Adjournment (Easter and May Day)

– in the House of Commons at 4:48 pm on 26th March 1985.

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Motion made, and Question proposed,That this House at its rising on Thursday 4th April do adjourn until Monday 15th April and at its rising on Friday 3rd May do adjourn until Tuesday 7th May, and that the House shall not adjourn on Thursday 4th April until Mr. Speaker shall have reported the Royal Assent to any Acts which have been agreed upon by both Houses.—[Mr. Neubert.]

Photo of Mr Jack Ashley Mr Jack Ashley , Stoke-on-Trent South 4:54 pm, 26th March 1985

I suggest that the House should not adjourn until we have discussed the abolition of section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947. Section 10 gives total immunity against legal action for negligence which results in the death or serious disability of any service man during his day-to-day activities in peacetime. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will have heard the response of the Minister of State for the Armed Forces at Question Time. It was a leisurely, if not complacent, response. His answer that he was simply reviewing section 10 was the same as the answer last year and the year before.

The right hon. Gentleman's reply was very interesting. He seemed to imply that Opposition Members should be satisfied with section 10 simply because the Crown Proceedings Act was enacted by Mr. Attlee's Government, but Mr. Attlee was operating after a devastating world war. It was understandable at that time that human rights should not take a high priority because everything was all at sea.

The Minister said that section 10 had served successive Governments satisfactorily. That is his opinion, but the House should be concerned not only with what the Government think, but with what soldiers, sailors and airmen think about section 10. I should like to quote to the House an extract from a letter that I have received from a couple whom I do not propose to identify. Their son was one of the victims of section 10. They talk not only about their son but about other service men who were injured in peacetime.

The letter says: Jonathan is dead. He sustained 60 per cent. burns when a Seacat missile was fired by mistake. He was our son. He was just eighteen years old and he died before we could reach him. Steven was seventeen years old. He was thrown from an R. A.F. truck, or was he? No-one seems to know for certain. He was irreparably brain damaged anyway, and died within a few hours. Kevin took rather longer about it. When he was found floating face downwards in a vat of lethal cleaning fluid he was seventeen years old. When he finally died he was twenty one years old and he weighed less than four stone.There is nothing you can do for Jonathan or Steven or Kevin, but you can help those who have been injured. You can also help to ensure that greater care is taken in the training of all young servicemen.

Those cases that I have quoted are the answer to the Minister, who at Question Time said that successive Governments had been satisfied with the operation of section 10. Service men have not been satisfied, because they have been denied the legal right to take action for negligence when they have been injured. The parents of service men who have been killed have certainly not been satisfied.

I shall not go into the details of my own constituent, Martin Ketterick, except to say that he was horribly injured when abseiling down rocks. He suffered a broken spinal cord and a fractured skull, and he will be a lifelong paraplegic. If he had been able to sue, and if negligence had been proved in court, he might have received £300,000. Now he is receiving the equivalent of an industrial injuries payment. He was a marine. He was discharged from the service with a gratuity of £3,553 and an invalidity payment of £47 per week.

Preventing service men from sueing is an acceptable doctrine in wartime, because when they sign on they accept the risk of injury or death, but it is unacceptable in peacetime, because it is a deprivation of basic human rights.

The Ministry of Defence has a list of objections to the case for abolishing section 10. First, the Ministry says, "If we abolish section 10 and allow our service men to sue for negligence, we shall endanger discipline." That reason is bogus, because discipline is irrelevant to legal redress. There is no justification for that claim.

Secondly, the Ministry says, "If we allow service men to sue, it will create anomalies." That is absurd, because the basic anomaly is that comparable public servants, such as policemen and firemen, can sue for negligence, and they receive the same invalid pension as soldiers, sailors and airmen.

Thirdly, the Ministry says, "It is not easy to define the dividing line between military action and other activities." That is absolute rubbish. Any service man or ex-service man would soon put the Ministry right. Everyone who has served in the services knows about the dividing line between military activity and non-military activity.

Fourthly, the Ministry says, "Service men may not be able to prove negligence." They may not, but, on the other hand, they may be able to prove it. That decision should be made by the courts and not by the Minister.

Section 10 should be abolished, first, because that would restore an important human right, and, secondly, because much greater care would be taken in training service men and running their other military activities. I have no doubt that the case will be won sooner or later, because it is just. Sooner or later, section 10 will be abolished and service men wll be given this basic right. I make no plea: when the Ministry of Defence accepts the case, it should be retrospective so that the Martin Kettericks of this world do not suffer because they were injured before the Government saw fit to give them that right. When the Ministry of Defence gives service men the legal right to sue for negligence and makes that right retrospective, it will ensure justice not only for the future but for all those service men who have been deprived of that right.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers , Gosport 5:03 pm, 26th March 1985

It is a privilege to follow the speech of the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) because I, too, have an interest in the Crown Proceedings Act 1947. Only 10 days ago I went to see my constituent, Mr. Des Clingham, who, as a chief petty officer, served in the Falklands with distinction. He came back and was working in Portsmouth harbour when, unfortunately, he fell many feet into the sea from a platform, an accident which left him a paraplegic. As with the cases quoted by the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South, Mr. Clingham has suffered injuries for which he can claim only a nominal amount through the normal procedures of the armed forces compensation board. He is deprived of the opportunity of getting what would undoubtedly be hundreds of thousands of pounds were he able to sue through the courts.

I share the right hon. Gentleman's concern that the Government should review section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act. I do not know whether it is possible to sweep away section 10 although there are real objections to it, but I believe that the current level of provision for those who are damaged and able to receive compensation only under that provision is less than generous. There is no doubt about that. It is not right that service men should be treated in that way. I look forward to the result of the Government's review.

My purpose in participating in this debate is to suggest that the House should not adjourn until it has had the opportunity to discuss another subject which could scarcely be less related to the subject raised by the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South. I refer to the issue of tri-organo-tin anti-fouling which is used on boats. I am sure that that issue is of great concern to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Anti-fouling is used by yachtsmen and operators of large boats to prevent growth on the bottom of boats of marine organisms and plant life. By far the most popular of the anti-foulings is organo-tin anti-fouling, which is used by 90 per cent. of all yachtsmen. The industry that manufactures these paints is healthy. Indeed, International Paints, which is the leading manufacturer, has received two Queen's awards—one for export achievement and the other for technical achievement for the development of tri-organo-tin copolymer anti-fouling paints. Blakes Paints Ltd. of Gosport in my constituency also deserves an honourable mention for its production since the last century of high-performance marine paints.

What is the problem? The Government are thinking of banning organo-tin anti-fouling paints. They have issued a draft regulation entitled Control of Pollution (Anti-fouling Paints) Regulations 1985 and called for any representations to be made by 14 May 1985. The Government are apparently contemplating action because it is stated that damage is caused to a particular type of oyster — crassostrea gigas, otherwise known as the Pacific oyster.

The so-called evidence derives mainly from laboratory tests on Pacific oysters. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has found that Pacific oysters kept for long periods in cages coated with organo-tin anti-fouling failed to thrive, and who can blame them? The evidence against organo-tin is circumstantial, and the research has not been profound. Some oyster growers have apparently complained of poor crops, but I am not aware of any tests to discover whether disease, poor weather conditions or even poor husbandry is the cause. The anti-fouling paint is blamed, but I maintain that the case has not been proved.

The scientific evidence is by no means unanimous. The Western Morning News of 3 February 1984 states: Ministry of Agriculture tests have shown that anti-fouling paint containing toxic TBT (Tributyl Tin) compound can kill or cause deformity in thousands of oysters, mussels and fish larvae, but the Plymouth officials said the problem was not affecting this area.

'We have been looking into mortality of sprats and shellfish in the Tamar to see if TBT could have contributed to the cause of death, but the levels found are not significant,' said Dr. Tony Stebbing, of the city's institute of Marine Biological Research. I have several worries about the imposition of a ban. First, any alternative to organo-tin anti-fouling paint could be worse, because yachtsmen would be forced to go back to the old-fashioned copper-based anti-fouling. It is known that some fishermen find that copper-based anti-fouling is not effective for their purposes, and they lace the copper-based anti-fouling with mercury or arsenic. I believe that that could be far worse than organo-tin.

Secondly, the only precedent for a ban on organo-tin is in France. Since the use of organo-tin was banned in France, exports to France from the United Kingdom have increased by 24 per cent., suggesting that something may be wrong with the ban. The ban in the United Kingdom is proposed to be on the sale of organo-tin paints, which means that it is perfectly satisfactory and legal for a yachtsman to sail to the Channel Islands, have his boat painted with organo-tin anti-fouling and sail back to the United Kingdom without having broken the law.

Thirdly, I maintain that oysters in the Solent and Spithead area, of which I claim to have special knowledge, have been breeding like rabbits. There is no evidence that their numbers are falling.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment explains away the Solent area and my point that oysters are breeding well there in a letter of 15 March 1985, in which he says: While the Solent is a popular boating area, it generally enjoys good tidal flows and good exchange of water with the open sea. In that way he seeks to dismiss the fact that, although there are more yachts and therefore, presumably, more organo-tin anti-fouling in the Solent area than in most parts of the United Kingdom, nevertheless oysters are thriving as never before.

My fourth point of concern is perhaps the most telling of all. The proposed Government ban is intended to apply only to vessels under 12 metres. When I raised this point with my hon. Friend the Minister and pointed out that larger commercial vessels used more anti-fouling than smaller boats and yachts, he replied: Large commercial vessels are not moored in large numbers for long periods in shallow waters where interchange with the open sea is poor. I ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, and indeed the House and the Minister, how it is, then, that the Burmah Endeavour, a very large tanker of 457,000 tonnes, has been moored in the port of Southampton for the past two years. Friends in the industry have estimated that it would need 36,000 litres of anti-fouling to keep that tanker anti-fouled—the equivalent of what would be needed by 14,400 yachts. I submit that the ban on yachts is not very logical if the Burmah Endeavour is entitled to remain in Southampton docks, presumably contaminating Southampton Water.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this point with the House. I am completely confident, of course, that my right hon. Friend the Minister will come to the right conclusion when the period of consultation eventually ends on 14 May 1985, but I think it would be helpful for the House to have an opportunity to consider this matter further before then.

Photo of Mr Paddy Ashdown Mr Paddy Ashdown , Yeovil 5:12 pm, 26th March 1985

I should like to join the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) in thanking the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) for raising the matter of section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act. It seems to me quite remarkable that each of the first three speakers in the debate has had a personal connection with service men who have suffered under that particular section. I am therefore very grateful to the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South for raising it.

I should like to speak on a matter that I believe should be debated before we go into recess for Easter. It concerns the practices of the newly privatised British Telecom plc and the way in which they are not only deeply inconveniencing some of its subscribers but threatening the viability of some small, newly established firms which have been formed to take advantage of that privatisation.

When the legislation to privatise BT was passing through the House many of us said that the public would benefit neither from competition nor from better business practices through the conversion of BT from a public to a private monopoly. We said that as the privatised BT would not be accountable to the House, through the Minister, there would be less constraint upon sharp practices and exploitation. I have clear evidence that this is exactly what is happening. I will give the House an example drawn from my own constituency, but I have good reason to believe that this is occurring throughout the country. Indeed, I have a number of letters and evidence to that effect.

I have in my constituency a small firm, C and C Telecoms, run by two former BT engineers, John Clothier and George Crawley. These two—so typical of many others—left BT on privatisation in order to set up their own small business to take advantage of what they believed could be, as the Government had promised, a new, more competitive and liberated market in telecoms. Their aim was quite simple. They formed a small firm with a meagre amount of capital which they invested in a certain amount of equipment, and they wished to install small value items such as telephone sockets and small exchanges. They were encouraged to do this by BT and even went on BT-sponsored courses to learn how to install this particular equipment. They then went out into the market place and started to trade. They offered to install telephone sockets for £58·75 — about £20 below the prevailing BT price of £78·20. As might be imagined, they soon had a good deal of business coming their way.

What they did not know, however, and what BT apparently omitted to tell them during their courses, was that under the Telecommunciations Act 1984 private contractors are not allowed at present — although this may be changed fairly soon—to fit sockets in these circumstances. C and C were not only never advised of this by BT but were, I understand, encouraged by BT to undertake this kind of business.

Whatever the case, however, BT is now refusing to take up this issue directly with the installers. Instead, they are charging the end customer, the member of the public, £25 to inspect the socket installed by the private contractor, so conveniently putting the total cost of the installation by the private contractor just above the price which BT would charge to do the job itself. BT is, presumably, reluctant to challenge the matter legally. Instead, it is taking the easy route of charging an inspection fee to the end customer—on the threat, incidentally, of cutting off his telephone—so ensuring that the problem is solved by the simple route of destroying the private operator's competitiveness.

There are rumours to the effect that BT will shortly, in June this year, be offering DIY sets for the installation of private telephone sockets. I very much hope that the question of the inspection charge at a massive £25 each will have been resolved by then, and indeed the general legality of the matter as well.

There is a second, more disturbing aspect to this problem, and I will take the case of C and C again. In common with many other similar small firms, C and C, established in the wake of the privatisation of BT, was heavily encouraged by BT to sell three small exchange systems called Rhapsody, Minimaster and Ambassador. They attended BT courses at which they were advised to go out and install as many of these telephone exchange systems—they are called switching systems—as they could.

Messrs. Clothier and Crawley duly made their own personal investments and set up their business on this basis. In the early days they did very well indeed. Then, suddenly and without warning, having been encouraged to base their business on the installation of these small exchanges, they received a letter of 6 March 1985 from their supplier, who is the accredited BT supplier, Eagle Telecoms, saying, quite bluntly and surprisingly: British Telecom Consumer Products will no longer supply Rhapsody, Minimster and Ambassador from 31st April 1985." That is not because those exchange systems have gone out of supply or been withdrawn in any way. That is made perfectly clear by the next statement in this surprising letter: BT areas will continue to sell and maintain systems through their own outlets, but they will not commission … 3rd party installations.

In one swipe, BT, acting in just the kind of dictatorial way that we predicted, has pulled the rug out from under the feet of small installers like C and C and many other similar firms throughout the country. The result for Messrs. Clothier and Crawley, with their small resources, is likely to be the end of their business, unless BT can be persuaded to change its mind, and soon.

Practices of this kind, in which BT is blatantly using its monopoly position in the market place to squeeze out third parties and kill off small firms because they are able to do the job more cheaply, must be stopped. The prophecies made by many of us during the passing of the privatisation Bill are coming all too tragically true. Small firms like C and C, which were established with the meagre personal investment of individuals who believed the Government's rhetoric about liberated markets, are now threatened with extinction. I very much hope, for the sake of those small firms, that this matter can be discussed in detail before the House rises.

Photo of Mr Fergus Montgomery Mr Fergus Montgomery , Altrincham and Sale 5:19 pm, 26th March 1985

I should like to raise two issues, one national and the other local. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will not be surprised to hear that the first issue is the reform of the rating system. I should like to quote from the Official Report of 25 July 1983, when I said: I have raised this issue often before. I make no apology for raising it again today and I shall go on raising it until something is done to find a fairer system, and if that does not put the fear of God into my right hon. Friend I do not know what will."—[Official Report, 25 July 1983; Vol. 46, c. 813.] Obviously I put no fear at all into my right hon. Friend, because here we are almost two years later and still nothing has been done. So I must say to my right hon. Friend that the battle will continue.

I admit that the Government have tried to do certain things to help hard-pressed ratepayers. We have had the system of rate capping and the proposed abolition of the metropolitan counties. I cannot understand why the Government have pussyfooted around so much and allowed the Opposition parties to have such a field day on the abolition of the metropolitan counties. The Labour party would have kept the Greater London council but abolished the metropolitan counties, and the Liberal party has clearly stated that eventually it would have abolished the metropolitan counties and the GLC. I shudder to think of the amount of ratepayers' money that is now being spent by the GLC and the metropolitan counties in an attempt to prevent abolition.

However, that is all by the by, and we still have to find a fairer system of raising local government finance. No one can dispute that the present system is manifestly unfair, because it takes no account of a person's ability to pay. Every hon. Member will have examples such as this one, of two identical adjacent houses, in one an elderly widow living on her own, and in the house next door three or four people all earning wages. The people in both houses would pay the same rates bill. There is no justice in that system.

I do not pretend for one minute that a solution is easy. We know that there are terrible problems. The Government set up a committee to look carefully at the matter, but nothing came forward that met with approval. The problem is compounded by the fact that water rates are assessed on rateable value rather than on actual consumption. No one has ever given me a satisfactory explanation as to why we can have rate rebates but not water rate rebates. Water rates are another burden that bears heavily on the poor and the elderly.

I am always being reminded that the Conservative party promised to get rid of the rating system. That needs to be put into perspective. It is true that in October 1974 my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when she was shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, put that pledge into the election manifesto. But we did not win that election. By the time the 1979 election came along, we believed that rate reform should be given a much lower priority because the burden of taxation under the Labour Government from 1974 to 1979 had risen so substantially that something had to be done about trying to reduce the rate of direct taxation.

Basically three options are open to us for changing the rating system. First, there is a sales tax, which seems to work well in the United States. However, the United States is a large country, and in a smaller country such as ours, if there were a substantial variation in shopping patterns, it could be difficult for traders. Secondly, there is a local income tax. We are always being told that the present rating system does not take account of ability to pay, but under a local income tax at least that would be changed. The argument has always been that the present system is easy to administer and collect and that a local income tax would be expensive to administer and collect. I should have thought that that argument had died because of the massive advances in technology and computers. Perhaps that matter can be looked at again.

The third option is a poll tax. That would spread the burden evenly on everyone on the electoral register. It would be easy and inexpensive to collect. The Green Paper forecast that a 30 per cent. poll tax would yield £1,200 million annual revenue. I wonder whether we could have a mixture of a poll tax and a much reduced domestic rate. Perhaps that is the answer to the ratepayers' problem.

If anyone bothers to look at the back of his rate demand, he will find that education is far and away the biggest spender and that teachers' salaries take the highest percentage of the education budget. I am convinced that teachers do not want to become civil servants and that they wish to continue to be employed by a local education authority. Therefore, local authorities must have some financial responsibility. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister will consider the idea of a scheme whereby teachers' basic salaries are paid by central Government and any additional payments are shared between the Government and the local education authorities. That would lift an enormous burden from ratepayers' shoulders, but it must not be a signal to spendthrift councils that they can go ahead with all sorts of extravagant schemes, because in that case the ratepayers would be back to square one.

The second issue affects my constituency. It is the vexed question of the South Trafford district hospital. In 1976–77 it was placed in the regional capital programme, and the scheme was due to start in 1980–81. The first phase was for elderly, severely mentally infirm people. In 1977–78 there was a further review and the decision was announced that we would also have acute facilities, but the start was put back to 1982–83. There was a belief in my constituency that the Department of Health and Social Security was holding things up, so on 30 June 1980 I raised an Adjournment debate on the issue, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), then the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, replied and said: Let me say at once that I fully accept in principle the need to site these services locally and to provide, so far as is possible, acute geriatric and mental illness services in the same location as other acute specialties. I recognise that the RHA's plans to include 100 geriatric and ESMI beds, together with 80 day places in all, in phase 1 of the development would represent a substantial step towards remedying the gaps in provision. I am also aware that its proposal for 150 mental illness beds and 170 day places in phase 2 would enable the needs of the whole Trafford area for mental illness facilities to be met … I should like to confirm that the ultimate size of the new hospital as envisaged by the RHA does not conflict at all with our recent thinking on hospital size. At 489 beds, it is well within the range that we regard as viable."—[Official Report, 30 June 1980; Vol. 987, c. 1271.]

I took a fair measure of hope from that debate, but we then had a Greater Manchester hospital review between the regional health authority and the DHSS. As a result of that review it was confirmed in October 1981 that the scheme would go ahead, so we had a firm pledge. From then on apparently there was a great deal of correspondence between the regional health authority and the DHSS. In 1983 the regional health authority reviewed its strategy for what it called its regional strategic plan. At the beginning of 1984 work started on an option appraisal, and that took up most of 1984.

In November 1984 we had the recommendation for what was called the Wythenshawe option. Trafford health authority objected, and as a result the regional health authority ordered another appraisal. In February 1985 we were told that the Wythenshawe option was marginally favoured. That has caused a great deal of anger in my constituency, because people feel that the solemn promise that was given has been broken.

Last Wednesday, 20 March, the community health council in my area held a public meeting. It was well attended, and the audience were very angry. People were furious that nobody from the regional health authority was there to explain the position. I often find that if people are presented with the facts, at least they have some understanding of the situation. If the regional health authority had sent someone to put its point of view, that would have been helpful. At the meeting there was a unanimous vote for going ahead with the South Trafford district general hospital. I hope that my constituents' views will be heeded by the DHSS.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will note the points that I have made, and that before the House rises I shall be given some assurances on both issues.

Photo of Mr James Molyneaux Mr James Molyneaux , Lagan Valley 5:31 pm, 26th March 1985

We in Northern Ireland had hoped that this Easter would be brighter and happier for our Province than any Easter since 1969. In the intervening years, a cloud of uncertainty had cast its shadow over all our activities, but that cloud had at long last been dispelled in the immediate aftermath of last November's anglo-Irish summit, when the Prime Minister with characteristic clarity removed all doubt about the constitutional future of Northern Ireland. She made it crystal clear that the principle of self-determination made it necessary to reject the three options set out in the New Ireland Forum report. The Opposition shared the stated view of the Government that there could be no change in Ulster's constitutional position without the free and willing consent of the people of Northern Ireland. That ruled out partial change too.

The Prime Minister's forthright statement after the Chequers summit in November made a significant impact on the entire Northern Ireland community. All over the Province there was evidence of a dramatic change in attitudes. Protestants, Roman Catholics, Unionists and Nationalists were all conscious that three years of drifting were over. They said to themselves, and, what is more, to each other, "Now we know where we stand." They recognised the futility of squabbling about what was not going to happen, and began to wonder how they could co-operate in making Ulster a better place for everyone.

Tragically, that has all now been put at risk by a concerted offensive by Republican politicians and certain churchmen. The culmination was the speech last Friday in London by Dr. FitzGerald. Coming from a lunch in Dublin with the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he was able to imply that he spoke for them all when he claimed that they were all working on novel and far-reaching proposals for joint authority over Northern Ireland. That speech inspired various press articles designed to add to the confusion and dismay in Northern Ireland.

I recognise that the House is not responsible for any of those activities, but the House is entitled to know the view of those who are accountable to it—in this case, the Northern Ireland Ministers. Everything that they have said over the past week has been so ambiguous that it might have been better left unsaid. For example, on his arrival in Washington yesterday, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said: weekend speculation is overblown … predictions are well ahead of the game".

That is good Foreign Office stuff, but what does it do to remove the natural anxiety in the minds of those who have been let down and betrayed over 15 long years?

The instability thus created may not strike some right hon. and hon. Members as being very important, but the crying shame is that all that has been achieved in the past five months will be set at naught. The modest success in persuading citizens of Northern Ireland of all aspirations that their future is secure and their path known will be extinguished.

Disaster will be averted only if the Government reiterate the Prime Minister's clear message of 19 November in terms that cannot be misinterpreted or misunderstood. I understand that such a course will not commend itself to those who cherish diplomatic double-talk. However, even they have no choice in the matter, because their opposite numbers in Dublin have put them on the spot—not for the first time. They have created a situation in which words such as "overblown", "exaggeration", "speculation" and "premature" no longer convince or reassure. Considerations of diplomatic niceties have simply enabled Dublin to mount a flanking attack where the frontal attack failed last year. The Government must make it clear that a flanking attack will be no more successful, and the tactic of drift and double-speak must be abandoned now if all that the Prime Minister has achieved is not to be ruthlessly torn away.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Hampstead and Highgate 5:36 pm, 26th March 1985

I should like to raise two issues and to suggest that they should both be looked at before we agree to the Adjournment. Although it is not always so, one of the issues falls directly within the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

First, however, I should like to comment on the unfair attack on British Telecom by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown). My constituents are satisfied with British Telecom. There has been a great improvement in attitude since privatisation.

The first matter to which I wish to refer is the House of Commons car park. There has been a substantial deterioration over the past few years. It is becoming increasingly difficult to park cars there. Fewer and fewer cars appear to display the discs issued. Will my right hon. Friend authorise an investigation to find out whether in some cases more than one car is being parked by an hon. Member, whether staff are parking more than one car there and whether all the vehicles are in fact authorised? Could he also instruct the car park staff to notify Mr. Speaker if vehicles are parked in spaces not marked out for cars? When people selfishly park their cars outside the marked spaces, driving in the car park becomes difficult and dangerous.

I have written to the Chairman of the Accommodation and Administration Sub-Committee, without so far receiving a very helpful answer. However, the Chairman said that the matter was under consideration. That was some time ago, but, knowing the right hon. Gentleman, I am sure that he is considering the matter. It may well be that he does not often use the car park. It is only when one tries to park a car there that one realises what the problems are. For instance, on a Thursday, it is becoming increasingly difficult to park a car even at noon.

The second issue concerns the Department of the Environment, where a most disturbing case has come to my attention. I declare an interest as a life member of the Bluebell railway—the steam railway between Horsted Keynes and Sheffield Park. The railway is run entirely by volunteers who raise all the funds. Three or four years ago they decided that they would like to purchase and reopen an additional section of line so that the Bluebell railway could again be linked to the main line. Through trains could then be run, or people could alight from a British Rail train and board a Bluebell railway train on another platform at the same station.

That requires planning permission and a light railway order. I am not asking for a favourable decision—that would not be right—just for a decision. If I tell the House that the public inquiry was held between 21 June and 6 July 1983, hon. Members will realise why I am beginning to get somewhat anxious. The inspector considered the planning appeal in conjunction with an application for a light railway order and his report was received on 2 November 1983. Some civil servants must have been shuffling those documents around, and they should be disciplined. I put it no lower than that.

When I had the great privilege to be a Minister in the Department of the Environment from 1979 to 1981, I had to deal, on behalf of my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State, with opposed compulsory purchase orders. He laid down a firm rule for me — Ministers dealing with planning applications, appeals or compulsory purchase orders were therefore dealing with the right of citizens, so they should be given priority. Any document containing an appeal which came across my desk and into my red box was dealt with within 48 hours. I raised immediate queries if I found that documents had sat on a civil servant's desk for a long time before reaching me.

This intolerable delay has cost the Bluebell railway money which volunteers have raised, and on which they must pay interest to banks, to extend the line. It is not costing the civil servants anything while they shuffle bits of paper around.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House agrees that it is intolerable that we should have to wait so long. This is not a matter such as Stansted, which is of major international importance. It is an application to reopen a small length of line, so no new principle is involved. He should tell our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that the delay must not continue and that the decision—I am not asking what it is to be—should be given before the House rises for the recess.

Photo of Mr Robert Hughes Mr Robert Hughes , Aberdeen North 5:43 pm, 26th March 1985

Before we rise for the Easter recess, there is an urgent need to debate the Law Commission and the Scottish Law Commission report on family law called "Custody of Children — Jurisdiction and Enforcement within the United Kingdom", Cmnd. 9419.

The background to the report is the headline cases that we occasionally read in newspapers of heart-rending stories of children being taken abroad in defiance of a custody order. Usually, one parent of a broken marriage cannot accept that the other has been given custody. They are usually described as tug-of-love cases, but all too often the children are innocent victims of parental disagreement, in which love often seems to be the least obvious emotion. That is not to deny that there is often genuine love for the children or that the children are torn between parents. Nevertheless, the trauma undergone by the children can leave its mark for a lifetime.

The most serious cases are those in which the children are abducted. Sometimes the parent with the custody order abducts the child back to where legal custody applies. Great attention is rightly paid to cases with an international dimension. Not so well publicised or so widely understood are the comparable circumstances within the United Kingdom. A custody order made in a Scottish court is neither recognised nor enforceable in English courts. Similarly, a custody order made in an English court is neither recognised nor enforceable in Scottish courts.

In international terms, there is an anomaly peculiar to Scotland. If a child is removed to a foreign country in contravention of an English court's custody order, no matter how willing the child might be to accompany the parent, the custody order will be acted on by the Home Office to prevent the child's removal. Immigration officers are advised and a stop order ensures that the child remains in the United Kingdom. However, the Home Office will not act on a court order made in Scotland. That is greeted with incredulity by constituents who seek the intervention of their Member of Parliament. They cannot understand why there should be a difference, and I do not blame them for being bemused.

The anomalies arise because the Scottish and English legal systems have different roots and have evolved separately. The Scots, of whom I am one, are justly proud of their legal system and stoutly resist what we call Anglicising encroachment. The English, in their turn, believe that their system is superior. It is a case of never the twain shall meet. In other aspects of family law, however, they co-exist, notwithstanding different traditions and even separate legislation. If a couple are divorced in Scotland, England or Northern Ireland, that is recognised throughout the United Kingdom. A main-tenance award made in any part of the United Kingdom is recognised and may be enforced in any part of the United Kingdom, wherever the awarding court might be.

Two of the three principal affects of family law are mutually recognisable and enforceable; only custody orders are still subject to non-recognition. The application of logic compels one to the conclusion that rectification is urgently required. Help would appear to be at hand. The joint Law Commission that I have mentioned, under the chairmanship of Lord Justice Scarman, finally reported to Parliament on 15 January 1985. The committee was established in 1972, so it has taken 13 years to produce a report. The report comes to the sensible and obvious conclusion that there should be mutual recognition of custody orders and that the anomalies should be eliminated. In the interests of time I shall not quote the report, but paragraph 1.14 recommends a simple procedure for recognition and enforcement and paragraph 6.20 recommends that the stop order system should be extended to include Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Command 9419 has the great advantage of a draft Bill giving effect to its recommendations being attached as annex A. However, we must ask whether help really is at hand and whether, at long last, there will be some action. Alas, I am not convinced that the Government are seized of the urgency of the situation or that the respective Law Officers display enthusiasm for legislation. After all, the report is not the first on this matter. In 1958, a working party under the chairmanship of the then Lord Justice Hodson was asked to consider what alterations to the law were required to avoid conflicts of jurisdiction. That report, Cmnd. 842 entitled "Report of the Committee on Conflicts of Jurisdiction Affecting Children", recommended, at paragraph 56, reciprocal enforcement and the extension of the stop order system to Scotland and Northern Ireland. Nothing was done to translate that 1959 report into legislation because, it appears, the Law Officers did not agree. I am worried that Lord Seaman's report may suffer the same fate.

Experience does not lead me to believe that we shall soon have a change in the law. In another place, the Child Abduction and Custody Bill has had a Second Reading and may have started its Committee stage. If it has not, it soon will. It is a welcome measure because it will solve the issues relating to the international scene. The Bill will enact into our domestic law the Hague convention of 1980, which was signed by the Government. Five years later, we are only bringing that convention into legislation. We cannot wait any longer to remedy the serious defect in our domestic law.

I have asked the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Advocate what plans there are to implement the recommendations in Cmnd. 9419. The Lord Advocate, Lord Cameron of Lochbroom, with the concurrence of Lord Hailsham, advised me that, although the issues were non-controversial, the Government would need time to study the report, and that no legislation would be commenced this Session, but it is hoped that something might be done next Session. That sounds ominous to me, especially as every query that I have raised during the past 15 years when I have been a Member of the House and, in particular, since 1972 has been answered with, "Wait until we get the report of the Scarman inquiry."

I concede that Cmnd. 9419 does not resolve every anomally to everyone's complete satisfaction. There are differences of opinion about wardship cases, which affect only England, and the draft Bill does not cover the Isle of Man. Nevertheless, the mechanism of recognition and thereby of enforcement is simply that of registration. A custody order made in Scotland may be registered with the High Court in England, and a custody order made in England may be registered with the Court of Session in Scotland.

While the report says "may be registered", we should have automatic registration instead of registration by application. The machinery for automatic registration must exist, as divorces are automatically registered. Therefore, there is a channel of communication that can be used. There is sufficient agreement over a wide-ranging area of the law to warrant swift legislation. The grounds for further delay are thin. The Committee stage could resolve the few outstanding issues, which would certainly concentrate the minds of Ministers and those in the legal profession.

Why is the matter so urgent? After all, it is 27 years since the first report was established, and the problem was recognised even earlier. There is an opportunity to introduce legislation this Session. Earlier, I mentioned the Child Abduction and Custody Bill. The long title could be amended to include the domestic position, and the draft Bill, annex A to Cmnd. 9419, could be grafted on.

The principles are non-controversial. They are certainly non-party political and would be widely welcomed. The three major aspects of family law — divorce, main-tenance and custody—would then be properly catered for and, with the good will of the Government, achieved this Session. That is why we urgently need a debate. We may then have the verdict of the House on the matter both as a guide to the Government and to urge and spur them into action. Many parents and children would benefit, and the matter is long overdue.

Photo of Mr Christopher Murphy Mr Christopher Murphy , Welwyn Hatfield 5:53 pm, 26th March 1985

At the outset I wish to echo the anxiety expressed by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) about the present speculation relating to Northern Ireland. It would be of considerable help, not only to the House but to the people of Ulster, if the Leader of the House could make it clear that there has been no change in the position since the Prime Minister's statement at the press conference following the November summit.

Before the House rises for the Easter recess, and at a time when rate demands come popping through the letter box, it would be appropriate to examine the value for money or otherwise provided by local authorities. At the same time, as on previous occasions, I fully concur with my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) in his call for the abolition of domestic rates. Instead I advocate introducing a poll tax at the earliest opportunity to overcome the unfairness of the present system.

I have long supported the Government's concept of the privatisation of council operations where appropriate, and have advocated a right to compete to ensure that a process of competitive tendering is fairly and openly entered into. It is essential always to bear in mind that a local council is only the custodian of ratepayers' and taxpayers' money, and therefore has a duty to spend it efficiently, effectively and economically. I therefore welcome the recent announcement of the consultation document, "Competition in the Provision of Local Authority Services", but I respectfully suggest that positive action should follow hard on its heels. Hon. Members who, like me, have in their constituencies councils which dogmatically refuse even to consider such privatisation know how essential that is.

I must, however, add a note of concern, in that the document excludes parish councils and parish meetings from its scope. Bearing in mind that the functions and political motivation of some large parish councils can be considerable, I feel that they should not be treated differently. I might add a plea that parish councils should be better understood — they are often the least appreciated aspect of local government—which is to be regretted. Parish councils, because of their nature, are often far more closely in touch with local opinion than larger authorities. That element of the administrative process should never be overlooked.

One particular advantage that the lowest tier of local government usually provides is the annual meeting, at which parishioners have a right to plead their case and to air their views on topics of local importance. Through such an opportunity, and the inevitable lack of remoteness between a parish councillor and the electors, the feeling of the village or community can often be reasonably well gauged.

When privatisation is talked about, I detect a tendency to dwell perhaps too much on refuse collection and street cleaning, and not enough on the other services that private enterprise can do as well and, in most cases, probably considerably better than direct employment. Undoubtedly, it is of key importance to extend the number of councils using contractors for such tasks, but the principle of good housekeeping goes wider than that.

I am aware of the savings in cost and manpower, and the improvement in service, already exhibited by privatisation as a consequence of competitive tendering. In Southend, which is an obvious example, £600,000 was saved on refuse collection and street cleaning in the first year alone. Such advantages should not be restricted to the few, but should be available to the many.

Before the House rises for the Easter recess, we should remind ourselves that value for money has rightly been a central theme of the Government. It must equally be one for all levels of local government.

Photo of Mr Roy Hughes Mr Roy Hughes , Newport East 5:58 pm, 26th March 1985

Before the House rises for the Easter recess, I wish to raise certain matters relating to the Severn bridge which need to be clarified.

On 21 September 1983 the Secretary of State for Transport announced proposals to increase the toll on the bridge by 150 per cent. The decision was apparently based on the principle of trying to recoup £20 million which had been earmarked for repair and maintenance work. It is worth pointing out that £20 million is more than the construction costs of the bridge in the first place. The fact that a relatively new bridge should need such extensive repair work so early in its life shows that someone got it wrong. There must have been design faults in the original construction work, and certainly in the estimating of traffic flows on the bridge. The question that must be posed now is, why should the motorist today have to pay for those errors? Surely Parliament did not contemplate such a penalty on law-abiding motorists.

The debt under the Consolidated Fund is purely notional, although it should be said that the interest on the original sum is increasing rapidly. Under the provisions of the Severn Bridge Tolls Act 1965, a proposal such as the one made by the Secretary of State to increase tolls must be advertised in the London Gazette and in the local press. When that was done, Gwent county council and several other important local bodies objected to the proposal. Therefore, to some extent, the Secretary of State was pressurised into announcing a public inquiry. Meanwhile, on 28 October 1983, I secured an Adjournment debate in the House, during which I revealed the contents of a hitherto secret report on the bridge prepared by Mott, Hay and Anderson, an internationally renowed firm of consultant engineers. The report pinpointed some rather disturbing aspects of the state of the bridge and subsequently there was a public outcry, certainly in Wales. That was understandable, because the bridge had become the principal artery for people travelling in and out of the Principality. Two major national conferences were held, at which unananimous decisions were taken to call for the repair work to be carried out as expeditiously as possible. In addition, there was a call for a second crossing of the Severn.

Following those events, the Secretary of State for Transport announced that £33 million would be spent on the urgently needed repairs to the bridge. The House will recall that the original figure was £20 million. It was on that figure that the original proposal to increase tolls by 150 per cent. was based. There is obviously a discrepancy, and one can imagine only that the Secretary of State probably had in mind a further increase in tolls at a subsequent date. But at the same time the Secretary of State agreed to consider the possibility of a second crossing of the Severn.

The public inquiry into the proposed increase in tolls commenced in Bristol on 17 July 1984. It heard much evidence from many bodies and individuals, all of which was hostile to the Secretary of State's proposal. The commissioner who conducted the inquiry presented his report to the Secretary of State early in November 1984. Since then, I have put down several questions calling for the publication of the report. Each time I have been told that the matter is still to be considered and that the report will be published some time in the future. We still await the report. Meanwhile, there have been unofficial reports that the commissioner did not entirely accept the Secretary of State's proposals.

My first major question is, may we be told positively when the report will be published? The public have a right to know what it contains, because the Severn bridge is of vital importance to the economy and the interests of Wales. Also, has there been a change in Government policy on toll charges. For instance, the new Conway tunnel in north Wales will be toll-free. I understand that last week there was an announcement that a new estuarial crossing in Scotland, north of Inverness at Dornoch, will also be toll-free. We need some clarity from the Government, not to mention some consistency in their decisions on toll charges.

On 6 February 1984, the Secretary of State for Transport announced a feasibility study into a proposal for a second crossing of the Severn. On 13 December last year, I put down a question to him asking What progress has been made in the study of the proposed second crossing of the Severn; and if he will publish an interim report to inform interested parties of developments so far. I received a reply from the Minister of State, Department of Transport, who said: The study into how a second crossing of the River Severn might be provided commenced in August this year. During the first three months of the study the consultants have had preliminary discussions with local authorities and many statutory and representative bodies. They have also made an initial examination of traffic, engineering, environmental, planning and economic aspects of a second crossing. Many possibilities have been investigated for the location and type of a river crossing, and the link roads to the M4/M5 motorways.A report on the work done in the first three months will be made available in the near future." — [Official Report, 13 December 1984; Vol. 69, c. 578.] That was in December and we are still waiting. Today I must ask why we are waiting. There seems to be no reason why the public should not be given that information.

From the outset, it has seemed that the Secretary of State for Transport has insufficient understanding of the importance of the Severn bridge to the economy and interests of Wales. There is certainly considerable interest in the matter in Wales and, indeed, outside in the various companies that move in and out of Wales.

In conclusion, I trust that the Leader of the House will impress upon the Secretary for Transport the importance of publishing both reports without further delay.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor , Southend East 6:09 pm, 26th March 1985

When our hours have been long and our recesses short, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House may need some convincing, but I hope that what I say convinces him that there is a case for shortening our recess so that consideration can be given to the rather urgent issue of Parliament's control of expenditure, particularly in view of some recent developments initiated by the Government.

My right hon. Friend may be aware that some hon. Members raised on a point of order their serious concern about what appeared to be a new constitutional development whereby the Government, for the first time in my memory, created new policies by putting figures in Supplementary Estimates. My right hon. Friend may recall that on 14 March we had a debate on Supplementary Estimates, which included an additional payment of £364 milllion which the Government had decided to pay to the Common Market by providing an overdraft facility. I have endeavoured by every possible means to discover the justification for that payment. Where was the Bill, the order, the decision of the House? There has been none.

It has always been a principle in the House of Commons that Estimates should reflect agreed policies, not that Estimates should create policies. For example, we might decide that it would be fair, because of the burden that he carries, that the salary of the Leader of the House should be doubled. Presumably we should put down a motion, and if that motion were approved an appropriate figure would be put in the Estimates. If we agreed that, because of the enormous burdens borne by the Deputy Speakers, their pensions should be doubled, we would pass a motion and if that were accepted, a figure would appear in the Estimates.

In this case, it appeared to me and some of my colleagues that the Government were creating a new policy of offering overdraft facilities to the Common Market simply by placing figures in the Supplementary Estimates. What is even more disturbing is that, although a number of us put down an amendment to take this figure out of the Estimates, Mr. Speaker had to explain, on 14 March, that under Standing Order No. 19 it was not possible to have a separate vote, far less a debate, on the issue.

This is a desperately important constitutional point. In the light of Mr. Speaker's ruling, the Public Accounts Committee is to consider the principle of the issue on 3 April. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will at least accept that there is a major issue which requires debate and consideration, whether in the Chamber or in the Public Accounts Committee.

On the same subject, I was surprised to hear during the Budget debate that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor had decided to alter the VAT legislation to ensure that credit card companies were unable to claim back some of the money that was paid by them. This was a major and significant measure, which amounts to about £15 million a year in taxation. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be aware, some £4 million of that has to be carried by Southend, by the Access credit card company, which has its office there.

Understandably, Access has been in touch with me, and no doubt with other Members, asking what the score on this is, when it had been decided by Parliament, and when it had been debated. I had to explain that it was not in the motions that we approved under the Budget. How is this major decision to be approved? It has to be decided in terms of a statutory instrument, No. 432, called the Value Added Tax (Finance) Order 1985.

My right hon. Friend will be aware, because I have written to him about this, that this is what is called a negative resolution procedure order, which means that it can be debated only if the Government decide to give it time for consideration. If they do not, at no stage of our deliberations will Members of Parliament, collectively or even in a Committee, have decided whether it is right to charge an extra £15 million on the credit card companies. Is this not depriving Members of Parliament even of their statutory right to be rubber stamps? We are not even being asked to approve or disapprove of this new tax.

What worries me more about this is that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury kindly sent me a note to explain that he had to do this because the Common Market had threatened my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary that if we did not do something about this we would be taken to the European Court. We know the way that these things work out these days, but what upsets me as the Member of Parliament representing the headquarters of Access is that, despite this threat by the Common Market, the German credit card companies do not operate the law in this way. If the order is approved, inevitably British credit card companies will be at a competitive disadvantage compared with German companies.

I said "if' this is approved, but this major decision to take £15 million out of the credit card companies, which will put them at a competitive disadvantage with Germany, can be debated or discussed only if the Government and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House agree that there should be such a debate and such consideration. If they do not, it will simply mean that a Minister or, to be plain, two Lords Commissioners of the Treasury will have signed this document to get an extra £15 million out of the credit card companies.

The House and my right hon. Friend must agree that this announcement makes nonsense of parliamentary control of expenditure. It means that taxes are being charged without anyone considering, debating or reviewing them. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will not say that we have had a debate on the Budget. Of course we have, but he must be aware that this issue was not one of the motions being discussed, and there was no opportunity last night to vote on it. I hope that before the House moves into its recess my right hon. Friend will be able to give me an assurance that if, as will happen, an order is tabled to annul this regulation, he will ensure that there will be a debate in the House, or at least in a Standing Committee, to consider this taxation.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that some years ago there was a major dispute with King Charles I, about Parliament's control of supply, which ended with the King's head being chopped off. This is a major constitutional issue, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will bear this in mind.

The third point about Parliament's control of expenditure arises from something that was revealed in Hansard this morning by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in a written answer. This showed Parliament's complete lack of control on the vast amount being spent on the dumping of food abroad, particularly in Russia and Eastern Europe. The latest figures were provided, and sadly they show that the Common Market is spending £20 million every day on the storage and dumping of food abroad, with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe being the main beneficiaries. That is a huge amount of money when we consider how our local authorities and hospital boards are having to cut back on their expenditure. For example, local authorities are being forced to stop the provision of improvement grants because the money has run out. At the same time, an open cheque is being given for the provision of subsidies for the export of cheap food to the Soviet Union.

The latest figures sadly show that since the Government came into power the export of cheap food to Russia has increased by about 1,000 per cent. It also shows that the prices at which we are exporting food to the Soviet Union are lower than they have ever been in the history of Britain or the EEC. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) has just arrived. He takes an interest in the public purse and will be horrified to learn the figures published in Hansard this morning.

The figures reveal that, whereas in Britain we have to pay over £3 a pound for our beef, we are selling top quality beef to the Soviet Union at 35p a pound. It reveals that, whereas we are paying about 28p a pound for sugar, we are selling vast quantities to Russia at 7p a pound. Whereas we are paying about £1·40 a pound for butter, the Russians get it at 47p. Whereas flour is sold in this country at about 30p a pound, the Russians get it at about 5p a pound. Even more unbelievable is the figure for wine. I do not drink wine, but if I were to buy a litre bottle it would cost me almost £3. We sell it to the Russians at 7p a litre.

I am sure that I and my right hon. and hon. Friends do not mind paying a great deal of money in taxes to ensure that we can protect ourselves against the Russians by having all these missiles, bombs, planes and goodness knows what. What is the point of paying extra taxes in order to subsidise the Soviet war machine? That is what we are doing by means of this subsidy. Sadly, Russian housewives do not get their beef at 35p per pound, butter at 47p per pound, or wine at 7p per litre. The Soviet Union imposes a substantial extra cost on all these prices and keeps the difference to cover its public expenditure.

As the Leader of the House is well aware, we have no control whatsoever over such spending. If the European Community fixes the amount that it wants to spend upon providing the Russians with cheap food and goes over that limit, there is nothing that we can do about it, apart from writing out a cheque for the additional amount. We have had to write out several such cheques this year because the European Community has spent over the limit.

The Leader of the House is, I know, concerned about the rights of Back Benchers. How can it be right that we should be spending £7 billion a year on dumping food, with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as major beneficiaries? Before we go into recess I hope that we shall examine this remarkable development in the power of the Government over the Supplementary Estimates and the taxation of my constituents without discussion or vote, and the scandalous increase under a Conservative Government in the subsidies to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe through the provision of cheap food which my hard-pressed constituents would be very glad to buy.

If the residents of Southend were able to go to the shops tomorrow and buy beef at 35p per pound, sugar at 7p per pound, butter at 47p per pound, flour at 5p per pound, wine at 7p per litre, pork at 38p per pound and chicken at 29p per pound, it would provide a bigger fillip to the economy of this country than will be achieved by the meagre reductions in taxation that this Budget has introduced. The Chancellor referred to the problems of the poor and their need for more help. If we were to provide cheap food not for the Russians but for the British people our economy would be given a massive boost. Real protection would also be given to the poor who need help at this time.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North 6:22 pm, 26th March 1985

Before we agree to the motion, there are two matters which ought to be mentioned. The hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) will forgive me if I do not pursue the points that he raised. First, I wish to refer to the disturbances and killings during the past week in South Africa. Secondly, I shall refer to a domestic matter.

The events in South Africa during the past week clearly demonstrate that a few piecemeal reforms of the apartheid regime cannot resolve any of the deep problems that exist in that country. There are undoubtedly a number of tyrannies—far too many, in fact. Labour Members are hardly in the habit of finding excuses for Governments who clamp down on civil liberties and whose authority is usually based upon military power rather than upon consent.

South Africa, however, remains different in one respect from other dictatorships and tyrannies. Its political system is based upon a very brutal way of running the country. It discriminates against the majority population for one reason only—that of colour. Even those who are keen to find excuses for what goes on in South Africa usually preface their remarks by saying that they are against apartheid. Apartheid is so discredited and so disgraced that even those who want to find excuses for the South African regime usually have to preface their remarks with something along those lines.

Britain has very large investments in South Africa. There remain close ties between the authorities of both countries. My hon. Friends and I maintain that we cannot remain neutral between the Government of South Africa and those in South Africa who wish apartheid to be defeated. Whatever cosmetic changes have occurred since the Sharpeville events of 1960, South Africa remains governed without the participation, and certainly without the consent, of a large majority of the people of South Africa.

We have also raised, in particular at Question Time, with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary the continued imprisonment of the leaders of African opinion. They have been in prison for over 20 years. Their real crime is that they want South Africa to be free and independent, a country in which people can live without being discriminated against. I refer to Nelson Mandela who has been in prison for over 20 years, Walter Sisulu, Govan M'Beki and many other members of the African National Congress. These are the people who really speak for South Africa.

That is why the Opposition were opposed last year to the visit to this country by the Prime Minister of South Africa. We objected to the way in which he was wined and dined in this country. We objected to the Prime Minister playing host to him at Chequers. Of course the Prime Minister went through the ritual of saying that she was against apartheid. However, the Opposition say that, if the true representatives of South Africa are to visit this country, we must wait until Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and his colleagues are released. They will be most welcome visitors to this country.

Photo of Mr John Carlisle Mr John Carlisle , Luton North

The hon. Gentleman is going down the predictable path of his usual speech. However, things have changed during the last three weeks for Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners. Does not the hon. Gentleman recognise that a full pardon was offered to Nelson Mandela—

Photo of Mr John Carlisle Mr John Carlisle , Luton North

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make a contribution, he may catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, in a few moments, but perhaps at this stage he will listen to the argument on the other side, even though he does not like it.

The State President made Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners the offer of a full pardon, provided that after their release they did not engage in revolutionary tactics. Will not the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) agree that the 16 or 17 prisoners who accepted that offer are now in a far better position to influence the Government of South Africa and, indeed, to influence the West than is Nelson Mandela, who has refused this offer of a pardon because he is bent upon the path of revolutionary change?

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

I thought the hon. Gentleman knew that Nelson Mandela has made his position perfectly clear. The message that he gave his daughter to read made it perfectly clear once again that he would accept no conditions. Why should he accept conditions? It is his country. He is the leader of African opinion and he has been put in prison for that reason and that reason alone. He will never give up the struggle for a free and independent South Africa, a country that is free from the tyranny of apartheid. I say to the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle), and to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), who I see has just come into the Chamber, that the Opposition find the attitude of certain Conservative Members very disturbing. I do not wish to pursue the matter; I mentioned it yesterday.

However, certain Conservative Members always find it possible to make excuses for what has happened in South Africa. The Opposition do not make a habit of finding excuses for dictatorships, wherever they may be. However, the hon. Members for Luton, North, and for Macclesfield are well-known in the House as fellow travellers of the apartheid regime. In view of what I have said, I must give way, I suppose, to the hon. Member for Macclesfield.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton , Macclesfield

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I shall not pursue the matter of Nelson Mandela, although my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) is quite right. For the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) to dismiss the offer of release that has been made by the State President of the Republic of South Africa is to fly in the face of the reforms that are taking place in that country. The hon. Gentleman said that Nelson Mandela and one or two other people that he mentioned are the true leaders of South Africa, but would he not concede that Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, the leader of the Zulu nation and of the Inkatha movement, which has a known membership of over 1 million people, has not found it necessary to indulge in the revolutionary activities of Nelson Mandela and that he is travelling around the world in support of the black people of South Africa? Survey after survey has shown that over 70 per cent. of the black people in South Africa do not support the disinvestment that the hon. Gentleman clearly supports, as is evident from his remarks this afternoon.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

All the hon. Gentleman's remarks bear out what I said a moment ago—that he and some of his hon. Friends are indeed fellow travellers of the apartheid regime.

The test is clear. When elections take place in South Africa in a democratic manner and without discrimination, and when South Africa is liberated from the tyranny of apartheid, we shall see who are the true leaders of South Africa. The majority of people in South Africa cannot vote in national elections at present for one reason only—the colour of their skin. We shall raise the issue time and time again. We send our message of solidarity to those in South Africa who are battling against a notorious regime.

The second issue that I wish to discuss might be less controversial.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

I do not find excuses for dictatorships, including that in Russia—unlike the hon. Member for Macclesfield, who can always we know be relied on to put the arguments for the apartheid regime. I think that that is disgraceful.

My second issue is domestic—the growing housing crisis. Many local authorities are increasingly unable to fulfil their statutory housing responsibilities. In London alone, bed and breakfast hotels receive over £1 million a month for housing homeless people. It is no wonder that a crisis exists when one considers the drastic fall in council housing starts. Because of Government financial restrictions, since 1979 Walsall has not entered into any contracts for new council dwellings. That means, of course, an ever-increasing number of people on the waiting list who cannot be rehoused.

Last year, fewer than 40,000 public housing starts were recorded in Britain. Due to further cuts in the housing investment programme allocation for 1985–86, even fewer starts will take place this year. The number will probably be down to 30,000. The Government restriction on the capital receipts that can be used will make it even more difficult for local authorities to build and modernise dwellings.

Housing Ministers claim that there was a sharp drop in housing starts when the Labour Government were in office. In 1978, the last full year of the Labour Government, there were over 107,000 starts in the public sector. In 1979, there were at least 81,000 starts.

People who require local authority accommodation but who do not have the means to obtain a mortgage should be rehoused by their local authority. Housing authorities should be able to carry out their statutory housing responsibilities, but how can they when they do not have the money? How can they when the housing waiting list grows longer and longer and boroughs such as Walsall are no longer building houses at all?

A large amount of pre-war stock needs to be modernised. The longer that is left, the more expensive and extensive it will be. Tenants are living in unfit accommodation because local authorities do not have the means to do the necessary work. How many people among the mass of unemployed are trained construction workers who could be released from unemployment and allowed to earn their living by doing essential community work in building and modernising dwellings? What a policy of madness it is to cause such tremendous difficulties for our constituents, so many of whom desperately need local authority housing.

I ask the Leader of the House to pass on to the Secretary of State our concern about the housing plight caused by local authorities not being able to carry out their statutory functions.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess , Basildon 6:35 pm, 26th March 1985

I should like the House to consider animal welfare. Although I am most definitely an animal lover, like the majority of the British public, I condemn some of the disgraceful methods used by some animal welfare groups to further their aims.

In my time I have kept most animals, from peacocks and goats to baby alligators. As a child, my long-suffering family did not know what I would bring home next in the way of livestock.

Next Tuesday I shall be bringing a horse to the House of Commons. Hon. Members need not concern themselves unduly, because I shall not attempt to bring it into the Chamber. Instead, a peaceful lobby will take place in Abingdon gardens between 2.30 pm and 3 pm. It is being organised by the Animal Welfare Group of Essex, inspired by the Basildon branch and led by a Mr. Clements. The purpose of the lobby is to draw to the attention of the House a shameful practice which negates the effects of an incomplete set of laws. I refer to the growing practice of leaving horses on other people's lands while arrangements are made to move the horses on to slaughter houses, to a port for export or to other markets.

The practice came to my attention because of problems in my constituency, but I understand that it is widespread throughout the United Kingdom, particularly on county and borough boundaries. Once ownership of the land in question is established—which is not always easy—horse owners have a habit of moving their horses to adjacent land so that the whole process must begin again.

In Basildon, a large tract of land is divided between the district council, the development corporation and a large private waste disposal firm. There are few clear boundaries. The horses are moved about the land to avoid legal proceedings. County and borough boundaries also provide perfect places for such manoeuvres, because the animals can be moved over the boundary to land owned by a different authority.

The Animals Act 1971 established that owners are liable for damage caused by the livestock straying on to people's land. The nub of the problem is that no damage is caused. The poor, half-starved animals do little more than forage where they can for the small amount of grass available. Were it not for the kindness of my constituents, many more horses would have died. Last winter two horses had to be put down by the RSPCA.

The Abandonment of Animals Act 1960 makes it an offence to abandon any animal in circumstance liable to cause it unnecessary suffering, but these animals are not legally abandoned. Their owners return to move them to another field or to ship them out, usually before the cumbersome legal machinery has started to operate.

I admit that if the council, the corporation and the private company employed a full-time worker with legal knowledge to keep an eye on the land around Basildon and to take the necessary legal steps at the right time the problem could be confined or kept to reasonable proportions. Expenditure on such an officer is impracticable, especially because of the possible need for a pound, and because of the legal costs involved in an area where the law is unclear, to say the least.

The law allows the owner of the land to sell the horse if it has been kept there for more than 14 days. The scale of the problem is so large that if this section of the Act were put into operation the three organisations involved could well find themselves becoming major horse dealers, in addition to their many other responsibilities. I do not think that we would wish to go down that road.

The long-stop to the existing legislation, such as it is, is the Protection of Animals Act 1911, which makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any domestic or captive animal. In theory it is a good piece of legislation, but in practice it does nothing for the animal and relies on knowledge of who the owner might be at the time in question.

As the animals are worth one price as meat, they can easily be sold without being seen, so that they can change hands three or four times while remaining in the field to which I have referred. Any action taken by the police involves long and complicated searches throughout Essex to find those responsible. The fact that horses cannot easily be linked to owners means that much time, money and manpower are spent on each search. This problem occurs not only with travellers. We have discovered that some smallholders with one or two horses over the limit allowed on their land are taking the same action.

The. National Farmers Union has come up with an effective arrangement for freeze branding, which is less painful than hot branding, but with the same long-lasting properties. Such a system, given the force of law, would enable private organisations and the police to identify much more simply the owner of a horse.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has designed a good code of practice on the tethering of horses which should go some way to ensure that suffering is eliminated. Included in the code is the provision that clean water should be available at all times. The water available on Pitsea marshes in my constituency can only be described as of dubious quality. The code states that food must be given in all cases where grazing is not adequate. The grazing on Pitsea marshes is reasonable, but cannot be expected to keep a horse in satisfactory health for any length of time. During the winter the animals do not have nearly enough to eat. The two horses that had to be put down had nearly starved to death. The code also contains a provision on the frequency of inspection. It states that horse and tether must be inspected at least twice in 24 hours. The horses are not tethered and, if they are seen by the owners once a month, they are very lucky. All the excellent advice is ignored, and the results are appalling.

What is needed is a consolidation of the law as it stands in relation to animal welfare, with extensions and additions to block not loopholes but veritable motorways through which those who would flout the spirit of the law drive. Freeze branding must be seriously considered, and administrative objections should be examined closely. The RSPCA code of practice on tethering should have the force of law behind it.

I do not believe that the House is disinterested in this matter. It is simply that it has been somewhat too pressed for time to act on the issue. I have every confidence that after my short speech today it will act.

In conclusion, I apologise in advance for being unable to stay to hear the response of the Leader of the House, which I look forward to reading in Hansard.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North 6:44 pm, 26th March 1985

The matter that I ask to be debated before the Easter Adjournment is the immigration law and its operation in this country.

Many people in north Islington are very concerned about the way in which the immigration law operates. Indeed, in inner cities throughout the country many people are worried and frightened about the way in which the immigration law operates. Many go to bed at night fearing a knock on the door early the following morning, being told they will no longer be allowed to remain in the country, followed by forcible removal. Like many hon. Members who face similar situations, I take up a large number of individual cases every year. Last year I took up several hundred such cases with the Home Secretary, and I know that my hon. Friends regularly take up an even larger number of cases. This matter can no longer be disregarded and ignored. Later, I shall mention the report of the Commission for Racial Equality, and the need for an urgent debate on it.

Alongside the despair of many people in the country at the way in which the immigration law operates — the Kafka-like procedures, the Kafka-like trials, the so-called appeals against removal from the country and requests for entry into the country—there are other cases of people who seek refugee status in this country.

A couple from Cyprus, Katerina and Vassilis Nicola, have sought sanctuary in St. Mary's church, Eversholt street, in Euston. Their case is being taken up by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and by a number of other hon. Members who are supporting him and the couple in what they are trying to do.

One has to ask what kind of democracy and civilisation exists when a couple from a country that has been a colony of this country for many years and is now a member of the Commonwealth, albeit a divided island, seek sanctuary in a church in order to avoid removal from this country. If that happened in many other parts of the world, I believe that Ministers would be leaping to the Dispatch Box to condemn a Government and regime that drove people to such despair. But, because it is Britain and because it is 1985, the Government are apparently indifferent. I hope that the Leader of the House will ensure that the Home Secretary considers the plight of this couple so that they may be allowed to remain permanently in the country.

I wish to explain how this couple came to be in the country at all. They have lived here for nine years. They used to live in the northern part of Cyprus. In 1974, the island of Cyprus was invaded by the Turkish army, which took control of the northern part of the island. It must be said that Turkey is a member of NATO, and little has been done to remove its troops from Cyprus. Mrs. Nicola took refuge in a school when the army invaded, and subsequently in a refugee camp. Her husband was conscripted into the Greek Cypriot army. At the end of 1975, he was released from the army, she was able to get herself out of the refugee camp, and they fled to this country. Since that time they have been in Britain.

They have been told that they must return to their home. They cannot return to the northern part of Cyprus because it is under occupation by the Turkish army, which has illegally declared that part of the island independent, and their home no longer exists. If they go to the southern part of Cyprus where the Government of Greece is in charge, they have no home to go to, and they did not come from the south of Cyprus in the first place. The British Government maintain that they must leave this country, but they have no home to return to in Cyprus.

It is appalling that this couple, through no fault of their own, should be forced to seek sanctuary in a church in this country for fear of removal. They are a symbol of the fear experienced by many migrant families, the fear of being forcibly removed from the country. It is an insult to them and a disgrace to the country that this couple should be forced to take such action. It is much to the credit of the church and of the bishop that this couple have been allowed to remain in St. Mary's church, that the local congregation has supported them, that money has been collected to maintain them and that food has been provided for them. They are now in their 26th day in the church, and they intend to stay there until the Home Secretary is prepared to see sense.

I am sure that they would be more than happy to discuss their case with the Home Secretary if he went to that church to see them. They cannot leave for fear that, if they did, they would be picked up on the street outside by the police acting on behalf of the Home Office. I regard that as a disgraceful state of affairs in Britain in 1985.

Let us consider how this situation arose. The subject of refugees from Cyprus is not new. The war in Cyprus took place in 1974, when 10,000 refugees entered the United Kingdom. They came from the Greek and Turkish communities in Cyprus; they were simply refugees from the war. All had been uprooted from their homes in villages and towns and many had lost their possessions. They came to various parts of London, many to where I used to be a councillor, the borough of Haringey, where they were given help and support by the existing Cypriot community and by the community generally.

They came to Britain because they had relatives and close friends here and because of Britain's historical links with Cyprus, but also, frankly, because they had nowhere else to go. Having obtained sanctuary here, many of them stayed, are living happily here and are making an enormous contribution to our economy.

There have been endless arguments with the Home Office about the situation facing Cypriot refugees. Those who fell within the Home Office definition of "displaced persons" were granted special concessions and at first had their permits to stay extended from three to six months and then to a year. Those who were not accepted as displaced persons were refused extensions and were treated as overstayers, or illegal immigrants, and were forced to leave the country.

Of the 10,000 Cypriot refugees who came here, only 2,000 remain. By 1981, the Home Office had become even more severe, and demanded that many of the remaining refugees had to return to Cyprus, the Home Office claiming that the situation on the island was stable. The Department started to deport Greek Cypriots to the south of Cyprus and Turkish Cypriots to the north.

Thus, the Government were de facto accepting the partition of the island of Cyprus, even though Britain was a signatory to the treaty of guarantee and was involved in the independence negotiations that brought the state of Cyprus into being. It seems, therefore, that the British Government accepted the fact that the Turkish army had invaded and were giving de facto recognition to the Government there by deporting people to different parts of the island, in many cases firmly against the wishes of the people concerned.

Because of that, a large campaign grew up among members of the Cypriot community here, and they were supported by many other groups. They brought their anxieties to the attention of the Home Office, to hon. Members and to migrant workers' groups in Britain. They persuaded the then Minister of State to grant a concession, and in 1982 a concessionary policy was announced. Indefinite leave to remain in Britain was granted to Cypriot refugees who fell within the Home Office definition of "displaced persons." About 600 people benefited under that policy. Those who fell outside the policy were either deported or are still awaiting deportation. Those, for example, who did not enter the UK immediately after the 1974 war but who lived in refugee camps awaiting the outcome of the war crisis before coming here were not considered by the Home Office to be displaced persons and were not granted indefinite leave to stay.

That was an unfair way of operating the policy. I urge the Government to reconsider their whole attitude towards the refugees from Cyprus and to grant an amnesty to those who are here. That would remove their fear of being told that they must leave. It is appalling that this couple should be forced to seek sanctuary in a church in their effort to remain here in a place of safety.

I raise the case of Mr. and Mrs. Nicola because it is serious and demands an urgent answer from the Home Office. They should be allowed to stay here. I raise it because it is symptomatic of the way in which immigration policy operates in this country. It is also symptomatic of the attitude of the Home Office to many migrant groups.

Opposition Members have consistently pressed the Government to provide time to debate the report of the Commission for Racial Equality on immigration control procedures. That lengthy document, which was painstakingly put together after many interviews with Home Office staff and others, is damning in the extreme about the way in which the immigration service operates. I will quote only two of the report's general conclusions.

The promotion of good race relations should be a specific consideration in the administration of immigration control, and in that respect the report says in its conclusions that that depends not on allaying fears and prejudices of a section of the majority community, though they must be recognised and faced, but on a determination by the government to uphold the rights of all people to fair and decent treatment. Under existing immigration law and procedures in this country, migrants are not treated in the same way as the rest of our citizens. The onus that rests on them to prove their innocence is much greater than is normal under British law.

Too great an emphasis has been placed in the operation of the procedures on the detection of bogus applicants, at an unacceptable cost to genuine families and to race relations generally. Another of the report's conclusions states: In our view, of the basic mistakes which it is possible for an administrative system of this sort to make, it is far worse wrongly to refuse a genuine applicant than to admit a bogus one; and it is far worse to delay the exercise of their rights by genuine applicants than to allow a bogus applicant through the net in efforts to avoid delays. This country stands condemned by many people in the world because of the operation of our immigration policy and the way migrants are treated. They condemn the way in which people are bundled out of the country — the way Afia Begum was thrown out of Britain whereas Zola Budd was welcomed here. The Government stand condemned for what I believe are the racist practices endemic in Britain's immigration laws. There are divided families, people who are fearful of being removed, people from Bangladesh who are trying and are entitled to come here, and many others.

The House should debate this serious matter in a way that will put at rest the fears and concerns of many migrant families. Couples such as Mr. and Mrs. Nicola should no longer have to go through the indignity of seeking sanctuary in a church so as to remain in Britain. They should have peace and be allowed to continue to make the valuable contribution to the community that they have been making in the nine years that they have been in Britain.

Photo of Mr John Carlisle Mr John Carlisle , Luton North 6:57 pm, 26th March 1985

I agree with the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) that we should be discussing South Africa — against the sad backcloth of the events in the eastern Cape in recent days — and I shall take the advice of Mr. Speaker, who yesterday half suggested that this subject should be mentioned. It is an important issue, and I welcome the opportunity to speak about it. We should not be afraid to discuss such matters, and I hope that it will be useful to the South African authorities to listen to both sides of the argument.

It is a pleasure for me to speak in the calmer atmosphere of the Chamber of the House of Commons, whereas in recent months I have delivered similar orations in British universities and colleges of further education, where I have received much abuse and, in some cases, much violence, perpetrated on the whole, of course, by those most opposed to what I had to say.

There is a genuineness of purpose among those who are represented by the anti-apartheid movement—which, I believe, includes the hon. Member for Walsall, North, the leader of the Liberal party, the leader of the SDP and other Opposition Members—in urging that the problems of South Africa must be solved. Indeed, I believe that that same genuine belief exists among Church leaders on both sides, here and in South Africa. Those of us who understand a little of the problems of South Africa appreciate the anger and, in some cases, the utter frustration that is suffered by the black community at their lot. I say that in as genuine a way as I can.

Opposition Members, particularly those such as the hon. Member for Walsall, North, must appreciate that it is easy, in the comfortable precincts of Westminster— indeed, in the comfort of the free democracy which we in this country enjoy — to parade their consciences and those of their fellow travellers, to borrow some words from the hon. Member for Walsall, North, and to forget the violation of human rights that is taking place in countries throughout the world.

Despite the earlier remarks of the hon. Member for Walsall, North, it is not often we hear from him or from his hon. Friends protests about what is going on in eastern Europe or in South America, although I was pleased to see the early-day motion on Chile which was put down by the Opposition the other day. We do not hear protests from them about what is going on in the far east, in Cambodia, for example, nor about what is going on in black Africa itself, particularly Zimbabwe. The hon. Member for Walsall, North and his hon. Friends have been silent in their condemnation of the recent slaughterings in that sad country and of the regime which the hon. Gentleman holds up as the epitome of all that black Africa stands for.

This debate must always be seen in the context of the history of African politics. It must be seen, sadly, in the context of a continent which is now dominated by Marxism, where many states are now one-party states. Of course, one man, one vote exists—

Photo of Mr John Carlisle Mr John Carlisle , Luton North

Yes, as my hon. Friend says, once. Perhaps more important, the tribal background of the political strife in South Africa is such that the Westminster system is not necessarily the best. The question that we must ask ourselves is whether the system of one man, one vote for South Africa tomorrow is the answer.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Walsall, North say at the beginning of his speech that I had always condemned apartheid. It is a system which is a violation of human rights, but I understand it and I understand why it exists. That does not mean that I support it. It is against the background of the large problems that South Africa is facing that we must debate the issue. Rural blacks are moving into urban areas, which is not unusual in Africa, as hon. Members will know. There are the problems of the shanty towns, which are not particular to South Africa, but which exist in most major cities throughout the world. It is in that context that we must consider the argument on a basis of calm appraisal, rather than in the sort of violent discussion which Opposition Members, and particularly the hon. Member for Walsall, North, seem to promote in this place.

The leader of the Social Democrats and many hon. Members on the Opposition Benches are now joining the American chorus by calling for some form of disinvestment in South Africa. Coupled with that, many of them are making serious allegations against British companies and the conditions of the employees of those companies in South Africa. Those arguments are scurrilous and discredit totally those who make them. On the whole, they are made in complete ignorance of the situation.

It is a fact that of those who work for the 350 or so British companies in South Africa about 98 per cent. are paid above the minimum level set by the European code. Some of our greatest companies, like BP and Barclays, which we debated some time ago in the House, have spent enormous sums on social benefits and are giving equal opportunity in education, training, agriculture, welfare and housing to all their workers. Indeed, the record of Barclays, castigated so much by the anti-apartheid movement out of sheer ignorance, would stand in any country throughout the world. I certainly salute what it has done for the advancement of black wages.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

Does the hon. Gentleman consider that the apology he is giving for the regime in South Africa ought to be followed by an explanation of the profits made by those companies out of virtual slave labour in South Africa? Does he not agree that it is time totally to condemn apartheid and British commercial participation in it?

Photo of Mr John Carlisle Mr John Carlisle , Luton North

I was afraid that the hon. Gentleman, in his ignorance and naivety, would go down that path. If he had been listening, he would have heard me explain what British companies are doing. I shall repeat it, because obviously he did not hear it, or did not want to hear it, the first time. About 98 per cent. of the employees of British companies are paid above the minimum level set by the European code, not by the South African code. If that is slave labour, the hon. Gentleman is somewhat misguided in his information.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

They still get low wages.

Photo of Mr John Carlisle Mr John Carlisle , Luton North

I shall come on to low wages, because I knew that the hon. Gentleman would bring that up.

Another argument that is put is that there is a disparity between black and white wages. That is well paraded by Opposition Members. It is a fact that the disparity is reducing dramatically. Many people in America, sitting in the nice precincts of American suburbs, castigate South Africa for the fact that the disparity between black and white wages is not as small as it is in the United States of America. I remind the House that between 1972 and 1982 in South Africa the real wages of the whites dropped by 7 per cent. and in the same period, the only period for which figures are available, the wages of the blacks went up by 68 per cent. I suggest that the hon. Member goes back to his books and checks his facts. The fact is that many skilled blacks in South Africa are now enjoying a middle class standard of living and are advancing dramatically within the professions and in clerical jobs.

Photo of Mr Paddy Ashdown Mr Paddy Ashdown , Yeovil

The hon. Gentleman has produced figures, but, as he well knows, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Can he give us the median level for black wages against the median level for white wages in South Africa?

Photo of Mr John Carlisle Mr John Carlisle , Luton North

As a Member on the Front Bench would say, given notice of that question I shall send the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) the figures. I resent his accusation of lies and damned lies. The information that I have comes from the Middlesex polytechnic of London, which may interest London Members. It is written by An Spandau, who is a German, not a South African, and who has made his own investigations into various countries throughout the world. The figures are his; they are not South African figures. They are fact, not lies as the hon. Member for Yeovil suggested.

South Africa has to create 400,000 jobs just to keep those who are employed at the moment in employment. The calls for disinvestment, which are now siren cries from both sides of the Atlantic, will do more than anything else to ruin the prospects of those blacks who are beginning to find that they can advance to the middle classes and to better jobs. To those Opposition Members and to those outside the House who say that to trade with South Africa, which was part of the hint by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), is to support the apartheid regime—

Photo of Mr John Carlisle Mr John Carlisle , Luton North

The hon. Gentleman says that that is right. If that is the case, why are 49 out of 51 black African countries trading with South Africa? Are they supporting the black regime by their trade? Why does South Africa sell £500 million worth of goods to black Africa each year? Is that supporting the apartheid regime? Why are up to 1·5 million foreign labourers in South Africa? Are they supporting the apartheid regime? What the hon. Gentleman does not know, and will not recognise, is that conditions of work within South Africa are such that 1·5 million illegal immigrants are in South Africa looking for conditions which they cannot enjoy in their own countries.

The argument is often put by Opposition Members that if we ceased this trade it would not affect the blacks. Perhaps I can remind hon. Members that if trade between the Western world and South Africa dropped by only 20 per cent., about 90,000 whites and about 350,000 blacks as well would lose their jobs. Is that what Opposition Members really want to see with their programme of disinvestment? They say that other markets could be found. Again, that has been put forward by some people in America. At present, 10 per cent. of our overseas trade is with South Africa, and up to 250,000 jobs in this country are dependent upon that trade. I would not trade 250,000 jobs in the pious hope that what I was doing was helping the blacks, on two bases—those jobs should never be lost, and blacks would be the first to suffer.

Photo of Mr Paddy Ashdown Mr Paddy Ashdown , Yeovil

May I tempt the hon. Gentleman a little further on trade? Will the hon. Gentleman join his colleague the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Spicer) — he has just been appointed chairman of the Conservative party's international office—in calling for a relaxation of the embargo on arms trade with South Africa? The hon. Member for Dorset, West called for the sale of helicopters with military potential to the South African Government. Would the hon. Gentleman go that far?

Photo of Mr John Carlisle Mr John Carlisle , Luton North

Yes, I would, because the basis of the United Nation's resolution which is supported by this country is bogus. It includes forms of defence which are desperately needed on the African coast in and around the Cape and further north. The hon. Member for Yeovil, who has made a face at what I have just said, might like to know that for several hundreds of miles of the African coast there is no form of air-sea rescue other than that provided by the South African Government. I believe that this country should break that embargo and sell arms to South Africa.

Photo of Mr John Carlisle Mr John Carlisle , Luton North

I am looking at the clock. I shall give way for the last time to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

I have looked up the Register of Members' Interests, and I notice that in September 1984 the hon. Gentleman paid a visit to South Africa sponsored by the South African Government. Would it not be more forthright for the hon. Gentleman to explain to the House that he has been on a free trip to South Africa—and to do so while he is speaking so that I do not have to look up the Register of Members' Interests — which was sponsored by the South African Government? The hon. Gentleman is telling us what is in the South African Government's brief to him.

Photo of Mr John Carlisle Mr John Carlisle , Luton North

Let me assist the hon. Gentleman by telling him that I have been on several trips to South Africa. In no case have I paid the air fare for the first class travel on all my journeys to South Africa or for the first class hotels where I have stayed. If the hon. Gentleman's knowledge is so great, why does he not go to South Africa and look for himself? I make an offer to him that I will do all that I can to persuade someone to fund him—not necessarily the Government — to see for himself. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to go to South Africa because he, like thousands of others, would return having changed his mind after seeing the true picture.

I am sorry to shatter the calmer atmosphere which the debate was enjoying before the hon. Member for Walsall, North, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and myself made our points. I make no apology for bringing to the attention of the House the bogus case of the Opposition and of some Members of the American Congress, especially Senator Kennedy.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton , Macclesfield

My hon. Friend is advancing an excellent case which I hope will improve the Opposition's education. Will he comment briefly on the fact that the Wiehan commission led to the recognition and establishment of black trade unions in South Africa? Free trade unionism is certainly not practised behind the iron curtain. I hope that the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) will be able to intervene yet again on this point. Will my hon. Friend confirm that great strides have been made in granting freehold rights to urban blacks—a unique measure which is not the custom behind the iron curtain? These are reforms of considerable magnitude, for which the South African Government should receive credit in the free world.

Photo of Mr John Carlisle Mr John Carlisle , Luton North

As usual, my hon. Friend speaks with a deep knowledge and understanding of the position, unlike the Opposition. Only this afternoon on the Floor of the House my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister acknowledged that the freehold system had been advanced to blacks. That is a great advance for South Africans.

I should have liked to cover the major constitutional changes that have taken place and the need and will for reform in South Africa. Suffice it to say that if we are genuine in our belief that we want to help South Africa, as I think some Opposition Members are, surely it would be better for us to co-operate with the South Africans and recognise their need for peaceful change.

The events of the past few days have cast a shadow over South Africa and its relationship with the rest of the world, and we deeply regret them. We must understand, however, that in any form of change there will be, as the South African ambassador put it, some form of violent revolution. Those of us who are desperately trying to help all the peoples of South Africa are upset by the fact that the violent revolution perpetrated by some Opposition Members, Bishop Tutu and other well-meaning clerics and politicians can lead only to disaster and bloodshed in South Africa. The policy of disinvestment, so eloquently put forward by hon. Members and those on the other side of the Atlantic, will irrevocably harm the blacks first. I believe that this important subject should be brought up many times on the Floor of the House and that both sides of the argument should be heard.

Photo of Mr Gerry Bermingham Mr Gerry Bermingham , St Helens South 7:15 pm, 26th March 1985

I listened to the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) with a growing sense of frustration and sadness. I did not seek to intervene during his speech because we can all intervene with platitudes, from a standard point of view and, of course, from interest. My one interest in life is in human beings. I tend to judge a regime by what happens to its citizens. I would listen to anyone who can explain to me why it is necessary to shoot coloured people in a township on the anniversary of the terrible massacre 25 years ago and to bulldoze houses and move people from their homelands. We are talking not about economics, but about the quality of life and the right to life.

I concede that many regimes in Africa, Asia and South America are a disgrace to those humanitarian principles that are meant to be the foundation of the United Nations charter. I judge the South African regime against that background. I do not wish to say too much on that subject, because that is not why I sought to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On the tests of the right to express political views, to object and to live where one wants, the South African regime fails. So long as that regime continues to fail on those simple humanitarian grounds, I shall be against it just as I am against the regimes in Chile, eastern Europe and many other parts of the world where those simple tests are not met.

Photo of Mr John Carlisle Mr John Carlisle , Luton North

I do not dissent from the hon. Gentleman's tone. If he reads my speech in the Official Report tomorrow and other speeches that I have made in this place and outside, he will recognise the genuine need for reform. The hon. Gentleman and I might differ about the means of achieving that reform.

Photo of Mr Gerry Bermingham Mr Gerry Bermingham , St Helens South

In the long term, to apologise for and excuse the actions of the regime while being critical of those actions does the South African people no good. It might be better for the people of Africa as a whole if we in the West, including America, who do not like what we see, whether in Mozambique or Zimbabwe—my name has been recorded as one who has protested about the recent arrests of trade unionists in Zimbabwe—had the courage to say, "Your regime fails the test." We should seek not to apologise but to explain that we do not tolerate such conduct.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton , Macclesfield

Will the hon. Gentleman give way, on a point of accuracy?

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton , Macclesfield

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that enforced removals have now been suspended in South Africa? This was announced by one of the top Ministers in the Republic's Government, Dr. Gerrit van Viljoen. Will the hon. Gentleman withdraw his remarks about people being forced to leave their homes, because enforced removals have now been suspended?

Photo of Mr Gerry Bermingham Mr Gerry Bermingham , St Helens South

I accept unreservedly that there has been a suspension. The results of the enforced removals still stand for those who were forced to move.

I am very pleased to see the Leader of the House in his place because, as I understand it, he is the Minister who is in touch with each of the Departments for the purpose of arranging the business of the House. He therefore no doubt has close and frequent contact with, for instance, the Departments of Employment, of Health and Social Security and of Energy. I hope that he can assure the House before the Easter recess that he has informed those Departments that the miners' strike is now over.

I am not being facetious; I am seeking to raise an extremely important point, because somebody somewhere in the system—I do not suggest that it was the Minister, because I have no evidence by which to identify who is responsible — is acting in a way that can only be described as extraordinarily vicious. What is going on at present is an absolute disgrace. I do not seek to raise the matter which was raised in the House last night with regard to miners who have been dismissed during the strike, although I notice that it is stated in The Guardian today that a number of sacked miners are barred from claiming benefits. Some are now, I am very pleased to see, beginning to win their claims for unfair dismissal, but of course they are all suffering, anyway.

A number of my constituents are miners, as the Leader of the House is aware. I want to raise the case of one of them, Brian Knowles, who in August last year, during the strike, decided to leave the coal industry. I want to deal generally with the cases of those who resigned during the strike and of those who, because of redundancy and so on, find themselves in the following farcical position.

Having resigned in August, Brian Knowles put in a claim for unemployment benefit. He was told that he could not resign in the middle of a strike. I cannot find where this is stated in the rules; nor, indeed, can anybody else. Instead of getting the normal unemployment benefit, he was given supplementary benefit at the reduced level. That continued from August of last year until 4 March. I raised the matter with Ministers, wrote letters, but got nowhere. Then, on 4 March, Mr. Knowles decided that, as the men were back at work, he would go to the employment office and sign on. He has a wife and children, he has debts and he is in poverty, so he asked for unemployment benefit.

He was told that, as far as the Department of Employment was concerned, the strike was not over and that he would have to apply to the arbitrator, a gentleman in Southampton, who would determine when the strike was over. So the unemployment resources centre in St. Helens wrote to Southampton. The centre got a lovely letter back saying that they did not answer letters from people in unemployment centres. I wonder if they would answer a letter from me. I suspect not. Who do they answer? Who do they think they are? Ministers come to the House and say that the strike is terminated, but they do not work on that. They say that they cannot judge the strike to be over until production levels are up. They also now raise the point about the overtime ban which still exists in the coalfields. Apparently, not until that is over will they admit that the industrial dispute is over.

Someone, somewhere, is determined to crucify people such as Brian Knowles — thousands of people in this country. This extends not just to those who resigned during the strike but also to those who had agreed to take redundancy before the strike commenced but who asked to stay on for particular reasons and were then involved in the dispute, to those who through ill health or for other reasons suddenly found that, after they had agreed to redundancy terms, the strike intervened. Now that the strike is over, everything is held up. I wonder if the Leader of the House would be so kind as to inform the Department of Health and Social Security and the Department of Employment before the Easter recess that the mining dispute is now over. It would help.

The Leader of the House may ask why these men do not apply to the various tribunals. A constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) applied in November for a tribunal hearing on this matter. That tribunal has not yet sat. These hearings can be delayed.

Why must people who are elderly, or sick, or have left the mining industry for other reasons be treated in this mean, petty, spiteful way? I thought that we were seeking reconciliation with the miners. I can assure the House that in the constituency of St. Helens and in the mining areas generally people are well aware of what is happening, of the spitefulness and meanness, and that adds to the bitterness. It is so unnecessary, and I hope that the Leader of the House can find time to resolve this nasty problem.

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Bethnal Green and Stepney 7:26 pm, 26th March 1985

It is not for me to reply to the speeches made in this debate, although I have noted them, and the fact that no fewer than 15 have been delivered over the last two and a half hours. I believe that the House owes a debt of gratitude to those hon. Members for the range of important subjects which they have briefly addressed. If I single out one or two it is because they certainly deserve it.

The two speeches made on the subject of the Crown Proceedings Act and the possibility of service men being treated more generously in connection with injuries sustained certainly require attention. The Act has stood for too long unchanged. I think too that the plea by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) for the early publication of the two reports on the Severn bridge really ought to be responded to. I certainly think that our immigration procedures need the most urgent review and a far more sympathetic administration than they are getting at the present time.

Last, but not least, I believe that my hon. Friends were indeed right to raise the whole ghastly tragedy of recent events in South Africa, themselves a repeat of the appalling massacre at Sharpeville 25 years ago. Although I listened with interest to the speech made by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle), because he has clearly studied the subject in some depth, I found the general sentiments which he expressed, particularly on this occasion, when there is so much suffering and loss of life in South Africa, pretty repugnant.

I wish to say something about two other matters—one which my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) has just broached, about the aftermath of the coal industry strike, and, secondly, the question of Mr. Levene as the chief official concerned with arms procurement in the Ministry of Defence.

With regard to the bitter legacy of the coal strike, I assume that everyone has a strong wish that the wounds that have been sustained during the past 12 months should be healed as rapidly as possible. Against that background, I was shocked when I read today that sacked miners cannot even now claim unemployment or supplementary benefit and that the £16 deduction from their families' social security income is still being exacted by the DHSS. Therefore, their families are still ineligible for the £16 benefit that strike pay is assumed to provide.

I should like to know who has made that ruling. It cannot be one for regional officials of the Department of Health and Social Security; it must have come from Ministers. It is a scandalous decision. It is punitive, vindictive and designed to ensure not only that the wounds of the strike do not heal but that they deepen and fester. So too is the policy decison emanating from the National Coal Board HQ, as all will acknowledge who listened to Mr. MacGregor on television on the subject of teaching the lessons of indiscipline—that many hundreds of men dismissed during the strike should not be re-employed.

The correct attitude to the problem was stated by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition on Friday 8 March, when he rightly said that the way to deal with the matter was for management sensibly to consider each case on its merits.My right hon. Friend said that unions should have "the opportunity to represent individual workers. Those who have been found guilty in the courts of minor offences, including the daubing of walls, taking coal to keep their families warm, obstruction and other petty offences, should not be dismissed. There are other cases too in which, as the recent industrial tribunal decision in favour of Mr. Norman Lynch makes plain, such dismissals are unjustifiable under industrial law.

Surely the time has come for a general instruction to area coal managers, including Scotland's, to consider all dismissal cases on their merits. It is up to the Minister to see that that is done.

Therefore, what we want from the Secretary of State for Social Services and the Secretary of State for Energy is an early statement on both those subjects. It is no good the NCB taking out four-page advertisements in the Daily Telegraph and other newspapers proclaiming, as they did today: you're better off with coal and Britain can provide it if in reality official policy makes it certain that the bitterness of the past year is allowed to continue and to fester.

The second subject that I wish to raise is the disgraceful and quite extraordinary story of Mr. Peter Levene, recently appointed head of the Ministry of Defence arms procurement programme. The importance of that case is plain to everyone except the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence.

The constitutional doctrine on the acceptance of outside appointments by former civil servants was recently stated in the Government's White Paper containing their response to the report of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, "Acceptance of Outside Appointments by Crown Servants". In their general observations, they said: The Government agrees with the Committee that the rules governing the acceptance of outside appointments by Crown servants have to strike a balance between two principles; the principle of maximum possible freedom of movement, which is a matter not only of personal liberty but also of the economic and other benefits of interchange between the public service and other occupations and spheres of activity; and the requirement to avoid corruption or impropriety, or the suspicion of them, in relation to the public service. That is fair enough, but the doctrine must apply equally to industrialists and business men seconded or appointed to the Civil Service, particularly the requirement to avoid corruption or impropriety, or the suspicion of them, in relation to the public service.

No one can dispute that serious improprieties have already been committed. In the case of Mr. Levene, the Civil Service Commission was not asked to consider what is called the "issue of qualification" nor was there any pretence that the appointment had been made open to general applications. It is reported that the Civil Service commissioners considered resignation en bloc, and it is a pity that they did not carry out their threat. For without such checks as are written into practice and procedure, appointments can be made at the grace and favour of Ministers and the door is wide open to favouritism, nepotism and worse.

So why was Mr. Levene appointed in breach of those rules? Who authorised the payment of £107,000 per annum to Mr. Levene, who now becomes the highest paid civil servant in the land? What are the ethics and where is the common sense in appointing as chief of defence procurement the chairman of a major arms equipment supplier, United Scientific Holdings?

Now, after pressure, we learn that Mr. Levene is to be refused access to papers relating to his former company and other associated companies for a 12-month period, and, further, that he will be subject to Civil Service rules when he leaves the Civil Service. That is to say that he will have the obligation simply to inform the Diamond commission before taking up a new job within two years of leaving his present post, a requirement which, as the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee stated, has no sanction behind it.

Serious issues are involved in this case, and it is not the only one. In its editorial of 22 March, under the title, "A Lingering Whiff', The Times recalled: over a period of five recent years some 1,400 movements from Whitehall into private business were made by the senior personnel of a single department yet of these a paltry few were delayed or subjected to extensive inquiry. Then the permanent secretary of the same department, within months of his retirement, joins the board of an aircraft supply company and a few months later becomes chairman of a major armament contractor. Of course, the Department to which The Times is referring is the Ministry of Defence.

The Government have done much to damage the whole British economy and, indeed, the British people. The damage being done to the Civil Service is less obvious, but no less serious. Standards of conduct are slipping, and slipping fast. There should therefore be an early debate not only on the case of Mr. Levene but on the whole clutch of issues raised by the report of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee and the Government's inadequate response to it. I very much hope that the Leader of the House will have something to say about that matter, too.

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire 7:37 pm, 26th March 1985

This afternoon's debate is what is now a traditional one on the recess motion, which gives Back Benchers the opportunity to raise a whole host of topics, and it is my privilege to seek to answer them with such skill as I have. Therefore, I hope that the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) will permit me, of course to acknowledge what he has just mentioned in respect of Mr. Levene, but to proceed to the more traditional role that I have to perform on such occasions.

The right hon. Gentleman talked of serious improprieties, favouritism and nepotism. Those are all devastating charges and are wholly unmerited relative to an appointment which, I agree at once, was bound to be controversial. However, I have noted the anxiety that the right hon. Gentleman expressed. It is only right that I should do so. I shall refer the matter to those of my right hon. Friends to whom it is most appropriately directed. I also noted the interest that the right hon. Gentleman expressed in the matter being returned to on the Floor of the House.

In its variety, the debate has not disappointed any of the connoisseurs who now follow these occasions. I shall try to comment on the speeches of each of my hon. Friends who have contributed to the debate.

I shall start with my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery), who mentioned the serious difficulties in his constituency over the South Trafford hospital. I quite understand his anxiety and his concern that the regional health authority has not yet made as public as he would wish its position on the matter. I shall see that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services knows of his anxiety.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) brought the whole of our consideration close to home when he complained about the Car Park. He has been beaten to it. It must be a growing issue of contention, as I have already been in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed) on the matter. I have taken note of the detailed points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate, and I hope to be in touch with him in due course.

My hon. Friend also referred to the extraordinary delay in dealing with the planning appeal by the Bluebell line. I have been told that the decision should be available within the next two or three weeks. I do know whether that is news to my hon. Friend. If it is, he may like to reflect that it was probably his intervention that brought about that happy conclusion.

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

My hon. Friend's comment is quite unnecessary. This debate before our much-needed rest is no occasion for cynical comments such as I would not normally associate with so distinguished a scholar as my hon. Friend.

The right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) mentioned the problems and difficulties created for service men by section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947. He specifically mentioned a case on which it is not appropriate for me to comment as it is still under consideration. The right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney observed that that law had stood since the time of the Labour Government of the immediate post-war years. To some, that may be a sign that it is encrusted with barnacles. Others may feel that, whatever its administrative defects, the law has survived many scrutinies which have concluded that any departure from it would make the situation worse rather than better.

I shall, however, refer the right hon. Gentleman's anxieties to my right hon. Friend and point out that they were endorsed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers). I should also say that the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South has explained that he is unable to be present to hear my reply to the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport has won the palm, in that he raised a topic which was incomprehensible to me at the outset and which remained so. I am sure that it will feature in The Times diary tomorrow—

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

I am grateful for that comment, which reveals the innocence of my relationship with The Times diary.

In this case, the absurdity does not even derive from a proposal by the European Community. There are plans for the outlawing of an anti-fouling chemical which could be only partial in its application and whose only sure result would be to cause commercial damage to certain of my hon. Friend's constituents. That situation is so inequitable that I shall at once remind my right hon. Friend of it—he is currently considering it—and I hope that there will be a happy and commonsense outcome.

The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) is anxious about the experiences of some of the new industries which have been set up as satellites of the new-style British Telecom. I note what the hon. Gentleman said. He did not mention whether a reference had been made to Oftel in that context. That might be one remedy, but I shall see that the matter is further considered.

With that heroic optimism which often lends distinction to these debates, my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale raised the matter of the reform of the rating system. As he reminds us, he has done so on previous occasions. I can only say that he is 12 months nearer to an answer—if answer there is to be—than he was when the matter was last considered.

I remind my hon. Friend that this debate is only the hors d'oeuvres to the main course of today's proceedings, the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill, in which I see that the Scottish rating system is to be debated for a full three hours. Many hon. Members might say that three hours is inadequate time for such a debate.

Photo of Mr John Biffen Mr John Biffen , North Shropshire

The matter raised by my hon. Friend is of lasting topicality and has erupted, north of the border, from a smouldering state into the most rampant flames. We might do well to take guidance from his suggestion that the matter needs to be seriously considered again.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) spoke about the situation in the Province in the light of developments over the past few days. We can all understand his concern about the destructive consequences of uncertainty. To the voice of the right hon. Gentleman was joined that of my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Murphy).

The right hon. Gentleman stated that the position of the Government was that there could be no change in Ulster's constitutional position without the free and willing consent of its people. That commitment has existed for decades, and nowhere has it been repeated more powerfully than from the lips of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I am happy to repeat this evening that that is the situation.

We all appreciate that of all our citizens in the United Kingdom those in the Province live under the most relentless pressures. It is all too easy on this side of the Irish sea, and in this place, to lose touch with the real anxiety that is bound to exist in the Province under those pressures.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) spoke, in the context of recent reports, about the whole question of the custody of children and family law reform. His argument was most persuasive and, as so often in such cases, one understands the frustration that is felt when persuasiveness has no obvious consequence in the form of legislation.

I am told that the Government are considering legislation. I have been Leader of the House for long enough to know that, if a measure is not well over the horizon by this stage in the year, it will not appear in the current Session. It is the hon. Gentleman's view that the current legislation might accommodate the point at issue if the long title could be adjusted. I shall refer those points to my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate and consider whether we can meet the hon. Gentleman on that point.

The hon. Gentleman's namesake, the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes), referred to the Severn bridge. Year by year, as I have sat here, my admiration for the way in which the hon. Gentleman has pursued the issue of the Severn bridge has grown. One might say that he is the Dalyell of Gwent. The hon. Gentleman requested that I should pass to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport a request that both reports should be published. I shall of course do so. I realise that the matter is of the utmost concern in South Wales, and I appreciate the concern of the people of South Wales that their industrial future rests on the provision of appropriate road access to the rest of the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) devoted the major part of his speech to South Africa. However, he also asked me to pass on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment his anxieties about the present level of council house starts. I shall not anticipate my right hon. Friend's reply, but any fair judge of the Government's housing programme must take account of our great emphasis upon private house building and, above all, on house improvement as the means of securing the national housing stock. However, I take the hon. Gentleman's point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) has explained why he must be absent for this stage of the debate. He made an effective speech about animal welfare as it relates to horses. Anyone who comes from a constituency such as my hon. Friend's, which is suburban, and where, on the whole, there are a great many horses without the full advantage of a truly rural environment, knows only too well that the issue on which my hon. Friend touched is a real and growing problem in animal welfare. I hope that my hon. Friend will be successful in the ballot for private Members' Bills in the next Session, as an amendment to the Animals Act 1971 could very well achieve the purpose that he had in mind. Meanwhile, he has today opened his campaign most professionally.

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) brought to our debate the consideration of immigration law and asked whether I would refer to the Home Secretary, once again, the Nicola case so that it might be considered further. I undertake to do that. The hon. Gentleman was determined in his attack on how we administer immigration. He described Britain as standing condemned and our immigration procedures as a disgrace. There is a good case to be made for saying that our immigration law and its application are a testimony to the tremendous tolerance of the host community, above all the working-class host community, which has had to deal with the consequences of immigration. I hope that when we debate these matters we shall not do so in a sense of self-denigration, but rather with measured praise of how we have tried to tackle considerable and difficult problems.

The hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) mentioned constituents who are suffering from the consequences of how the mining dispute concluded — without a settlement between union and employers. I realise that it has given rise to difficulties, and if he would like to give me more details about the case that he has in mind I might wish to approach the Government Departments direct. However, I am sure that we can help the hon. Gentleman in some way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) mentioned the problems of the European Community and the serious problems of taxation implicit in what is now being decided, which often runs outwith our normal forms of public expenditure control. He said that the matter was now being considered by the Public Accounts Committee. I am sure that the whole House is interested to know what its findings will be. I suspect that this matter will increasingly occupy the House's attention. My hon. Friend was kind enough to write to me about VAT on credit cards, and I shall do all that I can to accommodate a discussion in the appropriate Standing Committee.

I have deliberately left until the end the debate on South Africa. I have an uneasy feeling that this evening's debate will be a pointer to recurring debates on the subject. The debate was made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North and by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle). A situation redolent of all the poignancy of a Greek tragedy is now unfolding in South Africa. It is one in which our frustrations will be that much more as we realise that the effective way in which we can influence matters is tremendously limited, especially relative to the free and easy and bombastic moralising which so often has characterised our contribution to this debate hitherto. As we must try to relate our sense of feeling with our ability to do something, that becomes a true test. It is a test for that Government but, above all, for the House, which cradles government.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,That this House at its rising on Thursday 4th April do adjourn until Monday 15th April and at its rising on Friday 3rd May do adjourn until Tuesday 7th May, and that the House shall not adjourn on Thursday 4th April until Mr. Speaker shall have reported the Royal Assent to any Acts which have been agreed upon by both Houses.