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Commons Chamber

Volume 961: debated on Wednesday 24 January 1979

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House Of Commons

Wednesday 24 January 1979

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Private Business

Inverclyde District Council Order Confirmation

Mr. Secretary Millan presented a Bill to confirm a Provisional Order under section 7 of the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act 1936, relating to Inverclyde district council; and the same was read the First time; and ordered to be considered upon Tuesday next and to be printed. [Bill 56.]

Solicitors In The Supreme Courts Of Scotland (Amendment) Order Confirmation

Mr. Secretary Millan presented a Bill to confirm a Provisional Order under section 7 of the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act 1936, relating to solicitors in the Supreme Courts of Scotland; and the same was read the First time; and ordered to be considered upon Tuesday next and to be printed. [Bill 55.]

Oral Answers To Questions

Transport

European Community (Transport Ministers)

1.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he plans next to have an official meeting with his opposite numbers in the EEC Council of Transport Ministers.

7.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to meet his ministerial colleagues in the EEC.

At the next Transport Council on 20 February.

There are still lingering doubts and anxieties since the last transport Question Time. Will the Minister make it clear to his transport colleagues in the EEC that there is no confidential departmental plan to increase maximum lorry weights, by stealth or other means?

I shall make that clear to my colleagues in the Council. The House fully understands the position, and there is a later Question on this matter.

In advance of the Secretary of State's meeting, and in view of what is contained in the Commission draft directive, will the right hon. Gentleman say whether, in principle, he is in favour of a double standard set of specifications for heavy vehicles within the Community?

I do not entirely understand what the hon. Gentleman means about double standards. My primary concern is that the weights of lorries operating in this country are not increased. This was discussed in conjunction with dimensions, at the last Council meeting. I recognise that there is a difference. I am not prepared to see any movement with regard to weights. Dimensions must be considered together with weights.

When my right hon. Friend meets his counterparts, will he make it plain to them that the British public are not prepared to accept heavier lorries by the simple expedient of adding two more axles? Will he confirm that the Road Research Laboratory recently concluded that the main damage caused by heavy lorries is from vibration noise, which would not be reduced by adding any number of axles?

I entirely agree that the objection to heavy lorries goes much wider than the axle weight and the damage that they do to the road. It is a difficult matter. Recent circumstances have made it clear how dependent we are, for better or worse, on heavy goods vehicles. We must strike a balance between the needs of the environment, which are paramount in the case of weights, and the important contribution that the road haulage industry makes to the British economy.

When my right hon. Friend meets his colleagues, will he raise the question of assistance to waterways and to the lighterage industry? The present arrangements may be satisfactory to some other members of the European Community, but we are not benefiting from this assistance as much as we should.

For largely geographical reasons waterways are not as significant in the United Kingdom as they are on the Continent of Europe. I know that my hon. Friend has a particular interest in the future of the River Thames as a waterway, and I shall certainly bear his remarks in mind.

Will the right hon. Gentleman recognise that regardless of their weight, lorries cannot operate if the roads are not kept clear? Many EEC lorries are coming into East Anglia from the ports, but we are short of salt and cannot keep the roads clear. It is indispensable that the Government should procure from the docks supplies of salt for the county councils to enable lorries to run on our roads.

I entirely agree that supplies of salt are essential to maintain the safety of our roads. If the county council that the hon. Gentleman has in mind has a specific and immediate problem, I hope that he will let me know, and we shall do all that we can to help.

British Railways

2.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he intends to meet the chairman of the British Railways Board.

20.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to meet the chairman of British Railways.

Will the Secretary of State impress upon the chairman of the British Railways Board the need to ensure that any productivity scheme agreed as a result of any settlement is genuine, otherwise how will we avoid a further increase in fares this year and a consequent loss in passenger traffic? Is it not about time that the British Railways Board took a rather firmer line in this dispute, with a view to ending this series of damaging strikes as soon as possible?

I do not think that I need impress the first point upon the chairman, because he is fully aware of the need for any productivity to be wholly genuine. I think that the initiative that has lately been taken by the Board, although it has, alas, run into the sand, was very much in this direction. As to being firm, I only wish that firmness was the simple answer to a highly complex, damaging and frustrating dispute which makes no sense at all to most of us.

In order to help the British Railways Board and the trade unions again to get round the table, will my right hon. Friend tell Sir Peter Parker that the Government's wages policy will not stand in the way of any settlement agreed between the Board and all three unions? Would not this be a more helpful approach than the destructive, trade union bashing tactics of some Tories, who do not seem to realise the value of the service normally provided by railways workers until such time as that service is withdrawn, such as during the recent strikes?

Even if I were prepared to make my hon. Friend's point to the chairman, I am afraid that it would not be relevant in this circumstance, because the present dispute has nothing whatever to do with the Government's pay policy. It is a long-standing one about differentials on the railways, and between two principal trade unions. But, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, a dispute of this kind shows how much we depend upon the railways. I very much regret that their future, which we hoped we were making secure, is a great deal less secure as a result of this damaging dispute.

In his talks with the chairman, will the Secretary of State make two points? First, that the public, particularly the commuters, are sick to death of the disruption caused to their lives by these strikes and are angered at the way in which they have hardened into an inter-union dispute. Secondly, will he ask the chairman to point out to all those concerned that if the loss from these strikes, which by the end of this week will have cost British Rail between £12 million and £15 million, is not to fall on the passengers or the taxpayer, the only alternative is to find further manpower reductions within the railway industry? Surely to goodness that is not what the unions concerned want.

I think that the public are fed up to the back teeth with this dispute, and rightly. I refer not only to commuters in the London area but to those who use our trains throughout the country. It would be ridiculous were it not tragic, but it is tragic. For that reason I hope very much that this dispute will be solved. There is no question of the Government bailing out the railway industry. This is a problem that it must solve. If, as a result, it loses passengers, that will cast doubt upon the future of the railways and make it far more difficult for any Government to invest seriously in them and regard them as having a central and stable future in our transport system.

Will my right hon. Friend take note of the fact that since September last year one union, and one union only—the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen—has been responsible for the disruption of commuter services in the South of England and, latterly, of services throughout Great Britain? When my right hon. Friend meets the chairman of British Rail, I hope that he will discuss the future of British Rail, because, from my right hon. Friend's public statements, as well as the statements of the Chairman of the British Railways Board, I know that they want to take British Rail into the twenty-first century with a viable, modern, electrified railway system. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the damage which the strikes have done to the future prospects of British Rail? Will he do his best to get ASLEF to stop fighting to remain in the nineteenth century?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's assessment. The present dispute is between one union only, which represents a minority of railwaymen, and the British Railways Board, but all railwaymen are the victims of it. I hope that something can be rescued and that we shall again be able to nut things back on to a stable footing. But it is not easy, and we must all continue to use our very best endeavours and accept our responsibility in this matter.

Is not the job of Sir Peter Parker being made almost impossible? Is it not impossible to run the railways properly unless there is co-operation between ASLEF and the NUR? If that does not come about, does the right hon. Gentleman foresee any role for himself in trying to bring it about? Does he agree that if we cannot bring about a merger between ASLEF and the NUR, eventually there will have to be a takeover, one of the other, and that it is certain which way that will go?

I do not want to get involved in the question of the future of the unions concerned. This is a very long story. It is only fair to say that, given the contraction of manpower on the railways over the years, perhaps it was inevitable, in an industry where there are many craft grades and strong traditions, that problems of this kind would persist. The tragedy is that they have not been overcome. I had two long sessions with the chairman, his chief industrial negotiator and the three unions last week. I succeeded in getting them around the table again, and I am prepared to take any further personal steps if I really believe that progress will result.

Order. I have no doubt that we shall come back to this issue on the next two Questions.

Aslef

3.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he intends to meet the general secretary of ASLEF.

I am sorry for the right hon. Gentleman. When he next meets ASLEF, will he draw to its attention the leader in The Guardian last Monday, which is not a trade union bashing, Right-wing paper, headed "Off the Rails and Heading for Collision"? Does he agree with the theme of that leader, that it is time that this inter-union dispute brought some penalty to the unions and their members, rather than just to the public? Is it not time that the union leaders and their members paid the price, rather than just the travellers?

For a long time I have hesitated to agree with the hon. Gentleman, and perhaps I would prefer to agree with The Guardian leader which he quoted. I think that it set out very fairly the difficult problems involved. But there is no easy solution. I only wish there were. We must recognise that the vast majority of railwaymen are serious and hardworking, want to make a, success of their jobs and want to make our railway system one of the most efficient in the world. That, again, is a measure of the difficulties at the present time.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that in that moderate article the penalisation suggested was to apply only to the NUR? Is not the problem one of the erosion of differentials, reduced manpower, increased productivity and the breaking last year of the 1974 consolidation of bonus agreements?

As I think my hon. Friend implied, in some ways the problems on the railways are a microcosm of our larger problems. On the one hand, there are those who want to maintain, and even widen, differentials, and on the other there are those who primarily want to be concerned with the lower paid. To find an accommodation between these two concerns is a, matter not only for the railways but for the country at large.

When he next meets the general secretary of ASLEF, will the right hon. Gentleman implore him to remember the long-suffering customers of the railways, to whom this action is causing great distress, and also those who have had to find alternative ways to work in the last few days in quite dreadful conditions, which in some cases has resulted in injuries or even death? Does not that play on the conscience of the general secretary and his colleagues in ASLEF and bring it home to them that they ought to call off this dispute, and the sooner the better?

I believe that there will be widespread sympathy for the way in which the hon. Gentleman put the matter. Certainly those who use the railways and rely upon them are gravely inconvenienced at the present time. I believe that everyone must examine not only his conscience but his sense of purpose and really consider what merit there is in, and what outcome there will be from, a continuation of the dispute.

When the Secretary of State sees the general secretary, will he echo, and echo strongly, the words of Sir Peter Parker, that it is an absolute tragedy that the dispute should strike the railways at the very time when they could be showing their strength? Will he go further and inform the general secretary strongly that the future of his own union is very much on the line at present? Will the Secretary of State show a little more leadership in assessing the structure of the unions in British Rail?

With regard to the third point, I do not think that that is my responsibility, or that I would carry it out very well if I accepted it. However, I believe that there are some very important issues here, less for Ministers and perhaps more for the Trades Union Congress. Mr. Len Murray has been playing a most constructive and patient part in trying to find a solution. But the matter raises much larger issues of trade union structure and the extent to which there is competition where there should not be.

Could not the current dispute have been avoided if ASLEF and the Board had not rejected a decision of the Railway Staff National Tribunal last year, which made recommendations which were entirely accepted by 90 per cent. of the work force, who cannot be criticised for wishing to insist on the arbitration judgment of Lord McCarthy?

I can think of one hundred and one ways in which the present dispute could have been avoided. I do not think that anyone is completely free of some degree of responsibility for the present degree of intransigence. I say that in no sense to exacerbate a difficult situation. We must now hope that the efforts being made at this very moment will bear some fruit.

British Railways (Investment)

4.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will authorise increased investment for British Railways.

The Government have so far been able to maintain a substantial provision for investment in renewing and improving the railway but this will have to be kept under review in the light of the business performance.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Government should not freeze investment in British Rail to £312 million, when the International Railway Journal reports that there is an 18 per cent. increase in expenditure in world railways outside the Communist bloc and the United States, and that in America alone £2·5 billion is being spent on the railways? Even the Italian investment in the railways, whose network is much smaller than ours, is far higher than ours. What is my hon. Friend prepared to do about that?

The figure of rather over £300 million as a ceiling for investment for the railways is a very large sum in any circumstances. We have maintained it over the past few years and intend to maintain it over the next few years. We have made a positive approach to railway investment, but, in the final analysis, as Sir Peter Parker himself said recently, it depends on the performance of the business.

The House will agree with the Secretary of State that the present dispute has nothing to do with the Government's pay policy, but will the Minister confirm that there will be no question of the Government's making good the losses that British Rail sustains as a result of the current dispute and that the present policy of cash limits will be adhered to most rigidly?

Certainly I can confirm that there will be no way out of the present set of problems through extra money coming from the taxpayer.

Has my hon. Friend studied the unfortunate advertisement that is being displayed on British Rail stations at present showing the low level of subsidy from the British taxpayers to British Rail compared with the massive subsidies to their railways by other European countries? Does he agree that the reason why West Germany is spending so much more—I think over £2,000 million—on subsidising its railways is that it regards them as an essential part of industrial growth?

I take my hon. Friend's point, but I do not think that that is a valid comparison of like with like. As I said in answer to an earlier Question, we have taken a consistently positive view on railway investment and we shall continue to do so. However, it is clear that in the end the amount of investment must depend on the efficiency and performance of the business.

Departmental Property (Calderdale)

5.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what is the present position regarding the sale of property owned by his Department to Calderdale district council.

Discussions have taken place about the basis of valuation for such a sale. We have recently clarified our position and now await the council's response to our offer.

Why have the negotiations been so long-winded? How many properties are concerned? When does my hon. Friend expect a settlement to be made?

The discussions have taken a long time, but my hon. Friend knows that we have not been slow in this matter. The council has taken some time to come to conclusions. I believe that about 13 houses are concerned. I hope that we shall be able to make a settlement in the next few weeks.

Roads (Improvement)

6.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what steps he is taking to improve or replace roads with an exceedingly bad record of accidents.

We already take account of accident records in selecting schemes for the road programme, and we always attach special importance to schemes which are likely to save a large number of accidents.

Has the Minister seen the horror story of the latest statistics for death and injury on the Winchester bypass? Now that people such as Mr. John Tyme have been discredited, will he take more notice of not only the accident statistics but, for example, the Transport and General Workers Union, which for a long time has been pressing for the urgent completion of the link between the M3 and the M27, of which the Winchester bypass is a vital part?

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that Hampshire county council, as agent of the Department is investigating various short-term remedies for the Winchester bypass, pending the completion of the M3. It will be reporting to the Department soon on its proposals.

Has my hon. Friend recently driven all the way round the South Circular Road in London, particularly through Forest Hill and Catford in my constituency, a section with an appalling congestion and accident record? Is he aware that the speedy completion of the M25 would take a tremendous load off the South Circular Road, which should nor have the load of jugger-nauts and industrial traffic that it has at present?

I have not driven round the South Circular recently. [HON. MEMBERS: "Very wise."] It may well be wise, especially if I had tried yesterday. I take my hon. Friend's point. The Greater London Council has major plans for improvements to the South circular Road. I also take my hon. Friend's point about the M25.

Does the Minister realize that the Winchester bypass is extremely dangerous and extremely outmoded, and that the two protracted public inquiries will have enormously increased the cost of any scheme that is decided? Will he ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to do his best to make an early decision, so that work can start as soon as possible?

That is reasonable, except that the hon. and gallant Gentleman is slightly ahead of events. We have not yet received the inspector's report on the last inquiry. I understand that it is still being typed, but I think that we shall receive it in the next week or two. I assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman that we shall then take as speedy a decision as possible.

In that context, will my hon. Friend define "speedy"? In some other cases we have had a wait of up to a year between the inspector's report going to the Minister and the ministerial decision. Can we be assured that that will not happen in this case?

Yes, Sir. My hon. Friend can be assured that that will not happen on this occasion.

Does the Minister realise that the Government's present policy of punishing by reductions in the transport supplementary grant those local authorities that have been successful in restraining the level of subsidies to public transport can only mean that essential road improvements, particularly by local authorities, are being delayed, with consequent danger to life and limb? Therefore, will the hon. Gentleman please stop confusing transport subsidies with essential road expenditure?

The hon. Gentleman is completely mistaken. In this year's settlement more money was made available not only for bus subsidies, which we have made known is a clear priority of the Government, but for maintenance and new schemes in the counties.

Vehicle Excise Duty

8.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to start phasing out vehicle excise duty.

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to start phasing out vehicle excise duty.

12.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to start phasing out vehicle excise duty.

We shall consider the timetable in the light of our consultations with those principally concerned.

When the Minister considers his timetable, will he reflect on his statement in the House before Christmas suggesting that the number of people employed at the Swansea licensing centre would be reduced because of this new scheme? Surely there will still be a registration document, for which a fee will be payable. Surely the motorist will still have to show an MOT certificate and an insurance certificate. Will not that mean just as many staff at Swansea to carry out this work?

I always reflect on the statements which I make in the House. However, our calculations suggest that 800 fewer staff will be needed at Swansea as a result of the changes, out of rather more than 5,500. That will result from the abolition of VED. That will still mean an annual registration, possibly involving the production of MOT and insurance certificates. That has still to be settled in the process of the consultations that we are having. None the less, that is the figure which we think is likely to emerge at the end of the day.

Has the Minister any statistics of the number of additional vehicles that there will be on the road as a result of the abolition of the excise duty? There must be a large number of people who now use their cars only on peak days, during holiday periods and at weekends. Secondly, until the duty is abolished, will the Minister assure his colleagues that the present licence will be enforced properly? Finally, with regard to the new registration system, has the hon. Gentleman considered the difficulties of the police in looking at registration documents to make sure that the MOT certificate is current? These are important problems.

As regards the hon. Member's final comment, he makes a sensible suggestion which I shall convey to the appropriate quarters. As for enforcement, of course one of the principal difficulties about the present VED is the difficulty of enforcement. That is one reason why we took the decision which we announced recently. There is large-scale evasion at the moment, and it is costing the taxpayer £70 million or £80 million a year. That has to be stopped. As regards the number of vehicles on the roads, I do not think that abolition of the duty will make a significant difference.

In calculating the 7,000 miles break-even point, the miles per gallon have been worked out on the basis of new cars. Is it not true that some poorer-paid people use rather older cars? What is the average mileage for a one-car family? Presumably the average takes in the two-car family. Is not the 7,000 miles break-even figure misleading?

No. We have undertaken considerable research into exactly where the break-even point rests. Obviously it will vary according to the type of car and the mileage done. I accept that. But, broadly speaking, just a majority of people will be better off as a result of the change.

In what form will the Government seek the approval of the House, because a majority in this House will be needed for this measure? Will it be done during the Finance Bill, or by some other parliamentary process?

There will be a long process of consultation on this. But eventually, obviously, it must find its way into the Finance Bill because there will be a change in the rate of tax on petrol.

What is the source of the Minister's statistics indicating this massive evasion of the vehicle excise licence? Has he ever, as I have recently, walked down a street and noticed how many cars have no road fund licence? I must confess that I am unable to find them. Is he convinced that this massive evasion takes place?

My officials produced these figures. I must discover the source of them. Perhaps they were not from the same source as that referred to by the hon. Gentleman.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that special regard is paid to the position of relatively low-income families in remote and rural areas, especially in those districts represented by Opposition Members, where the local authorities have very little time for public transport?

My hon. Friend hits a very important nail firmly on the head. In both urban and rural areas, however, low-income families will gain from the change. This is one reason why the proposal was included in Labour Party policy, and one reason why we are now implementing it.

But surely my hon Friends are right. If the public are to be able accurately to judge the Government's proposals, they must be told how much the registration document will cost, how often it must be renewed, and whether it will have to be displayed. Why cannot the Government give that basic information?

Because we have taken the decision in principle, and many of the most important details remain to be worked out.

Coaches (Safety Provisions)

10.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a further statement on the implementation of proposals for roofs, brakes and seats, aimed at improving coach safety.

I have this week authorised consultation on draft regulations on the strength of superstructure in new coaches and on emergency exits. Work is also in hand on regulations for new braking standards. It is expected that draft standards for seats and seat mountings will be considered later this year within the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

Will my hon. Friend accept that, although I welcome this news, I regard the progress as being lamentably slow? Does he agree that this is one area of public transport which is expanding rapidly, especially with the greater use of coaches by elderly people? Will my hon. Friend at least ensure that in the further progress on this matter greater speed will be shown?

I accept what my hon. Friend says about this being an expanding area. There are more and more coaches on our roads every year and, of course, we have to proceed as fast as possible on the safety aspects.

Does the Minister recollect that a good many months ago when I wrote to him on the subject of anti-roll bars on coaches, at the instance of a doctor in my constituency who was worried about the frequency of serious crashes on some of our roads, he wrote me a quite soothing letter? Is he now able to say that he is bringing in anti-roll bars which will be effective? Might I tell him that after sending on his letter to that doctor—

The hon. Member must tell the Minister some other time. He can only ask a supplementary question now.

I hope that I always give relatively soothing replies to letters from hon. Members. In fact, we now have regulations stipulating the strength of the roofs of coaches. Whether that is exactly what the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Thompson) has in mind, I do not know, but certainly the principal objective is the same as his.

In view of the Minister's natural concern for coach safety, especially on motorways, will he comment on the fact that 270 motorway maintenance men in the Midlands have gone on strike today, with the result that there is no gritting on any of the motorways within 30 miles of Birmingham?

I shall bring that to the attention of one of our emergency committees immediately.

Has not the time come when we must have a system of official safety vetting and certification of all new motor vehicles, whether they be lorries, buses or private cars, along the same lines as we have for aircraft and pharmaceuticals, for example? Would not this be of great benefit to the public?

There are specific regulations now to which each vehicle type has to adhere. In addition, we make regular annual inspections of vehicles which have been on the road for some time. There is a fairly comprehensive network of rules and regulations which vehicles have to satisfy. I take my hon. Friend's point, but I think that the present position is reasonably satisfactory.

Speed Limits (Bedfordshire)

11.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether, following representations made to him by the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South, he will now authorise a lowering of the maximum speed limit in the villages of Stanbridge and Tilsworth, Bedfordshire; and if he will make a statement.

As I have explained in my recent letter to the hon. Member, speed limits in these villages are a matter for Bedfordshire county council in the first instance.

In view of the heavy traffic going through these two villages, and the number of accidents which have occurred, will the Minister now invite Bedfordshire county council to submit proposals to his Department for a lowering of the speed limit until the promised new roads for the area are completed?

It is up to the county council to take the initiative in this case, and there is no way in which I can invite it to do that. It must make up its mind whether it wants to put forward a proposal. However, I should point out that there is already a 30 m.p.h. speed limit on these roads. I think that the council wants to reduce it to 20 m.p.h., which is granted only in very exceptional cases.

Lorry Drivers (Working Conditions)

13.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what statutory provisions govern lorry drivers' hours and distances in the United Kingdom.

The principal provisions are contained in the Transport Act 1968 and EEC regulation 543/69.

If those regulations have the force of law, how has the Secretary of State given guidance to the enforcement authorities that they should not choose to enforce the law in those respects unless other offences have been committed at the same time?

I think that the whole House appreciates the problems raised for the industry as a result of regulation 543/69, because we had a lengthy discussion about it. I did my best at the Transport Council to ease the introduction of this regulation and to modify it as far as I could. I think that, by common consent, it was felt that there should be a running in or transitional period, as it were, so that there could be adjustment to the new regulation. This has generally been found to be successful and was largely welcomed. However, I agree that it produces some apparent anomalies in a country where the law is usually rigidly enforced.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many hon. Members were not present when we discussed this matter? One of the main reasons why the dispute is proving so intractable is that the regulations are complex. Drivers are going round saying that they work three times the national average on overtime. The authorities are now saying "We must have 24 hours off per week. That leaves only six days. We can drive only eight hours a day. Six eights are 48. Even if we get a 100 per cent. increase, if we work only half the hours, we shall be worse off than we were before." This wretched Common Market regulation and the ham-handed way in which it has been brought into operation have caused much of the trouble today.

My hon. Friend's remarks indicate the complexity of EEC regulation 543/69. But I must frankly point out that, although changes in a law of this kind inevitably lead to dissatisfaction and place additional burdens on the road haulage industry, I do not believe that in any conceivable way this can be a major cause of the present dispute.

Has the Minister's attention been drawn to a conversation between a Dutch lorry driver and pickets who tried to stop him at one of the Channel ports? If I may translate his language into parliamentary language, to the pickets who said "Stop" he replied "Do you realise that you are messing up your country? You are not going to mess up mine." The Dutch work under Common Market regulations.

I had not heard that story. I repeat that, although these regulations are complex and place a burden on our industry, I do not believe that there is anything in them which is not capable of solution in a normal and orderly way.

Despite my right hon. Friend's statement that the EEC regulation is not a serious contribution to the dispute, is it not clear that this is one of the most serious aspects in the dispute? It complicates the whole matter. It is no use my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench shaking their heads. They ought to get out and talk to lorry drivers. They will then know that this is one of the most important issues. Lorry drivers have to know the situation. My right hon. and hon. Friends should stop hiding their heads in the sand.

There have been the closest consultations between my Department and the Transport and General Workers' Union to enable these complex regulations to be understood. I pay tribute to the TGWU, and in particular to Mr. Jack Ashwell for the help that he has given in this respect.

Whatever may be said, I return to the point that it cannot be argued that these regulations are a principal or major cause of the present dispute.

The reduction in drivers' hours which will occur will affect only a minority of drivers, and they are amongst those who are the most highly paid.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the Opposition entirely support his view that these drivers' hours are not a major factor in the dispute? Does he agree that his hon. Friends below the Gangway would be tar better employed joining him and urging an immediate return to work and supporting those drivers who are demonstrating today to make it clear that they want the right to work?

Inevitably, there is much anger and many different views on both sides of the dispute. One important point which must be borne in mind is that the Government are not a party to the dispute. If the Road Haulage Association' present 15 per cent. offer—which, in my view, is far too high—were accepted, about two-thirds of lorry drivers now on strike would be earning £90 or more a week, apart from fringe benefits. That is significantly above present average earnings in this country.

Heavy Lorries (Access To City Centres)

14.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what discussions he is having with local authorities about limiting the access of large lorries to the centre of London and other major cities.

I recently discussed the problem of lorries with local authorities at a number of regional meetings. I urged them to make more extensive use of their powers under the "Dykes" Act and made it clear that we would always try to look favourably on road schemes designed to help divert lorries from sensitive areas.

I congratulate the Government on temporarily solving at least one problem "at a stroke". We are all conscious of our dependence on heavy lorries, but will the Minister remember that in normal circumstances the increasing number of heavy lorries driving through the centre of London is causing increasing congestion and annoyance?

I entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman said. He may like to know that there are now eight zones in London from which lorries are banned, that two more are to be introduced shortly and that no fewer than 28 are under consideration. This is a problem that we must take very seriously.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the construction of the Channel tunnel would relieve London and perhaps other cities of much of this heavy lorry traffic? What discussions has he had about this matter?

I think that we should have to build a few motorways and roads to deal with all the traffic from the tunnel, assuming that it carried vehicles and was not a purely railway tunnel. However, I think that that is a separate matter.

What action are the Government taking to ensure that the outer orbital road is built without any further delay? Is it not monstrous that tiny, unrepresentative minorities have been able successfully to hold up this route for so long, to the great disadvantage of 7 million people in Greater London?

If I remember rightly, the hon. Gentleman was present at a lengthy Adjournment debate one or two months ago on the progress of the M25. He will have gained a clear impression from that debate that it is the Government's No. 1 priority, because it has the top and prior call on resources in terms of trunk road building at the moment. We intend to continue to give it that priority.

Tachograph (European Court Judgment)

15.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects the European Court to produce its judgment on the tachograph.

23.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects the European Court to produce its judgment on the tachograph.

As a practical man, does the Secretary of State agree that the certain outcome of all this will be another negotiated period for the implementation of the tachograph in the United Kingdom?

Does he further agree that, by dragging his feet on this issue now for A number of years, he has missed the chance to deal with the tachograph as part of the current crisis in the road haulage industry? Surely it could easily have been got rid of as part of the current dispute and saved us from having to face yet another dispute in future.

Finally, does he agree that the tachograph, had it been involved in the present dispute, could have afforded a useful basis for a productivity settlement?

I must take the view that the hon. Gentleman does not have a complete sense of reality here. I do not believe that the present difficulties would have been eased had I not chosen, as he put it, to drag my feet. Very serious problems are involved. I think that we must await the decision of the court and then decide what it is best to do.

Will my right hon. Friend note that if the Government disregard this interference in British affairs they will have a great deal of support in the House?

Since British officials were also involved in the early stages of the tachograph proposal, has the Secretary of State decided why British lorry driver union representatives are so against it, while German lorry driver union representatives are so enthusiastic about it?

There are many strong differences of tradition. I have said in the House that if the tachograph had not been invented it would not have been necessary for us to consider its adoption. [Laughter.] I shall work that one out. What I had in mind to say was that we have our own ways of regulating drivers' hours and that, by and large, they have served us very well.

Kirkhamgate-Dishforth Trunk Road

16.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he now expects work to commence on the construction of the Kirkhamgate-Dishforth trunk road.

Subject to the satisfactory completion of statutory procedures, work will be started in stages between 1982 and 1984. We expect the first stage to be the improvement of the Al between Dishforth and Walshford.

In view of the sometimes appalling congestion on the A1 between the M18 and Dishforth, will the Minister undertake to give the highest priority to this scheme and say when the public inquiry will be held and what steps he will take to ensure that members of the public get a fair hearing at that inquiry?

We are pushing ahead with the scheme as fast as we can. I expect that the inquiry, which will certainly be held, will probably start in the autumn of this year. The new procedures that we have adopted since September ensure that all those who object to or support a scheme have a reasonable chance to put their point of view at an inquiry.

Roads (White Paper)

17.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to publish his next White Paper on roads.

27.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he plans to issue a further White Paper on roads policy.

In this winter season, is it not a relevant consideration that major roads should at all times be open and safe for the passage of vehicles? Is the Minister satisfied that emergency gritting should be a grace and favour arrangement by council workmen rather than a contractual condition of their employment?

This is one of the items in our emergency regulations as a matter of essential supplies. The position with salt is difficult, but we are making arrangements to help counties in difficulties, such as Berkshire. I know, too, that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) is concerned about the position in his county.

Is it not a fact that we have not yet debated the last White Paper on the new road programme, and that 10 years and £6,500 million of public expenditure have gone by since the last major debate in the House on the new roads programme? Is that not 10 years too long, and may we have a debate on the new White Paper?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has always been anxious that there should be debates on roads White Papers and I support that view. However, we have to look at the situation in the round, and I do not believe that my hon. Friend's criticisms are justified.

Will the Minister specify what emergency regulations he was referring to a moment ago, because I am sure that the House was a little taken aback by what he said? Road maintenance funds are very low in any case, and some counties are finding it difficult to pay for essential gritting. Surely, for that reason alone, the Minister should be particularly concerned because of the bad weather that we are experiencing and the consequent danger to those travelling on our roads.

I withdraw "emergency regulations" and substitute "priority supplies". On the question of salt and the cost of gritting this year, there have been financial problems because expenditure has been much higher than was expected. However, that is taken into account in the general review of maintenance costs that we undertake each year, and I am sure that this year's problems will also be taken into account.

Is my hon. Friend aware that in the West Midlands, and particularly in Birmingham, there has been totally inadequate road maintenance, including gritting, for months because of the continuing dispute between the Tory-controlled district council and the Tory-controlled county council?

I am sure my hon. Friend is right. I have heard him make that point before.

In the preparation of the White Paper, will the Minister bear in mind the neglected needs of the Midlands and especially the fact that the needs of the manufacturing part of the car industry have not been taken into account? Will he also bear in mind the need for manufacturers in Birmingham and other parts of the Midlands to be able to gain access to the coastal ports and assure us that long-term investment, which is important to jobs, will have a high priority in his considerations?

Rural Railways

18.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what is his policy on rural railways.

34.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what is his policy on rural railways.

The policy on rural railways remains as stated in the transport policy White Paper.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that discussions between the National Bus Company and the British Railways Board about the replacement of rural rail lines by buses—lines that could include the central Wales line, the Cardiff-Crewe line and many other commuter services into Cardiff and Edinburgh—have broken down? Will the Government confirm that that policy option is now dead?

I cannot confirm that the discussions have broken down. I have no information on that. I know that British Rail management has been discussing with the NBC some of the practical problems of closing lines and putting on buses as a substitute. There is no list of lines. That was a mistaken impression given in some of the press reports. If British Rail wished to go ahead on that basis, it would require legislation, and if British Rail wished to close the railway lines, it would require the consent of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the policy of replacing trains by buses in rural areas is unacceptable to the vast number of people living in those areas? Does he agree also that the Beeching cuts under a Conservative Government some time ago led to a savage reduction in the number of lines operating in this country, with no apparent financial benefit to British Rail? Does he further agree that the closing of such lines has an indirect effect on the financing of the main tines?

I accept what my hon. Friend says. He knows our position. While the Secretary of State and I are in charge of railway policy there will be no major programme of cuts.

May we take it that the mind is not closed to reopening some lines, and in any consideration of reopening will the Minister call the attention of British Rail to the Blackburn-Clitheroe line, which is much missed?

Certainly, and I imagine that there will be a few other candidates up and down the country.

Is the Minister aware—and I am sure he will agree—that too many railway lines were closed in Wales 10 or 20 years ago? Have the Government any plans to reopen some of those lines that should never have been closed?

Has my hon. Friend, in regard to rural railways, any plans to provide further investment to utilise the lines that are in use and providing a valuable service so that we may make greater use of existing, fairly expensive fixed equipment? The provision of park-and-ride stations, for instance, would be a valuable addition for many commuters, particularly on a line such as that which runs from Keighley to Skipton. Obviously, there may be other similar examples throughout the country.

I am not sure whether that is a service in which my hon. Friend has a shareholding.

I take note of what my hon. Friend has said. He will be aware that there have been various moves to increase the use of particular lines. In some cases they have been Inter-City lines. One example is the opening of the Parkway station on the line between Bristol and London, though I imagine that my hon. Friend has more remote lines in mind.

What is the Minister's policy about replacing the ancient, dusty and patched passenger carriages on rural services, such as that between Carlisle and Stranraer?

That is a small consequence of the large issues that we have been discusing during this Question Time. The overall level of investment will depend on what the Government can make available and what the business can make available from its profits. There is no guarantee, in present circumstances, that we can improve the conditions to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

Ports (Public Ownership)

19.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what plans he has to expand public ownership of the ports.

25.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what plans he has to expand public ownership of the ports.

Is the Minister aware that we are relieved to receive that answer? When making up his mind about extending the nationalisation of ports, does the right hon. Gentleman have regard to the efficiency of the shipowners, ship turnround, better labour relations and the profits of the port? Can he give us any clear examples, if not now, in the Official Report, of where nationalised ports are more efficient than private enterprise ones?

The principal criterion should be how the ports can best serve the nation. About 90 per cent. of the business of our ports is conducted through ports that are publicly owned, in one way or another, and I think that the whole House would pay tribute to, for example, the work of the British Transport Docks Board.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many on this side of the House are disappointed that a Labour Government has not so far seen fit to bring in port nationalisation as a major priority? Does he agree that in the meantime many ports are facing major problems? Will he examine the question of financial assistance for ports which are finding great difficulty in meeting the cost of capital equipment and modernisation of quays in order to cope with the needs of new multi-purpose vessels?

Many of our ports are managing extremely well and rendering an important service to the community. I agree with my hon. Friend that there are special cases, of which Liverpool is one, though I think matters are improving there, and London another. It is certainly true that we must maintain a proper level of investment in our ports, in whoever's ownership they may be.

Statements By Ministers

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The House will appreciate that today's transport questions had to be put down considerably in advance of the current dispute in the road haulage industry. I am sure that the House is surprised that we are not to have a full statement by the Secretary of State this afternoon. After all, he is here to answer transport questions and hon. Members would like to ply him with many queries about this dispute, in which he has not been taking a leading part but has left it to his colleagues. Perhaps the Home Secretary—

The point of order, with respect, is whether the Leader of the House will make a statement about the Secretary of State.

Business Of The House

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. Michael Foot)

With permission, I will make a short statement about business tomorrow. The Supply day subject chosen by the Opposition has been changed and there will now be a debate on the economic situation, which will arise on an Opposition motion.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are we not allowed to question the Lord President?

The question arises on tomorrow's business and the business following that debate. Will the House be permitted to have three hours to debate the important matter of the steel industry which, as the Lord President knows, is subject to certain EEC documents? I understand that one motion has been tabled which, I presume, would normally restrict us to one and a half hours. This has given rise to serious trouble between Back Bench and Front Bench speakers in the past. Is the Lord President in a position to assure us that we will have at least three hours on the steel debate tomorrow?

Some of my hon. Friends raised this question last Thursday. I would still hope that we could discuss it in an hour and a half, but I am happy to have conversations with my hon. Friends to see what representations they wish to make. I will take those into account before making a final decision.

Essential Supplies And Services

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a further report to the House about the effect of the current industrial disputes in the road haulage industry, and elsewhere, on supplies and services, and on the Government's arrangements for ensuring that those supplies and services which are essential continue to be maintained.

The situation remains broadly as I reported it to the House on Monday. The code of practice is having some effect on the movement of supplies, but there remain severe problems, particularly at the ports. There are still cases where priority supplies continue to be held up. While there continue to be difficulties with some essential foodstuffs, the position on food generally is unquestionably getting better. Reports from a number of regions indicate that stock levels are not only being maintained but are rising, and, even in the North-West, some shops are in a position to restock with such goods as sugar, frozen foods and canned foods. The supply of salt has eased, and the slaughterhouses continue to function despite earlier fears that some would have to close.

The level of supply of animal feed-stuffs remains adequate, although, as my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Scotland told the House yesterday, the supply of animal feedstuffs to the intensive production sector, particularly in Scotland, has been difficult.

On the industrial front, the picture is complicated by the effects of the severe weather and the rail dispute, and the movement of goods has not, generally speaking, improved, despite a slight relaxation in the effects of picketing. However, production generally is holding up so far, though considerable production losses are being caused in particular industries, including steel, chemicals, glass and packaging, which will, if the situation persists, cause cumulative problems throughout the rest of industry. Lay-offs continue to increase, and, while any figures must be treated with considerable caution, the present level of lay-offs in Great Britain as a whole is of the order of 200,000. There are growing problems, particularly for small companies, of cash flow as well as of supplies. Only a continued easing of picketing and a sustained improvement in the transport situation will prevent a major decline in production in the near future.

Within the priority categories, the Government are particularly concerned that there should be no delay in moving medical and pharmaceutical supplies and the raw materials, especially chemicals, essential to them. There is evidence of some bottlenecks where supplies are not getting through. This is unacceptable.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, in conjunction with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, has devised new arrangements, which have already begun to operate, so that officials of the Transport and General Workers' Union will know promptly of bottlenecks when they arise and be in no doubt whatsoever that the Government require them to be dealt with immediately. If these arrangements are not quickly effective, and if there is no other way of getting these supplies moving, the Government will themselves arrange to have these supplies moved.

This brings me to the matter of the ambulance service. The House will know that the National Health Service ambulance men are now providing full emergency cover in London following the one-day stoppage at the beginning of the week, during which emergency services were provided by the Army, the police and the voluntary services, to whom the House will wish to pay tribute. At the moment, I understand that in the country as a whole normal emergency services are being maintained.

I should tell the House where matters stand on water supply. Despite the agreement reached in the national pay negotiations last Friday, there continue to be local problems in a few districts. The House will, however, be glad to hear that the problem in the Pennine division has been resolved.

Finally, as to picketing, the police tell me that reports of physical intimidation, of obstruction and of violence remain extremely rare. They will, of course, uphold the law fully, whenever and wherever the need arises. My colleagues and I will continue to report on the situation to the House.

The House will be grateful for a statement which, unlike some others that have been made, is not complacent in any way. Does the Home Secretary accept that, as a result, his statement represents both a very serious and a deteriorating situation? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Perhaps those hon. Gentlemen who talk and shout should listen to this phrase:

"Only a continued easing of picketing and a sustained improvement in the transport situation will prevent a major decline in production in the near future."
If that is not a serious and deteriorating situation, I would like to know what is. The answer is that it is.

On the question of priority medical supplies, the right hon. Gentleman sets out a very serious and worrying situation. He still delays decisive action. Has not the time come for this decisive action to be taken instead of waiting to see whether further action is likely to improve the situation? It is too serious to permit further delay.

Would the right hon. Gentleman also agree that as the picketing and secondary picketing continue, action is now needed to give effect to the Prime Minister's fine words yesterday, when he said that the picket lines should be gone through by those who wish to do so? Is it not clear that fine words are no longer any use in this situation and that clear action is needed?

The right hon. Gentleman asks for action on picketing, but the law on picketing is clear when picketing is peaceful and in furtherance of a dispute. My right hon. Friend last week reiterated what the union had already said. No member of the union would be penalised or made to suffer in any way if he followed the code. That is a most important statement in respect of crossing picket lines in accordance with the code of practice.

As for the problems in industry, I have not today revealed to the House a deteriorating situation. I said that the problems would arise at some future date. Since all the guesses and estimates that were made 10 days ago were proved wrong, it would be foolish of me now to say when the problems will arise. I have told the House frankly that if supplies do not come through the pipeline there are bound to be problems at some point.

Medical supplies are getting through. Through the DHSS we have pinpointed the problems. A list was handed over last night, and a second list this afternoon, and we now await the result of that. One case on the list that we handed over concerned supplies that were urgently needed to treat patients suffering from cancer. In those circumstances I state—I do not think anyone could possibly object—that if this system does not work—I am not suggesting that supplies are not getting through at the moment—that if in a day or two there were to be a problem which could not be resolved, I would not be prepared to say to the relatives of those suffering from cancer and other such diseases that we would stand back and do nothing. We would do something about it.

Does the Home Secretary accept that the House and the public are becoming increasingly weary of these daily ministerial statements purporting to describe the situation in the country but containing no intention of action other than to continue to report the situation to the House? To return to what the Prime Minister said yesterday about picketing, will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the reaction of lorry drivers is that they now require their union ticket because it is their meal ticket? That is the effect of the closed shop legislation, and unless the Government are prepared to give a clear directive—[HON. MEMBERS: "Which way did you vote?"] I voted against it. The wolves shouting behind me need not worry. This legislation went through but we opposed it, and they know it.

We opposed the legislation, and the Conservatives know that perfectly well. Surely the time has come to review that law because lorry drivers are now ringing up their MPs asking how they can return to work. What advice would the Government give to them?

We have a situation in which negotiations take place regionally, and by the nature of the industry these matters proceed a bit at a time. The other day the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) voted for free collective bargaining—

No one on the Opposition Benches could possibly say that strikes do not take place under any form of collective bargaining. In the light of the code of practice, no one participating in the dispute can be under any illusion about what has been said. Men will not be blacklisted and they will not lose their union cards for doing the right thing in the circumstances.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Government generally on not succumbing to panic measures. However, will my right hon. Friend remember that the people of this country, including millions of Labour voters, expect firm leadership from the Government at this difficult time?

One way of pretending at the moment that there is firm leadership—there may be a change, because something needs to be done—would be to proclaim a state of emergency. We did not declare a state of emergency in the case of the firemen's strike or the dispute involving tanker drivers. A state of emergency, unless it gave one powers that one could use, would not be firm leadership in these circumstances. I hear of people not working to clear the Ml today. There has been a breakdown in normal behaviour. We must surmount that, but that cannot be done by using the law, as we have learned in the past.

The Home Secretary said with great confidence that no one who crossed a picket line would lose his union card or in any other way bear future union damage. Since neither the Government nor the Transport and General Workers' Union can enforce the code of practice for picketing, how does the right hon. Gentleman propose to make good that guarantee?

I do not know whether it is suggested that union rules should become part of the law of the land, but within voluntary organisations these matters have to be seen in the context of the union rules. The union has given its word on these matters, and it will keep it.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement at this stage of the strike makes it apparent to some of us that the Government's policy is simply to sit tight and hope that the problem will go away? On the question of chemicals and other essentials, does he accept that it is not enough, as the statement provides, to make the transport union aware of bottlenecks? It is for the Government, once they are aware of them, to take the necessary action.

I thought that I had made it abundantly clear that the first step is to make sure that all those involved know the loads that ought to be carried. The first list was given last night, and a second list this afternoon, and if it is not acted upon we shall have to carry those goods ourselves.

There are many ways in which this can be done. The job of a Government in these circumstances is to deal with essential supplies. There are some problems with food, but we know that statements made last week by Opposition Members about malnutrition, and so on, were completely false. Essential supplies are being dealt with. That is the Government's responsibility.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of the statements being made from the Opposition Benches about the removal of union cards show a complete lack of knowledge of the constitution of the union and the procedures that take place within it?

As well as demonstrating bad manners, they show a complete lack of knowledge of the rules of the union and the way the disciplinary procedures operate upon members. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the union has beeen co-operating in cases such as ICI, at Runcorn, in the transporting of important medical supplies? It is no part of the union's policy to prevent the passage of essential drugs and services to the sick and dying. It is doing all in its power to make sure that they get through.

What my hon. Friend says about medical supplies is right. Last evening we decided that the procedures that were being followed in that respect were not good enough, and therefore, because of the seriousness of the situation, we had to have a different system. Supplies were moving before, but it is not our policy to leave it to the old arrangement—the arrangement that was reported to the House the other day.

I turn now to the question of the removal of union cards. Allegations are being made. When the dispute is over, it will be interesting to discover whether those now making the allegations bring forward examples showing where this is happening.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the report, on the tape, of a major clash in the Labour Party between the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Energy on a European issue? Is he aware that this is rather curious at this time of crisis? Can he assure the House that there is no corresponding difference in the Government's approach to the present industrial crisis, and that he is speaking for a united Cabinet?

My answer to the right hon. Member's last question is "Yes". When I consider the type of politicians with whom he mixes in Europe, I think that he is the last person to talk about democracy.

Has the Home Secretary noted how the Opposition are trying to exacerbate the situation created by the road haulage dispute? Does he agree that thre is an urgent need not to break the strike but to settle the dispute? Does he agree that the Prime Minister and the present Leader of the House showed considerable statesmanship during the miners' dispute early in 1974? Will he now prevail upon them to intervene in this dispute with a view to achieving an early settlement?

Arrangements have been made to ensure that essential services are provided. That is the role of Government It would be so if oil were involved and it was so during the firemen's dispute. The present dispute involves a free collective bargaining argument between two sides.

It is a free collective bargaining argument. Those who support free collective bargaining must live with it.

Is the Home Secretary aware that I told an official at his office this morning that a company with which I am connected has 27 containers locked up in Felixstowe, Southampton and Tilbury docks? Is he aware that companies that are not in disagreement with the TGWU are prepared to collect the merchandise but that pickets are turning them away? Is he aware that when the union official was contacted at Southampton he used a four-letter word and put the telephone down? What can be done to stop several thousand people being put out of work because this merchandise is not being delivered?

My office will have passed on that information to the appropriate emergency committee. If the hon. Member is suggesting that essential supplies are being held up—supplies that it would be the responsibility of Government to get through in a state of emergency, no more and no less—of course I shall look at the matter personally.

I shall take four more questions from each side. The subject is to be debated in the House tomorrow.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement about cancer sufferers will cause great concern to hon. Members on the Government Benches? In that sense my right hon. Friend is being unfair, in view of the co-operation of the union so far on such matters. Does he agree that an assurance has been given that the union will respond to any approaches that he makes on such matters?

Certainly. I was not being unfair. I spoke to union officials about this and they readily agreed to co-operate. What I am saying is that if the arrangements, with the best will on earth, do not work properly, the Government must step in. It must be so.

Is the Home Secretary aware that the Royal county of Berkshire has had no salt for its roads for the last week; that yesterday the county sent a convoy of 55 lorries to ICI, Winsford; and that they were allowed into the depot and salt was loaded, but that when they left the depot the pickets said that they could not go through the picket line with the salt on board? Is he aware that they were forced to unload and return without salt? Will the Home Secretary promise that the Government will ensure that salt is provided to the county council so that the icy roads can be made safe?

I shall check that. I need to know the precise details. Two unions are involved. The Opposition bash the TGWU but the United Road Transport Union is also involved. A question was asked earlier about Suffolk. I have checked, and I am told that the Suffolk county council has seven days' supply of salt.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the situation in the South-West has improved in the last week or so? Will he acquaint the House with the position at Avonmouth docks, where picketing has improved, thanks to the strong action of the TGWU, which has overcome last week's difficulties?

I understand that the situation has improved. Nevertheless, at my meeting later this afternoon I want to check on the supply of derv, which was causing particular difficulties yesterday.

Is the Home Secretary aware that the position is probably more serious than he implies, and that food manufacturers cannot guarantee indefinitely that goods will remain on the shelves? Is he further aware that in Sheffield industrial leaders are finding it difficult to obtain raw materials and to send out goods? Does he know that at the British Steel Corporation there will be 14,000 lay-offs unless action is taken immediately?

The steel industry in particular is experiencing problems, but under a state of emergency and the laws laid down by the House the responsibility of Government is to ensure essential supplies. Certain industries would not be affected by a state of emergency. As for food, I report to the House the information that I receive from all parts of the country.

I welcome the improvement in the flow of food supplies and animal feedingstuffs, particularly in Scotland, but will the Secretary of State bear in mind that the cardinal effect of such disputes is that working people and their families are damaged by the action of other working people? When offers to settle are made, will my right hon. Friend stress that aspect?

We are not involved in the discussions. It is clear that people in industry are affected. That is the situation that the country faces.

Is the Home Secretary aware that the people are fed up to the back teeth with little unelected committees up and down the country determining which goods should travel and what priorities should be given to different types of goods? Does he agree that if there is something wrong with the laws action must be taken? Does he also agree that the country is suffering today not from free collective bargaining but free collective bullying?

Many people want to see the laws altered, but I do not think that such an alteration would help, because the industry involved is so complicated. In such an industry a dispute is bound to have an effect. The Government decide priorities. The supplies are better than they would be under a state of emergency.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a declaration of a state of emergency at any time represents a breakdown in the democratic processes which many of us who are reluctant to give greater powers to the Executive do not welcome? Does he agree that the record of the Conservatives when they were in Government and declared five stages of emergency in three and a half years is nothing to be proud of? Does he agree that although a declaration of a state of emergency might provide an emotional thrill for some Opposition Members it is not the best way to achieve results?

I have said before that states of emergency have been used in the past but have had very little effect. The point is that if we were in a position—which we are not—in which essential supplies were not being provided, the Government would have to proclaim a state of emergency. That time has not yet arrived.

Is not one of the most objectionable features of this dispute, as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Clark) has just said, that people who want to move their goods are forced to get permission not from Government but from local strike committees? Does the Home Secretary realise that under the emergency powers regulations of 1973 it would have been the Government who dealt with the problem of getting the goods through? Does he not agree that it is better to have the rule of Government than the rule of strike committees?

On the latter point, I hope that the hon. Gentleman has applied his mind to the question of the large number of vehicles involved in this industry and the question not only of the movement from A to B but of broken-down loads from B to C onwards. If he has done that—there may be laughter about this, but what he and other Opposition Members have to consider are the implications of the Government taking action before the situation becomes worse. In the days when we had the oil problem, Opposition Members were asking for a state of emergency. Had we declared one, the supply of oil would have been far worse than it was under the arrangements that were made.

Later

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that the Secretary of State for the Home Department in his statement said that essential supplies to the pharmaceutical industry were getting through the picket lines. Having made inquiries, I understand that that is definitely untrue. I should be grateful if you would let me know when would be the earliest opportunity that the Secretary of State would be in order in correcting that statement and making a further statement.

It is not for me to say when the Home Secretary would wish to correct a statement that he had made. The hon. Gentleman knows that the House will be debating this matter tomorrow. That may be an opportunity, if he seeks and is fortunate enough to catch my eye, for him to make his point.

Smallpox (Birmingham)

Order. Before I call the Secretary of State for Social Services I have a short statement to make. I have in my hand a copy of the charges pending against Birmingham university in connection with the laboratory accident. I must rule that under our sub judice rule no reference should be made to the part of Birmingham university in this affair. There is no objection to questions in general terms about the safeguards for handling dangerous viruses or the way in which the Shooter report was released to the public.

With permission, I should like to make a statement on the report of the investigation into the tragic occurrence of smallpox in Birmingham last year.

Official publication of the report is still held up by the prosecution of Birmingham university under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. In view of the action taken by Mr. Clive Jenkins in making copies of the report available to the press, I think that I should make it clear to the House that the copy supplied by me to Mr. Jenkins was only one of a number sent to interested parties in accordance with undertakings which I had given, and with a covering letter, which made it clear that I had been legally advised that the report could not be published while the action against Birmingham university was pending. No permission to publish was expressed or implied.

I turn now to the report itself, and I should like to express my thanks to Professor Shooter and his colleagues for a comprehensive, valuable and speedy report.

The report recommends changes in the general arrangements for ensuring safety in laboratories handling dangerous pathogens. The Government accept the substance of the report. The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act provides an effective framework for control of all activities in these laboratories, but the Government believe that the present voluntary arrangements must be substantially strengthened and given legal force to provide the fullest safeguards for those working in the laboratories and the public at large.

First, in line with the Shooter report's recommendations, we have decided that laboratories intending to hold or handle category A pathogens will be required by regulations to notify details of their proposed work and supporting information. We have asked the Health and Safety Commission to make proposals for such regulations under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act as soon as possible after the appropriate consultations.

Second, the report recommends reconsideration of the arrangements for approval of laboratories dealing with category A pathogens. Our preliminary review of this matter suggests that we would be wise to replace the present voluntary arrangements by a licensing system embodied in regulations. Together with the Health and Safety Commission, we are starting consultations with interested parties on the details of such a licensing system.

Third, we have accepted the recommendation that category A laboratories should be reviewed annually.

Fourth, we have decided that the responsibilities and constitution of the dangerous pathogens advisory group should be reviewed, and that its membership should be broadened so as to represent those who run and work in, the laboratories and the wider public interest. We shall carry out this review as quickly as we can in consultation with interested parties and the Health and Safety Commission.

The report also recommends that work with smallpox virus should not be carried out in a densely populated area and that work previously carried on in Professor Dumbell's laboratory at St. Mary's hospital medical school, Paddington, should therefore be resited. The House will wish to know that, except for what was essential to the investigation of the Birmingham outbreak, no work has been done at St. Mary's with smallpox virus for over a year. The relevant virus material is held in the laboratory, which is secure and meets the full requirements of the World Health Organisation. The WHO is trying, in consultation with the Governments concerned, to reduce the number of laboratories in the world holding smallpox to three or four and wishes to retain Professor Dumbell's unique expertise in this context. In the meantime, no work with smallpox is being conducted at St. Mary's and the virus stock is being held securely. In addition to the important reforms in the system which I have outlined, we have taken other urgent action on the report.

The programme of reinspection and review of existing category A laboratories which the report recommends is well under way and a number of reinspections have already been carried out, in close association with inspectors of the Health and Safety Executive. In some cases it has become clear that improvements in safety procedures are necessary and immediate action has been taken.

Copies of the report have been sent to the heads of all category A laboratories and they have been asked to consider the safety aspects of the report which apply to them. They have also been asked to report any variations in the category A pathogen work previously notified by them.

The university of Birmingham has confirmed that no category A pathogens are now held there and that a written request for clearance would be made before such pathogens were acquired by the university in future.

Action has been taken, as recommended in the report, to ensure full liaison between the Government and the World Health Organisation concerning the organisation's dealings with category A laboratories in this country. We also intend to issue very shortly the Howie code of practice for clinical laboratories dealing with category B pathogens.

No system of control and no safety arrangements can be 100 per cent. fool-proof. But the tragic events in Birmingham have revealed that constant vigilance is needed to safeguard those who work in laboratories as well as the wider public. I believe that the changes I have announced today will help to prevent what happened in Birmingham happening again.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the whole House will wish to express deep sympathy with the relatives of those who lost their lives in this tragic accident, all the more so in that it comes at a time when smallpox is being eradicated from the face of the earth? Is he further aware that we acknowledge and recognise the seriousness of the lapses in safety procedures which have been disclosed by the Shooter report? Does he agree that the mechanisms set up to try to control such work, notably the dangerous pathogens advisory group and the World Health Organisation, failed to achieve their purpose? Does this not make the situation all the more serious?

There are two issues which arise from his statement which I would like to raise with the Secretary of State. The first, which in one sense is the less important, concerns the breach of confidence which arose, whereby the report which should not have been published for reasons to which you have adverted, Mr. Speaker—namely, the pending prosecution—was, in fact, published. Whatever may have been said by the Secretary of State in his covering letter to Mr. Clive Jenkins, is it not the case that the Secretary of State was expressly and positively told by Mr. Clive Jenk ins that if he got the report he would publish it?

Why, in those circumstances, did he go ahead and let Mr. Clive Jenkins have the report, while at the same time trying to pretend to the rest of the country that he was withholding publication?

May I turn to what must be the more important aspect, namely, the substance of the report'? Is it not the case that in recent years the Government have been warned again and again of the dangers inherent in many of our laboratories, notably by the Harrington report of 1975, and again, in respect of category B pathogens, by the Howie report of January 1978? Why have the Government waited so long to take action? Is not this tragedy a direct result of the Government's in-activity in this area?

Turning to the question of St. Mary's hospital, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman is now able to tell the House where this immensely important work will be carried on if it is not to be carried on at the hospital? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of Professor Dumbell's statement that the risk at St. Mary's is vanishingly small? Where would the work be carried on more safely?

Third, coming to statutory controls, can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that no primary legislation will be required and that the Government have all the powers necessary to introduce these statutory controls? Since they are manifestly seen to be necessary, will the right hon. Gentleman introduce them as swiftly as possible?

I certainly join with the right hon. Gentleman in expressing deep sympathy with the family of Mrs. Parker, her friends and the others who were associated with this incident, which caused deep distress and concern, not just among her family but among those working in the university—and not only in this laboratory. It is right that all hon. Members should express sympathy with the families.

I do not wish to proceed further on any questions of lapses in procedure. This is quite clearly a part of the problems which are currently sub judice and with which I cannot deal across the Floor of the House. It is clear from the report and its recommendations that we need a much tighter and more effective system and that what has been up to now a voluntary system can no longer remain so. I have therefore set out in my statement the conclusions of the Government on this issue.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of a breach of confidence. There was no breach of confidence between myself and Mr. Clive Jenkins. Let us be clear about this. I had given undertakings to the parties directly concerned that as soon as the report was available I would make it available to them. Those parties included the Health and Safety Executive, the TUC, the World Health Organisation—all of which were present on the investigation—the university and a number of other unions as well as ASTMS. I said that I would make the report available to them and I said that it was my wish to publish the report if legal circumstances permitted. That was long before the report was published, and was made quite clear.

When the report came out I naturally fulfilled my first undertaking. There were parts of the report which it was important that these organisations and the university should see because they touched upon the safety of their staff. I am glad that I made the report available. Mr. Jenkins made it clear to me that his legal advice was different from mine and that it was to the effect that publication would not prejudice the case. I made it perfectly clear that my legal advice said that there was no question about this. This is why I again made that point absolutely clear in the letter which I sent, not only to Mr. Jenkins but to all those who received the report. I said in my letter that my legal advice was such that I could not possibly publish the report. In a free country other people can have different legal advice. The legal advice given to Mr. Jenkins has now been challenged in the courts. We shall have to wait and see what happens.

The right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) also raised the question of St. Mary's. It is important that I should add to what I have said. No work on smallpox is currently being conducted there and we are now having talks with Professor Dumbell to see whether such work can be relocated away from London. I believe that it is most important that the work in which he is involved should continue. He recognises this as does the World Health Organisation.

I confirm that no primary legislation is required to deal with this issue. We are talking about regulations. At present we are consulting about them. I shall take the opportunity of bringing the regulations before the House.

The right hon. Gentleman said that the question of the disclosure is being challenged in the courts. Is he aware that the Attorney-General has given an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) to the effect that the Attorney-General has considered all the circumstances and is satisfied that they are not such as would justify a reference to the Director of Public Prosecutions? The point is not, therefore, being challenged in the courts. Is this not an unsatisfactory state of affairs?

On 22 January the divisional court of the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court gave Birmingham university leave to take proceedings for an order of prohibition to stop Birmingham magistrates proceeding with the prosecution of the university by the Health and Safety Executive on the grounds, presumably, that a fair trial would not be possible because the report had received such wide publicity. I have to say that the issue will be coming before the High Court.

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement? May I ask him to make it clear that ASTMS, of which I am the president—and I was present when members of the union met my right hon. Friend—made it clear to him that if the report was sent under the cloak of confidentiality it did not want it?

Are there not three issues which follow from this state of affairs? Should we not now hold a public inquiry into laboratories which are holding stocks of dangerous pathogens? May I also welcome the fact that DPAG is no longer to be with us? Can my right hon. Friend reorganise it under the aegis of the Health and Safety Executive, possibly on the lines of GMAG, which has been so successful and which includes trade union representatives and members of the public?

My right hon. Friend has not referred to Crown immunity. Without touching on the case in question, may I ask whether it is not a fact that, if this had been a National Health Service property, the Health and Safety Executive could not have issued a prohibition notice or proceeded with the prosecution, as it has done? Does my right hon. Friend not agree that Crown immunity has to go?

Dealing first with the confidentiality point, I have said that there was a discussion, in which my hon. Friend took part, on 14 December, when I made it clear what my legal advice was. Mr. Jenkins made clear his intention. I said to him that if his legal advice was different from mine he should contact my legal advisers. I reiterated in my letter exactly what the legal advice was. I made it perfectly clear that it was for Mr. Jenkins to decide. I am sure that it would have been wrong of me to have withheld the report from these organisations, including the university, since they needed to take action on parts of the report which were extremely important from a safety view-point.

I have made it clear in my statement that we are reviewing the structure of DPAG. I agree with my hon. Friend that the current structure of the genetic manipulation advisory group is one which has some attractions. It is much broader, including representatives of the unions and wider interests, as well as scientists. I am looking carefully at this group to see whether it offers a useful pattern for our purposes. I have forgotten the last point raised by my hon. Friend.

It is true that there is Crown immunity, but that does not by any means mean that orders and recommendations made by the Health and Safety Executive are not taken seriously by the Government or any other institution to which they apply. The Act covers Government bodies. They are bound to accent the law in the same way as the public.

May I ask the Secretary of State two questions arising from happenings in my constituency, with which the Shooter report dealt, which do not deal with my constituency but which have implications for those engaged in work elsewhere? What steps does the right hon. Gentleman intend taking to ensure that persons carrying the heavy responsibility of being heads of departments dealing with work such as this are not grossly overworked? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Shooter report clearly indicates that such gross overworking is a safety hazard? My second point concerns the insurance of employees engaged in this type of work. Since the report notes that indemnity for such employees would not extend where wilful negligence had been found may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to say that employees will be protected from the consequences arising as a result of a lack of proper staffing? Does that constitute wilful negligence? If it does, who is responsible?