It is customary to use the Adjournment debate to reflect upon matters of political immediacy, even though one realises that the Government cannot give an authoritative answer at the conclusion of the debate. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will convey to the Treasury, with Christmas good will, the hope that it will reflect seriously on points that are of considerable and growing moment. I refer to the deepening recession that is evident now throughout the economy and which, in my judgment, has been made that much worse by the inflexibility of a fixed exchange rate system that inhibits an interest rate policy.
A modest roll call of honour accounts for about a dozen Tory Back Benchers who were not seduced by the arguments for membership of the exchange rate mechanism. They represent an unrepentant set of Davids against the Goliaths of the Confederation of British Industry, the City and the occupants of the Treasury Bench, but I do not believe that the Goliaths won the argument in the recent developments.
The debate was conditioned by the belief that membership of the exchange rate mechanism would confer great benefits. With the strength of continental currencies, it was believed that we could go for lower interest rates without prejudicing the parity of sterling, because it would receive support from our neighbours and friends. That view was reinforced by the gesture of British membership, which was accompanied by a 1 per cent. cut in interest rates. Whatever expectations were encouraged during those early hours have not been fulfilled since.
I remember that, on 28 October 1971, the right hon. Gentleman was one of the 30 or so Tories who went into the Lobby against the Common Market. His leader at that time, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) and the rag tag and bobtail dragged us into the Common Market without a vote. I remember the 36 Divisions. We might still do the Lobbies together. How many years is it since then? For 19 years, we have carried on the battle. I look forward to a few more in the Tory ranks who ratted at the time getting on board ship against the exchange rate mechanism, the single currency and the central bank, dominated by the Germans.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Very wisely, he is taking a panoramic view of the issue. I wish, however, to concentrate on the narrow issue of the state of the economy.
There is now a burgeoning recession. I am not sure that that point is really appreciated by the Treasury Bench and the Governor of the Bank of England. There is still talk about the recession being short and shallow. I see little evidence, on an anecdotal basis, to persuade me that the recession has that character. I believe that, in many sectors of the economy, we have been in recession for a considerable period. That makes nonsense of the proposition that the recession will be short.
If I need additional evidence, I move away from feelings and sentiments that are shared by almost every hon. Member who comes from an industrial area and turn to that great and respected source of judgment, the Confederation of British Industry, whose judgment is much more likely to weigh with the Goliaths of the Treasury Bench. The latest CBI report says:
Output expectations … in December represent the largest expected fall since December 1980.
In my view, the case is clearly made out for an early reduction in interest rates.
No one who looks at the general pattern of demand in this country and at monetary control can suppose that we are in a lax monetary position that will not admit of a further reduction in interest rates. The Government's reluctance to cut interest rates is because of their inhibitions on account of our membership of the exchange rate mechanism. In a recent debate, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said:
There can be no question of a reduction in interest rates that is not fully justified by our position in the ERM. That will be the case however strong is the pressure for lower interest rates based on other indicators."—[Official Report, 12 December 1990; Vol. 182, c. 966.]
Other indicators? The rate of unemployment, the fall in industrial investment, the range of economic experiences that we can now trace within our domestic economy? Are they to be set at naught and are we predominantly to take a view on
our position in the ERM"?
My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) intervened in the debate to give his benediction to the Government's policy. We could argue about fixed exchange rates and free exchange rates on another occasion. We adhere to two different economic philosophies. Due to the fraternal nature of the Conservative party, which has been so evident over recent weeks, we can cope with that.
There is, however, a narrow issue: whether membership of the exchange rate mechanism was effected at an appropriate parity. If it was not effected at an appropriate parity, a perpetual disadvantage will weigh upon British industry, just as the return to the gold standard at a wholly unrealistic figure cast its shadow over the operation of the economy in the 1920s and 1930s. I do not want the House to be burdened by the oppressive memory of Montagu Norman. Central bankers had a great deal more control over our affairs then than, happily, they do at the moment. I want politicians to be able to form their judgment on what the economy requires and to reach a decision on such intimate matters as the rate of interest.
I do not want to break the shallow unity that has broken out. Indeed, I was hoping for a more contrite speech from my right hon. Friend, since we had to pay high rates of interest in recent years when we were not members of the exchange rate mechanism.
My right hon. Friend referred to giving the maximum flexibility to politicians, but to exercise proper responsibility we need a stable medium of exchange. Unless we have a secure and valuable medium of exchange—a currency whose value does not change from one minute to the next—how on earth shall we be able to address the deep-seated problems of our economy? If we prefer instead to deal in funny money—in a currency that readily depreciates from year to year—surely we are perpetrating a fraud on the people we represent and are denying ourselves the proper responsibility of addressing our economic problems?
No: it is a technique that I admire.
The inflationary difficulties that we have experienced in recent years derived precisely from when we tried to shadow the deutschmark a few years ago. The lessons that I draw from that are precisely the opposite of those drawn by my hon. Friend.
Of course one would like a degree of relative stability in these matters. It is perfectly possible to have a system of proper and responsible monetary and fiscal policies that will produce that. That is the responsibility of national politicians and Governments answering in this Parliament. Indeed, it can be argued that, since 1979, there has been a period when those policies produced considerable advantageous movements in the exchange rate.
We shall debate that some other time. I want to return to the crucial point of whether we have joined the exchange rate mechanism at a level that will place us at a permanent disadvantage.
The point that I want to make was made by another central banker, Karl Otto Pal, who said that domestic interest rates should be established primarily in relation to the state of the domestic economy and not in accordance with or to sustain an exchange rate that might be selective. A central banker—one of the most powerful—agrees with my right hon. Friend.
If I lose the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) but gain the support of central banker Pal, who am I to complain?
There are voices in continental Europe who take the more open view on how we should conduct our economic arrangements within the wider partnership of Europe, which must include eastern Europe. We must not allow ourselves to be argued into the belief that we are merely representative of one narrow national interest in our desire for looser economic and monetary arrangements for our Community partners and ourselves. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point.
May I be allowed, with tedious repetition, to return to the central point, which we must understand and evaluate—whether we have joined the exchange rate mechanism at a level that will confer a permanent disadvantage on the industrialists and workers of this country, unless and until it is rectified. Gone is the glad morning confidence when the exchange rate mechanism was announced, when there was practically a competition of euphoria between the Treasury Bench and the Opposition Front Bench, then represented by the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) but now elevated in status by my neighbour from Shropshire, the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott). That shows that when the two Front Benches—the Goliaths of Parliament—are in absolute unity, it is time for the grubby Davids and Denises to come out and to search their scrips for their pebbles.
I am delighted to see that there is a growing sense of realism about these affairs. An excellent speech was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer), who called in question the desirability of the exchange rate mechanism if we are to be in this Lubyanka. [Interruption.] I want to show myself as broad European.
My argument is reinforced by a letter in The Times from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). I must mention my pair, the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice). I had hoped that our close association would have stripped him of any innocence. He is saying, "Can't we renegotiate?" He believes that those with whom we have joined the mechanism on disadvantageous terms will say, "We are terribly sorry, we did not realise that it would be so difficult for you; of course we shall accommodate a new parity."
We need action a bit more robust than that. Let us be clear: there must be a growing volume of protest in this House and elsewhere that the present terms of the exchange rate mechanism are wholly disadvantageous for this country. Those who feel disposed to argue that are not alone, because those opinions are propounded outside, particularly in the quality press. I have in mind the article of Anatole Kaletsky in The Times, which said:
The conflict between Britain's domestic economic needs and the disciplines of the ERM will grow steadily worse.
That is the analysis of a man—I have not the faintest idea of his politics—who believes that, if a country joins at the wrong parity, it does not naturally resolve itself. If anything, it will be compounded through time.
My simple message to the Treasury Bench is that this nation is enduring a considerable recession in manufacturing industry—a recession that is spreading to most parts of the economy. We do ourselves no credit to talk about it in terms of something that will be short or shallow. Remedial action should come sooner rather than later. One of the most obvious forms of remedial action is to lower interest rates. Inasmuch as that is also an action necessary to rectify some of the imbalance that is implicit in exchange rate mechanism membership, the sooner it is undertaken the better.
One of the interesting aspects of the House of Commons is the rejuvenation of Members when they leave office. The speech of the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) showed the beneficial effects of throwing off the cares of office. The Leader of the House will be delighted by that speech, because when the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North spoke as a Minister—he was a very good Minister—he did not make stimulating or inspiring speeches because, as Leader of the House, he could not do so. He now has the freedom of the Back Benches and holds the interest of the House.
Another interesting aspect of the House is that, although hon. Members are prepared to listen to such reviews of national issues, they are also prepared to listen to issues that affect small numbers of people. I ask the House not to adjourn until we have discussed four separate groups of disabled people who are neglected. The first is a group of severely disabled people who are recipients of the independent living fund. They need the money from that fund to keep out of institutions. The independent living fund enables these people to maintain their independence and their dignity. Without it, they will be forced into long-term residential care, at great cost to the state.
The Government have threatened to wind up the independent living fund in 1993. They say that responsibility for the payment of the fund will pass to local authorities, but that is a sacrilege, because we all know that most local authorities cannot be bothered to help disabled people. Many others have competing claims on their resources.
There are some good local authorities, but there are plenty of very bad ones that are indifferent to the needs of disabled people. Some local authorities will spend money on fancy bypasses and on all kinds of popular projects rather than on helping disabled people. We know that that will happen and that the result will be catastrophic for severely disabled people.
Some severely disabled people receive large amounts from the fund to keep them out of hospital. Mr. J, for example, who lives in Shropshire, is paralysed from the neck down and receives £400 a week from the fund. Before the introduction of the ILF he was cared for by his 82-year-old mother. That man will not be allowed such independence and dignity if that money is withdrawn. If the local authority cannot, or will not, pay, he will be incarcerated in an institution.
The Select Committee on Social Services believes that the ILF should become a statutory body, and nearly all organisations that represent disabled people believe that it should be preserved. The all-party disablement group has insisted that it should be preserved. I hope that the Government will think again and will not abolish it.
The second group of severely disabled people for whom I am concerned are those affected by discrimination. In the past, the House has debated the need for such anti-discrimination legislation, but the Government claim that there is insufficient evidence of discrimination against disabled people—what nonsense. Anyone who is severely disabled could tell Ministers that, every day of their lives, they experience gross and vindictive discrimination. Some of that discrimination is unthinking, but every day severely disabled people are confronted with it.
Some disabled people are not allowed to go into the pubs of their choice. Others are denied access to various buildings. Some cannot go to seaside resorts and some are denied jobs. Every day those people are hit, and hit again, by such discrimination. Although we do not see it in the House, it exists. We should deal with it because it is scandalous if someone is denied a job because he is in a wheelchair, he has an artificial limb or he is deaf or blind.
For the past two years, the Government have reviewed employment opportunities for disabled people. However, they have never discussed that review with those organisations that represent disabled people. The Government should take far more notice of the opinion of disabled people and their organisations. We have legislation to combat discrimination on the grounds of sex and race, and such legislation is badly needed to combat discrimination against disabled people—that is certainly the opinion of disabled people and their representative organisations.
The Governments of Germany, Belgium, Greece, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal have introduced legislation to combat discrimination against the disabled. If they can find the time and the good will to introduce legislation to outlaw discrimination against disabled people, why cannot we? In the United States, a marvellous new Bill has been passed to give new rights to disabled people covering a range of matters, which states that employers cannot discriminate against disabled people. I wish that we had led the way, but at least we could follow the Americans and the Europeans.
The third group of people to whom I want to draw to the attention of the House are those service men who have been disabled through negligence. The House will recall the campaign that was conducted a few years ago to allow service men to sue when they had been disabled as a result of negligence. Three years ago, no ex-service man or acting service man could sue for negligence, because section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947 prevented such actions.
I was proud to take part in the campaign on behalf of those service men. We fought the Ministry of Defence, who argued that it could not allow service men to sue the MOD as that would be bad for discipline, it would upset people and, in any case, the negligence could not be proved. For that reason we fought our campaign, and fighting with me were many disabled ex-service men in wheelchairs—I could name them, but I do not want to detain the House.
After two years, the MOD gave way and said that it would repeal section 10 of the 1947 Act so that service men would be allowed to sue for negligence. That was fine. At that time, the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) introduced the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Bill, and he helped us wonderfully. As a result, the Government changed their mind and service men can now sue for negligence. When the Bill was enacted, however, the Government said that they were not prepared to allow those people who had campaigned in the past to sue for negligence. They were not prepared to make the Bill retrospective, but that was an anomalous act on the part of the Government. Those men who had campaigned with me were loyal ex-service men who loved the services, but they have been denied the right to sue for negligence.
I have given the MOD example after example of retrospective legislation. For example, there were some in 1532, as well as some in 1987 as a result of the Local Government Act. I believe that the legislation should be retrospective to enable those ex-service men to sue for negligence. If that is not possible—I am trying to be reasonable—why can the Government not give those people an ex gratia payment if they can prove that they were disabled through negligence? That is all I am asking.
I have raised that issue tonight because we have a new Prime Minister. When I put this problem to the former Prime Minister, I included a number of proposals to enable an ex gratia payment to be made—there are not many people involved. The right hon. Lady said that she was not prepared to consider that, because of practical difficulties. In response, I proposed a number of compromises to limit the numbers involved, so that only those who had evidence to prove that they had been maimed through negligence could claim.
All those suggestions were turned down. I hope that the Leader of the House will ask the new Prime Minister to review the issue—that is all I am asking. Those loyal ex-service men have a powerful case and they deserve to be considered.
I have spoken for too long, but I want to spend just a couple of minutes on a group for whom I have campaigned for the past 25 years—nuclear test veterans. The Government have refused to allow them compensation on the basis of lack of evidence that they have suffered from radiation. The Government's stand is preposterous. They refused to move on haemophiliacs who have been infected by contaminated blood, but they then changed their mind. Similarly, they have refused to act on nuclear test veterans, but, sooner or later, I am sure that they will change their mind.
The essence of my case is this. British ex-service men suffered the effects of radiation in the nuclear tests 40 years ago, and they have been suffering ever since. How can the Government deny that they suffered radiation damage? The United States Government looked into the matter for their ex-service men. They found that radiation damage was proved and they are paying for 13 cancers caused by radiation to their ex-service men suffering from radiation to which they were exposed at the tests.
What is the difference between American soldiers and British soldiers? Their bodies are the same. The nuclear tests were the same. The radiation was the same. What is the difference? The difference is solely in the Governments' attitudes. That is all that I wish to say. It is a simple, strong, powerful and moving case.
I ask the Leader of the House to take on board the issues that I have raised. I do not expect answers or solutions from him tonight. He has a difficult job. However, if he passes my comments on to the Ministers responsible and to the Prime Minister, and if the Prime Minister will review the matter which I raised, perhaps we could start the ball rolling. I have made reasonable points. Severly disabled people should simply be given a fair chance.
The right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) is a well-known champion of disabled people. I have a good deal of sympathy with the points that he made about discrimination against disabled people. Many disabled people live lives of great heroism in their attempts to carry on normally at home and at work. It is up to all of us to give them as much support as possible.
I wish to speak about planning laws and their impact on a country such as ours at this late stage of the 20th century. We sometimes forget that we are basically a small, overcrowded island. I represent the part known as mid-Warwickshire, which is the very heart of England. Yet it is only 100 miles from this Chamber. My comments inevitably sound parochial, but they refer to problems that are replicated in a hundred and one places throughout the United Kingdom.
There are considerable environmental pressures on all of us. Many greedy developers, given the chance, would concrete over the whole of the west midlands or the south of England without any worry, if an enormous profit was to be made out of it. My county of Warwickshire is one of the smallest in the country. The latest structure plan decrees that there will be about 37,000 new houses in the county by the turn of the century, of which 9,000 will be in my constituency. That has given rise to a great deal of anxiety among residents. In addition, further industrial development is promised. We already have a surfeit of technology parks—the polite way of referring to industrial sites—and more are apparently planned. Many of my constituents believe that those plans are too expansive. I urge the Secretary of State for the Environment to limit the structure plan and I hope that he will take that on board. I and many of my constituents have been in correspondence with him.
With the advent of the M40—which will come on stream between Birmingham and London as early as next month—my constituency will be between two motorways. On the other side we have the M1. Our communications makes us an extremely desirable area. Like the rest of the country we need housing and jobs. There are constant references to that need in the House. But jobs and houses should not be to the exclusion of everything else. When green areas are finally breached, they have gone for ever. There is no way of getting them back.
The quality of life is not merely the provision of reasonable accommodation for everyone. The environment in which one lives is also of paramount importance. Compared with that of many countries, our environment is still unique. It is green and pleasant and it attracts many people. What is why so many people from abroad wish to retire here.
Another threat to which the Department of the Environment should address itself is that of mineral extraction. It is linked to what I have already said about planning. In Britain we have strong laws which demand that there should be sand and gravel extraction and that counties should maintain their quotas. I submit that the quotas and the law are in urgent need of drastic revision. Wide areas of desirable countryside are being torn up for sand and gravel. Currently there are three sites in my constituency. The landscape will be severely scarred for many years as a result of the operations.
Surveys carried out throughout the county of Warwickshire reveal a veritable "sea" of sand and gravel deposits, the extraction of which will threaten the entire county with environmental hazards for decades to come. The stipulated quotas are unrealistic and need revision. More sand and gravel should be imported into Britain and a better system should be established to move it round the country from extraction sites where the environment is not an issue. We cannot continue despoiling the best parts of the country purely to extract sand and gravel.
My third point about planning is that the Department of the Environment needs to revise its overall planning policies, particularly in crowded and desirable areas such as the one which I am fortunate enough to represent. In a recent local planning dispute, I sided with the residents, but they were overruled by the district council. There are no politics in my point because it is a Conservative council. The chief officer of the council subsequently wrote to me stating:
Planning committees are faced with the situation that planning legislation has made it clear that there is a presumption in favour of granting planning applications, unless there are planning reasons why applications should not be granted.
That was not terribly well put, but we get the message. In other words, he says that the objectors are guilty until they
can prove themselves innocent. The assumption is against them right from the start. Unless they have a very good case, they will lose. Many of us have not taken that on board sufficiently. As we are all aware, planning applications arrive at the offices of our councils every day. It is just not good enough.
Every developer has an automatic right of appeal if he is turned down by a local authority, and frequently he has the decision reversed. Over the years, his persistence is often relentless. He comes back time and again, the residents are harassed and eventually the local council gives in. Yet when the decision goes against the local residents, they have no right of appeal. I have believed for a long time that in specific circumstances a right of appeal should be open to the individual, particularly in areas where there may be considerable changes.
Unless we attend to the matters that I have mentioned and seek to obtain a genuine balance, future generations will look upon us as philistines who ruined a uniquely pleasant land and made it into an ugly and dreary one. These matters affect every hon. Member, and we must constantly and vigilantly press them with the Department of the Environment.
The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith) spoke from the centre of the nation. I speak from its periphery, and with some hesitancy. The announcement by the Leader of the House of the dates for the Christmas recess was received with glee because we were to have a prolonged holiday. If I oppose the motion for the Christmas Adjournment, to put on record some of the issues about which I am concerned, I may cause the wrath of the House to fall upon me.
Our constituents will be glad to hear that hon. Members agree with them on occasion. If they think that it is a holiday, let them bask in the summertime of Christmas discontent.
The right hon. Members for Shropshire, North (M r. Biffen) and for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) did not give me a great deal of hope that my points will be answered tonight, but I shall press them none the less. The House will well understand that during Advent—the season in which we turn our thoughts to hopes of peace and festivity—the people of Northern Ireland will be focusing their thoughts on the security situation, but it is not to that point that I wish to direct my attention. The Leader of the House will not be at all surprised if I bring before the House the problem of the non-establishment of a Northern Ireland Select Committee.
I recognise that descendents of Herod Agrippa abound in Northern Ireland; in that part of the nation, the slaughter of the innocents tragically continues unabated. While others say that a security situation cannot be found, I claim that a security solution alone cannot be found and that we must have a political solution. If we are to find that solution and for the good governance of Northern Ireland, we need a Select Committee, even if that is only one aspect of the political solution.
For 50 years, Northern Ireland had a devolved regional Parliament, given to it and kept at arm's length by this House. We were unaware of what was going on in Northern Ireland. The day-to-day responsibilities of Northern Ireland were not the affairs of this Parliament. In my view, no matter how wisely that Parliament may have governed, that was a mistake. But for the past 18 years, an even greater mistake has been made to the detriment of the people of Northern Ireland. Irrespective of the wisdom, integrity and ability—or otherwise—of Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office, scrutiny of the expenditure policy and administration of the Northern Ireland Office and its associated public bodies has been hopelessly inadequate.
The role of local government has been reduced to a charade. That has encouraged councillors to spend their time on business not strictly pertaining to local government, not to mention their limited role in the supervision of parks, leisure facilities, cemeteries and refuse collection.
I have tried unsuccessfully to find out why successive Governments have failed to abide by the rules of the House which require scrutiny by Select Committees of major Government Departments. Northern Ireland Members are willing to serve and, unlike others, have not objected to Members for English constituencies sitting on a Northern Ireland Select Committee.
In 1978, the Procedure Committee recommended that there should be a Northern Ireland Select Committee and the 1979 Conservative manifesto—the basis of the Government's mandate—contained a pledge to move forward in restoring democracy to Northern Ireland. This year, the Procedure Committee again sought to set up a Select Committee.
I can understand the Northern Ireland Office, or indeed any Government Department, being glad not to have a Select Committee breathing down its neck, but that does not excuse the House for not establishing such a Committee.
The former Leader of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe), and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland rejected the instructions of the Procedure Committee as "inopportune" at a time of sensitive negotiations. Likewise, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), who rarely graces this place with his presence, opposed it. I cannot understand why any negotiations should impede the ability of this House to scrutinise a Department of Government. The clue to such opposition is perhaps to be found in the reported remark of an official to the late Airey Neave to the effect that the Government could not deliver on the 1979 manifesto because of a commitment given to Dublin. What was that commitment, who gave it and with what authority?
As far as I can see, the tardiness in establishing the Committee has nothing to do with the possibility of a devolved Government in Northern Ireland. Unless such a Government were given independent status, there must be a role for the House in scrutinising the affairs of the Northern Ireland Office.
Moreover, to the best of my knowledge, there has been no suggestion that the Northern Ireland Office will cease to exist in the foreseeable future. That means that unless we are to send Northern Ireland into limbo—as we did in 1921—there must be scrutiny by the House of Commons. At the very least, such scrutiny would still be required in respect of reserved matters, even if transferred matters went back to a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland.
The recent report of the Select Committee on the Environment reinforces the need for such a Committee. It recommended that another quango should be set up to look after environmental issues in Northern Ireland. Who will supervise that quango? Those appointed by a Department whose affairs are not scrutinised by the House.
The establishment of a Select Committee is long overdue. There must be no more hastening slowly by a Government who appear to drift rather than direct on Northern Ireland matters. In my opinion, such a move would be a clear signal to those who practise the politics of violence that they cannot succeed. In a democracy, the Government must hearken to and heed the voice of the ballot box. They dare not continue to dance to the whine of the bullet and the blast of the bomb. Politics must prevail so that semtex cannot succeed.
I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Smyth) who told us of his trepidation in speaking against the motion for the Christmas Adjournment. I am happy to speak in favour of that motion because it will give the Government more time to think about and—it is to be hoped—find a solution to the problem that I am about to lay at their doorstep. It is a problem with a major impact on my constituency and an important relevance for the country—the future of the bloodstock breeding industry. The House will be aware that Newmarket is the centre of British racing. In and around my constituency the stud farms contribute substantially to Britain's economy and balance of payments, but they are facing major problems.
Britain is the world leader in breeding quality bloodstock. Although the New Zealanders, Americans and Irish all produce a number of good-quality horses, Britain is recognised as the leading nation in breeding. Last year, the turnover in British auction rings was about £116 million, of which £96 million was from one well-known company, Tattersall's, which has headquarters at Newmarket. It is estimated that £80 million of the £116 million came from foreign buyers and so attracted foreign resources into this country. There are massive private sales, particularly when horses have finished their racing days and are put out to stud as brood mares or stallions. We all know the telephone number prices for which stallions are often syndicated.
There is an estimated £200 million-worth of overseas earnings from the sale of bloodstock from this country every year—that figure is a few years out of date and the sum may be substantially more. In addition, 13,000 people are employed directly in breeding bloodstock and it is believed that there are another 4,000 jobs in the ancillary industries. The Thoroughbred Breeders Association, which represents the industry, has 2,000 members. It is an important industry. Some people will say that it is for the wealthy such as Arabs, but I emphasise, first, that that is not necessarily the case. Many people involved in breeding bloodstock are not in that category; secondly, that argument is irrelevant. I am talking about the industry's future and the economic benefits that it brings to this country which are now under severe threat.
From 1 January 1991, Ireland's exemption under the value added tax rules of the Community's sixth directive disappears and there will be major changes in the VAT rules as they affect bloodstock sales from the Community. That means that from 1 January, the VAT rates in the major bloodstock countries of Europe will be as follows: Italy, 9 per cent.; Germany, 7 per cent.; France, 5·5 per cent.; Ireland, 2·3 per cent.; and in the United Kingdom, 15 per cent. The VAT will be charged at the point of sale.
Tattersall's, which has £96 million-worth of turnover in this country, has already opened a new sale ring and associated facilities in Ireland. It now expects to move all its operations from Newmarket to Ireland during the next year or so unless my plea to the Government is recognised and action taken. It will inevitably mean that the breeders will follow the sale ring, for the simple reason that it is far better to breed the stock close to where it will be sold than to have the massive expense of transporting it from Cambridgeshire and the other important breeding districts in this country across to Ireland for sale.
In addition, the Irish are keen to attract British breeders to go over there. The worst estimates are that about half the jobs in the Newmarket region could be lost if that were to happen. The net effect of that would be that the VAT income to this country would be lost because the industry would have gone to Ireland and the ancillary tax benefits of income tax, corporation tax and other general taxation revenues that the Government receive from the industry would disappear.
The Government's policy is, first and foremost, that they have tried to find a solution. The breeders had a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder) when he was Paymaster General; he recognised their arguments they put and offered his sympathy and help wherever possible. I know that the Government are looking at the problem, but we keep hearing rumours that it will not be easy to solve. My purpose in raising the subject today is to try to add further encouragement and stiffen the backbone of those who might be prepared to give up and say that they cannot find a solution. For many years the Government have offered export concessions so that a horse can be raced in this country for two years before being exported without incurring VAT problems. I understand that that concession would also disappear.
Another aspect of Government policy is their approach to VAT taxation after 1992. It is a totally market-based approach, but I also know that they believe that there should be no extra VAT rates other than the current 15 per cent. and zero rate. I totally support the Government's market-based approach. Imposed harmonisation of tax rates from Brussels would be ludicrous, and we should not move towards that. The market-based approach means the market will respond to VAT disadvantages. That is precisely what we believe will happen in the bloodstock industry. It will move to Ireland because of the VAT disadvantages that we should have in this country—that is simply the market working.
But the logic of such an argument is that, in response to that, a Government who find rates so uncompetitive should take voluntary action to bring their rates into line so that their industry is not at such a disadvantage and is not decimated. I support that principle, which reflects the principles on which the Government have addressed the problem of tax harmonisation in Europe. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk, when he was Paymaster General and my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mrs. Shephard), the Treasury Minister who has taken over responsibility for the matter, are sympathetic to that.
The proper solution to the problem is to reclassify the horse as an agricultural animal. That may seem a simplistic answer, but it should be properly examined. When the EC and the treaty were originally devised, it was undoubtedly the intention of those involved that the horse should be an agricultural animal. Annexes A and B of the sixth directive, both of which specify farming activities, were intended to include bloodstock. Annex C of the directive, which relates to common methods of calculating VAT for agriculture, specifically includes equines under the heading of agricultural products. Therefore, there is a sound basis in Community and VAT law for classifying the horses as a agricultural animal.
There are possible objections, and it would be a foolish person who did not recognise and counter them. The first is the cost to the Government of reducing VAT from 15 per cent. to zero, but we shall lose that income anyway. It is difficult to be absolutely precise about the actual amount—it is about £10 million to £12 million VAT a year on those sales. We have a precise sales figure, but not a precise VAT figure, because there are concessions and registered people who can reclaim VAT. That money will be lost anyway, so it is not as though the Treasury must forgo it.
The second possible objection to that solution may come from the Department of Environment because it would mean that in future all horse establishments would benefit under the business rate from the same exemptions as apply to agriculture. That is peanuts. Equine establishments' business rates are minuscule when set against all the business rates raised in this country. Set against the massive loss of jobs and the general taxation of industry, their contribution becomes insignificant. There may also be objections in the context of planning by the Department of the Environment, but as agricultural exemptions are reduced in number—the Government propose to reduce them still further—the differentiation bears little close scrutiny.
There will also be implications for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. As Parliamentary Private Secretary to a Minister in that Department I must not comment on that except to say that in my view none of the problems that would be presented is insuperable.
I ask my right hon. Friend, who I know takes a close interest in these matters, and particularly in this sector of rural activity, to recognise that this is a matter of grave importance to a vital industry. Unless we voluntarily recognise the impact of this country's tax disadvantage we shall lose that industry and its economic benefits and jobs, and we shall lose the prestige that we have gained for the best bloodstock breeding in the world. I hope that, between now and when we reconvene after Christmas, the Government will think again about a solution and preferably adopt the one that I have advocated.
My purpose is to draw attention to the need for Newport, Gwent, to be granted city status, especially in view of its growing economic, social and cultural importance in Wales.
In March 1991, I will have represented Newport in this House for 25 years—a great honour and privilege. It is a town with a population of about 130,000. It is on the eastern seaboard of Wales, and that favourable geographic position has helped to make it an important centre of commerce, industry and communications. The progress of the town has been helped by an enlightened borough council. Major inward investment has enabled the industrial base to be diversified. Private sector investments in the pipeline now exceed £600 million.
A wide range of local, national and international companies have achieved success in Newport. They include A. B. Electronics, Inmos, Standard Telephones and Cables, Monsanto Chemicals, Marconi, Alcan, IMI Santons, the Avana confectionery group, J. Compton Sons and Webb, an important textile organisation, and Crompton Parkinson, a battery manufacturer. Newport remains a major centre for the steel industry, personified by the great Llanwern works.
Public and commercial confidence in the borough has been further advanced in recent years, with several major inward investments, including the Trustee Savings bank, the Patent Office, Panasonic, Newbridge Networks and Bisley Office Equipment. The town is also the centre for the administration of justice in Gwent; Crown, county and magistrates courts are all there. The business statistics office provides central Government with most of its trade and industry statistics, and the passport office serves about one third of Britain. It is my contention that conferring city status would help maintain the momentum of this considerable progress.
Newport has an enviable position in this country's communications network. The M4 and M5 link Newport with London and the midlands. The town has main rail routes to London, the midlands and north and west Wales. On the InterCity express, London is a mere one and a half hours away. Newport docks can accommodate vessels of up to 40,000 tonnes deadweight and they provide a worldwide import and export facility.
Newport has long been established as the commercial and retail centre for the whole of Gwent and major new developments in this area are under way.
The Newport centre provides one of the finest leisure, entertainment and conference centres in Britain. As part of the town's economic development strategy, £43 million is committed to the regeneration of the Usk river front, with a view to realising commercial, leisure and residential development opportunities.
An unusual feature of the Newport skyline is the giant transporter bridge. It is basically a suspended ferry and there is only one other bridge like it in the whole of Britain. Newport boasts a first-class museum, art gallery and central library. Tredegar house is a magnificent example of a 17th century country mansion. Two years ago it provided the site for the royal national eisteddfod of Wales. That event proved to be one of the most successful examples of this great annual national festival, which has been held for many years.
Newport has actively fostered international links. It is twinned with Heidenheim in Germany, with the city of Wuzhou in the Peoples Republic of China and with Kutaisi in the Georgian republic of the USSR.
I have tried to give a brief outline of present-day Newport, but it has a long and colourful history which can be traced from the sites of ancient Celtic settlements through the occupation by the Romans, who built the headquarters of their second Augustan legion at Caerleon. Under the Normans, Gwynllwg, the forerunner of Newport, flourished as a port and market town. A major castle was constructed early in the 12th century to defend the crossing point over the River Usk. The castle became the centre of the lordship and traders settled close to its walls for protection, thus founding Novus Burgus, or New Town, which later became Newport.
Unfortunately, during the uprising of Owain Glyndwr in 1402, much damage was done to some of the principal buildings. Nevertheless, the borough's first charter had been granted in 1385 and the title of mayor was adopted in 1476. Newport's cathedral, St Wooles, stands on the site of St. Gwynllyw's church, which was established in 500 AD. It was designated a cathedral in 1921 on the creation of the diocese of Monmouth.
One of the most notable events in Newport's history was the Chartist uprising in 1839. It was led by John Frost, a former mayor of the town, and the Chartists marched down Stow hill fighting for their right to vote and protesting about the desperate economic and social conditions of the time. My predecessor, the late Sir Frank Soskice, a former Home Secretary, was so impressed by the event that when he retired from the House he took the title Lord Stow Hill. Last year the borough celebrated the 150th anniversary of the uprising and the town's central shopping centre has been named John Frost square.
In the 19th century, Newport grew rapidly and its port flourished, exporting millions of tonnes of coal mined in the valleys of Gwent. The town also became a major centre for the steel industry, which it still is, but now its industrial structure has been diversified and it has a much larger industrial base. My case has the full backing of Newport borough council, which, within the last few days, officially communicated its view to the Secretary of State for Wales.
As the other Member who has the honour to represent the town of Newport, I congratulate my hon. Friend on initiating this debate. Does he think that the excuse that has been given in the past for not allowing Newport the status of a city is likely to be repeated? Does he accept the excuse that it must be tied to a certain royal occasion?
I hope that our application will be favourably considered and that our request will be granted. It has not escaped my notice that the Home Secretary has to make the official recommendation to Her Majesty the Queen and that he is a true son of Newport.
I trust that the House will soon authorise the construction of the second Severn crossing at Caldicot, in my constituency. The whole area is to undergo vast development to coincide with the major changes in 1992 in the trading arrangements of the European Community. In that year, Her Majesty the Queen will celebrate the 40th anniversary of her accession to the throne, and on such occasions honours of the kind sought by Newport tend to be conferred.
Wales has three cities: Cardiff, Swansea and the tiny cathedral city of St. David's. The granting of city status to Newport would give a new dignity and status to Newport and to the whole county of Gwent and it would help to ensure future prosperity. I trust that my request and that of Newport borough council, backed by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), will be favourably considered and that the Leader of the House will bring the matter to the attention of the Home Secretary and of the Secretary of State for Wales.
Before the end of the debate on the Adjournment, I should like to share with the House some of my anxieties. Having listened to the speech by the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) I have no anxieties about the future of Newport because it is clearly in extremely good hands. My anxieties relate directly to the hospital service, which appears to be in the process of significant reduction, not only over the immediate Christmas period but well into the new year.
I know that many hon. Members have received representations from doctors and nurses in their constituencies, and I should like to share with the House some of the representations that I have had from my part of the world, south Hampshire. I shall start with representations from Southampton and South West Hampshire health authority which is, of course, a teaching authority. The consultant in charge of the intensive care unit at Southampton general hospital states:
I am writing to express deep concern about the effects that current Government policies are having on health care provision in Southampton. My particular worry is the inadequate provision of intensive care facilities. This has been a longstanding problem locally, but has reached crisis proportions with managers having to balance their books by the 1st April deadline.
A leading geriatric hospital in my constituency has a team of some of the best psycho-geriatricians in the country. In a letter to me it said:
The staffing levels on our long stay wards cannot now function safely, let alone achieve quality standards, above 75 per cent. occupancy … This places more strain on the community end of the service in which the only elasticity is by consultants and community psychiatric nurses working even longer hours.
Some major work of national and international importance is taking place in our admirable paediatrics department. The director of that service states:
For the first time in the Children's Service in Southampton's history, waiting lists will rapidly generate, particularly for Paediatric surgery. Disillusionment and anger, at all the levels of staff, are already running at a high level and these manoeuvres will accentuate that.
Representations that I have had from Winchester at the other end of my constituency tell a similar story. Any hon. Member who thinks that we in south Hampshire are particularly unlucky or that the two districts from which I quoted are ill-managed should look at the latest report from the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts which expresses great anxiety. In its report earlier this year the association warned:
At a probable 8% to 9% this year inflation will wipe out the cash increase received by the hospital and community services.
It is not easy for Back-Benchers to assess fully and fairly the various pressures bearing upon the standard of service in different parts of the national health service. A Select Committee can bring some attention to the problem
and hon. Members will agree that the old Select Committee on Social Services did that. We monitored the whole question of the financing of the national health service reasonably well and, I hope, to the satisfaction of the House.
A new Committee is to be set up and as a member of that Committee I must express my deep sense of frustration that the new Select Committee has been prevented from functioning by the blocking actions of some Scottish Liberals whose names are on the Order Paper. I understand that they feel strongly about the lack of a Select Committee on Scottish Affairs and that that has been a continuing quarrel between them and the Government. I do not have the temerity to attempt to interfere with a Scotsman, let alone a Scotswoman, who is enjoying a good quarrel, especially with the Government. However, I object strongly when that quarrel leads to the frustration of two other Select Committees, both of which are charged to oversee the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society. I am astonished that Scottish Liberals are being so mean, instead of exhibiting some Christmas spirit.
The hon. Gentleman was a loyal and faithful member of the old Committee and I hope to work with him on the new one. He is right. The conduct of the Scottish Liberals puts me in mind of the words of Rabbie Burns:
Naebody cares for me
I care for naebody".
They are showing that they do not care for anybody. 1 do care, and that is why I insist that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House tells us what he intends to do to ovecome the obstruction of the Scottish Liberals. If they persist, they will be renamed the Scottish meanies. When will our two Select Committees be allowed to do their duty to the House?
As for the problems in our hospitals which give rise to my anxiety, I hope that they will be discussed during the first of our debates on the Consolidated Fund Bill, which is being initiated by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Therefore, I absolve my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House from replying to my points as I would otherwise invite him to do, because I am sure that a Minister from the Department of Health will reply to the hon. Lady. Furthermore, I trust that whoever has the honour to reply to the debate will be able to resolve our anxieties. We need a fairy godmother, not a demon king.
As a Liberal, I can partly answer for my hon. Friends, but as only partly a Scot, I probably cannot give an adequate response. In any event, the debate is about other things. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price) knows that the remedy lies not with us but with the Government. They could set up a Scottish Select Committee but have not done so and they could secure a debate on the subject any time by the arrangement of business.
The motion that we are debating will allow the House to rise from tomorrow until 14 January. If we required ourselves to stay here until the homeless were housed and the badly housed were properly housed, we might be here for quite some time. I do not think that we would be here indefinitely, because we would have solved the problem, in that a major factor is that the Government walk away from the problem of the homeless and the badly housed too often. They allow people to go on suffering.
On Saturday this week in my constituency, yet again, for the fourth time in recent years, the charity that used to be called Crisis at Christmas and is now called Crisis will open Christmas shelters and about 1,000 people will come off the streets for several days of warmth, food, general rehabilitation and reclothing. In the past few days, I have invited the Prime Minister and the newly appointed Minister for Housing and Planning to come to meet the homeless at Crisis. The Minister has accepted and will come on Monday. I welcome that. I understand that the Prime Minister would like to come, but so far has been unable to arrange a time to do so. I hope that he can, even if it is on one of the few days after Christmas rather than the few days before Christmas.
If Ministers come, they will realise anew what they know in their minds and in logic, which is that we in Britain have failed thousands of people in respect of housing for far too long. This is the leading sentence in the editorial in The Times today:
The plight of the homeless is a clear test of John Major's social conscience.
It also quotes Mother Teresa, who
spoke for many when she said that the sight of people sleeping rough in Europe was, to her, worse than its counterpart in the Third World.
The Government keep on saying that they have a commitment to give everybody a decent home. The former Secretary of State for the Environment, now the chairman of the Tory party, said so only a year ago, but the figures get worse. There are certainly 5,000 people—there may be more—who sleep rough all the time, about half in London and half elsewhere. That is a 50 per cent. increase in two years. There are certainly 43,000 people in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, put there by the 100 local authorities which have accepted liability for housing them.
Acceptances of people as homeless have doubled in the past 10 years. There are 200,000 people homeless and alone, and 300,000 people homeless and in temporary accommodation—possibly as many as 1 million. The figures rise inexorably. By that I imply that a short-term alleviation by providing hostel space for up to 1,000 people will make hardly any significant dent in that trend.
The reasons for homelessness do not change. The Library has provided me with a collection of information which confirms that, since 1979, the reasons why people become homeless have remained much the same. Some 40 per cent. do so because relatives or friends can no longer accommodate them, and 15 per cent. because of a breakdown in relationship with a partner. A growing number do so because of mortgage arrears—this doubled between 1979–89. Some 80 per cent. are accepted because there are dependent children or a pregnant woman in the household.
Over the past 10 years, we have gone on doing things that make the problem worse. We have reduced the number of new homes that we build, we have built for demand and not for need and we have not changed the planning laws as we might have done. The right-to-buy policy, which was recently criticised again by the bishops, has taken housing away from the rented sector. We have forced local authorities to hold on to capital receipts that they are willing to spend.
In the Housing Act 1988, we deregulated what were market rents and as Opposition Members, including myself, predicted, we forced rents up and thereby forced many people out of being able to afford them. Now, we do not allow social security to pay for people in expensive rented property or let them have the money that they need to pay a deposit for rented accommodation. Homelessness is rising, and the prediction made by the permanent secretary at the Department of the Environment to the Public Accounts Committee only a few days ago confirmed that it will increase by another 15 per cent. this year.
More homes are being repossessed. More were repossessed in the past six months than in the whole of the previous year. Rent increases are rising and for many people that is added to the poll tax bill. At the same time, 100,000 council properties and 600,000 private properties are empty. The Government recently said that they would prevent private leasing—a remedy that we know is cheaper than bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
I do not doubt that every single one of the 650 Members of Parliament could regale others with tales of people who come to us saying that they are without housing or badly housed. I shall cite only one example. A couple with six children—five boys aged between 5 and 14 and a baby girl —live, as they have done for 11 years, in a council flat in Walworth, a mile and a half from here. They have been trying to get out from that small substandard and damp flat. It may be that, with the last baby, they are statutorily overcrowded. They were recently offered a desquatted property, but that was subsequently resquatted and is therefore no longer available.
Tens of thousands of people are not homeless or on the streets, but are housed in conditions that a civilised society should not permit. There are remedies. It is possible to find solutions and implement them. We could repeal our vagrancy legislation. We could alter the rules that bear on the rented sector. We could prevent the poverty trap from affecting those who find themselves just above housing benefit and benefit levels generally. We could alter planning rules so that local authorities are able to insist that a certain proportion of any housing development is used to provide homes for rents at affordable levels. We could remove mortgage tax relief from those who are higher rate taxpayers and use the money for other purposes.
We could ensure that those who are without homes are able to receive social security payments in advance so that they do not have to survive for weeks without money. We could make it a requirement that empty property is let without affecting its ownership. Notice of intention to let could be served on private and local authority owners alike. We could retain private sector leasing but try to ensure that no abuses took place. We could extend our obligations to ensure that the young are housed by law rather than leaving discretion with the local authority.
Having recently returned from Germany, I ask the hon. Gentleman to agree that we need not always do what foreigners do. In every locality that I visited, however, Christian Democrat representatives—Conservatives—told me that they still insist on having a minimum number of council dwellings constructed every year to contain the various problems with which they are confronted. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that every Member of this place, no matter which constituency he represents, could do with that sort of council house construction, regardless of politics, to contain the problem? If we do not return to council house building on a modest scale, as in Germany, which is the premier capitalist colony of Europe, we are doomed never to be able to solve the problem of homelessness.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am glad that I gave way to him. He says, in effect, that none of us could dissent from the view that there is a desperate shortage of rented accommodation at affordable prices, whether that is provided directly by local authorities or indirectly through housing associations. The political argument is far less important than the housing shortage. There is a desperate shortage of rented accommodation at affordable prices throughout the country. It is not sufficient to say that the market should be left to meet the need, because it has failed to do so.
There are many European or international problems that cannot be resolved by one Government alone. The problem of housing the homeless in Britain is not one of those, however, and the Government of the United Kingdom have no excuse if they do not solve the problem, however complex the solution may be.
The Leader of the House will have read, I am sure, that young members of the Churches are beginning a vigil today on the streets of London to mark their opposition to the prospect of war in the Gulf and to show that they are in favour of peace. It is linked with the Churches' calls for prayers for peace over Christmas. People in Britain, and the Government especially, have taken a strong view about the attack that has been carried out by the Iraqi Government on the Government and people of Kuwait. It is only right that a strong view should be taken. If we as a people and a Government had at least as strong a view on the attack on the freedoms of people in this country, who we are condemning to poverty, homelessness or bad housing, we would solve the problems to which I have referred.
The young people who are participating in the vigil will voluntarily be joining on the streets many who are not there by choice. Historically, Christmas may be best celebrated by being without a home, but in a civilised and modern society the reality is that we should be able to provide everyone with one. It is about time that Parliament made sure that its Members did not go on holiday to comfortable homes until everyone else in the country had been provided with the opportunity of going safely home as well.
The plight and the condition of elderly people will worsen as the cold weather becomes colder and prices continue to rise in the shops. I pay tribute to those in my constituency who are collecting items of food, especially at the doors of supermarkets, to use to make Christmas parcels for the elderly. Many young people are involved in that charitable work and their dedication deserves special recognition.
With all the activity of the Christmas season, people are inclined to forget that our senior citizens may be having a difficult time. Some face spending Christmas day alone at home. The shops may be piled high with all sorts of delectable food but the pensioner who has only the old age pension on which to live will face the recurring problem of deciding what he or she can afford to spend on meals and other necessities. The shops may be ablaze with electric lighting, with a seemingly wanton disregard for the cost, but in the homes of the elderly there will be a cautious use of an electric fire, for example, which can quickly demand all the money which the pensioner has allocated for heating. Rarely do we hear senior citizens complaining bitterly, but their needs require more consideration than we currently give them.
Television is the only form of entertainment for many people. It provides a window through which they can observe the world at large. It provides companionship for the lonely as well as entertainment. In other words, ii is good for the morale of the elderly and the lonely, and what is good for their morale must be good for their state of health. That is why I repeat once again, and without apology, a passionate plea to the Government to provide free television licenses for pensioners.
It is imperative that pensioners should be encouraged to remain, if at all possible, in their own homes rather than removing themselves to residential homes. So long as they can fend for themselves, with adequate assistance from carers and visiting doctors and nurses, home is the best place for them. Pensioners are less likely to become disorientated if they remain in the house they know, with all their possessions, in an area they know and where they are known. This means providing more carers to look after the elderly, and that provision is vital.
It must be emphasised, however, that numerous pensioners can manage well on their own, without assistance from outside, providing that they receive sufficient money to pay for proper heating and sufficient food, but there must be something extra. They need and deserve to be treated with sympathy and understanding.
I shall refer to one example to highlight the callous way in which the elderly are sometimes treated. Last weekend, a pensioner of 69 years of age appealed to me for help. The lady, who lives alone, was feeling desperate. In my opinion, she had every right to be distraught. She lives in an old cottage where she was born. Her 69 years have been spent in that cottage, her only home. Until her father's death, he had worked on the estate of which the cottage is part. The cottage was provided for him, his wife and his daughter. When he died, about 20 years ago, the agent for the trustees of the estate made an offer to his daughter that she could dispense with paying rent if she accepted responsibility for all repairs to the cottage.
I think that that was a deliberately astute move on the part of the landlord. It was made to avoid the landlord accepting rent and to burden my constituent with the cost of repairs which she could never hope to meet. When the move was made, the cottage was already very old and sub-standard. It was in acute need of extensive renovation work. The lady was unable to pay for major repairs. If the agents had accepted rent, it would have been extremely low in view of the condition of the cottage. If they had accepted rent, the lady should have gone to the trustees to force them to make the cottage satisfy minimum standards.
I shall describe the cottage. It has no kitchen. There is a cooker sitting in the living room. There is no supply of water in the cottage. There is no tap, either inside or outside. There is no bathroom and no lavatory, either inside or outside the cottage, other than an old earth closet. No work has been carried out on the cottage since it was built in the last century. Presumably her father would have lost his job on the estate if he had had the temerity to complain about the conditions in the cottage. The only modern convenience is electricity, which the lady's mother had installed at her own expense.
Those matters should have been dealt with by the trustees of the estate many, many years ago. Windows and doors have rotted and need replacing; wooden floors need to be replaced; the plaster both inside and outside the cottage is cracking; and there is rising damp in all the rooms. The agents for the trustees of the estate knew about those conditions, but did nothing. They are now using them as an excuse for turning an elderly woman out of her home. Once she is out, no doubt they will sell the half acre of land in which the cottage sits, and at the cost of her misery they will make a substantial sum of money, because it is in such a beautiful setting. To her credit, the elderly lady has maintained the place to the best of her ability.
The trustees of that large estate are not interested—and, in my opinion, never were interested—in renovating the cottage. They want to get that poor lady out of the home in which she was born and in which she has lived all her life. The cottage could be renovated at a cost of about £9,000. Most of that would be funded by a grant from the Housing Executive. Instead of that, the agents for the trustees of that large estate—which is not short of a pound or two—asked the public health officer for a demolition order on the cottage.
Anyone acquainted with the case will know that the agents wanted an order so that the cottage could be demolished, and the woman would have to go somewhere else to live. They would then be free to make full use of the land. The lady has been offered a tenancy by the Housing Executive, but it is an hour's walk from the church with which she has been associated throughout her life. She has made that church the centre of her life and she is involved in all the church activities. She is an active member of the local women's institute. If she cannot attend those activities, she will feel isolated. That is disgraceful.
Where is there any sign of compassion in these sordid events? The lady has pleaded with the agents for the trustees not to take away her home. I join her in that plea in this House. I urge the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to intervene and rescind the demolition order. The trustees should be persuaded to apply for public money —they do not need to use their own money, even though they have sufficient funds—to put the cottage in order. That will allow that 69-year-old lady to spend the twilight of her years in the cottage in which she was born. Of course, in due course the trustees will be able to sell the property, so they will benefit substantially in the long term.
I think that the House listened with a great deal of sympathy to the constituency case outlined by the hon. Member for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder). We hope that there will be a happy outcome and that the Leader of the House will urgently refer the matter to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for North Down was correct to raise issues concerning the welfare of the elderly. He may know that earlier today my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) introduced a Bill—
The hon. Gentleman will have heard the arguments. He mentioned the need for free or concessionary television licences for the elderly. When I came first in the ballot, I introduced a Bill to that effect on 16 January 1987. I was willing to reach a compromise with the Government. If they had said that they would settle on half the licence fee, I would have accepted that as a first step. My Bill was voted down by 21 votes. We all saw on television Cabinet Ministers in their chauffeur-driven cars coming from only a few yards away to vote to deny the elderly free or concessionary television licences. It is argued that two thirds of pensioners—the statistics bear out the argument—live either in poverty or near it, yet the Government were not willing to give me any support. Far from it, they voted down my Bill.
Much needs to be done, including —[Interruption.] —I hope that the Leader of the House will give me his attention for a moment—urgent action on cold weather payments. As I said earlier this week, the arrangements are far too inflexible. Hon. Members should note how warm it is in the Chamber and how we all try to keep our homes warm. It may not be freezing, but it is cold enough to need to keep homes warm. People on low incomes are in an impossible position.
I atteneded a meeting here today called by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North. One pensioner told us that her total income was £45 a week. That is the income of many of my pensioner constituents. Of course, out of that they have to pay about £10 a week in rent. There is urgent need for a more generous cold weather payment. Even when the payment is triggered, and there are all sorts of conditions associated with that, it is only £5 a week. That is hardly generous. We must bear in mind what the hon. Member for North Down and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said about the immense suffering of elderly people on limited incomes when the weather turns really cold.
This debate was initiated by the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen), a former Leader of the House. He referred to the recession. That recession is hitting the west midlands and the black country very hard. There have been announcements in my constituency of imminent factory closures, and those will involve a great number of redundancies. We suffered a great deal 10 years ago. Many factories in the west midlands were closed, never to be reopened. Indeed, in many cases housing estates and shopping centres have been built on former industrial sites.
A number of people who were made redundant at the time have never been able to work again because of their age. As the right hon. Gentleman said, there is a justified fear that manufacturing industry will be particularly hard hit again. There is little sign that there will be any let-up in 1991. All the signs are that the recession will deepen and we may be in the same position, or close to the position that we were in 10 years ago because of Government policies. The first and most obvious need is for interest rates to be lowered.
I wish to refer to two other matters. Amnesty International published a report today on the events in Kuwait since the occupation of that country on 2 August. I do not think that anyone would be so silly as to believe that Amnesty International has some sort of bias, other than against those who are indicted in its reports. It comes as no surprise to me to learn that the Iraqi embassy in London has described the report as a fabrication. The report deals with the atrocities of the occupying forces in Kuwait, including gouging out eyes and cutting off ears.
The report says that there is evidence that 300 premature babies were left to die after Iraqi troops looted incubators in hospitals. It also goes into considerable details of other atrocities that have been carried out in the past four months. No one can be surprised about that. They have been carried out by a criminal and terrorist regime which has maintained a state of terror inside Iraq itself for the past 10 to 15 years. No one will be surprised that such atrocities followed the criminal invasion and occupation of Kuwait.
I loathe war as much as anyone else. My hatred of war is second to none. But I am not a pacifist, and the way in which war can be avoided is simple and clear—for Saddam Hussein to withdraw his troops from Kuwait by the deadline set by the United Nations Security Council.
When the House was recalled in September I said that sanctions should be given time to work. I also made the point that any partial withdrawal would be completely unacceptable. It must be unacceptable to the United Nations and the international community for Saddam Hussein to withdraw from one part of Kuwait but to remain in the rest. There can be no question of trying to save his face. There was no justification for the invasion in the first place. Only a total withdrawal from Kuwait could satisfy the international community.
The dictator and mass murderer who rules Iraq is making a grave mistake if he believes that the debate occurring in the democracies, including Britain, means that the allies are not firmly resolved. He says that he is frightened of an attack on Iraq. Again, the remedy lies in his own hands. If he withdraws by the deadline set by the United Nations, there can be no attack and no justification for any armed attack. But the withdrawal from Kuwait must take place.
The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) has aired his views, as he has every right to do, and as I am doing now, in the House of Commons and elsewhere. But when I listen to him arguing about whether the borders were correct in the first place and so on, I am rather sickened. The right hon. Gentleman is to give evidence to a Senate sub-committee in the United States. As I say, he is perfectly entitled to his views. They are shared by some people in Britain. But they are not shared by the large majority of the British people who know that what took place on 2 August was unjustified outright criminal aggression.
Much of what my hon. Friend has said would be very much at home on the lips of Conservative Back Benchers. Does he agree that there has been no testing of public opinion on the simple question of whether people want war in the present circumstances? If there was such a test, there is no guarantee that, as he says, a majority would say yes.
All the evidence confirms my point of view. I hope that my hon. Friend will reflect carefully on what he has said. Opposition to fascism and criminal agression is longstanding in the Labour movement, and one of the accusations that we have made against the Tories on numerous occasions is that when they were not instigating criminal aggression, as in Suez in 1956 in collusion with France and Israel, they were appeasing it. Therefore, I do not require any lectures from my hon. Friend.
My second point is one which must concern the House. That is the plight of the homeless and those who are not necessarily homeless but who are in great need of secure accommodation. The hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) intervened during the speech of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) to say that the crisis will never be dealt with until the Government allow local authorities to start building again; that is correct. The present housing crisis is precisely due to the fact that since 1979 local authorities have not been able to fulfil their basic housing responsibilities.
Yesterday, the Minister for Housing and Planning said that the Government remain of the view that councils should not build family housing—so much for the useful intervention of the hon. Member for Harrow, East. The Government's housing policy remains what it was under the former Prime Minister. The Minister went on to say that housing associations can do the job. I do not believe that housing associations can carry out the same full responsibilities as local authorities. In 1978, there were 20,500 housing association starts. In 1989, there were just 13,700. That shows that there has been a marked decline even in housing association starts. In 1978, there were 76,700 local authority starts and this year, up to October, there were 7,800.
There are people sleeping on our streets and it is scandalous that so many families are forced to live in squalid bed-and-breakfast hostels. There is no justification for that. But there are many other people not in that dire situation, who visit or write to their Members of Parliament—couples who live with their parents or in-laws or people living in multi-storey flats who, even with two children, still have to wait far too long.
The remedy is clear. Local authorities should be able to do the job that they did until the Government took office. I beg the Government to recognise that the problem simply cannot be resolved until local authorities are once again allowed to do what they cannot do now. In my borough, because of Government restrictions, there have been no new local authority housing starts since 1979. If we are really worried about housing, we know where the remedy lies.
I hope that the House will agree that it would be wrong to adjourn for the Christmas recess without a further mention of sea defence and coastal protection, particularly in the light of the terrifying floods, the tides, the chilling flood warnings, the damage and the road closures that the Suffolk and Norfolk coasts suffered last week. We expect winter to give us a battering, but this winter it came early and with a vengeance that we have not felt for some time.
When Towyn was engulfed by the sea, it was only the direction of the wind that spared east Anglia. Last Wednesday's high tides were marked by those who remember the 1953 floods as very nearly as bad. It will be remembered that in England and Holland in 1953 some 2,000 people died.
I pay tribute to the people in Southwold, Easton Bavents, Oulton Broad, Lowestoft, Beccles and elsewhere in my constituency and in other parts of Suffolk and Norfolk who were evacuated, flooded, suffered damage and inconvenience and generally suffered loss of all kinds, save only death on this occasion. I also pay tribute to the officials of Waveney district council, the National Rivers Authority and the emergency services.
If I could give my remarks a title of my own choosing for tomorrow's Hansard, it would be "This Vulnerable Coast"—like the White Paper "This Common Inheritance", but without the glossy paper.
Those of us who live on the coast of east Anglia have always lived with the threat of the sea. Over the years the battle has generally been lost and substantial parts have gone for ever. Dunwich, that infamous rotten borough, sent two Members to the House until 1932, even though most of it had even then been washed into the North sea.
What is most feared is the storm surge. A surge in the North sea is caused when the weather upsets the normal pattern of tides. A northerly gale blowing across the surface of the sea tries to take the water with it, or lower atmospheric pressure in a severe depression draws up the water, and a wind-driven current piles up a massive sea. The curved rotation of the earth curves the current. It is funnelled by the shape and depth of the North sea, and when that continuous wall of angry water hits the coast square on we are in trouble. Most sea defences are built for the higher spring tides and do not usually cater for freak conditions—and the surge is a freak.
Some experts have argued that we can expect devastating surges once every 25 years, but the scientific evidence for that is flimsy. Reports published only last weekend suggest that the North sea is getting rougher, which may be due to global warming. Wave increases of more than 20 per cent. in the past 30 years have been measured in the Atlantic, and the North sea is now being studied. Computers and experts should be able to give us better predictions soon of storm surge dangers.
What do those predictions count for? We still have, in the main, defences that are coming to the end of their useful lives. In fairness, most have held up fairly well so far. My observations have been made many times previously in the House, by other right hon. and hon. Members—and twice this year alone. I have spoken about that worrying matter.
On both occasions, I raised the specific case of the hamlet of Easton Bavents, which is north of Southwold. Waveney district council this year refused planning permission for a scheme that would have secured the cliff, putting forward cost and environmental objections. Neither the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food nor the Department of the Environment could, or would, step in.
The cost argument remained on the table, but the environmental argument was wider. Do we as a nation want part of our coasts to erode naturally? If so, which parts—and how do we draw a line and defend other parts of our coasts? I am sorry to report that, following last week's weather, last Friday morning I stood and watched as an end cottage was demolished before it toppled on to the beach below. It was a holiday home, but the next property under sentence of death from the district council, before it meets the cliff edge, is the home of Mr. and Mrs. Liddell, who retired there two years ago. They had been evacuated to a council house in Reydon and are shattered. They had invested all their life savings in their property, having also been told that the house would, with a scheme below it, be good for 40 years. They have agreed to the property being demolished, and I understand that the council began that work this afternoon.
More houses will share the same fate, and if enough of that sand cliff goes, the sea will break right through to lower land behind, outflanking the Southwold sea wall. Southwold would then become an island, Reydon would be exposed to danger, and marshes would be lost under salt water. Will the National Rivers Authority have stepped in by then to lengthen its Southwold sea wall into an area that is the responsibility of Waveney district council—or will I have to report further losses in future debates, at Kessingland, Pakefield and Corton, along my coastline? There are too many questions, and too many maybes.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is to respond to the debate, because he once had ministerial responsibility for such matters and, as a neighbouring parliamentary colleague, he is also familiar with the area in question. He will appreciate that the issue is complicated if one adds rivers and land drainage to the picture that I have painted. My right hon. Friend will know also that time is not on our side. I have pressed him before, and will do so again, for an updating of the Coast Protection Act 1949, to introduce four new provisions.
First, let us provide compensation to be built into the structure of sea defence management—as it is in planning, development and industry—so that people living in vulnerable areas and who cannot insure themselves will not lose everything. Secondly, let us provide for a national sea defence strategy for the United Kingdom that draws on local knowledge, history, expertise and authorities in devising a plan of what is economically, socially and environmentally saveable by environmentally efficient means—giving overall responsibility for that to the NRA instead of to the umpteen different bodies that currently each do a bit, or do not. Local authorities in the eastern areas are working towards that end themselves. Let us go one stage further and make such a strategy compulsory.
Thirdly, let us provide for better controls on local authorities, to prevent further developments of any kind within areas that are deemed to be vulnerable, environmentally desirable to erode, or to be defended to a smaller extent—all within the terms of the national strategy that I just mentioned. Fourthly, let us provide for a proper channel of action and response—from people on the ground to police, local authorities, and the NRA—to keep to a minimum any delays in closing roads and evacuating homes when water floods through, as it surely will, even with a national strategy.
Finally, let us examine the question of funding all that sea defence. I will quote in support of my arguments two editorials from the Eastern Daily Press. The first was published last Thursday, the morning after the storm, under the headline
Put Whitehall on flood alert.
With East Anglian coastal and riverside communities last night under siege, the issue of the financing and organisation of sea defences assumes a chilling immediacy. A £40 million programme for this part of the coast faces a cutback unless Norfolk and Suffolk county councils commit more than the inflation-linked increase they are thus far prepared to contribute.
The recently-announced doubling in annual support is a further encouraging sign that politicians are at last recognising the enormous, urgent dimensions of the flood threat around our coast. Even so, funding is below the level many experts regard as the minimum to keep existing defences in good repair, let alone develop the extensions necessary to meet new climatic threats.
The second editorial appeared on Monday, after my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food toured stricken areas in my constituency and in his own neighbouring constituency, and defended the 70 per cent. national, 30 per cent. local split of sea defence funding. That editorial reported that my right hon. Friend
cautioned critics of Britain's sea defence programmes that a balance must be struck between national and local funding. It is not clear why a small island like Britain should regard the protection of its coastline in these them-and-us terms.
My right hon. Friend commented that maritime local authorities gain from sea defence and so have an interest in them. Is the Royal Navy's defence of Britain a 30 per cent. charge on maritime local authorities? Of course not. The article concluded:
It is unreasonable to equate interest with ability to contribute almost a third to the vast capital costs. Our own preference is for the national comprehensive strategy which Mr. Gummer finds unnecessary. But even if we are to accept the system now in place, more urgency, imagination and, not least, more money are needed if Britain is to hold back the sea.
I wrote to my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State for the Environment asking him to examine the 70 per cent. to 30 per cent. split when he reviews local government finance.
No one seriously expects the dream of permanent, unbreachable sea and flood protection ever to come true, but our coastal defences can be organised in such a way as to give us more confidence that warnings can save life and keep damage to a minimum—but only if we get on with that task now.
The House will appreciate why the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Porter) raised a matter of constituency interest, but he supports a Government who were one of the slowest in the world to react to the problems of global warming, which have hastened coastal erosion. There is a rumour that the Government will disappoint many children this Christmas by imprisoning Father Christmas for non-payment of his North pole tax. Whatever the truth of that rumour, the House should not adjourn until the Government have made a commitment completely to abolish the poll tax.
I want to raise an even more serious issue—that of murder—but because it is occurring in another part of the world, it is hardly ever discussed in the House. I refer to murder in Sri Lanka, which is a deeply troubled country. In fact, it is the murder capital of the world. Atrocities occur there daily, and bodies are flowing in the rivers. I welcome Amnesty International's campaign to draw attention to the situation in that sad country, which has not been properly debated in this place for a very long time —despite the detentions, disappearances, executions and indiscriminate aerial bombing of villages that have occurred there. There have also been human rights violations on a huge scale, and civil liberties have been described as a sick joke.
All sides in the troubles have been party to that, including the Tamil Tigers, JVP, the Indian peacekeeping force and the Sri Lankan Government themselves. Regulation 55FF gave the security forces power to dispose of bodies without notifying the victims' relatives or arranging inquests. That measure has been repealed, but the practices continue.
There have been 30,000 deaths in Sri Lanka over the past seven years and a new wave of violence since the Indian peacekeeping force left at the end of March. In the north-east, about 30,000 people were forced to abandon their homes in June alone, and in August, 140 Muslims were massacred at two mosques in Batticaloa. Now the Muslims are thinking of establishing a paramilitary force in addition to all the others that exist. One Tamil Member of Parliament reports 4,000 deaths since June. We have not found time to discuss that in the House. The truth is that the Sri Lankan Government are involved in a policy of genocide, ostensibly to annihilate the Tamil Tigers. The Government's motivation is the fear that if they do not do so, there will be an army coup and they will be removed from power. In reality, they are killing millions of Tamils—a whole population is under threat.
The Sri Lankan Government were faced with a choice between genocide or a bloody military stalemate, and they have chosen genocide—both are totally unacceptable. The situation is intractable, but efforts must be made to try to get a settlement. Amnesty International is right to demand action from the United Kingdom Government, the Common Market, the United Nations and the international community.
Human rights must be a basic condition of any aid given by this country, or the Common Market, and aid should be monitored by the donor Governments to ensure that that is the case. The Sri Lankan Government should be required to work with the United Nations. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights has demanded that Sri Lanka end its sponsored terror. The army must be brought under control and told that the people responsible for the killings, to which I referred, will be made accountable. There should be fresh elections, internationally guaranteed by the UN, for the purpose of negotiating a settlement, and thereby people elected to represent the Tamils will be viewed as partners, not as enemies. A solution should be along the lines of a federal, decentralised state, but that is for negotiations to decide.
If that happened we could consider aid for development and the rehabilitation of displaced people. We should make it quite clear that there would be lots of aid for a peaceful democracy in Sri Lanka but very little—perhaps none—if the military took over.
The Home Office must also get the message. It is unacceptable for it to send refugees back to their deaths, and it is also unacceptable that it has not provided a single penny to local authorities which take in refugees and try to help them. That costs a lot of money, and it brings me back to the subject of the poll tax. That extra money is added on to the poll tax, and the Government should provide some money.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, outlining the horrors of what is happening in Sri Lanka. Does he agree that, by providing arms and military advisers, and indeed by allowing private security companies to operate in Sri Lanka, the British Government have exacerbated the situation, rather than brought us nearer to peace? Does he think that, at the very least, the Government should establish a total embargo on arms trade with Sri Lanka?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The sale of arms in such circumstances is nothing short of a scandal.
I hope that the Leader of the House will take up the issues that I have raised with the Government, so that they will take action to try to end the dreadful killings in a country which used to be known as a paradise.
Before we adjourn for the Christmas recess, I ask the House to redress an injustice to community charge payers in the borough of Gravesham. This injustice is contained in the revenue support grant settlement for 1991–92, and has continued for many years—I refer to the allocation of districts to different designations for London and fringe allowances. The revenue support grant is adjusted accordingly.
These allowances have existed for many years. Originally, they were based upon the Metropolitan police district, before the establishment of Greater London in 1965. In 1971, a distinction was made between inner and outer London, and in 1974 a network of neighbouring districts were grouped into inner and outer fringe areas. There have been no changes to those designations since 1974—they have been well and truly set in cement. The definitions are inaccurate and fundamentally unfair simply because of geography.
Gravesend is about 22 miles from Charing Cross, as the crow flies. It is the administrative centre of the borough of Gravesham, which is ruled outside of any allowance area. To clarify the injustice I could show hon. Members the pretty multi-coloured map that I have here but, as that cannot be put in Hansard, I shall try to illustrate the situation with words.
Let us circumnavigate the metropolis in an anticlockwise direction, 22 miles out from Charing Cross. Across the Thames northwards lies Thurrock, which is an outer fringe borough. To the east lies Basildon, which is some 30 miles out, and is also an outer fringe borough. They are both funded accordingly. Further round lies Brentwood, which is an outer fringe borough, Epping Forest, which is an inner fringe borough, and Harlow, which is outer fringe. We then come to the southern reaches of east Hertfordshire, an area which stretches northwards 50 miles from Charing Cross, and is classified as an outer fringe district.
Further round, we find Welwyn-Hatfield, St. Albans, Dacorum and Chiltern, which are all outer fringe districts. Next is south Buckinghamshire, which is not exactly poverty-stricken—it is considered an inner fringe area. Then we go through Surrey. The whole of that county receives fringe allowance funding, and four of its districts are funded as inner fringe areas. Even Waverley, on the borders of Hampshire, which is more than 30 miles from Charing Cross, is considered to be a fringe district. Crawley, in west Sussex, is 30 miles out and is a fringe borough.
In my county of Kent, Sevenoaks and Dartford are cosily within the fringe—Dartford is classified within the inner fringe. Gravesham, uniquely, is left out.
What effect does that have? Gravesham borough council is a well-run borough. It gives a high standard of service within a tightly controlled budget. Its effectiveness can be judged by the community charge set this year, which was £293 and compares very well with the English average of £357.
Nevertheless, Gravesham council achieves that within one of the most expensive parts of the country for housing and general living costs. The cost of housing in Gravesham is little different from that in the Kentish borough of Dartford, which is funded as an inner fringe district, and the London borough of Bexley, which receives the even better outer London allowance.
To ensure that the quality of staff is maintained, that vacancies can be competitively filled and that current staff are fairly treated, Gravesham borough council has unilaterally resolved to pay its staff the allowance. The cost has been added to community charge payers' bill.
Were Gravesham an outer fringe borough—as would seem right and proper judging by geography alone—our grant would be £300,000 higher. If we were classified as an inner fringe district, as is our neighbour Dartford, we would be £600,000 better off, which translates to £4 or £8 respectively off the community charge bills in Gravesham.
In the meantime, we are saddled with the cost, and local employees of the county council are saddled with the additional injustice of not receiving a territorial allowance in their pay. It is worth noting that teachers and other county council employees in the north-west Kent division who work in Dartford borough—at Swanscombe or Southfleet—get an inner fringe pay allowance, but those who work in education or other county services in the eastern part of the same division, at Gravesend or Northfleet, receive no allowance whatsoever.
The territorial divisions around London which I mentioned a few moments ago were introduced by the Labour Government in 1974. The present Conservative Government have corrected or rejected so much of their complicated inheritance from Labour: I hope very much that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will ensure that yet another step is taken to rid my constituents of this remaining injustice.
Order. The Front-Bench spokesmen hope to catch my eye at 7.45 pm. Three hon. Members are still rising in the hope of speaking in the current debate. I hope that they will divide the available time between them, which allows them five minutes apiece.
In fact, four hon. Members are hoping to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall therefore be brief.
The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) amazes me. He has suddenly discovered that the current local government grant system is based on stupid formulae, that the standard spending assessments are idiotic and biased against a host of authorities, and that the revenue support grant—which we were told at one time would provide 50 per cent. of local government expenditure—does nothing of the sort: it varies from 3 per cent. in one district to 98 per cent. in another, and my own authority receives only 11 per cent. Those figures were provided in the answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled, but the details were placed in the Library, so they would not be as readily available to hon. Members as they would have been if they had been published in Hansard.
Let me turn to the subject of my own speech. Two of my constituents, Ruth and Bev Smith, have adopted a mentally handicapped child from Romania. They are the only couple to have adopted a mentally handicapped child, which must hold some lessons for us. Why have not more mentally handicapped Romanian children been adopted in this country, given the amount of publicity?
The couple's position is exceptional. They already have experience of dealing with mentally handicapped children: they have a mentally handicapped child of their own, and have adopted two others. Because of that, the social services were able to deliver a first-class report. They have also been able to take advantage of a first-class special school, which is run by Derbyshire county council at Inkersall Green—and will continue to be run in the same way if the available resources are not utterly destroyed by the present Government.
The couple have been incredibly determined. They first found out about the problems in Romania in February. Bev Smith visited Romania four times, and eventually contacted me about the problems that he was experiencing with the Home Office and the Foreign Office. Those problems were then resolved, and, once the two Departments understood the nature of the problems, they provided assistance. The couple also obtained the assistance of Mencap in Chesterfield: that assistance was vastly important, because it enabled Emese—the adopted child—not to be deemed a burden on the taxpayer. The Smiths' finances were limited, and the backing of Chesterfield Mencap was therefore essential.
Given the huge amount of publicity and public concern, why is Emese the only mentally handicapped Romanian child who will spend Christmas in this country? Perhaps we should question the extent to which mentally handicapped children can be found in Romanian institutions. Emese is only five, and has made considerable progress since her arrival with the Smiths. In a letter to me, Bev Smith writes:
I must confess when I was at the Castle at Brincovevenesti it was the hardest decision that I have ever had to make. The fact that Emese grabbed me was the best thing that could have happened for her".
Masses of other children there needed help, but it was Emese who wanted to join that fine family.
The Government should consider the current arrangements in detail.
I doubt that any Christmas Adjournment debate would be complete without a speech about road safety. In the short time available, 1 want to talk about the dangers posed by motorists who drive while simultaneously holding telephones—especially those who charge along the motorway with one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding a car phone, and those who try to guide their cars around roundabouts steering with their knees or elbows because they are using one had to key in a number and the other hand to hold the dialling mechanism.
I have raised this matter a number of times. Sometimes I have been referred to the highway code, which states:
Do not use a hand held microphone or telephone handset while your vehicle is moving except in an emergency".
It is obvious to me from what I see every day that that sound advice is being flagrantly ignored—and it is only advice; it has no statutory backing.
When I have mentioned the problem to the Department of Transport, I have been told that it can be dealt with adequately by existing legislation, namely section 3 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, which covers driving without due care and attention and driving without reasonable consideration for other road users. I have also been referred to the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986, which make it an offence not to be in proper control of a vehicle.
It is true that the existing legislation provides a statutory basis for prosecutions, but that is possible only when the danger has already been caused. It tackles the problem of those who drive carelessly, but does not address itself to the reasons for that careless driving. We need measures that will prevent, or curb, the dangerous practice that may cause accidents, before those accidents happen.
All car telephones should be equipped with remote loudspeakers and microphones, so that drivers can hear and be heard without having to hold receivers to their ears. Secondly, all care telephones should have preprogrammed short-call dialling facilities or voice-activated dialling, so that drivers can make calls without having to hold the dialling mechanism in their hands or take their eyes of the road. These are very modest requirements: many car telephones already in use are already so equipped, and I think that they all should be.
It is evident from the response to my representations that the Department of Transport is not persuaded by my arguments; I predict, however, that in time it will change its mind. In the 1990s, up to 5 million car telephones are likely to be in use; if we include portable personal phones which can be used in cars, the figures will be far higher before the decade is out. That means that, for part of almost every journey, the vehicle involved will be driven with only one hand.
Another menace that looms on the horizon is the use of portable photocopiers and fax machines in motor cars. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) seems astonished, but I can inform her that the machines are positioned on the front passenger seat, and plugged into the cigarette lighter. It may be a convenient facility for a salesman or indeed a politician in a hurry, but there is also too great a temptation to operate the photocopier or fax machine while driving.
Before long, we may have television sets in motor cars. At the moment, they are confined to the back seats of luxury motor cars, but the time may come when they take their place alongside radios on the fascia boards of family motor cars. That will pose a massive threat to road safety. The Secretary of State for Transport ought to take that threat extremely seriously. I urge the Leader of the House to pass to the Secretary of State the message that road safety figures will suffer dramatically unless something is done to stamp out this menace.
It would be wrong for the House to adjourn without returning once again to the issue that faces us all. When we return here on 14 January, a war could have begun. There could be shooting in the Gulf, with nuclear weapons on one side and chemical weapons on the other. There is no defence against either form of weapons. If chemical weapons are used, dust clouds will blow a long distance and many will die as a result. If the other side decides that it has been forced into using nuclear weapons, what happened at Chernobyl will be minor compared with the consequences of their use in the Gulf. As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has pointed out on many occasions, and as he will do so later tonight, the consequences of fighter planes from Saudi Arabia flying into Kuwait and Iraq to bomb their oilfields will be catastrophic and truly horrific.
No hon. Member is an apologist for Iraq. I am not. On many occasions, I have questioned Iraq's treatment of the Kurdish people, its use of chemical weapons at A1 Malkiya in 1988, its oppression of Kurdish rights throughout northern Iraq, the imprisonment of trade unionists and the assassination of those who, over the years, have stood up for human rights in Iraq. In no sense am I an apologist for Iraq, nor do I support anything that the Iraqi regime does.
After Kuwait was invaded on 2 August, the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), who was then Prime Minister, rushed across to the United States and cobbled together an arrangement with President Bush that enabled a multinational peacekeeping force, as they called it, to go into Saudi Arabia to protect the rights of smaller nations and ensure the survival of democracy. When that happened, I thought back to what happened only a year before, when 7,000 people were bombed to death in Panama by American troops.
I remembered also the decision of the International Court of Human Rights at The Hague, which found unaminously and specifically against the United States because of its aggression against Nicaragua. I thought also about the people I had met in Central America who were maimed as a result of United States arms being poured into the region to kill people. I thought also about the United Nations resolutions that had been carried on Namibia, Palestine, Cyprus and many other issues that could not be implemented because of power of veto of the United States, or of any other member of the Security Council.
In the post-cold-war world in which we now live, is the fate of the world to be decided by the dollar power of the United States and by the industrial nations getting together to teach the rest of the world a lesson, or are we serious about searching for lasting solutions to apparently intractable conflicts? I believe strongly in the cause of peace. I believe that peace is possible in the middle east. We live in a world that is bitterly divided between north and south, between rich and poor nations, between the rich and poor within rich nations and between the rich and poor within poor nations. We live in a world where, increasingly, the poor are subsiding the rich. I do not like that. I want a world order that brings about peace.
Those who say that the only solution to the middle east and Gulf conflicts is to let slip the dogs of war on 15 January may be pleased to see United States, British, French and other troops go in and succeed in moving the borders and regaining Kuwait, even though 500,000 people may die in the process. Land will be laid waste for decades, if not permanently. However, when the fighing has stopped, the Palestinian and Kurdish problems will still be there, the lack of democracy in Kuwait, the lack of human rights in Iraq and the lack of democracy and respect for human rights in Saudi Arabia will still be there and the oppression of peoples throughout the region will still be there. The only way to achieve a genuine and lasting peace is to put on one side the colonial mentality and to start talking about the rights and self-respect of the peoples in that region.
I hope that there is no war on 15 January, or at any time. Instead of relaxing and doing nothing until we return here on 15 January, I hope that all those who are responsible for getting the troops to the area and building up war fever will, if necessary, go to Iraq, or anywhere else, so that talks can take place with the object of achieving peace in the region instead of the horrors of a chemical-nuclear war, with all its accompanying death and destruction. There is time, but not much.
It is almost impossible to respond to a debate that has been as wide-ranging as this. Hon. Members will understand if I am unable to reply to all the speeches. Some hon. Members who have left the Chamber said that they would have to do so.
The first speech was made by my neighbour, the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen). It has become a tradition that he should open Adjournment motion debates and I should make the penultimate speech. He referred to the depths of the recession. His speech will be worth reading tomorrow in Hansard. Some hon. Members referred to constituency issues; others dealt with foreign affairs; and others concentrated on social issues which at this time of the year are perhaps the most relevant.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) made a powerful constituency speech. He said that Newport ought to be awarded city status. His speech will also be worth reading. I hope, as he does, that the Home Secretary will read it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) dealt with foreign affairs. My hon. Friends the Members for Walsall, North (Winnick) and for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) made powerful speeches about international issues. I was especially moved by the description of conditions in Sri Lanka. If we are unable to spare a thought for such issues at this time of the year, when shall we?
Most hon. Members' speeches concentrated on social issues. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price) referred to hospitals; the hon. Member for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder) referred to the elderly; the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) referred to the homeless. My right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) made a powerful contribution on behalf of the disabled. In his wide-ranging speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North also referred to the homeless. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) concentrated on the rules governing adoption and its associated problems, especially those encountered if one wants to adopt mentally handicapped children. They are all relevant social issues.
I intend to deal with three completely different Christmas-new year issues, and I shall do so in ascending order of importance. We have had a momentous couple of months in politics, and we now have a new Prime Minister. Getting rid of the old Prime Minister was the culmination of the Labour party's objectives of the past 11 years. I am delighted to be able to speak on behalf of a clear majority in the House, because 226 Labour Members, the 168 Tories who did not support her and the various other parties are all glad to see the back of her.
The one memorable statement of the new Prime Minister was his commitment to a classless society. That commitment will be tested over the Christmas recess. There is already a bad omen, because one of the characteristics of the Christmas recess is the publication of the new year's honours list. In his commitment to a classless society, he made the bizarre decision of recommending the creation of a hereditary baronetcy—
The ruling gets more puzzling all the time. I thought that it was on questioning the Prime Minister specifically about that matter.
I was present at Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday. I hope that we do not return to the nonsense of hereditary titles, which would be ridiculous in the 20th century, let alone when a commitment has been made to a classless society. I hope that we bring the procedures of the House up to date so that we can question how titles are created, and I further hope that that matter is referred to the Select Committee on Procedure.
I am glad that my hon. Friend is on it.
It is ridiculous that we are unable to question this important part of prime ministerial patronage. That is not a criticism of the monarch, who simply does what is recommended. It is high time that the honours system was subject to more careful scrutiny, particularly as it was abused for political purposes by the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher).
I said that I would deal with issues in ascending order of importance. Baronetcies are not matters of major importance, but the other two subjects that I wish to raise are. We shall undoubtedly encounter bad weather during the Christmas recess. As bad weather dramatically affected the west midlands the weekend before last, I wish to refer to how the public services had to respond. Thousands of people, including many of my constituents, were without heat, power and water. My constituents in Dawley were without water for five days.
As ever, the people who find themselves at the sharp end when things go wrong are those who must go up poles and repair the wires in biting winds. They are employed by the great national utilities, but they did not make the investment decisions that caused the problems in the first place. It is salutary to note how, under this Government, our great national utilities have suffered from a lack of investment.
It is even more disgraceful that they have been sold off at knock down prices. [Interruption.] I know that Conservative Members do not like this; I would be upset if I were them. In the past week, the electricity industry was sold off at a cut price. According to a parliamentary answer, the Government received £5,182 million from the regional electricity companies, whereas the current value is £6,221 million. That is nothing compared to some of the huge privatisation bonuses under the Government. The National Freight Consortium was sold in 1982 at a benefit to the Exchequer of £5 million, whereas it is now worth £702 million. Associated British Ports was sold for £45 million, whereas it is now valued at £377 million. The Exchequer has received massive income from privatisation, but my constituents can see no benefit.
Since the Government took office, revenue from privatisation amounts to £28·5 billion. Therefore, would not one expect massive improvements in our national corporations? My word, there has been no improvement; but nor has there been any benefit from the revenue of North sea oil.
I shall not give way; I have only three minutes left.
I tabled a simple question to the Chancellor on 14 December asking him to compare North sea oil revenue under this Government with that under the previous Labour Government. The previous Labour Government received £944 million from North sea oil, but this Government have had £70,200 million. Conservative Members wonder why their Government have survived. They have survived on a raft of North sea oil.
In the three minutes left to me, I wish to mention homelessness; I can see that Conservative Members are upset about that. Perhaps they will turn their attention to it and feel a little shame about what the Government have done for homeless people. We read in the press this morning of the Government's minor attempts to deal with homelessness in London. Ironically, on the same day, the Government announced the housing investment programme for my local authority, the Wrekin, for this year. Last year, we were allowed to borrow £3·3 million, but this year it has been reduced to £3 million. In cash terms, that is reduction of 10 per cent., but in real terms a reduction of 18 per cent.
It is hypocritical for the Government to pretend that they are doing something about homelessness when all the time they are reducing the number of houses being built. It is baffling that the Government, who pride themselves on being able to do simple arithmetic, hold up their hands in horror about the number of people without homes and the number on housing waiting lists, because they know that 500,000 fewer houses were built in the 1980s than in any decade since the war. No wonder the number of homeless people has increased, and no wonder there have been dramatic increases in local authority housing waiting lists.
Let me leave Conservative Members—sometimes they need things to be put in straightforward language—with a simple truth. If the demand for homes is increasing but the Government are reducing the supply, homelessness will result. If there is anything wrong with that logic, I should be delighted if a Conservative Member were to correct it at a later date.
There is something particularly ironic in dealing with homelessness at Christmas. It was perhaps understandable that in Palestine in the first century there were problems of homelessness, but it is disgraceful that in the United Kingdom in the 20th century such problems remain. I look forward to a Labour Government solving homelessness, and let us hope that this is the last Christmas recess under the Tories.
It was appropriate that my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) should open the debate because, as a distinguished predecessor of mine, he was much involved in closing such debates in the past. Having read his responses to those debates I must admit that I shall not replicate his delightful manner and turn of phrase, not least because of the limited amount of time available.
My right hon. Friend spoke about the economy, which was also appropriate as we are both former Chief Secretaries. He will be aware that there are two views about membership of the ERM and the rate at which we entered. I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) made an appropriate point about some of the benefits of ERM to British industry and commerce and I share his view.
My right hon. 1rIend's views are well known as he has a longstanding commitment to free floating exchange rates, but that is not the view of Her Majesty's Government nor of most hon. Members. The majority of hon. Members on both sides of the House approved of our entry. Although it was not quite clear in my right hon. Friend's remarks, he will recognise that those of us in favour of membership never regarded it as a panacea or as a painless solution to the need for a strong policy stance against inflation. The ERM is an anti-inflationary club and we are determined to abide by the rules.
As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made clear in last week's debate, we have no intention of putting our position in the ERM at risk. The Chancellor's remarks in the debate were carefully considered and, since they were briefly quoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North, it is right to requote in full the particular passage. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor said:
There can be no question of a reduction in interest rates that is not fully justified by our position in the ERM. That will be the case however strong is the pressure for lower interest rates based on other indicators. The discipline of the ERM is tough, but, because it increases the certainty of lower inflation, it also means that when interest rate reductions do take place, they are securely based."—[Official Report, 12 December 1990; Vol. 182, c. 966.]
My right hon. Friend's last point is of particular importance.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North also referred to a comment from the governor of the Bundesbank. We take domestic economic conditions into account when considering economic decisions, as do all other countries in the ERM. The governor of the Bundesbank was not saying anything new or different in that context. The ERM provides an over-arching, additional discipline to reinforce anti-inflationary policy. That is one reason why we joined and why we shall stick with it. My right hon. Friend suggested that the exchange rate is too high. It is most important to maintain the necessary monetary and fiscal conditions until we can get the inflationary elements out of the economy.
The real danger still ahead of us is that high wage and salary increases run the risk of eroding the gains in productivity and unit costs achieved in the past decade. Those increases will undermine our competitiveness because of high labour costs and will keep our inflation rate at too high a level. As our first priority it is right to aim for a sustained fall in the rate of inflation.
The right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley) referred to a number of matters relating to the disabled. All those matters have been frequently referred to in the House in the past and I shall deal with them briefly, not least because the right hon. Gentleman also informed me that he had to leave before the conclusion of the debate. On the independent living fund, the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the trust deed runs out some months after the introduction of community care arrangements in 1993. The Government would therefore expect that people seeking help after the implementation of those arrangements should be able to look to the local authorities. We shall consult the local authorities on the timetable for any transfer of existing cases and associated resources.
The right hon. Gentleman also referred to service men and the Crown Proceedings Act 1947. That matter was carefully considered by the House at the time of the repeal of section 10 of the 1947 Act. It was concluded that it was not possible to define a scheme that allowed retrospection without creating further injustices or anomalies. I strongly believe that we should not pass retrospective legislation. The right hon. Gentleman will also be aware of our position on nuclear test veterans as he and I have had exchanges on that before.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith) requested a change in his county's structure plan. I have been sufficiently involved with all the details of redrawing my structure plan, including questions about mineral extraction, to know that it would be unwise of me to comment on my hon. Friend's structure plan given that I am not Secretary of State for the Environment. My hon. Friend's comments had a familiar ring and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will read them. However, I note that my hon. Friend has already been active in making representations on the various issues that he raised.
The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) raised the question of a Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. If I am allowed to get away for the recess—I share the view of the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) that we shall not spend our entire time on holiday and that we shall do a good deal of work as well—I shall spend part of it considering the history and the arguments that the hon. Gentleman made. He will be aware that the second report of the Select Committee on Procedure on the workings of the Select Committee System concluded in recommendation 51:
We therefore accept that this would not be a sensible moment to recommend the establishment of a Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice) speaks with great knowledge about the racing and bloodstock industry because of his
constituency and the great interest he takes in it. I agree with him that it is an important industry because of its contribution to the economy, the jobs that it provides and the pleasure it gives. My hon. Friend's point about VAT and the industry is obviously one for my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Treasury and I shall ensure that it is drawn to their attention, as it has been before.
My hon. Friend also spoke about the horse as an agricultural animal. I recall the representations that I received about that when I was Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, not least from my constituents in Norfolk—my hon. Friend referred to a number of hon. Members who represent Norfolk. I considered the case with some care, but one of the problems is that the horse is not always an agricultural animal.
The hon. Member for Newport, East referred to the number of years he has been here, but the tribute he paid to his constituency was so long that I thought that he was making a maiden speech rather than one after 25 years in the House. Perhaps he was rehearsing his reselection speech in time for the next election. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the grant of city status is an honour conferred by the sovereign by letters patent. It is not a right that can be obtained by a town fulfilling certain conditions, irrespective of the points made in favour of Newport. That honour is awarded rarely and, since the war, only three towns have been granted city status—Derby, Southampton and Swansea. Any application must be considered against the background that I have outlined and I can give no suggestions as to the outcome of an application.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price) gave me a let-out for not referring to funding for the National Health Service and related matters because of the debate about it that will be held shortly—I was not anxious to have such a let-out. Time prevents me from discussing the matters in detail, but all the issues raised in relation to the National Health Service, social security, cold weather payments and the position of the disabled have been met by the substantial increases in funding—between 50 per cent. and a doubling in funding in real terms—during the Government's term of office. We have increased that funding because we regard those areas as high priorities for public expenditure and because of the successful growth of the economy. Unfortunately, I cannot elaborate on that because of the time left.
My hon. Friend also spoke about the Select Committee on Health and referred to the insular and self-centred approach of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and in so doing he quoted Robbie Burns. That reminded me of another of his quotes:
O wad some power the giftie gie us,
To see oursels as others see us!
I share my hon. Friend's attitude to the Liberal Democrats' behaviour. The Government deplore any attempt to prevent the formation of Committees on grounds unrelated to their merits. If it continues to prove impossible to set up Committees and the Chairman of the Committee of Selection seeks time for a debate on the particular Select Committee to which my hon. Friend referred, I shall be happy to provide it at the earliest opportunity. It will be for the Chairman of the Committee to take the initiating step, but I should certainly look for an opportunity to debate the matter at the earliest moment.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) spoke about the homeless, and we all understand the many arguments he made. He will also recognise that a great deal of action and much expenditure has been undertaken by the Government. In view of the time I cannot say much in response except to highlight the statement that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning made yesterday which will extend the special and substantial programme by providing hostel and move-on accommodation worth £96 million.
The hon. Member for North Down (Mr. Kilfedder) raised a particular constituency case that I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I should like to outline in more detail what is being done for pensioners, but time prevents me.
I do not often agree with the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), but I am glad that he raised the Amnesty International report, because it draws our attention to a number of issues. It is another reason why the invasion of Kuwait is totally unacceptable and why, therefore, the United Nations resolution must be adhered to.
My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Porter) raised a number of issues about sea defences with which, as he knows, I am familiar. When I was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I attached great priority to increasing the Government's contribution to sea defences. My hon. Friend recognised that increased contribution. I opened one major new sea defence during that period on the north Norfolk coast. The environmental argument, to which my hon. Friend referred, was accepted by the Government for the first time in the case of Aldeburgh when I was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I was happy to carry it through. My right hon. Friend the present Minister has continued to support that priority.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) raised a constituency point about the revenue support grant, which I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. French) made several points about road safety. He will have several other opportunities to draw the attention of the House to those points. He will be aware of the strong focus on road safety matters in the legislative programme for this Parliament. As he will have other opportunities, I hope that he will agree that the House can now adjourn for the Christmas recess.