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Commons Chamber

Volume 955: debated on Thursday 3 August 1978

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House Of Commons

Thursday 3rd August 1978

The House met at Eleven o'clock


[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Message From The Council Of State

Double Taxation Relief (Norway)

The VICE-CHAMBERLAIN OF THE HOUSEHOLD reported to the House That their Address of 28th July relating to the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Norway) had been presented to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Her Royal Highness the Princess Margaret Rose; and that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Her Royal Highness the Princess Margaret Rose had been pleased to receive the same very graciously and to give the following Answer:

We, Counsellors of State, to whom have been delegated certain Royal Functions as specified in Letters Patent under the Great Seal of the Realm dated 21st July 1978, have received your Address praying that the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Norway) Order 1978 be made in the form of the draft laid before year House.

On Her Majesty's behalf we will comply with your request.

Oral Answers To Questions

Home Department

Bromley (Model Aircraft Flying)


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he now expects to be able to confirm the byelaws submitted by the London borough of Bromley in respect of model aircraft flying in parks.

As soon as certain technical problems are resolved, and the local authority has completed the statutory procedures.

Is it not incredible that, four years after Bromley council first applied for a ban on model aircraft flying and 19 months after the local public inquiry, letters are still being exchanged between the council and the Home Office about the precise technical wording of the byelaws? As the hon. Lady's last act in office, will she cut the red tape, confirm the byelaws, bring relief to my long-suffering constituents and make a place for herself in the history books of Bromley?

As I have shown the hon. Gentleman in a letter just sent to him, which was the Department's reply to the Bromley council, the council has made the matter more difficult by deciding to remake all its parks byelaws. The byelaws are extremely complex. They involve much drafting, and different statutes apply to the council's various parks and open spaces. We are proceeding as quickly as we can with a complex matter.

Crimes Of Violence (Young Persons)


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he is satisfied with current trends in crimes of violence and vandalism among young people and, in particular, those involving elderly victims.

No one can be satisfied with the present level of offences committed by young people. I am glad to say, however, that the figures for both violence against the person and criminal damage by offenders under 21 have increased at a much slower rate during the past four years than in the preceding four years. The information which is collected centrally does not distinguish details of the victims of offences and I cannot, therefore, say how elderly victims have been affected by this trend.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, but is he aware that it is not simply a cliche but a cruel fact of life today that many elderly people are reluctant to leave their homes, not only during the night but during the day, for fear of being mugged? When will he take steps, such as putting more police on the beat, tougher sentences and tougher detention centres, to make our streets safe for all our citizens at all times?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will one day get away from the coin-operated solutions which in half a sentence seem to incorporate the whole cure for crime. He will find when he studies these matters rather more closely that harsher sentences of themselves have never worked as a prevention of crime. It is a much more complex matter than that.

As for elderly people being afraid to walk the streets, certainly there are some but I do not devalue the police and do not have such a low opinion of the police as Opposition Members as to say that that is a universal trait in Britain

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is an extremely complex matter? Is he aware that I have asked my chief constable and the local police to put on more patrols? They have done so. They have stepped up the campaign against vandalism. However, I have had petitions and complaints from residents in the areas concerned claiming that their children are being harassed by the police. Therefore, the problem is much more complicated and much more difficult than Opposition Members think. Sometimes we think that we are doing the best for our local constituents, only to discover that we have antagonised some who think that in no circumstances would their children be involved in any such thing as vandalism.

The real key—if there is a single important factor—is to involve the public with the police in combating vandalism at a local level. Every district experiences local variations in vandalism. The local community must co-operate with the police to tackle the problem.

Does the Minister agree, in the light of all the evidence, that the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 has failed to stem the alarming growth in this kind of persistent juvenile crime? Does he agree that that is the view of most magistrates who sit in juvenile courts? Will he consider, as a matter of urgency, giving magistrates in juvenile courts the powers that they so desperately need to deal effectively with juvenile crime?

The hon. and learned Gentleman does not appear to have kept abreast of the developments in the working party of local authorities and the Magistrates' Association which my right hon. Friend mentioned during the television debate last Saturday. A copy of the working party's report was placed in the Library yesterday. The local authorities and the Magistrates' Association agree that for the vast majority of juveniles the Children and Young Persons Act is a suitable provision.

We are talking about a tiny minority of persistent offenders. Certainly there is a difference of opinion between the local authorities and the magistrates about that. But they have agreed on a code of practice which I hope will help in future.

Is the Minister aware that some of us do not accept that the elderly ladies of Bournemouth, East are frightened to step outside their doors because they will be mugged and that there is no correlation between the advent of a free enterprise Government and an increase in violent crime? Does he agree that the issues that the Opposition seek to ferment as being party political are completely irrelevant to the problem? Does he agree that under the Children and Young Persons Act the number of people who are occupying places of residence in what are now community homes is more than the number who were in the former remand homes or attendance centres?

My hon. Friend's last point is correct. Opposition Members do not seem to realise that the measure which preceded the Children and Young Persons Act failed miserably. Ever more custodial sentences did not point a way forward. I accept that the present Act is by no means perfect. But we are increasing the number of secure places. The magistrates and the local authorities have agreed that the Children and Young Persons Act is the best method of dealing with the majority of young offenders.

The last question, with its casual and uncomprehending attitude, will send fear through many people about this important issue. I return to the question of the report from the Magistrates' Association and the local authorities. Is the Minister right to say that the question of restoring power to magistrates to make residential care orders has been put aside? If he reads the report, he will see that it has not been. Does he agree that the magistrates have asked yet again for powers to make residential care orders and to direct local authorities to keep youngsters in secure care until the time of trial?

Are these not important recommendations? Is the Minister aware that they come after many magistrates have pleaded for these changes? When will the Home Office act in response to these urgent pressures?

That shows that distance does not provide intelligent appreciation. If the hon. Member had listened, he would have mastered a simple issue. I said that there was disagreement on that matters between the magistrates and the local authorities. I did not say that the issue had been put aside.

If the official Opposition say that restoring to magistrates a power to commit a handful of juveniles to secure accommodation will solve the juvenile crime problem, they grossly mislead the people for party political ends.

Anti-Nazi League


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he has consulted the police concerning the plans of the Anti-Nazi League to establish vigilante groups in areas with a high proportion of immigrants; and if he will make a statement.

The investigation of crime and the maintenance of public order are the responsibility of the police. It is therefore for the police and not vigilante groups to uphold law and order in this country.

I welcome what the Minister has just said. Does she agree that we would be better off to follow the advice of the electorate and to ridicule or ignore the National Front, instead of doing what Peter Hain suggests and escalating the situation by creating vigilante groups? Will she confirm that the police do not think that they are incapable of dealing with the situation in the East End or elsewhere or that the Anti-Nazi League will in any way help calm down the atmosphere in certain places?

To the knowledge of the police, no such vigilante groups have been formed. The Anti-Nazi League has not directly advocated their formation. The police and the Government believe that the best thing is for people not to take the law into their own hands. When trouble is suspected or when there is evidence of trouble, people should report it to the police.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it was principally because of the Conservative leader's attack on immigrants earlier this year that the Anti-Nazi League had to be formed? Does she agree that it is significant that in elections that have taken place recently the National Front vote has decreased? Does she accept that when the General Election takes place the Anti-Nazi League will perform against the National Front on all possible occasions?

The views held by the National Front and any racist organisation are extremely objectionable. The Anti-Nazi League, provided that it carries out its activities peacefully and without violence, will not fall out of favour with the police. The police are concerned only about maintaining law and order.

The Minister referred to citizens taking the law into their own hands. Is it not the common law duty of every citizen to do the best in his power on the spot to prevent a breach of the peace?

The citizen performs that duty by reporting promptly to the police any crime or suspect activity.

Does my hon. Friend agree that immigrants generally are much too intelligent to want to take the law into their own hands? Does she agree that they fully appreciate that they must be alert in order to present evidence to the police? Does she agree that, as long as they feel that in some respects they cannot trust the police, they are bound to look in other directions?

There is no reason for them to feel that they cannot trust the police. In the East End, where there has been some trouble recently, leaflets and posters in English, Bengali and Urdu have been distributed to the residents advising them how to seek police help and advice.

Is not the advice which the Minister has properly given to the House the same advice as has been given by leading members of the immigrant communities? Is she aware that they agree that the police are to be trusted to keep law and order and to protect all citizens in the realm?

My right hon. Friend has met the High Commissioner of Bangladesh and representatives of the standing conference of Pakistani organisations and conveyed those sentiments to them.

Juvenile And Young Adult Offenders


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what new proposals he has for dealing with juvenile and young adult offenders; and if he will make a statement.

We hope to publish later this year a consultation document on a new custodial sentence to replace imprisonment, borstal training and detention centres for young offenders between the ages of 17 and 21 years. This will have implications for the treatment of juvenile offenders, which will be the subject of separate consultation.

Is the Minister aware that that information will be welcomed by those who are interested in this matter? We look forward to reading the proposals, particularly since the 1977 criminal statistics indicate that half the burglaries, one-third of offences of criminal damage and one-third of offences involving theft are committed by children under the age of 17—and a higher proportion by those under the age of 21.

Does the Minister agree that a number of these youngsters are not socially deprived but anti-social hooligans who need punishment rather than treatment? Will he look again at the proposal for shorter detention involving rigorous treatment and conditions and strong discipline? Will he bear in mind that that line is supported not only by magistrates but by others who are not noted for their reactionary views, such as the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk)?

Of course, there are examples of people from what we would call satisfactory homes who commit crimes. There is no question about that. However, what I have been trying to tell Opposition Members—all morning, it seems to me—is that one cannot have a neat stereotype into which juvenile delinquents fall. It is a vastly complex subject.

What we have to do in framing a criminal policy is to give to the courts as wide an array of powers to deal with offenders as is possible. I hope that the addition of a generic sentence to that array—that is what we are talking about when we are dealing with the consultation document—will add greatly to it. It will be the subject of consultation, and, therefore, I hope that it will be the subject of widespread discussion. I hope that it does not meet with the instant illiteracy that some recent enlightened reports have received from sonic sensational newspapers.

Does not my hon. Friend agree, however, that prevention would be much better than cure? What steps are being taken by the Home Office, or by anyone else in Government, to identify the adolescents at risk in any community and to provide them with the sort of risk and adventure opportunity that might be an alternative? Are not these steps much better than some more controversial steps of which we have heard recently?

The chief aim of any police force is to prevent crime rather than merely to pick up criminals after crime has been committed. But I return to the point I made earlier. There are infinite numbers of variations on vandalism, according to the area. Therefore, it is for the chief officer of police in each area, in common with the local authorities and all other authorities in the area, to identify the causes and to take steps to remedy them. My right hon. Friend has called all these interested bodies together in a national conference to discuss this point. I believe that that is the way forward.

As someone who has something to do with the implementation of the Children and Young Persons Act, may I ask the Minister of State whether he agrees that the failure of the present Government to bring forward any proposal for the amendment of those parts of the Act which in working have been proved to be unsatisfactory, as shown by the Select Committee, is a very grave dereliction of duty at a time of rising crime?

As the Select Committee reported, in a section of the report which the hon. and learned Member has ignored, the Children and Young Persons Act cannot be held responsible for the rise in juvenile crime. To take the case of vandalism, for example, the average rise over the last four years in criminal damage committed by juveniles is only 1 per cent. a year, as compared with 16 per cent. for the four years before.

I shall call one more hon. Member from each side of the House on this Question, and then we shall have to move faster with the other Questions.

While I accept that there are many cases in which a custodial sentence is quite unavoidable, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he agrees that, wherever it is avoidable, it is more sensible to require the offender to do something useful? What steps are being taken, therefore, to extend and intensify the community service scheme, particularly with a view to extending its scope at the juvenile end of the age limits?

One has to be careful in the sense that community service orders are available only for offenders of the ages of 17 and 18.

We are certainly extending the number of attendance centres. There are now 67 as opposed to 60. We are thinking of introducing early next year experimental attendance centres for girls.

I think that the constructive use of leisure is one of the points that we must look at to see that people do not persistently reoffend. I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend that sometimes detention is a regrettable necessity, but unless it is coupled with a determination not to reoffend it will be useless.

Is it not important, however, to differentiate between the rate of recidivism and the number of young people who commit crimes for the first time? Is it not a fact, borne out by the statistics, that measures such as community service orders—which I very much welcome—have been very successful in reducing the rate of recidivism but that with regard to the number of crimes committed by young people for the first time it is the likelihood of detection rather than the severity and toughness of further penal measures which is more likely to have an impact?

The likelihood of detection is obviously an important point. Toughness of sentence by itself does not, in my view and in the view of history, have a great part in the deterrence of crimes. We are very conscious of the importance of community service orders, and wherever possible we would like to use constructive ways of treating people in order to prevent recidivism.

Official Information


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many representations he has received on the subject of the supply of official information to the public since the publication of the White Paper on official secrets on 19th July.

Assuming that my hon. Friend is referring to written representations, the answer is six as of:31st July.

Is my right hon Friend aware that the form of the White Paper has caused very great problems in regard to the difference between what we promised at the last General Election about open government and what the Government now seem willing to do? May I ask him a little more about paragraph 49 of the White Paper, in which a detailed study about official information is mentioned? When will the study start, and when does he expect it to be completed?

With regard to manifesto commitments, if my hon. Friend examines that matter he will find that the vast majority have been carried out.

This is a most complicated matter. Even if one had moved more quickly, the chances of getting it on to the statute book would not have been very high.

We said in paragraph 49 of the White Paper what we proposed to do. We are now moving on that. I cannot give a date as to when it will appear. However, I put it to my hon. Friend that, although the experience abroad is valuable to us, whatever we do we must relate to the experience of this country and we must not simply paste into the statute book something which has been done in different circumstances abroad.

Law And Order


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he is satisfied with the success of the police forces in upholding law and order.

The police services are to be commended for the way in which they have responded to the challenge of increasing crime. The increase in strength which will, we hope, result from the implementation of the Edmund-Davies report, and the increases in financial resources which the Government have made available, will strengthen them in their difficult task.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is she aware that we have read newspaper reports this morning about the Metropolitan Police Commissioner asking for quite remarkable new powers and that this matter will need very careful study? Is my hon. Friend prepared to accept the proposition that what is really required is much closer liaison between all police forces, education authorities, the Magistrates' Association, chambers of commerce, trades councils and that sort of thing? In other words, will my hon. Friend consider establishing a partnership between the police and the people?

I entirely support what my hon. Friend has said. In many areas, including my constituency, there is such a partnership. The police are making every effort to make links with the local authorities, voluntary organisations and members of the public so that everyone works together.

Does not the Minister agree that it would be much more helpful if, first, courts used their powers of sentencing rather more severely than they do now, within the existing sentences, and, secondly, some of her hon. Friends could give a little more support to the police than customarily they do?

The courts have powers given to them by Parliament, and it is for the courts to use them in each individual case as they see fit. It would be quite wrong for Parliament to tell the courts how to use their powers.

Commissioner Of Police Of The Metropolis


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department when next he expects to meet the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis.


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans he has to meet the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis in August.

I met the Commissioner last Friday and have no immediate plans for another meeting.

Can the Commissioner, however, count on the Home Secretary's support for his call for greater powers for the police to combat the rapid increase in crime? As last year more crimes were committed in London than in New York, is it not time that greater emphasis was given to the prime duty of protecting the safety and freedom of the ordinary citizen rather than compromising with wishy-washy progressive opinion, particularly on the right hon. Gentleman's own Back Benches?

The Commissioner can count on my support for what he does in the city. If, in the way he framed his question, the hon. Gentleman was attempting to say otherwise, I resent it.

As for the report, of which I have a copy here, most people who have commented upon it today have not read it. I suggest to the hon. Member that he reads the evidence, which is freely available from Scotland Yard and is evidence to a Royal Commission. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's great experience means that he could knock off something and send it to the Royal Commission so that when the report comes to the House we can consider what he proposes.

As the Commissioner has specifically complained that the Act protecting badgers gives a right of search greater than the right of search where people are suspected of committing murder, will the Home Secretary discuss the matter urgently with the Commissioner? Since nearly 1,000 Metropolitan policemen have been injured in political disturbances on the streets of London in the last year, will he discuss with the Commissioner Lord Scarman's proposal for amendment of the Public Order Act 1936?

I have been discussing the amendment of the 1936 Act. There is one aspect of it with regard to incitement which should be looked at. I have consulted all the chiefs of police in the country, and the general consensus is to leave the Act as it is. The hon. Member referred to the question of badgers. His point shows partly why the Royal Commission was set up. The evidence should be put to the Commission and considered. There is a balance of judgment as between the rights of the individual and of society, but it was because the argument had been continuing for some years that the Commission was set up. The Commissioner has now put his views to the Royal Commission.

I have not had the opportunity of reading the evidence, but I have heard the news today. Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us are somewhat disturbed—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] In spite of the vigilantes on the Tory Benches, many of us feel that the law as it stands is reasonably sufficient, if correctly applied, to deal with crime. We are worried that the Commissioner wants further rights which, we feel, would be an infringement of civil liberties

It wa,s this sort of concern that caused the setting up of the Royal Commission on the whole prosecuting process. Of course, these matters are handled differently in Scotland. We had a discussion on this matter during the passage of the legislation in 1977. The Commissioner has put his views forward. This is a pretty thick report—[Laughter.] It is a large report. I think that the adjective "thick" applies to other things rather than the report. I suggest that my hon. Friend reads the report. There is interesting material in it. That is why the Commissioner gave evidence.

Since the Edmund-Davies Committee made it so unmistakably clear that it believed that, if the police were to be enabled to do their job properly, the full awards it recommended should be paid on 1st September, though it acknowledged that the Government, for their reasons, might wish to phase them. why did the Home Secretary mislead the House on 17th July in denying that in an answer which fastidiously confined itself to personal abuse of me? Why has the Home Secretary persisted in this in correspondence with me?

Immigration Act 1971


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he is satisfied with the working of the Immigration Act 1971.

The Government believe that a new nationality law, on which they have published a Green Paper, would provide a more rational basis for immigration control. In the meantime, I and my colleagues give close and personal attention to the operation of the existing law.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's recent statement on the extent to which Ministers will look at individual cases. May I draw his attention to the Kassamali case, with which he will be familiar? My constituency Labour Party and I regard his current decision to deport some members of the family, thus dismembering this good family, as heartless, cruel and excessively bureaucratic. Will my right hon. Friend meet a deputation from my constituency party and myself soon in order thoroughly to discuss the matter, which is upsetting race relations in my constituency?

This particular case has been considered for over a year. Both the Ministers in my Department and I have considered it. It is my job as Secretary of State to take the final decision. I believe that I am acting in accordance with the law and that I am doing the right thing. I would not have done it otherwise. All that is happening now is that this issue goes on from week to week and week to week and it is being suggested that we are holding up the case. I see no reason to discuss the matter further.

Will the Home Secretary confirm that the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) was kicked sideways in the Home Office in response to representations from, among others, the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) that she was operating the Immigration Act too restrictively? Will he further confirm that the Government have no intention whatever of further restricting the flow of immigrants into this country?

We made abundantly clear in April what we were doing about immigration. At that time speeches were being made which gave the idea that the Opposition were going to do a great deal. In the event, we were shown that precious little was going to be done. The Government's view is quite clear on that. There was no question of moving Ministers because of the question that the hon. Gentleman has raised. It certainly was nothing to do with anything that was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell).

Civil Servants (Closed Shop)


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations he has received about the imposition of a closed shop in the Civil Service from civil servants employed in his Department.

Will the Home Secretary take this opportunity of explaining in the clearest terms that he is personally strongly opposed to the imposition of a closed shop throughout the Civil Service in general and in his Department in particular? Has the right hon. Gentleman noticed the case of the 43 railway-men, many of whom had served a lifetime of faithful service, who were dismissed by British Rail without compensation because of the presumed offence of being unwilling to join a union?

The answer to the first part of the question is "No". The second part does not fall within my responsibility and I do not know enough about it. The closed shop is a complicated matter. As the previous Government showed in their legislation, there is a case for it.

Since there seem to be nearly as many people waiting for passports as there are unemployed, and since there is no closed shop in the Civil Service, will the Home Secretary make contingency plans to see that in future holiday seasons the delay which is currently occasioned in passport offices is not repeated?

I shall see that the hon. Gentleman's view is passed to the Foreign Office. Passports are not a matter for the Home Office.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply I give notice that I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest moment.

Television Licensing Records Office


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he is satisfied with the procedures of the National Television Licensing Records Office.

Is the Minister aware that a constituent of mine was last year visited after dark by two officials demanding to know whether she had a television set, even though she had had no set for 18 years and had several times filled in a form to say so? In spite of assurances that this would not happen again, she is being harassed with further demands to explain whether she has a television set. Is it not possible to stop this kind of harassment?

It is regrettable that Mrs. King, the lady in question, was subject to two inquiries because of two different methods of enforcing the television licensing law—[Laughter.] I do not believe that this is a laughing matter, since the BBC is financed entirely—£300 million a year—by television licences. It is therefore essential that evasion, which is widespread, should be avoided. It should not be necessary for Mrs. King to receive a further inquiry for another year, but it is essential, considering that the majority of households have television, that an efficient system of licence revenue collection should be operated.

Does my hon. Friend agree that many of these problems would be avoided if all pensioners living alone were allowed not to pay the television licence fee? Does she understand that many retired people regard the recent application by the BBC for a substantial increase in the fee as totally unjustified and unacceptable?

Although everyone, I think, would like pensioners to have free television, it would cost the taxpayer £90 million a year. As I have said, the BBC costs £300 million a year, and that revenue at present is raised through licences.

Crime Victims (Compensation)


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans he has to improve the compensation to victims of crime.

In addition to having increased in the Criminal Law Act 1977 the maximum compensation that may be ordered by magistrates' courts, the Government have under consideration some improvements in the criminal injuries compensation scheme, as recommended by a working party which has been reviewing the scheme, and the implications for the scheme of the Pearson Commission report.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Although about £9½ million was paid out last year to 14,000 claimants by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board, is it not a fact that a large number of victims of crime do not claim or are unaware that they can claim for criminal injury, and that in any case it is only victims of violence who can claim under the scheme? Will he, therefore, in giving sympathetic consideration to these proposals, particularly consider improving the scale and coverage of the publicity which is given to the criminal injuries compensation scheme?

There is a danger with all schemes that people are unaware of their rights under them, but the hon. Gentleman makes a mistake in thinking that the criminal injuries compensation scheme is the only such scheme. Magistrates' courts and other courts made 90,000 orders last year for compensation for the victims of crime. Most of those were in respect of property. As for personal injury, I understand that the Magistrates' Association is preparing guidelines to assist magistrates in assessing compensation for cases of minor personal injury.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the vast majority of victims of crimes against property would far prefer compensation for the property that is lost than see the criminal sent to prison for long custodial sentences, which often result only in making him a more efficient criminal? Does he not agree that that kind of argument should be put across to the public and that we should be more concerned with compensating people in that way than with lengthy prison sentences?

I cannot know the mass psychology of people who have been subject to crimes. I believe, however, that people feel pretty sore towards the offender as well as towards the offence. We should have a fair system which enables courts to award compensation wherever that seems appropriate, but where there is no alternative to custodial sentences in the discretion of the courts they must award such sentences.

To what extent do the measures mentioned by the Minister cover vandalism and compensation for the victims of vandalism? Has he any further proposals to make in that respect?

I thought that I had made it tolerably clear, but I will repeat it for the hon. Gentleman's sake. We have extended the amount of compensation which can be awarded by the courts. In the magistrates' courts it is up to a maximum of £1,000. In other courts it is unlimited. A total of 90,000 such orders were made, primarily for offences to property, which includes the crime which the hon. Gentleman describes as vandalism but which in fact comprises a number of separate offences.

Will the right hon. Gentleman find time during the recess to read the report of the working party on victims produced by his noble Friend Lord Longford and others, some recommendations of which certainly deserve consideration? Will he confirm that, although magistrates and other courts have power to make compensation orders, in only about 9 per cent. of cases of personal injury are such orders made? Should not the courts be encouraged as far as possible to use the powers they already have?

That is why the Magistrates' Association is issuing the guidelines that I mentioned earlier. I shall certainly try to find time to read that report, although I hope that some lighter reading will come across my desk. However, one of the central recommendations of the working party—that there should be a Minister for the victims of violent crime—strikes me as arrant nonsense.

Government Policy (Formulation)


asked the Prime Minister if he will reissue his instructions to Ministers and civil servants to release as many background papers as possible concerning the formulation of Her Majesty's Government policy.

A growing number of background papers are now being issued concerning the formulation of Government policy, and I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that as all Ministers are actively concerned to make this matter a success, there is no need for me to issue any fresh guidance.

Does not the right hon. Gentleman feel that he should have the honesty to issue more information, so that the public can see why his policies on prices, unemployment and defence have been so disastrous and why he is systematically destroying the aspirations of the British people?

I had assumed that the hon. Member was seriously concerned about this matter, so I gave him a serious reply. On the general issues that he raises, background papers are issued on all matters of Government policy where that is appropriate and where useful information can be conveyed.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, although all parties make obeisance to the idea of open government at all times, it has been very disappointing for some of us on the Back Benches that the Government have not been able to go further on this matter? Will he assure us that the present instructions to Ministers are not his last word on the subject and that when we all return with renewed vigour he will be able to look at this matter again and go a little further towards fulfilling the wording of our 1974 election manifesto?

I know that my hon. Friend and others are disappointed about this, and I should obviously like to satisfy them if I could, but if he looks at the list of papers that I published in Hansard on 18th May in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), which covered several columns, he will see the kind of material that has been published. I asked again about this matter this morning. I find. for example, that a large number of foreign policy papers has been published, as well as background briefs on Euro-Communism, on the Anglo-American proposals, on MBFR from the Soviet viewpoint, by the Ministry of Defence on the location of the tankers at Fairford and by the DHSS on the repayment of supplementary benefits, with 40 published background notes. I think that the Government have lived up to their undertakings to publish more information. Although we have not gone as far as the manifesto commitment, which would mean a whole change in the area and ambit of Government responsibilities, I think that we should be given credit for what we have done.

Yes, but the Prime Minister is responsible for a number of confidential documents, some of which might well be released before he goes off to his well-earned rest on his country estate in Sussex. Will he consider releasing some of the documents which he has no doubt handled concerning the decision that he has to make over whether to give his full-hearted endorsement to the Labour candidate at Dundee, East, who was three times a Communist Party candidate and who, what is more, left the party only eight months ago but has not left his convictions behind him?

Order. The Prime Minister may be questioned only on matters for which he is responsible, and I understand from an answer which he gave on Tuesday that he is not responsible for the choice of candidates.

Prime Minister (Engagements)


asked the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for 3rd August.

In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be holding meetings with ministerial colleagues and others.

I recognise the integrity of the Prime Minister's endeavours, but, with reference to his official activities, since this may be his last appearance at the Dispatch Box, will he find time now to tell us which of his political achievements in his official capacity he thinks has been of most benefit to the nation? Was it when he was Home Secretary and gerrymandered the parliamentary boundaries or destroyed "In Place of Strife"? Was it when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1968 and helped to create the economic collapse and devalued the pound? Or is it now when, as Prime Minister, he has created record unemployment?

I think that the time has not yet come for me to write my autobiography. There will be plenty of time left for that in due course. However, at this interim stage in my early career—remembering, as I do, that Mr. Gladstone formed his last Administration at the age of 83, and I hope to emulate him in being the only other Prime Minister, apart from Lloyd George, to address the Welsh Eisteddfod in Cardiff on Sunday, so we have more than one thing in common—if I were asked such a question, I should like to think that perhaps the best service that I have rendered to the country has been in trying to rescue it from the ungovernable position in which it seemed to be left by the Conservative Party, in trying to create a sense of common endeavour and consensus between both sides of industry, and in overcoming the rate of inflation which was wished upon us by the Conservative Party.

As part of my official engagements on Tuesday, I was listening to my right hon. Friend answering Questions, and I heard a lot of comment from the Opposition Benches about the need to get rid of quangos. As part of his duties in the next Session, will my right hon. Friend take due account of that matter and get rid of the biggest quango of all—possibly without the support of the Tory Opposition—namely, the undemocratic House of Lords?

I am sure that my hon. Friend will not misunderstand me when I say that I am glad to see him restored to his usual rude state of health —and long may he continue in that way. As for the abolition of the House of Lords, this has been an aspiration of many of us for very many years. I am glad to say that it has been the policy of my party for many years. Because of the constitutional difficulties which I have seen in getting certain Bills through, it has not been possible yet to achieve it, but we must always strive onwards and upwards.

Did I understand from the Prime Minister that it is his aspiration also to get rid of the House of Lords. Does he likewise share the aspiration of his party to do without a second Chamber altogether?

I am glad that the right hon. Lady raises that question. I have never found any legitimate authority whatever for an undemocratic, unelected Chamber in this country, and I am astonished that the right hon. Lady should seek to defend it. That is not the basis of democracy about which she prates so much. As to a second Chamber, that is a different question. There are many examples in democratic societies of second Chambers which are elected, but I know of no one, save the reactionary Conservative Party, who would defend an unelected House of Lords.

Will my right hon. Friend find a moment today to look carefully at the business of bringing in some control by the House of Commons over EEC legislation so that, when we return in the autumn, the Government will be prepared to propose some mechanism which will enable us to look far more closely at EEC documents before they are passed?

There was a long discussion on this matter during the debate on the Adjournment motion on Tuesday, when the Lord President gave, I thought, a very satisfactory reply. He said that the Government wished to consider what further measures could be brought in, in conjunction with the Scrutiny Committee and discussion with the right hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir. J. Eden). We shall continue to consider whether a resolution can be brought forward in the autumn which will not unduly fetter Ministers, enabling them to carry out their negotiating responsibilities, but will give the House of Commons adequate control, too.

Could the Prime Minister find a moment or two today to put down on a scrap of paper, placing it in the Library, those successes, however trivial, which his Government have had for which he has not claimed the credit and those disasters, however abominable, which they have created but which he has not blamed on forces outside his control?

I shall consider that proposal. If the House would wish it, I can take a minute or so now to state some of them. For example, the minimum lending rate is 2½ per cent. below the level when the hon. and learned Gentleman's Government were in office. Mortgage interest rates at 9¾ per cent. are 1¼ per cent. below what they were when the Tory Government left office. There is now a balance of payments surplus, and when they left office there was a deficit. I am glad to say that the rate of inflation has halved from the time when they were in office and is now 7·4 per cent. against about 13 per cent. when the Tories left office.

If the hon. and learned Gentleman would wish it, I could go on with a whole list of matters, but I shall spare his embarrassment by pointing out in conclusion that living standards are rising at a substantial rate.

Tuc And Cbi


asked the Prime Minister when next he will meet the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry.

I met representatives of the TUC general council on 18th July and of the CBI on 19th July. Further meetings will be arranged as necessary.

Since we are coming towards the end of the Session, could my right hon. Friend give the House a brief resume of the Government's achievements, notably in dealing with inflation? It need be only a resume because of the limitations of Question Time. Could he give us also some idea of how he believes that we shall continue to make that progress and achieve much more when he makes a similar report 12 months hence?

I can report that over the past 12 months, as over the past four years, there has been progress in controlling inflation. As I said in reply to supplementary questions on the previous Question, it is lower now than it was when the Conservative Government were in office. As for a comparison with last year, it is down from last year's level of 17 per cent. and is now 7·4 per cent. So that shows progress. Undoubtedly a lot of it is due to the great restraint shown by the trade union movement and by all workers and others in this country during the last 12 months. This has resulted in greater stability for the pound; sterling today is higher than it was 12 months ago in terms both of its value against the dollar and against the effective rates of other countries. All these things have been achieved by the united efforts of the British people. I intend that they shall continue.

No doubt when the Prime Minister meets the CBI and the TUC he will talk about the vexed problem of unemployment. Will he point out to those bodies that under Labour almost 190 firms have gone either bankrupt or into liquidation for every working day of this Administration? Is not that a terrible indictment, and is it not enough to shake even the Prime Minister's complacency?

I find myself a little astonished. I thought that one of the consequences of a free market was that firms should be free to go bankrupt if they did not succeed. That is the whole ethos of Conservative policy. If we are now to be reproached for allowing firms to go bankrupt, presumably we shall need more Government subsidies and grants to keep them afloat. I have seen some strange twists in Conservative Party policy, but that is one of the strangest.

When my right hon. Friend meets the TUC and the CBI, will he raise with them the vital importance of reaching an understanding on the basis of a form of industrial democracy upon which the next government can legislate?

Yes, Sir. The White Paper issued by the Government is one of the important issues that will form the basis of legislation in the next Session. We intend to bring it forward, and work is proceeding on it now. The TUC is not wholly united behind it, and no more is the CBI, I am sorry to say. This is where the Government must choose. I believe that the path forward that we have chosen will not only introduce greater industrial democracy but will bring greater industrial peace to this country and ensure that the efforts of both sides are bent on getting the maximum amount of productivity, which is what the country needs.

Does the Prime Minister recognise that the TUC and the CBI are among many outside bodies which have a legitimate interest in ensuring that this House can scrutinise legislation and the work of government more effectively? Will he discuss with them and many others the proposals of the Committee of this House which has already reported —the report is being published now—to make the House a more effective democratic body?

I understand that the report of the Select Committee on Procedure came out one minute ago. I have not had the opportunity of reading it, but I am sure that it will make light holiday reading for all of us. Having considered it, we can consider what steps should be taken next Session to see what proposals should be put into effect.

I propose to call one more hon. Member from each side of the House. I hope that the Prime Minister will be patient, because we are going over time.

Is the Prime Minister aware that many trade unionists in Scotland will be surprised that he has not taken the opportunity today to announce the date of the referendum on the Scotland Bill and that he is dragging his feet on the issue? Is he further aware that if he believes that by spinning it out he can rely upon the support of my hon. Friends and myself to sustain him in office he is gravely mistaken?

I do not think that anyone, trade unionist or not, will be surprised, because I answered the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mrs. Bain) on Tuesday in the hon. Gentleman's absence on this matter. I said that we would bring forward proposals, I hoped, when we returned for the new Session in November. So there is no occasion for surprise. If I had to rely on the SNP for support, I would run tomorrow.

May I ask my right hon. Friend a practical question? Has he received the letter from Councillor Arnold Tweedale, of the North-West Industrial Development Association, about the future of the microelectronics processing plant? Are the Government sympathetic to having it in the north-west, in particular on Merseyside, which would give us at least 4,500 badly needed jobs?

My hon. Friend has been most assiduous in pursuing the prospects for greater prosperity in Merseyside. Everyone should be aware of this.

As regards the microprocessing and microcircuitry industry, I am told by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry that many cities and towns have written asking for this new and exciting venture to be put into their areas. All these requests will have to be considered, so I cannot give a definite undertaking today.

Canvey Island

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

I do not expect that I shall see many hon. Members during the course of the day, so may I say now that I hope that we shall all have a good recess and that I look forward to seeing the House on 24th October.

12.4 p.m.

It may be thought that as I rise to do battle on behalf of my endangered constituents on Canvey Island we have already gained our first objective. The news that Occidental International Oil has decided to defer indefinitely the building of its refinery on the island is encouraging, but that does not mean that a serious threat to our environment is removed. It is merely suspended.

The decision is not surprising, as the latest figures I have managed to extract from the Department of Energy show that the use of gross refinery capacity in this country is running at only 67 per cent. As everyone knows, there is excessive refining capacity throughout western Europe. For the time being, therefore, there is no need for any new refineries in this country.

However, Canvey is still threatened with a second unwanted refinery. Indeed, the company which has planning permission to build it—United Refineries Ltd—has indicated publicly that it wishes to go ahead.

I wish to make it clear at the outset that the present dangers facing my 33,000 constituents on Canvey stem not from those two proposed refineries, neither of which is operating, but from the existing petrochemical complex in nearby Thurrock and on the island itself from the largest concentration of gas, chemical and oil storage in the country, much of it dangerously close to their homes.

Nowhere else in Britain is so large a population exposed to so unique, so massive and so varied a concentration of risks to their safety The position is unique precisely because Canvey is an island. If anything should go wrong—and the possible scenarios for disaster are legion—the only escape route is provided by two roads which converge at a single roundabout. Even that could be put out of commission by a cloud of escaping gas, as it lies in the path of the prevailing winds blowing over the Thurrock petrochemical complex.

It does not take much imagination to see why my constituents have been so bitterly opposed from the beginning to the bringing of oil refineries on to their already endangered island, with the consequent increase in the movement of ships carrying hazardous cargoes to and from its jetties and of tanker vehicles carrying a wide variety of toxic and inflammable liquids on its roads, for all this would add immeasurably to the hazards they already face.

For example, there are already 56,000 movements a year of hazardous material on Canvey's roads. The proposed oil refineries would add another 65,000. We have just seen in Spain what can happen when a single liquefied petroleum tanker blows up.

Understandably, therefore, my Canvey constituents have been bitterly opposed to the introduction of oil refineries from the beginning. Yet until 1974 it proved impossible to get the mandarins in Whitehall to take any notice of our anxieties. No Minister or senior civil servant charged with responsibilities in this matter ever came to Canvey. Public inquiries to hear our objections were an expensive farce.

That is why I was driven on the night of 23rd-24th July 1974 to hold up the business of the House by making the longest speech from the Back Benches for over a century. My purpose was to shake the Government out of their extraordinary complacency. By that means I was able to put on the record the hazards which my constituents face.

As a result, the late Anthony Crosland—I give him full credit—realised that there was a case to answer. He set up an exploratory inquiry into the possibility of revoking planning permission for one of the two unwanted refineries. It was our first breakthrough.

That inquiry, held in February/March 1975, came down firmly on our side. It recommended revocation. It also recommended, as I had hoped it would, expert investigation into the totality of risks facing the people who live in and around Canvey Island, from both the existing installations and the proposed refineries.

Alas, that provided the Government with an excuse not to do anything about revocation until the expert investigation had been completed. After some delay, the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Secretary of State for Employment directed the Health and Safety Executive to make an investigation, the first of its kind ever to be undertaken in this country.

That was a welcome development. The investigation, which began in April 1976, was expected to be completed by the end of the year. In the event, it was not completed until April this year, and the findings were not made public until 20th June.

We learn from the published report that the task proved to be far more complex than had been expected and that even now
"further work needs to be carried out for there remain some uncertainties in the assessment."
That, as I shall presently show, is a masterly understatement.

The report is, nevertheless, an important document. It not only confirms all of our worst fears about the existing hazards at Canvey, it actually uncovers others hitherto unknown to us. Above all, it shows that the proposed oil refinery development, thrust down our throats by successive Governments, and as they were planned before the investigation began, would have added significantly to the existing hazards. It proves beyond any doubt that risks have been taken recklessly by Ministers with the safety of my constituents.

The Prime Minister was engagingly frank when in answer to me on 25th July he confessed that while he had seen the report he had not read every page of it. Let me help him, and everyone else who has responsibility in this grave matter, by spelling out precisely what the report says about the threat to the safety of my constituents.

First, it makes plain that the existing risks from gas, oil and chemical installations already operating in the area, stretching for nine miles from Stanfordle-Hope in the west to Canvey in the east are undeniable, unacceptable, and must be reduced.

Second, it admits that, given the huge concentration of dangerous and flammable liquids stored in that area, in the event of an explosion disrupting storage tanks burning liquid could reach people's homes, spreading fire and destruction.

Third, it shows that assumptions hitherto made about the behaviour of escaping ammonia are wrong and that, given certain weather conditions, a spillage could kill people if prompt evacuation could not be arranged.

Fourth, it expresses serious doubts about the large quantities of liquefied gases transhipped and stored at the British Gas Corporation's methane terminal close to people's homes.

Fifth, it describes the terrifying possibilities of liquefied petroleum gas at the terminal escaping from tankers, forming a large cloud of flammable mixture which could ignite and explode, causing casualties.

Sixth, it admits the possibility of large clouds of gas vapour drifting towards residential areas before being ignited, either as a result of an accident at one of the land-based installations or as the result of a collision between a liquid gas tanker and vessels in the estuary or at the jetties.

Seventh, it warns that if an accidental release of gas took place no action could be taken to lessen the probability of explosion leading to cataclysmic fire and casualties.

Eighth, it draws attention to the network of pipes criss-crossing these installations, carrying liquefied gases. When one recalls how the above-ground explosion at Flixborough fractured below-ground pipes—a fact which I drew to the attention of the Government twice, on 12th and 23rd May 1975—it is not difficult to see how a veritable holocaust could be created.

Ninth, the report lists a miscellany of other dangers, such as an accidental release of highly toxic hydrogen fluoride from the Thurrock oil refineries which, in certain concentrations, could kill people. It speaks of the blowing up of one storage tank and metal splinters from it piercing other tanks and pipes, setting off a train of disaster. For full measure it mentions the possibility of an explosion involving vessels loading TNT and munitions at the Chapman anchorage at the eastern tip of Canvey.

Tenth, it reveals that none of the companies in the area:
"had made a systematic attempt to examine and document those few potentially serious events which might cause accidents among people in the surrounding community".
That begs the question why such neglect has been permitted for so long and whether similar neglect is not being practised elsewhere in the country.

The report then makes a number of sensible and practical suggestions for reducing this frightening array of hazards. For example, it suggests that low containment walls should be constructed around the hazardous installations; that protective bunds should be built around tanks containing hazardous liquids, that a water spray system should be introduced to dilute hydrogen fluoride released accidentally into the atmosphere. It suggests that a new road should be built on the western side of the island to carry hazardous tanker traffic. The report has already compelled British Gas to close a pipeline carrying liquefied petroleum gas. All of that is good. I welcome it. I am satisfied that the Health and Safety Executive has the power to insist on such works being undertaken.

The report argues that if all these suggestions and others are carried out the risks can be reduced by 50 per cent., probably even by 75 per cent. If we take those figures on trust, it means that even after all the suggested improvements are made the people of Canvey will still face above-average risks to their safety.

If the report had stopped there it would have performed a useful service. But, incredible as it may sound, it goes on to conclude that the proposed oil refinery development, subject to certain improvements, would not add significantly to the risks and can therefore proceed. That is a lunatic conclusion. To tell a community that has been in danger of injury and death from such a terrifying concentration of hazards that its chances of survival can now be reduced by half or even three-quarters, but to say that two fresh hazards can be introduced, not only gives people no comfort at all but defies all reason and makes a nonsense of much of the investigation.

That is how my constituents feel about it. On 27th June I wrote as follows to the Prime Minister:
"Last night I presided over a public meeting on Canvey Island at which the authors of the report faced an audience of about a thousand local people and totally failed to convince them that their conclusion that further oil refinery development would not significantly add to the risks fitted the terrifying facts which their investigation had uncovered."
I told the Prime Minister:
"The anger and frustration of the people of Canvey and neighbouring South Benfleet over the way in which their health and safety has been persistently ignored in the past by piecemeal planning decisions, and in their view is now to be compromised in the future, was made very clear. The fact that the report recommends measures which could reduce the totality of risk by 50 per cent. or more is fully appreciated, but there is not a single one of my constituents who believes that, in the face of what the report says about the risks, the Government has any right to permit oil refinery development to take place, even after the suggested improvements have been made."
I concluded:
"I beg of you to intervene to see that commonsense prevails."
Public opinion in south-east Essex is now fully aroused. On 17th July the Castle Point district council declared its continued oppostion to any refinery development on the island whatsoever, and passed a resolution calling upon the Secretary of State:
"to revoke the planning permission granted to United Refineries Ltd. in accordance with his Inspector's recommendation at the exploratory inquiry in 1975."
The totally illogical and irresponsible conclusion of the Health and Safety Executive report on the subject of refinery development has caused me—and I hope everyone else, especially Ministers—to look very closely at the rest of this strange report. I am bound to say that I find serious flaws in it.

First, the report has all the marks of a task not completed, being firm in some matters and weak and indecisive in others. I conclude that its authors were under considerable pressure from vested interests.

Second, the report is totally unconvincing on the scale of risk to the residents. The area studied stretches for nine miles from west to east and is two-and-a-half miles wide at its widest. The report says that in this area people are three times more at risk than elsewhere in the kingdom. But a child could see that this totally ignores the far greater risk to families living next door to, say the British Gas terminal. Here the risk is vastly greater, probably 10 times greater.

Third, it is exceedingly odd that an investigation which cost £400,000 of taxpayers' money should result in a document that has a vital appendix missing. Yet that is the case. One can look in vain for appendix 10. I had to table two parliamentary Questions to establish that the missing appendix was a paper prepared by the British Gas Corporation on "The possibility and consequences of an unconfined explosion involving LNG"— a not irrelevant or unimportant matter, one would have thought, in the context of the investigation. Yet the Minister's answer was that its inclusion was thought to be "inappropriate".

I can well understand that view being taken since the appendix—which I have now seen—shows that the British Gas Corporation takes the dangers of LNG far more lightly than is currently the case, for example, in the United States. The Corporation's experts, for example, believe that LNG cannot be involved in unconfined explosions and that the hazard need hardly be considered. It would certainly have been embarrassing for the corporation to be seen to be making light of so serious a matter I can well understand why the appendix was omitted. All I can tell the House is that the criteria of risk to people in the United States, laid down by the Federal Power Commission in turning down an LNG site there, are such that if applied in this country the Canvey methane terminal would be shut down tomorrow. Thus, I find the attitude of the Health and Safety Executive towards the British Gas Corporation activities at Canvey disappointing in the extreme.

Those activities, we are told on page 29 of the report,
"account for about a third of the total risks from the existing installations and their proportion will be about the same when all the improvements suggested by the team have been made."
The report goes on:
"We have serious doubts whether the British Gas Corporation should continue to store such large amounts of LNG and LPG, at the terminal and to carry out the consequential ship to shore transfer operations. If the storage of such large quantities is to continue it will be necessary for action to be considered to meet the suggestions of the team, so that the risks could be significantly reduced"
Instead of a carefully considered public response from British Gas, we get a defiant roar from its chairman, Sir Denis Rooke.

In the Evening Echo—our local newspaper—of 27th July, he is reported to have said:
"No LPG is being handled on our installations at Canvey. But that does not mean that we would never handle it again"
In the same report, another spokesman for British Gas was quoted as saying:
"We haven't any plans to store LPG on Canvey at the moment, but we cannot say what will happen in the future…We do keep LNG on Canvey, but that is something else entirely"
Hon. Members will see, however, that the report states categorically on pages 20 and 29 that LPG is stored at Canvey. Who, then is telling the truth? If in fact LPG is being stored there, close to people's homes, and British Gas is trying to conceal the fact, should it not be removed forthwith? My constituents and I want a very clear answer to that question.

Let me explain why this issue has to be faced. In the United States, where they have vastly more LPG and LNG installations than we have in this country, serious attention has been given to the dangers of storing LNG close to urban population. I have seen the evidence given at an inquiry two years ago by Dr. Edward Teller, one of the world's greatest nuclear scientists and an acknowledged authoritv on the safety of nuclear installations.

Dr. Teller told a committee of the California state legislature that with LNG installations there is always the possibility of an "enormous conflagration", that although the complexities in the case of nuclear and LNG risks are comparable, much less is known about the latter, and he warned that all possible precautions should be taken. Similar warnings are given in a massive report to the United States Congress on the safety of liquefied gases, which was published on Monday by the Comptroller-General of the United States General Accounting Office, the investigating arm of Congress. His office has kindly sent me a copy.

That report states that a major spill of liquefied gases in a densely populated area could result in a catastrophe and that action should be taken now to protect the public. It makes strong recommendations and it issues this warning:
"We believe that future large-scale unified energy gas facilities should be located away from densely populated areas, that any such existing facilities should not be permitted to expand in size or in use, and that urban facilities should be carefully evaluated in order to ensure that they do not pose undue risks to the public."
Canvey is a built-up area. Some people live very close to the methane terminal. Yet the Health and Safety Executive report contents itself with saying that if the storage of such large quantities of LNG is necessary, action will have to be taken so that the risks can be "significantly reduced". That implies, does it not, that the existing risks are significantly greater than they should be.

The intentions of British Gas are clear enough. In a letter to me which I received this morning, the chairman indicates that, subject, of course, to the requirements of the Health and Safety Executive, it is the corporation's intention to go on importing the same quantities of Algerian LNG for years to come. Do the Government approve of that? Who is to judge the need to store liquefied gases on Canvey? Is British Gas a law unto itself? Or is the question to be determined by the Health and Safety Executive, which is answerable to Ministers?

Far better it would have been if British Gas had been told in the report quite firmly that it is wrong to go on storing such large amounts of LNG and LPG so close to people's homes. Why such timidity? I issue a plain warning to the Government. No one has the right to imperil the safety of a whole community.

Perhaps the most serious flaw in the Health and Safety report is its total neglect—indeed its astonishing neglect—of the human reaction in the event of disaster or even in a limited incident. Because Canvey is an island, evacuation of population would take several hours. That would be possible nowadays in the event of flooding, when several hours' warning of unusual tides can be given. I need not remind the House that in 1953 the island was the worst-hit district in the flooded areas of Eastern England, when we lost 53 lives, so we are particularly sensitive on that subject But clearly it is impossible to give hours of warning in the event of explosions leading to a cataclysmic fire.

Just imagine the chaos that could be caused by people trying to get off the island over a single exit while the rescue services from the mainland were trying to get on. The only suggestion that the report offers is that in the majority of the disaster situations it envisages, people should stay indoors and shut their windows. Who, pray, is going to give such advice if a methane cloud is moving rapidly towards the residential area, or if there has been an involuntary release of ammonia, or if LPG is exploding? Who is going to have the time in which to issue such a warning?

There is a hint in the report that to help evacuation an additional road might be provided off the island to the east. That is an interesting suggestion. Of course, it would take some time to build. Yet there is no firm recommendation in the report. The matter is merely left for discussion with the local authorities. That simply will not do. The Government must take firm control of the situation. I therefore seek explicit assurances on the following points.

The first is that all the suggested improvements in the report will be implemented without delay.

The second is that a revised assessment is made by the Health and Safety Executive of the risks to people living very close to the major hazards, so that nobody is allowed to shelter behind generalised assumptions about risks over the whole of the area investigated.

The third is that immediate steps will be taken to reduce sharply the storage and transhipment of liquefied gases at the methane terminal, and that discussions will be opened at once with the British Gas Corporation about moving its operations to another site remote from population.

The fourth is that the British Gas Corporation is asked to spend some part of its massive profits on realistic research into the dangers of LNG and the problems of decommissioning the storage tanks on Canvey in the light of world-wide experience in these matters.

The fifth is that talks are opened at once with the object of improving road communications with the Essex mainland, especially at the eastern end of the island, and that the necessary finance will be forthcoming to the highway authority.

The sixth is that the Port of London Authority be directed to pay serious attention to the desirability of slowing down to eight knots all ships carrying hazardous cargoes in the Thames estuary. I do not need to tell the Under-Secretary of State that all the shipping carrying such cargoes in the estuary passes very close to the Essex shore.

The seventh is that the financial implications of revocation of planning permission are grasped by the Secretary of State, since the district council would be totally unable to meet any claims for compensation.

The final one is that some kind of periodic safety audit is authorised so that Parliament, the local authorities and the public can be kept informed as to how the safety of the people living in and around Canvey Island has been improved.

Nothing short of these requirements will satisfy me or restore the confidence of my long-suffering constituents. I am asking for common sense action now. I do not want to be the man who was proved right after a disaster has occurred. ask the House to remember Aberfan, where 116 children and eight adults lost their lives in 1966. They need not have died had those who knew that the tip at Merthyr Vale colliery was unsafe had done something about it. The report on that tragic happening made it clear that it need not and should not have happened.

The tragedy of Aberfan and that at Flixborough sprang from a single neglected source of danger. At Canvey there are innumerable sources of danger, each compounding the rest. So my last words to the Minister are these—act now, act before it is too late; act with firmness and purpose; delay no longer.

12.30 p.m.

The hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) as he said in the speech that he has just delivered, has on several occasions drawn the attention of the House to the concern of many of the residents of Canvey Island about the possible dangers which arise from the proximity of various industrial complexes to residential development. The issues are complex. It is right that they should be thoroughly explored and that decisions for the future should be taken on the basis of as comprehensive an assessment as it is possible to make of potential hazards. I want to try to deal with as many of the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised as I can. Some of them, as he will understand, are matters for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment.

The hon. Gentleman has given the background to this matter and I will not go over the whole ground again. The essential points are that two companies, Occidental Refineries Limited and United Refiners Limited, have been granted planning permissions to construct oil refineries on the west side of Canvey Island. In the case of Occidental, substantial development had taken place before work stopped as a result of the oil crisis in 1975.

In 1974, following anxiety locally about the safety implications of the proposed developments, the then Secretary of State for the Environment decided to hold an exploratory public inquiry into the desirability of revoking the planning permission granted to United Refineries Ltd. in 1973. The inquiry took place on the island in February and March 1974. The inspector recommended that a revocation order should be made, but one of the assessors had suggested that a study should be made of the totality of risks in the area, and the possibility of interaction between installations in the event of fire or explosion. The Secretary of State deferred a decision and, with the then Secretary of State for Employment, asked the Health and Safety Commission to carry out a study on the safety of installations within the Canvey area.

The report, which was published on 20th June, describes an exhaustive investigation of the risks to health and safety from the existing and proposed installations on and in the neighbourhood of Canvey Island. The investigating team of experts visited the various industrial installations to carry out a detailed in- vestigation of what goes on in each plant, what could go wrong and what the possible effects would be. They also looked at the proposals for additional refining facilities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, in reply to a Question by the hon. Member in the House on 20th June, welcomed the report as a valuable contribution to discussion of health and safety and environmental matters in the area. He pointed out that installations covered by the report form a significant part of the United Kingdom oil, gas and petrochemical industries and relate closely to the utilisation of our North Sea resources. The report would therefore be of importance in assisting decisions which may affect those who live in the area, those who depend on the installations for their employment, and the contribution which the installations make to the economy.

The recent investigation was, of course, concerned with the safety of existing installations as well as the proposed refinery developments, and on that side a number of specific recommendations for action now have emerged from the inquiry, and these are already being followed up by the Health and Safety Executive.

There are three existing installations on Canvey Island handling potentially dangerous materials whose activities were investigated by the team. They are the British Gas Corporation's methane gas terminal, and tank farms owned respectively by Texaco Limited and London and Coastal Oil Wharves Limited. Certain installations on the mainland which could present a threat to the island were also investigated, as was the movement of dangerous substances in the area by road, rail, pipeline and water. Each of these activities was the subject of close inquiry, situations which could lead to a number of casualties were identified, and estimates were made of the probability of an accident occurring and of its consequences in terms of the number of casualties. The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to the risks, and I fully understand his concern for the people who are living in the area.

It is important to bear in mind that an accident which is regarded as capable of causing a large number of casualties will not necessarily result in such massive consequences, nor does the consideration given to particular accident imply that the chances of their happening are necessarily very high. Throughout the study the investigating team was requested by the Health and Safety Executive to err on the side of pessimism in its estimates. The overall assessment resulting from all this investigation was summed up by the Health and Safety Executive, which said that the picture was not one which ought to result in fear and worry among people living in and around Canvey. The most likely outcome, in the view of the HSE experts, is that nothing should happen in the industrial installations in the area which will hurt anyone outside them.

Nevertheless, the study showed that certain actions needed to be taken in regard to the installations which were investigated. Indeed, one of the positive results to emerge from all the inquiries, analyses, and so on, is the series of specific recommendations relating to the existing installations. During the course of the investigation certain matters came to light which required immediate action. These were dealt with as they arose in the usual way in accordance with the health and safety legislation.

By the end of its investigation the team had identified various ways in which the risks from the existing installations could be further reduced. These are detailed in the report, and I understand that discussions have already begun between Her Majesty's Factory Inspectorate of the Health and Safety Executive and senior management of the firms concerned in order to secure the necessary improvements. I will say a little more about those affecting the installations on the island itself.

At the British Gas Corporation terminal the team has suggested that the pipeline from the terminal that contains liquefied petroleum gas could be emptied and taken out of service. It also suggested that the capacities of the existing containment walls around the boundaries of the tank farms of inflammable liquids at the sites owned by Texaco Limited and London and Coastal Oil Wharves Limited should be increased.

I am following with the greatest interest what the Minister is saying. Since a suggestion has been made that the liquefied petroleum gas pipeline should be closed, as I under- stand it has, will the Minister confirm that there is liquefied petroleum gas stored at the terminal, and that the statement made by the chairman of British Gas and another spokesman to the press is totally inaccurate?

I think I can confirm that liquefied petroleum gas is stored at the terminal. I think that that is correct, although I do not speak with authority, as the hon. Gentleman will understand, on that point.

Recommendations were made in a similar way in regard to the installations on the mainland. On the movement of vessels in the Thames, the PLA is urged to take action to ensure that the 8-knot speed limit for all vessels in the Thames estuary is strictly observed.

The Health and Safety Executive is satisfied that all these suggestions could, it necessary, be required under the general duties imposed by the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. It is now for the firms, or other bodies concerned, either to carry out the improvements detailed above or to show that equal standards of safety could be achieved by alternative methods.

It is very good of the hon. Gentleman to give way. On the question of the restriction of speed of vessels carrying hazardous cargoes, is the hon. Gentleman aware that on 1st August 1978 I asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he would discuss with the Port of London Authority the desirability of restricting the movement at night of tankers carrying such cargoes?

The answer that I received was:
"No … the Port of London Authority consider that their existing arrangements ensure the safe movement of vessels whether by day or night."—[Official Report, 1st August 1978; Vol. 955, c. 300.]
I understand that the Health and Safety Executive has not consulted Trinity House or the pilots on the river. If it had done so, there would have been a very clear indication that there is considerable anxiety about the hazards among those concerned with waterborne traffic. Will the Minister therefore undertake to get the PLA to look at this matter more seriously and responsibly than it appears to have done up to now?

As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, this does not lie within my area of responsibility, but I shall certainly see that his request is passed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. I am assured that discussions are taking place with all the firms concerned. The British Gas Corporation has already informed the Health and Safety Executive that the LPG pipeline from the methane terminal will be emptied.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of specific references to the storage of LPG at the methane terminal. I do not propose to comment on the accuracy or otherwise of the reported remarks by the chairman of the Corporation, but it is clear from the report that LPG is stored at the methane terminal. However, I understand that it is largely an emergency stock reserve. The hon. Member is well aware that the Health and Safety Executive expressed serious doubts in its report about the continued storage of large amounts of liquefied natural gas and liquefield petroleum gas at the terminal and the consequential ship-to-shore transfer operations. Discussions have been opened with the Corporation about the possibility of reducing the risks from the terminal, and the Corporation's response is at present awaited. However, I can give the hon. Gentleman some reassurance with regard to the LPG. The Corporation already has it in mind to reduce its stocks of LPG and is in touch with the Health and Safety Executive about the best means of doing this.

This all illustrates the very practical nature of the recommendations which have stemmed from the inquiry and which, when put into effect, will result in a very significant reduction in the estimates of risk. The Health and Safety Executive's conclusion is that, subject to a satisfactory outcome of the discussions currently going on, it would not consider the situation such that any of the existing installations should now be required to cease operations. I am assured that the Executive intends to keep a close watch on the situation and will not hesitate to make expeditious use of its powers to secure the improvements already mentioned, and any further improvements which appear to be necessary in the future.

The hon. Gentleman referred, perhaps somewhat scathingly, to the way in which the report dealt with the desirability of building another road. The Health and Safety Executive report suggested that appropriate authorities should study the team's assessment when considering whether another road should be built, and indicated that the Executive proposed to have further discussions with appropriate authorities about the value of a new road and about emergency planning generally. That seems to me to have been a reasonable approach. After all, the team is not expert in road and traffic matters.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in reply to a Question from the hon. Gentleman on 17th July, those discussions are now taking place. It is the local authorities who are responsible in the first instance, but my right hon. Friend and his colleagues will study the results of the discussions which are now taking place as soon as they are available.

On the question of the proposed new refineries to be constructed by Occidental Ltd. and United Refineries Ltd., the Health and Safety Executive report made it clear that there were ways in which the additional risk resulting from the projects could be very substantially reduced, notably by providing a new pipeline for transhipment of liquid petroleum gas and a suitable water spray system in the proposed alkylation unit at the Occidental refinery. The report concluded that provided the companies were to build their plants in accordance with the requirements and to make appropriate arrangements for transhipment of liquid petroleum gas, there would be no objection on health and safety grounds. It is important to bear in mind the proviso The report does not merely say that on health and safety grounds the new refinery facilities could be built: it stipulates that if they are built they must be built in accordance with the Executive's requirements and significant improvements which would be required are expressly stated.

But, of course, planning decisions rest not with the Health and Safety Executive but with the local planning authorities and, in some cases, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, and in reaching any planning decisions with regard to future development in the area they will have full regard to the report. Since my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has to exercise a quasi-judicial function in relation to the planning cases before him, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot say anything at this stage about the merits of the various arguments that are being advanced for or against the proposed developments. But I can say that my right hon. Friend will carefully consider all relevant representations made before he comes to a decision.

As the hon. Gentleman will know from the reply which my right hon. Friend gave to his Question yesterday, it is my right hon. Friend's intention to reopen the earlier exploratory inquiry into whether the permission granted to United Refineries Ltd. should be revoked. This will enable interested parties to comment afresh in the light of the Health and Safety Executive report. The hon. Gentleman said that the conclusion in the report about the building of new refineries was illogical. It will be open to those who oppose the project to argue this at the public inquiry. We shall be in touch with the company and the local planning authority about the arrangements for reopening the inquiry.

As the hon. Gentleman may have seen in the press, Occidental has been reconsidering the commercial aspects of its proposed developments in the area, and has decided at the present time not to go ahead. My Department has been told by the company that it is the company's intention to withdraw its appeal, and so my right hon. Friend is not now rearranging the postponed inquiry into this appeal.

As I have said, these arrangements will ensure that my right hon. Friend will be able to make his decision in the light of the new knowledge provided in the HSE report and of the observations of interested parties on it. It seems to me important to stress that, by arranging for this very complex and detailed investigation to be undertaken by the HSE, the Government have proved their determination to show, as in the case of Windscale, that important planning decisions should be taken in full knowledge of all the implications for those likely to be affected.

The hon. Gentleman closed his speech by calling for a number of explicit assurances. As I am sure he appreciates, most of them bear on matters which are not the direct responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. In so far as the interests of other Secretaries of State are concerned, I shall, of course, bring the relevant points to their attention. Meanwhile I would stress that the Health and Safety Executive is already holding discussions about all the improvements suggested in the report with either the firms concerned or the appropriate authorities.

On the risks to people living close to major hazards, the method adopted by the team was to select specific regions for assessment of the risks, and no fewer than five of those were on Canvey Island itself, all comparatively close to the three installations on the island. Research into the behaviour of fuel gases is in hand and account is being taken of experience world wide, including the report of the General Accounting Office to the United States Congress, which, although published as recently as last Monday, is already being studied by the Health and Safety Executive, as indeed it appears to be by the hon. Gentleman. The recommendations in that report mentioned by the hon. Gentleman refer to the siting of new terminals and expansion of existing ones.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman has already been assured by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment—but I am glad to repeat the assurance—that he and the other hon. Members concerned, as well as the appropriate local authorities, will be kept informed at regular intervals of progress on the implementation of the report.

Before the Minister sits down, may I ask whether he feels that, in view of the very detailed requests put by him, my hon. Friend is entitled to an assurance that he will get answers from the various Ministers with whom the Minister will want to confer? The Minister said that he would refer these matters to his colleagues, I understand that, as, I am sure, does my hon. Friend. But it would be appropriate that my hon. Friend should know that answers will be forthcoming from Government sources to his specific questions.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. In so far as I have not been able to answer the hon. Member for Essex, South-East, I can give the assurance that where questions have been put my right hon. Friends will see that replies are given him. As I indicated at the end of my speech, it is our intention to keep the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, the House, informed of progress.

12.50 p.m.

With permission I should like to say a few more words. I thank the Minister for the courteous and effective way in which he has tried to answer my questions this morning. I realise, of course, that a number of matters do not fall within his province, and I am grateful, therefore, to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) for extracting a promise that I shall get detailed answers later to all my questions.

I am not reflecting in any way on the way in which the Minister has sought to answer me, but I fear that there is one matter on which he did not touch. This is so serious that I must draw attention to it again.

The assessment by the Health and Safety Executive of the degree of risk to people living in the area is an overall assessment. The area investigated is nine miles long and two and a half miles wide at its widest. Common sense shows that if people in the area generally are at three times greater risk than the rest of the population from an industrial accident, those who live very close to the methane terminal—in fact on its doorstep—are more exposed to danger than those who live, for example, two miles away.

I specifically asked for a revised assessment by the Executive of the risks to people who live very close to this major hazard. Perhaps the Minister was not equipped by his advisers to answer this point this morning, but the answer is of paramount importance to the people of Canvey who have to live with these hazards day in and day out. I think, therefore, that a fresh assessment should be made of the risks to which these people are exposed.

I gather from the Minister's reply and from the letter that I received from the chairman of the British Gas Corporation this morning that there is no intention whatsoever of closing down the British Gas terminal on Canvey Island and that the Corporation will be permitted to continue importing the same quantities of LNG and LPG as it has done up to now. I have already given an example of the way in which the chairman of the British Gas Corporation tried to fool the public by saying that no LPG was being handled at that terminal. I am glad to hear from the Minister this morning, a fact confirmed to me by the Health and Safety Executive and the petroleum licensing authority, that that statement is untrue.

There is LPG being stored on Canvey Island close to people's homes. It is being stored with no particular object in mind. It is a hazard and it should be removed. I want an assurance from the Minister that steps will be taken to remove such material from Canvey Island.

The sooner the British Gas Corporation is told that in the end it is answerable to this House as a public corporation and takes heed of people's anxieties and fears about the liquefied gas stored on Canvey Island, the better.

I promise to keep on and on about this until Canvey Island is made safer than it is now and safer even than is envisaged in the report when its suggested improvements have been carried out. I hope, therefore, that I shall get detailed answers to all my questions from the Department of the Environment and the other Departments involved.

Roads (Northumberland)

12.55 p.m.

I am very glad to have the opportunity before the House rises for the Summer Recess to look at some of the problems confronting road users in Northumberland and the local authorities in dealing with the difficulties.

Northumberland is a county of small and scattered population. It is the sixth largest in area but it has the lowest population density—only one person per five acres. This may give us a pleasant sense of having room to move, but it imposes on the ratepayers the heavy burden of maintaining the enormous mileage of roads through the county. That mileage must be maintained through the very severe winter conditions, which is an added difficulty.

These roads are not just local roads. Many serve as trunk roads for long-distance traffic between England and Scotland. However, only three have trunk road status and as such are fully financed by the Ministry of Transport. Only one of these—the A1—runs through north Northumberland, which is the subject of the debate today. The rest depend, to a large extent, on local ratepayers' resources. They are very extensive in mileage and expensive to maintain because of the heavy use by traffic passing through the county.

On the question of the A1, I warmly welcome the clear and specific commitment which the Government gave in their White Paper on roads five months ago that bypasses must be provided for towns and villages on the A1 north of Newcastle—"notably Berwick-on-Tweed". I welcomed that commitment at the time, and I know that it is still a commitment which the Minister seeks to honour. I shall ask him for some specific times and assurances when he answers today.

Some of the work of bypassing communities on the Al has already been done. I was with the Under-Secretary when he opened the bypass at Warenford in rather better weather conditions than those we are enjoying now, and in the pleasant surroundings of Northumberland. I took him on that day to see how urgently a bypass was needed at Belford where so many frightening and tragic accidents have occurred because of the heavy vehicles coming down the steep bank in the town. The route for the Belford bypass has been selected, but work is not due to begin until well into 1980.

In a letter to me in May the Minister promised to try to improve on this starting time, and I hope that he will be able to speed things up. He said that some of the procedures might take longer than first expected. The financial commitment to the bypass makes it possible to go ahead earlier than late 1980, providing the legal side of things can be dealt with reasonably quickly.

Work is already proceeding at Felton, and I hope that the Minister can give us an approximate date for the completion of this bypass and an indication when the hard-pressed people of Felton can expect some relief from the heavy traffic which grinds up the steep main village street.

Of course the biggest project is the bypass for Berwick itself. The town of Berwick is now strangled with traffic. Anyone who goes there in the holiday season will see it at its very worst. The most intense traffic is jammed for long periods through the streets, having to pass through an extremely narrow arch which is part of the town wall, and in which vehicles periodically get stuck. This causes considerable damage to an ancient monument and long disruptions and delays to traffic. It must be remembered that I am talking about the A1, the country's first-named and primary road—the main route between England and Scotland. It is also the road which pours all its heavy traffic into the centre of the small historic town of Berwick.

I am very concerned that this bypass project should be kept up to schedule. I am particularly anxious that a possible delay may have arisen because of the failure to agree between the Department of the Environment and the Northumberland county council about the link road which is needed from the Tweedmouth trading estate to the bypass and which will bypass the village of East Ord. There is so much concern about this link road in Northumberland that the county council has felt it necessary to lodge a holding objection to the route which has been chosen for the bypass. This difficulty must be resolved quickly and in my view there is one easy way to resolve it—that is, by the Department of Transport building the link road as part of the bypass project.

Let me explain why this should be done. This link road is needed to connect the bypass with the Tweedmouth trading estate which generates a great deal of the heavy traffic that will use the bypass. The Tweedmouth trading estate contains many factories, including a large factory which distributes food in large quantities in refrigerated vehicles both at home and for export. I hope that the Minister gets his frozen pastry from Berwick-upon-Tweed, but if he does it will come in a heavy vehicle that will want to use the new bypass.

The estate contains a regional lorry park. It also contains maltsters and in the barley season there is an enormous traffic of heavy vehicles carrying barley from farms all over the region. If the link road is not built the whole of that traffic from the trading estate and the town on to the bypass will go through the village of East Ord. That village, far from benefiting from the bypass, will have the commercial traffic through its narrow streets multiplied at least three times over.

The people of East Ord, having with a measure of reluctance accepted that their environment and the local peace will be disrupted in the wider interest by the building of a bypass very close to them, will feel indignant if, far from being able to see some net benefit, they finish up very much the worse off, with their own village street filled with traffic which is not there now but which in future will go that way from the trading estate to the bypass.

The borough council at Berwick firmly believes that this link road was intended to be part of the scheme when it accepted the chosen route. I was present when the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvingrove (Mr. Carmichael), then a Minister in the Department of the Environment, came up and opened an exhibition of the bypass plans. We had many discussions at the time. Everybody went away that day thinking that the Tweedmouth trading estate link would be part of the bypass scheme. This influenced people's attitude to the choice of routes. I am sure that it influenced the attitude of the borough council and the attitude of potential objectors in East Ord, who felt that the route, for all its other difficulties, was acceptable as long as there was a separate way for traffic to get from the trading estate to the bypass.

The county council points out that in financial terms it will cost the Department very little extra to build this road rather than to leave it as a county road. From the point of view of those involved locally, the idea of leaving it to be built subsequently as a county road is unacceptable. It will have to find a place in an already crowded pool of county projects, to which I shall refer in a moment.

In the Department's own terms, the additional cost of going ahead with this link road now would not be very great. If the road is not built, a great deal of money—at least £70,000—would have to be spent on the existing road through East Ord to enable it to take heavy construction traffic while the bypass is being built. That is not an attractive prospect even in the short term, for the people in the village. In addition to that money which would have to be spent, the Government would contribute about £210,000 if the link was built as a county road. Therefore, why not get on with the job now?

There is a further factor. The county council has already spent £100,000 without any Government support building a regional lorry park in Tweedmouth, as requested by the Government. I think that it is right that the council should have gone ahead with this important project, but that project also depends upon access to the bypass. Since the county has carried out this work expecting that it would be Government-aided. and since it has done this so far out of its own resources, I think that it strengthens the case for tackling the link road as a Department of Transport project, integral, as it is, to the bypass. We would not need the link road if it were not for the bypass being built. However, construction of the bypass makes it essential.

I ask the Minister to re-examine the matter and to give the go-ahead to a vital link and to ensure that it does not delay the Berwick bypass. Nobody could criticise people in East Ord if they decide to object to the chosen route and thereby cause delay, having decided that their own village will suffer so badly. I should be appalled if this important project to which the Minister and his Department attach priority were delayed or jeopardised over this issue when the amount of money involved from the Department's point of view is not very large.

While I am dealing with the issue of Berwick and its bypass, perhaps I should mention the problems of pedestrians. Roads are not just for motorists but present severe problems to pedestrians who must get across the roads. I ask the Minister to try to do so some day on the A1, on the road just beyond the arch which I have described at Castle-gate in Berwick, or to imagine an elderly person on his way to hospital trying to do so. There is a desperate need at that point for pedestrian crossing facilities.

Year after year pleas from me and from the borough council have not been accepted. I was pleased to be given a reply from the Minister on 21st July indicating that he had asked for a full report and was prepared to re-examine the matter. I gather that the need for a refuge or island for the pedestrians has now been accepted by most of those concerned. That would go some way to help—but why not go the whole way and have a proper pedestrian crossing?

People who live in places with problems such as I have outlined—whether in Berwick, on Tweedmouth or anywhere else in the country—get frustrated when they are told that there are mysterious criteria reposing in the Department of Transport in London which determine that people can get across the road quite satisfactorily without pedestrian crossings. The fact is that they cannot and that they need that kind of help.

Let me turn from the specific improvements and bypasses for which general plans have already been laid to the general standard of the A1. There are some matters which I should like to draw to the Minister's attention. Even with these bypasses, is the A1 between Alit-wick and the border a safe and adequate road for the kind of traffic which it carries? I do not believe it is. Thousands of motorists, local and visitors, agree with me. The trouble is that it carries a lot of heavy traffic. It is augmented at this time of the year by a large number of caravans, and all this traffic is reduced to a crawl on the steep banks which are part of that road.

With only a single carriageway in each direction, the car driver finds that he has no chance of overtaking these long convoys of slow-moving vehicles. Even when he comes to one of the longer straight stretches, which have been improved and on which the Department has spent a great deal of money, he finds that he is not very much better off. If there is even steady intermittent traffic in the opposite direction—not heavy traffic, but periodic cars coming in the opposite direction—he has no chance of overtaking them. The cars coming towards that motorist are coming fast, and if he has six heavy vehicles and four caravans in front of him, he needs a very long stretch of clear road indeed to be able to overtake in safety.

After five, 10 or 15 miles of crawling along at 20 miles an hour, the frustration builds up and the motorist takes a chance. That is how serious accidents happen. The motorist gets fed up with being stuck behind all that traffic and pulls out when he should not do so. He takes a chance, he thinks "I can get past these first six vehicles", he finds no space opening up in the convoy—and that is where the dangers and accidents occur. I would not like to count the near-misses I have seen when this kind of desperate overtaking brings a car into the wrong carriageway in the path of a fast-moving vehicle.

From just south of Alnwick through to Scotland there are no dual carriageway sections at all. The whole of the A1 is a single-carriageway road, and at times it is just a steep and winding country lane. Even where it has been improved and the Department has put resources into it, the result is still a road on which it is not safe to overtake unless traffic in the opposite direction is mysteriously absent.

I recognise that dual carriageway all the way may be more than we can afford at present. In any case, I would be reluctant to see a lot of good farmland taken up for improvements on that scale throughout the county. I have much more modest suggestions which could improve the A1 by creating opportunities for safe overtaking. What we could have more of are crawler lanes in the uphill direction on some of these steep banks to give cars a chance to get past the slow, heavy convoys. I note that a crawler lane is part of one section of the proposed Berwick bypass, but there are other places south of Berwick where this is also needed.

The Minister answered a Written Question from me yesterday on this issue. I asked him whether he would
"revise the design standards for the improvements of the Al north of Morpeth so as to ensure that sufficient opportunities exist for motorists to overtake heavy vehicles and caravans in safety."
The Minister replied:
"I consider that the design standards for the proposed improvements on the Al to the north of Morpeth provide sufficient opportunities for motorists to overtake heavy vehicles and caravans in safety."—[Official Report, 2nd August 1978; Vol. 955, c 349.]
I hope that the Minister is speaking of the proposed improvements because I do not believe that the improvements made so far have that effect.

It is disappointing and frustrating to see that when a lot of money has been spent improving a road, the result is something which is still unsafe. I take it that the Minister was referring to what he is proposing to put into the Berwick bypass and not to the other sections, but even if the bypass provides more opportunities for overtaking, we shall still have 30 or 40 miles of road where these opportunities do not exist. I ask the Minister to look again at the feasibility of putting in additional lanes at a few selected places to give the motorist a chance to get past.

My second suggestion is that the road markings should be reviewed. At present, the effective width of an improved carriageway is reduced by a 3 ft. strip on either side which is marked off by a white line. A few of the drivers of heavy vehicles pull in over this white line and allow cars to overtake without crossing the centre of the road. That is helpful because it is possible for a car to get past a lorry on any of the improved sections if the lorry pulls over the inner white line. However, most drivers seem to think that this strip is some sort of hard shoulder and that they should stick to the centre of the lane.

Why waste six feet of good road surface which could be used to facilitate overtaking? Surely if drivers of heavy vehicles realised that they could pull over to this section without having to slow appreciably, they would be more willing to do so. Is it necessary to mark off so wide a section of properly surfaced and maintained carriageway so that it serves no purpose at all and we end up with vehicles travelling in the mid-point of their lanes and ensuring that any motorist who overtakes must encroach on the opposite lane? At present, motorists have to wait 15 miles or so until they find a safe gap or encroach dangerously in the path of an oncoming vehicle.

Some of the old sections of improved road, such as those just north of Morpeth, have the old system of three separate, slightly narrower lanes. There has been criticism of that system and it is suggested that it causes accidents and dangers, but I am beginning to wonder whether that claim is justified and whether the three lane marking does not give at least some chance of overtaking. In some places where the A1 has been improved on the modern basis, the Department might just as well not have bothered because the effect is still that we have a road on which it is not safe to overtake. However neatly the edges may be maintained, however smart the white line looks and however impressive this width of carriageway appears, one cannot pass a line of heavy vehicles without the risk of hitting an approaching vehicle.

One of the consequences of the convoys that build up on the A1 is that cars and heavy vehicles are transferring to the A697, the road which goes from Morpeth to Scotland. This is not a Department road and is not maintained to the same standard. It depends on the stretched resources of the county council, yet it carries as much traffic as does the A68 trunk road. There are at least two villages that are urgent cases for community bypasses in the sense that the Government use those words, and others are not far behind.

The narrow main street of Longfram-lington is a nightmare for those who live in the village and have to cross the road as heavy vehicles go through at considerable speed. Powburn is a similar case. There is a sharp bend and the village vividly remembers how one family woke up to find a heavy wagon in its sitting room. The lorry ploughed right through the front of the house. Bypasses are suggested for both these villages in the county transport programme, but there is no date for the work to start. The situation in those villages is desperate and I beg the Minister to recognise that and to help Northumberland to deal with it.

There are other places where the A697 is extremely dangerous, including the stretch leading north out of Wooler and the stretch through Milfield village. They also require attention. I hope that in the Minister's general assessment of Northumberland's road needs, he will take account of the considerable additional heavy through traffic which is using that road.

I want to divert the Minister's attention from the hill country to the problems of the town of Amble because there is a serious problem of road access to the town and all our efforts to build up industry in that unemployment blackspot are weakened by the appalling road communications which depend on twisting country lanes and which bring heavy traffic through narrow streets in Broomhill and Red Row. The alternative road access via Warkworth is even worse, as the Minister will know if he has been that way, because it is already a narrow, twisting country route and is in a particularly bad state because of the disruption that is being caused by the sewerage scheme there.

There is a golden opportunity to get decent road access to Amble. It is presented by opencast coal mining which is taking place on a very big scale in the area through which any new road would have to pass. The whole of the area south of Amble is a scene of major opencast coal working and the communities in that area are having to put up with a great deal. They are making a major contribution to the country's energy resources and are paying a price for it.

The opencast work leads to road diversions and rebuilding of roads to which the National Coal Board contributes. It would be a tragedy if the opportunity is not taken to build a decent road to Amble which could link up with the Northumberland spine road. Amble has been beyond the end of the road for far too long and I hope that the Minister will put his weight behind a major improvement now that we have the chance to do it. For heaven's sake, let us make use of the resources that will be available. Let us not simply tinker around with the existing road system at a time when we have to do something anyway and when there are resources available from the NCB which can be matched with anything the county and the Department can do.

It would be a great mistake if this opportunity is not seized. If we get proper road access to Amble, the industrial development and the trading estate there will take off in a way that it has not been able to do before. I am convinced, from many years of experience, that poor communications are one of the great drawbacks to our efforts to help that town.

Another problem of which the Minister will be aware is bridges. The county has a serious problem in the number of old bridges which are listed buildings and with which the Department of the Environment is concerned. There are 44 bridges which are listed buildings which still carry traffic in Northumberland and another 660 traffic-carrying bridges are more than 100 years old.

The classic case is the Twizell Bridge on the increasingly busy road from Berwick to the central borders via Cornhill. That road gets busier every year and the bridge, having been built 500 years ago, was obviously not designed with modern traffic in mind. It is very narrow and is set at an extremely bad angle to the road. It is a scheduled monument and very beautiful bridge and a weight limit has had to be imposed upon it. The detours for heavy vehicles are on ludicrously unsuitable roads. The county council has a project in its programme to build a new bridge and to divert the road, leaving the old bridge standing. This clearly needs the Department's blessing and I hope that, in view of the Governments' interest in the old bridge as an historic monument, that blessing will be readily forthcoming.

Northumberland has serious problems of road maintenance. Last winter, more than £1 million had to be spent to deal with winter conditions. We sometimes feel that although problems in Scotland and the West Country are recognised, we have very bad winters and a terrain that makes dealing with them difficult, but we get left out of consideration.

Scotland, Devon and Cornwall have had special Government help to deal with last winter's problems. Northumberland has very bad winter conditions and exactly the same problems, but we have had no help. The county is having to shoulder an extremely heavy burden without the help that has been offered to other areas. We had the snow and the frost, too. In the February snow storms, every available resource had to be channelled into keeping the main roads open and we had to pay for all the damage that was caused. The failure of the Government to channel some help to Northumberland is a source of deep resentment.

There has also been resentment in Northumberland over the years because so much of the road improvement work has been concentrated in the south-east of the county. Now that the problems of the roads in the north are beginning to be recognised, I hope that the Minister will understand what a heavy burden Northumberland has to face for a county with such a small population.

I suggest that a proper development of Government policy would be to concentrate on the projects that I have outlined. That approach would be directed towards separating heavy traffic from the community. I understand that that is something that the Government wish to do. It would be directed towards increasing road safety. It would be directed towards a fairer distribution of national resources. I believe that my suggestions would be cost effective. That has not been true of some of the road improvements that we have seen in the past. There have been massive improvements to many existing dual carriageways, but we have had improvements that have not made the road that much safer.

The Minister knows Northumberland and I know that he likes visiting it. He has experienced some of the conditions for himself. I hope that he will recognise Northumberland's needs and help it to meet them.

1.21 p.m.

It is pleasant to have even a short debate about Northumberland, especially at this time of the year when our thoughts are turning away from the House towards our holidays. Northumberland is a lovely part of the country. I am sure that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is deeply fond of it, and so am I.

The hon. Gentleman has gone over the road problems with a fine toothcomb. Scarcely one problem has not caught his eye. I shall attempt to deal with them in more or less the same sequence that he used.

First, I turn the attention of the House to the A1 that runs through Northumberland from north to south. There have been many improvements, large and small, carried out on the A1 north of Newcastle to make it a better and safer road. Over the past 10 years about 14 of the 32 miles between Alnwick and the county boundary have been improved at a cost of over £4·5 million.

The hon. Gentleman will recall attending with me the opening of the Warenford improvement. That is typical of the sort of improvement that has made a considerable difference to not only those who travel along the Al but those who live in the villages along that route.

Warenford is an attractive village but it experienced 31 accidents over the eight years before the improvement was made. No fewer than four accidents resulted in fatalities and five resulted in serious injuries. I am glad to say that since the bypass has come into being there have been no accidents in the vicinity of the village. That is a considerable benefit.

I shall say something about bypasses in the context of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, including safety. It has to be said that many bad stretches of road remain that go through many villages and towns and that these are being dealt with.

The accident record of the A1 north of Newcastle is rather better than that of most comparable roads in other parts of the country. I accept that within that broad average there are some black spots. The hon. Gentleman referred to some of the black spots. I shall deal with the by-passses to avoid the black spots.

Further improvements are now in train and will continue over the next five years. They will result in 28 miles of improved single carriageway out of a total of 32 miles. That is a high proportion and it shows the priority that we attach to improving conditions on the A1.

The hon. Gentleman was scathing about our approach to dualling the A1. He felt that much more of that work should be done. I understand his feelings. However, as he said, economic justification is required. In ensuring that we spend money wisely, we must carefully consider the standard of road that we are providing. It is probably better to provide more bypasses by making a few of them single carriageway although I accept that single carriageway roads are an inferior solution. However, that is probably a better approach than constructing fewer bypasses but of a higher standard. That is the problem that the Government have to face.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of cogent comments about safety conditions for drivers on the A1. In particular, he referred to crawler lanes and road marking. He was right in supposing that yesterday I was referring to proposed schemes on the A1 rather than existing improvements. I can tell him that there will be a crawler lane provided as part of the Berwick bypass, with which he is especially concerned. There is a particularly steep gradient at one point. It is the Department's policy to provide crawler lanes on steep gradients where necessary when dealing with single carriageway roads. That is something to which we give careful attention.

I totally accept the hon. Gentleman's argument that to the layman changes of road marking may seem small improvements. If the road continues to be a single carriageway, there is still the problem of overtaking, especially when there is a large amount of traffic consisting of caravans as well as large lorries. I take the Ion. Gentleman's point about 3ft. widths. I shall look into that. Obviously the reasons for such markings are largely those of safety.

The hon. Gentleman should remember that the Warenford bypass is a road that has no bends. It is not true to say that we need not have bothered because the improvement has been so small. We now have a straight road and it is possible to overtake when traffic conditions allow. Before the improvement was made it was not possible to overtake, even if there was no other traffic, because of the sharp bends in the old road. There has been considerable improvement for the driver let alone those who live in Warenford.

I am delighted that we had the Warenford improvement. It is now a straight stretch of road and there is some chance of overtaking. I criticise expenditure in those cases where there is created no new alignment but where the surface is improved, the carriageway is slightly improved and white lines are painted on more or less the existing alignment. Sometimes that work is done by the hon. Gentleman's Department. In many instances it is the only sort of marginal improvement that the county can make. In such instances money is spent on small improvements to the existing carriageway. We should reconsider whether we are getting value for money by making such improvement.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument. He raises an interesting point and I shall ask my officials to give it consideration, especially as it applies to parts of the Al with which he is concerned. I shall ask my officials to let me have a justification for our present policy as well as asking them to give consideration to the alternative policy that he has suggested.

I turn to the bypasses on which we are rightly concentrating. The hon. Gentleman asked me whether I could give any further information on timing. I wrote to him recently about the Belford bypass and gave him the latest information. I cannot improve on that today. It still looks as though it will be late 1980 before work starts on the scheme. It will be roughly October 1980 before we start work on the Alnwick bypass. Those bypasses will take roughly two years to complete. That is the present timing. It is difficult to see how we can improve on that but if that is humanly possible we shall do so. The bypasses enjoy a high priority in our work load. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my officials are giving the two bypasses the requisite attention.

The Felton bypass is now getting steadily under way. We hope that it will be open to traffic at the end of 1980 or the beginning of 1981. The bypasses are pretty well on target given all the procedures that they have to go through.

I turn to the Berwick bypass. Formal proposals for the Al bypass, which will bypass Tweedmouth, Scremerton and East Ord, were published earlier this year by the Department. The proposed route, which was chosen overwhelmingly by the public, the local authorities and the amenity societies following public participation, will substantially reduce the congestion and environmental damage that Berwick has suffered. Public exhibition of the plans illustrate the proposals. The exhibition was at the town hall in June.

The bypass will be 5¾ miles long. It will have a two-lane carriageway with a third crawler lane where necessary for slow-moving traffic. No houses will be demolished because the new route passes through mainly open farmland. The effects of severance will be kept to a minimum. Landscaping will be carried out where necessary to make the road fit into its surroundings. The site of the proposed bridge over the Tweed is the least conspicuous of the alternatives that were considered at the time of public participation. Copies of the draft order showing the proposals are now available for inspection. It is known that it is likely that there will be objections to the side road orders for the bypass.

The Berwick borough council considers that the proposals should include a bypass for East Ord, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, on the A698. That road runs from Berwick across country to Coldstream. The A698 is a principal road and as such is the responsibility of the county council as the local highway authority.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that it does not really matter whether the road is built by the county council or by the Government. The financing is little different in either case. If it is built by the Government, financing is 100 per cent. by the Government. If it is financed by the county council, 90 per cent. or so of the money will come from the Government through the rate support grant and the transport supplementary grant. We are not talking about great differences in finance.

This is a principal road and the responsibility of the county council. It should build this connecting road. I urge the county council to give it a high priority and we shall look at it sympathetically. If the county council gives it high priority in its next transport policies and programme we shall ensure that funds are available for it. It is important for the county council to decide on the priority that it will give that road. We shall not hold it back financially. That means that the road can be built as soon as possible.

What matters to the people is that the bypass will be built. They are not concerned about who builds it. The county council has already agreed its transport policies and programme on the assumption that the road will be built as part of the bypass. That assumption was made by many people when they agreed to the original route. If we know that the road is to be built as part of the bypass there will be no objections to the scheme. But if it has to go back into the melting pot of next year's county programme people are bound to wonder whether they should allow the bypass to proceed.

It is odd that the county council should have assumed that the Government would build this road. It is a county road. It always has been. Except as part of a major trunking exercise there is no question of the Government building or improving roads which are the responsibility of a county council.

The scheme need not go back to the melting pot. There is plenty of time for the scheme to be developed to fit in with the building of the Berwick bypass. There is no reason why the two should not be built simultaneously.

It is a question of the county council giving it the correct priority. We urge it to give the road high priority. We shall treat it sympathetically if the county council decides to give it a reasonable priority so that it can be built almost simultaneously. I am sure that with co-operation between the county and ourselves this can be achieved.

But we must operate within the existing framework of legislation which gives county councils responsibilities for certain roads and the Government responsibility for others. If we were to alter that in one case we should be inundated with similar proposals for the Government to build bits of road throughout the country. We must stick to existing responsibilities. I am surprised that the county should have thought otherwise. It is possible for sensible progress to be made. I shall instruct my officials to work to that end.

The hon. Member also mentioned town centre congestion, which must be examined separately. There is a case for a co-ordinated approach over a longer term towards the problems of the protection of the historic buildings in Berwick and those of local traffic circulation.

A working party drawn from the Department of the Environment, the county council and the Berwick-upon-Tweed borough council has been considering these problems and has prepared a first draft report which sets out conclusions and recommendations. The final report is likely to be produced as a working document.

The hon. Member also mentioned a few local roads. He mentioned the Long-framlington bypass and the Powburn bypass. These are the responsibility of the county council, which is the highway authority. It is for it to determine the priorities that it attaches to these roads as part of its overall approach to transport in Northumberland. I cannot say more than that about those two roads.

As the hon. Member said Twizell Bridge was built 500 years ago when it was not expected that it would have to cope with the traffic which now uses it. The bridge has deteriorated. It has been necessary to restrict its use to vehicles weighing less than five tons. This causes long diversions. It is for the county to determine the need for a replacement bridge in the context of its transport policies and programme. We shall look at this matter sympathetically if the county council decides that it should be given priority.

The hon. Member also mentioned the problems of Amble. Those problems are different from those about which we have been talking. It involves access to the town. I was interested in what the hon. Member had to say about this. I should like to consider the matter at greater length.

Part of the problem arises from the new facility which the Ministry of Defence is constructing at Amble. I understand that the Ministry intends to provide for the building of an access road to that station which will solve the problem. I shall consider the matter more fully when I have the opportunity.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed also mentioned the pedestrian crossing at Castlegate. In a letter of 21st July I indicated to him that there would be an examination of the case for a pedestrian crossing. In the meantime my Department has authorised pedestrian refuges. They should help people to cross that road in safety. But I shall examine the case for a pedestrian crossing carefully.

The hon. Member also raised the question of the general treatment of the county because of its small population and high mileage of trunk and local roads. That gives the county an unusual characteristic compared with other counties, but that characteristic helps the county. The transport supplementary grant is related to the size of the population. The smaller the population, the lower the threshold for the grant. Grant is given above the threshold and therefore the county receives a larger grant. Northumberland benefits from the construction of the transport supplementary grant. In the last year the TSG allocation was £2·3 million, at November 1977 prices. That figure was higher than the corresponding figure for other comparable shire counties.

When we receive the submission for transport supplementary grant for the next financial year we shall bear in mind the hon. Member's remarks when examining proposals for Northumberland.

The hon. Member is right to say that maintenance is a special problem in Northumberland because of its northern latitude and because there is such a high proportion of roads in relation to local resources. We have cut maintenance nationally in the last three or four years within the public expenditure restraint policies. But now the amount of money spent on maintenance has stabilised and it should not be reduced further. It is probable that in certain counties expenditure might increase in the next few years. We expect expenditure on trunk roads to be increased in the next two or three years. More money will therefore be available for maintenance. I know that Northumberland always gives maintenance a high priority when it is preparing its transport plans, and I believe that to be right, given the amount of road surface it has to look after.

I think that I have covered all of the points that the hon. Member made. If there is anything that I have not covered I shall write to him about it, but I think that what I have said indicates that we attach a high priority to Northumberland's problems, and that we also recognise the special nature of those problems.

Council House Sales (Birmingham)

1.40 p.m.

I welcome the opportunity to take a small part of the time of the House to initiate a short debate on the sale of council houses in Birmingham. Some time ago the House had a longer debate on council house sales. There was in particular a half-day Supply Day debate in May 1976. In that debate I mentioned a few of the new forms of tenure which had been initiated by the Labour-controlled Birmingham city council. I said then that the council proposed in 1972

"the half-and-half mortgage scheme. That scheme is now followed by many towns throughout the country.
Birmingham further proposed the purchase and improvement mortgage scheme for selling what were council-owned properties built before 1919, along with an improvement grant as part of the mortgage. Both those schemes were held back by a Conservative Government, the so-called flag-wavers for owner-occupation. Both those schemes from a Labour-controlled authority would have led to more owner-occupation".
I said then that the schemes would have led to more owner-occupation, and they have led to it since.

That initiative by the Labour-controlled city council at that time fitted in well with the programme to encourage owner-occupation that has been followed under successive Labour Governments. It fits in with the mortgage option scheme, with leasehold reform and with the building society stabilisation fund. In this Session we have passed the home Purchase Assistance and Housing Corporation Guarantee Act, which will give help to first-time buyers, including buyers of council houses, and that is something that the Government have been too shy to take credit for. It will take some time the savings scheme to start, but the Bill, having received Royal Assent, is now an Act.

I also said in the 1976 debate:
"I know from personal experience that a great majority of the people who purchased during those six years"—
and I was speaking of the six years 1966–72 when the policy of selling to sitting tenants operated in Birming-ham—
"are still living in those houses today. That is irrefutable and is something no one can deny or would wish to deny. Those people purchased their houses because they had every intention of remaining in them. There is no beating about the bush on that. That is why they are still there."—[Official Report, 18th May 1976; Vol. 911, c. 1273–75.]
Now just over two years later, that basically remains the case in Birmingham following the introduction of the policy of selling to sitting tenants. It certainly remains the case for those who purchased in the early 1970s and the late 1960s.

In spite of misguided belief outside this House, I have not come here today to attack the principle of council house sales to sitting tenants in Birmingham. I emphasise "to sitting tenants". To do so would be dogmatic and would also be indirectly attacking the Cabinet, and on what will probably be the last day of this Parliament I certainly do not wish to attack my right hon. Friends. I realise, of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this may be your last day here, too, occupying that Chair. I understand that you will be retiring, but I shall be seeking reelection.

Between 1966 and the middle of this year there have been 12,180 sales to sitting tenants in Birmingham. That is less than 10 per cent. of the total housing stock. That 12-year period includes two years when there were no sales, and one year when there were only 29 sales. Those figures hardly show an overwhelming demand among tenants to buy council houses. They are the most up-to-date figures we have from the city housing officer.

I do not think that people are buying to make a quick profit. The rules are so rigorous that anyone buying at 20 per cent. discount must sell the house back to the council at the original purchase price if he wishes to sell within five years. That hardly provides the opportunity for a quick and vast profit. With the 30 per cent. discount the pre-emption clause obliges purchasers to sell back to the council for any time up to eight years at the orginal purchase price. That does not give the opportunity for a quick killing. Over that 12-year period only about 200 of the houses that were sold have been bought back by the city council under the pre-emption rules.

Some of the reasons for people selling back to the council in the pre-emption period throw a revealing spotlight on the shady corner of capitalism and the operations of the fringe banks. Some people have sold back because they got into trouble with second mortgages, particularly in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Part of my constituency consists of a massive pre-war council housing estate with more than 9,000 council houses. When it became known that the policy was to sell to sitting tenants the sharks from the City, such as operators running banks like Cedar Holdings, went into such areas in the city telling people that since they were owner-occupiers they could borrow money on the basis of their ownership of property.

One constituent of mine lost his family home. He had three second mortgages on his house from two fringe banks. They totalled £3,000. He was in a mess because the banks were threatening to foreclose, and he was unable to keep up his original mortgage payments to the city council on the house or those on the subsequent three mortgages.

He clearly had not spent the money on the property, and he told me that he was a car worker and that for a hobby he was a pigeon fancier. Using his house as collateral he had borrowed the £3,000 to further his hobby.

That might seem incredible to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, and maybe there is a funny side to the story. However, the man lost his family home because he had been unwisely encouraged by these murky fringe banks. They had not encouraged him to spend the money on the property, and he had used it to travel all over the country with his pigeons so that they could fly great distances back to Birmingham. That is an extreme example, but it is well known that in Birmingham many people were persuaded to borrow money in this unwise fashion.

Many people have bought their council homes with an eye to the future, perhaps with the intention of moving when they retire. They may have family reasons for returning, say, to Wales. Many people in Birmingham, particularly among the elderly population, are of Welsh extraction. People came from Wales to Birmingham before and during the war seeking work. Other tenants who have purchased may have done so because they may know in advance that their job moves them around the country and they may need flexibility in housing.

I think that it is well recognised in the House and outside it, in the Department of Employment and certainly the Manpower Services Commission, that local authority housing rules, in which respect Birmingham is not strange, are usually so tight and rigorous that they are a major factor in holding up personal mobility, especially concerning employment oppor- tunities. That is why we have had to introduce schemes to enable people to move around the country to places where there are vacancies for jobs for which they have a skill when no one else with that skill is in the area. Such people have trouble in regard to housing mobility.

I have with me the latest figures for Birmingham. I have a constant problem advising my constituents who want to move out of Birmingham because of a job vacancy and people who write in to Birmingham having found a job there. Since January 1976, roughly two and a half years ago, there have been only 57 transfers into the city of Birmingham and 37 transfers out of the city. The housing officer gave me those figures a couple of weeks ago. On that basis, Birmingham city housing authority is owed 20 moves by various housing authorities around the country.

People have to find their own move, anyway, and then get permission for the exchange to go through the relevant housing authority. I just do not believe that those figures—57 into the city and 37 out of it—are a true reflection of the need for mobility in a city of 1 million people with 140,000 council-owned dwellings. The same picture can be painted in many other parts of the country, particularly the large cities.

Following publication in April 1975 by the Catholic Housing Aid Society of a pamphlet by Frank Field entitled "Do we need council houses?", there was quite a rumpus up and down the land because this paragon of Socialism dared to question the need for council houses in the traditional form that we understand. Frank Field is the director of the Child Poverty Action Group and the Low Pay Unit.

In an interview published in Labour Weekly of 16th April 1976 following the rumpus over his pamphlet, Frank Field made this very important point about mobility. I quote one short paragraph:
"On the Left we are not as forceful as we should be about extending the individual freedom of the majority of people: freedom from the restrictions imposed by bureaucrats and freedom to move about the country."
Frank Field went on at length to elaborate on many of the cases that had come to the notice of the poverty lobby of housing difficulties which sometimes could have been solved by people being able to move to a different job but being prevented from doing so through problems of moving house.

Both major parties are talking about tenants' charters at great length. We are constantly hearing about what the Conservative Party will offer the people. We know from the press what the Labour Party's proposals are, although they are still being shaped. An announcement has been made this week. We also know from statements in the House and outside it—and we shall find out again today—the Government's policy on this matter. It is something that needs clarifying, even if the Government only set it out clearly for the record so that we cannot, later in the year or early next year, be misunderstood by our political opponents or by the citizens concerning the Labour Government's position.

But why are both major parties concerned with tenants' charters and tenants' rights? I just do not believe that it can be a symptom of both parties suddenly deciding that people are not getting a fair crack of the whip in regard to the deplorable quality of some of the repairs from which tenants suffer, or the lack of repairs. After discussing this matter with some of my colleagues—mainly in private, for many reasons that will be obvious— I honestly believe that one of the reasons is the point that Frank Field mentioned in his interview.

The point about the growth of the corporate State and individual freedom has got home. It has got home to a section of the population that does not look at matters in that way. It is certainly not the way in which the Conservatives look at them, because they put forward this particular policy in a very indiscriminate way, as I shall be pointing out shortly, which is morally indefensible. The Conservatives do not argue the growth of the corporate state and the problems that have been raised in the House during the last four years as a reason for that policy.

It was certainly argued in that way by the influential columnist of the Daily Mail, Keith Waterhouse. He wrote a column on this subject after there had been a rumpus and some problem in Birmingham, and there had been a big debate in the House. His column was entitled "Square Deal for Serfs." It said:
"My belief is that when people do buy their council houses, it is not as a rule because they have any great urge to join the property-owning democracy"
—I have pointed out some of the pitfalls that at least one of my constituents encountered in that respect—
"Their main incentive is to get out from under the council's thumb. They want to paint the front door any colour they like, grow the privet hedge higher than the regulation three feet, hang out the washing on Sundays, and other heady freedoms".
That was a fair point.

On the concept of the corporate State and the erosion of the liberty of the individual, my own party is on record in very similar language. I know that I shall be charged with quoting out of context, but there is no way in which that charge can be substantiated. In "Labour's Programme for 1976", the basic policy document from which many of our policy pronouncements are drawn, there appear the following two sentences:
"There is a growing danger in this age of bureaucracy that the rights and freedoms of citizens will be infringed by large and powerful organisations with which we have increasing contact. We believe there is a need to tip the scales away from public and private concentrations of power back in favour of the individual."
That was a general comment on the particular issue of individuals and the growth of the corporate State. It can be set against many of the policy options. I have severely berated the Government over the issue of open government and the growth of outside bodies that are not properly responsible to the elected representatives. That comment can equally be applied to social policy. If that statement does not mean that there is a need to spread wealth and power throughout the community, I do not know what it means.

One sometimes has to take a gloomy view about the future, although I am an optimist by nature. I have to consider some of my constituents who are working for companies which may be State-owned enterprises that are not necessarily controlled by people who are sympathetic to the Labour Party, who are also living in tied accommodation owned by authorities which may at some time in the future not be sympathetic to the Labour Party. This put some of my constituents and those of other hon. Members in an invidious position. I wish to do anything in my power to protect the majority of my constituents from falling into the trap of being owned hook, line and sinker, because that is what could well happen.

I cannot blame my constituents for wanting a release from the serfdom of Birmingham's housing department, the officials of which have sometimes treated my constituents with utter contempt when they have complained about simple matters such as the quality of housing repairs or the lack of repairs. I receive, as do my councillor colleagues, many complaints from constituents who say that they have been threatened with being put at the bottom of the list for repairs because they went to see their councillor or Member of Parliament.

It is very difficult to prove these things. Sometimes the complaint is lodged in the name of the tenant and sometimes the complaint has to be made as a general complaint because people are fearful of their name going on to the lists of the little Hitlers who man some of the repairs depots and offices. This point worries many hon. Members. It worries many councillors in Birmingham.

My hon. Friends and I certainly wish to see the end of private landlordism. I make no bones about that. But I do not want to see the great sins of private landlordism translated into what one might term public landlordism in its worst and most objectionable form.

That is why I thoroughly applaud the growth of co-ownership movements and housing associations. Even Birmingham city council, under its present leadership, deserves the credit for opening in my constituency the first co-operative organised by tenants. The city's housing department has actually set up a co-ownership co-operative in Bardfield Close, off the Walsall Road. I applaud that, even from the present leadership. It has been accepted by people of my party because it fits in with the new forms of tenure introduced by the council when it was under Labour control.

I know from private conversations with colleagues, both Members of Parliament and councillors, that many people—not all, I admit—will agree with much of what I have said so far. They would also agree with my distinguishing between sales to sitting tenants and sales to those who are not sitting tenants, as happens in Birmingham. That is the main basis of my argument with the present policy.

I also believe that the Cabinet agrees with every word that I am saying. Its members do not exactly shout it from the roof tops, but I said this in a letter to the Prime Minister a couple of months ago, explaining the problem in Birmingham and saying what we should do to combat it:
"It is clear to me that a majority of the Cabinet are not opposed to the above policy. We have never made any general attack on the principle of Tory local authorities carrying out the policy."
We take that approach under a circular that has not been rescinded since I have been a Member. Arguments have been put from the Dispatch Box defending the application of the policy in principle but attacking it where it hits people who are disadvantaged and discriminates against the public in general. Our new Home Purchase Assistance and Housing Corporation Guarantee Bill has given help to first-time buyers to buy their own homes. That is a positive and sensible policy and we should say so. It has not been said loudly enough for me.

In his reply to me, the Prime Minister went some way to explaining part of the policy that the Minister will elaborate today. I had made the case that Birmingham is now selling to people who are not sitting tenants and had made a great point about the social disadvantages of this and some of the undesirable quirks. My right hon. Friend replied:
"In last year's Green Paper on housing policy we proposed a rational policy on sales. We acknowledged the advantages in authorities allowing their tenants to buy their homes, if they so wish. But we also made it clear that we oppose council house sales where these would impair an authority's ability to deal with pressing housing needs or to maintain a housing stock of adequate quality for renting. The new system of housing strategies and investment programmes provide the necessary opportunity to give practical expression to this approach. Indeed in the light of emerging local strategies and programmes and rates of sales Peter Shore is now looking at the form of the present Ministerial consent under which authorities normally sell. This year, he has specifically asked local authorities, in giving a detailed outline of the local housing situation in their strategy statements, to state their policy regarding the sale of council houses and its implications for the strategy as a whole."
When Birmingham answers that questionnaire, it will be in trouble over the policy of selling to non-sitting tenants.

In his most important paragraph, my right hon. Friend continued:
"In this way, it is becoming possible to make a realistic assessment area by area of the consequences of council house sales for our primary housing objective. That objective must remain a decent home for all families at a price within their means. The emerging picture suggests that in many places, both metropolitan districts and elsewhere, sales are acceptable. But there remain important areas where a serious shortage of housing accommodation still exists, and where sales would still be harmful. Unfortunately, in some of these areas, authorities are nevertheless selling council houses indiscriminately and without apparent regard to local needs as a whole."
That is exactly what is happening in Birmingham at the moment. He went on:
"I agree that we should not be shy about the benefits of council house sales, and I think that at the same time we should emphasise the local authorities' primary housing function of providing decent accommodation to rent and that in some places sales may seriously impede this. We shall be able to present this balanced approach in a way which shows up the irresponsibility of the policies of the Opposition."
When Birmingham started selling in 1966, the then Tory leader, Alderman Griffin, wrote a pamphlet, published by Tory Central Office, based on the first few months' experience. He clearly said more than once in that pamphlet that the aim was to sell to sitting tenants. At one point, he said:
"Our purpose was to sell to the sitting tenant for personal occupation."
Later, he used the words
"to sell houses to sitting tenants."
That is no longer the policy and it is this change to which I and the Labour councillors take the most fundamental objection.

It is on record that the Labour group's policy is not to sell anything. It is not the private policy of many individual Labour councillors, but it is the group policy. However, they are to a man—as I am—opposed to what is happening at present.

It is unfair and morally wrong to sell empty properties, because that means that families who have queued up and waited years living in tower blocks with their children are now prevented from having, on the basis of human need, a house with a garden. That is where the greatest damage will be done and that is what Ministers have to attack, rather than hanging this party on the hook of opposition to sales in principle.

I pointed out to the Prime Minister that selling off empty houses in this way encourages people to jump the housing queue, and it means that the disabled, the sick, even those in the medical quota scheme, are not given their rightful place in the queue.

The policy in Birmingham is to sell the lot. I am told by the city housing office that so far—the policy started only this year—96 such houses have been sold but I am informed that there are 1,000 further empty dwellings in the pipeline to be sold.

When the first 29 of those empty council houses were offered to flat dwellers—that again seems desirable—they were examined by a councillor using his rights to look at the record. I will not quote any individual cases, because that would be wrong, but it appeared that not one of those people would have qualified for a house on the existing points system in Birmingham. Ten were not even registered for transfer, five had no housing need on the basis of the number of rooms in the flat for size of family and 10—this is even worse—had been tenants for less than a year. Several had a bad rent-paying record and some of the 29 had at some time or another received notice to quit for rent arrears.

Yet on 23rd March 1978, the city housing officer put report no. 17 to the housing committee for approval to sell off those 29 dwellings. There was a little trouble about it and I think that they were all withdrawn so that the matter could be looked at again in more detail.

They are even selling off houses in Birmingham which have been modified under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, at great expense. I take great exception to that. This money was found out of public funds to modify these houses, and they are then sold. One assumes that when they become vacant again the housing department will try to house another disabled person with a similar disability, in conjunction with the social services department. But it does not work that way.

I put this to the housing officer a year ago and I was told:
"Where properties which have been adapted for the disabled become available for reletting there is never any certainty that the Council can in fact relet the property to someone for whom the adaptations are suitable, and in many cases it is not possible."
This is crazy. In a highly sophisticated city such as Birmingham, with highly paid officials running computer systems, I do not see why we cannot organise our affairs better than that. These houses were modified at public expense for disabled people. There are known disabled people in inadequate housing who cannot get the repairs or adaptations done because of cuts in local government expenditure. That is not a system that ensures that we get a square peg in a square hole and a round peg in a round hole.

I support the Government's policy as at present announced both in the Prime Minister's letter and in speeches in the House, even though the Government do not exactly shout about it. But we must tackle the indiscriminate way in which things are being done in Birmingham now with the selling of empty properties, that is, not to sitting tenants. This is only encouraging queue jumping and giving the whole system a bad name.

I do not have a tower block as such in my constituency. There is a block of eight storeys—hardly a tower block—which overlooks park land, and nobody is trying to get out of that. It is in a beautiful location. But there are elderly people whose children live on the other side of the city centre in tower blocks. These are people who need support and assistance, which they should be able to receive but which the social services department cannot provide. The families in those tower blocks cannot now be eligible for a property near to their parents, and the consequence is that the parents suffer in health and they suffer psychologically, too. They get very bitter about things, and rightly so.

We should assist some of our fellow citizens at least to become their own masters, not by giving them public property as some suggest—that does not actually happen in Birmingham—but according to the correct system, with strict pre-emption clauses such as apply at the moment to stop quick sales and, what is more, with a reflection in the price of some of the rent which has been paid by the tenant which has had the effect of partly purchasing the property.

The present system—a one-off lump sum for everybody, with 20 per cent. off for a five year pre-emption or 30 per cent. for an eight-year pre-emption—is totally wrong when someone may have been a tenant for only a year and someone else may have been a tenant for 30 years. People should not be classed together under the same system.

I have raised this matter because I regard the present situation as totally wrong and I am certain that it will get worse. There have been only 96 empty properties sold to date, but with 1,000 more in the pipeline, so I am told, there will be a great bitterness. That is why I have raised this matter, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will condemn Birmingham's policy root and branch and give some hope to my elderly constituents who want their children to be able to come to live near them. They may not be able to afford to purchase anyway, but they should be given the opportunity of a fair crack of the whip under the lettings system which was being operated in Birmingham until March this year.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise to the Minister and to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre), and I promise to be as brief as I can. I courteously and conscientiously waited until my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) had finished, and the consequence is that I may literally have missed the boat.

This is the matter which I wish to raise with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There is on the river, or there was when I came into the Chamber to raise this matter some 35 minutes ago, a boat carrying about 150 people representing animal welfare organisations—in fact, probably representing hundreds of thousands of people in the country. They are there on the river to try to protest to Parliament about the export of live animals and to raise other animal welfare matters.

I am not sure whether the presence of those people on that boat is in any way in conflict with the Sessional Order, but I understand that the authorities have agreed at least to turn a blind eye to their presence on this last day of the Session. However, a difficulty has arisen on which I should like some guidance from the Chair.

Those representatives of animal welfare organisations on the boat, which I left about three-quarters of an hour ago in order to come ashore—I was assisted by the river police, and for that I am grateful—were hoping to convey some message to Members of Parliament on the Terrace by means of a loud hailer. They were advised that that would inconvenience Members. I gather that the Serjeant at Arms gave that advice to the police, and it was accepted.

I came here with a message from the boat and hoped at least to be able to respond to the demonstrators on the boat by means of the loud hailer with which I was provided and which I brought with me. I thought that I could do that in just two or three minutes to acknowledge that the message had been received and that some of us in Parliament had taken notice of their presence.

Understandably, the police were a little diffident and worried about whether that would be in breach of the ruling given by the Serjeant at Arms, and I therefore decided that I should come into the Chamber to seek the advice of the Chair on whether it could be held to be in any way interfering with the convenience of Members on the Terrace, none of whom had objected, and whether I might be permitted on behalf of colleagues present today to acknowledge what the animal welfare organisations have been doing.

I wish to make clear that I make no complaint against the police or the Serjeant at Arms. All I am asking for is an authoritative ruling from the Chair on whether I may acknowledge receipt of the message by means of what I believe to be a directional loud hailer which may be heard on the boat but certainly would not be heard anywhere on the Terrace or in the offices above. I should be much obliged for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me due notice that he wished to raise this point of order. I am satisfied that the authorities of the House are correct in the action which they have taken, and I am satisfied also that they are correct in their view that it would be an improper use of the Terrace to address the demonstration by loud hailer as the hon. Gentleman has indicated he would wish to do.

May I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and say therefore that I have no intention, on the basis of your ruling, of making improper use of the Terrace.

2.16 p.m.

In company with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), I strongly support the Birmingham council's policy for the sale of council houses to sitting tenants, and I too, have strong feelings about the many difficulties in administering Birmingham's vast council estates in a humane and understanding way.

Having introduced two council tenants' charter Bills into the House, I cannot understand why the Government blocked those Bills on each occasion and prevented proper discussion of the serious problems which affect council tenants not only in Birmingham but throughout the country. But I think that the hon. Member for Perry Barr has totally misunderstood the Birmingham council's present policy on the sale of void houses. He took a long time to come to the point on that and has left little time for me to make a reply.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Basically, I came here today to have a debate with my hon. Friend the Minister. It is my hon. Friend's reply that I wish to hear, not the comments of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre), who did not tell me that he wished to take any time in the debate. When one of his colleagues asked me about it yeste— day, I said that I should need at least half an hour for my speech and the Minister would take the other quarter of an hour.

I have heard what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) has said and I take his point, but I think it right to allow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre) an opportunity, very shortly, to make his case. I remind the hon. Gentleman, however, that the Minister requires time to reply. Although it is not a rule of order that this debate must finish at half-past two, it would be unfair to those hon. Members who have debates to follow if it were to be extended.

I was saying that the hon. Member for Perry Barr has seriously misrepresented the situation in respect of the policy on the sale of void houses. Out of the total of 150,000 council dwellings in Birmingham, 100,000 are houses, and these are preferred by tenants, for reasons which are easily understood. Of the remaining 50,000 dwellings, too high a proportion are high-rise flats unsuitable for families with small children.

Many thousands of tenants wish to be transferred from the tower blocks. The fact is that too many tower block flats and other forms of ill-designed blocks of flats have been built in Birmingham, with the consequence that a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of affairs exists for Birmingham council tenants, since many thousands of dissatisfied flat dwellers cannot hope to get transfers within reasonable time to the houses which they would prefer. Any politician who pretends otherwise is only exploiting human emotions. There is a serious human problem here with which we should all like to deal.

The present leaders of the Birmingham council give priority to families with children for transfer from tower blocks and flats to houses. For obvious reasons, they have no choice but to give that priority, and it is plainly correct.

The nub of the council's policy on the sale of void houses, to which the hon. Gentleman referred in critical terms, is that these void houses are sold only to council tenants with children—in other words, the same category with priority for transfer from flats.

If the tenants are tenants of houses, those houses become available for tenants moving from flats. If they are tenants of flats, those flats also become available to people in housing need. But I emphasise that the void houses concerned are not the best houses, which are those built in recent years, with modern fittings and facilities.

The void houses offered for sale to council tenants with families are unmodernised pre-war houses built in the 1920s and 1930s. They are 40 to 50 years old. If they are sold to council tenants who are enterprising enough to take responsibility for purchase and to spend their own money and labour in doing up those older houses, that is wise administration by the council. Otherwise the cost of modernising those houses, which now averages as much as £5,000 per house, would fall upon the housing revenue account. Therefore, there is a saving of public expenditure in that respect.

If the hon. Gentleman suggests that that is unfair to people within the priority groups that I have mentioned, council tenants with children in their families—

council tenants within those priority groups, he should acknowledge that those purchasers are willing to undertake the extra responsibility and to use their savings to the benefit of the public purse. What can be wrong in working people improving their family's situation in those circumstances?

2.22 p.m.

In view of the point of order, which quite properly had to be taken during this debate, and the intervention of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Eyre), I hope that if I stray over the allotted time by two or three minutes the House will understand.

I welcome the opportunity of replying to this debate on the very important matter of council house sales. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) has done the House a service by raising the subject. His viewpoint is both welcome and distinctive. He has discussed both national policy and the sales policy of the Birmingham city council. I welcome and share my hon. Friend's practical and realistic approach to this matter, which is in sharp contrast to the rigid and dogmatic stance that has been taken by the Conservative Party on the sale of council houses.

My hon. Friend referred to the letter which he has received from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I would not aspire to improve on that letter which explained the Government's policy on the sale of council houses and pointed out that we recognised the advantages of council house sales in appropriate circumstances. But it also made clear that we opposed sales where they hindered our primary and overriding housing objective, which is that all families should be able to obtain a decent home at a price within their means. For many people this can only mean renting from the local authority. Where there is a shortage of housing accommodation to rent, what is needed is the provision of more council homes, not the disposal of what is already potentially available.

Local authorities are best placed to judge the appropriate sales policy for local circumstances, but, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out in our housing debate in June, they should act responsibly in exercising their freedom to make decisions about the sale of council houses. They should formulate their proposals to sell as part of an overall strategy for housing in their areas, remembering that the need to provide an adequate supply of rented accommodation is paramount.

We are keeping a close eye on the national picture, and especially on the areas of housing stress. The new system of housing strategies and investment programmes asks local authorities amongst other things to relate their sales policy to overall needs. This year, as my hon. Friend knows, local authorities have been specifically asked to state, in giving a detailed outline of the local housing situation in their strategy statements, their policy regarding the sale of council houses and its implications for the strategy as a whole. The existing general ministerial consent means that authorities make most of those sales without any reference to my Department, but we are keeping the form of this consent under review in the light of the local authority strategy statements and investment programmes and of the rate of sales generally.

I should now like to say a few words about the sale of empty houses. In common with some other authorities, Birmingham has a policy of putting up for sale council houses which have be- come vacant and reletting them only if they fail to sell. I am told that there may soon be a crude surplus of houses over households in Birmingham, but there remains a substantial degree of substandard housing, overcrowding and sharing.

It is wrong, especially in areas of stress, to sell off council houses which are still badly needed for letting. The Government are deeply concerned about the sale, in these circumstances, not only of council houses which fall vacant but also of new developments originally intended for letting. We are watching this situation closely, especially where sales may be damaging the prospects of families getting a decent home within their means.

The hon. Gentleman has made his point, and I shall not take the time of the House by giving way to him. We are already over time.

If need be, we would consider whether we should act to curb sales, certainly of homes which become available for renting where there is still a strong unmet need.

Part of Birmingham's policy is to sell off some houses built between the wars to council tenants with families. I understand that the houses are in need of modernisation and that part of the bargain is that purchasers should themselves carry out the modernisation. That is at first sight an attractive proposition, so long as the purchasers can expect to get back what they spend in the form of an increase in the value of the house. But the fact remains that, though they need improvement, many of the inter-war council houses are basically good places in which to live—solidly built and with adequate gardens—and I seriously suggest that the council should consider again whether it should itself improve more of these houses for letting to families still in tower blocks or other unsuitable accommodation.

I turn to the subject of houses for the disabled. My hon. Friend expressed concern about the sale of council houses which have been adapted, sometimes at considerable expense, for the benefit of disabled people. It would be singularly irresponsible for an authority to sell such houses to people who did not need the special facilities. But it would be another matter for a council to allow disabled people to buy houses which had been converted for their use. The Government are, of course anxious that disabled people should have the same opportunity to own their houses as the able-bodied, and buying the council house in which they live may be the only such opportunity for some.

I understand that Birmingham has sold one or two specially equipped houses to disabled tenants. I would not see any objection to this in principle. To avoid a risk of former council houses so converted eventually being sold to those who do not need the facilities, it is open to a council to ask for special ministerial consent to sell, subject to a very long-term right of pre-emption at market value, thus helping to ensure that the house could remain available for disabled people.

My hon. Friend referred to the Home Purchase Assistance and Housing Corporation Guarantee Act, which has just been enacted. He said that it should assist first-time purchasers of council houses as well as purchasers in the private sector. Some purchasers of council houses buy at the full market value, assuming vacant possession, and are thus in no different a position from that of others buying on the same terms. But where people buy council houses at a discount it has been suggested that the Act gives such purchasers double help.

I do not accept that there is double help. Discounts are allowed on council house sales only where restrictions are imposed on early resale. Market value remains the basis of the sale, but the effect of a five-year restriction could be to reduce the market value of the house to the purchaser by up to 20 per cent. A purchaser in the private sector is not subject to such a restriction. He can benefit at once from any increase in the value of his house. The purchaser of a council house at a discount cannot do so.

In any event, it is a feature of our scheme for first-time buyers that people benefit whether or not they are getting assistance from any other quarter. We take no account of the fact that some people may get help from their families, from their employers or even, I suppose, from their landlords. Under our new scheme, first-time purchasers qualify for help by saving, not because they cannot look elsewhere for assistance.

I know very well that the practice of allowing discounts on council house sales has attracted criticism from some of the Government's supporters. In fact, as they now stand, the arrangements for this were introduced by the Labour Government in 1967. The general consent for council house sales continues to allow a discount of up to 20 per cent. where restrictions are imposed on resale within five years. One restriction is the local authority's five-year right of pre-emption at the original purchase price, which in its own right is a valuable facility for the authority.

Before 1974 it was the policy of the then Government to allow 30 per cent. discounts with eight-year restrictions. This was a reflection of their policy of everywhere encouraging sales. The present Government oppose indiscriminate selling. In our view, the 20 per cent. maximum discount remains a reasonable basis for council house sales and it is not our policy to grant consent for higher discounts. On valuation grounds, the terms providing for a discount of 20 per cent. and a pre-emptive period of five years are still realistic.

To sum up, our approach is one which is not based on dogma. We look to local authorities to act responsibly and sensibly in exercising their freedom to make decisions about sales and to do so in the light of local conditions. We shall, however, continue to keep the position under close review.

Hospital (Huntingdon)

2.31 p.m.

I wish to refer to the need for a new general hospital at Huntingdon, a hospital which is many years overdue. My constituency is one of the fastest growing in the whole country. But hospital facilities at Huntingdon, St. Neots, St. Ives and more than 50 surrounding villages have grown scarcely at all in the past 100 years. The present hospital was built over 100 years ago and had about 50 beds serving a population of around 20,000. Now it has to serve over 100,000 people with only 62 beds.

Improvised arrangements give us an operating theatre, an X-ray department, an outpatients department and one or two other services. However, the antiquated and cramped conditions of the hospital are utterly unacceptable and have long been acknowledged to be so by all concerned. The nearest other hospitals are 20 miles away in three different directions —at Cambridge, Peterborough and Bedford. To collect people from some of our villages or from the Great North Road, where accidents occur, and take them to one of those hospitals often involves a round trip of 50 miles. Visiting becomes a great burden for relatives.

During the past 16 years I have made frequent requests for a new general hospital to be built at Huntingdon. This is my maiden speech on that subject although it could conceivably have formed the subject of my maiden speech 33 years ago. It has been accepted that we should have a new hospital. The land for it has been available for many years, at Hinchingbrooke, in the park. There we have, I must concede, a fine new geriatric hospital which replaces an old Poor Law institution for old people. That is not the same thing as our need for a new general hospital. Three times we have been promised an early starting date for the hospital. The last occasion was last November when I took a deputation of hospital workers, local representatives and the leading doctor concerned with the hospital to see the Minister of State, who received us most sympathetically.

It was then agreed between the East Anglian regional health authority and the Cambridge area health authority that preliminary planning for our new hospital should start at once. That was with a view to providing 204 new beds in this hospital by 1982 and increasing it to 450 after that. But, of course, both those figures can be achieved only if the preliminary work started when it was said that it would start, last November, and if the programme was adhered to.

Last month, to our great dismay, we had the frustrating news that only 56 beds were to be built by 1982. This is fewer than we have in the present, obsolete, hospital. We were also told, incidentally, that we would have to keep the old hospital going and that there would have to be further improvisation in those cramped conditions. This is not good enough. The reason that we have so far been given is that the Department of Health and Social Security and the health authorities have failed to agree upon the plans for the new hospital.

There is no question of difficulty over cash. It was accepted last winter that the hospital was within the cash limits and within the budgets of the area health authority and regional health authority. There is no problem of finance, as is so often the case when projects are delayed. It is said to be failure by the authorities concerned to agree upon the plans. I do not know who is to blame. Perhaps the Minister can offer some explanation. It may be that he will gladly accept some responsibility on behalf of his Department. I do not know.

It is disgraceful that there should be this delay. Administrators at every level should now stop arguing among themselves and get on with the job. My constituents are fed up with these postponements and excuses which we have had to suffer for so many years. I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell us that he will knock some heads together and let us know when the building of our much-needed hospital will at last start.

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) for giving me an opportunity to set out the exact position relating to the development of Hinchingbrooke hospital at Huntingdon. In view of the somewhat misleading statements which have recently been made in the local press I can appreciate the concern felt by the right hon. and learned Member and his constituents, and I hope that in the time available to me I can go some way to allay his fears on this matter.

I can assure the right hon. and learned Member that the East Anglian regional health authority and the Cambridge area health authority (teaching) which are responsible for the provision of health services in Huntingdon are fully aware of the need for an early completion of the proposal development of Hinchingbrooke hospital. As the right hon. and learned Member is aware, the first two phases of the development, comprising the residential accommodation and 112 geriatric beds were completed in March 1976 and were occupied later that year. Space for a further 56 beds is at present being used to accommodate the geriatric day hospital and service departments, and cannot be bought into use until these are reprovided.

The decision to make an early start on phase III of the development is a relatively recent one. In July 1977 the regional health authority's proposals included financial provisions for a start in 1985–86 with completion in 1988–89. The area health authority, in reviewing the area needs, gave first priority to a new unit at Addenbrookes hospital, Hills Road, Cambridge, the completion of which would provide beds to permit the closure of the old Addenbrookes hospital at Trumpington Street, Cambridge, in or about 1982. The regional health authority considered, however, that the proposals put forward by the area health authority for this development could not be completed in time to permit the closure of Trumpington Street in 1982. It concluded that the most that could sensibly be encompassed in the next stage of development in Hills Road was a block containing a geriatric department, together with 28 beds for general acute purposes.

In order partially to offset the loss of beds in Cambridge, and in order to redress the existing inadequate facilities, in Huntingdon—and there is no dispute between us and the right hon. and learned Gentleman that they are grossly inadequate—it was also decided, in November 1977 that, in parallel with the Hills Road development, a start should be made on phase III of the development at Huntingdon, possibly by adapting a "best buy" scheme to the site.

The merits of this proposal lay in the immediate availability of prepared plans and the fact that the "best buy" hospital was devised to suit a catchment area broadly similar to that which looks to Huntingdon for basic health services. The availability of suitable prepared plans would, it was hoped, allow the hospital to be designed and built as rapidly and economically as possible, and before the closure of the Trumping-ton Street hospital.

A draft programme presented to the regional health authority in January 1978 made provision for phase III at Hinchingbrooke to start in September 1978 and to comprise half the "best buy" hospital, containing 210 beds. The estimated contract period was 36 months, and the estimated total cost £10·6 million.

It may be that, in their eagerness to complete this development before 1982, the health authorities were setting themselves too tight a schedule. As the right hon. and learned Member will appreciate, a scheme of this nature cannot be settled without full consultation with all concerned. In this case, a Hinchingbrooke working party was appointed to deal with the detailed content of the development, and was given the task of examining the feasibility of matching the proposed half "best buy" package to the specific requirements of the area health authority and the university.

Provisional requirements were received in April, but the final proposed allocation of beds to specialties was not agreed until 23rd June, when it was suggested that, of a total of 204 beds, 56 should be allocated to general medicine, including paediatrics; 84 to surgical specialties including paediatrics, general surgery, orthopaedics, urology and gynaecology; 14 to general practitioner obstetrics; 28 to adult psychiatry and 22 to psychogeriatrics.

In the meantime, however, because of the complexities of the discussions, the steering committee which had previously dealt with the Cambridge study team report of December 1975, which set out projected requirements for future hospital services in Huntingdon, had been reconvened. At a meeting of the steering committee held on 28th June, regional officers intimated that they now had doubts about the suitability of a "best buy" hospital at Hinchingbrooke. Factors leading to this view were as follows.

First, the latest appraisal of the regional capital programme gave some cause for concern around the year 1981–82 due to changing timetables of a number of schemes in progress, for reasons outside the control of the regional health authority.

Secondly, they considered that the changes which had been proposed locally in the content of the hospital suggested that a "best buy" design was now perhaps less relevant for the planned development.

Thirdly, they felt that the Department would prefer to see a nucleus design adopted at Huntingdon in preference to "best buy". Perhaps I should explain for the benefit of the right hon. and learned Gentleman and other hon. Members that "nucleus" is the latest standard planning guidance issued by the Department and is based upon the use of standard modules of accommodation, with the provision of the essential nucleus of hospital facilities in the first phase and a capability of subsequent expansion of bed numbers and Departments to form the total hospital.

I should further explain, for the benefit of all hon. Members who are having new hospitals contemplated in their areas, that the nucleaus design is an extremely good one; it is a very efficient method of hospital building, not merely from the point of view of cost control, planning and construction, but from the point of view of flexibility for future expansion and development. It is a design that we are trying to market, and with some success, in overseas countries where there are much bigger hospital building programmes than we have.

Basically, it is the sort of design—and without a diagram and model I cannot explain this too well, not being a technical expert—whereby one can tack on modules one after the other because it is not based on the idea of building an enormous tower block, a design which is much less flexible if one wants to change the future use of the hospital to accommodate the changing needs of the population for which health care is being provided. By and large, my Department has a very high regard for the nucleus concept of hospital design, which has been developed by architects in the Department. I have been overseas with them selling the idea to other Governments, so we are very much enamoured of it.

While it is true that the Department is encouraging the use of "nucleus", I think I should make clear that my officials had never been asked to give views on the relative merits of "best buy" or "nucleus" in relation to this project. The regional health authority had written to the Department in November 1977 seeking an assurance that the principle of "best buy" was acceptable, and the Department confirmed that we did not object in principle to its using well-tried plans which it found acceptable.

We warned, however, that the timetable appeared to be very tight and that we would want reasonable assurance that the proposed starting date of September 1978 was realistic before we could rule out alternatives to the "best buy" design, such as "nucleus". It was suggested that the realism of the timetable seemed crucial in this respect, and an assurance was given that the Department would do all it could to help.

The steering committee asked the working party urgently to consider the possibility of using a nucleus design or some alternative form of development, and proceed on the basis of the bed content as previously agreed. It was asked to prepare, for consideration by 12th July, a planning programme which would not be substantially different from that proposed for the modified "best buy" development. The working party responded later that month with a report which concluded that, although it would be feasible to design an alternative development most of which could be based on nucleus, the consequence—serious from the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point of view—would be to delay the start on site until 1981 and completion until 1984. I make this point because that is a serious factor which the Department had to take into account as well However, there have been further developments since then.

Regional officers discussed the various alternatives with departmental officials yesterday, and the right hon. and learned Member will be glad to hear that the proposal for a "best buy" design will now be pressed ahead by the regional health authority with all possible vigour. Work is expected to begin on site in June 1979. with commissioning in the autumn of 1982.

I am most grateful to the Minister for that latest news. It offers much greater hope. But will the Minister say whether that is a plan for the first instalment of 204 beds as originally intended?

Yes, indeed. I can assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman on that point. There may have been arguments about the precise number of beds but I do not think there has been any argument about the scale. The right hon. and learned Gentleman, in his opening remarks, made a very powerful case for this development taking place as quickly as possible. Now, with the backing of the regional health authority and the area health authority—it had to fit in with plans which had to be changed in Cambridge—I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his constituents will get the new hospital facilities to which they have long looked forward and which I am sure they deserve.

In the light of what I have said, I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is satisfied that the hospital has not been dealt a death blow, as has recently been reported in the local press. Far from it. There is no question of planning being restarted from scratch, nor was there any question of the hospital being a "bits and pieces" hospital, as was also reported. Huntingdon will receive a hospital built to a well-proven design at as early a date as is physically possible.

Ships' Officers (Training)

2.51 p.m.

I am glad to have the opportunity of raising a question on which I have had considerable correspondence with my hon. Friend the Minister. It is a question that affects not only my constituency of South Shields on Tyneside very directly but, indeed, the whole country in a sense. It is concerned with the training of those who are to be responsible for our ships at sea, which is a matter of supreme importance to all of us, and nowhere more than in my home constituency. A high proportion of seagoing officers and men are based and living in the town. This has been traditional over very many years.

I have had correspondence with the Minister on the question of installing in the Marine and Technical College in South Shields a ship bridge simulator for use in training. In his reply the Minister has made clear to me that the development of two such simulators has been authorised or recommended, with substantial Government support, but no statement has been made as to the training institution to which those simulators are to go. One prototype is already in use in Southampton, and I understand that more than one or two others are in use overseas. In particular, there is a simulator at Delft in Holland, to which I shall refer in a moment.

The Marine and Technical College in South Shields—to which we are asking that the simulator should be sent, and to which it should be attached—is an internationally famous college, training some 3,500 full-time marine students, of whom 500 are overseas students. It is, I think, the largest training college, or at any rate one of the largest training colleges, in this country, and is renowned throughout the world.

We have been somewhat concerned because the Department of Education and Science—I realise that this is not my hon. Friend's responsibility, but I hope that he may have a word about it with his ministerial colleague—is at the moment insisting upon a cut-back of about 10 per cent. in the number of overseas students, and is apparently trying to apply this generally to technical colleges all over the country.

We are dealing here with a unique situation. A large number of the overseas students are on short-term courses of a matter of a few months, and there is no comparison with the position of the average student in the average technical college. What is more, the overseas students are very largely employees of British shipping firms. This again puts the matter in a rather different light. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to have some conversation on this important matter. Indeed, I dare say that he is already in touch with the Department about it.

This marine college serves not only the town of South Shields, where it is a very important institution and quite vital to the town. It also serves the country as a whole, and particularly the North-East of England. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) is present. He has a close interest in the shipping industry and knows how important this matter is.

We regard this exciting new development of the simulator—I understand that it is of British design—as of very great importance indeed in the campaign to increase safety at sea. I am sure that that is why the Minister's Department has been pressing for the production and allocation of further simulators of this kind.

A matter of rather special interest is that Delft University, where a simulator of a similar kind is now in use, has appointed one of the senior staff from the Marine and Technical College at South Shields on secondment, in effect, in order to help in the preparation for the use of the simulator and in the training of the staff there. This would make it all the more absurd if the very institution that is internationally recognised for this particular purpose were not to be chosen when the opportunity arises to allocate the simulator.

Clearly, it is vital that a college of this sort should be able to maintain its very high reputation for the work that it does. It has, after all, had in use for some years a radar simulator, and is one of the leading institutions for the use of radar simulators. We are, therefore, most concerned that the college should not slip back. We want it to remain in the forefront and to have this latest possible acquisition which is needed for training purposes.

Another aspect of the question is the housing of the simulator. It is right that the Government should be concerned not only with the allocation of the simulator but with ensuring that it is properly housed, so that proper use can be made of it. In this connection, there is the possibility of making use of an historic listed building in Shields which was at one time a customs house. It has been agreed by our expert advisers that this old customs house would, with suitable alteration, be an excellent building for the purpose. What makes the matter all the more important is that the Manpower Services Commission has made clear that it would be prepared to meet the bulk of the cost, which is quite considerable, of repair and adaptation of this building, and that it would use the opportunity to provide work and training for unemployed and other workers in the area.

We therefore have this offer, which we do not want to lose, of adapting the building to the requirements for the use of the simulator and doing the other very important job of adding further training for unemployed men. Alas, as the Minister will know, we are one of the most seriously affected areas in the country in terms of unemployment. It would be of enormous value to be able to get that combination of bringing this building, which has been out of use for some years, back into such very good use and at the same time doing a most valuable training job.

My real concern is lest there should be long delay in making a decision about allocation, because we cannot take up this option of reconditioning and development until a decision as to allocation is made. My deep anxiety is that if the building were to be left in its present state much longer it might no longer be usable for this eventual purpose. It might no longer be worth while to spend the very consideable sum of money in restoring it and making it fully acceptable for this new purpose.

I have a very special reason for appealing to my hon. Friend for his support. He may know that I have also some extra personal reasons. In one of the last speeches, if not the last speech, that I am able to make in this House, it pleases me very much that it should be in respect of such a worthy purpose and should be of such considerable importance for those whom I represent. Here I am speaking not only on behalf of those who work in the shipping industry, but also on behalf of my constituents generally and those living in the wider area.

As my hon. Friend knows, I am chairman of our own shipping group in the House. We have all been very concerned about what appears to be increasing dangers of safety at sea through collision. There is no doubt—and I know that my hon. Friend is well seized of this—that the training of those who sail our ships is of the utmost importance. I would be particularly personally grateful if on this occasion he can tell me that there is every reasonable assurance that one of these simulators will be allocated to South Shields, and to the Marine and Technical College at the earliest possible opportunity and, above all, that we can get started on the work of repairing and restoring this building for its use.

3.5 p.m.

It is a personal pleasure for me to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop), who may have made his last speech in this House, although we cannot guarantee that. I am obliged to him for drawing to the attention of the Minister and the House the importance of this project.

As I am sure the House is aware, shipbuilding, and those who sail the ships are an important facet of our industry in the North-East. Because of my other activities in the House, I have been able to observe a simulator at work. To the uninitiated, it may sound like a medical term, but I can assure hon. Members that it is not. It is a highly complex piece of British technology of which the nation should be proud. It enables men on the bridge of a ship, from the master downwards, to experience what it is like, with only certain points of guidance, to sail a ship in darkness. This is of immense importance to those who sail our huge super tankers and other large vessels in narrow waters and channels. It is also of immense importance to those ships which carry vital cargoes of oil in and through the approaches to the English Channel.

I should like to place on record my thanks to all those engaged in the company which produced this remarkable piece of technical skill. It will be of immense use in our export drive. I know for a fact that other countries are intensely interested in its development. At the present time such a simulator operates in only one place, at the nautical college just outside Southampton. I regret to say that because of the demand for its use only ships' masters or captains are at present allowed to use it. I should like to see such a facility extended to other officers and cadets. However, at the present time, there is only one. It costs a lot of money to produce a simulator—£500,000. If we can produce and manufacture more, then clearly we shall have a big advantage in exports.

However, we are presently concentrating on the United Kingdom, I feel that in South Shields, where we have a marine and technical college equal to, if not superior to, any other in the world, an additional simulator should be installed. This is not merely a question of one-upmanship. I should like to see it installed because the people there have the skills and technical expertise to operate it. There are people, who have often spent a lifetime at sea, who could advise and guide others coming on the course. Above all, it would enable people to develop their expertise as first-class mariners. I would say with respect that the North-East, more than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, produces some of the finest ships' captains. This simulator will give them that additional edge which will allow them to handle these large ships in extremely difficult conditions. It will also allow them to handle such ships with normal navigational skill.

The Minister has probably anticipated my question. I know this is all a matter of economics. I know that because of cost only a certain number of these simulators can be installed. However, I wholeheartedly support the plea by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields that at least one of the new simulators, which is a tremendous advance in this area of technology, should be installed in the North-East. There is no better place than South Shields, because of the facts that my hon. Friend has stated. South Shields has the building to house this type of equipment and additional facilities to house and board the people who will come to these courses. The demand for these courses is enormous. People come from every maritime nation in the world to use the simulator.

I hope that the Minister is in a position to give my hon. Friend and me a favourable reply—not merely to two Members of Parliament, but to the whole of the North-East, which would always welcome such a boost.

3.10 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) said that he could not guarantee that the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) would be the last that he made in this House. I have no desire that it should be so, because my hon. Friend has served this House in a ministerial role, and also as a distinguished member of the Labour Party. He has also been the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party shipping group for a number of years. I have had a continual dialogue with him and his colleagues about matters affecting the safety of shipping. If perchance it should be his last speech, I do not think that he could have gone out on a better or more constuctive note. I hope that whatever happens he will continue to offer his experience and expertise in these matters to whoever holds this office in future.

My hon. Friend, reinforced by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend, has made a powerful, constructive and persuasive plea for a simulator at the South Shields Marine and Technical College.

For many years the Government have been much aware of the important role of the North-East of England in maritime affairs. My own marine division has an ample number of people from the North-East serving in it. The South Shields Marine and Technical College has always been to the fore on matters of training. It has numerous courses for masters, deck officers and engineering officers. It has cadet training schemes, radar observer courses, electronic navigational aid courses, fire fighting and sea survey courses, just to name a few. These are of great importance to the training of our Merchant Marine,

I have been conscious of the positive efforts made by the college to keep abreast of modern techniques. I know that South Shields was among the first in the field to implement radar simulation in 1960, and I have recently read the report of the head of the nautical science department in which he has shown his concern about falling behind international competitiors in the ability to provide some of the more sophisticated hardware that is available today and which is so necessary in modern tuition. Indeed, the desire of the college to install a ship simulator was brought to my attention by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields only three weeks ago. I am grateful to him for doing so.

In November 1977, a sub-group of the tanker safety group, which had been set up by the Department of Trade to consider the various aspects of tanker safety and operation, was formed to investigate ways and means of implementing a better standard of passage planning and navigational procedure in United Kingdom ships.

This sub-group produced its report in early March 1978, and this was taken by the tanker safety group on 16th March —perhaps with hidden intuition, since this was the day the "Amoco Cadiz" ran aground. That news, incidentally, was broken to me whilst I was visiting the ship simulator at Warsash—a bitter irony.

Amongst other things, the report recommended additional courses using a ship simulator and the ordering of two additional ship simulators to meet this and present-day training requirements. As the House will know, there is only the one ship simulator in commission in this country at the moment—at the College of Nautical Studies at Warsash in Hampshire.

I found the simulator a most remark able piece of enterprise. The way in which it is operated is fantastic. I hope that more hon. Members will have the opportunity to see the invaluable service it offers to the safety of shipping.

The recommendations of the sub-group are currently being examined in detail by the Merchant Navy Training Board, the body responsible in this country for co-ordinating and implementing training policies for the officers and crews of our merchant fleet. There can be no doubt that all are agreed on the urgent need for at least two additional simulators. Further study may show the need for more, but since the time taken to commission a ship simulator from the date of ordering is about two years, I am anxious to progress the implementation of these recommendations as speedily as possible.

The House will be aware of the successful conclusion four weeks ago of the international conference on standards of training, certification and watchkeeping for seafarers, held by IMCO. The convention that was adopted by this conference lays down minimum standards at sea that are acceptable on an international basis, and I am conscious that this country must remain amongst the leaders in training Merchant Navy masters, officers and ratings to the highest standards so that we can rest assured in the attainment of the maximum possible safety at sea. Ship simulators have an extremely important part to play in the realisation of this ideal.

I would like the Minister to emphasise that the technical skills and technology that have brought about the simulator should be stressed to the rest of the world. We do not want to keep the simulator for ourselves. We see a world market for it and we are prepared to sell this technology to other maritime nations.

That is absolutely right. Shipping is not simply a matter of national concern for us. We are concerned about shipping safety in the international context. That is why I referred to the very important development at IMCO in June and July this year.

The first international conference in marine simulation—abbreviated title MARSIM 78—is scheduled to take place at Southampton from 5th to 8th September this year, and this in itself shows the international interest in this equipment, particularly the simulators currently operational here, in Germany, Holland, Japan, and the United States. We have a massive contribution to make in this regard.

The House will see from my remarks that the Government are anxious to progress our Merchant Navy training facilities as expeditiously as possible. However, there remains one matter of import that has not as yet been resolved—the problem of expense. At today's prices, each of these simulators costs about £500,000, and in today's climate this is a lot of money to be found. We cannot ignore that fact. It is not, of course, a matter for my Department to resolve in isolation.

We must continue to explore all the possibilities with both sides of the shipping industry, with the various training agencies and with other Government Departments. It is my opinion that, wherever the money is found to be forthcoming, it will be money well worth spending since if this form of training prevents only one more maritime disaster it will have paid for itself.

Apart from the question of finance, we shall have to decide how best we can employ simulators on a geographical basis. There is no doubt that their optimum usage is in tandem, when a 25 per cent. increase in student output can be achieved. One simulator can serve 288 students per annum; two simulators in tandem can serve 720 students per annum.

There are many other factors that will need to be taken into account—such as the present know-how of the training staff and the prudent usage of that know-how, the actual training need in various parts of the country, training interest of prospective students from other parts of the world, the simulator's export market and whether to use daylight or nocturnal simulators or a combination of both.

My Department, at this time, will hold full discussions with all interested parties, and although some will obviously have to be disappointed, I assure my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields that the representations of his constituency will be given the fullest consideration. His plea was powerful and persuasive. Our concern will be to locate any additional ship simulators we can afford to allow their most effective utilisation in the training of present and future masters and officers. I am sure that the South Shields Marine and Technical College will rate highly in these deliberations.

I turn to the two specific points raised by my hon. Friend. He referred to the subject of overseas students at South Shields and he will know that this is a matter for the Department of Education and Science, with which I understand the South Tyneside authorities have already been in touch. I am informed that should those authorities make a submission to the Department for a phased reduction, the case will be sympathetically considered.

On the point made by my hon. Friend about the siting of the simulator, I am aware that the Department of Education and Science has approved alterations and adaptations to the West Park lower comprehensive school of about £110,000.

The provision and location of bridge simulators will have to be resolved as soon as possible, but it is questionable whether the simulators which are self-contained in Portakabins would not lose some of their flexibility if they were housed in a building in a semi-permanent fashion. Detailed plans for the renovation of the old comprehensive school are a matter between the South Tyneside authorities and the Department of Education and Science. I am afraid I cannot go into that aspect any more because it is outside my departmental responsibility.

The point is that we are trying to use not that principle but the principle that this building has been approved as a proper building and that we can now begin to prepare for it, with the help of the Manpower Services Commission—which will cost us very little.

I follow my hon. Friend's point. Again, it does not fall to me to resolve the matter, but I shall make sure that the representations my hon. Friend has made in that respect are passed on to the appropriate Minister.

This has been a useful debate because it has focused attention—quite apart from the question of the siting of the simulator, which is tremendously important—on this vital development in maritime safety. Having seen the simulator for myself, I am in no doubt that the masters who have the most tremendous experience at sea are able, as I learned at first hand from one of them, to reinforce that knowledge and expertise. That can only be most helpful not only to the masters but to the crews they serve, and indeed to others who are dependent upon the safe passage of these very large vessels through the international seas.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend that this is a remarkable piece of technical skill. British industry has every reason to be proud of what has been achieved. I hope that it will not be long before we are able to announce specifically to the House that more simulators will be available. As we rapidly move towards the Summer Recess, I want my hon. Friends to feel that their pleas have not fallen on deaf ears.

Travel-To-Work Costs

3.25 p.m.

I welcome this opportunity to raise the subject of the cost of travel to work. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport for coming here this afternoon to reply to this debate.

This is a topic that is of keen interest to my constituents, as it is to the constituents of virtually every other hon. Member. I contend that the effects of substantial travel costs are far wider and more important than just the effect on individuals on the finances of British Rail or on the local bus service or whatever the form of transport might be.

The implications of fares policy in respect of buses and trains are enormous for the whole community. There are great implications for planning, regional policy, housing policy and the future of the inner cities. All these will be affected in coming years by decisions taken about fares policy and the cost of travel to work.

I wish in my brief remarks this afternoon to concentrate on rail travel. A large part of my comments applies also to travel by bus or by Underground. I am concentrating on rail travel because that is the subject about which I know most. I shall concentrate my remarks mainly on London and the South-East and on travel to work in that area, but the principle remains the same for other parts of the country. When talking of the costs of travel to work, it is not unreasonable to concentrate on London and the South-East, where there is the most acute problem.

I think I am right in saying that there are probably about 7 million people who use public transport for travel to work in some variety or another in this country. That figure has recently been issued. In 1976, 868,000 people arrived in central London in the morning peak hours by a variety of forms of transport between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. It is estimated that a further 187,000 came by private transport, mainly by car. Very substantial fare increases have taken place in recent years, as everybody knows.

It is frightening to discover that in 1938 the yearly season ticket from Southend cost less than £25. That is within the lifetime of most people here. In 1962 it had risen to £93, and since then costs have escalated and fares have risen five of the country. Fares in general have more than doubled since 1972, but in times in the past 16 years in that part London and the South-East they have risen by more than 100 per cent. since 1975. That is faster than the retail price index and far faster than people's net incomes, because of a combination of events, such as incomes policies, wage freezes and high levels of personal taxation.

Consequently, the level of rail fares has become an extremely serious burden for many thousands of people. The culmination of the feeling about increases in rail fares came with the proposed increase of more than 16 per cent. last year. Rail fares have an enormous effect on the budgets of many people, particularly young people starting work who find the burden of commuting to London especially severe. Many people are forced to commute because there are no suitable jobs locally. In that sense, they are a captive market and can do little about it. It is an interesting question whether it would be wise to provide more jobs locally or whether that might have a bad effect on the structure of employment in London.

The Under-Secretary will be aware of the great anxiety that was caused some time ago by the Government's consultation document which suggested that the outer suburban services of British Rail should meet their full allocated costs by 1981. On top of the burdens already being faced by commuters at that time, that proposal would have been an intolerable extra burden with incalculable effects on the standard of living of many people.

Those who commute into London on lines which pay their way find it frustrating that it is not possible to find out exactly what those lines are costing. I realise that this is due to a change of policy some years ago, which I regret, but it should be an aim of Government policy to ensure that the maximum information should be given, though I understand that the allocation of costs is extremely difficult and that there must be a rough and ready element in trying to come to a fair allocation of costs for any line.

The Government's original proposals would have meant massive increases in fares. Fortunately, the Government retreated from that proposal in their recent White Paper, but they say that fares are bound to rise and suggest that they should be phased so that commuters can have a period of years in which to adjust to the increases. The Government point out that London commuter fares constitute 40 per cent. of British Rail's pasenger revenue and that there will inevitably be fare increases over the coming years.

Is there any way out of this dilemma? I accept that there is a dilemma between the need to contain the costs of British Rail, the need not to have too vast a sum in public subsidy and the need not to place too great a burden on those who have to travel on public transport.

Recommendation no. 34 of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries last year should be implemented much more fully than the Government have so far been prepared to do. I urge that the Under-Secretary should instigate a full-scale inquiry into the balance of advantage between users of public and private transport with a view to seeing whether any fiscal concessions are possible. I urge the Minister to take that suggestion back to his colleagues.

I have argued for many years that there should be a measure of tax relief for travel to work. As long ago as May 1962, I moved a new clause to the Finance Bill to that effect. I have tried to get such a system introduced and I have had the support of many of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friends the Members for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine), Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) and Braintree (Mr. Newton).

I accept that there are arguments against that suggestion, including administrative arguments, but other countries seem to manage such schemes fairly well, although the Under-Secretary was a little vague in his reply to me yesterday about the practice in other countries. Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands all have systems of tax relief for travel to work and they have not found that to be an insuperable burden. The report of the Select Committee also shows that there is a system of tax relief in Sweden, but there is some confusion about this matter in our Government circles.

I was told yesterday by the Under-Secretary of State that there were no allowances for costs of travel to work in Belgium. I was rather surprised to hear that. In the answer that I received from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury as recently as 16th July, I was told that if the Belgian scheme for relief for travel to work was adopted no fewer than 16 million taxpayers would benefit. There must be some confusion between the Department of Transport and the Treasury. Which is right? I ask the Under-Secretary to tell us. If other countries can give such relief, I do not accept that the administrative arguments are insuperable.

I accept that the cost would be substantial. On introduction, any scheme would have to be limited. I suggest that it should be limited to public transport. Differing figures have been given. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury told me on 16th July that if we adopted a system of tax relief for travel to work by public transport the cost would be about £200 million. In the context of our total Budget, that is a sum that at least could be considered by future Chancellors.

It is said that there are arguments in equity against the solution that I propose. To the fury of my constituents and the constituents of many other hon. Members, it is argued by some outside commentators that commuters are already a rich group and oversubsidised by the Government. On the contrary, I argue that the standard of living of many commuters has fallen very considerably. It was stated in the Government's response to the First Report from the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries of 1977 that between 1974 and 1977 rail fares had more than doubled but that average earnings after tax had increased by about 50 per cent. for a married man with two children.

There are many commuters, including many of my constituents and, no doubt, the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree, whose real standard of living has fallen substantially over the past few years. The present users of rail transport, including commuters, are frequently locked in by their homes and their jobs. That applies especially, perhaps, to those who live in council houses. As a result of the residence qualifications that exist in many local authority areas, especially in the South-East and in London, it is almost impossible for moves to be made. It is an extremely expensive operation for owner-occupiers. Any large-scale move back into London because of excessive railway fares would make the pressures on housing in London considerably greater, and they are severe enough even now.

The case is all the stronger because of the recent Inland Revenue ruling in response to Questions tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) which were answered on 6th June. It has now become clear that if employers reimburse employees with season tickets, they are not liable to tax in certain circumstances. There is some confusion outside the House, and I shall be grateful if the Under-Secretary of State confirms the position.

As I understand the Revenue's ruling, if an employer contracts with British Rail to give an employee a season ticket and the employee's earnings are less than £5,000 a year, there will be no charge on the value of the season ticket. The employee's earnings have to be not such as to bring him within the special legislation bearing on benefits in kind.

If an employer gives an employee a season ticket and the employee agrees to accept a reduced salary in return, he is taxable. There are many anomalies, fiddles and difficulties. If an employer gives an employee a season ticket in the circumstances that I have described, there is exemption from tax. If, on the other hand, an employer pays an employee his expenses of travelling from home to work, there is a liability to tax. We all know of the special situation that applies to company cars and to those who have private and business cars.

The rules relating to tax relief on travel to work have become increasingly anomalous and unfair. In all the estimates of the costs of tax relief for those who travel to work no estimate has been given of the increase in traffic that would accrue to public transport undertakings. They could be considerable. The long-term effects of present rail policy will have profound effects on London and the South-East. It will have profound effects on planning, housing demands and regional policy in general.

I ask the Government to re-examine the recommendations made by the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries 18 months ago. This recommendation has been brushed aside by the Government. In the interests of those who have to travel to work, many of whom face considerable burdens and are likely to continue to do so if there is no change in policy, I urge the Government to undertake an inquiry so that all these matters can be considered.

I hope that justice is seen to be done for all. I ask the Minister to consider with his colleagues the setting up of the inquiry which was recommended by the Committee. That would be a great step forward for many thousands of my constituents and many tens of thousands of people elsewhere who travel to work each day.

3.41 p.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the opportunity to support him in his debate. I cannot claim to have pursued the matter for as long as he since I have been here for a shorter time. But I have pursued the issue. This year I tabled amendments to the Committee and Report stages of the Finance Bill to seek tax relief for travel to work. Those amendments were not selected. I imply no criticism of the Chair, but it is a pity that the House has not had a proper opportunity to debate the matter and to probe Treasury Ministers. I accept that the Transport Minister is in an awkward position because this is a Treasury matter. It is time that Treasury Ministers were pushed hard.

In the Treasury there is the briefing equivalent of an old gramophone record which regurgitates age-old arguments against tax reliefs. There is no evidence that the arguments have been re-examined since shortly after the war to fit a significantly different pattern. Commuting has increased, the balance of advantage between living inside and outside London has changed dramatically and the burden of travelling costs in relation to other living costs has risen.

Ministers have not realised the extent of the hardship and the drop in the standard of living which is caused by increasing transport costs. Ministers have not appreciated the extent to which travel-to-work costs are an important part of the wide work problem.

Some of my constituents have said that they have given up work because the balance of advantage in working disappears, not just because of tax and because unemployment benefit is tax free but because of the cost of getting to work and that no tax relief is available.

I have raised this issue on several occasions. My hon. Friend is right. People are becoming more and more frustrated about the problems of travelling to work because of the high cost of travel and the lethargy of the Government.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those generous words of sup- port. Between us we are proving that Essex Members of Parliament are much concerned about this issue since three of us are present.

My hon. Friend raised two other points upon which I wish to support him. The first is the problem of council tenants. It is often suggested that if people cannot afford to travel to work they should move house. It is sheer unadulterated nonsense to make that suggestion for large numbers of people who live in rented public sector housing. Many of my constituents were moved out of London by the GLC. Now, when they find that travelling costs have made their lives so difficult, there is no way in which the GLC or the London boroughs will take them back. They are trapped in a situation in which they cannot afford the travelling costs and in which it is impossible for them to move back.

In the Regional Affairs Committee the Minister said, in referring to the effect of fare increases that have been made,
"This is a particularly important piece of work because it is the effects of sudden and unexpected fare increases on the decisions of ordinary people about where they work and live of which are so important. We must get clear what pattern is emerging from the fare increases of the past few years and what we can expect in the years to come."—[Official Report, Standing Committee on Regional Affairs, 26th July 1978; c. 7.]
I agree with that entirely, because it confirms my view that the Government do not know what they are doing. They have allowed and encouraged these huge fare increases on the basis of very little research of the effects. We face the prospect of still further fare increases of this kind when the Government still do not know the effects of this policy.

If the Minister cannot say much about tax relief—I do not expect that he will—I hope that he will give a clear and categorical undertaking that the practice of British Rail, encouraged by the Government, of loading fare increases against the commuters of London and the South-East will cease, at least until the Government are clear about the effects of the huge rises that have taken place.

It can make no sense in regional or traffic terms, and certainly not in terms of the social effects on my constituents and those of my hon. Friends, to allow this process to continue when the Government are ignorant of its effect when used in the past.

3.47 p.m.

Such is the extent of interest in transport in the House, and such is the lot of the Under-Secretary, that I must beg the leave of the House to speak again, bearing in mind that I have already spoken today. I am sure, however, that hon. Members will agree that I should say a few words to conclude this debate. I have every sympathy with the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton), who said that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury should be standing here now. I wish that he were, because half of what has been said falls within his remit, not mine.

I want to deal with that side of the matter if I have time because all these points should be considered in a coordinated way. They hit the person in the street not as a number of matters which are the responsibility of different Departments—because he could not care less about that. They hit him in his pocket, and he wants a co-ordinated and comprehensive Government view of the matter.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) on his assiduity over many years in dealing with this subject. I have debated the matter many times also with the hon. Member for Braintree.

Quite rightly the hon. Member for Southend, West said that there was a dilemma. All hon. Members, whether or not their areas face commuting problems, will recognise it. It is that the commuter services are highly labour-intensive and that labour costs have risen faster than costs generally. For that reason alone it has been difficult to maintain fares at a set level and avoid increases. In addition, these services are used in a particular way. There are marked peaks with 400,000 people coming into London every day and going home again at two particular times, and that is bound to lead to an uneconomic service.

I hope I shall be forgiven for putting a mildly political point. Neither of those two factors was helped by the fact that under the last Conservative Government, of which the hon. Member for Southend, West was a member, there was, as a result of pay and incomes policy generally, some tendency to hold down fares. The result was a big increase in the deficits of the nationalised industries such as British Railways which we had to make good. I think that on the whole the Opposition support what the Government are trying to do in bringing some sort of order into the finances of nationalised industries. Certainly that had to be done at some time.

Those have been the problems. But I agree, of course, that the effect on the individual of this very difficult set of problems has been very bad indeed. The hon. Member for Braintree chided me with not understanding or, at least, not being able to measure the effect on the individual. I think that he fully realises that I understand the difficulty from the remarks made by me in the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs when it was discussing the South-East, which he quoted. I well understand the effect on the individual.

But what the hon. Member said is not entirely true. If he had read the White Paper more carefully, he would have seen that in discussing this point we said—I quote again from the White Paper on transport policy—
"So far as can be judged at present, the effects of fares increases on patterns of settlement and travel will be so gradual and spread over so wide an area that they are unlikely to produce trends which would be damaging to the region's development."
I am now talking about the effect on the economy of the whole of the South-East rather than the effect on individuals.

We looked at the matter very carefully in coming to the conclusions that we reached about Government transport policy towards the South-East commuter. That is why we changed the line, as the hon. Member concedes, from that which was put forward in the consultation document published by the late Member for Grimsby, Mr. Anthony Crosland, when he was Secretary of State for the Environment. That had a clear objective by a certain date as regards the subsidy—now about £80 million a year of taxpayers' money—which goes into keeping down fares on the London and South-East region. We reversed that policy. We said that the Government should not impose a specific financial objective on the British Railways Board for reducing the network subsidy in that area. The board has, therefore, more freedom to approach a sensible policy as regards fares in the London and South-East area than it would otherwise have had.

That is a very positive step forward by the Government, and it specifically recognises the upheaval in the lives of ordinary people in the London and South-East region which has followed from previous policy measures. I think that that is something which should be seen as quite an important step forward.

Incidentally, in mentioning that, I should say that it has never really been the case that there has been sufficient information, line by line, about commuters in the South-East. The fact is that even when my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) was responsible for railway policy, it was never possible to know what each particular line in the South-East was costing and what revenue was being received. In the change of policy in that respect, the whole of the London and South-East area has been treated as one whole. It has always been recognised that it would be very difficult to break it down more than that. But certainly the amount of information that the British Railways Board is now bringing forward is very welcome.

On the point raised about the Price Commission report and the remarks about the increases in the South-East by comparison with the increases generally, clearly the board is very well seized of the purport of that report. We have taken the view that it will need to demonstrate very clearly the need for whatever increases it may wish to put forward.

The Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection and the Secretary of State for Transport said in their press notice at that time:
"The Secretaries of State sympathise with the grievance felt by many commuters at the burden of fares. They will welcome any steps British Rail can take to add to public understanding of the costs and revenues of the London and South-East commuter services and to demonstrate the need for fare increases on these services, especially if they are higher than the average. The Board recognises the need for this."
I think that that explicitly meets the point raised—that there must be a clear justification for any increases above the average which may be made in future years for London and South-East commuters.

We should also bear in mind, however, that British Rail's recent performance, following on the policies of my right hon. Friend and myself, has been very much better. The fact is that fare increases are now being spread out, roughly, over 12-monthly intervals. At least the last increase was far lower than increases have been hitherto. I am reasonably hopeful about the next increase, which is now unlikely to be this year. So, following Government policies, the commuter's position has changed considerably for the better in the last two years or so. In addition, a good deal of money is going into investment and in London and South-East rolling stock, which has been a point of complaint, and a number of lines will begin to benefit from that.

Taking on the mantle of the Financial Secretary in the last five minutes of this debate, I should like to take up the point about tax relief for travel to work. First, there is no misunderstanding about the comparison between this country and other European countries. The hon. Member for Southend, West thought that I was giving him erroneous information about Belgium. There is no error in what I am saying. What I told the hon. Gentleman yesterday was that in Belgium one could not set the cost of travel against income tax. That is the case. If there is another scheme in Belgium under which employers can finance travel-to-work costs, that is a separate matter. So my remarks yesterday stand because I was discussing tax relief. The general practice on the Continent as our studies have generally confirmed, is very different from country to country.

Second, there is no discrepancy on the question of the overall cost. The hon. Member for Southend, West quoted a figure that he had been given by the Financial Secretary of roughly £200 million as the cost of a scheme of tax relief for travel to work. My figure—it is also the Financial Secretary's figure, because it was produced by the Treasury—is about £750 million. That is for the whole country, as I think it would have to be. We could not allow this in one part of the country and not another. I would think that the £200 million relates only to London and the South-East.

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but there must be some such explanation since both these figures have been supplied by the Treasury.

Whatever the result of that discrepancy—I shall have the matter checked and see that the hon. Gentleman is written to either by the Financial Secretary or by myself—it would certainly be a high cost. That is something that the Opposition should bear in mind. I do not wish to make another political point when we are on the verge of leaving for our holidays, but they have made clear their opposition to public expenditure over the last two or three years. They say, and I accept, that I have a dilemma over London and the South-East, but they, too, have a dilemma in reconciling their desire for schemes of this kind with their desire to keep down public expenditure.

Surely the Minister will recognise that this is an income tax relief and not public expenditure, that what we are suggesting is one way of reducing income tax.

That is all very well, but it would mean that less money would be coming to the Exchequer. One would either have to have a higher borrowing requirement or raise less money to match that smaller flow. It is very difficult to reconcile that proposal with the Opposition's attitude to public expenditure.

Hon. Members should consider the effect of this. The proposal would be a disguised way of increasing the subsidy for commuters and concealing the true cost of rail journeys. Given their general stance—and ours now —of trying to reveal the true costs of railway operations along with those of any other transport operations, I am not sure that this would be a sensible step forward from the point of view of a reasonable view of what is happening in transport. None the less, I take the point that this is an area that we should look at carefully.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have given an undertaking—I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave it to him—that we shall look at the Continental practice. We shall continue to study this matter, without commitment, since it clearly has relevance to the problems of commuters.


4.0 p.m.

The title which I chose for this debate—certainly the penultimate debate of this Session, or, for all I know, perhaps the penultimate debate of this Parliament—may surprise some, since I deliberately used the phrase "The success of Concorde" as the title of the issue which I wished to raise. I realise that there are opponents of Concorde, and to them I simply say that if they wish to put their own inverted commas round the word "success", that is entirely for their discretion and taste.

I contend that Concorde is proving a success, in spite of the prophets of doom at home and its jealous enemies abroad. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will not dispute the fact that on the London-New York run figures show that there is 80 per cent. to 90 per cent. passenger loading, and would-be travellers are often turned away unless they are prepared to wait quite a long time.

It is now obvious that the New York run would carry more aeroplanes if British Airways could or would bring in the extra supersonic craft needed. At present, I understand that there are 10 flights each way per week on the New York run. There are two services on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and one service a day on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, making 10 altogether. On the Washington route, of course, the bookings are lower than those for New York, but even here they are well up to the general average for subsonic travel.

No one should seriously suggest that Concorde's popularity on the Atlantic runs is due to novelty—that people are there just for the ride. That may have been the case early on when there were very few flights, but it is not so now. A passenger survey in my possession shows that most Concorde passengers are there on business, and many state that it is now the explicit policy of their companies to use Concorde because of its greater speed over other aircraft.

I have other interesting figures about typical Concorde passengers. For instance, over half of them are Americans, which fact is now giving concern to some of the American airlines, notably to Pan American and TWA. They are looking to their laurels and to their receipts. Undoubtedly, the Atlantic routes are operating with financial gain. I have no exact figures here, but there is every indication that millions of pounds of revenue has come to British Airways which it would not have received without Concorde.

As we know, the figures are very different for the Gulf run to Bahrein. In this case both use and financial return are disappointing, but this is largely due to British Airways, rightly or wrongly, maintaining this route as an opening to Singapore, presumably in the hope that the Malaysian Government will be able one day to relax their present opposition.

This brings me almost immediately to an interesting point, on which I should like my hon. Friend's opinion. Why did Sir Frank McFadzean, the chairman of British Airways, seem to go out of his way to decry Concorde when he presented the British Airways annual report on 27th July? He has it within his power to drop the Bahrein service, if he wishes, and transfer the planes to the lucrative Atlantic route.

I made some inquiries, because Sir Frank's views startled me. I have been told that his remarks were not in his brief but were given off the cuff in answer to a question, presumably by a reporter. Had that not been so, it would have seemed to me curious that a man of his great commercial and industrial experience, now the head of a major national enterprise, should apparently go out of his way to belittle his own wares.

At any rate, by his chance remarks on 27th July Sir Frank achieved newspaper reports which said little if anything about the £33 million profit made by British Airways on the total working of its enterprise. There were headlines such as
"Concorde never likely to make profit" and
"Concorde setback for British Airways".
Those headlines overshadowed the fine encouraging account that Sir Frank was able to give on the general working of the airline.

We are all human, and I make full allowance for Sir Frank's being caught off his guard. If that were not so, his remarks would be very small thanks to the aeronautical designers, engineers and craftsmen who were responsible for Britain's achieving perhaps the greatest technological advance in the more recent history of aviation.

Is that the way to encourage the morale of Concorde operating staff, who find—I have a report to this effect and have seen the survey—that their passengers are very enthusiastic about Concorde, its performance and the kind of service they receive on it?

I know that these days there is a great vogue for open government, to which we all subscribe in one way or another. But I still doubt whether it is necessary for the chairman of British Airways to carry on a public dialogue with Ministers about who is to pay for what when a letter, a conversation or a telephone call could achieve the same purpose.

I wish to make a further point, not about Sir Frank's remarks but about the general relationship between British Airways and Concorde. Time is short, but before coming to some specific questions that I want to put to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary I want to say something about the British Airways annual report and accounts for 1977–78. I have studied this glossy production. I do not complain about its being glossy. I am all for nationalised industries advertising and letting us know what they are doing. They get enough criticism.

As I say, I do not complain about the style of the report, which has a Union Jack on the cover, the tail of a TriStar just inside and, perhaps most pleasant of all, a striking picture of a stewardess on page 3—I found that the best part of the pictures. But one would think that in a year when Concorde came into full service it would have been protrayed more prominently than is the case in the annual report. There is a small picture, of its under-belly, I think. It is a minor complaint, but I hope that it is not symptomatic of the attitude of British Airways towards Concorde. Perhaps the Minister will reassure me on that point.

I see the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Cope) in his place. The Filton works are in his constituency. This issue is of great interest to all Bristol Members because many of our constituents work at Filton. I am concerned with Concorde—apart from a deep belief in the future of supersonic travel and pride in British technical achievement—because I represent a Bristol constituency.

This autumn, the last of the line of British-assembled Concordes—there are also of course French-assembled Concordes—will be wheeled out of its hangar at Bristol, Filton. Concorde work has kept Filton occupied for well over a decade but at present there are no further Concorde orders in sight. The last two machines are being parked in a state in which they are technically known as "white tail aircraft"—that is, they have no line markings on them as yet. As it happens, a fair amount of other aircraft work has, fortunately, come to Filton. The factory is busy but it could be busier. Nothing would give more heart to British Aerospace management and workers generally than orders for a new batch of this now famous Concorde flying machine.

I have a number of questions for my hon. Friend the Minister. Although the Secretary of State for Industry is not the sponsoring Minister of British Airways, may I ask my hon. Friend whether the Government consider that the airline is operating Concordes to the best advantage? Secondly, why cannot more Concordes be operated on the profitable Atlantic routes? There has been some small increase since the start. That is all. Is there a difficulty over landing facilities? Is there a lack of trained staff, including pilots? It will be interesting to know. Perhaps I am not as well informed as I might be. I do not know the depths of the question.

Thirdly, should not the Bahrein route to the Gulf be dropped for the time being if it is unprofitable? Alternatively, if it is necessary to retain that route to assist further negotiations with the Malaysian Government over the extension to Singapore and to pay some respect to the feelings of the Governments of the Gulf States who have been most helpful towards Concorde and British Airways, could we be told how matters stand in this respect? What are the prospects of the Malaysians agreeing to allow overflying of their territory? It was accepted and then it was stopped. How do things stand now?

There has been, we are told—it is more than a rumour—information to the effect that Pan American is making inquiries about the possibility of running a Concorde of its own. There is no form of flattery more sincere than imitation. I am sure that we should all welcome a competitor of this kind, including British Airways. It would be a great tribute to the success of Concorde, in spite of all the forebodings. One of the problems about the Pan American inquiry, I am told, is that if the company had only one or two planes it would not be justified in bringing in a complete maintenance staff. That would be a difficulty. Perhaps in the circumstances, with friendly competitors, the work could be sub-contracted to British Airways. Many of us, certainly in Bristol and elsewhere in the country, who are much concerned for the success of Concorde and its future would like to know what the prospects are now of Pan American taking on a Concorde for itself.

I am glad to have had this opportunity to raise these important questions, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give some replies to the points that I have made in all sincerity.

4.15 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) and to the Under-Secretary of State for allowing me to insert a word or two, as it were with a fish-slice, between their speeches, in order to support my neighbour, the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East, in his contentions about the success of Concorde.

When the recent British Airways report was published, considerable attention was drawn to the £17 million loss stated there as having flowed from Concorde. The size of that loss partly reflects the short life expectancy expected as the basis for the depreciation charge in the accounts, which is roughly half the average depreciation of the rest of the British Airways fleet used in its accountancy practices. Perhaps it should be different, but that is a very large discrepancy.

In respect of Concorde, it seems to me that the most significant figures in the report are the average hours flown per aircraft. For Concorde this was 782 hours per year as compared with over 4,000 hours for the Boeing 747s and the other aircraft—all of them, therefore, flying at about three times the amount that Concorde flew.

The reason for that is not technical but the lack of routes. The hon. Gentleman referred quite properly to that aspect. We should be particularly keen to know today whether there are any developments as far as Malaysia is concerned, or whether any improvements can be made on the Atlantic routes. The question of an increase in the routes is, of course, very much in the Government's court as well as in British Airways' court.

The future of the aircraft industry is much under discussion, and will be discussed a great deal before we meet again. In Bristol and the surrounding areas we expect to see, whatever decisions are made, that the tremendous investment in skill and money that has been made to get us where we are in supersonic travel is used to buy us a place in the next developments of supersonic travel. That is one of the aspects of the aircraft industry decisions at which we shall be looking very closely.

4.19 p.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) for initiating this debate, for the title that he has given it, and for the manner in which he presented his case. I also thank the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Cope) for his complementary remarks.

The Concorde has now carried more than 100,000 passengers, so it is not only a reality but an established reality, with a wide network of scheduled services connecting London and Paris with overseas destinations. British Airways is now operating 10 return flights a week between London and New York, and three a week to Washington. Additionally, there are two British Airways services a week to Bahrain. Air France has seven services a week to New York, four to Rio, three to Washington and two to Caracas. That is indeed an established network of supersonic services.

Both airlines have early plans for expanding their Concorde network—British Airways westwards from Washington to Dallas/Fort Worth, both on its own account and through its interchange agreement with Braniff, and eastward from Bahrain to Singapore in conjunction with Singapore Airlines, and Air France from Washington to Mexico City as an Air France operation, and from Washington to Dallas/Fort Worth under the inter, change agreement with Braniff. In both cases other destinations are expected to be added later, and frequencies increased on those already served. I shall come later to the specific point raised concerning Singapore and Malaysia.

In a few months British Aerospace and their French partners will have completed the 16 aircraft whose production was confirmed by the then Prime Minister and the French President in July 1974. This confirmation was without further commitment, and neither Government have any current plans for the production of additional aircraft. My hon. Friend will recall that, for our part, we have made clear that the question of authorising further production can be considered only if all five unsold aircraft—the white-tailed aircraft to which my hon. Friend referred—have been sold, and if it would not increase the overall loss to the two Governments.

But equally I want to stress that we have retained the capability to produce further Concordes should these be required. The jigs and tools, although they are now being removed in Britain and France to make way for other work, are being carefully stored. In a recent communication to the United States State Department on the subject of the new United States noise regulations for supersonic aircraft, both the British and French Governments have explicitly reserved their rights to operate on the same terms as the Administration have applied to the 16 aircraft any further Concordes that might be produced.

On the possibility of a successor to Concorde, our position—and this is, of course, the position also of British Aerospace—remains as described by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Industry, following the ministerial meeting of 2nd November 1976, namely, that British priorities, we feel, lie in subsonic aircraft; that the manufacturers' proposals for a Concorde derivative aircraft for the 1980s should not be proceeded with; and that, as regards an advanced supersonic transport for the 1990s, we should consolidate the knowledge and experience gained on Concorde.

Is there not a danger, if that policy is followed too far, that all our knowledge and experience will be lost to some other country?

I fully recognise that point. That is why it has been very carefully taken into consideration. But I am sure that my hon. Friend will recognise that the major purchase and procurement decisions which are about to be taken by airlines are, in fact, subsonic ones. But we have other airlines interested, as my hon. Friend has said, and the decision last year of Singapore Airlines to go into partnership with British Airways on the London-Singapore Concorde route was a tangible expression of confidence in the aircraft. Now that the Malaysian general elections have been held, we look forward to the resumption as soon as possible of discussion between our two Governments of recommencing the services which were interrupted last December.

With the promulgation of the American noise rule and the expected early United States type-certification of Concorde, we shall also look forward to the implementation of the interchange agreements which British Airways and Air France respectively have concluded with Braniff, for a Braniff Concorde service between Washington and Dallas/Fort Worth. A number of problems remain to be sorted out following the demise of the Milford Bill. This would have allowed United States carriers to operate foreign-registered aircraft. Nevertheless, it is significant that Braniff feels sufficient confidence about the outcome of these deliberations to have committed recently a number of its aircrew for early training to learn to operate Concorde. Since this is currently the subject of consideration by the CAA, I cannot, of course, comment on British Airways' application to continue, as a British Airways operation, its present London-Wash- ington service on to Dallas/Fort Worth, except to say that this is complementary to, and does not supplant, the airline's interchange agreement with Braniff.

My hon. Friend also mentioned Pan Am. As has been indicated recently in another place, the Government welcome this expression of interest by the airline, and the manu