House Of Commons
Tuesday 11th February 1975
The House met at half-past Two o'clock
[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]
BRITISH RAILWAYS (No. 2) BILL ( By Order)
GREATER LONDON COUNCIL (GENERAL POWERS) BILL ( By Order)
LONDON TRANSPORT BILL ( By Order)
LONDON TRANSPORT (ADDITIONAL POWERS) BILL ( By Order)
Orders for Second Reading read.
To be read a Second time upon Tuesday next.
Pier And Harbour Provisional Order (Fishguard And Goodwick Harbour) Bill
As amended, considered; to be read the Third time tomorrow.
Oral Answers To Questions
Service Establishments (Closure)
asked the Secretary of State for Defence when he now expects to be able to list the Service establishments to be closed and the individuals to lose their jobs as a result of the implementation of his defence cuts.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force will be making an announcement, in answer to a later Question, about the 12 RAF stations which it is proposed to close. It is too early to say whether any other Service establishments will be closed or to give details of the civilian and Service manpower reductions.
Does the Secretary of State accept that that is a disappointing reply to those who will be affected? What have they done wrong? They have never been on strike; they have never sat in. Why do they not get the same consideration as the workers at Meriden or Ebbw Vale? Are they not members of the social contract? Are they not useful? Does the right hon. Gentleman not have the muscle in Cabinet that the Secretary of State for Industry has?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman takes such a pessimistic view. All the workers and firm involved were informed on 3rd December, when I made my statement, that there would be proper consultation and that we hoped that the redundancies which would flow from the firms which may be affected, or the Service establishments, would be manageable in the time scale that I proposed.
asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make it his policy to delay closures of defence establishments until alternative work has been found for the workers involved.
I regret that it will not be possible to delay closures until alternative work has been found for the employees if the Government are to meet their commitment to make substantial reductions in defence expenditure. However, I am fully conscious of the social implications of closing establishments. I am in close contact with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Employment and the Secretary of State for Industry on this aspect of the defence review, and we shall do everything possible to alleviate the problem.
Is the Minister aware that his answer will give great disappointment to many people in the localities, and particularly to union branches? Is he aware that the Government should treat full employment and high employment as a priority greater than that of cutting defence expenditure?
I fully recognise that point of view, but, because of the grave economic circumstances the Government faced, we had no alternative but to review defence expenditure. In making those cuts, we recognised that they would affect jobs and job prospects. I hope that, as a result of our planned time scale of cutbacks in defence expenditure, the effect on jobs will be manageable.
Does the Secretary of State realise that he is putting himself in a very unfavourable light? Will he tell us why, apparently, it is right to delay closures in the steel industry, where people's jobs are threatened, but wrong to delay closure of defence establishments where, equally, many people's jobs are affected and where there is little other employment for them? Will he look again at that?
Yes, and I am hopeful. Many people employed in defence establishments are skilled craftsmen. They will be more able to find work in industries than will some of the workers to whom the hon. Gentleman has referred. I think our time scale is right. I hope we shall be able to manage it without too many redundancies.
What is the point of cutting Government expenditure on defence while increasing it in paying out unemployment benefit?
I think the small expenditure on unemployment benefit will be marginal in this context. However, it is essential to be able to release resources or investments for the export drive and also to release some of the skills from these industries to take up more productive work.
Recruits (Cadet Forces)
asked the Secretary of State for Defence what proportion of recruits to the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force have been members of their respective cadet forces.
Taking the last three years, the cadet forces provided at least 25 per cent. of all entrants to the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, 19 per cent. of entrants to the Army and 25 per cent. of those to the Royal Air Force.
That is a considerable proportion of the recruits for all three Services. Will my hon. Friend tell the House what proportion of subsidy, in terms of government support, is involved, respectively, for the State and the private schools concerned?
The total cost of the cadet force, which goes rather wider than the schools, is just over £10 million. Not only does it provide a recruiting base—although I would say that we do not primarily regard it as being for that purpose; it demonstrates the value of a Service career to the youth of this country.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Opposition welcome the very good figures of recruitment, but urge him to resist any suggestions by his hon. Friends that this vital work should be discontinued?
There has not been any suggestion that this vital work should be discontinued. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the value of cadet forces goes rather wider than the questions which have recently been raised.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the combined cadet forces are good not only for recruiting but in themselves. Will the Government do everything possible to encourage the formation of cadet units in State schools?
The latest figures show that LEA schools provide one-third of the CCFs—about 90 out of 269.
asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he can yet estimate what effect the recent defence review will have on the naval construction work undertaken at Vosper-Thorneycroft yards in Southampton.
Consultations about the defence review are taking place with the warship-building firms, including Vosper-Thorneycroft, but it is still too early to say what the effect of the proposed reduction in planned new ship construction would be for individual shipbuilders. I assure my hon. Friend that in arriving at final decisions the Government will take full account of industrial and employment considerations.
I thank my hon. Friend for that encouraging reply. If he took the advice of some of his hon. Friends and made a drastic cut of £1,000 million a year in defence expenditure, as has been suggested, what would be the effect on naval construction?
Raf Civilian Employees
asked the Secretary of State for Defence what number of civilians are employed by the Royal Air Force in development areas.
There are about 10,750 civilians currently employed by the Royal Air Force in development areas, which represents about 40 per cent. of the civilian work force on Royal Air Force stations.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. When he is looking at particular areas where defence expenditure cuts should fall, will he take into account the employment problems of development areas and make sure that as far as possible employment in those areas is protected?
I assure my hon. Friend that the regional aspect of the defence review is an important consideration. However, we must bear in mind that in terms of achieving reductions in defence expenditure it is not the only consideration.
Can any reliance be placed on the figures given by the Minister? In view of the information given by his hon. Friend the Minister of State in a Written Answer on 5th February that the Royal Air Force at Brawdy is not an establishment employing more than 250 civilians and Service men, will he state who is employing the 300 or more civilians and the 1,200 or so people dressed in Royal Air Force or United States military uniform who appear to be operating there, flying Hunter jets and carrying out other noisy military occupations?
The hon. Gentleman can have no doubt about the consideration which the people in the area of Brawdy have received as a result of the opening up of this station.
Firth Of Clyde (Accident Hazards)
asked the Secretary of State for Defence, in view of the proximity of the torpedo testing range in Loch Long, the munitions quay serving Glen Douglas, the BP super tanker terminal at Finnart, the British Polaris base at Coulport, the US Polaris base at Holy Loch, and the British nuclear submarine base at Faslane, what analysis he has made of the compounding of the associated risks; and who is responsible for co-ordination following any major nuclear or oil accidents in the Firth of Clyde.
Full account was taken of safety considerations in the siting of these establishments. The chances of a public hazard arising at any of them is extremely remote, and there is no risk of an accident at one resulting in a further accident at any of the others.In the highly unlikely event of a naval nuclear incident in the Firth of Clyde, the Commodore of the Royal Navy base at Faslane would co-ordinate action. Primary responsibility for dealing with oil spillages rests with the Department of Trade the local authorities, the Ministry of Defence, the Clyde Ports Authority or the oil industry, according to where the spill occurs; co-ordination is achieved by joint contingency plans which exist to ensure that any major spillage is combated as quickly and effectively as possible.
Is my hon. Friend aware that it is rubbish to say that there is no compounding of risk? Will he say why no combined exercises have been carried out to test the warning system and safety measures?
The establishments were deliberately sited to ensure that even in the most unlikely event of an accident there would be no effect on large centres of population. The chances of a particular location being affected by accidents occurring at more than one establishment are exceedingly remote. I am personally completely confident of the arrangements that exist.
asked the Secretary of State for Defence what savings to public funds he hopes to achieve through his proposals to reorganise and move SRDE Mudeford to Malvern and RRE Pershore and part of Malvern to Farnborough and Bedford.
I have nothing to add to the answer I gave the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) on Wednesday 5th February.—[Vol. 885, c. 523–4.]
I thank the Minister for that not very informative answer and for the attention he has paid to this matter on a number of occasions. Did I understand him correctly to say that there were savings of £1·5 million? What will be the costs of this unpopular game of military musical chairs? As I understand it, the latest published figures amount to about £1·5 million. Other people say the figure is £4·5 million. Does he agree that the net benefits of this exercise do not seem to be very considerable?
I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's proper concern with the personal and human problems which inevitably rise from this rationalisation. These are the figures for which he has asked. The investment we have in mind arising from this is about £5·5 million, and the annual benefit is about £1·6 million. I think that that is a substantial saving, and is of the sort that we should seek to achieve.
Does the Minister accept that social costs are involved in these propositions, and that if those moves were recommended in respect of organisa- tions which are the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Industry, the Labour Party would never allow them to take place? Is he aware that in my constituency there is total opposition to this merry-go-round arrangement? Will he have a final think before he takes the step which will deprive my constituency of many jobs?
Changes always involve a degree of social cost. That is unfortunate. The original proposals for stage one of the rationalisation plan were made in October 1972 and the date for the final implementation is approximately 1979. That is a long period. There is no prospect of a change of policy now. I hope that we shall find a solution to these real personal problems.
Polaris (Replacement Contracts)
asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will end all contracts for replacement nuclear weapons for British Polaris submarines.
I have nothing to add to the Written Answer I gave to my hon. Friend on 14th January, and those which my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence gave in December to Questions by the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter).
Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that his answer does not represent a breach of Labour Party policy, in that these new warheads are not a new generation of nuclear weapons? Does he accept that the cancellation of these contracts will save up to £200 million, which will benefit our balance of payments deficit, and that it will have no adverse effects on employment since these contracts are with the Lockheed Corporation of America?
I do not know from where my hon. Friend obtains his figures. I assure the House that we are not embarking upon a new generation of nuclear missiles. That is precisely what the 1973 programme asked us not to do.
I have a little doubt about the difference between the term "new generation" and "updating". Does not the Minister think that Britain's contribution and encouragement to nonproliferation is that we should not update Polaris missiles or warheads?
I am interested in the language my hon. Friend uses. Once again I give him the assurance which I have given the House on many occasions. We are not purchasing Poseidon. We are not MIRV-ing the warheads. We are not embarking upon a new generation of strategic missiles. But we are maintaining the effectiveness of the present generation.
By far the most important consideration is that our defence should be adequate and credible. If the Secretary of State has to make his left wing unhappy in the interests of keeping the defence of this country viable and credible, I hope that he will take the necessary action.
We respect points of view, whether expressed by Government or Opposition Members, but however sympathetic we are, we must assess the facts first. I put the facts on record in my initial reply. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that we are maintaining the credibility of the strategic nuclear deterrent.
Marine Harrier Aircraft
asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a further statement on the future of the Marine Harrier.
Not at the moment.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that cancellation of this project would be a further body blow to the aircraft industry? Will he indicate the export potential of this aeroplane? Is it the case that other countries are waiting to see what we do before placing orders?
I fully understand the wish of the aircraft industry to see this project go ahead, and certainly it has considerable export potential. Design work is continuing, and we shall be completing a full and careful evaluation before deciding whether to go ahead.
Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that it is the wish not only of the aircraft industry but of the Royal Navy which should be taken into account?
The Royal Navy has said that it would be a useful additional capability. We recognise that.
The hon. Gentleman will concede that it is not only the Royal Navy which has said this. The whole Defence Staff has said that it would be a useful additional capability.Is the hon. Gentleman aware that not so many months ago he and his right hon. and hon. Friends were taxing the Conservative administration for not having made a decision about this? Some of us thought that there was substance in the suggestion that there had been a long delay. Is there not even less reason for delay now? Why will not the right hon. Gentleman make a decision?
To the best of my recollection, I have never taxed anyone about any delay. This is an important project. The more important it is, the more important it is that decisions are made in due time.
General Elections And Referenda
asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he is satisfied with the existing arrangements made for members of Her Majesty's Forces and their spouses to vote at General Elections and referenda by post or by proxy; and if he will make a statement.
Not entirely, but we take steps to ensure that Service families know and can take advantage of the existing facilities for Service registration.
Can the hon. Gentleman say whether those who have joined the Armed Forces since 10th October will be able to vote in the forthcoming referendum, assuming—which may not be the case—that the Government are able to carry through their legislation?
I cannot say that. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is to be a White Paper on the referendum procedure, which will be debated in the House before Easter. That will be the moment to pursue what I accept are very important questions involving Service voters.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that to hon. Members on both sides of the House with constituencies in Dorset and no doubt in other places where there are military installations, this is a matter of very great importance? Can he say, either now or later if I put down a Question, what percentage of persons serving in the Armed Forces entitled to vote did vote at the last or any similar election?
I can tell the hon. Gentelman that the percentage of those eligible who are registering is between 25 and 30, which is low. It has been agreed on both side of the House that the change in procedure in 1969 following the Speaker's Conference resulted in fewer Service people registering than hitherto. For that reason, recommendations were made to the last Speaker's Conference by the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office. Those were largely accepted. But it is not a matter for me to say how soon they will be implemented.
Will my hon. Friend make it clear that it is the desire of many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House that the rights of the Service voter in the referendum should be considered before the publication of the White Paper?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I undertake to draw the attention of my right hon. Friends to this exchange today.
Although we quite understand that the Minister is not himself responsible for this situation, does he accept that the whole House regards the present situation involved in Service voting as little more than a scandal? It is up to the hon. Gentleman to bang the table and to demand that those concerned with these matters ensure that Service personnel get back the right to vote, just like every other citizen.
Only this House, under its own powers, can give back that right. There is no disagreement between the two sides of the House. This is a matter upon which a decision should be reached, and I shall make suitable representations. I am sure that in the coming weeks hon. Members will find further opportunities to make their views known.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory and complacent nature of the Minister's replies, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible moment.
Royal Air Force (Fuel Economies)
asked the Secretary of State for Defence what fuel economies have been achieved in the RAF during the past 12 months.
Notwithstanding the extra flying necessitated by the Cyprus emergency, it is estimated that some 125,000 tons of fuel will be saved over the 12 months ending 31st March 1975.
Can my hon. Friend be a little more specific about the areas where savings are taking place? Will he confirm that it remains Government policy that the effective air defence of the United Kingdom shall be an essential ingredient in preserving a free and decent society?
I assure my hon. Friend that the area in which economies are primarily being sought is in the transport force. These aircraft are being tasked to about 88 per cent. of their former level. Operational flying is not being interfered with.
Is my hon. Friend aware that last February the Conservative Secretary of State told me that in December 1973, 2·8 million gallons of fuel oil had been saved by the Services, or roughly 10 per cent.? Will he confirm my calculation that on the basis of those figures we are using for the Forces, in peace time, approximately 336 million gallons of fuel oil a year? Is not that rather a heavy cost for the country to bear?
I should not dream of trying to confirm or deny my hon. Friend's calculation, since my arithmetic is notoriously weak. The fact is that we are using only such supplies of fuel as are necessary for the defence of this country and are contantly reviewing our requirements to see that no unnecessary fuel is used.
Can the hon. Gentleman say how much of this is used on the Beira patrol?
That is a question which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Royal Navy is better equipped to answer than I.
Nato Eurotraining Working Group
asked the Secretary of State for Defence what was the British contribution to NATO's Eurotraining Working Group in 1971, 1972 and 1973, and to the latest available date; and if he will make a statement.
I assume that my hon. Friend is referring to the work of the Eurogroup in the field of training. The Eurotraining Working Group, set up under German chairmanship in 1970, has made solid progress in extending the range and scope of the joint training arrangements that had been developed earlier. It is now moving towards the next goal of one nation assuming responsibility for all training, in a particular area of activity.The United Kingdom has always attached great importance to the work of the Eurogroup and is playing a full part in the activities of Eurotraining. In addition to the offers which we had already made for the training of naval helicopter control officers and of personnel handling the Lance missile, I suggested at the last Eurogroup meeting a number of other areas which offer possibilities for profitable co-operative projects.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that very important reply. He will agree, I am sure, that this is an important area of co-operation. However, I am wondering about the extent to which we are training NATO forces in the United Kingdom.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend recognises the importance of my reply, because considerable savings can be achieved on defence expenditure within NATO if we can make progress in these activities. During 1974, the United Kingdom trained 800 students from within NATO.
Service Personnel (Organ Transplant Operations)
asked the Secretary of State for Defence what rules his Department applies to the conditions under which organs, such as kidneys, from Service men, who die in the course of duty, are donated to hospitals for use in transplant operations.
The basic rule is that the donor must during life have expressed willingness to donate the organ concerned.
What guidance is given to Service doctors and surgeons in this matter?
Service doctors will not normally be involved in such removal because, as my hon. Friend knows, the National Health Service regional transplant team has responsibility. This is entirely a voluntary matter, but we have taken all possible steps to make clear to Service people the real advantages to be gained.
I am not against this idea, but will the Minister give his attention to a much more urgent problem affecting Service men who lose their lives—namely, obtaining proper and generous compensation for their families?
I think that that is a totally different question, but the answer is "Yes".
Cyprus (Strategic Strike Force)
asked the Secretary of State for Defence when he now expects to complete the withdrawal of the strategic strike force stationed in Cyprus which was announced in his statement of 3rd December.
The Vulcans previously stationed in Cyprus have now been replaced by a detachment from the United Kingdom. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence made clear in his speech on 16th December last, this move has been undertaken solely to ease the accommodation problem and is without prejudice to the outcome of the defence review.
Will my hon. Friend tell the House what function he hopes to find for the Vulcan bomber squadrons that have been withdrawn from Cyprus, and whether it is intended that they will continue to retain a nuclear capability?
As my hon. Friend will know, it is not the practice to give information about nuclear capability. We are satisfied that the Vulcan aircraft perform a useful rôole in the Royal Air Force today.
Will the Minister confirm that the operational squadrons that have been or are being withdrawn from Cyprus are being withdrawn because of lack of accommodation? In doing so, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we have jumped the gun, in view of the White Paper that is to be published?
No, because the considerations which prompted the two matters are entirely different. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the squadrons have been replaced by detachments. The negotiations leading up to the White Paper on the long-term rôle in Cyprus still have to be completed.
Is it not crazy at this time, in the No. 1 danger spot in the world, to withdraw a strategic peacekeeping force such as the Vulcan squadron? Will it not encourage other countries which want to do so to proliferate nuclear weapons now with a reason for doing so?
Long-term policy matters must await the Defence White Paper. Given present conditions we believe it would be much more difficult if we were to retain an overcrowded presence in Cyprus. That would demoralise our Service men there quicker than anything else.
"Queen Elizabeth 2" (Luxury Cruise)
asked the Secretary of State for Defence what was the cost of the Royal Marines Band playing at the departure of the "Queen Elizabeth 2" when the latter started its luxury cruise on 4th January; and what was the cost of the helicopter fly-past on this occasion.
The Royal Marines Band took part at no cost to public funds; all incidental costs and a fee for the services of the band were paid by the Cunard Steamship Company. The brief helicopter flight is estimated to have cost about £100.
Does not my hon. Friend realise that during that weekend Opposition spokesmen were making gloomy speeches about the disastrous economic situation facing this country? Does he not think that it is rubbing salt into the faces of workers who are being asked to tighten their belts for a vulgar and ostentatious display of this kind to take place? In answer to an earlier Question it was said that no unnecessary fuel had been used. Was this an unnecessary use of fuel? Further, will he tell me whether they were workers or shirkers who were the passengers on the luxury cruise?
If my right hon. Friend is asking whether the helicopter flight was ill-judged, I must say that in my view it was. Methods of participation are always under review, forming part of the constant review which is going on to see that no unnecessary fuel will be used in future.
Will the Minister say whether the flight fulfilled a useful training function? Such flights may easily fulfil just as useful a training function for helicopter pilots as any other kind of flight, possibly even pulling an hon. Gentleman opposite out of the water if he were drowning. That might be in bad taste, too.
The hon. Gentleman's question has merit, in that any flight has a training value. Whether the flight in question was necessary and whether the training could have been fulfilled in another way are the questions that we must ask. That is why I have said that in my view this matter was ill-judged.
First, does the Minister agree that there is never anything vulgar or ostentatious about the Royal Marines? Secondly, does he agree that the contribution which they made helped to earn foreign currency for Great Britain?
It is tempting, but it would be dangerous, for the Minister for the Royal Air Force to comment upon the Royal Marines. It is true that they participated on the normal fee-paying basis, in the same way as other Service bands. I do not want to comment further on that aspect.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. For the avoidance of doubt, will you please arrange for the Table Office to encourage hon. Members who are tabling Questions about ships to refer to them as "her" rather than "it"? After all, proper respect for the feminine gender may soon become very topical.
No doubt the hon. and gallant Gentleman's point will be noted.
Vulcans, Phantoms And Mrca
asked the Secretary of State for Defence, on the basis of the figures referred to in his answer to the hon. Member for Stockport, North on 17th January, what is the fuel cost of flying the Vulcan and Phantom for a given period; and what, for the same period, will be the cost of flying the MRCA.
It is too soon to be sure, but we expect the MRCA to use about 40 per cent. less fuel than a Vulcan and 30 per cent. less than a Phantom on a comparable mission.
In view of the uncertainty that the Minister expressed on this occasion and on 17th January, is he convinced that the figures which were included in the defence review are of any value?
Yes, I am. There are always uncertainties about the future performance of sophisticated equipment, but I am sure that the figures we included were the best that we could have found.
Is there any truth in the statement that orders for the MRCA for the Royal Air Force are to be reduced?
Is it true that the British Aircraft Corporation is refusing to put money into the project while that company is under the threat of nationalisation?
I assume that that must be a legend, too.
Dockyards (Repayment Work)
asked the Secretary of State for Defence what is the current value of repayment work at present being undertaken in Royal Naval dockyards.
The value of contracts for repayment work currently in hand at the Royal dockyards is approximately £1½ million pounds.
Will my hon. Friend be a little more forthcoming and tell me the nature of the work and whether any cuts are likely to be to the long-term detriment of ports such as Hull?
A variety of work is being undertaken, including fairly substantial subcontracts for United Kingdom shipbuilders. I assure my hon. Friend that there is no intention of undermining work opportunities in ports such as Hull.
Is it good enough for the Minister to say that there is no intention of doing so? What machinery is he setting up to ensure that no work taken by a Royal Naval dockyard is taken at the expense of workers elsewhere in civilian yards?
The answer to that is clear. The Royal Naval dockyards take on what is called repayment work only when civilian firms are not available to carry out such work.
Hms "Daedalus" (Hovercraft Unit)
asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will make a statement on the purpose of the Royal Naval hovercraft unit at HMS "Daedalus".
The naval hovercraft trials unit is established to carry out trials and associated training in support of the possible development of hovercraft in the mine countermeasures rôle.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he now tell me when the unit was set up, its size, and the rôle of hovercraft in mine control measures?
The unit was set up last month. I was privileged to attend the commissioning ceremony. The unit comprises nine officers, 61 ratings and three civilians. The rôle of hovercraft is envisaged to be in mine countermeasure activities.
Arms Expenditure (Review)
asked the Secretary of State for Defence what representations he has received about his review of arms spending.
asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether he will make a statement about the progress of his discussions on the defence review.
I have received representations from a number of quarters. In particular, we have had debates in both Houses following my statement on 3rd December, and we are in the middle of extensive consultations with our NATO Allies. These are due to be completed in February and I expect to publish a White Paper in March.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that since it has emerged that he is increasing rather than decreasing the arms bill protests have been flowing in to Transport House—[Interruption.]—from constituency Labour parties and trade unions, including the Transport and General Workers' Union, which has thousands of workers involved—[Interruption.]—and that 91 Labour Members of Parliament, and the national executive of the Labour Party—[Interruption.]
Order. These groans merely waste time.
—are pressing for real and substantial reductions to be made in the arms bill?
I am aware of my hon. Friend's encouragement of this lobby, but he must be aware that even during the course of this Question Time anxieties and concern have been expressed on both sides of the House, and that even on our present defence review, trade unions, shop stewards, companies and firms are worried about the redundancies that will flow within the next four years. Substantial reductions are to be made, and people will be affected. At least 15,000 people in defence establishments and 10,000 in defence industries will lose their jobs over the next four years. We have tried to do this on a manageable scale, and I hope we shall succeed, but if my hon. Friend encourages those who want more cuts he must recognise that trade unions will see all their hopes and aspirations for full employment jeopardised.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that at least one Parliamentary Private Secretary on his side has accused him of cheating and cooking the books? Can he remember any other occasion on which a Parliamentary Private Secretary has made a similar accusation and not been asked to resign?
I am not aware either of what my hon. Friend said or on the occasion on which he said it, but I have always told the House that we planned our defence review on the expenditure that we inherited. We are making substantial reductions, and these were set out in the statement of 3rd December. They will be more clearly defined in the White Paper, but we have been honest with the House, with the country and with those who elected us on our manifesto.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have not received one letter from any worker in Rosyth Dockyard asking the Government to expedite the closure of that dockyard? As its main work is the servicing of nuclear submarines, will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that when the Prime Minister visits Moscow later this week he will seek to engage in talks on multilateral disarmament rather than take the unilateral action that is proposed by Conservative Members?
I think I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. If this matter happens to come forth in the talks during my right hon. Friend's visit to Moscow he will take into consideration the manifesto commitment, which states that there shall be multilateral negotiations before we embark upon the removal of Polaris from Holy Loch.
Raf Stations (Closure)
asked the Secretary of State for Defence when he proposes to publish the names of the 12 Royal Air Force stations to be closed as announced in the defence review.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence intends to publish the names of the stations which the Royal Air Force proposes to vacate in the Statement on Defence Estimates. The associated process of consultation will be initiated with the publication of these proposals in the White Paper.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that considerable hardship has been caused to many people because of the statement in November that 12 Royal Air Force stations were to be closed? If the Secretary of State for Defence could say in November that 12 stations were to be closed, how comes it has taken him three months to decide which they are?
I dare say I see more Royal Air Force stations throughout the country than the hon. Gentleman does, and I am bound to say that they are taking a responsible and reasonable attitude to this matter. They realise, as we do, that the implications of the major policy decisions in the support field have to be considered in detail. We are seeking the views of other Government Departments which are concerned with regional policies.
When will the Government publish the Defence Estimates? Secondly, if the Secretary of State does not know which 12 stations he is to cut how can he possibly estimate what the saving will be?
The statement on Defence Estimates will be published during the second or third week of March, and if the hon. Gentleman will contain himself until then he will see how the proposed savings will be arrived at.
Will my hon. Friend ensure that local authorities in the areas of stations that are closed are given first opportunity to bid for the use of any vacated buildings?
As my hon. Friend knows, there is an agreed procedure whereby other Government Departments, including the other Services, are offered vacated airfields for their own use but, subject to that, they are offered to local authorities, and I hope that some of them will be taken up.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that every Royal Air Force station throughout the country is full of anxiety as a result of this delay? Will he, therefore, publish the list of stations to be closed as soon as he has come to his conclusion and not wait for the Statement on Defence Estimates, particularly since, it having been decided in November that 12 stations were to be closed, it is inconceivable that his right hon. Friend still does not know which 12 these are?
I think that the statement, which the right hon. Gentleman cannot have studied with his usual care, said "about 12". The answer is that the stations to be closed will be announced in the Statement on Defence Estimates to be issued during the second or third week of March.
European Economic Community
asked the Prime Minister if, during the period in which Ministers will be allowed to speak against the Government's recommendations on EEC membership, he will arrange for Ministers to state explicitly that they are so doing when they dissent from the recommendation.
Why not? Why not start now, as the Secretary of State for Trade is making speeches which show him opposed to membership on any terms? Could we have a Cabinet Committee to control the Secretary of State for Trade, as well as one that controls the Secretary of State for Industry?
I find it difficult to follow the hon. Gentleman's convolutions, but it is not necessary to do what he asks. When the Cabinet makes a recommendation to the country in relation to the referendum, he need have no fear that any who might wish to act in accordance with the proposed agreement to differ will not identify themselves, but if the hon. Gentleman is worried I shall identify them for him.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is only fair and reasonable that the Minister who is to have responsibility for the National Enterprise Board should explain how membership of the Common Market would interfere with the activities of the board? Likewise, should not someone explain how the development plans of the coal and steel industries would be affected?
I am sure that the last thing my hon. Friend would want to do is prejudge the negotiations. There were some serious unsolved problems in the previous negotiations. These matters are being taken up in the negotiations, and they will be dealt with by the Government as a whole when we see the outcome of the negotiations.
Will the Prime Minister clarify one point on collective responsibility? We understand that during the referendum campaign Ministers will be free to talk according to their personal views. After the referendum campaign, when the matter is debated again in the House will the Prime Minister restore collective responsibility?
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that many of my hon. Friends have made clear they will accept the judgment of the country in this matter, so I think he is asking about an extremely hypothetical situation. Should he or anyone on his Front Bench wish to make any representations to me on how collective responsibility works, I shall be interested to consider it.
Is the Prime Minister aware that this Question is unnecessary? We already know which Ministers are for the Common Market and which are against it. The only interest is in those who are reserving their position, including the Prime Minister. We want to see to which side of the fence they will topple.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He will understand that we fought the election on the question of renegotiating the terms. We do not know the terms, but when we do we shall make our recommendation to the House. The right hon. Gentleman is prejudging the discussion without even knowing what the terms are.
Eec Heads Of Government (Meeting)
asked the Prime Minister if, at the forthcoming meeting of EEC Heads of State in Dublin, he will raise the question of the rôle of EEC Commissioners in the internal affairs of member States.
While the agenda for this meeting is still to be arranged, I have no intention of raising the matter referred to in the Question.
Does my right hon. Friend realise that that will disappoint many hon. Members? When I asked the Foreign Secretary whether he would review the terms of appointment of the Commissioners, particularly in respect of their activities in their own States, I understood that there was no responsibility, and the Minister of State referred me to their employers. Since Article 10 of the merger treaty makes the activities of Commissioners independent, but at the same time makes it clear that they are appointed by member States, does my right hon. Friend not think that we should consider this matter, particularly in view of the activities of certain Commissioners in the recent past?
This is a free country, and anyone placed in the position described by my hon. Friend is free to propagate his views within the law. I am sure that Commissioners will not spend so much time on missionary work as to neglect the long overdue reforms of the Commission's work, duties, costs and staffing, for which the Federal German Chancellor has called, with my full agreement. Of course, when people go on a propaganda mission, I am sure that they are always very careful to make a self-assessment as to the productivity or counter-productivity of their campaign.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that when a Common Market Commissioner expresses his views in public in this country he is not infringing any rule of Cabinet responsibility?
Yes, I have already said that this is a free country, and that he is free to do it. We all hope that he will not so overtax himself as to be unable to devote himself to the other urgent reforms of the Commission's responsibilities within the field laid upon Commissioners by the Treaty of Rome.
Economic Affairs (Minister's Speech)
asked the Prime Minister if the public speech of the Secretary of State for Industry made at Salford on 25th January on economic matters represents Government policy.
I am pleased about that. Why does the Prime Minister find it necessary, as instanced by his recent weekend speech to the businessmen in the North, almost to undermine the efforts of the Secretary of State for Industry to get through party policy? May I kindly suggest to my right hon. Friend that if he wants to carry out this monitoring job it might be a reasonable idea to see what the Chancellor of the Duchy is currently doing in pacifying the oil barons on the question of oil taxation and ripping up the manifesto into fragments?
When my hon. Friend says anything in a kindly manner, I always listen to him with particular attention. The speech that I made last week was not just to representatives of management but to management and trade unions. Some eminent leaders of Merseyside and Lancashire trade unionism were there. What I was attacking in that speech—I think that I had some little success in the matter—were certain neurotic comments in the Press and on the other side of the House in recent weeks which have shown a total ignorance of how Cabinet Government works. These matters are all decided on the basis of Cabinet decisions and Cabinet committees—[Interruption.] As I have said, I am always prepared to receive representations on collective responsibility, present and past, from Conservative Members. As for the question raised in my speech, I was speaking entirely about, and reminding the audience of, what was said in our White Paper, published before the last General Election—my hon. Friend fought his campaign on it, I think. That is what I was making clear last week. I hope that my hon. Friend will be pleased to think that that is so.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that when those of us who still believe in free enterprise and the market economy strive to convince doubting industrialists that the Secretary of State for Industry does not represent the views of this Government, and that they are a bunch of good chaps, we are met with an air of sustained disbelief? Will he give us some idea what we may say in response to that?
Yes. My sustained disbelief is in the bona fides of the lion. Member's case. Throughout the last Parliament, on all matters, the Liberals, when they were here—which was not universally the case—intended to vote in a split way, or two to one on behalf of the Conservatives—
The figures are on the record and I shall be delighted to send them to the right hon. Gentleman. When the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) is engaged on his mission civilisatrice in the City, I think that I can help him best by asking him to take with him a copy of the White Paper, Command 5710, that I have here. We are working entirely within the framework of that White Paper in the Industry Bill and all future proposals within this Parliament about public ownership.
Will my right hon. Friend reflect again on what he said over the weekend about the dangers of cartels of raw material producers? Does he agree that if the Western European industrialised countries are going to gang up in the Common Market it will automatically produce a ganging up by the poorer nations which have important raw materials to offer? Are not the two things balanced? If we pursue one course, is not the other inevitable?
I recognise my hon. Friend's long-term concern in this matter but I cannot accept the phrase "ganging up". For example, there was the report made to the House by the Minister of Overseas Development about the Protocol 22 negotiations, with particular reference to stabilisation of the prices of primary commodities. If my hon. Friend will study the full text of my speech he will see that I was trying to suggest some assurance for primary producing countries, particularly in the Third World, to ensure that they can go ahead with production and make their contribution to the world food shortage.
Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that the real question is whether his speech on Friday represents the policy of Her Majesty's Secretary of State for Industry—because the powers that he will enjoy under the Industry Bill are very substantial? Does he realise that if, as he says, he is anxious to unite the whole nation to fight its way through our present economic problems and to get industry really working together, the two biggest obstacles at the moment to the restoration of the confidence of industry are the Secretaries of State for Industry and Employment?
I cannot accept that. Certainly it is our endeavour to unite the whole nation, and when this week is over I am prepared to offer my good offices to the Conservative Party to help to unite it—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but I do not seem to have been very successful over the last year in this matter. It is a matter of profound concern to democracy that someone should do this job for them. I am certainly prepared to help. On the earlier part of the hon. Member's question, everything contained in the Industry Bill has been done on the basis of Cabinet decisions and on a White Paper published before the election. We are adhering strictly to the White Paper.
Moscow (Prime Minister's Visit)
asked the Prime Minister whether he will seek to arrange for the Secretary of State for Industry to accompany him on his visit to Moscow.
Why not? Does the Prime Minister not think it advisable that the Secretary of State for Industry should study at first hand the effect of State ownership on manufacturing industry and on the freedom of choice of the work force? Would he not also like his right hon. Friend to see how collective responsibility works in the Kremlin?
I am very interested in the study that the hon. Member has clearly given to these questions. I would only say to him that never have the Communitsts and their allies in this country had more encouragement than exactly one year ago today, with the policies—which I am sure the hon. Member supported at the time—on which the Conservative Government went to the polls, and which of course some members of that Conservative Government are now trying to pretend they knew nothing about.
Leaving aside the hon. Member's snide comments, will my right hon. Friend, on his forthcoming visit, bear very much in mind the fact that there are considerable opportunities for joint British-Soviet industrial co-operation and see what he can do to further them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The whole House, I think—this was the position of the previous Government; the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) was concerned with the policy—wants to see a great increase and improvement, and somewhat more balance, in trade between Britain and the Soviet Union. Since I negotiated the first-ever trade agreement with them since the war, which was the basis of all this, I have spent a great deal of my time on these matters. My hon. Friend will be glad to know that last week I met all the leading business men and firms who are themselves trying to expand their trade with the Soviet Union.
It is nice to be able to unite the Labour Party.Will the right hon. Gentleman think again about this matter and follow the policy of self-sacrifice suggested by my hon. Friend and take his right hon. Friend with him to Moscow, so that his right hon. Friend can give the Russians a refresher course in Marxist policies?
I shall, of course, be delighted next week to convey to the Soviet Government what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I have no doubt that they will judge it in relation to their assessment of the authority which the right hon. Gentleman commands within this House and within his party. Knowing them, in many matters with which I have been concerned, to be prepared to show compassion, I am sure that, should things go wrong for the right hon. Gentleman today—which I do not for a moment expect—the Russians will be prepared to intercede should there be any question of his being sent to the Tory salt mines as a result.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.On 14th January I outlined to the House the Government's policy towards Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] I said that the Government were seeking a lasting peace and that a genuine and sustained cessation of violence—
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, Some of us are anxious to hear what the Secetary of State has to say. Would you please request hon. Members not to make such a clatter as they leave the Chamber?
I am obliged to the hon. Member. I hope that that will be the case.
On 14th January I outlined to the House the Government's policy towards Northern Ireland. I said that the Government were seeking a lasting peace and that a genuine and sustained cessation of violence would create a new situation. If that took place, there would be a progressive reduction in the present commitment of the Army, both in numbers and in the scale of activity, leading to a reduction to peace-time levels and withdrawal to barracks.I also said that, once I was satisfied that violence had come to a permanent end, I should be prepared to speed up the rate of releases with a view to releasing all detainees. I made it clear that Ministers and officials were ready to explain this policy and hear the views of those in Northern Ireland who had something to contribute. I re-emphasised this policy in my statement on 5th February and told the House that my officials had had a number of meetings with various organisations, including Provisional Sinn Fein. At those meetings officials had been under instructions to expound the Government's policy and to outline and discuss the arrangements that might be made to ensure that any cease-fire did not break down. There have been further meetings with Provisional Sinn Fein, and the Provisionals have declared a further cease-fire to run from 6 p.m. on Monday 10th February 1975. The House will wish to have more details of the discussions. On 16th January the Provisional IRA did not prolong its temporary suspension of offensive military action and made a good deal of alleged incidents which, whatever the true facts, it claimed should not have happened. Subsequently, my officials put to Provisional Sinn Fein a scheme designed to make effective arrangements for ensuring that any future cease-fire did not break down. This has five main elements. First, a number of incident centres, manned by civil servants on a 24-hour basis, will he established in various parts of Northern Ireland. These centres will be linked with my office in Belfast. Second, if developments occur which seem to threaten the cease-fire, these incident centres will act as a point of contact in either direction. Third, issues can be referred to my office in Belfast and clarified there. Fourth, cases referred up to the Northern Ireland Office will be considered, and a reply passed back to the incident centre for onward transmission. Fifth, if out of these exchanges general difficulties about the cease-fire arrangements emerge, then discussions will be arranged between my officials and representatives of legal organisations to clarify them. There will be full consultation by officials with the security forces on these arrangements which will cover only incidents arising directly out of the ceasefire. This is what the discussions have been about, and these arrangements will be brought into effect during the next few days. These practical arrangements can be only the first steps towards a permanent peace. There are many problems yet to overcome in a situation which is far from clear. There is no quick and easy solution and winding down from violence will not happen overnight. It is relatively easy to identify these problems. In some cases a continued cessation of violence will, as I have indicated before, bring its own results. The presence of the Army will become progressively less obtrusive. Screening, photographing and identity checks can be brought to an end. It will be easier to move about. I shall not sign interim custody orders. The position of the security forces remains as I have previously stated it, namely that actions are related to the level of any activity which occurs. If this diminishes, then so, too, will the actions of the security forces. But I must make it clear that anyone involved in acts of violence will be prosecuted in the courts. I have made clear the basis of Government policy, namely that we are seeking a genuine and sustained cessation of violence. This is not just a question of time but, if people go on below the surface acquiring explosives and arms and preparing for violence at some later date, then no one will expect me to regard the cessation of violence as genuine. It means an end to bombings, murders and kneecappings, to kangeroo courts, to armed robberies and hijackings—to the horrors of which even the last few days have given us fresh examples. Sectarian murders and protection rackets must be ended, and the House will be aware that this affects the whole community. The community itself must contribute positively to peace. This is not just a matter for the police; it is something in which the whole community must be involved. Policing and community peacekeeping is in everyone's interest. There are other very difficult problems which I should put to the House because they will have to be tackled. How is permanent peace to be secured? How is respect for the law to be restored? What is to happen to the Emergency Provisions Act and to proscribed organisations? How is the threat of murder and assassination to be brought to an end and people protected? How are the communities to live in peace together? How are jobs to be found so that people can live with their families at home and enjoy life without fear? These are not but they all require examination, thought and action. The Government will do all they can to help solve them, but it would be an illusion even to think they will disappear overnight. Patience, understanding and good will are needed, and a heavy responsibility here rests on the politicians and would-be politicians, in Northern Ireland to seek out constructive solutions to deal with real problems that have persisted for more than 50 years. I hope now that a process of discussion and debate can replace violence. My task now is to seek a permanent end to violence, which is the first requirement of any process of discussion in Northern Ireland. This was why I felt it right to take some first steps of a practical kind once I received indications that the Provisionals contemplated reinstating their cease-fire and that they accepted that practical arrangements were needed to ensure that it did not break down. That is what the talks have been about. There has been no question of bartering away the future of the people of Northern Ireland. As I have said, the situation is far from clear-cut. There is no ready-made or well-defined path ahead. I want to find a way forward, but there are many obstacles and many difficulties. It would be idle to pretend they do not exist. The fact that there is a cease-fire and practical arrangements for monitoring it are the first tentative and welcome steps which I have reported to the House today. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall continue to report any further developments to the House.
The Opposition are deeply obliged to the Secretary of State for his important statement and for his undertaking to continue to keep us informed. Is he aware that we welcome the beginning of a cease-fire which owes much to the right hon. Gentleman's constancy? Above all, however—and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree with me—it owes most to the courage, skill and patience of the security forces, whose successes are increasingly welcomed and supported in every section of a population revolted by terrorism, from whatever quarter it may come.Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the admirable firmness of the Dublin Government needs and deserves to be sustained by our continued vigilance and determination? Having regard to the speculation, will he lose no opportunity to make clear, as I think he has made clear in his statement, that no military or political price has been paid to the Provisionals?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his earlier remarks and in particular for his remarks about the security forces. I have learned in 11 months to rely on them a great deal for advice. They are the people on the ground. I have found it quite remarkable how the soldiers on the streets have an ear for the feelings in the communities. The concept of blimpishness and so on, which is perhaps easily portrayed, does not apply to them.Our co-operation with the Dublin Government grows all the time. It is not for me to comment on their internal affairs. They are a sovereign independent Government. Co-operation with them takes place. I can assure the hon. Member that there has been no sell out. It would do no good if there were. One cannot sell out what one cannot control. What matters in Northern Ireland is that there are two communities. I have no wish to sell them out and I will never do so.
Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that the arrangements he has outlined will in no way inhibit the police in enforcing the law, particularly in view of the regrettable outbreaks of assassination which all of us utterly condemn? Since the right hon. Gentleman has put a number of questions to the House, does he intend that there might perhaps be an early debate to discuss the various points he has raised? Can he give an assurance that his plans for the constitutional Convention will in no way be affected by these recent developments?
The hon. Member asked whether the arrangements would affect the enforcement of the law, and the answer is that they will not. The enforcement of the law matters in Northern Ireland.I am grateful to him, in view of his position in Northern Ireland, for raising the question of sectarian murders. There is no doubt that the killing of a policeman, the killing a couple of days later of two people in the other community nearby, and the killing this morning of a milkman in the same area, constitute a spiralling of sectarian murders, and this only gives strength to paramilitary forces because people feel that they need defence. I am grateful that the hon. Member made that statement because it will reinforce the feeling in the community overall that all people in Northern Ireland are concerned at the sort of violence that is going on in spite of the cease-fire. The question of a debate is not one for me. Nevertheless, the questions that I raised are real questions. It is not enough for me to sit back now because the cease-fire has emerged. In the developing period of the next month or so real and practical problems will have to be dealt with if the cease-fire is to continue. That must be done if people are not to be afraid to go back to peace. I know, for example—and I might as well say this—that I am protected by machine guns and goodness knows what else. What about the people who want to go back to peace after having been involved in civil war? They are still afraid. We have to consider the wider issue of how we can get people back to a peacetime attitude. Sectarian murders do not help in that respect, and that is why I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said. There has been no change on the Convention, and on the unfolding details of the Convention. I shall announce a date for the election at the appropriate moment.
I offer warm congratulations and thanks to my right hon. Friend and to all those who have assisted him in bringing about the cease-fire. May I urge him to crack down ruthlessly on all sectarian murders and protection rackets? They probably constitute the most immediate short-term threat to the cease-fire. In structuring it and strengthening the monitoring arrangements, will he consult groups on all sides so as to get them into the habit of talking to him in the hope that they will then acquire the habit of talking to each other? Will he say a word about the future of the Emergency Provisions Act?
I agree very much with my hon. Friend about the sectarian murders. I have just arrived from Northern Ireland and I know that there is no doubt that these murders greatly affect the community. The police are doing all they can to deal with this very difficult question. As for the structures to which I referred, I agree that if we can get people used to talking, that is a victory if they have previously been used to using the gun. I shall take any steps I can take in that respect.The Emergency Provisions Act is due to be renewed in July, but on the technical side we shall have to see what the situation is then. I would never be prepared to leave the security forces without the strength that the Act provides for them. The Gardiner Report is being considered. It recommends changes in the Act, so that all these pieces fit together. We shall look at the Act in context at the time.
Everyone will hope that this latest development represents a new situation in which the people of Northern Ireland will have opted for peace, and in that regard much credit is due to the right hon. Gentleman and to everyone else involved. Will he accept that, even with the best will in the world, it is very difficult, particularly against the pattern of activity in Northern Ireland, for a cease-fire to be automatic overnight. Therefore, the concept of incident centres which help to reduce misunderstanding is an imaginative concept which will assist in that regard. Will they be sited in rural as well as in urban areas? How many does the right hon. Gentleman plan to set up? At the earliest possible moment will he consider a general amnesty for those holding arms so that they may hand them in? This may not be the right moment for such a move, but will he bear that in mind?Since these matters have been carefully worked out and have presumably obtained the general support of the different communities in Northern Ireland, it would not appear right to probe the right hon. Gentleman at this stage, but may I say that we wish him and the people of Ireland a cease-fire which will prove lasting and effective.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the general terms he expressed at the beginning and at the end of his supplementary question. It matters to the Secretary of State to have a base in the House of Commons because there is no other base from which he can operate. On the practicalities of the centres, we shall site some of these buildings in rural areas. I am trying to be vague because I do not want them to be generally known, since it would be much better that they should not be known. There will be seven or eight in different parts of the Province.I have considered the question of an amnesty for guns. Such a move would not be right at the moment. There is a great deal of fear, and people hold guns legally because they need them, particularly in rural areas. Those who hold guns illegally sometimes also feel that they need them for protection as well as for other purposes. I shall therefore look at that question. This is a point to which I have increasingly put my mind. As long as there is a flow of weapons into Ireland as a whole from all parts of the world—and I can speak only for Northern Ireland—as long as money is coming from all parts of the world to provide those guns, as long as explosives move across the border and through the ports, and as long as the detonators and the timing mechanisms are available, there will always be explosions and killings. I am applying my mind to that problem because if I could stop those supplies at source an amnesty would have more relevance.
There is so much in the Secretary of State's statement that it will probably be impossible now for my right hon. Friend to clarify all the questions liable to be posed, and I propose to have a discussion with him later. But he referred to the cease-fire arrangements No one knows exactly what those arrangements are. My right hon. Friend went on to say that, if there appears to be a breakdown, discussions will be arranged between his officials and representatives of legal organisations to clarify the situation. What are these "legal organisations"? What part will they have to play in clarifying such a situation if it arises?Has my right hon. Friend's attention been drawn to speeches made last week by elected representatives—some of whom sit in this House for Northern Ireland constituencies—which can only be calculated as an incitement to one section of the community to take up arms against the other? Has my right hon. Friend's attention also been called to the trial last week in Northern Ireland of certain members of the Ulster Defence Association, a paramilitary force now seeking to impose its will, and to the remarks made by the judge about that brutal and callous murder case? It is important that my right hon. Friend should clarify another point. If he has achieved cease-fire arrangements with one illegal organisation, the Provisional IRA, and illegal acts are carried out by paramilitary forces from the loyalist section of the community, what action does he propose to take against those paramilitary forces? Will the Army as at present installed in minority areas be transferred into those areas from which such violence emanates? Finally, will my right hon. Friend clarify his attitude to the burning issue of internment? When does he propose to set about releasing those who are interned without trial in Northern Ireland, recognising, as the whole community does, that there will never be a hope of a stable political situation until internment is ended?
My general view of detention has been stated today, last week and at the beginning of January. If I am to end detention, I must be sure that there is a genuine cessation of violence. I must be sure of that. Of course, that does not mean that there cannot be releases, but I do not want to play a prisoner trading game by saying that X number of detainees will be let out on condition that something is done in return. It is easier to end the whole lot simply by saying that people are not prepared to bomb and kill. That is the Government's view. It is not a matter of my saying that I will release 50 people next Monday in the hope that, during the weekend, no one is killed—adding that if someone is killed, the releases will be reduced in number next week. For Heaven's sake, let us end the lot. That is the Government's policy.Perhaps I can give an example with regard to the cease-fire arangements. I think that we might find ourselves with splinter groups. Other organisations are being formed. I want to be sure that if something happens somewhere, my officials can find out whether those who claim that they are operating a cease-fire have been responsible for it. That may sound a little naïve on the surface, but I am convinced that it will help the security forces in the way I have described. It will be the other way round as well—there will be a point of contact in either direction. That is the reason for these practical arrangements. My hon. Friend asked about speeches. Many speeches are made in political terms everywhere in Northern Ireland, and I do not agree with many of them. My only advice to people—moving, as I do, in both communities—is that what the people of Northern Ireland are looking for is people who are prepared to work for the good of Northern Ireland, and if we can establish that principle it will mean a great deal, from which we can move forward. Anyone who, by innuendo, supports those who bomb and kill ought to be forced to meet the families whose loved ones have been killed. They would soon learn from that experience. It is all too easy to become a statistic in Northern Ireland, but statistics do not tell of the hatred generated in the course of time—and we are suffering now from decades of hatred arising out of deaths in the past.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his skilful and cautious approach will be widely appreciated throughout Ulster? Will he guard against the possibility of these incident centres developing into something like collaboration with criminals? Can he give an assurance that any information that would be of interest to the police will be passed on to them?
There is no danger, I think, of that collaboration happening to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. In reply to the last point raised by him—yes, of course I will do that. Any information we have will be passed on to the police. This is the sort of thing which needs to be thought out very carefully.The right hon. Gentleman was active in Northern Ireland politics long before most of us were and some have more honourably concerned themselves before. The right hon. Gentleman knows what makes Northern Ireland tick. I say all this in no sense of pointing an accusing finger. I have taken into account that violence happens on both sides of the community there. It shows a different pattern. There is less bombing on one side. From one community people come more often before the courts because they live in areas where the police operate. We must point the finger at all those who use the gun for political ends. Once we are all doing that unreservedly to both sides, we shall have moved a little forward.
Will my right hon. Friend accept that there will be widespread welcome for his statement and support both to him and to those who have helped him to bring about the situation he has described in his statement? Would not he agree with me, however—and I can only interpret the reports and announcements that I have been able to read—that the present cease-fire would appear to be more firmly based than previous attempts of the kind? If my right hon. Friend does agree that that is the position, can he not now make a more positive statement about the ending of internment, bearing in mind particularly that anyone with a vested interest in maintaining internment can easily do so? Will my right hon. Friend take this aspect into account and try to make a more positive announcement about how long it will go on and when he sees an end to internment being made?Secondly, I ask my right hon. Friend to use what influence he may have with the Government of the Republic to get them to remove yet another flashpoint which exists and must worry him, as it does all of us who are interested in the Irish situation—that is, the situation at Portlaoise.
Portlaoise prison is not my responsibility. The Irish Government would quite properly resent any interference in the activities of a sovereign Government. Given their history—once they had civil war—I think it better that I should leave the Irish Government to make their own judgments.The cease-fire is open ended in the sense that a date has not been set to it. That is a very great improvement. I am aware of my responsibilities. That does not mean that I can be absolutely certain about every decision I take every day. I have to take judgments that I know might lead to problems. I am aware very firmly that the one great thing to do in Northern Ireland would be to end detention. I am equally aware that the other thing that goes with it would be to end the killing, the shooting and the bombing. They go together. I have to be assured about that, and whatever I do must not put the life of a single person at risk because, unlike some people in Northern Ireland, I do not believe in martyrs, whether in the community or in the Armed Forces.
There have been reports from Dublin that there is an understanding between the Government and the IRA that IRA personnel will be allowed to continue to carry side arms, and that the police and UDR will not enter certain areas. Can the right hon. Gentleman assure us that there is no truth in those reports?
I have reported to the House the five points I have made and the general questions raised. I have reported to the House all that I must report to the House, because I do not believe that I should hide anything. There have been no signed documents. Nothing has been said about the police. With regard to them, the situation is clear. They have not been in certain areas for a very long time. What I wanted to say about the police I have said in my statement.There is a law in Northern Ireland about carrying sidearms. Many people carry them. The right hon. Gentleman would be surprised at how many people who come to see me leave their guns at the door of Stormont Castle. Well-nigh everybody does. There are many people who are afraid. The law is the law on that matter, and I shall stick by it.
Has my right hon. Friend had brought to his attention a moving description of Crossmaglen in the Sunday Times colour supplement? Does he draw the conclusion that in present circumstances a low profile by the Army at the very least would be highly desirable? Does my right hon. Friend in any way share the difficulty of some of his hon. Friends that, although we believe that he passionately wants to bring internment to an end, he cannot do so while such action might jeopardise the lives of British soldiers? This is a chicken-and-egg situation of enormous difficulty. The sooner my right hon. Friend gives an indication that the Army presence will be withdrawn, the more likely he is to achieve his other ends.
I do not think that I could have made it clearer than I have since 14th January that the Army presence will be withdrawn progressively, that there will be a return of the emergency battalions to this country in the light of the security situation. It is not quite a chicken-and-egg situation in the sense in which my hon. Friend used the expression. The situation is such that if I am determined to move along a certain line not everything must come from me; there are other people in the community who are involved.Crossmaglen, where 24 British soldiers have been killed, is very near the Border. It is not the whole of Northern Ireland. I am also concerned with the Protestant areas of East Belfast. That is the nature of Northern Ireland. Crossmaglen has been what it is for a very long time. If my hon. Friend has visited Northern Ireland recently—I know that he goes frequently—he will have been proud of the way in which the Army has carried out the instructions given by the commanding officers and of the soldiers' rôle in most parts of Northern Ireland over the past three or four weeks. They have been remarkably good. They understand what "low profile" means. There is nothing they want more.
May I refer back to the Secretary of State's reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig), because there may have been a slip of the tongue or a misunderstanding. The right hon. Gentleman appeared to say that others had been more honourably engaged in politics in Northern Ireland than my right hon. Friend. I am sure that that was not his intention, not only because it is the custom in this House not to cast aspersions on one another's honour but because of the support which has been given by my right hon. Friend to the right hon. Gentleman's intentions.
I cannot recall the exact words I used, but it is not my job to cast aspersions at anybody, and it certainly was not my intention to do so. I shall look at the words I used and unreservedly withdraw them if I have cast such aspersions.
Will my right hon. Friend consider the effects of a long-term peace and political settlement in Northern Ireland on the Heysham-Belfast ferry service, which is earmarked for closure in the very near future? While the question may bring a smile to the faces of some right hon. and hon. Members there are thousands of people in the United Kingdom, both at Heysham and Belfast, who are watching the situation with great seriousness. If my right hon. Friend will agree to meet a British parliamentary deputation to discuss the matter, we shall be pleased to see him.
I am always pleased to meet my hon. Friend. The responsibility for the service lies at Westminster, not with me but with the Department of the Environment. I have met the trade unions in Northern Ireland and given any help that I could on the matter. If my hon. Friend thinks it necessary, I shall of course be pleased to meet him.
Defence (Protection Of Offshore Interests)
With permission, I will make a statement on the protection of our offshore interests.For many years the Armed Services, and principally the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, have played an important part in the peace-time protection of our offshore interests both in the course of their normal duties and in support of the civil authorities concerned. But in addition to these traditional tasks, such as fishery protection and the safety of shipping, important new ones have recently arisen. These include the prevention and control of pollution and the protection of the growing number of offshore oil and gas installations from accidental or malicious damage. The Government have been considering how these tasks may best be carried out. In the past, the resources provided primarily for external defence have been adequate, but, with the increasing scale and importance of our offshore interests, new kinds of ships and aircraft will be required. In particular, there is a need for a class of vessel of a size intermediate between the small mine counter-measures vessel at present used for fishery protection in relatively sheltered coastal waters and the frigate, which is unnecessarily large and sophisticated for much of this work. Five new vessels will, therefore, be built similar to the offshore fishery protection vessels operated by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland, which will continue to be available. In addition, up to four aircraft will be provided to carry out surveillance of offshore waters and to operate in conjunction with ships. These will be existing aircraft which may need some modification for this particular task. The new vessels are expected to begin to enter service in 1977 and the aircraft at about the same time. Meanwhile as an immediate measure of protection for our offshore interests, the Royal Navy will this spring take on loan from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland the fishery protection vessel "Jura". She will be lightly armed, provided with improved communications and manned by Royal Navy personnel as a warship. As well as carrying out fishery protection work in Scottish waters, she will be available to provide a naval presence in the vicinity of our offshore installations and will provide a valuable experience in meeting this new task. In addition, the naval ocean-going tug "Reward" will be recommissioned as a Royal Navy ship this summer and equipped in a manner similar to the "Jura" for duties in the North Sea. Other naval vessels and Service aircraft will continue to pass through the area, and routine air patrols by the RAF over the offshore installations will start soon. It is not, however, the intention that the Armed Forces should undertake specialist tasks such as fire fighting or that they should normally perform work which can equally well be done commercially. The Government also intend to consult closely with neighbouring countries, and particularly our NATO allies bordering the North Sea, to explore ways of providing increased common support.
Is the Minister aware that there is nothing in his statement that will make the country feel that our most vital economic interests are being particularly well protected?First, what consideration has been given, and what action has been taken, to meet what must be the most likely risk to the oil installations; namely, acts of terrorism? Secondly, the Minister said that routine air patrols by the RAF over the offshore installations would start soon. Is he implying, therefore, that there have not been RAF patrols over the installations for the past 12 months, particularly since Soviet spy ships have been active in the area? Thirdly, what consideration has been given to better co-ordination between the police authorities and military authorities with regard to these activities? Is the hon. Gentleman telling us that over the next two years, until 1977, the only additional strength given to this vital task is one converted Ministry of Agriculture ship and a tug? If that is so, this will get the title of "Dad's Navy".
I am very surprised at the grudging and ill-judged comments of the right hon. Gentleman. I think that Members on both sides of the House recognise that there is a new and difficult task and that we have to find the best means of meeting it. We shall certainly learn by experience, and in the interim period the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force will have valuable experience upon which they will be able to draw later. But inevitably we are feeling our way, and, in our judgment, what we are proposing is worthy of a warmer reception than that which the right hon. Gentleman has chosen to give it.Let me now reply to the right hon. Gentleman's three questions. I do not agree that the most likely risk from which installations suffer is that of terrorism, though it is indeed a risk. We have it very much in mind, though the right hon. Gentleman would be unusually foolish if he were to ask me to spell out the details of how we expect to meet it. Secondly, it is perfectly true that from time to time RAF patrols have flown over existing installations. But we are proposing, in the interim period before the newly-equipped aircraft are available, that it should become a more regular occurrence. If circumstances justify it, we shall seek to go further. But we are satisfied, as far as anyone can be satisfied, that this is a useful interim measure, and I should deceive the House if I attempted to claim that it was anything other than that. Thirdly, on the question of co-ordination, the right hon. Gentleman is right in saying that there is an important dividing line between military responsibilities which are for installations at sea and police responsibilities which continue for the installations on land. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we have given full consideration to this matter and we hope that we have found a solution which will bring the right results.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that his statement will cause some anxiety in Scotland? Does he really think that this is a new situation? It has been foreseen for at least two years. There appears to be no denial that patrol vessels are being ordered. Will the hon. Gentleman reflect that all sorts of practical measures in connection with oil have been taken too late and possibly are inadequate?Is the hon. Gentleman aware that not only are the fishery protection services in Scotland already severely strained but that there is a strong demand for a 50-mile limit and that we shall need more, not fewer, protection vessels? Removal of the "Jura" may be very serious indeed. Will the hon. Gentleman consider chartering more ocean-going tugs or possibly acquiring more aircraft in the interim period chiefly for fishery protection services?
The right hon. Gentleman is right in saying that this is not a new situation. He will concede that in my statement I did not imply that it was. It is, however, a new environment in which the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have to work, and it is important that they have equipment which is related to the job. It would be only too easy, for example, whatever the expense, to claim that a frigate could do the job. In our estimation, that is not the right sort of vessel for the purpose, and, therefore, new vessels have to be designed and built. However, if it is demonstrated that our interim arrangements are inadequate, I should not exclude the sort of proposal which the right hon. Gentleman has made. But in the short run we shall not reduce the number of vessels available for fishery protection off Scotland. The "Jura" will be able to combine her new rôle with her previous one, but, more important, as the right hon. Gentleman may know, a further vessel will be available very shortly. Therefore, the total number of ships available for this task will not be reduced.
I add my welcome to what my hon. Friend has said today, and certainly the people working in the North Sea will welcome any separate force which increases security and safety in the North Sea. But is not the logic of the argument that there are so many departments with different responsibilities that we should use this force as a means of establishing a marine authority? I wonder whether my hon. Friend is discussing this possibility with other departments and considering setting up a separate budget for an air-sea rescue system rather than dealing with the matter under the heading of defence.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his generous and discerning remarks. I know how much he has been concerned with all these issues in recent weeks, including the one he mentioned latterly. We have under discussion his suggestion about a marine authority, and it is right that there should be no bureaucratic obstacle to the effective performance of the duties I have described today and the more traditional duties which must continue, including air-sea rescue. We are feeling our way. The effect of my statement, which represents the Government's considered view, is that there will be close co-ordination in future, but the day-to-day responsibility will be placed firmly on those who carry out the operations.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a place should be found for the auxiliary forces as back-up to any work being done in this connection?
Indeed, yes. We shall bear that in mind.
Is my hon. Friend aware that as an interim statement his remarks will be welcome, but, far from bringing in auxiliary forces on an ad hoc basis, is there not an overwhelming case, on defence and environmental grounds, for ensuring that the tremendous proliferation of structures in the North Sea is properly policed in all senses of that word?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. He has mentioned environmental grounds. We recognise the danger from pollution from any of these installaations as a result of an accident. We shall continue together to try to find the best solution, although when the new vessels are in operation it will be a major step forward.
Will the hon. Gentleman assure the House that there will be close co-operation between fishery protection services and the new naval force so that we may know how many foreign vessels are fishing in the area between the 12-mile limit and the proposed 200-mile limit? The fishing industry of Scotland will welcome the increased policing force which will be available in 1977, but in the meantime it will be concerned about the withdrawal of the "Jura" from fishery protection duties. Without the "Jura" there may well be, as there have been in the past 12 months, instances when no vessel is available to put to sea at short notice.
The hon. Gentleman need not be anxious about his second point, because a new vessel will be coming into commission very shortly and the total effect will not be a diminution in the number of vessels available for fishery protection off Scotland. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the importance of co-operation. It has been very close indeed, and I am sure that it will continue in that way.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) that it is deplorable if the Royal Navy is so reduced that it must commission clapped-out stop-gaps for the important two years before the new ships become available.Can the hon. Gentleman say whether the new ships will be purpose-built ships, with speed and flexibility and good communications and, very important, helicopter platforms, and, most important of all, good living conditions for their crews in the terrible waters in which they will operate? Does he realise that we import so much technology for offshore drilling that it would be nice for a change if we could use British genius to develop and design our own ships and export to parts of the world where there will be oil drilling? Can he explain why it is not visualized—
Order. I must ask hon. Members to confine themselves to one or, at most, two supplementary questions.
In conclusion, does the hon. Gentleman understand that the offshore tapestry of his Ministry should be woven in bright colours and not in faded patches?
I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Gentleman for his closing poetry. I do not think he is being fair to those who will sail in them when he describes the vessels as clapped-out stopgaps. They are not that, and I invite him to see them at a convenient time so that he can reassure himself on that account. The new vessels he has mentioned will be specially designed. I am sure that they will have the best available accommodation, given the difficulty of the task. It will be possible to land equipment on them from helicopters, though they will not carry helicopters—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] This matter has been very thoroughly discussed. In our view, the vessels meet the need, and I am sure that their success will be demonstrated in such a way as to achieve a considerable export potential.
The Minister is to be congratulated on his statement, which will be welcomed by the people who earn their livelihoods on offshore installations. There is some anxiety that we should know what are the comprehensive servicing arrangements for the protection of the installations. Will my hon. Friend consult his right hon. Friends in the Departments concerned with a view to defining these comprehensive services, and will a statement be made in the House at an early stage? Will my hon. Friend also take up the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) about the need for one department to co-ordinate all the services?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said. We shall continue to keep the House fully informed on these difficult and important matters in the way my hon. Friend suggests.
I do not in any way wish to encourage complacency, but will the Minister confirm that it is important that the message should go out from the House that there are in existence methods for the pursuit and arrest of vessels which interfere with our right in the North Sea? Will he confirm that recently the Navy was called into hot pursuit and was able to make an arrest? In carrying out the arrangements he has announced, will be consider the greater use of helicopter patrols on irregular, unscheduled and varied patterns, with great publicity being given to the carrying out of these patrols, so that anyone who may be thinking of interfering will realise the great likelihood of detection?
The hon. Gentleman is right to put into perspective not only the statement but the somewhat alarmist remarks which have been made this afternoon. We are anxious to find the best methods of providing a necessary deterrent, which is what the hon. Gentleman is concerned about. I would not exclude any method which experience shows to be relevant, but it is easy to jump to conclusions that one method is necessarily superior to another. We have had elaborate discussions and have taken the best possible advice. We have not said that cost is an obstacle. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that nothing in the defence review has affected our determination to do the best possible job in this area.
Is not some tribute due to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy, who organised a seminar last summer, and to Professor John Ericson and Professor Alan Thompson, of Edinburgh University, who have given so much thought to this subject? Will anything be done about the vital deep-ocean survey and recovery vessel designed by Alverstoke and other naval establishments? Could not at least part of the expense go on the Department of Energy account and not on the Department of Defence account?
I am sure that my hon. Friend is correct in saying that credit for these arrangements rests with a number of people, including my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy, to whom I am happy to give credit. I cannot today give my hon. Friend a reply to his question on deep-ocean recovery but I shall make inquiries and write to him. In reply to his second question, we shall continue to look at these matters, and I am sure that progress will be made.
I welcome the Minister's statement, but I regret his use of the word "alarmist". Surely what is required is a comprehensive system of defence for this, our greatest natural asset. Such a comprehensive system should consist of fast patrol boats, continuous helicopter patrols and probably also midget submarines. Has the hon. Gentleman given any thought to the manufacture and supply of midget submarines to help in the protection of offshore installations?
Not in the last few months, Sir. The hon. Gentleman, whose concern I totally appreciate, may be assuming that the defence of these installations can be carried out best by more sophisticated methods than are actually required. There are some tasks which, although important, lend themselves to more simple and conventional arrangements. We shall continue to take advice and we shall listen to what the hon. Gentleman and the House say. As I mentioned earlier, and as I should have said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), the problem of the cost, wherever it may fall, will not be a major obstacle.
Abolition Of Cohabitation Rule Bill
I beg to move,
The cohabitation rule states that a woman may be disqualified from benefit for herself and her children in her own right if she is considered to be cohabiting with a man unless, in the case of supplementary benefits, there are exceptional circumstances. That rule affects entitlement to supplementary benefit, national insurance benefit and widow's benefit. There is no clear statutory definition of "cohabitation". That is the problem, and that is why I am seeking leave to bring in the Bill. One Act defines the rule in one way, another Act defines it in another way and the Supplementary Benefits Commission handbook defines it in a third way. All those definitions are vague and imprecise. They are imprecise enough to make it difficult for an investigating officer to decide easily and clearly whether a man is taking financial responsibility for a woman in the way that a husband takes financial responsibility for his wife. So many anomalies have arisen and so much injustice has been done that I have come to the conclusion that the best way to deal with the situation is to abolish the rule altogether. That would remove the risk that the rule may be applied to people who are not in fact living together as a couple and when the man is not supporting the woman. It would remove the shabby practices to which the rule gives rise. Most important, it would remove the injustice which is caused by treating the cohabiting couple as if they were married. The officers of the Supplementary Benefits Commission frequently assume that, because a widow or a single mother has a lodger, she is cohabiting with him and he is supporting her in the way in which a husband supports a wife. I know of many cases like that. I know of a lady who worked as a home help and in her spare time acted as a driver for handicapped children. She lived in the house of an old friend who suffered from cancer. She provided domestic help and occasional nursing in return for free accommodation. At the same time she also looked after an old man of over 90 who was living in the same house. What was her reward? She lost her widow's pension. I know of another elderly lady who for many years has had a male lodger, many years her junior, living in her house. An officer came along and decided that this young man was cohabiting with the elderly woman. The result was that her benefit was withdrawn. The shock to the woman was double. There was the financial shock and also the severe mental shock, from which it took the old lady a long time to recover. She was shocked that she should be suspected by the commission and her neighbours of sleeping with this man who was 25 years younger than she. Young unmarried mothers who have boy friends, either occasional or serious, frequently find that their benefit is removed because the officer assumes that the young man is taking financial responsibility for the woman and is keeping her. Many young mothers avoid making lasting relationships and avoid having boy friends because they are afraid that the commission will remove their benefit. The rule does not in fact say that a woman may not sleep with a man. The financial consideration is the one which ought to be taken into account. But the Supplementary Benefits Commission's investigating officers carry out their investigations very often in a way which leaves much to be desired. In many cases the claimant does not even know that she is being investigated because the officer carries out his survey of her by means of questioning neighbours, the landlords, the rent collector and the milkman—and even children, horrible though that may sound. Observations have been carried out by officers sitting nearby outside the house. Sometimes they have gained access to a house opposite that in which the woman is living and have spied upon her from there. In one ludicrous and outrageous case an investigating officer was found kneeling and looking through the letterbox, and when challenged he lamely said that he was trying to take out a census form which had fallen through. When an interview takes place with the claimant, the questions nearly always lay far too much stress on the sex side of the case. The officer—or may I call him the sex snooper?—snoops around the house and looks in wardrobes to see whether a man's trousers are hanging up in the same wardrobe as the woman's clothing. He tries to decide from that whether that means that a man is sleeping with her and whether he is cohabiting with her. He then asks impertinent questions about the sleeping arrangements in the house. He tries catch questions on her to try to trip her up. If the officer is satisfied that a cohabitation situation exists, he very often takes away her book on the spot, although he is supposed to have a written order to do so. Many claimants allege that the book is snatched away from them by the investigating officer. The benefit then having been removed, the onus is upon the unfortunate woman to prove her innocence. There is appeal machinery but often she does not know about it, and unless she has expert advice and representation it is very difficult for her to go through the machinery. That is why only a relatively small number of people exert their right to do that. Many pleas have been made and much case history has been put forward to get the cohabitation rule properly defined. I know that an inquiry is being carried out by the Supplementary Benefits Commission into the operation of this rule, but it is taking a long time and in the meantime the disadvantages still exist and the anomalies still occur. But there is also a very great injustice in treating a genuinely cohabiting couple as a married couple. The argument against abolishing the rule is probably based on the fact that a cohabiting couple have an advantage over a married couple because the married woman does not draw benefit. But this implies that marriage is no more than a formality—and it is a great deal more. It is undertaken with considerable thought and it gives considerable rights to the woman in the case. A married woman has a legal right to maintenance during the life of her husband; she can inherit from him; through his national insurance contributions she can get the maternity benefit, and a pension when she is 60, and so on. These are important rights which are not available to the woman in the case of a couple who are cohabiting. By comparison cohabitation is a very insecure situation, especially if there is a threat that the woman's benefit is to be cut off. For all these reasons—administrative, social and downright human—the sensible way to ensure that a woman receives the benefit to which she is entitled, and to relieve the officers of a very unpleasant task, is to abolish the cohabitation rule. The House will wish to know how much this would cost. On the last known figure the net gain to the Revenue of recovering benefit, after deducting the cost of administering the rule, was about £500,000 net—nearly the same sum as is rumoured as an increase in the Civil List. The cost is nothing by comparison with the relief which will be felt by many thousands of women who feel that in a modern and enlightened society they are being subjected to Victorian behaviour. I hope that the House will take a step forward today by supporting the Bill.That leave be given to bring in a Bill to repeal the cohabitation rules contained in the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act 1965, the Supplementary Benefits Acts 1966 to 1974 and the Social Security Act 1973, and for purposes connected therewith.
Question put and agreed to.