was to ring my wife and instruct her to ring our butcher and get as much beef on the bone into our deep freeze as possible. I am glad that she did, because I am now told that those of us who have beef on the bone in the deep freeze are allowed to exercise our judgment as to whether we eat it. Incidentally, I wish that the Prime Minister had presented me with the 15 lb piece of beef that was delivered to Downing street the other day instead of putting it in the dustbin.

Beef is an important issue. Many other important issues have been touched upon. My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) talked about appointments to various health service trusts. I have never believed that people should be appointed to public bodies on the basis of their political beliefs. It is a great pity that, over the years, we have departed from the system under which a Conservative Government appointed Alf Robens to run the National Coal Board and a Labour Government sent Sir Christopher Soames as ambassador to Paris. In each case, the Prime Minister of the day chose the man best suited to the job.

My right hon. Friend cited a number of people she appointed to health service trusts when she was Secretary of State. She mentioned Baroness Jay, Baroness Hayman and several others. It is a great pity, to put it no higher, that the Government now appear not only to have embarked on a purge of those who were previously appointed, but to be so cavalier in their attitude to those people's public service that they learn about their replacement through telephone calls from their successors. That is not acceptable.

I have a great belief in the ideal of public service. Public service should be encouraged wherever it is found. I do not mind what the political affiliation of a man or woman appointed to a public body is so long as that person is dedicated to public service and is willing to serve. Purging the health service of those who have given a great deal will do it a great disservice.

I shall say little about the speech made by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). I am sorry he is not in his place now. I do not like to be unkind, especially at this time of year, but in my notes I wrote that here we had a prig being sanctimonious. In his absence, I say to the hon. Gentleman that I hope that if he ever finds himself in any trouble, personal or any other sort, he is treated with a little more charity than he displayed this morning.

I do not know all the rights and wrongs of the Aitken affair. Jonathan Aitken was and is a friend of mine, although I find some of his apparent actions incomprehensible. To presume guilt and condemn someone on the Floor of the House before we know whether charges are to be preferred is an abuse of the privileges of the House.

The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) explained to me that he would not be in his place for the winding-up speeches because he is attending an important meeting of his party. He made a splendid speech, as he always does on such occasions, in which he made a plea for a co-ordinated energy policy. He made no apology for plugging coal and I hope that when the Minister replies he will give some encouragement to the pilot scheme for which the hon. Gentleman argued with such understandable passion.

I shall referlater to what was said by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), but first I want to comment on the interesting speech made by the new, or rather the re-elected, hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten). It would be churlish not to congratulate him warmly on his decisive victory, and I do so without reservation.

The hon. Gentleman brought to the attention of the House in a most appropriate manner the shortcomings of our petition system. As he said to me privately after his speech, he would have been more than happy not to have taken his seat had we had a system for investigating petitions quickly. I think that we should have such a system.

The hon. Gentleman also touched on the problem of personation, as did the hon. Member for Belfast, South. Most of us prefer not to recognise that problem, but we should recognise it and the points that he made should be taken to heart. I thank him for raising the issue and I hope that action will be taken.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson), who is a fellow Staffordshire Member, referred to the problem of compensation for people who face the loss of home or business because of road building and other public works schemes. A number of motorways have been proposed for or put through my constituency, so I echo his remarks. I hope that the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions will take note of the hon. Gentleman's points.

I cannot begin to touch on all the matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who took us from Kyoto to suicide via vitamin B6, Cyprus and the Palace theatre, Westcliff. If he can produce such a veritable tour de force in 10 minutes, he should be at the Palace theatre, Westcliff. I hope that he will repair there during the pantomime season.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) made an important speech, as did my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham. They were both concerned about natural justice to Members of the House who find themselves in difficulties and the need for a proper appellate system. As I said when I wound up the debate on the so-called Hamilton affair, I believe that we should examine these matters most carefully.

It is no criticism of any of the individuals involved, still less of Sir Gordon Downey, to say that what has happened recently leaves a lot to be desired. Although we have not yet come to any absolute conclusions, the comments of my right hon. Friend about an appellate body have much to commend them. My personal view—I do not speak for my party—is that a group of three or four distinguished former hon. Members from the various parties, who know the ways of the House, presided over by a former Speaker, might be a good appellate body. We must come up with something, because we should not leave matters as untidily as they have been left following the Hamilton affair.

All I would say to Mr. Hamilton is what I said in the House a few weeks ago. I hope that he and all those with whom he comes into contact will recognise that the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, for all its imperfections and for all the imperfections of its report, made it plain that it would not have recommended expulsion from the House. I hope that he will derive some comfort from that, although I find some of his actions difficult to understand.

The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) spoke with authority about building societies and the concept of mutuality. It behoves us all, especially Conservative Members, because we have done so much to further the property-owning democracy, to realise that our efforts would not have met such success were it not for the building society movement. There is a continuing place for that movement.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) talked about the impact of potential housing development in West Sussex. Anyone who has the privilege of representing a rural area and who values the importance of the green belt knows how crucial it is that insensitive development does not swallow up the finite resources of our beautiful countryside and fine farmland. My hon. Friend has the great good fortune of having a beautiful constituency and I well understand why he feels its vulnerability and feels obliged to speak as he did this morning. He has my full support.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South referred to the Child Support Agency. There is not a Member in the House, of any party, who has not had some unfortunate examples of the agency's operations. Hon. Members in the previous Parliament agreed that the Child Support Agency should be established. When the previous Government introduced proposals, they found support from the then Opposition. We all have some responsibility, especially to ensure that the system continues to be improved. Improvements have been made in recent months and I pay tribute to my right hon. and hon. Friends who were in government before May for setting many of those improvements in train, but the agency is still far from perfect.

I have one minute before the Minister speaks. I understand why the Leader of the House is not present: she has explained to me that she has Privy Council duties. I should like to take this final opportunity to wish the Minister, hon. Members who are present and those who are not an extremely happy Christmas. Let us hope that we return in good spirits and in good humour in the new year.

12.15 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle)

I apologise for missing two speeches. As the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) said, the Leader of the House has unfortunately to attend to Privy Council business. I am afraid that I am an inadequate deputy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) raised the issue of asbestos. I have to state an interest, as I am the honorary secretary of the Liverpool and district asbestos victim support group. I hold that post because, seven years ago, I watched my brother John die from mesothelioma, which is a terrible, debilitating disease. Anyone who has seen someone suffer from the effects of ingesting asbestos must have every sympathy with my hon. Friend's comments. The Government are determined to deal energetically and decisively with all aspects of the asbestos problem. Ministers are currently considering advice from the Health and Safety Commission on a mechanism and timetable for a domestic ban on the import, supply and use of asbestos products. The Government plan to make an announcement early in the new year.

I was more than a little amazed to hear the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) refer to the politicisation of appointments to health trusts. I remind her that, a few years ago, I tabled about 800 questions in a short space of time to find out who sat on health trusts and various other quangos. For a very long time, that was a secret garden for hon. Members and for the public.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has made it clear that health trusts will meet in the open. Appointments to trusts will be on merit, which has purportedly always been the case, but was allegedly not the case under the previous Government. I am happy to tell the right hon. Lady that we have issued a consultation paper on all quangos, including health trusts. To the best of my knowledge, no one has been excluded from a health trust because of the political bias of sponsoring Ministers or anyone else.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

Lord Nolan commended the mechanisms used for health service appointments. He ruled out allegations of political bias and commended the further improvements that had been introduced. That being so, will the Minister take up the many examples that I can feed to him of people who have been treated in a discourteous, not to say offensive, manner?

Mr. Kilfoyle

In the spirit of openness that characterises the new Government, I am perfectly willing to look into any suggestions of abuse or discourtesy. That is the difference between us and the previous Government.

My hon. Friendthe Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) caused some controversy. A senior detective from the specialist operations department has been appointed to investigate the allegation to which he referred. The matter is being pursued as expeditiously as possible. When the investigation is complete, a report will be sent to the Crown Prosecution Service. That is all that needs to be said about that matter now.

The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who has apologised for not being here for the winding-up speeches, were concerned about the procedures that surround what has become known as the Neil Hamilton affair. In its report on Mr. Hamilton, the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges said that it would review its procedure in the light of some of the issues that the Hamilton inquiry raised. In his speech, the Chairman of that Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) said that the Committee would report to the House when it had completed its review. It is appropriate to await the outcome of that review, at which time the House can decide what, if anything, needs to be done.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) habitually raises the issue of the coal industry of whose interests he has been a long-time and heroic defender. He also spoke about Remploy. I am sorry that he has left the Chamber because I should have liked to tell him that I, too, have a great interest in Remploy. It has a large factory in my constituency and I am aware of its work.

The Government's objective is to ensure secure, diverse energy supplies at competitive prices and we certainly want coal to play its part in meeting that objective. The Government cannot intervene directly in negotiations between coal companies and generators, but we have made plain to all involved our concern about the future of the United Kingdom's coal industry.

We have taken some key actions to create a level playing field so that coal can compete fairly. They include challenging German and Spanish coal subsidies so that we may maximise markets for UK coal, and removing by way of the Fossil Fuel Levy Bill the advantage that nuclear energy and imported nuclear energy from France enjoy by exemption from that levy. We are asking the gas regulator to examine the resale provisions of early taper-pay gas contracts to establish whether they distort the market against coal, and we are examining many other issues.

In the context of Remploy, the Government are making available an extra £195 million from the windfall levy to pay for a range of measures that will help disabled people and those with long-standing illnesses to get work and training.

The hon. Member for Winchester twice over (Mr. Oaten) raised some important issues. Before entering Parliament, I was a professional, or perhaps unprofessional, organiser for the Labour party. I was an election agent and I understand perfectly the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman faced. He spoke about people with posters who signed other people's nomination forms. I do not know whether that is a comment on their political literacy or on the system. The Government appreciate that there are real and major problems.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that she encountered a problem in her constituency where a candidate stood under the name of Fran Taylor. My right hon. Friend was No. 7 on the list and Fran Taylor was at No. 6 and Fran Taylor's name was called. Those who are mindful to deceive find it easy to put an idea in someone's mind.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) spoke about personation. We laugh at the old adage, vote early and vote often, but it is not funny when such actions determine the outcome of an election. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is considering measures such as descriptions on ballot forms. Hon. Members will remember the use of the term "Literal Democrat". Rolling registers must also be considered. The Home Office working group on electoral procedures will shortly meet under the chairmanship of the Under-Secretary of State, my near neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth). That group will look at electoral matters to determine how the House could solve some of the problems that have been adumbrated.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) spoke eloquently and passionately about a subject that is near to his heart—a new road. The roads review is broadly based and we need to ask fundamental questions in the context of an emerging integrated transport policy. The Government believe in consulting the public on the roads programme. That is a novelty compared with the actions of the previous Government. We sponsored two public consultations on the issue that my hon. Friend raised and the results are being carefully considered.

Where do I begin to reply to the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess)? Do I start by taking responsibility on the Government's behalf for eradicating suicide this Christmas or should we revisit Kyoto and ensure that the Americans whole-heartedly agree with all that we say? Overnight, should we resolve all the difficulties in Cyprus? Resolution of the vitamin B6 problem would probably be simple. The hon. Gentleman presented a long list. I was baffled by his comments about the Palace theatre in Westcliff. I assume that he wants money for the theatre from the Eastern area arts board. I understood that such matters were deliberately placed at arm's length so that Ministers could not interfere, so it would be unprofessional and unethical for me to venture an opinion.

In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), I once again admit complete ignorance of all matters relating to mutual and non-mutual societies. I shall undertake to speak to my ministerial colleagues in the Treasury and give my hon. Friend a substantive reply.

The speech by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) was almost an attack on the Government and I thought that the Opposition had finally found their feet. There was a swing of 11 per cent. to Labour in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, so not everybody was anti-Labour. There was a sniff, a slight smell, of NIMBYism in his view. I am certainly not a Sussex-phobe. He spoke about an extra 30,000 people and about the fumes from their cars, but such problems do not stop at the borders of West Sussex. They are part of a rather wider issue which the Kyoto conference tried to address.

The hon. Gentleman engaged in unwarranted attacks on northern authorities. There are about 800,000 vacant homes in Britain, and 667,000 of them are privately owned. The Government are trying to draw attention to that imbalance and to engage in small, symbolic actions. That is why I accompanied my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Housing at this morning's Centrepoint opening of accommodation for the homeless at Admiralty Arch. The idea that vast hordes of northern people are making their way here to steal homes from Sussex people is rather beyond the pale.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the assisted places scheme. In opposition, I was one of those who worked on the policy to remove that scheme, which was invidious in educational and social terms. Happily, it has been removed.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) raised an issue that is dear to his heart and to those of many other Opposition and Labour Members. New experimental evidence shows that BSE infectivity may be present in tissues that are normally removed when beef is deboned. The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee has emphasised that the risk to consumers is very small, and we can agree on that. The Government's first priorities are the protection of the consumer and the maintenance of public confidence in food. Action is being taken, although I admit that it is precautionary, to ensure that consumers continue to get the highest protection against BSE. We will not play fast and loose with public health. No responsible Government could knowingly allow infected material into the human food chain. That would betray not only our standing with consumers but our trading position in Europe.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South rightly drew the House's attention to Child Support Agency services. There is no disagreement on the matter between the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), and me on that subject. All aspects of the agency's services will be examined in the Government's comprehensive spending review, which will seek ways to improve efficiency and effectiveness, especially in areas that are of greatest importance to parents. Like the hon. Member for Belfast, South, I have regularly had the distressing experience of trying to explain to my constituents the inequities of the system as it currently obtains.

In reply to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire, I say that it is not possible to provide a realistic estimate of the cost involved in bringing the House back for one day. We know that we have to come back to deal with important business in the heavy legislative programme of a Government who are committed to change. Finally, I wish him, Opposition Members, my right hon. and hon. Friends and the staff of the House a very merry and happy Christmas.

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